Sunday, June 29, 2008

Visaless in Vladivostok

America is, the old phrase goes, a nation of immigrants. The fact that historically we have been made strong by our openness to foreigners is hard to dispute. From the first waves of German farmers in Pennsylvania to the Irish later in the 19th century, to the boatloads of Eastern European Jews at the beginning of the 20th century and extending all the way to the Mexican workers of today who prop up the economies of the Western states, immigrants are a net positive to our collective fabric and to our economy. This is something few M&M readers would argue with.

Part of the historical genius of our country is that citizenship is based on the belief in a shared idea, not in tribalism and ethnicity. If you are enterprising and hard working, you too can have a seat at the table of American life, or at least your children can. This is why every American has a "hyphenated background" - we are Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Japanese-Americans. For most of us, you don't have to go too far down the family tree to find someone from a different country. Even America's whitest areas form a quilt of varied descent. We take this diversity of backgrounds for granted, but when you stand back and compare it to most nations in the world, this situation is a serendipitous anomaly. In Japan, Koreans who have lived there for three generations still have to carry identification cards showing that they are gaijin; in supposedly broadminded and liberal Scandinavia, workers from SE Asia and Pakistan are never accepted fully into homogeneous society. Of course, there are plenty of recent immigrants in America that are treated shamefully and denied a place at a table, but you can bet that these individual's children and grandchildren will be integrated. This is, after all, the process through which most Americans are made, and it's been that way since our founding. E pluribus unum.

Today is a different story. All-inclusive openness to foreigners has gone the way of Geneva-abiding interrogation techniques and legal consequences for illegal wiretapping. In GOP speak, it was part of the "September 10th mindset." When we found our nation under attack, our leaders chose to build walls, to keep dangerous and potentially subversive "Others" out. Because of a few bad seeds from the Middle East, we closed our doors and sent a message to the world that America is now a fortress. Security trumps principle. Since then, new, much stricter immigration and travel policies have been put in place that have made it excruciatingly difficult and humiliating, if not outright impossible, for citizens of certain countries to get into the US. As a consequence of the xenophobic zealotry of our policy makers, Chinese and Indian engineering students are opting for Ph.D. programs in Australia instead; rich Brazilians and Russians are staying home instead of traveling to the US to spend their money and learn about us. The lucky few who do make it in are fingerprinted in the airport before heading out into the Land of the Free.

To illustrate our maddeningly restrictive immigration/travel policies, I thought I'd relate a couple of personal experiences. When I was living in Japan, a couple of my most promising high school students wanted to do a four month long home-stay program at our sister school in Sitka, Alaska. Our school had a long (pre-9/11) history of exchange with Sitka, and every year teachers tried to motivate students to go abroad, something that is still a rarity in Japan. Indeed, many of the alumni from this program went on to careers as English teachers and translators. Alaskans get the experience of hosting and befriending Japanese students, and the students get to experience a different lifestyle and learn English. Everyone wins.

The students booked their tickets and made arrangements. All that was left was the mandatory visa interview at the US consulate in Tokyo, which nobody in our office assumed would be a problem. After all, how much of a threat do two Japanese teenage girls with Hello Kitty cell phone charms going to a small island in Alaska really pose to the security of the United States? Besides the aggravation (and cost) of flying two hours just for a half hour interview, our kids would get in no problem. Right? Imagine the shock and dismay, then, when our students, one week before their departure, were informed by the embassy that their visa applications were denied. As a teacher, I observed two bright and motivated students transform from genki (excited) English students to completely passive and indifferent ones. If the US didn't want them, why should they want to learn English? It was really devastating to our whole department. And the most baffling thing about the whole escapade was the question: why? Was there any good reason at all to turn these girls down? The situation was so absurd that it left us feeling tiny and powerless, like a protagonist in a Kafka story.

More recently, these same old Kafkaesque frustrations are coming back. I'm trying to help Katya get a visa to come visit me in the states, and, like with the Japanese students, this should be a quick an easy task. She is well educated and has money. There would be no reason for her to jump ship, go AWOL, and enter into an underground prostitution ring or drug cartel. But this is precisely what our present visa policy towards Russia assumes that she will do. It is written plainly in the visa application materials: applicants are guilty of wanting to illegally immigrate until they prove their own innocence. The interview, therefore, is really a sort of trial where applicants have to provide the copious paperwork necessary to prove that they have a reason to return to Russia (letter from their employers, title on a car, proof of ownership of property, etc.). On top of that, being a young female sets off additional bells at the consulate (mail-order brides, anyone?). In the past year, four of Katya's female friends have been denied US visas (three wanted to study here, another wanted to visit her aunt).

Now, I'm not arguing that we open our doors to just anyone and set up laissez-faire borders. I also recognize that every nation has a different statistical profile for their citizens in America (the Japanese have it easier than the Russians, for example), and therefore warrants a different level of risk. But keeping fresh talent and tourist dollars away as a matter of policy is absurd and highly damaging. Don't policy makers understand that the majority - yes, majority - of American graduate students in the sciences and math are of foreign birth? Some 40% of tech firms are founded by non-Americans. It is still too early to tell, but I don't see how our current closed-door policies will have anything but a hugely deleterious effect on our economy and on our collective sense of multiculturalism. Furthermore, the humiliating process that so many people have to go through to get into the country makes America look arrogant, security-obsessed, and fearful. Many potential visitors and students aren't even trying anymore and are instead opting for Canada, the UK, and Australia. They know already that America doesn't want them.

I sincerely hope that a new administration will have the vision, the rationality, and the foresight to end this visa mess. After all, as humiliating as the process is for applicants, the real people who are humiliated in front of the eyes of the world are us Americans.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Balkanized States of America

Mark's "Bush" post brought up a very interesting phenomenon in contemporary America: people willingly blind themselves to the facts out of allegiance to a certain political ideology. In The Economist this week, there is another article that points to our ever-increasing political balkanization.

I remember first noticing this phenomenon during the 2004 election. Despite reading polls that Bush and Kerry were neck and neck, I didn't know a single Bush supporter. Not one. When Bush won, this fact led to the awful feeling that once again our government had been hijacked against the will of the people. Although I rationally understood that he genuinely carried the popular vote, I didn't see one shred of evidence that real Americans liked the guy. None of my friends and family did.

The "Red State, Blue State" situation that Barack Obama countered in his 2004 convention speech is all too real still. Political leanings have become an important criterion for where people live, according to the article. While just 30 years ago, only 27% of Americans lived in "landslide counties," today almost 50% of us do. This means that almost half of all Americans live in communities where the overwhelming majority of their neighbors share the same political convictions.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. In our highly mobile society, families scope out the suburbs around where they work, naturally gravitating to areas with tell-tale signs of their political party of choice ("W" bumper stickers, yoga classes, etc.). What is disturbing about this trend - just as Bush-bashing out of unchecked vitriol can be blinding - is that it closes people's minds off from new ideas that challenge their own. With increasingly ideologically divided cable news coverage and an even more extreme blogosphere, people are able to form cocoons around themselves and their ideas. And the more segregated we are along political lines, according to the authors of recent books on the topic, the more likely we are to lean towards the extremes. In that sense, the right-ward drift of American politics might be the inevitable consequence of Dallas and Birmingham suburbs outnumbering those of Seattle and Boston by a few.

One interesting (and somewhat surprising) observation: the more educated you are, the more insulated you become from outside opinions. The best educated among us live in the biggest "landslide counties" of all. One might think that a good education encourages critical thinking, taking all the facts into consideration before making judgments; but, as Mark's post pointed out, when your ideas are set in stone from the beginning, it's hard to get them to budge. Add to that an army of like-minded friends, family, and neighbors, and your opinions are the Truth.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


These days, it seems that public disapproval of President Bush is like water to a fish: it is so prevalent and permeating that one hardly notices it surrounding everything. Every day, we suck it in and blow it out.

And if that's true, David Brooks is kickin' it like a fish out of water in this op-ed for the New York Times

He raises some interesting issues, not just about Bush, but about how our own prejudices can end up suffocating our ability to honestly assess the world around us.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bleakonomics (Part 2)

Returning to the topic of the economics of live music...

The Principle of Fun leads to an interesting reality for live musicians: the more money you get paid, the less fun you're expected to have (ie. the more you're supposed to pander to the manager, the audience, etc.); the less money you get paid, the more freedom you have to have fun and play some music. There is thus an inverse relationship between compensation and creativity.

Let's look closer at this. By means of illustration, I'll take the two gigs I played last week: in the first gig (Gig 1), I got paid a fair (not great) Miami market rate of $100 for three hours. In the second gig (Gig 2), I was paid $65, which is low by hopefully any market's standards. (I'm sorry Chris and the rest of you Bostonians!) In the first gig, I showed up expecting to play a sideman job: with those sort of fair wages, it is assumed that you will play exactly what the leader/manager/club owner wants. You are getting paid to work, not to have fun. Predictably, the gig went along according to this rule.

Gig 2, on the other hand, was a different story. Since we weren't getting paid well, there weren't any limitations on what/how we should play. The gig was creative, exploratory, and spontaneous - in a word, fun. Not having to "work" for our money (since we weren't getting a lot), we were free to simply play music. Looking back on the great Sex Mob show, this was probably the dynamic at work that night - Bernstein et al were getting paid barely enough to cover their cab rides, but because of that, they were up there playing creatively, doing the material they wanted, and getting drunk. They were having fun, and so was the audience. No economic imperative weighed down on their shoulders.

Perhaps we can illustrate this principle as two lines on a graph, one dipping down (money) and the other up (fun and creativity). As the money goes down, your freedom as a performer goes up. In the center, where the lines comes together, is the hypothetical "best realistic scenario" - you make decent money and you get to have a decent creative say over the performance. It is a compromise that many musicians shoot for in their gig selections.

Of course, the extremes of this model tip the scale completely (those .01% of musicians referred to earlier). When Radiohead gets up there to perform, for instance, they can essentially do whatever they want and people will eat it up. When an act commands that level of demand, they don't need to pander anymore. Witness Miles Davis's audience-disrespecting antics or Nina Simone's legendary stunts. Artists at this level have broken the scale, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.

No doubt, astute M&M readers, you have grasped the Catch 22 of live music bleakonomics - the better you play, the less money you make. Of course, there are a million exceptions to this rule, but by and large I've found that it holds in most markets.

Musician-readers, please supply your impressions and stories about this little paradox embedded in the dismal science of live music. And be sure you leave a tip for the band at your favorite club next time.

The Bleakonomics of Live Music

I remember seeing the great downtown jazz group Sex Mob play a show in New York back in 2000. At the time, all the members of the band were well known in the scene, and they completely packed the club (Tonic, R.I.P.) with enthusiastic fans. It was an amazing show: they played with the sort of creative recklessness and playful pomp characteristic of great live jazz, but still not exactly a daily phenomenon. At the end of the show, when leader/trumpeter Steven Bernstein was drunkenly thanking the audience, he opened his mouth and started ranting about the economics of being a (semi-famous) jazz musician. "Do you know how much each of us in the band made tonight? Playing three hours for a full house? Guess... (silence) $40 each." He then proceeded to pull two grimy twenties from his pocket and flash them for the audience.

Watching this spectacle was a bit of a slap in the face: I had always assumed that guys like Bernstein, who are popular and well recorded, made good money and lived in medium-sized houses in the suburbs. In fact, their gigs were paying them peanuts, just like the motley ensemble of club dates, restaurant gigs, and corporate shindigs that were sustaining me through college.

It's certainly not easy being a gigging professional musician in the US. In all honestly, it was this experience and others like it that eventually steered me away from a career as a jazz bassist and towards more regular sources of income. As Nolan has chronicled in this blog and a few of our other writers have experienced as well, playing music for money is a strange and frustrating proposition. And the phenomenon of lousy and unpredictable pay isn't limited to jazz either, a genre with admittedly negligible market appeal - indeed, this seems to be a live music universal for 99.99% of American musicians. Barring Madonna, J-Z, Springsteen, and a handful of other leviathans, we're all in the same boat here.

In my experience, I have come to learn a few things about the bleakonomics of live music. Let's begin with the most obvious and simple explanations. On the surface of this equation, of course, are the same market principles that guide any commercial system - the "invisible hand" connects supply and demand. Therefore, each scene is very different. I made far more money playing in Portland than I ever did in NY, and it wasn't because I was that much of a better player during my two year tenure in Oregon (quite the contrary!): New York is flooded with great musicians. Of course, there are also a lot more places to play there than in Portland, and a lot more demand, but still - the scale tips in Portland's favor. That's why musicians from all over the country are flocking to the City of Roses right now. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a city like Boston: with mobs of students scrambling for gigs, the market value for live music is kept really low. There is more supply than demand.

This is the textbook, simplistic look at why we poor musicians get paid so pathetically. But underlying basic supply and demand are a few other principles that can't be reduced to economic modeling (well, I guess this post is an attempt to supply a "bleakonomic" model). And the most important principle here is the Principle of Fun.

Work sucks. That's why it's called work - we perform tasks in order to make money to support our worldly lives. Of course, many people find great reward in what they do, but on the weekends and during their vacations, you can bet they're not doing their jobs. So the principle of labor in many ways is based on exchanging time doing what you don't want to be doing (ie. work) for money that will enable you to do what you want (ie. eating, having a roof over your head, taking trips, drinking whiskey every night to numb the pain, etc.).

Musicians disrupt this labor principle. We have fun playing music, and we voluntarily do it all the time without getting paid. It is a recreational activity. CEOs, the line goes, get paid the big bucks because they are under constant pressure and are micromanaging a million things at once - no "fun" in the traditional definition of the word. Musicians, on the other hand, get paid peanuts because, really, we're just getting up there on stage and having a merry ol' time. Why should the restaurant manager pay us fairly - if not well - when we're having such a good time doing what we're doing while he's running around making sure the shipment of tomatoes came in on time?

I'm going to break this down into two entries lest this turn into one of my obnoxious novels of a post. Stay tuned for more BLEAKONOMICS!

Dinosaurs still rule the Earth

If you believe in karmic retribution then you might find yourself tossing around the idea that people of European descent are in it deep right now.

Two reasons:

1. Manifest destiny - we just had to keep acquiring land. As a result we now have a nation so large in its expanse that the only way to keep it running is to be eternally devoted to fossil fuels. Us left-coast folk have it a lot worse. Where the East can enjoy an hour drive between most of its large cities, we, on the other hand, have quite a time getting to people. Must be all that farm land whose product has to be shipped those vast expanses. Hope you aren't too fond of eating, America.

2. Our "fair" skin - it hit me this weekend while driving the massive expanse I spoke of a few lines ago. I got a horrible trucker tan/burn just from sitting in the car. While staring at the soreness on my arms (happened on each side depending on me driving or passenging) it occurred to me that we might finally get our come-uppance for all of the nasty things we've done to people who aren't white. Our horrifying pursuit of wealth sold black people into slavery and undermines the economies and environments of just about everyone else. We're waging a series of wars against Middle Eastern countries over the control of the same oil that we're using to destroy the Earth's climate. When melanoma becomes a pandemic we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Summer Travel, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gas Bomb

On National Public Radio yesterday, there was yet another story about the height of gas prices in the U.S. The result (so the story went) is that the highways have seen a sharp downturn in people who are willing to ride the asphalt in order to reach their summer destinations. But with new costs being added to airline travel daily ("I'm sorry sir, the toilet only accepts exact change, or your debit card."), I wonder how many people are going to choose to forego extended trips altogether. 

And since the polls that I hear about on the radio or television news never seem to include anyone I know (has anyone out there actually been a part of a gallup poll, or known someone who has?), I thought it would be valuable to poll the international Mirth and Matter community.

We now have two ways to do this. First, you can sound off in the comments section as always. Second, if you are a casual reader of M & M, and haven't yet begun posting comments, you can use our new polling feature, which is now posted at the top of the sidebar at right. A third option is to vote, then expand on it in the comments section. Enjoy the experiment, and the valuable thoughts from your peers. The poll will be up for six days only!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


A few weeks ago, this photograph was released by a team of surveyors flying over an isolated corner of Amazonia. It appears to show three painted people - two of whom are aiming bows at the plane - surrounded by a small village and dense jungle. In and of itself, the photo is unremarkable, but the unwitting subjects are members of one of the few "uncontacted tribes" remaining on Earth.

Uncontacted people are indigenous tribes who, out of fear or out of pure chance, have never had formal, documented contact with Western civilization. Although it is difficult to know exactly how many of such groups exist today, they tend to be clustered in two geographic regions: anthropologists estimate that there are around 70 in the Amazon basin alone, and a handful in the most remote regions of Papua New Guinea. Since they have never been contacted, their stories are difficult to tell; for the same reason, we don't even know the tribes' names or what languages they speak. Establishing relations is exceedingly difficult, as they do not have immunities to the basic ailments of the Western world such as the common cold; furthermore, contact often proves to be met with extreme violence, perhaps part of the reason these tribes have been able to stay isolated for so long.

In Brazil, some 90% of Amazonian people were killed off during the two-century long incursion of European rubber companies into the remotest regions of the jungle. It is thought that some of these uncontacted groups today are descended from the hearty individuals who survived the industrialist onslaught and were driven deep into isolation. These negative historical encounters may have led to social taboos against contact with outsiders. There is also a chance that, by luck, certain of the most heavily forested areas of the basin have simply never been touched by Western civilization - these tribes continue to live their lives just as they have for thousands of years, virtually oblivious to the outside world.

It is amazing to contemplate: as we scuttle about in our cars typing messages quickly on our Blackberries, there are people in the world who have never known any of the accoutrement of Western civilization. It's an easy fact to forget - in 2008, it is natural to assume that every last corner of the planet has been explored, every last native people subjugated under the umbrella of nation-states and monolithic religions, given the option of "civilization" vs. "savagery." Contacting new tribes is so 1492; today's world is entirely the world we as a culture have created for ourselves. Indeed, most of the people of the Earth now abide by the Western paradigm: ethnic/linguistic groups form their own nations, economies are modern, and technologies like the television and cell phone have penetrated into even the poorest sectors of the globe. Uncontacted people, those not sharing in the bounty of the Western dream, have been proverbially "left behind."

There are a number of adventure guides who specialize in taking moneyed Western tourists deep into the jungle to contact uncontacted tribes. According to a recent interview on Talk of the Nation, these organizations are often really competitive with one another; one guide boasts of having contacted seven tribes in his life. Indeed, for every individual and organization out there that wants to keep these habitats intact so that these people can continue going about their business undisturbed, there are people who view them as benighted and deserving of all the same technological and cultural perks that sustain us in the developed world. The surveyors who took the photo above are associated with a department of the Brazilian government that oversees the protection of these people - they were out there visiting because illegal loggers have been pushing dangerously close to the tribe's region. But counteracting do-gooders like this Brazilian agency are two forces: the destruction of the Amazon, which is continually putting pressure on uncontacted tribes; and a booming international adventure travel industry that brings pampered rich people into the forest to search for "natives." What an exciting vacation to talk about at the next corporate board meeting: "over the break, I trekked through the Amazon rainforest and met a group of people who have never before seen a white man! How exotic!"

To me this controversy is a no-brainer: OF COURSE we shouldn't be pulling these people from their habitats and introducing our diseases to them. But listening to the NPR program on the topic, as well as checking out the blogosphere and the mainstream media, I realized that there is still a surprising level of ignorance and cultural arrogance out there. One caller asked the preservationist guest, "Why haven't these people evolved?" The guest expertly handled the question by talking about how these tribes are perfectly evolved for their habitat and how we can't equate lack of technological sophistication with a lower stage of evolution, but the point had been made, and I think that many people share the caller's sentiments. Reviewing the comment board at, here are few enlightened contributions:

Stop staring at us or we'll let send the dogs!

We should give them tv's and guns!

Throw an empty Coke bottle out the window.

IF the plane was forced to land there, I give the pilot, mmmm....maybe enough time to unbuckle the seatbelt before they lop his head off and boil it for dinner.

Out of the 136 comments on the board, I could find only a handful what were not mocking, ethnocentric, and dismissive. Strange that people so passionately defend the same industrial Western paradigm that has led to extreme social inequality and the wholesale destruction of our planet. As a National Geographic writer on NPR mentioned, we still have not figured out a way to develop the Amazon without completely destroying it. These people have lived there for thousands of years in relative harmony with their environment, and many "civilized people" have the audacity to criticize their way of life and pray that Western culture moves in quickly to make them whole?

Just some food for though (and not a boiled head).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Beautiful opinions

In a New Yorker podcast last March, the wonderful Adam Gopnik uttered a two-word phrase that I can't get out of my head. "He is," Gopnik said, "beautifully opinionated."

(For those of you playing along at home, give yourself one point for appreciating the phrase, and five points for appreciating the source.)

I've been thinking lately about this idea of being beautifully opinionated. It implies a depth and understanding of a subject, but also a certain reverence for the opposing viewpoint.

A gauntlet, then, thrown at the feet of all you M&M writers and readers: about what do you consider yourself beautifully opinionated? For me, it's the intersection of literature and religion, a subject upon which I can (and do) wax elegant.

Ragging Pony: Rapper. Trianglist. Badass. ~An Elegíe for a Pioneer~

Needless to say, the lack of formal academic study on the roll of the concert triangle in modern hip hop is perhaps the greatest travesty of the current millennium. Much critical attention has been heaped upon the beats, lyricism, and culture surrounding the genre of hip hop, yet critics remain shamefully silent when discussing the role of the triangle.

The triangle, in the context of predominantly bass heavy hip hop, is the epitome of extreme. It hovers, much like a silken butterfly, over the primal grind of the electronic beats, sustaining an angelic high over the blare of subtones. Handled by a skillful maestro, the triangle is nothing short of majestic, orgasmic and sublime.

Lauded as the “Godfather of Triangle” in the elite triangle-conscious communities, no one has done more to elevate the stature and role of this underappreciated instrument than the Brooklyn born rapper and percussionist, Ragging Pony. Mr. Pony has worked with some of the biggest names in popular hip hop: Usher, Nelly, Timbaland, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent to name but a few of his recent collaborators. No matter what rapper he is paired with, Ragging Pony’s triangle virtuosity is unmistakable, ringing heavenly through the sometimes bleak slant of the lyrics.

Like most trianglists in the hip hop genre, Ragging Pony was not formally trained. He learned how to play triangle in the streets. At the tender age of ten, Mr. Pony fashioned his own triangle accoutrement from a twisted piece of barbed wire and left home to study under the tutelage of the local triangle gang, the “Idiophonic-Chronic.” In an early interview with GQ, Mr. Pony revealed, “I learned all the basics in the hood with my posse. Ya know: rudiments, double-stops, dynamic sensitivity. All that shit. But trianglin’ is in my blood. My great granddad left Africa with only the shirt on his back and the triangle in his pocket.”

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Dr. Dre shared some charming anecdotes about Pony’s work habits. “We were working on “Nuthin' But a 'G' Thang” when I said to myself: yo, we need us some triangle to make this jam really pop. We got the bass drum on 1 and 3. Got the snare on 2 and 4. I want some tinkle-tinkle in there.” Ragging Pony arrived at the studio with multiple steel enforced cases containing his arsenal of triangles and beaters. Dr. Dre continued, “Ragging P warmed up for nearly three hours before he let us even record one take. I mean it, he’s that serious. He got like, 50 of these triangles of all different sizes. Maybe more. So. Yeah. He’s that good.”

Ragging Pony, a self-professed triangle connoisseur, experiments with many varieties of triangles but settles almost exclusively on the Remo 15A, known as the Stradivarius of triangles, for recording.

Being a hip hop triangle superstar has taken its expected toll on Ragging Pony. He is frequently accused of being a “sellout” by many of the underground hip hop trianglists. Few have been as vocal as East-LA born idiophone idol, MC Killah. As a representative of the chill West Coast triangle sound, Mr. Killah is happy to voice his complaints, recently telling a reporter for the LA Times, “Man, that Pony don’ know shit about the triangle! He’s a panderer. Straight-up. I mean, how many times can you accent 2 and 4? Lame.”

There is a notable stylistic difference between the two coasts. The New York “tinkle-hop” triangle performers frequently mute the triangle with their palm shortly after the mechanism is struck, choking the vibration and muting the sound. The result is pleasingly staccato and a perfect accompaniment to the dance club. East coast trianglists weave in and out of the beat, employ double time phrasing, and commonly implement fast sixteenth notes, displaying a musical dexterity reserved primarily for classically trained musicians. West coast musicians, located in the greater Los Angeles area, are known for their effective use of legato, stunning technique, and general sparseness of sound, free of all tonal surplusage. While a New Yorker would accent the downbeats with metallic flourishes and ornamentations, a West coaster would strike the triangle on beat one then let it ring gloriously until the next measure, much like the ringing drones of the Saint Catherine church bells.

And of course, East coast trianglists use stainless steel beaters whereas bronze is favored in the West.

Tragedy struck this weekend in a Boston dance club during an impromptu “triangle-throw down.” Similar to its vocal counterpart where rival rappers competitively deliver their best lines to establish dominance, trianglists from all over the country flocked to “The Silver Pyramid” in Boston to flaunt their skills. Things started civilly, with factions of both the East and West warming up with pianissimo rolls and simple patterns. However, these territorial groups couldn’t commingle indefinitely: soon there was a crescendo evident in both the volume of the triangle duelers and the passion in which they played. Ragging Pony led the East coasters, arrogantly playing thirty-second notes and pouting his lips. The West coaster responded by slowing their playing even more and experimenting with vibrato, waving their cupped hands over the resonating triangles and slouching further into their chairs. Violence erupted and the trianglers flooded into the street. Dave Meyers, a local newsstand owner and witness to the mayhem, described what happened next in an interview with Downbeat, “So all of a sudden I hear this tingle-tingle type sound, like ice-cream truck music on speed. I goes outside and there’s all these black guys hitting these metal triangles and looking really pissed off about something.” Years of feuding was brought to a head when an unidentified Californian, distinguishable solely by his languid playing style, shoved his triangle beater into Ragging Pony’s left eye, ending his career and his life. Interest in the work of the recently martyred Mr. Pony spiked as the result of his death, fulfilling his dream of exposing the integral role of the triangle in the world of modern hip hop.

Note: The Ragging Pony Estate will release a posthumous album for solo triangle in memory of Mr. Pony, One Voice: One Triangle, in late 2008.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Enemy of My Enemy . . .

What do internet trolls hate more than ridiculous lawsuits? Greenpeace, apparently.

You have to read the article and the comments to appreciate it, but here is the summary. Spanish real estate developers are suing Greenpeace because they put out a book which features photos of Spain manipulated to reflect what they might look like in the future based on the IPCC sea level rise estimates. The developers claim that the value of their properties has gone down based on the book.

Demand: 30 million euros.

Ok, now that you have stopped laughing, let's see what the commenters have to say:

First comment, from "Truth Seeker"
I think it is high time the Greenpeace and other environmental terrorist groups are held responsible for their actions. Greenpeace slanders and manipulates people into accepting their ridiculous agenda and yet cannot accept it in return. I hope these developers win.

This from "T.H. Almond"
I hope they sue Greenpeace back into the dark ages, where they belong. Climate alarmists like Greenpeace and Al Gore are non-scientists and socialists to the core.
. . .
This from "Farmer Bill"
Greenpeace, Al Gore and the rest of the earthfirst type crowd are terrorists in the true sense of the word. They spread fear and doubt for profit, power and political gain. Sue them until they are broke and then execute them publically (sic).

I don't exactly know the reason for it, but somehow climate change denial has become a cause célèbre for a lot of libertarian, conspiracy, anti-government folks, not to mention standard right-wing trolls. I guess I don't really understand the vitriol.

I can see the socialism slant to cap-and-trade, etc. True limited government types who see regulation of any kind as evil will object. The thing is, though, the cap-and-trade bill failed. They act like they are fighting this rising tide of eco-socialism (pun intended) but in reality nothing is being done.

If you want conspiracy theories, look to the other side of the equation. The same people who think that our government brought down the World Trade Center in order to go into Iraq also think climate change is a government hoax. I hate to break it to them, but if the Bush and co. brought down the towers they sure didn't do it so Al Gore and the environmentalists can regulate carbon. Perhaps I'm too infected with leftist ideas, but I see a pretty concerted effort to keep from doing anything about climate change, even in the face of worldwide scientific consensus.

Sometimes I just don't understand.

Pay as you Gigabyte: Internet Metering

Mirth-and-Matter-bloggers beware: your days of unbridled internet access may be coming to a close. Three of the major players in our digital era--Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T--have all announced that they have plans to put 'caps' on their clients' bandwith usage requiring high-bandwith users to pay an additional fee. They argue that this "internet metering" will restrict so-called "bandwidth hogs"(who tend to slow down internet connections for others) and in turn, will mitigate internet usage for all of its clients. Read the full story here.

Surely Internet providers (and their corresponding business model-spewing economists) have come to terms with population projection in the digital era. As more people are downloading, blogging and youtubing, a commodity has emerged that capitalism has yet to exploit to its full potential...well, until now. The internet is undeniably the dominating force behind globalization and its potential for generating money is enormous. Perhaps part of the reason globalization is taking place at such an accelerated rate is due to the internet's increasing availability abroad. Whether or not internet providers are hiding behind a false facade-claiming that they are moderating internet usage for its clients, facilitating the internet on equal terms--is not for me to decide(perhaps only suggest). One needs only to look at the history of American corporatocracy to see that we will manipulate any commodity to serve our capitalistic needs--here or abroad.

I think of the internet as a public resource such as a library--you pay a monthly fee which provides you unlimited access to the library's collection. Should people who check out more books be expected to pay more than others? Don't certain jobs require the use of books more than others? The Internet providers' contention is that the more people check out books, the more congested the library line becomes and hence, the slower the process. Unfortunately, this is an assesment I can't necessarily refute.

Perhaps this whole issue comes down to a basic philosophical distinction: I see the internet as a basic right; the internet providers, a privilege.

A Modest Proposal RE: Climate Change

RE: 2008 Climate Change Proposal

To: Conscientious, environmentally aware people everywhere
Sender: Henry Hofstadt, President, Earth First Coalition

Greetings members, volunteers, supporters, and concerned bystanders,

We at the Earth First Coalition hope that the receipt of this message finds you prosperous, healthy, and forever vigilantly respectful of our Planet. This year, we opted to send our annual newsletter via email to eliminate the 213.4 acres of timber necessary to produce the required paper. Though you will be using approximately .1 kilowatt hours of electricity to view this message, we calculate that this will have a far lesser impact on the Planet than wasteful and destructive paper publications.

I wish to begin by offering my deepest condolences to the victims of the floods currently ravishing the midwest. It is sad indeed what the rising waters are doing to communities across the region, but it is even sadder what we are doing to the Planet, and we musn't forget that, even as the waves lap at our doors. Extreme weather patterns such as the one we are currently witnessing, as well as the damaging heat wave across the northeast, are tell-tale signs of human meddling into the equilibrium of Mother Nature. Although we at Earth First sympathize with the affected families, nobody is blameless in the wanton destruction of the Earth. Do not families in Iowa drive their SUVs to Denny's, wherein large quantities of processed meat are consumed? Is it not true that activities such as this are the direct cause of the floods that are currently striking their region? They are deserving of sympathy, to be sure, but they are not innocent. No, nobody is innocent.

My friends, we live in dire times. Polar ice is melting at alarming rates; cataclysmic hurricanes are becoming the yearly norm; flooding and severe erosion are pandemic; record high temperatures are being recorded only to be beaten the next year. All around us, we see the evidence of 250 years of industrial-age mistreatment of Planet Earth; we see the byproducts of a paradigm that views the natural world as just one more resource to be exploited for our material gain. Through our own ignorance and profound hubris, we have become an updated version of Wile E. Coyote, running on thin air but still not pausing to look down. When we do eventually stare down at the vast chasm below us, we will frantically grasp for something to save us. In some ways, we as a species are already starting to do this: Al Gore's movie, the birth of green industries, ethanol, the runaway success of the Prius ... all of this is evidence of our growing recognition that we have a serious problem here on Planet Earth. But, like an Acme anvil, these things will not save us. Unless something radical is done - and soon - our species is headed for the bottom of the canyon, and quick.

At the root of our current environmental crisis is one primary factor: we consume too much (in the form of energy, raw materials, and foodstuffs), more than the Planet can support. The Earth can metabolize the greenhouse gases produced by one million cars; it cannot handle the pressure put on it by one billion. Similarly, in every way our Planet is being squeezed. Current jumps in the price of oil and food are a testament to the fact that demand is outstripping what our fragile world can provide for us. There are simply too many people demanding extravagant foods, transportation, warmth during the winter and AC in the summer, big houses, and all the other trappings of the hedonistic American dream. But the dream is over.

Since 1950, the human population has grown more than in the previous 4 million years (see here for more information). 1/3 to 1/2 of the Earth's land surface area has been transformed for the sake of human food production and habitation. During the lives of our young readers (if we as a species survive that long), demographers predict that the global population will balloon from today's 6.7 billion to an amazing 9.5 billion people. And, no doubt, every one of these people will want a television set, three meals a day, a car, and a house. Population Connection estimates that if everyone currently living had the same lifestyle as North Americans, it would require four more earths just to satisfy their demands for energy and resources. And this is based on today's 6.7 billion, not the much higher figure of tomorrow. Something clearly has to give. Our species faces profound, live-altering challenges: if we succeed in addressing them, we will endure. If not, we will join the dinosaurs on the list of nature's failed experiments.

If I come across as Malthusian and apocalyptic, you have misinterpreted my earnest environmental concern for nihilistic pessimism. This is not the case. As daunting as these challenges are, we are not passive victims of fate. We at Earth First believe that we can help control the outcome of our environmental crisis, and not just through using energy-saving light bulbs, as long-time EF member Al Gore suggests. No, something more extreme is needed if we have any hope in resisting the juggernaut of climate change.

The average American consumes 30 times as many resources as the average Indian. We are gluttons for oil, environment-destroying foods, and commodious McMansions. Yes, that is right: you too, dear Earth First supporter, are responsible. Since the primary demographic of our organization is decidedly well educated and thus high earning, you are precisely what these statistics reflect. Even though you drive a Prius, eat vegan, wear hemp clothes, and turn off the water while you're brushing your teeth, you are still much more responsible for Mother Earth's fury than Rajip Singh in Jaipur. This is why, dear member, if you are truly concerned about the state of our Planet, there is only one thing you can do to save it: dear friend, you must take your own life.

A Planet without you on it is a happier Planet, and this fact alone should make the ultimate decision that much easier. Making this sacrifice is hands down the best thing you can do for the future of Earth, and for the future of your children - for this reason, we call our program of self-termination "Earthanasia." Without you and your incessant demands for food, transport, and shelter, the world will be spared some additional 59 tons of CO2 annually. If our biggest problem today is overpopulation and the concomitant squeeze on resources, killing yourself - a well-off American - is the only truly responsible thing you can do to personally absolve yourself from responsibility in the coming global train wreck. While it is true that this may not affect the actions of the other Guilty Many, you will be able to look at yourself in the mirror and know that you are courageously doing something to change the world. You will be a hero, dear member.

Of course, not all forms of Earthanasia have the same environmental impact. We encourage you not to do anything too explosive and messy (no gun to the head, for example), as the cleaning supplies necessary to remove your heroic remains will only add more toxic chemicals into the drinking supplies of your community. The safest, surest, and - most importantly - greenest way to expire is to ingest a cocktail of all-natural chemicals that will sedate you then terminate the pounding of your energy-hungry heart. As a special offer to our most dedicated members, Earth First will send you a potent Earthanasia pill for a donation of just $20. Our pills are 100% natural and effective, and they will allow you time to contemplate your heroic deed on your way to the Great Unknown (isn't it exciting - it's like taking a vacation to a country you know nothing about!). You will receive a full refund in the event that the pill does not do its job.

Send your check or money order to:
Earth First Coalition
W 11th St., Suite 24
Eugene, OR 97402

To demonstrate the total seriousness of our Earthanasia position as well as the absolute effectiveness of our pill, I, Henry Hofstadt, will be the first hero to embrace the Final Solution. There. It's done. Goes down just like aspirin.

Another thing to contemplate, valued member: consider the method of your disposal with a friend or spouse before your leave-taking. Traditional burials are exceedingly unfriendly to the Planet: between the land space used, the wood for the casket, and the energy required to power the backhoe to dig the hole, you will be contributing to the demise of the Earth even in death. Surely, this is not what you desire. We at Earth First, therefore, recommend a clean, efficient cremation. Be sure to instruct the care-taker of your estate to use sustainably harvested timber for your pyre, preferably of Siberian origin. Also, if possible, try to sequester the emissions of the fire for clean disposal. Lastly, as an ultimate symbol of kindness and compassion for Mother Earth, have your care-taker scatter your ashes in your personal organic garden. This way, you will know that your absence is positively affecting the food supply for future generations.

I am beginning to feel drowsy (I won't be asking for my refund!), so I will sign off this newsletter with a message of hope. You and I, dear member, can truly do something to counter the nefarious rampage of global climate change. Much more than any of the current bandages you are putting on the problem, Earthanasia is the only sure-fire way to help. Sure, you will be eliminating just one of the Earth's 6.7 billion walking problems, but that brings us one step closer to a clean, habitable, beautiful Planet. The time has come for this Final Solution, dear members. Our fine chairperson Mary Watt will be taking over as president of the organization in my absence. It has been a pleasure and an honor serving you, and serving the Planet. Thannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Music in Moscow

This will be my final post on Russia before returning to our regularly scheduled programming.

There are few other nations on the planet with as distinguished a musical history as Russia. In fact, this aspect of the country was what originally got me interested in learning Russian and traveling here years ago: any nation that can produce Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Schnittke - not to mention a huge portion of last century's great instrumental virtuosos - must be endlessly fascinating. The richness of Russian musical (and literary) life impelled me to dive into the richness of Russian culture in general, leading to my 10+ year condition of Russophilia.

Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, alma mater to Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Khachaturian, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, etc.

The value Russians put on the arts is enough to make any artsy American jealous. In the US, "concert music" is ghettoized to the conservatories and concert halls and is seen as a symbol of class and advanced age. This phenomenon has been documented in numerous historical studies: classical music in America has long been deeply tied to the classist ritual of getting dressed up in a tux and heading out for an evening of civilized, continental entertainment. The fact that the JP Morgans of US history have had to support the arts (as opposed to the generous government subsidies so common in European nations) is a telling indication of this. Unlike Germany, Italy, or Russia, we lack a deep history of native "art composition," and thus this music is not firmly embedded in our collective cultural identity. For much of industrialized American history, classical music has represented a sort of inferiority complex where the most civilized classes embrace the European musical legacy in order the bask in the golden glow of High Culture, a quality lacking in our own land.

Of course, this is a simplification - Americans, it appears, have always been suspicious of the "high/low" dichotomy inherited from Europe, and our most significant contributions have come from between the cracks, not from the world of "art music" proper (see Stephen Foster, jazz, the blues, ragtime, Gershwin, Copland, Ives, etc.). In American music, race has played an integral and dynamic role: as Dvorak predicted so many years ago, our greatest musical contributions to the world have come not from the upper echelons of society, but from the bottom. In this important respect, it is impossible to compare the musical life of America with that of Europe because the models we are following are so completely different. This huge complexity aside, however, I am always amazed when I travel around Europe just how vibrant classical music is to contemporary life. An opera in Prague (at the same opera house where Mozart debuted Don Giovanni, no less!) is cheaper than a movie; Wagner's third "Ring" opera cost $6 to see in Vienna, and the hall was packed with young people.

Classical music is a hugely important part of modern Russian life: one can see massive ads promoting the latest version of Boris Godunov when driving down Moscow's wide avenues; the Bolshoi Theater is one of the city's most important architectural gems, right up there with the oldest cathedrals and the Kremlin (it is also situated right in the heart of town); amazingly competent amateur chamber orchestras set up and play Mozart in the subways, much as a lone saxophonist would do in New York. I asked Katya if the average person there knows who Valery Gergiev is (the director of St. Petersburg's famous Kirov Opera and a regular guest conductor at the MET), and she looked at me as if I just asked her if Russia has cold winters. He is a celebrity there. We in the states have not seen a celebrity conductor since the days of Toscanini and Bernstein - even many culturally literate people have no idea who James Levine and Michael Tilson Thomas are.

But Russia is not just rich in its classical music life, as I found out during my stay in Moscow. I had the opportunity to see a variety of live shows, from opera (the Bolshoi Theater company performing Verdi's late masterpiece Macbeth), to klezmer-rock and avant-garde jazz. The klezmer outfit Nayekhovichi (self-styled "garage rock klezmer"), led by the well-known independent singer Vanya Zhuk, was a playful group that reminded me a lot of the experiments taking place in New York's downtown scene. Zhuk's lyrics were a polyglot combination of Yiddish, Russian and English (which meant that I could understand every third word), but for me the star of the show was the band's virtuosic clarinetist, who clearly understood the idiom of Naftule Brandwein and David Krakauer as good as anyone around today (see myspace link above for song samples).

Nayekhovichi at the Moscow Jewish Center

Russian jazz musicians have consistently impressed me. With the Iron Curtain keeping Western culture at bay and having not been privy to the developments of the style for the last fifty years or so (besides illegal samizdat tapes), when the wall came down all of a sudden Russian jazzers got an ear-full. Sonny, Coltrane, Miles - it all came at once, and many Russian musicians play with an excited delirium and a sort of "look what I can do!" innocence and enthusiasm.

At a cozy little Moscow club, I saw an amazing jazz trio (pno/bs/trp) led by trumpeter/composer Vyacheslav Gayvoronsky. The idiom here was something akin to Medeski Martin and Wood at their freer moments: deep grooves would give way to sonic chaos, which in turn would morph back into chunky, danceable rhythms. The highlight of the show to me was an original that featured a militaristic drum tattoo and march-like bass pattern; over this martial mix, Gayvoronsky screamed command-style exhortations into his trumpet. The whole performance was a ripping and witty satire of the meaningless absurdity of war. (For a sample of Gayvoronsky's music, go here.)

Vyacheslav Gayvoronsky Trio at Moscow's Dom

Like any independent music scene, Moscow's avant-jazz musicians are all involved with one another in a dense web of projects. The bassist for the trio above (Vladimir Volkov) is also a member of a very well-known indie rock group called Auktsion ("Auction"). Their music strikes me as possessing both a Radiohead melodic impulse and a Downtown experimental sensibility. Their most recent record, Dyevochki Payut, features Downtown regulars Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Frank London, and Ned Rotherberg. (Go here for a representative sample, a song called "Zhdat.") Like Stravinsky, Mussorgsky and many others in the hallowed pantheon of Russian musicians, the experimental scene in Moscow today is steeped in both wild-eyed revolution and folk-inspired tradition.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Book Review: Musicophilia

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks

If you listened to any NPR programming between October and December of last year, no doubt you've heard about the esteemed neuro scientist and popular science writer Oliver Sack's most recent book. Along with Steven Pinker, Sacks is probably the best known science writer around, and each new publication is cause for a minor public media frenzy; add to this the fact that his new book is about music, and the charms to this reviewer become patently clear.

Just as Dawkins's The God Delusion was published at right around the same time as Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great and Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, inaugurating the movement of "New Atheism" (or "nu-atheism" if they were a little bit more hip), Musicophilia was released just after the clinical psychologist (and U Oregon alum) Dan Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music. Furthermore, the fine Americanist and folk music scholar (and my old adviser) Anne Dhu McLucas is currently putting the finishing touches on a book that deals extensively with the cognitive aspects of music learning and transmission. In these few fleeting, serendipitous months, the coming together of cognitive science and musicology are all the rage in our popular imagination. Levitin and Sacks gave interviews on NRP, traipsed around the nation giving lectures, and similar pieces of research emerged mushroom-like from the blooming Zeitgeist. With a big interest in this area of study, I naturally went out and read the book soon after its release, which was now close to half a year ago.

Musicophilia is a generously sized book that, in a nutshell, examines all the myriad ways our brains can go haywire in processing musical stimuli. As with Sack's other books, it is essentially a tenuously tied-together string of case studies on musical malfunction. Some of the stories are really amazing: for instance, a man is struck by lightning, has a near-death experience, then awakens to find himself obsessed with piano music. Having never been particularly interested in music his whole life, he becomes so driven by his musical visions that he quits his job as a surgeon to pursue piano playing and composing full time. In another case study, an old woman is haunted by music that will not go away in her mind - sometimes, this interior soundtrack is painfully deafening.

In other remarkable case studies, Sacks reports on the effects of music in speech therapy. For instance, numerous clinical studies indicate that singing can greatly increase the changes of an aphasic person (damage to the language centers of the brain) to relearn how to speak. Words alone are impossible to speak, but if they can be encoded in song, then an aphasic can access their language, and thus their ability to communicate again.

It is also very interesting to note that basically all brains look similar, and you cannot tell the different between Einstein's brain and Bush's just by looking at them. But musicians brains actually look different - according to Sacks, this is the only category of human being with a distinctive brain appearance.

All of these case studies and curios were engaging enough, but at a certain point it all just gets to be too much. Musicophilia is 347 pages of what amounts to a neurological freak show, and as intriguing as the topic and the nascent field are to me, I just couldn't really get into this book. Devoid of any musical context (how music signifies meaning) and frustratingly light on the scientific explanations for the conditions discussed therein, Sack's book struck me as not musical enough for the musician and not scientific enough for the scientist. Of course, this may be precisely why this book was so popular: just how many of us in the general popular are serious musicians and scientists? (The writing staff of Mirth and Matter is another story..) With such light explanations, nothing really sticks with you. Despite the very colorful stories presented in this book, six months later and I can barely remember a single fact that I learned from it. Like the amnesiacs discussed in the book, Musicophilia has disappeared from my mind leaving scarcely a trace.

I encourage anyone who read this one and got a lot out of it to post a comment - I'm genuinely baffled by why it was so popular and really would like to hear your take on it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

tweet, tweet

This is a fascinating article about bird songs and their similarities to human musicality. When it comes to melody, birds and humans are really quite alike as birds show evidence that it is also a learned behavior. However for birds, this learned behavior is inextricably connected to their ability to survive, find a mate and territoritize a region. For us, it may only get you a date with that cute girl in the front row of the concert. But to me, birdsongs are shrouded in a mystery that even most ornithologists (say, Messiaen for example) would unceasingly admit to. Devoid of any artistic intent, birdsongs project a natural fidelity to their survival that we find difficult to render. To us, music and art are one-in-the-same but to the birds, music and survival are can we not be jealous?

Opportunity Costs

The BBC estimates that around $23 billion has been lost, stolen, or unaccounted for in Iraq.

Just for a sense of perspective, some quick and dirty research on wikipedia about our federal budget (2007):
The President's actual budget for 2007 totals $2.8 trillion. Percentages in parentheses indicate percentage change compared to 2006. This budget request is broken down by the following expenditures:
  • $586.1 billion (+7.0%) - Social Security
  • $548.8 billion (+9.0%) - Defense
  • $394.5 billion (+12.4%) - Medicare
  • $294.0 billion (+2.0%) - Unemployment and welfare
  • $276.4 billion (+2.9%) - Medicaid and other health related
  • $243.7 billion (+13.4%) - Interest on debt
  • $89.9 billion (+1.3%) - Education and training
  • $76.9 billion (+8.1%) - Transportation
  • $72.6 billion (+5.8%) - Veterans' benefits
  • $43.5 billion (+9.2%) - Administration of justice.
  • $33.1 billion (+5.7%) - Natural resources and environment
  • $32.5 billion (+15.4%) - Foreign affairs
  • $27.0 billion (+3.7%) - Agriculture
  • $26.8 billion (+28.7%) - Community and regional development
  • $25.0 billion (+4.0%) - Science and technology
  • $23.5 billion (+0.8%) - Energy
  • $20.1 billion (+11.4%) - General government
So we've lost as much money in Iraq as we spent on energy in a 2007. We've lost almost as much as we spent on science and technology, community and regional development, agriculture, foreign affairs, or natural resources and environment in 2007.

And who does the investigative journalism to give us this story? The BBC.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

'bang on a can' Festival 2008

As the 'bang on a can' Festival celebrates its 21st birthday, I couldn't help but marvel at the longevity of a festival that fosters a genre of music that at best can be popularized by a few tepid, high-brow audiences. Patient and eager, the youth at the festival visibly outnumbered the old. I had to smile--it was good to know that young people were embracing new-music however unsettling it may seem at first. Especially in our society's culture, where popular music promotes short-attention spans, this music requires a meditative patience and a mentality that exclaims, 'you get out of it what you put into it'. At least that's my take on it.

Usually attending a contemporary-classical concert is bittersweet: despite great musical ambition, the audience is usually left with the feeling that the music is imminent--that it's awaiting a long death, terminating with cancer. But this audience--so cool and collected--projected an energy that instilled in me a new found optimism that this music is alive and well...and weird.

Perhaps this idea was best illustrated by the Michael Gordon composition for the Young People's Chorus of New York City entitled "Every Stop on the F Train." This piece chronicled the subway route stop-by-stop of the NYC Metro's F train. The composition introduced various forms of rhythmic devices such phasing and metric modulation that increased in complexity as the piece unfolded. Additionally, the composition was full of rapid harmonic changes and key modulations--requiring the utmost skill in its execution. And here's where the most striking aspect of the piece comes in: it was sung by 12 year olds...Well, some of the members were older (the oldest being 18) but the average age was probably about 15. For the first time, I realized that I no longer represented the youngest constituent listening to the music--that this younger generation was performing it...and really nailing it! Gordon probably divided each section (sop/alto etc..) into more than 3 parts, demanding that every single member exert absolute mastery over their respective lines.

The festival also highlighted some other really awesome pieces and genres including a performance of Reich's "Daniel Variations" (Reich was in attendance), Stockhausen's "Stimmung" and even a performance by the indie-rock-dance master, Dan Deacon (complete with a mosh-pit and crowd-surfing at 4 am). This free concert is held every year in the summer and is a twelve hour long event with performances starting at 6pm and ending at 6am the following day. Almost every composer with a piece being performed was in attendance and gave a short introduction to each piece prior to the performance. The festival was held in the financial district of Manhattan in a huge atrium overlooking the Hudson River called the Winter Garden which afforded the especially devout bang on a can festival-goer to witness the sunrise to Stockhausen's "Stimmung", the final piece to conclude the 12 hour event.

As I walked back to my place in the east village, my legs and back sore from all the standing in the past 12 hours, I could find consolation in the possibility that this was a feeling I could share with all the other festival goers who decided to stick around until the end--that we were apart of a community that is keeping this beautiful music alive, sore muscles and all.

Arctic Sea Ice

In response to Ruxton's challenge, I'd like to post about a topic I have become pretty interested in over the last couple of years - arctic sea ice.

I know what you are thinking - jeez, Chris, could you pick a more boring topic to be interested in. Yes, I could, so don't tempt me. But seriously, major changes are afoot up in the north, and we are now entering the summer melt season. Last summer I read the weekly updates from the National Snow and Ice Data Center during the melt period, and the data is fascinating. Records kept being broken by the week, and a note of awe crept into the normally emotionless tone of the scientists' reports.

How bad was last year's melt? Here is a summary from the National Snow and Ice Data Center October 1, 2007 press release: (click on the links for the pictures)
"Arctic sea ice during the 2007 melt season plummeted to the lowest levels since satellite measurements began in 1979. The average sea ice extent for the month of September was 4.28 million square kilometers (1.65 million square miles), the lowest September on record, shattering the previous record for the month, set in 2005, by 23 percent (see Figure 1). At the end of the melt season, September 2007 sea ice was 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000 (see Figure 2). If ship and aircraft records from before the satellite era are taken into account, sea ice may have fallen by as much as 50 percent from the 1950s. The September rate of sea ice decline since 1979 is now approximately 10 percent per decade, or 72,000 square kilometers (28,000 square miles) per year (see Figure 3)."

(NSIDC Oct. 1, 2007 Press Release)
How big is the difference between the 2005 record low ice extent and 2007?

"The minimum for 2007 shatters the previous five-day minimum set on September 20–21, 2005, by 1.19 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles), roughly the size of Texas and California combined, or nearly five United Kingdoms."

(NSIDC, September 20th, 2007)

This year looks to break last year's melt records. One major factor that could play out this year is that because of last year's record melt, the new ice that formed over the winter is especially thin. "NIC scientist Todd Arbetter suggests that much of the first-year ice is likely to melt by the end of summer, saying that despite the total ice extent appearing normal, the relative amount of multi-year ice going into this summer is very low when compared to climatological averages" (NSIDC News, June 3, 2008).

So why should we care? Well, besides scientific curiosity, scientists agree that arctic sea ice is an potent indicator of climate change. Like other studies on climate change, things have been progressing in the arctic much faster than anyone predicted. A quick search shows this trend:

Nov. 4th, 2004: "Global warming is causing the Arctic ice-cap to melt at such an unprecedented rate that by the summer of 2070 it may have no ice at all . . ."

Dec. 12th, 2006: "The recent retreat of Arctic sea ice is likely to accelerate so rapidly that the Arctic Ocean could become nearly devoid of ice during summertime as early as 2040 . . ."

Dec. 12th, 2007
: "Arctic summers ice free by 2013."

Some reports suggest that the arctic could be ice free this summer. The good news is that since arctic ice floats on the water, the melting does not directly contribute to a rise in sea levels. The bad news is that the effects of the melting are not limited to simply the ice on the water. New science suggests that "[p]ermafrost as far as 900 miles inland melts at more than three-times the usual rate when the sea ice melts rapidly, as it did last summer . . ." The article goes on to state that:
"Melting permafrost – frozen soil – would release massive amounts of carbon. Arctic soils hold 30% of the carbon currently stored in the world's soils. The result of melting: carbon dioxide and methane would enter the atmosphere at a rate to rival thousands of factories and power plants running at full steam. Global warming would increase, causing additional melting, which would result in additional emissions, additional warming, additional melting .... You get the point."
I feel that within the next few years we will experience some sort of natural event that brings home the realities of climate change to people on a visceral, rather than purely intellectual, level. An ice-free arctic would be a powerful symbol and could perhaps be the wake-up call we need to actually treat climate change as the existential threat it is.

I'll be following this topic over the next several months, but if you are interested check out the NSIDC's RSS feed.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mirth and Matter Challenge

You look at the front page every day and it's hard to get through everything. A lot of articles you just gloss over. Maybe it's the sensationalist media not sensationalizing something enough. Maybe it's the concept that whatever the headline concerns doesn't really affect your life that much. Either way, I have an interesting challenge for all of the Mirth and Matter contributors.

For the next week I want you to scan your news sites. Keep tabs on what goes on, what the news-worthy trends are, and try to take notice of breaking news. If the story is something that you wouldn't normally read I want you to set it aside and really get into it. Try to get some background information about the topic, see what unfolds as the weeks progress. After awhile write a blog about it. Our society has such a saturation of information that it's really difficult to be an expert on something when you're just getting the Cliff's Notes version of the news. Perhaps this way we can not only become miniature experts, but we can bring readers up to speed on how deep some of these issues go. Feel free to respond to this entry with things you find that you'd like to look into.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

St. Petersburg

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Statue of Peter the Great

Canal View

Peterhof, an out-of-town palace for the Tsar, including Peter and Katherine the Great

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ

Founded at the beginning of the 18th century as Peter the Great's "window onto Europe," St. Petersburg (a.k.a. Petrograd, Leningrad) served as the capital of Russia for the majority of the last 300 years. Today, it is Russia's second largest city and Europe's fourth. Due to its relative youth, St. Pete has a decidedly different feel than ancient Moscow, and it could probably be said that it is Russia's most "continental" city. Like many European capitals, this Baltic metropolis is quite compact and the streets are narrow, making it easily walkable.

We arrived at the city center - a unique mish-mash of stately classical structures and Stalinist monumentalism criss-crossed with canals - at around 11pm, and the sun was just starting to set. St. Pete's "White Nights" (Beliye Nochi) are truly amazing for a middle-latitude dweller like myself - I also found that it greatly exacerbates jet lag (when your body is used to darkness by 8, watching the sun go down in the hours before midnight really throws you off). It is a time of celebration and street festivals for Petersburgers and tourists alike, payback for the long frigid months of winter darkness.

Many large nations have an urban soul that is defined by the dynamic between their two chief cities. In America, for instance, New York and Los Angeles define the two extremes between which most other cities lie; their dissimilarity creates the tension of the American urban imagination, and most people tend to gravitate towards one model over the other. This sort of dynamic also exists in China (Beijing and Shanghai), Brazil (São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro), Japan (Tokyo and Osaka), and Russia. It is fascinating traveling with a local because you are able to get a glimpse of the hidden underbelly of a place. Although she was slow to admit it, Katya has an instinctual dislike of St. Petersburg, or more specifically, the people who live there, citing the city's "inferiority complex" and subsequent meanness towards Muscovites. To her, the city isn't quite "Russian" enough as well - it is rooted in modern Euro-fetishization and designed to a large degree by Italian and German architects and engineers; this is not at all the ancient Rus embodied in the old cities of Novgorod, Kiev, Vladimir, and Pskov. As the Russian city most visited by foreigners (cruise lines frequently stop here), there is also the concern that camera-toting tourists will spend an afternoon strolling through St. Pete's beautiful streets then go home with a false impression of the country. Just as New York and Los Angeles are both simultaneously unrepresentative of America and quintessentially American, the dynamic between Moscow and St. Pete is similarly wrought with this interesting tension.

Being an American well-traveled in the capitals of Europe and not a Muscovite with a keen ear to the spicy schism, St. Petersburg struck me as a beautiful, sophisticated, and lively city. Perhaps the very things that Katya dislikes about it are what makes it such a popular draw with foreigners - it is much more deeply familiar than Moscow and easier to understand. One feels they could be walking through Amsterdam, Brussels, or Prague here; it doesn't feel overwhelmingly "Russian."

Visiting St. Petersburg reinforces to me the importance of seeing both cities while traveling in Russia. Moscow (along with the ancient cities mentioned earlier) is the "Russian" half of the country, and St. Petersburg is the "European" half, but both cities are 100% Russian.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Baba Galya's Story

When you head out of wealthy, modern Moscow by car, it becomes immediately clear that the economic boom of the big cities is not reaching small rural communities. Villages are almost entirely based on agriculture, and young people are leaving in droves for greater job opportunities in Moscow, St.Petersburg, Tver, and other regional centers. As the elderly residents die off, their houses are left to the elements - for every intact, inhabited home in these small villages, there is another one that is abandoned and collapsing. One can't help but wonder about the future of such communities.

Last week Katya and I took a walk around the village of Lohovo, which consists of about seven homes and a main "street" that runs through the middle of town (an empty isle of grass, really). We were sitting down outside of an old and ornately decorated wooden house when an old woman in a head scarf leaned her head out the window and started chatting with us (by "us," I mean Katya). After saying hello, she invited us back into her courtyard for a conversation. Though bend with age, she had a quick smile and a nimble step, and soon we were all seated at a table on her back porch looking out over her large garden of carrots, potatos, and apples. It didn't take much prodding on Katya's part for her to open up and start telling us about her life.

Baba Galya ("Baba" is an honorific title given to elderly women) is an 80 year old who has lived in Lohovo her whole life, and none of it has been easy. During the Soviet era, she worked on a collective farm, but was never paid for her labor, meaning that she worked for free during the day and supported herself and her two daughters (her husband was killed in the war) through other means. Today, she receives a small government pension, but still basically supports herself through her small farm. "It is very difficult," she confided, with her children in the big cities miles away and the village population getting older and older.

The most striking tale of woe in her story, however, had to do with her expereince during World War II. During those terrible years over 60 years ago, Baba Galya lost all three of her brothers, her father, and her husband - all the men in her life were taken from her by German bullets. Sadly, this sort of story is not at all uncommon among the elderly in Russian, and especially with the residents of tiny Lohovo. The calm beauty and quietude of the village today belies the fact that a major battle took place here in 1942; Baba Galya herself is the care-taker of a small monument to the fallen soldiers that lies just outside of town in a forest where weapons and bullets from the fight are still routinely found. From the dirt road leading to the village, you can still see old trenches and concrete forts used by Soviet troops to defend the area (see picture). Last year, another old woman in the village told Katya her recollections of the German occupation: the Nazis hearded villagers into a barn, locked the door, and set it on fire. The agony of these bloody few years is still accutely felt among the population of Lohovo, 65 years after the fighting ended.

In Russia, World War II is referred to as "The Great Patriotic War," and we in the west often forget the immense, almost incomprehensible devastation that the Germans brought to the Soviet Union. In school, we learn about Normandy being the decisive turning point in the war, when in fact the whole Western Front was really very minor compared to the action out east. All told, the USSR suffered some 24 million deaths - the majority of which were civilian - as well as the complete destruction of its major cities; America, by contrast, lost 419,000 souls, only a thousand of which were civilians.

Traveling around Russia really makes you realize the catastrophic impact the war had on this country. There is not a single major Russian city (in European Russia, at least) that was not barbarized by the Germans, and a full telling of this story is more than I can comprehend, let alone write about here. Moscow was bombed into rubble; the ancient cities of Velikiy Novgorod, Pskov, and Smolensk were all flattened, and the vast majority of all 11th-12th century churches found in these places now are reconstructions; the battle for Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) was the most devastating seige in human history, with some 1.5 million civilian casualties, many of them due to the Nazi's strategy of starving the city into submission. The picture below is a sign printed on a wall of a building downtown instructing citizens to stay on that side of the street to stay clear of the heaviest bombardment. It is hard to imagine today, walking around this charming and sophisticated city, that sixty-five years ago it was hell on earth.

I don't mean to get too dark with this post but it is an important fact to remember: Russia sacrificed more than any other nation to defeat the Nazis in Europe. All too often in American schools, the US is painted as a kind savior that stepped in to save the world from barbarism, when the truth is much more complex. When I looked into Baba Galya's eyes - or any very old Russian for that matter - it was amazing to imagine the hardship and instability she's experienced during her life. Very very old Russians today have seen the overthrow of the tsar and rise of the world's first communist nation in 1917; they have lived through their own government terrorizing them (Stalin perhaps killed more Russians than the Germans); they have survived the complete destruction of their society at the hands of the axis powers; and they have seen the Soviet system collapse in the late 80s/early 90s. If people talk about the quality of fatalism in Russian literature, perhaps this attitude is not unfounded.

Such seizmic changes and conflict over the course of a single human life are almost impossible for most Americans to understand. We have the fortune of being geographically isolated from many of the world's conflicts; our government is stable and powerful; our people are relatively wealthy. Perhaps the most traumatizing events in most elderly Americans' lives are the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the JFK assassination, and 9/11. These were horrifying and destabilizing events, to be sure, but none of them amounted to the collapse of our government or the devastation of our population. The trials that the average Russian faced in the twentieth century are an altogether different order of tragedy. The only word I can think of to describe Baba Galya's perseverence is "Promethean."

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

R.I.P., Lenin

There are few tourist activities in a major world city that involve the dead body of a man who's been deceased for decades (Beijing has this fine distinction as well). If you have a spare hour in central Moscow, one the most singularly bizarre and creepy things you can do is to visit the mausoleum of V.I. Lenin. Katya was too freaked out or indifferent to pay homage, so I did this one solo, and I must report to our readers what a strange experience it was.

As can be expected, security was extra tight. After two check points and metal detectors, visitors must leave all objects at the gate as well as read a sign explaining the dos and don'ts of Lenin-viewing (for example, no laughing is permitted). After a lot of waiting, I entered the mausoleum, which was erected in honor of the fallen leader in the mid-1920s.

As you enter the structure, a soldier standing underneath a massive hammer and sickle directs you to turn right, where you descend into the inner sanctum of the building and all lights go out. It is amazing how almost perfectly dark it is inside, and the American in me immediately started thinking about possible litigation as a result of falling down. Soldiers line the walls in the darkened hall, directing you forward and sometimes even pulling your arm to keep you moving in the right direction through a twisting series of corridors. The whole journey reminded me of a Halloween haunted house, with invisible hands guiding a line of people through the darkness. Without warning, you enter the central chamber, a blood-red marble rotunda with a beam of light shining down from the ceiling to illuminate the casket. Contrary to my expectations of a wax Madame Toussade's looking body, Lenin looked just like a real man, and it was chilling to think that this same flesh was once one of the most significant figures in the twentieth century. For a man who died in 1924, he looked amazingly life like - they refurbish the body every day to keep him in good shape, and his skin was the brightest source of light in the room, glowing away in the dark. Visitors walk on an elevated platform around the body before exiting into the light of day again.