Month: June 2009

Rockin’ pneumonia

Harvard economist Greg Mankiw had an op-ed in The New York Times over the weekend busting the chops of the proposed “public option” for health care reform in the US, that idea of creating a government-run, (probably) tax-subsidized competitor to private health insurance companies, with the goal of universal coverage. Mankiw objects because he can’t see how the system would be “fair,” an argument that I confess always seems a little odd to me coming from a market economist, but that’s because I tend to regard markets as entities that, on a fundamental level, leverage unfairness. But his characterization of a government-run insurance plan as a monopsony caught my eye.

This lesson applies directly to the market for health care. If the government has a dominant role in buying the services of doctors and other health care providers, it can force prices down. Once the government is virtually the only game in town, health care providers will have little choice but to take whatever they can get. It is no wonder that the American Medical Association opposes the public option.

Monopsonies—markets dominated by a single buyer—never seem to get the PR that their single-suppler monopolist cousins do, but both of them have similar potential to screw the workers, in revolutionary-slogan terms: if monopolies can price goods out of proportion to the wage market, monopsonies can squeeze wages out of proportion to the marketplace. (You owe your soul to the company store.)

Faithful readers of this space (with unusually good memories) might recall that I once analyzed orchestras as monopsonist entities, so one might be tempted to compare notes, as it were, to try and predict how a health-care monopsony would resemble the orchestral world.On the basis of that, professional wages would, probably, go down. Sure, a few conductors and soloists are really raking it in, but the majority of orchestral musicians are probably sneaking into the middle-class through the back door (and via multiple jobs). For comparison, Mankiw links to some data that puts the average US physician income at $199,000 a year. $199,000! For an orchestral musician, that’s Big Five money—and it’s probably not coincidental that the Big Five are all in cities that support enough musical activity to dilute those orchestras’ monopsony power.

Does this mean, as critics of the public option propose, that the overall talent of health professionals—and the quality of health care—will decrease? The orchestral evidence actually says no. Small-market orchestras tackling Mahler? The Rite of Spring? Other repertoire that, a lifetime ago, would have been out of reach for all but the best groups? Happens all the time. There are enough musicians who love their jobs—in economic terms, who sufficiently value the positive externalities—to put up with the reduced income. The flipside is the number of talented people who leave music for better-paying pastures—or who never embark on a music career in the first place. So, if the model holds, what you’d likely end up with is a health-care system full of doctors who really love their job, and a nagging, probably unquantifiable sense of a lot of talent opting out of the sector. (Not that it doesn’t already—how many potentially brilliant physicians have disappointed their mothers by sticking with the violin?) Other parallels, both incumbent—the movement of musicians from market to market as compared to the current patchwork of local health-care monopsonies resulting from state-by-state regulation—and potential—the pitfalls of a board-led philanthropic model vis-à-vis prospective models for maintaining government-subsidy accountability—could also be interesting.

But the problem with this overall comparison is that there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room that hasn’t been mentioned much in either context: political will and perceived political worth has an enormous effect on how monopsony power plays out in the marketplace. Look at the Department of Defense, possibly the biggest monopsony in the world—that market rarely gets squeezed, either in price or quality, because of its political impregnability. So comparing doctors and section woodwinds, while fun, probably only yields small-potatoes results in comparison with the real question, whether universal coverage would meet with enough approval for the resulting political fairy dust to inoculate any resulting monopsony from negative externalities. And that, in turn, is a lesson for orchestras. Hearts and minds, people.

Gotta let that fool loose, deep inside your soul

I’m not going to pretend to be neutral about Michael Jackson. Not even close. I still have a cassette tape of Thriller—it was the first album I considered worthy of spending my hard-earned (paper route) money on. (It beat out an LP of Martha Argerich playing the Chopin preludes by a few weeks.) If you’re a pre-teen white kid, like I was in early 1983, and you walk into a record store (OK, CD store; OK, iTunes) and buy an album by a black artist and it doesn’t seem at all weird in the least, you can thank Michael Jackson. And you should thank him. Profusely.

As Tabloid Michael slowly overtook Superstar Michael, the magnitude of that achievement faded more and more, and people began to take it for granted. But the crossover of Off the Wall and Thriller was a palpable shift to me—and even if Michael was lucky enough to simply be in the right place at the right time, he filled the role with a generously unnecessary brilliance and savvy. Maybe it was my classical acclimatization—respectful of Wagner, enamored of Richard Strauss—that made it easier for me to compartmentalize the personal scandal and the musical achievement. And the achievement—the glottal suspense of “Beat It,” the aspirated frenzy of “Dont Stop ’til You Get Enough,” the roiling, implacable funk of “Billie Jean,” the impregnable position of “Thriller” as the greatest novelty single of all time—was, even as my taste in pop became more jaded and skeptical, persistently superb.

I was running around all this afternoon and missed the news—and when my lovely wife told me, over a late-night beer, that Michael Jackson had died, I was, honestly, surprised at just how shocked and saddened I was. And I realized: the unapologetic nature of my musical omnivorousness owes a great deal to Michael Jackson, to the ubiquitous success of Thriller, to the fait accompli integration of MTV, to the demonstration that, even in the hyper-capitalist (and subtly discriminatory) wonderland of the Reagan 80s, sheer audacious talent could refuse to be marginalized. A few years ago, I spotted a “Special Edition” CD of Thriller at some store or another, and bought it, mostly out of curiosity as to how well it had held up, whether it was as good as my awkward, cusp-of-puberty self thought it was. The answer? Oh, my, yes.

That late-night beer was at an Irish-themed pub, full of frat boys, townies, and suburbanites—it was trivia night, and the MC dropped “Billie Jean” in between a couple of questions. “Rest in peace, Michael,” he said; no one snickered, more than a few raised a glass. An odd tribute, but nonetheless appropriate for an entertainer who, with equal parts cunning and confidence, preached the joyous gospel of R&B across as many racial and cultural boundaries as he could.

Für kommende Zeiten

Last night [conductor Frederik Prausnitz] brought his ensemble to Philharmonic Hall in a 20th-century program, ending with a work by Karlheinz Stockhausen that sent a fair share of the audience scurrying out of the auditorium.

This was the “Gruppen” (“Groups”) for three orchestra, composed in 1957 but not previously played in New York…. The work is an elaborate 25-minute assemblage of sounds, produced by the three ensembles as distinct entities yet carefully meshed by the composer. The performance, which seemed to go smoothly and was played by brilliantly gifted instrumentalists, did not work out too well.

Crowded together on the stage, the ensembles, totaling more than 100 players, could not assert their individuality. Except for an occasional tossing back and forth of a particular sonority and for the wide spread of the percussion instruments, the performance might have come from a single group as far as the acoustics were concerned.

—R.E., “Prausnitz Returns,” The New York Times, March 15, 1965

ALBANY — New York did not have one State Senate on Tuesday. It had two.

Side by side, the parties, each asserting that it rightfully controls the Senate, talked and sometimes shouted over one another, gaveling through votes that are certain to be disputed. There were two Senate presidents, two gavels, two sets of bills being voted on.

Despite the condemnation from the governor, newspaper editorialists and civic groups, senators of both parties seemed strikingly unworried about, or perhaps insulated from, public anger over the events. Several said that they have noticed only a slightly more-than-average volume of calls coming into their district offices lately, and that only a small percentage of the calls were negative.

And some members seemed to almost enjoy the chaos, calling it memorable and recording it for posterity.

Turning to a reporter, [Republican Senator George H. Winner Jr.] said, “We’re never going to see this one again.”

—Danny Hakim, “Come to Order! Not a Chance, if It’s Albany,” The New York Times, June 24, 2009

Sen. Winner unwittingly knows from whence he speaks: Prausnitz’s effort with the New England Conservatory Symphony Orchestra remains, to this day, the one and only New York performance of Gruppen.

A juke box hero, got stars in his eyes

This summer’s project involves Beethoven (more on that later), so I’ve been hitting the journals. And I’ve found something interesting—not enough examples to make a trend, but something I’ve been quickly conditioned to notice. It has to do with what you might call the musicological counter-reformation—the reaction against the New Musicology and various other revisionist strains. As you might imagine, Beethoven is a composer of particular interest for such revisionism, given both the encrusted consensus on interpreting his music and the highly-charged political atmospheres both in which he worked and in which his music has been used (and misused) ever since. There’s a particular tone in a lot of the reaction that aims to re-establish Beethoven as a capital-G, capital-C Great Composer, a paragon of high-art virtue, outside of any possibly qualifying context. And here’s one way to spot that tone in the wild: the author, usually in passing, cites Robert Haven Schauffler unironically.

The book in question in Schauffler’s 1929 biography Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. It is what you might call an old-fashioned celebrity biography. It was pretty popular in its time—since my own project involves a fair amount of reception study, I’ve been getting reacquainted with it. When I read it, I feel like I should put on a smoking jacket and pour myself a cognac. Here’s an example:

The infant [this is Ludwig], who was to be worshipped as “the saviour of music” by wise men yet unborn, first made himself heard in a room assuredly more lowly and probably more picturesque than the manger of Bethlehem. A man of average height must stoop under the beams of the little mansard chamber in No. 20 Bonngasse. On the wall outside an old crane still hangs, and a splendid vine with a stem now thick as a man’s leg. In the garden there is a portentous pendulum pump four yards tall.

For Ludwig himself it was unlucky to have been born under such conditions. Poverty and family misery bore harder on him as a child than they ever have on any other great composer, not excepting Haydn. But for the world it was a huge piece of luck that he descended from a cook, a valet’s widow, and a poor drunken singer and had ancestors with liberty-loving Flemish blood in their veins. If he had been born into the German “society” of the day he might never have emancipated music from the bonds of fashion. (pp. 8-9)

And so on, for nearly 600 pages. And yes, he maintains that style for pretty much the whole way. Every time I pick it up, I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s deconstruction of James Bond novels:

The minute descriptions constitute, not encyclopaedic information, but literary evocation. Indubitably, if an underwater swimmer swims towards his death and I glimpse above him a milky and calm sea and vague shapes of phosphorescent fish which skim by him, his act is inscribed within the framework of an ambiguous and eternal indifferent Nature which evokes a kind of profound and moral conflict. Usually Journalism, when a diver is devoured by a shark, says that, and it is enough. If someone embellishes this death with three pages of description of coral, is not that Literature?

As scholarship, Schauffler’s biography has been surpassed many times over (and keep in mind that this is the same author who produced the juicy but unreliable The Unknown Brahms), but as a stylistic affirmation of the heroic Beethoven in excelsis it’s hard to beat. No wonder he keeps coming back.

The glorious cause gives sanction to thy claim

From an address by Martin Luther King, Jr., to a public meeting of the Southern Christian Ministers Conference of Mississippi in Jackson, Mississippi on September 29, 1959:

History has proven that inner determination can often break through the outer shackles of circumstance. Take the Jews for example. For years they have been forced to walk through the dark night of oppression. They have been carried through the fires of affliction, and put to the cruel sword of persecution. But this did not keep them from rising up with creative genius to plunge against cloud-filled nights of affliction, new and blazing stars of inspiration. Being a Jew did not keep Spinoza from rising from a poverty stricken ghetto to a place of eminence in philosophy. Being a Jew did not keep Handel from lifting his vision to high heaven and emerging with creative and melodious music that still shakes the very fiber of men’s souls. Being a Jew did not keep Einstein from using his profound and genius-packed mind to challenge an axiom and add to the lofty insights of science a theory of relativity…

Whoa, whoa, back up. Handel was Jewish? Somebody tell Michael Marissen!

As far as I can tell, that “plunge against cloud-filled nights of affliction” phrase was King’s own, but it sure sounds like a quote. King liked it enough to use it in other speeches throughout his career, including his 1961 “The American Dream” commencement address at Lincoln University.

Textual response

A Cessna T-37 Tweet, just to liven up the place.

I don’t have a Twitter account, and I probably never will, for two reasons:

  1. 140 characters is a sound bite, and I don’t like sound bites; and
  2. even such brevity for comic effect, for me, is only really funny in a forum (like, say, this one) where comparative logorrhea is the norm.

My own idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, Twittering has been turning up more and more in concert situations, with a particularly expansive example being the play-by-play of their marathon concert that Bang on a Can sponsored on their Twitter account.

Amanda Ameer later reflected on her own Tweeting/texting experience during the marathon:

Reading the reviews of the marathon later, I had a few moments of “wait— when was that piece?”. It seems I had missed a few things whilst clicking. I did stop texting during Julia Wolfe’s Thirst because that was the new work I was most looking forward to—wait, looking through my phone now it seems I did send one text to Greg to say it was fantastic—but the rest of that hour was kind of hazy. Whoops.

This is why I, personally, would never Tweet during a performance, and why I’ve trained myself to take reviewing notes between pieces rather than during them. Writing and listening are two different things for me, and they don’t overlap well. (This is why I record interviews, too, instead of keeping notes on the fly. I stop listening to the other person, even if I’m writing down their words verbatim.) You might be able to make the argument that there is now a generation of concertgoers who have grown up with texting, &c., and can so multitask with ease. Honestly, though, I doubt it.

Still, if Tweeting a concert makes the Tweeter feel more fulfilled, it’s certainly an unobtrusive add-on. But then the question is this: why is a non-Tweeted concert experience less fulfilling? Amanda asked David Lang about the practice, and he said this:

It could be that the ability to stay in constant touch may make listeners come to feel that they themselves are not having a valid experience unless they are letting someone know about it. And if the action of music is some kind of mystic direct communication between the person making it and the person receiving it that is a big loss.

That’s a pretty sharp observation right there. It’s close to something I’ve ranted about before, the idea that suggestions to alter classical-music performance formats almost always are in the direction of increased audience validation, in assuring a particular range of audience reactions while simultaneously sending signals that confirm that a reaction within that range is, indeed, a “correct” one. I hate performances like that—not because they adopt a certain viewpoint about the repertoire (all performances do that on some level), but because they’re so intent on congratulating an audience member for ascribing to that viewpoint.

Kyle Gann had a post this past week on the idea of “eventfulness,” riffing on interviews he’s been doing with Robert Ashley. Here’s Ashley’s words:

“The only thing that’s interesting to me right now is that, up to me and a couple of other guys, music had always been about the eventfulness: like, when things happened, and if they happened, whether they would be a surprise, or an enjoyment, or something like that… It’s about eventfulness. And I was never interested in eventfulness. I was only interested in sound. I mean, just literally, sound in the Morton Feldman sense….

“For some of us, eventfulness is boring, contrast is unnecessary, and we’re interested in the aspects of music that don’t relate to time,” Gann comments. I found this fascinating, because my own experience of a lot of minimalist music (especially Feldman, who’s addictively good at it) is almost the opposite: I sense things happening more acutely because the events’ relationship to a steady passage of time gets dissolved. I’m aware of what’s happening in the piece, but not how long it’s taking to happen. That interplay between eventfulness and time is what I love about it. (It’s why Feldman and Carter are related composers to me: Carter does the same thing via density, making the clock tick with such torrential energy that I stop trying to keep track and just hold on for the ride.)

Is that the “right” way to listen to Feldman? Who cares? Not me, anyway—and I’m not much concerned if I’m the only person in the audience listening in that way. But, to circle around, it seems to me that a big part of Tweeting a concert is hedging against that very possibility—feeling some sort of confirmation that how one is experiencing the music is congruent with the way others are experiencing the music. In other words, a reassurance that one is experiencing the proper level of eventfulness.

I’ve been to concerts where it was pretty clear that everyone was experiencing more or less the same thing, and that sense can be quite thrilling, but I’ve also been to concerts where my own, solitary experience was plenty thrilling enough. And for me, the former would be a lot less thrilling if I had someone figuratively nudging me every few minutes, making sure I was noticing what everybody else was noticing. I hope I’ve included enough variations on “for me” in this ramble to ensure that I’m not advocating my own tastes as a universal prescription; tastes vary, and change over time, and all that. But if the design and efficacy of live performance becomes inextricably bound up with the need to confirm one’s conformity, to echo David Lang, that would be a big loss indeed.