Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Chutzpah of Calling Something by its Rightful Name

It is one thing for a blogger content with being "as insignificant as I should be" to suggest that the President of the United States may be clinically mad, even when the suggestion is backed up with the insights of Carl Gustav Jung; but it is quite another when a contender for nomination by the Democratic Party to run for that Presidential office makes the accusation to a major metropolitan newspaper, that is both news and chutzpah. As was reported last night by Associated Press, the contender in question is Dennis Kucinich; and the newspaper is The Philadelphia Inquirer. Kucinich made the remarks during an interview with the Inquirer's editorial board prior to the debate at Drexel University. Here are his words:

I seriously believe we have to start asking questions about his mental health. There's something wrong. He does not seem to understand his words have real impact.

I think it is important to note that Kucinich tried to keep his own words as moderate as possible without diminishing the seriousness of his accusation. For the Dennis-the-Menace reputation he has acquired since his days as Mayor of Cleveland, these particular words are not the outcry of some bratty kid trying to tell everyone else that the emperor has no clothes. Like the kid he is trying to get us to see things as they are; but he has taken a rhetorical approach that recognizes that, if he succeeds, it may be very hard for all of us to sustain the "real impact" of what he has said. Yes, this may just be the chutzpah of a would-be candidate whose numbers are so statistically insignificant that he will do anything to get on the national radar. However, even before he had declared that he would seek candidacy, Kucinich has tried to invoke his personal talent for plain speaking to bring our attention to serious truths, even when they are truths that "men prefer not to hear." In other words it is the chutzpah of saying what discretion advises against saying, even if it needs to be said.

Because Kucinich has been doing this for so long, I may be accused of having neglected him in the past for a Chutzpah of the Week award, to which I can only reply, "Mea culpa." I suppose my own editorial stance has shifted from focusing on the outrageously offensive in the interest of ridicule to calling out outrageousness with a more positive connotation. As I have previously suggested, this seems to be a consequence of the extent to which outrageously offensive acts seem to have become commonplace. We are as used to them in "real life" as we are when we see them in those all-too-popular slasher movies. They all but flood us; so, as is the case with the blood the Macbeth has shed, we are "Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er." My hope is that positive acts of chutzpah can give us all the will to "return," rather than "wade deeper." Kucinich has been trying to achieve this goal for some time, and it is about time that the Chutzpah of the Week award acknowledge his efforts.

As a final thought I think that Kucinich deserves credit for treating Tim Russert's UFO question during the Drexel debate with the laughableness it deserved. Once again he put aside the dictates of discretion, in this case by taking a page from the playbook of Stephen Colbert. By choosing to ask the question at all, Russert made it clear that he was more interested in entertainment than discourse; and Kucinich stood up to the challenge of playing on that particular field. He even came up with a punch line that put Russert on the defensive:

And also, you have to keep in mind that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, and also that more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush's presidency.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Carl Gustav Jung Takes on the Faith-Based

It has been quite some time since I have submitted a post that is basically a commonplace book entry. However, this morning I happened to be reading Jung's Psychological Types in my doctor's waiting room and one paragraph jumped out of me for what it said about the relationship between Christianity (and other systems of institutionalized religion) and the very nature of our consciousness. I therefore felt it important to "share with the group" this particular paragraph:

The relation of the individual to his fantasy is very largely conditioned by his relation to the unconscious in general, and this in turn is conditioned in particular by the spirit of the age. According to the degree of rationalism that prevails, the individual will be more disposed or less to have dealings with the unconscious and its products. Christianity, like every closed system of religion, has an undoubted tendency to suppress the unconscious in the individual as much as possible, thus paralyzing his fantasy activity. Instead, religion offers stereotyped symbolic concepts that are meant to take the place of his unconscious once and for all. The symbolic concepts of all religions are recreations of unconscious processes in a typical, universally binding form. Religious teaching supplies, as it were, the final information about the "last things" and the world beyond human consciousness. Wherever we can observe a religion being born, we see how the doctrinal figures flow into the founder himself as revelations, in other words as concretizations of his unconscious fantasy. The forms welling up from his unconscious are declared to be universally valid and thus replace the individual fantasies of others. The evangelist Matthew has preserved for us a fragment of this process from the life of Christ: in the story of the temptation we see how the idea of kingship rises out of the founder's unconscious in the visionary form of the devil, who offer shim power over all the kingdoms of the earth. Had Christ misunderstood the fantasy and taken it concretely, there would have been one madman the more in the world. But he rejected the concretism of his fantasy and entered the world as a king to whom the kingdoms of heaven are subject. He was therefore no paranoiac, as the result also proved. The views advanced from time to time from the psychiatric side concerning the morbidity of Christ's psychology are nothing but ludicrous rationalistic twaddle, with no comprehension whatever of the meaning of such processes in the history of mankind.

We now live in an age of a President who, for all his professions of faith, seems to have been subjected to the same temptation that the devil offered to Jesus in the wilderness. Unfortunately, to invoke Jung's terminology, our President has embraced "the concretism of his fantasy," providing us with "one madman the more in the world;" and, as I have observed elsewhere, there is little you can do with a psychotic other than medicate him into a state of oblivion. Sadly, that may be the only way to perform damage control on a fantasy-made-concrete that has gotten out of hand.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Narrative Approach to Exposition

Now that Fast Food Nation is available for viewing on Cinemax, it deserves a bit of reflection. After I saw Waking Life, I realized that Richard Linklater had a fascinating knack for taking expository material and presenting it through the narrative text type. Fast Food Nation began as an extended exposition by Eric Schlosser of the fast food industry and all the processing that takes place in order for you to each your cheap-and-quick burger. To the extent that this is about what happens in the meat processing stage of the supply chain, Linklater is following in the honored path of Upton Sinclair, who took the same approach to a narrative account of that same workplace in his novel The Jungle. My high school history teacher told us that President Theodore Roosevelt hit the ceiling when he read Sinclair's novel, and that led to the birth of the regulatory system for food and drugs that we take for granted today. I cannot imagine anyone in the White House hitting the ceiling after reading either Schlosser's book or seeing Linklater's film, but then I cannot imagine anyone in the White House taking any time to examine either the book or the film (and, worse yet, I am not sure I can imagine any of our current contenders for the White House doing anything different). However, what struck me the most about the film was that, from a point of view of "ancestry," it involved more than reminding us that things have not changed very much from the world of The Jungle. By examining the sale of fast food products, as well as their manufacturing, Fast Food Nation owes as much of a conceptual debt to Barbara Garson's The Electronic Sweatshop as it does to The Jungle; and, from the point of view of a dispassionate camera eye that obliges you to look at uncomfortable things, the overall mood of the film is not that different from Mondo Cane. Both of these "ancestors" were also expository; so Linklater's real gift resided in his being able to weave a variety of different narrative threads together into a fabric that covers all the bases of supply chain analysis, the domination of marketing strategy over all other concerns, the corruption of running the whole system off of cheap labor (bringing in another "ancestor," Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed), and the necessity of students and illegal immigrants, without whom the cheap labor strategy would be impossible. What may be most important is that Linklater takes a chillingly low-key approach to delivering his message. This film is clearly agitprop; but it is agitprop at its most effective, because you never see the soapbox on which Linklater stands nor do you feel that he is haranguing you into paying attention. He lets the narrative do all the work, and the narrative does so amazingly effectively, possibly because Schlosser assisted Linklater in developing the screenplay. There is nothing particularly pleasant about this film, and those who are already aware of the nation that fast food consumption has made will not find any surprises. The power is all in the rhetoric, but this is the sort of situation that needs the force of rhetoric behind it.

Reflecting on Ornette Coleman

Yesterday, in preparing for going to hear Ornette Coleman at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, I tried to explore the problem of what it meant to be a good listener to free jazz, particularly in the setting of a "live" performance. Having now heard Coleman and his group (an interesting combination of two acoustic basses, usually one bowed and one plucked, electric bass, and drums, along with an unnamed tenor player), I can now reflect on yesterday's thoughts about free jazz, Coleman's particular approach, and the listening challenge. It has been almost forty years since I last heard Coleman. At that time he had a trio with David Izenzon on bass (acoustic) and Charles Moffet on drums; and, in the course of the gig I heard, Coleman alternated between alto sax and violin. This time, while the violin was on stage, he never touched it but would occasionally put down his sax and play a few passages on trumpet (the instrument that, back in the Atlantic days, was played by Don Cherry).

This is probably as good a time as any to address one key criticism of Coleman, which is that anyone who tries to play several different instruments never cultivates the chops to play any one of them particularly well. (Eric Dolphy was subjected to similar criticism, as was Roland Kirk, who stirred up even more controversy by playing multiple instruments simultaneously.) In addressing this criticism it is probably best to separate the two basic idioms of Coleman's inventions. One is a frenetic burst of notes, sometimes reduced to brief gestures that end almost as soon as they begun but can also spin out into extended passages; these bear at least a distant family resemblance (which may or may not be intentional) to the "moment" style of composition that can be found in so many of the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. (I have previously suggested that the influence may have been from jazz to Stockhausen, rather than from Stockhausen to jazz.) The other is more sustained, giving the impression of a single linear voice, in contrast to the more rapid-fire passages that can sound more like multiple voices in a hectic chorus. In those sustained linear passages Coleman's sound is a coarse one, a major departure from the polished smoothness that we associate with so many of the great saxophonists from any period; and he rarely plays such passages on other instruments. So we just have to accept the fact that Coleman is not particularly interested in that sound we associate with Johnny Hodges playing classics by the Duke and Billy Strayhorn. Rather, Coleman's primary focus is on those bursts of energy; and, when he plays that way, I have to wonder whether or not his recordings are part of that "secret stash" that I have fantasized that Stockhausen keeps hidden in his basement. Coleman may not deliver the smooth sustained tone; but his approach to rapid delivery can be awesome, whatever instrument he happens to be playing. Even more awesome is when another "melody player" (such as Don Cherry) could deliver that same passage in unison with him. This made the anonymity of last night's tenor player more than a little frustrating (yet another item on my list of frustrations with SFJAZZ), since he seemed to have a good sense of how to keep up with that unison playing.

Let me now revisit yesterday's exploration of how the medieval trivium can guide one in listening to performances like Coleman's. As I said, the logic "may involve little more than a chain of spontaneous associations 'in the moment;'" but those associations are still informed by past experiences. I have no idea how many of the works on last night's program were new; but I know "Free" well enough to recognize that I heard it early in the evening. However, since Coleman was not performing with Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins (let alone making a recording in 1959), even a "classic" like "Free" still had its own set of associations. If listening to jazz is a bit like eavesdropping on a conversation, then, at least early in the evening, the conversations were fresh and alive. The problem was that, while the gig lasted for only about 90 minutes, towards the end of the evening, I found myself wondering if the performers had run out of things to say. There was no questioning their ability to make interesting conversation; but that interest did not seem to sustain over longer durations, such as that of the Atlantic Free Jazz recording. On the other hand, if the logic began to flag a bit towards the end of the evening, all of the members of Coleman's ensemble kept their grammar on solid ground, at least in terms of managing the embellished material in the context of that flood of embellishment that is so much a part of Coleman's style. That command of grammar then sustained the rhetorical delivery; but, without the support of innovative logic, after a while the ear realizes that it has heard pretty much all that there is to say.

This last sentence may give the impression of harsh criticism, but that would overlook the realities of the performance situation. Coleman has been innovating for over forty years; so is it reasonable to expect that he keep up with those innovations every time he faces an audience, particularly an audience that, out of the necessity of the seating in the Masonic Center, is so remote from him? Not every gig can make that you-had-to-be-there bid for immortality; and the sad truth is that mass audiences rarely "connect" the way we expect in a more intimate club setting. So last night was not necessarily the best of listening experiences; but it still had more than enough to offer, particularly in demonstrating that there is still much to hear on a Coleman performance.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Strong Words in South Carolina

Having decided to keep riding the painted pony of Stephen Colbert on the merry-go-round ride of the South Carolina primary, our anonymous "E&P Staff" has at least decided to come up with some better quotations in today's Editor & Publisher dispatch. They also may be offering some insight into what makes Stephen run. If, indeed, the man is coming at this with little more than acting credentials, then we are at least obliged to figure out what script he is using. In that regard "E&P Staff" may have given us a clue:

Colbert, at the campus of the University of South Carolina today, told several hundred sign-waving fans that he'll take care of the rival state to the south. "I promise, if elected, I will crush the state of Georgia," Colbert said to the cheering crowd.

Colbert added, "Our peaches are more numerous than Georgia's. They are more juiciful."

Unfortunately, the script may not be familiar to Colbert supporters, who would probably dismiss it as before their time. The script I am referring to is for the early Woody Allen film, Bananas. Those of my generation may recall that this film depicts a Castro-like revolution in a fictitious Latin American country. While making strategic plans up in the mountains, this character has all the admirable qualities of a reformer determined to clean the muck of corruption out of the government. Once he gains power, however, he starts making all sorts of silly proclamations (or, in the spirit of the title of the film, he goes bananas). Colbert's speech at the University of South Carolina honors the spirit, if not the text, of the silliness that Woody Allen wrote for his Castro-from-cloud-cuckoo-land. The only difference is that, when Allen's fictitious character begins his blathering, the citizens of the fictitious country start looking at each other wondering if they have made a colossal mistake in supporting the recently-completed revolution. Colbert's audience, on the other hand, seems to have eaten it all up with the same enthusiasm they display for their peaches.

Fortunately, there is at least one group that is giving serious consideration to what is happening and what to do about it, John Edwards and his staff. It is not often that a state may experience a battle between two favorite sons; and Edwards camp seems to recognize that they do not want to embarrassment of being scooped, even in the name of postmodern theory. Thus, they did not waste any time when Colbert decided to question Edwards' South Carolina roots:

The truthiness is, as the candidate of Doritos, Colbert's hands are stained by corporate corruption and nacho cheese. John Edwards has never taken a dime from salty food lobbyists and America deserves a President who isn't in the pocket of the snack food special interests.

I think this amounts to a rather nice blend of the humorous and the serious. It is a not-too-subtle reminder that a major television personality remains major only as long as he or she brings eyeballs to commercials for tortilla chips (or potato chips or car insurance or Viagra or what-have-you). However often Colbert's rapier wit strikes the heart of his target, The Colbert Report will only stay on the air if its commercial supporters want to keep it there. Perhaps this is one reason why we have not heard Colbert fulminate very much about the other candidates being controlled by special interest groups, because he has his "minders," too!

With this move the Edwards team has reminded me that, while a strategy of postmodern resistance may be a good way to bring attention to the need for reform and while Colbert seems to be able to "play" this strategy very well, I, personally, would feel really bummed out if Colbert were to thrash Edwards in the South Carolina Democratic Party. Perhaps this is because I am still drawn to Edwards as a voice of reason among the Democratic contenders, even when I agree with Isaiah Berlin that the voice of reason is not necessarily the best voice for a political leader. Edwards may not have that "ruthlessness factor" that I wrote about on Thursday; but I still believe that he has more to offer the Democratic Party than Colbert does. I do not want to see him undermined; and, if Colbert is determined to take on a candidate in that candidate's home state, perhaps he should accept the fact that he is now a New Yorker and pick on Hillary Clinton!

Preparing for Ornette Coleman

This past summer SFJAZZ, the organization behind the semiannual San Francisco Jazz Festival, approached me through electronic mail with a request to participate in a survey. I do not know if this was because or in spite of the fact that I had not purchased any tickets from them for a couple of years, but I hoped that the survey would give me the opportunity to vent my displeasure with their offerings. It did, which meant that I was able to make the two points that I felt were most important:

  1. For the most part their offerings ran the gamut from lame to insipid. I realize that SFJAZZ cannot take all of the blame for this. I agree with Gary Giddins' arguments as to why jazz just is not what it used to be. I have felt that way for at least fifteen years when, in a conversation, I happened to remark that the only saxophonists who interested me were now dead.
  2. Too many of the events take place in the Nob Hill Masonic Center. This may not be the absolutely worst place to go for serious listening to music of any kind, but it is definitely a major contender. Again the fault does not lie entirely with SFJAZZ, since, if they are to get even close to making budgetary ends meet, they need at least one venue that will hold a large audience.

To some extent my complaints may be a variation on the joke Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall about the two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills. The first says, "The food here is really terrible," to which the second replies, "Yes, and the portions are so small!"

I suppose what matters to me most is that Igor Stravinsky's injunction about the need to be a good listener, which I have cited in so many contexts, is equally applicable when it comes to jazz. This is particularly evident when we read documents about Lennie Tristano's approach to teaching jazz improvisation, which put considerable emphasis on listening to recordings of major jazz solos and then reproducing by ear, either by playing or singing what one had heard. Unfortunately, Stravinsky was probably not a particularly good listener of the jazz of his day, at least if we are to judge him by his efforts to invoke a "jazzy spirit" in some of his own compositions. Most of those works have merits of their own; but it would not surprise me to learn that Stravinsky, himself, had to live with the cold truth that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

As a "reward" for the hard line I took in participating in the SFJAZZ survey, I was informed that I had "won" two complimentary tickets to the current Festival. I was given several options, most of which reflected that the Festival organizers either disagreed with or ignored my first point. However, Ornette Coleman was one of the options; so I made it clear to SFJAZZ that this was the only option that interested me. If tickets were not available, then they could just not bother with "rewarding" me, since making those two points was all that really mattered to me. However, the tickets were available; so tonight I shall once again brave the ghastly setting of the Masonic Center in search of another good listening experience.

I have been listening to Coleman for quite some time, going all the way back to when I heard him bring his trio to perform at MIT. This was not long after he had decided to perform some of his work on violin. Since then I have built up a modest collection of CDs (including the Atlantic anthology); and my ears keep making progress in finding their way around his work.

The San Francisco Chronicle tried to do some advance work in last Sunday's "Datebook." The result was not quite as aggravating as many of the classical and opera reviews that I tend to read there, but I am not sure that it contributed very much to the cause of good listening. Coleman is primarily associated with the "free jazz" movement, since Free Jazz was the title of the Atlantic recording that was released in September of 1961. The basic idea was that, while improvisation had traditionally been a matter of spinning out embellishments on a familiar tune (often so elaborate that the tune was barely recognized), a "free" improvisation would dispense with having any such tune as a foundation (however far in the background it may have receded). Historically speaking, Lenny Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh were already experimenting with doing this sort of thing about fifteen years before Atlantic released this recording; and, to be fair about my own listening history, my first taste of this technique came when I heard the impulse! recording of John Coltrane's "Ascension," recorded at a session in June of 1965. The Chronicle piece, on the other hand, tended to concentrate on comparing Coleman with Cecil Taylor, basically arguing that Coleman was easier to take because his notes were not as densely packed as Taylor's and they tended to play out in more "melodic" lines.

I would take this as a serious injustice to both Coleman and Taylor, but I think it illustrates why listening to free jazz is more challenging than listening to even the most highly embellished bebop solos. Once you kick away all the foundations, then you are, literally, free to take your playing anywhere you want. From an analytic point of view, this means that what you play is really only informed by your past experiences of playing and listening, whatever they may have been. Tristano, Taylor, Coleman, and Coltrane all had widely differing experiences. It makes little sense to compare them, nor to assume that my past experiences in listening to any of them will help me very much when I listen to Coleman tonight.

Does this mean that we really cannot be a good listener at a "live" performance of free jazz, whoever its creators may be? Does it all fly by too fast for our cognitive capabilities to keep up with it? To the extent that we may never tease out all the intricate interplay of detail that we can find in Wagner, this is probably the case; but who expects to hear Wagner at any jazz performance? (Yes, I know that Gerry Mulligan was good enough to tack the opening bassoon solo from Le Sacre on to the end of one of his improvisations; but listening to Stravinsky was not the point of that gig!) Nevertheless, I believe that our listening can still be guided by that medieval trivium that I continue to invoke. The logic may involve little more than a chain of spontaneous associations "in the moment;" but the performers have enough command of what they are doing to recognize the difference between the embellishing and the embellished and render a grammatical prioritizing of what they are playing. Finally, the issue of rhetoric is no different than it is in any other performance, addressing the problem of how to both attract and then hold the listener's attention, whether by devices of musical invention or by performances gestures that facilitate the ear finding its way around such a "free space." These three elements always guide us, whether through a microscopic moment captured by Webern or the impetuous forty-minute "ride" of the Atlantic Free Jazz recording; so they will be with me (as usual) when I hear Coleman "live" for the first time since my student days.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Stephen Colbert's Postmodern Electoral Strategy

My initial reaction to Stephen Colbert announcing his candidacy for the Presidency was supportive, but from sort of a "meta" view of current political practices:

Going on at great length about the impact of image makers on the political system just does not play that all well among the voting public. Demonstrating the role that image making plays, on the other hand, might have more of an effect. Perhaps Colbert has found the right way to get us all to look at the other candidates and ask what kind of an act each of them is playing. If this is the case, then I applaud his experiment but would like to remind him that there are now various regulations regarding how such experiments should be conducted when the subjects are human!

Unfortunately, most of the folks that Colbert is twitting are so entrenched in their behavior that they may not realize that their are being twitted. I offer as a case in point an article published by Editor & Publisher on Thursday evening, recently cited on Truthdig. This article, authored by "E&P Staff" appeared under the sort of headline that one would not associate with "America's Oldest Journal Covering the Newspaper Industry:"

New Poll Suggests Stephen Colbert Should Be Frontrunner Within a Month!

I have to confess that I had absolutely no idea how to react to this article. If it was meant as a gag, then it sorely lacked any of the style of delivery that makes Colbert (and, for that matter, Jon Stewart) attract such a following, in which case I would advice its anonymous author(s) to go back to their day job. However, if this article was a piece of “day job” work, then the are a few elements that would lead one to question its credibility. First of all is it accepted practice at Editor & Publisher to rely entirely on Huffington Post for sources? More importantly however, does the support for the headline lie solely in this one sentence?

If he keeps gaining over 10% a week, Colbert should be leading the field before November is out.

All campaign watchers know that this sort of momentum is a tricky phenomenon that never grows linearly. My conclusion, then, is that this is either a poorly written gag or an equally poorly written editorial, neither of which puts Editor & Publisher in a particularly good light.

On the other hand I think that Colbert comes out on the high side as a result of this journalistic blunder. Indeed, I strongly suspect that Colbert is playing the same sort of postmodernist game that I previously attributed to Pete Stark’s apology. If Stark’s use of the word “insignificant” represented an act of resistance (rather than opposition) “against a Congress whose normative practices undermine the democratic foundation that the Constitution tried to lay down for it” (as I previously wrote), then Colbert is calling on us all to resist an outmoded electoral process, which is also undermining our democratic foundation (as we saw all too well in both 2000 and 2004). Like the protagonist played by Robin Williams in Man of the Year, Colbert is smart enough to know that he would not do a particularly good job in the White House; but supporting him may be the most effective way for us to voice our resistance to a hopelessly broken electoral system. As they used to say in the Sixties, “If you’re not part of the solution, you can at least make the problem so bad that someone will have to fix it!”

Friday, October 26, 2007

Music for an Era?

Sometimes a piece of music becomes representative of a particular era. Beethoven's ninth symphony probably acquired an iconic status during the nineteenth century, due less to Beethoven's (many) merits than to the raising of public consciousness of Beethoven by Franz Liszt (with some assistance from Richard Wagner) within the context of what Isaiah Berlin called "the apotheosis of the Romantic Will." To some extent Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" is assuming a similar role for the twentieth century, having drawn upon the harrowing texts of Wilfred Owen, written from the trenches of the First World War and invoked to rededicate cathedrals destroyed in both England and Germany during the Second World War. We have not yet completed the first decade if the twenty-first century; and I find myself wondering whether or not Appomattox will play a similar role in representing its Zeitgeist. Ultimately, the opera is less about the conclusion of the Civil War than it is about the problem of discrimination that has yet to be resolved in relations between the races in the United States and looms with equal significance in just about every other part of the world. It is also interesting to note that while Beethoven's symphony stood as a celebration of the best of humanity, particularly as seen through the post-Enlightenment lenses of Romanticism, Philip Glass has followed Benjamin Britten's selection of the requiem structure as a framing of the time that Berlin would later call "the most terrible century in Western history." Through its flash-forwards Appomattox reminds us that we should mourn not only the blood shed during the Civil War but also the extent to which, in spite of Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg, that blood was shed in vain and will continue to be shed, both literally in continuing acts of racial violence and figuratively in the growth of more insidious discriminatory practices.

Resolving yet another Mass Appeal Mess

The most important lesson I took away from The Money Game, which George Goodman wrote under the appropriately-chosen pseudonym of "Adam Smith," was that "the crowd is always wrong." While "Smith" invoked this rule to demonstrate the folly of investing by following the crowd, the rule certainly generalizes beyond the world of financial planning. Most recently we have seen it by comparing the opening-weekend box office numbers with the reviews of the films that were opening. On many occasions the film that grosses the most marbles has not even bothered to arrange a screening for critics, knowing full well that it will get trashed by "considered opinion;" but absence of knowledge does not prevent the crowd from gobbling up such tripe.

Unfortunately, going against the crowd can have its drawbacks, particularly when one does it in writing. Nevertheless, whatever the risks may be, I sometimes feel I need to do this in the arena of public performances. Last July I stuck my neck out to express a jaundiced opinion of Live Earth, but the most flack I ever caught was when I had the audacity to take a skeptical view of Bill Moyers and those who sail under him. If I have learned anything from these experiences, it is that it always helps have to have a supporting point of view in your intellectual knapsack, if only to reassure you that you are not alone in your unpopular opinions.

This brings me to the subject of Ken Burns. It is about time that I come clean and aver that, on every occasion that I have attempted to sample this guy's work on Public Television, I have succumbed to an irresistible urge to shut down the damned thing within fifteen minutes. Given the scale of most of his work, that makes for a pretty feeble statistical sample. However, my music composition teacher led me to appreciate that every gesture should direct the mind behind the ear towards what comes next; if the mind ceases to care about that, then the composition is a failure. There is no reason why this rule cannot be applied to film, whether fiction or documentary. In other words I find it very difficult to watch anything that Burns has made (including interviews I have seen him give) without feeling a numbing sensation in my mind that could care less about what the visual and auditory cortices happen to be feeding it.

The good news is that Chalmers Johnson (who I happen to feel writes excellently and speaks at the same level of quality, whether in delivering a lecture or being subjected to an interview) seems to have helped me identify just why Burns' products (what else can I call them?) have this effect on my mind. Ironically, Johnson did this in the book review he prepared for Truthdig concerning the posthumously-published book by David Halberstam about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter. For all of the well-deserved praise that Johnson offers over the best parts of this book, he still offers a paragraph of annoyance:

One aspect of Halberstam’s commitment as a historian and the consequent effect on his writing must be dealt with at the outset and then put aside. That is what he conceives of as his duty to present a populist portrayal of the ordinary soldier in day-to-day, sometimes hand-to-hand, combat and endless homilies on courage, fear, leadership, stamina, cowardice and any other emotions and qualities that might be encountered on the battlefield. I call this the Ken Burns-Tom Brokaw school of writing, hero worship, Great Generationism and military narcissism. Even in ordinary doses it is unimaginably tedious and boring. The amount of it in this 700-page book sometimes generated in me a deep regret that I had agreed to write this review.

Reading this made me realize that Ken Burns could turn any subject, whether war, baseball, or (one of my most sacred cows) jazz, into an orgy of his own narcissism, as if his unconstrained enthusiasm for his observations (it is impossible for me to call them insights) is reason enough for the rest of us to be equally enthusiastic.

That such an approach to delivering content should attract so many eyeballs to Public Television (not to mention DVD collaterals) should not be a surprise. Christopher Lasch wrote about our society as a "culture of narcissism;" and, as I recently reported, Charles Taylor has been exploring the same sort of social trend in developing his concept of "culture death." I shudder to think that the very mind-numbing quality that turned me away from Burns' work is what attracts the bulk of his following, a culture that does not care about where events and ideas lead but is content to wallow in each moment with a comfortable reassurance that the next moment will be just as pleasing. As I said, my most sacred cow to fall victim to the Burns treatment was jazz; and (to choose as an example a performer who always seemed to be embraced by the general public) I find it hard to believe that Louis Armstrong would have had much tolerance for that kind of comfortable reassurance from either those who played with him or those who listened to him.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


My first post about Appomattox at the San Francisco Opera was written in haste, because I felt it was necessary to set down my thoughts before going off to hear the second concert in András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas. However, I concluded with some remarks as to whether or not the production had "settled" and suggested that I would try to see the opera a second time. I was therefore glad to find myself with a ticket to the final performance last night, not only because of the question of how well the production had "converged" but also because I think it is terribly unfair that new works end up getting reviewed on the basis of a single performance experience. The evening also provided me with an opportunity to hear the music conducted by Assistant Conductor Sara Jobin. I have had little (if any) exposure to Ms. Jobin's work. However, I caught the tail end of her pre-performance talk the last time I saw this opera; and she won me over at a level of understanding with her concluding remarks about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This is probably the institution that best "gets" that "Civil War Without End" message that I stressed in my last post. I learned about SPLC several decades ago, when I first started donating to their Klanwatch effort; and they continue to be a valuable resource for my wife's teaching activities. I am now happy to report that I was as pleased with Ms. Jobin's command of Philip Glass' score as I was with her politics!

Having dealt with one relatively peripheral matter, let me now turn to the substance of that score, which Ms. Jobin conducted as well as Glass expert Dennis Russell Davies at the first performance I attended. I do not think I read a single review of Appomattox that, at some point, did not invoke the noun "monotony," or one of its variants, in describing Glass' music. I am not going to single out any of those critics, but I think they all need to be haunted by the ghost of Igor Stravinsky haranguing them on the importance of being a good listener. Yes, ostinato plays a significant role in the grammar of Glass' compositions; but ostinato does not imply monotony. No one seems to have a problem when Beethoven uses it as heavily as he does in his sixth symphony; so why must every self-professed expert get on Glass' case about it? If we really want to get at how we should be listening to this music, we need to begin by asking what that music is. Only then can we decide whether or not we want to pick a fight with the composer over his grammatical style.

Simply put, the score for Appomattox is a dirge, very much in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary sense of "a slow mournful song." Having raised Stravinsky's ghost, at this point I think it is important to note that Stravinsky once composed a ballet score that took the concept of a dirge and sustained it for over half an hour. The ballet was "Orpheus;" and over that sustained period the orchestra "raises its voice" only once, at the moment when Orpheus looks back and Eurydice is pulled back to Hades. The last time I heard this music performed, that one moment scared the hell out of me. From this experience I realized that a dirge is all about the tension that comes with trying to control grief and that the release of that tension has to be managed scrupulously in order for the music to have the strongest dramatic impact.

I do not know how familiar Glass is with this particular ballet, but there is no doubt in my mind that he understands this nature of the dirge. It is all about tension and release, and ostinato provides a device through which Glass controls our feelings of tension. As far as I am concerned, he does this very well, well enough to expand Stravinsky's half-hour scale to two-and-a-half hours; and if none of the critics I read seem to have "gotten" this point, then the loss is theirs! In this respect I think it is also important to note that the entire cast (along with the orchestra) seems to have "gotten" this sense of tension and release to such an extent that some of the more obvious instances (such as the passing of Grant's migraine) almost (but not quite) intrude on the subtle undercurrents of the music.

Lest some readers think that I am theorizing excessively in defense of Glass, the dirge theme of this opera confronts us in the staging of the Prologue. Having opened with the "tragic perspective" of the Civil War through the words of Julia Grant, Mary Curtis Lee, and Mary Todd Lincoln, we are then confronted with a full chorus of women in mourning, each of whom places a portrait of a fallen soldier at the foot of the platform on which most of the action will take place. Those portraits remain there for the entire opera. They are the ghosts of the fallen, bearing witness to the final blood sacrifice at Richmond, the diplomatic dance of resolving a surrender, and those flash-forwards that remind us of how little was settled at Appomattox. We then conclude with Julia Grant reminding us once again of the tragic nature of the war, set now in the context of Lincoln's pessimistic observation that human nature dictates that what occurs will eventually reoccur (as those flash-forwards have already demonstrated).

To the extent that dirge is also about "disciplined understatement," I think it is important to credit Christopher Hampton for the libretto. There are those who seemed to feel that the text was too "talky;" but it was actually extremely spare. The result was that every word mattered and, to return to my approach to Stravinsky, voices are raised seldom but always with devastating impact, particularly in that final solo based on the words of Edgar Ray Killen.

So last night the curtain descended on Appomattox for the final time. What will happen now? Contemporary operas have a hard time getting programmed. Look at how long it has taken for the Metropolitan Opera to get around to performing Satyagraha. This opera is too important for such neglect. I just hope that the directors of other American opera companies "get the message" about Appomattox and keep it from fading into the obscurity of so many other recent works.

The Ruthlessness Factor

My conjecture that the Republicans treated Pete Stark as a sign of vulnerability in Democratic leadership, which they could then exploit in going after Nancy Pelosi, seems to have attracted some attention over at Truthdig. Reader Outraged now seems convinced that the Republicans are planting moles among the Democrats, so they can plan and implement further attacks. I certainly agree that the concept of a "loyal opposition" has become about as quaint and outmoded as the concept of "public trust;" but I suspect that the adversarial relationship between Republican and Democrats has not (yet?) escalated to a level of Cold War thinking. Everyone has vulnerabilities; but, in a town that has as many off-the-record blabbermouths as the District, you do not need undercover agents to figure out what they are!

Rather, I think it is just that the era of the "loyal opposition" has given way to an era of overt ruthlessness; and I’m afraid the problem is that the Republicans are just a lot better at that overt ruthlessness than the Democrats are when it comes to playing power games; and ruthlessness trumps reasoned deliberation in the face of complex problems every time. Indeed, "ruthless" is the adjective that dare not speak its name in Isaiah Berlin's essay on "Political Judgement;" but there is no doubt that it is lurking in the subtext. After all, Bismarck is one of Berlin's prime examples; and he was about as ruthless as they get.

This is not to say that ruthlessness was not a factor in the good old days of "loyal oppositions;" and it is not as if Democrats have always been naive about ruthlessness. What, after all, was behind LBJ's famous "I've got his pecker in my pocket" metaphor? The problem seems to be that inter-party ruthlessness now undermines deliberation, and one of the most important contributions that the Congress makes to the balance of powers is its capacity for deliberation. However, if we have now slipped down to the bottom of the Maslow hierarchy, dispensing with deliberation in favor of acting for immediate self-gratification, then Eugene Robinson's editorial last June about the need for a "brainiac president" is way off the mark. After all, the brainiac was always the first kid to get the crap beaten out of him by the school bullies; or, in a more innocuous setting, the brainiac is the victim of Lucy van Pelt in Peanuts, who once said, "He was beginning to make sense, so I hit him."

So this brings me back to yesterday's agonizing over the extent of the corruption of the body politic and the need for the how-did-we-get-in-this-mess question. One explanation may be that ruthlessness trumps deliberation because it is far more entertaining. After all, how many people actually watch the C-SPAN coverage of the Congress, compared to the number of people who watched Glenn Beck deliver his serves-them-right fulmination over the victims of the California fires? For that matter, how large an audience did Don Imus attract for doing the very things that eventually got him kicked off the air? In the language of the preceding paragraph, in the business of mass media, the market for school bullies is always going to dwarf the market for brainiacs; and, like it or not, political decisions and actions now have far more to do with what "sells" than with the subtle questions that arise in the course of deliberation. Whether or not this is the government we deserve, it certainly appears to be the government we want!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

It's Not just about Chutzpah

Could it be that there is more to the report of Representative Pete Stark's apology on the House floor than the mainstream media (with their shock troops of pundits) want us to believe? Yesterday I tried to address this story in terms of whether or not Stark's Chutzpah of the Week award needed to be recalled; but this has always just been my own strategy for using ridicule, rather than indignation, as a way to cope with horrors that are too depressing to confront by any other means. Nevertheless, I started to sidle up to those horrors when I suggested that the text of Stark's apology could be read as an act of resistance (in the postmodern sense of this word) against a Congress whose normative practices undermine the democratic foundation that the Constitution tried to lay down for it. Today I feel a need for an even bolder confrontation with how bad things may be.

After doing some more background reading yesterday, it occurred to me that the Executive thugs could care less about Stark. Their real target is Pelosi, and nothing pleases them more than finding the weak spots in her leadership and going after them with long and sharp knives. The point is that they can attack Pelosi by denying her access to contact with the Executive branch, just the same way that they deny dissenting journalists access to the White House Press Room. Every now and then they need to remind Pelosi who is really in charge to keep her in line, and she is then discredited in public opinion when she dances to their tune. I suspect that my charge yesterday against the Congress was too specific. The undermining that is taking place is hardly restricted to the Congress. The corruption that grew within the Executive has now metabolized in the other two branches; and the whole “body politic” may never make it out of Intensive Care.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chutzpah Denied?

So Truthdig has reported (with video to verify) that today Representative Pete Stark apologized, from the House floor, "to Bush, his family, the troops and his congressional colleagues." Does this mean that his Chutzpah of the Week award needs to be recalled? What if Stark was actually pulling a postmodern sucker punch on his fellow Representatives? The thing is that, having "done the right thing by the offended parties," Stark then concluded his speech by hoping that he could now go back to being "as insignificant as I should be;" and I would like to take this phrase as a hoisting (albeit at bit cryptic) of his true colors. The adjective "insignificant" can be read as an act of resistance (in the postmodern sense of this word) against a Congress whose normative practices undermine the democratic foundation that the Constitution tried to lay down for it. Perhaps I am being too generous to the man, but I would say that Stark took his lumps by giving out a few of his own! His award still stands, even if he may now have to hide it in a closet!

Ecuadorian Chutzpah

Once again, it is a bit early in the week to be homing in on the Chutzpah award. However, since the news just seems to keep getting worse, I find myself more and more attracted to those who invoke chutzpah with a positive connotation. Thus, unless a more worthy candidate comes along before the end of the week, I am prepared to grant this week's award to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. This comes with an Honorable Mention award (yes, I know, the first of its kind) to Amy Goodman, whose news headlines on Democracy Now this morning provided the only coverage I could find of why President Correa deserves the award:

Ecuador Refuses to Renew Lease for U.S. Military Base
Meanwhile a dispute continues over a U.S. military base in Ecuador. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has refused to renew Washington's lease on the Manta air base. In an interview with Reuters Correa said he would renew the lease on one condition -- the United States allow Ecuador to build a military base in Miami. Correa said: "If there's no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorian base in the United States." It is estimated that United States has over 700 military bases in foreign countries.

I have no idea why this story did not show up on the Reuters RSS feed for International News. However, regular readers have seen enough accounts of how all is not well in the Reuters garden; so this particular lapse should come as no surprise. So thank you, Amy, for not letting this story languish on the cutting-room floor; and thank you (oh so much), President Correa, for taking just one symptom of American imperialism and shoving it back into the imperialist faces!

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Queen of the Night to Remember

The Artist Profiles in the program for the new San Francisco Opera production of The Magic Flute (shared with the Los Angeles Opera) described Erika Miklósa as "Sought internationally for her interpretation of the Queen of the Night." It is easy to see why she is so much in demand, as she is, without a doubt, the first coloratura I have actually witnessed who gave the impression of being comfortable with the demands of the role that make it so notorious. I first came to know this music through an old Herbert von Karajan recording on which Wilma Lipp sang the part with an effortlessness that I was too young to appreciate. (The same can be said of George London's performance of Sarastro on that recording.) In many ways this is the ultimate high-wire act; and most audiences tend to be satisfied as long as all the notes are in the right place at the right time. Miklósa convinced us that, for her, performing a solo, no matter how demanding it may be, had to be more than acrobatics. Whether her approach to modulating the dynamics of her delivery to provide the emotional character supported by the text was her own conception or whether she worked it out in conjunction with conductor Donald Runnicles, she rescued this poor Queen from her usual flat stereotyping. Indeed, when one gets beyond those acrobatics, one appreciates the complementary relationship between the (astral?) heights of her cadenzas and the (earthy?) depths of Sarastro's low notes. So Miklósa and bass Georg Zeppenfeld (making his American opera debut) perfectly nailed the musical representation of the dialectical opposition of their respective characters.

For all that, however, we should remember that this opera was first offered as what might best be described as "suburban entertainment." Librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder was not after the insights into the multifaceted human heart that Lorenzo da Ponte had provided Mozart for Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and (without a doubt, the deepest of all) Così fan tutte. The comedy directs low blows at women and blacks, the characters are basically made out of cardboard, and the action freezes to allow the characters to deliver fortune-cookie style moral precepts with a frequency that would be annoying were the music not so wonderful. Making this opera "work" on the stage is no easy matter; and the directors who do it best tend to apply an it-is-what-it-is strategy. Peter Hall departed a bit from this approach, most notably by changing Monostatos' color to green, leaving us to wonder if Schikaneder's text for "Alles fühlt der Liebe Freunden" should not have been changed to "It isn't easy being green;" and most of the demeaning text about women was dismissed. As to the volt face of the plot line, when the point of view shifts from the Queen of the Night to Sarastro, Hall did not try to tease out any underlying logic, because, at the end of the day, the logic really is not there in the first place. (I do remember one production, though, that tried to suggest that the serpent pursuing Tamino at the beginning of the opera was actually put there by the Queen of the Night.)

So, if we are to chuck the logic and enjoy the spectacle, then it is enough to enjoy Mozart's music (easy enough when it is under the control of a conductor like Runnicles getting every voice on stage and every instrumentalist in the bit to deliver at peak performance) and drink in all the eccentricities of the design by Gerald Scarfe. These days the design for The Magic Flute seems to be all about the animals. Why else would the Met bring in the director of The Lion King for the job? The cover of the program book prepared us for the fact that Scarfe had a taste for the chimerical, covering a scale from an oversized ostrich with the neck and head of a giraffe down to a penguin that could have come out of Happy Feet had it not had the head of a crocodile. The cover, however, did not prepare us for the penguin-crocodile having red sneakers, which was a very nice touch, indeed.

The cast of The Magic Flute is too large to reduce crediting every voice in laundry-list style. However, I was particularly struck by a last-minute cast change that offered "auxiliary" interest beyond the coupling of Miklósa and Zeppenfeld, which I found so interesting. The Speaker, who provides Tamino with his first impression of Sarastro's realm, was sung by Philip Skinner. It was not just that I was pleased with the quality of Skinner's voice but that I remembered him from last week, when he scared the hell out of most of the audience in his performance as Edgar Ray Killen in Appomattox. Here is someone with both vocal and acting chops for an operatic repertoire that has become as broad as it now is. I look forward to seeing what other elements of performance he brings to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Another Raucous Night of Classical Music

I suspect that many of my readers may have been a bit surprised at my recent invocation of the adjective "raucous" in association with Johannes Brahms. Personally, I would have anticipated that it would be even harder to associate that adjective with conductor Kurt Masur, whom I have always associated with grace and refinement; but I can think of no better adjective to embrace the program he prepared for his visit to the San Francisco Symphony. Masur made it clear that he could have just as much fun with his work as the next guy without in any way compromising the disciplined technique that his particular work demands. I suppose I should not be surprised, since, in the concert he prepared for the Symphony last year, he had no trouble cutting loose in a wild and wooly reading of Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche;" but last night's concert at Davies Symphony Hall made the Strauss performance seem tame by comparison.

Perhaps Masur thought that he should do something in keeping with the fact that Halloween is just around the corner. This seems to be the best explanation for his opening the concert with Franz Liszt's "Totentanz" with piano soloist Louis Lortie. Larry Rothe's essay in the program book may have opted for covering up this piece as a "guilty pleasure;" but I think Seth Montfort came closer to the mark with his "Liszt in Leather" metaphor, which he invoked earlier this month at the Grand Opening Gala for the Russian River Performing Arts Center and Conservatory. On the surface this is an extended series of variations on two of the phrases from the "Dies Irae" chant in the Liber Usualis; but, once we get beyond any formal association with the text of the Requiem Mass, we are left with one of the best examples of that kick-ass exhibitionism that earned Liszt the reputation (notoriety?) of the ultimate piano virtuoso of the nineteenth century. Of course there was nothing new in those days with taking the simplest fragment of material and pushing it for all it was worth (and then some). Liszt himself must have been intimately acquainted with how Beethoven had inflated Diabelli's trivial little waltz into 33 variations. Only a year after "Totentanz," Brahms would publish his own extended set of variations on a Paganini caprice; and, given Brahms' tendency to invoke the adjective "Lisztich" when talking about excessive bad taste, we have to wonder if hearing "Totentanz" had provoked him into his Paganini project.

None of this should retract from the fact that "Totentanz" offers one of the best occasions for unadulterated riotous fun. It is one of those works that starts loud and (with occasional pauses to catch its breath) keeps getting louder. Lortie was able to summon all of the energy and technique necessary to pull off the stunt with aplomb, and Masur was there with orchestral reinforcement. If the second-chair second violinist, sitting no more than a few yards from Lortie, was having a lot of trouble keeping a straight face through the whole affair, he was far from the only one. When the work finally concluded, I realized that I was not applauding because I had doubled over in uncontrolled fits of laughter. I would take issue with Rothe, though, because I felt absolutely no guilt in the pleasure I derived from this experience!

Perhaps the most important lesson from this experience is that a virtuoso pianist could drive an audience in 1865 as crazy as a rock star can today, and that tradition was already firmly in place when Liszt was making his reputation. "Totentanz" was followed by Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy," which predates it by little more than half a century but is basically a similar take on virtuoso exhibitionism. It begins with an extended solo piano improvisation, although Robert Levin is probably the only pianist who has experimented with recording improvisations of his own in place of what Beethoven ultimately set down for publication. This is followed by a theme-and-variations form in which more and more resources are engaged. In the first phase the resources are orchestral; and, in this case, the orchestra is far more than reinforcing backup for the pianist. Indeed, one of the more intriguing variations is for string quartet, played by the first chairs of the two violin, viola, and cello sections; and another variation has an extended obbligato passage for solo cello that reminds us how much Beethoven must have loved this instrument (as if his five sonatas were not enough of a reminder). Having fully developed the orchestral resources, the work finally lives up to its name, bringing in a full chorus with six solo voices. This was where we finally got to enjoy Mazur's chops, because he had a keen sense of making the entire work an extended crescendo. Thus, as the work finally barreled into its coda, Mazur kept us on the edge of the seat by eliciting slight swells, just to let us know that the build-up was still proceeding.

The "Choral Fantasy" is far from Beethoven at his best. Those who view it as an exercise that would prepare him for his ninth symphony probably have a good point. So listening to it is a bit like reading Stephen Hero after one has begun to get one's mind around Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It is good to have both in the historical record, but the latter work still dwarfs the former. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mazur wanted to conduct the work on its own terms, regardless of whether it should have been left on the cutting-room floor. The result was another perfectly-rendered instance of raucous virtuosity, but from a time when the raucous had not quite escalated to the degree that Liszt would achieve.

The intermission was followed by a performance of the cantata that Serge Prokofiev prepared from the music he wrote for the soundtrack of Sergei Eisenstein's film, Alexander Nevsky. I have to confess that I still cannot get enough of this film; and, in the context of my generally cool attitude towards Prokofiev, I feel that the film score may be one of his best pieces of work. This is not due to any particularly outstanding efforts at compositional innovation but for the way in which he worked with a studio orchestra to prepare an effective soundtrack at a time when sound recording was still extremely primitive. Prokofiev recognized that delicacy was just not going to register with the recording process; so he drew heavily on loud brass and, in so doing, managed to develop a broad emotional palette from what would have seemed a limited set of resources. In fairness to Eisenstein, that palette probably owes as much to the visuals as to the music; but my point is that Prokofiev-the-team-player seems to have emerged as more of a "firebrand" than Prokofiev-the-composer.

The cantata, on the other hand, is a radically different piece of work. The orchestral palette is far broader, and Prokofiev works it all with a keen ear. Single instruments and small groups carry just as much weight as the great masses of growling brass (although, of course, it was all that growling that maintained the raucous spirit of the evening). What particularly interested me was the rather sparing use that Prokofiev made of sopranos, relying much more on an alto-tenor-bass mix to achieve dark colors. As to the overall compositional structure, it really helps to know the film. The basic "language" of the score is relatively limited and involves far more repetition than development (as if we had not yet had our fill of extended development in the first half of this concert). Thus, as was the case with that solo cello work by Kaija Saariaho, which I recently heard at the San Francisco Conservatory, the cantata is basically an extended exercise in sonorities and how to listen to them. On these terms Prokofiev provided us with more than ample material to refine our listening skills; and Masur had no trouble eliciting every fleck of color from the orchestra, making sure that each was situated in its proper place and time.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Unfortunate Timing

András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas seems to be inspiring me to review my background knowledge of Beethoven, even to the point of consulting my copy of Thayer's Life of Beethoven, which I have not previously done very much. One reference in Thayer that struck me was to "the glorious series of sonatas" from the years 1798 and 1799. For Thayer this series began with the Opus 10 set, continued through the Opus 13 "Pathétique," and concluded with the two Opus 14 sonatas. Thus, Schiff's second recital launched us into this series; but the way in which the cycle has been scheduled means that we shall have to wait for Opus 14 until April. This is an unfortunate lapse of time for anyone other than myself interested in following the thread of Beethoven's creative development!

I am sure there are any number of explanations for why things turned out this way. However, it does raise the question of why such a project should be scheduled in the first place, particularly from the point of view of the more general audience, which is probably not interested in doing any background research or trying to take a context-based approach to listening. Is it just something to be done for the sake of doing it? In that case it is worth remembering what the Japanese say about climbing Mount Fuji: "There are two kinds of fools: those who have never climbed Fuji and those who have climbed it more than once." However, I would argue that this precept is more applicable to a live performance of Kaikhosru Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum than to the complete cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, simply because the latter are more likely to inform us about practices of good listening, even on repeated experiences, than the former, which is little more than an athletic accomplishment.

I suspect that, where general audiences are involved, this kind of "cycle programming" provides an interesting bridge between the experience of the "live" performance and the experience of listening to recorded performances. After all, it is not particularly difficult to find box sets of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas; and I would not be surprised to find collectors who have amassed several of these sets reflecting performances of a variety of markedly different pianists. In other words it is not out of the question to assume familiarity with the full cycle, if only through a CD collection; so why not enhance that familiarity with an opportunity to hear them all in a "live" setting? From that point of view, this is yet another way to demonstrate that no recording, no matter how well it has been produced, can ever substitute for "the real thing;" and why not make that point "in the large" for all of the Beethoven piano sonatas, rather than confining it to the program of a single recital? If the realities of what a professional pianist has to do in order to schedule such an event then end up interrupting a "glorious series of sonatas," then that is not an unreasonable price to pay for such an enjoyable listening opportunity.

Friday, October 19, 2007

More on the Beethoven-Bach Connection

I attended the Menachem Pressler Master Class and recital with a friend who has been a piano teacher for many years and whose opinion I greatly respect. Since, like myself, she attended the first two concerts in András Schiff's cycle of the all of the Beethoven piano sonatas, I decided to raise that question of the extent to which that Bach C Minor keyboard partita could be viewed as a predecessor of Beethoven's Opus 13 "Pathétique" sonata. (She has read some of my blog posts; but, since she does not use a computer, she does not read them regularly. So she had not seen my position on this matter, which is that I did not really buy into the connection Schiff was trying to demonstrate.) Her position was that it was clear as day that the connection was there, delivered in that dismissing tone that would wither away anyone presumptuous enough to think otherwise. Naturally, this set me to thinking (defensively?) more about my own position; and I have decided to reframe my opinion in terms of the typical rabbinical it-is-and-it-isn't strategy. Now let me try to make a case that I am neither caving nor waffling.

First of all, I still hold to my position that the entire Bach partita does not serve as a model for the entire Beethoven sonata; and I think my friend agrees with me on that count. So that is the it-isn't part of the argument. Where, then, lies the it-is part? I would argue that it lies in the fact that the opening "Sinfonia" of the Bach partita is an "overture in the French style," characterized particularly by the dotted rhythms of the opening slow section (marked both "Grave" and "Adagio" in the Alte Ausgabe). Bach had a great love of this style, and it even found its way into the sixteenth of his "Goldberg" variations.

This brings us to the "Pathétique" sonata. This sonata also opens with a "Grave" section in dotted rhythms, dotted sixteenths, in fact, just as in the Bach partita; but the analogy quickly breaks down after that. The Bach "Sinfonia" is a multi-section overture: The "Grave" introduction is followed by an "Andante" two-part invention with a cadenza that leads into a concluding two-voice fugue. The Beethoven sonata, on the other hand, takes, as its point of departure, the model of an Allegro first movement having a slow introduction, except that, in this particular sonata, the introductory material recurs throughout the movement, even in the coda. This is, in no sense of the concept, a "French style overture." Rather, it is an exploration into new ways to structure a piano sonata, just as the Opus 2 sonatas explored taking new approaches to models that Haydn had previously developed. Indeed, the very idea of the slow introduction, which is probably invoked most classically in the first movement of the first symphony (Opus 26), does not reappear in the piano sonata cycle until the second sonata of the Opus 31 set (the one that supposedly has a connection to Shakespeare's Tempest), where it is almost a fragment and recurs in a matter similar to that established in the "Pathétique." To the best of my knowledge, Beethoven never drew upon this French overture model, even in his own monumental collection of variations on Diabelli's theme. In other words even the it-is part of the argument is fraught with so many qualifications that the association may be too weak to signify.

So should I have been firmer in holding my ground? What really came out of my disagreement with my friend was an urge to do some homework that I probably should have done before challenging the point that Schiff was trying to make. Besides, this was not an exercise in winning arguments but just another take on that question of how we can be good listeners; and, as I have tried to demonstrate with the Beethoven-Schubert connection, good listening is context-based listening. Thus, the real question we should be considering is where Bach was situated in Beethoven's context. One way to address this question is to consult Thayer's Life of Beethoven, where we find a citation of notices by Ferdinand Ries, which acknowledges that Beethoven had a high opinion of Bach; but that same notice also states that he had a higher value of Mozart and Handel! Schiff, on the other hand as a performer, clearly has a very high opinion of Bach; so I have to wonder if the connection he tried to demonstrate was ultimately a matter of Schiff translating his own love of Bach into his worldview of Beethoven!

The Jokes Keep Coming!

Having taken so much pleasure in the Master Class that Menahem Pressler gave on Tuesday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was looking forward to his appearance at the Chamber Music Masters concert last night. I like the way in which the Conservatory tends to structure these events. The "guest" (in this case Pressler) performs with both faculty and students; and a students-only performance usually gets sandwiched between two appearances by that "guest." In this case the middle of the concert was a string quartet of students playing the single-movement (structured in three sections without any breaks) Opus 138 string quartet by Dmitri Shostakovich. Since the "sandwiching" compositions went for a light touch and with (both gentle and raucous) wit, all of the "weight" of the evening resided between the two slices of bread. The members of the quartet (violins Eric Chin and Emily Nenninger, viola Matthew Davies, and cello Samsun Van Loon) were definitely up to the seriousness of their task and had a good sense of how to deliver the three sections as an integrated da capo whole. Written five years before the end of Shostakovich's life, this was very much a meditation on death; and, while the program notes dwelled on pain and grief, I felt that this was a work in which Shostakovich had gotten beyond the need for the sharp crypto-irony that had enabled him to survive under Stalin. This was the retrospective view of a survivor of nightmares that escaped the confines of the dream world; and, for me at least, this particularly performance was more about a Kübler-Ross approach to an acceptance of death, rather than a reaction of depression or anger.

By leaving Shostakovich to the students, Pressler was free to deal with the lighter side of things, first in the D. 574 violin sonata of Franz Schubert and then in the Opus 25 piano quartet by Johannes Brahms. These two works represented, respectively, what, in the previous paragraph, I called "gentle and raucous" approaches to wit. Indeed, the wit of the Schubert sonata is very much the wit of those Opus 10 piano sonatas of Beethoven that András Schiff played this past Sunday. Recall, that I had already suggested that the second of these piano sonatas probably had an impact on Schubert's compositions for solo piano; but the violin sonata had more to do with picking up on what I had called Beethoven's sense of play in the Opus 10 sonatas. Pressler clearly understood that sense of play; you could see it in his entire body. Unfortunately, violin faculty member Axel Strauss did not seem to grasp the concept; and this undermined the chamber music ideal of a small number of musicians performing as one.

On the other hand the musicians who joined Pressler for the Brahms piano quartet, violin faculty member Ian Swensen and students Daniel Jang (viola) and Erin Wang (cello), all agreed on the more raucous wit of what they were playing. This kind of raucousness is most apparent in the final "Rondo alla Zingarese" ("Gypsy") movement, which is about as over-the-top as Brahms ever got (leaving it only to the Schoenberg orchestration to take things even further over the top); but there is nothing restrained about the other three movements, particularly when the serenity of the "Andante con moto" third movement gets interrupted by a puffed-up parade that seems to have more to do with Bismarck than with Brahms. Needless to say, this was the sort of performance that makes an audience leap to its feet at the final note; and it was good to see two of the Conservatory students share in the fun of it all. Pressler is a regular visitor to the Conservatory; but this was my first chance to see him "in action" there. Between the Master Class and the recital, I just hope it is not my last.

Trying to Save the Sinking S-CHIP with Chutzpah

Returning home from a concert last night, I flipped on the C-SPAN Radio channel on my XM receiver in the hope of hearing some of the House debate that preceded the failure to override the President's veto of the S-CHIP legislation. What I heard was a side show over an attack against California Representative Pete Stark, demanding that he retract remarks he made in the course of the debate. Unfortunately, I fell asleep before I was able to determine what this argument was all about; but Erica Werner's report in this morning's Chicago Sun-Times has resolved the matter for me. In so doing she has provided me with the necessary data to present Pete Stark with the Chutzpah of the Week award, recognizing, once again, that chutzpah can be invoked in a positive way. I take considerable comfort in doing this, because this was certainly one of the more depressing week's for news readers; so Stark's straight talk directed at a dead moose on the table that both houses of Congress keep doing their best to ignore was more than a little refreshing.

For those unfamiliar with what happened yesterday, these are the words that triggered a demand for retraction:

You don't have money to fund the war or children. But you're going to spend it to blow up innocent people if we can get enough kids to grow old enough for you to send to Iraq to get their heads blown off for the president's amusement.

The demand for retraction was made by House Minority Leader John Boehner in the following words, which, true to the wisdom of Ambrose Bierce, demonstrated a patriotism that is the first refuge of a scoundrel:

Congressman Stark's statement dishonors not only the commander in chief, but the thousands of courageous men and women of America's armed forces who believe in their mission and are putting their lives on the line for our freedom and security.

According to Ms. Werner, "A White House representative was not immediately available to respond to Stark's comment." She also reported that Stark responded to Boehner by sticking to his guns:

Instead of retraction or apology the statement Stark issued in response to Boehner just offered more criticism of the ''chicken hawks in Congress who vote to deny children health care.'' Stark also expressed respect for the troops.

Stark thus deserves his award not only for the chutzpah of the initial act but also for the chutzpah of defending that act. My only regret is that the award is a virtual one, because I would really like to send him something physical that he can display with pride in his office in the District!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Enterprise Thinking about Health Services

Marissa Meyer is in good company. According to Eric Auchard's Reuters report, Google's vice president of Search Products & User Experience addressed the Web 2.0 Summit on the subject of her company's efforts to deal with health information products, saying the following:

We do have a broad interest in this area. It will start with search.

By saying this, she has at least implied that health care is an industry in dire need of enterprise software, beginning with better capabilities for search. I would argue that this aggravates a misunderstanding of the nature of health care that would best be compared with President George W. Bush's misunderstanding of education by characterizing it as a civil right. The two of them make a lovely couple as together they bungle the two most critical service offerings in our country.

At least Ms. Meyer has an excuse: It is her job to see to the revenue stream of her company, particularly where search is involved. Like it or not, just about every player in health care (hopefully with the exception of those who actually face patients, who always seem to get pushed into the background by the other players) seems hell-bent on making an industry out of it. Once again, the concept of a "public trust" seems outmoded, or at least too old-fashioned to satisfy everyone's pursuits of profit and growth. Some of the attempts to reform health care have tried to restore this public-trust status to both the institutions and the professionals who work there; but, given the political context (which is to say, the influence of special interests) in which any efforts at reform will take place, those attempts are likely to be the first to be swept off the table as infeasible. Meanwhile, a rich company is positioning itself to get rich by becoming a player in whatever reforms do take place while promoting their activities as being in the best interests of the general public by keeping that public better informed.

Still, I suppose the Web 2.0 Summit was the right place for Ms. Meyer to make this sort of pitch. Well-informed columnists such as Caroline McCarthy and Ellen Goodman have already written eloquently about how a fire-hose of search results and hyperlinks does not necessarily make for a better informed public; and I still appreciate Ms. McCarthy providing us with the "era of gullibility 2.0" epithet. However, just as the Web 2.0 evangelists could do little more than wallow in misconceptions when Kathy Sierra was receiving her death threats, they can now do the same with the health care crisis; and those most likely to be victims of this crisis are also those lease likely to be served by Web 2.0 thinking.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This Scherzo is ANOTHER Joke!

Given my enthusiasm for the music of Charles Ives, it was a real treat when I discovered that one of the pieces Menahem Pressler would be covering in his Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music would be the second movement of the Ives piano trio. One might wonder if a German-born Israel-trained pianist would be the right person to coach a performance of Ives; but Pressler is also a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, which played a key role in bringing this trio to the attention of the listening public. Furthermore, since the Beaux Arts worked closely with John Kirkpatrick, one of the foremost authorities on the performance of Ives, in preparing the work for their repertoire, it is hard to imagine anyone with a better understanding of how this trio should be performed. So this was a golden opportunity for me, not only to hear one of my favorite pieces of chamber music but to provide the chance that I might learn a few more things about how to listen to Ives. I ended up scoring on both counts.

The second movement of the trio is a presto with the title "TSIAJ," which stands for "This Scherzo Is A Joke." (I was amused that, in introducing the piece, the pianist (Kevin Korth) tried to pronounce it as if it were an acronym.) My own learning was actually prompted by those introductory remarks and then enhanced by Pressler's coaching. Korth described the movement as being like a "frat party," assuring us all that it would be all right to laugh. However, when Pressler asked the violinist (Leonie Bot) to play a quotation from the "Sailor's Hornpipe" by holding her instrument down like a country fiddler, I realized that the depiction was not of a bunch of rowdy fraternity boys but of a gathering of village musicians whose technical skill was vastly overwhelmed by their enthusiasm. This then reminded me that "The Village Musicians" was a subtitle occasionally used for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Musikalischer Spass, which we know in English as "A Musical Joke." Having already explore a connection between Ives and Johannes Brahms, it is too far-fetched to imagine that "TSIAJ" is Ives' "reply" to Mozart by comparing the bad habits of their respective village musicians?

In both cases playing bad habits "the right way" is no easy matter. However, once Pressler got Korth to tone down enough to let us hear the other two musicians, it was a real joy to hear this group at work. If the biggest problem with Mozart's village musicians is a fumbling on playing the right notes, the sore spot of Ives' villagers lies in their ability to keep time. Anyone who has ever seen the opening scene of Carl Reiner's The Jerk, where Steve Martin is absolutely incapable of stamping his foot in time with the music, will immediately recognize what is going on in Ives' imagination. Korth was particularly good at this, starting with his first extended passage at the very beginning of the movement and later charging into a hopeless muddle of "Jesus Loves Me" with "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Pressler said the Kirkpatrick had identified fifty song reference in this short movement but that the Beaux Arts had only found forty of them. Does it matter if we hear them all? I doubt it. Often several are coming at you all at once, so all you can do is take in the overall texture and let your ears pick up the threads that it can. The Beaux Arts knew how to make this work; and, thanks to Pressler's tutelage, we now have a few budding performers catching on to the same skill.

Who is Stephen Colbert?

This morning Caroline McCarthy used her Social blog post to agonize over whether or not the announcement Stephen Colbert made of his intention to get on both the Democratic and Republican ballots for the presidential primary should be taken as truth or "truthiness." Almost immediately, she received a comment to the effect that Colbert is hardly less qualified than Fred Thompson. Whether or not this is true (and we at least know a thing of two about Thompson's track record in government service), qualification is not the issue. The real issue is more complex and is therefore worth exploring.

When we watch Law & Order, we see Fred Thompson playing the role of Arthur Branch, who is a relatively sympathetic character due to his ability to cool down hotheads without losing touch with a basic sense of right and wrong. We could do a lot worse that having someone like Branch in the White House. The problem is that Fred Thompson is not Arthur Branch; he just plays the guy on television! This is the old "media equation" phenomenon that Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass managed to inflate into a book back in the days when everyone was still in the thrall of Wired magazine. It does not take an awful lot of attention to identify all the ways in which Thompson's own character differs from Branch's; and the media is doing a reasonably good job (with a fair amount of assistance from Thompson himself) in raising public awareness of those differences.

Colbert is another matter. He, too, is an actor who has developed a fascinating (if not exactly nuanced) character. The problem is that the name of the character he portrays is "Stephen Colbert!" My guess is that Stephen Colbert the actor is not anything like the Stephen Colbert character he portrays on television. I may be wrong; but I just feel that the latter (fictitious) character is just too well-designed to be "authentically human." So which Colbert is running for the presidency? My guess is that, in this case, it will actually be the fictitious character; and the "real" Colbert is basically running a "social experiment" to see just how far he can take his act. This may not be so big a deal. After all, every other candidate is providing us with a public face that has been finely crafted by an image maker. Why can't Colbert just be his own image maker, given how good he is at image making? (It's probably a lot better than the proverbial man who chooses to serve as his own lawyer!)

Perhaps that is the game that the "real" Colbert is playing. Going on at great length about the impact of image makers on the political system just does not play that all well among the voting public. Demonstrating the role that image making plays, on the other hand, might have more of an effect. Perhaps Colbert has found the right way to get us all to look at the other candidates and ask what kind of an act each of them is playing. If this is the case, then I applaud his experiment but would like to remind him that there are now various regulations regarding how such experiments should be conducted when the subjects are human!