On Playing Music and Practicing Writing

Guitar HI trained as a musician first. I’ve played classical guitar now for many more years than not. Last night, as we ran our program of duets for two guitars, there were moments in which the music breathed in a new way, our phrasing opened up and became more fluid and dynamic. It was lovely to hear and quite surprising.

One never knows what will happen during a practice session. Sometimes, we work through our repertoire and it feels like we’ve never seen this music before! We find passages that need re-learning or places that need to be re-fingered, transitions that need more careful coordination. And then sometimes, like last night, the music flows in an entirely new way – the notes had been there but, after the deep familiarity one gains after working through a piece of music over several months, suddenly one hears new possibilities.

The important part is showing up. As I’m learning to write a dissertation, I think back to those many hours in a practice room struggling to get a good sound, listening hard for a clear, distinct notes and perfectly timed rhythms. It took nearly a decade before I could hear myself start to play with clarity and confidence, before the music came alive with nuance and energy.

Writing, like playing music, requires showing up. Daily. So far, the days when my text comes together in clear, strong sentences that say what I mean are few. But I keep showing up. And keep writing.

I’m heartened by two quotes on the wall directly above my laptop:Laptop

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Lao Tzu


“But it was you who incited these words to shimmer and mutate and reconfigure even further – and what they now are saying may well be much more acute and more crucial than what you had thought you wanted to say.” Gary Lutz

Post-Election Power

This is a guest post by the director of Seattle Historical Arts for Kids, Shulamit Kleinerman:

I’m certainly experiencing the horror, panic, and rage that I think is entirely appropriate to tomorrow’s event. It seems abundantly clear that bad things that we can’t even imagine yet are going to happen — both to us, and to others in our names, which may be even worse. I’m not an optimist by nature. At the same time, to my own surprise, for the last few days I’ve been feeling almost physically buoyed, elated, by a sense of our capacity to survive and take care of each other.

medieval-musiciansI love that Saturday’s marches are women’s marches, because these two months for me have been all about reconnecting with my amazing women friends, one of whom is on a plane right now to visit. I love that the students in my city are walking out, and I am filled with hope by the young people I know, by their intelligence and their total lack of bullshit. I’m thrilled to think that some of the young people around us are feeling radicalized in a way that I haven’t seen in my lifetime (not even when my middle school friends and I used to protest the Gulf War every Saturday morning of that winter, which now seems so innocent a time, when there was such a thing commonly understood as “the news,” the era of Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, when the teachers could roll the TV cart into the common area at a middle school to track what was happening and there was probably a more or less apolitical choice of network channels). I love that we are learning where we had fallen short of our democratic ideals and that we can aim higher because we get it more now. American democracy has only ever been partial, in both senses of the word.

I spend most of my time working with beautiful art from pre-Enlightenment Europe, and it gives me some thoughts about this. Many centuries of people have put up with vile behavior from those who govern. The ones who didn’t die early and brutally, who couldn’t save the ones who did, kept living. They kept practicing their crafts and making babies and making art, and that’s why we’re here. This is still true today in, oh, most of the world, right? We are not so special. Maybe the peasants could have revolted sooner than they did, but we understand that they were weighing their options and chances and responsibilities individually every day. Like them, we are subject to history. Some things (the global scope of destructive superpower, the vicious and irreversible reach of certain weaponries and industries) seem very much worse now. Other things seem better, maybe, at least for many of us. I am keenly aware of the richness of my life, professionally and personally. I’ve never enjoyed it so much as I’m enjoying it all right now. “Enjoy” seems like almost a sacrilegious word, but I am loving it. I think our past heroes may have said a few things about how the strength to resist comes from these places.

Also, we get to have new heroes. Even in the last few days now, for every awful thing happening, there is someone speaking out whose story we discover for maybe the first time. Every horror can be matched by another right action. We can watch those actions and we can do them too. In one way our powers are being viciously curtailed, but in another way, the context makes our actions more meaningful than they were before, which is another kind of power to embrace. That’s my hope, anyway. Bring it on.

Eloge and a New Year’s Resolution

This post has been a difficult onesusan-cropped for me to write. My dear friend Susan Tara Brown Talley died at age 55 on December 8, 2016. Susan and I met at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington where we presented our culminating undergraduate recitals together. She played flute at our wedding a year later. Just three years ago, I attended Susan’s wedding. Her marriage to her lifelong love, Mark Talley, filled her with deep joy. Her death leaves those she loved with a great sense of loss. It has also silenced the voice of an accomplished soprano, flutist, pianist, and musicologist.

Susan studied voice and vocal pedagogy with Ruth Dobson and piano with Margaret Saunders Ott, and performed in choirs with the English early music specialist Andrew Parrott, Roger Wagner, the Oregon Symphony, and the world renowned Estonian State Choir.

After earning her B.A. at Whitworth, Susan completed a Masters in music at Portland State University and a Ph.D. in musicology at Claremont Graduate University. Susan continued her research through post-doctoral fellowships athe Huntington Library, UCLA, and Yale. Susan published Singing and the Imagination of Devotion: Vocal Aesthetics in Early English Protestant Culture, with Paternoster Press in England in 2008. Susan’s book crosses genres. Her frank inclusion of devotional material will appeal to readers inspired by the intense faith of the early modern Christian writers she draws on. However, readers looking for rigorous academic research will find much to enlighten them in Susan’s study of music and religious practices in seventeenth-century England.

Among her many teaching and performing posts, Susan taught singing and music history at Fullerton College, maintained a private studio, and worked as church musician in Santa Ana, California. She also worked for a year in Vilnius, Lithuania, teaching “Tin Pan Alley Song: Eastern Europe and America Intersect,” at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre as a Fulbright Scholar.

A soprano with a clear, ringing voice, Susan had a special affinity for early music. Her work on the aesthetics of the voice in seventeenth-century England reveals a wealth of material in the archives supporting her assertion that singing served as an important devotional practice for early modern English Protestants, both Puritan and Anglican.

The daily and weekly practices of the pious in the seventeenth century included activities such as prayer, going to church, and reading the bible, but their interests extended well beyond these practices. Devotional treatises of the period also addressed areas that we don’t think of as specifically religious in our own highly compartmentalized lives. The study of subjects such as ancient history, politics, the natural sciences, and what might now be considered psychology were also considered part of religious life and thought. These early moderns drew on ancient Platonic and Pythagorean concepts of celestial harmony to argue for the importance of singing for all Christians. Singing at church, in the home with family and friends, and as private meditation figured prominently as a means of cultivating a rich inner life.

So my New Year’s resolution, in honor of Susan and the beautiful and gracious person she was, is to sing something every day. I am grateful to be alive, to be pursuing interesting work, and to be making music. In Susan’s chapter on “Sacred Sensualitie” (p. 115), there is a quote from Bishop Joseph Hall’s Occasional Meditations (1633): “What a shame is it for me, that see before me so liberal provisions of my God and find myself set warm under my own roof, yet am ready to droop under a distrustful and unthankful dullness!” Indeed, let us not droop!

Susan’s life and writing evokes the richness of the world in which we live, a world that can be celebrated and created through song. Imitating the early modern devotional writers she studied, we can notice, “like a heavenly alchemist,” that there is something of God in “a Spider…or Toad…or the Heavens, Sun, Moon and Stars” (Edmund Calamy, The Art of Divine Meditation, 1680). When I think of Susan’s passing at Christmastide, I think of that ancient church chant, Hodie Christus Natus Est (Today Christ is Born). Singing Hodie – cherishing today, this all-too-fleeting day – reminds me of her and of the great wonder it is to be alive and singing.

Body – Mind Connections


Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), hike up this hill to his office (hidden in the trees to the left).

There’s something wonderful about summer: so much of it can be spent outdoors. This is due in part to the cultural construct of “summer vacation.” The expectation that we will take some vacation time is tied to the academic calendar which ironically originated in the need to work in the harvest! But the harvest, of course, also means being outdoors, even in an age of John Deere combines such as the one I rode in when I was working on a ranch in eastern Oregon: feeling the grit of dirt in my teeth, clambering through mounds of wheat to even the load, and picking out the grasshoppers that infested Sherman county that summer.

The harvest is in. Whether one’s summer was spent pulling in crops or hiking and camping…or perhaps in a library, the outdoors beckons less urgently. As we settle into more sedentary pursuits appropriate for the colder months, I’m thinking about how to keep getting outside. Moving the whole body is good for thinking!

I’m thinking a lot about “The Age of Enlightenment,” also known as the Age of Reason – of ideas, of thinking things through. This refers to an intellectual movement in history, (the long eighteenth century and mostly French history) in which emphasized rationality over tradition. We are children of that age. But while people in the Enlightenment lived much of their lives outside, we twenty-first century people sit indoors saturated with texts, images, graphs and numbers – mere representations of the world outside. In fact, we can be so tied to our screens that we literally don’t move for hours at a time.

In the Enlightenment, people moved a lot – they walked, they rode, they danced. And they thought – and wrote – deep thoughts. The writerly stylings of people like Voltaire, Kant, Goethe, Diderot, and Buffon (of course Buffon!) are still read and discussed because their ideas are still compelling. Buffon, well-known in the eighteenth century for his vibrant writing of natural history, was especially known for his “active lifestyle.” He made the 170 mile journey to Paris from his home in Montbard every year over rough roads. He chopped wood to test its tensile strength. He built an iron foundry conducted experiment with iron balls to estimate the age of the earth. He hiked up a hill every day to go to his writing office!

There’s a connection between the body and the brain that we graduate students can easily miss. As I am spending long hours writing a dissertation on movement in the eighteenth century, I am wondering in what ways I can keep my body moving. I cannot help but see the irony in how much I’m sitting here at a computer, writing about movement but moving only my fingertips!

Living History with Solar Microscopes


A giant image of a flea projected using an eighteenth-century solar microscope.

What insights that can be gained through reenactments using historic instruments? One example can be found in Peter Heering’s use of solar microscopes. These sun-lit microscopes were built to see small objects magnified by projecting images of specimens on a wall. This pastime fascinated eighteenth century elites. Heering wondered why these solar microscopes were so popular during the 18th century yet dismissed in the 19th century as mere “toys.” If they were so inferior, why were they so popular with the most educated social class. Were they really that inferior? Heering found that when he actually used an original eighteenth-century solar microscope, lent by the Deutsches Museum in Munich, to project images of specimens, he was astonished by the brilliance of the sunlit image. The solar microscope images were much brighter than images illuminated by modern artificial light!

So why had 19th century scientists distained these simple but effective instruments as producing only shadowy, blurry images? Heering had the opportunity to try solar microscopes by several different makers and found that the image quality and ease of use varied considerably. He found that to exhibit these properly, one needed both a well-constructed instrument and a perceptive, skilled demonstrator (to adjust the light as the sun moved, for example). So, it is not enough to look at history through the study of “residual material traces such as books, images or instruments in showcases.” Embodied skills – such as setting up a solar microscope – can also inform our historical understandings.

This experiment with the solar microscope display tells us something about the development of laboratory science in the 19th century. Laboratories tend to exclude the casual observer. An ordinary person might have an inexpensive solar microscope but not the more “modern” lab instrument. The expensive equipment in the lab may not necessarily do a better job, but it does make the work of science more special and exclusive. In what other ways has the development of science as a profession excluded the observations of ordinary people? The solar microscope is one example of how being historically informed can change our perception of what science is and how it might be done.

One way that the scientific community has become more inclusive is through the recruitment of citizen scientists. Projects from counting birds to studying cancer ask volunteers to get out in the field or identify patterns to contribute to scientific understanding. The solar microscope is an early example of non-specialists being involved in science, delighting in wonder at the natural world.

[1] Peter Heering, “The Enlightened Microscope: Re-Enactment and Analysis of Projections with Eighteenth-Century Solar Microscopes,”  British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), 358.

Roll on, Cascadia!

20150925_125719The Cascadia Environmental History Collaborative is coming up! In a month (September 22-24), a dynamic cohort of environmental historians will meet to share work in progress, trade favorite reads for teaching, and hash out what exactly it means to consider Nature as an actor in history. In anticipation, I offer here a recap/reflection on last year’s meeting (including updated words to “Roll on, Columbia”).

Gathering at dusk on a wide lawn ringed by redwoods, the conversations began in rings of lawn chairs grads and profs engaged in a non-competitive (read “inclusive”!) game of frisbee golf. The University of Washington Pack Forest conference center nestles at the foot of Mount Rainier. After dinner, participants convened in the log lodge for three-minute introductions. The point of these “speed-dating” power-points was to introduce one’s research and interests in a quick but informal way meant to spark connections among participants so that they can discuss projects with like-minded colleagues over the course of the weekend. The term “collaborative” in the conference title is intentional and a generous amount of time is set aside for small group conversations.

Cascadia offered many opportunities for students and senior scholars to get feedback on work in progress. A discussion of a chapter in Linda Nash’s book manuscript centered on irrigation systems built by U.S. engineers and private American companies in Afghanistan in the early 1960s. Her work highlighted the U.S. commitment to sending expertise but not the physical materials needed both for building and – crucially – for the maintenance of those systems. In Jacob Hamblin’s paper, the push for building nuclear plants in Israel to desalinate water was shown to be more of a nuclear booster project than one dedicated to producing fresh water. Regan Huff, the acquisitions editor at Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (University of Washington Press) was on hand to discuss a book proposal by a post-doc at the University of Oregon. Sandro Antonello. Critiquing Sandro’s Assembling Antarctica: Conservation, Science and Geopolitics in the Making of an International Environment proved to be a very informative session on the nuts and bolts of what is involved in getting a book accepted for publication. Lisa Brady, the editor of Environmental History also flew in from Boise, ID, to talk with participants about publishing an article in an academic journal.

In the past, paper workshops have taken place at Mount Rainier: discussing the environmental history of ice at the foot of one of the country’s most impressive glaciers brings the effects of climate change to the fore in a spectacular way. This year’s hike was in doubt as it was raining and overcast, but the intrepid group decided to take a chance on the Mount Rainier hike and was rewarded with a clear view of the Lower Nisqually glacier (for at least ten minutes). Lunch at the base provided an opportunity for perusing the exhibits and further in-depth conversations.


Although the Cascadia gathering is only in its second year, the annual hike to a grove in the nearby old growth forest is fast becoming a venerated and much-anticipated tradition. Participants bring with them a book that has been especially useful for teaching. These books are then displayed in the lodge upon the return from the hike for browsing later in the evening.

Evening activities included the viewing of a hotly debated film, “DamNation,” and an “Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities,” modeled after the event staged at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last fall http://nelson.wisc.edu/che/anthroslam/objects/index.php. Particularly striking were images of the 1970 earthwork “Spiral Jetty.” University of Oregon prof Marsha Weisiger visited this immense earthwork sculpture when it was first installed and more recently: where once the sculpture was periodically completely covered by the Great Salt Lake, the sculpture is was now eight miles away from the water.

Another Cascadia tradition is the annual sing-along which this year included a jazzy excerpt from Westside story (Go Sandro!), a spontaneous grad student dream team dance routine to “My Girl,” and “Desperado” belted out by normally staid profs. And of course, no Cascadia gathering would be complete without a run through of all seven stanzas of “Roll On, Columbia” to which could be added these verses:

Roll on, Columbia, Roll on
Roll on, Columbia, Roll on
Because of your turbines, our salmon can’t spawn
Oh roll on, Columbia, roll on

Most radiated river, it glows like the dawn,
Past glaciers a-melting, and forests long gone.
Historians know there is work to be done,
Roll on, Cascadia, Roll on!

Sophie Germain and Fermat’s Last Theorem

Sophie Germain-1776-1831-grangerOne doesn’t often meet professional mathematicians so I am reposting this piece (which I originally wrote for the OSU history of science blog) in honor of Matt Klassen, the head of the mathematics department at DigiPen Institute of Technology. I met Matt, who also happens to be a fine guitarist, at David Russell’s masterful guitar concert in Seattle last weekend. Dr. Klassen has presented on “Non-Associative Loops on Fermat Curves of Odd Degree,” which reminded me of the French mathematician, Sophie Germain (1776-1831):

On May 20, 2014, the OSU Department of Mathematics sponsored a history lecture by Dr. David Pengelley, of New Mexico State University. Dr. Pengelley presented an animated lecture on some of the work of Sophie Germain. Dr. Pengelley’s interest in Germain was sparked by his use of primary historical sources in his teaching of mathematics. This led him to the National Library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France) where he found a store of Germain’s original manuscripts which had not been studied in over two hundred years. Revisiting Germain’s work as a mathematician, Dr. Pengelley found that Germain had developed a sophisticated plan for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, making significant contributions to number theory. Until recently, her work was known only via a footnote in another mathematician’s treatise (Legendre, Essai sur la Théorie des Nombres, 1823). In an age when women were usually not well-educated and when they were explicitly excluded from scientific academies, Germain’s substantial achievements were indeed remarkable.

Sophie Germain was only thirteen when the French Revolution broke out, forcing her to spend most of her time indoors. During that period, she turned to her father’s library. Fascinated by books on mathematics, she taught herself against her parent’s wishes (Pengelley relates that at one point they even took away her clothes and candles to prevent her from studying at night!). Germain’s father was a silk merchant so it was not through his mentorship that she developed her abilities but rather through her own effort and perseverance. At one point, Germain took on the identity of a student at the École Polytechnique who had died (Antoine-August LeBlanc). When the professor discovered that it was really a woman who was submitting such fine work under LeBlanc’s name, he was astonished. Germain eventually corresponded with Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) in Göttingen, one of the most celebrated mathematicians of the time. Pengelley recounts that upon receiving a letter from Germain, Gauss praised the way she contributed to the “charms of this sublime science,” as giving him great joy.

Pengelley gave a cogent and fairly detailed explanation of the theorem by Pierre de Fermat (c.1601-1665) that Germain was hoping to prove. Basically, the theorem states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation a^n + b^n = c^n for any integer n greater than two. At the time that Germain was working on the problem, it was known that the theorem could be proven to hold for some numbers but much work remained before the theorem could be proven conclusively. Germain’s letters and manuscripts demonstrate that she had a good handle on the problem and that she had made considerable progress toward a solution. Pengelley found that she had made a mistake in one of her proofs but peering closer found scribbled in the margins, “voyez errata”—Germain’s own admission that she saw she had made an error!

Germain did win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences for her work on elasticity and she eventually was able to attend the Society’s meetings, but she was never made a member nor was any of her work published. Her manuscripts were taken by Guillaume Libri, described by Pengelley as a “mathematician, historian, bibliophile, thief, and friend of Sophie Germain.” Because Libri ended up with her manuscripts, they were preserved and eventually made available for Pengelley’s research. Finding a proof for Fermat’s theorem has been a problem that has long attracted the attention of mathematicians. In 1995, the mathematician Andrew Wiles, with help from Richard Taylor, finally solved the Fermat Theorem. It had been one of the most famous problems in mathematics and Sophie Germain’s efforts made an important contribution to the discovery of a proof. Dr. Pengelley’s work is of interest to historians not only for the way he used primary sources to teach mathematical concepts but he also revived interest in an under-appreciated figure, Sophie Germain, whose achievements deserve to be more widely celebrated.