Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Major Anniversary

This morning Weekend Edition Saturday presented a story about a major 50-year anniversary in the history of jazz. The story was filed by Sara Fishko and introduced as follows:

Fifty years ago Saturday night, jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk stepped onto the stage of New York's Town Hall theater with nine other musicians to perform new arrangements of some of his best-known tunes. It was Monk's first time as a headliner in a concert hall, and it was an event in the jazz world.

The concert has become the stuff of jazz lore. This week, two groups of younger players took the same stage for tribute concerts.

This was a fascinating way to begin the day, particularly because it included audio recordings of Monk working with Hall Overton to prepare arrangements for the occasion that were truly extraordinary. Just as extraordinary is the fact that all of those working sessions were captured on tape by Overton's neighbor, W. Eugene Smith and are now being digitized by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

More disappointing is that Fishko never bothered to say who those "two groups of younger players" were. Fortunately, however, this anniversary is important enough to have its own Web site, from which we can learn that the concerts were organized by Charles Tolliver (on February 26) and Jason Moran (on February 27). The Tolliver performance is now available through the NPR Web site, courtesy of WNYC. As of this writing, the Moran performance does not appear to be similarly available.

The recording of the original concert was produced by Orrin Keepnews for Riverside and is therefore in the CD collection, Thelonious Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings. It is worth noting that the concert actually began with a quartet with Charlie Rouse on tenor, Sam Jones on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. After three numbers ("In Walked Bud," "Blue Monk," and "Rhythm-a-ning") they were joined by Donald Byrd (trumpet), Eddie Bert (trombone), Robert Northern (French horn), Phil Woods (alto), Pepper Adams (baritone), and Jay McAlister (tuba). As the NPR broadcast observed, the result was a somewhat uncanny exercise in orchestrating Monk's very piano sound, not the sort of thing one expects of an arrangement but clearly what Monk had in mind. The only problem with this morning's broadcast is that one did not hear enough of the actual music, so it is good that one can turn to other sources to appreciate what really makes this anniversary significant.

Better Late than Never

Almost exactly a year and a month ago, I wrote a post entitled "The Best Movie We May Never See," based on a review I had read through my Variety RSS feed. The topic of this post was The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), a joint project directed and written by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath. It is probably worth reproducing what the Variety review wrote about Phrasavath:

Back in Laos, Phrasavath's father had worked for the CIA choosing targets inside the country for U.S. bombing runs. Following the fall of the CIA-backed Royal Lao Army to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, the Phrasavaths became personae non grata, with Thavi's father being shipped off to a re-education camp and his mother fleeing the country with eight of her 10 children in tow.

After a brief period in Thailand, the family applies for asylum in the U.S. and lands on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, where their vision of a gold-paved promised land quickly gives way to the harsh realities of poverty, street gangs and a cramped tenement apartment shared with a Cambodian family of six.

In the time since I wrote my post, the film received an Oscar nomination for best documentary; and it is now finally ready for theatrical release, having opened in both San Francisco and Berkeley yesterday. Here is how Jonathan Curiel introduced his review in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle:

There are a smattering of commercially successful films - feature or documentary - that can truly be called riveting works of humanism. Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" and Errol Morris' "The Fog of War" are two that come to mind. They may soon be joined by "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)," which was an Oscar nominee for best documentary and is now, in theatrical release, making its way across the United States.

As I previously wrote, this project interested me for two reasons. First of all, living in Singapore provided me with a wealth of opportunities to understand the context and impact of the Vietnam War far better than I could from any of the books and films (both documentary and fictitious) that emerged from that period of American history. Secondly, and more specifically, it was clear from the Variety account that, while this film was a documentary, it was also very much a narrative about consequences, that concept that I keep exploring but seems to be in the blind spot of contemporary American culture. My guess is that the theatrical run for this film will be neither long nor profitable, but hopefully it will serve as a precursor to distribution through DVD and cable. At least it is no longer consigned to that limbo that the "logic of money and power in Hollywood" usually provides for such films.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Keeping Bad Company?

The Metropolitan Opera production of John Adams' Doctor Atomic, which I have tried to examine from a variety of points of view, most recently by comparing my own thoughts with those of Daniel Mendelsohn's in The New York Review, has now been transferred to the English National Opera (ENO). I have now read two reviews from London, Rupert Christiansen's account in the Telegraph and that of Richard Fairman for the Financial Times. Also, to add to my own reflective mix, I finally got around to watching my DVR recording of The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, shown on the PBS American Experience series.

The word from across the pond is not particularly glowing (which may not be the best metaphor for an opera whose climax is the Trinity test of the atomic bomb). Christiansen was able to write from a position of familiarity with the opera:

When I first heard John Adams's third full-scale opera Doctor Atomic at its 2005 première in San Francisco, I called it "a moving and compelling work of moral, as well as musical, grandeur". I'm not going to eat my words, exactly, but a second hearing – ironically, in a production superior to San Francisco's – leaves me less convinced.

Fairman also tried to search out positive spin but found it only in the wisdom of the production-sharing arrangement that the ENO has formed with the Met:

This is the first time that Doctor Atomic, premiered in 2005, has been seen in the UK, and it is the third in a series of co-productions between English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. At a difficult time for funding, ENO must be glad to have the alliance and not only because the previous two productions – Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly and the highly original staging of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha – have been so successful.

As it turns out, Doctor Atomic is barely an opera at all, which is its number-one problem.

Christiansen also provided some useful background, part of which was actually new to me:

The opera tells the story of the last phase of the 1945 atom-bomb test at Los Alamos, and specifically focuses on the physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, a sensitive, spiritual, liberal man who was nevertheless prepared to develop a weapon of mass destruction. In early planning, Doctor Atomic was also going to deal with Oppenheimer's remorse after Hiroshima and his run-in with McCarthyism. But, after Adams fell out with the original librettist Alice Goodman, Peter Sellars (who also directed the San Francisco production) created a script that makes what seem to me two crucial errors – the text was assembled from actual historical documents, bumped up with poetry associated with the characters in question; and the opera is brought to an end with the first test explosion.

This makes for a peculiarly inert plot, with all the corny "countdown" tension of a rotten episode of Star Trek – will the weather clear in time? Will the darn bomb actually work? –­ and dramatis personae who remain flat figures, lumbered with unshaped words that they seem to recite rather than embody. What Sellars has assembled may be scrupulously fair to all parties and the deeper "for" and "against" ramifications of the issue, but it doesn't come alive as theatre.

Adams has also been left to grapple with some very clunky text, which he fails to animate into a flow of meaningful melody – tracts of the vocal writing are so dull that they have no business being music at all.

The new part for me was that bit about Adams falling out with Goodman. In the events I had attended prior to the premiere of Doctor Atomic, this was quietly covered up with word that Goodman had a conflict with "other commitments." However, if there was actually a behind-the-scenes narrative about the coming apart of the "dynamic trio" behind the "ripped from the headlines" operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, then that narrative may be worth considering in terms of how Doctor Atomic finally emerged.

Both Christiansen and Fairman felt that the libretto of Doctor Atomic was the weakest link in its "production chain;" and they both provided basically the same justification for their respective opinions. In my own reaction to Mendelsohn's review, I also recognized that there was not much to the libretto; and, on further reflection, I would now invoke Gérard Genette's three component parts of "narrative reality:"

  1. What you want to say (usually called the "story")
  2. How you structure your text to say it (for which I like to apply Seymour Chatman's term "discourse")
  3. How you deliver that text (which Genette calls the "narrating")

From that point of view, I would say that, in the case of the first two operas, there had been so much media attention that the libretto could be more concerned with meditating on the underlying story, rather than narrating it. Mendelsohn thus cited Adams describing Klinghoffer "as being more like a Bach oratorio or Passion than like a conventional opera" (Mendelsohn's words). One may also approach Oppenheimer in a similar way. On the one hand the story of the Manhattan Project keeps getting retold each time more of the related documents are declassified, while, as the American Experience film demonstrated, the character of Oppenheimer himself continues to intrigue. That latter factor is probably why San Francisco Opera Director Pamela Rosenberg first approached Adams for her "Faust Project," even if the real Faust story only began to emerge, in the words of an earlier documentary, "the day after Trinity" (which, as Christiansen observed, is where this particular opera ends).

However, I have a greater problem with Christiansen's observation about the resulting libretto, which is that, in my own personal opinion, the texts of both Nixon and Klinghoffer are far "clunkier" than that of Doctor Atomic. The latter opera intersperses the mundanity of source documents with some really fine poetry; and, for many who have seen this opera, Adams' setting of John Donne's fourteenth sonnet ("Batter my heart") is one of the high points. Goodman's texts, on the other hand, not only fail to rise above the mundane but practically celebrate their failure to do so. The results are not only clunky but the worst kind of tendentious. Were the underlying stories not so interesting, it would be easy to dismiss both Nixon and Klinghoffer as pretentious wasting of time.

Now Fairman was equally unhappy with the libretto, calling it an "artsy patchwork of texts," which would probably indicate that he felt the selection of Donne was out of place, even if he then went on to approve of how Adams had set that text. This got me to thinking that Adams seems to have run up a history of finding himself in bad company, at least where operas are concerned. Even when the text is a good one, he had to contend with the context that Sellars had provided for it; and I think that Fairman has a point that, although the Doctor Atomic text can rise above the mundane, it still has to contend with a pretentiously "artsy" context that is entirely Sellars' doing. This has a lot to do with why I side with Christiansen's preference for Penny Woolcock's staging over Sellars' original conception and why I invested so much of my own text in defending Woolcock against Mendelsohn's assessment of her efforts. Going back to Genette's framework, I feel very strongly that one cannot meditate upon a story that one does not understand; and, for all of his summoning of source documentation, there was too much evidence that Sellars just did not understand the story at the heart of this opera. Most important is that Sellars missed out on the critical tensions in Oppenheimer's life, which lay at the heart of the new Trials documentary (whose very choice of title oriented the viewer towards those tensions). I even went so far as to argue that, where grand opera is concerned, those personal tensions often carry far more weight than the story line of the plot itself. Unfortunately, Sellars was not able to carry that weight in Nixon; and he was even less up to the task in Doctor Atomic.

When thinking of the partnerships that Adams has formed in these operas, I find myself reminded of Duke Frederick's admonishment to Orlando after the wrestling match in the second scene of the first act of William Shakespeare's As You Like It:

I would thou hadst told me of another father.

When I consider the sensitivity that Adams has brought to setting not only Donne but also Walt Whitman (as in "The Wound Dresser"), I regret that he cannot tell me of "other parents" for his operas. He clearly understands how the nature of character can be revealed through music, and he deserves better partners to provide him with characters that can be so revealed.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Health Care and Uncertainty

Having dwelled on the question for about a week, I have decided that I shall try to apply my own "author's voice" to what is likely to be an unfolding narrative of my own health care. When I alluded to this topic last Saturday, I only suggested the key points leading up to my current position in the flow of this narrative. I shall now try to review these points more concretely and systematically.

During my annual physical in the fall of 2002, my primary care physician detected a rise in the level of the prostate specific antigen (PSA) in my blood. He said that the value was right on the edge of being serious; but, because the level had been so much lower in past blood tests (from 1.5 to 4.5), he recommended that I see a urologist. The urologist basically agreed with my primary care physician's assessment and scheduled a biopsy, whose results revealed prostate cancer. (For those interested in such details, the Gleason grade in left and right prostate was 3-4.) He recommended the surgical procedure of a radical prostatectomy (during which he would also repair hernias on both sides, which he had detected during his examination); and, as I wrote last Saturday, I began to prepare myself with background knowledge from both objective and subjective sources.

During the surgery, the prostate, its seminal vesicles, and the bilateral pelvic lymph nodes were removed and sent to Pathology for evaluation. That evaluation concluded that there was little evidence that the cancer had spread: "safe" margins in the prostate itself and no detected cancer in the other removed items. To confirm that the surgery had been successful, I was instructed to have a PSA blood test every three months. I did this for two years, after which PSA continued to be checked annually. The value was always "negligible," which usually meant less than 0.1, reflecting the specificity of the analytic equipment.

The first change in this routine surfaced during my annual physical this past October, when the PSA came in at 0.1 (without the less-than sign). My primary care physician decided this required a second measurement, and a month later PSA was up to 0.2. This is when I made arrangements to consult a urologist once again. He recommended that I schedule an ultrasound examination preceded by another blood test; so he would have an up-to-date PSA measurement at the time of the ultrasound. The blood test was performed at the very end of January, prior to the ultrasound at the beginning of February. This time the level was 0.17 (but the measurement equipment was from a different laboratory than the one used for previous measurements). The ultrasound revealed a small region in the (former) prostate area that was "different" from the neighboring tissue (with no clear interpretation of what it actually was).

My urologist decided that radiation would be the wisest course of action and made arrangements for me to see a radiologist. That session took place last Friday, and the ultimate recommendation was that I should go ahead with treatment. Everyone in the session (the radiologist was assisted by two residents) kept stressing how small the affected area was, but they all agreed that this made it all the easier to deal with that area with low risk. This will involve (as I recall) about 38 daily sessions (Monday through Friday), each of which lasts about half an hour. This is preceded by a fair amount of preparation and planning in the interest of making the application of radiation as focused as possible. My urologist has to inject some markers that delimit the border of the tissue needing treatment, basically using the same sort of equipment that was employed for my biopsy (but going the other way). These markers are detectable by CAT scanning. Once the markers are in place, they schedule a CAT scan and develop a "map" for directing the radiation beam. The side effects are supposed to be minimal; so I shall probably be able to walk to my treatments (which takes less than half an hour from where I live). Because of all of the prerequisite planning, I am not sure when the actual treatment will begin; but that is where things now stand.

Being more specific about the side effects, they have to do with unanticipated tissue damage from the radiation source. Various sites along the urinary tract are in jeopardy but are rarely affected. The symptoms can go in either direction. Some damage leads to reduced urine flow, resulting from congestion that can be cleared by either medication or a catheterized balloon (like clogged blood vessels). The other extreme is incontinence. I have already filled out two questionnaires about my urination habits, and I expect that I shall receive many more of these in the course of the treatment.

I have to confess that I find the whole process pretty awesome. It gives me a sense of just how much radiation therapy has improved as the technicians have better ways to see what they are doing (so to speak). My biopsy procedure was tolerable but hardly enjoyable; and I cannot expect this "marking" process to be any better. However, that is the only invasive part of the whole experience. Obviously, I shall have to rethink how I plan my days during the treatment period; but that is not much of a problem. On the whole I feel pretty comfortable with the staff who will be involved in this whole episode, and that is what counts the most.

Given what I have been told, I do not anticipate that this procedure will interfere with my writing habits (just as it should not interfere with my preferred habit of getting around by walking). Nevertheless, there will obviously be various elements of the routine (such as the overall structure of my day) that will be impacted. True to my own beliefs, I shall do my best to provide an account that does justice to my objective, subjective, and social worlds in equal measure; but I am not quite sure how successful I shall be in dealing with myself as my primary subject matter!

Exploring the Harmonic Series

In writing about Sofia Gubaidulina's "The Light of the End," performed by the San Francisco Symphony last week, I made a comment to the effect that composers who have explored the sounds of natural harmonics often fall into the trap of what I called "aimless wandering;" and I realize that this may deserve some further explanation. The history of our Western music tradition is, among other things, a tradition of normative usage. This is already evident in the manuscripts collected by Edmond de Coussemaker, particularly those in his Scriptorum de Musica Medii aevi. One of my favorite examines is the "Ars Cantus Mensurabilis" of Magistri Franconis (Franco of Cologne), one of the first manuscripts to document the synchronization of the voices of polyphonic music through rhythmic patterns. Rather like a pioneer of knowledge engineering, Franco attempted to infer "rules of practice" from examples of how both he and those around him were "making" polyphonic music around the end of the thirteenth century. By the middle of the twentieth century we had teachers like Arnold Schoenberg departing from the traditional pedagogy of the "rules" of harmony and species counterpoint to try to identify how every note of a composition served a "structural function," based on where it was situated in the score (structure) and how it served what I have called the composition's journey through time (function).

When one departs from the twelve-tone scale (particularly under equal-tempered tuning but, to some extent, also under other tuning systems), one also departs from a massive body of normative usage. What I meant by "aimless wandering" is that many composers interested in exploring natural harmonics can easily fall into the trap of just "noodling" (as one of my own composition teachers put it) up and down the harmonic series. (I offered Glenn Branca's third symphony as an example.) At the very end of "The Light of the End," Gubaidulina has a solo cello do this sort of thing, playing a series of arpeggios that rise from a fundamental, each one ascending to a slightly higher harmonic. To my ears, however, this was less a matter of "noodling" and more an effort to summarize the vocabulary of natural harmonics that had supported so much of the harmonic and contrapuntal structures we had been hearing since the beginning of the piece.

This morning I discovered, quite by accident, that there was a precedent to this "structural function" of arpeggiating through natural harmonics. It occurs at the end of the first movement ("Dialogo") of Benjamin Britten's C major sonata for cello and piano (Opus 65). The notes (no author cited) for my Etcetera CD of this sonata describe this "dialog" as a "wistful, oddly Brahmsian discussion of a rising or falling second, a nervous rhythmic tension being imparted by the piano's scalic thirds." Now I may be reading too much into how I heard this movement, but I came away feeling that the invocation of the harmonic series in the coda of this movement served as a reflection on the origins of those thirds and particularly the seconds. When it came to natural harmonics, we know from the open horn solo that begins and ends his Opus 31 serenade that Britten was too disciplined to give in to "noodling." The few upper harmonics that deviate the most from the equal-tempered scale frame an extremely visceral climax in that solo. Britten may not have been familiar with what Schoenberg was teaching about "structural function;" but this solo offers an excellent demonstration of the principle. I am thus willing to assume, with a relatively high level of confidence, that the arpeggiation of the harmonic series in his later cello sonata is guided by that same principle.

Was Gubaidulina influenced by Britten's precedent? Whether or not she had any direct relationship with Britten, there is a good chance that she was aware of performances by Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Britten's sonata was composed. Indeed, Rostropovich was still alive and active when Gubaidulina was working on "The Light of the End;" so there is at least a remote possibility that she would have been honoring him by assigning a solo cello passage to the coda of her work and then recognizing another coda that had been composed for him. This is a rather tenuous chain of hypotheses; but, in the context of this blog, it is close enough for rehearsal practices!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Audacity of Stonewalling

It would be nice if the people of Gaza could benefit from what Ron Fournier, Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press, called Barack Obama's "rhetorical pivot" last night, his transition "from selling fear to raising hopes." Fortunately, the people of the United States do not have to content with the ideological intransigence of the Israeli government the way the residents of Gaza do. During last month's hostilities, Israel escalated the level of fear in Gaza to such a height that, for the first time in the history of Israel's conflicts with its neighbors, the international community was calling for an investigation of war crimes. Now, with a cease fire at least temporarily in place, Israel seems to have adopted the policy that what cannot be achieved through fear can be attained through the annihilation of hope.

Hope does not have to be fired upon with big guns. Sometimes it is sufficient just to wear it down with petty matters. According to an Agence France-Presse report, John Kerry experienced the impact of such petty matters first hand during his visit to Gaza:

Last week, influential US Senator John Kerry witnessed first-hand the difficulties involved in delivering key supplies to Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade since Hamas seized power in June 2007, and is struggling to recover from Israel's devastating 22-day war.

While touring Gaza, Kerry learned that truckloads of pasta were prevented from entering the Palestinian enclave and was told by UN officials that Israel lists rice as humanitarian aid but not pasta, the newspaper said.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak eventually allowed the shipment in following an intervention by Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate who heads the US Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Committee.

According to this same report, our State Department is willing to go on the record in taking Israel to task over such pettiness. However, the signs are that Israeli will not let up on a tactic that they have a long reputation for using so well:

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pressing Israel to stop blocking aid to the besieged Gaza Strip and will raise the issue during a visit next week, an Israeli newspaper reported on Wednesday.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected to issue a strongly worded statement on the situation when he travels to Israel this week, Haaretz said.

"Israel is not making enough efforts to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza," the paper quoted US officials as telling their Israeli counterparts last week. "The US expects Israel to meet its commitments on this matter."

Clinton has relayed messages to Israel about the aid issue in the past week, and senior aides have made it clear the question would be central to her visit to Israel on Tuesday.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Ygal Palmor said he was unaware of any such messages and the prime minister's office said it would not comment "as long as there is no official US statement" on the issue.

Out of fairness, it is worth reporting that, on the basis of a story filed for McClatchy Newspapers by Dion Nissenbaum, the Israeli government is just as capable of applying this stonewalling tactic to its own citizens, as well as to others. This will give little comfort to the people of Gaza, but it may give our own State Department a better idea of the opposition they will continue to face. In most circles this would just be more examples of chutzpah from the culture that gave birth to the noun. However, my own feeling about giving Chutzpah awards is that they provide an opportunity for rewarding the outrageously positive and giving the negative the ridicule it deserves. When international discourse turns to talk of war crimes, we must recognize that this particular situation has progressed beyond ridicule. Israel has eroded the semantics of "chutzpah" with that same pettiness with which they are eroding the hope of the Gazan people and of those trying to assistant them with humanitarian aid.

Much of the Old Testament can be read as a chronicle of how "God's chosen people" tried to convince God that (s)he made the wrong choice. As Ronald Regan might have said about current Israeli tactics, "There they go again." Do the Israeli people really want to be represented by such a government?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nigerians Learn from Bernie Madoff

Nigerian efforts towards fraud through electronic mail are now so commonplace that they are more a source of humor than victimization. (The "Annual Nigerian EMail Conference" is now in its third year!) However, fraud is still a serious problem; and this morning's BBC NEWS Web site has a report on just how serious it can get:

Justice Secretary Jack Straw has been the victim of Nigerian fraudsters who sent out hundreds of e-mails in his name asking for money.

The e-mails claimed he had lost his wallet on charity work in Africa and needed 3,500 US dollars to get home.

Messages headed the Right Hon Jack Straw MP were sent to council bosses, government chiefs and others.

The fraudsters are thought to have hacked into computers at Mr Straw's Blackburn constituency office.

Mr Straw has confirmed the e-mails had been sent to a "significant number of people" in his address book but he said there were no security issues as it was his Blackburn e-mail address rather than his ministerial account that was targeted.

I would like to suggest that this new "advance" into fraud be called "the Madoff effect." Bernard Madoff could not have perpetrated his fraud of epic proportions without working from a solid base of personal trust. This trust had as much to do with how he was viewed in specific social circles as it had to do with his professional reputation. Straw was a victim of those who appreciated the level of trust that he had established and could mine his address book for those who trusted him the most. What the fraudsters overlooked, however, was that their targets knew Straw well enough to ring him up (presumably on his cell phone) and ask if he really needed that help!

Admittedly, this strategy would probably not have saved Madoff's victims from their current predicament. Clearly, the most important question was, "Will my investment really return those promised results?" Unfortunately, the only person they could ask was Madoff himself; so they had to fall back on relying on their trust in him. Straw avoided his own victimization because the trust of his friends included checking up on him.

In Search of Both News and Opinion

It is now official: Dennis Ross has returned to the staff of the State Department. Drawing upon their wire services, Al Jazeera English reported this story as follows:

Dennis Ross, a foreign policy veteran, has been appointed special adviser to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on the Gulf region, the US state department has announced.

Ross, a veteran of Arab-Israeli negotiations when Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, was president, will advise on Iran, the broader Middle East region and southwest Asia.

I found it interesting that any comment on this appointment in the Al Jazeera English account came only from State Department spokesman Robert Wood. As I observed in January, Ross' time in the Middle East was far from the brightest part of his resume; and I speculated that his book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World, was an attempt to theorize about the setbacks he experienced there. I am all for anyone with both the courage and smarts to learn from his/her mistakes; and, if Statecraft really is a document of lessons learned, then I suspect it is good to see that it aligns nicely with other opinions on how we should be approaching relations with Iran, such as those that Thomas Powers wrote in The New York Review this past summer.

Still, I found it interesting that Al Jazeera English should back-pedal on just what Ross' setbacks in the Middle East were, particularly since I tend to rely on them as a source for alternatives to conventional wisdom about American foreign policy in the Muslim world (the major reason why they are firmly ensconced on my "What I Read" list). For a more critical perspective on Ross, I had to rely on this morning's news summary at the beginning of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!:

The State Department has made official its appointment of Dennis Ross as special adviser on developing strategy toward Iran. During his previous stint as US envoy to the Middle East, Ross was widely criticized for backing Israeli settlement expansion and refusing to address Palestinian grievances.

To the extent that this low point in Ross' career might impact Iran's decision to work with him as an honest broker, why did Al Jazeera English omit it from any background material in their report? One possible answer may be that they are trying to raise their level of appeal to American audiences, and this possibility was addressed earlier this morning in a report that David Folkenflik prepared for Morning Edition on NPR. The headline of the print version on the NPR Web site was:

Al-Jazeera English Struggles For U.S. Audience

I followed this story with great interest, since I have never been shy about declaring my preference for Al Jazeera English; and, from time to time, I watch their broadcasts through their Web site (the Internet being the only medium through which I can watch them in San Francisco). I have even used this blog to document my frustrated attempts to persuade Comcast to allocate a channel for them (just as they still will not allocate a channel for a 24-hour BBC World Service television feed). Folkenflik's report offered some insight regarding my frustrations:

While actual ratings are hard to come by, Al-Jazeera English can be watched in more than 130 million households worldwide and is increasingly part of an international conversation, as its staff reports on and for people all across the globe. Executives say they hope to drum up public awareness and appetite here with an advertising campaign and a Web site:

Among journalists, Al-Jazeera English has won some respect. Tony Maddox, vice president and managing director of CNN International, says his staff closely monitors Al-Jazeera English, along with the BBC and Sky News.

"They were serious in intent, and they've invested in a very sizable international infrastructure," Maddox said, "So their presence has been felt from an editorial point of view and certainly, within the industry, there's a significant awareness of them."

Yet there has been little hunger expressed by viewers — and therefore little pressure on cable and satellite TV providers to carry Al-Jazeera English.

Officials at the nation's two largest cable providers have signaled that nothing is in the works. "Our customers consistently tell us they want more movies, sports, music and TV show choices," Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Allen wrote in an e-mail. Note that there was no mention of international news, especially from Doha.

I see no reason to dispute Allen's claim; but it gives me a deeper appreciation for living under a government that is willing to recognizing the rights of the minority, even when the voice of the majority may steer most decisions. Of course our founding fathers did not view access to different approaches to reporting the news as "inalienable;" but that may be because they were used to so many different sources for reading the news that they just took that particular "right" for granted. How could the founding fathers anticipate that the view of the news media as a "public trust" would eventually degenerate into a business in the same mold as manufacturing, where balance sheets always prevail over the need to provide the citizens of a democracy with information? is clearly a move inspired by the impact that "I want my MTV" had on promoting one of the earliest cable channels. This kind of sloganeering still works ("It's Not TV. It's HBO"); but it tends to work for the sort of content that Allen enumerated in speaking for Comcast. It is hard to imagine a news provider benefitting from that kind of strategy. For better or worse, Comcast customers may well be more interested in personalities than in the content delivered by those personalities. The American networks know this and play it for all it is worth. Al Jazeera English may want to consider doing the same.

For example, while we were living in Singapore, both my wife and I got to enjoy Riz Kahn as a news reader for CNN International. He had an excellent sense of delivery embedded in a style that encouraged confidence. He now has his own "in-depth" program on Al Jazeera English; and my guess is that he would make an excellent guest on the American talk show circuit. This would be more than presenting himself as a prime conversationalist with Charlie Rose or on NewsHour. It means (shudder) sitting down with Oprah and winning over her confidence! It is hard to imagine Comcast holding to its current position if Oprah decides that she wants her AJE!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Worthy Chutzpah from Sean Penn

I have never been particularly big on the Academy Awards. However, by happy accident, my wife and I managed to catch Sean Penn's acceptance speech (having just finished watching Taking Chance, recorded Saturday night on our VTR). The London Telegraph provided one of the better accounts of this event:

Stars on their way to the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles had to pass a group of Christian demonstrators outside who protested against gay marriage and attacked the memory of the late Heath Ledger, a favourite target of militant anti-gay protesters since his role in Brokeback Mountain.

Penn won the best actor award for Milk, in which he played politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk.

The actor opened his acceptance speech with the words: "You commie, homo-loving sons of guns," to laughter from the audience.

Referring to the protest, he said: "For those who saw the signs of hatred as our cars drove in tonight, I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."

If the Academy's annual Awards ceremony seems to be calculated to be so banal as to avoid any hint of chutzpah, Sean Penn is the sort of guy who can be counted on to shake their tree. Given those protesters on the street, he definitely picked the right setting in which to do so. Given his reputation, I figured it would only be a matter of time before he received a Chutzpah of the Week award. I realize there is always a risk of granting this award so early in the week, but think how good it will look alongside his new Oscar!

The Brave New Language of International Journalism (SIC?)

Apparently, yesterday's adoption of Variety-speak by Reuters was no mere flash in the pan. On the basis of one of the morning headlines from Tokyo, is would appear that "finmin" is now accepted terminology (at least in headlines, if not in the reports themselves):

Japan Finmin Yosano seen well-placed to be next PM

This could, of course, be the work of a new headline writer, possibly a "refugee" from Variety, as I had suggested yesterday. If so, then there is now a question of whether headlines go through the same degree of stylistic editing as does the content of the news stories. Back when I was writing for Boston After Dark, my editor wrote the headlines for my pieces; and I do not recall anyone acting as her editor. So there is some chance that this latest bit of terminological innovation has not been reviewed by either peers or superiors. (What would Gus Haynes say?)

My own reaction seems to be one of dwelling on the verb "creep" and its associated noun form. As its Wikipedia entry observed, the term "mission creep" "was originally applied exclusively to military operations, but has recently been applied to many different fields, mainly the growth of bureaucracies." This feels like the beginning of some form of mission creep along the terminological front of the fields of journalism (just to work the military metaphor for all it is worth), leaving me to wonder how Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland, who first coined the term, would think about it. I am also reminded of the term "creeping socialism," promulgated in the Fifties by conservatives who were convinced that Reds were hiding under all of our beds, just waiting to wipe out our government and turn us all into slaves of Stalinism. Jean Shepherd came up with the perfect retaliation to this propaganda blitz when he coined the phrase "creeping meatballism" for an article published in 1957 in Mad Magazine. (Those wondering what I meant yesterday with that swipe about the days when Mad was funny can get an idea of what I meant by following the hyperlink for this article.)

Shepherd probably had the right idea. Certainly the military metaphor of mission creep seems to be out of place for a profession that now seems to consist almost entirely of the walking wounded; and it is hard to associate a word like "finmin" with the efforts of today's conservatives to revive the spirit of creeping socialism. This word is neither more nor less than a meatball in our midst, not a particularly spicy one but one very much in the spirit of how Archie Bunker used to apply "meatball" as a sobriquet (a usage now approved by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). That just gives me the creeps.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Influence (or not) Without (or with) Anxiety

If I was at a disadvantage for hearing Sofia Gubaidulina's "The Light of the End" only once (that one time being last night at Davies Symphony Hall), that disadvantage was somewhat compensated by my hearing her "Repentance" as the first work on the program of this afternoon's Chamber Music Series concert at Davies. This work was first performed in 2007 and is very much a continuation of what I called her "exploration of the dialectic between the traditional sonorities of equal-tempered tuning and those of musical instruments' natural harmonics." In this case, however, rather than working with the rich palette of a large orchestra, she focused on a much smaller ensemble, which still had rich timbrous possibilities. The work was originally scored for a solo cello (dedicated to the cellist Ivan Monighetti) accompanied by a guitar quartet. The program notes quoted Gubaidulina's description of the work in her own words as:

… a constant striving to perceive the mystery of consonant sounds in the chords of harmonics played by the guitars [which] turns out, each time [through a series of variations], to be unattainable. And we return, against and again, to dark coloration. Only at the end—in the fifth variation, that is—the confessional expression of the cello's cantilena results in the genuinely radiant sound of harmonics in the soprano guitar. It is as if the force of this expression had rescued a spirit striving for the light from the dark of Plato's cave.

For this performance Gubaidulina rescored the work so that the cello was accompanied by three guitars and a double bass. It is hard to speculate how these sounds would have compared with those of the original scoring; but, from the way in which she received the performers at the conclusion of the work, it seemed apparent that she was more than satisfied with the sound. (Indeed, she seemed more interested in letting the performers know about her satisfaction than in turning around to acknowledge the enthusiastic audience response.)

In many ways the tension of that underlying dialectical opposition is more evident in the more transparent texture of this chamber setting than it was in the rich orchestral textures of "The Light of the End." Also, chamber music tends to give off an air of more personal commitment, since every individual voice is far more exposed; and with that commitment came an abundance of one-to-one and one-to-many communicative actions. This was particularly apparent in the relationship between lead guitarist David Tanenbaum and the other two guitars (Thomas Viloteau and Elliot Simpson) and the bass (Scott Pingel). They were all there to engage both with and against cellist Peter Wyrick's solo lines; and the resulting web of communication was one of the most fascinating I have experienced in any chamber music performance.

The score itself also inspired a rich repertoire of memories on my part, leading me to wonder which, if any, of them may have been part of Gubaidulina's own influences. Most interesting was the extent to which those chord progressions played by the guitars constituted a reflection (somewhere along the spectrum between solemn and playful) on the chorales of the "Fratres" compositions by Arvo Pärt. The writing for bass, on the other hand, led me to wonder whether or not, during her years of music education in Russia, Gubaidulina might have secreted away a stash of Charles Mingus recordings. More unlikely, but still worth speculating, is that the ensemble guitar work at its wildest displayed the same sort of abandon that I have heard only in the rhythmic energies of Harry Partch (and, as was the case with Partch's music, seeing the guitars negotiate those passages was just as satisfying as listening to them). Thus, I now seem to be creating a place for Gubaidulina in my own "memory palace" of personal listening experiences; and I hope that it will not be long before I return to that chamber of the palace.

If Gubaidulina saw pain in that dialectical opposition behind her current compositional efforts, there was another kind of pain in Bedřich Smetana's first string quartet in E minor, composed in 1876 with the descriptive title "Z mého života" (From My Life). Smetana had gone deaf in 1874; and this quartet is very much a document of both the folk music that influenced him and his own characteristic interpretations of those influences, which, in the final movement, is abruptly interrupted by a high E in the first violin. According to Smetana, that was the precise frequency of the tinnitus that preceded the onset of his deafness. When one hears this work for the first time, as I did last May at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, even if one has read a description of this work's "program," one does not know what to expect. Once one has heard it, however, the anticipation of that E haunts all the wistful nostalgia of the first three movements like a ghost. When it comes, it attacks the spirit of the listener in a manner that I, for one, find far more devastating than, for example, the hammer blows of Gustav Mahler's sixth symphony that symbolize his own personal catastrophes. There is thus a need to pace the performance of the tragic blow that will fall in the final movement; and this particular quartet of San Francisco Symphony members (violins Sarn Oliver and Mariko Smiley, viola Yun Jie Liu, and cello Margaret Tait) knew exactly what that pace should be.

After the intermission another quartet (violins Nadya Tichman and Suzanne Leon, viola Adam Smyla, and cello Michael Grebanier) performed the sixth of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 18 string quartets (in B-flat major). This work also has a title, "La Malinconia" (Melancholy), which refers to the Adagio that begins the final movement at later interrupts the Allegretto quasi allegro section. Thayer offers no clues as to whether or not this melancholy was grounded in a personal experience, but the spirit of this work provided an excellent complement to Gubaidulina's sense of pain in the dialectic she chose to explore and Smetana's decision to document the pain of his own personal tragedy. I should also point out that the rendering of this particular melancholy by this particular quartet was quite effective, especially coming right on the heels of the slightly off-kilter rhythms of the third Scherzo movement, which almost serves as an omen that the affability of the first two movements is about to be dispersed. Yet, if each work on the program was under the same sort of dark clouds that have been bringing rain to San Francisco for all of this day, the performances of all three of the works provided the brilliance of the sun we were not able to see. Once again, this has proved to be an exciting city for the chamber music it offers.

The Audacity of Sticking it to the Rich

In yesterday's address President Barack Obama finally demonstrated that he can summon some "audacity of hope" in trying to get the United States out of its current economic crisis. As Jackie Calmes reported for The New York Times, he used the occasion to preview the budget proposal that he will release on Thursday. The most important part of the preview concerned the extent to which the rich and mighty will be asked (obliged?) to carry much of the weight of getting our country out of debt:

The president will propose to tax the investment income of hedge fund and private equity partners at ordinary income tax rates, which are now as high as 35 percent and could return to 39.6 percent under his plans, instead of at the capital gains rate, which is 15 percent at most.

Senior Democrats in Congress joined with Republicans in 2007 to oppose that increase. But with Wall Street discredited and lucrative executive compensation a political target, the provision could prove more popular among lawmakers.

Mr. Obama will also call for letting the Bush tax cuts on income, dividends and capital gains lapse after 2010 for individuals who make more than $250,000 a year. But while the top rate for income would rise to 39.6 percent, the top rate for capital gains and dividends would be 20 percent.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama called for immediately repealing those tax cuts. He decided instead to keep them in place through 2010, as scheduled, reflecting the widespread belief that raising taxes further depresses economic activity.

On his National Affairs blog for Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson called this "Change We Can Believe In." I prefer to think of it as "the audacity of sticking it to the rich;" but I can understand Dickenson's preference. Even Rolling Stone must be beholden to the rich and mighty in at least a couple of ways. Put another way, it is about time for someone with a higher pay grade, so to speak, to stand with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in declaring (in the language of the Jerusalem Bible translation of the Book of Revelation) that the time for patience with the rich and mighty is over. As Calmes observed, Obama is sure to get some (more than a little, I am sure) pushback from the Congress; but this may be the perfect time to remind every member of Congress just who elected him/her and why he/she was chosen. This is a chance for Main Street to demonstrate that its voice can be stronger than Wall Street's; and I, for one, would welcome Main Street rising to that occasion.

From VARIETY to Reuters?

If I am to believe Matthew Garrahan's report for the Financial Times, then Variety is under threat from the blogosphere. Does that mean that Variety writers are beginning to jump ship; and, if so, are they jumping to Reuters? Even more interesting, are they jumping to the International news desk, rather than the Entertainment department? I ask these peculiar questions because I have to wonder who came up with the following headline for a report about an economic summit taking place in Thailand on the island of Phuket:

Asian finmins agree deal on currency swaps

The abbreviation of "financial ministers" to "finmins" is the closest I have ever come to Variety-speak from a purportedly serious news source. (Truth be told, the only place I ever encountered Variety-speak at all outside of Variety itself was in Mad Magazine; and that was back in the days, as my contemporaries are still fond of saying, when Mad was funny!) I know I have a habit of picking on Reuters when gathering examples of the mainstream media at their silliest, but how this particular headline came to be strikes me as an interesting question about current editorial practices. Enquiring minds want to know!

Naturally Harmonic

I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that much of the history of Western music has been involved with the evolution of tuning systems to deal with the tension between the "naturally occurring" intervals of the harmonic series and the need for a more manageable collection of pitches and intervals (which is not necessarily a subset of the "natural" set). Joseph Yasser's Theory of Evolving Tonality begins his own model with the pentatonic scale (as in the pitches of the black keys on a piano keyboard), demonstrating how its pitches emerge from the first five perfect fifths in the harmonic series (if we begin on C, that would be C-G-D-A-E). In other words our first effort at a "scale" emerged from a sequence of 2:3 ratios.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Most importantly, it overlooks the emergence of the tonic-dominant relation that has dominated almost all of Western harmonic theory. That relation is the inverse of the 2:3 ratio, which, mathematically, would be a 3:4 ratio; but that ratio never emerges as you keep piling on more perfect fifths. From a mathematical point of view, the problem is that there is no pair of non-zero integers, n and m, such that 3n = 2m. In slightly more mystical language, you can always "depart" from your fundamental pitch to a fifth; but, if you keep going on that path, you can never return to that fundamental. To the extent that much of musical structure can be approached through the metaphor of a journey, the physical fact that you can never return is problematic.

By the eighteenth century those who made instruments, particularly keyboard instruments, came to deal with this problem through equal-tempered tuning. The octave would be divided into equal intervals, each of which was based on the same ratio of 1:2(1/12) (the twelfth root of two). Mathematically, this meant that a "journey" of twelve of these intervals would take you back to the simplest harmonic ratio of a pitch to its octave, 1:2. It also meant that all of the natural intervals of the harmonic series based on integer ratios (i.e. rational numbers) could only be approximated by the irrational ratios of 1:2(1/12), 1:2(2/12), 1:2(3/12), 1:2(4/12), 1:2(5/12), 1:2(6/12), 1:2(7/12), 1:2(8/12), 1:2(9/12), 1:2(10/12), and 1:2(11/12). Since the adoption of equal-tempered tuning, music history has seen the efforts of several composers to return to the natural harmonic series for both harmony and counterpoint.

This week Kurt Masur introduced to the San Francisco Symphony and its audiences one of the most recent of these efforts, "The Light of the End," which Sofia Gubaidulina completed in 2003. Masur conducted the premier of this work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; so he was, in may ways, the best person to bring it now to San Francisco. In his program notes for this work, Thomas May spoke of the intervals of the harmonic series as "deviations from conventional tuning," meaning that we perceive them as "out of tune." This is, to a great extent, true and is even reinforced by the psychological theory of categorical perception. However, since the rise of electronic and other experimental musics following the Second World War, we have been exposed to a wide variety of synthesized sounds; and many of those sounds have returned to their roots (pun somewhat intended) in the harmonic series. We are thus less susceptible to those out-of-tune judgments induced by categorical perception than we were around fifty years ago.

From this new vantage point, we can listen to Gubaidulina's score for what it is, an exploration of the dialectic between the traditional sonorities of equal-tempered tuning and those of musical instruments' natural harmonics. In Gubaidulina's personal aesthetic there is pain in this dialectical opposition; and there is no doubt that "The Light of the End" reveals that pain through considerable tension in both harmonic and contrapuntal constructs. However, listening to it is also a marvelous exploratory experience. It invites the same sense of wonder that John Cage had summoned in his most famous experiment based on the hypothesis that one could make a composition of those sounds that occurred naturally while one sat in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. However, while Cage's innovation reflected a let-it-be philosophy, Gubaidulina's is one of meticulous construction with an extremely broad palette of sonorities. It is also well informed by what Arnold Schoenberg called the "structural functions" of harmony and counterpoint. This is important because much of the pioneering work with such "deviant" intervals, whether in La Monte Young's "Well-Tuned Piano" performances or Glenn Branca's third ("Gloria") symphony (subtitled "Music for the first 127 intervals of the harmonic series"), has been little more than the sort of "aimless wandering" I recently attributed to Giuseppe Verdi. "The Light of the End" is very much a journey along which both harmony and counterpoint are steadily at work to move the mind behind the ear in a forward direction.

Needless to say, this is a process that is as complex as it is tense. So I can account for little more than the superficial impressions of a first immediate exposure. I suspect that I would have done well to attend all three performances this week, but I hope that it will not be a long wait before I have another opportunity to hear this piece. It has certainly benefitted from having Masur as a champion, but I hope that other conductors will soon follow Masur's lead. (I could make a pun about picking up his baton, but Masur now conducts without one.)

One might think that Anton Bruckner's fourth symphony ("Romantic" in E-flat major) would be an odd work to pair with "The Light of the End." However, in its own way this particular symphony is its own "Gloria" (as Branca had put it) to the 2:3 and 3:4 harmonic ratios. Horns figure significantly throughout the entire symphony; and much of their language is kept at a relatively fundamental intervallic level, at least until the full brass section erupts in the harmonic richness of the third movement's "hunting scene." This is not a particularly sophisticated piece of music; but, as I have written about Olivier Messiaen, the music is a product of a highly devout sense of faith. Thus, matters such as those "structural functions" of harmony and counterpoint (not to mention overall form) are secondary to Bruckner's invocation of a devotional spirit. Successful performance thus depends on being able to summon that sense of devotion without succumbing to self-indulgence. Masur achieved this through a sure sense of pace. Bruckner may have preferred meditation to journey; but Masur knew how to bring out the journey in this symphony and advance us through its four movements, even when the discourse of those movements was at its most repetitive.

As a result the entire evening amounted to a sustained meditation on natural phenomena. This made for a rare experience of aesthetic explorations grounded in philosophical assurances. This is hardly the stuff for a steady diet of concert-going; but, when it comes around, it becomes far more memorable than we can anticipate.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Subjectivity of Sickness

In his Preface to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks wrote that "animals get diseases, but only man falls radically into sickness." I take this to mean that, while any study of the nature of disease may be consigned to a canton of the objective world, the experience of sickness is very much a phenomenon of at least the subjective world and possibly the social world. I suppose I was first aware of this when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, for which my urologist recommended a radical prostatectomy. He provided me with an abundance of background reading, which both my wife and I found very helpful, but far more valuable was the knowledge that the husband of one of my colleagues had experienced this surgery. This knowledge led to several conversations, along with the opportunity to read the diary he kept associated with the whole surgical experience. I read this after our initial conversation, which allowed me to read it for "voice," rather than just information; and it was that "sense of voice" that was missing in the reading matter provided and recommended by my urologist.

These days, when it comes to sickness, there appears to be no shortage of "voice" on the Internet (nor, for that matter, is there a shortage of more objective information). Indeed, the critical observations of Dr. Aric Sigman, which I recently cited, may have much to do with the extent to which such "voice" is present in the virtual world in reality or only in appearance. Since the BBC story I cited only summarized one of Sigman's professional publications, I cannot use it to assess fairly any thoughts Sigman may have about "voice." However, anyone who reads fiction has no trouble recognizing that "voice" is a "constructed reality," which almost always has more to do with constructions by the reader, rather than the writer. Thus, in the course of some preliminary text analysis research based on the content of message boards maintained by, I had little trouble in endowing most of what I read with "voice" and keeping that "voice" consistent across contributions by the same user. Still, my analysis required my own detachment from the text, regardless of whether that text was making Goffman-like "moves" in the objective, subjective, or social world.

I am now, once again, confronted with my own sickness. After several years of a negligible presence of the prostate specific antigen (PSA) in my blood (indicating the absence of prostate cancer after the surgery), that PSA number has escalated; and I have begun conversing again within my own social network. My friend who kept the diary asked if I would be blogging about my condition and the likelihood that I would now be undergoing radiation therapy. My initial reaction was that I would not do so. My explanation was that I view these posts as invitations for conversation extended to a potentially wide audience consisting almost entirely of people I do not know. While I have no trouble doing this in areas like the performing arts, politics, and philosophy, my personal health is another matter; and I think the distinction has to do with my restricting my "author's voice" to readers already familiar with my speaking voice. Whether or not this is a rational decision (or even whether I hold to it, since this post is already stretching it) remains to be seen. My guess is that however much my experiences over the next few months inform me about sickness, they will probably inform me about my own writing practices.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Rebranding Chutzpah

If anyone thought we have run out of jokes about lipstick on a pit bull, Tom Engelhardt's latest post to The Notion, one of the blogs managed by The Nation, has reminded us that even the meanest pit bull is not beyond submitting to an extreme makeover:

The name search took a year, while the company became persona non grata in Iraq, but now it's a reality. The notorious Blackwater Worldwide has officially rebranded itself Xe. According to a company memo, "Xe will be a one-stop shopping source for world class services in the fields of security, stability, aviation, training and logistics."

It's pronounced "Zee," by the way, and it's also, oddly enough, the symbol for Xenon, a colorless, odorless noble gas found in trace amounts in the Earth's atmosphere. If only Blackwater and its ilk in the hire-a-gun private security business were found, under whatever names, in mere trace amounts in American foreign and military policy. But no such luck.

We really did not need further evidence that people (even the ones who write checks for the United States Government) think more about brand names than about the product bearing the name. This is not even necessarily a case of cynicism, just a matter of good marketing practices. Nevertheless, given the reputation that this particular "product" has accrued over the last eight years, there still has to be an element of chutzpah behind the reasoning that changing the name will be sufficient to restore the reputation. Thus, to help them furnish the new offices that are sure to go with their new name, the senior management of Xe will receive this week's Chutzpah of the Week award, which can be displayed proudly to all prospective customers!

The "Trout" Sound

"Sound" seems to be the major topic this week at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. That was certainly the case when Menahem Pressler conducted his Master Class on Tuesday; and it was also the focus of attention in the all-Debussy Master Class led by Paul Roberts yesterday afternoon. Still, this is probably the subtlest of the "physical features" of any musical experience; and that subtlety continues to elude even the most sophisticated recording equipment. Therefore, it was a real delight to discover some real gems of "sound itself" in Pressler's Chamber Music Masters concert at the Conservatory.

Franz Schubert's A major piano quintet (D. 667, the "Trout") may well be one of the most-recorded pieces of chamber music. It attracts attention not only for its set of variations on the song for which it is named but also for its unconventional orchestration: piano, violin, viola, cello, and bass. One does not hear the double bass very often in chamber music; and, between the insensitivity of audio equipment and a tendency of the engineers to focus on the piano (which really does not need any reinforcement), most people with recordings of this quintet would be hard pressed to say they hear the bass at all. In terms of the overall structure of the composition with regard to both harmony and counterpoint, one might almost call the bass part an obbligato, as I did with the string parts in the Haydn trio Pressler coached on Tuesday. As with those string parts, the "obligatory" role of the bass is to introduce an element of color that is all but absent from the chamber music repertoire but would have been familiar in Schubert's time. I am referring to the tendency to use the bass as the "continuo" for more popular dance forms, played for entertainment, usually by a small string ensemble. The bass provides a solo voice that serves as the harmonic foundation in a sound significantly differentiated from the rest of the ensemble, not just by register but by its characteristic claim on the "real estate" of the audio spectrum.

Naturally, this effect only "works" if the bass is audible; and this can be a problem in "live" performance as well as in recordings. However, it was clear from Pressler's Master Class that balance was very much on his mind this week; and the result was what may well be the most satisfying performance of the "Trout" I have ever heard. Pressler, faculty violinist Ian Swensen, and three students found their balance with the opening chord and kept it through the burst of energy concluding the final Allegro guisto movement. The result, even with the obbligato nature of the bass, was that effect of an intimate conversation, which always pleases me in a performance and which is more a matter of course in jazz (where the bass tends to get more respect, particularly with the legacy of bass masters such as Charles Mingus).

The Schubert quintet was preceded by Johannes Brahms' first piano trio, the Opus 8 in B major. As the low opus number indicates, the work was published in his early twenties; but it was almost entirely overhauled 35 years later. In a letter to Clara Schumann while working on the revision, Brahms described the original version as "wild" and a source of "childish amusement;" and Brahms listeners are usually familiar with his tendency to sprawl, particularly in his earlier works. By the time of this revision, Brahms was beginning to explore the design and expressiveness of his far more compact piano compositions; and their is a tightness and focus to the later version that is now performed. There is also now an Adagio that almost foreshadows his later exploration of the intermezzo form, not only structurally but also as an expression of a particular kind of stillness that reflects back to several of the high points of Schubert's vocal, chamber, and solo piano music. Once again, balance of was of the essence, particularly in this third movement and in the final Allegro in which an initially nebulous statement of thematic material gradually acquires more and more focus until the entire trio ends in crystal clarity.

In many respects Schubert and Brahms are the two "monuments" that begin and conclude the chamber music repertoire of the nineteenth century. As a result their works are familiar to most attendees of chamber music recitals. Nevertheless, each of the compositions in both repertoires can always be approached in new ways, leading us down new paths of discovery in works we thought we knew. Pressler revealed those paths for both of these composers at the Conservatory last night.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cultural Confusion

Having lived in Singapore, I have a great interest Asian music and how it is perceived and experienced through Western ears. I have written about this phenomenon with respect to both Stewart Wallace, in his opera, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and Andrew Imbrie's interest in Korean instruments. During Paul Roberts' Master Class this afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was reminded that Claude Debussy provided another pair of ears fascinated by the perception of Asian music. However, Roberts' efforts to convey the nature of Debussy's perceptions reminded me of the extent to which Western perceptions at the beginning of the twentieth century were far less "clinical" (if not acute) than they were at the beginning of the twenty-first.

The music in question is "Pagodes," the first of Debussy's set of three Estampes. As a point of reference, consider the introductory paragraph for the Wikipedia entry for "Pagoda:"

A pagoda is the general term in the English language for a tiered tower with multiple eaves common in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia. Some pagodas are used as Taoist houses of worship. Most pagodas were built to have a religious function, most commonly Buddhist, and were often located in or near temples. This term may refer to other religious structures in some countries. In Myanmar and Thailand, "pagoda" usually means the same as stupa or chaitya, while in Vietnam, "pagoda" is a more generic term referring to a place of worship. The modern pagoda is an evolution of the Ancient Indian stupa, a tomb-like structure where sacred relics could be kept safe and venerated.[1] The architectural structure of the stupa has spread across Asia, taking on many diverse forms as details specific to different regions are incorporated into the overall design.

The casual ear might mistake this composition for an effort on Debussy's part to depict some kind of Chinese landscape; but, as Roberts correctly observed, the musical influence is that of gamelan, which is strictly Indonesian. Thus, if one wanted to be pedantically accurate, the landscape would be one of stupas, rather than pagodas. Unfortunately, there would also be a problem of just where this landscape would be. The work begins with the gradual insinuation of the multiple layers of gamelan sound, which would be entirely appropriate for the terrain around the Prambanan temple in central Java. (This is actually where I had one of my earliest experiences of gamelan, listening to the ensemble that accompanied a performance by the Ramayana Dance Troupe on the temple grounds.) However, as Debussy builds his music to a climax, he also suddenly moves us to the neighboring island of Bali, known for its more sharply defined (and usually louder) sounds. In other words, when it came to non-Western music, Debussy was as much of a dilettante as was the fictitious foil he created for his critical writing, Monsieur Croche!

Sympathy for the Judges

The time has come to filter out those who will be selected to perform in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, at least according to a report for the London Telegraph by Matt Warman:

Watching television on the internet is about so much more than simply viewing different programmes: the medium allows for ever-increasing levels of interactivity. Even so, online video site YouTube’s attempt to form a full symphony orchestra via the submissions of its users has been remarkably ambitious. But more than 3,000 videos have been received since the competition was announced last year, coming from countries from Azerbaijan to Venezuela. Now 200 finalists have been selected, and the site is in the final days of voting for the winners. Five of those finalists are from Britain and all their video submissions are available to view on the channel.

To vote, users simply need to visit the site and click the thumbs up or thumbs down next to each clip – the winners will be announced on 2 March, and will be invited to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall in a “collaborative summit for classical music” in April.

Skeptical as I may be of this whole project, I figured that, given some of my remarks about competition winners, I owed it to myself to put myself in the judges' shoes for a change, since, at the end of the day, their votes are about as binary as those cast by YouTube viewers. This was, by no means, a pleasant matter, particularly since I could not figure out how to get down to those five finalists from Britain and therefore had to wade through a fair amount of material. I now appreciate the extent to which judges listen for the slightest defect as an opportunity to vote for rejection. I do not like it, but I understand it. As I once suggested to my brother, who plays English horn in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the sad truth is that the supply of performing musicians painfully exceeds the demand; so we need all the filters we can get, however harsh they may be. Still, I am sure that there are those who are Internet-savvy enough to game this system. We have no idea who will make the final cut and even less idea of whether or not they will actually come together to make an orchestra of even satisfactory quality. From the other point of view, listening to all of these performers on You Tube was a damned sight better than watching stupid pet tricks (although one of the competitors should be accepted simply for succeeding in combining the two genres)!

Beyond Cyberchondria

Someone over at the BBC seems to have a "nose for news" concerned with the hazardous impact of Internet technology of the quality of health care. Last December the topic was "cyberchondria," introduced with the following introductory summary:

Health information online is breeding a generation of cyberchondriacs - people who needlessly fear the worst diagnosis after surfing the net, say researchers.

Today's report is based on a publication in a professional journal, which argues that virtual worlds differ from the physical world in ways that may jeopardize individual health:

People's health could be harmed by social networking sites because they reduce levels of face-to-face contact, an expert claims.

Dr Aric Sigman says websites such as Facebook set out to enrich social lives, but end up keeping people apart.

Dr Sigman makes his warning in Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology.

A lack of "real" social networking, involving personal interaction, may have biological effects, he suggests.

He also says that evidence suggests that a lack of face-to-face networking could alter the way genes work, upset immune responses, hormone levels, the function of arteries, and influence mental performance.

This, he claims, could increase the risk of health problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease, and dementia.

Since this is a news report, it does little more than summarize the key points from Sigman's publication:

Dr Sigman says that there is research that suggests the number of hours people spend interacting face-to-face has fallen dramatically since 1987, as the use of electronic media has increased.

And he claims that interacting "in person" has an effect on the body that is not seen when e-mails are written.

"When we are 'really' with people different things happen," he said.

"It's probably an evolutionary mechanism that recognises the benefits of us being together geographically.

"Much of it isn't understood, but there does seem to be a difference between 'real presence' and the virtual variety."

Dr Sigman also argues using electronic media undermines people's social skills and their ability to read body language.

The extent to which these claims are supported can only be determined by reading the full paper; and it raises the interesting question as to whether or not the referees for this particular journal included practicing clinicians, who might have their own experiences on how communication differs when one moves from the physical to the virtual world. When I tried to interpret the "cyberchondria" phenomenon, I did so by trying to address the nature of the conversations that take place over the topic of personal health, whether with professionals or with personal friends and acquaintances. It is unclear from the BBC account whether Sigman recognizes that what he calls "interaction" is necessary for effective communication but probably not sufficient. However, even if his publication raises more questions than it answers, it will probably be worth reviewing, particularly among those who recognize the problems of current health care practices and the serious need for reform in the entire system.

News Organizations and their Blog Networks

These days just about every major news organization that manages a Web site also manages a team of bloggers. In some cases those blogs provide a sort of appendix to the published editorial page, providing staff writers with an opportunity to write longer and more frequent contributions. In other cases these bloggers are recruited from outside of the staff, often with little (if any) compensation, motivated primarily by the benefit of appearing on a site that attracts a large number of readers. In the CNET organization this is called the CNET Blog Network; and, since news related blog posts show up on my CNET RSS feed, I would say that they make good on the promise of drawing large numbers of readers to their bloggers.

This morning an RSS headline (viewed through Google Reader) attracted me to an article on Chris Soghoian's Surveillance State blog. However, before I get into the relationship between Soghoian and CNET, I want to observe that a statement about the (lack of relationship) between him and CNET appears twice on his blog page:

Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting He is a member of the CNET Blog Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

I would take this as a model statement of both the Blog Network itself that the sort of bloggers who participate in it, everything nicely above-board and apparently important enough to CNET to be stated twice on the same page.

The headline that attracted me was: shuns transparency, blocks Google

Given the extent to which I have been interested in (and often critical of) the relationship between the new Obama Administration and the Internet, this headline was hard to resist, since it offered at least a hint of hypocrisy in what had appeared to be a major differentiating feature of the changes that Barack Obama had promised to bring to the White House. The primary support for the claim in the headline appears in the following excerpt from the blog post:

Although the site is advertised as proof of the president's commitment to transparency, its technical design seems to betray that spirit. Most importantly, the site currently blocks all requests by search engines, which would ordinarily download and index each page to make the information more accessible to the Web-searching public.

The site's robots.txt file has just a few lines of text:

# Deny all search bots, web spiders
User-agent: *
Disallow: /

Although the White House Web team did not immediately respond to a request for comment, the single-line comment at the top of the file indicates that the blocking of search engines is no accident but rather a statement of policy.

Now two points about this report caught my attention on strictly journalistic grounds. The first was the reminder that blog posts and similar products of what Timothy Egan, in his blog for The New York Times (for which he used to work and has now retired), called "Web info-slingers" do not constitute journalism (a case that Egan made compellingly in his "Save the Press" blog post). As such, we, as readers, have no idea whether or not bloggers trying to get a response from the subject of a post are aware of, let alone practice, the standard procedures of journalism. Thus, the final sentence of that excerpt cannot be read as a source of legitimate content. It may be well-intentioned; but it is also gratuitous.

However, that sentence does bring us over the bridge to the relationship between the CNET Blog Network and the (presumably) professional journalists on the CNET staff. This bridge was crossed by a thread of comments from readers with experience in Web design. The thread was initiated by the following anonymous comment:

When I have been working on a new website, I have configured the robots.txt file to disallow indexing. Then when it is ready to go production, I change the file to allow indexing. It is always my fear that I will forget to change this. I wonder if this task got forgotten? Has anyone contacted the web master to confirm that this was their intention?

This was followed by a comment of agreement from "jon_abad," who took the question of appropriate practice to the next level:

I would hope that a news organization like Cnet would bother to ask the White House's web folks for a comment in order to determine if the spider blocking in robots.txt was on purpose as opposed to just posting conjecture.

Alas, I fear this comment is "a consummation/Devoutly to be wished." I have read enough contributions to the CNET Blog Network to recognize that CNET takes a minimal approach to editing their bloggers (probably somewhat along the lines of the approach that Wikipedia takes to its contributors). However, in this case the question arises as to whether or not anyone on the CNET news staff takes the time to read what those bloggers write. The content of this post deserves the treatment of serious journalism to determine whether this is really a "story with legs" or an alarmist reaction to standard Web design practice.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Haydn Sound

A long day in Palo Alto yesterday left me with little energy for the Master Class that Menahem Pressler gave last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but I could not resist giving the event the best try I could muster. That effort sustained me through little more than the first performance, which was of the first movement of Joseph Haydn's A flat major piano trio (Hoboken XV/14); but there was much to be gained from this experience, most of which had to do with Pressler emphasizing the need for a light touch at the piano to keep the instrument from dominating the violin and cello. This is a problem which I have discussed in the past, which is the tendency of any chamber music for piano and strings to sound like a "concerto for piano and very small orchestra." As Pressler observed, Haydn complicates this situation with a piano part that has about 75% of the notes (leading to the joke, which only a pianist would dare tell, that this would justify the pianist getting 75% of the fee); and this set me to thinking about just what it was that Haydn had in mind in conceiving of such a piano trio in the first place.

It is clear that Haydn was not thinking in terms of a concerto form; but it might not be too far-fetched to assume that he was thinking of a piano sonata which happened to have two obbligato parts for a violin and a cello. What would the role of those parts be that would make them so "obligatory?" My hypothesis is that, if we consider how closely those parts follow the voices in the piano part, they serve to endow the very sound of those voices with an instrumental "coloration" that the piano cannot provide. This seemed to be the sort of goal Pressler was trying to achieve by getting the pianist to play softer and the violinist to play louder, particularly in one passage in which the violin had to parallel a rather delicate embellishing passage in the piano part. (I found it interesting, by the way, that Pressler never addressed the cellist in this session, even though my own feeling was that the cello is also primarily there for a different shade of that "coloration.")

Unfortunately, this approach raises another problem, which is one of my personal favorites. This problem involves the difference between balancing contemporary instruments and those which are "period" instruments appropriate to Haydn's time. This particular trio is dated 1790, which puts it between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 537 ("Coronation") piano concerto and his final (K. 595) B flat major concerto. Thus, one may assume that Haydn would have had in mind the sonority of a fortepiano similar to the one that Philip Bolt built based on one of Mozart's own instruments (which Malcolm Bilson has used for many of his concerts and recordings); and the strings would likewise have the sonorities of the instruments of that same time (such as those which the English Baroque Soloists used in accompanying the Bilson recordings of the Mozart "concerto canon"). This would mean a fortepiano with a far more rapid decay time that would be far easier to balance with a weaker violin and cello, both of which would have "softer" timbres, as well as overall amplitude. In other words, if Haydn's was going for particular effects of instrumental coloration in this particular trio, then this may be one of those compositions that is far better served by period instruments and may even be too frustratingly challenging to performers of more modern instruments. I make this claim knowing full well that Pressler and his Beaux Arts Trio had a great love of the Haydn trio repertoire; but this may be one of those cases where my interest in what I have called "accountability to the music itself" has more to do with sonority than with any logical or grammatical properties of the notated score.