Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Erroll Garner on Free Jazz

The interview with Erroll Garner in Arthur Taylor’s Notes and Tones offers a very valuable perspective on the theory and practice of free jazz.  He makes one of those observations that any serious jazz listener already knows:

There is nothing more free than Dixieland, with each cat playing something else.

Just about any side recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band can warrant this claim.  Garner then continues:

When it gets over nine pieces, they have to make arrangements.

In other words there is an “economy of scale” to the degree of freedom that can come into play in a free jazz session.  Of course John Coltrane pushed hard on this limit of scale in his “Ascension” sessions;  but it is clear that there were at least a few ground rules set down before the tape started recording.  Indeed, my guess is that one of the reasons why the ten-year anniversary performances of “Ascension” that got programmed by the San Francisco Jazz Festival are so disappointing is that the participants do not know very much about the rules set by the eleven musicians involved in the 1965 session at the Van Gelder Studio and probably do not know enough to set their own rules.  They may have also missed another one of Garner’s important points:

That’s what’s going to make the world in the future—freedom and coming together.  People can’t be free and going off in opposite directions or else there won’t be any foundation.

The 1965 session had a strong sense of that “coming together” around Trane, whereas the anniversary performances just involved a lot of performers and very little (if any) sense of togetherness.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Louis Armstrong's Sound

Perhaps there is a certain element of backlash in my returning to old Louis Armstrong recordings after having explored possible parallels between Ornette Coleman and Edgard Varèse.  While I am not one of Pops’ most enthusiastic fans (having caught the attention of one of his biographers, Ricky Riccardi, for taking issue with the phrase “the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century”), I would be the last person to raise any dispute over the cleanliness and clarity (not to mention prodigious range) of the Armstrong trumpet sound.  One might not say the same about his vocal skills;  but I have never seen any problem with approaching his singing in terms of character, rather than musicianship.  Furthermore, while his voice may have occasionally ventured into his own personal take on Sprechstimme, the pitches coming out of his mouth were almost as solid as those from his trumpet.  I have to admit that I do not put as much time listening to my Armstrong recordings as I allocate for my Thelonious Monk collection (let alone all the different interpretations I have of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven);  but It always seems to happen that, when I do put on some Armstrong sides, I find myself more pleasantly surprised than I anticipated.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Ornette Coleman and Edgard Varèse

Ornette Coleman’s interview with Art Taylor for the book Notes and Tones throws some interesting lights on the origins of his particular approach to the free jazz movement, or at least how that approach found its way to Atlantic Records by way of an encounter between Coleman and Nesuhi Ertegun at Tanglewood in 1959.  The mere fact that it happened at Tanglewood says a lot about both of these men, since it implies a certain convergence between the experimentation of those composers who followed in the wake of Anton Webern and those looking for new ways to play jazz.  However, beyond any attempts to account for that convergence, there are underlying questions of technique that come up among those who accuse Coleman of playing three different instruments (saxophone, violin, and trumpet), none of them particularly well.

Coleman does not evade that criticism in his interview with Taylor.  When Taylor asked him why he took up violin and trumpet, Coleman gave about as direct reply as one might expect:

I started tying to play the violin and trumpet because I didn’t want to be known as the best saxophone player, or the best this or that, just to have a gig.

This struck me as being honest without being evasive.  It reminded me of a quotation from Edgard Varèse that I cited when I was writing a preview for the coming season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players:

I am not a musician:  I employ rhythms, frequencies and intensities.

This seems like a fair thing to say about Coleman, going all the way back to The Shape of Jazz To Come, the Atlantic recording to come out of his first session in their studios on May 22, 1959.  No one would accuse Coleman of having a refined sound in that session.  Indeed, the coarseness of his sound is particularly apparent when one of his solos is followed buy one taken by Don Cherry, who had no trouble sounding smooth, even on cornet.  Nevertheless, there were any number of remarkable features in how Coleman could deal with the basic physical qualities of raw energy, particularly those qualities of rhythm, pitch, and amplitude that were of such interest to Varèse.  (Where rhythm is concerned, I find it extremely significant that Coleman and Cherry could play exactly the same rhythmic pattern as precisely as they did.)

Ultimately, I accept Coleman rejecting the idea of being best at anything.  I am not interested in whether he is better than Thelonious Monk, and more than I care whether he is worse that Albert Ayler.  All that really matters is that, when I listen to any of his tracks, it helps to prepare myself with the proper mindset.  I have never encountered any evidence that Coleman knew about (let alone was inspired by) Varèse;  but I find it helpful to know that I can approach listening to Coleman’s jazz in the same way that I would approach listening to performances of most of Varèse’s compositions.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Making up for Lost Time

Back in 2009 I tried to give a rather thorough account of my “ascent of the Mount Haydn of the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition.  Indeed, the timing was such that I reached my “final base camp” on the 200th anniversary of Joseph Haydn’s death.  Nevertheless, while recognizing that a Gesamtwerk collection would have been a formidable (if not unrealistic) effort, I still had to take Brilliant to task for delivering what turned out to be a far more frustrating tribute to Haydn than the collections they had prepared for Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johannes Brahms.  Perhaps the greatest frustration was the lack of a complete account of Haydn’s string quartets.

Last month I finally decided to bite the bullet and spend some birthday present money on the separate Brilliant Classics box of the complete Haydn quartets.  The ensemble is the same, the Buchberger Quartet;  and, through this collection, one now sees that the Haydn Edition was exactly three CDs shy of including all the quartets.  This might seem like going to a lot of work to make up the difference.  However, while the Haydn Edition took a rather jumbled approach to ordering the quartets, the complete box pretty much sticks to the order of the Hoboken catalog.  The only major exception is that the string quartet version of Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (Hoboken III/50–56) is saved for the final CD in the collection.  Thus the complete collection is more suitable for diachronic listening, which distinguishes it from most of the other Brilliant collections.

Is this trip really necessary?  Personally, I feel that a “listening understanding” of Haydn’s quartets is as important as that of Beethoven’s quartets, even if, at first blush, the early Haydn quartets seem far more innocuous than Beethoven’s Opus 18 collection.  Indeed, if I am going to consider early efforts, I would probably choose Haydn over Mozart, perhaps because a diachronic approach to the Haydn quartets tells us more about his “working biography” than the Mozart quartets do.  On the other hand I may just be making excuses for myself, but it was a matter of spending gift money!

Friday, August 26, 2011

China Replaces Boston

When I first entered MIT as a freshman, it was back in the days when one could still tell “banned in Boston” jokes.  However, by the time Boston and Cambridge had become hotbeds of student protests in the late Sixties, that joke had gone far out of fashion.  Nevertheless, a recent action by the People’s Republic of China, reported by James C. McKinley, Jr. for the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times reminded me that these jokes will never go entirely out of style;  only the geography will change.

In place of the straight-laced Puritanical thinking of the Brahmin class of Bostonians (a curious mix of metaphors), we now have the Ministry of Cultural Security (yes, that is really its name if McKinley is a reliable source) in the People’s Republic of China.  As the name implies, this is a branch of the government specifically concerned with threats to “cultural national security;”  and they have come up with a list of 100 popular songs that must be removed from Chinese Web sites by September 15 under threat of (unspecified) punishments.  McKinley offered a few examples of such threatening content:

Six songs from Lady Gaga’s most recent album are on the list: “The Edge of Glory,” “Hair,” “Marry the Night,” “Americano,” “Judas” and “Bloody Mary.” Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” has also been banned as well as Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” which deals with a three-way sexual encounter. Oddly, the list also includes “I Want It That Way,” a Backstreet Boys song released more than a decade ago.

There is, of course, a somewhat elite club of creative artists who have had to contend with punitive forms of censorship.  My guess is that Lady Gaga probably enjoys being in a category in which she can now rub shoulders with Robert Mapplethorpe, not to mention Henry Miller and James Joyce.  Nevertheless, I believe that, when you travel, you have to play by the rules of the country you are visiting, however awkward those rules may be.

I still remember my surprise at finding Interzone on sale about a decade ago at a Tower Records in Singapore.  This was James Grauerholz’ editing of early material for William Burrough’s Naked Lunch along with other writings.  My guess was that the Singaporean censors gave little thought to what Tower was selling, assuming that their offerings only appealed to a minority of their own citizens.  I certainly never proselytized Burrough’s work when I lived in Singapore, but I could not resist buying Interzone out of curiosity.  At the time I was only briefly in Singapore on my way to Kuala Lumpur, and I figured it would make good plane reading.

That turned out to be a poor assumption.  The book was incredibly raw, making it an intriguing insight into Burroughs’ origins.  However, after checking into my hotel in Malaysia, I realized that this was not something I wanted lying around for the cleaning lady to see (even if she did not understand English).  So I ended up locking up the book in my room safe!  I would probably do the same today under the same circumstances and would think even more seriously about any literary or musical content I would take with me were I to visit China.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Taking Social Democracy Seriously

Those who like to make jokes about the French will probably enjoy a report on the BBC News Web site this morning beginning with the following paragraphs:

Some of France's wealthiest people have called on the government to tackle its deficit by raising taxes - on the rich.

Sixteen executives, including Europe's richest woman, the L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, offered in an open letter to pay a "special contribution" in a spirit of "solidarity".

Later the government is due to announce tighter fiscal measures as it seeks to reassure markets and curb the deficit.

They are expected to include a special tax on the super-rich.

Before the announcement, expected on Wednesday evening, a letter appeared on the website of the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

It was signed by some of France's most high-profile chief executives, including Christophe de Margerie of oil firm Total, Frederic Oudea of bank Societe Generale, and Air France's Jean-Cyril Spinetta.

They said: "We, the presidents and leaders of industry, businessmen and women, bankers and wealthy citizens would like the richest people to have to pay a 'special contribution'."

They said they had benefited from the French system and that: "When the public finances deficit and the prospects of a worsening state debt threaten the future of France and Europe and when the government is asking everybody for solidarity, it seems necessary for us to contribute."

They warned, however, that the contribution should not be so severe that it would provoke an exodus of the rich or increased tax avoidance.

The move follows a call by US billionaire investor Warren Buffett for higher taxes on the American ultra-rich.

Notwithstanding the reference to Buffett, this may serve as a useful example of how a country like France can appreciate a concept like social democracy, while here in the United States, as Tony Judt put it, we “simply do not know how to talk about” it.  Mind you, there is a “logic of self-interest” behind the Nouvel Observateur letter.  Those who signed it are looking at Europe (and probably the United States) and observing the consequences of draconian measures of austerity.  Furthermore, since Paris has had it own confrontations with street riots, those observations are not entirely detached.  At the risk of oversimplifying matters, while those who signed the latter clearly know a thing or two about being successful in the eyes of both customers and shareholders, they also know that there is more to both personal and corporate well-being than the bottom line of every quarterly report.

It is unlikely that our own country will take this letter seriously, however mightily Buffett might labor to make his point.  Ours is a culture of specious reasoning that first equates social democracy with socialism and then continues a chain of equations that proceeds through communism and ends in totalitarianism.  Put all the equations together;  and you get the knee-jerk reaction that social democracy is totalitarianism.

Well, we may not have totalitarianism;  but we are not that far from it.  As Timothy Snyder recently observed, we now have a representative system that represents only the super-rich;  and the super-rich have only one priority, which is to stay super-rich.  There are a handful of legislators, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, who not only understand social democracy but also strive for it;  but we have a consciousness industry that makes it a point to give them as little attention as possible and to reserve that smidgen of attention for ridicule.  Of course it remains to be seen whether or not this proposal from the super-rich of France will stave off the sorts of street riots we have seen in Greece and Spain;  but it is the closest we have come thus far to the recognition that austerity only makes a bad situation worse.  Give the signatories of that letter at least half a cheer for trying to find a better way to get out of the global economic mess created by those in the financial sector.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Saints Endure

Having just read Jeff Dunn’s review of Four Saints in Three Acts:  An Opera Installation on San Francisco Classical Voice (after having written my own review for and then followed up with a post on this site about the need to see the text of Gertrude Stein while listening to it), I realize that Virgil Thomson’s music has very strong staying power.  Granted, I have always really enjoyed his score.  I used to have the vinyl recording of Thomson’s own abridged version of the full score (which was actually the version performed at this “opera installation”);  and, given the limitations of that physical medium, I probably came close to wearing through the grooves until both sides were unplayable.  Now I have the whole enchilada (so to speak), recorded under the musical direction of Joel Thome;  and I do not have to worry about wearing out the two CDs (although the jewel case was in pretty bad shape from the time it was purchased).

I think that the staying power of the music has a lot to do with its simplicity.  In many ways both melodies and harmonies are about one level more sophisticated than most nursery rhymes.  (For that matter the “all good children go to heaven” text amounts to a sort of nursery rhyme, even if it is a bit less traditional.)  As a result the music roots itself in the cerebral cortex and defies displacement by later input.  In my case the music was in my head after I left the Merola Grand Finale and again this morning when I was preparing to write about Yuri Liberzon’s recital in the Old First Concerts series.  Granted, the Merola ceremonies seemed a bit paler than those of previous seasons;  but Liberzon collaborated with a flutist (Meerenai Shim) for a really stunning suite of tangos by Ástor Piazzolla.  By all rights those tangos should have given Thomson’s music a run for its money;  but Thomson’s Saints had the advantage of strong memory support, while I was hearing the Piazzolla for the first time.

Tomorrow I plan to hear ZOFO do their four-hand performance of Igor Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring.  I have been listening to that music for about a decade before my first exposure to Four Saints.  I even have a copy of the orchestral score that is almost too worn to be handled any more.  That may be just the listening experience to reestablish some cognitive balance!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Word's the Thing

As a rule I tend to be a strong supporter of surtitles supplementing opera productions.  This tends to be the case even when the opera is in English, often because it compensates for the impact of proper singing on proper diction.  No titles were employed, however, at the performance of Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera by Virgil Thomson composed for a libretto by Gertrude Stein, which I saw last night and wrote about this morning on  Thomson wrote music that was perfectly compatible with the qualities of proper diction in the English language, and clarity of diction was one of the great assets of last night’s performance.

Nevertheless, this was a Stein text;  and Stein had a great enthusiasm for the interplay between English as it is written and English as it sounds.  During the preconcert “conversation,” we in the audience were told not to worry if we had trouble finding meaning in the flow of Stein’s words.  Indeed, we were even told that we should feel free to laugh if we found some of the oddities of her constructions funny.  (Did Stein’s supporters really think she needed to be protected against feeling of ridicule?)  However, these supposed authorities never got at the premise that Stein was actually being playful in her writing, and she was at her most ludic when it came to the relations between sounds and text.  (These are, after all, the fundamental relations of opera.  If you are going to commit to writing an opera, you can hardly ignore them.)

Often it is hard to read a Stein text without suppressing the urge to diagram it.  Syntactic structure is part of the game, as is ambiguity of that structure.  Listening to Stein, ambiguity is compounded by the games she plays with homonyms.  Thus, however clear the singers’ diction may be, if you really want to get into what Stein has written, you deserve to see her written text while hearing the singers perform it.  The titles need to be there for the sake of the nature of the written artifact, rather than as compensation for poor diction.  I had some advantage last night from having seen the written text many times, but I still would have preferred to see the titles.

There is an interesting precedent to this approach, by the way;  and it has been around for some time.  Back in 1966 I was fortunate enough to see a pre-release print of a film now listed in IMDb as Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.  True to its title, it was an effort to dramatize selections from Joyce’s novel involving literal readings of the text for each of those selections.  The whole thing had subtitles.  They were absolutely necessary.  There were too many layers of structure in the text for it to be “processed” by anyone who had not memorized it.  Joyce himself was a singer, so he had a personal appreciation for the relationship between written and sung text.  By watching this film, I appreciated how critical that relationship was to the way he conceived his texts.  Without the subtitles, I would have been totally lost.

Friday, August 19, 2011


This morning the Technology division of BBC News ran a story that the latest edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary has 400 new words described as “technology-inspired.”  One of these is the celebratory expletive “woot” (with its variant “w00t”).  Editor Angus Stevenson was interviewed on the progressive stance of this reference volume and observed that, thanks to the Internet, new words come into currency much more quickly.  Nevertheless, he chose to lapse into personal opinion when it came to “woot” receiving OED blessing:

I don't know why people can't just say hurrah but maybe I'm being old fashioned.

Well, yes, he is being old-fashioned;  but in a way that the likes of James Murray would never have considered.  Back in the nineteenth century there were only two domains of common usage:  writing and speech.  Today it is not a question of whether people can “just say hurrah” but one of whether they are inclined to text it.  (I am not sure when “text” became sanctioned as a verb, by the way;  but this particular usage appears in the fifth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, much larger than the Concise, which came out in 2002.)  In other words the Internet not only offers a broader channel for currency but also, through the prevalence of texting, may significantly influence which words enter that channel.  Among other things, this had led to an uptick in the legitimization of acronyms and other abbreviations.  (“WTF” made the cut about a year ago, at which time I observed that there were already precedent abbreviations like “snafu.”)  Does this mean that speech, along with writing on the scale of paragraphs rather than tweets, is going out of fashion, not just for influence on the lexicon but also as general media of communication?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Further Thoughts on Who is Represented and How

In his latest post to NYRBlog, “As Ohio Goes: A Letter from Tea-Party Country,” Timothy Snyder takes, as a point of departure, the motto behind the Boston Tea Party:

No taxation without representation.

Here is where Snyder then goes with it:

Taxation without representation is not exactly a problem for wealthy Americans. They are represented by their local, state, and federal elected officials. They are also represented by campaign contributions, lobbies, and personal political access. Their problem, and the country’s, is that they are over-represented, and use their over-representation to ensure that the wealthy pay lower taxes than they should. If we must resort to analogies from the eighteenth century, then those who benefit from the Tea Party are not to be to compared to the American rebels. They are rather the lords of the British parliament, using superior political power to ensure that those in weaker positions bear the necessary burden of taxes.

Yesterday we got a sobering taste of just how far this kind of representation can extend.  Thanks to Darcy Flynn, former attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and now whistleblower, the representative power of the wealthy seems to have penetrated the core of our financial regulatory system.  Here is how BBC News reported the story:

According to an SEC attorney-turned-whistleblower, Darcy Flynn, the regulator has destroyed more than 9,000 files on preliminary investigations since the early 1990s.

The records, termed matters under inquiry, are said to include interviews and tip-offs about a range of alleged financial misconduct.

Mr Flynn told Sen [Charles] Grassley the watchdog had destroyed files linked to Bernard Madoff, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, AIG, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and hedge fund SAC Capital.

Sen Grassley, ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, wrote on Wednesday to the SEC asking if it routinely destroys documents on preliminary inquiries when it is decided that they do not merit a formal investigation.

For those unfamiliar with how this system works, the SEC has five commissioners appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  While it is also the case that no more than three commissioners can be from a single political party, what this implies is that those behind any accusations of lax regulation regarding the too-big-to-fail institutions enumerated above, all of which contributed to our current economic crisis, were all appointed by George W. Bush.  This does not suggest that the smoking gun that killed our economy can be found in the Oval Office, but it may indicate that the Executive branch of our Government provided the rope to tie up the hands of the regulators.  However, the reason that previous sentence is nonpartisan is that, if Flynn is correct, that rope has been in the Oval Office through Democratic, as well as Republican, administrations.

The stem “anarch-” appears three times in Snyder’s text.  In each case it refers to the ideology of the current TEA Party, in contrast to the thinking at the time of the American Revolution.  Here is how Snyder applied it to the recent debt ceiling debate:

The notion that the federal government ought to be starved of resources is not patriotism: it is right-wing anarchism, which corrodes not only the American state but the American nation.

Much as I support this point of view, Snyder overlooks the fact that the wealthy have as much vested interest in anarchy as do the TEA Party ideologues.  The TEA Party embraces anarchy even if it bankrupts the Government, while the wealthy seek anarchy in the interest of getting rid of regulation.  The result is a logically implausible alliance;  but it is an alliance that could well reduce the United States to the level of those “third world” countries to which we feel superior before this decade has run its course.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Snob Appeal versus Slob Appeal

Mad Magazine was at its funniest when it rebelled outrageously against the mind-numbing culture of conformity that made the Fifties such a ghastly decade for anyone with the slightest spark of creativity.  This was also the decade when consumerism began to take over our whole system of national values, as if buying everything in sight was our primary weapon against Communism.  There are even those who believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union began while Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting the United States on the day that Ronald Reagan showed him a shopping mall.

One of the great weapons of consumerism during the Fifties was “snob appeal.”  This was predicated on the idea that, whatever your adjusted gross income was, you could look like you belonged in a more elevated social stratum.  Mad retaliated with a hysterically funny piece on “slob appeal.”  Nothing justifies satire more than its emergence in the “real world.”  This morning BBC News released a story to remind us that snob appeal is still with us and will go to great lengths to battle that slob appeal that began as a figment of Mad writers’ imaginations.

The paragon of snob appeal in question is Abercrombie and Fitch.  (Could one ask for a better representative?)  The “opposition” is represented by Jersey Shore, particularly in the form of the character Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino.  Apparently Sorrentino has a taste for Abercrombie and Fitch threads;  and, as a result, the company has issued a statement to the effect that it has offered him “a substantial payment” to wear another brand.  Here is an excerpt from that statement:

We are deeply concerned that Mr Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image.

We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.

Bette Midler used to have a line referring to those who cannot take a joke (which I cannot reproduce in the interests of good taste).  Presumably, that comment never registered with Abercrombie and Fitch, perhaps because their investor materials describes their brand as “the essence of privilege and casual luxury.”  Tell that to the folks who look for their label when going through the racks at Goodwill.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A New Level of Demagoguery

It would appear that the most important contribution made by Sarah Palin since she first assumed a public presence as John McCain’s running mate is that she has legitimized the role of demagoguery in political processes.  Initially, I had assumed that Newt Gingrich would be the primary beneficiary of this change in the nature of the playing field, but that was before Rick Perry entered the race for the Republican nomination in the next Presidential Election.  Wherever Palin set the bar with her own flamboyance, it has not taken Perry long to raise it.  Consider this account which appeared on the BBC News Web site about half an hour ago:

In his first three days as a presidential contender, he has already antagonised Democrats by implying that the US military does not respect Mr Obama as commander-in-chief.

On a campaign stop in the US state of Iowa on Tuesday, Mr Perry said: "If this guy [Ben Bernanke] prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all will do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.

"Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous, treasonous in my opinion."

This is pretty scary stuff.  Does Barack Obama really think that such challenges can be met by appealing to reason?  Perry knows the power of irrational emotion, and he is going to apply that knowledge for all it is worth.  Will Obama be able to come up with the right way to confront this viciousness, or will he let the mad dog run wild under the assumption that it will eventually tire itself into slumber?

Our Global Constitution

As the debate continues over how to deal with social software where social unrest is concerned, I was struck by the following text in a report on today’s BBC News Web site:

BlackBerry has offered to co-operate with police investigating the riots - prompting attacks by hackers angry that the company could be prepared to hand over user data to authorities.

Asked what BlackBerry's co-operation would involve, [Acting London Metropolitan Police Commissioner] Mr [Tim] Godwin asked to "plead the fifth", adding: "I would rather not answer that question as it is an investigative strategy."

That “fifth” is, of course, the Fifth Amendment to our own Constitution.  Godwin’s usage is not quite consistent with “original intent;”  but the phrase has a more general connotation of refusing to answer a question for a legitimate reason.

Godwin clearly was not appealing to our own Federal Law as a guideline for his actions.  However, the phrase probably entered his working vocabulary through the abundance of “law and order” narratives, both fiction and non-fiction, available through entertainment media.  As a result, consciousness of the Fifth Amendment has acquired a level of global awareness, meaning that crime stories may do more to further an appreciation of our democratic processes than any of our more “official” approaches to propaganda!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Cameron's Morality Card

David Cameron is trying to seize media attention by playing the morality card in response to the recent outbreak of riots in the United Kingdom.  In an Al Jazeera English report taken from wire sources this morning, there are five instances of the word “moral,” most of which are enclosed in quotation remarks citing Cameron.  Listening to another version of this story on the radio this morning, I could not help but recall how Marc Blitzstein had translated had translated one line from Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera into English:

First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong.

In a way this is corollary to my general assessment of the increase of protest (whether violent or nonviolent) in a time of economic crisis.  My point has been that the origin of protest is with an educated younger generation facing the prospect that it may not have a future, and any question of whether or not one has a future at all is predicated on whether that future includes the ability to provide food, clothing, and shelter.  Otherwise, it is not a future worth considering.  According to the Al Jazeera English report, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband seems to have grasped that the viable prospects for such a future constitute a prerequisite for any sense of moral standards;  and, in the current context, that may be the critical factor that distinguishes the Labour Party from the Conservative Party.  Whether or not the Liberal Democrats will take a stand of any significance remains to be seen.

Is Amazon about to Discover the Razor Blade?

There is a lot of buzz over Amazon’s plans to put its own tablet on the market.  Today Lance Whitney put up a post to his Digital Media blog on the CNET Blog Network concerned with the price point for this yet-to-be-released device.  He cites a column in PC Magazine by technology industry analyst Tim Bajarin, which estimates that the device will cost $300.  Bajarin then recommends a retail price of $249, under the argument that Amazon would quickly (i.e. on the order of months) make up the gap through the sale of content, as they have been doing with the Kindle.

This follows a precedent that is far earlier than the Kindle, however.  Back when I was first learning to shave, Gillette realized that their major income came from the sale of razor blades.  The razors were pretty durable, meaning that they could last for quite some time (probably years) before needing to be replaced.  Eventually, Gillette recognized that they could give away the razors with almost no impact on their overall revenue.

It will be interesting to see how close current technology manufacturers come to the same position.  Cell phones are pretty close to that state of affairs, since almost all the value comes from the service provided through the device, rather than the device itself.  I doubt that it will be very long before we see tablet promotions (perhaps from Amazon) that basically offer the device for free in return for advance payment for content to be provided.

Then again, razors with replaceable blades are no longer on the market.  Now you buy the razor with the blades built into it and throw away the whole thing when the blades are worn.  What would that tell us about the future marketing of personal technology?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Greatness according to TIME

Back in February of 2010, I used this site to pursue the exercise of trying to identify the source of talk about the "Big Five" American orchestras.  My search led to the February 22, 1963 issue of Time magazine, which, in a sidebar entitled "The Top U.S. Orchestras," made the following declaration:

The five major American orchestras are by general consent the Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland and Chicago.

I grew up in Philadelphia (following a few childhood years in Brooklyn);  and I had never encountered this kind of talk.  If there was any consensus on who commanded the top of the pile, it probably would have been without Cleveland.  This made a nice symmetry for the record business, since RCA recorded Boston and Chicago, while Philadelphia and New York were handled by Columbia.  One could thus choose a favorite orchestra the same way one chose a favorite television network.

My guess is that Time bumped the number up a notch because the sidebar supplemented a profile of George Szell and his leadership of the Cleveland Orchestra.  It was as if some editor must have decided you could not profile anyone unless he was at the top of someone’s pile.  The whole thing was pretty silly;  but, in April of 1966, things got even sillier when Time decided to replace the Big Five with the “Elite Eleven.”  Six orchestras were added to the list from the following cities:
  1. Pittsburgh
  2. Detroit
  3. Houston
  4. Los Angeles
  5. Minneapolis
  6. San Francisco
This amounted to admitting that one could find “high culture” beyond the confines of the North Atlantic Coast and Chicago.  You might say that it was an effort to take a criterion for elitism and make it a little less elite.  It would be nice to think that we have progressed beyond such foolishness;  but, of course, we have not done so.  I suspect that we shall continue to try to rank-order those involved in the performance of serious music as if they were just another category of athlete or sports team;  and, for all I know, barroom brawls will break out over whether the San Francisco Symphony string section has better intonation than the one in Boston.