Sunday, November 21, 2010

John Adams Puts John Cage In Context

In today’s New York Times Review of Books, composer John Adams reviews a biography of John Cage, the most famous—and, depending on your perspective, most infamous—of 20th century avant garde composers.

Cage is best known for 4’33”: four minutes and thirty three seconds of a performer not playing the piano. At its premiere, 4’33” irritated many audience members, who thought they were getting the musical equivalent of the silent treatment. About them Cage later said:

They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.

In his review, Adams aptly summarizes that Cage “upended long-held conventions about the listening process and prodded us to re-evaluate how we define not only music but the entire experience of encountering art.” However, Adams’ most interesting comments are elsewhere in the issue. In the “Up Front” section, where the editors provide a brief profile of Adams, they write:

Does Adams listen to Cage very often these days? “It sounds absurd to say that Cage was ‘hugely influential’ and then admit you rarely listen to his music, but that’s the truth for me, and I suspect it’s the same for most composers I know,” Adams said by e-mail. “Cage helped to open my awareness and acceptance of sound — all sounds, not just the pitches of the musical scale. And he set an example for liberating musical forms from the hand-me-down archetypes of European tradition. I don’t agree with those who consider Cage the most important composer after Stravinsky. I think much of his later work is fundamentally, even tediously, didactic. A work like 4’33” is a demonstration, a lesson in how to listen, so to speak. But to equate its artistic value, as some have, with a work like The Rite of Spring is to confuse art with philosophy.“

On the paradox that is John Cage’s legacy, the above is the best paragraph’s worth of wisdom I’ve ever seen.

[The quote by Cage is from his Wikipedia page, sourced there to Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage.]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ham the Astrochimp

Ham the Astrochimp was the United States’ first pre-astronaut in space. I knew that. But reading Craig Nelson’s Rocket Men, I learned how tough a job it was.

January 31, 1961: Mercury-Redstone 2 took off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-5 carrying three-year-old Cameroonian pilot Ham (aka “#61”), who had been trained by Holloman Air Force Base at White Sands with carrots (banana pellets) and sticks (electric shocks to the soles of the feet). For those who believed NASA was ready to launch human beings, this mission upended that hope. First the training system in the capsule went haywire, administering to Ham repeated electric shocks, even while he was perfectly executing his chores. The capsule was supposed to travel at 1,970 meters per second; instead, it raced along at 2,298. An abort call was made, which yanked the retro rockets, but Mission Control could not slow the capsule for reentry. Then a snorkel valve lost its pin, and the cabin lost its pressure—but since Ham was in his own spacesuit, he was unharmed. He also seemed unharmed by being subjected to just under 15 g’s, instead of the 11 that was expected. On splashdown, the heat shield punctured the capsule, and between the holes it made and the broken valve, by the time the navy hauled the Mercury out of the sea, it had taken on eight hundred pounds of water and was sinking fast.

After recovery, Ham got an apple and an orange for surviving his mission, but tried to bite anyone who dared draw near; as the mission log noted, “Sometime later, when he was shown the spacecraft, it was visually apparent that he had no further interest in cooperating with the space flight program.”

Ham subsequently went into retirement, spending his remaining 22 years in zoos. He has a Wikipedia page.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wooden Boats by Michael Ruhlman

Early in Wooden Boats, Michael Ruhlman presents a paradox. The vast majority of today’s boats are fiberglass, their parts stamped out on assembly lines. Yet a magazine dedicated to hand-built wooden boats, WoodenBoat, is among the most popular in the boating world. It has 100,000 subscribers, ten times the number of wooden boats in the United States.

With that ten-to-one ratio of aspirants to owners, something needs explaining. Ruhlman does so via the people and boats of Gannon & Benjamin (G&B), a boatyard in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. He follows the design and construction of two G&B boats, covering everything from the wood’s provenance to shop-floor techniques.

Through it all, Ruhlman tells the G&B people’s stories, especially those of the principles, Ross and Nat, and their stubbornly idealistic way of boat-building: You must build a boat that, with proper care, will live forever. Your design must be worthy of forever, honing form and function to a point of perfection. Your materials must be natural complements to the air and water the boat will sail on, and against. You have thousands of years of wooden-boat practice to study. Learn it, preserve it, and carry it forward.

This worldview matters because mechanized production and modern materials can create good boats at relatively low cost, but they cannot create great, timeless boats.

Caring about such things is peculiarly human. The G&B boat-builders care. So do the 100,000 people that read WoodenBoat, even if most have settled for fiberglass in their own boats. Ruhlman wants you to care too.

It will help if you have a taste for the details of craftsmanship—why the cotton caulk is placed just so around countersunk bolt heads—because Wooden Boats has a lot of that. But it’s the people’s stories that make the book shine, assuming you see light in others’ idealism.

Not everyone does, a point Ruhlman makes in a vignette about visitors to the G&B shop:

Two strangers who had heard about the schooner walked along the staging, having a look around. They were a middle-aged man and woman, one a pragmatist, the other a romantic. They hung over the transom and stared down into the cavernous hull.

“You can see the world in here!” the woman exclaimed.

The man said, “That’s a lot of wood.”

Wooden Boats is about what people choose to see when they look down into that cavernous hull.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Waiting for Superman

I see a lot of documentary films. Few have hit as hard, both emotionally and intellectually, as Waiting for Superman. By way of summary, here are some critics’ quotes from Metacritic:

  • “Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim’s scathing, moving critique of American public education, makes you actually want to do something after you dry your eyes.” (The Washington Post)
  • “This is more than an Important Documentary: it is engaging and, finally, enraging - as captivating as any ‘Superman’ movie, and as poignant as a child’s plea for help.” (Time)
  • “This is one of the most galvanizing documentaries I’ve ever seen.” (New York)
  • “This movie isn’t just a necessity (listen up, do-nothing politicians) - it might change your future.” (Rolling Stone)

Waiting for Superman goes beyond the familiar story of failing inner-city schools to show solutions that are working. It also addresses the hidden failures of suburban public schools, many of which have acceptable average test scores that hide a giant achievement gap between students “tracked” for success and the rest.

Most of all, Waiting for Superman puts a face on the victims of bad schools. You will meet kids whose only view of “equality of opportunity” is a long-odds lottery for placement in a good school. You will feel the wrongness in your heart, not just of these particular kids’ fates but of the system stacked against them.

See the film. It’s a testament to the power of what a documentary can be.