Monday, November 12, 2012

I promised no political ramblings on this blog but here we go!

I've had a lot of angst about the fallout of the election lately among my social circle and friends on Facebook. While I'm happier with Obama as the victor than I would have been with Romney, it's still an ambiguous good from where I sit. What I sense is a lot of rightness from supporters of either side, and my irritation falls more strongly on Obama voters than Romney voters because so many more of my friends fall in the former camp.

A smaller point that I latched onto was the various infographics illustrating the sheer size of Obama's victory in the Electoral College. One post had the gall to describe this as a mandate. Well. It's been a while since 2000, but I don't think anybody was arguing then, least of all leftists, that the College was a trustworthy approximation of aggregate voter intent.

For that is arguably its purpose. I see the electoral college system, like any voting system, as an approximation of voter intent. There's research suggesting that no system can be a perfect such representation -- but as they go, this one is pretty problematic. We give the states, each one an arbitrary regional division of the country, proportional stakes in a secondary deciding body, the College. By a wide margin (Maine being a notable exception), they allocate their votes in a winner-take-all fashion. Those voters who don't vote with the majority in such a state are effectively silenced.

My state, New York, is a great example of this. We control an enormous number of electoral delegates, 29. In this election, they are all given to Obama. But by no means did even 28 of every 29 voters vote blue; in fact, more than 36% voted against, which is over 2 million.

States like this -- California is another obvious example, with a tighter margin and nearly twice the electoral presence -- are a big part of the reason Obama's formal lead in the electoral college does not reflect any notion of the support he really enjoys in the electorate. Of those that voted, the margin of those favoring Obama over those favoring Romney is probably no more than 3.5 percentage points (one current estimate, off of Wikipedia, is 50.6% to 47.8%, difference of 2.7 percentage points).

And thus we have a conversation about winning states, rather than winning voters.

Without a doubt, this winner take all thing is toxic in all areas of our voting. If we had some sort of alternative, the two party system could be a thing of the past within a decade. Instant-runoff-voting, for example, makes it possible to express marginal political preferences without the fear of wasting your vote on somebody unelectable. A switch to proportional representation could also be a change. What can we do to promote this conversation in the wider arena?


I should clarify that in some ways I have no standing to comment on this election. I didn't vote; I didn't contribute a dollar or an hour to any campaign; and I didn't much write or speak about any candidate. I didn't even pay substantial attention to any race except the presidential one. But during the course of that race, I couldn't help but take away the deep flaws of both sides. I suspect many of my readers require no reminder of Romney's flaws -- a fortune made off his incapacity to care for humans outside his immediate community more or less sums it up -- but I couldn't get over how many of Bush's terrible foreign policy missteps were codified, made bipartisan by his endorsement and frequent strengthening of them. Conor Friedersdorf eloquently summarized the feelings of people thinking like me.

I made a decision at some point that given the impossibility of voting in somebody preferable, I had no desire to take part in the contest, to vote for either the unpalatable status quo or a futile third party. And riding my bike home through Bed-Stuy at 11pm on Tuesday the 6th, hearing a community full of excitement and joy, I couldn't help but be reminded why so many people still considered Obama a triumph for America. But I was also newly seized by how awful it was that somebody with his policies could be so viewed. Returning home, I wrote the following on Facebook (no apologies for my rushed typography that night):
[...] let's not forget this dude also forgave torture, prosecuted far more government whistleblowers than his predecessor, commits drone attacks on foreign soil that kill civilians and destroy goodwill toward us where we need it the most, presided over the reinstatement and strengthening of the patriot act, maintains a claim that he can kill anybody he wants to, and as icing on the cake, has practiced and perhaps increased the same warrantless surveillance that had Bush-era Dems up in arms. This isn't to say the other guy would have done better, but by adopting these things so enthusiastically as a Democrat, the president has made them permanently mainstream -- radical as they are, they are no longer fringe policies. And as the biggest joke of all, he still gets to look like a progressive icon.
Most of all, as I noted later in the same post, I saw my own personal role in keeping the status quo.

I get why we are celebrating. We don't get to see all that many victories. We celebrated Obamacare despite losing single payer and any number of other priorities, because at least something got done. But when we are contemplating a leader, we cannot fail to hold him to account for the expectations he hasn't fulfilled.

In fact, one of the real praiseworthy elements of the administration, its many strides in dismantling state discrimination in favor of straight people, arguably owes its existence to exactly that kind of accountability. Obama's didn't really get around to being a real advocate until well into his term, and had the LGBTQ community rested with the satisfaction of electing a nominal advocate for their good, that might never have happened. It's been argued, by Glenn Greenwald if I recall correctly, that only through that community holding his feet to the fire -- via a real threat that he would not get the same support next time without actions to earn it -- did any progress take place.

So yes. Obama's the preferable guy. We "won". But we're not doing ourselves any favors by calling it that, because it suggests that all our work is done. Electing the right president is not an end unto itself - it's a means to any number of other ends, on many of which this president has a terrible track record or even an actively harmful commitment. And unfortunately, I -- and much of this liberal community -- have wasted our best chance to effect change in the near future. Politicians stake out positions based on what will win them votes, and they tend to hold to them more often than we give them credit for, for better or worse.  If he truly thought that standing by his kill list (to pick one example) would cost him support in his base, it's not hard to imagine a different conversation around that point.

We need to state our priorities to our political candidates. If we vote for somebody who's promised nothing except to wear a tie in our color at the debates, we've given our voice away to somebody else, somebody willing to push harder and speak louder than us. Enough of that. Let's be the squeaky wheel now.

Friday, November 9, 2012

An unexpected influence

When I got home, I decided to watch The Fellowship of the Ring. I hadn't looked at any of the movies in at least four years, and the Fellowship in longer. But a few days ago, I joined my roommate well over halfway through the Fellowship, and I realized how badly I wanted to watch the parts I'd missed. There's a tremendous attachment I wanted to rekindle.

At age twelve or so, I got a hold of the Fellowship's soundtrack, which had made something of an impression on me. I listened to it for months on end, over and over. The several themes got under my skin and I started playing them on the piano. And as I grew more familiar with the nooks and crannies of the soundtrack, I started to fall in love with various one-off cues, like specific iterations of a theme or other musical expressions that didn't end up being re-used -- and I learned to play those in detail as well.

So I rewatched, and as the movie approached where I had started watching a few days ago, I tensely awaited what I remembered to be my favorite cue -- in this or any movie, and possibly my favorite minute or so of music, full-stop. It's the cue that prepares and soon afterward accompanies the magnificent shot where the Fellowship emerges into an enormous, cavernous hall that was once a dwarf city.

I've embedded the track below where this appears. I've cued it up to the moment I'm talking about, although the beginning is worth a listen too for the low-key tension.

Listening to this brought to mind a debate I was having with my collaborator Will. I found myself defending to him my insistence on observing counterpoint. As I come down to it, I don't have a great reason for seeing that as aesthetically preferable: it's just an essential part of my musical voice. Will's great question was whether, when I learned counterpoint formally in college, it spoke to my existing musical sensibilities, or whether it was something I learned to value.

Revisiting this score, and this moment in particular, I think I got an answer to that question.

This is something that spoke to me really deeply as I was first developing an ear for what I liked, what I wanted to play, maybe even what I wanted to write! And it is deeply contrapuntal. Well, deeply may not be the right word; near the beginning the top line doubles the bass, and there are probably other flaws. But what makes it work is flurries of stepwise motion throughout the middle lines, and eventually in the top line as well, largely in contrast to one another.

My aesthetic attachment to counterpoint doesn't feel quite so contrived, now that I can trace it back to this. And one particular aspect of that preference that Will gently called into question -- why the insistence on no parallel fifths? -- is also vindicated within this score. Another of my favorite moments comes at 1:15 (OK so the orchestral color is a little over the top but fuck you it's awesome!!); I've cued it so you get a little bit of introduction/context:

(Upon review, it also looks like I'm a real sucker for effectively deployed brass and suspend cymbals; but I'm going to stick with the counterpoint for now.)

Of course this theme appears throughout the movie, but this is by far the strongest statement of it. In some ways I put that to the independent melodic operation of the various voices at work. (This begs for a reduced transcription, that right now I really don't have the time to do.) I noticed this when I realized the music had avoided a very tempting parallel fifth. As the phrase circles back to itself at around 1:26-1:27, the bass ascends F-G-A while the lead trumpet descends C-B-A. It would have been pretty standard of a Hollywood score to harmonize that G in the bass as a G-major chord -- the other two pretty much have to be F-major and A-minor, respectively, and FM-GM-AM is a familiar progression. But something happens that changes the tenor noticeably: instead of a D above the bass G, the middle voices play an E. It's an inverted E-minor chord! We avoid an F+C to G+D parallel fifth in favor of F+C to G+E -- intervals 5 and 6. It's also worth observing that this changes the cadence from a more widely used, poppy VI-bVII-I to VI-v6-I instead. I'm having trouble articulating why this should be more dramatic, especially when VI-bVII-I works so well in pop contexts e.g. the end of Stairway to Heaven, but I find it simply true that with the trombones at full blast, with the orchestra giving this all its might, that cadence would have been unacceptably bland.

Inverted chords are pretty much the best possible sign that counterpoint is being used, or at least something more complicated than a harmony that simply echoes what's in the bass. In a way, I think that's what I think I like best about counterpoint -- or the less strict version of it that I practice, anyway. If you want harmonies that have any independence from the bass (without which things can get boring pretty quickly), it makes sense to have your voices more or less independent from each other. From where I sit, you need counterpoint to make that workable. The upside is that freed from slavishly following the bass, so many different sonorities are possible! The sky is the limit!

Nothing makes that clear for me quite so strongly as this film's score. There's a lot to listen to in it, and many things I'd love to explore here that I just can't. And it's clear now that it played some role in giving me the voice I've got now. I'm looking forward to writing more with that explicitly in mind.

12 Nov: Corrected chord symbols in the tenth paragraph: the A chords are major, not minor.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sad, delusional American exceptionalism

The following is a chain email forwarded to me by a friend. I've edited it slightly to omit my friend's name and to enhance readability, because as much fun as it is to mock bad usage and questionable punctuation, I'd prefer to focus on the weak ideas and the ridiculous style.

The bolding is mine throughout, generally to highlight recurring bits or something I thought was funny.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, Jul 2, 2008 at 3:39 PM

Happy Fourth of July!
Happy Birthday, U.S.A.!
God bless America!

Fwd: Should be required reading in Grade school and College again

This is what America is all about. Be proud!


While in England at a conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush. He answered by saying, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return was enough to bury those that did not return."

You could have heard a pin drop.


There was a conference in France where a number of international engineers were taking part, including French and American.

During a break one of the French engineers came back into the room saying, "Have you heard the latest dumb stunt Bush has done? He has sent an aircraft carrier to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims. What does he intend to do, bomb them?"

A Boeing engineer stood up and replied quietly, "Our carriers have three hospitals on board that can treat several hundred people; they are nuclear powered and can supply emergency electrical power to shore facilities; they have three cafeterias with the capacity to feed 3,000 people three meals a day, they can produce several thousand gallons of fresh water from sea water each day, and they carry half a dozen helicopters for use in transporting victims and injured to and from their flight deck. We have eleven such ships; how many does France have?"

You could have heard a pin drop.


A U. S. Navy Admiral was attending a naval conference that included officers from the U. S., English, Canadian, Australian and French Navies. At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a large group that included personnel from most of those countries. Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks but presently a French admiral complained: "Whereas Europeans learn many languages, Americans learn only English." He then asked, "Why is it that we always have to speak English in these conferences rather than speaking French?"

Without hesitating, the American Admiral replied, "Maybe it's because the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn't have to speak German."

You could have heard a pin drop.


A group of Americans, retired teachers, went to France on a tour. Robert Whiting, an elderly gentleman of 83, arrived in Paris by plane. At Customs, he took a few minutes to locate his passport in his carry on. "You have been to France before, monsieur?" the customs officer asked sarcastically. Mr. Whiting admitted that he had been to France previously. "Then you should know enough to have your passport ready."

The American said, "The last time I was here, I didn't have to show it."

"Impossible. Americans always have to show your passports on arrival in France!"

The American senior gave the Frenchman a long hard look. Then he quietly explained, "Well, when I came ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day in '44 to help liberate this country, I couldn't find any Frenchmen to show it to."

You could have heard a pin drop.


What Is a Veteran?

A "Veteran" -- whether active duty, discharged, retired, or reserve -- is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank check made payable to "The United States of America," for an amount up to and including his life. That is honor, and there are far too many people in this country today who no longer understand this fact.

The focus on sound, and in particular about quiet on the part of the Americans, echoes the old Teddy Roosevelt saying about the big stick. By 2008, when this email was sent to me, two ill-planned and ill-conceived wars, and a lot of diplomatic bluffing against countries like Iran and North Korea had made clear how loud we were and how ineffective our sticks had become; and whatever moral authority we claimed in stories like this had been called solidly into question by things like the torture memos and the extra-legal detentions of Guantanamo Bay. In that context, the portrait of America as a benevolent superpower is almost poignantly naive.

Even disregarding that context, though, there's a lot in this piece that I like to poke fun at. In order:

To Colin Powell, I'd have to find some non-snide way of bringing up Puerto Rico, Guam, Texas, all more or less straightforwardly the territorial spoils of war. Depending how trollish I was feeling, I might also ask whether the Civil War was a purely altruistic endeavor on the part of the state.

To the Boeing engineer I might say, "That's amazing! What can those ships do in wartime?"

On the third story, I always flash to this old Simpsons episode set in the future where Moe the creep bartender is getting sloshed with an Englishman. "British, eh? You know we saved your asses in World War II?" he asks with a leer. His drinking partner retorts "Yeah? Well we saved your asses in World War III." Voicing this sentiment through Moe, among the least honorable people in Springfield, reveals how base and laughable it is. Maybe I don't need to spell this out, but a world where America is a leader among peers is not one where we assert cultural superiority based on a decades-old military victory that did at least as much good for us as for the people we made ourselves out to be saving.

But the fourth story is really where you see how thick the author is laying on the ugly stereotypes. (I'm not even sure how the customs officer's reasonable question could be asked "sarcastically".) Every French person is portrayed as rude, crass, snotty, and hilariously entitled. The American jingoist loves imagining the French person as the counterexample to "Speak softly and carry a big stick", and thinking of himself as speaking just long and loudly enough to remind them of our superior actions. It's clearly a comforting portrait for some of us, but even in 2008 it required the reader to forget some truly shameful things.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A risible simile

I saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol yesterday with my brothers. All three of us liked it a lot. Every frame -- particularly those with Tom Cruise -- indicated that the thing cost a king's ransom to make, but those dollars were put to great use. This thing was a masterpiece of spectacle for its own sake.

It was fascinating to note how prominently the star figured in the credits, more than just for his role: After the words "A Bad Robot Production" appeared on the screen, the words "Bad Robot" faded out and were replaced with "Tom Cruise". This makes it seem almost like a king's ransom worth of a vanity project, a monument to Tom Cruise's own glory; but that doesn't diminish the movie's virtues.

Before I present the titular analogy, it's worth noting that the director, whom I credit most for turning money into beauty here, had never done a live action film before. Brad Bird was an acknowledged master of animation, having done the sublime The Iron Giant and some Pixar films like The Incredibles. How the producers came to trust him with such a mammoth project as a live-action debut is beyond me. As my brother pointed out, Bird has an illustrious precedent: apparently Michelangelo had done almost no painting prior to the Sistine Chapel, despite having made a name in sculpture.

In conclusion: Ghost Protocol is a modern-day Sistine Chapel, with the religious iconography replaced by car crashes and ludicrous nonsense.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Inventing a Tradition

An ambitious premise, and its beautiful but flawed execution

Mythology, according to Guy Maddin, is not a strong suit of his native Canada. Inspired by the patriotic mythology of the U.S. and by the long cultural memory of his Icelandic forebears -- whose language remains by his account essentially the same, even readable, after 1,000 years -- Maddin set out to create a uniquely Canadian lore; the result, "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" (1988), depicts the experience of the earliest Icelandic settlers at Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, circa 1876-8. "Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed", an augmented version of the film presented in mid-November at Performa 11, reflected Maddin's further intent to add two decades’ worth of the cultural building, or "layering" as he put it, that a myth usually acquires over a century or more.

Is the Canadian mythos really so absent? Doesn't some of Canada's folk-tinged rock music, e.g. The Band, Neil Young, Arcade Fire, perhaps fill a small part of that hole? More importantly, does "Gimli" live up to its ambition? Having been to Canada just once, I can only guess. Also, a legend is properly absorbed by long and continuous exposure, e.g. the aura of the Founding Fathers in American dialogue; if "Gimli" wants to be a statement of Canadian identity, a single overwhelming 65-minute performance isn't quite enough to read it as such. (It’s a partial testament of success along that line that I want to see it again.) "Gimli" did at least achieve the right tone for its aims, mixing spontaneous gaiety and deep tragedy with fascinating details of time and place. Within a small-scale narrative, these formed an origin story in miniature for the New Icelandic community.

The film tells the story of the smallpox epidemic of 1876-1877 and is named after the real hospital that cared for some of its victims. It focuses on a fictional patient, "Einar the Lonely", whose story is told to small children next to their mother’s sickbed; Einar and his fellow patients pass the time recalling and recounting their pasts, forming a recursive structure of memories within a memory. (In one of the funniest recollections, a patient describes his marriage: the minister, afraid of the plague, refused to cross the river, so the bride and groom shouted their vows to the opposite bank. In his opening remarks, Mr. Maddin claimed to have taken inspiration from stories his older Icelandic-Canadian relatives told, and it seems likely this was one of them.) The hospital setting is densely realized, from the leaking thatch ceiling to the sweaty bedsheets, and the flashbacks show in detail the fishing and gutting that would have been the settlement's first concern. There are also several long sequences depicting fever dreams, which are as amusing, entrancing and occasionally confusing as they should be. Throughout, Mr. Maddin uses the language of silent-era films, with actors whose faces (and makeup) tell stories themselves, and playing with light and dark, with at least two action scenes depicted entirely via shadow.

This presentation also featured a new soundtrack, performed in the front of the theater as the movie played onscreen behind the musicians. Aono Jikken Ensemble, a small group featuring strings, percussion, and a singer, provided sound effects, dialogue, and an achingly beautiful score that they composed. The performance had a few unfortunate problems. Syncing foley effects and vocals is a delicate process, and it's no mark against the performers that they didn't always nail it on stage, but every missed cue jarred noticeably against the carefully crafted atmosphere of sound and image. Besides that issue, a live performance tends to draw attention from the rest of the film, and the bright lighting on the performers didn't help matters. I missed some of "Gimli", for instance, distracted by the work of singer Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, whose expressive voice and expert use of effects pedals sold a challenging performance of narration, dialogue, and occasional background chatter. But what really stuck with me was the sustained, longing yet cold tones of the strings, which gave voice to the long-remembered suffering that the film seeks to enshrine as myth.

"Gimli" aspires to be a statement of cultural identity, a kind of "Fargo" for New Iceland. Whether it does credibly is not really for me to say. It makes a strong impression, at least, and is worth seeing for that reason. I hope the "reframed" version and its score become available soon, but for now I'm looking forward to renting the 1988 original.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


This deeply stupid routine took place at least three times over Thanksgiving; now I can't get it out of my head. I share it here, in paraphrase. Note that I am one of Brothers 2 and 3; which one I am is left to the reader as an exercise.

Brother 1: Guys, how did I manage to get four hours of rest in a two hour nap?
Brother 2: What if he took ...
Brother 3: a nap ...
Brother 2: inside of a nap?
Brothers 2 and 3: INCEPTION!!!
Brother 3: Dum dum dum dum dum dum
Brother 1: You guys are really weird.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A different sort of wish list

It's time for my family to exchange Christmas lists. I'm not sure I'm digging it this year. It feels inappropriately transactional, particularly at a time when the flaws in a transaction-driven society are staring us in the face. I find myself thinking about alternatives that respect the spirit of giving but that maybe make blind consumption a less prominent part of the season.

There is a meme I've come across in several essays/blog posts/articles: the really valuable things we do with our money and our time are experiences, rather than things. I've found this to be true for myself. A concert, a great book, or even simply a fun night of nothing more than (moderate) intoxication or walking around does wonders for my state of mind and my short-to-middle-term happiness, far more so than spending the same money on shirts. Not that material things are unimportant, but currently my wants are either too trivial to ask anybody for (more socks), or too expensive to bring into conversation (a hammered dulcimer, a new place to live).

My perspective on this may not be shared by a majority of your Christmas-present targets. In my circle alone, I know at least a few people with very specific, generally reasonable, and well-articulated material requests. If you know a new parent, they've probably got a list of needs as long as your leg. I'm sure I'll be very desirous of gifts when I finally move and require new furniture, board games, et alia. But more broadly, aren't there already enough things in our lives? You probably know somebody who doesn't need or want a new hat as much as they want meaningful tokens of human connection.

I present to you, therefore, a few concrete suggestions for a less material gift strategy, colored heavily by my personal preferences, and organized by how much they would cost.

Looking to spend:

Big-to-medium money?

Buy a ticket to something cool: an opera, a concert, a dance or stage performance, an art show. Ideally, go with them - this excuses the old fallacy of gifting as if for yourself.

Small money?

Take your gift target to a movie. Find a super-cheap show of the sorts described above. Get a paperback or a CD (smaller money: get it used on Amazon or Ebay). Or just buy your friend a coffee and talk! I don't drink coffee but I'll come to a coffee shop with you.

No money?

Recommend a book that's affected you, or a band that's gotten in your head. If they've expressed curiosity about something you know, like Brahms or British comedy, give them a well thought out, perhaps forceful, recommendation of where to start. (By forceful, I imagine a winking threat: "If you don't listen to Kind of Blue, I'll have to rethink this friendship!")

Or, if you are so inclined and able, make something. A poem or story, a drawing or a doodle, a gimmicky or referential computer program or Android app, a song that your friend can sing or play (or a decent recording of yourself or your band doing it), a short film or a thoughtful montage or photoessay. This is far from cheap no matter how you value your own time and effort, but I'm reasonably sure someone on your list will remember and cherish such a thing far better than any store-bought object.

(End suggestions.)

I probably won't stick to this strictly in all my gift-getting this year. It requires enough though that it can get exhausting, for one thing, and also a minimal understanding of what your friend wants or enjoys that I don't in all cases enjoy. Moreover, some also have compelling material requests or unstated needs. But as an experiment, I'd like to use this strategy as widely as I reasonably can, in the hope that it will be more rewarding both for me and for those recipients with whom I can pull it off.