Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Just Food!

I have been reading Stephen Hough's Cadenza blog (on the London Telegraph Web site) with great interest. He has provided me with some very useful insights into the work practices of a performing musician, but recently he has taken on the question of what a touring performer is to do when there is a threat of pandemic. Today, however, he raised the bar from matters of world travel to the more personal profession of faith. His observation was actually a reflection on the last major medical crisis, the SARS threat of 2003. Here is the key sentence from his post:

One item reported there [in Toronto] at the time caught my attention: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto had banned the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds [wafer and wine] in all its churches to help prevent the spread of the disease.

This struck me as a fascinating instance of a head-on collision between the respective worlds of the literal and the figurative. The very concept of Communion is one of sharing, not just of the wafer and wine but also of the physical space in which one receives the Host in the company of one's fellow Catholics. This is symbolism of the highest order. Meanwhile, in a physical world having to confront the spread of a poorly understood disease, the first precaution towards the transmission of infection is the limitation of sharing as much as is practically possible. Thus, the highest Catholic authorities of Toronto basically acknowledged that the Communion rite really did involve eating and drinking ordinary food, rather than the body and blood of Christ. (Since the New Testament is "just literature" for me, my reading of the source text is that Jesus was knowingly speaking figuratively at the Last Supper, basically riffing his own embellishments on the ritual of the Passover Seder in yet another, frustrated as usual, effort to keep his disciples on message!)

A key element in my ongoing criticism of faith-based thinking is the extent to which faith impedes our ability to interpret a semiotic sign in any reading other than the most literal one. Where health is concerned, I tend to regard the basic precepts of Christian Science (which I recently discovered had been accepted by Sergei Prokofiev) as the reductio ad absurdum of such faith-based thinking. Were it to be simply a question of personal conviction, then I would be willing to grant each individual his/her own choice of life style. Where pandemic is concerned, however, we are talking about public health on a global scale, which raises the painful question of what one does when one's faith may be detrimental to others. In many ways we see a similar conflict taking place over policy decisions about the environmental crisis. However, where issues like global warming are concerned, we see catastrophe ahead at a distance of years; we now face the possibility that swine flu may be on our doorstep before this day has ended.

The problem is that the very concept of the public good has been so subordinated to the concept of individual liberties, not just by the abuses of the Bush Administration but by the rampant culture of globalization, that we no longer live in a culture that can respond to a health crisis of pandemic scale. In the context of faith-based thinking, this may not be the sort of "whimper" that the "Reverend" Thomas Stearns Eliot had in mind. However, stagnation of action towards the public good in the face of crisis certainly has a whimpering quality to it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Hammerklavier" Therapy

Last week I wrote that "both the third and fourth movements of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 106 (the "Hammerklavier" piano sonata) require just about the right duration" to see me through one of my radiation treatments. This morning I discovered that my spare recording of Friedrich Gulda playing the fourth movement is almost a perfect fit; and, hyped up on two cups of coffee (to satisfy the "moderately filled bladder" requirement), I found it to be quite a trip. This was a refreshing contrast to the performance that András Schiff had given in the penultimate recital of his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. The technician started the track for this movement before leaving the treatment room, and during the Largo I was afraid that he had not set the volume loud enough. However, with the crescendo building up to the beginning of the Allegro risoluto, I realized that I did not have to worry; and, in my restrained position where the only active part of me was my brain, I began to get my first hints of just how Beethoven had made this fugue work. I could probably listen to this one movement for the duration of my treatment cycle, but I suspect that would drive the technicians crazy! So I shall probably turn to the final movements of Opera 110 and 111 for variety!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"… she doesn't have a lot to say"

Sometimes life imitates art in unexpected ways and with even less expected models. Consider the opening couplet by John Lennon and Paul McCartney for the 1969 Beatles' song "Her Majesty:"

Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl
But she doesn't have a lot to say

According to Peter Hunt, Royal correspondent for BBC News, Her Majesty may not have much to say; but she has found a new way to say it:

The Queen has taken the highly unusual step, for her, of sending a message via e-mail.

It has gone to 23 young people from across the world, who've written blogs about their lives and their experiences of the Commonwealth - which is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Back in 1976, the Queen was a trendsetter. She became the first monarch to send an e-mail during a visit to an army base. She was demonstrating a technology in its infancy.

Personally, I am as interested in the Queen's interest in reading and responding to blogs as I am in her decision to use electronic mail, particularly in light of her past history with that technology. According to Hunt, the 23 bloggers received:

… an e-mail from Buckingham Palace. It is headlined, "A Message from Her Majesty the Queen" and it is signed, "Elizabeth R".

The Queen writes that she has read their accounts with interest. She goes on: "Today, we celebrate the values and aspirations of the Commonwealth which have sustained our family of nations throughout its history and which I hope will equally inspire generations to come."

As Lennon and McCartney wrote, Her Majesty didn't have a lot to say; but it was still an interesting way to say something on the sixtieth anniversary of the Commonwealth. Hunt added one further interesting observation:

The e-mail address used will pretty quickly disappear into the ether. Was it, one wonders,

The implication seems to be that any of these bloggers trying to respond are likely to be frustrated. On the other hand there has yet to be word on how many of those messages were received. Would an address like the one Hunt suggested be caught by my spam filter? What did the Subject line say, I wonder? If I had seen the header, would I have expected to read yet another message about a frozen bank account containing several million pounds sterling?

Monday, April 27, 2009

More Agony than Ecstasy

I finished reading Simon Morrison's The People's Artist: Prokofiev's Soviet Years today. (Spending more time in medical waiting rooms has given me more time to read, even if it sometimes eats into my writing time!) It was not an easy read. The author tended to waver between chronological and topical organization, meaning that some items got repeated, while others were introduced out of chronological order. Furthermore, there were over 60 pages of notes. That kind of thoroughness never reads particularly quickly. Nevertheless, as Joseph Stalin becomes a more and more distant historical figure, I feel it becomes more and more necessary for us to appreciate the full force of the impact that he had on Russians trying to be creative artists under his rule. Indeed, when we consider some of the recent revivals of Stalin nostalgia in today's Russia, that kind of appreciation is absolutely vital. As Morrison tells the story, Sergei Prokofiev decided to return to Russia figuring that his career would advance more rapidly without having to contend with competition from the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Igor Stravinsky. As a result, he ended up contending with a monstrous bureaucracy based on the ideological necessity of micromanaging his slightest effort. (There is a section in the final chapter entitled "Kutuzov's Three Measures," dealing with Prokofiev arguing about three measures in Part II of War and Peace, never produced in his lifetime, at a time when he was so close to death that his doctors tried to keep him from composing at all.)

We tend not to think about such abusive management practices in any context other than a comic strip like Dilbert or a situation comedy like Better off Ted. However, this kind of reality reminds me of a story I once heard at a conference. A researcher who was interested in Jung-style personality types decided to use the historical record to approximate the personality types of many of the famous leaders in history. That researcher then questioned a sample of managers in an effort to determine whether they shared any consensus on the personality type of the ideal CEO. It turns out that there was a consensus; and, when the researcher compared this consensus type against his database of "historical" personality types, he found that the leader with the best match to that consensus was Stalin. This anecdote made for a good laugh at the conference, but it was the kind of laugh that concealed a much darker truth. There are many ways to understand what life under Stalin was like. Those who prefer music to politics and history might find Morrison's account of Prokofiev in Soviet Russia to be an accessible path to that understanding.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Norman Mailer's Diagnosis of Mind Rot Revisited

Almost two years ago I wrote an "appreciation" post about the writer Michael Tolkin in which I used some of Tolkin's comments to reflect on one of Norman Mailer's last public appearances, which had the good fortune to be captured on video by Book TV. That reflection tried to go down two paths. The first concerned the deterioration of our capacity for telling stories, which actually had its origin in a 1936 essay by Walter Benjamin. The second had to do with the deterioration of the stories themselves.

For several years my wife and I have pretty much avoided going to movie theaters (this in spite of the fact that there is an "independent cinema house" on the Plaza Level of the building where we live). As this blog should make clear, I have no trouble filling my time with "live" performances; and we decided that it made more sense to pay for a level of cable service that would provide us with movies that interested us, even if it meant waiting a few months to see them. Recently, however, I have discovered that we are watching fewer movies and more "extended series," not all of which are on the cable "pay" channels. This has led me to wonder whether this has to do with the capacity for telling stories or with the stories themselves.

About fifteen years ago, when I first started doing research into narrative, I took some time to play with one of those software products that claimed to help you write a screenplay. (This was somewhat in the vein of a study I had done about thirty-five years ago into what made Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "dice composer" work as well as it did.) I did not get much out of the screenplay software other than discover that this particular product was front-loaded with a heavy emphasis of character development. Before worrying about what the plot line would be, the user was required to build up a "cast of characters," sketching out each one in terms of both physical attributes and psychological motives. My guess was that the underlying philosophy was that, if you put a bunch of people together in a room, one of more stories will emerge from the interactions among their character attributes.

Whether or not I accept this philosophy, I find myself reflecting on just how impoverished the characters are that I encounter while reading reviews of films. I compare that with the rich character structures I have found in HBO projects such as John Adams, Generation Kill, and True Blood (choosing examples that run the gamut from the historical through the contemporary to the fantastic). This is not to say that network television has avoided such character structures; but character does not tend to sell soap. Thus we have a series like Southland, which is taking some interesting non-formulaic twists to members of the Los Angeles Police Force, offered to viewers to fill some blank space in the NBC schedule with little (if any) hope for renewal. On the other hand there is at least some buzz that ABC will renew Castle, which, while far lighter than Southland, has been taking some interesting approaches to departing from the formulaic in developing the regular characters.

Thus, if there has been a deterioration in the stories that are being told, regardless of the size of the screen, the problem may have something to do with a tendency to populate those stories with abstractions, rather than with the personalities who give life to those stories. Perhaps this is a narratological version of that Google-making-us-stupid problem that Nicholas Carr explored in the Atlantic Monthly. One approach to the sort of cognitive impairment that Carr tries to explore involves a preoccupation with getting answers without giving any attention to the reasoning behind those answers. This would be similar to focusing only on the destination of the plot-line, so to speak, without caring very much about how the line leads to that destination, let alone the extent to which that line moves at all through the motives (pun intended for those who can notice) of the characters. For all his superficial airs, even Rick Castle goes through life with a non-trivial set of motives; and the production team should be credited for establishing a connection between those motives and the adventures that unfold in each week's plot-line.

This is a phenomenon that I have examined in other settings. I have called it the "objectification of the subject" in past writing about both politics and business. Populating a story you tell with cardboard abstractions of personalities is no different from treating your political opponent or customer as an "abstract object," rather than a motivated individual. The consequences of trying to hide behind such abstractions probably rose to the most catastrophic level when we saw that strategy leading to the devastating mismanagement of the aftermath of Katrina. Yet for all the abundance of examples that caution us against such "objectification of the subject," we continue to practice it; and it continues to deteriorate not only the quality of our lives but the very stories we tell about those lives.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Continuing up Mount Haydn

Having completed the 33 discs of symphonies in the Brilliant Classics' Haydn Edition, I have now begun to move into new material. Somewhat to my surprise (because I have not undertaken a particularly thorough study of the Hoboken catalog), I discovered that there were only seven discs of concertos; and only the concertos for organ were numerous enough to require two discs. Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating part of the collection. As I wrote back in February, Joseph Haydn seemed to have cultivated a keen sense of sonority, appreciating subtle differences in the coloration provided by the different instruments at his disposal. Thus, while, as Menahem Pressler observed in a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the piano part may have 75% of the notes in a Haydn piano trio, the "real action" in that trio emerges from the play of colors that take place in the interactions between that piano and the violin and cello. (I experienced a similar play of colors in a string trio by John Antes this past Thursday evening and speculated that this attention to coloration may have been due to Haydn's influence.) Thus, the instrumental diversity across a relatively small number of concertos may have been a result of Haydn's wish to explore the colors of several different instruments, each acting in a solo capacity, in preference to the more intense study of the concerto form itself, which we find in the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. What I found most interesting was that Haydn had written five concertos for the lira organizzata, a rather peculiar combination of a portative organ with a string drone, often called a hurdy-gurdy. These were actually performed in a chamber setting of two violins, two "altos" (divided in this recording between a viola and a viola da gamba), one "basse" (played here on cello), and two horns; but the flavor is rather similar to the organ concertos.

I have now begun the section of music for voice and orchestra, where, thanks to the Berliner Philharmoniker, I discovered a significant sin of omission. Around the time that I was first exploring their Digital Concert Hall, I noticed that Nikolaus Harnoncourt was conducting a concert performance of Haydn's three-act opera Orlando Paladino. I figured I would hold off on watching this concert until I had a copy of the libretto, which I assumed would be included in the Haydn Edition on the accompanying CD-ROM. This led me to consult the Hoboken catalog, where I discovered that there were thirteen operas listed, none of which were included in the Brilliant Classics collection! In the course of poking around further in the catalog, I also discovered that there were eleven keyboard concertos, only three of which were included in the "Brilliant" collection. This is when I discovered that the word Gesamtwerk never appears anywhere on the box enclosing these 150 discs; and since the Collectors' Choice entry did not include a track listing, there was no way for me to recognize that this was not going to be a complete "edition," the way all previous editions were. (So much for my thoughts about why Haydn wrote so few concertos!) This raises the question of whether or not Brilliant Classics is planning to release a second volume of its Haydn Edition in the interest of thoroughness. Since, as I have previously written, Brilliant Classics has decided to avoid direct communication with their customers, I doubt there is any way in which I shall be able to find an answer to this question other than by waiting to see what happens in the future!

Friday, April 24, 2009

An Acoustic Masquerade

I had an interesting conversation with a former colleague, who is well-versed in the physics of sound production, in conjunction with covering Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman by Alan Louis Smith for last night. We often have discussions about how specific instruments achieve particular effects. I try to point these out to her, explain the process in my own words, and then try to fish around for a physical justification of why the sound comes out the way it does. Most recently, I have been particularly interested in passages for string instruments written in harmonics, trying to home in on why I recently called that sound "other-worldly" in one of my reviews.

The sound came up in the "vignette" about an encounter with a Sioux encampment. In this case Smith had explained that, for this particular piece, he had been inspired by Sioux flute music. Now I am not sure just how Smith heard that music, but he interpreted it by having the cello play in harmonics. This became a point of departure for my intermission discussion with my former colleague. It occurred to me that the process of playing a harmonic, touching the string lightly at a nodal point, rather than pressing it against the fingerboard, probably limits the overtone structure of the resulting sound. In other words this is a good way to hear the fundamental and not much else. Similarly, the sort of wooden flute that Smith may have heard in conjunction with Sioux music could have had similar limitations in overtones. Thus, to some extent, the cello was "masquerading" as a wooden flute from Sioux civilization; or, as Smith put it, the cello could "impart the flavor of the native instrument."

This led me to think about the opening of Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 67 piano trio in E minor. That passage also features a cello playing in harmonics; and, given what we know about Shostakovich's life (and the difficulties we have encountered in knowing it), we might think that, if anyone wanted to resort to masquerade, it would be Shostakovich. Thus, as I had speculated that there might be an autobiographical element to his Opus 87 preludes and fugues from 1950 and 1951, there might be a similar element in Opus 67, which was composed in the far darker year of 1944 and would probably be even more concealed! Such speculations can easily deteriorate into mere parlor tricks, but it is still tempting to think that much of Shostakovich's music may be based on codes that still need to be broken.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Another Aspect of the Treatment

I had a meeting with my radiologist after today's treatment. It turns out that I shall be seeing him once a week, usually on Wednesdays. I gather that the primary purpose of these meetings will be for him to check on side effects. He told me that side effects tend to surface after three weeks. Mostly they have to do with "urgent and uncontrollable" needs to use the bathroom. He told me that my risk is low because the area being treated is so small, and I had been warned about this before the treatment began. I suppose I should appreciate his being thorough about this!

My Own Private Reality

I had not anticipated that my presenting Jimmy Wales with a Chutzpah of the Week award would attract very much attention. (The truth is that I am surprised when anything I write attracts attention!) However, by concentrating on Wikipedia as the focus for his chutzpah, I overlooked the Wikia part of the talk that he gave on Tuesday at ad:tech San Francisco. I must admit that, before that talk, I was not particularly familiar with the Wikia effort; and I am still not sure what to make of it. Here is the brief summary that introduces the Wikia entry on Wikipedia:

Wikia (formerly Wikicities) is a free web hosting service for wikis (or wiki farms) operated by Wikia, Inc., a for-profit Delaware company founded in late 2004.[3]

Wikia targets communities, both those established offline and those with a purely online following. Wikia is free of charge for readers and editors and licenses user-provided text content under the GNU Free Documentation License or, in the case of Memory Alpha and Uncyclopedia, a Creative Commons license (CC by-nc-sa). The wiki software used is MediaWiki.

Wikia was founded by Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley, respectively the Chairman Emeritus and Advisory Board chair of the Wikimedia Foundation.

This entry also cites the slogan of Wikia as being, "Creating Communities," although while listening to Wales talk about this service, I found myself thinking about another slogan that had been introduced by Huey Long, "Every man a king." Consider how Long elaborated on that slogan:

Every man a king, so there would be no such thing as a man or woman who did not have the necessities of life, who would not be dependent upon the whims and caprices and ipsi dixit of the financial martyrs for a living.

Giving this speech in 1934, the "martyrs" Long had in mind were those financial elites who had been hit hard by the Great Depression and who were now subjecting the more general population to their "whims and caprices" in the interest of economic recovery, a context that certainly rings familiar again today. However, the elites that Wales has in mind are those concerned with publication, his position appearing to be that anyone should be free to publish anything with little (if any) regard to the extent that publication has established itself as a profession with a strong foundation of normative practices (which Wales may want to dismiss as "whims and caprices").

What sort of "anything" does Wales have in mind? One answer to this question can be found, again, in the Wikipedia entry for Wikia:

Wikia covers a broad range of topics; almost any project is accepted, with the exception of ideas that compete with the Wikimedia Foundation's projects, which Wikia's founders are heavily involved in.[12] In comparison with Wikipedia, Wikia hosts specialized wikis that offer more detailed or comprehensive content. Because Wikia is not an encyclopedia, subjects not qualifying for inclusion on Wikipedia due to lack of notability may be accepted on the respective Wikia wiki. For example, a minor character in a Star Wars film may have its own article on Wookieepedia, but only a brief mention on Wikipedia.[13]

Lest we dismiss that last sentence as whimsy for the amusement of the reader, it is worth considering the example that Wales gave to the ad:tech audience. He began by projecting the image of the Wikipedia page for Genghis Khan as an example of what one expects from an encyclopedia. He then proceeded to riff about a great battle in which Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Napoleon were all combatants. It turns out that this battle took place in the world of Marvel Comics, and he promoted Wikia as the venue where anyone could learn about that battle.

Quite honestly, I was not quite sure what to make of this as an example. I have a great interest in mythology, particularly when it comes to the roles that myths have played in our efforts to make sense of the real world. However, I also have a clear sense of the difference between literal and figurative language, which usually establishes the boundary that separates myth from reality. In its effort to cover "a broad range of topics," is Wikia providing every man his own reality through some bizarre extrapolation of Long's vision?

I decided that one way to pursue this question would be to initiate a Google search on the phrase "Genghis Kahn" and the keywords "Alexander" and "Napoleon." Here are the first five hits:

The first two seem well enough grounded in reality. The third drifts into questions of casting for a movie, and the fourth brings us to the Marvel Comics Wikia site. We then return to the more humble world of a historical lecture delivered as a podcast. Presumably we can assume that anyone reading the excerpts provided with the search results will know that the Marvel site is concerned with fiction, but can we really make that assumption? Given some of the examples of writing I have recently encountered, I am not as confident in making that assumption as I would like to be!

My point is that there is much that can be gained from exploring questions grounded in the domain of fiction, as long as we recognize where that grounding resides. Having emerged from eight years of national policy grounded in faith-based thinking, I have become very sensitive about separating the world of fiction from the world of reality. I therefore worry that the technologies of Google and Wikia may be blurring the boundary that establishes that separation. This may not be the sort of cognitive impairment that Nicholas Carr had in mind when he posed the question "Is Google Making Us Stupid?;" but it still emerges as the basis for difficulty in everyday problems of getting on in the real world. I can imagine some who might argue that Google should start to sort their results to separate the worlds of fiction and reality; but such a separation requires a level of understanding based on semantics, rather than "lexical repertoire." When it comes to semantics, the technologies available to us may be promising but far from up to such a subtle task. The best course of action is to be more thoughtful in how we use our Internet-based tools; but Carr's point is that we may be losing our capacity for such thoughtfulness by virtue of relying on those tools. We should think about his claim … if we still have the capability and will to do so.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The First Dose

What can I say? I was in the same room in which they took the X-rays on Monday, lying still in exactly the same way. I was told it would take about fifteen minutes. I seem to recall Søren Kierkegaard joking that eternity scared him because he could not even sit in a dentist's waiting room until it was time for his appointment. Fortunately, there was a CD player in the room, which helped me to form "landmarks" for the passing of time. The content was a rather arbitrary mix. I remember hearing the second movement of Joaquín Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" while they were positioning me. This mysteriously morphed into the first movement of Antonín Dvořák's string serenade, and now I realize I cannot even remember what followed that excerpt! I asked if I could bring my own material. As I see it, both the third and fourth movements of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 106 (the "Hammerklavier" piano sonata) require just about the right duration; and it should be clear from my recent writing that I really need to be better acquainted with both of these movements! I just wonder if that kind of persistent listening will get on the nerves of the technical staff. The last thing I want to do is alienate them! Needless to say, if I can remember the music better than the treatment, this means that I emerged from my first dose with almost no sense of anything happening; so I shall probably reserve subsequent posts for any account of a cumulative effect, should it arise.

Ivan Hewitt's Thoughts on Lang Lang

Ivan Hewitt has now filed a London Telegraph review of Lang Lang performing Béla Bartók's second piano concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, and he set me to thinking about some of the things I have written about this pianist. Indeed, I almost felt as if Hewitt was addressing me directly with his opening paragraphs:

Critics are supposed to have open minds, so, as I waited for feted Chinese pianist to appear, I tried – not altogether successfully – to suppress the horrible memory of his Proms recital last year, when he turned some well-loved classical masterworks into caricatures.

As a wise colleague reminded me, it’s wrong to dismiss Lang Lang’s brand of barnstorming virtuosity out of hand. It was an accepted norm in piano performance until the early 20th century, when a puritanical notion of “fidelity to the text” took over, and any overt display of personality was frowned on.

This led me to reflect on Lang's appearance with the San Francisco Symphony this past December, when he was playing Frédéric Chopin's first (Opus 11) piano concerto in E minor. There is no question that Chopin is as susceptible to "barnstorming virtuosity" as Bartók is (if not more so); but I am not sure I would call my reaction to Lang's performance "puritanical." In the spirit of that "Happy Warrior," Al Smith, let's "look at the record." Here is what I wrote about Lang's Chopin:

Given that Chopin's concerto predates Tannhäuser by about fifteen years, we were certainly not about to continue the journey we had begun [with the Richard Wagner excerpts performed before the intermission]. Furthermore, the work is relatively early and not particularly representative of the composer's present or future skills. Extended forms were never his strong suit, nor was orchestral writing. He is best appreciated for the many ways he could apply a basic ternary form to solo piano writing. A pianist like Arthur Rubinstein, who not only commanded pretty much the entire Chopin canon but also kept coming up with new readings of the works in that canon, could mine his experience to give this concerto the convincing performance it deserves; but Lang seemed more interested in showmanship than understanding. There was almost a choreographed plan to all of his physical gestures of attentiveness during the orchestral sections, and it seemed as if more effort went into those physical gestures than into the musical gestures in the score. The result was a highly skilful act of audience manipulation based on nothing more than the compelling personality of the soloist.

In other words I was less concerned with any "overt display of personality" than I was with whether or not I was being very scrupulously manipulated (which I happen to dislike most intensely). Going back to any one of the several recordings I have of Rubinstein playing this concerto, I realize that I was being too generous to Lang in trying to be apologetic about Chopin. Either Lang didn't "get it" or didn't want to "get it," neither of which (but particularly the latter) is particularly forgivable in my book. My reading of Hewitt's review gave me the impression that Lang got some (but definitely not all) of the Bartók concerto; and, since I happen to enjoy this particular concerto with considerable relish and enthusiasm, I suspect I would have been less generous than Hewitt in any review I would have written. In the spirit of the piece I wrote yesterday about the Laurel Ensemble, the fundamental issue is not about "fidelity to the text;" rather, it is about a far more amorphous concept of authenticity, which involves not only the text but also a context that includes the composer, the "setting" of the composition, and possibly even the musicians with whom one shares the stage. However generous Lang may be with his time where would-be pianists are concerned, the question of his authenticity continues to bother me; and I hope it will be resolved sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I see that I have yet to give a Chutzpah of the Week award to either Wikipedia or Jimmy Wales; and, while it is still early in the week, I was sufficiently "inspired" by Wales' keynote address to ad:tech San Francisco this morning (entitled "Wikipedia, Wikia and the Future of Consumer Generated Media") that I figured I would strike while the iron was hot. I grant that my reasoning is somewhat arcane, but part of the fun of these awards is that I can be playful with them from time to time. My thoughts about the award were triggered by Wales' decision to begin with a 1962 quote from Charles Van Doren on the need for radical rethinking of the concept of an encyclopedia. Van Doren was with Encyclopædia Britannica at the time, and Wales obviously relished the fact that Britannica never picked up Van Doren's gauntlet in any serious way (thus allowing Wales to claim that he was the first to do so).

Preoccupied as I have always been with our culture's lack of interest in (if not downright ignorance of) history, I found myself wondering if anyone in the ad:tech San Francisco audience knew who Van Doren was or how he became involved with Encyclopædia Britannica. I decided to see what Wikipedia had to say about the guy. There at the top of the entry was this photograph of one of his appearances in the quiz show Twenty One (he's the one on the far right), when his winning streak was ended by opponent Vivienne Nearing (on the left, with host Jack Barry in the middle):

The capsule summary that begins the entry is:

Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926), a noted American intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. He confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.

This is a man best known for his involvement with one of the first major scandals on the business-of-entertainment side of commercial television. At the time the scandal broke, Van Doren had even been offered a three-year contract with NBC to serve as "cultural correspondent." At a time when politicians were using the noun "egghead" in ridicule, NBC had his on a way to make money off of a full-fledged intellectual! The Wikipedia entry then outlines the road that led to Encyclopædia Britannica (and beyond):

Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from his post of assistant professor at Columbia University. But his life after the scandal proved anything but broken; as television historian Robert Metz wrote (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), "Fortunately, ours is a forgiving society, and Van Doren proved strong in the face of adversity." He became an editor at Praeger Books and a pseudonymous (at first) writer, before becoming an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the author of several books, of which the simplified text, A History of Knowledge may be his best known. He also co-authored How to Read a Book, with philosopher Mortimer J. Adler [actually an updated edition of a book Adler had previously written on his own].

Currently, Van Doren is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, Torrington branch.

As I understand it, Adler was one of the few willing to offer him a helping hand after he had been tainted by scandal.

So, even if Van Doren's remark about radicalizing the encyclopedia may have been appropriate, did Wales really have to choose him as a source? My guess is that, with a little bit of poking around (even around Wikipedia), he could have found a spokesperson whose reputation would not raise red flags of credibility. Alternatively, he could had assumed (probably correctly) that, even with the film that Robert Redford made, no one recalled or cared about Van Doren's past. Indeed, Wales might well have been rubbing his audience's collective faces with their cultural amnesia (which would involve far less work than search out a better source). That would definitely have been a clear instance of chutzpah; but, even if such an aggressive motive was absent, there is enough outrageousness about this act to justify giving it the Chutzpah of the Week award.

Monday, April 20, 2009

More Preparation

I seem to have jumped the gun last week in claiming that my radiation treatment would begin today. All they did today was take two X-rays, presumably to provide additional data to supplement the CAT scan image of the position of my gold markers. They also used the occasion to introduce me to the room where my treatment would take place (which is where the X-rays were taken), as well as the control room. The treatment itself will begin on Wednesday; and they were even kind enough to schedule my visits (each of which is supposed to take about twenty minutes) to minimize any conflicts with the Noontime Concerts™ events I am now trying to cover regularly on I was amused to find myself looking up at a "sky ceiling," dark blue with an array of little white lights at least vaguely conforming to some of the constellations. I suppose this was intended to offset the "clinical sterility" of the rest of the room; but so many of the places I have worked had that "clinical sterility" that I found that particular ambience comforting rather than disquieting. Actually, the positive feedback I received that registered the most was the news that I would not have to use the changing room; I can just uncover the affected area in the treatment room. I was not given a specific date for the end of the treatment; but I was told that it would be completed by June 17 (taking care of the question of whether or not I would have to reschedule my next dental examination).

"… what will you do when the Communists take over?"

Last February, while examining the problems of mismanagement in the face of major disasters in China, I reviewed an old joke about Leonid Brezhnev concerning the displacement of Communism by consumerism. Viewed from the other end of the telescope here in the United States, we continue to experience the failure of attempts to reform a health care system overcome by consumerism on the grounds that any reform brings a threat of "socialism." However, regardless of the political labels that get thrown around, the bottom-line question for any governmental policy is whether or not the public good is being adequately served. From this point of view, a brief Reuters report from Beijing, filed last night, deserves to be read in its entirety:

Chinese children with AIDS, especially from rural families, are going without treatment because their families are too poor to afford it, despite a government policy of free treatment, an activist group said on Monday.

Some families don't even know AIDS treatment programs exist, it said.

"China has made great progress in the fight against AIDS, but far too many children are getting the wrong AIDS treatment," said Sara Davis, executive director of Asia Catalyst, which issued the report.

As many as 10,000 Chinese children may be HIV-positive, most because of botched blood transfusions or transmission from their mothers. They are concentrated in central Henan province, where the blood supply was contaminated in the 1990s, or in Yunnan province in the southwest, a hub for drug trafficking.

In 2005, 9,000 cases of children contracting HIV from their mothers were reported. Many children with AIDS die before the age of five, often undiagnosed.

Some live too far from hospitals and others have been turned away from hospitals and schools that fear contagion from AIDS patients.

China guarantees free drug treatment for AIDS, but many poor families cannot afford the associated fees or treatment for other diseases which may strike the weakened children.

The government provides generic versions of four drugs for front-line treatment, but many patients have developed resistance.

Asia Catalyst called for the Chinese government to "fill in the gaps" by extending coverage for additional medical costs, and providing cheaper second-line drugs.

One may ask rhetorically where the "public good" resides in this story. On the other hand we may also ask whether we can raise the it-can't-happen-here flag when the same question is applied to our own country's approach to "managed health care" (where the scare quotes apply primarily to that adjective "managed"). It is, to say the least, chilling to contemplate that, when it comes to what I have previously called "the reduce-the-surplus-population philosophy of Ebenezer Scrooge," the public health policies of China and the United States are closer than we may have wished to imagine.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Beginning the Ascent of Mount Haydn

I realize that I have not yet written anything about my listening experiences with Brilliant Classics' recently-released Haydn Edition, other than announcing that I placed an order with Collectors' Choice about a month ago. There are several reasons for this, mostly of the I've-been-busy variety. Here at The Rehearsal Studio I found myself putting a fair amount of time into the events surrounding last Wednesday's "debut" of The YouTube Symphony Orchestra (scare quotes to indicate the uncertainty as to whether this ensemble will ever perform again and, if so, with the same personnel) at Carnegie Hall. Since I continue to be more interested in "live" performance than in recordings, it seemed important that this instance of out-of-the-box-thinking about performance be examined; and, given its connection to Internet technology, the blogosphere struck me as the most appropriate platform.

Meanwhile, my "beat" at has given me an opportunity to spend more time on "live" performance than I had been spending in the past. I have no regrets about this reassignment of priorities. Indeed, it has opened the door to many interesting paths of inquiry, some of which I have already begun to explore on this blog.

However, I have also been holding back on the Haydn Edition because I already had the first 33 discs. I purchased them when Brilliant Classics released them separately as a collection of the complete symphonies. I am now in the process of revisiting these discs, particularly to make sure that they are all in good shape, given Brilliant's track record for quality control. This is not to suggest that I am finding these initial discs a slog. I have no problem with being reminded of just how fresh and innovative Joseph Haydn could be in the symphonies he composed. The Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra brings just the right level of freshness to their sound; and conductor Adam Fischer recognizes all those innovations and gives them all the attention they deserve. Nevertheless, it will not be until I complete this particular phase that I shall be moving on to entirely new material.

The one problem I am likely to face involves navigating this collection. The standard index for Haydn's compositions if Anthony van Hoboken's catalog. Unfortunately, this is not provided in a usable form in H. C. Robbins Landon's five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works; and the only on-line version I have managed to find (thanks to the Wikipedia entry for Hoboken-Verzeichnis) is in French. Negotiating the French should not be too much of a problem, but unfortunately this site lacks a search tool! However, at the very least it should help me home in on specific dates, which can then point me to the proper volumes in the Robbins Landon collection (which is organized strictly chronologically).

More problematic will be finding a specific piece of music among the 150 CDs in this collection. The other anthologies came with a CD-ROM that had PDF pages for the contents of each disc. These pages would be organized into separate files, but they could be tracked through the Windows search tool. The Haydn Edition offers nothing other than a rather skimpy essay (in five languages, all in the same file) and the texts of the songs and oratorios. While the previous collections were "research-friendly," this one definitely is not! I may therefore have to start rolling some of my own tools to assist me in any future plans to write about Haydn.

This raises one final interesting point. Here on this blog there are only 23 posts with the "Haydn" label; and, since I began writing for, I have reviewed only one concert at which one of his works (a string quartet) was performed. Furthermore, many of my posts here have more to do with Haydn's relationship to other composers (such as Ludwig van Beethoven) than with his own compositions! Is Haydn suffering undue neglect? If so, will the Haydn Edition do anything to inspire a new wave of interest? If it cannot support the casual browsing of the curious listener (which it does not appear to do), then it might not help cultivate a "customer demand" for more Haydn on concert programs. Given how much I admire this composer, I would find that a great disappointment.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Another Take on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra

Writing for the Financial Times yesterday, Andrew Clark seemed to share my position that the YouTube Symphony Orchestra is best viewed as an experiment that may inform us about the future of classical music. Indeed, writing from London, where "Thousands of people of all ages thronged the [Southbank] arts centre to hear Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra under its charismatic 28-year-old conductor, Gustavo Dudamel," he also seemed to reflect my view of the Venezuelan El Systema program as a comparable experiment. He then added one more data point:

Coincidentally, the gifted Chinese pianist Lang Lang, 26, is also in London. As a taster for his upcoming Barbican concerts he is leading a piano extravaganza this Sunday, during which he will coach hundreds of pianists of all ages and abilities – minimum qualification: aspiration – in the language of the keyboard.

The common theme in his report seems to be that the future of classical music depends on current and future generations coming to concert halls with the same (if not more) enthusiasm, attention, and (of course) purchasing power that their ancestors brought. This puts him in the same league as Southbank's Head of Music, Marshall Marcus, who needs to be as concerned about his customer base as he is about the quality of product being offered to those customers.

I cite this in the context of my post yesterday in which I accused the YouTube platform itself as being "no way to listen to a concert." There are others concerned with how the concert can come to the audience, as an alternative to the traditional practice of the audience coming to the concert; and, as I wrote yesterday, the Digital Concert Hall created for the Berliner Philharmoniker is probably the best example of thinking outside of that traditional box. However, I agree with Clark (and probably Marcus) that the future of classical music will only be as good as the desire that people will have to be a "live" audience at a "live" performance; and, whatever the Web 2.0 evangelists may promise, the virtual world will never do justice to that kind of physical experience. Yesterday I experienced another strategy for audience-building when Jonathan Biss gave a preview event for a recital he will be giving this evening at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. The event took place in the modest setting of the Community Music Center at 544 Capp Street in the Mission District; and I see this of a way in which the concert can come to the audience without resorting to the virtual world.

The point is that, between the examples that Clark cites and the Biss event (sponsored by San Francisco Performances, which is also hosting tonight's recital) there are any number of audience-building strategies that can be pursued and targeted as much at the future as at the present. Different strategies will work in different settings, while the virtual world will continue to provide opportunities for interested audiences to build up experiences that make them better listeners. The fact that such strategies are surfacing (and succeeding) at all is likely to be more important than whether or not YouTube is doing justice to virtual attendance of last Wednesday's Carnegie Hall event.

Friday, April 17, 2009

YouTube: No Way to Listen to a Concert

I had an ulterior motive behind wanting to watch the entire Carnegie Hall concert given by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra: Two of the works on the program were "previews," in a sense, of the concerts that Michael Tilson Thomas will be conducting with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall on May 20, 22, 23. One of these amounted to a "sneak peek" at an excerpt from Mason Bates' "The B-Sides," which will be receiving its world premiere at these concerts. The other was to hear Yuja Wang play the second movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Opus 16, his second piano concerto in G minor, which she would be playing entirely at these same concerts. So, when Alex Ross posted the links to the videos of the two portions of the concert on his The Rest is Noise blog, I felt obliged to view at least this material before writing any sort of preview piece for my gig; and, if I was going to watch those portions, why not watch the whole thing?

Why not, indeed? Well, it turns out that there is one perfectly good reason. YouTube technology was designed for the brief snippets that users are expected to upload, which usually do not last more than five minutes. At least that was the case before YouTube recently introduced full-length movies and television programs. Now my guess is that, even with this increase in both volume and duration of content, the snippets will probably continue to do well enough. So, for example, I had no problem watching the "Global Mash Up" of Tan Dun's first (of how many?) "Internet Symphony" (without which I might not have had as interesting a Chutzpah of the Week award). On the other hand the first half of the "concert video" from Carnegie Hall had a duration of 59:32, which is to say longer than the actual content of an hour-long television episode; and the second half ran 1:25:30, which puts it in the league of many feature films.

So what happens when YouTube tries to stream this kind of content to a home in San Francisco with a DSL modem? The answer is simple enough: It isn't pretty! To be more blunt, it no longer counts as music. You cannot listen to Brahms with frequent (almost periodic) interruptions for the player to catch up with the streamer. To paraphrase that old religious saying: the content is so large, and my buffer is so small! Efforts to pause and even back up a bit to give the buffer room for growth were to no avail. Now it would not surprise me if John Cage would have been pleased to hear a performance of his music interrupted by such silences determined entirely by chance, but I wonder how Bates would feel about large portions of cyberspace getting their first taste of his music in this manner!

To relate this to a more satisfying recent experience, the YouTube viewing environment is not the Digital Concert Hall created for the Berliner Philharmoniker. Most important is that the Digital Concert Hall allows you to select the quality of the signal you are receiving. Low quality works just fine for home use; and, if the image lacks the sharpness of full high-definition resolution (which I found very impressive when I had the bandwidth to receive it), at least the music is never interrupted. (Well … hardly ever, in the words of W. S. Gilbert!) YouTube tried to finesse the quality-of-service problem by keeping the durations (and usually the quality of the video signal) down. However, on the basis of the experiences I just had with the YouTube Symphony Orchestra content, I would say that none of the selections are likely to survive intact for most of the folks trying to watch the stuff.

So it turns out that, at least in the current technology domain, my fear of short-attention-span concerts may be even greater than I had anticipated. Even the festivity of the Carnegie Hall occasion itself, regardless of the music performances, could not be held up adequately by the existing YouTube platform. Put another way, what worked at least passably for the auditioning process turned out to be counterproductive for those who crossed the bridge from auditioning to performing. So, for better or worse, it seems that we have learned at least one thing from the YouTube Symphony Orchestra experiment; and I suspect that this lesson will be of great interest to folks like Marshall Marcus over at the Southbank Centre. Whether or not the lesson registers over in the YouTube division of Google will probably depend on whether viewers interested in seeing the pilot episode of Charlie's Angels (currently one of the "Spotlight Videos") have a similar experience to which they react in a similar way!

On the Legitimacy of Hamas

We now have a new data point on the question that many (including the United States as a matter of policy) continue to raise over whether or not Hamas should participate in discussions over the question of peace in the Middle East. In the past I have made it a point to draw upon sources such as Al Jazeera English to try to maintain a balanced view of the issues at stake, but now it appears that the Financial Times may be joining the ranks of those seeking out useful data points. Tobias Buck has just filed a report for the Financial Times from Birzeit University, which he describes (fairly, in my opinion) as "the closest thing to a Palestinian Harvard – a place of academic excellence and a training ground for the future Palestinian elite." The occasion was the annual elections to the university's student parliament, which external observers have tried to use as a barometer of current Palestinian political thinking.

Buck's account of the sort of electioneering that preceded the actual voting is worth considering as a prologue:

First came hundreds of supporters of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group, lined up military-style in neat rows, and strictly separated into columns of men and women. Holding aloft a sea of bright green banners, the young Islamists chanted “Allahu akbar” (Allah is great) as they entered the University’s main square. Behind them marched an even larger contingent of students supporting the rival Fatah movement, waving yellow flags and chanting praise for Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader.

This tells us something about both numbers and sentiment, particularly when it comes to the contrast of the secular and what, under the Bush Administration, I continued to call the "faith-based." This "prologue" was the gathering for the pre-election debate, a practice that resonates nicely with our own electoral practices. From here we can cut to the results:

Fatah went into the elections with a comfortable five-seat lead in the student parliament. A day after the debate, with the votes of almost 7,000 students counted, the secular movement came out on top once again – but its lead was cut. Of the 51 seats, Fatah now holds 24 and Hamas 22 – confirming the expectation that the Gaza war would boost the Islamists’ support.

At the very least this would appear to undermine those who continue to argue that Hamas cannot claim to be the duly-elected representative of the population of Gaza. If anything these results underscore the hypocrisy of our previous "faith-based" President in rejecting the election of a "faith-based" party, whose faith does not sit particularly well with his own. Worse yet, it seems to indicate that, where faith is involved, our past Administration seemed all too willing to equate disagreement over faith with terrorism by justifying the failure to recognize Hamas on the grounds that they were a "terrorist organization." So, if almost half of the 7000 students who voted in their election at the Palestinians' most prestigious university see Hamas as a political party, rather than a terrorist organization, when will the United States come around to recognizing that they may have a point?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crouching Tiger, Hidden CHUTZPAH

It may just be that the buzz from last night's performance by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (which even echoed on Truthdig) is still rattling around inside my skull; but I have decided that there is enough chutzpah in taking a five-minute romp and hanging the name of "Eroica" on it (even without then subjecting it to a mash up) to merit an award. After all, the set of variations that Ludwig van Beethoven wrote that now carry this name take as much time as most of the symphonies of his contemporaries (which is about half the duration of the "Eroica" symphony). So, since the "chutzpah ceiling" for artistic accomplishment was broken last week, I have no hesitation in granting the Chutzpah of the Week award for this week to Tan Dun, who has found his own path to outrageousness that is definitely on a par with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. While there is no "extra credit" for an act of chutzpah, Tan should also be recognized for doing unto Beethoven a deed worthy of what the ukulele ensemble did to Richard Wagner!

"Where does the project go from here?"

That question that Marshall Marcus, Head of Music for the Southbank Centre, raised when the BBC interviewed him about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra was foremost in my mind this morning as I read Anthony Tommasini's review of their performance last night at Carnegie Hall on the New York Times Web site. Responsible critic that he is, Tommasini treated this concert like any other and, as usual, made some interesting judgment calls. After having read James Oestreich's account of the first day of rehearsals on Monday, I felt that Tommasini's overall assessment of "Quite well" was a promising one. However, like Marcus, I am more interested in last night's concert as an experiment with potential of informing us about the "future of classical music." Of course one should not speculate on the future without recognizing Paul Saffo's caveat: "The future always arrives late and in unexpected ways." So, rather than playing futurist games, I think it might be useful to point out some of the potential indicators, without going out on any limbs about just what may be indicated.

The first indicator was actually the color photograph of the interior of Carnegie Hall, take by Chad Batka for The New York Times, which preceded Tommasini's text. One could barely discern the hall itself amid the flood of color slides projected on just about any available surface. The performers on the stage were only some of the contributing elements of a multimedia extravaganza. This immediately raised a question: If the performers were sharing (competing?) with an abundance of supplementary media, would the act of listening still be primary to this particular concert experience? As Tommasini observed:

There were so many spotlights and projectors in the hall that pianissimo passages in the music had to compete with the whirring sounds of ventilating fans.

That question was further reinforced with Tommasini's report that the three-hour program for the evening "was a potpourri, just movements and excerpts from 15 wildly diverse works." Was this a rejection of the traditional listening experience in favor of a "pops" style aimed at shorter attention spans? Tommasini seemed to be pondering the same question in his account of Yuja Wang's solo appearance:

It was exasperating, however, to hear Yuja Wang, a brilliant young pianist, dash off a rippling account of the perpetual-motion Scherzo from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. If the program had been differently conceived, she and the orchestra might have played the entire work, which is not that long. Instead, she played a showpiece solo encore, a stunningly difficult but empty-headed arrangement of the “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”

According to Associated Press Writer Martin Steinberg's account, there were further exasperations for those expecting a traditional concert experience:

The Internet generation of performers attracted a youthful crowd that had no reason to feel shy. The staid decorum was suspended for the three-hour concert, which featured 15 short pieces. Thomas sat on the podium at one point, watching pianist Yuja Wang fly through the "Flight of the Bumble Bee." Images of musical notes, geometric patterns and of the players were projected on the walls and ceiling, and the audience was encouraged to bring video cameras.

More representative of the event may have been the composition that Tan Dun created for this occasion, described by Tommasini as follows:

Tan Dun conducted the premiere of a piece written for the occasion, his Internet Symphony No. 1, “Eroica.” This five-minute crowd-pleaser takes riffs from Beethoven’s “Eroica” and folds them into a score teaming with clanking percussion, corny brass chorales, and perky passages that sounded as if Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon had somehow encountered the Lone Ranger.

Thanks to Claire Prentice's review for the London Telegraph, I discovered that a preview "mash up" performance of this work had already been uploaded to the YouTube site (and available for viewing at the beginning of Prentice's article). While I am, as a rule, not particularly big on "mash ups" (since I tend to see them as undermining live performance), I have to admit that this one was pretty effective; and it may even be that this composition works better as a well-crafted video object than as a concert performance. However, this was a video object, clearly a product of someone highly skilled in video editing who may or may not have had experience in performing music. The fact that it was so effective then raised the question of whether the "YouTube" part of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra may have emerged as more important than the "Symphony Orchestra" part.

Given this risk that the virtual world of YouTube could well drown out the physical world of Carnegie Hall, it is important to note that Michael Tilson Thomas used his opening remarks to his physical audience as a sort of exercise in expectation management:

We're meeting a lot of different worlds, the real time world, the online world and the experience of getting acquainted. For us it's been something between a classical music summit conference (and) scout jamboree combined with speed dating.

Perhaps ultimately the whole event had more to do with that "experience of getting acquainted" than with more the more substantive matters of musical performance that Tommasini found lacking; but just what kind of acquaintance was forming? I wonder if the summit conference may have actually been the most significant of Thomas' metaphors. Taken as a whole, the most important element of the experiment may have been the encounter of the YouTube world of performing through video clips with the more traditional world of the immediacy of musical performance "in the flesh." As is usually the case at a summit conference, there were both confrontations and compromises; but, in spite of Tommasini's misgivings, it seems as if there were more substantive deliverables last night than we tend to expect at summit gatherings of world leaders and diplomats.

It may well be that none of these observations will contribute very much to Marcus' primary question. Indeed, there is the risk that, as an experimental approach towards the "future of classical music," this project may not go anywhere. Having used its YouTube property to get this particular dog to walk on its hind legs, Google may decide that it has had enough of this project and go off in search of "the next cool thing." Since he wears a manager's hat, Marcus' major concern is with how the presentation of classical music events will be supported in the future. My guess is that he read Tommasini's account (and possible Steinberg's) with great interest; but he is probably still agonizing over what it will take to keep institutions like his Southbank Centre going, maintaining their reputation for high standards in a time of economic hardship. The greatest disappointment would be that we have emerged from this bold experiment with some exciting memories but with no lessons learned.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

From the Folks Who Tried to Make a Business out of Misunderstanding Service

It has been a while since researchers at IBM Almaden Services Research tried to reduce service to a science. Whether or not this was a desperate attempt to cast the provision of service in the same mold as the manufacturing of goods, complete with a passionate revival of "the worst excesses of Frederick Taylor's 'principles of scientific management,'" this led to little more than a fundamental truth that had undone many well-intentioned projects in decision support, the basic precept that effectiveness is not the same as efficiency, along with the corollary that businesses succeed more through effectiveness than through efficiency. Unfortunately, according to a Business Tech news report by Larry Dignan for CNET News, IBM still does not get it:
IBM is outlining a vision--and of course a new services unit to go with it--that takes a little time to grok.

Big Blue speaks about the "information journey," about fact-based enterprises, and about nudging out gut calls in everyday management for decisions based on hard, cold facts. When you boil it all down, Big Blue is talking about providing a bag of algorithms that will automate many of your business decisions.
When it is a matter of a research agenda, mistakes fuel the engine that drives our motivation to learn new stuff. When it is a matter of business, this kind of misconception becomes downright scary. Even Dignan, who is as representative of the objective world as any good CNET correspondent, could recognize that the very concept of a "fact-based enterprise" was suspect. Whether or not Dignan realized it, it takes little more than a superficial reading of Immanuel Kant to run you into the brick wall of how few "facts" there are in the world we experience (the so-called "analytic" truths, like adding zero to a number does not change that number). Unfortunately, training for business management does not seem to include reading Kant these days; and the result is a dangerously naive view of the subtle complexities of the business world. IBM has now discovered a business opportunity in that naïveté, and they may yet cash in on it. Unfortunately, just about everyone trying to run their business effectively (as opposed to efficiently) will likely be victims of this endeavor. That includes everyone reading this post, since we all are customers of at least one of these businesses; and we shall be the first to feel their pain when things start to go wrong!

Reality Checking the YouTube Symphony Orchestra

This morning's broadcast of Newshour on BBC World Service Radio ran a report on the YouTube Symphony Orchestra that served as a useful complement to the dispatches that James Oestreich has been filing for the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times. Unfortunately, there was no text version of this report; so I had to resort to the streaming audio version to take some notes and make sure I got my facts right. Most of the report involved an interview with Marshall Marcus, Head of Music for the Southbank Centre, one of the most important organizations for concert activity in London. Since Marcus was presumably giving the interview in London, it is important to recognize that he is not currently "on site" in New York, armed with a ticket to tonight's YouTube Symphony Orchestra performance in Carnegie Hall. Thus, he kept his remarks focused (in spite of prodding by the BBC announcer to do otherwise) on the idea of this orchestra, rather than on specific achievements, such as the rehearsals that Oestreich has covered or tonight's concert, which presumably will draw a large number of music critics.

Marcus made it clear that the only way to think about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra is as an experiment (which, I am happy to say, is a point I have been trying to emphasize ever since the project was launched). Questions about whether or not the ensemble is any good or whether they turn out to be the best (or worst) thing to have happened in Carnegie Hall miss out on the experimental premise. As Marcus put it, the critical question is, "Where does the project go from here?" When the Venezuelan government launched El Systema, the Venezuelan program that provided free music tuition and an instrument to every girl and boy, no matter how poor, 34 years ago, that was an experiment. Marcus cited it, as well he should, since the most visible product of that experiment, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, is currently a big hit at the Royal Festival Hall, which happens to be one of the major venues of the Southbank Centre; but he stressed that this orchestra did not become an international attraction overnight.

When I first wrote about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project, I concluded:

… I am still glad that [conductor Michael Tilson] Thomas is not afraid to try new things. As a rule, we learn more from the experiments that do not turn out the way we anticipated. The future of classical music may depend on such persistent experimentation.

Oestreich's blog posts may have already revealed one of the unanticipated consequences of the experiment, which is that there are at least some well-intentioned amateurs (among those "happy and eager faces on the 'Meet the YouTube Symphony Orchestra' YouTube video") who have now received a serious reality check during Monday's rehearsals. Even if that reality check thoroughly blows away any thoughts they may have entertained about making a career as an orchestra musician, it will probably have a positive effect on the listening skills they bring to subsequent visits to orchestra performances. Given that any "future of classical music" will depend on having a strong and supportive base of listeners, we may emerge from tonight's final stage of the current experiment with a new approach to building that listener base, rather than a new approach to forming an orchestra.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

San Francisco Talent at Work in New York

The YouTube Symphony Orchestra has been constituted and scheduled to perform in Carnegie Hall tomorrow night. Today James Oestreich filed a post on the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times covering Monday's rehearsal activities. Those who saw all the happy and eager faces on the "Meet the YouTube Symphony Orchestra" YouTube video (linked to Oestreich's Monday post) may wonder, on the basis of Oestreich's account, if they are still happy and eager. They certainly must know by now what a stickler for detail Michael Tilson Thomas is; and he seems to have brought some of his best guns with him from San Francisco, who also do not skimp on the stickling! I have my own nit to pick with Oestreich, though. While it was probably fair to refer to Edwin Outwater as "a Thomas protégé" conductor, working with the percussionists to prepare Lou Harrison's "Canticle No. 3," describing Paulson as only the principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Symphony sort of short-changed his credentials. He is also Music Director of Symphony Parnassus and was therefore as capable as Outwater (if not more so) in leading and working with the winds to prepare movements from Antonín Dvořák's wind serenade. The road to Carnegie Hall seems to be paved with some of the best conducting talent that San Francisco has to offer, and it might be nice if at least one New Yorker showed them all a bit more respect!

The Bush Legacy Endures

When The Wire invoked the metaphor of a "new day" for a radical reformist shift in the power structure of the Baltimore Municipal Government, the ensuing narrative wasted no time in undoing that metaphor. As an assiduous student of the poetic wisdom of such narratives, I have subsequently taken a very jaundiced view of that metaphor, most recently with regard to our State Department (for which, incidentally, I have also appropriated the bowl of shit metaphor from The Wire). However, while the new Administration of Barack Obama may be making positive advances on our country's reputation in the global arena, there remains an Augean pile of dirty laundry left behind by George W. Bush on the domestic front; and our current economic mess is just the stuff at the top of the heap. Buried deep in that pile remains the disgrace of Hurricane Katrina. Not only may that be the blackest blot on the Bush escutcheon (particularly since it involves other members of the family); but also it is a "gift that keeps on giving" (or taking away, as the case may be), even as there are those today still trying to clean up the mess.

One of the more interesting clean-up efforts involves a claim made by six New Orleans homeowners that, in the words of Jon Wiener's recent post to The Notion, one of the blog sites for The Nation, the Army Corps of Engineers "failed to heed environmental laws in building and maintaining the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shortcut for large ships between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans during Katrina." Federal Judge Stanwood Duval will rule on this claim in a trial scheduled to begin on April 20. This will not be an easy case for the Judge; but it will be made more difficult by the possibility that the "well of evidence" has been poisoned. Worse yet, the poisoning can probably be traced back to the influence (if not direct actions) of the Bush Administration.

This is the basic story as Wiener reported it:

Louisiana State University is firing a leading hurricane scientist who was scheduled to testify as an expert witness in a case against the Army Corps of Engineers for their pre-Katrina work in New Orleans. Ivor van Heerden, who had been deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center, says the school's former president, previously a Bush appointee, had earlier threatened to fire him if he testified.

Tenure exists, we are told, to protect the expression of views that are unpopular with the powerful. This is another case where the person who needed the protection of tenure didn't have it. LSU was able to fire van Heerden because he is an untenured Associate Research Professor.

Van Heerden was the leader of "Team Louisiana," the official independent state-funded investigation of the Katrina flooding. That panel found that the levee failures reflected poor design, bad science and shoddy engineering on the part of the Corps. The Bush Administration had held the levee failures were an "act of God."

When van Heerden was first asked to testify in spring 2007, he said in an interview Sunday with Harry Shearer on KCRW's "Le Show," LSU's then-president, Sean O'Keefe, told plaintiffs' attorneys that if van Heerden testified against the Corps he would be fired. O'Keefe had been appointed to high offices by both Presidents Bush – George W. Bush named him head of NASA in 2001, and George H. W. Bush had named him acting Secretary of the Air Force in 1992.

According to van Heerden, the LSU president said that "nobody from LSU was going to embarrass the Bush administration or upset the major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts."

The second clause in that final quote is the real reminder of the extent to which the legacy of the Bush Administration is still with us. Whether or not this emerges as an embarrassment, the more important victims are those "major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts;" and that is why New Orleans remains stuck in all that mud created by Katrina. The good news, however, is that van Heerden may still get his day in court. Whether or not he is an "expert witness," he can still be called to testify as a "fact witness;" so claims such as those van Heerden published in his book, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why during Hurricane Katrina – the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist, may still be presented as evidentiary "facts" and subjected to cross-examination like any other such evidentiary facts. This trial may thus provide an excellent opportunity for van Heerden to rehearse his presentation, because he is likely to present it again in a second trial, which will decide, as Wiener put it, "a massive class action suit seeking hundreds of millions in damages from the Corps." The people of New Orleans will thus be facing quite a few days in court over the coming months. Let's hope that the decisions turn out in their favor.