Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why have we stopped being optimistic about the future?

Virginia Postrel writes:

I sympathize with science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson and venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, whose new books lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed. “I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” writes Stephenson in the preface to "Hieroglyph," a science-fiction anthology hoping “to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.” ...

[W]e have plenty of big projects. The human genome has been sequenced. Enormous libraries of books and collections of paintings and drawings have been scanned and made searchable online. James Turrell is making great monumental art in the Arizona desert. Three -- three! -- billionaires are running their own space programs. Space is so popular among his peers that Bill Gates, whose own modest goals run to conquering malaria and other tropical scourges, finds himself telling interviewers that “it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.” If there’s public malaise about progress, it isn’t because nobody is doing anything bold....

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public.... People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories -- not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories -- that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.

Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard [warning: New York Times link] of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms [NYT link]. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and culturally influential people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why did the Supreme Court decide not to decide the same-sex marriage cases?

So, everyone's trying to figure out why the Supreme Court decided not to decide the same-sex marriage cases. I can't believe the reason is that the court didn't consider the issue very important because almost all lower federal courts have agreed on the issue. Of course it would be important for the Supreme Court to have the authoritative last word on the issue!

Amy Howe of SCOTUSblog says:

Strategy may have also played a role in the decision to deny review. The Court’s four more liberal Justices – Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan – may have been content to leave well enough alone, from their perspective. Put another way, they may have preferred to let the tide of decisions striking down state bans continue to flow steadily, rather than risk a broader decision which might turn back that tide altogether.
OK, that's fairly clear. I'd also add Kennedy to that list.

But she finds it "harder to imagine ... why some of the Court’s more conservative Justices didn’t join forces to grant review":
Indeed, it was nearly impossible to fathom that they would allow the lower-court decisions striking down state bans on same-sex marriage to go into effect without a fight, even if (as the conventional wisdom has surmised) they remained concerned about their ability to persuade Justice Anthony Kennedy to join them in upholding the bans. But apparently they did, and we may never know the full story until a Justice’s private papers are released, many years from now.
Here's how I see it. The 4 conservatives should assume, based on what they know about their other 5 colleagues, that any Supreme Court decision on this issue would conclude that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. And they might dislike that result, but they're smart enough to realize that's the only result that can possibly be supported by citations to Supreme Court case law. Or perhaps they basically think that'd be a fine result, but they're uncomfortable enough with it that they'd rather not be the ones to make the decision. Even if they're firmly convinced that the bans are constitutional, surely they realize that the most they could accomplish is a dissenting opinion with no legal effect; the only effect would be to tarnish their legacies and forever associate themselves with "the wrong side of history." In short, the conservatives had no good way to decide the case, so they decided they'd rather not decide it.

ADDED: One more possibility I left out: Perhaps the 4 conservatives have a strong desire for a ruling saying the bans are constitutional, so they want to do anything possible to increase the chances of that happening. And they think there's no chance with the court's current personnel, but there's some chance if at least one liberal or Kennedy is replaced by a Republican president. So they might not think they're very likely to win, but they at least want to give it a chance, and they've figured out that their chances are better if they wait.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What was so great about Duke Ellington?

This New Yorker article (a review of Terry Teachout's biography, Duke) explains:

Ellington was a dance-band impresario who played no better than O.K. piano, got trapped for years playing “jungle music” in gangster night clubs, and at his height produced mostly tinny, brief recordings. (His finest was made on a bitter winter night in 1940, in a Fargo, North Dakota, ballroom.) How did he become a dominant figure of modern music and, for many people, an exemplar of art? The typical answer used to be that he was really a master composer on the European model, all score paper and seclusion and suites. On inspection, this doesn’t hold much water. Ellington’s best music turns out to be the crystallized collective improvisation of an exceptionally ornery group of musical malcontents. To explain it all, we seem to need new categories of value, and another kind of meditation on what originality is. ...

Ellington knew from the beginning that he needed a sound, more even than a beat or a style. The individual players he employed weren’t up-to-date urban players but, often, less sophisticated New Orleans musicians, whose great gift was a distinctly human tone, often achieved with the use of homemade mutes and plungers. They never suffered from the homogenized, driving tone of the white bands.

Over the years, Ellington cultivated those kinds of players until, with the 1940 band, he achieved something extraordinary—an all-star band that played together, soloed luminously, and never sounded competitive. As critics still remark in proper wonder, at least five of the musicians—Jimmy Blanton, on bass, Ben Webster, on tenor sax, Johnny Hodges, on alto sax, Harry Carney, on baritone sax, and Tricky Sam Nanton, on the trombone—are in the running for the very best ever to have picked up their instrument.

Yet a residue of disappointment clings to these pages [of Terry Teachout’s Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington]: Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one, Teachout concludes, exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close. He used his musicians (not to mention his women) often quite coldly, and his romantic-seeming life was really one long cloud of shimmering misdirection. Teachout reveals that Ellington was rarely the sole composer of the music associated with his name. Nearly all his hit songs, Teachout explains, “were collaborations with band members who did not always receive credit—or royalties—when the songs were recorded and published.” It’s long been known by fans that many of the most famous “Ellington” numbers are really the arranger Billy Strayhorn’s, including “Take the A Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and that the valve trombonist Juan Tizol wrote most of “Caravan.” But much of “Mood Indigo” was Barney Bigard’s, while “Never No Lament” (which became the hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” began as Johnny Hodges riffs and then became songs. “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” in turn, are melodies originally blown by, and rarely credited to, the alto-sax player Otto Hardwick.

None of these are obvious, all-purpose riffs, or simple blues phrases. They’re rich, melodic ideas, as complex as anything in Gershwin or Rodgers. Ellington owned them, but they didn’t start in his head, or take form under his fingers. Teachout says all the right things about how, without Ellington’s ears to hear them and his intelligence to fix and resolve them, these might have been butterflies that lived a day, fluttered, and died. But you sense that he’s shaken by the news. It seems like theft. It certainly bothered the musicians. Hodges used to make a sign of counting money when Ellington was playing the medley of his tunes.

One might be a touch more defiant on behalf of the Duke. Ellington really did take other men’s ideas and act as if they were his own. But he did this because he took other men’s ideas and made them his own. There are artists whose genius lies in exploiting other people’s talent, and we can recognize the exploitation as the genius. It is the gift of such artists to be able to energize and paralyze other people and do both at the same time. It may be true that Herman Mankiewicz wrote most of “Citizen Kane,” scene by scene and even shot by shot. What is certainly true is that nothing else that survives of Mankiewicz’s is remotely as good as “Citizen Kane.” That’s because he was writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles. Johnny Hodges spent many years on his own, with every chance to keep his tunes to himself. No other standard ever emerged. Suppose Billy Strayhorn had been liberated instead of “adopted” and infantilized. Would he have had the energy and mastery to form a band, sustain it, recruit the right musicians, survive their eccentricities and addictions, give them music they could play, record it, and keep enough of a popular audience alive to justify the expense of the rest? It is painful to read of Strayhorn desolate over having credit for his music stolen by the Duke; it is also the case that Ellington had the genius not to have to cry.

Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the sureness of his decisions are a case study for management school. (Consider the way he fired Charles Mingus for fighting with Tizol, fondly but with no appeal: “I’m afraid, Charles—I’ve never fired anybody—you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem. . . . I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice.”) These are not ordinary or secondary gifts. They were the essence of his genius. Ellington had an idea of a certain kind of jazz: tonal, atmospheric, blues-based but elegant. He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. The tunes may have begun with his sidemen; the music was his. This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality.

There’s a reason that Duke’s players mostly complained of being cheated only of the dough. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.

What Johnny Hodges was doing in making those new melodies may have been more like the copying errors in ceaseless cell fission than like premeditated decision: as he set to playing the same chord changes over and over, night after night, a lucky error in a note may, one night, have touched another and become an innovation. It was a happy accident produced by hard labor. But that it reflected effort as much as inspiration should only increase its value. No author really minds, too much, seeing his or her ideas “out there,” to be recycled, and even a conceptual artist has a slightly guilty conscience about trading in that commodity alone. (That’s why Jasper Johns fans insist that it is the finish, the touch, that really matters.) What artists dislike is having their effort recirculated without recompense. It is our sentences, not our sentiments, that we ought to protect. The Duke’s men grasped this. They were glad to concede to their self-made duke all of his preëminence—indeed, his royalty. They just wanted him to hand over their royalties first.

What mattered was the band. Duke Ellington was a great impresario and bandleader who created the most stylish sound, and brand, in American music, and kept a company of musicians going for half a century. That this description seems somehow less exalting than calling him a “major American composer” or a “radical musical innovator” is a sign of how far we have to go in allowing art to tell us how to admire it, rather than trying to make it hold still in conventional poses in order to be admired.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July

"At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, today, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. ... The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. ...

Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other. ... No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature."

— Frederick Douglass (1852)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Happy 10th bloggiversary to Althouse

Happy 10th birthday to Althouse, the blog of my mom, Ann Althouse.

She's blogged every day since she started the blog on January 14, 2004. As she's pointed out:

I've written ... on the hardest work days, on the day I wrecked my car, the day I had surgery, the day I drove 1235 miles in one day, and the day I got married.
The blog was originally called Marginalia, before she quickly changed it to her last name. Her first post explained:
I'm writing from Madison, Wisconsin, and Marginalia is a fictionalized name for Madison that I thought up a long time ago when I seriously believed I would write a fictionalized account of my life in Madison, Wisconsin. There is nothing terribly marginal about Madison, really, but I do like writing in the margins of books, something I once caused a librarian to gasp by saying. Writing in a blog is both less and more permanent than writing in the margin of a book.
She's posted an average of about 10 posts a day, with a total of over 36,000. Out of those tens of thousands, my favorite Althouse post might seem very minor. But to me it shows the essence of her blog. Why? Because if you got 100 bloggers to write a post about that Washington Post editorial, no one else would have written it that way. Most would have been forgettable and abstract, where Althouse was memorable and vivid.

She's blogged about drawing in Amsterdam, things she's never done, the difference between same-sex marriage and polygamy, the problem with "larger meaning," how to teach reading (with follow-ups here and here), gender bias, and her parents meeting in a war.

She's also appeared on video, talking about the Obamas (right before she voted in the 2008 primaries), singlehood, and sexuality.

Her explanation of why she started blogging:
I love writing quickly and openly and ... I'd spent too much time reading the newspaper passively and without making myself decide what I really thought about various things. I wanted to force myself to take one more step and say something about the stories of the day. I'm not a partisan or an ideologue, so I didn't know automatically. It was only by making myself write a sentence or 2 that I found out what I really thought.
There's a daunting amount of content, about no one clear theme. But is there any theme? I think there is an unstated theme: saying what isn't said. Let's look at what people are saying. Let's stop and think about what they're notably not saying out loud. And let's take it upon ourselves to say it out loud. That's what I call "saying what isn't said," and that's what has always distinguished the Althouse blog from other blogs that are merely effective at saying the right things to please their audience. It's easy to look at what others are saying, pick the statements that appeal to us, and repeat them. We all do that sometimes. But those who do only that are missing something.

(If you want to support Althouse for free, search for stuff on Amazon by using the box at the top of the blog, to the right. Amazon rewards her for the referrals, at no cost to you.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The jazz guitarist Jim Hall has died at age 83.

The New York Times reports:

Jim Hall, a jazz guitarist who for more than 50 years was admired by critics, aficionados and especially his fellow musicians for his impeccable technique and the warmth and subtlety of his playing, died on Tuesday at his home in Greenwich Village. He was 83.

The cause was heart failure, his wife, Jane, said.

The list of important musicians with whom Mr. Hall worked was enough to earn him a place in jazz history. It includes the pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded two acclaimed duet albums, and the singer Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond, the drummer Chico Hamilton and the bassist Ron Carter, his frequent partner in a duo.

But with his distinctive touch, his inviting sound and his finely developed sense of melody, Mr. Hall made it clear early in his career that he was an important musician in his own right.

He was an influential one as well. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield are among the numerous younger guitarists who acknowledge him as an inspiration. Mr. Hall, who never stopped being open to new ideas and new challenges, worked at various times with all three.

In his later years Mr. Hall composed many pieces for large ensembles, drawing on both his jazz roots and his classical training. Works like “Quartet Plus Four” for jazz quartet and string quartet, and “Peace Movement,” a concerto for guitar and orchestra, were performed internationally and widely praised.

If the critics tended to use the same words over and over to describe Mr. Hall’s playing — graceful, understated, fluent — that was as much a tribute to his consistency as to his talent. As Nate Chinen wrote recently in The New York Times, Mr. Hall’s style, “with the austere grace of a Shaker chair,” has sounded “effortlessly modern at almost every juncture” of his long career.
Pat Metheny has said:
Within a day or two of expressing any interest in the two words "jazz guitar," you will come across Jim Hall. He is in many ways the father of modern jazz guitar. To me, he’s the guy who invented a conception that has allowed the guitar to function in a lot of musical situations that just weren’t thought of as a possibility prior to his emergence as a player. He reinvented what the guitar could be as a jazz instrument.

It’s not about the guitar, it’s about music which is the thing you would say about any great musician. Jim transcends the instrument. The notes that he plays, if they were played by any other player on any other instrument, would have the same kind of value and the same kind of impact and effect. And that is, to me, the quality that separates someone who’s an important musician from somebody who’s just a really good player on their instrument. The meaning behind the notes is what speaks to people. It’s not necessarily the sound or the technique of it, it’s more the spirit of it and that’s the thing that Jim is about for me.
That quote is from the liner notes to the album called Jim Hall & Pat Metheny (downloadable on Hall's website). Here's Hall and Metheny playing "All the Things You Are":



Here's Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins playing "The Bridge" (incredibly manic):



Here's an early (1959) clip of Jim Hall, in the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, playing "A Little Melody" (remarkably understated):



Here he is accompanying Ella Fitzgerald on "Summertime" (Hall's guitar playing gets interesting after 1:20):



Jim Hall and Michel Petrucciani play "My Funny Valentine" (Petrucciani was a pianist as great as his stature was small — the result of a congenital condition):



But to me, the recording that best sums up Jim Hall's enigmatic expressiveness and daringly original approach to the guitar is "Angel Eyes," from his 1975 album Jim Hall Live (just Jim Hall, Don Thompson on bass, and Terry Clarke on drums):



Here's an hour-long documentary about him from 1999, called "Jim Hall: A Life in Progress":



Guitarists might want to watch this hour-long "master class."

NPR has collected some quotes from other musicians talking about Hall. Sonny Rollins: "He was able to be a dominant player, a very forceful player but he was also sensitive. You know, that was remarkable. So he was ideal as far as I was concerned for the band that we had together."

John Scofield: "It was just [a] very elegant, elegant thing that he did that affected all of, just about all of the guitar players after him I think."

Julian Lage, a young, excellent guitarist who played with Jim Hall in concert earlier this year, said: "For someone who has had such an impact on just the aesthetic of improvised music and guitar, as a total guitar hero, there was such a degree of humility that — it wasn't that he downplayed what he did — he had this sense that it was part of something way bigger."

A guitarist named Victor Magnani has written a whole essay called "Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Jim Hall." Read the whole thing for the many lessons (including "trust," "respect," "take risks," "don't waste words/notes/time," "keep growing," and "keep good company"). Magnani sums up how he's been affected by Hall:
Of all the great jazz artists, no one has had a more profound impact on me than guitarist Jim Hall. As a guitarist myself there are times when I look to his music to teach me purely technical things - how does he play through certain chord changes, how does he voice his chords, how does he produce that miraculous sound of his? But if this were all his art had to offer, it would be fairly shallow. His work speaks as much to the human condition as any artist past or present, and if one looks and listens attentively, there are great rewards to be found there.
Indeed.