Sunday, February 24, 2008

Evolution Yet Again

The creationists are back, but the new law cuts both ways ...

In past posts (here and here) I've written about the shoving match going on between, on the one side, those who distrust Darwin's theory and consider it an attack on their religious beliefs and God's Own Word and who therefore want everyone in the public schools to be instructed that it is not a fact but only a theory and that there is a perfectly plausible alternative in the form of Intelligent Design that explains why it is more logical to believe that God just built everything exactly the way it is without any need for later revisions--between those people on the one side, and on the other, well, everyone else.

Alas, now in my own home state, nicknamed "Sunshine," the legislature has seen fit to write into law a two-edged solution to this so-called debate. On the one hand, they prescribe that evolution must be taught "as a theory, not a fact." But on the other hand, they say that it must be taught, which they have not decreed in the past.

I suppose we could take comfort in this. At least our students will not be denied all exposure to Mr. Darwin's excellent work on the subject. But I fear that more harm than good is being done because of the endorsement of such muddy thinking. Besides the bogus issue of fact versus theory (or fact versus fiction), one news story actually reported the following:

"Evolution would have to be taught as a theory, like Einstein's theory of relativity, rather than as a fact, such as Newton's laws of gravity."

Ouch! Can you feel me cringing? Last I heard, Einstein's formulas were working pretty well when it comes to things like generating nuclear power, explaining why the sun hasn't burned out yet, and turning cities into smoldering piles of rubble.

Mr. Newton, on the other hand, despite his laudable attempts to at least describe what gravity does, never told us anything about what it is. Furthermore, his "laws" have since been found not to apply at the small scale of subatomic particles, and to be less than complete when considering the universe as a whole. For many years now, Einstein's theory has been accepted to have superseded simple Newtonian physics, and is now being superseded in turn by quantum and string theories.

So first of all, can we not agree on the definition of a theory? A theory is an idea that explains the observable facts. So right away, we agree. OF COURSE EVOLUTION IS NOT A FACT -- BECAUSE IT'S A THEORY THAT EXPLAINS FACTS. WHO CALLED IT A FACT? I'm pretty sure the first people who dubbed it a "fact" were Creation--er, I mean Intelligent Design activists.

Here's how it works:

  • A fact is: The sun appears in the eastern sky each morning, at a predictable time, and disappears, also predictably, in the western sky each afternoon.
  • One theory to explain this is: The earth stands still at the center of the universe, and the sun goes around the earth once a day.
  • Another theory is: The sun stands still at the center of the universe, and the earth rotates around its own axis once a day, which makes it seem as if the sun is moving.

The first of these theories was long held to be so abundantly obvious (and scripturally correct) that it defied questioning. Copernicus was threatened with excommunication from The Church (you remember, the one and only church in Rome?) unless he withdrew his proposal of the second alternative. But in science everything is a theory except that which can be observed. And all theories remain open to revision indefinitely. Theories are tested by how well they explain the observed facts, and whether they can predict the outcome of further measurements and observations that could only be expected if they are correct.

People went to great lengths to cling to Theory Number One, even calculating the ornate loop-the-loops that the planets would have to perform to explain why the earth was still the center of everything. But in the end they just couldn't keep it up. The weight of the accumulated observations tipped overwhelmingly in favor of Copernicus and Theory Number Two. Plus, Theory Number Two could also explain the seasons, the length of the year, and solar and lunar eclipses. Maybe this made it easier when Theory Number Three came along and explained that the sun wasn't the center of the universe either, but only one of the billions of stars in the humongous whirlpool of the Milky Way Galaxy--oh, and by the way, that there are billions and billions of other galaxies out there, and we're not at the center of them, either.

Now along come the Intelligent Designers, as I think I will call them, and want us to convince our school kids that Theories Number Two and Three are just theories, not facts, and that there is a perfectly sound reason to keep believing in Theory Number One. Shall we also put in a word for Theory Number Zero, "the earth is flat?"

Opponents of evolution may protest that they are not advocating against any other scientific theories, only that one. (Not yet, anyway.) But I have deliberately used the example of a different theory--one which seems to be generally acceptable to everyone now-- to illustrate the point that we have more to fear from ignorance than from knowledge of the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. And once we begin to travel the path of ignorance, how will we ever know where to draw the line?

Humans have not been diminished by our exclusion from the center of the universe, as was feared in the past, nor have our faiths and social institutions collapsed. We have not thrown up our hands at our insignificance in the scheme of things. Instead we have grown in stature by virtue of our knowledge, and have hugely expanded the size and grandeur of the universe we live in. Rather than this single cramped stone we call home, roofed over by a lid full of twinkling lights, we now inhabit a vast space full of an endless variety of other worlds, and it is all laid out for us to explore.

So before we throw out the baby, bathwater, and washbasin of science altogether, I've got a better idea: How about if we also teach all the alternative creation myths from throughout history and around the world? Shouldn't our kids know that Adam and Eve in the Garden is just a theory, not a fact, and that others (Hindus, for example) have believed the world swam through the sea on the backs of four elephants standing on a turtle and surrounded by a giant snake? Wouldn't our kids end up learning more that way?

Of course, this is just a theory. But we could test it ...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Philip Glass in Miami - Part 2

It's not often
you get to sit around the living room with the likes of Philip Glass, but I felt as if that's what happened last Thursday evening. My front row seat was so close to where Glass and the other panelists were ensconced in matching easy chairs that I could almost imagine they were in my own home.

This second evening of performance at the University of Miami was quieter than the first (which I reported on earlier). Those three pianos were still on stage, and we were treated to a reprise of the overture to Les Enfants Terribles. This time I was close enough to get the stereo effect of the right and left instruments. The only better seat would have been on stage at the point where all three of them met nose to nose.

Then Alan Johnson took the controls in the leftmost seat to perform "Metamorphoses 1 & 2." During this I found my mind going back to Eric Satie again, because I think there is a comparison to be made with his "Three Gymnopédies." The first of those is the most famous, the one that is invariably used in films whenever a dreamy, timeless, lazy, beautiful quality is called for. (One example is in Diva while the smitten young postman has an idyllic day in the park with his opera star.) But what is curious about them is that, while they all sound the same (and when one of them is playing it is impossible to remember how the other two go), on closer inspection they all turn out to be entirely different. One is nearly an upside-down version of another, and each of the spare melodies manages to rock from side to side according to a subtly different plan.

Glass's "Metamorphoses" are like that, variations on an idea, like different sketches of the same subject by an artist. (There are, I believe, a total of five Metamorphoses.) I'm thinking, too, of a Picasso exhibit I once saw of linocuts, with a dozen images of the same bowl of fruit under the same electric light, but no two of them alike. Something larger than the individual examples seems to be revealed this way, as if the composer is blind and feeling for the elephant with both hands.

Finally Glass himself took over the piano bench to perform another of his solo piano works. This was his only performance, and he was generous in giving us that, as he was recovering from a repair to one hand and was not supposed to play for another month. (He had to graciously decline a request for an encore.) The remainder of our time together was a four-part dialog that included Alan Johnson, Program Director of the Frost Opera Theater, Patrick de Bokay, Director of the Miami International Film Festival, and Dennis Kam, who holds a chair at the UM in Music Theory and Composition.

With Mr. Bokay present the conversation naturally revolved around music for films, an area where Glass has been exceptionally prolific. It was interesting to learn something of the process that film music undergoes on its way from concept to finished product. I was surprised to find out that Glass often develops the entire score in editable computer form as it is being fitted to its precise dimensions in the final cut. Only then does he execute the piece with live musicians, when they are guaranteed that what they do will work perfectly. Apparently, in spite of what we hear of enormous film budgets, this is also required for reasons of economy.

Speaking of economics, we were reminded of the vast difference in the audiences for films as opposed to operas. If a film does well, millions of tickets will be sold, maybe tens of millions. But even the most popular opera, though it be performed for years, will collect a following measured in thousands, or tens of thousands. Hearing this, I suddenly had a vision of this small auditorium we were in being dropped into the middle of the Superbowl at halftime. Yes, Tom Petty would have blown us all away.

Naturally the relative importance of the money has an effect on who gets to control the music. This ranges from the opera house, where the composer rules, to the movie house, where not the director but the producer rules, or the finance people above him. Writers and composers? No voice. Not consulted.

Despite this, Glass claims to have managed to get involved early in some films--such as the ground breaking Koyaniskaatsi, and Kundun, about the Dalai Lama--and therefore to have at least some influence on the direction of things. But then he told the story of how he hired some directors to make short films to his music in an attempt to turn the tables on them, only to have Peter Greenaway turn the tables back on him by recutting his film after the score was done, and thus making a complete rewrite necessary.

It would seem you can't win at this game. But what fun trying! And what a marvelous time we all had listening to it.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Philip Glass in Miami - Part 1

Philip Glass came back to town this week, this time to the Gusman concert hall at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music. The UM makes a wide range of performances available to the community at low cost--even free, as in this case. And it often goes all out, as it did on Wednesday evening, with a full chorus, multiple pianos, and a couple of dozen soloists pulled from faculty, students, alumni, and the Florida Grand Opera.

As you can tell, the stage was full, though the chorus had the role of privileged audience until they had their chance to chime in near the end. And it's not often you see three grand pianos sharing the same real estate. The mighty keyboards carried most of the load on the instrumental side, sparingly augmented by a cello, celesta, flute, and a couple of percussionists. (Except for the overture to Les Enfants Terribles, which was originally scored for three pianos, they were taking the place of the rest of the orchestra.)

The subject of the evening was opera excerpts, and Glass himself appeared only as commentator and fellow spectator. Responding to questions posed by conductor Alan Johnson, Glass gave us "a few minute summary" of what should have been a two-day reply as to what draws him to the form of the opera, what its role in contemporary culture is, and if in fact what he writes is really opera.

One item that emerged from this was that when he first produced Einstein on the Beach, he did not think of it as an opera, but the scale of the work was such that there was only room to do it in an opera house. Then, when some critics told him it was not opera, he found the statement "so provocative" that he had to insist that it certainly was an opera, and why did they think it wasn't?

I guess you could say the rest was history, as Glass followed up with many other works, the minds of critics changed, and public acceptance reached amazing heights. If there is any doubt that Glass has created a market for himself, you only have to try to think of a few other so-called "serious" or "classical" contemporary composers who are household names. Who would they be? Maybe Michael Nyman, who could be considered in the same school, and who, like Glass, has also staked his claim to film scores with works like The Piano. Then ... who else? Steve Reich? Gabriel Byrne? Alas, the rest are known only to academe, and those few oddballs willing to listen to some really weird stuff.

Much as jazz lost its popular audience when it evolved from big dance bands through bebop and into things that only a musician could love, so contemporary "classical" music fell from popular vogue as it became ever more demanding on its listeners. Since Gershwin (now, according to Glass, acknowledged to have written the first American opera in Porgy and Bess), who has there been that the mass of people would pay to hear? Copland of course. But since Bernstein ...? And please, let's not even mention what's happening on Broadway. Audiences going to the symphony expect to hear nothing dating from later than the early years of the 20th century. That's a long dry spell.

Into this drought came the unexpected stream of Glass's new form of music, an amalgam of world rhythms, pop percussion, hypnotic repetition, and classic melodic and harmonic invention. He has managed to forge a music at once accessible to a large audience, yet rewarding to the discerning ear.

Glass has sometimes been called, and criticized as, a "minimalist." But I think such a term begs the issue. Eric Satie rightfully could be considered a minimalist for focusing his attention on microcosmic piano works during the heyday of Wagnerian extravaganzas. But if Satie had extrapolated what he was doing until it lasted hours instead of seconds, layered it to include full orchestras and choruses, and added words and meaning on top of the mix, even dance, would it still have been minimal?

Glass has also been accused of repeating himself, but I think this too is a failure of the listener's imagination. Carmen was said to be lacking in melody when it debuted, because its novel rhythms were all the critics could hear. Glass is giving us a similar exposure to unusual metric elements, and making them accessible through repetition and deceptively simple melodic content. A listener will find himself noticing motifs he has heard in other works by the composer, and may conclude he is just doing the same thing over again. But these ingredients are only parts of the language that Glass has invented for himself and continually expanded. They are like the familiar cadences of Bach or Handel, or the orchestrations of Beethoven, by which fingerprints we can identify the composers from their works. But no one now says, "there goes Bach again, with the same old counterpoint." And who wouldn't want to hear a Symphony Number 10 from Ludwig?

And so, let the music play. According to my notes, here are some of the striking moments:

  • Three grands, six hands. Quite something when they're all going at once, and when they play different times against each other. Two against three is pretty basic in this context. Elsewhere I counted loops of five, seven, and nine. I'm sure there were others.

  • Glass uses the piano as a percussion and rhythm instrument to good effect. But there was another interesting passage where single long held notes from the piano gave an underpinning to the tinkling of the celesta. Nice.

  • Never call this music emotionless--the excerpt from The Fall of the House of Usher had all the ominous qualities that could be desired. And a haunting female ghost voice that convinced me there was a theremin in the room.

  • In two selections the flute was called on to double with the woman singing, providing a sort of gloss or overtone to the human sound. This almost seemed to flaunt the traditional arrangement where a flute performs obbligato to the soprano's aria. Not to say the singers didn't have plenty of room to show off--what would opera be without providing a showcase for the diva?

  • Both percussion and chorus were denied participation until the penultimate number from Akhnaten. With a pair of tom-toms on either side of the stage providing the jungle beat, the chorus chanting in staccato and varying rhythms, and those pianos all working again, it was enough to raise the roof--and made the abrupt silence at the end deafening.
All of this made the last piece seem like a gentle encore. It was a six-part madrigal setting of "Father Death Blues" by Allen Ginsberg, part of Glass's Hydrogen Jukebox. (Here's a video of Ginsberg singing it.) More than anything else this reminded me of those quiet hymns that Patti Smith, something of a Ginsberg protege herself, sometimes includes on her albums.

Leonard Bernstein once opined that all he wanted to be able to do in a Broadway musical was to come up with a tune that the audience could sing on the way out. Well, I have to say, as I made my way out to the parking lot, I found myself singing this one.
[Part 2 next week.]

For an interactive exploration of Philip Glass's music you can do no better than his own website, which offers the IBM Glass Engine. Turn on and tune in.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Music Lost, Music Found

There's nothing more nostalgic than old music, unless it's old music that has been lost ...

For years I've been recalling an ancient recording of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond that I used to listen to with my high school jazz buddy. We must have worn the grooves clear through that record. My favorite cut was something called "Purple Moon" in which Desmond waxed lyrical on a melody from the opening of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring -- not exactly your usual jazz standard.

It never surprised me that the cerebral Desmond would have turned to a classical composer for inspiration. But we were both puzzled by the title until Disney's Fantasia made a return appearance at the movie theaters (this was long before DVD's and even VCR's). The film includes that wonderful animation of the evolution of life with Stravinsky's score as the soundtrack, and lo and behold, when the opening refrain is heard, the screen is filled with a purple moon eclipsing the earth. Yes! It was so perfect, we were sure we had grasped the logic of the name. Desmond had seen Fantasia! And we were the only ones who had figured it out!

I owned that record for years, but somewhere along the line it disappeared and ended up wherever all lost things go. When vinyl LP's began to be reissued on CD I looked for it at music stores, but in vain. When CD's began to be sold online I looked for it there, but no luck. It didn't help that I had forgot the name of the album and could only remember that one tune on it.

Finally through eMusic, an excellent (and legal) mp3 download service, I found it again, called Moods and Grooves. It's hard to convey the feeling of satisfaction that came over me as the familiar walking bass line started and the ghost of Paul Desmond took up the horn again after all those years. Ahh.

It was also good to hear the accompanying tunes again. There were only two other tracks on the whole album. One of them, "At a Perfume Counter," took up a whole side, though it only runs about 15 minutes. It's a dazzling display of piano pyrotechnics as Brubeck shows off his big two-fisted improv style and pounds the ivory off the keys. The tune doesn't really end so much as it expires from sheer exhaustion. Wow.

This wasn't the end of my eMusic discoveries, either. When I dug deeper into Desmond's discography I found out that "Purple Moon" had been released again later under the title "Sacre Blue," a bilingual pun on Le Sacre du Printemps meeting the blues. Just think, if I'd known that I might have found it years ago. But then, maybe the discovery would not have been so sweet.

While browsing, I also located another vanished recording, Jazz Guitar Bach by André Bénichou ("and his Well-Tempered Three"), that came out when I was in college--and not only the original 13 tracks, but 12 more new ones which have been added thanks to the increased capacity of modern media. At last I can hear them again without the pops, clicks, and hisses of the beat-up old LP.

All of which serves as one more reminder of the virtues of the Internet and the digital age. No longer does anything have to become "out of print" and unavailable. Once, even some of the manuscripts of J.S. Bach were lost because the paper they were written on was thought to be more valuable for wrapping lunches. But never again. Now it's possible to preserve all the recorded performances of that music, no matter how many there are.

From now on, digitally, there will be plenty of room for it all. Enjoy the wealth.