12 February 2013
I departed Tokyo as I arrived, on the Narita express, at the Shinjuku station. Tokyo is an overwhelming place, and it would be easy to feel oneself quite at sea while attempting to negotiate this vast metropolis. But today it feels just slightly less overwhelming, because I became just a little familiarized with a very small portion of Tokyo, having learned how to use the local train stations at Shinjuku and Yoyogi and Iidabashi, and so on. So in at least one sense, I did not depart as I arrived, because I take back with me a little bit of knowledge about Tokyo. As a true believer in the Socratic imperative that knowledge is good, I then count my week long expedition a good thing, however many mistakes I might have made, and however short the time may have been.
I think that some people derive a perverse pleasure from talking about all the things that went wrong in the course of travel. I have had my share of mishaps, but I have never had a vacation that left me feeling dissatisfied that I had come — only dissatisfied that I had to leave. As difficult as it is to tear myself away from my routine, once torn away I quite definitely have the feeling that I could keep going on the road indefinitely, with no need to go home again.
I have never had a vacation I would not readily and gladly repeat — indeed, as I travel I often think of a first trip as reconnaissance for a future trip that will be all the more fulfilling because I have some basic knowledge that will make that next attempt that much better. It is highly likely that there are places I have seen that I will never visit again, but I always go home with the idea that I can’t wait to go again, and that I never really wanted to leave.
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30 October 2011
I had the privilege of attending the performance of the Jasper String Quartet at the Reed College Kaul Auditorium this evening. This concert was part of the Chamber Music Northwest 2011-2012 Encore Series, and included performance of the following:
● Barber String Quartet, Op. 11 (1938)
● Kernis String Quartet No. 1, “musica celestis” (1990)
● Schubert String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, “Death and the Maiden”
It was a real treat to hear two twentieth century quartets performed live by a vital ensemble that really invested a feeling of liveliness into music that, if we paused to reflect on the popular reputation of art music of the twentieth century, ought to be academic and distant. This music, given a sensitive and comprehending performance, reveals itself as poignant and as direct as that of any genre or any age.
Barber’s quartet is best known for the second movement, which Barber himself also separately arranged as the Adagio for Strings for chamber orchestra. During a pause in the second movement, when the entire hall was as still as a tomb, I heard a woman behind me quietly say, “Amazing!” And it was amazing.
Listening to the Jasper Quartet perform the piece by Barber, and mindful of the reputation of twentieth century art music (as mentioned above), I was reminded of another aesthetic experience earlier in my life. When I was in Frankfurt in 1991 I visited an art museum focused on modern art. This museum no longer exists in the form that I saw it, since it has since been moved to a new building and has expanded its collection. What struck me about these modern paintings I saw in Frankfurt was really how unmodern they were — that is to say, how traditional they were, how steeped they were, how deeply immersed they were, in the tradition of European painting. If you see paintings like this in a book of art hsitory, you see what looks like a field of plain color, or some such abstract form. Up close, they were nothing like this at all. The seemingly plain fields of color were textured and infinitely varied in detail.
Barber’s quartet struck me in a similar way: while recognizably “modern,” it is deeply immersed in the traditions of Western music, and it projects a texture that speaks of the long history of which it is a particular expression. An aesthetic experience such as I had in Frankfurt put me on notice relatively early in my life of the importance of seeing works of art with one’s own eyes and not relying too heavily on reproductions, however good the quality of the reproduction. Similar concerns hold for music: it is important to see and to hear music performed if one is going to arrive at a proper appreciation of it.
The second work performed, Kernis String Quartet No. 1, “musica celestis,” dates from fifty years after the Barber quartet, and is the work of a living contemporary. Sam Quintal of the quartet gave a short talk about the piece before they commenced its performance, having the violins and the cello perform bits of the melody so that the audience could listen for these recognizable parts in what turned out to be a highly compressed and dense musical texture.
Mr. Quintal prepared the audience for the complexity and difficulty of this work, but to use these words doesn’t nearly come close to doing the work justice. If you speak of “difficult” art music someone might think of Shostakovitch, and if you speak of “complex” art music someone might think of, say, Elliott Carter or Brian Ferneyhough. Mentioning Shostakovitch reminds me of an anecdote. I once heard an interview with a performer in a string quartet, and this performer talked about the feeling of tension that built while performing works of Shostakovitch, and that after performing the Shostakovitch that they would follow it with Ravel’s quartet, which in this context had a feeling of release, relief, and catharsis.
Well, the Kernis string quartet had much more in common with the vital and breezy quality of Ravel than with the plethora of notes one might expect from, say, Elliott Carter. And while its complexity rivaled the “new complexity” of Brian Ferneyhough, it was never complexity for complexity’s sake: every note of the music was musically justified. One could even say that every note was lyrically justified, because the work was extraordinarily lyrical.
I had never even heard of Kernis prior to this performance, but this quartet was a fantastic piece, and certainly something that is likely to become a fixture of future quartet repertoire — and all to the good, I say. While it looked fiendishly difficult to play, it was a great joy to hear.
Prior to performing Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, “Death and the Maiden,” Sam Quintal of the quarter read the poem by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) that was the inspiration for Schubert’s song of the same name, and then the famous quartet, which must be one of the most famous examples of the form. In any case, here is the poem, first in the original German:
Vorüber! ach, vorüber!
Geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung, geh Lieber!
Und rühre mich nicht an.
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!
Bin Freund, und komme nicht zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild,
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!
And in English translation:
“It’s all over! alas, it’s all over now!
Go, savage man of bone!
I am still young – go, devoted one!
And do not molest me.”
“Give me your hand, you fair and tender form!
I am a friend; I do not come to punish.
Be of good cheer! I am not savage.
You shall sleep gently in my arms.”
It was deeply satisfying to me to hear this performed live, as it is a piece of music that I know well, and the performers really leaned into it, giving the performance a striking physicality.
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3 October 2011
I am headed back to Portland after having come to Florida for the 100 Year Starship Study public symposium in Orlando. I’ve chronicled my reactions to the symposium in three posts that I wrote on the evening of each day of the symposium while the events were still fresh in my mind: 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1, 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2, and 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 3.
I certainly learned some important lessons. If I ever get the chance to make another presentation, my first question will be, “How much time do I have?” My second question will be, “Do you have any limit on the number of slides that I can use with my presentation?” These are the parameters of public speaking. On a blog one can write as much or as little as one likes. The format is as flexible as one’s inspiration of the moment. When the personal time of others is involved, however, one’s degrees of freedom are constrained. That is a valuable lesson.
While I will not get a second chance to make a first impression, the ideas that I incorporated into my presentation will get a second chance, as one of the requirements for speaking at the 100YSS was to submit a paper, with the intention of the paper to be published in some future number of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.
While I was working on my paper and my presentation I conceived a great many ideas that I could not include in my paper, and it would only take me a few months to write it all up in a book-length manuscript if I chose to do so. I may do this eventually, simply because of the intrinsic interest that I have in the ideas, but an earlier lesson learned is that no one buys and almost no one reads the books that I have self-published, so I hesitate to do any more self-publishing except for definitive manuscripts that express my point of view and which I wish to be preserved in some form, regardless of their being commercially non-viable.
I will continue to work on these ideas, since it was my intrinsic interest in the ideas that made me formulate the thoughts in the first place, and this ultimately led to my being present at the 100YSS symposium. As always happens with my philosophical projects, the ideas ultimately “leak” over into other projects, and I have already found important points of connection between these ideas about the moral value of a spacefaring civilization and more general concerns I have in metaphysics and ontology. While this intertextuality of my projects makes it extraordinarily difficult to finish any one project (which is a disadvantage), it also gives a robust philosophical context to any one idea, so that if I am able to give expression to a given idea, I also have a great deal of background material that gives consistent theoretical underpinnings to my work (which is an advantage).
Note added later
In so far as I filled fourteen pages of my notebook during my flights back from Tampa through Atlanta to Portland, the influence of having attended the symposium seems to be “jelling” in my mind and proving fruitful so far. We shall see if any really first class ideas come out of it.
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27 June 2011
First of all, I’m not an opera enthusiast. The nineteenth century Italian operas that dominate the repertoire don’t speak to me at all, and I consequently never listen to them. But some years ago I was watching a television documentary about music, and they included a performance of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s early opera Dido and Aeneas. I was fascinated, and soon after bought a CD of the music. After than time I began listening to early modern operas, though I remain unmoved by the more popular manifestations of the genre.
Dido and Aeneas remains my favorite opera music, so I was happy to see that this year’s Oregon Bach Festival would include a performance of Dido and Aeneas by the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Last year for the Oregon Bach Festival the PBO performed all the the Brandenburg Concertos, which performance I attended and enjoyed immensely (and wrote about in Six concerts à plusieurs instruments).
This year for the Oregon Bach Festival, the Portland Baroque Orchestra didn’t play any Bach at all, and half the program wasn’t even baroque. As though the program was arranged in dialectical subtlety, the program began with the instrumental Simply Symphony of Benjamin Britten (the thetic movement, if you will), followed by six A Capella Choral Dances from Britten’s Gloriana (the antithetic movement). Thus far the program was twentieth century, but the synthetic climax was Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, for both instruments and voice.
It could be considered a staple of performing arts mythology that the long-suffering understudy should get his or her great opportunity when the star billed for the big show is unable to perform. Only just days before Dido and Aeneas it was announced on the PBO website that the scheduled soprano Golda Schultz was “indisposed” and that her place would be taken by Leah Wool. Ms. Wool doesn’t seem to be a long-suffering understudy, but it was bold of her to step in at the last minute.
While Dido’s Lament is my favorite part of Dido and Aeneas, I don’t think that that prejudiced my judgment, but I really think that this brief number was the strongest part of the entire show. Wool’s performance was not only the embodiment of technical perfection, but was an assured and confident performance. It is easy to imagine that aspiring opera singers practice these ‘greatest moments” arias, and so if they ever do get called in as their big chance to shine in the starring role, they probably know these pieces best.
While I was watching the twentieth century portion of the show I was wondering, since the PBO is known as an early music ensemble that seeks to present historically informed performances, whether they were using their accustomed instruments, or if they had instead temporarily traded in their early instruments for period instruments from the mid-twentieth century. Returning from the show I read this on the PBO website: “Includes Benjamin Britten’s divine Choral Dances and Simple Symphony, which Monica [Huggett] has always wanted to play on gut strings.” This both answered my question and posed a whole new set of questions: what are we to call performances that employ historical instruments and technique for the performance of contemporary music?
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21 June 2011
Happy summer solstice!
Today is the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere, when the axial tilt of the earth is most steeply inclined toward the sun.
In Oregon we have been having a wet, rainy, and cool spring. The past part of spring in June before the solstice people expect to begin seeing summer weather, and sometimes they do, but mostly they don’t. Sometimes we even have a cool summer, too. I can remember summers from my childhood when it poured down rain on the 4th of July, spoiling the fireworks in the process, which is the sort of thing that children remember.
Since Oregon’s population has grown rapidly over the past decades, and much of that population growth has come from people moving to Oregon from warmer, sunnier states south of us, there is not a little grumbling to be heard in the late spring when it is still raining and with no sign of the sun. The local newspaper even makes sport of the weather, referring to the “strange orange disk in the sky” when the sun does make an unexpected appearance, but this kind of humor does encapsulate a certain feeling of the sun as an alien presence.
I often tell people that they shouldn’t expect good weather until August. September is often very nice here, and there have been days in early October that I have been to the beaches of the Oregon coast and it was sunny and bright. So, if you should come to Oregon, and you want to see the sun while you’re here, I would recommend August. Don’t expect to show up in June and to see weather like southern California in June.
All the same, this year has been particularly wet. Just yesterday it was overcast most of the day, but for the first summer day itself we have a beautifully sunny day. It is, in fact, a summer day that looks like a summer day.
To celebrate the first day of summer I went canoeing.
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22 September 2010
It was the best of summers, it was the worst of summers, it was the summer of wisdom, it was the summer of foolishness, it was the summer of belief, it was the summer of incredulity, it was the summer of Light, it was the summer of Darkness, it was the June of hope, it was the September of despair, I had everything before me, I had nothing before me, I was going direct to Heaven, I was going direct the other way — in short, the summer was so far like the present season, that I insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
After Charles Dickens is finished spinning in his grave, I hope that his shade will forgive me for that. But I do feel that it was a summer of contrasts, even if not superlative in every degree. And now it is over.
According to the U. S. Naval Observatory website, the autumnal equinox for 2010 occurs Wednesday 22 September at 11:09 PM EDT, which means that it will be 8:09 PM PDT for those of us on the west coast of North America, which means that in true time, not the fake and artificial time of DST, the autumnal equinox will occur at 7:09 PM (DST is, in itself, evidence of the tolerance for phoniness in contemporary life). By most accounts, Thursday 23 September will be the first day of fall, making today the last day of summer (or both are today, depending on how you count it).
I will spare the reader the travails of my personal life, being incidental and wholly without interest in relation to anything that I have written here, but some of the events of the summer had a very direct bearing upon the content of this forum. Actually, technically, it was just before the summer started, on the 12th of June, that my computer was stolen as I was walking in Tryon Park in Lake Oswego. This event alone has changed my life, and changed it for the worse. It is, without question, the worst thing that has happened to me in my adult life. My backups to my computer file were in the bag with the computer, so I lost a year’s worth of writing. I haven’t even had the heart to go back to the manuscripts that I was working on at the time to see what I could make of them from older versions, where I had older versions. As though in a puff of smoke, three nearly completed manuscripts that I had planned to publish this year were gone.
What was I to do? Well, what choice did I have but to go on? And, despite the loss, I generated a lot of new ideas this summer. I lost my notebooks of ideas at the same time, to the same theft, as well as all of my pictures of Argentina, but I started new notebooks and I think I had a pretty fertile summer in terms of ideas. Some of these ideas will be showing up in this forum as I refine them to the point at which they can be seen by others. For the time being, they remain my “secret garden” of ideas, as Nietzsche described his efforts in the opening to On the Genealogy of Morals.
Portland had a lot of nice weather this summer, lots of sun but not many days with oppressive heat. Recent transplants to Oregon thought it was a wet and dreary summer, but really it was quite a nice summer as Oregon summers go. I can remember many summers during my childhood when it absolutely poured on the Fourth of July. So, yes, we get rain here in the summer, but we also get a reasonable share of sun. And although I didn’t get to the beach as much as I like to during the summer, because we had a good amount of sun I did get to do a good amount of swimming.
Upon returning from Norway last fall I wrote about the Two Lives that one experiences — the life of travel and leisure, and the life of labor and toil. Often it happens that we live these two lives simultaneously, and so we toil during the day (for those on the conventional schedule of western business enterprises) and take our leisure during the evening. Sometimes the two lives are lived in series, and sometimes they are lived in parallel. Thus my tale of two summers is a tale of two summers lived in parallel: the summer I would like to forget but cannot wish away, and the summer that I hope I will remember but which has already begun to fade. Both were the summer of 2010.
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16 September 2010
In a couple of posts, Epistemic Space: Mapping Time and Transient Spaces, I tried to describe the peculiar character of spaces that are purpose-built for transience, spaces not intended for lingering or loitering, much less for residing. Cities are especially rich in transient spaces, such as sidewalks, elevators, escalators, pedestrian malls, bridges, hallways, bus and train stations, and so forth. There are also many examples of what we might call quasi-transient spaces, where lingering is expected, but only for a socially acceptable period of time, such as restaurants, laundromats, and museums. If you stay too long in a museum you will be viewed with suspicion. Such quasi-transient spaces are often precisely metered, as in the case of car parks, which at least reduces the ambiguity of what span of time is socially acceptable. Some museums are beginning to go this route by selling tickets with precise entry times.
Now, as it happens, transient spaces are exactly those spaces in which people end up loitering, and in fact it is enough of an issue that laws against loitering are passed so that police can, by legal compulsion, compel people not to linger where they are supposed to only pass through (a concrete and personal example of the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force). Such spaces, however, are intrinsically ill-defined and open to exaptation. A sidewalk is a paradigmatically transient space, but a sidewalk cafe is a paradigmatic example of a place to linger. I remember especially when I stayed a couple of weeks in Paris in 1996 how the broad boulevards bequeathed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s nineteenth century rational reconstruction of the city also provided very wide sidewalks, and in some places the sidewalk cafes were obviously permanent installations. For example, low wooden platforms were built on sloping sidewalks in order to provide a flat terrace for tables and chairs. Also, outdoor heaters were commonly employed to make it possible to use these sidewalk cafes after dark and during the cooler months.
One of my favorite stories of an exapted transient space (I can no longer recall where I heard this) concerns the bus station in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, mostly designed by urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer, and which recently celebrated its fiftieth birthday (which I celebrated in Fifty Years of Brasília). As I heard the story, Brasília, being a planned and therefore artificial city, had no planned space for people watching, no organized space for loitering, no place to watch what A. E. Housman saw as, “…the moving pageant file, Warm and breathing through the street,” and so people began hanging out at the bus station. Here was movement and interest, like a waterfall of humanity, always the same yet always new.
Truth be told, most urban planning has been disastrous, subject to fads and to theories with only the most tenuous connection to reality. Time and again the most hopeful and advanced urban planning has resulted in spaces that are not used as they are intended to be used. This sounds innocent enough, except that the biggest failures of urban planners in the recent past were the creation of “projects” which concentrated poverty and became exapted primarily for criminal activity. This is not the kind of natural and healthy exaptation that an urban planner would like to see as his grand design is translated into actual living conditions for actual human beings. These spaces intended for living became spaces used for transient purposes, such as the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances.
Now the cities that built projects in the 1960s and early 1970s are tearing them down, and dealing with a whole new set of problems that have been created by attempting to mix uses and avoid the concentration of poverty and dependency. Also, the demolition of projects has been attended by protests against “gentrification,” which I briefly mentioned in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities but which I have not yet given the attention to which it is entitled based on its intrinsic interest.
Planning is not always a disaster. Very close to my office, where I am now writing this, is Orenco Station, which is a planned “community” that was constructed around a light rail terminal when Portland’s light rail system was extended to the west side of the city. I have talked to many people in the local real estate and construction industry, and everyone wants to claim responsibility for being involved with this development. As we all know, success has a thousand fathers,while failure is an orphan. I was told that when a delegation came from eastern Europe to visit examples of successful development in Oregon that there were two places they wanted to see: Spirit Mountain Casino and Orenco Station. Personally, I find Orenco Station hideous, and I can feel its artificiality as strongly as though I were strolling in Disneyland, but apparently I am in the minority here.
The spaces in which we live are the antithesis of transient spaces. We might simply call them non-transient spaces. But the places in which we are supposed to live are not always the places in which we actually do live, and the places we we do in fact live are not always the places we are supposed to live. Not only is our living space not distributed according to intention or according to a rational plan, it also changes over time. Thus old warehouses become loft apartments, and then we get so accustomed to people living in warehouse lofts that residential structures are purpose-built to look like old warehouses. A friend of mine once called these “lofts for yuppies” in a disdainful tone.
If we consider the contemporary busy professional, devoted more to career than to home and family, one’s soi-dissant “home” is a place one returns to for sleep. But such a professional spends more time out of home than at home. Indeed, I suspect that such a professional — today, both men and women — live the bulk of their time in Transient Spaces, moving from sidewalk to subway car to cafe to performance venue, and so forth.
The spaces in which we live partially constitute the kind of persons that we are; we construct our lives today as we construct our artificial environments. And this is important. What kind of a person lives in Transient Spaces? The answer is so obvious it scarcely need be made explicit: transients live in transient spaces. Of course, the kind of transients I describe above are wearing silk suits and carrying lap tops, rather than wearing rags and pushing shopping carts, but the point here is that this is a different of degree and not a difference in kind.
Industrialized civilization with its need for the mobility of labor and its regimentation of clock and calendar has created the need for transient spaces, the market has responded to the need by building transient spaces, and transient spaces have created transients — transients of all kinds, all conditions, and of all social classes. The children of middle class households who spend their time on city streets are as much transients as the silk suited business man or the beggar with his cardboard sign.
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10 September 2010
One of my sisters was visiting from Michigan (one and the same sister who wrote the guest post Small Town America for this forum) so we had the rare opportunity to go out together as a family: two of my sisters, my father, and myself. As we age and circumstances spread us further apart on the map (not least the mobility of labor demanded by an advanced industrialized economy), chances to get together become increasingly rare.
My father knew of an offbeat seafood restaurant in North Portland (near the University of Portland and across Lombard from the Eagles Lodge) that we decided to go to. It is an unlikely and unpromising looking restaurant, with diner-like Formica tables and upholstered chairs with a metal frame (this is a poor description; I hope you understand what I am attempting to describe because it is crucial to the atmosphere of the place), but the food was great. The menu was simple but the fish was done to perfection. I had halibut, one of us had tuna, and two of us had salmon, and all agreed on the quality of the fish.
One of my sisters remarked that if one were visiting the Oregon coast that this place would be busier, both because people seek out seafood on the coast and not least because people would expect (or at least be more likely to tolerate) the “funky” atmosphere of the place. I agreed with this, and went on to suggest that it would also be busier if the same meals were being served in downtown Portland in a brand new steel and glass structure.
In any case, while not exactly sleepy, we walked right in and sat down without a reservation and without a wait, and were served an excellent meal for a reasonable price. So if you’re looking for an enjoyable seafood dinner in Portland and you don’t want to go to one of the pricey places downtown (together with a pretentious attitude that no one in Portland is entitled to adopt, though many do so without entitlement), and you’re cool with a slightly “funky” atmosphere, then I heartily recommend that you dine at The Fishwife restaurant at 5328 N. Lombard Avenue. Bon appétit!
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