Archive for June, 2006

Warner Classics Closes

Posted: June 21, 2006 in Classical Music

In some rather disappointing news, Warner Classics has been shut down by its parent company, AOL-Time Warner. Norman Lebrecht offers a perspective in his column at La Scena Musicale. If what Lebrecht says is true, that Warner Classics bought up independents including Erato, Teldec, Finlandia, and Deutsche Harmonia Mundi and has been profitable over the last five years, why on earth would AOL-Time Warner shut down a profitable division? The disappearance of diversity within the classical music marketplace now leaves only three big labels: EMI, Sony-BMG, and Deutsche Grammophon/Decca. Smaller labels are continuing to produce worthwhile recordings, but small labels don’t tend to nurture and develop long-term relationships with major artists and ensembles the way the big labels do/did.

The most telling remarks in Lebrecht’s column are these:

Edgar Bronfman Jr. [chairman of AOL-Time Warner] had no patience for the prestos and adagios of an offshore accessory that contributes barely two percent of pop-music revenues … Classical music used to be the industry’s core resource. The Beatles could never have developed their sophisticated sound world without the symphonic expertise on hand at Abbey Road and most subsequent groups are indebted, wittingly or not, to the stern disciplines and mathematical logic of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. “People in the record business understood that classics was where we all came from — the basis of what we do,” a former head of Sony Europe told me recently. “We were happy to carry on making records in that area, even losing a bit of money.”

Another way of putting this is that typical media executives have little refinement or sensibility for running artistic concerns and, in their shortsightedness, are only too happy to jettison one of the richest artistic traditions of the last millennium in favor of the ephemera of pop music.

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Anger Management

Posted: June 15, 2006 in Blogosphere, Taste

Here’s a brief (thus far) but interesting blog by a guy who thinks that we’re all too complacent and could use some heartfelt anger about the way things are going in the culture. Never mind that anger is unhealthy, unwholesome, negative, and causes high blood pressure. He’s got a big list of rants, some of which push him over the edge from angry to furious. Two of them in particular caught my attention.

The Missile Shield
It’s really not a shield at all, is it? It’s actually just a bunch of other missiles. If you thought someone was going to throw a dart at your head, would you defend yourself with intercept darts? Hitting a mid-flight dart with another dart or a missile with another missile is hard, and it pretty much never works in either case. I wouldn’t declare my head dart-proof based on a system like that. And I sure as hell wouldn’t spend billions of dollars trying to dart-proof my head in response to having a brick thrown at my crotch on September 11th.

This just makes so much sense to me I wish I’d thought of it first. It was true in Reagan’s day and is no less true today now that Bush has resurrected the project. It’s also so laughingly foolhardy it’s tragic, considering the public funds spent chasing so elusive a chimera.

Standing Ovations
I shouldn’t have to hate standing ovations. But good lord do I ever. Tony Blair, when addressing the US Congress received 19 standing ovations during his 32 minute speech. George Bush received 6 in the first six minutes of the last state of the union address. A standing ovation is meant to be reserved for the best of the best. This should automatically exclude the following from receiving them: 1) all school productions (I’ve seen your kids, they’re not that cute) 2) speeches by presidents who say “nukular” 3) concerts from local musicians 4) amateur plays. Most performers and speakers aren’t that good and you devalue those who are when you arbitrarily dish out standing o’s. I propose that everybody get a lifetime quota of three ovations that they can bestow on performers. No more. It might make people think twice before they stand up and start clapping like idiots for a kid hitting a tambourine.

This one has been a peeve of mine for a long time. I think one underlying cause is that we’re all out to maximize our enjoyment of things, and to do so, it becomes necessary to validate our experience with standing ovations at every turn. I once took part in a staged riot at a classical music concert, which was a very modest recreation of a real riot in 1913. The looks of utter horror on the faces of the audience before they realized what was happening — that someone might disapprove of a public performance and be disruptive — was remarkable. Were I to really boo a performer these days, I’d probably be sanctioned for expressing my judgment.

On weblogs, both in posts and in comments, one of the most frequently cited characteristics of political operatives is their intelligence (or lack thereof). The same goes for those who post on blogs and in the comments sections. It’s a preoccupation in blogs to assess or otherwise comment on everyone’s smarts. Yet I don’t recall ever noticing journalists in the mainstream media bothering to comment much, at least out loud or in print, whether someone is smart, average, or downright stupid. Considering how very important smarts seem to be in the blogsphere, it’s a rather startling omission in mainstream journalism. Perhaps it’s the elephant in the room no one wants to acknowledge.

So in politics, since that’s the dominant subject of public debate, do smarts really matter? I think they probably don’t but should. We’re just as suspicious and sceptical of those who are regarded as highly intelligent (e.g., Clinton) as those regarded as mere hat holders (e.g., Bush the younger). And since results speak louder than reputations, the meaningful part of any legacy is effectiveness rather than good intentions (e.g., Carter).

The only way to judge the intelligence of bloggers and commenters is to examine how well ideas are put across in print. In politics, there are many other avenues, and press offices seek to shape and frame impressions in the most advantageous ways, which aren’t always the most intelligent. We also discuss credentials such as education (degrees and alma maters) and stats (GPAs, SATs, and IQs), and intangibles such as charisma. Considering intelligence has been redefined in the past few decades as being more than simply raw information processing power (probably closest to an IQ measurement), multiple intelligences or overall intelligence can’t really be assessed well using any sole traditional measure. Combinations of criteria also introduce too many variables, which quickly become worthless apples-and-oranges comparisons.

Personally, I don’t care about anyone’s credentials all that much; I care about ideas, and I look to writing for effective, intelligent communication. Writing is mostly uninfluenced by personal charisma (exhibited in face-to-face or video contexts), and anonymous writing (as with many blogs) also diminishes the cult of personality surrounding many public figures. So an Ann Coulter type, on the basis of her reputation, might get a pass for (presumably) smart writing in a book published under her name, but the same writing offered anonymously would be given no extra credit because of the writer’s identity.

Still, why are blog writers and commenters so preoccupied with intelligence? I sense that many in the blogosphere have become serious adherents to public debate, and the worthiness of the opponent is an important consideration. It goes beyond idle entertainment or mere gamesmanship as I mentioned in my previous post, Arguing On-Line, though that’s part of it, too. Worthiness is correlated to intelligence and writing ability. Paradoxically, many high-profile bloggers and commenters don’t write very well. But they can often suss out the salacious topics and angles and inject excitement into the debate. Both of these characteristics go against the 18th-century notion of rational, informed public debate associated with Paine and Jefferson, which is ideally conducted dispassionately and disinterestedly but with a vivid, lucid writing style. That sensibility is difficult to achieve, but I daresay we would all say, Bring It!

Arguing On-Line

Posted: June 7, 2006 in Blogosphere, Debate, Manners

I stumbled into an interesting post at The Futurist called "Deconstructing the Leftist 'Mind'" and the even more interesting comments thread that follows it. Never mind that The Futurist is a right-leaning blog and that the post was bait for left-wingers. If one were to discard all the news and debate that subscribes to hopelessly reductive and increasingly meaningless dualisms such as left/right or red/blue, there would be little left to attend to. The comments have a really interesting exchange between Conrad and GK, but as the number of comments climb, the level of civility descends and the exchange devolves from debate to argument to name-calling and worse. Naturally, things spin out of control. There's an old bit of wisdom from UseNet that the first person to mention Hitler or Nazis in an argument concedes defeat by admitting he/she is out of good ideas.

This article by Charlie Brooker at The Guardian describes the same phenomenon. A brief quote serves to characterize his viewpoint:

There's no point debating anything online. You might as well hurl shoes in the air to knock clouds from the sky. The internet's perfect for all manner of things, but productive discussion ain't one of them. It provides scant room for debate and infinite opportunities for fruitless point-scoring: the heady combination of perceived anonymity, gestated responses, random heckling and a notional "live audience" quickly conspire to create a "perfect storm" of perpetual bickering.

The American Experiment in democracy is sometimes described as an ongoing public discussion or argument, which results in a sort of equilibrium superior to either of the extremes. To have one side (thinking of only two sides of a coin) or facet (thinking of a multiplicity of perspectives) become too dominant is politically unhealthy precisely because the equilibrium disappears and extremism rules. Further, stifling of dissent and disappearance of principled argument signals the sort of desperation that leads to violence and war. 

I still have hopes of learning new and interesting things, many of them interpretations and opinions (as opposed to mere facts), and I fully expect my opinions and perspectives to change as a result. However, human nature apparently being what it is, it's difficult to find interlocutors who can maintain decorum. It's a shame.