All posts by Bruce King

The John Coltrane Quartet: “Alabama”

I’ve posted this composition once before, back at the time of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, Florida. And yes, I’ve just updated that post, qv: here.

But, with recent events, it seems that “we need this more than ever” gets to be ever-increasingly true with each passing year, so here’s another version, the “original”, recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio on November 18, 1963, and included in the album Live at Birdland:

Also, here’s a brilliant discussion/explication of said piece, “On John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama'”, by Ismail Muhammad, writing in The Paris Review...


Some thoughts of my own:

Although I’ve been almost terminally hesitant to try to add anything to what Ismail Muhammad has to say about Coltrane‘s “Alabama”, I did have a thought or two of my own. Here they are, for what they’re worth:

Mr Muhammad says, about the opening music, in tempo rubato (of which Coltrane was a great master, and the rest of the quartet equal masters at following his lead), that: “It winds its way toward a theme but always stops just short, repeatedly approaching something like coherence only to turn away at the last moment.” In addition to this, I’m also hearing something else: namely, more than an echo of Gregorian Chant, the most ancient and solemn sacred music for which we have good records (at least in the West…), and with which Coltrane would almost certainly have been conversant, due to his deep training in classical music. (Coltrane attended the Ornstein School of Music† for a short time, once he’d finished high school and before enlisting in the Navy*; then later, once his stint in the Navy was done, he attended the Granoff School of Music†.) And – again, for what it’s worth – to my ear at least, Gregorian Chant also has something of that searching/questing quality so often in evidence in Coltrane’s more meditative/sacred compositions.

Which in turn makes me wonder what it might have been like to hear Coltrane play solo saxophone inside Notre-Dame or some other Gothic church or cathedral, in such a huge echoing living-breathing space, where any sound is reflected by great sheets of stained glass, plus also simultaneously diffracted by the intricate carvings and sculptures embedded in the structure of stone, whose underlying design is based on sacred geometry, which in turn is based on the same numerical proportions as music itself. And maybe such a thing would have happened in due time, had Coltrane lived past the age of forty-one.

What we lost when we lost him…


* Here is a link to Coltrane’s induction photograph. Look at his eyes. All the sorrows of the world are in those eyes…

†Both of these schools are located in Philadelphia, to which city Coltrane relocated after finishing High School in North Carolina, and to which he returned after his service in the Navy.

Magna Carta: 805th Anniversary

From Good News Network:


“… on this day 805 years ago, England’s King John put his seal to the Magna Carta. The historic document established the foundations of parliamentary democracy, human rights and the supremacy of law for rebellious English Barons demanding freedom and legal due process.

“The clause at the heart of the Great Charter states that no free man should be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or outlawed or exiled except by the judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it laid the foundations for the current British–and later, American– legal and constitutional system, with three of the 60 clauses still in force today. The U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantees that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, a phrase that was derived directly from Magna Carta. (1215).”


For more on the Magna Carta, click here and here. Also note that Former President Obama, in his Madiba Lecture two ears ago, emphasized that the Magna Carta, along with the US Constitution and other such documents, belongs to all humanity…

The Sound of One Buttock Playing: Benjamin Zander on the Transformative Power of Classical Music

A short while back, I came upon this very funny and inspiring TED talk by conductor/cellist/composer/pianist/educator/comedian Benjamin Zander:

Some thoughts of my own:

One of the several reasons “the c makes the b sad” is that, in the symbolic language of Classical Music, the descending semitone figure (in this instance, c” to b’) signifies a sigh – probably a kind of musical onomatopoesis.  Another sadness-related interval in this piece is the descending tritone (here, c” to f#’), symbolic of a sob (more musical onomatopoesis, more than likely…); though filled in, and somewhat obscured by the emphasis on b’, this interval is still pretty prominent, since c” is the highest tone of the opening section, and since it’s on the arrival at f#’ that the first section ends, and the melody turns around and starts over. 

Even more striking is something that the composer (that would be Frédéric Chopin) leaves out, namely the picardy third at the very end of the piece.  In Classical Music, compositions in the minor modes will often end on a major chord, both for a better resolution (from a purely acoustic point of view, that is, since major chords more closely track the overtone series), and for a slight sense of uplift in spite of all the preceding dolorosity.  But Chopin concludes this piece on a very dark e-minor chord, voiced in the mid-range of the piano but, with the root reinforced in an octave much deeper down, probably symbolizing a kind of deep rest in sadness.  All of which is particularly poignant, since e-major (the chord on which the music would have ended up had Chopin deployed the aforementioned picardy third) is generally used as a symbol of heaven. 

(For more on this symbolic musical language, mostly skipped over in musicological discourse and pedagogy on this side of the Atlantic – though I’m sure Zander is cognizant of it, due to his having been born, brought up, and educated in England – see The Language of Music, by the British musicologist/critic/composer Deryck Cooke; there is also what a very interesting-looking series of twenty-four articles about the the closely-related subject of the feelings and emotions generally associated with the various keys of Classical Music, as derived from the theories of Austrian pianist/composer/educator Ernst Pauer, at a website called Interlude.)

Also note how, in this piece, the slow, ultra-simple, almost oscillating, melodic figures in the right hand seem to subtly change pitch as the underlying chords played by the left hand shift slowly downward.  Said shifting is also worthy of note, since, rather than going from one discrete chord to another, the harmonic texture transforms gradually, almost one tone at a time (I’ve sometimes heard this referred to as “the creepy-crawly technique”…). 

Finally, if this music sounds familiar, it’s because just about everybody who studies piano under conventional pedagogy learns it at some point or another. Since popular music is full of people who’ve studied piano that way, various bits and pieces of this composition have been percolating out into the wider world for at least the past century. 

(The piece under discussion here is Chopin’s Prelude, Opus 28, Number 4 (often known as the E Minor Prelude or Prelude in E Minor), for more on which, click here and here; for the score, click here.  For Benjamin Zander’s own website, click here; for more Benjamin Zander on YouTube, click here.)

Possible Sense Testimony: Johns Hopkins University: note on avoiding contagion

Johns Hopkins University has published this detailed note on avoiding the contagion, which is offered here in the spirit of sense testimony, because it lays out the current scientific knowledge about COVID-19 so clearly and succinctly.  (Sometimes, the more focused the Translation, the better…):

* The virus is not a living organism, but a protein molecule (DNA) covered by a protective layer of lipid (fat), which, when absorbed by the cells of the ocular, nasal or buccal mucosa, changes their genetic code. (mutation) and convert them into aggressor and multiplier cells.

* Since the virus is not a living organism but a protein molecule, it is not killed, but decays on its own. The disintegration time depends on the temperature, humidity and type of material where it lies.

* The virus is very fragile; the only thing that protects it is a thin outer layer of fat. That is why any soap or detergent is the best remedy, because the foam CUTS the FAT (that is why you have to rub so much: for 20 seconds or more, to make a lot of foam). By dissolving the fat layer, the protein molecule disperses and breaks down on its own.

* HEAT melts fat; this is why it is so good to use water above 25 degrees Celsius for washing hands, clothes and everything. In addition, hot water makes more foam and that makes it even more useful.

* Alcohol or any mixture with alcohol over 65% DISSOLVES ANY FAT, especially the external lipid layer of the virus.

* Any mix with 1 part bleach and 5 parts water directly dissolves the protein, breaks it down from the inside.

* Oxygenated water helps long after soap, alcohol and chlorine, because peroxide dissolves the virus protein, but you have to use it pure and it hurts your skin.

* NO BACTERICIDE SERVES. The virus is not a living organism like bacteria; they cannot kill what is not alive with anthobiotics, but quickly disintegrate its structure with everything said.

* NEVER shake used or unused clothing, sheets or cloth. While it is glued to a porous surface, it is very inert and disintegrates only between 3 hours (fabric and porous), 4 hours (copper, because it is naturally antiseptic; and wood, because it removes all the moisture and does not let it peel off and disintegrates). ), 24 hours (cardboard), 42 hours (metal) and 72 hours (plastic). But if you shake it or use a feather duster, the virus molecules float in the air for up to 3 hours, and can lodge in your nose.

* The virus molecules remain very stable in external cold, or artificial as air conditioners in houses and cars. They also need moisture to stay stable, and especially darkness. Therefore, dehumidified, dry, warm and bright environments will degrade it faster.

* UV LIGHT on any object that may contain it breaks down the virus protein. For example, to disinfect and reuse a mask is perfect. Be careful, it also breaks down collagen (which is protein) in the skin, eventually causing wrinkles and skin cancer.

* The virus CANNOT go through healthy skin.

* Vinegar is NOT useful because it does not break down the protective layer of fat.

* NO SPIRITS, NOR VODKA, serve. The strongest vodka is 40% alcohol, and you need 65%.

* LISTERINE IF IT SERVES! It is 65% alcohol.

* The more confined the space, the more concentration of the virus there can be. The more open or naturally ventilated, the less.

* This is super said [sic – sad?], but you have to wash your hands before and after touching mucosa, food, locks, knobs, switches, remote control, cell phone, watches, computers, desks, TV, etc. And when using the bathroom.

* You have to HUMIDIFY HANDS [,] DRY from so much washing [of] them, because the molecules can hide in the micro cracks. The thicker the moisturizer, the better.

*Also keep your NAILS SHORT so that the virus does not hide there.

More Coronavirus Information (or sense testimony): Rogan and Osterholm

In this episode of his “Experience” series, Joe Rogan (aka: “The Human Vacuum Cleaner”) interviews Michael Osterholm

“… an internationally recognized expert in infectious disease epidemiology. He is Regents Professor, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, a professor in the Technological Leadership Institute, College of Science and Engineering, and an adjunct professor in the Medical School, all at the University of Minnesota.”  

Osterholm is the author of, most recently, the book Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Deadly Germs, available on Amazon here.  For more information, visit the CIDRAP website here.

Also note:  This discussion ranges far beyond the coronavirus crisis to address other issues of public health, such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, BSE, and chronic wasting disease among the deer population.

Sullivan (and Camus) on the Coronavirus (and AIDS)

As a kind of partial response to Mike’s call for sense testimony about the coronavirus pandemic, here’s this: 

Reality Arrives to the Trump Era

By Andrew Sullivan

“How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.” Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Plagues routinely start with denial. In his great novel, The Plague, Albert Camus describes a scene at the very beginning, after several rats in a town started dying identical deaths:

‘These rats, now?’ the magistrate began. [Doctor] Rieux made a brief movement in the direction of the train, then turned back toward the exit. ‘The rats?’ he said. ‘It’s nothing.’ The only impression of that moment which, afterwards, he could recall was the passing of a railroadman with a box full of dead rats under his arm.

This is not to excuse the negligence of the Trump administration and the CDC. But it helps explain it. Plagues are such an enormous disruption of regular life that it is always hard to accept that we are engulfed in one. This is why plagues, of course, always tend to have the advantage over people. Soon enough, however, the direness of the situation began to set in:

In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in … Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky … In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves … They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.

Those of us who have already been through a plague experience in our lives know this all too well. As the clear signs of a new and deadly epidemic began to emerge among gay men in the early 1980s, most people ignored or downplayed or even joked about it, and many of those most at risk shut their eyes.

Randy Shilts, in his epic tale of this nightmare, And the Band Played On, relays the first guidance from the American Association of Physicians for Human Rights: “Sensitive to concerns that the group not be ‘sex-negative,’ the guidelines assured gay men that there was nothing wrong with having sex, but they should check their partners for KS lesions, swollen lymph nodes, and overt symptoms of AIDS.” Even the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York — an activist group formed to confront the reality of this new plague — put “the accumulated wisdom of homosexual physicians in one phrase: ‘Have as much sex as you want, but with fewer people and HEALTHY people.’” Even though it was by then clear that asymptomatic carriers were just as capable of transmitting the virus, denial was too strong.

In San Francisco in early 1983, epidemiologists had a curious resemblance to the CDC now. After the first quarter’s AIDS incidence report came out, Shilts writes:

Dr. Andrew Moss concluded that ‘in some cohorts of gay men in San Francisco, AIDS incidence rates in the thirty and forty year old groups are now of the order of 1 to 2 percent.’ Only later would studies show that by this time in 1983, the 62 percent of gay men who still engaged in risky behavior had at least a 25 percent chance of being intimate with someone infected with the new virus.

So the estimate was off by a factor of ten, which informed my decision to self-isolate a week ago.

Bathhouses — which facilitated even higher rates of transmission — stayed open. The gay press needed the ads from the bathhouses, and the bathhouses were profitable; and the liberationist culture that had only recently emerged simply could not concede that liberation, in this instance, was laced with death.

The same denialism can be see in Camus:

That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear … The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised … There was enough for immediate requirements, but not enough if the epidemic were to spread.

Which is the case with ICU beds right now in the U.S. Even when the deaths mounted in The Plague, the public resisted facing the reality:

Our townsfolk apparently found it hard to grasp what was happening to them. There were feelings all could share, such as fear and separation, but personal interests, too, continued to occupy the foreground of their thoughts. … It was only as time passed and the steady rise in the death-rate could not be ignored that public opinion became alive to the truth … These figures, anyhow, spoke for themselves. Yet they were still not sensational enough to prevent our townsfolk, perturbed though they were, from persisting in the idea that what was happening was a sort of accident, disagreeable enough, but certainly of a temporary order.

“A lot of people think that goes away in April, with the heat,” President Trump said on February 10. “It’s going to disappear one day, it’s like a miracle,” he said over two weeks later. “It will go away, just stay calm,” he insisted as recently as this past Tuesday. Many of his supporters declared the epidemic a hoax, or insisted it was nothing more than the regular flu — even though it is estimated to be at least ten times as lethal. Yes, these denialist declarations are driven by tribal politics. But they exist beyond the Trump cult, and are also propelled by the ancient human resistance to accepting that our normal lives are over, that we live in a new paradigm, and there is no escaping it.

It’s like watching a movie when the screen suddenly and unaccountably slips out of focus, or keeps freezing for a few seconds, and you wait for the reel to be corrected, or get back to where it was, but it doesn’t. After a while, you begin to realize that this is the movie, that you will have to learn to watch it in a new way, and that waiting for a return to normal is a delusion — a very human delusion, but false nonetheless.

It is rare that the authorities act swiftly enough and drastically enough to stop a plague from growing. Even with the difficult-to-catch HIV retrovirus, by the time it was very clear that the best course of action was no sex or very safe sex, the die was cast. Plagues are dynamic things and are fueled by complacency. With this coronavirus, which is far, far easier to catch, we had obvious warning signs from China, but assumed a travel ban would keep the U.S. safe. We had a chance to roll out WHO testing kits, to ensure that if there were an outbreak in the U.S., it could be contained. But the Trump administration decided to produce an American version of the test, which was screwed up by errors, delaying it for weeks. And so we had no real grip on the spread or incidence of the virus, which is asymptomatic in most cases to begin with. We had no idea where it was, and we still don’t. It might have been possible to contain the illness even a few weeks ago. But we were flying as blind as the authorities in 1918 — even with 21st century technology. So now we have a pandemic that can only be managed rather than stopped.

And this is not entirely a function of the Trump administration’s incompetence. Look at Italy. What’s needed is a set of draconian measures at a time when the epidemic is still small, and normal life is in full swing. But in a period when relative normalcy still prevails, such draconian measures will inevitably seem completely panicky for most, slowing economic activity and growth and making a government instantly unpopular. In Western democracies, this makes a plague far harder to stop. Appeasement of plagues, like appeasement of dictators, never works.

President Trump is not the only complacent figure. In Britain and Germany, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Angela Merkel have all but resigned themselves to an inevitable culling of the population, and have imposed few draconian measures by fiat. Only yesterday, Johnson was unwilling to shut down soccer matches — before the soccer authorities decided to do it on their own.

And if you want to see a classic example of how a virus spreads, just look at the House of Commons, where the entire political class crams into a tiny space cheek by jowl — even after several members of Parliament, and the the Health Secretary, have already fallen ill. Watch this video of a health minister coughing and spluttering at the despatch box. It’s madness. But the alternative — a suspension of Parliament; measures to end all public gatherings, restaurants and bars, and theater productions; mandatory self-quarantining for everyone, sick or well, for a couple of weeks — seemed utterly bonkers even a few days ago. But they would have helped a lot a month ago.

With Trump, we have a deeper crisis, of course. Trump is incapable of admitting error, numb to any form of empathy, narcissistic even in a communal crisis, and immune to any kind of realism. He simply cannot tell anyone bad news. And he cannot keep a story straight, which is essential for public health. His only means of communication is deceptive salesmanship. He defunded the federal body designed to tackle such emergencies, and his Cabinet is packed with incompetence, corruption, and fealty. He cannot summon trust among at least half the country, and he has willfully destroyed confidence in the public institutions we desperately need to get through this.

In this, he is a typical man-at-the-bar pontificator, or shock-jock tweeter, whose strange theories are matched only by his own refusal to be tested for the virus, even though we now know he has been exposed. He is in charge of public health but can still blithely say something completely untrue — like everyone coming into the U.S. is being tested, or that anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get one, to give two damning examples. Rather than concede a failure, Trump will always lie. He is utterly unfit to be president, and always has been. We had a chance to remove him from office before a catastrophe struck, but the Senate kept him in power. This is their responsibility too.

It’s still unfair to blame all this on one man, when we have all been complacent because we are human, and the way we have responded is almost exactly how almost every community in the past has responded as plagues set in. But from here on out, we have to grapple with the fact that we are on our own. Trump is singularly incapable of addressing this credibly or effectively, with anything like the right mix of realism and hope the crisis demands.

He is immune to data, resistant to any facts that might suggest his own administration’s failure, and his prime-time address was deeply unsettling and off-kilter. We have been so, so lucky to have avoided a major crisis for the last three years, but our luck has now run out. We can rarely halt a plague, but we can manage one with the least human collateral damage. It seems to me that we may be headed, instead, for another 1918, mitigated only by antibiotics to deal with the bacterial infections that a century ago piggybacked on viral infections and multiplied the victims.

The only thing we now know for certain is that a description of this era as surreal is now out of date. At some point, reality was bound to step in, of course, and it’s been quite amazing how long we have been able to postpone it. But this is now as real as it gets. And it is just the beginning.

John McLaughlin: Improvisations on “Veni, Veni Emmanuel”

Last year, on the radio, I heard the bithchinest Jazz treatment of the ancient hymn “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) . Sadly I was unable to find it on YouTube, but I did find this:

…which was totally different, but every bit as good, with a lush arrangement that recalls (at least to my ear) Sketches of SpainMcLaughlin‘s interpretation is from a 1995 compilation called Jazz to the World, which one can hear in its entirety here

To access the many other versions of “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) – including this one (complete with burning Yule Log!) by BB faves Pentatonix –  on YouTube, click here and/or here.

Gurdieff on the True Sense of Life

“…I had given myself my word that during the whole of this time I wold do no writing whatsoever, but would only, for the well-being of the most deserving of these subordinate parts, slowly and gently drink down all the bottles of old calvados now at my disposal by the will of fate in the wine-cellar of the Prieué, and specially provided the century before last by people who understood the true sense of life.” 

– From Meetings with Remarkable Men (p. 1), referring to the short break Gurdjieff took after finishing the first volume of his All and Everything trilogy.  The expression “subordinate parts” refers to those parts of himself that had, of necessity, been subordinated to the writing process, and were thus in need of serious attention after the completion of such a major undertaking. 

For more information on calvados, click here; for more on the difference between calvados and applejack, click here ad here.