Archive for December, 2014

In a recent comments thread at Nature Bats Last, I reopened the question (in a short-lived discussion) whether those of us convinced of the truth of climate change and the specter of Near-Term Extinction (NTE — always contingent upon events yet to occur but nonetheless foreseeable) should be raising awareness now that it’s too late to do anything meaningful about it. Specifically, Guy McPherson continues to travel around reporting the science and drawing conclusions, with epistemological and confidence-shaking effects on his audiences. Q&A sessions that often follow his presentations are problematical because participants, if they’re honest, find no refuge from the death sentence levied against humanity. Yet many of them, perhaps confronting the issue for the first time in earnest (it’s been out there at the fringes for decades), cling desperately to the faith and/or hope that something — anything — must be done to appeal, reverse, or forestall the inevitable. The mental gymnastics required to do so are obvious, and members of the public have plenty of company in ongoing media and political debate that has succeeded for decades in blocking responses to negative impacts of our own behaviors in favor of business as usual. So as evidence continues to mount and manifest before our eyes with, for example, habitat loss, collapsing animal populations, disappearing sea ice, and increased frequency and intensity of destructive weather events and trends, the expectation is that, on the heels of a presentation or revelation, someone will have a moment of severe existential crisis (waiting for all of us, frankly) and perhaps decide to kill the messenger.

A few days ago, I became aware (via Ugo Bardi’s blog Resource Crisis) of one such messenger: a fake expert being interviewed by a fake news anchor on a fake news show. I’ve embedded the fictional scene below. (more…)

A 528-page report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was made public about ten days ago, and the response was immediate, varied, and voluminous. However, no one could pretend to be surprised. I’ve blogged in the past about the willingness of U.S. agencies to allow and even relish unspeakable, inhumane, torturous interrogation and the blasé acceptance of such behavior by the American public. But I knew I was just screaming into a waterfall. Reopening the issue, which has never really gone away, provoked all the usual memes, ranging from (self-)condemnation to denunciation to rationalization. A few things ought to be clear, though, to all Americans:

  1. We have institutionalized torture.
  2. We have institutionalized lies, obfuscation, and outright denials about torture — even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
  3. We have institutionalized rationalizations and refusals to prosecute torturers and their administrative supervisors — all the way up the chain of command.
  4. We have no intention of stopping.
  5. We are our own worst enemy.

Despite all the horseshit (please, just call it what it is) about dangerous regimes and terrorists threatening the U.S. (landing a couple blows in a fistfight doesn’t make someone a bully), it’s equally obvious that the U.S. is now a rogue state. So far, no one has issued a direct challenge to the biggest bully on the planet, but we’re asking for it. Rather, indignant response manifests at the fringes, where it’s marginally safer.

Ten years ago, a documentary film called The Corporation compared the psychology of business entities to human entities (corporate personhood having been enshrined in law) and concluded that, because of perverse incentives operating in the business world, corporations are essentially psychopaths. A similar comparison could be made with respect to nation-states and individuals, and the conclusion should be that the U.S. as a whole is criminally insane. We don’t know this about ourselves, really, and probably couldn’t admit it or deal with it even if we did. (Some might argue that we are dealing with it by self-destructing with ferocious speed.) The U.S. is certainly not the first or only nation to go criminally insane. Seems to migrate across time and space. So merrily we roll along.

I was surprised to learn last summer that June is Torture Awareness Month, so named because the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT) came into force on June 26, 1987 (though it was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1984). How odd. Wasn’t this already covered by the Geneva Conventions of 1864, 1906, 1929, and 1949? I had thought at the time to write a blog post denouncing (again) U.S. torture but ultimately felt I had nothing new or worthwhile to say. The past ten days reinforce that I can only hang my head in shame, knowing that my own country has run off the rails and that no additional screaming into waterfalls will change anything.

Kyung Wha Chung has been in the back of my mind for decades. Her recording of the Berg (and Bartók) Violin Concerto(s) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Sir Georg Solti has long been on my list of favorite recordings, all the more so for making a difficult work intelligible to the listener. Her other recordings have mostly escaped my attention, and I’ve never heard her perform live. Three interesting developments have brought her again to my attention: Decca’s new release of a box set of her recordings, her return to the London stage that first brought her fame, and her regrettable response to an audience coughing fit from that stage. Coverage of the last two news items has been provided by Norman Lebrecht at his website Slipped Disc. I’ve linked to Lebrecht twice in the past, but he’s not on my blogroll because he writes deplorable clickbait headlines. I appreciate his work aggregating classical music news, which is mostly about personnel (hiring and firing), but his obvious pandering irks me. The incident of the coughing spasm filtering through the audience, however, attracted my attention independent of the individuals involved. Commentary at Slipped Disc runs the gamut from “she was right to respond” to “an artist should never acknowledge the public in such a manner.” The conflict is irresolvable, of course, but let me opine anyway.

Only a few venues/activities exist where cultured people go to enjoy themselves in the exercise of good manners and taste. The concert hall (classical music, including chamber music and solo recitals but not popular musics) is one such oasis. Charges of snobbery and elitism are commonplace when criticisms of the fine arts come into play, but the mere fact that absolutely anyone can buy a ticket and attend puts the lie to that. Better to focus such coarse thinking on places like golf, country, and suppers clubs that openly exclude nonmembers, typically on the basis of nonpayment of onerous membership fees. Other bases for exclusion I will leave alone. (The supposition that sophistication accompanies wealth is absurd, as anyone having acquaintance with such places can attest.) I note, too, that democratization of everything has brought more access to fine arts to everyone — but at a cost, namely, the manners and self-control needed for the audience space to function effectively has eroded in the last few decades.

Is has been said that all arts aspire to the condition of music, with its unity of subject matter and form that fosters direct connection to the emotions. As such, the concert artist (and ensembles) in the best case scenario casts an emotional spell over audiences. In response, audiences cannot sit in stony silence but should be emotionally open and engaged. Distractions, whether visual or aural, unavoidably dispel the tone established in performance, no matter if they happen to occur during the brief interval between movements rather than during performance. A noisy, extended interval where the audience coughed, fidgeted, and otherwise rearranged itself reportedly occurred after the first movement of a Mozart sonata performed by Kyung Wha Chung, and she was irritated enough to respond indelicately by upbraiding the parent of a child, the child unfortunately being among the last to be heard coughing. As a result, there was a palpable tension in the room that didn’t wear off, not unlike when an audience turns on a performer.

Audience disruption at concerts is not at all unusual; in some estimations, lack of decorum has only increased over the years. My first memory of a concert being temporarily derailed by the audience was in the middle 1980s. So now the arguments are flying back and forth, such as that the audience pays to see/hear what’s offered onstage and the artist has no business complaining. Another goes that the artist should be operating on a lofty aesthetic plane that would disallow notice-taking of audience behavior. (Miles Davis is renowned and sometimes reviled for having often turned his back to the audience in performance.) Both quite miss the point that it is precisely an emotional circuit among composer (or by proxy, the composer’s work), performer, and audience that makes the endeavor worthwhile. Excellence in composition and performance are requirements, and so too is the thoughtful contribution of the audience to close the circuit. Suggestions that boorish behavior by audiences is irrelevant fail to account for the sensitivity needed among all parties to make the endeavor effective.

It happens that I gave a solo recital a few months ago, my first in more than a decade. I am by no means an artist anywhere near the accomplishment of Kyung Wha Chung (few are, frankly), but I rely on audience response the same as any performer. My first surprise was the number of no-shows among my friends and peers who had confirmed their attendance. Then, after the completion of the first four-movement sonata, the audience sat silently, not making a peep. It fell to me to respond, to invite applause, to overcome the anxiety in the room regarding the proper way to act. (Clapping between movements is not customary, and clumsy audiences who clap in the wrong places have sometimes been shushed, so I surmised there was fear about when applause was supposed to happen.) Further, due to the awkwardness of the performance space (only one place the piano would fit), three latecomers (35+ min. into the performance) paraded right past me, between movements, to get seated. I was affected by these surprises but tried to take them in stride. Still, it’s fair to say my concentration was more than a little rattled. So I have some sympathy for any performer whose audience behaves unpredictably.

At the extremes, there are artists whose performance style is deep concentration or a nearly hypnotic state where even small disruptions take them out of the moment, whereas others can continue unimpeded through an air raid. No one-size-fits-all solution exists, of course, and in hindsight, it’s always possible to imagine better ways to respond to setbacks. However, I cannot join in the side of the debate that condemns Kyung Wha Chung, however regrettable her response was.