The fungus of Wagner

Composer Thomas Ades in an interview with Tom Service:

Ades:  It’s too psychological.  I’m thinking of The Ring more than Tristan, there’s an awful lot of psychology in it which I find tedious. And naive, in a sort of superficial way. I mean, so much of Parsifal is dramatically absurd, which would be fine if the music was aware of the absurdity, but it is as if the whole piece is drugged and we all have to pretend that it’s not entirely ridiculous. And it seems to me that a country that can take a character as funny as Kundry seriously, this woman who sleeps for aeons and is only woken up by this horrible chord, a country that can seriously believe in anything like Parsifal without laughing, was bound to get into serious trouble.
Service:  You’re obviously not convinced by the music?
Ades: I don’t find Wagner’s an organic, necessary art. Wagner’s music is fungal. I think Wagner is a fungus. It’s a sort of unnatural growth. It’s parasitic in a sense – on its models, on its material. His material doesn’t grow symphonically – it doesn’t grow through a musical logic – it grows parasitically. It has a laboratory atmosphere.

Embedded network data

In June, I saw a neat presentation by mathematician Dr Tiziana Di Matteo on her work summarizing high-dimensional network data.  Essentially, she and her colleagues embed their data as a graph on a 2-dimensional surface.   This process, of course, loses information from the original data, but what remains is (argued to be) the most important features of the original data.
Seeing this, I immediately thought of the statistical moments of a probability distribution – the mean, the variance, the skewness, the kurtosis, etc.   Each of these summarizes an aspect of the distribution – respectively, its location, its variability, its symmetry, its peakedness, etc.  The moments may be derived from the coefficients of the Taylor series expansion (the sum of derivatives of increasing order) of the distribution, assuming that such an expansion exists.
So, as I said to Dr Di Matteo, the obvious thing to do next (at least obvious to me) would be to embed their original network data in a sequence of surfaces of increasing dimension:  a 3-dimensional surface, a 4-dimensional surface, and so on, akin to the Taylor series expansion of a distribution.     Each such embedding would retain some features of the data and not others.  Each embedding would thus summarize the data in a certain way.   The trick will be in the choice of surfaces, and the appropriate surfaces may well depend on features of the original network data.
One may think of these various sequences of embeddings or Taylor series expansions as akin to the chain complexes in algebraic topology, which are means of summarizing the increasing-dimensional connectedness properties of a topological space.  So there would also be a more abstract treatment in which the topological embeddings would be a special case.
M. Tumminello, T. Aste, T. Di Matteo, and R. N. Mantegna [2005]:  A tool for filtering information in complex systems.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 102 (30) 10421-10426.
W. M. Song, T. Di Matteo and T. Aste [2012]:  Hierarchical information clustering by means of topologically embedded graphs. PLoS ONE, 7:  e31929.

Who's afraid of Hamlet?

The best stage production of Hamlet I have seen so far was that of Calixto Bieito, in a 2003 production for the Edinburgh Festival, which I caught in Birmingham in  September 2003.
This production set the play in a piano lounge, with chrome-and-black-leather furniture and the participants wearing modern dress.   Horatio (Karl Daymond) played the piano, and like it, was dressed entirely in white.  The music was chosen very well, with Bach before and after “To be or not to be”.   The other music was mostly jazz and the music expected of a piano lounge.   At the moment when Hamlet got Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern to confess they were working for Claudius, Hamlet pointed to Horatio at the piano, who played the theme from Dragnet (Da-ta-da-daaaa).  The music seemed to intensify the emotions of the play, and the modern dress and setting led this to seem like a Eugene O’Neill psychodrama.
Prior to seeing this version, I’d only ever considered two broad interpretations of Hamlet – the personal (Should I avenge my father’s murder?) and the political (Can I kill the King?).   This production emphasized, in between the personal and the political, the family dimensions – hence the feeling that O’Neill had written and directed it.   Adding to this feeling was the acting-out of some of the accusations made – eg, of Polonius killing his daughter (which revulsed her), and of Hamlet raping Ophelia.
The family setting was further emphasized by the absence of any attendant servants, lords or ladies, and the absence of regal attire.   The single lounge room set, with a grand piano and a drinks cabinet, also added to the cosy, biedermeier feeling.   Here, there were scenes of Claudius and Gertrude playing sexy games together in their pajamas.  As in any 20th century American drama, drinks played a large part in action:    “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, with soliloquies.
A very nice touch was Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern arriving dressed as the Blues Brothers – dark suits, sunglasses, and briefcases.   Overall, this was a superb production.  The theatre, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre,  was about 25% full, with perhaps 400 people present.
Another modern interpretation of Hamlet, as a German comedy, was reviewed here.

Brass in Tyalgum

The Brass Band of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music is the only English-style brass band in an Australian tertiary music college, which says something about the impoverished musical taste of those who run Australian music education institutions. Because the brass are mostly little-used in orchestral music (relative to, say, the strings, who play all the time), orchestral brass players usually also play in other wind ensembles and bands, both for the practice and to build their stamina. So a distaste for brass band music is usually not something shared by orchestral brass players.  And a good thing too, given the high calibre of the best brass bands.
With about 100 other people, I caught the QCM Brass Band last weekend, performing as part of the 21st Tyalgum Festival of Classical Music.    The band was led by Peter Luff and Greg Aitken, both of the QCM.  The festival began in this small and isolated mountain village after some performers had experienced the very good acoustics of the Tyalgum Literary Institute Hall, the main public hall in the town.   The acoustics of the Hall are indeed excellent, although surely not of a design praised in modern architecture schools.   The Hall, built in 1908, is a single rectangle, with side walls made of wooden planks, having many windows and doors.  On one side is an enclosed verandah, open to the main room.  The roof has a single pitch and is made of corrugated iron, and there is no ceiling – the iron reflects sound well, and the undulations would send it in all directions.  Mostly, the band sat on the floor at the front beneath the stage, with only the percussion on the small stage, yet the sound in the middle of the room was clear, very full and very loud.  The reverberation was noticeable but not overly long.    Apart from rust (and thus the need for regular replacement), the only downside of corrugated iron roofs is that nothing else can be heard when it is raining.
Tyalgum lies under the calming shadow of Mount Warning, a mountain named by James Cook in 1770, and which is the first place on the Australian land-mass to see the sun each morning.   We could see the close-by mountain from inside the hall.  So it was fitting, then, that the walls were decorated with several paintings of the mountain.  Oddly, though, all these images showed the mountain from the usual eastern vantage point, yet the village itself is on the western side.   So what you saw on the walls did not match what you saw through the windows.  (For that matter, the same wrong view of the mountain is on the Festival poster and web-page.)
The Band made very good use of the space.  A fanfare by Ann Carr-Boyd was played before the concert from the upstairs front windows to people in the street.  This fanfare was repeated inside at the start of the concert, with the composer present in the audience.   Later, a piece by Gabrieli for three brass choirs was played with the choirs arranged around the hall:  At the front, 5 players in SAT (Soprano, Alto, Tenor) instrumental combination, at the side under the enclosed verandah (ATB) and in the first-floor balcony at the back (SAT).  This was superb use of space for surround sound, and stunning playing.
There were some moments to treasure.   The open side doors allowed a sudden breeze to blow away the music of the tenor trombone during the Vivaldi.    As with any music from this period, intonation was difficult, particularly for the horn player, and at times for the two solo piccolo trumpets.   With lots of fast-moving duo passages (the horn with one or other trombone) – very typical of Vivaldi – creating havoc for the three performers accompanying the soloists, it is perhaps not surprising that one trumpet soloist had a look of absolute astonishment on his face when the players ended the third movement together.
The pieces for the full ensemble were all well played, although perhaps more attention was needed to choreography of the percussionists.   Some of the 5 people who were at one time or another on stage in the percussion section appeared unfamiliar with that part of the band.
The complete program was:

  • Ann Carr-Boyd:  Britannia Fanfare
  • Aaron Copland:  Fanfare for the Common Man
  • Antonio Vivaldi:  Double Trumpet Concerto (arranged for 2 piccolo trumpets, french horn, tenor and bass trombone)
  • Leonard Bernstein:  Excerpts from West Side Story
  • Giovanni Gabrieli:  Canzon Septimi Octavi Toni for 3 brass choirs
  • Henry Purcell:  The Fairy Queen
  • Philip Sparke:  Music of the Spheres.

Some of the same players were seen here.

Bird cries from the mountaintop

When the wild bird cries its melodies from the treetops,
Its voice carries the message of the patriarch.
When the mountain flowers are in bloom,
Their full meaning comes along with their scent.

I have remarked twice before that modern westerners, even very clever ones, fail to understand the nature of synchronicity in Taoist and Zen philosophy when discussing the art of John Cage.  If you believe the universe is subject to invisible underlying forces, as Taoist and Zen adherents may do (and as Cage did), then there is no chance, no randomness, no lack of relationships between events, only a personal inability to perceive such relationships.  The I Ching is intended as a means to reveal some of these hidden connections.
In a recent essay on Silence in the TLS, Paul Griffiths ends with:

Another of Cage’s favourite maxims, this one taken from Ananda Coomaraswamy and delivered five times in Silence, was that the purpose of art is to “imitate nature in her manner of operation”, which is almost another way of stating his first catchphrase, since natural objects and phenomena have nothing to say. They are not, of course, saying it. We say it for them. And in our doing so, experiencing their voicelessness and taking it into ourselves, a great deal comes to be said. There is no message in the changing pattern of cloud shadow and reflected sunlight on the sea. It may, nevertheless, thrill us, calm us, and fix our sustained attention.”

But, of course, for a Zen adherent there are indeed messages in the changing patterns of clouds and in sunlight reflected on the sea.   Even more so are there messages in human artefacts such as musical compositions, even those (perhaps especially those!) using so-called random methods for creation.    For Cage, the particular gamuts (clusters of sounds) that he selected for any particular one of his random compositions were selected as the direct result of the spiritual forces acting on him at that particular moment of selection, through his use of the I Ching, for instance.   Similarly, under this world-view, the same forces are active in those compositions allowing apparently-random leeway to the performers or listeners.
One can criticize or reject this spiritual world-view, but first one has to understand it. Griffiths, like so many others, has failed to understand it.

On a railway platform with no trains departing?

Will Gompertz has a London-Tube-style map of movements in modern art, here. I don’t agree with all his expressed or implied linkages, and he evades the challenge of meaningfully classifying most current art by simply calling it “Art Now”, but the chart does provide a good starting-point for reflection and discussion.

Coates on Bam

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a superb and insightful essay on black and white perceptions of Barack Obama as President and as a black American in a country that experienced 175 years of white affirmative action.  The common phrase describing what black Americans need to be for success in white society is:  twice as good and half as black.

HoJa do

Howard Jacobson apparently writes comic novels.   I have never found his writing funny, and it often strikes me as being in poor taste.  (A Jewish anti-Zionist group called “ASH”, for example?)  In a review today of his latest novel, Theo Tait puts his finger on what I don’t like about HoJa’s books:

Zoo Time conforms closely to the classic recipe for a Howard Jacobson novel. Take a childless, Jewish middle-aged man, born in Manchester or thereabouts, now living in London pursuing a profession not unlike the author’s:  in the past, we’ve had columnists, cartoonists and academics; this time, he’s a novelist, Guy Ableman. Give him ungovernable romantic urges and a powerful but embattled sense of self-worth: Guy, whose first novel stars a zoo keeper and her lustful monkeys, describes himself as “a man ruled by pointless ambition and a blazing red penis”. Throw in some marital difficulties and outré sexual enthusiasms: this one briefly covers the classic Jacobson kinks – shoe fetishism, oedipal fantasy, and the powerful desire to be cuckolded – but focuses chiefly on Guy’s wish to bed his mother-in-law. Add some agitated discussion of Jewish identity. Then stir it all up with a lot of discourse, and of discourse about discourse. Ensure that the plot is minimal, and largely circular. And there it is, the distinctive feel of Jacobson’s work – like being trapped in a confined space with a particularly garrulous pervert.
. . . .
The killer for Zoo Time is that Jacobson has a limited talent for invention, and certainly very little inclination for it. As with many authors possessed of a powerful voice, it tends to crowd out everything else in the novel: “A writer such as I am feels he’s been away from the first person for too long if a third-person narrative goes on for more than two paragraphs …” Guy’s every passing thought is generously and sometimes brilliantly transcribed, but otherwise Jacobson seems to have no idea what to do with his stick people, who couple and uncouple, turn gay or Hasidic, to no discernible pattern.”

The problem with a powerful voice, as the novels of Bellow and Roth also demonstrate, is that you only reach those readers who appreciate the persona behind the voice, and who don’t mind being trapped in a confined space with him.  Me?  I’ll skip sharing an elevator with Jacobson or Roth or Bellow, and take the stairs, thanks.
POSTSCRIPT (2014-05-18):  Ivan Klima in his memoir, My Crazy Century (Grove Press, London, 2014), writes of meeting Philip Roth in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, and inadvertently captures what is bad about Roth’s (and HoJa’s) fiction:

Philip Roth, the third American prose writer who visited us several times during the first few years after occupation, seemed to me unlike other Americans in one noticeable way:  He was not fond of polite, social conversation; he wanted to discuss only what interested him.”  (Page 308)

POSTSCRIPT (2015-03-28): Howard Jacobson on his novels: “I was not, in my own eyes, a comic novelist, . . .”. Well here is something we can agree on! To be called a comic novelist, one first has to write novels which are funny.
POSTSCRIPT (2015-06-04): Last weekend, I found myself not ten paces away in the same near-empty room as HoJa, the entrance Hall of King’s College London, where he had come to participate in the Australian and NZ Festival of Literature. I could easily have approached him, but I could think of nothing positive to say.
POSTCRIPT (2018-06-03): In a New Yorker tribute by David Remnick to Philip Roth, who has just died, we read (issue of 4 & 11 June 2018):
“I once asked him [Roth] if he took a week off or a vacation. “I went to the Met and saw a big show they had,” he told me. “It was wonderful. I went back the next day. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”
Having spent whole days enchanted in just two or three rooms of the Met, I am appalled by the lack of imagination, particularly visual and tactile imagination, expressed by this statement. It summarizes succinctly much of what I dislike about his fiction, all self-obsessed words and no imagination.

The emotions of religion

For some time, I have been arguing the irrelevance of belief for many practitioners of religion. (See posts among those listed here.)  Author Francis Spufford has a nice essay today in The Gruaniad offering his take on this question, arguing that his religious belief is made up of emotions, and not just some emotions but all.
I was reminded of George Santayana’s assessment of Roman Catholicism:

Catholicism is the most human of religions, if taken humanly:  it is paganism spiritually transformed and made metaphysical.  It corresponds most adequately to the various exigencies of moral life, with just the needed dose of wisdom, sublimity, and illusion.” (1944, p. 98)

George Santayana [1944]:  Persons and Places. (London, UK:  Constable.)