Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Age of TV

The death of broadcast television has been fortold by technology pundit Robert X. Cringely, but I'm willing to believe there's a few years of life left in the old gal yet ...

This week I succumbed to the constant deluge of TV ads reminding me that if I want to keep watching after next February I'd better get my act together. So I dutifully went to the government website and asked for my max of two coupons per household. I resisted the temptation to cash them in at the nearest Radio Shack and instead ordered my converter boxes online following a recommendation by Consumer Reports.

After subtracting the coupons the boxes still cost me about $30 each for some pretty cheesy hardware, leading me to believe the gadgets are being overpriced by the amount of the $40 coupons, which would be about par for the course with any government related program. Look for them to nosedive in price next year when there are no more coupons and most people who need them will have one already.

It took some time for my coupons to be approved by the feds, but shortly thereafter my package arrived and I plugged into the "Digital Age." After some fiddling with my antenna and letting the box sniff the airwaves for local stations, I realized that I had entered a sort of parallel reality where the channels I had been receiving with snow and interference had magically cleaned up to resemble cable or satellite reception. Not only that, but a few new ones had sprung up in between them: a secondary feed from Public TV, as well as a third one en espanol, a weather channel, a kids' channel, and multiple Bible-thumper options. Cool.

I was so ready for this. Several years ago I gave up on my satellite dish as too expensive for too little reward. I felt like the man in a cartoon I saw once who confronted his wall of media devices with his remote in his hand and his antennas visible out the window, and said to his wife, "There's nothing on." At 80-plus channels the "vast wasteland" seemed only to have grown more vast.

Since then I've contented myself with broadcast news and old sitcoms, supplemented by a Netflix subscription that feeds my addition to movies. OK, and sometimes we run out to Blockbuster, as archaic as that seems. Really the only thing wrong with the arrangement was the poor and intermittent reception of the "old" analog stations. Now it seems that is already a thing of the past. This new digital reality sprang up when I wasn't really paying that much attention.

Other Revolutions

It's not the first time I've been through this kind of change, and probably it won't be the last. If Ray Kurzweil is correct in his predictions, the pace of change will continue to increase, and Cringely's future of Internet delivery of all media will be upon us before we know it.

Deja vu. When I was a little kid, TV was brand new and threatening both radio and the movie industry. I actually remember listening to some radio shows for kids -- Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers, and something on Saturday mornings with Big John and Sparky. But within a few short years those shows were all history, and I never even noticed because Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, and a flood of other shows had totally captivated us all.

I remember when WTVJ, then part of CBS on channel 4, was our one and only station in all of South Florida. And they used to sign off at 9 PM so everyone could go to bed. It was a huge deal when the second one (NBC affiliate channel 7) went on the air. People actually tuned in the blank screen and waited for it to come on for the first time. Soon the pair were joined by a small throng of others, including the first Public TV station, WTHS ("Worlds To Hear and See"), which promised a higher programming standard that it has more or less delivered on. (Never mind the Hollywood musicals and revivals of dead or nearly-dead entertainers; think Sesame Street, Nova, Bill Moyers, The News Hour, and Masterpiece Theater.)

But the wheels of progress were already turning. Pretty soon they had figured out how to add color to the box. A huge deal again -- local program host Alec Gibson told his audience weeks in advance when WTVJ was going to borrow a color camera so they could do one show in color, and his wife was going to sing a song in a special gold lame dress, so find someone with a color set so you could see it. Those were the days, huh?

The shift to color TV took a long time, though, for two reasons. First, it was totally backward compatible, so you didn't need a color set to watch a show broadcast in color; all you missed were the colors. And second, the color was really pretty bad for years. It looked like a layer of tints floated on top of the gray background. And in those days of vacuum tubes the picture required constant adjustment to look halfway decent. Where was the fun in looking at people with orange skin under green skies?

Wait a minute -- did I say "vacuum tubes?" Sure, this was back before the invention of the transistor, boys and girls. Back when we had tube testing machines in all the 7-11 stores so you could bring yours in and test them to find the bad ones and then buy a replacement. Sometimes that even fixed what was wrong with your TV, saving you a big repair bill. (Yes, this was also back when things could still be repaired instead of just sent to the landfill.)

So by the time TVs had been filled with transistors and then integrated circuits (millions of transistors) the picture quality had grown much better. I finally broke down and acquired one myself around 1977. By then it was getting hard to find black-and-white ones in the stores unless you were looking for a little portable. Notice how soon these things become quaint. Now that you can watch widescreen movies on your iPod, who would settle for anything less?

But in the years since there have been still more revolutions. First cable TV became pervasive, and I became one of the many disgruntled customers of these local monopolies whose notoriously poor customer service made them more despised than The Phone Company. Then satellite dishes got small and began to give cable a run for its money -- a battle that is still being fought, although without my participation, as I explained above.

Meanwhile starting around 1980 the advent of personal computers swamped everything in a flood of digitalization that totally exploded in the mid-90's as the Internet added a distribution system for digital content. The paradigm shift is so profound that one observer (it may have been Nicholas Petreley, but I'm not sure) opined that in the near future "everything that is broadcast now will come over a wire, and everything that comes over wires will be broadcast." Sounds crazy until you start seeing video shows produced for computer viewing only, and computers and phones linking wirelessly to the Internet.

On top of this we have the Tivo revolution, the tool that breaks the "tape it/watch it" syndrome and makes commercials optional. And then the HD revolution, finally giving us screens that match the width of the movies, and resolution high enough to make us forget about film.

So Cringely may have it right. He gives us until 2015 before the broadcast stations will start shutting down because all programming will by done by the viewers on demand through the Internet. TV's will be just another web-enabled appliance in houses filled with them. Grab your broadcasts while you can, before they become relics of the past.

So after all this, why am I still sitting here writing this instead of kicking back on my couch to enjoy the digital tube? Well, um ... there's nothing on.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Glenn Gould Revisited

Every so often I have cause to remember why pianist Glenn Gould has played such a large role in my musical life. It all goes back to 1955 and his earth-shaking debut recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. At that time Baroque music was just beginning its resurgence of popular interest, and Gould was the first mainstream keyboard artist whose reputation was made as an interpreter of "antique" music (notwithstanding the exceptions of Wanda Landowska on the harpsichord and Albert Schweitzer and E. Power Biggs on the organ).

[Check out this video of the young Gould at work for a quick 3 minute taste.]

Gould's performance was, and still is, revolutionary. He demonstrated an entirely new way to animate Bach's glorious counterpoint. His playing was neither the mechanical precision of the conservatory nor the romanticized emotionalism of those who tried to modernize it to resemble Chopin and Liszt. Gould's rendering was always precise -- amazingly so, with every voice distinct from the others -- yet spiked with joyful accents and sweeping melodic lines. He utilized the full dynamic range of the modern piano, but with the sensitive staccato phrasing of a harpsichord. Under his capable hands the music danced and sang. You could almost call it jazzy, yet there was a rightness about it that made you feel confident that Bach would have approved if he could have heard it.

I was too young at the time to participate in the excitement, but I remember that my parents (both pianists themselves) made a point of attending Gould's only performance in Miami. I don't remember what they heard him play, but they often told the story about how the eccentric Canadian dealt with the frigid and unheated Dade County Auditorium on one of the coldest nights of the year: He came on stage wearing an overcoat and woolen gloves. Without bowing to acknowledge the applause, he stripped off the coat and gloves, blew on his fingers, and proceeded to play. When he was finished, again without a bow, he donned his clothes and walked off.

Of course that was not the most eccentric thing Gould ever did. His many foibles included a squeaky wooden chair, much too low by common standards, that drove sound engineers crazy. And his habit of humming and singing while he played could never be entirely restrained, with the result that you can sometimes hear him plainly on some of his best recordings. This trait was so notorious that it was once the butt of a cartoon in a hi-fi magazine that showed an audiophile leaving the store with an expensive piece of sound gear called a "Glenn Gould Hum Filter."

But by far the most controversial thing he did (other than abandoning tuxedos and wearing plain business suits in concert) was deciding, at the peak of his career, to stop performing in public altogether. Henceforth, he announced, he would only make recordings, and would have what he called a "one to none" relationship with his audience. What a nerve! But it speaks volumes for how popular he had become that the audience never abandoned him. Even now the recordings he left behind are among the most sought after in the whole Classical genre. In fact, Sony is about to reissue them again in their entirety.

I began collecting those recordings myself when I was still in high school, and later bought more of them when they were reissued on CD. Besides the Goldbergs, they now include both volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier -- that's a total of 48 preludes and fugues in every possible key -- as well as the French Suites, the Toccatas, the Two- and Three-Part Inventions, The Art of the Fugue, most (but not all) of Bach's keyboard concertos, and most (but not all) of the Beethoven piano sonatas. There are still more of them out there that I don't own (yet).

When I was in college I had a work-study job with the Audio-Visual department (that's right, I was one of those A-V geeks). One of the most enjoyable parts of my job was to show a documentary film to the music classes about one of Gould's recording sessions.The film showed the Columbia Records sound engineers and Gould, disheveled in a white shirt with the cuffs undone, laboring through take after take.

Part of this session was later dramatized in the 1993 movie called "Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," which I highly recommend. In this scene Gould wanders around in a daze, listening to the playback while the engineers in the booth joke about bad coffee. Then one of them, seeming to be drawn into the music, becomes distracted and says, "You know, I think we really have something here. This is really good." Asked for his opinion, Gould says, "Yes, that one has something. Let's hear it again." Always seeking perfection.

Critics were not always universal in their admiration for Gould's interpretations, especially when he left his area of specialty and ventured into the realm of Mozart and Beethoven, or further afield to Schoenberg on the modern end, and Elizabethan music on the other end of the scale. As big a fan as I am, I confess to feeling some disappointment over his tentative first movement to the "Moonlight" Sonata, played entirely without use of the sustain pedal dictated by Beethoven, and the ponderously slow pace of his "Appassionata." Even in Bach his tempos were often criticized as too fast or too slow, his ornamentation as unauthentic, and even his choice of material as "student pieces" when he dared to record some of Bach's simpler fare. One friend of mine grew impatient in the middle of listening and said, "Stop practicing, Glenn, and just PLAY the damn thing!"

But though he may have exasperated us at times, there were always rich rewards and surprises in store that kept listeners on the edge of their seats. I'm thinking of one of the Two-Part Inventions that he played at what must be a world-record pace, like an Olympic sprinter in the 100 yard dash (47 seconds flat). The first impression is, "Ohmygod, it's too fast!" Then as your listening speeds up to try to follow it, like a slow-motion camera capturing the wings of a hummingbird, it unfolds as a marvel of delicacy, a perfect lace of notes each delivered with expression and care. As he nails the landing like a gymnast you have to stand in awe at his incredible agility. It may not be the perfect tempo for this piece, or even the proper one, but Gould seems to be showing us a new way of hearing it, and that has to be a good thing.

So what was it that brought him back to mind this week? Well, I finally thought of looking online for videos of Gould in performance. It turns out there is a wealth of them (check these out), so you can see and hear for yourself why he remains such a unique performer even many years after his death, too young, in 1982.

Which brings us back to the Goldberg Variations. There are 32 of them (hence the name of the film) if you count the simple "Aria" that appears at the beginning and again at the end. Originally part of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, it is in fact the kind of "student piece" that Gould caught some heat for, but in this case Bach used it as a foundation on which to build one of the most monumental edifices in all of keyboard literature. Each variation is unique and imposes its own demands on the performer. All they share in common is the "ground" or bass-line chord progression that lends cohesion to the work as a whole.

At the end, Bach calls for a reprise of the Aria in its original simplicity, as if a reminder of where it all began. (In this it resembles the Magnificat, with its final chorus of "As it was in the beginning...") Interestingly enough, Glenn Gould's career followed the same pattern, for he issued an unprecedented second recording of the Goldbergs at what turned out to be the end of his life. Imagine trying to improve on one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time -- one that is still in print over 50 years later! It was said that he wanted to take advantage of developments in digital recording technology to improve on his first effort -- which in fact was not even in stereo. But I think there was another reason.

One difference between the two versions is that the first one is all in separate tracks. Most likely they were recorded that way, individually, allowing both performer and technicians to make each as perfect as possible. It was also necessary to have at least one division to split the recording onto sides A and B of an LP record. But the later version is all one single track, fitting comfortably in about 46 minutes of a 70 or 80 minute CD.

It never dawned on me before that Gould may have actually recorded it that way, in a single piece, until I found this video of him performing it. As you'll see if you watch it, he proceeds smoothly from one variation to the next, clearly without cuts and splices, just as he would in a live performance. There is never a breather, a pause to collect his thoughts, or an adjustment of the chair. He even waves beats in the air between variations, like a conductor, so that the next one begins exactly when he wants it to. Clearly he sees the work as an integrated whole in which even the silences are meaningful. It's an astounding revelation of his thorough mastery of this piece, and would seem to be a final answer to anyone who ever criticized his abandonment of public concerts.

And oh, yeah -- the second one actually might be an even better performance than his youthful one in 1955. Not a bad way to finish up.

For more info:

The Glenn Gould Foundation

GlennGould.org - list of links

GlennGould.com - commercial site run by Sony

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Simple Truth

Here's something for a Sunday, also known as First Day ...


In a rare moment of perfect clarity the other day I suddenly realized that the fundamental truth I believe in is absolutely simple. But before I set down what it is, some background is in order.

The path of my spiritual quest has been a long and winding one. I was born Catholic, but my parents left the church (excuse me, "The Church") when I was about five years old, leaving me only the dimmest memories of candles, incense, and priests intoning Latin prayers. We spent some time as Unitarians until my dad left us and decided he was agnostic if not atheistic. Later still my mom joined a Congregational church until she moved and became Presbyterian. (If we can believe a recent poll, such church-hopping is widespread in contemporary America.)

So you could say I come from a family of seekers. First my parents and then the Unitarians had encouraged me to figure things out for myself, to discover what I believed rather than being told. Accordingly, while still a child I experimented with both prayer and self-hypnosis. Of the two, hypnosis seemed the most promising to me. While saying the words of a prayer I was acutely conscious of talking to myself with no one listening. On the other hand, my attempts to hypnotize myself (inspired by an article in a magazine) were really the first steps toward meditation, the inward focus which I later came to believe was the best path to true spiritual awareness.
While I was in junior high school and still attending the Unitarian "Liberal Religious Youth" meetings, Alan Watts began to broadcast his weekly Public TV program from San Francisco called "The Way of Zen." These wonderful 30-minute lectures, delivered in Watts' calm and measured tones, were like an oasis of sanity in the chaos of the rest of my life. Covering the philosophy and practices of not only Zen but traditional Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, the real subject was Watts' own philosophy, culled from all these sources in the Orient. This led me to try a form of meditation, a simple focusing of the mind by staring into a candle flame. 

Watts had become my first guru, or spiritual teacher. Through the course of the 1960's and 70's I seem to have consumed most of the books he published as fast as they came out. Besides The Way of Zen they included This is It, Psychotherapy East and West, The Joyous Cosmology, and one of my favorites, THE BOOK: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. 

This last volume includes a wonderful creation myth that he invented to tell children. It goes something like this:
In the beginning God was all alone. He had no one to play with. So what he did was to split himself up into millions and millions of pieces, putting a little bit of himself into each piece. And he arranged that each piece should forget who it was, so that they could go out and play with each other and have the great adventure of discovering their true identity.
What a story! His point, of course, is that to declare that we are God is the greatest blasphemy in our society, as well as definitive proof that we are stark raving nuts. Yet it is the ultimate truth taught by many of the world's religions and philosophies. It is certainly the belief of Quakers, who hold that "there is that of God in everyone," and who practice sitting in silence to attune themselves to the "still, small voice within" that comes from the deepest part of ourselves, the part that is connected to, and at one with, the supreme consciousness. In Hinduism one of the aspects of God is atman, the part that dwells within the human. It is not a separate entity but rather the unifying connection between us and the divine. And wasn't Jesus trying to tell us that we are all children of God, not just him?

Suffice to say that in my better moments I have been on this path ever since, looking for that connection to my own true identity. Sometimes I have become lost in the world and forgotten what the point of it all is, and other times something has called me back to the quest. I read many other books, including the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Taoist text that is a model of simplicity, William James' Varieties of Religious Experience, Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy, and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a wonderful collection of stories about the Zen masters of China and Japan. I read Carl Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, some of Carlos Casteneda's dubious volumes about his Yaqui Indian teacher, Don Juan, as well as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I read the essays of naturalist Loren Eisley, and about the search for the ultimate size and shape and nature of the universe as it is being explored through science.

Through it all I had countless hours of discussion with my friend, artist Richard Sevigny, comparing the Christian mystical tradition with that of the East. And always I looked for direct religious experience of my own in many places, including yoga, psychoactive drugs, and Transcendental Meditation. 

The Question 

Years passed. I grew up and grew older, became comfortable with what I knew and what I thought I believed and did not believe. I had got to a point where I didn't really think about it anymore. Then one day, not long after I began attending the Miami Friends Meeting, my sister-in-law asked me point blank, "Do you believe in God?"

I was disconcerted to find that the question brought me up short. I flipped through the catalog of things I knew and thought, trying to figure out if the complex mess of readings, meditations, conversations, and life experiences in my head amounted to a belief in God. I can't even remember exactly how I replied except that it amounted to a kind of, sort of, qualified, yes.

How could that be? Wasn't I sure after all those years? Was it just a question of terminology? Of course I didn't think there was a bearded old man in the sky demanding my worship and obedience, but that wasn't the question. The real question was, could I apply the name of God to whatever it was that I did believe in? But what I believed had come from so many sources, and had as much to do with science and philosophy as it did with religion and spiritual things. It was just too complicated.

I suppose I have continued to look for the answer for the past several years. But in Quaker fashion I have done so mostly by sitting quietly and waiting to see what comes to me. And finally, with a calm certainty, like the proverbial pool of water settling until it becomes clear, I came to this:

I believe that only one thing exists.

It is huge, multifaceted, complex beyond imagining, at once infinitely large and incomprehensibly small. We are all in it, yet it lives in us as well. The simple fact that it exists is so obvious it is almost impossible to frame a way to question it. It is the forest we can't see for the trees. It is sometimes called "reality." We may as well name it God. And not to believe in it is to deny all the evidence of our minds and senses.

There is a Zen story that points in the right direction: One day the student comes to his master and says, "I've reached enlightenment. Nothing exists." Whereupon the master smacks him in the head with his fan. "Ouch!" says the startled student. "If nothing exists," the master says, "then what are you complaining about?"

It's that simple. If we don't believe in God, then what is this all around us, smacking us in the face every moment? What is this divine spark within us that can contain the concept of an entire universe in each of our heads?

I don't believe in God also, I believe in God only.

That's it. That's all it is. Everything else I can say about it is mere embroidery. The divine being that the world's religions have been urging us toward is no different from that Holy Grail of modern science, the Grand Unified Theory that will describe all the laws of nature as the operation of a single law that includes them all. The equations will be written in the language of mathematics, but the subject will be the same as the holiest of sacred books, because there is nothing else to write about but all there is.

Time to be quiet now. Listen--you can hear it happening.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Wearing the Flag

Hey, what's that in your lapel? 

So here it is, the 4th of July, which is why I'm posting this a day earlier than my usual Saturday morning update, and I'm thinking about the wearing of the flag.-- particularly those lapel pins that have become a fetish of our elected officials since 9/11/01. (And it's important to remember how recent this custom is.)

I'm saddened that Barrack Obama, who once looked ready to take a stand against this mindless substitute for what he rightly called "true patriotism," has bowed to public expectations in recognition that elections are ruled by symbols more than by ideals. At least "sometimes" the candidate now sports this tiny bit of metal on his jacket just so no one can interpret his refusal to do so as a form of disrespect, not to say subversion.

Recently NPR ran a story comparing the flag shirt worn by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the one Abbie Hoffman was notoriously arrested in back in 1968. (You can read and hear the story here.) The short version is that Hoffman, who was protesting at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on the Chicago riots, had bought his shirt at Sears -- which would seem to indicate that there were a large number of them in circulation at the time. Yet the police who nabbed him not only used his "desecration" of this holy object as a chargeable offense, but actually ripped it from his back, arguably doing more desecration than Hoffman had by wearing it. I suppose people were just supposed to buy these shirts and then frame them or run them up a pole in order to show respect..

Yet here was the modern Chairman-General cavorting in the street with his motorcycle-riding fellow Vietnam Vets in strikingly similar garb. What gives? It's not that people now are any less rabid about the hallowed bunting. In fact, it is entirely possible that legislation will pass that will prohibit the burning of the flag, considered by some to be protected as freedom of expression. (Visit the Flag Burning Page for more info, where you can burn a virtual flag if you are so inclined, at least so long as it is still legal to do so.)

Evidently who you are largely determines whether your wearing of the flag is considered patriotic or sacrilegious. And this is regardless of the fact that many long-standing uses of the flag -- for example, draping podiums or printing it on postage stamps -- really should not be allowed under the official Flag Code, which only dates from 1942 anyway.

Maybe those lapel pins really bother me because they are so similar to the ones that used to be worn in the Soviet Union by Communist Party members. All those little red stars and hammers-and-sickles seemed so evil back then, and the comparable use of the US flag pin by government officials smacks of the same regimentation -- especially if it becomes an obligatory badge of membership in an elite group of power-mongers.

Come to think of it, the Nazis were big on party jewelry too -- so much so that before we went to war against them little swastika pins and tie tacks and earrings were all the rage right here in the USA, and were even sold at stores like Tiffany's. (Picture Holly Golightly breakfasting in those!)  Maybe that's why the red star, abandoned by Russia, was so quickly adopted as the logo of Macy's department stores.

So please, Barrack, and anyone else -- before you go sticking those things in your lapels, give some thought to the Nazis and Communists. You know what happened to them, right? What? You say this is different? Well, perhaps you can explain how ...