Saturday, July 23, 2016

When Facebook Becomes Blogging - Szell Conducts Beethoven's 9th

Joshua Bornfield asked me to do my part to get rid of negative news on facebook by sharing some music that starts with "G". As one of facebook's prime bearers of bad news, I'm going to try to redeem myself and cheat somewhat so I can share what I've been listening to today. It's of course cliche, but...
Between playing it, hearing it live, CD's, LP's, cassettes, napster, spotify, and youtube, I've probably listened to a few hundred interpretations of Beethoven's 9th Symphony over the years (beat me up later). There are even times when I've gotten sick of this piece which I think Debussy called the "universal hangover." But Beethoven 9 is more than that, it is the piece that does what music does best - it is a piece that is literally about bringing us all together. Pacifying our suffering, finding our voice, and adding it to the voices of others so that we can feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
In all those performances I've heard, this is the one I turn to most often. It is, detail for detail, pound for pound, the closest to ideal it gets in what's generally regarded as the definitive piece of music. From Mengelberg you get high drama and fire, from Furtwangler you get epic breath and harmonic tension, from Toscanini you get rhythmic punch and a singing line, from Klemperer you get iron control and every detail, and from later conductors like Gunter Wand and Herbert Blomstedt and and Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein and Klaus Tennstedt and Kurt Masur and Rafael Kubelik and Sergiu Celibidache you get many other wonderful qualities, but from George Szell (G), you get all of those qualities held in a virtually perfect balance.
Szell was a Hungarian-Jewish conductor who led the Cleveland Orchestra for twenty-five years after World War II. 45 years after he died, there's still no orchestra in America that plays better - if silver has an aural quality, then the Cleveland Orchestra sounds like a silver plate facing toward the sun. Szell was as much a drill sergeant as conductor - a musical martinet with a hair trigger temper who rehearsed orchestras so exhaustively that it was said that he 'even rehearsed the inspiration.' Some of his Cleveland performances feel like technical exercises, but when he wasn't overly fussy, his explosive temperament poured through the music like volcanic lava. This performance, from London in 1968, a year much like our own, is Szell at his best, when he was better than virtually anybody. Szell's Beethoven in Cleveland was extraordinary, but not more extraordinary than any other great conductor. But when Szell played Beethoven with other orchestras and whipped them up with the kind of broken baton and tossed down music stand frenzies that Beethoven himself made in his personal life, he created Beethoven that seemed absolutely perfect. Exploding with apocalyptic intensity at virtually every moment, yet with not a single detail out of place.
Beethoven used to mean more to us than it does today. If you go to classical concerts, you probably know that Mahler occupies the central place in the orchestral world that Beethoven used to. In our neurotic, exhausted age, we need a composer who understands what it's like to be from a culture that has little hope for the future. Granted, anyone in their right mind would rather live now than fifty years ago, but the postwar era was different in that it had hope for us in a way that we often can't find our hope for our children. In classical music, that hope seemed to find expression in Beethoven. The whole world knew what it meant to feel grief, suffering, hope, and redemption in a way that most of us never will. Today, performance of Beethoven is a question of style, not substance. The question of historically informed performance (using the instruments and style of the musicians of the composer's era) has done wonderful things for many composers, but it's made the way we listen to Beethoven go from pondering life's mysteries to pondering questions of fashion. Older performances of Beethoven may not be what Beethoven wanted, but they are the Beethoven we need.
Beethoven's Ninth is regarded as perhaps the ultimate piece of music, and I suppose this is the closest I find to its ultimate performance. So if you're new to classical music, I guess you won't get a better introduction to what classical music is than this. Play it on your earphones at maximum volume.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

Here followeth a rant, please ignore if you like.

When I write about politics, I'm usually trying to needle radicals. Ideas matter, and the Internet is their providence for anyone whose ideas nobody will listen to. I don't go after conservatives with as much passion because what's wrong with them is so obvious to virtually everyone in the virtual world, and I don't feel like preaching to a choir.

But that doesn't mean I find their moral irresponsibility any less disgusting. You cannot shout to the wind that liberals smugly write off everyone who disagrees with them as evil, and then say a moment later that everybody who disagrees with you is a piece of filth who should burn in hell for betraying your religion or people of origin. And if you then start writing off the people to whom you're talking who might have a twinge of sympathy with these dissenters as insane or idiots, or even just their friends, then you have relegated everyone in that position whom you claim to care about to a second class citizen.

From Richard Nixon down to the least informed Rush Limbaugh viewer, the modern conservative pathology has always been to fulminate against those who disagree as an abstract monolith of smug evil, and then be shocked when specific dissenters respond with irritation because they know that they're obviously being implicated. The shock of which, of course, feeds their pathology and make them double down on their obsessions. They become defined by their hatred, because their hatreds are the only way which they know what they stand for.

The conservative worldview divides the world into a secure fortress of complacency and the barbarians at the gates. Those in the fortress are the blessed, accepted for who they are without exception or earning it, nevertheless, those who diverge from the worldview will always be viewed with suspicion, inevitably a second class citizen of the fortress who have to endure abstract beratings of unchecked aggression that, passive aggressively, are clearly aimed at them specifically. They transform in a matter of seconds from angels to demons - relishing the chance to catch a fly in their net and force it at its weakest moment to battle on terms not its own for its self-respect, solely provoked for the angry pleasure of the spider proving itself right yet again, not so much as food for survival as a drug from which they can never wean themselves, because ultimately, the need to constantly prove oneself right gives you little satisfaction or peace.

I know that this description sounds all too familiar... I am, in no small way, what I was formed to be, and maybe a particularly virulent exemplar of this combative temperament. But I don't fool myself as to what I am: if I've being provocative, I know that my intention is to be provocative. At this point, I wonder if I know how to be much else, much as I wonder if my formative influences ever did any better.

The Internet is not a place to give a direct self-history, so instead I'll say, very simply: my provocation, my taking potshots, my obviously interrogative personality, was based on an isolation that for many years was nearly complete. I was the ultimate outcast, an ex-prodigy reminded of his spectacular failure to reach the potential everyone told him was his from all too early an age with all the humiliations that accompany it, the leaning disabled brilliant kid who went from the smartest person everyone ever met to the dumbest in a matter of months, the punchline of Pikesville. Deprived for decades of friends who understood anything about how this came to happen, and often family too, and would rather never make the effort.

I rejected the world because the world rejected me. I learned virtually everything I've learned by myself, without teaching, without guidance, without support. The groupthink of most of those who've read as widely as I or more is sickening, they never purchased their knowledge at any worth, with any more anxiety to accompany it than when they have to hand in their term papers with plenty of colleagues who can assuage their worst fears. No wonder so few of them have any original insights.

Meanwhile, the smartest people who go out into the real world often embrace a false self-aggrandizement and individuality, and pretend that they've accomplished things that are barely even accomplishments. Many of these pseudo-successes develop conservative and libertarian ideas, which glorify their achievements when it's obvious to everybody else that what got them there was a mixture of functional institutions and luck, institutions which their beliefs dictate they must do everything within their power to corrode from the inside. It enrages me that these luftmenschen can think that their innate goodness got them to where they are when they are probably doing what they can to destroy every advantage that made them so successful before anyone else can reach for the same success.

The peers I grew up with are all, as nearly all upper middle class Jews are, great successes in the world. I alone was left behind to be the idiot son in a business for which everyone knows an organizational garbage fire like me has no aptitude, and without the organizational know how to extricate myself, or anyone with the patience to help me find the way, and therefore with little left to do but contemplate that which almost was and might have been in different circumstances, with nothing left to do with this organizational train wreck in which I've always lived and must always live but to stew in the rage of entitlement which few people as privileged as I ever have to face that they feel just as much as I obviously still do.

I know that humiliation is an extremely relative concept. I've had as difficult a life as only a privileged guy can have. I demand not to be pitied, please put that to people far more deserving than I, but as a privileged guy, I reserve the right to speak my mind unreservedly, consequences be dammed - how bad could they be? I come with a sword because it was placed in my hand every time I tried to drop it.

Nervous breakdown over. Nothing to see here folks.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

ET: Almanac

We cannot very well set about to contrive opponents who will do us the service of forcing us to become more intelligent, who will require us to keep our ideas from becoming stale, habitual, and inert. This we will have to do for ourselves.

- Lionel Trilling - The Liberal Imagination

Saturday, July 2, 2016

ET: Almanac

...Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction. We must expect that his brand will be economically reproduced, over and over again. That is why the complaint that realism is no more than a grammar or set of rules that obscures life is generally a better description of le Carre or P. D. James than it is of Flaubert or George Eliot or Isherwood: when a style decomposes, flattens itself down into a genre, then indeed it does become a set of mannerisms and often pretty lifeless techniques. The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive. And of course, the most economically privileged genre of this kind of largely lifeless "realism" is commerical cinema, through which most people nowadays receive their idea of what constitutes a "realistic" narrative.

Decomposition like this happens to any long-lived or successful style, surely; so the writer's--or the critic's, or reader's--task is then to search for the irreducible, the superfluous, the margin of gratuity, the element in a style which cannot be easily reproduced and reduced.

But rather than do that, Barthes and Moody and Giles and William Gass and many other opponents of fictive convention confuse two quite different complaints. Here is Barthes in 1966: "The function of narrative is not to 'represent,' it is to constitute a spectacle still very enigmatic for us but in any case not of a mimetic order . . . 'What takes place' in the narrative is, from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; 'what happens' is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming" Now, to charge fiction with conventionality is one thing; to move from this charge to the very skeptical conclusion that fictive convention can therefore never convey anything real, that narrative represents "literally nothing," is incoherent. First, all fiction is conventional in one way or another, and if you reject a certain kind of realism for being conventional, you will also have to reject for the same reason surrealism, science fiction, self-reflexive postmodernism, novels with four different endings, and so on. Convention is everywhere, and triumphs like old age: once you have reached a certain seniority, you either die of it, or with it. One of the nice comedies of Cyril Connolly's essay is that by blacklisting every conceivable convention he effectively bans the writing of any fiction at all--"anybody over six feet, or with any distinction whatever." Second, just because artifice and convention are involved in a literary style does not mean that realism (or any other narrative style) is so artificial and conventional that it is incapable of referring to reality. Narrative can be conventional without being a purely arbitrary, nonreferential technique like the form of a sonnet or the sentence with which Snoopy always begins his stories ("It was a dark and stormy night . . .")

Paul Valery was hostilein a Barthes-like way to the claims of fictional narrative, and his example of an entirely arbitrary fictional premise was a sentence like: "The Marquise went out at five o'clock." Valery felt, as William Gass did when discussing James's Mr. Cashmore, that this sentence is exchangeable with an infinite number of other possible sentences, and that this kind of provisionality robs narrative fiction of its necessity and its claim to probability. But as soon as I place a second sentence on the page--"That letter, received in the morning, had irritated the Marquise, and she was going to do something about it," say--the first sentence no longer looks quite as arbitrary or peremptory or merely formal. A system of relations and affiliations is beginning to quicken. And as Julien Gracq points out, "Marquise" and "five o'clock" are not arbitrary at all, but full of limit and suggestion: a marquise is not an ordinary, interchangeable citizen, and five o'clock is still late afternoon while six is drinks time. So what is the Marquise going out for?

The point to make about convention is not that it is untruthful per se, but that it has a way of becoming, by repetition, steadily more and more conventional. Love becomes routine (and indeed Barthes once claimed that "I love you" is the most cliched thing anyone can say), but falling in love is not nullified by this fact. Metaphors become dead through overuse, but it would be insane to charge metaphor itself with deadness. When the first caveman, shivering, said that he was as cold as ice, his interlocutor probably exclaimed: "That is pure genius!" (And after all, ice is cold.) Likewise, if someone were now to paint in the style of Rembrandt, he would be a third-rate copyist, not an original genius. These are the simplest arguments, and one should not have to make them, were it not for a persistent tendency among those hostile to verisimilitude to confuse convention with an inability to refer to anything truthful at all

Brigid Lowe argues that the question of fiction's referentiality--does fiction make true statements about the world?--is the wrong one, because fiction does not ask us to believe things (in a philosophical sense) but to imagine them (in an artistic sense): "Imagining the heat of the sun on your back is about as different an activity as can be from believing that tomorrow it will be sunny. One experience is all but sensual, the other wholly abstract. When we tell a story, although we may hope to teach a lesson, our primary objective is to produce an imaginative experience." She proposes that we restore the Greek hetorical term "hypotyposis," which means to put something before our eyes, to bring it alive for us. (Somehow I don't think that "hypotyposis" will displace "realism" as the preferred term any time soon.)

If we reexamine Aristotle's original formulation of mimesis, in the Poetics, we find that his definition is not about reference. History shows us, says Aristotle, "what Alcibaides did"; poetry--i.e., fictional narrative--shows us "the kind of thing that would happen" to Alcibaides. Hypothetical plausibility--probability--is the important and neglected idea here: probability involves the defense of the credible imagination against the incredible. This is surely why Aristotle writes that a convincing impossibility in mimesis is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. The burden is instantly placed not on simple verisimilitude or reference (since Aristotle concedes that an artist may represent something that is physically impossible), but on mimetic persuasion: it is the artist's task to convince us that this could have happened. Internal consistency and plausibility then become more important than referential rectitude. And this task will of course involve much fictive artifice and not mere reportage.

So let us replace the always problematic word "realism" with the much more problematic word "truth" . . . Once we throw the term "realism" overboard, we can account for the ways in which, say, Kafka's Metamorphosis and Hamsun's Hunger and Beckett's Endgame are not representations of likely or typical human activity but are nevertheless harrowingly truthful texts. This, we say to ourselves, is what it owuld feel like to be an outcast from one's family, like an insect (Kafka), or a young madman (Hamsun), or an aged parent kept in a bin and fed pap (Beckett). There is still nothing as terrifying in contemporary fiction, not even in the blood-bin of Cormac McCarthy or the sadistic eros of Dennis Cooper, as the moment when Knut Hamsun's narrator in Hunger, a starving intellectual, puts his finger in his mouth and starts eating himself. None of us, I hope, has done this, or will ever want to. But Hamsun has made us share it, has made us feel it. Dr. Johnson, in his "Preface to Shakespeare," reminds us, "limitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind."

Convention itself, like metaphor itself, is not dead; but it is always dying. So the artist is always trying to outwit it. But in outwitting it, the artist is always establishing another dying convention. It is this paradox that explains the further, well-known literary-historical paradox, namely that poets and novelists repeatedly attack one kind of realism only to argue for their own kind of realism.

James Wood - How Fiction Works

Friday, July 1, 2016

Weekend Playlist: Some Songs That Would Probably Sound Good To Arrange A Capella

Asterisk Indicates REALLY Good:

Ain't That A Shame (Fats Domino) *

Alexander's Ragtime Band (Irving Berlin) *

All or Nothing at All (Frank Sinatra)

Always Late With Your Kisses (Lefty Frizzell)

Always on My Mind (Willie Nelson)

Angel from Montgomery (Bonnie Raitt) *

As Time Goes By (Dooley Wilson)

Back in the Saddle Again (Gene Autry) *

Be My Baby (The Ronettes) *

Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)

Blue Moon of Kentucky (Bill Monroe)

Blues in the Night (Ella Fitzgerald)

Bouquet of Roses (Eddy Arnold)

Call It Stormy Monday (T-Bone Walker) *

Change is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke) *

The Christmas Song (Mel Torme) *

Coal Miner's Daughter (Loretta Lynn)

Coat of Many Colors (Dolly Parton) *

Come Sunday (Duke Ellington/Mahalia Jackson) *

Coo Coo Bird (Tom Ashley)

Crazy (Patsy Cline) *

Crazy Arms (Ray Price)

Crazy Blues (Mamie Smith)

Dark Star (Grateful Dead - possibly with vocal improv...)

Der Fuhrer's Face (Johnny Bond) *

Doo-Wop (That Thing) (Lauryn Hill)

Down on the Corner (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Dream A Little Dream (Kate Smith) *

El Watusi (Ray Barretto)

Everyday People (Sly & the Family Stone) *

Fire and Rain (James Taylor) *

Flash Light (Parliament)

Good Vibrations (Beach Boys) *

(Good Old) Mountain Dew  (Bascom Lamar Lunsford)

Good Times (Chic)

Lullaby of Broadway (42nd Street) *

Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen) *