08 October 2011

Chris Thile on Musical Transcriptions

I had the odd good luck about a week ago (reminder: this is a slow blog) to have a conversation with Chris Thile -- the extraordinary mandolinist and composer -- about musical transcriptions.  In January 2010, I had had the even greater good fortune to hear Thile play -- on the Mandolin -- Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor.  It was a revelatory experience; indeed, I'd say that listening to that performance was one of a small handful of the most compelling musical experiences I have had over my lifetime.

Thile's comment about transcriptions last week was that he found that a succesful transcription of a musical work exposed the "music" of a source piece more clearly or fully than did different "performances" of the piece on the instrument the piece had been written for. 

What for me was helpful in Thile's comment was the idea that our sense of the "music" of a piece was heightened when the comparison we had was between versions on two instruments, rather than versions on a single instrument.  That captured quite precisely what had happened for me when I heard Thile's live performance of the Partita and then immediately went home and played a recording of it on the violin. (I also recall feeling frustrated that -- because I had no recording of Thile playing the piece on the Mandolin  -- I could not continue to alternate listening to the piece on the two instruments).

But just why might the comparison across instruments that transcription affords be so helpful?  I wish I had thought to ask Thile this when I had the chance to speak with him.  Is it that the second instrument gives us a less familiar version and the unfamiliar-ness heightens our listening and attention?  Or is it a matter of the greater difference between two instruments, compared to the difference between two performances on one instrument?  Is it the increased musical difference that heightens our listening and attention?

However this quite works, I am fascinated by transcriptions--and by transpositions too; and it was a genuine treat to hear Thile talk about his transcription of the Partita as a follow-up to having heard him perform the piece.  

The Slow Blog Movement encourages further listening. In this case:

Any and all of Thile's CDs, whether with Nickle Creek, Punch Brothers, or those he has done on his own or with one other artist.

And for readers of Shake Well Before Using in the New York city area, take advantage of the  opportunity to hear Thile perform his mandolin concerto with Orpheus on March 24, 2012; fmi, click here.  Perhaps he'll do the Partita as an encore, as he did when he performed the concerto with the LA Chamber Orchestra.


06 October 2011

"Steve Jobs," the Mythology

It is worth listening to what commentators are saying about Steve Jobs today, upon his death, for the sake of thinking about "Steve Jobs," the mythology.

According to Matt Bai, "Mr. Jobs understood, intuitively, that Americans were breaking away from the last era’s large institutions and centralized decision-making..."  Really, Matt Bai?  Are Americans really breaking away from large institutions and centralized decision-making?  The last time I looked, for example, the U.S. military was an institution that has remained frighteningly large.  So too, the decisions to torture people (by the Bush-Cheney administration) and the decisions to use high tech drones to kill people (by the Obama administration)--I think those are very much cases of "centralized decision-making."  What am I missing?  And to give one more example: when oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months in 2010, BP (formerly British Petroleum) seemed like a very "large corporation," and I am not sure how its actions represent a break from "centralized decision-making."  Put very simply, Bai's comments seem to me to be meaningless--and romantic--cant. 

And here's one more comment from Bai on Jobs (along with a quote from an Apple product commercial): "This was the underlying point of 'think different' — that our choices were no longer dictated by the whims of huge companies..."  Uh, how exactly does Apple's sales of all its various I-Things count as consumer freedom from "the whims of huge companies"?  Please explain that to me.

The very worst comment I heard all day was from some reporter on our local NPR station--I did not catch her name--who spoke of how Apple's products had "liberated" her.  I am sorry, but neither Apple nor Steve Jobs are notable for contributing much to human "liberation."  For that, it would be much more appropriate to pay attention to the death, on the same day, of the Reverand Fred Shuttlesworth, someone who suffered beatings and jailing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  Reverand Shuttlesworth really did produce greater freedom in the world.  Let us honor and remember him.

And what, by contrast, was the genuine achievement of the mythologized figure, "Steve Jobs"?  Nothing less or more than this: he was a modern master of the fashion system that has been a characteristic feature of modern capitalist societies since, at least, the Tulipmania of the Dutch Republic of the 1600s.

In such a fashion system, a good "in fashion" has value as a symbol of status, but because it is purchaseable (that is, its ownership is not legally restricted to elites), non-elites purchase the good.  As a result, the good becomes common, and eventually its price drops, precisely because its mass ownership devalues it as a status symbol.  The route to further great profits is to introduce a new product, one marked by a distinction from its predecessors, that becomes the new in-fashion status-good.   And after it starts to sell, the process continues, generating great profits at high margins from the early adopters, and then more great profits, through mass sales at lower margins, from the mass adopters, whose mass consuming thereby degrades the status of the good--and leaves an opening for the next in-fashion good to be introduced. 

"Steve Jobs," I salute you: you were the unsurpassed master of this capitalist fashion system in your lifetime.

The Slow Blog movement encourages further reading; in this case:
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (1957).

INSIDE JOB Anti-Hero Professor Glenn Hubbard Now Stars in the Mitt Romney Campaign

A recent news story that has gotten too little attention is that in September, Mitt Romney's campaign announced that Professor Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University had signed on to lead candidate Mitt Romney's economic policy team.   Hubbard is one of the "anti-stars" of Charles Ferguson's searing polemic, Inside Job

The most surprising section of that movie is its revelation that disciplinary economics has a problem akin to that of medical school faculty who have take unacknowledged payments from Big Pharma for medical "research" they publish.  In his interview in the film, Hubbard stands out for his resistance to transparency about his financial connections to the financial service industry, despite the fact that he was a prominent academic advocate of the deregulation of derivitives, and other highly complex financial products, prior to the Great Recession that began in 2008.  Now Hubbard is Mitt Romney's economic star.

If you have not yet seen Inside Job, it is worth seeing for the interview with Glenn Hubbard alone.


03 October 2011

Drones, Killings By

The killing last week of Anwar al-Awlaki by a high-tech drone makes abundantly clear what was not, in fact, stated clearly enough when President Obama ran for president in 2008--which is that the Obama alternative to the type of wars waged, with gusto, by G. W. Bush is to greatly expand the use of drones to kill persons identified as US "enemies." 

In this context, I do not find myself overly moved by the idea that the rightness or wrongness of such a killing hinges on the citizenship of the person killed.  I get that there is some value in holding up the ideal of the rule of law, but there is also a risk that this concern with the rule of law will take the place of--rather than bolster--a commitment to act ethically (and not merely "legally").

One point that does seem crucial to me is to note just how willing both the Obama administration and the media have been to replace asking whether such killings are ethical with a purely consequentialist judgment that they are "justified," based on the idea that the ethical question must be suspended given the consequences of not stopping "terrorists."   This was famously the Bush administration's argument for torture, which always began with a hypothetical situation in which "torture" was (it was assumed) necessary to stop a heinous act of terrorism and then asked: "does not that situation justify torture?"  Logically, this argument amounted to little more than an effort to push the addressee into conceding the hypothetical premise.  To give this argument a name, we might call it "reductio ad 9/11."

What further bears notice, though, is that for people who so insist on consequentialist judgments about the use of drones to kill (at the expense of engaging in any serious ethical inquiry into the matter), the advocates of this use of drones (including the President) seem to be quite naive about (or indifferent to) the longterm consequences of what they are doing.

Can anyone really believe that the U.S. will retain its current monopoly (or near-monopoly) over this technology?  Surely, the very effectiveness of the drones will lead to their proliferation.  And when that happens, we all will face a new type of terrorism.  

Put simply: the drones will not really make us--by which I mean humanity--safer, precisely because of what they have in common with Bush's egregious wars, from which they otherwise seem to differ so much.  That common denominator is specifically, and simply, that both the Obama drones and the Bush wars fail to address, and fail to work through, the underlying conditions that produce the terrorisms that haunt our world. 

That alone makes the ongoing use of the drones unethical.