Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Agnus Dei," Samuel Barber, 1967

Memorial Day, a year ago.

I sat in the sweltering cab of the threadbare truck, seeking a brief reprieve from the sun that baked the deep dry slash along the power line right-of-way. Sweat soaked my shirt and shorts; the glare made my eyes hurt. Small dark things crawled among the hairs of my calves. The last year and a half had been an unremitting struggle. Waking every morning for a job I hated more with each passing moment; barely bringing home enough to retard our long slow slide to the precipice; fighting with a bank the very epitome of mindless, heartless, soulless bureaucracy; waking in the middle of each night to wonder what worse thing the next dawn could possibly bring.

Hanging my head and panting from the heat and exertion, I flicked on the radio. The first notes from the radio seized me, held me, and like a single shard of glass, sliced me open from head to toe. I began to sob uncontrollably, tears mingling with the sweat streaming down my face.

“Agnus Dei,” Samuel Barber's choral arrangement of that part of the Latin liturgy to his own “Adagio for Strings.” Three lines—a total of just eleven separate latin words—sung so the words nearly disappear:
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
I am old enough to have sat through many a latin mass in my formative years. Yet I doubt my conscious mind made a connection between the ethereal music I heard that blazing noon and those ancient words buried so deep. But there is no missing or mistaking the soul-wrenching depth of emotion conveyed in that simple, spare, elegant piece. I have written before about the power of 'Adagio,' yet this version manages to surpass the original in conveying such immense sorrow and release in such a restrained and concise package. 

This is the version that cut through my callus that day: Sung a cappella by the Choir of Trinity College, Oxford, conducted by Richard Marlow. This might straight-up be the most beautiful and moving nine-and-a-half minutes of music I can imagine.

[Addendum, September 9, 2016: I have long wondered when listening to this version why I cannot simply 'follow along with the lyrics.' It is the nature of choral music; the four parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) sing the lyrics at different paces, passing the melody from one to another at different measures. At the emotional climax of the piece, around the seven-minute mark, the four voices come together on the word 'pacem' ('peace'), followed by a long silence, then reprising the phrase 'dona nobis pacem' ('grant us peace'). For details, see ]

Quoting the greats:

"The thunder draws its breath from lungs of pine and oak, and prepares to pound the mountains and hills in short order. In my memory, there are always thunderstorms over the mountains."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The "R1100-Less"

So Beast chewed-up and spit out an alternator belt a couple of weeks ago (seriously--there was a little black rubber bird's-nest under the front cover when I took it apart). I rode fifteen or so miles on battery power, and knew it likely wouldn't make it to any shop under its own power. So I figured I would try my hand at fixing it myself—how hard could it be, right?

Once I had a replacement belt in hand, it was time to make my first incursion into the mysteries beneath the swoopy skin in nearly ten years of ownership. In order to do things right, the body panels had to come off; and after gently removing countless little fasteners, the inner Beast was revealed.

Pretty neat. The bulbous asymmetrical aluminum tank, studded with various mounting bosses, sits on the backbone like a lustrous face-hugger. The black snorkel swoops out around the left side of the tank from the airbox, and various and sundry components and assemblies hang out in the breeze.

With the exception of the ludicrously purposeful hardcases still hanging off Beast's hips, and the tiny little red mask around the headlamps, it's kind of 'streetfighter' looking. Not beautiful, not exactly ugly, but different. And what I discovered on my ride home yesterday afternoon was that the same fairing that protects you from the icy blast in the winter also keeps the cooling airflow off you when it's 86 degrees and 65% humidity.

Not a gigantic difference, for sure. But I definitely felt more breeze on my upper body without the windshield, and generally more airflow all over. That's really a bonus in commuting traffic; it's pretty much like having a standard motorcycle again, and not much of a burden for the brief stints I spend at highway speeds. The biggest difference is how the wind feels: unfaired, 65 mph feels pretty much like 85 mph with a fairing; anything above about 70 mph feels like re-entry.

The question now is how long will I live with the 'streetfighter' look, or how soon will I chicken out and put Beast's clothes back on. Barring any unforeseen ill effects of riding naked, I could see this lasting until the first frost, for sure. And when Beast does get dressed again, I think it's time for the carbon-fiber livery. The 'little black dress,' so to speak.

Dominus papa squalus laetabundus

I don't even know where to begin with this. So I'm just going to leave it here.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Whippoorwill

This evening, we sat out in the garden in the twilight and listened to the coming night sounds. The local whippoorwill began his singing, and after a few introductory passes of sixty or seventy repetitions, repeated his call two-hundred and eighty nine times before pausing. After a pause of about six beats, he began again; but I stopped counting.

Regional Studies

I have been reading "Night Comes To The Cumberlands," a thoroughly engrossing and disturbing study of the history of Eastern Kentucky.

The book was written by Harry Caudill and originally published in 1963. The story it told of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and deprivation motivated John Kennedy to create the Appalachian Regional Commission to improve living conditions for the residents of the Appalachian poverty belt.

Caudill established his bona fides in the introduction, which helps deflect a certain amount of the heavy-handed approach he takes to his subject. (Caudill's tone strays to the patronizing and somewhat condescending at times, and his take on both slaves and Native Americans betrays the era from which he is writing).

But if I were to create a "Regional Studies Reading List," I would certainly begin with "Night Comes to The Cumberlands," and add:
  • "Born Fighting" by James Webb,
  • "Far Appalachia" by Noah Adams,
  • "The Foxfire Book" by Eliot Wigginton et al, (at least the first three volumes)
The subject needs to be understood, if for no other reason than that the issues and attitudes described in this book are still very much with us today in our current political discourse. The attitudes of the earliest white settlers of Kentucky are still with us. They are manifest in a concept of 'freedom' that is defined not by "What  do I have the ability to do?" but rather "No one can tell me what I can't do."

The two approaches are clearly not equivalent; and they lead to radically different ends.


Edit: another book I'd add to the list: "Skyland" by George Freeman Pollock, for his odd (and somewhat condescending) take on the mountaineers he encountered when building his Skyland Lodge. Skyland became the nucleus of Shenandoah National Park, which displaced those mountain families into the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley during the Great Depression. This diaspora into 'modernity' changed the lives of the mountain people irreversibly, and not necessarily for the best. What Cryphonectria parasitica did to the American Chestnut, the coming of SNP likewise did to the mountain families of the Blue Ridge.