Sunday, July 31, 2011


Whatever I may have said in the past about technology insulating us from reality, I have to confess that sometimes that insulation can be beneficial.  This is particularly the case during long stretches of travel in an enclosed space.  I therefore find it interesting that buses have followed the lead of the airlines in providing diversionary entertainment;  and I am impressed that the stretch between Portland, Maine and Logan International Airport in Boston provides Wi-Fi, as well as audio channels and a movie (which, on this particular occasion, as I am writing this text, is doing a great job of reminding my why I avoid movie houses these days).

I have never been able to read on a bus without getting nauseous.  Nevertheless, I seem to have no trouble with a keyboard.  Mind you, an audio channel with Sunday-appropriate Bach probably helps matters along.  The result is that I do not have to worry about extraneous noises (which were particularly well masked on the flight from San Francisco to Boston, which had to contend with the proverbial infant-from-Hell problem).  The situation is sufficiently calming that I can even appreciate the scenery as this bus contends with frost heaves from last winter that were never repaired.  I suppose I shall just have to join the spirit of the age that surrounds me and admit that, at least in some circumstances, reality may be severely overrated!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Modest Proposal for Those Opposing Taxes

Here is a thought for those members of both Houses of Congress whose approach to “compromise” entails eliminating any language pertaining to using tax revenue to deal with the current budget crisis.  First, they should voluntarily refuse to accept any salary until the crisis is resolved.  Second, they should decline the health care package they receive in conjunction with their employment;  and pay for their health expenses out of their own respective pockets.  I cannot think of a better way for them to empathize with everyone else in this country trying to get through hard times.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Joyce's Music

I wrote the other day about rereading James Joyce’s “The Dead;”  and this seems to have triggered my looking into the cycle of the Dubliners stories as a whole.  As Harry Levin’s introduction, in The Portable James Joyce observes, these stories are actually an integrated cycle running from early childhood to that point in our maturity when we start to think seriously about the coming of death.  Thus, there is a certain logical consistency to the significant role played by memory in “The Dead.”

There is also some consistency to Joyce’s device of linking memory of the past to the presence of music.  Actually, this is just a specific subcategory of his more general concept of the epiphany, based on the idea that any stimulus can serve as such a trigger for both memory and insight.  Nevertheless, music was particularly important to Joyce, who, after all, once had a sound tenor voice.  Ulysses, for example, is suffused with “background music” from the very dawn of July 16, 1904 to the midnight musings of Molly Bloom.

From this point of view, it is interesting that music really does not make an appearance in Dubliners until “Eveline.”  In the overall cycle this is the point of transition from childhood to adolescence.  The children in the earlier stories have memories;  but Eveline is the first to have memories linked to music by way of The Bohemian Girl, an operetta that used to serve any number of narratives, usually in conjunction with romanticized memories (particularly those of “marble halls”).  Eveline is the first character whose inner thoughts dwell on romance;  and the music of Michael William Balfe (who was, after all, Irish) is about as good a source of background music for those thoughts as any.

The most important integrating factor of Dubliners is probably its complete lack of sentimentality.  Joyce was in Trieste when he wrote most of the text in 1904, and the memories behind each of his tales were anything but fond.  Nevertheless, if there are any signs on sentiment in his writing, they surface when he writes about music. Perhaps, when music was concerned, he could write with the more positive perspective of a performing musician, rather than the cynicism of an embittered expatriate.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Honoring the Editor

I have not been taking Reuters to task as much as I used to do, although every now and then I still seem to find a blooper that gets under my skin.  The fact is that I abandoned my Reuters RSS feeds some time ago;  so, if I encounter Reuters at all, it is probably during one of my rare ventures into Yahoo! News, whose blunders always seem to exceed any I found in Reuters by (at least) an order of magnitude.  As a result, when I encountered an instance of Reuters doing something right this morning, I could not say whether or not it was particularly new;  but it definitely deserves credit.

I encountered this “something” while reading a piece by Kristina Cooke under the headline, “China news agency leases plum Times Square ad space.”  At the very bottom of the article was the following parenthesis:

(Editing by Mark Egan and Eric Walsh)

This is the first time I have seen such a credit.  Usually that space is used to acknowledge other “contributors,” without making it clear what was contributed.  Given the extent to which the Internet has pretty much sucked the life out of any qualities that distinguish journalism as a profession, the idea of acknowledging by name those involved in the editing side of the profession is a rather astonishing bit of relief.  At the very least it is a gentle reminder that those who edit are as responsible for what one reads as are those who report.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Within the course of this month, I find that I have used the world “withdrawal” on my national site for in two separate articles, one having to do with Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung and the other with the repertoire of Johann Sebastian Bach (with, perhaps, some emphasis on his sacred music).  In both cases I know that I was being a bit prankish by indulging in some rhetorical hyperbole.  Nevertheless, there are ways in which music can work its way into one’s consciousness, taking root in memory long after the sensory signals themselves have passed.  I suppose I have been thinking about this lately, since I have been rereading James Joyce’s “The Dead,” whose plot depends on memories triggered by a particular song.

There is also the protagonist of the play Good, by C. P. Taylor, whose unconscious mind is always stirring with memories of music while his conscious self is witnessing the rise of the Nazi Party.  I know the feeling (at least of the former).  I could not shake the constant presence of music from the back of my head, even if I wanted to do so.  However, when I am on the road with limited (if any) access to recordings and usually no access to actual performances, this ghostly presence can be both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is that it continues to exercise my capacity for listening.  I tend to subscribe to those who believe that the mind requires exercise to stay in shape as much as the body does.  Thus, there are many who engage in exercises in memory, rather as if they were the mental equivalent of running through several pages from Hanon at the keyboard every day.  Reconstructing the listening experience of a quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven may be a bit like a mathematician reconstructing the proof of a theorem in his head when his books and papers are not at hand.

The curse, on the other hand, lies behind my use of that adjective “ghostly.”  The music is an “auditory apparition,” rather than a “phenomenal presence.”  As such, it is a somewhat saddening reminder that “music itself” is not present.  One is haunted, as one might be by the memory of a deceased friend or mentor.  On the other hand this is also the mind’s way of “playing with the cards that have been dealt,” which, as I recently observed, is the best we can ever do in any situation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Rich ARE Different!

Contrary to the old joke, the rich may be different not because they have more money but because of what they choose to do with that money.  In our country they seem to want to spend their money influencing the government to keep their taxes low.  In other words, rather than participating in the democratic process by contributing their fair share of revenue necessary to sustain the government, they will go to all financial lengths to avoid doing so.

Other cultures seem to approach wealth in different ways.  There is a particularly disturbing video just put up on the BBC News Web site.  The topic is a major increase in illegal trade in endangered animal species.  The story inquires rhetorically into the origin of this kind of demand.  My guess is that it is another symptom of how the rich are different.  They do this kind of thing for no other reason than that they can do it.  In other words they muck around with the ecological balance of endangered species in the same way that our “captains of industry” muck around with global climate conditions.

I suppose the rich are different in what they do because they know that the rest of us can’t do a damned thing about it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

On the Danger of Devaluing Conversation

I seem to have spent a fair amount of time recently brooding over Max Weber’s warning about the “loss of meaning” in a society that becomes too preoccupied with marketplaces.  From this point of view, I wanted to raise a red flag over a word whose loss of meaning may be particularly hazardous.  That word is “conversation;”  and it means a lot to me, because I happen to have been working for Fuji Xerox back when Xerox decided to launch “keep the conversation going” as a marketing slogan.  Ironically, this phrase seems to have originated with Richard Rorty, whose Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature argued that "keeping the conversation going" was fundamental to the practice of philosophy;  but it is hard to imagine Xerox promoting either products or services on the basis of their contributions to the work of philosophers.

Back in the early days of social software, I posed the question, “What if we all gathered in conversation and nobody had anything to say?”  My point was that this was a technology in which the very nature of interaction, so fundamental to how we socialize, might get overwhelmed by an onslaught of babble for the sake of babble, rather along the lines of what we now see in so much of the use of Twitter.  I suggested that the very semantics of “conversation” might get undermined by a new form of “hollow conversation.”

However, it was only while reading The Social Construction of Reality:  A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge, by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, that I realized how fundamental conversation was.  Indeed, it was fundamental enough to be relevant to the interests of the Xerox Corporation, at least back when Xerox was trying to establish itself in the knowledge management market.  Here is the critical passage from this book about conversation:

To be sure, an individual usually remembers the realities of his past.  But the way to “refresh” these memories is to converse with those who share their relevance.

This immediately resonated with me, because one of the key problems of knowledge management involved the effective maintenance of organizational memory:  Is it possible for the knowledge of the individual to “migrate” to the organization as a whole;  and, if so, how is this achieved?  Conventional wisdom assumed that this was a problem to be solved by bigger and better databases with bigger and better search tools.  Some even argued that Google had “solved” the organizational memory problem.  Only a few of us suggested that “artifacts of knowledge” were far less important than “acts of knowing” and that conversation was probably the most fundamental such act of knowing.

Berger and Luckmann reinforced this position by suggesting that memory itself depended on conversation;  and it was gratifying to see that they did this back in 1966, back in the same time frame when Jacques Derrida was warning against the problems of dependency on “dead and rigid knowledge.”  Unfortunately, a culture that has lost touch with the value of history has also lost touch with the nature of memory.  As a result, we have become a culture in which not only is there conversation with nothing to say but also there are technologies of knowledge management with no “knowledge to manage.”

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Stop Lying to the American People!

The extent to which the demagoguery of Grover Norquist has crippled the political process can be seen in John Boehner’s statement on the current state of play over debt ceiling negotiations.  The critical text can be found in this morning’s Al Jazeera English account, based on the usual wire sources.  Here are Boehner’s words:

The president is emphatic that taxes have to be raised.  As a former small businessman, I know taxes destroy jobs.

This may not be a matter of flat-out lying to the American public;  but it is certainly an excellent case of calculated distortion.  One wonders just what kind of excuse for logic leads Boehner to conclude that taxing the ultra-rich destroys jobs for those now out of work in the wake of the economic crisis.  If Boehner were honest about his experiences as a “small businessman,” he would have to own up to the fact that the greatest enemy of small business is larger business, all those massive globalized conglomerates that make it impossible for small businesses to make ends meet and while continuing the evade the efforts of our government to get them to pony up any contributions to revenue for the Federal Budget.

More and more Americans whose lives have been ruined by the economic crisis are waking up to the fact that Norquist’s Tax Payer Protection pledge amounts to a pledge to bankrupt both American citizens and quite possibly the government as a whole.  The only consequences is that the rich will get richer.  If the dollar loses value, they can always shift their wealth over to other resources.  The rest of us get to go down with the ship.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Demagoguery Prevails

If there was any doubt that Grover Norquist is the “new age boss” of American politics, the “agreement” between Barack Obama and John Boehner should have sealed the deal.  This purported agreement contains no specific language of revenue from taxes (particularly from the rich) in any foreseeable time frame.  If this is what it takes to increase the debt ceiling, then there is good reason for those who rate bonds to make good on their threats about downgrading the quality of our debt.

The good news is that this agreement may have unified Democratic opposition in ways seldom seen in the history of that Party.  At the very least, they know that they have a lot of public support for what they do, particularly since the rich are more and more of a minority.  However, the whole thing about the “boss system” is that the will of the boss always trumps the will of the people;  and the will of the boss lies with those who pay him.  Apparently, it is cheaper for the rich to buy off a boss than to pay their fair share of taxes.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Legislating Respect

Lance Whitney used his Politics and Law blog on CNET News this morning to discuss a recent initiative of the municipal government of Philadelphia (the “City of Brotherly Love”), which he summarized as follows:

Launched in May, a new program known as "Give Respect, Get Respect" is geared to crack down on all sorts of "bad behavior" on and off the road, from cell phone-carrying pedestrians who talk and text while they walk to bicylists who ride on the sidewalk.

As might be imagined, this post attracted a fair share of comments, most of which involved rants against “Nanny state” thinking.  Such comments also tended to argue that those who behave badly should experience the consequences directly, rather than through government intervention.  OniOokamiAlfador described himself as “a big enough guy” that he does not have to worry about getting out of the way of someone distracted by using their mobile phone to text or talk.

Then there was driveteach1, who was definitely not shy about venting:

When you are just too stupid to pay attention to others, when in a public place, and put others in jeopardy because of your egotistical lifestyle, a good smack in the wallet is a good thing.

In other words this comment supports the city’s decision to “crack down” on “bad behavior” by imposing fines as at least a step in the right direction.

My problem, however, is that, however cumulative they may be, steps could well be too small to have any impact.  My own comment described the city’s actions as “trying to put a Band-Aid on a severed carotid artery.”  “Dangerous behavior” (which I prefer to “bad behavior”) is a highly nebulous concept, which will always mean many different things in many different contexts.  The same may be said about the sources of that behavior.  It is easy enough to blame technology, but what about the general public attitude that no level of government either knows or cares about the conditions they have to endure in economic hard times?  When an individual feels that any sort of meaningful bond to a broader sense of society has been obliterated along with more tangible items, such as food, clothing, and shelter, is it any surprise when that individual retreats into raw, survival-driven egotism?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Playing the Cards you are Dealt

It sometimes seems as if the greatest enemy of those who write about the performance of music are those responsible for all the “infrastructure” production work behind those performances.  (Note that hedge-word “seems.”  I advance this as a hypothesis, because I am not sure that I can substantiate it with an adequately-sized data set!)  These problems can surface in a variety of ways, but one of the most frequent has to do with any printed matter given to the audience as they enter the hall.

Yesterday’s performance of the BWV 232 B minor mass setting by Johann Sebastian Bach, given by American Bach Society musicians and both faculty and students in their summer Academy, was an interesting case in point.  The printed program was more than a little frustrating for those interested in the names of the soloists.  None of the instrumental soloists were identified by name and there were more names of vocal soloists than performers actually on the stage.  This was probably due to the fact that yesterday’s was the first of two performances of BWV 232 and that the second performance would feature different soloists.

For better or worse the San Francisco Classical Voice review by Jonathan Rhodes Lee chose to make an issue of this confusion.  This had a bit of a people-in-glass-houses ring to it, since the accompanying photograph of conductor Jeffrey Thomas had his two names reversed;  but that was just a reminder of the difficulties that befall the writing process when the writer needs to sort out which details matter most.  My own piece for chose to disregard naming soloists, but this was consistent with the way I tend to approach student performances.  I know from experience that this is a controversial issue, but my basic position is that students are under enough pressure without having to worry about what gets associated with their names as a matter of public record.  I take this as a guideline, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.  In fact, I even departed from it over the weekend;  but, when I do, it tends to be bring attention to something particularly positive.

My own bottom line is that I try to focus on writing about performances, rather than performers.  If I identify performers by name it all, it is in the context of specific contributions to the overall execution of the music.  Nevertheless, there have definitely been cases when those matters of infrastructure production have impeded (if not downright undermined) my efforts to provide a satisfactory account of a performance.  I was most aware of this when I tried to write about a performance by REDSHIFT at the Brick and Mortar Music Hall, which claimed to be the West Coast premiere of Arctic Sounds.  This was a suite to which ten composers contributed movements, all of which were inspired by field recordings of Alaskan wildlife.  The problem was that the folks at Brick and Mortar kept the audience in total darkness;  so, unless one had perfect eidetic memory of the list of composers and the titles of their respective contributions, it was difficult to approach the event as anything other than a sort of “sonic mural” with little sense of who had contributed what based on which natural sounds.  I am sure that none of the composers were well served by this setting, and I took the trouble to say as much.  However, in my effort to play the cards dealt to me as best as I could, I also observed that the audience was definitely appreciative of the performance, even if they did not have the details of what was being performed at their disposal.

There is nothing new about musicians having to endure frustrations coming from the infrastructure.  For most (all?) of the recording sessions that Thelonious Monk made with Prestige, the piano was out of tune;  and I am sure there are plenty of modern dance performers with horror stories about highly splintered floors.  The punch line for all of this is that “the show must go on.”  Whether we are performers or writers trying to account for the performances, circumstances are such that we are stuck with playing the cards dealt to us.  Complaining about those cards only works as a distraction when betting is involved.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Putting the Rolling Stones in Perspective

I see that tonight one of my local Public Television stations will be airing Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones, the documentary about their 1972 United States tour made by Rollin Binzer.  I shall probably set up my VTR to record this and not just because it is a relief from those unbearable retrospections of Lawrence Welk.  In 1972 I was pretty much entirely ignorant of the blues tradition that grew out of the Mississippi Delta.  Indeed, I had given that music almost no thought at all until Columbia released the complete recordings of Robert Johnson on CD in the early Nineties;  and even then it took some time for me to apprehend (with a fair amount of assistance from Robert Palmer in Robert Mugge’s Deep Blues documentary) just how much serious listening those recordings deserved.  Only after I had cultivated my own appreciation of Delta sounds and practices could I recognize how they had been appropriated by British rock during the wild Sixties.

I never went to a Stones concert.  I was never much for those mass gatherings.  I appreciated that they were pushing the envelope, but I suppose it would be fair to say that I had not grasped the extent of the envelope they were pushing.  Now that my listening is better informed, I feel better prepared to consider what they were doing some forty years ago.  Having spent so much of my recent time so fully immersed in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach, I am probably due for a change of perspective!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Piece or Stück?

As I have previously written, I organize my recordings according to an old Schwann catalog (“Schwann’s Way”).  Today, however, I discovered an interesting classification discrepancy.  For most composers works that are called simply “pieces” are listed under “P” in the alphabetical ordering of title.  However, the solo piano compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen are listed as “Klavierstücke.”  Was this an effort on the part of the Schwann editors to emphasize that Stockhausen’s works were, in some inherent way, “different?”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Economic Amnesia

This morning I found myself reading Clive James’ ramblings about British television (under the deceptive headline that he would have something substantive to say about the current troubles of Rupert Murdoch) in his column for the London Telegraph, which then led to my adding to the fray of comments of strong opinions on James, both positive and negative.  I came down on the negative side, primarily as a result of hearing James talk about his book Cultural Amnesia on Book TV.  Reading his column reminded me that the best part of James’ book was his title, which is probably why the title of the book is the only thing that remains in my memory.

Ironically, that memory was almost immediately triggered as I read a Viewpoint piece on the BBC News Website, whose title touched on one of my favorite topics:

I’ll say this for the BBC, creating a section called “Viewpoint” certainly makes for truth in advertising.  The author of this piece turned out to be Julie Meyer, Chief Executive of Ariadne Capital;  so the historically-informed reader could probably predict what her point of view would be.

I have to give her credit, though.  The dangerous magic words did not pop up until well into her article:

If I have to predict what is different this time around and who will prosper, I would say the camp that organises the most inclusive set of economics in its ecosystem - that is offering the best incentives to consumers and developers to use their platform - will win.

Now I happen to have a knee-jerk reaction to that phrase “different this time around;”  and it is a memory-based reaction.  The memory happens to be of another Book TV program, which featured Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff talking about their book This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, published by Princeton University Press on September 11, 2009 (another little dose of irony).  The publisher’s blurb for the book provides an excellent delivery of the punch line:

While countries do weather their financial storms, Reinhart and Rogoff prove that short memories make it all too easy for crises to recur.

The argumentation leading up to that conclusion not only validates the need for economic history as a serious intellectual discipline but also serves as a model for how such historical study should be practiced.

Needless to say, Meyer has nothing to say about this book.  One wonders whether or not she ever took the time to read it.  She thus establishes herself as a perfect example of why I continue to find the phrase “cultural amnesia” so relevant and significant.  Do I really want to see large quantities of money managed by someone who cannot put the lessons of history into proper perspective before coming to conclusions?  Of course the whole idea behind Viewpoint is that everyone is entitled to an opinion.  My own opinion is that anyone hooked on this-time-its-different thinking is inviting the next economic crisis to set in before we have extricated ourselves from the current one.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The New Political Bosses

Gary Wills used a post to NYRblog this morning to offer a historical perspective on the current logjam in Congressional debate over our Government’s budget.  He begins by identifying Grover Norquist as a key factor in explaining why Republicans have been so intransigent when Democrats try to engage them in serious debate:

Grover Norquist is the powerful president of Americans for Tax Reform (where reform means elimination). He issues to all Republican candidates and office holders Tax Payer Protection pledges—a promise never, under any conditions, to support the raising of a tax—and then he monitors and reports the performance of those who have taken the pledge, as almost all Republicans in Congress have. That, in effect, puts a ban on congressional discussion of tax income, since the Republican bloc has pledged not even to consider it.

Wills observes that the Tax Payer Protection pledge is a practice that can be traced by to the eighteenth century, when it was called “instruction.”  In other words it was an explicit device through which a candidate gets votes only if he obeys the “instructions” of the voters on what to do on a particular issue, such as taxes, abortion, or gay rights.  He then cited a 1774 speech by Edmund Burke excoriating the “coercive authority” of the instruction system, a speech he made when he himself was standing for election to Parliament.

It was comforting to read Burke’s words on these matters.  However, it presumes that the problem has more to do with the voters than with the individuals who can round them up and control them.  In nineteenth-century American politics those individuals were called “bosses;”  and the control exercised by bosses caught the attention of Max Weber when he visited the United States and studied the political practices.  In the spirit of revisiting the words of Burke, it is also worthwhile to consider what Weber had to say about those bosses in his “Politics as a Vocation” speech:

The boss is indispensable to the organization of the party and the organization is centralized in his hand.  He substantially provides the financial means.  How does he get them?  Well, partly by the contributions of the members, and especially by taxing the salaries of those officials who came into office through him and his party.  Furthermore, there are bribes and tips.  He who wishes to trespass with impunity one of the many laws needs the boss’s connivance and must pay for it;  or else he will get into trouble.  But this alone is not enough to accumulate the necessary capital for political enterprises.  The boss is indispensable as the direct recipient of the money of great financial magnates, who would not entrust their money for election purposes to a paid party official, or to anyone else giving public account of his affairs.

Note, in particular, that last sentence, with its reference to “great financial magnates.”  Anyone deluded enough to think that those most “protected” by the Tax Payer Protection pledge are ordinary Americans currently desperately trying to make ends meet in hard economic times should ponder that sentence.  If Norquist’s pledge “protects” anyone, it is those “great financial magnates,” because it protects them against having to contribute a fairer share to the Government budget.  The brutal days of government crippled by boss politics are with us again;  and, if the rich see it in their interests to beat our Government into submission with a big stick, they could not find a bigger one than Norquist.

Emmy Handicapping

I was glad to see Adam Swiderski use Syfy’s Blastr site to post an enthusiastic endorsement of the nomination of Peter Dinklage for an Emmy Award in the Supporting Actor In A Drama Series category.  Not withstanding my personal feeling that the whole Emmy system gets really confused when trying to draw a line between “drama” and “comedy,” there is certainly no doubt in my mind that Game of Thrones should be treated as drama and that Dinklage’s contribution deserves all the recognition it can get.  Still, I am not sure I would go as far as Swiderski did:

Can a swords-and-sorcery epic compete with the likes of Don Draper? We're not sure...but if Peter Dinklage doesn't bring home the prize for his perfect portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, then something in the system is just broken.

The problem has more to do with the competition than with Dinklage’s own merits.  I have never thought much of Men Of A Certain Age, so I have not paid very much attention to Andre Braugher since his really substantive contributions to Homicide.  Similarly, I have not been drawn to The Good Wife;  but it is always a bad sign when one show has two candidates in the same category (Josh Charles and Alan Cumming).  As to John Slatterty in Mad Men, I have grown tired of him and his character;  and, as far as I can tell, the script has been written to induce that sense of fatigue,  On the other hand I have to say that Boyd Crowder (in Justified) is one of the most complex and fascinating characters I have encountered on television;  and I am an awe of how Walton Goggins has managed that complexity.  Much as I agree with Swiderski on the quality of Dinklage’s work, my current preference is probably leading toward Goggins.  I would also guess that Goggins will be a long shot among the odds-makers;  but I have never been known to follow the crowd in my preferences!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fortepiano and I

This afternoon I used my national site on to put up an announcement of the First Triennial International Fortepiano Competition.  What particularly resonated with me was that the five pianists who make it to the finals will each be expected to perform one of the three Opus 1 piano trios by Ludwig van Beethoven.  The idea of performing chamber music, rather than a concerto, is a nice enough change in itself on the competition circuit;  but it just happens that it was through the Beethoven trios that I first became aware of the fortepiano.  I decided to buy the Musical Heritage Society box of the complete trios, and it turned out that the performances featured Leonard Hokanson on fortepiano.  (I just checked both Amazon and iTunes, and it appears that these recordings have not made it to CD or have gone out of print.)

I also remembered that the first time I found myself taking issue with Menahem Pressler was on this site over his coaching a performance of the first movement of Joseph Haydn's A flat major piano trio (Hoboken XV/14) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music back in February of 2009.  My issue involved whether or not this chamber music should be approached as a “concerto for piano and very small orchestra,” where what mattered most was that the violin and cello provided “obbligato” parts to color the sonorities of the piano.  That sort of “coloration” would be more evident on the scale of chamber music than in a concerto setting, which makes the preference for chamber music over concerto in a fortepiano competition particularly interesting (and relevant to those interested in when the fortepiano is often a better choice than a modern instrument for certain selections).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Discrimination Semantics

Today’s post by Patricia Cohen to her Thinking Cap blog, circulated through the ArtsBeat site of The New York Times, directed my attention to a recent publication by the American Sociological Association.  The title of the article is “Weighty Concerns;”  and the authors are Samantha Kwan, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Houston, and Mary Nell Trautner, from the Department of Sociology at the University of Buffalo, SUNY.  While the entire article is behind a pay-wall, the abstract is still worth considering:

Fat stigma and size discrimination are big issues in a culture that’s more and more overweight, but less and less tolerant of obesity. The authors consider how the legal system has regarded these discrimination claims and how they might evolve in the future.

What concerns me is that, perhaps for the sake of abstracting, we have a pile of key phrases all heaped into a single sentence:  “fat stigma,” “size discrimination,” “overweight,” and “obesity.”  This creates the “semantic hazard” that they may all be taken as synonymous;  and I would suggest that such synonymy may be a key factor in the issues of discrimination and public health that this article claims to examine.  From my point of view, the biggest problem probably has to do with whether or not the general public recognizes the distinction between “fat” and “obese.”  As is the case when we consider the opposite extreme (the adjectives “svelte” and “anorexic”), the latter explicitly denotes a pathological medical condition that is best examined in terms of public health practices.

Having read the article, Cohen notes that the authors “maintain that one can be fit and fat;”  and I would not dispute this point.  The question is whether such fit people are subject to discrimination and, if so, why this is the case, even if their fitness means that their condition probably has little to do with matters of public health.  Furthermore, there are probably cases in which the source of discrimination has more to do with short-sighted business practices than with the proposition that (in Cohen’s words) “America’s individualist ideology means that fat people are blamed for their size.”

Consider coach seating in airplane cabins, which, on many flights, has reduced space to a volume that would only be comfortable for Mary Lou Retton.  I am sufficiently tall that I have to deal with this problem.  However, I have never felt that I am subject to “height discrimination;”  and I would guess that those taller than I would feel the same way.

There is also at least one factor that makes it almost impossible to attempt any sort of control study on the propositions raised by Kwan and Trautner.  This is the hypothesis that people tend to be more inclined to discrimination when they are struggling to endure the consequences of hard times.  The targets of such discrimination can be totally arbitrary.

Think of the scene in Ship of Fools in which a mild-mannered old Jew must share a cabin with a pompous nationalist (and borderline obese) German.  Initially, the German, who has obviously bought in to the “gospel” of Mein Kampf, tries to pretend that the Jew does not exist;  but they ultimately progress to a point of having a civil conversation.  During that dialog the Jew makes the point that the world would be a much better place were it not for the bicycle riders.  Looking puzzled, the German asks, “Why the bicycle riders?”  The Jew replies, “Why the Jews?”

In circumstances when everyone is poised to blame somebody, researchers need to be very careful about what they choose to call discrimination and why they make that choice.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Humor of Classical Music

I see that, after considerable absence, Jeremy Denk returned to this think denk blog with a post intended to take on a Guardian article by Tom Service questioning whether classical music can be funny.  Along the lines of my recent article entitled “Those who seek mathematics in music probably don’t understand mathematics,” it seems to me that those most obsessed with whether or not there is humor in classical music tend to be those with little, if any, sense of humor.  I realize that this runs the risk that, merely by responding to Service, Denk betrayed his own lacking sense of humor;  but, between his writing and those approaches to repertoire I have been fortunate enough to experience, I am pretty sure that this is not the case.  On the other hand the rather astounding length of his post left me wondering why he took the trouble to use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

One reason may be that he chose to write about humor in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven.  This was a great way to make his point, particularly since there is such a strong societal inclination to treat Beethoven as a monument to “heroic tragedy,” rather than a particularly skilled performer just interested in making music that was better than his colleagues.  The last time I cited Beethoven as a source of wit was in May, when I was writing about Peter Grunberg’s performance of the Opus 78 piano sonata in F-sharp minor.  Denk makes his case with much earlier music, the Opus 31 piano sonatas from 1802;  however, like my own example, these compositions postdate the Heiligenstadt Testament, taken by those in the popular culture set as the beginning to Beethoven’s tragic turn.  Indeed, if Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s chronology is to believed, the Opus 31 sonatas come only a short period of time after Heiligenstadt.

As I see it, the point is that Beethoven had a sense of humor for most of his life.  If he was not born with it, he probably picked up through his studies of the music of Joseph Haydn, which may have inspired his efforts to outdo Haydn at this game.  Yes, Beethoven had a serious side;  but my guess is that, if you pick any year from Thayer’s biography, you will find at least one humorous composition lurking among the works composed in that year.  Notwithstanding the length of Denk’s rebuttal, that is really all that needs to be said about Beethoven’s sense of humor!