Arts/Literature

Christmas music (11)–Best Christmas album I ever picked up on a supermarket checkout line

Christmas in Eastern Europe. Anyone who has been in an American supermarket over the years knows what an increasing nightmare trying to get through the checkout line can be, especially if you have kids of any age. That’s because the stores put all the “impulse buy” items there–candy, soap opera magazines, the latest Adam Sandler DVD. And at the holidays they load it up with all sorts of silly holiday stuff, including really bad Country Christmas CDs. But occasionally a gem slips through.

There’s this label called Laserlight, that may or may not still be in business, and they specialize(d) in inexpensive (cheap!) CDs, mostly classical music, with the occasional Jerry Vale or The Lettermen’s Greatest Hits thrown in. These are the CDs you used to find in, say, the Wal-Mart bargain bins, or by supermarket checkout lines—and for all I know, you may find them there still. The reason their CDs are so cheap is that they use The Moldavia Symphony Orchestra, or some other musical group from what would formerly have been called “behind the iron curtain”, and probably pay them peanuts for the rights to their recordings. And sometimes the musicianship is astonishingly good, even though the recording quality may be mediocre at times. In this case, it’s the Bucharest Madrigal Choir, whoever they are, but they’re fantastic. I don’t understand a word of it, but I don’t care–it sounds great. They have some very credible renditions of some Bruckner, and some Schütz, but mostly its traditional Romanian Christmas songs, sung in Romanian, and they’re really nice. Yes, another round of music in a language you won’t understand a word of.

It’s interesting music for another reason—Romania is an Orthodox Christian country. So it’s had a religious tradition that’s slightly different from that of the Western European churches for, of 1500 years now, roughly? Yes, the great schism occurred in 1450, but in reality the western church had been evolving away from the orthodox model for centuries, largely as a result of the growing political and economic differences between the two cultures. So it carries all sorts of eastern, for lack of a better word, influences that we don’t normally associate with the western church music tradition. For those of us who grew up in the straight Western European tradition, it’s often a shock to first hear Christian music that has been so heavily impacted by the co-existence of another culture, in this case Byzantium—much like the music that came out of Spain prior to the expulsion of the Moors. In fact, Christianity probably appeared in Romania in the second century, certainly with the Romans, and perhaps apocryphally with St. Andrew. This is earlier than Christianity occurred in a number of Western European cultures. And as a result of being part of the Byzantine Christian culture, and relatively isolated for so many centuries from Rome, the liturgy developed in a parallel but different manner as well—even today, most Orthodox services are largely sung rather than spoken. Which means chants were different, and never got standardized as they were in the west when Gregorian chants came along.

I got to go to Romania a while back, actually around this time, so I got to do some Christmas shopping there as well. Boy, was my family surprised. It’s about the longest flight you can take from London and still be in Europe (well, maybe Athens is a little longer). Occasionally I get to go to weird places. This trip was to look at the railroad that the government was privatizing. Their main problem was replacing the locomotive fleet. After looking at one of the locomotives, I understood why. Romania has lots of coal, it turns out. It also has lots of WWII vintage locomotives. It also has lots of big Stalinesque-type buildings that go on forever–I thought these things had all gone, but no. They’re really big, with twelve floors and no elevators, and they’re usually set off in the middle of nowhere. They’re also too expensive to replace.

The Christmas shopping was glassware, and very nice it was too. Romania turns out to be a real center for it, and it’s much, much cheaper than the great stuff from Finland and Sweden. Of course, if you’re in Finland or Sweden, there’s a whole lot of other stuff to do, and that’s not really the case in Bucharest, admittedly, unless you want to find buildings it takes you half an hour to walk past.

Romania, and a bunch of other mostly eastern European countries, have joined the European Union, bringing total membership up to 25. This should be fun—the EU is in the process of conducting the largest experiment in spreading democracy in history. The US talks about expanding democracy, but of course you’re never quite sure if it means it, given experiences in, oh, Latin America, Asia, Africa, the mideast; Europe is actually doing it, and it will be quite interesting to see if it pulls it off with 25 separate countries trying to be unified yet retain their own identity at the same time. Of course, no one thought it would work with fifteen members (I guess whether it actually has worked is a subject for debate), so I wouldn’t write off its chances just yet. Actually, Romania and all the new EU entrants will be fine. This is because Europe is engaged in what we call a “transfer of wealth” to Eastern Europe and Russia, much the way that the US is right now with China. In fact, very much like what the US received from England in the 19th century.

The EU thing continues to be one of the more interesting geopolitical things going on in the world. In part, this is because Turkey (a member of NATO) would like to join, and this proposal is controversial, with outright opposition from a number of countries (particularly France and Belgium) until Turkey cleans up some of its more egregious human rights abuses. In that respect, Turkey hardly helped its case back in 2005 with the trial of their most famous novelist, the Nobel-prize winning Orhan Pamuk, on the ground of “insulting the state” under a new law. Pamuk wasn’t the only writer or intellectual to have been charged–there were over 60 at one point–but Pamuk is by far the most prominent–so much so that the Turkish government found itself in a real dilemma, and seems quite uncertain as to whether to continue with the trial. It did, and Pamuk was acquitted.

What was demonstrated, yet again, is the familiar tension between an educated urban populace, and an uneducated, traditional, and resistant rural population. Turkey is experiencing what so many other countries have experienced in the past, and are experiencing now. In this respect, Turkey resembles, oh…the US? That sounds about right. The cries for one form of censorship or another from the religious right over the past two decades have been characterized by the same sort of fundamentalism and flat earthism that led politicians representing rural Turkey to pass a law that made it a crime “to insult Turkey,” and to bring prosecutions under the law against Pamuk (and others).

Joan Smith visited the trial, which ended up going in Pamuk’s favor, and reported in The Independent. This does not sound like behavior the EU should be encouraging:

I expected trouble when I arrived at the court building in Istanbul on Friday, but nothing like what actually happened. I was there to observe the trial of my old friend, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, who has been charged with denigrating Turkish identity, on behalf of the writers’ organisation PEN, but I was unprepared for the throng of screaming hate-filled faces as he arrived and left the drab district court in the suburb of Sisli. Inside and outside the six-storey modern building, dozens of Turkish police in riot gear stood by as Orhan was struck on the head and his supporters were jostled, punched and kicked. Screams of “traitor” filled the air and his car was pelted with eggs when he emerged into the street after a hearing that left this important case unresolved.

In all, about 60 writers and journalists are facing trial in Turkey, many of them under Article 301 of the penal code introduced in June this year and supposedly intended to bring the country’s laws on freedom of expression in line with the EU. None of these people can be feeling safe this weekend after the disgraceful scenes in Istanbul were shown on TV and reported in yesterday’s newspapers. From the point of view of the Turkish government, which was given the go-ahead to begin accession talks only two months ago, Friday’s events could hardly be more disastrous, calling into question not only its commitment to human rights but its willingness to protect some of the country’s most courageous and gifted people.

Sounds like a bunch of teabaggers, doesn’t it? How these new laws are supposed to represent being “brought in line with the EU” is a bit unclear. Turkey has since modified Article 301, by requiring the approval of the Minister of Justice before any prosecutions can be brought—but the law still stands. And, ironically, more recently Turkey has been making fewer noises about joining the EU anyway, although its official position remains the same. We’ll see. I note that the most recent flag burning amendment introduced in the US Congress failed to pass the US Senate by only one vote. A proposed Constitutional Amendment requires 67 Senate votes to pass—this proposed amendment received 66. End of days, anyone?

2 replies »

  1. What a great find! I may have to try to track this one down. And it was a bonus to get such insight into Romania on top of it. Thanks for the post!

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