Saturday, January 31, 2009

He May Have a Point!

You have to hand it to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. For all his bluster, socially-challenged manners, and (lest we forget) interminable oratory, every now and then he recognizes an opportunity to score diplomatic points; and it is usually the United States that provides the opportunity. Consider the following report from Reuters this morning:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez urged U.S. President Barack Obama to extradite an anti-Castro Cuban exile wanted in Venezuela who the administration of George W. Bush had refused to hand over.

Extradition of former CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles, accused of plotting the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jet that killed 73 people, could improve bilateral ties that have for years been frayed by a war of words between the Bush administration and Venezuela.

"Send us the terrorist Posada Carriles," Chavez said in a televised speech late on Friday. "We've been waiting four years for the extradition of the biggest terrorist in human history."

The Bush administration had refused to hand over Posada after he was arrested in the United States for entering the country illegally, sparking harsh criticism of a double standard in Washington's war on terror.

Like it or not, there is something to be said for that accusation of double standards, which is basically grounded in Bush's simplistic division of the world into good and evil, with the corollary that "agents of evil" (Hamas being the most recent example) are not included in diplomatic discussions. On the surface this appears to be an attempt by the Venezuelan government to put Gore Vidal's perspective on terrorism into practice by prosecuting a bombing incident as a terrorist act. Presumably the Bush Administration failed to cooperate since it regarded Chavez as one of those agents in evil and deduced that it would be impossible for Carriles to get a fair trial in Venezuela, regardless of whether there was any evidence to support that conclusion.

Basically, then, Chavez is appealing to Obama's sense of fairness in the arena of countries respecting each other's criminal justice systems. I am not suggesting that this will be an easy call for Obama. However, if he refuses Chavez' request, then, for the sake of his standing in the global community, he had better present Chavez with an air-tight argument for that refusal. Chavez has deliberately put Obama on a spot that the whole world may decide to watch (and we can count on Chavez persuading the rest of the world to look at that spot); and my guess is that the world will be expecting to see Obama's reputation for cool-headed reason satisfied, rather than abandoned for any cheap rhetorical tricks.

Bonuses and Regulation

Barack Obama used his weekly radio address to reinforce yesterday's sharp discontent with unrealistic (should we say "bloodsucking?") bonuses in the financial sector. Deutsche Press-Agentur (courtesy of Monsters and Critics) reported today's remarks as follows:

Obama also reiterated his criticism of bonuses paid to company chiefs in the past year despite the precarious economic situation. 'We'll ensure that CEOs are not draining funds that should be advancing our recovery.'

The obvious question is whether or not such abuse can be controlled through regulation. The latest New York Review has a piece written by Jeff Madrick on January 14 ("How We Were Ruined & What We Can Do"), which devotes a paragraph to this question:

Any regulation should also take account of the incentives for manages to take company risk for personal benefit. The ability to take immediate profits from fees on risky loans infected the financial industry and eventually the entire economy, and made possible disproportionately large annual bonuses. These incentives were among the main causes of the irresponsibility on Wall Street. The best way to prevent that from occurring is to base the bonuses and compensation of financial executives on the long-term profitability of the investment firms for which they work.

This kind of thinking is sure to raise howls from the high priests of free markets, but it is hard for them to make a case for the market punishing foolish decisions made in the name of nothing other than personal greed in this particular situation. Nevertheless, we have to wonder just how powerful the "greed lobby" will be. It is easy enough to assume that both Executive and Legislative branches will be made aware of Madrick's position statement; but it is just as easy to assume that those who cashed in on those bonuses will be applying some of their ill-gotten gains to maintaining this small corner of status quo. Invoking the rhetorical wrath of the President of the United States is a small price to pay if the rest of that money remains in your pocket. (This might be called "bribery logic.")

The overall message of Madrick's article informs us that recovery will be complicated but can still be feasible in spite of this complexity. Neither Obama nor members of the Congress will be able to "sell" recovery measures to the electorate on the basis of such complexity. It will be necessary to drive some stakes in the ground, even if they are largely symbolic, to demonstrate that progress has being made in ways that Main Street will appreciate. In choosing to go after those bonuses, Obama has probably chosen a good stake; since those bonuses are likely to aggravate just about everyone except their beneficiaries. If this means that our government decides to make "a Federal case" (as it were) out of reforming compensation practices in the financial sector, then I am all for a regulatory framework that can stand up free-market complainers in favor of everyone else looking for signs of repair.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Tensions

I found it useful to read Gideon Rachman's analysis for the Financial Times of the proceedings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, since it provided an interesting perspective on how seriously the WEF took the "forum" part of their name. Like Arthur Conan Doyle's classic dog that did not bark in the night, what was most notable in that analysis was the "perceived absence," so to speak, of that "ideal speech situation" to which Jürgen Habermas seems to have aspired for so much of his intellectual career. Thus, Rachman's analysis may best be read as a study of two breakdowns in communication, related in reverse chronological order.

The more recent breakdown occurred over events in the Middle East, which, as I have already observed, remains the best counterexample for any theory Habermas has tried to develop. Here is Rachman's summary of the episode that has by now received considerable press coverage:

The organisers of the World Economic Forum like people to get along. The forum specialises in getting rivals and enemies to share platforms in Davos: Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Iranians.

But this week, the Davos consensus broke down in spectacular fashion. Recep Tayip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, stormed out of a session with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president. Angered both by events in Gaza – and by what he saw as unfair handling of the discussion he was taking part in – Mr Erdogan vowed never to return to the forum.

The cosy Davos world has already been profoundly shaken by the global financial crisis. The Erdogan walkout also pointed to the threat posed to the consensual tradition of Davos by developments in international politics.

For some years, Turkey has been a poster child for the politics of reconciliation that are promoted by the forum. It is a secular Muslim state that is also democratic, a member of Nato and has close ties to Israel. But there has been a growing, latent conflict between Turkish foreign policy and public opinion in the country. Opinion polls in Turkey have regularly revealed very high levels of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. Some of those tensions burst into the open in the emotional performances of Mr Erdogan and Mr Peres in Davos.

The walkout also highlighted the extent to which the conflict in Gaza has further poisoned relations between Israel and moderates in the Islamic world.

It is that last sentence that demonstrates how ineffective the WEF has become as the forum it purports to be. Rachman's analysis does not provide much by way of trying to explain this inefficacity. I, for one, would look for an explanation in that other great "perceived absence" that seems to pervade all of their events, which is a general lack of a "sense of reality" regarding current global conditions; and it is unclear whether or not the WEF organizers will ever figure out that they have to descend from their tower before its weakening foundations bring down the whole structure.

However, as Rachman's analysis observed, it is not only Israel that is experiencing a breakdown in international relations. From the very beginning of the current gathering in Davos, it was clear that the United States was in the same position:

The two leaders who topped the bill at the forum were Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, and Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia. Both struck a similar note. They made appeals for international co-operation. But they also pointed to America’s central role in the global financial crisis and stressed the need for a multi-polar world.

On substance, however, the Russian and Chinese reactions to the early steps taken by the Obama administration were rather different.

The Russians have reason to be pleased. They believe that a deal may be in the works in which the Americans go slow on the deployment of anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and play down the hopes of Georgia and Ukraine to join Nato. In return, Russia would be asked to provide more help on other important issues – in particular, the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Chinese delegation at Davos, however, were clearly displeased and alarmed by the suggestion by Tim Geithner, Mr Obama’s newly-confirmed Treasury secretary, that China has been “manipulating” its currency. In public and in private, they were at pains to dismiss this suggestion and to pin the blame for the global economic crisis on the US.

Rachman's conclusion that tensions over economic policy "may turn out to be more significant in the long term" than current tensions over Gaza strikes me as an unproductive attempt to compare apples and oranges. Yes, there will always be a tight coupling between economic and foreign policy; but it can still be the case that every breakdown in communications is, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, "unhappy in its own way," thus deserving to be analyzed strictly on its own terms. Put another way, our efforts to describe these situations must dwell on the specific rather than the general, which is why we should not try to rank-order their respective priorities. The only way in which these tensions can be resolved will be if each receives its own attention, deliberation, and (hopefully) corrective actions. This does not appear to be particularly important to the WEF, so perhaps it is time for that organization to stop wasting the world's precious resources for no interest other than helping the rich and mighty to feel good about themselves!

Brahms' Legacy

The program for last night's Graduate Cello Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of music provided an interesting complement to Tuesday night's recital by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, most notably in its choice of an opening. While the earlier concert began by introducing me to the violin sonata of Leoš Janáček, last night's began with the second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů. Martinů was born in Bohemia a little less than half a century after Janáček; but he did not "make the cut" in the Oxford Dictionary of Music's "Bohemia" category in their "Nationalism in Music" entry. One reason for this may be that it would not be fair to consider him as a "Bohemian nationalist" composer, particularly in light of the Wikipedia summary of his music (reproduced here with with Wikipedia-style warts):

Martinů was a very prolific composer, writing almost 400 pieces. Many of his works are regularly performed or recorded, among them his choral work, The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955); his symphonies, a modern cycle of six; his concertos, including those for cello, violin, oboe and five for the piano; his anti-war opera Comedy on the bridge; and his chamber music, including eight surviving string quartets, a flute sonata, and a clarinet sonatina.

His music displays a wide variety of influences: works such as La Revue de Cuisine (1927) are heavily influenced by jazz, while the Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1938) is one of many works to show the influence of the Baroque concerto grosso. Other works are influenced by Czech folk music. He also admired the music of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, among other composers.[citation needed]

A characteristic feature of his orchestral writing is the near-omnipresent piano; most of his orchestral works include a prominent part for piano, including his small concerto for harpsichord and chamber orchestra. The bulk of his writing from the 1930s into the 1950s was in a neoclassical vein, but with his last works he opened up his style to include more rhapsodic gestures and a looser, more spontaneous sense of form. This is easiest to hear by comparing his sixth symphony, titled Fantaisies symphoniques, with its five predecessors, all from the 1940s.

One of Martinů's lesser known works is a piece featuring the theremin commissioned by Lucie Bigelow Rosen. Martinů started working on this commission in the summer of 1944 and finished his Fantasia for theremin, oboe, string quartet and piano on October 1, dedicating it to Rosen, who premiered the piece as theremin soloist in New York on 3 November 1945, along with the Koutzen Quartet and Robert Bloom.

His opera The Greek Passion is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.

It is clear that, as a composer, he was subject to far more influences than his Bohemian roots; and this was evident last night.

The sonata on the program was composed in 1941 in the United States, sitting between the first sonata (composed in Paris in 1939) and the third (composed in Vieux-Moulin in 1952). Its number in Harry Halbreich's catalog is 286 (out of 384). With regard to the "citation needed" entry in the above Wikipedia passage, I would say that none of the enumerated influences were present in this sonata; but there was, instead, a decided "atmosphere" of the music of Johannes Brahms. This was not so much to make a case along the same lines that Arnold Schoenberg would later commit to text in 1947 in his "Brahms the Progressive" essay. Rather, it seemed to call attention to the relevance of Brahms to ears in the middle of the twentieth century and to reflect on how Martinů's own ears listened to that music. Since Brahms had composed two superb cello sonatas, it should not be surprising that Martinů would be willing to recognize Brahms as such an influence. This is not to say that either of the Brahms sonatas serves as a model for this particular Martinů sonata, but there are ways in which the latter provides opportunity to reflect on the work of the former.

This is evident not only in some of the muscular approaches taken to the cello part but also in both the full-handed writing for the piano accompaniment and many of the rhythms through which that writing is expressed. Thus, while Martinů's "melodic rhetoric" is far more angular than anything we would find in Brahms, one could see how the study of the Brahms sonatas could provide useful technical preparation for the performance of the later work. If we recognize that Schoenberg wrote his essay (and the lecture on which it was originally based) in response to what he felt was an unfairly dismissive attitude towards Brahms in the first half of the twentieth century, then Martinů's sonata basically made the same case through music, rather than through expository text.

The Martinů performance was followed by one of Richard Strauss' only sonata for cello and piano. This is a comparatively early work (Opus 6, completed in 1883) in which Strauss was clearly still in the process of finding his voice. Again, there is a clear sense of Brahms being an influence without necessarily providing any explicit models. Indeed, Strauss' composition actually sits between Brahms' two cello sonatas, the Opus 38 (completed in 1865) and Opus 99 (1885). The result is not as exciting as the Martinů sonata but still serves as an interesting harbinger of the sounds we would hear as Strauss become more mature.

Last night's recital concluded with a performance of the Beethoven piano trio in D major (Opus 70, Number 1, the "Ghost"). I found this slightly ironic (but hardly in a malicious way). Here was Brahms, who spent much of his life worrying about being in Beethoven's shadow; but in this particular program it was his legacy that was being honored, less as a shadow and more as a source of new light.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Word that Dare Not Speak its Name

Steve Schifferes' analysis for BBC NEWS of the first day of the proceedings of the World Economic Forum in Davos focused (as it should have done) on the view of the world economy from Chinese and Russian perspectives:

In his first appearance at Davos, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hit back, placing the blame for the crisis squarely on the shoulders of the US authorities.

Among the causes of the crisis, he cited "inappropriate macro-economic policies of some economies and their unsustainable model of development" - a clear swipe at the low savings and high consumption rate of the US economy - and "the failure of financial supervision and regulation".

He also blamed the banks for their "blind pursuit of profit" and a "lack of self-discipline" which have landed the world economy "in the most difficult situation since the Great Depression".

Further criticism came from Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who said that "poor quality regulation" led to "the collapses of the existing financial system".

Mr Putin also criticised the world's dependence on the dollar.

"Excessive dependence on what is basically the only reserve currency is dangerous for the world economy," he said.

He said that the result was "a serious malfunction in the very system of global economic growth" and that "whole regions of the world, including Europe, found themselves at the periphery of global economic processes" and "were outside the framework of the key economic and financial decisions".

And he argued that the benefits of the boom "were distributed very disproportionately" both within countries and between them.

I was particularly interested in Putin's remarks. One rarely encounters a phrase like "serious malfunction" among the Davos cheerleaders. Through that phrase Putin was attempting to steer the general discourse in the direction of a word that, in either its noun or verb form, is practically taboo in the American economic community among all but the most serious progressives. That word is "reform;" and, by even suggesting it, Putin was throwing down a gauntlet before "the usual suspects" of the rich and mighty in his audience, challenging them to give as much thought to curing the underlying disease as they had thus far been giving in trying to alleviate the symptoms. As Schifferes observed, the United States is far from receptive to this kind of language at the present time; but Putin may have been just the right person to confront them with this word that dare not speak its name. As I wrote back in August at the height of a "double fever" of a Presidential Election and military activity in Georgia:

Putin is less a blustering militarist and more a cold-blooded chief executive determined to set achievable goals that can be brought about through well-executed plans. Put another way, he knows how to frame what he wants in terms of what he has; and he does it well enough to run up a good record of getting what he wants.

However, there is another side to Putin that Schifferes did not include in his analysis, even though it was revealed in his response to a question after his speech. I found that part of the story in a report by Erica Ogg for CNET News. The "question in question" (so to speak) came from none other than Michael Dell. Ogg's report reveals the rest:

During the opening of the show, Putin gave a wide-ranging, 40-minute speech. When it came time for questions, Dell asked "How can we help" you with your country's IT infrastructure, according to a report in Fortune.

Putin immediately rebuffed the PC company's founder. "We don't need your help. We are not invalids. We don't have limited mental capacity," Putin responded. (I think the only appropriate response to that is, "Oh, snap!")

Now, I wasn't there, but it's highly unlikely this is anything close to what Dell was suggesting. Fortune writes that the "slapdown took many of the people in the audience by surprise." Um, rightfully so. But that wasn't the end of Putin's verbal judo attack on Dell and his company. Near the conclusion of his talk he reportedly talked up Russian scientists and how they are "respected not for their hardware, but for their software." Double snap.

Now from where I sit, Dell's question was presumptuous in a serious departure from the normative behavior of the rich and mighty; and, in the interest of maintaining a proper tone of discourse, he deserved to have his wrist slapped. Nevertheless, he did not deserve a humiliating full body slam; so the episode ended up telling us more about Putin's attitude toward that "proper tone of discourse" than it did about Dell's. When I wrote about Putin last August, it was to address his behavior in terms of how well he could play "the game of statecraft" according to rules set down by Dennis Ross in his book on that topic; but the "instruments" of that game are the instruments of conversation. Using those instruments to bully rarely advances a conversation (although it may explain why George W. Bush saw Putin's soul when he looked into the Russian leader's eyes). Putin is right about a conversation about reform being necessary; but stupid things usually get said in conversation, just by nature of the human condition. I really hope that he can refine his conversation technique a bit before any serious conversation about economic reform gets under way.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Bookends

Last night's recital by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, in Herbst Theatre under the auspices of San Francisco Performances, offered its least familiar material at the very beginning and in the encores. This is hardly the first time I attended a concert that began with "something new;" but it made for an interesting way to arrange the evening. Before the intermission, Johannes Brahms' D minor (Opus 108) violin sonata was preceded by the violin sonata of Leoš Janáček; and the program after the intermission consisted of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's F major (K. 377) violin sonata and Franz Schubert's B minor rondo brillant (D. 895), followed by two encores of "Danses Champêtres" (Opus 106, Number 5 and probably Number 1) by Jean Sibelius.

San Francisco has been a good place to learn how to listen to Janáček. During her tenure with the San Francisco Opera, Pamela Rosenberg offered three of his operas, Jenůfa, Káťa Kabanová, and The Cunning Little Vixen; and last June David Robertson conducted the San Francisco Symphony in an exquisite performance of his Taras Bulba "rhapsody." I last wrote about Janáček in a post on "nationalist" music, observing that the Oxford Dictionary of Music had classified him as sharing the "Bohemian" category with Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. At that time I questioned whether Bohemia was actually ever a nation; but I think it is important to recognize that the conditions of Janáček's birth do not necessarily endow him with any "family resemblance" to either Smetana or Dvořák. His voice is very much a unique one, and the only way to get to know it is through exposure. So I am glad that San Francisco has provided me with a generous share of opportunities for such exposure, because through that exposure I could begin to feel a sense of familiarity with Janáček's violin sonata, even though this was the first time I heard it.

In the framework of yesterday's "self-evident truths about listening," that sense of familiarity clearly resided in "features of the general." Being more specific (to play with the words), there is a particular sense of fragmentation in Janáček's approach to melody. When I wrote about Taras Bulba, I talked about Janáček approaching music "as a structuring of 'sonorous objects;'" and, while this may be most apparent in his orchestral writing, it was clear that his violin sonata involved an intimate interplay of particularly characteristic sonorities that he wanted to capture in both violin and piano. To some extent one could call the melodies themselves "Bohemian," particularly in the first movement; but the second movement ("Ballada") had less of that "folk" sound and felt almost like a deliberate move away from the "exotic." Taken as a whole, I found the four movements a welcome addition to the repertoire of accompanied violin sonatas and would like nothing better than more opportunities to listen to performances; so I can begin to make the move from the general to the more specific, since there is clearly a richness of detail in this work just waiting to be explored.

The Brahms sonata was basically the warhorse of the evening, which is not meant as a dismissive observation. Andsnes is an awesome Brahms pianist; this was clear from his performance of the Opus 83 piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony this past spring. He brings a level of energy that dismisses all of those clichés about Brahms' "stale classicism;" and Tetzlaff reinforced that energy, even if that reinforcement led to a certain coarseness of sound. However, if this sonata is considered from that same "progressive" perspective that I applied to the concerto, then there is much to be said for a performance that goes out to (if not beyond) the threshold of "disciplined control." This is not to say that the performance was reckless, but it delivered a sense of abandon to the music that seemed to make for an entirely appropriate interpretation.

Ironically, there was a similar level of abandon in the Mozart sonata, particularly in its opening allegro. This is the work of Mozart in his twenties, still the show-off kid strutting his stuff in Vienna. Presumably Mozart himself performed the piano part, hopefully with a violinist who was up to the task of keeping up with him. Andsnes is now well out of his own twenties. However, he knew how to summon his "inner twenty-year-old" for this performance; and Tetzlaff was, once again, right there with him in the spirit of the occasion. This time, however, the performance was less about abandon and more about control, although that control was applied to a variety of impressive virtuoso feats. Nevertheless, that spirit of abandon returned in the Schubert rondo. This work was composed almost two years before Schubert's death at a time when he was being very adventurous about both formal structure and the "action" within the structure. Within that balancing act we encounter the same sorts of flirtations with madness that surface in so many of his songs, as well has his earlier D. 760 "Wanderer" fantasy; but, for all those flirtations, Schubert never gives up control. Thus, performance demands a "deliberate depiction" of the madness; and that is precisely the approach that Tetzlaff and Andsnes brought to their interpretation.

Finally, the encores threw a new light on Sibelius' approach to violin music. We ended the evening where we began, with one composer's decidedly individual approach to his own country's "nationalism." Thus, in spite of the French title, these works elicit the voice of the violin as Finnish folk instrument (which I once had occasion to hear in conjunction with a conference on cognitive musicology). Here any coarseness of sound was definitely part of that "nationalist" spirit, which again seemed to approach composition through "sonorous objects," but with an entirely different spectrum of sounds. It is not often the case that the unity of a program extends to its encores, but there is no doubt that Sibelius was as important a "bookend" for the entire evening as Janáček had been at the beginning.

Another Departure from Reality in Davos

While there is no real need to compile a laundry list of all the ways in which the World Economic Forum (WEF) and its little party in Davos have lost their sense of reality, Morice Mendoza came up with some statistics for a background article for SPIEGEL ONLINE that really deserve to be shared:

There are only 4 women out of 22 on the foundation board (18 percent) and no women at all on the managing board, which is responsible for the operations and running of the WEF. There are 2 women among the 10 senior directors (20 percent), people responsible for subject areas within WEF. It is only lower down the management chain where you find the gender balance becomes healthier -- 52 percent of the directors are women. These people cover subject areas (e.g. security issues) and head functional areas such as accounting.

Loss of Talent and Perspective

Of the co-chairs -- very important figures who help to plan the Davos meeting -- only one of the seven is a woman: Maria Ramos, chief executive of Transnet, a South African freight, rail, and pipeline company. (Ramos announced recently that she had decided to step down from Transnet, after having turned the company around from a time when it had been, in her own words, a "value-destroying organ of the state.")

This dearth of women -- and the talent and different perspectives they could bring -- is reflected in the Davos event itself. The WEF has posted on its Web site an "abridged" list of business leaders who will attend this year. One has to assume it is a reasonably representative sample of the full list. Out of 81 people listed, only 4 are women -- under 5 percent

This raises a question (which hopefully is obvious to most): If both the Davos participants and the parent organization of the event provide such a poor sample of those who actually "make the economy work" (so to speak), should we attach any credibility to anything that gets said there? This leads to another question, which happens to come much closer to my own home: If the signal-to-noise ratio at Davos is so low, why is the Mayor of San Francisco hanging out there, instead of seeing to his "day job" at City Hall? Perhaps there is just something irresistible about being invited into this particular "garden of earthly delights," just as the surrealistic images of Hieronymus Bosch's eponymous triptych are so irresistible! Perhaps we should just recognize that this surreal world of the World Economic Forum has displaced that sense of reality and "is what it is" (in the immortal words of Jimmy McNulty of The Wire)! However, if their world is a surreal one, could it be that ultimately they live by André Breton's Manifestoes of Surrealism? If so, then we may wish to be particularly aware of one sentence from Breton's text:

We are the prisoners of the mechanical orgy pursued inside the earth, for we have dug mines, underground galleries through which we sneak in a band beneath the cities that we want to blow up.

Be on the lookout for flying shards of Alpine geology!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Some (Probably) Self-Evident Truths about Listening

I have now made good on my promise to myself and launched into the somewhat opaque French prose of Philippe Hamon's Du Descriptif. My efforts to sort out some basic conclusions from all of that convoluted language may have yielded little more than a few self-evident truths (thus far, at least); but it may be worth taking stock of them, having just vetted them with my neighbor who plays second violin in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I shall lay these thoughts out in no particular order (unless, after having set them down, I decided to use copy-and-paste to give them some better structure).

Most important is what may seem like a word game, but I think the game is worth playing for the sake of our priorities. While, in our casual conversation, we readily talk about "listening to music," I believe it is important to recognize that we only listen to performances of music. Abstractions of music, such as score pages, are only enablers of what we experience. Even the recordings we listen to are recordings of performances; and, while it may be worth recognizing that there is some score (say of Gustav Mahler's sixth symphony) that is invariant across all of those performances, only the performance provides the auditory signals that are experienced through listening. (One reason I chose that particular Mahler symphony is that there are different opinions regarding the order of performing its two inner movements, regardless of the order in which they are printed in the score.)

Equally self-evident is the "double bind" problem of the nature of time, itself. I recently wrote about how every performance moves "forward along the time line;" and, indeed, without at least a bare minimum of that forward movement, sound itself ceases to exist for the sake of hearing, let alone listening. However, what happens when we try to describe that experience? Whether we try to abstract that description into a string of words that we write or summon a rich "multimedia" approach to dramaturgical action (as in Donald Schön's account of a master class over the first two sections of Franz Schubert's Opus 15 "Wanderer Fantasy"), description is, itself, a performance that also moves forward along its own time line. The double bind arises because the time consumed in attending to listening to the performance is time detracted from "performing the description," so to speak, and vice versa. We are on the same turf that John Cage encountered in Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's lecture on how to attend a lecture.

As an aside I should point out that I do not take notes when I listen to a performance. When I write on this blog, I am beholden to no one other than myself. I do my best to write about what I remember and can then avoid writing about what I fail to remember, because I am the only person who can hold myself to task for my negligence!

There still remains the problem of figuring out just what goes into a descriptive text or one of those performances of a description. While my reading of Hamon thus far (which is only the first chapter of a six-chapter book) has concentrated on literary descriptions of static objects (frequently appealing to landscape and still-life painting), some of his insights pertain to the temporal nature of experience. Most important is his conception of a description that "moves" between the specific and the general. Within this conception the performance of a description can be considered in terms of a "strategy" for those moves that guides when one dwells on generality and when one homes in on details. This is rarely either a "top-down" or "bottom-up" systematic "traversal" that we would expect to find in a strictly objective world (which, as Paul Valéry put it, is "indifferent" to ordering). The strategy is motivated less by what is being described and more by the rhetorical setting (such as for one of Aristotle's forensic speeches) that requires the description. In my own efforts I tend to spend more time in the general, simply because there are only so many specific details that I still have with me by the time I get to my keyboard; and now we are back to the double bind. I could take notes to improve that situation; but my note-taking would probably distract from my efforts to apprehend the features of the general!

Finally, there is Hamon's decision to invoke Homer as a model of descriptive text. This is a bit problematic, since I subscribe to the belief that "Homer" is a "fiction of convenience" for a body of texts that emerged from a bardic tradition. Thus, both Iliad and Odyssey are "objectifications" of what was originally a performance practice. Nevertheless, Hamon's observation holds for the practice as well as the resulting text and may be even more relevant to the original practice. Simply put, he argues that there is no explicit description in either Iliad or Odyssey. Instead, description unfolds in the narrative account of the action. The example he gives is that, rather than describing a full suit of armor, "Homer" accounts for how a soldier puts on each of the pieces of that suit in preparing for battle. Description has been "dramatized," but not in the same way that Schön encountered dramatization in the master class he documented. From my point of view, this "narrative stance" is a by-product of bardic performance practice, which was not concerned with the composition of the sorts of texts that constitute Hamon's primary focus of attention but was, instead, concerned with the more nuts-and-bolts problem of holding audience attention. However, it also highlights the interplay between the time-line of the story being told and the time-line of the bardic performance of that story; and the management of that interplay often also has much to do with holding the attention of the audience.

Like a good mathematician, I may have reduced the problem of developing a theory of listening to music (sic, mea maxima culpa) to the problem of a theory of describing music performance. If the only progress I have made towards this latter problem has been a collection of self-evident truths, I feel that I have still made some forward progress, even if that progress can only be measured in inches! At the same time I have built myself a mental state that should serve me as my reading of Hamon progresses, and I hope that will serve my progress towards addressing both my primary and secondary problems!

Confronting the Rich and Mighty with Chutzpah

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo apparently has a knack for attracting early Chutzpah of the Week awards, since he won his first award about half a year ago on a Wednesday. That one was for waging a war against child pornography on the Internet by targeting all of Usenet, which I described at the time as "going after the Internet with a big stick without giving much thought as to where he is swinging it." This time, however, I am happy to announce that he is receiving the award for positive-connotation chutzpah; and it is very much an award for our current dire economic straits. The basis for the award comes from a report that Stephen Bernard and Ieva M. Augustums filed for the Associate Press this morning:

The New York attorney general on Tuesday issued subpoenas to former Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain and Bank of America's chief administrative officer, J. Steele Alphin, amid an investigation into bonuses Merrill paid executives just before being sold to Bank of America.

Thain, 53, was serving as the head of the newly combined company's wealth management division before he resigned last week. The resignation came shortly after reports surfaced that billions of dollars were paid to Merrill executives in late December.

Those bonuses were paid as Merrill was about to report a $15 billion fourth-quarter loss, and while Bank of America was seeking more federal funds to help it absorb the mounting losses at the New York-based investment bank.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's investigation will center on trying to determine why the timetable for paying the bonuses was moved up to December from its normal period in January; who knew about the bonuses; and how Merrill could justify spending billions of dollars on bonuses knowing its was on the brink of reporting a multibillion loss for the quarter, a person familiar with the probe told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Bank of America has said in recent days it knew about the bonuses, but had no authority over the payout because the Merrill sale had not been completed. On Monday, Bank of America spokesman Scott Silvestri said: "John Thain and the Merrill Lynch compensation committee made the decision on the amount and timing of year-end compensation at Merrill Lynch. We had no legal right to challenge it."

I can think of no better way to throw a harsh bright light on the failure of the banking sector to provide the Government Accountability Office with the data necessary to monitor the bailout money they have received than to launch an investigation of a particularly egregious use of that money. Hopefully, the news of this investigation will percolate back to Philip Jennings, in the United Kingdom, to let him know that he is not alone in losing patience with the rich and mighty of the banking sector. Indeed, this story broke just in time to be included as part of the "welcome packet" that can be handed out to all of the World Economic Forum participants in Davos (which adds to its chutzpah factor in my book). This is about more that finishing your vegetables before running off "for a dessert of chocolate fondue in Davos;" this is about catching the scoundrels who tried to run off with the silverware! Davos delegates, all, look on the works of Andrew Cuomo and despair!

Running out of Patience with the Rich and Mighty

In the script that Philip Barry wrote for The Philadelphia Story, it is "a Spanish peasant's proverb:"

With the Rich and Mighty always a little Patience.

This may be the most appropriate epigraph for the preview of this year's World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, which Tim Weber wrote for the BBC NEWS Web site. Still, given the general proclivity of the Davos crowd to drown themselves in Kool-Aid (mostly from Silicon Valley) in preference to conducting serious discussion over matters of economic health, including the allocation of financial assistance to those most in need of it, it is easy to understand that the patience of some might be wearing a bit thin. One of those who has lost such patience appears to be the new President of the United States. Considering the extent to which this year's Inaugural ceremonies were a "people's party" (even if the elites had their own events), we should be able to appreciate Barack Obama taking a dim view of anyone in his Administration going off to party with this particularly rich-and-mighty gathering in a time of economic crisis. According to Weber, Obama has translated these sentiments into nuts-and-bolts action:

More importantly, President Obama has ordered several key US officials to stay at home and tackle economic and political flashpoints.

Top economic adviser and Davos regular Lawrence Summers will stay in Washington. Tim Geithner is still awaiting his confirmation as new treasury secretary. US Fed boss Ben Bernanke will give Davos a miss.

Even National Security Adviser James L Jones has been told to stay at home.

As a result, the voice of the US government will be somewhat muted in Davos, and participants will sorely miss the input of heavy hitters like Mr Summers and Mr Geithner.

One wonders if there was a bit of irony in that last sentence. What sort of input would the Davos crowd have been expecting from these particular "heavy hitters." Was Summers scheduled to discuss the current state of equal opportunity in the workplace? Since "innovation" was such a strong ingredient in last year's Davos Kool-Aid, was Geithner planning to lecture on software innovations in tax preparation? Whether or not Weber was trying to be funny, the basic message was an important one: The children have to finish all their vegetables before they are allowed to run off for a dessert of chocolate fondue in Davos.

Obama is far from the only one with little patience for the World Economic Forum right now. One cannot imagine that the delegates will get much sympathy from those who cannot pull in a living wage. While their voices seldom carry to Alpine heights, there are still some trade unions left to speak up for them. Weber provided one example in his preview:

Philip Jennings, general secretary of global trade union UNI, said "we would not give a bonus to a factory worker who destroys the production line or a programmer who introduces a bug into software, yet all these bankers are being rewarded for watching while the industry ran headlong into a meltdown".

One might add to Jennings' list the manufacturer who continues to use his production line to grind out a product no one particularly wants to buy. That would provide us with a lens through which we could appreciate how much of our own bailout money has gone to businesses (whether in the financial or automotive sector) that have been consistently poorly managed and show no signs of either managerial or operational change. None of this is likely to introduce that oft-neglected sense of reality into the prevailing conversations that will begin in Davos tomorrow; still, it would be nice to find a counterexample to the words of the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon ("But absent friends are soon forgot"), when those in Davos give a bit of thought as to why their "friends" are absent this year.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Playing the Fool?

Last week's coverage by Matt Jaffe and Sarah Netter for ABC News of Rod Blagojevich's decision to boycott his impeachment trial could easily have been taken by many as not-so-covert promotion for ABC programming:

Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says he will boycott his upcoming impeachment trial, not as an act of defiance but rather to protest what he believes is an unfair process.

At a news conference this afternoon in Chicago, an animated Blagojevich said he would not attend the trial, set to start Monday in Springfield, because under state Senate rules he would not be able to call certain witnesses or sufficiently challenge the charges, making the proceedings a "trampling of the Constitution."

"It's a scary thing if they get away with doing this," Blagojevich said of state legislators. "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?" he asked.

Instead, the governor will appear in live ABC appearances on Monday morning, first on "Good Morning America" and then again live on "The View" where he'll be joined by his wife.

Since I personally have little time for this kind of television programming, I assume that, if anything of note happens, I shall read about it through one of my "hard news" sources. In this case I drew upon the BBC NEWS Web site for an account of the first stage of Blagojevich's effort to shift the venue of judgment from the Illinois Senate to the court of public opinion (as represented by ABC viewers):

Scandal-hit US Governor Rod Blagojevich has said he considered offering the Illinois senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Mr Blagojevich is facing an impeachment trial in the state senate over claims he tried to "sell" the seat.

He told ABC that Ms Winfrey, one of America's wealthiest women, would have been unlikely to accept.

Mr Blagojevich says he is innocent and that the trial, which he is not expected to attend, has been rigged.

He told ABC's Good Morning America that Ms Winfrey "seemed to be someone who would help Barack Obama in a significant way become president".

"She was obviously someone with a much broader bully pulpit than other senators," he said.

But he said Ms Winfrey "probably wouldn't take it" and that it would have been hard to offer the seat to her in a way that "didn't look like it was some gimmick and embarrass her".

Wow! Ever since Blagojevich was arrested in the wake of what seemed like a perfectly well-conceived effort to resolve the standoff between labor and management at Republic Windows and Doors by going after Bank of America as the root of the problem, I have been agonizing over what sort of motives led to the grounds for his arrest, assuming those grounds to be valid. One possibility, of course, is that those grounds are not valid; but they seem to be supported by some pretty strong evidence. We can only hope that the question of validity will be satisfactorily resolved during the Illinois Senate trial; and, if they are valid, then this question of motive could be a real stumper.

As is often the case, when faced with such a challenging question, I often look for an answer in the "poetic wisdom" of literature. In this case I turned to my (printed) copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for a phrase search on "play the fool." I found the following stanza from the poem "Plays," written by Walter Savage Landor in 1846:

When we play the fool, how wide
The theatre expands! beside,
How long the audience sits before us!
How many prompters! what a chorus!

I particularly enjoyed Landor's use of punctuation, but the message is still a good one. Blagojevich may have been motivated by nothing more than a desire for a larger audience; and he decided (probably rightly) that "professional deliberation" over the selection of a replacement to fill Obama's Senate seat would not win him that audience. Thus, following a logic not that different from the Lucifer-turned-Satan of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Blagojevich decided that the role of the fool was preferable to that of the virtuous sage. At the very least this may have provided a nice little jolt for the ratings of Good Morning America and may do the same for The View; but it will probably also help Blagojevich's standing in that court of public opinion he is trying to court (not apologizing for that bit of noun/verb play). Blagojevich is betting that good political theater can always trump conventional jurisprudence, and it will be interesting to see if he cashes in any chips on that bet.

The Bipartisan, the Nonpartisan, and the Antipartisan

E. J. Dionne's latest column amount to a full-frontal attack against one of the more audacious positions that Barack Obama has tried to assume in shaping his new Administration:

Beneath the warm pledges of bipartisanship and the earnest calls for cooperation in the midst of a grave crisis lurks an unpleasant fact: From the moment it loses power, the opposition party turns to the task of getting it back.

However, when he tries to muster data in support of his position, I find that I do not necessarily interpret his data the same way he does. The data I have in mind come from the Gallup Organization:

On Friday, Gallup released a report that’s devastating to the GOP. The survey, based on 30,000 interviews over the course of the year, found that in 2008 an average of 36 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats and only 28 percent called themselves Republicans. Gallup noted that this was the largest advantage of the Democratic Party in more than two decades.

For some Republicans, these numbers counsel short-term prudence and suggest the need for at least a semblance of cooperation with Obama, whose personal popularity is soaring. Former Rep. J.C. Watts, once a member of the House Republican leadership, cautions his party: “Be careful how you throw eggs at this parade.” In Congress, this approach is reflected in the efforts of some Republicans to alter but not oppose Obama’s economic stimulus package.

But in what might be seen as a GOP good cop/bad cop division of labor, others in the party are already savaging Obama and his plans.

It seems to me that the more "devastating" part of the Gallup poll is that 36% segment that does not identify with either Democrats or Republicans. I read this as an indicator of just how fed up the electorate is with the status quo of our political system (which includes the historical ignorance of dismissing third parties as irrelevant). It may even indicate that the "change" for which that segment voted was a change in that status quo, seeing (or hoping for) an Obama who would bring new "rules of the game" to that system.

We need to learn more of the usual demographic details about this segment of the Gallup sample space. When times are good, those without preference figure that it does not matter very much whether Tweedledee or Tweedledum is in power; and they are probably right. However, in a time of crisis (particularly a crisis of personal cash flow), that indifference indicates the feeling that neither side is going to get us out of the mess. One way to combat that indifference is with those skills of community organizing of which Obama is so proud. However, on the basis of yesterday's attempts (by all the usual suspects) to survey the past week, I did not see any indicators to change the opinion of those who believe that neither political party is showing any signs of advancing economic recovery.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Who Gets to Dictate the Terms?

In reviewing the appointment of George Mitchell as the US special envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict, I made it a point to stress that the current tensions on Gaza can only be resolved through productive communication. Needless to say, you cannot have productive communication if you do not have communication at all; and, where Gaza is concerned, this involves the disquieting question of who will be allowed to communicate. Adam Entous and Arshad Mohammed recognized this problem in a dispatch they filed for Reuters early this morning:

President Barack Obama plans to dispatch his Middle East envoy to the region next week, in a quick start to the new administration's efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and shore up a shaky Gaza truce.

Obama has taken the Middle East by surprise with the speed of his diplomatic activism.

Western, Arab and Israeli diplomats said his envoy, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, plans to meet leaders in Egypt, Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan, but they ruled out direct contacts with Hamas Islamists who rule the Gaza Strip.

A Western diplomat said Mitchell was likely to go to Saudi Arabia but said Syria was not now on his schedule.

What is disquieting is that the exclusion of Hamas smacks of what I had called "Sin-of-Omission Diplomacy" when it was perpetrated by the recent Bush Administration. Where foreign affairs are concerned, the "change we can believe in" is a change in our lamentable tendency to regard ourselves as "the sole arbiter of who should and should not participate in discussions" over diplomatic crises, such as the current situation in Gaza. Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said all the right things about getting beyond such selfish thinking, but actions always speak louder than words. It would be nice to know if the "they" in that third paragraph of the quote encompassed all the enumerated parties or just reflected a submission to the principle that whatever the United States says is how things will go. Both interpretations are equally depressing; but I, for one, voted the way I did to get beyond another Presidential term of Bush-style bully diplomacy.

In all fairness, however, it is probably the case that the United States is not the sole impediment to the prospects of productive communication. Another Reuters dispatch, this one from Jeffrey Heller, indicates that Israel has its own part to play in this process:

International calls to investigate Israel over alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday to promise military personnel state protection from foreign prosecution.

"The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza should know they are safe from various tribunals and Israel will assist them on this front and defend them, just as they protected us with their bodies during the Gaza operation," Olmert said.

Last week, the military censor ordered local and foreign media in Israel to blur the faces of army commanders in photos and video footage of the Gaza war for fear they could be identified and arrested while traveling abroad.

Israeli media reports said the military had been advising its top brass to think twice about visiting Europe.

This is not so much a question of who gets to participate in the discussion as one of the agenda for that discussion. It is hard to imagine having a discussion about Gaza without raising questions about grievances. By all rights those questions should address who has legitimate cause for grief and who should bear the responsibility for that grief. There is no question that Israel had a hand in bringing grief to the civilians of Gaza; but blocking any discussion of this matter is to cut off an approach to "truth and reconciliation" that we had no trouble accepting when it was practiced in Africa. Meanwhile, as Entous and Nidal al-Mughrabi reported for Reuters this morning, Hamas is doing its best to assess which Gazans have that "legitimate cause for grief" and draw upon Hamas financial resources to provide at least interim compensation. Put another way, Hamas is showing signs of acting responsibly as an elected government, even when those signs continue to "pass unnoticed" before the eyes of both the United States and Israel. The "time of waiting" for Mitchell's appointment may be over; but we may be due for a much longer wait before any productive communication can begin.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Trying to Demystify the Dramatistic

I suspect that many who read yesterday's musings on trying to take a "dramatistic" approach to musical performance may have felt that I had forsaken the empirical-analytic not for the historical-hermeneutic (as Jürgen Habermas would have put it) but for fuzzy-headed mysticism. Was I really trying to ascribe motivated agency to "the music itself;" and, if so, where on the continuum between the strictly literal and the full-fledged metaphorical was I trying to do this? Given that the title of this blog is "The Rehearsal Studio," I have no problem answering the first question in the affirmative, with the proviso that, for the sake of "rehearsal," that ascription should be viewed as a hypothesis. As to the latter question, I was clearly working from the metaphorical end of the continuum. One does not walk up to a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven on the street and ask if it is carrying an umbrella because it thinks it is going to rain (to choose a mundane agent motivation that we encounter frequently in San Francisco); but, also, to put aside those accusations of mysticism, one would not consult a medium to contact the spirit world to find out what that sonata would have to say about its motives. What the sonata "has to say" resides solely in the text that Beethoven bequeathed us, subject to the analytic enhancements of musicologists and editors and our own context-sensitive capacity for interpretation that can take into account both Beethoven's context and our own.

Where, then, do these motives reside? If they are to be viewed metaphorically, then the power of the metaphor may well reside in the etymology of that noun "motive." They may be viewed in terms of that dynamic force that is responsible for moving the performance "forward along the time line." I recently invoked this metaphor when I wrote about the "journey" through Elliott Carter's second string quartet, in which the "path from beginning to end" may be a challenging one (for both performers and listeners) but it still "navigable" if one is "equipped" with proper listening skills. In that same post I also argued that the skills that "equip" one for this quartet are significantly different than those with which we "navigate" the movements of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. However, to be more specific about what it means to be so "equipped" in the context of Yuliya Gorenman's Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music yesterday, I shall try to draw upon past thoughts regarding Beethoven's Opus 109 sonata.

As Gorenman observed, the first movement of this sonata deserves that same "quasi una Fantasia" label that Beethoven had assigned to this two Opus 27 sonatas. At the very least this suggests a departure from the normative structural conventions, which provide the usual "navigational maps" that lay out the "journey" from the beginning to the end of a sonata. Thus, when one prepares to perform (or listen to) that first movement, there is a real question of just where "forward" goes (other than in the temporal direction of the ticking clock). The last time I tried to address this question was when I heard Mack McCray play this sonata at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, which is rather a happy coincidence, since McCray, in his capacity as Chairman of the Piano Department at the Conservatory, was the one who introduced Gorenman to the audience. At that time I interpreted the sense of "forward" in terms of a temporal organization of the distribution of energy, illustrated by a graph that plotted the level of amplitude (a physical approximation to the psychological experience of loudness) across the time-line of the duration of the third movement:

As every good performer knows, a strategy for the distribution of energy requires knowing in advance where you want your climaxes to be and then gauging your "expenditures of energy" to make sure that those climaxes are delivered in ways that sound climactic. This a priori understanding of how energy will be distributed across the entire duration of the composition is part of what it means to hear the entire performance in your head before your body realizes that performance as "physical sound in real time." I should acknowledge that I was probably disposed to think about performance in these terms by not only McCray's performance of Opus 109 but also Gorenman's performance of Opus 27, Number 2 ("Moonlight") at a benefit luncheon I attended on Thursday. This earlier sonata is particularly distinguished by the radically different "energy strategies" required for its two outer movements; and the final movement is particularly challenging because, without a well-conceived strategy, it just all goes by in a blur. Gorenman had convincing strategies (which is to say strategies that the listener could readily follow) for both movements on Thursday; and much of her coaching of Opus 109 on Friday seemed directed at getting the student to think in terms of such strategies. I suspect that it was this "stance" she took toward performance as a journey through time that must be navigated that supported that claim I made yesterday that her Master Class was also an exciting lesson in learning to be a better listener.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Dramatistic Musical Performance

It is unlikely that Yuliya Gorenman was exposed to Kenneth Burke's dramatistic approach to human behavior, either while she was growing up in the Soviet Union (particularly in light of Burke's personal break with Marxism) or in the course of her music studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Peabody Conservatory; but there was a decidedly dramatistic flavor to the ways in which she coached three San Francisco Conservatory students in the Piano Master Class she conducted this morning. I mean this very much in the literal sense of Burke's own words, in that the conversations she conducted with the students (in which the audience would occasionally be included) were grounded more in theories of action than in theories of knowledge; or, to shift to my own terminology, her use of language was far more verb-based than noun-based. From Burke's point of view, this involved a focus on dynamic concepts such as purpose and motive, rather than the positivist emphasis on static texts (musical or otherwise) so characteristic of our legacy from the Age of Enlightenment. Most interesting in her approach was the extent to which she could apply these dynamic concepts to not only the behavior of the performer but also the music itself. Thus, she was perfectly comfortable with inquiry concerned with what the music wanted to do or say or with the contextual influence behind such actions. For those in the audience, the result was a refreshingly novel way in which to approach listening, demonstrated through performances of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Robert Schumann.

This is not to say that she disregarded the actions of the pianist. However, one came away with the impression that such actions can always be achieved through proper technical training, while the "secret sauce" of a good performance comes from a performer who already hears that performance in his/her own head and then simply summons the body to realize what the mind already knows through listening. That knowledge is verb-based and reveals itself through Donald Schön's two stages of knowing-in-action and reflection-in-action. Through this approach she could negotiate the almost improvisatory nature of the first movement of Beethoven's Opus 109 sonata and steer away from the dangers of repetition in the "Grand Polonaise Brilliante" section of Chopin's Opus 22.

However, this dramatistic thinking came into full flower when she took on the opening section of Schumann's Opus 17 fantasie, drawing upon the extent to which the composition delivered a "secret message," which drew upon its invocation of Beethoven's "An die ferne Geliebte." However, beyond the idea of delivering a message, Schumann's fantasie introduced a new rhetoric which extrapolated the German Lied to a strictly musical phenomenon. At a time when Felix Mendelssohn was just beginning to experiment with the idea of "songs without words," Schumann was taking the experiment to the next level of poetry without the poet, so to speak. In the melodies and phrases of the fantasie, we hear the phraseology of Wilhelm Müller, Heinrich Heine, and (of course) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The world of this fantasie is the world of a song cycle in which Schumann has distilled the musical setting of the poetry from the poetry itself. In coaching her student to meet the technical challenges of that musical setting, Gorenman coached the rest of us in hearing that "unwritten poetry" from which the music had been extracted, thus creating a listening experience as transcendent as Schumann's compositional effort. This was truly one of the most exciting lessons in learning to be a better listener!

Condi's Last Hurrah (hopefully!)

Condoleeza Rice's boss ran up quite a "surge" of Chutzpah of the Week awards during his lame-duck period in the Oval Office. Her "chutzpah count" had fallen so far behind his that it seemed as if she had lost any interest in comradely competition. However, as a performing musician (of sorts), she seems to appreciate the effectiveness of a good coda. To continue that metaphor, in a gesture that could well constitute the mother of all harmonic modulations, she has shifted her presence from the austere pages of Foreign Affairs to that of Variety, for which Ted Johnson reported the following:

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has signed with the William Morris Agency, the first step in what is being called the “reinvention and evolution” of her career.

The agency said Rice will focus on books, lecture appearances, philanthropic activities and “new business initiatives in the media, sports and communications sectors.”

Rice will be represented by WMA chief Jim Wiatt and Wayne Kabak.

Kabak said that Rice will be writing two books: One will focus on her diplomatic career, and the other will be about her parents, the Rev. John Wesley Rice Jr. and Angelena Ray, whom her daughter has referred to as “educational evangelists” for their influence on pursuing academic excellence.

Apparently, Rice is more reluctant to give up the spotlight than her boss was, even if it means engaging William Morris in the interest of "reinvention and evolution." Considering her track record with the Bush Administration, the idea that she can "reinvent" herself as an entertainment commodity seems more than adequate grounds for assigning her a fifth (and hopefully final) Chutzpah of the Week award (which I hope that Wiatt and Kabak will keep in her portfolio).

Legitimacy and Security

To follow up on yesterday's post, "The time of waiting is over" (as the Jerusalem Bible chose to translate the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelation): Yesterday Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of George Mitchell as the US special envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The story was covered for the Financial Times by Daniel Dombey in Washington and Tobias Buck in Jerusalem, providing a dual perspective, which ultimately emphasized the "sin of omission" that has most concerned me as we emerge from Obama's transition period. That sin of omission involves the legitimacy of Hamas, and it was evident in Obama's choice of words for the remarks he gave during the announcement of Mitchell's appointment:

The outline for a durable ceasefire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire: Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza: the US and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot re-arm.

As part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime, with the international and Palestinian Authority participating.

In the first paragraph Hamas is confronted with an imperative, which serves as a precondition for a series of future-tense declaratives, giving the impression that progress depends critically on whether or not Hamas will obey a command. Subsequent future-tense language makes no further reference to Hamas, recognizing instead only the Palestinian Authority.

If the language in Washington came close to letting Hamas "pass unnoticed" (except for the "functional necessity" of following orders), the language in Jerusalem was clearer about taking notice:

Before Mr Obama gave his speech, an Israeli official said there would be tough conditions for any lifting of the blockade, which he linked with the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006.

“If the opening of the passages strengthens Hamas we will not do it,” the official said.

“We will make sure that all the [humanitarian] needs of the population will be met. But we will not be able to deal with Hamas on the other side. We will not do things that give legitimacy to Hamas.”

This smacks of that same ridiculous language that the United States invoked during the Fifties and Sixties concerning its refusal to "recognize Red China." Legitimacy was conferred upon Hamas by the people of Gaza through the democratic process of election, yet both Israel and the United States insist on holding to the position that this election "doesn't count," without producing any convincing evidence to support this position (nor did the people of Gaza insist that the results of their election be reviewed).

Yesterday I concluded my post with the hope that Mitchell would be able to initiate more productive communication to resolve the many differences between Israel and its Arab neighbors. I had anticipated that he would probably meet with considerable resistance from both Israel and the Palestinians. I had hoped that further resistance would not come from his boss or from his boss' boss. However, given Mitchell's capacity for hanging tough when things in Northern Ireland were at their most frustrating, I shall try, for now at least, to keep hoping.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

I for one am waiting for the proposed appointment of George Mitchell as US special envoy for the Middle East to escalate from leaks from supposedly reliable sources to official announcement. Mitchell's achievement of the Good Friday agreement over Northern Ireland demonstrated just what an honest broker can do when it comes to reconciling the irreconcilable. Needless to say, the Middle East is not the British Isles; and the honest-broker reputation of his potential boss may well be tainted by her past close associations with AIPAC. Furthermore, as a recent Al Jazeera English story reported, Mitchell's own track record in the Middle East has not been as successful as his work in Northern Ireland:

In 2000, he also presided over a committee investigating the ongoing violence of the Middle East conflict and recommended Palestinians do more to stop attacks on Israel and an end to Israeli settlement building on occupied land.

Almost a decade has elapsed since that investigation. The problem of new Israeli settlements is still with us; and, even if there is currently a cease fire agreement over Gaza, the word from "media reports" is out that the tunnels that have been supplying Hamas with their weapons are back in business again.

According to a recent New York Times report, Mitchell may also have Dennis Ross as an advisor. Like Mitchell, Ross has experienced his own setbacks in Middle East negotiations; and his book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, is, in many respects, an attempt to theorize about those setbacks. However, much of Ross' theory has to do with navigating the discussions that take place between opposing parties; and, in the Middle East, getting those opposing parties to communicate at all, let alone over the sorts of issues that Ross investigates, continues to be an unsolved problem. (If ever there were a counterexample to Jürgen Habermas' "ideal speech situation," the Middle East would be it!) Consider the current "state of play" in the White House as reported by Al Jazeera English:

Obama, who was inaugurated as US president on Tuesday, made phone calls to several key leaders in the Middle East on Wedneday as the region continued to deal with the aftershocks of Israel's offensive in Gaza.

These included Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian president, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, Jordan's King Abdullah and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said.

While that makes for an impressive "roll call," as I observed yesterday, it is hard to imagine that productive communication can begin before Hamas no longer "passes unnoticed" and becomes a full-fledged participant. Hopefully, in trying to bring about such communications, Mitchell will be better informed by his success in Northern Ireland than by his (and Ross') frustrations in the Middle East. At the very least his honest-broker reputation is intact, which is more than can be said about those diplomats who represented the previous Administration.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Prioritizing What is Noticed

If the first words on Guantanamo Bay passed my "first sentence test," the "first paragraph" on the Middle East may require more scrutiny. I am referring to the report that appeared on Al Jazeera English within the past hour:

Barack Obama, the US president, has pledged his support to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, as foreign policy took centre stage on his first full day in the White House.

Nabil Abu Rudeina, Abbas's spokesman, said Obama had told the Palestinian president on Wednesday that he would work to "achieve peace in the region and that he would exert all efforts to achieve this goal".

"President Obama also said his administration would work with President Abbas, as a partner, to build institutions, reconstruct and achieve peace," a statement said.

When viewed through that same lens of symbolism that European Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot applied to the Guantanamo decision, this recognition of Palestinian government, such as it is, is a powerful message, particularly if it has apparently preceded any "official" statements about Israel. Unfortunately, this particular symbolic act may be more problematic if it has allowed the legitimately elected government in Gaza to (in those words of Pierre Bourdieu that I seem to cite so frequently) "pass unnoticed," which may be the greatest source of risk in any of our foreign relations. This could well be the first significant test of Hillary Clinton's assertion that "We must build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries." It is hard to imagine a building process that would begin with an affront to Hamas, particularly in a time of an extremely fragile cease fire.

Beginning the First Day on the Job

There seems to be a media tradition according to which a new President is evaluated on the basis of his first 100 days in office; but there is a good chance that "Internet speed" will change all of that for Barack Obama. He may be lucky if the blogosphere will allow him 100 hours at work before laying down judgment; and the mainstream media will then pick up on the blogosphere for fear of accusations of being "out of touch." Fortunately, the new President seems to have an appreciation of what some literary critics call the "first sentence test" (whether or not the first sentence of a text leaves you with the desire to read more); and Demetri Sevastopulo was there to get the story to the Financial Times:

Within hours of assuming the presidency on Tuesday, Mr Obama told military prosecutors at Guantanamo Bay to seek a 120-day pause in the trial of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and his four co-defendants.

Mr Obama campaigned on a pledge to close Guantanamo which has stained the US image around the world. He is expected to issue an executive order in coming days calling for its closure.

In recent interviews, Mr Obama has played down expectations that the camp could be closed immediately, saying the process was more difficult than people realised. There are currently about 250 detainees at the camp which was opened in 2002 to house prisoners captured in the “war on terror”.

”We welcome our new commander-in-chief and this first step towards restoring the rule of law,” Major Jon Jackson, a military defence lawyer at Guantanamo representing Mustafa al-Hawsawi, one of the five 9/11 defendants, told the FT.

A military judge at Guantanamo is expected to rule today on the request to halt the trial of Mr Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators. In another Guantanamo case, a different judge yesterday granted the request, halting the trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who has been detained in Guantanamo since he was captured as a fifteen-year old in Afghanistan in 2002.

The prosecution petition to halt the trials explained that the move was to “to permit the newly inaugurated President and his administration time to review the military commissions process, generally, and the cases currently pending before military commissions”.

If the past few days have been concerned with how Obama has spoken to both "we the people" and the "legacy of history," this early decision may best be viewed as a need to speak to the "world community at large" sooner rather than later. This seems to be the way in which the European Union reacted to the announcement:

The European Union welcomed the news to halt the trials. Jacques Barrot, the EU justice commissioner, said the move was a “very strong symbol”.

”I am delighted that one of the first acts of President Obama has been to turn the page on this sad episode of Guantanamo prison,” said Mr Barrot.

Barrot was right to recognize that there may be more symbol than substance in this act, but the substance can only come after Executive review has taken place. Reflecting again on how William Safire chose to compare yesterday with past Inaugurations, I see great value on Barrot's choice of metaphor: This is not a time for passing John Kennedy's torches; it is a time for turning pages written by the Bush Administration and beginning the narrative of a new chapter.

The People Versus the Occasion?

The editors of The New York Times used their Room for Debate blog to harvest an "Experts' Critique" of Barack Obama's Inaugural Address. As of my reading this morning, this post had accumulated 340 comments, which is exactly the sort of engagement that I had so much wanted to see on the Web site (and never did). As I see it, the mere fact that such conversations have emerged among Times readers (in the same spirit in which they emerge regularly over on Truthdig) may well be a sign that there are plenty of Americans out there ready, willing, and able to respond to Obama's injunction for us to work together to recover from the problems that now confront us. That theme was certainly present in the Address; and, whether or not the text had been composed "with an eye toward Bartlett’s" (as William Safire put it in his contribution to the critique, while also recognizing "the towering expectations whipped up" by the media), what I found most important was the extent to which Obama was willing to be up-front about how working together would not be a pleasant walk in the park. If the media feed off of expectations, then Obama certainly got off on the right foot by emphasizing the need for better expectation management.

As to the critique itself, the Times collected an interesting panel:

In other words this was very much an assembly of "technical experts;" but, whatever their professional standards may have been, the variations in both style and substance were strikingly disconcerting. They ran the gamut from a few comments that read like gratuitous throw-aways to the kind of comprehensive coverage we have come to expect from Safire, whatever we may feel about his politics.

Beyond the analysis, however, I was most taken with Cary's statement of her preference for Sunday's speech at the Lincoln Memorial. I suspect that Safire could have exercised an alternative repertoire of analytical techniques in comparing these two speeches, rather than comparing Obama's Inaugural to those of past Inaugurations. Lacking Safire's skill, I would only suggest that the difference in occasion would have provided the reason for a different analytical approach. Sunday was an occasion of, by, and for "we the people;" and Obama's speech was effectively directed at "we the people," all of whom had been suitably prepared by the entertainment program. The Inauguration was an entirely different affair. Once again, "we the people" turned out in large numbers, just of the sake of "being there," even if "there" was in a crowd watching a large television monitor; but this time, strictly speaking, they were not "the audience." This time the audience was the legacy of history, embodied by a relatively exclusive sample of dignitaries; and, even if Obama did not go "off message" in this setting, there was a faint sense of constraint in his rhetorical strategies that had been absent on Sunday. He had not really given such a speech in the past, because he had not previously been required (by protocol if by nothing else) to address the occasion itself, which was quite another matter from addressing the people who had made that occasion possible.

Nevertheless, that sense of constraint was not particularly strong. For most of "we the people," Obama was still speaking to us. If he sounded a bit more formal than usual, well, everything else about the occasion was far more formal than any previous setting for one of his speeches. If it was fundamentally "all about the occasion," then there is no doubt that he rose to that occasion, leaving us all confident that he was more the prepared to face his first full day at his new job.