Sacred Harmonizing with the Subway

March 24, 2009

This morning on my way to work, I caught a story on NPR about the Tibetan Gyuto monks: Gyuto Monks: Ancient Practice, Modern Sound. The excuse for the story was that there is a new CD being released of their chants that more accurately reproduces the sound of what a full choir would have been like. Really, though, most of the story was about how these monks and their overtone (or throat) singing came to the attention of the outside world. The part I particularly liked was near the end, when they interviewed another monk who has already become famous as a singer in the US:

One of the first Tibetan monks to make his name in the West as a musician was Nawang Khechog, who was nominated for a Grammy in 2001. He says these chants are among the most secret and sacred of Tibetan Buddhism — that’s why they’re so heavily layered and deliberately hard to understand.

“Very secret practice,” Khechog says. “Secret as well as sacred … So, therefore, to hide the words, in the general public, it’s disguised in that kind of multitonic sound.”

[…] Khechog says that when he used to live in New York, he would get funny looks when he tried to harmonize with the subway trains.

“I start the chant, and then suddenly the train’s gone,” Khechog says, “and I’m still chanting that, and suddenly, few people standing there, and they think, ‘What’s going on,’ you know?”

I think it would be awesome to run across someone trying to harmonize with a subway train. Too bad there really isn’t any public transportation where I live.

Anyway, if you want to hear some of the singing, there’s a bit in the audio version of the NPR story, and also some longer pieces in the sidebar links on the article page, one of which I’m listening to right now. So there you go, my cool thing of the day.

-posted by Dana

Hunting Dracula with The Historian

July 18, 2008

I honestly never meant for Geek Buffet to end up with a whole series of posts on vampire fiction, but here I am, adding to it again. (Previous posts here, here, and here.) I picked up The Historian to take with me on my long business trip in large part because it looked interesting enough and, perhaps more importantly, it looked long, thereby cutting down on the number of individual books I would be putting in my luggage. It turned out to be a good choice, so if you’re looking for summer travel reading as well, read on.

I mentioned before that most of my vampire fiction reading has ended up being at an interesting intersection of vampire and detective. The Historian doesn’t quite fit that model, although the story definitely provides enough mystery and suspense for the reader to make you have to know how it ends. (Or at least it did me.) The title, interestingly enough, could apply to any number of the characters in the book: the narrator, her father, or her father’s advisor. Truly, there are three stories going on in the book, from each of these historians’ perspectives, creating a very layered effect as the story travels back in time through three generations of characters and then forward again, (which at least one person I know found off-putting enough that she didn’t get past the first couple of chapters, but really, you should keep going.)

The stories are all really the same story, of course, and everything converges nicely at the end. The premise is this: The narrator begins the book by saying that she wishes to present the story of how her family became so involved in, and later known for, the search for Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula. She begins at the beginning of her own journey, when she was still in high school and discovered a strange book in her father’s library, blank except for a woodcut illustration covering the two pages in the exact center of the book depicting a dragon and the word “Drakula.” It is also accompanied by a bunch of very old letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” Her curiosity piqued, she finally asks her father about them.

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Going to the Chapel… to watch other people get married

May 23, 2008

Tomorrow will be the 3rd wedding I’ve attended this month. And I thought last summer was wedding intensive!

I’ve been to people getting married by a non-religious friend in the middle of a park and I’ve been to a full mass and everything in between. There have been many differences between the various ceremonies, but a few major constants:

The big one being, of course, the celebration of a couple’s committment to spent their lives with love and each other. That’s a beautiful thing.

The other is the fact that many, many people have no idea what’s appropriate to wear to a wedding. Let me help.

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Revisited: Religion in the local public schools

April 8, 2008

In a strange return to one of the very first posts here at Geek Buffet (now more than a whole year ago!), I heard a startling local news blurb on my way home this afternoon. The saga of Mr. Escamilla and Enloe High School is apparently still dragging on. After his suspension from teaching, Mr. Escamilla did not have his contract renewed at Enloe, and was instead transferred to an alternative school starting in May 2007.

He also got a very poor 12-page review put into his file evaluating his teaching that year. According to the website he has set up to chronicle his interpretation of events, it was the first negative review he had ever gotten in all his years of teaching. He appealed these decisions multiple times, and seems to have raised such a furor that the school board felt the need to defend their decisions, so they released supporting evidence from his personnel record in October. In November, he sued. Yesterday, the case was finally settled.

The local newspaper report is rather vague on the details, though:

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With This Ring, I’m Not Sure

January 25, 2008

Every now and then a story pops up about purity rings (AKA chastity rings) – the most recent one that comes to mind is the English girl who wasn’t allowed to wear one at school and brought suit, saying it was a religious article (she lost). Different stories about the rings emphasize different aspects of them – since they’re not an “official” religious item by any means, the way they’re used seems to be fairly fragmented. Some girls buy them for themselves, some have them given to them by their parents, some receive them at creepily-overtoned father-daughter purity balls which got a lot of press a few years ago. How common the latter actually are, I have no idea, but somebody’s buying the rings – looking around various religious jewelry sites turn up a lot of designs, from the reasonable enough miniature cross to the metaphorically unfortunate heart wrapped in a ribbon. Many of them are accompanied by verses promoting purity which can only be described as dire, and they’re easy to rib. So easy, in fact, that I’m not going to talk about that angle of it.

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All Saints And All Souls

November 1, 2007

Once upon a time, Halloween was merely the forerunner of the real holidays, those being the feasts of All Saints on November 1st and All Souls on November 2nd. They’ve eclipsed somewhat in the last four hundred years, but they still continue; All Saints Day is a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation (meaning you have to go unless you have an obstacle along the lines of getting hit by a truck) and while All Souls is not one, it’s still a big day and attendance is strongly encouraged.

All Saints isn’t just a commemoration of the saints who turn up in Butler’s; officially it is “For all saints, known and unknown” meaning that there’s a chance you could be commemorating your grandparents and second cousins twice removed along with Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. It’s a celebratory Mass, really; the theme of most of the homilies I’ve heard on All Saints (including the one today) was victory; victory over temptations, over your baser nature, over the relapses and bad beginnings which a lot of saints had, examples of which are often given; St. Jerome liked to curse people out, St. Augustine lived the high life which included a number of mistresses and at least one illegitimate child, things like that. But the point isn’t ultimately that all of the saints had failings and that makes it all right for you in the pew to be the same. The point is that they struggled and overcame, and there’s no excuse for anyone not to try and do the same. I’m not intending this as a proselytizing post (I’m terrible at apologetics anyway) but I wanted to give some idea of the flavour of what can be said when celebrating an All Saints Mass.

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Shakuhachi: Fighting Flute, Meditation Tool, Musical Instrument

October 30, 2007

Last week, I went to a lunch talk in a series running at the university where I work on the subject of “Globalization and the Artist.” This particular talk was by James Schlefer, one of the few non-Japanese people to be recognized as a Grand Master player of the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese flute. He played two pieces and talked about the history of the instrument and how it has changed over time. (The title of his talk, after all, was “The Evolving Shakuhachi.”)

Like many cultural items in Japan, the shakuhachi originally came from China, in the form of the xiao. The xiao, though, traditionally has six finger holes, whereas the shakuhachi has only five. When asked when and why the sixth hole disappeared, Schlefer said that there is about one hundred years (or more, I forget) of lost history between the arrival of the flute and its first real appearance in Japanese writings.

The shakuhachi was originally predominantly used in Japan as a Buddhist meditation tool. Schlefer described the practice as one that encourages the player to concentrate on breathing, individual notes, and the silence between the notes and phrases. The Buddhist monks who used the shakuhachi the most were also itinerant monks, and many of them were ronin, or samurai who had lost their masters, but were still required to keep up their status as members of the samurai class. Becoming a monk was allowed, but they might still need to defend themselves, and for this, the shakuhachi was handy. The end of the flute is the root end of the piece of bamboo the flute is made from. Musically speaking, this is because the hollow inside the flute needs to taper toward the end, which bamboo naturally does at the root. But practically speaking, the type of bamboo used to make the flute is quite thick, and if you leave the root end unshaved, you can get a nice club. A manly flute, it was.

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You mean freedom of religion is for everyone?

April 24, 2007

This is perhaps the most awesome piece of legal news I’ve heard in a while. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State have finally settled their case against the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs:

Bush Administration Agrees To Approve Wiccan Pentacle For Veteran Memorials

For those that missed where this all started, the Washington Post covered the story last July:

At the Veterans Memorial Cemetery in the small town of Fernley, Nev., there is a wall of brass plaques for local heroes. But one space is blank. There is no memorial for Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart.

That’s because Stewart was a Wiccan, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has refused to allow a symbol of the Wicca religion — a five-pointed star within a circle, called a pentacle — to be inscribed on U.S. military memorials or grave markers.

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Palm Sunday

March 31, 2007

One joke I heard a lot while growing up is that the two most popular Catholic holidays are Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday – the reason being that nobody can resist a handout! This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, and a lot of people are going to be bringing home palm leaves without being entirely sure what to do with them afterwards. (The official answer is that the palm leaves from this year – which are blessed – should be saved until next year when they’ll be burned to make ashes for Ash Wednesday. Unofficially, a lot of people forget and just keep the leaves stowed somewhere, half-forgotten, and parishes sometimes end up ordering their ashes from a supplier to make sure they have enough).

Palm Sunday has some odd contrasts to the rest of Lent – Lent, especially the last week, is a generally somber time (Ash Wednesday kicks things off with the adjuration to “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”) but the first part of Palm Sunday Mass can come across as fairly lighthearted.

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Religion in the public schools

March 5, 2007

This weekend, my mother brought a local controversy to my attention. It’s actually been going on for weeks, but since I don’t get the paper, I hadn’t noticed. It turns out that one of my old high school history teachers, Mr. Escamilla, has been suspended with pay while the school investigates just how inappropriate he was in inviting an anti-Islam Christian evangelist to be a speaker in his class.

Like the students and former students interviewed in this article, I wasn’t very surprised. Escamilla made no secret about his evangelical views, and was widely known to truly believe the world was going to end (complete with the Rapture) quite soon. (A quick firsthand Escamilla story: When I was in his AP European history class, his wife had recently had another baby. One of the other students, knowing of his belief in the imminent end of the world, asked why he and his wife had had another kid, if they didn’t think it’d get to grow up. He replied candidly that the most recent baby hadn’t been planned.) Although he didn’t do it in my class, many of my friends who had him for other classes told me about watching the “Left Behind” videos and other evangelical propaganda on days when no actual learning was scheduled. I was never particularly impressed with his classes, in any case, because all we ever did was read the textbook and then teach the chapters to each other in assigned turn. He very rarely actually seemed to teach us anything. I think I saw him being more teacherly in driver’s ed than in my history class.

So anyway, I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d finally done something so flagrant it had gotten him suspended, and I’m very happy that the students who were scared and offended by the speaker actually took the issue to the administration. Beyond that, the whole thing got me thinking about the place of religion in public schools in the US.

When I was at Enloe (1994-1998), the student body was quite diverse, and it should have been quite clear to the teachers that not nearly all of the students in their classes were of a Christian background. And yet, time and again, teachers would assume a background of Biblical knowledge, especially in English classes, where they would throw questions at us about allusions we obviously should have picked up on right away. Like other non-Christian students in the class, I’d just hope some Methodist or Baptist would answer the question, or that the allusion came from some really famous bit that I must have picked up by exposure. There wasn’t any pushing of Christianity, there was just widespread assumption of it, all evidence, such as the names on the roll, to the contrary. We all just learned to fake it, and life went on.

But should we have ignored it? Can we afford to anymore? What should the role of religion be in the public schools? What should be the teacher’s role in discussing religion? Where should the school administration set the boundaries for what teachers should, and should not, be allowed to do?

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