The Underfall Yard: Big Big Train’s Tribute to Unsung Heroes and Everyday Miracles

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. —G. K. Chesterton

Underfall Yard Cover

I first came to Big Big Train in 2010 through their generous offerings on http://www.bigbigtrain.com. Back then, they gave away downloads of most of the songs on The Difference Machine and The Underfall Yard. Their marketing technique worked – I was soon ordering hard copies of every BBT album I could find. I continue to buy, music unheard, any new release of theirs, and English Electric, Folklore, Grimspound, and The Second Brightest Star have provided hours of listening delight.

However, if forced to pick one BBT album to take with me to a desert island, I would not hesitate to choose The Underfall Yard. This is the first album to feature David Longdon, and his contributions raise the album to an entirely new level. Even though the liner notes list only Greg Spawton, Andy Poole, and David Longdon as members of Big Big Train, future members Nick D’Virgilio and Dave Gregory are integral players on every song. Add in Francis Dunnery (It Bites) and Jem Godfrey (Frost*), and you have an ensemble that is unmatched in contemporary prog.

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Through the Looking-Glass

“Politics is downstream from culture.”  We’ve heard this phrase countless times.  But have we understood it?  Are we willing to enter into the subtle and profound worldview it implies?

I am an economist by training.  I received my Ph.D. in 2014 from George Mason University, a program known simultaneously for its commitment to the economic way of thinking and using this thinking in tandem with politics, philosophy, and the humanities.  I am now a professor at Texas Tech University, and a fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute.

In recent years I have slowly awakened to the importance of practicing economics as a part of the Great Tradition—the conversation reflecting Western man’s self-understanding for more than 2500 years.  This includes recognizing that a society of free and responsible individuals cannot arise solely through clever institutional design.  Political economy rightly emphasizes that societies only flourish when they get the “rules of the game” right.  But there is so much more to that which orders our public life than statutes, court decisions, and even constitutions.  Free and self-governing societies require a certain ethos, which itself shapes and is shaped by the humane disciplines—history, literature, philosophy, music, and art.

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Relativity

Theory

Theory of special relativity explains how relative positions of observers can often lead to contradicting perceptions. For example, two actors who are in different inertial frames can both claim to be in a state of rest, or they both can observe that the clock possessed by the other one is running slower, or dispute the length of the stick they are carrying. The vantage point matters, but thankfully with physics we have an explanatory scheme, once we prove the consequences of space and time in special relativity we can appease both the actors.

Depending on the mental state of an observer his perspective about a drunk destitute can vary from absolute empathy to an outright contempt, to a certain degree even this perception is transient. Our emotions are also relative to some reference point, try describing happiness in absolute sense, actually a sub-saharan African nomad might just be more contented than a wall-street banker. Recently I watched a documentary which claimed the slum dwellers of Kolkata are on an average happier than the residents of the United States. Ignorance can be bliss, but it’s irrelevant because no matter how attractive this happiness may sound not many Americans will trade their suburbs for an Indian slum residence. Similarly, ranking emotive responses of various individuals after disregarding their relative mental benchmark is quite meaningless.

“We are studying mental and not physical events, and much that we believe to know about the external world is, in fact, knowledge about ourselves” – F.A.Hayek

In “Human Action” Ludwig von Mises elaborates on the epistemological problems of historical interpretations, and rightly so, because no matter how unbiased a writer might be his narrative has to be from a vantage point determined by the particular facts he had prioritized and picked for analysis. We can logically classify information as relevant only based on our relative experience and exposure to various coherent abstract patterns. For example, a person unaware of a right-angled triangle can never classify the structure nor derive its Pythagorean properties, for him it might be just another triangle. Our comprehension is indeed relative to the recognizable abstract structures developed in our mind, rest becomes incomprehensible jitters. Why do you think every time you reread a book or go back and listen to your favorite song you discover something novel?

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Music and the Arts Over Partisan Politics

Named for St. Cecilia, patroness of music and the arts, this blog, Spirit of Cecilia, highlights music, art, poetry, fiction, history, biography, and film. These fields of enjoyment and expression are creative and interactive, requiring both a transmitter and a recipient to achieve their fullest potential and profoundest effects.

It’s my hope that these fields, which we might usefully and with slight reservation label the humanities, can accomplish far more than partisan politics to expand the frontiers of knowledge and deepen our understanding of ourselves as human beings created by an awesome God.  Anger is not a constructive starting point for connecting with strangers or political opponents if the goal is mutual understanding. Hard logic puts strangers and political opponents on the defensive, causing them to question the logician’s motives and work through whatever problems and challenges the logician has presented.  But aesthetics: they provide pleasure and the kind of sensory experience in which people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs share and delight. This is not a grand claim about the universality of standards of beauty but rather a plain statement about the obvious draw of humans to phenomena that stir in them strange and wonderful emotions, that cause them to think about the timeless questions that the greatest minds over the centuries have contemplated with differing degrees of gravity and intensity. The fact that we have music, art, poetry, fiction, history, biography, and film at all suggests a certain commonality among human likes and desires across places and cultures.

I am an administrator in a law school, a recovering lawyer you might say, who happens to have earned a doctorate in English.  I am grateful to Dr. Bradley Birzer for including me as a contributor to the Spirit of Cecilia and have high hopes for what it can achieve. Life is difficult for everyone at some time or another.  Wouldn’t it be great if this site were a forum where friendships are built, ideas are exchanged civilly and in good faith, and a profound awareness of our shared humanity served as the predicate for our interpretations and communications?  I look forward to writing in this space. May it flourish.

–Allen Mendenhall

Cecilian Ode #1

A Hymn for St. Cecilia, composed by Herbert Howells [1892-1983]

Sing for the morning’s joy, Cecilia, sing,
In words of youth and praises of the Spring,
Walk the bright colonnades by fountains’ spray,
And sing as sunlight fills the waking day;
Till angels, voyaging in upper air,
Pause on a wing and gather the clear sound
Into celestial joy, wound and unwound,
A silver chain, or golden as your hair.

Sing for your loves of heaven and of earth,
In words of music, and each word a truth;
Marriage of heart and longings that aspire,
A bond of roses, and a ring of fire.
Your summertime grows short and fades away,
Terror must gather to a martyr’s death;
But never tremble, the last indrawn breath
Remembers music as an echo may.

Through the cold aftermath of centuries,
Cecilia’s music dances in the skies;
Lend us a fragment of th’immortal air,
That with your choiring angels we may share,
A word to light us thro’ time-fettered night,
Water of life, or rose of paradise,
So from the earth another song shall rise
To meet your own in heaven’s long delight.

— Text by Ursula Vaughan Williams [1911-2007]

This is the first in an occasional series exploring the Cecilian Ode, a uniquely English poetic and musical genre that spans the centuries from the late 1600s to the present.  More to come!

— Rick Krueger

Music, Books, Poetry, Film

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