Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why I have Decided to Avoid Crowds in all Circumstances

Shanghai has already rung in the New Year. According to a report on the Al Jazeera English Web site, things got so festive that at least 35 people have been killed and another 42 injured in a stampede. This comes from a country that has at least the image of knowing how to deal with unruly crowds. What could I expect in my home town, which cannot even keep the lights on at night on major streets?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Discontent Rewarded

At the beginning of this month I tried to explain why I had been so grumpy in my article about the recently announced GRAMMY nominations. At the time I thought I was just coping with my own discontentedness; but, after checking in with Google Analytics, I discovered that this was one of the most popular articles I had written in some time on my national site! Apparently, I was not alone in feeing so grumpy.

Trying to put a positive spin on a negative situation, I then wrote my own end-of-year article giving my own opinions on the new recordings of 2014 that were worthy of attention (only one of which made the GRAMMY cut). According to this morning's Google Analytics, readership for this one is climbing up to that of my grousing about the GRAMMY nominations. Apparently, there is a base of listeners out there who are more interested in whether a recording has satisfying content than in whether it is (or has the potential to be) a "best seller."

Perhaps we can start a movement and rally behind the slogan, "Give music back to the music-lovers!"

On the Death of Luise Rainer

Reading this morning the BBC News account of the death of Luise Rainer at the age of 104, it occurred to me that I do not think I have ever seen mention of The Good Earth in any movie-related articles in the San Francisco Chronicle; and I suspect that, with the exception of those who watch little more than Turner Classic Movies, those presented today with that title or Rainer's name would have absolutely no idea of the referents for those proper nouns.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Discovering My Own Point of View

As I continue to work my way through the new Library of America collection of Herald Tribune articles by Virgil Thomson, I encountered a paragraph that really resonated with me:
The intellectual audience wants culture with its music, wants information, historical perspectives, enlarged horizons. It demands of program makers constant experiment and a huge variety. It is far more interested in repertory, as a matter of fact, than in execution. It tends to envisage the whole of music as a vast library in which everything is available, or should be. The strictly musical audience and the mass public are more easily satisfied. They think of the concert life as a sort of boarding house where you take what is offered and don’t reach. Their good nature is easily abused by managements and other organizing agencies. The intellectuals are more demanding and refuse to be spoon fed. That is why, as a musician, I value the intellectual element in audiences.
Every now and then I encounter some push-back over the fact that I do not spend enough time writing about execution because I tend to dwell heavily on the music itself, usually in terms of its relation to the overall repertoire. I suppose that makes me an intellectual in Thomson's book; but that means that I value his punch line. I also think that the distinction that Thomson draws is the one I have previously tried to make between examining and criticism.

If I am to read him correctly, Thomson seems to work from the point of view that critical judgement is, and should be, grounded in evidence of execution, which may explain why, as I have previously observed, his own judgment tends to take its departure from what is printed on the score pages and, whenever possible, nothing else. However, he also seems to suggest that, even without recourse to score pages, the mass public has a basic toolbox to facilitate exercising their own judgement. I might suggest that those who are skillful at using their own tools might constitute that particular class that I have previously called the "enthusiasts." The problem is that those managements about which Thomson writes tend to know both the assets and the limitations of those tools, which is why Thomson raises the problem of abuse.

Thomson wrote the above paragraph for publication on January 22, 1950. I state that date because the article itself deserves a bit of historical perspective. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938; but it was originally created to root out uncover Nazis, rather than undercover Communists. After the Second World War, however, the target shifted.

One result was that many keen intellects, particularly those studying the history of the United States, were writing about the many ways in which our country did not live up to the ideals it had set for itself. These articles were not necessarily accusatory, since many of the writers made no secret that the real world never lives up to the ideal world. Unfortunately, the nature of this critical thinking tended to be associated with advocating Communism; and, to be fair, there certainly was a contingent of writers who had been Party members. However HUAC went after the whole body of those intellectuals with the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad logic of George Orwell's Animal Farm, leading to a rise in anti-intellectualism that would ultimately be studied by Richard Hofstadter.

That rise was already in progress when Thomson wrote the above paragraph. However, those thoughts were simply a continuation of precepts he had been writing about half a decade earlier. My guess is that in 1950 he could not foresee just how much damage HUAC would do; and, since we have never really recovered from that damage, I have to wonder how many of today's readers would prefer to bite Thomson's finger of such regards, rather than looking where he is pointing.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Long Tail of Life-Prolongation

Marcia Angell's review of Atul Gawande's latest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, in the latest (January 8) issue of The New York Review of Books makes for fascinating reading, even if it is more than a little macabre for what is supposed to be an optimistic holiday season. What may be most interesting is Gawande's approach to the traditional view that the role of medicine is to prolong life at all costs, even (often?) when the condition is at its most dire. From an objective point of view, this amounts to denying that life expectancy, like so many other phenomena that cannot be explained precisely, follows the normal (bell curve) statistical distribution. Gawande's language about trying to "beat" the statistics is at its most vivid:
We've built our medical system and culture around the long tail. We've created a multi trillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets.
The reality of the social world, however, is that doctors are just as susceptible to playing the lottery as patients are. This has two disastrous side effects. One is a refusal to embrace a realistic view of death. The other is yet another revenue stream for the medical industry, once again promoting its industrial qualities over any attempt to view medical care as a service. This may sound more than a little ghoulish, but the very idea of quality care for the terminally ill has been all but eliminated because industrial thinking has discovered that there are big bucks to be found at death's door.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wagner instead of Christmas

When even the Real Jazz and Symphony Hall channels of Sirius/XM could not seem to get away from playing Christmas music, Metropolitan Opera Radio offered perfect relief this morning with a broadcast of Siegfried!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lights Out!

Over in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has been protesting that Britain is being "plunged into darkness" by city councils turning off street lights because they cannot afford the electric bills. Is this why San Francisco concert-goers have to negotiate a widening band of unlit streets surrounding the corner of Van Ness and Grove (the corner shared by Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House). Are we really living in a city that cannot pay its electric bills; or is it just another example of politicians taking money away from "bare necessities" to serve the more limited interests of those who engineered getting them into office. Now that Twitter is there, Market Street has never been brighter; but it looks like the price of adequate lighting on Market Street is dangerous darkness of Van Ness Avenue.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Taking my own Medicine

At the beginning of this month, I wrote a piece on my national side for entitled "Should a concert ticket come with a social contract?" I had been struck by the amount of attention the London press had given to Kyung-Wha Chung publicly taking the parents of a coughing child to task during her recital at London’s Royal Festival Hall, an incident that, like Chung's return to the concert stage, received almost no attention on this side of the pond. If I am to believe Google Analytics, then this was one of those articles that received almost no attention. However, because just about everyone who takes listening to music seriously has had to share a concert hall with others who are not so serious and choose to be audible about it, this was one of those pieces I had to write just to get my own bad vibes out of my system.

My point was that, while I had grown up learning, mostly from my parents, that there was such a things as proper behavior at a concert, that world I had grown up in had long gone. The idea that there should be proper behavior at a concert was as alien as the ideal that there should be some standard of etiquette behind writing anything that would find its way into the Internet or, for that matter, walking down the street with some awareness of the presence of others. I could only conclude that those of us going to concerts to listen had to accept the fact that learning how to focus was part of the package and that any inconsiderate behavior we encountered should be regarded as motivation to hone the sharpness of our focal attention.

As fate would have it, my precept was put to the test last night. Without going into detail, I was in a setting where I had a seat that would have been excellent had it not been in front of a very restless child who really did not want to be there. A quick glance made it clear that the parent was aware of the problem, which is why my focal energies had to be concentrated only on blocking out undesirable sounds, rather than contending with having the back of my seat kicked. For what it was worth, the performance itself did much to help me with my focus; and, in the grand scheme of things, I have to admit that I have been in far more unpleasant situations. On the other hand, this was also an occasion at which I was haunted by my own words; and I guess I am happy that they had the proper effect on me.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hacking the Hacking Poll

Today CNET decided to conduct its Friday Poll on the question of whether or not Sony was right to cancel distribution of The Interview. Since I tend to be curious about the opinions of techies who tend to be oblivious to the realities of the social world, I decided the examine the results of the poll. I discovered that the VIEW RESULTS hyperlink did not work on either Safari or Firefox, leading me to wonder whether or not the VOTE NOW link worked. Was CNET's hacking poll hacked?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Not Alone in the Past

Last week I observed that I had spent the year listening to more reissues of old recording than to new ones. Apparently I am not alone in my retrospective preferences. Over the last weeks (months?) I have noticed that the London Telegraph has been running regularly reviews of old movies. This does not appear to have anything to do with new Blu-ray releases. Possibly, there is some link to a pay-channel that has been airing these movies. However, I suspect it has to do with the fact that the Telegraph now has a readership that has not heard of many (most?) of the movies that have been reviewed.

I remember a turning point in my life when I began joining others in saying "Back in the days when Mad Magazine was funny." When I looked at the current GRAMMY nominations, particularly in jazz, I realized that I was missing the days when jazz made for really interesting listening. In fairness, I have encountered some very promising jazz musicians who are much younger than I am, both at concerts and on recordings. However, these players are as far from the mainstream as their most admirable predecessors were, meaning that there is not a snowball's chance in hell that any of them will ever rise to the height (sic) of a GRAMMY nomination.

I suppose I feel the same way about what the Telegraph is doing; many of the old films they are revisiting are more award-worthy than the present-day contenders.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Dude Now Abides at the Library of Congress

Dave Itzkoff used his post to the ArtsBeat blog of The New York Times to note that today the Library of Congress has chosen to add The Big Lebowski to the National Film Registry, selecting it for preservation to "protect a crucial element of American creativity, culture and history" (in the words of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Knowledge through Connections

As I continue to work my way through the Upanishads (an ongoing project, which happens to have lain dormant for quite some time), the one things that sticks with me is the introduction that Patrick Olivelle wrote for my Oxford University Press edition. This is the passage that has been the most memorable:
The assumption then is that the universe constitutes a web of relations, that things that appear to stand alone and apart are, in fact, connected to other things. A further assumption is that these real cosmic connections are usually hidden from the view of ordinary people; discovering them constitutes knowledge, knowledge that is secret and is contained in the Upanishads. And it is this knowledge of the hidden connections that gives the person with that knowledge power, wealth, and prestige in this world, and heavenly bliss and immortality after death. While in the earlier vedic texts the focus is on the connections between the ritual and cosmic spheres, the concern of the Upanishadic thinkers shifts to the human person; the connections sought after are between parts of the human organism and cosmic realities.
I have been bold enough to assume that the social world, like the Hindu conception of the universe, is also a web of connections and that individual knowledge is as much a matter of appropriating the connections of others as it is one of appropriating the connections of the universe.

I was reminded of this perspective while reading Charles Baxter's essay about H. P. Lovecraft in the latest issue of The New York Review. He discusses how Lovecraft put a particularly horrifying spin on the concept of resurrection, which he then illustrated with a quotation. However, the quotation was taken not from Lovecraft but rather from that section of The Last Temptation of Christ in which Kazantzakis describes what life was like of Lazarus (and those around him) after Jesus raised him from the dead. Most people would not think of Kazantzakis when discussing Lovecraft's work, but Baxter found a connection and used it to his advantage. It is that particular take on knowledge that always seems to lurk in the back of my mind when I am trying to write about either a piece of music or how a performer approached it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Fall of Intellectual Prestige

Reading some of Virgil Thomson's columns for the Herald Tribune can sometimes be downright painfully anachronistic. Consider what he wrote on October 3, 1944 about the future of symphony orchestras in the United States:
This [financial] support will be forthcoming exactly as long as the orchestras maintain their nationwide intellectual prestige. And they will maintain that only so long as they are clearly instruments of public instruction.
To put this in historical perspective, Richard Hofstadter's Anti-intellectualism in American Life appeared in 1963, writing primarily about the state of the American mentality in the decade following the one in which Thomson wrote the above passage. This was a time when "intellectual prestige" was, for all intents and purposes, an oxymoron, since anyone with intellect might question a society driven by little more than the pursuit of consumer goods or the uneven distribution of wealth; and anyone raising such questions clearly posed a Communist threat.

Things have changed a lot since then. The Iron Curtain fell and some of the most vigorous capitalism in the world is practices in the former Soviet Union. It is probably practiced even more vigorously in the People's Republic of China, which has not given up its Communist name but has shown itself to be highly adept at the gaming tables of capitalism. However, when intellectual prestige was beaten down to a pulp in the Fifties, it never really recovered, even when we managed to elect Presidents who valued intellect as much as Franklin Roosevelt did in trying to get the country out of the Great Depression. Now we live in an age in which it does not take very much intellect to recognize that people are more likely to believe in Santa Claus or winning the lottery than they are to benefit from what our government is trying to pass of as "economic recovery." Indeed, it is because intellectuals know a naked emperor when they see one that they are still viewed as dangerous; and, in such a cultural setting, "intellectual prestige" is a liability, rather than an asset.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Nostalgia for Balanchine

Listening to a recording today of Georges Bizet's C major symphony reminded me of just how refreshing that music is; but it also reminded me that I really only discovered that refreshment through the choreography of George Balanchine, which I am unlikely to see executed with the precision that Balanchine demanded again in my lifetime.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Living in the Past?

It occurred to me that one reason for my discontent with the GRAMMY nominees for both jazz and classical music is that I spent more time in the past year listening to reissues of some really good past performances than I spent with new recordings.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Anna Netrebko Stands with Vladimir Putin

This morning a report appeared on the BBC News Web site stating that Russian soprano Anna Netrebko has donated one million doubles as a gift to the Donetsk opera and ballet theater. This appears to endorse those rebels who believe that Donetsk should be Russian rather than Ukrainian. It is unclear how much she knows about conditions in any part of the Ukraine; but she is far from the only high-profile figure to provide such tacit endorsement of Vladimir Putin's current policy regard that part of the world. In the domain of serious music, she is joined by both conductor Valery Gergiev and violist Yuri Bashmet.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Negligence, Malice, and the Serious Listener

Back when I tended to post more regularly to this site, I had an almost morbid fascination about how, in our brave new world of "working smarter," it was getting harder to distinguish malice from negligence. However, that distinction was rearing its head long before people started hating their jobs because they felt as if they were being made to work dumber, rather than smarter, and, accordingly, getting paid less for what they were doing. Barbara Garson saw that distinction coming through the rise of technology longer before anyone else did when she wrote The Electronic Sweatshop. This afternoon I found myself musing on how Columbia managed to take such an antagonistic stance towards serious listeners when, in fact, everything was probably just due to dimwitted negligence.

My favorite example is Igor Stravinsky 1882-1971, what was supposed to be a "luxury item" collection of Igor Stravinsky's long history of making recordings for Columbia. This was a monster collection of twelve volumes, most consisting of a single CD with some having more. These were accompanied by a booklet whose contents had absolutely no relationship to the contents of all of those CDs, consisting, instead, of a glorified photo album.

Stravinsky was, of course, a prolific composer. However, it would appear that no one at Columbia every thought that someone who liked Stravinsky's music might actually want to search for a particular composition as being just the right thing to listen to at the time. It turns out that the genre that suffered the most in this regard was the concerto. The fifth volume of the set is a single CD called Concertos, but it has only two of them: the concerto for piano and winds and the violin concerto. It also has the capriccio for piano and orchestra and the set of five pieces that Stravinsky called "movements." To this day I am not sure I have tracked down the other concertos. However, I know that the "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto and the D major concerto for string orchestra (the "Basel Concerto") are in the six volume (Miniature Masterpieces) and the "Ebony Concerto" (Stravinsky's jazz concerto) and the concerto for two solo pianos are part of the seventh volume (Chamber Music & Historical Recordings). I suppose that one of these days I shall have to create my own index, just to check to see if I missed anything!

Long-time readers know that this is far from my only beef with Columbia. I have, in the past, picked on the mess they made of many of their jazz releases. Since that time, I have read and reflected on Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, where I discovered that Columbia could make just as much of a mess in their relationship with jazz performers as they managed to do with jazz listeners.

Of course debating about negligence or malice may be the wrong approach to thinking about the situation. After all, back in the days of the studio system, Hollywood seemed to have a reliable reputation for attracting some of America's best writers, chewing them into a pulp, and then spitting them out like a worthless piece of gum. Perhaps Columbia was just conducting "business as usual" based on what the big boys in Hollywood were doing.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

OMG! Hodor's a DJ!

Kristian Nairn, the actor who plays the script-heavy role of Hodor on Game of Thrones is currently touring as a DJ with a show called Rave of Thrones. He was here in San Francisco on Thursday night to play the club 1015 Folsom. I was busy at the Conservatory that night, which is probably just as well for my eardrums. This "day job" seems appropriate enough, since DJs do not talk very much; and I am sure he was a lot more convincing than Jon Snow as a gladiator in Pompeii!

Cute Blooper in Summary

I have noticed that the summary texts for RSS feeds tend to be given little attention when the feeds are created. While there have been a variety of research projects concerned with summarizing text, they have been better at revealing what we do not know about text understanding, rather than achieving their goal. Still, I do not think we can blame some of the more egregious spelling errors on those summaries on software; and, every now and then, the human-in-the-loop makes the sort of mistake that used to find its way to the bottom of a column in The New Yorker.

Today's feed from BBC News had just such a mistake. It unintentionally created misunderstanding. However, the situation was cute enough to be relatively harmless. The summary text, in its entirety, read:
The Dalai Lama carries Werther's Originals, and more nuggets
This summarized an article entitled "10 things we didn't know last week;" so it was pretty clear that the "nuggets" were the other "nine things." However, as it was written, the text suggested that the Dalai Lama carries a variety of candies with him, only one of which was named by brand, leaving the reader curious about what the others were!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Keeping Busy

Recently, two of my contacts for my work have referred to me as the busiest man writing about music. I did not give this much thought until yesterday, when I was watching Mr. Dynamite, the documentary about James Brown. I learned that he was called the busiest man in show business. How do I feel about sharing an epithet with James Brown? I feel good! (Still, I'll never be able to scream the way Brown could.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Music is not Just about the Ears

One of my former colleagues reminded me today of the debate that still rages over what is the "best" bandwidth for recordings of music. I use the scare quotes because I persist in believe that, while recordings may help orient the mind when preparing to listen to an actual performance, no recording is a substitute for the experience of physical presence. To "review the bidding" on this argument, my current position comes down to two points. One is that any performance has a strong spatial factor. Even when it involves only one performer, there is still the relationship among performer, instrument, and physical setting in which the performances is taking place, all three elements of which play a role in how listening is experienced. The second is the issue of engagement. For multiple performers this involves the extent to which performance cannot take place without communicative actions among those performers. However, there are also factors of communicative actions between performer(s) and audience. Both of these points are abstracted out of the picture when a recording (even a "live" recording) is substituted for an actual performance. Arguing over whether or not a recording would benefit from wider bandwidth is a bit like arguing that the Taj Mahal could do with another window.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Are Things THAT Different Out West?

According to a report on the ABC7 News Web Site, the San Jose City Council will vote today on banning the riding of bicycles on downtown sidewalks? Is this really legal at the present time? Back East, even my quiet suburb of Phildelphia did not allow bicycle-riding on the sidewalks. I just took it for granted that the sidewalks were for pedestrians in any American city. Are bikes also allowed on the sidewalks of San Francisco? More to the point, if riding a bicycle on the sidewalk is, indeed, a moving violation, when and how will the police begin to enforce it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Disorder Rules

Anne Applebaum's review of Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, a recent book by Karen Dawisha, in the latest issue of The New York Review is a must read for anyone who takes a look at BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Jonathan Marcus' analysis posted on the BBC News Web site today under the title "Putin problem gives Nato headache." On the surface it would seem as if Marcus and Dawisha are examining different aspects of Putin's career advancements; but this would be dangerous silo-based thinking. Consider what may be Marcus' key "punch line" observation:
Nonetheless, the Ukraine crisis has shown Mr Putin to be a master of making policy on the hoof, exploiting weaknesses; setting many hares running and following up those that seem to make the most headway.
As Applebaum's article makes clear, Dawisha is not interested in how Putin makes policy. On the contrary, Putin's actions can only be considered in terms of the acquisition of power and the use of power to manage and acquire resources. If Putin is a master of anything, it is his ability to sow disorder, thereby throwing just about every institution of governance (established or otherwise) into dithering helplessness. Applebaum provides several vivid examples of how Putin has put this talent into practice, including channeling resources to both left-wing and right-wing extremists in our own country, creating, for his own purposes, a legislative body incapable of making any decision.

Applebaum also notes that Dawisha is not the first to write about this dark side of Putin's behavior. Indeed, Dawisha is credited for recognizing all the sources that provided support for the points she makes in her book. Unfortunately, those who believe that the end of the Cold War provided circumstances for a "new world order" must now recognize just how deluded they were and come up with a better belief system before it is too late.