Eliminating Initial Conditions — Or Not

April 11, 2007

Max Tegmark has a provocative paper up on the arXiv claiming that if there exists an external physical reality independent of humans, then that external physical reality is a mathematical structure. There’s too much in it to analyse in one blog post, so for now I’ll just comment on one section. Tegmark argues that if external physical reality is a mathematical structure (this statement he labels the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis — MUH), then physics no longer needs to explain initial conditions.

Just why initial conditions are undesirable is an assertion that itself deserves explanation. Tegmark explains the usual stance of physicists:

The traditional view of these matters is eloquently summarized by e.g. [3, 35] as splitting our quantitative description of the world into two domains, “laws of physics” and “initial conditions”. The former we understand and hail as the purview of physics, the latter we lack understanding for and merely take as an input to our calculations.

As Houtappel, van Dam and Wigner write in [35], initial conditions “are complicated and no accurate regularity has been discovered in them”. Physical laws explain the regular, so initial conditions are the things that fall outside the purview of physics. Since physicists like to think they can explain everything, this is a problem.

Taking a typical reductionist tack, Tegmark then explains how our increasing knowledge of the so-called fundamental laws of physics has led to the borderline between initial conditions and physical laws shifting at the expense of initial conditions. He claims that the MUH would complete this historical trend: “The MUH leaves no room for ‘initial conditions’, eliminating them altogether.” What he means by eliminating physical conditions, however, is somewhat confusing. He illustrates his point with the following diagram:
Tegmark’s inital conditions
As examples of the shifting boundary between initial conditions and physical laws, he describes various scientific revolutions in which what had been accepted as fundamental laws were reclassified as initial conditions. Thus Ptolemy thought that the circularity of orbits was a fundamental laws, but Newton reclassified that as an initial condition — gravitational orbits can be non-circular, so circularity is not a regularity that can be accounted for by a general physical law. Thus too, he claims, the string theory landscape, together with inflation, reclassifies what we now think of as fundamental physical laws (the weak force, the electromagnetic force, etc.) as initial conditions.

I say that this is a confusing formulation of his point, because this way, it would seem that we are conceding that more aspects of our universe are initial conditions rather than physical laws. In what sense, then, can the borderline between intial conditions and physical laws be shifting “at the expense of initial conditions”? In what sense can we be eliminating physical conditions when we move to the ultimate Theory of Everything of (say) the string theory landscape? If, as originally formulated, initial conditions are the part of the universe that physics cannot explain, then wouldn’t the physical-laws-as-initial-conditions theory mean that we are essentially wringing our hands and conceding that physics cannot go any further?

Let’s look more closely at why Tegmark thinks that a landscape theory eliminates initial conditions. It does so in a somewhat linguistically paradoxical fashion, so that one suspects that the tension between eliminating initial conditions and turning all laws into intial conditions stems from that inherent paradox. A landscape theory eliminates initial conditions by postulating that a range of different physical laws persists in different parts of the universe. Each part is communicationally isolated from the others via inflation, so we would never encounter signs of another part of the universe where, say, the fine structure constant has a different value from the one we love and know to 12 significant figures. The impossibility of detecting them notwithstanding, a landscape theory would claim that variants of the physical laws we know hold in other parts of the universe. Naively, one would think that this seems to only add to the problem: instead of eliminating initial conditions, we are now saying that many possible initial conditions exist! But that’s exactly the point, and it’s where the issue is badly formulated: The problem was not that any initial conditions at all exist, but why one set of initial conditions, as opposed to other sets, happens to exist in our universe. By saying that they all exist, we don’t have to tackle that problem, since (we then claim, somewhat controversially) ascribing an existent status to all of them means we aren’t discriminating between any of the possible sets of initial conditions. Thus the landscape theory would eliminate the need to explain the existence of a particular set of initial conditions as opposed to other sets. This is what Tegmark means by the MUH “leaving no room for ‘initial conditions’”.

This ties into Tegmark’s description of physics as progressively reclassifying fundamental physical laws as initial conditions. He is essentially saying that physics is progressively removing the need for an explanation for why certain physical laws pertain as opposed to others. In this view of physics, we can think of theoretical physics as an exercise in answering questions of the form “Why does law X pertain as opposed to some other law?” As we move to more “general” physical laws, we see that law X is only a special consequence of law Y, and law Y is only a special consequence of law Z, and so on. Before a given law is described as a consequence of some other more general laws, that law cannot be explained within physics — it must be accepted, as it were, as something analogous to a physical initial condition. This is how I think Tegmark ends up saying that the MUH eliminates initial conditions, rather than that it eliminates the need to explain why one particular set of initial conditions pertains. It’s because he is treating the fundamental laws as initial conditions of a sort — as things that cannot, at this time, be explained within physics. And it is true (maybe not, actually, but I don’t want to get into that argument) that the MUH eliminates laws-acting-as-initial-conditions by showing that those laws are actually consequences of some more encompassing set of laws.

Perhaps I’m cooking up a trivial linguistic error out of nothing, but it struck me as exceedingly sloppy prose to speak of progress as simultaneously:
1) eliminating initial conditions, and
2) reclassifying more laws as initial conditions.
Not to mention first making a firm distinction between laws and initial conditions, and then going on to treat laws as though they were initial conditions to be eliminated.

Further Confusion in Gell-Mann and Hartle’s Olbers’ Paradox

April 10, 2007

I finally found out where I misunderstood Huw Price’s argument against Gell-Mann and Hartle’s argument against the Gold universe. In short, I mistook his diagram for a time diagram: x in the diagram below is position, not time, as I should have guessed.
Price Olbers
I will now restate his argument. Gell-Mann and Hartle* claim that in a Gold universe, by time-symmetry, any radiation that makes it into the final singularity should be emitted at the big bang. Since the universe appears to be mostly transparent, a lot of radiation should make it to the final singularity, so we should see a corresponding amount of radiation emitted from the big bang. Since we do not, we do not live in a Gold universe. Price counters as follows: Suppose we are looking in the spatial direction -x at time -t, and we observe radiation emitted from the big bang due to the Gell-Mann-Hartle hypothesis. The time-symmetric counterpart of that radiation is radiation being emitted from the back of our eye at time t and subsequently travelling all the way to the final singularity without being absorbed. So the only radiation that could contribute to Gell-Mann and Hartle’s paradox is that which is emitted from the back of our eye (or telescope), which, as far as we know, is very little. In other words, if we are to observe Gell-Mann-Hartle radiation, then that radiation cannot be from the usual stars we observe, so we have no reason to believe that a large quantity of that radiation reaches the final singularity. Our act of observation gets in the way of the observable radiation’s time-symmetric counterpart reaching the final singularity. Therefore, although there might be plenty of extra radiation in a Gold universe, we would not be able to observe it.

A close reading of the Gell-Mann-Hartle paper, though, reveals an inconsistency in their argument — an inconsistency that Price seems to have missed as well. They write:

Suppose the universe to have initial and final classical distributions that are time-symmetric in the sense of (22.13).** Suppose further that these boundary conditions imply with high probability an initial epoch with stars in galaxies distributed approximately homogeneously and a similar final epoch of stars in galaxies at the symmetric time. Consider the radiation emitted from a particular star in the present epoch. If the universe is transparent, it is likely to reach the final epoch without being absorbed or scattered. There it may either be absorbed in the stars or proceed past them towards the final singularity. If a significant fraction of the radiation proceeds past, then by time-symmetry we should expect a corresponding amount of radiation to have been emitted from the big bang.

But if the initial and final epochs are just time-reversed versions of each other, then shouldn’t radiation emitted from a star in the present epoch necessarily be radiation absorbed by the star in the final epoch? How can radiation emitted from a star in the present epoch proceed to the final singularity in a truly symmetric Gold universe?

The answer, I’m afraid, doesn’t absolve Gell-Mann and Hartle from confusion, although it does show that Price, too, swallows the point that confuses them. It turns out that (22.13) is a statement about the statistical distribution of systems in an ensemble (a la statistical mechanics) in phase space: \rho^{cl} is the distribution function of systems over phase space, and \mathscr{T}^{-1} is the time-reversal operator. The time symmetry of the Hamiltonian entails that the initial and final distribution functions must be time reversals of each other — hence \rho^{cl}_f \left(q_t, p_t\right) = \mathscr{T}^{-1} \rho^{cl}_i \left(q_t, p_t\right). In Gell-Mann and Hartle’s words:

The entropy of the final distribution must be the same as the initial one. The thermodynamic arrow of time will run backwards on one side of the moment of time symmetry as compared to the other side. This does not mean, of course, that the histories of the ensemble need be individually time-symmetric… There would be appear to be no principle, for example, forbidding us to live on into the recontracting phase of the universe and see it as recontracting.

(They have a similar quantum mechanical argument that allows for a CPT-symmetric universe that has sets of histories in which individual members are CPT-asymmetric). Herein is where I think Price has misinterpreted Gell-Mann and Hartle (for real this time!). When Gell-Mann and Hartle speak of time reversals, they mean time reversals of the distributions of possible configurations of the universe over phase space. They do not mean that everything that occurs in any given universe will occur in reverse as the universe recontracts. This allows them to postulate radiation from present stars reaching the final singularity without the exact temporal reversal of that happening: without radiation from the big bang converging on the time-reversed analogues of present stars. But it also disallows them from arguing that a convergence of radiation at the final singularity implies a corresponding emission of radiation from the initial singularity. Similarly, Price cannot argue that any radiation we observe as being emitted from the big bang must be due to radiation emitted from the back of our eyes, since the radiation we observe as emitted from the big bang need not have an exact time-reversed analogue in our universe (or, quantum mechanically, in the history of the universe that we happen to be observing). Ultimately, Price isn’t wrong in taking them to be assuming that the history of our universe is time-symmetric, since they indeed do so implicitly. But that assumption does not follow from their statistical or quantum mechanical arguments.

To summarise:
1. Gell-Mann and Hartle’s “paradox” is constructed on the basis of an assumption that does not follow from their arguments in the quantum cosmology paper.
2. Price’s answer takes that assumption for granted as well, and shows that their argument is not compatible even with that. Which, on hindsight, is unsurprising, since Gell-Mann and Hartle don’t even apply their assumption consistently: they allow for radiated starlight to be a time-asymmetric feature of the universe, but do not allow for radiation from the big bang and the big crunch to be time-asymmetric.

*Gell-Mann, M. and Hartle, J. 1994: “Time Symmetry and Asymmetry in Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Cosmology,” in Halliwell, Perez-Mercader, and Zurek (1994), pp. 311-45.
**(22.13) reads \rho^{cl}_f \left(q_t, p_t\right) = \mathscr{T}^{-1} \rho^{cl}_i \left(q_t, p_t\right)

To Textbook Authors

April 9, 2007

For heaven’s sake, do not introduce a new, physically significant equation by saying “From Eqns 1-98, 5-24 and 11-38, we get [new equation]“. I am quite unable to follow Wangsness’ introductory E&M text because he does this so frequently. Even if one reads it sequentially, so that one has indeed encountered equations 1-98, 5-25 and 11-38 before getting to the new equation, one does not remember what they are. So one has to flip back to several previous chapters, and when one looks up equation 11-38, one finds that it in turn refers back to equations 10-56, 2-11 and whatnot. For this reason Wangsness’ book is absolutely useless if one wants a quick physical explanation of anything.

Compare this with Griffiths, who prefaces the presentation of each new equation with a lucid description of its physical meaning. I got through about half of the entire Griffiths text in the time it took me to get through one chapter of Wangsness, simply because Griffiths doesn’t require me to go sleuthing about for the justification of each equation. Also, I am much more willing to swallow the correctness of an equation if you offer me a physical justification for it there and then, instead of telling me that if you shift the quantities in some other equation about this way and take their curl, blah blah, you will get this equation.

This ties in with my general frustration about the mechanical computation that characterises most of my physics courses. I cannot watch someone calculate things for more than twenty minutes without falling asleep. More concepts, please, and less of this mechanical drilling on how we should shift variables about according to certain rules of thumb. There is no physical reasoning involved in all that. Nor any mathematical reasoning, even.

Joshua Bell Busks

April 7, 2007

The Washington Post gets Joshua Bell to busk in the D. C. metro. They asked Leonard Slatkin for his opinion on the idea:

“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

So, a crowd would gather?

“Oh, yes.”

And how much will he make?

“About $150.”

Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.

“How’d I do?”

We’ll tell you in a minute.

“Well, who was the musician?”

Joshua Bell.


It would spoil the story to reveal now how much attention Bell got. So I am putting my opinions on the result of that experiment under the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Steve Reich’s Music on YouTube

April 6, 2007

Many versions of Clapping Music available. This juggling version is by far the most impressive, if musically too slow. Evelyn Glennie does it on percussion. Four sticks instead of four hands.

I was originally looking for New York Counterpoint, and YouTube did not disappoint, turning up this surreal video as visually mesmerising as Reich’s music is aurally mesmerising.

A few pieces I’m new to: Electric Counterpoint, Nagoya Marimbas (on guitars* and electric guitars), Pendulum Music with actual pendulums, and Different Trains with actual trains.

*The duo responsible for this version also have a marvellously witty performance of The Barber of Seville that sounds better than the original, if only because Rossini straight from the can always sounds cliched. At least one doesn’t have to take this performance seriously.

It’s Not About Reality

April 6, 2007

I’ve given a couple of talks to the undergrad physics students society about pathologies in physics thought up by philosophers. Not that I particularly enjoy giving talks, but it’s usually less painful than watching idiots give talks about the LHC when they don’t even know that it’s a proton-proton collider and not an electron-positron collider. Also, I’m always curious to see their reactions to the games that philosophers play. Last week I introduced them to the Norton Dome. Two common responses (if the pathology is one based on Newtonian physics) I get from physics majors:

1) The world is not Newtonian, so it doesn’t matter.

2) The pathological situation described is based on certain idealized conditions (point masses, for example) that do not occur in the real world. So it doesn’t matter.

Objection 1), I suppose, is the kind of response one would expect from hard-edged experimentalists whose only concern is what reality is like (so much for Chicago being a theoretical school). It is a response that misunderstands what the main interest of the pathology consists in. A pathology like the Norton Dome is a pathology relative to Newtonian mechanics, not to the laws of the real world. So yes, it could not occur in the real world. But we have an intuition that pathologies like the Dome should not occur in a Newtonian universe. So the interest of the pathology lies in whether we have a misconception of certain aspects of Newtonian mechanics. We all know that in the real world we would not be able to construct a dome so perfect that a sphere could stay at its apex for any appreciable length of time. But the interest is not in whether this could actually happen. It’s in why this kind of thing is allowed within Newtonian mechanics.

Objection 2) applies to all idealizations in physics, and, if accepted, would mean everything taught in theoretical physics courses is inapplicable to the real world. Why should we allow idealizations when we are calculating the quantum mechanical probability of finding a particle within a certain kind of potential well, and not for the Norton Dome?

The Hype Delivers

April 6, 2007

Gustavo Dudamel, apparently the hottest young conductor since [the young] Simon Rattle, made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra tonight. Tackling Mahler’s 1st symphony, no less. With an orchestra that is no stranger to producing superlative Mahler performances. He showed no sign of being overawed by the seasoned professionals of the CSO, and seemed to have a level of control that, in my limited concert experiences, has been bettered only by Barenboim. Highlights:

1. The entire first movement. Lovely ethereal atmosphere at the beginning. Satisfying climax with the bright trumpets convincingly creating the impression of walking out from darkness into a halo of light and joy. I’m also a sucker for the sound of backstage brass. I’ve always wondered how the backstage performers see the conductor’s cues.

2. Excellent control of tempo throughout. Nice touch to take the first half of the main theme of the first movement (the “Ging heut’ Morgen uebers Feld” tune) relatively slowly, then accelerate for the second half (the “Guten Morgen! Ei gelt?…” part) of the theme.

3. Greatly exaggerated the peasant dance aspect of the second movement by coming down very slowly and heavily on the A for the first few repetitions of the E-A rising fourth.

4. My previous complaints about the CSO not being able to sound sufficiently lyrical blasted to bits by how Dudamel got them to play the slow section of the last movement. Again, I’ve seen only Barenboim wring something similar from them.

5. Special mentions to Mathieu Dufour (flute), Christopher Martin (trumpet), Larry Combs (clarinet), Joseph Guastafeste (bass), new principal oboist Eugene Izotov, and, damnit, the whole brass section.

6. As an appetizer, Pinchas Zukerman served up a lyrical rendition of Bruch’s violin concerto. One of the best I’ve heard. He seemed anxious to give Dudamel the credit though.

I’m trying not to dwell too much on the fact that that was my last time watching the CSO play Mahler live for the forseeable future. I don’t think they have any more Mahler programmed for this season.

In other news, I just discovered that CSO double bassist Michael Hovnanian has a blog. That is actually regularly updated. Mostly with remarks about the bass parts of their latest performances, but also some interesting peeks into a professional orchestra musician’s life. An excerpt I liked:

The program of Strauss, Ligeti, Strauss was almost your classic shit sandwich. (My apologies for the language – s.s. from now on.) For those unfamiliar with the lingo, s.s. refers to a distasteful modern piece served up between two more palatable audience favorites. The classic construction is an overture or concerto, followed by the modern piece, ending with a beloved symphony or tone poem. The s.s. may also come open-faced, where the modern piece is first, or upside down where it is last. But the savvy reactionary audience member easily foils these schemes by arriving late or leaving early.

My definition of the terminology shouldn’t be taken as acceptance of the underlying narrow-mindedness. There is a tiny minority of us in the orchestra – I can think of two others who would dare express their views openly – who like 20th (and even 21st) century music and think we ought to play more of it. At some point, the audience has to be led kicking and screaming out of the 19th century, hopefully some time before the 21st century ends. After this week I wonder if 93 years might not be long enough for the task.

I didn’t buy that shit sandwich, but the CSO playing Johann Strauss just isn’t a draw. Not enough to form a slice of bread — more like empty air. Richard Strauss is a fairly well known and well-liked quantity to me (except for the Alpine Symphony), Ligeti a question mark. So the concert would have been a slice of bread with a slab of mystery meat on top.

Andrew Patner writes a glowing review of Dudamel’s CSO debut, and suggests that the CSO sign him on as their new music director. Too late: a day later, the news breaks that Esa-Pekka Salonen is resigning from the LA Philharmonic, and Dudamel will take his place. It’s long been a subject of speculation that the CSO is eyeing Salonen as their new music director, but unfortunately Salonen says he is stepping down to concentrate on composing.

Richards’ Evolutionary Ethics

April 4, 2007

After failing to understand it the first three times I read it, I eventually formed a mental schema of Robert Richards’ defence of evolutionary ethics (gated paper here, a few pages from Google Books here) that made sense. In my schema, I divided his theory into two parts, both of which are necessary for his defence. The first is his use of Gewirth’s is-ought derivation. That gives him his “ought”. That, however, is only a causal ought. It is an “ought” in the sense of “thunder ought to follow lightning”, not (necessarily) “soldiers ought not to murder noncombatants”. The second part makes this causal ought a moral ought. It states that moral oughts can only be derived from structured contexts involving altruistic intentions. This is supposed to deflect the criticism that one can derive oughts for being aggressive, etc. from evolutionary principles as well. In short, the first part derives a causal ought from evolutionary principles, which provide the Gewirthean structured context. The second part tacks on the “moral” part of the ought.

One thing that bugged me from the start was the causal nature of the “ought” derived from the Gewirthean structured context. As Richards states, “In reference to structured contexts, ‘ought to occur’, ‘ought to be’, ‘ought to act’, typically mean ‘must occur’, ‘must be’, ‘must act’, provided there is no interference.” My paper [taken offline --- 17/10/07] was mainly concerned with pointing out, through a few examples, that for many moral acts, this kind of ought does not apply. The problem is the “provided there is no interference” clause. What constitutes as interference? I do not want to say that I will win the lottery “provided there is no interference”, and define the interfering conditions as all conditions that would lead to my not winning the lottery. A less extreme analogue of this is a situation where the odds are stacked against a person behaving morally — say one of extreme mental stress, such as brutal combat conditions or extreme poverty. In such a case, it is no longer clear that we can say that a person will act morally “provided there is no interference”. In other words, there exist situations in which a moral ought exists that is not a causal ought. In such situations, Richards’ formulation does not seem to allow us to derive a moral ought, since such situations satisfy the conditions for the “moral” part of his “ought” but not the causal part of his “ought”.

One of the remarks Richards made on my paper was that we do reduce moral culpability when the actors were under mentally stressful conditions in which they were more compelled than usual to act immorally. This might seem to suggest that the strength of moral oughts depends on the strength of causal oughts — that we recognise a weak moral ought in such conditions because the causal ought of moral behaviour in such conditions is weak. However, I think my objection still stands. Presumably, there are conditions brutal enough in which one actually expects that a person will act immorally — in which one assigns a higher probability to the person acting immorally than to the person acting morally. But no matter how high the expectation is of a person acting immorally, the moral ought still runs only one way: we still think that the person [morally] ought to act morally, no matter how far he causally ought to act immorally. But although we may reduce moral culpability in such cases, the fact is we never reduce it to zero — there is always a non-negative moral culpability attached, and this cannot be explained by the causal ought + moral structured context formulation of Richards, since there is no meaningful causal ought involved, unless we admit that it is meaningful to say that a person causally ought to win the lottery, making a mockery of the phrase “provided there is no interference”.

This sets the scene for a more damaging criticism of Richards’ formulation of moral oughts, for it shows that our idea of what a moral ought is conflicts with causal oughts in certain situations, so moral oughts be something along a quite different dimension from causal oughts — moral oughts cannot simply be causal oughts attached to a moral structured context. Richards has confused two different meanings of ought that are in common usage. Kyle Ferguson has made this criticism, from a slightly different angle.

I have to say that most of the criticisms of Richards’ evolutionary ethics that I’ve read are disappointingly flaccid and wrong-headed. Ferguson’s is one of the few that seems to attack existent flaws in Richards’ formulation. Most of the others present arguments to which Richards had pre-emptive counter-arguments without addressing Richards’ counter-arguments.

I do still think, however, that none of his objectors has addressed his point that if one is not allowed to refer to facts as a basis for morality, then that discounts all efforts to ground ethics objectively. If there really is an uncrossable chasm between the moral ought and facts about the world, then I do not see how any ethical system can objectively prescribe what one morally ought to do.

It is also an interesting question, I think, how the causal ought came to share the same symbol as the moral ought. Mayhap there is after all something common to both oughts that would allow us to derive one from the other. I can’t think of anything, but I would be surprised if their coming to share the same symbol was a complete coincidence.

Another Music Venue to Visit

April 2, 2007

elbe philharmonic hall

Hamburg’s new concert hall, due to be completed in 2010.

The outside is no less remarkable. And their website has a tasty walk-through tour.

via Justin Davidson.

Long Rambling Concert Review

April 1, 2007

Just back from watching Hilary Hahn perform Goldmark’s violin concerto with the CSO and Charles Dutoit. I was bored stiff by the concerto. The programme notes claim Goldmark was wildly popular (more so than Mahler) until the early 1900s. I don’t understand why. It was lyrical, yes, but in a rather humdrum sort of way, nothing as ravishing as Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, which it was compared to in the programme notes. Nothing wrong with Hahn’s playing, though, until the cadenza of the third movement, when she sneezed. I had been about to doze off again at that point, but the sudden silence jerked me back into full consciousness, and next thing I knew she was saying “it had to happen during the cadenza”, which drew sympathetic sighs from the audience. Then someone shouted “you’re still good!”, and the audience applauded Hahn. After blowing her nose, she continued with the cadenza and reached the end of the piece without further incident. I have never seen a soloist get so many curtain calls, let alone one who screwed up. At least the encore was good — the violin transcription of Schubert’s Erlkoenig. I don’t know why there is such a craze for transcriptions of this piece. It is absolutely essential for the narrative of the poem that one differentiates the voices of the characters by varying the timbre. The piano can’t do this. The violin can, but it’s still nowhere as competent at doing so as the human voice. But having to play so many double- and triple-stops adversely affects the driving rhythm of the music. The voices also don’t come through well on top of the “galloping” background — my first exposure to this piece was the violin transcription, and at that time it sounded like nonsense to me. It was only after I’d grown familiar with the original voice version that I could easily identify which parts of the violin transcription were the actual “speeches”.

The second half of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. I’ve always thought the CSO has a rather clinical, dry timbre that suits Bartok and Shostakovich but is not full or lush enough to capture full-blooded Romanticism. The second subject of the first movement is, in my opinion, one of the most ravishing tunes ever written, but the Bartok sound detracts from its ravishing qualities. And then there was the overly loud brass in the development. Maybe there’s a musical reason for emphasising the brass in the development, but it certainly sounded wrong. The most bizarre part was the recap of the second subject, where the rising scales of the brass, which I always thought were essential to the character of that particular recap, were almost inaudible. Strange reversal, to have them too loud in the development and too soft in the recap.

I shall pass over the second movement. Suffice to say the clinical Bartok sound did not go well with the lyricism this movement is supposed to embody.

The third movement plays to the CSO’s strengths. I have raved enough on here before about the Chicago brass sound. There is no need for me to rave about them again. Even though I did not like the performance overall, I applauded extra when Dutoit acknowledged the brass section.

Now we come to the most troublesome part of the piece: the break between the third and fourth movements. The third movement is what appears to be a triumphant march, ending bombastically. The kind of thing that would make a good traditional finale. So nearly everyone who’s unfamiliar with the piece thinks it is the end, and applauds. The conductor has a dilemma: Pause and let them applaud, or jump into the fourth movement without a pause? Dutoit chose the latter, but some idiot still managed to get a holler of approval in as the fourth movement begun. I hate misguided applause especially for this piece, since in the context of the mourning mood of the fourth movement, the third movement is clearly an insincere celebration. Therefore it is particularly grating when people “celebrate” it. However, I dislike the other horn of the dilemma, perhaps even more. It’s simply musically absurd to make a gapless transition from the bombastic, military end of the third movement into the pained sigh that begins the fourth. I think I prefer gritting my teeth and letting people clap off their happiness, then launching them into the sea of tragedy that is the fourth movement.

Although I think the CSO is not a particularly good Tchaikovsky orchestra, they have an excellent performance of Tchaikovsky’s 4th with Barenboim, which, after I found it on YouTube, induced me to buy their recording of it with Barenboim (even though I already have their recording with Reiner). The clinical CSO sound is not a problem at all in that Tchaik 4, since Barenboim is able to maintain edge-of-the-seat tension and momentum throughout. One doesn’t notice timbre when all that is happening. The only CSO performance I’ve attended that comes close to the frenzy towards the end of that YouTube video was the Brahms’ 1st performance in Oct/Nov 2004. Unsurprisingly, Barenboim was also the conductor for that one.

It was raining fat, frequent drops at the end of the concert. The lobby was jam-packed with people waiting for the rain to stop. I had to put on my waterproof pants while being squeezed on all sides, but everyone seemed too distressed to notice my antics. On the way to the lakefront path I got a mouthful of water from the rear wheels of a car that overtook me. The wind was against me. The raindrops had become really fat by the time I reached Hyde Park. It was fun.

And I think I have confirmed that my eVent jacket is very breathable (I can feel the damn wind through it) and not waterproof.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.