Monday, March 31, 2008

Forecasting Consequences of Technology

My reading of John Dewey's Art as Experience seems to have led me to Walter Benjamin, particularly "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility," but also other essays he wrote around the same time (1936) dealing with "art in a technological age." That last quote is a Section Heading provided by editors Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings in the third volume of the Belknap Press Selected Writings collection. It has been a while since I have dug into Benjamin's writings. I think the last time I did so was in January of 2001, when I found a copy of the Reflections collection in the Old Lahaina Book Emporium while my wife and I were taking some vacation time before the beginning of that year's Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. On the other hand it was about a year ago that I saw Clive James discussing his book, Cultural Amnesia, on Book TV; and it seemed as if, among all the many authors he had read, Benjamin was the one he disliked most intensely.

Reading "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Reproducibility," it is not hard to see what drove James up the wall. The text rambles on with considerable verbiage, much of which is highly opaque; and, while each section is relatively small, it usually comes with a set of notes longer than the section itself, which abound with references that, while familiar to Benjamin and many of his contemporary readers, require explanation from the editors. Still, this essay at least, whose focus is primarily on cinema with some attention to photography, is an important complement to Dewey. For, while Dewey's lectures were delivered in 1932, he never recognized either of these two media in terms of the experiences they induce or the esthetic qualities of those experiences. For those who wonder what experiences would have been available to Dewey, bear in mind that Charlie Chaplin made City Lights in 1931. Also, Carl Theodor Dreyer made La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc in 1928, although I have no idea when or where it was first possible to see this cinematic masterpiece in the United States. Thus, it may well be that Dewey viewed Chaplin's work as too "popular" to merit serious esthetic consideration and may have had no exposure to Dreyer.

However, not only does Benjamin fill a gap that Dewey really should not have ignored; but also he has a keener (if more pessimistic) sense of the relationship between esthetic and other experiences. He thus comes off as chillingly prescient when, in one of his notes, he allows his thoughts about cinema to migrate into thoughts about politics:

The crisis of democracies can be understood as a crisis in the conditions governing the public presentation of politicians. Democracies exhibit the politician directly, in person, before elected representatives. The parliament is his public. But innovations in recording equipment now enable the speaker to be heard by an unlimited number of people while he is speaking, and to be seen by an unlimited number shortly afterward. This means that priority is given to presenting the politician before the recording equipment. Parliaments are becoming depopulated at the same time as theaters. Radio and film are changing not only the function of the professional actor but, equally, the function of those who, like the politician, present themselves before these media. The direction of this change is the same for the film actor and the politician, regardless of their different tasks. It tends toward the exhibition of controllable, transferable skills under certain social conditions, just as sports first called for such exhibition under certain natural conditions. This results in a new form of selection—selection before an apparatus—from which the champion, the star, and the dictator emerge as victors.

In this case we need to engage a bit of historical context for Benjamin. While this essay first appeared in published form in 1936, he began work on it in Paris in the autumn of 1935. That is an important time if we consider that Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens was first released in Germany on March 28, 1935. There can be no doubt that the dictator who emerges as victor by virtue of "selection before an apparatus" is Adolf Hitler; and the "apparatus" is under Riefenstahl's control.

However, if the conscious connection to Hitler is chilling (which Benjamin probably intended it to be), the unintended forecasting of American political practices is even more so. In Benjamin's own time Franklin Roosevelt was already presenting himself before the medium of radio with his Fireside Chats, while in 1960 Richard Nixon learned the hard way that a televised "debate" was not about making points with successful argumentation but about how one presented oneself before the medium of television broadcasting. The most salient passage from the Benjamin quote, however, concerns the depopulation of legislative bodies due to the priority "given to presenting the politician before the recording equipment." Had I not written last week about Newt Gingrich delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, which, at the time, was "depopulated" except for the C-SPAN cameras, these words might not have leapt out at me with quite so much impact. However, if Benjamin had Hitler in mind when, in his principal text, he wrote about how "the cult of the audience" could reinforce "the corruption by which fascism is seeking to supplant the class consciousness of the masses," then Gingrich's little stunt was "one small step" in the same direction for an American politician; and it is now a matter of record that, by the time he achieved a position of influence and power, Karl Rove had no trouble with a "giant leap" in the same direction!

There is a sad irony to all of this. Dewey saw the esthetic experience as enhancing our sense of reality, disclosing that which could not be revealed through positivist propositions. Perhaps he ignored the cinema because (by virtue of its being too popular?) he could not see it achieving such enhancements; so Benjamin "took up the slack," so to speak, and explored the capacity of the medium for corrupting that same sense of reality. However, another future that he could not have anticipated was that technology would simplify the use of the "apparatus" to such an extent that it would be far more democratized than it was when one could neither make nor distribute cinema without the support of some major (usually business) institution. The result of such democratization, as YouTube has demonstrated, has been (with a few notable exceptions) a trivialization of the content; and trivializing the content leads to blunting any impact that the content may have. In other words we no longer need agonize over whether democratized video enhances or corrupts our sense of reality, because there is too damned much of it to have much effect in either direction.

However, if Benjamin could not anticipate how technology could democratize an apparatus that had once been controlled by a privileged few, he also could not anticipate a culture that could become obsessed with technological innovation for its own sake. The innovator who disregards consequences may well conceive another "rough beast" that then "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born;" and, if those consequences are directed towards our sense of reality, then it is our obligation to ponder whether the impact will be sharp or blunt before the beast gets anywhere near Bethlehem. On the other hand, as I continue to watch John Adams, I am reminded how much of the "civilized" world viewed American democracy as such a "rough beast;" so perhaps it is less important to worry about fending off consequences than it is being prepared to cope with them!

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Giving Mozart his Due

It is almost exactly a year ago that I took San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman to task for a one-paragraph account of a performance of a Mozart piano concerto in the San Francisco Symphony season that ran the gamut from the dismissive to the vacuous. Last time the concerto was K. 482, the pianist was Emanuel Ax, and the conductor was Osmo Vänskä; and Kosman was clearly more interested in a Finnish conductor's approach to two Finnish composers, one familiar (Jean Sibelius) and one contemporary (Kalevi Aho). This time the "victim" was the earlier K. 456 B-flat major concerto, performed by Richard Goode under the baton of Alan Gilbert. As the recently appointed successor to Lorin Maazel in directing the New York Philharmonic, Gilbert has been attracting almost as much publicity as Gustavo Dudamel, who will soon be a permanent fixture at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Ironically, anyone who witnessed Dudamel bring the house down at Davies Symphony Hall with his interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird would probably be justified in asking, "Yes, but what can he do with Mozart?" In that respect Gilbert provided a broader palette of offerings to feed our prognostications, balancing the Mozart concerto with Carl Nielsen's second symphony (within five years of the "vintage" of the Sibelius symphony that Vänskä had conducted) and the first San Francisco Symphony performance of Steven Stucky's 1988 "Son et lumière" (complementing Vänskä's United States premiere of Aho's much more recent "Louhi").

It may just be that I have fallen under the influence of a city that has a Midsummer Music Festival, but I continue to believe that a performance of Mozart can still tell us a lot about what a conductor can (or cannot) do. Thus, however familiar the music itself may be, the performance of that music is as important as the performance of less familiar compositions. This time at least Kosman doubled the number of paragraphs devoted to this portion of Gilbert's program:

In between, Richard Goode was the soloist in a charming but tonally mismatched account of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-Flat, K. 456. The pleasure of Goode's playing is its ineffable lightness; even in the athletic passages of the opening movement or the dark minor harmonies of the slow movement, he kept things fleet and translucent.

But he and Gilbert didn't seem to be in accord on this point. The orchestral playing was much heavier and more emphatic, which - depending on where a listener's attention was focused - either produced a sense of bombast from the orchestra or made Goode sound like a lightweight.

Once again we, as readers, had to contend with relatively stock phrases, which, when confronted with the reality of last night's performance (as opposed to Wednesday night's), did not appear to hold very much weight.

Most important is a need to recognize the broad scope of diversity that cuts across the canon of Mozart piano concertos. Symphony regulars got another "dose" of K. 482 about a month ago, when Jonathan Biss performed it with Herbert Blomstedt on the podium; and, as I have previously suggested, this particular concerto is very youthful in spirit, even if it is chronologically more "mature" than K. 456. Particularly in its first movement, K. 456 is a fabric of many voices, not just those of a give-and-take between piano and orchestra but also within the piano itself. Readers may recall that, for me, the most memorable part of Goode's Berkeley recital (now almost two months ago) was his command of the "discourse" among the three voices of the Well-Tempered Clavier fugue he played at the beginning of his recital. Mozart could display a similar command of such discourse in his keyboard writing, and Goode is a perfect pianist for bringing our ears into the thick of that discourse. More significantly is that a meeting between the multiple voices within the piano and the multiple voices across the orchestra demands significant "accord" (to use Kosman's terminology) between soloist and conductor; and Gilbert had a keen sense of how to engage his multiple resources with those at Goode's fingertips.

A good framework for this kind of performance can be found in the script of Amadeus. There we find Mozart writing about wanting to compose an opera scene that begins as a duet and keeps bringing in more and more characters, thus building up the complexity of the dialog that ensues. This is how the finale to the second act of The Marriage of Figaro was eventually realized. Ironically, Mozart was working on this in the time frame of K. 482. It might not be too far-fetched to view K. 456 as a "rehearsal" of this kind of strategy for managing multiple voices; and that kind of "rehearsal" continues into the two remaining movements of the concerto (although there is also a definite sense of that "inner twenty-year old" in the final movement).

None of this should detract from the attention that Kosman paid to Gilbert's approach to the twentieth-century repertoire, early or late. This is not to say that I subscribe to Kosman's approach to Nielsen. The truth is that I did not give Nielsen much thought until I invested in the recordings of all six symphonies that Blomstedt made with the San Francisco Symphony almost twenty years ago. I remember when Leonard Bernstein promoted the fifth of these symphonies back when I was a student, but I also remember having my curiosity piqued in later years by occasional radio broadcasts. Unlike Kosman, I have never been particularly concerned with matters of "idiosyncratic rhetoric and edgy harmonies." Rather, I was more interested in the way in which Gilbert achieved a significant difference in sound quality in his move from Mozart to Nielsen, then same way that Vänskä had done in his move from Mozart to Sibelius; and, to be more specific, I was interested in how the San Francisco Symphony was engaged to make that move along with Gilbert. Once again, this all comes down to the question of how the program for the entire evening is conceived. Last Thursday I wrote about the "architecture" of a program, because Nikolaj Znaider's recital felt like it was organized around an a priori static structure; but, in contrast, Gilbert's program (like Vänskä's) felt more like a journey. (This was a particularly appropriate metaphor for the program the New York Philharmonic presented on their visit to Pyongyang.) After all, Nielsen's own approach to composition could be seen as a journey from his listening experiences as a student to those of an adult experimenting with synthesizing experiences of his own (possibly in the context of support he received from Ferruccio Busoni, whose own career involved a rather extensive journey).

The way in which Gilbert and the Symphony "made the move" had less to do with whether or not Nielsen's symphony, whose four movements were inspired by the four ancient "temperaments" of choler, phlegm, melancholy, and sanguinity, was more "programmatic" than Mozart's concerto and more to do with a different strategy in how energy was being deployed. Nielsen may be less nuanced than Mozart; but Gilbert and the Symphony could make a virtue out of his more expansive (to invoke an adjective from his third symphony) sense of sound, which has as much emotional depth in its silences as it has when everyone is playing in full force. We could thus leave Davies with a sense of a journey worth making without worrying about whether or not one stop along that journey was, in any way, "better" than another.

This brings us to the "beginning" of this journey, Stucky's "Son et lumière," which was very much a high-energy affair. I have to say that I think that the title was a bit unfair, since it was named for those tourist-trap affairs that cover the world from the Egyptian pyramids to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, plagued by tendentious narration on top of orchestral forces putting out Hollywood sprawl at its worst. Stucky, on the other hand, was probably thinking about the relationship between sound and light in terms of the extent to which an orchestra could be applied as a palette of colors. There was no mention of Olivier Messiaen in the notes that Thomas May provided for this piece; but it was interesting to be able to listen to Stucky's composition in the context of having heard Messiaen's "L'Ascension" at the beginning of this year. In a manner that may be more consistent with Messiaen's mysticism than with Stucky's more cerebral bent, the latter's work seems to have less to do with "sound and light" than with "sound as light" (a position that is reinforced by some of Stucky's own remarks about the work). In that respect the journey began very much the way the Messiaen-to-Mahler journey had begun. This is an orchestra that knows how to be one of those palettes of colors, and Gilbert knew how to use them to deploy those colors.

To my ears, however, those colors came less from Messiaen and more from that earlier colorist, Richard Strauss. The opening (and also closing) gesture sounded to me, for all the world, like a percussion-only interpretation of the opening gesture of the latter's Elektra opera. This is not to say that Stucky's composition was an homage to either Strauss or that particular opera. However, it may have been why I came away dissatisfied with Stucky's choice of title, since I have always found sitting through an evening of Sophocles (even when tarted up by Strauss' orchestra excesses) far more satisfying that watching colored lights shining on the Parthenon!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Linguistic Legerdemain

I seem to have had another experience of Jungian synchronicity this morning while reading Charles Simic's New York Review piece, "The Troubled Birth of Kosovo," against the background of the deteriorating situation in Basra. One particular sentence by Simic leapt out at me:

At some point in 1998, or perhaps earlier, the State Department decided to take the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army—whose members were being armed from Albania, where the US already had a military and CIA presence—off the US list of terrorist groups, and to describe its forces instead as an insurgency.

While on the surface this seemed like a rather low level of nit-picking over criteria for category membership, the following sentences in Simic's paragraph made it clear that our policy was framed in such a way that appropriate actions were defined on the basis of such category membership. This, in itself, is not particularly distressing, particularly in light of Gerald Edelman's hypothesis that the very nature of consciousness (including the sense of self) can be traced back to a capacity for forming categories and recognizing members of those categories. However, one of the beauties of consciousness is that those categories are never rigidly defined; and one has to wonder just how flexible we have been (or can be) where critical matters, such as foreign policies involving hostile agents, are concerned.

Today, almost ten years after the Kosovo decision, the very idea of an opposition between terrorist and insurgency has an absurdist ring to it, particularly since we now tend to refer to Iraqi militias that oppose our presence in their country, such as the one organized by Muqtada al-Sadr that is flexing its muscles in Basra, as "insurgents" (not to mention the recent finding that there was "no direct link between Saddam Hussein's government and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network" of terrorism). To invoke another piece of terminology from the Balkans, it is clear that al-Sadr sees his Mahdi Army as a "Liberation Army;" but I doubt that we shall see this analogy explored by the mainstream media. Rather, our media continue to invoke the language of stability and point to the role that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is playing in achieving or restoring (depending on how pessimistic or optimistic the report is) that stability. On the other hand, when we read Al Jazeera English, we get a somewhat different perspective on stability:

Meanwhile, fighters loyal to the Shia leader [al-Sadr] rejected the prime minister's call to disarm.

"Sadr has told us not to surrender our arms except to a state that can throw out the occupation," Haider al-Jabari, a member of the Sadr movement's political bureau, said.

On Thursday al-Maliki said that Basra residents would receive a "reward" if they handed in "heavy and medium-size weapons".

However, in Baghdad an official from al-Sadr's movement said Iraqi soldiers had attempted to hand their weapons over to him.

"We told them they should keep their arms. We gave them a Koran and they went back," Salman al-Afraiji said.

This is all a bit reminiscent of the neoconservative reality-is-what-we-say-it-is premise. Neoconservatism of course was predicated on the assumption that the "we" was the United States; and "we" could dictate reality by virtue (sic) of being the only superpower. In other words "we" have forgotten that having more guns did not entitle us to dictate reality in Vietnam any more than it entitled the Russians to do so in Afghanistan. By all rights it is time for us to stop dictating reality and start perceiving it and, more importantly, perceiving it in terms of categories that are more flexible than those we have been trying to engage over the last ten years. After all, human consciousness has the power to synthesize new categories when the available repertoire is inadequate; but it may be asking too much for the workings of national governing bodies to have the same "cerebral capabilities" as those of the human brain!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Vindicated by John Dewey!

As I probably anticipated, my recent attempt to take a semiotic approach to listening to the blues met with resistance. Since my post here had grown out of a comment I had submitted to Truthdig, the resistance came in the form of another Truthdig comment by one Greg Todd. Here is Todd's reaction:

I suggest this entire area of academia—critics criticizing critics - be depth-charged, funding cut off, so people can get back to studying science or history and LISTENING to the blues, from Bessie Smith (if you like) to Robert Johnson to Washboard Sam to Sonny Boy W. and Little Walter…

While I appreciate the aggravation expressed in this text, my guess is that Todd does not appreciate (or care to appreciate?) the distinction that Stravinsky tried to draw between hearing and listening; and it is only through the recognition of that distinction that we can take on the sorts of arguments that Marybeth Hamilton set out in her In Search of the Blues book and that Anthony Heilbut brought to bear in his review of that book.

Now I can understand that there are those who would take umbrage at Stravinsky for suggesting that we lack a "natural talent" for listening; but that is where the speciousness of Todd's position lies. Our genetic code endows us with "natural" capacities for sensation; but the capacity for perception is up there in the cerebral cortex. It begins to develop in neonates, but that development can continue into adult life if the variety of our experiences is rich enough. So there really is more to listening than just letting the sounds pour into your ears.

This then raises the question of whether or not poor souls like me should labor over writing about that development or whether we should just allow it to happen "naturally" among those who hear. In that respect it appears that, once again, I have an ally in John Dewey in the text of his Art as Experience:

The function of criticism is the reëducation of perception of works of art; it is an auxiliary in the process, a difficult process, of learning to see and hear. The conception that its business is to appraise, to judge in the legal and moral sense, arrests the perception of those who are influenced by the criticism that assumes this task. The moral office of criticism is performed indirectly. The individual who has an enlarged and quickened experience is one who should make for himself his own appraisal. The way to help him is through the expansion of his own experience by the work of art to which criticism is subsidiary. The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic’s office is to further this work, performed by the object of art.

I suppose that some (possibly including Todd) would see this as academic arrogance. However, having been immersed in Dewey for about a month, I feel justified in saying that, while he can often be opaque, he never comes off as arrogant (quite the contrary)! Indeed, it was precisely that problem of perfecting "the power to perceive" that occupied my writing yesterday about Nikolaj Znaider's violin recital; and it is why I shall continue to indulge in my right to listen to the blues!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Problem of Rhythm

Were one to assess the merits of Nikolaj Znaider's San Francisco Performances debut violin recital last night at Herbst Theatre solely from the architecture of his program, there would be little doubt of his keen musical perception. The concert was framed by two sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven from opposite ends of his canon of violin sonatas. It began with the third of his Opus 12 sonatas, his first venture into this particular form, and concluded with the Opus 96, the last of those ventures. Between these two sonatas was the D minor partita by Johann Sebastian Bach for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1004, with its concluding chaconne movement) and Arnold Schoenberg's "Phantasy for Violin with Piano Accompaniment" (Opus 47). As Znaider put it in his opening remarks to the audience, the former was chosen for inspiring Beethoven and the latter for drawing upon Beethoven as a source of inspiration.

If, as I continue to argue, we go to concerts to become better listeners, then Znaider definitely engaged an interesting strategy for getting our attention. One might even forgive him for being a bit raggedy on the details. As I had written when I was dealing with András Schiff's decision to play an entire Bach keyboard partita as an encore to the second concert in his cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, we have it "on record" that Beethoven had a high opinion of Bach; but that same "record" indicated that he had a higher opinion of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as well as George Frideric Handel! If we are really interested in orienting the Opus 12 sonatas around their "inspirational roots," we are more likely to be informed by Mozart than by Bach. In Schoenberg's case we need to draw the distinction between what he composed and what he taught about composition, particularly in the material compiled by Gerald Strang and Leonard Stein into the book, Fundamentals of Musical Composition. In the latter case the influence of Beethoven is particularly strong: One really cannot make sense of Schoenberg's expository approach without a pretty thorough internalization of the full cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas. Other Beethoven compositions are cited, but primarily as auxiliary reminders that Beethoven wrote more than piano sonatas; and the only violin sonata that appears is Opus 30, Number 2, in the "Scherzo" chapter. As to the former case, I would say that a "Beethoven connection" to any of Schoenberg's own work, particularly this "Phantasy," is pretty remote; and it would be more than frustrating to try to draw upon any of Beethoven's work for purposes of orientation.

So Znaider's strategy was, at best, a good intention; and we all know what they say about roads paved with good intentions! Therein lies the rub. I would not go so far as to say that Znaider was leading us, as listeners, down the road to Hell; but I would say that he was not leading us very well in any direction. I would then add that this "disorientation" was also present in his performance. In this respect I should say at the outset that my own listening experience was heavily influenced by the attention I was paying to matters of rhythm last week, particularly with regard to some of Joel Krosnick's remarks about the relationship between harmonic rhythm and metric pulse. From my point of view, the "bottom line" of Znaider's recital was that he usually had a strong command of the latter and did not seem to attach enough significance to the former.

Schoenberg "Phantasy" thus probably came out better than any of the other works on the program. On one of my summers in Santa Fe, I had the good fortune to turn pages for Ursula Oppens when she rehearsed this work with violinist György Pauk. This gave me an appreciation for how meticulous Schoenberg had been in his notation and an even greater appreciation for how Pauk and Oppens could still find the right "joints to flex" in order to express their interpretation of the score. However, this is a complex work; and, without a score to follow, I was at a greater disadvantage last night. At best I could say that I was aware of the radical mood swings that play out in this composition and the way in which Znaider and his accompanist, Robert Kulek, maintained sharp boundaries between those moods; but the individual characters of each of those moods were not particularly well-drawn, so to speak. Thus, while I remember Pauk saying, "Now we dance!" during the rehearsal with Oppens, listening to Znaider I could not, for the life of me, recall which passage had prompted him to say that! Thus, I am afraid that this was another one of those dog-walking-on-hind-legs performances. The work is performed so seldom that we have to be thankful that it was given even a passable reading; but I am afraid it was not the sort of reading that might lead us to become better (and more accepting) listeners of Schoenberg's music.

This brings us to the rest of the program. Krosnick had invoked the concept of harmonic rhythm in teaching San Francisco Conservatory students about the performance of Franz Schubert and Johannes Brahms. Both of these composers were heavily influenced by Beethoven; and, while I am not sure about Schubert, I know that Brahms was also indebted to Bach. I suspect it would be fair to say that a command of harmonic rhythm would account for a good part of the debt for both of these latter composers. To some extent harmonic rhythm drives the overall structure of a composition, and that drive becomes more important as the durational scale gets longer and longer. Schubert was one of the first to attempt to augment Beethoven's scale, and Brahms took Schubert's directions at greater length and with greater confidence.

Meanwhile, the Opus 12 violin sonatas fit squarely in the time frame of Schiff's second concert in his piano sonata cycle. This was, for Beethoven, a time of early experimentation with both overall duration and the musical forms that would fill those extended durations. So, while that concert took place last October, those who remember it had the perfect frame of mind to bring to a performance of Opus 12, Number 3. What is particularly interesting is the way in which that device of harmonic rhythm is engaged to create deceptive anticipations of closure (not unlike the deceptive cadences we study in harmony); just when you are about to let the music "settle into closure," it turns on a dime and explores a new set of compositional gestures. Beethoven became very good at this, to the point that it was second nature to his compositional language when he was working on the Opus 96 sonata; but I have to say that I was not convinced that Znaider heard any of this in either of these scores. Thus, while we had plenty of dutiful technique and even some colorful bowing, it was as if the composition was there only to showcase these surface features; and, while his audience was, for the most part, enthusiastic about those features, I found myself disappointed with the "whole package."

This approach to "playing with closure" can also be found in Bach. I have previously written about this in the framework of Bach as a master improviser, the likes of which never really surfaced on such an extensive scale until John Coltrane came along to stretch our expectations regarding the durations of jazz improvisation. What these two shared was a gift for being able to say, "and another thing," and go on without sounding in any way boring or tedious. Bach does this gently in each of the dance movements of the BWV 1004 partita; and, by adapting our ears to it on the small scale of those four dances, he prepares for the radically larger scale of the chaconne, whose duration is approximately that of the first four movements. Znaider spoke about this to the audience in terms of a synthesis of sermon and impassioned monologue; but, having played (or tried to play) the two piano arrangements by Brahms and Ferruccio Busoni, I would have to say that Znaider is far from the mark. The chaconne is an extended improvisation on a simple foundation that has a lot more do to with Coltrane's prolonged explorations of "My Favorite Things" than it does with sermons and monologues (both of which often send us looking at our watches and getting restless in our seats).

Here, again, was where Znaider was disappointing. Whether or not he was playing notes from a score, the feeling of improvisation was absent; and, as a result, the listening was all about surface features and little more. The chaconne was more of an athletic accomplishment than a musical statement. All this leads me to wonder what will happen next season, when Znaider returns to perform the Brahms violin concerto with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. He has already recorded the Brahms sonatas with Yefim Bronfman, who is one of my favorite pianists; and I am almost always pleased with the shape that Blomstedt brings to his performances (although I have yet to hear him perform Brahms). Perhaps Znaider "plays better with others" than when he is on his own; so I shall be very curious to hear what sort of performance of Brahms emerges next season.

"Skilled" Labor?

Last January I accused Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, of "telling a story" at the Davos World Economic Forum in order to convince himself "of propositions without bothering over whether or not they are true." Last night Reuters filed a report of the latest story Stephenson is telling:

The head of the top U.S. phone company AT&T Inc said on Wednesday it was having trouble finding enough skilled workers to fill all the 5,000 customer service jobs it promised to return to the United States from India.

"We're having trouble finding the numbers that we need with the skills that are required to do these jobs," AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson told a business group in San Antonio, where the company's headquarters is located.

So far, only around 1,400 jobs have been returned to the United States of 5,000, a target it set in 2006, the company said, adding that it maintains the target.

What are the propositions in this case, and how likely are they to be true?

Perhaps the most important concerns the "skill set" (scare quotes intended) for those customer service jobs. It is hardly a secret that most customer service engagements are handled by a representative who does little more than read from a script through a process that is usually enabled by current CRM (Customer Relationship Management) technology. Thus the necessary skills come down to using the technology to find the right script and then following it by delivering the lines in a clear voice that the customer understands. Not only is this not a very demanding skill set; but also it almost seems to be designed to anticipate a time when voice-recognition and speech-synthesis technologies have improved to the point that humans will no longer be necessary to do the job.

Having established, then, that "skilled" may be a euphemistic adjective, we come to the more important proposition behind Stephenson's story:

Stephenson said neither he nor most Americans liked the situation, and the solution was a stronger U.S. focus on education and keeping jobs. Business needed to help, such as AT&T's repatriation of service positions and education grants, he added.

These propositions may well be true, and they certainly demand examination. My guess is that candidates for those customer service jobs are tested for both script selection and script delivery. If they are failing on the minimal comprehension required to identify a script and on reading text in a clear voice, then this may be some of the most painful evidence we have of how pathetic our education system is. On the other hand, if we are also celebrating the skills with which high school students now communicate through the Internet, then something is out of whack, because these two observations are inconsistent.

The inconsistency may have to do with that euphemistic use of the adjective "skilled." Internet-savvy high school graduates are, indeed, highly skilled and thus may be too skilled for what AT&T expects for a customer service job, which is more of a "McJob" (to invoke that entry in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that so offended McDonald's). The question then becomes one of how AT&T is recruiting its candidates and how it screens the recruits. Perhaps they should own up to their euphemism, set a lower bar, and then select candidates who can be trained in script selection of clear reading. They probably would not even need high school graduates to make such a strategy work. This would not solve the education problem; but it might solve a broader problem, which is the risk of so many young people in this country going to waste as such young ages. This might then serve to realign our "sense of reality" about the institution of education; and, informed by that sense of reality, we might be better informed to do something about the underlying problems.

The New Adults

Jon Stewart got it right last week. The most salient feature of Barack Obama's speech was his decision to address the American public as if they were adults. However, beneath the surface of this glib gag (however accurate it may be) is the more interesting question of just whom is being addressed and how. This was the basic topic of "Welcome to the age of the sound blast," yesterday's Politico blog post by Micah L. Sifry and Andrew Rasiej. Here is their thesis sentence:

If 1960 was the year that TV displaced radio as the main platform for political persuasion, then the 2008 primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton may go down in history as the moment when the Internet ended the dominance of television.

However, we have to wade through a fair amount of expository text before we get to the interesting data points, which then build up to the punch line of the post:

So far, Obama's videos have been viewed more than 33 million times on — and that's not counting partial views, since YouTube only reports a full viewing as a “view.” His campaign has uploaded more than 800 video clips, and adds several more a day.

If you just look at his ten most viewed videos, here are some astonishing facts:

  • The average number of views for these top ten is currently more than 1.1 million (nearly double the average from a month ago!)
  • The average length of these ten videos is 13.3 minutes.
  • There have been nearly 3.9 million views of the longest of Obama's most popular videos, his “A More Perfect Union” speech on race in America.

By contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s YouTube numbers are nowhere as impressive as Obama's — a sign of her failure to understand and embrace the new medium than anything else. She’s garnered about 10.5 million views, but the average length of her top ten most viewed clips is only two minutes. Several of her top ten videos are actually 30-second TV ads, in fact.

Viewed in this context, it becomes clearer how important Obama's speech on race has been to his continued lead in the Democratic race.

In a pre-Internet era, the manifold replayings on television of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sound bites denouncing America would probably have deeply damaged Obama's candidacy. But millions of voters have been flocking to the web to watch his 37-minute response to the controversy, and observers across the spectrum — from Peggy Noonan to Andrew Sullivan to Jon Stewart — have praised Obama for speaking from the heart and appealing to people's intelligence.

The sound-biting of politics isn’t dead. Not yet. But welcome to the age of the sound blast. The weather is changing.

In other words the answer to the "how" question seems to involve the use of the Internet to get at "source material" that has not been "pre" or "post" processed by the editing and commentary of the traditional mass media, even when that source material requires an attention span of more than half an hour. However, as Craig Newmark pointed out in his own Huffington Post blog post early this morning, this is only part of the story. In terms of my own reasoning, the "whom" question still remains; and, in addressing it, we learn more about the "how."

This part of the story emerges in Brian Stelter piece for The New York Times this morning, "Finding Political News Online." Stelter's thesis is that those most inclined to use the Internet for their "source material," the answer to the "whom" question, are the younger generation. However, his thesis also elaborates further on the "how" question:

It is not news that young politically minded viewers are turning to alternative sources like YouTube, Facebook and late-night comedy shows like “The Daily Show.” But that is only the beginning of how they process information.

According to interviews and recent surveys, younger voters tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well — sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks. And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one.

What we may be witnessing is the next phase in an ideological battle that originated between Tip O'Neill and Newt Gingrich. O'Neill is remembered by many for both preaching and practicing the premise that "All Politics Is Local." Gingrich defied this premise by delivering a speech to an empty floor on the House of Representatives, knowing full well that it would be picked up and broadcast by C-SPAN. O'Neill retaliated by using his Speaker's position as a bully pulpit from which he castigated Gingrich, but the fight was just beginning. Gingrich ultimately made his point by releasing his "Contract with [on?] America" document, which basically turned local contests for seats in the House in 1994 into a national movement. Many saw the resulting Republican majority in the House as the death-knell for O'Neill's "politics is local" philosophy.

Ironically, Gingrich has also been a champion of information technology, which is now an area of concentration for him at the American Enterprise Institute. The reason this is ironic is that the Internet may be returning the conduct of politics to a more local level, but with a curious kink in the semantics of "locality." Stelter cites Jane Buckingham, the founder of the Intelligence Group, a market research company, as observing that the social filtering process through which news is distributed by the "YouTube generation" is nothing more than word-of-mouth practices escalated to the scale of personal social networks on the Internet. Put another way, word-of-mouth is no longer about conversations over the water cooler at work or at the corner bar after work; it is about the MySpace "friends" with whom the younger generation communicates and the Facebook networks of a slightly older set.

Here are some of the data points that Stelter invokes:

A December survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press looked broadly at how media were being consumed this campaign. In the most striking finding, half of respondents over the age of 50 and 39 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds reported watching local television news regularly for campaign news, while only 25 percent of people under 30 said they did.

Fully two-thirds of Web users under 30 say they use social networking sites, while fewer than 20 percent of older users do. MySpace and Facebook create a sense of connection to the candidates. Between the two sites, Mr. Obama has about one million “friends,” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his rival for the Democratic nomination, has roughly 330,000, and Senator John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has more than 140,000. Four out of 10 young people have watched candidate speeches, interviews, commercials or debates online, according to Pew, substantially more than people 30 and older.

In other words those who seem to have responded most to being treated like adults are under 30, which is probably the demographic sector most aware of how conventional media can manipulate their audiences, most skeptical of those media sources, and best equipped to use the Internet to seek out more reliable sources.

Politics has become local again, but the locality of those under 30 is not the locality of a Congressional district. Rather, it is the locality of the personal social network one has formed through the Internet. Obama has recognized this premise and applied it to his advantage, while Clinton is still strategizing under O'Neill's old rules. This does not necessarily make Obama the better candidate; but it illustrates that he has a better grasp of how we communicate (particularly when communication is a prerequisite of an important action, such as voting) than Clinton does. If that grasp can scale from the national to the global level, then it may be the "secret sauce" required for restoring the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world (and depriving those seeds of anger, which can grow into terrorism, of the nutrition they require). This could well make him the best choice for the next President of the United States; but that scale-up question remains a big "if."

The divisiveness of the Democratic primary campaigns has, for better or worse, given us an opportunity to observe both Clinton and Obama under pressure. If the future of our country depends upon effective communicative actions, then perhaps one of our best assessment indicators will be how each of these candidates communicates under pressure. My own opinion is that Obama has been doing a much better job in both "presentation of self" and keeping "on message" over the points that matter most, while Clinton has applied her own communicative actions to winning primaries "by any means necessary" (which is, itself, another fundamental principle of old-school politics). If nothing else this is an indicator that Obama's commitment to change is more than rhetorical; and, if he really has that commitment, then the way it has sustained him through a major national challenge could well sustain him should he subsequently be confronted with global challenges. This may be what is registering most strongly with those no longer content to rely on old-school media sources for old-school news about old-school politics.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Blaming the Victim (Again)

Henry Blodget's latest blog post on The Huffington Post, "US Homeowners Still Living in Dreamland," may well be living in a dreamland of its own. It is short enough to be reproduced in its entirety to make sure that its argument is fairly analyzed:

When will our economy begin to recover? Not until US homeowners wake up and realize that their houses are worth what all assets are worth: what someone will pay for them.

The NYT's David Leonhardt chronicles the dreamworld inhabited by most US homeowners, a bright cartoon-land in which the value of their neighbor's house has dropped by 30% but theirs is still worth more than they paid for it at the 2006 bubble peak. These homeowners refuse to move or sell until they can "at least break even," which means they'll stay in their depreciating assets for years while skyrocketing inflation reduces the value of whatever they eventually get by about 4% a year.

Of course, those who inhabit only the digital world shouldn't cackle too loudly: As Fabrice Grinda observes on Silicon Alley Insider, start-up owners behave just the same way--refusing to sell a dollar of equity as prices drop...right up until they run out of cash.

In any event, our economy won't truly recover until house prices adjust. And in the housing market, at least, price-to-income and price-to-rent ratios suggest that that "adjustment" is likely to be down.

As often seems to be the case with my analyses, I would assert that the best way to uncover the flaw in Blodget's reasoning is through a scrupulous examination of his text. The problem in this case is that his argument trips over a conflation of two separate motives for "investing" (by which I mean the commitment of financial resources, whether "hard" or "soft," as in loaned or otherwise promised). The simpler motive is "acquisition for use;" and the other is "speculation." Most of us buy real estate because we want to live in it. Some of us can even afford a second property for use. (While living in Palo Alto, we purchased a condominium in San Francisco for weekend use, primarily for its proximity to three of the major performing arts spaces in the City. We also saw it as a good retirement residence, which is what it became when we sold the Palo Alto property.) My point, however, is that "acquisition for use" has been normative probably since the end of World War II, when having your own place became a fixture in the American dream.

Speculative investing is another matter, since it is basically a gamble on Blodget's fundamental premise: assets are worth "what someone will pay for them." Think of it as a "gamble on the future tense," which means that it is just like any other gamble, whether it involves which horse wins the race or what the price of Google will be at the end of the calendar year. Most gambles thrive on the premise that "anyone can play;" and those who run the gambles profit because, when anyone plays, most of them are going to lose. In other words investing in real estate for its future value is no different than buying stock for its "anticipated growth." It is risky, but it is promoted by those who do everything they can to get you to ignore the risk.

Whether or not homeowners are "still living in dreamland" is not the real issue. The real problem is that their dreamworld was imposed upon them by predatory lenders, who forced them into a speculative investment to support acquisition-for-use. When the speculation went south (as most speculations do), the victims no longer had what they thought they had acquired for use. The current response of our Administration appears to be that these victims should have remembered the caveat emptor rule; but to what extent can this rule be imposed upon those who have been force-fed under pressure with deceptive information? I suspect that economic recovery is going to depend less upon a readjustment of housing prices and more on a general readjustment of the "rules of the game" under which the majority of our population can engage in acquisition for use.

A Scholar's Guide to JOHN ADAMS

I am not much of a fan of The New Republic; but I requested electronic mail notification of their arts reporting, just because good arts reporting is so hard to come by these days. However, their approach to reviewing the HBO John Adams series goes far beyond any expectations of "good arts reporting," particularly in the way in which it is giving "equal time" to substance and style. Basically, TNR has organized a mini-symposium, whose participants are historian John Patrick Diggins (the primary authority on substance), author Steven Waldman (the voice for style), and Kirk Ellis (the voice "from the inside," who served as both co-executive producer and writer for the series). The only real flaw is that the TNR Web site leaves more than a bit to be desired, particularly in its installation of hyperlinks. Therefore, for the benefit of those (like myself) whose interest in the series borders on rabid, here are the links of the contributions to the symposium in the order in which they first appeared:

I am not sure that HBO has ever before triggered such a level of scholarly discussion (even for their Addiction series). What is at least a bit more surprising is that the enthusiasm for this series is not restricted to those of us desperate for scholarly stimulation. According to a post yesterday on the Vulture blog, maintained by Dan Kois and Lane Brown on the New York Magazine Web site:

… John Adams is getting the best ratings for any HBO mini-series in years.

Predation (and Perdition?) with Chutzpah

Early this month I ran a post entitled "Predatory Practices on the Internet," which concerned the plight of those so traumatized by (usually unexpected) unemployment that they become easy victims of so-called "business opportunity marketers." Like most of my posts, this did not receive much attention until this morning when I received electronic mail notifying me that "Sunny" had left a comment. Well, it turns out that the text of the comment was one of these business opportunity "pitches" that the post had attacked! Needless to say, I rejected the comment (since the post already had enough examples to make my point and had no need for potentially dangerous hyperlinks). Note, however, that I did leave Sunny's hyperlink intact, since it points to a really minimal profile (which, in turn, points to a blog with no entries). My guess is that the comment was automatically-generated spam triggered by something in the text of the post, such as that phrase "business opportunity;" and whether or not Sunny has a Blogger profile probably does not signify. However, since this seems to be a slow week, Sunny probably deserves the Chutzpah of the Week award for the blind use of a piece of software that directed potentially fraudulent spam to a blog post that was explicitly warning about such fraudulent practices! Caveat lector!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I Got a Right to Listen to the Blues

Some interesting conversation is taking place over at Truthdig around Anthony Heilbut's review of In Search of the Blues, by Marybeth Hamilton. I first learned of this book through an ad in The New York Review with the following paragraph:

Historian Marybeth Hamilton tracks the origins of the Delta blues legend to discover that the story as we know it—of tormented drifters and the devil at the crossroads—is largely a myth created by white pilgrims, seekers and propagandists who headed deep into America's South in search of an "authentic" black voice of rage and redemption.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be a book that has more to do with politics and exploitation than with music; and, if the author fails to "get the music right" (as I fear Hamilton may have done), then the music is demeaned by being reduced to a "prop" for propaganda. This is why I appreciated a comment by "SamSnedegar" to bring the discussion down to earth with the assertion that "blues can be identified by hearing it, not by claims from the players."

My only quibble with this turn of phrase is that, in the context of my own discussions, it misses out on Igor Stravinsky's distinction between hearing and listening. Now, even if applying his words to the blues might send that old Russian spinning in his Venetian grave, I think they are still worth repeating: "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." The irony behind all this is that approaching the question of what listening actually is in terms of the blues may be more informative than approaching it in terms of listening to Stravinsky. In order to do this, I shall appeal to a variety of sources that may not make for a particularly compatible mix; but I do this with the usual disclaimer, which is that this is nothing more than a "rehearsal of ideas." I figure that if I can get the story out "in rough," I can worry about details after further deliberation.

Having said all that, let us consider the act of listening in terms of Charles Sanders Peirce's three layers of representation:

  1. There is the ground layer of an underlying text. This can be just about anything, from "The Star-Spangled Banner" through "Jesus Wants me for a Sunbeam" to "That's When I'll Come Back to You." For the most part it serves for little other than hanging a name on the performance.
  2. Performance is the next layer, the actions you decide to take in rendering that text. (This does not fit Peirce as well as the other two layers, because Peirce was more occupied with objects than with actions. However, appealing to his framework with verbs instead of nouns is not a big stretch.)
  3. Listening is the final layer, which Peirce called the layer of interpretants. In John Dewey's language it is the act of experiencing the performance. Dewey explained this better in terms of poetry. However, his words are still useful: "A new poem is created by every one who reads poetically—not that its raw material is original for, after all, we live in the same old world, but that every individual brings with him, when he exercises his individuality, a way of seeing and feeling that in its interaction with old material creates something new, something previously not existing in experience." In other words listening without synthesizing is just hearing. Quack.

My guess (on the basis of my now having read Heilbut's extensive review) is that Hamilton missed out on most of this. One reason may have been that, like just about all of us, she was stuck with doing her best to listen (giving her the benefit of the doubt) to recordings. A recording is rarely anything other than a reproduction of a performance, rather than a real performance (which gets us into Walter Benjamin territory). A good listener may come up with good hypotheses about how Louis Armstrong performed on the basis of the recordings now available (particularly the early ones); but those hypotheses can be neither affirmed nor refuted. At best they allow us to have conversations about those three Peircian layers (which can provide helpful preparation for experiencing one of those "real" experiences of listening to the blues).

Unpleasant Parallels

Zhao Ziyang was general secretary of the Communist Party in China at the time of the 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. By openly advocating "democracy and the rule of law," he became a hero of the demonstrators, which made him a threat to the prevailing authoritarianism of Premier Li Peng and state chairman Deng Xiaoping. (Deng's titles may have been modest, but he was the one who ordered the troops to surround Beijing and attack the demonstrators.) After the massacre that dispersed the demonstrators, Zhao was charged with "splitting the Party" and "supporting chaos;" and, as a result, spent the rest of his life under house arrest (at the rather auspicious address of Number 6, Wealth and Power Alley, Beijing).

Perry Link has provided this background in the latest issue of The New York Review as a prologue to reviewing a book recently published (only in Chinese) by Zong Fengming, which documents conversation he had with Zhao between 1991 and 2004. (Zhao died on January 17, 2005.) The book was published in Hong Kong and, as might be imagined, is banned in China. However, Link's review is less interesting for throwing a critical light on China when current circumstances have made that light pretty critical already. Rather, it is interesting because, from his position of exile, Zhao managed to transcend the questions of power and return to his original expertise, which was economics.

Zhao's rise to power had much to do with his efforts to advance the Chinese economy, particularly in the period from 1980 to 1987. Thus the value of this book lies in his perspective of that economy at the time when it was growing most prodigiously. From that point of view I would like to reproduce several paragraphs of Link's text (which include translations of passages from Zong's book) as a reflection of the current conditions of the economy, not just in China but also globally:

He [Zhao] comes to see, for example, that democracy is not just an attractive luxury that a modern nation ought to want for its own sake but an indispensable condition for the survival of a healthy economy as well. He told Zong that, during the 1980s,

I thought that as long as we get economic reform right and the economy develops, the people will be satisfied and society will be stable.

But by 1991 he felt that

political reform must go forward in tandem with economic reform … [otherwise] a lot of social and political problems will appear.

"Democratic supervision" is necessary. By 2004 he had concluded that "a market economy under a one-party system inevitably produces corruption" and that China's economic growth was now "deformed."

Zhao's analysis of how China's growth came to be distorted is very close to that of He Qinglian, whose 1998 book China's Pitfall Zhao read in captivity. In Zhao's words,

people who hold political power use that power to control resources and to turn the wealth of society into their own private wealth.

This happened inside a "black box," beyond public supervision, and on "an enormous" scale. On September 18, 1998, Zhao tells Zong:

As the market economy grows, it leads to the marketization of power and the fungibility of money and power, which leads to large-scale swallowing up of state resources, chaotic capital formation, extortion, and blackmail. This, in turn, makes popular opinion boil and leads to the formation of a privileged class, a growing gap between rich and poor, and other social problems that only get worse the more they pile up.

Five years later Zhao observes:

The government seizes land from the people, pushing the price down to a minimum, then hands it over to developers who sell it at a huge mark-up. It also manipulates stocks and figures out how to siphon off society's monetary resources—like the savings accounts of ordinary people—using the funds for public construction that stimulates internal demand and keeps growth high. … If people were free to shift their savings out of state banks, the savings would flow overseas and growth would end. There could be a rush on withdrawals and banks would be in crisis.

And where were China's intellectual gadflies as this went on? The voices that had been so eloquent in the late 1980s? By 2004 Zhao Ziyang saw the intellectual elite as having been co-opted:

Economic reform has produced a tightly knit interest group that is now joined by students who have been educated in democratic countries of the West. These people have succumbed to power, and what we now have is a tripartite group in which the political elite, the economic elite, and the intellectual elite are fused. This power elite blocks China's further reform and steers the nation's policies toward service of itself.

Zhao concludes that "socialism with Chinese characteristics' has produced "power-elite capitalism," which is "capitalism of the worst kind." He reflects that he had once accepted the argument that free speech is a luxury when people have empty stomachs, but now (in 1998) sees that the two are connected: without free speech, one gets a "deformed economy."

This is heavy stuff, but much of the weight comes from its potential for generalization. I would not be at all surprised if those references to elitism could not be traced by to the insights of C. Wright Mills, who began to examine elite concentrations of power in American society after the Second World War and by 1956 had collected his insights into the book The Power Elite. We can read Mills today as one of the most insightful of oracles to anticipate the current dire state of our economy; and, assuming that he was in a position to get his hands of Mills' writings, it is likely that Zhao read him the same way. However, even if Zhao was not able to draw upon Mills directly, his analysis of a "deformed economy" should be enough to awaken us to the extent to which the United States has been going down a path not that different from the one in China. The primary difference is that, while China has tended to deal with voices of dissent through brute force, the power elite of the United States has co-opted the capacity of the media to distribute information, thus "lowering the amplitude" of those voices to virtual inaudibility. So, while Zhao may have been talking about China in his conversations from exile, that exile may have deprived him of the opportunity to recognize the extent to which China was becoming the new model of an economic superpower; and, in the context of China's investment in our own debt, that model can only become more and more influential, whatever our cultural differences may be.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Too Many Crises?

This morning's New York Times column by Paul Krugman, which I happen to read at SPIEGEL ONLINE because I have come to find them a more informed source than the Times often is, has the headline, "Financial Crisis Should Be at Center of Election Debate." This may well be the case; but, back when I was worrying about how I would vote on Super Tuesday, it seemed as if Krugman was putting the health care crisis as the center of the debate with his meticulous analysis of the differences between the plans being proposed by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Then, speaking of the Times, there was this morning's article by Richard Pérez-Peña about the "crisis" status of the war in Iraq at a time when the American death toll has passed the 4000 mark:

Media attention on Iraq began to wane after the first months of fighting, but as recently as the middle of last year, it was still the most-covered topic. Since then, Iraq coverage by major American news sources has plummeted, to about one-fifth of what it was last summer, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The drop in coverage parallels — and may be explained by — a decline in public interest. Surveys by the Pew Research Center show that more than 50 percent of Americans said they followed events in Iraq “very closely” in the months just before and after the war began, but that slid to an average of 40 percent in 2006, and has been running below 30 percent since last fall.

The 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry was awarded to The Age of Anxiety, a long poem by W. H. Auden that sought to dig into the souls of ordinary people in a time of crisis (the crisis in this case being the Second World War and the people being patrons of a bar in New York City). Auden's poetic analysis, however, had the literary advantage of being able to confine itself to one crisis at a time. Today's "age of anxiety" is one in which crises are coming at us from every conceivable direction. Not only is it too much for any of us to sort out in any sensible way, but it seems as if those who would lead us are no better off. Our current leadership holds to a faith-based optimism, which seems to lack all sense of reality; and, while there was enough substance in the proposals for health care to warrant the depth of analysis that Krugman provided, the discussion of Iraq has been top-heavy with good intentions and, as Krugman pointed out in his column today, all of the candidates have been depressingly weak in their efforts to address economic matters.

What is lacking is nothing less than sheer cowardice in the face of an intimidating pile of problems, each of which is of crisis proportions. I attribute it to what I have called our "cultural fear" of thinking in terms of worst-case scenarios. The prevailing wisdom is that one cannot get elected by talking about how bad things are, even when the ultimate message is one of how to make them better. In other words the demands of politics outweigh the demands for clear and analytic thinking applied to crisis management. The reason is summed up in one simple precept: You can't solve any problems unless you get elected. However, one of the more important general lessons that we could take from the final season of The Wire was that, even after you are elected, you may still not be able to do anything about those problems, particularly if your "political future" counts for more than the problems of the present. Personally, I suspect that the real liability in talking about how bad things are is that most of the people who hear you know this already and are just plain reluctant to believe in any solutions you have to offer. They certainly are skeptical about any solution grounded in "theory."

This brings us back to the Great Depression. The debate over whether or not the New Deal programs actually ended that economic crisis is less important than the fact that those programs dealt with practice, rather than theory. They provided people with things to do at a time when they were deep in the psychological depression of helplessness. They are also a product of a mentality that accepted a significant pragmatic principle, as articulated by Franklin Roosevelt:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.

It is not that we are drowning in more crises than we could have conceived but that we all seem to feel as if nothing can be done about them. Unless voters start hearing more about practice, they may be too (psychologically) depressed by November to have much will to vote at all; and that would really be a worst-case scenario!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Feast of Young Blood

There was so much attention to Gustavo Dudamel making his debut conducting the San Francisco Symphony this week at Davies Symphony Hall that piano soloist Kirill Gerstein ran a risk of almost total neglect. In the San Francisco Chronicle Joshua Kosman banished him to his two final paragraphs, which may have been there to fill out the remaining space allotted for his review:
The first half of the program was devoted to Rachmaninoff's First Piano Concerto, a crudely sketchy approximation of the Romantic concerto tradition that the composer would master much more persuasively in his later works.
Pianist Kirill Gerstein, appearing for the first time on a Symphony subscription program after a 2005 debut on the Summer in the City series, made an impressive showing, romping nimbly through the piece's passagework and collaborating with Dudamel in a briskly rhythmic account of the two outer movements. I'd be eager to hear him again in a repertoire worthy of his talents.
This left Kosman with plenty more room to wax over how Dudamel had turned his audience "into a mass of starry-eyed teenagers, awestruck at the sight of a celebrity idol;" and, indeed, celebrity status may have had a lot to do with why all three of this week's concerts enjoyed sold-out capacity. Nevertheless, what both Gerstein and Dudamel did with one of Sergei Rachmaninoff's earliest attempts at composition (from his student period with opus number 1) was far more important than the tyro status of the composition. Yes, anyone could fill up many inches of column space waxing over Dudamel's intricate control of all the details of Igor Stravinsky's complete score for the Firebird ballet with its orchestral resources that Stravinsky himself later called "wastefully large;" and there is no question that this score, particularly when expanded beyond the excerpts performed as a suite, deserves a major place in any "repertoire worthy of the talents" of a serious conductor, if only, for no other reason, because it deserves to be rescued from the inadequate resources it usually receives when in the orchestra pit at a ballet performance. However, as I have previously written, the real test of performance skill comes when one needs to deliver a work that is not "up there" among the recognized masterpieces.
Rachmaninoff's score is neither crude nor sketchy, but also it is not particularly imaginative. It serves as little more than a platform for a dazzling display of keyboard technique, making it another example of the sort of composition that Johannes Brahms would dismiss as "Lisztich." As I observed about a month ago, the primary factor that rescues Pyotr Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto from this adjective is his sense of orchestral sound; and, while Rachmaninoff came up with more color than most of Franz Liszt's orchestral efforts, he still fell far short of Tchaikovsky. This poses an interesting question: Confronted with all the known limitations, are soloist and conductor obliged to find a way to make lemonade from this lemon?
I think the answer is a definite "yes!" Once a commitment has been made to perform a work, then that commitment carries the obligation of performing it in such a way that the audience will not feel they have been wasting their time listening to it. (I should point out that I know of at least one conductor who has disagreed with me on at least one occasion. I shall not name any names, but the work in question happened to be Rachmaninoff's third symphony.) Listening to the way in which Gerstein and Dudamel approach this concerto did not feel like a waste of time at all. Most importantly, Gerstein had a perfectly composed approach to all the technical demands that Rachmaninoff piled onto this score. He was the exact opposite of Nikolai Lugansky, who, when performing the Tchaikovsky concerto last month, could not let a note sound without banging the hell out of it. Gerstein could not only play every note with the right touch, but his touch was informed by a keen understanding of how to sort out all those notes in Rachmaninoff's pile into successive layers of embellishment. That understanding was clearly shared by Dudamel, who worked with Gerstein to deploy the (admittedly weak) orchestral score to reinforce Gerstein's conception of how the composition "worked;" and, if Rachmaninoff tended to be weak on coloration, Dudamel knew how to bring the colors up to a level where they enhanced our listening experience. The result was far more of a treat than one would have anticipated (particularly if one had been unfortunate enough to have read Kosman's dismissive remarks); and, if the audience came for Dudamel, they were just as appreciative of Gerstein.
Indeed, they were so appreciative as to encourage his decision to take a solo encore. This was an arrangement of George Gershwin's "Embraceable You," probably from Gerstein's debut recording, in which case the arrangement was by Earl Wild. Wild is one of my favorite pianists, particularly after I heard his Art of the Transcription recital many years ago at Carnegie Hall. Wild has a keen understanding of Liszt and has long been interested in performing the many transcriptions that Liszt prepared. He also has a long history as a "working" pianist, having served as "staff pianist" for the ABC television network. This provides him with a good "show-biz" take on Gershwin; but this particular transcription was more informed by Liszt's compositional approach. Gerstein's encore was thus in a totally different league from the arrangements we find in George Gershwin's Song Book (which, incidentally, do not include "Embraceable You").
All this attention to Gerstein is not meant to deny the spotlight from Dudamel; but I do not particularly like writing texts that say little more than "Me, too!" I have no major disagreements with the way in which Kosman called things in his review of the Thursday night performance of the Firebird score. However, having written many dance reviews earlier in my life, I have to observe that even Tamara Karsavina (the original Firebird) would have risked twisting an ankle trying to dance to Dudamel's tempo for the "Dance of the Firebird" section. I am not sure why he chose such a demanding tempo; but, since he was not working with dancers, he certainly had more flexibility in the choices he made. By most standards this is a rather long ballet, and the plot tends to be pretty opaque to anyone not familiar with Russian folklore. Without having to worry about a stage full of dancers, elaborate costumes, and colorful scenery, Dudamel was in a position to keep things moving along at a clip that did not necessarily honor the underlying scenario; and I was pretty happy with how he did this. As far as the rest of the audience was concerned, Kosman already said his piece about that!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

One Giant Leap for Opera Video

Any misgivings I had about last week's HDLive telecast from the Metropolitan Opera were dispatched en masse when I returned for today's telecast of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. This was in spite of the illness that prevented Ben Heppner from singing Tristan and led to Deborah Voigt (who also had a smaller bout with illness) having to sing Isolde opposite four different Heldentenors. Today's Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, who has sung Tristan many times in Europe but was making his first American appearance in the role. He was definitely worth both hearing and seeing. Not only did he have the quality of voice and Wagner-scale endurance for the music; but also he had a keen sense of drama that held up well under the not-always-complimentary eye of the video camera. Voigt made an excellent partner for him, which was particularly impressive since she confessed to Susan Graham during her intermission interview that there had been no time for the two of them to come together for any rehearsals.

However, the real star of the telecast itself was video director Barbara Willis Sweete. If she was responsible for all the things that displeased me about last week's telecast of Peter Grimes (and the general problem of video broadcasts of music performances), then she has now gone a long way towards redeeming herself. The reason was that, for this production, she decided to experiment with how video technology could add to the opera experience; and her decision was apparently encouraged (if not incited) by general manager Peter Gelb. The two of them also made the bold move of not saying anything about the experiment until the intermission after the first act.

Nevertheless, it did not take long to discover that this was not the video equivalent of point-and-click. Our very first image from the stage was a reduced-scale view in the center of the screen, which gradually expanded to fill the screen during the opening sailor's song. As the act progressed Sweete deployed different strategies for partitioning the screen, allowing us to see a broad view of the entire stage alongside close-ups. Done the wrong way, this would have come off as gimmickry that did little more than interfere with attempts to watch the opera as if we were actually sitting in the Met; but her strategies were clearly well informed by the dramatic strategy of the libretto. Every "move" she executed made sense as a coherent vision of Dieter Dorn's approach to staging this opera.

The result was not only one of the best visualizations of Tristan but also perhaps the best way to introduce a novice to what many (myself included?) would regard as the most important opera of Wagner's career. Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk philosophy meant that he was as responsible for the libretto as he was for the music and stage directions; and, as I remarked about the San Francisco Opera production of Tannhäuser, his literary skills were usually the weakest link in his chain. Thus, while the music has a firm hand on how the story unfolds, the text, whether in the original German or in English titles, does not always enhance that unfolding. To a great extent Sweete's video work compensated for Wagner's greatest shortcoming, following the motivational leads of the music while using her camera strategies to lend a bit more credibility to the flow of the text.

Needless to say, the production designer makes the most important decisions about how the text is to be interpreted, which is why I credited Sweete for producing "a coherent vision" for Dorn's staging; but, because her cameras could do things that the singers could not do, she used that vision as a point of departure and ultimately delivered it with far greater impact. Perhaps her most effective move came in the third act, just before Isolde's "Mild und leise" aria. At this point in the story, except for Isolde, Brangäne (Michelle DeYoung) and King Marke (Matti Salminen) are the only characters still alive, sorting out all the fatal consequences of Brangäne's decision to substitute a love potion for a death potion in the first act. Sweete chose to give each of these characters a "personal window" on the screen. While Brangäne and Marke vent their grief on either side, Isolde occupies the center silently with the sort of blank stare that makes it clear that she has already separated herself from the world of the living. On the stage this would have been harder to appreciate because of the physical distance between the singers. On the screen the effect was somewhat like that of a triptych that provides three perspectives on a common theme.

The other requirement for making a video like this work is the "video presence" of each of the singers. While the Peter Grimes video tended to make its points through gestural quirks that revealed underlying character traits, Tristan relied more on overall postural composition. Thus, every singer had to be as expressive with his/her body for video close-ups as with his/her voice. In this respect I cannot fault any of them, including Smith who probably had not previously had to work with this particular medium in mind. However, the singer who seems to have benefitted the most from this approach was Salminen, who in the second act had to cope with Wagner's text at its most long-winded and convince us that the real message was in the music. Salminen's Marke was anything but incidental to the story, and his performance under the eye of Sweete's cameras gave us a far deeper appreciation of his situation than many performances do.

Finally, the impression I got from Sweete's intermission conversation with Gelb was that this was very much a "live" (but well-rehearsed) performance on her part. She clearly had worked out what needed to be done; but the shots still had to be called in "real time," as they would in any "live" performance. If so, then, in the long-view history of video production, she may be the first director who deserves to be declared a "descendent" of Jordan Whitelaw, who did so much to enhance the experience of watching the Boston Symphony Orchestra on television. She has moved the Whitelaw strategy from the concert hall to the opera stage and now has one success to her name. Nevertheless, I suspect that her creativity is very much a product of her not being afraid to experiment; and, as we all know, not all experiments turn out the way we would like. So, since Gelb seems to have a major stake in the role she is playing in "delivering" the Met to a larger audience, she has my fondest wishes for a strong learning curve!

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Sound of a Sextet

I sometimes feel at a disadvantage for not being able to play any instrument in the string family. (No, I do not count the washtub bass that I played during my brief engagement with a bluegrass group.) There is something about the rich diversity of sound one can evoke from just one of these instruments that compounds in such remarkable ways as the ensemble grows. One could hear this in the concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music that featured three members of the violin faculty, and one heard it last night in the Chamber Music Masters concert at the Conservatory that featured cellist Joel Krosnick. The first of these concerts progressed from duos to a trio; the second culminated in a sextet.

I have to confess that I am a real sucker for the sound of a string sextet with its equal pairings of violins, violas, and cellos. I think I got "hooked" many years ago, when Jaime Laredo organized a concert at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, which consisted entirely of the two Brahms sextets, each one played on either side of the intermission. I have a similar weakness when Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" is played in its intended sextet form. However, the ultimate in that sextet sound has to be Arnold Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht." When I wrote about the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 515 string quintet that took place during Robert Mann's visit to the Conservatory, I described listening to it as being "a bit like eavesdropping on a very intimate and highly amicable social conversation." In "Verklärte Nacht" every instrument also has the personality of a unique voice, but the effect is more one of drama than of social conversation. Nevertheless, Schoenberg's approach to drama is rather unique; and this is what makes the listening experience so interesting.

One way to explain this would be through the terminology of Kenneth Burke, which seems appropriate, since the sextet is based on a highly narrative poem (of the same name) by Richard Dehmel. At its highest level of abstraction, the poem is a dialog between two agents: A woman confesses, and a man forgives. (This is not to reductively oversimplify the poem but, from a narratological point of view, to sort out the story from the discourse.) However, Schoenberg was not interested in the traditional approach of program music to illustrate the core story; and, as a result, he shifted his attention to the scene in which the story takes place. This is the "night" of the title, which is the focus of Dehmel's first stanza, briefly appears in the third stanza (which stands between the woman's confession and the man's reply), and serve to wrap up the final line, which characterizes the "transfiguration." In some ways the listener might to better to put aside the poem (which Schoenberg himself had suggested) and turn (which he had not suggested) instead to some of his landscape paintings (which I had the good fortune to see at the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan late in 1984. These canvasses are less interested in objects than in the play of color and light; and Schoenberg's approach to Dehmel's night and the critical role played by the moon (which may or may not anticipate the "moon views" of Pierrot Lunaire). From this point of view, the individuality of the instrumental voices almost constitutes an embodiment of brushwork in auditory form.

Now all this may be a ploy on my part. "Verklärte Nacht" is a rather long piece of uninterrupted music; and, while it may have five large sections corresponding to Dehmel's five stanzas, I still have trouble finding my way around its expanse of time. (This is probably why I leap at any opportunity to hear a concert performance. I can negotiate Gustav Mahler's longest symphony movements, but my ears still need more exposure to "Verklärte Nacht!") In this respect the Conservatory performers (Ian Swenson and student Daniel Jang on violin, Paul Hersh and student Alexa Beattie on viola, and Joel Krosnick and Jennifer Culp on cello) honored the seamlessness of Schoenberg's texture, consistent with his avoidance of sharp object boundaries in his landscape paintings. More importantly, though, they were sensitive to all the gradations of color in the sonorities, which is why I feel that the metaphor of brushwork contributes to the listening experience.

This sextet was sharply contrasted by the worked which preceded it just before the intermission, the Opus 7 duo for violin and cello by Hanns Eisler. Eisler studied with Schoenberg but is probably better known for his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. This duo (which paired Krosnick with violinist Axel Strauss) had a much sharper sense of "objects," cast in rather traditional forms but rendered with an extremely free chromaticism.

This Eisler-Schoenberg axis was complemented by the opening of the concert, which was the Opus 1, Number 1 piano trio of Ludwig van Beethoven. It is interesting to compare the Opus 1 trios with the Opus 2 sonatas that opened András Schiff's performance of the complete cycle of piano sonatas last October. They both begin with an energetic ascending arpeggio line, they are both rich in wit, and they both involve what, in writing about the Schiff recital, I called "the rhetorical impact of the rest." Thus, once again the case was made that, even in his Opus 1, Beethoven was exploring how to stray from the beaten path, setting examples that would later be followed by Schoenberg and Eisler. For this performance Strauss and Krosnick were accompanied by piano student Kevin Korth; and as a group they knew exactly how to honor both the impact of the silences and the wit that makes the listening such a treat.

All this set me to thinking back to Krosnick's comments on Tuesday evening about not performing the notes too "factually." Each of these three compositions had much to communicate to the listener; but none of them communicated through "factual" means. To go back to the narratological framework, everything was in the discourse; and the "story" was incidental. Once this was accepted, it was easy to let the music speak for itself.