Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Musical Feast

If it takes extraordinary intelligence to be a comedian, then to create musical comedy also requires extraordinary musical skill and knowledge. Since the era of recorded music (and probably before it), America has been blessed with some amazing musical comedians. They have enriched our lives, at least those that understand the humor. For those unfamiliar and even those who have heard them, the following is a brief list of great musical funny "maestros," mentioning at least one of their works to help you get properly introduced.
Old movie fans should be familiar with Spike Jones and the City Slickers, a wacky group of musicians who used anything but the original instruments to present their version of classical works, including cow bells and whistles. Their version of the opera Carmen has both opened and closed the world of opera to me.  After listening to it, besides crying from laughing, I was curious to hear the real version but unfortunately found it far less entertaining the Spike Jones version.  Here is the link:

From a similar time, Harpo Marx played the harp at least once on each Marx Brother movie.  Actually, he never really learned how to play properly until after he retired but who knew that besides professional harpists? His humor is expressed not so much in the music but in his interaction with the harp and his surroundings.  It has to be seen to be appreciated:

Victor Borge is a bridge to the modern era.  A virtuoso pianist, he didn't take himself too serious, preferring to "ham it up" in front of audiences. This lack of seriousness, I believe, opened up the world of classical music to millions in addition to getting them to laugh, always a good deed. If you have any doubt about his talent, get together with another pianist and try doing this at home:

The 1960's turned all values upside down, not always for the better, including musical ones. One Las Vegas performer was Liberace.  Like Victor Borge, he preferred not be a boring classical musician.  His style was much more flamboyant but as Marilyn Monroe, would say, some like it hot. He plays the music straight but his taste in clothes, or lack thereof, make it impossible to take him serious, exactly as he intended.  See for yourself:

Nobody took on the music establishment more than Prof. Schickele, the infamous musicology that brought us P.D.Q. Bach, the lost son of the famous Bach. He applied "tongue in cheek" professional musicology, creating a hilarious synergy of classic and modern.  My two favorites are his baseball commentary to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which actually makes some good points, (, and, in a different vein, his modern version of a round:

The Canadian Brass Ensemble is an amazing group of fine musicians that entertain their audience with both well played music and comedy. They respect the genre but add humor, often through actions, a bit like Harpo Marx.  My favorite is their tribute to ballet music, whose humor is based on the fact they supposedly have never seen a ballet since their back is always to the stage.  Enjoy:

Finally, growing up in the sixties and seventies, Tom Lehrer was a part of my life.  His ringing political commentary is still sadly relevant today.  Listen to Who's Next and National Brotherhood Week and try to find something that has changed besides the names (for your convenience: and However, he was also a tremendous musician in his own right.  His versions of Clementine and a tango will change your view of these classics.  Listen and appreciate: and  They have stood the test of time since they still make me laugh.

Serious music and comedy are not mutually exclusive but require genius of a special kind. These comic musicians, regardless of their or your age, cannot help bring a smile.

P.S. I have excluded rock musicians that were less than serious, such as Tom Waits I rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy, because I am not familiar with them.  I will leave that group for someone else. As they say in boring theses: "Further research should examine the use of humor in modern rock music in the period 1970-2017."

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Degrees of discomfort – Tests of tolerance

I define myself as a liberal, tolerant person and a secular Jew.  I did not grow up in a religious family or in Israel. Yet, having lived in Israel for more than 26 years, I have become acquainted with many religious people, especially my wife's family, who accept me completely. Living in the Galilee, I teach as well as work and interact with many local Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, and have visited many Druze houses.  So, the terms "religious Jew" and "Arab" represent real people to me.

Recently, I experienced two "challenging" situation in terms of my self-definition as a liberal. Several weeks ago, on the train from Ben Gurion Airport to Acco after a long flight from California, a group of five Arab college students entered the train, filled with enthusiasm and energy. After 20 plus hours, my wife and I wanted some peace and quiet but did not get any. The students talked loudly, told jokes and made comments about a series of videos on their phones, all in Arabic.  We could not conveniently go to another carriage as our luggage was on the rack there. To clarify, they were not behaving badly but instead boisterously. After being asked to lower the volume a bit, they tried but were simply unable.
During the hour we shared that carriage, I considered the reasons for my annoyance. Was it the level of noise on my already frayed nerves? Was it the sheer energy level when I wanted serenity?  Was it the fact that they were loudly speaking Arabic? In other words, if a similar group of Hebrew speaking students had entered, would I have been equally disturbed? After careful thought, I had to admit that the third issue was also a factor. It somehow bothered that they were so loud in a foreign language and Arabic at that.  I then considered the issue and realized that, while it may annoy me at this moment, the Arabic language was a matter of their cultural identification and, moreover, national pride for Israel, which allows its minorities to feel sufficiently comfortable to express themselves openly in their own language, even in public.

Last week, I visited a religious family in mourning.  The deceased having left behind many siblings and children as well as a husband, the apartment was packed with people with almost everybody wearing a kippa or head covering. I did my best to blend in and looked for a conversation to participate in or at least listen with interest. In fact, everybody, young and old, was talking about the manner of the upcoming Yom Kippur prayers in all their aspects. More strikingly, they were discussing such matters with great joy and interest.  This attitude ignited the question that generally pops up in my mind when seeing religious conversations: why do you waste so much time and energy on such irrelevant matters? Of course, the question presupposes that my secular way of thinking is correct as compared to the "brainwashing" religious people get. In all probability, they considered my lack of interest in Torah equally errant. In such cases, I remind myself that the world is made of many faiths, no matter how ridiculous I may consider them.

The cultural gap between me as a Jewish atheist and them is as least as great as I felt on the train. The latter is easier to bridge as I consciously recognize the legitimacy of cultural self-expression.  On the other hand, my inability to grasp the faith base of religious people makes it harder to maintain my tolerance. Marx wrote that religion is the opium of the people.  Accepting the right of people to take opium creates much discomfort.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Democratic uncertainty

Jean-Franรงois Revel in his book The Totalitarian Temptation (1977) wrote in regards to democracy (and love) that there is no accepted definition but instead clear symptoms.  In other words, the proof that a country is a true democracy is whether it is a free press, safe environment for opposition, protection of minorities and exchange of leaders, to name a few. Of course, there are intermediate states between ultimate democracy and absolute dictatorship but an analysis of all the political conditions quickly demonstrates which citizens actually have rights.

Pseudo democracies have always existed.  The Soviet Union, Mexico and India had regular elections while Hitler was an elected leader, albeit only once. Such countries generally have constitutions and legal codes that formally but not in practice allow protest and opposition.  Modern examples of fake democracies include Turkey and Russia. In these countries, the same leader has ruled for more than a decade, as president or prime minister, with any effective opposition leader being arrested or, as Putin has done, assassinated. The press is effectively government run.  Of course, the established leaders are quite popular. In fact, one sure sign of a non-democracy is when the ruling party received more than 80% of the vote.

Worldwide, today's democratic politics are quite volatile. Many countries conduct elections in an environment of non-tolerance or even hate between the competing parties.  While the tone of the discussions in these countries can be disconcerting, especially in terms of racism, the mere existence of a public debate on key issues and its presence on all forms of media without fear of a legal or extralegal penalty provides hope for the future. The United States and Europe will emerge stronger as the candidates and the public discuss and determine their place in the world and the role of immigrants in their societies. In Israel, the call for increased control of the press by the ruling party is worrying but the court system and major parties still promote freedom of speech. India and Mexico, formerly fiefdoms of their ruling parties, frequently replace ineffective governments to the benefit of their countries. Brazil even impeached its president, an unlikely event a few decades ago.

According to Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty, an observer can have total knowledge of location or direction or partial knowledge of both but not complete knowledge of both. In other words, the closer you look at the trees, the harder it is judge the forest and vise versa. As a foreign observer watching the political processes occurring worldwide, I appreciate democracy and relish the viewing of them even if the actual content of the public debate is disturbing or insulting. In such societies, controversial issues are resolved for the public good, not for the benefit of a specific party or leader. As Revel said, in practice, with all of its imperfections, democracy is much better for people than totalitarianism.