No Pigeonholes

June 10th, 2014

At the start of the New Year, an article in the Wall Street Journal likened the “endless offerings of music-rental services” to the “endless smorgasbord of gummy bears, Froot Loops and other toppings at those frozen-yogurt chains.” In time, abundance turns nauseating, and our appetites retreat to the comfort food of tunes “we’ve been listening to since senior year in high school” (Jurgensen, 2014).

As noted in an earlier blog, I suspect we are to some degree neurologically hidebound to our musical environment back when we were 17. At the same time, the WSJ article touches upon that alleged curse of market democracy, the so-called Choice Overload Hypothesis – the notion that “too many choices overwhelm people, fostering anxiety and dissatisfaction” (Suderman, 2010). The hypothesis appears to have been debunked – or at least demonstrated to be a lot less common than fashionably contended (Scheibehenne et al, 2010). Still, the article speaks to a genuine concern of culture and consumption. A profusion of recorded music confronts us. We seem unable to negotiate the online aisles alone. We may need a connoisseur, a curator, a docent to guide us. Who will be our Virgil up and down the malebolges of too much available sound?

The article mentions a handful of music streaming services. I’m afraid I don’t subscribe to any of them. Instead, I rely a lot on Don Campau’s No Pigeonholes, a radio program that features home recordings of all kinds and which I’ve been listening to for years. Campau states on his website that he has “NO interest in the music business” and welcomes “music people create for fun and art.” Thanks to No Pigeonholes, I’ve heard and purchased music from around the country and the world that to my ears at least is truly unique and riveting.

Thanks to my job, I discovered Seattle On Hold while I was on hold for the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. It plays music by local bands on city phone systems. The podcast has proven an important guide for CD and mp3 purchases of all sorts of Seattle-based music. Too bad the site doesn’t seem to be adding anymore music to its roster.

Finally, because I a suffer a fondness for Early Music, I rely on Harmonia’s weekly one-hour podcast to learn about the musical past and the latest recordings of contemporary Early Music practitioners.

So far, these three online broadcasts, in addition to the local classical and jazz radio stations, seem enough to help keep me up to date with recorded music. Which begs the question: why must we keep up? As the Tragically Hip advise on “Music at Work”: “Don’t try to be up to date”; rather, “when the sunlight hits the olive-oil, don’t hesitate.”

I should mention that Don Campau has been kind enough to feature two tracks from my latest CD on No Pigeonholes, here and here.

Works Cited

Jurgensen, J. (2014, January 3). An Ode to Joyful Music Streaming. Wall Street Journal.

Scheibehenne, B., Greifeneder, R. and Todd, P. (2010). Can There Ever Be Too Many Options? A Meta-Analytic Review of Choice Overload. Journal of Consumer Research, 409-425.

Suderman, P. (2010, May). ‘Choice paradox’ debunked. Reason.

Snowball

May 22nd, 2014

Several years ago, Aniruddh D. Patel (2006) hypothesized a connection between “vocal learning” (i.e., the ability “to produce vocal signals based on auditory experience and sensory feedback”) and BPS (i.e., beat perception and synchronization, or the ability to anticipate and thereby “tap or move slightly ahead” of a musical beat). From an evolutionary perspective, vocal learning is rare among nonhuman animals, evident only among songbirds, parrots, cetaceans, seals, elephants and bats. The question is whether BPS can be found in creatures other than human beings. Patel distinguished BPS from “the synchronized displays of certain animals such as frogs, crickets, fireflies.” Meanwhile, though psychologists and neuroscientists have trained nonhuman animals to perform elaborate tasks, nobody in a research setting has trained an animal “to tap, peck or move in synchrony with an auditory beat.”

Then, in 2007, Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleanora), appeared on YouTube, bobbing his head and stamping his feet to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” “This was the first inkling,” observed Patel et al. (2009), “that a nonhuman animal could synchronize to music.” In a research setting, Snowball went on to demonstrate “genuine synchronization to a musical beat” at several distinct tempi. Other dancing parrots have since appeared on YouTube. In at least one other research setting, parrots have demonstrated a tendency to “entrain to music” (Schachner et al., 2009). From all this it can be concluded that BPS is not a uniquely human activity.

Mind you, parrots are one of the only species that demonstrate a humanlike capacity for vocal learning (Blanding, 2014). In light of their humanlike dancing ability, Patel’s connection between vocal learning and BPS is not farfetched. At the same time, seeing that parrots don’t synchronize to a musical beat in the wild, Patel’s hypothesis “implies that this capacity emerges as a serendipitous byproduct of brain circuitry that evolved for other reasons, i.e., for vocal learning” (Patel, 2014).

Speech and music have been correlated elsewhere. For example, Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch (2002) note that in terms of both critical and babbling periods, bird song development is analogous (but not homologous) to human language acquisition. They (2005) additionally recognize that language and music share the phenomenon of rhythm. Their sparring partners, Pinker and Jackendoff (Nature, 2005), similarly acknowledge that rhythm is common to language and music, only that for them something more than crude “rhythmic capacity” is at play in language, as well as in “vocal imitation,” something “fine-grained,” the way that “human fingers and toes have similar gross morphology but distinct details and specializations.” Pinker and Jackendoff (Faculty, 2005) also observe that the “sensitive period for learning language” has “analogues” in bird song development. (Beyond these items, when it comes to the evolutionary faculty of language, HCF and PJ have little to agree on.)

The so-called Aquatic Ape Theory comes to mind because among its evidentiary items is breath control necessitated by swimming and diving. Such a subtle and voluntary ability, proponents of the theory argue, served as a pre-adaptation for human speech (Verhaegen, 1988). Dennett (1996, pp. 243-5) has stated that he has yet to hear a convincing scientific rebuttal against the Aquatic Ape Theory. Still, it appears that our ancestral aquatic phase predates by a mighty long time the evolutionary expansion of the thoracic vertebral canal that enabled the “fine control of human speech breathing” (MacLarnon & Hewitt, G., 1999).

In any case, Patel (2014) has recently published a paper in which he throws down a heterodox gauntlet. Against Darwin’s claim in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (“The perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm is probably common to all animals, and no doubt depends on the common physiological nature of their nervous systems”), Patel argues that only a few species are able to “synchronize rhythmic movements to a beat in a manner similar to humans.” Again, this may in turn be connected to vocal learning. The question is whether “similar underlying mechanisms” motivate both human beings and parrots. Patel hypothesizes in the affirmative.

To falsify the proposed connection between vocal learning and BPS, Patel proffers the horse. Not vocal mimics, horses may nevertheless trot in musical time (Blanding, 2014). Experimental evidence is nonexistent. As we wait for it, I can’t help but recall Swift’s Houyhnhnms: they were too rational for dancing.

Works Cited

Blanding, M. (2014, May 20). Few animals other than humans can move in sync with music.

Dennett, D. C. (1996). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Penguin Books.

Hauser, M., Chomsky, N. and Fitch, T. (2002). The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve? Science, 1569-1579.

—. (2005). The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications. Cognition, 179–210.

MacLarnon, A. and Hewitt, G. (1999). The Evolution of Human Speech: The Role of Enhanced Breathing Control. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 341-363.

Patel, A. D. (2006). Musical Rhythm, Linguistic Rhythm, and Human Evolution. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 99-104.

—. (2014). The Evolutionary Biology of Musical Rhythm: Was Darwin Wrong? PLOS Biology, 1-6.

Patel, A., Iversen, J., Bregman, M. and Schulz, I. (2009). Studying Synchronization to a Musical Beat in Nonhuman Animals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 459-469.

Pinker, S. and Jackendoff, R. (2005). The faculty of language: what’s special about it? Cognition, 201–236.

—. (2005). The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language (Reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky). Cognition, 211–225.

Schachner, A., Brady, T., Pepperberg, I. Hauser, M. (2009). Spontaneous Motor Entrainment to Music in Multiple Vocal Mimicking Species. Current Biology, 831-836.

Verhaegen, M. J. (1988). Aquatic ape theory and speech origins: a hypothesis. Speculations in Science and Technology, 165-171.

Time After Time

April 19th, 2014

Just the other day, while handling a building permit in Pismo Beach, I found out that as part of a lawsuit settlement the city council had decided against opening its sessions anymore with a prayer. “We’re getting everything we asked for,” proclaimed a board member of Atheists United (which along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation had instigated the lawsuit). And then some, I’d say. In the interest “of carefully managing taxpayer funds,” the city attorney decided not to “contest the suit through trial.” Nevertheless, the city council agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees ($47,500) plus $2 total in nominal damages. Evidently, an unpaid chaplain, who from Jan. 1, 2008 to Oct. 15, 2013 had inaugurated most council meetings with a prayer, “offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated” at least one of the plaintiffs in the suit (Lambert, 2014).

I understand that lawsuits are prone to overwrought language. Still, short of a presentation of torture instruments, I’m not sure how a Christian invocation can be received as offensive, disenfranchising and intimidating. As with the overwrought controversy of secondhand smoke, I wish the civically sensitive were as plainspoken as Bruce Ames (1994): prayers, like cigarette fumes, are not noxious so much as they are irritating, and for that simple reason alone should be banished from the public square. Mind you, I speak as a person allergic both to tobacco and to piety more unearthly than the Pascalian gamble. On the last point: like most Americans (at least those polled), I’m in favor of public prayer, so long as it is “generic and not specifically Christian” (Grossman, 2014). Our first president, after all, never mentioned Jesus by name. As Ike, whom Bellah (1967) was fond of quoting, once said, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith – and I don’t care what it is.” As for me, at one with Brendan Behan, my money is on the Druids (Coogan, 2000, p. 98).

Perhaps the Constitutional Grinches unwittingly bolster America’s internalized fatwa – that worrisome trend of deleting religious exhibition and commentary from the public square for fear of offending pyrotechnic religionists (Malik, 2009). Setting that aside, I am doubtful that religious expression within the hallowed grounds of civic land signifies a serious threat to the republic. As Molly Ivins (1999, p. 50), at the expense of Allegheny County courthouse, once joked, a Nativity scene “may be the only way they’ll ever get three wise men in that building.” The same can be said of any governmental structure. Take that ACLU.

What’s amusing is what’s allowed to be displayed publicly in the meantime. Take a movie billboard at a bus stop where school kids congregate. A few times as I walk up Lake Avenue to work I’ve been struck by an image announcing the latest cinematic venture into torture porn. Mind you, the kids don’t notice: they’re preoccupied with the gaggle around them and the chatter on their handhelds. Still, relative to the image, a Christmastime crèche in Palisades Park seems a welcome exception. Its political removal hardly warrants a hallelujah for secularism (Gold, 2012), what with the ugliness on display in the gentrified streets. “The purpose of separation of church and state,” said Madison, “is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.” We instead get blood-soaked spectacles on the silver and computer screen.

Mind you, I don’t accept the claim that violent images trigger violent behavior. As a species, we don’t require much prompting. The claim’s evidence, anyway, while politically appealing (Ferguson & Kilburn, 2009) and thus too often compromised by “echo attribution” (Savage, 2012), is anecdotal at best (Levine & Ferguson, 2013). As a character suggests in Loomer’s play, Distracted, “anecdotal” is a pedantic way of saying “bullshit” (Loomer, 2009, p. 41). Besides, I’m not behaviorist enough to fret about metaphysical triggers of human action. I just wonder about images themselves.

I remember thinking back in 1992, when Silence of the Lambs won the Academy Award for best picture, “Is this the movie America wants to present to the world as the best we can achieve cinematically?” It’s a finely made and finely acted flick, but the plot is run-of-the-mill, if exceptionally riveting, trash. While comedies, though more difficult to pull off, always get short shrift at the Academy Awards, to my mind, City Slickers and The Addams Family should have been thoroughly honored. Of course, Beauty and the Beast was a more realistic contender for best picture. A priest I knew at the time, like me an erstwhile Scorsese fan, recounted how he walked out on a showing of Cape Fear and traded his ticket for a second viewing of Beauty and the Beast. I wish I had done the same. (I was still young and tolerant.) And I wish Beauty and the Beast had won best picture. This all may sound prissy. Keep in mind, familial recollections of Blowtorch Bob impressed me with the knowledge that state terror and sexual torture go hand in hand. In such world, truth, beauty and the good are not at all schmaltzy; they are defiant assertions. As Augustine perceived and Sissela Bok affirms, mayhem is entertainment for suckers (Bok, 1998).

“But let the soul fall in with the Ugly,” says Plotinus, “and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.” Quoting this very passage, James Hillman (1992, p. 125) puts a therapeutic spin on it and muses on the aesthetics of good citizenship. Therapy in his hands turns both artsy and activist. As “psychological citizens,” we must demand not only social justice, but “aesthetic justice” too. Amidst the “pretentious buildings, noisy ventilation, oppressive meeting rooms, irritating lighting, vast undetailed parking spaces,” not to mention billboards, pollution and secondhand smoke, we should announce our objections – “to stand for beauty in the public arena and speak out about it.” Instead, we protest manger scenes.

On Tuesday, April 8, my wife and I attended a viewing at the Alex Theatre of 1979′s Time After Time. Malcolm McDowell, interviewed by none other than Nichele Nichols, was in town to discuss it. He joked that in 1979 his name could be found in the top ten lists for the year’s best and worst movies. Caligula was among the worst. Today it proves the prescient forerunner to HBO’s Rome: middlebrow torture porn replete with British accents.

“Ninety years ago, I was a freak,” says Jack the Ripper (played by David Warner) in Time After Time. “Today, I’m an amateur.” Delightfully, McDowell’s H.G. Wells and Mary Steenburgen’s Amy falsify the claim. He’s still a freak.

Works Cited

Ames, B. (1994, November). Of Mice and Men. (V. Postrel, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://reason.com/archives/1994/11/01/of-mice-and-men

Bellah, R. N. (1967). Civil Religion in America. Dædalus, 1-21.

Bok, S. (1998, June 23). “Mayhem” as Entertainment. (D. Gergen, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-jan-june98-bok_06-23/

Coogan, T. P. (2000). Wherever Green Is Worn: The Story of the Irish Diaspora . New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ferguson, Christopher and Kilburn, John. (2009). The Public Health Risks of Media Violence: A Meta-Analytic Review. The Journal of Pediatrics, 759-763.

Gold, S. (2012, December 3). Santa Monica Nativity scenes to move to private property. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/03/local/la-me-1204-santa-monica-nativity-20121204

Grossman, C. L. (2014, April 21). Most voters favor prayer, minus Jesus, at public meetings. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/religion/most-voters-favor-prayer-minus-jesus-at-public-meetings/2014/04/21/0eca6816-c99f-11e3-b81a-6fff56bc591e_story.html

Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael. (1992). We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And the World’s Getting Worse. New York: Harper Collins.

Ivins, M. (1999). Peace on Earth? Not as Long as There’s a Creche Controversy. In You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You (pp. 50-52). New York: Random House.

Lambert, C. (2014, April 16). Pismo Beach City Council agrees to end prayers at public meetings. The Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2014/04/16/3023816/pismo-beach-prayer-chaplain-lawsuit.html

Levine, Michael and Ferguson, Christopher. (2013, March 15). Video Games and Societal Violence: Cause for Urgent Action or a Bridge Too Far? Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-levine/video-games-and-societal-_b_2859598.html

Loomer, L. (2009). Distracted. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc.

Malik, K. (2009). From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy. London: Atlantic Books.

Savage, P. (2012, December 20). Violence and videogames: we look at the studies cited in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. PC Gamer. Retrieved from http://www.pcgamer.com/2012/12/20/violence-and-videogames-we-look-at-the-studies-cited-in-the-aftermath-of-sandy-hook/

Polyphemus versus Claggart

March 17th, 2014

On February 22, I attended Musica Angelica’s performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Pasadena Neighborhood Church. A few weeks later, on March 13, I attended LA Opera’s performance of Britten’s Billy Budd.  At first glance, the two pieces share little in common, save that the librettos are in English, written by accomplished scribblers. Handel had John Gay, Britten had E.M. Forster.

Of the two, I much preferred Acis and Galatea, both in terms of performance and the music itself. Not that the singing and musicianship of the one outshone that of the other. Both were very fine. No, in terms of performance, where Musica Angelica superseded LA Opera was in staging – there wasn’t any. Just music. No supertitles needed either. All in all, I favor simpler, smaller settings for performances.

As for the music, my preference for Acis and Galatea over Billy Budd is a bit tangled to explain. Handel’s music is replete with melody and style. Britten’s, on the other hand, is to my ear more complicated than convinced. You might say it attempts to steer between the hackneyed Charybdis of British pastoralism and the radicalized Scylla of high modernism. In any case, I’m not sure if it ever steers true. As Leo Carey notes, Britten’s “middle of the road idiom” was from the get-go either too “astringent” or too “conservative” for listeners, depending on whether they favored traditional tonality or avant-garde sound.  While the exactness of Billy Budd’s score is remarkable, instead of the “haunting” and “chilling” melodies that enthusiasts celebrate, I more often than not heard muddiness.  Granted, I am not a sophisticated opera listener. Still, give me either memorable tunes or hardline serialism, not unsteady if safe sailing between the two extremes.

The portrait of villainy in Billy Budd also strikes me as wishy-washy, oddly enough when set beside the comic fury of evil in Acis and Galatea. Polyphemus’ murderous rage is intelligible: he’s in love with a nymph, he catches her with a shepherd, and he’s a cyclopean monster after all. Claggart’s decision to destroy Billy Budd, in contrast, makes little sense. It’s murky, confused, ill-defined. Carey calls it “strangely undermotivated,” and muses that Britten and Forster wished to avoid drawing too much attention to the homoerotic wrath at play. If true, their caution, while understandable, is unfortunate, and at bottom unforgivable by dramatic standards.

No doubt the constraints of the literary source – Melville’s unfinished tale – are blameworthy. Melville tells us that Claggart had “no power to annul the elemental evil in him.” Thus, as there’s no antecedent cause for his malice, there’s no instrumental reason for his evildoing. Not surprisingly, his behavior speaks to no real world example of human wickedness. Hence, I would say, Melville’s Miltonic crutch: just as Claggart’s nature must “recoil upon itself,” Satan, in Book 4 of Paradise Lost, “like a devilish engine back recoils / Upon himself.” Melville hangs allusive ornaments on an incoherent psychology of evil.

Britten and Forster’s libretto follows Melville’s lead and retreats (if that’s the correct verb) to the grandiose, envy-ridden spite of Milton’s Satan. “With hate and envy I’m stronger than love,” Claggart sings. The trouble is that his feet are too small for Miltonic shoes. All the bass baritone in the world can’t hide the fact that Claggart’s villainy is groundless, atmospheric rather than believable, at best clawing as it hovers onstage for down-to-earth motivations.

There’s not much dramatic action in Acis and Galatea. Nevertheless, I was on the edge of my seat when Polyphemus, singing, “Torture! Fury! Rage! Despair!”, crashes the lover’s brief duet and kills Acis. Sadly, during Billy Budd, especially after Claggart’s aria (“O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!”), despite the heavily wrought onstage activity, I found myself slumped in my chair, yawning at times, wondering to myself, “Why does this matter?”

Works Cited

Carey, L. (2013, August 15). The Battle of Britten. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/aug/15/battle-britten/

The Exodus of Exene Cervenka

February 14th, 2014

It appears that Exene Cervenka is about to join the Californian bandwagon to Texas. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, she cites two reasons for leaving. One, she has “tons of close friends” in Austin, where she “always [has] a magical time.” Two, California has become a “liberal oppressive police state of regulations and taxes and fees.”

This second reason jibes with the factors motivating other Californian residents to up stakes and head for Texas. According to Gray and Scardamalia, whose report entitled “The Great California Exodus: A Closer Look,” was published by the Manhattan Institute in September 2012, Californians are fleeing to states like Texas for the following reasons:

  • economic opportunity (jobs, in a word)
  • less burdensome tax regime
  • less fiscal mismanagement, more public sector stability
  • business-friendly regulations

Put simply, Texas (along with some other states) is more classically liberal than California. To this a BBC News Magazine article from last May adds these key motives for leaving: less expensive cost of living and land, and more family-friendly environs. Cervenka, for one, looks forward to the sight of gun racks in pickup trucks. “An armed society,” she says, “is a polite society.”

The MI report’s press release remarks that most Americans no longer perceive the Golden State “as the land where dreams come true.” Indeed, the days of Cervenka’s recollections – “barefoot hippie girls, Hell’s Angels on the Sunset Strip, East L.A. lowriders, the ocean and nature….this fabulous incredible place about freedom” – are gone.

Mind you, when Cervenka came to California, Jerry Brown was governor. Today she observes that our philosopher prince redux has “done some great things” (e.g. balancing the budget and keeping libraries open on Sundays). Indeed, folks over at Fox and Hounds Daily have acknowledged that Brown deserves applause for enacting adult supervision over Sacramento. Even Jello Biafra, who initially penned “California Uber Alles” in reaction to Brown’s first go at governorship, admitted several years ago that the “theory” behind the song was proven wrong (relative, in his mind, to Reagan, Wilson and Schwarzenegger). Still, Brown’s current fiscal maturity seems no match against what Cervenka describes as statewide encroachments on the individual Californian’s basic survival and rights.

Does the exodus to Texas confirm Tiebout’s notion of foot-voting? Levinson has his doubts. In his view, the empirical support is inadequate because for starters a Goldilocks locale is in reality hard to find. Besides, preferences are mixed at any given time. Don’t commit the ecological fallacy: an individual may resettle for reasons that are distinct from those that incite another at the same given time. More importantly, people put up with a lot. The human spirit not so much triumphs as endures…suffers…trudges…hobbles. Especially, says Levinson, when you want to surround yourself “with others who are engaged in similar work.” This reason alone, to Levinson’s satisfaction, explains “why Silicon Valley continues to draw outstanding talent even though its taxes and housing costs are far higher than most other places in the United States.”

Levinson may be hobnobbing too much with the dot commies…cerebrally at least. In line with those Californians heading out for Texas, Exene Cervenka isn’t among the cohort of Silicon Pit’s foosball-playing “digital aristocracy,” as Joel Kotkin calls them.

I got out of SF to get away from them. Could a move to TX be far away?

Works Cited

Biafra, J. (2006, July 14-16). California Songs: Jello Biafra and “California Uber Alles”. (T. C. Report, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://www.californiareport.org/archive/R607141630/e

Edwards, G. (2014, February 13). X’s Exene Cervenka Cleans Out Her Closet. Retrieved from Rolling Stone: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/xs-exene-cervenka-cleans-out-her-closet-20140213

Fox, J. (2014, January 13). Jerry Brown: Earl Warren Redux? Retrieved from Fox & Hounds Daily: http://www.foxandhoundsdaily.com/2014/01/jerry-brown-earl-warren-redux/

Geoghegan, T. (2013, May). 10 reasons why so many people are moving to Texas. Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22649624

Gray, T. and Scardamalia, R. (2012, September). The Great California Exodus: A Closer Look. Retrieved from Manhattan Institute: https://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_71.htm

Kotkin, J. (2012, February 16). President Obama Courts Silicon Valley’s New Digital Aristocracy. Retrieved from Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/15/president-obama-courts-silicon-valley-s-new-digital-aristocracy.html#url=/articles/2012/02/15/president-obama-courts-silicon-valley-s-new-digital-aristocracy.html

Levinson, S. (2012). Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Government. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weintraub, D. (2013, June 24). Jerry Brown: Disciplinarian. Retrieved from Fox & Hounds Daily: http://www.foxandhoundsdaily.com/2013/06/jerry-brown-disciplinarian/

Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper

January 12th, 2014

In his interview with George W. Bush on Uncommon Knowledge, Peter Robinson expressed his concern over the abysmally low ROTC participation at the Ivy Leagues, to which the former president replied, “I’m not worried about it.” Why? “Just because Ivy Leaguers aren’t going into the military,” Bush observed, “doesn’t mean that people up east aren’t.” Something similar can be said in response to Heather Mac Donald’s piece, “The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity.” Just because tradition has taken a dive in UCLA’s English Department doesn’t mean that all is lost in other English Departments in California.

I graduated as an English Major from San Jose State University, where the “cornerstones of English literature,” as Mac Donald calls them, were honored and required by the curriculum. Looking at SJSU’s English Department’s website today (www.sjsu.edu/english/), I find that they still are. I will note here that I esteem my upper division Shakespeare course, my Milton seminar and my senior project on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as indispensable features of my education.

Moreover, while at SJSU, I completed its two-year Humanities Honors Program, whose literature component began with Homer and the Bible and ended with Sartre and Chinua Achebe. Along the way, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton were all present and accounted for. Looking at the Humanities Honors Program’s website today (www.sjsu.edu/hum/honors/), I find that little has changed since I was there, save for the welcome inclusion of Gilgamesh, the Koran and Murasaki Shikibu.

Finally, under the auspices of CSU International Programs (http://www.calstate.edu/ip/), I spent a year abroad in Florence, Italy, where I took courses on the Divine Comedy, Renaissance Drama and Italian poetry (from St. Francis to Leopardi). I recall how at the time students from a certain well-regarded private American university stayed mostly in a hillside villa, from which they’d descend upon Florence every Friday night to scream in English at bartenders. We students of CSU instead lived in town. While we too screamed for drinks every Friday night, we made sure to aspirate our hard C’s, albeit excessively and inexpertly, in the language of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Ms. Mac Donald’s complaints are not new. When I started studying Daunty, Gouty and Shopkeeper (that’s a Joycean allusion for you UCLA English Majors), Jesse Jackson led a march on the Stanford campus, where students chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” voiced their opposition to the traditional curriculum. A lot of decline-and-fall commentary (much like Mac Donald’s) followed the march. I for one saw through the motivations of those well-heeled brats in Palo Alto. If the students were radically anything, it was lazy.

Ms. Mac Donald mistakenly believes that as UCLA goes, so goes the rest of Western Civilization. On the contrary, at SJSU, the Humanities Program has been going strong since 1954. Really, if you’d like your offspring to graduate from college with feet firmly planted on the cornerstones of literature and civilization, then send them to SJSU, or for that matter to most any CSU. Doing so, it should be noted, won’t set you back like a dubious UC education will, so your child will get more civilizational bang for your buck.

Admittedly, an English Major from my alma mater is not as prestigious as one from pre-coup UCLA. The same can be said, however, of a scribe’s training in 6th century Irish monasteries. Thanks to SJSU, I was spared the Dark Ages of radical chic and self-pitying academics. I graduated manageably in debt and armed and ready with a well-trained critical mind. That’s why I don’t sweat the goings-on at UCLA.

Works Cited

Bernstein, R. (1988, January 19). In Dispute on Bias, Stanford Is Likely To Alter Western Culture Program. New York Times, p. A12.

Bush, G. W. (2012, July 18). Uncommon Knowledge. (P. Robinson, Interviewer) Retrieved from http://www.hoover.org/multimedia/uncommon-knowledge/122646

Donald, H. M. (2014, January 3). The Humanities Have Forgotten Their Humanity: When Shakespeare lost out to ‘rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class’ at UCLA, something vital was harmed. Wall Street Journal.

Ryegrass

December 30th, 2013

Winifred Gallagher tells us that before he turned on, tuned in and dropped out of academia, Timothy Leary was an expert on temperament. He often asked people about what their lives were like when they were 17. Around that age, he had discovered, our “basic attitudes about ourselves and the world tend to be meshed into the rapidly setting concrete of our nervous systems” and “usually change very little thereafter.” In other words, the series of discrete meaningless events that make up our individual histories come to a head at 17 and set us on path-dependent journeys. It’s as if Nietzsche’s night demon visits us when we are 17 and says, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more…” Upon hearing this, do we (in Nietzsche’s words) throw ourselves down, gnash our teeth and curse the demon, or do we “crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” It all depends on our circumstances and basic attitudes at age 17.

If Leary is correct, then, as a subset of circumstances and attitudes, musical tastes and listening experiences settle into their own kind of concrete, largely shaping one’s musical life from age 17 on. I bring this up because Ryegrass’ latest posting (www.reverbnation.com/ryegrass) has got me thinking about my musical circumstances and attitudes when I was 17. Ryegrass’ sound reminds me of an evening years ago when I sat at the Willow Glen Tatler listening to a male-female duo sing songs of dark rooms, weather-beaten hearts and chaparral winds. How did I wind up there?

Up until I got my first summer job, I was content bingeing on AC/DC and knocking back the Who neat, with the occasional British heavy metal and prog-rock chaser. Alleged rock radio had surrendered to the cloying toothsome sounds of L.A., while Mr. Mister hits and the like ransacked the school dances. Scorning these, I became a cultural dropout before my time. The Sony Walkman walled me up in a self-deafening sound chamber.

Then I started working at Lima Family Mortuary in Santa Clara. With little more than my Walkman to keep me company, I spent my days there painting, washing, polishing, gardening, repairing and parking. My dad dropped me off every morning, and at 5pm I rode my bike home (about 10 miles). I soon got tired of lugging back and forth 8 hours worth of cassette tapes. So I gave the radio a chance. No doubt because Santa Clara University was just down the street, KSCU was the only station whose reception was clear. Hence my unwitting exposure to college radio during its heyday.

I can’t say I liked all the music I heard. Still, young enthusiastic DJ’s committed to a smorgasbord of music enlivened my working day. And listening to strange, off-the-wall, even exotic, music helped to acclimate my ears to alien sounds. I could spend paragraphs describing the shocks and aftershocks of all this: the archaeological digs through my parents’ records, the multiple trips to Flashback and Streetlight Records, the realization that symphonic music and modern jazz were worth learning about, the discovery, all in all, that there’s more to music than AC/DC and the Who. By the time I was 17, I had spending money, a driver’s license and a beat-up muscle car. Meaning, I had access to concerts. Again, I could spend paragraphs enumerating all the venues, describing all the shows. The point here is my visit to the Tatler, where I sat down to listen to a male-female duo pluck their guitars and sing.

Such duos are rarer than they ought to be. They comprise such an effective, ancient-seeming, even preternatural blend and contrast of vocal sound, the wonder is why there are so few of them. Thanks to KSCU, I’d become a fan of the male-female vocals of LA’s X and the male-female vocals of my local fave, Daddy in His Deep Sleep. Admittedly, at the Tatler,  a quieter, unamplified couple performed. Sadly, I don’t recall who they were. I never purchased their recordings (if they had any). And I’m not sure if they were any good. But I do remember them, so obviously they stirred my ears somehow.

Fortunately, there’s Ryegrass. Their “Train Long (and Winding)” is what really calls my mind back to when I was 17 at the Tatler. Maybe the lonesome folk roots summon up the memory. “Oh my hometown sure helped a lot,” their lyrics tell us. But there’s something more to their sound than just roots – a kind of refined flowering blooms out of them. “I want my ocean,” Faye Davis sings, “I want my garden dream.”

More roots and refinement are evident in “Sweet Starlight.” Mike Neal confides that he’s “had enough of poor man’s dues.” The sentiment may be expected; listen, though, to those crafty chords when he sings, “It’s lonely here at night.” All the while Faye Davis has been plucking a ukulele (yes, a ukulele!) with a pianist’s syncopated touch. By the time they’re singing together, “It’s too soon to tell,” the song has embarked on an unexpected soulful groove. “NashAngeles,” as Ryegrass dubs their sound, suddenly makes sense.

What frightens me about this male-female duo is how polished they are in their live open-air demos. They hardly need production. “Rusted Flowers” is a showcase song, as it features their voices chiming as one from start to finish. This song, along with “Headed North” and “Bluebird,” shows us why there should be more male-female duos than there are (and perhaps why there should be more pianists venturing to play ukulele!).

That said, “All We Know” is for me the astonishing stand-out, what with Mike Neal’s and Faye Davis’ voices chasing each other like lonely echoes. I’m not entirely sure what Ryegrass is up to here – strange melody, a weird arpeggio here and there, and overall ethereal arrangement, – but it’s a helluva precious song. I doubt that Downy Mildew ever did much better. This isn’t to suggest that Ryegrass has entirely left the ground. “Lend Me a Thorn” is the kind of earthy attitudinal poet blues that Pete Sinfield might have penned (I’m thinking of “Ladies of the Road”) and Cowboy Junkies could have covered respectfully. A real treat, so I hope Ryegrass makes a few more like this one. Finally, with “Inside,” NashAngeles strikes again – a little bossa nova in between the grassy tufts, you might say.

Their latest posting, “To the Wind” is a culmination of what Ryegrass has been doing musically. The roots and poetry are expertly balanced, this time rocked by a bittersweet 3/4. The track is their most produced posting since “Train Long (and Winding).” The instrumentation – delicate, textured, pitch perfect – finely embroiders Mike Neal’s acoustic guitar and Faye Davis’ ukulele. Given how good their demos sound, I can only imagine that they were dream to back up. (I believe Jim Keltner said something similar about the self-arrangement prowess of Delaney Bramlett.) And the singing? Exquisite.

I will certainly be among the first to purchase Ryegrass’ CD once it’s released. I won’t let this music fade into mere memory.

Works Cited

Gallagher, W. (1994). The Power of Place. New York: Harper Perennial.

Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books.

Block Parties

November 30th, 2013

Within a month of each other in spring 2011, two articles written by devoted mothers appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The last time I looked online, the featured excerpt from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother had garnered a whopping 8820 comments, while Jennifer Moses’ piece, “The Escalating Arms Race for Top Colleges,” elicited a modest 84. Despite the quantitative disparity, the two articles share corresponding concerns: the hoped-for success of children. That’s not startling. What’s striking (at least for me) are the metric and milieu (as they are presented) of that success: schooling.

Chua frets about high marks and piano recitals, Moses test scores and the costly rigmarole of college admissions. What, I wonder, will result from all this scholastic hustle (bereft, seemingly, of any flow)? Assuming Chua’s children don’t burnout and Moses’ children don’t dropout, will their success in school prove indispensable to society? I have my doubts.

“Talk to nearly any employer,” Marty Nemko once bade the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. What does the employer say about college grads? “These people have college degrees yet don’t even have basic writing, reading and thinking skills.” Nemko admits that “we may not have hard data” to back up the complaints. But data are out there. According to a 2005 survey, for example, literacy of college graduates is on decline. According to a 2011 study, four years of college education doesn’t improve critical thinking. While not hard, the data resonate with what those in private industry have experienced for years. Take a quip a biotech friend of mine once said of grads from a certain prestigious (if not pretentious) research university: “More attitude than aptitude.” I remember training such grads for a task they should have been able to perform prior to stepping inside the lab: making solution. What, I wondered, had they been doing with themselves over three semesters of chemistry? I further wondered why I, a lit major from a state university – and a hapless musician to boot! – was obliged to instill these superlative grads with quantitative confidence?

In Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Matt Ridley informs us that postpartum nurture pales in comparison to prepartum nurture. That is, as studies of siblings and twins suggest, the “influence upon our intelligence of events that happened in the womb is 3 times as great as anything our parents did to us after our birth.” Tiger mom, soccer mom, indifferent mom – relative to events in the womb, their influence just doesn’t matter much. Moreover, where measurable intelligence is concerned, the older we get, the more we “leave behind the influences stamped on [us] by others” and the more we “express [our] own innate intelligence.” If this is true, then Reverend Doctor Folliott is right after all. Education, he says in Crotchet Castle, leaves us pretty much as it finds us – “blockheads of different degrees,” – with a single difference: it “gives a fixed direction to [our] stupidity.” Nowadays we call this direction a “career path,” signposted by “promotions,” which in truth are tragedies, as they thrust us into roles evermore beyond our chops.

And yet, the epidemic of schooling, as Ivan Illich would say, continues to spread. Back in 1971, Illich described school as a New World Religion, appealing to “insatiable this-worldly expectations” and making “futile promises of salvation” to the technological proletariat. That may be a little rich. Still, I’m struck by how often I see the following customer comment on Amazon: “This book should be required reading!” Thus speaks the diseased-by-school mind. Worse are all those coming-of-age movies wherein school phenomena delineate the drama. It’s as if numerous adults across the land never fully recovered from school.

I’ll note here that I never got the appeal of John Hughes’ flicks. And I’m sure I’m not the only American who upon being asked about childhood is transported by memories that steer clear of the classroom and schoolyard. I detect within me an unaccountably deep-seated indifference toward institutional activities in general. Even the soccer field and the BSA get short shrift where my childhood memories are concerned. Seemingly anything from my past that was compulsory or required a uniform failed to command my attention for long. Perhaps the indifference emerges from a deeper hostility. I’m not sure. Looking back now, I see a phantom flitting through the routines – a by-and-large reflexive phantom, not rebellious or angry, frequently sarcastic, but at bottom untouched…only to incarnate once released from school, matches, dances and youth group meetings.

In terms of vivid recollections, I recall my treehouse, touch football in the street, late night capture-the-flag, ad hoc BMX races near the substation, the one-time 50 yard wheelie, D&D sessions, the bold but infrequent vandalism, the girl who knocked on my bedroom window at 11pm, the first time I read Lord of the Rings, the fight with the neighborhood bully (I lost), the bus trips to Flashback Records, the time I visited Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig at their home in Aptos, the Voice Farm concert at One Step Beyond. If I made a coming-of-age movie, school would be in session, only the plot would involve something far removed from lockers, showers, Pavlovian school bells and extracurricular enterprises requiring new clothes.

Arguably, the childhood ambitions that command my memory are not amenable to social science. They involve no show of hands, no roster, no registration. I’m not sure if they qualify as social capital. In order to bemoan the decline of such capital, Robert Putnam must rely on league memberships and the like for his analysis, as only they provide the quantitative data that his social science demands. I wonder, then: is he witnessing civic decline, or merely the absence of available data? My memory values rounds of butts-up in the Cabana Club parking lot; Little League, in contrast, was a humiliating drag. How can you quantify the former over the latter?

I’m put in mind of Andrew Greeley who back in 1969 declared that his “commitment to the Catholic tradition of Christianity was not arrived at or sustained by counting noses.” Besides, just because there aren’t many noses to count doesn’t mean religion is on the decline. In 1972, Greeley talked about the “persistence of religion” in America. It might very well have been declining in the mainstream churches. Greeley set his sights on the college campuses, in the open spaces, within secret covens and large mystic movements, and on the countless paperbacks about Zen Buddhism and the occult. It was doubtful that religion in America had lost much of its colonial and 19th century vigor; chances are it was just difficult to enumerate.

In Appendix I (“Measuring Social Change”) of Bowling Alone, Putnam notes that “no one thought ahead to collect the really perfect evidence that we now need” to measure changes in social memberships. By that he means “a half a century’s measurement” of social phenomena like block parties.

The block parties of my childhood could have come straight out of the pages of Bill Owens’ Suburbia. I own the book, and saw the exhibit of its photos in 2000 at the San Jose Museum of Art. Of the exhibit, William Meyers, a New Yorker, talks about the tackiness and shallowness of the subjects; for him the suburbs are shameful. Meyers seems to be one of those “urban elitists” whom Camille Paglia once sniped about, the ones “who thought the crappy, condescending 1999 film American Beauty told the bold truth about suburban American culture.” Differently, the day I saw Bill Owens’ exhibit, we suburban museum-goers were much like that Venetian audience whom Goethe once observed at a Goldoni play: “such an ecstasy of joy…when they saw themselves and their families so realistically portrayed on stage.” Indeed, we “shouted with laughter and approval from beginning to end.” Needless to say we weren’t ashamed.

Works Cited

Chua, A. (2011, January 8). Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748704111504576059713528698754

Goethe, J. W. (1970). Italian Journey. (W. A. Mayer, Trans.) New York: Penguin.

Greeley, A. M. (1969). Religion in the year 2000. Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward.

Greeley, A. M. (1972). Unsecular Man: the Persistence of Religion. New York: Schocken Books.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars.

Meyers, W. (2005, August 11). “The Shame of the Suburbs”. The New York Sun.

Moses, J. (2011, February 5). The Escalating Arms Race for Top Colleges. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703555804576102523244987128

Nemko, M. (2011, March 9). America’s Most Overrated Product: Undergraduate Education. Retrieved from Mary Nemko: http://www.martynemko.com/articles/americas-most-overrated-product-undergraduate-education_id1234

Owens, B. The Suburban Seventies. Suburbia. San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose.

Paglia, C. (2001, March 21). “Why we need to cut taxes deeper, reexamine American education and tune out The Sopranos”. Salon. Retrieved from www.salon.com/2001/03/21/spring_5/

Peacock, T. L. (1837). Crotchet Castle. Retrieved from Thomas Love Peacock: http://www.thomaslovepeacock.net/

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ridley, M. (1999). Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters . New York: Harper Perennial.

Sampling & Gene Patenting

October 30th, 2013

In a 2003 article on sampling, Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) cites Adorno’s 1938 essay “On the Fetish-Character in Music,” in which Adorno gripes about how evermore recorded musical culture was becoming in Europe. Miller elaborates, “People were being exposed to music that they barely had time to remember, because the huge volume of recordings and the small amount of time to absorb them presented to the proto-modernist listener a kind of soundbite mentality.” From this, Miller suggests that we should “think of DJ culture as a kind of archival impulse put to a kind of hunter-gatherer milieu.” That is, DJs, as hunter-gatherers in a wilderness of recorded music, are on the one hand approximating what we as music listeners daily experience (over-exposure to recorded music), and on the other hand deftly rendering absorbable the vast quantity of recorded music. In this sense, DJ’s are like trusty rangers on the Web. They scout, they guide. A good search engine, writes Miller, “resembles a good DJ, who has a lot of records and files, and knows exactly where to filter the mix.” At bottom, what “makes the info world go around” is “archive fervor.”

Miller establishes an artistic standard for DJ’s to follow: “you’re only as good as your archive.” What distinguishes a good DJ or production team is the size of the archive, and presumably the aptitude in using it. Take the Bomb Squad in its heyday. Its dense style often included dozens of samples on just one track. They created a unique, explosive collage of sound. Compare this with anything produced by Puff Daddy of old, who for one track appropriated most of “Kashmir,” and for another appropriated most of “Every Breath You Take.” The Onion once jibed that Puff Daddy re-released “Billie Jean” in its entirety sans rapping. Puffy always erred on the side of karaoke.

According to Paul Miller, the aim of a DJ’s “textual poaching” is to create a track that “becomes zero-paid, becomes no-logo, becomes brand X.” In other words, the fervor of archiving reaches such a pitch that an original song is created. Or as Garcia Lorca says of the duende, “It gives the sensation of freshness wholly unknown, having the quality of a newly created rose, of miracle, and produces in the end an almost religious enthusiasm.” Yes, I’m suggesting here that sample-based music (preferably live) can be possessed by duende. And just as Garcia Lorca talks about “a radical change of all forms based on old structures,” DJs, by tweaking existing musical recordings, can create complex new forms of music.

Of course, the thorny problem of ownership snags the pursuit. On this score, IP legal scholar Lawrence Lessig advocates a loosening up of legal claims in order to maintain creative freedom. In the epigraph to his essay, Paul Miller quotes Lessig favorably: “free content fuels innovation.”

Interestingly, Lessing has weighed in on both the copyright controversies surrounding sampling and the legal controversies surrounding gene patenting. Back in 2001, at the Biotechnology Communications symposium during the annual AAAS meeting in San Francisco, Lessig was among the speakers addressing the issue of gene patenting. As reported by Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine, the abiding concern was the dampening impact of IP law on basic research in genetics. Lessig explained the rationale for patents: they serve as an incentive for inventors. Patent lawyer Kate Murashige went on clarify that the patent system “was not designed [by the Framers of the Constitution] to promote basic research” but rather “to promote the progress of the useful arts.” Whether the Framers foresaw it or not, business interests, once they start lurking about the lab bench, stifle basic research. UC Berkeley economist Brian Wright addressed this very complication at the symposium. In his view, what’s emerging from gene patenting is the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons. The drama plays out when “everyone claims to own a resource exclusively and refuses to allow anyone else to use it.” That’s death to innovation.

In the documentary Copyright Criminals, Lessig bemoans the fact that just when more and more people can create music by virtue of sampling, the lawyers have stepped in and put the reins on the activity. In a book (Freedom of Expression) endorsed by Lessig, Kembrew McLeod (executive producer of Copyright Criminals) makes plain the parallel situations of music and genetics under IP law. He opens his book with the scene of Genome Project bigwig Francis Collins strumming an electric guitar and singing, “This gene is my gene, this gene is your gene.” McLeod goes on to contrast the socialist ideals of Woody Guthrie against the vigor with which his heirs protect the copyright of “This Land is You Land.” The song itself, McLeod notes, had appropriated existing folk melodies. Nevertheless, if contemporary folkies wish to record alterations to it, they must contend with the copyright. In effect, communal property has been transmogrified into private. The same goes for the commercial ownership of human genes – genes that private industry has neither created nor modified. In sum, IP law, by shutting out the public from public things, hamstrings creative action in music and genetics. McLeod calls this “fencing off the folk and genetic commons.”

I should note that this year the Supreme Court weighed in on gene patenting, and it did so unanimously: it invalidated Myriad Genetics’ exclusive right to extract and isolate BRCA1 and BRCA2. An innovative method is patentable, the Court ruled, “but groundbreaking, innovative, or even brilliant discovery does not by itself satisfy” the patent law’s requirements for “new and useful…composition of matter.” Plainly put, a “naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and is not eligible for patenting merely because it has been isolated.” Funnily enough, as the Economist noted before the decision, the ruling will likely have “little practical effect,” as Myriad’s patents expire in 2015. Moreover, “technology has moved on.” The cost of sequencing “is falling fast,” and the real research of biotech pertains to recombinant DNA, whose synthetic products the Court deems patent-worthy.

T.S. Eliot famously said, “Talent imitates, but genius steals.” His long poem, “The Waste Land,” has been cited as a masterwork of proto-sampling. I’m also reminded of a witty observation in James Killus’ SF novel Sunsmoke: “Steal from one and it’s plagiarism. Steal from five and it’s research.” With both sentiments in mind, you might propose resolving disputes over both sampling and genetic research by determining the quality of the rip-off. To determine the quality look to the quantity: the number of songs being sampled, the number of science papers being lifted. Five seems an acceptable threshold. The trick in any case is to be mindful of innovation – to establish legal conditions that steer clear of patent holdups that suppress what’s most necessary for science and culture: radical change and (to belabor a conceit) the presence of duende.

Works Cited

Babbage. (2013, June 13). Patently False. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/06/supreme-court-rules-genes-may-not-be-patented

Bailey, R. (2001, February 21). Don’t Label Me and the Tragedy of the Anticommons. Retrieved from Reason Magazine: http://reason.com/archives/2001/02/21/dont-label-me-and-the-tragedy

Franzen, B. (Director). (2010). Copyright Criminals [Motion Picture].

Killus, James. (2002). Sunsmoke. San Jose: Hidden Knowledge.

Lorca, F. G. (1984). Selected Poems. (J. L. Gili, Trans.) New York: Penguin Books.

McLeod, K. (2005). Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity. New York: Doubleday.

Miller, P. (2003, April / May). Ideas in the Mix : Loops of Perception. Retrieved from Horizon Zero: http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/remix.php?is=8&art=0&file=3&tlang=0

The Economist. (2013, April 20). Natural Justice. The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21576377-americas-supreme-court-rule-patenting-genes-natural-justice

The Onion. (1997, September 23). New Rap Song Samples ‘Billie Jean’ In Its Entirety, Adds Nothing. Retrieved from The Onion: http://www.theonion.com/articles/new-rap-song-samples-billie-jean-in-its-entirety-a,4389/

A Worldly Wonder

September 23rd, 2013

Wondering how on earth the Beatles proceeded from penning “Love Me Do” to crafting “Strawberry Fields Forever” within the space of 5 years, Graham Young (Curator of Geology and Paleontology at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature) turns to the Cambrian Explosion for elucidation. Noting that life became more diverse and complex between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, Young likens the “baroque forms” of those fossil species with the “rococo splendours” of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He goes on to align the Beatles’ demise and eventual break-up with the seeming tendency of complex systems toward disastrous collapse. Young admits that the analogy is “somewhat facile” and “tell us nothing about underlying causes.” Facile or no, the analogy is witty, and spares us any fruitless talk about memes and cultural viruses. It’s also free of lamentations over our current inability to wrap our minds scientifically around the procedures of culture.

On this last point, I am thinking of Paul Ehrlich who once complained that “although we have a very nice picture of how evolution occurred genetically,” we don’t have as of yet “a Darwin for cultural evolution.” We know a lot about culture, but “we don’t really understand the mechanisms, we don’t really know how to change it.” Darwinians can tackle a problem of antibiotic-resistance; facing a cultural problem, however, they’re at a loss. This distresses Ehrlich because in his view “the biggest problem” we’re facing today is one of cultural evolution. A “behavioral problem” confronts us, “where we don’t know how actually to go about changing it.” Of course, Ehrlich – a professional worrywart – has been wanting to change us for quite some time. He’s one of those intellectual bullies who, as the great forklift philosopher, Eric Hoffer, diagnosed, “cannot operate at room temperature.” They must always elevate “practical tasks into holy causes and Promethean undertakings.” And their crusades are too often dead wrong (e.g., the Population Dud).

I have one objection to Young’s analogy, whimsical as it is: he uses it to badmouth AC/DC. He indicts the band for a Neanderthal resistance to complexity. Never mind that the singing Neanderthals (as Steven J. Mithen has called them) were likely capable of notable musicality and semantic complexity. Young goes so far as to compare AC/DC’s insatiably toe-tapping tunes to algal mats.

I happen to prefer AC/DC to the Beatles. Setting aside my affronted tastes (as frozen in the Pleistocene as they might be), I believe I’m just in faulting Young for overlooking a rudimentary evolutionary fact: organisms evolve to suit their environment.  After all, we don’t malign bacteria for being single-celled. While comparing AC/DC to bacteria may seem an additional insult, bacteria are remarkably successful critters that have thrived for an extremely long time. Only a fool underestimates bacteria, and I would say the same thing about anyone who dismisses AC/DC. Single-brain-celled or no, AC/DC’s music continues to thrive, and has remained a living thing for a longer time than the Beatles’ music did. According to all-knowing Wikipedia, in 2008, AC/DC surpassed The Beatles as the No.1 selling catalogue artist in the US. Given the rapidity and ruthlessness of cultural competition, that demonstrates a stalwart mode of fitness.

Furthermore, by implicitly pitting the Baroque and Rococo against the algal and Neanderthal, Young creeps toward biological heresy: evolution as progressive development, from primitive to advanced, from caveman to Couperin. Or at least his attitude smacks of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which dubiously traces a teleological line of technical achievement from Cimabue to Michelangelo. A lot us titter at Michelangelo’s distortions with good reason. Some of us prefer Raphael. Hell, some of us are content with Cimabue. I’m put in mind of Picasso (like Michelangelo a hater of the human body, only sadistic about it where Michelangelo was helplessly disconcerted) who upon beholding the famous cave paintings discovered by Maria de Sautuola in the 1870’s, proclaimed, “After Altamira, all is decadence.”

When it comes to pop music developments, one trajectory fascinates me especially: the emergence of singular pop recordings from unlikely sources. Who would have thought, for example, that the band that indulged itself with Tales of Topographic Oceans would later proffer 90125? Who would have expected “Selling England by the Pound” and “That’s All” to derive from the same band? Such moves from progressive rock to remarkable pop find sober longwinded complexity getting stripped away to make way for sleek simpler songcraft. You see something similar with Roxy Music, whose initial art school flamboyance gave way to the slick and sensuous Avalon. Then there’s the clunky party quirk of the B-52’s eventually yielding the exquisite pop of Cosmic Thing. And what about Siouxsie and the Banshees? The band dazzled us with “Kiss them for Me,” yet never lost their capacity to savage our ears in the manner of “Join Hands” and “Voodoo Dolly.” Like the B-52’s, Siouxsie and the Banshees, amidst commercial success, stayed true to their roots.

This leads to a final point: when the Replacements and Husker Du released their first major label recordings, they too stayed true to their roots. Too bad Tim and Candy Apple Grey were largely neglected by rock fans. These two bands were not evolutionary successes. In this we can take comfort in AC/DC: fame didn’t change them. Better still, it didn’t defang them.

Works Cited

Ehrlich, Paul. The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. June 27, 2008. http://fora.tv/2008/06/27/Paul_Ehrlich_The_Dominant_Animal.

Hoffer, Eric. First Things, Last Things. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

Young, Graham. The Beatles and the Cambrian Explosion. January 18, 2010. http://ancientshore.com/2010/01/18/the-beatles-and-the-cambrian-explosion.