Our August Read: Contrapuntal Order

Our featured guest will be Micah Hendler of the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus

Welcome to our Tiny Book Club! I was hoping to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 50–100 readers at launch, and I’m delighted to have just over 250 of you ready to read together.

Since this is our first time, some ground rules:

  • You can always decide, month to month, which articles you want to engage with. There’s no “falling behind” in an episodic book club.

  • There’s no minimum level of participation required. The comments will be open for discussion, with a few prompts from me to get started. But you’re welcome to be a lurker or to ignore the comments entirely.

  • Keep comments on the topic of our readings—the comments aren’t a place for general discussion.

  • Follow the comments conduct code you expect me to eventually write. I’m starting with a rules-light approach, since I think many of you came here specifically in order to have a more thoughtful discussion than is possible elsewhere. I’m sure there will be questions and more formal guidelines in time. But, for now, be on your honor, and ping me if you spot a problem.

Our month’s discussion will follow this schedule:

  1. First of the month (right now!): Announcement of our reading, you can send in suggested questions for our guest.

  2. Third week of the month: I post my dialogue with our guest. You add your thoughts.

  3. Last week of the month: I share some of the highlights of your comment threads.

With that out of the way, let me introduce our first article and our first guest.

“Contrapuntal Order” by John Ahern, First Things (April 2020)

For now, let me just give you one of my favorite paragraphs from this essay on music and societal difference without division:

Very often, “harmony” serves as a synonym for perfect agreement: A harmo­nious marriage or society is one in which all members are in perfect accord. But the contrapuntal idea of harmony implies a different vision of social concord, one in which the various parts retain autonomy but find their fullness in relation to each other and to a certain order that arises from their life in common. “Implicit in the term contrapuntal,” says Walter Piston, “is the idea of disagreement. The interplay of agreement and disagreement between the various factors of the musical texture constitutes the contrapuntal element in music.” This account mirrors the almost mystical formulation of Franchino Gaffurio, the fifteenth-­century music theorist, for whom harmony could be defined as discordia concors, “agreeing disagreement” or “concordant discord.” Contrapuntal harmony is an almost miraculous occurrence, a sonic solution to the problem of the one and the many.

And our guest will be Micah Hendler. Micah is a friend from college, where I knew him as a talented singer and a kind person. He relied on both skills when he founded the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian teens to blend their voices in song and dialogues with each other. He drew inspiration from his experience with the Seeds of Peace International Camp for Coexistence. You can read a bit more about Micah here.

I’m very glad to have Micah as our guest to discuss how difference can be channeled into “concordant discord.”

The comments are open for you to suggest questions for me and Micah to tackle in our dialogue, based on the article. There are more of you than I expected, so I may post some rolling intro threads later on.

Finally, Ivan Plis has sent in an excellent complement to our readings: a visual rendering of a motet. It’s a big help for people (like me!) who sometimes hear complex music as a wall of sound.

I also really enjoyed Rob Kapilow’s Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim on this front. There are songs I love, that I’ve heard or sung dozens of times, without any sense of why they work so well. Kapilow has a youtube page to go with the book, where he works through musical theater songs and alters them, diminishing the brilliance of the composition, so you can compare and contrast the expected choice and the flash of genius. I recommend it.

I’ll be back to you in two weeks with my dialogue with Micah. In the meantime, get reading! Forward this email to any of your friends you’d like to be reading with. And, finally, please do share some of your own observations and questions in the comments. I’ll bring some of them up in the dialogue.

Ex libris,

Leah Libresco Sargeant