December 24, 2007

Not a creature was stirring

Critic-at-large Moe's holiday card
(Click to enlarge.) Critic-at-large Moe is listening to Al Green: O Holy Night (MP3, 3.4 MB). He has had it up to here with all of your cat pictures. Nevertheless, he wishes everyone a peaceful holiday season. See you next year!

Update (12/25): In memoriam, one more song to the playlist:

Anita O'Day and the Oscar Peterson Quartet:
Taking a Chance on Love (MP3, 2.2 MB)

More on this after break, probably. But consider: two of the all-time great side-job accompanists—Rostropovich and Peterson—gone in the same year.

December 22, 2007

Where's your Messiah now?

Reviewing three Christmas CDs.
Boston Globe, December 23, 2007.

This article was limited to recent releases, but here's two other Boston-area holiday recommendations: A Christmas Album, by the Choir of the Church of the Advent, particularly Rodney Lister's austere, modernist-by-way-of-Schütz Kings and Shepherds; and the Boston Camerata's An American Christmas, which introduced me to one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, the George Elderkin revival hymn "Jesus the Light of the World."

December 21, 2007

Far Out

On Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Slate magazine, December 21, 2007.

Silk purses from sow's ears

We finish up the week's holiday scribbling (previously: 1, 2, 3, 4) with a boar's head carol, one of the oldest Christmas traditions there is. When super-intelligent aliens take over the planet and interrogate humanity about our customs, I imagine that the boar's head will come up around Day 23 or so.
SUPER-INTELLIGENT ALIENS: OK, that's all we need to know about the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. Moving on. Now, this whole boar's head thing....

HUMANITY: Oh, yeah. The boar's head—for Christmas.

SIA: That would be the infant-in-a-feeding-trough holiday.

H: That's the one.

SIA: Now, you'd cut the head off a pig...

H: Yep.

SIA: And you'd put it on a plate...

H: Yep.

SIA: And then parade it around the room and sing to it.

H: Yep, that's pretty much it.

SIA: And why would you do this?

H: Well, I mean, we had to, didn't we? That boar is vicious, with those tusks and all. And he's constantly eating all the crops, isn't he? We worked hard raising those crops. We had to kill him.

SIA: So it's revenge, basically.

H: Yeah, I suppose.

SIA: Which you then made into a Christmas thing.

H: Yeah.

SIA: Like Die Hard, but with a pig.

H: Come on, man, you put it that way, it sounds stupid.
Voice and piano, with violin and cello obbligato. Why? Because I can. (Maniacal laughter, &c.) For my brother Dan and his new bride Jenn. (And Jessie, too.) Musically, this one is pure cop show. Not the "Dial 'M'" cop show-as-slang-for-cool—I mean it sounds like the theme to a 1970s cop show. Sing it while riding on the hood of a speeding car.

Guerrieri: Nowell, Nowell (PDF, 176 KB; surprisingly appropriate MIDI here)

December 20, 2007

No Soliciting

Today's carol (previously: 1, 2, 3) provides an unusually concise summary of the wassailing philosophy—i.e., we'll stand out here giving you musical guilt until you cough up the swag! And then on to your neighbors! A present for my sister Joy, currently spending her birthday somewhere in Mexico. On purpose, I think.

Guerrieri: A Jolly Wassail-Bowl (PDF, 110 KB; demented music-box MIDI here)

December 19, 2007

Food, Glorious Food

Today's carol (previously: 1, 2) comes to us courtesy of 17th-century England, where carving a roast was apparently regarded as a descendant of jousting—an oddly Proustian trigger for chivalric nostalgia. For Karen and Mike (you can share some with the boys if they've been good). Tritones and augmented triads make everything festive!

Guerrieri: My Master and Dame (PDF, 99 KB; Cooperstown-Giant-authentic-sounding MIDI here)

December 18, 2007

Can I start you off with some drinks?

Today's carol (previously) tells the heartwarming tale of a group of pushy carousers who demand nothing but alcohol. We have no need of your "food"! It might be nutritionally unsound, but I'll bet a roast goose they gained less weight in December than I will.

For Jeana and Glenn, and critic-at-large Moe's rural Midwestern counterpart Dougal. Musically: as if 19th-century wassailers were carrying around pocket transistor AM radios.

Guerrieri: Bring Us In Good Ale (PDF, 148 KB; Casiotone-esque MIDI here)

December 17, 2007

Knock knock

New England has been whomped by two major winter storms in relatively short order. The one on Thursday resulted in the cancellation of choir practice; the one yesterday resulted in the cancellation of church services and our yearly nursing home Christmas service and our yearly community carol sing. Apparently the pagan gods of nature are gaining the upper hand in the mythical War on Christmas. Look for Bill O'Reilly to denounce the singing of "Let It Snow" as an insult to Christian America.

Anyway, I took it as an opportunity to tinker with some original carols. My personal preference is for wassails—if you're not sure what a wassail involves, the almost always suspect Wikipedia actually nails this one:
Wassailing is the practice of going door-to-door singing Christmas carols until paid to go away and leave the occupants in peace.
Nothing epitomizes the holiday spirit quite like roving bands of musical extortionists, does it? Today's offering, a stocking stuffer for my brother Tony, is pretty much all about how two-over-three rhythms sound somewhat inebriated to my ear.

Guerrieri: The Wassaile (PDF, 104 KB; curious-sounding MIDI here)

Stay tuned—a new wassail every day this week!

Update (12/21): the rest—2, 3, 4, 5.

December 14, 2007

It's up to your knees out there

That was the awfully pretty view out my window this morning, but I think spending the night shoveling it all left too much of a brain fog for proper blogging. Nevertheless, here's some topics I was thinking about delving into. Maybe I'll get to the bottom of some of them at some point in the future. For today, I think I'll eat a whole bag of potato chips. Realistic goals, you know.

  • The New York Philharmonic goes to North Korea. It sounds kind of like the highbrow version of a "Bad News Bears" sequel, doesn't it? I always find these sorts of cultural exchanges fascinating, because you can make equally good arguments that they're almost inevitably failures because, at the end of the day, they don't really mean anything politically, or that they're almost inevitably successful, because, at the end of the day, they don't really mean anything politically. I'm curious to see just how much the view of this will hearken back to the Cold War: somebody's always keeping those Soviet-era journalistic lenses well-polished.

  • The 2008 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees were announced this week. More and more, the lesson of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seems to be that the surest path to artistic immortality is to a) get in on the ground floor of b) a medium pitched towards impressionable teenagers who grow up to be nostalgic critics. I mean, I like the Dave Clark Five, but were they really that good or that important? I'm starting to get the feeling that, fifty years from now, every single act who released a record between 1955 and 1970 will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (And again, "Weird Al" Yankovic is passed over. For shame.)

  • Punkte and Circumstance. For future publication, I spent a good deal of this week studying Karlheinz Stockhausen; for future publication, I'm embarking on a study of Edward Elgar. Maybe it's just the accidental juxtaposition, but I think there's a particular connection between them that has a lot to do with how easily music can paper over awkward aesthetic impulses: namely, the fact that both composers rose to positions of public prominence at the same time the strong religious aspects of their music were publicly soft-pedaled. Elgar's Catholicism was politely discounted for pretty much his whole career; Stockhausen's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink didn't receive much mention until the late 1960s, when it became too front-and-center to ignore.

  • I'll close with a commercial: here in Framingham, I live within shouting distance of about a hundred shopping malls, and if the traffic I have to crawl through when I'm not even going to the mall is any indication, there's a lot of holiday-gift aggravation out there for the having. Why not just stay home and give everyone t-shirts? Not to be an insufferable shill or anything, but proceeds do go to a good cause. (Don't like mine? Darcy's are pretty stylish. And Matt has cornered the market on wearable puns—my favorite is "Fine and D'Indy," with its subversive anti-anti-Semitic vibe.)

    December 13, 2007

    Deck the walls

    It's dueling art collector day on Soho the Dog!

    Pablo Picasso's Head of a Woman in Profile (Jacqueline), a 1970 canvas that's part of the Lazarof collection, a major trove of modernist art that was given to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this week.
    The "fractional and partial'' gift, in which title passes to the museum over a number of years, includes 20 paintings and drawings by Picasso, seven bronze sculptures and a painting by Alberto Giacometti, 11 drawings by Klee, two versions of "Bird in Space'' by sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and late 19th-century works by Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro.
    Not a bad haul for a composer. Yes, a composer—that's Lazarof as in Henri Lazarof, longtime UCLA professor—though it would seem that the main wherewithal came from Lazarof's wife Janice, daughter of noted LA philanthropist Mark Taper. LACMA has been very, very good this Christmas—the collection is one masterpiece after another.

    Now, yesterday in Milan, Sotheby's was auctioning off some other artwork, as part of a sale of letters, paintings, and various other tchotchkes formerly owned by Maria Callas. And what did La Divina grace her walls with? Sad clowns!

    That's a Clown by A. Morgante, which sold for 750 Euros—which, it should be noted, was well above the 350-500 estimate: the Callas mystique still holds. To be fair, there was quite a bit of worthy stuff—this Baldassare Carrari (free registration required) is rather nice—and maybe the clowns were Meneghini's, anyway. (I see Maria walking through the house, passing the clown painting in the hallway, and, every time, giving it that dagger-sharp big-eyed Callas look.) But honestly, what is that tie made of? Lemon meringue? The eye of the beholder, indeed.

    December 07, 2007

    fl. 2007

    MT: You know you're considered a strange case of prudence and foresight. And yet you don't give up electronic production, which is a kind of gamble. Why?

    KS: Because the sense of risk is actually indispensable to me. At this point, my argument is about to become metaphysical. Most people have no intention of following me to this level; but I'm convinced that the tangible results of my work, the electro-acoustical material, could even end up destroyed, and that it wouldn't matter, because the inner impulse which compels me to bring a work to completion would remain. The idea which takes form and materializes in a substantial design of metallic molecules; the spirit which coagulates when pressed on to tape—what else are they but the exact equivalent of an abstract order? When the ear—that is, the auditory imagination—is no longer conditioned by the body, and the membrane of the loudspeaker disappears into the dust, along with the entire universe, the only thing to survive, in so far as it is 'idea', will be the spiritual force which emanates from my music.

    —Mya Tannenbaum (trans. David Butchart),
    Conversations With Stockhausen (1987)

    Image from Klavierstücke VI. More from: Marc Geelhoed, Alex Ross, Tim Rutherford-Johnson, ANABlog, Associated Press.

    The envelopes

    This year's Grammy nominations were announced yesterday, and my own irrelevance was staved off yet again—every year, I expect to reach the level of complete non-familiarity with the rock/pop nominees, but some passing radio encounters with Amy Winehouse and a couple of excursions to Starbucks saved me. (Though if Amy Winehouse got six nominations, that means that next year, Sharon Jones should get, I don't know, a hundred.)

    The classical nominations reveal a fair number of smaller labels, I think reflecting the way the Internet has completely changed the rules of promotion and distribution. The big story, of course, is the multiple nods for Peter Lieberson's Grawemeyer-award-winning Neruda Songs, which deserve as many statuettes as possible. I've decided, though, that the rooting interest here at Soho the Dog HQ will be for the Brian Setzer Orchestra, who scored a nomination in the Best Classical Crossover category for the thoroughly goofy/awesome warhorse/surf-guitar mashup Wolfgang's Big Night Out. (You can hear a few tracks on their MySpace page.)

    High church

    Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the Roman Catholic calendar, which is one of the six remaining non-Sunday Holy Days of Obligation in the American Catholic church. The feast itself officially goes back to 1476, and unofficially even further, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary—the doctrine that Mary was born without original sin—was first proclaimed as dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Popes like to make pronouncements like this every few generations or so just to remind everyone about that whole papal infallibility thing. Wait a minute—he can still do that? Pius XII did the same thing with Mary's bodily assumption into heaven in 1950. Look for Benedict XVI to come up with something any day now.

    Papal infallibility is one of the main Protestant objections to Catholicism—yet, oddly enough, it was one of the things that gave Catholicism an unlikely avant-garde cachet from around the time of Pius IX's proclamation to, say, World War II. Particularly in England and France, artists and writers who had a particular bent towards modernism often were attracted to the Roman church. In England, home of Henry VIII's schism and a long history of antagonism with Catholic France, conversion was, for a time, the upper-class anti-Establishment gesture of choice, inspired by the famous apostasies of Cardinals Manning and Newman. Oscar Wilde flirted with Catholicism as an Oxford student in the 1870s, based in large part on the elegance of Newman's prose (one of the only things that kept him from taking the plunge was his father's threat of disinheritance). Wilde evetually decided his subversive tendencies led in other directions, but he's a prime example of the rebellious attraction of Catholicism for up-to-date Victorian college students, the 19th-century equivalent of a Che Guevara poster. (Note that, in England, this was mostly an aristocratic impulse—Edward Elgar, for example, felt his own outsider status had more to do with his working-class roots than his Catholic upbringing.)

    The paradoxical modernity of Catholicism was even more explicitly perceived in France. The clearest statement of it is probably Guillaume Apollinaire's long poem "Zone," published in the collection Alcools in 1913. He name-checks Pope Pius X (who, coincidentally, had reduced the number of Holy Days of Obligation from 36 to a more manageable eight in 1911):
    Religion alone has remained entirely fresh religion
    Has remained simple like the hangars at the airfield

    You alone in all Europe are not antique O Christian faith
    The most modern European is you Pope Pius X
    Apollinaire adopts the conceit that technology is only aiming for what the church has already achieved:
    It is God who died on Friday and rose again on Sunday
    It is Christ who soars in the sky better than any aviator
    He breaks the world's altitude record
    (Translation by Roger Shattuck.) One can start to see the attraction of Catholicism, bestowing a miraculous poetry on technological advance, while anchoring the dizzying speed and confusion of the modern world in archaic ceremony. Some saw its strictness as a bulwark: Wilde (who eventually converted on his deathbed) once made the unlikely claim that Catholicism might have tempered his homosexuality, while Jean Cocteau, the most self-conscious modernist of all, briefly returned to the church in the late 1920s while unsuccessfully attempting to overcome an opium addiction.

    But mostly, I think that modernist artists and writers, attempting to create entirely new worlds by fiat, saw a kindred spirit in the all-powerful, deliberately ancient pontiff. The high modernism of the pre-World War II era was as much backward-looking as forward: Stravinsky's neo-Classicism, Pound's neo-Medievalism, the influence of Greek antiquity on Picasso. In a culture saturated with jazzy modernity, the sort of bracing anachronism exemplified by the Catholic church could seem the most avant-garde movement of all.

    This sort of relationship has never been far from the surface in music, which turns again and again to the past for structure, inspiration, or effect. There's a fair amount of Renaissance influence in post-minimalist music, but, then again, there was also a fair amount of Renaissance influence in serialist music, too—Webern's expertise in the music of Heinrich Isaac bore fruit in just about all of his own compositions. Punk rock was in many ways a return to the 50s; today, almost the entire pop spectrum can be read in terms of retro influences, be it AM-radio easy listening, 70s soul, 60s psychedlia, Basement-Tapes-style recycled roots music, etc. All over the map, yet, I think, traceable to the same post-Romantic impulse that made the cutting edge a fellow traveler with Catholicism for a while: not just the shock of the new, not just the reinvention of ancient innovation, but a necessarily foolhardy assertion of the infallibility of the artist's taste. The appeal of Catholicism was not just its discipline, but also the model of its hierarchical theology. The dogmas vary, even from work to work, but the ability to decide what they are remains the creator's fundamental privilege. Every piece is an encyclical: we claim our own imprimatur.

    December 06, 2007


    A fact most characteristic of the Renaissance and of Italy is the specialization of the orchestra, the search for new instruments and modes of sounds, and, in close connection with this tendency, the formation of a class of 'virtuosi,' who devoted their whole attention to particular instruments or particular branches of music.
    From Jacob Burckhardt's 1860 study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. One of the biggest criticisms of the modern symphony orchestra is that its museum-like nature has put Burckhardt's analysis seriously out of balance—the focus on virtuosic practice has atrophied the search for new instruments and modes and sounds. Interestingly, last week's Boston Symphony concerts (which the group brought to New York) had small object lessons in both the validity and the irrelevance of such a protest. Henri Dutilleux expertly and hauntingly deployed a very non-orchestral instrument, the accordion, in his song cycle "Le Temps L'Horloge"—one could certainly conjure up a reedy facsimile with some clever orchestration, but the actual presence of the instrument was both more convincing and more poetic. On the other hand, in Debussy's "La Mer," I spent most of the performance mesmerized by veteran BSO percussionist Frank Epstein, manning the cymbal parts. Cymbals can be a one-dimensional flourish, but Epstein put on a clinic, coaxing inexhaustible, surprising colors out of an instrument that's hardly changed since it made its way into the orchestra a couple of centuries ago. Never mind the new instruments, Epstein's mastery seemed to say, we've barely scratched the surface of the old ones.

    Also from Burckhardt:
    In singing, only the solo was permitted, 'for a single voice is heard, enjoyed, and judged far better.' In other words, as singing, notwithstanding all conventional modesty, is an exhibition of the individual man of society, it is better that each should be seen and heard separately. The tender feelings produced in the fair listeners are taken for granted, and elderly people are therefore recommended to abstain from such forms of art, even though they excel in them. It was held important that the effect of the song should be enhanced by the impression made on the sight.
    Peter Gelb, Renaissance man.

    December 05, 2007

    Comparative Ponerology of the Day

    "Obviously rock climbing firms the upper regions of the will. But it's quite a process. And just as dangerous as black magic. For every fear we are ready to confront is equally open, you see, to the Devil. Should we fail, the Devil is there to soothe our cowardice. 'Stick with me,' he says, 'and your cowardice is forgiven.' Whereas, rock climbing, when well done, pinches off the Devil. Of course, if you fail, his nibs returns twofold. If you are not good enough then, you spend half your days getting the Devil out. That is marking time. And so long as we stay in place, Satan is more than satisfied. He loves circular, obsessive activity. Entropy is his meat. When the world becomes a pendulum, he will inhabit the throne."

    —Norman Mailer, Harlot's Ghost

    "Who knows today, who even knew in classical times, what inspiration is, what genuine, old, primeval enthusiasm, insicklied critique, unparalysed by thought or by the mortal domination of reason—who knows the divine raptus? I believe, indeed, the devil passes for a man of destuctive criticism? Slander and again slander, my friend! Gog's sacrament! If there is anything he cannot abide, if there's one thing in the whole world he cannot stomach, it is destructive criticism. What he wants and gives is triumph over it, is shining, sparkling, vainglorious unreflectiveness!"

    —Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

    December 04, 2007


    Photo of the day from Reuters. That's Brian Wilson, looking pretty much as I'd look if I found myself trapped between Diana Ross and Condolezza Rice. Wilson was fêted at this year's Kennedy Center Honors with, among other things, a medley of his songs performed by Hootie and the Blowfish. Hootie and the Blowfish, huh? Can you excuse me for a moment? (sound of head banging against wall)

    Elsewhere, Lord Goldsmith is recommending that some lyrics to "God Save the Queen" be changed. I'd start with the second verse, which has long spread the pernicious idea that "cause" and "voice" somehow rhyme. (Critic-at-large Moe suggests working in something about paws.) Or just scrap the whole thing and start over.

    And film critic Jim Emerson has a good time comparing Bob Dylan to Beethoven's Ninth. (If you've never seen director Todd Haynes' infamous all-Barbie-doll Karen Carpenter biopic, you really should.)

    Hanukkah starts at sundown tonight. I should come up with a celebratory post, but honestly, am I going to top last year's? Not bloody likely. So think of it as one of those endlessly repeated holiday specials. Shalom!

    December 03, 2007

    Last Fair Deal Gone Down

    Via The Concert and Deceptively Simple, a fine meme/questionnaire/procrastination aid.

    The rules:

    1. Put your iTunes/ music player on Shuffle
    2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer


    1. If someone says ‘Is this OK?’ you say?
    "America" (Van Dyke Parks' arrangement from Tokyo Rose).
    There's a bright future for me in politics, apparently.

    2. What would best describe your personality?
    "Wonderful" (Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers).
    Thanks, Sam! I left the money in your dressing room.

    3. What do you like in a girl?
    "Pu Pu Pa Doo" (The Gaynotes).
    No way I'm touching that one.

    4. How do you feel today?
    Berg: "Im Zimmer" from Sieben frühe Lieder (Anne Sofie von Otter/Bengt Forsberg).
    "When my eye rests so in yours, as quietly the minutes pass." I love you, too, computer!

    5. What is your life’s purpose?
    Britten: "The Death of Nicholas" from Saint Nicholas (the old Decca Britten/Pears recording).
    Revenge shall be mine.

    6. What is your motto?
    "I Can't Go On (Rosalie)" (Fats Domino).
    That's me—Samuel Beckett without the follow-through.

    7. What do your friends think of you?
    Poulenc: "Toréador" (Michel Sénéchal/Dalton Baldwin).
    Scoff all you want, but bolero jackets are making a comeback.

    8. What do you think of your parents?
    Brahms: Symphony no. 2: III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino)—Presto ma non assai—Tempo I (Wiener Philharmoniker/Bernstein).
    Coincidentally, the tempo marking of pretty much every report card review of my childhood.

    9. What do you think about very often?
    Schumann: "O wie Lieblich," op. 138, no. 3 (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Jörg Demus).
    My wife is distractingly cute, OK?

    10. What does 2+2=?
    "C'est Si Bon" (Don Byron, from Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz).
    Two plus two? It's all good! L'chaim!

    11. What do you think of your best friend?
    Adams: "Landing of the Spirit of '76" from Nixon in China.
    Well, every time I go to his house, I do have to shake the hands of all his ministers.

    12. What do you think of the person you like?
    Donizetti: "Voglio dire, lo stupendo elisir" from L'elisir d'amore (Battle/Pavarotti/Levine).
    It sure is.

    13. What is your life story?
    Wolf: "Das Köhlerweib is trunken" (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf/Gerald Moore).
    I was tricked by red wine. Is that an accepted legal defense plea?

    14. What do you want to be when you grow up?
    Tallis: The Lamentations of Jeremiah: Ghimel. Migravit Juda propter afflictionem (Pro Cantione Antiqua).
    Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of great servitude: she dwelleth among the heathen, she findeth no rest: all her persecutors overtook her between the straits. A restless, cranky old man. I'm well on my way.

    15. What do you think when you see the person you like?
    Bach: "Ich folge dir Gleichfalls" from St. John Passion (Elly Ameling).
    I likewise follow you with eager steps and will not forsake you, my Light and my Life. Let it not be said that I don't know what's good for me.

    16. What do your parents think of you?
    "I Know You Got Soul" (Eric B. and Rakim).
    Thanks, Mom and Dad! I left the money in your dressing room.

    17. What will you dance to at your wedding?
    Bernstein: "A Boy Like That," from West Side Story (original Broadway cast).
    Not actually what I danced to at my wedding, and truth be told, I'm kind of kicking myself.

    18. What will they play at your funeral?
    "Que Sera, Sera" (Sly and the Family Stone).
    How do you sum up a man's life? Meh.

    19. What is your hobby/interest?
    "Keep Your Hand on the Plow" (Mahalia Jackson).
    Wait, I have to get something to pull the plow, too? No wonder nothing's growing.

    20. What is your biggest secret?
    "I Don't Like Mondays" (The Boomtown Rats).
    That's no secret! Well, the shooting part, maybe.

    21. What do you think of your friends?
    "Heard It Through the Grapevine" (The Slits).
    As soon as they read this post, they'll find out on the sly.

    22. What should you post this as?
    "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" (Robert Johnson).

    Witches can be right, giants can be good

    In my ADD way, I rarely revisit topics once I've posted on them—I say what I have to say, and them I'm done. (Of course, some topics always pique my interest, usually for strange reasons: the gilt Art Nouveau rotary hotline has been silent as of late—hello?) So I wasn't planning on further deconstruction of the whole Gustavo Dudamel-Hugo Chávez-Venezuela thing, but it's been flaring up again (Although, as Darcy points out, we've probably been focusing on the wrong demagogue).

    The opposition to El Sistema is basically this: Chávez is awful, El Sistema has connections with Chávez, therefore it's tainted, no matter how much good it does. Patrick at The Penitent Wagnerite (linked above) put it this way:
    You cannot assert that Chávez is bad, but part of his regime (no matter when it was founded) is good, without contradicting yourself and implying that Chávez is good. It's just that simple.
    Here's my question (which goes well beyond the ostensible topic at hand): why is this whole evil-tainting-good idea invariably a one-way street? Patrick paints himself into a corner because his definitions of "evil" and "good" are so acid-and-base exclusive. (A professor I know would have diagnosed this as "hardening of the categories.") But even those of us who take a more pragmatic (or, from a pejorative standpoint, "morally relative") standpoint still have a tendency to default to the same direction of moral flow. Evil taints good, but good doesn't, as it were, taint evil.

    I wonder how far back in human history that lopsided equation goes. Pandora's Box, maybe? Adam's fall? Unusually for this infidel, I thought of a biblical passage, from Mark's Gospel:
    And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
    My suspicion is that the modern iteration of the unwashable stain is a hangover from the rise of Nazi Germany. Many decent people chose to take a charitable view of Hitler for too long, with disastrous results—as a result, our reflex is to believe the worst of any even mildly evil figure, and morally quarantine ourselves.

    But take a look at that passage from Mark again: the point isn't that evil needs to be violently amputated from our souls, the point is that even flawed souls can, on balance, be saved. The morally maimed can still enter into eternal life. Your hand is evil? Your foot? Your eye? That's OK—it's not like you're all evil.

    Jesus, in other words, was optimistic about the human soul. If you're afraid of being infected by the evil you see in Chávez and his ilk, you're too late: it's been there all along. That's the pessimistic reality of the human condition that we're all-too-familiar with after the last couple of centuries—the darkness that resides in all of us, periodically, sometimes catastrophically erupting into the world. But we miss the optimism: sure, there's evil in everyone's soul, but most of us don't let it erupt. It manifests itself as petty selfishness or occasional intolerance, but not authoritarian megalomania. We try our best to be good people, and that good taints our evil. Is it enough? Not always—sometimes not even often. So what do we do? We keep trying. It's foolishly optimistic. And foolishness is the most universal human trait there is.

    Chávez, by the way, lost his bid to alter the constitution and make himself permanently re-electable. Did he call in the army? Declare the election invalid? Throw it into the courts? Nope—he sucked it up and gave a concession speech. At least in this instance, he did the right thing. Did some of El Sistema's good taint his soul? Probably not—but considering the possibility is a nice workout for an intellectual muscle that, it seems, we may have forgotten how to use.