October 2017 Archives

electric Boulez

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NYRB's Christopher Carroll looks back to the time when Boulez went electric:

Pierre Boulez, the radical modernist composer who later in his career became one of the most sought-after conductors in the world, was famous for his polemics. "I suggested that it was not enough to add a moustache to the Mona Lisa," he once said.
It should simply be destroyed. All I meant was just to urge the public to grow up and once for all to cut the umbilical cord attaching it to the past. The artists I admire--Beethoven, Wagner, Debussy, Berlioz--have not followed tradition but have been able to force tradition to follow them. We need to restore the spirit of irreverence in music.

"This was not simply abuse for its own sake," Carroll continues, "but an attempt to underscore what Boulez felt was the urgent need for innovation in the postwar era:"

The musical forms of the twentieth century, he believed, had been creatively exhausted. His search for the new led Boulez to a brief experiment in the early Fifties with total serialism, which applied Schoenberg's technique of serial ordering not just to pitch, but to rhythm, dynamics, tempo, timbre, and even the way in which notes were attacked. Though he soon distanced himself from the technique--later suggesting that excessive devotion to serialism was a form of "frenetic arithmetic masturbation"--for many this is the image of Boulez that has stuck: a bullying, icy modernist whose music was forbidding and academic, full of jagged asperity and rhythms that unfold in what Alex Ross aptly called "a rapid sequence of jabbing gestures, like the squigglings of a seismograph."

"Yet of all his compositions," writes Carroll, "the one that may give the most pleasure on first listening is one that must be heard in person in order to truly appreciate, and that--perhaps unsurprisingly--is hardly ever performed:"

That work is Répons, a late electronic composition for orchestra, six soloists, and an audio-acoustic system that was recently staged at the Park Avenue Armory by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. [...]

The piece, which Boulez revisited several times, ultimately extending it to a length of about forty-five minutes, is written for three separate groups: an orchestra, six soloists, and what the score calls an electro-acoustic system of computers and loudspeakers. The orchestra sits at the center, surrounded by the audience, which is in turn surrounded by six soloists playing percussion instruments--the cimbalom (a kind of Hunagarian zither); harp; vibraphone; xylophone doubled with glockenspiel; and two pianos, one of which is doubled with an electric organ. Each of these solo instruments is hooked up to the electro-acoustic system, which analyzes, transforms, and spatially rearranges their sounds, dispersing them through a set of six loudspeakers.

Boulez's Répons at the Park Avenue Armory, 2017 (Stephanie Berger)

Carroll is quite laudatory about both the piece and its performance:

Far from stifling the human element, the use of electronics in Répons helps bring it to life, giving the piece an almost living, breathing mutability. Hearing it live made it clear why Boulez once said that listening to a recording of the piece was the equivalent of looking at a photo of one of Calder's mobiles.

The Federalist's Tyler Bonin purports to analyze Soviet ideology, and suggests ominously that "this ideology has resurfaced in the United States." Bonin writes that "All speech was loosely interpreted as subversive, and thus the Gulags swelled with political prisoners, especially during Stalin's regime:"

Corruption became a mainstay of the Soviet political system, and continues to pervade Russia today. Russia continually scores low on indices of press freedom, and journalists are silenced or disappear frequently. Vladimir Putin continues to consolidate power. Thus, when considering this bit of Soviet history, two elements present themselves in the context of the modern United States.

Would these elements be Trump's totalitarian tendencies and his idolization of Putin? Of course not. When Bonin sees "a single ideology by silencing and ultimately eliminating all competing ideas," he thinks of "U.S. college campuses today:"

Student activist groups are continually attempting to prevent and ultimately eliminate speech from campuses that contradicts their own ideas, as well as speech that serves as a possible hindrance to activists' collective goal of implementing their social justice agenda. Countless cases have occurred... [...]

Granted, this is not on a scale congruent to the Bolshevik revolution. However, the justification of silence for a larger, collective goal is unnerving, both among our government and the growing activist movement in U.S. colleges and universities.

Any effort to infringe on liberty in the name of a collective goal must be viewed with suspicion. History teaches us that liberty truly is a safeguard against violence and a worldview forced upon us.

Historian and activist Paul Le Blanc takes a more sober look at the lessons and legacy of the Russian Revolution:

It is a pleasure to be with you on this hundredth anniversary of the overthrow of Tsarist tyranny. It is a remembrance that can inspire us in our current struggles against the multiple tyrannies of our time: the tyranny of the wealthy multinational corporations and the governments they control and the vicious policies which they carry out, for their immense profit. For their profit, but at our expense: at the expense of our quality of life, our freedoms, our cultural and natural environment, and more. [...]

The revolution had begun when the workers and peasants - some of them in uniform thanks to being conscripted into the Tsar's army and navy during the incredibly bloody and horrific First World War - overthrew the Tsarist regime in February (according to our own calendar it started on March 8th, International Women's Day).

In this the workers and peasants and soldiers and sailors who fought the revolutionary battles had formed their own democratic councils (soviets) to organize and coordinate their efforts.

Le Blanc points out that "the keystone of the whole effort was the notion that the great majority of people - those whose lives and labor keeps society running - are the ones who should run society," and notes that "such a victory could only be secured on a global level, through revolutionary internationalism."

When we look at the actual history of how the revolutionaries actually functioned over the years, we see that this means not simply lecturing to and at people, but especially in listening to them, learning from them, and integrating what we understand with what they understand.

We also see that it means our being involved in actual struggles in which larger numbers of people are involved or are ready to be involved - struggles not for revolutionary socialism, but struggles for bread, for at least a modicum of elemental dignity, for an expansion of at least some limited rights and well-being.

He ends on an optimistic note:

Some of us who are older are running out of time for engaging with such wrestling - but those of you who are younger, with all of your courage and energy and creativity, will have an opportunity to do amazing things in the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin and so many others who represent the traditions of the October Revolution.

NYT's Dan Bilefsky tells us that Proust's letters to be made available online:

Marcel Proust's legions of fans have obsessed about the meaning of his sometimes impenetrable prose, fetishized his tatty fur coat and bed, parsed his manuscripts and, fairly or not, lauded "Remembrance of Things Past" as the greatest literary work of the 20th century.

Now, Proustians the world over are eagerly awaiting two events that may shed new light on the self-consciously eccentric writer and master excavator of memories...

"Some 6,000 letters written by Proust," the piece continues, "will be published online and made available free to scholars and general readers alike:"

The letters show that Proust wrote and collected breathless, adulatory reviews of his own work and then paid for them to be published in newspapers such as Le Figaro.

The letters reveal that the writer had an adeptness for self-promotion and public relations worthy of the future digital age. All the more impressive, perhaps, he orchestrated the P.R. operation from his sickbed. [...]

Proust wrote his fawning letters in longhand and had them typed by his publisher in an apparent attempt to conceal their origin.

Sartre and freedom

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Gary Cox, author of Existentialism and Excess: The Life and Times of Jean-Paul Sartre, discusses https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/jean-paul-sartre-cox-demands-freedom/ Sartre and the demands of freedom:

Conscripted at the start of the Second World War, Sartre was taken prisoner by the German advance of 1940. He may have been released on medical grounds, he may have escaped, but by spring 1941 he was back in Paris where he founded the resistance movement Socialism and Freedom. All this time, invigorated by the war, he had been writing his major work, Being and Nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology, published in 1943.

Often called "the bible of existentialism", this dense 650-page book was the extraordinary distillation of everything his monumental intellect had read, written, considered, experienced and discussed for more than twenty years. Today it is part of the canon of Western philosophy.

"Sartre's question in Being and Nothingness", Cox continues, "is the same as that of his major influences, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger: what is consciousness?"

What is the nature of a being that has and is a relationship to the world, that is an awareness or consciousness of the world and which acts upon the world? Sartre's answer is that the only kind of being that can exist in this way is one that is, in itself, nothing; a being that is a negation, non-being or nothingness.

Following Husserl, Sartre argues that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Consciousness is not a thing in its own right but entirely a relationship to the world it is conscious of. This is the theory of intentionality. Consciousness always intends its object and is never merely a set of brain states.

"Existentialism," he writes, "is best known as a philosophy of freedom:"

Sartre argues that freedom is limitless. This is often misunderstood. He does not mean we are free to jump to the moon, or that we can radically re-invent ourselves from scratch at any moment - but rather that there is no limit to our obligation to choose who we are through what we do or not do. This is what he means when he says we are "Condemned to be free". [...]

Post-war, Sartre developed his existentialism in an increasingly political direction. He placed his existentialist theory of the individual at the heart of the Marxist theory of the historically defined collective.

America's military won't save us from Trump's fascism, writes Chauncey DeVega:

When fascism comes to America it will arrive in a style and form that fits our country. [...] American fascism will be empowered through racism and sexism and homophobia.

"American fascism," he continues, "will echo throughout the right-wing propaganda machine, including Fox News, Breitbart and talk radio:"

American fascism will empower its foot soldiers by making them feel like "real Americans" who are superior to black and brown people, nonwhite immigrants, those who speak a language other than English, the poor, and gays and lesbians. [...]

American fascism will try to wear a mask of respectability and normality by carrying the banner of the Republican Party.

American fascism will encourage violence against liberals, progressives and Democrats. [...] American fascism will distract the public through the spectacle of entertainment and consumerism.

American fascism will not need internment camps and political street thugs to do its work. Nor will American fascism involve an overt crackdown on free speech and the free press. It will achieve its shock and awe -- first by electing an authoritarian leader -- and then by slowly creating a "new normal" where the heretofore unimaginable is just taken as a dose of daily outrage until it is eclipsed by the next.

"To ignore this reality," he writes, "is to be willfully ignorant, to be in denial or to be drunk on American exceptionalism:"

Militant nationalism is high on this list. Why? Authoritarians surround themselves with generals and wrap themselves in the superficial trappings of patriotism (such as flags and anthems) because they provide a sense of authority and power. This allows the authoritarian leader to intimidate his enemies at home, provides symbolic and material comfort for his base, expands his control over the state and projects power abroad. Militant nationalism also overlaps with fascism and authoritarianism: They are masculine political ideologies that are obsessed with "virility," "strength" and male sexual potency.

A new Military Times survey shows Trump garnering stronger support among members of the military:

President Donald Trump enjoys far stronger support among members of the military than the American public at large, according to the latest scientific Military Times poll. [...] Overall, about 44 percent of all troops surveyed in the Military Times poll have a favorable view of Trump, while roughly 40 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him. That's a stark contrast to opinion polls of the general public, which have shown Trump's popularity at less than 40 percent and an unfavorable rating as high as 56 percent.

DeVega writes that "Trump, his administration, his voters, the right-wing media and the Republican Party in its present form are a clear and present danger to American democracy:"

Those in denial of this fact are relying on an obsolescent and naive assumption that America's "enduring political institutions" will protect the country from authoritarianism and fascism.

Digby calls the meeting of Alt-Right and Christian Right "a marriage made in hell:"

The producers of "The Handmaid's Tale" couldn't have possibly known how timely their TV version of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel would be when they first pitched it. The horrifying misogyny of Donald Trump's presidential campaign was illustrated most vividly by his responses to women coming forward with complaints about his harassment and assaults over the years in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape.

"Despite Trump's long record of immoral behavior," she observes, "white conservative evangelicals are among the most fervent and loyal of his supporters:"

A Reuters poll last month showed more than 60 percent of white evangelicals back him, a far higher number than his overall approval rating, which hovers in the 30s.

The marriage of the Christian right and authoritarian white nationalism looks like a match made in heaven -- or perhaps in the other place, depending on your perspective. "The Handmaid's Tale" seems less and less implausible every day.

Chauncey DeVega sees Trumpism as the birth of a new fascism, particularly regarding the annual Values Voter Summit:

That label leads to a natural question: What values were actually encouraged by the speakers and attendees at this event?

The answer is clear. Bigotry, intolerance, hypocrisy, dishonesty and violence.

Donald Trump, the first sitting president to attend the event, was a featured speaker. He is a man who almost literally embodies the Seven Deadly Sins as explained by the Bible. Yet the so-called Christians at the summit gave him a 20-second ovation and repeatedly interrupted his speech with cheers. He told them, "We don't worship government, we worship God" and proclaimed, "We are stopping all our attacks on Judeo-Christian values."

DeVega observes that "former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka's comments were perhaps the most dangerous:"

In a speech on Saturday, Gorka included the following threat: "The left has no idea how much more damage we can do to them as private citizens, as people unfettered." On the surface this comment suggests that right-wing Christian evangelicals do not need the help of the United States government in order to win their war against liberals, Muslims or whoever else they identify as the enemy. But the context of Gorka's speech -- and what is known about his values -- highlights a deeper and more sinister intent.

Gorka is an apparent Nazi sympathizer who has proudly worn a medal given to his father by the Hungarian far-right anti-Semitic group Vitézi Rend. In an interview with the far-right propaganda site World Net Daily, also over the weekend, Gorka said that "radical leftists" were among the three greatest threats to America along with "radical Islamic jihadists" and China.

"When placed in a broader context," DeVega writes, "Gorka's comments -- along with those made by Trump, Bannon, Moore and others -- signal at how white Christian evangelicals are being folded into a broader fascist movement:"

The white supremacist terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan was and is a Christian organization. White Christian evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Jim and Jane Crow and its campaign of racial terrorism against black Americans. White evangelicals have also backed the racist policies of the Republican Party during the post-civil rights era, and have consistently opposed equal rights for women and gays and lesbians, as well as other marginalized groups. Like Republicans and conservatives in general, white evangelicals apparently possess little empathy for poor and working-class people.

Ultimately, the Bible ought not to be a shield -- especially when too many people are willing to wield it as a cudgel against their fellow Americans in a quest to replace the rule of law under a secular constitution with a fascist theocracy.

Trump's tax plan gets skewered by American Prospect for many reasons:

For example, the plan removes taxes on extremely wealthy estates, slashes the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, and abolishes the alternative minimum tax, which ensures that higher-income households--which are often able to take advantage of lucrative deductions and credits--contribute at least some modicum of taxes. It also gives a special low tax rate to owners of pass-through businesses, who are already able to avoid corporate taxes by instead paying personal tax rates on their portion of the businesses' profits, allowing them a lower effective tax rate. All of these provisions would benefit the wealthiest Americans, including Trump himself.

"According to analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center," the piece points out, "the final year of the conventional 10-year budget analysis. Meanwhile, the average household in the top 1 percent would see a tax cut of $207,060 [but] by 2027, 1 in 4 households would actually see their taxes increase under Trump's plan:"

New analysis by the Center for American Progress underscores the sacrifice that could be required in this trade-off. If the bottom 99 percent of households footed the bill for Trump's tax breaks for the top 1 percent, it would cost each household an average of $1,370 more in 2027.*

This is because tax cuts don't pay for themselves--especially cuts of this historic magnitude, which would reduce federal revenues by $2.4 trillion over 10 years. Financing Trump's proposal would require deep cuts to critical benefits and services that all families rely on.

Trump's tax plan, the piece continues, "is a double dose of tired trickle-down economics, delivered on a golden platter to millionaires and wealthy corporations to be paid for on the backs of average Americans." [See the full analysis "An Analysis of Donald Trump's Revised Tax Plan" (PDF).]

Sarah Jones also observes how Trump is reviving the old trickle-down con:

Aren't companies sitting on a lot of money right now? Why, yes, Virginia, they are. Yet wages are not magically rising.

The stock market is doing remarkably well, yet wages are not magically rising. You can see where this is going. [...]

Yeah, it's actually another gift. For the rich. Only don't think this is just a gift for the top 1%, because the middle class and poor will pay for it one way or another.

"It hurts everyone who is not rich," she writes:

Trickle down is an economic theory used to justify giving entitlements to the top, that has been tested and failed.

To Kill a Mockingbird was pulled from Mississippi school district reading list, reports Rolling Stone:

A Mississippi school district recently decided to remove Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, from its eighth-grade reading list after receiving complaints that the book's language made people "uncomfortable."

For those who need a refresher:

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction the next year. It follows a series of events loosely based on Lee's own experiences growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, in the 1930s, and speaks to themes of racial inequality and discrimination in a small Southern town. The story includes instances of the "N-word" in reflection of the language used at the time, and is listed as the No. 21 most banned books in the last decade by the American Library Association.

As the article continues, "the book will still be available for students to check out in school libraries, but will no longer be used as the core text for eighth-grade ELA, the Common Core state standards for English Language Arts:"

The decision came as an administrative and department decision, a member of the school board told the Herald, and was not voted upon by the school board.

small data

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No one talks about big data any more, says Slate's Will Oremus. "Five years ago," he writes, "an article in the New York Times' Sunday Review heralded the arrival of a new epoch in human affairs: 'The Age of Big Data':"

Society was embarking on a revolution, the article informed us, one in which the collection and analysis of enormous quantities of data would transform almost every facet of life. No longer would data analysis be confined to spreadsheets and regressions: The advent of supercomputing, combined with the proliferation of internet-connected sensors that could record data constantly and send it to the cloud, meant that the sort ¬of advanced statistical analysis described in Michael Lewis' 2003 baseball book Moneyball could be applied to fields ranging from business to academia to medicine to romance. Not only that, but sophisticated data analysis software could help identify utterly unexpected correlations, such as a relationship between a loan recipient's use of all caps and his likelihood of defaulting. This would surely yield novel insights that would change how we think about, well, just about everything.

"Big data," he continues, "helps to power the algorithms behind our news feeds, Netflix recommendations, automated stock trades, autocorrect features, and health trackers, among countless other tools:"

But we're less likely to use the term big data these days--we just call it data. We've begun to take for granted that data sets can contain billions or even trillions of observations and that sophisticated software can detect trends in them.

Oremus cites Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction and Frank Pasquale's The Black Box Society as illustrations of "the fetishization of data, and its uncritical use, that tends to lead to disaster," and suggests "Another possible response to the problems that arise from biases in big data sets:"

Small data refers to data sets that are simple enough to be analyzed and interpreted directly by humans, without recourse to supercomputers or Hadoop jobs. Like "slow food," the term arose as a conscious reaction to the prevalence of its opposite.

Martin Lindstrom's 2016 book Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Big Trends looks intriguing, as Oremus concludes:

There is some hope, then, that in moving away from "big data" as a buzzword, we're moving gradually toward a more nuanced understanding of data's power and pitfalls. In retrospect, it makes sense that the sudden proliferation of data-collecting sensors and data-crunching supercomputers would trigger a sort of gold rush, and that fear of missing out would in many cases trump caution and prudence. It was inevitable that thoughtful people would start to call our collective attention to these cases, and that there would be a backlash, and perhaps ultimately a sort of Hegelian synthesis.

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