Monday, August 12, 2013

August and the Dead CIcada

August is the biggest most overwhelming Sunday night on the planet.  It’s possible that other academics actually finish their books, the extra articles, and plan their classes all by mid August.  I always mean to do these things. I mean to do them while making the hundreds of piles of clutter in our house disappear and  re-connecting with my kids who, by the end of a season of school wrap up events, I’musually ready to give away. This summer I did not do about 793 things.  To begin with; the Cicada article.  On a very loud morning run out in the country one Sunday in May my mind wandered to Galileo and the fable of sound.  I’m not making this up; I really did go to Ridge Road for a long run.  And in the midst of a crucial conversation about soccer tryout drama a crucial point almost went by the wayside thanks to the incessant cicadas.  Wow!!!! I know why Plato, Galileo, Darwin and others couldn’t get this irritating sound out of their heads. I’ve had a thing for the fact that Galileo’s fable of sound ends with the death of a Cicada for a long time, and one of the summer’s unfinished task involved finishing a book chapter featuring said dead cicada.  But suddenly it seemed like the silly interest of a music historian might actually matter to millions of listeners up and down the East Coast. So it seemed time for the popular press.  The witty article about the Cicada in a well read national media turned into yet another unfinished summer project.
For starters, I mostly deal  with events that happened hundreds of years ago.  Even if they relate to current issues of racial justice, gender imbalance, etc., my text almost always centers on a person or thing that is long dead.  So I dawdled; took care of some administrative business at UVa, survived fourth grade graduations, signed kids up for camp, finished an essay for a festschrift, etc...  My fabulous research assistant Emily Gale did her magic with 19th century newspapers and came up with a more recent stuff than Galileo or Plato.  Then I spent a while thinking about an argument.  I thought about the local paper because I love the reading the Cville Weekly each week and I’m deeply committed to print media. But somehow I was persuaded to aim for a larger audience.  I finally sent the piece to an editor of an online newspaper whom I’ve worked with before and had shown interest.  He said it was great but didn’t quite have the angle he hoped for.  The Washington Post loved it but said I’d missed the boat by a week—the bugs were done and had been journalistically beaten to death.  I got really excited when a musicology colleague turned me on to a forthcoming Vanity Fair issue on timepieces.  I figured I was one of few musicologists who have actually read that magazine. It turns out they had someone more famous and much less likely to ever read their magazine in mind. So in the interest of checking SOMETHING off my summer list here it is the old fashioned way; the blog!!!!!  And the message to academics who try to send something beyond the ivory tower.  If it seems even remotely timely, do it super quickly. And if you think you will be disappointed by having spent tons of a time on a piece that never sees the light of day forget the whole idea!

            The seventeen-year cicadas last appeared in 1996, when Dolly became the first cloned mammal, Billboard named the Macarena its top tune, and clubs resounded with electronica.  Once again the noisy sex starved adolescents are crawling out of the earth.  The males make a racket trying to attract females and if she likes it she clicks her wings. Shortly after sex they die.  This deciseptennial return has fascinated humans for thousands of years.   Their sound, while remaining biologically the same (at least in cicada terms), sounds different every time. These little summer bugs remind us that sound has no universal objective truth.
Plato heard the same sounds that have been blanketing much of the East Coast and that Charles Darwin heard when he said, “The females are mute; as the Grecian poet Xenarchus says, 'Happy the Cicadas live, since they all have voiceless wives.'”    In Plato's time writers described the tiny little drums in the bellies of the male bugs as musical expressions. That would be the Charles Darwin who was so captivated by his pianist wife that he worked music into his theory arguing that music emerged for the purpose of charming the opposite sex. By the late 19th century the terminology centered around animalistic machines. When thousands of them hang out together, their clicking sounds amplify and can reach somewhere between one hundred and one hundred twenty decibels, the volume of a stadium rock concert or an airplane. In the time before trains, car alarms, and electronic amplification, such decibels hardly ever resounded in the world, and they seemed mysterious and mythical. For a sense of what this sonic relativism says about how humans inhabited the earth, think about lightning: before Ben Franklin flew his kite, educated people thought that the thunder and lightning were God’s wrath and that the damage came not from the fiery lightning but from the noise of thunder.
When Plato, hanging out with his male students in the sun,  heard the repetitive noise that seems almost not to come from nature, he associated it with music and crafted a myth around it. In Plato’s early dialogue Phaedrus, the cicadas provide a soundtrack for the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus.  Socrates manages to tie together cicadas, the birth of the muses, and the invention of singing: “They were so busy singing that they didn’t bother with food and drink, so that before they knew it they were dead. They were granted the origin of the race of cicadas, whom the Muses granted the gift of never needing any food once they were born; all they do is sing, from the moment of their births until their deaths, without eating or drinking.”  This musical hearing of cicadas reached its apex in the story of Euonymus of Locri, who needed a cicada’s help to win the Pythian games when a string on his cithara broke. The cicada heard the faltering harmony and jumped onto the string to offer the missing note, singing himself to death in the process. 
We also know that Galileo, of the inclined plane, telescope and heliocentric solar system, listened to their buzz when on papal lockdown outside of Florence. Keep in mind that musically this was before Vivaldi, Corelli and Bach—the kind of baroque music that comes with a repetitive rhythmic bass. The most famous composer of Galileo’s time, Monteverdi, was only beginning the move from vocally dominated music. Galileo used the bugs to explore the relationship between musical instruments and natural sounds and to use this exploration as an opportunity to subtly criticize his captors.  The son of an important musician, he studied lute as a child, and often-used music as a springboard for broader philosophical points. The cicada made the punch line for a story Galileo wrote about a hermit who raised birds and the search for knowledge.
One night the hermit heard a song near his house; assuming it was a bird, he set out to capture it. The sound turned out to be a shepherd boy with a flute. The hermit then set out on a quest to understand more sounds. The cicada stumped him: “He failed to diminish its strident noise either by closing its mouth or stopping its wings, yet he could not see it move the scales that covered its body, or any other thing. At last he lifted up the armor of its chest and there he saw some thin hard ligaments beneath; thinking the sound might come from their vibration, he decided to break them in order to silence it. But nothing happened until his needle drove too deep, and transfixing the creature he took away its life with its voice.” The hermit never figured out how the cicada worked, and from then on he understood that the world contained infinite “unknown and unimaginable sounds.” The Pope at the time liked this story because it suggested that humans just can’t understand everything God created, and that the quest just ruins the pleasure. Galileo, not surprisingly, meant the story to show that the questions are more important than the answers.
Jumping ahead two hundred years and across the pond to the United States, we find the cicada had become an object of science for its own sake. A year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence and during the time when Mozart was writing piano sonatas, Thomas Jefferson noted in his garden book that he was expecting their arrival. As the Industrial Revolution rolled across America, descriptions of the cicada went from musical to mechanical. Music went towards the mechanical, too.  By then instruments dominated musical practice; that meant that, instead of vocal music dominating parlors, emergent concert halls featuring symphonies, pianos, and violins (all of which celebrated human-made sounds) became the locus of ‘Music.’   In June of 1864 The Wisconsin State Register called the cicada a musical instrument, observing that “the male Cicada is furnished with a pair of bellows, one on each side of the body, consisting of two large oval plates, formed of convex pieces of parchment, and placed just behind the wings and thorax.” By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the bugs were heard in machine-terms. Given the quick love-sex-death- cycle it was clear to everywhere that the cicadas had no use for the newly mass-produced rubber condums made possible by rubber factories.  That was the Industrial Revolution talking. Factories, railroads, and other machines introduced continuous, repeating sounds that gave the bugs a whole new sonic context. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported that “…[t]he sights and sounds of 1885 in Indiana were among the most remarkable I ever witnessed. There was a continued monotonous roar, or rather a rattle, like many thrashing machines at a distance.” 
It was only a few hundred years ago that the loudest repeated sounds came from musical instruments.  As we learned to harness fossil fuels and electrons to make machines and instruments that could blast repeating sounds that exceeded even the cicada, it is little wonder that our ears began to hear them as extensions of our mechanical world rather than our musical one.  And because we so frequently hear sounds that emanate from machines not humans and animals the cicadas incessant song has lost it’s association with it’s very life. For the Greeks and for Galileo both the song and the cicada’s strange life cycle remained mysterious. And the song and efforts to understand it turned murderous very quickly. Thanks to Darwin’s evolutionary biology and Edison’s recording technologies we know why they sing and we can push play to hear their love-death any time we want.  But they like so many sounds don’t have quite the same potency.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On Blogging

I was into blogging and then decided that the mommy/academic blog had become a self-indulgent cliché.  Women in their mid 40’s trying and mostly failing to get lots of scholarship done with quirky kids and regressive Universities breathing down their neck are a dime a dozen in my world.  Kids are naturally precocious and hilarious; if you listen and take a few juicy quotations, it makes for good writing. If only the dead people I’m actually paid to write about were so talkative. Where are you castrati? Come on Queen Christina just spek to me through a ouije board and tell me what you were thinking when you hired that weird castrato and I admit it I do want to know who you slept with so please share that too…The university as an institution now seems ridiculous to many and mothering has become a word. Can you imagine any of our grandmothers spending this much time talking about mothering? Mine was too busy hanging out with leather designers, and I gather that my great grandmother had to make gefilta fish swim in the bathtub. Neither of them had time to worry about whether the apples they tossed at their kids were locally grown or not.  And they definitely did not email the kids teachers to discuss transition issues.
If the women in my little running group took our emails that combine University gossip with the antics of our children and slapped them into book form we might be able to make a best seller. Of course we’d get fired,  infuriate everyone we know, and find ourselves sent out to an ice rock by our kids before any of us turn 50.  Ms. Mentor is practically old school, and we all have dozens of unwritten emails. “Dear Sexist Colleague, thanks so much for mansplaining the piece of music that was, in fact, the subject of my first book.”  “Dear Entitled Undergraduate, thanks for making me aware of your very very busy day and I’m sorry that your greek rush, intramural sports, and founding of an NGO got in the way of coming to class or office hours, but if you think there was electric guitar in a Bach cantata we really do have a problem here.”   Husbands are good fodder for blogs but of course they don’t tend to like that. My husband anyway is better than most; he’s pretty clueless but he knows it and doesn’t pretend to be a sensitive new age guy. Plus he puts up with all kinds of indignities from me including being known in some spaces as “Miss Bonnie’s husband”
Even the purely academic blog seems overdone.  Give us hip early modernists a current event, and we can find a pre-enlightenment parallel or relevance. Those of us who went through grad school in the 1980’s and later learned the beauty of the new historicism anecdote understand the importance of taking the seemingly archaic and making it new. A little prince was born today and it buzzed on iPhones.  This is the disembodied post-modern echo of the fabulous fire words that marked the birth of even minor royalty in early modern Europe. The ghost of Princess Diana rendered in photos on every cable chanel reminds me of the glow of the gods rendered in thousands of candles every time someone fancy emerged from some poor woman who had to labor before the world.  And at graduation, as hundreds of gorgeous UVa female graduates traipsed across the rainy lawn in cork platform shoes, all I could think was they looked just like the shoes worn by Venetian courtesans and patricians.  Did the richer sorority girls wear higher heals? Do the shoes reclaim an erotic creativity?
Despite all of this I’m back to the blog. This fall I will be co-teaching with the fabulous Vanessa Ochs a cross college interdisciplinary seminar on writing.  The course focuses on writing for the public about the public. Our seminar starts with blogs.  Our theory is that we know that our grad students spend a good deal of their time writing and reading blogs, and we know that blogging is in the future for many of their classes.  So we might as well all do it well.  And if I’m going to make my students do a blog I better rejuvenate mine. And like just about everything else about being 40+, something I can happily admit is that, “Yup, I’m a cliché…”  So this week, when I’ve shipped my eldest children off to a Waldorf-inspired camp where they drink hemp milk and feed pigs, seemed like as good a time as any to start it back up. My youngest child, whose reaction to the place was “what the hell is this place” and I are at camp Aunt Pami (my sister) for the week. She is making me green smoothies, which she promises will change my life and giving me lots of time to write.  I’m hoping she’ll teach Eli to swim and get him to stop shooting.  Ideally, I’ll also finish a long overdue article on sound in early modern Italy. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


We buried my grandfather yesterday to the tune of a New Orleans jazz band and three generations of loved one.  Thanks to my uncle we did just about everything he would have wanted; even playing a tune basically about syphalis at an Orthadox Jewish guy's funeral.  We did not as he requested bury him butt up.  And he will I think come back to haunt us for that...  Below is the text of what I said...  My uncles, cousin, children and niece also spoke.  It was a celebration of him and all of us including  the many cousins and lifelong friends who were there with us.

My grandfather has been threatening to die for 45 years.  He supposedly imagined my mother’s pregnancy with me as a death knell since no one in his family had ever lived to see a grandchild.  He made it through five grandchildren and ten great grand children. For at least the last 20 years he’s been reminding us all that he could die any second. He was the last of his generation.  Mom, Uncle Michael, Uncle Earl, Dad, Aunt Lynn, Aunt Randy, you are the grandparents now and ladies we the five granddauhters are the parents.
Beau was not easy to love.  But he was fun one of a kind. As children we dragged him out of bed at 11 so he could start seeing patients. He grunted and told us to go away.  He often threw back a stiff drink before heading out to dinner with his family. He painted lovely watercolors for years and then switched to painting naked people whom he gave to all his family members.  He yelled at me for not putting his naked ladies on my wall. In his 80’s we feared he’d get arrested for stalking as he sat in Central Park drawing women.  He was creative and curious. He read more of my scholarship than almost anyone else and kept my books in a ziplock bag by his perch. He shared hair dye with my grandmother and once made my sister wait an hour while he trimmed it before he would walk across the street to the diner with her.  He flicked my sister’s bra and taught her to do judo—not me. He loved women and his flirtation bordered on harassment. He told terrible jokes, most of them inappropriate.  He had a wicked temper and let it rip with loved ones of all ages, including my nephew who didn’t talk to old people for a year. I saw him three weeks ago and did not that he knew me until he told my mom the next day she should really take me to the theater because I might like it. It was past time for him to die.
Beau loved his work more than anyone I know and was deeply disappointed that no one in his family wanted to pursue medicine. He was a brilliant diagnostician. In the early 80’s before AIDS  became a big story he warned and then diagnosed his nephew Jonathan, saying that something strange was happening to gay men and that he should be careful.  Jonathan died of AIDS in 1986.  He knew that every other doctor was wrong and unfit to care for anyone even remotely related to him. At the birth of each of my three children he did a stealth examination of them, For the last few years we have all missed having that diagnostic ability around; not to mention the prescription pad.  At least one granddaughter got a birth control prescription from him. Given the tenuous relationship between my mother’s birthday and my grandparents’ wedding he could hardly object. But I’ve kept with me one of his mantras that one must always know the difference between a medical inconvenience and a medical crisis.  This is the key to sanity as a parent.
He had a wild imagination; we all went fishing in the bathtub and like my six year old son he regularly fought Vikings.  We were told that we were related to Eljah the Vilna Gaon—the genius of Vilna. And supposedly the birthmark on my check reflected our Spanish ancestor. He drew, painted, and made sculpture for most of his life. He always had a sketch book and we loved to watch him draw. My children did too. He tried to teach us al to draw saying that what you do, you need to draw. Jonathan wants to go to the met today because of a book Beau gave him called warriors and something.  EVERY OBJECT IS IN THE MET. One of his many dying wishes was for Rebecca to have art lessons she did it many times.
Beau loved a good fight and took special pleasure in baiting his granddaughters with racist and sexist remarks. And we all took the bait; sometimes crying or storming out.  Those fights might have been one way he showed love.  He spent the bulk of his career serving the Harlem community. His patients loved him and stuck with him long after he could really hear what they were saying; hopefully he mostly referred out. We had an exciting Passover seder once where we saw him encounter a real racist.  It was ugly.  And he was convinced that his wife, daughter, and five granddaughters were brilliant and more brilliant than most men he knew.
He and my grandmother had a whirlwind romance and the pictures of them in their 20’s are truly breathtaking. He loved her until the day she died and when he spoke at her funeral that was clearer than ever. They were the cool parents, the cool aunt and uncle and then the cool grandparents.  My kids called them Mammy/Beau as in one person. But this was no smooth marriage.  They worked, fought, and played hard, and about five years ago my grandmother called up to say she’d had enough. She stuck it out… They could not have been more different.  My grandmother loved parties, people, music and theater.  He was a misanthrope who cared deeply for humanity.  They did their own thing long before that was fashionable.  He took art classes, and she hung out with cabaret singers.  She woke up super early, and he ate breakfast while everyone else had lunch.
Family mattered more than almost anything else to Beau.  It thrilled him when Stephanie developed a connection to his brother Stanley.  This, despite the fact that I could never keep track of which family members he was or was not talking to. He loved his grandchildren and loved that they all had children.  I showed him a picture of Maggie’s baby Sabine a day after she was born, and he totally tuned in and knew exactly what it was. The baby looks just like him.  And he wanted us all to be close.  He told me to call my cousins and kept me apprised of their doings.  He said we needed a relationship because he wouldn’t be around to connect us forever.  He was right: there will be no more grandparent birthdays, no more weddings, no more rushing to the city to see one or the other of them before they die.  It’s up to us now.  
My uncle, who delivered a twenty minute toast at his daughter’s wedding, reminded me to keep this short.  But I want to take an extra minute to say something about the next generation of grandparents. Thanks to my grandparents’ and parents’ precocious reproducing I remember my uncles in their twenties and my grandparents in their fifties and I had them all to myself for a few years. Your parents were crazy and sometimes hard but they obviously did some things right.  They fostered in you a closeness that my sister and I grew up emulating and that I hope my children have into adulthood. They encouraged connection among all of the misbucha; connections that were some times claustrophobic but that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Some of my earliest memories are with my uncles and aunt Lynn and aunt Randy.  My grandmother loved to tell the story of her pushing my pram down the street and my uncles each holding one hand.  I have no idea if it’s true but I do know that as a little girl Uncle Earl used to buy me long dresses and take me out to dinners where he told me about his court cases.. His apartment and our morning coffees were sanity savers in my 20's and 30s.  Uncle Michael with his fro pushed me on the swings and played with my dolls.  He and Aunt Lyn were the kind of Uncle and Aunt who just played whatever you were playing. When I started running cross country he ran with me everywhere we went and he lets me drive his vehicles!  I’m going to guess that in this my uncles and parents modeled their parents.  You are all grandparents now and it looks like our kids are going to have pretty fantastic grandparents too.