Beautiful Music: The “Alcotts” from The Concord Sonata

Charles Ives StampSo much “spring” music to choose from, but my mind has turned to American Maverick (and bricolagist) Charles Ives, whose Concord Sonata is a like a rambling early 20th century novel.

Here is pianist Jeremy Denk playing the third Movement, “The Alcotts,” which opens with the evocation of the first bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as played on an out-of-tune piano in a New England home sometime in the 19th century.

For more about the piece, to give it its full title, Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60, you can start with the Wikipedia article, and explore from there, including Ives own intro.

Beautiful Music: The Spring Sonata

Am trying (with, at best, mixed results) to learn the piano part to Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata for violin and piano. Although not as difficult as many other of B’s works (talking about you, “Kreutzer Sonata”), it’s still plenty challenging.  The title “Frühlingssonata,” which he did not use, comes from the relatively sunny disposition of the first movement. Like the even-numbered symphonies it is full of good spirits and earthy humor.

I will probably never be able to play this piece very fluently, but it is fascinating to learn, particularly the compelling way it is built around pushing up against (and over) the bar lines (listen to the very first phase with that agogic accent). Throughout, the piece keeps unfolding implications of a sort of “head over heels” character–one idea moving to the next. (“A” becoming “B” as a German scholar wrote of Beethoven, rather than “A” becoming more perfectly “A” in Mozart.”)


And yes, it does evoke the happiness of spring, which seems, finally, to be here.

Here is a lovely performance by violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin,

There is also a spectacular recording of the complete sonatas by Isabelle Faust & Alexander Melnikov, which they discuss here (perfs not on YouTube) including some interesting comments about the melody in the sonata.

Media Futures and Pasts

Tipped by the American Press Institute‘s lively newsletter, I came across a fascinating portfolio site done by a class at NYU that is researching futures for the NYTimes. Engaging to nose around in (and fronted by an excellent video). Some things that will shock j-school old-timers (“division between advertising and editorial? why still a thing?”), but overall it’s clearly a labor of love, and a well-done one at that.

Future New York Times


Commonplace Book: The Books We Read as Teenagers

More commonplace book entries from the recent LRB (an exceptional issue, even by their high standard).

This bit from Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism

"Donquixote". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
“Don Quixote” by Picasso. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

The books we read in adolescence often have an extraordinary effect on our lives. They are, among other things, an attempt at regime change. In Freud’s language we could say that we free ourselves of our parents’ ideals for us by using the available culture to make up our own ego-ideals, to evolve a sense of our own affinities beyond the family, to speak a language that is more our own. In the self-fashioning of adolescence, books (or music or films) begin really to take, to acquire a subtle but far-reaching effect that lasts throughout a person’s life. We should, therefore, take seriously Freud’s adolescent passion for Don Quixote, a story about a ‘madman’ – as he is frequently referred to in the book – whose life is eventually entirely formed by his reading, in his case the reading of chivalric romances. He is a man who inhabits, lives in and through, the fictions about knights errant that he has consumed, a fictional character who makes himself out of fictional characters.

Rings true to me that what you do in those years has a resonance that lasts (although the ability to respond with such intensity does fade, on the whole a relief, I’m glad not to be undone by a song or a poem any more.)  My adolescent self was formed by a hodgepodge of often not very great music or books (I was in love with Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which, though fun, is hardly Cervantes) but the idea of fashioning yourself out of those materials does seem part of what that age is about, and perhaps why it’s so unavoidable that you always measure the music (poetry, art…) that you encounter later against the template set by that ardent first discovery.

Phillips goes on to make a remarkable point about what Don Q means in the context of Freud’s theory, with the advice that we might all be a little more easy going and conversational with our super-ego.

Reasonable Words: John Lanchester “Here Come the Robots”

Great piece by John Lanchester in the LRB about the coming era of even greater automation, and its economic implications. Not rosy.

“That is a worrying trend. Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour. We get a glimpse of it in those quarterly numbers from Apple…”

The whole piece is well worth reading (as are most things by JL, including his great book on the financial meltdown, I.O.U.)

Shortly after reading this, I encountered the not surprising (but still mind-blowing) news that SanDisk has announced a microSD card that has a 200GB capacity.  (Those are the storage cards that go into phones and other devices.)  That’s nearly as big as the computer I’m writing this on (a relatively beefy MacBook Pro), and the equivalent of 25 DVDs, thousands of music files, hundreds of thousands of books, and god knows how many pictures of my cat.

As Lanchester points out, neither increasing storage nor upping processing power has proven to be so difficult. (The limiting factor, as a friend pointed out? plain old batteries…moving the atoms still takes a lot of work.)

A work by artist Sol LeWitt (who provided instructions for the works, which were often executed by others, and dazzlingly so.) This is a photo from Flickr by Marc Feldmann.


%d bloggers like this: