“After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands”Thomas Tranströmer
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.
The Broken Internet
Like many, I’ve encountered a spate of stories about the plagues of the Internet, easy to understand in this era of Cambridge Analtyica, trolling, fake news, and video bots.
New York Magazine rounded up a group of tech types (from within and without the Silicon Valley juggernaut, and with a range of political and economic ideologies).
A few quotes:
“Antonio García Martínez: I think Silicon Valley has changed. After a while, the whole thing became more sharp-elbowed. It wasn’t hippies showing up anymore. There was a lot more of the libertarian, screw-the-government ethos, that whole idea of move fast, break things, and damn the consequences. It still flies under this marketing shell of “making the world a better place.” But under the covers, it’s this almost sociopathic scene.”
Jaron Lanier: We wanted everything to be free, because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs, because we loved Steve Jobs. So you want to be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, which is absurd.
Tristan Harris: We cannot afford the advertising business model. The price of free is actually too high. It is literally destroying our society, because it incentivizes automated systems that have these inherent flaws. Cambridge Analytica is the easiest way of explaining why that’s true. Because that wasn’t an abuse by a bad actor — that was the inherent platform. The problem with Facebook is Facebook.
A long way from the idealistic global network of the Internet or the Web in the 90s, so hopeful, and in retrospect the briefest of golden ages.
Tech Friday: An All Green Screen Macbeth
Greenscreen (or more formally compositing) is way of combing video images to create a scene that combines a background and live action. Wikipedia has a good explanation, and the video production company I work for has done some work in this way.
But I learned this week there is a new film of Macbeth that was done in green screen, meaning that the actors worked in a studio room, and the entire physical environment was created after the fact in post-production.
The trailer is here:
And I will admit that this offers some support the view that Shakespeare remains resistant film. (Works for opera for some reason.)
Yet, looking at the fascinating “making of” videos, I do wonder whether this one could get to the heightened reality of Shakespeare more than a traditional filmmaking technique (there is an artificiality to this world, perhaps with something akin to video games, which embody a digital aesthetic).
It is a work of heightened language and intense dramatic impulse, and there is something so bracing about using technology to match that. Whether it ultimately works or not is an open question, hope to see it later this spring, but perhaps they are on to something.
The Competency Trap and Xerox
Xerox, a giant of my generation (its name had become a verb) seems to be breathing its last, as it is acquired by Fujifilm (story in today’s NYTimes).
“How Xerox fell so far is a case study in what management experts call the “competency trap” — an organization becomes so good at one thing, it can’t learn to do anything new.”
Somewhat undercutting this thesis, the writer mentions that Xerox did try to do a bunch of different things as the environment changed, just not all that successfully. Still the later point, made by a comparison with Apple, is that experience can actually inhibit certain kinds of innovation.
To wit: Xerox famously did pioneering work on computer interfaces, the mouse, and other technology well before the personal computer revolution. A young Steve Jobs visited Xerox Park in Palo Alto, a story that is now one of the foundational bed-time stories for Silicon Valley, and saw some of this technology, which later made into his products.
The Times piece concludes,
Over the years, Apple has had its own ups and downs. But whenever Mr. Jobs became convinced that something new was afoot, he moved forcefully and refocused the company. He did not fall into the competency trap, and today Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world.
Jobs was all kinds of things no doubt, but just yesterday I read this bit from a memoir of working with him, tweeted by Bethany Bongiorno, formerly an engineering director at Apple.
At one point Steve wanted to turn UIKit elements orange. Not just any orange, he wanted a particular orange from the button on a certain old Sony remote. We got a bunch of remotes from Sony with orange buttons to try and find the right one. in the end, Steve hated it.
That’s sure not the competency trap, what it is exactly probably couldn’t be summed up in a management concept, but it does hint at the pure wildness and level of detail the late CEO of the world’s most valuable tech company engaged with.
Arts Tech: Virtual Maria Callas
In the operatic edition of “news of the weird” –a surprisingly hefty category–the latest entry is Maria Callas, in 3D on the stage of New York’s Rose Theater. Anthony Tomassini was there for the preview for the opening of the “tour”: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/15/arts/music/maria-callas-hologram-opera.html
Like many things today, the promotional language from the company behind it, Base Hologram, seems to be pulled from a sci-fi novel, “La Divina lives, breathes, sings and captivates in her astonishing return to the stage.” Since Callas died in 1977, her return really would be astonishing. What we have instead, wondrous in a different way, is a 3-D hologram of the revered soprano, performing with a live orchestra (a gig that I suspect gave pause to the even the hungriest of NYC freelancers). “Callas sings” some well-known arias, from Carmen, Lady Macbeth, and the like–with audio mined from her numerous recordings, already an object of obsession by fanatics, and what I guess is a computer recreation of her body based on the more limited film and video legacy. As Tony points out, we don’t have a single full length opera on film of her.
Okay, I do get the fascination with her, and with Base’s other ectoplasmic excretion, Roy Orbison “Interactive Roy Orbison to Embark on World Tour.” I have found that opera lovers refer to hearing Callas live with the same awe that the others diners at the Last Supper must have lorded it over their lessers who weren’t in the room. Any opera unfortunate, such as me, who is prepared to forthrightly admit that he didn’t hear Callas, and even finds some grounds for criticism of her recorded performances, will be met with an impossible to counter “you had to be there” even from people who quite possibly weren’t there–never hearing the notoriously temperamental and cancellation prone singer in the flesh.
So, given that she has already moved into a virtual fantasy object phase, is a holographic tour anything to get agitated about? Is truthfully saying you saw the fake Callas, instead of falsely claiming to have seen the real one, such a big gap? And the reports of the technology, which apparently even lets her banter with the audience and conductor, fascinates me. (Is the hologram directed in real time by somebody ‘playing Maria?’ How? is AI involved? Just how spontaneous can it be: Does holographic Maria storm off the stage if she gets angry? What happens if somebody asks her to sing “Memories” from Cats? Can the audience demand that Roy Orbison come out and join her for a duet? She never recorded Only the Lonely, nor he The Barber of Seville, but they might bring it off…
So many questions, and for all my quibbles I might well go if the show comes to DC. Probably would play Anthem.
Still, I have one more point, which Tony adumbrates, and which I would underline more strongly. Opera, already a backwards looking art, is nonetheless a live, and acoustic art form. That is, you connect because a singer making an un-amplified sound, one you are hearing as is. Being there. The singer’s voice, your ears. Nothing but natural air pressures getting from one to the other.
There is so little acoustic anything today in the performing arts: mics are the norm from Broadway, to high school theater, and I hold no brief against them, just how things are done now, and the art form survives. Opera, and in particular, vocal recitals, it seems to me present a more challenging case–opera may seem a particularly artificial art form, but there is an argument to be made that it is at the same time a very authentic one. What you are hearing is what the singer really sounds like. Not remastered, no engineering jiggery-pokery, no edits to create the perfect version.
If the whole point is being in the room with the source of that voice, virtual Maria gives you a lot, the image, the orchestra, the format, except the actual voice. What’s more Avatar Maria likely looks radiant and sounds ideal, yet was remarkable about her, is what is remarkable about any opera singer or any live performance, what happens live, her voice and in that moment.
Trying to do some research on liquidating a large collection of classical LPs (“good luck with that” is what I keep hearing), I happened on this fascinating list of valuable vinyl. No idea how up-to-date or authoritative it is, but fun to browse.
Not surprisingly, unusual pressings of The Beatles figure prominently, but there is something even rarer, a single pressing of a 1927 blues recording that will set you back a cool 60K, if you can find it. But like the famous “Inverted Jenny” or Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” likely to be rare on the ground..
Being a Better Helper
Have you ever asked somebody for computer help? Been asked? Offered advice unasked? Received said unsolicited advice?
I’ve been in all four categories, and I suspect anybody reading this blog has as well. It can be a grim business the ‘computer helping’ game. (If I did reality shows instead of educational media, I’d pitch ‘Family Tech Support’ intense relationship drama. Probably too full of bad language for cable even. “But I don’t even see the enter key any where? Why the #$#!~*& is it called enter if it means ‘return?” A question for the ages.)
But there’s hope: earlier today, I encountered the best advice for helping somebody use a computer I’ve seen–and it’s 21 years old. Comes from a post by the Phil Agre, who was then at UCLA. The entire thing is at http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/ but here is the first bit…
Computer people are fine human beings, but they do a lot of harm in the ways they “help” other people with their computer problems. Now that we’re trying to get everyone online, I thought it might be helpful to write down everything I’ve been taught about helping people use computers.
First you have to tell yourself some things:
Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
Good advice for teaching in general…Speaks to keeping the experience and the goals of the learner in mind, rather than a primary focus on what the teacher is doing. Simple, but hard to do…
Tip of the hat to www.librarian.net/stax/4749/ask-a-librarian-when-do-you-touch-a-patrons-computer/ for the link.
Poetic Words: Sharon Olds
Both Poetry Daily and Knopf Poem of the Day do celebrations of National Poetry Month (April, of course, the ‘cruelest’ month). Sharon Olds was one of Knopf’s selections, and she has always resonated with me, perhaps never more so than in this poem.
Then, one late afternoon,
I understand: the harm my father
did us is receding. I never thought
it would happen, I thought his harm was stronger than that,
like God’s harm—flood, or birth without
eyes, with mounds of tissue, no retina, no
pupil, the way my father on the couch did not
seem not to be using eyes
but not to have them, or to have objects
for eyes—Jocastal dress-brooches.
But he had not been hated, so he did not hate us,
just scorned us, and it is wearing off.
My son and daughter are grown, they are well
as if by some miracle. The afternoon has a
quality of miracle, the starlings all facing
the west, his grave. I come to the window
as if to open it, and whisper,
My father’s harm is fading. Then,
I think that he would be glad to hear it
directly from me,
so I come to where you are, bone
settled under the dewed tangle
of the blackish Northwoods moss like the crossroads
hair of a beloved. I come to you here
because it is home: your done-with body
broken back down into earth, holding
its solemn incapable beauty.
Perhaps all writers make use of their family first and foremost, but few do it as fearlessly.
Predictions, Dumb and Otherwise, about Technology in Schools in 2025
Clear thoughts on ed tech and the future from a hero of mine. I would go further even than Larry–not only are the big questions about teaching and learning, its purposes, means, and content more important; the endless noisy hum of speculation and consumer reports level chatter about the so-called revolutionary potential of ed tech mostly is a white noise generator to keep the discussion of the deeper issues inaudible.
Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice
One easily trips over a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them. Other lists of high-tech predictions for 2020 were equally entertaining about the future of schools. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such dream lists for years about high-tech devices (with brand-new names) promising a glorious (or nefarious) future just around the corner, including the disappearance of the teacher (see here).
And I have contributed to such lists with my own predictions over…
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