Friday, December 31, 2010

A Thought for the End of the Year

I seem to have covered a fair amount of ground in my reading this year, often using this site as a “laboratory notebook” when I was trying to puzzle my way through some of the more difficult texts I encountered.  It therefore seems appropriate to approach the end of the calendar year with a paragraph from Jacques Derrida.  The source is “Plato’s Pharmacy” (in Barbara Johnson’s translation), where it is the opening statement (so to speak):

A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game.  A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.  Its law and its rules are not, however, harbored in the inaccessibility of a secret;  it is simply that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.

I find it slightly ironic that I read this paragraph shortly after having wrestled my way through Derrida’s “From Restricted to General Economy:  A Hegelianism without Reserve,” which had left me with the impression that Derrida was wrestling his way through Georges Bataille’s analysis of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, with a particular emphasis on the Phänomenologie des Geistes, which comes out as “phenomenology of mind” in Alan Bass’ translation of Derrida’s essay.  I have no problem confessing that, having worked my way through this text in its entirety, I cannot say that I have formed “anything that could rigorously be called a perception” (or, in more verb-based language, “performed any productive act of sensemaking”) as a result of my reading.

One way to approach what Derrida has in mind with regard to approaching a text through “the law of its composition and the rules of its game” is through Johnson’s account of deconstruction in her introduction to Derrida’s Dissemination:

The deconstruction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or generalized skepticism, but by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself.  If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim to unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another.  This, of course, implies that a text signifies in more than one way, and to varying degrees of explicitness.  Sometimes the discrepancy is produced, as here, by a double-edged word, which serves as a hinge that both articulates and breaks open the explicit statement being made.

Note that the “double-edged word” for which Derrida is probably best known is “différance,” which has “differ” on one “edge” and “defer” on the other.

Where Bataille is concerned, however, I have to wonder whether signification was even remotely part of the game he was playing.  I like the way his Wikipedia entry refers to him as a “renegade surrealist,” since I often think of surrealism as a strategy through which all matters of substance (the domain of perception and sensemaking) have been forced to “defer” (to play with Derrida’s terminology) to some set of arbitrarily chosen “axioms of style.”  Substance is thus subjugated to a point where it is no longer part of the equation.  In the domain of literature, one assembles the text to satisfy the constraints of the axioms;  and what the reader does with that text (even if some of the words purport to be taking on the concept of “sovereignty” in Hegel) is his/her own business.

This could be taken as a reductio ad absurdum of the sort of prankishness that Friederich Nietzsche claimed as a motivation for much of his own writing.  However, this is far from the first time I have encountered this kind of subjugation of substance by style.  Much of the work of the New York School of John Cage and those who worked with him involved setting down some of those axioms and then just seeing whether they led.  (Cage once quoted Morton Feldman as saying, “Now that it is so simple, there’s so much to do.”)  On the literary side there is Oulipo, the “Workshop for Potential Literature” formed in France in 1960 by Raymond Queneau, described in the Oulipo Laboratory anthology as “a celebrated novelist and poet and a not inconsequential amateur mathematician,” along with the chess master François Le Lionnais.  I had a colleague who tried to take on Queneau’s “The Foundations of Literature (after David Hilbert).”  He assumed that, because the text looked like a paper on mathematics (metamathematics, to be specific), it must ultimately be about one or more theorems that are rigorously proved.  He was never able to entertain the hypothesis that Queneau was just playing with the “appearance” of mathematical text without making any commitment to stating (let alone proving) any mathematical propositions.

My point is that there may well be times when the author is simply trying to pull a fast one on the reader.  Thus, Derrida may have assumed that Bataille had something significant to say about Hegel;  and, because of his own serious interest in Hegel, he fell for the joke.  Now we have a new generation of literary scholars who will approach “From Restricted to General Economy” and miss the joke that Derrida was the butt of Bataille’s joke.  This sort of thing can go on for some time through a serious of purportedly “learned essays.”  They will support each other with the elegance of a house of cards, but who will have the courage to shake the table?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Not Worth the Paper?

This morning Caroline McCarthy used her CNET News column, The Social, to run through the best seller numbers from Amazon.  The item that interested me the most was the following:

The most-gifted Kindle book on Amazon was "Decision Points," the memoirs of former President George W. Bush.

My interest in this particular result was probably primed by a remark I had quoted from Lisa Jardine on the subject of reading a book through an electronic device:

For everyday purposes I now find my electronic reader allows me to pursue a book I am enjoying wherever I go. I have to confess that I am reading Tony Blair's autobiography, purchased from my favourite online bookseller, on my iPad. Having spent much of the past week in airports and on planes, there is little doubt in my mind that this is far and away the most convenient way to read.

My reaction to this observation is worth reproducing:

Very little of my reading is a matter of starting on the first page and chugging my way through until the pages have been exhausted. I am always bouncing around the text I am reading. I suspect that Jardine approaches much of her reading the same way, in which case she dropped a subtle review of Blair's book on us. Whenever I read a biography, I often find myself looking back in the text to see if some event in childhood or youth had an impact on another event at a more advanced age. I wonder whether or not Jardine decided that it was not worth taking the time to look for such connections while reading Blair's memoirs!

This raises another point, which is about why we read in the first place. I suspect that many of those who read in airports and on planes do so as an antidote for idleness. However, one does not have to commit to full-out Derrida-style engagement to keep idleness at bay. Thus, I suspect that the print version of the magazine in which Jardine's columns appear (not to mention Blair's memoir) is probably far more suited to holding off idleness on a long flight than any text by Derrida could be (although I cannot avoid confessing that I made quite a lot of progress in Speech and Phenomena on one such flight)!

I recently read Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review of Blair’s memoir in the last (December 23) issue of The New York Review of Books;  and I am now reading Joseph Lelyveld’s take on Decision Points in the current (January 13) issue.  I currently have so much to read that I have to confess that neither article has encouraged me to take on the text itself in any setting.  Indeed, the best part of Wheatcroft’s piece was the title (which I hope was his own selection), “NO Prime Minister!”

Nevertheless, I found myself thinking about Jardine’s approach to reading Blair, which, without intending to cast any aspersions on Jardine, I would probably call “context-free reading.”  From this point of view, I can see how well suited Decision Points would be to an electronic reader.  If there is any theme that unifies the narrative about Bush, it is his character trait as a man so guided by faith that he only had to consult his own heart about matters of right and wrong, regardless of any complexities of context surrounding the decision he had to make (particularly, as Lelyveld was quick to observe, complexities having to do with consequences).  From this point of view, a context-free approach would probably provide the most sympathetic setting for reading Bush:  If he never let context get in the way of his own heart, why should the reader?

This then raises my other point as to whether or not I would turn to Decision Points as an “antidote for idleness.”  While I am willing to grant that I have an any-port-in-a-storm attitude when my reading matter is limited, I try to stave off that attitude with advance preparation, particularly if I have to face the tedium of both airports and airplanes.  (I suspect this is one reason why I wear jackets with pockets large enough to accommodate The New York Review of Books.)  However, where long-distance travel is concerned, the last thing I want is reading matter likely to aggravate me, since I am trying to avoid being reminded of just how uncomfortable such travel can be;  and I suspect that aggravation would be my primary reaction to being exposed, once again, to an account by this former President of why he not only did what he did but continues (for the most part) to stand by the decisions he made.  Deciphering Derrida will always be challenging;  but it engages my mind with positive thoughts, which is far more than I can say about President Obama’s predecessor!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We Wish You a Viral Christmas

If there is a good way to track the most viral videos on YouTube, I have not yet found it.  I can understand why it is not easy, because there are usual multiple postings of the ones that are “seriously viral.”  Still it is probably appropriate to the season that the “Christmas 2.0” version of the Nativity has amassed 8,236,455 as of this writing, which makes for a significant lead over the 5,684,959 views (which appears to be a cumulative figure across eight separate postings) for “Animals of YouTube sing ‘Deck the Halls.’"  It is also worth observing that the animal video first appeared a year ago on December 23, 2009 but never made it to the 1,000,000 mark during that holiday season, while “Christmas 2.0” is a product of the current season and appears to have originated in Portugal.  The Portuguese version, which was posted on December 6, has 2,746,907 views of its own;  so, if we aggregate across languages, the full count has broken 10,000,000 and is probably running with twice as much popularity as the animals.

I suppose the curmudgeonly response would be to ask whether or not people have better things to do.  Consider, however, that economic times have not improved very much over this past year.  There is certainly more of the Christmas spirit in watching “Christmas 2.0” (perhaps even as a family experience) than there would be in going to the mall to figure out how you are going to buy gifts with money you don’t have!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christine Schäfer's Versatility

Last August I used my platform to declare Thomas Hampson the “unanointed king” of presenting “virtual concerts” through the medium of cyberspace.  I so honored him because not only has he established his presence in cyberspace through an intriguing diversity of channels (including the only occasion in which I found myself writing a classical music review of a PowerPoint presentation) but often he seems to have a hand in just how that presence is established.  The result is that, as I observed in my article, he is the only performer whose cyberspace appearances I try to evaluate from both a technological and a musical point of view.

Recently I have become aware of the extent to which Christine Schäfer has benefitted from performances mediated by a variety of media, so to speak.  Because I am not sure that she has an active hand in how these media products are conceived or delivered, I am not sure that she deserves the sort of regal crown I have assigned to Hampson.  Nevertheless, those media products have represented her in a diversity of performances that I might not otherwise have experienced;  and I always believe in celebrating performers who try to maintain diversity in their active repertoire.

Like many I first encountered Schäfer singing the title role in Alban Berg’s opera, Lulu.  I was fortunate enough to see her do this on the stage, after which I saw the video document of her Glyndebourne performance, now available on DVD.  I was not particularly happy with Graham Vick’s stage direction for the latter production, since I tend to be a purist when it comes to Berg’s own specifications;  but I certainly could not quibble about the casting, particularly where Schäfer’s voice was concerned.  Having come to identify her with Lulu (probably not the healthiest of mindsets), I was, to say the least, surprised when the Metropolitan Opera cast her as Gretel when they decided to produce Richard Jones’ staging of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (currently available for viewing through Classical TV).  Mind you, there was no trace of “innocent childhood” in Jones’ conception of Gretel;  but I was still pretty impressed with how Schäfer threw herself into a role that would make Bart Simpson look well-behaved.  Then, this morning I discovered, again through Classical TV, that her pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme.  She was one of the two sopranos in an Advent Concert of music by Johann Sebastian Bach prepared by Nikolaus Harnoncourt for performance at the Benedictine Monastery in Melk, not the sort of place where one would expect to encounter either Lulu or Gretel!

I have not yet watched this particular Classical TV video.  I should be able to do so today.  I cannot imagine why a soprano with a firm hold on Berg should not be just as capable in taking on Humperdinck;  but Bach is in another league, particularly when you have someone like Harnoncourt giving a historically informed performance.  In the current lineup of my projects, this one may be fascinating enough to get Spock to raise his eyebrow!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Dismal Movie Scene

One does not have to be a sophisticated deconstructionist to appreciate the subtext in the Introduction that Peter Travers’ wrote for his list of ten best movies on the Rolling Stone Web  site:

Let us praise movies that didn't suck in 2010. Begone, sequels to Twilight and Sex and the City. Begone, chick flicks that bossed us around (what if I don't want to eat, pray, love?). Begone, epics Hollywood made in 3D because they couldn't make them good. This space is for 10 films that earned a place in the year's time capsule.

It seems pretty clear to me that the primary criterion for a film earning “a place in the year’s time capsule” was that it “didn’t suck.”  That says all I want to know about the overall space of candidates.

Of course movies are not my “turf;”  and, as far as my writing is concerned, they never have been.  These days I am so busy going to performances that I really do not have the time to go into a movie house, so I have no problem assuming that any movie I want to see will show up on cable sooner or later.  On the other hand, because I take narrative very seriously, it has not escaped my notice that I have been finding more compelling narratives on cable in the series produced by HBO and Showtime than in the films they have been offering.

There also is that criterion of memorability, which recently guided my effort to review this past year on  When I applied that exercise, I had no trouble identifying a memorable performance for each month of this year.  Indeed, just about every month gave me a struggle in choosing one out of several candidates for the list I compiled.  When it comes to movies, on the other hand, I think that there was exactly one 2010 movie that remains in my memory and held my attention from beginning to end.  That was Alex Gibney’s documentary My Trip to Al-Qaeda, the bulk of which was a document of Lawrence Wright’s one-man stage show of the same name.  Regular readers should probably recognize Wright’s name, since I like to cite his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, for providing one of the most cogent arguments as to why our "war on terror" movement is as wrongheaded today as it was when President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security.  (No, this film did not show up on Travers’ list, even though it is part of Gibney’s consistent track record for making perceptive documentaries.)  So, if the only thing Travers could remember about any film on his list was that it “didn’t suck,” why did he bother making the list in the first place?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pop Myopia

I like to believe that people who make it their business to write about music are capable of seeing beyond the limitations of their chosen specialties.  There may be nothing “universal” about music itself;  but it strikes me that  the very act of making music has the potential to unite us in a global community, no matter how opaque the music of other cultures may seem to us.  (I suspect I shall always remember the day I received a lesson in playing the monochord in a remote village in Vietnam.)  I suppose this is one reason why I am so adamant about jazz being “chamber music by other means” (and why I enjoy anecdotes like the one about Thelonious Monk playing Frédéric Chopin in his “spare time” at the piano).

Then I read what passes for writing about pop music, and I realize that I am hopelessly naïve.  The fact is that it is almost impossible for me not to cringe at the use of the word “diva” in the pop world.  It may not be a full frontal assault on the semantic tradition of the word;  but it is certainly a sign of disrespect consistent with the semantics of the rap community.

In today’s New York Times (in my once cherished “Section 2” no less), I find that another “classical” word is under siege.  In writing about Christina Aguilera, pop writer David Browne describes her as “one of the foremost practitioners of the overpowering, Category 5 vocal style known as melisma.”  For those (like myself) who did not immediately figure out what Browne was saying, Google quickly informed me that the reference was to the fifth Category in the GRAMMY awards.  (This year there are 109 categories.)  Category 5 is “Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (For a solo vocal performance.  Singles or Tracks only.).”  In other words melisma is a particular stylistic technique that female pop singers can use to strut their stuff (and the primary thrust of Browne’s piece is that melisma is falling into disfavor).

What follows is Browne’s attempt to explain the nature of the technique:

Although there’s nothing simple about it, melisma in its simplest form is a vocal technique in which a series of notes is stretched into one syllable. Its roots can be tracked back to gospel, blues and even Gregorian chant; Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder used it sparingly early in their careers.

The good news is that, whatever the GRAMMY judges may think, men have as much right to sing melisma as women do.  Indeed, when we get past that dismissive “even Gregorian chant” remark, we realize that melisma as we know it is a product of religious incantation, as prevalent in Judaism as in Christianity, making its use in gospel just another brick in a rather impressive wall.  (I would also hypothesize, on the basis of some of the more prudish remarks about music in Plato’s “Republic,” that the Ancient Greeks had some bricks to contribute to that wall.)

I suppose this is little more than my usual double-barreled moaning.  The “primary” moan is about the extent to which ignorance of history has become practically institutionalized by our prevailing culture.  The “secondary” moan involves a broader perspective of ignorance as a product of the deterioration of The New York Times as a reputable source of information.  There are, of course, sources of refutations for both of these moans;  but their appearances seem to be getting more and more seldom.  At least in this case I really do not have to care very much about Category 5!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Profiles High and Low

I have been toying with the idea of a Chutzpah of the Week award for Anya Kushchenko (better known as Anna Chapman) ever since she was deported from the United States on grounds of espionage.  We tend to think of spies as keeping the lowest possible profile in the interest of doing their work as effectively as possible.  The only ones with a high profile are like James Bond, whose proper domain is that of entertaining fiction, right?  Actually, Chapman’s high profile as an attractive attention-gathering public figure has at least one intriguing precedent in the United Kingdom.  Guy Burgess was always calling attention to himself, particularly when he was going against the grain of society norms (which he was almost always doing);  and, yes, I am sure there are those who would disagree with describing him with the adjective “attractive!”  The difference is that Burgess was an insider groomed well enough from the inside to know how the system worked in intimate detail (thus being perfectly poised to muck with that system).  Chapman, on the other hand, was an outsider groomed to pass as an insider;  and she was clearly very good at her job.

This was the week, however, that finally tipped my balance in her favor.  Yes, the news gets a bit slow during the holiday season.  If I were a serious animist, I might consider giving the award to “The Weather” for its timing in making so many people so miserable;  but the whole purpose of the Chutzpah of the Week award is to focus on outstanding instances of human  This was the week that Chapman demonstrated that, however much we in the United States may have tried to load down her reputation with lemons, she could still make a whopping pitcher of lemonade.  As the BBC reported on Wednesday, that pitcher was her prestigious appointment to the Public Council, which is basically the governing body of the Molodaya Gvardiya, the youth wing of Russia’s governing party (i.e. the party of Vladimir Putin). behavior.

Chapman is thus doing what she does best, maintaining a high profile in the interest of the State.  She has done this by taking her first step into politics.  However, is espionage really a useful prerequisite for those seeking to ascend the ladder of political power?  One only has to consult Russian history, perhaps starting with Putin himself (if he were willing to take the question)!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Really Bad Timing

There seems to be a grim undercurrent of irony in the chronology of events associated with the Skype systems crash.  Word seems to have come first to CNET News by way of The Digital Home, Don Reisinger’s contribution to the CNET Blog Network (with the implication that he is not a CNET employee).  Reisinger first put up his post yesterday at 8:58 AM (Pacific time) and then added time-stamped updates as follows:

Skype appears to be suffering an outage.

Twitter users around the globe are taking to the social network to report that Skype is down for them. The tweets started hitting Twitter this morning and continue as of this writing. Users are also reporting that their mobile applications, including those on Android and on the iPhone, are inoperable.

I tested the Skype app on my Mac and it is down as of this writing. My Skype iPhone app is also down. CNET's Rafe Needleman had been experiencing outage issues this morning, but said that his service was soon restored.

Update 9:18 a.m. PT: Skype wrote in an e-mail to CNET this morning that it's "assessing the matter now and its extent. We apologize for the inconvenience caused to our users."

Update 11:12 a.m. PT: Skype then followed that up with a blog post shedding more light on the outage.

According to the company, it "noticed that the number of people online on Skype was falling, which wasn't typical or expected." After investigating the issue, Skype found that "a large number of supernodes," which act as the service's phone directory of sorts, "were taken offline by a problem affecting some versions of Skype."

To fix the issue, Skype's engineers are currently "creating new 'mega-supernodes'" that should get the service running normally in "a few hours." Skype's group video chatting feature could take even longer to be fixed.

Update 2:27 p.m. PT: As promised, Skype says that its service is "now returning to normal." However, the company also noted on its Twitter account that it could still "take several hours for everyone to be able to sign in again."

We will continue to share details as we hear more.

This morning, at 6:46 AM, Reisinger put up a new post to update the progress in which he estimated that the traffic level was still only 30% of the normal amount.

Going back to yesterday, however, note that Skype sent its first “official” notification to CNET some time before Reisinger’s 9:18 AM update.  Meanwhile, at 9:58 AM Bloomberg ran an analysis story about Skype prepared by Joseph Galante and based on an interview with CEO Tony Bates conducted on December 20.  As one might guess, the content was primarily promotional and therefore highly upbeat:

Skype Technologies SA Chief Executive Officer Tony Bates will fuel growth by adding corporate partnerships and hiring engineers to build new products as the company readies for an initial public offering.

Bates, who joined the Internet calling company in October from Cisco Systems Inc., said in an interview Dec. 20 that agreements with other companies will be an increasingly important part of Skype’s development. He plans to hire as many as 500 people next year, most of whom will be engineers, to focus on new products and make sure that consumers have the same experience using Skype on their phone, desktop or television.

“More and more of us are living in a world of mobility that started off as convenience but now is becoming a richer form of communication,” said Bates, 43, at the company’s new 90,000-square-foot office in Palo Alto, California. “What we think is most powerful is not one modality -- it’s how multiplatform you can become. Consumers want choices.”

Bates faces the challenge of building new sources of revenue and coaxing money out of Skype’s more than 560 million users, of which only 1.4 percent pay for the service, according to a regulatory filing. Skype, which started as a way for consumers to chat for free, is developing premium services such as group video calling, pursuing corporate accounts and plans to raise $100 million in an IPO.

“Companies like Skype have a tremendous amount of opportunities,” said Bates. “You have to focus on the things that matter.”

The timing could not have been worse, raising the old Watergate question about the service outage:  What did Galante and Bloomberg know, and when did they know it?  Fortunately, when we read “below the fold” we find the answer.  Under the subheading “Growing Pains,” Galante wrote the following:

Today, some Skype users had difficulty logging on to the service, a matter Skype said it was investigating.

To be fair Galante may not have appreciated the magnitude of the problem Skype was experiencing;  and, on the basis of Reisinger’s chronology, it would be fair to say that Skype itself had not yet assessed that magnitude.

Nevertheless, the chronology reminds me of one of the rules I was taught when working at the MIT campus radio station (back in the days when MIT had the rights to the call letters WTBS, which, at that time, stood for Technology, rather than Turner, Broadcasting System).  Even though we only ran commercials on our closed-circuit AM system, the rule was that, if news breaks about any kind of air crash, all advertising for airlines gets pulled for at least 24 hours.  No one wants to hear an ad about flying to Bermuda right after a report of a plane crashing, regardless of where the crash took place.  By that logic it is hard to imagine anyone (particularly someone for whom Skype has become a major tool for doing global business) considering serious investment in Skype at a time when their service is on the fritz in a really big way.

If Bloomberg was in a bit of a bind over whether or not to run Galante’s story, the same cannot be said of the San Francisco Chronicle, whose Business Report section now draws heavily on Bloomberg sources (explicitly credited as such).  The Chronicle ran the story, pretty much as it had originally appeared, this morning, which is to say at a time when just about anyone following digital technology news knew about the Skype outage and may even have been a user whose service had not yet been restored.  Was this really the best time for the Chronicle to shuttle the story into print (next to a color photograph of a smiling Bates)?  Who made this call in an editorial capacity?  Enquiring minds want to know!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Degradation of the Knowledge Worker

Back when I was working on the research turf of knowledge management, the name most associated with the concept of “knowledge work” was that of Peter Drucker.  However, I was surprised to discover, by poking around in the Wikipedia Discussion page for “Knowledge worker,” that the term was basically as old as I was.  Drucker apparently introduced the term in his book Concept of the Corporation, which first appeared in 1946!

At the very least this makes for an interesting lesson in academic silos.  When knowledge management was on the rise, I had several colleagues who were fond of recalling Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, which was first published in 1973.  Given the vintage of Drucker’s work, I figured that he would figure in Bell’s study (which was concerned with the more general idea of a “knowledge society”);  but there appears to be no mention of Drucker in the book.  (He is certainly absent from the Name Index.)  One gets the impression that Bell and his colleagues felt too “elevated” to give much thought to anything Drucker may have written.

These days the very word “knowledge” seems to reside in two worlds.  On the one hand we have the academics, who are still wrestling with the concept as Socrates had done (as least as he was depicted by Plato in Theaetetus).  On the other we have the stark reality of how the words “knowledge worker” are actually used (following the semantic criteria pursued by Ludwig Wittgenstein).  I recently suggested that the “real-world usage” of the phrase now denotes “a mindless drone,” sitting in a call center behind a computer terminal concerned with little more than reading scripts and filling out forms.  In this context the following words, delivered at a conference in 1994 before knowledge management really hit its stride, offer a quaint nostalgia for academic thinking:

Knowledge workers solve problems and generate outputs largely by resort to structures internal to themselves rather than by resort to external rules or procedures.

I was amused to see that one of the contentious topics of discussion on Wikipedia involved whether or not a blacksmith was a knowledge worker;  but, according to the above criteria, any blacksmith (past or present) probably brings more knowledge to his/her tasks then one is likely to find behind that voice at the other end of the phone telling you what to do when your broadband connection is malfunctioning.  Nicholas Carr would probably argue that it is the technology itself that has degraded workers who could be drawing upon such internalized knowledge, turning them into those “mindless drones;”  but I think the issue is a broader one.  Basically, the knowledge worker is a victim of a social trend, identified by Max Weber and discussed at length by Jürgen Habermas, that involved loss of meaning.  It is basically a reflection of semantic manipulation that George Orwell had recognized, according to which the meaning of a word reverts to its own antonym:  The most “productive knowledge worker” is the one who operates out of ignorance, delegating all authority to support technology.  As I have previously suggested, the consciousness industry is the chief beneficiary of such loss of meaning;  and it has been frighteningly successful in turning Bell’s social forecasting of a knowledge society into the more harrowing present of a society of wage slavery.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Most Aggravating Fiction I Ever Read

Recently I seem to be spending a lot of time listening to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120, his 33 variations on that waltz theme that Anton Diabelli circulated to publicize his publishing business.  For those who do not know the story (easily accessible through Wikipedia), Diabelli figured he could come up with a “best seller” by composing a waltz that would be published with a variation by every important Austrian composer living in 1819, “as well as several significant non-Austrians,” as the Wikipedia author puts it.  Here is how that author describes the response to this project:

Fifty-one composers responded with pieces, including Beethoven, Schubert, Carl Czerny, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Moscheles, and the eight-year-old Franz Liszt (although it seems Liszt was not invited personally, but his teacher Czerny arranged for him to be involved).

However, asking Beethoven to write a single variation was a bit like asking anyone else to eat a single potato chip (the basis for a major advertising campaign by the folks at Frito-Lay);  so Diabelli published Beethoven’s 33 contributions in one volume and everyone else’s in a second.

The problem that arises when Beethoven goes over the top in the number of variations he composes is that both performer and listener have to confront a major challenge of orientation both “in the small” (within each variation) and “in the large” (within the entire composition).  When I have had to deal with getting my mind to embrace an opera by Richard Wagner “in the large,” I have, in the past, resorted to “total immersion listening.”  This amounts to listening to a recording of the piece with as much frequency as a serious performer would spend practicing the music.  Opus 120 clearly deserves that attention (particularly since I doubt that my keyboard skills will ever be up to playing the damned thing);  but I am not going to make any promises as to whether I shall have any results to report (let alone when I may arrive at those results).

Nevertheless, that parenthetic remark about keyboard skills triggered thoughts about authors I have encountered who insist on showing off their knowledge of music, often with the result of advertising the painfully shallow limits of their amateurism.  My favorite bête noire used to be Douglas Hofstadter, whose Gödel, Escher, Bach practically invited me to throw it against the wall (which I probably would have done had I not been assigned the task of reviewing it).  Fortunately, I was eventually able to take some comfort from Vladimir Nabokov, which I reported in an earlier post.  In that case I was responding to a comment by David Simon about the television business:

The average Emmy voter has the attention span of a gnat.

This inspired me to respond as follows:

Vladimir Nabokov had chosen somewhat more elegant language when he lectured about reading Dostoevsky as "a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize" (a pleasure which I had experienced at its greatest when I had to write a review of Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach) ….

There is, however, one author for whom I would be hard pressed to call the reading experience “a mischievous but very healthy pleasure.”  That author is Fred Hoyle, at least when he was writing science fiction, rather than any of his more serious work in astronomy.

Hofstadter’s sin was in trying to draw conclusions about Johann Sebastian Bach by looking at his more “idle pastimes,” such as the puzzle canons from the BWV 1079 Musical Offering, while completely ignoring all those uncanny examples of synthesizing technique and expression that may be found in his sacred music.  Hoyle, however, would use his fiction to go straight to the jugular of Beethoven’s masterpieces, usually by creating an alter ego who was a concert pianist.  In The Black Cloud that character decides to test the hypothesis that an enormous cloud blocking out the sun is actually sentient by playing Beethoven’s Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) to it.  (As I recall, the cloud dismisses the performance with a style that Nabokov would have enjoyed.)  However, this “Hammerklavier” experience is chicken feed when compared with October the First is too Late, whose protagonist is obsessed with Opus 120.  Quite honestly, I have forgotten the number of times he plays this work in its entirety in the course of the novel.  I know it was at least three, and I remember finishing the book with the feeling that I had now endured the most blatant example of authorial masturbation I had ever encountered in text!  Beethoven may have had a problem with writing too many variations on this one theme, but that problem was nothing compared to Hoyle’s making us endure playing the result far beyond any limit we would call excessive.

For my part I have to confess that I have yet to hear Opus 120 performed in a recital.  I suppose that is why I am now focused on taking to trouble to get the music into my head.  When the occasion arises I want to make sure that I am better prepared to be a serious listener than Hoyle ever was!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Shooting at a Tank

I would have thought that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would have known that old soldiers’ joke:  “Don’t shoot at a tank;  you’ll only make it mad.”  If ever there were the moral equivalent of a tank (perhaps even a Iosif Stalin tank) in our political midst, it would be the Republicans in the Senate chamber.  Getting them just to approve debate of the strategic arms limitation treaty with Russia (START) must have involved Herculean efforts on the part of Majority Leader Harry Reid.  For Lavrov to send a message that the terms of the treaty "cannot be reopened, becoming the subject of new negotiations" (as was just reported on the BBC News Web site) will just encourage those like Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl to tinker the document to death.  This is what happens when political gain trumps larger issues of “homeland security;”  and, to be fair, both Lavrov and Kyl now deserve to find lumps of coal in the Christmas stockings!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Threatening with CHUTZPAH?

I realize that it is a bit late in the week to announce the Chutzpah of the Week award;  but I have been busy (sufficiently so that I may have to explain more in a later post).  However, even where chutzpah is concerned, good things come to those who wait;  and this seems to be an instance that deserves to be reported on “the Lord’s day.”  It concerns a report just filed on the BBC News Web site about Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan.

As those of us who follow the international news should know by now, Bashir is a man who takes Sharia law very seriously, particularly when it involves brutal punishment for crimes against the precepts of Islam.  As a result the province of South Sudan, where most of the population follow either Christianity or older traditional beliefs (I am so glad that the adjective “pagan” is no longer used recklessly), will be holding of referendum on seceding from Sudan.  Bashir has now announced that, should this province declare independence, he will change the Sudanese constitution to make Islam the official religion (and therefore Sharia the basic legal code) and Arabic the official language.

My reading of this action is that it is a dare to the Christians of South Sudan.  Bashir is basically saying to them, “If you want your religious freedom in the south, your fellow Christians in the rest of Sudan will be penalized for your action.”  In other words he has taken an attempt to solve a major human rights problem through legitimate political means and turned it into what amounts to a hostage situation.  Any effort to influence the outcome of an election tends to involve some degree of chutzpah, but the degree in this case is high enough to warrant receipt of the Chutzpah of the Week award!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Robert Schumann Got Rhythm!

I had a lot of fun reading “Happy Birthday, Robert Schumann!” in the latest issue of The New York Review.  This was Charles Rosen’s essay written to honor the bicentennial of Schumann’s birth, and my only real disappointment was that it did not appear earlier in the year.  Of particular interest were the ways in which Rosen compared Schumann’s music to the work of Frédéric Chopin, who was born in the same year as Schumann.

The distinction that most appealed to Rosen involved the use of rhythmic patterns.  His basic argument was that Schumann could invoke polyrhythmic effects, while Chopin would maintain a single rhythm, which might be more elegantly embellished.  For Rosen one could best appreciate Schumann’s effects in his song settings, in which the vocal line would summon rhythms of colloquial speech against a more well-defined metrical pattern in the accompaniment.  Among other things, this enabled the piano accompaniment to provide “commentary” on the text being sung, a technique that Schumann also pursued by giving the piano extended coda passages after the text setting had been completed.  (I recently observed the critical role of such codas in an review of a performance of the Opus 42 song cycle Frauenliebe und –leben.)

Rosen further addresses the extent to which Schumann’s approach to his songs also surfaces in his solo pieces (including works composed before any of his song settings).  One of the best examples can be found in the Opus 17 fantasy in C major.  In an preview piece I wrote for András Schiff’s recital earlier this year, I made the following observation about the first movement of this composition:

The first of these has a "tempo indication" that has more to do with poetic expression than with the pace indicated by the metronome marking: Durchaus phastastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen (completely fantastic and passionately immediate). To the extent that the verb zutragen can be applied to relating a story, the rhetoric of this movement bears a striking resemblance that of the German Lied; and, indeed, the entire composition has four lines of verse by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel as its motto.

Rosen reinforces this perspective by observing that the dynamic emphasis must be confined to the “vocal line,” leaving the “accompaniment” as a “blur” in the background.

Looking back on this year, I realize that there were quite a few times when I emerged from a concert I was covering for with a clear sense of “Chopin fatigue.”  Schumann could often be problematic;  and he could also be highly enigmatic (not to mention both at the same time).  However, I do not think I have ever felt fatigue from Schumann’s presence in a recital.  To the contrary, now that the year has elapsed, I find myself numbering the Schumann compositions that I never encountered in performance since this past January.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Bit of Early John Adams History

In covering the first stage of this season’s Project San Francisco concerts at Davies Symphony Hall, organized by the San Francisco Symphony, for which John Adams was composer-in-residence, I gave considerable attention to the Inside Music Talk that former SF Classical Music Examiner Scott Foglesong gave for the Symphony performances of Adams’ “Harmonielehre.”  Foglesong seems to share my conviction that experiences are much more memorable when they are personalized.  Indeed, I myself took that personalized approach  in my review of the performance of Adams’ chamber music.  I felt that the scope of his repertoire could be examined in the context of his mindset;  and I offered the premise that, because I was almost exactly six months older than Adams, I could claim some appreciation of that mindset.  Similarly, Foglesong could establish a context for discussing Adams’ work by virtue of his having been Adams’ student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music back when Adams was first finding his voice as a composer.

Foglesong’s approach reminded me that I actually had an audio document from that period, and it came from a rather unlikely source.  Indeed, the only reason I have that document is because it came from a time when I was voraciously trying to get hold of any recording of the music of Gavin Bryars that existed.  This was before Bryars made his first appearance on a recording in the ECM New Series, when the only sources of his music were in Brian Eno’s Obscure series;  and I shall always be grateful to the Downtown Music Gallery for making it possible for me to find the CDs that replaced those Obscure vinyls that had been so hard to obtain.

Most of them had only a single Bryars selection, which meant that they provided the opportunity to learn about other composers previously unknown to me.  One of the records had the title Ensemble Pieces.  Bryars’ “1, 2, 1-2-3-4” was the last track in an album that included two pieces by Christopher Hobbs, “Aran” and “McCrimmon will Never Return.”  The remaining tracks were devoted to a three-movement suite by John Adams (whose name I barely recognized at the time) entitled American Standard.  Reviewing that CD I now see that those tracks were taken from a live performance by The New Music Ensemble of The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which took place in March 23rd, 1973!

I know of no other recording of American Standard in its entirety.  The middle movement has become relatively well known since it was recorded by the San Francisco Symphony when Edo de Waart was the conductor.  The notes for the Obscure recording stated that a conductor is “not necessary.”  The impression I get from those notes is that the suite was originally conceived to be as much a theater piece as a musical one.  Now I find myself wondering whether or not anyone might work up the motivation to revive American Standard in its entirety with a bit more of an effort to restore the spirit in which it was first created.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Icon, Index, and Symbol

I would like to continue addressing my “radical hypothesis” that the mindset for both making and listening to music presumes a context grounded on symbolic forms, which need not necessarily directly involve the lexical primitives of any system of music notation.  This raises the somewhat perplexing question of just what those symbolic forms are, if they are not grounded in the notational systems that musicians already use.  One clue may be found in  those three stages proposed by Ernst Cassirer as a sort of gradus to the Parnassum of linguistic behavior.

In philosophy it often seems to be the case that good things come in threes.  Where Cassirer is concerned his three stages bear a striking resemblance to an earlier famous “trichotomy” developed by Charles Sanders Peirce in his pioneering work in semiotics.  Cassirer gives no sign of having been aware of semiotics as a discipline in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, and he recognizes Peirce only for his pioneering work in symbolic logic.  Consider, however, what happens when we examine Cassirer’s three stages in the context of Peirce’s published work.

Drawing again on Alfred Schutz’ account of these stages, let us begin with the first of them:

It [language] is first mimic expression, imitation of the sensuous perception by sound, so characteristic of the language of the child and primitive man.

Compare this with the first of what Peirce calls “three kinds of representations” specified in his 1868 paper for the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “On a New List of Categories:”

Those whose relation to their objects is a mere community in some quality, and these representations may be termed Likenesses.

Peirce would later call these representations icons.

Next we turn to Cassirer’s second stage:

The second level is that of analogical expression.  Here the relationship between sound and designated content is not of a material nature, but that of an analogy of formal structure.

This is both similar and different to what Peirce had in mind for his second kind of representation:

Those whose relation to their objects consists in a correspondence in fact, and these may be termed Indices or Signs.

Where the difference emerges is in what Peirce means by “correspondence;”  but, before considering that distinction, let us move to Cassirer’s third stage:

Only the third level is that of symbolic expression proper.

Peirce describes his third kind of representation as follows:

Those the ground of whose relation to their objects is an imputed character, which are the same as general signs, and these may be termed Symbols.

The operative adjective here is “imputed.”  It anticipates one of the critical properties of symbols that emerged in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which is that there is no inherent relationship between the symbol as a signifying artifact and what it is that is represented by the symbol (i.e. the relationship is only “imputed” by those who use the symbol, thus sharing Ludwig Wittgenstein’s approach to how we “impute” meaning to linguistic constructs).

It seems as if, working through his own devices, Cassirer developed a system that parallels Peirce’s icon-index-symbol progression with an alternative progression that we might call “icon-onomatopoeia-symbol.”  This makes sense if we think strictly about that process by which we bring order to all those signals that bombard our senses;  and it is our capacity to tease order out of that "blooming, buzzing confusion" of sensations described in Chapter XIII of William James' The Principles of Psychology that probably distinguishes our ability to listen from, as Igor Stravinsky put it, the capacity of ducks only to hear.  However, as Gerald Edelman observed in developing his model of consciousness, that capacity to make sense of “exteroceptive” signals received by our sensory system may be applied recursively to the “interoceptive” signals given off by the brain as part of its own sensemaking behavior.  The correspondence of indices is not necessarily one of analogy.  It may also represent a “pointer” to another object, such as an interoceptive signal.

What this seems to mean is that it is not sufficient to make sense of what we (like ducks) hear when music is played to us.  Thinking about music is not only bringing order to sensory signals but also recursively bringing order to our introspective examination of how we are responding to those signals.  In other words the thoughts associated with a listening experience involve not only identifying “objects of perceptual categorization” but also building a bridge between those objects and the vaster repertoire of the objects of our individual consciousness.  Music thus taps into our consciousness in ways that elude verbal behavior, even at its most expressive.

This may get at why the effort of writing about musical performances is so challenging.  At a level of perceptual categorization, it would seem to involve nothing more that accounting for the perceptual objects of our sensory order;  but that is not where the music is, so to speak.  The music is on the other side of that metaphorical bridge in the realm of individual consciousness.  This implies the corollary that the concept of “writing about music objectively” is inherently an oxymoron.  Music only exists within the recesses of our own being and our conscious awareness of those recesses;  and one way of reading Plato’s Theaetetus is to recognize that this criterion for the existence of music is also a criterion for the existence of knowledge itself.

"Entangled" in History

The other day I received electronic mail from an old friend in which she wrote about the experience of hearing Ludwig van Beethoven’s seven variations on “God Save the King” (WoO 78) and wondered how he came to write them.  Alexander Wheelock Thayer is a bit skimpy on this piece, but he provides enough data to support some viable hypotheses.  Most important is that the variations were composed in 1803 (sent to the publisher Breitkopf and Härtel in September). That puts the music in the same time frame as the third symphony (Opus 55 in E-flat major).  This immediately brings to mind the story that Beethoven originally intended to dedicate that symphony to Napoleon.  Unfortunately (for Napoleon), this was around the time that Napoleon's reputation as a liberator was turning into that of an imperialist tyrant.  Supposedly, Beethoven scratched Napoleon's name off of the title page and replaced it with the word "Eroica."  (Anthony Burgess would later try to restore Napoleon's proper place in the symphony with a bizarre synthesis of literature and music that he called Napoleon Symphony.  I remember reading a piece, probably in The New York Times, that he wrote this book at a desk with his typewriter on one side and his piano on the other!)

The bottom line is that Beethoven became an avid British sympathizer, seeing England as the one force that could stop Napoleon.  (His WoO 79 set of variations on "Rule Britannia" was written around the same time as the "God Save the King" variations;  and both sets were submitted to Breitkopf in a single package.)  "God Save the King" would surface again (along with "Rule Britannia") when Beethoven wrote "Wellington's Victory" to honor the hero of Napoleon's final defeat.

I feel it is important to realize that these are more than pedantic details.  They are part of a more general argument, which I have been trying to pursue, that every musical act (composition, performance, listening) is embedded in a rich context of history.  I like the way the philosopher Wilhelm Schapp put it:  We are “verstrickt” in history.  (Since that adjective often applies to knitting, the best translation may be "entangled.")  Lincoln put it in blunter language when he said that we cannot escape history (and he was certainly not thinking about those of us involved in music).  The historical context is usually our best source of data for conjecturing the motives of the music-makers;  and, unless we take those motives into account, the music is little more than what San Francisco composer David Garner calls "dots on paper."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Getting Even with TIME

Those who may have had a “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment” over this morning’s announcement of Mark Zuckerberg as Time’s Person of the Year may find a bit more substance in this morning’s London Telegraph.  While I continue to be aggravated by this obsession with rank-ordering just about anything on the basis of quality (as in our obsession with the “Big Five” American orchestras, and not just because San Francisco did not make that cut), I felt obliged to scan the Telegraph’s list “Top 10 men and women of 2010.”  I took a bit of comfort in Zuckerberg’s absence from this article.  Indeed, while I may not have agreed with all of the selections, I found far more grounds for substance among those twenty names than I have ever been able to associate with Facebook, since, as we all know, earning power has nothing to do with such substance.  On the other hand I cannot really claim any surprise at Time’s selection.  After all, their Person of the Year issue for 2006 featured a mirror on the cover, in the middle of which was the world “You!”  I suppose that the best coverage I have encountered so far came this morning on the BBC World Service.  After announcing the selection the news reader ran through a few names of past individuals to be so honored by Time.  The first name on that list was Joseph Stalin.  Was the BBC trying to tell us something about the connection between the extremes of capitalism and those of totalitarianism?  Enquiring minds want to know!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Triumph of Fear

I never had a chance to hear Mort Sahl perform until my wife and I moved to Los Angeles in the Eighties.  By that time his Kennedy-era wit had long gone out of fashion;  but there was still a sharp edge to just about everything he said.  I particularly remember his conjuring up an image of Charlton Heston stretched out in his hammock behind his house in Topanga Canyon “dreaming of military takeover.”  Then, allowing only the slightest pause, Sahl hit his punch line, “Son of a bitch doesn’t realize it has already happened.”

That memory came to mind while reading Howard W. French’s “Looking for Hope in Burma” in the latest issue of The New York Review.  The primary book being reviewed by French is Than Shwe:  Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant by Benedict Rogers.  Burma is such a closed society that I was more than a little surprised that French managed to get both into and out of the country, let alone conduct a series of interviews (all conditioned on the anonymity of his subjects) about the future of the country after the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.  If anyone was qualified to review a new 256-page book about Than Shwe, it was definitely French;  and his article is a highly informative interleaving of Rogers’ account with French’s personal experiences.

What interested me most from French’s side of the story was the narrative of his attempt to get into Naypyidaw, the new capital city of the country, two hundred miles north of Rangoon and accessible only by a single superhighway.  The official policy is that foreigners cannot visit this city without a formal invitation.  (As one travel agent put it, casual tourist visits are “not convenient.”)  French took the risk of hiring a car and driver to go up the superhighway to get at least a glimpse of this secretive site.  He discovered that the “virtual barriers” around the city served not only to keep out the tourists but also to confine the bureaucrats.  French quoted what one relief worker said about those government workers:

They are trapped there, and can’t leave the city without authorization.  What you have basically are lots of unhappy people in an enterprise sustained by fear.

That was the text that triggered my flashback to Sahl, except that I was not thinking about Heston;  I was thinking about Dick Cheney.  More specifically I realized that our own country had become one of “lots of unhappy people in an enterprise sustained by fear.”  That enterprise had been engineered by the Bush Administration through cultivating the fear of terrorism in the wake of 9/11.  It is now less than a year until the tenth anniversary of that catastrophe, and electing a new President has not made much difference.  Fear of terrorism may have abated to some extent, but irrational suspicion of Muslims is still with us.  Meanwhile, our “unhappy people” have had to face a new crop if fears due to a damaged economy that has not yet been adequately repaired.  Why worry about terrorists when you have to face the more immediate worry that your house will be foreclosed or that the job you have may no longer exist next week?

Granted, things are much worse in Burma than they have ever been here.  Nevertheless, it is hard to resist associating those in our “ruling class” with those fleeting visions of Than Shwe.  Like Heston they have long dreamed of an authoritarian takeover that would obliterate the visions of our Founding Fathers from our national consciousness.  Unlike Heston, they probably are well aware that their dream has come true.