Prelude and Fugue

I remember the night that my father came home from work with a copy of the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields’ recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It was a double-LP boxed-set (recorded music came on black vinyl discs in those days) with extensive booklet of liner notes. My father let me read the notes, but insisted that we would only listen to the records when we had time to sit through all four sides without interruption. My next few days were filled with curiosity and anticipation. Today, on Bach’s 332nd birthday, I recognize that this was one of the great formative moments of my life.

My father called me into the living room on the following Sunday for what he called “a concert.” It was a bright winter afternoon of the type that we used to get in early January in Montreal. The sun flooded through the big picture window, reflecting off the snow drifts in our front yard. I was eleven or twelve years old, and had spent the morning skating and playing shinny on a patch of ice cleared on Lac St-Louis behind the Town Hall. We had had the traditional Friedman weekend lunch of bagels, lox, and tomato soup.

Placing the first disk on the stereo turntable, my father promised that I was “in for a real treat.” The tone arm moved, the stylus dropped to the groove on the record… And my life was changed forever.

I am sure that many of us have had moments of artistic revelation – even many of them – that moment when a book, a poem, a painting, a film or a work of music opens up a whole new aesthetic vista. I was no stranger to music. My father had an enormous (for the time) collection of records, ranging from the Deutsche Grammophon bicentennial collection of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, concertos and overtures to jazz and boxed sets from the Newport Folk Festivals. We listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts together with the kind of devotion that more religious Jews attended schul, and we regularly attended concerts by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

My mother played the baby grand piano in our living room brilliantly. In retrospect, I believe that she loved the experience of producing music with the graceful, balletic motions of her hands – music that would fill the house from glassy piano to thunderous forte – more than the music itself. She inclined toward Mozart and Chopin, and would often pull scores from the bench pretty much at random, mixing it up with Scott Joplin and arrangements of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Her performances were full of delicacy and passion, and I would often imagine her looking through the score to some distant point as she inhabited the sounds.

I had the benefit of a thorough, if unconventional, childhood education in music. My grade school music teacher Andreas Gutmanis imparted musical knowledge with a combination of urgency and enthusiasm. He put my classmates and me through the paces of the Orff Method – tee-tee tee-tee tah-tah on the school’s xylophones and glockenspiels – without great success. His real interest was in getting us to listen to music, however, and he would frequently draw the curtains and have us listen attentively and respectfully to everything from Mozart to Morton Subotnick’s electronic masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon. In that he was immensely successful, and I am astonished at how many of his students became musicians.

Mr. Gutmanis taught me the violin. I loved the instrument, even though I hated practicing. My first concert performance was in a third-grade recital of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in all of the Suzuki variations. My father introduced me to conductor and pedagogue Brock McElheran when I was five. Dr. McElheran presented me with a baton and a copy of his book Conducting Techniques for Beginners and Professionals and gave me a series of private – though informal – lessons. (I still have both the baton and the book.) I later studied the piano and the flute and, though I never displayed any great talent, I learned to read music and to appreciate its beauty at a very profound level.

The vaults of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

The Art of Fugue, however, was an epiphany. It isn’t that this recording was or is the best music that I had ever heard. Make no mistake, however, it is an extraordinary piece of music, and the performance Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is outstanding. Rather, the experience of listening to this music for the first time, in that time and place utterly transformed me. It was the first time that I heard music from the inside – and saw it too, for this was a profoundly synesthetic experience. The counterpoint rose above and around me like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. Years later, I saw a photo of the nave of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor and Director of Music for more than half of his career, and said out loud “yes, yes, that’s what I saw!”

Although the beauty of The Art of Fugue is highly architectural, the fugal lines of Bach’s masterpiece are never static. They move, and sweep and dance in ribbons of melody. The music is always serious and contemplative, a product of the Enlightenment, yet it is full of dark depths, ecstatic highs and restrained passions evoking both the religious foundations of Bach’s work and the chromatic future. It is both a palimpsest and a prophecy, and it ends abruptly 239 bars into the last, immense, four-voice, triple fugue – apocryphally at Bach’s death.

If I was to identify the moment when the starting point of trajectory that led me to become a music historian, that would be it. It is the ursprung of my own intellectual and professional genealogy. The process certainly was not quite that simple or predetermined, and I have drifted and dodged in any number of professional and scholarly directions in the decades since. But listening to The Art of Fugue on that afternoon, and every time since, I find myself connected to a nexus of history, art, culture and the genius of an artist whom I never met but somehow know intimately.

That is why music is important. Several years ago, when I sat down with my dissertation advisor to pitch the project that would consume my life and presumably define my academic career, I described those moments – beginning with The Art of Fugue, and following innumerable times thereafter – when listening to music connected me to those networks of meaning, history and feeling. Music is important because through it we can hear both the abstract and the concrete: the composer’s imagination, the performers’ skill and training, the resonance of the luthier’s craftsmanship, the boundaries of culture and knowledge, the expectations and prejudices that obtain at is moment of production and at every subsequent moment of reception. We cannot touch it, but we can feel it. We cannot see the notes as they are transmitted through the air, but we can read them.

The great unfinished final fugue from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, performed by Pierre-Laurent AImard.

Assured Destruction in Two and a Half Minutes

Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. That is where we are.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists clock is an indication of dangerous times. And these are dangerous times, indeed. The clock indicates how close humanity is to a catastrophic act of self-destruction – an extinction-level event – according to the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. And before you dismiss their concerns as the unrealistic ranting of eggheads who never leave the lab (as noted Trump apologist John Podhoretz did in January), consider this: They’re not just boffins in white coats. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board consists mostly of international security experts, like Steven Miller (Director of the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs), and Lynn Eden (Emeritus Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation).

If the people whose jobs are to actually study the state of global security – the people whose research directs government policy here, and around the world – say that our species is closer to Doomsday this week than it has been at any time since the 1980s (remember… when Ronald Reagan joked about bombing Moscow, and the USSR murdered the 246 passengers on KAL 007?), then we should probably take them seriously.

Two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Let’s think about that; let’s think about what has happened over the last two months.

The clock announcement didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone who reads a newspaper (either on paper, or on the Web). The sense of rising tension has been hard to ignore over the last few years. Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal war against his own people in Syria, the consequent refugee crisis, the terrifying black legions of ISIS, the onward march of xenophobic entho-nationalism, Russia’s rising imperialistic ambitions, the melting ice caps: if I believed in prophecy, I might think that W.B. Yeats was writing about our own times a century ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Talking tough

And here, in the United States, the President, the chief executive and commander of the world’s most formidable military, the most powerful person in the world, is talking pre-teen tough on Twitter, striding through international events like a schoolyard bully, looking to pick a fight with anyone who denies his ego and fails to turn over their lunch money.

Today, we all woke up to news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that “all options are on the table” with regard to the US’s growing confrontation with North Korea. Nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea with a ballistic missile program. The pariah state that, nonetheless maintains fairly friendly relations with China and India. Nuclear-armed China and India. No one likes the idea that Kim Jong-un has nukes; but you can be sure they’re even less excited that the United States (which unapologetically incinerated hundreds of thousands of Asian people with its nukes in 1945) might consider the nuclear option, when “all options are on the table.”

In case you forgot, it’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Can you hear the ticking?

At its press conference on in January – it seems so long ago now – the Bulletin was clear that America’s new president was not the only factor in the jump to two-and-a-half minutes. Things have been bad, and getting worse over the past year, and this “already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign” after which then-President-elect Donald Trump enthusiastically advocated nuclear proliferation. With tensions rising around the world, and with the international security situation poised to fly off the rails, this is not just crazy talk. It’s very, very dangerous, very frightening crazy talk: “In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse.”

When I was a child, growing up in the 1980s, I used to have a recurring nightmare. I was always sitting in my family’s living room in suburban Montreal looking out the big picture window. All of a sudden, there would be a flash of light, as bright as the sun, but where the sun couldn’t be. Then I would hear a shrill whining noise that would build and build until the glass of the window would blow in. And I would wake up.

The Day After

It wasn’t such an unusual nightmare to have in the days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the 1980 Olympics boycott, SDI, and the MX missile. I know many contemporaries who had the same dark dream – or something like it – over and over again. In my case, it was certainly reinforced by The Day After on ABC, and a classroom screening of Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama The War Game in ninth grade. What we felt then – and what I tell my students when I teach Contemporary American History – was not fear that a nuclear war might happen, but the expectation that it would happen.

I have been having the nightmare again; twice since Inauguration Day. The Doomsday Clock announcement only made me feel less crazy.

It has always been something of a wonder that we have never had a nuclear war. Since 1949, the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have been staring daggers at each other, armed with the most terrifying weapons human intelligence has ever devised, but not using them. There was the RDS-46, the B41, the Minuteman, and SATAN-2; and yet they were never launched in war. As the 20th century wore on, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and now North Korea, tested and built their own stockpiles. There are about 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, armed and ready for deployment – enough to obliterate the planet – but there were more than 60,000 by the end of the Cold War. Yet for all of this, no nuclear weapon has been used against humans since the US bombing of Nagasaki 71 years ago.

The reason is simple: the detonation of even one small-yield nuclear weapon in combat would invite retaliation and inevitably trigger a sequence of events that could destroy the planet. Our species has successfully navigated Scylla and Charybdis because our always-imperfect governments and leaders have understood the reality of Mutual-Assured Destruction, or MAD. No one, not Lyndon B. Johnson, Leonid Brezhnev, Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mao Zedong, Harold MacMillan, Charles de Gaulle, or anyone else was willing to be the person to start a nuclear holocaust. Even if some humans did survive – a scenario addressed in a fascinating literary subgenre of the 1960s best represented by Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon hundreds of millions, if not billions would die, leaving the survivors to scrape through a toxic nuclear winter.

Atomic shadows

Even if a global nuclear war were winnable, it could only be a Pyrrhic victory. As flawed, arrogant, or oppressive the leaders of the nuclear-armed states might always have been, they all nonetheless recognized the moral enormity of nuclear weapons. They cannot be used without killing millions of both the enemy and their own people and, at the end of the day, they have recognized that these are people. Real people. Reagan described them as “Ivan and Anya, Jim and Sally.” Sting sang that the Russians “love their children, too.” What has kept us alive for all of these years is empathy.

And this is what frightens me: We have very good evidence that the most powerful person in the world, a man with 7,000 thermonuclear weapons at his personal disposal – weapons whose proliferation and use he casually advocates – is a narcissistic solipsist apparently devoid of empathy.

Nothing that President Trump has done or said as the chief executive, as a candidate, or as a private citizen, suggests that he believes other people are, in fact, people with their own lives, feelings, and needs. With a stroke of the pen, he barred all Syrian refugees from entering the United States, almost certainly condemning tens of thousands to misery and death. That he did so while simultaneously failing to note in his Holocaust Remembrance Day message that six million actual Jewish people died in the camps – not merely unnumbered, abstract “victims” – suggests that he cannot recognize or comprehend the suffering of others. And when the courts struck down his executive order, he just tried again. The news that TrumpCare will ultimately rob 24,000,000 people of their health insurance, while providing a windfall for his wealthy friends, doesn’t seem to worry the president at all.

Indeed, President Trump seems to regard other people as an abstraction. They exist as undifferentiated masses – the “million and a half people” he believes packed the National Mall on inauguration day, the “three to five million” illegal voters, the hordes of immigrant terrorists and murderers, even the nameless, faceless “Americans” of his imagination – but not as individuals. People are not subjects to President Trump, they are objects who exist solely in relation to his own ego. Even his daughter Ivanka, whom he says he’d “be dating” if he wasn’t her father, is a hot “piece of ass.” What is important are his delusions of persecution: by the free press, by President Obama, by anyone who doubts his greatness.

Narcissism

This kind of narcissistic solipsism is fairly harmless in a reality TV star, and it is very likely the secret of President Trump’s mythic success in the real estate business. But in the leader of the world’s greatest nuclear superpower it is the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares. The solipsist denies the reality of what lies beyond his own mind; the narcissist is emotionally isolated and unable to feel empathy. How can we count on a man incapable of empathy to consider the consequences of Mutual-Assured Destruction?

The President’s staff and congressional Republicans seem to think they have everything under control. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer feeds President Trump’s narcissism and shrugs away his delusions, repeating them without explicit endorsement from the podium. House Speaker Paul Ryan dismisses the President’s allegations of massive voter fraud, but thinks “it’s fine” for him to indulge his self-aggrandizing fantasies with a special investigation, while using his cult of personality to advance a cold, callous, conservative agenda. They are playing at a kind of rodeo brinksmanship, and they will ride this horse for as long as they can, and as long as they get what they want.

They are courting disaster. They are riding a bronco to the brink, and when they go over, like Slim Pickens astride a hydrogen bomb in the closing scene of Dr. Strangelove, the consequences will be catastrophic.

It’s two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. Maybe less.