21 June 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.06.21

Summer Solstice Edition: The myth of classical music superiority; Brunette on Michael Haneke; the double membrane of mitochondria and chloroplasts; Homeland Security does the right thing (for once); Rubber Duckies



There is so much good stuff today that I could ignore Google Reader for the rest of the week and simply write about what has appeared since I got up this morning.  Some of these goodies merit separate posts, some will be gathered together in a post on cognitive neuroscience, and others in a post on the "future of publishing." Below are the miscellaneous items that don't fit in the other categories



Greg Sandow, at ArtsJournal, has a thoughtful post on "The myth of classical music superiority," which is linked to a longer sketch (what he calls a "riff") for a chapter in a book he is currently writing.  (I plan to talk elsewhere about Sandow's approach to writing "in public.")

His main point here is that classical music lovers of the sort who claim (usually noisily) that classical music is superior to other kinds of music very often know nothing or next to nothing about those other kinds. (This is certainly true of a very large fraction of the musicologists I've known in my life, regardless of their specialty.)

Some quotes from Sandow:
And it's not just that attempts to make this argument are in inherently highly suspect, for all kinds of reasons (as I explain in the riff -- if you make the right assumptions, you can prove that any kind of music is superior). It's also that the people who most prominently make the argument know so little about other kinds of music that their attempts fall dead, with quite a loud splat. Which then raises all kinds of fascinating questions. Here we have intelligent and cultured people neglecting to inform themselves about subjects they in some cases write entire books about. What kind of deep distress leads them to do such a thing?

[...]

But inside the classical music world, the myth isn't dead. There we encounter -- often enough, right in this blog, in the comments -- many people who think, often angrily, that classical music really is superior. Which often then leads them to angry denunciations, not just of pop music, but of all popular culture.

Which then puts classical music in a very bad position. Are we now to go out in the world, and find a new audience by telling people that the music they currently listen to is crap? That's plainly not going to work. Are we going to tell people that their lives are incomplete, their emotional development is stunted, their thinking is shallow, all because they listen to pop music instead of classical?

That won't work, either. 
[...]

There are two books published in recent years, about the value of the classical music - Lawrence Kramer's Why Classical Music Still Matters and Julian Johnson's Who Needs Classical Music? As you'll see when you get the second part of this riff, both these books suffer from the problems I've just outlined. As does a classic of the genre, Roger Scruton's The Aesthetics of Music. Which shows, I think, how deep-seated many of these problems are, and why I need to spend some time refuting the myth.

Since climbing out from under the steaming heap of musicology under which I was buried for so many years, I've come to feel increasingly that the "establishment" of the classical music world is deeply negative and exclusionary in ways that are so taken for granted that they are barely noticed.  It is certainly the case that much conservatory training is profoundly negative: conservatories exist, in a non-trivial sense, in order to exclude those who aren't "talented" (a tremendously loaded word in that world, and one that plays much less of a role in the rest of the musics of the world).

Out in the real world, though, there is great hunger for the beauty of much classical music. It moves me deeply to see a piece like the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata bring tears to the eyes of one of my students who is in his 70s, and is discovering this music for the first time.

I've downloaded Sandow's "riff," and may report on it after I read it.



At 3quarksdaily, I recommend Colin Marshall's fascinating interview with the recently deceased film scholar Peter Brunette on the films of Austrian director Michael Haneke (see also the more detailed biography in German Wikipedia here). I first came into contact with Haneke's films at the Haneke retrospective in Boston in October 2007. I have (so far) seen only three of his works:  the original German version of what is perhaps his most famous (or notorious) film, Funny Games (1997); the French-language Caché (2005); and his television film "Die Rebellion" (1992), based on Joseph Roth's novella. Haneke's many television films remain nearly unknown in the U.S., but I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see "Die Rebellion" on a big screen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Like Brunette, I found Funny Games a weaker film. Brunette's suggests, quite plausibly, I think, that Haneke's attempt in that film to undercut the audience's expectations about violence and happy endings, and to make them face their own complicity in the depiction of violence, can perhaps best be understood in the context of the widespread post-War denialism among Austrians of their own complicity in the Nazi regime. I found Funny Games rather preachy, obvious, and irritating.  On the other hand, I experienced Austrian denialism all too acutely when living there through the tail end of the Waldheim years and during the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss in 1988. That denialism was very deeply entrenched; much of Austria was suffocated in the swaddling of feigned Gemütlichkeit and the pose of victimhood, and one can sympathize with a director wanting to shock or even cause revulsion or anger among his audience. Perhaps Haneke is similar to Thomas Bernhard in this regard?

"Die Rebellion" I found a beautiful, if sad film—and thus, to me, a perfect filmic reflection of Joseph Roth, whose writing is both beautiful and sad. It is worth learning German just to be able to read Roth in the original.



Larry Moran at Sandwalk has a good short post on the origin of the double membrane in mitochondria and chloroplasts. As is now pretty much universally accepted, mitochondria (crucial for cell respiration) and chloroplasts (the sites of photosynthesis in plant cells) are descended from bacteria that became endosymbionts with the larger cells that came to make up multicellular creatures. This is why mitochondria have their own DNA, separate from the DNA in the nuclei of our cells. Moran points out that the explanation that one often encounters of why mitochondria and chloroplasts have double membranes is a myth. (And indeed, he's right: the myth as he outlines it is what I was taught in Evolutionary Biology just two years ago.)  In fact, Moran says, mitochondria and chloroplasts descend from ancestral gram negative bacteria that also had double membranes.

And now the executive summary for those of you whose eyes glazed over at the word "mitochondria" in the first sentence:

We have the descendants of ancient bacteria living in every cell of our bodies!

If that thought keeps you up at night, don't call me.  Call Larry Moran.  Or Lynn Margulis.



The Boston Globe reports that Eric Balderas, the Harvard student who was detained as an undocumented alien a couple of weeks ago, will not be immediately deported, thanks in part to the intervention of Illinois senator Richard Durbin.



The Financial Post has awarded its "Rubber Duckies," the Rubber Duck Awards for Junk Science, named (as they explain) "in honour of Rick Smith, president of Environmental Defence Canada and co-author of a remarkable piece of junk science literature, the 2009 Slow Death by Rubber Duck."  Given the source, I suspect that some of these are driven more by political agendas than by dispassionate scientific criticism (there's a definite whiff of climate change skepticism here), but worth looking at regardless.

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