Friday, February 26, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, February, 20th through Friday, February, 26.

1) Via the Mises Institute Blog, "Alas, Poor Yorick! An Apology for the Human Race" by Albert Jay Nock, from "Snoring as a Fine Art."

2) In Humanities, Ammon Shea on Old English and "the brutality and elegance of our ancestral tongue."

3) Alison Flood at The Guardian on the discovery of a long-missing letter by René Descartes.

4) In City Journal, Nicole Gelinas on "Eminent Domain as Central Planning."

5) In the WSJ, William R. Snyder on Monks, Munich, and Strong Beer.

6) A review of "The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures" by Nicholas Wade, in The Economist.

7) In The Guardian, "Ten Rules for Writing Fiction" from Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy.


8) Robert Greskovic at the WSJ interviews Mark Morris and discusses Mr. Morris' Dance Group at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

9) Barbara Jepson at the WSJ interviews violinist Gil Shaham, performing in "'Concertos of the 1930s,' a project with major American and European orchestras that continues over the next year or so."
  1. Shaham performing Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto: III. Allegro, ben marcato.
10) Ellen Gamerman in the WSJ asks violinst Christian Tetzlaff about spending so much time traveling.
  1. Tetzlaff performing J. S. Bach's Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV.1005: III. Largo.
11) [Added 2/27]  Via Classic FM, composer, teacher, conductor, and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas received the National Medal of Arts.
  1. Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 in F minor, IV. Finale: Allegro con fuoco.
12) From Warsaw, Vanessa Gera for the L. A. Times on Polish celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin.

What I'm Reading

Charles Moores, in this January Telegraph piece, reviews the Hungarian writer Miklos Banffy's Transylvanian Trilogy. The wunderkind Andrew Cusack put me on the scent, and I've been enjoying the lengthy Banffy for several weeks now. His three-volume work, inevitably described as Tolstoyan by Moore, is a romp through Hapsburg Austro-Hungary as it neared the conflict that would dismember the ancient empire. Banffy's trilogy is an apt portrait of the vices of the aristocratic elites, Hungarian and Austrian alike, who were charged with the upkeep and well-being of the Hapsburg realms. His description of the wasted nights, playing at cards, whoring, and drinking, are mitigated by the presence of a few noble souls, who attempt to staunch the bleeding and suffering of the Empire's lesser subjects. 

Roger Scruton and the Fall

I missed these excellent Scrutonian reflections when they were published back in November, to commemorate the two-decade old fall of the Berlin Wall. His piece is shot with poignant remembrances of his persecuted colleagues behind the Iron Curtain, who struggled to keep alive the flame of Western culture in an inhospitable environment:

For ten years before 1989 I was in the habit of visiting Eastern Europe to support the fragile underground educational networks there. I would meet my contacts on street corners at prearranged times, to be taken by tram to some smoke-filled room in an outlying apartment, where a group of whispering “students” had gathered to meet me.
Every knock on the door was followed by a frozen silence and, from time to time, someone would lift a corner of the curtain and peer anxiously into the street. Books in many languages lined the walls and as often as not, a crucifix would be fastened to the wall above the shelves.  
The people I met were of many different casts of mind. Some, among the older generation, still maintained a belief in the “socialism with a human face” that had been announced by Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovak President, during the Prague Spring of 1968. Most of the younger people did not believe that socialism could wear a human face or that, if it tried to do so, it would look any better than one of those monsters with a human face painted by Hieronymus Bosch.

For the most part, the people I met were quiet, studious, often deeply religious, attempting to build shrines in the catacombs, around which small circles of marginalised people could gather to venerate the memory of their national culture. This was especially true of the Czechs, from whom their national culture had been officially confiscated after the Soviet invasion...
Participating in these clandestine meetings, Scruton confirmed a lesson he'd already learned when he witnessed the rioting of Parisian students in 1968, that love and honor for Western culture, coupled with a critical and discriminating attititude, were safeguards, even if only personal, against the worst depredations of collectivism, liberalism, and totalitarianism
[L]earning, culture and the European spiritual heritage were, for them, symbols of their own inner freedom, and of the national independence they sought to remember, if not to regain, they looked on those things with an unusual veneration. As a visitor from the world of fun, pop and comic strips I was amazed to discover students for whom words devoted to such things were wasted words, and who sat in those little pockets of underground air studying Greek literature, German philosophy, medieval theology and the operas of Verdi and Wagner.
But what of the dreams nurtured in the Slavic catacombs? Read Scruton's potent little editorial, and ponder.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Review: 2081

Directed by Chandler Tuttle. 2009.

The year was 2081 and everyone was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law, you see, they were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else, nobody was better looking than anybody else, nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. And all this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution.

And to the unceasing vigilance of the United States Handicapper General. The strong wore weights to make them weaker, the intelligent wore earpieces that kept them from taking unfair advantage of their brains. Even the beautiful sometimes wore masks in situations where their beauty might simply be too distracting. It was the golden age of equality.
Such is the state of equality in 2081, Chandler Tuttle's directorial debut based on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s short story Harrison Bergeron. Though clocking in at only 25 minutes the film makes quite an impact depicting a citizen defying a society in which equality is imposed by governmental force. The situation might sound preposterous but the program's inception, suggested only visually, is surprisingly plausible: we see the Handicapper General making a political speech and behind her are people holding signs for "Equality." Like today or in recent history when such a sign at a similar event might read "x for y" with the name of the interest-group (x) and issue (y) of the hour, these signs are simply for "equality." Never mind the ideas behind the issue or its morality or legality. They demand equality now.

There is a certain frightening plausibility to that situation, not that people would end up forcibly handicapped, but how many could be persuaded of the idea's soundness in the first place and that they themselves, or someone in their name, could take the authority to enforce the idea on the unwilling. There is also something unmistakably progressive about the situation. "Final (or Finally) Equality" the sign reads, with the implication that now, now we've finally progressed to such an enlightened state where everyone is. Now we have made everyone what they should be. The weight of one document that stood as a bulwark against such overreaching, the Constitution, evaporates at the phrase "213th Amendment." This mention of the Constitution fails to console but not because it is old or out of date, rather because it too seems weighted down under hundreds of emendations, exceptions, and inclusions.  Yet even in 2081 the world had not quite progressed enough for some as, "Some things about living were still not quite right, though. April, for instance, continued to drive people crazy by not quite being springtime." If only someone could fix that. That the director was able to suggest all of this with one phrase and the above shot exemplifies how the film remains full and effective despite its brevity.

The characterizations of the Bergerons are likewise effective and economical. George, clearly a man strong of mind and body since he wears both weights and noise-generating headphones, contrasts sharply, even pitifully, with his simpleton wife. When discussing the latest outburst of his head device, she idly says how if she were Hanidcapper General she would make the noises chimes on Sunday, "just chimes, kind of in honor of religion." She says it as people often do when out of idleness they wax, "You know what would be nice?. . ." She is earnest but she really has not thought about the issue. Again, though, there is a frightening plausibility to what she says: Imagine if someone who had not really though his ideas through, in terms of legality, logical consistency, and morality, were put in charge of things. Imagine if others were subject to this person's whim. In 2081, that is reality.

She says she would make a good Handicapper General, joking of course, and George replies, "You would." Yet in a way perhaps she did make the Handicapper General, since she is just the type of individual who would have supported even an immoral, illegal, illogical idea simply because at first hearing "it sounded like a good idea." Indeed it might sound like a good idea to someone knitting a fourth foot of sleeve to a sweater and to someone who thinks a stuttering newscaster should get a "big raise just for trying." To her husband who cannot move or think any longer, it probably sounded like a walking nightmare, but since he is now incapacitated, what he thought really does not matter anymore.

Their son Harrison, though, is still a nightmare for the state: a talented man who will not bend to being handicapped. A news report breaks into the ballet his parents are watching with the film's most absurd and dystopian line:

Pleased be advised that Bergeron is a genius and an athlete, is under-handicapped, and is considered to be extremely dangerous.

Of course given the world and rules of 2081, that statement is true. In a land of ordained egalitarianism Harrison Bergeron is not equal, he is great. Harrison's exceptional talents have made him an abomination and his unwillingness to be degraded has made him a fugitive. In his final scene, in which he outwits the Handicapper General, Bergeron goes out in a blaze of beauty and defiance. 

When his father sees the even on the television, he struggles against his device to remember when they came to take Harrison away and to put together that event with what he just saw on the television. Yet all he can do is feel sad. When he confesses this his wife, who missed the entire broadcast as she washed the dishes, she says, "You should forget sad things. I always do anyway." With that ending I wonder how we can expect Harrison's act to "change everything." Without getting bogged down in minutiae about the "mind device" I will simply say the ending is ambiguous. It is plausible both to infer those smart enough to rise up are too mentally incapacitated to do so or that enough people saw and understood the broadcast enough to react against it. While the ending changes what Harrison Bergeron's act might have accomplished, it certainly does not change what it stood for.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Charles Kesler on the 'Grand Liberal Project'

Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution's Uncommon Knowledge interviews Dr. Charles Kesler, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and Editor of the Claremont Review of Books:

June 2009.

In a sweeping review of American political history, Kesler outlines the grand liberal project begun a century ago. It is a project, he asserts, that has expressed itself in three distinct waves: political liberalism, economic liberalism, and cultural liberalism. Kesler further maintains that Barack Obama seeks nothing less than to complete and perfect this project. Finally, he confronts the issues of how conservatism lost its way in the face of the liberal project and how it might regain its i[n]itative.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, February 6 through Friday February 12.

2) Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal on "The Galbraith Revival."

3) At Reason, Damon W. Root on Citizens United and the problem with conservative judicial restraint.

4) At Mises Daily, David Osterfeld on Marxian and Austrian class perspectives.

5) Daniel Elkan in The New Scientist on when your brain gets the joke.

6) In the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, Sally Satel on the many issues of bioethics and bioethicists.

7) Sacred, Beautiful, Universal: The Corpus Christi Watershed Colloquium XIX on Sacred Music:

A refreshingly frank answer from CMAA President and Stanford Professor William Dr. Mahrt when he is asked what to say to someone who grants that Gregorian chant is important but says his parish doesn't have anyone who can do it: "You have to learn."

Also, as mentioned in the video, Sacrosanctum Concilium. (See Chapter VI, 'Sacred Music')

Book Reviews

8) In the WSJ, Robert K. Landers reviews, "Flight From Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War" by Michael Kranish.

9) Also in the WSJ, Matthew Kaminski reviews S. M. Plokhy's "Yalta: The Price of Peace."

10) Steven Levingston in the Washington Post reviews, "The Artist, The Philosopher, and The Warrior: The Intersecting Lives of da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Borgia and the World They Shaped" by Paul Strathern. 

11) Matt Welch of Reason reviews "Inside Obama's Brain" by Sasha Abramsky.

12) In The Art Newspaper, Lorenzo Pericolo review
  • Caravaggio. Sehen-Staunen-Glauben. Der Maler und sein Werk, by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer.
  • Caravaggio: The Complete Works, by Sebastian Schütze
13) In Defense of Abundance: Daniel Ben-Ami of Spiked-Online reviews:
  • Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, by Barbara Ehrenreich
  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  • Reset: How this crisis can restore our values and renew America, by Kurt Andersen 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On the Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Overture to Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.384)

Die Entführung was commissioned in 1781 by Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, and premiered with the Nationalsingspiel at the Burgtheater in Vienna on July 16, 1782.

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 clarin trumpets, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

Incipit. Violins.

Zubin Mehta, conductor.

The overture [. . .] is quite short, and changes from forte to piano all the time, the Turkish music always coming in at the fortes. It keeps modulating, I doubt if anyone could fall asleep during it, even if they hadn't slept a wink the night before.
- W. A. Mozart. (26 September 1781.) [2]

There is a new feature here that not only keeps the Turkish element in check but determines the basic character of the overture as a whole. This is the secretive, fantastical whispering with which the theme – built up on simple triadic intervals – begins. A fairy-tale atmosphere envelops us, as it will later do in the allegro section of the overture to Die Zauberflöte, casting its spell on us and holding us in thrall till the very end with its secretive whispering and brightly darting flames. [1]

Only by a willful obstinacy can you avoid getting swept up by the opening of this overture, a 118-bar presto in 2/2 time. The piece opens with jovial and venturous little tune but piano and against a giddy repeated 8th note figure in the bass. It is like a friend telling you of a fantastical discovery, barely able to repress his excitement. We do not wait long, though, for the theme is repeated only once, though higher as if the secret is about to burst out, when it is joined forte by the whole orchestra and we are swept off and away at the urging of the timpani and the jangling of the triangle. The main theme repeats piano in the violins and clarinet with the other strings repeating the 8th note figure, then it is once more joined forte by the rest of the orchestra. The second half of the main theme is then repeated two extra times by only the piccolo and 1st violin, with the 16th note element leading right down into another forte and a rising scalar passage in the strings, piccolo, and bassoon, and topped off with a whole-note doubled by the remainder of the orchestra. Without rest, though, we dart into a more skittish version of the main theme which is repeated piano:

mm. 39-42. 1st violin.

Then another forte, and another variation on the theme:

mm. 44-46. 1st violin.

The rest of the section whizzes by in like fashion, with modulation, alternation between forte and piano, and variation on the main theme. It concludes in a whirlwind, with a little figure repeated over and over by the woodwinds and strings,

mm. 84-86. Violins

rising each time, until it gives way to a full version of the main theme with the whole orchestra.

Where the first section was a hasty tour of fantastical sights the next section, starting in m.119, in C minor and marked andante, is a deeper look into this new world. It begins as someone walking into a foreign land, with footsteps both cautious and weary:

mm. 119-123. Violins.

This theme is then taken up by the oboe piano, in whose hands it is less urgent but more vulnerable and full of longing. Abert draws proper attention to the "outburst on the fermata [m. 128], where the whole sense of yearning finds finds particularly concentrated expression." [1] We will later hear this same theme, in C major, from Belmonte when he makes his entrance. As Abert notes also, the  interplay between winds and strings is especially effective here, with the winds both coaxing out and then supporting another sad little phrase from the strings. This phrase is repeated in the violins who play it an octave apart and alternate it a tone each measure until they take it up still higher at a crescendo leading into a forte for all the strings and woodwinds. The theme is then repeated again by the strings before the clarinet and flute heighten the moment with an ascending passage of 16th notes and a dotted G crotchet hovering above as the violins and oboe now together play the little theme, now dotted, in a sublime moment.

Yet we do not dwell in this wondrous land of heightened senses for long and after another "outburst" on a fermata we dive back into the opening material tempo primo. The last notes of the overture fade away with just one lone half-note on the triangle ringing on to remind us of the great fanfare as Belmonte enters like the figure in the andante. 

The overture to Die Entführung is a remarkably efficient and effective piece, first catching the listener's ear and whisking him off to a far away land, and then giving him a slight hint of an exotic, passionate world. So transported, we eagerly look on as the scene hinted at in the andante unfolds  before us.

[1] Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007. (p. 668)
[2] Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006. (p. 74)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Around the Web

For the week of Saturday, January 30 through Friday, February 5.

1) In City Journal, Peter Sloterdijk on how "the modern democratic state pillages its productive citizens."

2) In the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Glenn on classroom multitasking:
A student today who moves his attention rapid-fire from text-messaging to the lecture to Facebook to note-taking and back again may walk away from the class feeling buzzed and alert, with a sense that he has absorbed much more of the lesson than he actually has.
3) Karen Wilkin of the WSJ discusses "The Drawings of Bronzino" on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 18.

4) In the WSJ, Lee Rosenbaum interviews Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

5) At Gramophone, the 2010 Grammys.

6) On Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson asks Hoover fellows Richard Epstein and John Taylor, "Are we all Keynesians now?"

7) At The New Criterion: Anthony Daniels, Ayn Rand, and a raging debate. 

8) In Standpoint, Charles Saumarez Smith on the "civilizing servants":
We have got used in recent years to the idea of the professional bureaucrat as a term of abuse, as if all bureaucrats are intellectually second-rate, interested only in the perpetuation of systems of existing management and not in innovation. But these art bureaucrats of early Victorian England were something else: tirelessly hard-working, writing books in the morning, serving on committees in the afternoon, endlessly networking and socialising in the evening, with a dedicated sense of mission to create and reform institutions of art for the educational benefit of a broad public.