Tuesday, May 31, 2011

BWV 232 in Our Time

For those who may find today’s title cryptic, BWV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (Bach works catalog);  and the number is the one assigned by Wolfgang Schmieder to the setting of the mass text by Johann Sebastian Bach in B minor.  As I have suggested in the past, Schmieder’s decision to treat this as a single integrated composition is a bit questionable.  Much of it comes from compositions that Bach had composed earlier.  However, Bach was the one who in 1749 decided to pull those sources together and compose new music for the missing sections.

Why he did this is another matter.  The music was never performed in its entirety during Bach’s lifetime.  I personally continue to believe that much of what Bach chose to document was written primarily for pedagogical purposes.  Thus, it made about as much sense to have music for each section of the mass as it did to have a prelude-fugue pair for each of the 24 keys based on the chromatic scale.  Last year, however, I pushed this thesis to the following corollary:

From this point of view, any "concert performance" experience, even one that takes place in a church, can never be anything more than a "grand illusion."

I posed that corollary while writing about a performance by the American Bach Soloists as their final SummerFest event.  Recently, however, I discovered that their performance of BWV 232 is an annual event.  Is this making a bit too much out of a musical manuscript that may never have been intended for anything other than pedagogy?

There is, of course, no reason why music written for pedagogical purposes should not also receive concert performances.  I doubt that any keyboard performer would think much of excising both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier from his/her repertoire, not to mention the preludes and etudes of composers like Frédéric Chopin or Alexander Scriabin.  However, this pedagogical perspective might be useful in establishing a mindset for the serious listener.

At the final season concert by the American Bach Soloists at the beginning of this month, Conductor Jeffrey Thomas reflected on growing up in the Lehigh Valley, where one of the most important performance ensembles was The Bach Choir of Bethlehem.  This group was actually organized in 1898 to study BWV 232, and that mass setting remains a major part of its repertoire to this day.  Thomas recalled the solemnity with which they performed this music, long before Bach scholars began to make the case for the brisker tempos now taken for almost all of the movements.  What seems important is that the whole concept of religious rite may have meant more to the Bethlehem singers than did that of music performance.

By taking a more pedagogical stance, we can put religion off to the side and concentrate on all those virtues of the music itself.  Yes, as Albert Schweitzer asserted, one should recognize that the music is a reflection of the words;  but that is a matter of rhetoric.  While rhetoric is essential to effective performance, listening to Bach is a matter of appreciating his mastery of grammatical structure and the overall logic of architectural form.  In other words one can appreciate the impact of those words without believing them.  If, as listeners, we choose to make it a point to attend a performance of BWV 232 on an annual basis, that choice has more to do with celebrating Bach’s achievements as a musician than with celebrating the ritual embodied in the text he selected.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Failure of Political Processes as we Know Them

David Cole has a relatively short commentary piece in the latest issue of The New York Review.  The title is “Guantánamo:  The New challenge to Obama.”  It is a disturbing piece, as is clear from its sixth paragraph:

A week before bin Laden’s death, the national news was dominated by WikiLeaks’ release of hundreds of US intelligence assessments of the alleged risks posed by each of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Lost in the focus on WikiLeaks, however, was an even more revealing story in The Washington Post, detailing how President Obama has thus far failed to close Guantánamo. That story portrayed a president who at virtually every critical stage chose not to fight for what he said he believed in, and instead bowed to political pressure that left America’s values and safety compromised. If he is to build on his victory in killing bin Laden, President Obama needs to stand firm on Guantánamo and oppose Congress’s short-sighted and dangerous proposals.

Basically, this is an unpleasant corollary to the proposition I tried to pursue on Friday, “that peace in the Middle East is too serious to be entrusted to political leaders.”  That proposition was further reinforced this weekend by a polemical speech given by Michael Scheuer, former head of the unit following Osama bin Laden at the CIA, given at the Hay Festival and reported in the London Telegraph (which sponsors the Festival).

The bottom line is that, whether it has to do with issues of signification, through which we might have understood enough about bin Laden to avert the 9/11 catastrophe, or issues of legitimation, according to which what Barack Obama has called “our most cherished values” are being annihilated under our very eyes in the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, our country has, as a matter of both domestic and foreign policy, relegated all decision making to the priorities of resource allocation maintained by political power.  Today is supposed to be the day we remember those who died in battle, but we must also remember the value system strong enough to motivate a commitment to our armed forces.  We have come to a point at which none of the three branches of our government seems committed to causes worth dying for, those causes that used to be fundamental to our sense of national pride.  Both Cole and Scheuer have been perceptive enough to speak out on this problem, but does anyone have the necessary combination of acuity of perception and strength of will to do anything about it?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Discovering Carl Loewe

One of the more interesting features of the Great EMI Recordings box for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is the opportunity to provides to get to know the songs of Carl Loewe.  There are only five included in the collection, recorded over a series of sessions in September of 1967.  However, Loewe made his mark on the history of music, even if that mark was not established until after his death in 1869.

I first encountered Loewe in a recital that Eugene Brancoveneau gave in May of 2010.  He decided to couple the familiar setting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert with one of the same take by Loewe.  What makes the latter significant emerged in the report I wrote of this concert for Examiner.com:

While the Schubert setting is the more familiar (if not the most familiar of his songs), Loewe's is particularly enlightening when we realize that Gustav Mahler studied his work scrupulously before undertaking any of his own song settings.  Thus, the attentive listener will not be surprised to find that the opening gesture of Loewe's setting provides a tantalizing foretaste of "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" from the Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen;  and the overall rhetoric of the setting anticipates many of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs.

I had the good fortune to chat a bit with Brancoveanu after I had filed this report and mentioned this bit of influence that spanned about half a century.  Brancoveanu accepted the possible validity of the hypothesis, and further support can be found for it in the other Loewe selection in the EMI collection.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Misunderstanding Poverty

With all the recent focus on poverty, I found myself revisiting a quotation from Karl Marx that caught my attention back in 2008:

The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

This comes from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy;  and, when I last cited it, I was taken by the extent to which the second sentence could be taken as an anticipation of George Herbert Mead’s concept of "social behaviorism."

However, my fixation the second sentence distracted me from the first, which basically states that the nature of that “social being” that “determines” consciousness is, itself, determined strictly by the “mode of production of material life.”  This emphasis of on the influence of material production became the basis for a school of thought called “historical materialism;”  and Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” was written as an attack on that school of thought.  Indeed, there is a good chance that Benjamin intended his title to be a parody of Marx’ Theses on Feuerbach.

The problem with the materialism perspective is that it does not allow for those excluded from any role in that “production of material life.”  However, that exclusion lies at the heart of poverty.  It is why the poor are condemned to become social outcasts.  As we see from our current unemployment statistics, the assumption that the poor can end their plight simply by getting jobs is unrealistic, particularly when the very concept of “work” is ready to join the ranks of other concepts suffering from loss of meaning.  Is it any wonder that those planning our “recovery” do not understand poverty?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Technology Discovers Poverty

There seems to be an unholy alliance between talk of technology and talk of economic growth, most likely fed by the proposition that advances in technology are a primary engine of economic growth.  As a corollary, the very word “poverty” almost never appears in reports of technological advances.  Indeed, “poverty” is a “P-word,” often more of a taboo than either the “F-word” or the “N-word” in more pedestrian social circles.  Today, however, Larry Dignan has broken that taboo in his Between the Lines column for ZDNet and it was in his capacity as reporter, rather than through his own initiative.

What he was reporting was a research note by Craig Moffett, an analyst at Bernstein Research.  The note was about projects of growth in that wonderful domain of “convergence” involving telecommunications, the Internet, and cable television.  Dignan reproduced the following text from Moffett’s note:

A central theme of our research about pay TV and telecommunications for the past two years has been the growing problem of poverty, and the inherent mismatch between the expectations of media and telecom investors for rising prices and penetration on the one hand, and the lack of means among lower-income consumers on the other. Projections for smartphone penetration, broadband adoption, and pay TV prices must take account of affordability.

This is then supplemented with a second quote:

The bull case for the telecom sector rests on the notion of a rising tide of smartphone adoption that will lift all boats. For this thesis to work, operators will need to extract additional revenue from lower-income Americans. And yet it isn’t clear that there’s any revenue left to extract. Today, the fastest growing segment in the U.S. wireless market is not smartphones… it is government-subsidized wireless service for the poor. The bottom end of the market is trading down as quickly as the top end is trading up.

There you have it.  The specious premise of those who have drunk too much “growth Kool-Aid” is that, if you innovate good stuff, people will come to pay for it.  Because those addicted to this premise have never paid attention to poverty (and therefore simply do not understand it), they have never considered the proposition that people will only pay for that good stuff if they can afford it.  In other words, as a general principle, poverty is bad for business;  but this has never been a principle taught in business schools or discussed in such elevated gatherings as meetings organized by the World Economic Forum.  To the contrary, those gatherings have made it a consistent practice of ignoring those, such as Muhammad Yunus, who have staked their careers on striving for a better understanding of poverty and then trying to do something about it.  I, for one, will be interested to see whether companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon decide to treat this Bernstein report the same way they have treated Yunus.

Sacred Music as Opera?

I have never tried to hide the fact that I am no great fan of Giuseppe Verdi.  Among other things this means that I am less than amused by those who think they are exercising their wit by proclaiming that Verdi’s setting of the text for the requiem mass is his greatest opera.  The only extent to which I am willing to grant this proposition is that it implies that the requiem setting seems to attract as many bad performers as most of his operas, particularly the ones based on substandard material like Il Trovatore.  However, when Verdi had a good partner, as was almost consistently the case when Arrigo Boito worked on the libretto, his music definitely rises above the clichés that abound in the requiem.

Does that mean that we can lay the many faults of the requiem on the text?  Not only would that be unfair to the words of a rite fundamental to a major religion, but also it would overlook the significant contributions of other composers from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end of the timeline to Benjamin Britten at the other.  Furthermore, in the context of that attempt at wit, it is important to recognize that both of these counterexamples are responsible for some of the greatest musical scores in the history of opera.

No, it has nothing to do with the words.  I would prefer to advance the unpopular hypothesis that Verdi was fundamentally lazy.  (This distinguishes him somewhat from Gioachino Rossini, who never seemed to worry about hiding his “inner laziness.”)  When Verdi had someone like Boito to push back whenever he drifted towards taking the easy path through a challenging situation, he could rise to the occasion.  We see this not only in Otello but also in the reworking of Simon Boccanegra.  Il Trovatore, on the other hand, lacked the benefit of such a work setting.

I am also willing to grant that there are conductors who can make Verdi worthy of serious listening even when he lapses into mediocrity (or worse).  In La Traviata the first lapse comes when the full orchestra takes over from the initial statement in high strings;  but the Pierre Monteux recording (the only one he made of opera, as I recall) rescues this from sounding like a blatant blooper.  Similarly, Arturo Toscanini threw so much into that 1951 NBC broadcast of the requiem from Carnegie Hall that one might almost grant that the music is not so bad after all.  I have no idea how he did it, but I suspect that no living conductor does either!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Recording Shostakovich's Preludes and Fugues

It looks like my desire to hear all of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 87 collection of 24 prelude/fugue couplings in performance will finally be satisfied.  Alexander Melnikov, whose Harmonia Mundi recording of the full set, received a 2011 BBC Music Magazine Award in the Instrumental category.  Now San Francisco Performances has announced that Melnikov will make his San Francisco debut by performing this collection in its entirety.  The recital will take place in the afternoon (November 12), which is probably good, since it will probably last about three hours (with intermission).

As I have previously written, I got to know this music through a set of free downloads of the complete set, recorded from a recital given by Denis Plutalov at Watson Hall of the North Carolina School of the Arts on May 23, 2005.  The interesting problem that arises, though, is how to fit the full set on CDs.  The first twelve fit comfortably on a single CD, but after that extended prolongation tends to get the better of Shostakovich.  My second CD goes from 13 to 21.  That leaves the remaining three taking about half an hour.  That is not much for a CD.  Fortunately, I could fill out my personal copy with other Plutalov tracks:  Sergei Prokofiev’s eighth piano sonata and Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Siegfried’s funeral march from Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.  On the other hand Harmonia Mundi seems to go all the way from 13 to 23 on their second CD.  That leaves only the final pair.  Apparently they put it on one side of a disc with a DVD of an interview with Melnikov on the other.  Naxos, on a third hand, seems to have fit everything on to two CDs;  but that seems to be because Konstantin Scherbakov gives the selections brisker readings!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Losing What Remains of the Meaning of History

I am no fan of the History Channel.  My attitude towards it is, at best, suspect;  but, when we consider just how averse our culture has become to the very concept of history, I cannot say that I blame them for trying to reverse the course, even if their results tend to be on the slipshod side.  In this context when I first saw a Yahoo! News headline about the History Channel undertaking a Bible series, my initial reaction was to give the producers the benefit of the doubt.  (After all, Yahoo! News has pretty much knocked itself out of the running as a trusted source for what others would take to be news.)

Well, I guess the History Channel does not deserve that benefit.  According to Bill Carter’s story in this morning’s New York Times, the producer for this series will be Mark Burnett.  For those unfamiliar with the name, his previous production credits include the “reality television” series Survivor, The Apprentice, and The Voice.  In the annals of the deterioration brought on by loss of meaning, these programs will probably stand out for depriving the noun “reality” of just about all of its past semantic associations.  Now it is history’s turn to suffer similar loss of meaning.  While there may be no end of fascinating accounts of how different versions of that text document called “The Bible” came to be, the History Channel is not interested in such an explicitly historic take on that document.  According to Carter’s report, the project will be “a 10-hour series based on the stories of the Bible.”  In other words the series will present the Bible as history, rather than literature.  While this is definitely a controversial position, it is certainly consistent with those intent on maintaining a faith-based mentality.

From a literary point of view, however, the greatest shortcoming of faith may be that it does not allow for irony.  Thus, the History Channel will probably not realize that Carter’s report has them stepping on a big steaming pile of irony, perhaps even with both feet.  Having established that this series will be scripted drama, rather than a narrative based on documented historical record, Carter inserted the following sentence into his account:

History’s most recent experience with a scripted drama based on fact was “The Kennedys,” which it dropped in January, saying the mini-series did not live up to its standards of accuracy.

Is this supposed to imply that there will be “standards of accuracy” when it comes to dramatizing Bible stories?  More likely the History Channel will turn its attention from the loss of meaning of “history” to sucking the semantic life out of the phrase “standards of accuracy!”

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Keyboard Music for Solo Instrument

One of the more fascinating sequences in Michael Lawrence’s BACH & friends documentary finds Richard Stoltzman in a church sanctuary with extremely live acoustics performing what appears to be his own transcription of the “chromatic fantasia” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 903.  This is probably one of the few occasions in which I felt that those church acoustics were actually enhanced the qualities of a really dense melodic line;  but I realized that this was not the first time I had heard an effort to reduce this particular instance of “all-finger” keyboard music to a single voice.  Trey Gunn had a rather awesome arrangement of his own that he would play on his own Chapman Stick in performances with Robert Fripp, one of which was captured on video.  This is clearly elaborate multi-voice music;  but the multiple voices can be embedded in a single melodic line, as we encounter in Bach’s sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin.  Indeed, that spirit probably motivated Zoltán Kodály to do his transcription of the fantasy for solo viola.

All this reminded me of a far more impressive effort to transcribe keyboard music for a single-voice instrument.  Lewis Porter’s biography of John Coltrane has a quotation from pianist James “Hen Gates” Foreman about one particular episode on the road with Trane in 1949.  This is the part that leapt out at me:

He took my Hanon and Czerny piano exercise books, and some kind of way he was able to finger his horn to play these notes.  I couldn’t understand that.  In fact, all of the musicians in the band were amazed.  They couldn’t believe that he would make a lot of the notes.

Did Stoltzman know that Trane did this?  If so, I wonder if it inspired him to attempt the same!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Prospects for the Middle East

After doing a bit of browsing, I discovered that I wrote the following in November of 2007:

Perhaps we should recall the wisdom of Georges Clemenceau ("La guerre! C’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.") and recognize that peace in the Middle East is too serious to be entrusted to political leaders.

The fact is that the only motive behind Barack Obama’s speech yesterday at the State Department was political, not only with respect to the American electorate but also as a head-on confrontation with those who lobby on behalf of Israel, timed the eve of a visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  There is no question that Netanyahu’s reaction to Obama’s “redistricting” proposal to address Palestinian needs was more predictable than assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow.  (Wait a minute, aren’t there folks out there convinced that this will not happen?)  The more important question is whether either Obama’s speech or Netanyahu’s reaction is in any way relevant.

To some extent this was a recurring theme in the survey of reactions released on the BBC News Web site, all from countries currently contending with the consequences of the Arab Spring, each in its own way.  Far more relevant is likely to be a piece by Lucy Ash profiling grass roots efforts towards peace originating with an individual Palestinian and an individual Israeli, respectively.  For people like these, the predictability of the rising of the sun is far less important that whether or not you will live to see that next sunrise.  Without peace one cannot plan for a future, because one is far too uncertain about whether or not there will be a future.

In this respect I find it a bit ironic that medici.tv, a French Web site that streams videos of classical music performances, should schedule an event particularly relevant to those who strive to pursue the cause of peace without carrying any political baggage.  This Saturday at 10 AM San Francisco time, there will be a live webcast of a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, originating from the Salle Pleyel in Paris.  The ensemble will be conducted by its founder, Daniel Barenboim, based only on the premise that young Arab and Israeli musicians should have the opportunity to come together in the interest of making music.

Not only does Barenboim believe in peace, but also he believes that he can further it through the resources he has at his disposal.  On the basis of his success in working with the young, at the beginning of this month he challenged the Israeli ban on traveling to Gaza.  His goal was to have a small string orchestra give a concert of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart there.  He had to jump through any number of bureaucratic hoops, but I felt that his ultimate success deserved a report on my Examiner.com national site.

Barenboim’s successes with both young and professional musicians reinforce my trope on Clemenceau.  “Peace in our time” is a shallow piece of political rhetoric, neither better nor worse than “the audacity of hope.”  The real question is whether we can have “peace without politics.”  When Bob Dylan sang about an “old road” that is “Rapidly agin’,” did he not have the political institutions of his time in mind?  Obama, Netanyahu, and just about everyone trying to manipulate foreign policy decisions through the machinations if AIPAC should think about Dylan’s punch line:

Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

If an “old school” conductor like Barenboim can get it, why can’t the rest of us?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Reading and the Cult of Efficiency

The operative paragraph in Charles Simic’s post to NYRBlog yesterday, “A Country Without Libraries,” is the penultimate one:

I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities. Yes, reading books is a slow, time-consuming, and often tedious process. In comparison, surfing the Internet is a quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments. Books require patience, sustained attention to what is on the page, and frequent rest periods for reverie, so that the meaning of what we are reading settles in and makes its full impact.

Most important is that it shows the extent to which “some politician” has lost touch with his/her responsibilities as a representative of the electorate, regardless of whether that individual is speaking for the TEA Party, for so-called “moderate” Republicans, or for Democrats.  Now that the sorry state of the country’s economy seems to top everyone’s list of priorities, it is time to recognize that politicians use it only as agency for increasing their power bases;  and the needs of the electorate be damned.

Well, that last sentence may be a bit extreme.  However, it is not so extreme to assert that you can get your voters to approve of any of your ideas as long as you market them the right way.  When it comes to ideas about the economy, politicians all seem to think that the best marketing pitch has to do with catch terms like “productivity” and “efficiency,” which are promoted for their direct causal link to “economic growth.”  Who benefits from any of this jargon and how is a secondary matter, but the jargon explains why the political attitude towards a public service like a free lending library has turned out so wrongheaded.

The crux of Simic’s paragraph is that reading has nothing to do with “productivity” and “efficiency.”  To the contrary, it is “slow, time-consuming, and often tedious,” ostensibly a waste of time when one can just do a Google search.  The corollary of this corrupted view of reading is yet another instance of the more general problem of “loss of meaning,” through which politicians and economists can talk about recovery with total disregard to the impact of that talk on the general population.  This is not to say that life should be all about time-consuming tedium;  but it is to say that a knowledgeable life is not all about the efficiency of Google searches.  On the other hand politicians, economists, and (most importantly) those they really serve among the rich and mighty see little gain in a knowledgeable life for the rest of the public.  In other words the attack on public libraries is just another salvo in the War Against the Poor;  and, in the context of that war, it is not in the best interest of those with the power of wealth to endow those who would rebel with the power of knowledge.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

All About the Borgias

I have no doubt that Ingrid Rowland knows more about the entire Borgia dynasty than the assembled wisdom of everyone who contributed to the current Borgias series on Showtime.  So I was not surprised that she should use a post to NYRBlog to skewer just about every aspect of the Showtime production.  I was even pleased to see that she shared my reaction to the anachronistic selections of music, although she turned to Carlo Gesualdo for her example, while I felt that the injection of George Frideric Handel was even more ludicrous.  On the other hand I found that I could make lemonade out of this particular lemon, writing about Harmonia Mundi’s Dinastia Borja project on my national site for Examiner.com.

In the grand scheme of things, however, Rowland’s piece reminded me of some of those old Saturday morning cartoons about some poor guy being bothered by a fly and ultimately dispatching it with a howitzer.  Having endured The Tudors, historical accuracy was the last thing I expected from The Borgias.  However The Tudors was deadly serious to the point of tedium, almost as if it wanted to be a 21st-century reincarnation of 19th-century bel canto opera.  From the very beginning The Borgias had a sense a humor;  and, if Neil Jordan was more interested in honoring the legacy of Mel Brooks than all the volumes of Renaissance studies, then he deserves credit, because, whatever faults the series may have, tedium is definitely not one of them.

In this context even the musical anachronisms may be part of the formula.  Perhaps the most important lesson from Jordi Savall’s Harmonia Mundi project is that there was not much distance between music heard in formal settings (such as the celebration of a new Pope) and music heard in the public streets.  Jordan has taken a similarly pedestrian approach to all of his characters;  not only the members of the Borgia family but also all the “nobles” (scare quotes out of respect to Aristotle) who figured in their family saga.  As a result the whole thing plays out as a situation comedy, perhaps with a nod to the knowledgeability of The Simpsons, rather than “historical drama;”  and that is the essence of Aristotelian comedy, no mean feat for anyone working in contemporary theater, even when it is the theater of the small screen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

IMF Priorities

While the media gear up for reporting on how Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) will be exchanging a luxury suite at the Times Square Sofitel for more confined quarters on Rikers Island, BBC News has begun speculations on who will take over as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  They consider ten likely candidates;  but, while they frame the decision in terms of whether the new Managing Director will be based in Europe or in a developing nation, my guess is that all the names floated by the BBC have one thing in common.  They all would be right at home rubbing all the right shoulders whenever the rich and mighty of the World Economic Forum convene.

This seems to be a good time to revisit a comment made by Manfred Max-Neef, author of Outside Looking In:  Experiences in Barefoot Economics, when he was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! in November of 2010:

Economists study and analyze poverty in their nice offices, have all the statistics, make all the models, and are convinced that they know everything that you can know about poverty. But they don’t understand poverty.

I am sure that there is no shortage of well-educated and intellectually keen economists out there;  but perhaps this is a good time for the IMF to reflect on what it wants its priorities to be.  My guess is that current thinking is that the highest priority is for every country in the world to achieve a respectable rate of economic growth.  Max-Neef’s point, however, is that such a priority says nothing about the existence and proliferation of poverty.  Only Muhammad Yunus has managed to achieve a high profile in the news through his efforts to address the problem of poverty (regardless of how successful those efforts have been);  and he has been scrupulously ignored by both the World Economic Forum and G20 meetings.

One of the reasons that DSK may be in the soup that currently engulfs him is that, however skilled he may have been in addressing problems of signification posed by economic models, his personal life was ruled by priorities of domination (drawing upon the terminology of Anthony Giddens to emphasize the distinction).  Whether or not the developing world is “recognized” through a representative in charge of the IMF, the Fund will still have an agenda that reflects such priorities of domination, specifically domination over the poor.  Since Yunus has just been pushed out of the very job that he created, a shift in IMF priorities might be a situation advantageous for an innovative thinker out of work, not to mention all those people around the world who remain hopelessly (and helplessly) mired in poverty.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Further Adventures with Morton Feldman

Is Morton Feldman becoming mainstream?  The last time I wrote about him at any length on this site was back in May of 2007 when I felt a need to document my struggles with trying to play his rather massive “Piano,” which he had completed in May of 1977.  Since that time, however, he has (justifiably) occupied a fair amount of attention on my Examiner.com sites, not only because of recordings of his music but also because that music has now graced the San Francisco Symphony subscription series in Davies Symphony Hall.  I have also written about the first part of The Viola in My Life being performed at a San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert in October of 2009, but I would have expected Feldman to get more than a fair shake from that ensemble.  I remember when Leonard Bernstein tried to bring Feldman’s music to Philharmonic Hall (as it was then called) in Lincoln Center;  and the result was nothing short of a fiasco.  The fact is that Feldman gets respect here in San Francisco even to the point of now being embraced by the mainstream.

In this context I think it is valuable to look back on recordings that were made back when he was “not ready for prime time.”  These recordings came into my hands in unlikely locations, not all of which I can remember.  Some of them still have price tags, however, which are not in United States currency.  The good news is that some of them are available from Amazon even without leaving the American site.  Even if all Amazon offers involve mediating with other sellers, it is still a good place to explore for learning about Feldman’s early efforts.

One of my favorites is an import from Italy that has no title other than the composer’s name.  The label is Edition RZ, and I am not sure I have seen any other recording that they have released.  However, the Feldman CD is a real goodie not only for the selections but also for the performers.  Here is the Product Description from its Amazon Web page:

Beautiful collection, primarily made up of Feldman's earliest, shorter piano works from the early 50s, going through the late 70s. A much needed compendium to all the essential documentation of his later, intensely long works that have been coming out (mainly on Hat Art). Performances here by Feldman himself, David Tudor, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury and others. "In his compositions for piano, which make up a central part of his oeuvre and in which all of his experience is accumulated, it is the play of Feldman's hand whose touch is intended precisely for the 'untouchableness' of sound. The clear character of the 'attack' thus displays the paradox of such playing: it is just as much about concealing the idiosyncrasy of the piano sound, the precise point of attack while, at the same time, the structure and tension of those sounds are formed by the hand." --Stefan Schadler. Track list: Piano Three Hands, Intermission 5, Vertical Thoughts 2, Extensions 3, Four Instruments, Intermission 5, Piano Piece 1956 A + B, Intersection 3, Instruments 1.

The only thing missing from this is the time frame.  The earliest works on the recording are the “Intermission” pieces, which were composed in 1952 (as was “Extensions 3.”  The latest is “Four Instruments” from 1975.  In terms of my thinking about Feldman in terms of his working with longer and longer durations, these are all relatively brief works, some of which involve his use of graph paper for indeterminate specification and others involve the beginning of his “durations” phase.  Those who have followed by Examiner.com writing know by now that there are many paths to getting to know Feldman, but this Italian CD is definitely one of the best of them.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bernanke Plays the Fear Card

[Actually posted on Thursday, May 12]

Whatever anyone may say about the personal motives of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, it is safe to conclude that a wholesale failure of the American economy is no more in his best interests than it is for those of us who are not “high rollers” in that economy.  Thus, he has little tolerance for Republican ideologues who probably know little, if anything, about any prevailing economic theories (whether they involve the “free markets” of Milton Friedman or the Keynesian principle of regulation), preferring to incant the evils of taxation, following the mindless four-legs-good-two-legs-bad thinking ridiculed in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  Ideology is, of course, robustly immune to the argumentative discipline of refutation;  and, testifying this morning before a Senate committee examining progress on the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, it was clear that Bernanke appreciated these limitations of logic.

Thus, when the discussion turned to the question of raising the debt ceiling, Bernanke could not ignore the intentions of House Majority Leader John Boehner to hold decision-making hostage to further draconian cuts in government spending.  Here is the key excerpt from his Senate testimony as reported by BBC News:

It is a risky approach not to raise the debt limit in a reasonable time.

The worst outcome would be one in which the financial system was again destabilised as we saw following Lehman, for example, which would of course have extremely dire consequences for the US economy.

In other words when all else fails, play the fear card.  Most voters probably did not have a direct stake in the Lehman Brothers collapse;  but they are smart enough to see it as one of the dominos that fell when the national economy (and, for that matter, the global economy) went south.  Bernanke did not have to call out Republicans for not having given enough thought to economic recovery.  He could just haul out a convenient bogey man and hope that voters (even those in the TEA Party) would get on their respective representatives cases about the dangers of making things worse than they already are.  Perhaps this is one of those cases when reasoning by fear will be more beneficial than reasoning by logic, particularly when the logic is as convoluted as it is!

Highway 61 Under Water?

I have to confess that my knowledge of the geography of the Southern states is weak.  So, when I see footage of the current flood damage on television, I have only a vague sense of the places where the footage has been shot.  However, there is one location down there that has nothing to do with either the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement that should resonate with anyone who believes in taking a broad view of music history.  This is the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where (legend has it) Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil and became the blues master that so many find inspirational.  I had to go to Wikipedia to find out that Clarksdale is in Coahoma County, which is one of the Mississippi counties that sits on the Mississippi River.  Thus, it did not surprise me to read Robert Lee Long’s report in the Desoto Times Tribune that Coahoma County had been declared eligible to receive Federal disaster assistance.  My guess, however, is that Clarksdale is far enough inland that its famous intersection was never threatened.  Does the Devil still hang out there;  and was he protecting it (and Clarksdale as part of the bargain)?