Thursday, January 31, 2013

800 Words: An Immodest Proposal for Corporate Power


If you can call it work, then I work at the very fringe of Corporate America. I work as an associate an incorporated real estate and investment firm whose partners, associates, file clerks, and amanuenses are comprised of myself, my father, my mother, and my two brothers. Though it would no doubt have its advantages, we do not hire so much as a secretary. Of the five of us, I am the employee with by far the least ambition for ‘advancement.’ I deliberately keep myself at the very bottom of the chain of command - working as close to the mailroom as one can get when five people work in a firm whose members are your immediate family. The reason for this is absurdly simple - I have little mind for business and still less interest. I hope one day to leave the boondocks of Corporate America before we find ourselves at the heart of it, and I have no doubt whatsoever that my brothers are as gifted at finance as I am incompetent, and can reach the peak of influence. My aim is simple, to remain the idiot son in a reasonably lucrative small firm for ten more years or so, and by the time I’m forty I hope to make enough money as a musician and/or writer that I can declare my partial independence from the partnership so I needn’t be known as the idiot brother in a much, much, larger financial firm with my family at the head.

Two years in ‘finance’ have certainly given me more appreciation for its importance to the world, and a bit more sympathy for the worldview of those who work within it. That doesn’t mean that there’s any great magic to it. “It’s no secret how to make a lot of money...” said Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane “...if all you care about is making a lot of money.” That’s certainly true. It takes very little imagination to make money, but it takes painstaking devotion and an overwhelming desire to work hard with an infinite variety of byzantine forms of analysis as means to maximize profits - and even then, the ability to do well in finance is by no means guaranteed. Would you make more money if you decided which companies to invest in on a dartboard? Well... I won’t lie, there’s still a 1% chance, but an ignorant investor is less likely in the extreme to make nearly as much money.

Because I’m in finance, I suppose I’m a member of what has increasingly come to be seen as the American Aristocracy. Please don’t misunderstand, if I am, I’m the lowliest country squire (and a pretty incompetent one at that), but it can’t be argued with: when you have enough money to base your occupation around money, it means you’re living with at least a very small silver spoon.

It’s very difficult to fathom what it must have taken for my family to get to this point. To think that a family that barely escaped the jaws of Hitler (and Stalin, and Lenin, and Czar Nicholas, and Pilsudski, and the Polish-Soviet War...) could have come to America and done something rather near to thrive is its own sort of miracle - yet entirely explicable.

For an upper-middle class man of his mid-to-late sixties, my father comports himself in a manner that can only be called abstemious to the point of caricature. He never uses a teabag less than thrice, scouts every store in town for their sales, gives fake names so he can get first-time customer discounts twice over, refuses to buy brand-name products (and upbraids his children for doing so), and regularly goes to Smythe Jewelers; not so he can buy jewelry, merely so that he can pocket the free freshly-baked cookies they give out to potential customers. But insofar as I know, my father never buried money in his back yard, or gladhanded salesmen with the same bottle of watered-down scotch he kept in his office for decades, or converted thousands of dollars to silver coins or visit the bank once every few weeks simply to make sure there was exactly the same number of those silver coins...

...In one of his many Yiddish sayings, Zaydie Tucker used to say: ‘All Ich Hob Ich Hob Far Aych” (All I have I have for you). He arrived in America virtually penniless in 1947, with my Bubbie and year-old father in tow. Within twenty-five years he’d accumulated enough business interests to turn them over to my father in early 70’s and live his remaining years in semi-retirement as a nominal member of the upper-middle class. But while all of us are technically members of it, we were brought up to penny-pinch like European peasants. Once I finally learn to reign in control of my spending (which, at least for a Tucker, is relatively extravagant), I hope I can preserve our peasant ways for another generation.


Downton Abbey doesn’t suck. It’s simply no more than a decent show which is somewhat ridiculous, absurdly overrated, and a little bit evil. The thought of hundreds of thousands of American Liberals going crazy over a show which advocates outright for the allegedly benevolent autocracy of the landed European gentry is more than a little creepy. We’re clearly meant to feel nostalgia for those simpler times in which everybody ‘knew their place,’ a nostalgia that would erase all the social progress since the French Revolution and have us all dwell in a world where we existed at the whims of feudal lords; not a single one of of whom, I can assure you, was as enlightened in his despotism as the Earl of Grantham.

And yet, every devil has his due. Downton Abbey, loathesome as it sometimes is, does make half of a legitimate point about the greatness of its era. If the world must be run by a form of authoritarian conservatism (though it needn’t be, especially not now), then the autocrats at whose whims the world is run should be people who are expected to be the height of well-behaved, well-read, well-spoken, well-mannered, and good hearted to all those serfs in all but name who exist at their behest. The English aristocracy of a hundred years ago was still an aristocracy, but they were instilled from birth with a sense of obligation to all those into whose care they were entrusted - including the places they ruled imperially, and if you doubt that, consider the fate of British (or French)-ruled colonies as opposed to Belgian-ruled colonies. If English aristocrats did not behave well toward their ‘inferiors’, there was no system of accountability that could hold them responsible except the contempt of their better-hearted peers. But there was, at least, a code of honor which made many of them act in a sense of duty to use their privileged position to make the world a better place.

The world can do, and has done, better since the breakdown of the ancien regime. But what happens if our new, liberal, model falls into permanent disrepair?


The Libertarian movement is not simply a forgivable flaw of people who like small government but support abortion rights and gay marriage. It is the single most dangerous, unnecessary, viciously fungal development in Modern American political life; and I’m ashamed by how many years it took me to realize that. Modern ultra-conservatism is merely the fascism of Franco and Salazar writ extremely small; if the paleo-conservative beliefs of Rick Santorum were exaggerated to their absolute nth degree, you’d establish a dictatorship which merely kills enemies of a Catholic government. The term ‘enemies’ would be defined extremely broadly in such a government, and it would cause untold amounts of suffering, but the point of the regime is nevertheless to coerce people into living, not dying, according to the way the Church instructs them. But an equally exaggerated form of modern libertarianism would be the obverse of Stalin and Mao themselves. Unlike Christianity, libertarianism is, at best, a philosophy indifferent to the life and death of others. But if libertarianism were exaggerated to the absolute nth degree, a government would be powerless to stop even a corporate entity which enslaves or deliberately kills its workers wholesale, or refuses to share its profits as millions of unemployed families starve to death. As unlikely and ridiculous as such a development obviously seems to us now, it may seem all too likely in fifty years if the libertarian movement grows much larger (and it certainly can). Much like the Marxists of a hundred years ago, today’s generation of libertarians may one day look upon what they have wrought with absolute horror. A Generalissimo Santorum would be a cataclysm for our country, but a Party Secretary Rand Paul would be as much the American apocalypse as Stalin was the Russian.

Much as Christianity was an heretical offshoot of Judaism, Communism was an heretical offshoot of Capitalism. To prove this, we’ll have to reduce the arguments of the two philosophies to an absurdly simplistic level:

As Adam Smith would define it, the single primary essence of Capitalism is that the greatest affluence to the greatest possible number of people is to be provided by a free market in which people can trade goods with one another through the means which a division of labor provides - a belief which a generation later would be categorized as ‘utilitarian’, and for all his imperfections, Smith has still never been disproven. However, Karl Marx would define Adam Smith’s utilitarian belief in providing the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people as a mere figleaf through which a select few lucky enough to control the means of production may enslave and alienate those manifold who don’t. Through Karl Marx’s misreading of Adam Smith, he comes to define the single primary essence of Communism - which is that the larger body of workers, an international union of them, will subsume the few who control production’s means and usurp them to create a free, communal, society in which workers control production for themselves.

As a philosophy, libertarianism is based upon a much more accurate reading of Communism than Communism ever was of Capitalism. Libertarianism is not an American idea, it is a Russian one, and based upon a Russian’s misinterpretation of America as much as Communism was based upon a German’s misinterpretation of England. To boil libertarianism down to its most simple essence would not relate it to Adam Smith’s capitalism in the slightest. In fact, it is related to the definition of capitalism by Karl Marx and cannot find an acceptable definition of capitalism except through the prism of Marx himself.

To define Libertarianism in its simplest essence (or “Objectivism,” to use the philosophical term which Ayn Rand acolytes prefer to distinguish their philosophy from their political beliefs), would mean to state that the pursuit of one’s own rational self-interest is the only moral goal on earth worth pursuing, and therefore the only moral government is the one which does not prevent people from pursuing said self-interest. Like many philosophical systems that are more valued by academics (including Marxism), Objectivism is very bad, two-dimensional philosophy which must take religion-like faith in the unprovable in order to believe; but it’s a very real philosophy, and intellectuals dismiss it as mere simple-mindedness at their own peril. But it is completely unrelated to capitalism as it’s been properly defined for nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

Libertarianism and Objectivism, as Ayn Rand defines them, are perfectly indifferent to the question of the maximum possible affluence for the greatest possible number. Randianism is, at its heart, an individualist philosophy, not a material one. But even if Ayn Rand’s philosophy is not materialist in its end, as Marxism is, it is materialist in its means. It begins from the exact same epistemological basis as Marxism, which is that all questions which cannot be proven by sensory perception are superfluous - an idea which Marx got from Ludwig Feuerbach, a Hegel pupil whose philosophy hinged on the thought that all metaphysical beliefs are nothing but a projection of a person’s inward nature. But from this materialist base, Rand’s conclusions are the precise reciprocal from Marx. Marx took Feuerbach much further to declare that since all metaphysics is simply a false projection of our innards, the beliefs of all the people which move history are completely immaterial - all that matters is the materials they control, and who controls them. Rand agrees with this Marxist conception completely. But whereas Marx casts a moral disapproval on those who control the means as exploitative, Rand looks upon them as heroic beings who have realized their best selves.

Libertarianism is at least as much a Communist heresy as Communism is a Capitalist heresy. With a little seasoning from Nietzsche in its views on morality, libertarianism is nothing more (or less) than Marxism on the side of the bourgeoisie. It takes what has always been inherent in rich people, a tendency toward plutocratic beliefs and the assumption of inherent virtue in their wealth, and then endows their world view with a more unbreakable philosophical and moral underpinning to these instincts than has been gainsaid in world history since the Divine Right of Kings.  


But Rand stopped short of Marx in one extremely crucial way. She did not insist on an endpoint to her Objectivist philosophy. There is no true evolution to it - no plutocratic paradise at which the world must be made to arrive. Perhaps that is its consolation and what could eventually prevent it from going as wildly awry as Communism did. Rand’s philosophy is a philosophy of the few, but like Calvinism, the ‘elect’ could number quite a many, and what happens the pursuit of one person’s rational self-interest comes into world-shaking conflict with the pursuit of another’s?

Nobody needs to remind you, dear reader, that we live in a time of economic upheaval. Only three things are certain about our era: the Middle Class is dissipating, the Lower Class grows ever larger, and the Upper Class grows just as exponentially.  When Occupy Wall Street talks about the 1%, that’s idiotic. It’s not the 1%, it’s the 5%. As of March last year, there were 8.6 million American households with a net worth in the millions. Even now, during The Great Recession, there are at least 1.1 million new millionaires since Barack Obama took office!

With a few exceptions like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, it is not the billionaire class which champions of the libertarian point of view most vociferously. It is the millionaire class - in most cases, the newly rich who worked hard to resist the tide that would drop them from Middle to Lower Class, and are therefore perpetually insecure about losing their fortunes. And yet there is until now so little evidence of dwindling in wealth among the wealthy that such a fear is almost comical.

For the moment, America has an aristocracy that is roughly 8.6 million people strong. Unless Republicans are stupid enough to prevent the debt ceiling from being raised, nothing can take away their fortunes. Even if (when) their taxes go up to 35%, they will still be as financially secure as before, and perhaps moreso since so much government money ends up in the hands of businesses the government subsidizes at the expense of many who require far more assistance.

Furthermore, this aristocracy may not be permanent. If Barack Obama manages to tackle immigration and gun laws in his second term, followed by the election of Hilary Clinton in 2016, who spends her eight years tackling unemployment, the national debt, and banking reform, followed by the election of Julian Castro in 2024 who can tackle alternative energy, environmental regulation, and nuclear proliferation, Perhaps President Le Malon can be elected in 2032, and along with rebuilding American infrastructure and reforming American education, perhaps he can tackle the issue of wage fairness by introducing a more progressive income tax that can reestablish a firm middle class - the health of which class Ayn Rand assures us is indicative of the future prospects for any country.

But for the moment, there is a current population of roughly 300 million who will not be members of this aristocracy. What shall become of them?...


I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thought, which I fear will be liable to strenuous objection... if anybody cares.

In the 1950’s, the marginal tax rate in this country for every dollar over $250,000 was as high as 94%. God forbid we ever return to that Dark Winter Era of American Chaos and Impotence, but should such millionaires continue to insist that government intervention be so terrible, perhaps a private firm can collect such taxes as will keep a society functional without mob rule or dictatorship.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the second and third richest men in the world. Together, their net worth is supposed to comprise $105 billion. When they die, whatever of their assets is not taken by inheritance tax (the large bulk of it) will be gradually transferred in the form of stock to the endowment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit run by Bill and Melinda Gates which supervises charitable giving and is already estimated to be worth $36 billion. The Gates Foundation then distributes their money throughout the world as Mr. Gates and his wife see fit.

When one combines the foundation’s aristocratic $36 billion endowment with the current holdings of Buffett and Gates, one arrives before inheritance taxes at the princely sum of $141 billion. When one combines this with the “Billionaire’s Pledge”, made by 75 separate billionaires to give more than 50% of their money to charity, one can add $125 billion to the total charitable giving of America’s billionaires to arrive at a royal total (before inheritance taxes) of at least $266 billion of private donor money - enough, perhaps, to cure a few diseases in Africa, fund a few decades of education reasonably well for a mid-size American state, and teach the world’s children to be computer literate.

I shall be so bold as to propose to America’s wealthiest that they put their money to a different use for such divine sums. Rather than invest in charitable causes, I hereby suggest that this $266 billion be used strictly for the purposes of forming a private army with all the capabilities of the United States Army. All those unemployed Americans who wish to keep their semi-automatic weapons have the option of joining this private army for a fair wage.   

This army is for but one purpose, and that is to compel each American millionaire to sign a ‘Millionaire’s Pledge’ that is exactly like the Billionaire’s Pledge in almost every particular: 50% of each millionaire’s net worth must be given away in the form of their investments and stock options to the Gates Foundation. As the average net worth of the American millionaire is $3.7 million, and there are 8.6 millionaire families in America, there is a reservoir of at least $16 trillion (before inheritence taxes). With such a sum the Gates Foundation can not only tackle whatever one of the world’s problems it desires, but triumph over it: it may pay off America’s national debt, or provide health care to the entire world, or give every child in the world a high school education, or provide a roof over the head of all the world’s homeless and displaced, or provide financial incentives for governments to maintain world peace and abide by human rights laws. And in doing such great works, The Gates Foundation shall restore America’s rightful place in world opinion as its benevolent autocrat.

Many corporations are large enough in our day that they have at least as much say upon the world stage as any small country. If corporate omnipotence has become an unavoidable fact of our lives, is our only option to make a better world then not to attempt the formation a benevolent super-corporate non-profit that can be an aristocratic force to do good? I can already hear the moral objections, the most important among them being that since millionaires have so much more money than billionaires, they can raise a far larger army. But as so many of these millionaires are consumed by rational self-interest, it stands to reason that few of them would possess the inclination to work in concert with one another to achieve such a goal when the raising of an army is such a huge feat of coordination and collaboration. Had they the ability for such feats of coordination, perhaps they’d become billionaires who sign Gates’s pledge.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Soul: The American Music - Part 1: Ray Charles

Soul music was the unique moment of history in American music - its confluence of facets forms a body of music more complete than any other genre produced by our country. In its marriage of musical sophistication to the complete gamut of human experience, it is almost unique among American musical genres. To this day, it has done a better job than any other American music in marrying the best in recording technology to the most individual and emotionally committed performers, and both to the best songwriters and lyricists and the most sophisticated musical arrangers. It marked the first true era of reconciliation and redress between white and black cultures, and marks the first time when the extraordinary musical culture of American Blacks were backed by the full might, support, expense, and hired talent of a recording industry controlled almost entirely by Whites. The result was a music which married the old world sophistication of European composition to the brave new world of American immediacy and improvisation, and both to furthering the emerging influence of the African musical roots that would come to dominate world music as the twentieth century progressed to the same extent which Europe dominated the nineteenth. All of Soul Music’s various facets synthesize in a fusion which mirrors the best of the democracy which produced the genre. It is the climax, the apex, and the ambassador for everything which American musicians are capable of achieving. It is the most American music there has ever been, and perhaps will ever be.

Not all soul music is created equal, and lots of it has all the same problems as the rest of the 1950’s and early 60’s musical genres - solid musical values, sometimes extraordinary ones, married to total vapidity; bad lyrics, sappy romantic sentiments, the desire for a commercial hit trumping the desire to create something meaningful. There is plenty by Ray Charles and James Brown which does not deserve to be heard again. Much of their second rate music can be amazingly fun and beautiful, and occasionally brilliantly inventive, but if mere fun and beauty and novelty is what people want from music, there’s plenty of music from their own eras which speak better to their experience. If you want to find what’s eternal in this music, you have to separate what might be forgettable from what’s truly unforgettable. If you want to understand why Soul Music is everything to America, here is a mere pebble in the pool of why that is.

Ray Charles:

You Are My Sunshine - If you want to understand the importance of Soul Music to America, start right here. You Are My Sunshine, that innocent children’s song, was written by Jimmie Davis - a country music singer and a virulently segregationist governor of Louisiana. Ray Charles takes that white bread melody and with fistfuls of dominant and diminished chords, he makes the song into something completely black - existing in a waystation between big band, gospel, Motown and the blues. Using a purely musical language, it is perhaps the most subversive cover in American musical history.

What’d I Say: If I have one complaint about any form of ‘popular music’, it is the obsession with sex. I know, I know, I’m a total stick in the mud. But sex is the primary signifier of vapidity in popular culture. If a musician feels the need in his songs to resort to incessant talk about love or sex, or selling a watered down version of romance that has nothing to do with the real thing, it’s an almost guaranteed indicator that a musician has nothing more profound to offer the world. It is no different than how classical musicians can create the most boring music in the world and can then slap a religious title on it and be lauded for their 'profundity' and 'depth.' But if you’re going to talk about sex in music, really talk about it. Don’t prettify it with romantic emotions which are completely divorced from anyone’s actual experience of love, lust, and loss. For various reasons, other Ray Charles songs get close to erotic realities too ((Night Time is) the Right Time, Hallelujah I Love Her So, Hit the Road Jack being prominent examples). But What’d I Say is unique among Ray Charles songs, in many ways unique among anything written until the day it was released. It was the first American song which actually traffics in the genuine sounds of sex. For perhaps the first time ever and the only time during the 1950’s, Americans could hear the sounds of fucking on the radio.

Unchain My Heart: So many American lyrics, particularly in the mid-20th century, traffic in euphemism. It’s probable that 90% of the euphemisms are very simple: they’re employed to disguise extremely sexual images in the terms of innocent love. But Soul Music brings an entirely different dynamic to that equation - what seems flippant and shallow at first glance contains far more depths to fathom. Unchain My Heart, in addition to having two of the most gripping hooks in the American popular tradition, has the metaphor of a heart in chains. Hailing as he did from Georgia, Ray Charles would have to view the image of chains as a very, very loaded symbol. Is this about an unfeeling woman in a bad affair, or is this about a region where the shackles of oppression still control people’s lives if not their legal states-of-being; a region that may have freed slaves in name, but not in deed? It’s entirely possible that the song is precisely as shallow as it seems on the surface, but I would stake a claim that this music alludes to something much deeper, and much more troubling.

Drown in My Own Tears: Moreso than perhaps any other nationality, one of the great qualities of American music is the seemingly effortless ability so many of its greatest exemplars have to skirt the line between comedy and tragedy. Other nationalities have their few, Austria has Mozart, Russia has Stravinsky, France has Jacques Brel, Britain has The Beatles, and America has dozens for every one of theirs. This ability is a simple question of taste and time. If there is such a thing as a national character, then it’s clearly not in American temperament to commit too much to any emotional extreme - and our music reflects that. Other countries view the ability to unquestioningly follow their primal instincts as a virtue, but we are (or at least we were) a nation which views apathy as something approaching our most cherished value. Music, at least in its written form, was the playground of obsessives who pursued their craft to the limits of infinity, and went through many corresponding periods of over-the-top expression that reflected the unbalanced obsessions of its creators. But with the development of recorded technology, music requires far less technical accomplishment to be powerful, and perhaps it is far more reflective of the way life is lived as a result. Life is not quite tragic, not quite comic or perhaps it is both all of the time. But so much of the Great American Music exists in precisely that state. And what you feel from this music is a Rorschach test of wherever on the emotional spectrum you’re feeling at the moment you’re listening to it. Drown in My Own Tears contains some of the most extravagantly emotional depictions of loss ever put on pen. The lyrics themselves are not particularly memorable, though perhaps the line “I sit and cry/just like a child/my pouring tears/are running wild/if you don’t think/you’ll be home soon/I guess I’ll drown, oh yes, in my own tears.” can’t help but make us wonder if this song is not in fact about the younger brother who's drowning Ray witnessed as a child. But what makes this song extraordinary is its major-key understatement. Yes, it’s clearly a sad song, but it sounds more nostalgic than tragic, and is not nearly as sad-sounding as such a sentiment would warrant, but it’s all the more moving for it.

Busted: I can’t lie, this is easily my all-time favorite Ray Charles song - another song which effortlessly glides the tragicomic line, and yet does so much more. Anyone would instantly relate to this song who’s ever been broke, or couldn’t live up to their responsibilities to those they love. It is an ultimate example of music endowing dignity to the lives of people who most desperately need it. There is something defiant about it, as though for all the indignities life has in store, we should, we must, we will nonetheless, keep marching forward, and celebrate in pure E-flat major brass glory. All it takes is two minutes, and within that tiny framework this song shows us a vision of life as it perhaps truly is; something full of heartache and humiliation, loss and misery, squalor and torpor, and yet still something exquisitely beautiful.

Seven Spanish Angels: There is a huge metaphorical resonance to this duet between Ray and Willie Nelson - perhaps the ultimate ambassador of White Southern Music. Is this song a romantic ballad about a violent Bonnie-and-Clydesque death of two lovers at the hands of evil men, or is the conjuration intentional which this song brings of a decision which hundreds if not thousands of widows who’d recently watched their husbands murdered by Klansmen had to make in the century before this duet was recorded? On the one hand, it is a glamorized view of death, romanticizing the idea of a glorious death in a way that’s slightly quease-inducing. On the other hand, the song is all too redolent of a decision which many women probably had to make after they watched their loved ones murdered in cold blood.

Georgia On My Mind: And finally we come to Georgia On My Mind, probably THE Ray Charles song in the mind of most people, and certainly the emotional heart of his output. There are two different sentiments that can be interpolated from this overexposed yet never too exposed simple song. The first is more obvious, the longing we all have for home and inner peace. Most people find that the further they grow from their origins, the more they long to go back. But there’s another sentiment made in this song that is far more challenging.  Like You Are My Sunshine, there is a definite and important statement being made in this song. Georgia, the heart of slavery, is a place not only just as valued by its black population as its white one as a homeland, but also a place cherished for its beauties and consolations by a people whose history in the state is a litany of misery. It is a message of both liberty and of equality. It is the message of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (which was probably modeled on Georgia On My Mind much more than Blowin’ in the Wind as Sam Cooke claimed), of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, of Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, of dozens of American hymns and spirituals both black and white, and even the message of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. And that message is the ultimate message of music: that all humans have a right to cherish the same things, that dignity is universal, that he who oppresses his fellow man is oppressing his brother (and sister), and that no law which separates can prevent them from feeling love.

Friday, January 25, 2013

800 Words: Evan and Hauptmann Rinderherz Go Through the Early History of Popular Music (a digression)

Evan: Herr Hauptmann, I’m afraid you suffer from Manny Ax Syndrome.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What syndrome is that? And what does Emanuel Ax have to do with any of this?

Evan: Well, as I hope you know, Emanuel Ax is one of the greatest pianists of this, or any, time.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: He’s a bit too intellectually curious for my taste.

Evan: Well, that’s not his problem.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: It’s the world’s problem.

Evan: Regardless, Manny Ax is an amazing musician, but I remember reading an interview in Amazon. Manny recommended his favorite recordings. It was a great list: Cortot’s Chopin, Fleisher’s Beethoven, Adams’s Harmonielehre, Eugene Onegin, Oscar Peterson, and some other great discs. But there was only one thing to besmirch this otherwise terrific selection... Remember Two Things by Dave Matthews Band, which he said he was introduced to by his daughter.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Was ist Dave Matthews Band?

Evan: Dave Matthews Band was a fad rock group in the late 90’s which still sells out everywhere they perform. But music lovers have not taken them seriously in more than ten years. Every note Dave Matthews ever played is a love-letter to blandness and boredom.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: (finds Remember Two Things on youtube) Sounds like just another blundering American musician to me.

Evan: A much worse American musician than Manny Ax. But apparently, like you, Manny Ax can be the height of discernment on classical taste, yet a blithering idiot on any matter outside his purview. Apparently, his taste in non-classical contemporary music is precisely the same as millions of people who do not have enough interest in music to ever be interested in classical music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: This is what happens when you try to appease the vox populi.

Evan: I don’t think that’s quite true. I think he genuinely liked what he heard. But unlike the rest of the world, he wasn’t subjected to Dave Matthews every day for four years, and he never had a chance to grow to hate them the way the rest of us did. And this is your problem too Herr Hauptmann. If you listened to David Hasslehoff for more than five minutes every five years, you’d want to kill yourself. But you like David Hasslehoff in the same way that Manny Ax likes Dave Matthews. It’s so bland that it doesn’t even offend the sensibilities of any out of touch classical music lover, and therefore by listening to it you won’t have to challenge any of your preconceived notions of what true art is.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ah! Now I remember who Dave Matthews is! Isn’t he der new judge on American Idol?

Evan: No, that’s Keith Urban. You’re confusing your douchebag musicians who're popular in the South. And you never told me you watch American Idol!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I watch to observe the badness of American music.

Evan: At what point does this continual need to experience the badness of American music become a love of something you claim to hate? It’s almost like a form of pornography for you.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I’ve never looked at pornography in my life!

Evan: You should probably try it, it’ll make you happier.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Infamy! How dare you suggest such a dirty thing!

Evan: Albeit don’t do that dirty thing in my house.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: How can you suggest that any popular music will laed me to anything but suicide?

Evan: Because some of it is great!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I’ve heard enough of it to know that is not true.

Evan: No you haven’t. If I’d listened to as little popular music as you did, I’d have probably concluded that everything was crap too.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: So you admit that it’s dreck!

Evan: No. Not at all. I admit that 70% of what people generally listen to is dreck. 20% of their music is mediocre. 5% of it is decent. 3% of it is good. 1.5% is great. And roughly .5% of it is as great as the greatest classical music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: That is still .5% too much!

Evan: Herr Hauptmann, I’m willing to meet your snobbery most of the way. But you’ll have to settle for at least a small compromise. I’ve heard too much that’s good to ever regard my culture’s music as a total waste.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What need there is for compromise when you are right?

Evan: The need is because you’re not right.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: History will vindicate me!

Evan: I guess that’s possible in some strange way, but you won’t be around to hear its verdict. In any event, there are already Americans who feel the same way as you, only they feel that way about American Jazz Music. To some Americans, music begins in New Orleans around 1920 and ends in New York around 1965.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ach, Jazz. The barbaric horror of the jungle.

Evan: That barbaric horror is constructed from the same folk roots from which your beloved Deutsch Musik hails.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Prove it!

Evan: Alright. What’s most jazz improvisation except just the same way of developing counterpoint and ornamentation around a ground bass or cantus firmus?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But it is such an inferior way of so doing!

Evan: Why is it inferior?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because it is not written down! There is nothing planned, and therefore we cannot control the music!

Evan: Why can’t it be planned? Duke Ellington used to write out most of his instrumentalists’ solos. And even if they’re not written down, what do you think recording is? It’s just a new way of establishing permanence.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But they still do not control the music.

Evan: Sure it is. It’s just a different way of controlling music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But it sounds so disorganized.

Evan: And yet when your beloved Furtwanglers and Edwin Fischers bend the tempo or rhythm, that doesn’t sound chaotic to you?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Nein. Because they do so to underline the harmonic rhythm and invention of der grossten meister!

Evan: Well, it’s just a different sort of rhythm in 20th century music. Most 20th century music takes the emphasis away from harmony and puts it on rhythm, often extremely complex rhythm. You might almost say that if the 19th century was about harmonic rhythm, then the 20th century was about rhythmic harmony.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Welche art von Bullshit ist das?!

Evan: Alright, you asked for it. I’m going to give you the quickest journey through 20th century music’s mainstream that you’ll ever get.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: It had better be quick...

Evan: Let’s start with Scott Joplin. Let’s just say he’s the American Bach. (Puts on a recording of Maple Leaf Rag)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: How could you dare even to mention this in the same sentence as Bach?

Evan: Because he’s at a similar waystation in music history. Bach took the accomplishments of the great polyphonists and created a music comprised of harmonic rhythm. Scott Joplin took the harmonies of the German tradition and created a music generated entirely by rhythm itself. Listen to those harmonies, they’re pure Schumann but with more rhythmic emphasis.  

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Do not you dare compare this mull to the Tondichter.

Evan: Alright, well, I give up. Did you hear about the lost impromptu by Schubert that was just premiered? It’s really beautiful.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Gruss Gott! Can I look it up on youtube?

Evan: Sure. Here, I’ll put it on for you. (puts on Solace by Scott Joplin)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Prachtvoll! Simply magnificent! Listen to those chromatic innovations, as daring as anything until Schoenberg! Yet still mit die inner glut!

Evan: So...I have a confession to make.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Oh nein....

Evan: That was Solace by Scott Joplin.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Then I don’t like it.

Evan: What do you mean you don’t like it!? You just exclaimed it was Prachtvoll!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because Schubert would have written it in the correct spirit. When Scott Joplin writes something like this, it is unconnected to the proper wellspirit of music history and culture!

Evan: That’s entirely in your mind. You can will yourself to like and dislike anything you want with that mentality.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What’s wrong with that?

Evan: Everything! Rather than focus on what strikes your ear as beautiful, you’ll just have a checklist of requirements from music which limit your reactions.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Some reactions are undesirable and base.

Evan: Why does it have to be that way?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because it is the base of the kultur which redeems us all from the terrors of our world!

Evan: What if it doesn’t?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: But it does!

Evan: There’s no arguing with you. But for reasons passing my understanding, I’ll continue to preach to you. Try George Gershwin.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: At least he tried to write classical music.

Evan: He didn’t try. He succeeded. He was one of the great geniuses of the century, and had he lived past 38, he might have become the greatest composer of the 20th century and rescued classical music from the ghetto in which you’re so keen to keep us.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: That is unfair. It is not a ghetto. It is liberation!

Evan: Says the man who never leaves my couch.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Your couch is the most liberated part of you!

Evan: Anyway, if Joplin is the American Bach, then perhaps Gershwin is the American Handel. He’s ostentatious and theatrical where Joplin is inward, and yet he has far more expressive range and diversity than Joplin just as Handel did than Bach. He wrote at least one of the greatest operas ever written. He can write amazingly dramatic music for seemingly every scope and every mood, including dark ones, and also wrote some of the most artlessly beautiful music ever composed.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Er ist ein Nachahmung eines Komponisten.

Evan: Alright. Well then you’ll loooorve the next two.... Whereas Joplin and Gershwin both established their fame in the North, the other two ‘founders’ of American music established their eminence down South. They might be considered the “Vivaldi and Scarlatti” of American music because they took forms which other people used, produced literally hundreds of compositions in exactly the same form, and in so doing made these new forms palatable for a new era.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I don’t care much for Scarlatti, and Vivaldi is terrible - the same boring sonatas and concerto 500 times!

Evan: If you listened to the new period practice recordings of Vivaldi you’d probably feel differently. But the new Vivaldi was a man named W. C. Handy, who grew up in rural Alabama and came up with the idea of notating the local form, the 12-bar blues pattern. He realized that you could become an endlessly inventive songwriter in that form, in music that could be endlessly adapted and still retain its universality. If you hear him in a great performance, Vivaldi makes minor keys fun. But W. C. Handy makes major key music into something sad.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: There is no way to make a major key sad! It is a violation of music’s fundamental laws!

Evan: Not only is there is no such fundamental law, but music is usually better when expectations like that are subverted. W. C. Handy wrote songs that smile through their tears, much as Mozart composed or Chekhov wrote.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: That is absolutely unfair to Mozart and even to Chekhov!

Evan: Is it? It’s just a different aesthetic, but no less profound.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Great workmanship is part of profundity! And there’s no need for workmanship in a 12-bar blues pattern!

Evan: Sometimes, you’re right. But that’s when the music is bad. When the music is good, there is an entirely different kind of workmanship that goes into it. And even when workmanship is great, instinct and emotional resonance are just as important. A great craftsman who expresses nothing but his craft (ahem, Hindemith) is infinitely less worthwhile than a mediocre craftsman who communicates with infinite expressive force (ahem, Janacek).

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I do not disagree, but I believe Janacek is an inferior composer.

Evan: Of course you do. Anyway, let’s look at our final composer before I go to bed. If W. C. Handy is the Vivaldi of the American “Mass” Tradition, then Jelly Roll Morton is our ‘Scarlatti.’ Scarlatti created the ‘sonata’ as we know it today. He may not have rendered it to the scale we see in Beethoven or even Haydn, but he created the binary sonata form in embryo, at the smallest possible scale. In almost exactly the same way, Jelly Roll Morton did the same with Jazz. The kernel of every innovation which Jazz later pioneered can be found in his pieces - the rhythm, the instrumentation, even the modal and chromatic harmonic daring of bebop.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Has it occurred to you that you’re generalizing and that these descriptions of American musicians are as worthless as your ‘Great Conductors’ Lists.

Evan: Of course, but who cares? In any event, we’ve digressed, and you certainly have a point. I’m already getting bored with these analogies, and we haven’t even made it to the Louis Armstrong/Haydn connection. In any event, let’s think about what comes next before we continue this dialogue.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Long as I don’t have to listen to more of this Dschungelmusik I’m fine with that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

800 Words: Evan and Hauptmann Rinderherz discuss the Berlin Philharmonic (part 3)

Evan: So you realize that that list I gave you of the best current conductors is worthless.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Gott sei dank! It was a chamber of horrors!

Evan: That’s a little extreme.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Why have you come back to the side of light?

Evan: Because that list was just a list of general practitioners. In order to make greater music, you need to have specialists who understand the composer on a deep level and take the necessary risks to create true understanding.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: So you admit that our world is diseased and requires the greatness of poettonesoundconsolation to lift us to a better!

Evan: No. I think the world is a hard place, and music helps us through it.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ah! So you do admit it!

Evan: Alright. Sure. I admit that poettone... is that even a word in German? … is helpful.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: ein Sieg fur die Musik!

Evan: But you should understand the reason I did this. The conductors I named are, fundamentally, safe conductors who take no risks. At their best, they combine amazing energy and passion with intellectual rigor. But they take relatively few risks, because they understand that a risk is a risk because it’s usually not successful.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Oh nein. I worry again that you do not understand...

Evan: Maybe not, but I think the real glories of today’s performances of orchestral music are to be found elsewhere.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I’m very afraid to ask where they are?

Evan: Well, let me think...what performances by living and active performers completely changed my understanding of the piece and made me love music even more...hmm... (Herr Hauptmann grows ever more open-mouthed at the list) … Harnoncourt's late Mozart Symphonies, Marc Minkowski’s Messiah, Gardiner’s St. John Passion, Harnoncourt’s Magnificat, Paul McCreesh’s Creation, Rene Jacobs’s Zauberflote, James Levine’s Marriage of Figaro, Gardiner’s Don Giovanni, Paavo Jarvi's Eroica, Thomas Fey’s Pastoral Symphony, Thielemann's Beethoven 7, Blomstedt’s Beethoven 9, Gardiner’s Missa Solemnis, Abbado’s Barber of Seville, Dudamel’s Symphonie Fantastique, Masur’s Italian Symphony,

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Stop! Please Stop!

Evan: I can keep going for another hour at least.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: You have betrayed the greatness of music for the dirtiness and disease of our base, cruel worldtime! .

Evan: Why do you take these things so seriously?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because music is the food of the soul! Without your soul, you enter the horror of the unclean. You may even start liking Italian Opera!

Evan: I do like Italian Opera!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Grauel!!!

Evan: Suit yourself.

Hauptmann: The worst part is, you do understand the soul of music. In this list great treasures of the spirit there are.

Evan: I’m not even sure the soul exists. But you’re right that music is a serious business and should be taken seriously. But come on man, you sound like you’d burn musical heretics if given half the chance. And do you even believe in God?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I believe in music!

Evan: Touching... really... but if you believe in music, why do you hate so much of it?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Because music is a temple, and we must keep it clean for worship.

Evan: And Wilhelm Furtwangler is it’s prophet?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ja! Furtwangler ist der Gottheit!

Evan: Do you have any idea how ridiculous you’d sound to anybody but me?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Let the outside world dissolve in mist! For us there would yet remain our holy art!

Evan: Holy German art?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: It is not my fault that no other kultur cares for the mysterium tremendum! Every other kultur is obsessed with sex and dirtiness!

Evan: Excessive Russian literature lovers say the same about Russia, Italian art lovers say the same about Italy, Greeks say the same about drama and philosophy, Franch...everything lovers say the same thing about France. No doubt, the time’s coming when Americans begin to say the same thing because of the holy temple of American cinema.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Everything you mention is a glory of the world... except die Franzosich...

Evan: And everything else is besmirched by our diseased world?

Hauptmann Rinderherz:Fast alles.

Evan: Here,... why don’t I put something on for you.

(Evan goes to his laptop, puts on Duke Ellington's Come Sunday)

Evan: Now can you honestly say that this is not food for the spirit?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Ach! Listen to that scheissetext!

Evan: And Schubert never set a bad text? And Wagner’s own texts aren’t crap?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: And those Falschung Debussy harmonies!

Evan: These harmonies are not Debussy at all! I tried to arrange this for chorus, I couldn’t figure out some of those chords and I have the perfect pitch to pick every note out of a hexachord by ear.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Has anyone ever told you you’re a f*cking ausfall?...

Evan: And who cares about who influenced the harmonies?! It’s what he does with them that matters. And this is some of the most spiritually consoling music since Bach!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: You are deluded. This is Americanischen popularkultur Mull!

Evan: This is not Mull! Here, listen to this... (puts on Old Man River by Jerome Kern)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Oh Freud, nicht dieser tone!

Evan: The lyrics are truly great by any standard, and so is the song.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: How can you pretend that scheisse is fit for anything but Schweine?

Evan: Because this the opposite of scheisse. It’s a glory of the world.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Next you’ll tell me that Bob Dylan is great!

Evan: He’s not my favorite, but I do love a few of his songs.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: All his music sounds the same!

Evan: So does Mozart’s!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: You are disgusting.

Evan: So’s Parsifal, but I let you listen to it when you want.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I shall not be treated in this manner!

Evan: You want me to stop insulting you?

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I want you to stop insulting music!

Evan: You should hear what other music lovers say. Many of them believe Dylan is the Beethoven of American music.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What do I care what they think?

Evan: You’d probably be happier if you did.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I do not seek to be happy! I seek to be uplifted!

Evan: Alright, well try another one. Here’s A Change is Gonna Come from Otis Redding, the American Schubert. It wasn’t written by him but this is my favorite performance.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: How can you think to compare to Schubert when this man did not even write this unbedeutend lied.

Evan: Redding wrote many great songs of his own. But there’s nothing unbedeutend about this song, it’s about the civil rights struggle, and you could even see this as being a song about spiritual hope, or even as a response to the Ode to Joy!

Hauptmann Rinderherz: What do Americans know about spiritual hope or joy?

Evan: Most of them know a lot more than you do.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: I know the joy of a better world than this one! What is the terribleness of this world compared to the greatness we bring from true music?

Evan: Well you’re listening to true music right now! But you don’t get it because your mind is closed.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: My mind is clear!

Evan: Your mind is farcockt.

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Farcockt you!

Evan: Alright, this is getting too heated. Let me try one or two last pieces of music. (puts on Find the Cost of Freedom by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: A decent volkslied. Nothing more.

Evan: Alright. Try this one... (puts on Hooked on a Feeling by David Hasselhoff)

Hauptmann Rinderherz: Oh. Ja. Ja. Das so gut ist! Listen to that beat! Like geschlechtsverker!

Evan: Oy gevalt. I thought you might have this problem...