Saturday, December 31, 2016

Loose Ends for 2016

Work, family and other projects took precedent over blogging in 2016.  I plan to concentrate more on my Nietzsche blog in the coming weeks.  I have worked on it for 8 years and am finally close to completing the philosophical biography portion of it.  This blog will take a back seat to that one for the time being, although I do have a few topics I still want to post here.

2016 was the year my Flipboard editing sort of took off.  As of this post I have a modest 2,186 followers as of this post, up from my humble beginnings back in 2014.  My number of magazines proliferated this past year, though news, art, space, and sex remain the topics of primary interest.  I added a number of specialty magazines this year including additional archives on art and hot pix.  SeXtEcH focuses on the diverse world of sex augmentation and technology - everything from virtual reality to toys to sex robots, which is an emerging topic.  My personal opinion is that virtual reality and robotics will both develop far faster in service to the sex/porn industry than in any other application.  Eros focuses specifically on the philosophical and practical implications of the sensual and the erotic.  Ape Sh!t was added to cover news regarding our cousins in evolution, who have some remarkably sophisticated, almost human-like, behavioral and cultural traits.  My Flipboard experience is a fun and informative pastime which attracts more of my attention these days than blogging. Checkout my Flipboard profile page for an overview of my 33 magazines.

Particular events I failed to blog about or news events that are on my mind as we prepare to enter 2017:

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.  Even though I am a staunch Atlanta Braves fan, I have always rooted for the Cubs in a general sense.  It was great to watch them win their first championship since 1908 (the longest stretch without a championship in professional sports). The exciting series went seven games with the final game being one of the most watched in baseball history.

I have followed the Cassini space probe with interest since watching its launch on the internet back in 1997.  I have blogged about my interest in Cassini before.  It continues to fill me with awe but it is now close to the end of its serviceable life. What an incredible journey!

Neil Young, my favorite musical artist, produced two recordings in 2016, both of rather mediocre quality.  I reviewed Earth previously.  Peace Trail came out earlier this month.  I chose not to review it.  It is a stripped-down flavor of Neil, featuring him mostly on guitar with just a drummer and a bass player accompanying him - quite the opposite from the beefed-up studio effects and heavily overdubbed Earth. Suffice it to say that Peace Trail and Show Me are two decent tracks, the rest is just sort of OK.  But, at 71, Neil is an inspiration to me. He is still doing things his way, whether his fans like it or not. Keep on rockin' (in the free world) Neil! 

Artificial Intelligence has never been more in the news.  This New York Times article provides an excellent overview of where AI is and where it is likely to take us in a few short years from now. This is going to affect our lives in more ways than most people realize.  Recently, for example, the world's largest hedge fund announced it would begin to replace managers with AI next year.  All in all, 2016 was "the year AI came of age."  This is an exciting moment to be alive, despite some anxiety by some about the potentially world-shaking implications of this technology. 

Another excellent New York Times op-ed piece covered the trendy and almost kitsch societal effects of the "let's be in the moment" or "let's be mindful" craze.  Mindfulness has some advantages but as a life purpose it has some limitations that go ignored because the practice is so fashionable and more people value "peace of mind" over actual world conditions (or absurdly contend that improving the world begins with discovering your peace of mind, which is, of course, another example of subtle-arrogance).  This article demonstrates, as Nietzsche himself advised, the truth is not necessarily peaceful or pleasant and that which overrides the truth in the name of personal contentment might not in every case be a good thing after all.

As an example of how little mindfulness impacts the actual world, I have blogged about the horrendous air pollution in China for years (see here and here).  But at the end of 2016 the situation has gotten even worse, showing what happens when human industrial production is allowed a free hand to produce goods without an environmental regulation whatsoever. Given the opportunity, human beings with decimate their natural resources to the point it threatens human life itself. History is littered with such examples.  The latest situation in China (and India is just as bad if not worse) is being termed the "airpocalypse" and affects almost a half billion human beings with smog so thick it resembles a perpetual fog.

Another example of world conditions decoupled from contentment of spirit is the fact that large swaths of the planet's animal species are going extinct for various reasons. The plight of giraffes, cheetahs, elephants, and gorillas have made the news most recently.  Altogether, as much as 2/3 of wildlife on the planet could be gone in the next few years. Much of this has to do with global warming, which is a "myth" to the likes of Donald Trump.  I suppose all these species are just dying of their own volition.  Here is an article on several animals already extinct thanks largely to the "enlightened" hand of humankind.  CNN provides a great overview of this reality in a special presentation called Vanishing.

Which brings us to the pathetic state of politics in America. The US Presidential election was perhaps the biggest bummer of 2016 in this country.  US voters decided that in misogynistic, xenophobic, paranoid billionaire was the best choice to lead our country.  The malaise following the election, where Trump lost the popular vote by a wide margin but won the electoral vote (which is all that constitutionally matters), is widespread among the liberal elites, academia, and the mass media, among others.  Personally, I understand what a downer all this is.  Trump has always acted like a fool in public and will continue to do so as president, possibly to the point of alienating his own party.  In the meantime, he will attempt, in the name of fear and profit, to dismantle much that is positive in our country.  

But, the incessant whining of the left wing establishment about all this grates on my nerves. There is a solution to all this, people.  Vote the idiot out in four years.  Whining only shows how childish you are and how badly you misunderstand the very real conservative and radically right wing political forces that have always been a major part of America.  The Left's "America Ideal" never really existed except on paper, as Trump will now proceed to demonstrate. The "real" America is a competition of validity claims and, for now, the Right controls the agenda as the anti-establishment, anti-academic, and anti-media force of reckoning.

One of the major breakthroughs for the Right is just to make shit up.  "Fake news" is the polite way to put it.  The phenomena is so pervasive in our culture that The Oxford Dictionary made "post-truth" its word of the year.  But Trump demonstrated a neurotic tendency throughout the campaign to play on the vast fears and boundless ignorance of the American public.  While the Left, being naturally inclined toward academic research, a free, investigative press, and the specialization of knowledge, seeks to discover facts and to debate the interpretation of facts, the Right seeks to dumb-down every equation and to grasp at incomplete and inaccurate details in order to create truth out of fake "facts."  

Trump was caught doing this on several occasions. Most recently for accusing the America political system to be "rigged" (presumably against him, turns out with Russian hacking it was rigged to some degree in his favor), that there was massive voter fraud, etc.  This article in the The New Yorker details the pathetic legacy Trump drags into the oval office.  It is time to be skeptical of this self-perceived demigod.  Be very skeptical.  Only "fake people" deal in fake news - but right now they are the ones in power.  So, we literally have the most absurd government in American history; policy based upon fake and fraudulent ideas as accepted by tens of millions of ignorant American voters. Welcome to our new fake democracy.

Comparisons of Trump and Hitler are mostly overblown. Outright fascism is simply not going to happen in America - at least in the next four years. For all our faults, America is still above that.  But, Trump's need to perpetuate his own truth (propaganda) and to hold mass rallies instead of press conferences is absolutely Hitleresque.  This is an ominous cloud hanging over our country.    

But perhaps we deserve it.  More than anything, the pervasive nature of stupidity and pettiness among the American public as a whole was made crystal clear in 2016.  Nothing proves the point better than America's true Christmas holiday tradition - fighting and being arrested while holiday shopping. This combines our festering greed for material gratification with our underlying anger as a society. Greed, anger, and the subsequent frustration of the great cancer of America consumerism is perhaps the greatest threat to civil liberties and, indeed, a meaningful life in general.  

I have little respect for the average American.  Each one is incapable of "greatness" in any sense - so how can this country ever be? Most of us are callous, selfish, rude, afraid, mediocre, and increasingly violent.  We have no one to blame other than ourselves for our situation going into 2017. The American people are not helpless victims, they are the ignorant perpetrators. This is why I consider the greatest need for America and the world in the new year to be a discovery of who we are as individuals and as societies.  We are clearly sick as a collective people.  Diagnosis and a return to health will not be found in behavior that is more of the same (violence, consumerism, our insidious fetish of  'busyness'). Of course, I am no longer idealistic enough to think it will be otherwise.  But, at the very least, I am going to redefine myself in 2017. 

This article in Christian Science Monitor sums of the year pretty accurately: "Some years are bigger than others. Their numerals evoke phase shifts in the world, lurches into new forms of political and cultural order. Think of 1968 and its explosion of youth unrest, 1989 and the collapse of the wall between East and West, or 2001 and the rise of Islamist terrorism."

The article details the disruptive effects (for the establishment) that forces like Donald Trump, Brexit, "populist nationalism," globalization, digitization of the economy, technology, and automation are creating in the world today.  It interests me that no group or individual really "controls" any of this.  All of this soup of disruption seems to be happening more or less beyond the control of human society or culture.  This is the functional power of karma - which is unique characteristic of modernity.  I hope to blog more on the topic of Function in the coming year.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Listening to Rihm: Two Other Movements

I have previously posted about my explorations of classical composer Wolfgang Rihm's vast repertoire of music.   In early 2016, the seventh installation of SWR Music's Rihm – Edition Series was made available in the US.  I purchased it several months ago and have since spent time listening to it off and on.  This CD features the world-premiere recording of Two Other Movements, a large scale 40-minute work which Rihm composed in 2004 as well as several shorter pieces from the 1980's.  I find everything on the CD accessible and enjoyable, but, like most of Rihm's work, it is an acquired taste in modern classical composition.

Once again, Rihm is a prolific composer and most of his compositions have yet to be recorded.  This CD is an excellent example of how Rihm views his music as essentially part of a collective, almost continuous body of work, a singular artistic path, wherein Rihm takes inspiration from his previous compositions to create new material.  Two Other Movements derives its title from the large assortment of symphonic movements Rihm has composed through the years.  From the perspective of his body of work, these truly are just two additional movements to an extended exploration of his quest for orchestral expression.

I am not musically qualified to understand or make assumptions about the technical aspects of the compositions. I just recognize when I enjoy something and this CD, though distinctly modern, is enjoyable from beginning to end. According to the accompanying CD booklet: “In the course of time, Rihm has vastly differentiated his tonal language, taking it now into the realms for more melodious-expressive sound pattern, now into dissonant, almost noisy agglomerations.”

“Rihm proves that it is, in fact, quite possible to integrate audibly fast, even stormily agitated sections; simply listen to the march and toccata episodes in the first of his Two Other Movement. Many passages also seem traditional in that they take up the ‘filigree work’ of the old Classical and Romantic masters, that is, the interplay if individual instruments and instrumental groups; Rihm also enjoys coupling woodwinds with strings, or excessively exploiting the deep underpinnings of the low brass.  On the other hand, there are sophisticated shadings in the percussive interjections that have nothing whatever to do with Romanticism.

Two Other Movements (2005) is a composition commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra that premiered under the baton of Lorin Maazel in New York in March 2005.  The title is intended to signify that every new work is, as it were, a commentary on the one preceding it; the ‘two other movements’ therefore make up a continuation of those completed beforehand.  This arises from Rihm’s notion of having a huge block of music inside him, from which he again and again chisels out individual works.  Hence it is no wonder that there are tonal-stylistic correspondences even between works, like those presented here, that are separated by decades.”

Accompanying this main composition are Abkehr (1985) and Schattenstuck (1982-1984). The former is an 8-minute piece written as “supplement” to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and intended to be preformed prior to that great work.  It is largely a sentimental work with harsh accents.  The latter work is in seven short sections with an overall length of 20-plus minutes.  According to the CD booklet: “Rihm expressly forbid the movements to be performed individually, only conceding the possibility of changing their order, whereby the final movement still has to be the seventh.  This concession seems to sound very encouraging, however, so it is probably best to leave the order as is…”

The CD was generally well-received by the critics. Gramophone called it: “a telling blend of rawness and concentration. The result is an ear-opening demonstration of the remarkable Rihm phenomenon.” The Guardian dubbed the CD as filled with “fine first-ever recordings.”

Two Other Movements begins semi-melodically with deep, almost foreboding bass.  Nevertheless, there is a peaceful and contemplative aspect to this piece, simultaneously tinged with angst and splendor.  It reminds me of some of Shostakovich’s great symphonic orchestration.  The almost 27-minute first movement features all parts of the orchestra, each developed slowly with explosive accents where the entire orchestra seems to alternate in agony or rapture.  I find this music highly accessible yet sophisticated.  There is no trace of nostalgia or sentimentality here even though large sections of the score are beautiful. The horns and woodwinds are particularly noteworthy throughout. The second movement is an 8-minute continuation of the themes and variations of the prior music but in an andante tempo as opposed to the moderato-allegro of the first, making for a more relaxed listening experience.

Abkehr features several moments of developed tension as well as vaguely quoted passages from Mahler’s Ninth. The seven-part Schattenstuck (first part here and last part here) is a stylistic compliment to all the other music presented, very accessible yet complex.  These works, written some 20 years prior to Two Other Movements give context to the larger work and demonstrate how Rihm still explores similar sonic landscapes within his vast body of work in a timeless manner. Rihm expresses many influences throughout his career and this particular CD is a rewarding example of just one of his many avenues of musical expression.