Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A World That Works

You could call it a coronation, yet there was no crown. The power bestowed on a common man elevated him to an exalted position, but only for a measured term of years. When taking the oath he promised to support the Constitution, placing himself under the rule of law, and tacitly agreeing to relinquish power even before he had assumed it.

We have been celebrating this cornerstone of our republic every four years since George Washington was sworn in over two centuries ago. Back then, one observer witnessing the pomp and ceremony was moved to quip, "I fear we have exchanged George the Third for George the First." Yet Washington limited himself to only two terms in office -- a tradition that was respected, with the single exception of Franklin Roosevelt, until it was written into the Constitution in 1947.

Which brings us to that feature of our society that has -- so far, at least -- kept it not only relatively stable but alive and thriving through a period of time that has seen more change and upheaval than any in human history. That feature is the way change itself has been anticipated, accommodated, and codified into law. The Constitution incorporates a mechanism for its own transformation, and was changed almost immediately by the first ten amendments.

Since then a progression of further refinements have been added from time to time as the citizens and their legislators have seen fit. Sometimes they are laudable and overdue, as with the abolition of slavery and the insurance of civil rights, including the right to vote. At least once a memorable mistake was made -- when the attempted eradication of alcohol resulted in a short-lived period of social chaos. But the mistake was undone, and the ship of state sailed on.

The genius of the Founders was that they did not attempt to solve all problems at once, and never claimed to have invented a perfect system of government. Unlike the Marxists, who believed their system would be the final result of social evolution, the authors of the Constitution instead began a system of evolution that was intended from the start to be endlessly improved.

In his wonderful book, The Metaphysical Club (2001), Louis Menand discusses how Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes applied the principle of pragmatism to the law, with influential results. Holmes viewed the law not as a compendium of hard-coded rulings, but as an ongoing search for fairness and balance between opposing, and often contradictory, principles.

For example, everyone has a right to privacy. At the same time, police have a right to search if they have adequate reason. There is no hard rule that determines which party is in the right -- only a continuing list of examples of how those contradictory rights were resolved in unique cases. Over time, these examples become precedents that serve as guideposts in future cases. Also over time, one or the other rights may become more important.

Thus in the wake of civil rights abuses in the 1960's those rights came to seem more important than the rights of investigative agencies, which needed to be curtailed. Then in 2001 the opposite view became so urgent that many people were willing to sacrifice personal liberties in the name of security. The long range view is that these are both swings of the same pendulum, guaranteeing that overall a balance will be found.

The other night one news commentator, David Brooks, speaking about President Obama, said that so far his agenda is "less a collection of proposals than a way of making decisions based upon information, intelligence, and pragmatism." In his inaugural address Obama put it this way: "We do not ask whether our government is too large or too small, but whether it works."

The development of this prototypically American attitude is the underlying theme of Menand's book. It had its roots in the Transcendentalists and came of age when John Dewey founded an educational system on it. Pragmatism was seen to be at work in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. This is often oversimplified as "the survival of the fittest," which to most people implies that the organisms that can destroy their rivals will prosper. But it takes many other forms. Organisms also succeed if they have immunity to disease, are more adaptable, can learn to avoid accidents, take better care of their young, form social alliances with others -- even if they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.

The argument can even be made in the realm of quantum physics, which takes the view that a ball following a parabola does so by trying to move simultaneously in all possible directions, and following the solution of least resistance. Taking it to the extreme, at any moment the state of the whole universe is the best solution to a wildly complex and contradictory chaos of opposing forces.

If it is true that our new regime led by a new President has reconnected to this wellspring of common sense (and it seems no accident that Thomas Paine used those words as a title), then we can be optimistic about the result. Imagine using scientific data to make decisions instead of deciding in advance to ignore and refute them. Imagine choosing the best from among all possible ideas, rather than sticking to one idea, however wrong, come what may.

As he steers the course, neither too far to the right nor to the left, avoiding icebergs all the way, let's hope "whether it works" will continue to be the guiding principle. It's right there in the Constitution, not to mention living in our DNA.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Marian McPartland Meets Ira Sullivan

When two jazz greats had an encounter back in December of 2000 ...

[An earlier version of this article was formerly posted on the Butterfly Lightning website. The program aired on NPR sometime in April of 2000, but unfortunately is not available in their online archive at present.]
While the Butterfly Lightning readings went on in another part of our fair city, a bunch of us lucky contributors to WLRN were at Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami watching and listening spellbound as Marian McPartland taped an episode of Piano Jazz with local jazz legend Ira Sullivan.

Marian may be starting to walk a little like an elderly person (she's said to be eighty-something) but she sure doesn't play like one. We also found that she has the ability to communicate with facial expressions and the smallest gestures to a whole room full of people so they become willing slaves.

More than once she exhibited that astonishing musical memory of hers. For example, while they were discussing the "jazz alphabet," a list of song titles beginning with each letter, Ira mentioned an obscure song starting with the letter Z, and she immediately played the first two bars and attributed it to Noel Coward. Sheesh!

I've been following Ira, who's only seventy-something, for many years now, and he just keeps on getting better. He was wearing (you won't see this on the radio) baggy white pants, a saggy blue nylon jacket, and a flat cap, looking every bit the old bebop hipster -- especially when he leaned back, pushed his hips forward, shut his eyes and blew.

Blew what, you may ask? As usual, the gifted multi-instrumentalist traded off between several of them -- both tenor and soprano saxes, and muted trumpet. That leaves only the flute and flugelhorn that we didn't get to hear him play. (I've seen him sit down at the piano and drums, too, but he doesn't claim them as his own.)

Once long ago, after one of his evening jam sessions at the local Unitarian Church, I ventured to ask Ira which instrument he had taken up first. "It was the horn," he said with a nod, meaning trumpet. Then he added, "I've really only been messing around with the flute for a few years now." All I can say is that it is darn hard to tell the difference. Whatever is in his hands at the moment seems to be his intended voice.

He has also played and recorded with so many notable figures in the jazz community that the list of the ones he has not played with would be much shorter. Notables include the likes of Red Rodney, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Jocko Pastorious, and on and on. I witnessed a New Year's Eve bash at the old Bubba's jazz club in Fort Lauderdale back around 1978 when Ira appeared with Stan Getz, and in my humble opinion blew rings around him. What a night.

As you probably know, Piano Jazz is part performance but also part interview, and here Ira showed off his gift with words. Apropos of "Green Dolphin Street," for example, he reminded us how important it is to have a porpoise in life. (Ewww!) He described the generation that grew up with "bebop poison," the belief that things would never be better than in that era when they were in their twenties. He even unearthed the old gag where someone asks the rehearsing musicians, "Do you know there's a lady trying to sleep upstairs?" To which they reply, "No, but if you sing a few bars, we can fake it." (Nyuk nyuk.)

But my favorite bit verged on poetry. He was talking about learning tunes -- how many there are, and the way he tells students to learn one a day so that even with weekends off they pick up a couple of hundred per year. Among these must be included the "golden one hundred," a collection of standards written as long ago as the 1920's, which have been played and recorded by virtually every jazz artist to come along since.

Waxing lyrical, he spread his hands and said that by this point in his life they were all becoming the same, "the one big song that God gave us, and if you're lucky you get to where you can put it all together."

And on that note ...

[There's a great article about Ira Sullivan's career and a more recent appearance with Eric Alexander and Harold Mabern at All About Jazz. Marian McPartland is still playing and broadcasting at age 90.]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Doctor Atomic

Like eating vegetables, I watched because it was good for me ...

When John Adams' opera, Doctor Atomic, aired on PBS recently I made myself sit through the entire production. Actually they showed it twice in my locale, and that was good because the first time I made it only to the end of Part 1. But a few days later I started over and this time took in the whole thing in a single sitting, all two hours and fifty-five minutes of it.

You may well ask, why was it so difficult? And I would add, why should it be so difficult? I mean, after all, opera is supposed to be entertainment, and we all love to be entertained, right? Three hours is the same length as a football or baseball game, and we have no trouble sitting through those even with commercials. The main problem of course is the same one that "modern" music has been struggling with for the past century -- namely that it has become, for most people, impossible to listen to.

Even for those of us who are disposed to listen and attempt to appreciate contemporary works, it can be a struggle. A couple of years ago my wife and I attended a production of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes by the Santa Fe Opera. As much as we were enjoying the story and spectacle of it, we still had to call it quits by the end of the second act because it seemed interminable and was not compelling enough to keep us in our seats any longer. The next morning I joked with some friends that the piece might not be over yet. (For all I know, it may still be going on.)

In the case of Doctor Atomic, I confess I'm not a fan of John Adams as a composer. Though he is classed as a minimalist along with Philip Glass (whom I discussed last year), to me his works are far less minimal and at the same time far less melodic than those of Glass, making him harder to like. And this is really the heart of the matter -- opera began as song, and it is difficult to identify anything as song when it lacks a melody. And never mind how to define that, we all know when we hear one.

Ever since the Baroque era, opera buffs have been familiar with the difference between aria and recitative. The latter is the quasi-spoken form that was used in Bach's time to tell a prefatory story before the lyrical aria. Later, in the golden age of 19th century opera, recitative was used the way dialog is used in Broadway musicals, as intermissions between arias in which the story was moved along. By the time we had degenerated to Broadway, the pretense was abandoned and the dialog was merely spoken.

My beef with Adams is that his work gives the impression of being 100% recitative. Heaven help us if anything resembling a melody should break out by accident. So in spite of the praise I am about to give for the overall result, listeners are doomed to leave the theater with memories of many sounds but no tunes in their heads.

Are we childish to expect to walk away whistling to ourselves? I don't think it's so much to ask. Even Leonard Bernstein once claimed that his greatest ambition was to compose something so simply lyrical and memorable that audiences could sing it as they came out. Of course, Bernstein was something of an exception to the rule of inaccessibility in modern music, for while he produced a number of demanding orchestral works he also gave us West Side Story -- perhaps the nearest thing to a popular opera since Porgy and Bess -- and the whole point of his great Mass was the inclusion of popular musical forms ranging from folk and blues to jazz and rock.

The human impulse to melody is just too powerful to ignore. Even some rappers are beginning to (gasp!) actually sing in some of their, um, songs. Their fans, long starved on a diet of percussion and doggerel verse, can be expected to lap it up and demand more. So I rest my case.

And Finally About Our Story

With all that said, the spectacle of Doctor Atomic still leaves a powerful impression that makes it an important work. The invention of the Bomb is arguably the defining moment of the whole 20th century, spanning the period from Einstein's 1905 theory through the World Wars and the Cold War up to the threat of nuclear terrorism. The figure of Robert Oppenheimer has been compared to both Prometheus and Doctor Faustus. So how can we not be endlessly fascinated by the subject?

Part 1 takes place about a month before the test at the site named "Trinity" by Oppenheimer himself. No wonder then that this part ends with what seems to be everyone's favorite moment, a recitation of John Donne's sonnet, "Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God." This soliloquy-like aria contains the closest thing to melody in the entire work -- in fact, while writing this a scrap of it came back to me, a sequence of a few notes that I could try to sing if asked. (But please don't.)

Elsewhere the libretto by Peter Sellars has an abundance of beautiful language drawn from sources as diverse as poets Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser and the Hindu scripture called the Bhagavad Gita. The latter is the source of Oppenheimer's famous remark upon the test blast: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Oddly, unless I missed it, that quotable line seems to be absent from the opera, perhaps omitted for dramatic reasons having to do with the ending.

The poetry competes with, and is balanced by, technical language quoted from government reports and other personal accounts of the time. I liked the contrast, and it was a good depiction of the dichotomy that existed within Oppenheimer himself, who was as complex a soul as any from the classical tragedies. Perhaps that's why the use of the cast as a Greek chorus is so effective, while also portraying what a group effort the bomb project was. And, it's a reminder that we are all in this together.

Part 2 covers the last night before the test, and is all about the building of tension that leads to the conclusion. Native American naturalism contends with militarism and technology. The feminine (personified by Oppie's wife, Kitty) counters the masculine. Thunderstorms threaten to detonate the bomb prematurely. General Groves, under time pressure from Washington, takes it out on his meteorologist, demanding favorable weather for the test. The scientists are taking bets on how powerful the explosion will be, and whether or not it will ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world. Not too much pressure!

The final turn of the screw is the way the passage of time slows near the end, expanding the final minutes to several times their size, until both audience and cast are waiting breathlessly for the sudden flash it seems will never come. It does, of course, as we know it must, and as the curtain descends the final voice is that of a Japanese woman calling for water for herself and her children, and our national guilt descends upon us as well.

Ultimately the opera works not because it tells the story, which has been told much more completely elsewhere, or because of its beauty, because beauty is not the first word that comes to mind to describe the rumbling and pounding score. Rather, it is a meditation on the event, a powerful invocation of all the forces at work and the effect they have had on us, irrevocably and forever. It was the day Pandora's box opened, and one we will never forget.

When the ancient Greeks went to the amphitheater to see Oedipus they didn't go to learn the story, because they already knew it well. They just went to bask in their mythology, to consider once again what it had to tell them about their own lives. Now Oppenheimer and Trinity are part of our mythology, and it behooves us to take what lessons we can from them. Doctor Atomic is one attempt to do just that.

[For more I recommend the biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Martin Sherwin and Kai Bird, which I mentioned in last year's blog about Los Alamos. There are also two definitive histories by Richard Rhodes called The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. I've recently ordered both of them and plan to read and report on them in the future, so stay tuned.]

Saturday, January 03, 2009

To Prognosticate is Human

Those who forget the past may be condemned to repeat it, but those who fail to imagine the future will be surprised ...

I had so much fun thinking about the future last year (2008) that it seems the perfect way to start the new year. This is much preferable to the kind of synopses of the old year that we are prone to do, and we won't have to consider how many notable and worthy human beings have passed from our midst in the short space of twelve months. Instead we can clear the decks and start over from a point where all things are possible. So, with all due warning that I may be wildly wrong about everything, here we go ...

  • President Obama's inauguration will be the most widely viewed of these events in history, thanks to endless replay on the Internet. It will be the most inspirational address since that of John Kennedy, the most healing since Lincoln's second, and the most motivational since FDR announced the New Deal. Obama will begin signing executive orders in the car on the way to the White House, suddenly putting everything to rights.
  • No, seriously -- the first year of the new administration will be a reality check for anyone who thought it was going to be easy. Nonetheless, progress will be made. Government printing presses will finally produce enough cash to make us solvent again, Guantanamo will become just another Navy base, and Hillary Clinton will be all over Europe and the Middle East actually doing something constructive about foreign policy. By year's end, the great rudder of the ship of state will have shifted a few degrees to port, and it will be possible to imagine the course changing accordingly.
  • Also by year's end financial experts will begin noting with some surprise that the stock markets have actually had a pretty good year. All those who waited too long to get out will suddenly realize they have waited too long to get back in.
  • A byproduct of the closing of the Guantanamo prison camp will be a case that makes it to the Supreme Court, which will declare certain provisions of the Patriot Act to be unconstitutional. This will be all the pretext the new Democratic Congress will need to scrap the bill and replace it with something that does not require the country to be a police state.
  • The new administrator appointed by Obama will oversee the most radical changes in NASA since its inception. Both the shuttle and its replacement will be scrapped, and the agency will begin hiring out all its launches, as it is repurposed toward R&D and science missions. This will be widely criticized, especially as the public sees much of its space money going to Europe, Russia, Japan, and even China. Congress will tack something onto a bill that requires a certain percentage of contracts to be awarded to American companies. But that's where the genius lies -- the lucrative contracts will ignite the private space flight industry, and create the biggest explosion of innovation since the 1930's gave us commercial air travel. The same forces that transformed the Internet after it was turned over to the public will now do the same for space travel. By the end of Obama's second term, multiple companies will be flying passengers into orbit, a new commercial space station will be planned along the lines of the one in 2001: Space Odyssey, and companies will announce their intentions to begin mining operations on the moon and asteroids. A new X-prize will be announced to reward the first humans to reach Mars, and Richard Branson will vow to be on the crew himself, posthumously one-upping his friend Steve Fosset.
  • Oil prices will drop below $10 a barrel as it becomes clear that demand is drying up all over the developed world. The major US oil companies will appeal to Congress for assistance as they attempt to transition to the new solar-wind-wave economy, but it will be too late for some of them who failed to diversify soon enough. The United Arab Emirates will have to go to the World Bank for a loan. Dubai will become the "world's richest slum" as the basis of its economy disappears.
  • The country will begin to be crisscrossed with a new power grid for distribution of energy and high speed electric rail lines connecting all major urban centers just as the Interstate Highway system did before them. This will be good for the national economy but murderous for the already struggling airlines. Even with cheap fuel, the only carriers that will survive will be the ones that can afford the loss of so many short domestic routes, and are able to cash in on the lucrative new business in orbital and suborbital flight.
I could go on, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'm sure there will be plenty more to predict next year. Got any ideas? Let me know.

[In case you have any doubts about the viability of private companies exploring space, consider that NASA has already awarded contracts to two firms, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to haul freight to the space station after the shuttle program ends. And Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, in a joint venture with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, has already put a man into suborbital space, winning an X-Prize in the process. This is only the beginning folks, the mere Wright Brothers prelims.]