Archive for the ‘Classical Music’ Category

Was surprised to learn a while back that West Side Story (1961) was being remade by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that Steven Spielberg. Among the spurious reasons (I gather) for the frankly unnecessary remake was a desire to recast with actors of the proper ethnic origin. Ugh. Sure, the original actors who portrayed Bernardo and Maria were Americans of Greek and Russo/Ukrainian descent, respectively. So what? Spielberg’s casting didn’t get much closer (Canadian and American/Colombian, respectively), though the newly cast actors certainly look like they could be Puerto Rican. Any further updating of this particular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of many) for today’s woke sensibilities was also foiled considering the plot (starry-eyed, ill-fated, would-be lovers divided by rivalrous families/gangs) remained essentially unchanged and the original 1950s NYC setting was kept. In addition, the original musical score (altered — more on that below) and choreography (updated? I can’t tell) were used. It wasn’t a shot-for-shot remake, and I presume some of the dialogue was changed, but I didn’t make direct comparisons. Lastly, considering the 1961 original won numerous awards, who exactly was crying out for a remake? Unsurprisingly, the remake was also nominated for awards.

Aside: In arts and entertainment media, remakes are restricted to cinema. No one rewrites a book. Restaged theater and musicals are merely new productions. Rerecording a pop song is understood as a “cover” of the original, not a remake. The rather large discography of classical music includes many, many different versions of the same works, e.g., Beethoven symphonies. (Some suggest, “Does anyone really need yet another version of Beethoven Symphony No. 5?” That question loses legitimacy when asked about live performance.) One might argue that those, too, are remakes, except that there is rarely such a thing as a definitive original. Moreover, consider that music is a dynamic art typically practiced live, in real time. A musical recording fixes that experience, whether live in concert or in the recording studio, on a playback medium intended for repeat play. Comparison of different performances can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Further, a recording of a sporting event might be made for more convenient rebroadcast shortly afterwards and/or for archival purposes, but repeat experience (i.e., rewatching the 1985 Super Bowl vs. listening repeatedly to a favorite music album) is anathema when the outcome has already been seen. Similarly, repeat viewing of TV shows and movies is best at wide intervals, after memory of original viewing fades. Cinema, in contrast with music, has always been a fixed form. Cinema is also not understood as a recording of a live experience. Its genesis as playback differs from stage theater or musical theater. (Some critics and superfans — especially the YouTube variety — don’t wait but instead immediately go back in search of Easter eggs and continuity errors.) Finally, only a modest number of TVs shows have been remade or rebooted, whereas remaking and rebooting movies is comparatively commonplace, which has been characterized as “Hollywood out of ideas.” Take note that West Side Story was first a stage musical and only later committed to film.

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Having grown up in an ostensibly free, open society animated by liberal Western ideology, it’s fair to say in hindsight that I internalized a variety of assumptions (and illusions) regarding the role of the individual vis-à-vis society. The operative word here is ostensibly owing to the fact that society has always restricted pure expressions of individuality to some degree through socialization and pressure to conform, so freedom has always been constrained. That was one of the takeaways from my reading (long ago in high school) of Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger (1942) (British: The Outsider; French: L’Étranger), namely, that no matter how free one might believe oneself to be, if one refuses (radically, absurdly) to play by society’s rules and expectations, one will be destroyed. The basic, irresolvable conflict is also present in the concerto principle in classical music, which presents the soloist in dialogue with or in antithesis to the ensemble. Perhaps no work exemplifies this better than the 2nd movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 for piano and orchestra. A similar dialogue if found in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, though dialogue there might be better understood as man vs. nature. The significant point of similarity is not the musical style or themes but how the individual/man is ultimately subdued or absorbed by society/nature.

Aside: A broader examination of narrative conflict would include four traditional categories: (1) man vs. man, (2) man vs. nature, (3) man vs. self, and (4) man vs. society. Updated versions, often offered as tips for aspiring writers, sometimes include breakout conflicts (i.e., subcategories): (1) person vs. fate/god, (2) person vs. self, (3) person vs. person, (4) person vs. society, (5) person vs. nature, (6) person vs. supernatural, and (7) person vs. technology. Note that modern sensibilities demand use of person instead of man.

My reason for bringing up such disparate cultural artifacts is to provide context. Relying on my appreciation of the Zeitgeist, liberal Western ideology is undergoing a radical rethinking, with Woke activists in particular pretending to emancipate oppressed people when flattening of society is probably the hidden objective. Thus, Wokesters are not really freeing anyone, and flattening mechanisms are pulling people down, not building people up. On top of that, they are targeting the wrong oppressors. If leveling is meant to occur along various markers of identity (race, sexual and gender orientation, religion, political affiliation, nationality, etc.), the true conflict in the modern era has always been socioeconomic, i.e., the ownership class against all others. Sure, differences along identitarian lines have been used to oppress, but oppressors are merely using a surface characteristic to distract from their excessive power. The dispossessed oddly fail to recognize their true enemies, projecting animus instead on those with whom grievances are shared. Similarly, Wokesters are busy exploiting their newfound (albeit momentary) power to question the accepted paradigm and force RightThink on others. Yet traditional power holders are not especially threatened by squabbles among the oppressed masses. Moreover, it’s not quite accurate to say that the identitarian left is rethinking the established order. Whatever is happening is arguably occurring at a deeper, irrational level than any thoughtful, principled, political action meant to benefit a confluence of interest groups (not unlike the impossible-to-sort confluence of identities everyone has).

Although I haven’t read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), I gather that Zinn believed history should not be told from the winners’ perspective (i.e., that of the ownership and ruling classes, significant overlap acknowledged), or from top down, but instead through the lens of the masses (i.e., the people, a large segment of whom are oppressed and/or dispossessed), or from the bottom up. This reorientation applies not only within a given society or political entity but among nations. (Any guess which countries are the worst oppressors at the moment? Would be a long list.) Moreover, counter to the standard or accepted histories most of us learn, preparation of the U.S. Constitution and indeed quite a lot of U.S. history are deeply corrupt and oppressive by design. It should be obvious that the state (or nation, if one prefers), with its insistence on personal property and personal freedom (though only for a narrow class of landed gentry back in the day, plutocrats and corporatists today), systematically rolled over everyone else — none so egregiously as Native Americans, African slaves, and immigrants. Many early institutions in U.S. political history were in fact created as bulwarks against various forms of popular resistance, notably slave revolts. Thus, tensions and conflicts that might be mistakenly chalked up as man vs. society can be better characterized as man vs. the state, with the state having been erected specifically to preserve prerogatives of the ownership class.

More to come in part 2 and beyond.

The Anton Bruckner symphony cycle recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan (the Wing Cycle to some collectors) has long been known to me and cherished. Based on Amazon reviews noting remastered and improved sound over previous releases of the same recorded performances, I decided the relatively low cost was worth trying out Blu-ray Audio, my first such disc. Although the entire cycle fits on a single Blu-ray Audio disc, nine CDs are included in the box. Duplication seems unnecessary, but the inclusion of both may be desirable for some listeners. Pleasingly, original cover art (the aforementioned wing) from the LPs appears on the 2020 rerelease. Shamefully, like another recent set of Bruckner symphonies, DG put the conductor’s name above the composer’s. This practice ought to stop. This review is about comparing versions/media in addition to reviewing the performances. Caveat: a superior stereo system is a prerequisite. If listening on some device not intended for high fidelity (phone, computer, etc.), save your dollars and find the recordings on a streaming service. Both CD and Blu-ray players in my system are connected to the preamp via digital cables to use the better DAC in the preamp rather than those in the players.

My comparison involves four releases of the cycle: (1) original LPs from the 1970s and 80s, (2) 1990 CDs, (3) 2020 CDs, and (4) the sole 2020 Blu-ray Audio disc. All are the same works and same performances. Direct A/B/C/D comparisons are difficult, and I didn’t listen to every version of each, which would have required far too many hours. Rather, I focused on two representative movements well established in my ear: the 2nd movt. (Adagio) of the 5th and the 4th movt. (Finale) of the 8th. Because every recording has its own unique characteristics borne out of the era (typically divided by decade), the engineering team, and the producer, it’s normal for me to attempt to “hear through” all the particulars of a recording to the actual performance. For a recording to be badly flawed or unlistenable is fairly exceptional, and I still tend to make mental adjustments to accommodate what I’m hearing. Similar perceptual adjustments in the visual spectrum known as “white balance” reflect how outdoor lighting and color shift as the sun transits across the sky. Accordingly, there is probably no such thing as authentic or natural sound as one’s perceptual apparatus adjusts automatically, accommodating itself to what is heard to fit circumstance. That said, it’s obvious that some recorded media and listening environments are superior to others.

Easy part first: comparison of (2), (3), and (4) revealed only minor differences at best. A tendency toward bright, treble-heavy equalization was not ameliorated with (3) or (4) as other reviewers suggested remastering had accomplished. With the 4th and 9th symphonies especially, sustained timpani rolls often mask the orchestra and were not appreciably rebalanced or improved. For ease or due to laziness, I tend to cue CDs before any other media. The Blu-ray disc offers substantially the same sound but lumps all the tracks together in one extended, numbered sequence (no track titles). Selecting a particular track is a minor inconvenience and requires the TV screen be on, at least initially. Given that, CDs will likely continue to be the first medium I reach for. Perceptual accommodation may also account for my inability to detect much difference among any of the CDs and/or Blu-ray Audio. However, no surprise to audiophiles and despite their drawbacks, LPs proved to be the warmest, most pleasing sound. A huge amount of gain (volume) was needed to bring the LPs up to the sound level of other media, which overcame surface noise handily. Of course, LPs wear and become distorted over time, and quality of the playback equipment matters quite a lot. But for focused listening sessions, LPs win the media challenge handily.

Hard part second: these performances are remarkable for two principal reasons, namely, consistently excellent (even definitive, some say) interpretations and uniformly sumptuous orchestral sound. Karajan is renowned for his three Beethoven symphony cycles and how he grasps and communicates structure far better than most. The quality is subtle but unmistakable, and the same is true with Bruckner. Like Wagner, Bruckner performance style has developed into a cult of slow in two aspects: passages best realized at surprisingly slow tempos (difficult to maintain and control) and the stately pace at which symphonic form and discussion unfolds. Many individual movements top 20 min. in duration. The Berlin Philharmonic handles them exceptionally well, meaning without apparent impatience or hurry. The Adagio of the 5th is one such example, where the slow introduction exhibits breadth and beauty of tone and critical evenness of pulse (pizzicati in the low strings). Although quite slow, the intro holds one’s attention without flagging, meandering, or luring listeners away toward more obvious excitements. The string tutti that follows immediately is among several passages in Karajan’s recorded oeuvre that overcompensates (for what is unclear) in glorious fashion. My LP is decidedly worn from repeat playing of this movement. No other recording of the 5th (to my knowledge) dares to approach Berlin’s volume and intensity in these first few minutes. Similarly, the Finale of the 8th barrels in with a declamatory tutti that has never sounded better. Everything about this movement works to the credit of the Berlin Philharmonic, especially when the orchestra slots into an ideal combination of tempo and balance at 5:45. This particular passage rarely fails to inspire me, but no other recording captures quite the same authority. Similarly, the gorgeous Wagner tuba solo in the Adagio of the 8th and the rolling, swinging momentum of the Scherzo of the 8th, through many iterations of the same basic motif, are achievements unmatched by other recordings. Further observations could be made throughout the cycle, specifying moments that remain unparalleled.

Overall, none of the symphonies in the Wing Cycle is weak. Each possesses Karajan’s characteristic, dignified approach. Worth noting is that numerous flubs and misalignments are left in, which some critics assess as sloppiness — a quintessential characteristic often mentioned regarding Karajan recordings. To note counters, these represent unforgivable errors to be covered by retakes and/or editing. However, this human quality, audibly distinct from the overproduced and heartlessly punctilious perfection of many modern recordings (especially multitrack, quantized recordings found in pop and rock music), does not detract. Rather, a certain verisimilitude is presented, just like live performance. Truly being in the moment means accepting minor flaws to preserve the larger musical flow. Maybe this is how Karajan embodies a structural vision of the works, obliterated in other recorded performances by piecing together too many disparate parts. Hard to say.

Digressing somewhat, three orchestras dominate the field when it comes to recordings of Bruckner symphonies: the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO), the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO), and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The BPO and VPO are similar in approach and sound and are well represented in their respective discographies. (The VPO lacks a unified cycle under one conductor.) However, the CSO achieves its fairly unique results with this repertoire through an unusually high level of technical mastery — both individually and in aggregate — and through sheer, overwhelming, even outrageous volume and focus in the tuttis, led by the storied CSO brass section. Critics may complain of brass players swamping the orchestra and turning the whole endeavor into a wind symphony, such an overweening approach being better suited to overt hysterics of Russian symphonists such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. That judgment is rather reductive, considering how Bruckner scored his orchestral works with ample time devoted to each section of the orchestra. As performer and brass player, the blazing thrills delivered by the CSO (in its heyday) have an extraordinary pull on my musical sensibilities.

The CSO’s two cycles under Barenboim and Solti are less consistently good than the Wing Cycle, but when individual entries are good, they’re very good indeed. For instance, the opening horn solo of the 4th (CSO under Barenboim) is perfection, as is the amazing modulating chorale undergirded by the tuba later in the movement. The main climax of the Adagio of the 4th (still CSO under Barenboim) is probably the most exuberant, shattering symphonic climax I’ve ever heard (Shosti 7 under Bernstein may exceed it but only by virtue of the double brass section). Solti’s highlights are the extended coda of the Finale of the 5th, the coda of the 1st movt. of the 9th, and nearly the whole of the 6th for its raw power and precision. Lots of other recordings I could mention, including Giulini’s two remarkable 9ths (frankly terrifying with the CSO but more cosmic with the VPO). The only orchestras that match the CSO for power and intensity are the BPO and VPO. However, European orchestras perform differently together and seldom display the same technical brilliance or volume of American orchestras. Instead, they sound more soulful. These characteristics are impossible to quantify, like the sound of LPs vs. CDs, but are readily apparent upon hearing. Further, both are valid approaches, able to satisfy musical tastes and objectives differently.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) musicians’ union labor action — a strike now extending into its second month with no apparent resolution in sight — and reticent to take a strong position. This might be surprising considering that I’m a natural ally of the musicians in at least two respects: (1) my support for the labor movement in general, and (2) my sustained interest in classical music as both a listener and practitioner. On balance, I have two objections that hold me back: (1) difficulty empathizing with anyone already well compensated for his or her work (CSO base salary is more than $160K per year; many make considerably more), and (2) the argument that as a premier arts institution, the organization should take no heed of economic effects being felt universally and visited on many who actually suffer deprivations beyond lost prestige.

To buttress their position, the Musicians of the CSO (why do the musicians operate a website distinct from the organization as a whole?) issued a press release in late March 2019 (PDF link). I’ve no desire to analyze it paragraph-by-paragraph, but I want to bring a few bits forward:

For more than 50 years, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been touted as the nation’s finest – able to draw talent from across the globe. [emphasis added]

Music is not a championship endeavor despite the plethora of televised lip-syncing singing contests. No one orchestra can lay reasonable claim to being the best. Smacks of hubris. Simply change that to “as among the nation’s finest” and I’m OK with it.

In the last seven years the Orchestra’s salary has not kept up with inflation. Further, the Orchestra’s benefit package has fallen behind that of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, the Association is attempting to change a fundamental tenet of the security of the Orchestra – and American life – our pension plan.

Well boo hoo for you. Many of the fundamental tenets of American life have been steadily stripped away from the population over the past 40 years or so. The very existence of a pension plan is exceptional for many in the labor force, not to mention the handsome salary and other benefits, including a 20-hour workweek, that CSO musicians enjoy. (Admittedly, a lot of outside preparation is necessary to participate effectively.) I understand that comparison with sister institutions in LA, SF, and NYC provide context, but cost of living differences at the coasts ought to be part of that context, too. Keeping up with the Joneses in this instance is a fool’s errand. And besides, those three cities suffer considerably with homeless and destitute populations that line the sidewalks and alleys. Chicago has somehow managed to displace most of its homeless population (mostly through harassment, not humanitarian aid), though one cannot avoid a phalanx of panhandlers outside Chicago Symphony Center on concert nights. Still, it’s nothing compared to conditions in downtown SF, which have gotten so bad with people living, peeing, and shitting in the street that an infamous poop map is available to help pedestrians avoid the worst of it. (I’ve no idea what the sidewalk outside Davies Symphony Hall in SF is like, but the location appears to be in the area of greatest poop concentration.) LA’s skid row is another district straight out of hell.

With many of the musicians already vested, our concern is truly about the future of the Orchestra – its ability to retain and attract great talent – a concern shared by Maestro Muti, Daniel Barenboim, and many of the world’s other finest orchestras and leaders.

This is not a concern of mine in the slightest. Sure, musicians play musical chairs, swapping around from orchestra to orchestra as opportunities arise, just like other workers traipse from job to job throughout their working lives. So what? A performing position with the CSO has long been a terminal position from which many players retire after more than 50 years of service (if they’re so fortunate to be hired by the orchestra in their 20s). I cannot estimate how many top-tier musicians forego auditions for the CSO due to perceived inadequacies with compensation or working conditions. Maybe that explains the years-long inability to hire and/or retain personnel for certain principal chairs. Still, I’m not convinced at all by “we’re the best yet we can’t compete without excessive compensation” (or shouldn’t have to). Similar arguments for ridiculously inflated CEO pay to attract qualified individuals fall on deaf ears.

An overview of the musicians’ strike was published by Lawrence A. Johnson at Chicago Classical Review, which provides details regarding the musicians’ demands. According to Johnson, the public’s initial support of the strike has turned sour. Comments I’ve been reading and my own reaction have followed exactly this trajectory. Lawrence also uses the term tone deaf to describe the musicians, though he’s diplomatic enough to avoid saying it himself, noting that the charge comes from commentators. I won’t be nearly so diplomatic. Musicians, stop this nonsense now! Demands far in excess of need, far in excess of typical workers’ compensation, and far in excess of your bargaining position do you no credit. In addition, although season ticket holders may express dismay at lost opportunities to hear certain concerts, soloists, and repertoire due to the work stoppage, the CSO is not a public utility that must keep working to maintain public wellbeing. Alternatives in greater Chicagoland can easily take up your slack for those in need of a classical music fix. Indeed, I haven’t been to a CSO concert in years because they’ve become anodyne. My CSO love affair is with the recorded legacy of the 1970s and 80s.

By striking, you’re creating a public relations nightmare that will drive people away, just as the baseball strike and take-a-knee controversy in football (and elsewhere) sent sports fans scrambling for the exits. You’re tone deaf regarding actual workplace and contract insufficiency many others confront regularly, as well as the economic realities of Chicago, Illinois, the U.S. and indeed the globe. Get over yourselves.

In the lost decades of my youth (actually, early adulthood, but to an aging fellow like me, that era now seems like youth), I began to acquire audio equipment and recordings (LPs, actually) to explore classical music as an alternative to frequent concert attendance. My budget allowed only consumer-grade equipment, but I did my best to choose wisely rather than guess and end up with flashy front-plates that distract from inferior sound (still a thing, as a visit to Best Buy demonstrates). In the decades since, I’ve indulged a modest fetish for high-end electronics that fits neither my budget nor lifestyle but nonetheless results in my simple two-channel stereo (not the surround sound set-ups many favor) of individual components providing fairly astounding sonics. When a piece exhibits problems or a connection gets interrupted, I often resort to older, inferior, back-up equipment before troubleshooting and identifying the problem. Once the correction is made, return to premium sound is an unmistakable improvement. When forced to resort to less-than-stellar components, I’m sometimes reminded of a remark a friend once made, namely, that when listening, he tries to hear the quality in the performance despite degraded reproduced sound (e.g., surface noise on the LP).

Though others may argue, I insist that popular music does not requires high fidelity to enjoy. The truth in that statement is evidenced by how multifunction devices such as phones and computers are used by most people to listen to music. Many influencers laugh and scoff at the idea that anyone would buy physical media or quality equipment anymore; everything now is streamed to their devices using services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon Prime. From my perspective, they’re fundamentally insensitive to subtle gradations of sound. Thumping volume (a good beat) is all that’s needed or understood.

However, multifunction devices do not aim at high fidelity. Moreover, clubs and outdoor festivals typically use equipment designed for sheer volume rather than quality. Loud jazz clubs might be the worst offenders, especially because intimate, acoustic performance (now mostly abandoned) set an admirable artistic standard only a few decades ago. High volume creates the illusion of high energy, but diminishing returns set in quickly as the human auditory system reacts to extreme volume by blocking as much sound as possible to protect itself from damage, or more simply, by going deaf slowly or quickly. Reports of performers whose hearing is wrecked from short- or long-term overexposure to high volume are legion. Profound hearing loss is already appearing throughout the general public the same way enthusiastic sunbathers are developing melanoma.

As a result of technological change, notions of how music is meant to sound is shifting. Furthermore, the expectation that musical experiences are to be shared by audiences of more than, say, a few people at a time is giving way to the singular, private listening environment enabled by headphones and earbuds. (Same thing happened with reading.) Differences between music heard communally in a purposed performance space (whether live or reproduced) and music reproduced in the ear (earbuds) or over the ear (headphones) canal — now portable and ubiquitous — lead to audio engineers shifting musical perspective yet again (just as they did at the onset of the radio and television eras) to accommodate listeners with distorted expectations how music should sound.

No doubt, legitimate musical experiences can be had through reproduced sound, though degraded means produce lesser approximations of natural sound and authenticity as equipment descends in price and quality or the main purpose is simply volume. Additionally, most mainstream popular musics require amplification, as opposed to traditional acoustic forms of musicmaking. Can audiences/listeners actually get beyond degradation and experience artistry and beauty? Or must we be content with facsimiles that no longer possess the intent of the performers or a robust aesthetic experience? These may well be questions for the ages for which no solid answers obtain.

Among the many complaints that cross my path in the ongoing shitshow that American culture has become is an article titled “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality),” authored by Jon Henschen. His authorship is a rather unexpected circumstance since he is described as a financial advisor rather than an authority on music, technology, or culture. Henschen’s article reports on (without linking to it as I do) an analysis by Joan Serrà et al., a postdoctoral scholar at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute. Curiously, the analysis is reported on and repackaged by quite a few news sites and blogs since its publication in 2012. For example, the YouTube video embedded below makes many of the same arguments and cites the so-called Millennial Whoop, a hook or gesture now ubiquitous in pop music that’s kinda sorta effective until one recognizes it too manifestly and it begins to sound trite, then irritating.

I won’t recount or summarize arguments except to say that neither the Henschen article nor the video discusses the underlying musical issues quite the way a trained musician would. Both are primarily quantitative rather than qualitative, equating an observed decrease in variety of timbre, loudness, and pitch/harmony as worse music (less is more worse). Lyrical (or poetical) complexity has also retreated. It’s worth noting, too, that the musical subject is narrowed to recorded pop music from 1955 to 2010. There’s obviously a lot to know about pop music, but it’s not generally the subject of serious study among academic musicians. AFAIK, no accredited music school offers degrees in pop music. Berklee College of Music probably comes the closest. (How exactly does songwriting as a major differ from composition?) That standard may be relaxing.

Do quantitative arguments demonstrate degradation of pop music? Do reduced variety, range, and experimentation make pop music the equivalent of a paint-by-the-numbers image with the self-imposed limitation that allows only unmixed primary colors? Hard to say, especially if one (like me) has a traditional education in art music and already regards pop music as a rather severe degradation of better music traditions. Reduction of the artistic palette from the richness and variety of, say, 19th-century art music proceeded through the 20th century (i.e., musical composition is now understood by the lay public to mean songs, which is just one musical genre among many) to a highly refined hit-making formula that has been proven to work remarkably well. Musical refinements also make use of new technological tools (e.g., rhythm machines, autotune, digital soundfield processing), which is another whole discussion.

Musical quality isn’t mere quantity (where more is clearly better), however, and some manage pretty well with limited resources. Still, a sameness or blandness is evident and growing within a genre that is already rather narrowly restricted to using drums, guitars, keyboards, vocals. The antidote Henschen suggests (incentivizing musical literacy and participation, especially in schools) might prove salutary, but such recommendations are ubiquitous throughout modern history. The magical combination of factors that actually catalyzes creativity, as opposed to degradation, is rather quixotic. Despite impassioned pleas not to allow quality to disappear, nothing could be more obvious than that culture drifts according to its own whims (to anthropomorphize) rather than being steered by well-meaning designs.

More to say in part 2 to follow.

Language acquisition in early childhood is aided by heavy doses of repetition and the memorable structure of nursery rhymes, songs, and stories that are repeated ad nauseum to eager children. Please, again! Again, again … Early in life, everything is novel, so repetition and fixity are positive attributes rather than causes for boredom. The music of one’s adolescence is also the subject of endless repetition, typically through recordings (radio and Internet play, mp3s played over headphones or earbuds, dances and dance clubs, etc.). Indeed, most of us have mental archives of songs heard over and over to the point that the standard version becomes canonical: that’s just the way the song goes. When someone covers a Beatles song, it’s recognizably the same song, yet it’s not the same and may even sound wrong somehow. (Is there any acceptable version of Love Shack besides that of the B52’s?) Variations of familiar folk tales and folk songs, or different phrasing in The Lord’s Prayer, imprinted in memory through sheer repetition, also possess discomfiting differences, sometimes being offensive enough to cause real conflict. (Not your Abrahamic deity, mine!)

Performing musicians traverse warhorses many times in rehearsal and public performance so that, after an undetermined point, how one performs a piece just becomes how it goes, admitting few alternatives. Casual joke-tellers may improvise over an outline, but as I understand it, the pros hone and craft material over time until very little is left to chance. Anyone who has listened to old comedy recordings of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and others has probably learned the jokes (and timing and intonation) by heart — again through repetition. It’s strangely comforting to be able to go back to the very same performance again and again. Personally, I have a rather large catalogue of classical music recordings in my head. I continue to seek out new renditions, but often the first version I learned becomes the default version, the way something goes. Dislodging that version from its definitive status is nearly impossible, especially when it’s the very first recording of a work (like a Beatles song). This is also why live performance often fails in comparison with the studio recording.

So it goes with a wide variety of phenomenon: what is first established as how something goes easily becomes canonical, dogmatic, and unquestioned. For instance, the origin of the universe in the big bang is one story of creation to which many still hold, while various religious creation myths hold sway with others. News that the big bang has been dislodged from its privileged position goes over just about as well as dismissing someone’s religion. Talking someone out of a fixed belief is hardly worth the effort because some portion of one’s identity is anchored to such beliefs. Thus, to question a cherished belief is to impeach a person’s very self.

Political correctness is the doctrine that certain ideas and positions have been worked out effectively and need (or allow) no further consideration. Just subscribe and get with the program. Don’t bother doing the mental work or examining the issue oneself; things have already been decided. In science, steady evidenciary work to break down a fixed understanding is often thankless, or thanks arrives posthumously. This is the main takeaway of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms are changed as much through attrition as through rational inquiry and accumulation of evidence.

One of the unanticipated effects of the Information and Communications Age is the tsunami of information to which people have ready access. Shaping that information into a cultural narrative (not unlike a creation myth) is either passive (one accepts the frequently shifting dominant paradigm without compunction) or active (one investigates for oneself as an attribute of the examined life, which with wizened folks never really arrives at a destination, since it’s the journey that’s the point). What’s a principled rationalist to do in the face of a surfeit of alternatives available for or even demanding consideration? Indeed, with so many self-appointed authorities vying for control over cultural narratives like the editing wars on Wikipedia, how can one avoid the dizzying disorientation of gaslighting and mendacity so characteristic of the modern information environment?

Still more to come in part 4.

Two shocking and vaguely humorous (dark, sardonic humor) events occurred recently in the gun debate: (1) in a speech, Marco Rubio sarcastically offered the very reform a healthy majority of the public wants — banning assault weapons — and revealed himself to be completely tin-earred with respect to the public he addresses, and (2) 45 supported some gun controls and even raised the stakes, saying that guns should be taken from people flagged as unstable and dangerous before they commit their mayhem. Rubio had already demonstrated his inability to think on his feet, being locked into scripts handed to him by … whom exactly? Certainly not the public he purportedly serves. So much for his presidential aspirations. OTOH, 45 channels populism and can switch positions quickly. Though ugly and base in many cases, populism at least expresses the will of the people, such as it can be known. His departure from reflexive Republican defense of the hallowed 2nd Amendment shouldn’t be too great a surprise; he’s made similar remarks in the past. His willingness to discard due process and confiscate guns before a crime has been committed sounds more than a little like Spielbergian precrime (via Orwell and Philip K. Dick). To even entertain this prospect in the gun debate demonstrates just how intolerable weekly mass shootings — especially school shootings by troubled youth — have become in the land of the free and home of the brave. On balance, 45 also recommended arming classroom teachers (a risible solution to the problem), so go figger.

Lodged deep in my brain is a potent archetype I don’t often see cited: the Amfortas wound. The term comes from Richard Wagner’s music drama Parsifal (synopsis found here). Let me describe the principal elements (very) briefly. Amfortas is the king of the Knights of the Holy Grail and has a seeping wound than cannot be healed except, according to prophecy, by an innocent youth, also described as a fool wizened by compassion. Such a youth, Parsifal, appears and after familiar operatic conflict does indeed fulfill the prophecy. Parsifal is essentially a retelling of the Arthurian legend. The music is some of the most transcendentally beautiful orchestral composition ever committed to paper and is very much recommended. Admittedly, it’s rather slow for today’s audiences more inclined to throwaway pop music.

Anyway, to tie together the gun debate and Parsifal, I muse that the Amfortas wound is gun violence and 45 is the titular fool who in the end heals the wound and becomes king of the Knights of the Holy Grail. The characterization is not entirely apt, of course, because it’s impossible to say that 45 is young, or compassionate, or wizened, but he has oddly enough moved the needle on gun debate. Not single-handedly, mind you, but from a seat of considerable power unlike, say, the Parkland survivors. Resolution and healing have yet to occur and will no doubt be opposed by the NRA and Marco Rubio. Maybe we’re only in Act I of the traditional 3-act structure. Other characters and plots devices from Parsifal I leave uncast. The main archetype is the Amfortas wound.

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

See this exchange where Neil deGrasse Tyson chides Sam Harris for failing to speak to his audience in terms it understands:

The upshot is that lay audiences simply don’t subscribe to or possess the logical, rational, abstract style of discourse favored by Harris. Thus, Harris stands accused of talking past his audience — at least somewhat — especially if his audience is understood to be the general public rather than other well-educated professionals. Subject matter is less important than style but revolves around politics, and worse, identity politics. Everyone has abundant opinions about those, whether informed by rational analysis or merely fed by emotion and personal resonance.

The lesson deGrasse Tyson delivers is both instructive and accurate yet also demands that the level of discourse be lowered to a common denominator (like the reputed 9th-grade speech adopted by the evening news) that regrettably forestalls useful discussion. For his part (briefly, at the end), Harris takes the lesson and does not resort to academic elitism, which would be obvious and easy. Kudos to both, I guess, though I struggle (being somewhat an elitist); the style-over-substance argument really goes against the grain for me. Enhancements to style obviously work, and great communicators use them and are convincing as a result. (I distinctly recall Al Gore looking too much like a rock star in An Inconvenient Truth. Maybe it backfired. I tend to think that style could not overcome other blocks to substance on that particular issue.) Slick style also allows those with nefarious agendas to hoodwink the public into believing nonsense.

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