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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: March 2010

Two Little Principles

The midterm elections are upon us, so every talking head and their politically savvy dog are busy compiling long laundry lists of things that need to be washed, bleached, mended or fixed. We all agree that something is seriously rotten in the state of Washington, but there is little agreement as to where the stench is actually coming from.

Belligerent polemics prickling with pointy index fingers are being bandied around on both sides of the congressional aisle. Opaque, convoluted and often logic skirting arguments are launched into the journalistic stratosphere from independent launching iPads. Yet, in my view there are 2 really simple principles whose implementation would go a long way toward rectifying the messed up public affairs.

Localization: decisions should be made as close to home as possible.
What matters to the neighborhood, should be decided upon by the neighborhood. What can be settled at the city level should be settled at the city level and never enter the state agenda. And what can be solved on the state level, should never enter the federal debate. Simple isn't it? So why is our Federal government so hopelessly overgrown? Why do the Washington bureaucrats try to dictate to people in Montana, Massachusetts or Missouri how to conduct their daily business? I see two reasons: first, once the easy paper pushing jobs are created, their holders will scream bloody murder if they are taken from them, and second, by centralizing the decisions, their makers are conveniently insulated from angry mobs should mistakes be made. After all, the trip to DC is much more expensive than a bus ride to your state or county offices.

Sound money: whatever money you earn should keep its purchasing value.
A person earning a decent living should not worry that his or her dollar will be worth only 60 cents in the next decade and only 40 cents in the decade after that. Stability of the currency facilitates sound and long term financial planning. Continuous tinkering with the monetary supply (which affects any currency's strength) only entices people to seek poorly understood financial instruments. The argument that without inflation our economy couldn't grow is ridiculous. If we based our currency on something more solid than the Federal Reserve Bank's reputation grew its supply in proportion with the volume of goods and services, inflation would never dare to rear its ugly head. The loss of the purchasing power we have been experiencing simply means that money is being printed faster that the amount of goods it is chasing. And who might be interested in doing just that? Well, the bankers who get the interest, and then the ineffective and unproductive segments of the economy that would never have survived in the value based system.

That's pretty simple, isn't it? But don't expect to see these principles on the banners and flyers this November. Simplicity is not in the vogue this election season.

Beethoven's Ninth

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 differs from its eight sisters in at least two regards. First, it is more a testimony about human strength than a piece of music, and second, it is organically conjoined with another great choir opus - Missa Solemnis. Trying to understand the message of either work without knowing the other is like watching the first and last five episodes of a TV show and skipping the ten episodes in between. You will kind of get the feel for the plot, but it won't make much sense.

Sometime in early 1820s, Beethoven must have realized that the support beams of his last symphony were not strong enough to support the intellectual and spiritual weight that was being bestowed upon them. Higher authority had to be brought in to bear upon matters at hand. Over the course of almost two years he disappeared into the desert to consult with his God. Like Michelangelo, he strapped himself to the ceiling of his Sistine chapel and created one of the most intriguing murals in musical history. Missa solemnis, contrary to its apparent divine bias, is a detailed map of the human soul and only mastering the intricacies of its perplexing labyrinth helped Beethoven to turn his last symphony into a pinnacle of the western culture.

The Ninth and Missa are not only works of the same caliber, but also works of the same spirit. They were mixed in the same crucible and share the blistering heat of the same mental forge. Some parallels are obvious. The central fugues of both pieces ("Seid Umschlungen" and "Et vitam venturi saeculi") come in two parts - one slow and one fast. There is also a spirited march-like instrumental interlude in their last movement (one in Agnus Dei and one in the Ode to Joy following the words "Zum Siegen). But there are also more subtle similarities. For instance in the Ninth, on words "Deine Zauber", the soprano voice tries to escape into dizzying heights only to be overtaken and engulfed by a thundering choir. There is a very similar moment in the fugue at the end of Gloria.

About 20 years ago, I saw a live performance of the Ninth. The conductor in a dark tuxedo came to a podium, bowed to the audience, turned around and extended both of his hands. The silence was so palpable you could hear the pin drop. The conductor then slightly flexed his index finger and the whole symphonic colossus was set into motion by this barely perceptible motion of his hand. As if you removed a wedge from underneath a new ship and watched it majestically descend down the slipway and into water. I always thought that that minuscule gesture was more powerful than any theatrical arm waving other conductors employ. If I ever become an eccentric millionaire, I will buy an evening with the New York Philharmony and I will do just that. Tease that mysterious ship out of its docks with a motion of my index finger.

The opening of the Ninth serves its audiences a dose of a condensed anticipation. The surrounding air trembles with a vision of a great journey ahead. You can sense its depth in the crisp morning air as the ship loosens its moorings and leaves the port. You can hear the massive wooden vessel cautiously inching forward into the open sea, its hull pushing through thick layers of seaweeds while its towering masts disappear in sketchy shreds of fog. The descending fourth evokes the specter of destiny hovering above the waters, much like the descending minor third did in his fifth symphony. It is a harbinger of great battles ahead.

There is a subtle difference in this comparison though. When he was composing the Fifth, he was in his mid thirties and ready to grab the fate by its throat as he liked to say. In the Ninth the tone of the confrontation has changed. There is a passage in the the first movement (about one third into it) where you can still detect the great warrior who tames the hydra of destiny with his bare hands. You can hear his stubborn fists tirelessly banging at the gates. But the winter lion tires out eventually. In its dying moments, long shadows of futility crawl onto the stage and you enter an altered landscape. Desolate plains of destitute roamed by ghosts in frilled veils. A preview of late Gustav Mahler.

One thing to Beethoven's credit is his honesty and authenticity. He could have easily ended the movement on an upbeat note. Couple of fake major chords would do the trick. But they would not reflect the true state of his mind. His soul searching odyssey began in the bleak twilight of the first movement's last measures and it probably took much longer than he anticipated. While he was negotiating the lonesome passageways of his half-finished cathedral, he created next two movements for the symphony in which he attempted to escape from the unsatisfying conclusion of its opening. Scherzo is a briskly paced phantasmagoric vision reminiscent of a rustic folklore dance, an orgiastic swirl of cavorting elfs running tirelessly nowhere and back and performed with the happy abandon of inebriated peasants. The following adagio, in sharp contrast, is a delicate parachute jump of a sweet memory. A pleasingly intoxicating dream floating outside of time's boundaries. But neither the earthly frenzy of the scherzo nor ethereal contemplative calm of the adagio brings any resolution. Fortunately, one is about to emerge from the depths of Agnus Dei, clad in the immortal verses of Friedrich Schiller.

The opening dissonance of the fourth movement is a rude awakening form the lolling tones of adagio, a lightning bolt ripping the previous story to unrecognizable shreds. The pause preceding the Finale is probably the most timing sensitive break in the musical literature. It needs precise execution. The harrowing chord mustn't come immediately after Adagio so the falling feather of its last melody has time to land, but it must be swift in its arrival, otherwise there would be no redolent memory to awaken from. I'd say between one and three seconds. Razor sharp margin. Sadly, I have witnessed performances where the conductor takes an actual break of 10 to 30 seconds in which people can clear their throats and blow their noses. That is a botched butchery. The cleaver of the Finale needs a wallop of meat to sink into.

That chord that drills into your frontal lobes at the onset of Finale is also an attention grab - a judge's gavel in an disarrayed court-room. For the first time in the musical literature, a judgment will be passed on the previous movements. No sooner does the unsettling bugle call die away that a battery of double basses take the floor. Single-handedly. A sign that something extraordinary is going to happen. The curtain is still drawn, the stage is hidden from view. Beethoven must have felt that introducing voice into a symphony was so revolutionary that a listener may need to know how he got there. We are going to witness a remarkable curtain raiser and double basses will be our guide, usher and narrator. This is the part where you don't listen to the music, you listen to the composer himself.

The first order of business is a recap of the previous three movements, which makes it clear that the whole symphony is one organic body, rather than a traditional collage of unrelated pieces. One by one the echos of three movements parade in front of our ears, and one by one they are rejected by the Double Bass Court - although adagio is declined with audible hesitation. You can sense that Beethoven would love to dwell in its soothing embrace one more time. But it is not to be. Greater items are on the agenda.

Beethoven's chronicler and companion Anton Schindler was genuinely puzzled by this theater within a theater and complained that the recitative of contrabasses will not make any sense. Beethoven dismissed his concerns and retorted that if need be, he'll give the double bass players specific words so they could sing along during their soliloquy (Romain Rolland quotes those words in his excellent 5-tome biography). I once saw a performance where the bass players were sitting in a poorly lit orchestra pit and all I could discern in the darkness were their glowing eyes. That created a powerful almost mystical image of tremendous focus and dedication. They seemed feverishly insane and it felt strangely appropriate there. Beethoven himself must have been when he was composing this symbolic prelude - pacing restlessly to and fro in the castle of his deafness.

Few people desired joy, pure joy, as much as he did. And from few it was denied with such cruel vehemence. Among deafness, illnesses, romantic disasters, financial problems and the lost custody battle for his nephew Carl there was very little reason for joy. At the end, Beethoven had no choice but to mold it out from the tissue of his own inner world. What price he had to pay for it and how long he had to wait, we will never know. But when it came, at the long last, its theme had become so special that he was afraid to touch it, to bend it, to develop it, to even breathe in its direction. In this moment of sacred amazement, audience is the last thing on his mind. This moment is his true Benedictus: "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini".

In Missa solemnis, the joy descended from heaven, cascading down from high altitudes at the end of Credo (in the first part of the "Et vitam venturi" fugue). In the Ninth, the joy comes from the deepest layers of his own soul. He lets double basses, his old comrades, present its theme. Any time I hear this passage, I can see Beethoven crouching in a dark recess of a gallery, watching the performance the way an anxious father watches the first steps of his child, standing ready to shred to pieces any instrument that would dare to get in the way. Only when the theme completes its cycle, he lets it percolate through violas, then violins and finally into the open spaces of the whole orchestra. Three times we hear the same theme, strengthening each round, finding more and more solid ground under its feet, until it culminates in a glorious fanfare. Drumroll ensues.

The dissonant chord thunders again to remind us that we are back where we started from. The pantomime is over. The curtain can go up now. The solution has been found and will be presented shortly: "Oh Freunde, nicht diese Tone! Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen und freudenvollere!".

The Finale that follows is the Universe in its own right. Beyond the realm of any description. Allegedly, words of the ancient Roman poet Horace were scribbled on the manuscript: "Exegi monumentum, aere perennius". And rightly so. I can see the twin galaxies of Beethoven's choral masterpieces recorded on a golden disk one day and sent into the outer space to represent the finest achievement of human thought.


To tarp or not to tarp

Referendum - what a concept! The ultimate teat of democracy.

Not so long ago, one of the private banks in Iceland fell under the impression that credit geysers were financial equivalents of the fountain of youth. As that didn't quite turn out to be true, the bank went belly up and Dutch and British savers who were lured in by promises of higher interest lost all their money in the process. Their governments stepped in to cover the losses and now they are asking the Iceland taxpayers to pony up about 5 billion dollars since the bank was insured by the Iceland government, i.e. by the taxpayers.

This is a great example of what happens when insurance underwriters operate under the assumption that bad things will never happen. Aren't you supposed to have some sort of collateral or sufficient capital reserves when you take on such monstrous risks? When did people of Iceland express permission to let their financial system degenerate into a perverted farce in which fisherman, horse farmers, hoteliers, artists, and pretty much all able bodied citizens were on the hook for the greed and stupidity of private bankers? At least the Icelandic government has the decency to hold a referendum and ask its electorate how they felt about it. Rather unsurprisingly a resounding majority (93%) of the population rejected such preposterance.

Not so long ago Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stormed into the US Congress and asked all of us - every man, woman and child, regardless of age - to shell out some $2,000 to save the overleveraged Wall Street casino from the supposedly imminent collapse. That same "collapse" from which Hank Paulson and his merry band of United Bandits of Goldman Sachs have quite handsomely profited.

The sad part is that neither George Bush, nor any representative in the Congress even mentioned the possibility that perhaps the US taxpayers should first be asked about their opinion before being burdened with such outrageous levels of debt. We can only hope that one day we will learn why the Lehman Brothers were allowed to fail while AIG, pregnant with Goldman's rotting derivatives, was generously bailed out in the tense atmosphere of post Lehman hysteria. But I am not holding my breath...

Go Figure Skate

Judging is a preemptive strike of the leveraged insecurity and as such it is a very personal and subjective business. We use bewilderingly incoherent standards when we evaluate peer performance. When we look at our friends' work, virtually anything they knock together will fly, or at least not plummet too precipitously, but our rivals and adversaries could conjure up a NASA worthy space vehicle and we would find the tiniest discoloration on its spare tire. Despite the utter lack of objectivity, or because of it, people have a compulsive fascination with passing public verdict on their fellow earthlings. For proof go no further than figure skating.

How do we rank achievement in a sport that blends athletic and artistic ingredients? Do we carry out rigorous measurements of the height of triple Rittbergers? Do we calculate statistical deviations from constant curvature on all skated arcs? Do we analyze the video records to extract the precise RPM readings of the spun pirouettes? Nah, we have judges who judge away based on the Guidelines of International Skating Union, their gut feelings, some chicken entrails lying around in their minds and, last but not least, on political pressures back home. Pairs of trained eyes monitor skaters' programs and when the music stops, the whole gig enters into a big crunching machine known as human brain which in a matter of mere seconds spits out numerical scores that single-handedly coronate the Kings of the Rinks. You think that could potentially cause some problems? Imagine the track and field competition where a solemn body of international jurors surrounds the long jump sand box and after each leap passes the marks for artistic merit and technical difficulty, the latter not based on measurement but rather on eyeballing the landing skid marks in the sand. That is a breeding ground for grievances right there.

Mens figure skating competition during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver featured a highly charged duel between American Evan Lysacek and Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. Although Plushenko sported a quadruple jump and was generally deemed more technically skilled, at the end of the day the gold went to Lysacek allegedly on higher artistic integrity, setting off a tempest in the glass of frozen water. Celebrities from former champions to Russian Premier Vladimir Putin proffered their viewpoints, hand wringing and eyebrow lifting became the favorite postolympic discipline, and the end of figure skating as we know it temporarily supplanted the financial crisis as the most likely trigger for the pending Armageddon. All the turbocharged hysteria was of course fueled by Plushenko himself. In dealing with his defeat, he displayed truculence of a sixth grader and on his webpage even awarded himself the platinum medal. That is what you get when you mix sports with arts.

But since we are such judgment junkies anyway, I would like to propose another Winter Olympic game that will combine the artistic expression with athletic execution. Its layout should satisfy the arbitration needs of the most ambitious of all the Supreme Court emulators. I'll call it a paintbrush biathlon. You know that sport where cross-country skiers lie down and shoot at the target for extra points? Well, you have the right idea, except this time instead of a loaded rifle they would whip up a paintbrush and a palette and paint an impromptu still life of a snowy scenery. A panel of judges would then award extra credits for artistic merit of the paintings, which together with time would determine the final winner.

Any Cezanne wannabes wanna start cross-country ski practice?


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