Sunday, May 31, 2009

May 31, 1809: REQUIESCAT IN PACE

For those who keep track of such matters with precision, today is the day on which, two hundred years ago, Joseph Haydn died in Vienna. I had hoped that there would be some recognition of this event at this afternoon's chamber music recital by San Francisco Symphony musicians, but this does not appear to be the case. Even the presence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is through his K. 498 trio for viola, clarinet, and piano (the "Kegelstatt"), rather than through one of the quartets he dedicated to Haydn. In terms of music for the occasion, it is interesting to observe that, at least according to the Hoboken catalog, Haydn never composed a full setting of the requiem mass, never getting beyond several settings of the "Requiem" text itself and four of the "Libera me" text, one of which was published in 1790. As a result, the music performed at his memorial service, which did not take place until June 15, 1809 at the Schottenkirche, was Mozart's K. 626 requiem (presumably in the version completed by Franz Xaver Süssmayr).

For my part I am marking the day by having arrived at the final base camp for my ascent of the Mount Haydn of the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition. This is the "stage" of his solo keyboard music; and, after having to slog through all of that baryton music (so much of which seems to have been gratuitous work for his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy), I am particularly glad to have arrived at a stage of my listening where it is so easy to look back on Haydn's life with good thoughts. These thoughts were actually primed by a wonderful anniversary program given by William Wellborn under the auspices of the Noontime Concerts™ recital series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral; and, in preparing my Examiner.com review of this concert, I took some "sneak peeks" at this portion of the Brilliant collection.

Given my frustration with how Haydn's string quartets were represented in this collection, I am relieved to report that both of the sonatas Wellborn performed (the Sturm und Drang C minor sonata, Hoboken XVI/20, and the final sonata in the Hoboken catalog, XVI/52 in E-flat major) were included in the collection. Unfortunately, like the quartets, the sonatas have been recorded in a jumbled order, which is about as frustrating as the ordering of the cantatas in the Bach Edition; but, while the Bach Edition provided a data CD for finding a specific cantata, the Haydn Edition CD-ROM offers no such assistance. The good news is that, upon initial inspection and comparison with the Hoboken catalog, there do not appear to be any significant omissions. Also good news is that all of these recordings were of performances by Bart van Oort on a fortepiano. Van Oort is a member of the Van Swieten Society, whose performances of the piano trios had given me so much pleasure for their efforts towards "Honoring Haydn's Sound," as I had put it in the title of an earlier blog post. I thus find listening to these recordings a perfect way to recognize Haydn's music, in both theory and practice, on this special anniversary of his death.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Evanescent Blogosphere

Word came down yesterday that the days of Yahoo! 360° are numbered. Thus, with everything else on my plate, I had to worry about the preservation of my old Reflections Beyond Technology blog. Fortunately, Yahoo! offered what appeared to be an easy path to preservation, which was to migrate it to my (new?) Yahoo! profile page. This, as they say, was better than nothing, although I discovered that all of my tag information had been lost. Another thing I could do was create my own archival version. This turned out to be a zip file consisting of a single txt file with the HTML code for each of the 262 entries (again, without any tag information) and a folder for all of my images. Apparently the Yahoo! idea of an archive has a basic understanding of data and something between benign neglect and abject ignorance where metadata are concerned!

In the best of all possible worlds, I would like to migrate the Reflections Beyond Technology blog, as it was first written and tagged, into a new blog that I have actually now created on Blogger. However, neither Yahoo! nor Blogger has provided the tools to enable such a migration; and, as what are laughingly called the "Blogger Help Resources" observe, there is little I can do other than recreate the blog, item by item, making sure that all hyperlinks still point in the right direction. Meanwhile, I now have the new site on Yahoo!, which lacks any support for search and any metadata tools for browsing.

My guess is that nature is telling me to take a serious look at what I wrote on Reflections Beyond Technology under the assumption that it is not really necessary to keep it all for posterity. Having thus sobered myself, I can construct a new, revised and reduced, version as an new Blogger blog, bringing the old tags back to life before Yahoo! consigns them to the ash-heap of history along with the rest of Yahoo! 360°. This is probably the fairest way to proceed. For all I have written about the value of high-quality editing, I suppose it is about time I apply some of that value to myself!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Faking Stravinsky

There is an interesting story about the relationship between Igor Stravinsky and the Hollywood film industry. When Darryl Zanuck decided to make a movie out of Franz Werfel's novel, The Song of Bernadette, Werfel lobbied heavily for Stravinsky to compose the score. He got his wish. However, the rest of the story can be found on IMDb as follows:

The movie's original score was partly composed by famous composer Igor Stravinsky but was subsequently rejected in favor of Alfred Newman's score. When Stravinsky was invited to a screening so he could plot out his score, he replied that he'd already begun. Evincing an unwillingness to change what he'd already composed, he was released from his contract. The second movement of his Symphony in Three Movements evolved out of the unused score.

This is the closest Stravinsky ever got to actually composing for the Hollywood moguls, although, as the hyperlink to his name demonstrates, his compositions have been appropriated for a wide variety of films (my personal favorite always being the adoption of some of his Soldier's Tale music in the film version of The Balcony).

Beyond these appropriations, however, is the work of film composers who tried to capture the "Stravinsky sound" for their own devices. As I recently wrote on Examiner.com, Bernard Hermann did this particularly effectively in his music for the opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (one of those fine points that did not make it to the IMDb Trivia page for this film). However, the Bernadette music was a product of Stravinsky's neoclassical period; and composers who tried to "fake" the neoclassical Stravinsky are harder to find.

Today, however, I found one; and he is a perfectly respectable composer in his own right. He is Richard Rodney Bennett, and his labors constitute the score for the television movie John Schlesinger made of The Tale of Sweeney Todd. My inclination is to view this as a sincere (if somewhat concealed) homage on Bennett's part; and I believe it is related to a key way in which Schlesinger's conception differed from the Stephen Sondheim musical (which has now migrated to several opera houses). The Sondheim version is set in the physical and moral filth of Industrial Age London, hence his decision to welcome the audience with that blast of a hideous steam whistle. Schlesinger, on the other hand, opted for an earlier time, which is basically that of the London captured by William Hogarth. In other words this is the London of Hogarth's Rake's Progress, the basis for Stravinsky's only full-length opera. Whether or not the rights to this music were available, there is no way that it would have fit in with Schlesinger's conception of the narrative; so I would guess that Bennett was tasked with capturing the spirit of that opera with incidental music that would better serve Schlesinger's contexts. Bennett achieved his task with both success and subtlety. Stravinsky is, indeed, honored by his efforts, but in ways that only hard-core Stravinsky addicts will grasp and enjoy. Everyone else can rest content with the penny-dreadful effects and Ben Kingsley at his most sinister. Also, unless I am mistaken, the references to The Rake's Progress are complemented with a few nods to that Symphony in Three Movements, almost as if to reassure Stravinsky's spirit that his efforts finally conquered the silver screen.

Notes and Music

On the whole I tend to be happy with the level of understanding that Michael Tilson Thomas brings to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony, and this was certainly the case for the first concert in the Dawn to Twilight Schubert/Berg Festival, currently taking place at Davies Symphony Hall. However, Steven Winn's account of that concert in the San Francisco Chronicle reminded me that it is easier for me to take issue with some of the things Thomas says, rather than performs. Thomas is never shy about picking up a microphone and offering his personal thoughts on music the audience is about to hear. On Wednesday night he chose to do this for Alban Berg's Opus 6 three pieces for orchestra, and it was interesting that those remarks were not simply a replay of the observations he made when he last performed the work in January.

I suppose one reason why his remarks went off in a new direction was that he was now talking about Berg in the context of a series of concerts shared with Franz Schubert. My own reaction, even taking those remarks into account, has been to put aside too many thoughts about any connection between Schubert and Berg along with any thoughts about that dawn/twilight metaphor; but it took Winn to remind me that my dismissive attitude may have had something to do with one of Thomas' comments. This was his suggestion that Schubert and Berg shared a "profound belief in the meaning of notes." This is one of those turns of phrase that sounds so elegant that one almost feels guilty in questioning it, but question it I must.

The basis for my questioning takes me back to my study of Noam Chomsky's Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, to which I appealed in one of my most recent attempts to rough out a theory of musical performance. Like many of his contemporaries, Chomsky wished to view the structure of language in terms of three layers, the phonological, the syntactic, and the semantic. Chomsky believed that each of these layers was rule-based. His work on phonological rules was performed in collaboration with Morris Halle, while his structural approach to syntax was pretty much on his own nickel, as was his ideological conviction that any model of semantics could be grounded in a model of syntactic competence.

From this point of view, I would raise the question: What is a note; and where is it situated in Chomsky's three-layer model? One way to answer the question is by dismissing a note as nothing more than an artifact of notation, which, by virtue of its role as signifier (rather than signified), has no place at all in Chomsky's model. That however begs the more interesting question about what the signified is in that semiotic framework. Having first occupied myself with this question in the area of computer music (and having published the results of that occupation in the Journal of Music Theory back in 1974), I continue to hold to the premise that the note-as-signifier signifies an event, more specifically a sound-producing event. Any competence in such sound production resides almost exclusively on Chomsky's phonological level (although there have been many experiments, some of which have been quite interesting, in which the performance of music seemed to involve nothing more than the production of specific sounds according to highly rigorous specifications). I would then argue that (disregarding any of those sound-based experiments), the production of sound is two levels removed from the semantic layer; and it is only at the semantic layer that we can talk about meaning in any "meaningful" way. Thus, from a strictly logical point of view, the very phrase "meaning of notes" is inconsistent with the axioms of any model we might try to develop for a semantic perspective on music.

Having undermined this phrase, I shall now muster up enough chutzpah to suggest what Thomas may have been meaning to say in this deficient choice of words: I would suggest that the "profound belief" that Schubert and Berg shared was in the significance of the moment, however brief that moment may be. This was particularly evident in his coupling of Berg's Opus 6 with Schubert's B minor D. 759 symphony ("Unfinished") in the second half of the program he had arranged. He performed both of these works in such a way that the management of orchestral color, even over the briefest intervals of time, carried as much "semantic significance" as the elements of themes, harmonies, and overall structure. Indeed (as long as I am on a roll with my chutzpah) it may be that Schubert never finished D. 759 because this approach to "being in the moment with every sound" was so demanding that he could not keep it up for another two movements; and, in a similar way, Berg could only focus on individual movements without worrying about organizing them under a larger structure. (In Berg's case, however, that larger structure eventually emerged. It was his opera Wozzeck.)

I realize that to frame all of these observations as hypotheses will not lessen the impact of their chutzpah. However, hypotheses are meant to start conversations; and I cannot imagine that Thomas intended his statement about the "meaning of notes" to be anything more than a hypothesis (even if it had been declaimed as an assertion for its dramatic impact on his audience). That being the case, then all I have done has been to pick up the conversation and offer an alternative hypothesis as the next move. As a rule I do not believe it is the role of the critic to speak to the power of the maestro, but it is the role of the writer to seek out questions that are worth asking and try to follow where they lead!

Being a Patient in the Objective, Subjective, and Social Worlds

I had a strong temptation to succumb to Las Vegas standup humor at its crudest and give this post the title "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bathroom;" but I decided to opt for a title more in keeping with my personal interests in social theory. Whether or not the event is actually funny is a matter of personal taste, but I found myself in a curious position with regard to my meeting with my radiologist on Wednesday. As I wrote at that time, I was having my first experience with a side effect from my radiation treatment; and it was not one for which I had been prepared. Apparently, the radiation was irritating the rectum, causing it to swell, thus reducing its internal diameter, resulting in a case of constipation like none I had ever experienced. As I reported on Wednesday, my radiologist was ready with a hypothesized diagnosis after asking some key questions about the stools themselves; and, after making some suggestions for what I could do about the condition, he concluded with the observation that the swelling would eventually reduce of its own accord.

That is what seems to have begun to happen this morning; and, beyond a general feeling of intimations of relief, I found myself reflecting (as I cannot help but do) on the role that knowledge may have played in this process. My conclusion is that ignorance tends to induce stress (at least among those of us who are averse to ignorance); and stress just makes a bad situation (like the rectal swelling) feel worse than it may feel under other conditions. Put another way, this is a clear example of how we construct our own reality from the knowledge we have. This does not disregard the "objective data" concerned with the rectal swelling; but it does impact how those objective data actually feel. There is no mysticism here—just the interplay of the objective world of my "body state" and the subjective world of how that state "felt" to me. That interplay was then mediated by the social world of my conversation with my radiologist; but that conversation, in turn, had to account for the subjective world of my description and my radiologist's objective world of my physiology. Thus, to move this to Ludwig Wittgenstein's turf, while my radiologist could never "feel my pain," we could engage in a language game through which he could address my "private" feelings and provide me with a way to interpret (and thus understand) them. Once they were so understood, my mental attitude could shift from suffering a malady to moving towards the healing of that malady. Hence my choice of title: One of my other subjective feelings is my sense of being a patient in the objective, subjective, and social worlds!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

LISTEN without Listening

This week the mail brought me a complimentary copy of the new magazine Listen, subtitled Life with Classical Music. The peel-off cover that included my address and the invitation to subscribe, as well as the Web site, described this publication as "America's bimonthly magazine about classical music in our daily lives." This is all very well and good, but a quick examination of the table of contents reveals an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance around the magazine's title. On the basis of the articles summarized on the contents pages (and, for the articles I read, the summaries did justice to the articles themselves), that fundamental act of listening, which has occupied so much of my own attention in writing about the performance of music, has little, if anything, to do with "classical music in our daily lives." Indeed, I had to wonder whether the editorial bias was more gustatory than auditory in light of some of the items I encountered while visiting the articles in my complimentary issue:

  • A photograph of Gustavo Dudamel posing with a Dudamel Dog in front of Pink's in Hollywood.
  • A "Cooking" section featuring Hilary Hahn.
  • Daniel Hope discussing "My Favorite Things," one of which was the Johann Sebastian Bach bar in Valencia.

Notwithstanding my agreement with Dudamel being quoted that "Music is a social art," I did not need this wisdom to be laced with a comment on "his endearingly broken English." What matters is the music and how we experience that music; and this is particularly important when you have a conductor like Dudamel, who can have such an overwhelmingly positive impact on that experience. Unfortunately a Fluffschrift like Listen seems more interested in bringing the reader closer to such performers by presenting them as "just folks like the rest of us." The problem is that the very nature of their work entails that they cannot be "just folks like the rest of us;" so all that really matters is that "the rest of us" are properly disposed to listen when these performers go to work.

Ironically, creating such a disposition is precisely what Spike Lee just did for basketball in the Kobe Doin' Work documentary, which recently aired (without any commercial interruptions) on ESPN. Perhaps, when the Lakers are not so busy, Lee will find time to wander over to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. If Gustavo Doin' Work could clue us in to some of the things that really go on during a concert performance as well as Kobe Doin' Work made us better observers of basketball, our concert experiences would probably be significantly enriched.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

An Unanticipated Side Effect

Part of my preparation for my radiation treatment involved the warning that one possible side effect would be loose bowels. I was not warned that this particular side effect pendulum could swing in the opposite direction. Thus, when, during my weekly review with my radiologist last week, I reported I had begun to experience constipation, my radiologist reacted with some surprise. When I asked if I could take a stool softener, his response was, "Only one!," presumably as a safeguard against the pendulum reversing its direction.

By today I had far more to discuss. The pendulum had not reversed direction, and it seemed as if I was just beginning to feel the effects of one stool softener taken every night. When I described my situation as feeling as if there was some constriction in the colon, he started asking detailed questions about the nature of the stools themselves. I answered to the best of my combined abilities of observation, memory, and description; but these seemed sufficient for him to offer a viable hypothesis. One possible side effect of the radiation is irritation to the rectum, and the rectum reacts by swelling. Hence, there probably was a reality behind my imagined feelings of constriction. He suggested that there were several ways to resolve the problem through diet change, but none of these were practical in the context of the dietary constraints we were already practicing at home. I asked if I could continue with the stool softener, and he said that this was another option. He said that the swelling would eventually reduce of its own accord, probably before my treatment had concluded.

It thus seems that I have experienced a side effect for which there was a plausible explanation, but it was one that had not been anticipated. These things happen. Now that I have a better sense of what the problem may be, it is easier for me to live with it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Don't Bring Down the House!

I am all for coming up with new ways to encourage concert audiences. However, this dispatch from Reuters raised at least one of my eyebrows:

Milan's Gothic cathedral will hold its first rooftop classical music concerts this year, officials said on Monday.

The Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo, the organization responsible since 1387 for overseeing the Duomo, said the five concerts will feature a 60-piece orchestra and choir performing about 50 meters (165 feet) above the ground.

The roof is one of Milan's top tourist attractions, with views stretching north to the snow-capped Alps.

"It is absolutely the first time in more than six centuries. When I was planning the concerts it was a surprise no one had ever done it (before)," Gianni Baratta, the project's artistic director, said after a news conference.

The music for this year's concerts from June 10 to July 15 will feature 19th century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi.

The 500 tickets for the first concert will go to guests of the Duomo, sponsors and the public, who can enter an online draw for free entry. The Duomo is the second biggest church in Italy after St. Peter's in Rome.

One can only hope that someone has done the necessary calculations to estimate the strength of this roof and the stresses it will have to endure. This is one series of concerts whose success should not be gauged by whether or not the performance brings down the house!

The "Laws" of Physics

It is interesting to observe that the heavy exchange of comments over Stanley Kutler's Truthdig article, which began with the premise that Congress is "broken," has migrated into some of the finer points of Buddhism. I find myself absorbed in this discussion until I was jolted by a comment by "prgill," which asserted that "trees, rocks, and bouncing balls" all "demonstrate intelligence to the extent that they obey the laws of physics." With my own passion for the accurate use of language, I realized (perhaps for the first time) that the phrase "obey the laws of physics" is a dangerously deceptive barbarism. The actions of bouncing balls (to take the simplest case) are explained by the "laws" (that is the word we must use with caution) of physics; but, once we leave the objective world of science, the concept of obedience entails the taking of motivated actions. Put another way, beyond the confines of the objective world, the concept of motivation shifts from a matter of conformity to one of moral obligation. When one comment about Buddhist principles wrote of verbs without subjects or objects, its author was writing of a world of actions without motives; and this, indeed, is the world of trees and rocks, as well as bouncing balls. Within that world physics can explain the actions of rocks; and, if you subscribe to the premise that all biology can be reduced to physics (a premise that has lately met with some resistance in the scientific community), then the actions of trees can also be explained by physics. Nagarjuna’s Buddhist stance is one of transcending the ego, which entails transcending the need for motive behind action.

Tempting as this may sound, I cannot accept it. I have no problem with the premise that all is illusion. Where I depart from Buddhism is in the belief that the illusion is socially constructed and necessary to the existence of the individual. (If our very existence does not have at least a fragment of necessity to it, why bother with it? As Shaw put it to Tolstoy, even if there were a God who had created us out of some cosmic joke, would we not want to make the joke a good one?) Like it or not, motives are part of our genetic make-up. We can understand them better through meditative practices, such as those of Buddhism; but we cannot transcend them without sacrificing our bodies as well.

Note that none of this contradicts that first "noble truth" of Buddhism. Life is suffering. As a motivated individual, you have a choice: You can try to escape it, or you can try to deal with it. I have considered the former option, but the latter always seems to prevail!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sanity CHUTZPAH

It is always risky to dole out a Chutzpah award at the beginning of the week. However, considering what day it is, it seems somewhat appropriate that one of the most accomplished generals in the history of the United States be honored with a Chutzpah of the Week award with full battle-dress positive connotations. His act has been nothing less than trying to restore sanity to the Republican Party; and, equipping himself with knowledge of his enemy, he chose to do so on their favorite battleground, that of what is still called laughingly "television news."

As Adam Nagourney reported for The New York Times, General Colin Powell decided that the time had come to get "frank and open" with Dick Cheney and his talent for playing fast and loose with scurrilous language:

Colin L. Powell challenged Dick Cheney on the legacy of the Bush administration and the future of the Republican Party on Sunday, declaring that Republicans should not bow to “diktats that come from the right wing.”

The remarks by Mr. Powell, a former secretary of state, amounted to a public rebuttal of Mr. Cheney, the former vice president, and Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio commentator, who have questioned Mr. Powell’s Republican credentials and suggested that he should leave the party.

“Rush will not get his wish,” Mr. Powell said Sunday on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And Mr. Cheney was misinformed. I am still a Republican.”

Mr. Powell’s appearance underlined an extraordinary public struggle among Republicans over the future of the party and the legacy of the Bush administration, particularly on national security. Mr. Powell broke with Mr. Cheney on the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, saying that he agreed with President Obama that it should be closed and that Mr. Cheney disagreed as much with his former boss as with Mr. Obama.

Presumably, Powell knows that he has a tough fight in front of him. As Nagourney reported, the usual suspects are already bringing the wagons into a circle:

But Karl Rove, who was Mr. Bush’s senior political adviser, saluted Mr. Cheney for leading the fight in challenging Mr. Obama, saying he was doing what other Republicans were not. “The vice president feels very strongly that the administration has mischaracterized and distorted the Bush administration’s record,” he said in an interview.

“I applaud Cheney,” he said. “No one else was stepping forward.”

Liz Cheney, a Republican strategist and Mr. Cheney’s daughter, said, “This isn’t complicated.”

“Conservatism is conservatism,” Ms. Cheney said. “Republicans have led the nation to greatness when they’ve been true to fundamental principles, such as a strong national defense, limited government and low taxes. None of those are things President Obama believes in.”

The remarks of Ms. Cheney (Cheney the Younger?) are particularly striking. Who knew that rhetoric was in the genes? Needless to say, Powell was there with a rebuttal:

He made clear that he thought a major threat to the party were suggestions by Republicans like Mr. Cheney and Mr. Limbaugh that there was no room for Republicans like Mr. Powell. “What the concern about me is, ‘Well, is he too moderate?’ ” Mr. Powell said. “I have always felt that the Republican Party should be more inclusive than it generally has been over the years.”

This seems to be a key point in his campaign to restore sanity. Another point is that he believes in the concept of the "loyal opposition," in sharp contrast to former President George W. Bush's fanatical conviction that "those not for us are against us." If sanity needs to be achieved through the same sort of twelve-step program applied to addiction, then, in this particular case, the second step (the first one being to admit that you have a problem, which is no easy matter where sanity is concerned) is to accept that, regardless of the political party that receives our votes, we are all Americans. Barack Obama has subscribed to uniting while honoring our differences for almost as long as Bush has tried to divide us through fear of those differences. Powell's chutzpah comes from his efforts to move Republicans back to being loyal opponents, rather than vengeance-obsessed losers. He deserves this Chutzpah of the Week award, and it is fitting that he receive it on the day when we remember those who fell in battle defending those values he holds so dearly.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Representatives without Representation

I have never been shy about criticizing the workings of the United States Government, but I have always tried to frame my criticisms in the context of the foundations of our Constitution and the ideals to which that document aspired. Most important among those foundations is the principle that our government is run by duly elected representatives to whom we delegate the responsibilities of making decisions and taking actions, rather than relegating those responsibilities to the "wisdom" of our own crowd in a democratic process in which every citizen would have a say in such decisions and actions. For that reason I found myself attracted to yesterday's contribution to Truthdig by Stanley Kutler, which began with the following paragraph:

Congress is broken. The framers of the Constitution, building on nearly six centuries of parliamentary experience, situated Congress at the heart of the American constitutional system. Representative government was believed to be the purest, and yet workable, means of self-government. For the past twenty-five years, however, Congress has made a joke of that system, as it has trivialized and mocked any meaningful representation in the sense that the makers of the Constitution framed it.

Kutler then proceeds to explicate that concept of "meaningful representation" through two sources contemporary to the drafting of the Constitution. The first is Edmund Burke:

Burke had much to say about the role of peoples’ representatives. He acknowledged that representatives owed the “strictest union . . . and the most unreserved communication” to their constituents, yet he insisted that representatives possess “independent judgment and enlightened conscience.” A representative must strike a delicate balance, offering constituents “his judgment,” said Burke, while bearing in mind that “he betrays, instead of serving [them], if he sacrifices it to [their] opinion.” Burke recognized it is easy to “run into the perilous extremes of servile compliance or wild popularity.” Instead, the interest of the whole community must be pursued, not some local, individual interest, or a “momentary enthusiasm.”

His second source is one of James Madison's contributions to The Federalist Papers (whose overall advocacy of a representative system has always struck me as the best antidote for too much "wisdom of crowds" Kool-Aid):

In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison saw the danger of representatives pandering to “factions,” or groups “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest adverse to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.” Burke and Madison alike would be appalled by Congress’s ready acquiescence to executive power.

Kutler is in good company with this second source. A little over two years ago I discovered that it had been invoked by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the essay "Has Democracy a Future?," which took on explicitly the question of whether or not that future was being jeopardized by use of the Internet to empower that "wisdom of crowds." I cited the following passage from this essay:

Interactivity encourages instant responses, discourages second thoughts, and offers outlets for demagoguery, egomania, insult, and hate. Listen to talk radio! In too interactive a polity, a "common passion," as Madison thought, could sweep through a people and lead to emotional and ill-judged actions. Remembering the explosion of popular indignation when President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, one is grateful that the electronic town hall was not running the country in 1951. The Internet has done little thus far to foster the reasoned exchanges that in Madison’s words [The Federalist, Number 10] "refine and enlarge the public views."

Kutler's argument is that Congress has lost its "independent judgment and enlightened conscience," using the current debate (or lack thereof) over the future of the prison facilities at Guantanamo as a case study. I have no argument with his choice of case study or with his analysis, but I would have preferred had he less time demonstrating that Congress is broken and more on how it came to be broken. As Schlesinger pointed out, we have always had both individuals and mechanisms for swaying public opinion away from matters as subtle as "enlightened conscience." However, recent technology has brought the manipulation of public opinion to a new level at which the Constitutional ideal of representation has been placed in jeopardy:

The Computer Revolution offers wondrous new possibilities for creative destruction [my hyperlink]. One goal of capitalist creativity is the globalized economy. One—unplanned—candidate for capitalist destruction is the nation-state, the traditional site of democracy. The computer turns the untrammeled market into a global juggernaut crashing across frontiers, enfeebling national powers of taxation and regulation, undercutting national management of interest rates and exchange rates, widening disparities of wealth both within and between nations, dragging down labor standards, degrading the environment, denying nations the shaping of their own economic destiny, accountable to no one, creating a world economy without a world polity. Cyberspace is beyond national control. No authorities exist to provide international control. Where is democracy now?

I would suggest that the answer to Schlesinger's question is that the representative foundations of our government have now been replaced by plebiscitary processes enabled by Internet technology. Congress is broken because it can no longer function according to the principles under which it was constituted, and it can no longer function because its rulebook has been undermined. Schlesinger's invocation of the concept of creative destruction is particularly apposite, since it suggests that the loss of such rules is an entropic process that cannot, by its very nature, be reversed.

Forty years ago Gore Vidal was calling for a new constitutional convention. This suggestion has frequently been rejected on not only the grounds that you should not fix what is not broken but also the presumption that the delegates to the original Constitutional Convention were wiser than we could ever be. Kutler has now made a case to dismiss the first of those reasons. As to the second I would suggest that we are not necessarily more foolish than our founding ancestors and we may even be the wiser for the experiences of social pathology that have played out around the world since our Constitution was ratified. Whether or not Vidal still holds to his forty-year-old suggestion, I think the time has come to take it seriously.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jazz Masters (The NEA Version)

The eight recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2010 Jazz Masters Awards have now been announced:

  1. Kenny Barron
  2. George Avakian
  3. Annie Ross
  4. Yusef Lateef
  5. Muhal Richard Abrams
  6. Bobby Hutcherson
  7. Bill Holman
  8. Cedar Walton

If nothing else this list reinforces the judgment of those who planned the SFJAZZ Spring Season, since Bobby Hutcherson performed with McCoy Tyner about a month ago at the Palace of Fine Arts and Kenny Barron's trio appeared last night at Herbst Theatre. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of these selections that leave me lukewarm at best.

I suspect that my discontent is strongest when it comes to Avakian. Since he is a producer, rather than a performer, his award is for "jazz advocacy," primarily for his efforts to promote jazz through Columbia Records. My own opinions, however, have run towards the conclusion that, to paraphrase an old saw, with an advocate like Columbia, jazz had no need of enemies. Last August I went so far as to call the Columbia enterprise a "necessary evil," concerned more with "making jazz 'intellectually respectable' to those who would not be inclined to listen," rather than doing justice to serious jazz listeners and those who were at their best when performing for such listeners. Miles Davis was the primary case in point. There is no questioning the value of many of the sides he recorded for Columbia; but, in the overall progress of his career, it seemed is if there came a time when the "Columbia product" began to take priority over Miles' performances. Yes, Miles was adventurous enough to pursue directions not usually associated with jazz; but it seemed as if each of those adventures resulted in a new domain of sameness, rather than a preference for experiments, not all of which would necessarily work out as planned.

Ironically, a similar problem of sameness seemed to occupy Barron's performance last night. As I wrote in my account for Examiner.com, his approach to Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop" was on the brink of "easy listening," if not over that brink. What sense of adventure there was for the serious listener seemed to come mostly from bassist Kyoshi Kitagawa, and even Jonathan Blake's drum work was relatively tame. This leaves me wondering whether, at least by NEA standards, a "jazz master" is one whose work has "arrived at the innocuous," more suitable as comfortable background than as provocative foreground. This would be depressing since it suggests, if not implies, that any jazz for serious listening is now more suitable for the museum than it is for the performance stage.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Belated Recognition of CHUTZPAH for a Good Cause

Reviewing this year's Best of San Francisco, included with this week's SF Weekly, I encountered one item that stood out (so to speak) from all the rest:

Think bingo is just a social outlet for dauber-wielding geriatrics? Honey, please. On the third Wednesday of each month from 7 to 10 p.m., San Francisco's favorite queer nuns, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, host a bingo night that requires a keen appreciation of the eccentric. With themes like "Leathers & Feathers Bingo," players compete for prizes for the best costumes as well as bingo to benefit local nonprofits. You win "free shit" in raffles, and are serenaded by the "Pitch Bitches" during breaks. If you're naughty (and male), you may be forced to strip off your shirt to become a dancing "dauber boy." Pay $20 for discount tickets online, or $30 for general admission at the door or at Cafe Flore on Market. Pay $40 for VIP admission to claim your seat first and beat everyone to the cocktail bar on the second floor, since Sisters Bingo is no sober affair.

My wife and I have been fans of the Sisters ever since we got into the habit (again, so to speak … it seems to be irresistible) of attending the opening performance of the summer season of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, at which the Sisters deliver a benediction, presumably for both the season and the audience. This may be the closest thing to a religious ritual that I practice, perhaps because I can always count on this particular prayer to end with the same text, "Go forth and sin more."

I do not know how long the Sisters have been running these bingo nights, but it took SF Weekly to get them on my radar. Clearly, the Sisters' attitude towards organized religion in general and nuns in particular would be chutzpah enough; but their adoption of one of the Catholic "standards" for fund raising, particularly when the beneficiaries are probably worth causes deemed not worthy enough by other charitable organization, struck me as excellent grounds for a positive-connotation Chutzpah of the Week award. (It also felt irresistible to invoke Hebrew/Yiddish on behalf of society of drag nuns.) Note that Sisters Bingo has its own Web site, which is where one can both discount and VIP tickets.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Haydn and the Baryton

It turns out that a very generous portion of the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition has been devoted to Haydn's compositions for the baryton. Given my personal interest in Haydn's attention to the auditory experience of his music, I figure that, at the very least, the instrument itself deserves a bit of attention. Here is the basic description from its Wikipedia entry:

The baryton is a bowed string instrument in the viol family, in regular use in Europe up until the end of the 18th century. It most likely fell out of favor due to its immense difficulty to play. Its size is comparable to that of a violoncello; it has seven or sometimes six bowed strings of gut, plus from nine to twenty-four sympathetic wire strings (most often twelve). The gut strings are bowed while the wire strings are plucked by the thumb of the performer in order to create a contrasting tonal quality. It is rarely played today.

From my point of view, the most interesting thing about the instrument is its use of those sympathetic strings, since these are what contribute the most to its distinctive sound. (I have previously written about a similar phenomenon in the theorbo. Just as the sympathetic strings of the theorbo distinguish it from the ordinary lute, the baryton is similarly distinguished from most, but not all, other viols.)

The Wikipedia entry is also most informative about Haydn's connection to this instrument:

Of the repertoire for this instrument, the best known works are the 175 compositions written by Joseph Haydn for his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, who enjoyed playing this instrument. Of these, 126 are trios for viola, cello and baryton. They were written in the earlier part of Haydn's career, from 1766 to 1775.[1]

Of the trios, John Hsu writes, "Throughout the trios, there is a feeling of intimacy. This is the most private of chamber music, written especially in response to the wishes and needs of one person. We can easily imagine the satisfaction and inspiration which Prince Esterházy experienced while playing these trios." Hsu conjectures that when the Prince played baryton trios, the viola part was taken by Haydn, and the cello part by whoever was the cellist in the Prince's orchestra at the time.

The instrument that the Prince used had seven bowed strings, tuned like a bass viola da gamba (to which the sound of the bowed baryton strings is quite comparable); i.e. AA, D, G, c, e, a d'. This consists of a sequence of rising fourths, except for the third between c and e. The ten plucked strings were tuned in a D-major scale, plus the A a fourth below and the E a major second above.

John Hsu estimates that the Prince was probably not a virtuoso on his instrument, judging from the difficulty of Haydn's writing. The composer used only the top five of the seven bowed strings, and seldom required the player to pluck and bow simultaneously. The keys chosen are also the simplest to play in: mostly D major and the neighboring keys of G major and A major.

Of the trios, critic Lucy Robinson has written "Despite the limitations of the combination, Haydn's genius is evident in the kaleidoscopic range of melodic and textural ideas and the witty interplay between instruments."

The entry also includes this photograph of a replica of Prince Esterhazy's baryton:

With all due respect to Robinson's "kaleidoscopic" perceptions, however, I would have to say that 126 is an awful lot of trios for this instrument; and the Brilliant collection is close to comprehensive, apparently omitting only those that were either lost or fragmentary (at least according to the Hoboken catalog). That comprehensiveness requires a commitment of seventeen CDs, which sends me back to my discontent with the string quartets having been short-changed. Faced with this particular "base camp on Mount Haydn," I find myself reminded of a joke my composition teacher used to tell about a one-sentence book report written by a sixth grader:

This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.

If the collection of baryton trios were as diverse as that of Haydn's piano trios, I could see including the whole package; but, as it stands, that package tells us more about what Haydn had to do to keep his patron happy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Personal Technology and the War against Reality

It has been over two years since I last wrote about the significant role that "personal technologies" play in what can only be called our deliberate efforts to deny reality. The occasion at that time was a growing movement among state legislatures to make Driving White Texting (DWT) a moving-violation traffic offense. Unfortunately, what at that time The Wall Street Journal had tried to represent as a growing trend for the public good has made it into ratified law in only seven states and the District of Columbia, at least according to a CNET report by Lance Whitney. After two years of effort, that does not make for much of a movement, particularly in the face of a survey by Vingo, also reported by Whitney, in which 26 percent of drivers admit to DWT (that, of course, just being the ones willing to fess up about it). The Vingo survey also provided an interesting demographic breakdown:

Almost 60 percent of people ages 16 to 19 and 49 percent of those in their 20s admit to texting while driving. Among people in their 50s, 13 percent said they have texted behind the wheel.

In other words, when we take age into account, DWT is a "once and future" trend.

I have to say that I like the DWT nomenclature. It bears just the right family resemblance to DUI, driving under the influence of alcohol. It thus commits to a sociological stance that views texting as an addictive behavior, meaning that, like other addictive behaviors, it is primarily a mechanism for blocking out reality, just as our portable music technologies have created a new state of being, which I once called "iPod oblivion." In the past I have tried to address this situation by thinking about paths to rehabilitation, basically trying to take the same approach that has been taken to more "classical" addictions; but what will happen if we evolve into a culture of addiction in which the very idea of rehabilitation may no longer be part of our cultural context? Will there be any room in that context for a sense of reality; or will this just be the way in which, as T. S. Eliot had predicted, the world will end with a whimper?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not All Efforts to Communicate Fail

It did not take me long to recognize that yesterday's meeting between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu embodied, rather than reversed, all those symptoms of a failure to communicate that I discussed yesterday. We may appreciate Obama's cool demeanor in the face of crisis, but he is still no Cool Hand Luke! Nevertheless, if we are to believe Roane Carey's latest blog post to The Notion, communication at the grass roots level may be beginning to get beyond those impediments that made the exercise documented in To Die in Jerusalem so futile. Consider the context and example set by the opening paragraphs:

In the days leading up to Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, Yisrael Beiteinu, the far-right party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, announced that it would seek a bill in the Knesset banning Palestinian citizens of Israel--now 20 percent of the population--from commemorating the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe), their way of marking the founding of Israel, which involved the expulsion or flight of some 750,000 Palestinians.

Thousands of Palestinians--in the occupied territories, in Israel and in refugee camps all over the Arab world--ignored Yisrael Beiteinu's bluster and turned out for Nakba Day rallies, insisting on the right of refugees to return to their homes, a demand that is anathema to the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. In a speech in the stadium at the northern Israeli city of Kafr Kana, Raed Salah, the chairman of the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement, declared, "We are the ones who will remain on our land; it is the occupation that will soon disappear." Speaking of the occupation, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians in the territories as soon as possible, as any delay would bring about a binational state, which she called "a strategic threat, no less menacing than any other threat."

The fact is that even aside from the occupation, Israel is already a binational state--increasingly, a multicultural state--albeit one that is dominated by one ethnic/religious group. What if, instead of talking past one another, Jews and Palestinians were to take a step toward admitting this reality by acknowledging the other's historical narrative and trying to live together? It turns out that some are doing this, and in very interesting ways. I recently attended the sixth annual "Independence Day/Nakba Day" gathering near the northern city of Haifa, a two-day workshop organized by Arabs and Jews "designed to respect and commemorate the pain and loss on both sides." Sponsored this year by Beyond Words, a nonprofit organization that empowers Arab and Jewish women to work for social change and peace, the event featured a history lecture, recollections of the 1948 expulsion from Ramle by a Palestinian who experienced it and of the Holocaust by a survivor, personal testimonies of loss in a common grieving ritual, and breakout workshops, as well as music, dance and prayer.

It may be hard for Americans to comprehend just how threatening such an event is perceived in Israel--by both Jews and Palestinians. Many of the former find it nearly treasonous that on two consecutive days considered nearly sacred--the Day of the Fallen and Independence Day, when throughout the country everything comes to a screeching halt for two minutes as sirens sound--fellow Jews would go out of their way to acknowledge those who consider the time of Jewish national liberation to be a catastrophe. And just as many Palestinians are no less irritated that their dispossessed brethren, who endure continuing discrimination as second-class citizens, would commune with a people who celebrate what is for Palestinians a time of defeat and expulsion. But that's just the point: the participants don't presume to furnish a "solution" to the conflict, nor do they expect to synthesize the two vastly different national experiences into a unified whole. The idea, rather, is that in a society where the two opposing narratives almost completely negate the legitimacy of the other, simply to come together, to listen to the other, to accept the other's narrative as at least somewhat legitimate, is a crucial step in the healing process necessary to ending the conflict.

How different this all is, and how much more positive, than the confrontational stances behind all the actions in To Die in Jerusalem! For that matter the mere fact that the noun "Nakba" has become acknowledged within Israel is progress, which makes the grass roots resistance to the intransigence of Yisrael Beiteinu an even more hopeful sign. Perhaps To Die in Jerusalem and the rise of Yisrael Beiteinu remind us that it really can be darkest before the dawn and that a sun may yet rise through the basic will of a fundamental desire from those who have suffered so much on both sides of a century of offenses.

The Need for Competing Hypotheses

This morning BBC NEWS Web site released a story with interesting data and an even more interesting interpretation:

Newly-released US census figures show a strong slowdown in the birth-rate that began before the economic crisis hit.

The number of babies born grew by only 0.9% in the year to July 2008, compared with a rise of 2.7% the year before.

The figures have given rise to speculation that families anticipated hard times by having fewer children.

"If prospects look worse for families, they're going to be very likely to have fewer kids," said Mark Mather of the Population Research Bureau.

The surprising part of the figures is that they reflect family planning decisions made from early 2007, when there were only a few signs of an economic slowdown in the US.

The first real sign of the financial meltdown was in August 2007 when credit markets froze up, but unemployment was still low and consumer confidence high.

'Holding back'

Stephanie Ventura, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, which compiled the figures, told the Associated Press news agency it was too early to be sure why there were fewer pregnancies.

But "it is a very good question" to ask about the effect of the economic slowdown, she said. "They might have wanted to hold back" until economic conditions were more settled.

I have no argument with Ventura: The question is definitely a good one. A better question, however, is why, in the face of such interesting data, there should be such a rush to jump on a single hypothesized interpretation, particularly when that interpretation embodies the classical logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. For example, could the decline be due to families more interested in short-term consumerist indulgences than in making the long-range financial commitments associated with raising a child? Under that hypothesis the addictive grip of consumerism could be considered as a predisposing, if not functional, cause of both the current economic crisis and the decrease in pregnancies. What troubles me about the hypothesis covered in this BBC report is that its causality is more mystical than either predisposing or functional; and such a hypothesis, in turn, could engender a cultural bias that prefers the mystical to the logical. At a time when it has become fashionable to worry about whether Google is making us stupid, do we now have to start worrying about the BBC as well?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The "Failure to Communicate"

Last night I watched the documentary To Die in Jerusalem, which I had recorded on my VTR from a broadcast on HBO. I can think of no better way than this experience for Barack Obama and his team to prepare for today's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For all the deep analysis provided by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley (primarily for The New York Review) on breakdowns in efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, there is no substitute for moving from abstract theorizing to a depressingly concrete instance of two ordinary mothers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, attempting and almost immediately failing to communicate. To be fair, these two women are not exactly ordinary. The daughter of the Palestinian woman was a (successful) suicide bomber, while the daughter of the Israeli was a victim of that bomber's attack. The documentary is structured in such a way that we are to believe that both women had the best of intentions in meeting to talk about their respective losses. However, Israeli security measures made it impossible for the Palestinian to come to the home of the Israeli; and, while the Israeli eventually tried to visit the Palestinian's refugee camp, she was held up when Palestinian security measures led to the film crew being detain. Ultimately she gave in to cold feet. Thus, the only conversation that took place was arranged through video conferencing.

Those more adept and conversation analysis than I would probably be able to detect cues indicating that this dialog was doomed from the beginning. Those of us less skilled in such analysis, however, can still appreciate the extent to which ignorance of context on both Israeli and Palestinian sides undermined any positive intentions brought by both participants. Yesterday we saw Obama keep his cool in front of angry anti-abortion hecklers; but undoing the Gordian knot of the history behind the Zionist presence in a part of the world that the British decided to call "Palestine" is going to take more than a cool head. It will also take more than a symbolic reset button.

The problem, as philosopher Wilhelm Schapp would have put it, is that both mothers are verstrickt (entangled) in the web of history. If he had been more familiar with American folk culture, he might have described them as stuck to the tar baby of history; and, indeed, far more individuals than those two ordinary women are now stuck to that tar baby. Those individuals include not only those august players now gathering in Washington. They also include the Israelis involved in the production team for To Die in Jerusalem. (Once we know that the camera crew that followed the Israeli mother to the Palestinian mother's house in a refugee camp is Israeli, or at least included Israelis, we have a better understanding of why the security officials of the Palestinian Authority detained them while deliberating over whether or not to let them continue.) For that matter I, too, am stuck to that tar baby, since, for all I know, my hands will "forget their skill" as I try to type these words!

However, having recently seen You Don't Mess with the Zohan on cable, I wonder whether or not the only individuals capable of freeing themselves from the tar baby are the comedians. Getting beyond the premise for the plot, consider the primary setting for this film: We are on a (fictitious) street in New York that has been divided into an Israeli side and a Palestinian side, both represented by small, but at least moderately prosperous, businesses; and all of those businesses are being forced out by a (not-so-fictitious) character clearly modeled on Donald Trump. All sorts of elements in the fiction of the plot bear more than coincidental resemblance to reality, but there are also significant differences. The owners of these businesses are being displaced, but they are being displaced by a third person rather than by their own opposition to each other. They thus have a common enemy (a role previously assumed by the British colonial authority). Similarly, the street itself is a "two-state solution" in microcosm; but, it is a solution that evolved as the storefronts were occupied, rather than being imposed by some authority (the assumption being that all the property on the block was not controlled by a single owner). The plot thus develops to enable Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the street to unite against the "Trump clone," ultimately building their own (one-state solution) shopping mall to house their businesses in a more buyer-friendly setting. In this fiction the Israelis and Palestinians bar no holds in their accusatory dialog, but their mutual hostility is resolved by being channeled in another direction. The question is not whether or not this plot could mirror reality but whether it teaches us something about how to communicate in the first place.

As I have argued in the past, communication is a fragile process that is easily broken. To Die in Jerusalem informs us about the breakdown of communication in ways that more intellectual analysis cannot do, but it cannot help but embody the biases of those who made it. You Don't Mess with the Zohan argues that such breakdowns can be repaired, but those repairs succeed only in its own world of fiction. However, if all those masters of diplomacy currently in Washington let one film teach them about the problem and the other teach them about a possible solution path, we all may yet be able to free ourselves from the sticky grasp of the tar baby.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why I Bailed on THE NEW YORKER

Sue Halpern's latest piece for The New York Review is entitled "Making It;" and it examines three books that try to take on the question of why successful people are successful (and, to some extent, why unsuccessful people fail). She begins by reviewing The Snowball, Alice Schroeder's "authorized" biography of Warren Buffet; but the fun does not start until she shifts her attention to Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. We know we are in for a good time as soon as she introduces her change of subject:

Gladwell, of course, is the clever master of the anecdote who owns the franchise on high-concept books with pithy titles—The Tipping Point, Blink, and now Outliers—that repurpose scraps of academic research into slinky intellectual lamé.

Anyone who has read any of Halpern's own work (her writings about the efforts of science to grasp the nature of memory being the best case in point) knows that she can make a point through anecdote along with the best of them but would not be caught dead trying to make that point through "scraps of academic research." The very concept of "scrap" implies something that has been ripped from its context; and one of the most important lessons of logic is that a proposition removed from its context can easily deteriorate from hard truth to worthless balderdash. With a style that would have delighted Vladimir Nabokov as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure," Halpern deftly demonstrates that it is virtually impossible to hurl a cat without the beast sailing unscathed through some hole in Gladwell's reasoning.

However healthy the pleasure may be, we still have to ask that proverbial question posed by one of the Knaben Wunderhorn poems set to music by Gustav Mahler: "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?!" (loosely translated as "Who made up this shit?"). Having recently invoked Nabokov in an attack on Dan Brown, I can simply claim that it is easy enough to lay all of the blame on the author; but most of Gladwell's stuff comes out of extended articles he has written for The New Yorker. So there is a deeper question that goes beyond Gladwell's "slinky intellectual lamé:" If there is so much specious reasoning in the text, why didn't an editor catch it and insist on doing something about it? It is hard to imagine John Hersey getting such cavalier treatment when he wrote his New Yorker piece about Hiroshima, and I suspect that even scholar par excellence Hannah Arendt needed editorial refinement when she took on the task of covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. I am less concerned that Gladwell can blithely spin together his cherry-picked anecdotes and more concerned that The New Yorker no longer seems to have editors perceptive enough to recognize a questionable "scrap" when it is staring them in the face.

There are, of course, still some authors of quality at The New Yorker. Seymour Hersh is the best (if not only) example I can come up with quickly. I just wonder to what extent Hersh worries about his own writing becoming "contaminated by context." If his reports are surrounded by others whose arguments run the gamut from questionable to patently false, does not that cast at least a shadow of questionability on his own writing? Even the best writers (like Arendt) need good editors; and I worry about what may happen when Hersh slips through a crack of shoddy editing. Thus, while I maintain my respect for Hersh, my skepticism about anything found in The New Yorker continues to rise monotonically!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Honoring Haydn's Sound

There appear to be far fewer omissions among the piano trios (Hoboken XV) in the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition; and those omissions are likely to be far less disconcerting than those of the string quartets. More important is that, once again, Joseph Haydn's sense of the sounds of his instruments has been honored in these recordings. The ensemble is the Van Swieten Trio, which performs on period instruments. Thus, my sound-based disagreement with Menahem Pressler, who has always played his Haydn on a modern piano, over the question of whether or not the piano in these trios is too dominant has been resolved to my satisfaction. Playing on the instruments they have selected, the Van Swieten Trio never seems to run into problems of balance. As always seems to be the case with these Brilliant editions, the ordering of the trios is a bit arbitrary; so my traversal of the collection will not reflect any chronological account of how Haydn's approaches to writing for this ensemble may (or may not) have changed. However, of the nine trios I have listened to thus far (one coming from Hoboken's supplement), none have fallen into the trap of sounding like what I have previously called a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra." The performers themselves appear to be members of a larger Van Swieten Society. Unfortunately, their home page is only in Dutch; but it appears that they have an active concert program. With any luck they may arrange a tour that will bring them to San Francisco, since I suspect that a live performance would be quite a stimulating listening experience.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Playing with Names

One might think that the person most responsible for cleaning up the financial mess at GMAC would be the Chief Financial Officer (following Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn logic"); but (somewhat in the tradition of the old Ford television commercials) the financing unit of General Motors seems to have a "better idea," at least according a recently breaking story on Reuters:

GMAC LLC, stung by billions of dollars in losses at its auto finance and mortgage units, on Friday scrapped its own name from its banking unit, which it will now call Ally Bank in an effort to gain customers.

Sanjay Gupta, the bank's chief marketing officer, said the company wanted a name that would help it shed the baggage that many Americans now associate with banks, which have taken hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money after losses from bad loans and investments piled up.

"We fully expect more customers will use us," Gupta said in an interview.

GMAC's conversion to a bank holding company in December was a central part of the Detroit-based company's survival plan, and allowed it to get access to new government funding.

While GMAC got a $6 billion bailout in December, including $5 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, regulators ordered it last week to plug an $11.5 billion capital shortfall to protect itself in case of a severe recession.

Nineteen large banks underwent government "stress tests," and of the 10 told to raise capital, GMAC had by far the biggest shortfall relative to its size.

In other words, when all else fails, you can always count on marketing to come up with new lipstick to put on the pig. Nevertheless, I would say there is far more than a bit of chutzpah in the attempt to associate the repackaged unit with the noun "ally." To the extent that "ally" is synonymous with "friend," those of us who remember the Ford commercials probably also remember when we used to have a friend at the Chase Manhattan Bank. Is this some kind of coded message to JPMorgan Chase, which has come to the rescue of both Washington Mutual and Republic Windows and Doors? Is it just a way to make new friends and influence new people?

I thought it might be interesting to check out Gupta's background on the Web site for what is still called GMAC Financial Services:

Sanjay Gupta was named chief marketing officer of GMAC Financial Services in March 2008. He is responsible for global marketing and brand strategy, bank deposits and customer operations, product innovation and e-commerce for the company.

Gupta had been senior vice president of global consumer and small business marketing at Bank of America, responsible for mass media, direct and online marketing. He also served as e-commerce and ATM executive at Bank of America, which he joined in March 2001.

Prior to that position, beginning August 1999, Gupta was chief marketing officer of SciQuest.com and successfully helped the company go public. Previously, Gupta held a variety of positions at Federal Express, becoming managing director of interactive marketing and e-commerce. He began his career at Federal Express in August 1992.

Gupta holds a bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from the University of Bombay and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin.

In other words he is part of that prevailing wisdom that an undergraduate mastery of engineering is best coupled with an MBA; but one wonders if he ever had to deal with crisis management, at least in the classroom, if not in the field. None of this inspires very much confidence at a time when confidence remains the key element of the game. So, for both his conviction that name-changing is the best strategy and his choice of a name that is so clearly lacking in any confidence-building currency, Gupta can be the proud recipient of this week's Chutzpah of the Week award!

Syntactic Insight from Pierre Boulez

Even those who experienced the entirety of András Schiff's two-year eight-concert cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven would probably be impressed with the current project at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra of the Staatskapelle Berlin is presenting a traversal of the complete symphonies of Gustav Mahler, supplemented, where appropriate, with that composer's orchestral song settings. However, while Schiff's Beethoven cycle was a single-handed (probably not the best figure of speech) effort, conducting duties for this Mahler cycle are being shared by Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. As might be assumed, this project is keeping New York Times music critic James Oestreich rather busy, but his accounts are turning out to be a valuable mix of reporting and reflecting.

Most interesting to me thus far has been his background on Boulez' approach to the sixth of Mahler's symphonies:

Mr. Boulez has long made a specialty of the work, evidently drawn not only to the formal clarity of the first three movements but also to the challenge of bringing a like lucidity to the huge and unwieldy finale.

In a recent interview he discussed that finale at some length, calling it a crucial turning point in an evolution of Mahler’s language, leading toward the sound world of the Second Viennese School. The trick in performing it, he said, is to sort out the climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.

I once participated in a seminar in which one of my contributions was an examination of a famous paper that György Ligeti had written for Die Reihe about Boulez. The subtitle of the paper was "Decision and Automatism in Structure Ia." This composition was essentially a reductio ad absurdum of the use of serial techniques to select all of the elements of the music, not only the most quantitative elements of pitch and duration, but also more qualitative matters, such as dynamics and timbre. Ligeti's paper basically revealed the algorithms behind Boulez' compositional process in such a way that he could account for every detail in the notated score.

It took roughly three-quarters of my allotted time to explicate this algorithmic process, after which I posed the question, "What does all this mean?" My point was that there was no reason to assume that a musical composition was little more than a logical proof; but, at least on the surface, it seems as if such a logical representation had been the goal of Boulez' approach. Rather than try to look even more closely at the score details, I backed off and hauled out an old Wergo recording of a performance of this work. It only took a few minutes to listen to the result of Boulez' algorithmic meat grinder; but, as Boulez himself might have said, "Vive la différence!" The performance turned out to produce the effect of a wave of energy, building up to almost overwhelming strength and then dissipating back to the silence of its origins. As Jonathan Biss said at his recent "concert and conversation" event here in San Francisco, the notes are just marks on paper; the music is in the performance.

If I am to accept Oestreich's account, then it is clear that Boulez has a deep appreciation of just where the music resides. Furthermore, it resides in the same place, whether the composition happens to be the height of his own abstractions or the polar opposite of the final movement of Mahler's sixth symphony. From a theoretical point of view, that "residence" is embodied in a "logic of climaxes" that accounts for how many of them there are, how they are deployed, and (perhaps most importantly) when they are deployed. This takes me back to my own efforts to confront the challenge of listening to performances of longer-duration (if not more opaque) Beethoven with the visual aid of a graphic display of energy levels. Such a display says nothing about melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, or even timbre; it ignores all of those elements that were "processed" by Boulez' algorithmic approach. What remains, however, is an abstraction of how the basic intensity of the sound itself in managed as time passes. That management restored the music, so to speak, to "Structure Ia;" and it rescued Mahler's symphony from having that "huge and unwieldy finale" that concerned Oestreich. Could it be that those who best understand where the music resides are also those like Boulez who understand and appreciate the abstract foundations in terms of both their capabilities and their limitations?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Holy [your noun here]!

Having worked as a dance critic in the world of print journalism, I know that I never had the luxury of choosing my own headline; and I fondly remember one editor who seemed to enjoy the game of coming up with something that would make me wince (usually in a good-humored way). I suspect that editors for the few remaining print outlets in this country are having a field day (if not a last hurrah) coming up with headlines for reviews of the opening of Angels & Demons; but that is only fair when it seems as if the critics themselves are having a field day, too. It is as if the quality of critical writing has to rise the occasion of compensating for the mediocrity of the subject matter.

We thus have an interesting comparison between the treatment this film has received from The New York Times and SF Weekly. A. O. Scott was granted the honor of reviewing the film for the Times; and his editor decided to give him the headline, "Holy Mystery!" SF Weekly, on the other hand, true to their reputation as an "alternative" (read "free") newspaper felt that "Holy Crap" was more appropriate, although ironically this was not the headline that graced the Web-based version of their review. (This left me trying to remember what headline they had used for their review of El baño del Papa.) As far as the review itself was concerned, Ella Taylor decided to have fun with Robert Langdon (the role played by Tom Hanks), referring to him as "ace symbologist" and later trying to establish his reputation among those in the real world who know a thing or two about symbols:

The incumbent pope has died, his tongue has turned suspiciously black, and four of the extremely red cardinals most likely to succeed him have been abducted for medieval branding and/or burning by a wild-eyed predator named the Assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), whose most attractive quality is that, unlike the mad albino Paul Bettany in Da Vinci, he isn't into mortifying his own flesh. His rimless glasses bespeak a man of intellect, and Langdon, tossing off deconstructed signifiers like Roland Barthes on steroids, strongly suspects him of membership in the Illuminati, a secret society with Galileo among its past members, whose fondness for science has drawn the ire of the Catholic Church for hundreds of years.

Scott, however, is less interested in semiotics and more occupied with the plight of the audience. So he reserves his best language for addressing that plight:

The only people likely to be offended by “Angels & Demons” are those who persist in their adherence to the fading dogma that popular entertainment should earn its acclaim through excellence and originality.

All this persiflage reminds me of a recent post in which I quoted Vladimir Nabokov's description of reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize." Whether or not Angels & Demons wins any prizes, it is clear that both Scott and Taylor (which happen to be parallel streets in San Francisco) both appreciate and enjoy Nabokov's "mischievous but very healthy please;" and the rest of us should enjoy their exercise of that pleasure at the expense of what Taylor called "the Dan Brown franchise!"

"Editing" the HAYDN EDITION

While I have tried to be kind to the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition in the face of the fact that a Gesamtwerk collection would have been a formidable (if not unrealistic) task, I must admit that I am beginning to feel some frustration with some of the decisions the "editors" made over what to include and what to exclude. Some of that frustration has to do with omissions of works I was particularly interested in hearing in a more "studied" setting than the concert hall, the "Frog" quartet (Hoboken III/49, published as Opus 50, Number 6) being my most recent case in point. I found this case particularly perplexing, because the Opus 50 quartets, sometimes called the "Prussian" quartets, make for a rather interesting collection, taken as a whole; and the decision to include only the first three in the set seems more than a little arbitrary. The same can be said of the six quartets published as Opus 76, dedicated to Count Joseph Erdödy) (Hoboken III/75–80). Again, the Haydn Edition chose to include only the first three of this set. Fortunately, that included Number 3, the "Emperor" quartet, which may well be the best known of all of Joseph Haydn's string quartets; but it also excluded Number 4, called the "Sunrise" quartet in England, which is as exciting a piece of musical illustration as can be found in the depiction of dawn in Die Schöpfung (Hoboken XXI/2) or the early sixth symphony (Hoboken I/6). Most frustrating is that the Haydn Edition seems to have been more thorough than necessary in covering all those song settings that Haydn did for George Thomson, William Whyte, and William Napier at the price of neglecting as thorough an account of his string quartets as was given of his symphonies. If we are to celebrate Haydn for the breadth of his imagination, then those quartets are far more representative of his imagination in full force than any of those settings of folk songs from the British Isles! Now I agree that, given its "economy" price, there is still more than adequate value in the Haydn Edition. I also know that, in the face of the value that is available, I have to play with the cards that have been dealt to me; but I can still wonder if all those cards were dealt from the top of the deck!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Very Small Value of "Semantics"

I have now encountered several articles from a variety of my RSS feeds on Google's supposed "semantic stance" towards search, which was launched at Searchology 2009. Having now read Tom Krazit's report for the News division of the CNET Web site, I think I am beginning to form some impressions. On the basis of the few examples I have seen, I have decided that I am reminded of an old joke very popular among engineers (and just as unpopular among mathematicians):

π is equal to 3 for very small values of π (or very large values of 3)

One may call Google's new approach to the delivery of search results "semantic" for very small values of "semantic." Thus, the example that Krazit illustrated, involving the delivery of a rating in the display of a search result from Yelp, basically involves an a priori agreement between Google and Yelp:

  1. Google agrees that the rating is the part the search result that the user most wants to see
  2. Yelp agrees to represent the contents of its pages in a way that makes it easy for Google to find that rating

This may be a small step towards honoring Ludwig Wittgenstein's precept that the "life" of a sign (or, in Google's case, a keyword) lies in how that sign is used; but it is unclear that it can be generalized beyond cases in which the use of that sign is represented by nothing more than an a priori agreement to provide another sign (whose relevance cannot help but be highly context-dependent). Put another way, any view of use that is limited to an association with one or more other signs overlooks the extent to which the user of that sign is a motivated agent. Any inference one makes as to how to deliver information about such a sign/keyword must be guided by the motives of the searcher who invoked that keyword. Wittgenstein would have loved to find a viable way to deduce motives from signs, but he was doomed to frustration. So the best he could do was analyze the nature of his frustrations, and in doing so he educated the rest of us in why questions of semantics are a subtly elusive as they are.

Is there a way out of this frustration? If there is, I doubt that it will have anything to do with new ways of packaging search results, such as what Google has now dubbed "Rich Snippets." My guess is that any progress will come from taking a more verb-based approach to search, recognizing that search is a motivated action and trying to satisfying the searcher through some beneficial exchange of communicative actions, rather than just plunking a collection of Rich Snippets in front of the searcher and hoping for the best. This will require reaching beyond the objective world of more sophisticated systems of signs to represent the content of Web pages into the subjective world of the searcher, which is where all motives reside. This is likely to be difficult but not impossible. We tend to understand the motives of others through the conversations we hold with them. Perhaps, if Google were to spend as much time on building models of those conversations as it builds on building metadata models of all the pages on the World Wide Web, they might finally crack the problem of how to deliver a more semantic approach to search and the delivery of search results.

On the Long Tail of Satellite Radio

The decision of Sirius XM to raise their subscription prices seems to be creating a lot of reverberations on the CNET Blog Network. Today's contribution came from Don Reisinger's Digital Home blog and includes a hyperlink to Steve Guttenberg's recent rant on his Audiophiliac blog. Reading these two pieces side-by-side has left me wondering about just who the 18.6 million subscribers (according to Guttenberg) are, what their demographics are, and what they actually do with their subscriptions. The one thing I know for certain is that my own listening habits bear absolutely no resemblance to those of either Reisinger or Guttenberg. Now, to be fair, regular readers may recall that I have previously attacked Guttenberg for promoting listening habits that have more to do with the physical properties of signal reproduction than with the content actually being reproduced; and today's post by Reisinger gives the strong impression that he cares about little other than providing his daily existence with a "background soundtrack." In other words, by the criteria set by Igor Stravinsky, neither of these guys is really listening; and there may even be some question about whether or not they are hearing!

I have what I think is the first XM receiver model that went on the market, manufactured by Sony. I purchased it shortly after XM launched; and after many years of satisfied listening (and remaining satisfied after the merger with Sirius), I have five presets that are pretty firmly ensconced on my device. Two are for "news and information," the BBC World Service and C-SPAN. I have the Real Jazz channel for my jazz and two channels for classical: Symphony Hall and Met Opera Radio. All of these channels demand serious listening, albeit in different ways; and it would be safe to say that I take my receiver far more seriously than any device that receives FM or AM.

The problem is that those latter devices no longer provide much that holds up to serious listening. Where radio is concerned, San Francisco has become the new generation of the "vast wasteland." NPR has become so overloaded with audio pabulum that I have pretty much abandoned them in favor of Amy Goodman's DemocracyNow!, while classical music is represented by KDFC, a station that may have become financially viable by attracting considerable advertising but has, as a result, reduced listening experiences to inadequate excerpts inserted between incessant chatter. Even Stravinsky's duck (which hears but does not listen) would probably be frustrated with this station!

In traveling across this country at various times, I have discovered that just about every community has some core of classical music lovers. They rarely make for a sizeable majority of the demographic, but they are serious about their listening. If a city as large as San Francisco can no longer satisfy such listeners over either FM or AM, I can imagine what it is like in less populated areas of the country. Satellite radio may now be the only way for much of this country to hear classical music through a broadcast medium. Now someone like Reisinger probably gives little thought to this demographic, and he also probably assumes that they could always solve their listening problem with some combination of iPod and iPhone technologies. However, this would miss the point: The broadcasting of classical music used to be a primary medium for discovery; and those two channels on my presets still serve that purpose (as does my jazz selection). The question now is whether both serious listening and discovery are so far out there on the long tail to be recognized as significant in the economy of "new media."

Over on Examiner.com I wrote that those of us currently on a tight budget can turn to cyberspace for "alternative" concert experiences. It was not that long ago that we had radio stations that could bring us broadcast performances of both symphony orchestras and opera companies from across the country (and sometimes from around the world). I think it is admirable that cyberspace is now playing this role (and, in many cases, playing it very well); but the result may be that large chunks of the American population are now being cut off from the experience, lacking both suitable Internet technology and a radio station as providers. This may turn out to be yet another variation on the ways in which Google may be "making us stupid," as Nicholas Carr put it, not by providing us with impoverished content but by cutting off the opportunities for those with more substantive content to get through to us. In other words the same forces that are gradually depriving us of the benefits of a local newspaper are also taking away our opportunities for a richer cultural life, even if we draw upon such opportunities only occasionally.