Friday, October 31, 2008

Getting Even with Borat?

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan has pretty much faded from memory (although I noticed that Cinemax gave it at least one screening this week); and along with it has faded much philosophizing about ridicule, cultural relativism, and offending audiences. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is prospering with oil and mineral resources, while the source of those "cultural learnings" has become a more viable target for ridicule by dint of those economic follies that have been feeding its addiction to consumerism. All this seems like an appropriate context for the latest news from Kazakhstan as reported by Jeremy Grant for the Financial Times:

Markets are plunging, banks are collapsing and talk of recession is all about, but the global gloom is not stopping the launch of a MasterCard credit card inlaid with a diamond and laced with gold.

Known as the “Diamond”, the card has a 0.02-carat gem ­embedded in its centre and a picture of a peacock for female cardholders and a winged horse for men.

The card, which has a $1,000 (£620) annual fee, is to be issued in two weeks’ time by MasterCard and Kazkommertsbank, the second largest bank in commodities-rich Kazakhstan, where the oil and minerals boom of recent years has created a fresh crop of billionaires.

Kazakhstan has apparently found the best way to get even with Borat: Living well is the best revenge!

The Sound of One Voice in Conversation

When the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF) announced that Alex Ross was going to be one of their speakers and that he would be talking about listening to music, I felt an obligation to hear what he had to say. My familiarity with his book, The Rest is Noise, came primarily through Michael Kimmelman's piece about it in The New York Review; and I am still resisting any temptation to buy a copy, simply because the pile of books I have to read first is both growing and staring at me menacingly. However, given that much of what I write about music focuses on what I am beginning to call "listening comprehension" (as opposed to "reading comprehension") and given how many of those books in my to-read pile were selected through my drive to develop a "theory of listening to music" (which is addressed by neither music theory nor the psychology of listening), it would have been negligent of me to pass up an opportunity to hear an author of such repute express his point of view.

Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the JCCSF, the talk have been reconceived as a conversation with Joshua Kosman; and about the only thing pertaining to listening was Ross' remark that the subtitle of his book, Listening to the Twentieth Century, had deliberately omitted "music" as a final word. On the other hand Ross took great delight in waxing over his presence in the blogosphere. He talked about launching his blog while he was working on the book and about the rather impressive information resource it has become since then. He also talked about the virtue of the blogosphere for providing him with the opportunity to converse about the book, even while it was still a work in progress. This was enough to lure me to check out his site, pretty confident that I would find some way to enter the conversation taking place there. Unfortunately, what I discovered upon my initial examination was that none of the posts had been set up to collect reader comments, leading me to wonder just where the conversation was! Having had the good fortune to count John Cage as one of my teachers, I am well informed about the sound of one hand clapping; but this has got to be my first encounter with a conversation involving only one voice!

Technology Policy Chutzpah

Yesterday I took a parenthetical jab at Google's Philistine grasp of the subtleties of matters of governance. If Google wanted to retaliate, they could easily point to any number of government insiders who are just as Philistine. I would probably not disagree, but my reaction would be to take any of their examples who are still actively involved in government and short-list them for future Chutzpah of the Week awards. Anyone that close to the inside is either blissfully ignorant of how things work or should just know better.

Reed Hundt used to be such an insider. He was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997, appointed to that position by Bill Clinton. According to Stephanie Condon's latest Politics and Law report for CNET News, he is jockeying to be an insider once again, which, in my book, means that his philistinism, if serious enough, constitutes grounds for this week's award. The grounds to be considered can be found in Condon's opening paragraphs:

Even Republicans will probably concede that Barack Obama's campaign made good use of the Internet in the last year. Now an advisor is saying that an Obama administration would do the same, even turning to wikis to discuss topics like privacy.

Bureaucrats in Washington will have to confront a number of issues in the next few years such as how to regulate private, portable electronic health records, said Reed Hundt, a technology policy adviser for Obama and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

"That's the kind of thing that shouldn't be decided by one person in the new administration," he said on Thursday. "There's not anything wrong with a collaborative process that could literally include hundreds of thousands of people."

It was supposed to be a debate here between Hundt and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economic policy adviser for John McCain and former director of the Congressional Budget Office. But the McCain guy never showed, giving Hundt--someone who Wired magazine once said had "as much sincerity as a photocopy machine salesman"--plenty of opportunities to jab at his absent opponent.

As a sidebar (hence the smaller font), I need to point out that nowhere in her article does Condon say where "here" is. Her byline is "Washington;" but that is not particularly helpful. Her photograph of Hundt suggests that the New American Foundation was the site of this would-be debate; but she seems to have forgotten to provide any more substantive background. This minor detail was missed by her editor (assuming that she has one).

I could care less about sincerity. Where any level of government is concerned, I continue to live by the wisdom of Mr. Dooley:

Trust everybody, but cut the cards.

However, when it comes to an understanding of the "collaborative process," that "photocopy machine salesman" simile may be appropriate. Indeed, the commission-based world of the salesman (escalated to the level of high drama by David Mamet) is so cutthroat that it is hard to imagine anyone in sales capable of uttering the word "collaborative," let alone embracing it in practice.

This brings us to Hundt's chutzpah. It all comes down to a single sentence:

There's not anything wrong with a collaborative process that could literally include hundreds of thousands of people.

It would probably be naive (if not arrogant) to suggest that anyone being considered for government service be required to take a test on the Federalist papers, whose results would be made available to those doing the considering; but those documents provide any number of challenges to Hundt's proposition. I am willing to grant his point, if he can refute all of those challenges; but my guess is that he never took the trouble to recognize that someone, even from the 200-year-old past, might have valid grounds for disagreement. That is where his chutzpah resides.

Ironically, Number 51 of The Federalist (whose author may have been either James Madison or Alexander Hamilton) provides the critical precondition that would lend more plausibility to Hundt's claim:

If men were angels …

Federalist-style angels might at least be able to set aside the impediments of petty egotism in favor of effective collaboration; but, even if this impossible precondition were granted, there would still be problems. (Bear in mind that there are those, like George Balanchine's biographer, Bernard Taper, who believe that angels, as little more than carriers of divine messages, lack not only egotism but any evidence of personality whatsoever, in which case, if men were angels, we would be little more than a gathering of zombies, no longer worthy of the noun "society!") I am more concerned about whether or not Hundt has even the foggiest idea of what it would be like to manage the operations of "a collaborative process that could literally include hundreds of thousands of people." Does he have in mind any existing collaborative process that does this effectively? We do not have to look any further than the Central Intelligence Agency for evidence that Wikipedia is far from a model example of that "wisdom of crowds" mantra. Furthermore, there is the more general problem that most of the "social software" that enables collaborative processes does little, if anything, to impose regulatory safeguards against participants who willfully behave badly; and bad behavior is at the top of a slippery slope, which descends to malicious behavior and ultimately to pathological behavior. Hundt's "solution" appears to be that the very question of regulatory policy should be left to the "wisdom of crowds," which seems to indicate that he is as ignorant of Plato (and possibly Juvenal) as he is of The Federalist!

I have no idea whether or not Hundt has a personal stake in promoting such social software; but, even if this is not the case, his cleaving to the Web 2.0 evangelism of collaborative processes cannot be seen as anything other than faith-based chutzpah of the highest order, for which he deserves this week's Chutzpah of the Week award.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Is Google Still Making Money without Doing Evil?

Yesterday I cited a German author who understood revolution in terms of its dark consequences. I have also argued in the past that a disregard of such dark consequences, be it through will or abject ignorance, is leading Google to lose its moral compass, assuming that such compass was defined by anything other than the naive conviction that "You can make money without doing evil." Thus, it is no surprise that today's Germany is the site of a growing awareness of such consequences contingent on current Google activities; and much of that awareness has now been documented by Julia Bonstein, Marcel Rosenbach and Hilmar Schmundt in their article on SPIEGEL ONLINE with title and subtitle "Does Google Know Too Much?: Data Mining You to Death."

In many ways this is a David-and-Goliath story, in which a few German organizations at different levels of the government are trying to play David against Google's Goliath. (Putting aside the question of evil, we have entertained more than ample evidence that "Philistine" would be a good description of Google's grasp of the subtleties of matters of governance.) The contrast between the opponents is best appreciated when the government organization involved is all the way down at the local level. So that his how Bonstein, Rosenbach, and Schmundt begin their story:

The little town of Molfsee, near Kiel in northern Germany, has three lakes, an idyllic open-air museum and a population just under 5,000. It’s not the likeliest place to declare war against a global power. Yet Molfsee has won the first round of a battle against a powerful digital age opponent.

The source of friction is a fleet of dark-colored Opel Astras. The cars caused a stir when they started cruising the streets of German cities over the last few months, sporting roof-mounted cameras that record 360-degree images from 11 lenses. Some of the vehicles bear the name of the company that sent them on this massive photographic mission: Google.

"Street View" is the name of the service offered by Google. The California-based Internet company is photographing city streets all over the world, linking the images to digital maps and making the whole package available on the Web. Anyone with an Internet connection will then be able to call up not just a "Google Map" but pictures of the area as well. The company also plans a feature to let users take a virtual stroll through a city.

The camera-wielding Astras haven't come to Molfsee yet, and local Google opponents want to keep it that way. Some of them have resorted to local law. According to a road traffic act passed in the town, Google would need a special permit to drive and photograph in Molfsee. Local politicians have refused to issue the permit.

What makes this story interesting, however, is how this local act of consciousness-raising has worked its way up to the Federal level, which now has a Commission for Data Protection. It's commissioner, Peter Schaar is taking a serious look at Molfsee and definitely sympathizes with their local law and the way in which it was applied. However, this story is about more than Street View. Ultimately, Google wants us to believe that it is in the business of indexing and/or organizing all the world's information so that it can be the world's best information provider. Professor Hendrik Speck, on the other hand, does not see it quite the same way:

Well, compared to what Google knows about us, many intelligence agencies look "like child protection services," says Hendrik Speck, professor at the applied sciences university in Kaiserslautern, a southwestern German city. Theoretically, he says, Google could record a query for pregnancy tests, then nine months later provide advertisements for diapers. Or -- six years later -- it could show offers for after-school homework help.

"The more data Google collects from its users, the higher the price it can ask for advertisements," says Speck.

This is the point at which the Google evangelists retaliate: So what if Google can charge more for advertisements! The information they provide is available to all of us. Shouldn't we all share in the benefit, whether or not Google us making more money in the process?

That rebuttal hits at one of the more aggravating mantras of Internet evangelists, the faith-based conviction that "information wants to be free." Well, guys, "information" is an abstract concept, a denizen of the objective world that knows as much about wanting things like freedom as it knows about wanting chopped liver. Desires reside in the subjective world. Back in the pre-Google age, information was provided by people; and they had desires! Probably the quality of the work they performed had at least some correlation with the degree to which those desires were being satisfied, whether it involved buying a new car, making new friends, or just feeling good about what you were doing. However, those providers also worked for organizations that imposed responsibilities as well as compensation packages. Those responsibilities were set up as part of the organization's governance structure out of recognition that providing information has consequences; and the organization, as a whole, accepted the responsibility of safeguarding against those consequences being dark ones.

That closes the loop of the logic: Google is ultimately one behemoth of an objective beast. Invoking the language of Milton Friedman, the whole purpose of the Google enterprise is to "feed the beast." There is no room for thinking about the consequences (in both one's own subjective world and in the social world enclosing it) of one's actions in this picture, particularly if one is a part of that enterprise. As a result of pushback at the local level, the Federal German government is starting to get very nervous about what Google can do (or has already done) in their backyard. Meanwhile, down at the grassroots level, we are beginning to encounter efforts to define "Google-free zones." This may not be enough to bring down the Google beast with a slingshot; but, if more governmental institutions around the world take more notice of what is happening in Germany, we may discover that the beast will only be fed in accordance with a regulatory framework that respects the civil rights of individuals!

In Training?

There was no doubting the capabilities of the six students who contributed to the Piano Department Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last night. However, either this has turned out to be a month of "too much music;" or there was something disconcerting about last night's event that had to do with more than listening burnout. Reviewing the program this morning, I realized that there was one question that continued to dig into the back of my mind: Did the evening have to consist exclusively of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt? Even it is a "truth universally acknowledged" that one cannot make a career as a concert pianist without a firm command of these three composers, is there no room for a bit more diversity, particularly within an academy where, by all rights, it should be "safe" to explore lesser known regions of the repertoire? The San Francisco Conservatory clearly encourages such expeditions, at least if we are to consider, as a case in point, the all-Hungarian concert given two weeks ago in the Chamber Music Masters series. On the other hand the imaginativeness of that evening must have had a lot to do with the presence of visiting violist Kim Kashkashian, the featured artist of the evening; and diversity of repertoire has played a major role in the progress of Kaskashian's career.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, simply because the would-be concert pianist cannot necessarily engage the same career-planning strategy as the would-be concert violist. However, this set me to thinking about just what that "piano strategy" has become and whether or not "serious" career planning could be as much a part of the problem as a path to the solution. Recall that, when I wrote about a Senior Recital last week, I introduced the name of only one professional pianist, Alexander Toradze. I had mentioned that Toradze "only won the Silver Medal in the Fifth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1977)," invoking "only" to emphasize that, in a "business" with so few opportunities, anything other than first place may not count for very much (and first place may not count for more for very long). On the other hand anyone who saw the documentary of that Competition on PBS could not have forgotten the electrifying bravura approach that Toradze brought to his performance of Igor Stravinsky's piano arrangement of three scenes from his Pétrouchka ballet. Fortunately, some agent was enterprising enough to arrange for a telecast in which Toradze upped the ante with a solo piano transcription of Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps. Whether or not this was a key part of the strategy through which Toradze is now, in general, better known than Gold Medalist Vladimir Viardo may be debated; but Toradze's career path was certainly not paved strictly by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt!

Nevertheless, it is just as certain that the Cliburn Competition played a major role in getting that paving process under way in the first place; so my own discontent led me to seek out, once again, a post from March of 2007 entitled "The Competition versus the Music," which was written in a similarly disconcerted state following a recital by Ingrid Fliter, winner of the 2006 Gilmore Artist Award. This award is not based on a competition. It is based on judges; but those judges attend public recitals, presumably under the cloak of anonymity, and grant the award on the basis of such "field experience." This led me to speculate that, even if they were not performing in an explicit competition, up-and-coming pianists might feel obliged to treat every performance as if they were "playing for the judges," from which I then raised the question of whether accountability to such judges might, at least sometimes, find itself in conflict with accountability to the music itself. The rest of my post tried to elaborate what I meant by that latter accountability and explain why, in Fliter's case, it had been trumped by "playing for the judges," even if the judges had already granted their prize. To get back to the theme of last night's recital, the point of departure for my argument about Fliter was the program she had prepared to the evening:

Her program was a collection of works with challenges that would impress competition judges: Beethoven's "Thirty-Two Variations on an Original Theme," the Schubert A Major sonata written in the final year of his life (one of three extraordinary piano sonatas that left a wake of confusion for many decades after Schubert's death), and a Chopin assortment of familiar pieces, each with its own technical demands.

Nevertheless, the brunt of my argument was not directed at Beethoven and Chopin (or Schubert or the "absent" Liszt). Rather, looking back on that argument, I realize that the "strategic value" of such composers puts them in the same category as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in the context in which Henry Miller wrote about him in "With Edgar Varèse in the Gobi Desert" in his essay collection, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare:

No one asks you to throw Mozart out the window. Keep Mozart. Cherish him. Keep Moses too, and Buddha and Laotse and Christ. Keep them in your heart. But make room for the others, the coming ones, the ones who are already scratching on the window-panes.

I would push Miller's injunction one step further. I would suggest that any pianist today can only keep Mozart (not to mention Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Schubert) in his or her heart through an awareness of those "scratching on the window-panes," regardless of whether those windows look out over the nineteenth century (e.g., Jan Ladislav Dušek), twentieth (e.g., György Ligeti), or those who will make their presence known in the near future. Last night Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were solidly in the fingers of six clearly talented students; but these students have yet to learn how to keep these composers in their respective hearts.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dreaming about the Revolution

At the beginning of this month, I suggested that the fear greater than fear itself is the fear that a prevailing inability to deal with crises can undo our governmental framework into conditions of demagoguery. At the time I suggested that Sarah Palin was the most likely candidate for the resulting demagogue, but I also suggested that so many supporters of Barack Obama had endowed him with a "messianic aura" that, however honorable and sincere his intentions may have been throughout this bruising campaign, he, too, could emerge from the struggle as a demagogue. Yesterday Andrew Keen wrote a post to his Great Seduction blog entitled "Can Obama fix New York's traffic?," in which he finally seems to have tapped into the risks associated with an "Obama Revolution."

However, if we want to think about the "revolutionary" power of an Obama Presidency, we might do well to remember a lesson of an author from a country that had endured demagoguery at its worst. The country is Germany, the author is Peter Weiss, and the text is from his play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of The Marquis de Sade. Here is the concluding passage from Sade's extended monologue on revolution:

And so they join the revolution
thinking the revolution will give them everything
a fish
a poem
a new pair of shoes
a new wife
a new husband
and the best soup in the world
So they storm all the citadels
and there they are
and everything is just the same
no fish biting
verses botched
shoes pinching
a worn and stinking partner in bed
and the soup burnt
and all the heroism
which drove us down to the sewers
well we can talk about it to our grandchildren
if we have any grandchildren

That last line has even more of a sting to it than it did when Weiss penned it, since I doubt that he was concerned about whether or not the earth itself would be able to continue sustaining human life.

Obama wants each of us to believe that our vote can make a difference. He is right, but Weiss' point is that difference means something different, so to speak, to each of us. About the only thing we all have in common is our foundational culture of instant gratification, which means we expect that difference we crave to be delivered to us on a silver platter the morning after Election Day. Obama has tried mightily to wean us away from that culture, as we saw in the acceptance speech he delivered in Denver; but this is a belief system that is just as addictive as our consumerism.

Weiss recognized the power of what, in his New Science, Giambattista Vico called "poetic wisdom," the power of poetry to enable understandings that we do not seem capable of arriving at through other means. Regardless of what Karl Marx said, getting on in this world is not all about learning enough from history to avoid repeating tragedy as farce. We can also learn from poetry, not necessarily to avoid past mistakes but to see the present with greater clarity. Vico thus offered us an alternative to the old saw: Those who ignore poetry are condemned to enact it! Here's hoping that the ghost of Peter Weiss has a sense of humor!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Capitalism's Stately Mansion

In this morning's San Francisco Chronicle John King wrote a fascinating review of the building at 185 Post Street, at the southeast corner with Grant Avenue. Since Old Saint Mary's Cathedral is at the corner of Grant and California Street, I figured I would have a look for myself on the way over to today's Noontime Concerts™ event. Here is how King set me up for the experience:

For all the low-key refinement, what's going on at the corner of Post Street and Grant Avenue turns heads: New glass walls encase a six-story masonry building from 1908. The glass is set 9 inches beyond the original wall, without window frames or mullions, so the effect is that of a 95-foot-high display case pulled tight across the past.

Not that there's much to display. The structure was altered so extensively over the years that the authoritative 1979 book "Splendid Survivors: San Francisco's Downtown Architectural Heritage" didn't bother giving it a rating. Nor did preservationists protest when it was to be demolished in 2001.

Plans at the time called for an eight-story Prada boutique designed by Dutch iconoclast Rem Koolhaas with walls of bead-blasted steel riddled by 8,000 portholes of varying size. Instead there was a recession, Prada bowed out and new owner Grosvenor Properties hired the San Francisco office of Brand + Allen Architects to redo what already existed.

Where Koolhaas muscled into the scene with blunt force, designer Koonshing Wong took a self-effacing route, drawing attention by fading away.

Strolling west on Post Street, for instance, you don't even perceive a building; 185 Post St. reads like an opaque sheet, a two-dimensional counterpart to the masonry temples of commerce that were erected after the 1906 earthquake and line the surrounding blocks.

Come closer and 185 Post St. pulls a vanishing act of another sort. The glass turns into a mirror, filled with reflections of such monumentally detailed neighbors as the baroque Shreve Building on the opposite corner.

Now take a look from directly across the street. The reflections fall away and the original structure emerges, an architectural specimen in an elegant jar.

The procession of illusions is due in part to the ceramic "fritting" on the glass, which creates a sense of translucence but is subtle enough not to be a distraction. When it needs to fog the glass, it does; when it needs to evaporate, it does that as well.

I have no argument with this description, but I have some additional impressions. Apparently, the only part of the building that is open for business is the ground floor, occupied by De Beers, nicely described by King as "a beyond-upscale jewelry store," the sort of place that gets nervous when someone as casually dressed as I was saunters in, only to ask if anyone knows about any other tenants in the building or what entrance they use. Nevertheless, I was politely shown the "other" entrance, where a sheet of paper was posted that informed me that work was being done before the only other tenant would occupy their space.

This has an interesting impact on the view that King described. I was able to get at what he meant when he talked about the reflections falling away in favor of the original structure. However, the light was such that one could see through the windows of that original structure, through which one could easily see the incomplete state of all of the upper floors of the building. Thus my own sense of irony saw this as a monument (obviously not intentional) to our current economic crisis: Consumption at its most conspicuous on the ground floor above which all is empty space desperately hungering for occupants. Better to back off and let the very identity of the building become absorbed into the reflections of all of its neighbors. What better metaphor for virtuality and its discontents?

Tchaikovsky at his Best

The Noontime Concerts™ October Russian Music Festival at Old St. Mary's Cathedral, on the edge of San Francisco Chinatown, concluded in grand style with a performance of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Opus 50, his A minor piano trio. The performers were Miles Graber on piano, Mariya Borozina (the one Russian in the group) on violin, and Victoria Ehrlich on cello. I believe this is the first time I have heard Ehrlich, but Graber and Borozina have played together regularly in the Noontime Concerts™ concerts series, such as this past June, when they joined cellist Miriam Perkoff for the first piano trio by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Graber also appears to be the "house pianist" for the pre-season preview of the Midsummer Mozart Festival at the Noontime Concerts™ series. Tchaikovsky is quite some distance from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart along just about any dimension, except that he was a great admirer of Mozart and demonstrated this in his fourth orchestral suite.
Tchaikovsky's piano trio bears the dedication, "In Memory of a Great Artist." The great artist is Nikolai Rubinstein, founder and first director of the Moscow Conservatory. His connection to Tchaikovsky is summarized nicely in this paragraph from his Wikipedia entry:
While holding his Moscow post, Nikolai persuaded Tchaikovsky to write for him the celebrated Piano Concerto No. 1. According to Tchaikovsky's letters, Rubinstein was unimpressed with the work, and would only perform it if rewritten. Tchaikovsky refused, and the work was premiered instead by Hans von Bülow. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky wrote his Piano Trio in A minor in Rubinstein's memory after he died in Paris.
Tchaikovsky was appointed Professor of Theory and Harmony when the Conservatory was founded; and, through an ironic gesture of history, the Conservatory has borne Tchaikovsky's name (rather than Rubinstein's) since 1940. To put the compositions in their historical context, the Opus 23 piano concerto, which Rubinstein rejected, was completed in 1875, while the trio dates from 1882, some seven years later.
We can only guess how Rubinstein's ghost would have reacted to this memorial. In contrast to his younger brother Anton, Nikolai "opted for a restrained classicism," as the Wikipedia entry puts it; and "restrained" is probably not the word that springs to mind when listening to the trio. Nevertheless, one could argue that it has more structural discipline than Opus 23. Its substantial duration is divided across two long movements, the first of which is labeled "Pezzo elegiaco" and the second of which is a set of twelve variations on a theme of folk-like simplicity, the last of which is on the scale of a sonata movement unto itself in a finale form that recapitulates the elegiac material. This is one of Tchaikovsky's tightest structural frameworks; and the two-movement structure might be seen as a nod to Ludwig van Beethoven's final (Opus 111) piano sonata were it not for the simplicity of the theme and the complexity of the conclusion.
This much would have undoubtedly have impressed Rubinstein; but within that structural framework we encounter much of that full-fisted piano writing that may have been the reason for Rubinstein's rejection of Opus 23. This stuff is as dangerous as it is passionate. I found myself reviewing an observation I had written back in February, when Nikolai Lugansky performed Opus 23 with the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt. Here is what I wrote about Lugansky:
This was a soloist who brought athletic strength to his performance, often making his instrument shake with the hammer-like impact of his fingers. This is the sort of performance one comes to expect from this concerto; but, since this is NBA All-Star weekend, the effect is a little bit like those "performed" slam dunks that really have nothing to do with how the game is actually played. Put another way, it is the epitome of that Brahms adjective "Lisztich" with a Russian accent. The difference, however, is that, even early in his career, Tchaikovsky had a much better sense of orchestral sound than Liszt did; and, while Blomstedt clearly understood that sense, he had to contend with Lugansky's pounding, which was ultimately a losing battle.
Needless to say, Rubinstein had a strong preference for Brahms over Liszt; but Brahms was just as capable of getting the piano to "roar" with a massively grand sound. Ultimately, the difference could come down to the distinction between control and abandon; and Graber delivered a performance that was far closer in spirit to Brahms than to Liszt. Thus, not only was this a performance that might have mollified Rubinstein's ghost; but also its abundant expressiveness was always kept under control, for the sake of both the pianist's personal energy budget and the need to balance the more limited dynamics of the strings against the power of the piano. This is not to say that the strings were weak: To the contrary, both Borozina and Ehrlich had very rich sounds, which carried their share of the "expressiveness burden" with an impressive palette of sonorities. The result was a performance that was true to both the music itself and the "memorial obligation" of the work's dedication, which is why my Title declared it an embodiment of Tchaikovsky at his best.

Who Benefits from Social Software?

The last time I read one of Caroline McCarthy's posts to her blog, The Social, it was to fuel one of my frequent rants against technology evangelists, particularly those obsessed with Web 2.0 snake oil. Last night she took on a topic subsumed by this general rant concerned with the quest for useful information in this utopian world those evangelists keep flogging. The post is sufficiently short that it makes sense to examine it in its entirety:

Facebook likes to trumpet the value of "trusted referrals"--recommendations and ads with the endorsements of members of your friends list. But a new study from Jupiter Research, commissioned by analytics company BuzzLogic, says that consumer purchases are more likely to be influenced by what they read on a blog versus what their social-networking rosters recommend.

Half of all those surveyed who identify as "blog readers" (people who read more than one blog per month, a fifth of total survey respondents) say that blogs are important to them when it comes to making purchasing decisions. But they don't necessarily find them to be all that reliable: only 15 percent of blog readers, and five percent of all those surveyed said that in the past year they had trusted a blog to help them make a purchase decision.

That's still higher than the number of people who said they used social-network recommendations, though: ten percent of "blog readers," and four percent of all those surveyed.

Results of the survey are similar when it comes to advertising: a quarter of "blog readers" say they trust ads on blogs that they read (versus 43 percent on "familiar" or mainstream media sites), but a slightly lower 19 percent say they trust the ads on social networks.

So what does all this mean? Well, it's good news for BuzzLogic, which tracks blogger influence for clients and has seen blog advertising pushed aside a bit on Madison Avenue in favor of "appvertising" and social ads. Aside from that, the real take-away point is that the results seem to indicate most blogs are less mainstream than you might think: Only a fifth of respondents say they read a blog at least once a month.

That's actually really surprising--or maybe blogs have become so ingrained on the Web that people don't even know they're reading them.

McCarthy was spot on in backing off from the study itself and the circumstances under which BuzzLogic commissioned it in order to ask the more fundamental question of what the results actually mean. On the other hand I feel contentious enough to counter her question with a deeper one: Can this study possibly mean anything? My point is that the entire Jupiter Research methodology may be too flawed to provide data that would support any meaningful interpretations. The problem with any survey is that the questions often bias the nature of the answers; and, since this was a commissioned survey, there is the added risk that this bias has been induced by the sponsor. If we want to be serious about the general question of utility, then the survey is probably too blunt an instrument. We need a more ethnographic approach through which we can examine what people really do when they are trying to collect useful information before making a purchasing decision. Yes, information like that can be found on blogs; and those "trusted referrals" probably have at least some decision-support value. On the other hand how many users are out there who, out of either a lack of technical understanding or just plain laziness, set up a Google search and seek out things that look like opinions in the little content excerpts? How many of them can go to the next level and recognize which of those search results are for sites explicitly set up to collect reviews? How many of them know which search results are taking them to an individual opinion (such as a blog), rather than a collation of multiple opinions? Given the generally low numbers in this survey, we cannot dismiss that first (admittedly naive) sector without a better understanding of who they are and what they think they are doing. We may thus be wasting too many cognitive cycles on what is fundamentally a GIGO (Garbage-In-Garbage-Out) project!

Beach Chamber Music: A First Taste

My first impression of Amy Beach's Opus 67, her F sharp minor piano quintet, was that my study of her Opus 15 Sketches did very little to prepare me for the experience. I should not have anticipated otherwise. The four Sketches, composed in 1892, fit nicely into a repertoire of short poetic works for solo piano whose origins can probably best be placed in the shorter piano works of Franz Schubert. Within that repertoire she is chronologically a contemporary of Ferruccio Busoni (about a year younger) and most likely shared with him the influences of Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Anton Rubinstein. 1892 happens to be the publication year of Busoni's Opus 31a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, the work with which he won the 1890 Anton Rubinstein competition in Moscow. However, while Antony Beaumont identifies Busoni's inspirational sources for this work as Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Max Reger, Beach's Sketches are more a product of exposure to nineteenth-century American salons, where many of the compositions in John Gillespie's Nineteenth-Century American Piano Music anthology were performed.

Another interesting point of chronological orientation comes from Charles Ives, who was about seven years younger than Beach and composed his set of organ variations on "America" in 1891. Ives could never seem to resist the opportunity to express his contempt for that nineteenth-century piano repertoire, whether in text or in his own approach to composition. It is therefore at least slightly ironic that, in last night's performance of Beach's piano quintet, pianist William Wellborn was joined by the Ives Quartet, so named, according to the program, out of inspiration "by the passionate, artistic commitment and unique temperament" of that composer.

The chronology of the Beach piano quintet puts it in 1907, a time when Ives was just beginning to find his own rebellious way. Beach had come a long way from the short works of 1892 and the influence of light salon entertainment. This is serious chamber music on the scale of the other piano quintets and quartets that constitute its legacy (the same legacy that Ives would later take on in beginning work on his only piano trio in 1909). However, while I felt I had a comfortable sense of context for the Sketches, I was less sure of how to establish context for this particular piano quintet (as opposed to my first encounter with Ernő von Dohnányi's Opus 1 piano quintet, which clearly used Brahms as its point of departure). Perhaps the most important thing about Beach's approach is that she seemed after a way to compose a work for five "equals," as opposed to the frequent domination of the piano resulting in a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra." One might even say that she was anticipating later twentieth-century composition with a sensitivity for the sonority of each instrument that tends to occupy the ear more than her strategies for counterpoint and harmony. (Perhaps at least some of that interest in sonority grew out of her interest in documenting bird songs.)

Most important is that there is more in this composition than could be grasped by the single occasion of last night's performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This is a work that deserves more attention. As I mentioned on Saturday, it occupies a somewhat culminating position in the history of piano quintets and quartets; and it is also a significant contribution to the repertoire of American music at the beginning of a new century. It deserves further listening, and we would do well to strive for a better understanding of the context in which it was situated. Saturday's conjecture that Wellborn had structured the first half of his program as a gradus ad Parnassum to Beach by way of Domenico Scarlatti, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Liszt turned out not to be the case. Liszt may have been an influence for the Sketches, but the piano quintet was cut from quite another cloth. Recent concerts have done much to expand our "listening comprehension" of compositions (particularly American) from the middle of the twentieth century; we all need to learn more about what was happening at the beginning of that century.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mozart Takes on Free Will

The 2008–09 season of the San Francisco Opera is beginning to feel a bit like a seminar in an undergraduate humanities program. We began with a production of Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, which offered up a tragic perspective on republicanism as practiced in fourteenth-century Genoa. We then moved on to the cultural studies (featuring a major sidebar on the sociology of mothers-in-law) of Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter's Daughter. Then we had Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, which may well have told us more about the psychology of dreams than we could get from even the closest reading of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. Anyone who was hoping to settle back into the art-for-art's-sake world of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera seria, Idomeneo, Re di Creta (K. 366), may have received a jolt from John Copley's conception, which situated the opera firmly in the domain of the opposition between free will and divine control. Whether or not Mozart was thinking in such terms is obviously open to question; but in Louis Biancolli's Mozart Handbook we can read the Mozart obituary by Adolph Heinrich von Schlichtegroll, which claims that the operas "Mozart esteemed most highly" were Idomeneo and Don Giovanni, the latter taking an even more dramatic approach to the confrontation between a libertine's free will and the divine force that ultimately consumes him. So we have good reason to believe that Copley was not overstepping Mozart's bounds in his approach.

Mozart, on the other hand, was definitely overstepping the bounds of opera seria, taking full advantage of the Mannheim resources at his disposal (as was emphasized in the book Mozart: The Early Years 1756–1781 by Stanley Sadie and Neal Zaslaw). This was not just a matter of exploiting "Mannheim dynamics" for the sake of dramatic impact. It also involved using the orchestra to greater advantage than was usually the case in opera at that time. Most important were his efforts towards a seamless flow of the action, resulting in arias whose conclusions would then immediately launch the next phase of the action. That seamlessness was further reinforced by having the recitativo passages accompanied by the full orchestra, rather than a keyboard-based continuo. This was a technique that Christoph Willibald Gluck had engaged with powerful effect in his Iphigénie en Tauride, which predated Idomeneo by about two years. Mozart was well aware of Gluck's innovative departures from the opera seria traditions of the time; and his "inner twenty-year-old" was probably champing at the bit to show off how he could strut the same stuff and take it to the next level.

When we move from the orchestra pit to the stage, we see that Mozart is also showing off what he could do with his resources. Most striking is probably the extent to which he uses multiple voices to greatest dramatic effect. Thus, the only duets we hear are embedded in choral passages and are sung by secondary characters: two Cretan women praising Idamante and two Trojan prisoners celebrating their liberation. (Could that latter pair have been an inspiration when Ludwig van Beethoven was working on Fidelio? The prisoner duet is there even as early as the 1805 Leonore version.) The first time the major characters sing together is in the second act terzetto for Idamante, Elettra, and Idomeneo, just before the former two are to board the ship that will take them for Argos, as Idomeneo has commanded. By this time we have a full grasp of just how conflicted the emotions of these three characters are, and Mozart's pen was stoked to let those conflicts weave through a counterpoint that displaced the usual dialog between soloist and orchestra. After the resulting catastrophe thwarts Idomeneo's wishes, we are back on "aria turf" until those conflicted characters come together again, this time in a quartet with Ilia added to the mix. This is dramatic emphasis at its best, and it allows us to appreciate that Mozart could be as good with subtlety as he could be with show-off display.

All of these skills were exhibited in the best possible light in yesterday afternoon's San Francisco Opera performance. Conductor Donald Runnicles has always had an excellent sense of how to pace Mozart, so the flow of the music was flawlessly delivered to support the flow of the drama. However, for those interested in whether or not the uncontrollable fates always have the upper hand over free will, we need to consider the case of the part of Idamante. For reasons that I shall not try to understand (let alone explain), the San Francisco Chronicle decided to give "full-court press" (pun intended) publicity to the return of Alice Coote to San Francisco to sing this role. This effort then begat a review that came a bit too close to suggesting that Coote was the only reason for seeing this product. Could this review have provoked the fates into visiting Coote with a back injury? The scenario of Idomeneo would certainly encourage us to ask that question, but the more important question was how prepared the San Francisco Opera was to go this particular distance without her. It turns out that she was replaced by first-year Adler Fellow Daniela Mack, who had just made her San Francisco Opera debut as one of the raunchy members of Marietta's theater troupe in Die Tote Stadt. This may not have been a "star is born" occasion (since Mack already has a rather impressive resume); but she definitely did not disappoint. There were a few awkward moments with the staging, and the astute ear could hear the way she was finding her voice in her first aria. However, she was on solid ground by the end of that aria and remained there for the rest of the performance. If the fates were trying to humble a public relations push, then Mack's free will trumped those fates as surely as the free will of both Idomeneo and Idamante prevailed over the force of Neptune!

Recovery Dreams (3.0?)

Moralistic as it may sound, I continue to believe that our current economic crisis needs to be examined not under the lens of economic theory but as a consequence of a predominant cultural Weltanschauung, which encompasses not only an addiction to consumerism but also the faith-based conviction (most popular among those who consume and those who feed their habit) that innovation solves all problems. I am thus more than a little concerned that Andrew Keen, in the latest post to his Great Seduction blog, seems to be looking seriously towards Silicon Valley for those who will pave the road to economic recovery:

In some garage or dorm-room, some smart kids are figuring out the future of media and technology. Global financial meltdown or not, Silicon Valley’s creative destruction – its law of motion -- is unstoppable. My own sense is that we need software and services that resynthesize the digital and real worlds. As NYU sociologist Dalton Conley suggests in his 2009 book Elsewhere, USA, technology has unmoored us from our real lives:

Our daily lives have changed, slowly but radically, over the past three decades. The division between work and home has been all but demolished; our weightless, wireless economy encourages us to work 24/7; marketing has invaded the most intimate aspects of our lives; leisure has become a lost art.

Silicon Valley thus needs to work on reuniting work with home. Having destroyed leisure with their always-on media, the smart technologists needs to reinvent it. The digital economy now must figure out ways to speed up the analog world. Silicon Valley's laws of motion must become America's laws of motion.

This may ultimately be little more than a convenient misreading of history, which attributed the economic crisis that began to emerge at the end of the twentieth century with the irrational exuberance of Web 1.0 thinking and now lays the current catastrophe at the feet of Web 2.0. In his quest for "a consummation/Devoutly to be wished," Keen may have come up with little more than a candidate recipe for the next boom-and-bust cycle. Nevertheless, Conley's source text may be of some use if we are still interested in the question of how we got into our current mess.

While I think Conley may have a point with his punch line, it is more important to recognize that leisure most likely constitutes only a sliver of the "necessary arts" we have lost. I continue to hold to the belief that our very "sense of reality" (that oft-used phrase that I cribbed from Isaiah Berlin) has been significantly eroded, rather than enhanced, by recent technologies; and those "social software" Web 2.0 technologies are among the most corrosive. At the risk of going all Heideggerian, I wish to suggest that the fundamental art we have lost is the art of "being in the world;" and we have lost it because Silicon Valley has been such a successful breeding ground of positivist junkies who cannot see beyond the boundaries of the objective world. Can we seriously expect that the guys (and gals) who destroyed leisure are capable of reinventing it? At best, they will invent new ways for us to amuse ourselves to death (with apologies to the memory of Neil Postman).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Jes' Fine"

I see from a report on Al Jazeera English that John McCain is as optimistic about his prospects as ever:

John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has said that he is still in a position to win the White House on November 4.

He told NBC television's 'Meet the Press' programme on Sunday that he was "doing fine" despite some national and state opinion polls putting him more than 10 points behind Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate.

Given how much has been made of McCain's age, I know that he is old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo. I have no idea if he ever read it, but the way in which it treated the 1960 Presidential Election is somewhat of a classic in the political clout of the funny papers. Indeed, that treatment was later delivered as a stand-alone paperback book. The review provided by wiredweird (one of their "Top 100" reviewers) provides the necessary background:

It's election year again, so the swamp goes all out to celebrate the silly side of the democratic process. This time, Fremount (the boy bug) creates all the buzz. Not old enough to know many words, "Jes' Fine" is all he says. In the Okeefenokee, that's enough, so the campaign is off and running.

P.T. Bridgeport nominates himself campaign manager. Somehow, though, his news releases center on himself and often forget to mention the candidate. Congersman Frog announces his solidarity with voters of all the swamp's many species. An inane pollster and satiric Madison Avenue type make their appearances, with complete conquest of appearance over substance. And so on, with Howland, Churchy, Albert, and the usual cast of characters.

Of course, that includes Pogo himself and his friend Porky - the only two voices of sanity when everyone else gets caught up in the moment. They keep the tone gentle and civil, a sensibility that appears far too rarely in more recent commentary.

Given that Jerzy Kosinski's Being There came out in 1971, I have to wonder whether or not the family resemblance to Pogo is deliberate. Alas, neither Walt Kelly nor Kosinski is still with us; so neither of them can appreciate the transmogrification of a boy bug or "cognitively challenged" gardener into a Republican Presidential candidate. The irony will just have to be shared by the rest of us!

Hanging Tough on Statecraft

The first time I saw Tzipi Livni on television, sitting with the other member of Ehud Olmert's Cabinet, I had her pegged for a tough cookie. I was therefore not surprised that she would come out on top of Kadima Party leadership in the wake of Olmert's announcement of resignation. What did surprise me was that her toughness would be exerted less on behalf of Israel's business-as-usual "territorial aggression" (as in continuing to build settlements in occupied territories) and more towards those fundamental principles of statecraft about which Dennis Ross had written so admirably in his book (a book which had been highly informed by his own experiences in trying to negotiate peace in the Middle East). It is, of course, all too easy to dismiss Ross' book as the wishful thinking of a retired diplomat; but, when we see the principles of that book put into practice by the likes of Vladimir Putin, we have to acknowledge that there may be at least a glimmer of hope that a viable alternative to nationalist extremism is on the rise. Livni may now be adding to that glimmer.

I have come to this conclusion having just read the latest Al Jazeera English report on the current state of play in Israeli politics:

Tzipi Livni, the leader of Israel's ruling Kadima party, has called for early parliamentary elections to be held after she failed to form a coalition government.

The crux of this story is the reason why an effective coalition could not be formed:

The Kadima party had the backing of the centre-left Labour party and was expected to keep the small Pensioners party in the government, but it needed to get the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on board to secure a majority in the 120-seat parliament.

Shas said on Friday it would not join Livni as she had refused to pledge that the future status of Jerusalem would not be on the agenda in negotiations with the Palestinians.

It is that last sentence that got me to thinking about Ross again. At the risk of being too reductive, I came away from watching Ross' lecture on his book on Book TV with the idea that statecraft had a lot to do with using what you have to get what you want; and that presumes that you have a clear idea of what you want in the first place. We can thus understand much of our own diplomatic bungling in terms of its foundation of vague and ill-conceived faith-based goals, goals which, like those of the Shas party, have more to do with highly traditional readings of Scripture than with more contemporary documents (such as, for example, those produced and approved by the United Nations). However, it was not just Livni's rejection of a fundamental (play on words intended with all due deliberation) plank in the Shas platform but also the language she used in talking about the rejection. According to the Al Jazeera English account, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted her as saying:

When I had to decide between continued extortion and bringing forward elections, I prefered elections.

Now I have no idea how often the noun "extortion" is used in the course of Israeli political horse-trading; but it struck me as a highly appropriate bon mot for describing the lack of progress towards peace in the Middle East. The United States is all too eager to talk about the repressive nature of Muslim fundamentalism in a country like Iran; but, from a diplomatic point of view, Americans (with the primary exception of Jimmy Carter) have turned a blind eye to fundamentalist practices of Judaism that can be just as repressive. When those practices apply to life in the home or in a highly limited religious community, it is easy enough to apply the live-and-let-live rule of thumb; but, when they apply to national policy, they illustrate in the most vivid of terms just why the very principle of a "Jewish State" should make Israel's neighbors so nervous.

So Livni has opted for a new round of elections, letting vox populi decide who will speak for Israeli foreign policy. She may not have the strength of reputation that Yitzhak Rabin had, but she has displayed a toughness of commitment to getting the peace process rolling again. One of the Hebrew expressions I learned while I was teaching in Israel was "Kol HaKovod." This translates literally as "all the honor;" but I noticed that it tended to be used with the connotation of "More power to you!" If Livni is to prevail in the election she will now face, she will need all the power she can summon; let us hope that she is tough enough to do justice to all the honor that will be at stake.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Celebrating Amy Beach

Last June, when I was first starting to try working on the four Opus 15 Sketches for piano by Amy Beach, I mentioned that the San Francisco Public Library was planning an exhibit on Amy Beach and the time she spent living in San Francisco. That exhibit is now on display on the fourth floor of the Main Library building in the Steve Silver Beach Blanket Babylon (ask a local) Music Center, which houses the published Gesamtwerk editions of just about every major composer (along with a fair representative of minor ones) in the history of Western music. The title of the exhibit is "Amy Beach: Her Blissful Years in San Francisco." It would appear, on the basis of a post in the blog maintained by the San Francisco Public Library that the "blissful years" included 1878, when she visited her aunt and cousin as a ten-year-old, and the period between 1915, when she participated in the musical activities of the Panama Pacific Exposition (which commissioned the composition of her "Panama Hymn"), through 1916, the year of the premiere of her Opus 80 theme and variations, set for flute and string quartet and commissioned by the San Francisco Chamber Music Society.

The exhibit coincides with two major performance events. One, which I previously mentioned, is a performance of her piano concerto, which will be on the program of the first subscription concert by Symphony Parnassus and will feature Daniel Glover as soloist. The other will be a performance this coming Monday evening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music of her Opus 67 piano quintet in F sharp minor. This will be the second half of a recital program by pianist (and faculty member) William Wellborn, during which he will be joined by the Ives Quartet. Since I had described my own encounter with Beach's piano music in terms of its "post-Liszt feel," "almost in the spirit of Ferruccio Busoni," the first half of Wellborn's recital may be viewed as a gradus ad Parnassum of envelope-pushing composers leading up to Franz Liszt himself by way of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and Joseph Haydn's 1771 C minor sonata (Hoboken XVI/20). Liszt is then represented by the "Sonetto 104 del Petrarca," from the second of the Annés de Pèlerinage, and his "Concert Paraphrase" on the quartet from Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.

I believe that, taken together, the repertoire of piano quartets and piano quintets tell us much about how chamber music emerged from the eighteenth century (particularly in the two piano quartets of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) and grew prodigiously in the nineteenth, particularly through Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms (one of whose I once called a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra"), finally crossing into the twentieth century through not only Beach (1907) but also Edward Elgar (1919). As one can see at the Library exhibit, the Beach quintet was reputable enough to be included on a San Francisco Chamber Music Society program; and the strength of that work probably contributed to the subsequent commissioning of a new Beach composition. It is almost impossible that any of these events influenced Elgar, but he was still basically building on the same nineteenth-century trends that Beach had been following.

The Library exhibit is a very modest one, probably too much so. There is a considerable body of interesting work that Beach was doing in trying to document bird songs and then incorporating her notated versions in her music; and this deserves more depth than the Library could display (even if the results in no way resemble subsequent experiments along the same lines by Olivier Messiaen). In many ways the exhibit is more interesting for the feel of San Francisco during those "blissful years." Beach was living on the Fulton Street side of Alamo Square (as opposed to the Steiner Street side, which holds the row of "painted ladies," where the tourist buses stop every day to disgorge their respective loads of picture-takers); and it is nice to be reminded of just how much history there is in some of the houses I tend to walk by so casually. Nevertheless, the best way to honor Beach's memory is to perform her music; and, having taken my own crack at that task, I look forward to being on the listening side of things on Monday evening!

Music in the Flesh

Last night I was reminded (once again, as if I needed reminding) that there is no substitute for the experience of the "live" performance, whatever the current (or even improving) virtues of recording and distribution technology may be. This time the reminder came from a Senior Piano Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and involved a work I had previously known only through recordings, Sergei Prokofiev's Opus 16, his second piano concerto in G minor. This being a "student project," the soloist was able to arrange for orchestral accompaniment by fellow students (including a student conductor), although the usually lush Prokofiev string section was reduced to two first violins, two seconds, and single performers for viola, cello (the only familiar face by virtue of this week's Cello Ensemble performance), and bass.

Even with the benefit of recordings, my familiarity with this work is pretty weak; but the recording I know best puts up pretty stiff competition. It is actually my personal recording of a broadcast of a 2007 Proms concert, which I made for one of my neighbors and liked enough to make a copy for myself. (For those who are interested, the entire concert has a Torrentz page.) The pianist was Alexander Toradze, and the London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Valery Gergiev. This is the sort of team that can be really serious about its Prokofiev, not only in terms of virtuosic rhetorical flair but also down at the nuts and bolts of logic and grammar. Nevertheless, Prokofiev has written so much into this concerto that it take the immediacy of an actual performance to give full justice to all three of those trivium elements.

If this is a student who wishes to make a career out of dashing off the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, then this concerto is a good place to start; and Toradze is one of the better models out there. While he only won the Silver Medal in the Fifth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1977), I remember seeing him on Public Television, shortly after a documentary about that particular Competition, in which he played a solo piano transcription of Igor Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps," which may well have passed the ultimate acid test of understanding a composition in terms of its logic, grammar and rhetoric! Last night's student's performance could have done with a bit of refinement (as could the somewhat scrappy orchestral support); but he was no slouch in negotiating all of the burdens of complexity that Prokofiev piled on the back of the soloist. Watching this student negotiate the keyboard turned out to be as informative as the listening experience and may well have helped to sort out many of the grammatical priorities, which, if ignored, would have reduced the performance to a mere jumble of a whole lot of notes.

The truth is that, between all of those virtuosic excesses and his inclination for raucous orchestral sounds, Prokofiev poses a different level of challenge than one finds in Johann Sebastian Bach or Joseph Haydn (who happened to be the other two composers represented on last night's program). It is a high-wire act from which the performer can all-too-easily fall into a pit of vulgarity. However, whatever surface level weaknesses may have confronted last night's performance, there was a security in the "deep structure" that kept both soloist and orchestra from slipping off the wire; and that is quite an accomplishment for a graduating senior!

Having invoked the other composers on last night's program, it is worth saying a thing or two about their contributions to the evening. Haydn was represented by his 59th piano sonata in E flat major, listed in the Hoboken catalog as XVI/49 and completed in 1790. This makes it excellently positioned to serve as one of the inspirations for those Opus 2 piano sonatas that Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated to Haydn. It is as virtuosic for its time as the Prokofiev concerto was for the early twentieth century, and Haydn dishes out his virtuosity with an ample supply of wit that pervades the early Beethoven sonatas. However, the middle Adagio e cantabile movement reflects a deeper level of influence that we encounter at the other end of the Beethoven canon, the deliberately sustained theme that evolves through successive layers of embellishment into an entirely new genre of virtuosity in the final movements of Beethoven's Opera 109 and 111 sonatas. (Indeed, it is only through an understanding of how to sort out such embellishment that the mind behind the ear can get a handle on how Prokofiev took such embellishment to even more intimidating heights.) Thus, whether or not the strategy was intended, the Haydn sonata did much to set the ear up for confronting the complexities of the Prokofiev concerto.

Did Bach's sixth French Suite in E major (BWV 817) set the ear up for listening to the Haydn? This may be more of a stretch, particularly in the face of the rather straightforward binary form that structures its eight dance movements. What we encounter here has more to do with the interplay of a very small number (sometimes just two) of contrapuntal voices; and successful performance has to do with the clarity of that interplay. Once again this particular student would slip up on surface detail, but also again that clarity had more to do with understanding and rendering that deep structure of each movement. Thus, one might say that this beginning with Bach established a laying out of "grammatical ground rules," which then pervaded the rest of the recital, making the entire evening one of the more stimulating opportunities for those of us in the audience to refine our listening skills.

Friday, October 24, 2008

If You Give A Bank a Cookie

So is all that bailout money being put to good use? One possible answer just showed up on the BBC NEWS Web site:

A US bank has become the first to use some of the $700bn (£440bn) government bail-out to buy a rival.

PNC Financial Services Group is buying National City for $5.6bn - making PNC the US's fifth largest bank by deposits with the fourth most branches.

Cleveland-based National City needed to be rescued after being heavily weighed down by bad mortgage debt.

As part of the bail-out, the US Treasury aims to buy stakes in banks in return for capital.

And while recipients can use some of the investment for acquisitions, the aim of the controversial $700bn move was also to free up lending.

Has this done anything for the frozen credit market, or is it just providing an incentive for banks to play with new money in new ways? Consider this item by Lauren Tara LaCapra from

Regulators have decided not to release the name of banks that have been approved to receive capital from the government, but to allow companies to report individually, according to a source familiar with the situation.

The Treasury Department was first prepared to release a list of nearly two dozen banks who will receive funds from its $250 billion authorization to inject capital into the financial sector as early as 11 a.m. on Friday. However, it reversed course to avoid "creating winners and losers in the market," according to the source.

The announcement would have been a positive sign for those who make the list, because their financial state is strong enough to qualify for the program, the source says. On the other hand, those not included may have been seen as weak, and could have faced negative sentiment from customers, counterparties and investors.

That was evidenced by the deal PNC (PNC Quote - Cramer on PNC - Stock Picks) reported on Friday to acquire National City (NCC Quote - Cramer on NCC - Stock Picks) for $5.58 billion, while receiving $7.7 billion in federal funds in exchange for preferred equity. The government rejected Nat City's proposal to receive funds, forcing it into the hands of PNC, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

Indeed, another post to, this time by Laurie Kulikowski argues that this sort of the thing is the beginning of a trend:

"I expect more consolidation," says Roger Cominsky, a partner in Hiscock & Barclay's financial institutions and lending practice area. "The Treasury is using the $250 billion to prop up the capital of the surviving banks. Those banks are going to be under immense pressure to acquire the sick, but not dead banks."

Additionally, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "has a vested interest in seeing more consolidation because that lessens the risk of the insurance fund," Cominsky adds. "So you will probably see more consolidation over the next few weeks or months."

Hopefully, the current generation of kids are familiar with Laura Joffe Numeroff's book, If You Give A Mouse a Cookie, which, in its own cute little way, explores the unintended consequences of giving out of kindness. I suppose this book is not easily available at bookstores in the District of Columbia. If it were, then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (not to mention both Houses of Congress) would not have required much cognitive skill to recognize that the book is about more than cute mice and cookies.

Meanwhile, the question remains as to whether this whole recovery plan is for American citizens in dire straits or for shareholders heavily invested in the financial sector. Those curious in the academic exercise can take a look at the chart for PNC over the course of this year. It is not exactly rosy; but it is also not as bone-chilling as the charts the media prefer to show us. All things considered, PNC looks like a happy little mouse; but it may yet get fat and lazy from eating too many cookies!

The Chutzpah of Ignoring History

Google won a Chutzpah of the Week award for throwing the super-exclusive party in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention, which was trying like hell to put up the front that theirs would be a ticket of national unity across all strata of society. AIG did not win one for the $440,000 spa getaway they organized at the St. Regis hotel in Laguna Niguel within days of receiving $85 billion worth of government bailout money, but only because even more outrageous things (relating to the election) were happening that week. This week they were in the running again for hitting up the Federal Reserve for another $90.3 billion, but I have to confess that they were scooped basically because I always prefer sticking it to the Web 2.0 set. Thus I have Caroline McCarthy to thank for the latest post to her CNET blog, The Social, for at least giving Laguna Niguel a second crack at being a venue for chutzpah:

When the economy heads south, anything involving beaches and luxury resorts is a terrific recipe for guaranteed bad press.

That's why there was a fine line to be walked at the WebbyConnect conference, the second annual retreat-slash-ideafest organized by the directors of the annual Webby Awards. In the diverse vegetable patch of media conferences, this one is the organic arugula. The venue was the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel resort, a sprawling beachfront complex and occasional filming spot for MTV's haute-reality soap Laguna Beach, just down the road from the St. Regis hotel where American International Group executives famously spent $440,000 on a spa getaway days after an $85 billion government bailout.

But even with wallets shrinking and belts tightening across technology, digital media, and advertising, the people who shelled out more than $2,000 for a WebbyConnect ticket insisted on one thing: this event, unlike so many others on the industry's calendar, is worth the price tag.

"What an amazing, diverse group of people we have gathered under this roof, and I know that's a cliche but like most cliches, it's true," Jamie Pallot, editorial director of Conde Nast's CondeNet, observed while moderating a panel on Wednesday. "We all work for a bunch of very different companies, we play wildly different roles in those companies...what brings us all together here and what we are excited about is the innovation that technology can bring, and how that can change the places where we work, and what we can do in those places."

Getting to the intimate, 200-person conference from the entrance to the Ritz involved winding through groves of palm trees and ponds of bright orange and white koi, past stunning ocean vistas dotted with surfers and pools surrounded by the resort's usual clientele, wealthy retirees in town for Orange County's famed golfing. The three half-days worth of conference panels featured a slew of digital media's glitterati, from The Huffington Post CEO Betsy Morgan to The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., to Aaron Koblin, the Google Creative Labs designer who worked on the video for Radiohead's "House of Cards."

As the reader can tell, McCarthy herself preferred seeing stars (presumably on someone else's nickel), rather than a case study in conspicuous consumption. Her report focused on the free-flowing California wine rather than the evangelical Kool-Aid. Nevertheless, this was a highly exclusive event, possibly in the same league as the Google shindig in Denver. Now I doubt that presenting the WebbyConnect organizers with the Chutzpah of the Week award will persuade them to stop throwing circuses and start thinking about bread, but at least the award can serve to hold them up as an example of the real priorities of Internet evangelism for all those in need of bread to see.

I Voted!

That's what it says on the sticker that is supposed to be handed to me by the poll worker who accepts my completed ballot. This year, however, there is a big push in California to vote early. Not only does the seriousness of the Presidential Election promise to (finally?) bring out a large number of voters; but also there are twelve State Propositions on the California ballot (and another 22 for the City and County of San Francisco). Completing a ballot is going to take more than the usual amount of time, even in the best of circumstances.

In my case it was a choice between enjoying the convenience of my polling place being down on the mezzanine of the building where I live or walking a couple of blocks to City Hall to vote early. I opted for the latter primarily on the basis of reliability. Having now voted quite a few times in my own building, I have noticed a progressive drop in the quality of our poll workers. These are volunteers, so I do not say this to criticize them. Rather, I suspect that they are victims of budget cuts that have impacted how well they are screened (for such things as which languages they speak, which is particularly important in California), how well they are trained after passing screening, and how well they are served by the call center they are supposed to consult if they have any questions. Thus, during the Primary we had a poll worker who spoke Chinese (which matters in our District). Unfortunately, he spoke only Chinese; and none of the other poll workers on site could communicate with him! The good news is that one of the voters waiting was fluent in both Chinese and English and was able to help him get the ball rolling; but she made it more than clear (several times) that she was in a rush and was none too happy about giving her services. One would have thought that, between screening and training, this situation could have been anticipated; so I take what actually happened as an indication of the effectiveness of those two processes.

Sadly I also managed to get a taste of call center operations. On this particular occasion the Chinese-only poll worker was just one of several problems, which included the procedures necessary to complete before opening the polling place, making sure that each voter was directed to the right worker (this being a Primary, different parties had different ballots), verifying that the ballot box was empty, and making sure that each completed ballot was properly accepted by the ballot box. Thus, I knew that the call center had been contacted and given the response that help was on the way. By the time I (along with most of those in line with me when I arrived, including the Chinese woman-in-a-rush) had completed my ballot, help (presumably based those few blocks away in City Hall) had not yet arrived. I was watching the poll workers run into yet another instance of the kind of "service pathology" about which I have written on several occasions. Thus, for better or worse, I decided that I did not want this particular ballot to be subject to the vagaries of screening, training, or service pathology; so I cast my vote early.

I realize that, while we generally worry about an "October surprise," the way in which the media business now works allows plenty of time for a "November surprise" in the few days before November 4. Nevertheless, I have put in a lot of time deliberating on how I would fill out my ballot (and even shared some of those deliberations on this blog). I have my reasons for voting the way I did, and I strongly doubt that the media are going to pull out of their collective hat any rabbits that will gnaw away at those reasons like their cousin Peter in Mr. McGregor's garden. I thus decided to act on the basis of where I felt my ballot would be handled most securely, and that took me to City Hall.

It was pretty empty when I was there, but I asked what conditions had been like. I was told that it got pretty busy later in the day. Also, because my wife wanted to vote on Saturday, I was told to advise her to show up early, because they are expecting heavy voting over the weekend. I find the promise of such a high level of participation encouraging; and, if there are problems with the efficiency of dealing with such volume, I am glad that there are still ways in which our votes stand a good chance of being effectively processed. That is too much to say on any sticker I might get after voting!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Liability of Intellect

Reading the latest issue of The New York Review is becoming a rather disconcerting affair. The lead article is titled "A Fateful Election" and is introduced by the Editors with the following sentence:

For an election in which so much is at stake, we asked some of our contributors for their views.

The New York Review is one of the few American publications where you can consistently enjoy intellectual thinking at its best delivered through text. For the reflective reader this is its greatest asset. For an election that is likely to be decided more on the basis of suasion than on that of logic, the intellectual impact of The New York Review may also be its greatest liability. Consider, as a case in point, the final paragraph of the contribution by Ronald Dworkin, by far the most capable of those New York Review contributors who "cover the legal beat:"

These reasons why Obama should be president make the stakes in this election even greater. Our economy is near catastrophic and worsening, unemployment and foreclosures are increasing, our foreign and military policies are disastrous, the Republican president is ridiculed and despised, the Republican candidate flails and lies. Even a mediocre Democratic candidate should win easily. If a remarkably distinguished candidate like Obama loses, this can be for only one reason. We Americans can do something great in November. Or we can do something absolutely terrible and then live with the shame of our stupid, self-destructive racial prejudice for yet another generation.

Obama supporters may delight in having such a ringing endorsement; but will it "ring true," so to speak, to those undecided voters, who may well decide the final outcome? Do those voters want to be made to feel as if they are on the bring of doing "something absolutely terrible" and that they stand for "the shame of our stupid, self-destructive racial prejudice" simply by virtue of not yet having made up their minds? The Editors of The New York Review are not exaggerating about how much is likely to be at stake in this election, but the criticality of the election should not be enough to push Dworkin from his usually reasoned prose into the depths of the sort of polemic of which all of us, particularly those undecided voters, have had our fill.

Consider what is really at stake. Of all the reasons there may be to support Barack Obama, the one that has influenced me the most is the way he has demonstrated the potential to persuade us to work together to get out of a mess brought about by a powerful few. This has not been cast as a condemnation of the Bush Administration or even of the ineffectiveness of the Congress in the face of Executive abuse of power. Rather, the message is that, however we got into the mess, we can only get out by uniting our wills and our efforts. It also reminds us, without mounting an explicit attack, that George W. Bush's claim to be a "uniter" was hollow rhetoric at best and an egregiously deceptive fiction at worst. Obama did not have to attack, because he could inspire with a coolness of speech that could deliver all the suasion of rhetoric without forcing the logic on his listeners. That coolness may ultimately be his greatest asset in the face of those undecided voters who are clearly fed up with polemic, no matter who happens to be providing it.