2020 Musical Week 2: Tu Del Ciel



If In The Bleak Midwinter is a piece of music that can be pulled off convincingly by even an average church choir that is missing half its members because there’s a cold going around and the cough lingers for weeks, Tu Del Ciel is reserved for the best of the best and demands that they be at their most virtuosic while singing it. If I can comfortably hum the former while driving to work, fragments of the latter haunt my inner ear with a mind of their own, materializing at unpredictable moments during the day. The first is a soothing blanket, that warms you to your bones; the second soars effortlessly into the sky, showing you a glimpse of infinity. What they have in common is the depth of feeling that weaves through every note of the music. That, and the fact that I love them both.

If Tu Del Ciel has a soaring quality, it is not by accident. The text is a direct appeal to heaven, and G. F. Handel, ever the masterly word-painter, makes sure that his soprano has a clear line of communication to upstairs at all times. The safety net beneath her vocal trapeze is provided by the string orchestra that consistently underpins her trajectory and occasionally even offers a melody of its own in the violin solo. Well, except for the few moments when the strings are quiet, and she flies free.

The aria is from one of Handel’s works that features capitalized abstract nouns in the title that are personified as characters. This particular oratorio went under the Italian titles of Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Disillusion) and Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità (The Triumph of Time and Truth) before settling on the English translation of the latter in the third and final version. So who are Time and Truth triumphing over anyway? They are triumphing over Pleasure. And who is the singer of this aria? It’s Beauty, who gradually realizes that her loyalty to Pleasure will not nourish her soul, and while she is destined to fade away, Time and Truth are not; they will outlast her. A good portion of the aria is a philosophical argument between Pleasure on the one side and Time and Truth on the other, and Tu Del Ciel is the concluding aria, in which Beauty turns away from Pleasure and commits to a life without vain passion, giving over her heart to God.

It sounds quite abstract and heavy duty for today’s world, but only because we don’t explicitly put such messages in our music anymore, and it’s worth asking whether we are worse off for it. We can be certain, however, that similar spiritual messages – asking us to focus on values that are at the core of our being, rather than focusing on external beauty, which is only skin-deep – have been familiar to many cultures over the centuries.

To return to the music however, and the various versions of it that you can find on YouTube – your loyal interlocutor has trawled through them all so you don’t have to and decided that French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay is where it’s at with this one. There are two versions from her, and the less viewed one (above), with a static image for the video, is my favorite, though I do recommend looking at the video of the other one at least once, because I’ve never seen anything like it. You can see Dessay physically inhabiting the music in it. I leave it as an exercise to the interested listener to figure out where the two versions differ musically. (Hint: it’s in one of the several ad libbed high portions, but honestly, the whole piece is a high portion, so that’s not very useful.) Making a late great entry in this category and nearly scuppering the front runner but not quite, is a live recording of a 2019 concert by the very excellent Bay Area group Voices of Music, with American soprano Amanda Forsythe as the soloist. This video, in which all the musicians are clearly seen throughout is well worth your time, and comparing and contrasting Forsythe’s chosen variations with Dessay’s is a fun spot-the-ten-differences exercise for the aurally inclined.

As you listen to Dessay’s version linked above, notice how her voice stretches like a gymnast, reaching dizzying heights. Notice that it reaches those heights not because it is light, but because it is powerful and athletic. Let your mind soar with her voice, upwards and further upwards. Admire the swirling arc Handel gives to each phrase, the incredible color Dessay injects into each line, the little riffs that she adds when a first half repeats. Mull for a moment over what might outlast you. Realize that one of the things that will outlast you is this aria, and that this is exactly as it ought to be. Let this be your meditation for six minutes.

2020 Musical Week 1: In The Bleak Midwinter



Stephen Cleobury conducting the choir of King’s College, Cambridge as they sing the Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter is simultaneously the epitome of several things. The text of the carol, a poem by Christina Rossetti, is a vivid image of the scene of the birth of Christ, contrasting his significance with his surroundings — the son of God but born in a stable-place, surrounded by animals. Then there is the setting by Gustav Holst, which creates so much atmosphere that you understand the emotional context without needing to know the words. (Although I do recommend you read the poem below the video as you listen. The last verse is tremendous.) And finally there is the singing itself, melancholy but joyful, gentle but firm, as the text demands, that allows you to access that still place in your mind which is the beginning of hope. And at the helm of it all is Stephen Cleobury, director of the choir for 37 years.

The choir is most famous for its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, which has taken place on Christmas Eve since 1918, and Cleobury is recognized not only for being a long-time torch bearer of the tradition, but also for commissioning current composers to write music for this service, so it gets performed alongside beloved carols that people have known for centuries. There is hour upon hour of YouTube footage of these services, and I consider it my sacred duty to listen to every minute of it! Jokes apart, the fact that these videos can appeal to someone who was not raised in the Christian faith and is, in any case, a non-believer, might give you a sense of the sheer beauty and the number of feels one can get out of them. Maybe it’s the sweet faces of the boy trebles, maybe it’s the grandeur of the chapel and the robes, maybe it’s the charm of candlelight, or maybe it’s just the unarguable quality of the music itself, you can decide.

In some ways it is unfair that the choir and Cleobury are most known for music that is among the easiest in their repertoires from the point of view of technical complexity. Most things they sing year ’round are likely to be more challenging than the carols. But the connection they have built with audiences over a century of Christmas Eve services is invaluable, and unparalleled in all of choral singing.

After In The Bleak Midwinter, be sure to listen to Ding! Dong! Merrily on High, which they have in settings by David Willcocks (yay descants!) and Mack Wilberg. Gladly, unlike some other composers, who shall go unnamed, when Wilberg sets a traditional carol, he does not try to do something “different” and “experimental”, which oftentimes ends up ruining the very thing that made the carol survive in people’s hearts for centuries. But this also has to be why King’s includes Wilberg at all.

Stephen Cleobury passed away on November 22, 2019. I knew that he had retired earlier that year, and a successor had been appointed. But it was only on Christmas Eve that I found out about his cancer and demise, and it felt like I had personally suffered a huge loss. The next day, on the Classical KUSC radio station, there was a rendition of J. S. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring with trumpet and choir, and while thinking that it was surely among the most perfect pieces of music ever, I checked whose recording it was. It had Alison Balsom on the trumpet with Cleobury directing the choir of King’s Cambridge, sounding as heavenly as always. Something about that moment felt exactly right.

2020 Musical Weeks


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After several years of half-finished essays and a few years of essays that never got started, I want to attempt a modest writing project in 2020. The goal is to write about one piece of music each week that resonates with me. Because my connection to music is most strongly through singing, much of the music I highlight will be sung. It will always be something I have heard many times, over a period of months if not years; some may be pieces that I was obsessed with a long time ago, that I no longer revisit frequently, but which still mean something to me, if only as personal history. Usually the focus will be on the music itself, sometimes it may be on the performer(s) or director. Even though it will take a lot of restraint, I will try not to make it a collection of Greatest Hits of Handel and Bach. I am also hoping that this will be a way to channel my time on YouTube into something more than wasted hours — although the transcendent joy I often get during those hours makes it somewhat unfair to call them wasted in the first place.

Whenever I post in this series, I will add a link over here, so that the complete list is available in one place. Let’s go!

Week 1: In The Bleak Midwinter

Week 2: Tu Del Ciel

Perfection IX


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The main thing I’ve realized is that the sepals of a sunflower — those green petal-shaped things, that lie right under the petals — are the most beautiful part of the whole. The flowers themselves are unambiguously yellow and cheery — bright and turning to face the sun, is there anything more cliched? — but the sepals are more nuanced. The flat portion curls at the edges, and the end tapers to a curvaceous point. It’s like an artist saving the flourishes for a quiet corner of the canvas.

The sepal is the protective layer when the flower is in bud form. As the flower opens, I can picture the sepal tearing open, and with the tension released from the inside, the curls and tapers must form, as if by spring action. Sepals too must obey the laws of physics.


Amidst their prettiness, it is easy to forget that the primary function of a flower is procreation. And so the stamens and carpels are not to be dissed. These are the fine structures in the middle of the flower, charged with propagating the species, ready to sprinkle all over the surroundings, hoping to bring to life new plants and future flowers with their own stamens and carpels — but their efforts are ultimately thwarted in this case, thanks to being stuck in a water bottle on my dining table.

Though I call them cliched, I don’t want to give short shrift to the petals. Their yellowness is the kind one wants to swim in, bathe in. For the week that those five flowers were on my table, the entire scene looked so elegant, especially while looking in from the window, that a passerby would be forgiven for thinking that an entirely more sophisticated person than yours truly inhabited that space. That yellow made me appear classy, even to my own eyes. Now that they’re gone, I kind of miss that.


(Here is the complete Perfection series.)

A neighborhood walk (in the rain)


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I wanted to run this morning, but it was raining, and I decided to walk with an umbrella instead. Rain makes me happy and my umbrella, which is covered with yellow, red, blue, orange flowers, proclaims this loudly.

The students lining up for the university bus were all carrying umbrellas — when was the last time you saw 17 umbrellas all in a row? Of the two hands needed to text furiously, one had suddenly been taken away, but they seemed to be doing fine. The tardy ones who are often seen running as the bus pulls in were today seen running with gumboots and umbrellas.

One runner was resolutely sticking to her morning routine wearing a plastic cover. Parents were inserting children into blue and yellow ponchos. Snails and earthworms had abandoned their waterlogged homes and taken to the pavements.

The grass looked greener, the way it looks in places that get much more rain than San Diego. I don’t know if the grass is actually greener in those places or if the wetness and gray skies make it appear so, but, without question, in my neighborhood this morning, the grass was greener, like it was making a real effort. (Incidentally, the Lake District gets my vote for the greenest appearing grass of all, worthy of inventing a Greenness Index for, just so it can come in first place.)

My inner dialogue in which I often examine every single failure of my life was replaced with an equally ridiculous but entirely more congenial one. “Hi you papaya tree laden with dozens of green fruit, peeping over the fence! Will your offspring turn orange and sweet come summer?” “And you lemon tree covered with fruit and blossoms, you’re very pretty.”

The gardeners were at work through the rain, planting in the flower beds. Tiny cactus, chosen for their red rims, white and purple flowers looking bedraggled even as they added color, hedges and trees chosen for the blossom that exists for three weeks out of 52, all put in by those gardeners. The winner in the color category, as it so often is, was the bright pink bougainvillea. Instead of screaming, “Look at me!” as it does when the sun is out, it was today uttering a rather more coy, “Oh won’t you spare me a glance?” Who was I to refuse?

Yup, rain makes me happy. One look at my umbrella, you’ll know.

Scenes at a neighbourhood park



Most everyone owns a tree.

Amorous couple #1 gets a liquid amber tree. Tall and thickly-leaved, its shadow is small but dense. As it moves with the sun, so do they.

Amorous couple #2 is way more amorous. They too get a liquid amber. She wears a long, strapless dress and they exchange passionate embraces. I wonder why they don’t get themselves a room. But kissing in the cool, breezy shade of a tree on a hot July day is so much more of a story, a painting, than getting themselves a room. They get points for their art.

I am myself under a sycamore. My novel sits unread while I take in the scenes around me, finally giving in to the urge to put pen to paper.

The conifer and its paltry shadow is owned by four men. By turns they smoke, check their cellphones, joke, take off their shirts and play some soccer.

The largest group is treeless. They play frisbee. They have a mat, some chairs, food, water. One of the girls steps away to do a yoga sequence — crow, head stand, wheel, and back up on her feet. As I watch the group play, I wonder about hierarchies. Do they have a Messi at one end, acknowledged great, and an xxx at the other, whose presence or absence this Sunday barely registers?

A man plays with his little daughter. He speaks Spanish to his wife. Another cycles past, precariously balancing a large plastic bag over one shoulder, steering the bike with one hand, slow, careful. A pregnant woman walks by. So do some people with dogs. One dog has a highly styled tail, and an even more styled head, dyed in three bands from front to back, pink, green, pink. Some teenagers walk in with a bike, and some slurpees. They stand around awkwardly, and I can’t tell what they plan to do. Maybe they don’t know either?

Cars flow relentlessly on the freeway behind, their hum matching the rustle of my sycamore’s leaves. The grass around me — ill-gotten greenery in this drought-ridden state — sways gently in the breeze, a bird chirps.

I get up to walk home, sun beating down.

In praise of… the long haul flight



moon, airplane

Do you think that the world is too much with us? That the constant chatter inside the head of rising, working, eating, socializing, exercising, thinking, laughing, planning and, well, chattering, becomes deafening from time to time? That taking care of things — people, laundry, bills, housework, yourself — all becomes a hamster-on-a-wheel routine where one is running to stay in the same place?

Do you have a palliative for this? A cocoon that you can withdraw to, to rediscover your spirit, to rest and recuperate, to still the mind and body, to reinvigorate before engaging with the world again?

No, I am not writing an advertisement for a yoga workshop or a meditation retreat, although those fit the bill as well. I am talking of a long haul flight, or, perhaps, a long train journey. Heck, even a car drive can sometimes do that for you. The days and hours leading up to a long haul flight can be too full, and so can the days after, depending on the destination, but the flight itself is likely to be amazingly, deliciously boring. [1] And that is the main point — to be bored, and to have no option but to be bored.

The boredom is important to still the constantly stimulated brain and senses. The lack of options not only means a lack of “useless” distractions (cat videos), but also a lack of the means to be productive, or “useful” (washing machines, work email). If most people, most of the time, intend to be the latter and end up being to the former, a state of true freedom is when you have no means to be either. And this blessed state of release comes about in a long, boring, interminable long haul flight. This is when the calm descends, when we have time to focus on nothingness, meditate on it, and find it light and lovely. When we, for a while, disengage from our lives, and see them for what they truly are — an interminable circus, where most of the acts are purely for our own amusement.

And so I look forward to it each time. Being 35000 feet high, with no control over where I am going, my life temporarily fading to a speck down below. Sitting in a cramped seat, packed together like sardines, possibly dehydrated, and finding zen.


[1] Well, hopefully. For someone who loves the internet, I think that the increasing occurrence of wifi on planes is a terrible thing. I am generally able to ignore the movies on offer (well, mostly) but resisting wifi is a damn pain. I hope it always remains slow and/or expensive, amen.

Beside the still waters



stream, trees

It is not the nature of the universe to be still. Much of what the wise people say is about change, the eternal constant that is change. It is not the nature of animals to be still, it is not the nature of human minds to be still, it is not the nature of leaves to be still, and it is certainly not the nature of water to be still. Mountains have the right to be still, it sometimes appears, but they move too, if only at the rate of one centimeter a year. Everywhere there is churning, tides rising and falling, and equilibrium, when it exists, is dynamic and merely statistical — inside a solid block of iron, the individual electrons are still going nuts.

And that is why I like the picture on top. Because on one side of that spot right there, is a wonderful and wonderfully busy bakery. On the other is a parking lot. And in the middle of all the chaos that is the hallmark of life, there is stillness. Not just any kind of stillness, a fully vibrant stillness, that includes water, and trees, both of which are changing and yet still. Trees in colour, trees naked, trees green, and water flowing softly below.

I like it because it gives me hope. Hope that what the wise men say is fully true in the end — that in the midst of all the churning chaos, there can be stillness, there can be peace, and not of the stagnant kind, but of the spirited, life-like kind. It gives me hope that we can hear the silence hidden within the discord, if only we keep an ear out for it.

The world is full of uninteresting things


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shadow patterns

There are so many things I am not interested in doing, it’s kind of
wonderful. Most of the time I focus on all the things I want to do and worry
about whether I will ever have the time and opportunity to do them all. I am
quite grateful for all the things I get to do that I actually want to do,
but reversing the question makes me even more grateful for all the things I
don’t want to do -and- don’t have to do.

Getting a degree in business in pretty high on the list. I have never at all wanted to get one. Getting a degree in law is another of those things. So when I see people who, like me, started out as engineers, and then went on to do one of these other things, and are now rich and famous, instead of envying them their wealth and fame, all I feel is a great sense of relief. “Man, it’s so great that all I ever wanted to do, and anticipate ever wanting to do, is technical work.”

Another thing is writing a food blog. Don’t get me wrong. I love the damn things. There are so many great writers and creative cooks out there, all offering us their work for free, and I admire many of them. But please. I have no interest in writing one myself. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy taking pictures, and I enjoy writing. But food blog? Umm, not so much.

On a related note, I have no interest in finding the best coffee/cheese/pizza/chocolate in town. Honestly, all the elitism surrounding these things is so utterly boring. Nor am I interested in finding the best French/Ethiopian/Peruvian restaurant in town. And all this talk of “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants and the joy and excitement associated with discovering and sharing them? Leaves me totally cold. I will gladly go home and eat steamed broccoli, thank you very much. (I will confess to being interested in good bread though. But only to the point of knowing which one is my favourite from among the options in the stores I already go to. I refuse to go to a new store for bread alone. I mean please.)

Finally, I confess to having no interest in popular culture in general. I have no idea what Justin Bieber looks like, or Kim Kardashian. I have no idea which bands are the most arcane and/or the most popular and the not knowing of which marks one out as a sad loser and philistine. (If this is what it means to be a sad loser and philistine, I am happy to be one.) To be honest, I don’t even know a lot of Beatles music, and have no shame in admitting that or interest in changing that. I can’t always recognize the top Hollywood actors either, and have no idea what the actors in Breaking Bad look like. (Even though I confess that I often read about new movies and TV shows, so I do know the plots and themes better than the above indicates.)

To conclude on a positive note rather than a curmudgeonly one, I will say that writing this little essay is one of the things I wanted to do, and actually got to do, and for that I am grateful. Yo!

A few thoughts on MH17


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Abu Dhabi - Los Angeles flight path

my flight’s path from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles

On July 17, the Malaysia Airline flight MH17 crashed near the Ukraine-Russia border, believed to have been brought down by one or more groups in the conflict-ridden region. It appears that the surface to air missiles that brought it down weren’t trying to target commercial aircraft at all (which is unsurprising), but were targetting aircraft from one of the other groups involved. They simply failed to identify the aircraft correctly before bringing it down.

There were 298 people on MH17, all of them presumably dead. There were at least two other aircraft within about 15 miles of MH17 when it was brought down. After the incident, all airlines have naturally been giving the region a wide berth. (This, in some ways, is faintly comical. There is no way an aircraft is going to be targeted over that region anytime soon. Yes?)

About eight days before the incident, I was on an Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles. I hadn’t realized until I was on the flight how far to the north it would go. Great circles work in surprising ways, I suppose. As you can see from the flight path in the photo, it went over parts of Iran, some regions of Russia, then over Norway and Greenland, and then Canada, before entering the US. Even as I saw the flight path, I was thinking to myself that we were going to fly over, or at least near many unstable regions. I had never wondered before whether airlines did or didn’t avoid these regions, but it was now clear that they didn’t. The operating costs of fuel and time meant that the potential risks of flying over those regions were ignored, and I didn’t exactly blame the airlines for it either. It is a business of thin margins, after all. Furthermore, it was somewhat exciting to fly over all these exotic places that I despair of ever visiting, thanks to the conflicts raging there, and also exciting to fly over some exotic places that I have in fact visited. Besides, the flight path included such a wide range of landscapes, from deserts to snowfields, that I had no complaints. I also thought that the altitude of the flight was probably enough to make it safe, because I assumed that the conflicts were all largely restricted to the ground.

The story of MH17 told me how wrong I was. That aircraft was 33000 feet above ground, and the belief was that anything above 32000 feet was safe. And yet it was brought down. The people on board were in no way, shape, or form connected to the conflict and even to call them collateral damage feels like a farce. And last of all, the fact that it happened to a Malaysia Airlines aircraft, just over four months after one of their vessels inexplicably disappeared along with 239 people on board is the kind of bad luck that tops all bad luck. It is possible that the airline may not survive this.

That is what strikes me the most about this situation. Of all the airlines flying in that region, of all aircraft of all the airlines flying in that region, it had to be an MH flight all over again. I mean, what are the chances of that? If a novel or a movie had two such unlikely incidents happen to the same airline just four months apart, it would be derided for being unrealistic. But here were are again, in a place where fact is proving to be so much stranger than fiction. (And so it perhaps makes sense for other aircraft to continue to avoid the region, even though the horse has bolted, as it were.) If the story weren’t so outrageously real and so outrageously tragic, and, frankly, just generally outrageous, it would in fact be darkly comic.