Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Honor and Responsibility

It never stops amazing me how this country regards honor and honesty. What a stark contrast our system is to the Far East. When a company here is heading for bankruptcy the CEO and chief executives quickly cash in, give themselves huge bonuses and then let ordinary investors and the company’s workers suffer. Only occasionally are they made responsible when the fraud is too obvious and would backfire politically, such as in the case of Enron. Even in that sad saga there was a movement to protect Kenneth Lay’s criminally amassed fortune after his death, so that his heirs wouldn’t suffer. The Bible talks about people being punished to the third and fourth generation for someone’s grave sins, but our fundamentalists seem to have forgotten that part, although in other issues they seem to take the book at face value.

Japan presents a completely opposite philosophy and way of life. Honor is to be preserved at any cost, even if it means committing a hara-kiri (seppuku), a ritual painful suicide by disembowelment. When Japan’s real estate values collapsed in the 1990s, together with the stock market, many people no longer could afford the high mortgages they had taken during what seemed like an unstoppable economic rise. Rather than following what our country would have done in that situation, Japanese banks realized that foreclosures would have meant shame and loss of face to the borrower and decided, at least in many cases, to absorb the loss.

Here it is customary never to take blame for failure. Whether a company, an arts organization or just an individual, we seem to have a need for finger pointing and finding a scapegoat. Just think of the disastrous handling of hurricane Katrina’s aftermath: nobody admitted to be at fault and the head of FEMA, who was forced to resign following a public outcry, was soon given another important position. In China where toxic chemical, benzene, accidentally was spilled into a river near Harbin and millions of people went without water for many days, the official whose responsibility was to oversee environmental issues ended up taking his own life, in spite of the government wanting to blame the country’s biggest oil company for the accident. Honor is highly respected in that country, too, in spite of the communist system which usually breeds corruption, and one of the most severe punishments, short of a long prison sentence or death penalty, is a public admission of wrongdoing and thus casting shame on the individual.

Wouldn’t it be great if the president took the responsibility of all the mayhem following the invasion of Iraq, even though it is obvious the plans were concocted by others in his administration? We rightfully accuse Hitler of WWII and the Holocaust, and yet his role was probably to be a figurehead and get people into a frenzy with his oratory skills. He wouldn’t have been intelligent enough to have developed a detailed plan to systematically murder millions of Jews and other unwanted in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Stalin, on the other hand, distrusted even his closest people, and the mass murders in the Soviet Union were his planning, although with the help of other shameless madmen. Same is probably true with Mao in China, who of all the dictators had the most countrymen killed. How would we view Hitler today if England and the Soviet Union had to surrender and Nazi Germany would have emerged victorious? After all, our country had a strange love affair with him; a lot of people admired him as modern day Ceasar, as evident on the New York Times’ coverage of the opening of the Berlin Olympics. A wave of anti-Semitism had spread over the U.S. and very few would have had the courage to have brought up the fate of Europe’s Jews. We only joined the war after the Japanese bombed our naval base in Pearl Harbor, and Germany declared war against us four days later. In France, which was divided into the Occupied Territory and Vichy France, we had rushed to send an ambassador to the latter, thus seemingly giving our blessing to Germany’s actions.

Closer to home, many arts organizations here are presently fighting for their lives, with increased expenses and decreased audiences. Multi-million dollar deficits are more the norm than an exception. Of course, the people in charge have to take responsibility, which most do honorably, resigning and giving others a chance to improve matters. However, there are cases where a person holds on, in spite of pleas and clear handwriting on the wall. These are the art world’s 'little hitlers' who insist on staying in power even when their world is collapsing. After all, Berlin was but a pile of rubble before the Führer and his mistress ended their lives in a bunker.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

In A Heartbeat

Sensing rhythm and counting properly are one of the cornerstones of music. Like intonation, it comes naturally to some but takes a lot of training for others. Luckily for want-to-be-musicians it can be learned, often with less effort than other areas of basic musicianship, and later, artistry.

One’s cultural background, and sometimes genetic, plays a role. In my view, the people with the best sense of rhythm in their blood are of African origin or descent. Complicated drumming patterns have been the most important way of communicating beyond language barriers (tribes living in close proximity may often speak in an unrelated tongue) and to share joys of life with dance. A close second are Latin Americans with their incredibly seductive rhythm-based music. Often here the roots may point to Africa as well: a great portion of Cubans and Brazilians are descendants of slaves from that continent. At the opposite end there are cultures where traditional music has been less based on pulse and more on improvisational, often ornamental singing and playing. Much of Asia, for instance, has been of this type, including the Middle East. Great cantorial singing of the Eastern European Jews, for instance, has very little space for a drum beat. That culture borrowed heavily from others, such as the Gypsies, to come up with such music as klezmer, which we associate with the former.

Before the invention of the torture device called metronome, musicians had to rely completely on their inner pulse, which today fewer people seem to possess. All of us have it built in: our heartbeat. Listening to it is another story. Interestingly, after the metronome was introduced, Quantz came up with rules for basic tempo markings. With one or two exceptions, they all had a relationship to 80 beats to a minute, which would have been a normal heartbeat especially at the time before present-day medical care, as most people had some kind of a health issue which would have increased their pulse rate somewhat. Beethoven was the first major composer to use metronome markings, sometimes with results that have given grey hairs to musicians and musicologists alike. Perhaps the fact, that he was becoming deaf and mainly heard the music in his head, accounts for some of the oddly fast markings. Also, in his correspondence Beethoven contradicts himself in this area. The metronome, like an accurate clock, is an instrument for the devil, and later composers started relying on it too much, often in the case of contemporary music to cover up musical inadequacies by writing unnaturally complicated rhythmical patterns. In many ways, music was better off before this device, as mankind was before becoming dependent on accurate watches. Even I was hooked on the latter for years, although its purpose was to track time mainly to prevent a greedy employer from mistreating his employees. Today I don't look at the clock often enough when teaching.

The metronome is a useful device when used in moderation. If one lacks a natural sense of pulse, it can guide a player to learn proper note lengths and hopefully become aware of different rhythms. However, just like a person’s heartbeat, music’s pulse varies often from one moment to another. This is what makes music feel alive, natural and separates it from mechanical, machine-like attempts that one unfortunately hears more and more these days. Teaching a youngster to play correctly is strange: in most cases I have to advise them to practice with the help of a metronome, yet the time comes when I have to tell them to forget all that and start listening to and relying on their inner pulse. That is when they start the complex path of artistry which has little space for mechanical reproduction or imitation of any kind.

It is interesting to listen to performances of great instrumentalists: on the surface everything seems to be perfectly in tempo, yet if one tries to find a metronome marking it simply is impossible. Tempo may vary from measure to measure, yet the playing is so convincing everything makes perfect sense. Secondly, our musical notation leaves a lot to be desired and is an approximation at best. How could one possibly indicate the way a basic dance like a waltz should be interpreted? Fritz Kreisler probably possessed better rhythm than any other instrumentalist, yet nothing in his playing matched exactly the printed page. Furthermore, there are numerous recordings he made of the same little pieces, some his own, some transcriptions, and the interpretation is completely different each time. And Kreisler hardly is alone, just a prime example of an incredible soloist and composer in the same person. How we must pity a musician or a conductor who is trapped in the literal translation of the notated music. Such a person may have good sense of basic metronome-like pulse, but he would be better off being a drummer for a military band than pretending to be an artist, although a drum machine would do a better job and for a lot less money.

More on different areas of the complex art form of performing music will follow here on a later date.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

End-of-Summer Reading

This is a good time of the year to do some reading before the season starts in full swing with school and other activities. Yesterday morning I was up early and picked up a book called ‘The Death of Common Sense’, by Philip Howard, and finished it while waiting for the family to wake up. Subtitled ‘How Law is Suffocating America it gives ample examples of how good and noble ideas that were turned into laws became a ridiculous and even nightmarish waste of time and money, mainly because of greedy attorneys and people wanting to benefit from the system. Written a decade ago, it made the New York Times bestseller list. Naturally, my daughter Anna gave me a hard time about the views expressed and we had a lively but healthy debate as result.

By accident, while searching on the web, I came across an excellent article on trauma in the Middle East, and was pleasantly surprised that it was written by an old friend of mine, Gina Ross. A Sephardic Jew, she was born in Aleppo, Syria, and speaks Arabic among many other languages, and has an unusually well-balanced view of the area’s conflicts as seen from all sides. A charming and witty person who finished her school in Brazil in a French Lycée, she married a Canadian screen writer and moved to Los Angeles where she still resides. Her son and my second daughter used to go to the same Hebrew pre-school and we became close friends. In addition to being a gifted painter, Ms. Ross became a successful therapist and founded trauma healing organizations in both the U.S. and Israel. She has published a book, "Beyond the Trauma Vortex: the Role of the Media in Healing Fear, Terror and Violence", plus articles in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

Finally I’d like to recommend a thought provoking article published In These Times and written by my own daughter Silja Talvi, ‘Narcissists “R” Us?. Partially a book review of Christopher Lasch’s “Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations” but with plenty of personal research and content, the article brings to mind many self-important people whom one can picture looking in the mirror the first thing in the morning and saying “God is great, but so am I”. Out of curiosity I checked on publicity of several arts organizations and discovered a few mug shots of conductors representing an orchestra, but of no directors of an opera or a dance company, unless they are performers themselves. Perhaps a truly charismatic conductor can attract an audience with his photo (Michael Tilson-Thomas in San Francisco comes to mind), but orchestras often play better for visiting maestros, and after all it is the players who produce all the music, not the man with the baton. Opera companies like to show scenes from a production, as do ballet groups, or perhaps they display photos of their star soloists. We would feel it was absurd if a baseball or football team would feature its coach as the main attraction, as important a function as he serves. Surely there are narcissists leading those organizations, too, but enough common sense is alive in this case to keep them in the background where they belong.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Price of Friendship

Friendships come in many forms. Some people are proud of their large collection of friends, most of whom fall in the category of acquaintances, at least in my view. Some others have only a few people they'd call friends, but they tend to be lifelong and close ones. People in today's 'me-first' society tend to be rather selfish and choose to be friends with someone only if there is something to gain from the relationship. Most of us would rather talk than listen and observing 'friends' interact one often notices a lot of monologues, politely done in a sequence, but little else. I complain or brag first, then it is your turn. When something happens in life where the other person could use a real friend, it is all too easy to disappear and remove this individual from the list as he/she has outlived his/her usefulness and might become a burden or a liability instead. People going through a divorce or a major illness soon find out that most of their supposedly best pals are nowhere to be seen. A head of a non-profit organization might invite potential wealthy, usually elderly, people into their homes and lives, making these folks feel like like they are special. Of course, it is easy to fall into this trap, but this form of friendship comes with a steep price tag as hefty sums of money in the form of donations are expected in return. Perhaps the 'victims' realize they are being used but usually denial steps in and the cruel truth remains hidden.

Talking about buying friendships, there was an excellent Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, titled "The High Price of Friendship". Although the facts told in it are nothing new, it is a good refresher course about this country's 'coalition friends' and the enormous amounts of money we pay countries so that they'd officially be 'on our side' and send often minuscule number of soldiers to Iraq or Afghanistan. Little Estonia and Albania receive millions for their participation and have become our trusted friends and allies, even though the public opinion, in at least Estonia, is not as pro-invasion as we'd like to pretend. The article is worth reading; its questioning of the wisdom of paying for a coalition of friends that are there for the money alone. It is sad if America can only find sympathy and understanding by buying it, and a sign of what the rest of the world thinks of our values. Clearly the fact that a year after Katrina people's lives and the city of New Orleans itself are still in shambles is hard to understand. How can a country that can't take care of its own back yard tout itself as a model for other nations? Last week the Christian Science Monitor published an article, "Numbers show a second-rate US" , in which statistics from a Washington think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, show that the United States is near or at the bottom of industrialized countries in poverty, both among adults and children. My native Finland, on the contrary, has the lowest percentage of people living below poverty level, of any country. Perhaps that explains why it is difficult for me to appreciate the value system here. While freedom of speech is wonderful (unless someone influential doesn't like what you have to say and sends the police to your house), one should also have the freedom of education and guaranteed health care. And why is it that the country that parades itself as an example of freedom has locked up more people in prison than any other place, except for North Korea and perhaps China? We are also evidently very pro-life, yet we put to death more people than countries that are really low on our list of human rights.

Back to friendships: although many dear people to me have passed away, I still have others who have remained close since my childhood and youth. There is very little they can benefit from our relationship, other than knowledge that after all this time it feels good to care and love. They certainly wouldn't act like a longtime 'friend' of my wife's who accidentally bumped into her in a record store, turned white as a sheet and ran out like a dog with its tail between the legs, without uttering a word. There are people, and then there are people. One of my favorite shows, 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', has an episode where Larry David finally agrees to donate his kidney to Richard Lewis. The recipient is so grateful to his friend that he offers to do or give anything in return. Larry sees a golf club, a putter he likes, and asks to borrow it. Of course the friendship doesn't stretch that far and Richard refuses the request. In the show the once doomed friend feels great after his transplant and goes vacationing with pretty girls; the donor in turn gets very sick, dies but is returned back to the living. The series is outrageous but portrays people with their usually shallow relationships and chit-chat talk more truthfully than any other show, to the point that it is often painful to watch. If you haven't seen it, rent a season's worth or catch it on HBO: chances are you'll become a fan. Warning: it doesn't have a laugh track, so one needs to decide what is funny and what isn't.