Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jeff Madrick's Latest Take on Why Economic Recovery is a Myth

Jeff Madrick's latest NYRBlog post tries to look beyond the usual cant about the uneven distribution of wealth in an effort to tease out why any suggestion of economic recovery cannot, at least at present, be anything other than an illusion. Here is the crux of his punch line:
Inequality has traditionally meant that incomes at the top grow faster than the next category down, which in turn grow faster than the next category, and so on. All categories can grow to some extent. As has been apparent to economists for several years, however, this is no longer the case. We now have stagnating incomes for a large majority of Americans and runaway incomes at the very top—especially the top tenth of the top one percent. This is not so much “inequality” as a complete lack of growth for much of the country.
To this should be added the corollary that the elite "top tenth of the top one percent" have not achieved that status through economic growth. The "creation of wealth" through elaborate processes of exchange, many of which involve computational instruments whose workings are poorly understood (even by those who profit the most by them), has nothing to do with economic growth. To paraphrase a proposition posed by Robert Skidelsky, those who make money no longer have to worry about "real-world" matters like making things.

Unfortunately, this narrow elite of money-makers now have enough of the stuff that they can exert those controls of government through which they can continue their practices unimpeded. The Occupy movement tried to bring this state of affairs to our attention. Unfortunately, being informed about it did not lead to the problem being resolved. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that, while the rest of us may have the power of the ballot box, the votes of ordinary citizens simply cannot stand up to the support of the moneyed elite. Nor will logic prevail. Because those with wealth realize that they can maintain and grow their status simply by tweaking software, the idea that they may be snuffing out an entire country of potential consumers no longer signifies.

Throughout history many countries have perished through the irrational embrace of religious beliefs; the fate of our own country may follow a similar path, not through religion but through an intense obsession with a pernicious secular myth.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Visiting San Francisco

I recently realized that the Google Bus phenomenon has attracted the interest of reporters beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. It is almost as if it has become the new icon of a lifestyle that tries to blur the boundaries between work and play. (The fact that the blur is established by creating the illusion that all play should be work-related and all work should feel like play is another matter to be pursued at another time.) If, in fact, the Google Bus now has a worldwide reputation, then I can envisage a new generation of tourists for whom catching sight of one of them (and capturing it photographically) may hold more significance than all those wonderful views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and even the new span of the Bay Bridge. As Kurt Vonnegut said, so it goes.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Static Texts and Dynamic Performances

This week I finally finished reading a paper that I have been meaning to read for quite some time. (If I am honest with myself, that will work out to a couple of decades.) The paper is entitled "A Model of Expressive Timing in Tonal Music;" and it was published by Neil Todd in the journal Music Perception in 1985. It amounts to an impressive account of collecting and interpreting data in order to validate a particular theory of rhythm found in A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff. As I recently discussed on, this is one of several books that has tried to extend the knapsack of tools of music theory, applied primarily to harmony and counterpoint, to deal with the nature of rhythm. I was writing on because I had just attended a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music run by violist Kim Kashkashian, and I was particularly drawn into her both posing and answering the question of what is the difference between playing four beats to the measure and playing only two beats to the measure.

In many ways this is an iconic question for addressing how one translates marks on paper into performance practices. Lerdahl and Jackendoff developed an elegant system of abstraction that basically translated the notations of durations into a hierarchy of stress patterns. Todd is one of many theorists who have embraced hierarchical representations. He not only admits this but also justifies it with the following argument:
It is important that music is organized hierarchically, because it enables the listener to comprehend the complex musical relationships. If it were not so organized all relationships would be local and transient, since the understanding of music places extraordinary demands on the memory of the listener.
I can see the value of this approach when one is confronted with a full score for a piece of music occupying a significant duration of time. Nevertheless, I cannot shake the "inconvenient truth" that every act of performance must, of necessity, be "local and transient." Thus, what struck me about Kashkashian's coaching was that she was less concerned with performance as a phenomenon involving the translation of visual data into fingering and bowing techniques and more with how performing is a whole body experience and that, furthermore, composing may have more to do with trying to turn a composer's sense of such a whole body experience into a document than with the realization of abstract principles through marks on paper.

Once again I find myself confronted with the challenge of rethinking the relationship between acts of composition and acts of performance, and perhaps I shall have more time to think about it on the basis of recent reading.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Perverted Democracy

Paul Wilson's review of Machael Ignatieff's aptly-titled memoir Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, in the April 24 issue of The New York Review, plays up the failure side of the story with his own title, "The Road to Rejection." His conclusion, however, has less to do with the specifics of Ignatieff's failure as leader of Canada's Liberal party and more with the prevailing environment that thwarts such leadership:
Of all political systems, democracy is the easiest to pervert, because it depends far less on rules than on mutual respect among the players. When that breaks down, as we have seen in the United States, good governance itself breaks down, and no amount of reform measures can easily bring it back. George Orwell, in holding up "common decency" as a bulwark against "smelly little orthodoxies," understood that.
Nevertheless, it is unclear that Orwell appreciated the full impact of such "smelly little orthodoxies." Our own Founding Fathers recognized that such groups would exists but felt that they could be held in check by the structure of government. Sadly, they neglected to consider that possibility that even the smallest of narrowly special interests can rise to significance with a sufficient amount of money behind it. Wilson is right that governance has broken down in the United States; but he does not follow through on the role that market-based thinking has played in the breakdown or, for that matter, the role that the Internet now plays to reinforce those wishing to implement such thinking.

Power is now simply a matter of who can move around large sums of money with maximal impact. When you can buy the opinions of others, the practice of politics no longer requires persuasive skills. When such an economy of opinion is not only enabled but also facilitated by a communications technology as powerful as the Internet, we may as well acknowledge that we now live in an age of brutality far beyond Thomas Hobbes' darkest expectations.

Inside the Emergency Room

The latest issue of The New York Review contains an interesting exchange of letters following up on Arnold Relman's February 6 article "On Breaking One's Neck." This was a fascinating account of a highly experienced doctor describing his own treatment for a serious condition. The exchange was prompted by a letter from a doctor in Puerto Rico asking whether or not Relman's treatment would have been different had he himself not been a famous doctor. Relman replied that did not not think his emergency room treatment would have been any different. He wrote the following:
In the emergency room of a world-class hospital, like the Massachusetts General Hospital, the staff are trained to deal efficiently with every dire emergency. All resources are mobilized to save a life, regardless of the patient’s identity and usually with little or no need for personal communication between doctor and patient.
While this is probably true, it is important to remember that not all hospitals are such "world-class" institutions. Indeed, when my wife was recently admitted to an emergency room, I discovered that all operations there were outsourced. The hospital itself had nothing to do with what went on in the emergency room other than choosing to engage a third-party company to handle those matters.

Perhaps the most important part of Relman's article was his analysis of the nature of communication taking place at all stages of his treatment, including his admission to the emergency room; and I have to wonder whether, in an organization as complex as a hospital, outsourcing imposes a barrier to communication that had not been present when the hospital itself was responsible for all operations.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

When Noise Triumphs over Signal

It would appear that just about everyone was asleep at the switch over at SF Weekly when it came to reviewing the final installation of Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia. The review by Lou Francher consistently calls the play Savage (which even appears in the headline). The title of the play, however, is Salvage, which follows nicely from the two plays that precede it: Voyage and Shipwreck. After seeing this, I felt obliged to check out the Shotgun Players' Web page out of fear that the printed programs for the performances got it wrong, too! Fortunately, they spelled the title of the play correctly. So what we have from SF Weekly is just a reminder that you get what you pay for!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Pulitzers Get It Right (for a change)

I have never had a particularly high opinion of the Pulitzer Prize awards, primarily because I usually go straight to the awards for the arts, rather than dwelling on those for the news. This year my feelings about the arts awards have not changed. Nevertheless, it was good to see that the top of the list went to both The Guardian US and The Washington Post for their reporting on the National Security Agency based significantly on data provided by Edward Snowden. It is nice to know that there are still a few our there who remember what journalism is supposed to be doing, not only among those doing the work but also among those handing out the honors.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Of Minds and Personalities

Today's London Telegraph has an article by Michael Inwood, who teaches philosophy at Oxford, on the subject of Martin Heidegger's anti-Semitism. He seems to have a hard time with the personal prejudices of a man "lauded by his admirers as the greatest mind of the 20th century." Without wishing either to deny or to dismiss Heidegger's opinions about Jews, I have to say that I am beginning to tire of reading otherwise informed writers rake up these coals every time a new embarrassing text comes to light.

Those of us who take our music seriously were contending with this issue even before Heidegger's star began to rise. The best example is Richard Wagner. Yet, even in Wagner's own time, some of the most informed interpreters of his music were Jewish. Admittedly, some of them, like Gustav Mahler, converted for the sake of career advancement. After all, it was not just Bayreuth that did not tolerate Jews; it was also the Vienna Opera. In Heidegger's case it did not take the philosopher long to realize that the Nazis had no more taste for philosophical insights than Dion did when Plato tried to drum up a "consulting gig" in Syracuse.

There are two ways we can look for parallels between Wagner and Heidegger. One is to elaborate on their overt anti-Semitism. The other is that neither individual can be ignored by anyone seriously concerned with studying music or philosophy, respectively. I happened to be teaching computer science in Israel back when the performance of Wagner's music (both in concert halls and on the radio) was prohibited; and I simply could not grasp how those wishing to study music could manage under such impoverished conditions. (The answer quickly became obvious: They left the country.) Similarly, when it comes to questions of time-consciousness (initiated by Heidegger's teacher Edmund Husserl), we cannot ignore Heidegger. (For that matter, my own opinion is that we cannot think about either making music or listening to it without taking time-consciousness into account.) I see no reason why we cannot manage by concentrating on Heidegger's texts, acknowledging that less attractive context only when it seems necessary, just as any number of musicians can focus on Wagner's music without agonizing over his reprehensible lifestyle (in which anti-Semitism was but one element of the reprehensibility).

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Latest Mindless Form Letter

This afternoon I received electronic mail from Staples informing me:
Your local store has closed.
As I read further down the message, it continued:
We’re still close by for all your business needs.
Visit this nearby Staples® store.
I was then shown a map and an address for the store I could now visit. Apparently, the system that generated this message had no idea that this was my "local store." It's nice to see how Staples can turn all of the data harvested from their point-of-sale terminals and turn it into "actionable knowledge!"

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Further Foolishness from Yahoo!

Recently, I have been having trouble sending my mail from OS X Mail. While my usual inclination is to blame Apple for yet another instance of software development ineptitude, I happened to notice on my RSS feed for Vienna support that Adium users were also having trouble connecting to their Yahoo! accounts. Apparently, this had to do with disabling some of the functionality in Messenger. The advice from Yahoo! was to login to Yahoo! from any device of choice. This seems to have improved the behavior of OS X Mail. Reading further, I discovered that what they meant by "safety" was "protection from illegal bitcoin mining." Boy, am I glad that technology innovations are simplifying my life!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Parts of What?

Back when McDonald's first introduced chicken "nuggets" into its menu, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) went on an advertising offensive. McDonald's claimed the "nuggets" were made from chicken "parts;" and KFC ran an ad with the slogan "parts is parts" to suggest (but not assert) that the "nuggets" were not "real" chicken. Since then the nuggets have caught on and can now be purchased as frozen food. In fact Tyson Foods packages five-pound bags of nuggets with a label declaring them as "white meat chicken." Unfortunately 75,000 pounds of those bags at Sam's Club outlets across the country had to be recalled. It turned out that the "white meat chicken" was intermingled with pieces of plastic that apparently got there through the automated mechanism that separates the chicken from the bone. "Parts" may be "parts;" but what is in those "parts" appears to be anyone's guess!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Alphabetic Ordering Makes Strange Bedfellows

As I continue to use "Schwann's Way" to keep my CD collection in order, I am occasionally amused by the sorts of adjacencies that result for the process, particularly when it comes to ordering by the composer's last name. I have written about this in the past, but I am always interested in seeing what happens when a new composer enters the ordering. In this case the new composer is Dan Becker, by virtue of the fact that I had written about (and enjoyed) his new CD Fade on my national site at the end of last month. One the one hand he is preceded by Amy Beach. (She entered the ranks several years ago when I was working on her Opus 15 Sketches.) On the other side is the beginning of a generous run of Ludwig van Beethoven. However, because, within a composer, the ordering is determined by the title of the first piece, Becker is rubbing shoulder's with the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, in other words this relatively seasoned modernist has been placed next to a very early effort of Beethoven. This was probably something that Beethoven showed to Haydn when the latter passed through Bonn in 1790 on his way back from London to Vienna. It probably got Haydn's attention, because there is a distinct family resemblance of some of the music that Haydn would later compose for his Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Overselling the Bach Solo Cello Suites

This morning I found myself returning the the DVD portion in the box The Complete EMI Recordings of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This is the video version of the recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach's six solo cello suites in the Abbey of la Madaleine in the town of Vézelay in the Burgundy region of France. These are definitely informative performances; and the opportunity to watch Rostropovich at work, rather than just listen to him, makes them all the more informative. Unfortunately, each suite is preceded by introductory commentary, which begins by assigning a title as follows:
  1. BWV 1007 in G major: Lightness
  2. BWV 1008 in D minor: Sorrow and Intensity
  3. BWV 1009 in C major: Brilliance
  4. BWV 1010 in E-flat major: Majesty and Opacity
  5. BWV 1011 in C minor: Darkness
  6. BWV 1012 in D major: Sunlight
I have no idea whether or not Rostropovich had any say in assigning these titles; and, if he did have a say, I have to wonder whether or not he took them seriously.

As I have written frequently on my site, I feel that the best way to approach any of Bach's solo instrumental compositions is to assume that he wrote them for pedagogical purposes. After all, between his children and his royal patrons (not to mention all those students in Leipzig), he probably had a lot of instructional duties on his plate; and, even when a particular piece may not originally have been intended for instruction, may have have subsequently used it that way (just as any number of teachers have done so since). In addition, when it comes to hypothesizing how Bach went about teaching, I tend to use the title page he provided for the two-part and three-part inventions, which were originally written into the Klavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. In that text Bach made it clear that the inventions were intended not only to cultivate clarity of execution but also the imagination behind the "inventiones" (ideas) that would provide Bach's son (Friedemann) with "a strong foretaste of composition."

While we tend to think of such "inventiones" in terms of the creation and elaboration of thematic material, there is also a rhetorical element that escalates such themes from the abstract to the concrete. In Bach's sacred music we appreciate the role of rhetoric in terms of how the music is associated with sacred texts. Even an instrumental chorale prelude takes the text of the hymn providing the theme as a point of departure. However, for suites and partitas, the only point of reference comes from those movements named for dance forms; and it is unclear whether or not specific dances were intended to be associated with different moods. (Just because a sarabande is slow does not mean it needs to be solemn, any more than we should assume that a gigue is energetically cheerful. Think of how a trio or a double for one of those dances introduces a contrasting state of mind.)

My point is that Bach probably would not have approved of a priori assignments of nouns and/or adjectives to these movements. It would be up to the imagination of the performer to decided how such movements could be "described" and then conveyed to the listener. This may be appreciated when we compare the Rostropovich recordings with those made by Pablo Casals (also for EMI). Furthermore, for those who heard either (or both) of these musicians in performance, there is a good chance that the interpretations of those performances different from those on the recordings. Indeed, Casals even went as far as to tell at least one of his pupils (Bernard Greenhouse) that the study of Bach had to include the exploration of new ways of performing the music one had already learned.