Lecture Review: Jonathan Bliss on the Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Jonathan Bliss

Jonathan Bliss

I heard a while ago about the online lecture on Beethoven’s piano sonatas that Curtis Institute of Music provides via Coursera. The first time I heard about it, I was too busy to listen to it, the second time, the lecture was unavailable, and finally, I am ready and the lecture is up and going! Yay!

The lecturer is Jonathan Bliss, and I remember him from the BBC piano master class with Daniel Barenboim a few years ago. Lang Lang was one student, Jonathan Bliss was another, and I thought then that Bliss was quite impressive. Anyway, Bliss is now on piano faculty at Curtis, and he delivers lectures on Beethoven piano sonatas based on his interpretations of them as a performer.

BBC Barenboim masterclass. The pupil is the famous Lang Lang!

BBC Barenboim masterclass. The pupil is the famous Lang Lang!

There are 5 lectures, and as of today, I went through only 1.5 lectures. And I am quite blown away. What’s so good about his lectures is not necessarily Bliss’s piano skills (in fact, so far, he rarely touched the piano keys!) but his way of explaining the meaning of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Even a random dude on the street knows that Beethoven is great. But why is he great? And why particularly his piano music, not his symphonies or chamber music? These are difficult questions, and I think Bliss does a fabulous job at discussing these questions with people who have little to no background in music.

This is easier said than done. To give full credit to Bliss, I want to discuss for a point of comparison another lecture that I recently listened. My Korean mom recommended me a TV lecture series on western philosophy, and I listened to one on Immanuel Kant. Before the lecture began, I was very curious and nervous at the same time. I was curious about how the philosophy professor would address questions on Kant that are similar to the questions that Bliss raises about Beethoven: we all know that Kant is one of the greatest philosophers. But why? And I was nervous, because I felt that the challenges given to the philosophy professor were harder than the one given to Bliss. Reading Kant’s work is difficult. Very. Unless you’re a serious philosophy student, reading his Critique of Pure Reason is torturous. By contrast, listening to Beethoven’s piano music is more accessible to the general public. You can listen through a whole sonata, whether you like it or not, or regardless of how much you appreciate it. So, I was very curious about how this philosophy professor would address the thorny question on the importance of studying Kant.

The philosophy professor failed miserably. And failed by not even raising this question at all! I was a serious philosophy student at one time. I understood 99% of what he was talking about, but I resented almost every minute of his lecture. Upon the beginning of the lecture, the professor flew right into the central question of Kant’s philosophy: “how do we know?” And he went straight to discuss Kant’s answer to this question. Meanwhile, I was screaming, “So what? who cares?”

I have no doubt that the Korean philosopher was genuinely interested in delivering his knowledge of Kant to the general public and trying to do his best. But what he was missing is that most people NEVER sit down and ask, “how do we know?” We have a real life going on. Most of us feel that how much this month’s electricity bill runs is a more important question than how we know. Nevertheless, the philosophy professor totally ignores real people’s real concerns, forces us to forget who we are and where we are, and puts us in Kant’s position, as if we, people living in 2014, directly share the concerns and interests of a guy who lived in an obscure corner of Europe 300 years ago. We can never understand Kant’s greatness, if we just read his Critique of Pure Reason. Of course, in Critique of Pure Reason, he gives a great answer to the question “how do we know?” But the greatness of his answer is determined within the context of his time. We in 2014 don’t think the question is that important. However, there were certain social, political, intellectual conditions in Kant’s time which made the question “how do we know?” a very important one. Again, he did not wake up one day and asked out of blue, “how do we know?” It was an urgent, pressing question of his time that many people tried to answer. If you want to understand Kant, therefore, you should start by understanding the context in which the informing question of Kant’s philosophy takes meaning. Kant was a great thinker, because, when most people thought that God thrusts knowledge into our mind or the objective world makes indelible marks on our perception, he thought that we create knowledge ourselves due to the strength of pure reason.

The philosophy professor just sucked at contextualizing Kant. He was just so busy explaining what Kant says in his book. But seriously, who cares? I bet nobody listening to his lecture understood how Kant broke huge grounds.

And this is precisely where Jonathan Bliss’s Beethoven lectures shine with brilliance. He does a very good job at contextualizing Beethoven. We’re all busy with concerns of our everyday life, big and small, but while we listen to him, he invites us to time travel to Beethoven’s age and put Beethoven in conversation with his immediate predecessors, such as Bach, Mozart, and Haydn. And he explains how Beethoven pushed conventional rules of piano music and tested the limits of the piano instrument. Beethoven piano sonatas are great, not only because they have so many emotions but because they are so structurally diverse and refuse to be bound by rules. And that’s where we see Beethoven’s revolutionary spirit, a will for the unknown, and indefatigable refusal to compromise. And it is in his piano sonatas that his revolutionary spirit finds the clearest expression.

I highly recommend Jonathan Bliss’s Beethoven lectures. They are accessible here: https://www.coursera.org/learn/beethoven-piano-sonatas. And the link to the philosophy lecture? You don’t need it.

Movie Review: The Wind Rises (2013)

the wind rises 1

I am a big fan of Miyazaki Hayao. I watched his My Neighbor Totoro (1988) when I was little, and I still remember the sense of thrill that coursed through my body then. I watched most of his movies, and I couldn’t wait to see his The Wind Rises, the animation film which he says is his last work before retirement.

As many critics have already pointed out, The Wind Rises is very different from other Miyazaki movies. The most blatant difference is in the choice of the main character: the main character Jiro is a “normal” “adult” man who goes to school, gets a job, and marries. In other words, in this movie, we don’t see any of Miyazaki’s signature characters, such as a cute animal, an imaginative spirit, or a little girl who loves daydreaming.

These are Miyazaki's characters.

These are Miyazaki’s characters.

Moreover, Jiro is based on the real person Jiro Horikoshi, who lived in Japan in the early twentieth century. According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Jiro Horikoshi (堀越 二郎 Horikoshi Jirō?, 22 June 1903 – 11 January 1982) was the chief engineer of many Japanese fighter designs of World War II, including the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter.”

This may appear like a very unusual choice for Miyazaki, but not that unusual, given his proclaimed interest in aviation and the blue sky, and also in his criticism of war and strifes between nations, as most clearly expressed in his Porco Rosso (1992). So, the fact that The Wind Rises sounds like a historical animation did not do much to shake my deep rooted trust of Miyazaki Hayao. Come on, we’re talking about Miyazaki Hayao. He has magic hands and brilliant imagination. Before I watched the movie, I had no doubt that in The Wind Rises, he would show me something exciting, profound, and illuminating.

Unfortunately, however, the Wind Rises was, to me, an “eh” movie. The movie begins by showing that Jiro, a young boy who dreams of flying and avidly reads foreign magazines on aircrafts, grows up to become an aircraft engineer. Because this movie departs from Miyazaki’s signature path, the movie does not focus on the sweet romance of dreaming and imagining, which ultimately creates a palpable force to change reality. Instead, the movie shows that the aircrafts that Jiro makes are all used as destructive tools in the Asia-Pacific War (Remember Jiro lived in the early twentieth century). So, the question that the movie raises is, how do we understand Jiro? He’s the engineer of the destructive tool. He makes aircrafts, knowing how they would be used. What does he think about his participation in Japanese nationalism, war, and destruction?

I think that the movie seems to evade this question. And I think that’s why this movie invoked a controversy both inside and outside Japan. On the one hand, many international critics seem to think that the movie refuses to subject to Jiro and his work to any sort of criticism and is too forgiving towards the engineer. So they question the Japanese nationalism which underlies the movie. On the other hand, however, some right wing people in Japan think that the movie is not patriotic enough. These people don’t like the fact that in the movie, all the aircrafts that carry the Japanese national flag crash.


To me, the movie seems to intend these two kinds of contrary receptions. Commenting about his movie, Miyazaki says that he wanted to show that we can’t dismiss everyone living in an evil period as an evil. Instead, he wanted to show that people have to live a life, no matter what circumstances they are placed in. Put differently, we can’t totally exonerate them, because they were participating in the evil period in one way or another, but at the same time, we cannot totally dismiss them as pure evil, either, because, well, what could they do? Fair enough, but in this comment by the director, I see a reason why The Wind Rises ends up as a disappointing movie to me. I think that Miyazaki’s strongest suit is in his imagination. By imagination, I don’t mean empty, futile, meaningless daydreaming. Miyazaki’s imagination is based on the refusal to accept things as they are. He tirelessly explores what lies outside, and in his movies, those alternative ideas get actualized and transformed into a powerful force to affect reality. But I am not sure if the question that The Wind Rises raises – the question of an individual’s historical agency and responsibility – is a suitable one for his imagination. This historical question on our past seems to require not so much the imagination of an alternative world as thorough self-examination and critical analysis.

Simply put, the master of Japanese animation did not have a chance to put on his strongest suit in his last movie. Too bad.

What’s Wrong with Whitewashing Slavery?


Yesterday, one of my friends posted an interesting article on Facebook. The article was about a woman in Colorado, who argued that children should be taught all perspectives on American history. This woman is a member of Colorado’s Board of Education, and she is concerned that the AP US history curriculum focuses too much on negative interpretations of American history. Hence, she believes that more emphases should be laid on positive interpretations, which demonstrate our “noble” and “exceptional” history. To her, one example of such history is slavery. She said,

Yes, we practiced slavery. But we also ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice, while the practice continues in many countries still today! Shouldn’t our students be provided that viewpoint? This is part of the argument that America is exceptional. Does our APUSH Framework support or denigrate that position? (You can access the article as well as the woman’s original FB post here: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/pam-mazanac-us-ended-slavery-voluntarily)

On my friend’s FB, the debate centered around if this woman was whitewashing American history or not. While I agree that she does whitewash American history, I would like to discuss more in detail a deeper problem in this woman’s statement, a problem that remains unresolved, even after the “whitewashing” labeling is attached on her.

First, I can easily imagine that in the face of the uproar that her statement instigates, this woman will protest that people simply misunderstand her. Her point is not that American history is glorious, but that both views – glorious American history and inglorious American history – should be taught at school. To be honest, my blood boils whenever I hear this kind of argument. Diversity in thought and freedom of speech – these concepts are often abused to defend reactionary, indefensible ideas. What the Colorado woman assumes is that both views or all views of American history are valid. But, no. Not all views are equally defensible. Some views are just crap. Sorry.

Now, she will say to me, “how do you know if your view is defensible but my view is crap? To me, my view is defensible, and your view is crap.” Okay, it sounds fair, but again, no, your views is crap, because, when we examine the validity of an argument, we draw on some fundamental principles of human life. I can’t say “I reserve the right to kill people I don’t like”  and defend it as a valid view, because I am violating the principles of non-violence, other’s right to happiness, etc. Then, the question is, what important principle of human life is her interpretation of American history violating? I think her view cannot be justified because it denies historical responsibility.

To be fair, I am with this woman in giving credit to the fact that American society ended history. Yes, I agree with her that emancipation was a glorious or, to use her word, “exceptional” moment in our history. But the keyword of her statement is “voluntarily.” She said, “we ended it voluntarily, at great sacrifice,” as if slaveowners woke up one morning, decided to be nice to slaves, and emancipated them, taking in sacrifices of their profits. The word “voluntarily” is so dishonest and cunning, because it willfully turns blind eyes to long and painstaking struggles to end slavery. Throughout history, no privilege was just “voluntarily” extended to people who did not have it. Women could not vote until the early twentieth century, and they had to fight tooth and nail to get the franchise. Imperial domination was taken as the natural order of things, and the colonized had to fight hard to break free the shackles of imperial domination. If you want a recent example, see what homosexuals are doing right now to get the right to marriage.

To say that we ended slavery voluntarily does not count as a positive interpretation of history. It counts as an evasion of historical responsibility. Every society makes mistakes. Imperial domination was a mistake, slavery was a mistake, and McCarthyism was a mistake. What matters is how quickly and thoroughly the society recognizes its mistake, develops counter discourse, and mobilizes oppositions, to the effect of rectifying the mistake. I think that to take each step in this process seriously is an act of historical responsibility, because, as I said above, no system of oppression just ends without opposition. And this is why I think it is irresponsible to say, for example, “empire did good things to the colonized! Look at the railways!” or “yeah, women couldn’t vote in the past, but what’s the big deal now? See Hilary Clinton is vying to be President.”

So, yes, whitewashing is bad, because in trying to see your history positively, you exonerate serious crimes and silences oppositional voices. To me, the irrepressible, strong undercurrents of oppositional voices at every moment of American history are the real strength of American society and the truly glorious moments in its history.