Sunday, February 28, 2010

Did Satie Influence Stravinsky?

We know that Igor Stravinsky became practically an overnight success in Paris after the first performance of Michel Fokine's Firebird by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra on June 25, 1910. He was befriended by not only the height of Parisian society but also its leading composers of the day, including Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Erik Satie. Those who have analyzed Stravinsky's scores scrupulously have come up with any number of instances of "cross-fertilization" between him and Debussy going in both directions. However, less has been written about the influence of Satie; and this may deserve further attention.

For example, the timing of events is such that it is very likely that Stravinsky would have been exposed to (if not performed) Satie's four-hand suite, Aperçus Désagréables, whose three movements are a pastorale, a chorale, and a fugue. It is not out of the question that Satie's evocation of these "ancient" forms may have planted the first seed of neo-classicism in Stravinsky's consciousness. Indeed, Satie's outrageously "anti-harmonic" approach to chorale writing may have provided an incentive for Stravinsky's own take on that form after he had to give up the high life of Paris for exile in Switzerland. This would predate what Stephen Walsh, author of the Grove Music Online entry for Stravinsky, sets as the beginning of Stravinsky's neo-classical period in 1920; but the chorale was a great bastion of classical thinking. Stravinsky probably could not resist the temptation to deliver it a raspberry that would outdo Satie's earlier efforts. (There are two more of these chorales in Satie's En Habit de Cheval.) The pastorale and fugue would surface in somewhat more distinguished form after 1920, but it seems reasonable to assume that Stravinsky started his wheels rolling with the chorale in his music for Charles Ferdinand Ramuz' The Soldier's Tale. Besides, I find it hard to believe that Stravinsky could have covered all of the ground he did without acknowledging Satie's influence!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Literary Connection Overlooked (or just ignored)?

At last night's Call & Response recital by the Cypress String Quartet, there was a potentially interesting literary connection that I chose to ignore in my review because there were too many other points I felt were more important. Nevertheless, I believe it still deserves some "examination." It concerns the juxtaposition on Elena Ruehr's new string quartet, Bel Canto, based on a 2001 novel of the same name by Ann Patchett, with Franz Schubert's D. 810 D minor string quartet, best known as "Death and the Maiden."

The connection may be appreciated through the précis of Patchett's novel that Richard Scheinin provided in a preview piece that appeared in the Eye section of the February 25 San Jose Mercury News:

Patchett's book is about hostage-taking terrorists and their victims: business executives, powerful politicians and a fictional world-famous soprano named Roxane Coss, who have gathered for a birthday party at the home of the vice president of an unnamed Latin American country. The terrorists creep in through the heating vents and take over -- and what happens during the next few months of terrible but rich coexistence is unexpected: a web of friendships and love affairs evolves.

The connection has to do with the fact that Death and the Maiden is also the title of a film Roman Polanski made in 1994, based on a play by Ariel Dorfman that had a relatively successful run in New York. Like Patchett's novel it is set in "an unnamed Latin American country." It also involves a hostage situation, but with a different twist. It is about a woman (Sigourney Weaver) who discovers that her neighbor is a man (Ben Kingsley) who had once tortured her for her political beliefs. She captures him and holds him hostage, and the plot revolves around whether or not she will apply to him the same treatment he had applied to her. The title comes from the fact that her most vivid memory of her experience with him was that he would play that Schubert quartet while torturing her.

From a narratological point of view, these are entirely different stories; so it would not surprise me if Patchett was unaware of either Dorfman's play or Polanski's film. On the other hand in this same preview piece, Ruehr describes herself as a pretty voracious reader; but I have yet to encounter any sign that she knew about this politically charged literary connection to Schubert's quartet. In my piece I made reference to the red hot dramatic intensity of Schubert's music. This additional connection, which may well be accidental or coincidental, knocked that temperature up a notch for my own listening experience!

Friday, February 26, 2010

The CHUTZPAH of Consistency

We tend to associate consistency with Ralph Waldo Emerson's "hobgoblin of little minds;" but, if we read beyond that oft-quoted sentence, we discover a sentence in which Emerson advocates consistency viewed through the other end of the telescope:

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.

In other words there is nothing wrong with being consistent in speaking your mind in the strongest possible language, even if you change your mind about things from one day to the next. That kind of consistency is less a "hobgoblin of little minds" and more a familiar trait of bringing chutzpah to what one thinks and how one acts on what one thinks.

This brings us to Chief U. S. District Judge Vaughan Walker here in San Francisco. Judge Walker spoke his mind on the matter of using television to bring the trial over the validity of the Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage to an audience larger than the number of people who could fit in his courtroom. Had it not been for the overwhelming chutzpah of the efforts of the Center for a New American Security in exposing the flaws of our intelligence operations in Afghanistan, Walker would have been a shoo-in for a Chutzpah of the Week award. Even in the wake of his decision being shot down by the Supreme Court, I was philosophical, predicting that some time over the course of the trial, his time would come.

So I have followed the accounts of San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko; and it looks as if Walker's time has come. He has been consistent in speaking his mind, and he may have now landed on the right framework in which to speak it. Furthermore, this time he seems to have rallied the support of his colleagues. Here is the critical paragraph from a report that Egelko filed yesterday afternoon:

The U.S. District Court in San Francisco has posted a rule change on its Web site that would allow its judges to take part in a pilot program of airing selected nonjury civil trials. The public comment period began Feb. 4 and ends Thursday.

Under the timing of this rule change, it should be possible for this pilot program to be engaged to cover the closing arguments of the Proposition 8 case. If such is the case, then the consistency of Walker's "hard words" over the national relevance of this case may yet be rewarded; and, for having progressed this far, Walker can enjoy the "intermediate" reward of a Chutzpah of the Week award!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Political Theater with Ham Actors

I should have known better than to listen to the rebroadcast of yesterday's Toyota hearings on C-SPAN Radio last night. From a point of view of content, it was sufficient to read the statement that Akio Toyoda had released prior to giving his testimony. What I had forgotten was that the hearings themselves served more as political theater for the participating committee members than as any deliberative body trying to address the future of manufacturing from both producer and consumer sides. The fact is that I doubt there was anyone on that committee who had anything better than a tourist's view of how an automobile is actually made, let alone the breadth of management questions that must be faced by any firm involved in automobile manufacturing. So we got more than our fair share of moralizing accusations; but these were nothing more than cheap dramatic histrionics for the benefit of folks like Stephen Manning, stuck with the unpleasant task of reporting the proceedings of the day for Associated Press.

Nevertheless, the problem goes beyond whether anyone in our Congress actually knows anything about manufacturing automobiles. The very concept of the assembly line, as it was first conceived by Henry Ford, was that no one on the line needed to know anything about manufacturing automobiles either! Every worker had a single task to perform and needed no broader scope than that of the "skill" (using the word generously) to execute that task. Today's lines may be more sophisticated. They may even be more flexible in terms of who gets to do what. However, the overall system is sufficiently complex that it may be fair to say that no single individual knows how it all works. Toyoda's contrition was an admirable instance of buck-stops-here thinking; but could he have prevented the current situation? I would suggest that, just like any worker down on the line, he has his own rather narrow skill set that he engages; and he probably does not have much leisure time to reflect on its limitations.

When evangelists first started promoting knowledge management, the talk was all about making sure that there would always be people who knew how things worked. When a guy who had worked for the company for thirty years went out the door with his retirement package, the company had to worry about whether or not his knowledge was going out the door with him. Because this was more of a social problem concerned with the nature and diffusion of work practices, rather than a technology problem, the technologists wasted little time in hijacking the agenda in the name of knowledge "creation." Rather than study the assets and liabilities concerned with how work gets done, one should focus on innovation, because that was the path to wealth creation.

Now we are faced with a situation in which work does not get done very well (when it gets done at all). Perhaps there are even a few folks beginning to recognize the almost total absence of knowledge in what we gratuitously call "knowledge work." This is not just a problem in manufacturing. It is just as evident in service sectors. Indeed, our general ignorance of how the entire health care system works is probably the greatest impediment to that system ever getting reformed; and it goes without saying that there are any number of vested interests who want to make sure that this general ignorance is maintained.

Yesterday we saw our Congress worship in the Temple of General Ignorance that our culture has erected. Yes, the Toyota story is one of really bad news; but it needs to be seen as a symptom of systemic failure, rather than a problem that needs to be solved. Unfortunately, a key element of that systemic failure is a culture that has lost the ability to distinguish between symptom and disease. In such a culture the disease can only flourish, and it is very unlikely that the population will produce individuals fit for survival.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Growth Above All

Yesterday, I invoked a phrase borrowed from Jason Epstein in writing about the "unbreakable addiction" of the World Economic Forum to economic growth. Where substances are concerned, one is addicted when the need to get a "fix" of that substance excludes any other need, even those necessary for sustaining life. My metaphorical use of the term "addiction" extrapolates from substances to concepts. The World Economic Forum is basically a pulpit from which those who have been properly ordained (usually based on a metric such as personal net worth) may preach that economic growth will solve all of the world's problems. This may seem a bit anachronistic in the face of data that support the premise that economic growth can be linked to many of the conditions of the climate crisis, but those who are sustained by their wealth and power need not worry about being logically out of step with the rest of the world.

Fortunately, every now and then "the rest of the world" manages to get its hands on a reality check. After reading Al Jazeera's account of our Congressional investigation of Toyota, I realized that all of those defective automobiles may have provided such a reality check. Consider the written statement released by Akio Toyoda prior to facing our Congress. Beyond the usual gestures of contrition were some remarks that are likely to be taken as heretical among the World Economic Forum congregation:

We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organisation, and we should sincerely be mindful of that.

Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick.

That heresy was reinforced by the testimony given yesterday by Jim Lentz, who is in charge of Toyota's United States operations:

I think we outgrew our engineering resource. And the most important thing is that we lost sight of the customer.

I suspect that this was the comfort level he found for declaring that the priorities of shareholders, who never wanted anything other than a return on investment, were allowed to exceed those of not only the customers but also all those involved in the production chain of what the customers were buying; and that premise is also the basis for Toyoda's statement.

We might do well to think of the shareholders as the belly of a corporate body, rather along the lines of the parable related by Menenius Agrippa in the first act of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus. While it is true that the belly consumes all (and often seems to have no priority other than to demand more), without its consumption none of the other members of the body would be able to function. The punch line of Shakespeare's parable is that, when the belly completes its digestive duties, all that remains for it is what is ultimately ejected from the large intestine. Shareholders would argue that what is left for them is the increased value of their shares; but that value is nothing more than a necessary fiction of convenience (from Niall Ferguson's optimistic point of view) or a manifestation of "naive extrapolation and collective magical thinking" (in John Kay's pessimistic one). From Shakespeare's point of view, there is more substance in our excreta than in those shares!

Nevertheless, the corporate body of Toyota needs its shareholders as much as the human body of Shakespeare's parable needs its belly. However, in the healthy human body the activities of the belly are regulated by those of the brain. By analogy, that addiction to growth upon which the World Economic Forum sustains itself, is addling the corporate brain in much the same way that substance addiction damages the human brain. Back when our economic crisis was at its worst, a few isolated voices kept trying to ask whether or not the "real economy" would be part of any of the recovery strategies being proposed. When we look at Main Street, rather than Wall Street, we see that such a "real economy" is still being neglected if not entirely ignored. That is because the "growth pushers" are still peddling their stuff on Wall Street; and, until we drive those pushers off the street, the addiction they promote will flourish. The rest of us will be stuck with a belly no longer capable of nourishing the rest of the body while going about its business of consumption and excretion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Passing of Gentility

Yesterday, in reviewing the new RCA Red Seal recording of Edward Elgar's Opus 61 violin concerto in B minor for, I suggested that "there is a considerable streak of nostalgia in the compositions of his [Elgar's] 'Edwardian period,'" that is, the music he composed after the death of Queen Victoria. Nostalgia is, of course, rarely grounded in reality, particularly when it is linked to any sense of national spirit. In many respects the great author of anti-nostalgia was William Faulkner. In his brilliant introduction to The Portable Faulkner, Malcolm Cowley described Faulkner's vision of the American South as one of "an incomplete and frustrated nation trying to relive its legendary past;" and I suspect the same can be said of any twentieth-century nostalgia for Victorian England. One wonders if Elgar ever got a look at Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians and, if so, whether it had any impact on his nostalgia.

However, my preoccupation with nostalgia in writing my review may have had less to do with trying to establish a socio-historical context for Elgar's violin concerto and more with my having recently read an essay by Jason Epstein on the future of the publishing industry. The essay appeared in the latest issue of The New York Review; and I found myself struck by one particular introductory remark:

… the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on the edge, suffering from a gambler's unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don't recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good.

That flood of words reads like an elegy less for the business itself and more for an underlying spirit of gentility among those who chose it for a profession. One did not go into "the genteel book business" to get rich. It would be sufficient to "earn one's keep" in exchange for the pleasures of the colleagues one would encounter in the course of plying the trade, not to mention the results of the efforts of those colleagues. This was a world in which one did not compete with the rich and mighty. If one had contact with them at all, it was to cultivate them as clients by providing a service that would see to needs they had beyond those of maintaining and/or increasing wealth and power.

Those days are long gone. They were already passing when the Internet started to change everything, but the Internet probably contributed to hastening their demise. Still, we cannot place all of the blame on the Internet. The "unbreakable addiction" (to invoke Epstein's language) of the World Economic Forum to economic growth has been just as deleterious as the role the Internet has played in the dehumanization of work itself, regardless of the profession one wishes to enter. Thus, when we read what Epstein has to say about the "revolutionary future" of publishing, we must recognize that his thinking has been seriously infected with nostalgia for such things as the old Scribner's book store in Manhattan, the publishing enterprise behind that shop (and the authors it supported), and a regular flow of periodicals that would feed the mind the way The New York Review desperately tries to continue doing.

Epstein believes that publishers should embrace the "revolutionary future" of digitization. He is eating his own dog food through his contributions to the Espresso Book Machine development. However, I fear that the nostalgic grounding of his personal motives may keep him out of touch with those for whom wealth and power matter more than whatever it is that one does to achieve that wealth and power. The best way to appreciate the distinction is to consider someone like Rupert Murdoch. His success can be attributed to his highly-focused fixation on wealth and power, so focused that, to invoke the above language, he has no other needs. I do not think that Epstein is willing to accept "Murdoch's way" as the only path to survival in the current Darwinian business climate; but what, then, can he say about the many small bookstores he used to frequent that no longer exist or the periodicals he used to read? Nostalgia may have its comforts for the elderly; but, to continue the Darwinian metaphor, it is now being selected out of the population base. Those who now define the business climate probably no longer recognize it; and that is the social revolution that Epstein should be addressing, rather than the future of his publishing skills and activities.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"… we never knocked nobody else's music."

The above quote is from Billy Eckstine. I encountered it because, in my efforts to be a better listener to jazz, I decided to provide myself with historical context beyond what I had acquired from Robin Kelley's Thelonious Monk book. Therefore, I am currently reading Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s by Ira Gitler. Gitler provides a loose narrative framework for the individual statements he has compiled, but he says little about the reliability of his sources. He just lets those sources speak for themselves; and, when the sources contradict each other, the reader has do decide whom (if anyone) to believe.

Thus, it is a bit idealized to take Eckstein at face value and assume that, in the early days of the 52nd Street clubs, everyone had good things to say about everyone else (or at least refrained from saying nasty things). However, there are definitely stories of good will and generosity where you might not expect to find them. Thus, when Eckstein talks about starting up the band that provided a platform for Dizzy Gillespie, he described how Count Basie offered to let him use some of his own scores while that band was beginning to build up their repertoire. One might not normally associate Basie with the emergence of bop modernism; but there he was, at least in spirit.

Flash forward now from 1944 to Sunday afternoon, December 8, 1957, back in the days when CBS had a live television program called The Seven Lively Arts. The program aired on this particular date was called The Sound of Jazz. It was produced by Robert Herridge and organized by Whitney Balliett and Nat Hentoff, and it is now available in its entirety in a 2-DVD collection entitled The Greatest Jazz Films Ever. Kelley's book offers the following recollection of Monk's appearance on this program:

While Monk was doodling around with the piano during a coffee break, the stagehands, cameramen, and everybody who could hear him wandered over to the piano. Then in came Count Basie and Billie Holiday, and Lester Young—all the stars! They gathered around the piano and stared as though they'd been hypnotized, as though it was the first time they'd ever heard anything like that. The director was so impressed by the expressions on their faces that he had Billie and Count and the rest of them stand at the piano when they show went on the air, just so he could televise their reactions while Monk played.

For the record Monk played "Blue Monk" with Abdul Malik on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. Basie was the only one who showed up on camera, and Monk did not like his presence at all. To the contrary, he found it distracting. However, having seen this video myself, I have to say that Basie seemed to be both attentive and appreciative. On the basis of Eckstine's anecdote, I am willing to give Basie the benefit of the doubt and assume that his appreciation was sincere, although I would be a bit surprised if this had been his first opportunity to see Monk perform. On the other hand I have to wonder whether or not he was aware of Monk's irritation, in which case he may have been torn between respecting Monk and respecting the authority of those only interested in producing "good television."

This was not Monk's first encounter with television. He had been a guest when Steve Allen was hosting The Tonight Show back in 1955. Conditions there were probably much more to his liking. Still, in today's world of American Idol, it is hard to imagine network television doing anything even remotely close to the encounter that CBS had arranged.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Your Brain on Music is a Highly Distributed Processor

BBC Science Reporter Victoria Gill in currently in San Diego covering the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After yesterday's proceedings she filed a story that almost immediately grabbed my attention. Here is the opening summary:

Teaching stroke patients to sing "rewires" their brains, helping them recover their speech, say scientists.

By singing, patients use a different area of the brain from the area involved in speech.

If a person's "speech centre" is damaged by a stroke, they can learn to use their "singing centre" instead.

The paper was delivered by Gottfried Schlaug, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, practicing at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The research has been based on a therapeutic technique for stroke patients that has been used for some time. It is based on the premise that the brain has separate areas for processing speech and music. The conclusion of the above excerpt reasons that, if the patient cannot use language through speaking, linguistic performance may still be exercised through singing.

Not only is this principle familiar, it has led to any number of jokes. Had Figaro decided to ask Susanna about the price of the ribbons on her new little hat, one might have ended up with an elaborate duet (of a sort that only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could have composed) debating the equally elaborate fine points of the cost of living in seventeenth-century Seville! More seriously, Schlaug's contribution has escalated the study of the stroke-afflicted brain from a successful therapeutic technique to new results in brain imaging. His claim is that he can show "what is actually going on in the brain" (his words) as patients learn to sing their words rather than speak them.

More interesting for me, however, was a reaction Gill reported from another research community:

Dr Aniruddh Patel from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, said the study was an example of the "explosion in research into music and the brain" over the last decade.

"People sometimes ask where in the brain music is processed and the answer is everywhere above the neck," said Dr Patel.

"Music engages huge swathes of the brain - it's not just lighting up a spot in the auditory cortex."

Again, there has been talk about the brain as a distributed processor for some time. This inspired the whole connectionist approach to artificial intelligence that was so popular 25 years ago and probably still has its allotment of die-hard supporters. Connectionism never progressed very far beyond serving as a new approach to applying optimization to pattern classification, which is only a small part of what probably occupies "your brain on music" (to appropriate the turn of phrase by Daniel J. Levitin). The practice of music is a far more complex behavior, and researchers like Patel may be leading us into intricacies of brain function that could be only vaguely hinted in Levitin's exposition.

Needless to say, we are still quite some distance from any understanding of music behavior that accounts for the objective, subjective, and social worlds in any remotely comprehensive way. The good news from Professor Schlaug is the imaging technology keeps getting better; and, each time it improves, researchers come up with new ways to leverage those improvements. As we proceed down this path, there will be less talk about the "musical brain" at cocktail parties and more talk at scientific conferences!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Big Five" Foolishness

I am not sure where talk about the "Big Five" American orchestras originated. The closest I have come to a clue seems to be the February 22, 1963 issue of Time magazine. This was the issue that featured George Szell on the cover and included a sidebar entitled "The Top U.S. Orchestras." It had the following opening sentence:

The five major American orchestras are by general consent the Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and Chicago.

I was still in high school when this article appeared; but I had already begun serious record collecting, motivated heavily by what I could hear on WFLN, Philadelphia's only classical music station. I had never heard that America had five major orchestras, by "general consent" or on any other authority. I obviously thought the Philadelphia Orchestra was pretty important, but I also watched the New York Philharmonic on television whenever I had the opportunity. Also, WFLN broadcast the subscription concert performances by both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. When I entered MIT as a freshman, I knew more than a bit about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and even had the Munch-Primrose recording of Harold in Italy in my collection. On the other hand, while I certainly knew about the Chicago Symphony through my radio listening, I never gave it much thought; and, for all that I knew about Szell's reputation, Cleveland seemed pretty remote to someone who had never ventured very far from the Atlantic coast. (I knew a bit more about Chicago because I had been taken to visit relatives in Los Angeles, and our flight stopped there.)

On the other hand, as a record collector, I was well aware that these were far from the only important orchestras in the United States. Much of my interest in modern music was nurtured (for better or worse) by the Mercury recordings made by Howard Hanson with the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra. That struck me as a pretty important ensemble, even if I had never heard them perform anything by Ludwig van Beethoven. Mercury was also recording Antal Dorati conducting in Minneapolis, and those recordings also attracted my attention. Then there was Maurice Abravanel in Salt Lake City and William Steinberg in Pittsburgh. It had never occurred to me that anyone would want to rank-order these institutions; but I had come to assume that a country with so large a land mass was bound to have a healthy number of orchestras distributed across its states.

So was there really a "general consent" that five orchestras were clustered at the top of the pile; and, if that consent did not exist, what motivated Time to "manufacture" (as Noam Chomsky would put it) such a consent? The answer to that question may lie with the business side of recording and distributing classical music. At the time when the Szell issue of Time appeared, those five orchestras were shared across two major labels, Columbia (Philadelphia, New York, and Cleveland, through the Epic division) and RCA (Boston and Chicago, with Philadelphia having previously recorded with RCA). Thus, I would suggest that the Time sidebar had less to do with ranking orchestras and more to do with a hegemonic agreement between these two major corporations to dominate the market for recorded classical music. In other words the real "manufactured consent" was that "it is not worth listening to unless it has been recorded by Columbia or RCA."

I suppose there is a certain amount of poetic justice in the fact that all five of those orchestras have outlived those corporations, both of which have now been sucked into conglomerate enterprises and have pretty much lost any identities they ever possessed. Meanwhile, however harsh the economy may be, plenty of other American cities (including San Francisco) are supporting symphony orchestras. Indeed, in the absence of any prestige associated with recording labels, the San Francisco Symphony has done very well (to the point of winning Grammys) by distributing recordings of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler through their own label. Thus, anyone who still believes that this is a country of five major orchestras most likely had his/her mind warped by Time in 1963 and has not yet succeeded in unwarping it. I do not agree with everything Chomsky has published; but I think I go along with his opinion that "manufactured consent" tends to be very strong stuff, perhaps even stronger when it turns out to be nothing more than myth!

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Blind Descend upon the Elephant

Yesterday's post began with the proposition that "when one encounters news that threatens to make one groan with grief, the best retaliation is an absurd fantasy with a decidedly cheerful disposition." In trying to make my case for that position, however, I had forgotten that no amount of fantasizing, however absurdly amusing it may be, can ever compensate for the aggravations visited upon the world by the World Economic Forum. Fortunately, when that venerable institution of the rich and mighty sticks to the knitting of economic questions, one can rely on a few voices of sanity, such as those of Desmond Tutu, George Soros, and this year, of all people, Nicolas Sarkozy, to be raised in protest. Unfortunately, rather than taking the time to reflect on whether any of those voices may be making some points, it appears that this year the Forum decided to descend from its Davos aerie and seek out new places to do damage. Alas, the venue they selected was Carnegie Hall.

Fortunately, Daniel J. Wakin, who contributes to the ArtsBeat blog maintained by The New York Times was there for the occasion. Just as fortunately, he managed to keep a cooler head than I tend to do when writing about the Forum; but, while he did his best to maintain the role of dispassionate reporter, I detected that, every now and then, he would raise his left eyebrow Spock-style. Here is his account:

The topic was weighty: how music can save the world.

The talk ranged across the role of conservatories, the definition of art and music’s capacity to heal.

The World Economic Forum convened a panel discussion at Carnegie Hall Thursday on arts leadership. The focus? “The role and responsibilities of cultural leaders and institutions in the collaborative process of development solutions to a number of challenges affecting the world.” Hmmm.

The session plunged immediately into the esoteric, with the moderator, Erwann Michel-Kerjan, a Wharton School professor at the University of Pennsylvania, asking what the difference was between art and entertainment.

“Art is a necessity and entertainment is a luxury,” Deborah Borda answered succinctly. Ms. Borda is president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Art is enduring, said James D. Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank and former chairman of Carnegie Hall. The standing-room-only crowd of arts professionals, musicians and patrons gathered in the James D. Wolfensohn Wing of meeting rooms at Carnegie.

Art can be life-changing, but entertainment “need not be,” said Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, chief executive of Strategic Investment Group and chairman of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. But music that does not move you is “dead art,” she said.

Matthew Bishop, The Economist’s New York bureau chief, had a more pragmatic definition: People pay for entertainment. Art is subsidized.

Several people on the panel took note of the fact that the subsidies, from wealthy patrons, are tougher to come by in the United States because the recently rich are often more focused on contributing to causes like public health, where results are easier to measure. Ms. Borda said the three most depressing letters to hear at foundations are ROI: return on investment. Members of the panel noted that the return on music is hard to quantify.

They all wanted to make the case for why music is important. When all is lost in a natural disaster, say, all that is left is the spirit, Ms. Ochoa-Brillembourg said. “The arts nurture the spirit,” she said. Conversely, dictators try to suppress and control the arts, pointed out Klaus Schwab, the forum’s founder.

Now I have nothing against specializing in arts management. I even have a friend who took this as a major in a Wharton MBA program; and the last time I checked (which I am pretty sure was by way of a story in The New York Times) she was putting her knowledge to good use. Nevertheless, there is something curious, if not downright twisted, about convening a panel discussion on "arts leadership" with a focus on music and then excluding from the conversation those who are down there in the trenches actually practicing their art. In such a setting one could never expect the conversation to rise above the level of platitudes. I had considered whether or not this gathering would change my mind regarding this week's Chutzpah of the Week award. However, this was not an event of chutzpah; it was just plain dumb.

The full scope of that stupidity could be appreciated when one of the more reputable practitioners managed to make his voice heard during Q&A:

In a brief question-and-answer period, Robert Sirota, the composer and president of the Manhattan School of Music, asked how conservatories should change. “Get your students to read books!” Ms. Borda said, arguing that the world needs more rounded musicians. Manhattan and many other conservatories are making such efforts, to varying degrees of success.

I would suggest that what Borda knows about the curriculum for a conservatory education could fill the head of a grace note and leave room to spare. Here in San Francisco Conservatory students are encouraged, if not obliged, to precede performances with some context-setting explanatory remarks; and they have some members of the faculty, such as Paul Hersh, who provide excellent models for doing this. These students may not be able to discuss the fine points of the phenomenology of a music listening experience (as if Borda could!); but they tend to be more than "pretty good" when it comes to drawing upon history or literature for those context-setting remarks.

If Wakin's account was an accurate one (and I have no reason to believe it would be otherwise), then the World Economic Forum has brought to the profession of music the same kind of mind-rot against which I fulminated earlier this week in my post on middle-brow thinking. From their lofty positions as executives and managers, the panelists had absolutely no clue about the work practices of those trying to be music professionals. Lacking any realistic data, they retreated to the sorts of middle-brow just-so stories than can be traced back to those Omnibus programs that Leonard Bernstein concocted. The irony is that far more authoritative and useful data points are available. If Borda were to eat her own dog food and read some books, she might actually encounter some of those data points along with some fascinating approaches to analyzing them!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Social Darwinist Fantasy

Unless I am mistaken, Ray Bradbury once said that fantasizing not only keeps the mind alive, however mind-deadening the "reality" setting may be, but also, by virtue of transcending a potentially pathological reality, promotes a healthier outlook on life. I cannot remember the setting in which he made this claim; but I can not think of a better review for James Thurber's impeccable short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." I would now propose the corollary that, when one encounters news that threatens to make one groan with grief, the best retaliation is an absurd fantasy with a decidedly cheerful disposition.

This strikes me as the best way to deal with the survey results just reported by Lance Whitney on his Digital Media blog for the CNET Blog Network:

E-mail addiction is causing people to engage in risky or inappropriate behavior, according to a study conducted by Osterman Research and commissioned by Neverfail. Released on Wednesday, the second annual "Mobile Messaging Study" surveyed employees at businesses to learn about their e-mail habits.

The study found that 95 percent of those questioned check their business e-mail outside of work, 78 percent while in the bathroom and 11 percent during "intimate moments." (The study did not detail what their partners were doing during those moments.) Those may be signs of addiction but not necessarily risky behavior. However, 76 percent of those surveyed admitted to driving while texting, a notoriously dangerous habit.

The need to constantly check work e-mail is a sign that many employees feel pressure to always be on the job, according to the report. And some seem to overdo it. Of those surveyed, 94 percent said they check their work e-mail at night, while 93 percent do so on the weekends. About 79 percent said they take work-related mobile devices with them on vacation, and more than 33 percent admitted that they hide from family and friends to check e-mail on vacation. Almost half said they've traveled up to 10 miles while on vacation just to check their messages.

"As e-mail has become integrated into mission-critical business processes, employees are feeling extraordinary pressure to be constantly available," Osterman Research President Michael Osterman said in a statement. "In fact, this year's study finds that employees rely so heavily on mobile e-mail availability that if service went down, even for an hour, 85 percent of respondents indicated that it would impact their business work flow."

E-mail addiction also causes people to check their messages at inappropriate times, noted the report. Of those questioned, 20 percent said they catch up on e-mail at weddings, 30 percent at graduations, and 15 percent at funerals.

More people also report receiving important information via e-mail. About 45 percent said they've received a job offer through e-mail, while 6 percent were told that they had lost their job this way. Of those surveyed, 70 percent said they found out about the birth of a family member through e-mail, while 35 percent learned of a family member's death through a message.

Finally, 10 percent of the people questioned said they've received a marriage proposal through e-mail, while 6 percent said they've gotten a request for a divorce or breakup this way. I just wonder if the people who said they check their messages during an "intimate moment" are the same ones getting divorce requests via e-mail.

Before the groans commence I think it is worth considering one of the comments to this piece, submitted by jaxstephens. It offers a nice blend of concision and precision:

I find many of these survey results difficult to swallow unless the sample was taken not from the general population but from highly educated, white-collar professionals who are comfortable with technology. In that case, duh.

Now, to be fair, Whitney included the information about the sample space (the first paragraph in the above excerpt). It is basically consistent with the supposition in the comment, and that is what got me to fantasizing. My fantasy hangs from the concept of social Darwinism, the idea that natural selection affects social as well as biological phenomena. This may be illustrated by the following reductio ad absurdum (and I do mean "absurdum") syllogism:

Marijuana makes you sterile. Therefore, potheads will not be able to reproduce. Thus, through natural selection, those who indulge in marijuana will ultimately be selected out of the population.

If we apply this syllogism to addiction to electronic mail, then there are a variety of factors that, by social Darwinist principles, should contribute to selecting addicts out of the population. The observation about "intimate moments" is one of them; but I think that the one about driving while texting carries even more weight. After all, driving while texting may lead to the individual never being able to experience an "intimate moment" at all, let alone worry about electronic mail while having one. Furthermore, if this behavior is basically a symptom of workplace pathology, then let the pathology run its course. It could well become as much of a scourge as the Black Death was, leaving behind a radically reduced population of those capable of dealing with the physical realities of the world they inhabit, rather than the virtuality of cyberspace.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

CHUTZPAH for Those who Don't Understand CHUTZPAH

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) first brought itself to public attention through guerrilla tactics, such as throwing paint at expensive fur coats (while they were being worn). These days they seem to appreciate that such tactics can alienate potential supporters. So they are now taking approaches that have less to do with causing damage and more to do with spreading the word, particularly to those who need to hear it most. Last night two individuals, acting entirely on their own behalf, decided to take the word to the rich and mighty by intruding on one of their more elite playgrounds, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York. Here is how Associated Press National Writer Ben Walker related the story:

Sadie the Scottie was fully expected to reach the purple podium at America's top dog show. She did, after two intruders turned the center ring at Westminster into their own platform.

The heavily favored Scottish terrier won best in show Tuesday night and seemed to be an easy choice. Her team waited quite a while for this victory — it took a little longer, too, because of a startling protest inspired by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Shortly before judge Elliott Weiss picked Sadie, a pair of well-dressed women walked into the big ring at Madison Square Garden and held signs over their heads that said "Mutts Rule" and "Breeders Kill Shelter Dogs' Chances," the latter a slogan popularized by PETA.

The crowd of 15,000 gasped at the sudden protest, booed the women and then cheered as a half-dozen security guards ushered them away without incident.

PETA members Dana Sylvester and Hope Round were charged with criminal trespass, police said. They acted on their own, the organization said, but it supported them.

To make my own position clear, with the exception of a couple of turtles and hamsters that I had as a kid, every pet that my wife and I have had has been adopted. I feel there are strong ethical grounds for protesting the use of animals for show purposes; but I appreciate the tact behind PETA's "official" reaction to this incident. At the same time it takes a lot of chutzpah to barnstorm a place like Madison Square Garden. In support for their mustering the chutzpah to do so, I wish to present this week's Chutzpah of the Week award to Sylvester and Round. It means far more to me than any thoughts about whether Sadie deserved to have her party spoiled.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another Kind of "Consumer Confidence"

When we read reports about "consumer confidence," they tend to involve an attempt to measure just how much stuff Americans are buying from one month to the next. There may be efforts to account for plans to buy, as opposed to actual buying; and it is unclear what the metrics do with purchases whose payments are extended to credit over some contractually established period. These days, however, the consumers we probably need to care about the most are those investing in our debt. If we are to believe a report released this morning on the BBC News Web site, the confidence of those consumers is in a slump:

Foreign demand for US Treasury bonds and notes fell by a record amount in December as China reduced its holdings.

The Treasury said foreign holdings of US debt dropped by $53bn, surpassing the previous record set last April.

China cut its holdings by $34.2bn - meaning it is now the second-biggest US debt holder after Japan.

China was a net seller for a second straight month.

Its bond holdings amounted to $755.4bn in December, down from $789.6bn the previous month.

China has previously questioned whether the US bonds are safe and whether it can sustain its deficits. It has also questioned the US dollar's role as the world's reserve currency.

Setting aside any questions about Communist ideology, this is a situation in which we should assume that, as investors, the Chinese think the same way as other investors. When one invests in a bond, one is clearly interested in the yield of that bond; but one also has to worry about whether or not the organization that floated the bond will be around to provide that yield. Sustaining a deficit is all about paying the yields on the bonds issued to pay for that deficit. In the corporate world, if a company cannot sustain its deficit, it goes into receivership. Has this happened at the level of a country; and, if so, who would the "receiver" be? We know all about the histories of governments that fall to military conquest. Is there anything history can tell us about our current situation? If so, will it be important enough to wean us away from a determination to ignore history?

The Representation Question (again)

Reading John Nichols' "post-mortem" analysis ("Bye Bayh") of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh's decision to retire has returned me, once again, to why it is that our government continues to be so ineffective, no matter how dire the circumstances. Nichols' point of view is that the Democratic Party should not be bending over to make compromises with conservative Democrats for the sake of controlling 60 seats in the Senate. Nichols would rather see the Party go for broke over a progressive agenda. I sympathize with his position. The Republican Party seems to be on much firmer ground in attracting voters on the basis of "values," often by convincing those voters that the Democrats care about nothing other than "playing politics." The Republicans, of course, are playing hardball politics just as much as the Democrats; but their strategists are better at keeping this little pea of wisdom concealed as they play their shell game.

What gets lost in both the Democratic compromising and the Republican shell shuffling is that, left to their own devices, most people are not particularly interested in ideologies. They simply want to delegate the voices they would have in a "pure" democracy to representatives who will have the time and (hopefully) the wisdom to provide them with a satisfactory present and a promising future. This is the fundamental motivation behind the first Article of the United States Constitution. It is important to remember that the Constitution, itself, was the product of a gathering of representatives, who then had the responsibility of taking the result back to the people they represented and convincing them to vote for it. (The whole purpose of The Federalist Papers was to facilitate that convincing process.)

The "official" reason for Bayh's retirement was that he felt that the Congress had become too partisan. This is so easy to say that it hardly means anything. One can just as easily accuse the Congress of being not partisan enough, if one allows the adjective to expand beyond the boundaries of the usual political parties. The effective representative puts the interests of those he represents ahead of his own, but he must also put those same interests ahead of the political party whose organization may have facilitated his election. In other words, when being partisan towards the "political machine" becomes more important than being partisan towards the electorate itself, the electorate is no longer being effectively represented; and the principles of our Constitution are in jeopardy. This is why John Adams was so strongly opposed to having political parties in the first place, and his decision to stand on that principle probably contributed to his failure to get elected for a second term as President.

There are, of course, organizational assets to political parties. To some extent they reflect the precept that, when a government grows to a certain size, the representatives need representatives. This is because getting things done in politics is ultimately about having the right conversations with the right people, and there are only so many conversations that an individual can conduct each day. On the other hand we tend to think of conversations as limited by face-to-face contact time; and this may actually be a setting in which the Internet can change matters in a positive way. Consider the hypothesis that a well-managed and properly secured system of social software could broaden the scope of the conversations that a representative could conduct. If that hypothesis could be warranted, the representative might have less need of the organizational benefits of a political party, just as we have seen that Internet-based funding and campaigning is beginning to jeopardize the power of machine politics.

Perhaps all those announcements of exodus from the Congress are delivering the same message of an unwillingness to be part of a government that is no longer "of the people, by the people, for the people." Where are those with the wisdom to deliberate over whether this might be the case? If so, where are those with both the wisdom and the will to do something about it?

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Curse of the Middle-Brow

Yesterday, in (finally) writing my review of Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, I mustered some of my own chutzpah in suggesting that one could "factor out the issue of race" in reading at least one of the major essays by Imamu Amiri Baraka. The grounds for chutzpah would have been sufficient on the basis of Baraka's socio-political background; but it was enhanced by the fact that the essay I had in mind was "Jazz and the White Critic," originally published in Down Beat in 1963 when Baraka was still LeRoi Jones. The key point of this essay is that (in Baraka's words) "because the majority of jazz critics are white middle-brows, most jazz criticism tends to enforce white middle-brow standards of excellence as criteria for performance of a music that in its most profound manifestations is completely antithetical to such standards; in fact, quite often is in direct reaction against them."

Those words were still activating my hippocampus this morning as I read Allan Kozinn's New York Times piece on the DVD release of Leonard Bernstein's Omnibus programs by E1 Entertainment. However, before I rant too much over my disagreement with Kozinn, I should state that there is at least one sentence in his piece with which I am in solid agreement:

Even with hundreds of cable channels to choose from today, the likelihood of running into a show like this is slim.

Kozinn is absolutely correct, and I bemoan this lack of substantial viewing matter even when it involves content that provokes howls of disagreement. The fact is that the last time I can remember any serious substantive talk about music was on the now-off-the-air Ovation Channel: They aired videos of all four of the symphonies of Johannes Brahms conducted by Kurt Masur; and each performance was prefaced by some low-key remarks that Masur gave in an interview that significantly enhanced the listening experience. Note that adjectival "low-key." I doubt that Bernstein ever did anything low-key; and I suspect that my greatest beef with him is that his showboating has left a greater legacy than Masur's quieter style. I refer, as a case in point, to the discontent I have voiced on this platform with the Keeping Score series that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony had created for production by local PBS station KQED.

From my own position as a "white critic" (or, as I have preferred to say in my own choice of words, "examiner"), middle-brow has less to do with race than with a superficial (and therefore fundamentally lazy) approach to thinking. It assumes, in the spirit of those "bluffer's guides" that David Frost used to publish, that one can get by with a handful of surface-level observations, leaving the depths to those more "professional qualified" to plumb them. Kozinn argues that "there is much to be said" for how Bernstein "made the details of music and music making accessible, usually without dumbing down, to a broad audience." True, Bernstein had an elegant command of language; so we could not gloss over his talk as we can with most of what we hear on (even Public) television today. However, there were just too many settings, not only in the Omnibus scripts but also in the allegedly far more "academic" texts of his Unanswered Question Norton Lectures, in which he uses his abundant rhetoric to cover up the sad truth that he just never really "got it." I am reminded of the early days of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, when founding director Charles Wadsworth once introduced Christopher Hogwood to offer some pre-performance remarks. Exaggerating his drawl for the occasion, Wadsworth said something like, "I'm not always sure what he is talking about, but he sure sounds purty." Bernstein always sounded "purty" enough that most folks didn't care one way or the other whether he was actually saying anything; and, to be fair to Baraka, one of his topics was, indeed, jazz. (For all I know the seeds of Baraka's essay were planted after Bernstein's Omnibus program about jazz.)

There is one other point where I have no trouble agreeing with Kozinn. It has to do with a broadcast in which Bernstein revealed to his audience the "rough drafts" that preceded the final version of Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony. However, superficial the analysis may have been (could it have been otherwise?), Kozinn certainly got the right punch line:

But speaking as a composer — and there is a good deal of sub rosa, idealized autobiography in these programs (see the quotation about how thoroughly prepared conductors must be) — Bernstein is intent on demonstrating that the inevitable doesn’t just happen. It comes from intense work.

For better or worse, one should approach every listening experience with the presumption that one is listening to a product of "intense work," usually from both the composer and the performers. However, as listeners we should not be focusing on how intense the work has been. Instead, we should try to "find the beauty," as David Amram put it, under the presumption that the beauty is there as a product of that work. As I wrote about a month ago, Amram learned this lesson from Monk; and Monk did not have to draw upon either elegant rhetoric or "idealized autobiography" to make the point! Indeed, Amram's lesson from Monk is a perfect example of why Baraka's observations go beyond the question of race: Both black teacher and white student could find the path to getting beyond the superficiality of middle-brow thinking.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Miles Davis and Gregor Piatigorsky

Perhaps the only thing more awesome than the thoroughness with which Robin Kelley has accounted for the life of Thelonious Monk is the scope of his bibliography. As I read the book, I would occasionally tick off an item in one of the footnotes when it struck me as a source for further examination. Given the length of Kelley's book, I knew I should do this sparingly. Yesterday I took stock of all the ticks and started checking off which ones I could find in the San Francisco Public Library. I quickly realized that I would have to come up with a list short enough for a pile of books I could manage to carry home! I spent yesterday afternoon at the Library examining all of the candidates, homing in on six and rejecting five. I am not going to enumerate those five, because I suspect that there is still value in them. I had to make a pragmatic decision on what I could manage, and I am sure that I shall be reminded of all five of these books as my research proceeds.

Of the books that I did select, the most fascinating was probably Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews by Arthur Taylor. I realized that, in my own quest to tease out how and why it is that the nature of music has more to do with how that music is performed, rather than how it is documented in artifacts of notation, I often forget that the study of performance has more to do with anthropology (such as is practiced by someone like Pierre Bourdieu) than with music theory or music history. Anthropology, in turn, tends to be a product of methods of observation and interviewing. The problem in both of these settings, however, is that the anthropologist is almost always an outsider; and there any number of jokes about what happens when that outsider status goes awry.

Taylor, on the other hand, was very much an insider. His experiences as a drummer brought him in contact with so many of the leading figures of jazz history that, had he directed his efforts otherwise, he could have been as significant a chronicler of jazz as Jean Froissart had been for the first half of the Hundred Years' War. Instead, he chose a much more modest path. Beginning in 1966 he began to interview musicians whom he had worked with or known to document their perspectives on what "making jazz" meant to them. Notes and Tones is the result of that interviewing process, and it was one of those books that I could not wait to begin.

When the book first appeared, the first interview was with Miles Davis. In a subsequent edition published by Da Capo Press, Miles is preceded by Dexter Gordon; but my Library copy was the original Perigee edition. As could have been anticipated, Miles was not the most cooperative interview subject; but he also made it clear that he felt more comfortable talking with Taylor than with an outsider.

The passage from the interview that interested me the most was the following response to a question about how much things had changed since Miles was first starting to play jazz:

They don’t have anyplace to experiment for young guys who start playing and who play their own stuff. It’s because of all those records they make nowadays … you know, the guys copy off the records, so they don’t have anything original. You can’t find a musician who plays anything different. They all copy off each other. If I were starting out again, I wouldn’t listen to records. I very seldom listen to jazz records, because they all do the same thing. I only listen to guys that are original, like Ahmad Jamal and Duke Ellington, guys like Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Coltrane.

This interview was conducted on January 28, 1968. About a decade later I was working in Santa Barbara; and one of my colleagues had previously been in the Music Department at the University of Southern California, where he has served as a pianist for some of the classes taught by Gregor Piatigorsky. He told me that, when Piatigorsky got really mad at a student, the worst thing he could say was, "You sound just like a Rostropovich recording!" In retrospect I realize that he was saying exactly the same thing that Miles was saying to Taylor: The student was so obsessed with copying what (s)he heard on a recording that (s)he did not "have anything original" to say in his/her performance.

Any thought of performance as a "realization" of a notation document is a dangerous misconstruction. Performance is about "having something to say," which is worth saying only if it adds to an ongoing conversation, rather than just repeating what has already been said. The notation may provide the framework for structuring what one says; but the content of what one says resides in the approach one takes to performing, rather than in the notation being performed. This may be more evident when we consider the practices of jazz performers who relied almost entirely on working by ear (such as Art Tatum and Monk); but it is just as applicable in the classical domain, no matter how detailed the notated specifications may be. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it was not hard for Pierre Boulez to find common ground with Frank Zappa. Both saw notation as a path to push the envelope of what one could do in performance; but both knew that the music was in the performance, rather than the notation. My only regret is that, of the two of them, Boulez is now the only one left to keep reminding us of the significance of this precept.

Ultimately, Miles' complaint to Taylor had to do with "young guys" trying to perform without adequate education. Piatigorsky was up against the same problem. Has this situation improved? As usual, it depends which end of the telescope you use to examine the situation. When I hang out at master classes taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I encounter all sorts of imaginative strategies that direct students away from the details in the notation and towards the more subtle details concerned with performance. This reinforces me when I then confront so much of the junk that is now out there on the Internet by those who are better at self-promotion than they are in cultivating a "self" worth promoting! Unfortunately, quality is not its own reward. (Has it ever been?) Even Conservatory students with the richest of experiences will have to encounter the necessity of self-promotion in the world the Internet has made; but at least they will be going into that world with something that adds to, rather than repeats, the conversation!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Accidental Empathy

I am not sure if the actual number of correlations is statistically significant; but, as we have known for some time, subjective probability is based more on salient memories, rather than hard data. In this case I seem to have built up a set of salient memories of reading rather morbid material while confined to a sickbed. There seems to be this bug going around the Bay Area; and, while, like many such bugs, it did not last more than 24 hours, that 24-hour period was pretty ghastly. As is often the case, I tried to resort to reading to either distract me or lull me to the point of sleeping through the worst. The problem was that my primary reading matter was still Robin Kelly's Thelonious Monk book; and, as fate would have it, I had advanced to the final chapter, which is a shatteringly meticulous account of the events leading up to and culminating in Monk's death. By the time I closed the book on that chapter, I was beginning to wonder if I would be following the same path! Fascinating as the writing was, it was definitely not appropriate for my physical condition! Come to think of it, arriving at the end of the book reminded me that I had made a commitment to write a review of it, which, at the time, only send another shudder through my illness-wracked body! It should clear from all the blog posts that cited this book that it had considerable impact on my thinking about many topics related to both music and work, but I would have preferred to do without this final whammy of its impact!

Friday, February 12, 2010

From the Man in the Street to the Farmer in the Dell

Every now and then it seems appropriate that the Chutzpah of the Week award should go to some relatively ordinary man in the street who happens to get recognized by the media. That was the case with Paul Jacobs, who literally was in the street in his village of Broughton to protect that street from intrusion by Google Street View. This came to the attention of Andy Dolan, a reporter for the Daily Mail; and Jacobs' award was presented shortly thereafter.

This time around the award will shift from a literal man in the street to a famer in the dell (even if his farm may not literally be in a dell). The venue, in turn, has shifted from an English village trying to hang on to its traditional values (and privacy) to a Russian province with an east coast on the Pacific Ocean and a western border with China. The grounds for chutzpah appeared this morning in a report on the BBC News Web site:

A Russian farmer has been convicted of planting landmines around his field to ward off trespassers.

Alexander Skopintsev, from the eastern region of Primorye near China's border, laid the three devices on his land after building them in his garage.

The 73-year-old had apparently been concerned about the frequent theft of potatoes from his farm.

He was arrested after an intruder set off one of the tripwire-style mines in August and was injured in the blast.

Skopintsev was convicted for the unlawful construction and storage of weapons and received a two-and-a-half year suspended sentence.

"Skopintsev testified that he had prepared the explosive devices to protect his garden against thieves," regional prosecutors said in a statement reported by RIA-Novosti news agency.

The law-and-order side of me sympathizes with both the conviction and the suspension of sentence; but, when you are in such a remote location, just what do you do to protect your property? A "knowledge economy" is supposed to reward innovative thinking; so, at the very least, Skopintsev deserves the Chutzpah of the Week award for pushing the envelope of what we think about innovation!

Putting a Price on "Free" Information

Those who have decided that they have heard the information-wants-to-be-free barbarism too many times will probably enjoy a report by Jo Wade on the BBC News Web site under the title "Paying the price for a free web." In many ways this report reflects the spirit of Robert Greenwald's documentary about Wal-Mart, whose subtitle was The High Cost of Low Price. The IMDb page for this 2005 film summarizes it with the tagline, "It will change the way you think, feel - and shop…." Wade clearly believes that it is about time we change the way we think and feel about how we use the Internet. The basic argument is the usual one: Most Internet users do not realize how much personal information they are revealing to others. The value of Wade's report is the way in which its conclusion reduces this situation to terms as clear as those Greenwald had invoked in making his case against Wal-Mart:
Every day Google gathers millions of search terms that help them refine their search system and give them a direct marketing bonanza that they keep for months.

Every week Facebook receives millions of highly personal status updates that are kept forever and are forming the basis of direct advertising revenue.

Every month free newspapers plant and track a cookie tracking device on your computer that tells them what your range of interests are and allows them to shape their adverts and in the future, even content around you.

So you're not just being watched, you're being traded. The currency has changed.

The currency is now information - your information. Businesses can use that information to make big money.

Daily we hand over the minutiae of our lives in return for a convenient and free web.
As an observer of technology, I have railed for some time against the way in which Customer Relationship Management (CRM) technology has turned "desubjectivized" customers by turning them into objects that are manipulated and processed by software. Wade has framed the conclusion of this report in a way that takes this argument to the next level: The Internet user is no longer "just" an object; the user is a commodity. Now for some time there are have arguments about the extent to which the ruling class has turned the rest of the world into a slave class through mechanisms such as that of a "consciousness industry;" but a commoditized individual is nothing more than a slave. One no longer needs a consciousness industry to keep that individual from failing to recognize his/her enslaved state. One need only dole out some kind of gratification, such as "free information!"

The Logic of Keyword Advertising Strikes Again

Exactly a month ago I suggested that the best thing about keyword-based advertising was the entertainment value of some of the weirder placement decisions that ensue. Perhaps this will become the Web-based version of those clips of ludicrous text excerpts that used to provide comic relief from the more intense contributions to The New Yorker. (I have no idea if those bits are still there. I gave up on taking The New Yorker seriously enough to warrant a subscription decades ago.)

Last month's keyword entertainment was purely American and was based on the all-American pastime of figuring out whether Sarah Palin is the country's savior or the devil incarnate. This time the source comes from the other side of the pond, but the subject matter is just as American. It concerns a Texas mother, Melanie Typaldos, who, along with her daughter Coral, has decided that the family pet should be a capybara. This should be entertaining in its own right. The Web page comes from the Picture Galleries department of; and there are fifteen (count them!, as Phineas T. Barnum would have said) photographs of this beast (named Caplin Rous) enjoying (?) domestic life in Texas. (I particularly like the one where Caplin seems to be trying to hang his head out of the rear window of a car, as one would expect of a pet dog.)

However, I am less interested in Caplin and his relations with the Typaldos family as I am in the advertisement Google chose to associate with this item:

As one who really does not believe in trying to turn wild animals into house pets, I found this a particularly appropriate reminder of what one is likely to expect should one decide to choose a capybara over a more reasonably-sized hamster. It is hard to imagine that Caplin will ever be toilet trained, and one only has to get a good look at his size to appreciate the inevitable consequences of that failure!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dark Corollary

Reading about computer security this morning, I realized that malware may play an important role in economic history that is easily overlooked. Consider, again, Robert Skidelsky's abstraction of the basic argument in Niall Ferguson's Ascent of Money book:

Throughout history men have been more ingenious at finding ways to make money than to make things.

We have a tendency to shy away from the possibility that the most ingenious of those men may actually be members of the criminal class. Unfortunately, as another Ferguson, Rik Ferguson, observed at a Westminster eForum, as reported by Toby Wolpe for ZDNet UK, criminals often see advantages in new technologies that the evangelists prefer to overlook. Here are some of Ferguson's remarks:

One of the things that persuades me personally that the cloud is absolutely a viable model and has longevity is that it has already been adopted by criminals. They are the people who are leading-edge adopters of technology that is going to work and going to stick around for a long time.

We already see customers of Google, customers of Amazon, who are criminals and who use those services, among others, to run command-and-control services for botnets, to launch spam campaigns and to host phishing websites. They see the power, the scalability, the availability and, for them, the anonymity that is possible through cloud services and they are using it to its fullest extent.

We are probably socially conditioned to avoid viewing criminals as "leading-edge adopters of technology;" but, when you think of it, criminals are probably more motivated towards innovation than are legitimate businessmen. Criminals face the prospect that law enforcement will always be coming up with new ways to foil them; so criminals are more likely to depart from the status quo than are, say, most delegates at the World Economic Forum. David Simon understood this in his depiction of the criminal classes of Baltimore in The Wire, and he also recognized that innovation can be as risky for criminals as for anyone else. Still, if we really want to understand the nature of innovation, we ought to be looking beyond all those just-so stories that come out of established research laboratories!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Who's "Platform of the World?"

Matt Asay decided to use his post to The Open Road on the CNET Blog Network to vent over the prospect of Microsoft and Google engaging in a "Battle of the Titans for who becomes the platform of the world" (taking that text from an interview given by Microsoft Regional Vice President John Mangelaars to CIO magazine). Here is the basic argument of his vent:

My question? Do we really want either company filling that role? Microsoft monopolizing the desktop did no one any favors, and Microsoft or Google monopolizing the Web won't be any better.

It's not a question of who is or isn't evil. It's about the dangers inherent in centralizing control in any one entity.

The problem, unfortunately, is that few people or organizations think about this when making IT decisions. However much the open-source community talks up its ability to reduce or eliminate vendor lock-in, the reality is that consumers and enterprises choose technology based on near-term utility, not long-term choice.

I certainly sympathize with his fear of "the dangers inherent in centralizing control in any one entity;" but I fear that his view of "reality" only gets at part of the story. There is nothing wrong with seeking near-term utility. Most of the time it is less a matter of instant gratification and more an issue of achieving a particular goal within some time constraint.

The real problem is that we tend to assume a fairly high level of stability in the choices we make for providers of goods and services. This presumption of stability has now gone out the window along with the buggy whip. Most of us probably first realized this in dealing with banks. The first mortgage I held was with a real-live neighborhood bank. The bank itself was actually within a fifteen-minute walk of the condominium I was purchasing. Along every step of the way, I had face-to-face encounters over what the bank could do for me and how I could convince the bank that I would be a good customer. In all probability, that bank no longer exists. The building may still be there; but in all likelihood it houses a branch of one of those mega-banks. If you now meet with anyone face-to-face, then the person you encounter is simply a conduit to a larger system; and neither of you know very much about how that system actually works. When I took out my mortgage, I assumed that the bank would be there at least for as long as I was living in that city, if not longer. Today, whether it is a matter of financing my condominium or just paying the bills, I can no longer make that assumption.

My guess is that this is one of those unintended consequences of that great motto of technology evangelists: "The Internet changes everything!" It turns out that one of the most important changes is that just about everything (or at least just about any provider of goods or services) has become highly volatile; and that is why near-term utility can no longer be projected into long-term planning. Unfortunately, with regard to the specific case that Asay is trying to make, the open-source community is just as volatile as any other provider, if not more so. You may have more freedom of choice in how your software does what it does; but everyone else in your open-source community is exercising that same freedom. It is one thing to manage your own backyard and quite another when you need to extend your backyard resources. It is easy enough to find new stuff. It may not be so easy to get the new stuff to play well with the old stuff.

Ultimately, it does not matter whether you hitch your wagon to a large enterprise or an open-source community. Both are volatile, and you are bound to get bitten by some of the changes one way or another. In such a setting it is a wonder that anyone ever gets anything done. Oh, wait …

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Loudest Voice Strikes Again

As the San Francisco Chronicle gets thinner and thinner, I find that I spend more time with its RSS feeds than I do with the print edition. Furthermore, I realize that, where local news is concerned (which is the only news I now get from the Chronicle), the comments submitted in a response to a story, particularly when crime is involved, tell me more about conditions in the City than the 5W1H (who, what, when, why, where, how) basic reporting does. The problem is that the news one can mine from these comments often turns out to be more disconcerting than the source reportage, particularly when one factors in the reader recommendations given to those comments. Last month I examined one particular homicide story that left me wondering whether the Internet was the new home for the kind of lynch mob portrayed in Walter Van Tilburg Clark's Ox-Bow Incident; and today I encountered a similar situation worthy of some reflection.

Last month's story involved a one-on-one assault resulting in death. This time the scope of the episode is significantly more extensive. Once again I shall turn to the account by Chronicle Staff Writer Jaxon Van Derbeken for a summary of the basic incident:

A Fisherman's Wharf nightclub was already facing a seven-day city suspension of its license for out-of-control crowds when a gun battle erupted there over the weekend, leaving one man dead and four wounded, San Francisco officials said Monday.

The city imposed an emergency suspension Sunday, after Lawon Hall, 19, of Richmond was slain in the shootout in front of the Suede Nightclub and Lounge, 383 Bay St.

The 19-year-old gunman who police say killed Hall was himself wounded by a club guard, a police patrol special officer. The suspect, whose name has not been released, was being treated at San Francisco General Hospital.

Forty-four shots in all were fired when the battle erupted at 1:40 a.m. Sunday, police said. At least one gunman besides the wounded suspect was involved, say investigators, who are hoping to make more arrests.

On Monday, the club said it would voluntarily close for a month while the city decides what to do next. That comes on top of the emergency suspension that the Entertainment Commission's executive director imposed.

Neighbors have complained about Suede to the commission and to police since 2007, not long after the current management bought it. They said it is too crowded, too loud and does too little to limit the unruly crowds that spill out after closing time.

There are a variety of ways to approach this story, which goes on to examine why any actions by municipal authorities have been slow in coming and not particularly effective. If the Chronicle thought that creating a space for comments would bring a town-hall-like level of discussion to problems like these, then they should by now be aware that such "Internet democracy" is just another glass of Kool-Aid from technology evangelists. As had been the case with last month's homicide story, the most popular comment seemed to indicate that "the crowd" is more inclined to violence than to wisdom. Here is the text in its entirety:

Richmond people.......will you please keep your shootings in Richmond? Thanks.

Furthermore, will someone please read this to them?

If there is any good news here, it is that this particular voice is not quite as strong as the one I encountered last month. At that time I read the comment the morning after it had been posted, by which time it had received 975 thumbs-up recommendations and 15 thumbs-down opposing votes. This time both the posting and my reading took place is approximately the same time frame, and the above comment had received 490 positive recommendations against 76 negative ones. That means that the overall response was a bit less than half that of last month's data set and the negative percentage was a bit healthier. The one positive sign is that readers may be recognizing that it is easier to speak out against bullies (even in this rather modest way) under the protection of anonymity. If so, then it would refute a hypothesis I have previously entertained, which is that "anonymity tilts the crowd towards madness, while identity transparency tilts it towards wisdom." If it is going to come down to a shouting match, anonymity may actually make it easier for both sides to have roughly the same amplitude.

Nevertheless, there is at least a dim positive glow to this more recent episode. When I examined last month's data, I suggested that the results "may illustrate the extent to which that reaction can be manipulated by the way in which the 'report' has been framed." In other words the Chronicle may actually like cultivating these inflammatory comments because they bring eyeballs closer to the Kaango Classified ads that appear immediately to the right of those comments (complete with eyeball-attracting images). (Last year I identified this as the problem of "the cohabitation of news and advertising.") However, in this case it seems as if Van Derbeken went to greater lengths to use his column space to lay out the complexity of the situation. (Yes, he had physical column space. Not only did he have a healthy amount of it, but also his story began above the fold in the Bay Area section of today's print edition.) This leads me to wonder whether the voting numbers for this story were lower because the story itself went deeper and tried to maintain more balance.

Note, however, that the last sentence of that preceding paragraph is nothing more than a speculative hypothesis. I offer it to illustrate that, if we really wanted to be serious about exploring just how wise the crowds of cyberspace are, there are a variety of ways in which we can formulate hypotheses that can then be tested against data such as these comment areas. By all rights this should take us closer to an understanding of the social world of the Internet than either the anecdote-harvesting of the "wisdom of crowds" evangelists or the blood-curdling counterexamples of Gustave Le Bon! Unfortunately, a research endeavor is only as good as its ability to attract funding; so the prospect of any research team putting serious effort into going down this path is a dim one.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Direction Question

One of my friends reminded me of a Master Class we had attended at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music conducted by Robert Mann. She recalled Mann telling a first violin in a string quartet that she had a very polished sound but that her playing was "without direction." I realized that his observation resonated closely with my tendency to invoke a metaphorical use of the noun "journey," applying it to either an individual composition or the structure of a program for an entire concert. One property of Western music that seems almost universal is the presence of a well-defined beginning and ending, between which there is this continuous span of elapsed time. Is there anything more to the journey than this passing of time; and, if so, what is that "more?"

The best way to deal with this question is to look for counterexamples. The most obvious of these are those works by John Cage in which the composition is the passing of some specified duration of time. Anything that happens over that duration is part of the composition. One might be hard pressed to call this a journey, but one cannot call the composition static either. Alternatively, one may say that it is a journey that advances on the basis of "environmental conditions," rather than according to a path set by the composer (or, for that matter, the performer). In other words the music is a journey. However, any account of that journey cannot be predetermined; nor is it likely to be reproduced.

I am thinking about this while listening to tracks from my Miles Davis Columbia box of The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. On the first CD in the box, "Bitches Brew" is preceded by "Pharaoh's Dance;" and there may be some clues in how these two pieces (the first by Davis and the second by Joe Zawinul) differ. Both build on a very steady beat; but in "Bitches Brew" Davis punctuates that beat with almost violent declamations that evoke the rhetoric of a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon (although his own image probably comes closer to a witch casting a spell). The rest of the group works with rhetorical responses of their own. However, the exchange seems to be one in which Miles is up on the pulpit and everyone else is in the dutiful congregation. There is clearly a journey progressing here (although, given the artwork produced for the original release, the noun "trip" would probably be more appropriate).

In "Pharaoh's Dance," on the other hand, the beat seems to be more of a foreground phenomenon. The same instruments (including Miles' trumpet) get to speak; but it is almost as if they are mumbling in the background while the beat goes on (and on and on …)! This may just be my own irritability speaking; but I find that this approach to performance makes for a far more impoverished journey than the experience of letting the environment set the journey in one of Cage's "duration" compositions. Perhaps I am willing to grant that Cage has taken the trouble to lay down some rules, however unorthodox those rules may be, while there is too much of that do-your-own-thing self-absorbed (and drug-induced?) muddling in "Pharaoh's Dance." After all, once one becomes familiar with Cage's work, one can reflect on the journeys that emerged and perhaps even on some of the roads not taken. In "Pharaoh's Dance," on the other hand, it seems as if no one ever bothers to get up and go!