Mendelssohn in Wigmore Street

At Wigmore Hall last night was a thrilling performance by the Scottish Ensemble, a string orchestra, together with Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson. The program comprised works by Stravinsky and by Mendelssohn.  Both the Stravinsky pieces were  rhythmically complex, but hard to parse otherwise – melodic invention, as so often with this composer, was absent and large-scale musical form, if indeed any was present, was not discernible from a single hearing.

I have remarked before that music instantiates or executes a thought process, and some music involves thinking processes that are alien to me.  Most of Stravinsky’s late music is in this category, while that in his middle phase (in the so-called NeoClassical style), while not alien, is quite often banal.  Yet his early music speaks to me profoundly. Last night’s two pieces were clearly challenging to perform well, with the subtle rhythmic interactions and off-piste counting, despite their unpleasant listening.

What I lost there, however, was more than compensated by the Mendelssohn.  The first half saw the Ensemble play two of his Four Pieces for String Quartet, which really should be called “four pieces for String Quartet”, since the composer never grouped them together in this way.  The fugue of the first piece, furiously intense, gives the lie to the claim one still sometimes hears that Mendelssohn’s music lacks profundity or intensity. The playing and cohesion here was superb, and as always with this fugue, spine-chilling. It would be nice to hear this group play some of Mendelssohn’s 12 string symphonies, particularly the fugal movements of the later symphonies.

The real excitement last night came with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, in which Alasdair Beatson played piano and Jonathan Morton, solo violin.   Morton also joined in the ensemble parts when not soloing.  I know this piece very well, although I can recall only once hearing it in performance.  The placement of the performers was somewhat strange, with the high and middle strings behind the piano (and hence behind the upraised lid), dulling their sound.

In any case, the performance was thrilling in the extreme. Beatson captured the many, varied moods of the piano part – from church-like chorale harmonies, through rolling, lieder-style accompaniments for a cantabile violin, to a tempestuousness that made the instrument sound like an angry, rampaging animal.     You can tell how good Mendelssohn was as a pianist himself just by listening to this part, and also how much he enjoyed playing.   The first movement, particularly, has flourishes of pleasure and delight throughout.

Strange, then, was the positioning on stage of the two soloists, with the violinist standing behind the pianist. The first movement has such witty interplay between the two performers – calls-and-responses, mimicry, quoting, and transforming, etc – that for each player not to be able to see the eyes of the other seems untenable.   I cannot imagine young Felix on piano and Eduard Rietz, his friend and violin teacher, for whom this music was written, not facing each other and smiling with each returned flourish.

Like the Australia Chamber Orchestra, most members of the Scottish Ensemble stand while performing.  As with the ACO,  this strikes me as an insidious type of ageism, and is entirely unnecessary.  Only young or very fit people can do this, and one wonders at what average age of ensemble members will the group regain their commonsense. Also, for the historical record, Beatson’s pages were turned by one of the hall staff: even the stage-hands at the Wigmore can read music, apparently.


Stravinsky:  Concerto in D
Mendelssohn:  Capriccio and Fugue from opus 81 (arranged Morton)
Stravinsky:  Concertino (arranged Morton)
Mendelssohn:  Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D minor.

A review of another concert in the same tour, in Dundee, is here.

This concert is listed in my concatenation of live music events.

More on Solomon Mujuru

Joshua Hammer has an article in the November 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books about the mysterious recent death of General Solomon Mujuru (aka Rex Nhongo) in Zimbabwe. The article  presents an account of Mujuru’s death, an account about which most of us can only speculate.
However, the article has a couple of minor errors, which may not add to a  reader’s confidence in the article’s authority:

  • “When I visited the renovated Victoria Falls Hotel, built by the British colonial government in 1904 at the site of a railway bridge over the Zambezi River . . .”  Except for a brief period of four months in 1979-80, Zimbabwe never had a British colonial government.   Between the first settlement by Europeans in 1890 and the award of self-government (on a restricted franchise) in 1923, the region now called Zimbabwe was governed as a concession by the British South Africa Company (BSAC), advised from 1898 by a partially-elected council.    This might seem a very minor point, but the fact that the modern nation was founded by a brutal, unelected, profit-oriented corporation strikes me as germane to its present sad state under a brutal, unelected, profit-oriented oligarchy.  The violence and brutality of the white occupation is only just beyond living memory, and is certainly within the memories of the children of those affected.     In particular, the fact that white settlers and the BSAC stole farm land from the black inhabitants, and often did so violently, has been used to justify the often-violent and illegal occupation of commercial farms by agents of the Mugabe regime a century later.   While Minerva’s owl is taking flight at dusk, her chickens are busy coming home to roost.
  •  “I headed to a leafy northern suburb and entered the gated estate of Ibbo Mandaza, a liberation war veteran who served for ten years in Mugabe’s cabinet until his ouster in 1990.”  Well, actually, the good Dr Mandaza was never a member of the Cabinet, as far as I am aware, but only a civil servant.   In any case, the word “ousted” implies some sort of estrangement.  In fact,  well after 1990 Dr Mandaza was still working  actively for ZANU-PF victories in national elections.
  • On the other hand, the author could have noted that almost all the residences in the northern (formerly whites-only) suburbs of Harare are gated, so no inference should be drawn from Dr Mandaza’s residence being gated (unlike the situation were his residence to be gated and in the USA).

My heart remains in Orchard Street

Just recalled this sad break-up letter from John Vorwald to the Lower East Side, published two years ago.

Dear Lower East Side,

I don’t know how to say this.

It’s over.

For years I defended you.  I stood by you — faithful to a fault. When people said you were dirty or unkempt, I called it character. When they said you were running with a shady crowd and staying out too late, I said it was a phase. And when they shook their heads and said you’d sold out, I’d say you’d come back around.

But I was wrong.

Recently, on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow (the once-proud site of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” album cover), a photo shoot was taking place. Two rugged men — shaved heads, chiseled jaws, cultivated stubble — were decked out in full prep-school regalia. Tweed plaid pants, sweater vest, looming crest. Pose, flash, pose. A bearded photographer angled for an incongruous blend of uptown couture and downtown street grit. Princeton ghettoway. Slytherin in the City. Call it what you like.

At that moment, I knew two things were true: Somewhere, someplace, Lou Reed was crying. And you and I were finished.

Sure, we’ve had our good times; you’ve been there for me. When I was coming off a breakup with a sleepier borough, you gave me your stripped-wire energy. I loved your pulse — the crackle and hum that only downtown Manhattan could provide (shut up, Fort Greene). Who needed pretty brownstones and an inferiority complex? I had your tenement castles. Forget backyard gardens; I had your grid of fire escapes, my own urban picket fence.

I’ll always remember our early days. I wasn’t exactly promiscuous, but I’d been around — Greenpoint, SoHo, East Village, Boerum Hill. You reminded me of a gracefully aging rocker, grizzled and sage. I admit it, I liked the cougar in you.

By the early 2000s your renaissance was well under way, but it was your past lives that spoke to guys like me. A simple walk along Orchard Street conjured nickel-and-dime vaudeville, turn-of-the-century Jewish grandparents, ’70s punk, bargain leather and the odor of garbage and sour beer. Richard Price once described you as a modern-day Byzantium. You were more like my very own Alexandria, richer for your rag-and-bone ruins. So, I nestled into a fourth-floor perch over Ludlow and listened to the street pop like a 45 track, like so many broken bottles.

It was perfect. For a while.

True, I’m no Reagan-era squatter. My forebears did not immigrate to your streets. But I know a thing or three about you now. Only a few years ago, you’d reserve your special mayhem for the weekends. Amateur nights in your arms — a beautiful mess. All trussed up like a ’50s-era pinup model, you were the Queen Bee welcoming one and all with a knowing wink. We were still O.K. then, you and I. I knew that the workweek was our time, when I could still catch glimpses of the real you: the Chinese ladies returning from the Essex Street Market, the local kids playing ball at Roosevelt Park, the tattooed cartoonist stationed in the window across the courtyard. Even the din of bands rehearsing in errant basements along Ludlow.

Then they came — your new friends.

You gussied yourself up with shiny new hardware: Thor, Fat Baby, Spitzer’s. Hordes of banker boys in J. Press checked shirt/chino uniforms and manicured necklines swarmed to you faster than to the promise of a government bailout. They enjoyed sausage-party dinners at Schiller’s (“It’s like Pastis, but edgy!”), used winter as a verb and eyed sun-speckled Germans and Australians “on holiday.”

Toothsome Upper East Side girl packs (never fewer than four) tarted up in too-new Lilly Pulitzer dresses and slurped down sugar-free Red Bull and Grey Gooses at the Stanton Social. Hipster millennials, rocking extra-skinny jeans, oversize Elton John glasses and cocked-back fedoras, turned Pianos and Welcome to the Johnsons into their own private Thompson Twins video. Hold me now. Hold my heart.

At first you shrugged, as if to say, “Can I help it if I’m so popular?” The truth is, you liked the attention. And who could blame you? Wasn’t it better than the heady days of strung-out junkies on every corner? So, I tried looking in the other direction. I took whole weekends away. I’d leave you to your affairs — the girls and the boys.

I told myself that you’d get it out of your system, that you’d grow out of it. I visited neighbors — precious NoLIta, wizened East Vil — but I kept coming back to you, forgiving your indiscretions. Then, one day, I realized we had both changed. Truth is, you like the new you, this Guitar Hero version of yourself: the mallternative bands, the squeaky-clean beer halls, the rooftop parties at glass hotels. And me? Well, I could say that the ironic T-shirts have lost some of their charm (they have), or that I am not like them (I’m not). But, really, isn’t the awful truth that yours is a love only for the very young and carefree? And I am decidedly neither.

So, as the new year dawns, I must vow to leave you, dear L.E.S.

Not sure yet where I’ll end up. I should let you know that I’ve been seeing someone, someone a little less flashy, someone who isn’t trying nearly so hard, and — it must be said — someone who actually enjoys the company of an older man. No, it doesn’t matter who. What matters is that we’ve come to the end, my lovely Loisaida. I know I’ll miss you, and the spell you once cast over me. But as an old flame of yours named Lou Reed once said, “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.”


John Vorwald

Resilient capitalism

Yesterday began with a meeting at an investment bank in Paternoster Square, London, which turned out to be inaccessible to visitors and the public.   The owners of the Square had asked the police to close public access to prevent its occupation by the anti-capitalism (OWS) protesters, encamped between the Square and St Paul’s Cathedral.  So our meeting took place in a cafe beside the square.

The day ended with a debate at the Royal Society, organized by The Foundation for Science and Technology, on developing adaptation policy in response to climate change.     The speakers were Dr Rupert Lewis of DEFRA, Sir Graham Wynne of the Sub-Committee on Adaptation, UK Committee on Climate Change, and Tom Bolt, Director of Performance Management at LLoyd’s of London.  (Their presentations will eventually be posted here.) As Bolt remarked, insurance companies have to imagine potential global futures in which climate change has wrecked social and economic havoc, and so are major consumers of scientific prognoses.   One commentator from the audience suggested that insurers, particularly, may have a vested short-term financial interest in us all being pessimistic about the long term future, although this inference was not obvious to me:  one human reaction to a belief in a certainly-ruinous future is not to save or insure for it, but rather to spend today.
A very interesting issue raised by some audience members is just how do we engineer and build infrastructure for adaptability?  What would a well-adapted society look like?     One imagines that the floating houses built in the Netherlands to survive floods would fit any such description.  Computer scientists have some experience in creating and managing robust, designing resilient and adaptive systems, and so it may be useful to examine that experience for lessons for design and engineering efforts for other infrastructure.

Digital aspen forests

Brian Arthur has an article about automated and intelligent machine-to-machine communications creating a second digital economy underlying the first physical one, in the latest issue of The McKinsey Quarterly here.

I want to argue that something deep is going on with information technology, something that goes well beyond the use of computers, social media, and commerce on the Internet. Business processes that once took place among human beings are now being executed electronically. They are taking place in an unseen domain that is strictly digital. On the surface, this shift doesn’t seem particularly consequential—it’s almost something we take for granted. But I believe it is causing a revolution no less important and dramatic than that of the railroads. It is quietly creating a second economy, a digital one.
. . . .
We do have sophisticated machines, but in the place of personal automation (robots) we have a collective automation. Underneath the physical economy, with its physical people and physical tasks, lies a second economy that is automatic and neurally intelligent, with no upper limit to its buildout. The prosperity we enjoy and the difficulties with jobs would not have surprised Keynes, but the means of achieving that prosperity would have.
This second economy that is silently forming—vast, interconnected, and extraordinarily productive—is creating for us a new economic world. How we will fare in this world, how we will adapt to it, how we will profit from it and share its benefits, is very much up to us.”

W. Brian Arthur [2011]:  The Second EconomyThe McKinsey Quarterly, October 2011.

O ignorance! O mores!

In the last few weeks, it was reported that mathematician Edward Nelson of Princeton had claimed to show that Peano Arithmetic, one of many possible axiomatic systems for the numbers, was internally inconsistent.   Within a short period, his claim and proof were subject to examination by other pure mathematicians, not least Terence Tao of UCLA, who thought Nelson’s argument had potential flaws.   Nelson initially defended himself and then, accepting the criticisms, retracted his claim.  More details can be found in a post by John Baez on the n-category blog, which initiated a dialog in which both Tao and Nelson participated, and where Nelson announced his retraction.   A subsequent discussion of what happened in this dialog and the lessons for the philosophy of mathematics can be found on the blog of Catarina Dutilh Novaes, a discussion to which Tao again contributed, this time on his methods.
This example of fast proposal-criticism-retraction contrasts sharply with mainstream Economics, where an error in deductive reasoning may be pointed out, with neither retraction nor revision nor apparent learning from its adherents 70 years on.  Keynes’ criticisms of conventional austerity economics were first uttered in the 1930s, and yet they still have to be repeatedRelcalcitrant ignorance indeed.
One of the key insights of Keynesian economics is that a government is not like a household:  Governments can increase their income by increasing their spending, something most households cannot do.   Another key insight is that the effect of one person doing something may be very different if many people also do it.  To see better at a baseball stadium, for instance, you can stand up, but this only works if the people in front of you stay seated; if everyone stands, you will see no better than if everyone stayed seated.    Likewise, the economy-wide effects of individuals saving may be deleterious even when the effects are beneficial for an individual.   Keynes called this the savings trap.  Instead of learning from such insights, we get a British Prime Minister telling us all in 2011 to save hard and reduce our personal debt, and treating the national budget as if he were running a a household in Grantham.

Recalcitrant ignorance in economics

British business economist John Kay has written an essay for the Institute for New Economic Thinking on the failures of mainstream macro-economics.   Among many insightful comments, there is this:

What Lucas means when he asserts that deviations are ‘too small to matter’ is that attempts to construct general models of deviations from the efficient market hypothesis – by specifying mechanical trading rules or by writing equations to identify bubbles in asset prices – have not met with much success.  But this is to miss the point: the expert billiard player plays a nearly perfect game, but it is the imperfections of play between experts that determine the result.  There is a – trivial – sense in which the deviations from efficient markets are too small to matter – and a more important sense in which these deviations are the principal thing that matters.”

Mostly agreeing with Kay, Paul Krugman repeats a point he has made before about the freshwater economists — their failure to understand the deductive implications of their own models:

Here’s what we agree on: if consumers have perfect foresight, live forever, have perfect access to capital markets, etc., then they will take into account the expected future burden of taxes to pay for government spending. If the government introduces a new program that will spend $100 billion a year forever, then taxes must ultimately go up by the present-value equivalent of $100 billion forever. Assume that consumers want to reduce consumption by the same amount every year to offset this tax burden; then consumer spending will fall by $100 billion per year to compensate, wiping out any expansionary effect of the government spending.
But suppose that the increase in government spending is temporary, not permanent — that it will increase spending by $100 billion per year for only 1 or 2 years, not forever. This clearly implies a lower future tax burden than $100 billion a year forever, and therefore implies a fall in consumer spending of less than $100 billion per year. So the spending program IS expansionary in this case, EVEN IF you have full Ricardian equivalence.”

As Krugman says:

The fact that these guys don’t even get the implications of their own models right tells us that the problem runs deeper than believing too much in abstract math. At some level it has to be political: they want to declare government policy ineffectual so badly that for all their vaunted modeling mojo they can’t be bothered to think it through, or listen to other people who point out their error.”

Vale Dennis Ritchie (1941-2011)

A post to note the passing on of Dennis Ritchie (1941-2011), co-developer of C programming language and of the Unix operating system.  The Guardian’s obituary is here, a brief note from Wired Magazine here, and John Naughton’s tribute in the Observer here.    So much of modern technology we owe to just a few people, and Ritchie was one of them.
An index to posts about the Matherati is here.

Minimalism in Jazz

To celebrate Steve Reich’s 75th Birthday, Jazz on 3 (BBC Radio 3) ran a special feature this week on minimalism in Jazz (available for re-listening for several days).     This feature includes an interview with bass player Lloyd Swanton of The Necks.   First hearing the music of The Necks about a decade ago was a revelation, as it is the closest music to that in my head in my own improv playing.

Romani ite domum!

Rory Stewart, with his personal experience of foreign military adventures, writes an insightful post about the Roman occupation of Britain, after visiting Hadrian’s Wall:

But for me the walk along the wall was an unsettling revelation. It is easy in Cumbria to feel a connection to our Norse and Anglo-Saxon past: we can worship in a Saxon church in Morland; my cottage follows a Viking floor-plan; our dialect can be understood by a Dane; Norse words like fell and beck are part of our modern vocabulary; and there is, I imagine, Scandinavian blood in all of us. But, the wall is the most dramatic reminder of our Celtic-roman history. And it suggests things far more alien, extravagant and brutal than I had ever imagined.
I have heard historians describe the wall – as ‘a permeable trading post’ – and emphasize how much melding there was between the British and Roman populations. But at Wallsend, the excavations have revealed a line of fortification, hundreds of yards wide – a ten foot turf wall, followed by a twelve foot ditch, followed by a berm set with spikes and thorns, then a fifteen foot stone wall, then another ten foot mound, another fifteen foot vallum ditch and a ten foot mound. These fortifications run almost unbroken for eighty miles and they do not suggest to me gentle inter-cultural communication.
I once lived in a fortified camp in Al Amara in provincial Iraq, with five hundred British soldiers, surrounded by a line of giant sand-bags. The nearest neighbouring camp was in Basra, sixty miles away. But in the Roman wall, there was a manned tower every three hundred yards, a castle every mile, a fort – with a garrison the size of ours in Al Amara – every seven miles, and an additional line of large forts, two miles South (as at Vindolanda and Corbridge), and other smaller outposts, just North (as at Bewcastle). These were auxiliary positions. There were also three full legions in Britain – more than in any other comparable province of the Roman Empire. And the Romans held these positions not like us in Amara, for three years, but for three hundred years.
There are some British details but overwhelmingly the inscriptions, the clothes, the buildings, even the shoes, found along the wall, are relentlessly Roman. In the North-West, the British continued to live a life in round-houses, similar to those that existed long before the Roman arrival. A Libyan could become an Emperor but very few ethnic Britons were given jobs in the Roman Empire. Even the auxiliaries may not have been as integrated into British life as we imagine. The Syrian archers beyond Housesteads worshipped a Syrian God; the Batavians in Vindolanda were like Gurkhas – a separate ethnic military elite – and they have left notes, referring contemptuously to the ‘britunculli’ – the pathetic little Britons.
Why did Rome maintain this cripplingly expensive occupation? The smaller walls on the German, Saharan and Iraqi frontiers protected Rome from millions of people in Africa, Europe and Asia. But in this case, there was only a sparsely populated Scotland beyond. Britain never posed a serious threat to the Roman empire; and it never brought in enough revenue to justify the expense of holding it. 
. . .
If Britain had really had the comfortable relationship with Rome which some imagine, more would have survived (as it did in France for example).  But when the legions left in 410 AD, almost four hundred years of Roman civilization collapsed overnight. Within a decade, from Cumbria to Kent, there was no coinage, the potteries and aqueducts had stopped, the villas had been abandoned, writing had largely been forgotten. And for us no trace remained except for some ditches to inconvenience the plough, and this great symbol of the brutality, the stubbornness and pride of Empire, reduced to a stone quarry, eighty miles long, which could be robbed, for fifteen hundred years, for house, and barn, and dry-stone wall.”