In this period of self-reclusion, I am sure that you will have no problem exploiting your forced retreat in an inspired or culturally relevant way. Because on the internet everyone — EVERYONE — is recommending endless lists of books and films and TV series and myriads of other ways of employing the empty hours.
Personally, compared to other “content creators” (awful definition), I have been a little hesitant these days in proposing reading/viewing/listening suggestions. I keep posting some curious finds on social networks, as I always do, but no lists or tips to get distracted.
Maybe it’s because I would not feel comfortable riding the wave of such a dramatic event (even make-up tutorials now contain the coronavirus hashtag), perhaps lowering myself to the point of advertising my books once again; or maybe it’s because I have the feeling that we are destroying the possibility of enjoying a bit of boredom and existential ennui, as incapable as we are of detoxifying ourselves from constant hyperstimulation. Ours might end up being a frantic isolation, more dense and crowded with things to do than usual.
But the real reason is that we live in unusual times.
Times traversed by widespread and meandering anxieties, by the sensation an imminent redefinition, as if we were all — I would say: as a living species — on the brink of an uncertain future, very different from the reassuring and predictable one that awaited our grandparents or great grandparents when they were young.
Sometimes we feel that the tip of our feet has reached this invisible border, this limen beyond which we cannot foresee what lies ahead. However, a step forward must be taken. And it becomes increasingly evident that we must all take that step together. That’s the “solidarity” we so often confuse with charity, but which etymologically means to be “solid”, compact — I would say: as a living species.
What awaits us is unknown, and the unknown is fearful, exciting, unsettling. This is the dimension that for many years I have tried to indicate as the true meaning of wonder, the original thauma which is a mixture of amazement, enchantment and terror.
Such a feeling is not easy, nor comforting. But it is fertile: new thoughts arise, new perspectives, even new philosophies. It is an opportunity to improve.
We live in an unusual time.
That’s why I do not intend to propose anything to “kill” it: because, if you are reading these lines, there is a good chance that you are yourself unusual individuals. People who seek wonder, who better than others know how to balance the attractions and deceptions of Awe.
So this is your time, your moment. Tune in, enjoy it, make it count.
As good old Hunter S. Thompson said:
Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 4 – THE SUN, THE MOON AND THE STARS
The well-known detail: It’s dawn. Same as every morning, the alarm goes off at 7.30: while we were asleep, time continued to go by. Another day is gone and now we have to wake up and face the future that is waiting for us.
The background: When we think about the passing of time, in our mind we picture a kind of road or ribbon unravelling through a figurative landscape. The future is in front of us and the past behind us. Everything is in constant motion: we move forward on the time line (“we’re getting closer to the end of the year”), but the flow is actually continuous and so the landscape is inevitably sliding towards us as well (“The end of the year’s coming”).
Whether the observer moves through the landscape or the landscape moves towards them, in both cases we always use spatial metaphors when we talk about time. But we would be wrong to believe these metaphors are the only possible ones: anthropologists and linguists who study different cultures have come across temporal models which are radically different from ours.
For many African cultures, for example, time is related to events. Therefore, it only passes if something is happening:
Europeans make mistakes when they think that people in traditional African societies are “wasting time” when sitting idly under a tree without activities. When Africans are not doing anything, they produce no happenings, no markings of rhythm, no ‘time’. […] When the time concept is event-related, it means that no event is no time. There is nothing to ‘waste’ and nothing to ‘save’. […] One logical result is that the taxi-browse (“the bus operating in the bush”) will leave, not at a fixed moment of the day, but when it is full, when it has enough passengers to pay for the fee, so that it can make the trip. Similarly, a meeting will start “when people (most of them) have come,” not at a point fixed beforehand on an abstract clock. It is the event, “it is full” or “people have come,” that triggers action, not the moment according to a measurable time standard.(1)
Also the idea that the future is in front of us and the past behind us is not universal.
For the Malagasy it is exactly the opposite: the future is behind us, and the past is ahead of us. The observer doesn’t move and time reaches them from behind. Their most common New Year’s greeting is arahaba fa tratry ny taona (“congratulations on being caught up by the new year”).
In this model, the past is ahead because it is known, and therefore visible; the future, on the contrary, must necessarily be behind us, because nobody can see it.
We can find a similar concept in the Aymara language, spoken in the Andean Highlands (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In this language, they use the word nayra, a term indicating what stands before, when talking about the past. Similarly the world for ‘back’, qhipa, also indicates the future. This concept partially derives
from the strong emphasis Aymara puts on visual perception as a source of knowledge. The Aymara language precisely distinguishes the source of knowledge of any reported information by grammatically imposing a distinction between personal and nonpersonal knowledge and by marking them with verbal inflection or syntactic structures. […] So, in Aymara, if a speaker says “Yesterday, my mother cooked potatoes,” he or she will have to indicate whether the source of knowledge is personal or nonpersonal. If the speaker meant “She cooked potatoes, but I did not see her do it”.
Therefore it should not come as a surprise that
Aymara speakers tend to speak more often and in more detail about the past than about the future. Indeed, often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it.(2)
The Fourth Lesson: The idea of time derives from the alternation of the sun and the stars, the succession of light and darkness. Just like every idea, it is relative and it changes according to historical eras, latitudes and languages. So, let’s try a little experiment. After turning off the alarm, try and imagine that the new day is behind you. You cannot face it because it’s not facing you. You cannot know what it is going to bring, but you feel it lurking behind you. This idea might sound a bit scary, but it is also liberating: you just have to yield and let the future reach you.
The first three Days of ILLUSTRATI GENESIS are available here and here.
1) Ø. Dahl, “When The Future Comes From Behind: Malagasy and Other Time Concepts and Some Consequences For Communication”, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 19:2 (1995), pp. 197-209
2) R.E. Núñez ed E. Sweetser, “With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time”, in Cognitive Science, 30 (2006), pp. 401–450
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. (Steven Wright)
This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day. Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line;I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much. In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.
The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.
Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 1 – AND THERE WAS LIGHT
The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.
The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.
The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.”
DAY 2 – THE FIRMAMENT
The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.
Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.
The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.
One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.
Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.
The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.
If we had the opportunity to communicate through time with humans of year 8113, would we be able to understand each other?
Supposing that every trace of our current civilisation had been erased, how could we explain our present to these remote descendants, these true aliens?
In 1936 this question arose in the mind of Dr. Thornwell Jacobs, the then director of the Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and lead to his decision to create a compendium of the human knowledge acquired by that time. What’s more, he thought it would have been better to show to the future men and women a wide range of significant objects that could convey a clear idea of the customs and traditions of the XX century.
It wasn’t an easy matter. Let’s think about it: what object would you include in your virtual museum if you had to summarise the entire history of the human race?
With the help of Thomas K. Peters, photographer, film producer and inventor, Dr Jacobs spent three years building his collection. As time passed by, the list of objects got more and more impressive and it included some unexpected items, which clearly the two curators reckoned that the humans of the Ninth millennium needed to see.
Among others, the collection contained 600.000 pages of text on microfilm, 200 narrative books, drawings of the greatest human inventions, a list of sports and hobbies which were fashionable during the past century, film showing historical events and audio recordings of the speeches of Hitler, Mussolini, Roosevelt and Stalin. And again: air shots of the main cities of the world, eyeglasses, dental plates, artificial limbs, navigation instruments, flower and plant seeds, clothes, typewriters… up to Budweiser beers, aluminium foil, Vaseline, nylons and plastic toys.
The two men then patiently sealed that huge pile of objects in hermetic recipients made of steel and glass, filling some capsules with nitrogen, in order to prevent the material oxidation. At last, they collocated the “museum”, exhibiting six millenniums of human knowledge, in a crypt under the Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall. They did not forget to place a machinery called Language Integrator in front of the entrance: a tool that can teach how to speak English to the future historians, in case the Shakespeare language would not be at its bests any more.
The chamber was officially sealed on the 25th of May 1940. The plate affixed to the enormous stainless door specified that its insides did not contain any gold or jewelleries. Better safe than sorry.
This strange and restricted museum is still present and, if everything goes as planned, will remain untouched until year 8113, as indicated on the inscription. Yes, but why this specific year?
Dr. Jacobs considered the year 1936 as the bookmark on a hypothetical timeline, then added 6.177 years, corresponding to the amount of time passed from the establishment of the Egyptian Calendar (4241 B.C.).
The Oglethorpe University experience was regarded as the first “time capsule” of human history. The idea obtained a huge resonance and was followed by many other attempts of preserving the human knowledge and identity for future generations, by burying similar collections of memories and information.
Will the homo sapiens be still around in 8113? What will he look like? Would he be interested in discovering how we lived during the 40s of the XX century?
Beside the sci-fi (utopic or dystopic) visions of the future evoked by the time capsules, their charm resides in what they can tell about the past. An optimistic time, permeated by a blind trust in the human progress and still unscratched by the Second world war disaster, the holocausts and the nuclear horrors, an era unaware of the countless tragedies to come. A time when it was still possible to fiercely believe that future generations would have looked up to us with respect and curiosity.
Nowadays it is impossible to conceive in human terms such a distant future. The technology in our hands is already transforming us, our species, in ways that were unthinkable just a few decades ago. Our impact on the ecological and social system has already reached unprecedented levels.
Therefore, should we picture a “visitor” from year 8113 anyway… it is reasonable to presume that looking at us, his long-lost ancestors, he would shiver in disgust.
New miscellanea of interesting links and bizarre facts.
There’s a group of Italian families who decided, several years ago, to try and live on top of the trees. In 2010 journalist Antonio Gregolin visited these mysterious “hermits” — actually not as reclusive as you might think —, penning a wonderful reportage on their arboreal village (text in Italian, but lots of amazing pics).
An interesting long read on disgust, on the cognitive biases it entails, and on how it could have played an essential role in the rise of morals, politics and laws — basically, in shaping human societies.
Are you ready for a travel in music, space and time? On this website you get to choose a country and a decade from 1900 to this day, and discover what were the biggest hits back in the time. Plan your trip/playlist on a virtual taxi picking unconceivably distant stops: you might start off from the first recordings of traditional chants in Tanzania, jump to Korean disco music from the Eighties, and reach some sweet Norwegian psychedelic pop from the Sixties. Warning, may cause addiction.
Speaking of time, it’s a real mystery why this crowdfunding campaign for the ultimate minimalist watch didn’t succeed. It would have made a perfect accessory for philosophers, and latecomers.
The last issue of Illustrati has an evocative title and theme, “Circles of light”. In my contribution, I tell the esoteric underground of Northern Italy in which I grew up: The Only Chakra.
During the terrible flooding that recently hit Louisiana, some coffins were seen floating down the streets. A surreal sight, but not totally surprising: here is my old post about Holt Cemetery in New Orleans, where from time to time human remains emerge from the ground.
In the Pelican State, you can always rely on traditional charms and gris-gris to avoid bad luck — even if by now they have become a tourist attraction: here are the five best shops to buy your voodoo paraphernalia in NOLA.
Those who follow my work have probably heard me talking about “dark wonder“, the idea that we need to give back to wonder its original dominance on darkness. A beautiful article on the philosophy of awe (Italian only) reiterates the concept: “the original astonishment, the thauma, is not always just a moment of grace, a positive feeling: it possesses a dimension of horror and anguish, felt by anyone who approaches an unknown reality, so different as to provoke turmoil and fear“.
Which are the oldest mummies in the world? The pharaohs of Egypt?
Wrong. Chinchorro mummies, found in the Atacama desert between Chile and Peru, are more ancient than the Egyptian ones. And not by a century or two: they are two thousand years older.
Some days ago Wu Ming 1 pointed me to an article appeared on The Atlantic about an imminent head transplant: actually, this is not recent news, as neurosurgeon from Turin Sergio Canavero has been a controversial figure for some years now. On Bizzarro Bazar I discussed the history of head transplants in an old article, and if I never talked about Canavero it’s because the whole story is really a bit suspect.
Let’s recap the situation: in 2013 Canavero caused some fuss in the scientific world by declaring that by 2017 he might be able to perform a human head transplant (or, better, a body transplant). His project, named HEAVEN/Gemini (Head Anastomosis Venture with Cord Fusion), aims to overcome the difficulties in reconnecting the spinal chord by using some fusogenic “glues” such as polyethylene glycol (PEG) or chitosan to induce merging between the donor’s and the receiver’s cells. This means we would be able to provide a new, healthier body to people who are dying of any kind of illness (with the obvious exception of cerebral pathologies).
As he was not taken seriously, Canavero gave it another try at the beginning of 2015, announcing shortly thereafter that he found a volunteer for his complex surgical procedure, thirty-year-old Russian Valery Spiridonov who is suffering from an incurable genetic disease. The scientific community, once again, labeled his theories as baseless, dangerousscience fiction: it’s true that transplant technology dramatically improved during the last few years, but according to the experts we are still far from being able to attempt such an endeavour on a human being — not to mention, of course, the ethical issues.
At the beginning of this year, Canavero announced he has made some progress: he claimed he successfully tested his procedure on mice and even on a monkey, with the support of a Chinese team, and leaked a video and some controversial photos.
As can be easily understood, the story is far from limpid. Canavero is progressively distancing himself from the scientific community, and seems to be especially bothered by the peer-review system not allowing him (shoot!) to publish his research without it first being evaluated and examined; even the announcement of his experiments on mice and monkeys was not backed up by any published paper. Basically, Canavero has proved to be very skillful in creating a media hype (popularizing his advanced techinque on TV, in the papers and even a couple of TEDx talks with the aid of… some picturesque and oh-so-very-Italian spaghetti), and in time he was able to build for himself the character of an eccentric and slightly crazy genius, a visionary Frankenstein who might really have found a cure-all remedy — if only his dull collegues would listen to him. At the same time he appears to be uncomfortable with scientific professional ethics, and prefers to keep calling out for “private philantropists” of the world, looking for some patron who is willing to provide the 12.5 millions needed to give his cutting-edge experiment a try.
In conclusion, looking at all this, it is hard not to think of some similar, well-known incidents. But never say never: we will wait for the next episode, and in the meantime…
…why not (re)watch The Thing With Two Heads (1972), directed by exploitation genius Lee Frost?
This trashy little gem feature the tragicomic adventures of a rich and racist surgeon — played by Ray Milland, at this point already going through a low phase in his career — who is terminally ill and therefore elaborates a complex scheme to have his head transplanted on a healthy body; but he ends waking up attached to the shoulder of an African American man from death row, determined to prove his own innocence. Car chases, cheesy gags and nonsense situations make for one of the weirdest flicks ever.
La canzone proposta in questa puntata della nostra rubrica non è incentrata direttamente sulla morte, quanto piuttosto su una personale visione del passare del tempo. Si tratta della splendida Who Knows Where The Time Goes? di Sandy Denny.
La cantante ed autrice inglese la incise una prima volta con gli Strawbs nel 1967; preferiamo questa versione, più intimista e dall’arrangiamento minimale, rispetto a quella più conosciuta che verrà registrata due anni più tardi con i Fairport Convention per il loro classico album Unhalfbricking. Questo gruppo, com’è risaputo, diede l’avvio alla corrente folk rock inglese, realizzando (in contemporanea con i meno noti Pentangle) un’originale fusione di musica tradizionale e sonorità rock. L’inconfondibile voce di Sandy Denny, dolce ma a tratti ombrosa ed evocativa, giocò un ruolo fondamentale nel successo della band; e non è un caso che sia stata anche l’unica interprete femminile a collaborare con i Led Zeppelin, nella celebre The Battle od Evermore. Scomparsa prematuramente nel 1978 a causa di un banale incidente domestico, la fama postuma di Sandy crescerà negli anni, tanto che oggi le è riconosciuto un posto di rilievo nella storia della musica inglese.
La meditazione sull’inevitabile scorrere del tempo trova avvio dalla contemplazione di una spiaggia deserta e degli stormi di uccelli che stanno prendendo il largo, iniziando l’annuale migrazione. Sostenuta dalla delicata progressione di accordi della chitarra, l’autrice si stupisce dell’enigmatica ed innata conoscenza che gli animali sembrano possedere delle stagioni; eppure tutto, nel quadro dipinto dalle parole della canzone, è immerso nello stesso senso di meraviglia e di sospeso incanto. Perfino la costa solitaria pare a suo modo vivere e respirare, tanto che l’autrice si rivolge direttamente ad essa, per confortarla; e su tutto domina il tempo, che scandisce i mutamenti della natura in modo inconoscibile.
Eppure il tempo, questa strana entità invisibile, non è foriero di angosce, come in altri casi, bensì di una peculiare pace interiore. In questo senso, il testo ricorda da vicino questa poesia di Jacques Prévert:
Quel jour sommes-nous? Nous sommes tous les jours Mon amie Nous sommes toute la vie Mon amour Nous nous aimons et nous vivons Nous vivons et nous nous aimons Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que la vie Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que le jour Et nous ne savons pas ce que c’est que l’amour.
Che giorno siamo?
Siamo tutti i giorni
Siamo tutta la vita
Noi ci amiamo e viviamo
Viviamo e ci amiamo
E non sappiamo cosa sia la vita
E non sappiamo cosa sia il giorno
E non sappiamo cosa sia l’amore.
Anche per Sandy Denny siamo circondati da misteri più grandi di noi che ci governano, ma sono misteri colmi di bellezza e, suggerisce il testo, di amore: perché ostinarsi a volerli controllare?
Il segreto è sotto gli occhi di tutti, sembra dire l’autrice. È nella resa e nell’abbandono all’incessante fluire delle cose. Si tratta di accordarsi in modo semplice e istintivo al ritmo universale, che dissolve ogni dubbio, qualsiasi timore e tutte le nostre sterili domande sul futuro e sull’inevitabile fine: la morte è simile alla partenza degli stormi di uccelli, un movimento naturale che avviene quando deve avvenire (until it’s time to go); non vi è più angoscia, soltanto un commosso e sognante abbandono.
Quello che vedete qui sopra è l’incipit di Tristano e Isotta di Richard Wagner, rappresentato per la prima volta nel 1865 a Monaco. Si tratta del cosiddetto “accordo di Tristano”, che secondo alcuni teorici avrebbe sancito la fine dell’evoluzione musicale occidentale. Perché?
Sentito oggi, questo dramma musicale dall’enigmatica atmosfera suona certamente molto moderno, ma non tanto sconvolgente quanto venne avvertito all’epoca della sua prima esecuzione. Eppure è forse la prima opera che fa coscientemente a meno di quasi tutti i “pilastri” della struttura musicale classica, prediligendo l’armonia alla melodia, il cromatismo alle scale tonali, e via dicendo: il preludio si apre su questi grovigli di note discordanti che sembrano stranamente completarsi fra loro, senza però un vero e proprio motivo che le accompagni, inframezzate da lunghe e misteriose pause. Questo tipo di linguaggio ormai suona familiare alle nostre orecchie anche perché il cinema ne ha fatto un uso pressoché sistematico nella composizione di colonne originali, ma all’epoca ci si aspettava di regola che la musica si reggesse su una melodia – un’aria distintiva, riconoscibile, memorabile.
Per questo, dicevamo, l’accordo di Tristano è visto come un punto di non ritorno: è come se quel pugno di note mandasse in pensione la melodia occidentale una volta per tutte, e per tutti i tradizionalisti si tratta di un vero e proprio funerale. Quindi, dove dirigersi?
Intrigato dalla questione, il cantautore e polistrumentista Angelo Branduardi a metà degli anni ’70 decise che per affrontare il futuro avrebbe guardato al passato remoto, e iniziò uno studio rigoroso della musica antica (cantigas, madrigali, musica popolare, barocca, etnica) per riproporla in chiave moderna: iniziò così una carriera dai risultati non sempre costanti, ma sicuramente coerente e omogenea. Il suo brano che vi proponiamo è il Ballo in Fa Diesis minore.
Il testo della canzone sembra rifarsi ad una celebre danza macabra raffigurata sull’esterno della chiesa di San Vigilio a Pinzolo, piccolo paesino nel Trentino: l’affresco, realizzato da Simone Baschenis di Averara nel 1539, è accompagnato da un poema che viene “recitato” dagli scheletri danzanti:
Io sont la morte che porto corona Sonte signora de ognia persona Et cossi son fiera forte et dura Che trapaso le porte et ultra le mura Et son quela che fa tremare el mondo Revolgendo mia falze atondo atondo O vero l’archo col mio strale Sapienza beleza forteza niente vale Non e Signor madona ne vassallo Bisogna che lor entri in questo ballo Mia figura o peccator contemplerai Simile a mi tu vegnirai No offendere a Dio per tal sorte Che al transire no temi la morte Che più oltre no me impazo in be ne male Che l’anima lasso al judicio eternale E come tu averai lavorato Cossi bene sarai pagato …..
Com’è noto, la danza macabra è una grottesca messa in scena della Morte che non fa distinzioni fra principi e villani, fra vescovi e pezzenti, ma li prende tutti per mano in una infinita teoria-girotondo che si avvia verso il camposanto e il Giudizio Universale. Il poema rafforza quest’idea della Morte personificata, armata di falce, che nessun muro può contenere e contro la quale nessuna virtù è utile (“Sapienza beleza forteza niente vale“).
Il testo di Branduardi, però, opera una modifica interessante e innovativa rispetto al poema originale. Se le prime due strofe, che danno voce al personaggio della Morte, sono fedeli all’idea antica, è la terza strofa che introduce la variazione: qui prendono la parola gli Uomini, e rispondono alla Morte invitandola al ballo che hanno organizzato appositamente in suo onore.
È un capovolgimento vero e proprio. Questa volta è la Morte ad essere chiamata ad una danza – che non è più macabra né funebre, ma al contrario vitale – tanto che, prendendo parte alla festa, ella posa per un attimo la falce per ballare “tondo a tondo” (ricordiamo che nel poema originale era proprio questo utensile a venire roteato minacciosamente “atondo atondo“). Trasportata dalla musica e dal ritmo del ballo, la Morte di colpo non è più “signora e padrona” del tempo.
A prima vista potrebbe sembrare un’astuzia simile a quelle con cui, nelle storie popolari medievali, veniva imbrogliato il Diavolo stesso. Ma in realtà l’allegoria che costruisce Branduardi è molto più delicata e sottile: siamo davvero impotenti di fronte alla Morte, spesso “crudele”, “forte” e “dura”; soltanto la musica (con la sua qualità estatica, trascendentale) può farci uscire dal tempo e, dunque, sottrarci al suo dominio. E qui la danza macabra si scopre essere non soltanto un tragico simbolo del problema esistenziale, ma anche una possibile soluzione al problema stesso. Certo, la morte ci costringe a volteggiare con lei, e questo ci spaventa: ma quando infine siamo noi a prendere l’iniziativa, e volontariamente la invitiamo a ballare, ecco che il suo potere tutto d’un tratto svanisce.
L’unico modo che abbiamo per liberarci dalla paura, sembra quindi suggerire la canzone, è vivere con piede leggero, in una continua, gioiosa danza.
La ragazza olandese di 16 anni ritratta in questa foto del 1936 sta sparando in un tirassegno del Luna Park della sua città, Tilburg. Il tirassegno è uno di quelli che all’epoca andavano per la maggiore: se si riusciva a colpire il bersaglio, un piccolo tasto di ferro, l’obiettivo automaticamente scattava una fotografia che veniva consegnata come trofeo al vincitore dall’impareggiabile mira.
La ragazza, Ria van Dijk, oggi ha 90 anni. E continua il suo pellegrinaggio fino alllo stand del tirassegno. Ogni anno, da quel fatidico 1936, ha colpito immancabilmente il bersaglio (con una pausa durante la Guerra, dal 1939 al 1945). Erik Kessels e Joep Eljikens hanno raccolto e curato le fotografie ottenute dal tirassegno fino ad oggi, organizzandole in una raccolta intitolata In almost every picture #7.
Con il passare degli anni, vediamo la giovane donna invecchiare, gli stili di vestiario cambiare lentamente, e anche la tecnica fotografica evolversi. Da questo inusuale punto di vista vediamo scorrere quasi un secolo di persone, mode, amori e vita. Tutto grazie alla mira infallibile di una gentile signora armata di fucile.
La galleria completa di queste fotografie si può ammirare qui.
Nonostante i progetti di “una foto al giorno” abbondino sulla rete, il più estremo resta sempre Time of my life, che registra 17 anni della vita dell’artista Dan Hanna. Il suo volto si appesantisce con il passare degli anni, i suoi capelli si fanno più radi. Ecco il tempo al lavoro.
Il 16 Maggio scorso, a Oklahoma City, era meglio starsene in casa: i chicchi di grandine che piovevano dal cielo erano grandi come palle da baseball. Su YouTube si trovano diversi video relativi a questa grandinata apocalittica. Qui ve ne proponiamo uno. Al riparo!
Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) è un’opera musicale scritta nel 1987 da John Cage, “il” compositore fondamentale del ‘900. Il brano musicale, per organo, è basato su un suo lavoro precedente per pianoforte, che durava tipicamente dai 20 ai 70 minuti.
In effetti, Cage aveva specificato che il brano andava eseguito “il più lentamente possibile”, ma non aveva specificato nello spartito esattamente quanto lentamente avrebbe dovuto essere suonato.
Nel 1997 un convegno di musicisti dibatté a lungo sulle implicazioni del brano. Un organo, infatti, non ha alcun limite di tenuta di una nota e, se mantenuto correttamente, potrebbe avere una vita infinita. Il progetto che nacque da queste considerazioni è uno dei più stupefacenti della storia della musica – ma d’altronde, si sa, quando c’è di mezzo il folle e geniale John Cage, tutto è possibile.
Dapprima, si è costruito un organo apposito, che fosse il più resistente possibile.
Il 5 Settembre 2001 è cominciata la performance all’interno della Chiesa di S. Burchardi, ad Halberstadt, Germania: il brano si apre con una pausa, che è durata fino al 5 Febbraio 2003. Il primo accordo, a partire da quel giorno, è durato fino al 5 Luglio 2005. Poiché l’organo suona incessantemente, una campana di vetro ne limita il rumore.
La performance di Organ²/ASLSP terminerà il 5 Settembre del 2640, per una durata complessiva di 639 anni.
Se vi interessa assistere al prossimo cambio di nota, all’interno della cattedrale di S. Burchardi, eccovi un breve calendario degli appuntamenti a venire: