Wednesday, May 25, 2011


My car's odometer stood at that number when I parked outside Kyle's apartment yesterday night, which seems auspicious in that it's the mark at which I had put exactly 100,000 miles on the vehicle: When I bought it from a Fairfax, VA Honda dealership in, I think, the late spring of 2003 it had 36,036 miles on it.

I at least got to watch the odometer roll over this time, unlike with the transition into six-figure mileage. My feelings about the milestone are low in magnitude and mixed in nature. At the 72,072 point I felt like I was making the car actually mine -- not to the degree that paying off the car loan, hopefully the first and only of my life, did -- but my attitude towards increased mileage has long since flipped from "this vehicle is more and more mine" to "I am depreciating the most significant item I have ever paid for". Still, there remains a good feeling that the 2000 Civic is a very good car for the money, especially when the title's in someone else's name when it drives off the lot the first time. It's increasingly odd that anyone owned it previously to me, if only because it meant bailing on a then-four-year-old workhorse of a passenger vehicle with only 36K miles on it. Who does that, buy a lower-mid-size Honda without intending to use it for as long as possible? I certainly hope myself, as Steelers coach Mike Tomlin once said about a real live human being, to run it until the wheels come off, hopefully not at highway speed. It's a good car, and I should take better care of it -- just in terms of surface appearance, it is rather full of leaf litter at the moment and covered in patches by a sort of algal patina, a result of being parked outside during a rainy Portland winter that has lasted for about the past sixteen months, which gives it an aspect not unlike Swamp Thing -- but it's holding up as expected and will hopefully last for several years more.

Where did all those miles go? I don't feel a lot of nostalgia for them, and hence not a lot of urge to calculate them out, but they mainly would have been paced off in a numbing loop along the I-66 / Dulles Toll Road corridor in Northern Virginia, in direct analogy to my career. Some back-of-the-envelope crunching suggests I've approximately halved my yearly driving distance since moving to Portland, to which I say "right on"; doing away with driving to work was a major reason for moving here, after all, or I should say a major reason I moved here instead of putting the screws to Kyle to join me in the Greater-D.C. 'burbscape. I would happily drive less still, since I just haven't ever enjoyed driving as an end in itself under any circumstances whatsoever, and I'd like to think that if I relocated someplace where car ownership were actually difficult I would dispassionately sell the Civic without a sentimental thought. I probably would feel a pang, though. The car, or rather a sort of intuitive, animistic concept of the car as a fellow being, does seem to have wormed its way somewhat into my heart.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Soul Sharing

I learned about Raphael Saadiq for the first time this weekend, thanks to the GF's Rhapsody listening. Saadiq's got a new album out, Stone Rollin', continuing in a straight line from his 2008 release The Way I See It by faithfully emulating classic Motown soul down to the orchestrations and studio sound. It's not like I listen to a lot of Motown, but I am way on board with this project. I think music in most genres would be well served by turning back the clock several decades. Saadiq sounds really good doing it.

I think he should have stuck with the cleanly retro album art from '08, but otherwise I give the new thing both of my thumbs up. And, um, although I'm going to feel somewhat white writing this, you can read a good interview with Saadiq from The Guardian, from 2009. The man's experience is a combination of rough childhood and charmed life.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Today I got a tetanus booster shot at a local Walgreen's. Which is somehow so uncannily close to feeling totally mundane and commonplace without being so that it seems to have (has) broached the usual personal life barriers that filter what of mild posts I make.

It's also the first tetanus shot I've gotten that I remember getting. Which had been popping up in my day-to-day consciousness for the past two months, since (along with a couple aspects of my upcoming summer, which seem to call for being tetanus-protected) I cut myself on a few pieces of metal recently, and mashed one of my fingers in a metal lock-holding window-gate thing (according to the internet "mashing" injuries are particularly prone to giving cause to tetanus).

My only tetanus-related memories are:

a) a neighbor (next-door neighbors, the ones in the "dislike" column because of a certain car crash that ruined (aka made awesome) my 6th grade class picture) kid stepping on a rusty nail in his backyard and needing to get a tetanus shot afterwards

b) being asked if my tetanus boosting was in order, before a Boy Scout trip at the Philmont Ranch, when I was 14, and having a parent-affirmed answer of "I don't see how it couldn't be." (Maybe I didn't talk quite that stiltedly back then, but you get the idea.)

So I wasn't eager to add "that time I got tetanus when I was, like, in my late 20s" to the list. I don't have much love for the American middle-class way of life, as it pertains to health care, or for the corporations that I mostly blame for most of the world's ills. I also don't have health insurance. But wanted me some tetanus resistance. So I went to a clinic at a national corporate pharmacy/convenience chain store, because it was the obviousest and cheapest way to get the shot that I could find, paying $63 for 10 more years of tetanus boostification (that's only $6.30/year!).

During my visit, I had a very nice conversation with a nurse practitioner about bicycle riding in Miami (and the hazards thereof) and about planning long distance cross-state bicycle trips (and the pleasures thereof). Other than having to check in to the clinic via a touchscreen computer (a helpful robot!) the experience was altogether more pleasant than either my former (corporate degree-mill) university's health center or the hospital where I used to go for general care in Boston. Which leaves me feeling all kinds of different what-the-fuckednesses. So I'm confused, but at least I'm now protected from the dread-specter of tetanus.

Monday, May 16, 2011


The severely flooded Mississippi has focused some news coverage on the Old River Control Structure, the 50-year-old Army Corps of Engineers project in Louisiana that prevents the river from changing its course and draining into the Gulf of Mexico through a steeper channel, the Atchafalaya River. You can read Jeff Masters on the subject here. (Take note of the sweet, 1958-vintage USACE Sankey Diagram of a 500-year-flood flow that he posts!) The structure doesn't seem to be facing imminent failure, but the 2011 flood is a severe test of an extraordinary, inherently vulnerable engineering system. When the structure does fail, and it certainly will someday, then Baton Rouge and New Orleans will be left by the wayside.

Masters, of course, points to John McPhee's classic essay from 1987, compiled in his eminently worthwhile trilogy The Control of Nature. Basically, you should find this and read it, or if you're appallingly immune to the sensory pleasures of a physical book you can catch the Atchafalaya portion of it by scrolling through twenty-seven web pages on the New Yorker site. It's a fairly amazing projection of modern power that we've been imposing our will on the lower Mississippi for this long, contra natural preferences.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oregon at Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall inaugurated what it calls its Spring for Music festival this year, a smartly conceived series that brings a few less-traveled orchestras into town with unusual, high-concept programs. Thursday's offering by the Oregon Symphony, directed by the perky Austro-Uruguayan Carlos Kalmar, showed what a win-win formula it is. Playing Carnegie Hall is a big deal for the orchestra, which has existed for 115 years without performing east of the Mississippi. Kalmar described a countdown clock that's been ticking down the days all season long. Much of the audience had actually flown in from Portland for the occasion, frequently lending the scene a cheerful, booster-ish feeling, most of all in the six ovations at the end.

And the program they sharply performed was significantly more daring than what you can usually hear, a somber ticket of four twentieth-century works united under the theme "Music in a Time of War." Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1930s-vintage Fourth Symphony had pride of place after intermission, angrily resonating with the decade's rise of violence and fascism. Before that, Kalmar constructed a kind of meta-symphony, played without pause, of Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question, John Adams's late-1980s setting for baritone of Walt Whitman's The Wound-Dresser, and Benjamin Britten's 1940 Sinfonia da Requiem, the one piece actually composed during wartime. The Oregonians brought it off as a big success, sounding like an overachieving B-plus orchestra in the first half and then really nailing the Vaughan Williams.

So it was a challenging, fearless program. For any twentieth-century music junkie, this is a rare treat: big, modern works throw sparks off of each other when you hear them together, but they're generally paired with something older and safer. Britten and Vaughan Williams were particularly resonant on Thursday night: two countryman composers without much style in common, writing music a few years apart in a similar mood. Some tense, climbing melodies in the first movement of the Vaughan Williams were immediately reminiscent of material in the Britten, in a way that you wouldn't realize from knowing the pieces separately.

The Unanswered Question was distinguished by a remarkable opening pianissimo in the strings, a barely-there dynamic taking full advantage of the Carnegie acoustic that Kalmar had raved about in his opening remarks. (Allan Kozinn, in the Times, takes time to note the worse-than usual coughing in the hall, which I think began before the first chord change. It was indeed a damn shame.) It's an appropriately atmospheric lead-in to The Wound-Dresser, itself slow, quiet, and ruminative. Adams is generally a flashy composer, but he's much deferential to the Whitman text, which plainly honors its Civil War wounded without flinching from the bodily tragedies they've suffered. The result is a serious, through-composed treatment that seems to step back and let the words create their own emotional profile. Sanford Sylvan, who premiered the work two decades ago, voiced its searching, arching melodies with somber grace and humanity. (Props to him, too, for gamely sitting self-effacingly onstage during the Ives and Britten works.) The Oregonians' concertmaster, Jun Iwasaki, performed a secondary but more rhapsodic violin part richly and with visible commitment. (He's an unusually animated violinist: even in the big symphonic works, it was fun to watch him bobbing and swaying around with the unconventional rhythms.)

As scathing as the Sinfonia da Reqiuem may be, it was welcome by this point to hear some loud and fast music. It's an emotionally raw work, opening with a pounding bass drum, built on a mass of bold, inchoate musical gestures that only win a melodic security in the tender third movement. The middle movement, taken at a ferocious clip by Kalmar, is a whirl of galloping string rhythms, snare drums, bugle calls, and grating orchestral outbursts: machine warfare evoked in a nightmare impression of a cavalry charge. The concluding lullaby, sung at first by three tenuously harmonized flutes above a gently consoling orchestra, suggests relief, scarring, and moral exhaustion all at the same time. Britten builds to a more affirmative climax, then lets that melt away too.

Ralph Vaughan Williams is much better known in his pastoralist mode, the romantic composer of The Lark Ascending and the Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. But in a darker mood he's punchy and unpredictable, no more so than in the Fourth Symphony. The recurring theme is a jagged, four-note chromatic piece of scrap metal, memorably blasted out by the trombones and trumpets in seriously dissonant counterpoint to start the final movement's fugal epilogue. There's a softer, brooding slow movement and some similar episodes throughout, but the dominant feeling is bitter and unshrinking. In the final movement the orchestra builds up a galumphing head of steam replete with brass oompahs and cymbal crashes. The Oregonians charged through it impressively, all focused energy and precisely snapped full-orchestra syncopations.

By all appearances the Oregonians really outdid themselves, and I'd hear them again without hesitation. The series has gotten good local press; Carnegie's got it scheduled through 2013 so far, and I hope they decide to stick with it. It goes to show how good the apparently "regional" American orchestras can be, and in the service of an unusual concert presentation that's not about wondering how their Tchaikovsky or whatever stands up to the Big Five orchestras. So, like I said already, win-win.

Monday, May 09, 2011

F---ed up on my computer and my mind starts roaming

Since this weekend I haven't had the use of my personal laptop, which is a little bit annoying. Kyle, at least, has work and personal laptops of her own, which helped me decide that my registry got corrupted in such a way as to kill Windows XP's local authentication service on startup. The upshot being that the system is reduced to a mouse pointer on a black screen, which unless you are a cat will probably not meet your home computing needs.

This all would be pretty straightforward to resolve if I had the Windows CDs that came with my laptop when I bought it several years ago. Indeed, I believed in my heart of hearts -- still I believe! -- that these were duly packed up with all of my other important stuff when I left Northern Virginia and survived the move west. My faith did waver, it's true, when I looked for them in the single place where they would be if all that had happened, where they were not.

Picking through your closets, bookshelves, miscellaneous shitpiles, and so on turns out to be a sort of internally humiliating experience. Not just because I'm dealing with a small tear in the fabric of my self-image as a reasonably organized person but because I have to question my intelligence and priorities too, and square my understanding of myself with the less flattering concept of a person who drives the user manual for his toaster 3,000 miles across the country while not keeping the computer equivalent of a spare key to your car.

The computerness of the issue rankles, too, because I am a software professional and you would think -- I would think, without much evidence over the past decade -- that I'd be more generally on top of the data backups, antivirus updates, etc. that prevent and minimize the impact of this sort of thing. In fact I'm exposed again as a person who, although engaged enough by writing code, has an attitude towards the nuts and bolts of PC hardware and maintenance that ranges from vaguely curious to crankily indifferent. And that's not good. I've often taken comfort in the cliche of the plumber who can't bring himself to fix the leaky pipes at home after hours, but this makes me feel more like a plumber who's just dug an open pit where his toilet is supposed to be.

As for the laptop itself, it should be recovered easily enough with more time than I should have had to put to it. The greater issue is the temptation just to take the somewhat creaky old Dell Inspiron out back to the apartment complex's communal yard and Old Yeller it, then go buy a shiny new MacBook, but my iTunes library and password database should lure me away from that fantasy. That and some amount of scanned and MS-Paint-doodled nonsense that's accumulated without being good enough to email to somebody or to put up on the blog. (This is a low bar to clear, as longtime readers and/or correspondents will be aware.) On the one hand, that notion should only galvanize me to put away childish halfway efforts for good and engage afresh in deeper, more committed creative work, but on the other hand, "Noooooo, my nonsense".

At any rate, I intended to bring my work laptop home tonight to tide me over, and even brought my computer bag to make this transfer more comfortable, forgetting, however, to move the key for the cable securing my laptop to my desk out of my non-computer bag and into my computer bag. Thus, probably no computers this evening for me, save for this bit of after-hours, office-bound usage. That will at least keep me relatively undistracted from combing my apartment for those XP discs. Also, I have nothing time-sensitive to write except that anyone considering a jaunt to New York on Thursday for the Oregon Symphony's Carnegie Hall premiere -- by which I basically mean Jack -- should absolutely do it, since I heard their war-themed, English/American program on Saturday night and it was exceptionally well-played, as well as one of the most astonishingly thoughtful concert line-ups I've ever heard. And, there!, but for some illustrative details I've just blogged that. So all is well in the cosmos.

Coplandic Passacagliana

I was inspired by that David Orr book to finally read Aaron Copland's What to Listen For in Music, from way back in 1939. It's something along similar lines for classical music: really the classic music appreciation book, stateside at least. It's a good, clear read. Its datedness does show, for example in assuming a striving attitude on the part of the listener, bordering on an obligation. "To listen intently, to listen consciously, to listen with one's whole intelligence is the least we can do in the furtherance of an art that is one of the glories of mankind," he concludes. Less substantively but more destructively, his pronouns and hypothetical figures are claustrophobically male. So I'm not sure this would really work as a layperson's reader any more.

I'm still digesting it, but for now here's an isolated fragment that shows an important point of light. Here's Copland discussing the passacaglia form:
Speaking generally, the composer has two objectives in treating the passacaglia form. First, with each new variation the theme must be seen in a new light. In other words, interest in the oft repeated ground bass must be aroused and sustained and added to by the composer's creative imagination. Secondly, aside from the beauty of any one variation, taken alone, they must all together gather cumulative momentum, so that the form as a whole may be psychologically satisfying.

I may be forgetting something, but I think Copland's second thought here is about as concretely as he discusses dramatic intensity as a key ingredient of musical construction. (He does allude elsewhere to the "long line" of a work, a dramatic contour, that needs to be instinctively felt by the composer.) But anyway, here they are in microcosm, the two aspects in which a piece varies as it goes from measure to measure: in musical content and in dramatic intensity. Copland spends a lot of time on the former and not a lot on the latter. Which is fair enough, since the dramatic line is much, much harder to describe concretely. Plus, it's basically subjective in the ears of the listener. But I think the tricky thing is that the dramatic line is also more important to how you're going to experience a long-form piece of music.

And I think the same thing is true on the macro level, with musical variation more or less aggregating to form and dramatic variation to the "long line." It's not like you can disengage the two things, but I think the second one's the primary one. If you want a give a glib instruction for an instrumental composition, it's not "have a robust form," it's "don't get boring."

Anyway, I'm not going to dash something off and outdo Aaron Copland in an evening. Here's the passacaglia he gives as an example -- and if you know the piece, you already know it's going to be the exemplary passacaglia -- Bach's magnificent Passacaglia in C minor. (With bonus fugue!) The two high-register variations at about five and a half minutes always get me, I think because the sublimation of the bass line lends them a sense of wistful vulnerability.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

In Which I am Baited by a Shostakovich Book Review

I wrote most of the following yesterday in a burst of annoyance after reading Edward Rothstein's New York Times review of Wendy Lesser's fine survey of the Shostakovich string quartets, Music for Silenced Voices. I put those thoughts up in full on my sorely underused Shosto-blog, where they belong, but I'm cross-posting a couple of paragraphs here to save a click and highlight a point about authenticity that I hope is less specific to the composer and more of general (mild) interest.

(The background on the below-mentioned Testimony is that it's a deeply influential but inauthentic Shostakovich "memoir" put out by the musicologist Solomon Volkov in the late 1970s. I won't try to beat Alex Ross at laying out the case against it.)

* * * * *

I've allowed this space to get cobwebby over the past couple of months, obviously, but it's worth saying some words about Edward Rothstein's review of Wendy Lesser's Music for Silenced Voices in yesterday's New York Times, which turns out to be more of an ambiguous endorsement of Solomon Volkov's fraudulent Shostakovich memoir, Testimony.

. . .

Where Rothstein becomes irritating is in offering a squishy apology for Volkov's misrepresentation of Testimony as Shostakovich's own, writing: "In fact, if not an authentic memoir, 'Testimony' is still a work of considerable literary power, a suggestive account of the music and a convincing portrait of the man who composed it." The "convincing portrait" bit is maddeningly circular, in that the main mechanism by which the book convinced anyone in the first place was by falsely representing itself within what was then a void of non-Party line information about the composer. I agree with Rothstein that Lesser fails to dismiss Testimony as thoroughly as she wants to, but I think what she wants to say by deeming its legacy "pointless" is that its halfway accuracy is no longer needed now that there are far more authentic versions of the composer's words and private thoughts available. And after reading Elizabeth Wilson's excellent Shostakovich: A Life Remembered and Isaak Glikman's lovable collection of Shostakovich's letters to him, Story of a Friendship, Volkov's text fails to convince; the anecdotes and the general outline of disliking the Soviet state apparatus may be correct, but the bitterness of its voice is alien.

More generally, I've become less and less of a relativist about the notion of truth since my heyday in a sophomore-level literary theory class in college, and by now I'm convinced that any sentence beginning "In fact, if not an authentic memoir" has little business leading anywhere but "then it should not in fact be treated as authentic" without a really good justification. I get that words can be partially true; I get what Maxim Shostakovich told Rothstein in the early 1980s that Volkov's book, while a fake, was truer to his father than the other published words attributed to him at that time. But it's easy to overestimate that fractional truth value, and Rothstein too glibly brushes off the risk that accepting a simplified and ideologically motivated account will lead him toward a shallower understanding. The attitude smacks of the idea that "you sometimes have to lie to tell the truth" embraced one way or another by any number of students in my creative writing classes when I was in school, myself included, but this too often turns into an excuse for cutting off tricky corners of experience instead of pushing toward an understanding that fits the difficult event or feeling -- it's no coincidence that the Shostakovich that emerges from Volkov's work is considerably less nuanced and self-contradictory than the personality sussed out by Wilson or Lesser or even, through his correspondence, Shostakovich himself. That personality's motivations are harder to understand -- more to the point, that vision of the composer is harder to lionize -- but once you do that more difficult empathetic work you gain a richer, subtler, more real perspective on the emotional currents in the man's music, or the peculiar terrors and frustrations of life in a totalitarian state, or the basic nature of fear and compromise. More often, it turns out, you have to tell the truth to tell the truth.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Next Stop: the Kumite!

I went to Jai Alai for the first time last night. And bet on humans! I say bet on humans, because the (para-mutual, like all betting in Florida) betting is just like that as how one might bet on horses (as opposed to betting on, like a boxing match, or on professional sports (which I've never actually done (just horses and jai alai for me!))).

They hurl this ball in this weird court that is clearly the inspiration for pretty much every weird 60s/70s sci-fi competitive sport/game ever. The game comes from the Basques! But if you were in a dome, or the future, you would be some kind of futuro-techno-basque!

After winning, like, $12, making chickenshit bets on various players, I did want to clap my hands and then kind of spread them out from where I had clapped then, and say "and that's how you bet on human sport!"

Like this guy:

Seriously, tho, if you're ever in Miami again, go see Jai Alai (Ma, Pop, who just visited, sorry for not having the time or wherewithal to take you to Jai Alai).

The venue is this cavernous arena that carries some strange charm from the sport's '70s hey-day. I can't imagine the seats being filled nowadays. There were maybe two dozen people there. And my friend Jamie, who had been there before, said that it seemed more crowded than the last time he'd been. Which is also just part of the awesomeness. There was even a big dark empty balcony area, where I'd've liked to sit, with scantily clad women on both of my arms and a mountain of coke on the table in front of us, because that's how it must have been, way back when.

I really think that if I wanted to spiral down into some really hideous and inappropriate addiction, gambling on Jai Alai would be it. And after that, I'd disappear into Southeast Asia, in order to gamble on bloodsports.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Ze Next Beethoven Vill to Colorado Go!

I'm not much interested in Atlas Shrugged but I'm really interested in modern classical music from the mid-twentieth century. And reading about Ayn Rand's fake composer Richard Halley, I thought, OK, clearly this music more or less exists somewhere. Because if there's anything you can say about twentieth-century music, it's that there's a ton of it in basically every style. It's just got to be a question of finding it! And I think that's possible in good faith.

What we know, largely based on this snazzy-looking recent Richard-Halley-themed website* and the ever-trustworthy Conservapedia, is that the music sounds intellectually tough and unsentimental, at least enough to deny it popular understanding; but it's melodic and inspiring and ultimately blazingly triumphant. And you ideally want the composer to be an American too.

So that points to the rich vein of "great American symphony" composers in the 1930s and 40s, which is a little bit behind Atlas times (mid-1950s) but not too badly. You've got William Schuman and Roy Harris, among others, working out broad-shouldered, self-consciously heroic works with what Virgil Thomson acidly identified as the "masterpiece" tone. It shouldn't be as derogatory a description as Thomson makes it. Good composers can deploy the tone well: Sibelius was all over it, for one.

So I'm going to suggest Samuel Barber's First Symphony, a single-movement affair he wrote in 1935 on a declamatory, sharply profiled theme that's memorably turned into the ground bass of a seriously heavy-duty passacaglia in the last few minutes. It's not really a triumphant conclusion, but it packs a wallop and ought to point the new, bold way forward as much as anything else does. William Schuman's Third Symphony (1941) is also very good, tilting further to the unsentimental/intellectual side and putting some strikingly angular themes through the contrapuntal works. Roy Harris's Third (1939) is the best of that generation of American symphonies, but it has a surprisingly bleak ending. It's a better symphony for it, but it's not Halley.

What you'd really want for the task is Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which is where this American sound gets alloyed with a human relatability and a genuinely triumphant mood. His Third Symphony, which integrates the fanfare into its conclusion, would be perfect; except, obviously, we're held back by the "common man" part. You know Richard Halley would be all like, Go write your own fanfare, looter. So Barber it is.

I'm assuming that Ayn Rand meant to talk about symphonies, and not "concertos" per se (I gather there's some muddiness), even if Halley's big showstopper was his Fifth Concerto. If you really prefer a piano concerto you could take Bohuslav Martinů's Fifth Piano Concerto, which obviously has the right number and premiered just a year after Atlas Shrugged. It's a fine piece, and with its own rugged touch of Halleydom. Martinů was Czech, but he did spend much of the 1940s in America, and his later music frequently has something of the striding openness of symphonic Americana. Also intriguing: Martinů, somewhat like Halley, had absconded by the late 1950s to a kind of mountain-country getaway at the behest of a charismatic patron. But in his case it was Switzerland at the invitation of Paul Sacher, who wasn't fighting the world economic order but rather had married into a pharmaceuticals fortune. I'm not sure if that counts as looting.**

For a final option, and the best title match, the Italian modernist Goffredo Petrassi's Fifth Concerto for Orchestra was premiered in Boston in 1955. Now by my lights that's the kind of brusquely gestural, harmonically dense, abstractly rarefied orchestral opus that would be taken as a declaration of independence from the world's looters. But we all know Ayn Rand wouldn't have realistically thought this way. Actually, Ayn Rand apparently hated Beethoven and liked Rachmaninoff a lot, so who knows how the hell she actually did think about this stuff.

*You can get anti-Obama/pro-Shrugged bumper stickers there too! Remember, Barack Obama is completely responsible for a social welfare system that's been in place for half a century, a turn of events which has prevented America from ascending as a globally unprecedented sole superpower, probably. I don't have time to look that up right this moment.

**Sacher commissioned basically the entire neo-baroque golden age of the late 1930s to 1940s: Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, Martinů's Double Concerto, Honegger's Second Symphony, Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante, and Stravinsky's Concerto for Strings in D, plus a half century's worth of music after that. So no actual knock on the man.


I had a good laugh at a fellow motorist's Objectivist bumper stickers yesterday. Not the one that asked, predictably, "Who is John Galt?", but the one that simply declared "LOOTERS". I read Atlas Shrugged two or three years ago and the main enduring pleasure of it has been the epithet "looter", which Ayn Rand's stand-ins direct with the intensity and nuance of a fire hose at any character who believes in taxation, charity, or those aspects of government not deemed essential by Rand. It's a fun word to say and, being not much of an Objectivist myself, I sometimes like to use it to fake-shout-down ideas I agree with. For instance, a conversation with the girlfriend can be pleasantly derailed like so:

Kyle: The local school district is having a fundraising dinner next month...
Nate: Looters!
Kyle: Yeah, anyway, I can get tickets from work...
Nate: LOOOOTERS!! Looters are looting my loot!

You can see how this sort of thing is charming. Yesterday's bumper sticker turned out not to be an entirely simple "LOOTER" declaration: Close up, I saw it uses the Obama campaign's O logo for o's (various Zazzle offerings show off the effect), which I suppose is meant to indicate that the President brought this whole welfare state apparatus with him from a Kenyan Islamo-commune and George W., thwarted in his stewardship of a just and productive economy, has retired to a hidden mountain community where he works a steel furnace and a potato garden. That in itself makes more sense than my first half-impression of the bumper sticker's iconography, that it was playing on the Hooters logo for some obscure reason.

Try our Miracle Wings, which would be delicious if only Hank Rearden would share his special sauce recipe!

The book itself is terrible -- South Park made this point aptly many moons ago, and the big weakness of its conceit is nicely illustrated by a Bob the Angry Flower comic I've always liked. The main thing worth adding to that is that it's probably the most emotionally volatile alleged defense of rational thought that I will ever be exposed to: Rand's wordy outrage spews all over the place, and she's incapable of representing the ideas she's attacking without putting them into the mouths of pathetic characters with weirdly deformed names like "Balph Eubank".

The weirdly deformed names like "Balph Eubank" were actually one of the aspects of the novel that I liked. I mean, they're a failure rhetorically, but (as I think I've proven) I really like goofy fake names.

The best thing Atlas Shrugged has going for it, though, is Rand's clunky passion. A little while ago the terrible-looking movie based on its first third came out (and went out, it seems, although the producers might be banking on DVD sales fueled by weeknight screenings by the nation's collegiate Objectivist Clubs) and the worst looking part of the trailer is its glossy anonymity. If there's one thing that propelled me through hundreds of pages of radio addresses and sluggish boardroom drama it's that I can truthfully say it was unlike any other book I'll ever read. If only because there's no fucking way I'm ever going to pick up The Fountainhead.

I'm actually curious whether two elements of the novel made it into the film, or are slated for its maybe-still-in-the-works sequels. Firstly, Rand's bitey and sometimes dubiously consensual sex scenes, which are a subject all their own but add a nifty S&M tinge to all the economic heavy breathing. Secondly, the composer Richard Halley, whose fictional symphonic works make up a minor but substantive part of the plot machinery. (If I remember rightly, Rand, for all of her cultural pot shots, doesn't mention pop music at all, instead complaining about the dissonance-minded, insufficiently heroic, academic type of composer, about which she sort of has a point, albeit not one that accounts for the George Crumbs of the world.) Alex Ross wrote a piece in the New Yorker in August 2009 about notable fictional composers and Halley didn't make the cut, although I think he deserves to: surely he's had more readers than most. At any rate I hope he made it into the movie, in part because I'm such an apologist for 20th-century classical music that that seems like it would be a win and in part because I'd like to hear a stab at the piano concertos that so charmed Dagny Taggart -- while reading I imagined the sound as a bloated, more fascistic version of Howard Hanson but I'm open to other interpretations.

None of this should be taken as mockery of the gentleman in his pickup truck on 99W yesterday evening, who probably did manufacture that fine vehicle himself according to his own singularly inventive design, or at the very least purchase it with gold coins minted by an honest banker and acquired as the hard but equitable price for his own inspired labor. My laughter didn't feel like it was directed at him, or at the bumper sticker; I think weird humor makes up most of what remains of my impression of the book, now that the exasperation of actually reading it has mostly evaporated.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da Da

If you haven't seen the viral video of the babbling one-year-old twins yet, enjoy. I know Nate and I didn't babble back and forth so much as babies, but as grown-ups we have this same conversation pretty much all the time.

See, it starts out as the odd giggle, but pretty soon you spiral into the full feedback loop.

Language acquisition is so weird. Lots to love about it.


Hubbub Health

Hubbub Health, the "wellness challenge platform" that has been my project at work since last year, is now in its public beta release. I haven't previously mentioned much if anything of my professional existence here but I do now since Hubbub is open to the public; it helps explain why I seem to have fallen into a particularly deep hole during the past six to eight weeks of pre-release push; and, not least, I value the opinions of this blog's elite corps of readers.

Hubbub lets you play in or create a variety of wellness-related challenges -- weight-loss contents, stair-climbing competitions, and the like. The platform's mainly aimed at companies right now, but with plenty of room for employees' friends and family, or for whatever other, unaffiliated player walks in out of the Internet. It exists at an intersection of social media, gamification, and corporate wellness programs that's seeing a lot of activity in the health care industry right now, and should become more and more visible in companies' benefits offerings pretty soon.

I can't take any credit for the product's vision or design, but it does represent a bunch of my own effort. From a personal standpoint it's nothing so awe-inspiring as Pete's tremendous organizational and artistic effort on O, Miami but it's out there and it's what I've been up to. Plus a little bit of my personality has seeped into it via the chatter I've been typing into the site while using it myself (or, to use the delicious office-land cliche, "eating our own dog food"). I've had fun with it within our own development team -- it did spur me to rack up about 230 miles on foot in April for a walking challenge, although my team lost at the last minute due to a single-day, 42-mile effort by another developer far more insane than me in this regard. Please do check it out. (And if you sign up, look for "nateborr" and add me as a friend.)

And with this, being mostly free of coding to deadline as well as just walking a whole hell of a lot in my off hours, I aspire to rejoin the mildly interested living...

Monday, May 02, 2011

Or Spring Afternoon, or Whenever Really

My friend Dan was on the East Coast last week, in from Ann Arbor, and I was in New York for yet another weekend; we popped into Alice Tully Hall yesterday for a piano and percussion concert. To start with a mundane observation: a 5 PM concert start time is really nice. You can still spend the prime part of the afternoon wandering around Central Park, but after the concert it's still light out and there's plenty of time to get back to New Haven. (You can generalize that description as needed.)

George Crumb's Music for a Summer Evening was the highlight. I have a very personal response to this piece and find it deeply touching; Dan has the same feeling about it. It's very much a Swarthmore piece, most literally in that Crumb (a UPenn figure) wrote it on a commission for opening the school's music building back in 1974. But there's a lot of Crumb in the air at Swarthmore, both in performance and in spirit, and a lot of my composing activity a decade ago unconsciously made its way to holding down a practice-room piano pedal and trying to come up with the same kind of ringing chords that flash through Crumb's writing. You can fake that to an extent as a composition student, but the real sounds really touch a nerve.

More broadly speaking it's a piece that's very touching in spirit, and very lucid in the sense I not very successfully tried to get at the other day. Its resonating sounds are most often suspended in a mystical, expectant mode, but a rarefied emotional light passes through them very clearly. The noises are intentionally unpredictable and unconventional, but the expressive meaning is absolutely straightforward.

Crumb has a way of sounding flatly dated and magnificently timeless at the same time, possessing an anything-goes spirit of percussion-lab experimenting that feels fixed in the 1970s but still hits its otherworldly notes. In the concluding minutes of Music for a Summer Evening, the pianos take up a simple, serene ostinato pattern, broken with some of those magnificent resounding chords and embellished with a Bartók-style chatter inspired by the nocturnal insect world. (And, of course, the pianos are amplified and have paper laid over their strings, creating a weird, rattling synthesizer-ish effect.) This builds into a naturalistic hubbub, then gradually subsides. The placid conclusion is one of the sweetest moments in modern music.

The performance came across as utterly committed. Gilbert Kalish was one of the premiering pianists back in '74; Lincoln Center fixture Wu Han joined him, along with two top-flight percussionists in Ayano Kataoka and Daniel Druckman.

The other half of the concert was the Crumb piece's antecedent, Bartók's mid-1930s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I heard it in New Haven a year or two ago, too. What I've discovered is that I find it highly satisfying, even though little of it sticks in my mind afterwards. Large expanses of the first and second movements submerge into a thicket of dense counterpoint, and yesterday I lightly dozed off on a couple of occasions. The third movement is much dance-ier, though, and the piece has one of the great conclusions, evaporating into some wonderfully gentle quiet cadences in the pianos (blending a couple of keys, it sounds like) and then trailing off in pattering snare drum taps. So Daniel Kahneman's peak-end rule ensures a pretty nice experience.

Kataoka started the concert with a fifteen-minute Iannis Xenakis survey of several drums and a set of woodblocks called Rebonds, from 1988, a piece that marries a compositional severity with good old-fashioned percussive ass-kicking. Dan and I were sitting in the second row from the stage, from which vantage point Kataoka was largely hidden behind the drums. Her sticks would fly around the edge of the visual obstruction, and you'd get a fair amount of her arms and occasionally a partial look at her head. I would add that Rebonds is a pleasantly loud composition.