Monday, June 30, 2008

Our Knowledge of the Musical World

I picked up an interesting tidbit about a recent performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. One of the critics who attended the performance sent a message to the conductor to the effect that, even after preparing himself by attending a lecture about the work, he still did not understand it and did not know what to write; so he did not write a review of the performance. My immediate reaction was that this was the most honest act in journalism I had encountered in many years (which, when you think about it, carries the pathetic implication that the best place to find honesty is on the Arts pages). On the other hand I cannot help but be reminded of the final entry in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Wovon man nich sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

[What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.]

However, I believe it is important to read this text in the light of two other philosophers, one of whom preceded Wittgenstein and one of whom followed him. The predecessor is Plato on ground that I have visited many times concerned with the intimate relationship that exists between knowledge and description. The more recent philosopher is Richard Rorty, who talked about "keeping the conversation going" as a (if not the) major obligation of philosophy. Put another way, much (if not most) of what we know emerges from our "conversations" with others. This is true whatever we may "acquire" through our personal experiences; and it comes about through the extent to which we share those experiences. This reflects back on Plato to the extent that much of that sharing derives from our capacity to describe the experiences. Some of us can achieve such description through musical performances or "works of art" (as when Igor Stravinsky once told a television audience, "I don't want to tell you more, I only want to play you more"); but the rest of us all-too-humans usually cannot get at description by any means other than through our command of the language(s) we speak!

This raises at least a potential paradox of knowledge acquisition: Can that "local critic" in San Mateo ever get beyond passing over Messiaen in silence? To be even more reductive and trying to deftly avoid those who try to play Beethoven to a child still in the womb, we come into this world with no experience of having heard Messiaen (and, for the sake of argument, let us assume Ludwig van Beethoven, as well). Yet many of us eventually come to a position from which we feel we can speak about Beethoven. Can we say anything "developmentally" about how we get there? My own stab at answering this question (heavily informed by the work of Gerald Edelman) is that we have the ability to build up our own experience base; and, as we do so, we begin to form perceptual categories, which we can invoke to inform our speech. However, experience does not come overnight; so it would probably be unreasonable to expect a newspaper critic to bring himself up to speed on Messiaen for the sake of submitting a review on time!

Nevertheless, if we move beyond the specifics of Messiaen or Beethoven, my "Platonic" view of knowledge allows for the possibility that we can prepare ourselves for the task of describing new music (unless it springs from an abstraction that is deliberately removed from all experience bases). This takes us back to my favorite quote from Stravinsky:

Others let the ears be present and they don't make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

In light of Edelman's insights, what separates us from ducks is the richness of perceptual categories we can manage in the course of our perceptions. From a strictly personal point of view, it took me quite some time (including several feeble efforts at trying to play some of the stuff) to build up some perceptual categories to inform my having anything to say (at least in Wittgenstein's sense) about Messiaen! Thus, what Stravinsky calls "an effort to understand" may ultimately come down to allowing oneself to acquire as broad an experience base of listening to (if not playing) music as "world enough and time" can allow, because it is only through those experiences that perceptual categories will emerge, primarily as a consequence of the cerebral cortex doing what nature has endowed it with the capacity to do; and, the richer the base of categories we acquire, the less we have to worry about passing over in silence!

It's All about the Diva

I had a music professor who used to like to say, "There are those who like music and those who like opera." It should be clear from many of my past posts that I disagree with him. Yesterday, however, after seeing the San Francisco Opera production of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (having seen the opera itself only once before on a Metropolitan Opera telecast), I have to wonder if my professor had intended his assertion to apply only to bel canto opera. It is hard to imagine this work as anything more than a three-hour framework for one spectacular mad scene aria. It certainly does not honor Walter Scott (in either music or text) the with creative understanding that Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito brought to William Shakespeare in their adaptation of Othello; and, having had a few opportunities to hear the composer's chamber music, I would say that Lucia does not even provide Donizetti with much of a platform for his compositional skills. Indeed, I might be so bold as to observe that the high point of his creativity came with the decision to have a glass harmonica accompany Lucia's mad scene, which provided for a truly eerie depiction of her unhinged state.

Even this decision has problems, however. The glass harmonica yields an effective sound, but it is also physically unwieldy. Thus, it works best as a solo instrument. (Mozart's one effort to put it in a chamber music setting was an Adagio, for good reason!) Getting such an instrument to track coloratura passages is a high-wire act for both parties. Thus, if yesterday's performance was about little more than not falling from the wire, I am happy to report that Natalie Dessay delivered the aria with all the intensity it demands; and Alexander Marguerre had all the necessary command of his glass harmonica to give her the supporting accompaniment she deserved.

Is there anything more that can be said? Interestingly, Joseph Kerman, in his Opera as Drama book, pretty much ignores Lucia's mad scene but singles out the concluding scene, in the Ravenswood cemetery, as a high-point of pre-Verdi operatic drama. Musically, Donizetti seemed to find his best sounds and thematic conceptions when he brought together the voices of Enrico Ashton (baritone) and Edgardo (tenor). However, in spite of the fact that what drama there is revolves around the antagonism between these two men, this happens seldom; and one of those times is when they introduce the second act sextet, which as Daniel Mendelsohn pointed out when he reviewed the Metropolitan Opera production for The New York Review of Books, is only a sextet through the gratuitous presence of Alisa (whose voice I never really heard).

So, do a few isolated moments of inspiration justify a full commitment to a three-hour performance? My guess is that much of the audience was there to hear Dessay, and they were more than satisfied with that experience. Mendelsohn makes a strong case that there is far more to what Donizetti and his librettist Salavadore Cammarano put into this opera than I seem to have gotten out of it. On the other hand, after building up an argument for all of the substance in this opera, he proceeded to explain why Mary Zimmerman (who directed the Met production) did not "get it." So it is possible that Graham Vick, who originally staged the San Francisco production for the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence also did not "get it." However, when we consider how much dramatic significance Vick was able to extract from a single tree in his staging of Tannhäuser earlier this season, I have to wonder if the cardboard characters and melodramatic histrionics of Lucia were a rebellion against the injustices to Scott wreaked by Cammarano.

A more generous explanation may have been that Lucia was just in the wrong company. Both George Frideric Handel and Richard Wagner knew how to explore depths of the human heart through the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of their compositional skills. Donizetti was just not the same sort of player in that kind of league. He had the talent to entertain but not to reflect. Had Lucia been placed in a repertoire between the legacy of Gioacchino Rossini and the innovations of Verdi, I might have received it with more understanding and appreciation.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Eastern European Wonders

I do not know if this was an accident of the timings of the individual works on the program or a deliberate act to prompt our approach to listening; but the program for the final "official" concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall (before the Summer in the City series gets under way) was presented in reverse chronological order. When I wrote about Johannes Brahms during the "Festival" series of concerts that Michael Tilson Thomas had arranged last month, I explored the extent to which Brahms had to contend with "the long shadow of the history of the music that preceded him, particularly that of Ludwig van Beethoven" and suggested that we needed to apply a listening strategy to Brahms that was "both retrospective and prospective at the same time." In many respects this week's program challenged us to apply that strategy on a broader geographical scale, which encompassed one recently deceased composer from Poland (Witold Lutosławski) and two from Czechoslovakia (Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák).

I am actually not sure it is fair to place these three composers in a common category. Beyond the boundaries of geography, Lutosławski is separated from the other two by not only the Second World War but also influences that are about as remote from the Czechs as one might imagine. Indeed, by Lutosławski's own account, his two primary sources of influence are, themselves, radically different: On the one hand there is the influence of the Second Viennese School, which grew out of Arnold Schoenberg and his two primary students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern; and this is the influence that usually comes to mind when we hear performances of Lutosławski's music. However, he was also influenced by Claude Debussy; and we became more aware of that influence in his final years of composition. In his notes in the program book for "Mi-Parti," the Lutosławski composition that began the Symphony program, Scott Foglesong wrote about these influences in terms of an opposition between technical logic (Schoenberg) and expressiveness (Debussy); and, while Foglesong never invokes the noun "dialectic," "Mi-Parti" may best be heard as a resolution of this opposition through synthesis.

Actually, my own first impression of "Mi-Parti" involves a composer whom Foglesong never mentions: Igor Stravinsky. From a rhetorical point of view, the first of this composition's three sections follows the familiar path of a gradual emergence of "signs of life" from some initial sparse gestures to the near-chaos of an entire ecosystem. Stravinsky broke the mold for this rhetorical strategy in the "Introduction" to his Rite of Spring. However, where Stravinsky's gestures were all melodic, Lutosławski distilled the "raw material" for his approach to this strategy to little more than basic sounds (or, as musique concrète pioneer, Pierre Schaeffer, called them, "sonorous objects"). In addition there is an aleatory element to the "ecosystem" that emerges, in which performers play rapid passages based on a pre-specified selection of notes but with the freedom to choose the order in which those notes are played.

The impact on the ear is nothing less than dazzling. While, even in Stravinsky, there is traditionally a sense of an integrated ensemble following a "direction" set by the conductor, Lutosławski's effect comes far closer to that sense of a "primal nature" than anything Stravinsky invoked. As in a rainforest, one is first struck only by how much activity there is; but, as the ears become acclimated to the environment, one begins to be able to extract specific activities from the overall texture. This is not always easy to achieve in a performance, particularly when dealing with an ensemble as large as the one Lutosławski has specified. However, visiting conductor David Robertson did an excellent job of find the right path between leading the Symphony when they needed to be led and allowing them "freedom of choice" when this was what the score required. The result was that, while it was clear that technical logic played an extremely strong role in the conception of this music, not to mention preparation for performance, it was the expressiveness that emerged "at the other end" for the benefit of those of us in the audience.

Janáček preceded Lutosławski by approximately half a century; but he, too, commanded a strong sense of music as a structuring of "sonorous objects." Within Janáček's frame of reference, however, this conception could be approached through the devices of orchestration. The down-side of such an approach is that the underlying "vocabulary" he invoked for melody, harmony, and counterpoint is relatively limited; so, without the narrative thread that runs through his operas, a full evening of his music might end up sounding a bit repetitious. However, any one of his works, taken on its own terms, usually turns out to be a real gem; and, indeed, each of the three movements of his Taras Bulba "rhapsody" (as he called it) is a gem unto itself.

For those unfamiliar with the novella by Nikolai Gogol (or, for that matter, the Yul Brynner movie) that provides the underlying narrative for this rhapsody, the story concerns a Cossack warrior (of the title) and his two sons, Ostap and Andrei. In the context of my argument that the opera Das Rheingold may best be understood as a story of three thefts, Janáček seemed to have regarded Gogol's novella as an account of three deaths (and I would share that point of view). Ultimately, it is the saga of a father who witnesses (and, in the case of Andrei, the younger son, brings about) the deaths of his two sons. (Ostap is executed by the Poles, and Taras finds himself witness.) Leading the Cossacks across Poland to avenge Ostap's death, Taras is ultimately taken prisoner and burned at the stake, but not before going out with one last defiant call to arms to his fellow Cossacks. Janáček's rhapsody depicts each of these deaths in the order in which they occur in Gogol's narrative.

The result is that each movement is, more than anything else, a character study. If his thematic vocabulary was limited, he compensated with rich orchestration and, particularly for Ostap, a keen sense of gesture, which, in many ways, provides a "transition point" between the use of melodic motif employed by so much of the music that had preceded Janáček and that more fundamental concept of "basic sound" that lay at the heart of Lutosławski's musical language. Thus, the order of the program may have served Janáček best of the three composers by providing the opportunity to hear his music both retrospectively and prospectively.

The evening concluded with Dvořák's Opus 104 cello concerto. Like Taras Bulba, this was a relatively late work; but it preceded the Janáček rhapsody by almost a quarter century. Dvořák only wrote three concertos, and this was the last of them. Furthermore, the level of expressiveness he achieved in writing for the cello tends to make this far more popular that the two preceding concertos for piano and violin, respectively. However, that expressiveness had already emerged in his chamber music; so it is no surprise that, towards the end of the concerto's final movement, the cello engages in a dialog with a violin (usually played by the concertmaster) which may have, itself, involved a retrospective view of his compositions for piano trio. Cello soloist Alisa Weilerstein had little trouble homing in on these expressive qualities and meeting the double challenge of holding her own against the entire orchestra while maintaining the intimacy of her brief "conversation" with Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman. (Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik had exercised his solo chops during Taras Bulba; so it was nice to see the way "division of labor" was applied to this program!)

Finally, it is interesting to note a somewhat shorter-range view of retrospection and prospection surrounding this concerto. According to the program notes, Dvořák began working on it on November 8, 1894; but his inspiration seems to have originated in the spring of that year. This was when he heard the principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera play his own second cello concerto in a concert (in Brooklyn, probably at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). That cellist was Victor Herbert, barely remembered today and not for his symphonic music but for a string of operettas that became part of the early history of movies with music! Had it not been for Herbert, Dvořák might not have begun his project; and that makes for one great "sweet mystery of life!"

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Variations without a Theme

The last time I heard Sandro Russo in recital, at St. Patrick's Church in San Francisco under the auspices of Noontime Concerts™, I suggested that his program had been "organized around the theme of the art of embellishment." I heard him again last night at San Francisco's Old First Church; and I would say that, while there was hardly a lack of embellishment, the emphasis did not seem to be as great. However, in spite of my habit (or, as I sometimes suggest, natural inclination) to find a unifying theme in last night's program, I suspect that any hypothesis I would pose would be a stretch. To some extent one might say that the recital was "about" listening to music through the medium of the solo piano (even when that music was not written for solo piano); but can we not the say the same about any piano recital?

Nevertheless, many of the works on the program seemed to demonstrate this approach from different points of view. Consider, for example, the second work on Russo's program, the "Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" by Franz Liszt. The title comes from the BWV 12 cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, which is the text of the opening chorus (preceded by an orchestra sinfonia). There is a slight irony in that the chorus is, itself, a chaconne of variations woven around a repeated "ground" bass passage; so, in some sense, Liszt's work could be called "variations on a set of variations." Bach, himself, would later "repurpose" this chaconne for the "Crucifixus" movement of his B minor mass (BWV 232), which was consistent with the mournful text of BWV 12. However, if Bach's music was meant for mediation on the "root tragedy" of Christian faith, Liszt's approach to "variation" is primarily one of bombast. Introverted grief is trumped by extroverted histrionics. Yet, there is also an extent to which these "variations" turn into a reflection on the entire cantata, or at least the beginning and the end; for, after it seems as if Liszt has exhausted everything he possibly can build on top of the poor little bass passage, he presents us with a coda based on the final chorale of the cantata, "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan," which blazes with as much glory as his divisions on the ground bass. From Bach's point of view, this chorale closes the meditation with the most frequently recurring theme of his faith: "Thy Will be Done." Liszt turns that precept into a celebration of God's will, if not a celebration of his view of himself as an instrument of God's will! This music, after all, precedes by many decades Liszt decision to take the cloth and become an abbé. Indeed, to the extent that we have a reasonable chronology of Liszt's works, he seems to have been working on these variations around the same time he was composing his "Totentanz" with equal flamboyance and throwing in orchestral accompaniment for good measure.

I find it interesting that it is possible (but probably not very likely) that Liszt could have been exposed to Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" at the time he was working on both of these compositions. Whether it is a reflection on that "root tragedy" or on the horrors of the afterlife, Liszt's music may best be heard as a rebellion against the solemnity of church services that deprive the congregation of the essentially "emotional underbelly" of faith. Liszt's music lays siege to such churches and their rituals. Had he been aware of Whitman's words, he would have stormed through the doors to play his music first proclaiming:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

This, of course, is my own conception of what was going on in this particular piece of piano music. I also have no idea if Russo is familiar with Whitman's writing. Whether or not he knows Whitman's text, however, he certainly knows how to bring a "barbaric yawp" to his performance; and that is precisely what the performance of Liszt's approach to a humble little Bach cantata required!

Liszt was also represented on Russo's program by his "Réminiscences de Don Juan." This comes from an earlier period but also may best be viewed through that song-of-myself perspective, because, by the time he set to work on what, ostensibly, was an homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni, he had accumulated his own "catalog" of female conquests, which, while not quite as numerous as Leporello's list was still pretty impressive for any mere mortal. Thus, while this paraphrase of Mozart begins with the apparition of the Commendatore in the graveyard, once the music "gets down to business," it is all about seduction and sybaritic indulgence. The heart of the work is a set of variations (once again, highly flamboyant) on the Don's temptation of Zerlina in "Là ci darem la mano" (possibly in response to the set of variations composed by the then teenaged Frédéric Chopin); and the composition goes out with a bang (almost literally) with "Finch'han dal vino calda la testa," in which the Don describes in manic detail his plans for the party at which he plans to add Zerlina's name (and others) to Leporello's list. Needless to say, Liszt had no trouble at all capturing this manic element of the Don's character; and the good news was that Russo had no trouble in rendering the way Liszt had captured it.

While it might have been interesting to offer Chopin's "Là ci darem" variations to provide both context and comparison to Liszt's treatment, Russo chose to represent Chopin instead with his more mature Opus 22, the "Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise." This provided an excellent contrast, since, while the Liszt compositions had well defined episodes to frame his yawps and indulgences, this particular coupling of two movements has a much better defined (and, for that matter, refined) architecture than just about anything Liszt ever wrote. Within that architecture embellishment is less for virtuosic display and more to, well, embellish a core structure through which the listener orients to the beginning, middle, and end of each movement. Perhaps the most important thing about such a core is that the end is there less to "go out with a bang," as I had put it for Liszt, but to close off what had begun; and one way to listen to these two movements is as two different perspectives on how one comes to closure. Now, when I last wrote about Russo, I questioned whether he was more interested in the rapidity of his embellishments than in their function; and I reinforced that question with my observations of how he had approached Joseph Haydn's "classical" approach to embellishment, in contrast to Liszt's "virtuosic" approach. Russo did not perform Chopin at this earlier recital; but last night's performance demonstrated how firmly Chopin holds that "middle ground" between Haydn and Liszt. The rapidity was still there (sometimes a bit more than I would have liked) but delivered with a lightness of touch that made it clear that the function of embellishing was being served; and, as a result, we learned more about listening to embellishment from this particular coupling of Chopin and Liszt than we would have learned had Russo opted for the "Là ci darem" variations.

Russo's program also provided an interesting exercise in listening to counterpoint, particularly as it was practiced by Bach. It began with the Largo movement from Bach's C major (BWV 529) organ trio sonata as transcribed by Samuil Evgenyevich Feinberg, a highly romanticized conception of Bach with little concern for an "authentic" sound and all concern for taking what was probably a relatively abstract exercise in counterpoint and endowing it with profound emotion. Feinberg's approach was complemented by the coupling of a prelude and fugues in G sharp minor by Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev, a pupil of Piotr Tchaikovsky. Wikipedia has an excellent entry for Taneyev, which includes the following paragraph relevant to Russo's selection:

Taneyev's specialized field of study was theoretical counterpoint. He engrossed himself in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Giovanni Palestrina and Flemish masters such as Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez and Lassus. Eventually, he became one of the greatest of theoretical contrapuntists[26].

This particular prelude and fugue, Taneyev's Opus 29, was composed in 1910, which is a time when Feinberg's "spirit" of Bach was flourishing; but Taneyev chose to capture this spirit through an original composition that honored Bach's craft, rather than through a transcription of Bach's own music. With its post-romantic perspective, Taneyev's conception unfolds the underlying forms of The Well-Tempered Clavier with far more layers of embellishment (not to mention duration) than Bach would have found suitable; and I have to confess that my immediate reaction to Russo's performance was that I wanted to hear this work again, since I was pretty certain that I "got" only a modest portion of it on first exposure. As I have previously observed, listening to Bach's counterpoint it no easy matter; and, regardless of how "authentic" the instrument is, the best Bach performers are those who can guide us through the intricacies of Bach's logic and grammar. Taneyev offered up a new composition as an alternative guide; but that just means that performing this twentieth-century work confronts the same challenges as performing Bach! Thus, I would have to beg off trying to evaluate Russo's performance until I am more familiar with the work; but I deeply appreciate his exposing me to this alternative to approaching Bach through transcription.

Vladimir Leyetchkiss' recent transcription of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Opus 17 suite for two pianos, on the other hand, is quite another matter. While I appreciate the desire of a solo pianist (like Russo) to play this music without having to seek out another pianist, the performance had too much of a technical display of how to compress four hands worth of notes into only two. More suitable was Russo's encore, which was Giovanni Sgambati's transcription of the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" from Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo de Euridice. Within the history of transcriptions and paraphrases, this was probably the closest thing to a warhorse that Russo performed; and it offers the best possible way to demonstrate that neither a transcription nor a paraphrase need necessarily be all about flamboyance. Russo understood this, and his sensitivity endowed his program with a perfect sense of closure.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Stepping on the Long Tail (again)

For any of my disagreements with Andrew Keen, I continue to read him because I continue to support the basic precepts of his Cult of the Amateur book, particularly those relating to his subtitle about "how the Internet is killing our culture." About a year ago, thanks to Book TV, I got to see Keen participate in a "debate" over this book, which was held at the Strand Bookstore in New York. I visited this topic a couple of times in blog posts, partly because, while I did not say it explicitly at the time, it had to be one of the most bizarre broadcasts I had ever seen on Book TV. (I have to say "one of," since the recent broadcast of David Horowitz haranguing the National Press Club, ostensibly on the topic of his book, Party of Defeat: How Democrats and Radicals Undermined America's War on Terror Before and After 9-11, is, without a doubt, the most bizarre event I have seen on Book TV!) One of the more important themes at the Strand had to do with the conviction of Internet evangelists that everyone could get rich through the virtues of the "long tail effect." Reduced to its simplest terms, the principle behind the effect is that whatever you have to supply, given a large enough population of buyers, there will be enough demand within that population for you to make a living from supplying it. Therefore, since the Internet gives you access to the largest population of buyers conceivable, you are sure to make money by satisfying that demand with your supply. Here is how I summarized Keen's refutation in an earlier blog post:

Keen's basic response was that, indeed, anyone (including all of the "amateurs" that occupy his book) out on the long tail could be "discovered" to the benefit of others; but he was skeptical that anyone could make money by being discoverable.

When I reported this refutation, I followed it up with some more analytic results that had been reported on CNET

Keen's skepticism has now been confirmed with more specific data and analysis posted by Gordon Haff on his Pervasive Datacenter blog for CNET. The bottom line of his argument is that money is made on the long tail, rather than in it. Put another way, Amazon can (and probably does) make a healthy share of their revenue by aggregating a vast number of books, each of which is known to have very little appeal, and handling the sale of all of them. Any author of any of those books, however, is not going to earn enough for a loaf of bread off of the increased sales (s)he gets by virtue of being in the Amazon catalog.

This morning Matt Asay has come up with further fuel for the fire on his Open Road blog for CNET

As new research highlighted in Harvard Business Review suggests, the answer may well be that the real money is in the blockbuster, not the long tail, after all:

Meanwhile, our research also showed that success is concentrated in ever fewer best-selling titles at the head of the distribution curve. From 2000 to 2005 the number of titles in the top 10% of weekly sales dropped by more than 50%--an increase in concentration that is common in winner-take-all markets. The importance of individual best sellers is not diminishing over time. It is growing....

Is most of the business in the long tail being generated by a bunch of iconoclasts determined to march to different drummers? The answer is a definite no. My results show that a large number of customers occasionally select obscure offerings that, given their consumption rank and the average assortment size of off-line retailers, are probably not available in brick-and-mortar stores. Meanwhile, consumers of the most obscure content are also buying the hits. Although they choose products of widely varying popularity, top titles generally form the largest share of their choices. (The wide appeal of these top titles is, of course, what makes them popular in the first place.)

Not only this, but the researchers find that "No matter how I slice and dice the customer base, customers give lower ratings to obscure titles." So, not only is the long tail less profitable, it's also less enjoyable. Chris Anderson, the man who made long-tail theory de rigueur, tries to defend his theory, but it doesn't measure up to HBR's analysis.

Will this put all of that long tail claptrap to rest? Of course not. One reason I so delight in calling Internet promoters "evangelists" is that their reasoning is as faith-based as most of the political logic exercised over the last eight years that has now left us in a morass of consequences far ghastlier than we could ever have imagined. Indeed, in the grand scheme of history, the faith behind Internet evangelism may be relatively minor compared with faith-based decisions that have impacted the prospects for world peace, the growing problem of world hunger, and the potential ruination of our planet's basic ecosystem. Furthermore, I basically agree with George Lakoff that "You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain;" and, on the basis of my own studies of "wet brains," I can both follow and appreciate his explanations for why our brains are hooked on precepts of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment that run the gamut from outdated to flat-out wrong. However, just as I recently argued "that Google is one of the primary technologies through which the Web feeds our addiction to consumerism," I would further argue that the entire Internet is such a monument to Enlightenment ideals that it inhibits the development of our brains to accommodate 21st-century insights. I thus feel it is necessary to bring my own resources to bear against those Internet evangelists for the fundamental reason that what they are promoting is almost certainly going to have an inhibitory effect on our ability to confront and deal with all those crises that are far more serious than whether or not the Internet economy rises or falls.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

America's Next Unaudacious Chapter

It was through "The American reawakening" posted by Andrew Keen on his Great Seduction blog that I discovered Gary Hart's Op-Ed contribution to The New York Times, entitled "America's Next Chapter." Now that Barack Obama is the designated candidate for the Democratic party and he has made a strategic decision about funding his candidacy, the one "resource shortage" he will not be facing will be the opinions of others. Hart is hardly the first to get this ball rolling; and, for what it is worth, he has "the wisdom of one who tried and failed." More importantly, he writes from a base of understanding far broader than Presidential campaigns; and his piece is worth reading simply for the appreciation of that base.

What he builds on that base is another matter. After stimulating us with a second paragraph in which he invokes (in his ordering) Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Adams, when he finally gets down to the nitty-gritty of how Obama should move forward, his primary source is more populist:

Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” ask, “What do we do now?” after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.

It is not often that we see Redford (or, as in this case, one of his fictitious personae) as a negative role model; but this made for an interesting rhetorical flourish on Hart's part. The reader was thus "softened up" for the more substantive core of Hart's argument:

Noting the power of “custom and fear,” and “of orthodoxy and of complacency,” Schlesinger believed that “the subversion of old ideas by the changing environment” would give a new leader the best chance to create a new cycle of reform and innovation.

No individual can entirely determine the architecture of a historical cycle. But much of the next one will be defined by how we grapple with a host of new realities, ones that reach beyond jihadist terrorism. They include globalized markets; the expansion of the information revolution into places like China; the emergence of new world powers including India and China; climate deterioration; failing states; the changing nature of war; mass migrations; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; viral pandemics; and many more.

Senator Obama’s attempt to introduce the next American cycle should include, at minimum, three elements. National security requires a new, expanded, post-cold-war definition. America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one. And the moral obligations of our stewardship of the planet must become paramount.

Treating "cycle" as a synonym for "revolution," I am reminded of a quip that G. K. Chesterton once made about a farmer he encountered while on a walking tour in France: The farmer made the observation that the problem with revolutions is that they always take you back where you started. Peter Weiss expressed this more cynically in Marat/Sade: "The soup is still burnt." If Hart (or anyone else, for that matter) wants to open a conversation on a "new chapter," then it is just as important to be clear about what we are leaving behind in the "old chapter," as well as turning our gaze to "new realities."

The reason I feel there is too much "old chapter" (or "burnt soup") thinking in Hart's recommendations lies in the second of his "three elements:"

America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one.

The problem is that production supports consumerism as much as consumption does; and, as I have been trying to argue (again inspired, at least in part, by Keen), our prevailing "culture of consumerism" is the most dominant part of that "old chapter" that we need to put behind us. Put another way, a "transition" to production is more about whether or not we are drowning the world in unnecessary "stuff" than about whether we are the major consumers of that "stuff." From this point of view, there is a potential conflict between the second and third items of Hart's list, particularly when you factor in the need for the planet's resources to produce all that "stuff" in the first place! Furthermore, while the globalization of our addiction to consumerism may not be the primary cause of all of those "new realities" in Hart's list, I suspect that it still emerges for each of those realities, if not in a primary way then in a secondary or tertiary one.

If Obama really wanted to write an "audacious new chapter," he could embrace the premise that there is more to living a "good life" than economic growth, particularly when the only thing that is growing is the Gross Domestic Product! There are all sorts of other criteria we could choose for being a significant world leader: lowering infant mortality and raising the level of educational achievement (for both students and teachers) would make for a good start. Then, of course, there are criteria that are not country-centric, such as contributing to a more equitable distribution of wealth around the world. This last is the basic mission of the Growth Commission (which I have already discussed and provides about the only context in which I can utter the word "growth" without spitting). This is my idea of serious language about the "audacity of hope;" but I doubt that we shall hear much of that talk from Obama. Now that his staff will be counting electoral votes every day, I suspect they would muzzle him, even if he wanted to talk about it!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Blindered" Lawyers Subvert Blind Justice

I was more that a bit surprised to discover how little scathed the current Administration's Department of Justice had been by Chutzpah of the Week awards. The closest they seem to have come was on March 9, 2007, when they probably acted jointly with the Department of Defense to lay down the procedural groundwork for due process of law [sic] for the detainees in Guantanamo. The "sic" is, of course, related to the "chutzpah" and was focused on one of the ground rules (as had been reported by the BBC):

The hearings are being held with no defence lawyers present, and human rights groups say the panels of three military officials could consider evidence obtained by force.

Fortunately, while George W. Bush has been occupying himself with the legacy he wishes to leave, this turned out to be a good week to honor the Justice's Department's legacy for chutzpah.

The chutzpah in this case is not so much a matter of news as it is one of a skeleton that finally managed to get out of the closet. The story started to break last night that there was yet another brick in the wall of ideologically discriminatory practices in the Department of Justice, particularly under the watch of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Here is how Stephanie Kirchgaessner covered it (from Washington) for the Financial Times:

Officials at the US Department of Justice illegally favoured conservative candidates when they made hiring decisions for the department’s top recruitment programme, according to a report by the DoJ’s inspector general.

The findings marked the first time that allegations of illegal hiring and firing practices, cited for some time by former DoJ officials and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, were confirmed by an independent report. The review cited numerous instances in which qualified candidates were passed over for jobs because they were perceived as politically liberal.

I once gave a lecture on semiotics during which I joked about Bush's inability to interpret a sign in any reading other than the most literal one, probably as an ironic corollary of all of his readings being faith-based. Thus, the very construct of a symbol, which we may regard as a sign being employed deliberately for some figurative interpretation, was alien to him. In this case the irony is even greater, since the very nature of the Department of Justice is embodied in one of the most famous symbols in the world (by which I mean frequently recognized beyond our own borders).

The symbol, of course, is that of blindfolded Justice; and it would be fair to say that much of its global reputation comes from our having appropriated it from Great Britain. The blindfold basically symbolizes the abstract ideal of argumentation, the ability to arrive at a judgment through nothing but evidence and the ability to use that evidence to both warrant and refute assertions that are brought to the attention of the court by lawyers and witnesses. The blindfold even has a literal interpretation: As long as Justice can hear the development and conclusion of an argument, she has no need of her eyes.

Thus, one way to think about the DoJ hiring practices that have now come to light is that they have replaced the idealism of Justice's blindfold with ideological blinders that were assumed to be necessary for both doing DoJ business and for selecting new colleagues to assist in that process. Of course those blinders have extended to practices beyond DoJ operations, as we have seen in some of the recent Supreme Court opinions, regardless of what decision happened to prevail. However, in this case we should focus on the Executive Branch, particularly in light of the reputation the President has acquired for going to war against the Constitution with almost as much energy (and probably more success) than in his efforts towards a Global War on Terror. Thus, the Chutzpah of the Week award for this week will go (unshared) to the Justice Department for its legacy of hiring practices; and it should make a nice complement to all of those awards already sitting in the Oval Office!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The VOX POPULI of Ridicule

Is it really the case that I have not written about my preference for ridicule over outrage since March (when word was first coming out about Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay)? Have I been taking things too seriously, or has their been a serious paucity of reports on ridicule in the mass media? Certainly, today's story is a local one; and it will be interesting to see if it gets picked up on a national scale (or, through the good graces of either the BBC or Al Jazeera, a global one). It concerns a recent movement here in San Francisco, reported by Marisa Lagos in today's Chronicle:

They're the Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco, but don't let the serious name fool you. The group's intentions are in the gutter: They want to rename the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant the George W. Bush Sewage Plant come January, when the next president is sworn in.

During the inauguration, the group also wants supporters to participate in a "synchronized flush"- a way to send a gift to the renamed plant, which supporters say, would be a "fitting monument to this president's work."

It sounds like a harmless joke, or maybe a college civics lesson gone awry. But the handful of friends who dreamed this up over beers one night say they have already collected 8,500 signatures in support of the plan - 1,300 more than the minimum needed to put the question to city voters in November. When they submit the signatures in July, election workers will have to verify that at least 7,168 are from registered city voters for the measure to qualify for the ballot.

Now, as Public Utilities Commission spokesman Tony Winnicker pointed out, this plant has won awards for the effective job it does of keeping our local water clean (thus reinforcing our Mayor's decision to ban bottled water from official meetings in favor of tap water). It is a little bit like the old joke about a guy who walks into a Texas bar and shouts at the top of his lungs that Lyndon Johnson is a horse's ass. While everyone in the bar is beating him up, the bartender explains that no one in that town can tolerate that kind of an insult to horses. Still, if we are to regard those signatures as vox populi, then we also need to acknowledge the wit of one specific vox. That comes from the specialist experience of plumber Bright Winn, who observed:

[Bush] has always done well for the affluent of America, and anyone that does well for the affluent should be named for the effluent.

Monday, June 23, 2008

"Once in Love with Amy"

The San Francisco Public Library is planning an exhibit on Amy Beach and the time she spent living in San Francisco. This coincided with the premiere of her piano concerto, which is currently planned for the first concert by Symphony Parnassus this coming fall. Therefore, it seemed to make sense for me to haul out my copy of John Gillespie's Nineteenth-Century American Piano Music anthology, which has two of her Opus 15 Sketches (composed in 1892). I have started in on "Dreaming" (which I had attempted many years ago); and I am struck by the post-Liszt feel it has, almost in the spirit of Ferruccio Busoni. She has a wonderful feel for chromaticism (even if my sterner teachers would have called that technique "slimy"); and, at least in this languid work, she does not make me jump through the hoops I usually encounter in Busoni or, for that matter, Franz Liszt. This is not the first time I have tried to post "dispatches" as I attempt to get both mind and hands around a piece of music; but the timing seems right for doing it again!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

BON VOYAGE to the Youth!

I hope that conductor Benjamin Shwartz was not put off by my dwelling on the element of vulgarity (not to mention the reference to the Godzilla remake) in reviewing his performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Three Asteroids; but I had the feeling that the final concert of the San Francisco Youth Orchestra before embarking on their European tour tended to err on the side of tameness, particularly in the first half of the program. This is not to say that either the violin concerto of Jean Sibelius or the Dance Suite of Béla Bartók can be called vulgar (certainly not in the sense of The Miraculous Mandarin); but each of these works taps into the heart of its nationalistic roots by invoking some particularly raw qualities. The dances "behind" Bartók's suite are all based on indigenous sources, lacking any pretention of refinement (which is why "raw" is such an appropriate adjective); and Bartók is true to those sources, not only through the melodies he honors and the harmonies behind them but also through the sonorities evoked by his orchestration. In many ways this is a perfect piece for a youth orchestra, since it abounds with passages where one can "pull out all the stops" but which turn on a dime into more reflective moments. Unfortunately, what emerged from under Shwartz' baton was too much polite reflection and not enough raw spirit; and I have to wonder how such a performance will be received when they take it to the Czech Republic during their tour.
In the case of the Sibelius concerto, the raw element also has a lot to do with a performance style more appropriate to a folk setting than to a concert hall, even if the music itself does not draw on folk materials to the extent that Bartók did. Having had an opportunity to hear such folk music while attending a "cognitive musicology" conference in Finland, I can attest to the high intensity of energy that is applied to bowed string instruments for even the simplest of tunes; and energy is what matters most in the solo lines of Sibelius' concerto. Yes, many of those lines are long and elaborate (beginning with the very opening gesture); but they are not worked out with the inventive intricacy that we would find in Ludwig van Beethoven. There is also less of a sense of dialog between soloist and orchestra. Instead, the orchestra provides more of an aural landscape; and, consistent with the geography of Finland, that landscape challenges the ear with harsh features analogous to the harsh features of the land itself that confront the eye. So, again, raw spirit was the order of the day; and, again, Shwartz did little to deliver on that order. In this case, however, he may have been holding back because soloist Jennifer Koh too often seemed to be putting more energy into her "personal choreography" than into the sound of her performance. Ultimately, her appearance was a distraction from the music; and I suspect that, on more occasions than I noticed, her intonation and phrasing suffered from all that excessive movement.
Fortunately, things were on somewhat more solid ground after the intermission with scenes from Serge Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. The vulgar pretentions of the Capulets, the street fights, the "public merrymaking" (which featured three harlots in Kenneth MacMillan's choreography for The Royal Ballet), and the violent death of Tybalt (topped only by Lady Capulet's reaction) all came to life in the Youth Orchestra performance; but, at the same time, the sensitivity of the "Balcony Scene" was not neglected. If there was any problem, it was that the selection did not really follow the narrative flow of the ballet (or, for that matter, Shakespeare); but there is no doubting that Lady Capulet's grief makes for a grand finale, even if, in MacMillan's scenario, it is only the finale of the second act!
One interesting programming decision was Shwartz' decision to conclude the afternoon with an encore of the "Cuban Overture," by George Gershwin (preceded by an encore of the polonaise from Pyotr Tchaikovsky's opera, Eugene Onegin). Subscribers to the Youth Orchestra season (as well as any really dedicated readers) will recall that this is the work that began the season back in November. Presumably, it will be part of the repertoire for the tour; and well it should be. It is a work of spirit, wit, and wonderfully American sonorities (whatever its title may be). Indeed, were we to be bold enough to compare this performance with the one that the New York Philharmonic gave in North Korea, I might then be bold enough to confess a bias in favor of this American impression of Cuba over that more familiar American impression of Paris!

Nostalgia for EINSTEIN

I was not there for either of the American premiere performances of Einstein on the Beach, the "opera in four acts" resulting from the collaboration of Robert Wilson (who designed and directed all the staging) and Philip Glass (responsible for all the music and lyrics, such as they were), in November of 1976. At that time I suspect that I was not adequately prepared for the experience, although I had already built up an "experience base" for both Wilson and Glass. Indeed, as I have previously written, I was at the Anderson Theater to review The King of Spain, Wilson's first major work and a "coming out" of his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, for Dance Magazine in 1969. Out of a fit of masochism, I tried to dig out what I had written for what I think was my first "straight review" (as opposed to feature article) for Dance. However, the digital archive for that magazine does not (yet?) extend back that far; and I do not seem to have saved my own copy of that issue. Unless I am mistaken, I did my best to document what I had experienced at that performance without trying either to interpret or to evaluate. The fact is that I was too stunned to do either, but not so stunned to turn down an invitation to see Deafman Glance when it was presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1971.

Between those two experiences I had my first exposure to Philip Glass. It was as part of a series of "new music" concerts given at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970. The other two concerts featured Steve Reich and the Sonic Arts Union. I knew about the series because I was performing with the Sonic Arts Union in "Conspiracy 8," which I had co-composed with Gordon Mumma (and, thanks to Gordon, is now my only "appearance" on a compact disc). I am not sure that there was a program listing specific compositions at the Glass concert; but my guess is that what I heard were a few (three?) of the works that were eventually compiled into the Music in 12 Parts series.

Looking back on these two events, I am not afraid to admit that both of them (and we can add Deafman Glance as a third) were major tests of my patience. All sort of intriguing things happened during King of Spain; but my cognitive capacity was still too saddled with traditional thinking to deal with a full evening without any well-defined sense of beginning, middle, and end. Similarly, the Glass compositions had wonderful sonorities; and I could not help but be struck by the simplicity of the ways in which he worked with his "repetitive structures." Nevertheless, it was hard to resist the urge to keep asking myself how many repetitions would play out before the composition ended!

By the time the Brooklyn Academy of Music decided to stage of revival of Einstein in 1984, however, I was much better prepared for the experience, if not downright eager for it. In that interim period I had already seen the American premiere of Satyagraha at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was gradually coming to the point of thinking of these performances as more than a test of my patience. Ironically, for the Einstein revival Wilson (I cannot remember if it was with Glass) put out a statement to the effect that we in the audience should not treat the work as a "grand opera" experience. Rather, we should accept it as something more like a gallery exhibit, feeling free to walk around and examine it from different points of view or even to venture out into the lobby for a break and then return. In other words it appeared as if Wilson wanted to make this work as accessible to us as possible.

However, through pure accident, my wife-to-be and I found ourselves in the front row right on the edge of the orchestra pit; and about the only movements I made involved shifting my weight! Yes, on stage the focus was on images with a bare minimum of motion (as I had experienced in other Wilson works); but, if I needed more visual stimuli, all I had to do was shift my attention to the musicians. The Philip Glass Ensemble knew full well that those repetitive structures could lead to physical fatigue, and I was fascinated with the ways in which some of the keyboard passages could be handed off from one performer to another in a perfectly seamless manner. I had not previously thought about this challenge to execution. Indeed, about the only thought I had given to execution had been at Satyagraha, when I saw conductor Christopher Keene holding up fingers to keep count of the number of repetitions!

Now it is 2008, and I realize that both Satyagraha and Einstein remain as the most memorable experiences I had at the Brooklyn Academy and probably the most memorable experiences I have had of opera. Those memories have probably been reinforced by the extent to which "the establishment" is now lining up behind both of these works. The English National Opera mounted a new production of Satyagraha this past season, and that production was subsequently shared with the Metropolitan Opera. This was a far cry from the Byrd Hoffman Foundation raising the funds to pay for using the space of the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center for the American premiere of Einstein; but now the word is out that Einstein may well return to Lincoln Center under more "established" auspices, if the New York City Opera goes through with its plans to mount a production after the renovation of the New York State Theater. All this attention, including Daniel Mendelsohn's highly perceptive review of the Metropolitan Opera Satyagraha for The New York Review, has led me to add both Einstein and Satyagraha to my CD collection, finally making up for the vinyl recordings I used to treasure.

Both of these recordings have followed an interesting path of progress in my world-view. I am not embarrassed to say that both of them were initially purchased as "statements of commitment." I wanted those albums on my shelf to number myself among those who supported these new approaches to opera. (Some of that attitude remains, since, to this day, I have more recordings of Glass than I do of Vincenzo Bellini!) The commitment to purchase was then followed by the more "intellectual" commitment to "understand," to become familiar enough with both works to "hear through" the repetitions and to find my way to an orientation in terms of beginning, middle, and end. As far as Satyagraha is concerned, Mendelsohn has done all the heavy lifting in that regard; and now I can say that I still listen to these recordings regularly because the listening experience is fun! Just as the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven remains fun through all those centuries of different approaches to performance, I find that Glass is doing an equally promising job by holding up over the decades; and, as I have pointed out (too many times?), listening to Glass can actually have a profoundly positive impact on how we listen to Beethoven.

Would I make a special trip to New York for a City Opera revival of Einstein? Probably not. Those "statements of commitment" are still strong enough that I would probably chafe at watching all of those traditionalists now decide to start gushing over this work. I know that is a cynical answer, but I suspect that this is one of those cases where my own memories of the past are likely to trump any experience of the present. Besides, I think one of the most interesting things about Appomattox is the extent to which Glass himself has moved on from what he was doing when those of us who counted ourselves as "committed" were reveling in his "new language." Similarly, all of the listening experiences I have accumulated have allowed me to "move on" in directions I could not have anticipated. Thus, the "Glass of then" is an important part of my memory; but, in terms of my current activities, I am far more interested in the "Glass of now!"

Saturday, June 21, 2008

New Sounds and Old

If there was a unifying theme to this week's San Francisco Symphony program at Davies Symphony Hall, it probably had less to do with any perceptual categories common to the offerings and more to do with the versatility of conductor Sakari Oramo, since he presented himself to us not only as a conductor but also as an orchestrator of Claude Debussy. When considered in the context of Debussy's consummate skill in writing for orchestra (and I happen to feel that Michael Tilson Thomas' interpretation of La Mer is one of his strong suits in the repertoire he has built up with the San Francisco Symphony), it is hard to view an orchestration of music by Debussy as anything other than an act of chutzpah. ("Dammit, if Debussy had wanted the voice to be accompanied by an orchestra, he would have written these songs that way!") Regular readers, of course, know that I have plumbed the depths of the semantics of chutzpah to the extent that I can admit positive, as well as negative, connotations; and I am willing to acknowledge that Oramo's intensions as an orchestrator involved the positive connotation. The performance, on the other hand, was another matter.

The problem is that, since these songs were performed by the conductor/orchestrator's wife, Anu Komsi, it is hard to escape the conjecture that this whole affair was a vanity project. Now vanity projects can turn out for the better as often as they turn out the other way. One of the most compelling performances of Arnold Schoenberg's "Erwartung" I ever heard took place at a Cleveland Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall when Christoph von Dohnányi was conducting his (then) wife, Anja Silja (whom I had recently seen singing Marie in the Metropolitan Opera production of Wozzeck). In this case, however, I am disappointed to report that Komsi is no Silja. The former may well be able to jump through more virtuosic hoops than the latter ever did, but she made it through those hoops with what must politely be called a neglect of the nuances of dynamic control. (Less politely, most of those jumps stood out like sore thumbs!)

If that were not enough, I could not help but feel that this particular Finnish diva was just not that all comfortable with the French language. This involved more than the usual trend of ignoring the consonants for the sake of getting the vowels right. It had more to do with the extent to which the poets being set by Debussy, such as Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, took the very sound of the text as seriously as Debussy took the sound of the music setting the text. To put it in more extreme terms, a poem delivered without a gut-level sense of the sound is no longer that poem; it is little more than an abstract exercise in performance. Thus, the failure of Komsi to do as much justice to the poets Debussy had selected as to his settings of those poets rendered the question of the effectiveness of Oramo's orchestrations little more than moot.

Fortunately, this "vanity project" was a relatively minor part of the evening, sandwiched between one of the major monuments of the past and a truly awesome West Coast premiere. The latter was "Seht die Sonne" by Magnus Lindberg, jointly commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic (who first performed it under Simon Rattle) and the San Francisco Symphony, leading me to believe that Thomas and Rattle may be able to get along, regardless of whatever "Mahler rivalry" they may have. That Mahler reference is more than incidental, by the way. Rattle's premiere of "Seht die Sonne" was coupled with Gustav Mahler's ninth symphony; so I suspect that it is not coincidence that the very opening motif of "Seht die Sonne" is the same motif that begins the Mahler ninth, even if the title of Lindberg's work is taken from one of the poems by Jens Peter Jacobsen that Schoenberg set in his Gurrelieder. Nor is it a coincidence that the orchestral resources of "Seht die Sonne" bump those of the Gurrelieder up to the next level (without including either solo or choral voices, mind you). Indeed, it would probably not be unfair to say that, in "Seht die Sonne," Lindberg has taken the very palette of sonority, which may well be the greatest virtue of the Gurrelieder, and extrapolate it to even greater orchestral resources.

From this point of view we would do well to consider two additional "sources of inspiration," one acknowledged by Thomas May's program notes and a second, unacknowledged but a corollary to the first. The acknowledged source is Pierre Boulez, particularly in the context of what Boulez learned about sonority from Olivier Messiaen. However, one cannot listen to the closely-knit passages of a large number of distinct wind voices cavorting through eccentric rhythmic patterns without thinking of all that Boulez had done, particularly with his Ensemble InterContemporain, to champion the compositions of Frank Zappa. Lord knows, Zappa's own groups, even the one he assembled for 200 Motels, could not cope with that particular aspect of Zappa's writing as well as the "Boulez band" could! Thus, Lindberg's escalation of orchestral resources applies as much to the Ensemble InterContemporain (particularly in the context of the demands that Zappa placed on them) as it does to the orchestration of the Gurrelieder.

The result, as one might imagine, is a mighty noise, never shy about its dissonances but always exhilarating. This made for a sharp contrast with the recent performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage's recent Three Asteroids, which, from an arithmetical point of view, may have used greater resources than Lindberg did but ended up using them to lesser effect. If we were to seek out another composition for comparison, we would do better to look back to Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension," not just for the numbers of the resources but also for the ways those resources were put to textural (as well as melodic and harmonic) use. All this is basically to argue that there would be much to be gained from "Seht die Sonne" making a "return visit" in some season in the not-too-distant future. This work does not deserve to be put on the shelf after it has had its first innings. It may well shape how we hear music in this new century, and for that alone it needs to be heard more often.

Thus, to say that "Seht die Sonne" was capable of holding its own against its "complementary bookend," which was the seventh symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven, is to say quite a lot. Scores whose ink is barely dry rarely deserve to be compared to those of a man who, as I have previously observed, tends to be more monument than master. However, if we try to get "beyond the monument," as I have done by trying to view Beethoven as the "omen" of John Cage and Philip Glass, the pairing of these two compositions is less intimidating, particularly since, for all of his other influences, Lindberg does not appear to owe any debts to either Cage or Glass! Nevertheless, that seventh symphony (which, as I recall, was Beethoven's first composition after losing all of his hearing) shows that same attentiveness to the rhetorical significance of both silence and ostinato, which I have observed, respectively, in Cage and Glass and which I continue to hear in all periods of Beethoven's life as a composer.

It was also apparent that Oramo appreciated that attentiveness. Indeed, his use of attaca transitions between the first two and last two movements were a sign that, one the larger scale, he wanted us to hear this as a two-movement composition in which the silences in those two movements were as important as the sounds. From that point of view, the silences we encounter in the seventh symphony prepare us for the even greater profundity of the silences Beethoven summoned in his ninth symphony. Beethoven's use of ostinato in the seventh symphony, on the other hand, has more to do with the obsessive persistence of specific rhythmic patterns, rather than with either the melodies behind those patterns or how those melodies are orchestrated. To a great extent the fundamental idea of a rhythmic pulse is scaled up to the level of a motif and becomes the primary driving force of each of the four movements (meaning that, if there is a two-movement scheme, then that force goes through a transition in each of the movements). Thus, one of the things that made Oramo's performance so interesting was the extent to which he conducted by this pulse, rather than "by the beat." (There was one passage in the Allegretto where his baton was barely moving, if it was moving at all.)

The result was a performance of Beethoven in the spirit of Thomas Stearns Eliot's Beethoven-inspired poetry. Oramo brought us to where many of us "started," when we were first getting to know the experience of hearing a symphony orchestra. However, when he brought us there, we came to know that "place for the first time;" and any conductor who understands how to do that has an understanding of Beethoven that transcends the mere document of a musical score!

The Shame of the Public Schools

I am used to BBC reporters showing up within a stone's throw of where I live. Between the Circuit Court of Appeals and City Hall itself, there is almost always something happening of interest to the international BBC audience. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see that today's BBC NEWS Web site has a feature report, which Rajesh Mirchandani filed from Los Angeles, on the utterly pathetic conditions (not to mention future) of public education in the state of California. The bottom line is that, as Mirchandani put it, "with the economic slowdown and falling revenue from sales and property taxes, the state faces a budget deficit that could top $20bn this year." This puts our illustrious Governor in the sort of crisis situation that none of his movie personae ever had to confront:

In March, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to rule out tax rises and deep cuts in services, including education - anything, he said, that could help make ends meet.

Needless to say, this has administrators, teachers, and parents all worrying about whether California will end up ransoming off its future in order to keep treading water in the present "slough of despond." As they say, when you are up to your eyeballs in alligators, it is too late to worry about draining the swamp. The alligators are there, they are hungry, and the prevailing opinion is that this is no time to ask how we got into this mess in the first place.

Still, in light of my recent indulgence in a conspiracy theory, I have to wonder whether we got into this place purely out of our stubborn resistance to just about any form of taxation (Wikipedia even has a page for "California Proposition 13 (1978)") or whether we are here through an act of more "intelligent design." After all, it is worth remembering that Newt Gingrich's Contract "on" America involved some rather long-term thinking and planning; and the "side effect" of "The Project for the New American Century" was launched through the momentum of Gingrich's spade-work. This latter effort could not be sustained for even ten years, but Newt is still a presence. He is now more of a "background presence," rather than a "foreground presence;" but the guy is so good at planning that this could well be by his latest "cunning plan."

So what if there is a design to introduce (in the words of my conspiracy theory) "a new class of slaves?" Consider how such a design might benefit from a wholesale undermining of our public education system, not just in California but across the country. On the surface this would seem like bad news for all those wealthy institutions: there would be a shortage of skilled talent available for hire. On the other hand, notwithstanding the latest claptrap from JP Rangaswami on "a genuine war for talent," from the point of view of the institutions themselves, that bad news might actually be good news! Yes, it would mean that such an institution would have to assume the responsibility of training all new hires in the necessary skills; but it would also mean that we would have a future work force dependent on those institutions for most, if not all, of the education they get. That dependency could ultimately result in a "new economy" of indentured servitude. (I use those scare quotes out of cynicism for the economic thinking that was so seductive as the dot-com bubble inflated; but I see that I have used it more recently in conjunction with my writings about the War Against the Poor.) Yes, if you want their "hearts and minds," one way is to get them "by the balls;" but controlling their education may be an alternative. Furthermore, it is an alternative that is, on the whole, less painful and is thus less likely to be met with resistance!

When I was working in Singapore in the early Nineties, I had the opportunity to hear a talk by the Dean of the Business School at Carnegie-Mellon University. About the only thing I remember from that talk is what he had to say about their work-study program. I was familiar with this idea, particularly since many of my personal undergraduate friends at MIT had benefitted from it. What struck me, however, was that Carnegie-Mellon was taking a new approach, which required an entering freshman to commit to a corporate work-study sponsor before even matriculating. This early commitment was required, because the "work" side of the work-study plan could begin even before the student had completed the basic core requirements. That commitment would then sustain through the entire undergraduate career; and, unless I am mistaken, it also involved a "payback" commitment of serving as an employee for some fixed period of time after graduation. I heard all of this about fifteen years ago; and even then it sounded as if the corporate powers behind work-study at Carnegie-Mellon were basically calling the shots on the sort of academic life a student could lead. If this sort of thing could happen at the undergraduate level, why could it not have a similar impact on how education is handled at the level of what we currently call "public education?" Are we witnessing the disappearance of "public" from "public education?"

Friday, June 20, 2008

An Inconvenient History of Democracy

In his latest piece for The Nation, Tom Hayden wants to introduce to a man he describes as "the New Dr. Strangelove:"

His name is David Kilcullen, an Australian academic and military veteran whom the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks once described as Gen. David Petraeus' "chief adviser" on the counterinsurgency doctrine underlying the surge in Iraq.

What makes this man a real-world embodiment of Stanley Kubrick's best-known fictitious creation? From Hayden's point of view, it all comes down to a

briefing given "in a private capacity" at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. It was an argument for appearing to get out of Iraq while staying in, expressed in the Kilkullen formula "Overt De-Escalation, Covert Disruption." Kilcullen argues that the American troop presence is so large that it's counter-productive, only inflaming Iraqi sensibilities. What is required is a combination of US combat troop withdrawals combined with "black" special operations to "hunt terrorists" plus "white" special operations forces training and embedded with the Iraqi security forces, turning tribes against tribes wherever possible. Covert warfare is the future: "over the long run, we need to go cheap, quiet, low-footprint." And, he might have added, off the television screen and front pages.

Here, then, is Hayden's assessment of both the man and his idea:

What Kilcullen means is a kind of deception-based warfare that is contradictory to democracy itself, with its instruments of critical media, congressional oversight, and public disclosure of the cost in blood, taxes and honor.

This is rhetoric guaranteed to stir righteous indignation in the hearts of (at least) those who bother to read Hayden's contributions to The Nation; but my own trivium-fed habits made be blink at least twice when I hit on that direct object construct, "contradictory to democracy itself." Just what, if anything, would that mean? Put another way, what is it in the historical tradition of democracy that is being contradicted?

When Jürgen Habermas decided to take a historical view of governance in the series of essays collected in English translation under the title Theory and Practice, he began with the "Politics" of Aristotle; but, to the extent that Aristotle theorized about what he observed, I suspect we might do better to begin with a broader historical perspective. I found one such perspective at the Web site Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy, which maintains a collection of articles edited by Christopher Blackwell. If we want to understand how Athenian democracy actually worked, a good place to start is with Blackwell's article, "Athenian Democracy: a brief overview" (listed on the Dēmos home page as "An Introduction to the Athenian Democracy"). The reason I feel this introductory piece is valuable is because it gives us a clear picture of who did (and therefore also who did not) participate in the Athenian democratic process.

First, Blackwell begins, as he should, with the semantics of that word "democracy:"

For the Athenians, “democracy” (demokratia, δημοκρατία ) gave Rule (kratos, κράτος ) to the Demos ( Δήμος ).

Thus, how Athenian democracy actually works depends on just who constituted that Δήμος. As Blackwell observes, this word has several different meanings, all of which are relevant. However, for purposes of this discussion, I would like to begin by focusing on the first definition he offers:

Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the pinax ekklesiastikos, πίναξ έκκλησιαστικός ) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).

This tells us pretty much all we need to know about who was excluded from the process: all women, all males under the age of eighteen, all slaves, and all men whose parents were not Athenian. This raises an interesting question: Were those excluded from the process subject to its laws and judgments? After all, slaves were property; so it is probably the case that, in practice, a slave's owner was responsible for his/her behavior. (The operative analogy might be that, if a car runs over a man and kills him, the driver, not the car, is legally responsible for the homicide. Perhaps the best reason to see a production of William Shakespeare's Cymbeline is for the way this proposition is considered.) By similar reasoning, a woman was also property, first of her father and then of her husband; and children are also property of the father. That leaves the "adult foreigners." My guess (and it is no more than that) is that such a "foreigner" could only enter (or at least remain) in Athens under the "sponsorship" of an Athenian (just as Plato had been "sponsored" by Dion in Syracuse). Thus, it is likely that the "sponsor" would be responsible for the behavior of the "foreigner," just as the slave-owner was responsible for the behavior of the slave.

If my hypotheses are valid, then the foundation of Athenian democracy rests on a "language game" (right out of the playbook of Ludwig Wittgenstein) over the words "subject" (those who are entitled to take motivated actions legitimized by a framework of government in which they participate) and "object" (those whose actions are the responsibility of others). Consider, then, the hypothesis that the "Kilcullen formula" is one in which actions are taken beyond the scope of the responsibility of government. They could be the actions of foreigners (as in the model of the French Foreign Legion); or the model could subsume the introduction of a new class of slaves. Neither of those options would then be "contradictory to democracy itself," at least if we take classical Athens as our model! (Sorry, Tom!)

Yes, this borders on the outrageous (if it does not go over the line)! I probably would have dismissed it out of hand, had I not found myself returning all too frequently (most recently on Wednesday) to the proposition that the wealthiest institutions (perhaps public as well as private) are committing themselves to a War Against the Poor, whose ultimate goal is likely to be the creation of that new class of slaves! In other words, in trying to tease out a few subtle semantic details, I may have stumbled on the Mother of all Conspiracy Theories! As a rule I am not big on conspiracies; but, if Hayden's rhetoric may have been a bit sloppy about democracy, his argumentation over why we should be very afraid that someone like Kilcullen is "in the system" has a lot of convincing points. When we combine his rhetoric with a more historical view of the origins of democracy, we may well have even more reasons to be afraid. At the very least, it allows us to think about the War Against the Poor as more than a fight to "control all the marbles!"

The Chutzpah that Keeps on Not Doing

As far as I can tell, Barack Obama's only Chutzpah of the Week award is the one I awarded last November 9. This was an award that he shared with three other Senate Democrats, all of whom, at that time, were vying to be the Democratic candidate for the next President: Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut. For those who do not recall such ancient history, the occasion was the Senate vote to approve the appointment of Judge Michael Mukasey as Attorney General. All four Senators opposed the nomination, but none of them showed up for the vote. As the title of my blog post that day indicated, I was faced with the question of whether or not chutzpah could be attached to inaction, rather than action; but I think I can dodge the question by saying that the chutzpah was attached to a choice. The choice was the decision that it was more important to be out on the campaign trail than to be hard at work at your "day job," particularly when that "day job" is "doing the people's business." Put another way, if this decision reflected how these four would-be candidates felt about representing their state, would it not also presage how they would feel about representing the entire country in that new "day job" they were seeking?

I offer this little bit of retrospection, because, at least as far as Obama is concerned, it really is not "ancient history," because he still seems to be making the same decision. Here is how Ari Melber reported this particular repetition of history in his post to the Campaign '08 blog on the Web site for The Nation:

Democratic leaders in Congress are poised to grant new spying powers to President Bush and arrange retroactive amnesty for telecommunications companies accused of illegal surveillance, according to a deal announced Thursday evening. Today's New York Times describes the legislation, which the House could vote on today, as "the most significant revision of surveillance law in 30 years" and a "major victory" for the lame duck president. If passed, the bill would constitute the largest capitulation by Democratic leaders since winning control of Congress, an especially striking setback as Democratic voters rally around a presidential nominee who has flatly opposed Bush's spying policies -- and repeatedly promised to challenge the corruption, doubletalk and "politics of fear" that rule Washington.

Yet Barack Obama has been mostly silent as the House caved into White House demands for more surveillance power this week. He has advocated civil liberties and accountability during previous clashes over surveillance, voting against a White House spying bill in August, but Obama has sidestepped the issue this week, despite pleas from supporters. "If Obama remains missing much longer, it may be necessary to issue an Amber Alert for him," wrote Glenn Greenwald, an attorney and Salon blogger who rallied activists to raise over $115,000 in two days to run primaries against Democratic incumbents who undermine the rule of law.

Obama's quiescence on this fundamental issue is disappointing, but not new. In February, I criticized him and Clinton for going MIA during an earlier spying stand-off, when a coalition of liberal incumbents, netroots activists and the civil liberties groups ACLU and EFF successfully beat back Bush's threats to stop a similar bill. Now things are just worse, for Obama and the Congress.

That last paragraph indicates that I am far from alone in my grounds for criticism. Indeed, last February that criticism extended far from the blogosphere, since, at that time, even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was not afraid to speak about that problems of doing his day job when so many of his most important "workers" were not there! The good news is that it is not too late for Obama. This time the bill in question has yet to come to the Senate floor, but I agree with Melber that Obama's silence is a bad sign. Like deciding that other things are more important than showing up for an important Senate vote, decided to keep silent on legislation as ugly as this counts as chutzpah no matter what rationalizations Obama may choose to contrive. This time, however, he gets to keep the Chutzpah of the Week award all to himself!

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Ever since I saw Michael Meyerson on Book TV delivering and enthusiastic and stimulating talk about his new book, Liberty's Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote The Federalist, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World, my interest in his source material has taken off with comparable enthusiasm. I suppose this was due, at least in part, to Andrew Keen's "Digital fascism" post on his Great Seduction blog; but I think it also arises from my appreciation of just how hard it is to "sell" ideas of governance, having experienced this problem first hand in trying to initiate a conversation about governance within the Internet. Yet it is in Number 51 of The Federalist that James Madison (according to Meyerson, although the THOMAS site claims that Alexander Hamilton may also have been the author) made the now famous remark as to why governance is necessary in the first place:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

This is the fundamental premise behind the primary argument of this particular paper, as expressed in its title, "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments." The "punch line" of the argument captures why such checks and balances are so important:

In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself.

This extended sentence is often reduced to the more manageable formula: "majority rule with minority rights." Put another way, since men are not angels, there is no reason to suppose that coalitions of men are any more angelic; and therefore it is necessary "to provide for the security" of those not part of such a coalition. In more modern language a majority coalition may form to make the trains run on time, but the unintended consequence of its success may be fascism. As I have observed many times, unintended consequences continue to constitute the primary blind spot of Internet evangelism.

However, the recent news from Europe has made me realize just how important The Federalist papers were in determining how our government turned out the way it did in the context of the governance of the European Union. Consider, for example, the SPIEGEL ONLINE report, based on multiple wire services, in the aftermath of Ireland's rejection of the second draft of a European Union constitution:

Despite Ireland's "no" to the Lisbon Treaty, Europe has to stay together. That was the message delivered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday during her speech before parliament in Berlin.

"European treaties must be developed on the basis of consensus," she said in her speech. There should be room for different levels of integration when it comes to issues like the common currency or border-free travel, she explained: "But when it comes to institutional questions -- like the rights of the European Parliament or the responsibilities of the European Commission -- we need unanimity."

"Unanimity" is the operative word in Merkel's statement; and it reflects the decision of our own Founding Fathers that the Constitution they drafted could only function effectively (which, to them, was more important than efficiency) if it were unanimously ratified by all the states of the republic-in-formation. It was in the interest of achieving that unanimity that The Federalist papers were conceived and published. As we see from the Table of Contents provided at the THOMAS site, each of these papers appeared in an independent news periodical circulated among the general public. Alexander Hamilton makes the motivation behind this "publication blitz" clear in Number 1 ("General Introduction"):


As propaganda, the papers were intended to explain the principles behind the proposed Constitution in terms that general readers could understand, rather than in the legalese of the Constitution itself.

Without arguing over the effectiveness of the latest draft at a European constitution, it is reasonable to assume that the "propaganda engine" for promoting it has not been anywhere near as effective as The Federalist was. Furthermore, given that there were Anti-Federalist Papers, arguing just as compellingly against ratification, it is clear that the question of ratification for our government was as contentious as it now seems to be in Europe. The important underlying question is whether the European debate is being conducted in a forum accessible to the general public and in language that public can understand or whether it is being dominated by single-issue-centric manipulations of the media in the same manner as the current excuses for political debate in our own country. Europe may be older and more experienced than the United States in that grand scheme of history; but, unfortunately, age and experience do not guarantee that their current practices are any more mature or reasoned than our own!