Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Wait a minute!"

So let me get this straight? Thanks to Yamaha (and Zenph), we can get Tatum or (most recently) Rachmaninoff back in the room, and now -- thanks again to Yamaha -- we can play a perfect recreation of (seemingly) any piano?

On one hand, this seems like the perfect sort of things for music programs at cash-strapped institutions. I remember when my alma mater, Wabash, got a donation from an alumnus to restore its Bösendorfer. It was a big deal. This product seems like it could spare colleges and secondary schools the expense of buying, tuning, and maintaining acoustic pianos. With the wide number of possibilities inherent in what amounts to sound files and other information, piano manufacturers could license their "sounds" and "feels" to Yamaha, and, though I don't know much about the technical aspects of the AvantGrand, adding the piano to the AvantGrand's repertoire could be as easy as plugging in an ethernet or USB cable. Music students could play any piano they want and know that it's always going to be in tune.

On the other hand, I'd have to hear it before I got too hyped up about it. Acoustic instruments, unsurprisingly, have a sound to them that neither good recordings nor good imitations can reproduce accurately. I'm positive part of that is merely the experience of being immersed totally in sound waves (which is why good speakers trump good headphones for the visceral experience of music, even though you can buy great headphones at a fraction of the cost of a great hi-fi setup). There's also natural decay and all that. I wonder how well Yamaha's engineers have managed to simulate decay and sustain. It sounds like they relied on recordings within acoustic pianos to derive their sound, but I am uncertain that it would be as easy as that. I want to think that the vibrations of the piano as a whole, moving air at a given frequency, would have an effect on the sound -- even if it can't be heard.

On the whole, though, I think this is a neat product. I am considerably more sanguine about this than I am about Zenph reperformances (even though the Rachmaninoff disc is nice, though not SACD -- apparently Sony doesn't believe in its idea any more, even though it sure will sell you a player for a super-niche product). Unlike something that seems to raise the recording to an end in and of itself, this product has some potential (albeit conditioned on its verisimilitude) to provide a real, tangible benefit to students of music and musicians who need to practice, but cannot afford an acoustic piano and its upkeep.

As much as I enjoy putting my Cicero mask on and reciting the part of In Catilinam that everyone knows, I really can't complain too hard when something comes along that might make the teaching of serious music more widespread and financially viable. Based on my reading, I think the AvantGrand may well do that.

Friday, October 09, 2009

L'Affaire Nobel

Leave it to me to complain about something right before something related to it gets really controversial. For example, I groused about another "Continental nullity" (I said that elsewhere) getting the Nobel Prize in Literature the day before President Barack Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize, for which he was nominated no later than ten days into his presidency. One commentator has remarked that the level of prestige afforded the Prizes does not necessarily comport with the reality they represent, and she paused to comment on my stalking horse:
The same, I'm afraid, is true of the Nobel Prize in literature, which is selected by Swedish judges. Sweden is a larger and more cosmopolitan place than Norway. Nevertheless, almost without fail, the Nobel laureate turns out to be an obscure writer, usually European, whose works are hardly known outside of a few German-speaking and Germano-centric countries.
Anne Applebaum, Who Cares Who Wins The Nobel Peace Prize?, Slate (October 9, 2009).

While I am happy that President Obama has gotten the Peace Prize (just as I would have been happy had President Bush gotten it while he was in office), I cannot help but think that the Norwegians have missed the point of the rise of Barack Obama and concentrated on the fact that he's not George W. Bush. Which is really too bad, since that does a disservice to both men and their respective accomplishments to date.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"Mediocrities everywhere, now and to come..."

In keeping with their current policy of awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to second-rate authors from Europe (lest a first-rate author from the United States be honored), the Swedish Academy has awarded the 2009 Prize to Herta Müller, who had, up until the Swedish proverbial purple found its way to her shoulders, been the recipient of awards from many German cities and Länder.

She had not, however, written Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. That was Cormac McCarthy in 1985. Or American Pastoral. That was Philip Roth in 1997. Yet another Nobel season has gone by without either McCarthy or Roth ending up with the Prize in Literature. While there have been recipients during that period who have obviously deserved the award, e.g., J.M. Coetzee in 2005, by and large, the Swedes are appearing increasingly desperate to avoid the appearance of having anything nice to say about an American author, lest they appear to have something nice to say about America.

I get it. It's hard to admit that the United States actually has a culture, much less a culture more relevant in recent years than Europe's collective culture. Nevertheless, let's not punish some of the most important authors in recent years because of it, eh? All it does is water down the Nobel Prize into a parochial award given to Europeans (and residents of former European colonies and possessions) by Europeans as a memento of Europe's once-mighty cultural output. That's fine, I suppose, but there's no reason to care any more about the Nobel Prize in Literature than the Bonn Prize for Literary Merit or whatever Müller's biggest prize until now was.

At least we have been spared the egregious Horace Engdahl this time around.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

One of the most difficult reads I've encountered in some time, Andrew Sullivan's open letter to George W. Bush in the October Atlantic is essential reading as far as I am concerned. The passage that really got me was this one,
Torture is the ultimate expression of the absolute power of one individual over another; it destroys the souls of those who torture just as surely as it eviscerates the dignity of those who are its victims. And because torture is so awful, it also often requires a defensive embrace of it, a pride in it, an exaggeration of its successes. And those so-called successes invariably lead to more torture until we end up with the record of wanton and systematic abuse that occurred under your command.
While the meltdown of political discourse in the Republic has occurred over health care, I think that the torture debate -- though there isn't much room for debate -- still needs to happen. Eric Holder has, as Dahlia Lithwick has pointed out at Slate, fallen victim to the mindset that a legal memo means an absolution from culpability. That is not the case. I doubt that Sullivan's piece will have much effect, but it should force people to take a long, hard look at what the United States has done and whether or not it was worth it -- in the long run.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Who indeed?

I read, with both great interest and mounting horror, this piece in The New York Times Magazine about the killings (though I'd use another, more specific, word) that took place at New Orleans Memorial Medical Center during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I offer, by way of analysis, this comment by another on a very similar program to the one described in the article,
People, he told his congregation, were not like old horses or cows, to be slaughtered when they were of no more use. If this principle were applied to human beings, 'then fundamentally the way is open to the murder of all unproductive people, of the incurably ill, of people invalided out of work or out of the war, then the way is open to the murder of all of us, when we become old and weak and thus unproductive.' In such circumstances, he asked rhetorically, 'Who can trust his doctor anymore?' -- Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, Sermon of 3 August 1941, quoted in Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich At War, p. 98.
I have my doubts, however, that the people (I wouldn't insult other doctors by granting these men and women the same dignity) who made their patients so "comfortable" (if that was indeed their intent) would be capable of taking Cardinal Graf von Galen's point fully.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Summer Reading

Now that my summer is about over (classes resumed yesterday), I think it appropriate to reveal -- not that anyone cares too deeply -- my summer reading list. While this seems a little weak, I think it should be noted that Cultural Amnesia and The Third Reich At War are massive books -- tomes, even -- that consumed a lot of time (the latter book still consumes a lot of time and it's about all I've done for the last week or so).

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann In Jerusalem (1964)
Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich At War (2008)
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia (2007)
Ernst Jünger, Storm Of Steel (1920/1931 ver.)
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree (1979)
Peter Pettinger, Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (1999)

I've also been dabbling in Frank O'Hara's Collected Poetry (1971/1995) and Rilke in Mitchell's translation (The Selected Poetry of RMR). For whatever reason (and in the case of the O'Hara volume, it's partially a baffling-to-me editorial layout), I don't like reading poetry straight through -- unless it's meant to be read straight through. I'll admit coming to O'Hara largely because the second season of Mad Men was laced with allusions to his Meditations In An Emergency (1957), but I'll also admit that it was a pleasant surprise to find him as engaging as he has proved.

Of course, it wouldn't be an interesting summer book list if I didn't recount all the books that I have yet to get to -- and, thanks to law journal and moot court, probably won't for a while.

Italo Calvino, t zero (1967)
Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero (1985)
Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist Of The Floating World (1986)
Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (2000)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (Stanley Mitchell, trans., 2008)
John Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World (1919)
François Truffaut, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967/1983)

Of course, I think having such a deep shelf of books that I need to read is a bit of subconscious rebellion against the imperial demands of the law school on my time. While cases are interesting (especially if you want to pass the classes, as I do), I don't think many rise to the level of great literature. Even Justice Antonin Scalia, often praised for his prose, tends toward tendentiousness in a way that wouldn't pass muster in the circles of serious nonfiction.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I'm currently in the middle of Peter Pettinger's Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (Yale UP, 1998), and a theme that has emerged so far is Evans' fondness for Bach. For example, for Evans' senior recital in college on 24 April 1950, the pianist chose to play -- among other pieces -- the B-flat-minor prelude and fugue (BWV 867). His appreciation, particularly of the Well-Tempered Clavier, apparently continued through the years.

This is, of course, just a little bit of musical trivia; however, it's interesting to me to see to what Evans himself liked to study and to play. It also says a lot about Bach's genius.