Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sunday Night Music Review: Officium by Jan Garbarek

Actually, by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.

First, some background. Jan Garbarek, for those of you unfamiliar with his work, is a Norwegian sax player who plays jazz in sort of the same sense that Keith Jarrett does. Which is to say, his particular kind of improvisational musical expression isn't derived exclusively or primarily from the blues, but also from his own idiosyncratic musical experience (as Jarrett's appears to be derived from his deep appreciation of classical music as much as the "traditonal" jazz masters). He's famously a cold, austere player - he likes to play long notes and his compositions tend to have a lot of aural "space" to them. He's not afraid of silence, or slow, repetitive motifs that sort of surreptitiously build into more complex and interesting things over time. He's a favorite of mine, and he doesn't sound like anyone else I can think of.

This, incidentally, points up something to think about regarding American music. American music - at least, modern American popular music - is just about unthinkable to me without some reference to the blues. The kinds of chord changes and phrases we're conditioned to hear in pop music today are largely derived from the blues. Jazz can be as cerebral and difficult as any music out there, but it's usually still rooted in the blues. We don't, I think, pay this much mind in a typical day, but it struck me forcibly listening to this disk, which features the Hilliard Ensemble singing a collection of medieval chants (exotic and odd sounding to me today I think precisely because they have nothing to do with the blues) while accompanied by Jan Garbarek (who, as I mentioned, has his own unique style of playing that is "jazz" only in some technical or formal sense - it has relatively little to do with (say) Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis).

So, what does Officium sound like? It sounds kind of odd, actually. The whole thing sounds like an unlikely concept-art project, melding chant and saxophone improvisations. Not unlike some kind of weird cousin of a mash-up album in some respects. And in fact, the liner notes make a case for the existence of chant as being a sort of fossilization of an earlier, freer, more improvisational vocal style that died when it was written down. The author of the liner notes explicitly compares chant to The Odyssey, that work being another example of an oral tradition that was frozen when it became written down. It's certainly true, in a slightly different context, that musicians of the Baroque period were in the habit of playing small improvisational passages during composed works, and that that practice died out later on as people came to expect that the musicians would play works exactly as written. Perhaps the same thing happened with chant, too. It's hard to know, and it's pretty much pure speculation on the part of the author of the liner notes. But it is the thread that ties together the apparently random juxtaposition of Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.

As to what it sounds like... again, it's hard to describe. I have yet to get past the weirdness of hearing the saxophone accompanying the chant. In some ways, Garbarek is the perfect guy to play with an early-music group, since he's not the kind of player who steps on the toes of the rest of the band. He leaves a lot of space, and in general his playing emphasizes or accentuates the movement of the voices in the chant. It's an interesting effect, and it was well worth the super-cut-rate used-bargain-bin price I paid for it. Sometimes, though, the sax seems like an intrusion on music that, after all, was never intended to be accompanied in the first place. The album as a whole has the feel to me of a partially-successful experiment. Which, it turns out, was repeated: the same performers teamed up for a disc called Mnemosyne that I'm fairly curious about.

In short, I like the album, but I can't say I'd recommend it to anyone unless they already had an interest in chant, or Jan Garbarek's sax playing, or better yet both. It might also be worth a listen if you like really unusual music. On the other hand, if you're just looking for some nice background music for work, or some rockin' tunes for a road trip - and sometimes, that's just what the doctor ordered - probably best to look elsewhere.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Dare to be Stupid

My father-in-law has mentioned occasionally that he thinks the next big smoking-type battle in American health will be over obesity and the sale of basically unhealthy food to people. His point being that obesity is a huge health issue in the United States, and that as people become aware of the dangers, there will be increasing pressure put on politicians to Do Something about it.

New York appears to be among the first in the nation to move forward with this. Today, the New York Times reported that the city health department has urged city restaurants to stop selling food with trans fats. It's a strictly voluntary program for now, but the NYC's health commissioner likened trans fats to asbestos and lead. In a year the city will conduct another survey and decide what further steps, if any, need to be taken to curb the consumption of trans fats.

In other, apparently unrelated news, the NHTSA released a study about the effects of the repeal of the mandatory helmet law in Florida. To the surprise of probably nobody, the major result has been an increase in the fatalities and serious injuries suffered by motorcyclists in accidents. The relative frequency of accidents involving motorcycles has remained fairly constant with the population of motorcylcists; but the number of accidents where the rider was killed increased dramatically.

These two items both address a fundamental tension in a democratic society. By just about any standard, riding a motorcycle without a helmet is a foolish thing to do - even the best motorcyclist can get cut off or hit by a car weighing over a ton and moving at speed, to say nothing of trucks and SUVs. The helmet is, as the Florida data shows, a life-saving device. In the same way, we know that trans fats are bad for people who eat them in almost every way; they have almost no nutritive value and can lead to some seriously bad health problems.

Each case seems to present a straightforward case of bad or foolish behavior with little to recommend it. So it's understandable that, with the best of intentions, some people would try to ban them - mandatory helmet laws were once common, and the town of Tiburon in California has apparently banned the sale of trans fats in its restaurants. Except...

Well, people like to do it. People like riding bareheaded down the highway on their choppers. People like eating rich, trans-fat laden desserts. And although we know the behavior is wrong, do we have the right to prevent them from doing it? Put another way, does the community interest in keeping people alive and healthy outweigh the individual's right to enjoy himself even if the way he enjoys himself is unhealthy, dangerous, or borderline suicidal?

Here, in general, I think we have to say "No." At either extreme, of course, things are unpleasant: a society in which "Do as thou wilt" really is the whole of the law wouldn't be much of a society in any meaningful way; and a society so protective of its members' well-being as to regulate virtually all their behavior would be insufferable. But in between those extremes, a balance has to be struck. And generally speaking, we shouldn't be in the habit of regulating behavior that affects only the individual doing it.

It's true that obesity and its related illnesses cost us all fantastic sums as health care costs, and the same is true of the dead or incapacitated motorcyclists who would have survived had they been wearing helmets. But these I think are costs we need to bear as part of the price of living in a more-or-less free society. The whole point of liberty is the opportunity for self-government. The exercise of one's own judgment about what risks and moral choices are appropriate for oneself is a benefit that's not really calculable in monetary terms; it is literally priceless.

The question becomes murkier when we consider behavior like smoking that actually does affect other people; the effects of second-hand smoke are well-documented. And in that case, where the behavior is not merely harming the smoker, but people around him, I can see the point of regulating the behavior. Not to protect the smoker from himself, but as a matter of public health to protect non-smokers from joining in the habit against their will. A motorcyclist or a McDonald's customer, though, isn't making other people ride without a helmet or forcing a royale with cheese down his neighbor's protesting throat. It's all well and good for New York to warn its citizens about the dangers of trans fats, but hopefully they'll have the good sense to leave the decision about what people want to eat to the people who are actually doing the eating.

Regardless of how super-sized they get as a result.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Larry Krueger Steps In It

Those of you outside the Bay Area may be aware of the fact that the Giants just aren't very good this year. However, you're probably not aware of the fracas that's been stirred up since the end of last week, when a commentator on the Giants' flagship station, KNBR, took the team to task by commenting, among other things, about the team's "brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly." He also had some choice words for Felipe Alou, regarding whom he opined that "You have a manager in Felipe whose mind has turned to Cream of Wheat."

This would be obnoxious enough just about anywhere, but in a town like San Francisco and with a manager like Felipe who, whatever his managerial shortcomings, takes absolutely zero guff from anyone and also experienced racism American-style back in the '50s as a minor-leaguer in Louisiana - well, you've got the makings of an old-fashioned mud-wrestling match. Add into that the fact that KNBR actually owns (a very small) part of the Giants and is the only sports-radio station in the area with major-league wattage and the story only gets weirder. Thus far, KNBR has suspended Krueger for a week but not fired him; the Giants haven't demanded any firings but have cancelled some of their pre-game hype shows and just generally look pretty cheesed off. Particularly Felipe and the seven or so Latin American players on the active roster.

Without getting into how big an ass Krueger made of himself from a racist-comment-making perspective, was he even right? That is, have the Giants' "Caribbean players" been "brain-dead" and "hacking at slop every night"?

Weeelll... no. Let's look at the guys Krueger might plausibly have been referring to:

  • Moises Alou: hitting .328/.418/.507 with 46 walks and just 32 strikeouts.
  • Pedro Feliz: hitting .267/.309/.446 with 26 walks and 66 strikeouts
  • Alex Sanchez: hitting .324/.353/.432 with 8 walks and 34 strikeouts in limited action
  • Omar Vizquel: hitting .290/.350/.382 with 36 walks and 35 strikeouts. Also providing Gold Glove-caliber defense at short.
  • Deivi Cruz: hitting .265/.299/.384 with 9 walks and 26 strikeouts in a backup role.
  • Edgardo Alfonzo: hitting .295/.349/.372 with 21 walks and 24 strikeouts.
Giants hitters altogether are hitting .267/.326/.398 with 310 walks and 575 strikeouts. It's not just the "Caribbean" players who are "swinging at slop" and of the regulars, only Feliz has been striking out a lot - Alou, Vizquel, and Alfonzo haven't been hacking away like there's no tomorrow at the plate.

Keep in mind that currently, the Giants rank 4th in the National League in batting, but just 12th in OBP and 14th in slugging. That's bad hitting, folks, but it's not just Alou, Alfonzo, Vizquel, Feliz, Cruz, and Sanchez doing the damage; it's been a team effort. And the real problem hasn't been making contact with the ball; it's been a lack of power hitting. So Krueger's not only making a fool of himself, but he's got his facts wrong.

KNBR correctly suspended him for making some racist comments about the Giants' players; they should fire him for not knowing what the heck he's talking about.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sunday Night Music Review: Machaut's Motets

Continuing on my "early-music" exploration, I stumbled across a copy of the Hilliard Ensemble singing 18 of Guillaume de Machaut's motets. Almost literally, I mean; I was at a record store and tripped over a loose tile in the floor while looking for the "Used Blues" section and looked up and saw this disc. It is Kismet, I thought.

And boy am I glad I did! I've only had a little bit of time with it so far, but I like it a lot. Machaut was/is an early polyphonist; unlike chant (including the work of Hildegard von Bingen, who I'm reliably informed wrote music to be sung in unison), polyphony lets individual singers cut loose with their own lines, which makes the whole thing much more complex and in some ways more modern-sounding. To the extent that passionately religious a cappella motets sung in medieval French and Latin can sound "modern," I suppose.

Motets are kind of an interesting song form. From the liner notes, it appears that the motet is a little bit like reading a poem or a passage in a book - and at the same time reading commentary and exegesis of the poem or passage - sometimes two or three at once. The effect would be presumably greater if I spoke medieval French or Latin, but reading along with the liner notes (which helpfully translate the stuff that's being sung) is a big help. One, entitled "Fine amour, qui me vint naverer" ("True love, who came to pierce me") kicks off with the triplum (the highest of the three voices, I think) singing "Death, how I hate you..." and mines a rich vein of pain, sorrow, anger, and despair that proves to be tremendously moving and intricately beautiful. You haven't heard grief transmuted into song until you've heard it in 14th-century French, I'm telling you.

Anyhow, I'm seriously digging this disc, and if I can track down a copy of his Messe de Notre Dame, I'm going to be all over that action.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Terrorism and Terrorists

Today, in a thread over at one of my regular haunts, a fellow going by the handle redmarkYankee had some interesting things to say about how we define terrorists (see the whole post here, at post #97):

"Apart from what constitutes incitement (funding, support of 'aims',
justification of violence in the cause...), what constitutes terrorism exactly? I'm old enough to remember (and studied some of the semantics in a
Politics degree) the argument that the IRA, for instance, was not terrorist, in
the early days, when it attacked only military or political targets.

Is a Palestinian suicide bomber who attacks an Israeli military position in illegally occupied territories a terrorist, or an insurgent (using
'insurgent as the 'neutral' term - 'terrorist' or 'freedom fighter' having
opposite judgemental connotations)? What if a civilian is killed inadvertently
in such an attack ('collateral damage')? Is an Iraqi suicide bomber who attacks
US/UK occupying forces a terrorist, or an insurgent? Is it possible to be an
'illegal enemy combatant' in your own country against occupying forces? What
were the French Resistance in WW2?

A British MP (Jenny Tonge) said a
couple of years ago that she could understand how young Palestinians
could turn to violence, after a visit to Palestinian refugee camps. Is that
indirect incitement? Clearly Eck and others would be willing to use any means
to defend the 1st Amendment, from their own government - are
others not allowed to use any means necessary to fight for
self-determination or against occupation? If Iraqis had risen against Saddam 5
years ago and used violence, would that have been terrorism? Are supporters not
allowed to fund, or publicly defend them? Or does that depend on "our" judgement
on the validity of the cause? It's ok for the west to fund Bin Laden and friends
when fighting against Commies, but not for his co-religionists when he's
fighting against us?.

None of this is to support AQ, or funders of
AQ, or those who advocate the bombing of civilians. It is to point out that
there are enough laws to deal with 'terrorism' already - and that we don't have
any clear agreement on what terrorism actually is, except that 'our'
definition seems to vary depending on the colour/nationality/religion of the
terrorists/insurgents/freedom fighters (delete as suits your personal opinion in
any given situation)."

I really liked this post, not least because of some of the historical context he provided in his well-taken observation about how "terrorism" and "terrorists" are defined. And, given the "Global War on Terror" that we're engaged in (or, if you prefer, the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"), it seems like a perfectly legitimate question: who are we fighting?

Obviously, one answer is "Al Qaeda" - but this isn't as simple as it looks, because a lot of smart, experienced people seem to think that whatever Al Qaeda was four years ago, today it's more of a loose affiliation of violent radical Islamists who share goals and maybe training, but don't have any specific hierarchical structure. And, given the way that the ongoing occupation of Iraq has drawn violent would-be martyrs from across the globe like a flame draws moths, it's by no means a sufficient explanation of who, exactly, we're fighting.

It's thorny. As redmarkYankee pointed out, depending on the definition we use for "terrorism" there doesn't seem to be much distinction between, say, the French Resistance and the Red Brigade, except that the Resistance were "good guys" (from our perspective, because they fought Nazis), and the Red Brigade were "bad guys" (from our perspective, because they were violent commies). But it's both unsatisfying and circular to say that we're fighting terrorists, and terrorists are guerillas who are fighting us.

We could try to draw a distinction between between terrorists and "insurgents" based on what and who they target: a terrorist deliberately targets innocent civilians while a 'legitimate' insurgent only targets soldiers and military installations. But as a practical matter, there's frequently only a blurry line separating the two - even 'legitimate' warfare of the sort practiced by, well, us involves collateral damage to civilians. We try to minimize this, and we've developed sophisticated tactics and rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties, but the fact remains that even in the best-planned attacks (especially against an enemy that's willing to hide behind and among civilians) some innocent life is going to be lost. So it looks more like a matter of degree - "The legitimate insurgent tries to kill fewer civilians than the terrorist" - rather than a hard-and-fast rule. This is not a very satisfactory distinction, at least not to me; and it may be that no satisfactory definition exists that does not make us complicit in some kinds of "terrorism" - which significantly undermines the moral component of the justification for fighting a "war on terror." Not the practical case; self-defense is justification is reason enough for taking on Al Qaeda and its allies in some fashion. But the idea that "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" can be readily distinguished is pretty much exploded.

This too ignores the important fact that in the "Global War on Terror" we have in fact targeted very particular terrorists. We have not gone after the ETA, or the IRA; we haven't opened up a front against FARC or the Shining Path. We've gone after radical Islamist militants.

All of which suggests to me that our labels for what we're doing against terrorism and in Iraq have been (at best) misleading; and we are only fooling ourselves if we think that our enemies and everyone in the Middle East don't see clearly that our "Global War on Terror" is in practice a fairly localized "war" on radical violent Islamists. And maybe a "war" wasn't the best way to go after them.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Toward a Coherent Political Philosophy (Part 1)

In response to my post regarding Grover Norquist and his theory that what holds the American conservative movement together is wanting "government to go away," Manny observed that "a person's poltical identity is determined by all sorts of complicated factors." I agree, wholeheartedly, and I think it's worth wondering about some of those factors.

I've been thinking about this, off and on, at least since I was in college. With Sandra Day O'Connor's recent retirement from the Supreme Court, I've been thinking about it more concretely. One of the most common criticisms of O'Connor's performance as a Justice was that she didn't really have any principles, in a legal-theory context. This in contrast to guys like Thomas and Scalia, who have a well-defined approach to deciding cases and political views that are unusually consistent. A not-infrequent explanation for O'Connor's 'unprincipled' behavior has been that her background was in politics. Unlike the Scalias and Thomases, she'd actually had to work in a legislative setting and this exposure made her more flexible and less idealistic in her approach to the law. Sometimes, it's argued that this made her more effective; it certainly made her the decisive Justice on a range of high-profile cases.

And yet, there is something attractive about having political views that are more than ad hoc reactions to current events. As Manny observed, the roots of our political opinions are complex, and it's not always clear why we think the things we do. We frequently fall back on post hoc rationalizations for views we haven't really thought through, just because "our side" holds a position on a particular issue. This can lead to some really weird places; how many people support the death penalty but oppose abortion, or vice versa? It seems to me that it would be worthwhile trying to come to some coherent political or policy principles that make practical sense and don't seem to contradict one another.

Some problems immediately present themselves, though. For one thing, is it possible, or desirable? The world is a complex place, and the fact of the matter is that principles only get you so far - if we follow principle blindly, we often wind up doing more harm than good. Perhaps the best political principle is O'Connor's mixed bag of compromise and moderation - it's not consistent, but it can be an effective way to make small steps forward. But toward what goal? That's not at all clear.

It's also possible that there is no set of political principles that are logically consistent and sound as a matter of practice. Libertarianism, for example, is impressive in its logical rigor but inhuman in any kind of strict application. I'm going to try, as far as I can, to examine my own political beliefs and see whether I can find some kind of sense to them, or if they're just a hodge-podge or mutually contradictory opinions that I've gleaned from who knows what sources and that need some reevaluation.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Rockies 4, Giants 3

I went to a night baseball game last night for the first time in years. I had a good time, despite the final score. A few observations are in order, though:
  • The food prices are pretty crazy, but you can do all right if you stay away from the beer. The beer is just insanely overpriced. $5.75 for Bud Light - I'm pretty sure I could get a 12-pack for that price. If you want, y'know, good beer - that's gonna run you seven bucks, easy. The "grande nachos" I had were $5.25, and were competitive with, say, Taco Bell in both taste and size. I didn't feel too badly abused there.
  • Pac Bell/SBC/Whatever we're calling it this season Park doesn't have bad seats, exactly, but the game really is more absorbing when you're closer to the field. We were in "View Box" seats, which are sort of hung off the upper deck. It's closer than I've ever sat at Pac Bell, and it made a difference. I'm kind of cheap, so I rarely get anything other than the Uecker seats, which made this a nice change.
  • You might think that early August would be a safe time to see the Giants at a night game and not contract hypothermia, but if you did, you'd be wrong. It was cold. Not "Candlestick in April" cold, but very chilly. Gametime temperature was reported as 61 degrees, and by the end of the game I'd bet it was (maybe) in the upper 40's. Note to self: bring a jacket or a blanket or something to night games.

As to the game itself, well, you can read a pretty good recap lots of places. A few moments really stand out, though. Such as that sequence in the fifth inning when newly-promoted catcher Yamid Haad (who looked OK, all things considered) couldn't pull in the foul (which admittedly, went approximately 15 miles into the air and may have contributed to the damaged thermal blanket on the space shuttle) popup by J.D. Closser, followed by Closser slamming a triple; and then a grounder to J.T. Snow by Omar Qunitanilla that should have ended the inning without a run scoring but didn't (I was only 500 or so feet from the play, but I'm pretty confident that, despite what the umpire right over the bag seemed to think, that Quintanilla was out!!1111); and then of course the two run homer that Matt Holliday hit that sealed the game.

I pause to note that, in an uncharacteristic display, the Giants bullpen kept the (admittedly punchless, except see what happened in the fifth) Rockies at bay. That's heartening, although anyone who thinks the Giants have a prayer of a winning record this year is delusional.

Less heartening was the bottom of the ninth, wherein the Giants loaded the bases and brought Randy Winn to the plate with two out. A base hit probably wins the game, and certainly ties it, but Winn grounded to second and that was that. It's actually worse than that, because they had a man on second with nobody out; a man on third with one out; the bases loaded with one out; and then Winn at the plate with two out - and couldn't get the run home. That kind of thing is just frustrating to watch. Presumably, also, frustrating to do, but I can only speak from the fan's perspective here, and it seems like the Giants just aren't getting the job done this year.

On another Giants-related note, a tip of the cap to Marquis Grissom, who was designated for assignment before the game. As this column by Ray Ratto makes clear, Marquis was a classy guy and a heck of a player for a long time. Here's to you, Marquis, and here's hoping you catch on with some playoff-bound team and get another shot at some October glory. The move makes the acquisition of Winn a little less crazy, but I still don't see why an older, more expensive version of Jason Ellison was a pressing need while improving a shaky starting rotation (see the fifth inning for another episode in Brett Tomko's Snakebite Showcase) wasn't a priority. I mean, if I can see the problem, presumably the professionals know it even better, but I'd personally have been willing to see the Giants either get another solid starter at almost any price, or cut the cord on this season and sell off a mess of their vets for some prospects. I think I know why they didn't, and his name is Barry Bonds, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish to dig into.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Hildegard von Bingen: An Appreciation

Recently I started listening to Gregorian chant again. Spurred in part by my college reunion (listening to and analyzing chant is one of the things you do as a sophomore there) and partly just by me wanting to listen to something a little more meditative than, say, the Mars Volta. Anyhow, my point is, I've been listening to chant (mainly) for a few weeks. Thanks to a friend's recommendation, I picked up a CD of stuff by Hildegard von Bingen. Who, it turns out, wrote some totally bitching chants.

The particular CD I have is 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula. I wasn't aware of the existence of a St. Ursula before this, but the story is basically this:

"Ursula, the daughter of a Christian king of Great Britain, was asked in marriage by the son of a great pagan king. Desiring to remain a virgin, she obtained a delay of three years. At her request she was given as companions ten young women of noble birth, and she and each of the ten were accompanied by a thousand virgins, and the whole company, embarking in eleven ships sailed for three years. When the appointed time was come, and Ursula's betrothed was about to claim her, a gale of wind carried the eleven thousand virgins far from the shores of England, and they went first by water to Cologne and thence to Basle, then by land from Basle to Rome. They finally returned to Cologne, where they were slain by the Huns in hatred of the Faith."

And but so Hildegard, herself a noblewoman who wound up in a nunnery rather than married, drew some inspiration from the legend and composed a really amazing series of chants for it.

If you're not familiar with Gregorian chant (or if your only exposure to it was from the bit sampled in that one Enigma album) you could do a lot worse than checking it out, especially if you find yourself looking for simple, evocative music that tends to calm you down rather than start you up. The chant recordings I have tend to be simple melodically, without a great deal of ornamentation - most syllables are sung with one note, the range is pretty restricted, and of course, they're sung in unison - no crazy late-medieval polyphony here!

By contrast, Hildegard really lets loose. She's not afraid at all to use half a dozen notes in a sung syllable, or to send the singers climbing ecstatically to some remarkably high notes and then come right back down. I can't be sure - my ear really isn't good enough - but I think I hear some early polyphony going on - everyone's singing the same words at the same time, but not necessarily the same notes. It's thrilling stuff, especially if you've been on a kind of aural diet for a while and can approximate what her original audience might have heard.

And, of course, there's the fact that this particular recording is sung by four women. My other chant recordings are sung by monks, and one of the reasons that Hildegard sounds so shocking, I'm sure, is because women's voices sound different. I think there are recordings of her work by male singers, and I'm kind of curious to listen to them and see how much of what I'm liking about her is more derived from the performance than the composer.

So, yeah. Hildegard is some good stuff. Check it!