Tuesday, October 16, 2018

concert review: St. Lawrence Quartet

Music@Menlo chamber music concerts tend to be potpourris of various performers making a variety of ensembles, and recently concerts by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford's resident ensemble, seem to be following this pattern.

Saturday's concert had one basic string quartet, one arrangement of an unaccompanied four-part choral piece for quartet, one for cello and piano, one for string quartet and piano, and one for an oddball string quintet (one violin, two violas, cello, and bass) and piano. The composers were Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and - a bit unusual - Messiaen.

It was an interesting concert, and I had fun writing the review.

Monday, October 15, 2018

something is wrong on the Internet, part CLXVII

So here's an article on the status and title of Meghan and Harry's impending baby.

I know. You don't care. But in a world full of pressing cares, it's the fact that this is of no significance whatsoever that makes it refreshing to talk about.

According to the article, the baby will not automatically be designated a prince or princess. I think that's right. Among the Queen's cousins, the title of prince or princess goes down only two generations from the monarch. Whether the blessing will automatically descend upon them if and when Prince Charles becomes king, I'm not sure but I think so.

However, the article also says that Kate & Wills's children had to be individually given that status: they didn't get it automatically. That may be true for Charlotte and Louis, but the order of George V limiting the use of prince/princess is quoted in the article as not applying to "the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales." That describes Prince George. He gets it automatically, so allow me to point out that on this point Wikipedia is right and the Washington Post is wrong.

However, that's not the wrongest. This is about the title of the children of Meghan and Harry. The article says "It is believed that any children of the duke and duchess of Sussex will be known as Lord or Lady Mountbatten-Windsor." Believed by whom? Only by people who don't know the nomenclature of British nobility.

The eldest son (as the patent of Harry's duchy is the usual males-only) will be known formally as the Earl of Dumbarton, by the customary rules that the son and heir of a senior peer takes his father's highest subsidiary title by courtesy.

Other children will be known as Lord or Lady First-name followed by last name, not with last name immediately following title. See Lord Randolph Churchill in history and Lord Peter Wimsey in fiction. There's no such thing as Lord Last-name in British nomenclature, only Lord Title, and "Mountbatten-Windsor" is nobody's title. (I believe you can be Lady Last-name, but only as wife of a knight, not as part of the peerage.)

It is true that the children's legal surname will be Mountbatten-Windsor, but it's very common for people with double-barrelled last names to employ only one barrel of it in their use-names. Winston Churchill's actual surname was Spencer-Churchill (yes, he was a distant relative of Princess Di), but neither he nor his father (see above) nor any of his descendants have been known that way. The one Mountbatten-Windsor in the Lady First-name position is Prince Edward's daughter, who is styled Lady Louise Windsor. Quite possibly Harry's children will be styled likewise.

And that's the straight dope as far as I know it.

Friday, October 12, 2018

to your scattered minorities go

I've seen recent demands that Sunnyvale, a city of 140 thousand people, begin electing its city council by districts. (Currently the 7 members are elected for separate seats but all at large.) This is because, although the city - in the heart of Silicon Valley, the highest concentration of Asian population in the continental US - has an Asian population of 40.9%, there have rarely been any Asians on the council: maybe 2 or 3 in its history. There's none now, though there's one running for one of the three seats up next month.

The idea is that districts will enable concentrations of ethnicities to have a stronger voice than they do city-wide. But it seems to me that this will really only work if those ethnicities are geographically concentrated. But the Asians here are not.

Using the Census's American Fact Finder for the 2010 census for the city and its constituent zip codes, I divided the city into three zones of very roughly equal population:
1) north of Central Expressway, 94085 & 94089 (40,492: 28.9%)
2) between Central and El Camino, 94086 (45,697: 32.6%)
3) south of El Camino, 94087 (54,293: 38.8%)

The Asian percentages of the population are:
1) 36.6%; 2) 42.0%; 3) 43.1%
That's just not a very high differential. The only way district elections would facilitate the election of Asians is if there happens to be a district with a strong Asian candidate but without strong non-Asian candidates.

Where it could make a difference is with Hispanics, but not that much as the Hispanic population is only 18.9%. But the differential is strong:
1) 29.9%; 2) 21.3%; 3) 9.0%

(Black population in the city is only 2.0%, and there isn't a strong differential. There is one Black candidate in this year's Council elections.)

I think it would be far more effective to recruit more strong Asian candidates to run for Council than it would be to create districts.

traffic zones

The DMV says that it's better to get an appointment than wait in line. When I needed to go in two months ago, I did both. I went in at 6:15 am on August 13 and waited in line 45 minutes until they opened, and then another 35 minutes to wait inside and finish the transaction. Total time investment, about 2 hours including the time needed to drive to the office that opens at 7 am. It was that little because I was willing to rise that early.

If I'd waited for the date of my appointment, I'd be going in today. Today. (I cancelled the appointment after I got my license in the mail, but it's still in my personal calendar.)

Yesterday, the city held a walking tour of one long block of a nearby arterial street, to tutor curious residents in plans and proposals to increase traffic safety. The block extends from the major intersection whose pedestrian crossings are frequently flooded with students from the high school at one corner, to a lesser signaled intersection where recently a lone pedestrian crossing the artery was plowed over by a driver from the side street who was turning right and apparently not looking.

The traffic consultant leading the tour spoke much of improving visibility at intersections and providing tools for pedestrian safety, and the irregular median breaks which contribute to the bad accident rate on the street. It's not like the street I lived on in college, where regularly at night drivers would plow up the wrong way on a one-way street, leading to dramatic crashes, but it's serious enough, and it's nice to know what's being mooted. Someone on the tour had heard a rumor that both the local shopping centers, which I know are at least 60 years old because they were around when I first moved here, are going to be torn up and replaced by the retail-housing mix that is gaining popularity, but we'll see.

Meanwhile the once-thriving, now derelict, regional mall a couple miles away is now formally being torn up, but they're still arguing over what will replace it, and as it's across the city limits my city and its voters have no say in any of this.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Yiddish music in Israel

What a curious topic, I thought on my last visit to the Stanford music department, as I saw the poster for a talk on this subject. I think I'll go. So tonight I did. It was given by Laya Silber, a visiting Israeli professor of choral music. Here's what I already knew, which might clarify what made the topic curious:

For Eastern European Jews, Hebrew was purely a liturgical language. Their mama loshen, mother tongue for daily use, was Yiddish, a highly inflected German dialect full of Hebrew loan words and other influences, and using its alphabet. But that was just the Ashkenazic culture: other Jewish cultures had their own hybrid tongues or ways of speaking.

The founders of the state of Israel sought a common Jewish culture and also to free it from the ghetto image, remaking the Jewish figure into the athletic, outdoorsy sabra, so they reconstructed Hebrew as a secular, everyday language. In the process Yiddish was deprecated in Israel.

So much I knew. What about music? Prof. Silber explained further: Such Yiddish songs as were deemed suitable were not just translated into Hebrew, but the lyrics were entirely reworked. The tempos were made more upbeat, the melodies changed from minor to major, ornaments added to the line and syncopation to the rhythm, characteristics of Arabic and Yemeni music which had been adopted into the Israeli musical style.

But later, starting in the 1960s and 70s, Israeli composers such as Ami Maayani (classical) and Dov Seltzer (mostly pop songs and theater), who didn't even speak Yiddish, began composing songs and vocal works in that language. Why? Because they'd been introduced to Yiddish poetry which they found interesting, and because they realized that Yiddish was an important aspect of Jewish history. But they continued to write the music in Israeli and modernist styles, eschewing for instance the augmented seconds so characteristic of Yiddish folk music and American Yiddish art music.

So that was the talk, heavily musically illustrated. Illuminating stuff.

Meanwhile, in other musical news, I have a review of the opening Symphony Silicon Valley concert for you. I consider this a pretty basic review: I enjoyed the concert a great deal but it didn't generate much to say about it. So it goes sometimes.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

you too may be on Google+

So I read this WaPost article about the Google+ debacle because I wanted to find out what was going on, having seen - as is so often the case for me and news events - secondary material about the fallout without having seen any primary exposition outlining the facts.

And it also said, "For a time, Google made it so convenient to create a Google+ profile that you basically couldn’t make a new Gmail account without also signing up for the company’s social platform. Only those who were paying close attention could really avoid it. To this day, you might have a Google+ profile of your own and not even realize it."

I kind of doubted I had one. Google+ was launched in 2011, and I've had a Gmail address - which I use as a secondary address for when there's problems with my primary address - since at least 2010, which is the date of the oldest entry in my inbox, and my recollection is that I got it while Gmail was still in beta, which it came out of in 2009, according to the Wikipedia article about it. So how could I sign up for a service that didn't exist yet when I was signing up for the other service?

However, there was a link to another article explaining how to find if you have Google+ and how to delete it if you do. And to my surprise, I did. I don't know how this happened. So I followed the deletion instructions - which I would never have done if this hadn't been a trusted source, because I would have feared deleting my Gmail as well - and it's gone. I'd never have realized its presence without this, which is why I'm passing all this on.

But this does suggest why Google+ never succeeded as a social media platform. Nobody's going to use a service they don't realize they have. How stupid do you have to be to sign up your users for a new service and then not tell them you've done so? As stupid as Google, apparently.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


So now we have two aggrieved sexual abusers on the Supreme Court. Somehow one seemed sufficient representation.

Justice Kagan - how can she bring herself to shake hands with these guys? - is worried about what will happen to a Court without a swing justice.

A couple profs say not to worry: Roberts will step into the breach.

And, you know, he might. He already did once, in the Obamacare case in 2012, when Kennedy declined to take the job. Roberts stared into the abyss that we'd fall into if Obamacare were overturned, and he blinked. He refused to join Thomas, Alito, and Scalia in marching over the edge, and adhered to the liberals instead. There may be just enough of a patriotic conservative left in Roberts to refuse to go full Trumpian.

But it won't be enough. People forget that Kennedy hasn't always been the swing justice. In fact, there used to be many swing justices. The role was only pared down to one after the Bork nomination polarized the Court, and that one swing was O'Connor. In the Clinton years, the perceived balance was four liberals - Stevens (who'd been perceived as something of a conservative when first chosen in 1975), Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer - and four conservatives - Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy. Then when O'Connor was replaced by Alito, Kennedy moved into the swing spot, but a more right-wing swing spot than her. Roberts will be more right-wing still, and while he may still save Obamacare, he's unlikely to save Roe, especially from incremental drip.

Friday, October 5, 2018

concert review: Berkeley Symphony

Finding my Thursday evening unexpectedly free, I accepted an invitation to attend the Berkeley Symphony at Zellerbach Hall. Ming Luke, who leads the orchestra's educational programs, conducted this first concert of a season bereft of a music director.

I couldn't leave home until 4:15, and the drive to the station was heavily congested with traffic, but BART was on its best behavior, and I arrived at 6:25 for a 7 pm show, which, as long as I wasn't expecting to eat anything, was just early enough to be relaxing.

My experiments at finding a sonically decent place to sit in this hollowed-out cannonball of an auditorium have not yet succeeded, and that may be the reason that Anna Clyne's Night Ferry, which is the work I was there to hear, came across as roiling chaos rather than the powerful roar it was at the Cabrillo Festival when I first fell for Clyne's music.

It was followed, without a break, by Ravel's La Valse, whose opening quiet section seemed to fit pretty well with Clyne's dying-off ending.

Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto is the work that won her a Pulitzer, but I have little affinity for violin concertos as a genre and this one did little for me. There were some intriguing and lovely sounds from the orchestra now and then, but soloist Benjamin Beilman's determinedly ceaseless sawing and squeaking away did not appeal.

Lastly, or rather firstly, came Shostakovich's Festive Overture. I do not understand why orchestras so frequently play this work. It's a piece of tossed-off hackwork with no redeeming value. The program notes actually quoted a Soviet conductor as saying that the usual third-rate hacks who got such festival commissions "wrote terrible shit." Well, now we get to have terrible shit by Shostakovich instead. If you want a fairly brief orchestral work by this composer, why not the Five Fragments, Op. 42? Them's weird stuff. Or the orchestration of Tea for Two that he wrote in an hour on a bet. Anything.

Friday, again fighting traffic, I got over to Stanford for a noon concert by the Puck Quartet. This group from New York is described on the leaflet as "drawing inspiration from [the] mischievous" Shakespeare fairy, playing with "a capricious spirit ... and sense of humor." If only they had done that in the Ravel Quartet, it would have been quite a show. Instead, they played it in a subdued Romantic manner. Nice, but nothing to write home about. Britten's gnarly Three Divertimenti (which we were told was his first work for quartet, but it wasn't) came off more puckishly.

Monday, October 1, 2018

the good citizen

The good citizen goes to the candidates forum for the school board election, because even though he has no children and never did, he always votes and believes that public schools are important. And I've found there's nothing like an in-person forum to find out what the candidates for obscure local offices are really like, behind their bland web sites and the uncommunicative newspaper writeups.

There in fact are two school boards, one for the younger children's schools and one for high school. Each board has three seats open and, with only one incumbent running between them, it's a pretty open race, four candidates for one board and six for the other.

Two of the six, including the sole incumbent, stand out above the others for skill with words and clarity of vision. Nothing riveting, just a few good points. It's hard to choose among three for the third spot, but I think I can cross off one. She's not terrible, but she reads most of her answers from cue cards. Mostly she finds ones that vaguely fit the question asked, but sometimes ... not. She's also the only candidate who refuses to take a position for, as all the others do, or even against, our school construction bond measure. She says it's for the voters to decide. Sure it is, but what do you think?

For the other panel, three of the four are experienced volunteers and advisory board members who just want to move up to fill the vacancies. They're in the usual mode of aspiring local politicians, more interested in discussing process than goals. Saying that you want to improve communication means little - doesn't everyone in a context like this? - unless you say what direction you want that communication to move.

The fourth candidate is different. With no prep background in the schools, but boasting accountancy and business experience, he's a kindergarten dad who just decided to run for school board. He could have been a flake, but I like his observations, naive though they are, even when - as with reform of state school-funding policy - they're far beyond the powers of a school board.

The city council one is in two weeks.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn (1954)

When I wrote a couple weeks ago that I had borrowed a copy with intent to read, I got a few unsolicited comments from people testifying how much they loved this book.

Well, now I've read it. I didn't like it.

It's the near future, as of the date of writing. Martians have been living secretly on earth, disguised as humans, for thousands of years. Most of the book is the journal of a Martian agent who's been assigned to watch over a 12-year-old boy in a Massachusetts mill town, to protect him from the Bad Martian. The agent is not very good at his job. He misplaces the boy and doesn't find him again until he's an adult nine years later. Nor does this prevent the Bad Martian from carrying out his Evil Plan, although as world-destroying Evil Plans go it's something of a damp squib. (But it's still a major disaster, so making it come across as a damp squib is a monumental achievement in bathos.)

However, it was never clear to me why the Bad Martian is interested in this particular boy, or how the Evil Plan couldn't be carried out with his presence, or alternatively - since this seems to be how it actually goes down - without his presence. This lack of understanding on my part isn't that important: it just destroys the entire plot and character motivation for me, that's all.

Also, none of the dialogue sounds as if was spoken by human beings, even humans who are actually Martians in disguise. This is particularly glaring with the lines spoken by children, even though they're supposed to be precocious children. But then, precocious children are an SF specialty almost always handled spectacularly badly. That, in addition, the Martians don't seem very alien is a trope so common in SF as hardly to be worth mentioning.

John Hertz asked me about this book because he wanted my opinion of the writing about music. The 12-year-old boy has a 10-year-old girlfriend (yes, they get married at the end, after they're grown up) who is a budding piano student, and she bonds with the Martian because he plays piano also, despite one finger on each hand being artificial as part of his human disguise.

After the girl is grown up, the Martian attends her debut piano recital in New York, and this is where most of the book's music natter is located. The one thing that's clear is that Pangborn - who was conservatory-trained - loves piano music, especially Beethoven and Chopin, and gives that love to his characters. The description of her concert rendition of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata is detailed enough that, as I am tolerably familiar with the work, I get an impression of what it would have sounded like. I wish I could hear it.

I got less out of the description of Chopin. The recital includes "the sonata" (which one?) and "the F Sharp Minor Impromptu." There is no F Sharp Minor Impromptu. It probably means the F Sharp Major Impromptu, one of that majority of Chopin pieces I don't get much out of, so I can't judge the Martian's emotional reaction to it.

The most curious comment comes in connection with the music of a (fictional) contemporary composer. (Remember, the story was published in 1954, and this part takes place 18 years later.) The Martian, as critic, contrasts this composer with "the I-don't-really-mean-it school of the '930s and '940s." The reference is presumably to something historical, and I might be better able to guess what school this is if I knew Pangborn's own stylistic affiliations in modern music. As the antidote to this school is being influenced by Brahms, I wonder if it means neo-classicism, as Brahms is smooth and shaded while neo-classicism is bright and brittle, and was thought by some at the time to be mannered and insincere.

But neo-classicism is traditionally considered to have been founded by Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony in 1917-20, and flourished in the 1920s, so it's of slightly earlier date. The style that most distinctly flourished in the 1930s-40s is socially-conscious populism, as in Copland's most popular works. The reference is unlikely to be to serialism, which began earlier but didn't become dominant until slightly later. So I dunno.