Saturday, May 31, 2008

Away from the "Grand" Opera House

It is often forgotten that the first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Zauberflöte took place in the suburbs of Vienna (the Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden). Sometimes the most interesting opera performances are found outside of "established" settings like the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. I was aware of this when I was still living in Palo Alto and I saw news that Carlisle Floyd's operatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was going to be performed by Opera San Jose. Not only was this an opportunity for me to make up for having failed to get a ticket the last time New York City Opera had presented this work, but also I learned that Floyd himself would be on hand to supervise the production. This remains the only production I have seen of this impressive work, and it was far more than highly satisfying.

In San Francisco one does not have to leave the city limits for a similar "suburban" experience "beyond the pale" of "grand" opera. I have already written about how one may have such experiences through the student work at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, not only in the Conservatory building itself but also in the better equipped Cowell Theater at the northern tip of the peninsula (which affords some of the best views of both San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, fog permitting, of course). Cowell Theater is now also the home of the San Francisco Lyric Opera, which, according to the statement by its Board of Directors, "provides young artists with a unique opportunity to sing classical repertoire in the original language, thus broaden their repertoire and enhance their musical experience." In other words, to continue my Jane Austen rip-off, the "truth universally acknowledged" is that any aspiring vocalist "must be in want of" any performance opportunity, rather than just those for recitals; and the corollary to this "truth" is that any of these performance opportunities can then serve the rest of us as opportunities to hone further our listening skills.

The latest Lyric Opera production is a perfect example of such an opportunity from many points of view. Through June 7 they will be giving performances of The Turn of the Screw, the opera composed by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by Myfanwy Piper based on the novella by Henry James. However, beyond the utilitarian motives behind the Lyric Opera, there is an extremely important reason to venture out of the Civic Center in search of this production. The Turn of the Screw is the quintessential chamber opera: every "voice," instrumental, as well as vocal, is a solo one. The entire orchestra consists of one first violin, one second violin, one viola, one cello, one bass, one performer of flutes of several sizes, one performer of clarinets of different sizes, an oboe player (I did not catch whether Britten used an English horn), one bassoon, one horn, one harp, a single performer for both timpani and a percussion battery, and a keyboardist for piano and celesta. The delicate weaving of this transparent fabric of sonority with the six singing voices would be overwhelmed by the vast space of the War Memorial Opera House (as it would in the Metropolitan Opera House). It needs a more intimate scale in order to "breathe" properly; and the Cowell Theater provides that scale. (As I recall, my first exposure to this opera was in the Auditorium at Hunter College in Manhattan.)

Doing justice to the original acoustical conception is equally important to the listeners. Like many of Britten's works, this offers a listening experience that, on the surface, provides excellent support to the narrative thread while, beneath that surface, teems with structural subtlety and sophistication, beginning with the architecture of the entire score as a theme with fifteen variations. This is the sort of music that is inviting at the first listening and continues to offer new things to hear with each subsequent experience; and the level of detail is such that, while one may prepare through a recording, there is no substitute for "live" performance.

Then, of course, there is that narrative thread. Nothing that Henry James ever wrote can be taken strictly on the basis of surface structure, and both Britten and Piper plied their respective arts to take the resulting opera beneath that surface. This begins with honoring James' decision to introduce the narrative with a prologue, which introduces the narrative as having been documented in a manuscript "discovered in a locked drawer," written "in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand. … A woman's." James structured his prologue as a dialog between two men, discussing a "strange tale" that had been told two nights earlier "round the fire;" and there is at least the suggestion that one of those men might be one of the characters in the narrative that is then related. Britten and Piper stripped away most of this detail and reconceived the prologue as a solo for tenor; and that tenor (sung originally by Peter Pears, of course) then appears in the narrative itself (but not in the same connection that James' prologue suggests).

At this point one cannot go into how the opera provides a perspective on the novella without reviewing the basic plot line. The Wikipedia plot summary is as good as any:

An unnamed narrator listens to a male friend reading a manuscript written by a former governess whom the latter claims to have known and who is now dead. The manuscript tells the story of how the young governess is hired by a man who has found himself responsible for his niece and nephew after the death of their parents. He lives in London and has no interest whatsoever in the children. The boy is at a boarding school whilst his sister, Flora, is living at the country home in Essex where she is cared for by the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. He gives the governess full charge of the children and makes it clear he never wants to hear from her again regarding them. The governess travels to her new employer's house and begins her duties. Shortly thereafter, the boy, Miles, turns up after being expelled from his school. The governess infers that the headmaster feels that Miles is a threat to the other boys.

The governess begins to see and hear strange things. She learns that her predecessor, a Miss Jessel, and her lover Peter Quint (another former servant of the household), a clever but abusive man, died under curious circumstances. Gradually, she becomes convinced that the pair are somehow using the children to continue their relationship from beyond the grave. The governess takes action against the perceived threat, eventually culminating in Miles' apparent death.

I like this summary because it honors much of James' allusions to what may have been, rather than flat-out accounts of "known events." Ghosts figure in several of James' plots, and he tends to use them to exploit an ambiguity. In the terminology of Kenneth Burke's pentad of "the five key terms of dramatism," the ambiguity involves whether the ghosts are "agents" (which means they are characters performing motivated acts) or "agencies" ("instruments" used by other "real" characters in performing their motivated acts). Ultimately, this ambiguity has to be resolved by the stage director, since the first scene of the second act is a duet for Jessel and Quint. I have seen productions in which these two characters are alone on stage; but Heather Carolo, who conceived and executed the staging for Lyric Opera, had them sing in front of a bed in which the governess was suffering a restless slumber. In the former production the ghosts were presented as agents, but last night Carolo entertained the possibility that they were agencies of the governess.

That possibility was reinforced by the very first scene of the first act (after the Prologue), a solo for the governess set in the carriage she is riding from London to Essex. At the end of the scene, Carolo had the governess fall asleep; and the next scene shows us meeting Mrs. Grose and the children. Then, in the final scene of the opera, after Miles has (apparently) died, while the governess buries her head in sorrow, he gets up and leaves the stage. This puzzled me until I realized that Carolo decided to stage Britten's coda as a "silent replay" of the governess entering the country house for the first time. Thus, as long as we are talking about "apparent" situations, everything that occurs after the first scene of the first act may very well be the dream into which the governess slips while riding in her carriage, reflecting on her anxieties about the job she is about to begin. This would mean that the governess is the only agent in the plot structure; and all the other characters, as they appear to us in the rest of the opera, are the agencies of the dream world that is unfolding during her carriage ride.

This also provides an interesting take on Britten's choice of variations-of-a-theme structure. There is certainly a static quality to this structure, since it is basically a matter of repetitions, each of which is elaborated in a different way. Whether or not those repetitions "progress" is entirely in the hands of the composer (and, indeed, those compositions whose variations do not necessarily reflect any such "progress" tend to be the hardest to memorize). If everything that happens in the opera after the very first scene occurs in the "timeless dream world," then the variations form could be the most suitable structure for that sense of timelessness. I have no idea if such timelessness was intentional on Britten's part, but it provides a good way to approach Carolo's strategy as stage director.

An opera that asks this much of its audience, both as listeners and as witnesses to the unfolding narrative, had better be very well executed if the audience is to receive it accordingly. Those "young artists" on the stage certainly had the talent to deliver the goods. Tenor Trey Costerisan, who sang both Prologue and Quint, probably had the biggest shoes to fill, since just about anyone familiar with Britten's music is also familiar with recordings of Pears singing that music. Costerisan's voice had the clean clarity that Pears could deliver so well, but he also endowed his stage presence with his own personality without feeling a need to draw on previous performances. As the governess, Anja Strauss had no trouble with the vocal hoops that Britten provided and seemed to buy into Carolo's approach to the narrative without any difficulty. Also, the voices of the two children, Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej, were clear and solid, but not particularly strong (no surprise), which provided further justification for the use of a space on "chamber music" scale that did not put undue demands on their voices.

I suppose the main point of this post has been to demonstrate that there are as many ways to think about this opera as there are to think about the James text on which it was based. From that point of view, my greatest regret is that the work does not get performed enough. Of course most opera lovers would probably agree that no opera gets performed enough, even in cities that have longer opera seasons. However, by my calculations, the last time I saw this opera prior to last night was on a Public Television broadcast about ten years ago; and I would really not like to wait another ten years before my next opportunity!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Soloist and Orchestra

Last night, at a performance of two of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's concertos for piano and orchestra (written within a year of each other and with consecutive sequence numbers), I found myself thinking once again about my "inner twenty-year old" perspective of Mozart. I wrote about this perspective earlier this week with regard to his K. 330 piano sonata, which displays his capacity for "showing off all the things he can do just because he can do them;" but, where these concertos are concerned, Mozart is showing off far more than his keyboard virtuosity. As I wrote about two months ago, Mozart is just as interested in dazzling his listener with the give-and-take between piano and orchestra as he is with the solo passages. Thus, the orchestra is not there just to provide a conducive background for the soloist but to serve as an "active agent," whose actions provide even more opportunities for the soloist to strut his stuff, so to speak.

This brings us to why I had a problem with last night's performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music: If the orchestra does not do its part as that "active agent," then the soloist cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of making the performance "work." Last night's concert seems to have been conceived without what we might call "adult supervision." Accompaniment was provided by the "Oak Street Chamber Orchestra," rather than the "official" Conservatory Orchestra; and the conductor was a graduate student, as were the two piano soloists for the concertos being performed (K. 488 followed by K. 482). Unfortunately, while this event was probably conceived with the best intentions in the world, none of that give-and-take was there to enhance the solo work, however well prepared the soloists may have been. There were major problems of acoustic balance, not only between solo and orchestra but also within the orchestra itself; and, possibly because of those problems, there was hardly any eye contact between conductor and soloist. We thus had all of the solo virtuosity but none of the "magic" through which Mozart escalated these concertos to something more than virtuosic preening.

This left me realizing just how spoiled San Francisco audiences are where Mozart is concerned. Not only the San Francisco Symphony but also the orchestra for the Midsummer Mozart Festival are so well-versed in orchestra-soloist relations that they tend to make it seem like the easiest thing in the world (which may be one reason why I keep accusing the San Francisco Chronicle of not "giving Mozart his due"). Well, it's not that easy; and it almost approaches the level of "chamber music for a very large chamber" (the complement of the Brahms C minor piano quartet, which I have described as a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra"). Nevertheless, one studies in order to learn; so the best I can hope for is that there was a serious "lessons-learned" session after last night's performances.

Fiction, Reality, and Microsoft

Having riffed yesterday on the relationship (which may well be deceptive) between well-dramatized fiction and reality, I could not help but notice the emergence of multitouch interface technology on both fronts on a single day. The reality side of the story was summarized this morning by Steven Musil in his "Week in review" column for CNET

In an interesting but not surprising move, Microsoft revealed that it would add a multitouch interface to Windows 7.

The new interface, which is expected to appear in late 2009, was unveiled at the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, Calif., this week.

Corporate Vice President Julie Larson-Green demonstrated the multitouch technology, painting with several fingers at the same time to show how it can process not just touch, but multiple simultaneous input.

However, while the Wall Street Journal elites were taking in a demonstration neatly packaged by Microsoft, a similar demonstration of the technology was being offered to the general public through the remake of The Andromeda Strain on the A&E channel, in which Michael Crichton contributed to a screenplay that attempted to cast the speculations about science and technology from his 1969 novel in a more contemporary (as in paranoid) setting. Does Microsoft have a controlling interest in A&E Network programming? There is no doubt that scenarios provide excellent means to demonstrate not only what innovations have to offer but also, perhaps more importantly, how the innovator anticipates that they will be used. Nevertheless, compared with the original Robert Wise production (to which Crichton had also contributed to the screenplay), this version, directed by Mikael Salomon runs the gamut from lame to silly. If Microsoft had wanted to invoke fiction to get us hooked on their new interface technology, couldn't they have picked a better piece of entertainment?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

ALPHA DOG, the Sequel?

The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988, was the first film the brought documentarian Errol Morris to major public attention. Organized by Executive Producer Lindsay Law for the American Playhouse series on Public Television and subsequently distributed to movie houses, the film was a compelling documentary of the case of Randall Adams, who had been convicted of the murder of a police officer in Dallas County, Texas. The Trivia page for this film in The Internet Movie Database provides some interesting items concerning both the nature and the impact of Morris' effort:

  • Errol Morris spent 2-1/2 years tracking down the various players in the Randall Adams case and convincing them to appear in the film.
  • In light of the new evidence uncovered by the film, an evidentiary hearing was held. David Harris testified, recanting his earlier testimony against Randall Adams. "Randall Adams knew nothing about this offense and was not in the car at the time," Harris testified. Adams' capital murder verdict was overturned, and he was released from prison in March 1989.

The grounds for that evidentiary hearing basically involved the extent to which Morris' film had demonstrated that Randall Adams had been convicted by a corrupt justice system, meaning that the whole case, beginning with the charge against him, needed to be reexamined.

However, there are two other items on the Trivia page that cannot be ignored:

  • The release of this film resulted in 'Randall Adams' (I)' case being reopened. He was exonerated. He then filed suit against filmmaker Errol Morris over the rights to his life.
  • David Harris, at age 43, was executed by lethal injection on 6/30/04 in Huntsville, TX, for murdering a man, Mark Mays, during an attempted kidnapping. That crime occurred on 9/1/85, and was unrelated to Harris's murder of the police officer discussed in this film. The Mays case was mentioned in the film, in which Harris was wounded in the neck before the victim was killed.

People like to watch movies, including documentaries, for their narrative qualities, the most important of which is a satisfying sense of closure by the end of the film. Since closure is rarely such a neat matter in the life-world, the demands of narrative often trump the constraints of reality in even the best of documentaries. This painful fact of life has come back to bite Morris in his latest effort, Standard Operating Procedure, although the lawsuit from the man who was exonerated due to his efforts was probably an equally unpleasant unintended consequence.

What happens, however, when the justice system is confronted by a fiction, which never claims to be anything more than based on a case that has not yet been closed? This was basically the situation with the 2006 film, Alpha Dog, both written and directed by Nick Cassavetes; and the consequences of this production may well form the basis for another narrative. A first cut at that narrative has now been provided in a story by Chris Summers for BBC NEWS. Some of this material can be found on the Alpha Dog Trivia page in the Internet Movie Database, but there is a lot more flesh to Summers' account.

At the heart of Summers' narrative is Michael Mehas, who served as Cassavetes' research assistant. Cassavetes had decided to make a film based on a crime story, which Summers summarized as follows:

When the body of 15-year-old Nick Markowitz was discovered in a shallow grave just outside Los Angeles in August 2000, it set in train a saga which is still unfolding.

The boy was the brother of a small-time drug dealer and it emerged he had been killed after a dispute over $2,000 (£1,000) worth of marijuana.

Four young men from the prosperous San Fernando Valley were arrested and, with emotions running high in the area, were convicted. Three were jailed for life but 21-year-old Ryan Hoyt was sentenced to death.

It emerged during their trial that Nick had been held hostage for several days, before being bound with duct tape, struck over the head with a shovel and shot several times.

All four said they acted out of fear of the gang's leader, Jesse James Hollywood.

Fugitive from justice

He had vanished after reading in a newspaper about the body being found.

Summers then describes Mehas' activities for Cassavetes:

While researching the film - and writing a book, Stolen Boy, which came out of his research - Mr Mehas contacted the Santa Barbara District Attorney's office and spoke to Ron Zonen, who was keen to track down Hollywood.

Mr Mehas said: "He wanted to use the film as a sort of global wanted poster to help find Hollywood and bring him back to face justice."

Mr Zonen handed over virtually all his case files to Mr Mehas.

But before the film came out Hollywood, who had been on the FBI's Most Wanted list, was captured in a surfing resort in Brazil in 2005 and extradited back to California.

At this point the narrative shifts its focus from Hollywood, now charged with the Markowitz murder, to his defense attorney:

His lawyer, James Blatt, soon discovered the cosy relationship between the prosecutors and the film-makers and kicked up a fuss about it.

Attempts were made to prevent the film's release until after Hollywood's trial. In the event the film came out last year to mixed reviews.

Mr Blatt then sought to throw Mr Zonen and his colleagues off the case, claiming their integrity had been compromised.

He said it was the first time a prosecutor had effectively acted as a "co-producer of a film" based on a case he was due to bring to trial.

Mr Blatt told the BBC News website: "Any time you have a major motion picture presenting the district attorney's viewpoint of the case it may have a damaging impact on the chances of someone receiving a fair trial."

Thus far Blatt's case has proceeded as far as the California Supreme Court:

Earlier in May, the California Supreme Court rejected his arguments to have Mr Zonen and his colleagues thrown off the case but he has 90 days to decide whether to appeal to the US Supreme Court.

But Mr Zonen, who has now in fact been replaced on the case, was criticised by the California Supreme Court judges, who said: "We find his actions in turning over his case files... highly inappropriate and disturbing". However, they accepted his motives were honourable - to find Hollywood.

I find the parallel between the two films an interesting one. Both were ultimately concerned with seeing justice properly served. The documentary basically undertook research to reopen the case and used the resulting film to present it argument to the "court of public opinion." The fiction, on the other hand, was dealing with a case that had not yet been entirely closed; and Zonen's motives basically involved using the public exposure of the film to help locate the remaining prime suspect. Nevertheless, Blatt's argument about whether or not that suspect can now receive a fair trial is a valid one. I have written before about how easy it is to confuse a well-dramatized fiction with reality; and, whatever its box office numbers may have been (not particularly outstanding under Hollywood logic), Alpha Dog was definitely a compelling piece of work. Given that it has now received international and cable distribution, I can imagine that it will be very difficult to find a jury not aware of how Hollywood was portrayed, particularly since the actor was Justin Timberlake. Thus, Summers' narrative is far from a point of closure; and I suspect that, if that closure is ever reached, there will be more than enough material to make another film.

"Give Readers Something They Want to Read"

Reporting on Rupert Murdoch's appearance at the All Things Digital conference in his Outside the Lines blog, Dan Farber seemed more interested in the acuity of Murdoch's wit than he was in whether or not what Murdoch was saying made any sense. Consider Farber's opening paragraphs:

Sitting across from his employees and writers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the D6 conference, News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch shared his view on newspaper editing.

"A Wall Street Journal story is touched or edited by 8.5 people, and the story gets longer and longer, and people don't have time for that," he said. "There is not a story you can't get in half the space."

If the whole Wall Street Journal were like Mossberg's column, Murdoch said he would be a happy man, getting some big laughs from the D6 crowd. The 77-year-old media mogul understands the shortening attention span of the planet.

Murdoch apparently isn't fond of journalism prizes. "Stop having people write articles to win Pulitzer Prizes--give readers something they want to read."

While I sympathize with the spirit of the first half of that last sentence (which I equate with my own distaste for young musicians who concentrate too much on winning competitions), the second half demonstrates why, for all of his financial success, I find little to praise in Murdoch's accomplishments. I find at least two critical flaws in those last seven words:

  1. The most important flaw is a category error. It presumes a lack of diversity in any "community of readers," whether that community is as broad as everyone comfortable with reading English (for example) or as narrow as the subscriber base for The Wall Street Journal. To speak of "the readers" as a sort of "collective agent" with a consistent set of desires and motives is, at best, a statistical myth. Like any statistical myth, it is basically a representation of a collection of data points from the past, which may or may not say anything valid about how the individuals in that collective are behaving in the present or are likely to behave in the future. If Murdoch is concerned about the circulation figures of the Journal for the rest of this calendar year, that representation is a relatively blunt instrument, although it may still be the most suitable instrument for the way in which he plans to run this new acquisition. All this means, though, is that Murdoch would not be the first to make business decisions (even successful business decisions) based on premises that are fundamentally fictitious.
  2. However, even if we accept that fiction behind that pronoun "they," Murdoch may also have failed to recognize the subtle distinction between what an agent wants to read and what that agent will read. The former resides in the subjective world of the agent's individual psychology, while the latter is more a matter of how that subjective world can be manipulated by the social world. For example, my guess is that those blunt statistical instruments would indicate that "readers" are not particularly interested in reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams. Nevertheless, HBO decided to develop a television miniseries around this book, which seems to have done a better-than-expected job of creating enough "buzz" in the social world to sway the subjective interests of those "readers" (at least as far as their television viewing time was concerned). As a reaction to that "buzz," The New Republic bet that "readers" would now "want" to cross a bridge, so to speak, from entertainment to scholarship and hosted an episode-by-episode symposium, which gave voice to the respective authorities of a historian, a writer, and the HBO co-executive producer. This constituted another instance of engaging the mechanisms of the social world to influence individual subjective reading behavior. I could see Murdoch dismissing these examples as too elitist to have any general significance, and it is probably true that Fox News uses a different logic than HBO does in making programming decisions. However, like the first point, the key to this subjective-social distinction resides in the rich diversity of the social world in which individuals (such as those who read The Wall Street Journal) are embedded.

Yesterday I wrote about how it is in the best interests of the media (or, more specifically, the business interests of the media) to keep their customers "in a perpetual infantile state." Murdoch's precept is based on a fundamental property of infantilism, which is the prioritizing of self-gratification above all other interests. Thus, at least on an intuitive level, Murdoch recognizes that the social world is as important as the subjective world; but he recognizes it more as an instrument of manipulation than as a reflection of the nature of his present and potential customers. From that point of view, all of that wit that so impressed Farber was probably nothing other than one of Murdoch's many manipulation gambits.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Search of the Bad Guys

Given the level of disgrace that can now be associated with the current Administration, it seems almost quaint to look back on the Administration of Richard Nixon, who remains the only President to have resigned his post. He did so in the wake of articles of impeachment drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee, which had been reported to the full House but not yet put to a vote. The grounds for those articles were never further investigated, because Nixon's successor to the Presidency, Gerald Ford, issued a blanket pardon for Nixon shortly after taking office (and after having told the American public that their "long nightmare is over"). These days, perhaps the greatest value that comes from understanding the enmity that Democrats felt (and probably continue to feel) towards Nixon is that it provides a model for the enmity that Republicans feel towards the Clinton family.

I therefore find it interesting that Book TV has recently been highlighting books that try to make the case that the Nixon Administration did not consist entirely as villains by offering their subjects as counterexamples. Ford himself participated in writing one of those books, working with Dale Van Atta on With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics. The former Secretary of Defense emerges from this book as the one cool head who understood the magnitude of the mess in Vietnam and committed himself to withdrawing the troops. He is also portrayed as Henry Kissinger's most formidable opponent, at least where American policy in Southeast Asia was concerned. This makes him a victim on several fronts: in the National Security Council, where Kissinger always managed to prevail, and before the press, who decided that, where mistakes in Vietnam were concerned, the proper place for the buck to stop was on the desk of the Defense Secretary. We have known that the press chose the wrong fall guy at least since Stanley Karnow wrote about Laird in Vietnam: A History; but we also know that Kissinger was very good at playing the press, so good that we have to wonder to what extent he has been advising the current Administration on the best techniques for manipulating the media.

The other book shifts the reader's attention from Vietnam to Watergate. It is the memoir of L. Patrick Gray III, former Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, written with his son, Ed Gray, entitled In Nixon's Web: A Year in the Crosshairs of Watergate. In the lecture he gave at the Nixon Library, which was broadcast on Book TV, Ed Gray presented this as another case where the press chose the wrong fall guy; but he carried the argument into new territory. He now entertains the hypothesis that the now public identification of "Deep Throat" is erroneous, that the source labeled "X" in Bob Woodward's notes is almost certainly several different individuals, one of whom happens to be Mark Felt, who has now "confessed" to being "Deep Throat." Thus, for anyone with the resolve of an Oedipus to learn the "whole truth about Watergate," the nightmare is far from over. The younger Gray has made a compelling argument about any number of loose ends that remain, most of which, like Harry Truman's buck, seem to dangle in the Oval Office.

It is hard to tell how much attention these books will get. Time passes a lot faster in the Internet age; so books like these already have to compete with the first crop of tell-all books coming out of the current Administration. Also, how much is to be gained from sorting the political cast of characters (present or past) into heroes and villains? This is the stuff of our media at its most simplistic, which has done little other than to infantilize our electorate. We shall only begin to grow up when we recognize that all the players in the cast are all-too-human and that our Constitution has the machinery to compensate for their weaknesses, as long as it is given a chance to do so.

Putting the First Amendment in Perspective

The title of this week's column by Robert Scheer, which can now be read at the Truthdig Web site, is "Where Is the Outrage?" The question is elaborated and justified in his opening paragraph:

Are we Americans truly savages or merely tone-deaf in matters of morality, and therefore more guilty of terminal indifference than venality? It’s a question demanding an answer in response to the publication of the detailed 370-page report on U.S. complicity in torture, issued last week by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

I agree that the question needs to be asked, but more under the Socratic precept that "life without this sort of examination is not worth living" than in the hope that self-examination need necessarily make us "better people." Having been born a Jew after the end of the Second World War, much of my life has been exposed to considerations of the question about why a civilization as sophisticated in music, literature, poetry, and philosophy as that of the German people should succumb so readily to the atrocious irrationality of National Socialism; and, as far as I am concerned, that question has yet to be resolved. If that question remains unresolved after over sixty years, can we really expect a reasoned reply to Scheer's more recent question?

One way to begin such a quest, however, might be to start with one of Scheer's assertions that, while rhetorically useful, is a bit flawed on the logical side:

That this systematic torture was carried out not by a few conveniently described “bad apples” but rather represented official policy condoned at the highest level of government was captured in one of those rare media reports that remind us why the Founding Fathers signed off on the First Amendment.

I found it interesting that I should be reading this sentence less than 24 hours after reading Jeremy Waldron's review of Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, by Anthony Lewis. I had heard (and enjoyed) an interview that Lewis had given about this book on Book TV and appreciated the opportunity to flesh out that memory with printed text (until I can create the time to read the book itself). Scheer's (potential?) logical flaw involves overlooking the Sedition Act, which was passed in 1798, some seven years after "the Founding Fathers signed off on the First Amendment" (along with the rest of the Bill of Rights). The spirit of the Founding Fathers was, at that time, still very strong in all three branches of the Federal Government. Waldron gives us an appreciation of the paradox of these conflicting views through an account of Colonel Matthew Lyon's effort to challenge the Sedition Act, after having been arrested for seditious libel:

At his trial he disputed the constitutionality of the Sedition Act—a plea that was peremptorily struck down by the judge (Supreme Court Justice William Paterson, riding circuit as Supreme Court justices did in those days).

These days such peremptory judgment would probably invoke the wrath of any member of the American Civil Liberties Union; but Waldron continues his argument by explaining why "these days" were not "those days." Consider the context he provides:

Why did locking these critics up seem like an appropriate thing to do in the early years of the republic? I am sure no explanation would be complete if it did not mention the volatile combination of wounded vanity and—for the time being—legally unlimited authority of leaders at the time. But it would also be a mistake to omit the point that political institutions are sometimes a lot more fragile than they look. The state—which to us appears so powerful and self-sufficient—depends crucially on the opinion of those over whom it rules and it requires for its operation a modicum of deference and respect.

To many people, federal authority seemed weak and precarious in 1798. Public agitation by Colonel Lyon's supporters led to a brief uprising in Vermont, and there was a threat of considerable political violence elsewhere. George Washington was denounced as a thief and a traitor; John Jay was burned in effigy; Alexander Hamilton was stoned in the streets of New York; our hero, Matthew Lyon, attacked a Connecticut Federalist with fire tongs in the House of Representatives; and Republican militias armed and drilled openly, ready to stand against Federalist armies. Over everything, like a specter, hung fears of the Jacobin terror in France.

It was by no means obvious in those years—though it seems obvious to us—that the authorities could afford to ignore venomous attacks on the structures and officers of government, or leave their publications unmolested in the hope that they would be adequately answered in due course in the free marketplace of ideas. That government could survive the published vituperations of the governed seemed more like a reckless act of faith than basic common sense.

In other words it was the fragility of our political institutions that differentiated "those days" from "these days" and explained why the Sedition Act endured until 1802, when it was repealed by Thomas Jefferson. (Note, however, that there was also a Sedition Act of 1918, passed as an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, which was not repealed until 1921.) Waldron's point is that the "biography" of the First Amendment is closely aligned with the strength of the government that had conceived it:

For the story of First Amendment freedom is not only that government came to seem so strong that it did not need the law's protection against criticism; the story of First Amendment freedom is that the government came to seem so strong that it constituted itself as a menace to individual freedom, and that is why it had to be restrained from interfering with free speech and freedom of the press.

That is how "those days" turned into "these days;" and in that "narrative of progress" we may find an approach to Scheer's question. The value of the First Amendment in "these days" ultimately resides in that "free marketplace of ideas" as defense against a government whose strength needs to be checked; and in these "right-now" days such checks are particularly important since the checks and balances within the workings of the Federal government have been both attacked and undermined by the Executive Branch. The problem is that the First Amendment has become almost as irrelevant as the Constitutional system of checks and balances, because the Executive Branch does not need to interfere "with free speech and freedom of the press" when it can direct its power to manipulate more directly that "marketplace of ideas" whose freedom becomes more of an illusion every day. Thus the media that provide the electorate with news of both their country and the rest of the world are free by virtue of the First Amendment but (in the spirit of the Social Contract of Jean Jacques Rousseau) are everywhere in chains forged by the machinations of the "power elite" (as C. Wright Mills called them) within and surrounding the White House.

Within this framework we may now return to the question in Scheer's first sentence. However, rather than resort to his rhetorically charged language, I would prefer my previous attempt to classify behavior that is undesirable or counterproductive as bad, malicious, or pathological. In that classification I distinguished between bad and malicious by associating the former with "childish," which is to say not particularly well informed or seriously intended. From that point of view, Americans are neither savage nor venal; they are just childish. They are childish because it is in the best interests of the media (and those who manipulate the media) to keep them in a perpetual infantile state (in the spirit of the popular hypothesis that a dog kept as a pet from the time of its birth remains, behaviorally, a puppy until the time of its death). Thus, the media are in chains forged by the government; and, in our perpetual childhood, we are then enchained by the media. It all comes down to "induced bad behavior," which, as Tony Judt recently observed, comes very close to the sort of banality that Hannah Arendt had tried to address in her study of the nature of evil. The irony is that this behavior has been induced under the Administration of a President who, through his faith-based ideology, has tried to present himself as the leading warrior against evil.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Soloist and Friends

It can be a fortuitous occasion when a recitalist has the opportunity to introduce compositions by personal friends, particularly when those friends are close enough to have dedicated those compositions to him. This was the case for three of the works on the program of today's recital by pianist William Corbett-Jones in the Noontime Concerts™ series at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco (which also happened to be a celebration of the pianist's 79th birthday). The works in question were two preludes from a set of 24 by Roger Nixon and the final movement of the Opus 26 piano sonata by Kirke Mechem. Corbett-Jones also preceded the latter composition with the "Nocturne" movement from Mechem's Suite for Piano. He also prepared our ears, so to speak, by preceding these four compositions with two of the movements from the first (Swiss) of Franz Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage collections. I have to confess that this is my favorite of the four collections (three "years" and the Venezia e Napoli supplement). Those who know my biases would probably guess that this is because it is the only non-Italian "pilgrimage;" but I also feel that these selections strike the right balance (because they are Swiss, rather than Italian?) between the display of virtuosity and the use of composition for the purpose of tone-painting. One can appreciate this balance particularly in the two selections that Corbett-Jones played, "Au lac de Wallenstadt" and "Au bord d'une source," both of which invoke images of bodies of water; and his performance properly captured images of fluidity set, in both cases, within the "steady flow" of sixteenth-note passages. Liszt was very good at such virtuosic writing, to a point where some might say he was too good at it and should have put more time into other techniques as well; but, at least in these particular works, there is a purpose served by that virtuosity.

I say that the Liszt compositions prepared our ears because both Nixon and Mechem imposed similar virtuosic demands but in twentieth-century idioms. The Nixon preludes thus also captured that spirit of tone-painting, even if the paintings were a bit more abstract in nature; each prelude took its own approach to "coloration" and oriented its virtuosic demands around that approach. The clear contrast between these two selections made a case for wanting to hear the full set of preludes in a recital setting; and a pianist who would be particularly interested in contrast might even consider pairing the Nixon set with the 24 preludes of the Opus 28 of Frédéric Chopin. The Mechem selections also left me curious about the settings from which they were extracted. The sonata movement was marked "Finale" and had much of the spectacle of a Finale movement in a nineteenth-century sonata, but again with more contemporary idioms. However, there remained the question of what this movement was "finalizing" and how it brought its preceding movements to an overall closure. In the case of the "Nocturne," on the other hand, I had no way of knowing where this movement was situated in the course of the entire piano suite and what its role as a nocturne was. (I had considered, for example, that the suite might have been based on the different forms the Chopin had utilized.)

There was at least one "Chopin connection" in the conception of the overall program: Liszt preceded the selections by Nixon and Mechem and Chopin followed them. The program concluded with two polonaises, Opus 40, Number 1 in C minor and Opus 53 in A-flat major. The latter is sometimes known as the "Heroic" polonaise, although, as the most familiar in the collection of polonaises that Chopin composed, it might better be called the "War-Horse!" Like the earlier "Military" polonaise, Opus 53 performs an interesting experiment with an ostinato pattern subjected to a gradual crescendo; and Corbett-Jones did a wonderful job of making that crescendo the backbone of the middle section of the work.

All of these works were then embraced by music from markedly earlier times. The program began with the K. 330 C major piano sonata of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and concluded with Egon Petri's transcription of "Sheep may safely graze," the most famous movement from the BWV 208 cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, "Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd," a secular cantata about the joys of hunting. (What the sheep are doing there is left as an exercise for the reader.) Petri was a leading exponent of the piano music of Ferruccio Busoni, who, as I have previously written, mastered Liszt's capacity for virtuosity and then took it to the next level. (One might even take Busoni's "All' Italia!," the second of his collection of seven Elegien, as a "response" to Liszt's Venezia e Napoli!) Busoni had taken his own venture into Bach cantata territory with his transcription of the fourth movement of "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" (BWV 140); but this was actually a piano transcription of Bach's own transcription for solo organ in his collection of Schübler chorales. Petri's transcription was probably from the original cantata score, and Corbett-Jones exhibited excellent control over the interleaving of the vocal solo with its orchestral accompaniment.

K. 330 is the first of a set of four sonatas Mozart composed between 1781 and 1784, meaning that these date from his late twenties. These sonatas display what was taken as virtuoso in Mozart's day; and K. 330 is an excellent reflection of what I have called Mozart's "inner twenty-year old," showing off all the things he can do just because he can do them. The virtuosity of this sonata lacks the sort of flamboyant display we would find in Liszt; but it is still a show-off piece with a good-natured sense of thwarting listener expectations, making it clear that, in spite of "conventional wisdom," Mozart was as good as Joseph Haydn at this game. Corbett-Jones approached this display with a quiet elegance, which enticed the ear rather than dazzling it as the later displays of virtuosity would do. The overall result was a well-conceived program, which provided the listener with a road-map of the terrain of virtuosity over two centuries and then explored several key paths on that map.

The Right to Ask Questions

There is a lot to be said for Malise Ruthven's recent New York Review article, "The Rise of the Muslim Terrorists," which provides an excellent "guided tour" of nine books, each of which provides a different perspective on the problem that underlies the frustrations of our military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Most important for me, however, is the final portion of this review, which turns to the "reality check" provided by How We Missed the Story, by Roy Gutman. Here is, for me, the key paragraph from that portion:

Gutman provides many details of bin Laden's growing ascendancy over the Taliban and their leader Mullah Omar, and of various ways in which the "Arab-Afghans" humiliated their Taliban hosts and subjected them to a Wahhabite religious agenda. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, giant sandstone statues that had stood for more than 1,500 years, was the most egregious of the iconoclastic acts carried out under pressure from the Arabs and Pakistani mullahs.

Note that, at the time these statues were destroyed, the media presented this as an act of the Taliban; so what is particularly interesting is that Gutman is trying to shift the blame from the Taliban, as a "grass-roots" Afghan organization, to the more global agenda of Osama bin Laden.

I found myself thinking about this paragraph when I encountered the following article summary on the BBC NEWS Web site:

Baitullah Mehsud, who heads the loose grouping of militants known as the Pakistan Taleban, has given a rare press conference to invited journalists. They included the BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan.

Here is the crux of Hasan's account of this press conference:

We are part of a group of journalists invited by Mr Mehsud to his stronghold to see for ourselves "the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army in its recent campaign in the area".

Pakistan's army and pro-Taleban militants led by Baitullah Mehsud have recently agreed to a ceasefire after being locked in battle for most of 2007.

The ceasefire is part of attempts to secure a lasting peace in the area.

Earlier this month the army brought in journalists to show their successes against the militants in January.

Now it's the militants' turn to have their say.

The rest of Hasan's account is based on the examples that Mehsud presented to make his case. If I am to take this article as a complete account, then it would appear that none of the journalists had much (if any) opportunity to ask Mehsud any questions. I find this unfortunate, because, if there were serious grounds for detaching Mehsud's organization from that ghastly destruction of a Buddhist monument, this would have been an excellent opportunity for Mehsud to establish those grounds; and the right question from the right reporter could have set the ball in motion.

By considering such a wide variety of books, Ruthven reminded us that those who continue to pursue a "Global War on Terror" are no better than those proverbial blind men grabbing different parts of an elephant. We are thus as ignorant of the nature of terrorist threats than we were on 9/11, not to mention the many years prior to the attacks on that day. I would suggest that some (if not all) of that ignorance stems from a desire to promote hypotheses that impedes the ability to ask potentially penetrating questions. For approximately seven years we have been content to fob those hypotheses off on an Administration fixated on a faith-based ideology; but that Administration will be changing soon. Will the next Administration do any better at bringing those potentially penetrating questions to light, or will it succumb to the sort of simplistic thinking that seems to play so well for the media? The paradox is that, since the media are not interested in whether or not the next Administration will ask such questions, they will not ask the candidates about those matters; and we, as voters, will remain in the dark over whether or not we shall continue to live under the cloud of fear that was so deftly constructed and manipulated by the current Administration.

Another Casualty of the Digital Age

There is a certain irony that the morning after Memorial Day should bring news of another significant departure, not of an individual but of a major artifact. The news was reported by Sam Zuckerman in the San Francisco Chronicle, who began his article with the following paragraphs:

The California State Automobile Association produced its first road map in 1909. It showed major highways in California and Nevada, and was sent free to all members.

Ninety-nine years later, San Francisco's CSAA is set to produce its last paper map, another victim of the shift to digital technology.

The auto club, which serves Northern California, Nevada and Utah, is phasing out its 12-person cartographic unit by year-end, the association said. Members will still be able to get paper maps at no charge, but they will be produced at AAA national headquarters in Heathrow, Fla.

This, of course, is just another example of an institution collapsing under the stress of trying to make economic ends meet. Since the world the Internet has made is a world of outsourcing, we are again confronted with the question of how important "proximity to the source" is to providing service that is both effective and efficient. However, as Zuckerman pointed out, this particular story is about more than outsourcing and proximity:

CSAA's exit from cartography is part of a technological transformation remaking the map field. Digital direction-finding tools, particularly Internet maps and in-car navigation systems, are drawing growing numbers of users at the expense of paper road maps.

In 2007, as members used more digital services, CSAA's demand for paper maps dropped 13 percent, Mack said. Meanwhile, use of the association's online TripTik Travel Planner has been growing at double-digit rates since it was introduced in 2000.

Currently, CSAA and the automobile club of Southern California are the only regional auto associations still putting out their own maps. CSAA issues 99 of its own maps, primarily of regions and cities in its service area.

In other words the Internet world of digital documents may have more to do with the passing of locally-informed cartography than the economics of outsourcing does.

However, that phrase "locally-informed cartography" captures more that the value of proximity. Zuckerman provided the following quote from Stuart Allan, founder of Allan Cartography in Medford, Ore., whom he calls "one of the deans of mapmaking in the West," which addresses the CSAA products in terms of the second half of the noun phrase:

They're exemplary, especially the county and regional series. The standard of design and accuracy of the work is fantastic.

Like probably just about everyone who is reading this post, I have made frequent use of the maps provided through both Google and Yahoo!; and it is clear, to me at least, that such a "standard of design and accuracy" is all but absent in those digital offerings. Now, to be fair to Google, the last time that accuracy really mattered, I was able to resolve my problem with a Street View, which I would not have been able to do with even the best CSAA map. Nevertheless, when it comes to homing in on just what you need from either a Google or Yahoo! map, the interface runs the gamut from clunky through inconvenient to practically counterproductive. We thus face an interesting variation on Gresham's Law, according to which the "artificial" currency of the "new Internet" (or "Web 2.0") concept of a map has driven out a "specie" standard based on almost 100 years of design experience.

Once again we are confronted with a familiar question: How did we get into this mess? Ironically, the answer has been with us for at least as long as anthropologists have been studying the impact of technology (particularly "smart" technology) on work practices: The reconception of the map in the digital domain has grown out of a study of the map artifacts of the physical domain that neglected to take into account the rich repertoire of human activities in which those artifacts were involved. (This is, of course, a generalization of the approach that Ludwig Wittgenstein had taken to developing a theory of language, based on the premise that it is more important to concentrate on how terms are used than on what they mean or are.) This is the same mess that has confronted every effort to "translate" reading practices from the physical to the digital domain: The product-development focus has always been on building better hardware and interfaces based on an understanding of the physical books we read, rather than the activities in which we engage while reading those books (in spite of an abundance of data about those activities in studies such as those that address the "affordances" of physical media).

From a personal point of view, I would like to point out that one my own activities applied to road maps had to do with treating them as play objects. As a child I would turn to them for games of vicarious exploration, usually beginning in my own neighborhood and then asking what would happen if I went in a direction that my parents never took me. Since I was raised in Brooklyn, I came to know a fair amount about the geography of Long Island through such games. (I also happened to have an old globe that indicated the lanes for passenger vessels, so I could play the same games on a global scale.) In my student days I would play similar games with transit maps, particularly in cities, such as Philadelphia, where one could transfer freely among subways, trolleys, and busses on a single fare. Since the Philadelphia transit map included an index of points of interest, I learned about, and then visited, sites I had never previously considered (such as Benjamin Franklin's grave). With experiences like those in my personal life history, I am particularly pained whenever I read reports of how little kids now seem to know about geography on any scale, local, national, or global. Like many I have heard Google evangelists talk about playing with their products; but I find those games impoverished compared to those I would play with physical maps, perhaps because the physical maps offered more leverage for the imagination (just as reading a novel feeds the imagination more than watching a film adaptation of that novel).

Thus my discontent at the passing of the CSAA road maps goes beyond the usual grumbling about the limitations of the Web 2.0 age. It is not just a matter of examining artifacts with blinders that block out the observation of activities. It is a matter of artifacts whose practical utility in one setting was accompanied by an educational utility in another setting. Solving the problem of efficiently getting a motorist from here to there is certainly important. However, one paragraph towards the end of Zuckerman's report reminds us (in a way that cuts close to the bone of Web 2.0 thinking) that general geographic awareness is also a problem:

Stuart Allan said people are gaining clear directions, but sacrificing information that lets a user see the whole picture. He cites the example of James Kim, the Bay Area journalist who became marooned on an Oregon mountain and died in 2006 after following online travel directions that led him to a little-used forest road.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Positive Chutzpah in the Name of Education

By my records it has been well over a month since I have given a Chutzpah of the Week award for a positive connotation of chutzpah. So, while it is very early in the week, the positive circumstances behind this particular act of chutzpah compel me to recognize it in the best possible light. The award goes to Professor David Mumford of Brown University, who, along with fellow algebraic theorists Pierre Deligne and Phillip Griffiths, both from Princeton University, won this year's $100,000 Wolf Foundation Prize for Mathematics. As the coverage of this story on Al Jazeera English reports, this is an Israeli award:

The Israel-based foundation was established by Ricardo Wolf, a German-born inventor, diplomat and philanthropist who was Cuba's representative to Israel, where he died in 1981.

Needless to say, Al Jazeera does not specialize in reporting on advances in the world of higher mathematics; and that is where the chutzpah enters the picture. Interviewed about the award by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Mumford made the following declaration:

I decided to donate my share of the Wolf Prize to enable the academic community in occupied Palestine to survive and thrive. I am very grateful for the prize, but I believe that Palestinian students should have an opportunity to go elsewhere to acquire an education. Students in the West Bank and Gaza today do not have an opportunity to do that.

Taking $33,333 from an Israeli foundation and immediately transferring it to Bir Zeit University (the "academic community" that Mumford selected, located in the West Bank) would be chutzpah enough for someone whom Al Jazeera English claims "did not see himself as a political person." However, Mumford used his Haaretz interview to stress the importance of his motives:

The achievements I accomplished in mathematics were made possible thanks to my being able to move freely and exchange ideas with other scholars. It would not have been possible without an international consensus on an exchange of ideas. Mathematics works best when people can move and get together. That's its elixir of life. But the people of occupied Palestine don't have an opportunity to do that. The school system is fighting for its life, and mobility is very limited.

When I visited Israel in 1995, there was a feeling of hope, but that is not the situation today. Education for people in the occupied territories gives them a future. The alternative is chaos. I have tremendous regard for Israel, which is without a doubt a major force in the mathematics world. But unfortunately, the Palestinians cannot take part in this prosperity.

For the record the last time I was in Israel was in 1994 for the 12th IAPR International Conference on Pattern Recognition in Jerusalem. There had been a terrorist bombing on Jerusalem's "Restaurant Row" the day before I arrived. My wife had been nervous about my attending the conference and was determined that I should venture no further than my hotel after that news broke. I cannot say I experienced any strong feeling of hope, nor can I say that things changed very much over the following year. However, while I may not agree with Mumford's perceptions, I certainly honor his intentions and am delighted that he was able to achieve them with an element of chutzpah that managed to penetrate the Israeli press!

Fortress America

A new American Embassy opens for business in Berlin this week. It was built on land that the American government had owned since 1930, the southwest corner of the Pariser Plaz, which is home to the Brandenburg Gate. The original embassy built on that site was bombed during World War II and demolished by the post-war East German government. So this new Embassy building represents somewhat of a homecoming or, as William Timken, the current American ambassador to Germany, put it, "the closing of a circle." It has also been received poorly (to say the least) by the German architectural critics, whose reactions were so consistent in their annoyance to merit a summary report on SPIEGEL ONLINE. Even those who rarely (if ever) read architectural criticism are likely to find this report fascinating.

The strongest criticism, published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, may also be the most representative, since it ends up saying in more direct language what is waltzed around with more discretion by other writers. Here is the Spiegel account of this analysis:

But the harshest words come from the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The paper's critic singles out the embassy's windows for scorn, saying they "look as if a bankrupt homeowner had bought them in a home-improvement store near Fargo in order to get his house ready for the winter. Such windows are exactly what the 'critical reconstruction' approach is meant to prevent -- the invasion of the industrially produced throwaway aesthetic, the plastic culture of the suburbs in the historic city center."

"On the whole, the American embassy -- with its cheap materials, its narrow windows which resemble arrow slits, its defensive tower which has everything except for battlements -- looks as if it was originally planned for another, more unsettled part of the world," the author continues. "Of course an embassy needs security features -- but the French, British and Italians manage to achieve that without giving the observer the impression that he is about to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad. Is that the message of the embassy: that the Americans suspect that their German representation is located in a completely uncivilized wasteland, located beyond the permafrost line and populated by aggressive maniacs, and that they want to secure it as a result?"

"The new US Embassy in Berlin fits together with trends towards nostalgia in architecture -- it is the knights' castle that you can knock together with items from the home-improvement store," continues the FAZ's critic. "On the other hand, there is hardly a modern building -- with the exception of bunkers and pesticide testing centers -- which is so hysterically closed off from public space as this embassy. There is not a single window on the upper part of the building's south side. Here America shows itself as living a completely impenetrable, erratic bunker existence. One doesn't need to be as bitchy as certain angry passers-by, who postulated that the top part of the building must be home to the 'wellness and waterboarding' area, to be disturbed by such a lack of windows."

"If a building could stand with its arms crossed, it would look like this one," the paper writes. "Perhaps it is also typical of the first decade of the 21st century that public space, which once looked like a promise, is now perceived as a threat. The stranger, who was once the projection surface for the most beautiful collective and private fantasies, could be a terrorist, have AIDS or be transporting the plagues of globalization like factory closures, migration flows or bird flu.

"The American Embassy does not reflect the image of a country that was once a melting pot for immigrants from around the world, a place for new beginnings and reinventing oneself. The embassy represents a country which has been traumatized by 9/11 and the consequences of globalization -- a nation which is now so protected by armor that it can no longer see the world."

The Spiegel report attributes this fortress mentality to an increased focus on security in the wake of the 1998 terror attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as 9/11. However, I left Singapore in August of 1995, right around the time of the completion of the new American Embassy building there; and even the slightest glace at that structure reveals that the fortress mentality was already in place, even in a supposedly friendly country with a strong sense of law and order. So, while the invocation of the Baghdad Green Zone is probably appropriate, the spirit behind that invocation is far more deeply rooted than either Spiegel or its sources may have imagined.

My personal conjecture is that it is a reflection of the "New World Order," which Bush I declared after his Desert Storm mission was "accomplished." This would make it both appropriate and ironic that the official opening of the Berlin Embassy building will be presided over by the elder Bush and will take place on July 4. This is about as symbolic of the New World Order as one can hope to get, even if Bush II has managed to reduce the New World Order vision to piles of rubble scattered across Iraq and Afghanistan accompanied by a faint taste of ashes in our collective mouths. However, without trying to detract from the physical damage, the greatest damage done by the Bush Administration has been to the reputation of the United States in the world community; and Bush II was already building up that damage prior to 9/11 with his obsessive defiance of both the Kyoto Accord and the International Criminal Court. We now have an architectural symbol of our presence in the heart of the European Union which practically screams out that same obsessive defiance; as such, it may also serve as the best possible symbol of the magnitude of the challenges that will face the next occupant of the White House.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

(Relatively) Early Brahms

The performance of A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms seems to have been programmed as the culmination of this month's Brahms Festival, presented by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. Yet it is important to recognize that this work, whose first performance in its entirety in Bremen in 1868 was a great success, which, as Michael Steinberg wrote in his program notes, "marked a turning point in his career," predates all of the music performed at the first concert of this Festival (including the pre-concert chamber music on May 11). Brahms was all of 35 at this premiere; and, while he had accumulated a significant portfolio of vocal music, chamber music, and solo piano works, his efforts at orchestral writing were far more modest. Other than his two orchestral serenades (the second of which was performed at last week's Festival concert), his only extended orchestral work was his first piano concerto, whose 1859 premiere in Leipzig had been a "brutal" (Steinberg's adjective) failure.

From this point of view, to return to the language I had used in writing about the May 11 concert, there is a strongly prospective element in the orchestral writing of the German Requiem. From the very opening sonorities, which divide the lower strings (violas, cellos, and basses) into five voices, we are experiencing Arnold Schoenberg's "progressive" Brahms experimenting with the kinds of sonorities he had evoked in his two string sextets by translating them to orchestral scale. In the course of the work, we hear anticipations of not only sonorities but also rhetorical gestures in later orchestral writing that we know so well, such as the four symphonies.

All of these orchestral resources support a compositional hand already confident in writing for chorus and solo voices. The first half of the program provided us with the context of this compositional experience base. It began with the 1856 "Geistliches Lied" (Opus 30), for accompanied (in this case by an organ) four-part mixed chorus. This work was then followed by the Opus 17 set of four songs for women's chorus (written in 1860, in spite of its earlier opus number), in which the voices are accompanied by two horns and a harp. This probably counts as Brahms' first "experimental approach" to instrumental sonority; and he uses those elements cautiously and modestly. It is almost as if the choral writing began as an elaborate pencil drawing or woodcut; and, after it had been conceived, Brahms then experimented with introducing color as a way to highlight the details of the drawing without overwhelming them. Perhaps that 1859 piano concerto premiere had shaken Brahms' confidence in writing for instruments, leading him to pull back to more subtle approaches.

By the time of the German Requiem, Brahms no longer felt a need for such subtlety. Thus, when the text of the second movement arrives at "Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Ewigkeit" ("But the word of the Lord endureth forever," from the last verse of the first chapter of The First Letter of Peter), both orchestra and chorus burst forth in the full strength of "Herrn Wort" with an "eternal resonance" that celebrates the "good news" of Peter's letter. Indeed, there is a pervading spirit of "good news" that distinguishes this work from the Catholic requiem text, with the terrifying visions of its "Dies irae" and "Libera me" sections. Those texts have certainly inspired some of the most impressive orchestral writing throughout the centuries, but Brahms was inspired by an entirely different spirit. The emphasis in Brahms' treatment is on rest and comfort, free of all intimidating ghosts of a punitive afterlife. Thus, while he appropriates the same "trumpet shall sound" text that Handel had used in Messiah, the connotation lies in the subsequent text (which Handel also set) of the death that has lost its sting.

I realize that, when I wrote about the first concert of this Festival on May 11, I wrote absolutely nothing about the performers, primarily because there was so much to write about the music. In many respects this may be the highest form of praise for a performance, because it means that the performance has become so much at one with the music that the music itself registers most in memory. This was again true for last night's performance, particularly in the first half, which served more to introduce us to unfamiliar works. However, I think it is still important to observe that, if Brahms' compositional hand was confident in unfolding his conception of A German Requiem, then the "conducting hand" of Michael Tilson Thomas was just as confident, tuning the pace and balance of the entire ensemble with the same sure subtlety that Brahms had engaged in applying instrumental color to his Opus 17 songs. It is also important to recognize Matthias Goerne, whose diction was as impeccable as his tone and who applied his own sense of subtlety in providing just the right level of dramatic presence behind the texts he delivered. Soprano Laura Claycomb also homed in on that same level of dramatization; but her own quality of tone was slightly impeded by a tendency to neglect the consonants in the text. It would also be remiss to ignore Michael Grebanier's cello solo, which was one of those "rhetorical gestures" of instrumental writing that we would encounter in later Brahms compositions.

I have to confess that I was particularly attentive to Grebanier, because my evening began with the Opus 111 string quintet as the pre-concert chamber music offering. This work was about as far from the spirit of the main program as you could imagine, unless you took the approach I suggested of viewing those works in a prospective light. This quintet is not orchestral writing; but, compositionally at least, it provides a good sense of where Brahms ultimately headed (perhaps even in the context of those five string voices that begin the Requiem). That sense of "arrival" is there with the very opening gesture of a soaring cello solo set against the tightly-knit tremolo passages for the two violins and two violas. After this quintet Brahms would compose only four more chamber compositions, all featuring the clarinet: the Opus 114 trio, the Opus 115 quintet, and the two Opus 120 sonatas. Whether or not Brahms felt he had said all he had to say about a string ensemble after Opus 111 is debatable; but these particular "last words" are some of the most positive to have been written for such a group. Thus, now that the Brahms Festival has concluded, I realize that my only regret is that the full scope of this man's work was not given adequate justice in such a small number of concerts.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

From the Ring's Point of View

San Francisco is preparing (bracing?) itself for the San Francisco Opera's launch of an "American Ring" with its local premiere of Francesca Zambello's conception of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold on June 3. I have already contributed to the preparations with an account of Anthony Tommasini's review of this production when it was presented by the Washington National Opera. The Wagner Society of Northern California has planned an all-day symposium for June 14 entitled "Gold Rush – Forging the American Ring;" and the San Francisco Public Library will host its usual preview lecture event. Nevertheless, I tend to cast my lot with Anna Russell, who described such preparatory events as being delivered by "great expert[s], primarily for the edification of other great experts," which tend to leave those poor souls in the audience "as befogged as before."

In some ways the whole Ring des Nibelungen cycle poses the same sort of problem that one encounters with War and Peace. It's hard enough to keep track of everything that happens over the course of four operas, the shortest of which (Rheingold) is 2.5 hours (and is intimidating in its length because there is no intermission); but the overwhelming sequence of events is matched by an equally overwhelming cast of characters. Indeed, it terms of individual characters, Rheingold boasts the largest cast, with four gods, three goddesses, and seven "demigods," who are definitely not of the mortal world but who lack divine status. These include three "Rhine Maidens" (also called "daughters of the Rhine"), two Nibelungs (a race of dwarfs, who are gifted craftsmen working in caves beneath the surface of the earth), and two giants, whose brute strength was contracted by Wotan, chief of the gods, for the building of the castle Valhalla (Hall of the Valiant) to house not only the gods but also mortal warriors who die heroically in battle. (Die Walküre has the same sized cast. However, eight of them are Valkyries, only one of whom, Brünnhilde, figures significantly in the action.) My point is that anyone new to the Ring is likely to feel confused by the cast listing in the opera program even before trying to take on the synopsis on the next page.

However, it is important to remember that narrative structure shares a significant property with musical structure, which is that complexity is almost always a matter of embellishment. Thus, just as I have approached musical complexity by taking a "syntactic" approach to sorting out the embellishing and the embellished, one can do the same with the events that unfold in the course of the four Ring operas; and the best way to do that is to regard all of those cast lists as embellishments and focus on the Ring of the title as if it were the central character. In all fairness, however, I should point out that this is not the way Wagner approached his project. Drawing upon the Nibelungen Lied, Wagner began with the goal of relating the legend of the death of the hero Siegfried and then "worked backwards," addressing how Siegfried became a hero, how he came to be born, and, ultimately, why he came to be born. Having developed the plan for his four operas through an act of backtracking that would be the envy of any Prolog programmer, Wagner then realized his composition by "working forwards" through the plan. From my point of view, however, this overlooks why these four operas are often called the "Ring Cycle;" and it is only if we consider all of the events from the point of view of the Ring itself, so to speak, that we appreciate the cyclic nature of the conception.

The very title of the first opera ("the gold of the Rhine") encourages us to take this approach: Before worrying about Siegfried's origins, we address those of the Ring itself, which is initially an enchanted lump of gold at the bottom of the Rhine guarded by those three daughters of the Rhine. The essence of the enchantment is that this gold will bestow absolute power on anyone who can forge it into a ring but that such a craftsman can only succeed by first renouncing love. That is basically all you need to know about the Ring. All you need to know about Das Rheingold is that it is a story of three thefts:

  1. Alberich, a Nibelung craftsman, steals the gold from the daughters of the Rhine, having renounced love after each of the three of them rebuff ("Pfui!" in the libretto) his efforts to woo them, and forges the Ring from the gold.
  2. Wotan steals the Ring from Alberich, offering it as an alternative to the terms of his original contract with the giants. (There is an important irony here: One of the attributes that gives Wotan his chiefly status is that he is the god of laws and contracts.) In response to Wotan's theft, Alberich casts a curse on the Ring.
  3. The giants, brothers Fasolt and Fafner, accept Wotan's offer. However, as soon as Wotan concludes the deal by giving the Ring to Fasolt, Fafner kills Fasolt in order to steal the Ring from him. This is the first manifestation of Alberich's curse.

Lots of other things happen over the 2.5 hours of this opera: Alberich and the Rhine Maidens, arguing over the Valhalla contract, forging the Ring, and a massive climax in which the seven gods and goddesses cross a rainbow bridge to enter Valhalla. However, these are all embellishments, far from irrelevant but still embellishing. So, in the spirit of such reduction, let's breeze through the remaining three operas:

  • Die Walküre: Wotan conceived a "cunning plan" to recover the Ring. This will be achieved by a hero, who will be conceived from the incestuous union of two of his own illegitimate children, Siegmund and Sieglinde. He enlists another illegitimate daughter, Brünnhilde, to assist him in his plan; but his wife, Fricka, objects that the plan violates all the laws (for which he is responsible) of house and hearth. Fricka forces Wotan to forbid Brünnhilde's intervention in the plan, but she disobeys. Wotan punishes her by making her mortal but then protects her by putting her to sleep on a rock surrounded by impenetrable fire.
  • Siegfried: This is the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde. His first act of heroism is to forge a sword from the shattered remains of the sword Siegmund had used in abducting Sieglinde. He then uses the sword to slay Fafner, who used the power of the Ring to turn himself into a dragon to protect his ill-gotten gains. Siegfried also uses the sword to shatter Wotan's staff, on which all laws and contracts have been recorded. Now possessing both the Ring and its curse, he discovers the fire-surrounded rock, rides through the fire, kisses Brünnhilde, and awakens her.
  • Götterdämmerung: Now it is the turn of Alberich to recover the Ring. Actually, he is now dead; but he haunts his son (he renounced love but not sex) Hagen, whom he conceived with a queen of the Gibichung tribe. Hagen plots to kill Siegfried by first arranging for him to marry the Gibichung princess Gutrune and then enlisting the support of the betrayed Brünnhilde. After Siegfried has been slain, Brünnhilde realizes that she was deceived. She builds a funeral pyre for him and immolates herself along with his body. The fires of the pyre rise high enough to consume Valhalla. The Rhine Maidens recover the Ring from the ashes of the fire. Hagen makes one last attempt to retrieve it and drowns. The gold has been restored to its original position at the bottom of the Rhine. (As Russell puts it, "You're exactly where you started forty hours ago!")

What I have tried to do in this summary is focus on how the Ring changes hands, which it does in every opera except Walküre, which is about planning for a change of hands. If Billy Wilder believed that you could understand any plot by following the money, you understand this one by following the Ring (which endows the holder with both power and money). Everything that does not directly involve following the Ring is detail, however memorable that detail may be (as with the Walkürenritt, which begins the third act of Die Walküre).

Will all this translate effectively into an "American Ring?" Tommasini's report from Washington was certainly positive enough, and he is not known for pulling his punches. Thus far in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman has chosen to focus on Mark Delavan, who will be singing Wotan, describing the baritone's tumultuous past as one of "alienating everyone he came across;" but then, in my approach to synopsis, Wotan is not particularly big on winning friends and influencing people. My own expectations hinge more on conductor Donald Runnicles, whom I heard conduct the last San Francisco Opera Ring and enjoyed thoroughly. One cannot conduct Wagner without a strong sense of how to endure by controlling expenditure of energy, and Runnicles has that sense down pat. At his last performance his capacity for endurance assisted the audience's; and that can make all the difference when you are confronted with 2.5 hours without an intermission!

Friday, May 23, 2008

George Eliot and "The Appearance of Evil"

Having just finished George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, I want to allow myself one last reflection on a passage from the novel's final chapter (not counting the "Conclusion"). The passage concerns one of the novel's more interesting secondary characters, the Reverend Dr. Kenn, who is determined not to let his attitudes be swayed by groundless slanderous gossip. Eliot's narration invokes an interesting turn of phrase for such gossip; she refers to public opinion as being "always of the feminine gender—not the world, but the world’s wife." Thus, it matters little if there is no warrant for slander through either the presence or absence of evidence. As Eliot puts it:

But the refined instinct of the world’s wife was not to be deceived [by the absence of warrant for slander], providentially! Else what would become of society?

Where the critical element of slander in Eliot's plot is concerned, Dr. Kenn is initially strong in his resolve to prefer solid argument to "the refined instinct of the world's wife;" but, as is the case with many public figures (such as ones we are now encountering in the race for the White House), he must ultimately capitulate to the pressures of public opinion. Here is how Eliot justifies his decision:

Dr. Kenn, having a conscience void of offense in the matter, was still inclined to persevere, was still averse to give way before a public sentiment that was odious and contemptible, but he was finally wrought upon by the consideration of the peculiar responsibility attached to his office, of avoiding the appearance of evil, an ‘appearance’ that is always dependent on the average quality of surrounding minds. Where these minds are low and gross, the area of that ‘appearance’ is proportionately widened.

Eliot's recognition of the reality of "low and gross" minds reminds me of my favorite Samuel Johnson story: He was supposedly approached on the street by a very haughty lady, who complimented him on having omitted all "offensive" words from his dictionary. Johnson's reply was, "Were you looking for them, madam?" Today the world's wife makes her home in front of television cameras and looks for the appearance of evil as assiduously as that woman who accosted Johnson was looking for her offensive words. She will "live long and prosper" in her new setting as long as the need to distinguish appearance from reality remains secondary to the need to dominate "market share." No matter how much she may be ridiculed by Eliot (or, for that matter, Jacques Offenbach), she will prevail with the same strength that sustained her in the past two centuries.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Another Trillion Here and There

Between the reckless spending by the Bush Administration and the (apparently futile?) attempts of economists like Joseph Stigliz to restore some sense of reality to the numbers that confront us, the media have pretty much inured us to the idea of a trillion-dollar price tag. Nevertheless, it is worth at least a pause to consider the report that the BBC NEWS Web site ran under the headline, "Food imports 'to top $1 trillion.'" This particular price tag comes from the findings of a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); and, while I regard this group as a reputable body, I have at least one question about the reasoning, at least if the BBC report is reasonably thorough and accurate. The problem is a classic "dead moose on the table," the omission of a factor that other sources have taken to be critical and appears to receive no attention from the FAO. That factor is the role of market speculation, which, as the Financial Times reported at the beginning of this month, was being taken so seriously in India that their finance minister was considering a "blanket ban on trading in food futures." If we have learned anything from our years under the Bush Administration, it is that, when the talk escalates to more than nine figures, the "walk" is no longer down the path of financial theory but is, instead, guided by purely greed-driven motives. Thanks to Thomas Friedman's "gospel of globalization," those motives can be exercised on a global scale in any market, whether it is the manpower to run a call center, the price of loans issued by a bank, or, in this case, the cost of staple foods.

There are those who will take this as a sign that we should all become locovores. This may work for some of us; but it overlooks the plight of developing nations, which are often sorely lacking in arable land and/or the seeds to plant on that land. Thus, while the FAO should receive at least some credit for shoving another trillion-dollar price tag in our faces, they really should have done a better job of getting down and dirty over why this number came to be in the first place.