## Bernstein in Vienna Video

April 28, 2007

There is something constipated about the recording of Mahler’s 5th by the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernstein. It may be just due to sound engineering that the climaxes sound restrained, but whatever it is, I did not want to put up with muted Mahler for much longer — the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle’s live recording of Mahler’s 5th is turning out to be a fine replacement. I read somewhere of a video where Bernstein lost his temper with the Vienna Philharmonic because they were so resistant to Mahler, and eventually found it on YouTube (where else). In the video interview, Bernstein explains his frustration in trying to get the Viennese to play Mahler’s music:

They didn’t know it. They were prejudiced against it. They thought it was blustery, overly emotional, exaggerated, and it showed in the rehearsals — they resisted and resisted, to a point where I did lose my temper because, in god’s name, this was their composer, from this city.

I found it very hard going. Scheiss-[something I can't catch]. Whispers of it. Untranslatable word. [Snarls.] Once they found out, however, how marvellous his music was, how incredible the response of the public was to it, they suddenly realised that they had become the vessel, the holy vessel, for something… holy, the contents were, sacred — they were as sacred a bunch of notes as Brahms’ symphonies.

In the video of the rehearsal where he loses his temper, he rants at them for just playing the notes, and imitates the strings with a grotesque yelp, lapsing into English near the end: “Bitte! I don’t care about your acht Stunden.” I wonder if any conductor has had to treat those musicians like errant schoolkids since then.

## Posthumous Popularity

April 28, 2007

A trend I’ve been noticing: after a classical musician dies, sales of his/her recordings undergo a temporary spike. Granted, I have only two data points: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Mstislav Rostropovich, whose recording of Bach’s cello suites is now #1 in the iTunes store. But given that Lieberson was far from a superstar (even by classical musician standards), and it happened even for her, and for repertoire as distant from the mainstream as her husband’s songs, I suspect this sort of posthumous popularity is a fairly robust phenomenon.

A coincidence that I’d mentioned Rostropovich only a few days ago, in comparison with Yo-Yo Ma. There is no shortage of eulogies for him, so all I have to say is, go listen.

On a related note, I read from Michael Hovnanian’s blog that the CSO played the Air from Bach’s Orchestra Suite No. 3 as a tribute to Rostropovich in Friday’s concert. Have to agree with him that it’s not the right piece for honouring the dead, in the sense that it’s placid rather than sad. But perhaps that is an appropriate response, in its own way.

## Confusing Baggage

April 26, 2007

Back to Tegmark’s strange paper on the mathematical universe, as promised earlier. I will now attack his main thesis, rather than some obscure bit in the middle. Tegmark defines two hypotheses:

The External Reality Hypothesis (ERH) states that there exists an external reality completely independent of humans.

The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) states that our external physical reality is a mathematical structure.

Tegmark’s main thesis is that the ERH implies the MUH. The ERH is evidently something that people intuitively favour. Scientists, especially, like to think that humans are mere observers of and participants in, not creators, of physical reality. But the MUH is strongly counter-intuitive. Our world seems very material, not abstract. So claiming that the ERH implies the MUH is a radical violation of our intuitions.

To get from the ERH to the MUH, Tegmark uses the concept of “baggage”. He doesn’t explicitly define “baggage” anywhere. He does, however, leave clues to what it is, such as the following:

The ERH implies that for a description to be complete, it must be well-defined also according to non-human sentient entities (say aliens or future supercomputers) that lack the common understanding of concepts that we humans have evolved, e.g. “particle”, “observation” or indeed any other English words. Put differently, such a description must be expressible in a form that is devoid of human “baggage”.

In this passage, he seems to imply that baggage is simply the characteristics of reality that are dependent on concepts special to humans.

Immediately after, however, he shifts to a rather different notion of baggage. He lays out a hierarchical tree of our theories about the world, ranging from quantum mechanics to sociology. He says of these theories:

All these theories have two components: mathematical equations and ‘baggage’, words that explain how they are connected to what we humans observe and intuitively understand… At each new level in the hierarchy of theories, new concepts (e.g. protons, atoms, cells, organisms, cultures) are introduced because they are convenient, capturing the essence of what is going on without recourse to the more fundamental theory above it. It is important to remember, however, that it is we humans who introduce these concepts and words for them: in principle, everything could have been derived from the fundamental theory at the top of the tree, although such an extreme reductionist approach appears useless in practice. Crudely speaking, the ratio of equations to baggage decreases as we move down the tree, dropping near zero for highly applied fields such as medicine and sociology.

I would say he is speaking not just crudely, but erroneously. It is true that as we move away from more mathematical theories towards the so-called softer disciplines, the language used shades more into everyday intuitive concepts. However, that does not imply that the concepts and entities in the softer disciplines are any less real from a possible extraterrestial being perspective than they are from a human perspective. The so-called fuzzy terminology of the soft disciplines could still capture boundaries and modules in reality that exist independently of the perspective sentient beings bring to them. Lack of clarity does not imply lack of objectivity. His earlier definition of baggage as the characteristics of reality that depend on concepts particular to humans is unrelated to his later, implied definition of baggage as anything that is described in non-mathematical human language.

This is fatal to his inference from the ERH to the MUH. For he reasons as follows:

1. The ERH implies that a “theory of everything” has no baggage.
2. Something that has a baggage-free description is precisely a mathematical structure.

Taken togther, these imply that the ERH implies the MUH. However, as I pointed out, the ERH implies a theory of everything has no baggage, in the sense of having no concepts that are particular to a human perspective. This, however, is not the sense of “baggage” being used in 2. Something can have a baggage-free description, in the meaning of baggage used in 1., without being a mathematical structure. We could imagine that nature has certain clearly delineated boundaries and modules, which humans see fit to describe in increasingly “fuzzy” and intuitive terms as they move from basic physical theories into more complex theories of reality. But since these boundaries and modules are real, aliens would also tend to describe them the same way. The fuzziness and intuitiveness of the language humans use in no way implies that they are talking about less objective entities when they use that kind of language.

April 23, 2007

Lately, I can’t stop posting about music, it seems. But this is time-sensitive. Via Marc van Bree, I just discovered that the CSO has free broadcasts of its concerts up on its website. Yo-Yo Ma playing Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and Betti Xiang playing the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto (on gaohu instead of violin) are still available for listening until Apr 24. I am not a fan of the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto, but it does sound good on the gaohu. With the violin it sounds like some Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto wannabe, with pretentious Orientalism thrown in to boot. The gaohu makes it sound much more natural, and the CSO does a surprisingly good job of not sounding like a Western orchestra trying to play Chinese music. OK, I’ll be more generous. The part near the end, where the strings come in gently with the main theme after the turmoil has died down, is done with just the right touch and flavour — it actually gave me goosebumps. If a recording of that performance is released, it’ll be the first “Chinese” music I’ll actually consider purchasing. The Dvorak concerto is a competent performance, but I still prefer Rostropovich’s. There isn’t cellist alive today who can match Rostropovich at his peak. My favourite moment in the first movement is not a cello part, but the horn solo that introduces the second subject. I always look forward to that, but Dale Clevenger (whom I assume was the principal that night) gave a rather, um, bland rendition. Maybe it’s just the acoustics. I haven’t yet found a horn solo to beat the Berlin Philharmonic’s principal’s in the Rostropovich/BP/von Karajan recording. Ma gets a little out of tune near the end of the finale, where all the high notes occur. Positives: The flute (Mathieu Dufour?) is gorgeous in the second movement. The last movement is as good as Rostropovich’s. The cello’s “dialogue” with the clarinet there is amazing; I’d never taken particular notice of that part before listening to this performance.

It’s great to be able to listen to a world-class orchestra for free without doing it illegally on YouTube. Definitely worth sitting through the annoying BP advertisements. That’s British Petroleum, not the Berlin Philharmonic.

## Culture vs Social Environment

April 22, 2007

Reading Boyd and Richerson’s Not By Genes Alone, which, despite its pandering title, is turning out to be rather interesting. Boyd and Richerson are obsessed with cultural evolution, and they spend the first two chapters explaining how culture, in addition to genes and environment, is a crucial third variable to consider in any theory of human social behaviour. They define culture as “information capable of affecting individuals’ behaviour that they acquire from other members of their species through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission.” In Chapter Two they argue against those who think “variation in the social environment, not culture, creates and maintains variation among societies.” By social environment, they mean social institutions like marriage, familial obligations, careers, driving on the right side of the road, and so on. I got puzzled at this point, because it seemed that social institutions were, if not a part of culture, at least direct consequences of culture. So why in heaven’s name should Boyd and Richerson feel that they have to refute social theories based on social institutions in order to give culture the explanatory powers they think it has? If you look back at their definition of culture which I quoted, it seems obvious that social institutions are a way of transmitting information held by other members of the species. We drive on the right side of the road through a mixture of learning and imitation. We are taught to obey certain laws by our educators. And so on. So how is the “social environment” not culture?

Perhaps the social environment doesn’t qualify because it is too rigid: it doesn’t evolve as quickly as culture does, if at all, and when we cite it as a cause, we assume that it is a fixed variable. That is, it is always a set of fixed institutions that we cite as a social environment-type explanation, and in that sense social environment-based causes aren’t as malleable as culture-based causes, which are simply fleeting snapshots of whatever information and information transmission is prevailing in a society at a particular time. “Information” changes rapidly. Laws don’t.

But even then, the difference would seem to be more of degree than of type. Surely the social environment is just towards the more slowly evolving end of the culture spectrum (the quickly evolving end includes phenomena like gossip, I suppose). Social institutions do change. Those who cite institutional causes do take account of these changes. Why are they not part of culture?

Boyd and Richerson seem to provide an answer when they proceed to differentiate between the weak and strong versions of social environment-based explanations. The weak version is what I’ve just suggested: that the social environment is just another form of cultural variation. The strong version they characterise as follows: “the information that perpetuates historical differences is not stored in human memory; rather, it is stored in the day-to-day behaviour of individuals, enforced by the self-policing incentives of games of coordination.” I cannot imagine, though, any social environmental explanation taht doesn’t involve storage of information in human memory in some form or another. Customs are either written down or remembered. Written laws are merely a form of external human memory, as such, and surely count as culture. So these strong social environmentalists, as characterised by Boyd and Richerson, can’t be thinking of customs as an example of “information that perpetuates historical differences”. The strong environmentalists instead seem to be thinking of repeated patterns of behaviour that occur due to decisions made anew by individuals for every situation they encounter. That is, rather than driving on the right side of the road because the knowledge that I should is in my memory, I drive on the right side of the road every day anyway because everyone else is doing so, and when I see everyone else doing so it is only rational for me to choose to drive on the right side as well, for the sake of speed and safety. OK, clearly strong environmentalism just isn’t true for driving on the right side of the road. What about something like capitalism, which has all those neat self-policing incentives? But again, we don’t approach each new capitalist transaction with a blank mind prepared to act only on the information presented to us. We have in our memories ideas of how transactions should go, possible strategies, and so on. Forget the specific example of capitalism. How can any self-policing games of coordination that occur repeatedly over a considerable period of time (considerable enough to be considered “institutions” that are part of the social environment) not leave imprints on our memory? Maybe the first capitalistic transactions that ever happened were not part of culture. But from then on it was inevitable that they were: they couldn’t all be forgotten.

Perhaps Boyd and Richerson have better examples of strong institutionalist explanations in mind. Sadly, they don’t cite any examples here. The next mention of institutionalist explanations is in Chapter Six, where they refer to coercive social institutions. But these clearly do transmit their characteristics through human memory. I doubt there are any strong institutionalist explanations at all that do not involve transmission of information through human memory (or writings).

## Haydn’s Simplicity

April 22, 2007

From Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style:

E. T. A. Hoffmann once wrote that listening to Haydn was like taking a walk in the country, a sentiment destined to make anyone smile today. Yet it seizes on an essential aspect of Haydn; the symphonies of Haydn are heroic pastoral, and they are the greatest examples of their kind. I am alluding not only to the deliberately ‘rustic’ sections of the symphonies — the bagpipe effects, the Laendler rhythms in the trios of the minuets, the imitation of peasant tunes and dances, the melodies based on yodelling. Even more characteristic is the pastoral tone, that combination of sophisticated irony and surface innocence that is so much of the pastoral genre…. the apparent naivete is at the heart of Haydn’s manner. His melodies, like the shepherds of the classical pastoral, seem detached from all that they portend, unaware of how much they signify. Their initial appearance is almost always without the air of mystery and unexplained tension that introduces the themes of Beethoven.

I’ve been addicted to the last movement of that Haydn sonata performed in the Brendel YouTube video I’d previously flagged. So much so that I’m attempting to play it, with real feeling, and could barely tear myself away from the piano today. While considering its genius, though, it crossed my mind that although Mozart would never have been able to write something like that, Beethoven might have. Similar ‘rustic humour’ Beethoven pieces include the 16th piano sonata and the 2nd piano concerto. However, if I knew it was a Beethoven composition, I would not listen to it the same way. It would lose Haydn’s simplicity and innocence. When Haydn tempts us with that tune and delivers only after two startling halts on the Neapolitan 2nd and the leading tone chords, we actually believe that they are naive mistakes. So that when the theme is finally allowed to flower into a proper I-V-I-V-I cadential celebration, the release is simple and uncontaminated. A similar move by Beethoven would be imbued with a sinister tinge. Although I cannot think of any characteristic of Beethoven’s second piano concerto that should overshadow its Rondo’s Haydn-esque humour, the very knowledge that it is Beethoven and not Haydn weighs on my evaluation and experience of it. It just doesn’t sound as innocent, even though I cannot think of a single musical fact that accounts for that. So even if Beethoven might have written what Haydn wrote, it would be a different piece to a contaminated listener like me in virtue of it being written by a composer associated with very different moods.

My beef with Pletnev’s Haydn was that he sounded like he was playing Mozart! It was too polished, too affected, too infused with artificial grace when what was needed was some good-natured bumbling around in the style of the stereotypical peasant. And that effect, as I learnt today, is extremely difficult to achieve. The inflections and pauses are key, and how they should be done is often figured out only through extended experimentation (I lost count of the number of times today I cursed myself for making Haydn sound like Mozart). Which is why it’s such a delight to watch performances like this, where the orchestra seems to just know how to play Haydn. Completely naturally. It literally looks like it’s in their bones. On the second take Bernstein doesn’t bother to move his arms. Just nods to the players to do their thing. Classic moments where he stares at them deadpan and them crinkles into a smile when the musical punchline arrives. Truly, I need a better set of Haydn symphonies. No one is going to do better than the Concertgebouw orchestra and Colin Davis in terms of technical polish, and the famous woodwinds are ravishing as usual, but they really need to loosen up a bit and move with the music like Bernstein and the Viennese do. Davis’ rhythms and dynamics are just too square and stiff to convey Haydn’s wit. Classics Today, apparently, agrees with me: “…some of the finales (the “Clock” and “Drum Roll” especially) impress as efficient rather than exciting, despite lively tempos. It’s more a function of accent and timing and the fact that Davis doesn’t allow much opportunity for the music’s humor to manifest itself”. The LPO/Jochum collection is another of the acclaimed recordings, so I’ve checked it out from the library hoping they can do a better job. Comparisons to follow, maybe.

## Cravings

April 22, 2007

Musical works that I tend to get regular cravings for. Not necessarily what I consider the best pieces aesthetically. Just those that provide the most direct and effortless emotional gratification.

1. Der Erlkoenig. Enough said.
2. The second movement of Haydn’s Kaiserquartett. Yes, that’s the one that is the source of the German national anthem, and was once the anthem for some Austrian emperor. It sounds much better played lyrically and intimately by a string quartet than pompously by some damn military band. Most definitely not a marching kind of tune.
3. A recent addiction: The last movement of Haydn’s Symphony no. 88. Sparked by this performance by the Vienna Philharmonic and Bernstein, where the players practically exude wit from their joints. In contrast, the Berlin Philharmonic and Jochum are too brisk, bland and clinical. Frans Brueggen and his period band capture the wit just fine (especially the feet-dragging retransition!), but they are considerably slower. After listening to the Viennese elves skip cheekily through it, the Orchestra of the 18th Century sounds like a bunch of lumbering gnomes attempting the same. Witty gnomes, but come on! It’s Allegro con spirito, not Andante.
4. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. It’s usually the first movement that I crave, but once one starts on the first movement, it’s impossible to not continue and listen to the whole damn thing. And I say this as someone with a low tolerance for Mozartean sweetness. Diminishing marginal returns just don’t apply to this masterpiece.

Later: I’m obsessed with the second movement of the Kaiserquartett now. Checked out the piano variations from the library. At first thought they were merely transcriptions of the full quartet version, but there are some additional embellishments and changes in the range. Playing it through, I discovered that the harmonies get saltier as we get to the later variations. Much of the saltiness is tempered by the blending timbres of the strings, giving a bittersweet sound. On the piano, however, some of the dissonances are jarring rather than poignant. The following sounded just awful on the piano:

And he does it again with the penulitmate chord of the last variation:

That penultimate chord is, I suppose, “just” a leading tone seventh chord with a tonic pedal point (which had persisted for the previous two bars anyway). The first example, though, is more unconventional. I would guess it’s a Neapolitan 2nd followed by a leading tone triad (applied to D major), but the flatted third creates that horrible diminished third between C# and E-flat, which is so dissonant that one wonders if it makes any sense to think of it as a variant of the leading tone triad. In the piano variations, the B-flat in the second violin is missing, which adds to the more jarring effect of the piano variations compared to the poignancy of the Neapolitan in the quartet version.

## Relativity and Charge Quantization

April 17, 2007

In textbook derivations of the Lorentz transformations for electric and magnetic fields from relativistic kinematics and “rest-frame” E-M laws, either one of two assumptions is used: that charge is conserved in all frames of reference, or that charge is quantized. I see no intuitive reason to favour the former, and most texts I’ve flipped through have used the latter. As it turns out, the latter implies the former, because if charge is quantized, then the total charge of any system must be an integer multiple of the smallest unit of charge, and integers are scalar invariants under Lorentz transformations, so the total charge must also be a Lorentz invariant. In other words, quantization of charge + Lorentz invariance => conservation of charge. Using conservation of charge, you get $\rho_0 dV_0 = \rho dV$, which, together with Lorentz contraction of space together and $\mathbf{J} = \rho \mathbf{v}$, implies that $J_\mu$ is the product of a scalar invariant and the four-velocity, and hence is a four-vector itself. That allows one to go on to prove that $A_\mu$ is a four-vector, blah blah.

What bothered me about this was that it seems counterintuitive that special relativistic electrodynamics is somehow dependent on the quantization of charge. Other than this mathematical requirement for justifying how the Lorentz transformations are a ‘derivation’ from ‘normal’ electrodynamics + relativistic kinematics, there doesn’t seem to be anything in electrodynamics itself that suggests it would work better with discrete rather than continuous charges. If anything, those damn differential equations cry out for lovely continuous flowing ribbons of charge rather than discrete blobs. A more plausible dependency scenario to me would be that of electrodynamics being directly dependent on the Lorentz invariance of charge. In which case, why don’t they just derive the Lorentz transformations using that assumption, rather than go through the more onerous* and (in my eyes) somewhat physically artificial route of “quantization, therefore charge conservation”? Could it be that like me, said textbook authors think that taking charge as a Lorentz invariant quantity as a fundamental assumption is not a sufficiently justifed move?

Another problem with that could, I suppose be dismissed as a “mere” historical problem. The quantization of electric charge was demonstrated only in 1913, eight years after Einstein had put forward special relativity. Presumably, special relativity had been integrated into electrodynamics before that (or, to be precise, people had worked out the details of how electromagnetism was inherently a relativistic theory). I suppose they used the (now judged to be unsatisfactory) Lorentz invariance of total charge as an assumption for that? And this new reason they give in modern textbooks is one of those things massaged in for pedagogical purposes, even though it was not the original reasoning through which the Lorentz transformations were derived?

I know nothing about particle theory, so I expect that someone is going to come along anytime now and say something like “you dumb shit, the relationship between charge quantization and special relativity is a simple consequence of electroweak unification”.

*Wangsness points out in his text that the inference from quantization to charge conservation depends not just on integers being Lorentz invariants, but also on the basic unit of charge being a Lorentz invariant.

Update: I am told that the textbook derivations are not, in fact, derivations, but justifications on the side for something we think should be true for other reasons. The reply M. O. gave was somewhat unclear, but he agreed when I paraphrased it as follows: we must make an assumption of some sort (in this case, charge invariance), in order to get into the logical circle of showing that the relevant quantities are four-vectors. My vague idea is that we can’t even empirically prove that charge is Lorentz invariant unless we already have the formulae for the Lorentz transformations of E and/or B. But we need the invariance of charge to ‘derive’ those transformations. So we have to assume something, and invariance of charge, I suppose, is as good a choice as any, and certainly better (more intuitively immediate) than assuming the specific four-vectors or the E and B tensor. (But, I maintain, quantization of charge is not — why do so many textbook authors use that? M. O. suggested that perhaps someone famous had used it.)

I wish there were “physics for philosophers” textbooks along the lines of “physics for poets” books. But nevermind the probable lack of market demand, there is a serious lack of people who are qualified to write those books. Most physicists certainly aren’t.

## Monty Python: The German Programmes

April 14, 2007

No, they’re not just translated. I do not remember a running joke on Albrecht Duerer in the English version. And even the parts they reused (like the Lumberjack Song) were done with the actors clearly mouthing German.

They are here, found via Tyler Cowen.

## Brendel on Comic Music

April 14, 2007

My depressive browsing through the incomparable Powell’s last night yielded this gem of a collection of essays by Alfred Brendel. From his essay on the ‘seriousness’ of classical music:

For most performers and virtually all concert audiences of our time, music is an entirely serious business. Performers are meant to function as heroes, dictators, poets, seducers, magicians, or helpless vessels of inspiration. The projection of comical music needs a performer who dares to be less than awe-inspiring, and does not take him- or herself too seriously. Comic music can be ruined, and made completely meaningless, by ‘serious’ performance. It is much more dependent on a performer’s understanding than an Allegro di bravura, a nocturne, or a funeral march. To manage to play a piece humorously is a special gift, yet, I am afraid, it is not enough: the public, expecting the celebration of religious rites, may not notice that something amusing is going on unless it is visibly encouraged to be amused.

Which explains Brendel’s facial contortions the last and only time I saw him in concert. More:

I admit that to expect a player to radiate amusement while performing is a tall order. The trouble is that many performers, on account of their concentration and nervous tension, look unduly grave or grim, no matter what they play. The first bars of a classical piece sets its mood. To sit down and start Haydn’s last C major Sonata with a tortured look is even worse than to embark on the so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata with a cheerful smile. Nobody will mistake the first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ for a cheerful piece,whereas the hilarious beginning of Haydn’s C major Sonata can easily sound wooden, and pointless. Before the first note, a discreet signal has to pass from the performer to the audience: ‘Caution! We are out for mischief.’

[Here he quotes an excerpt from the C major sonata]

When the English notion of ‘humour’ arrived in Germany, Lessing translated it as ‘Laune’. Laune, according to Kant, means, in its best sense, ‘the talent voluntarily to put oneself into a certain mental disposition, in which everything in judged quite differently from the ordinary method (reversed, in fact), and yet in accordance with certain rational principles in such a frame of mind’. This sounds to me like an apt description of the quality that a performer of comical music should be able to summon up. ‘But this manner,’ as Kant further says, ‘belongs rather to pleasant than to beautiful art, because the object of the latter must always show a certain dignity in itself…’*

For my part, I am perfectly happy to enjoy the ‘sublime in reverse’, and leave Kant’s dignity behind where Haydn and Beethoven took such obvious pleasure in doing so.

*Immanuel Kant: Critique of Judgment (1790) 54

Further proof that Kant is a humourless bastard. Proof that Brendel is not:

Update: After trying to be charitable towards them, I’ve sadly had to conclude that Pletnev and Richter don’t come anywhere close to Brendel’s humour for that piece. I resorted to buying Brendel’s recording of it off iTunes, from this recital. I was rather surprised that such accomplished pianists couldn’t master that movement, especially since Haydn marks clearly where the pauses, sforzandos and ritardandos should be. Yet Pletnev and Richter, at many points, just seem to ignore those.