Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Rockies Offseason

Believe it or not, Spring Training starts in a mere two weeks, which means this is a great time to start scrying the Colorado Rockies chances in 2010. They had a slow offseason, you could say, managing to make no trades and adding only two new free agents, but they were certainly "in the conversation" on a number of bigger deals, the biggest of which was a potential trade for Florida's Dan Uggla (a former All-Star second baseman).

Coming off a 92-win season, the Rockies probably didn't need to make major upgrades - especially because the talent to do so really wasn't readily available - but baseball is a tricky game, and it remains to be seen whether the Rockies failure to bolster a mediocre offense will come back to haunt them in the 2010 season.

Before frisking the roster, let's hit some nuts and bolts.* Gone are:
3B/1B - Garrett Atkins, who signed with Baltimore
P - Josh Fogg, who went to the Mets
P - Jose Contreras, who went to Philadelphia
P - Matt Herges, joining the Kansas City Royals
P - Jason Marquis, who left for the nation's capital and the Nationals. His career streak of playoff appearances (his team has made the playoffs every year of his career) is likely to end.
Also gone, but as yet unsigned are:
P - Alan Embree
P - Joe Beimel
C - Yorvit Torrealba

* I'm going to use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to assess player value. Don't like it? Too bad. It's not a be-all-end-all, but it's just about the best statistic out there right now. Best, you say? How, you say? Because it actually tells you how much a player contributes to his team's success. I won't justify it here; just go to fangraphs and read their lengthy explanation.

WAR tells us that Marquis was worth 3.8 Wins last year, which is a pretty solid season. While his performance involved a whole lot of luck - meaning he was unlikely to be as good this year - he's still a useful player, and his production will definitely be missed.

None of the other pitchers on their ways out were of much consequence (WARs ranging from -0.1 to +0.2, or, in essence, "replacement level," meaning we could just call up a AAA pitcher and get the same production). For the most part, the exiting pitchers are old in baseball years, and certainly not worth investing in except as added depth.

Garrett Atkins, as you may recall, had an atrocious 2009, posting a line of .226/.308/.342 (that's Batting Average, OBP, and SLG). Simply put, ugly, and worth a terrifying -0.4 WAR. That's right, Atkins actually cost the Rockies half-a-game in 2009 (though it sure felt like more than that) compared to some readily available AAA third baseman. Perhaps more to the point, Ian Stewart was worth 1.2 WAR, which is why he was the starter for much of the season.

Yorvit has always been a hard-working, excited player, but he's reaching the end of his usefulness, and I'm glad the Rockies had the wisdom to let him go. At 0.8 WAR he was not useless, but almost all of that value comes from a .291 batting average that he is not likely to sustain. Simply put, catchers decline early and quickly, and Torrealba is at that age. His 2 homers last year was his fewest since his rookie year in 2002. Contrast Chris Iannetta's 16 HR, and excellent (given his limited playing time) 2.0 WAR, and you can see why Yorvit was considered expendable. Hopefully Iannetta will be the full-time starter this year, but that brings us to the new additions.

The Rockies have added:
C - Miguel Olivo, previously of the Royals
P - Tim Redding, from the Mets

They have also resigned Giambi, Betancourt, and Rincon. More on those later.

The Olivo signing is puzzling to me, mainly because he's Iannetta without the walks. He hit 23 homers and punched up a WAR of 2.2 last season, but had a paltry .292 OBP. Yeah, you read that right, his OBP was about the same as Torrealba's batting average. Olivo is, simply put, allergic to drawing walks, which means, for all his power, he makes a whole lot of outs. Since the object of baseball is, in essence, not to make outs, this is a bad thing. Nevertheless, Olivo has his uses, an if Tracy discovers them (and doesn't fall in love with a "power bat" that is, really, not much more powerful than Iannetta's), Olivo is a good signing.

Redding, who the Rockies are bringing in on a minor league deal, is essentially a minor league pitcher. As a close follower of the Rockies, Redding's name has come up every offseason for the last four years are so, which means it's not surprising he's finally found his way to Colorado. The question is, can Bob Apodaca work his magic on Redding's mediocre arm? The Rockies - and this is a good strategy - have picked up a whole lot of cheap, cast-off pitchers in the past, with a whole lot of busts that, fortunately, didn't cost the team much. Occasionally, however, Apodaca has resurrected a career (see Jason Hammel and Jorge de la Rosa), so it's hard to fault the Rockies for bringing in a pitcher for league minimum - or less - and seeing if he can cut it.

As for the resignings, Betancourt was excellent in relief last season, and his signing is a good one. Giambi came cheap, and will play primarily a bench role, so his signing also makes sense. Don't expect him to reproduce his awesome 2009 stretch run (small sample sizes and all), but a dangerous bat off the bench is always valuable.

Last season the Rockies led all of Major League Baseball with 23.6 WAR from their pitching staff. It's easy to forget at Coors Field that pitching numbers get inflated and misleading, so don't fool yourself. The Rockies can pitch, and most of the staff is returning. Losing Marquis hurts, of course, but Jeff Francis will be back and, hopefully, will return to his 2007 form (when he racked up 4.1 WAR). As long as Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Hammel, Jorge de la Rosa, and Aaron Cook all stay healthy as well, there's no reason to believe that, top to bottom, the Rockies won't have the best rotation in the NL West (at least) again this season. Add in Huston Street and Mr. Betancourt, and you've got the makings of an outstanding pitching staff.

The offense, however, is another story. Again, hitting numbers get inflated at Coors, and the Rockies are never quite as good offensively as they seem. Their 18.7 WAR last year was passable, but not nearly good enough for a team trying to break through to the upper echelons of the baseball world. Unfortunately, Miguel Olivo's not going to improve the offense that much. Fortunately, a full season of Ian Stewart at third, along with continued strong play from Tulowitzki, Helton, Iannetta, and Carlos Gonzalez will make the offense comparable to last years. That's not enough to make the Rockies better than Philadelphia, but it might be enough to win the West.

The most important thing the Rockies can do this season, however, is to free Seth Smith. I made the point last year, and I'll make it again (and again, until something happens). Brad Hawpe is a butcher in the field, Smith is actually pretty solid. Brad Hawpe cannot hit left-handed pitching. Seth Smith can (or at least, he has when he's been asked to throughout his minor league career; the Rockies haven't given him much of a chance).

All in all, in much less playing time, Smith posted 2.7 WAR last year to Hawpe's 1.3. The difference, it turns out, is almost all because of defense. Brad Hawpe is - no joke - the worst fielder in Major League Baseball. He can throw, sure, but he can't run, he takes awful routes to balls, he slides on easy catches, he stays up on balls he should slide for, he misplays the ball off the wall, and so on. The outfield at Coors is unforgiving to even the best fielders, and Hawpe is certainly not that.

The best option for the Rockies is and has been to trade Hawpe for either pitching or a better second baseman (Barmes is a more than capable fielder, but cannot hit a lick). If he is on the roster, however, there's no excuse for playing him over Seth Smith. An outfield of Smith, Fowler, and Gonzalez, over the course of the season, will probably post 2 or 3 more wins than one consisting of Gonzalez, Fowler, and Hawpe. That may not seem like much, but 2 or 3 wins can be the difference between first place and third in a division like the NL West. Here's hoping the Rockies do the right thing and free Seth Smith.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Left and Right and Right and Wrong

If you've never stumbled across the "Political Compass" and given it a spin, I highly recommend doing so. I do not know the motivations behind the site - if any - except that they clearly are trying to offer a better picture of political persuasion than the general discourse we're all surrounded by every day. The essence of their insight is this: it is silly to delineate politics on a simple, one dimensional, left-to-right scale, because there are (at least) two dimensions at play. While I would argue that even a two dimensional representation is limiting, it is at least better than a one dimensional representation.

In the case of the Political Compass, they have selected economic "neo-liberalism" and "communism" as the extremes on the x-axis, and have juxtaposed on the y-axis "fascism" and "anarchism." Those, of course, are over-charged catch phrases-cum-insults that we like to throw around all too often, and so I tend to replace those extremes with their actual meaning. The x-axis, instead, ranges from strict government regulation of commerce ("Communism," as they call it, though Socialism might be a more proper label) to non-regulation (their "Neo-liberalism"), while the y-axis ranges likewise from strict regulation of people ("Fascism") to non-regulation ("Anarchism"). As you can see, the labels they apply make sense, but the connotations that we carry around make the labels too incendiary and, in a way, self-fulfilling. Better to look instead at the meaning.

So what is the meaning? Well, I will not hide from you that I register strongly on the side of government regulation of commerce, whilst also believing strongly that the government should not regulate people. I am joined, internationally and historically, by figures like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the current Dalai Lama (which makes me happy, because I respect all three).* I am not joined, incidentally, by the vast (I mean vast) majority of American politicians, who almost exclusively occupy the upper-right quadrant of unregulated commerce and highly regulated society.

* As you can see, here is where the labels break down. Am I a Communist and an Anarchist? Hardly. Was Gandhi? Mandela? Is the Dalai Lama? Of course not.

What's that? American politicians are social authoritarians?! Believe it or not, the land of the free ought to be called the land of the free enterprise, because we the people aren't seeing the freedom. Consider this map of the major players in the 2008 Presidential primaries:

There's a great Noam Chomsky quotation that I feel like I've mentioned before in this space, but it bears repeating: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

Consider that quotation alongside the above graph. We get all caught up, in America, about how "ultra-conservative" or "ultra-liberal" our politicians are. But, really, with the exceptions of Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich (notably all considered "unelectable" and "outside the mainstream"), not a single one of our Presidential candidates in 2008 was off of the stubby trendline we might draw in that upper-right quadrant. On a scale of -10 to +10 in both dimensions, John McCain and Barack Obama are roughly 2 or 3 steps away from each other in either direction.

Also stunning is this map of the states, by Senator, which you can play around with if you like. The tendencies in our Presidential elections are corroborated by our senatorial representation, as you can see.

Most Americans, I suspect, believe that they live in a country that stands at the pinnacle of both social and economic freedom. That is simply not the case. It is also not the case that Europe is a relative bastion of seedy, left-wing socialists. Most European leaders fall somewhere near where Obama and McCain fall, in the lower part of the upper-right quadrant.

Who, then, falls in the other quandrants? Or, in other words, what good is this spectrum if all the notable people in politics fall in the upper-right? Well, the rest of the graph would be filled in, I expect, by ordinary human beings. In our globalized world, success in politics almost depends upon being, to some degree, a social authoritarian and an economic libertarian. Economic regulation is, simply put, not popular with the companies that, in the end, fuel political campaigns, while social freedom is not popular, ultimately, with the mass of voters who hold fairly strict and Puritanical social virtues.

What is interesting to me, though, is not the phenomenon of the upper-right quadrant, so much as the linearity that exists in that quadrant. With few outliers, most American politicians lie not just in the same approximate place, but along the same approximate line. There is not, in America, much of a debate within each party, because each party is itself content to exist on a linear continuum both with itself, and with the other party. Linearity rules our discourse because, ultimately we are politically linear. The Libertarians - who tend towards both economic and social freedom - are marginalized because we don't have any mechanism for understanding where they stand on our political line.

In short, we have conflated, in America, economic deregulation with social regulation, and have called those two things together "Conservatism." I have known a great many conservatives, few of whom actually believe in social regulation, but they don't realize, often, that the Libertarian and not the Republican Party represents their values. Likewise, I've known many Democrats who would score, like me, in the lower-left quadrant, but who "compromise" on Barack Obama, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, or the Democrat du jour because, damnit, at least it's better than the Republican. Of course, at a certain point, if you score -5 and -5, what's the difference between +2, +3 and +5, +6?

We get so caught up with the language of "left" and "right" in America that we often forget to talk about right and wrong. Those are loaded terms, of course, but they represent a real conversation, rather than an ideological - and unexamined - shouting match. Recalling Chomsky, part of why our current shouting matches are so violent (I'm thinking of the health care debate) is because we're so close to each other. Ironically, it's a lot harder to compromise when you start off in the same room than when you start in different houses, because there's so little distance that either of you can move, and because your motions become so perceptible.

As I said at the outset, I am not personally persuaded by a two-dimensional model of political opinion. It seems to me that human social morality - which makes up the impetus for politics - is far too complicated to capture even on a Cartesian graph, but at least it's better than a straight line. In the long run, the practice of setting ourselves up as foils to each other (I am a Republican, which means I am not a Democrat, or vice versa) serves only to obscure the conversations we should be having, and serves only to help both sides elect politicians who represent, not the breadth of opinion in this country, but a narrow, and therefore uncreative and uncompromising sliver. I challenge you to think outside the quadrant.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why It's All Greek To Me

Thanks to one of my current courses, I've been thinking a lot about educational ideologies lately. The potential purposes of an education are varied and often contradictory, and it is impossible to find a truly objective designer of curriculum. Of course, as we ask "what is the purpose of education," we might as well ask "what is the purpose of life." Education occupies so central a part of existence that it is improbable that anyone will be able to answer the first question without some semblance of an answer for the second in his mind as well.

Rarely, however, does the more philosophical side of things show itself in conversation about education. It is, simply, too unwieldy a consideration, and the tendency is instead to rely upon the prefabricated ideologies of "experts" in the field, built over the years and standing the test of culture. What I mean is, they fit into some cultural structure, whether they are reasonable or not, and they are therefore accepted by the policy-makers and teachers who enact them.

In the end, actually, there is only one ideology that has been adopted by education writ-large, and that is the ideology of political efficacy, which is closely tied to the ideology of profit. Why ought we concern ourselves with schools bent upon producing critical thinkers, skeptics, or well-read snobs when we can try instead to produce good little assembly-line workers? Which, in the end, is more politically efficacious? Which more befitting a stable society?

That's a loaded question, of course, because I have a very specific ideology of my own - or a set of ideologies - which are the result of an open-minded upbringing and a Great Books education. While I might reproduce the arguments, and might even understand them, in essence I take for granted that the rational humanist perspective is inherently a good one, that students ought to be reading the best of the best books ever written (and listening to the best music, and studying the best math, and so on). An outgrowth of rational humanism, naturally, is a certain criticism of modernity, not so much because it is inferior, but rather because it is not so superior or different from the past as it pretends to be.

I have watched, over the course of my albeit brief time here at Stanford, my peers and professors read in amazement the philosophies of modern thinkers on education, as if the ideas therein were new. In some sense they are: Hegel never quite said any of the stuff Dewey says. But in some very important sense they are also not. Modernity - from the hard sciences to the social sciences - is an outgrowth of thousands of years worth of human history. Even with the advent of television and nuclear bombs and the Internet and cars and what have you, the last hundred years of human history are not discontinuous with the hundred years that preceded them. Nor are they necessarily a "progress," except in the basic sense that time is always, inevitably, moving forward.

There is a tendency very much like patriotism that makes us believe that the time in which we live is superior to all other times. In essence, this is just natural egotism taking hold, a result of the very real perception that, in the end, we can only have our own experiences. Perhaps it is not necessary to extrapolate from "my" experience to "the best" experience, but it is nevertheless practically inevitable.

A seemingly inevitable result of this "timeism," as we might call it, is the belief that the best ideas are also new, and that ideas as such have never really had the vivacity that they have today. This is especially prominent in our modern, technological age, where we believe that we have finally perfected this process of science, so much so that we can apply it to anthropology, education, linguistics, psychology, music, and even - going to the very roots of human experience - cooking. There is certainly something to be said for the rate of technological progress in the modern world, but I wonder if there's not also something to be said for the population of the modern world. Are we really progressing faster, per capita, or are there just more of us around to make progress happen?

Regardless, my point is that the increasingly large mass of people that makes up this or any other country is not fundamentally different from the masses of people from any other time. As it turns out, neither are their ideas. Certainly there is growth, and adaptation, and innovation of a kind, but the academic debates - even in a highly practical field like education - are not so different from the debates Socrates had with Parmenides some two millenia ago.

The heart of my ideological conviction that rational humanism - which, in the world of education is synonymous with the Great Books curriculum - is so superior to other potential ideological motivators for a curriculum is just this. Our culture is so much more Greek than we tend to realize, that we ought to at least let some people in on the joke. To be sure, we are far removed from Athens and Sparta, but the philosophical - and linguistic - core of our culture is still to be found in Athenian Democracy, still splayed between Apollo and Dionysus, still tragic, musical, poetic, erotic (all Greek words), and still, well, philosophical.

The intervening millennia tempered and changed human thought (as is well described by Hegel), but they did not reinvent humanity. Humanity is what it has always been, and when we educators try to understand how to teach - or, more to the point, how people learn - we would do well to remember that people have been learning for a lot longer than we've been trying to teach them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sports, Writing, and the Internet (or, Why I Love Joe Posnanski)

The role of athletic competition in our society and culture is, simply put, staggering. Throughout history, a great many societies could probably say that athletics were important to them - the Greek Olympics, for example, point to an athletic aesthetic - but rarely has a culture been so sports-centric as ours is. That perhaps is a sign of stagnation in "high" culture. After all, what athlete attends the opera? But I'm hesitant to put a value on it. Sometimes a baseball game is just as moving as a symphony, after all, albeit in a completely different way.

Nothing demonstrates the importance of sports to our culture, however, quite like the subculture of writing about sports that surrounds it. There is not nearly so much writing about music, or writing about education, or even writing about politics as there is writing about sports. Sports are at the heart of what we confront every day on the television, in the newspaper, on the radio, and on the Internet. The "sports section" of yesteryear - back when newspapers were king - betrays import, but more important is the frequency with which "sports section" stories bled onto the front page, into the news.

Of course, that would never have been possible without sports writers. I won't pretend to know anything about the history or culture of sports writers. I'm sure that people have been writing about sports for as long as sports have been going on (or at least as long as writing has been going on, since sports likely came first).* What's interesting to me is not the whole history, but the transformation that the Internet has pioneered.

*Indeed, there's some interesting "sports writing" in Homer's Iliad, during the funeral games held for Patroclus. As I recall, they're mostly about who won what by how much, and who cheated, and who died in the process of the competition. Replace "died" with "got injured," and you've covered the majority of topics in modern sports writing.

While I'm certain something similar is happening in other sports, I'll talk mostly about baseball, because it's what I know best. Baseball writing, in the last few years, has become increasingly decentralized. This is incredibly problematic for organizations like the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), which was built as an exclusive club of newspaper men who (mostly) covered baseball across the country. These days, with newspapers dying, many of the best writers are to be found lurking in the corners of the Internet. They aren't paid by a large news corporation, and they may not even be professional writers at all.

All of that would hardly pose much a problem, but in baseball, awards are decided by - you guessed it - the BBWAA. Ironically, a great many current BBWAA writers don't even follow baseball anymore, and so when Hall of Fame voting time comes around, they simply submit blank ballots on the principle that "damn kids and their hip hop" don't deserve to be enshrined alongside Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Meanwhile, there are literally hundreds of excellent writers - usually a handful for each team - following baseball in excruciating detail, and writing about it with style and insight.

Not all of these writers are stat-freaks, or champions of the sabermetric revolution.* You'll notice, in my links section, a site called "Fangraphs" and a site called "Pitchers and Poets." Fangraphs is a site of stat-freaks (with occasional Proust references), where Pitchers and Poets says, on their banner, "Fangraphs this ain't." Both are excellent, both speak to the essence of what baseball is, and why it remains such an important part of our culture. Both, however, are completely different.

* The role of changing statistics in baseball I've touched on before, but may write a more detailed post about later. For now, I want to mention that I am a firm believer that modern statistics like wOBA, VORP, WAR, UZR, and the like do not detract from the sport at all, from any perspective. Not only can we understand baseball players better and appreciate their value with greater precision, we can still tell the same stories of greatness, only with a different language.

The argument that new statistics ruin baseball is wrought with fallacy, but perhaps nothing is sillier than the "anti-stat" guy's support of RBI, a statistic. Replacing poor statistics with good ones is does not ruin baseball.

Before the Internet, you were unlikely to run into such variety. There was a fairly formulaic way of writing about baseball, which led to a fairly formulaic understanding of the sport among general audiences. Bill James broke down the door, but it was the Internet that brought the masses - like myself - to a better understanding of what these new fangled statistics are, and how they work. But, more than that, the Internet has also proved a sounding board for the poets among baseball writers. And, what's more even than that, sometimes that stat-freaks and the poets are the same people.

Joe Posnanski
, who I have perhaps mentioned before, is one of those people who straddles the line between stat-freak and poet. He is certainly no mathematician, and certainly no Shakespeare, but there is a frankness about his writing that led one of his readers to once comment, "Joe, I wish you wrote everything I read."

What's so fascinating to me about Posnanski, however, is not his writing style or tremendous, award winning skill, but rather the place he occupies in this new culture of sports writing on the Internet, and the place that culture occupies in our broader culture. Joe is prolific, personal, and probing. Though he writes for a number of sources at the moment - most notably Sports Illustrated - I expect a great many of his readers read only his blog, which he writes in his free time, for fun.

That's the odd place that Joe occupies culturally, because while he is far from alone - there are, as I said, hundreds of excellent baseball writers who write in their spare time, for fun - Joe is a professional sports writer who also keeps a blog for fun. One might cynically argue that this is simply an excellent publicity move, that it helps him sell books and SI sell magazines, but something tells me the time he puts into his mammoth posts doesn't quite pay off on the monetary end.

But it does pay off in a different sense, and that's where culture write large comes in. Joe's blog so often tries to understand the human side of these strange cultural icons we make out of athletes. He's not deconstructing or criticizing what might come across as a strange, backwards culture, nor does he elevate it in the style of hyperbolic apotheosis so many sports writers are prone to adopt. No, Joe's writing places sports squarely where they are - whether they belong there or not - thereby reminding us why and how much we love the moment of tension between the release of a pitch and a swing, whilst keeping us ever-conscious of our own silly fandom.

Posnanski aside, the existence of that kind of writing - writing that deepens sports, making it culturally significant without making it so ESPN-sensationalist that it overcomes all else... Maybe that kind of writing has always existed. But the Internet means that you and I can read blogs by guys in Kansas and Boston and Tampa, blogs that might be better than the best our own newspapers have to offer. And what's more, it gives us access not just to those credentialed, "expert" writers, but also to the amateurs who, it turns out, might be mathematicians or economists or poets looking at baseball, which is infinitely more interesting than a baseball person studying his navel.

I guess the point is that sports writing is still writing, and that good writing is easier to find now than ever before, if only you're willing to look.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Some Thoughts on Martin Luther King

Of the great many holidays we celebrate in the United States, Martin Luther King Day is one of the most honorable. King was not merely a champion in the Civil Rights movement, but also a tremendous organizer of the power of the people, and an outspoken advocate for peace and social justice. It is unfortunate that King so often gets co-opted for political means unbecoming of his own grassroots work,* but that's the nature of these national holidays.

* It seems unlikely that King would support any policy or politician responsible for our wars in Afganistan and Iraq. Consider: "Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours." Some things never change.

Consider also this: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." I'll simply note, briefly, that America's military budget has
increased since Bush left office.

My brief thoughts here will not do justice to King, nor will they give due to the great many other champions that made the Civil Rights movement (King, Jackie Robinson, and Malcolm X were not the only heroes of the era). I do, however, want to mention a much overlooked part of King's career. We make so much of his role in fighting the racist laws and conventions of American society during the 60s, but he spent significant time fighting poverty as well. Indeed, he felt that poverty - much more than policy - was responsible for the subjugation of blacks in America. The social side of racism cannot be separated from the economic one, after all, and the plight of poor whites is just as dire as the plight of poor blacks.

"The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."

Is this an idealistic vision? An impossible demand? Technologically, no, it is not. "Practically" it may very well be, but that is primarily because of the great many powerful people who survive and strive on the poverty of others. Poverty is not necessary, per se, but it is necessary in a capitalist economy. King's anti-capitalist sentiments are often kept on the down-low, especially on this holiday - and this year in particular, where many will celebrate the "victory" of Barack Obama's election as President, ignoring the fact that blacks are still treated as inferior if not socially, economically throughout the country.

Above all, though, King was a revolutionary who believed uncompromisingly in his idealistic vision, and who believed that it could be achieved through nonviolence. Is that naive? We certainly treat similar thinkers today like it is. And it is fair to say that King alone did not cause the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps he influenced it - much as Gandhi influenced the Indian independence effort - and turned it from a potentially more confrontational path, but confrontation still happened, violence still ruled many a day, and poverty - the root cause of social stratification along ethnic lines - remains unchecked.

I do not think Martin Luther King Day is meant to be a time when we reflect and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Rather, it should be a call to action. King's vision of a fair and just society for all has not been realized, and it will continue to take the work and energy of the millions to fulfill it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Towards Defining Great Music, Part Five: Nicht Diese Tone

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is, of course, one of the most famous pieces of music ever recorded. Who hasn't heard the "Ode to Joy?" Which young piano student doesn't learn the melody?

Of the many reasons for the fame of the Ninth Symphony, however, the most curious is the presence of a choir. Not only was this a new addition to the symphonic style, it was also new to Beethoven. In a time when opera was the rage - and in the shadow of the master of opera, Mozart - Beethoven curiously composed only one opera (which was not successful) and a spattering of songs. In short, lyrics were not his forte, and composing for the human voice was essentially unknown to him. How odd, then, that his perhaps best known melody (up there with the opening of the 5th Symphony) is one of the very few he wrote for the voice.

Why did Beethoven compose so little music for the voice? Why is the Ninth Symphony, on the contrary, the Chorale Symphony? Those questions hardly seem to address the problem I've been dancing around for the last month, but I believe they are actually at the heart of the question. Great Music ought, I believe, to speak for itself, and no composer is as systematic in his rejection of lyric - in, we might say, his elevation of pure, instrumental music - as Beethoven. His symphonies and sonatas claim that they are comprehensible to the musical mind without the attendant translation of singers and words. Their purpose, indeed, might be inexpressible except through music alone.

If any music is great, then, to my mind, this is a key ingredient: it must be the music which is great. Music with lyric may very well be great, but by removing the lyrics, we can find music pure, and see whether greatness is even possible. Indeed, the question, "Is there Great music?" should be reconstituted thus: "Is there music which speaks for itself, and which expresses something words cannot." Perhaps all music does that, perhaps only some. But Great music would almost certainly do it and do it well, expressing not "I'm extremely sad in a way words cannot express," but revealing, instead, we might say, what the non-linguistic root of sadness is. What, indeed, the spiritual, emotional, mythical, or animal root might be.

Because we are moving - by necessity - into the realm of pure music, words will almost certainly fail us soon. Nevertheless, let us push on a little further, so we can see what lies at the borderlands between language and music, and see whether that further realm is fallow or fertile.

So let's start with a piece. The Kreutzer Sonata. Not quite "early" Beethoven (whose music is notoriously similar to that of his mentor Haydn), but still fairly early in his life. The first movement, which I have linked to above, is a stunning adventure through what sounds, more than anything, like the frustrations of tremendous romantic desire. And yet also it could be a lover's quarrel. Either way, it is violent and intense, raging from major to minor and back again, displaying a dizzying give and take between the piano and violin that is not quite cooperative, but is not quite confrontational either.

I must confess that my interpretation of this piece is colored by two sources. Tolstoy wrote a short story called "The Kreutzer Sonata" about this very piece, and it is a dark and disturbing work about jealousy and violence in love. In addition, the movie "Immortal Beloved" places this piece centrally in its narrative, claiming that it is the result of a frustrated Beethoven when his carriage gets stuck in the mud, causing him to miss his rendezvous with his beloved.

Neither of those specific images, however, really captures the meaning of the piece, as I understand it. Rather, exactly what makes the Kreutzer great is that it can accurately be conveyed by two such disparate physical situations. Why can it do that? Because it is not limited by any words you can apply to it. The spiritual and emotional processes behind it - the feelings that it reveals to us - are expressible most completely exactly by sonata, and that same feeling can be traced to both Tolstoy's story and the movie.

I won't go into depth on the Kreutzer now - rather, I want to save for future posts exploration of Beethoven's works - so instead I can point out a couple other words that I find comparably profound, as further argument for Great Music.

Consider the Spring sonata as well.* While not as intense as the Kreutzer, the Spring is one of, I think, Beethoven's most intensely romantic works. Unlike much of his "romantic" music, the Spring is not rife with conflict or frustration, capturing instead the lighter and more playful side of love (the "Spring" side, if you will). I point to it as a contrast to the Kreutzer, and because it is also a violin sonata. It is worth finding violin sonatas by other composers and comparing them to Beethoven. No other composer comes close to his mastery of the interaction between violin and piano, if only because he is not afraid to understand the instruments as lover and beloved, rather than merely as instruments. Beethoven's violin sonatas have a built-in sexual tension that is unmatched elsewhere.

* In all four movements.

I've linked to this before, but here's Beethoven's Appassionata sonata in an excellent performance. This, like the Kreutzer, is an intense and almost violent work. Its title is telling, but "passionate" doesn't really explain the nature of the passion on display. And yet, listening to the appassionata, one cannot help but "get it" without really being able to say what it "gotten."

There are other pieces I could mention, but I want to jump forward to the 9th Symphony, since I think I've paved the way for my ultimate point.* What is fascinating about the 9th Symphony - as I mentioned at the outset - is that Beethoven puts a choir in the final movement. It's more than worth listening to the entire thing on the way to that choir, of course, because of how they make their entrance: "O Fruende, Nicht Diese Tone..."

* Karajan conducting.

"Oh friends, not these tones. Let us sing yet more joyfully." Beethoven wrote the opening to the choir's lines, and then borrowed the remainder from Schiller. Legend has it that he anguished over those opening lines, unsure whether to introduce Schiller's "Ode to Joy" by name, or to signal instead some of the key themes of the text to follow. He settled, instead, on looking back, "Not these tones." The 9th Symphony is in D minor, until this moment, at which point it switches to D Major.

What is important to remember, however, is that the choir does not sing right away in the final movement. Instead, the orchestra by themselves play exactly what the choir is about to sing. The meaning is already there, the choir is just there for clarification. Indeed, Beethoven is cautioning the listener not to take too seriously the lyrics, or at least to be a little critical of the deeper meaning. Which words does he, in the end, emphasize? Which sections are presented with some musical sarcasm? Humor? Sincerity?

I'll return to the 9th Symphony at some point - possibly in a recapitulation of my senior thesis at St. John's - but for now I want to point to this: Beethoven creates a whole realm of spiritual meaning in the body of his work, meaning that would be diminished by lyric. When he finally did incorporate lyrics into his music, in his final symphony, it was done with slyness and humor.

Perhaps that doesn't answer any of our questions about Great Music. For my part, I'm not sure there is a conclusive argument to be made about music, if only because we each have such different experiences. Nevertheless, there is a reason that musicologists and theorists study Beethoven and Mozart and Wagner (and even some non-Germans) so closely. Their music, if you can unlock your ear, speaks a language divine. Perhaps music of any genre can do that, but I wonder whether the complexity of the harmony in what is broadly called "classical" music isn't actually an essential part of that language, a part we too often leave out nowadays.

Either way, there is a modern conception that Beethoven and his ilk - those long-dead white men - wrote music that is boring. That is a terrible mistake. Whether you accept any of my premises, trust me on this: all of those stereotypes that we associate with classical music - old foagies sitting around listening to boring, fluffy violins while they smoke their pipes - are not true. Beethoven has more to do with what you listen to today than you think, and if that does not make his music great, it at the very least makes it important.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Towards Defining Great Music, Part Four: Modern Music

I heard there was a secret chord,
That David played, and it pleased the Lord,
But you don't really care for music, do you?

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

Popular music throughout history has found itself both indebted to and in conflict with so-called "art music." There was a time when the conflict was essentially religious; popular music was vulgar, meaningless, and the work of peasants while art music was composed almost exclusively for the church. Gregorian chant fits this model, of course, but much of the medieval polyphony that followed was likewise devotional. Giovanni Perluigi de Palestrina was probably the most prolific and famous composer of his time, and it is no accident that he was also deeply religious.

It is not my intention to trace the history of popular music, as such, but rather to point out that art music and popular music have always shared a reciprocal relationship. Though the more deliberate forms that make up symphonies and operas have always had a kind of aristocratic preference over the more streetwise popular forms of every era, innovations in either one almost always became innovations in the other. Over time, as the distance between art music and popular music has decreased, those innovations have been shared more and more readily. But even during the classical and romantic eras, folk melodies became the rage, and the eerie dissonances heard on the streets and in brothels began to make their way into the music of Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and especially Dvorák.

It is impossible to discuss modern popular music (and modern art music) without confronting jazz. Though it has been waning in popularity since, frankly, the 50s, jazz is perhaps the single most influential genre in the history of Western music. Though of course it is based upon European harmonies, it transformed the formal and rhythmic essences that those very harmonies had always existed in, and therefore also began to transform the harmonies themselves. As a result, even recent composers of art music - such as Bernstein, Copland, and Gershwin - have written a kind of "classical jazz," extracting the solo, but leaving the remainder of jazz form, harmony, and rhythm.

Modern art music, however, is even more marginalized than jazz, occupying a small niche among musicologists and the "pretentious for the sake of pretension" crowd that makes up our modern aristocracies (though we tend to prefer gentry, or "upwardly mobile"). I could say much about some of the better modern composers, like John Tavener or Arvo Part, but they don't really constitute what I mean by modern music. Judgment as to the greatness of their music will not come any time soon.

Modern popular music, on the other hand, is an interesting case. My object here - as I spiral towards (or away from) a definition of great music - is to consider whether popular music can be great. Because that question is unanswerable, I fear, for the time being, I expect rather to address what the purpose and effect of modern music is, and whether that seems to befit greatness.

The quotation with which this posts begins comes from a piece you have probably heard in many versions. Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah may not be the most harmonically complex piece of music ever, but to me it captures the essence of what modern music is. There are many songs we could look at, of course, but Hallelujah straddles them all: it is about music, it is a love song (like so much modern, and indeed historical, music), it has a simple and repetitive harmonic structure, it has lyrics which are probably as important as the song itself, and it is immensely popular. The first of these qualities should not be overlooked. It is always informative to look at music which is about music itself when trying to understand the work of an era.

Cohen calls attention, from the beginning of his piece, to the simple harmony he's using. "It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth." Those words could be in just about any modern song, and in many that would cover the entirety of the harmonic variation. In Cohen, however, there are a couple wrinkles. Hallelujah fluctuates continuously between C Major and A minor, keys which share the same scale, but which have very different harmonic qualities. His "fourth" and "fifth" indicate that the piece is in C, ultimately, but the minor twinge is unavoidable. What's more, besides the four, five, and six ("the minor fall," which is also A), there is a guest appearance from E minor, the three. In classical music this would not happen without a modulation as well, but here it works because E is the dominant of A, meaning that the presence of the E minor - though it is minor and not the expected Major - reinforces the sense that either C or A could be the tonic.

Ok, harmonic hand-wringing aside, Hallelujah is much more complex than most modern, popular music, but not be a lot. The form repeats itself over and over, and what variation occurs in the melody or harmony is the work of the individual performer, and not the intent of the piece. Nevertheless, the harmonic "trick" here is to inspire a kind of restless wandering in the listener's ear. Is it Major? Minor? How ought I to feel, when listening to this piece? Of course, the lyrics reinforce that confusion, answering with a resounding "both." Hallelujah is desperately joyful, but defeated. Its title and lyrics are not ironic so much as reflective. Hallelujah - and you can't avoid the comparison with this title - is not what Handel thought it was. It's not a chorus of angels, "It's not a cry that you hear at night, it's not somebody that's seen the light."

Whether the message connects with you or not, the song is incredibly persuasive because of its harmonic workings. That it tries to access a basic human experience - love - and that it acknowledges not just the stereotypical emotions we experience therein makes it all the more powerful. So many love songs are about wanting: I want you back, I want to hold your hand, I want you to live forever, and so on... Hallelujah expresses neither the pain of lost love nor the expectation of unrequited love. Rather, it tries to access the inexpressible desires - spiritual, musical, human - that cannot be fulfilled. It dashes the expectations of those naive love songs which believe that "happily ever after" means dancing every day: "Love is not a victory march." In Hallelujah, there is melancholy of the truest form, the unrequited, unspoken desires of being that are not good or evil or even in between.

I have chosen an exceptional case, however, for this reason. While Hallelujah accesses that essential feeling - doing it through both words and music - it does little more than alert us, or remind us, that it is there. How much modern music can even say that much? We may associate music with certain emotions and memories, but our own associations do not therefore make that music great. Even Hallelujah falls short, to my mind, of greatness because it feels so ravaged, so Orphic, so uncontrollable.

Modern music is almost always about the lyrics. Unfortunately, the result is that modern music has more complicated and sophisticated lyrics than the music of almost any other time, whilst having simpler harmonies, rhythms, and melodies. That doesn't mean modern music need not be enjoyable, but it does mean that, when you strip the lyrics away, you also strip the meaning away. Music without meaning is not, to me, great. Even Hallelujah - one of the closest things I can find to a piece of great, modern, popular music - is repetitive and essentially meaningless without its lyrics. Compare, again, Handel's Hallelujah. Take away the lyrics - which most people don't know anyway - and the meaning is still clear. The piece doesn't change without the words.

Perhaps modern music should be judged by the standards of poetry? That's fine with me. I'm certain a great deal of it is good or even excellent poetry. But that does not mean it is great music. Music is far too sacred an art, and far to complicated a craft, to strip it of its complexity and hope that it might still be great. Modulation (changing the tonic from one key to another during a piece) is not a necessary condition of greatness, but a piece without it has to work extra hard. Why? Because modulation helps to give a deeper, subtler sense of meaning to a work, and deep, subtle meanings are the especial purview of music.

Put it this way. Remember from a previous post what Arnold Schopenhauer said. Music is, essentially, the mind doing metaphysics. He argued, in short, that music is the only possible route to understanding what things really are. I don't know that I agree with that, but I do like the sentiment. Music is not a language, it is beyond language. Music expresses things which are beyond language. Poetry tries to do just that, but, in my opinion, music has preference over poetry because it does not merely try. It is hard to go beyond language with language, and so a music built upon lyrics is a music that has artificially limited itself. On the other hand, a music built upon music - even if that requires a little more study and effort on the part of the listener - is destined to express something a bit more essential.

Of course, you might hold that music does no such thing. Perhaps you say, "It's a vehicle for words, and without them, it is meaningless." Fair enough, but it doesn't sound that way to me. That, however, is the subject - or at least a part of the subject - of our next and final post in this series. While there are many possible avenues available, expect my rebuttal to your "music needs words" argument to come in the form of Beethoven.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Towards Defining Great Music, Part Three: What is Music?

What is this thing, this music, after all? There is perhaps nothing more pervasive to our culture that remains so unexamined by so many. Music surrounds us, especially in this era of iPods, the iTunes store, and online radio like LastFM and Pandora. Without music, what would our movies be? Without music, how would be punctuate our joy, our sadness, or our desire?

At the beginning of the school year, a fellow student of mine described her first time in an MRI as a musical experience. The whirring and throbbing of the machine struck her as a kind of new age techno beat. The ancient Greeks thought that music was present in the stars and planets themselves, as they revolved in perfect musical intervals. If the solar system hums, what is its melody? Its harmony?

Are those things - an MRI, or the sky - music? I fear I've started us down a bit of a mystical path, rather than resolving the basics (harmony, melody, rhythm). The mystical path, however, might be the right one here. In trying to find "Great Music," ought we not define music in such a way that it might be great? Ought we search not for its formal constraints, but for its spiritual ones?

Of course, we ought to do both, and I intend to try a little of each. Nevertheless, I want the reader to keep in mind, throughout, the words of Beethoven: "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." In what sense this is true is a question, but there's something about that quotation that seems right. Why? What is this music?

Traditionally, music is broken into three key components: melody, harmony, and rhythm. None of the three has particular precedence, necessarily, but the argument is that all three must be present for music to truly exist. That, ultimately, is not truly the case (a great many pieces were written before harmony - in the modern sense - came around), but it is a fair enough assessment.

Melody, quite simply, is the tune. The progression of notes that constitutes the part that you hum to yourself. Melody is also where most musical variation occurs. Even in highly sophisticated harmonic music - like that of the Classical Era - there were really only a handful of acceptable harmonic progressions, with melody doing the heavy musical lifting. Indeed, melody is, in some sense, the essence of a piece. Take away harmony and the piece remains recognizable. The same cannot be said of melody.

That said, harmony is also vital, albeit in a less obvious way. Most melodies - at least those written in the last 500 years or so - are written with harmony in mind. Indeed, modern harmony is so entrenched in our experience of music that, if you ask a beginner to compose a melody, he will almost always compose something that fits into, for example, a modern, 12-bar blues harmony. Without even trying. How much more, then, do the professional musicians and composers of our culture tend towards harmonic regularity?

Even music written before "harmony," however, takes a kind of harmony into consideration. To our modern ears, we give precedence to vertical harmony: the concurrent sounding of notes. Historically, horizontal harmony - or the succession of notes - was also important. Now "the horizontal succession of notes" may sound a lot like melody, and in some sense it is. That's an oversimplification, however, because it ignores the relationship of one note to another in that succession. Sure, a good melody may also be harmonically cohesive, but it need not necessarily be so.

To highlight this concept, consider Gregorian Chant. While certainly devoid of harmony in any modern sense, there was an overarching harmony dictated by the "mode" of the chant. That is, the scale available to the composer of the chant was determined by the mode he was writing in. Some chants might be in what we now call a "minor" key, while others would be in a "major." This is a purely harmonic distinction, of course, but it pervades even an ostensibly melodic form of music. One might say that the melody is minor, of course, but that is saying that the melody has harmonic qualities.

The point being, harmony is just as big a part of music as melody. Our modern ears, of course, reject music without the more complicated, vertical harmony (even if we tend to prefer a narrow selection of vertical possibilities), so perhaps its not worth even arguing against the notion that harmony might not be essential to music. But we still sing to ourselves or each other without accompaniment from time to time, and we still enjoy those moments in rock songs when the background stops and the singer belts the line without the band. Even at those moments, however, there is a kind of harmony.

If melody and harmony make up the "what" of what is said in a piece of music, rhythm makes up the "how." Rhythm without harmony or melody could hardly be called music, but it is rhythm - beyond anything else - that separates all other noise from music. All sounds have a pitch, and any two concurrent or successive pitches make for harmony. It is the rhythmic intent of sounds that makes them strike us as music. In some sense, rhythm is the most important part of music, though certainly not what we think of first.

And yet, when you hum a tune to yourself, do you always hum the melody correctly? Do you hear the harmony in your head? Could you sing the parts of every instrument? Often we get the words, melody, and even harmony wrong for a piece, but the piece remains recognizable. On the other hand, almost everyone who hums the Star Spangled Banner - even if they change keys, get half the notes wrong, and make the whole thing minor - will get the rhythm right. What's more, we recognize songs by their rhythms. My piano teacher showed me something once that I have in turn done for all (what, 5?) of my piano students.

One of the earliest fears of any musician is the fear of messing up. When we make a mistake playing music, our tendency is to stop and start over, or to muddle through the piece, making sure we get the melody and harmony right at the expense of any semblance of coherence. Early piano students are notoriously bad for this reason, especially because they don't yet have the skills to "make it up" for a time until they recover the piece.

Even so, it's important for early students to learn that they can make it up, so here's what my teacher showed me. You sit down at the piano and play the melody of the Star Spangled Banner, but play it without any real sense of time. Accelerate certain notes and slow others, and generally muddle it up. Many students will recognize it, but most will actually not. On the other hand, if you just pound out the rhythm, without any regard for playing the notes correctly, you'll see a knowing smile. "Oh yeah, that's the national anthem," you'll hear.

Which just goes to show: rhythm is truly at the core of what we experience when we hear music. My classmate in the MRI machine was having a rhythmic experience, more than anything else, with only a vague sense of harmony or melody, but yet she felt it was musical. I would argue that it wasn't, strictly speaking, actually all that musical. But I understand the sentiment, and I acknowledge that it gets to the heart of the matter.

As for the Greeks and their spinning, musical toy box of a solar system, that's a more complicated matter. They were speaking of harmony, and not rhythm, but really they were speaking of none of the three components of music that I've covered.

The notion that the stars behave in some kind of musical pattern is nonsense to us today, but I think that the sentiment here was that music occupies an almost magical place in human experience. The Greeks believed - as did Beethoven - that music stood somewhere beyond human experience, whilst remaining a part of it. It was certainly communicative, powerful enough to warrant special attention in Plato's Republic, and profoundly mysterious. In advanced musicians, it is the same part of the brain that most of us use for language that initializes when looking at a musical score - which lends itself to the "music is a language" notion - but that does not mean that music can speak.

Even our modern music, which in many cases gives preference to lyrics over melody, harmony, or rhythm, cannot avoid the mute but powerful conversation that music has. Music theory can only go so far in explaining what and why music does what it does to our minds and hearts. Certainly that does not mean we should abandon the study of music, letting it affect us however it affects us, but it does mean that we have to be careful with our formal definitions. How much do harmony, melody, and rhythm really matter to our experience of a piece? Are they none of the story, part of the story, or the whole story?

For my part, I think they are a significant part, but not the whole story. As we search for "Great Music," it seems to me that the mark of greatness in music comes from some combination of expert use of the three more comprehensible aspects of music so as to make a piece with a profound meaning that is, alas, nearly inexpressible. Arthur Schopenhauer argued that music was the only way to see the world objectively; music is the mind unconsciously performing metaphysics. Beethoven would approve.

In my next post - on modern music - I'll try to confront this metaphysics in popular music. I don't think that popular music need be disparaged as worthless, but I certainly am wary of it as being great, and I believe there is a great deal of dangerous music (not in a "get off my lawn you stupid kids!" way, but in a more spiritual way) in the world. The purpose of that post, however, will not be to assess modern music so much as to better establish criteria for greatness in music. Since we're mostly more familiar with what's around today than with what is generally considered canonical, hopefully I'll be able to provide some concrete examples that are familiar to all.