Saturday, November 17, 2007

revisiting the plainchant thing

In a blog entry back in June, titled the tao of plainchant, I set out to relate, while it was still fresh in my mind, the encounter I had with a group of men in the community who gather on Sundays to sing Gregorian Chant. In that post, however, I all too quickly used up my meager personal blogging resources to fill in the background and describe the history of my interest in the arcane art form, only to cap it off by promising to describe in a future post my experience with the chant group.

Voila, a scant five months later, I’m delivering on my promise! (Sorry it took so long, O’Donovan.).

It was the end of May when I was invited to sit in with the group. I’d known about them for at least 20 years, and had always been intrigued by the improbable idea of a non-monastic (no cowls required) chant gathering in California, and was delighted that it was still going on.

Since Meera was attending Sunday services at a nearby church at roughly the same time, it was perfectly convenient for me to drop her and the kids off at the church and go to the gathering.

I parked my car on a residential street a good distance from the address. I was a little nervous about meeting new people, and I thought a walk would do me some good. The paved road with sidewalks gave way to a dirt road which as it descended into a cool gulch darkly shaded of by eucalyptus trees. Then, as it rose up the other side of the gulch, the eucalyptus canopy gave way to bright sunshine and an enchanting symphony of birdsong.

On this side of the grove I found a peaceful rustic neighborhood. I heard the cluck of a chicken as I made my way, according to the instructions I’d been given, to the back of the main house and entered a cozy work shed, its wooden panels unpainted and weathered gray.

I’d been told that the chanting went from ten to noon. I was 40 minutes late, but there were only two people there, neither of whom were Andy.

I was greeted by a short taciturn man with a trim gray beard, whose name I promptly forgot─something like Voldemort, but I knew that couldn’t be right. The other, named Mark, had a pleasant clean-shaven face and long dark hair in a ponytail.

I introduced myself as a friend of Andy’s. I couldn’t tell if they were expecting me, but my appearance didn’t cause surprise. The two continued a conversation they had been having on various things to do with East European languages and culture, something I was at a loss to talk about. Waldemar, whose name I was reminded of later, was from Austria, Mark was a music professor at the University.

I wanted to talk about Gregorian chant, share some of my own ideas about it, and learn more about the group, but I was shy, and didn’t want to be intrusive, so I just sat and tried to make myself comfortable while I listened to them talk. It was comfortably warm, a wood stove putting out modest heat. I glanced around at the variety of knickknacks and wall adornments that honored music, philosophy, poetry, and art. And saw, near the sink, a large espresso machine. Nice.

It wasn’t till about 11:00 that Andy arrived, accompanied by two more men with gray beards that I hadn’t met before. One of them had ridden his bicycle a great distance, and taken a long time to get there, having had a flat tire along the way.

As everyone got settled, good-natured banter and small talk were exchanged. Waldemar made espresso drinks for the guests, but I declined, having already had my coffee for the day.

At last, with little more than half an hour to go, we gathered around the table, and got down to the business of plainchant. I proudly produced my fine old battered copy of the Liber Usualis, but, because the pagination on my edition didn’t match, I had to use one of theirs, of which there were plenty.

Frank, the regular leader of the group, was out of town this day, so Waldemar directed, somewhat timidly. He wasn’t really adept at establishing the starting pitches and various modes. Mark was better at this, but not so good at reading the neumes. And, besides Mark, none of the men, including myself, were very confident singers.

It had been a while since I had attempted to read neumes, and it didn’t help matters that I had neglected to bring my reading glasses. So, no surprise, it was a very choppy beginning. Waldemar seemed to chafe at the errors and difficulties everyone was having, but said nothing. I’d like to think I was doing pretty well, though, for a newcomer.

When we took up the Gregorian sequence “Victimae Paschali” I gained considerable confidence. I knew it well, having studied and memorized it years ago. This freed me from having to interpret the neumes on the fly so I could concentrate on my tone quality and musicality. The time passed very quickly, and, just when I was hitting my stride, it was time to wrap it up.

Though I was disappointed that, after 20 years, the group wasn’t just a tad more skilled, I greatly enjoyed the friendly atmosphere and camaraderie; and just the very idea of a local Gregorian Chant gathering tickles me. I thought to myself, next time I will be more at ease and confident, and do better, and, once Frank has returned, it ought to go more smoothly.

Unfortunately, the next few Sundays Meera and I had other obligations to attend. And then, the regular pastor at Meera’s church took the summer off, and Meera lost interest in going. Without that facilitating convenience, I never went back One of these days, I will.

May the plainchant gathering continue for at least another 20 years, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

    Tunes I blogged along to...

  • Not Dark Yet─Bob Dylan─Time Out Of Mind
  • Beautiful Land─Nina Simone
  • Raga Ramdas Malhar─Ravi Shankar, sitar; Ali Akbar Khan, sarod─Ragas
  • Down in the Valley to Pray─Doc Watson─The Best of Doc Watson 1964-1968
  • In the Mood─Glenn Miller & His Orchestra─Ken Burns: Jazz: The Story of American Music
  • Baya Wa Baya/Promo─Dandaro─Ndoenda Baba
  • Mo Ti Mo─King Sunny Ade─Synchro System
  • Embraceable You─Sarah Vaughan─At Mister Kelly's
  • Il pleut dans ma chambre─Charles Trenet
  • The Ploughman─Djivan Gasparyan, duduk─I Will Not Be Sad In This World

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Red Jellyfish, Monterey Bay Aquarium (video)

A brief glimpse at these marvelous and mesmerizing creatures.

We visited the aquarium on Sunday, November 11, 2007, celebrating my son Julian's 8th birthday. Click the photo below to see the jellyfish in motion (and hear the family color commentary).

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Kennedy and Specter on Mukasey and the onus of torture

I thought Ted Kennedy's dissenting comments on the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation of Mukasey were very eloquent:

SEN. TED KENNEDY: The Department of Justice is in dire need of new leadership to guide our nation back to its constitutional moorings. Under Attorney General Gonzales, the Department lost its way as a genuine force for justice, too often served as a rubber stamp for the White House and as a facilitator and enforcer of political objectives, rather than the rule of law. After a period of such tarnished leadership in the department, we need a clear, decisive, straightforward attorney general who’s not afraid to stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law, even if it means disagreeing with the President of the United States.

I had hoped that Judge Mukasey could be that person. He is certainly intelligent and has demonstrated an admirable dedication to public service. As a federal judge for almost nineteen years, he was, by all accounts, fair and conscientious in the courtroom and even showed admirable independence at times. But after reviewing and re-reviewing Judge Mukasey’s answers to questions from members of this committee, I have concluded that he is not the right person to lead the Justice Department at this critical time in our history. We need a leader who will inspire confidence in the rule of law. We need a leader who is unafraid to speak truth to power. We need a leader who is worthy of the trust we place in our attorney general to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Michael Mukasey, regrettably, is not that leader.

Like many of my colleagues and many American citizens, I am deeply troubled by Judge Mukasey’s evasive answers about the legality of certain techniques of torture. While the nominee acknowledges that torture is unconstitutional, he has repeatedly refused to acknowledge that the controlled drowning of a prisoner, waterboarding, rises to the level of torture. What is the big mystery here? Over and over again, civilian and military tribunals have found waterboarding to be an unacceptable act of torture.

My concerns began with Judge Mukasey's answers to our questions about waterboarding. Waterboarding is a barbaric practice in which water is poured down the mouth and nose of a detainee to simulate drowning. It’s an ancient technique of tyrants. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, it was used by interrogators in the Spanish Inquisition. In the nineteenth century, it was used against slaves in this country. In World War II, it was used against us by Japan. In the 1970s, it was used against political opponents by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the military dictatorships of Chile and Argentina. Today, it’s being used against pro-democracy activists by the rulers of Burma. When we fail to reject waterboarding, this is the company that we keep.

According to ABC News, former intelligence officers and supervisors admitted in 2005 that the CIA used waterboarding. In fact, the Vice President confirmed its use. And the intelligence officers and supervisors described the waterboarding this way: the prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet; cellophane is wrapped over the prisoners face, and water is poured over him; unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in, and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to an almost instant plea to bring the treatment to a halt. Malcolm Nance, a former master instructor and chief of the training of the US Navy Seals, described it as “horrifying to watch [and] if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death.”

Judge Mukasey cannot say to this committee that waterboarding is torture? He calls it “repugnant,” and indeed it is. But he refuses to condemn as unlawful. And then, in perhaps the most stunning and hollow promise reportedly made by a nominee for Attorney General in my forty-five years in the Senate, we are told that Judge Mukasey agreed to enforce a ban against waterboarding if Congress specifically passes one? We are supposed to find comfort in the representation by a nominee to the highest law enforcement office in the country, that he will in fact enforce the laws that we pass in the future? Can our standards really have sunk so low? Enforcing the law is the job of the Attorney General. It is a prerequisite, not a virtue, that enhances a nominee’s qualifications.

Make no mistake about it: waterboarding is already illegal under United States law. It’s illegal under the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit outrages upon personal dignity, including cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment. It’s illegal under the Torture Act, which prohibits acts specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering. It’s illegal under the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibits cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. And it violates the Constitution. The nation's top military lawyers and legal experts across the political spectrum have condemned waterboarding as torture. And after World War II, the United States prosecuted -- prosecuted -- Japanese officers for engaging in waterboarding. What more does this nominee need to enforce existing laws?

It is the job of the Attorney General to enforce our Constitution laws. The Attorney General must have the legal and moral judgment to know when an activity rises to the level of a violation of our Constitution, treaties or statutes. But this nominee wants to outsource his job to Congress. That passing of the buck is completely unacceptable by a nominee who wants to be the highest justice official in our country. This nominee has failed to demonstrate that he will be a clear, decisive, straightforward leader that the Department of Justice so desperately needs. For all these reasons, I oppose this nomination. After six long years of reckless disregard for the rule of law by this administration, we cannot afford to take our chances on the judgment of an attorney general who either does not know torture when he sees it or is willing to look the other way to suit the President.

And while Arlen Specter voted in favor of confirmation, his statement also reads as eloquent dissent, with an "although" tacked onto the beginning:
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: What do we have to say about the morality of waterboarding? Is it banned by some international commitment, the Geneva rules? A very fuzzy─very fuzzy area.

Justice Jackson made a lot of famous statements, and one of his most famous statements was that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Not a suicide pact. So we're not bound by the Constitution to undertake conduct which would be a suicide, so that it is my thought that Judge Mukasey went about as far as he could go.

I thought he was not on solid ground when he said he wasn’t read into the program, that he didn’t know what waterboarding was. Waterboarding is generally well known. Not being read into the program, I thought, was -- candidly -- an excuse, and a flimsy excuse. Certainly, he had been investigated sufficiently so the President was confident to tell him the highest secrets of the country, and he could have been read into it and could have given us a judgment.

And he said, in answers to my letter of October 24, that he was reluctant to put people at risk, and we know that a couple of weeks ago former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was served with legal process, unclear exactly what it was, perhaps a warrant of arrest. We know that some countries are exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction on crimes against humanity, that Prime Minister Sharon was under indictment from Belgium. And we know what happened with Pinochet, so that there is a risk factor. So I think he went about as far as he could go, and I think now it’s a matter for the Congress.

I want to express one other concern, and that is a concern about what Judge Mukasey may have as a view of excessive executive authority. I’m very concerned about the presidential signing statements, where we pass legislation and under the Constitution he has the authority to either veto it or sign it, and he cherrypicks. But he did it in two contexts, which were very troubling. One was, after his negotiations with Senator McCain, when we legislated on interrogation, he signed the bill and said he didn’t have to follow it. And we passed out of this committee the PATRIOT Act, passed the Congress, and we gave the FBI additional powers on the condition that we had more oversight. Then he signed the PATRIOT Act, and he said he didn’t have to abide by the conditions on oversight.

And I asked Judge Mukasey about that, and I got back an answer which is totally unsatisfactory. He said, “I agree with you. The presidential signing statements should not be a vehicle for creating unnecessary confrontation.” Well, what does that mean? Is there necessary confrontation? And he says he will keep in mind the concerns when advising the President. I think the Attorney General should have said, “If the President negotiates an arrangement with Congress, signs a bill, he ought to stand by it and not act to the contrary.”

But all factors considered, I think that the balance is decisively in favor of confirming Judge Mukasey. And I look forward to congressional consideration of this issue of waterboarding. We’re the people who ought to decide it. And with his assurances in writing that he will back us up, that’s good enough for me.
He might as well have concluded with, "But this is Opposite Day, so I'm voting to confirm him."

    And now! Ten films I happened to watch recently...

  • The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007)
  • The Black Stallion (1979)
  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • The Last Mimzy (2007)
  • Meet the Robinsons (2007)
  • An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
  • Bee Movie (2007)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Ratatouille (2007)

grokking a bad travel experience

I told myself that my next blog post would be about Maher Arar. You know, that Canadian guy who was changing planes at JFK airport on his way home to Canada, when he was seized by U.S. Officials, and sent to Syria to be tortured and confined for nearly a year.

I watched an excerpt of his testimony before Congress last month, courtesy of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! (quoted below). So chilling is his story, I felt compelled to talk about it. However, it has been difficult for me to compose my thoughts. Part of it is lazy procrastination, an inability to allocate and manage my time well, sustain focused concentration; an age-old problem for me, and of far too many people in today's society.

I also find that every single day there is something new reported in the news that I feel compelled to speak out about. So many astonishing things going on all at once. With my compulsion to respond to each and every thing firing in every direction, I ultimately write about nothing.

I began my blog as a way to formulate my observations of life, and to share them with anyone who might happen along and take interest. I didn't have a specific focus or structure. It was to be a shadow to my daily life experiences. Lately my attention has been arrested by the things going on in Washington. I've never been that devoted to politics, but now I very much feel like our freedoms are being threatened, and that complacency is extremely dangerous.

What I wanted to apprehend about Mr. Arar's case is the very horror of his experience. I am ashamed of my country's action, and I want to comprehend what he went through. I know that his story reflects the story of countless others who are being tortured in secret prisons at the behest of this administration and in the name of the endless War on Terrorism. Like someone who has overdosed on sedatives, I don't want to fall asleep again. My survival depends on jolting myself with the real sensations of existence.

How many times have we heard "arrested without charge". Do ordinary citizens comprehend what that means? If the victim of extraordinary rendition has an Arab name, are Americans shut out from feeling empathy, and dulled from considering the ramifications?

I'm determined to wake myself up, because I know I have been complacent. You just can't help but distance yourself when exposed by this stuff day after day. You’re liable to go crazy if you don’t. I make a conscious effort to read and listen to as much news as I can every day. I didn't used to do that. Now I feel I have to. And for the most part I feel there's only so much I can do about what's going on.

I recently watched The Last Mimzy, a recent Fantasy/SciFi movie for kids. In it, a family's home is violently invaded SWAT-style by a Homeland Security team, and they are rendered to a detainment facility for interrogation. It's a terrifying part of the movie, it really gets the adrenaline going. It seemed completely at odds with the storyline, which was predominated by a spiritual element

I didn't know what to think about the inclusion of this incongruous plot component. The leader of the operation was for the most part a sympathetic character, doing his job. Eventually it was determined that it was all a misunderstanding, the family didn’t raise objections, but understood that these mistakes happen. I can't tell you how much of a disconnect I had with that. Otherwise, I thought it was an entertaining movie that was done pretty well.

Are we ready, though, for home invasion to be such a mainstay of popular culture that it can serve as a modular plot device to be dropped into the story to keep the audience on the edge of its seat?

I haven't seen the film Rendition yet. I’d like to. I've heard that its good. My hope is through the art of filmmaking they have accurately and effectively depicted even a little of what state-sponsored kidnapping and torture is like. Perhaps more Americans will speak out against it.

Here are two YouTube clips from Democracy Now. Arar's testimony before Congress begins at the very end of the first clip, and continues at the beginning of the second one. I regret that I don't have a clip that is neat and succinct. An excerpt from the text transcript from the program follows.

MAHER ARAR: Let me be clear. I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. I am here today to tell you about what happened to me and how I was detained and interrogated by the United States government, transported to Syria against my will, tortured and kept there for a year.

Upon viewing my valid Canadian passport, an immigration officer pulled me aside. Officers from the FBI and the New York Police Department arrived and began to interrogate me. My repeated requests for a lawyer were all denied. I was told that I had no right to a lawyer, because I was not an American citizen.

I was then taken to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where I was kept for the next ten days. After five days of repeated requests, I was finally allowed to make a brief phone call to alert my family of my whereabouts.

On October 8th at 3:00 in the morning, I was awakened and told that they had decided to remove me to Syria. By then, it was becoming more and more clear to me that I was being sent to Syria for the purpose of being tortured. There, I was put in a dark underground cell that was more like a grave. It was three feet wide, six feet deep and seven feet high. Life in that cell was hell. I spent ten months and ten days in that grave.

During the early days of my detention, I was interrogated and physically tortured. I was beaten with an electrical cable and threatened with a metal chair, the tire and electric shocks. I was forced to falsely confess that I had been to Afghanistan. When I was not being beaten, I was put in a waiting room so that I could hear the screams of other prisoners.

The cries of the women still haunt me the most.

After 374 days of torture and wrongful detention, I was finally released to Canadian embassy officials on October 5, 2003.

These past few years have been a nightmare for me. Since my return to Canada, my physical pain has slowly healed, but the cognitive and psychological scars from my ordeal remain with me on a daily basis. I still have nightmares and recurring flashbacks. I am not the same person that I was. I also hope to convey how fragile our human rights have become and how easily they can be taken from us by the same governments that have sworn to protect them.

REP. JERROLD NADLER: I believe that what happened here was that the United States government consciously and deliberately conspired with the government of Syria to have him tortured. That’s why he was rendered to Syria. This was not a case of Expedited Removal, as the Attorney General, I believe, untruthfully testified to our subcommittee. And I think this violates the criminal statute against torture. The obvious -- the only reason to send him to Syria was to have him tortured. The fact that we sought assurances, diplomatic assurances, from a country that’s on the State Department terrorist list and that’s been on the list for ten years of countries that routinely practice torture is obviously a joke.

It’s very difficult to get at the issue when the Justice Department won’t prosecute cases. We’re holding hearings and investigating to bring some of these facts to light. It’s already -- we can’t make it a criminal act, because it’s already a criminal act. So I’m not -- besides bringing this to light and referring this to the Justice Department for prosecution, I’m not sure what we can do.

Now, notice what happened here. He didn’t try to enter the United States. The Expedited Removal statute is designed to stop people from coming into the United States who don’t have proper documents and to give us an expedited way -- I opposed its enactment, but it’s supposed to give us an expedited way, without going before an immigration judge, of preventing someone who’s illegal from entering the United States in the first place -- that is, whose presence in the United States would be illegal. But he wasn’t seeking to enter the United States; he was changing planes at Kennedy on a flight from Europe to Canada. If we suspected him of something, we should simply have sent him on to Canada, which is a foreign country. He wasn’t seeking to enter the United States. Instead, we chose to send him to Syria, where he had been born and where he lived until he was a teenager, but otherwise he had no connections with them. And the only obvious reason to do that is to have him tortured.

─Democracy Now! October 24, 2007

    Music I blogged along with...

  • Khyal: Raga Ahir Bhairav─Lakshmi Shankar─Les Heures et les Saisons
  • El Mariachi (Cancion/Son)─Mariachi Tapatío De José Marmolejo - "El Auténtico"─Mexico's Pioneer mariachis - Vol. 2: Mariachi Tapatío De José Marmolejo
  • Budak Ceurik─Ida Widawati; Ensemble Lingkung Seni 'Malati'─Udan Mas
  • A Sunday Kind Of Love─Ella Fitzgerald─Ella Fitzgerald: The War Years (1941 - 1947)
  • Mad World─Gary JulesMa belle si ton ame
  • Gabriel Bataille: Ma belle si ton ame─Exsultame
  • J.S. Bach: Aria: “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen”, from Cantata 82a. Kammerorchester C. Ph. E Bach, Berlin, Bach-Kantaten
  • Salieri: Son qual lacera tartana─Cecilia Bartoli, soprano─The Salieri Album
  • Haydn: Piano Sonata No.33 in C Minor, Hob. 16:20: 2. Andante con mota─Emanuel Ax, piano
  • J.S. Bach: Cantata No.27: Coro e Recitativo: Wer Weiss, Wie Nahe Mir Mein Ende"─Gächinger Kantorei, Bach Collegium Stuttgart─Bach Cantatas BWV 27-29