Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Implications of Cage's 4' 33"

Rather like Rauschenberg's all-white painting of 1951, John Cage's silent musical composition of 1952, 4' 33", created art out of nothingness or emptiness. For Cage, the point (or one point) was that during a performance of the piece -- the pianist marks the beginning and ending of the four minute and thirty three second piece by opening and closing the keyboard cover -- the actual substance of the piece would be supplied by ambient sounds in the auditorium, including all the coughing emanating from increasingly nervous attendees. One of the great ideas in the history of modern music.

Question: Has anyone ever done a full concert of pieces composed by indicating arbitrary lengths of time? 5' 15"; 49' 42" and so on. Probably not. Because the main implication of the piece was in the idea of it. Any spinoff would be deemed mere copycatting, despite the differing lengths.

What's interesting is that there are infinite possibilities for such compositions. After all zero and infinity are two names for the same thing.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Some Irony for Thursday

After watching Trump trying to collaborate with Putin -- the dictator of a failed state who threatens the world to compensate for his weakness -- to meddle in our electoral process, it struck me that the Make America Great Again crowd actually has no allegiance to America. Their allegiance is to one version of America, I guess, and if they don't get their version without compromise, well, they will take their bat and ball and go home. That's why the people who most often wrap themselves in the flag are the first ones to talk about seceding from the United States. That is, when they are taking breaks from trying to shut down the government.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On This We Can Agree

In this summer of heated politics, liberals and conservatives can't find a lot to agree on. Politics somehow conspires to make people who might normally like each other start to see the other as an enemy. So let's put politics aside for three minutes. I'm pretty sure that Glen Campbell counted a lot of Republicans among his fan base; indeed he sometimes performed in support of Republican candidates. But I think that most Democrats (at least if they have any taste) would have to agree that this performance of the beautiful John Hartford song is the shit. Glen delivers the impressionistic stream-of-consciousness lyrics with mastery and ease, and that guitar solo, well, that's what musicologists of indigenous American mountain music call some bad ass picking.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Power, Corruption and Lies Album Cover

My wife and I just celebrated a significant birthday milestone (we're both July babies). I'm not saying which one, but for the small party we threw I put together a mix of music that was popular when we met, which meant a lot of New Wave music (you do the math).

Among the songs I downloaded was New Order's "Age of Consent" from their great LP Power, Corruption, and Lies. This brought me into contact with that record's terrific cover art. Designed by Peter Saville, it features a lush still life from the 19th century classicist painter Henri Fantin-Latour accented with a vertical band that distills the colors of the painting into a strip of minimalist geometrics. A perfect gesture, a simple juxtaposition.

Friday, July 22, 2016

"Where the Mind is Without Fear"

By Rabindranath Tagore 

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lies, Damn Lies, and Neocon Foreign Policy Lies

There are many types of lies. I follow foreign policy closely, so these diverse modes of right wing lies have been very disturbing to me this year. Note: This isn't meant to be partisan. I skew liberal but my main foreign policy reading is Daniel Larison at the American Conservative.

1. Republican claim: The Iran nuclear deal has paved the way for Iran to get nuclear weapons. This is interesting because it's not a twisting of the truth: It's the exact opposite. I'll say that again: The exact opposite. When Trump makes this claim it's because he's completely ignorant of anything not connected to his shady business dealings. When Christie and Giuliani make it, they know damn well they are lying. My vote is for Christie as The Worst Person In America. Read Fred Kaplan for a guide to Christie's disgusting mendacity.

2. Claim: Obama is paying Iranian terrorists to kill us. The interesting thing is that the amount of Iranian funds that were unfrozen (it was their money, which was always being held as an incentive to force them to accept a nuke deal) has proven to be so low that Iranian hard-liners (their counterpart to our Republicans) are saying that they got taken by the other side in this deal. Also, if Iranians are spending the money externally (which doesn't make sense since their internal economy is a wreck, and the sizeable moderate portion of the citizenry expects domestic spending) it is in large part to combat and destroy ISIS. Call this a lie of reckless hyperbole.

3. Claim: Obama lost the war in Iraq and is personally responsible for ISIS, to use John McCain's words. What he fails to mention is something he actually did own in the '08 election, which is that the only way not to "lose" Iraq after the Surge would have been to keep a permanent occupying force of 150,000 soldiers there -- for up to fifty years or more. The voters decided they didn't want that. McCain's lie is one of intentional distortion and omission. He knows the truth but is content to antagonize and demonize. Disgraceful.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Some Pedagogy: What Is a Bodhisattva?

Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Photo by Lane Turner / Globe staff

Great article by Sebastian Smee at the Boston Globe site about the new room of Song Dynasty (960 - 1279) artworks now up at the Boston MFA. I decided that I wanted to post the image they used with the article. As I looked at it, I realized it would be fun to explain how I would of employed an image like this when I was teaching World Religions, back in the 90s.

The statue here is of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Before actually getting into a discussion of what a Bodhisattva is -- an enlightened being who foregoes entry into Nirvana in order to remain in the world to help those who are suffering -- I would ask students to take a couple of minutes to just look at the image and write down what comes to mind. It's doubtful many people would say 'compassion.' As we collect impressions on the board, we might hear words like peaceful, elegant, relaxed, calm -- which are actually just words I just came up. In the class, in real time, someone will always come up with something you hadn't even thought of. No ideas are to be considered illegitimate.

So now we are able to discuss compassion in a way that will be nuanced and expansive. Instead of just memorizing that compassion means to alleviate the suffering of others, students will be forced to think about the relationship between their brainstormed qualities and more typical aspects of altruism.

This kind of pedagogy is called constructivist. Students are constructing meaning or understanding by building on their initial analysis. Their brainstormed ideas create a foundation that can be built upon. They are also like Velcro that the more traditional and scholarly ideas of compassion can stick to. Without this Velcro, the ideas introduced in class about compassion and the Bodhisattva have a good chance of just bouncing off their heads and falling to the floor.

I believe this is the most effective way to promote deep learning, an opinion vigorously not shared by educational conservatives.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Better Late Than Never

I've got a hunch that when I make it to the other side and it's time for some cosmic debriefing there's going to be an "Are you kidding me, that's it?" moment like when you've been looking for your glasses for twenty minutes and someone says, "Uh, they're on top of your head."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Peace, Rhetoric, and Circling the Wagons

Just to be clear: If you can't criticize the police you live in what is called an authoritarian police state. Think East Germany during the Cold War. I'm pretty sure that people offering a blanket defense of police at this time don't want that. That's not their motivation. By the same token, even those associated with Black Lives Matter spouting the most incendiary rhetoric don't actually want police to be killed. But the more extreme factions from each "side" clearly contribute to a polarized atmosphere that won't get us closer to solutions.

Peaceful protest and responsible policing are two very important pillars of successful, flourishing civil society. Ironically, both were very much in evidence in Dallas last week. Apparently Dallas has been a real leader in moving toward the community policing model that places police and citizens on the same side. And the BLM people were fully nonviolent during the protest.

So moving forward, I think BLM should loudly and unequivocally commit to nonviolence and a sense of common cause with responsible law enforcement. Embrace the idea that Black and Blue Lives Matter. And the law enforcement community needs to stop circling the wagons and begin to take action to ensure that there are consequences for the reckless and violent, and, yes, racist, police officers out there. And there are just too many of them. They need to be removed from service. As I write this, a little voice in my head says, ain't gonna happen. Well, it needs to.

Note: I'll follow up with more nuance. But I just wanted to start making sense of my thoughts around this.

UPDATE: 7-13-16

Black Live Matter has vigorously rejected the framing of All Lives Matter. They say that their movement is specifically premised on the idea that black people are undervalued in relation to white people in the US, and that, in fact, their lives are considered by society, either consciously or unconsciously, to be worth less than the lives of whites. I'd have to agree that there's a lot of truth there. Further, they claim that black people are intentionally being persecuted by the white American power structure, as an attempt to keep them in their place. I'm less sure about that.

UPDATE: 7-14-16

Actually the chances of BLM getting on board with my suggestions are pretty slim. Why? Well, I don't know if you read the liberal(ish) thought leader publications like the Atlantic or the New York Times, but the go to guy for all things race for this crowd is Ta Nehisi Coates, who just won the National Book Award for his recent book, Between the World and Me. He is also the main "public intellectual" providing the intellectual framework for BLM. This has always troubled me since Coates is frankly contemptuous of Martin Luther King and related figures. In his post-Dallas piece now up at the Atlantic he ridicules what he calls "sanctimonious calls for nonviolence." His argument is that such calls won't stop police violence from happening and as long as that is the case we can expect retaliatory, chickens-coming-home-to-roost violence. Considering he is a MacArthur Genius Grant winner, this is pretty obtuse. One has to wonder if he is actually more bitter than brilliant. The point is that if Black Lives Matter doesn't commit to nonviolence they have no way to distinguish themselves from the violent extremists who latch on to the more incendiary rhetoric and proceed to kill people. The cause thus loses the legitimacy necessary to challenge entrenched power structures. Nonviolence is not sanctimonious but immensely practical. And morally correct I should add, despite the derision of Coates.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Peter Wolf: It's Raining

A lot of neo-soul music just tries too hard, as if effort and willfulness is what makes something soulful. Peter Wolf knows better. The thing about this cut is how apposite everything is: the tone of the guitar, the arrangement of the horns and background voices, the simplicity of the lyrics. Wolf has loved this music since he was a young DJ some 50 years ago. It shows. I could just listen to the opening section over and over, and I'd be happy. If it's good for the soul, it's soul music.
Come on in
From the storm
Come on in
From the storm
'Cause it's rainin' . . .
Rainin' too long

Monday, July 4, 2016

On the 4th: Harding on American Potential

I'm convinced that immigration is the key factor in America's success to date, the source of our dreams and determination. And, despite the problems with immigration today, it will remain the source of our power in the future. As we move forward we should keep in mind this assessment from the late historian and human rights giant Vincent Harding:
"Let me say this with a slight bit of humor as well as something deeper: It's a way of testing the wisdom of God for making such a strange variety of beings, giving them the capacities that we have, and telling them to get together and figure out how to live together, how to love one another, how to share, and how to bless one another and bless this world. I think of this as a reflection on America's potential."
Put another way: The greater the range of differences that needs to be negotiated, the greater the potential for growth.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Deep Reading vs. the Hive Mind

Look. I'm no reactionary, and I was only a Luddite for about two years in the early 90s, but this excerpt from an interview with the essayist and book critic George Scialabba at the Boston Review website is pretty darn interesting.
GS: My idea of the end of the world would be the hive, the hive mind. Sven Birkerts has a wonderful description of how the horizontal, linked world is gradually evolving in that direction, to where nobody is ever really alone, nobody is able to just sink deep into his or her own imagination or feelings, the constant pressure of the horizontal connections keeps you from descending below a certain depth. If he’s right about that, it’s the end of individuality as I’ve known it and come to admire and treasure it. And it may be that people who haven’t had the formative experiences I’ve had will find it perfectly satisfying, and that I don’t have the imaginative resources to either pity or envy them. Their experiences may fall beyond my comprehension.

Interviewer: For you, is the rise of the hive mind tied to the decline of the book?

GS:Yes. Because you’re alone with the book. Other people may be reading it somewhere else, but you don’t know. I mean, you do know that there are people out there, but to read a book, you can’t be paying attention to lots of other things. Things don’t pop up on the page. They do pop up on the screen. And books don’t have hyperlinks, so you can’t run off and forget about the book for a bit.

Friday, July 1, 2016

On "Reading" Visual Art

Titian, Rape of Europa, 1559 - 1562

The American Scholar website has a feature called Teaching Lessons. Here, reproduced in full, is a brief piece from Lincoln Perry on "how to read visual art." Reading is a vigorous, volitional act in all its forms. I'll add that you can read abstract art in a similar way.
At Queens College in the mid-’70s, Gabriel Laderman taught me how to read paintings, how a viewer’s eye might enter into a rectangle, be guided or pushed into fictive depth by overlaps and pictorial pressures, then returned to the surface. You could control the speed and complexity of the journey, be it a gentle meander, rocky climb, or precipitous dive.

In a nuts-and-bolts way, Gabriel would critique your work by telling you where his eye got stuck, or how, right here, you could channel vision the way neighboring shores funnel water into an accelerating current. He responded to content: yes, you’ve painted a lovely woman in a dress. But isn’t there also a subtle subtext in the way we enter the bottom of the painting on the flattened shape of that dress, climbing what becomes an increasingly volumetric cone that culminates in a fully worked-out head? What of the pressure between her arm and the left side of the canvas; hasn’t it fruitfully distorted the way you’ve seen that form? With that particular shape of air around her head, you seem to suggest her somewhat conflicted psychology.

Such subtexts become the metaphoric heart of the matter, so that while the work may appear more or less from life, its structure can reveal, reinforce, or even reverse what we might call story. I subsequently learned to read fiction in a new way from my dear wife, another believer in subtext and structural metaphor. We all need to be taught to read in these ways; I was fortunate in my teachers.