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Ancient Wisdom

Jonathan Egid on Asymptote:

Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.
Herodotus was right

Dalya Alberge in The Guardian:

In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote of unusual river boats on the Nile. Twenty-three lines of his Historia, the ancient world’s first great narrative history, are devoted to the intricate description of the construction of a “baris.”

For centuries, scholars have argued over his account because there was no archaeological evidence that such ships ever existed. Now there is.

Time Will Bring Us Back

Walt Whitman, quoted by Horace Traubel, quoted by Brenda Wineapple in The New York Review of Books:

America must welcome all—Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not—all, all, without exceptions: become an asylum for all who choose to come. We may have drifted away from this principle temporarily but time will bring us back. The tide may rise and rise again and still again and again after that, but at last there is an ebb—the low water comes at last…. America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people—the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers. Dare we deny them a home—close the doors in their face—take possession of all and fence it in and then sit down satisfied with our system—convinced that we have solved our problem? I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure—such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be.
Move over Shakespeare, teen girls are the real language disruptors

Gretchen McCulloch on (2015):

As Katherine Martin, head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, has pointed out, if Shakespeare was inventing dozens of new words per play, how would his audience have understood him? Rather, it’s likely that Shakespeare had an excellent grasp of the vernacular and was merely writing down words that his audience was already using.

We shouldn’t just be tolerating young women’s speech—we should be celebrating it. So if Shakespeare wasn’t disrupting the English language, who was? And how did we get from Shakespearean English to the version we speak now? That’s right: young women.

The International Phonetic Alphabet

Halle Neyens on Language Base Camp (2015) with a nice introduction to to phonemes and the International Phonetic Alphabet:

Vowels are organized by the tongue’s position in the mouth: it can be front (up close to the teeth), central, or back (pulled back toward the throat), as well as high, mid, or low. The chart is laid out with the front of the mouth on the left.

. . .

Consonants are organized by two variables: place and manner of articulation.


Agnès Varda (1928 - 2019)

Alissa Wilkinson, on Vox:

Agnès Varda, the trailblazing filmmaker and a key figure in the French New Wave, passed away after a short battle with cancer on Friday, March 29, in Paris. She was 90 years old.

David Simms, for The Atlantic:

Agnès Varda was a peerless giant of French cinema. Her diminutive stature and impish personality could belie the breadth of her influence, but there’s no ignoring the sheer artistry of the movies she made over the past six decades, spanning entire movements in film history that she helped pioneer.

Bill Chappell, for npr:

As a director, Varda had a photographer's eye for capturing striking images — a skill she often used to accomplish the feat of allowing her stories to seem as if they told themselves. But behind the camera, a master was at work.

Peter Debruge in Variety (2017):

Agnès Varda is the kind of filmmaker whose oeuvre is sure to stand the test of time — because it already has, holding up brilliantly since her 1955 feature debut, “La Pointe Courte,” about which Variety condescendingly wrote, “Main aspect of this film is that it was made for $20,000 by a 25-year-old girl.”

With her tiny seaside romance, that girl would go on to inspire the French New Wave, demonstrating the kind of independent spirit that paved the way for filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

Sheila Heti, interview with Agnès Varda, in The Believer (2009).

BLVR: You had a remarkable career in an age when women didn’t have careers—

AV: I had a world. I don’t think I had a career. I made films.

Agnès Varda, interviewed by Owen Myers in The Guardian (2018):

I would like to be remembered as a film-maker [who] enjoyed life, including pain. This is such a terrible world, but I keep the idea that every day should be interesting. What happens in my days – working, meeting people, listening – convinces me that it’s worth being alive.

Simon Hattenstone, in The Guardian (2018):

“Do you have an Instagram?” she asks as she prepares to leave. “I have one. I want to know everything about you, including the size of your shoes. Hehehe!” I tell her she is welcome to my shoes. “I have small feet. I am small. I was always small. But only physically.”

Agnès Varda’s films, at IMDb, and The Criterion Collection.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100

Robert Pinsky in the New York Times:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrates his 100th birthday on March 24 with the publication of “Little Boy,” his life story told in flashes and arias. No one’s biography has more completely or ardently embodied the visions and contradictions, the achievements and calamities, the social mobility and social animosities, of that life span.

Poet, retail entrepreneur, social critic, publisher, combat veteran, pacifist, poor boy, privileged boy, outspoken socialist and successful capitalist, with roots in the East Coast and the West Coast (as well as Paris), Ferlinghetti has not just survived for a century: He epitomizes the American culture of that century.

Obviously About Cats

Emily Temple for Lit Hub on Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág:

But instead of one, he finds “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.” Obviously, he has to bring them all home. Which causes some problems! In the end, they all eat each other (that’s right), leaving only the homeliest cat—who only needs some love and milk to become beautiful.

It was an instant hit, and remains the oldest American picture book still in print.

Google’s Bach Doodle

In honor of J. S. Bach’s 344th birthday on March 21st, Google released a “Doodle” that uses artificial intelligence techniques to harmonize a user-supplied melody in a style meant to resemble that of the Bach chorales.

Lauren Hannah-Murphy, Program Manager, Google AI:

The first step in creating an AI-powered Doodle was building a machine learning model to power it. Machine learning is the process of teaching a computer to come up with its own answers by showing it a lot of examples, instead of giving it a set of rules to follow (as is done in traditional computer programming). Anna Huang, an AI Resident on Magenta, developed Coconet, a model that can be used in a wide range of musical tasks—such as harmonizing melodies, creating smooth transitions between disconnected fragments of music and composing from scratch (check out more of these technical details in today’s Magenta blog post).

Next, we personalized the model to match Bach’s musical style. To do this, we trained Coconet on 306 of Bach’s chorale harmonizations. His chorales always have four voices: each carries their own melodic line, creating a rich harmonic progression when played together. This concise structure makes the melodic lines good training data for a machine learning model. So when you create a melody of your own on the model in the Doodle, it harmonizes that melody in Bach's specific style.

Daniel Tompkins on Medium:

Think of the AI as a student. Rather than teaching it rules, you simply have it “listen” to Bach chorales thousands of times and imitate it. In many ways, this is a somewhat musical pedagogy. The student-AI is learning through exposure to the literature about harmony.

The differences between us ivory-tower theorists and the Google “doodle” is that we have bigger brains, and perhaps more importantly, have listened to tonal music for many more years. And I’m not sure how many of us would avoid all harmonic errors from listening to chorales without a helpful list of rules.

Alyssa Barna on Slate

The Doodle was designed so anyone could play around with it and plug in some notes, even if they aren’t familiar with music notation. And they would produce a lovely little composition that wasn’t always technically correct for Bach’s style, but sounded nice. This is a rare democratization of classical music that has value in its reach.

It’s still a shame, though, that there were so many errors packed into the short excerpts. Since most people wouldn’t recognize them, it means that what might be one of their only experiences with this style of composition was not really representative of Bach, despite Google’s attempts to emulate the baroque master.

Sigal Samuel on Vox:

All you have to do is plunk down a few notes and the Doodle will add harmony to them in the signature style of Bach. I’ve got zero formal musical training, but I gave it a try. My little composition came out sounding surprisingly great!

Anne Midgette in The Washington Post:

It may only add to the doodle’s charm that what it actually proves is the opposite of what it sets out to do. Nobody can compose like Bach. Especially not a machine. You already knew that. But you can have a lot of fun along the way to finding it out.

. . .

Musicians and musicologists on Twitter had a lot of fun playing with the thing all day.

“Throw in a chromatic melody and pump up the tempo to 100 beats per minute and you get a reasonable facsimile of Hindemith,” wrote a user named ninedragonspot.

Daniel Tompkins again:

Google introduced thousands of people to Bach chorales and even let them try composing. Let’s not scare them all away.
All of Bach

The Netherlands Bach Society’s All of Bach project:

Every day, a team of people works with passion and devotion on everything you can discover on this website. It is a treasure trove of music, background information and interviews—freely accessible all over the world.

But the work is not finished yet. There are still many recordings to be made before the whole of Bach’s oeuvre is online.

The 100 Years Show

Speaking of Carmen Herrera, Alison Klayman’s documentary about the artist, The 100 Years Show, is available on Netflix and Vimeo On Demand.

Imperitively Forward

Michael J. Lewis, ”I Swear By Apollo” in The New Criterion (2016):

And so the Armory Show of 1913 presented the rise of Modern art in a sequential fashion that Winckelmann would have grasped. Rather than a single thread, it traced three distinct lines of development: a Realist lineage from Manet through Toulouse-Lautrec (the “force of life”), a Classical lineage from Ingres to Picasso (the “order of life”), and a Romantic lineage from Delacroix through Odilon Redon (the “sensuous delight of life.”) Such was the concept of Arthur B. Davies, the principal mind behind the show.

A generation later, Alfred Barr instituted something much like it in the initial layout of the Museum of Modern Art, whose stacked stories permitted these multiple lines to expand grandly as they rose through the building, twirling responsively around one another in the manner of a double helix. This was the literal realization of his famous 1935 diagram of the evolution of Cubism and Abstract Art, a diagram of stylistic evolution converted to an architectural floor plan. If that plan no longer showed the linear hierarchy of a Baroque enfilade, it still pushed imperatively forward through time to an ever-advancing present. So the Enlightenment understanding of stylistic evolution was adapted to underpin Modernism and its belief in historic inevitability; no Johann Winckelmann, no Clement Greenberg.

A Common Genealogy

Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, on “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” at the Metropolitan Museum:

Here’s a suggestion: reframe the undoubted greatness of Abstract Expressionism in terms of the risks of abject failure that its proponents ran. (I think of the oft-told anecdote of Pollock asking Lee Krasner, of a drip work that he had just made, “Is this a painting?”) The drama is not inherent in the forms that they created, which may or may not prove lastingly influential. All artists must rise or fall by braving perils and finding opportunities specific to themselves and to their own times, the canon be damned.
One Painting

M. H. Miller, “Jasper Johns, American Legend” in T: The New York Times Style Magazine:

“… he also recounted, admiringly, a story he’d heard about Jackson Pollock walking by a Mercedes-Benz showroom, pointing at a car and saying, “One painting.”
Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck

The Associated Press (via The Guardian):

An American professor has become the first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious international mathematics awards.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced in Oslo on Tuesday that Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck of the University of Texas at Austin was this year’s winner of the prize, seen by many as the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

. . .

The jury cited Keskulla Uhlenbeck’s “fundamental work in geometric analysis and gauge theory which has dramatically changed the mathematical landscape.”

Kara Walker at the Tate Modern

Lexi Manatakis for Dazed:

The 2019 Hyundai Commission for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has been announced as American artist Kara Walker. The artist is renowned for her study of social issues like race, gender, sexuality, and violence through a mixed media lens of sculptural installations, prints, shadow puppets, and drawings. Her most well-known works are black paper silhouettes that explore the history of slavery from America’s Antebellum South region. Walker’s site-specific commission for the Turbine Hall will run from 2 October 2019 to 5 April 2020.
‘What Is That?’

John Leland in the New York Times on photographer Gretchen Grace:

There’s that instant just before sundown when the light bathes everything like a “pink cloud,” she said. “It’s so fast, and you try to capture it and maybe you don’t. It’s so fast that it’s possible to think we didn’t really see that, or, How can that be real?

. . .

Ms. Grace shoots with a cellphone….

Couch, dresser, coffee table, chair, and lamp

Stephen A. Crockett Jr. for The Root

[Rep.] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not only new to Congress, she’s also new to buying furniture for her own place. So she decided to ask 3.52 million of her closest friends for a little help.
Margaret Hamilton

Alice George, “Margaret Hamilton Led the NASA Software Team That Landed Astronauts on the Moon,” at

On July 20, 1969, as the lunar module, Eagle, was approaching the moon’s surface, its computers began flashing warning messages. For a moment Mission Control faced a “go / no-go” decision, but with high confidence in the software developed by computer scientist Margaret Hamilton and her team, they told the astronauts to proceed.

. . .

Once everything looked good, the code was sent to a Raytheon factory, where mostly women—many of them former employees of New England textile mills—wove copper wires and magnetic cores into a long “rope” of wire. With coding written in ones and zeroes, the wire went through the tiny magnetic core when it represented a one, and it went around the core when it represented a zero. This ingenious process created a rope that carried software instructions. The women who did the work were known as LOL, Hamilton told Ceruzzi, not because they were funny; it was short for “little old ladies.” Hamilton was called “rope-mother.”

. . .

Hamilton’s work may not be widely known to those outside the scientific community, though her achievements have been memorialized with the 2017 introduction of a Lego Margaret Hamilton action figure, part of the Women of NASA collection. It portrays Hamilton as a small, big-haired, bespectacled hero whose Apollo code stacked up to be taller than she was.

A Darkened Sky

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology:

Over 29 days last spring, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity documented this 360-degree panorama from multiple images taken at what would become its final resting spot in Perseverance Valley. Located on the inner slope of the western rim of Endeavour Crater, Perseverance Valley is a system of shallow troughs descending eastward about the length of two football fields from the crest of Endeavour's rim to its floor.

. . .

The gallery includes the last images Opportunity obtained during its mission… and also the last piece of data the rover transmitted (a “noisy,” incomplete full-frame image of a darkened sky).

W. S. Merwin (1927-2019)

Margalit Fox in the New York Times:

Though the stylistic hallmarks of Mr. Merwin’s work changed appreciably over time, his abiding preoccupations — dissolution, absence, loss — remained nearly constant from the beginning.

This bewildered some early reviewers.

W. S. Merwin, “Language” (via

W. S. Merwin reads his poem “For the Anniversary of My Death”

The Merwin Conservancy


Dan Chiasson, in The New Yorker (2017), reviews “The Essential W. S. Merwin.”

W. S. Merwin, interviewed by Edward Hirsch in The Paris Review (1987).

W. S. Merwin, “Once Later” (via The New York Review of Books, 2015).

The Next Frontier

U.S. President Ronald Regan, from Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Jan 13, 1989:

Thanks to each wave of new arrivals to this land of opportunity, we're a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier. This quality is vital to our future as a nation. If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.

These remarks were quoted by Speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, at a Friends of Ireland Luncheon in Washington, D.C. on March 14, 2019.

A mighty woman with a torch

Emma Lazarus, “The New Collossus” (1883)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Pets and Wild Animals

Matthew Zapruder in the Paris Review

When James Tate died on July 8, 2015, at the age of seventy-one, he left behind more than twenty collections of poetry and prose, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, published right around the time of his death. Most of us assumed that this was his final book. But it turned out there were more poems, which have been assembled into a truly final volume, The Government Lake, to be published by Ecco in July of 2019.

. . .

Only someone with a great mind, who had devoted his whole life to poetry, could write so casually, while also conjuring such a quiet, wild, mysterious force, to the very end.

What Are the Chances?

Dan Piepenbring, in the Paris Review (2016), on James Tate’s last poem, found in his typewriter after his death and published as “Untitled.”

Michael Gielen (1927–2019)


The Austrian-German conductor [Michael Gielen], known for his championing of new music, has died in Mondsee, Austria. ...

After studying piano in Buenos Aires, where he also assisted Erich Kleiber, Karl Böhm and Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Teatro Colón, Gielen joined the Vienna State Opera as a répétiteur and conductor where he oversaw numerous new works. From 1960-65, he was a conductor at the Royal Swedish Opera, he then joined Netherlands Oper and Frankfurt Opera (1967-77). In Frankfurt he regularly collaborated with directors like Hans Neufels and Ruth Berghaus (including a Ring cycle).

As a symphonic conductor, he held posts with the Belgian National Orchestra (1969-73), Cincinnati SO (1980-86) and SWR Symphony Baden-Baden and Freiburg (1986-89). He also served as a Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1978-81). He retired from conducting 2014.

His service to contemporary music was immense and he championed works by György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Hans Werner Henze, Betsy Jolas, Isang Yun and Henri Pousseur, as well as earlier 20th-century masters.

Michael Gielen, A Conversation with Bruce Duffie (1996)

The Ernst von Siemens Music Prize-Winner Michael Gielen

The Michael Gielen Edition

Elliott Carter: Piano Concerto; Variations for Orchestra (Ursula Oppens, piano; The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Gielen)

UPDATE: David Allen's obituary in the New York Times

Calculus and God

Evelyn Lamb at (2018) on mathematician Maria Agnesi (1718-1799):

The witch of Agnesi, you may be disappointed to know, is a curve that math students generally learn about in calculus class. It doesn’t look much like a witch, or a hat or even a broomstick. It’s nothing more than a gentle, sloping curve.

If a modern math textbook says anything about the Agnesi for whom it is named, it will probably note that Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an 18th-century mathematician who became the first woman to write a major calculus textbook. It may also note that the name is a mistranslation of the Italian versiera, a term the mathematician Guido Grandi had coined based on the Latin for “turning curve,” which translator John Colson mistook for “avversiera,” which means she-devil – or, more succinctly, witch.

Sans Forgetica

RMIT University on their Sans Forgetica typeface:

When a piece of information is too easily and cleanly read, it can fail to engage our brains in the kind of deeper cognitive processing necessary for effective retention and recall.

Sans Forgetica is an attempt to address this somewhat ironic flaw of design. By disrupting the flow of individual letterforms, readers are subtly prompted to increase their focus on the text being communicated. Multiple tests undertaken by RMIT’s Behavioural Business Lab have confirmed that the effect of this is to increase memory retention of the text in question.

McClain, Koch, Lawrence, and Facciol

Shaiann Frazier for NBC News MACH:

Kicking off Women’s History Month, NASA announced Tuesday that its first-ever all-female spacewalk will take place later this month.

The March 29 spacewalk at the International Space Station will feature astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch, who will be aided on the ground by flight directors Mary Lawrence and Kristen Facciol at NASA's Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

McClain and Koch were both chosen from NASA’s 2013 astronaut candidate class, which had the second-highest number of applicants that the space agency has ever received. Of the eight candidates selected in 2013, half of them were women, representing a mix of scientists and military pilots.

Hypothesis and Dream

Elisa Gonzalez, inteviewing Louise Glück for Washington Square Review (2015):

Glück: Then I began to see what I hadn’t seen before.

Washington Square: Such as?

Glück: The same story told from multiple vantages, which I hadn’t seen was a factor. And then at the very end I was once again in a period of thwarted-ness because I had all these piles of pages and I’d begun to rather like some of it, but it clearly wasn’t a book. And Kathy Davis suggested that I reread Kafka’s short short stories. And I didn’t love them but that was good, that meant that I could use them. So I tried writing a prose poem.

Washington Square: And that was the first time you’ve done that?

Glück: Yes. And I thought, well this is probably complete garbage. I was having dinner that night with Frank Bidart, and before I threw it out, or put it in my folder, I thought, well, I’ll show it to Frank because I don’t mind being humiliated. With my close friends, I’ve been humiliated many times. So I showed it to him and he adored it. It’s not usual for us to have such a wide discrepancy of opinion.

Washington Square: Which poem was this?

Glück: “Theory of Memory.”

Louise Glück, “Theory of Memory” (from Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014), on The Writer’s Almanac.

Die Laufrichtung

Franz Kafka, “Kleine Fabel” (A Little Fable, ca. 1920):

„Ach“, sagte die Maus, „die Welt wird enger mit jedem Tag. Zuerst war sie so breit, daß ich Angst hatte, ich lief weiter und war glücklich, daß ich endlich rechts und links in der Ferne Mauern sah, aber diese langen Mauern eilen so schnell aufeinander zu, daß ich schon im letzten Zimmer bin, und dort im Winkel steht die Falle, in die ich laufe.“ – „Du mußt nur die Laufrichtung ändern“, sagte die Katze und fraß sie.

“Alas”, said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last room already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I am running into.” – “You need only change direction,” said the cat, and ate it.

This is the story David Foster Wallace spoke about in a 1998 speech at the PEN American Center, excerpts of which were reprinted in Harpers as “Laughing with Kafka.” (.pdf)


Gabriel García Márquez, interviewed by Peter H. Stone in The Paris Review (1981):

At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read “The Metamorphosis.” The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

. . .

I do find it harder to write now than before, both novels and journalism. When I worked for newspapers, I wasn’t very conscious of every word I wrote, whereas now I am. When I was working for El Espectador in Bogotá, I used to do at least three stories a week, two or three editorial notes every day, and I did movie reviews. Then at night, after everyone had gone home, I would stay behind writing my novels. I liked the noise of the Linotype machines, which sounded like rain. If they stopped, and I was left in silence, I wouldn’t be able to work. Now, the output is comparatively small. On a good working day, working from nine o’clock in the morning to two or three in the afternoon, the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five lines, which I usually tear up the next day.
The Woman playes to day, mistake me not

Georgianna Ziegler in The Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Shakespeare & Beyond” blog:

When Othello was performed on December 8, 1660, the audience saw something startling – a woman acting the role of Desdemona.
A Mode of Public Personality

Lucasta Miller in The Atlantic

L.E.L. – revealed by an early editor’s note to be “a lady yet in her teens” – presented an especially fascinating mystery: How could a young female adopt, with a precocious knowingness, the erotic pessimism of late Romantics such as Byron, on display in verses like these of 1823?
Twine not those red roses for me, –
Darker and sadder my wreath must be;
Mine is of flowers unkissed by the sun,
Flowers which died as the Spring begun.
The blighted leaf and the cankered stem
Are what should form my diadem.

A voice like this invited both heartfelt identification and prurient attention.

Public Utility

Tobais Haberkorn interviews Nick Srnicek, author of Platform Capitalism in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

What do you make of the recent attempts in regulating and controlling Facebooks on the political level?

I think there have been two broad responses so far. First, Facebook insisting that they can and will self-regulate. Their attempts to label fake news, or their promises that AI will solve their problems, are examples of this trend. The problem with this approach is that their entire business model is reliant on advertisement. And advertisement in the internet economy is based upon surveillance. So Facebook has to monitor people, it has to collect data, and the more private data they can get, the better it is for their bottom line. Despite the best intentions of individual Facebook employees, the structural necessity is that they have to collect more and more data. And I don’t think self-regulation is going to be able to ever overcome that hurdle.

On the other hand, you increasingly have regulators (particularly in Europe) pressing for more stringent controls over Facebook.... Perhaps most problematically, a lot of the discussion assumes that Facebook – and other private platforms – should be making decisions about censorship and content and access. As you mentioned, platforms like Facebook are increasingly taking on public utility functions, and as such, they need to be governed by the public, not by a private company and its executives. This means entirely changing the governance structure of these platforms.

Pound, Cerf, and Auden

from Edward Mendelson, ”Auden on No-Platforming Pound” in The New York Review of Books:

Bennett Cerf (to Lewis Gannett):

Damn it, Lewis, this war is not over. The same ideology that caused it… is still too prevalent in the world. Every time you parade the work of a man who represents such ideas, especially while he still lives, you are in a sense glorifying him, and giving tacit approval to his point of view.

W. H. Auden (to Bennett Cerf, after Cerf's letter was published):

As you say, the war is not over. This incident is only one sign – there are others and far graver ones – that there was more truth than one would like to believe in Huey Long’s cynical observation that if fascism came to the United States it would be called Anti-fascism. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that you desire any such thing – but I think your very natural abhorrence of Pound’s conduct has led you to take the first step which, if not protested now, will be followed by others which would horrify you.
Nieuw Ensemble Comes to a Halt

Sad news from Amsterdam, where the Nieuw Ensemble has announced that it will disband at the end of 2019 due to a lack of funds. The group commissioned and premiered nearly 1,000 compositions by (among others) Richard Barrett, Gerald Barry, Gerard Brophy, Richard Carrick, Chen Qigang, Unsuk Chin, James Dillon, Franco Donatoni, Miranda Driessen, Gabriel Erkoreka, Milton Estévez, Guerrero Francisco, Chris Paul Harman, Johnathan Harvey, Wim Henderickx, Hui Tak Cheung, Otto Ketting, Tristan Keuris, Jo Kondo, Daniel W. Koontz, Lo Shih-Wei, Matthew Sergeant, Rodney Sharman, Rodolfo Valente, Xu Shuya, and Jay Alan Yim, as well as Elliott Carter’s Luimen (1997).

Founder and Artistic Director Joël Bons:

We are lucky to have experienced the most wonderful blossoming of ensemble-culture you can imagine. So we count our blessings: the NE has done a huge amount of stimulating projects, worked together with hundreds of composers of all ages and backgrounds, continuously premiered pieces especially written for us and gave concerts all over the world. We have realized almost all our dreams, it is time to move on.
Potentially Mobile

Genesis 3:20 (trans. Robert Alter):

And the human called his woman’s name Eve, for she was the mother of all that lives.

Robert Alter:

Like most of the explanations of names in Genesis, this is probably based on folk etymology or an imaginative playing with sound. The most searching explanation of these poetic etymologies in the Bible has been offered by Herbert Marks, who observes, “In a verisimilar narrative, naming establishes and fixes identity as something tautologically itself; etymology, by returning it to the trials of language, compromises it, complicates it, renders it potentially mobile.” In the Hebrew here, the phonetic similarity is between ḥawah, “Eve,” and the verbal root ḥayah, “to live.” It has been proposed that Eve’s name conceals very different origins, for it sounds suspiciously like the Aramaic word for “serpent.” Could she have been given the name by the contagious contiguity with her wily interlocutor, or, on the contrary, might there lurk behind the name a very different evaluation of the serpent as a creature associated with the origins of life?
JACK, Juilliard, and the Carter 3rd

The JACK Quartet was on hand for Melinda Wagner’s composition seminar at Juilliard on Feb 26, 2019 to play Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 3 (1971) for an audience that included three former members of the Juilliard String Quartet, for whom the piece was written and to whom it is dedicated. Violinist Earl Carlyss and violist Samuel Rhodes played the premiere at Alice Tully Hall in 1973, and cellist Joel Krosnick joined a year later. All three had close, decades-long relationships with Carter, recorded all five of his string quartets (some more than once), and performed them hundreds of times for audiences around the world.

The JACK Quartet – violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell – has been a gift to everyone who loves contemporary music and it is both appropriate and heartening that they have taken on the Carter quartets as core repertory. They will play all five at The Morgan Library on April 14th. Carter encourages some distance between the piece’s two duos and at Juilliard they were seated about twenty feet apart, which everyone seemed to agree made the counterpoint clearer. The piece has a somewhat paradoxical reputation as both the most fearsome and the most crowd-pleasing of the five. The JACK’s performance was confident, transparent, and expressive. They get this music and it shows.

The students had lots of good questions, but along with the opportunity to hear such a brilliant performance of such a brilliant piece, the workshop’s greatest pleasure was observing the bond that emerged between the two generations of quartet players. Hard to believe, but the JACK quartet is only at the beginning of their careers. (John Pickford Richards’s bio notes that he was “Called ‘wholesome-looking’ by the New York Times.”) But someday they will be the wise elders, marvelling at the next generation of impossibly young-seeming performers dedicated to scaling Carter’s heights. And one hopes they will look back on their accomplishment with amazement and delight, as Earl Carlyss did. “I can’t believe I played that piece,” he said.

UPDATE: JACK Quartet awarded Avery Fisher Career Grant (via The Strad).

Digital Humanities

The University of Nebraska – Lincoln's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities maintains free online archives devoted to Civil War Washington, Willa Cather, Walt Whitman, and the court battle against slavery in Washington D.C. between 1800 and 1862.

Willa Cather to Ferris Greenslet (Scarsdale, Aug/Sep, 1918):

It is a glorious party, but the silence of the cornfields will be almost welcome after so much of it. As Josephine says; "Les Sonat', les quatuores a deux heures le matin – c'n'est pas raisonable, vous-savez, mademoiselle!"

So this is why I won't have the pleasure of lunching with you in Boston.

After Sunday my address will be Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Fred, Ursula, and Lucy

In the past few months, Merkin Hall in New York City has hosted three birthday concerts for three remarkable musicians: cellist Fred Sherry, pianist Ursula Oppens, and soprano Lucy Shelton. All three have reached a certain age and to look back at their collective achievements is to be amazed and seriously inspired, but the celebrations were anything but maudlin.

Fred presided whimsically over “FredFest!” – a dazzling array of music and musicians brought together by Derek Bermel. Ursula played two world premieres – one by Tobias Picker, and one (with the Cassatt Quartet) by Laura Kaminsky. And Lucy ranged from Oliver Knussen to Harry Von Tiltzer, leading the performers in a kind of conga line through the audience to the strains of “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.”

Lucy, in both words and music, paid loving tribute to her mentor Jan DeGaetani, and Elliott Carter was a common thread through all three concerts. The celebrated musicians all dispensed with formality in kind and welcoming ways and warmly shared the stage with their younger colleagues, on whom the future of contemporary music increasingly depends.


David Lidov, in Is Language a Music? (2004):

The images that flit by in the corner of our eye are often subject to extravagant interpretation: a vague blip turns into a mouse running through the grass or maybe a golf ball. Auditory streaming is like that too. Intent on a conversation with one person and oblivious to the background noise, I suddenly whirl around when I hear somebody mention my favorite semiotic theory – it turns out to be a cake recipe, instead.
A literary curiosity

L. P. Elwell-Sutton in In Search of Omar Khayyam (2011) by Ali Dashti:

It is a literary curiosity of our time that Persian poetry, one of the richest poetic literatures in the world, is known to the West largely through the person of a single medieval writer who, in the opinion of some scholars, never wrote a line of poetry in his life.

Attributed to Omar Khayyam (trans. L. P. Elwell-Sutton):

This circle within which we come and go
Has neither origin nor final end
Will no one ever tell us truthfully
Whence we have come, or whither do we go?
motion that forces change

Jorie Graham, “Prayer” (2002) (via Poetry Foundation)

He says he doesn’t feel like working today

John Ashbery reads “My Erotic Double” (1979)

text (via Poetry Foundation)
audio (via PennSound: John Ashbery)

Numbers falling through numbers

Robert Hass, from “A Note On Numbers,” in A Little Book On Form (2017):

And then within a line, we might hear one or two or three, even four phrases, which also make rhythmic units, as the line usually makes a rhythmic unit.

Two phrase units:
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Three phrase units:
Is lust in action, and till action, lust

Four phrase units:
is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Five phrase units:
savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

And in this way the formal imagination is about numbers falling through numbers, as it is in music.
This here’s no story

Lynn Hunt in The New York Review of Books:

Long before René Magritte painted The Treachery of Images (1929), choosing the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” to draw attention to the act of painting and its curious relationship to representation, Diderot had titled one of his short stories “Ceci n’est pas un conte” (This is not a story). In it he introduces a fictional reader to interrupt the flow of the story and in this way draw attention to the necessary negotiation between author and reader.

Decades before Hegel, Diderot showed that the master-servant relationship is mutually constituted, which means that it incorporates within itself the means of its own destruction in favor of equality. Even while fighting for the power of reason, science, and knowledge, Diderot saw that these had their own inherent fragilities. If the human race is a cosmic accident, then what is the meaning of life? If our individual lives are predetermined by material circumstances, then what is the space for human freedom of action? Do reason, science, and knowledge ultimately tell us that we are not free after all? Diderot was never afraid to look into the abyss.

James Baldwin

from “Stranger in the Village” (1953):

I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world – which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white – owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us – very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will – that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality.

from “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” (1950):

Perhaps it now occurs to him that in this need to establish himself in relation to his past he is most American, that this depthless alienation from oneself and one’s people is, in sum, the American experience.

Both in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (1998), from the Library of America.