Monthly Archives: March 2016

Musicians Without Borders

George Frederic Handel

George Frederic Handel

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

Before “globalization” people mostly lived and died in their own little corner of the world, only dimly aware of famine or pestilence elsewhere. But there always existed a class of wandering minstrels, happy to make music wherever they went. Musicians speak a universal language and can be understood and appreciated in many diverse lands. These musicians run the gamut from energetic and talented street musicians to some of the more illustrious musical wanderers I will mention here.

Jean Baptiste Lully was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. He was a dancer, guitarist and violinist. At age 14 he moved to France at the invitation of the young Louis XIV. There he wrote court ballets, collaborated with Moliere (He wrote the music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.) and became director of the Royal Opera.
He died of gangrene in 1687 having struck his toe with the big stick he used for conducting.

Luigi Boccherini (1743 -1805) was a composer and cellist born in Lucca, Italy. His father was a cellist too. They were both employed as court musicians in Vienna. In 1770 he was invited to the court of Charles III in Madrid. There he lived, married and composed. He was inspired by Spanish music, especially the fandango, wrote elegant chamber music and developed the string quintet.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759), born in Thuringia, Germany traveled to Hamburg where he became a violinist at the Opera. He later went to Italy at the invitation of Prince Ferdinando de Medici. When in Hanover, he met George Louis who was later to become King George I of England and who took a liking to him and enticed him to England. It was for George I that he wrote the famous and hugely successful Water Music which was performed on barges on the Thames. I like to think of those two expatriates conversing in German since neither was fluent in English. After the death of George I, Handel composed large scale anthems for the coronation of King George II and his consort Caroline, an occasion of great magnificence.

Jacques (born Jacob) Offenbach 1819-1880 was born in Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Paris Conservatory and remained in France for his entire musical career. Paris at that time offered a more favorable atmosphere for European Jews. Offenbach was a violinist and cellist and played in the Opera Comique Orchestra. He then shifted to composing operettas and opened his own theater Les Bouffes Parisiens. He is remembered mostly for Orpheus in the Underworld, La Belle Helene and his last unfinished work Les Contes d’Hoffman.

Yo Yo Ma (1955- ) is a Chinese-American cellist born in Paris to parents who were both musicians. He spent his school years in New York. Ma was a child prodigy and started performing at age five. Although we think of him in the context of classical music, he has been called “omnivorous” by critics because of his eclectic repertoire. He is interested in American bluegrass, Argentinian tango, Chinese melodies and Brazilian music. Ma was invited to the White House by several Presidents. He and Itzhak Perlman both performed at President Obama’s 1st Inauguration Ceremony.

May these wonderful artists continue to wander among us.

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How We Learn #4 – It’s All Relative and What is Possible?


Albert Einstein was a poor student. He disliked school and was expelled at age 16. Some of his teachers thought that he was retarded. Today, no one remembers those teachers’ names whereas the name Einstein has become synonymous with genius.

Einstein gave us the concept of relativity. Simply put that means that the position and state of motion of the observer determines how he experiences space and time.

A clock sent into space returns to earth having run much slower than a grounded clock. This has implications for inventions like GPS satellites. Before we can use and rely on them, they have to be adjusted to reflect accurate time.

This is how I explain relativity to myself…From my window, I see a tall monkey tree with many interlacing branches. From where I stand, two branches are intertwined and seem to form a perfect heart shape. But when I stand on the sidewalk at ground level and look at that tree there is no heart shape anywhere.

Einstein liked to use trains to illustrate his ideas. If you are running alongside a train at the same speed as the train, you feel that you are running on the same spot. Or if two parallel trains are at the station and one of them starts to move, a person in the other train would feel as if his train was going backwards.

But enough of trains. We are bipeds and stand erect and see the world from that position. If we are high in the sky on a plane, we have a totally different perception. And the perspective changes dramatically when we are flat on our stomach as in snorkeling (not to mention that we are underwater).

The greatest limitation on our ability to learn is the scope and nature of our senses. We see only a partial spectrum of colors and hear only a limited range of sounds. Our smelling and hearing ability are completely different from a dog’s or a bird’s. Travel and migration by echolocation are totally alien to us. So we have used our intelligence to create microscopes and telescopes which have considerably expanded our horizon. This has enabled us to realize that our so-called universal laws of physics are relative also. For instance they do not apply to the quantum world of the infinitely small and infinitely large.

Our galaxy is in constant motion and objects move relative to each other. I think that helps us understand that space and time are the same entity. I think it is quite sobering to realize how many limitations there are to what and how we can learn, but it has not stopped us from striving for as much understanding as our brains allow us to absorb.