Saturday, September 15, 2012


I've been indulging my enjoyment of Baroque music in recent weeks.  I even have a channel on Pandora dedicated to Baroque choral music, centered on the English composer Henry Purcell, the Italians Alessandro Scarlatti and Gregorio Allegri, and Georg Phillip Telemann.  Of course, Bach gets tossed in there.  Even more than the Classical and Romantic era, there's something about the structure of Baroque choral music I find very uplifting.

Last Christmas season, while listening to a holiday channel on Pandora, I heard the following song and I stopped doing whatever I was doing so I could listen:

Now, in most ways one can imagine, the structure of this piece is about as far from Baroque as one can imagine.  At the same time, the piece seemed to embody the essential understanding of beauty from canonical aesthetic theory: in which constituent parts are assembled precisely to create a whole that transcends their individual perfections.  Baroque music does this by its insistence on avoiding dissonance, creating soaring harmonies that fit the composer's goals of reflecting the divine harmony in creation.

Eric Whitacre is that occasional phenom: the really popular composer in the classical idiom.  Along with choral pieces, he has composed for symphony orchestras and various ensembles.  He composed an oratorio rooted in Japanes anime using contemporary instrumentation, yet loosely patterned after and so entitled, "Paradise Lost".  He premiered it at Carnegie Hall, with an orchestra and a 425 voice choir.  Steve Smith at The New York Times wasn't as impressed as the audience.

The virtual choir was Whitacre's idea.  Response to his first, shown above, was so good, he tried it again with his composition, "Sleep", and then "Water Night".  It includes over 3700 videos submitted from people in 73 countries.  Moriah's high school chorale is preparing this same piece for a concert, and while certainly not as LOUD as the collected voices of three thousand seven hundred forty-six people, the aesthetic and emotional power of the song should work well even in a group of about thirty or so.  This is so not because of the harmonies.  Rather, Whitacre's music is affecting because of the intelligent use of dissonance.

The reason for this, as well as my initial, "Wow!", reaction to "Lux Aurumque", lies in what the title of one piece analyzing this composition calls "The Physical Properties of Sound Itself".
How exactly does Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux Aurumque’ work? How can it move us so deeply, so mysteriously? It does this in part through Whitacre’s extensive, deliberate use of beat-frequencies between the parts. For me—and maybe for you as well—the effect is not just the richness of a clashing pair of notes; it’s also the ‘phantom’ note that the beat-frequency of a note-pair implies: the ‘implied’ note that we hear when the dissonance is sounded. That implied or ‘phantom’ note has a pitch equal to the frequency difference between the two dissonant notes—the beat-frequency of the difference in frequency. Close-harmony like this is like a human analogue of ‘voix celeste’ on an organ—phantom notes expressly created by the dissonance beat-frequency. Yes, a choral tune is set as a cantus firmus—but it isn’t purely horizontal: there are all of the vertical/harmonic implications as well as the contrapuntal associations. . . .
This relationship can be expressed as a mathematical equation:
The author continues:
Mathematically, we should hear the sine wave (f1 + f2)/2 as the average of the two pitches. But the sine part of the right side function alternates between negative and positive values many times during one period of the cosine part, and when this happens only the absolute value of the envelope is perceived. So the beat-frequency we hear is just the difference between the two frequencies: (f1 − f2).
The piece goes on to give a history of the use of these harmonics, as well as demonstrate from Whitacre's score how the composer achieves it in context.  It's certainly fascinating, and more than a little disconcerting that beauty can be described as precisely as a mathematical equation (although, I suppose this does answer the conundrum about whether or not beauty is something "objective"; I figure if you can write a trigonometric equation to describe it, then the answer is "Yes").

All the same, it boils down to this: Whitacre's choral compositions (I've listened to some of his instrumental pieces, and for some reason they don't work quite the same way; perhaps it's some property of the human voice that makes his choral compositions work so well)  have a quality most listeners call "transcendent" because the human ear resolves the dissonances of the notated score by offering a middle tone that isn't vocalized.  Perhaps these harmonics work on the physical structure of the human ear much the same way as sympathetic harmonic vibrations work with guitar or piano strings; if you play particular chords on a guitar or piano and watch carefully, strings NOT played vibrate, not in consonance like a wine glass breaking to a high tone, but in harmony.

Much the same principle is involved in Barbershop Quartets, with what is called "the fifth tone", an overtone that one writer says "produce a ring or overtone -- a fifth tone that nobody is singing, but that we all can hear."

After hearing "Lux Arumque" for the first time, I spoke to the choir director at church.  She is a musician, and I told her "It's like he's inventing chords."  In a way, I was right.  Whitacre is an extremely smart composer, being very deliberate in the way he structures sound so listeners "hear" notes that aren't even articulated, creating an even bigger sound.  Thus, the parts are indeed constructed in such a way so the whole is, indeed, something more.  So, I have little fear that Moriah's chorale will sound less somehow than the thousands of voices here:

Friday, September 14, 2012

Those Who Don't Know History

A friend of mine on Facebook has the following posted on my news feed:
There are so many things wrong with this, I'm not even sure where to begin.

In 1985, a German disco was bombed.  Among the dead were several American service personnel. The Reagan Administration advertised to the whole world that Libya was responsible.  After several months of discussions, several American F-111 Fighter Bombers flew from Great Britain around the Iberian Peninsula and attacked targets in Libya, including Moammar Qaddafi's house.  Among the dead was Qaddafi's young daughter.

Within a few days of the attacks, it was revealed that the Germans had determined the disco bombing was carried out by Syrian operatives.  It didn't take too long for American officials to admit, on the record, that they goofed.

A couple days before Christmas, 1988, an Eastern Airlines flight from Germany to the United States exploded in midair, the pieces landing in Scotland.  Among the dead were several students from Syracuse University, returning from studying abroad for a semester.  Claiming jurisdiction because the bombing occurred in their air space, the British determined the perpetrators were Libyan.  When confronted, the Qaddafi regime admitted involvement, claiming the bombing was a reprisal for the 1986 attack by the Americans, carried out from bases on British soil.

As for the whole apology thing, I'm still waiting for someone to tell me who apologized to whom, when, for what, and how even if that happened, it has anything to do with the deaths of four American diplomats.

I don't care if you don't like Barack Obama.  I don't care if you think Ronald Reagan was a Great President.  I don't even care if you think, somehow, Barack Obama bears responsibility for the deaths of those diplomats.  I do care, however, that there continue to be people who perpetuate made-up events and pass them off as reasons for holding whatever political opinions they might have.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Republican Fantasy Meets Reality. Guess Which Loses

The background to Gov. Romney's statement Tuesday (and repeated at a news conference at a campaign stop yesterday) regarding what were still unfolding events in North Africa and now the Arabian Peninsula has yet to be made clear by many people.  I thought I'd perform a public service.

The Republicans think Obama has gone overseas during his time in office and apologized, well, to pretty much everyone.

Evidence?  Who needs evidence when Rush Limbaugh talks about "Obama Apologies Tour"?

In February of last year, I did a Google search and discovered exactly one apology Pres. Obama made on behalf of the United States.  He told the President and people of Guatemala he regretted that the United States performed experiments on human test subjects, prisoners in Guatemala, in the late 1940's.  So, um, yeah, a little late but that's a pretty necessary apology to make.

Other than that?  Nothing.

Don't take my word for it.  Put "Obama Apology", "Obama Apologizes for America", or some other iteration in Teh Google Box and, voila, all you get are links to right-wingers insisting it's happening without ever once actually pointing to a place and time where it has, in fact, happened.

The whole "apology" thing came up again and again at the Republican National Convention and most of the press ignored it, much the same way most people ignore the really stupid, rude drunk at an otherwise polite party.  Events in Egypt, Libya, and now Yemen, however, are bringing it back around again, however, because the right is convinced, without needing any evidence, that Barack Obama hates America, loves foreign countries more (sometimes it's European socialism, sometimes radical Islamic states), and spends much of his time abroad telling the world how sorry he is for America being America.

When Gov. Romney stated, falsely, that the Obama Administration sided with the mobs who attacked the American Embassy in Cairo, he isn't "lying" in the way most of the rest of us would understand that word.  Rather, he is acting upon a deep-seated impulse within much of the American right that Pres. Obama apologizes for the United States.  When confronted by the reality that the things he said were factually inaccurate, he reiterated his point (along the way making a totally irrelevant correct statement that one cannot deal with counterfactuals and such; the problem, of course, is the question was stupid, giving Romney a moment to look smarter than the press corps) even as many Republicans were shifting away from him, ever so slowly, trying to pretend he wasn't around.  By the end of the day, even his running mate put a bit of space between himself and his Number One Guy.

The President has, in fact, done pretty much what any (sane) President would do in a situation such as this: he's condemned the attacks, spoken with the leaders of the countries involved, offered prayers to the families of those killed, reiterated American resolve in the face of mob violence, and spoken of "bringing to justice" the people who killed Americans overseas.  Mitt Romney has continued to claim that the President apologized first, which he didn't, and hasn't been strong enough since, which all the evidence demonstrates is just not true.

At some point, reality and fantasy collide, and fantasy always crumbles to dust.  Except, alas, in the minds of those who have invested far too much in that fantasy to admit it is just that.    I made the point a couple weeks back, and the redoubtable Charlie Pierce has broken it down in to its constituent parts: Barack Obama is blessed by his opponents.  Mitt Romney is displaying all the adroitness of a troupe of tap-dancing walruses, gift-wrapping the election for a President who should, under normal circumstances, be facing the very real prospects of losing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

No Good Deed

I took a bit of heat last year for speaking out against American involvement in the Libyan Civil War, as anyone can see from the comments on this post.  It is with sadness I read this article, a late-breaking headline from The Washington Post.
U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens and at least two other embassy staffers were reported killed Tuesday in an assault on the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The violence in Benghazi followed protests in neighboring Egypt, where a group of protesters scaled the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday evening and entered its outer grounds, pulled down an American flag, then tried to burn it outside the embassy walls, according to witnesses. On Wednesday morning, a sit-in of several dozen protesters continued outside the Cairo embassy. 
I suppose people will say that these protests, spawned from anger at an anti-Islamic film made by an American, are "unrelated" to the events of the Arab Spring of 2011.  Sure.  Because anyone paying attention will know that, were Hosni Mubarak and Moamar Qaddafi still in power, these protests and deaths never would have happened; or, is those gentlemen were still in power (or alive), the protests would have been worse; or, the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi would have included elements of the Qaddafi regime.

"What if's" are fun, but miss the point.  That the Libyans enjoy a measure of freedom today is directly related to the American military preventing the military of the old regime completely destroying the rebels.  We were fortunate not to lose pilots and aircraft during that air campaign.  Now, we've lost three American diplomats, the leader of which seems, from the article, to have been deeply committed to seeing post-Qaddafi Libya succeed.  The Libyan people lost a good and able friend yesterday, killed by their own.

You're welcome, Libya.  And, I'm so glad all those who supported Pres. Obama's ill-considered decision to "do something" have felt vindicated all these months, because everyone needs time to celebrate being right.

So, let's do this again!  In Syria!  Iran!  Heck, why not go in whole hog and declare war on Pakistan, since we're already killing people there left and right?  Oh, and who can forget Yemen.

Liberal hawks are no brighter than their conservative counterparts.  They just have less excuse because, usually, they demonstrated sense and thoughtfulness when conservatives decided to start shooting Muslims.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"The Entire Governmental Power"

I had some time on my hands last night, and because the Internet has everything available I decided to fulfill a long-held wish.  I knew from Roy Jeynkins biography that there existed a recording of William Gladstone.  It was actually quite easy to find; the problem is, Gladstone was standing a bit too far from the recording trumpet; despite being cleaned up and filtered and having all the digital bells and whistles applied to it, the listener has a difficult time hearing Gladstone, which is a shame. At his height, known as "The People's William", Gladstone was among the first important political figures in Britain who had the ability to attract and hold enormous crowds when he gave speeches.  The recording just doesn't give listeners any hint of this.  It doesn't help it was recorded when Gladstone was approaching eighty years old, many of the fires in his life long banked.  For all that, it was strange and wonderful to sit in my comfortable 21st century house, earbuds in my computer, and listen to one of the great statesmen of the 19th century, the many years between us disappearing in an instant.

The Internet Archive is a marvelous resource.  Holding not only the Gladstone recording, but thousands of others, I decided to do some playing around.  Finishing up a book on the First World War, I decided to check and see if there were any words from Pres. Woodrow Wilson.  His wonderful, clear baritone coming out of the buds made me realize that, having been a college professor, Wilson learned early how to speak clearly to people.

Moving on from Wilson, I thought, "Why not?" and tried Theodore Roosevelt.  With the exceptions of Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt is perhaps the one American from our somewhat distant past whose voice I have wanted to hear (Lincoln died before voice recording was invented; I tried to find one, but there seems to be no record of Twain recording his voice).  TR was  a bundle of contradictions, barely held together by his tight vest and jacket.  Short, sickly during his childhood and youth, Roosevelt overcame his physical limitations through that most vaunted of 19th century human attributes - sheer will.

Looking at photographs and considering his vigorous lifestyle, so reminiscent of another former sickly child who felt the need to prove his masculinity (Ernest Hemingway), one would think Roosevelt would have had a sonorous voice, rising and echoing from his voluminous middle.  Alas, hearing TR speak across 100 years, one hears a slightly nasal, high tenor in a sing-song cadence that is the one thing that hints at the energy its owner possessed.

There are two TR speech recordings in the Internet Archive, both from the 1912 Presidential election*.  Clicking on the first, titled "The Liberty Of The People", I was shocked and surprised by what I heard.  I knew right away I wanted to make it the subject of this post this morning, but I was afraid that taking the time to transcribe the speech would prevent that.  So, I fired up Teh Google Box and, sure enough, there are several transcripts out there (the next time someone says they can't find something on the Internet, I am more convinced than ever that must mean it just doesn't exist).  The link at the top of this paragraph takes readers to the two Roosevelt speeches.  I encourage anyone and everyone to click the link and hit the "Play" button and listen to Roosevelt speak, the time between him and us disappearing in the second or so it takes the recording to load.  Below is the transcript, found here:
The difference between Mr. Wilson and myself is fundamental. The other day in a speech at Sioux Falls, Mr. Wilson stated his position when he said that the history of government, the history of liberty, was the history of the limitation of governmental power. This is true as an academic statement of history in the past. It is not true as a statement affecting the present. It is true of the history of medieval Europe. It is not true of the history of 20th Century America. In the days when all governmental power existed exclusively in the King or in the baronage, and when the people had no shred of that power in their own hand, then it undoubtedly was true that the history of liberty was the history of the limitation of the governmental power of the outsiders who possessed that power. But today, the people have actually or potentially the entire governmental power. It is theirs to use and to exercise if they choose to use and to exercise it. It offers the only adequate instrument with which they can work for the betterment, for the uplifting, of the masses of our people. The liberty of which Mr. Wilson speaks today means merely the liberty of some great trust magnate to do that which he is not entitled to do. It means merely the liberty of some factory owner to work haggard women over hours for under pay and himself to pocket the proceeds. It means the liberty of the factory owner who crowds his operatives into some crazy deathtrap on a top floor, where if fire starts the slaughter is immense**. It means the liberty of the big factory owner who is conscienceless and unscrupulous, to work his men and women under conditions which eat into their lives like an acid. It means the liberty of even less conscientious factory owners to make their money out of the toil, the labor, of little children. Men of this stamp are the men whose liberty would be preserved by Mr. Wilson. Men of this stamp are the men whose liberty would be preserved by the limitation of governmental power. We propose, on the contrary, to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage- workers, of the men and women who toil in industry, to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor. Mr. Wilson stands for the liberty of the oppressor to oppress; we stand for the limitation of his liberty thus to oppress those who are weaker than himself.
Few people running for office today could sum up so well, and so colorfully, what is at stake in this Presidential election one hundred years later.  Whatever else may be the differences between the Republican and Democratic visions of governance, it seems clear enough that, while the tables may have turned over the course of a century, the fundamental argument is still the same.  Roosevelt's expansive view of the role of public power to check the private abuse of power is rooted, as he makes clear, in the need to benefit the whole nation, not just "the job creators" of his (and our) time.

This shows that there really isn't anything new under the sun.  It also shows that Obama and the Democratic Party and the voters who support him stand in a long, proud tradition of some of the best America has to offer***.

*This was back when there were no restrictions other than tradition on the number of years and terms a President could hold.  TR had served out an almost complete term after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, then was re-elected on his own merits in 1904.  He was unhappy and restless as a former President, deciding to run against his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, bolting from the Republican Party to do so.  He actually outpolled Taft in '12, coming in second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Because there was little distance between Roosevelt and Wilson in matters of economic policy, but huge differences in questions of civil rights and foreign policy, I've often wondered what those years would have looked like had Roosevelt managed to eke out a win.

*This is a reference to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of the year before.

***I'll save for another day criticisms of TR's war-mongering.  In this, too, he is represented by our current President.

Monday, September 10, 2012

No Such Thing As Fringe Research

A recent bugaboo of mine is blinkered vision offered by the major parties and their candidates for the future of America.  Rather than challenge us as a people to achieve something difficult, we are told by both Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama the best we can look forward to over the next four years is a better economy.  Without, of course, talking about anything more specific than taxes and Medicare.  That Gov. Romney thought to make a laugh line of Pres. Obama's 2008 speech in which he offered the thought that we Americans might find a way to work together to curb the worst effects of global warming demonstrates to me there are far too many Americans who just don't believe it possible to do anything great or good beyond fight wars without end and, at best, have a basic, functioning national economy.

It was nice, then, to read this morning that at least one member of Congress is trying to point out how publicly funded scientific research benefits all Americans.  Especially, perhaps, when it sounds really silly.
It is human nature to chuckle at a study titled “Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig,” yet this research led to a treatment for hearing loss in infants. Similar examples abound. Transformative technologies such as the Internet, fiber optics, the Global Positioning System, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer touch-screens and lithium-ion batteries were all products of federally funded research.
Yes, “the sex life of the screwworm” sounds funny. But a $250,000 study of this pest, which is lethal to livestock, has, over time, saved the U.S. cattle industry more than $20 billion. Remember: The United States itself is the product of serendipity: Columbus’s voyage was government-funded. Remember, too, that basic science, the seed corn of innovation, is primarily supported by the federal government — not industry, which is typically more interested in applied research and development.
I wrote a year ago about the occasional nonsense politicians who know nothing about anything get up to when it comes to publicly-funded research.  It's nice to see that we are moving beyond Proxmire in an effort to celebrate some of the things that make America a great and good land, including funding basic scientific research.

Oh, and if you write a comment on this post using your Google Account, please don't bash federal funding for basic research.  If you are using a computer, don't bash federal funding for basic research.  If you use or used to use a calculator, particularly a Texas Instruments calculator, don't bash federal funding for basic research.  If you have all your immunization shots up to date, are eating a well-rounded healthy diet, don't bash federal funding for basic research.

Basically, if you are alive and reading this, and want to bash federal funding for basic scientific research, you've already lost your own argument.

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