Thursday, March 27, 2008

The world's earliest sound recording?

Today's edition of the New York Times has an interesting article on what may be the world's oldest surviving sound recording, made in April 1860. Though Thomas Edison has long been regarded, in the words of the NYT article, as "the father of recorded sound," a recent discovery by researchers working in a Paris archive evidently proves that a French "typesetter and tinkerer" beat Edison by at least two decades.

Working in Paris in the 1850s, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville developed a device called a "phonautogram" which produced a visual recording of sound waves on paper. Unlike Edison's phongraph, the phonautogram lacked the ability to play back the recordings that it made. Picking up where Scott left off, experts at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found a way to play the surviving phonautogram recordings. Though the team at the Berkeley Lab examined phonautogram recordings going back as far as 1853, an 1860 recording of a woman singing "Au clair de la lune" may represent the earliest successful attempt to capture the sound of the human voice.

To listen to Scott's April 1860 recording, click here. The sound quality is (as you may expect) fairly poor, but the recording remains impressive on account of its place in history. Listening to this recording and reading the story of the phonautogram led me to reflect upon the extent to which we all take technology for granted. It might be a good exercise to imagine how your life might be different if you did not have recorded music at your fingertips - what if the only way you could hear Bach or Beethoven (or, for that matter, "Au clair de la lune") was at a live performance? Imagine, too, how your perceptions might differ if you had never heard the voices of your elected leaders but had only read their words in print.

On another level, I'm fascinated by the fact that Scott apparently didn't even think of trying to find a way to play back the sounds he recorded. On the contrary, Scott's goal was to preserve a visual record of sound - he wanted to make what we hear into something that he could see. That notion leaves us with a lot to reflect upon, as we consider how the world might have been different without Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. AMDG.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Catholic shrines of New England.

In time for the Easter Season, has a virtual tour of New England's Catholic shrines. Some of the sites on the tour - like La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, Massachusetts and the Shrine of St. Joseph the Worker in Lowell - are places I've visited in real life. However, some of the others - such as the Shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes in Litchfield, Connecticut and St. Anne's Shrine of Isle La Motte, Vermont - were entirely new to me. If you live in New England - or plan on visiting soon - and are looking for a prayerful place of pilgrimage, take a look at the list of shrines on and ask yourself whether any of the featured sites capture your imagination or appeal to your sense of devotion. AMDG.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Christos Voskrese!

On this Feast of the Resurrection, I would like to once again draw the attention of my readers to the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. I know of few texts that speak of Easter as joyfully or as eloquently as the following:

Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!
Is there anyone who is a grateful servant?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.
To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.
Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!
Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On Good Friday.

In prayer this morning, I found my mind wandering back to some poignant words that I heard in a Good Friday homily a few years ago: "It is difficult to make this cross holy, and it is hard to make this Friday good."

I once posted a reflection on the above words on my old blog, suggesting that one way we "make this Friday good" is by entering into the experience of Christ's Passion as fully as we can. One way of doing this is by taking part in the liturgical services by which the Church celebrates Good Friday. Another way of entering into the Passion is through private prayer, reflectively reading the accounts offered to us by the Gospels. The visual arts can also help one enter more fully into the experience of Good Friday; images like the Russian icon of the Crucifixion shown above can help us to focus more clearly on Christ. The same may be said of such films as Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew.

Of course, music can also help us to enter more fully into the experience of Christ's Passion. As an element of my Lenten prayer this year, I've been listening regularly to Johann Sebastian Bach's Matthäuspassion. Originally composed for use during the Good Friday liturgy in Bach's own Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the Matthäuspassion has won a place in the hearts of listeners around the world - and not only within the historic bounds of Christendom but in places where Christians are rare. If you find yourself in Tokyo, for instance, you can count on annual performances of the Matthäuspassion by the renowned Bach Collegium Japan.

The Bach Cantatas Website has a putatively complete directory of over 160 different recordings of the Matthäuspassion made since 1930, together with reviews and extensive commentary on various versions of the work. My own favorite recording - and the one I've been listening to repeatedly this Lent - is Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 1970 version, which seeks to replicate the sound that Bach himself would have heard by using period instruments, an all-male choir and treble soloists. I highly recommend the Harnoncourt Matthäuspassion, but if that recording isn't to your liking you can probably find another that suits your taste.

As a coda to my Lenten experience with a masterpiece of devotional music and as a way of entering more deeply into Good Friday, I'll be going tonight to hear the New York Philharmonic and the combined forces of the Westminster Choir and the American Boychoir perform the Matthäuspassion under the direction of Kurt Masur. This concert promises to be a significant musical event on at least two counts: the robust octogenarian Masur is known as a great interpreter of Bach, and the Philharmonic is offering its first performance of the Matthäuspassion in a decade. The reviews - like this one in today's New York Times - have been positive, and I'm looking forward to the concert. After commemorating Christ's Passion in the manner prescribed by the Church, I'll be rounding out Good Friday with Masur's Bach. My hope and prayer for the readers of this blog is that you will find your own ways of entering more deeply into the experience of Christ's Passion. AMDG.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kidnapped Iraqi archbishop found dead.

Nearly two weeks after he was kidnapped by armed men immediately after leading a church service, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho has been found dead. As I pray this evening for the repose of Archbishop Rahho's soul, I pray also that the community that he led will somehow be able to find a sense of hope and strength in this time of tragedy. I pray also that the Archbishop's martyrdom (if I may be so bold as to speak of him as a martyr) will draw the attention of an often-indifferent world to the suffering of Iraq's beleaguered Christian churches. AMDG.

Le dernier poilu.

Lazare Ponticelli, France's last living World War I veteran, died yesterday at the age of 110. As one would expect, the French press has a lot to say about Ponticelli's death - in the last couple of days, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Libération (among many others, and from diverse ideological viewpoints) have all paid tribute to le dernier poilu. The English-language press has also taken notice of this historic event - see, for instance, these obituaries in the Times of London and the New York Times. Ponticelli is universally recognized as the last survivor of the 8.4 million soldiers who served in the French armed forces during the Great War, but there seems to be disagreement about how many veterans of the conflict are still living - some say there are eight, some suggest nine, and some claim there are as many as 13. One way or another, the day when no one will be able to tell of their experiences in the "War to End All Wars" is fast approaching. When that day arrives, I hope that people everywhere recognize the import of the event. Requiescat in Pace. AMDG.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

GC35 wraps up, sort of.

The 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus formally concluded last Thursday, but the work of the Congregation is not yet done. I've been putting off an official 'end of GC35' post until I had something substantial to report, but so far there doesn't seem to be much to say beyond the fact that the Congregation itself has ended. The Congregation approved the writing of decrees on Jesuit identity, obedience, the internal governance of the Society, collaboration with the laity, and contemporary challenges to the Society's mission, as well as a specific response to Pope Benedict XVI's address to the Congregation. Various issues that were considered hot topics at the Congregation - like ecology and ministry to young people - were "entrusted to the care of the ordinary governance of the Society," which effectively means that Father General Adolfo Nicolás will decide how to deal with them.

None of the decrees approved by the Congregation actually exist yet, which is why I wrote above that the Congregation has only "sort of" ended. For each of the topics on which the Congregation approved a decree, a group of Jesuits chosen from among the members of GC35 will meet over the next couple of months to write and edit a document reflecting the will of the Congregation. Once the final texts have been approved by Father General, these decrees will go out to the whole Society. So you won't think that this is a mysterious or secretive process, I should note that the Jesuits chosen to write each decree are publicly identified on the GC35 website.

I'm heading down to Washington tomorrow morning for a week at Georgetown, where I'll be catching up with old friends and hopefully doing some reading in preparation for looming term papers. Thus there probably won't be much action on this blog until around Spy Wednesday. In the meantime, please know of my continued prayers for all readers during Lent. AMDG.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

No new word on kidnapped Iraqi bishop.

I've been combing wire reports over the last few days for more information on the kidnapping of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho; the little I've read is far from encouraging, and I urge readers to keep praying for the release of Archbishop Rahho and for the flock he shepherds. AsiaNews reports that mediators expect to hear from Archbishop Rahho's still-unidentified kidnappers tonight, a couple of days after the group made a call raising its ransom demands and setting "political conditions" for the release of Archbishop Rahho. Pope Benedict XVI has issued a public call for Rahho's release and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has ordered Iraqi security forces to search for the kidnapped archbishop. In his public statement on the kidnapping, al-Maliki said that "Christians in Iraq are an essential component of the Iraqi society and a part that cannot be separated from the Iraqi people and civilization. Any assault on the Christians is an assault on all Iraqis." It's good to hear such words, but I'm also skeptical about what kind of action is backing them up. The Chaldean Catholic Patriarch (and Cardinal) Emmanuel III Delly seems to share my skepticism; the Iraqi newspaper Azzaman cites Cardinal Delly as saying that the Iraqi government hasn't kept its promises to protect Iraq's beleaguered Christian community. God only knows where all this is heading. Once again, I ask your prayers for Archbishop Rahho and for the Christians of Iraq. AMDG.

Melville biographer backs "Moby-Dick" official book effort.

Last year I chimed in on an effort by a group of Massachusetts fifth-graders to make Herman Melville's Moby-Dick the official book of the Commonwealth. The legislative effort to grant Moby-Dick its "official book" status is apparently moving forward, and SouthCoast citizens will have an opportunity to comment on Massachusetts House Bill No. 3964 in a public hearing to be held tomorrow from 9-2 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I used to enjoy attending hearings like this when I was a State House intern; after listening to policy experts and lobbyists weigh in on the merits of dry and abstract legislation, it was always entertaining to hear people talk about petitions to make Lenny Gomulka's "Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts" the official state polka song or to make the spotted salamander the state amphibian. (For the record, the state polka bill passed into law, while the salamander bill died in committee.)

Anyhow, yesterday's New Bedford Standard-Times has an op-ed by Melville biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant endorsing the petition to make Moby-Dick the official book of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books, and while I'll admit it isn't to everyone's taste, I do think that Melville's epic has a lot to offer dedicated readers who can make their way through the whole tome. In hopes of inspiring some kindred spirits out there to give Moby-Dick a try, I'll quote some of what Robertson-Lorant has to say about the novel:
Like Gilgamesh, the Kalevala and The Odyssey, the story of Ahab's mad quest for the white whale resonates with the power of timeless myth. Drawing on many sources, conscious and unconscious, historical and mythic, Moby-Dick combines Indian legends, frontier tall tales, Biblical allusions, Rabelaisian humor and Shakespearian tragedy with detailed descriptions of whaling, sea chanteys, homilies, philosophical meditations, supernatural prophecies and sexual innuendos.

. . .

In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville opens "the floodgates of the wonder-world" of the English language to create a global vision of man drawn over the horizon by the silvery jets of whales awakening his imagination. As Ishmael learns to appreciate the beauty of the oceanic world and feel compassion for the whales Stubb and Flask mercilessly slaughter, Ahab's monomaniacal quest to destroy the white whale seems increasingly destructive and insane.

The world of Melville's epic is a world whose surface is naturalistic and quasi-scientific but whose depths are spiritual and poetic. From the magic of "the pool in the stream" Ishmael evokes in "Loomings" to the "mystical vibration" Ishmael feels when he realizes he is out of sight of land, Melville puts before us "the image of the ungraspable phantom of life." Melville's prose links the cosmic and the concrete, the physical and the metaphysical, the known and the unknown.

. . .

"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme," Ishmael exclaims as he grapples with the greatest whaling story of all time. Like Moby-Dick, the founding story of Massachusetts has "a mighty theme." Once upon a time, the story goes, Massachusetts was the promised land. European immigrants came to the "New World Eden" to redeem Adam's fall. Boston was called the "City on a Hill" — a beacon of liberty for immigrants fleeing the corrupt Old World.

Moby-Dick tells every generation the story it needs to hear. Today, we are Ishmaels on a troubled sea. Like Ishmael at the helm, so mesmerized by the oil-rendering flames of the try-works that he almost sinks the ship, we need to change direction and rediscover the reverence the indigenous inhabitants of Massachusetts felt for the creatures of land and sea and air; otherwise, their beauty will be gone before our descendants can discover it.

Like Ishmael, who alone escaped to tell the story, we must learn to exhibit awe and humility toward the vast universe of which we are an infinitesimal part, or life on this planet will no longer be sustainable.
To read the rest, click here. Robertson-Lorant's environmentalist reading of Moby-Dick is new to me, but I suppose it's a reasonable interpretation of a story that may be read in many different ways. The only way to know whether or not you agree is to read the book for yourself. AMDG.