Monday, December 26, 2011

The Last Virtue

an inquiry into anecdotal evidence

It is an annual goal of mine to attempt, throughout a year, to observe one particular idea in detail throughout the many circumstances a year will provide. This past year of 2011 I observed the ways in which people compliment each other and I must say the inquiry has proved rather revealing. This year I noted that people tend to praise others as "smart." Now I suppose I ought to make an anthropological caveat and explore the possibility that in my presence people might praise others as "smart" because they figure, incorrectly, that I am reasonably smart and thus would value intelligence in others. If this possibility has ever been true the fact would puzzle me. Why would one person possessing one virtue not recognize or value excellence in the others?

This question is, in fact, the essence of my inquiry. More specifically, where is this bias in favor of intelligence and what do people mean by "smart?" Let us attempt to answer the second question first and in doing so turn our attention to Aristotle.

We can observe that Aristotle makes a number of distinctions amongst the Intellectual Virtues, what we gloss over as "intelligence." In brief, Aristotle mentions 1) techne, what we might very loosely consider a particular skill, 2) scientific knowledge about universal principles derived from logical argument, 3) practical judgment, that is, the ability to judge the good for man in a particular situation, 4) knowledge of first principles, and lastly 5) wisdom, a combination of knowledge of first principles and reason.

As useful as these distinctions are, and their usefulness and the keenness of the mind who made them are revealed even upon the most cursory consideration, they do not seem at all akin to what people mean when they say "smart." Craftsmen are seldom referred to as smart and I have never observed "smart" to refer to anything so specific as formal training in logic. In fact in my observation I seldom nonticed "smart" used with any connection to particular knowledge at all. Of Aristotle's subsets of "intellectual virtue," nous, or the ability to observe first principles, seems to be closest to what people mean when they call someone "smart." Yet people tend to be unable to point to first principles that a "smart" person does know. How do you know he is smart then? They usually form this judgment based on a perceived readiness or cleverness in conversation or simply general competence, but not from serious consideration about the nature and degree of the person's intelligence.

This fact brings me to my conclusion about the significance of this last virtue, "smart." It is tempting to suggest that "smartness" survived as a virtue because as a society we value intelligence most and there may be some truth to this but I think "smart" survived simply because it was the easiest to corrupt and indeed it has been corrupted into a meaningless catch-all compliment. Most significantly, though, is that unlike all of Aristotle's virtues, it is not connected to action. It requires no learning, experience, or contemplation, unlike Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues. "Smartness" requires nothing of its possessor therefore it is a "virtue" anyone can have. You need to do practically nothing to get it and there is nothing you can do to lose it. It is an invented virtue to compensate for the loss of classical education (that is, Aristotle's Intellectual Virtues) and the social abandonment of Aristotle's Moral Virtues. Speaking of them, where did they go? When was the last time you heard someone (other than a warrior) described as courageous? Or anyone described as temperate or moderate, or liberal, or good-tempered? Instead people are glossed over with meaningless adjectives.

These vagaries are both, I would wager, accidental and convenient. They allow us to praise and condemn at whim without reason and consideration and worse they give us the illusion of being discriminating. They allow us to create a safe-zone around ourselves and others which cannot be breached. If you're "smart" you're smart and nothing can change that. You might be deficient in every other virtue, but you're still "smart."

Well, "smart" is not a virtue. There are in fact many others, though, all of which are worth perceiving, valuing, and cultivating. Perceiving is of course the first step but the second is perhaps even mor difficult: judging yourself and others based on these virtues. This is not something we like to do and it can be taken too far, but it is a necessary step toward a meaningful life in which people are better, are more, than "nice" and "smart."

10 Things to Remember Before You Tweet

Having just "unfollowed" someone on Twitter for the first time I thought I would share a few thoughts on what drove me to unfollow a blogger whose writing I often read and liked but whose Tweets had me regularly thinking what an unpleasant presence he had become in my feed. (The horror, I know.) So without further delay:

10. Don't act surprised or exasperated.
  • Superficial surprise is annoying. It is impossible to convey genuine surprise without context, context which cannot be provided in the space of a tweet. Likewise, avoid the "If. . . I'm going to. . .!!!!!" formula. 
9. Don't repeat yourself.
  • Unless it is the schtick of your feed, once is enough. If you're just being yourself on Twitter and you are always yammering on about something, you're annoying.
8. Watch your language.
  • Salty talk is seldom appropriate and even less often necessary. It is also hard to utilize in print and without context. 
7. Just eat.
  • I don't care what it is or where or with whom you are eating. It is not going to inspire me to get same and it's not going to help me prepare it either. Just eat.
6. People who. . .
  • Reasoning from the specific to the general is a long road fraught with problems. It is very unlikely that "All of the people who. . ." do anything, all do anything else. I know this is an exaggeration, but it makes you look shallow. Life is filled with little frustrations. 
5. Watch your feuding.
  • There have been some great public feuds: Cicero vs. Antony, Hanslick vs. Pohl, et cetera. Reflect wisely on yourself, your opponent, the topic, the occasion, and the venue before getting uppity.
4. Stupid!
  • This is the lowest form of insult and says a great deal, all bad, about your character. 
3. Stand there don't just do something.
  • Everything you do does not add up to something significant because they all happened to you. (See Aristotle's Poetics if you think that's harsh.)
2. Not really. Go do something.
  • The only thing worse than excessively writing about what you are doing is writing about not doing anything. If you are tired, sleep. If you are awake, do something. 
1. It is not so clever. Ever.
  • The Muses one day came to Ovid and made him an offer. They would make three of his verses of his own choosing immortal if he would let them choose three to cut. Thrilled, the poet left to reflect on his work. A short while later he came back with his choicest lines. The Muses too had their selected three to cut, the same three, in fact, that Ovid had selected as his best.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Handel: But who may abide the day of His coming?

Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven greatly admired George Frederick Handel. That ought to be enough to convince the rest of us, no? It does not seem so. Praise of Handel usually takes the form of "appreciation" of "effects" and "craft" and "harmoniousness" rather than awe at inspiration. Indeed in our recent installment of our "Sacred Music" series we praised Handel for a most appropriate setting of a text in his Messiah. I myself commented on its "appropriateness" and not his genius. Well, here is something inspired.

In Part I of Messiah Handel sets the following text:
But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
To gain some appreciation for the task we may ask ourselves how we would set it? What tempo, meter, key, voices, and instruments do you use? What is the essence of the piece and what should it convey? What impression should it leave us with? Handel, appropriately, takes his cue from the source, the quotation's origin in the Book of Malachi.

Handel imitates the mood of the prophet with a setting for solo virtuoso. The detached longing of the opening andante yields to a sudden prestissimo as the speaker is seized in prophetic ecstasy, crashing and thrashing in a series of virtuosic leaps and runs. As is often the case with Handel this piece is moving in its simplicity and directness. Regardless of how often the piece was edited or transposed it demonstrates the composer's consideration of relationship between the form of the piece and the nature of the text and, in this case, a perfect marriage.

Kozena's performance, both musical and pantomimed, here is certainly channeling the prophetic and ecstatic current of the work. So does the direction with its extreme close up, a  direct and simple trick perfect for this piece.

Lastly, the opening images are provoking. This clip is from William Klein's filmed adaptation which features various videos contrasting and complementing the music. What is Klein suggesting here? Are the men in the opening charlatans? Does their presence suggest Malachi was also? Are the people fainting fools? Are we fools for being moved by Handel, or is it the artistic act that elevates, or creates, the true transcendent experience? Very provoking.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker

A gift is a beautiful thing. Whether of congratulation, commemoration, celebration, or thanks, a gift reflects a bond between people. The gift represents shared values, shared duties, and a shared life. Above all it reflects gratitude for the relationship for all it has been, as it has been, and as it endures. A great gift shares in both the uniqueness of the occasion and the uniqueness of both individuals. Thus to give a gift is to presume much and to give a good one requires a great deal of understanding and consideration. That I cannot help you with. Your gift must center around one or more ideas and I cannot give you those ideas. What I can and will do, however, is offer some advice on what types of items which, for refined folks like the authors and readers of this blog, might be vehicles of your ideas and appropriate tokens of your affection. So without further preface, consider these thoughts when shopping for your dear friend or loved one.

Gifts for the Cultured Thinker


Before buying any books first you must realize that any intellectual already has a substantial library. Your gift will take a place among many beloved books. It will be nearly impossible to select an appropriate book if you do not have any access to the library or do not correspond about your literary acquisitions. Supposing you know what he has, consider the following:

  • Complete an incomplete set or series.
  • Replace a worn edition with a new one.
  • Buy his favorite book in a beautiful edition from The Folio Society or The Easton Press.
  • He will have a particular interest. If he doesn't have one of the definitive books in the discipline, get it for him. Otherwise buy a new book in the field. If you don't have knowledge of the field then seek the help of an expert like a professor. If you're in a pinch open to the bibliography in one of them and select something from there.
  • In general, sourcebooks (compilations of primary sources), atlases, books of quotations, and books of pictures germaine to the topic are quite complementary. People often lack these books because they are busy reading up on the "hard" scholarship.
  • If possible, avoid paperbacks.
  • If the book has ever been reissued read the reviews to see if there is a preferred edition. Sometimes an edition merely contains fixes, sometimes a particular version might contain valuable notes, other times someone might have badly revised the work. Check reviews.
  • An unabridged dictionary in any language he speaks. 
  • Buy a pair or trio of books on the same topic (not necessarily a set.)
  • Beware reading aids. Lights, magnifiers, weights, stands, et cetera may or may not fill a need. Only purchase if you have observed a need for them. 
  • Book tassels and ribbons pair well with books, as do bookmarks. Consider a bookmark or ribbon related to the book and perhaps installing the ribbon yourself.
  • Make a custom bookmark.
  • Electronic devices may or may not be of use. They  work well for reading fiction but exercise caution if he uses books for scholarship since it is much easier to flip through a paper book.
  • If they are of fastidious disposition, they may delight in book plates or a custom embosser.
  • Fake books come in a variety of styles.
  • Bookends, preferably which relate to the books and/or match the decor.
Lastly, write a thoughtful note, in pen, in script, with the date and occasion, in the front cover (not on the jacket.)


Bear in mind that not everyone buys movies to own. Even people who love movies don't necessarily want to own them.

  • Recorded live performances, especially of concerts and operas. Do not worry about getting someone another version of the same opera. A connoisseur will appreciate the variety.
  • There are many unusual documentaries on specific topics. They may not be identified as "documentaries" or listed as "documentary" in the title, though, so begin your search at YouTube since people almost always tag documentaries as such. Search for whatever your topic is plus "documentary" or "lecture." There are plenty of unusual sets, series, and esoteric one-offs.
  • Classes from The Great Courses are excellent. (Best to get them on sale earlier in the year!)
  • As with book, buy a few with some common thread (not necessarily a set) and give them together. (But wrap each one separately and tie them together.)
  • As with books, consider filling a gap in a collection.
  • Often people buy movies which are re-released in better editions. Consider replacing an old version with a superior one.
  • Often people buy TV shows as they come out and then when the show is released in toto after the final season, that set comes with a gift. A gift the person who bought the show year-by-year won't have. See if you can find the gift separately (used.)
  • Search for a book of interviews with their favorite director or a biography/autobiography about their favorite actor.
  • Picture books about particular franchies, series, eras, et cetera. 


  • As with the above, do not be afraid to get another version of a particular work.
  • As with the above, look for new releases by a favorite conductor, performer, or ensemble.
  • As with books, consider pairing several together around a particular theme.
  • Operas and musicals work well because they are heftier than singles but not as costly as big sets.
  • Sets are a great idea. The Brilliant Classics sets are an excellent value, if of uneven quality.
  • Even if someone has many works by the artist or composer "complete editions" are still valuable since they will contain odd works that do not fit into other categories and which are for that reason seldom released. 
  • Works transposed for different instrument, from Wendy Carlos' synthesizing to the Swingle Singers' Bach to Albrecht Mayer on the oboe.
  • Get a copy of the score or libretto to go along with the CD.

  • Busts are always a good idea but they can be too big. Six to eight inches is ideal unless they have a great deal of space or want their space to feel like a museum. 
  • Instead of posters try a laminated print or a reproduction.
  • Wall-hangings are an excellent alternative to framed art.
  • Sculptures are risky unless you know the not only the item and the meaning behind it for the person but also the size, style, and potential place for it. 

Paraphernalia of Eccentric Living

  • Book stands, book ends, clocks, hourglasses, pendulums, letter openers, et cetera make good pairings. For example, an hourglass and a book on pre-Socratic philosophy, a book on physics and a pendulum. 
In General

  • In all instances do not be afraid to pair a modest giftcard along with something you picked out. 
  • Tickets to concerts or lecture series are always welcome, but beware scheduling. Some people are very busy, forgetful, careless, et cetera.
  • Beware kitsch. Mozartkugeln are cute. A life-size cardboard cut-out is not. 
  • Be aware of space limitations.
  • Some people have a propensity to break things.
  • Err on the side of beauty over utility.
  • Err on the side of old over new.
  • Err on the side of small over big.
  • Try to work in an element of contrast and humor.
I'll leave you with a few philosophical thoughts on friendship from Aristotle to guide you:
  • Don't overreach. Giving a good gift requires friendship and friendship requires time and familiarity. 
  • love = feeling. friendship = state of character. Mutual love requires choice and springs from a state of character.
  • Friendship is only possible between good men.
  • Good will is not friendship. Good will is to wish well but not to do. 
  • The nature of friendship is to felt toward a few. The nature of love is to be felt toward one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving, 2011

In this year's Thanksgiving list, thanks for inherited wisdom, some if it wrought from philosophical rigor and some culled from simple reflections on long lives. These are reflections not on the great philosophical problems but simply on living, and they are thoughts which grow ever dearer to your aging and still humble blogger. 

On Life and Living

The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline, but is, rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.
-Glenn Gould

There are those who have insisted that art is superfluous to life, and again those others who contend that life has no meaning without art. My view is that life is art, and that living is in fact the greatest and most difficult of arts.
-Yehudi Menuhin

Principio caelum ac terram camposque liquentis
lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra
spiritus intus alit, totamque infusa per artus
mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet.

O rus, quando ego te aspiciam! quandoque licebit
nunc veterum libris, nunc somno et inertibus horis,
ducere sollicitae iucunda oblivia vitae!

Vita humana prope uti ferrum est. Si exerceas, conteritur; si non exerceas, tamen rubigo interficit. Itidem homines exercendo videmus conteri. Inertia atque torpedo plus detrimenti facit, quam exercito
-Marcus Portius Cato (The Elder)

Omnibus in rebus voluptatis maximis fastidium finitimum est.

Nescire autem quid ante qua natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum vetuerum cum superiorum aetate contexitur.

Do your duty–never mind whether you are shivering or warm sleeping on your feet or in your bed, hearing yourself slandered or praised, dying or doing something else. Yes, even dying is an act of life and should be done, like everything else, "to the best of your abilities."
-Marcus Aurelius

One should make a return to those with whom one has studied philosophy; for their worth cannot  be measured against money, and they can get no honor which will balance their services. . .

The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.
-J. R. R. Tolkien

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Movie Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Directed by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. 2011.

I waited for something to go wrong with Crazy, Stupid, Love. I waited for a parade of quirky people instead of characters I could relate to. I waited for gratuitous sex and profanity. I waited for the movie to settle into a comfortable genre and adopts its cliches and tropes. I waited for a tidy ending to wrap things up. None of these cropped up to plague Crazy, Stupid, Love. I like this movie. I like this movie? I like this movie? From its first to its last shot, I do.

Most admirably, this movie is not lazy. It works and it works hard to avoid the trappings of romantic comedies, to maintain a tone between drama and comedy, and to maintain reasonable situations. It begins as a serious drama with an opening simple, short, and sexy. At dinner Emily tells Cal she wants a divorce. After a tense car ride we think we have the genre pegged: divorce drama. It's Kramer vs. Kramer.  Yet the film is not a serious drama, not wholly anyway. Cal and his wife get divorced and the kids visit him, still chatty and perky. Maybe this'll be a wacky comedy where the dad becomes so wonderful and zany that everyone loves him. It'll be Mrs. Doubtfire. Then Cal meets Jacob, a slick and smooth-talking ladies' man who offers to tutor Cal. He picks out sharp clothes for Cal and teaches him how to approach women. Ahh, it's Hitch. Then the new life blows up in his face one night at the most awkward parent-teacher meeting I've ever seen. So it's Alfie. Right? Well, we'll see.

All the while Cal's journey is intercut amongst subplots which include his son's crush on the babysitter, the babysitter's crush on Cal, a coworker's crush on Cal's wife Emily, and Hannah's limbo, Hannah who managed to resist Jacob's charms because she thinks her lawyer-boss-boyfriend is going to propose. Oh, it's Love Actually. Right? Well, it never gets mired in one of them and it does not try to be all of them, but rather Crazy, Stupid, Love uses these other genres as it passes through them, building to something bigger as it tries to find some place new and significant for its characters, and us.

Driven toward the risky, the foolhardy, the crazy and stupid if you will, everyone really does seem to be at the mercy of love. The constant exhortations and paeans to love from Cal's son, Robbie, succeed in casting some sense of love as the force behind everyone's antics and the force to which everyone must bow. The filial advice eventually spurs Cal to reclaim Emily but in a twist so silly and convenient as to be worthy of opera, all goes to hell in a spectacle equally operatic. Ah ha! It's going to end with the "big silly even in which everyone comes to their senses" right? Wrong. Deftly handled the scene is short and maintains a tone so very hard to strike while completing no fewer than three purposes. It has 1) to weave together the different threads, 2) to close out the action of the scene itself, and 3) cut off certain possibilities whilst opening new ones, but not so many that we throw up our hands and feel like anything can happen or that the resolution is being arbitrarily prolonged.

The final act is short enough to be thought of as a coda, but it in true dramatic fashion it does function to deliver the meaning of the story even though the plot can already be seen to be over. The final scene is a sweet but not cloying education in love, true to the characters and the title. Is love some overruling force, fickle and troublesome, but worth contending with? At the end, I thought so.

Crazy, Stupid, Love could have gone wrong in a thousand ways and at a thousand moments, but a painstakingly fought for tone, a thoughtful avoidance of cliches, and a planned large-scale structure support the great cast. Crazy, Stupid, Love is a pleasure.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Movie Review: Immortals

Directed by Tarsem Singh. 2011.

Spoilers within!

But first, a vocabulary lesson brought to you by the letter I.

pas·tiche [pa-steesh, pah-]

1. a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.

2. an incongruous combination of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; hodgepodge.

Origin: 1700–10; < French < Italian, pasticcio

The question is, I suppose, how incongruous. The image to the right ought to suggest the cornucopia of styles and tropes Immortals constitutes. This is not a fault by nature, but the relentless similarities distract, startle, annoy, and eventually tire. Let us first just list the obvious relationships to recent movies or uses of modern trends:
  1. the big wall/gate from The Two Towers
  2. the population retreating to a more defensible location a la The Two Towers
  3. the disfigured betrayer a la 300 & The Two Towers
  4. "man must stand alone" a la The Two Towers
  5. massive computer-generated armies a la Lord of the Rings
  6. angry bad guy with limitless army, a la Hero or The Mummy Returns
  7. animal helmets and scenes of gruesome violence a la torture-horror genre
These cliches and others make the film feel filled instead of rich. I would hazard the guess that the cliches result from the "If they liked it once they'll love it twice" mentality of producers. Worse, though, the similarities draw us into the present, a debilitating flaw for an aspiring epic of Greek mythology. 

And then there the general film tropes:
  1. reluctant hero
  2. destroyed village/murdered family a la Conan
  3. wise tutor
  4. pretty(!) love interest
  5. maguffin
  6. end of the world scenario
These cheap ploys are forgivable if the plot stitches them together with great skill. Does it? Sort of. The "hero quest" thread and the "finding his faith" thread sort of work. Maybe. Let us look at he hero quest.

At the start Theseus does not want to fight and refuses to join the local militia, yet he is apparently skilled in battle. Why might this be? Then his village and mother are killed. So he wants revenge. This makes sense, right? But his tutor counseled him in "living rightly." Does revenge seem quite so "right?" Even if we want to infer that the eye-for-an-eye treatment would be just, Theseus never says so. In fact he says he wants revenge. Maybe Theseus wants to defend others from this ruthless man? Well, contra the advice of his tutor, Theseus explicitly says he does not want to do this because they spurn him and his mother (his mother was raped and he is a bastard.) It is not like there is any subplot in which some villagers who once hated Theseus learn to respect him and Theseus learns to trust others. So when Theseus fights Hyperion at the end, he's only fighting for revenge as far as we can tell. Also, when Theseus rallies the troops at the end, spouting off a whole slew of values that they should fight for, we can only ask, "where  have these values been all along for?" He never mentions liberty or property or progeny or anything else before. Yes, these ideas are mentioned by Hyperion, but first, Theseus doesn't know that and second, Theseus still isn't living those values. So that's a big mess. I can't tell whether the missing sense is on the cutting room floor or whether the writers wrote themselves into a corner, but there it is. 


Now let us look at the "finding the faith" thread. I admit this had great potential. You see, neither Theseus nor Hyperion believe in the gods. Theseus because he and his mother suffer and Hyperion because his family was killed by disease. Thus Hyperion wants to wipe out all life and Theseus. . . well that's where the similarity ends and the problems begin. You see Zeus announces that the gods cannot interfere in mortal affairs. Why? Who knows. Unfortunately we need some answer for the plot and we don't  get one. Thus even if the gods revealed themselves to Hyperion, do you think that he would be satisfied? Yes he might "find his faith" and then what? Hey you know what, maybe the writers could have thought of this

Now Theseus does find his faith. How? One of the gods flies down right in front of him and blasts someone to smithereens. Well it wouldn't take Demosthenes to convince him that the gods exist after that, would it? And then Zeus, after obliterating that god for violating Olympus' non-interference clause, promises it'll never happen again. How can he promise that? What's he going to do? Logically he can only promise that if it does happen again Zeus will be back to blast that guy too. So the gods won't interfere, just because they're not supposed to, but if they do Zeus'll blast them. Sounds great! I'll bet Theseus couldn't wait to get those offerings cracklin'.

"Just sign on the dotted line and then we won't simply not help you,
 but I'll personally dematerialize anyone who tries to do so."

Now just one more thing. Actually several more things. If the gods don't interfere, then why are they so secretive? Also, if they don't interfere, why pray to them? Why honor them? Just for thanks I suppose but thanks for what? Did they make man? In one Greek creation myth, yes, but this goes unmentioned in the film. This could not be inferred and had to be said. But if they're not going to do anything for you then you can't ask for help. And if they won't hurt you either, then there is no one to appease. So believing in them is basically just whatever you happen to believe as a creation myth and has no real bearing on anything. So Theseus doesn't find his faith so much as learn a history lesson. Translation: this thread is a mess too. 

A few miscellaneous problems:
  1. Where did Hyperion's army come from? Who are these people? Who equipped them?
  2. Where are all the Greeks? 
  3. Where's that wall and why can't Hyperion go around it?
  4. Why are the gods forbidden to interfere in man's affairs, but permitted to do so "indirectly?"
  5. If he didn't believe in the gods, why is Hyperion so certain the Titans exist?
  6. Why does everything have to look like Lord of the Rings?
I'm not going to discuss accuracy according to the myths, but a few points perturbed me:
  1. Why is it set in 1200BC, the approximate time of the Trojan War?
  2. Why can't they just call them "Hellenes" and the land "Hellas?"
  3. Why does the oracle's gift transcend the place and function like a superpower?
  4. Why did they have to call him Hyperion?
  5. Why are gods dying?
  6. Where's Zeus' thunderbolt?
  7. Why are the Titans human-sized zombies?
Lastly, some of the minor characters aren't clearly introduced or differentiated on screen. Likewise the locations are often unclear. I would understand if someone were confused about either. 

So let me explain what I think happened. The producers of 300 wanted to cash in on its success. Clash of   the Titans came out afterwards, though, so they got Tarsem Singh to direct to make it look different from both Clash and 300. On the one hand they wanted big battles between armies and on the other they wanted superhero-style fighting. They couldn't re-create either 300 or Clash so they combined them.  Hence the hodgepodge. 

What do I like? I like the gods. I like how they look like slick and youthful as opposed to the old, regal, aristocratic look they used to sport. They've shaken off the prettified Victorian crust and lost those gentle Renaissance postures in exchange for vivacity and awesome, unpredictable force. They look like the upstarts who would have provoked the Titans and started a war with them. I like their brushed-gold armor, unique to each god. I like that they rule from atop Olympus, looking down and I like that their presence among the mortals feels out of the ordinary. John Hurt was splendid. I liked the Greek in the beginning dialogue.

There was potential in the theme of "immortality." Maybe Theseus wouldn't find his faith, but would attain immortality through fame for his good deeds whereas belief in the gods would dwindle because they did not act to do good. Right? Well. . . Theseus does find his faith (sort of, as we said) and does do good, and is remembered, but they make him a god anyway. Well that ruins, oh I don't know, the title, that's all. It's called Immortals not Divinities anyway, the becoming-a-god part is unnecessary. See how that Socrates quote really doesn't work here? And now as a god presumably he subject to the "no-interference" rule, no? 

Again, the gods looked good, the introduction set an appropriate tone, and there were ideas at play. Unfortunately the script was a mess and the visuals were surprisingly conventional except for one shot of Freida Pinto's derriere which in all of cinema is probably the shot with a keister covering the highest percentage of the frame. The stock bits by their nature weren't interesting enough to be noteworthy and simply carried out their utilitarian roles in the story. Oh, and Mickey Rourke was just plain annoying as Hyperion. He was always threatening people, grumbling, brooding, and adding awkward pauses to his speechifying. It seems fairly obvious Rourke was trying to do here what he thought he was prevented from doing with his character in Iron Man 2. He was also always crunching and fumbling with these strange food chips, though he never appeared to be eating them. I guess this was supposed to be a masculine gesture, though I'm not sure.

Overall, it's hard to call Immortals a success.

What Could Have Been

I usually resist the urge to correct movies and suggest how they might have better succeeded because I appreciate how difficult it is to envision the final product. In this case, though,
the script beyond a doubt was not sufficiently thought out. They committed the cardinal sins of not asking, "Why is the character doing this?" and "Why is this important?" Also, given the richness of the source material, such lack is particularly egregious. That being the case, I offer a few scenarios, not corrections of what was but rather different premises that would have made more sense of the action.

Set-up I:

  1. Theseus is a disbeliever, but he tries to survive by himself.
  2. Hyperion believes in the gods, but hates that they do not help him. He wants to release the Titans to punish them.
Theseus may or may not find his faith, but he achieves the "immortality" of being remembered for something, any kind of excellence (arete) would suffice. In contrast, the following lines of Zeus from Homer could have been put into the mouth of either Theseus' tutor or Zeus to characterize Hyperion's fatal flaw:
How foolish men are! How unjustly they blame the gods! It is their lot to suffer, but because of their own folly they bring upon themselves sufferings over and above what is fated for them. And then they blame the gods.
I would jettison the prefatory quote from Socrates which is somewhat ham-fisted and does not seem to complement the story. As it is used, are we to interpret that the reward for goodness is becoming a god? The idea of excellence (arete) is entirely more appropriate than Socrates' saying, which prompts a more philosophical discourse the film cannot accommodate without even more revision.

Set-up II:

  1. Theseus is the man of piety.
  2. Hyperion is a man of arrogance.
This situation could include the gods as major potential players in the affairs of men could take two directions. On the one hand it could tend toward a Job-esque trial for Theseus. On the other it could work in the myth of the ages of man and portray Theseus' age a secular one. Hyperion could be written as the logical, war-like result of this lack of religiosity and/or piety. Perhaps Theseus has to persuade the others to be pious or maybe his piety saves the day at the end. In the later case the film could conclude with the same image (of the Titanomachy, it's most original one) it does now, only here it would be significant.

Set-up III:

  1. Hyperion hates that the gods interfere in the lives of men and wants to unleash the Titans to punish them.
  2. Theseus tries to stop him.
This set-up could re-institute the notion that either Zeus or Prometheus created man and could thus explain Theseus' piety. This situation would have much potential for weaving in the myth of the ages of man and some of the actual Titans.


Immortals lacks the simplicity, novelty, and clarity of purpose that made 300 noteworthy. Too it lacks the charm of the original Clash of the Titans and the sword-and-sandals epics it succeeded. Lastly, it lacks the plot and structure to make any significant statement. Immortals opens with a very Hellenic feel but the tone soon dissipates. The action is competent but I had quickly seen my fill of computer-generated armies and slow-motion smack-downs. Overall, there is enough to keep you involved as you watch, but once you realize that things don't quite come together, Immortals is pretty flat.


I looked at a few summaries after writing this review and they seem to suggest Hyperion intended to destroy the gods, in which case he obviously believed in them. I seem to remember him saying he didn't believe in them in the scene when he sets the priest on fire. I guess by "not believe in them" he meant that that they might as well not exist, but if that is so the scene was written and played all wrong. That said, other characters like Theseus and that idiotic political leader at the end clearly didn't believe in the gods: then why did they believe in the Titans? Who did they think put them there? What did they think Hyperion was doing? Who did they think made the bow, which they were pretty sure existed? 

Why did Hyperion think the bow would let him defeat all 12 Olympian gods, including Zeus himself? And the Titans too. (Or did he think the Titans would follow him? If so, why?) And all of mankind! The bow is pretty awesome but still it's just a bow. One guy had it for a minute and quickly got overwhelmed. Also, I'm pretty sure Zeus could sidestep an arrow. Also, if Hyperion thought the Titans would defeat the Olympians, then he must have thought the bow would let him rule the Titans. Well if the bow would let him rule the Titans and the Titans defeated the Olympians then why not just use the bow to defeat the Olympians? 

I admit, though, that if Hyperion were out to get the gods from the get-go then his character would make more sense. His actions, though, would as we just saw make less sense. It also makes his showdown with Theseus make less sense since Theseus is not really fighting for the gods but for revenge. Even after some gods appear to him, why would Theseus fight for them if they neither created him nor would help him? 

There was also mention of Hyperion wanting to pass on his image and to do this he was sterilizing the men. What? What is this? What's going on? Just looking at various summaries and even the different trailers (which try to have it both ways), it's pretty clear no one knows what's going on here and I'm done trying to figure it out. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part III

In our first essay on Sacred Music we looked at chant and discussed some of the properties which make it uniquely appropriate for the liturgy. In our second essay we looked at one short section of the liturgy and examined its treatment by various composers. Now I would like to look at some of the choices a composer has when setting a text. In articulating and observing them it is my hope we will then be able to appreciate when composers make (and do not make) excellent and novel use of the resources at their disposal.

1. Declamation vs. Development

In setting a section of the mass a composer must choose whether he wishes merely to decorate the text or to develop the idea, that is, he must decide whether he will simply mention the idea or whether he will attempt to explore its meaning or describe. We might find a few examples to define the spectrum of choices. On the extreme of one side would be mere declamation, i.e., pronunciation of the text. Opposite might be a fugue, a dense development of the idea. In between might be plainchant, the use of sequence and repetition, and imitation. 

The texts of the mass, both ordinary and proper, provide various opportunities for the composer. Clearly some ideas seem suited to one type of treatment. For example, "Kyrie eleison," "cum Sancto Spiritu," and "Osanna" have traditionally been treated fugally and this seems both appropriate and acceptable. Why? First, they occur either at the beginning or the end of a section of the mass and a large fugal section is more suited as an introduction or conclusion than a middle. Second, the ideas are short and self contained and thus they are appropriate candidates for fugue subjects.  

Please let me note it is not my intent to map out the mass and suggest how each section ought to be set, but rather point out that the composer must first make certain considerations and then choose a course of action. The mass of course presents challenge and opportunity for composers, the greatest of whom have responded with genius. No theoretician could have predicated Bach's setting of the Crucifixus, which Forkel, Bach's first biographer, called a "crown of thorns." My reason in articulating these points is to suggest that good liturgical music will attempt to address them. Likewise when a piece fails to address these problems it will be seen to be proportionately lacking in affect.

2. Strophic vs. Through-Composed

A composer would then have to consider how he wishes to divide the text, if at all. For example, will it be  
  1. Through-composed, i.e. with unique music for each line but with little or no repetitions and doubling back.
  2. Broken up by line or phrase as seems appropriate to the composer
  3. Treated strophically, with each line or stanza set to the same music. 
Again, certain parts of the mass lend themselves to certain treatments. For example, one can compare Palestrina's through-composed setting of the Gloria in his Missa Papae Marcelli to Bach's setting in the B-minor Mass in which Bach carefully sets particular phrases to particular music. Likewise one might compare the traditional setting of the Dies Irae sequence which is strophic to Mozart's setting in his Requiem in which he groups the stanzas and then sets them.

3. Soloists vs. Choral

An individual in an audience or congregation will invariably perceive a relationship between himself and a solo singer as different from one between himself and a choir.  If a soloist sings "adoramus te" or "miserere nobis" it seems as if he is speaking on behalf of the congregation. If a choir sings them it seems as if the choir asks as an extension of the congregation. Looking at the Dies Irae sequence is instructive here also. If a soloist sings "Mors stupebit" we empathize with him as a fellow man looking at death and the effect is dramatic. If a choir sings these words the result is more descriptive and we are more affected by the sight than any personal situation. The composer must then, if he uses soloists, be aware of this difference. 

4. Time

While the issue of the passing of time does not so much affect music for the liturgy as other non-liturgical sacred music such as oratorio we ought briefly touch on the matter. In principle we may say that in an aria time seems to be still as the music explores a given moment whereas recitative and drama push the action forward. Much like the difference between a fugue which explores a particular idea and chant which declaims it, the aria describes or explores the present emotion or situation whereas the drama or recitative conveys action. A fine example of this contrast are the contrasting and adjacent pieces from Part II of Handel's Messiah. Time seems to stop in the aria "Thou art gone up on high" as the soloist repeats and reflects on the idea. In contrast, the subsequent music for chorus conveys action: The Lord gave the word. Superficially the pieces might not seem different, but how much more reflective and personal (and longer) is the aria than the choral piece? How much more emotional and suited toward sudden flights of feeling?  

5. Detail, Structure

Lastly we must note that detail must be contextualized within a large-scale structure to be understood. Only if we know the language and rules of the composer and the direction of the piece can the composer convey a sense of departure, significant action, and return. This requires attention to structure within and among movements, that is, attention to and consistency in the:
  1. passage of keys within movements
  2. tonic keys of each movement
  3. thematic material if it is repeated
  4. instrumentation
  5. setting of music for soloist or choir
  6. meter and tempo
  7. four points mentioned above
  8. use of parallelism

In setting the mass a composer will make these choices whether consciously or not. If he is not conscious of the possibilites it is hard to imagine, even if the music is competently written, that it will suit the text or that there will be any unity of affect.

Next time we will look at a famous setting of a mass and see whether its composer paid attention to these five aspects.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bach's Cantatas as 21st Century Chamber Music

To those who wish to get to know these priceless works [i.e. Bach's cantatas] in bulk, [Albert] Schweitzer's advice is invaluable---to gather a few friends together round a pianoforte and sing them through. The inadequacies of performance are compensated for by the intimacy of common music-making. Let all the sopranos sing in unison the recitatives and arias for that voice, and so on. Afterwards the student, in the solitude of his sanctum, with the great score in his lap and the memory of the actual sound of the great music in his mind's ear, can attune himself to the spirit of the noblest master of all time.
W.G. Whittaker The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach (Vol 1, pg. 433)

W.G. Whittaker's words are music to the amateur musician's ears. I have often wished to do just what he recommends, not only with Bach but with the Renaissance masses and madrigals I love little less.

The musicians who rendered the music in Leipzig's Lutheran liturgies might justly be called amateurs (a word undeservedly maligned and misused today): Bach's difficulties in getting his works adequately performed with the resources to hand are well-documented.

Bach composed in such a way to buttress his poorly-trained singers, doubling their vocal lines in the strings or winds. His vocal music, difficult though it is, is within the compass of an amateur's abilities. And with the help of a piano, to fill in the harmonic gaps, other instruments might be added as available. And although most of the Baroque instruments will be unavailable to the amateur, reasonable substitutions of modern instruments might be made, with due allowance for style and ensemble.

The Petrucci Library contains the complete scores of the cantatas, from the Bach-Gesellschaft Ausgabe, as well as vocal scores with piano reductions. In short, the musical resources are easily accessible. Go ye therefore and sing!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Our Tumblr Feed

Please note that our "Around the Web" roundup column (formerly linked to in the upper right of the navigation bar) has been replaced by our

The page linked to in the navbar lists our Tumblr posts on a separate page on this site and the link directly above links directly to our Tumbler page at Tumblr. So you can either check the Tumblr feed by visiting the page linked to in the navbar where they are re-posted, or by following on Tumbler proper. Or you can ignore it altogether. (Not recommended, but it is an option.)

Please note these Tumblr posts (which will always be short thoughts or maybe even just links, quotes, images, or videos) will not show up on this main page. 

We hope Tumblr will be conducive toward us sharing our shorter, though equally brilliant, thoughts. It should also allow us to post miscellaneous items without cluttering this page which will remain reserved for longer articles. 

Movie Review: Contagion

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 2011.

*Spoiler Warning*

The structure of Contagion must have scared a few producers. Nothing else can explain why A-list actors fill the supporting roles of this movie. They are well-filled, to be sure, though not one is particularly distinct or memorable and none called for a particular screen talent or presence. Matt Damon, though, is an especially convincing everyman, even if he is just channeling the confusion from his Bourne blockbusters.

Still, I can understand a producer getting cold feet from Contagion. "You're going to kill off some of the main cast? Not  the disposable characters we construct to be killed off when we need to inject gravity into a sagging part of the story, but the main cast? And you're not dropping hints that they're going to die? And you're not going to bring them back? And you're going to front-load all of the tension of the movie? Steven. . ." Hence the expensive cast and hence some horribly cliché lines undoubtedly thrown in to fulfill audience expectations of a movie clearly sold as an "outbreak thriller."

Contagion's unconventional structure, though, is of far more interest than its stock "medical thriller" elements. The film begins innocently enough by emphasizing nothing in particular, which thereby draws attention to the ordinary: the touching, eating, drinking, coughing, sneezing, and fidgeting we do all everyday without note. Someone is sick, though, and all of our touching and playing leads to the outbreak of a flu-like virus. Matt Damon carries these early scenes of agitation and helplessness. Damon's Mitch Emhoff is plausible both in strength, for example when Mitch's wife collapses in front of the children in the kitchen, and in angry disbelief when doctors tell him his wife suddenly died, ". . .of something. We really don't know." This is, I think, how most of us might react to his predicament. We expect our ills to be cured or at least diagnosed. We rely on the closure of a scientific explanation.

Shortly thereafter the experts are brought in. They run around, get information, call other doctors, and so forth. Risking their lives they work and work as the outbreak continues. They work productively as newscasters speculate, random kooks come forward with pretend cures, and people start to seclude themselves. Then the doctors cure it. There is no setback, no conspiracy, no intrigue, no genius to be brought in from retirement, and no plant to be flown in from the Andes. There is no shtick and no pointless twenty minute diversion which results in them curing the disease anyway. They cure the disease and life begins to go back to normal. We retreat from the public chaos back into Mitch Emhoff's life in which the biggest concern is his daughter's prom date.

Does the pattern seem familiar? A minor event, a public outbreak, news reports, speculation, experts and cranks, and finally a cure and going back to your life? I would think so, though gladly we have witnessed nothing so severe. Contagion, then, more resembles a slice of our lives (one we probably never thought twice about) than any thriller I can think of. That such a plot seems in no way extraordinary is because of the tremendous success of modern medicine which manages to meet our unrealistic expectations, and this is ultimately the point of Contagion.

To be fair, Contagion drops a few plot lines but this feels appropriate. How many peripheral news stories, important as they are, fall by the wayside once the main crisis has subsided?

Dispensing with any extraneous plot lines and any postponement of the main line's resolution, Contagion is a tight thriller with a subtle and significant message. Moreover, to appreciate that message you need, at least a little, to reflect on your life and what you consider normal. Not too shabby for a genre which almost exclusively confines its ambitions to being "effective" (i.e. scary, thrilling, or tense) and seldom aspires to ask any larger questions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Sacred Music, Part II

In our first look at sacred music last month we discussed some concrete principals and why they functioned as the essence of good sacred music. It is, however, often said that taste is subjective. This I do concede to a point, and as an experiment I would like to make a less scientific comparison. We may say certainly that people have reactions to music but of course it is something in the music that has generated that reaction. I would like to look at a few incipits from some sacred music and briefly characterize what they suggest. I decided to use the beginnings of these pieces because they invariably receive an enormous amount of attention from the composer and they set the tone of the piece. In short, we can assume them to be the best the composer has to offer and exactly what he wants. Many musical works have weak transitions, lines, and moments, but we tend not to discuss the ones which fall out of the gate.

The incipits should briefly and perfectly capture the essence of the piece, or at least set a clear stage for development. So we may ask, then: first, do they, and second, what do they say?

N.B. I included only pieces using the Latin text of the Gloria from the Ordinary of the mass. I included the intonation of the Gloria de Angelis only once, which naturally excluded many settings which begin with the famous phrase. I have edited the chant and classical examples into the video below. The modern pieces have links to performances next to their descriptions.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Top Ten: Mozart Works for Oboe

Sometimes my lists spiral into large projects. This is not one of those times. I offer only one word of clarification, that I restricted myself to one movement per work. I only mention those other parts of Figaro because the implied "and see other movements of the same work" is not so helpful for an opera.

Complaints/Suggestions welcome! (Did I miss anything?)

Oboe by Grundemann, 1784
10. Trios from Symphonies KV.550-551 in G minor and C major

9. Adagio & Rondo in C, KV.617 - Adagio

8. Oboe Concerto in C, KV.314 - Allegro

7. Oboe Quartet in F, KV.370/3686b - Adagio

6. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in C minor, KV.388 - Allegro

5. Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, KV.491 - Allegretto

4. Serenade for 8 Wind Instruments in E-flat, KV.375 - Adagio

3. Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, KV.361/370a, 'Gran Partita' - Adagio

2. Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492
1. Piano Quintet in E-flat, KV.452 - Largo - Allegro moderato

Monday, September 5, 2011

Minus Virtue

Aristotle and the Neuroscientists

The NY Times is running psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker's review of the new book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Pinker's review is one of those pieces, of which the Times specializes in, that makes me wince. Not because it is poorly written or even wrong but because it is liable to leave the reader unacquainted with the deeper problems of the issue at hand with a facile, shallow, understanding of the topic while making him think he is at the cutting edge of thought. Unfortunately it is not quite so easy to critique a book review. Whose ideas am I critiquing? Those of the reviewer, those of the author, or those of the author as understood by the reviewer? I will persevere, though, because it is the impression the review leaves which is of interest to me.

Please indulge me, though, with a few minor points. First, Adam and Eve, Odysseus, and Augustine lived at different times. Agreed? Thus saying that "Ever since" and listing those figures is sloppy and, I might add, annoyingly so. Second, Pinker writes, "the very idea of self-­control has acquired a musty Victorian odor." If it rose in the 19th century (the Victorian era) then it was simply Victorian. If it declined starting circa 1920 then when exactly did it, acquire the "musty Victorian odor?" Did it come back after that? Pinker doesn't say. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the opening two paragraphs make a terribly sloppy preface to what Pinker really wants to talk about. Oh, and "a homunculus in the head that physically impinged on a persistent antagonist." Editor on aisle five!

Anyway his hastening to the 20th century is "rather telling," as I am fond of saying. Pinker passes over the time when not having self-control was considered a moral failing. Now it is not. Now it is a utilitarian "virtue" to be used to get ahead and ensure maximum efficiency in getting whatever it is we want. You strengthen it like a muscle and then gloriously resist temptation. This and the authors' advice about building it up is all well and good. It is, predictably, in concert with Pinker's own notions as he set forth in The Blank Slate. So what am I quibbling about? That he treats this shift as a historical and not a philosophical one. We will revisit this point at the end of our discussion.

Meanwhile, Pinker calls "self-control" a virtue. Is this appropriate? (Also, the title of the book is "Willpower." I suppose we should understand self-control and willpower as synonyms.) Let us first consider what he means by "virtue." In Aristotle, "The opposed virtues are virtues only because they encourage and help constitute a full rich life." [1] They are not the oxymoronic "utilitarian virtues" Pinker in effect calls for. Likewise acting virtuously requires 1) knowledge of your self and the situation, i.e. being virtuous and not simply foolhardy, 2) being virtuous for its own sake, 3) being virtuous out of character and not by accident or incidentally. If there is no particular good for man then it seems inappropriate to call these "useful habits" "virtues."

Let us now consider what "self-control" means. Unfortunately in the review the word is not defined, though it seems simply to mean. . . well I'm not so sure. It cannot simply the ability to do something, anything, since the gist of the article is resisting one inclination to pursue something else.  Interestingly, all of Pinker's and the authors' examples involve physical activity. Likewise the faculty is likened to a muscle which can be flexed to resist temptation. This is a most convenient analogy because it implies that self-control 1) is a faculty, 2) exists in one already, albeit undeveloped. In fact it is just as plausible that one is learning to do something he was not inclined to do at all, but that it is still necessary to do. Does one truly have a virtue before one exercises it, the same way an infant has sight before it is developed into acute vision, or in contrast is it acquired through habituation? The analogy disguises a question of great importance.

Self-control, then, seems inherently to be connected with bodily pain and pleasure. In this it seems akin to temperance, though temperance implies a mean and not just resisting. Yet Pinker uses the word "passions" for that which needs controlling. Yet surely we must distinguish between appetites and passions, the former occurring in individuals without any stimuli and the latter only after some conscious appraisal of a situation. There are then both bare appetitive forces and "deliberative decisions" and thus also a role for reason in virtue. Yet deliberation itself consists both in conscious reasoning and desiring a particular end. Pinker, though, derides the "ghost in the machine" and then glosses over the issue with the problematically vague, "mental entity." So your soul with reason and desire toward an end does not guide the passions, but your "mental entity" with your "self-control" does. This is neither a clarification nor an improvement.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bach, Eliot

– J. S. Bach. Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV.582

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement—
Driven by daemonic, chthonic
Powers. And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
– T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages

Mozart's Sibling Themes

The other day we spoke of sibling themes throughout Mozart's oeuvre. Since you will be deprived of my review of the finale concert to this season's Mostly Mozart Festival due to said concert having been prematurely and peremptorily cancelled, I assembled a few of Mozart's sibling themes here.

Is it tremendously significant to point them out? Perhaps not, but I've always found such musicological sleuthing quite fun. Still, the similarities do reveal points of interest.

How grateful one feels to see the hidden world of the theme from Die Zauberflöte, which we just glimpse in the opera, open up in so many ways in the rondo of the Trio. Look in Example 2 how many variations Mozart gets from the main theme, itself a variation from the set in the Violin Sonata. In Ex. 3 how different are the effects of the second subjects on that same heartbroken siciliana. Yet how similar the moods in Ex. 4, in which both manage the curious pairing of great affectiveness and even danger along with a detached, almost ethereal, innocence. The last pairing exemplifies the consistently operatic nature of Mozart's music even across genres.

Piano Trio in E, KV.542 - Andante grazioso [YouTube]
Die Zauberflöte, KV.620: Act I: Quintett: Hm! hm! hm! hm! (theme from the Andante at m.214) 4:47 [YouTube]
Violin Sonata in F, KV.377 - Variation No. 6: Siciliana [YouTube]
String Quartet in D minor, KV.421 - Allegretto ma non troppo [YouTube]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F, KV.280/189e - Adagio [YouTube]
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, KV.488 - Adagio [YouTube]
Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat major, KV.456 - Andante un poco sostenuto [YouTube]
Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492: Act IV: L'ho perduta . . . me meschina [YouTube]
Missa Solemnis in C, KV.337 - Agnus Dei [YouTube]
Le Nozze di Figaro, KV.492: Act II: Porgi amor [YouTube]

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Presidential Rhetoric III: Thomas Jefferson

Welcome to Part III of our series on the rhetoric of American presidential inaugural addresses. Feel free to take a peek at the previous entries in the series:
  1. Worthy of Marble?
  2. John Adams
As with the the previous speeches we will not be addressing the truthfulness of the assertions but rather we will consider primarily two questions: what is it trying to persuade us of and how does it do so. We will also, as before, look at some rhetorical criteria as set forth by Aristotle. For clarity I have chosen to annotate certain sections.

[Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office of our country,] I avail myself of the presence of that portion of my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is above my talents, and [to declare] that I approach it with those anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

Jefferson's structure defers mention of himself to the middle of the sentence and begins by stating that the people have asked him to take up duties in the government. He continues by acknowledging with great care the American people, both those present and those elsewhere by saying "that portion of my fellow-citizens." Jefferson thanks them for their favor and states that he is humbled before the task. His use of the phrase "above my talents" compliments the opening "undertakes," both images of the president below the task. Clearly Jefferson is doing everything he can to convey humility. Even his structure does this, for example he says, "I avail myself. . . to express, to declare, that I approach" Clearly the "that I approach" utilizes some understood infinitive (for example, "to acknowledge") parallel to "to express" and "to declare" but he omits it to the effect of a mild anacoluthon, that is, a breaking off of the structure to suggest that he is being carried away by the moment. Jefferson continues to describe the awesomeness of the task before him, describing them not just as "anxious and awful presentiments" but "those anxious and awful presentiments, which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of my powers so justly inspire." The phrase, "which the greatness of the charge" suggests that anyone ought to be humbled by this office and the word "those" amplifies the sentiments by suggesting that the presentiments are somehow familiar to the men who have been president and endemic to the office. "Those" implies, "those same presidential." Jefferson continues to humble himself by expressing, parallel to the previous thought, that his own weakness is the cause of some of his apprehension. The logic of this naturally elevates the status of his predecessors. The phrase, "so justly inspires" emphasizes both points, that his apprehensions are cause by 1) the natural greatness of the office and 2) his own weakness.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mozart's Melodies

We have discussed the wonderful structural features of Mozart's music many times in this space. From fugues and fugatos, canons, themes and variations, rondos, sonatas, arias, Mozart mastered all of the forms of his age and wrote masterworks in each. Yet one aspect of these pieces we have not looked at so much, or looked at only incidentally, is that of the themes themselves. Perhaps this is due to an inability to describe them. How does one speak at length about a theme? One can describe it as perky or lofty, angular or flowing, dance-like or lyrical, and so forth, but how else? Of fugue subjects in particular one does not discuss the potential of the subject theoretically but by studying what the composer actually  does with it, i.e., the fugue it self. Yet the great themes "vibrate in the memory" and to create one is no small task. A consideration of Mozart's gift for theme-writing in fact reveals several virtues.

The first is the rather apparent fact that Mozart, with and perhaps beyond Schubert and Rossini, was one of music's great melodists. All of Mozart's music brims with beautiful melodies, all of them utterly individual though the careful listener will notice some siblings. There is lyricism, joviality, coyness, humor, dread. Perhaps it is in opera that Mozart's gift for melody is most often appreciated, a not unfair turn since opera occupied Mozart's attention more consistently than any other genre.  Second, Mozart created themes with great potential. As we have seen from our structural studies, Mozart created themes attractive both by themselves and decorated, themes revealing in variation, often suitable for treatment with counterpoint of varying strictness and length, and surprising in modulation. Some are treated in turn by the different groups of the orchestra, some only for one group, some are treated in lengthy developments, others appear but once in moments all too brief. The issue of quantity and variety of thematic material of course intersects with the matter of structure. In the concertos for piano, for example, Mozart used what Arthur Hutchings cleverly called a "jig-saw" technique by which a theme leads to or "fits" not just one other, but several, and those themes fit several as well. Hence the Mozartian concerto is one of both great variety and great structural control, though matters of economy, structure, and unity of effect are separate and considerable inquiries.

The concertos then seemed to me a good place to look at Mozart's many melodies as there are many of them and they are varied. We have discussed some of them before, but how do we appreciate the quantity and their variety? To that end I edited them together, below. Two notes before viewing: if you haven't heard the concertos before, it's up to you whether you want to hear them presented this way before you hear them in context. Second, it is fruitful and fun to play with the themes yourselves. What does each one suggest? What are you inclined to do with it? What might another composer have done? And finally, what does Mozart do? If it were different, what would it not be able to do, or how would its character change?

If nothing else I think the contrasts calls attention to a talent (refined with effort into a skill) that is not overlooked, but rather taken for granted.  Who could create all of these characters out of nothing?

N.B. I included only the opening themes of concertos KV.449-595 in the video.
N.B. I didn't have the heart to truncate the glorious opening to KV.503 any more than I did.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: The Train (1964)

Directed by John Frankenheimer. 1964

I always stop myself after thinking "they don't make movies like this anymore." Why should any age or generation make movies exactly like those of another? Yet even as style changes the essence of film, regardless of the genre, usually remains: drama and narrative. At least there is an interesting premise, however poorly it may be developed. Perhaps the spate of, well, bad, summer blockbusters has  brought out this line of thinking once again. We recently looked at Captain America which can hardly be said to be about very much of anything. Look at the paragraphs of contortions we had to to do just to figure out of if anything important was happening in Captain America and even last year's superior Iron Man 2, both above average action movies. In the absence of ideas the only fact that makes these movies even watchable is that they are clearly about one person who we invariably feel some sympathy with. Though as Aristotle warns us, a series of things that happen is not significant just because they happen to one person. John Frankenheimer's 1964 film The Train, reminds one that an action picture can be both entertaining and full of ideas. The Train is a terrific action movie with a great cast, spectacular action, style, and actual ideas.

The slow opening is the perfect preface. "August 2, 1944, one thousand five hundred eleven days into the German occupation of Paris." A Nazi officer walks into a building. It is a museum. He doesn't walk in the stiff, yanking gate of the SS but with a detached calm, almost striding in. Walking softly, deferentially, among the paintings he pauses, deciding which to visit. He decides on a Gauguin and illuminates it. And then another painting, and another. The curator enters, looks at the Gauguin and asks, "It was in the Clouvet collection, wasn't it?" The officer, Franz von Waldheim, replies, "It was," ever so slightly drawing out the phrase. Yes it was, but it is here now. The Nazis have taken it. We have taken it. It is ours because we are better. And we are going to move all of the paintings out of France by train into Germany because the Allies are set to take Paris any day.

More specifically, Waldheim is taking them out of France, and not for their cash value. He tells the curator, "We [Germans] all may not appreciate artistic merit." Waldheim does, though, and he manipulates his superior, who does not care for art let alone the "degenerate trash" Waldheim intends to move, into giving him a train to Germany. This is one of many instances in which Waldheim tricks or even lies to other officers to save his precious cargo and throughout the film he stands out from the other officers as someone far less concerned with military efficiency and Nazi decorum than seizing his private cultural inheritance.

To keep the paintings if not in French hands at least on French soil the curator turns to the train operators who have been operating as a resistance cell to foil the Nazis whenever possible. Only three remain and Labiche, their leader, is not persuaded to risk lives for paintings. He tells the curator, "This morning we had four men left in this group. Now we are three. We started with eighteen. Like your paintings mademoiselle, we couldn't replace them." "I won't waste lives on paintings," he finishes. She replies,
They wouldn't be wasted. Excuse me. I know that's a terrible thing to say, but those paintings are part of France. The Germans want to take them away. They've taken our land, our food. They live in our houses. And now they're trying to take our art, this beauty, this vision of life born out of France. Our special vision, our trust. We hold it in trust, don't you see? For everyone. This is our pride, what we create and hold for the world. There are worse things to risk your life for than that.
Can you imagine a contemporary film articulating those points, let alone an action movie? She's not talking about preserving a way of life, things that are valuable or priceless, or even a bona fide but common theme of action movies, freedom. She's talking about preserving, and keeping, a way of looking at the world, a unique French sense of life. In other words, a culture. Too it is "held in trust" for the world, that is, they are they curators of the culture, and they must see that it goes on existing. They must preserve this beautiful, unique way of looking at the world.

Labiche is not persuaded, in fact he only takes charge of the train with paintings by a series of coincidences. When the train's previous engineer, Papa Boule, is caught sabotaging it to slow it down and keep it in France, Labiche defends him to Waldheim as a foolish old man who didn't know what he was doing. Now Papa Boule wasn't fighting for culture so much as "the glory of France." In fact in an earlier scene a friend calls him "sadly deficient" in matters of culture. Nonetheless when Labiche tries to protect him by telling Waldheim that Papa Boule saved his [Waldheim's] train, Papa Boule bursts out, "His train! His! It's my train! I know what I'm doing. Do you? You'll help them. I practically raised you, but you're no better than they are." He might as well be saying, "our," though he means it in a different way than the curator. Still, it is quite severe criticism. The curator gave us one argument to save the art, Papa Boule another. The two remaining men in Labiche's group do it because they see it as part of their larger resistance. What about Labiche? He never seems persuaded by any argument but just keeps going so others don't have to go alone. At last, though, Labiche is alone and repeatedly sabotaging the train in the hope that the Allies will arrive.

So at the end, why is Labiche fighting? To see through the task others died for? To keep resisting? To deprive the Germans of the art? I'm not entirely certain and am sure the ambiguity of this point will bother some. For my part the ambiguity plays an unusual and effective role. Labiche has several arguments to stop this train, each which he finds unpersuasive. Yet he never has any time to stop and think. He is either going to continue resisting or he is going to stop and wait for the allies. He doesn't have time to weigh matters and he never acts with the obvious conviction of the other characters. In fact the only factor he ever weighs in is human lives and whenever someone offers him a justification he could latch on to he mentions who died in the name of that idea. He acts as if every step in this mission is one more than he wants to take. As the Allies are delayed and more men risk their lives Labiche grows more indignant at the situation, but backing out will neither save the train nor, since they will go anyway, anyone's lives.

And Waldheim knows of his doubt, taunting him in their final confrontation:
Here's your prize Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you Labiche? Do you have a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as string of pearls to an ape. You beat me by sheer luck. You stopped me without knowing what you were doing or why. You are nothing Labiche. A lump of flesh. The paintings are mine. They always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did.
Waldheim's noxious ideology boils over as he browbeats Labiche for his philistinism.  Humanity, Waldheim in essence argues, consists not in all men by their nature, but only in those who comprehend greatness. Thus art does not belong to everyone by relating to a shared humanity, but to those who respond to it. Art does not enrich humanity, but constitutes it. Waldheim is a frightening caution of much, and that he is not maniacal but ideological means his character poses some legitimate questions for us. Three quite serious and intertwined ones in fact: What is man, what is he worth, and what do you do to him?

The final shot sums up the dilemmas and the cost:


It is worth noting the many technical successes of The Train both to praise them and point by way of contrast where many films go wrong today. The script itself is compact. It is careful about how it gives the audience the information we need to understand what is going on. Sometimes the information is conveyed visually, sometimes through a conversation between characters, sometimes it is implied. Never, though, does one think what one so frequently does today during a movie, "Ahh, here are characters having a completely useless conversation just to give us information." Similarly, the film is economical about what it shows us and what it does not. The whole plot about disguising the train stations takes place off screen. When Labiche is held captive in a hotel room the whole elaborate ensuing scene in which he makes a phone call is never explained, rather it simply happens. Too we don't need to hear the phone call because we know what it's about. We don't need dialogue between Labiche and the engineer he collaborates with. We don't need any of this information and we don't get it which makes The Train, despite its two hour and fifteen minute run time, a sleek picture.

Maurice Jarre's brassy score of clichés is not the greatest and in fact it is rather. . . distracting. Frankly it's more suited to Hogan's Heroes than a serious movie.

The cinematography is nicely balanced between conveying the action with clarity and style. The above shots demonstrate the attention to dramatic content of the scene and frame.

The special effects are not so much effects as staged instances of what takes place in the story. There are no miniatures and no film effects, but instead real huge trains, crashes, and explosions. The action scenes are few, well-timed and paced, and perfectly realistic. The massive vehicles moving have weight, the crashes are full of shards and debris, and the long, wide shots let us take everything in. In particular, the scene in which a Spitfire chases down the locomotive has a terrific sense of danger. While they are persuasive because they are realistic, the action scenes are engrossing because they carry dramatic weight. Since anyone can die at any moment all of the action scenes have tension.

An action picture well-cast, with two top-notch actors of tremendous screen presence in opposing roles, filmed with technical virtuosity of every kind throughout, which entertains, and finally asks some serious questions.