Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Classics Problem


Two articles I stumbled upon this morning spurred some post-breakfast thinking on academia, specifically of the Classical variety. The first via Rogue Classicism discussed the demise of a prominent classics blog and the second was a list about dissertations in The Guardian. After chewing on the articles a while I came away with a little indigestion and now that it has passed I have a few thoughts on what we might call The Classics Problem.

The Classics Problem is that Classicists think there's a problem with Classics, namely that Western Civilization isn't groveling at the feet of people who count conjunctions and propose emendations to medieval gardening treatises. This fundamental problem turns out to be a handily protean one to the Classist who readily transforms it into the perennial calamities of slackening education standards, cultural decline, social indifference, inadequate funding, social injustice, and forest fires.  Classics is the answer, of course.

Hieronymus Jackdaw,
a prominent Classicist
I would propose that in good measure Classists are the problem, having delved too greedily and too deep into their precious texts. They want to hoard as one discipline what should be gleefully diffused amongst the humanities. Instead of standing prominently alone, Classicists need to be willing, to some degree, to disappear into the foundations of other disciplines.

Classists ought to consider, perhaps, that little more may be dug up and researched about the ancient world with great profit. They ought to consider that their esoteric articles, dissertations, and academic paraphernalia may do less good for the world than would sharing the fundamentals they take for granted. Classicists might need to realize there is a much smaller space for research than is commonly thought and that that sequestering professors in offices and articles in private databases is not the best way to spread ideas.

The world needs more of its Greek and Roman heritage flowing in its veins, yes, but it needs it in plays, operas, and novels, not commentaries. We need statesmen weaned on Thucydides and Cicero, generals studied of Alexander and Julius Caesar, and philosophers who actually read Greek. We don't need, "Classics," or "culture," our "a culture of classics," rather we need our own authentic, living, culture grounded in Classics. We need creativity. That means we need more students of English, music, and history with a solid classical education, and that means we need teachers.

Of kind, we need teachers of Classical languages, yes, and history, but we also need history, music, art, and even science teachers with firm Classical foundations. Similarly Classicists need to broaden their intellectual horizons. It will simply not do to sit down to translate Plato or Thucydides and concede discussions of content to the philosophers and historians. As an aside, teachers of Latin and Greek need to read the great works in their native language and develop on their own literary expression. Studying Latin and Greek is a gift, but it can wreak havoc on your style if you don't synthesize the elements into a sensible whole. Academese is already an aesthetic catastrophe, Classical Academese is a blight on humanity.

Of quality, we need good ones, naturally, but full-time ones. We can't have our greatest minds teaching 15 hours a week and chasing sabbaticals so they can finish that paper on Cicero's underpants. A tenured university position doing mostly research cannot be the ideal.  We can't be dismayed at the idea of grading tests and papers, but we need to be excited at the thought of what Classics can do for a brilliant mind. We should not always think on getting back to "our work," but we need to imagine a Mozartian score to a Sophoclean libretto or a Bachian fugue on a line of Heraclitus and infuse the excitement over such possibilities into education.

In short: more creation, more cultivation, less curation. We need to stop standing around the spear, lecturing everyone about its beauty and importance, and we need to pick it up and give it a good throw.  That'll get everyone's attention.

Review: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares [TV, UK]


Several weeks ago your humble blogger fell prey to some or other bacterial nastiness, so ill in fact that he couldn't read or write. Even his beloved music brought him no pleasure. In those sweaty, fevered hours I, your humble author, turned not only to television, but to reality programming.

Scoff. Guffaw if you must, but hear me. Indeed that I could, deprived of most of my critical faculties, still follow the show suggests the reality tv experience is more pacification than engagement or even diversion. Yet I count the experience as fortunate, having stumbled upon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

Famous most, perhaps, for dining entrepreneur and Master Chef Gordon Ramsay's spirited, confrontational, and profanity-laden criticism, Kitchen Nightmares follows the titular chef around Great Britain as he whips flagging restaurants into shape. The show's appeal is apparent: Ramsay is passionate, blunt, and brilliant. His precise, vivid descriptions are informative and his enthusiasm for good food and culinary excellence is inspiring. It's also easy to get hooked on his outrageous harangues against the know-it-alls who refuse to take professional advice even as their businesses fall apart around them. Surely, though, I gained something more from Kitchen Nightmares than the addition of shambolic to my vocabulary? Indeed I did.

The thread I found most noteworthy, and cautionary, ran through every episode, and it is the path which leads to failure. In all the failing businesses Gordon visited, the chefs had met that adversity which greets every endeavor, not with joy, creativity, renewed effort, or humility, but with stubbornness. They refused to admit and learn from their mistakes and as they muddled along and the business failed, they put less and less effort into it. Gradually, day-by-day, they became more and more miserable until the restaurant had become a burden they could not wait to put down. This downward spiral was surprisingly affecting to see and I think it will touch a nerve in anyone who has hit a rough patch in any endeavor. As such I  found myself rooting for the chefs, not only to rise out of their shame and despair but also to rediscover the love of their craft.

Most of the chefs passed through several phases of Ramsay-induced frustration. First, they grew indignant when he ruffled their pride with his criticism. Whose puddings are flat and whose dining room looks like a strip club. After a bit they relented and followed his recommendations. Then they began to resent the quantity of effortful work they needed to put in. Finally, most realized that, exhausted though they were, they were starting to care again. The customers began to come back and the chefs and owners began to take pride in their work and rediscover the joy they had known.

The cussing and shouting may make the commercials, but Ramsay is in fact encouraging and constructive. He doesn't try to commandeer the kitchen and in fact refuses to, but rather explains to everyone what his job is and how to do it, and then tries to inspire him to dig down and find the will to get it done. Ramsay teaches the kitchen teams that fun comes not from goofing off from the work, or goofing on it with indifference, but from taking delight in the experience with all its responsibilities and absurdities. He teaches them to trust one another and to refine their own skills and form their own characters so they can in turn be trusted. Ramsay clearly wants them to succeed because he enjoys and respects excellence and he wants everyone to be excellent. He also understands as a businessman the risks they took opening a restaurant. Overall, the show is a far cry from the foul-mouths and flying cutlery of the commercials.

What came across most, in fact, was not Gordon's ballsy style but his creativity and energy. Ramsay brings a youthful, joyful energy and a technical mastery which excite everyone around him. He enters these drab, depressed restaurants like a tempest, upturning the musty eateries with new decors, new advertising, better organization, and of course, new menus. Many of the restaurants in their downward slides had turned to unwrapping prepared foods and heating them in microwaves. Sure Ramsay was appalled at the poor quality and deceit, but he showed them how this shortcut had cut them off from the joys of cooking: experimenting with fresh ingredients, forging relationships with the local growers and sellers, and pleasing diners with something excellent you prepared yourself with care and your unique style. When the chefs realized Gordon held them as professionals to a high standard they were downright ashamed at their own carelessness and apathy. You could see in their faces the thought, "How did it, how did I get to this point?" Seeing them rise, rediscovering their passion and craft, and seeing everyone find his place in the restaurant surely is the true heart and appeal of the show.

Ramsay's intensity and passion even went so far as to make me a tad self-conscious. He didn't want the chefs to put a broccoli out of place on a single plate: maybe I need to step up the quality of my work. Are there days I just muddle through? Am I proud of the work I do? Am I giving them my best and what I've promised? Would my work hold up to the scrutiny of an expert? Do I talk myself into easy excuses, do I take shortcuts? Do I admit my mistakes and learn from them?

Reflective questions from an entertaining show.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

App Review: The Orchestra, by TouchPress

by Touch Press. 2012.

Christmas comes early this year with another iOS app from Touch Press, who earlier this year brought us Shakespeare's Sonnets. Their latest offering, The Orchestra, brings Touch Press' characteristic polish to an app of musical exploration and appreciation. The Orchestra takes selections from eight orchestral works, from symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven to Stravinsky's Firebird and Salonen's Violin Concerto, and presents them supplemented by a host of tools.

The first of these tools is the video itself. At first this claim might seem an exaggeration, but we don't simply get a video of the performance, nor do we even get a superbly filmed concert performance. We get a performance during which cameras were able to float free and close to the performers, capturing close ups of all the sections, and which is expertly edited together to show sections and details at the appropriate time. Moreover, you can view up to three preselected angles at the same time, capturing, say, the conductor and two sections. Simply tap, pinch, and drag to cycle, expand, and arrange the videos as you please. You can also array the videos in miniature above the score. This is simply a blast. It's a treat to get such good camerawork but it is downright exciting to see so much going on in one view.

click to enlarge
The next of The Orchestra's features is the score, which scrolls along as the piece plays. A red line marks your current position and you can swipe back and forth to rewind or skip ahead. The scrolling is all perfectly smooth and if you have the videos playing at the same time there's nary a jitter out of them either. Even if you jump back or ahead several dozen bars the app picks up where you stop without a pause. Slick.

You can choose either a full score or one showing only the staves of currently playing instruments. This  feature, in conjunction with the auto-scrolling and the ease with which you can rewind, makes The Orchestra a tremendous aid to anyone learning to read a score. Beyond the score, though, are two visualizations of the musical selection. The first is a bar-graph style version of the score in which the parts are color coded and note values are represented not by different symbols but by lines of varying length. This increasingly popular visualization of the score helps emphasize the note lengths and shapes of the rhythms and it's gratifying to see it more formally welcomed into musical learning.

The second visualization, however, I had never seen before and makes clever use of the tablet's touch interface. Touch Press calls it a, "mesmeric synchronized BeatMap," and it consists of an overhead view of the orchestra, color-coded by section, with each instrument replaced by a dot. As the piece plays, the dots flash whenever the particular instrument hits a note. This is a splendid way to get a better sense of the orchestration of a piece, but one additional feature puts this tool over the top. If you tap the section, the app lowers the volume on the others. What a great way to study both rhythm and harmony, being able to isolate the sections and see which instruments play which rhythms and hear the timbres both by themselves and then in concert with the others. Due to space limitations this feature is only available for the Beethoven symphony, although you can enable and download it for the other apps with an in-app purchase.

Lastly, The Orchestra includes textual commentaries by Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and LA Times music critic Mark Swed. You can overlay both either as text or audio over the videos or score, which makes for a great follow up to the performance. Also, presenting these commentaries as overlays is much preferable to simply tucking them away as text files. Also included are descriptions of the instruments, accompanied with brief video descriptions from the principal players, a 3D model of the instrument, a MIDI keyboard letting you tap out notes on the instrument and see its range, and shortcuts to selections showcasing the instrument. These are nice touches, as smoothly implemented as the rest of the app, to material which could simply have been thrown in to fill out a features list.

These materials do, however, make me yearn for more scholarly information. I hope Touch Press considers following up The Orchestra with similar apps dedicated to specific pieces, with full performances, scholarly articles, and scores annotated with observations on harmony, structure, and so forth.

Still, this is a brilliant app. The Orchestra is exciting to use and takes a big and welcome step in app design. It doesn't simply put a lot of useful information at your fingertips, but it takes one topic and gives you many paths to and through it. The score and visualizations and videos aren't left as discrete bundles but are stitched together into the experience of hearing the music. The result is a dynamic app which feels less like a reference book and instead disappears into what becomes an enhanced experience of the music. Bravo and Encore.

N.B. The Orchestra weighs in at a hefty 1.8 GB, but that's to be expected with so much video.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Impossible Task


Throughout most of the year, arguing for traditional Catholic liturgical music, chant, is a difficult task. You have to contend with indifference, ignorance, philistinism, and, most fiercely, the inertia of the status quo. Yet Advent inertia is a whole different beast from the habits of the rest of the year. Advent is not like Lent, when you might be able to slip a solemn tone in amongst the usual assortment of dour hymns, or Ordinary Time when dropping On Eagle's Wings one week won't ruffle anyone's feathers. No, during Advent people have expectations, namely that of yuletide cheer peppered with a few minor thirds. Never mind the miracle and implications of incarnatus est et homo factus est, one must serve up the usual sweet fodder. The details don't seem to matter too much, as long as you serve the following courses:
  • twelve toe-tappers
  • eleven pop tunes
  • ten minor melodies
  • nine cheery carols
  • eight bobbing ballads
  • seven gooey lullabies
  • six wintry airs
  • five golden oldies
  • four rhyming refrains
  • two merry rounds
  • one Old Testament anthem
  • and Handel's Hallelujah chorus
You'll know you've pleased everyone if you see Fezziwig come jiggering out of the sacristy.

Now I'm not usually persuaded by the claim that parishioners want the music that's played at church. I don't think people would miss the Mass of Creation were it suddenly to disappear. Many people expect some kind of music, not unreasonably, but they don't care too much about style or content. Yet during Advent and on Christmas. . . So what to do? How does one finagle a sacred mass without a yuletide revolt in the pews? I have a few suggestions.

The first is to stay calm. There's a place in the world for people who have no musical taste (Arctic penal colonies), so don't get apoplectic because they prefer The First Noel to Puer Natus Est or some bird's nest from Rutter to a Byrd Gloria. This isn't the time to give lectures about textual primacy or voice leading to such parishioners. Just tie them up and leave them somewhere for the winter.

Second, be practical. This is also not the time to push your ideas, however beautifully developed and presented, on choir directors. They tend to be busy and frazzled during December. By now you're probably out of time to persuade them, so instead just throw away all the music you don't like. They're not organized enough to have extras.

Third, if you manage to incorporate proper music into a mass but expect Occupy Schola to show up demanding Go Tell It on the Mountain, consider ending the mass with something popular. If you give them what they want at the end, they might forget about what came earlier. A compromise.

Fourth, try offloading the cheesy music to a Lessons and Carols concert. You might not want to yield this occasion to the philistines, but better it than mass.

Lastly, people slip back into old habits, so you'll probably never improve things once and for all.



Saturday, December 1, 2012

Movie Review: Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes. 2012.

Spoilers within.

Who could envy the director of a Bond film? Imagine having to integrate fifty years worth of franchise tropes, tricks, and traditions, craft an original yet familiar plot, and follow up dozens of cinema's most famous action sequences, while trying to walk Bond's line between action and carnage, mission and escapade, Britain's champion and carefree playboy.

Recent Bond films have walked another line, between character and archetype, in asking audiences to step into Bond's shoes not for vicarious adventure but, for the first time, to learn what makes him tick. First Goldeneye, fleetingly, then Casino Royale, started to wonder just what kind of man pulled all those triggers, left all those women, always off, alone, to the next mission.

Skyfall manages to walk and weave all of these threads into a satisfying Bond adventure, with one rub: it's a little dour. There's a seriousness of tone and purpose to Skyfall from which Bond scarcely strays for his usual smirks, quips, and gambits, those spontaneous expressions of joy in his seemingly limitless luck and agency. Perhaps this was inevitable after Goldeneye and Casino Royale unzipped Bond's dossier and showed that only a deeply hurt man could live such a life. We know there's no going back too when here in Skyfall, Bond seemingly makes his grand entrance in M's flat and she turns the light on him revealing a  liquored-up, flannel-clad bum instead of the resurrected Defender of the Realm. Bond is back, but he's going to have to work on a few things.

Yet what Bond loses of joie de vivre he gains in seriousness of purpose and what Skyfall loses in humor and kicks it gains in impact and import.

The plot remains admirably within franchise bounds, pitting Bond and MI6 against a spurned former agent, but again with a twist. This time the ex-operative is not after Bond, MI6, riches, or world domination, but M herself. This puts a sharp but not jarring spin on the franchise's tradition of maniacal villains, and it's not a superficial one either, for running throughout the film is the maternal relationship between M and the two agents, Bond and Silva (Javier Bardem.) Yet there is also familial strife stemming from when M gave up not only Silva but Bond too, both for the sake of the mission. Bond naturally forgives her whereas Silva set out for revenge, and this parallelism creates a significant tension, especially in two scenes.

The first is when Silva's capture reunites the "family." Within his transparent cell he turns to M and, dropping to his knees, calls her mum. The sight of Silva's childlike posture and exposure in contrast to Bond suggests 007 hasn't called her mum in a long time, and that the pet name belongs to a more innocent, bygone era.  The second scene is the finale in which both agents chase down M, one trying to save and the other to kill her. That Silva wants M and himself to go out together shows that he doesn't just want the revenge of her death, but the satisfaction of making her suffer as mother, with both of their death's on her head.

This character-driven thread, highly unusual for a Bond movie, is not the only plot line, however, for alongside his vendetta against M, Silva has stolen a hard drive containing the names of MI6 operatives embedded in terrorist organizations. As Silva posts the names on YouTube and agents start turning up dead, Parliament starts turning up the heat on MI6. What is its mission? Is espionage effective? Should MI6 be allowed to keep secrets? Should it exist at all? In front of a panel M is forced to answer for herself, her job, her agency, and her life's work. After a fierce grilling by an MP she offers the defense that Britain's enemies now lurk in the shadows, country-less, and that MI6 is needed to find them. At that moment, in apparent counterpoint to her argument, Silva and his mercenaries burst in, an enemy she helped  create. Silva is of course responsible for his evil deeds, but there are still a few question marks hovering over MI6. The true remedy is of course not any agency, but Bond himself, who enters the courtroom to the rescue. There's a lot wrapped up in this scene which despite its significance never gets weighed down by action, preachy speeches, or plot exposition.

Skyfall also benefits from a far more sophisticated visual style than any Bond venture since Dr. No. The style is simple but effective, making use of distinct color zones and contrasts of temperature and primary colors to create a heightened sense of space and import, but without distracting from the activity or typifying the action scenes as discrete elements of the movie. We also see a lot of symmetrical blocking and keeping Bond front and center, both of which add to Skyfall's sense of breadth and gravity. The trailer is a representative sample of these features. This is some very successful and appealing cinematography, both homogeneous and complementary to the other film elements. It's a great surprise and we'll look at some screen shots after the DVD release.

Lastly, Adele's Skyfall is a great Bond song, one of the few which make any sense at all and one of the handful which relate to their particular movie. The lyrics aren't as many or meaningful as Casino Royale's, You Know My Name, but both Skyfall's few words and its music with its leaps, convey the world coming down on M.

In conclusion, Skyfall took a significant risk, trading in Bond's cavalier charm and an unflinching faith in MI6, for character development and timely questions. Enlivened by a solid cast and a vivid, virile style, Skyfall is not only a satisfying Bond 23, but a significant milestone for 50 years of 007.


If you enjoyed this review you may also enjoy our reviews of:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday: A Meme I Don't Like


The meme to the right has popped up quite a bit over the last few days across. I think it is supposed to be some clever observation about inconsistent behavior or foolish Americans or "consumerism." . . or something. There exist a few problems with this bit of alleged perspicacity.

First, one is not credible who gets holier-than-thou about "consumerism" while supporting a governmental policy of spending (and printing) money as "stimulus." I'd be willing to split the hair about "spending for the sake of prosperity" (however grossly misguided that notion is) in contrast to spending for the sake of mindless acquisition, but it's duplicitous to castigate people for spending when you really do want them to spend and "stimulate" the economy, and have even in the past given them money to spend. It is likewise duplicitous to wag your finger at shoppers when you support laws creating easy credit or protecting reckless creditors.

Second, it is not as if these people are buying products which are not available at other times, before and after, the sale. Black Friday shoppers are buying the same products everyone else buys, they simply want to pay less than the items used to cost but are willing to pay more than they will cost in the future. (They are also willing to wait in longer-than-usual lines.) Apparently making that particular judgment makes you a consumerist, but buying the same things and paying either more earlier or less later, does not.

Third, no one makes memes when lines for Apple products go around corners and down allies, perhaps because Apple markets to trendier folk who consider themselves savvy clients of the upper bourgeoisie and not icky proletarian "consumers." Apple's lines might be longer and more ebullient if more people could afford their products.

Fourth, the meme presumes people are actually grateful on Thanksgiving, a presupposition. If people aren't actually grateful then there isn't any inconsistency. This seems plausible and if so, then an ingratitude meme would be more appropriate, although less self-satisfying.

Fifth, people like events. People like them because they give purpose to a humdrum routine dominated by work, sleep, and chores. This is just a supposition, but I think some people line up because it is fun, or at least purposeful and out of the ordinary. They haven't calculated prices, places, and times, but get up and go because it's exciting, and it is exciting precisely because they don't know if they'll get what they want. In an age of abundance this uncertainty is rare and, perhaps surprisingly, sought and relished.

Sixth, spending is fun. One feels a sense of agency when one spends, that he can make things happen. So, sanctioned by the apparent scale and inertia of the occasion, some people go an spend regardless of what they need or can afford. Prudent, no. Not shocking either, though.

Lastly, the stampedes and scuffles. These ballyhooed hullabaloos, inflated by crisis-mongering reporting on the nightly news and tabloid presses, seem upon closer inspection to be more rare and less earth-shattering than the stories would indicate. Too, people queue and push and shove for all sorts of reasons, very frequently although in smaller numbers. Have you ever seen people react to the announcement of free food?

So fine, though. Those few hundred people across the nation are dumb. Shame on them. Wicked 'Mericans. Very clever of us to point that out.

The modern world with its abundance and prosperity has a few potential pitfalls, I think we can agree. Mostly we need to respond by cultivating deliberately virtues which used to be adopted out of necessity. We ought not relish scarcity, i.e. suffering, nor ought we grow high-and-mighty in pointing out a minority who behave foolishly on certain occasions and then extrapolating from that event some spurious truism from which we judges are, naturally, exempted.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving, 2012


While I recently promised a return to my curmudgeonly self, it is Thanksgiving once again and so time for another list of gratitude. This year, right off the heels of an extraordinary performance, I decided to consider some other definitive musical events. So many uncontrollable factors, from schedules and health to personal affairs and finances, affect a performance apart from the difficulties of making competent, let alone inspired, music, that we ought to be grateful when truly exceptional interpretations and collaborations come to life. In acknowledgement of and gratitude for this, my. . . 

Top Ten Recorded Performances

10. Colin Davis: Handel's Messiah [YouTube]


9. Pablo Casals: Bach's Cello Suites [YouTube]


8. Alfred Brendel: Beethoven's Diabelli Variations [YouTube]


7. James Levine: Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen [YouTube]


6. Victor Pablo Perez: Don Giovanni [YouTube]


5. Wilhelm Kempff: Beethoven's Piano Sonatas [YouTube]


4. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Schubert's Lieder [YouTube] [YouTube]


3. John Eliot Gardiner: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis [YouTube]


2. Glenn Gould [1981]: Bach's Goldberg Variations [YouTube]


1. Mitsuko Uchida: Mozart's Piano Concerti [YouTube]


Previous Thanksgiving Lists:
2011 | 2010 | 2009 (T) | 2009 (N)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: Gardiner Conducts Beethoven

Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. The Monteverdi Choir.
Conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. 
Carnegie Hall. November 17, 2012.

Beethoven's Missa Solemnis holds a well-earned reputation for taxing singers with its tessitura, dynamics, and length. Period players like those of The Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique run against additional challenges, with horn players swapping bits and violinists fiddling delicately against gut strings. Tonight even Sir John Eliot sweat up a storm as he led his ensembles through Beethoven's massive missa. The humble audience, however, receives little credit for following this exhausting piece for its duration. I did commit this time, and as close to fully as ever I have. Such may sound strange, "this time," but we fallible, distractible, humans, even music lovers, scholars, and aficionados, even performers, don't live in the whole piece every time. Cares intrude, fatigue sets in, wrappers are crinkled. Last night, however, Sir John Eliot, his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and The Monteverdi Choir were in full form. They made something special, and I went right along, note-for-note, now toe-a-tapping, then water-eyed, here a goofy grin on my face, there jaw agape. It was quite a night.

The woodwinds shone throughout, first bringing the Kyrie to intimate life, a life of presence but not activity, from their tender, luminous opening and the warm halo they add to the invocations of Kyrie, to the doom they herald and to which the soloists reply in imperiled urgency, Christe. Sir John Eliot meticulously shaped the remainder of the Kyrie giving weight and height to the impeccable declamation and intonation of the soloists, in particular Tenor Michael Spyres and Bass Matthew Rose. Without explication or philosophizing we heard what it means to call someone Lord and Christ.

The soft, tapered end of the Kyrie throws the forte opening of the Gloria into relief sharp enough to raise the hairs of the most casual listener. The dynamics here are so controlled that one never dulls to the forte or gets stuck in a rut of loud alternating with soft. The dynamics are rich and unified by a firm sense of forward movement, moving from the soft, fragile pax hominibus to an adoramus te of such power and volume I winced, then to a fleeting, pious adoramus te, and ending with the brazen glorificamus te.

After the four praises the winds again set the tone, this time with the oboes hollowing out a warm and gentle space for the gratias agimus tibi within this massive, rollicking movement. What the woodwinds shape in tone Gardiner shapes in time, and with this shaping the gratias becomes a discrete, personal prayer within a larger more grandiose movement. The same applies to the sections Qui tollis.
Gardiner keeps the finale, a flourish of fanfares and entrances of in gloria Dei Patris, full but not ponderous, and always finely articulated. This dense section easily collapses into a a brassy avalanche but Gardiner kept it light yet forceful.

The brass and winds launch the Credo in exceptional form. The bassoons were particularly nimble, neatly shifting from sprightly steps and walking lines to tortuous counter-melodies and plosive fortes. They not only gave the movement, especially its opening, a full, almost brusque bottom, but also, under Sir John Eliot, brought out figures that often remain on the page.

The glories of the Credo are twofold, though. First are the vigorous rhythms which give confident, joyful expression to the faith declared. From the steady, petrine Credo figure itself to the agressive de Deo vero and non factum, these figures animate the movement and bring to vivid life the text, in this case the faith itself, reaching an apotheosis in the dauntless, even strident fanfares ending with the great fugue on et vitam venturi saeculi. The courageous playing here adds a veritable sense of risk and pride in the growth of this timid figure from its humble origins nestled up with the sopranos through its brassy, celebratory climax.

Second is the incarnatus est, one of the glories of all music. It's also another wicked shift of dynamics and mood, from the swift descending figures of descendit de coelis to the soft basson pulse. We move in the space of a few bars from literal word painting, a descending figure to represent descent, to re-creation. While we perceive much of the movement as depiction, the symbolic language of this scene, the coming-into-being in the flickering bassoon, the hovering flute trill and the glimmer at de Spiritu Sancto, and the departure to the ethereal world of the Dorian mode, not only mimics but makes. We feel as if we have borne witness, and hence the power of the epoch-ringing declaration, et Homo factus est. The solo vocalists here were so soft and tender I leaned in as if trying to hear the news as it spread from part to part.

The winds and horns again made the moment in the opening to the Sanctus, which was as peering into a cloud waiting for someone to step from the mists, a wait fulfilled in the Benedictus. Here Concertmaster Peter Hanson coaxed a pure tone and a sweet, songful prayer from his instrument over the soft footsteps of the drums and strings in the highlight of the evening.

While the prayer for peace and military music are rightly said to characterize the Agnus Dei, its opening struck me the most tonight. The steps of the Benedictus continue on, but here as the lamb and through the cries of miserere and peccata. Gardiner's balanced touch and forces kept the two elements in joint relief, never overshadowing one another.

In the pre-concert talk Sir John Eliot noted how the score is only part of the piece and that the instruments themselves hold much of the music. The score, he said, is the butterfly pinned to the board, and music is the cloud of them in the sky. Last night, they took flight.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Own and Play an Instrument


The advent of musical notation facilitated the creation and performance of complex music. No longer was music limited to what could be fashioned in one's head and memorized, but intricate harmonies and rhythms could be worked out, revised, and shared. Music was liberated from the mind and hands of the composer. You could now play music even if you could not compose music, at least if you could get your hands on any scores. Paper was precious, and thus so remained music.

The arrival of the printing press made music plentiful. Instead of having painstakingly to transcribe scores by hand, a process which produced not only illegibility and errors but relatively few copies, sheet music could be shared in great quantities. All that remained was the not inconsiderable task of learning to play it.

The invention of recording and replaying music at last made music cheap, and by cheap I do not mean poor, of course, but rather more precisely, costing little labor or trouble. One can now enjoy music without having either to write or to play, or even to ask or hire someone to play. You pay a modest fee and can enjoy a performance as many times as you like. Without much of an investment you can experience a massive symphonic movement or a delicate piano miniature. This ease has many virtues, the greatest of which is that one can hear performances one would otherwise never have. Likewise one can replay performances and study and compare technique and interpretation. Lastly, one can simply enjoy more music.

None of these benefits ought to be underestimated and I am not about to castigate sellers of CDs and mp3s. Yet minds starting with Plato's have considered the ill effects of putting ink to paper, wondering what is lost. Perhaps there is not much difference among the leaps to written music, then to mechanically printed music, and most recently to recorded music. The presence of written music meant that to play music one no long had to be creative, one could simply play the notes on the page. Yet this innovation seems not to have led to a decrease in composition or performative creativity. Not only did professional and semi-professional composition explode but so did amateur music writing. Likewise was it common both to write and play, but even performers who did not compose were expected to extemporize. True, few improvised like Bach and Mozart, but it was the norm for performers to have a few tricks and techniques with which to play with a theme on the fly. Mind you, it was not all excellent in concept or execution, but musical activity boomed.

Yet the popularity of recorded music has, I think, coincided with live music becoming a rarer presence, and thus music in general becoming a more passive experience. I don't mean to suggest, though, that recorded music has caused a decline in performance, only that the omnipresence of music made possible by recording has masked the decrease of live performance. Not in concert halls necessarily, has live music disappeared, but in the nooks and crannies of life. This is a rather anecdotal observation, but it seems the DJ has replaced the performer at most social gatherings, or perhaps more precisely, at gatherings at which music is not the focus. It seems harder and harder to find a space into which recorded music or worse, television, are not pumped in. Likewise informal music-making seems not so frequent. I wonder how many musicians, professional and amateur, play or sing informally in social gatherings or among small groups of friends. Is it common or acceptable at a party to begin to sing and play, or must the TV and iPod be on to entertain us?

Now recorded music is not to be regarded as an evil, but its presence reminds us that in the absence of the scarcity and struggle which necessitate certain virtues, we must cultivate them for their own sakes. In this case, although we are not forced to learn an instrument in order to enjoy music, we ought to learn the skill and cultivate the talent because making music is a meaningful and edifying activity. We will always be entertained and engaged by the virtuosi who play what we cannot dream, but there is also a place in society for casual music-making with its variety, spontaneity, happy accidents, and good humor.

So when the power went out last week and I sat in the dark listening to the charge in my iPod slowly ebb away, I realized with a new clarity that it didn't in fact house any music, but rather reproductions. Neither did the CD contain any, really, nor the sheet music. Music is someone playing, with all of the spontaneity and imperfections of the performer, the audience, and the moment, not a canned experience identically reproduced each time. So I went over to the keyboard, sat down, and promptly remembered it was electronic.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

We Are Back


So stand we returned from our unannounced and unexpected hiatus, a hiatus precipitated by a number of factors not the least of which were, first, an inordinate quantity of Latin materials I had to make for work, and second, a rather substantial blackout in NYC. I would, however, be guilty of a lie of omission if I did not mention a few other causes of my impromptu break from blogging.

Foremost among these esoteric excuses is, I say with no small amount of astonishment, a certain intellectual fullness. Indeed it is to the surprise of my philosophical self I confess this, but I have been rather content with my mental house, pleased to dwell amidst its intellectual furnishings. I haven't been perplexed or confused or infuriated about much of anything and thus I have had little to share about being, time, being and time, positive externalities, or the contrapuntal arts. Regrettably, if satiety breeds anything it breeds indolence.

Yet the wide world of APLV is not a contentious place, really, so one might wonder why satiety or indolence or such should create lacuna of no less than four weeks. I believe it is a certain restlessness which goes hand in hand with an active mind that creates. Even if he is not grumpy per se, the intellectual has some want of understanding which drives him to poke around, in contrast to the egotist, who perceives a want of being understood. An intellectual experiences, as the Philosopher noted, a desire to understand. Of course if this is so then equally it is possible my mind had been sated by pleasures, pursuits, and entertainments apart from writing. It is also possible I briefly became omniscient, or that I am not, in fact, an intellectual. I'll leave it to your powers of induction, dear reader, to consider those possibilities.

Actually, perhaps that's a point worth pursuing. It is facile observation to note how one only has so much time in a day and all mortals have wondered how, say, Bach and Shakespeare simply had time to do so much of such quality. How did they maintain such sustained interest in narrow fields? Put another way, how could one man have had so many ideas of the contrapuntal or theatrical variety? How did his mind never drift afield, or grow content simply to tend and take what had been planted? Were they not interested in their houses, hobbies, or their wives? Perhaps this is simply the dilettante, or indolent's, dilemma. Perhaps it is the prosaic concern of an earthly intellect.

In any event I'm back to my curious, gregarious, and fussy self. Blogging resumes forthwith. Thank you for your patience.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Movie Review: Taken 2

Directed by Olivier Megaton. 2012.

It is with great disappointment I report that Taken 2 does not work. At all. Yes, Liam Neeson thwacking and outmaneuvering hoodlum assassins provides a good deal of entertainment, but these scenes run few and are stitched together so routinely that they don't take on any importance. Worst of all, the stitches constitute the majority of the movie.

Taken 2 picks up where its predecessor left off with the family members of the criminals that Bryan (Liam Neeson) slew in pursuit of his daughter, seeking revenge. How will they find and take him? Well while they figure that out we sit and wait. And wait. For about a half hour we wait while the characters themselves wait to go somewhere something can happen. While we wait we watch Bryan console his ex-wife Leonore (Famke Janssen) whose new marriage is ending, and keep tabs on their daughter's driving lessons and new boyfriend. Hooray.

At last, by a swoosh of the pen, everyone is in Istanbul, where we wait. We wait as the assassins keep tabs on Bryan's family as they talk on the ferry and talk in the car and swim by the pool and please let something happen. As you can see the biggest problem with Taken 2 is that precious little of what happens in its 97 minutes is significant.

Finally the assassins make their move and I'll tell you for a movie titled Taken, the next few scenes spend an awful lot of time trying to prevent getting taken. This of course is necessary to some degree, Bryan can't be a pushover especially when his daughter had already been taken once before, but the scenes go on and on. The original Taken did not linger over the kidnapping and used its suddenness and the fact that Bryan couldn't prevent it to deliver a single blow. Taken held us in suspense by putting Bryan on a timetable and throwing obstacles in his path. This sequel seems to have ignored the problem that it can't add suspense by making us wonder whether someone will be taken, but only who will be taken.

spoilers hereafter

So it turns out that this time around Bryan and his wife are kidnapped and I would like to add that he was not entirely helpful in avoiding this situation. You see when Brian realizes their car is being followed he gives Leonore some instructions for getting to the U.S. Embassy. I tell you I couldn't follow his instructions and I was just sitting in the theater drinking my soda, unlike poor Leonore who was being chased through Istanbul.

After the slur of stock material that is the first hour, we have some potential for excitement. Unfortunately what we get is Bryan's daughter running over Istanbul rooftops setting off grenades so he can use the sounds of the explosions to calculate where he is held. Then she drives circles around a fleet of police cars, albeit with her father's help, before neatly plopping down in the middle of the embassy.

Absurdity aside, the pacing at this point is so unsure I assumed the movie had concluded and that Bryan would rescue his wife in the final installment. Reenforcing this sense were the subsequent shots, any of which could reasonably have ended the picture. This blunder of pacing and tone makes the finale seem a hasty, unnecessary coda. Worse still, the finale cuts so many times to shots of his wife looking potentially deceased and then turning out not to be, that any drop suspense dissipates straightaway.

The final confrontation between Bryan and the father organizing these vengeance kidnappings is competent, but not totally satisfying. While we admire Bryan for trusting the father at his word to end the violence, there is no discussion at all of motives, vengeance, justice, or any ideas which could lend significance to what we see. Likewise this sequel neither acknowledges nor develops the social and political dimensions of Bryan's confrontations in Taken and thus this scene doesn't resound any themes beyond the personal conflict.

Taken 2 concludes with an off-putting disconnect as Kim's lanky hipster boyfriend sits down across from Bryan, this loving father who did terrible violence for his family. The only way this scene could have worked would have been to strike the tone that Bryan was willing to protect him too. Unfortunately, Taken 2 is entirely indifferent to ideas and the scene is played for a laugh on the old theme of the father reluctantly accepting the boyfriend. Ha ha.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Top Ten: Libertarians I Would Like to See Debate the Candidates


The failures of the recent Presidential debate and the "Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium" got me thinking about just whom I would like to see debate the 2012 candidates. Here is my list of individuals I think would hold candidates' feet to the fire and articulate the philosophy of liberty.

10. John Ziegler
  • From 2004-2007 on his KFI radio show Ziegler demonstrated a powerful ability, part perspicacity and part research, to observe events over a long period of time, noting many overlooked details, and then stitch them together to nail an opponent. I think any debate with Ziegler would demonstrate the saying that a liar ought to have a good memory.
9. Richard Epstein
  • I would love to see Obama and Romney debate Epstein's breadth of legal understanding, seemingly instant recall of cases, and the sheer speed of his delivery.
8. TIE: Penn JilletteJohn Stossell
  • Jillette and Stossell are both today's great libertarian "everyman." No other well known libertarians can convey so purely the sentiments, "What more do you want from me?" and "Why can't you just leave me alone?" Against either Obama and Romney would look pushy and authoritarian. 
7. Peter Schiff
  • Neither Obama nor Romney could compete with how Schiff can quickly paint the result of a given course of action. 
6. Nick Gillespie
  • Gillespie is simply tops at demonstrating how the answer for some people is always, "more governmental power." His opponent would instantly become the "Moar Cowbell!" candidate

Review: Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium


I don't like Bill O' Reilly or Jon Stewart. I don't find them particularly wise or informed, or articulate or funny. Both have a talent for interviewing, Stewart teasing out inconsistencies and O' Reilly holding someone to a single point, yet neither can be considered an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination.

Furthermore it is this general ignorance of the law, history, economics, political science, and philosophy, coupled with an inability or unwillingness to think systematically, which wafts the odor of pandering from their million-dollar studios.

I don't intend to analyze every element of this debate, which was nonetheless entertaining and provoking despite the participants' intellectual shortfalls, but I would like to note their premises and their answers to the question, "What do you think is the biggest problem in America?" I hope in simply laying out their ideas one may see them for what they are, and are not.

I. Stewart's main thesis is that America is a social democracy and that from the times of the pilgrims Americans wanted stuff for free. Americans, he said, essentially wanted socialism so they created Social Security and Medicare et cetera, therefore wanting more socialism. He did not address the many logical, constitutional, or moral implications of this assertion. He specifically rejected the idea that a citizen has to agree with everything the government does, though he did not define this position as majoritarianism or discuss this principle's impact on individual sovereignty. He adopted the progressive notion articulated by Wilson that democracy and socialism are in essence the same (see Socialism and Democracy.)

Curiously, Stewart said that the biggest problem in America remains that our political dialogue is about socialism and capitalism, or freedom and tyranny. To Stewart, America has socialistic governmental institutions thus they're here to stay, and preferably grow. Aside from this being inconsistent with his aforementioned majoritarianism, it is also takes for granted that these institutions work or can be made to work. He wants not less government but efficient government, completely bypassing the fact that no monopoly of any kind is ever efficient.

Lastly, because according to Stewart America was, is, and by right ought to be socialist, President Obama's policies are not fundamentally transformative.

II. O'Reilly's premise seems to have been that America was not socialist and is not and ought not be and President Obama is therefore fundamentally transforming America. He refused, however, to admit that any American program is socialistic in principle and argued that only at some degree does a program become so. Stewart even pressed him as to why he thought the progressively taxed Social Security program was not socialism and O' Reilly did not have a satisfactory reply.

To the question of America's greatest problem O' Reilly answered that capitalism rewards the greed which drives people in the media to lash out and tear people down. There was no follow up about whether this was true or what one could or ought to do about this.

If in describing O' Reilly's ideas I am brief only because they seem so close to those of his opponent. Stewart wants unlimited socialism and O' Reilly wants to restrain it at some arbitrary point. They both adore Robert F. Kennedy Jr.


With respect to rhetorical prowess, I don't think either man debated well. Anyone trained in rhetoric and oratory would have cleaned their clocks. Stewart's comedic antics tired me and distracted from the issues as they usually do, as did O' Reilly's paternalistic finger wagging. Neither man had a firm command of the facts, especially historical, legal, or economic ones, although O' Reilly had clearly done some math homework.  Structurally, this was certainly more of a debate than the recent presidential one which, as has been pointed out, was more of a joint press conference. Stewart and O' Reilly truly and admirably engaged each other, and mostly in good spirit. Neither debate, however, was well-structured or competently moderated.

Overall what The Rumble lacked most was a discussion of first principles. Both men dealt in caricatures of the other's ideas, but neither seemed to have any first principles of his own to articulate. Thus the debate about domestic policy was debate over how much, not whether. The debate about the debt devolved into a blame game. The foreign policy discussion never approached questions of actual policy, only criticisms of particular actions. And so on. I don't believe any mention was made of the Constitution at all.

The Rumble is useful insofar as it provokes discussion, but it certainly doesn't recommend these men or their ideas. The two anchors ended on the note that neither man could imagine disagreeing so fiercely with someone that he couldn't engage him and discuss the ideas with him. A bright spot.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

They Took Our Jobs!

They took our joooobs!
Tom Woods's remarks in a recent Mises Institute lecture brought to my mind the gaggle of grousing South Park denizens who, whenever anything threatens their income, complain that, "They took our jobs!" Regardless of the causes and their own actions, these citizens ascribe all guilt to some thieving tormentor who has robbed them of their God-given livelihood.

Never mind whether society actually needs their wares or crafts, whether they could have differently saved or invested, if they could have changed careers or locations, and so forth, these people cry, "They took our jobs!" The obvious implication is that someone must make up for their loss, and hence Tom Woods's perspicacious comments reminded me of their demands.

It is terrible to see your expectations and plans fall out beneath you, but that's only because your expectations and plans were at odds with everybody else's expectations and plans, and a market correction is precisely that, it is the realization of precisely this problem: that there has been this lack of coordination. So why should everyone else have to suffer to pay for the stimulus to make some people whole. Why would that be socially desirable for everyone? A market correction is the way individuals say through their buying and abstention from buying that the previous array of prices was too high and we want to see them lower. Who is the government or the federal reserve to second guess that?

And the people whose lost in the bust are going to be in the forefront, demanding stimulus to re-inflate a tire with a large hole it, but other individuals have interests too, and those interests do not necessarily lie in ensuring that some arbitrary asset once again reaches some arbitrary price level. [1]
What strikes me most about Woods's words is the word arbitrary. No good has a fixed value but rather, as Woods has said in tidy summary of the Austrian science of human action known as praxeology, "The very act of choice... implies cost." [2] So why should any given good have its price inflated higher than what customers will freely spend for it, or reduced to lower than what is worth to its owner? Why would any good be deemed special? Why would any group of workers buying or producing that good be deemed special? Besides, the value of the good is never fixed for either the producer or the consumer.

For the producer, the price might be lower when he has streamlined production or  it might rise with rising costs of materials or from the pressure of a wily competitor. For the consumer, his resources, needs, and wants can vary from time to time, thus his willingness to pay a given cost can vary. Customers and producers adjust to these fluctuating variables, supply and demand, in a free marketplace, buying and selling goods if and only if they think the exchange gives them what they want at that time.

If the iPad costs $500, some people will pay for one and some won't. If Apple profits from selling the device at $500, then that means the iPad is worth $500 to enough people with $500. Both parties win.  If Apple sells too few to profit, they must either charge more for it, or construct it with fewer resources so they can charge less and thus sell more of them. Where does government or Federal Reserve or any third party get the authority (legal or moral) or knowledge to tell Apple how much it costs to make an iPad (by way of telling them how many people to employ and/or how much to pay them or how many they can sell) or how much it should profit from the sale, or the consumer what the subjective value of the gizmo is to him?

Apple is but one example, but why should any industry, that is, the employees and entrepreneurs of any industry, be prioritized? Why ought the price of steel remain high to benefit steelworkers when efficiencies might make it cheaper to the benefit of people who purchase steel? In any of the following examples, why is one party more important than the other? How could any of the following statements be justified?
  • The price of automobiles must be kept high by means of bailouts enabling the company to employ more costly workers, to protect auto workers at the expense of those who buy automobiles. 
  • The price of grain must be kept high through subsidies, to protect farmers at the expense of those who buy food. 
  • The price of American goods must all be kept high by protective trade tariffs, to protect Americans who sell goods at the expense of Americans who buy goods. 
  • The price of houses must be kept high through stimuli to protect home owners, real estate salesmen, and construction workers, at the expense of those who want to buy houses or to rent. 
  • Companies must be bailed out to protect shareholders, at the expense of those who do not speculate with their savings. 
  • Why should spending be encouraged through low interest rates, at the expense of those who save?
To justify any such assertion is not only to plan the economy, but society.


[1] http://youtu.be/o2PVgcLhHEg?t=25m
[2] Woods, Thomas E. Jr. The Church and the Market. Lexington Books. 2005.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Égalité


[Periander] sent an agent to Thrasybulus [the tyrant of Miletus] to ask what was the safest kind of government for him to establish, which would allow him to manage the state best. Thrasybulus took the man sent by Periander out of the city and into a field  where there were crops growing. As he walked through the gain, he kept questioning the messenger and getting him to repeat over and over again what he had come from Corinth to ask. Meanwhile, every time he saw an ear of grain standing higher than the rest, he broke it off and threw it away, and he went on doing this until he had destroyed the choicest, tallest stems in the crop. After this walk across the field, Thrasybulus sent Periander's man back home, without having offered him any advice. – Herodotus. Histories, V.


"It is time that equality bore its scythe above all heads. It is time to horrify all the conspirators." –Maximilien de Robespierre


Leveling is the barbarian’s substitute for order. –Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Just Suppose. . .


You bought the tickets, cleared your work schedule, hired the babysitter, and finally you and the madamina head to the theater. Phantom. Smoke, mirrors, chandeliers. Oh boy! Unfortunately when you arrive, the theater has been "renovated." Now the seats encircle the stage and you can see past the it to the people across. They yawn, chew gum, shift in their seats, but you can live with it. It's Phantom, after all.

So the curtain goes up and you await the overture, only to hear the march from Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's nothing wrong with the Raiders theme, but it's in the wrong key, the wrong genre, the wrong meter, and thematically it doesn't relate. Sure it is rousing like an overture, but it's completely out of place. The "overture" ends and you, avid connoisseur of the theatrical arts, persevere.

So the chorus comes out dancing and twirling as all seems well. Then the prima donna steps out and strides to center stage. Her whole body is poised to let forth a torrent of bravura virtuosity and at last she opens her mouth. . . and tells you the piece you are about to hear is in D major, common time, and at allegro tempo. "It can be found on page 75 of your score," she adds. Now you're pretty ticked. Is this a rehearsal? You glance at your wife in disbelief, but what are you to do? Walk out? Of course not, so you sit and nod off as the show goes on.

Eventually the Phantom himself stalks onstage, his ivory mask glinting under the theater lights. Your spouse nudges you awake. The titular seducer coos:
Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and lessens consternation
Silently the senses walk out on their defenses
Slowly, softly night uncurls its splendor
Touch it, sense it, tremulous as ever.
"He changed the words. Why did he change the words?" You think to yourself. "They're not bad words, but they are the wrong words. I don't get it." Then the Phantom looks up and starts singing at the audience instead of at the leading lady. What's going on?

You're so focused on the oddities that the song is over before you realize it. The two bickering theater owners have entered for their scene, but something is off with them too. At first you can't place it. They're speaking and their words make a certain sense, but something is missing. There's no direction to what they're saying, they're ad libbing. And badly, at that. Eventually they're just rambling. At this point you're hoping the chandelier will fall on you and end this madness. Instead, the choir enters (late and off key, because they didn't rehearse) and starts singing the finale to Les Miserables.


Just suppose any Broadway performance went so awry: it would make the newspapers. Yet similar liturgical follies occur weekly, daily even, at churches everywhere and parishioners don't kick up much of a storm. Explanations of the phenomenon abound: indifference, philistinism, Sandinistas. It is possible, however, some virtue lies at or near the heart of this curiosity.

On the one hand, art is an aesthetic experience. If the execution fails, the purpose fades. The purpose of the liturgy on the other hand, is not primarily aesthetic. Its execution may be poor, but excepting outright abuses, its purpose endures, hence people go to church despite the exceedingly poor art of celebration. In this respect, the faithful permit the aesthetic degradation because there is virtually nothing the priest can do which will turn these parishioners away. Why sing Palestrina when the status quo will do? Why prepare a homily when off the cuff remarks will suffice?

The faithful who would express the liturgy through the transcendent power of art have a few fates. Some are democratically stifled, others learn to stifle themselves. Some will sit and seethe, others will leave for greener pastors. A handful of crusaders may take up arms against their priests, organists, and music directors, making a lot of enemies in the progress. What seems to me the most productive path is likewise the most challenging. A few thoughts.

First, people will be persuaded by different arguments. Some will find liturgical laws compelling, others will find them onerous. Some will be roused by paeans to beauty, others will find them highfalutin. Choose the appropriate argument and remember you need not persuade someone on all accounts.

Second, do as much as you can. Make phone calls, make appointments, make reservations, make copies. This will relieve other people of the responsibility, which many people welcome, and it will in many cases give you the liberty to make decisions. That said, don't angle for more authority or other peoples' jobs. Just do as much as you can as well as you can, if you carry out those tasks well, others will come.

Third, do everything as well as possible. Neglect no detail, aim for perfection. Some people will notice right away, others will notice when you aren't the one arranging matters.

Fourth, get creative. If you don't want guitars at mass, then organize some other event at which those individuals can perform. If rehearsals for that new event should happen to coincide with rehearsals for mass or mass itself. . . Find a way to keep them involved, but not crooning through the liturgy.

Fifth, be the alternative. Always have your plans ready to go at a moment's notice. When there's a blip in the status quo or when nothing else is ready, you'll be ready to jump into action, pulling someone's fanny out of the fire while giving people a taste of your vision.

Sixth, think big and small. It's all very well and good to aim for an EF or Latin NO, or a piece of polyphony at mass, but think small too. Sometimes a grand gesture is needed, sometimes a subtle one. Aiming to add or remove one piece of music, better train the altar servers, or improve the website might be the falling of stones which starts the avalanche. The better you can make any one part, the worse the shoddy elements around it will look and the more others will be amenable to tweaking them.

Seventh, thank people. Everyone, preferably. Bring them into the game. If they don't do anything, ask them a question and then thank them "for their guidance." Also, if you mention a group or committee, then you better know the names of the people in it.

This is no small task, but what more could be at stake?


Friday, September 14, 2012

Haydn: Three Choral Fugues


The choral fugue has long been the crown with which composers consummate their greatest works.  From the leaping dances of Bach's B minor Mass to the flashing fugatos of Handel's Messiah, these choral coronations become the most memorable moments of the works. Such is in part due to their functions within the pieces as celebratory climaxes, but we need look only as far as Theodora for a finale grand and sombre.

Bach and Handel have in these pieces, with their expressive harmonies and vigorous rhythms which threaten to break free from all restraints, the perfection of their geniuses. For this good reason the music is much and well commented upon. Yet Haydn's genius too saw in the choral fugue's counterpoint not just the frame for a grand finale but the potential for depicting and amplifying an idea. Haydn would find for the nature of the fugue, with its many contrapuntal variations, ideas which themselves would flourish in such development. In his oratorio The Creation he found some ideal subjects and set to work.

I. The first of the three great choruses of the oratorio concludes the Third Day of Creation.
Stimmt an die Saiten, ergreift die Leier!
Lasst euren Lobgesang erschallen!
Frohlocket dem Herrn, dem mächtigen Gott!
Denn er hat Himmel und Erde
bekleidet in herrlicher Pracht.
Haydn's choral fugue for, "Denn er hat Himmel und Erde / bekleidet in herrlicher Pracht," is not simply a ride over thrilling rhythms, but the many entrances are appropriate to the logic of the text: the draping of magnificent garments. With each entrance we feel the hand of the Maker twirling pure splendor around his creation.



II. The choral finale to the Fourth Day is well-known to English speakers as "The Heavens Are Telling" and it fares translation better than other movements. By what better way to display the myriad wonders of creation than by counterpoint's manifold arts of inversion, diminution, augmentation. . .
Die Himmel erzählen
die Ehre Gottes
und seiner Hände Werk
zeigt an das Firmament.



III. Effective though it is, Haydn's conclusion does not seem to live up to the previous movements, at least with respect to putting the counterpoint to inventive pictorial use. Perhaps the concept of praise doesn't admit to much development or lend itself to any contrapuntal expression other than, "every which way, forever," perhaps it's simply a perfect, if obvious, fit. 
Des Herren Ruhm,
er bleibt in Ewigkeit.
Amen.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Libertarian Invective, A Sample


Just a little something I dashed off to friends in one of my surlier moments.

I cannot begin other than condemning today's bipartisan indifference to the cataracts of red ink bilging forth from Washington. That said, I pine for no other form of cooperation than toward the diminution of executive, legislative, and judiciary authority (I think it's a sham to call the apparatus "federal" at its present degree of authority.) Mindful of the aforementioned and in the spirit of this spirited thread, I don't find the Romney/Ryan plan of reducing the rate of increase (of authority and spending) much more palatable, let alone laudable, than the present (and previous) administrations' indifference toward liberty and solvency. Likewise I find the clueless haste with which Bush et al passed TARP outmatched only by the double-barreled imbecility of President Obama and his toadies' passage of the turgid and impotent ARRA. I pass over the unaccountable accounting of the Treasury and the Fed's ruinous and fruitless QE, which seem to be of no consequence to the populus, its governors, or its legislators, who patiently wait for these problems to swim up and bite us in the ass.

Ideologically, I have no sympathy with the Progressive's impatience with and disdain for the Constitution, the hippies' disco-era Marxist bastardizations, or the Clintonistas who envisioned the end of history during the merry rule of Slick Willie. Likewise the GOP, whose most recent representative in the Oval Office called, after 9/11, for all Americans to go shopping, is a first rate sham, a sham which has been successful at conserving only the mistakes of its predecessors, conservative and progressive alike. The present political climate, stripped of its plumes and spangles, is one in which decent citizens put aside their intelligence, sagacity, and good humor, willfully to see in political bunkum their own ideologies, and then not only to shill for the exponents of said bunkum, but to vote supreme power to such rogues and scoundrels they would disdain as neighbors. As for compromise, I'm not holding my breath for the genius of Cicero to step into the Capital Building and breathe forth the spirt of Concord onto this august body of miscreants. There is, however, a certain Laputian doctor with what seems a wise measure. . . and he could also supply the honorable Charlie Rangel with some apophlegmatics.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Contemptuous Classicist: A Meme






More after the jump.

Movie Review: Pianomania

Directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. 2009.

Stefan Knüpfer is not a famous man. His name graces no concert marquees or programs. Somewhere at the back of an unread CD insert, perhaps, he is listed as, "Steinway Technical Director," an appellation which tells us nothing of either his gift or his skill. Mr. Knüpfer's gift is a set of golden ears, attentive to the subtlest overtones and shades of pitch. His skill is a peerless finesse for tuning that Cadillac of the concert hall, the Steinway D.

At the piano Knüpfer is quite a sight certainly for the layman but even for a musician: endlessly ratcheting at a string, trying to tune away a little sharpness, or fidgeting at a hammer trying, to coax out an overtone. Yet for all of the excruciating harmonic minutiae there is never any dullness to Knüpfer or his task. He has the aficionado's enthusiasm and the master's attention to detail and watching him work is an impressive sight. Whether tuning the strings for an elusive tone or measuring hammers to the millimeter, we see, perhaps for the first time, a mastery of this machine quite distinct from that of the pianist. And indeed the piano is a machine, however much we might restrict our notion of machines to boxes of cogs and vast industrial apparatuses. There is at any rate little doubt when in a bravura moment Knüpfer hauls out the entire action of the piano, revealing the circuitous complexity of the massive sound machine, his little kingdom.

As king, however, Mr. Knüpfer also serves, and he serves the needs of the piano's more flamboyant master, the pianist. Flamboyant and particular, so much in fact that the pianists' presence in Pianomania is downright chaffing. Which wants a little more sharpness here, a little less there. Who wants a wider sound, or a narrower sound, or something in between. Brighten this overtone, clean up that decay. One is too thin, another full but too late. Not all of the pianists make so many or such specific requests. Alfred Brendel and Lang Lang make a few of each, Rudolf Buchbinder practically none, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, well let us say the majority of the film traces his quest for the perfect pianos on which to record Bach's Art of Fugue. He wants one that sounds like a harpsichord, another like a clavichord, another like an organ. . . a pursuit which reaches an absurd apex when he requests a piano which is more banal.

Some of these scenes hit a comedic pitch as the two struggle to describe acoustic phenomena with a nonexistent vocabulary. At one point Knüpfer resorts to some hand gestures which become so silly he and the engineers burst out laughter. The precise temperament Aimard seeks may seem absurd to us, it certainly did to me, but Knüpfer is forgiving. "The moment his fingers touch the keys," Knüpfer says, "he tells you exactly what you did. It's fascinating."

Music is not at the center of every moment of Pianomania, however, especially when Mr. Knüpfer meets his most raucous client, comedian-pianist Hyung-Ki Joo. After tuning the instrument, the two share ideas for some musical skits a la Victor Borge and Knüpf plays quite a laugh, painstakingly replacing one of the piano's legs with. . . well I won't spoil it.

Pianomania, though, is not a paean for master tuners or a wagging finger at prima donna pianists. If anything Knüpfer is sympathetic to the pianist's endless quest to find just once in the world the perfect tone in his head. Pianomania then is an ode to beauty, the pursuit of its pure form in pure tones, and the instruments which, if cared for and wisely played, can produce such immaculate sounds. Such is his affection for a beautiful tone, Knüpfer confesses, that he turns off the radio when he can't stand the bad sound coming out of it. Mania perhaps, but being held by beauty is a rapturous madness.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Robert Hughes on Caravaggio


Art critic Robert Hughes wrote and narrated this documentary on Caravaggio in 1975. The section below begins Part III, the film's highlight, in which Hughes shares his perspicacity with a series of lucid and illuminating descriptions of Caravaggio's best works. Beside Hughes' lively comments is a soundtrack of wisely chosen music complementing Caravaggio's masterpieces.


Part I  | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy. 2012.

I entered The Bourne Legacy having retained nothing from the preceding Bourne films, save whiplash. I left The Bourne Legacy having learned nothing about the intrigues surrounding Jason Bourne or this film's hero, Aaron Cross. Does it matter? Not a bit. Legacy gets away with this gaping lacuna because the film is about not knowing. It's about the effects of secrets, secrets on top of secrets and within secrets. It's about secrets spreading like poison through unnamed government programs and threatening to topple agencies, agencies headed by people who don't report to anyone so long as crises are kept out of the news.

Unfortunately for Aaron Cross, he not only carries a secret, he is a secret, and whatever agency enlisted him is now burning the program. Everyone goes, the research stays. Jeremy Renner is a persuasive everyman and we feel the weight of the hundreds of billions of dollars of resources brought down on his head. We too shrink under the thousands of surveillance cameras overhead in drones, on the streets, and in buildings. All of this weight is multiplied by the fact that he doesn't know the motives of his hunters.

As omniscient observers, though, we see not only that Cross is in the dark, but most everyone as well. In a low-key scene early on, Cross, making his way back to civilization through mountains, enters a CIA safe house. Inside an agent minds the house. Or is he an agent? Who is he, what does he know about Cross, about Bourne, or about anything? Does he always mind the house or has he been planted there to meet, or dispatch with, Cross? Over some gruel the two men realize the alienating consequences of their business. "Are you testing me?" Cross asks the agent who no doubt wonders the same. This constructed ignorance is not limited to the operatives on the ground either, since even the CIA director and the important-looking admiral remain partially in the dark. The only man with the whole scoop on this project is its head, Col. Eric Byer, USAF (Edward Norton.) When he decides the program has been compromised, the higher-ups can't ask any questions and must go along with the clean up, if only to save their skins. Everyone else is just following orders or, in Cross' case, running for his life.

"Clean up" of course is one of those Orwellian euphemisms like pacification, normalization, and containment which masks the brutality of the act. Yet if Legacy had limited itself to portraying the besieged Cross it would not have seemed quite so brutal. While we sympathize with him, we don't quite feel pity for Cross because his extraordinary abilities seem matched to those of his oppressors. He simply lacks their resources. In one of the film's few light moments, after Cross makes an impossible getaway, a CIA desk jockey tracking him asks what he's armed with. Byer responds, "A rifle," and, embarrassed, adds, "A big rifle."

Spoilers hereafter.

We find a more sympathetic, or rather, more helpless, character in Marta Shearing, a doctor at the medical-pharmacological corporation Sterisyn-Morlanta, a corporation with some substantial government contracts. Shearing conducts research on breakthrough chemicals used to increase the mental and physical stamina of agents and, when Byer scraps the project, her team is wiped out. Surviving the purge by sheer luck, agents are dispatched to dispatch her before she can leave the country. Cross and Shearing finally cross paths in the attempted hit and the ensuing fight is for my money the best in the movie. The scene makes excellent use of the space inside Shearing's dilapidated house, which, with its stark white interior and sheet-covered furnishings, becomes an extension of the snowy outdoors. The result is a scene compact and striking, but not visually exhausting.

So why has Cross sought out Dr. Shearing? To get more of the enhancing pills, or pharma, as the addicted agents refer to them. He chose her because she had administered his physical dozens of times and quite simply, he remembered her. Shearing, however, does not recognize him at all, much to his astonishment and even anger. "What did you think you were doing?" he demands. She replies, aghast at her meager excuse, that she just "did it for the science." Flustered after Cross' barrage of questions she asks to be let out of the car and he lays down the hard truth that her science has become a death sentence. Paraphrasing, he tells her, "What are you going to do? Call your friend of a friend, or that guy who works at the Washington Post? Do you think you can get to him so fast that these people won't try to finish what they started?"

The remainder of the movie is competent and entertaining although it proceeds along regular lines. Weisz and Norton, as usual, give to their characters subtle secondary characteristics.  Norton is aggressive and near manic, heedlessly pulling his rank because he knows the hell coming down on his head if Cross gets away. Dr. Shearing seems relegated to the distressed damsel shtick but we would be wrong to overlook Weisz's performance. Her Dr. Shearing is a brilliant professional who one day gets swept up in a web of intrigue and violence she never dreamed laid just beyond her lab. Shearing is  analyzing what's happening as fast as she can and trying to follow Cross' lead, but she's out of her realm. She's pale from the sudden and relentless fear, in contrast to Cross, whose flushed complexion evinces the edgy, stimulated zone he's pushed into by his pharma. Legacy is no potboiler and there is thought in and effective execution of the details.

The Bourne Legacy could have veered off into typical action territory with its familiar cliches: the massive conspiracy that "goes all the way to the top," the bloodless businessman out to become richer, and so forth. I wonder if there remain today any conclusion which could satisfy a film of intrigues like Legacy without falling into cliche territory. Legacy avoids the problem by suppressing the catalyst for the chase: it's just about the chase. It doesn't condemn any particular enemy but makes us ask, what could be worth this? What's worth all of these lies, this web of secrets, this contrived hierarchy of ignorance? Even the most casual observer surely looks askance at the overwhelming force, wielded swiftly and absolutely by appointed and internally-regulating officials, brought down on one man. Amidst his current adversity Cross remembers a talk Byer gave him about their role as agents, declaring they get filthy in the field and do evil so that everyone else can keep themselves clean.

Legacy leaves us with two questions. For which policy, which value, do you get so dirty, and what happens when the evil turns round on you?