New Stars, Old Tech

Met Opera stars Piotr Beczala and Susanna Phillips teamed up with some audio historians to make recordings using wax cylinders, technology that is a century old, and helped make household names of Enrico Caruso and Nellie Melba.

Anthony Tommasini of the NYTimes has the story. And the Met has put up (an oddly amateurish) video of the experiment.

This isn’t the first time this has been tried. The great Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson made a recording using acoustical technology rather than electronic microphones. She presented it anonymously to some music critics to see if they could identify her. They couldn’t, and one said, “I don’t know who it was, but it clearly wasn’t a major singer.”

There are all sorts of speculations I’ve harbored about the intersection between opera and recording technology over many years as a more or less faithful opera aficionado. One is raised by this current experiment–how did people hear these recordings? (With the same thrill we can get from a modern high def recording with fidelity to the nth degree?) Or as a faint souvenir of a great voice?

Also, how did recording change the artform–and was it for the better? Certainly it’s easy to speculate that the emphasis on voice above all (which is still the dominant view, if contested) is amplified by a century’s worth of audio, where of course what you have is the voice front and center–and presented in a way that rewards obsessive comparative opera fanaticism. (And pace, yes, I think the voice is important, but I don’t think opera is “about voices,” per se.  Rather, is a thrill because opera is more than the sum of its parts, including theatrical values, such as the physical production, the direction, and overall musical conception, the narrative and dramatic quality of the work, etc. These don’t necessarily show up on wax cylinders, or on CDs or downloads for that matter. (Of course opera on video does provide a sense of this this, and has become for me at least, a lot more rewarding than audio only.)

Finally there is a paradoxical thing–although I find these recordings hard to listen to at many levels, the surface is scratchy and the dynamic range so limited, and yet… they do offer a window into a world of singers and styles that is fascinating, and some singers I have come to treasure (and I hear you saying, because of the voice, and that’s true).

Amelita Galli-Curci is the prime example of this for me. Astonishing technique,  elegant style, and as a YouTube commenter points out, perhaps the most natural singer on the opera stage of her era, or any since.


Silly Words: SnowClones

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good cliché will use it to death.

Tipped by the NYTimes I learned about SnowClones today, these (a formation from the adage about the many “Eskimo words for snow”). A snowclone is an adaptation of a saying to the point that it becomes a clichéd formula, with ever diminishing returns. “X is the new Y” seems to be the paradigmatic case. (“Orange is the New Black” “Matcha is the new Kombucha” “Facebook is the new Stasi“).

There is both a database and a wikipedia page for Snowclones.

Puts me in the mind of the New Yorker humorist Frank Sullivan, with his celebrated (couldn’t resist) cliche expert Mr. Arbuthnot.

Can you catalog this…?

…If so, you can be a librarian. Researching something for work, I came across the Prelinger Archive, a wealth of footage from educational, amateur and other sources, much of it public domain. Although I did not find the thing I was looking for, I did find this adorable career video for would-be librarians from 1947.


I hadn’t heard of “extension librarians” but certainly am familiar with the patron who comes in and says, “I’m looking for a book…I think it was blue?”

You can check out the whole Prelinger Archive here. (Not to mention the rest of the Internet Archive’s video resources.)

Tuesday Listen: CPE Bach

One of the many Bach children, Carl Philip Emmanuel, was perhaps the greatest composer (worthy of comparison with JSB, and honored by Mozart among others).  He is best known for keyboard music full of imaginative color and flights of fancy.

Here is one of hundreds of his keyboard pieces, the evocative farewell to his Silbermann Clavichord.  (Here in a piano performance.)

Evocative–and to my ears–some elements of a modern improvisatory feel.

He also wrote lots of ornate showpieces, for the piano, then a relatively new instrument, such as the piano lesson favorite Solfeggietto in C Minor (sorry about the weird open).

A Couple of Warren Buffett Tidbits

Warren Buffett is of course a subject of (perhaps unhealthy) interest from many people. Two interesting tidbits I have encountered in reading.

Things that mattered: he started early, and let compounding compound.  From a blog post by  Morgan Housel

“What if Buffett got serious about investing when he was age 22 – just out of college – instead of age 10? Imagine he spends his 20s learning about investments, and his net worth at age 30 was in the still-impressive 90th percentile. Using today’s net worth percentiles and adjusting them for 1960s-era inflation, that would mean he’d be worth about $24,000 at age 30.

Now we can do some fun calculations.

If, at age 30, Buffett was worth $24,000 instead of the $1 million he actually accumulated, and went on to earn the same returns, how much would he be worth today?

$1.9 billion.”  [Instead of 81 billion]

Later in the same piece,

“But there are times when you have to relentlessly leave something that looks small alone so it has a chance of compounding into something big. Charlie Munger explained: “The first rule of compounding: Never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

The whole thing is worth reading. On the starting early, I blogged about this before.

The other point comes from the FT writer John Kay (great stylist and incisive about the woes and wonders of finance).  He points out that had Buffett invested through a managed fund (instead of investing for himself), the typical 2 and 20 fees would mean that Buffett’s personal fortune would today be 5 billion, with the fund that managed his money getting the rest.  (Kay was doing this calculation a few years back when Buffett was at a mere 50 millions: fees would take 90% of his money!).

So take aways: start early, let compounding compound, and minimize fees!

Poetry: Gray’s Elegy

It is perhaps too long, yet remains one of those poems from which lines float up unbidden (and not just because they have found their way to so many titles).

graveyardElegy Written in a Country Churchyard

By Thomas Gray


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
         The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
         And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
         And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
         And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
         The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
         Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Continues at…

Great Ledes


Fruits of a long habit of noting great ledes (or leads in this non-hot type era).  Two recent ones that kept me reading, and the third from an Anthony Lane movie review from years ago.


It probably wouldn’t have surprised his long-suffering friends, but the remains of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge have been rediscovered in a wine cellar.


We’ve met only a few hours before and already New York City’s second-most powerful politician has told me about the moment he found out he was HIV positive, his former cocaine habit, the night he decided to get sober, has complained about online gay dating in New York, gotten choked up at least three times, told me he barely gets laid, talked about his mother’s love life, told me how he wants a husband and kids, smoked a cigarette, invited me over to his tiny studio apartment so I can see precisely how small it is — a touch over 300 square feet — and presented me with a proposed theme for a potential 2021 mayoral run.

That message: “Stop Fucking With Us.”


That is it like being Timur Bekmambetov? No artist should be confused too closely with his creations, but anybody who sits through “Wanted,” Bekmambetov’s new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.

Viola Jokes

So for the record, I love the viola, that bari-tenor member of the string family, and I even have tickets for a performance of the Walton Viola Concert later this season (see end of this list), but sometimes you just need a good viola joke to get you through. A few for your delectation:

Q: How was the canon invented?
A: Two violists were trying to play the same passage together.

Q: What’s the definition of a minor second?
A: Two violists playing a unison.

Q: How can you tell when a violist is playing out of tune?
A: The bow is moving.

Q: If you’re lost in the desert, what do you aim for? A good viola player, a bad viola player or an oasis?
A: The bad viola player. The other two are only figments of your imagination.

Q: What’s the difference between the first and last desk of a viola section?
A: Half a measure and a semi-tone.

Q: Why do violists stand a long time at people’s houses?
A: Because they can’t find the key and don’t know when to come in.

Q: What is a string quartet?
A: A string quartet consists of a good violinist, a bad violinist, somebody who hates the violin, and somebody who doesn’t know what a violin is.

Q: What’s the best recording of William Walton’s viola concerto?
A: Music Minus One

And in response, some beautiful examples…

And that wonderful Walton, with the former principal viola of the National Symphony, Roberto Diaz.


Masterpiece Cake Case back in the Day: Georgetown vs. DC on Gay Student Groups

Reading Constitutional lawyer  Paul Smith’s comments on the “Wedding Cake Case” now before the Supreme Court reminded me of a long ago case in DC involving Georgetown University, which had run afoul of Washington D.C.’s human rights law. Georgetown, as a Roman Catholic institution in the Jesuit tradition, had declined to recognize the gay student group on campus as an official group, and thereby denying it certain services and benefits. (Full background here: (And because they were Jesuits they documented this copiously.)

The university objected to the implication that official support would be construed as endorsement of positions that were at variance with official Catholic teaching (and thereby the foundation of the institution). This shades into the “forced speech” argument of the baker who declines to make a cake for a same-sex wedding because he believes it to be a forced endorsement of something contrary to his understanding of Christian doctrine, this then rolling into an argument about the meaning of the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.

The way the Georgetown case played out is instructive. The question became whether Georgetown was in fact being forced to endorse some position on homosexuality if it was merely providing tangible benefits and services to a group. Although strongly contested (and with dissent from more than one judge), the ultimate decision was that tangible support did not equal endorsement, and a constitutional question (such as infringement of rights) was not reached. This was rather brilliantly achieved, in part, by the work of the attorneys for the gay group. They called representatives of many officially recognized student groups to testify: for instance the chess club, athletic groups, et al; and asked them the same set of questions about their connection to the university. Were they  endorsed?, what tangible benefits did they receive? how were their programs publicized?, etc. The pay dirt moment came when the head of the Jewish students’ group was asked, after  questions about their access to university facilities, support from institution etc, “And does your group hold any views at variance with the official teachings or doctrines of the Catholic Church?” Answer: “Well, we do deny the divinity of Jesus Christ.” The game was up.

Georgetown could not, under law, deny tangible services and benefits to those with whom it disagreed and whose positions were at variance to their own. Perhaps the baker in the Masterpiece case holds convictions as as sincere as Georgetown, and has a religious sensitivity as delicate. (Has he not been asked to bake wedding cakes for atheists? for observant members of non-Christian religions? an enthusiastic blasphemer with a taste for baked goods?) But that does not allow him to deny a tangible service for customers who hold views (and who incidentally might be just as fervent Christians as he is) at variance with his own. Even more so, when those customers are explicitly protected by non-discrimination statutes. Georgetown can’t discriminate against gay student groups, no matter how legitimately its religious convictions are offended, and nor can a commercial establishment.  Speech is in fact unimpaired: The Baker is a star of the anti-marriage equality movement (and certainly the Catholic Church seems to have no problem making its positions known). No one will be confused about that, I dare say.  But when it comes to wedding cakes, if he sells them to anybody, he sells them to all comers who are getting legally married. That means for Paul Smith’s marriage, or for mine.

I’ll let Paul, wonderfully, a now Georgetown Law Professor himself, have the last word.

People in this country have every right to personally disapprove of my marriage.  But they should not have a right to translate those beliefs into exclusionary policies when they open a business like the Masterpiece Cakeshop.  They can choose who to associate with in their private lives.  But not when they open a business serving the public.  That is where we have always drawn the line in this country, and that shouldn’t change just because a purveyor of really excellent wedding cakes asks for the right to refuse to serve us because of who we are.

Okay, end of political tirade. Back to music and art tomorrow.