Thursday, December 30, 2010

All's Heimers

We all start forgetting as we age. Many become victims of various forms of dementia. The scarlet letter"A" refers to the dreaded Alzheimer's disease these days although there are other causes for dementia, some of which are just signs of aging. I don't yet greet my image in the mirror but just this morning realized that I had forgotten to pay our real estate tax a month ago. As my mother and her younger brother both suffered from Alzheimer's, I know there is a genetic possibility that I'll suffer the same fate, but hopefully I have succumbed to another illness by then. And on my father's side people stayed unaffected for much longer.

One of dementia's first signs is disappearing short term memory. Often I feel like our society as a whole is becoming demented. We seem to have forgotten the reasons for the economic scandal which started the recession and our country's downhill slide just three years ago. Initially there was a lot of anger against the bankers' greed and resulting enormous financial compensations even when the financial institutions themselves had to be rescued with taxpayer money. This recent article on is one of the increasingly few attempts to show how much political clout Wall Street has, and how it managed to weather scary times and end up with bigger bonuses and profits than ever before.

Our government rushed to the rescue of the very rich, yet left the victims of the banks' greed, the homeowners with their mortgages, fend for themselves, in most cases unsuccessfully. Even I know several people who have lost their homes or are at default due to their inability, or sometimes reluctance, of paying for a loan that is far greater than the property is worth. Many of these people suffered a terrible blow when their jobs disappeared and with that their health insurances and pension investments. The way we count the number of unemployed gives a completely false, overly optimistic picture of destitute people. Even with the extended jobless benefits there are millions that don't show in the statistics. They haven't been able to find a new job, many of them in the 50+ year age group, and have given up hope. As I personally know, threatening to discontinue health coverage is used by companies and organizations as a way of blackmailing an employee to accept an illegal demotion. Few have the brains and means to fight back. America being the capitalist dream country, many people prefer to have their own business. When that doesn't survive, there is no public safety net.

As long as a person has employment and benefits, in our society he or she is not going to worry about his neighbor. With our short attention span and "me here now" focal point, most of us refuse to think that a disaster might strike us next. People don't want to pay for taxes that might benefit the unfortunate. But people get sick and lose their jobs, even those who eagerly have voted for tax cuts and against universal health care coverage. I hope they will remember their ideology when they are faced with hard times. Rising health care costs, together with the insane amount of money we spend on education, will quickly result in a bubble that inevitably leads to bursting. At this rate we are rapidly becoming another India with its super-rich and untouchables. Already our society shows increasing intolerance to different faiths and our caste system is alive and well. One of the principal reasons parents rush to make their offspring apply to the most prestigious colleges for undergraduate studies is hoping that they will meet a partner from an upper class. Basic education is pretty much the same in hundreds of colleges, both public and private, yet big money is spent in hopes of a successful U-Harmony dating service.

It strikes me as odd that this country of ours thinks of itself as perhaps the most Christian country on the planet. Our founding fathers decided in their wisdom to keep religion and state separate. Yet politicians today increasingly speak about bringing prayer and faith to public life. If we really thought along the teachings of our Judeo-Christian heritage, we would all be socialists and care about the well-being and safety of our brothers and sisters before our own. This hardly is the case: the Christ in which so many believe is actually the Antichrist. Our favorite preacher promises everyone wealth and new luxury cars if we pray for them. If 40% of people take the biblical story of Creation as a fact, what is the point of trying to teach them science or history in schools and colleges? Since my wife and youngest daughter played on two violas for the local Finnish Lutheran Church on Xmas morning, I was present there, too. The visiting pastor spoke about the first Christmas in her sermon and how the message of the birth of Jesus was first given to the poor untouchables of that time. She then went on to ask the rhetorical question of if the Messiah was born today, who would be informed first? Being a Finn, she obviously thinks differently of life's true values from most of us here. I thought her logic was perfect.

Back to dementia. After losing one's short term memory, sooner or later the patient forgets about present time altogether and starts living in the past. My father will turn 100 this coming summer unless he is taken from us before then. Living in a care facility he has become "institutionalized" and doesn't really follow today's events. His thoughts and dreams are most often back many decades when he was much younger. People long gone are still alive in his world which is a much simpler place from today. When an old person has little to look forward to, it is a blessing to be able to live in the past.

In our society we also like to pretend often that nothing has changed. A prime example is the world of fine arts. For instance, orchestra musicians have a hard time accepting the possibility that today's younger people may not find their trade as valuable as did the generation and two before. Of course classical music is still important, as are other art forms. Times have changed, however. Do we still have the need to spend an entire evening and small fortune to attend a concert when a better performance of the interesting composition is a few keystrokes or a compact disc away? A painting is easier to study on a large monitor screen than trekking to an art museum. How many of us would think of doing research today using nothing but a library as a resource? Who would be willing to give up the cell phone which many people seem to have practically glued to their ear? How many still take the time to write thoughtful personal letters and send them via snail mail? Even that qualifies as an art. People's writing skills have disappeared with texting and electronic messaging on social websites. Grammatic rules don't matter any longer for most: reading postings and emails is often painful. The younger generation prefers electronic shorthand and resulting short utterances to speaking; many don't even check their voice messages.

So, with the New Year, let us look at ourselves and our lives objectively and not allow any kind of dementia affect our thinking. Past is important, but it is history and we have to make sure the future will be tolerable for our children and grandchildren. Spend an afternoon at the library, unless it has been closed for lack of funds, and another one taking a walk in the nature. Just leave your cell phone and iPod at home. Enjoy life the way it was meant to be.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Perfect Sunday

This day couldn't have been better. I had no students until tonight due to rescheduling. Full moon can be seen through a thin cloud cover. Flakes of snow have been falling; not sticking to the ground yet as it is a couple degrees above freezing, but enough to change one's mood. Whereas cold rain can be depressing, the sight of fluffy snow is an upper. Today is also our daughter's first wedding anniversary and it brings me tremendous joy to know she's very happy. Online we saw pictures from Bellingham, an hour and half north from here, where our youngest is enjoying early winter scenery. An incredibly deep eighteen-year-old, she naturally goes through both highs and lows with her emotions, but in these pictures she radiates happiness among close friends at her college. At that age I could have written a manual about loneliness, having been sent to study in distant countries where I knew no one and barely spoke the language. I'm grateful that she hasn't had to go through the same. Quite the opposite: she is best friends with her roommate, and from her dorm window she can see the building where her big sister works on campus. In spite of a five-year age difference, the siblings have the kind of loving closeness most families can only dream about. Those two are living proof that we have done well in what really matters in life.

I have often questioned the wisdom of having become a violinist. In my youth, it seemed like an exciting new field, an available option for the first time as a serious profession. Performing from early on in countless recitals and as a soloist with orchestra, I could never have pictured myself sitting in an orchestra for a career. Teaching was always fun and rewarding; an occasional job in an orchestra was interesting at best. After ending up back in this country I realized that life in music would never be the same as it had been. Playing in the Hollywood studios was strange, although decades ago there still were a number of great instrumentalists who were doing the same work as I in their retirement. Perhaps I should have remained in sunny California, although I really felt like an alien with the smoggy climate and millions of cars always on the move. At least the Pacific Northwest reminded me of home and it was a good place to raise a second family.

Fritz Kreisler with his terrier
Having the extra time this morning, I listened to old recordings of Fritz Kreisler. I always felt closeness to his playing and his compositions and arrangements. Piece after piece, or song after song as today's younger generation would say, the masterful artistry brought tears to my eyes and reminded me why I had chosen this path. This was music at its best: nothing Kreisler did followed exactly what he had written on the page. As I see it, string players in an orchestra may think of themselves as artists, but the job they are doing is often as mindless and emotionless as working at an assembly line. It leaves very little room for individuality. Initial excitement about a new job wears thin rapidly. Likewise, the person overseeing the conveyor belt is seldom an artist, but rather the workers' foreman. To me, present day's full-time professional orchestra represents a music factory where a product is manufactured in a hurry.

Dear old Fritz didn't care about dots and dashes. The length of an individual note varied from one performance or recording to another; a held note could well be shortened from two measures to a quarter and a rest taken. Yet everything was done to perfection. Not one measure was played mechanically or even together with the accompanying pianist or orchestra: meet you at the bar line was the name of the game. Every portamento and glissando had a purpose and was executed to perfection, as if adding little spice to a dish. What a far cry from a conductor screaming "more slides" to the poor violin section! The master's silken seductive tone and endlessly varying vibrato would melt even the most frozen of hearts. I finished the emotional session by listening to two interviews of Kreisler, one on his 80th birthdays, the other close to the end of his long life. The former is available through YouTube for everyone to enjoy, the other not. Kreisler's speech with its accent and intonation reminded me of Ben Rosen, a colorful sheet music dealer in Los Angeles, whom I had
written about in this blog quite a long time ago. In the later interview the maestro had trouble finding English words and often reverted to French or German.

This afternoon I am in love with music again, as if I had celebrated my golden wedding anniversary with the violin. I am as removed from the blasting orchestral music as I was in my youth. The life and art I miss probably doesn't exist any longer, at least in this society. The dwindling number of people still attending classical music concerts is not likely to ask for old-fashioned recital but expect fast and loud orchestral music, just as the moviegoers demand to see special effects and chase scenes, with a sound track ready to burst one's ear drums. Yet Casablanca and other great films from the past will survive in spite of being shot in somewhat grainy black and white, with a monaural, at times scratchy sound track, but with beautifully composed musical scores. They will outlive most movies made for the masses today. Likewise, I believe the good old times with music will return. It certainly would make more economic sense to support recitals and chamber music concerts than to sink millions after millions into mediocre orchestras.

Of course orchestra music needs to be performed, too, but since groups have grown in size, it is not economical for them to perform great masterworks that call for a classical or chamber orchestra only. Bigger is not better: a small but beautiful painting is often far more enjoyable than a gigantic canvas displayed in a museum, depicting a battle scene. A beautiful recital could be taken to people anywhere, even in a small town. In fact it is out of its element if presented in a mega-barn. Intimacy needs to return. We are entitled to our tasty hors d'œuvres and bonbons.

It is no wonder classical music is having a tough time today. Of all the beautiful music composed, only a tiny fraction can be heard in concerts. The most sublime works are heard only on recordings, some as old as the ones I listened to this morning. There is a whole world out there to be rediscovered. Put Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and the likes to rest for change. And cancel all world premieres unless the composer has something meaningful to say. A beautiful theme is a lot sweeter to listen to than crazed banging by the percussion.

Art that pleases one's senses – what a revolutionary idea.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Odd State Of Arts Affairs

About five months ago I wrote about auditions and promised to return to the topic at a later date. A lot has happened since that time: a one-time famous orchestra, the Detroit Symphony, is on strike and the National Ballet at the Kennedy Center has decided they can't afford an orchestra for this season, thus performing to recorded music. One seldom hears positive news. San Diego's orchestra is celebrating their centennial. For two years the group had ceased operating but got back on its feet with a much shorter season and reduced salaries, and of course, thanks to the largest donation ever made to an American orchestra in 2002, $120 million. At some point, a competitor to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Diego's present base salary is barely more than a third of its northern neighbor. Aside from Mr. & Mrs. Jacobs, the orchestra still hasn't been able to broaden its support base and depends on less than three thousand donors. However, for the time being the show goes merrily along.

Like some other orchestras, the Oregon Symphony has taken deep cuts but appears to be surviving. Unlike the musicians in Detroit and many other places, they are willing to face reality and don't claim they deserve something the organization's finances cannot support. I wish them continued success and brighter days ahead as they are worthy of a successful life. Portland is too far from other big cities for its music lovers to travel to a concert elsewhere. The only other option would be broadcasts in HD format streamed to a movie theater, something denizens of cities and towns without a decent orchestra might also welcome. As a former long-time student of mine just won a position in the Oregon Symphony, I would like to see her content in her new workplace.

Many ideas have surfaced regarding re-inventing classical music performances. Some seem like copies of my suggestions: the New Jersey Symphony has transformed itself into an ensemble on wheels and intends to serve the entire state. Granted, New Jersey is not very large in area, but the musicians will be on the move a lot nevertheless. During my days in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra every program was performed in numerous locations. One of our favorite venues was a suburb of San Diego, El Cajon. On paper it seemed crazy to travel two and half hours in one direction to play in a lesser known place, but that city had the most enthusiastic audience; the auditorium was the perfect size for a chamber orchestra. I can't remember a concert there that wasn't a delight to play and even the acoustics were pleasing.

There is a geographical limit beyond which people stay away. Or rather, a potential audience member is only willing to drive a certain amount of minutes to attend a performance. Thus arts organizations, which insist on performing only in their home auditoriums, can at best serve only a relatively small portion of our overall population. Even in New York City, many of the boroughs are simply too far for music lovers to make the commute, at least regularly. If the event is something spectacular, an exception will be made perhaps once a year, but then we are talking about something on a grand scale, such as the Three Tenors shows used to be. A symphony orchestra is not very interesting to look at, unless the players are young and eager. Often it seems like musicians don't really want to be there, playing the same old stuff with the same old boxer (no, not the dog) on the podium. I can visualize screens appearing in concert halls, with close-up video of players otherwise unseen, to add the element of a show to the concert. This of course already happens in major sports events and rock concerts. Unfortunately, music is best served when observed with ears, not eyes.

The present system or protocol of auditioning instrumentalists for a vacancy is rather bizarre. Orchestras have more or less agreed on which snippets of which compositions are to be heard. Ask for something else and candidates are ready to protest. After a mandatory 2-2½ minute introduction of a Mozart concerto a violinist is prepared to play a total of 10 to 15 minutes of orchestral excerpts. A typical example is the first page of Don Juan, a Richard Strauss war horse. Most violinists taking auditions know it by heart, as well as the opening of a certain Schumann symphony movement. However, these works are not programmed all that often and when they are, audiences expect to hear the complete work, not just a minute's worth.

Certainly an orchestral jury member will get some idea how a musician sounds from this material, but two contrasting Bach movements, a Paganini Caprice and segment of a major concerto, the exact spot given right then and there, would be a better indicator of an individual's musicality and technical ability. Every finalist should be made to play a quartet movement with orchestra members, of a work no longer widely available or newly composed for the occasion. As rehearsal time has become more and more in short supply, prima vista a.k.a. sight-reading should be the skill for which most points are given. A conductor used to have as many as twelve rehearsals for a program behind the Iron Curtain; we are lucky if four are allowed. If a candidate has perfect pitch and plays decently, hire him/her right away! I can count with the fingers in my two hands the people I've heard over the many decades who can actually read well. The opposite is more often the case: a person sounds good and the snippets have been learned and memorized to perfection, but the reading stinks. Yet orchestras perform certain repertoire, such as Pops programs, often with one or maximum two rehearsals. 

Drawing by Kari Suomalainen
Simple math will give an orchestra musician a minimum of 50 hours of different material to play in any given season, often quite a bit more. Those hours translate to 3,000 minutes. In four years that adds up to 12,000, and 15,000 in five. Every one of those minutes should be performed at the highest level, not just the required ten to fifteen, presented at an audition. So perhaps an orchestra hires a player based on how he/she manages 0.08% of the task. The first page of Don Juan isn't even the toughest spot of the work! I remember an in-house audition, nowadays forbidden in most groups, where the conductor gave a couple passages of a Bruckner symphony as sight reading. I was horrified and none of the individuals trying out, including a maestro's favorite, could play the material at all; yet it had been in the orchestra's concert repertoire the previous week. Truth is often ugly. Does it really matter that a few pre-selected passages are played well, when later, especially after having earned tenure, everything is faked?

If a person's appearance becomes an issue, with video close ups and possible broadcasts, we can say farewell to unbiased auditions. Odd-looking individuals won't have a chance and the eye-candy effect will become an increasingly important factor. In many cases, orchestra managements are reassessing the tenure clause in contracts. Ballet dancers cannot remain graceful forever, and no one expects to see a 250-lb upper middle-aged ballerina on stage. The dancers have to learn to do something else for a living; why not musicians who at present hold onto their positions until rigor mortis sets in?

Thinking forward, here are some New Rules to meet today's industry requirements: after a successful audition, offer winning candidates a trial period of 2 months. The qualified player might be seated next to the section leader for half that duration. A psychological evaluation should be mandatory, to prevent bullies and sociopaths from entering the workplace. This goes for the music director as well. Every four years, an audition, recital, or orchestral re-audition would determine renewal. Non-biased adjudicators must be selected from the outside, to prevent "friendship bonus points" from entering the decision making process. And finally, disruptive or back-stabbing behavior would be cause for immediate dismissal.

These rules probably sound harsh to musicians, yet they are in effect for professional sports; nobody questions them. Great team spirit is essential, as well as top individual performance. Every few days we read about a coach being fired and a new one hired. If there are issues with an orchestra, replace their music director and management. Like professional sports, orchestras and other such arts organizations are entertainment and people like to get their money's worth. Playing a solo, a recital or even a chamber music performance counts as art: blindly following the interpretive ideas of an egotistic conductor as a member of a 100-person orchestra doesn't.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sheets Decomposing

Zarzycki Mazourka cover
Publishing music is a strange business. Trying to get hold of sheet music of a lesser-known work is tricky. If the composition is no longer protected by copyright laws (which are different here and across the Atlantic), often the best bet is to find a PDF file online, either for free or as a benefit of belonging to a "club" that specializes in scanning out-of-print and other old material. I have often wondered why it is so easy to print a book on demand (much of the giant selection of is produced this way) and have it at one's doorstep in a couple of days, yet waiting for sheet music can take forever. Early last winter I decided to search for a copy of a French piece for solo violin which I had learned soon after its publication in 1950s. I placed five orders, two domestically from businesses which advertised the work being available through them, and three from European sources. In a couple weeks I got an email from a domestic distributor, saying the composition wasn't in stock but would arrive later. One European source refused to send the four-page work to America as the publisher had a representative here. I waited and waited. Another online store over there said the sonatina was "unavailable" but in three months a copy was sent to me from London. Then, a domestic source sent me the music five months later, on the same date when the first American store informed me that the work was "out-of-print." At the end, I was the proud owner of two brand-new copies, to replace the torn original.

The French used to print music on paper high in ground wood, similar to what you would find in your Daily, just a little thicker. Oversized, the sheets would soon appear as if they had been through a great war. At first musicians used "glue paper" to fortify the page edges and rebuild corners to facilitate page turns. Later plastic tape took over but it turned yellow in a couple of years, then fell off. Publishers in other countries weren't much better, and Russian editions were even worse than the French. The Soviet system couldn't care less about copyright law and as a large number of my countrymen visited Leningrad and Moscow, a lot of "illegal" sheet music of Western composers ended up back home for almost nothing. A tourist didn't have a great selection of merchandise to choose from: sheet music and LP recordings were very popular in addition to the one liter bottle of vodka the Finnish customs would allow.

Groundwood-based paper had an advantage to more expensive pulp product where the fibers are separated chemically, the stuff in finer books and magazines. The old stuff bends more easily and even large books of music are easy to open. We have among others a collection of all the popular concertos from early 1900s  as one publication. Even the thick piano part opens up without an effort. Compare that to today's Fritz Kreisler Favorites album which won't stay open no matter what magic tricks one performs. Ivan Galamian used to get mad at me, as he insisted that I played his version of the Kreutzer Etudes: during the lesson the book wouldn't stay open. Not that I had spent too much time on the material, but it was somewhat embarrassing to have the music close itself after a few measures. He might have been hard of hearing but this was a dead giveaway. I still blame the high-quality paper…

The old scans often include images of the back cover(s) with advertisements of what the publishers thought to be important works at the time. It comes as no surprise that we have never heard of nine out of ten composers listed. Age isn't kind to composers, or authors of books for that matter. Getting a publisher never guaranteed lasting fame or success. Yet those works were widely performed at one time, which is evident from old concert programs. A composer's own favorite work didn't often match public opinion. Max Bruch was convinced that his second violin concerto was his best composition. He eventually refused to see any violinists who wanted to play for him, as they all wanted his input on the ever-popular G-minor first one. Heifetz was one of the few champions of the second concerto: perhaps his recording of it discouraged others from playing it and becoming a staple. He "ruined" the Conus and Glazounov concertos, not to mention many by lesser-known composers, by recording them so superbly. I was surprised to find a PDF file of Bruch's third violin concerto as it doesn't appear on any list. I played through it and it isn't the composer's best effort, although decent enough to deserve an occasional performance. There are a lot of treasures among the scans of long-forgotten works. A student of mine recently performed a beautiful Prayer by Henry Hadley, who had been a conductor of the local orchestra long ago. The young lady's father had discovered the old print somewhere.

An email from an online sheet music store (the physical ones have just about all disappeared) recently presented a question: What Exactly IS Urtext? Needless to say, they were having a sale on Henle Urtext Editions. The explanation they gave was somewhat vague as that title is used as a marketing gimmick, as a sign of something "better" than normal. As our library has numerous Urtext versions of the J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas, plus quite a bit of other such material, I am somewhat skeptical of these editions. Composers have always made mistakes when writing their manuscripts in ink and even many printed first versions have obvious errors in them. The wonderful short Sonata Op.1 by Karen Khachaturian has a missing accidental in the violin part in the beautiful slow movement. As much of the material is written as a canon, the piano first plays the correct version and the violinist should notice the mistake immediately. The recording by Heifetz hurts one's ears as he plays what the print says. No one had the courage to tell him he was wrong.

A slur for a string player means two different things: a bowing or a phrasing. To everyone else it is always the latter. Unless the composer was an accomplished violinist, a work cannot usually be played as indicated. We know that Bach played the violin among other instruments, but primarily he was an organist. Obviously no one takes the long slurs in Wagner or Richard Strauss as indications of bowings, although I have known a conductor who thought otherwise. Galamian published the first modern Bach edition where all dynamics are as Bach wrote them (a few echo effects) and any guidance or help to possible phrasing are left out. However, he offers us fingerings, and the slurs are not consistent with the manuscript. There is a messy copy of Bach's original at the end of the book but that is of little benefit, just more of a curiosity item. I much prefer Joachim-Moser or Flesch editions as underneath the edited version, a clear printed copy of Bach's markings is shown. A violinist can easily base his/her interpretation on the lower line but at the same time see what one of these old master fiddlers was thinking and why they made the changes they did. Starting with an unmarked edition of Bach with permanently discourage all but the brightest students, or make the teacher work overtime with his pencil.

To me any edition without fingerings or bowings would be a blessing. The more famous a violinist the editor was, the stranger the markings usually are. Most of them had been spoon-fed the works as children and they seldom gave any thought to why they used a certain fingering or bowing. Yes, David Oistrakh played a beautiful Beethoven concerto, yet his markings in that composition, and many others, are odd and defy logic. Zino Francescatti was a fabulous virtuoso and outplayed everyone else in much of the repertoire, yet he decided to alter compositions and many of his fingerings are without real purpose, other than perhaps enabling him to exhibit his incredible vibrato and "fat" sound. Fritz Kreisler was famous for never playing the markings which he published. If you examine the music carefully, you'll notice that the fourth finger indication is almost absent. He wanted to sell a lot of his compositions and arrangements, and knew that most of the potential customers had weak pinkies. Some of the more useful editions are by violinists who never made it big, or weren't child prodigies, and thus had to be more analytical.

What we need is an store for music, with print-on-demand and an option for no-frills editions without any edits. Better yet, have all the music available on touch screen display, allowing markings to be inserted and stored for printing or viewing with a similar device. This would be truly an orchestra librarian's  or a pedagogue's dream!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Swiss Army Knives

About ten days ago I was busy repairing a watch and grabbed a rather large Swiss Army knife, to use one of its sharp blades. Sure enough the unthinkable happened and I almost lost my left thumb. Quickly applied pressure for twenty minutes or so reduced the bleeding but it took longer than that to wipe off all the blood from the table and floor. The left thumb is not very important when playing the violin; however I was happy to realize that no major nerve was damaged in spite of the deep cut. Although combining many features in one tool can be handy, it does none of its intended tasks well. Enclosed is a picture of a Wenger $1,400 monster with 87 implements and 141 functions. The Giant Knife weighs two pounds (almost a kilogram), so I don't think it would make a useful addition to my tool and knife collection. Victorinox and Wenger are the two manufacturers of Swiss Army knives. After competing for a hundred years, the former bought the latter in 2005, promising to keep both brands alive.

We seem to be fascinated by products that perform multiple tasks. Today's cellular phones, especially smart phones, are a good example of this. Often it is necessary to read the manual before learning how to perform the primary function the phone: placing a call. If dialing is done with a slide-out  QWERTY keyboard, one needs a magnifying glass to see the numbers. Of course frequently called numbers can be turned into icons with a person's picture, but that is not an easy procedure for someone past 50. Countless times I've had to help people with muting the ringer or adjusting the volume. Naturally most manufacturers follow their own logic as to how this is done. Even turning the device on and off isn't always obvious.

Recently I read a study which claimed that today's younger people are shying away from actually talking to each other on the telephone. More often they prefer texting which forces the "conversation" to be short and the reply isn't usually immediate. Other option is to use a social network such as Facebook. A private message via that service has replaced emails for many. When electronic mail became common, advice for good etiquette was to keep messages short. Telegrams from your parents' era first became email, then instant messages and now texting. Instead of saying "you are so funny" or "I enjoy your sense of humor", a "lol" or a smiley will do. Most of us use a computer to access email and social networks but this all can be done with a smartphone. Again, it can and is done, but not with the same ease as with proper equipment. The phone has become today's Swiss knife, with more and more functions added in every new model. Finnish Nokia just introduced a 12 MP camera with the largest sensor in a phone. HD video has been taken for granted for some time.

Phones and other devices using Apple or Android systems do brisk business with small add-on programs or gadgets, taking a sizeable cut from paid purchases. These third party applications often leave a lot to be desired; also the same theme is repeated over and over again. How many HP12C emulators do we need? A stopwatch needs only one good design as its sole function is to measure time elapsed. Occasionally I use Nokia's Linux-based N800's tuner and metronome if nothing else is available and check the mail or the stock market on my 3rd Generation iPod Touch. Since I am blessed, or cursed, with perfect pitch and my inner pulse is almost as accurate as the electronic device for tempo, and I much prefer seeing text on a 25-inch screen than trying to make out words on the little device's less than four, none of this technology is any more essential than the corkscrew on the Swiss Army knife. I also have a collection of fine cameras and would use the one included in a phone only when a picture is important to have and there is no real camera at hand. It is impossible to attach a decent zoom lens to a slim phone body without the result looking like the knife pictured above. Yes, while killing time waiting at an airport, a little device might become handy to read the news, and in case the flight was delayed or canceled, finding alternate connections would help. I still wouldn't use the phone to purchase my tickets or make hotel reservations while planning a trip, although I admit having done that while on the road. Avatar, the popular film, looks amazingly vivid on my daughter's Samsung Vibrant's AMOLED screen, but four inches is still four inches and I have to keep the phone close to my face to enjoy the picture.

To a point a personal computer is also a Swiss knife of sorts, expected to perform all kinds of tasks, including music, photo and video editing. This has resulted in more and more complex operating systems. The first computers I had in early 1980s could not multi-task nor show graphics. Online services were few and they worked at snail's pace. Color wasn't available, neither was email as we know it. But the computers were also much simpler and crashed less often. Nobody expected to see what a document looked like until it came out of a noisy dot-matrix printer. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) didn't become a reality until few years later. Originally developed for XEROX, it was first adapted by Apple and later the PC camp. We early users didn't know what we were missing and yet the technology was exciting and life went on. It would be interesting to see today's youngsters stuck with an early computer: it would be a head-scratcher for sure.

But let's go back to the ever inflating operating systems: when I downloaded the upgrade to iPod Touch which made limited multitasking possible, the device became less reliable than before. Windows has always had its share of problems. I started with Version 2 which was useless in any practical sense. Much later Vista became an embarrassment to Microsoft and although Win 7 is a great improvement, I have never seen so many blue screens of death as in the two machines here that run it. While writing this a big chunk of text was lost to the blues: if I need to be certain that my text is safe, I either use an XP computer or a Linux one which almost never has issues on any kind. Her leaving for college any day now, I made sure my youngest got a nice MacBook Pro. Expensive, yes, but worth it for the lack of headaches.

A couple days ago, out came the SIM card from a fancy smartphone and went into a much simpler Nokia N96. Theoretically it provides the same benefits as its fancier cousins but it drains the battery much less and thus I don't have to recharge it every day. It has a two-way slide: one side for dedicated buttons for multimedia, the other for an old-fashioned dialing pad. I can still take 5 MP pictures if needed and browse the web. Texting isn't quite as convenient as with a full keyboard and the predictive mode only works for English. Minor annoyances: I can always send a regular email from a real computer or the iPod, using a portable MiFi hotspot.

Next time the real tools will come out instead of the Victorinox. The latter will be used for emergencies only. With the phones the jury is still out.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Musical Theater

Those readers who have followed this blog for a while may remember my initial excitement, or sense of curiosity, about the Berlin Philharmonic's decision to make their concerts available to all via the Internet. Behind this obviously were the high-definition broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera to movie theaters worldwide. Against many skeptical opinions they turned out to be a successful venture as far as audiences' interest was concerned, although I don't know if the financial picture has been equally rosy.

An orchestral experience is quite different from an opera with its scenery and acting, even if the latter has left a lot to be desired. A gigantic soprano hardly resembles a gazelle, after all. The French, who always have possessed an eye for beauty, solved this problem by inserting attractive ballet numbers in the midst of singing. So far an orchestra concert has been a rather boring affair visually. A listener can bring a pair of binoculars but normally sees a frumpy and grumpy looking group on stage. Without such optical aid, an eagle-like vision is not common with seniors who form a bulk of an audience.

With televised concerts people have seen more than enough close-ups of certain principal players and the good-looking section players who fill the role of eye-candy. I'm not sure if this benefits the music which can be most enjoyable even if unseen, the case with recordings and radio broadcasts. All the concerts of the Berlin group I observed made me all too aware of which musicians took playing seriously and which ones preferred to fake. Too many close-ups made it difficult to pay attention to the music itself. This is the difference between a book and a movie: the former is captivating and the reader admires the author's clever and skillful choice of words. The film may follow the book closely but we really walk away remembering the plot, visual effects and faces of the actors but little else. A so-so book may be a box-office success; a television show is likely to be a hit if the script is dumb. In music the best-selling violinist is André Rieu, based on his successful specials on television and shows on large stages à la the Three Tenors. These performances in turn are popular to a great degree thanks to the attractive young ladies in his orchestra. Is he the best fiddler around? Hardly, but he produces a heck of a show. Music itself becomes secondary again.

So, I lost interest in Berlin's broadcasts, at least as a season subscriber. But of course I wouldn't get a season ticket to hear any orchestra or opera, or watch every play a theater decides to offer. A ballet would interest me only occasionally. In Berlin's case I was also bothered by the rotation of principals. The orchestra never informed potential listeners who would be playing the flute or which one of the many concertmasters would be on stage. Take my word: they may all play adequately but naturally some are better than others. Seniority also enters into the picture, just like it does in education. Sometimes best classes are given by young and enthusiastic adjuncts, whereas lectures by burnt-out professors, anxiously awaiting their retirement, can be boring and dreaded by students.

It is no secret that these are trying economic times for many people, and the arts are certainly not immune to this. Actually the downward spiral for classical music has been occuring for a long time and is unrelated to economics. When recitals became unfashionable decades ago, it caused no big fuss. Who cared if a violinist or pianist worked his tail off and had just a handful of listeners in the audience? I remember a Finnish singer, who at some point was a Wagnerian soprano in demand at the Met, having had to cancel her voice recital in a town in her homeland because only four tickets had been sold in advance, and this was a long time ago. Now that big organizations, orchestras, opera and ballet companies and theaters are in trouble, the press and other media are reacting. Expenses have skyrocketed and incomes plummeted, a bad mix. Much of the blame lies on unsustainable contracts, diminished giving and above all, fancy new venues. The latter is not unique to the arts: today's New York Times has an article about huge public debt from sports stadiums that no longer exist. Here in Seattle, the Kingdome, at one time home for three professional sports teams, was demolished ten years ago but still has a debt burden of $83 million which has to be paid back in 2016.

Orchestras which are staying in their true and trusted auditoriums are generally much better off than their counterparts in new structures. Thus the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra have an advantage to, let's say, the Philadelphia Orchestra which has seen an audience dwindle with their move to the Kimmel Hall, although the new building was supposed to do the opposite. Other orchestras in a similar situation initially saw an increase in attendance but a decade later a "been-there-seen-that" attitude has taken hold, especially if the hall is acoustically inferior. Typically when a new concert hall opens, the media praises it to high heavens and the problems that should have been obvious, surface much later. This is not much different from a doomed marriage: couples can find no fault in each other in the beginning but later wonder if they had a screw loose when they decided to get hitched.

The Philadelphia group is in a financial pickle, although not in as deep doo-doo as Detroit. During Eugene Ormandy's long tenure their sound was legendary, which today seems humorous since they used to perform in an "inferior" Academy of Music for a whole century. Counting on this reputation they have decided to market themselves, in the style of the Met, in movie theaters across the country. This could be a gross miscalculation. They have to guarantee a minimum to the theaters which may or may not have a sizable number of people attending. If the model proves successful (the Berlin Philharmoniker is expanding the web series to theaters as well), other orchestras will no doubt follow. To an ordinary listener all decent orchestras sound pretty much the same and competition then would be won by the group with the most attractive musicians making the most appealing "moves" during close-ups. I think this all is a ploy to claim that the number of the groups' listeners has grown exponentially. This figure might be useful when raising funds but, in my humble opinion, will not produce a large increase in income. The worst result from Philadelphia's and Berlin's success would be a decrease in attending performances of a local orchestra and resulting slow and painful death.

I'll continue to listen to music at home. I don't have to see Heifetz live (it is far too late for that) to enjoy his amazing performances of such concertos as Conus and Glazounov. None of today's glamorous babes or handsome young dudes is able to approach that level of fiddling, although seeing them twenty times larger than life on a screen might do the trick for some. Too bad the mandatory world premiere is like a preview in the theater; at home I can listen to exactly what I want.

André Rieu in South Africa

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The key to education is in literacy. One cannot form any informed opinions without the skill of reading. And without reading the art of writing cannot exist.

Granted, we don't have to go very far back in history when even the mighty sovereign of the country needed to rely on outside help with documents of any kind. Especially writing was an art form and had to be done in fancy calligraphy, not an easy task. Generally speaking ordinary people did not read. Stories were passed on via oral tradition. With each memorization a word here or there was changed but it didn't really matter. The actors and actresses during Shakespeare's time had to be taught their lines through repetition, not so different from today's opera singers or, for that matter, most of young string players trained in the American Suzuki style. Music notation is another language, after all.

This method of memorizing one's part in a play meant that one had to actually relive the role during each performance. The role became the person and the person became the role, not necessarily a bad thing. If one forgot the exact wording, knowing the play intimately meant that the actor could substitute the line with something that could have been there in the first place.

That was then, today is now. We all go to school unless we live in a poor country where education is reserved for only chosen upper class members. A few countries, mainly sparsely populated Northern European ones, took pride in educating their children early on. Iceland with its tiny population and isolated existence is a fine example. Sagas based on Nordic heroes and, a little later, first inhabitants of the island were written some 800 years ago. As the Old Norse language changed very little over the centuries, it is said that today's schoolchildren can read the sagas with ease. In my home country, Finnish was considered a somewhat vulgar language for the lower class, and most writing was in Swedish, the official language of Sweden-Finland and spoken in the Finnish part by the "better" folks. Law books and other documents existed also in Latin. The first book in Finnish, based on western dialects as there was no "proper" form, was a translation of the New Testament by the Bishop Mikael Agricola, published in 1548. We are not as lucky as our Icelandic cousins, as although understanding that text is possible, it sounds and looks foreign with liberal use of alphabets not used in today's proper Finnish.

Statistics from 2007 show that 42 million Americans cannot read at all and another 50 million read at 4th grade level at best. 20% of graduating high school seniors is functionally illiterate at their graduation time. Illiteracy result is poverty and crime: majority of prison inmates do not know how to read. English may not be the easiest language to read as it is quite illogical with the way its spelling and pronunciation are related, but it is still written with the same easy-to-understand Latin alphabet as other European languages, other than those that use Cyrillic or Greek lettering. Finland's official literacy rate is 100% although with the large number of immigrants from places like Somalia the true number among adults may be somewhat lower. In America many prefer going to see the movie instead of reading the book it's based on. Back home it isn't an easy way out as all foreign films have subtitles and fluent reading is a must.

It is interesting how the Finns never pushed early reading. It is common that children don't read at all when they start school at the age of seven, yet by Christmas break most of them are fluent. I taught myself to read at three and also read music shortly thereafter. It was a shock to begin school and have the teacher start with alphabets, leading to simple syllables. By then, I had read our daily newspaper from Helsinki for at least a couple of years, and finished a sizeable amount of books. Some of those were quite thick; I loved encyclopedias and "How Things Work"-type of books, in addition to Moomin books and fairy tales. My first grade teacher was a dear and wonderful woman. During my first school day I had taken a pack of cards along and was playing solitaire outside during a recess. I could sense a certain worry or disappointment on my teacher's face. Perhaps she, as a religious person, connected cards to gambling and sinful lifestyle. After school I rushed to my mother's business and made her come with me to the local bookstore, in order to buy a small Bible. We found a beautiful one in powder blue and gold. The next day it was in my leather briefcase (I wouldn't use a backpack) and I showed it to the teacher, saying "I don't just have playing cards; I have this, too". I can still see her happy smile. Matilda Varama didn't believe in giving her students high grades: I got an equivalent to B- in both reading and music in my report card: to her it must have been like an A+.

Obviously the more one reads, the better the chances are that his/her writing is on a higher level. At times I make the error of reading comments and opinions which commonly follow an article online. The experience can be quite scary. Perhaps one in five is grammatically correct and without major spelling errors. Yes, as I wrote above, English is somewhat complicated. But how is it then that switching to a British site, most opinions are well written and thought out? Instead of blind rage, disagreements are just that, polite disagreements. Perhaps these sites sensor their content and don't publish the type of garbage so common on this side of the ocean. If so, the writer also knows that the rules and proper etiquette has to be followed in order to have his/her opinion read by others. Reluctantly I have to admit that foul comments and bad penmanship is all too common in today's Finland as well. I blame the culture of text messaging in part. People there are not likely to respond to an email, not to mention an actual letter on paper delivered via mail, but a short text will result in action. A former Prime Minister broke up with his girlfriend using texting: naturally she went public with it. Someone there wrote an entire book using his cellphone and such messages. I don't think such "progress" is good for a civilized society.

I intended to use this space to write about one of my pet peeves, the all-too-common musical illiteracy. However, it will have to wait for later as it warrants a long entry of its own.
My daughter Sarah at her favorite activity

Friday, August 20, 2010

Make It Fake

I grew up loving the masters of the Baroque music. J.S. Bach was my favorite, of course, but I also studied and performed everything else I could get my hands on. This was in the 1950s and -60s and naturally many works were edited to suit the times. It hadn't been all that long from an era when Baroque was supposed to sound bombastic. Orchestral Bach often meant a Stokowski transcription; everyone was familiar with Disney's Fantasia. The big church in my home town had large Romantic organ, tuned to a pre-war A=435. It was pneumatic which meant that the organist was able to see what was happening in the church but the system also created a delay. I performed there with my friend the organist countless times and it was always an interesting experience as he had to play ahead of me. In a sense I was the accompanist as I had no choice but to follow him. We had to rehearse a lot as sight-reading would have been totally out of question. Much of our repertoire was from the Baroque era, but in our recitals we also played Negro Spirituals and quite a bit of Hebraic music. 

Years passed and all of a sudden it became clear that I wouldn't be allowed to perform old music again, as I supposedly played it all wrong. I had a beautiful vibrato and saw no reason why I couldn't or shouldn't use it in these works, especially in the slower movements. But the experts, who were popping up all over like mushrooms in a forest, claimed it was an absolute no-no. Baroque music had to be played and performed in an authentic manner. Naturally these experts couldn't quite agree with each other what authentic was, other than using no vibrato and lowering the pitch. In principal, I had nothing against this "new" way of playing but most of the people attracted to this fad were quite awful, mediocre at best. It was as if instead of becoming violists, they had decided to follow this newly discovered style. After all, it didn't require a vibrato or nimble fingers; as much as possible was played in the first position.

All the fun pieces edited by David or Auer, from Vitali's Chaconne to Corelli's La Folia, were off-limits, at least in concerts where a critic might be present. I had already been vilified for playing concertos by such composers as Wieniawski and Glazounov. I remember one review where the writer said that it was a pity I was wasting my talent on "Kreisler concertos". Many of the Vivaldi works I had learned were editions by Hungarian violinist Tivadar Nachéz, very popular at the time. My main mentor in Bach's solo sonatas and partitas was Ricardo Odnoposoff, himself a Carl Flesch student. I was using his teacher's edition, but I was told not to follow the 1920s fingerings although most of the interpretive markings made sense. This book comes with the original version printed underneath each line, so it is easy to see instantly where Flesch differs from the manuscript and understand why.

How was it that after 250+ years we all of a sudden knew for certain how Baroque music was intended to be like, and a bit later, Classical works? Having used gut strings and no shoulder rest, mandatory requirements in the Heifetz class, I knew how different a violin sounded when its volume wasn't boosted to the maximum. I especially loved the sweetness of gut E-strings, although they would always snap if one played aggressively. Yet at the same time violinists from the Soviet Union were all the rage and I knew that they used nothing but all-steel strings, to produce a loud and piercing tone. Talk about a paradox! Many chamber orchestras suffered greatly from not being "allowed" to play anything from Baroque's treasure chest. Some symphony orchestras had Baroque and Classical series: they would often feature guest conductors who opposed vibrato. It was easier said than done. Especially Russian-trained violinists didn't know how to comply, and often a concert would sound ridiculous with half the people playing straight tone and the other half vibrating madly. 

All the research I did on the topic made me less than sure that these new discoveries had solid foundations. Although some pianists would use a fortepiano for older music, no famous virtuoso would switch the shiny black Steinway grand with a smaller and intimate sounding piano. Yet we knew that Chopin's favorite instrument was a French Pleyel, with only two strings for each treble key, and that was the timbre the composer-pianist had in mind when he wrote his Nocturnes and other great works for the piano. Orchestras had become increasingly large in size; woodwind and brass players simply didn't know how to play softly as normally they were expected to carry over a gigantic string section. How did we know what Bach would have preferred? His organ works certainly were loud; those poor men who were pumping air in the midst of the pipes must have gone deaf. But Bach didn't have the use of thirty-something violins, only a small fraction of them. Across the English Channel, at the same time, Händel certainly was fond of loudness and generally had access to better musicians than his fellow German on the continent. Joachim, who popularized Bach's solo works, didn't use vibrato in them but this was true with his entire repertoire. Pablo Casals resurrected the cello suites and he played them from his heart. Many experts snicker today at his interpretations but they bring tears to my eyes. Bach, unlike many other Baroque composers, did not write wallpaper music; I always felt he was a Romantic far ahead of his time.

We are almost anal in trying to replicate the sound and style of Baroque and Classical music, although even the best efforts are no closer to the truth than, let's say, a film describing the life of Louis XIV of France. We can build new instruments resembling old ones, the latter having been converted to modern needs. It is said that Stradivari would not recognize any of his instruments today, due to the differently angled longer necks, silver- and aluminum-wound strings, chin rests and most importantly, the shiny hard new varnish that makes the instruments glitter like they came from a furniture store. The new-old instruments equipped with gut strings most likely sound more like the ones from the great makers once did, but we really don't have much to compare them to. Tuning to a lower pitch seems to be mandatory although we know that the frequency of an A varied widely in both directions. We can be quite certain that vibrato was not used as frequently as today but it did exist, of course.

However, no one seems to pay attention to the only historic style we certainly know about, the early recordings. Violinists dismiss the artistry of Fritz Kreisler as "old-fashioned", even in his own compositions, simply stating that one can't play like that today. I look at it differently: "cannot" becomes "is not able". Developing a required skill to produce such exquisite tone and vibrato varying both in speed and width, not to mention shifting using glissandi unique to each performer, is all a lost art form. Kreisler was said to be the first one to use continuous vibrato. That probably was not the case as others such as Eugene Ysaÿe experimented with the style before him, the vibrato being faster and tighter, almost sewing-machine-like. Kreisler had other contemporaries who adopted his principles, starting with the great French Jaques Thibaud and Leopold Auer's first truly successful student Mischa Elman.

In other art forms we have a visual record, be it architecture, painting or literature. Part of an artist's training is (or was) studying the history of famous painters, their styles and technics very carefully. They were expected to know each master's special tricks and paint replicas of their canvases. I can remember going to art museums long time ago and see young people at work. Reproduction of paintings on paper did not do justice, so sitting in front of the actual artwork was required. Most authors of books are well versed in literature and composers have analyzed great masters' compositions carefully, or at least they should have. Performing musicians, on the other hand, often have little or no historical knowledge of the styles of the last 110 years, although much of it has been recorded and later transferred to digital form. Yes, in spite of all the filtering and magic the older recordings still hiss and pop and the high notes are almost impossible to hear. But the essence of the style and the very soul of musicianship are present underneath the surface noise.

Building a replica on a Roman villa will resemble the original in every detail. Yet most new buildings are truly modern as our demands for space have changed greatly. We have contemporary museums, yet the art in them is old. Nobody is demanding that such structures should look as old as the paintings. Granted, the Getty Villa is a gorgeous setting for it statues, but most art museums don't look like that. Yet we are aware that the building in Malibu is a fake, a rather modern copy.

Where do we stop with imitating the past? Do we dress up in period clothing, both performers and listeners? Do we not bathe for weeks before a concert and cover body odor with perfume? Powdered wigs are a given, again both with the artists and their audience. Candles would be lovely for illumination but what would the fire officials say? Should we allow violinists to gyrate furiously, as often seen, or do we stick to the proper behavior where only the hands move?

Yes, today I play Baroque differently from decades ago. Same is true with my Mozart and Beethoven.  I admire the true masters of the "authentic" style, even if it isn't genuine, as it presents new palette of colors and makes it possible to hear inner voices, so often covered under blaring "music for the deaf". Learning is a lifelong process. One doesn't have to agree with something in order to admire and appreciate it. I don't attempt to copy something I've heard: it is still my very own interpretation.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

End of an Era

Last weekend I suddenly felt my age as if I had moved from middle age to senior years. Reasons were simple to understand: our youngest, Sarah, was off to her Summer Start orientation at Western Washington University and I felt that my 40+ years of parenting was approaching its end. The other cause for feeling like I did was having filled and signed retirement forms. The monetary value of said benefit amounts to little more than pocket change. The Scandinavian and generally European pension system, luxurious compared to ours in monetary terms, was initially created because people had on average 5-10 years of "golden years" left. These days, of course, people live longer and it remains to be seen how long the benefits can stay at current levels. Take my father as an example: he left work at a mandatory retirement age of 65. In two years his pension had climbed to a higher amount than his salary had been and today he is enjoying his thirty-fifth year of ever increasing pension. Now that he needs permanent care, the system takes a set percentage of his net income; in other words he ends up paying more than someone with a lower earnings for the exact same care.

In my youth I knew many people who passed away soon after their mandatory retirement. Although people knew they would be taken care of, many felt utterly useless being forced away from their jobs, and as a result their health would deteriorate. This "broken heart" syndrome is an unfortunate byproduct of the European system. Many people, for example those in education, are in the middle of their most productive years. Some are able to continue their creativity: my father started writing and doing research more vigorously than before. A large history book was commissioned and he was paid handsomely for years, on top of his pension. My pianist in Finland was a professor in the Sibelius Academy with an excellent class. He, too, had to leave, but at least the employer was able to hire him as an hourly instructor. He would also travel within the country performing and giving master classes and private lessons. Feeling useful, he reached his 90s. Part of the logic behind the mandatory retirement is to provide young people with job opportunities.

A couple days ago the New York Times had a heartbreaking story of "99ers", people who have exhausted their now-extended unemployment benefits and who have nothing but despair to look forward to. Yesterday's editorial touched the topic of our Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan paying too much attention to laws of other countries. This seems to annoy many Republican hardliners. On one hand we are eager to promote the American system as an ideal one for other nations to follow, yet we don't want to allow others criticize faults in ours, no matter how educated and civilized the people are. Basic human rights should be universal and they include education for all and taking care of the sick and less fortunate. Americans cry "Socialism" whenever such ideas are discussed; they could as well blame "Christianity" as those principles are well established in that religion which majority of Americans claim to follow.

Understandably this "milestone" in my life affected my dreams and death was very much present in them. Waking up in the middle of the night I decided that I would try to outlive certain other people, to have their obituaries appear before mine. No tears would be shed and I know that we wouldn't end up in the same place, assuming afterlife exists. First thing in the morning I went to check my email, fearing that something had happened to my dad. Nothing alarming appeared in my inbox to my relief, but later during the day I saw a headline Local Conductor Killed in a Crash. For a split second Schadenfreude took over until I learned the identity of the previous night's victim. George Shangrow was one of this city's and state's most gifted musicians. His show on a local radio station, "Live by George", was so popular that many people tuned in just to hear him talk, not necessarily to listen to the music.

Then Seattle did what it excels in, getting rid of the top talent and promoting mediocrity instead. This has happened over and over again, in academia, arts and probably in many other fields. We build fancy temples for very average sports or arts groups and then we call these organizations "world class". Media's PR machinery does its best to elevate the not-so-gifted while destroying the lives of those truly deserving. Someone (no name here) decided that George was too popular and witty, and it was time to have him fired from the radio station. I remember him sitting by our dining table not long afterward, still feeling like lightning had struck him. He was worried about finances and told how he had visited his doctor (whom I knew well) to get medications to help him cope. He had told the doctor about his disastrous situation and was shocked when a bill came in the mail. I said "George, this is America: you can't expect anything for nothing" but he was too upset to comprehend this fact. Of course he had his Orchestra Seattle and other gigs, but his pride and the former feeling of certain security in life had been smashed for good.

George was an extraordinary multi-talented musician who was equally at ease in front of the microphone, at the keyboard of a harpsichord or piano or on the podium. Many years ago he was conducting a couple school concerts with a local orchestra. I had never seen kids so excited: he turned the concert into a funny, entertaining but informative show. Needless to say, he was never invited back to conduct (to my knowledge), although his incredible ability of reading a continuo line with the left and improvising with the right hand was acceptable to the same organization numerous times, as it would have been hard to find someone else locally. He was a true pro: my father, a critical music lover himself, was present at one of George's live broadcasts when one or both of us appeared as guests, and my dad didn't stop praising the host's incredible ease with the microphone. Rumors are that a local string player recently needed a dozen takes during a recording of a most standard work: George on the keyboard would have been perfect with just one.

After he was ousted we stopped listening to the classical station. Yesterday I was driving toward the Canadian border, to pick our little one up from her orientation in Bellingham. Normally I like to tune in to the station in B.C. transmitting in Quebecoise French but for some reason yesterday's conditions were not the best for listening. Scanning through the dial I realized that the same Seattle station which had turned George's life upside down was trying to cash in by repeatedly playing music he had recorded with his orchestra and chorus. Since his abrupt departure the station's popularity has gone downhill: I found it ironic that George was resurrected from the dead to help them. Of course there were many listeners who were grateful to hear his music making one more time, but I wish the circumstances had been different.

You will live on in our memories, George.

“Retirement” © Elliot Shoemaker
George Shangrow © John Cornicello

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Life Without Man?

A recent issue of Scientific American told us how early Homo sapiens almost became extinct long time ago, due to a very hostile climate. Only a small number of humans survived in the caves of Southern Africa, around Pinnacle Point on the coastline. We are supposedly all descendants of these few hundred early people, who managed by eating clams and other seafood, provided to them by an ocean rich in nutrients. They also dug up the bulbs of many plants that are unique to the region, getting their carbohydrates that way. On the SciAm website there is also an interactive feature shedding light to the research.

As we may be heading toward another period of intolerable climate change, it is a good time to wonder what would have happened if humans hadn’t survived. It is possible that another subspecies of Homo might have been better protected against the hot, arid climate or survived in the Arctic regions. Other apes or advanced monkeys might have developed an intelligence similar to ours, or life would have moved to the seas and oceans. There are plenty of animals with very complex brains living even at present, although we have done a remarkable job in destroying them to the point of near extinction. It is an interesting quality in the human nature to make sure that no other life form with advanced brains is allowed to succeed and multiply in peace. Only with a large pool of such animals would mutations favoring superior intelligence be allowed to happen.

Whales and dolphins possess large brains and are amazing in many ways. However, the largest animal of all, Balaenoptera musculus or the blue whale is so few in numbers that it is lucky if it can find a mate. Yes, its super-Wagnerian singing can carry truly long distances in water, but remembering how vast the oceans are, the calls often go unheard. Only the Japanese and some native people eat whale meat and we certainly do not depend on oil from whales which at some point might have been an important source for light and heat. These krill-eaters were once common in all the oceans. Today’s blue whale population, estimated between five and twelve thousand, is a small fraction of pre-whaling numbers of 200-300,000. Dolphins are seldom caught for food except in the Faroe Islands in Northern Atlantic and part of Japan. However, humans pose the greatest threat to them, partially because of fishing nets. We have all seen cans of tuna being advertised as dolphin-safe, yet the animals continue to die in high numbers. Being on top of the food chain as predators, these playful mammals also ingest unhealthy amounts of human-origin heavy metals.

Intelligence does not belong to mammals alone. Many species of octopus have more complicated brains than us humans. That is required to change their coloring to match that of the sea bottom in an instant. Their behavior is also remarkable: they are often very playful and even flirtatious with people studying them. One named Paul became a celebrity in a German aquarium during this summers World Cup in soccer as it correctly managed to pick Germany as the winner in all the games until the final round when it correctly chose Spain as the gold medalist. This, of course, was not a show of intelligence as the octopus didn’t watch the games, but many Germans felt it managed to jinx the final game and became very angry, wanting to grill it an a punishment. About ten years ago a new species was found in Indonesia: the two-foot long Mimic Octopus is not only able to change its color but also its shape in a split second, turning into the worst nightmare for the predator that sees a meal in it, resembling a sea snake or a poisonous fish or another very dangerous creature.

What animals do with their intelligence is different from us humans. But is our variety really the best kind? A gigantic blue whale doesn’t hurt anyone, yet is able to dive to great depths and back with one gulp of air and no dangerous bubbles in its blood stream. It is far too big to have any natural enemies (stories of orcas attacking it do exist) other than we the people. If a dolphin is able to entertain us with its circus tricks, there must thousands of complicated things it is capable of accomplishing which we are not aware of. Make a waterproof computer and teach an octopus what it can do and those eight tentacles just might go to work. In return it might teach us how to change our appearance, for instance automatically turning bright red when lying.

For many decades we have made one of our ancestors, the Neanderthal man, the butt of jokes for his alleged stupidity and looks. Hitler’s propaganda machine had its artists draw caricatures of Jewish people with features resembling the cave man. Those who suggested that the “modern” human and the Neanderthal co-existed and even interbred were ridiculed until very recently. Actually the “primitive” cousin had a very large brain and possessed many traits that made him succeed in the less than hospitable world of that day. The latest studies show that all of us have a small inheritance from that gene pool; we are all part Neanderthal, other than the native people of the African continent. Since the world’s greatest thinkers are not usually pure African, it must be assumed that the mixture wasn’t for the worse. At least this writer is proud of his “cave man” past.

Last weekend went to a beach in nearby Discovery Park with my wife and youngest daughter. We go to an area which is almost private as very few want to make a 45 minutes hike and climb 400 feet down and up. There we were enjoying the sunshine that has been in short supply here this summer. While the rest of Northern Hemisphere is suffering from the hottest summer in recorded history, Seattle has been unusually cool. Back in my native Finland today an all-time new record of 99°F (37.2°C) was reached; here it is the afternoon but we are barely at 56°F (13°C). Anyway, that day was heavenly and we enjoyed the beautiful combination of nature, water and sun. It made me realize that even if the human race would not have survived, the place would look exactly the same, other than all the boats and ships of varying sizes in the distance or the nearby lighthouse. Yes, life would have gone on without us. Another species might have become a dominating one, or probably there would have been a nice balance which we have done our best to upset. The world’s problems would be quite different. There would be plenty of cruelty among the animals but no one can be as cruel as a human. A wolf will attack a deer, usually in a pack, but the death is swift and the victim will help the predators to survive. Often the killed would be the old or sick and thus they were saved from unnecessary suffering. No beast will make plans to make another one’s life miserable and there are no Bernie Madoffs among the bears.

Nature is the most fabulous sculptor and designer. She can also produce glorious music, be it bird or whale songs, waves crashing onto a shore or wind howling. That is one symphony truly worth hearing. I don’t know if saving those few hundred lives long ago was such a good idea, after all. Perhaps we will have to withdraw to our caves one day again. Obviously it won’t be all the billions on us; future of mankind may be in the hands of a few one more time.
in photos: blue whale, mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)