January 30, 2009

Keeping up with the jonesing

My Favorite Thing That Is Getting as Much Money (50 Million Dollars) as The National Endowment for the Arts in H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Monument and memorial repairs in national cemeteries

My Favorite Thing That Is Getting Three Times as Much Money as The National Endowment for the Arts in H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

The alteration or removal of obstructive bridges

My Favorite Thing That Is Getting Thirteen Times as Much Money as The National Endowment for the Arts in H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Costs associated with the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Program

My Favorite Thing That Is Getting Twenty Times as Much Money as The National Endowment for the Arts in H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

Expenses necessary for the manufacturing of advanced batteries
This is not an exercise in disparaging said projects, but just a reminder of where the arts stand in the priorities of our elected representatives. Again, it's a question of proportionality, and a double standard about jobs in the arts as opposed to jobs in, say, the manufacturing sector. Though, last time I checked, artists still bought food and clothes and housing and cars, just like everybody else.

And, while we're at it, a couple of objections to increased government funding of the arts that I've seen batted about lately. As for the objection that arts organizations are better off getting their funding from private philanthropy, I'll remind you that such charitable foundations are finding their giving capacity diminished by the implosion of a banking industry that, despite already getting their incompetence covered by taxpayers, still gave out billions in bonuses rather than, perhaps, reimbursing some of the philanthropic organizations whose money they lost.

That's rant material, though. What about a more structural objection—that increased government funding of the arts will correspondingly reduce private philanthropy, leaving funding stagnant or even worse off? Some economic theories predict such a "crowd-out" should happen, but as it turns out, the data shows otherwise: Thomas More Smith did the analysis in a 2007 paper on "The Impact of Government Funding on Private Contributions to Nonprofit Performing Arts Organizations." His conclusion:
Under a number of estimating techniques – OLS, Tobit and Fixed-Effects – this research has provided evidence that, on average, government grants have the potential to crowd-in private donations to nonprofit performing arts organizations in the range of $0.14– $1.15.
Overall, there is a lack of evidence that government grants have a negative impact on private donations and some evidence that government grants have a small positive impact on private giving to performing arts organization.
One other thing: as of this writing, neither the Senate Appropriations Committee nor the Senate Finance Committee have approved drafts of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that contain funding for the NEA.

January 29, 2009

Paris Original

My lovely wife and I were perusing some of this month's promotional swag here at Soho the Dog HQ, which included this very fun DVD: Great Voices of the Golden Age, a collection of 1960s-70s TV appearances by the likes of Christa Ludwig, Galina Vishnievskaya, Gundula Janowitz, &c. (Irmgard Seefried singing Werner Egk? OK, we're in.) Some of the sound quality in orchestral selections either hasn't aged well or has been a bit over-restored (I know Janowitz's voice has way more bloom than that), but the voice-and-piano repertoire sounds great, and the performances are consistently good.

But within also lies a cautionary tale. A favorite around these parts, Rita Streich, is represented by several appearances from the INA archives. Now, here's a still from an April 16, 1964 broadcast:

And here's a still from a March 7, 1965 broadcast:

OH MY GOD IT IS THE SAME DRESS. Yes, she has those sleeve-length things in the second picture, but that doesn't hide the fact that she's wearing the same gown for two different concerts. I mean, that's shady enough for a prima donna to do under any circumstances. But on network television? French network television, no less? Isn't that some sort of impeachable diva offense? We're big fans, so we'll forgive her, but let aspiring singers be warned: frugality will out.

January 28, 2009

A three pipe problem

Today, we take a musicological stab at getting to the bottom of an enduring mystery: when exactly John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, met Sherlock Holmes. (Real mysteries aren't seeming quite esoteric enough—we're going after fictional mysteries now.) Sherlockiana scholars and mavens have long debated this point. The most commonly cited date is 1881, first calculated by William S. Baring-Gould, but 1884 has its adherents as well. In fact, I've found every year between 1881 and 1885 proposed somewhere. Here's the problem: the only date of reference we know for sure from Watson's account of their meeting (as written by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet) is July 27, 1880—the Battle of Maiwand in the Second Afghan War (Maiwand is a village northwest of Kandahar). Watson was wounded in the battle, convalesced in a military hospital at Peshawar, and made his way back to London, where, after an unspecified passage of time, was introduced to Holmes in the laboratories of St. Bart's Hospital.

Watson gives us a date, but no year, for the events in A Study in Scarlet:
It was upon the 4th of March, as I have good reason to remember, that I rose somewhat earlier than usual
Later, Watson paraphrases newspaper accounts of the murder at the heart of the story, including this report on the whereabouts of the victim from the Standard:
He was accompanied in his travels by his private secretary, Mr. Joseph Stangerson. The two bade adieu to their landlady upon Tuesday, the 4th inst., and departed to Euston Station with the avowed intention of catching the Liverpool express. [emphasis added]
This has become the main point of departure for those who reject the 1881 date, as it wasn't until 1884 that March 4 fell on a Tuesday.

What muddies the waters on this point, though, is Holmes's love of music. As Watson tells it, on that March 4th, on the way from the murder scene to an interview with the constable who found the body, Holmes remarks:
"We have a good working basis, however, on which to start. We must hurry up, for I want to go to Halle's concert to hear Norman Neruda this afternoon."
And later, after the interview:
"I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon. There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. And now for lunch, and then for Norman Neruda. Her attack and her bowing are splendid. What's that little thing of Chopin's she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay."
Holmes knew his violinists: the Moravian-born Wilma Norman-Neruda was one of the most celebrated soloists in Victorian England. Her association with the German-English conductor Charles Hallé was long and fruitful, to the point where, after the death of her first husband, Norman-Neruda and Hallé would marry in 1888.

The problem is, Norman-Neruda never played a London concert on March 4th in any of the years in question. One solution to the discrepancy is that Watson conflated two dates into one. (Certainly, in the telling, Watson and Holmes pack a lot of coming and going into that March 4th.) Madame Norman-Neruda performed on the 5th of March in both 1881 and 1884. From an advertisement in the Times on March 2, 1881:
SATURDAY POPULAR CONCERTS, St. James's-hall.—On Saturday afternoon next, March 5, the PROGRAMME will include Mendelssohn's quintet in B flat; Beethoven's Pianoforte Trio in E flat, op. 70; Mendelssohn's Variations Sérieuses for pianoforte alone; and Handel's Sonata in D major, for violin (by desire). Executants—Mme. Schumann, Mme. Norman Neruda (her last appearance this season); MM. L. Ries, Straus, Zerbini, and Piatti. Vocalist, Miss Marian McKenzie. Accompanist, Mr. Zerbini. Commence at 8.
(Yes, that's Clara Schumann at the piano.) The 8 o'clock time is a typographical error. The Saturday Popular Concerts always started at 3. What's more, on March 5, 1881, St. James's-hall was otherwise occupied at 8:00, with Hallé conducting Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (a work he introduced to Britain the previous year.)

Proponents of an 1884 date have a one-day-off afternoon concert to point to as well. As advertised in the Times on February 29, 1884:
MORNING BALLAD CONCERT, St. James's-hall, on Wednesday next (the Last Morning Concert of the Series), at 3 o'clock. Artistes:—Madame Carlotta Patti, Miss Carlotta Elliot, Miss Mary Davies, and Miss Damian; Mr Edward Lloyd, Mr. Maybrick, and Mr. Santley. Pianoforte, Miss Margie Okey. Violin, Madame Norman-Neruda. Mr. Venables' Choir. Conductor, Mr. Sidney Naylor.
3 o'clock would require some alacrity on Holmes's part, but even a late return would still be around the dinner hour.

But notice what Holmes says: "I want to go to Halle's concert." Which means he probably wasn't referring to the Wednesday afternoon Ballad concerts. Throughout the 1880s, Hallé was most associated with Saturday popular concerts and Wednesday evening chamber concerts—the Ballad Concerts were run by the Boosey brothers, of the publishing firm, and it was their name that most often turned up in reference to them. Holmes was obviously a habitué of London concert halls; his reference to "Halle's concert" would most likely have meant either Saturday afternoon or Wednesday evening.

Now, in 1882, March 4th did fall on a Saturday. The problem is, Mme. Norman-Neruda didn't play. As advertised in the Times on March 2, 1882:
SATURDAY POPULAR CONCERTS, St. James's-hall.—On Saturday afternoon next, March 4, the Programme will include Beethoven's quintet in C major, op. 29; Schumann's pianoforte trio in D minor, duo concertante in A minor for two violins, by Spohr; and pieces by Scarlatti, for pianoforte alone. Executants—MM. Joachim, L. Ries, Straus, and Piatti. Pianoforte, Miss Agnes Zimmermann. Vocalist, Mr. Harper Kearton. Accompanist, Mr. Zerbini. Commence at 3.
So here's the possibilities:
  • March 4, 1881. The Standard is wrong (or Watson has misread it), and Watson has conflated two days into one.
  • March 4, 1882. The Standard is wrong (or Watson has misread it), and Holmes is mistaken about the performers on the day's concert.
  • March 4, 1884. Watson has conflated two days into one, and Holmes is mistaken about whether the day's concert is a Ballad Concert or a Popular Concert.
Two discrepancies for each date: which are the most easily explained away? My vote is for 1882: Holmes's assumption that "Halle's" concert will feature Mme. Norman-Neruda is understandable, and, moreover, one that would only be made by someone who was an avid-concertgoer—a Saturday Popular concert without her during this period is the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, there's this report from The Musical World, dated February 18, 1882:
Popular Concerts.—The engagement of Mdme Norman-Neruda, begun so recently and terminating so much sooner than anticipated, has in one sense been satisfactory, and in another unsatisfactory, to the constant patrons of Mr Chappell's excellent concerts—satisfactory, because the highly-gifted lady violinist was never pliying with more technical finish, or more admirable expression, than now; and unsatisfactory, because the curtain closes in so unexpectedly brief a time upon a delightful episode in the present season.
("Mr Chappell," by the way, was the owner of St. James's-hall, so any concert given there could conceivably be referred to as his.) The implication is that Mme. Norman-Neruda was scheduled to continue appearing at the Saturday afternoon concerts for some time longer than actually occurred in 1882. Holmes's assumption seems more reasonable. Indeed, when Holmes returns from the concert, he doesn't mention who performed:
He was very late in returning—so late, that I [Watson] knew that the concert could not have detained him all the time. Dinner was on the table before he appeared.

"It was magnificent," he said, as he took his seat. "Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood."

"That's rather a broad idea," I remarked.
The 1882 date clears up the difficulty of physically getting Watson from Maiwand to Baker Street in less than a year, but also corresponds with Watson's glancing "over my notes and records of the Sherlock Holmes cases between the years ‘82 and ‘90" in "The Five Orange Pips."

Now, there's another point of contention among Holmes experts about the mention of Norman-Neruda, and that's the piece that Holmes hums to illustrate her abilities. "What's that little thing of Chopin's she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay." This detail bugged Raymond Chandler no end; as he wrote to a friend in 1950:
. . . what did Chopin ever write for the violin at all? And even if in those comparatively civilized days (compared with ours) violinists had already descended to the vulgarity of arranging music for the violin which was never written for it, I find it hard to believe that so astute a lover of music as Mr Sherlock Holmes would pick out such an item out as worthy of mention, much less going to hear.
My own feeling is that Watson/Conan Doyle misheard Holmes, who was referring not to Chopin, but to Spohr—Mme. Norman-Neruda made a specialty of Spohr's virtuoso violin works throughout her career. Maybe Holmes was humming this theme from Spohr's 7th Violin Concerto:

Maybe not. But Chandler is right about how astute a music-lover Holmes is—all the more notable, since, as Watson notes, the rest of his knowledge is entirely along practical lines, to the point where he isn't even aware of the Copernican theory of the solar system. In "The Red-Headed League," Holmes takes a break from a progressing investigation to see Pablo Sarasate in concert (there has been some scholarly speculation that it was Holmes's mention of both Sarasate and the future Lady Hallé that inspired the teenaged crime-story aficionado and aspiring poet Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto to adopt the name Pablo Neruda); in "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" we learn that he is an expert on Paganini; and at the end of "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," Watson tells us:
As to Holmes, he returned refreshed to his monograph upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus, which has since been printed for private circulation, and is said by experts to be the last word upon the subject.
Now, if you're wondering as to the practicality of nearly 2000 words on the real-world accuracy of what is, after all, a work of fiction, first off, I say to you: you're no fun anymore. But there is a philosophical point. In his 1993 Norton Lectures at Harvard (published as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Umberto Eco similarly gets under the hood of The Three Musketeers, trying to figure out exactly where d'Artagnan and Aramis live in Paris—the hang-up being that they seem to live on different streets, but it's actually the same street with different names—the rue des Fossoyeurs and the rue Servadoni—in different historical periods. And this says something important about the susceptibility of us, the readers:
That [Sherlock] Holmes isn't married we know from the Holmes saga—that is, from a fictional corpus. In contrast, that the rue Servadoni couldn't have existed in 1625 we can learn only from the Encyclopedia; and the Encyclopedia's information is, from the point of view of the textual world, irrelevant gossip. If you think about it for a moment, it's the same sort of problem that was posed by the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood." We know very well as empirical readers that wolves don't speak, but as model readers we have to agree to live in a world where wolves do speak. So if we accept that there are speaking wolves in the wood, why can't we accept that there was a rue Servadoni in Paris in 1625? And in reality that's what we do and what you continue to do if you reread The Three Musketeers, even after my revelations.
For Eco, the Encyclopedia represents our understanding of the actual world, and fiction isn't built to expand that Encyclopedia. "The encyclopedic competence demanded of the reader," he says, "is limited by the fictional text." Or, as Eco puts it later, "fictional texts come to the aid of our metaphysical narrowmindedness"—which is a problem when fictional narrative strategies start to bleed into our perception of the actual world.

Eco tells the story of the British submarine Superb, which numerous press outlets reported as racing towards the Falkland Islands on the eve of that 1982 British-Argentine conflict, even though the ship, in reality, never left its base in Scotland. "Everybody cooperated in the creation of the Yellow Submarine," Eco muses, "because it was a fascinating fictional character and its story was narratively exciting." Eventually, Eco gets to the literary heritage of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and how that fiction's perniciousness was reinforced by fitting a pre-existing narrative pattern that had wormed its way into popular consciousness. Eco warns of fiction's habit of shaping our perception of life:
At times the results can be innocent and pleasant, as when one goes on a pilgrimage to Baker Street; but at other times life can be transformed into a nightmare instead of a dream. Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.
"Our quest for the model author," Eco proposes, "is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing." The fictional Dr. Watson caught a hint of this in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery":
I walked down to the station with them, and then wandered through the streets of the little town, finally returning to the hotel, where I lay upon the sofa and tried to interest myself in a yellow-backed novel. The puny plot of the story was so thin, however, when compared to the deep mystery through which we were groping, and I found my attention wander so continually from the action to the fact, that I at last flung it across the room and gave myself up entirely to a consideration of the events of the day.

January 26, 2009

Diddle for the Middle

Drew McManus at Adaptistration rather flatteringly named this space a winner of the "Premios Dardo" award, which is one of those chain-letter sorts of awards where a winner in turn hands the award to five friends, &c. You know, kind of like the Grammys. Neither Drew nor I are particularly sure when, where, and why the "Premios Dardo" originated (you know, kind of like the Grammys)—dardo means "dart" in Italian. But it also means this

—the VCC 80 Dardo HITFIST Infantry Fighting Vehicle. I like that better.

So the rules are, I get to name five other winners. Enjoy your tanks, honorees!
  • Tears of a Clownsilly. For being the blogger most likely to wake up one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect, after which he would write a post about it that referenced Curtis Mayfield, Josef Hauer, and Richard Rorty, and would still make me laugh until coffee came out my nose.
  • Bradley's Almanac. For letting me vicariously still feel like I know something about the Boston music scene, even though I'm old and like to be asleep by 11:00. In the morning, sometimes.
  • The View From Here. For intelligently holding down the fort in my old hometown until I return in glory, a combination of Lenin and MacArthur, to take the reins of absolute power to the deafening cheers of the grateful masses.
  • A genius, so to speak, for sauntering. For writing about whatever pops into his head, which turns out to be invariably a) fascinating, and b) something that has never, ever, popped into my own head. (Ooh, those are nice pictures, too.)
  • Kate Beaton. For this and this, mainly. (Her journal is also funny.)
Aw, heck, one more:
Update (1/27): Marc Geelhoed casts a generous vote as well—didn't Drew list us as tied? This is more like the Grammys than I thought.

January 24, 2009

Universal leader

The Psychology of Power. Watching Simon Boccanegra with Marshall Ganz.
Boston Globe, January 25, 2009.

The final paragraph was cut for space—it's not absolutely necessary, but I liked the comparison:
“In opera buffa, it usually ends when all the falsity is discovered,” Ganz goes on, “like the end of ‘Figaro,’ where everything is revealed, and all is happy.” But in “Simon Boccanegra,” falsity and division have done too much damage. “The truth is all revealed here, too, and I guess it’s redemptive, but it’s too late for a truly happy ending. It’s part of the price,” Ganz says. “And that’s also part of the truth of the story.”
In addition, one off-topic story: at one point, the discussion got sidetracked into a discussion about The Godfather, which, as it turns out, the entire executive board of the United Farm Workers went and saw one night when it first came out. "For about a year afterwards," Ganz recalled, "every executive board meeting was mostly just acting out scenes from the movie. César [Chávez] used to end every discussion by saying, 'We'll just make them an offer they can't refuse.'"

January 23, 2009


We'll finish up inauguration week with this non-story that nevertheless made it to the front page of The New York Times:
The somber, elegiac tones before President Obama’s oath of office at the inauguration on Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the Mall and watching on television heard was in fact a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along.
Lest any right-wing blowhards see this as cannon fodder, I should point out that George W. Bush did the same thing. I heard John Harbison, who in addition to his composing, is president of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, tell this story: the Fund got a call from the Bush inaugural committee, who wanted to do an arrangement of "Fanfare for the Common Man" for heraldic trumpets (you know, the kind you always see in movies about the Roman Empire—hmmm). Anyway, they replied no, we'll license the original, but no arrangements. So at the inauguration, a recording of "Fanfare for the Common Man" was piped in while the heraldic trumpeters played, well, nothing. (Actually, given the Copland Fund's disinclination to allow occasional arrangements, I wondered if Williams' choice of "Simple Gifts" was not just an homage, but a deliberate replacement for Appalachian Spring.)

Given what little regard I've held for the rest of the previous administration's actions, the fact that I found that merely an amusing story is a good sign that I don't think there's much to last Tuesday's sleight-of-hand, either. Am I in a minority in not expecting presidential inaugurations to conform to the dictates of the Dogme 95 movement? But then, I've always regarded the theatrical nature of politics as intrinsic to the practice, not a dishonest added layer.

This is not to say that politics is nothing but stagecraft, but that effective politics is policy and stagecraft working together. It's been interesting to watch Obama's approach to stagecraft, especially the way that, as he's gotten closer to power, he's muted his talent for rhetorical flight: his convention acceptance speech was more sober than his keynote in 2004, and his inaugural address was more subdued than either. Obama seems to have an instinct for a fundamental rule of political theater: the inverse relationship between the effortfulness of stagecraft and the perception of substantive policy. Compare, for example, Bush's Bruckheimer/Simpson "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier adventure with Dwight D. Eisenhower's telegram announcing VE Day.

In fact, while Obama has been garnering comparisons with JFK, I think Eisenhower might also be a useful model. Eisenhower is an interesting case: someone with a mastery of language (he wrote speeches for MacArthur, for gosh sakes) who nonetheless primarily used that mastery to avoid obvious rhetorical effects rather than indulge in them. (Even Ike's famously rambling press-conference answers, according to his press secretary, were purposeful obfuscations rather than aphasic incompetence.) The results weren't always satisfying—I wish he had taken an earlier and stronger position against McCarthyism, for example, and his approach to civil rights was sometimes excessively cautious—but, on the other hand, by the end of his term, McCarthy was gone, and Brown v. Board of Education happened on his watch.

Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts"—which I rather liked, for the record—was certainly more introspective and modest than triumphal, which might signal just how much of the "No-Drama Obama" culture of the campaign will be imported into the new administration. If they adopt some measure of Eisenhower's minimalist style, that'll be just as much of an aesthetic choice as non-stop stirring inspiration would be—there may be a deliberate attempt to save the rhetorical high notes for particular situations. (After all, Eisenhower's characterization of "the military-industrial complex" probably wouldn't have resonated so deep if he had been prone to tossing off a lapidary phrase like that once a day.) But given that even newsreel footage of FDR's fireside chats were re-staged and re-recorded, unless the purpose is fraudulent content, I'm not that concerned whether it's live or on tape.

Update (1/23): Mark Meyer offers an inaugural box of linguistic candy.

January 21, 2009

Rough estimate

With the advent of an Obama administration, there seems to be an inchoate expectation—one, it should be said, based on not much concrete evidence as yet—that the arts are going to finally get the government attention they deserve, with the Quincy-Jones-inspired petition for a cabinet-level Arts Secretary probably the most prominent effort on the Web. I've always thought that was a good idea, on the grounds that a lack of high-level advocacy has contributed to the underfunding of arts initiatives. So what would constitute an appropriate amount of federal support for the arts? Well, you can calculate an intriguing ballpark figure based on, oddly enough, the auto industry. And according to the auto industry, the federal government should be annually funding the arts to the tune of twelve billion dollars.

It's no secret that American automakers have been in trouble for some time. There's a number of reasons why—the turning radius on the Chevy Cobalt we rented last week being but one datum—but the point is, with the economy gasping for breath like Violetta in Act III, the automakers have come, hat in hand, to beg for money from the government. And to make their case, they did what arts organizations like to do—they cited an economic impact study.

Last November, the Center for Automotive Research released a memorandum on what would happen if the Big Three automakers suddenly stopped or contracted production. Here's what it had to say about the worst-case scenario—a complete cessation of operations within the next year:
In economic terms, the rapid termination of Detroit Three U.S. operations in 2009 would reduce U.S. personal income by over $150.7 billion in the first year, and generate a total loss of $398.2 billion over the course of three years. The impact of this personal income loss on fiscal government operations at the local, state and federal levels include an increase in transfer payments, a reduction in social security receipts and personal income taxes paid. The net impact of all three of these categories is negative on the government balance sheet, resulting in a loss to the government of $60.1 billion in 2009, $54.3 billion in 2010, and $42.0 billion in 2011—a total government tax loss of over $156.4 billion over three years.
That's calculated from the loss of jobs in the car factories, indirect or supplier jobs, and spin-off jobs (those jobs that would be lost from the decline in income among the first two groups)—in other words, it's an attempt to measure total economic impact on the affected communities. If you add up the three-year totals of lost income and lost tax revenue, you get a yearly average impact of $184.9 billion.

How's that compare with the arts? Well, according to the 2007 Arts and Economic Prosperity III study by Americans for the Arts, arts organizations generate $104.2 billion annually in personal income, and $29.6 billion in tax revenue. That's a yearly total of $133.8 billion.

So that means that the Big Three automakers' yearly economic impact is about 1.4 times that of the "non-profit arts and culture industry," as Americans for the Arts puts it. Which is interesting, since in the past year, the auto industry received 120 times as much federal money than the arts.

The bulk of the government's bailout response to the financial crisis has been in the form of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP—that's the $700 billion figure the media has been tossing around. According to The New York Times, out of that, $17.4 billion in loans so far is going or has gone to General Motors and Chrysler, two-thirds of the Big Three. (That doesn't include automakers' financing arms, such as GMAC.) For the record, the 2008 budget of the National Endowment for the Arts was $144.7 million.

Extraordinary times, apples and oranges, &c., &c.—but isn't the crisis hitting arts groups just as hard? Maybe the Baltimore Opera isn't too big to fail, but what about The Metropolitan Opera? The troubles of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles might pre-date the financial crisis, but so do the auto industry's; does MOCA get a bailout? How about the Detroit Institute of Arts? Do the math: based on the TARP money collected by automakers and the relative economic impact, the corresponding amount of annual arts funding would be $12.4 billion. Do you expect the government to hit that mark? Me neither. But then the government ought to be telling us one of two things: either what makes the auto industry so special, or else what makes the arts so unloved.

January 20, 2009

Entrez, messieurs, mesdames

With inauguration coverage currently on in the background, it's the perfect time to quote Jacques Offenbach. No, really. The collocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the swearing in of the country's first black president has occasioned much discourse on the state of race relations in the U.S., most of it somehow centered around whether we're in a "post-racial" society or not. At the very least, we've turned a page, even if the book remains open—but the issue of race is so ingrained in American history that it's hard to get an objective sense. Which is why my mind has been turning repeatedly over the past couple weeks to this very curious story that Offenbach relates from 1870s New York.
But I must not close this chapter on American theatres without mentioning a little hall where I heard the minstrels.

There all the actors are negroes; the chorus consists of negroes; the servants are negroes;—cashier, manager, superintendent, men and women, all black!

On sighting the stage, I perceived a negro orchestra, playing tunes more or less fantastic.

But great was my surprise on becoming aware that I was the object of their special attention, and that they were pointing me out to one another. I could not believe that I was known to so many negroes; but, nevertheless, I must confess I was delighted to find that such was the case.

The performance was sufficiently comical to induce me to remain to the end. What was my astonishment on returning, after the first act, to witness a renewal of the same manifestations towards me—that is to say, the musicians again pointing me out to one another. This time they were all white, as white as the bakers in the Boulangère. I became prouder than ever; but, alas! there was deception in store for me. I was informed they were the same musicians, and that, from the manager to the servants, they were nothing but sham negroes, who alternately painted and washed their faces three or four times every evening, according to the requirements of the performances.

—Jacques Offenbach, Offenbach in America: Notes of a Travelling Musician
(New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1877)

Offenbach devoted a chapter of his travelogue to thoughts on the American ideal of liberty, alternately bemused—blue laws against Sunday drinking are a particular annoyance—and cutting. For example, this sarcastic report: "Negro emancipation is another grand reform! The dear negroes are free, perfectly free; let me tell you how," he wrote. "They cannot enter either the cars or any other public conveyances; on no account do the theatres admit them; and if they are received in the restaurants, it is only to wait on the white guests. This is an illustration of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." But then again, Offenbach knew something of discrimination. He goes on:
The proprietor of the Cataract Hotel, at Niagara Falls, had the following advertisement inserted in the principal daily papers:

"Being a citizen of a perfectly free country, and having the right to do as I please in my own house, I have decided :

"First and only Article —'From and after this day, Jews will be excluded from this hotel.'"
As you might expect, Offenbach finds a way to get the last laugh: "It may be interesting to add," he drily relates, "that after a lapse of two years this liberal hotel-keeper was compelled to give up his establishment for want of business."

Offenbach's observations are sanguine enough that I don't begrudge him his wit, but, fundamentally, what provides him a target for poking fun—with varying degrees of force—is American idealism, and idealism is a pretty easy target: ideals are, almost by definition, rarely met.

Whether the incoming administration can live up to the enormous expectations placed on it remains to be seen. But this inauguration does live up to the "historic" epithet that's been applied so it so often over the past weeks—not just because of race, not just because of the challenge of this particular moment in time, and not just because, so often over the past several years, the better angels of our nature seemed to be hopelessly on the defensive. It's that, for one day at least, the grandiose nature of American idealism fuels more optimism than disappointment. That's a history Americans are born into as well—and every so often, that subjective viewpoint becomes a privileged one.

January 19, 2009

L'ombra mostrarsi

On a cool Saturday afternoon in January 1954, I set out to drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama. It was one of those clear wintry days when the sun bedecked the skies with all of its radiant beauty. After starting out on the highway, I happened to have turned on the radio. Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera was on the air with a performance of one of my favorite operas—Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. So with the captivating beauty of the countryside, the inspiration of Donizetti's inimitable music, and the matchless splendor of the skies, the usual monotony that accompanies a relatively long drive—especially when one is alone—was absorbed into meaningful diversions.
. . .
Not long after I arrived a friend was gracious enough to take me by the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where I was to preach the following morning. A solid brick structure erected in Reconstruction days, it stood at one corner of a handsome square not far from the center of town. As we drove up, I noticed diagonally across the square a stately white building of impressive proportions and arresting beauty, the State Capitol—one of the finest examples of classical Georgian architecture in America. Here on January 7, 1861, Alabama voted to secede from the Union, and on February 18, on the steps of the portico, Jefferson Davis took his oath of office as President of the Confederate States. For this reason, Montgomery has been known across the years as the Cradle of the Confederacy. Here the first Confederate flag was made and unfurled. I was to see this imposing reminder of the Confederacy from the steps of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church many times in the following years.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Lucia Dr. King listened to on the way to Montgomery was broadcast on January 30, 1954, and featured Lily Pons as Lucia, Jan Peerce as Edgardo, and, as Normanno, James McCracken, who made his Metropolitan debut with this particular production.

January 16, 2009

Design for Living

A vintage demurral to the old saw that people become musicians primarily to pick up girls/guys:
The voice of man.—The same remark will apply to another peculiarly human character, the wonderful power, range, flexibility, and sweetness, of the musical sounds producible by the human larynx, especially in the female sex. The habits of savages give no indication of how this faculty could have been developed by natural selection; because it is never required or used by them. The singing of savages is more or less monotonous howling, and the females seldom sing at all. Savages certainly never choose their wives for fine voices, but for rude health, and strength, and physical beauty. Sexual selection could not therefore have developed this wonderful power, which only comes into play among civilized people. It seems as if the organ had been prepared in anticipation of the future progress of man, since it contains latent capacities which are useless to him in his earlier condition. The delicate correlations of structure that give it such marvellous powers, could not therefore have been acquired by means of natural selection.
That's the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace in 1870, in an article called "The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man." Now, obviously Wallace is concerned with bigger game than an evolutionary motivation for groupies. You might not get it from this bit, but Wallace—who independently came up with the idea of natural selection, prompting Charles Darwin to finally get his own 20-year-old theory into print—in a lot of ways tried to out-Darwin Darwin, divining the hand of natural selection where even the father of the idea demurred. Darwin and Wallace were friendly colleagues, but where the former saw useful explanations, the latter saw dogma.

That's what's getting Wallace into trouble in this passage, which like the rest of the article, catalogs human traits and abilities that don't seem to be necessary for survival—and then (to Darwin's horror) attributes them to the hand of a higher power. All the talk about "savages" results from Wallace's view, fairly liberal for the time, that "primitive" races around the world weren't inferior to "higher" races, in terms of ability or brain size. Nonetheless, they weren't civilized white Europeans of refined culture and manners, which meant that some of that mental potential wasn't being used. As Stephen Jay Gould put it in The Panda's Thumb:
Hence, Wallace's dilemma: all "savages," from our actual ancestors to modern survivors, had brains fully capable of developing and appreciating all the finest subtleties of European art, morality, and philosophy; yet they used, in the state of nature, only the tiniest fraction of that capacity in constructing their rudimentary cultures....

But natural selection can only fashion a feature for immediate use. The brain is vastly overdesigned for what it accomplished in primitive society; thus, [Wallace reasoned,] natural selection could not have built it.
A few minutes' thinking is enough to recognize Wallace's fallacy. I can fry eggs on an engine block—that neither means that a) the engine designer expected me to do so, nor b) because he didn't, the design process is somehow flawed. Same thing with using a credit card to open a door, or, a favorite from hanging around wind players, using Zig-Zag cigarette papers to blot the spit out of oboe keys. But Wallace couldn't see the error because he was too wedded to what Gould calls "hyper-selectionism": the need for natural selection to somehow sign off on every possible use of a physiological feature. Gould again:
Wallace did not abandon natural selection at the human threshold. Rather, it was his peculiarly rigid view of natural selection that led him, quite consistently, to reject it for the human mind.... Wallace's error on human intellect arose from the inadequacy of his rigid selectionism, not from a failure to apply it.
If you're still under the assumption that this is a music blog, you might at this point be sensing a distant symmetry between Wallace's hyper-selectionism and some more deterministic compositional and analytical methods. Certainly total serialism springs to mind—has there ever been a more thorough musical realization of the notion that every event should have its own function, and no other, within an overall structure? But hasn't that always been the goal of analysis, too—a place for everything, and everything in its place? Even seemingly intuitive works of music fall under the analytical knife, an operation to reveal that intuition is just as organically determined as any schematic process.

But actually, total serialism—and, oddly, its uncharitable reputation among many listeners—shows that music inherently resists turning into a deterministic experience. Listeners are funny: they want the music to give enough of an impression to reassure that the composer is concerned with the way details are integrated into the overall whole, but if it's too cut-and-dry, they pull back. Take certain kinds of minimalism, where the process behind the piece is laid out on the surface, fully audible. There is still a significant portion of the classical-music audience that hates minimalism, thinks it's boring, or worse, authoritarian and soulless. On the other hand, there are listeners who think a piece of totally-determined serialism sounds random, arbitrary, ungrammatical. (These are extremes, of course, but I would think we recognize features of the caricatures in most negative reactions: criticisms of minimalism seize on the repetition, serialism, the dissonance.) But the fact that a completely deterministic method of organizing musical events can produce an experience of mercurial unpredictability shows how little is being controlled even by the most controlling composer. That inherent gap between conception and realization, between design and actuality—the kissing cousin of music's maddeningly near-linguistic status—might be philosophically frustrating, but it's also what keeps creators and listeners coming back, trying to plumb the depths. Wallace thought that ancient groupies would only be attracted to design—but what if the howling itself is the attraction?

January 13, 2009

The last patient I gave one of those to won the Kentucky Derby

With the New York City Opera set to announce their new director tomorrow, that means there's less than 24 hours left to place wagers on who it will be. Now, I admit, it seems futile to resist the juggernaut of Ryan Tracy's candidacy, but nevertheless, let's look at the current odds.

George Steel: 2-1

Good news: Knows the city, knows the business, makes the crazy modern music a hot ticket.
Bad news: Leaving Dallas Opera before he's barely started will only feed to the undercurrent of insecurity that results in Texas constantly foisting demagogues on the rest of the country.
Quote from the future: "What? I'm just going to lunch. The fully-packed suitcase is just a trendy accessory. All the kids are doing it. Trust me."

Rudy Giuliani: 5-1

Good News: High profile, proven fundraiser, might keep him from running for president again.
Bad News: Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain will be axed in favor of a Frank Wildhorn-penned extavaganza about 9/11, starring Ronan Tynan as Rudy Giuliani.
Quote from the future: "Why certainly; I'd be happy to answer that question about our current budget shortfall 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11."

Oprah Winfrey: 30-1

Good news: As it turns out, a free new car under every seat does wonders for the State Theater's acoustics.
Bad news: Entire production budget is used up staging Margaret Garner eight times a week.
Quote from the future: "I think you owe it to me and my audience to explain why you pretended to be a seamstress with tuberculosis when, in fact, you weren't."

Jesus Christ: 50-1

Good news: Dominion over all creation, will work for cheap.
Bad news: Entire production budget is used up staging Parsifal eight times a week.
Quote from the future: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose the chance to update Tannhäuser to hippie-era Haight-Ashbury?"

The Village People: 80-1

Good news: Costume budget for Regietheater-inspired productions drops to virtually zero.
Bad news: Inaugural season cancelled by crippling strike after Construction Guy decides to go all Joe Volpe and break the unions.
Quote from the future: "Tell the bank that you need a loan / Go sell your house and every little thing that you own / You'll make your dream, forget that you're an unknown / You're gonna be a star, a big star"

Joe Volpe: 100-1

Good news: Bored; could use the challenge.
Bad news: Bored; could use the challenge.
Quote from the future: "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

HAL 9000: 250-1

Good news: Balances budget by reorganizing operations with superhuman, optimum efficiency.
Bad news: Inability to process conflicting, illogical information leads to him killing the entire cast of I Puritani.
Quote from the future: "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do..." (Continues singing as tinny electronic voice gradually gets slower and deeper, until finally Robert Wilson hires him to play Sarastro)

Critic-at-Large Moe: 1000-1

Good news: Infallible taste in both singers and repertoire; encyclopedic breadth of knowledge; savvy negotiator; peerlessly eloquent advocate for the arts.
Bad news: Needs to be walked twice a day; obsessed with tennis balls.
Quote from the future: "I knew our staging of the complete Licht cycle would sell out. Dogs don't play all that poker for nothing."

Update (1/14): Mr. Steel paid $6.60, $3.40, and $2.60.

January 09, 2009

Unlikely music critic of the day

Also this year you talked of Elgar, and the newspapers said that he was ill.

If you see him will you present my constant pleasure in his music, whether human rendered or from my box? Nobody who makes sounds gets so inside my defences as he does, with his 2nd Symphony and Violin Concerto. Say that if the 3rd Symphony has gone forward from those, it will be a thrill to ever so many of us. He was inclined to grumble that the rewards of making music were not big, in the bank-book sense; but by now he should be seeing that bank-books will not interest him much longer. I feel more and more, as I grow older, the inclination to throw everything away and live on air. We all allow ourselves to need too much.

—T.E. Lawrence to Mrs Charlotte Shaw, August 23, 1933

I read your [Beethoven's] 9th Symphony score very often, trying to keep pace with the records. Music, alas, is very difficult. So are all the decencies of life.

—T.E. Lawrence to H.A. Ford, April 18, 1929

Lawrence carved the lintel above the door of his Clouds Hill cottage to read οὐ φροντὶς ("does not care"), referring to the story of Hippocleides as told by Herodotus. Elgar did not live to complete his 3rd Symphony, the commission of which had been partially arranged by Bernard Shaw. "We were too late for that Third Symphony after all," Lawrence wrote Charlotte Shaw.

January 07, 2009


It seems odd that the first Cambodian rock opera should have its premiere in Lowell, Massachusetts, but that's what happened: composer Sophy Him and librettist Catherine Filloux brought their fascinating hybrid Where Elephants Weep to the former mill town/birthplace of Jack Kerouac in the spring of 2007 for three workshop/preview performances.

Amid much publicity, Where Elephants Weep finally had its Cambodian premiere last November, and was subsequently shown on Cambodian TV on Christmas. However, a second planned broadcast was postponed after the country's Buddhist monks complained.
"Some scenes in the story insult Buddhism," said a letter sent to the Ministry of Cults and Religion by the Supreme Sangha Council of Buddhist Monks. The letter—also sent to the media— went on to ask that the ministry "ban the performance and airing of the opera", and demanded an apology from the show's director, writer and actors.
When did Buddhist monks get so touchy? I thought the source of suffering was birth, not rock and roll. Still, as a connoisseur, I think irritating an entire nation's Buddhist monks has to be the kickflip McTwist of shocking the bourgeoisie. Sophy Him and Catherine Filloux, we salute you.

Fun fact, courtesy of my lovely wife: did you know that the Catholic Church once unwittingly canonized the Buddha? If you want to join the Sangha, just say so.

January 06, 2009

Star Search

Christmas just finally ended yesterday, at least according to the ecclesiastical calendar; today is Epiphany, officially marking the arrival of the Three Wise Men to deliver history's first Christmas loot. Our choir's pre-Epiphany anthem last Sunday was, appropriately, "Epiphany," an 1864 hymn-tune by the great Victorian composer/organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley, setting a venerable old Reginald Heber text. Here's a score:

"Epiphany" is pretty extravagantly lovely for a hymn; check out those strong-beat double non-harmonic tones in the third bar, like cheese melting onto the sirloin burger of subdominant substitutions. (Do you think Wesley knew his Mendelssohn? Yeah, me too.) Nevertheless, "Epiphany" appears in none of the hymnals I have, mainly because people don't know how to sing anymore.

Here's what I mean: in spite of being well within reasonable range for a decent SATB choir, "Epiphany" is simultaneously too high and too low to get into hymnals. The problem is that the soprano line, with its frequent ascension to high F, is too high for unison singing—the altos and basses in the congregation can't comfortably get up that high, which would be OK if congregations read parts, but they don't. You could take the whole thing down, but then the written alto and bass lines get too low. So if you want to get it in the hymnal, you'd have to rearrange it—or you could just use James Harding's comparatively bland "Morning Star," which is what most hymnals do.

Hymnals have, in fact, been getting progressively lower. In the 1955 Presbyterian Hymnbook, most soprano lines top out around E-flat or E, with a few occasionally getting up to F. In its 1990 replacement, The Presbyterian Hymnal, the tunes top out around D, with about one in five getting up to E. Only one goes to F: James Ellor's seemingly endless "Diadem," which probably needs a Mormon Tabernacle-sized choir to really work anyway. Several tunes that appear in both editions have been transposed down for 1990, "Sicilian Mariners" and "Lasst uns erfreuen" being two particularly familiar examples.

Leaving aside the whole lack of part-reading-sufficient musical literacy, it's interesting to note that the upper range of the newer hymnal coincidentally corresponds to the ceiling of pop-style belting rather than higher classical/choral-style singing. If you're not doing a whole lot of unamplified choral singing as a matter of childhood educational course, it's that much harder, later on, to get your breath and muscle memory working in such a way to really get a substantial head voice. Those high F's would probably cause a flip-and-crack transition in more young female voices than, say, forty years ago—even fairly accomplished teenaged singers I've worked with have often, under the influence of pop and contemporary R&B, only ever spent time in their middle and belt ranges. (Even musical theatre songs, traditionally lower than classical repertoire, have probably, on average, dropped at least a step or two since the days of Rodgers and Hammerstein.)

So, thanks in part to the steady deterioration of arts education to its currently lousy state, Wesley's little gem, which, in a universe with better breath control, would be a standard, is now a rarity. A few more generations of this, and your Sunday morning singing might well be a chanted drone. I can't help thinking of all those great soul singers who started out as kids in church choirs—is it too late to ask the Wise Men to throw in Aretha's gospel album?

January 05, 2009

"In Paris they call it American Music"

Guerrieri: New Year Rag (1995/2009) (PDF, 5 pages, 267 Kb; MIDI here)

That's right—the original version of this one was written at the beginning of 1995. But now the notation is cleaner and it has a better ending.

Writing ragtime is one of those things that, for me at least, the more you do it, the longer it takes. As a result, I have a folder bulging with unfinished bits and pieces. One of this year's resolutions is to finish them all up, so I think a new rag every month ought to go a long way towards that. (Seriously—there's one that's been stuck in the same harmonic cul-de-sac between the C and D strains since 2000.)

Anyway, this is probably the closest to "classical" rag style that I've ever gotten, the D strain feint towards the Neapolitan notwithstanding. Yes, we're ringing in the new year with an old piece in an older style—along with the promise of future installments. The present is so elusive, isn't it?

Post title via James Weldon Johnson.