Well over a hundred violists stood elbow to elbow on the stage, in the aisles, and all around the hall at Freight & Salvage earlier tonight, playing the solo part of the Telemann viola concerto, while four violists seated in the center of the stage played a much reduced version of the orchestral parts, in a stab at the world record for number of violas playing together.

The result was flip-flopped from the usual concerto experience, and deliciously silly: The solo part was big and lush and loud, and the orchestral part was delicate and concertante-like. The right to play the cadenza in the third movement was one of the many prizes drawn in the raffle earlier in the program.

The all-viola program started with a prelude for solo viola by Bach (really wonderfully played, but there was no program given out and I don’t remember the name of the violist), followed by a duet, a trio, a quartet, a quintet, and an octet, all actually written for viola ensembles, and finally the Telemann concerto. A completely daffy idea for a concert but a lot of fun.

Easiest Listener Puzzle Ever: The Record Is Already Broken!

And for a numerical puzzle, too. I solved this even more quickly than the puzzle of two weeks ago: during my lunch break, in well under half an hour!

Unless I’m really missing something, there isn’t anything hard about the puzzle at all. The entries in the grid are all two- or three-digit primes whose digits are all odd. It doesn’t take all that long to list them all (there are 54), make sublists of the ones that match the given categories (two-digit twin primes: 11 & 13, 17 & 19, and 71 & 73; three-digit palindromes: 131, 151, 191, 313, 353, 757, 797, 919; and so on), and then try out the not-very-many possible combinations until you find the ones that fit together in the right places in the grid. I was never stuck for what to do next at any point; I was limited more by how fast I could write than how fast I could make deductions.

There is one neat touch: The grid, a 9 × 9 square, turns out to have exactly 54 entries, which means it uses each number exactly once. It’s a nice piece of construction to pack exactly that set of numbers into a perfect square, and have the resulting grid be symmetrical at that. But the clues give way more information than is needed to figure out how to fill the grid.

More Brandenburgs from the Proms

I’ve listened to all six Brandenburgs from the BBC Proms concert now. They’re terrific — as they’re live recordings, there are a few bloopers here and there, but they’re full of life, very joyous. In a couple of cases, the performance caused me to think about the music in a new way, and how often does a performance of such a familiar work manage to do that?

I’d blogged before that #1 had the most raucous horns I can remember hearing in the piece, and I found it very fresh and exciting. The other performance that I thought was particularly ear-opening was #3. Two reasons. First, #3 is the Brandenburg with the empty middle movement. Bach wrote only two slow chords, a cadence, for the movement. He gave no explanation, but the usual assumption is that he intended that one of the soloists would play a cadenza here, and that the two chords were what the orchestra would come in with to close off the movement and get you into the right key for the final movement. The violin cadenza here is terrific and more substantial that what I’ve generally heard done in this slot.

Then in the last movement, I’ve never heard the cross-rhythms emphasized so strongly. The whole movement is in 12/8, but there’s a certain figure that keeps recurring, that has a tendency to sound like it’s in 6/4. Then near the end of the movement Bach adds a tie to a couple of the notes in the figure, which eliminates one of the stronger beats in the middle and just about forces the figure to be heard in 6/4. In most performances I’ve heard, this is smoothed out; either the pulse is kept in 12/8 throughout or when the cross-rhythms occur they’re done somewhat subtly; in this performance, though, they let the cross-rhythms have a lot of weight, so that some instruments are very definitely playing in a strong 6/4 while others are playing in 12/8. And not just in the measure with the explicit syncopation but to a lesser degree in all the measures where the figure appears. It gives the movement a real kick that I can’t recall ever hearing it have before.


The Listener crossword this week makes up for the unusually easy one last week; this one, “Table-Turning”, has been much more of a struggle. However, the final solution is a stunner. I still have three or four clues to solve but it shouldn’t be long now, now that I’ve figured out how to apply the instruction derived from the various letters from the clues and I have the rest of the grid in its final form.

Most of This Entry Is Not by Me

A debate has arisen on the WELL (yeah, yeah, stop me if you’ve heard this one) about “pride”, and whether it is sensible to be proud of being gay, or black, or white, or a woman, or any other trait that one was born with; or if one should only feel pride at the things one has actually done in one’s life.

I probably set it off. Someone was saying that he’d gotten pounced on by a lot of people on Facebook or some such place, because some other person had said that he was proud of being white, and he (the guy on the WELL) had criticized him. So of course a bunch of other people on the WELL agreed with him that it was ridiculous to be proud of being white. No one had stepped up with a contrary opinion, so I figured I’d be the first.

I have no problem at all with people being proud of who they are, whoever they are. Only when they actually try to impose second-class status on others do they cross my line.

Whites have many things to be proud of. We invented calculus, opera, and the light bulb.

Everybody else who has commented in this thread, both before and since, has been on the other side, agreeing that pride in your culture or the traits you were born with is silly or dangerous or misguided or whatever, but in any case clearly Not A Good Thing.

So I just wrote this over lunch break:

Jon says I should be proud of my writing skills, and indeed I am; however, I would guess that about 98% of what I have written in my life, I would never have written were I not gay. If those things I have written are precious, then equally so is everything that was necessary for them to be written.

Furthermore, how many of those things would I have written were I born into poverty in a third-world country? Or born 5000 years ago, or 100,000 years ago? Or born as a dog? Or as an amoeba? How can I honestly and with integrity be proud of what I have written if that pride depends on the pretense that the traits I was born with had nothing to do with it?

The fact is that anywhere I have gone in my life, I have managed to get to only because the universe spat me into existence nearly the whole way there. I just crawled a little ways further, that’s all. My personal accomplishments are a very tiny part of an organism or machine or whatever inadequate metaphor I want to pin to it, that is vast beyond my powers of comprehension. Anything I have done, this something did nearly all the work and I did just a very little. So to be proud of anything I have accomplished and not also to be proud of being part of that something, and proud that that something happened to bring me into existence at the very time and place and in the very condition that made it possible for me to accomplish those things — that would seem like real egotism to me.

If Only My College Professors Had Understood This!

Headline on Talking Points Memo today:

Number Who Believe Obama Is Muslim Doubles

According to a poll, the percentage has gone up from 11% to 18%.

Follow the link and you find the full story, which is headlined:

Poll: Number of Americans Who Think Obama Is a Muslim Nearly Doubles

A rise of 82% is “nearly” 100%. Just a matter of rounding, really.

More Housman

I’ve been reading more of the selected prose in the back of my Penguin A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Among the selections are an amazing number of wittily savage takedowns of rival scholars, and after I stop laughing, I can’t help thinking that if I’d actually known the guy I would have found him to be a horribly pissy old queen.

On an edition of Aeschylus:

When Mr Tucker’s conjectures are not palaeographically improbable they are apt to be causeless and even detrimental. Among the axioms assumed in the preface are the following: ‘”the reading in the text must hold its place until such cause to the contrary can be shewn as will satisfy a rigidly impartial tribunal. The onus probandi lies entirely with the impugner of the text.” “The conditions of dispossession are these. It must either be proved that the reading is an impossibility, or else that in point of grammar it is so abnormal, or in point of relevance so manifestly inappropriate, as to produce a thorough conviction that the MS is in error.” I for my part should call this much too strict; but these are Mr Tucker’s principles. His practice is something quite different: in practice no word, however good, is safe if Mr Tucker can think of a similar word which is not much worse.

On somebody’s introduction to an edition of a play by Euripides (nowhere in the excerpt quoted does it say which play, but the following refers to the play’s deus ex machina ending, which might be enough to narrow it down if only remembered my Euripides better, though more probably it wouldn’t):

And when Mr Flagg says that “the modern reader cannot adequately reproduce the feelings stirred by this final scene in the Athenian spectator’s breast,” this is to arraign Euripides, not to defend him. It means that he wrote for an age and not for all time: he defaced his drama that he might gladden the eyes of the vulgar with the resplendent stage-properties of their beloved goddess: a trap to catch applause which does not differ in kind from the traditional sentiment, always welcome to the gallery of our own theatres, that the man who lays his hand upon a woman, save in the way of kindness, is unworthy of the name of a British sailor.

Nice job, Mr. Housman, reaching out from your ivory tower to slap down Mr Flagg and Euripides with the same swat. And no matter if your own words here are not written for all time, either, but merely for an age, and not even your own age but that of Euripides, who alas did not live quite long enough to revise and improve his plays in line with your counsel, to the great loss of posterity. No one, no one, writes for all time; writing well for one’s own age is the best one can do, and that is plenty difficult enough as it is.

On a disputed line in Aeschylus:

But to say that a thing is not yet begun but is still going on is such nonsense as not one of us can conceive himself uttering in the loosest negligence of conversation; only when centuries of transcription by barbarians have imputed it to an incomparable poet, then we accept it as a matter of course.

This one is a truly beautiful line, though:

His opinions, not being his own, were not permanently held, but picked up and dropped again, and he lived from hand to mouth on the borrowed beliefs of the moment.

Don’t Make Me Laugh

Look. Words are artificial constructions of our minds. They don’t exist in nature; if humans didn’t exist, neither would words. So they mean whatever we agree they mean and communicate whatever we think they communicate.

So if I know with certainty that if I say the word nigger to a particular person, she will take it as derogatory, then the word is derogatory in that context. On the other hand, if I know for a fact that if I say it to someone else, it will be taken as a sign of close kinship and shared heritage, then that is exactly what the word means in that situation.

Context is everything. The dictionary is filled with words that mean different things in different contexts, and everybody knows this. Everybody knows this so well that it never even occurs to us to complain about how it ought to be otherwise. That’s just how words work.

Nobody complains how unfair it is that you can’t go into a garden supply store and say “I’d like to buy a couple of stakes” and have the clerk wrap up a couple of T-bones for you, like what would happen at the butcher. And why don’t we complain about this? Because none of us is nursing any kind of secret yearning to get our steaks from a garden supply store. We’re all doing just fine getting them from a butcher and we know it. Nor is there any satisfaction to be had for us in saying this sentence to the clerk at the garden supply store. What would we get out of it? So we’re just fine with the fact that the word stake/steak has several different meanings depending on who is saying it and whom they’re saying it to and what the situation is.

So if you’re going to whine childishly on the air about how you can’t use the word nigger without getting nailed for it while other people get to use it all! the! time! and they never get the same treatment and it’s just! not! FAIR!, what you’re actually doing is letting on that you’ve been nursing the itch to use that word, that there’s some desire you’ve been bottling up inside yourself that is building up pressure to be let out.

Now, let us think. Let us think hard. Why might it be that Dr. Laura is so resentful of the fact that this particular word has multiple meanings based on context, when the same is true of any number of other words that it has never occurred to her to be resentful about?

What unexpressed idea, laden with long-suppressed emotion, burns within the heart of Dr. Laura, yearning to be released with the use of the word nigger? That cannot, in fact, be adequately expressed in any other way?

Is it, perhaps, the desire to show her black sisters and brothers that she thinks of herself as one of them, shares their culture and their emotions and their dreams?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

And How About Ansel Adams and All Those “Trees”, Eh?

From a review in the Washington Post about an exhibit of Allen Ginsberg’s photographs, at the National Gallery (emphasis mine):

The early photographs were obviously part of his [Ginsberg’s] energetic self-mythologizing of the Beats, especially those he took of Jack Kerouac, for whom Ginsberg’s torch always blazed with embarrassing brightness.

I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that when the artist is male and his model is female, it is the usual thing for a critic to rhapsodize about how the artist’s intense passion for his subject has expressed itself in the use of sensuous lighting that plays erotically over the curved surfaces blah blah blah. In our finest museums hang plenty of paintings and photographs of fully nude women, painted or photographed in all kinds of provocative poses, and no critic would dream of describing them in print as “embarrassing”, for fear of getting laughed out of the Critics’ Club. We critics, you know, we are above all that crass provincialism and puritanism.

Hell, when a photographer or painter gives this kind of treatment to freaking flowers or vegetables, the critics ooh and aah in their reviews and commentaries, reveling in the sensuality and usually including somewhere a gratuitous passing sneer at anyone who might find the works shocking. You’ll never read a critic saying that there is something “embarrassing” about the way the artist’s erotic feelings toward bell peppers blaze forth in his works, or complaining about how she is “mythologizing” orchids.

But a man taking a photograph that expresses his erotic feelings for another man (and a man who was damn handsome to begin with, at that) — now that’s embarrassing.

Geek Rush

Big hit of geek rush just before lunch break today. I’m testing some new browser-based software for my company today, and I’ve been encountering a recurring problem where strings of MathML don’t display properly. Our IT manager and I put our heads together and figured out how to replicate the problem, tried out a number of variations on the actions that immediately preceded the problem, and tracked the problem down to a very specific glitch. Hopefully the right tweak in the code will take care of it.