Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Fricka Legacy

During the Opera Insight Panel, which preceded the opening night for The Ring of the Nibelung at the San Francisco Opera, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was probably right to call out Stephanie Blythe as a game-changer where the interpretation of the role of Fricka is concerned.  From my point of view, Blythe was almost certainly my major reason for regretting missing the Seattle Opera Ring in the summer of 2009.  What seems to have impressed most of the critics was the way in which she brought new dramatic intensity to the first scene of the second act of Die Walküre, transforming an episode that many have dismissed as tedious to the point of deserving a bit (or more) of cutting.  Anna Russell fans know that she reduced the episode as “Mr & Mrs Wotan have an argument;”  but Blythe won praise for “reinventing” the scene into a battle of wits over sexual politics.  Bishop’s point was that, through this interpretation, Fricka was transformed from nagging prig (which, as I have suggested, may well have been what Richard Wagner wanted her to be) to feminist champion.

Now, I certainly do not want to detract from Blythe’s contribution to performance tradition.  I believe that every role should be taken seriously by the performer executing that role;  and Fricka’s character definitely needed some consciousness-raising.  However, the vocal repertoire provides plenty of opportunities for a mezzo to establish herself as a formidable sexual force to be taken seriously.  Carmen and Delilah are probably the roles that make this case with the greatest strength;  and, while it may seem odd to fold Carmen and Fricka into a single sentence, I came to that sentence while trying to pull together background material for the rerelease of the Ring performance arranged by Wilhelm Furtwängler for the opera’s first radio broadcast as a cycle in 1953 from the studios of Radio Italiana.

This performance actually had two Frickas, one for Rheingold (Ira Malaniuk) and one for Walküre (Elsa Cavelti).  I found myself drawn to Cavelti’s performance with the same attention I had given Bishop last week and to Blythe in 2009.  Within the constraints of a radio broadcast (and possibly with the benefit of Furtwängler’s coaching), she definitely knew how to take the role seriously and make her seriousness believable.  In my efforts to learn more about her, I came across a photograph, which would have to have been of her interpretation of Carmen:
That was enough to establish a link in my personal mental model of opera.  I would not suggest that she played Fricka as Carmen, just that she found an infrastructure of strength of character that supported both of these roles.  Isn’t strength of character what matters most in the execution of any operatic role?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Webern Finding his Voice

One of my earliest posts on this site, back when I was just beginning to rev up my attention to writing about music, involved a particularly impressive recital by the Artemis Quartet that took place in February of 2007.  The center of this program was occupied by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59, Number 2 string quartet, the second of the three Razumovsky quartets.  This was followed by Arnold Schoenberg’s first published string quartet and preceded by Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz,” which was not published during the composer’s lifetime.

In that post I suggested that Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” would provide a suitable frame of reference for listening to the “Langsamer Satz.”  I conjectured that, since Webern had come to Vienna in 1902, “one of the factors that drew him to [study with] Schoenberg would probably have been Verklärte Nacht, which premiered in 1903.”  This morning, partially in the interest of “decompressing” from my experience with Wagner’s Ring cycle last week, I found myself listening to Webern’s early songs, which also were only published after Webern’s death.  These also exhibit “auditory symptoms” of Schoenberg’s influence, particularly among those composed after Webern’s arrival in Vienna, which accounts for most of those songs.

It also occurred to me that these songs are less likely to induce audience restlessness the way so much of Webern’s more mature music continues to do.  My guess is that the two factors that tend to provoke in Webern’s music are the low dynamic levels and the microscopic brevity.  Brevity seems to matter less where songs are concerned;  one has only to look at many of the songs by Johannes Brahms for a comparable frame of reference.  The dynamics, on the other hand, are those of voice and piano and are not carried to any particular extremes.  Thus, normative expectations are not being violated;  and the audience does not feel as nervous!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Wrong Relation!

The good news is that the Reuters report by Aung Hla Tun about Michelle Yeoh getting blacklisted in Myanmar and then deported made the crowdsourced “News for You” list this morning.  I am not sure that Yeoh would appreciate the story calling her a “Hollywood actress,” since her Hollywood work makes for a pretty slims portion of her resume.  The reason for her blacklisting has nothing to do with Hollywood.  She was deported because she is starring in The Lady, a film about the personal relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and her British husband, Michael Aris, scheduled for release this coming spring.  This film is directed by Luc Besson and is being coproduced in France and the United Kingdom.  Suu Kyi may have been released from house arrest;  but the Myanmar government is doing all it can to maintain her “non-person” status.  Those extremes seem to include the effort of an actress to portray her.

Unfortunately, when it came to compiling the “Related Content” list that appears to the left to the report’s lead paragraphs, it would appear that “Hollywood actress” provided the only recognizable search keys:
This excluded more relevant content.  At the top of the list would probably be Suu Kyi giving the Reith Lectures for the BBC.  Then of course there would be the updates on the usual bits that Myanmar tries to conceal from the rest of the world.  Still, I suppose it was because Yeoh once appeared in a James Bond movie that the list turned out the way it did.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Getting out of Debt: A Modest Proposal

Back in 2009 our government committed large sums of money to bail out failing financial institutions under the premise that they were “too big to fail” (or, properly speaking, too big to allow to fail).  These days it seems as if both the Executive and Legislative branches can talk about nothing other than our debt situation and the need to raise the debt ceiling.  The underlying argument in favor of increasing debt is that we have so many debts outstanding that limiting further borrowing would lead to default on at least some of our key loans, and the impact on the global economy would be disastrous.  In other words the United States is too big a player in the world to be allowed to fail through failure to pay off its debts.

So, if the United States Government responded to the dire situation of the banks when they were on the brink of collapse, would it not make sense for those banks (which seem to be doing very well these days, at least in the eyes of their shareholders) to bail out the government that saved them in its hour of need?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

What Happened to Aulis Sallinen?

One of the things I remember the most about the early days of CD technology was that it introduced me to a variety of fascinating composers who had not received much attention from the vinyl industry, at least in the United States.  Thanks to the enthusiasm with which labels like Finlandia and BIS embraced the new technology, many of those composers were Finnish.  As a result, I remember building up a modest collection of the works of Aulis Sallinen;  and my wife and I had the good fortune to see two different productions of his opera Kuningas lähtee Ranskaan (the King goes forth to France), first in Santa Fe and then at Covent Garden.

Looking at the collection I have accumulated, I realize that I have not heard much of Sallinen lately.  Finnish composers continue to be on my radar, most recently in the conjunction with the visit of Magnus Lindberg to San Francisco (which included an impromptu piano performance of the Finnish national anthem with his colleague, the cellist Anssi Karttunen, to celebrate Finland having just won the International Ice Hockey Federation World Hockey Championship).  However, it appears that the only time I have written about a performance of Sallinen’s music was in October of 2009, when Osmo Vänskä performed his first symphony as part of the program he offered as guest conductor of the San Francisco Symphony.

In the piece I wrote about that performance, I tried to be fair about the lack of attention being given to Sallinen:

Perhaps we should take this less as a sign of negligence on the Symphony's part and more a recognition of just how large the repertoire of twentieth-century actually is.

I continue to stand behind this assessment.  The world the Internet has made is one in which there is just too much competing for not only our own attention but for the attention of many of the more institutionalized “channels” through which we learn about new things.  Where music is concerned, San Francisco has a rich abundance of those channels.  However, no individual can keep up with all of those channels, nor can those channels collectively keep up with the prodigious rate at which the repertoire keeps growing.  The result is that I do what I can to keep up with things, but I shall never be able to get beyond playing the cards dealt to me on any given occasion.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Too Innovative to Fail?

The headline for Sam Diaz’ latest post to the Googling Google blog on ZDNet is:

In this economy, is a Google antitrust probe "un-American?"

In the body of the post, he provide somewhat more extended framing of the question:

Is it un-American for the government to launch a probe of one of the leading companies in an industry that has the potential to put the U.S. back on the global map?

The argument in a nutshell is that investigation impedes innovation, and the case of the impact of investigation on Microsoft is given as the primary warrant.  It thus seems as if the “too big to fail” formula, according to which the financial sector was given a pass on its dubious practices while allowing a continuation of lax regulation, has been translated to “too innovative to fail.”

Put another way, this article is a penetrating look at the consequences of investigation on technology businesses;  but there is no mention of one of my favorite topics, which is the investigation of the consequences on an innovation before it gets deployed.  Yes, this post is clearly cheerleading for the technology sector;  and, if it is just a blog, then it is under no obligation to speak for the rest of us.  For that matter the author is under no obligation to use the noun “consequences;”  so it is no surprise that he doesn’t.  However, it is a nice reminder that “the rest of us” matter no more to the technical sector than they do to the financial sector.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Social Theory and Semantics

The first thing that struck me about “A New Approach to the Holocaust,” Timothy Snyder’s latest piece for The New York Review, was his attention to a subtlety of the German language.  He observed that the noun Politik (incorporated in the compound Judenpolitik) means both “politics” and “policy.”  This reflects an etymology that can also be found in English usage.  Both words can be traced back to πόλις, the Ancient Greek word that gets translated as “city” or “state.”

What strikes me is that both “politics” and “policy” are basically concerned with the affairs of a centralized social body of governance captured by words like “city” or “state.”  However, in the terminology of Anthony Giddens, the former refers to manners of domination, particularly through the control of resources, while the latter has to do with the legitimation of normative behavior.  While Giddens saw these as independent dimensions of interaction, our own history has at least one example of their confluence for less than salient means, that being the ways in which slave-based plantation life amounted to the legitimation of a particular structure of domination (by slaveholders).  In many ways the rise of the Nazis involved a similar legitimation of domination, but the target of that domination shifted from the black slaves of the South to the Jews of Europe.  This confluence makes for a disquieting point of view for approaching both the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Memory Lane

Errol Morris has a great piece on his Opinionator blog for The New York Times.  It is an awesomely researched account of the invention of electronic mail in conjunction with other developments that took place at Project MAC at MIT in the Sixties.  What I most enjoyed, however, was that Morris included a photograph of two key figures “present at the creation,” taken at Technology Square, just off the MIT campus, in 1966 by Tom Van Vleck.  The photograph shows Jerry Saltzer and Fernando J. Corbato.  I was immediately reminded that I received my first class in computer programming from Corbato, and Saltzer was his teaching assistant at the time!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Slippery Slope in the Concert Hall

The topic of proper audience behavior has recently been receiving a fair amount of attention on the BBC Web site (perhaps because the Proms season is about to begin).  I have discovered that there is enough that needs to be said in response that I have decided to take the matter “beyond rehearsal” to my national site at  My first article involved Sir Peter Maxwell Davies suggesting that those whose noisy cell phones disrupt a concert performance be fined.  While I appreciate his position that desperate times call for desperate measures, I decided to submit a follow-up piece today about how desperate measures often lead down a slippery slope.  Any discussion of his matter will, of course, be appreciated!

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Warnings All Ignored Again"

Back when my wife and I used to spend a lot of our vacation time in the Southwest, I started collecting bolos.  Every now and then I would come across one by a contemporary Native American artist that was so off-the-wall in its modernism that I could not resist it, even if it lacked any sense of “folk quality.”  The artist who always seemed to interest me the most in this regard was Bob Haozous, son of the Apache sculptor Allan Houser.  Haozous, a Vietnam veteran, has strong political feelings about being Native American in our culture;  and they often percolate into his work in disquieting ways.

This morning I found myself thinking about one of the bolos he designed.  It presents an image of Red Riding Hood, whose lower half is already entirely in the jaws of a wolf (and whose upper half is entirely unclothed).  Along the side of the image are the words “WARNINGS ALL IGNORED AGAIN;”  and the expression on her face is more one of bliss than of horror, almost as if she is taking pleasure in the fulfillment of her fate.

I was reminded of this piece because the caption applies to so many things these days.  They include violent climate conditions, desperate economic conditions (most of which have to do with unmanageable debt), and the new wave of proliferation of malware throughout our networks of digital technology that were supposed to provide the entire world with a new utopia.  Nevertheless, at the level of governmental leadership, we see at most minimal concern that any of these problems demand not only attention but also action informed by that attention.  It is almost as if world leaders are comfortable enough with their positions of power to achieve the same sort of blissed-out state that Haozous depicted in his Red Riding Hood.

The point is that there have been no end of warnings, probably for at least two decades.  There also seems to be a deliberate lack of attention, perhaps because those in power fear that their positions would be jeopardized by such attention.  The problem is that the rest of us are likely to become “wolf food” before those in power realize that they are also part of the menu.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Obscure Wagner

Since there is so much attention here in San Francisco to the fact that the better part of this month will be devoted to three San Francisco Opera performances of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, it seems like a good time to dig out some of the less-known aspects of this composer’s life.  My favorite involves one of those criteria that can be held up in arguments over the respective virtues of Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi.  Verdi fans like to parade his talents for adapting the great plays of William Shakespeare (usually overlooking the role of Arrigo Boito when the process was a successful one) and then challenging Wagner fans to name even one Shakespeare play that inspired Wagner to write an opera.

These days one can probably answer the question easily enough with the right mix of Google and Wikipedia, but I suspect it still has the capacity to raise eyebrows.  The play is Measure for Measure, and the opera is Das Liebesverbot.  The anonymous booklet that comes with my CD describes it as “still very much in the stylistic tradition of, say, Albert Lortzing and other German composers of the Biedermeier time;”  but I prefer to look beyond the boundaries of Germany.  The first time I heard Wagner’s overture for this opera, it reminded me of the overture to Daniel Auber’s Fra Diavolo;  and, sure enough, Auber’s opera received its premiere in Paris on January 28, 1830 and was a big enough success that Wagner could well have seen the entire opera (or at least heard the overture) before beginning work on Das Liebesverbot opera in 1834.

Whether we are talking Lortzing or Auber, it is clear that Wagner had not yet found his operatic voice in 1834.  I am reminded of a comment I once heard about performing the string quartet that predates the one Arnold Schoenberg published as his first:  Why give a performance of Schoenberg trying to sound like Antonín Dvořák?  Better to save the recording to haul out during a party, when you can exclaim, “You’ll never guess who wrote this one!”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Morgan Spurlock Just Scratched the Surface

When Morgan Spurlock included the name of a consumer product in the full title of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and has his body painted with commercial logos in the style of the usual NASCAR driving attire, he was trying to make a point and be funny at the same time.  Yahoo! News now seems to be getting the message and running for it with all they are worth.  Apparently, one of their sources is now PRWEB, whose agenda (even if it is in fine print) is strictly a matter of “Online Visibility.”  Consider how much of that visibility they created with the following headline:

Gaylord Opryland Resort to Host the Inaugural Bass Pro Shops Land and Wildlife Expo Presented by Ram Truck

It looks like a healthy number of clients managed to get a healthy amount of “visibility.”  What is more amusing is that this piece of advertising-disguised-as-news got a Top Stories listing.  Was this really a product of crowdsourcing, or do PRWEB pieces get votes that are more equal than others?  Enquiring minds want to know!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

James Joyce in Real Time

For those unfamiliar with the proper noun “Bloomsday,” June 16 is the date on which the entire plot of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses unfolds.  More specifically, the action begins at the dawn on June 16, 1904 and concludes around the following midnight.  With this as context, Julie Bloom’s post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times is worth reproducing in its entirety:

“—Warily walking went Bloom, unconquered hero. Jingle a tinkle jaunted. Not yet. At four. What is he doing at the Ormond? Let’s hear the time.” The words may not be exactly Joycean, but they’re pretty close for 140 characters. At approximately 10:45 a.m. Eastern time this entry was the latest added to @11ysses twitter account. It’s part of the marathon project, known as “Ulysses Meets Twitter 2011,” conceived by “Stephen from Baltimore,” which invited readers of “Ulysses” to retell the great, lengthy work through tweets from start to finish within the 24-hour period that the novel’s odyssey through Dublin (on June 16, 1904) takes place.

Steve is spending today making sure the story of Stephen Dedalus develops on time. In an e-mail he wrote: “My job as ringleader was to get the Cast on stage on time, and that is happening nicely so far (as long as my home wireless doesn’t give out). I still have many more hours of cut & pasting ahead of me. So my Bloomsday will be spent largely chained to this laptop.”

We’ll check back in with him Friday to see how he thought his experiment panned out, but in the meantime, take a look at @11ysses and tell us what you think of the project.

My personal feeling is that, even if the results are not entirely up to snuff, this use of a new medium to translate Joyce’s “literary real-time” into the real-time of the physical world is admirable enough to impact our thoughts about both Joyce and the characters of his novel.

Supportive as I may be of the project, however, I see once again the stamp of slovenly disregard for accuracy that is arising with disturbing frequency on New York Times pages (physical as well as virtual).  To call Ulysses “the story of Stephen Dedalus” is tantamount to calling Homer’s Odyssey “the story of Telemachus.”  The figure of Joyce’s title is Leopold Bloom (after whom today is named);  and his is the perilous journey that parallels that of Homer’s hero.  True, in both epics we encounter the son before the father;  and, in many respects the narrative line is about how their paths converge.  Nevertheless, it seems a bit ironic that this basic fact should be ignored in a report on a new approach to Bloomsday celebration, particularly coming from a writer named Bloom!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Yahoo! "News" as Entertainment

Which is more laughable, the fact that Paul Bedard’s U. S. News & World Report piece, “Bachmann: The Smart Version of Palin,” showed up as a news story on Yahoo! News or that Yahoo! crowdsourcing classified it as a Top Story?

The Social Dimension of Reasoning

The last time I took New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen to task, it was for her distorted (“blue-sky technocentric evangelism) framing of an otherwise acceptable account of quantitative reasoning based on statistical analysis.  This time, however, her account yesterday of recent research into the nature of rationality seems to have induced so many misconceptions (many of which run rampant in the 278 comments accumulated as I write this) that one of the researchers, Hugo Mercier, felt it necessary to use the Times’ ArtsBeat blog to state his position with greater clarity.  I am glad he did so, because the results of his research with Dan Sperber throw a fascinating light on that domain of “mind, self, and society,” to invoke the title given to the first volume of the works of George Herbert Mead collected by Charles W. Morris that addresses his concept of “social behaviorism.”

Mead may not have been the first to recognize that we live in three “worlds” (objective, subjective, and social);  but he was certainly one of the first to undertake a methodologically serious reversal of the Enlightenment premise that all could be reduced to the “pure reason” of objectivity.  (Those quote marks are not for “scare” purposes but to acknowledge that this tripartite division can be traced back at least as far as the three Critiques of Immanuel Kant.)  At the risk of oversimplifying the matter, Mercier and Sperber have brought Mead’s thinking into the 21st century by pursuing the hypothesis that our very capacity of reasoning is not rooted in either the objective world of systematic analysis or the subjective world of making sense out of the stimuli that bombard us.  Rather, it is a product of the social world through which our capacity for making sense is enhanced by our ability to exchange worldviews with those of others.  That exchange is through argumentation, which means that Mercier and Sperber also propose that argumentation has more to do with communicating effectively with others than with the rigid consistencies of formal logic.

This is strong stuff, but it should not be unfamiliar to those who follow the literature of social theory.  Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action devoted considerable attention to the objective foundations of argumentation;  but this served as a first step towards his eventual proposal that communicative behavior is only effective when all three of those “worlds” are actively involved.  What is fascinating about the Mercier-Sperber results is that they now have a fascinating proposal to reflect the philosophical speculations of Kant, Mead, and Habermas back onto the mechanisms of evolution itself, introducing a bold advance in what Jean Piaget (another of Habermas’ sources) called “genetic epistemology.”  I just hope that these results can be better appreciated now that Mercier himself has provided his own account in the wake of Cohen’s less satisfactory effort.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Global Water-cooler

The water-cooler used to be the emblematic embodiment of television as a shared social experience whose scope extended beyond the family living room.  In an office setting in which most viewed work as drudgery, this physical oasis of refreshment became a social oasis of shared experience;  and, for the most part those experiences involved the previous night’s television viewing.  It may have begun with sports broadcasts;  but, as serial drama migrated from afternoon soaps to prime-time evening slots, the water-cooler, physical or virtual, became the venue for extended conversations over what just happened and what would next happen.

Since most of my work took place in rather lively research laboratories where extended conversation was vital to daily activity, the water-cooler was less significant.  However, I remember my wife coming home to report the “water-cooler effect” in the faculty lounge of the school where she was teaching on the morning after the first episode of Twin Peaks aired.  This was when I first became aware of how social television actually was, and it is interesting to see the impact of the Internet on that social element.

Ironically, the first major example I encountered of a water-cooler in cyberspace, so to speak, was on the ArtsBeat blog site of The New York Times.  I discovered that every Monday morning brought a recap post about the latest episode of Mad Men.  True, most of these programs now have their own Web sites supporting similar discussions;  but I saw the commitment of the Times to this particular aspect of social software as the crossing of a Rubicon of sorts.

Now it would seem that the modest breadth of the Rubicon has been exceeded by the width of the Atlantic Ocean.  We are now in a brave new world in which we are sharing the serial televised drama experience with our British cousins.  Where once my reading of the London Telegraph allowed me to learn when the British were finally going to see the concluding series of The Wire, now I see that both sides of the Atlantic are viewing the unfolding episodes of Game of Thrones almost simultaneously.  This may not have been picked up by ArtsBeat;  but Ed Cumming now seems to be in charge of the Game of Thrones water-cooler.  Furthermore, he takes his responsibility seriously enough to check for corrections submitted as comments, amending his source text when appropriate.

For my part I rather like the idea that the water-cooler has gone global.  After all, its original role as oasis-from-drudgery has now be replaced by the Internet itself (an entirely different topic for discussion).  Cross-country conversations about television drama struck me as interesting;  but I never found ArtsBeat particularly compelling.  Perhaps I have just been seduced by the idea of the conversation going global.  Perhaps, because of the nature of the Game of Thrones narrative, I am just glad that British voices have joined the conversation.  Whatever the reason, the water-cooler has become a more interesting, and possibly even more informative, place.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Getting Beyond Product-Based Thinking

The value in Sue Halpern’s latest NYRBlog post, “Reading in the Cloud,” is that she is one of the few people who understands reading at a cognitive level and appreciates that it is what good writers need to do.  It is thus understandable that she is dismayed at the extent to which the Internet has reduced books to the status of “products,” even if the bean-counters in publishing houses have been doing this for some time.  She makes the point, however, to emphasize the innovation of a Spanish startup, 24Symbols, which is trying to make a business out of streaming book content, rather than offering it for download.  She quotes one of the principals, Juan Hidalgo, as observing that “books are not a product, they are a service.”  Whether he realty believes this or has cooked it up as a new way to lure venture funding, it is a proposition worth considering.  With the occasional exception a book is not a mere physical manifestation of marks on paper.  To the extent that it mediates a corpus of communicative actions, it is not far-fetched to call it a service.  Of course, in an age that is now trying to use science to reduce service to product status, the subtlety of this distinction may not amount to very much.

Friday, June 10, 2011

An Ugly Consequence of Innovation

Martin LaMonica used his Green Tech department for CNET News to relay a story from Reuters that is, to say the least, chilling.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

Governments should scrap policies to support biofuels because they are forcing up global food prices, according to a report by 10 international agencies including the World Bank and World Trade Organization.

The report adds to growing opposition to biofuels targets and subsidies such as those in Europe, Canada, India, and the United States.

"If oil prices are high and a crop's value in the energy market exceeds that in the food market, crops will be diverted to the production of biofuels, which will increase the price of food," said the report.

"Changes in the price of oil can be abrupt and may cause increased food price volatility," said the report.

Last year one of my themes on this site was “reckless innovation,” which amounted to what happens when the novelty of an innovation impedes our ability to think dispassionately about its possible consequences.  Back when Bush was promoting the necessity of a commitment to biofuel, there were a few voices raised about the threat to the food supply;  but they were few enough to be beaten into submission.  Now that the world food crisis is a reality, this seems like yet another example of closing the barn door after the horse has been stolen.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Typical" Stories

I have been reading some of the stories of Katherine Mansfield in the old 1956 Vintage Books collection.  This has an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen, in which she states that there is “no ‘typical’ Katherine Mansfield story to anatomize.”  My immediate reaction is that there is also no “typical” fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach or symphony by Joseph Haydn (or, for that matter, string quartet or piano sonata).  Then it hit me:  Bowen was up against the same issue to Ludwig Wittgenstein had taken on with respect to our understanding of the word “game.”  However, Wittgenstein’s name did not come up very much in the scholarly discourse of 1956.  The first edition of Philosophical Investigations had been published in 1953, but he was still regarded as an oddity among many philosophers and hardly regarded at all by anyone else.  Perhaps that is one reason by Vintage released a new edition with an introduction by Jeffrey Meyers!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Bruckner's Minimalism

That’s a title that should get some attention!  I doubt that very many would ever expect them to appear in the same sentence, let alone as a topic for discussion.  In fairness, however, I should make the disclaimer that I have heard Anton Bruckner’s music in concert exactly once.  It is not that I have been trying hard to avoid him (although where my collecting of recorded music is concerned, I certainly have not tried to build up a major library of his work).  It is more that everyone else seems to avoid him these days, so it is not a matter of choosing one concert over another because of how much Bruckner is being performed in each of them.

The other disclaimer is that, when I did hear Bruckner in concert, I went in rather positively disposed.  That was because Kurt Masur was conducting the San Francisco Symphony.  Ironically, he had coupled Bruckner’s fourth symphony (the “Romantic” in E-flat major) with Sofia Gubaidulina’s “The Light of the End,” which is what really occupied most of my attention when I wrote about this concert on this platform back in 2009.  However, I also ended up writing about how there were parallel factors along which the works complemented each other.

One of those factors had to do with the extent to which Bruckner confined himself to two major harmonic ratios (2:3 and 3:4).  With that kind of constraint, it is almost inevitable that the melodic lines would home in on “repetitive structures” that would probably honor the spirit (if not the actual content) behind Philip Glass’ preference for that phrase over “minimalism.”  Finally, Bruckner seems to have a great rhetorical interest in taking a wide crescendo and stretching it out over an extended duration.  In other words, notwithstanding Glass’ aversion to the term, there is an awful lot going on in Bruckner’s scores that we would call “minimalism” if we did not know who he was and when he was composing.  This may tell us more about how sloppy we are with the terminology we use;  but it may also tell us a thing or two about listening to Bruckner, if not cultivating a greater interest in doing so!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

War on Extremism?

There is nothing quite so disconcerting as waking up to bad news on the radio.  This morning the source happened to be Newshour on the BBC World Service, which I continue to monitor regularly through my satellite radio subscription.  The story in question, which also appears on the BBC News Web site, concerns a pending statement from Home Secretary Theresa May that the British government needs to implement a more proactive set of anti-extremism measures in the interest of national security.  The motivation seems to be that the measures in place are both inefficient and ineffective;  but, given all the evidence that has accumulated about the ineffectiveness (not to mention wrongheadedness) of our own “Global War on Terror,” one would have hoped that even the British Conservatives would have done a better job of taking stock of their current situation.

What is most depressing is May’s accusation that British universities are being complacent in doing their part to wipe out Islamist extremism.  One wonders just where the line exists between complacency and open-mindedness.  Most telling, however, is the caption for a video clip on the Web page for this story:

Baroness Neville-Jones:  It is not all right to “actively to assist and advocate those who are advocating quite different values.”

Disregarding the grammatical muddle, this is quite a position to take;  but it may help us to understand why the government mindset differs so radically from that of the universities.  Granted, Great Britain may not have their own strict equivalent of our First Amendment;  but I suspect that there is no shortage of British academics who both understand and appreciate the “biography” of that amendment written by Anthony Lewis under the title Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.

May’s proposals amount to the foundation for a “thought police” designed to protect Britain from “the thought that we hate” in the name of a difference of values.  Here, again, we may find an interesting parallel between Great Britain and the United States.  Through globalization both countries have cultivated a new market-based culture in which, as I have previously suggested, all values of substance have been dismantled.  What may be most frightening about the sorts of extremists that May has in mind is that they have strongly held values within countries that have none at all.  So, rather than trying to restore the values we have lost, which these days seem to be taken more seriously by Arab Spring rebels, and recognize that they are strong enough to prevail over the values of terrorism, we end up playing into the hands of terrorist ideologues, taking the situation they wish to change and making it even worse.  Will this strategy really improve the security of American and British citizens?