Quotable Words: Kant on Twitter

Courtesy of Brian Leiter, turns out Kant had the lowdown on Twitter centuries ago:

“Despite the apparent wisdom of individual actions here and there, everything as a whole is made up of folly and childish vanity, and often of childish malice and destructiveness.”



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Talking Heads: Maggie Smith + Alan Bennett

Seeing that Alan Bennett had a new play out and another touring sent me back to his mid-80s monologues, Talking Heads, which were originally written for the BBC and later performed as stage pieces (including at DC’s Studio Theater). Wonderful examples of giving an actor a deck of narrative cards and letting them turn them over one by one over the course of 40 or so minutes. The result reveals an arc that neither the audience nor the performer quite expected, often a quietly devastating report on the compromises and indignities of everyday life, and yet droll and funny.

The performances were also great–Bennett himself in one–and most memorably Maggie Smith as a vicar’s life in an Anglican parish in  A Bed Among the Lentils. It’s long, but worth watching the whole thing.

Callas + Tebaldi = Caballé

News came down last week that the great Spanish soprano Monserrat Caballé has died. There’s a nicely done obit in the New York Times  with some wonderful excerpts of her singing (check out the pianissimi in the Granados bit from YouTube).

And she is the focus of the beginning of the Gramophone Podcast .   It’s from there that the Callas + Tebaldi equation comes. James Jolly of Gramohphone reports that this was the Times’ headline on Caballe’s history making debut in New York City in 1965, substituting for Marilyn Horne in a performance of Donizetti’s Lucretia Borgia at Carnegie Hall. I will have to look up the clipping to confirm, but the general idea seemed to be that Caballé combined the beautiful sound of Renata Tebaldi, the Italian soprano beloved for her creamy middle register and warmth in Puccini and Verdi, as well as the dramatic fire of Maria Callas, whose roles ranged further than Tebaldi’s, particularly to the orate bel canto operas which she helped revive, and Caballé went on to triumph in. (In truth Callas could make beautiful sounds and Tebaldi had dramatic power to spare in the right roles, but the analogy still rings true.)

There is also about all three–and many singers before and since–that x factor of vocal charisma, a sound that seems to saying something personal to you and always catches your attention.  Caballé has it and is one that set a template for a life time of loving opera for me. Perhaps something to attribute at least in part to first encountering her singing as a 13 year old (during my age inappropriate introduction to opera). Everything about her sound, the distinctive vocal color, the the odd glottal stop sound you could hear in her pronunciation, and most of all the ability to spin out soft high notes that that seemed like she was breathing for you. Soft enveloping sound is not what comes to mind first in opera, but those moments are many and she excelled in them.

So in love with her voice was I that I did what any teen does. Played her records over and over and made anybody I could listen to her. My go to introduction “Signore Ascolta” from  Turandot which ends with with one of those magical high notes. Here it is from a concert.

And here is something I’ve always loved, and should be in the dictionary under “soft high singing: perfection,” “Dupuis le jour” from Louise. (Not sure of the source: maybe from a gala performance for Rudolph Bing.)

 

It seems like the music you hear as a teen sets a template for what “music is” and for me at least Caballé’s sound will always be a big part of what “opera is.”  I’m grateful for that.

Let Slip the Dogs of War

Computer security guru Bruce Schneider’s “Cryptogram” for September has a frightening look into cyberwar of the future, courtesy of an excerpt from a Center for Strategic and International Studies report.

The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop. Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while.

The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese “Assassin’s Mace” — a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military — turned out to be focused on the wrong thing.

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet’ s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls’ cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency’s initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine’s account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron’s Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other’s throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical.

Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings.

There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared “an operational pause,” directing units to stand down until things were sorted out.

Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation.

What is particularly frightening about this scenario is that it hardly seems to require whiz-bang technology, just social engineering to exploit ordinary human issues, albeit on a massive scale. Think for a moment if a chaos-sowing counterpunch came, and effectively destroyed the ability of world to process electronic payments, keep the lights on, have a functioning transport system, if only for a day or two. Let’s hope the scenario remains the domain of science fiction.

Remembering Lenny

Today is the 100th Anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. So much has already been said and written, and performed that I have only a little to add.  He was the dominant idea of what a musician was for my entire youth, and when I finally got to see him live (with the National Symphony Orchestra in Schubert’s 9th Symphony, the “Great C Major), it did not disappoint. He was “all in” in this epic music, which, like him, is immediately appealing, and also profound.

That he was a mash-up of 20th century ideas and drives, musical and otherwise, is the most familiar take:  a Broadway star who wrote symphonies, a Jew who set the Mass as one of his greatest works, a happily married man, who lived and celebrated gay love in the last quarter of his life.  Contradictions prevailed, but in his work the great through line for me is the alloy he created in of intimate and dramatic. He did this over and over again, in his performances of others’ music, and most of all in his own. That he knows his way around big gesture is clear from the first moments of the overture to Candide say,

But he finds the dramatic embedded in the the intimate, the balcony scene in West Side Story, or the violin soloist’s musings in Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)–an unlikely dramatic source–come to mind, in a way that makes you feel you know something about him, about the characters, and about the journey ahead that is a unique secret. It’s an odd comparison I know, but I think of the private moments in Wagner (to me at least a lot more treasurable than W’s bombast). Wotan saying farewell to his daughter, the fraught and forbidden love of Sieglinde and Sigmund, much of Act II Tristan. Those times when–rare in opera or perhaps even in life–nobody’s lying; they are really simply themselves, as Lenny surely was for his own eclectic, wonderful, sometimes infuriating, and completely inimitable 72 years on the planet.

My listening suggestion to close, a counterpoint to that romp of Candide overture, is his setting of three psalms–his own dramatic mash up of course, a written in 1965 to a commission from  Chichester Cathedral. He found the dramatic potential, part intimacy, part frolic, grim discord, and finally a long-breathed a capella moment of peace, with these fitting words for him and for us.

Behold how good,
And how pleasant it is,
For brethren to dwell
Together in unity.

On Bullshit Jobs

Somebody recommended the book (based on a web rant) on Bullshit jobs by anthropologist David Graeber.  He outlines the pointless work that seems to occupy so many of us.  An elegant review of it (and two other new books on the topic) is in the TLS.

From the essay:

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.


It’s a polemic with all the virtues and vices of the form, but as he mentions poetry, there were two poets who got here before (as they almost always do). Philip Larkin (a librarian who wrote poetry on the side, evokes jobs as a toad squatting on life).

Toads by Philip Larkin

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

And Bob Hicok, who is direct about the pointlessness of at least some labor (although not perhaps the soul-less endeavors Graeber is critiquing).

 

After Working Sixty Hours Again For What Reason by Bob Hicok

The best job I had was moving a stone
from one side of the road to the other.
This required a permit which required
a bribe. The bribe took all my salary.
Yet because I hadn’t finished the job
I had no salary, and to pay the bribe
I took a job moving the stone
the other way. Because the official
wanted his bribe, he gave me a permit
for the second job. When I pointed out
that the work would be best completed
if I did nothing, he complimented
my brain and wrote a letter
to my employer suggesting promotion
on stationery bearing the wings
of a raptor spread in flight
over a mountain smaller than the bird.
My boss, fearing my intelligence,
paid me to sleep on the sofa
and take lunch with the official
who required a bribe to keep anything
from being done. When I told my parents,
they wrote my brother to come home
from university to be slapped
on the back of the head. Dutifully,
he arrived and bowed to receive
his instruction, at which point
sense entered his body and he asked
what I could do by way of a job.
I pointed out there were stones
everywhere trying not to move,
all it took was a little gumption
to be the man who didn’t move them.
It was harder to explain the intricacies
of not obtaining a permit to not
do this. Just yesterday he got up
at dawn and shaved, as if the lack
of hair on his face has anything
to do with the appearance of food
on an empty table.

Commonplace Book: Poetry of B.H. Fairchild

A poet who grew up around the shop floor and the classics reflects on craft, and lessons from his father.

Song
by B. H. Fairchild

Gesang ist Dasein

A small thing done well, the steel bit paring
the cut end of the collar, lifting delicate
blue spirals of iron slowly out of lamplight

into darkness until they broke and fell
into a pool of oil and water below.
A small thing done well, my father said

so often that I tired of hearing it and lost
myself in the shop’s north end, an underworld
of welders who wore black masks and stared

through smoked glass where all was midnight
except the purest spark, the blue-white arc
of the clamp and rod. Hammers made dull tunes

hacking slag, and acetylene flames cast shadows
of men against the tin roof like great birds
trapped in diminishing circles of light.

Each day was like another. I stood beside him
and watched the lathe spin on, coils of iron
climbing into dusk, the file’s drone, the rasp,

and finally the honing cloth with its small song
of things done well that I would carry into sleep
and dreams of men with wings of fire and steel.

Bert Fairchild, 1906-1990


Gesang ist Dasein, singing is being, is the title of a poem by Rilke, glossed a while back by Robert Hass in his Poet’s Choice column.

 

Albuquerque, New Mexico. Machinist George Mainz, working at an axle lathe in the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad shops, from the Library of Congress Digital Collections

Choral Words: Eriks Esenvalds

The BBC Proms (the world’s biggest classical musical festival) are upon us, and all the radio broadcasts are streamed free on the BBC website.  (If you are in the UK you can watch video of some Proms or even go to them…a dream of mine.)
Lots of good programs, and a highlight so far is this premiere of a choral work for youth chorus by Latvian Eriks Esenvalds (a composer heard in DC last season) and setting this solemn text by Longfellow.

A Shadow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I said unto myself, if I were dead,
What would befall these children?  What would be
Their fate, who now are looking up to me
For help and furtherance?  Their lives, I said,
Would be a volume wherein I have read
But the first chapters, and no longer see
To read the rest of their dear history,
So full of beauty and so full of dread.
Be comforted; the world is very old,
And generations pass, as they have passed,
A troop of shadows moving with the sun;
Thousands of times has the old tale been told;
The world belongs to those who come the last,
They will find hope and strength as we have done.

It’s part of the program for Prom 9: The World Orchestra for Peace conducted by Donald Runnicles (with a performance of the Britten “Sinfonia da Requiem”), but also is provided in a binaural mix, which gives an enhanced sense of the space in which the music was performed. An interesting track for fans of new choral music.