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.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

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.

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