Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

A weekend trip to Richmond allowed me to spend a pleasurable afternoon at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, an eclectic collection, with everything other than the special exhibits free to the public, 365 days a year.

George Inness, Sunset

It is particularly strong in American Art, a favorite of mine. And as is my wont, I went in search of George Inness, finding three canvases. An idiosyncratic painter, and these expanded my sense of him. Many threads come together in his work–painterly values as an American Barbizon painter (rural, often pastoral subjects, rendered with glowing colors, tending towards realism not impressionism), also there’s a hard to fathom spiritual subtext, apparently tied to Swedenborg, a mystical theologian who exerted a fascination on Kant, and also the senior Henry James. And although mostly a landscape painter, Innes apparently made up many of these locations, or at least radically adjusted the details, frequently finishing the work in the studio.

Mostly the paintings seem mysteriously beautiful to me. This started with a pull towards October Noon at the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, where everything, including the title of the painting slowly dissolves into something else the longer you look at it.

George Inness, Evening

The three at VMFA didn’t quite evoke that mystery, except perhaps for the ominous trees of Stone Pines; instead they  seem quietly epic, like a nineteenth century novel on themes of daily life, where everything hinges on a word or two at sunset.

George Inness, Stone Pines

I will report from my further efforts to see every Inness canvas on view; having a pet artistic quest like this can add a bit to museum going. (See under “all the Vermeers in New York.)


Another thing I am always on the look out for is Raku ware, ceramic tea vessels of sometimes rustic character. The combination of an earthy, almost primitive feel with use in the extreme refinement of the tea ceremony is endless fascinating.

The VMFA’s 300 year old example is a stunner, not the least because it could have been created yesterday.

 

Raku Sonyu, Japanese, 1664 – 1716 (Artist) “…for if there were such a thing as a nirvana for objects, this raku tea bowl had reached it ages ago.” –Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rockport Chamber Music Festival

Took advantage of a long weekend in Massachusetts to go up to Rockport and take in the opening weekend of the annual chamber music festival held at the remarkable Shalin Liu Performance Center.

Rockport itself is one of those post-card ready beach towns on the North Shore, it is the smaller, tonier sibling to Gloucester just down the road.  Among its charms is a remarkable concert hall. It sits right on the water built inside an old building, and with windows that open up to the harbor. It has remarkable acoustics, a charming feel, and gives a sense of being in and outside at the same time (birds circling as twilight overtakes the sea).

The hall boasts a wide range of performances. But I was there for the opening of the chamber music festival, now directed by Barry Shiffman, a noted violinist. This was his first season, and he is clearly swinging for the fences with an eclectic range of concerts on the theme of r:Evolution. (Weird orthography, it’s not just for rock bands!). Osvaldo Goljov is the composer in residence, and the over the five weeks there is a wide range of his work, balanced by mainstays of the chamber repertoire. Artists are frequently musicians’ musicians rather than starry names (although Pinky Zuckerman, Dawn Upshaw, and the Emerson St. Quartet will all be bowing).  And judging by the weekend it’s going to be quite a month.

Friday night, I caught a rather overheated Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence (seems like you can overplay or underplay this piece, never get the middle ground: moments of grace & repose were a little lacking). Still the playing was at a very high level technically, and their enthusiastic way with the piece was its own justification somehow. The song cycle Ayre formed the second half–part world music, theater/dance piece, expressive poetry reading, with Golijov’s trademark variety of traditions, with everything from electronica to ancient folk tune taking their place. The instrumentalists included Boston institution Claudio Raggazi (whom I heard just a week before in a tribute to the late Mili Bermejo at Berklee). It was nice to see performers like Todd Palmer and and Andrés Diaz who have given notable performances in DC that I enjoyed back in the day.

Most of all, the evening belonged to Miriam Khalil, the singer in Ayres, described as a soprano in the program, but that’s sort of like calling Niagara Falls a water feature. She had a range in notes, and expressive scope far beyond the usual soprano, a sense of drama and motion in her voice, in her whole body that was utterly captivating. It was nearly a one-woman show, a cycle of politics, love, folklore, tragedy and ecstasy.  As somebody who previously was an admirer rather than a lover of Golijov’s music, I was won over. It takes a performer like her to tie together what can seem to be a bit too much of curation rather than inspiration. But she found the thread. Worth hearing more of on all counts.

I didn’t see Kafka and Son, the one-act play with music that followed the next day. Did catch a more conventional program, the Melrose Piano Trio, with Barry joining . Opened with Turina Piano Trio No. 22, a little naive but abundant charm;  the Mendelssohn Second Trio followed. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker dazzled in this mini concerto.  I personally can’t deal with the Brahms Piano chamber music any more. Like reading James Fennimore Cooper for me, but they have a vigorous (to the point of string breaking) performance of his first piano quartet. The sell-out crowd loved it.

The best performance for me, by a wide margin, was Sunday afternoon’s show. This kicked off with a angular arrangement of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (a moment in art that has been described as the beating heart of western musical civilization.) The performer was the arranger, Frederic Chiu, who was austere, not showy. His approach fit the theme of the concert, the musical materials themselves, spirit not rhetoric, ideas first, embodied in emotion.

He proceeded, without pause to give a skinned alive performance of Prokofiev’s 7th Piano Sonata, facing up to the rebarbative moments, of this piece of high modernism with calm authority. The piece’s percussive context provided color and shape. It’s tempting to cheat this in the direction of note spinning (there are clashing moments of music that would seem to demand superhuman virtuosity and stop there.)  Chiu found the power in the musical ideas, particularly the rhythms, taut, even explosive and without any hint of sarcasm.  Or so it was in Chiu’s hands. He seemed born to this piece, with it in his bones, and convincing you that the take no prisoners musical world of the war years was something he knew and could make us want to listen to every molecule of.

Magical performances of excerpts from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with Tan Dun’s Elegy Snow in June sandwiched in between wrapped up the second half. Dun’s work has a political subtext, but performed with the Quartet seemed a distinctly spiritual piece,  with a stunning array of expertly scored percussion parts played with nearly fine ensemble. Palmer was back doing a clarinet solo to open, and the weekend ended with the Diaz’ cello and Chiu’s piano movement, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” from the Messiaen. Timelessness is evoked by the steady chords in the piano, around which the cello line curves, through, over, under, somehow inside at times. Diaz was superb, and even managed to keep his concentration when the Enternity of Jesus was interrupted by a cellphone ringing. Probably exactly what will really happen in the end days. Still a remarkable performance and a great opening for series that looks to be wonderful. If you are anywhere near, and are interested in this kind of rep, go check it out. They are up to something exciting.

 

 

 

 

If you can read this you can be a data scientist!

 

The opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid. Turns out it’s a stepping stone to learning de scientia data sit amet.

As a humanities guy with strong technical and quantitative interests, I’ve watched the explosion of data science* as a component of business, education, culture and career. It is a data age.

 

Found a first-person account of a Classics grad student turned data scientist; interesting take in particular that there are some commonalities that are not necessary top of mind.

“It was true that I needed to know statistics and how to write code to function effectively in these roles, but that knowledge was a given. It turned out that the differentiating points between a great data scientist and an average one were in the researcher’s ability to deal with that same uncertainty that had driven me from the humanities and into quantitative research in the first place. In other words, the scientific methodologies had all the same epistemological concerns and issues as the humanities — they just tackled those problems with different tools.

My experience has lead me to believe that graduate humanities work is in fact one of the most useful backgrounds for an industry data scientist. While there’s often a lot of focus on data scientists being experts in statistics or coding, these tools are simply a means to an end — they’re necessary but insufficient for doing great data science. If you’re a humanities graduate student and are interested in data, I’d feel confident in your ability to succeed in the field based on your less technical skills. Specifically, experience as a graduate researcher in humanities makes you an expert in:

    1. Going deep into topics and teaching yourself anything
    2. Stating research questions and supporting your answers with evidence
    3. Communicating the limitations and assumptions of your approach

    In my mind, these broad research skills are more valuable (and rare) than knowledge of the specifics of any particular quantitative methodology.

*”Data scientist is just a sexed up word for statistician.’ Nate Silver

Quotable Words: What’s Next for AI?

Linked by the indefatigable people at O’Reilly, I came across a Q&A with Judah Pearl, an AI pioneer, who has some measured criticism of the enterprise as it stands:

Hartnett: People are excited about the possibilities for AI. You’re not?

Pearl: As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial.

Hartnett: The way you talk about curve fitting, it sounds like you’re not very impressed with machine learning.

Pearl: No, I’m very impressed, because we did not expect that so many problems could be solved by pure curve fitting. It turns out they can. But I’m asking about the future—what next? Can you have a robot scientist that would plan an experiment and find new answers to pending scientific questions? That’s the next step. We also want to conduct some communication with a machine that is meaningful, and meaningful means matching our intuition. If you deprive the robot of your intuition about cause and effect, you’re never going to communicate meaningfully. Robots could not say “I should have done better,” as you and I do. And we thus lose an important channel of communication.

So maybe it’s not all curve fitting and optimization problems? Seems plausible, but the already formidable mathematics would seemingly get nearly impossible.

Still an interesting read.

Rainy Day Words


“I
think that the
world should be full of cats and full of rain, that’s all, just
cats and
rain, rain and cats, very nice, good
night.”
― Charles Bukowski

Félix Bracquemond, Decoration for a Plate: Rain

“Rainy days should be spent at home with a cup of tea and a good book.”
― Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes

Porcelain Designs for Tea Cups, Anonymous, French, 19th century

The rainfall in June –
the poems I’ve pasted to walls
peel off, but leave traces.

–Basho

Night Rain at Ōyama, from the series “Eight Famous Views of Kanagawa” by Utagawa Toyokuni II

 

 

Bernstein’s Candide

Took in Washington National Opera’s Candide, their season closer, and part of the celebration of the centenary of the maestro’s birth.

Been meaning to get down some things to say about it:  the show was the usual mixed bag, and the production’s ineptitude–despite good voices and some strong performances–failed to solve the abundant problems. Is it an opera, an operetta, or a musical? Should the winking parody style of the musical numbers (including Gilbert and Sullivan and Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy) be reflected in the production or underplayed? How do you deal with the picaresque narrative, which jumps continents and timeframes in its catalog of disasters with cinematic rather that stage logic? And most of all what to do about the fact that, at its core, it’s not a drama: it’s a satire that centers on a philosophical issue rather than a character-driven conflict (the key ingredient of almost all successful operas*). The protagonists,  without the directorial attention of a Mary Zimmermann, turn into very thinly drawn puppets. And even her musical comedy version was a bit like a revue (if winningly so).

That said, if anybody could have done a music-theater piece about an idea, perhaps it was Lenny. After all, He did write a violin concerto about a Platonic dialogue. But even he never seemed to be able to pull the threads together on Candide, and although I don’t regret taking in WNO’s as they did right by the intermittently wonderful score, the show never quite lives up to that wonderful fizzy overture, here conducted by the man himself.

Perhaps somebody should do a movie–the material might not fight the form so intensely.

*Strauss’ Capriccio is perhaps another example of an opera based on an idea “words vs. music” but it has better character development, and still has some problems in the theater.

Consultant Humor

Heard at the beginning of a two-day tech meeting years ago (back when I was working on my first websites in the mid-90s). It’s been knocking around a while.

A frog lived on a lily pad in the middle of a pond. Unfortunately, the pond had become infested with alligators, and the frog couldn’t figure out how to get to the shore to escape them and save his life.

Thinking all was lost, he noticed an owl in a tree, and knowing their reputation as sages, he implored, “Oh, wise Owl, I’m trapped here in this pond, and alligators will eat me if I can’t get to shore. How can I escape?”

The owl, who weirdly looked a lot like Clay Christensen for some reason, paused gravely and said, “Well, I think you are missing an obvious approach. Just fly away and you can reach the shore, escaping the alligators who are competing to eat you!”

The frog began to hop frantically, waving his appendages. But instead of escape, this commotion delivered him into the gleaming jaws of a nearby alligator.

As those jaws came clamping down on the poor creature, he shouted at the owl, “didn’t you know that frogs can’t fly?” The owl merely said “my plan was sound, you just had an implementation issue.”

Although the room was packed with actual consultants trying to sell us stuff, it got a big laugh.

Poetry: In Flanders Fields

As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, I remembered a poem from childhood. First asked my mother about it when I was a small child in Chicago and saw WWI Vets selling paper poppies.


Envelope with stamps honoring Moina Michael, Athens, Georgia, 1948. Moina Belle Michael was a United States professor and humanitarian, known as the “Poppy Lady” for conceiving the idea of using poppies as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in World War I. In 1948, four years after her death, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her life’s achievement.

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

 


The Met has a post worth reading,
In Flanders Fields, 100 Years Later: Comprehending the Incomprehensible, and a lithograph from 1918.

Bad Arguments: Illustrated

Via a visit to a real bookstore, found my way to Ali Almossami, an author and software engineer, who has done the public service of posting a free book on bad arguments.

Amusing examples and illustrations, covering some of the same ground I encountered implicitly in high school geometry and directly in a college logic course, using Copi’s text, nicely summarized over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and of course philosophized about at length).

For all these efforts, we seem to be drowning in bad arguments all the time (as it has ever been).