Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Political TV: Switch The Channel

Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule—and both commonly succeed, and are right. 
H.L. Mencken, 1956

Take our politicians: they're a bunch of yo-yos. The presidency is now a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of cliches the first prize. 
Saul Bellow

Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, coast for a while, and then have a hell of a close.
Ronald Reagan

Political TV: It's as predictable as it is bad art and poor entertainment.
Credit: Daryl Cage, msnbc.com
I rarely watch political shows or panels or political pundits on TV. But when I do I am reminded of why I avoid them. Three reasons come to mind: 1) They fail to entertain, 2) their performances are too predictable, and 3) they are too noisy. Screaming, finger-pointing, incoherent statements and figuratively foaming at the mouth hardly counts as an exchange of ideas that merits my attention.

It's makes for an unsightly picture. More so, such displays do little to advance our society, and give the distinct impression that we are moving backwards. We live in an age when people for the most part argue with passion, which is fine, but not with knowledge, reason or courtesy. Such displays of mindless passion are a needless distraction to the more pressing issues facing our society, many of which I have discussed in this blog. It might just be political theatre that would make Chekhov laugh. Or on second thought, not.

Such political performances are notable on American TV, but also on Canadian and European channels. It's bad performance art, complete with imperious performers acting as pundits, preening their ideas with the certainty of the weak-minded. It's a mock seriousness without the knowledge or deep thinking that ought to be part of such shows. Within a few minutes of viewing a show, you are left without any surprises, knowing the outcome. It's the presentation of one idea that gets played out over and over again. Ad nauseam.

Bad theatre like bad art exists for reason; and all bad theatre soon finds an audience. It speaks to the "true believers" of the idea or ideology they hold dear, and who are faithful to its causes. Evidence to the contrary is unwelcome and looked at with suspicion or hostility, like an uninvited house guest. No doubt, these political performances, similar in style and tone to some showy evangelical preacher, have a dedicated audience.

Sure, it's an embarrassment to good taste, individual dignity, and high ideals and morals. But such is democracy today, where anyone can have the freedom to embarrass oneself on TV. If it were somewhat entertaining, it might be worth watching. But I can find little value in such shows, and would rather spend my time reading a good novel, even one I have read before. Political TV is bad art. So, to spare such individuals any further embarrassment, I would suggest that we switch the channel.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Julie Andrews: The Sound Of Music's My Favorite Things

This is from The Sound of Music, a 1965 musical film starring Julie Andrews (Maria) and Christopher Plummer (Captain Von Trapp) and directed by Robert Wise. It was based on the stage play and original Broadway production of 1959 with music by the famous duo of Rodgers & Hammerstein. The stage production and Hollyoood film were themselves based on the memoir of  Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, published in 1949. The film 's central plot centres on the relationship between restrictions, rules and freedom and fun, as the film website, Internet Movie Database (imdb) puts it:
In 1930's Austria, a young woman named Maria is failing miserably in her attempts to become a nun. When the Navy captain Georg Von Trapp writes to the convent asking for a governess that can handle his seven mischievous children, Maria is given the job. The Captain's wife is dead, and he is often away, and runs the household as strictly as he does the ships he sails on. The children are unhappy and resentful of the governesses that their father keeps hiring, and have managed to run each of them off one by one.

When Maria arrives, she is initially met with the same hostility, but her kindness, understanding, and sense of fun soon draws them to her and brings some much-needed joy into all their lives -- including the Captain's. Eventually he and Maria find themselves falling in love, even though Georg is already engaged to a Baroness and Maria is still a postulant. The romance makes them both start questioning the decisions they have made. Their personal conflicts soon become overshadowed, however, by world events. Austria is about to come under the control of Germany, and the Captain may soon find himself drafted into the German navy and forced to fight against his own country.
I remember when the film came out in the spring of 1965, and our Grade 2 class learned many of the songs from The Sound of Music, including "My Favorite Things." As children, we were naturally enchanted with the whole business.

The Sound of Music: The 1965 musical film is based on the Broadway musical of 1959. The famous duo of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the music for the Broadway show. It is based on the book about the von Trapp family.

My Favorite Things
By Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Miles Davis & John Coltrane: So What

So What (1959): Miles Davis and John Coltrane perform “So What” in this broadcast from April 1959. The song is from the influential jazz album, Kind Of Blue.
Via: Youtube

Kind of Blue: This 1959 album is one of the most influential albums of modern music. The U.S. Library of Congress, in 2002, chose it among the fifty recordings added to the National Recording Registry. A year later., Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album number 12 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. “So What” is the first track on the album.
Source: Wikipedia

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Bucket List In The Age Of Technology

We are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the machine we have created to serve us.
John Kenneth Galbraith

It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome. 
T.S. Eliot, about radio

We despise all reverences and all objects of reverence which are outside the pale of our list of sacred things and yet, with strange inconsistency, we are shocked when other people despise and defile the things which are holy for us.
Mark Twain

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it is too low and we reach it.
The Bucket List: Almost everyone today has one, in hard form or in memory, a list of things to do before one "kicks the bucket," an American euphemism for dying.
Credit: © Mike Gruhn, WebDonuts

If you search online or read popular consumer magazines or books, writing a bucket list is considered somewhat of a priority. For those who don't know what a bucket list is, and I had to look it up, it is a list of must-do things before you "kick the bucket," an American euphemism for death. The list comes from the 2007 movie of the same name, which I have not seen.

Consistent with all such lists are a large number of things one dreams of doing, aided by these same consumer books and magazines, numbering between 50 and 100 items. For the list-obsessed and detail-oriented, it gives life a new meaning, in the pursuit of experiences. The bucket list, like all such endeavours coming from Hollywood's unreal world, such pop-culture ideals are directed chiefly at middle- to upper middle-class persons. The poor have other things on their mind: survival; and the wealthy are, for the most part, doing what they want.

As much as the idea behind the bucket list is a topic in itself, this is not the intent of this essay. What the need for a bucket list speaks about is that people are not happy living life as they are living it in the here and now.  The progress of our lives, and we have progressed, is now at a point where people speak about anti-progress ideas and pursuits. That in part explains the ecological green movement, the alternative energy and lifestyle movements, and the back-to-nature and the desire to eat organic products grown in zero-pesticide small farm. For some, it's a pursuit of primitivism.

Yes, there is some degree of guilt in the western developed nations for consuming much, but there's more to such passionate choices than many care to readily admit. (In some cases, it's a replacement for a religious need.)

The thinking is that our progress has taken us into a detour that we didn't anticipate. For example, with all the social-networking technologies at our disposable, we are hardly more social. An argument can be made that we are less so. The technological progress, in particular, has not been enough to ease our anxiety. In some cases, it has added to it. So, we are easing away from it, and in some cases returning to the comforts of the old, the tried and true.

For example, the book in paper form will likely be with us for a long while. In an article in The Vancouver Sun, "The book will survive," Andrew Irvine, who teaches at University of British Columbia, says that electronic-reading devices will not replace the book for a number of reasons. Irvine writes:
Reading is a skill that develops in parallel to learning. It shouldn't be rushed and can't be cursory. It requires attention and focus in a way that surfing the web does not. As former Booker Prize chair and English professor John Sutherland tells us, reading "is not a spectator sport but a participatory activity. Done well, a good reading is as creditable as a 10-scoring high dive. It is, I would maintain, almost as difficult to read a novel well as to write one well. Which is greater, Henry James the critic or Henry James the novelist?"

If Sutherland is right, learning to read well involves more than just discovering the meanings of words or looking up a fact on Wikipedia. It means discovering connections between ideas and evaluating an author's thoughts. It means learning to retrieve meanings that time and distance have made obscure. It means climbing inside someone else's head, not inside someone else's hard drive.
One of the unsaid purpose for the new electronic reading devices, as is the case for all new technologies is to get consumers hooked on it. Such explains the hard push among advertisers to sell newer versions of an older existing technology (e.g., a cell-phone is still only a cell-phone, no matter how it looks; and an older version of a computer software does essentially the same as one that is a newer release.)

It's not the technology that's the problem, since it's really only a machine, a tool, an appliance, if you will that you can shut on or off. Or not purchase at all. Technology companies, with the help of a a hyped-up media, make it sound as if technology has a life of its own. As if technology itself is the reason for our existence rather than a useful mechanism to help us. Its purpose ought to always be for the betterment of humanity. Or at least for our benefit. (That how I view technology, as a helpful implement, no matter how sophisticated it might be.)

But it can also alienate. And that explains to a great degree why the progress through technology argument fails to satisfy. It's the unsaid promises of technology that have promised much and delivered little that really matters. For the most, the  promises of a better future have remain unfulfilled. Not for many, if not most persons.

That why you're unlikely to see a new technological item, a tech gadget, on anyone's bucket list. People yearn for real contact. Real intimacy. Real Conversation. That might come somewhat from social-networking sites, but they are not built for such purposes. They are built to form some sort of weak connection, a point that social commentator, Malcolm Gladwell made in a New Yorker article, "Small Change" (Oct 4, 2010):
The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.
Strong real and lasting connections take face-to-face meetings of a sustained level. It's hard to sustain more than a handful of real enduring friendships. Doing so means shutting off the phone, computer and all electronic devices that distract us from the reason why we yearn to make contact in the first place. And getting out on the street to make strong long-lasting connections.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Neil Diamond: Sweet Caroline (1969)

Neil Diamond: Sweet Caroline: This is from a BBC show broadcast the autumn of 1969, shortly after the record was released. The song's inspiration was President John F. Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, who was eleven years old at the time. 
Via: Youtube

Sweet Caroline
By Neil Diamond

Where it began, I can't begin to know when
But then I know it's growing strong
Oh, wasn't the spring,
And spring became the summer
Who'd believe you'd come along

Hands, touching hands, reaching out
Touching me, touching you
Sweet Caroline
Good times never seem so good
I've been inclined to believe it never would, and now I

Look at the night, whooo
And it don't seem so lonely
We fill it up with only two,
And when I hurt
Hurting runs off my shoulder
How can I hurt when holding you

One, touching one, reaching out
Touching me, touching you
Oh, sweet Caroline
Good times never seem so good
Oh I've been inclined to believe it never would

Sweeet Caroooliinneee

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evgeny Kissin: Chopin's Grand Valse

At London's Royal Albert Hall in 1997, Evgeny Kissin plays Chopin's Grand Valse, Op 34 No. 1. It is noteworthy that Kissin announces the piece before playing it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Discordant Century by George Jochnowitz

Guest Voices

This week's Guest Voice is Prof George Jochnowitz, who writes a masterful essay on the current state of modern music, and its powerful link to morality and esthetics. In particular, he says that the discordant (anti-tonal) music of the twentieth century, typified by Arnold Schoenberg,  has been, for the most part, a failure in esthetics, having by its very design an inability to reach the masses.

A few years ago, my wife and I subscribed to a chamber music series. No matter who was performing, the program followed the same canonical form: a quartet by Haydn, a modern work, the intermission, and a concluding piece of the romantic period. If the performers were not a string quartet but some other chamber group - for example, a quintet or an ensemble including a wind instrument - the first work on the program was by Mozart rather than Haydn, a sensible choice: Haydn's string quartets are better than Mozart's, but Mozart's other chamber pieces are better than Haydn's. What is significant, however, is the fact that whoever planned these concerts knew that the contemporary composition had to be in the middle. If the 20th-century piece came first, the audience would arrive late; if it concluded the concert, the audience would walk out after the intermission.

We did not renew our subscription. A 20th-century piece is the price you pay for going to a concert, and we were not willing to pay the price.

The schedulers were behaving rationally. They wanted to help modern composers and at the same time educate the audience. We all know that the music of the 20th century did not win a big audience. In the words of Kingsley Amis, quoted in Paul Fussell's The Anti-Egotist, "Twentieth-century music is like paedophilia. No matter how persuasively and persistently its champions urge their cause, it will never be accepted by the public at large, who will continue to regard it with incomprehension, outrage and repugnance."

Has there ever before been a period in which audiences specifically rejected the music of their own contemporaries? Probably not. In the late 19th century, however, music split into classical and popular. Classical music was directed to an ever narrower public. Perhaps that is why our own age is the only recorded period when we scorn the creations of our contemporaries. Our music is not designed to be liked at first hearing. We have to be maneuvered into listening to it by those who schedule concerts.

Paul Fussell, cited above, suggests a possible reason for this state of affairs in his discussion of Kingsley Amis's opposition to modernism. He says that "there is built into Modernism a hatred - and that is not too strong a word - of ordinary people . . . ." There was, however, a form of contemporary music that Kingsley Amis did not consider modernist: jazz. "Jazz was the music that mattered, not only contemporary, happening all the time, but immediately attractive, no sooner heard than delightedly responded to." Nevertheless, Amis changed his mind. He began to dislike jazz when it became intellectually respectable - when "it began to be studied in universities." At that point, jazz was taken away from the people; it became a tool of the enemy, the elite.

Universities are part of the problem. Courses in the history of music are based on the unstated assumption that innovation is good. Modern music - in effect - is described as part of a process of increasing sophistication and quality. Nobody exactly says this. If they stated this view openly, it would be challenged and shown to be false.

Jazz is 20th-century music. It developed together with other forms of contemporary music. It is indeed taught at universities. What happened is that with time it became less and less bound by the principle of tonality, thus making it more difficult and more acceptable to academics.

The greatest music the world has ever known is tonal. No one has successfully defined greatness, but whatever it is, it is recognizable. All societies and all times have music, and all have produced geniuses. But there is one particular music that arose in a particular place - Germany and Italy - and at a particular time - the 17th century. It lasted 300 years and completed its life span. It is the world's music. There is nothing else like it. It is comparable to ancient Greek drama, a privileged moment in history. This magic, wonderful music is the realization of a phenomenon known as tonality. A piece is in a particular key, and the melodies and harmonies of the music lead us to the tonic, the first note of the scale of the key the piece is in, the note which gives us the feeling that the musical phrase has reached its conclusion: the triad whose lowest note is the tonic note that necessarily is the last chord in the composition. In other words, the composition is going somewhere. We don't know what the route will be if we are unfamiliar with the piece, but the destination is - pre-destined.

Harmony and tonality are physical realities. Music is a series of pitches and combinations of pitches played in rhythmic patterns. Pitch is the way we hear frequency, the number of vibrations per second produced by a voice or a musical instrument. If we hear an A and a C-sharp at the same time, the combination sounds harmonious. We call the distance between these notes the interval of a third, in this case, a major third. When two notes are a major third from each other, the ratio of the vibrations is 4 to 5. The A string vibrates at 440 cycles per second and the C-sharp string at 550. (Not exactly. The tempered scale has changed this just a little bit.) C-sharp and E form a minor third, which also sounds harmonious. The ratio of vibrations is 5 to 6, E having a pitch of approximately 660. A minor third on top of a major third is called a major triad, one of the basic chords of Western music. The interval between the outer notes of the triad is called a fifth, and the ratio of the pitches is necessarily 2 to 3. In the case of a major triad formed by A, C-sharp and E, the outer notes, with pitches of 440 and 660, illustrate the 2 to 3 ratio.

Major and minor thirds, so typical of Western music, occurred in the music of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and madrigals of the 16th century were likely to end on a tonic chord. There is no clear answer to the question of when the incidental harmonies that occurred in the polyphonic music of the 16th century, where each voice sang its own line, turned into the harmonic music of the 17th and 18th centuries, where the different musical lines were all moving together as melodies heading toward a conclusion: a tonic chord preceded by a dominant chord, the chord built on the fifth note of the scale. We have seen above that the first and fifth notes of the scale have pitches with vibrations per second in the ratio of 2 to 3. This sequence, for some unknown reason, produces a feeling of finality.

The ratio of pitches is a physical fact; the reason this ratio is satisfying cannot be explained. "Tonal motion is therefore always directed: it is always felt as motion toward or away from some state of tension or relaxation," says Neil M. Ribe, writing in the November 1987 issue of Commentary ("Atonal Music and Its Limits"). Atonal music, according to Ribe, replaces common sense with mathematical abstractions. Somehow, Ribe hasn't explained why atonality is hard to like. After all, a ratio of 2 to 3 is also a mathematical abstraction. Knowing the physics of tonality hasn't helped us. We know tonality is real but we do not know why a particular ratio of vibrations in a particular sequence should produce this effect. Arnold Schoenberg invented serial music, in which all twelve notes of the chromatic scale were used and none could be repeated until all had been played. He called it "emancipation of the dissonance" (see Ribe), but the dissonance could not be emancipated. The human brain accepts certain sequences as beautiful and rejects others as ugly. Schoenberg's mistake was his belief that harmony and tonality are cultural constructs. They aren't. The whole world prefers tonality.

Perhaps we can link the increased us of tonality and the consequent rise of Western music as we know it with the first opera, Jacopo Peri's Euridice, which premiered on February 9, 1600. A plot, according to Aristotle, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When music was linked to story, the music too needed a sense of direction, which tonality provided. It is interesting to note that the great plays of ancient Greece were performed to musical accompaniments that are lost. We love these plays, but they are merely librettos - incomplete without their music. Was the music that accompanied the plays of Sophocles tonal? Would the plays be more powerful if performed with this music? Would we admire the music today as we do the plays? We will never know.

Our own operas, unlike Greek drama, are loved primarily for their music. No one would care to see the silly plot of Schikaneder's The Magic Flute performed without Mozart's music. Richard Wagner, who revived the term "music drama," tried to create works where the importance of plot and music were equal. Yet even in the case of Wagner, we may enjoy listening to his music without seeing the opera, but we wouldn't choose to see dramas extolling the inherent beauty of stupidity, as Wagner's operas do, if they weren't accompanied by Wagner's music. If the development of music drama led to the increased use of tonality in music - and we cannot be sure that it did - the tonal music of the first 300 years of opera stands on its own, plot or no plot.

The 17th century was the childhood of Western music. It reached its adulthood in the 18th century, with a group of composers all born in 1685: Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel, and Johann Sebastian Bach. In Bach, the most conservative of the three, polyphonic music reached its culmination. Nevertheless, Bach could write compositions based on melody and harmony that belonged to his past and his future at the same time. The generation of 1685, and their contemporary, Antonio Vivaldi, changed the status of music, making it into something immortal, something loved and recognized everywhere. Scholars have analyzed the contrapuntal, harmonic and melodic structures of their works, but no one has ever understood its greatness.

Styles changed with Haydn and Mozart, but greatness remained. I remember when I first saw Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. It was in 1952 or 53, and I was fifteen. I heard the aria "Dove sono," and I was overwhelmed by the beauty of its melody. I went home and tried to play it on the piano. It was very simple: a turn, C - D C B C, followed by another turn a third higher: E - F E D E. Child's play. What makes it so wonderful? Genius remains a mystery.

Style continued to change. Beethoven extended the idea of tonality by using many changes of key in his development sections. His symphonies were longer and his orchestration thicker than anything his audience had ever heard. Yet people went to hear his compositions. When Beethoven's works were premiered, the entire concert generally consisted of contemporary pieces, often all premieres by the same composer. Were audiences more tolerant of the new in those days? What a silly question. Tolerance hadn't been invented yet. People were willing to listen to new compositions because music wasn't ugly then. Occasionally an innovative piece got a bad review, but a year or so later, the audience had learned to love it.

Beethoven never earned enough money from his compositions. Nevertheless, we cannot conclude from this that he was unappreciated. His 9th Symphony, an innovative work, was received with great enthusiasm despite the fact that the composer netted only 420 florins from its premiere performance. At Beethoven's funeral, the crowds were enormous and soldiers had to be called to make way for the procession. We have all heard the story of how Mozart's body was unaccompanied to the grave, but according to Mozart in Vienna, a biography by Volkmar Braunbehrens, "accompanying the coffin to the gravesite was unusual at the time." Mozart's works were quite popular in his lifetime, and his opera The Marriage of Figaro was universally appreciated. In an era when most people were peasants and laborers, the rest of the population, the middle and upper classes, loved and admired serious music. It is hard to know how to compare the percentages of music lovers in different types of society, but we can be sure that Mozart and Beethoven were major cultural figures in a way that composers of classical music today can never be.

Wagner was perhaps the first composer who was really hard to get used to. His melodies were longer and often slower than what had come before. It was not always so clear where the melody was heading. Perhaps he was the first modernist. I will define a modernist creative artist as one who attempts to reshape and even recreate his audience. Instead of saying, "Try it. You'll like it," as Beethoven might have, the modernist says, "You won't like this, but if you're good and work hard, you can become one of my admirers." Instead of saying, "Lend me your ears," the modernist says, "Give me your ears - and your soul. I will give you better ones."

Mahler's 6th Symphony is a composition dating from 1904. It barely made it into the 20th century. I have always liked and admired the music of Mahler, a gifted composer, but when he got to the last movement of what could have been a great symphony, he went overboard. He wrote a movement that was too long and too bombastic. It was filled with false conclusions, where the audience thinks the piece is over and breathes a sigh of relief, only to find that there is more to come.

Did something major and irrevocable happen in 1904, between the composition of the third and fourth movements of Mahler's 6th Symphony? I think so. Mahler set the stage for Arnold Schoenberg and atonal music. Almost a century has passed, but it has never become popular. It is both outdated and too modern.
Klaus Tennstedt, a conductor famous for his interpretations of Mahler, died on January 11, 1998. His obituary in the New York Times, on January 13, quoted him as having said, "At least for traditional instruments, I believe that everything has already been composed." If that is the case, Schoenberg had no choice but to invent a new art form. As we know, he called it serial music, but a better name might have been anti-tonal music.

Tennstedt in effect recognized that the Western music that began in the 17th century had completed its life span. Perhaps Schoenberg agreed as well. He expected serial music to become popular. He never thought he was composing for academics only.

Kingsley Amis, as we saw above, hated modernism, which he identified with being studied in a university. Audiences hate modernism too. An audience owes a creator nothing. And nothing is what the creator generally receives. We all know stories about how Marcel Proust or James Joyce received multiple rejections. When Proust and Joyce became famous, the joke was on the publishers who had rejected them. But those who eventually get published are the exceptions. Most compositions are never performed; most books, never printed. It can happen that an unknown creative artist is recognized two or three centuries later; Antonio Vivaldi is an example. But usually, it doesn't happen, and the undiscovered artist remains undiscovered.

This is very sad. Nevertheless, the audience owes the creator nothing. Nobody should have to read through Finnegan's Wake, and indeed nobody does. T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with its (deliberately?) useless notes at the end, is a great work, but if we don't get very much past the wonderful first line, "April is the cruellest month," that is not our fault. If there is any fault at all, it is Eliot's. His poem sounds as if it was written in order to be studied at a university. Writers may choose to demand a great deal of attention and knowledge from readers, but readers need not give in to their demands.

20th-century artists did demand. By trying to reshape their listeners, they inevitably had an adversary relationship with their public. It was their privilege to bully their potential audience; they created as they felt they had to. Similarly, it is the privilege of audiences to ignore and reject what they find ugly.
In the case of 20th-century politics, totalitarianism echoed the demands of art. Just as thought reform was an explicit goal of Communist regimes, so taste reform was an implicit goal of modernist creators.

Totalitarian rulers and philosophers attempt to control not only society but the human soul itself. Music, for whatever reason, delights the soul, just as literature delights the mind. Greek drama, with its accompanying music, was roughly contemporary with Athenian democracy. It fizzled out when Plato's Republic appeared, which introduced the concept of a noble lie, to be accepted by the rulers and the community in general: ". . . all of you in this land are brothers; but the god who fashioned you mixed gold in the composition of those among you who are fit to rule, so that they are of the most precious quality; and he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and iron and brass in the craftsmen." Thought control with a vengeance!

Plato also would not have tolerated the manufacture of the flute or other instruments "capable of modulation into all the modes." He feared the enormous emotional power of music. Indeed, Ayatollah Khomeini, in his way an example of Plato's ideal of the Philosopher King, banned Western music from Iranian radio stations. During Chairman Mao's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, most music and theater were prohibited, except the eight revolutionary operas selected by Jiang Qing, Mao's wife.

Music critics in general, and Anthony Tommassini of the New York Times in particular, are interested in taste reform. They want us to find contemporary music beautiful. But was it meant to be beautiful? Music, art, poetry, novels, cities, roadsides - everywhere there are new forms of ugliness. Architecture is the one art that has not succumbed to the uglification of our era. Architecture must fill a practical purpose; buildings must stand and be usable, which means that architects are not free to hate the public. That is why the Guggenheim Museum is a better work of art than the paintings displayed in it. But what is a better work of art? There is often a consensus on the answer, but a consensus is not the same thing as a criterion. We all judge art, all the time. Many of us, perhaps most of us, have felt that 20th-century art is ugly, but few of us, if any, can explain what we mean.

Even though our new buildings are beautiful, our new cities are not. Modern architecture has bad manners; new buildings violate the unity and tone of their neighboring communities. Our roadsides are hideous. Our suburbs, even when affluent, are drab. We know that it is too late to build a Venice or a Washington. New York, Chicago, and Hong Kong have succeeded in incorporating new structures into pre-existing plans; perhaps they are more beautiful than ever. On the other hand, cities that have been reinvented in our own time - Tokyo, Warsaw, Beijing - look like overbuilt suburbs. They too are modernist.

Intelligence is beautiful, and human beings used to be intelligent. The 20th century gave us television. In New York City, there is no serious television news program in the late evening. The 10 O'Clock News is a euphemism. It should be called the Ten O'Clock Murders. Instead of news, we see reporters interviewing the next of kin of victims: "And what are your thoughts as you watch the blood oozing from your child's body?" We are becoming stupider every day.

The 20th-century gave us more and better restaurants than we had before. Food is not only delicious but beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, the 20th-century has deprived us of this pleasure. Restaurants are dark. We can't see our food; we can't read our menus. Light is provided by candles, which flicker and provide uneven light, very unpleasant in a dark room.

Even the human body has been uglified. People are beautiful. Yet our current fashions are changing this. Piercing and tattooing are completing the work started by Mahler in 1904.

Yet that is only half the picture. There are lots of great pieces that everyone knows and loves: Debussy's "Images," Ravel's "Bolero," Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," Orff's "Carmina Burana," to name just a few. There have been musical comedies, movie scores, and several rich periods of popular music, including rock and roll. Both rock and roll and early rock music are based on simple melody lines and regular alternation of tonic and dominant chords. At least one piece, "A Lover's Concerto," by a group called The Toys, is based on a Bach minuet.

Movie scores are not music drama but rather incidental music. Beethoven wrote music to accompany The Ruins of Athens, a forgotten work whose name would not even be known were it not for Beethoven's score. Schubert did the same for Rosamunde. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream is as well known as the play, by Shakespeare, no less. More recently, we have had Virgil Thomson's film score Louisiana Story, one of his beloved works. Which brings us to Erich Korngold.

Korngold (1897-1957), the subject of a biography by Brendan G. Carroll, was a child prodigy who devoted much of his career to what he called the "symphonic film score." A review of the book by Jay Nordlinger in the January 12, 1998, issue of The Weekly Standard tells us that at the age of 50, Korngold felt he had to leave Hollywood in order "to aim for the Pantheon of the masters," in other words, to write music that can be "studied in universities." It is both unfortunate and puzzling that serious musicians feel they have to separate themselves from popular art forms such as film, especially when we remember that movies can be as modernist and demanding as Schoenberg's serialism.

Music written to be performed in the concert hall may well have run its course. What will the music of the 21st century sound like? Terry Teachout, in the December 1997 issue of Commentary, writes of a new generation of American composers "influenced neither by serialism nor by minimalism but by the music of the long-unfashionable tonal modernists." I fear these tonal modernists will continue to be unfashionable. Tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist, listening to contemporary works has been identified with duty. Yet I am convinced that genius lives. Human creativity will find a new home for itself.

The important question is not esthetic but moral. Despite the Holocaust, the Chinese famine of 1959-61, and the slaughter in Rwanda, I am not ready to say that the 20th century was the least moral of centuries. It gave us emergency 911 service, open-heart surgery, and an increasing awareness of the complexity of the human soul. The 20th century failed esthetically, but the results are not yet in on morality.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

Copyright ©2011. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. A version of this essay appeared in Gravitas, Winter 1998. It is an except from The Blessed Human Race. This post can be found on George Jochnowitz.  It is  republished here with the author's permission. 

Leonard Cohen: The Partisan (1969)

Leonard Cohen: “The Partisan,” in an early 1969 rendition. The song is based on La Complainte du Partisan, a French song adapted to English lyrics. Leonard Cohen's version uses a combination of both English and French lyrics. You can also listen to a version from from 2008, in Helsinki, here, and 2013 in Paris here. It’s worth looking and comparing versions; there is an inner consistency. Leonard Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal, my hometown.

The Partisan (La Complainte du Partisan) is a song about the French Resistance during the Second World War. It was written in 1943 in London by Anna Marly and Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie. It was adapted to English by Hy Zaret, an American lyricist.

Although this was written two years after The Blitz, German airforces’ sustained two-month bombing of London, the war was still ever-present in the lives of Europeans, and the damage of sustained attacks on people and their homes had a deeply detrimental effect. Even so, the resistance to terror, tyranny and all the horrifying weapons that humans can fashion, often leads people to courageously resist its strictures and to fight for freedom, justice and human dignity.
Songs From a Room: Leonard Cohen’s second album, released in 1969.  The partisan is the fourth track on Side 1.
Source: Wikipedia

The Partisan
[Leonard Cohen's version]

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender,
this I could not do;
I took my gun and vanished.
I have changed my name so often,
I've lost my wife and children
but I have many friends,
and some of them are with me.

An old woman gave us shelter,
kept us hidden in the garret,
then the soldiers came;
she died without a whisper.

There were three of us this morning
I'm the only one this evening
but I must go on;
the frontiers are my prison.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing,
freedom soon will come;
then we'll come from the shadows.

Les Allemands e'taient chez moi, (The Germans were at my home)
ils me dirent, "Signe toi," (They said, "Sign yourself,")
mais je n'ai pas peur; (But I am not afraid)
j'ai repris mon arme. (I have retaken my weapon.)

J'ai change' cent fois de nom, (I have changed names a hundred times)
j'ai perdu femme et enfants (I have lost wife and children)
mais j'ai tant d'amis; (But I have so many friends)
j'ai la France entie`re. (I have all of France)

Un vieil homme dans un grenier (An old man, in an attic)
pour la nuit nous a cache', (Hid us for the night)
les Allemands l'ont pris; (The Germans captured him)
il est mort sans surprise. (He died without surprise.)

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
through the graves the wind is blowing,
freedom soon will come;
then we'll come from the shadows

La Complainte du Partisan
Lyrics: Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigérie
Composition: Anna Marly

Les All'mands étaient chez moi
On m'a dit: "Résigne-toi",
Mais je n'ai pas pu.
Et j'ai repris mon arme.

Personne ne m'a demandé
D'ou je viens et où je vais
Vous qui le savez,
Effacez mon passage.

J'ai changé cent fois de nom
J'ai perdu femme et enfant
Mais j'ai tant d'amis
Et j'ai la France entière.

Un vieil homme dans un grenier
Pour la nuit nous a cachés
Les All'mands l'ont pris
Il est mort sans surprise

Hier encore nous étions trois
Il ne reste plus que moi
Et je tourne en rond
Dans la prison des frontières

Le vent passe sur les tombes
Et la liberté reviendra
On nous oubliera!
Nous rentrerons dans l'ombre.

The Partisan
English lyrics: Hy Zaret
Composition: Anna Marly

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender,
This I could not do;
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often,
I've lost my wife and children
But I have many friends,
And some of them are with me.

An old woman gave us shelter,
Kept us hidden in the garret,
Then the soldiers came;
She died without a whisper.

There were three of us this morning
I'm the only one this evening
But I must go on;
The frontiers are my prison.

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing,
Through the graves the wind is blowing,
Freedom soon will come;
Then we'll come from the shadows.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Robert Frank: Getting Under Your Skin

 Great Artists

Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.
—Robert Frank

I always say that I don't want to be sentimental, that the photographs shouldn't be sentimental, and yet, I am conscious of my sentimentality.
—Robert Frank

There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough —there has to be vision, and the two together can make a good photograph.
—Robert Frank
Robert Frank, a photographer and film-maker, the consummate outsider, takes photos and makes films that show people as they are and as they live. His aim is to be unsentimental, to do with camera, what writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the time, in the early 1950s were doing with words. His work, in many ways, can be described as an attempt to get under your skin, to reveal what makes people tick.

His photographs of Americans, Les Américains, first published outside the United States in 1958, touched a nerve. They show America and its inhabitants as an only an outsider can show it, as an often bleak and lonely place, full of alienation and despair, quick-paced and moving, but not always with a distinctive moral or ethical purpose. To understand the photographs in this important work of the post-war period in America, it is important to get under the skin of the man, the photographer.

Robert Frank was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on November 9, 1924, to a well-to-do family, Rosa and Hermann Frank. He had an older brother, Manfred. After graduating from high school, he began an extensive apprenticeship in 1941 with Hermann Segesser, a photographer and retoucher who lived in the same apartment building as Frank’s family. After a few years of training, Frank made his first hand-made book of photographs, 40 Fotos, in 1946, celebrating the simplicity of rural Swiss life. It was also the first of four hand-made books of photographs that he would make in the next six years.

Frank Left Switzerland in 1947, finding it too constraining, and arrived in New York City in 1947, aged twenty-two. An immigrant in a foreign nation. He soon was hired as a fashion photographer, by Alexey Brodovitch, with Harper's Bazaar.  But it proved to be a bad choice, Frank later said: “A man there, a real son of a bitch who had been in the air force, told me that the artists there wear black ties. Of course, I wouldn’t wear a black tie. I know where that was heading. I quit after one month and went to Peru." That was in late 1947, and Frank took with him a 2¼ inch camera and a 35-mm Leica camera. He he photographed Peru’s people, because, as he said, he  preferred  “things that move.”

After returning to New York in early 1950, he put together a hand-bound book of his photographs that showed the influence of other photography books by Bill Brandt, André Kertész, and Jakob Tuggener, as well as Alexey Brodovitch. In it, Frank explored non-narrative, non-chronological methods of joining his photographs that would prove indispensable as he edited The Americans.

In 1950, he met Edward Steichen, and participated in the group show 51 American Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). He also married fellow artist, Mary Lockspeiser (born February 4, 1933), originally from London, England, with whom he had two children, Andrea and Pablo. Frank got her pregnant when she was sixteen. Pablo Frank, named after Picasso, was born February 7, 1951. Andrea Frank was born April 21,1954.

With a Guggenheim grant, secured with the help of Walker Evans, the Frank family, two young children in tow, would travel around the U.S. for two years between 1955 and 1957. During that time, Frank would take 28,000 pictures.It showed America as only a foreigner sees it. Perhaps everyone is a foreigner in America, a young nation, with a short history. That is what makes it both attractive and repulsive to many.

The Americans:  Les Américains was first published in 1958 by Robert Delpire in Paris, and in 1959 by Grove Press in the United States. This is the cover of the sixth edition, 1997.
Source: Wikipedia

Some Familial Regrets

In a Vanity Fair article, written by Charlie LeDuff  (February 2008), titled "Robert Frank's Unsentimental Journey," we get some insight into Frank's  formative years, and the effect that oppression had on a sensitive individual:
Frank’s own father, Henry, was a German Jew who immigrated to Switzerland after World War I and, once there, married the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer. It was a strict, unhappy upbringing. A father who wished to be an interior designer but became a radio salesman, playing out a life with a wife he did not love. This was World War II, and, in his defense, Henry Frank was further burdened with the possibility of the Germans’ storming up the Swiss Alps and carting the family off to the concentration camps.

This gave the boy his understanding of oppression, and the only thing young Robert had to escape these gloomy circumstances was photography, which he apprenticed at in Zurich. When the war was over, he headed for Paris by motorcycle and eventually New York’s Greenwich Village.
The European Jewish values and structures of his upbringing Frank threw aside and replaced with self-absorption. He passed little on to his children, he said. His daughter, Andrea, died at the age of 21 in a small-plane crash in Guatemala. His son, Pablo, lived a life of drug addiction and mental instability before killing himself, in 1994.

“I wish I would have given them something,” Frank said. “Their Jewishness or something.”
It's both a telling and sad statement of pain and regret, often expressed by parents who were once too absorbed with their thoughts and ideas to consider the needs of children. It's also one of the truest statements that anyone can make. The initial euphoria of fame fades, as do the memories of the initial adulation. The real legacy of Robert Frank are the eighty-three photos published in Les Américains (1958), or The Americans, a year later in 1959 in the U.S., when it caused a stir in the world of photography, art and critics, first among Europeans and later Americans who were ready to view another (darker) aspect of themselves.

Its success was real, since it revealed the truth of class and racial differences, covered as they were by the optimism and jingoism of the post-war period of the 1950s. His photos belie the contrived advertiser's view of American culture and wealth, which gave Frank's photographs a clear definition, chiefly unknown at the time. He achieved this with use of unusual focus, low lighting and cropping that deviated from accepted photographic techniques. Even so, the photographs achieved its intended effect.

Trolley, New Orleans, 1955. Les Américains: The contrast between black and white is clear for all to see.
Photo Credit: Robert Frank, 1955.
Source: NYMag

The Film That Was Too Frank

Frank has published a dozen books and made 25 films in his career, many small productions. Some of his films include Sin of Jesus (1961), Me and My Brother (1969), Keep Busy (1975), Candy Mountain (1988), and one of his most well-known works, a documentary on The Rolling Stones, a rock band, Cocksucker Blues (1972). With typical frankness, the documentary went too far for the tastes of the band and its iconic leader, Mick Jagger, Wikipedia says:
The film shows the Stones while on their '72 tour, engaging in heavy drug use and group sex. Perhaps more disturbing to the Stones when they saw the finished product, however, was the degree to which Frank faithfully captured the loneliness and despair of life on the road. Mick Jagger reportedly told Frank, "It's a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we'll never be allowed in the country again."

The Stones sued to prevent the film's release, and it was disputed whether Frank as the artist or the Stones as those who hired the artist actually owned the copyright. A court order resolved this with Solomonic wisdom by restricting the film to being shown no more than five times per year and only in the presence of Frank. Frank's photography also appeared on the cover of the Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main St..
Frank and Mary divorced in 1969. Frank married June Leaf, a sculptor. In 1971, they moved to a former fisherman's shack on the coast of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island, to the community of Mabou. But he still maintains a residence in New York City. After the death of his daughter, Andrea, aged twenty-one, in 1974, of a plane crash in Tikal, Guatemala, and the diagnosis and hospitalization of his son, Pablo, due to schizophrenia, much of Frank's work has explored the effects of loss. Pablo Frank died in 1994, aged forty-three. In 1995, Robert Frank founded the Andrea Frank Foundation, which gives grants to artists.

He has acquired a reputation for being a recluse, notably after the death of Andrea, declining most interviews and public appearances. The interview and article in Vanity Fair was an exception.

Even so, his work speaks for him. In 1994, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., showcased the most comprehensive retrospective of Frank's work to date, "Moving Out." Almost forty years after the fact, here's what the gallery said about the The Americans:
[T]he book looked beneath the surface of American life to reveal a profound sense of alienation, angst, and loneliness. With these prophetic photographs, Frank redefined the icons of America, noting that cars, jukeboxes, gas stations, diners, and even the road itself were telling symbols of contemporary life. Frank's style—seemingly loose, casual compositions, with often rough, blurred, out-of-focus foregrounds and tilted horizons—was just as controversial and influential as his subject matter.
U.S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, 1955. Gelatin silver print; 18 3/4 x 12 1/4 in. (47.6 x 31.1 cm). The photo depicts the Frank car, his wife, Mary, and children sleeping in the car, alongside their belongs, used for the long road-trip discovering America.
Private collection, Courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London
Photograph © Robert Frank, from The Americans

Gave Himself to Photography

The twenty-eight thousand photos of his two-year road trip, pared down to eighty-three, were and are important for both historical and socio-economic and perhaps political reasons. Robert Frank's work is there for posterity, as long as the public has interest in such things.

In some way I wonder if Robert Frank, for all his hard talk about truth and verisimilitude, himself wonders if he has sacrificed himself, perhaps too much, for the sake of art. When I posed this question to my friend, Sheldon Levy, a photographer of humanity who knows Frank's work, he said that was not the case, and explained his importance to the world. "He struggled, and changed the direction of photography."

Frank did what he loved best, what he knew best. He has received some honors. Frank was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for photography in 1996. His 1997 award exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in Goteborg, Sweden was called "Flamingo," as was the accompanying published catalogue. And in connection with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frank’s influential book of photographs, in 2009, “The Americans,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted a show of all 83 images in the book. The exhibition was called “Looking In: Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans.

Robert Frank's work matters. He is currently eighty-six.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Boy's Story: The Red Transistor Radio

Fiction Sunday

This excerpt is part of a novel, Jack Miller's Story, which I started writing more than fifteen years ago. It has undergone many changes since then, but now is in a form that I find suitable for publication. It contains biographical elements, no doubt, but it is not biographical by any means. Memory, unlike mathematical operations, does not always produce the same result.


In Part 5, Jack discovered the new sound of The Beatles and the sound of his generation, in sharp contrast to that of his parents. It was now the summer of 1967, the Summer of Love and the world's fair in Montreal.


Jack's Red Transistor Radio: A Sony from Japan.
Photo Credit & Source: PetPeoplePlace
It was 1967. Expo 67 and Montreal's World's Fair. Millions of tourists and visitors coming to Montreal. Some were curious onlookers. Some spoke with foreign accents. Some were draft dodgers, who never left. They looked like all the other teenagers walking the streets of Park Avenue, Mont Royal, Esplanade and Rachel, near and around the large park that locals called "the mountain."

It was the Summer of Love. Couples were holding hands at the mountain. Couples were wearing cool and groovy clothes. Everything was tie dye, bright psychedelic colours and bell bottoms. And long hair, both men and women. It was about freedom. Freedom to be one's self. With little restrictions. Conventionality was out. Rule-breaking, or at least rule-bending, was in.

Jack didn't really know or care about that. He was a good student, listened to his teachers and his parents. Generally. But he knew what he wanted more than anything in the world. And he wanted it now. It was part of the package of rights and freedoms that defined his generation. Jack was nine, and entering Grade 5.

Jack saw it and wanted it. It was in the window of the local electronics store on Park Avenue, a few blocks from his house. He ran to the store once more, passing the dry cleaners, passing the many Greek restaurants, the newstands and the stores that sold pots, pans, clothes and pens. All the cool kids were carrying them around, on his street and on the mountain. Transistor radios were everywhere and Jack wanted one, more than anything.

He finally saw one he wanted, a red transistor radio. He had a plan, He would ask his mother first, who would convince his father of the importance of it for Jackaleh.

It took some doing, some convincing, pleading, crying, but his father eventually went along. What is a transistor radio? he asked in Yiddish. Mama explained, and then his father asked his friends from the Old Country, those who had older children. They nodded their heads and waved their hands, saying, "Yes, get it for the boy. He's a good student, getting good marks in school? Azoy. It will be all right, then."

It happened one Sunday. Instead of their usual trip to the mountain, his father announced that today was the day. Jack's heart was pounding with excitement. He couldn't believe that it was finally happening. He walked the three blocks to the electronics store on Park Avenue near Fairmont.

There was no one else in the store save a young couple in their early twenties. He wearing a black skullcap and an equally dark caftan, over his white shirt, which ran to the tops of his black shoes; she wearing a dark-coloured dress covering her arms and down to her ankles, and a wig stylishly made adorned her pretty face. In her arms she carried a small baby, decked out in blue. They were at the far end of the store looking at baby carriages, which the store carried in addition to household items and electronic goods.

Jack leaned in to hear the conversation, spoken in Yiddish. The couple were discussing the merits of various types of baby carriages, and whether that one in particular was the same as the one their neighbours had. "That's the one I want," the young woman said. "That's the right one." The husband nodded in agreement.

Jack understood the words and the need for the right baby carriage. He couldn't understand the clothing they wore, which seemed more than was required for the hot days of summer. It was the middle of July and 85 degrees. His father, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and his trademark cloth cap, spoke and joked in Yiddish with the store owner, a man similar in mannerisms to his father. Jack's father seemed to only laugh in Yiddish. The discussions seemed to take a long time, and Jack had to wait patiently to get the right radio.

Finally he did. When he got it in his small hands, he turned it around. It was a Sony, model TR-63, "Made In Japan." All right, then, not as good as the American- or German-made brands. But that did not matter much; Jack Millerman had his radio and he could now listen to CFOX 1470 radio whenever he wanted, even outside the kitchen, where the family radio sat on the Formica counter.

He could even listen to his transistor radio outside on the front stoop, watching all the others with their transistor radios walking by and laughing. Jack Millerman was having fun, just like all the others. Like James and Jessica and Sam and Sarah, the beautiful brown-eyed girl in his class.
Hey where did we go,
Days when the rains came
Down in the hollow,
Playin' a new game,
Laughing and a running hey, hey
Skipping and a jumping
In the misty morning fog with
Our hearts a thumpin' and you
My brown eyed girl,
You my brown eyed girl.
Life was now good for Jack, full of possibilities.

To be continued.
Copyright ©2011. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved.

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Arthur Rubinstein: Chopin Performance, 1950

Someone observant rightly pointed out today that in my previous post on Artur Rubinstein's great  performance in Moscow in 1964, the video was poorly synchronized. My apologies.

I have found something to replace it so to speak. Here is Rubinstein in an older video that was previously shown on TV in 1950, which was filmed from his home. It  includes the "Scherzo in C Sharp Minor" and the "A Major Polonaise"—the latter as Rubinstein puts it is "closest to his heart."

Arthur Rubinstein: Chopin's Nocturne

This is rare footage of a concert in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, on October 1, 1964, in which Artur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Nocturne D-flat major, Op.27. Rubinstein, 77, played an all-Chopin program, and showed himself at the height of his musical maturity.

A compact disc of the concert was released in January 2009. After viewing the performance on CD, one reviewer put it:
This is playing in the grand style and it is a pleasure to be able to watch the legendary pianist perform miracles. I had the privilege of hearing him three times many years ago as soloist with the Chicago Symphony playing Beethoven's Concerto No. 3, Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody and one of his few performances of Khachaturian's Concerto. Obviously he made an indelible impression on me, and seeing him perform on this DVD brought back those memories. His control is amazing; one wonders how he can be so accurate in repeated chords (as in the A-flat Polonaise) when he raises his hands very high above the keyboard.
—R.E.B. (January 2009)

Friday, May 20, 2011

We Can't (Always) Be Reasonable

Human Reason

“Come, now, let us reason together,” says HaShem
—Isaiah 1:18, The Tanach (Jewish Bible)

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it
in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the
Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives
itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its
will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is it by reason
that you love yourself?”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées No. 277 (1670)

“Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.”
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (1788)

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: No. 43 from “Los Capricos”: Etching and aquatint, 1796-98. “Reason is the natural order of things; but imagination is the organ of meaning,” C.S. Lewis said. 
Image Credit: Francisco de Goya [1746–1828]: Produced 1796–98
Source: Wikipedia

In the long and storied Western tradition, when two people get in a lively discussion or debate of strongly opposing views, one might say to the other, "Let's be reasonable." What that person is doing, besides suggesting that the opposing argument is not reasonable, is calling attention to the power of reason over emotion. The idea of using reason in argument dates to at least the ancient Israelites during the Bronze Age, and then onward to the Greeks and Romans during the Greco-Roman period in history.

After essentially laying dormant for centuries, it was then slowly and critically formed into a sharp implement by the Europeans during the Renaissance, with such thinkers as Petrarch, Erasmus and Montaigne; and during the Age of Enlightenment by Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal and Galileo. Many figures led the way to the modern use of reason in argument. Immanual Kant comes to mind as one of the leading lights of pure reason and of modern philosophy. Now, few besides a madman would argue against the use of reason. It is among civilization's greatest cognitive discoveries. marshaling ideas and facts toward a coherent argument.

Even so, we are far from the ideal. Today, we might say or think we use reasonable ideas and call to the powers of reason. But it's not so much about the search for truth as about winning arguments. Persuading others to our side. Scoring points. And using facts and information that "prove" the point we are trying to make. Such explains what scientists call confirmation bias. We ignore facts that go against our position, and accept those that confirm it. Or to put it another way, we assign more weight or validity to arguments that agree with our position or thinking on a matter.

There might be a reason why humans act that way. In a Newsweek article, The Limits of Reason (Aug 5, 2010), Sharon Begley writes:
The reason we succumb to confirmation bias, why we are blind to counterexamples, and why we fall short of Cartesian logic in so many other ways is that these lapses have a purpose: they help us “devise and evaluate arguments that are intended to persuade other people,” says psychologist Hugo Mercier of the University of Pennsylvania. Failures of logic, he and cognitive scientist Dan Sperber of the Institut Jean Nicod in Paris propose, are in fact effective ploys to win arguments. That puts poor reasoning in a completely different light.

Arguing, after all, is less about seeking truth than about overcoming opposing views.
So, there we have it. Few persons think in a Cartesian way with mathematical logic and pure reason. Which gets back to the point of reason as a tool to use when needed. Because arguments are put forth to convince and persuade others, cherry-picking facts and figures, ignoring others, the use of reason today is not so much a search for truth. It is reason in pursuit of being right, of proving a point. We see it all the time among politicians and TV pundits.

No one is listening to the opposing side. The time is spent shouting the other person down. And preparing a counter-attack. It's a war of words. And it can be very nasty at times with flying invectives, railing accusations, and cutting criticism. In such cases, reason is but a poor relative, talked about but never invited to the party.

And although reason has its limitations, it has its place. The lack of its presence allows others to take its place. If there is no real search for truth or meaning, then we are inexorably moving to pure pragmatism: "whatever works is likely true." Yet, that has its limitations, as some are finding out. On a grander scale of humanity and for its long-term betterment, such reasoning, or lack thereof, will eventually fail and fail us in a miserable way, bringing with it misery to untold many.

The reasons are the ones that have always been with us. There is no accountability to a higher authority, or to some universal standard, or to a universal morality. Equally important, and this argument is hard for logicians to understand, humans need mystery.

For many, it's about winning at any cost. But there is more to life than winning.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Vladimir Horowitz: Liszt's Soirées de Vienne

Vladimir Horowitz plays Franz Liszt's Soirées de Vienne, Valse Caprice No. 6 (after Schubert) at the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, in Moscow, on April 20, 1986.

Vladimir Horowitz, aged 82, showed why he ranks among the top pianists of the twentieth century. There were less than 400 seats offered to the public, compared to 1,400 reserved for the Soviet VIPs. The Russian-born pianist had left Russia in 1925; and this was his triumphant return after an absence of more than 60 years. Horowitz, Last of the Romantics, was up to the challenge.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Monkees: I’m a Believer (1966)

The Monkees in 2015. You can view the original video of the pop group from 1966 [here].
Courtesy: Youtube

Lyrics by: Neil Diamond
Recorded: June–November 1966
Released: January 9, 1967
Album: More of The Monkees
Label: RCA Victor Records (UK); Colgems Records (US)
The Monkees were a pop group, consisting of Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, and Englishman Davy Jones. This is from This is The Monkees' official video. The song was first released as a single on November 21, 1966, and then as part of the album, "More of the Monkees," in January 1967. Micky Dolenz is singing.

The song was one of the fewer than thirty all-time singles to have sold at least 10 million copies worldwide. The album was number one on the Billboard 200 for 18 weeks—the longest of any Monkees album. It also went to number one in the United Kingdom. In the U.S. it was certified quintuple platinum by the RIAA with sales of more than five million copies. It was the biggest-selling record for all of 1967, that taking place in the "Summer of Love."

For the sake of comparison, you can hear Neil Diamond's fine version here.

More of The Monkees: Album cover, 1967. ( l to r): Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Davy Jones, and Micky Dolenz.
Source: Wikipedia

I’m a Believer
By Neil Diamond

I thought love was only true in fairytales
Meant for someone else but not for me
Love was out to get me
That's the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all my dreams

Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, I'm a believer
I couldn't leave her if I tried

I thought love was more or less a givin' thing
Seems the more I gave the less I got
What's the use in trying?
All you get is pain
When I needed sunshine I got rain

Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, I'm a believer
I couldn't leave her if I tried

Love was out to get me
Now that's the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all my dreams

Oh then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, I'm a believer
I couldn't leave her if I tried

Leonard Bernstein: Beethoven's Ode to Joy

Symphony No. 9 in D minor: Choral, Op. 125: Final Movement
This video is self-explanatory and needs no introduction other than noting that it is Leonard Bernstein, after a brief introduction on Beethoven's magnificent work,  performing with the Vienna Philharmonic and  Beethoven's Ode to Joy. 

For those interested in the lyrics, taken from Schiller, you can find them here in both the German original and in English translation. Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Milgram Experiment As A French Game Show by Gad Saad

Guest Voices

Today's Guest Voice is Prof Gad Saad, who writes about the modern retelling of The Milgram Experiment. But instead of it taking place within the confines of a lab, as was the case fifty years ago, the experiment takes place in a reality-game show. Such a setting says much about our times, ostensibly informed and knowledgeable, but always looking for entertainment, even if its perverse. Read on.


Some psychological experiments are so profound in what they demonstrate about human nature that they end up assuming an iconic status in popular culture. Three of the most famous experiments to have achieved this status share one common theme: humans' instinctual capacity to succumb to conformity pressures. Stanley Milgram's study, perhaps the most famous psychology experiment ever conducted, investigated our penchant to obey authority figures even when they force us to engage in otherwise brutish and unconscionable acts (administering a punishing schedule of electric shocks to another human being).

Solomon Asch
demonstrated people's uncanny ability to conform to group pressure, even when it is objectively clear that the group is offering wrong responses to a visual test (which of three lines, A, B, or C is the same length as a fourth line X). Finally, Philip Zimbardo's prison experiment showed that individuals adopt very rapidly the norms of the roles that they are ascribed (corrections officers versus prisoners in his infamous study).

Most introductory courses in psychology cover the latter three experiments. In my consumer behavior course, I discuss these studies for two distinct reasons: (1) Conformity arises in many consumer settings (e.g., conforming to fashion trends); as such it is important to demonstrate our instinctual penchant to yield to such forces; (2) I want students to appreciate the fact that many of the most powerful findings in the behavioral sciences arose from studies that were elegant due to their conceptual and methodological simplicity. No need for convoluted factorial designs and intricate methodological procedures. Methodological parsimony is a scientific art.

This brings me to a television documentary that I watched on Sunday night, Jeu De La Mort [Game of Death]. The documentary described a recent take on the Milgram experiment masquerading under the guise of a glitzy French game show titled La Zone Xtrême [The Extreme Zone]. Do you remember the percentage of individuals who administered the maximal amount of permitted voltage in the Milgram study? To the astonishment and incredulity of the scientific community, roughly two-thirds of the participants had done so. Not to be outdone, 81% of the French volunteers went all the way. Marquis de Sade is rolling in his grave beaming with unadulterated pride.

As I was about to put up this post, I conducted a search on the Psychology Today portal (as I was concerned that someone might have beaten me to the punch)...Tamara McClintock Greenberg did so nearly one year ago (although I only saw the documentary two nights ago)!

See here for her post.

Dr. Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing, holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences and Darwinian Consumption, and advisory fellow at the Center for Inquiry.  He has published 55+ scientific articles in numerous disciplines including in marketing, consumer behavior, advertising, medicine, economics, and bibliometrics. He has authored two books, The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007), and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (Prometheus Books, 2011), as well as edited a third book, Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences (Springer, 2011).  His Psychology Today blog, Homo Consumericus, has thus far garnered 1,195,000+ total views. 

Copyright ©2011. Gad Saad. All Rights Reserved. This post was originally published in Psychology Today on March 22, 2011. It is  republished here with the author's permission.