Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Side of Hayek

The name of Friedrich Hayek comes up on this blog from time to time; and, by my count, I have invoked it in three contexts:

  1. Most recently has been his role as a "founding father" of "Chicago School" economics, known best for its mathematical models of "efficient" markets in support of the ideology of "free" (as in maximally deregulated) markets. Ironically, when he joined the University of Chicago in October of 1950, he was a Professor of Social and Moral Science. According to John Nef, "the economists had opposed his appointment in Economics four years before largely because they regarded his Road to Serfdom as too popular a work for a respectable scholar to perpetrate."
  2. The Road to Serfdom is the second of my own contexts. One can understand why the University of Chicago viewed this book with a jaundiced eye. Ideologically, it opposed the economic philosophy that had extricated the United States from the Great Depression and then provided the foundations for economic recovery after the Second World War. If that were not enough to make the book questionable, if not heretical, it had also been published in condensed from by the Readers' Digest, hardly a suitable entry for an academic resume! Ironically, Hayek wrote the book to confront the spread of socialism across the world, viewing Joseph Stalin as a worst-case-scenario of consequences. Here is what I wrote about the book last year:

    Hayek's Road to Serfdom addressed the question of how, through subtle manipulations in social context, a free society could prepare itself for fascist domination. His target was the rigid controls of economic planning; but, were he alive today, he might view technocentrism through the same lens, since, at the end of the day, it, too, is all about control.

    Thus, the very arguments that have fomented the knee-jerk alarmist fears of socialism that now contaminate serious efforts to deliberate our way out of the current economic crisis may just as easily explain why we are in the mess that now confronts us. Hayek may have made some good points about the danger of ceding control to fascist domination; but in the early Forties he could hardly have anticipated that a society could end up dominated by sophisticated technologies they did not understand, technologies that could enable and facilitate social disorders far beyond the abuses of deregulated markets (the broader view I was taking in writing about Hayek a year ago).

  3. Finally, there is the Hayek who wrote "Economics and Knowledge," based on his 1936 presidential address to the London Economic Club. This was the Hayek who learned his economics from Carl Menger's Grundsätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre, perhaps the first serious text to question the premise of intrinsic value in favor of value that "can only be determined in relation to other possible uses," as Stephen Kresge put it in his introduction to Hayek on Hayek. This use-based context enabled Hayek to develop a corollary to Menger's premise to the effect that, as I put it last year, "economic behavior may ultimately depend more on the exchange of knowledge than on the exchange of value." I suppose that the neglect of this paper can be attributed to our cultural ignorance of history, just as the fundamentalist reading of The Road to Serfdom is a product of our faith-based ideologies.

My interest in Hayek has been revived because, having finally slogged my way to the end of The World in Six Songs here in the pastoral setting of Tomales, California, I turned to Hayek on Hayek for a bit more substance in my reading. I particularly enjoyed Kresge's biographical introduction, whose "Chicago School" ideological asides were kept to a tolerable minimum. More important was my first exposure to one of Hayek's final works, The Sensory Order. I suppose that the theme that unites the three items on my list is Hayek's recognition that any attempt to model the social world mathematically would require what we now call a "complex system," based on nonlinear equations whose interactive behavior cannot be reduced to the better-understood principle of linear systems and that, from a statistical point of view, may easily be perceived as chaotic. This is probably why my sometime-colleague Brian Arthur, whose research now specializes in complexity theory, holds Hayek in such high regard. Hayek's personal philosophy emerged from his own understanding of complexity through the principle that you need to be very careful in trying to control mathematical systems that you do not understand very well (if at all), which is the philosophy behind The Road to Serfdom and explains why the book is as much about technocentrism as it is about socialism.

In The Sensory Order Hayek became bold enough to take on the mother of all complex systems, human consciousness. The result was a book that was "largely unread" (as Kresge politely put it); but that neglect probably had to do with it being too early for its own good. Professionally, Hayek was always interested in patterns; so it should not surprise anyone that the mental capacity for dealing with patterns should have served as the foundation for his approach to consciousness. Consider this summary that Kresge provides in Hayek on Hayek:

The classifications which the mind acquires to sort out undifferentiated sensations stem from prior experience. "Every sensation, even the 'purest' must therefore be regarded as an interpretation of an event in the light of the past experience of the individual or the species." The use of a prior classification to determine the 'sense' of a sensation differs from Kant's use of an a priori category in that Hayek's classifications emerge within the process of perception itself and do not remain fixed. They are not equivalent to a principle or axiom. And therein lies the link—or "linkage," in his terminology—with the development of spontaneous orders.

"The reclassification which is thus performed by the mind is a process similar to that through which we pass in learning to read aloud a language which is not spelled phonetically. We learn to give identical symbols different values according as they appear in combination with different other symbols, and to recognize different groups of symbols as being equivalent without even noticing the individual symbols" (The Sensory Order, p. 169).

The "family resemblance" of these ideas to Gerald Edelman's biologically-based model of consciousness, which, as I have observed, "involves not only our capacity for forming perceptual categories but also the interplay of those categories that arise from 'sensation of the world' with categories based on 'sensation of self,'" is almost uncanny. To some extent it may have been based on intuitions arising from Hayek's early interest in biology combined with his mathematical insights into complexity. Unfortunately, Hayek's speculations arose at a time when he could not have anticipated someone like Edelman discovering biological processes that would reinforce those speculations with substantive observations. Edelman himself does not appear to have acknowledged Hayek's work, but this is entirely understandable. The book was languishing in obscurity almost from the moment of its publication in the early Fifties, but those of us with more respect for history might now prefer it to much of the far more shallow writing that now seems to fill too many bookshelves.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Legacy Chutzpah

It was only two weeks ago that I wrote, "President George W. Bush apparently has no intention of letting his lame duck status interfere with his capacity for building up a collection of Chutzpah of the Week award;" and now, with only a one-week interval to allow for an award to go to Henry Kissinger (an opportunity so irresistible that I grabbed it at the beginning of last week), Bush is back to push his count up from an even dozen to a baker's dozen. This time the occasion was a conversation with his sister, Dorothy Bush Koch, recorded for the oral-history organization StoryCorps for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and reported for ABC News by Jennifer Parker. Like his tenth award, number thirteen is based on his growing attention to his own legacy; but, while number ten was awarded for trying to make a bad joke about that legacy, this one is grounded in the sheer magnitude of self-deception.

The best way to appreciate this magnitude is through his own words, and Parker has given us an excellent batch to sample. First and foremost is his own view of conditions in Iraq:

I'd like to be a president [known] as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace.

The absurdity of this particular instance of self-deception not only justifies the award but may be sufficient for the Arab world to consider at least temporarily adopting the noun chutzpah in their working vocabulary! However, the self-deception is hardly limited to foreign affairs:

I think the No Child Left Behind Act is one of the significant achievements of my administration because we said loud and clear to educators, parents and children that we expect the best for every child, that we believe every child can learn, and that in return for Federal money we expect there to be an accountability system in place to determine whether every child is learning to read, write, and add and subtract. … The promise of No Child Left Behind has been fulfilled.

From here his sense of self-accomplishment gets even broader, saying he wanted to be known as a President

… that focused on individuals rather than process; that rallied people to serve their neighbor; that led an effort to help relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria on places like the continent of Africa; that helped elderly people get prescription drugs and Medicare as a part of the basic package; that came to Washington, D.C., with a set of political statements and worked as hard as I possibly could to do what I told the American people I would do.

Finally, we have a concluding "meditation" on his view of faith:

I've been in the Bible every day since I've been the president, and I have been affected by peoples' prayers a lot. I have found that faith is comforting, faith is strengthening, faith has been important.

I would advise politicians, however, to be careful about faith in the public arena.

In other words, politicians should not be judgmental people based upon their faith. They should recognize -- as least I have recognized I am a lowly sinner seeking redemption, and therefore have been very careful about saying [accept] my faith or you're bad. In other words, if you don't accept what I believe, you're a bad person. And the greatness of America -- it really is -- is that you can worship or not worship and be equally American. And it doesn't matter how you choose to worship; you're equally American. And it's very important for any President to jealously protect, guard, and strengthen that freedom.

What runs through all of these texts is the invocation of simplistic formulas that substitute for serious reflection and thus lead to the distorted view of reality that has been the real legacy of the last eight years. Whether or not that sense of reality will be recovered during the coming Administration remains to be seen, but the pride that Bush seems to take in his capacity for distortion could not provide a better reason for his thirteenth Chutzpah of the Week award.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Philosophical Investigations

A probably unintended consequence of Chris Hedges' "America the Illiterate" column for Truthdig, is that it has inspired a prodigious level of literacy among those who decided to comment on it. Thus, there are times when reading these comments feels like sitting in on a graduate seminar in philosophy, which is why early stages of the discussion have prompted some of my own posts to this blog. Since such reading interests me far more than Black Friday, I wanted to address a few points that seem to have settled into the discourse alongside the Thanksgiving turkey.

Consider the following well-ruminated passage in a comment from "Anarcissie," which could well have been the product of a satisfying meal:

I find the first sentences of the Tractatus profoundly mystical: “The World is all that is the case.” ("Die Welt ist alles, das is der Fall.") When we say that X “is the case” we mean that X is a correct statement. Assuming that the German means the same as the English, then W. is saying that the world (whatever that is) is made up of correct statements—a patent absurdity, it seems. Then he goes on to say the world is composed of facts. So one wonders what W. was up to there.

What I find particularly interesting about this reading it that it nice sets the context for Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself, wondering that he "was up to there!" It would probably even be safe to say that the wondering had begun before the Tractatus had been approved as his doctoral thesis. By the time we get to the speculations in Philosophical Investigations, that foundation of facts as the compositional elements of the world has dissolved into what may be called a radically counter-analytical practice of language games. At the risk of carrying Wittgenstein's ball farther than he might have dared, one might say that the world is that which emerges through our conversations. Ironically, there are seeds of this thinking in Plato's "Theaetetus," that wonderful account of the failure to define the concept of knowledge. We do not emerge from the other end of this dialogue with a definition; but we have discovered that knowledge is tightly coupled to several other equally elusive concepts, the most important being, memory, description, and being itself. One might say that the lesson of Philosophical Investigations is that both the "being of the world" and being-in-the-world are emergent properties of the descriptions we exchange in our language games.

This provides as an interesting perspective on a passage from a comment subsequently submitted by "Shenonymous:"

Physicist Paul Davies said something to the effect that It is an illusion to believe that time flows. “This is because, in fact, time does not flow at all.” Davies quotes J.J.C. Smart, an Australian philosopher, who once wrote: “Talk of the flow of time or the advance of consciousness is a dangerous metaphor that must be taken literally...Certainly we feel that time flows. This feeling arises out of metaphysical confusion…It is an illusion.” Agreeing with Smart, Davies adds:

“In other words, the ‘river’ of time is not really there. That may seem as
absurd as claiming that material objects are not really there, but Smart is
on firmer ground on this one…Since Einstein, physicists have generally
rejected the notion that events “happen” as opposed to merely exist in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum.

Shenonymous then reinforced this perspective with the following passage from Plato's "Timaeus:"

They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence; for we say that he “was,” he “is,” he “will be,” but the truth is that “is” alone is properly attributed to him, and that “was” and “will be” only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent-all these are inaccurate modes of expression.

When you think about it, however, this passage has an interesting reductio ad absurdum, which is that, for all intents and purposes, we should be able to manage very well in a language consisting entirely of noun phrases. (Alain Robbe-Grillet put this to the test in his novel Jealousy.) Nevertheless, the boots-on-the-ground reality is that most (not necessarily all) of the languages in which conversations are conducted have not only verbs but also a rather sophisticated verb grammar whose structure is radically different from the grammar of noun phrases. Whether or not, from an analytical perspective, the flow of time is an illusion, I still have to wonder why it is that the language games we play over time have cultivated such a sophisticated grammar!

So let me put aside all of those great minds cited in the comments of Truthdig and offer a few morsels of my own thoughts. Most of these philosophical engagements are grounded in the world as we find it (thanks to Wittgenstein) through sensory perception; and most discussions of sensory perception begin with vision. The thing about vision is that any "object of perception" can be frozen in an instant of time (as it is when we "document" it in a photograph). The problem is that our understanding of visual perception is a poor foundation for our study of auditory perception, simply because sound cannot be so "frozen." At any instant of time, there cannot be a sound; one cannot even describe a sound (by, say, Fourier analysis) without having a sample of it in a time interval. I thus have a lot of trouble dismissing the flow of time as "a dangerous metaphor," since, without that flow there would be no auditory signals! For further details I would refer curious readers to Husserl's Phenomenology of Time-Consciousness. He did not get all the hard details of physics quite right, but his finger was pointing in the right direction!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Amateur Professional

My wife wanted to get away from San Francisco for the long weekend, so we are currently at a nice little hideaway that we discovered in Tomales. This is giving me extra time for reading, and I decided to apply it to satisfying my curiosity about the book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, by Daniel Levitin. Levitin runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University; but his background seems to be more in popular music production than in research. Unfortunately, I am probably far too serious a reader for a book like this. Levitin is not so much interested in penetrating the depths of complex questions like brain function or human nature. Rather, he seems to have decided to use self-indulgent autobiography for a lightweight tour of these complexities. His commercial success means that he can do a fair amount of name-dropping; but the conversations associated with those names sound more like dormitory bull sessions than sources of insight.

The book is not actually about six explicit songs, like "Happy Birthday" or "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." Rather, the thesis is that human nature is a product of our capacity for making songs; and Levitin categorizes those songs according to six topics. Those topics are:

  1. Friendship
  2. Joy
  3. Comfort
  4. Knowledge
  5. Religion
  6. Love

I have now completed the introductory chapter and the "Friendship" chapter; and I find the text so sloppy and so ill-conceived that I wonder if I shall be able to make it through to the end. Much of my irritation is probably a product of my recent efforts to penetrate the anthropological thinking of Pierre Bourdieu. Reading Bourdieu has had a major impact on my own efforts to understand the nature of listening to music. Indirectly, it was through Bourdieu that I ended up putting so much time into the work of George Herbert Mead; but, more directly, it was through Bourdieu that I confronted the intellectual fallacy of focusing on the opus operatum to the exclusion of examining the modus operandi. From my point of view, Levitin is too hung up on his songs and song-types as artifacts and too disinclined to pursue how those artifacts emerge from "musical practices." This is particularly frustrating when one considers that his pre-research professional background should have provided him with a wealth of data involving not only his own practices but those of all those names he keeps dropping on us readers. I have to believe that, within Levitin's life story, there is a wealth of data points that could contribute to a better understanding of how we listen to and make music; and those data points could form the basis for a story that is struggling to get out from under the text he actually wrote. I just wish that someone in his Laboratory (if not Levitin himself) would get around to teasing out that story!

A Hostage Situation?

It appears that, around the time I was laboring over my "Confidence We Can Believe In?" post about moves by both the current and future Administrations towards economic recovery, Robert Scheer came out with a far more aggressive column entitled "Obama Chooses Wall Street Over Main Street." True to the precepts of good journalism, Scheer has his cards (both logical and rhetorical) on the table within his first two paragraphs:

Maybe Ralph Nader was right in predicting that the same Wall Street hustlers would have a lock on our government no matter which major party won the election. I hate to admit it, since it wasn’t that long ago that I heatedly challenged Nader in a debate on this very point.

But how else is one to respond to Barack Obama’s picking the very folks who helped get us into this financial mess to now lead us out of it? Watching the president-elect’s Monday introduction of his economic team, my brother-in-law Pete said, “You can see the feathers coming out of their mouths” as the foxes were once again put in charge of the henhouse. He didn’t have time to expound on his point, having to get ready to go sort mail in his job at the post office. But he showed me a statement from Citigroup showing that the interest rate on Pete the Postal Worker’s credit card was 28.9 percent, an amount that all major religions would justly condemn as usurious.

I was not surprised to see this column trigger a flood of comments on Truthdig, most of which seemed to be generating far more heat than light. Still, the heat was a necessary part of the process. How else can people vent their frustration with a system that has created such an untenable situation?

Reading through all of this frustration, I was reminded of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek's recent observation that we no longer have an adequate socio-political narrative to address questions as fundamental as our justification for being or how we choose what to do. Where this economic crisis is concerned, however, the quest for a narrative (such as has been explored by the economist Deirdre McCloskey) may be too ambitious. Perhaps we just need to home in on a good solid metaphor.

In a grim sort of way, I may have found that metaphor in Mumbai. Wall Street has put the world in a hostage situation whose conditions are not that different from that of the people in those five-star hotels in Mumbai that were attacked yesterday; and Barack Obama is trying to assemble a team of skilled hostage negotiators. "Success," such as it is, involves averting total economic collapse (which would be devastating to Main Street) and the restoration of the "monetary confidence game" to a degree that folks on Main Street are back in a position to provide food, clothing, and shelter without having to prioritize one over the others. To the extent that we value self-sufficiency over welfare, that position will have to involve the restoration of viable income, most likely through properly-compensated jobs.

In the context of this metaphor, has Obama provided us with a skilled hostage negotiation team? Most of us probably lack the knowledge to make an assessment; but that assessment will involve more than the sort of elementary-school-level arithmetic that Rachel Maddow has been flogging on MSNBC. I am more inclined to go with the opinion of someone like Paul Krugman, whose mathematics resides more in the complexity of non-linear equations. On the other hand I would be even more comfortable with an opinion from someone like Robert Solow or Joseph Stiglitz, both of whom are very good at translating numbers into readable text and both of whom, curiously enough, have been off the radar recently.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mission Accomplished?

The path to an agreement with the government of Iraq over the continued presence of United States military forces has been long and hard. Now that the fundamental disagreements between Iraq and the United States appear to have been resolved, there are now contentious disagreements arising in the ratification debate taking place in the Iraqi parliament. According to Ahmed Rasheed's report for Reuters, filed from Baghdad, those disagreements may ultimately be resolved by the very democratic process that we claimed we were bringing to Iraq:

Iraq's parliament was likely to approve on Wednesday a pact that sets a date for U.S. military forces to withdraw, but could make the agreement dependent on a public referendum next year, lawmakers said.

The security deal, which would see the last U.S. soldier leave at the end of 2011, more than eight years after the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein, was due to be put to a vote but continued to be subject to dogged last minute haggling.

The apparent agreement to hold a referendum is seen as a concession by Kurdish and Shi'ite blocs to Sunni Arab deputies who have said they would back the security pact if it was put to a nationwide vote. It has already been approved by the cabinet and signed with Washington.

If the proposal for a referendum is approved by parliament, the security pact would be passed, said Abdul-Kareem Al-Samaraie, a deputy from the main Sunni group, the Accordance Front, which had demanded the popular vote.

"There will be an initial approval of the security pact until we hold the referendum in 2009. It will be valid until then. If the result (of the referendum) is a 'No', it will be canceled," he said.

A senior lawmaker from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Dawa party said he had no problem with that and a Kurdish lawmaker, whose group is a partner in Maliki's Shi'ite-led coalition, concurred. A government spokesman said the proposal had not been finalized but appeared to do "no harm."

Given that the economic crisis has become the highest-priority problem of the incoming Administration, this will give Barack Obama some well-needed breathing space before having to confront his campaign promises about withdrawing from Iraq. If the agreement is voted down by referendum, then he simply has to accept Iraq's own wishes for a withdrawal; and, if the agreement is approved, then there will be at least some evidence that our continued presence over there is desired. Either way, this story makes an interesting contrast to that comment of Patricia Williams that I cited yesterday to the effect that the Bush Administration has never been particularly serious about government itself. The timing is such that George W. Bush will leave office at the time of a rather significant lesson in what it means to take government seriously, and that lesson will be coming from Iraq. Could there have been a more ironic conclusion to the eight-year mess we have endured?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ask the Questions; Don't Dictate the Answers!

The reason why Nieman Watchdog is on my What I Read list is best captured by the subtitle on their header: "Questions the press should ask." In an age in which media treatments of the news have more to do with self-serving (if not self-deluding) distortion than with the fulfillment of a "public trust," we all need the benefit of the sort of "watchdog" provided by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. I therefore find myself seriously annoyed with Dan Froomkin, Deputy Editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project, for using his bully pulpit to promote the shallow thinking of Web 2.0 evangelism in his Commentary piece, "It's time for a Wiki White House." This has nothing to do with the Nieman agenda and may ultimately confound that agenda by finding one more avenue to raise the noise level over what is already a weak signal.

I have no problem with Froomkin embracing the principle that "the Internet doesn't look kindly on information that just flows one way;" but, like many of the media sources that the Nieman Foundation criticizes so rightly, he uses this principle to hang himself (and therefore his readers) on a dangerous half truth. The half truth is that communication is not strictly a matter of the flow of information, and confusing the latter for the former can have dire consequences on how governance is practiced. Once we get beyond the naive view of information as a resource, we can begin to recognize that the quality of any social order is primarily a function of the conversations it supports and the capacity of those conversations to shape its structures and processes. Equally naive is Froomkin's apparent effort to reduce such conversation to talking, listening, and responding.

Consider his account of where the Obama team has already puts its boots on the ground, so to speak:

And there are already auspicious signs that Obama intends to continue using the Internet in compelling new ways [beyond mobilizing voters and raising campaign funds]. His transition Web site,, launched with not only press releases and position papers, but a blog – and several nascent opportunities for public participation. “The story of bringing this country together as a healed and united nation will be led by President-Elect Obama,” the Web site states, “but written by you.”

First of all, anyone who has visited the blog that Froomkin has cited knows that it does not accept comments, which means that it is not that different from New York Law School professor and technology expert Beth Noveck's dismissal of the current Administration's Web site as "brochure-ware." Those "nascent opportunities for public participation" amount to a rather feeble context-limited (if not context-free) form through which you can state your piece with little knowledge that anyone, even your fellow blog readers, will ever see, let alone read, it. This is not conversation. This is, if the metaphor has not already been used to death, lipstick on a pig.

What Froomkin fails (or has been too addled by Web 2.0 Kool-Aid) to recognize is that conversation, as it takes place in social situations where computers do not mediate, does not necessarily scale to the level of a President trying to "engage" with his electorate. When I read Froomkin envisioning a White House staff that will listen and respond to "information input" from that electorate, I am reminded of my wife's reaction as a teacher who now has to deal with electronic mail from her pupils' parents: What part of my job do you want me to stop doing, so I can put time into giving this electronic mail the attention it deserves? I would modestly suggest that, in the absence of a serious commitment of "attention resources" to deal with the volume of traffic that the Internet produces, Froomkin's vision risks turning our representative government into a plebiscitary one. I would then further suggest that government by plebiscite is the first step down the road to totalitarian fascism. Consider the extent to which the Wiki vision of the "wisdom of crowds" can easily devolve into the madness of brute force. Consider the extent to which Google's appreciation of the subtleties of governance may best be described as "Philistine," even as their belief in "making money without doing evil" is flouted by a technology whose primary function seems to be cultivating public addiction to consumerism. Is this a world in which the Executive Branch of our government can and will "converse" with its citizens? There may be flaws in our representative system, but would a "brave new world" of "Internet information flow" resolve those flaws or replace them with more serious ones?

This is not Luddite thinking. I am not recommending that we throw our wooden shoes into the workings of the Internet. I am only recommending that "watchdog thinking" be applied to one who is trying to promote answers when he should be asking critical questions appropriate to his station. Rather than promoting technologies, a watchdog should be asking questions about those technologies having to do with the consequences of using those technologies, becoming dependent on them, and becoming victims when others discover how to turn use into abuse.

Confidence We Can Believe In?

Last month, in response to Japanese broker Masatoshi Sato's remarks about seeing to the needs of the "real economy," I offered the proposition that, if Main Street is unhappy, then Wall Street cannot help but be unhappy. Since that time it has become increasingly apparent that this unhappiness is a two-way street: When Wall Street is unhappy, Main Street has little to be happy about, since happiness has so much to do with having money to spend. The economic crisis may have had some impact on readjusting individual spending priorities to focus more on necessities and less on the unrealistic luxuries of a consumerist culture; but, at the end of the day, it is still all about money. Money may be the root of all evil; but it is also the root of happiness in any society developed enough that each individual is no longer directly responsible for providing his/her own food, clothing, and shelter. As Niall Ferguson has put it in his new book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, money is the "root of most human progress." Given the critical role that progress plays in any "developed" culture, one may just as well say that money is the root of that culture's very existence.

Those who have become familiar with Ferguson's book (which is based on a television series that will hopefully air soon in the United States, although his recent interview on Book TV provided an excellent introduction) now know his hypothesis that the root of money itself is trust. This is a point of view that I addressed in comparing the comparatively sound status of Grameen Bank, where trust is based on the day-to-day utility of cows and chickens, compared with Citigroup (to choose a timely example), where trust resides in the anticipated benefits from complex instruments of exchange based on even more complex mathematical models whose underlying hypothesis of efficient markets is, to say the least, questionable. There is a phrase that describes the prospect of trusting a system that, through its complexity, you really do not understand: that phrase is "confidence game." In the "developed world" economic theory has acquired such a level of sophistication that Main Street cannot help but be caught up in the confidence game; but, because the game can only survive as long as it has players, every now and then theory gets dragged back down to the realities of practice. From a dialectical point of view, "economic recovery" may ultimately be a matter of reconciling the opposition of those realities of practice with increasingly complex (because of the complexities of life itself) theories through some sort of synthesis.

We may now be seeing moves towards such a synthesis in both the current and incoming Administrations. Thus, one may be cynical and suggest that Barack Obama chose his economic team with the deliberate intention of cheering up Wall Street, more through trust than through concrete achievement; but, like it or not, the first moves in his confidence game have yielded a payoff in the short run that has circulated from Wall Street to the markets in both Asia and Europe. The same can be said about Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's decision to apply his "bailout budget" to Citigroup. At the same time Obama is trying to keep his eyes on the fundamental role played by Main Street by seeing to the needs of the unemployment crisis, while the Federal Reserve is trying to see to the needs of resolving the credit crisis. Ultimately, it will still be about putting trust into a system that is poorly (if at all) understood, which means that we are all still stuck in playing a confidence game.

However, if we cannot get away from the game itself, we would still like to be able to count on our government to do something when we are egregiously cheated. That is why we have, for example, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and it is why some (enough?) of us voted the way we did in the (audacious?) hope for an Executive Branch that would show more respect to the Legislative responsibility for such oversight (thus solving the deeper problem of what Patricia Williams dramatically described as "a failure to govern at all"). Perhaps the path to that synthesis between economic theories and the practices on Main Street begins with taking government seriously again. If Obama can restore trust in a government that takes itself seriously, that trust may propagate into trust in fiscal operations. The confidence game may still be there, but we may all feel less vulnerable to being victimized by it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Quiet Desperation in Rhode Island

This week's episode of Brotherhood on Showtime may have acknowledged William Shakespeare in its title ("The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth"); but the "poetic wisdom" of the story line came straight from Henry David Thoreau:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Indeed, had the series been set in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts, rather than Providence, Rhode Island, a more appropriate title for the episode might have been "In Search of Walden Pond." The episode did little to advance the overall narrative of the series; but, using the setting of a Labor Day Weekend, it offered a reflective examination of all the major characters, all but one of whom had retreated to a Walden-like setting. The reflections may not have been as deep as those Walden inspired in Thoreau; but, this being television, we should be thankful for the few crumbs of reflection we get!

The episode was basically structured around three "Walden surrogates." The most important of these (emphasized by its role in framing the entire episode) actually involved a physical body of water in the form of a lake whose shore serves as the border of a country house. This is where Tommy Caffee wants to take his family to retreat from the world of Rhode Island politics, having become fed up with it all in the previous episode. His is the embodiment of a life "frittered away" (again, Thoreau's words); and the key question is whether or not he can recover his life in a pastoral setting so alien to the life he has led since birth. Indeed, the setting is so peaceable that Freddie Cork, a lion (somewhat weakened) of the gang world, is there by the lake playing badminton with Tommy's family, perhaps as in indication that reality will intrude on this ideal retreat sooner than Tommy may have anticipated.

The second Walden is a bed-and-breakfast in some unnamed Rhode Island town on the Atlantic coast. Declan Giggs has come here to try to patch up relations with his estranged wife Cassie. This "kingdom" is far less peaceable when Cassie encounters her boss; and it comes out that she had an affair with him while separated from Declan. Both characters then drown themselves in drink, leaving their "Walden" in greater (and noisier) desperation than when they arrived.

The final Walden is an anonymous motel room where Colin Carr hopes to final consummate his passion for Kath Parry, whose life with Michael Caffee (Colin's boss) has been steadily deteriorating. The setting is anything but pastoral; and the interplay is as awkward as it is dangerous, particularly in the context of Michael's uncontrollable capacity for violence. Both of these characters are mired in quiet desperation out of the necessity of their situation. The progress of this mini-narrative is thwarted every time it inches forward; and, in the context of what we know about the possible consequences, this is probably just as well.

Indeed, in the course of his one-hour episode, Michael is the one character who does not find a Walden to which he can retreat. It may be a holiday weekend, but he remains all business. However, this is probably because his "business" is his only strategy for warding off the symptoms of his damaged brain. Thus, while a Walden is offered to him in the form of a barbeque at the home of the Italian gang leader, he can do little other than aggravate the Irish-Italian division, ultimately getting cast out from the would-be Edenic setting.

As I said, none of this has really advanced the underlying narrative. Rather, it used the holiday setting as a pretext for taking stock of the characters. Whether or not the Walden concept was deliberately intended as a setting for this stock-taking, the shoe turned out to fit very well, providing some comforting evidence that, every now and then, television can still satisfy the literary mind.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Creator and Creation

When I mentioned yesterday that I had seen a production of Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Faust in New York back in the Eighties, I neglected to mention that this production covered both parts of Goethe's drama. This was a major undertaking by the Classic Stage Company: Part One was performed in the afternoon, after which there was a dinner break, followed by Part Two in the evening. Taking time off for dinner was nothing compared to the interval in Goethe's life, since Part One was published in 1806, while Part Two was not completed until 1832, the year of his death. Just about any musical treatment of Faust is pretty much confined to Part One, and even dramatic stagings of Part Two are pretty rare. The reason for this is apparent from the Wikipedia summary:

In contrast to Faust Part One, the focus here is no longer on the soul of Faust, which has been sold to the devil, but rather on social phenomena such as psychology, history and politics.

I do not entirely accept this summary, but it is still a good point of departure. A better way of approaching Part Two is to view Part One in terms of how Mephistopheles manipulates Faust into signing his contract and what Mephistopheles then "delivers" to "seal the deal." Gretchen (Marguerite in Hector Berlioz' version, La Damnation de Faust) is the critical "deliverable." However, while Berlioz' libretto ultimately resolves the plot with Faust being condemned to Hell (true to his title) and Marguerite being received in Heaven, Goethe's Faust survives this episode and pretty much forgets it.

Part Two brings about a rather interesting role-reversal, in which Mephistopheles becomes servant to Faust; and Faust becomes a magus figure marketing his skill-set (which he only has by virtue of his contract with Mephistopheles). In the course of Part Two, Faust expounds on Goethe's theory of color, rescues a financially failing empire by introducing paper currency, encounters Helen of Troy, and mounts a major utopian urban renewal project that destroys the pastoral home of Baucis and Philemon. Ultimately, he runs out of things to do and succumbs to the same boredom that Berlioz captured so well at the beginning of his version. Mephistopheles finally sees the opportunity to seize his side of the bargain; but Faust is basically "rescued" by a "subjunctive loophole" in the contract, leading to a final scene of his salvation.

That final scene may best be described as "extreme spectacle," almost a reductio ad absurdum of the argument for spectacle delivered in the "Prelude in the Theatre" all the way back at the beginning of Faust Part One. The opening description depicts a setting that might give even the imaginative intellect Robert Lepage applied to Berlioz a hard time:

Mountain glens, forest, rock, solitude. Holy Anchorites sheltering in the clefts of rocks, scattered at various heights along the cliffs.

The first monologue is delivered by Pater Ecstaticus "floating up and down;" and it begins a prolonged meditation on Faust's salvation, in which his soul is received by angels and penitents (one of whom is Gretchen). In the production that I saw in New York, this scene was cut down to a bare minimum and with good reason. The audience had already been setting through quite a lot by this time!

However, the text of this scene formed the core of Gustav Mahler's eighth symphony in E flat major, meaning that yesterday I experienced a "day of Faust" that began at 10 AM in a movie house and ended at about 10 PM in Davies Symphony Hall. Mahler definitely had the right idea for this unwieldy material: Rather than approach it as opera, he let the music convey all the staging details; and, given the dramatic expressiveness of his music, even when text is not involved, the result is probably about the only approach that does justice to Goethe's over-the-top conception. All of this, however, is only Part II of Mahler's symphony.

Part I is a setting of the ninth-century hymn for Roman church ritual, "Veni, Creator Spiritus" (Come Creator-Spirit). It is not a stretch of the imagination to view this opening movement as Mahler's summoning of his own "creator-spirit" to assist him in the task of doing justice to this massive body of Goethe's text. (Remember, prior to this work, most of the texts that Mahler had set had been relatively short and of folk origins.) The prefatory nature of this movement is confirmed by a duration that is roughly one-third the duration of Part II. More important, however, is that Part I serves as a "listener's guide" to Part II. It lays out all of the thematic material, that material is arranged in a structure that serves as a "skeleton for prolongation" in the grammar of Part II, and the ear is introduced to all of the rhetorical devices summoned to manage a full orchestra (including organ, harmonium, and mandolin), two mixed choruses, boys' chorus, girls' chorus, three sopranos, two mezzo-sopranos, tenor, baritone, and bass. (When the impresario Emil Gutmann decided to call this the "Symphony of a Thousand," he was not far from the mark; the total "body count" for the first performance was 1030!)

The fact that the San Francisco Symphony performances of this work were sold out testifies to how successful Michael Tilson Thomas has been in cultivating an audience for Mahler in this city. Even the favorable review by Joshua Kosman for the San Francisco Chronicle could not get beyond the received opinion of this composition as an unwieldy monster, but Saturday night's audience seemed to have no sense of it being unwieldy in the way Thomas presented it. Yes, there is a certain artificiality to the episodic nature of Goethe's text; and Mahler deconstructed the text of the Roman hymn to prepare the ear for that episodic structure. However, Thomas knew exactly how to pace both parts of the symphony, guiding our ears through all of the twists and turns of Goethe's spectacle, leading us to a mystically hushed final text (the "Ewig-Weibliche" invocation of the "eternal feminine") followed by one last triumphant celebration of all the instrumental resources. Far from an unwieldy monster, this symphony emerged as what could well be Mahler's greatest triumph.

In writing these reflections I realize that I have focused entirely on why the music came out the way it did. This is not to slight the many soloists who responded so ably to Thomas' conception of this "finished product." Rather than running through all the names, I refer readers to the Chronicle hyperlink in the preceding paragraph, since I, too, may have had to confront the problem of straining my audience's attention span!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Devil in the Technical Details

I have to confess that the open editing philosophy behind Wikipedia can sometimes keep it impressively up to date. Consider the beginning of its "La damnation de Faust" entry:

La damnation de Faust (English: The Damnation of Faust) is a work for orchestra, voices, and chorus written by Hector Berlioz (he called it a "légende dramatique").

Berlioz read Goethe's Faust Part One in 1828, in Gérard de Nerval's translation; "this marvelous book fascinated me from the first", he recalled in his Memoirs. "I could not put it down. I read it incessantly, at meals, in the theatre, in the street." He was so impressed that a suite entitled "Eight Scenes from Faust" became his Opus 1 (1829), though he later recalled all the copies of it he could find. He returned to the material in 1845, to make a larger work, with some additional text by Almire Gandonnière to Berlioz's specifications, that he first called a "concert opera", and as it expanded, finally a "dramatic legend".

He worked on the score during his concert tour of 1845, adding his own text for "Nature immense, impénétrable et fière"— Faust's climactic invocation of all nature— and incorporating the Rákóczi March, which had been a thunderous success at a concert in Pest, Hungary, 15 February 1846.[1] Its first performance at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, 6 December 1846, did not meet with critical acclaim, perhaps due to its halfway status between opera and cantata; the public was apathetic, and two performances (and a cancelled third) rendered a financial setback for Berlioz: "Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference", he remembered.[2]

The Damnation of Faust is performed regularly in concert halls, since its first successful complete performance in concert in Paris, in 1877; it is occasionally staged as an opera, for the first time in Opéra de Monte-Carlo on February 18, 1893, where it was produced by its director Raoul Gunsbourg, Jean de Reszke singing role of Faust. The Metropolitan Opera premiered it first in concert (February 2, 1896) and then on stage (The United States stage premiere on December 7, 1906). The Metropolitan Opera revived the production on November 7, 2008 directed by Robert Lepage, with computer-generated stage imagery that responds to the voices of the performers.[3]

The only thing missing from that last sentence was the Met's decision to include that revival in its Live in HD series, and that may only be because the HD broadcast took place today! I also call attention to that third footnote, which provides a link to the New York Times background article that discusses the technical details at great length and was definitely a factor in drawing me to today's broadcast. What this article did not say was that all of the computer-generated technology was an add-on to a staging that Lepage had already conceived. This came out when Thomas Hampson interviewed Susan Graham about her performance of Marguerite, and she talked about performing in the original incarnation of this production.

So is the result an opera production; or is it a tech-fest for those averse to the noise level of today's rock music? To invoke terminology I introduced earlier in the day, this is the sort of production that could well serve as a "tourist magnet," regardless of its virtues or vices. From a similar point of view, it could well attract a new generation of younger listeners to the Metropolitan Opera (or to an HD screening), including some (many?) with no idea of who Berlioz was (not to mention Johann Wolfgang Goethe). For those of us who are more serious about both opera and music, the approach brings a mix of virtues and vices; but my own feeling was that the vices are easily overshadowed by the virtues.

This is the second time I have seen this work staged. Several years ago it was performed in concert version by the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit; and I was particularly impressed at how the singers were able to "deliver the message" with only a handful of postural and gestural cues. However, because I always believe that there is room for effectively imaginative staging, I have never been a purist about keeping this work in the concert hall. Lepage's approach was indisputably imaginative, and on the whole it was effective. By this I mean that he produced a conception of the work based on entirely believable characterizations of Faust (Marcello Giordani), Méphistophélès (John Relyea), and Marguerite (Graham). That believability has to include a conception of Méphistophélès as a supernatural force; and, as Goethe said explicitly in the "Prelude in the Theatre" for Faust Part One, that conception really requires a heavy dose of spectacle, pretty much as Aristotle conceived the nature of spectacle in his "Poetics." (Note that this Prelude involves a Stage Director in conversation with a Poet and a Comedian. It is the Comedian who speaks up for spectacle. In the production that I saw in New York back in the Eighties, the actor playing the Comedian later appeared in the role of Mephistopheles!) Lepage is as good a servant of Aristotelian spectacle as I have ever seen, making him a key virtue of this production.

However, Aristotle also cautions against too much spectacle; and there were times when I was not sure that Lepage was ignoring this advice to the disadvantage of us all. Nevertheless, I am not sure I can effectively evaluate his judgment on the basis of Barbara Willis Sweete's camera work. Lepage had clearly conceived of the entire stage as his canvas. This was not only important when the stage provided context for actions localized in a relatively small portion of the entire area. It was also important when Lepage used the full stage as a grid for many repetitions of images or actions. Sweete's decision to pan across these repetitions took away from the impact of their very number, threatening that impact with a sense of tedium. So, for all the past virtues of these HD transmissions, I have to conclude that this was one performance that probably benefits from the viewer being present in the hall itself, rather that being only "virtually" present.

If we give Lepage the benefit of the doubt for certain visual ideas that did not translate well to video, then only one performer was seriously disadvantaged. That was conductor James Levine. Berlioz was such a master of orchestral resources (at least the video let us see the four harps!) that any conductor who elicits a credible performance deserves to be watched; and this performance was many orders of magnitude better than credible. Berlioz not only commanded extremes from his orchestra but shifted between extremes like turning on a dime (sou?). Levine was on top of every twist and turn, summoning all the sounds of Hell itself from his pit and then abruptly withdrawing the sublimity of Marguerite's reception into Heaven. Of course, had I been watching Levine, I would have missed the "equal opportunity" Lepage gave to Hell and Heaven on stage; so I certainly cannot fault Sweete for keeping her camera eyes out of the orchestra pit! Thus, while video may not have done sufficient justice to the staging, this was a musical performance that I hope will be eventually made available as a commercial recording.

Attracting Visitors

In responding to Matt Smith's SF Weekly column concerned with whether or not, faced with a $90 million budget deficit, the city should continue to support the fine arts with a specific allocation of $2.6 million, I tried to offer an admittedly naive analysis of benefits and costs for San Francisco residents. This approach overlooked what may be a key facet of the overall story, which is that the support of the fine arts benefits not only the city's residents but also its visitors. This raises a possibly interesting contrast between the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony. Much of the Symphony's "world class" reputation comes from its touring schedule, particularly when the tour takes it to cities like New York and London, since those are the cities with some of the most knowledgeable music critics and the most scrupulous audiences. On the other hand the Opera has a reputation for attracting people to visit San Francisco. This is most evident when Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is staged as a cycle of all four of its operas, since Wagner brings out a passion among his devotees that motives them to travel anywhere to get a good fix. However, San Francisco Opera has also attracted visitors for many of its new productions. Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise may not have attracted as many visitors out of raw Wagnerian passion; but I suspect it still drew quite a few out of curiosity, particularly those who wondered if such an opportunity would ever arise again in the near future. Similarly, both John Adams and Philip Glass have the sorts of reputations that motivate contemporary opera lovers to come to world premieres of their works, such as Doctor Atomic and Appomattox. Indeed, Doctor Atomic now has a second production at the Metropolitan Opera, which the Met decided was important enough to "export" through HD broadcasting. From this point of view, it is interesting to note the extent to which the Met uses these broadcasts to highlight the "opera house experience," applying it as a draw to attract those who enjoyed the broadcast to New York.

Under Michael Tilson Thomas the San Francisco Symphony has certainly established a similar potential for attracting visitors. This has been particularly evident with his attention to the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which led me to wonder whether or not Valery Gergiev's decision, as principle conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, to conduct the complete cycle of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler during the 2007–2008 season was motivated, at least in part, as a strategy to draw visitors to London. Before he came to San Francisco, Thomas had already established a reputation as a conductor of Charles Ives in cities such as Chicago and Amsterdam; and, personally, I wish he would do more Ives here. There may not be as many Ives fanatics will to travel the sorts of distances that Wagner fanatics do; but I suspect the prospect of an "Ives festival" in San Francisco could have more tourist attraction than might be assumed at first.

The Symphony, of course, has the advantage of recordings that can "capture" a performance experience. However, as the Met keeps trying to remind us, even with the fidelity of HD images, there is no substitute for "being there;" and this is as true of Davies Symphony Hall as it is of the War Memorial Opera House. Perhaps one way to deal with questions of budget priorities would be to address the role of the Symphony as a "tourist magnet" as a point of departure for new funding strategies. This, of course, is free advice, which means that it is probably worth every penny of its price!

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Temporal Spectrum of Chamber Music

It is the middle of the academic year at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and that means that it is time for the semiannual series of concerts of String and Piano Chamber Music that reflects the works the students have been preparing since the beginning of the term. Given how satisfied I was with the end-of-term events last April, I am hoping that my schedule can accommodate at least a representative sample of these concerts, if not the entire series; and, on the basis of repertoire alone, last night's event was an excellent way to begin. Most important was that my claim about a month ago that there was more to Amy Beach's Opus 67 piano quintet in F sharp minor that could be grasped by a single performance, particularly when that performance was a "first contact," was put to the test; but equally interesting was the company provided for Beach's attention-deserving chamber music. While last month the quintet was approached from a pianist's perspective (which, admittedly, was also my own perspective of her music) "as a gradus ad Parnassum … by way of Domenico Scarlatti, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Liszt," last night's performance gave the work more of a chamber music perspective, following it with La Bonne Chanson, the Opus 61 of Gabriel Fauré; and after the intermission the gradus took off in another direction, so to speak, with Alberto Ginastera's second (Opus 26) string quartet.

There is a lot to be said for beginning a program with an unfamiliar work. Not only is the mind likely to be in its most alert disposition; but also it is at its most "context free," which means that it is more likely to hear connections based on its own experiences, as opposed to those induced by how the program has been ordered. I particularly appreciated this opportunity, since I had written last month that, while Liszt may have been an influence for Beach's piano music (such as the Sketches, where were really the only pieces I could claim to know at any level deeper than the superficial), I could not hear him as an influence on the piano quintet. For one thing, as I observed after my first exposure, this was very much "a work for five 'equals,' as opposed to the frequent domination of the piano (evident in anything Liszt wrote for piano and orchestra) resulting in a 'concerto for piano and very small orchestra.'" Thus, in last night's setting I found myself thinking about Beach's work more from the context of Fauré, not through anticipation of La Bonne Chanson but from my familiarity with his early chamber music, such as the first (Opus 13) violin sonata and the first (Opus 15) piano quartet. In both of these works there is an element of urgency in the allegro passages, which serves to provide more by way of forward momentum than the sort of platform for virtuosity one often encounters in Liszt. I was most aware of this momentum when, upon arrival at the Adagio come prima in the final (third) movement, Beach revealed the cyclic nature of her architecture, through which, as Thomas Stearns Eliot put it, we "arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." (Ironically, Eliot did not begin work on "Little Gidding" until about 35 years after Beach had completed this piano quintet in 1907!) Now that I am more familiar with this piano quintet, I am all the more eager to hear it more often and "know its place."

La Bonne Chanson may not exhibit that element of urgency that I could hear in Beach; but it is very much a work for "equals." The composition is a song cycle of poems by Paul Verlaine scored for mezzo-soprano and piano quintet; but Fauré was very selective in how he scored each poem (although not quite as selective as Arnold Schoenberg was in scoring his Pierrot Lunaire cycle). The title is Verlaine's, and the imagery of his texts suggests that his approach to the "goodness" of that title is one of irony, if not sarcastic vulgarity. This is thus the same spirit that would later be found in the Paul Éluard poems that Francis Poulenc set in La Figure Humaine, but without the context of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Fauré's settings, however, are anything but vulgar: His phrasing of the texts is as attentive as those found in any of his songs for voice and piano, but he has added the transparency of the piano quintet to enhance the accompaniment. This turned out to be my first exposure to this side of Fauré's vocal writing; and, as was the case with Beach's chamber music, I just hope that I do not have as long a wait before having another opportunity.

In approaching Ginastera's second string quartet, I found Deborah Schwartz-Kates' analysis of his stylistic periods for Grove Music Online a useful frame of reference:

Traditional studies have divided Ginastera's output into three stylistic periods: firstly ‘objective nationalism’ (1934–47), in which he referred directly to Argentine folk materials with traditional tonal means, secondly ‘subjective nationalism’ (1947–57), in which he integrated sublimated symbols in forging an original Argentine style, and thirdly ‘neo-Expressionism’ (1958–83), in which he combined magic surrealism with dodecaphony and avant-garde procedures.

Since the quartet was published in 1958, this puts it on the cusp between the second and third periods; but there is nothing "neo-Expressionist" about it. Indeed, while I have been unable to find any explicit support in the published literature, I would argue that Ginastera may have found his path to "subjective nationalism" through the subjectivity of another nationalist composer, Béla Bartók. If the ear needs a frame for reference for listening to this quartet, I can think of no better place to begin than with Bartók's fifth quartet (number 102 in András Szöllősy's chronological Sz. numbers), with which it shares both the five-movement architecture and Bartók's disposition for the use of inversion in the development of his melodic material. This is not to say that Ginastera was appropriating Bartók. This quartet not only has a unique voice of its own but also a rhythmic physicality that is more Argentine than Hungarian. However, that Grove entry indicates that Ginastera published an article entitled "Homage to Béla Bartók" in 1981; so it would not surprise me that he had already felt the need for such an homage over twenty years earlier and expressed that need through music rather than text.

My overall experience, then, was exposure to three new works (with only a vague familiarity with the first of them), all of which left me with a hunger for further experience. For my money (under the disclaimer that this was a free concert), that is what the performance of music is supposed to do. Once again the Conservatory has demonstrated that it can fulfill the public service role of educating audiences while educating its students!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Same Request; New Response

Democratic Representative Michael Capuano from Massachusetts, quoted in an Associated Press story by Ken Thomas and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, came up with the best response when the Chief Executive Officers of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler came to Washington to ask the House of Representatives for some $25 billion worth of loans:

My fear is that you're going to take this money and continue the same stupid decisions you've made for 25 years.

Capuano's Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, decided to take him seriously, as did Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

Democratic leaders in Congress sidetracked legislation to bail out the auto industry Thursday and demanded the Big Three develop a plan assuring the money would make them economically viable. "Until they show us the plan, we cannot show them the money," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a hastily called news conference in the Capitol.

She and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Congress would return to work in early December to vote on legislation if General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC produce an acceptable plan.

This may be the most sensible move yet to come out of Washington in dealing with the economic crisis: Don't fork over the money without some guarantee that it will be spent effectively! So why didn't anyone think to say the same thing to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson? Was it just because he asked for a larger amount of money?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fighting Words over the Fine Arts

Matt Smith has thrown down a pretty stiff gauntlet in his column for this week's SF Weekly, and he has thrown it right in the face of San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Here is the basic argument as set forth in his opening paragraphs:

These are trying economic times — unless you're Michael Tilson Thomas, the baton-waving tycoon at the head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He is one of a troika of symphony honchos who, when you include money allocated to agents and personal projects and a personal loan, drain $2.6 million from what is, in essence, a charity partly supported by taxpayers.

San Francisco fine arts nonprofits such as the symphony have consistently failed in their mission of instructing residents in what they should accept as great culture. That patronizing mission would be outdated even if they were earnest about pulling it off. But they're not: They've turned our local culture palaces into sites for air-kiss orgies among the superrich.

As the symphony helps create a recession-proof standard of living for Tilson Thomas, the city finds itself contributing to the kind of superstar worship that makes a farce of classical music. Meanwhile, the tycoons' wives behind the nonprofit that runs the de Young Museum are turning the museum into an extension of their own closets, producing fashion shows featuring clothing that regular San Franciscans could never afford.

The megawealthy can do as they please with their money. But we can choose not to have them play with ours. Legislation recently introduced by the lame-duck Board of Supervisors claims to target fat-cat executive directors of government-funded nonprofits, but it's worded so that its effect on mammoth salaries earned by such directors as Tilson Thomas will be nil. In January, newly elected supervisors should put their radical pretensions to work and find real ways to excise taxpayer subsidies from the city's exalted cultural institutions.

There are any number of ways in which this position can be contested. In the face of Smith's full-frontal attack, I would like to consider two questions that cut to the heart of whether that position is muckraking in the face of an abuse of public trust or a distorted account of an institution whose "world class" status has won recognition from knowledgeable music critics in both New York and London:

  1. Who benefits from the San Francisco Symphony in general and the ways in which Thomas has made it "his" ensemble in particular?
  2. What is a reasonable cost for those benefits, and how shall that cost be met?

In order to answer the first question, it is necessary to understand the nature of the benefit itself. Smith seems to want to reduce that benefit to "the kind of superstar worship that makes a farce of classical music." Given the amount of work I have put into understanding both the theory and practice sides of classical music (for which this blog provides a recent but modest sample), I feel I have at least some authority to recognize what constitutes farce; and, at the very least, I have to question just where Smith acquired his data points to make his claim.

There is no doubt that Smith's "megawealthy" have a serious presence in Davies Symphony Hall. On one occasion when my wife was given the gift of two tickets in the Loge, I learned how to find them; and I confess to feeling a bit like a field anthropologist encountering a previously undiscovered culture. Scott Fitzgerald was right; they really are "different from you and me!" However, the Loge is a relatively small (and therefore deliberately elite) portion of the Davies seating plan. My wife and I usually sit in the Front Orchestra section: It's a price we can afford, and I am willing to sacrifice a good view for minimizing the number of people between myself and the music. The view I get, instead, is of the occupants of the rush seats in the Center Terrace, who are at the opposite end of the wealth spectrum. I do not know where Smith got his data, but at least I can account for where I got mine!

What do my data tell me? The bottom line is that I have never seen more consistently attentive audiences than the ones I have encountered in Davies; and I have been going to concerts since, as a pre-schooler, I was taken by my parents to a Philadelphia Orchestra children's concert to hear our child-prodigy pianist neighbor! So I am willing to hold my data points up to Smith's on any occasion. Granted, there are times when I hear nervous coughs; but I have never heard them come from the Terrace seats or from my immediate vicinity. For all I know, they come from the Loge! From my vantage point I always feel that I am sharing my space (doesn't that sound Californian?) with those who, like myself, have come to listen; and we (if I may use first person plural) come to listen to visiting conductors as much as we come to hear Thomas. Whether or not any of the others come, as I do, for the sake of listening to be a better listener is not important. All that is important is that most of those seats in Davies are occupied by people who are far from being "megawealthy" who find benefit in the experience of listening to the San Francisco Symphony as the current Music Director has come to fashion it.

The heart of Smith's argument, however, is concerned less with benefits than with costs. Smith is not so much attacking the question of whether there should be a certain element of public trust in the fine arts organizations of a major city as much as the specific allocation of $2.6 million for "a charity partly supported by taxpayers." Now I am not sure how much of the Symphony budget is public record; and, as a rule, I tend to be in favor of transparency where any budget is concerned. However, Smith recognized that there is an interesting historical context for Symphony support:

In 1935, after the symphony went bankrupt, voters relaunched it by establishing a permanent taxpayer set-aside for the orchestra, currently $1.8 million per year. A lifetime later, that quaint act of civic-mindedness — resurrecting the orchestra — has grown into a monster bent upon enriching one man. As fine arts institutions turn toward commercial success and placating rich donors and away from the public interest, they eliminate all rationale for government subsidy. What's more, taking the symphony off the dole would have a pianissimo effect on its total budget, which in 2005 was $63.6 million.

This is worth examining sentence-by-sentence. I knew about the bankruptcy from reading the memoir by violinist David Schneider, who joined the symphony right after its "resurrection." Having acquired a reasonably good understanding of how the Symphony progressed while Schneider worked there and a basic sense of what happened after he retired, I have a lot of trouble accepting the proposition that the institution "has grown into a monster bent upon enriching one man" (presumably its Music Director, whether that Director is Thomas or any of his predecessors). I would have to wonder, however, why, if Thomas is being so "enriched" by his compensation package, he still actively maintains his commitments to the New World Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra. That must make for a maddening schedule, particularly if he works with those other ensembles as intensely as he works with ours. As to the Symphony's total budget, this is where the question of transparency arises. I am reasonably confident that the list of expenses that the Symphony must face annually is longer than any list I could hypothesize on my own. Again, if Smith has better data points than I do, I would be happy to see them and reconsider my position.

On the more objective plane of the relation between costs and benefits, I can only speak to my own financial management. Having come to the age of fixed-income status, I had to work with my broker to determine whether or not I would be able to support the sorts of things on which I wanted to spend money; and tickets to the performing arts were part of the budget from which we worked. So I am more careful about the money I spend on tickets than I was when I first moved to the Bay Area, which basically means that I am a lot more picky about getting my money's worth! Regular readers know that I certainly do not like everything I hear at Symphony concerts, but just as certainly I do not in any way feel that this part of my budget is being poorly spent. All I ask of retirement is the means to keep my mind alive; and the San Francisco Symphony does a great job of providing those means, thank you very much!

Thus, I feel that Smith's attack does not hold up particularly well in the face of the two fronts I have proposed for challenging his position. I would be only too happy for him to respond to those challenges. For that matter I have to admit that I sympathize with him when he directs his attack at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum and have even used this blog to "voice" my misgivings about that institution. However, given how important the San Francisco Symphony has become to my life here in San Francisco, Smith's column awakened in me a need to "speak up" on its behalf!

Is Anarchy Near?

Whatever Barack Obama's transition team may have planned by way of expectation management, it has been interesting to observe just how much grousing there has been about what his Presidency is likely to be even before he has been inaugurated. Without taking one side or the other on this growing movement of dissent, I think it would be useful to consider what the consequences of thwarted expectations may be. On the more innocuous side, we might see a tendency towards a chronic desire to "throw the rascals out," no matter who the rascals in office happen to be. Thus, the electorate may continue to vote, perhaps even in numbers as impressive as they were at the beginning of this month; but they will be motivated primarily to vote against office-holders, regardless of party affiliation or perhaps even past achievements. On the other hand a darker consequence could be the total rejection of the entire system of governance, beginning with the Constitution and going down from there to every last nut and bolt. The technical term for this consequence is "anarchy;" and, in spite of the fact that this word has no sexual overtones, it carries a connotation of obscenity so strong that a pap peddler like David Brooks managed to avoid it entirely in his November 17 New York Times column on the "cultural consequences of recessions." Brooks probably does not realize that there is a whole area of scholarship, perhaps best represented by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which appreciates the need to study anarchy without necessarily embracing it. Instead, Brooks seems to prefer excuses for scholarship, such as the writings of David Frum, whom I believe I recently saw on the Book TV coverage of an Ayn Rand Society gathering celebrating plans to produce a film based on Atlas Shrugged and its humanization of fascism through objectivism.

If we wish to understand our fate through literature of epic proportions, my own preference still resides with David Simon, whose five seasons of The Wire could well stand as the War and Peace of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. I was reminded of Simon's project after reading a comment by Great Seduction reader "Jason," submitted in response to Andrew Keen's musings over Brooks' "cultural consequences" column. In his comment Jason offered the following Studs Turkel quotation from a man who had lived through the Great Depression:

When I was sixteen I was not afraid to die. Sixteen year old's today are not afraid to kill.

That second sentence provides a lens through which we need to address "cultural" issues of governance, explicitly recognizing that the sentence invokes that urban drug culture where sixteen year olds "are not afraid to kill." Throughout most of The Wire, Simon presents governance within that culture in terms of a latter-day tribalism, where domination reigns supreme over legitimation and signification; but he also examines the emerging need for inter-tribal "councils." At the same time he gives a nod to Isaiah Berlin's "Political Judgement" essay through a character who tries to apply lessons from a university classroom and experiences a short-term rise in his fortunes followed by a fatal descent.

I suspect that Simon also intended us to view addiction as both literal and metaphorical. The metaphorical reading emerges through what Brooks calls the "formerly middle class" in the title of his column, which is still fundamentally a culture of addiction. If that is the case, then, like latter-day Eloi, they will probably be too doped out (whether on drugs or a lingering Sehnsucht for consumerist practices) to exhibit any political response to alienation that Brooks anticipates; and they are even less likely to become the crazed bomb-throwing acolytes of anarchy examined by Enzensberger in "Dreamers of the Absolute!"

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lunch with Bartók

Today's Noontime Concerts™ in San Francisco concert consisted entirely of the music of Béla Bartók played by members of the Laurel Ensemble. Pianist Lori Lack accompanied flautist Sarah Holzman in a performance of the Suite Paysanne Hongroise, an arrangement of piano settings of Hungarian folk songs. This was followed by Contrasts, in which Lack, playing music that Bartók had composed for himself, was joined by clarinetist Ann Lavin, playing the part of Benny Goodman, and violinist Christina Mok, playing the part of Joseph Szigeti. (I drop these names because the work was conceived with them in mind.) When this was performed last May by San Francisco Conservatory students, I wrote the following about the music:

Contrasts are everywhere to be found, from the large scale differences across the three movements to the variety of acoustic effects elicited by each instrument and the ways in which these acoustic differences are combined. By way of introduction, we were told that Bartók never particularly liked Goodman; and it is easy enough to see that Bartók might not have taken very well to Goodman's approach to swing (if not to swing in general). In my personal fantasies Bartók suffered the tragedy of being to early for the jazz that would have meant something to him. With his keen ear for recording Hungarian folk music, he probably would have felt more at home with the improvisations of Charlie Parker; and, had he lived long enough, he would have appreciated the effort John Coltrane made to play along with a recording of the introduction to the first movement of his Concerto for Orchestra (from which Coltrane learned the value of wide intervals, which he would then exercise in "Giant Steps"). Whatever the hardships surrounding its composition, however, Contrasts is still a great sonic adventure, giving the ear a roller coaster ride through its contrasts on so many different scales of magnitude; and the Conservatory students did an excellent job of meeting the challenges of this piece, which really deserves to be performed more often.

Any tension that may have existed between Goodman and Bartók was absent in the relationship between Lavin and Lack. Indeed, Lavin summoned up a variety of brash sounds that were about as remote as one could get from Goodman's brand of swing (but right at home with both Bird and Trane), entirely consistent with Bartók's particular brand of rhetoric, which could be vulgar without necessarily being offensive. Thus, the roller coaster was still there; and Mok was equally at home on it, particularly when she launched into the sort of cadenza in the final movement that Trane himself, with his habit of trying to learn new licks from recordings, would have been tempted to acquire. The opening suite was a bit more on the tame side, although every now and then Holzman caught on to the folk spirit with her own bursts of energy. Since the last time I heard Bartók's music, it was a link in a chain that ran from Ernő von Dohnányi to György Kurtág, I appreciated the opportunity to hear him dominate an entire program!