Saturday, April 04, 2009

April 6, 1962: Gould vs. Brahms

It was almost exactly 47 years ago that Leonard Bernstein walked onstage and gave a disclaimer, explaining to his audience that the performance of Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto they were about to hear would be unorthodox. Glenn Gould brought with him a radically reinterpreted version of the concerto, with almost complete disregard for Brahms' tempi and dynamics. Lenny "didn't completely agree" with the interpretation, but in the "sportive" spirit of music collaborated with Gould in front of a surprised audience. Of course, with Gould sitting 14 inches off the floor on a rickety chair, one might suspect that the musical outcome might not be the traditional white-tie affair.

Now, for many listeners, the differences were likely academic. For those familiar with the Concerto, I suspect the reactions varied from fascination to disgust. Almost 50 years later, this performance stands as an anomaly, and has been issued only once (without much mastering, which is a shame, but on rehearing it closely there are problems in the orchestra that might be tough to fix...bassoon tuning?).

Shortly after this performance, Gould gave up live performance for good. His venue became the studio exclusively. The studio offered him the level of control he desired to experiment with familiar music without the need to explain himself within the rite of the concert spectacle.

I've been listening through his recordings over the past few weeks. Good Canadian that I am, I have known these recordings for 3 decades, now. But I'm hearing them with fresh ears and a new perspective. Most people encounter Gould through his Bach recordings, and that's a good place to start. His Well-Tempered recordings inspire reactions similar to the 1962 Brahms Concerto, I'm sure. He races through some pieces with a blaze of technique. Other pieces (esp the F minor prelude in WTC I), he stretches out like dough until they almost fall apart. He finds internal melodic lines that emerge like colours and then disappear. Staccato articulation abounds, usually to attract attention to sustained motivic counterpoint elsewhere. For instance, he will often use a pianissimo staccato in the outer voices when a complicated inner fugue subject enters. It draws the ear to the important stuff. At Other times, you get the sense that he just wants to play staccato, damn it.

In the Brahms, his unorthodox choices are made for similar reasons: bring out harmonic progressions or inner lines that he finds interesting that are buried in the score. But is it bastardization of the composer's intentions? Does it matter?

There is something larger going on, though. Think of it this way. Music is interesting because it plays upon our sense of underlying form. Composers work with the "surface" material, exposing the formal structure then layering new structures over top. Those places where a composer (like Beethoven, esp.) challenges the formal structure, breaks it, reforms it...those places are what draw us back to music again and again. The listener's involvement in the music comes from sensing the distance between what is expected and what actually happens. For Beethoven, it was his efforts to challenge the restrictions of classical form. For Brahms, it was a revisiting of earlier forms filled with new harmonic and rhythmic language. For jazz musicians, it is the use of familiar tunes extended by layers of improvisation.

In the Brahms Concerto, Gould challenges some of those local, intra-work forms. He draws attention to transitions, harmonies, internal lines, and form as if he were working in a recording studio. In that "live" studio, he pulls and pushes faders, adjusts EQ, fiddles with tape speed, and manipulates the source material until it reflects new things. From a larger point of view, he is creating a new layer of Brahms that makes the most sense when layered with other performances of Brahms. On its own, it is a curiosity. When seen as a layer combined with other layers (performances by others), it challenges not just the form, but the interpretations of that particular form. His divergence from traditional performances becomes the interesting part of the experience. Without comparison against other performances, it is just an isolated anomaly. One thing cannot diverge on its own. Divergence results from comparison.

So, like his interpretations or not, Gould's lasting effect is to push on our complacency. We may ultimately settle back to other performers (like for me, preferring Aldwell's more fluid, romantic recording of the WTC, or the Zimerman/Rattle Brahms 2), but we do so with a stronger sense of what is possible. Gould's "manipulations" reflect in non-Gould performances because they have become part of our mental model of the music.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Protectionism Leads To Conflict

Protectionism is in the news. As the global economy continues to slow, politicians are uttering protectionist rhetoric, some of which may make its way into legislation. I happened to be in Ottawa during Barack Obama's visit in February 2009. Despite his soaring popularity north of the 49th parallel, the shadow of protectionism could not be avoided. If held to the letter, the US Administration's "Buy American" statements produce a grim scenario for Canadian trade. On further reflection, I wonder what it actually means to "Buy American" anyways. The flat world scenario suggests that the interconnectedness of supply chains and strategic initiatives extinguish national boundaries. Protectionism is unlikely to be able to roll back that train: it has already left the station.It seems that the US Administration understands this, based on promises to soften the language. Economic officials worldwide are breathing a cautious sigh of relief (e.g., see this Reuter's article).

Regardless, protectionism is dangerous. That's why, especially in Europe, there has been such an uproar against it: Idealogical protectionism is verboten. I was reminded of this while reading Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. The nationalist fervor and concomitant protectionism that characterized Europe at the end of the 19th century eventually led to the 30-year conflict that encompassed both WW1 and WW2. Judt writes:

The internal conflicts and inter-state antagonisms of the years between the world wars were exacerbated — and in some measure, provoked — by the accompanying collapse of the European economy. [Those countries that were able to rebuild following WW1] were brought low by The Slump of the Thirties, when deflation, business failures and desperate efforts to erect protective tariffs against foreign competition resulted only in unprecedented levels of unemployment and wasted industrial capacity but also the collapse of international trade [...] accompanied by bitter inter-state competition and resentment.(p4)

Europe's experience with the direct catastrophe of the wars fostered an economic pessimism (realism?) that shaped the second half of their 20th century. American lessons were considerably more optimistic, at least until late 2007.

OK, enough history. But I do have a point.

Norman horses
Protectionism is also at work within our organizations. The classic inter-state conflict occurs between business and IT ("If only we could just align", he lamented). But, I see it just as often (and with more venom) in the relationship between lines of business. As the economy constricts and budgets atrophy, it is typical for groups within an organization to protect what is theirs: Hold on to those discretionary initiatives! Shield the cuts!Let your business peer take the fall! My priorities are paramount!Better them than us! (Note the dead guys in the margins of the Bayeux Tapestry.)

But, a corporation is not a collection of fiercely independent nation states. It is a collection of highly dependent nation states. The effective corporation (or government entity, etc.) balances centralization with autonomy. and makes it easy to accomplish horizontal goals without sacrificing vertical advantages. The verticals within the organization provide a variety of experiences for the consumer (i.e., appropriate for their needs), while the horizontal efficiencies drive down cost and minimize conflict. In the end, everyone benefits.(This has been the promise of the European Union, for example.)

Protectionism within an organization sets up dangerous dynamics that are harmful to the overall health of that organization. In these economic times, it is essential to reduce risk by encouraging pervasive trust within our corporations. People are nervous, and isolation is no solution.

Despite its intentions, protectionism is a risky proposition.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Terry Jack, Bowmore Darkest, and IM

Following my buddy Amie's lead, it is sometimes amusing to look back on IM strings. Stream of consciousness rules.

This one between Mike Rollings and I; we keep each other entertained on long calls.

flyfishermanmrr (10:23:36 AM): I guess we are appropriately utilized this morning. Pat yourself on the back for proper use of resources.
chowardAtBurton (10:23:48 AM): call me Balance Man
chowardAtBurton (10:23:56 AM): i'm just a big fawking F5
flyfishermanmrr (10:24:09 AM): hurricane?
chowardAtBurton (10:24:14 AM): BigIP
flyfishermanmrr (10:24:51 AM): ?
chowardAtBurton (10:24:57 AM): sorry, i'm being too obtuse
flyfishermanmrr (10:25:04 AM): I'm laughing because I really don't understand
chowardAtBurton (10:25:10 AM): F5 is a load balancing product
flyfishermanmrr (10:25:28 AM): oh. that's where you went
chowardAtBurton (10:25:39 AM): yeah...i strayed down that path. bewildered
flyfishermanmrr (10:25:55 AM): the search returned a null set
chowardAtBurton (10:26:06 AM):
flyfishermanmrr (10:26:12 AM): but that happens more as I get older
chowardAtBurton (10:26:19 AM): you and me both
flyfishermanmrr (10:26:25 AM): who am I IMing with ?
flyfishermanmrr (10:26:36 AM): oh yeah, the name is on the line
chowardAtBurton (10:26:45 AM): scary
flyfishermanmrr (10:27:32 AM): I need to go work out and learn something today. maybe this afternoon
flyfishermanmrr (10:27:48 AM): you know we are heading into the season of killing brain cells
chowardAtBurton (10:27:51 AM): that's my plan.
flyfishermanmrr (10:28:06 AM): to work out? Kill brain cells?
chowardAtBurton (10:28:21 AM): both, in that order. work out hard, drink scotch
chowardAtBurton (10:28:29 AM): bowmore darkest is on the menu for this eve
flyfishermanmrr (10:28:45 AM): have you had that yet?
chowardAtBurton (10:28:53 AM): oh yeah
chowardAtBurton (10:29:50 AM): i don't know what it is about IM'ing with you, but it brings back strange memories
chowardAtBurton (10:29:56 AM): ready for a non-sequitur?
flyfishermanmrr (10:30:00 AM): go
chowardAtBurton (10:30:34 AM): i once convinced my friends (around 4thgrade?) that Terry Jack was my uncle and wrote "Seasons in the Sun" as a suicide note. Had them crying like babies in my basement
flyfishermanmrr (10:30:53 AM): lol
chowardAtBurton (10:31:02 AM): apparently he's alive and well
chowardAtBurton (10:31:19 AM): i guess it was your "season" comment above that conjured this
flyfishermanmrr (10:31:45 AM): I am now thinking that I am associated with suicide, crying, or basements
chowardAtBurton (10:31:59 AM): or flooded basements?
chowardAtBurton (10:32:11 AM): crying people with curly red hair?
flyfishermanmrr (10:32:52 AM): crying people with flooded basements
flyfishermanmrr (10:33:07 AM): or drinking stories
chowardAtBurton (10:33:37 AM):'s the baby thing. you never age
flyfishermanmrr (10:34:29 AM): when all the birds are singing in the sky... pretty girls are everywhere...
chowardAtBurton (10:34:40 AM): stop it
flyfishermanmrr (10:35:00 AM): black sheep of the family... too much wine and too much song
flyfishermanmrr (10:35:03 AM): that's the link
chowardAtBurton (10:35:12 AM): that's it. you solved it
flyfishermanmrr (10:35:27 AM): I'm singing now
flyfishermanmrr (10:35:50 AM): not at the same octave
chowardAtBurton (10:35:54 AM): we had joy, we had fun
flyfishermanmrr (10:36:02 AM): seasons in the sun
chowardAtBurton (10:36:11 AM): jeez. i'm getting all choked up

Monday, December 01, 2008

It's Official: The US is in Recession

Moments ago, the NBER announced that the US has been in a recession since December 2007. No surprise, eh? I know that there are academic reasons to avoid sticking the R-label on the economy before it is time. But, there's value in labels.

Naming something, giving it a label, presents the opportunity for better control. This is well-known in cognitive psychology vis a vis behavioral issues. It is just as true when we collectively face obstacles. Naming the obstacle allows us to converge our efforts in overcoming it. The avoidance of a label only prolongs our ability to surmount difficulties, causing us to debate the merits of our positions and definitions. External affirmation of the recession should focus us on its resolution.

With the endless spin of news and opinion, coupled with the incessant shopping mantra of the holiday season, I needed to get regrounded. I pulled Thomas Sowell's "Basic Economics" off the shelf and reread the opening pages. It's worth reminding ourselves that the economy exists as a framework for the effective use of finite (scarce) resources. If resources were infinite, there would be no need for an economy. Sowell writes:

"It apparently seemed strange somehow that there should be such a thing as scarcity and that this should imply a need for ... personal responsibility in spending. Yet nothing has been more pervasive in the history of the human race than scarcity and all the requirements for economizing that go with scarcity."

This recession — and its related detritus of collapsed companies — is part of a necessary harmonic motion, as painful as it has been and will be for months to come. Our collective denial of scarcity led us to overextension, and the economic engine is reeling us back in.

The recession is now named, we have been in it (along with our global partners) for a year, and it will eventually end. When it is proclaimed "over", our companies, relationships, resources, and opportunities will not look the same as they did prior to its beginning. They cannot. We need to be in the process of reimagining ourselves and our business models in preparation for a post-recession reality.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Simply Complex

There's a quote by Don Norman that I often reference:

Most technology goes through cycles of development and change in both internal and external complexity. As the technology matures… devices become easier to use, although usually by becoming more complex inside.
(from The Invisible Computer)

This provides a succinct description of technology evolution in general, from NASA space modules to hand-held devices. It also applies to enterprise IT infrastructure and applications. Driven by the needs of users who demand smoother experiences and better access to data, enterprise systems are wired together in new ways to accomplish sleight of hand. The problem is the result: messy, ad-hoc solutions without holistic architectural vision. Norman's "easier to use" should apply not only to the end user, but also to the designers, architects, and developers who manage the system.

Ease of use - simplicity - is an illusion. Simplicity is managed complexity. In enterprise IT systems, simplicity results from effective management of architectural layers that interact but remain independent. This allows complexity to be encapsulated where it belongs and reduces the dependencies that result from ad-hoc solutions. The same theory applies to organizational structures, too. Specialists in specific domains (like HR, marketing, IT, sales) combine their functions into a whole system that, when functioning correctly, appears simpler than it is.

Those wishing to make their IT departments and systems simpler need to keep this in mind. Idealized simplicity will never be possible. Certainly, eliminating redundancies and streamlining processes will reduce complexity directly. True simplicity, however, is accomplished when architecture steps in to manage dependencies and identify opportunities for improved design/engineering. If we acknowledge that increased internal complexity is a feature of technology evolution, then we will shift our energies away from elimination of complexity and towards improved management.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Listening to Jazz Efterratt

I was in Prague last week, attending our annual European Catalyst conference. It followed the typical pattern of a long overseas flight followed by bleary eyed city walking. Once acclimated, we spent hours interacting with clients, presenting, and "being on". By the end of the week, we are all ready to escape the confines of the conference venue and explore the town. For some, this means finding a chain of clubs that take them from 9pm to breakfast the next morning. For others, it means finding a couple good places to camp out, eat, drink, and listen to live music. For us this year, that place was the Reduta Jazz Club. The first band we heard was Jazz Efterratt (aka jazzef), a collective of studio musicians and alumni from the Prague Conservatory. The style: funk/fusion: not an old standard in sight (unless you consider Corea's "Spain" to be an old standard).

So, there we were. Mike Rollings, Anne Thomas Manes, Richard Watson, and Phil Schacter (our divining rod for all things musical while on the road). Following a smoking first set, Mike turns to me and (with Bowmore breath) asks: "How do you hear this?"

Wow. That's a question I have never been asked, except by myself.

It was hard to put it into words right away. I stumbled over an answer while we could still hear each other, but otherwise tucked it away for pondering. How did I hear this music?

First of all, it had typical elements of jazz: intro, head, variations masquerading as solos, head, extro. But that fundamental form is just the beginning. When applied to "I Remember Clifford", the result is very different from "One for Vaya" (sp?), an orginal tune played that night. The textures of traditional jazz tend to be more compartmentalized: drums do drum things, pianos do piano things, etc. With notable exceptions (e.g., Joe Morello's melodic tom work), players observed boundaries. With jazzef, these boundaries are sometimes observed, other times crossed with a vengeance.

Jazzef embraced fusion/funk with gusto. It is complicated music, characterized by energetic, angular, quirky, quasi-unison heads with strong grooves and lots of syncopated shots tossed in. It requires absolute synchronization among players or else the entire illusion falls apart. These heads come back in the midst of the solos as structural scaffolding. Occasionally, for example in an ABA-form head, the B section features more heterophonic texture with carefully orchestrated polyrhythms. The tension of these B's set up a forceful return to the repeat of A, often with players unconsciously choreographing the release of tension.

The solos were a hybrid of variations over the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the head, extended with longer vamps and free sections. Rather than just plowing through the solos and flashing chops, jazzef crafted the entire texture with shifts in dynamics and timbre. Often, energy was built up to a peak out of which a subtle, static solo emerged on the other end of the dynamic spectrum. The ears don't tire when music has this give and take. The vacuum created by the shift in texture draws the listener in.

Rhythmic complexity abounds in this music, but not complexity for its own sake. It is related (distantly) to the layered rhythmic structure of medieval motets, with considerable independence among players. As a whole, however, the rhythms combine into a strong gestural pulse (macrorhythm) which serves to organize them. This allows the microrhythms to increase in complexity, especially in the solos, without having the whole edifice come crashing down. While watching jazzef, the macrorhythm was present in the head movements of bassist Tomáš Uhlík: despite the surface rhythmic complexities, Tomas bobbed his head to the larger rhythm. I'm sure he had no idea. As it should be. The play of polyrhythms at the micro level creates considerable tension, especially at the climax of solos. For example, the keyboardist would often accelerate or decellerate independently from the primary pulse. Impossible to notate. He and the drummer would often perform metric modulations or shift into odd groupings (5:4, 7:8). These micro complexities appear daunting to the classically trained musician, but are simplified by letting the macrorhythm dominate. Within the gestural span of the macrorhythm, anything can happen and things usually line up correctly.

The tension between underlying form and overlying surface is a larger version of the same phenomenon. It is gestural tension. The further away from the head the solo gets, the freer the player is to move "outside". S/He can rely on the others to keep the macroform in play. For the listener, the delta between the underlying form and the surface created by the soloist creates interest, even though they may be mostly unaware of the mechanics. The same is true for a Beethoven sonata: after clear statement of the themes, Beethoven moves farther and farther away harmonically and motivically. Eventually, he returns the listener to the themes in (mostly) original form. The listener has been taken on a journey. The music of jazzef continues this tradition, albeit with a different harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language. But Beethoven would not have been shocked...he would hear himself in it. So would Bach, Mahler, Stravinksy, Messiaen, Boulez, Miles, Bird, etc, etc.

At one point, I laughed out loud at something that happened as jazzef was playing. This prompted a quizzical look from Mike at the time, and a barrage of questions from him over the next 24 hours. In the midst of this driving funk, the players acted simultaneously to shift into swing for an odd number of bars, then back again. Once. Didn't happen again. That unexpected turn was what caught my ear and made me laugh. Good music does this. Shake me out of my complacency. It is alive. This gets at the other magic of players that trust each other. At times, they act like a flock of birds: they move in a certain direction at the same time. When that happens spontaneously, it is gripping. With jazzef, it happened throughout the evening.

That's a bit of insight into how I listen. More later.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Time for a Cuil Change?

Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it's time for a cool change

The lyrics date me, I'm afraid. In the lazy days of summer, FM radio channels memories.

There has been considerable buzz this week about the announcement of Cuil, a new search engine positioned as an alternative to Google. In a time when we use a brand name (Google) to fully replace its function (search), any competitor will have an uphill fight. How many brands of facial tissue (i.e., Kleenex) can you name with confidence?

Cuil has a lot going for it: big VC backing, big ex-Google brains, and a big index. It has a newspaper style UI layout and relational grouping. That is, it clusters results based on cross associations.

In the past few days, however, Cuil has been slammed in the blogosphere and the tech press, mostly because of operational site issues, weak search results, and strange dynamic associations between search results and images. When I did this boolean search on Cuil: +"burton group" +"chris howard", I got no results (!!!). I did the same search on Google and resurrected my ego with multiple results. Clearly, the Cuil index has some issues (or perhaps is smart enough to know who I am and provide a narcissist smackdown).

Early difficulties, bugs, and operational issues aside, Cuil has value even as a conversation piece. As I flew home from meetings last night, I was too tired to work, but my brain was in that ponder-state that leads to blog posts. I thought: so what if Cuil isn't perfect? Maybe its (unintended) role is to dislodge our search ambivalence. Even just at the UI, why are we OK with a somewhat random linear list of results (where companies also manipulate their position)? An annotated result set (i.e., with a few lines of text) has more value, especially if the first results are the most likely to be relevant. Relevance would be increased based on other people's searches and click paths.Furthermore, relevance would be more personal if the engine knew my history and used it as a filter.

Sometimes I want search to replicate the old experience of climbing through dusty library stacks. The most interesting things I learn are not a result of what I set out to discover. Ambling through the stacks at McGill University led me to information I never would have found if I only performed a surgical title search. Those finds were findable because the resources were grouped in proximity to my initial target.

Then there's just the joy of browsing.

So, the press asks me about Google's response to Cuil...

Even if Cuil does not succeed at displacing a significant percentage of Google's mindshare, Cuil should be a reminder to Google to keep innovating.It seems that the engineers at Cuil (who came from Google) saw a hole in Google's offering and took advantage of it. These "masters of the algorithm" lead the charge to better search results.Those engineers back at Google are paying attention, and are likely looking at algorithms beyond the Cuil innovation. Like many systems that are reaching peak performance, search can only be made so much better. Google needs to address user experience needs that supercede the core search function.

For now, the majority of users will continue to "google" by default, unaware that their experience might be improved if they chose an alternate search provider.The bigger concern is that our ambivalence towards status quo keeps us from breaking out of the Google paradigm into something (apologies for this next word...) richer.

(Re-reading that last sentence, is Google in danger of becoming Microsoft who is in danger of becoming IBM? I'll save that for a different post.)