Monday, January 28, 2008

From a Google Ad

Leide nicht wie Werther.
Gewinne Deine/n Ex zurück! Kostenloser Report.

The translation:

Don't suffer like Werther.
Get your ex back! Free report.

The funny thing about this is that Werther's object of affection was never his to begin with. It's funny because it plays on what people think about Werther and not what Werther is about. It's a testament to the ignorance of classical literature in popular culture.

There can be all kinds of play. The title of this post has a Goethian air to it, as his poetry titles were usually descriptive, hiding the Sturm und Drang of his words like the lid on a Jack-in-the-Box.

But there will be no poetry here. And the cleverness of the ad is deceptive, and more indicative of the cleverness of the adman and not a sign of learning. Indeed, it is more a sign of what we as people in a community pick up here and there about great works, never having to really expose ourselves to them.

I made it through university essentally on the fumes of high culture belched out of the smokestacks of the cultural industries. I would like to think myself more sophisticated these days, but I leave that up to the reader.

And I promise next week I will have a whole new batch of posts available! I have a lot of ground to make up!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Goethe on Power

Sorry for the hiatus. Things will be sparse until February, but I will resume and make up for the lost time. In the meantime, a missive from Werther on the flow of power.

Goethe is absolutely right here, but the trick for the "chief", as the translator übersetzes " the first", is to beware of those above who clue into that surging power below, prompting them to exercise theirs, even if it costs them much more in the long run.

Never underestimate the folly making power of vanity.

JANUARY 8, 1772.

What beings are men, whose whole thoughts are occupied with form and ceremony, who for years together devote their mental and physical exertions to the task of advancing themselves but one step, and endeavouring to occupy a higher place at the table. Not that such persons would otherwise want employment: on the contrary, they give themselves much trouble by neglecting important business for such petty trifles. Last week a question of precedence arose at a sledging-party, and all our amusement was spoiled.

The silly creatures cannot see that it is not place which constitutes real greatness, since the man who occupies the first place but seldom plays the principal part. How many kings are governed by their ministers -- how many ministers by their secretaries? Who, in such cases, is really the chief? He, as it seems to me, who can see through the others, and possesses strength or skill enough to make their power or passions subservient to the execution of his own designs.

Und, auf Deutsch:

Den 8. Januar 1772

Was das für Menschen sind, deren ganze Seele auf dem Zeremoniell ruht, deren Dichten und Trachten jahrelang dahin geht, wie sie um einen Stuhl weiter hinauf bei Tische Angelegenheit hätten: nein, vielmehr häufen sich die Arbeiten, eben weil man über den kleinen Verdrießlichkeiten von Beförderung der wichtigen Sachen abgehalten wird. Vorige Woche gab es bei der Schlittenfahrt Händel, und der ganze Spaß wurde verdorben.

Die Toren, die nicht sehen, daß es eigentlich auf den Platz gar nicht ankommt, und daß der, der den ersten hat, so selten die erste Rolle spielt! Wie mancher König wird durch seinen Minister, wie mancher Minister durch seinen Sekretär regiert! Und wer ist dann der Erste? Der, dünkt mich, der die andern übersieht und so viel Gewalt oder List hat, ihre Kräfte und Leidenschaften zu Ausführung seiner Plane anzuspannen.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Free Rice

Via Crooked Timber, a link to Free Rice, where you alleviate hunger by learning obscure nautical terms. It's highly addictive, and I'm going to slap a banner on the side of my blog so you can go straight to it. I do this in part because Canada is one of the countries who has yet to fulfill their pledge in international aid to address world hunger.

Uh...Go Canada...

Friday, January 04, 2008

Playing Mozart, Watching Mozart

One of the reasons why this blog has fallen into a state of neglect is that I spend a lot of time practicing the piano. Toss in the various other time vacuums on the adult side of the family life equation, and well, blogging doesn't seem to fill a void because there's no void to be filled.

Moreover, my professional life is occupied with writing, and I've discovered that writing as a hack is not conducive to producing the (can I say it?) nicer, perhaps more elegant stuff I'd like to present here.

Nevertheless, I will continue to press on, and we shall see what comes of it.


I am playing Mozart again. I do not know why, but I have avoided playing his music on the piano ever since we bought it last January. Preferring to spend my time on Bach and Beethoven instead of tackling Mozart, I believe part of it was a genuine lack of interest on my part.

Nevertheless, about two months ago, I found myself taking out my volume of his sonatas and playing them, starting with K. 309. As I played it, I began to wonder why on earth it was I had stopped playing Mozart.

I have spent months playing Bach and Beethoven and I fear that most of that playing has been lifeless and uninspired. Then I sit down and play some Mozart, and suddenly the piano feels alive, or at least there's a pulse, and I finally feel capable of stirring this dry percussion into the joint pursuit of making music. With Mozart.

Mozart. The composer everyone warns you about, that playing his music is the hardest thing in the universe to do. Who hasn't been told in a piano lesson, or in a masterclass, that despite the sheer beauty a serviceable musician can produce when they're playing Mozart, that nevertheless, despite all evidence to the contrary, Mozart is really the hardest composer to play well?

Do I have any solid evidence for this bit of conjecture? No, but if there are any classical musicians who happen to read this blog, please support me here in my contention that saying Mozart is the most difficult music to play in the entire canon is the Pez of classical music's conventional wisdom, at hand to be dispensed by a journalist looking for a newspaper quote, or perhaps to a student learning to play K. 545 and who complains that it is too easy.

Please. Let's turn this view on its head, and argue that part of the reason Mozart is so hard to play is that his music is not intended for professionals, but for amateurs, but that professionals need some reason to justify their playing it.

I would never go so far as say that the brilliant techniques of many very fine pianists are, perhaps, wasted on Mozart, but that they want to play him too, and that the effortlessness of playing Mozart musically and beautifully presents certain philosophical problems to the professional musician.

The thing I find startling about Mozart is just how easy it is to make him sound good. Mozart does all the work for you.

But, instead of arguing, let's use the power of the Internet to demonstrate this. First, here's Vladimir Horowitz playing the last movement of Mozart's K.330:

Beautiful, isn't it? Well, how about Lang Lang? It's a tad slower, but he was just playing with a whole orchestra, so you can't really blame him for making his encore just a tad more subdued!

So then, what about this young lady - the 3rd movement starts at 3:40. Is she playing like Horowitz or Lang? No, but isn't the joy still there, the line? Do we not see the forest for the trills here?

Or how about this? The pickup on the camera is a bit weak, but should we be knocking on his door and confiscating his Peters Edition of the sonatas?

Mozart's music presents technical difficulties, and no one would argue that, but I'm not sure if there is any composer who rewards you with so much even if you can only put in a little. Mozart's music is some of the most charitable music in the world. So why does this myth of Mozart's secret difficulty persist?

Perhaps it has to do with the emergence of the musician as artist as opposed to journeyman. Out of this transformation emerged the deification of the composer, of which Mozart was perhaps the first, and the fetishizing of the score as sacred text.

[An aside - does anyone remember Gunther Schuller's The Complete Conductor? No other work better captures this sacred tone than his fundamentalist tome. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that's a church of which they are a member, except to say that Schuller's book is the only music book I have ever returned to a bookstore. I would also suggest a tonic of Richard Taruskin after attempting to read it.]

As Liszt et al composed music that only a few could play, and the concurrent emergence of piano playing as a profession, keeping Mozart well within the bounds of the professional, as an essential part of a professional pianists repertoire, given his status in the growing pantheon of greats, makes a certain part of sense.

The problem is that in order to divorce his piano sonatas and variations from their initial context as teaching pieces and for private performance, and raise them, as it were, to something worth a professional's performance time would have to find ways to talk about them that justify this.

Now I know that this sounds like some kind of mass conspiracy, but I do not mean it this way. Rather, finding new ways to talk about Mozart's piano music and its "special" difficulties for the performer, even though they are not really there, is a reflection of how practices shift and shape themselves to survive in new surroundings.

The upshot of this justification is that Horowitz plays Mozart. But need there be a downside, that Mozart is off-limits to the rest of us, when he so clearly needn't be, that his music is actually a boon to the amateur more than nearly any class of performer? I think it's time we set Mozart, and amateur musicians, free from this bromide.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Chicago Symphony Broadcasts

Hey, did anyone out there know that the Chicago Symphony keeps a 2 week archive of radio broadcast series online, right here? I know the New York Philharmonic does this as well, but they make you use Real Player. You can play the CSO broadcasts straight off their site.

I would heartily encourage you to listen to the December 30 broadcast, a rebroadcast of a 2005 concert featuring the world premiere of Elliott Carter's Soundings. Daniel Barenboim's introduction to the work alone is worth the trouble-free listening from America's Second City!

Over time, I would like to gather a list of all the major orchestras and organizations who provide this kind of service to the general public, a truly selfless act on their part, and one which needs to be well-publicized.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Lake Superior State University has released its latest installment of the banned words list.

Setting aside the strangeness of these kinds of newspaper pieces, where they talk about these kinds of lists as having some kind of authority, when the authority actually comes from the newspaper article claiming it as authoritative….uh, anyway, it is a cute piece, making its way around the world, a cheap and effective piece of PR for a smallish university in the AmericanSault.

Looking over the list, I was unmoved until I saw “wordsmithing”. My Oxford Concise lists wordsmithing, and I can readily see some nice places for it, when one wishes to allude to the practice of writing. There is something nice about the tactile sense this term evokes if one were to look at something I had written and said to me, “Yes, Andrew, you’re quite the wordsmith”.

But we never hear that, do we? No, “wordsmith”, verb or noun, has become a replacement term for good old value neutral “writing”. And as a professional hack writer, I hear and see this godforsaken word all the time.

Why do I hate it so? For the same reasons I like it, actually. The people who use this word are typically people who haven’t a clue about good or bad writing. So when they ask me to wordsmith something, they are not paying me a compliment except in the cheapest possible way.

Perhaps I’m strange, but I prefer to earn compliments rather than have them dished out to me by someone who went to some management workshop where they heard this word, this touchy feely allusion to the art of writing,when, for the most part in the corporate world, well-crafted writing is pilloried as “wordy” or “too sophisticated”.

The rub: The people who use wordsmithing in my experience are the same people who obsess over the malignancy that is the plain language movement and its wordsmithed cousin, clear language. In other words, fancy turns of phrase are alright top-down, but the rabble need active voiced single-syllable tracts, or how will they ever learn the language? How will they ever understand us, the educated elite?

I despise this mindset. If we wish people to learn “our” language, then isn’t the surest path to learning it cramming English language learners full of vocabulary? I know I’ve digressed terribly from my initial point about the banned words, but this list, and the plain language movement, are all expressions of power, and of who wields it.

These kinds of lists are all about finding words in new sites, places that do not always suit them. And this sounds a lot like Wittgenstein, doesn't it?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

A Fresh Start

Could I really post every day? I see all these people who do, and I'm certainly not one of them. The pair who let me see that blogging could be an honourable pastime have tapered off their own work, Conrad, I suspect, to focus on his studies, and Gawain because his blog was a victim of its own success.

Myself, never having had either of their successes in the blogosphere, I have secretly enjoyed the near anonymity my esoteric and occasional posting strategy has garnered. I too check my stats, and discover that half the visits I receive in a day are from me!

As I have said before, one of the things I find difficult is the anonymity of my posting. So starting today, I'm going to post under my own name. Well, most of it. And I'll get a photo up there, at some point. I am one of those people who doesn't like to put things up halfways, which I've come to realise is an excuse to never put anything up at all.

On that note, here's to at least 366 more posts this year.