It’s time to move on, methinks. I’ve been doing this blog in one form or another for nearly seven years. It is possible, of course, that I’ll resume blogging at some point in the future, but for now it’s time to try other pastures.
The original appeal to me in blogging was the opportunity to engage in the pleasures of purposefully purposeless writing–to string together and polish up sentences for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. Putting the results out there in public brought a measure of discipline to the proceedings: it made me want to write as well as I could do. I’ll still engage in the playful stringing of words together, but it will be in other sorts of venues.
I don’t much like Twitter (@sayonaraamerika), since their 140 character limit doesn’t allow for much in the way of creative composition. But I’ll still use that account to announce new publications, etc., if you want to keep track of what I’m up to. I’ll also still maintain my homepage (www.bourdaghs.com).
I’ll keep the existing blog contents on-line for a few more weeks. Then, at some mysterious moment early in 2011, they will disappear from the Internet. My sincere thanks to all who have stopped by to read this over the years. I hope our paths cross again in other realms.
I’m feeling gorged in contemporary music that eschews the guitar. There is, for starters, the brilliant British charity holiday single by “Cage Against the Machine,” an all-star assemblage of performers gathered in one studio to record an epic cover version of John Cage’s 4’33” (you know, the one that is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence). It’s all designed to derail the evil Simon Cowell’s vice-grip on the annual competition to top the UK pop charts at Yuletide. It’s been quite successful, and now the inevitable remix versions are available, too. The Guardian has the story here.
Then there is “Kiss Kiss Kiss,” a great new track by Chicago hiphop diva Kid Sister. Scheduled for official release early next year, the song’s been leaked and is available all over the Internet now — including here. Not a guitar in sight: voices, percussion (most of it seemingly synthetic), and a few electronic effects are all you need to produce a very catchy piece of music.
Finally, there are the Agitators, a new band that is emerging as one of the musical voices of the ongoing British student rebellion. They’ve released a couple of singles and have appeared live at several campus protests. The Guardian has a nice feature on the band, which boasts a strict “no guitars” policy. Three voices and drums, and that’s it. “A new kind of music, nothing more than banging, stamping, clapping and voices,” they declare, “something anyone could do anywhere – on a march, at a protest, on the barricades.”
I pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday,
Then I get on my knees and pray,
We won’t get fooled again.
We’re tired of doin’ nothing,
Let’s start marching
As for us, aside from shoveling snow and watching our daughter play Debussy beautifully in a piano recital on Sunday, we spent a good part of our weekend giggling over these television commercials for Panda cheese.
We went to Symphony Center last night to see Pierre Boulez conduct an exhilarating program with the Chicago Symphony. It was the kind of performance that leaves you with goosebumps, even the morning after.
The evening opened with the orchestral version of Schoenberg’s 1899 composition, “Transfigured Night.” I know this primarily in its original format, as a piece for a string sextet. With five or six times that many strings thrown into the mix the piece not surprisingly feels fuller. In particular, the brief dissonant section in the second movement (I think it’s the second movement, anyhow) hit with greater force, setting a sharper contrast with the lush Brahms-like lyricism that characterizes the rest of the piece. It’s a lovely work, and the orchestra played with great precision and beauty.
After the intermission came the Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, a stirring epic that should be much better known than it is. A barbaric yawp that sounds more like fire and brimstone than anything you’d expect to hear in church (especially on the maniacal pipe organ solo that comprises the penultimate movement, played last night with appropriately over-the-top intensity by Paul Jacobs), it employs a full choir, pipe organ, four vocal soloists, and an enormous orchestra. You have the feeling, in other words, the you’re getting your money’s worth when you see this one performed live.
Boulez led the massed musicians at a brisk pace, and everyone performed brilliantly. Seeing it played live, I came to realize how the work is largely structured around a dialogue between the chorus and the brass section: they pick up each other’s lines, interrupt one another, echo each other’s chord patterns.
There was a small bit of drama in last night’s performance. I happened to be watching vocal soloist Mikhail Petrenko sitting in his chair, obviously getting mentally prepared to stand up and take his first solo. Suddenly, his foot slid back under his seat and knocked over the glass of water that was sitting there. He quickly reached down to set it back upright. I kept wondering if they would bring him a new glass between movements, but they didn’t. I also wondered if tenor Lance Ryan might slide his glass of water over to the other side of his chair to share with his bass partner, but that didn’t happen either. The other three vocalists kept sipped elegantly at their glasses of water to moisten their throats between their singing parts, but poor Petrenko had to go without. At any rate, he got through the rest of the performance without incident and sounded fine.
Boulez carries himself on stage with reserve, employing body language that I can only describe as charming. It’s hard to believe you are watching one of the legendary firebrands of modern classical music when you see him conduct. Perhaps he’s mellowed at age 85.
Last night we attend my daughter’s high school winter concert here in Chicago. She sings in the choir, but we also enjoyed sets by the school orchestra, chamber ensemble, band and jazz ensemble. The band played a very striking piece I’d never heard before: “Whirlwind,” composed by Jodie Blackshaw. The worktakes a number of important elements from twentieth-century avant-garde classical styles (aleatory passages, nonconventional instruments, offbeat instructions to the players) and briiliantly arranges them into a form that is fully accessible to an amateur youth orchestra. The kids seemed to enjoy playing it last night.
I snooped around today a bit and came up with this website from the publishers of the score. The site informs us that Blackshaw won the Frank Ticheli Composition Contest with it. On YouTube, I came up with video of a performance by the Singapore American School Sixth Grade Band. It’s just cool to see an ambitious composition like this enter the musical repertoire of high school bands.
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ now-classic 2003 portrait of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. A decade ago Beane led the statistical revolution in contemporary Major League baseball, using computers, the Internet, and statistics to identify sources of talent that were undervalued by traditional baseball wisdom (meaning, primarily, the collective wisdom of scouts) and thereby helping the A’s to consistently field teams that were competitive despite low payrolls.
Beane clearly is a terrific general manager, and the book on the whole offers a good read. But there is also something troubling about it, something I’ll try to put my finger on here. The book identifies Bill James as the heroic pioneer of the new knowledge that Beane exploited, but it seems to me there is a decisive difference between James’ approach to the game and that of Beane and Lewis–a qualitative change in the nature of our enjoyment of baseball. For James in his classic Baseball Abstracts from the 1980s (I was an avid reader from 1983 on), statistics were a tool for identifying more precisely what made Joe Morgan or George Brett such invaluable figures: his focus was on the marvelous skills that major leaguers brandish on the field.
James was interested in fun, while Lewis’ Beane is interested in power–and I don’t mean slugging average. For Beane and Lewis, statistics are weapons to shift power to the general manager. In their version of baseball, the heroes no longer wear spikes on the diamond; instead, they wear cuff links in the front office. You see this new focus in the explosive popularity of fantasy baseball games (which I enjoy as much as anyone), in which participants take pleasure in imagining themselves not as the batter at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, but rather as a general manager trying to cobble together the best possible roster on a limited budget. The language used in recent editions of Baseball Prospectus (the annual publication that has largely replaced James’ Abstracts) reflects this: veteran players are perceived as suspect malingerers who want only to eat up too much salary.
In Moneyball, this shift is rendered explicit. Lewis quotes A’s executive Sandy Alderson, the man who hired Beane as GM, as saying “What Billy figured out at some point…is that he wanted to be me more than he wanted to be Jose Canseco.” Alderson, according to Lewis, wanted to “concentrate unprecedented powers in the hands of a general manager,” a stance Lewis describes as “rational.” It requires (in Alderson’s words) shedding “player-type prejudices” (pp. 62-63).
This isn’t just a question limited to baseball, I think. Moneyball crystallizes the celebration of what is sometimes called managerial science, a new branch of knowledge. Again, Lewis is explicit on this: the revolution he describes
…set the table for geeks to rush in and take over the general management of the game. Everywhere one turned in competitive markets, technology was offering the people who understood it an edge. What was happening to capitalism should have happened to baseball: the technical man with his analytical magic should have risen to prominence in in baseball management, just as he was rising to prominence on, say, Wall Street. (p. 88)
The essence: an outsider comes in and radically devalues the forms of specialized knowledge accrued by veteran insiders, reshuffles the deck, and thereby improves the bottom line.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize that this sometimes works. An outsider’s perspective often provides a valuable rethinking of the way things are done in a given field. Some of the greatest breakthroughs in history arose when someone crossed a boundary and transported knowledge developed in one sphere and applied it in a novel manner in a foreign discipline or field.
It can also, however, lead to disaster. The trainwreck that is the Chicago Tribune arriving on my doorstep each morning provides ample evidence of that. Non-journalist managers have destroyed the paper (and the even better Los Angeles Times) by focusing on their outsider’s version of “the bottom line.” George W. Bush, the “Decider,” is another exemplar and proponent of this version of managerial science. Disasters such as the Iraq War, the Katrina bungle, and the banking meltdown are in large measure products of this version of managerial science. Still to come: radical climate change. In each case, the knowledge accrued by specialized experts over decades was disregarded by managers. We increasingly see this same tendency in education at all levels in the U.S.: managers are brought in from outside to improve “the bottom line,” and they proceed by radically devaluing the knowledge produced within the field over decades.
Often, the error comes in the assumption that the new manager knows better than anyone else what the bottom line is. The bottom line for a baseball fan is, I think, enjoyment. The new approach Lewis champions provides its version of enjoyment, but at the expense of other kinds. In sum, the increasing stress on the power of quantitative knowledge is producing a qualitative change in our experience of the game. We see this change in fans, I think: the quality of watching a game at Wrigley Field today is quite different from what it was when I first visited the park in 1984, and the changes has little to do with the lights (another brilliant “innovation” courtesy of the Chicago Tribune Corporation). In 1984 the thought of booing the Cubs was absurd; it is a regular occurrence nowadays.
This also relates to the increasing dominance of the financial sector in our world. Again, Lewis is quite explicit on this. He describes Beane’s sense of triumph when he acquired Nick Swisher in the 2002 amateur draft:
There’s a new thrust about him, an unabridged expression on his face. He was a bond trader, who had made a killing in the morning and entered the afternoon free of fear. Feeling greedy. Certain that the fear in the market would present him with even more opportunities to exploit….Like any good bond trader, he loves making decisions. The quicker the better. (p. 113)
Again we see a new species of hero being manufactured here, one with an “unabridged expression on his face,” whatever the hell that means. Other kinds of heroes are, of course, being displaced: the “fat scout,” for example, who is driven away with his outmoded knowledge (p. 118).
What’s striking in Moneyball is that the book unconsciously presents a counterargument to its own thesis. Billy Beane’s rise as a general manager is in fact due to the experience he acquired as a (largely failed) major league prospect. The book narrates this as a prime instance of the failings of the “old” knowledge it aims to devalue, but it is Beane’s experience on the field that opened his eyes to the value of certain statistics. The book downplays the ways in which Beane’s knowledge is acquired the old-fashioned way: through hard work on the baseball diamond and the acquisition of “player-type biases.” He wasn’t just a geek with a computer.
The value of so-called managerial science is the opportunity it provides to recognize the limits of existing forms of knowledge. Its disasters come likewise when it fails to recognize the existence of its own limits. Sometimes, the “bottom line” isn’t as clear cut as Lewis and his ilk believe. It’s often more enjoyable to be a fan of a losing team than it is to cheer on a championship club. Why? Because it’s fun.
[Postscript (2 December 2010): I’ve now read a bit more of the book, and the early hints at giddy celebration of finance capitalism have grown even more explicit. It’s almost quaint today to read passages such as the following, celebrating the scientific overcoming of risk by the managerial wizards who invented arcane derivatives: “The fantastic sums of money hauled in by the sophisticated traders transformed the culture on Wall Street, and made quantitative analysis, as opposed to gut feel, the respectable way to go about making bets in the market. The chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities was to price risk more accurately, and distribute it more efficiently, than ever before in the long, risk-obsessed history of financial man” (p. 130) That old “fat scout” sounds better and better with each page I read….]