Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mr Show: More Money Equals Better Than

h/t Jordan

800 Words: The Unbearable Sadness of Book Lists

A full decade before Seinfeld, Larry David was a writer and performer on Friday’s, ABC’s sketch comedy answer to Saturday Night Live. His time there was mostly unmemorable, but he did manage to bequeath the world with one of the funniest sketches in TV history. David plays an eminent and grizzled plastic surgeon made famous for making ordinary people look like celebrities. In comes a nebbisher Jewish man of generic appearance and scant confidence, who makes a request for surgery to make him look like Howdy Doody. Larry David’s response will forever burn in my memory:


Aside from the greatest Yiddish constipation pun in the history of TV, the point of bringing this up is to say that every time some magazine issues a new booklist, I always think of that Larry David sketch. We all start to make grand plans for all the books we will soon read, and we forever praise how lofty, glamorous and wise our newly acquired culture shall make us.

I consider myself nearly as well-read as anybody of my generation. But I have a terrible, foul, dirty secret as shameful as it is humiliating: I can’t finish books. I’ve probably read the first 100 pages of 70% of the books Harold Bloom would consider canonical works of literature. But if I don’t skip the next hundred pages, I probably won’t finish the book. The only book over 500 pages of which I’m positive I’ve read every word is Moby Dick, and those are two months I wish I could have back. Two years ago, I was extremely proud of myself because I got to page 600 of The Brothers Karamazov and I read every word. But I just couldn’t read the last 300. I’ve read about 500 pages of Anna Karenina, 400 of Don Quixote, 300 of War and Peace, 250 of Goethe’s Faust, 200 of Crime and Punishment, 150 of Remembrances of Things Past, 100 of Ulysses, 50 of The Illiad, and 4 pages of Madame Bovary. Every time I got into the book, the thought occurred, there's too much else I want to read. At this point, I’m probably stuck in the middle of 400-something books. There is just too much else to read.

TIME just released a list of the greatest 100 books of non-fiction ever written. This is just two months after The Guardian released their version of the 100 greatest non-fiction books. It also comes three years after The Telegraph made a list of the 110 greatest books. Nine months later, The Telegraph made a list of 100 novels everyone should read, while in the same month The Guardian released a list of the 1000 novels everyone must read. Those are in themselves a response to TIME’s list of the 100 greatest English language novels written after 1923, which was itself a response to The Modern Library’s list of the 100 greatest English Language novels of the 20th century and Radcliffe’s Rival 100 Best Novels. Le Monde compiled a rival international list of the 100 Books of the century which heavily favors French authors. For more elitest types, there Harold Bloom’s massive ‘The Western Canon’, for which he created an infamous list of the seminal literary works he considers ‘canonical.’ If that sounds too official, there is also a book called The Top Ten, in which hundreds of famous writers submit their list of the ten greatest works of fiction. There are lists for men like Esquire’s competing list of 75 books every man should read, or The Art of Manliness’s 100 books every man should read. Thousands of blogs and Amazon profiles have compiled lists for the best science fiction, the best poetry, the best romance novels, best history books, best crime fiction, the best fantasy, the best travel writing and too many other genres to list. Good Reads compiled a list of all the book recommendation lists they could find on the internet and transformed them into a word-cloud to show what was recommended most frequently (To Kill a Mockingbird, for those who care). The Modern Library constructed a separate list to allow people to vote on their own choices for the greatest works of 20th century English Language Novels (Atlas Shrugged bestrides the top, followed by The Fountainhead). The London Times even compiled a list of the 10 books everybody should not read (with Pride and Prejudice at the top). It can’t be too long before people start compiling lists of the greatest book lists.

We draw ever closer to the first era of human history in which every first world citizen will view literacy as a chore rather than a privilege. If we were born to a middle class household in America or Western Europe, we will be expected to read by the time we’re five. From five until ninety-five, there will be an inexhaustible range of options for us to read, and no end of books which others suggest for us. If you’re curious about the world, the number of books you’ll want to read will probably outnumber the books you’ve actually read by at least ten-to-one.

But long before we turn five, we are inundated with propaganda from cradle to grave about all the great ways to spend our time that does not involve books. Advertisements tell us about all the great stuff on TV, all the great new movies, all the great new video games, all the great foods we should eat, all the great beverages we should drink, all the great clothes we should wear. Are these products worth the itch we inevitably get to try them? Perhaps some of them are, but like most things in life, the promise of something better is inevitably more exciting than the result.

Inevitably, the world of ‘culture’ has a problem. The ‘high arts’, once accustomed to being unchallenged in their prestige, now exist in a world indifferent to what makes them worth appreciating. Why would students, even intelligent ones, become enthusiastic about the Romantic poetry or Shakespeare plays they learn in school when they can find intelligently produced programs on television or youtube which relate far more to their contemporary lives? Why read Longfellow bemoan his lost youth when you can listen to Bruce Springsteen do the same in relateable language? Why go see a Shakespeare tragedy when you can watch a Martin Scorsese picture to deal with the same issues?

Faced with this situation, the forms which we traditionally call the ‘arts’ have only three options - all of which are terrible.

(Raisin Brahms, watching this ad as a kid was one of the scariest moments of my childhood...)

1. Play on their field. Use the mediums of the present to turn people onto the greatness of the past. Use television, radio and the Internet to advertise everything that’s great about classical music, theater, art museums, novels. The problem is that most every attempt to do this, at least thus far, wreaks of desperation. Trying to capture the nuance of what makes complex works of art designed without advertisements in mind cannot help sounding somewhat sad. Any five year old can understand why trying to make Brahms seem hip is a sadly misunderstood enterprise. Equally bad is the stuffy pompous “announcizing” you hear on radio ads in which a Walter Cronkite imitator bloviates about the reasons you should support your local symphony orchestra. Even if it’s a rare advertisement that does a good job of explaining why people should buy an old ‘artistic’ product, it will inevitably be at a disadvantage in comparison to an ad for a product that was built with advertising in mind.

2. Fulminate about the moral superiority of The Arts. Make allegations about the inherent inferiority of more recent artforms to novels, classical music, theater, Western art etc. Make allegations about the ways in which newer art forms corrupt minds and are tainted with the stain of contemporary mores. What is sad about this approach is that it works, at least to a small extent. As in other aspects of life, fear is the best motivator. This kind of demagoguery will convince parents that they have to keep their children’s minds pure and will keep TV’s off, keep violin and dance studios in business and give people the time to memorize volumes of poetry. This was the model behind the entire culture of the Soviet Union. Culturally, the USSR was like an artificial 19th century in which everyone listened to Beethoven and read Shakespeare when they weren’t playing or acting it for friends in their living rooms. Appreciation of the past, however glorious, supplanted the development of the present.

3. Ignore it all. Just keep publishing novels, producing plays, playing classical music, constructing new art galleries. All the artistic creators in these forms should continue creating with the expectation that there will always be an audience for them. And perhaps it’s true, perhaps the older arts should be able to stand on their own in order to justify their existence. But I would bet any amount of money on the fact that none of them would be able to do it. Because more contemporary art forms can provide the same catharsis in far more relateable ways.

The unutterable truth about the high arts is that there is nothing to fear from the Michael Bays and Miley Cyruses of the world. For all the complaints about the encroaching philistinism of today’s world, anybody whose favorite musician is John Mayer would not understand what’s great about Bach or Stravinsky. It’s not the Counting Crows or Wolfgang Petersens of the world with whom we compete, it’s the Bjorks and P.T. Andersons. There is a finite amount of art which one person can appreciate over the course of a lifetime. We live in a civilization so well-developed that the number of superb cultural offerings seem infinite. There are not only thousands of great experiences which we will never have, but thousands, maybe millions, which it will never occur to us to have.

In cultures to have recently acquired literacy, reading maintains all the excitement of a new discovery. For places in the world unknown to most of us, the act reading remains a revelatory experience. Just as we watch TV and movies and realize that ancestors still within living memory never had access to the things we have, books are a still new experience to some people. The majority of the people who can read in the world today are among the first in their families to do so. I remember reading a piece in The New Yorker about Myanmar in which one Burmese citizen said that Dickens would have recognized far more about his country than contemporary England. The people of Myanmar can understand poverty and the longing for domesticity far better than we who are mired in first-world privilege.

It is remarkable how far afield great writing went in the 20th century. Any list of the 20th/21st century’s great writers would have to include writers in languages which only a few million people speak. Turkish has Orhan Pamuk, Albanian has Ismail Kadare, Polish has Witold Gombrowicz, Hebrew has Amos Oz and Shai Agnon, Yiddish has Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem, Czech has Bohumil Hrabal and Milan Kundera. And even among writers in a language spoken by many, the greatest writers often hailed from the least likely places. Jose Saramago hailed not from Brazil but from rural Portugal. V.S. Naipaul conquered the British literary scene by drawing on the Trinidad of his childhood. Albert Camus was not French but Algerian. And these are just some examples of novelists - if we included poets and historians and philosophers, the list would be far longer.

I don’t think I can do better than quote something from Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican fiction writer whose books I’ve never been able to get into but who makes a fantastic point in an interview:

Let me tell you about a curious experience I had this summer. I was writing a novella about the adventures of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. Bierce went to Mexico during the Revolution, in 1914, to join up with Pancho Villa's army. I had the problem that the voice had to be Bierce's, and it was extremely difficult to render in Spanish. I had to make Bierce speak with his voice, which is available to me in his stories, so I wrote the novella in English. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. I would be writing along in English when suddenly from under the table Mr. Faulkner would appear and say aah, aah, can't do that, and from behind the door Mr. Melville would appear and say, can't do it, can't do it. All these ghosts appeared; the narrative tradition in English asserted itself so forcefully that it hamstrung me. I felt very sorry for my North American colleagues who have to write with all these people hanging from the chandeliers and rattling the dishes. You see, in Spanish we have to fill in the great void that exists between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Writing is more of an adventure, more of a challenge. There is only a great desert between Cervantes and ourselves, if you except two nineteenth-century novelists, Clarin and Galdos.
..I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer, Donald Barthelme, and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books.” But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history.
If you had asked me today where the novel is alive and kicking, I would say it's basically in Latin America and in so-called Eastern Europe, which the Czechoslovaks insist on calling Central Europe. They think of Eastern Europe as Russia. In any case, there you have two cultural zones where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will say them. This creates a tremendous responsibility; it puts a tremendous weight on the writer, and also creates a certain confusion, because one could say, Oh, the mission is important, the theme is important, therefore the book has to be good, and that is not always the case. How many novels have you read in Latin America that are full of good intentions—denouncing the plight of the Bolivian miner, of the Ecuadorian banana picker—and turn out to be terrible novels which do nothing for the Bolivian tin miner or the Ecuadorian banana picker, or anything for literature either . . . failing on all fronts because they have nothing but good intentions.
But still, we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Quote of the Day:

(about Paul Berman)
Le Malon: right
ill take it over (thomas) friedman
the mercedes and the maple tree or whatever the fuck book idea he has next

Quote of Last Night

Der Fersko: I've always wondered why Kate Winslet never appeared on Sesame Street. Then I realized, she would have to appear nude.

Monday, August 29, 2011

800 Words: A Choral Director Who Hates Choral Music

Late August - that blissful two weeks of the year in which the temperature drops, the crickets chirp, and choral directors make their mad scramble to get music ready that they should have spent all summer preparing.

Anyone with the privilege of being paid to perform music should count their blessings. Other people have to tote barges and lift bales, but some of us get to earn our keep by singing or playing or composing or conducting. Even if you’re a part-time choral conductor, as I now am, it’s a great privilege. Even if you’re doomed to conduct John Rutter, Moses Hogan and Morton Lauridsen every week for the rest of your life, it certainly beats selling shoes. Fortunately, I have never conducted a piece by any of the aforementioned, nor do I plan on doing so at any time in the far future. But if I have to, I’ll do so happily. I used to have two choruses, I now have one.

I conduct Kol Rinah, a Jewish chorus of amateurs who live in Baltimore and will be reassembling in a few weeks for their eighteenth season. Over the decades, they’ve sung approximately 300 pieces - about three-dozen of which I can schedule for a performance after a single run through. We’ve performed together in synagogue services, old age homes, ceremonial openings, hospitals, festivals, luncheons, ceremonial dinners and birthday parties. We are a useful choir, and rather than be apart from the community, we’re a part of it.

I try to bring them as much new music as a group which meets once a week can handle. And when I can’t find anything that I think would suit the occasions for which we sing, I make the arrangements myself. Do I like the repertoire they sing? A lot of it, yes, very much. Do they like the repertoire they sing? It depends on the person. Some people love certain songs that other people hate, and vice versa. But we all agree to sing everything, because these are the compromises it takes to keep a group together.

This will not be a post about what was once my other group. Voices of Washington ended almost a year ago, in a fashion as comically haphazard as the entire experience was. It will suffice to say that of my goals for what it could be, I did not achieve even a percentage point of a percentage point. And even if luck had gone VoW’s way, I probably would have still viewed it as a colossal disappointment. My expectations for what it could be were unrealistic. In the fall of 2009, I began with the express intention of turning the model for running a chorus upside down. In the fall of 2010, I dissolved the group thankful that I only had a single ulcer. Such is life.

This post is allegedly about a choral director who hates choral music. I’m sorry to have mislead, but I don’t hate choral music. I just dislike more of it than to which choral directors are supposed to admit. I don’t like a lot of choral repertoire, and I don’t like a lot of performances of the music I do like.

I’m a violinist. Or at least I was. I love orchestral music. I love solo instrumental music. And I especially love chamber music. If heaven would be so stupid as to let me in, I’d be satisfied to spend eternity with my violin and the same five or ten people. And we’d spend eternity reading through all the chamber, small vocal ensemble, orchestral and choral arrangements, jazz, folk, blues, bluegrass, R&B, and rock music ever created. We wouldn’t always be very good, but it would be awesome.

But choral music is not my natural metier. Chamber music is a process in which each member is indispensable. Choral music is a process of resigning yourself to be another cog in a machine. Chamber music is a democracy, choral music is a dictatorship. In chamber music, each person has to discuss and analyze choices together, and speaking one’s mind is paramount. It’s a very natural process for a kid brought up in a Jewish home in a Jewish neighborhood with Jewish schools. Having spent most of my life snickering at conductors from the back of the violin section, being a conductor feels distinctly unnatural. There’s a top-down decision making process in choral music which, even more than orchestral music, feels unnatural to me. Almost Goyish.

If orchestras are 100 years out of date by now, then the idea of the choir must have dated nearly half a millenium by now. The orchestra is like a 19th century imperial army - a gigantic and highly formal display that seems capable of infinite permutations. The chorus corresponds to a medieval feudal model - in which there are only a very few castes and everyone must know their place. You’re either a singer, solo singer or a conductor. The variety of sound you can get from a chorus is paltry compared even to an organ, let alone an orchestra or a good synthesizer.

(Machaut never came to life for me until I heard the Mass sung by Ensemble Organum)

The most innovative choral composers were all of an age so remote from us that it’s exceedingly difficult to make their music accessible to our ears. For the last hundred years, musicologists have spilled entire wells of ink in an attempt to reconstruct the performing conditions of the distant past. But it’s all guess work. With 19th century music, we at least have recorded examples of the style in which the music was played, and even if most performers don’t follow the recorded examples, we at least know how to make this music compelling.

But for all the scholarship that goes into performing the ‘greatest’ choral music, it produces results of incredible banality. I simply cannot believe that the rigid, regimented style of most historically informed performance (HIP) is anything like what the great performers of centuries past did. The audiences would fall asleep. As in any genre, there are some performers of real imagination who can transcend its limitations. But unlike most healthy cultural environments, there is fear of terrible accountability if one takes ’ahistorical’ risks.

For all the research that’s gone into it, we still don’t have a plausible vision of how the music of 500 years ago was played. In lieu of discovering the key to their style, we must invent one of our own. And when early music musicians choose to perform without embellishment or individuality, that is as much a stylistic choice as any other. But in keeping one’s own personality out of the music, they are mistaken if they think they’re giving us something more akin to the essence of the composer. Instead, we get performances with an extremely 20th century mindset, which causes the music to sound like Stravinsky or Boulez without the dissonance.

Though maybe the problem isn’t the music or the performers. Maybe the problem is me. I’ve listened to and sung choral music since I was a teenager. And a lot of it still blurs together for me. So much of it is either too serious or too silly, too sweet or too sour. There are simply too many pieces I don’t like for me to go into specifics.

In many ways, choral music still feels to me stuck in the 17th century. To this day, it never underwent the enlightenment that broke it away from the church. So whereas orchestras get all the glories of Beethoven and Mahler, music by which the whole universe can be contained, most choirs are stuck singing about ‘God is Great’ and the ‘sweetness of my love’ and similarly banal subjects.

All you have to do is compare the emotional range of certain composers’ choral music and compare it to their other music. Listen to Mozart’s greatest operas and compare them to his greatest choral music: the difference in their emotional range should be obvious to anyone. Yes, the Requiem is a very great piece in its way and very dramatic. But there are no thoughts of anything individual or personal, and not a single gesture that is meant to be anything but super-profound. Mozart’s Requiem, like most of what’s considered great choral music, doesn’t quite feel human. There is something about choral music that inhibits composers. In their ambition to write the grandest possible work, they banish any sentiment that might allow individuality and intimacy into the music. It is now 2011, and we still await a composer who can liberate choral music from the confines of the church and the drawing room.

Obviously, all these gripes - and the very fact that I feel comfortable saying them so freely - does not endow me with the glad-handing diplomat style of conducting which can be so important when facing a certain kind of ensemble. But fortunately, the singers are impressed by my skill, even if I’m not. They think I’m funny and are generally wowed by my Rainman-like knowledge of music. And to my amazement I’ve found myself in adulthood become something resembling a patient person. It’s much easier to be patient when you are the person in control. The truth remains that I’m both too introverted and too outspoken to have the personality of a naturally gifted conductor. But in spite of myself, I’m surprised by how well I’ve done with them. For reasons I don’t quite understand, they really seem to like me.

Addendum: Here is a list of ten works which could point the way towards a ‘choral enlightenment.’ This is music whose effect on us is human level, rather than spiritual one. The music which affects us is in our real world, not just more music that points us toward the ethereal sounds of the beyond. Even among these, the only ones without religious connotations are La Battaille and the Monteverdi Madrigals. I could certainly include another ten on this list, maybe another twenty or thirty. But more than that?...

The Glagolitic Mass by Leos Janacek

La Pasion Segun San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov

The Creation by Joseph Haydn

Les Noces by Igor Stravinsky

La Battaille by Clement Janequin

Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein

Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten

Le Roi David by Arthur Honegger

Israel in Egypt by Georg Frideric Handel

Madrigals of War and Love by Claudio Monteverdi

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Quote of the Night:

Me: It looks like all the cedar trees are bowing towards our house.
Mom: Well Evan, it's been real.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

800 Words: Get Off Joseph Epstein's Lawn

Along with P.J. O’Rourke, Joseph Epstein is perhaps the only writer to make The Weekly Standard a magazine worth reading. To be sure, they’re both card-carrying conservatives. But conservatism’s most egregious sin is not its desire to preserve the past, the sins of conservatism are of the fanatical variety. There is nothing on the face of the earth more boring than a fanatic, and nothing within the environs of America that invites fanaticism like the modern conservative movement.

No, Epstein and O’Rourke are conservatives of the misanthropic, small-c, “Get Off My Lawn” vitality that hates everything and everyone. Hatred, as we all admit in our best moments, is a lot of fun. This is a conservatism to which non-neanderthals can relate.

So when Joseph Epstein writes about the subjects he loves, I yawn. Even when they dovetail with my loves, like his article extolling the virtues of my favorite writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, it’s just plain boring. I’m waiting, writhing, agonizing for the moment when he shows the sharpened knife. But sometimes it never comes. But when he plunges his knife into the cultural figures he hates: which includes such deserving sacred cows as Harold Bloom, George Steiner...and another one I love.... Saul Bellow, my mouth starts to water. Nobody in America carves a turkey more hilariously.

And this is why his editorial in the Wall Street Journal is such a wet-noodle disappointment. You would think that the subject of The Decline of Literary Studies in America would be the ultimate home run. Does anybody remember an Lit major from college who did not end up in one of the below four categories:

A. Did not come to regret living in a cardboard box?
B. Possessed a single coherent thought?
C. Stifle their own coherent thoughts and the thoughts of others?
D. Murder a dozen people at a post office?

Literature was once thought the bedrock of a well-developed mind that could entertain and console itself even in the drabbest and direst of circumstances. And even if this definition comes from a time when only the super-privileged of the world could study literature...let’s face it. Reading great writing is a privilege. And even if not every revered book (or ‘Great Book’) students were made to study was equally deserving, students could be counted on to find something within their studies of great books that would make worth all those musty, boring texts you have to read in addition. Once upon a time, the whole purpose of literary studies was culture and enrichment. But how anachronistic do words like ‘culture’ and ‘enrichment’ seem today. Perhaps they seem so because culture really is as useless as most people think, and perhaps ‘enrichment’ was always just a publicity word used by your local library. But even if too few students understood why ‘culture’ and ‘enrichment’ are important, at least the high purpose was there for students and teachers alike to grasp.

Today, the purpose is theory. Instead of reading the books themselves, today’s English departments use great and mediocre books as mere pins on which they can hang grand theories. The text of a great book, if it’s even read, is just a pretext for what comes next. It is deconstructed, anatomized, conceptualized, hermeneuticized, paradigmized, dialecticized, textualized, feminized, queer theorized, mythopoeticized, collective unconsciousized, poststructuralized, postcolonialized, semioticized, semiologized, de-eroticized and self-referentialized. It is viewed through the lenses of Marx, Freud, Jung, Barthes, Nietszche, Lukacs, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Durkheim, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Bergson, Momson, Habermas, Levi-Strauss, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Feuerbach and Auerbach. In a raw page count, is it more likely that an average lit graduate has read more by Tolstoy or by Foucault?

Whether or not one thinks that the ‘great books’ should have any application to our lives, most of these books were written to be living texts with which you are supposed to fall in love. But what is there to love about Joycean hermeneutics in the work of Anthony Burgess? No doubt, all of this is supposed to enrich our understanding. But how can literary criticism, however perceptive, enrich your understanding of books which you haven’t read for yourself?

In aesthetics, only one question matters, has ever mattered, and will ever matter:

How Good Is It?

Epstein’s review of the “Cambridge History of the American Novel” starts out well enough. By the second paragraph, we’re gifted with this gem:

‘"In short," though, is perhaps the least apt phase for a tome that runs to 1,244 pages and requires a forklift to hoist onto one's lap. All that the book's editors left out is why it is important or even pleasurable to read novels and how it is that some novels turn out to be vastly better than others.’

A little later, we get this stunner:

‘Biographical notes on contributors speak of their concern with "forms of moral personhood in the US novels," "the poetics of foreign policy," and "ecocriticism and theories of modernization, postmodernization, and globalization."
Yet, through the magic of dull and faulty prose, the contributors to "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" have been able to make these presumably worldly subjects seem parochial in the extreme—of concern only to one another, which is certainly one derogatory definition of the academic. These scholars may teach English, but they do not always write it,’

And now I’m ready for the usual joy I derive from watching watching Epstein tee-off on the lowest possible par. And for a little while, there is every reason in the world to be elated:

‘"Attention to the performativity of straight sex characterizes . . . 'The Great Gatsby' (1925), where Nick Carraway's homoerotic obsession with the theatrical Gatsby offers a more authentic passion precisely through flamboyant display." Betcha didn't know that Nick Carraway was hot for Jay Gatsby? We sleep tonight; contemporary literary scholarship stands guard.’

OK. The appetizers have been served now. I’m ready, ready, ready for the red meat. But just when we’re ready for the catharsis which only a great hatred session can provide, the loud alarm bells go off.

‘"The Cambridge History of the American Novel" could only have come into the world after the death of the once-crucial distinction between high and low culture, a distinction that, until 40 or so years ago, dominated the criticism of literature and all the other arts. Under the rule of this distinction, critics felt it their job to close the gates on inferior artistic products. The distinction started to break down once the works of contemporary authors began to be taught in universities.
The study of popular culture—courses in movies, science fiction, detective fiction, works at first thought less worthy of study in themselves than for what they said about the life of their times—made the next incursion against the exclusivity of high culture. Multiculturalism, which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.’

Dearest, darling Joe. We’re now moving away from ‘Get Off My Lawn’ conservatism. You just planted us firmly in the realm of “The World Ended in 1968” conservatism. If the distinction between high and low culture is of such paramount importance, how could you wonder in print about whether or not George Steiner underrates the power of semen?

Let’s leave aside the thought that there’s no cultural value in movies or ‘lower’ forms of fiction. Those are topics for other days. Let’s keep our focus on this now quaint idea that high and low are separable. The thought that high and low culture should be kept separate would come as fox news to Shakespeare - who depended on humor to keep us interested when things got too heady. It would probably come as an equal surprise to Chaucer (all those shit jokes), Cervantes (all that physical humor), Dickens (all those lowlife vulgarities), Homer (all those action/adventure scenes), Joyce (all those guys with perversions), Beckett (all those vaudeville routines), and Rabelais (all that....well...everything).

In fact, let’s be honest here. How many of us, even among we high culture snobs who love great literature and painting and classical music, can stand the people who claim to love the real highbrows - not the high/lowbrows like Mahler and Chekhov who take us from the classroom to the ghetto from minute to minute, I’m talking about the ‘appreciators’ who prattle on with no end about the virtues of Wagner, Milton, Goethe, David et al? The real bores who give us nothing but seriousness with no relief in sight but to stop reading/listening/watching. If high culture isn’t welcome outside the academy, these artists and the people who tout them are as legitimate a target for blame as my generation of cultural philistines.

...But then comes the moment when I begin to wonder if my love of Joseph Epstein is entirely misplaced:

"In today's university, no one is any longer in a position to say which books are or aren't fit to teach; no one any longer has the authority to decide what is the best in American writing. Too bad, for even now there is no consensus about who are the best American novelists of the past century. (My own candidates are Cather and Theodore Dreiser.) Nor will you read a word, in the pages of "The Cambridge History of the American Novel," about how short-lived are likely to be the sex-obsessed works of the much-vaunted novelists Norman Mailer, John Updike and Philip Roth or about the deleterious effect that creative-writing programs have had on the writing of fiction.
With the gates once carefully guarded by the centurions of high culture now flung open, the barbarians flooded in, and it is they who are running the joint today. The most lauded novelists in "The Cambridge History of the American Novel" tend to be those, in the words of another of its contributors, who are "staging a critique of 'America' and its imperial project." Thus such secondary writers as Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut and E.L. Doctorow are in these pages vaunted well beyond their literary worth."

Whatever one thinks of the writers in question (for the record, love Roth and Cather, never read Dreiser, vaguely like Updike, something like contempt for the rest), the conservatism Epstein espouses here isn’t merely misanthropic anymore. It is an utterly out-of-touch misanthropic conservatism. Whether or not the sex-obsessed authors he mentions are vaunted in the book, the Assistant Professor who brings Roth, Mailer or Updike to the classroom is on a suicide mission. The ‘misogynistic’ writing of those three authors is a guaranteed tenure repellent. Furthermore, Doctorow might be vaunted in creative writing programs, but the entire cache of Ginsberg and Vonnegut comes from the idea that they’re subversive. The academic establishment still holds them in contempt (and rightly so). The fact that Epstein lumps all these writers together shows just how out of touch he is with the subject he’s holding to ridicule.

I have neither a concluding paragraph nor an idea as to what the point of writing this was...but I enjoyed it...

For Mike Flanagan "Flanny"

There were tears of black and orange this week in Baltimore.

Hurricane Playlist

Scorpion: Rock You Like a Hurricane

Beethoven: Pastorale Symphony "Storm"

Rolling Stones: Jumping Jack Flash

Richard Strauss: Alpine Symphony "Thunderstorm"

Bob Dylan: Hurricane

Wagner: Flying Dutchman Overture

Led Zeppelin: When The Levee Breaks

Sibelius: The Oceanides

Jimmy Buffett: Tryin to Reason with Hurricane Season

Debussy: La Mer

Stevie Ray Vaughan: Couldn't Stand the Weather

Thomas Ades: Tevot

Bob Dylan: Shelter from the Storm

Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture

Pearl Jam: Evacuation

Berlioz: Royal Hunt and Storm

Cowboy Junkies: A Common Disaster

Tchaikovsky: The Tempest

Boards of Canada: You Could Feel the Sky

Mahler Symphony no. 3 Storm From the Opening Movement

Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Verdi: Otello "Una Vela"

Guns N'Roses: November Rain

Britten: Peter Grimes - Storm Scene

Creedence Clearwater Revival: Who'll Stop The Rain

Verdi: Rigoletto Storm Scene

Gene Kelly: Singing In The Rain

Rossini: William Tell Overture Storm Scene

The Doors: Riders in the Storm

Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead

Bob Dylan: Chimes of Freedom

Sibelius: Tapiola

Friday, August 26, 2011

1500(0) words: For Interpretation - a lame attempt at an Essay

When you begin something, write fifteen hundred words, and realize that the end result might be ten times as long. It's time to post what you have as a sign of good faith and try to move to something else.

Back to hurricane prep...

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”

- Noam Chomsky

“All meanings, we know, depend on the key of interpretation.”

- George Elliot

"Well, I believe in the soul, the c&*(, the p@#$%, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap."

- Crash Davis


(Holy Crap. It’s up on youtube already)

The latest experience of art was a concert broadcast. The Brahms piano concertos and the final two Brahms symphonies. Bernard Haitink conducting, Manny Ax playing the piano with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

The value of this art is self-explanatory to anyone who knows who any of the above figures are. To others, it must be justified.

The value of this art is ritual. Two old rabbis pour over the same sacred texts over which they’ve poured for half-a-century, and gather the congregation for a D’var Torah so that they might impart their newest findings. We, the faithful, listen eagerly for their newest revelations: a rhythm newly bent in the hundredth bar of the opening, an especially soft pianissimo in the scherzo, a 1% brisker tempo in the slow movement. Those are the delights which permeate the comforting balm of hearing music we know nearly as well as the performers do - like droplets of Tabasco in a brisket barbecue. This is the ritual which passes from generation to generation - each new generation of masters providing an infinity of infinitesimal permutations to the meaning of a sacred text which the faithful commit to memory, and our delight in these new meanings is similarly infinite. It’s what we live for.

Even though these concerts are pure Brahms, with nothing on the program which would challenge the listener, this is a concert as a religious experience - a sermon meant for the choir. Few music lovers who’d never heard Brahms would understand why Brahms is great after this performance. We are hearing Brahms so pure that the only pleasure lies in grasping at the essence of what makes Brahms Brahms, and he who does achieves a kind of revelation.

The approach we hear in the clip near the top is an approach which longs for the pure essence of the composer. In a recent Guardian blogpost, Bernard Haitink was quoted as saying:

"this word 'interpretation' should be forbidden … We have these wonderful scores and what we have to do is make sense of them. Why can't we just make music?"

In this vein, Haitink surely observes that Brahms wrote a metronome mark over the slow movement which prescribes 84 beats to the quarter-note. With as much liberty as must be made for the resonance of sound in a large concert hall, Haitink observes the metronome marking to the dot.


This is the moment when Susan Sontag would drag in Plato...who are we kidding, it would be in the first sentence. I’ll drag in Wynton Marsalis, Jack White and Pierre Boulez.

For better or worse, they are the preeminent conservatives of their genres. Both of them wish to reconstruct a past that may or may not have existed. In order to recapture it, they consciously ignore developments since that period which do not correspond to their own visions of what their idealized past entails.


(The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Homage or Perversion? Does it matter?)

In the Obama Era, Wynton Marsalis has become the cultural ambassador for Jazz. Not Jazz as music, but Jazz as history.

On March 30th, 2009, Marsalis gave a lecture that will one day be marked as a watershed moment in American cultural history. This was the day when Jazz became Classical Music. It was the day when Marsalis became the first jazzman with the vision, eloquence and desire to articulate a vision of jazz history that placed it within the wider context of America and the world. He mounted the stage, and in a lecture as rabbinic in tone as anything by Leonard Bernstein, he gave the world jazz as a piece of our past, not of our present.

This is the Jazz as it was when it was ‘pure.’ When it was uncorrupted by the polluting forces of other genres and naive enough to preserve itself away from other cultures. Marsalis advocates a theory of the arts as a moral force which integrates the best of everything. Yet his vision of Jazz is anything but all-inclusive.

Jazz musicians always said that Marsalis could best any jazzman in history for technique. But as an improviser, he is distinctly mediocre. He was the man who classicized jazz. He made it more about having the technique to recapture styles that its greatest practitioners were not even aware were styles. In this way, Marsalis is perhaps the first true jazz conductor. As important to the development of jazz as a classical music as Hans von Bulow and Arturo Toscanini were to the development of Romantic music into classics.

The difference between Marsalis and Ellington is like the difference between a conductor and a Kappelmeister. The bandleader was like the Kappelmeisters of old - the German/Italian court and church musicians who would preside over performances, hire the musicians, write the music, and oversee the entire business of music-making at court/church. Being a Maestro di Capella was far more difficult than being a conductor ever was, but it generated half a millenium of great music from There is something conservative about the very profession of conducting - an authority figure who presides over musicians for the purpose of subordinating their ideas to express the individuality of musicians who are already dead (rewrite to make clearer). Presiding with authority over the other musicians not through fear or love, but through reverence. Reverence not for the conductor, but for whom the conductor speaks. It Bessie Smith was thought of a harpy who purveyed the Devil’s Music. Wynton Marsalis is now as priestly a force in American Life as Leonard Bernstein.

When Jazz was brought into the wider world, it was a forbidden for Marsalis. The progressive jazz of Ornette Coleman and he free jazz of of Cecil Taylor and Sun Raa, even the eclecticism of Joe Zanuwil and the late Miles Davis were cut off.

From time immemorial, this has been the relationship of talent to genius. Talent genius assimilates what he


Jack White


Pierre Boulez

(“Russia has Stalin, Classical Music has Pierre Boulez” - Ned Rorem)

He was so successful at every one of his aims that he wiped the slate clean. He lived to see classical music take its first steps into the wider world. History will remember him as the 20th century tyrant of music whose blood waters the meadows for 21st century composers.


This kind of conservatism is inevitable. And when confronted with so much ‘modren’ mediocrity, a call for less corruption of all that was good about the past can be a great palliative against the excesses of the present. In a decadent periods, these conservatives have a point. The past sometimes did get better results than the present, and perhaps we should immerse ourselves in it if we want a better future. That is why we study history. Hopefully, the further back we look, the further forward we can see.

Even if conservatism is grounded in a false vision of past greatness, when this vision is executed with talent and integrity, it is far preferable to mediocrity with good intentions. But to insist upon conservatism for others is a recipe to kill innovation - in art as in politics.


Lots of musicians - never geniuses but very talented ones - mine the same idea for their entire careers. It's not in them to adapt to new times or new styles. Music meant exactly the same thing for them in when they were twenty as it does when they’re sixty. They hang on to a set idea of what great music must be and they think any divergence from that idea somehow cheapens the art. And because their idea of music never changes, they see music not as an infinite series of possibilities but as a 2-D model that can be mastered. So whenever they encounter genius, the same story ensues: the genius takes their musical contribution, assimilates it into his/her musical vocabulary, and then moves on to soak up a different set of influences, and the mere talent cries bloody murder.


This is the moment when Susan Sontag would mention Aristotle. Who are we kidding...Susan Sontag would have mentioned Aristotle and Plato by the first half of the first sentence. But for our purposes, let’s look at three other examples: Sufjan Stevens, Leonard Bernstein

Jack White has thus far devoted his career to preserving Rock Music’s storied past. Sufjan has devoted the same time to creating a new future.


In a perfect world, Leonard Bernstein would have written a dozen West Side Stories and another dozen Candides. And there would have been performers of vision ready to champion every one of them.
Marsalis wants to make a music thought dirty into something respectable. Bernstein wanted to make a music thought respectible into something dirty.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

(2)800 Words: Confessions of a Fair Weather Orioles Fan

October 9th, 1996. It’s all I need to say to any Orioles fan before they know exactly what’s coming. But for the rest of you, here’s what happened:

Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. From the American League East - then as now Baseball’s hardest division - the 1996 Orioles eked out the Wild Card berth on the 2nd-to-last day of the season and became the first Wild Card team in Baseball History to win a Division Series. I was there on opening day, and I was there at the third game of the first Division Series. On both days, the Orioles won. I braved eight years of fanatical baseball fandom to await the day when the Orioles would go to the postseason. We had a new owner, Peter Angelos, who hired the best general manager in Baseball - Pat Gillick. And one of the legendary managers in the game's history - Davey Johnson, who happened to be a former Oriole second-baseman with a career-long ambition to manage our team. The names of our 1996 lineup still ring in my ears: Brady Anderson, Roberto Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff, Chris Hoiles, Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Mike Devereaux. A rotation that included Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, David Wells. Jesse Orosco and Alan Mills in middle relief and Randy Myers as the closer. Even the names of the subs; Billy Ripken, Jeffrey Hammonds, Luis Polonia, Todd Zeile, Tony Tarasco, Gregg Zaun, Pete Incaviglia; still ring out for me. It was a very good September.

But then came the night of October 9th - the night I almost threw my parents’ television out the window. It was the night I lost baseball. It was the night I realized that I’d wasted my time following a game that could be as fixed as wrestling. It was the night a 12-year-old Yankee fan stole a Derek Jeter fly ball which Tony Tarasco would have caught, and pulled it over the right field wall. The umpire, Richie Garcia, was a mere ten feet away. Yet he called it a home run. The Orioles were winning in the bottom of the 8th, 4-3. Jeter tied the score and the Yankees won in the bottom of the 11th on a Bernie Williams home run. In a life as full of bad days as any which an upper-middle-class Jewish kid from the Baltimore suburbs can have, I still remember it as one of the worst. It was the day I lost Baseball.

The Washington Post called Jeffrey Maier “The symbol of Orioles Futility.” Even the picture of his catch made him look like he was mocking us. But Jeffrey Maier was two years younger than me. He was an upper-middle-class Jewish kid from the Jersey suburbs. This kid got to sit behind the Yankee dugout for the postseason’s duration, he got to appear on David Letterman and Rudy Giuliani presented him with the Keys to the City. All I got was the satisfaction of knowing that I didn’t destroy my parents’ TV.

In retrospect, the real villain was Richie Garcia. I think anybody who knows baseball knows why. Umpires wanted to take a stand against the Orioles, and weren’t above anything to make it. They, like many fans, were angry at the spitting incident thirteen days earlier. Roberto Alomar - the greatest second baseman since Joe Morgan and otherwise legendary class act - spat on umpire John Hirschbeck after he disputed a bad call. During a heated dispute, Hirschbeck used a certain six-letter word against Alomar. Alomar, long rumored to be gay, responded by spitting in Hirschbeck’s face. Alomar was quoted the next day, saying that Hirschbeck’s personality had changed since the death of his son. Hirschbeck responded a few hours later by accosting Alomar in the Orioles’ clubhouse. We'll never know if the Jeffrey Maier home run was related. But to my thinking, the call was merely the cap to one of the ugliest incidents in Baseball History.

But regardless, it was the home run that made me stop following baseball. Some years afterward, I would still ‘follow’ it. Some years I would tune in for a division championship or a World Series and play catch up with the developments of the year. But never again did I have a passion for this sport or any other.

Baseball was my sport. It was my only sport. I’m sure that in another lifetime I could have developed a passion for basketball or soccer. But it took twenty-five years of my life and a season as the worst JV lineman in the history of high-school sports to admit to myself that I hate football with the heat of a thousand suns. To me, football is a particularly American form of barbarism. Only Americans could love a sport in which people have to cover up their taste for violence with safety padding.

Like every other sport, I was truly terrible at baseball - even by the standards of my 90% Jewish little-league peers. When I was nine, there was a little league game in which I struck out three times with the bases loaded. I told my Dad I never wanted to play little league again, and he didn’t utter a peep to discourage me. But all the same, Baseball was my passion. I probably watched or listened to 85% of every inning of every Oriole game between the years 1990 and 1994. I went to the library at least once a week to memorize statistics in a baseball encyclopedia. I begged my parents to either buy or take out every book on baseball I could find. I read up on baseball strategy, history and business. We didn’t have cable at my house, so I would occasionally beg my parents to let me study at friends’ houses just so I could watch Baseball Tonight.

And it was this knowledge of baseball that probably saved me from a certain level of social periahdom. To be sure, I was a drooling nerd and picked on after the fashion which stupid cool kids have preferred from time immemorial. But I was rarely beaten up, never dogpiled and generally given a level of preferential treatment among nerdly outcasts. I, a socially awkward violin geek who preferred Beethoven to Michael Jackson and Nirvana, was the baseball expert of my school. So whereas other nerds had nothing to save them from bullies’ worst excesses, there was at least one reason why they wouldn’t accost me. If the cool kids ever had a fight about whether Harmon Killebrew had more home runs than Willie McCovey, who would they ask if they were too mean to me?

The era of my childhood was nearly the most innocent in Baseball History. There were neither major scandals, nor landmark records broken, nor inquisitions into foul play. From 1989 to 1994, only two troubling thoughts which loomed.

1. Why couldn't the Orioles ever break the 90-game barrier?
2. Why is there always talk about a strike?

The talk was incessant for my entire childhood. Players could make as much as $5 million a year. Teams could take in nearly $100 million a year in revenue. Yet neither was satisfied. The players claimed that they were acting in the interests of rank-and-file players. But the minimum a player earns is $400,000 a year. That seems impressive until you realize that Alex Rodriguez makes $32 million this year. The owners claimed that they were acting in the interest of small market teams. The average team made a revenue of $197 million last year. Again, this is impressive until you realize that the New York Yankees made $441 million in revenue last year.

To wonder if the deregulation of baseball is a symptom of a larger problem is not mere fancy. Like it was at every stage of 20th-century history, the health of Baseball marks the health of the country. It should come as no surprise that Free Agency developed in 1973, and with it came salaries run amok. It was exactly the same year as the Arab oil crisis. which led to the American capital crisis whose effects we feel today more than ever. The parallels between Baseball and America run together with an invisible thread. Baseball IS America, and its decline is as much America’s as its own.

I can’t say I was particularly surprised when I found out that my favorite Oriole was accused of steroid use. Nobody was more excited than I when Rafael Palmeiro came to the Orioles. Even when he was on the Texas Rangers, he was a favorite of mine. Watching Raffie, I could imagine what it must have felt like to watch other teams - teams that won. Like everybody, I loved Cal. But Cal was all character - win or lose, he was ready. But with one stroke of the bat, Palmiero reminded us that winning was an option.

In 1996, the O’s set the all-time record for home runs by a team. The record they broke was the legendary 1961 Yankees of Mantle and Maris. Summer camp friends from New York assured me that the O’s could never do it without steroids. But I really did believe that our scrawny ne’er-do-well left fielder, Brady Anderson, could hit 50 home runs purely on the power of Orioles Magic.

Anybody who remembers the Baseball World of the late 90’s will remember all the talk of a ‘juiced’ ball. According to this conspiracy theory: it wasn’t steroids which caused the massive home run uptick, it wasn’t a corked bat, it was the ball itself. It was reasoned that the owners must have conspired to renovate the baseball into a ball that was more aerodynamic. A baseball that traveled further would entail more home runs. More home runs would entail more attendance. The speculation wasn’t quite as weird as all that. Before the 1920 season, in the aftermath of the Black Sox scandal, it was decided that a livelier ball would be used so that players, particularly Babe Ruth, could hit more home runs. The home run saved baseball from ruin many times.

But it was not a juiced ball. It was juice. It was injections of anabolic steroids which could move players up ten shirt sizes from year to year. It’s difficult to imagine how blind we must have been to not see the difference, but winning is powerful stuff. There is nothing that activates the will to remain in denial like success.

But even if Brady and Raffie were on steroids, there was something about that 1996 playoff that feels cruel. Until that catch, momentum was on the Orioles’ side. But who could ever survive such a humiliating downturn in Yankee Stadium? It was yet another yank at the intestines of a town that had yet to find a replacement for the departure of our beloved Colts in 1984. All my Yankee-fan friends (yes, I have some) like to say the same thing, the series would have ended the same way regardless. The Yankees would have handed the Orioles their asses on a platter, with or without Jeffrey Maier. Perhaps they're right, but we’ll never know. No matter what happened, Yankee fans of my generation must always deal with the fact that the greatest dynasty in Sports History was resurrected because of help from a 12-year-old.

This is not only the plight of the Orioles. This is the plight of small market teams around America. This is the plight of every small market city in America. In America’s Golden Age, the playing field was more or less level. A factory worker, businessman or baseball player from Baltimore or Pittsburgh could have the same opportunities and benefits as a factory worker, businessman or baseball player from New York or Philadelphia. Even in the best of times, the advantage goes to larger-market cities. But in earlier eras, there was more hope for competition - even if it was false hope. That day is gone. Yankee fans of my generation like to point to the ‘Moneyball’ example of the small-market Oakland A’s being competitive in the generally unimpressive AL West division. But Oakland is the exception that proves the rule. If Oakland is an example to the rest of us small market cities, why has no one followed it?

With all the disappointments of the steroids era, everybody was affected. There is not a single baseball fan whose heroes were not tarnished. But there is an argument to be made that nobody got tarnished like the Orioles. We hadn’t had a winning season since 1997, but 2005 looked to be the year things would change. Raffie and BJ were back to close out their careers and we started the year hot. The experts said we’d cool off, but nobody thought it would be another sub-500 season.

Raffie was back in town for his 500th home run and his 3000th hit and he announced that he would go into the Hall of Fame as an Oriole. It was the year we looked hopeful again. After seven losing years, it was beginning to look safe to go to Oriole Park. But we didn’t count on the one thing that could bring spirits down. The steroid hurricane was about to hit baseball, and Rafael Palmeiro would be its most mangled victim.

Palmeiro was the first high-profile player to be subpoenaed by congress. No one had any way of knowing yet how serious the investigation would be or how deep the coverup went. As odd as it seems to say this, perjury seemed like a viable option for ballplayers in mid-2005. And so Palmeiro was the only player to issue a complete, finger-wagging denial of steroid use under oath. And by doing that, he ruined his chances for the Hall of Fame, the morale of the 2005 Orioles, and contributed to the demoralization of every subsequent Oriole team. Raffie was the great blessing of Orioles past, he is the curse of Orioles present. Palmeiro may be elected to the Hall of Fame in the far future. I certainly hope he does: if Barry Bonds can get in, Raffie deserves it too. But we can be sure that of all the marquee players of the Steroid Era, he will be the last.

We Oriole fans have joked about the source of our misfortune for years. Even when we were a good team we had jokes about it. Boston had the "Curse of the Bambino," we had the "Curse of Frank Robinson." In 1966, the Cincinnati Reds owner Bill DeWitt decided that Frank Robinson was ‘an old 30.’ So DeWitt traded him to the Orioles for the Orioles pitching ace, Milt Pappas, and two unknowns. Pappas was never the same, but 1966 was the year Frank Robinson won the Triple Crown (lead the league in batting average, RBI’s and home runs) and lead the Orioles to their first ever World Series victory. Since Robinson, the Orioles never seemed to execute a trade that was anything but abysmal.

Bad trades are only one of many, many sources of misfortune . But even if the current Orioles were excellently run. Even if they weren't owned by one of the most incompetent and micromanaging owners in the history of American sports, they wouldn’t do much better than they’re doing now. The cards are stacked against teams like the Orioles. In a world where competition is dominated by half-a-dozen teams, the smaller markets can’t compete. They can’t even come in second.

In the wake of the strike, there was a golden opportunity to change everything about baseball. We could have seen revenue sharing, salary caps, an agreement to give fans a break on ticket prices. Major League Baseball could have won America back by making Baseball a better game again. But rather than take the simple steps to improve baseball of regulating revenues and salaries to establish fairer competition, the powers that be chose another way to bring fans back. They turned a blind eye to steroid use - ruining the subtlety of America's most perfect game and replacing it with a bunch of grotesque pituitary cases who turned the only American game I love into a cross between the testosterone-laden simple-mindedness of football and the spine-tingling excitement of golf.

It’s now 2011. Davey Johnson and Pat Gillick are working in the same jobs. Only they’re 40 miles south, trying to do for the Washington Nationals what they should have done for the Orioles. To me, the very existence of the Nationals is yet another nail, perhaps the definitive nail, in the Orioles’ coffin.

The Orioles used to be a large market team. A full one-third of Orioles' attendance was from the Washington Metro Area. Two major cities supported the O’s and one lacked either football or basketball. But how could the Orioles possibly build such a community today? Every year I listen to the ritual of Oriole fans telling themselves ‘Maybe this year will be different.” And it never is. Fans have stopped coming to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Oriole revenues are as low as revenues get in Major League Baseball. The day may come when an owner decides that the team can make more money in a city with better fortunes than Baltimore’s.

Today came our ultimate nadir. Oriole Legend Mike Flanagan committed suicide. Flanagan was a legendary pitcher, coach, broadcaster and general manager of the Orioles. Many people clamored him to be the O's manager. He was a beloved figure in Baltimore and an all-around nice guy. But he apparently killed himself today because he thought people blamed him for the woes of the present day Orioles. Experiences in sports do not get lower than this.

At this point, the Orioles' departure wouldn’t be a tragedy for me. I lost the Orioles fifteen years ago. But that would be a tragedy for people I love - particularly my brothers. For fifteen years, I’ve watched Jordan and Ethan watch the Orioles. While I read or listened to music, they'd watch the games and argue about all the same statistics and strategy which I used to give them 1-hour-histories of on request (and sometimes not on request). They’re forever optimistic about the O’s. If the O’s don’t win this year, there will always be next year. And they continually assure me that there will always be a next year and that one day we will all be able to take our kids to see the O’s: win or lose. I really, really want to believe them.

Quote of the Night:

Jordan: It's terrible. Orioles legend Mike Flanagan committed suicide because he thought people blamed him for the descent of the team.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The French let this run on television. We would all be very different people if we lived there.

h/t Le Malon.

Four Chords

...this is why it's easier to write something great in pop music than classical or jazz. That is all :).

h/t Le Malon

Gergiev's Mahler

...continually gets bad reviews. But I hear things like the stupendous video below and I wonder how that can possibly be. So many artists fail because they risk too little, Gergiev fails because he bets the house on every throw. Gergiev may be erratic, but he's also the most larger-than-life conductor of our time. When he's good, nobody in the world is better.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quote of the Afternoon:

The McBee: wow, some dude from some agency of the city of baltimore just warned people not to lean against buildings...
we really attract america's best and brightest, don't we.

Quote of the Day:

Jordan: A little later I'm going over to Harris Teeter to see if they have any Earthquake Specials

Earthquake Playlist

Stravinsky/Disney: Extinction

Elvis: Shake, Rattle and Roll

Berlioz: Tuba Mirum

Outkast: Hey Ya

Haydn: The Heavens are Telling

Papa Charlie Jackson: Shake Your Thing

John Adams: Shaker Loops

Eminem/Nate Dogg: Shake That Ass

John Adams: I was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky

Lil Wayne: Earthquake

Handel: Thus Saith The Lord

Link Wray: Fire and Brimstone

Beethoven: Pastoral Symphony 4th movement

Carole King: I Feel the Earth Move

AC/DC: Shook Me All Night Long

Strauss: Alpine Symphony Thunderstorm

U2: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Mahler: From Inferno to Paradise

Elvis: I'm All Shook Up

Wagner: Die Walkure Overture

Kylie Minogue: Locomotion

Verdi: Otello (opening)

The Beatles: Twist and Shout

Britten: Peter Grimes Sea Interlude

Blink 182: The Rock Show

Brahms: Denn Wir Haben Mir

Liszt: Totentanz

Queen: We Will Rock You

Nielsen Symphony no 4: Last Movement

Led Zepplin: You Shook Me

Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter

Sheryl Crow: There Goes The Neighborhood

The Temptations: Papa Was a Rolling Stone

The Beastie Boys: Body Movin'

Monday, August 22, 2011

How To Play Bruckner

Wilhelm Furtwangler. Berlin Philharmonic. 1942. Who has ever played Bruckner like this before or since? The final five minutes is perhaps the most searingly intense example of great music making I know.

Anyone who wants to understand what makes Furtwangler the most larger than life, transcendent podium presence there has ever been (which is not the same as saying the 'greatest'), you must read this article.

I'm in my Bruckner hangover phase. Long may it continue.

800 Words: Yes He Has: Obama Delivered, You Didn't

"The weakness of impotence is related to a fear of responsibility - a fear, that is, of making concrete decisions and being held to account for concrete consequences. Problems are much simpler when viewed from the office of a liberal weekly than when viewed in terms of what will actually happen when certain ideologically attractive steps are taken.

``Too often the Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.

``Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.

"Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion. The pretext for progressive rhetoric is, of course, the idea that man, the creature of reason and benevolence, has only to understand the truth in order to act upon it.

``But the function of progressive rhetoric is another matter; it is, in Dwight MacDonald's phrase, to accomplish "in fantasy what cannot be accomplished in reality." Because politics is for the Doughface a means of accommodating himself to a world he does not like but does not really want to change, he can find ample gratification in words. They appease his twinges of guilt without committing him to very drastic action.

``Thus the expiatory role of resolutions in progressive meetings. A telegram of protest to a foreign chancellery gives the satisfaction of a job well done and a night's rest well earned. The Doughfaces differ from Mr. Churchill: dreams, they find, are better than facts.

``Progressive dreams are tinged with a brave purity, a rich sentiment and a noble defiance. But, like most dreams, they are notable for the distortion of facts by desire."

Arthur Schlesinger: The Vital Center

Anyone who wants liberalism to succeed in a world where authoritarianism lurks at every corner must read Arthur Schlesinger’s 1949 book: The Vital Center. It was the book that laid the groundwork for 20 years of liberal dominance and gave liberals all the rebuttals they needed to conservative smear tactics. But just as important was its vociferous denunciation of Democrats too uncompromising to be bothered with governing. When a leader makes the compromises necessary to implement his agenda, there are inevitably howls of betrayal from people who would rather see no deviation from the desired results than give up on their dreams. One of the most important keys to effectively govern is to prevent those who would stop compromise from gaining leverage over policy. Compromise is life, and without it there is only fanaticism and death.

It is one of the weird ironies of history that FDR is now used as a blunt instrument to clobber Obama for his inadequacies. Seventy-five years ago, the blunt instrument was Abraham Lincoln, and progressives used Lincoln tirelessly to whip FDR. Seventy-five years before that, progressives (ironically then called ‘Radical Republicans’) used any instrument they could find to beat Abraham Lincoln for being too moderate. Anybody who gives themselves too quickly to a cause doesn’t really believe in it.

Four years ago, I did not like Barack Obama. Don’t get me wrong - I voted for him in the primary. John Edwards managed to repaint himself as a social populist when only four years before he was a politically moderate corporate shill. Republicans would have tarred and feathered Hilary Clinton with all the brushes we’d not seen since the last Clinton administration. If you think the Obama White House had it bad, just imagine another Clinton facing Mitch McConnell...

But there was something about the mass passion Obama inspired that was, and is, irrational. Irrational well past the point of passion and into the realm of dangerous. At least Bill Clinton gave the appearance of appealing to people’s reason. For all his sugar-coated empathy, it took two minutes of watching Clinton to see that this was a man with no compunctions about miring himself in the mud to get what he wants. And whereas Bill Clinton looked dirty at his first stump speech, Obama seemed untouched by muck. Obama offered an utterly false promise of a world without partisanship and ideology. He spoke to people’s longing for a world where we could make a clean break with the past and push the reset button on all the developments of America’s past fifty years. Just as Bush’s two elections were a monument to the naivete of a right-wing too stupid to realize how they sabotage their own interests. The entire Obama movement was a towering monument to the arrogance and naivete of generation of American progressives too spoiled to stop the right from destroying the country.

But contrary to popular opinion, liberal democracies rarely get the leaders they deserve - they get the leaders they elect. The Obama movement deserved Howard Dean, the mirror image of their perfect politician: A volatile demagogue who would keep liberalism in the minority for yet another generation. Instead, they got President Obama, the most effective leader America has had in more than half-a-century; and the last best hope for our generation to avoid the cataclysms that inevitably come to be when a world power is in decline. Barack Obama saves us from economic depression. He gives us near-universal health care. He captures Osama bin-Laden. He reverses a century-long policy of America supporting Arab dictatorships. He reduces the stockpile of nuclear weapons. He raises fuel-efficiency standards. He raises the standard of pay for women. He lifts the ban on stem-cell research. He resurrects the American auto industry. He raises funding to prevent violence against women. He protects borrowers in student loans. He holds defense contractors accountable. He bans torture in interrogations. He protects the poor from corrupt credit card companies. He protects the poor from corrupt health insurance companies. He expands hate-crime legislation to include sexual orientation. In eight years, Bill Clinton, that dirty fighter, did not do this much to advance liberal causes. In everything he’s managed to do, Obama has proven the far dirtier, and deadlier, fighter than Clinton. All that Obama has achieved was done against the backdrop of two government branches that will do everything they can to see him fail at the expense of the country’s well-being. The Republicans may yet succeed in rolling back every one of Obama’s landmark achievements. Time and again, Obama has proved the one pillar that prevented this country from disasters far greater than those of which progressives have warned.

And yet Obama is still not good enough for them.

Barack Obama’s rise was made possible by a movement of people who felt too entitled to engage problems meaningfully. But against their expectations (and mine), Obama engages problems more meaningfully than any President since the postwar era. He, in the debt ceiling negotiations more than ever before, demonstrated the capacity to be another Roosevelt or Lincoln - a truly transformative leader who defines an era. He may yet be the reason that America does not fall into a collapse the likes of which we cannot yet imagine. But if he falls, it will in part be made possible by the rage of entitled people who are too angry that they didn’t get everything they wanted to effectively mobilize for him. We could be fifteen months away from a Rick Perry Presidency. We would have a President who just two years ago said that Texas might secede from the union. Just last week, Perry subtly incited the American people to violence against Fed Chair Ben Bernancke, only for the crime of saving America from economic depression (soon to be twice). If the commitment from liberals to keep Obama President is lacking, Rick Perry could very well be our President. Contrary to the opinion of many self-proclaimed liberals, there is still a much better option than Rick Perry. The Obama movement deserved a demagogue. They got a leader.

Late Night Thoughts on Bruckner's Fifth Symphony

I've spent the last three hours of my life listening to two performances of Bruckner's 5th symphony. One by the most legendary orchestra/conductor combination of our time, one by a Scottish Radio Orchestra.

I've come to two conclusions:

1. The Scottish Radio Orchestra won handily.

Claudio Abbado's Lucerne Performance sounded like a great orchestra playing without a conductor. Claudio Abbado came to Bruckner too late and his conception of Bruckner wreaks of wishy-washiness. Half-measures (no pun intended) work in Brahms, whose music is bathed in subtlety and moderation. But Bruckner's is the music of a fanatic. There is no way to civilize Bruckner and a conductor must as much strength and extremity in his convictions as Bruckner did. You either have to go with extreme tempo and dynamic fluctuations a la Furtwangler/Jochum/Barenboim or you have to have absolute consistency a la Klemperer/Bohm/Haitink. There is no in between. So Claudio Baby, can we please just have another Brahms cycle instead?

The power of Ilan Volkov's conception dwarfed Abbado's. As a Brucknerian, Volkov is squarely in the latter, 'rigorist', camp. His performance reminded me of Karl Bohm's antique recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden (late 30's?). If I prefer the 'interventionist' approach in Bruckner, it's because Bruckner's repetition can be interminable and a Furtwangler or a Jochum gets the freedom to shape the music whatever way he needs to in order to minimize the redundancies. Even if Volkov's performance had the inevitable dry spots, it was a wonderful performance of a valid conception. Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony's PROMS performance demonstrated Bruckner's compositional rigor in every bar. Few conductors have better pointed Bruckner's kinship with Beethoven. An enormously commendable achievement from a conductor who's already somewhat fallen off the map and never ceases to surprise me (in good and bad ways).

2. I can't listen to Bruckner for the next three months.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

New Thoughts on the Proms

Das Klagende Lied - Until now, I hadn't been particularly impressed with Edward Gardiner. But this performance of Das Klagende Lied had the Mahlerian fire. It was a youthful performance of a youthful work: perhaps a bit overpropulsive but no less exciting for that. I'd never heard the work sound so modern, so surreal, so innovative. Other conductors might be better at pointing up the similarities to Mahler's later music, but Gardiner met the piece on its own terms and proved an excellent guide all the same.

Oramo's Nielsen I'm not sure Oramo gets Sibelius, as he gave a rather bland performance of Sibelius's 6th. But he definitely gets Nielsen. Even if this didn't have the incinerating fire of Osmo Vanska's Nielsen 4 of some years ago, this was an excellent performance. Detail after detail emerged with crystal clarity. Nielsen is a composer finally coming into his own in our day. If you haven't grown up with his music, it's very difficult to get the idiom - which is both fleet and massive. You have to use all the weight of a Wagnerian orchestra and balance that weight with all the agility required in a Haydn Quartet. Oramo clearly gets that. Here's hoping for a Nielsen cycle from him and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic before long.

Steve Reich: I really wish they'd have performed some of his later music, which is frankly more interesting. But these were fine performances of Reich's modern classics. It's just a shame that the earlier stuff, pleasing but nondescript, gets so much more attention than his later music - which is the work of a genuinely great artist.

Gergiev's Swan Lake Swan Lake is the worst of Tchaikovsky's Ballet Scores - which is a bit like calling Cosi fan Tutte the worst of Mozart's Da Ponte Operas. Tchaikovsky's ballets still don't get enough respect. They are three of the greatest scores of the nineteenth century and the finest things he ever wrote. Swan Lake has longeurs, but Gergiev's propulsive baton minimizes the bad moments and milks everything else for maximum excitement. I don't know how dancers keep up with Gergiev, I know that sometimes the sloppiness is unforgivable, and I'm certainly aware that Gergiev's is not the only way to play Tchaikovsky. But when there is this much passion and character, who cares? At his best, Valery Gergiev has a once-in-a-generation talent for creating awe-inspiring experiences. Before him, there was Bernstein. Before Bernstein, there was Furtwangler.

Salonen's Stravinsky Living or dead, there has never been a greater Stravinsky conductor than Esa-Pekka. And his insights only grow with time. This was as great a reading of Petrushka as I ever hope to hear. Except Monteux, no conductor has conducted Petrushka with this much rhythmic freedom. What, you say? Rhythmic freedom? From Esa-Pekka Salonen? Just listen, it's on the BBC website for another three days. Like all the great masters, he knows the exact pressure points of the score and knows precisely how to shape so that the structure is enhanced, not distorted. His Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich were at their best in the passages that sounded most like Stravinsky. But Salonen's Stravinsky alone could assure his place as one of the all-time great conductors.

(thoughts on Bruckner, Haitink/Brahms and Britten later)

800 Words: How to Save The Simpsons

August 23rd,1998. We’d waited all summer long for The Simpsons Season 10 premiere. Season 9 ended in May with an episode called "Natural Born Kissers," during which Homer and Marge develop a taste for sex in public places. An instant classic. The Simpsons looks to be on a run without precedent: entering its second decade of 23 episodes a season with no demonstrable decline in quality. Greatest. Show. Ever.

What’s next?

I’m going into my junior year at Beth Tfiloh Community High School. I sit down with Jordan, Ethan and my father to watch the opener I’ve been pining for all summer. It opens with the usual 10-minute subplot. Homer and Bart see an ad on television for the benefits of having a nuclear power plant next to the water. At the end of the commercial, Mr. Burns announces the Grand Opening of Springfield Heavy Water Park: complete with waterslides, spraygrounds, lazy rivers, and the world’s largest Tidal Wave every five minutes (with footage of an old Japanese tsunami accompanying). Bart is entranced, Homer says this is awful, until Mr. Burns announces: “and for the grownups we even have a river of beer.” Then comes Smithers’s voiceover saying very quickly “The water in the river of beer is not beer, however, ingesting large quantities of it will get you drunk.” Homer is sold immediately. Mr. Burns closes by saying - “After all, would Springfield ever have a water park if there were any chance of the town’s children getting radioactive poisoning from the water?”

They both rush to tell Marge and Lisa, who disapprovingly stand over a newspaper article about the Heavy Water Park. Lisa lectures them about how this is putting the town at pointless risk. Marge agrees with Lisa until Maggie accidentally turns on the radio and they all hear Mr. Burns say “And by the way, we have a special nuclear power knitting competition. Whoever knits best, knits with power.” Marge says ‘We’re going.”

The line for the park’s Grand Opening wraps around the plant, and then goes into the plant and into the radiation chamber and beyond. The Simpsons are, of course, not there yet. In the car, Lisa once again says that we are pointlessly endangering our own lives by going to a water park next to a nuclear plant. Bart replies that he, for one, is looking forward to swimming in nuclear waste and will find the shiniest pool he can on the offchance it makes him into a superhero. Marge replies “Now Bart, I’m sure that the nuclear waste will give you cancer before it makes you into a superhero.” Marge gets her knit diorama of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. They step out of the car, go up to the line. But when they get there, Jimbo points out that Homer is missing his bathing suit and completely nude. The entire line laughs at him and they have to go home for Homer to change.

At the front of the water park, Mayor Quimby announces the grand opening, and gives a giant pair of scissors to Mr. Burns so that he may cut the ribbon. Mr. Burns, of course, falls down when handed the scissors, so Smithers cuts it instead. And the whole line immediately tramples all three of them. We see individual scenes of people having fun at the park. We see Nelson pushing Martin down a waterslide head-first. We see Groundskeeper Willie lifeguarding the pool, and when Chief Wiggum tries to get Ralph about to dive off the shallow end, he says “Oh my God Nah! (brief pause) You gotta put yar arms sepparrately, not togetharr.” We see Rod Flanders ask their Dad if Satan’s work is in the water, whereupon Ned answers that God made rich people to tell us what’s right and wrong.

By the time the Simpsons come back, there’s no line. Everybody is crowded around something and Mrs. Lovejoy is screaming. What’s all the commotion? Millhouse fights his way out of the crowd and comes up to Bart. “Hey Bart, I have a chest hair and my voice changed!”

But it’s not Pamela Hayden’s voice anymore. It’s Barry White’s.

(Cut to Commercial...)

Evan: What the fuck...

Mom: (from the next room) EVAN!

Evan: Sorry Mom, you gotta see this.

Dad: Wait. So was it the radiation that causes Milhouse to have a different voice?

Evan: Probably.

Ethan: Is Mr. Burns going to jail?

Jordan: I like the thing with Groundskeeper Willie.

(The Simpsons resumes)

The family sits on the couch, watching Kent Brockman report on the discovery of a ten year old whose voice “reminds you of the sweet silken sounds of your Prom afterparty.” The camera cuts to Milhouse strapped to a bed in a laboratory with test tubes in every direction. Milhouse says to the camera: “My mom told me puberty doesn’t happen until after you stop bed-wetting.”

Over the course of the next ten minutes, Lisa uncovers a shocking conspiracy. It’s revealed that it was not nuclear power at all which caused Milhouse’s voice to deepen. It was good, ol-fashioned puberty. Ten years ago, Professor Frink came up with an invisible force-field that could freeze the ageing process of Springfield’s residents.All the town’s residents would remain exactly as they were ten years ago, and so long as they stayed in good health could live forever (cue Homer eating jokes). But the force-field has broken down. The magnetism of the force-field came from a “metal so rare that the chance of finding more is truly, truly laughable. More laughable than the chances of surviving a black hole implosion in your back yard. I ask you Lisa, is that not laughable?”

(Second commercial)

Jordan: Wow.

Ethan: Are The Simpsons going to get older now?

Mom: I think so.

Dad: Well how could they keep The Simpsons going much longer if they didn't. The Simpsons couldn't possibly run another ten years with the exact same characters as they have right now.

Evan: No. No they couldn't.

(The Simpsons resumes)

Moe wakes up to find his face still more wrinkled and cries. Patti and Selma brush their hair in the bathroom (with synchronized strokes) and suddenly notice that their grey hair has turned more grey, they both scream. At breakfast, Ralph Wiggum is loses a tooth and his horrified mother comments “...and you didn’t even bite your spoon this time!”

As reports of looting and chaos lurk all around Springfield, Lisa assembles everyone in town hall and tells them what Professor Frink told her. Silence for a moment. Then everybody laughs. Why is everybody laughing? Marge goes to the stage and explains that every adult knew about Professor Frink’s “life ray.” It could keep them alive with their children forever and spare everyone the terrors of death. Lisa is shocked...

Lisa: You mean....people get older?
Marge: Yes they do. And we’re going to have to get used to getting older too.
Professor Frink: If only I knew why it stopped working.
Apu: I think this may explain something.

Apu puts in a video cassette and a video plays behind Lisa on a screen. The video displays footage of Homer behind the Quik-y-Mart, seeing a candy bar and trying to pass through the forcefield so he can grab it. He getting electrocuted five times until he gets a rageful running start and plows through it.

….Closing shot of the whole town sitting with jaws dropped. Homer whistling non-challantly as he sneaks out of the theater.


After the first decade, The Simpsons got old by staying young. Homer and Marge never reached middle age, Bart and Lisa never reached adolescence, and Maggie never got a personality of her own. Just think of what was missed. We’ll never get to see Bart get his comeuppance from Homer conspiring with the grandson Bart had with Cletus’s daughter out of wedlock. We never got to see Lisa get into a fictional Ivy League school where she becomes engaged to the socially concious egghead of her dreams, only to divorce him for something petty at the end of their wedding episode and marry Milhouse on the rebound. We’ll never get to see Homer’s exhaustion from Marge’s post-Menopausal libido - or Martin returning to be a Professor at Springfield University with a boyfriend in tow, or Nelson become a rich ambulance chaser, or Ralph Wiggum defeat Mayor Quimby in a mayoral election.

People usually date The Simpson’s decline to Season 10. Truth be told, it wasn’t a bad year. This was the year of Homer emulating Thomas Edison, and the Jerry Springer Halloween episode, and Pinchie the Lobster, and Max Power, and the Battling Seizure Robots. But compared to years past, the number of classic scenes was paltry. Ever since, the great moments seem to grow fewer by the year. The Simpsons has plowed through 11 more years in what can only be considered a concerted attempt to self-sabotage the legacy what was once the greatest TV show of all time.

Decline is rare among television shows. Much rarer than among movie directors or poets. TV is littered with shows that were cancelled too soon, but far fewer were cancelled too late. It’s hard enough to get a TV show on the air, let alone keep it on. If a TV show declines, it’s almost always replaced to give some other masochistic schmuck a chance. But one look at salary figures tells you precisely why it’s still on the air. When it began, the principle voiceover actors got $30,000 an episode. Today, they get $400,000. Matt Groening now pulls in roughly $18 million a year, and has a total net worth of $500 million. Money corrupts as much as power.

This isn’t a post to talk about what makes The Simpsons great. Just to marvel at how they’ve let that greatness spoil. The truth is, even when the Simpsons is a hollow shell of its former self (i.e. 95% of the time), it’s still more original than 3 out of 4 shows on television. But 3 out of 4 is a pathetic average for a show that once had Ozzie Smith get sucked into an alternate dimension or had Homer talk to an imaginary coyote voiced by Johnny Cash. If the people who made The Simpsons wanted it to be as good as it once was, they’d have tried harder. Maybe they wouldn’t succeed, but at least we’d see the effort.

The truth is that The Simpsons was always a show that gained its power from bending the line of plausibility. The show was composed of characters that looked, sounded and sometimes acted as though they were from another solar system. Yet they also seemed exactly like us. It was the first TV show with the flexibility to do anything from the surreal-est laugh gags to reducing us to tears. No TV show ever lived in a universe as large as The Simpsons, and few have ever dared to try.

What happened? The Simpsons’ universe got too large - so large that it couldn’t bend any further. It simply broke apart. Instead of concentrating on the perils and rewards of life in The Simpsons universe, the focus broadened in ways that it never should. Every time Fox cut a deal for another country to air the show, The Simpsons seemed to take a family trip. Parodies that used to last thirty seconds would last an entire episode. We got dozens of episodes featuring minor characters that should never have been made. They would be worked into the fabric of The Simpsons’ lives in a completely implausable way, clearly as a smokescreen to keep the Simpsons family as the primary focus. It never worked, but they’ve plowed the same soil for a decade, hoping for a different result every season.

They’ve been plowing bad soil for longer than they ever plowed good land. Whether on TV or in a dusty volume of poetry, artistic genius can be fickle. Whitman and Wordsworth both had ten years of great poetry before they turned out decades worth of crap. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have not directed great movies since the 70’s. The Rolling Stones still coast on a reputation earned 40 years ago. There is nothing more pathetic than seeing something once great reduced to mediocrity. In 200 years, people will watch the early Simpsons episodes and still marvel at how great a comedy it was. But they’ll get to the second decade and quickly realize that the comedy turns tragic.