Friday, October 5, 2018

Dan Everett's How Language Began & Human Time Keeping

Daniel Everett's New Theories About The Evolution Of Language 


Dan (Daniel) Everett has proposed a revolutionary theory about the way human language developed. If he is correct, his theory may be quite important as it will help us understand the nature, purpose, and evolution of language -- a set of symbols which Everett believes has made us the most powerful animal on this Earth. The title of his book that discusses his ideas is How Language Began. Everett thinks these new ideas are so significant he subtitled his book: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention.

Dan (Daniel) Everett
Dan (Daniel) Everett 

And if I am correct, an important component to this theory is the human sense of time and the expression of time in words -- a component which is not yet part of this new idea but which has been the main focus of my blog, DeconstructingTime, for seven years.


Unlike most modern linguists, Everett believes the development of language began much earlier than previously thought. It began perhaps two million years ago with the appearance of Homo erectus (Upright man) who was an early ancestor of us modern humans who only appeared about 200,000 years ago. 

It has taken Everett a lifetime to come to this conclusion. But it began when he studied the very difficult language of the Piraha in the Amazon. The language uses only the present tense and it does not allow phrases to be nested or inserted within a sentence -- known as recursion in linguistics. So basically it is a language of direct independent sentences. Instead of saying, for example, "This is the house that Jack built." The Piraha might say "This is the house" -- referring to a specific house in the village, followed by "Jack builds this house." This directness and sense of immediacy of the Piraha have been called the 'immediacy of experience principle' by Everett who speaks Piraha fluently and is the acknowledged expert of this language. This language reflects the Piraha's point of view which is that everything must be related to direct experience. So they have no creation myths, for example, which again is very unusual.

A tree that shows the roots and development  of the family of Indo-European languages
A tree that shows the roots and development 
of the family of Indo-European languages

Recursion is an important concept in linguistics because all languages except the Piraha language use recursion. And modern linguistic theory known as Universal Grammar or UG is based on it. But the one exception to this rule, that of the Piraha, has caused a firestorm in the world of linguistics.

For about fifty years, UG has dominated linguistics. The basic ideas as formulated by Noam Chomsky is that language was created by Homo sapiens and that an ability to learn and know a language and use basic grammar is hardwired in our brains. For proof, he points to the fact that all languages (except the Piraha) share basic grammatical rules and structures -- even though many languages developed independently of each other.

But this one exception of the Piraha has opened a door into an entirely new way of looking at language. Everett now believes that language evolved in basically three stages: 

  • G1: A basic language spoken by Homo erectus, our ancestor, beginning perhaps more than a million years ago
  • G2: An intermediate language of immediacy like that of the Piraha
  • G3: Modern language which uses recursion, verb tenses and ways to express time

The most basic initial language is G1 which would have been spoken by Homo erectus and which took probably more than a million years to evolve. G2 would be the next stage, in between G1 and G3 -- and this language would be very similar to that of the Piraha -- a language based on immediate experience. The last stage of evolution, G3, would be modern languages as spoken today. There are about 6500 modern languages and all adhere to Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar (UG), except for the Piraha language.

Further, Everett does not believe that language is hardwired in our brains but rather that it evolved just as human culture evolved.


And now this is where my thoughts about time (this blog is about the human experience of time) come into play. My ideas may help explain how language developed from the beginning and also why the language of the Piraha is constructed the way it is.

I believe humans have an actual and unique sense of time -- and by that, I mean a sense just like touch, taste, and smell. I wrote a detailed blog post about this in which I cited a study at McGill University in Canada. I believe we are the only animal that has this particular sense of time.

In another study, also cited in this same blog post, the author of the study claimed that we humans are the only animals that have a concept of 'when' in linear time. While animals live in the present time and also are aware of cyclical time (sunset, sunrise, fall migrations), they do not understand linear time. However, humans can place past, present and future events on a timeline in a linear fashion and then work with this timeline to share, plan, organize and coordinate. See my blog about this which is my most popular blog with over 6000 views and downloads.
-- Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

The worldwide appeal of the game of chess -- which uses a number of planning skills.
The worldwide appeal of the game of chess -- which uses a number of planning skills.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary the noun "time" is the most used noun in the English language demonstrating how important time is to language. Other time-related words are used almost as often. I assume this is also true for other languages.

Today all spoken languages (except the Piraha) have a wide variety of verb tenses or ways of expressing time. It is hard for us to imagine a language without this ability -- which may be why so many people have trouble understanding the Piraha language. In fact, as I have written, our sense of time and our ability to express this sense of time is embedded in all languages.
-- How Our Concept of Time Is Embedded & Derived from Our Language


As Everett pointed out, two million years ago it appears that Homo erectus could plan and organize, based on evidence from archaeological finds. So it stands to reason that Homo erectus had the ability to speak in an early language since planning and organizing required communication. But planning and organizing also required an understanding of time -- they go hand-in-hand together, so to speak.

Handaxes made by Homo erectus
Handaxes made by Homo erectus

I believe that from the very beginning this sense of time was a principal driving force that led to the creation of language. If people had a sense of time, they then needed a way to communicate this understanding of time so that they could plan, share and coordinate their activities. As they became more proficient, they gained more control over their environment. This meant that this human understanding of time helped them survive. As humans developed, for example, they could make tools and spears in preparation for a future hunt when they knew, from prior experience, that animals would be in their area. Since survival is a key driving force of all living things, this ability to work with time became increasingly important.


Quoting from the New Yorker article about Everett's work:
Brent Berlin [Overton Brent Berlin] believes that Piraha may provide a snapshot of language at an earlier stage of syntactic development. “That’s what Dan’s work suggests,” Berlin said of Everett’s paper. “The plausible scenarios that we can imagine are ones that would suggest that early language looks something like the kind of thing that Piraha looks like now.”
-- The Interpreter

A Piraha group in the Amazon.
A Piraha group in the Amazon.

I believe an early language would be present-oriented as in animal behavior but also conceptual like human thought, i.e., somewhere in between. The language would have one foot in the immediate world of animal perception and the other foot in the world of human concepts, so to speak.

Animals live in the moment, for the most part, and as a result are better at momentary tasks according to one study. As reported in an article from the American Association For The Advancement Of Science, recent studies have shown that animals may actually be quicker and more skilled at momentary tasks than humans. 

"It would be extremely rare to find a human with the “extraordinary working memory” of a chimpanzee...but the reasons for this may stem from a tradeoff between memory and language." [ED: memory mentioned here indicates the human preoccupation with time]

It stands to reason that if concepts of time were important to the invention of language, then early human concepts of time would be anchored around the present and the immediacy of the 'now' moment which is the fundamental aspect of time. 

T.S. Eliot defined the 'now' moment better than anyone -- because in a sense, 'now' is all there is.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, 
But neither arrest nor movement...
Except for the point, the still point, 
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. 
All is always now.
T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (1935)

A watch showing the time is NOW

All human communication is built around the critical now moment -- without which time would not exist. So it makes sense that the first languages would emphasize this since 'now' is the fundamental building block of time. This means an early language, such as that of the Piraha, would be 'now' oriented and would employ Everett's 'immediacy of experience principle'. In other words, the Piraha use time concepts, but they live primarily in the moment. They are present-oriented and so their concept of time is immediate.

As for recursion, it struck me that in most cases, recursion is used to express a time concept. Take the example: "This is the house that Jack built." The 'house' exists now in the present, but in the recursive phrase "that Jack built" we find the house was built in the past by Jack. In other words, recursive phrases are often, in a sense, 'time-stamped' and express a relationship in time -- which the Piraha do not need or want.


My ideas about time and language also work very nicely with languages that have evolved to the G3 level of modern languages. According to Everett and Chomsky, all modern languages have a full range of verb tenses or ways to express time along with recursion. While the human sense of time gave humans an ability to understand the way the world operated in time, language gave humans the ability to manipulate time. In short, language gave humans the tools to work with time.
For words are to thought what tools are to work; the product depends largely on the growth of the tools. 
Will Durant, History of Civilization: Part 1
When a G3 level of language evolved, humans were fully aware of the past and fearful of their future. Humans now understood that everything had a past and came from the past. They also understood about the future -- that it was uncertain and that events which had happened in the past, such as floods, earthquakes, diseases, crop failures, and invasions, could happen again. This understanding about the past and future (a kind of linear timeline) led to creation myths which explained where the world came from in the past and a mythology of gods and goddesses who might be influenced by human rituals to assure a satisfactory future.


One basic question remains: Which came first, the sense of time or language? I would suggest that it is a chicken or the egg kind of question. A more sophisticated understanding of time led to more complex ways to express it in words; a more complex language led to a deeper understanding of the sense of time and a better memory ability -- and so on. I have attempted to write a blog about this:
-- Patterns & Memory


Helen Keller reading the lips of Mrs. Coolidge, the President's wife.
Helen Keller reading the lips of Mrs. Coolidge, the President's wife.

Here is a concrete example of how closely language and time are related. Read Helen Keller's autobiographical story about being deaf, dumb, and blind and then going from an animalistic state to a conscious human one. When she suddenly learned words, she also suddenly understood time. See my blog about this:
Time & Consciousness


After seven years of writing this blog, I feel that Everett's theory of How Language Began fits very nicely with my ideas of the unique human capacity to understand linear time along with the development of a sophisticated understanding of past, present and future time. I believe this human ability to both understand and manipulate time provides the missing piece to the puzzle of Everett's work and also, perhaps, provides the engine that drove the development of language. More complex time concepts and words in language allowed humans to have more control over their environment which gave them more survival skills, survival being the driving force.

Animal Senses Compared to the Human Sense of Time

Patterns & Memory

The Human Revolution: Symbolic Culture

How Our Concept of Time Is Embedded & Derived from Our Language

Time & Consciousness

Virtual Human Meta-Time

The Ancient Manipulation of Time: Part 1

Creation Myths and Consciousness

The Birth of Gods in the Neolithic - The Ideas of Jacques Cauvin

The Development of Consciousness & the Origins of Religion

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Is Love Real? Is It A Real Emotion?


You and me, baby, ain't nothing but mammals
So, let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel
The Bloodhound Gang

What's love got to do, got to do with it
What's love but a second hand emotion
Songwriters: Graham Hamilton Lyle / Terry Britten
Sung by Tina Turner

Birds do it, bees do it...
Let's do it, let's fall in love
Cole Porter

Alfred Kinsey, the famous biologist who studied human sexuality the same way he might have studied the mating behavior of giraffes or hyenas, did not believe in love. Marriage was essentially about mating. And without that our species would not survive. 

love graphic
A recent summary of Kinsey's extensive studies about human sexuality said this:   His team wanted to show that humans could not escape their mammalian (read 'animal') heritage; in relation to sex, we were bound by our physiology to have certain responses in relation to stimuli. Although we like to think of the sexual act as being about love, Kinsey aimed to show that it was less about the higher mind than we liked to believe.

So this got me to thinking. Is love real or is it just sex in a cultural disguise? The answer is more complicated than I originally thought. The answer is both yes and no.

Young love.
Young love.

There were three different impulses/forces at work here:
  • Sex
  • Love
  • Marriage or a committed relationship
Now to begin at the beginning, sexual relations can occur without love, but Romantic Love cannot exist (until perhaps old age) without sex. So sex is at the core of Romantic Love. 


Marriage and children.
Marriage and children. 
The photo on the right is Elizabeth Taylor with husband Mike Todd and their baby Liza.

Marriage can be something quite different from either love or sex and it has a different meaning from culture to culture. 

In general terms, marriage is a civilized custom which attempts to contain and keep the animal desires of a couple within their marriage. However, its primary purpose is to provide a safe environment for children and an orderly inheritance process. Its primary purpose is to create order.

Almost like our own natural drives, the culture has its own driving forces, its own agenda which is not concerned with the happiness of individuals but with the society as a whole.

From Kinsey's point of view, marriage customs and expectations have a way of molding us like a horse slowly getting used to the feel of a saddle. This molding starts in childhood so that girls play with dolls and boys dream about finding a princess. By the time we are adults, we have learned to move and be ridden as though the demands of the culture were natural. We accept the custom of marriage and we plan on being with our spouse for the rest of our lives.

But, to be fair, not just civilization but biology and nature are also at work here. For the survival of the species, a couple needs to stay together long enough to bring up their children and to provide their children with a safe nurturing environment. And with the so-called 'long childhood' of human beings, our biology encourages us to remain in a long-term relationship.


But to get back to the question: What is love? 

This blog is about the human experience of time, and it turns out that time is fundamental to the emotion of love.

Love is about wanting to mate with someone and be with that person for the foreseeable future and wanting an exclusive relationship. So love is about sex, but it is also about time.

If you have not read my other blogs, I need to make this point: I believe we are the only animal who has a unique concept of time, i.e., we are the only animal who has a concept of linear time. No other animal can indicate 'when' in time. We can say when in the past, present and future plus we have a sophisticated concept of time from the past to the future. (Read my blog on this.)

In addition we human animals are always thinking about the future, according to the new science of Prospection. Our feelings and ideas about the future are critical to our sense of well-being and our survival. And loving someone is about your future with that person. Read more about this at this blog post:

So, it should not be surprising that our desire to mate could also have a time element. Love is that desire *over time*. While sex is immediate, love is thought of as long-term or forever, for example. And this is entirely consistent with our own animal nature which includes a sense of time.

A quick survey of songs -- which are often about love -- shows that time is frequently part of the love song, either stated directly or implied.

I did a search at and got the following results when I searched for 'Love you forever' »Search results for 'Love You Forever'Yee yee! We've found 309,506 lyrics, 116 artists, and 100 albums matching Love You Forever.     
And the interest in and passion of love continues from generation to generation. The somewhat cynical crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary, for example, has more definitions about love than any other word. Most of these definitions were written by young people. And most definitions include a sense of time.

An Urban Dictionary Definition of Love:
Love is wanting to hold her in ur arms till the end of time. Love is wishing ur time with her never ends, that your lips would be locked together forever, that she'd be in ur arms till the end of time, that u could cuddle with her for all of eternity. By ~Sabes~ November 15, 2004                    
A study of societies worldwide found that the experience of love was known to almost all of them. A recent anthropological study showed that love was multi-cultural and the effect on our brains and our emotions was almost exactly the same. Scientists did brain scans and found no difference between cultures.


Yet how each culture dealt with this emotion was quite different. 
“How we go through the process of love can be very culturally defined,” but the experience of love is really not so different from culture to culture.

Neolithic Venus figurine (left), Isis-Aphrodite (middle), Greek Aphrodite (right).
Neolithic Venus figurine (left), Isis-Aphrodite (middle), Greek Aphrodite (right). 
These figurines and statues which go back perhaps 5,000 years depict the Goddess Aphrodite who was the goddess of love, procreation, beauty and sexual pleasure. Isis-Aphrodite, the middle goddess (above), was a merging of the Egyptian fertility Goddess Isis with the Greek Goddess Aphrodite.

However, since love occurs over time, and since it usually results in the birth of children, cultural norms and expectations come into the picture. As anthropologists have found out, some cultures emphasize certain emotions and suppress others. 

When freelance producer Rebecca Kanthor talked to people on the street in Shanghai about love, the word that kept coming up was “responsibility.”“Being involved in a romantic relationship is a lot like having a job, actually,” says Jessie Chen, 24, a Shanghai accountant. “Both of them are very risky, can be risky. Having a job is risky. Having a romantic relationship can be risky.”

Also in Asia, some cultures see love as selfish and some see it as interfering with the traditional customs of marriage.

In countries with a tradition of arranged marriage, falling in love is disruptive and dangerous. Historian Stephanie Coontz studies marriage, and she says only recently has there been an assumption that love would come before marriage.Historically, “falling in love before marriage in India was considered an actively antisocial act,” Coontz says. “In ancient China, the word for love connoted a very socially disrespectable relationship.”Falling in love is arguably about pleasing yourself, and some cultures put more emphasis than westerners do on serving your family or your community.

In a society with many written and unwritten rules about marriage and affairs, love could be quite disruptive. In Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, for example, Anna's crime was not that she was having an affair but rather that she loved Count Vronsky and openly showed it.

Love was particularly dangerous in a stratified class society since it was well known that the classes did not mix. But love knows few boundaries and mutual attraction is hard to predict. So a prince might fall in love with an illiterate peasant girl or a duchess might seduce a stable boy. The novel by D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, shocked many people at the time not because she was having an affair, but because she was having an affair with a lower-class uneducated gardener whom she loved. 

Today in the modern democratic societies of the West love between different levels of society has been less of a problem, but this problem has never gone away. If a college boy wants to marry a lunch counter waitress with a high school education, for example, his friends often disapprove.


"Love is all you need." 
The Beatles

In the West, love has an elevated status which creates its own set of problems. From an early age, most girls and boys believe that can find 'the one' and be happy for the rest of their lives. As psychologists have pointed out, these cultural expectations are much too high. And because they are so high, the euphoria of a new marriage or falling in love often fades into deep disappointment. 

The excitement of falling in love.
The excitement of falling in love.

However, this ideal of true love has a long history in the West. While some scholars have said it came from the Middle Ages and troubadours singing about love, its roots go much deeper.

Soul-mates: Plato 
In his dialogue The Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes present a story about soulmates. Aristophanes states that humans originally had four arms, four legs, and a single head made of two faces. The men were children of the sun, the women were children of the earth... It is said that humans had great strength at the time and threatened to conquer the gods. The gods were then faced with the prospect of destroying the humans with lightning... Zeus developed a creative solution by splitting humans in half as punishment for humanity's pride... These split humans were in utter misery to the point where they would not eat and would perish so Apollo had sewn them up and reconstituted their bodies with the navel being the only remnant harkening back to their original form. Each human would then ... long for his/her other half; the other half of his/her soul. It is said that when the two find each other, there is an unspoken understanding of one another, that they feel unified and would lie with each other in unity and would know no greater joy than that.

 The passionate kiss.
 The passionate kiss.

This belief in soul-mates is very much alive today. Here is another definition from the contemporary crowd-sourced Urban Dictionary:
Soul mates by definition are two completely strangers who meet unexpectedly in life and feel this unbreakable bond which hides true love, unbelievable desire, passion and the wiliness to find each other in life.greekona20 July 16, 2009

In Psychology Today I found the following:
...according to a January 2011 Marist poll, 73% of Americans believe that they are destined to find their one, true, soul mate. The percentage is a bit higher for men (74%) than women (71%). The notion is also higher among younger individuals, with 79% of those under 45 believing in soul mates (as opposed to 69% of those over 45).  Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D., Psychology Today

But an inflexible belief that you can find the 'perfect' partner is counterproductive.

In all relationships, however, disagreement, conflict, and incompatibility will arise. Ultimately, no one is perfect - or a perfect fit for a partner. It takes work, growth, and change to keep a relationship going and satisfying over time. When that happens, soul mate believers often become upset, disillusioned, and uncommitted.  Jeremy Nicholson M.S.W., Ph.D., Psychology Today

It seems that in the West, the culture has attempted to merge marriage and love. The demands of marriage and the excitement of love have come together in our modern view of nuptial bliss. However, if expectations are too high, the marriage will probably fail. Nevertheless, that is how Western culture has accommodated this basic emotion of love.

Love and marriage, love and marriage
They go together like a horse and carriage... 
Dad was told by mother...You can't have one without the other
Songwriters: James Van Heusen / Sammy Cahn 
Sung by Frank Sinatra

Like many human urges and emotions, love presents its own problems. Each society finds ways to deal with it or mold it or suppress it. 


Nevertheless, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this post: 
I believe Romantic Love is a very real basic human emotion. It is sexual desire and a desire for companionship exclusively for one person over time. 

Couples through the ages.
Couples through the ages.


So is a lifelong love possible? Consider:

What follows is a tune written by Irving Berlin to and for his beloved wife, Ellin, as a wedding present. He was a much older Jewish lower class immigrant who fell in love with a Catholic upper crust heiress. They were deeply in love and they married against her father's wishes. Her father disowned her when she married but then Berlin wrote this song for her and gave her exclusive rights to the substantial royalties so she would always have an income no matter what. For the next sixty years, their love continued until she died at the age of 85 in 1988. Berlin died the following year at the age of 101.

By Irving Berlin 
For the longest while
I'd forget to smile,
Then I met you.
Now that my blue days have passed,
Now that I've found you at last -

I'll be loving you 
With a love that's true 
When the things you've planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand 


Days may not be fair 
That's when I'll be there 
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
But always.




Rebel Without a Cause
toward a new understanding of love

The often misunderstood movie, Rebel Without a Cause, attempted to reshape the love relationship. James Dean presented a new masculine image that is still relevant today. Courageous yet sensitive, vulnerable and affectionate, he was not afraid to show his feelings. 

James Dean
The Dean character is often at odds with his parents. He rejects their way of relating, their distant and dysfunctional relationship, and yearns for something more. And this is why he is rebelling even though he, himself, does not really understand why.

, the James Dean character is picked up by police for public drunkenness. When his parents come to get him, they start arguing among themselves until Dean screams, "You're tearing me apart."
At the beginning of the movie, the James Dean character is picked up by police for public drunkenness. When his parents come to get him, they start arguing among themselves until Dean screams, "You're tearing me apart."

the Dean character tells his parents about the chicken car race that he was in.
In this pivotal scene, the Dean character tells his parents about the chicken car race that he was in. The boy driving the other car was killed. Dean screams at his parents, in the famous line, "But I am involved! WE ARE ALL INVOLVED!"

Love between Dean character and Natalie Wood
Toward the end of the movie, the Dean character and Natalie Wood (as pretend parents) and Sal Mineo (their pretend child) attempt to form a family unit that is new and different, one that is clearly distinct from Dean's movie parents' distant marriage. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Gorecki: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, A Review

A Review of Gorecki's Symphony #3,
The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

The word for Sorrow, 'zalosnych' in Polish, also can be translated 
as mournful, forlorn, plaintive, poignant, doleful.
Why am I writing a review of a modern classical work in my blog about time? Simple. I believe that Gorecki's Symphony #3 is a great work that will stand the test of time and thus, in a sense, is timeless. I believe it will continue to attract audiences a hundred years from now. Great works, in a sense, exist outside of time because they continue to be important from generation to generation. But as I have written each work is often interpreted or understood differently as time goes on -- what is important is that the work is compelling -- and that is what makes it great. See more about this idea in this blog of mine:
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki 

How to you write a critical review of a masterpiece?

Well -- you don't. At least not in the sense of picking it apart, the way you might approach a lesser piece.

A masterpiece, almost by definition, has pieces that fit together in surprising and unusual ways -- ways that often defy conventional tastes and ideas -- often in ways that cannot be explained. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts in such a work. 

All of this occurred to me when I heard Gorecki's Symphony #3, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, for at least the 10th time. 

Perhaps the most powerful piece of contemporary modern classical music, it breaks all the rules. If you are not moved after the 50+ minutes it takes to hear all three slow movements, you might want to check yourself for a pulse.

Nevertheless having said that, you must be in the mood to listen to about an hour of slow repeating chords. Go somewhere quiet, turn off your cell phone and make sure you will not be interrupted. If you are in a hurry or are not willing to pay attention, don't even try to absorb what this music has to offer.

There is something really deep here. And it is achieved in the most unusual way. The orchestra sounds like one large instrument rather than a collection of individual ones, with the exception of the piano that breaks in from time to time. And more than that the full sound of the orchestra vibrates as much as it plays -- taking the sound to another dimension.

Starting as a barely audible rumbling, the low reverberating mostly string music builds -- until emerging from this almost earth-like grounding a female soprano comes to life -- her voice at first indistinguishable from the chords of the orchestra but soon lifting itself high above it.

Most people will not understand the Polish words or will not have read a translation of the text, nevertheless, her feelings are unmistakable. There is a sorrow and a triumph -- a sense of loss and a desire to go on. Her high solos notes stand in sharp contrast to the low orchestral sounds. Somehow Gorecki has put it together, high and low, life and death, sorrow and healing.

Arguably Gorecki reaches a spectrum of emotion in this long work that no other composer has been able to reach. Not even Mozart's magnificent Requiem or Beethoven's Funeral March which is the second movement of his ground breaking Third Symphony, the Eroica, reach this deep. Nor Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Although Bach's Mass in B Minor comes close. 

The auditorium of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

When it was first performed, the Western critics did not 'get it'. All (yes all) of them panned it -- which would not be the first time a brilliant new work has been misunderstood. Now to be fair, a masterpiece often breaks the rules -- so people may not 'get it' right away. It can take years or decades or even centuries for its true worth to be recognized as in the case of J. S. Bach. His work was ignored for over 100 years after his death and as a result, much of it was lost.



Almost twenty years later when it was clear that this symphony had touched hundreds of thousands of people, a critic would write:
"There are several reasons for the popularity of Gorecki's music," critic Joseph McLellan wrote in The Washington Post in 1995. "He is less concerned with the structural subtleties or stylistic innovations that preoccupied so many composers in the post-World War II generation. Instead, his music communicates pure emotion."
While I agree with the above review that Gorecki communicates pure emotion, it nevertheless glosses over the subtlety of this work. For example, the long orchestral introduction that sets the stage before the soprano arrives, is fabricated from all seven modes of the major scale masterfully strung together in a canon. Like any great work, this only begins to reveal its secrets after many listenings.

Fortunately, Gorecki did live to see his work triumph, unlike other artists such as Herman Melville who died long before Moby Dick was considered the masterpiece of American literature as I have written.

No one was more surprised that the composer himself when this piece suddenly became the best selling piece of modern classical music 15 years after it had been first performed. I think Gorecki got it right when he said that it answered an unspoken need in many people, a need that could only have been answered in this way -- beyond rational explanations.

A seasoned and experimental composer, Gorecki knew a lot about sound as sound. This very modern idea meant that the orchestra not only plays notes but it breathes, if you will; it resonates and vibrates. Gorecki uses this in a masterful but unobtrusive way to reach, I believe, our deepest feelings. A slow canon, based on modal Polish folk tunes, evolves organically. Almost inaudible at first, the mostly string orchestra pulls itself up note by note. The orchestra pulses louder and louder until a piano, in sharp contrast, breaks the mood and announces the arrival of the soprano. Her voice at first is tangled with that of the orchestra until she slowly lifts from the darkness of the strings to soar above them but at the same time, she carries death and loss and grief with her like a bird floating overhead who can see the carnage from above. In the second movement, she seems to find a kind of acceptance and in the third movement a wounded Epiphany. Her strikingly strong feminine voice has a certainty which seems to come to terms with the darkness of the mostly string orchestra that is always throbbing below her song. 

One of many Polish orchestras

Dawn Upshaw (soprano); David Zinman & London Sinfonietta.

Zofia Kilanowicz (soprano); Antoni Wit & the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

What that man creates by means of reason 
will pale before the art of inspired beings. 

A true masterpiece is, I believe, a gift from the gods. It is the human spirit that goes beyond all its learning and skills, its determination and logic, to create something that even the artist did not expect or could have predicted. Great artists open themselves to this possibility -- when the creative act moves them to reach higher than they thought possible and allows them to bring back a shining prize stolen from heaven.



The 1977 world premiere at the Royan Festival, Ernest Bour conducting, was reviewed by six western critics, all of them harshly dismissive. Heinz Koch, writing for Musica, said that the symphony "drags through three old folk melodies (and nothing else) for an endless 55 minutes".  Quoted from:
Pierre Boulez is reported to have said, "Merde !" as he sat next to Gorecki at its premiere performance. Another critic called it "decadent trash."

It got a bad initial reception because the principal musicians at the time were deeply mired in experimental music -- a music that was quite cerebral and that played with sound as sound rather than music as an emotional conduit. Gorecki had been part of the group, but with this symphony, he had gone in a new and different direction.

Fifteen years later in 1992 the symphony came out on CD and sold about a million copies by 1998. Everyone including Gorecki was surprised by this, but it was clear that it had struck a nerve.

Nevertheless, critics continued to dismiss the depth and meaning of this work.
In 1998, the critic Michael Steinberg asked, "[are people] really listening to this symphony? How many CD buyers discover that fifty-four minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want? Is it being played as background music to Chardonnay and brie?" Steinberg compared the success of Górecki's symphony to the Doctor Zhivago phenomenon of 1958: "Everybody rushed to buy the book; few managed actually to read it. The appearance of the movie in 1965 rescued us all from the necessity."Quoted from:

This superior and condescending review revealed much more about the reviewer than the music. He admitted that he 'didn't get it' even though hundreds of thousands of other listeners did 'get it'. 

After hearing about Bonnie and Clyde's violent holdups where they only stole 5 or 10 dollars, the famous bank robber John Dillinger said something in this vein: Hoodlums like these give robbers a bad name. We could say the same about Michael Steinberg. This insensitive critic, who was incapable of hearing what others had found profound and then dismissed their experience, gives criticism a bad name.  

Gorecki's reaction to his sudden fame and wealth was quite different. It was not about trendy critics and chic gatherings with Chardonnay and brie. When Nonesuch sent him a check for several hundred thousand dollars (about twice that today), he was at a loss. He apparently folded the check, put it in his wallet and would not cash it. Eventually, Nonesuch had to reissue a replacement check. 

Understandably other critics accepted its wide appeal but did question why a Polish nationalist composer whose work was derived from Polish folk music and was sung in Polish that most people would not understand, could be so popular. And that is a valid question as this symphony is definitely a deeply Polish work.

From the beginning this symphony was well received in Poland; early on some called it a masterpiece. Many in Poland saw this work as the natural successor to the modern Stabat Mater by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. But, of course, this acceptance by his countrymen just reinforced the opinion of international critics that this was at best only a work for those in Poland. 

However, the Catholic hymn of sorrows, Stabat Mater, has been a mainstay of classical music for 400 years. There have been well over 50 such compositions from Palestrina in 1590 to Arvo Part in 1985. So while Gorecki was continuing the Polish musical tradition, he was also continuing the international Western musical tradition.


Commenting on this symphony, the website said this:
Polish folk songs, folk music idioms, Polish text, Polish religious tradition, the citation of Polish composers’ music, Polish history, the nature of Polish mountains, all this woven into three slow movements of highly emotionally evocative music. Quoted from:

The website added this:
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki has remained rooted in southern Poland where his deep awareness of Polish folk culture and religious heritage have formed the standing stones of his musical language....Górecki has increasingly allowed the simplicity of these building blocks to stand on their own terms. Quoted from:

But to answer the question: Why would a nationalist symphonic work have worldwide appeal? The answer is quite simple. George Bernard Shaw said it best.

The man who writes about himself and his own time 
is the only man who writes about all people and all time.
~ George Bernard Shaw ~ 


Nevertheless, a number of critics continued to dismiss the work because it was too limited and too much a part of Polish culture, but again these knowledgeable critics should have known better.

Using the logic of Michael Steinberg about slow music in a language most people would not understand, we could then eliminate Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen because it is sung in German, a language most people even in the West do not understand, and it goes on for about 15 hours and it is based on an obscure German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied which was written in middle German about 1200 CE, and is based also on little known Teutonic Mythology.

But, of course, we all know that this is a great work -- so Steinberg's logic collapses and instead reveals a lack of respect for work that comes from Poland and other such places.

As these critics and Steinberg were well aware some of the most popular pieces of classical music -- all of which were and are part of the standard orchestral repertoire -- have these same nationalistic characteristics:
For example, The Moldau is one of the most popular symphonic pieces today. Czech composer Smetana wrote this music about his country's (called Bohemia at the time) great river and drew on Czech folk tunes for the music.

-- Peer Gynt by Norwegian composer Grieg is based on Norwegian folk music and fairy tales 
-- Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies are based on Hungarian folk themes
-- Dvorak's New World Symphony includes the famous slow second movement which was inspired by African-American folk tunes -- this largo, known as "Goin' Home," is quite slow and was played around the country when Franklin Roosevelt died

In the same manner as these pieces, the Polish music of Gorecki comes from the soul of a country with a history of terrible sorrow caused by Nazi and Russian Communist domination and delivers a feeling that only a composer with such a background could write. 

Even so other critics wondered why only one of Gorecki's works was so popular and also questioned the use of ancient music in Symphony #3. Again this would not be the first time that such a work was quite popular.

Carmina Burana is also such a piece. Carmina Burana is based on text from the 11th and 12th century and composed in a renaissance and baroque style has been wildly popular since it first premiered in 1937. Yet it is also a 'one hit wonder' as no other piece of Carl Orff's has become well known.


Many years later when it was clear that this work had touched thousands of people, a critic wrote:

Gorecki seems to have tapped into a deep need of people in this most secular and uncertain times, a need for meaning, for spiritual comfort, for security. 

According to the New York Times by 2017 the Nonesuch recording (the first major recording) had sold well over one million copies. This does not include the sales of the 17 other recordings. And it does not include the more than two million times it has been accessed on YouTube. And since sales and such are the way we assign worth or importance these days, this passes the test.

It probably counts as the best selling
contemporary classical record of all time.

On February 24, 1989 -- three years before Gorecki's symphony became popular and before I had heard it -- I drove from the coast of North Carolina to Durham in a blinding snowstorm to hear Phillip Glass's 10,000 Airplanes on the Roof at Duke University. I especially wanted to be there because it would give me a chance, perhaps, to meet Phillip Glass. And I did get to talk with him. I asked him why contemporary composers had become obsessed with dissonance, serial composition, atonal works and non-musical sounds which, as a result, had left them with a very small audience. I suggested that the contemporary musicians should follow the ideas of Bela Bartok who took folk music and modal music and turned these into modern compositions. To my surprise, Glass agreed with me -- and said something like, well it took us a while but we figured it out. A few years later I heard this Gorecki Symphony #3. He had done exactly what I had suggested to Glass -- and he had done it after thoroughly examining and experimenting with those modern techniques of dissonance etc.

The generation of composers that are just preceded me, people like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, [Pierre] Boulez, and, well, [John] Cage for that matter, [Morton] Feldman ... That was a kind of experimental music that was very isolated. It had no real public.
Philip Glass