Saturday, March 26, 2011

album of the day: Pictures at an Exhibition

People used to make records
As in a record of an event
The event of people playing music in a room
- Ani Difranco, "Fuel"

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time riding my bike out to a shopping center in Greensboro that had a really good book store and a decent record store where I spent a lot of the money I made on my paper route. Among the great finds was a cassette tape of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I didn't know anything about classical music then, and still know next to nothing, but I could tell from the start that this 1958 concert recording by Sviatoslav Richter was a monumental piece of work.

I played that tape to death, always only playing the side containing Richter's performance and ignoring the orchestrated version by Maurice Ravel on the other. I bought a CD of somebody else playing the solo piano original by Mussorgsky, but it had none of the appeal of Richter's. When my old tape-deck crapped out several years ago, I tried to find a CD of the Sofia concert, and for years, it just wasn't available. Thanks be to iTunes. And thanks be to whoever decided not to tamper with the original engineering, despite its many faults.

In comparison with present-day recording technique and production values, this is a disaster. Seemingly every cough of every audience member is faithfully preserved on the scratchy, flattish monaural recording. My guess would be that, aware of Richter's attacking style, the recording engineer placed the microphone (I expect just one) several feet away from the piano, to avoid red-lining too much.

But Richter is impossible to describe adequately. In his hands, Mussorgsky's sorta tone-poem, sorta programmatic suite is a weird tragicomic passion play. No other performance I've heard has 1/10 the humor, gravity, energy, or meaning. Maybe Richter was just making it all up, and those staid, smoothed-over renderings (I'm looking at you, Ravel) are more genuine. I don't care.

Richter came into the concert hall, sat at the piano, twinkled around with the introduction of the recurrent theme, thence through the Gnomus, the Tuileries, the Ballet of the Chickens in their Shells - all the silly stuff, played with terrific dynamic variation (the Chickens seem to dance in stop-motion animation, very cartoon-like), and then beat the living hell out of the rest of the piece, stomping out a terrifying Catacombs in particular.

I don't know anything about Sviatoslav Richter, really, but in my opinion he was a pretty scary dude. The Wikipedia article about him quotes him as saying he believed performers should simply express the composer's intentions, but if that's so, I can't understand why his performance of Mussorgsky is so different from others I've heard.

I also can't seem to find any information on the circumstances of the 1958 Sofia recital, other than that it was recorded and well-regarded - which is incredibly feint praise for it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

a delicate matter about a crappy book

I'm working on a book review for an academic journal. I won't say what journal or what the book is, because, to be blunt, the book is really bad (so far - I'm about halfway through it). In fact, it's so bad, it's making me angry.

Back in grad school, I wrote a satire called The 12-Step Program For Academic Success, spoofing the career-building behavior of some of the academics I knew. One of the steps was putting together an academic book or "volume" (because in the 90s, nobody called them books - they were all "volumes" or "works"). Part of the gag was that academic books are, generally, horribly written, and patched together from articles that the author previously published.

I didn't know then to call this behavior "duplicate publication" or "self-plagiarism," but it didn't set well, and still doesn't. Maybe a series of articles is worth binding together, and maybe that series presents a coherent line of thought, but in my opinion, the vast majority of academic books put together thus is neither.

The present instance is not only incoherent chapter-to-chapter, but within each chapter there are gaps or clashing themes that the author has made no real pretense of making coherent. Readers are apparently supposed to assume that it flows and makes sense.

Part of me is angry because this has been published, and I don't have a book published. (That's pretty stupid, since I haven't written a book. But envy isn't always rational.) A larger part of me is angry because I have to read it to write the review - allegedly - and I promised, and have already written nasty notes in the margin, so I can't really back out of it or follow my whim to throw the book as far away as I can. A still larger part of me is righteously angry because it's so crappy, so clear an example of crappy academic behavior, and because I can see a much better way to approach the topic and to form the arguments than this hack did.


Now, the delicate matter. If I write the review I feel the book richly deserves - a right thrashing - what happens then? What if I meet this guy sometime? What if his friend shows up at a conference where I'm presenting a paper?

I've written a couple very negative reviews of books before, but they were for the journal of the American Hegel Society, The Owl of Minerva, back in the anarchic days of the Hegel Society, when scathing, terribly nasty disputes via email discussion thread typified the prevailing ethos. (Hot damn, it was fun!) Most academic discussion, in print at least, is much more polite, and a lot of academics are thin-skinned, and some are vicious.

The topic, too, is one that attracts a lot of academics who believe themselves to be good-intentioned, but who are easily provoked. Could be some nastiness coming my way in return.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

random hockey post

I rarely write anything about hockey. There are 28,309,146 hockey blogs out there, and around 98.3% of what anybody writes about hockey is blather - like all other sports.

Anyway, in addition to being a lifelong hockey fan, I'm a Pittsburgh Penguins fan. Lately, that's been great, because of players like Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, Marc-André Fleury, and so on. Crosby has been the best player in hockey since he started in the NHL in 2005, and this season was looking to be his most productive as a scorer. In January, Crosby was hit in the head in two successive games, and has been unable to play since because of concussion. The first hit was not called a penalty, but was in my opinion a deliberate action in attempt to injure. The second was called a penalty, and did result in Sid's head striking the edge of the wall around the ice, but I don't think it was an attempt to injure, just a dumb play.

Controversy over head shots has heated up ever since. Two games ago, Penguins forward Matt Cooke, who has a long history of doing stupid and deliberately injurious things during games, elbowed a New York Rangers player in the head, and received a game penalty and a suspension through the end of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

Hockey fandom and media are basically unanimous in praise of the suspension, because, they repeat, the NHL finally got the discipline right.


Unfortunately for all hockey fans, what the NHL did was on the basis of this player's reputation and history, and the current controversy. I am not saying that Matt Cooke should be allowed to deliberately target opponents' heads with his elbows. I am saying that the punishment befit the criminal, not the crime. It wasn't justice; it wasn't even discipline. They made an example of him. Cooke's suspension is a spectacle, or a PR campaign (especially after Penguins owner Mario Lemieux made such a big deal about head hits), to show the NHL is Really Taking Player Safety Very Seriously Indeed.

I believe all the blather about head shots and attempt-to-injure penalties lately really misses a main factor: the salary cap. (If any hockey fans happen by, I do mean that seriously, but you may have noticed this really isn't a hockey-related blog, so I'm not going to pursue it.)

Anyway, enough about this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

academic freedom, freedom of speech

In two of my classes this semester, we've been spending an inordinate amount of time on an article about academic freedom, its distinction from freedom of speech, and the way economic pressures threaten academic freedom. The article defines academic freedom as the right to teach and to research as an academic sees fit, without undue pressure to conform to some extrinsic production measure.

I woke up this morning wondering about the meaning of academic freedom in my life and in the economic and political environment of contemporary academia. Some basic truths, of a sort, came to mind.

No one actually cares what I say or do in my classes, as long as it doesn't subject the university to liability or otherwise damage the university's public image. Almost nothing I might say about my actual field makes any difference to the university from this standpoint. Nobody much cares if I teach a bunch of crazy radical stuff in my classes, unless and until a student complains about it. In my own experience, what students are likely to complain about is personal conflict, not course content. Students complain about course content tactically, in order to attack faculty.

No one actually cares what I say or argue for in anything I publish, as long as it doesn't similarly endanger the university's currency interests. Administrators aren't going to read what I present at conferences or publish in journals or books. Most of what most faculty publish is in technical jargon that administrators wouldn't grasp, of course, but the main reason they don't read it is that they have absolutely no concern about what's in it - only how much of it there is, and whether it's peer-reviewed.

Which means that the university isn't particularly interested in curtailing the content of my exercise of academic freedom. The content of my speech concerns them much more when I speak as a private citizen, because as a private citizen I might freely criticize the university in a way that could endanger the university's currency interests. That is, the university has a fairly strong interest in curtailing my freedom of speech.

This is how it looks from my perspective, as a non-tenure-eligible faculty member who has a contractually guaranteed position until I either grossly violate university rules or a layoff is declared. It would likely look very different, ironically enough, if I had tenure at risk.

After all, there are tenure-track but not-yet-tenured faculty who are scared shitless to write anything as benign as this blog and post it somewhere. (I guess I mean this particular post.)

Academics argue for tenure on the basis of the claim that it and it alone can protect academic freedom. I wonder if what they mean to protect is freedom of speech, instead.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

need a break

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Doc Nagel is in a bad way. I blame a large part of this on the confluence of recent events - the department tenure-track search, looming budget cuts to the CSU (yet again), daily news of the unconscionable exercise of power. I blame another large part on the unrelenting propaganda demonizing organized labor, in particular in public higher education. It feels lately as if everything I care about is threatened or under attack. No exaggeration: the ideal of education, my own job, my loveliest, the cat, my favorite hockey team...

On the other hand, obviously the largest part of my terrible, doomed mood is sui generis. Everything I care about seems to be under attack because I feel truly terrible about myself these days. A few people who regularly read this have known me long enough to know that that had been a constant until Lauren came into my life. And although it is very hard to feel terrible about myself with her around, somehow I'm managing it.

For me, this often takes the form of a sort of voice constantly telling me the same thing, no matter what happens: "You're a terrible person." I've checked a book out of the university library, but it's been sitting on my shelf unread. "That's because you're a terrible person." A class session went poorly. "That's because you're a terrible person." A class session went well. "That doesn't change the fact that you're a terrible person." I committed a typo in an email I sent. "That's because you're a terrible person."

It gets old after a while.

But hey, do you wanna know why I get depressed, and why I feel this way despite how wonderful Lauren is, and how basically good life is right now? I'll give you a hint: It's because I'm a terrible person. That's what I've heard, anyway.

Taking a break from this is kind of a weird task, because this delightful partner in dialogue is, of course, me. (Hey, wanna know why I'm so cruel to myself? I'll give you a hint...)