Monday, October 31, 2011

Is Silicon Valley Racist?

In one of those remarkable ironic coincidences, I found myself reading Violet Blue’s latest post to her Pulp Tech blog on ZDNet, “Silicon Valley’s Race Problem,” shortly after I began reading Michael Tomasky’s latest contribution to The New York Review, “The Racist Redskins,” examining a recent book by Thomas G. Smith on the problem of segregation in professional football.  The point of departure for the blog post is a series of provocative remarks by Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, who will be appearing as an interview subject in a new CNN documentary, Black in America 4.

Just about every Arrington quote in the post is offensive in one way or another, but I suspect that taking offense may overlook a broader context.  That context was suggested by Kurt Collins, quoted in the blog post as follows:

I honestly don’t think Arrington is racist. Racism implies a forethought and a malice that I don’t believe is there in his case. In this case, I honestly think people are confusing his extreme arrogance and overall disdain for all things not Arrington for racism.

In other words Arrington is no different from Eric Schmidt, who has shot off any number of reckless assertions on no end of occasions, with little regard to any consequences that might bump into reality (to invoke, once again, Ken Auletta’s metaphor).  However, I think this story has more to do with myopia than arrogance.  This is the point that surfaces in the quote from Damon Brown:

Silicon Valley is reluctant to discuss anything outside of burgeoning IPOs and new tech.

The reason for that reluctance is an implicit consent that Silicon Valley elites neither know nor care very much about the broader social consequences of all that innovation they are so eager to promote.  This reflects on the conclusion of the blog post:

I personally think that casual disregard for Silicon Valley’s racial (and gender) diversity issues is culturally dangerous.

I would only question the adjective “casual.”  I think the disregard is willful, because “anything outside of burgeoning IPOs and new tech” is accepted, by consensus, as a distraction.  In particular, it distracts from the goal of yielding a significant return on investment by introducing all those social issues that put to the test whether or not a given entrepreneurial effort is actually solving a problem or either creating new ones or making existing problems worse.  The fact is that any cant about entrepreneurism making the world a better place serves only politicians.  Everyone else is in the game for the money;  and ours is a culture in which the only money that counts comes from short-term gains before one moves on to the next new thing.  (Think of how the phrase “serial entrepreneur” carries such a positive connotation, even though it amounts to a twist on the far more negative phrase, “serial killing.”  In other words it is just a variation on the use of the phrase “making a killing” in investment.)

By putting the race card into this game, CNN may ultimately expose the extent to which Silicon Valley has been living off of a potentially sociopathic myth for several decades;  but that exposure is also likely to have consequences.  The world economy has been trying to endure a bumpy ride for some time, primarily due to a depressingly long run of bad judgment calls.  It remains to be seen whether or not CNN is about to make the ride bumpier.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Yahoo!'s Enquiring Minds

Here is the latest example of a headline from what Yahoo! News thinks deserves to be included in their “News For You” list:

Eat the Old: Could Mass Cannibalism Solve a Future Food Shortage?

I assume that most of us know that P. J. O’Rourke was kidding when he wrote Eat the Rich:  A Treatise on Economics;  but at least he chose a better target.  The fact is that the Yahoo! News headline reminded me of the days when it used to be fun skimming National Enquirer headlines while waiting to check out at the supermarket.  In this case, however, the story seems to have come from Life’s Little Mysteries, which is described as “a sister site to LiveScience.”  Why this counts as news is beyond me.

It also set me to wondering just what the public attitude is towards science content these days.  LiveScience is obviously aiming at popularizing that content, presumably “by any means necessary,” as Malcolm X used to say.  This is quite a departure from the days when Popular Science was written for people who wanted to do cool things in their garage, like build a radio-controlled model airplane.  I suppose times changed when those devices became drones and started to be used to drop bombs, rather than harassing the neighbor’s cat.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Freeman Dyson's Perspective on Marx

Freeman Dyson’s piece in the latest New York Review makes at least a moderately acceptable case against C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” thesis, demonstrating that not only can a physicist read the text of a contemporary philosopher but also he can give it a fair shake.  The text in question is The Beginning of Infinity:  Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch.  What is particularly interesting, however, is the way in which Dyson uses this text to examine other schools of philosophical thought, particularly that of Karl Marx.

The result is a critique of Marx that not only transcends the usual ideological stances that do little to advance understanding but also says something useful about the process of advancing understanding itself.  We may see this by considering two paragraphs from Dyson’s review.  The first amounts to an evaluation and a warrant for the conclusion:

Looking back on Marx’s visions today, we can see that much of what he wrote about capitalism was true and almost everything he wrote about communism was false. So long as he was examining the evidence that he saw around him, he was on firm ground. As soon as he moved from evidence to dogma, his imagination led him wildly astray.

From this position Dyson can then broaden his scope to philosophy in general, while drawing upon what he learned from reading Deutsch’s book:

The gospel according to Karl Marx is a classic example of bad philosophy as defined by Deutsch. Bad philosophers try to improve the human condition by telling the world how to behave. They deceive themselves, imagining that the world will dance to their tune. Good philosophers continue to observe how the world is behaving and try to explain what they observe. Good philosophers improve the human condition by asking questions and correcting errors. The method of good philosophy is to explain and understand how the world behaves, not to prescribe.

There is nothing particularly new about this.  There has always been a tension between description and prescription.  The intellectuals about whom Mark Lilla wrote in his book The Reckless Mind were all victims of the fallacy that the insights of descriptions could be readily converted to prescriptions.  They were tempted to turn away from observation and towards action, and that temptation led them astray.  Ironically, Lilla’s book never really takes on Marx;  but that may be because his own historical scope only begins with Martin Heidegger.  Thus, while I would not say that Dyson reduced all of Lilla’s book to a single paragraph, I have to credit the physicist for formulating such a critique so cogent that it can be readily applied to many other philosophers.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Short-Changing Ravel?

Charles Rosen’s review of Roger Nichols Ravel in the latest issue of The New York Review makes for fascinating reading.  It is one of those reviews that will likely send me to the Web site for the San Francisco Public Library to put a hold on the book, but this may not be for the reason normally expected of a review.  I came away with the feeling that Rosen was ultimately using Nichols’ book as a platform on which he could develop his own ideas about Maurice Ravel.  So, by the end of the piece, I was not particularly sure what Nichols’ points were;  but I figured that, if they had such a powerful impact on Rosen, I ought to check them out for myself.

Reading Rosen is almost always informative, but one needs to make sure that his text passes through one or two filters of skepticism before one decides to buy into it.  In this case Rosen has written his essay from the point of view of a performing pianist;  and, given the “stocks of knowledge” he has in this area of expertise, he has every right to do so.  However, this creates the danger that he becomes the small boy with a hammer who sees everything as a nail.  Furthermore, among the “real” nails, it is clear that he has one particular favorite, which is the three-movement suite Gaspard de la Nuit, based on the bizarre expressionist poems of Aloysius Bertrand.

My own piano-playing skills will always be far too inadequate for me to approach Ravel as anything other than a serious listener.  From this point of view, I have to confess that I have yet to encounter a really convincing performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.  I have heard this music performed by “name” pianists, “rising stars,” and students in master classes.  Because of that latter category, I have probably heard more of “Scarbo” than of the other two movements.  However, whether I am listening to just this one movement or the whole suite, I almost always seem to find myself wondering if the music is just going on for too long.  I am willing to give Ravel the benefit of the doubt (since I rarely react this way to any of his other compositions);  but that just means that, as a rule, pianists are so occupied with the technical demands of this composition that even the best of them lose touch with the music itself.

The other problem with Rosen’s approach is that he ends up neglecting (or dismissing) those compositions that are not for solo piano.  The most serious sin of omission for me is the A minor piano trio.  I certainly have no end of respect for the piano part in this trio, but it is that pure seventh harmonic played by the cello at the end of the first movement that turns me to jelly every time.  Ravel did not have a physicist’s understanding of harmonic spectra, but his interpretation of the theory could yield interesting results.  (Think of the way in which he “synthesizes” the third harmonic through parallel fifths in “Bolero.”)  His inclusion of the seventh harmonic in the trio gives the coda of the first movement an other-worldly quality that does not deserve to be swept under the carpet (which is basically what Rosen’s profile of Ravel did)!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Rose-Colored Glasses of the World Future Society

Chris Jablonski’s post yesterday to his Emerging Tech blog on ZDNet provides an excellent example of how, even in the worst of times, technology evangelism can still prevail.  That evangelism is right there in the title of the post;

The silver lining of a world run amuck by machines

(Yes, it did not take long for a comment to surface about the spelling of “amuck;”  but I am willing to write that off as style, rather than content.)

It turns out that the silver lining is there in the post’s final paragraph.  It comes from the World Future Society:

The activities that make us human – thinking, dreaming, learning, communicating, and feeling, are the skills that are the most difficult to program. In a contest of “man vs. machine”, people will continue to shine and outperform in these areas for years to come.

What is most telling about these rose-colored glasses is that they filter out the substance of Jablonski’s point of departure.  This comes from a new book, Race Against the Machine, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, whose conclusions have just been summarized in an article in The Atlantic as follows:

The threat of technological unemployment is real. To understand this threat, we’ll define three overlapping sets of winners and losers that technical change creates: (1) high-skilled vs. low-skilled workers, (2) superstars vs. everyone else, and (3) capital vs. labor. Each set has well-documented facts and compelling links to digital technology. What’s more, these sets are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the winners in one set are more likely to be winners in the other two sets as well, which concentrates the consequences.

The important thing here is that the world will be more and more polarized into winners and losers and that this polarization involves an alignment of the three factors enumerated in the above passage.  Ultimately, the World Future Society is forecasting change in the first of those factors, claiming that there will be a new world of new skills in which we shall find new fulfillment, so to speak.  When we take the other two factors into account, however, we realize that those new skills will be restricted to a highly elite class of superstars, significantly removed from “everyone else.”  This is a far more dystopian vision that we have encountered in both The Time Machine of H. G. Wells and the film Zardoz.  What is most disturbing about both of these divisions is that the “superstar” class is ultimately determined by heredity, rather than achievement, and deteriorates to ineffective effeteness.  So much for the World Future Society!

Was Europe Saved?

Yesterday I found myself reading with great interest Jeff Madrick’s latest post to NYRBlog, “How to Save Europe.”  This morning the news was that the European leaders meeting in Brussels had come to an agreement on a plan to solve the European debt crisis.  BBC News managed to reduce the substance of this plan to three bullet points:

·      Banks holding Greek debt would accept a 50% loss
·      A mechanism to boost the eurozone's main bailout fund to about 1tn euros (£880bn; $1.4tn)
·      Banks must also raise more capital to protect them against losses resulting from any future government defaults

Note the “t” in that second bullet.  “Trillion” has now become the accepted unit of discourse in financial planning (but we are used to that on this side of the pond).

My guess is that Madrick’s thoughts did not have much impact on the eventual agreement.  On the other hand there was a throwaway line on BBC World Service radio yesterday that may have been more informative about sources of influence behind this agreement.  It turns out that Brussels was hosting a “parallel” conference of leaders of the major worldwide banks and that (to no one’s surprise) some of the European leaders (such as Angela Merkel) were spending more time listening to the banksters than negotiating with her geopolitical colleagues.

Thus, when European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso reported the deal to the European Parliament, he concluded:

We are showing that we can unite in the most difficult of times.

This may not have given credit where it is most due.  I fear that these days heads of state, regardless of the countries they represent, are little more than sheep.  They only go where the sheepdogs herd them;  and the sheepdogs are, of course, the banksters.  Keeping the banks happy will always be more important than keeping the constituents happy.  That is the motivating force behind Occupy Wall Street and the now many parallel “Occupy” protests it has spawned.  The banksters, of course, wish to keep this “inconvenient truth” concealed;  and, for the most part, the mainstream media have put their best efforts into maintaining that concealment.  Now, however, the protests are starting to be met with ugly responses;  and, following the European lead, the response to those responses may well be a series of general strikes.

There is a popular thesis that the most important lesson of the First World War was that the European institutions of hereditary monarchies could no longer cope with the new global problems of the early twentieth century.  Perhaps this is true of any institution, that, no matter how popular or extensive it is, conditions arise under which it is no longer effective.  Unfortunately, as we saw in the last century, decrepit institutions do not give up their institutional status readily.  The only question that matters is that, when transition finally begins to occur, will it be achieved in a relatively painless manner?  After all, the banksters themselves are not going to resort to combat;  so what will they do when they discover that they cannot buy others to do it for them?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Steve Jobs' "Integrated Television"

I found Jason D. O'Grady’s piece about Apple Television in The Apple Core department of ZDNet to be a useful read.  If nothing else it offers a reality check on all that hagiography now being circulated about Steve Jobs.  O’Grady begins with Jobs’ “vision statement,” as it was documented in Walter Isaacson’s biography:

I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use. It would be seamlessly synched with all of your devices and with iCloud. It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.

This clearly has high “cool” value;  and I can even imagine Jobs promoting it to a rapt audience of the Apple faithful.  However, whatever his gifts for interface design may have been, this may have been a case where he ignored (either willfully or accidentally) both the question of how we now interact with our television sets and whether we want our television set to look like a computer.

Personally, I am not sure I want my television set to be a computer, particularly after what things have been like since I got a Blu-ray player with Wi-Fi connectivity.  The bottom line is that the Internet-based services are not quite at the level I want yet;  but that is not what bothers me.  The real problem is that this device keeps upgrading its software, and this can be disruptive.  If I want to play a Blu-ray or DVD, I have to wait for the upgrade to complete.  If I want to play a CD, I do not have my television turned on;  so I don’t know whether the player is unresponsive because it is in the middle of an upgrade.

What these new Internet-based devices seem to have overlooked is a fundamental axiom:

Sometimes you just want your television set to be a television set.

Whatever my misgivings about Comcast may be, they seem, for the most part, to handle upgrading the set-top box software in ways that do not disrupt my television viewing.  The question is not just whether the Apple Television interface is “the simplest user interface you could imagine.”  The question is whether there are certain fundamental aspects of operation that make a computing device significantly different from a television set or a CD player, and software upgrades have a lot to do with the nature of that difference.

I like to think of this as a “functionality gap.”  I am sure that this gap will eventually close, but I suspect that the act of closing it will involve a fair amount of pain for first adopters.  Naturally, first adopters tend to be good at living with that pain, particularly if their feedback is honored.  Steve Jobs did not always have the best opinion of others, and that may well have included much of the Apple user community.  Nevertheless, he did appreciate the value of learning from the decisions you make, both the good and the bad.  I have to wonder whether post-Jobs Apple will be able to negotiate the learning path that may ultimately lead to the way in which our computer ultimately supplants our television.

Meanwhile, I have a bright idea of my own.  I like the way in which service providers like Comcast are trying to make it possible for me to see on my computer screen the same things I can see on my television through a set-top box.  There are still a lot of bugs in the solutions in place;  but I get the impression that there are a lot of decision-making heads out there that know how to keep their eyes on the prize.  Perhaps one step in the right direction will be to view that television-to-computer connection from the other side.  What would it take for my set-top box is support a virtual remote terminal to my computer, just as software currently exists to have one computer serve as a remote terminal to another?  Such a service would get set-top box users comfortable with the idea of letting their television set also be their computer, which would provide a user community better equipped to provide feedback to those development teams trying to close the real gap in question.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

John McCarthy's Legacy

I was glad to see that the Technology division of the BBC News Web site took the trouble to run an obituary for John McCarthy.  I never knew him beyond casual acquaintance, but he had a profound effect on my approach to conducting research from my earliest efforts as a undergraduate to the present day.  That effect came from his invention of the programming language LISP, which shifted the focus of computation from numbers to symbolic forms.  Because the LISP language emerged around the same time as the earliest efforts in time-sharing systems, through the simplicity of its foundation, it may well have been the first programming language whose forms could be interpreted in “real time,” rather than requiring preprocessing and translation by a compiler.  One might almost say that LISP was the first programming language in which one could have a genuine “dialog” with one’s computer.

This was the reason that LISP had such a powerful impact on so many of us.  While others would puzzle over designing complex software to achieve complex tasks, LISP provided us with the ability to tinker our way through a problem, beginning by writing component modules, observing their behavior when given different inputs, and eventually assembling them into larger constructs.  Back in the days when the first laptops were coming on the market, I held off until the appearance of the Macintosh PowerBook 170, because I knew it had enough computer power to support a LISP interpreter.  I wrote at least one of my papers using that laptop as my primary “laboratory equipment.”

My primary interactions with McCarthy took place when I was co-editor (with Mark Stefik) of the Book Review section of the journal Artificial Intelligence.  I had an active hand in shepherding through the review of Formalizing Common Sense, an anthology of McCarthy’s papers on his “common sense” approach to artificial intelligence edited by Vladimir Lifschitz.  Philosophically, I could not live in a world as exclusively objective as the one in which McCarthy pursued his investigations;  but I worked hard to make sure that this collection got a fair shake.  In the course of that effort, I was definitely aware of his contentious side;  but I always found the right path along which I could work with him.

The one time McCarthy was in a conversation in which I cited an example of music behavior, he tuned out very quickly.  I suspect that he thought as much of my decision to focus on the practice of music as a manifestation of intelligence as I did of his efforts to express all reasoning in terms of the sentential forms of a logical calculus.  However, in those days artificial intelligence was more a “republic of letters” than it is today, since we had the luxury to ponder the nature of the value of the questions themselves, rather than being forced by funding sources to generate answers as efficiently as possible.

Monday, October 24, 2011

More Aware of the Bass Clarinet

Since so much of what I write on my sites seems to be about sonority, I realize that I have been paying more attention to which instruments are actually being played in the course of an instrumental performance.  This was particularly the case at the BluePrint concert this past Saturday evening, which required both reduced and diverse ensembles during the first half of the concert.  I also realize that I usually have a good view of the wind section when I am in Davies Symphony Hall;  and, as a result, I am frequently visually aware of when the instrumentation calls for double bassoon, English horn, or bass clarinet.

All of the low winds have interesting sounds.  Having tried to play both bass clarinet and baritone saxophone, I know from personal experience that they require considerable personal control.  At the same time I used to sing baritone in a choir, which means that I am very favorably disposed to bass lines.  However, beyond the visceral qualities of low frequencies, I have developed a particular sensitivity to the bass clarinet, especially since, like its B-flat and A cousins, it yields different sonorities in different pitch ranges.  Naturally, the bass range overlaps the “treble;”  and that is where variations in the acoustic spectrum have the greatest impact on the listener.  With enough listening one becomes familiar enough with these “spectral signatures” to recognize and respond to them relatively quickly.

So it was that, while reviewing the CDs in my Wilhelm Furtwängler:  The Legacy collection, I found myself (finally) in the second act of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.  There, in the orchestral representation of dawn that begins at the end of Hagen’s dialogue with Alberich (who may be appearing to him in a dream, since Alberich begins by asking Hagen if he is asleep), I discovered that the first rays of light are represented by the bass clarinet.  This should not have surprised me.  The idea of phenomena originating in low frequencies is so much a part of the rhetoric of the whole Ring cycle that it is there at the very beginning of Das Rheingold.  Still, perhaps because of the fateful nature of the day that is just beginning to dawn, this instrumentation has an other-worldly character.  It is nature’s daily miracle of a new day, but this day will be fraught with tragedy that stretches beyond the mortals portrayed on stage to the entire pantheon up in Valhalla.

Did Wagner really express all of that in fifteen measures for the bass clarinet?  That would be exaggeration.  However, those of us who know the Ring respond to every event (including instrumental sonorities) with an understanding of how the immediate present is tightly bound to what has been and what is yet to be.  Thus, we know that this particular dawn is (depending on your interpretation of how much time is taken up by the second and third acts) either a “last” or “penultimate” dawn, perhaps for all of mankind.  (It is certainly the last musical depiction of dawn.)  We may not associate that directly with the bass clarinet;  but we are not surprised that, at this particular moment, Wagner chose sonorities that were decidedly alien.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Incremental Reading about Steve Jobs

Whatever anyone may say about Walter Isaacson’s biographical treatment of Steve Jobs, we have definitely observed some interesting reading habits since the release of the book.  I am old-fashioned enough to believe that one should not write seriously about any book until one has read it in its entirety.  I learned that lesson best while reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.  I was full of enthusiasm throughout the early chapters of the book.  You might even say that I read it on the edge of my seat, anticipating the chapters in which he would spill out the hard data from which he drew his awe-inspiring conclusions.  Well it turned out that everything he had to say about data could be found in a single footnote, in which he revealed that his conclusions were based primarily on self-observation while under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Isaacson is the last author I would accuse of such deceptive concealment of data.  However, now that blogging has replaced journalism, we have been flooded with no end of look-what-I-just-read blog posts, all based on isolated passages in the book;  and, to make matters worse, some of them seem to be showing up as “news articles” in daily papers.  Now regular readers know that I sometimes do this sort of thing with my own reading on this site, but I never try to pass it off as newsworthy.  In general I do it when I am reading a particularly complex source, and trying to write about what I have been reading helps me to come to a better understanding.  I doubt that I would approach a biographical text the same way, unless it was a biography I already knew very well and the text was providing new insights or perspectives into my past knowledge.  What, I wonder, will these tidbits-about-Jobs-seekers do when they finally get to the end of Isaacson’s book?  Will any of them take the trouble to say anything about the “long view” of either Jobs’ life or the book’s account of it;  or will such topics be beyond the scope of their attention span?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Selling Out to the Super-Rich?

Once again I find myself returning to 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.

The latest support for this position apparently comes from the domain of policy making in the United States Senate.  At least that seems to be what we can conclude from the following BBC News report:

Two US senators have proposed a plan to offer visas for foreigners buying homes worth $500,000 (£314,000) or more.

Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mike Lee, sponsoring a bill, say it is a move to increase housing demand.

The proposal is similar to an existing Green Card program for foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in an American business that creates at least 10 jobs.

The US Chamber of Commerce has announced its support for the new legislation proposal.

"Our housing market will never begin a true recovery as long as our housing stock so greatly exceeds demand. This is not a cure-all, but it could be part of the solution," said Mr Schumer, a Democrat from New York.

Mr Lee, a Republican from Utah, described the bill as a "free market method for increasing demand for housing".

One way to approach this is as a positive example of bipartisan thinking.  Another would be that it is a continuation of the proposition that only the rich matter and that any benefit for the poor would be at most questionable.  This seems to be an overt declaration that, within the corridors of policy-making in the Senate, anything involving less than six figures no longer signifies.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Haydn's Setting of Shakespeare

This morning I used my site to reflect on a student recital of the vocal works of Haydn and Mozart given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  I began by observing that the program consisted of eighteen compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and only one by Joseph Haydn and then went on to focus my attention on Mozart’s K. 476, “Das Veilchen,” drawing upon observations that I had previously posted on this site.  However, that one selection by Haydn is worth a bit of consideration on its own.  If the K. 476 was particularly “literary” for using a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the one Haydn song on the program (Hoboken XXVIa/34) distinguished itself with a passage from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek …
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.

In a section on “Shakespeare and Music” in Shakespeare:  An Oxford Guide, John Gross observes that “Scholars have listed over 20,000 pieces of music associated with Shakespeare;”  but he does not go very deep when it comes to saying anything about the composers of all of that music.  He singles out a few reputable names, the earliest of which is that of Franz Schubert, who set German translations of both “Hark, hark, the lark” from Cymbeline (D. 889) and “Who is Sylvia?” from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (D. 891).  There is no mention of the fact that, as far as the Classical tradition is concerned, Haydn got there first.

“She never told her love” was the fourth of a second set of six “original canzonettas” with English texts that Haydn published in 1795 while in London.  He thought that source text for another of his songs, “The Spirit’s Song” (Hoboken XXVIa/4), was also by Shakespeare;  but he was mistaken on that one.  What is particularly interesting is that, while there are several songs included in Twelfth Night, “She never told her love” is not one of them.  The passage comes from a more serious scene between Viola and the Duke in Act II.  Haydn set it in a relatively unembellished manner, which makes for a nice setting of how it is usually delivered by Viola.  Only towards the end does he provide an opportunity for the singer to show off a bit.  Haydn may never have been particularly comfortable with English, but this song resonates with Shakespeare well enough that it deserves a bit more respect from the Shakespeare scholars!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Baggage of Knowledge

Jeremy Denk’s latest blog post, “Taking on Taruskin,” was just too interesting to be dismissed with a casual reading from the screen.  As a result I printed it and stuck it in my pocket, from which I extracted it while waiting for the beginning of yesterday afternoon’s concert by the San Francisco Bach Choir.  How was I to know that reading it would have an effect on my afternoon’s listening experiences?

Denk’s own conclusion gives the impression that he is picking a bone with Taruskin over whether, in his words, “thought and music are enemies.”  A fairer and less simplistic summary would be that Denk was trying to come to grips with just what we bring to a performance of music (whether as performer or as audience) by way of “stocks of knowledge” (a phrase that seems to have originated with Alfred Schutz) and just what we do with the knowledge we bring.  Using Don Giovanni as an example, Taruskin makes a hyperbolic claim:

Its meaning for us is mediated by all that has been thought and said about it since opening night, and is therefore incomparable richer than it was in 1787.

There are any number of ways in which this claim is absurd, and Denk’s attack recalls Thurber’s joke about the cowboy jumping on his horse and riding off wildly in all directions.  Most important, however, is that it is unreasonable to assume any anyone all-too-human can ever bring that much baggage to a musical experience, let alone does so.

However, this is where my own situation comes into play.  The concert I was attending was entitled Before Bach:  Music from the Family Archives;  and it was the first time I had an opportunity to hear music by Johann Sebastian Bach’s ancestors, rather than his sons.  In other words, in a very real way, I was in a situation that was clearly going to have an effect on the stocks of knowledge at my disposal the next time I heard a performance of Bach.  Indeed, in writing my review of this concert, I was already throwing forward passes to future listening experiences (including, of all things, the BWV 212 “Peasant” cantata)!

Looking back on the “virtual argument” between Denk and Taruskin, I realized that, in the midst of some very impressive name-dropping, there was one name that both parties seemed to have neglected.  I am thinking of Harold Bloom and his preoccupation with the “anxiety of influence,” which has now become The Anatomy of Influence in his latest book.  It is one thing to talk about stocks of knowledge, as if we all go around with vast internalized databases managed by some kind of “wetware” Google.  However, more important is that the actions we take cannot help but be influenced by our past experiences.  That is the essence of learning and has been thus at least since Plato’s attempts to document the wisdom of Socrates.

The key word in that last paragraph, however, is “actions.”  Once again I find myself back on my happy hunting ground of the distinction between noun-based and verb-based thinking.  While the book from which Denk extracted his Taruskin quote is entitled Text and Act, there is something very noun-based in both his argument and Denk’s reply.  The world of music has been reduced to a world of artifacts, including scores, scholarly papers, recordings, and, in Denk’s case, metaphorical barns.  None of this gets at the fundamentally verb-based nature of performance itself, as well as the listening experience (which is only passive if you want it to be).

Focus on the performer, because it is easier.  Performance can only be “in the moment.”  The performer may do any number of things to prepare for those moments, but all that matters is what happens in the course of performance.  There are any number of preparatory activities;  but what is important is that they prepare the body (and probably the mind) for “acting in the moment.”  (I once heard Patricia Racette go through a laundry list of all the things she had to “keep in mind” while “in the moment” on the opera stage.  That was the best case I ever heard for the significance of those preparatory activities.)  Preparation may involve sprucing up our stocks of knowledge, but I would argue that the performance of music is one of the best examples in which we confront the complexity of the relationship between what we know and what we do.  I think that this complexity is what Denk had in mind when he described thought and music as “complicated friends.”

In fairness to those of us reduced to writing from time to time (or more frequently), I should conclude by pointing out that “the moment” is the most difficult construct to deal with in writing.  I can write about a score page when it is sitting in front of me.  I can even use software to help the reader grasp how I am looking at that page and what I am trying to describe there.  On the other hand “the moment” is gone by the time I try to write about it;  and it is gone forever.  Of course we do try to use language to describe actions we have experienced, and that is why verbs are so important.  It is also why the grammar of verb phrases is so much more complex than the grammar of noun phrases.  Time-consciousness is a problematic concept.  Augustine knew it, and Edmund Husserl knew it.  We are the better for their efforts to come to grips with it, but they left us with some gaping analytic holes.  The good news is that those of us who spend a lot of time performing and/or listening to music may be better equipped to fill in those holes than those with more “scientific” (as in noun-based) backgrounds.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy the World!

Now that Occupy Wall Street has inspired spin-off protests that literally appear to be circling the globe, it is next to impossible for our mass media to maintain the masquerade that it does not exist.  Nevertheless, the consciousness industry has the persistence of that pink bunny in the battery commercials.  Having been forced to cover the story, they weigh the coverage in favor of the overseas activities, leaving the home front, particularly the point of origin in Zuccotti Park, out in the cold.  (Call this the it-can’t-happen-here syndrome.)  Then, to add insult to this injury, they persist in the proposition that they still do not understand what the protestor’s want.

Jeff Madrick is a bit different.  He and Nobel laureate economist Joe Stiglitz were invited to do a “teach-in” (a term of great nostalgia for those of us who associate protest with the Vietnam War) in the Park;  and it was clear from his NYRBlog post that he spent as much time listening as he did talking.  Indeed, the title of his post, “A Zuccotti Park Education,” made it clear that he was being educated as much as those who had invited him for the teach-in.  Here is his take on what I take to be the will to misunderstand on the part of mainstream media:

Many observers are frustrated that they do not seem to have a clearer agenda or to make specific demands. But they have issued a set of principles or assertions. Among them, “They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage,” and “They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.” There are some two dozen such assertions they unanimously approved on September 29 and they say it is not a complete list of the concerns of those among them. They are determined, as I say, to be inclusive. But they are concerned that a specific agenda or a list of demands may shut people out or misrepresent too many.

That last sentence is an important one.  The whole point of the 99% mantra is that only 1% of our population controls how the rest of us are represented, which amounts to a serious breakdown in those principles of governance embodied in our Constitution.  To put it in modern language, the Constitution has become an inspiration for a barrage of efforts to “game the system” to an extent that today’s government would be unrecognizable by our Founding Fathers, not to mention most of their successors, at least up to the time of the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States.  Furthermore, the impact of globalization, championed by agents of the consciousness industry such as Thomas Friedman, is such that the 99% statistic is as valid globally as it is nationally.  Consider, for example, Jonathan Mirsky’s article in the latest issue of The New York Review, “Making It Big in China,” as a case in point.  Even worse, think about some of those economists in Greece who have suggested that the only solution for their country is a new kind of “instrument” to manage the debt problem, thus overlooking the “inconvenient truth” that most of past “instruments” amounted to the Ponzi schemes that caused a global economic crisis in the first place.

During the last half of the twentieth century, the citizens of the United States were gradually “hooked” on the narcotic effects of consumerism.  As long as the “pushers” had the lure of new cool things to buy, the addiction persisted;  and it was fed by “instruments” of finance through which anyone could be given the resources to buy them.  The real impact of the economic crisis is that the 99% statistic now applies to those who no longer can be lured by new cool things because they have to worry about food, clothing, and shelter.  Paul Goodman probably would have said that we have finally gotten beyond the debilitating experience of “growing up absurd;”  but, for better or worse, we lack the parental and community authority that, in the past, was so fundamental to the progression from childhood to adulthood.  To draw a metaphor from James Barrie (without trying to be sexist), we may do well to think of Zuccotti Park as the Neverland home of “lost boys” who have finally decided that they want to be adults.  Since one of the signs of adulthood is the ability to make up your own mind, rather than to have a higher authority make it up for you, it is no wonder that the consciousness industry has been working so hard to keep us in ignorance.