The Unanswered Question Revisited

This poem is a tribute to the six parts of Leonard Bernstein's Norton Lectures at Harvard University from 1973.


Knowing a thing
in the context of other disciplines,
a quixotic foray —
whither music?
Understanding whence —
what music? whose music?
Copland, Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel
tapping the code of raga,
a musical grammar
underlying human speech,
the varied nature
and structural functions of mind,
abstracting larger principles
of how we are constituted,
our innate grammatical competence
that proclaims its autonomy —
music, a metaphoric phenomenon
expressing affective existence
through mathematically
measurable elements —
phonology, syntax, semantics,
sound plus structure;
begin with the anatomical,
the protosyllable ma,
how it leaps from the breast
of mother into sound —
the processes of speech,
grammar known and unknown,
human kinship, love —
open the breath to vocalize ah
hablar, falar, fabulare,
the branches of the olive vine,
common origin,
the mists of prehistory
where all mothers grew,
where bad is small,
the gods big thereby good,
the growling great, grow, groot, God;
and once again the baby, ictus and glide,
the mouth mother morpheme
rewritten as a pitch event —
music as heightened speech,
hunger, anticipation, aggression,
the physical manifestations of affect,
gooseflesh and moist feelings,
music among patterns —
the singsong tease "Little Sally Water"
plaintively expanded,
a constellation of two-and-three note
variants the world over —
vibrating bodies emitting waves,
the tonic and its overtones,
fractional segments vibrating separately;
and five notes away, the dominant,
itself a fourth away from the next overtone,
then the third, making the fundamental
and the three pitches — the triad,
one of many cultural expressions,
tempered to tonal harmony,
the blue notes resting
in the spaces between,
the birth of pentatonic longing
and the tonal centers.


The deep structure
and the surface structure of language;
deletion (of underlying strings) in syntax
produces surface structures
that make the components of a sentence —
the aesthetics of this as poetry,
the prosaic elements not there,
musical prose and its underlying strings,
transposing strings;
the metaphorical leap,
our innate symmetrical instinct intact,
the resolution of yes and no, lingam and yoni,
how one and other become fulfilled —
Mozart, a string of dualities,
the 40th symphony…
two within four within eight
just so, just so
are the things left unsaid
we learn symmetry
is not necessarily balance;
structures undergo
principles of transformation and deletion,
the aggregations of phrases,
contrapuntal syntax,
the interweaving,
the perception of structure,
repositioning and permutation,
pronominalization —
we reach a dead duck
yet the music is ongoing,
side-slipping on skis,
conjoining, developing deletions,
inversions, strong weak strong
another dead duck, another conjoining,
crazy side-slipping, embedding,
enjoining a single sentence of music,
the first period.


A broad dispassionate view —
the beauty of ambiguity,
a reminiscence of phonology,
syntax, semantics, meaning —
The whole town was populated
by old men and women
war, or aging,
the deep structures
combined and condensed,
yoked together —
now Stravinsky,
a series of nouns,
the harmonic support
a verbal adjective;
the zeugma of poetry,
decision-making steps,
grammatical justification,
finding a poetic level:
the broken
semantic rules of metaphor,
sidereal organisms…
Juliet is the sun
abnormal human speech,
transformational principles,
lexical meanings, deletions,
radiant metaphor,
literal discourse,
inner corporeal logic,
beauty born, music —
by literal semantic weights,
two metaphors undergo
instantaneous transformation,
not radiance nor brownness
but the rhythm,
harmonic progressions,
semantics, the weak link,
the prolongation
of the ictus of the protosyllable ma
Jack and Jill, Harry and John and golf
and persuasion, a Chomsky trap
from willy nilly to meaningful,
the tonal structures playing,
semantic thinking,
juggling the game of notes,
puns of twelve letters
working vertically and horizontally,
a continuing play of sonic anagrams;
significational sensory data
release energy and the affective functions;
intrinsic meanings
not to be confused with specific moods,
pictorial impressions, stories —
a stream of metaphors is the thesis…
the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven —
merry peasants, brooks,
and birds sportively juggled,
offering something fluid,
the sounding notes combined
eliciting subjective associations…
Is affect intrinsic or merely a transference
via the notes from the composer
to the performer to the listener?
Moments coy and wheedling
with tears and passion
offer a drama of pleading and refusal —
then firm agreement, conditions settled.


Beyond duality,
the growing
accretion of chromaticism,
contained and containing
the diatonic nodes
in a tonic dominant frame —
to be within the container
and to form the frame,
a beauty that depends
on ambiguous surface structures —
Mahler’s Adagietto, the swooning
notes that lean on resolution,
the surface notes of the triad, just so,
these again recall
a youthful teasing chant —
the semantic ambiguities
so well accentuated by Beethoven,
the modified series
of tonic dominant changes
before the return —
artist, priest, prophet,
the divine rights
of greater expression,
new freedoms,
an expanding universe
of the artists’ personal passions —
Romanticism, together
with the New Chromaticism,
volcanic sparks;
the madness of Schumann,
the festival
of rhythic symmetry
in Carnaval, marching
in three quarter time,
or the Symphonic Études
landing odd footing —
and Chopin, somewhere
between tonal and modal,
the implied sound resonating
between the chords —
submediants and subdominants
falling almost in key,
just before the true cadence —
musical semantics,
chromaticism in poetry,
the freedom to pursue sound
for its own sake,
new sonic relationships,
labials and plosives —
the sonorous beauty
of "The Leaden Echo
and the Golden Echo,"
a chromatic plea
to keep beauty
from vanishing away,
farther and farther
from center,
the semantic vacuum filled
by interweaving poetic tones —
the contiguous styles
of Berlioz and Beethoven,
the great dramas told orchestrally.


An urbane dance, pleased with itself,
unaware of crisis, similar either/or
moments present in Wagner or Debussy,
the ambiguous chromatic color
of 1908, Rapsodie Espagnole,
contained among familiar counterparts,
safe before war,
before Mahler bid the last farewells to tonality
and the doubts and terrors of the Sibelius Fourth —
Karl Kraus declaring the degeneration of language,
and the stretched Wagnerian tonalities of Schoenberg
of a sudden become
too many notes and too many meanings,
leading to artistic shifts,
upheaval and renunciation:
air from another planet, unconfined,
Ives and his Unanswered Question
a sustained footing,
pierced by the trumpet’s pleading
amid retorts growing farther and farther from sense,
only the pulsing G major remaining to answer —
so the question of clarity and confusion begins;
joined by the same desire for expressive drive,
to expand metaphorical speech,
other voices enter the music of the times,
convulsive tonalities, logical antinomies
of the cultural crisis,
a break from syntactic structures
based on odd symmetry,
aleatoric riddles of atonality,
Pierrot lunaire for voice and instruments,
Sprechtstimme, the glory of heightened speech;
the ictus present here again,
the ungovernable freedoms difficult to follow,
despite the brilliant inner procedures
of canonic inversion, retrogrades and the rest;
moving counter to innate tonal drive,
the tone rows outlining the occasional triad,
a burly Till Eulenspiegel melody
under a romp that remembers Wagner,
aesthetic order among members
of the new democracy forming the chain
along which new surface structures arise.


Whether Verdi, an Italian
writing phony Egyptian ballet music,
or the silk-gowned Wagner
following the wanderings
of the penitent fool,
the sincerity of the line remains —
“Fern Hill” flies —
blessings on the poet’s artifices
that give it wings!
On all artifices
that make the emotions
aesthetically pleasant and intelligible;
the Firebird that gave its first glow,
and Satie,
casually delivering musical objects,
a sincere triviality, whimsy, Parade;
the rattle of a typewriter
and the sound of an amplified puddle —
then the toy waltzes and calliopes
in Petrouchka, contemplating a world
of affective detachment recorded
in personal language,
object added to object,
touchingly mechanical, pitiless,
the great artificer
with his bag of tricks,
the duality of the puppet
concealing a passionate human heart
through syntactic rhythmic displacement —
the phonology, syntax, and semantics
of tonal refreshment,
the phonological slides of dissonance,
the expansion of the triadic idea,
mitosis by polytonality,
the tri-toned interval of Debussy’s Faun
and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto,
an unstable relationship between triads;
or those two chords, equally consonant
in themselves, that combined strike
the raw primal blow in Rite
the revivifying art
of asymmetrical language,
between phrase structure
and motivic structure,
new pulses and jabs,
fashioned out of tiny motivic cells,
like a kaleidoscope fashioned
from jagged pieces of broken glass,
the asymmetry racket in full color —
sets of rhythms buried
one within the other,
a musical folklore
of anthropological metaphors
and atavistic blood constellations.


Cine Prado (Elena Poniatowska)

This is my translation of a darkly humorous story by Elena Poniatowska, a writer from Mexico. It takes form of a letter to the French actress Françoise Arnoul by a deranged fan. You can view the original story HERE.


Starting today, please erase my name from the list of your admirers. Perhaps it would be better to keep you from knowing this, but my holding back would go against a personal integrity that always demands the truth be told. Removing my focus from you has elicited a profound change in my spirit. I am ultimately resolved no longer to remain a fan of your work.

This afternoon, well, tonight, you destroyed me. I’m not sure if it matters that you know it, but I am a broken man. Do you understand? I am a fan who has followed your image at all the local premieres, a critic lover who justified your worst moral actions and now swears on his knees to separate himself forever from you, although the mere advertisement of Forbidden Fruit makes him feel somewhat ambivalent. You see, I continue to rely on a deceiving shadow.

Seated comfortably, I was one of many lost in the anonymous darkness, who suddenly felt trapped in personal sadness, bitter and without exit. Then I came to, once again the loner who suffers and who writes to you. I have no one to reach out to me. When you gracefully smashed my heart on the screen, everything in me felt inflamed, though still faithful. As an onlooking scoundrel laughed shamelessly, I saw you swoon in the arms of that beastly stud who drove you to the ultimate extreme of human degradation.

And a man who receives a blow to his ideals counts for nothing, señorita?

You will say I am a dreamer, an eccentric, one of those meteorites that fall over the earth beyond the margin of calculation. Whatever you may hypothesize, however you judge me, do me the favor of being more responsible in your actions, and before signing a contract or accepting a stellar companion, think that a man like me might be in your future audience and receive a mortal blow. I am not jealous, but believe me, in Slaves of Desire you were kissed, caressed, and assaulted to excess. Perhaps my mind is tricking me, but in the cabaret scene you didn't have to part your lips that way, untie your hair over your shoulders and tolerate the insolent advances of that sailor, who leaves yawning, after submerging you in that tarnished bed and abandoning you as if heading out to sea.

I know actors owe themselves to their public, that in ways they lose their free will and find themselves at the mercy of the whims of a perverse director. I know also that they are obligated to follow point for point all the deficiencies and the fallacies of the text they interpret, but let me tell you that to the public eye you have, in the worst of cases, precious little initiative or liberty to claim as your own.

If you took the trouble, you could allege in your defense that from your first efforts you displayed some of the conduct for which now I reproach you. It's true, and I feel ashamed that there is no legal justification for my argument. I resolved to love you the way you are. Pardon, the way I believed you were. Like all the deceived, I curse the day in which I united my life to your cinematographic destiny. And be clear that I accepted you when you were an obscure beginner, when nobody knew you and they gave you that little part as the streetwalker with the crooked socks and the worn-out heels, a role no decent woman would have been capable of accepting. However, I forgave you, and in that dirty, indifferent room I greeted a rising star. I was your discoverer, the only one who knew how to look out of himself at your soul, then immaculate, despite your becoming a victim of carnage. If that’s what you want from life, forgive my abrupt outburst.

Your mask has fallen, señorita. I have taken account of your vile deceit. You are no longer the delightful creature, the fragile and tender dove to which I was accustomed, the swallow of innocent returns, the lost face between collars of lace that I dreamed, but a bad woman, broken, a spoil of humanity, a novelty-seeker in the worst sense of the word. From now on, dearest, you will go your way and I will go mine. Walk, walk, continue hurrying through the streets, where I have already fallen like a rat in a sewer. And be clear on what I tell you, señorita, that in spite of the blows that life has given me, I remain a gentleman. The sanctity deep in my heart has taught me to guard my honor always. My memories preserve me. So it is, señorita. Take it, if you like, as ironic despair.

I had seen you lavish kisses and receive caresses in hundreds of movies. Back then, you didn't wound your lucky companion’s spirit. You simply kissed like all the good actresses, like a cardboard puppet. Yet remember always, the only sensuality worth suffering comes from the soul, because the soul wraps our body, as grape skin contains pulp and bark retains juice. Once, your love scenes didn't faze me, because you had always a kind of broken dignity, and because I always perceived an intimate rejection, a flaw in the last moment that rescued my anguish and consoled my lament. But in Rage in the Body, with eyes wet with love, you showed me your true face, that which I don't want to see ever again. Admit it: you are really in love with that evil, that second-rate comic, aren’t you? Would you dare to deny it with impunity? At least all the words and promises you made were authentic, and each of your gestures given in firm decision, like a free spirit. Why have you played me like they all play? Why have you deceived me as all women deceive, under the guise of a changing mask? Why didn't you show me from the beginning the fallen countenance that now torments me?

My drama is almost metaphysical, and I don't see a solution. I am alone in my nocturnal madness. Well, I should admit my wife understands everything and sometimes shares my concerns. We were enjoying the rapture and sweetness of newlyweds when we traipsed into your first movie. Yet do you remember? That one about the dopey athletic diver who went to the bottom of the sea, at your pleasure, in his diver's suit. I left the theater completely exasperated, and it would have been a vain pretense to hide it from my woman. She, moreover, completely agreed and had to admit that your dressing gowns are really splendid. She wasn’t inconvenienced in accompanying me another six times, believing in good faith that the routine would break the charm. But oh! Things were worsening in proportion as your movies were released. Our household budget suffered severe modifications, permitting us to frequent the screens some three times a week. Moreover, after each viewing we passed the remainder of the night in discussion. However, my companion didn't change. In the end, you were no more than a defenseless shadow, a two-dimensional silhouette viewed in darkness. My woman accepted gracefully to have as a rival a ghost whose apparitions could be controlled voluntarily, but she didn't waste the opportunity to laugh at your cost and mine. I remember her rejoicing that fatal night in which, due to a photoelectric malfunction, you spoke ten minutes in inhuman voice, a robot almost, wavering between falsetto and deep bass... on the subject of your voice, you know that I began to study French because I couldn't limit myself to colorless Spanish subtitles. I learned to decipher the melodious sound of your voice, and with it came the harsh apprehension of some atrocious phrases, the understanding of certain words that, placed on your lips or applied to you, proved intolerable to me. I deplored the times when I could grasp them, attenuated by prudish translations; now, I receive them like slaps in the face.

Worst of all, my woman is starting to show bad humor. The allusions to you and your conduct on the screen have become more frequent and ferocious. Lately she has concentrated her attacks on your underwear and says that I am wasting time on a woman without substance. And speaking sincerely between us, what do all those transparencies mean — an intimacy gained by rolling dark acetate? If the only thing I want to find in you is that sad and bitter spark that yesterday you had in your eyes... but we return to my woman. She makes faces and imitates you. She mimics me also. She repeats jokingly some of my more plaintive comments. "Those kisses in How You Endure Me are eating me away." Wherever we are, she delights in remembering it. She says that we ought to face this problem from a purely rational angle, scientifically, and she hands me absurd but overwhelming arguments. She alleges, for example, that you are unreal and that she is a concrete woman. To prove it to me, she is finishing off my illusions one by one. I don't know what is going to become of me if the rumors are true, that you are coming to film a movie and honor our country with your visit. For love of God most sacred, stay in your homeland, señorita.

Yes, I don't want to return to see you, because every time the music plays and the subtitles race across the screen, little by little I become an annihilated man. I refer to the mortal barrier of those three cruel letters [FIN], which put an end to the modest happiness of my nights of love, at two pesos a showing. I have discarded, little by little, the desire of staying to live with you in the movie and no longer dying of pain when I have to leave the theater, towed by my woman, who has the bad habit of standing at the first sign the movie is ending.

Señorita, I leave you. I don't ask you even for an autograph, because if you manage to send it to me I may easily forget your unpardonable betrayal. Receive this letter like a final tribute from a broken soul and forgive me for having included you in my dreams. Yes, I have dreamed of you more than one night, and I have no reason to envy those pretty boys who earn a salary by holding you in their arms and who seduce you with borrowed words.

Believe me sincerely your servant,

PS: I forgot to tell you that I write this behind bars. This letter would never have arrived in your hands if I weren’t afraid you might receive erroneous news about me. The newspapers, which always falsify the facts, are abusing this ridiculous event: "Last night a stranger, perhaps drunk or deranged, interrupted the showing of Slaves of Desire during the climactic scene, tearing the screen at the Cine Prado by nailing a knife in the bosom of Françoise Arnoul. In spite of the darkness, three spectators saw the maniac run toward the actress with knife held high. They approached to examine him up close and later identified him during sentencing. It proved easy because the individual collapsed once he consummated the act."

I know it's impossible, but I would give away what I don't have to make you hold for always in your breast, the memory of that well-aimed stab.


The Populist: A Parable

The populist has angular opinions about perpendicular topics. He has tumbled through the issues. He knows the process. The people must bank on what is known. Few know details. He reveals new facts about the enemy, who takes the form of a single person symbolizing a whole population within the borders of a piece of land. The people spit venom; the bald men with their beards and straw hats wave misspelled signs alongside the nervous women.

We need something to fear and something to believe, the populist says. Let the one be science and the other magic. The people agree. The answer is simple. We must protect the ancestral home of magic if we are to remain just and free. Meanwhile we are to gut funding for scientific research while preserving the economic status of magic. Make it a protected category. Make it real. Make it the focus of education. Then target the middle class, the disadvantaged. Make them seem lazy, unworthy of health care. The men with the straw hats may not be listening by now, as they were mainly worried about our victorious outcomes after the snow-capped apocalypse. Some of the women are uneasy, but the crowd is large, and having an enemy is clearly easier than thinking. When there is a strong man up there doing the kind of thinking the people can trust, they clap together as one.

The populist uses words that are not too big and ones that are not too small. Everyone repeats what he says and talks about it. The news has grown fat on his words. The politicians have assumed their various positions. The people continue to feed themselves on opinions about people who speak foreign languages. What a fine morning! There will be a new breakfast in America, an old-fashioned recipe that everyone will appreciate, once all the borders are drawn.


YouTube Playlists

Happy June! These are ten playlists and a new video upload of a performance on veena by a performer included in an ethnomusicology anthology.

1. New Sounds & Old
2. Vocal/Choral
3. Classical
4. Good Grit, Americana & Sweet Stuff
5. Macyn Taylor
6. Folk/Traditional
7. Irish
8. Early Clannad
9. Galician
10. Jams & Vibes

All the best,
Ed Luhrs