Monday, January 31, 2011

Visualizing how all countries are getting richer and healthier

A dazzling presentation by Hans Rosling:



You can play with the data here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on ukulele



It's on Jake Shimabukuro's new album, Peace Love Ukulele.

(Via Metafilter, via 3 Quarks Daily.)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Thank you for enabling me to be brief."

That was the last thing Cass Sunstein (the well-known law and economics scholar who's now President Obama's regulatory czar) said in a recent congressional hearing. Great line.

At the hearing, a House Republican named Cliff Stearns questioned Sunstein on how the administration would follow through on Obama's promise to get rid of inefficient regulations. TNR describes their interchange:

Cliff Stearns wanted answers. Just not, mind you, complicated answers . . .

“To make this as productive as possible, when you're answering questions, if you could just answer yes or no,” Stearns began . . .

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Does Obama's "'Sputnik' moment" idea from the State of the Union speech make any sense?

Nope, says my mom, and I agree. That whole post is worth reading, but here's the gist:

If you remember how Sputnik felt — and I do — you'll probably say, but there is no equivalent of Sputnik. There are just a lot of countries, full of human beings, trying to get ahead economically, like us — not against us. There's no race with dramatic consequences for the winners and losers, and there's no impressive physical object that signifies that bad guys are winning the race. If you don't remember Sputnik, you're like: Sputnik?
I found last night's speech very dull, and I turned it off less than an hour into it. The idea that we're supposed to be alarmed that other countries are making too much progress relative to us, and that this is going to be our motivation to make economic and technological progress, leaves me cold. I wonder how many people honestly share this view (as opposed to people who are merely willing to echo Obama's point because they support Obama).

I don't care if we're #1 or #2 or #10 out of 200 countries, by whatever metric has been agreed on by experts. In fact, being #1 is a burden. I'd like to try being #2 for a while. Let another country take on the role of being officially at the top, and see how they like it. It hasn't been uniformly wonderful for the United States to have that distinction. I care so much more about whether this is a nice place to live.

UPDATE: Over on my mom's blog, a commenter named "Revenant" makes a good point:
Sputnik was launched by a genocidal Communist dictatorship that was not only our sworn enemy, but capable of destroying all life on Earth. That's why Sputnik was shocking. We were "losing" to an enemy that had the capacity to obliterate us.

Our biggest modern rival, China, is a mere regional power whose economy relies on exporting goods and services to... er, us and our allies.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How many times will President Obama say "invest," "investing," or "investments" tonight?

23, by my count from this wrongfully obtained draft text.

The New York Times shows how many times "invest" and other words have been used in every State of the Union address from 1939 to last year — in this interactive graphic.

You can move your pointer over the graphs to see the specific numbers for each year. For instance, which speech had the most uses of "invest"? Clinton's in 1993 — 29 times! (I don't know if that includes "investment.")

Obama last year said "small business" far more than anyone else.

Two words were used much more often by George W. Bush than by anyone else: "terror" and "enemies."

Some of the Times' descriptions don't even seem supported by its own data. It says, "Historically, Democrats use [the word 'invest'] more than Republicans." But that's only accurate as to Obama and Clinton, not the other Democratic presidents. Republicans Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush said "invest" more than Democrats Truman and LBJ. Another example: the Times says, "Compared with Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has limited his use of the word ['Afghanistan']." But the only year when Bush said "Afghanistan" significantly more than Obama was 2002, just a few months after the war started.

The fact I found most significant: "recommend" was used frequently by Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ, but it's rarely been used since Ford (aside from Clinton's first State of the Union, for some reason). The Times explains:

This term, redolent of civics-class advice and consent, has gone the way of the Edsel.
Apparently, American presidents used to aim for some degree of precision in describing the actual limitations of their power. How quaint.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How Facebook could get me to pay for a premium account

Offer an option to filter out all sports-related status updates from my news feed.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (complete list)

Here are the links to my whole top 10 list of the greatest composers (inspired by Anthony Tommasini's New York Times series):

10, 9 (with rules for the list)

8, 7

6, 5

4, 3

2, 1

Honorable mentions

The top 10 greatest classical composers - some honorable mentions

Now that I've posted my top 10 list of the greatest classical composers, let's look at some people I left off whom others might have included.

Mendelssohn could have easily been in the top 10. His Octet (for the equivalent of two string quartets) is some of the best music I've ever heard by anyone. The achievement would be hard to fathom if he had written it at any age. He was 16 when he wrote it. Here's the first movement played by the Borodin and Fine Arts Quartets (the music starts about 30 seconds in).





Schumann is another obvious one. I love some of his music, like the manic Toccata (played here by Sviatoslav Richter). I just don't feel quite as strongly about his overall body of work as I do any of the ones I put on the top 10.



I noticed a lot of support for Tchaikovsky once the NYT series started. He isn't one of my favorites, but the famous Nutcracker Suite always puts me in a good mood. Here's the Waltz of the Flowers, which is supposed to be played by orchestra but is redone here by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet:



Going back in time to the Baroque, there's Handel. Many people would have an easy time putting Handel on the top 10. I admit I haven't given him a full enough listen, maybe because I tend to reflexively reach for Bach when I'm in the mood to listen to Baroque. As a sample of Handel, I think I'll go with the most obvious possible thing:



Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas (often played on piano, as in this performance of K. 141 by Martha Argerich) are strikingly individualistic and out of sync with the late Baroque.



How about the 20th century?

Bartok would be a leading contender. Here's the final movement of his audacious String Quartet #4, played by the Zehetmair Quartett:



I have a soft spot for the relentlessly bleak Shostakovich, who wrote under constant fear of his own Soviet government. My favorite Shostakovich is his 8th String Quartet, but I've already blogged that (What are the scariest pieces of classical music?"). So instead, here's his 1st Symphony, written as a conservatory assignment when he was 19 years old. (This performance is conducted by Neeme Jarvi.) This is pretty cheerful for Shostakovich:



Another Soviet composer is Prokofiev, who wrote some hard-edged, dissonant music, but also popular fare like Peter & the Wolf and Romeo & Juliet. I especially like his piano music, which I think of as the sonic equivalent of a classic martini. Here's Frederic Chiu playing the 5th Piano Sonata:



You could include Schoenberg on the list, but that would seem to be largely a gesture of recognition that he did something new. That's important, but I care more about: "If I could only listen to 10 composers for the rest of my life, who would they be?" I wouldn't put Schoenberg on that list. But if you had to listen to choose just 10 classical compositions to have on a desert island, you might want this haunting early piece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) (played here by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble Concert, directed by John Heiss):



There are some giants I still haven't mentioned: Verdi, WagnerMahler. I like opera, but I'm just not enough of a fan of it to put Verdi or Wagner in the top 10. I've also never found the supposed historical significance of Wagner to be viscerally exciting, as opposed to an academic observation (in contrast with composers like Debussy and Beethoven).

As for Mahler, I don't understand the mania around him. I prefer the similar but more introverted, enigmatic Bruckner. Here are some snippets of Bruckner's (unfinished) 9th Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein:



We could go on and on. How about Berlioz, whose Symphonie Fantastique is considered a major milestone of the early Romantic era? But I have to admit I've always found this to be more of a history lesson than an enjoyable listen.

Well, what about Vivaldi, with his hundreds of masterful Baroque concertos? Here's "Summer" from The Four Seasons, which bears no resemblance to summer unless we're talking about a thunderstorm:



Ravel? He's unlikely to make it into many top 10 lists, since anyone would list Debussy above Ravel, and one impressionist is enough for the top 10. His music also seems more "nice" than "great." Here's his Piano Trio (the first two movements), played by the Beaux Arts Trio:





Then there's Sibelius. Here's the first movement of his woefully overlooked 6th Symphony, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy:



We could keep going like this and easily end up with a top 50 list of excellent composers. There just isn't room for every worthy composer on a top 10 or even top 20 list. A top 10 list gets attention because it's restrictive; disappointment is built into the concept.

So if you're looking for a fuller guide to classical composers than I could give here, I recommend Jan Swafford's Vintage Guide to Classical Music. He has long essays on the music and lives of the great composers, and shorter blurbs on lesser-but-notable composers. I particularly recommend this over Phil G. Goulding's Classical Music, which (unlike Swafford's book) ranks "the 50 greatest composers." Goulding's format is entertaining and eye-catching, but he makes some bizarre choices: he doesn't include Schoenberg or any American composers (no Copland or Ives), yet he includes relatively forgettable composers like Rameau and Donizetti. In contrast, Swafford's choices about which composers to emphasize (not just your usual Bach and Beethoven, but lesser-known composers like Palestrina and Hindemith) and which ones to discuss briefly (Corelli, Scriabin, Poulenc) are close to perfect.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (2, 1)

(The complete list.)

[UPDATE: The New York Times author, Anthony Tommasini, just finished his top 10 list.]

2. Mozart

What's so great about him? Why is it that he's routinely ranked one of the top 2 or 3 composers, and no one would dare leave him off the top 10? Like Bach, he didn't invent a new style; he fit comfortably into an existing one. But has there been any other composer, before or since, whom notes seem to flow out of with such beauty and grace?

Here's Sharon Kam playing the first movement of the Clarinet Concerto, Mozart's last instrumental composition:





His piano sonatas are not Mozart at his very greatest, but they have a quiet, understated wonderfulness. This is Vladimir Horowitz playing the first movement of K. 330:



In the last movement of the "Jupiter" Symphony (#41) (conducted here by Jeffrey Tate), Mozart develops several different melodic themes, ending with a Baroque-inspired outburst of polyphony where all the themes seem to meld together. Sheer genius.



As with everyone on this list, there's so much more to him than I can do justice to here. He was the king of the piano concerto. There are his masses, his chamber music . . . All this would be enough to cement his ranking here even if he hadn't been one of the greatest opera composers ever. He did all that in his cruelly short 35 years of life.


1. Beethoven

Tommasini, the NYT author, says there's a consensus among "thinking musicians" (which surely means "people who agree with me") that Bach was the single greatest composer, but to me Beethoven far surpasses any of the others. He's traditionally classified along with Haydn and Mozart as belonging to the "Classical" (capital C) era, but it's hard to fathom what an advance he was over Haydn, his partial contemporary. (Beethoven started writing shortly before 1800, and Haydn was productive up until his death at age 77 in 1809.) Beethoven internalized all the existing concepts in Western music up to the beginning of the 19th century, stretched them almost beyond recognition, and probably gave more inspiration to the next 200 years of classical music than anyone else.

Later composers could emulate him (Mendelssohn, Schumann), or stand on his shoulders to progress further (Wagner, Brahms), or react against him (Chopin, Debussy), but no one could ignore him.

His stylistic and emotional range was amazing. He could be wild and visionary, as in the Gross Fuge (Alban Berg Quartett) . . .



. . . tragic, in the second movement of the 7th Symphony (conducted by Keith Salmon) . . .



. . . or joyous and replenishing, in the first movement of the "Pastoral" (6th) Symphony (conducted by Eric Jacobsen).



I think of the whole history of classical music as a mountain. You start at the bottom of one side, which is medieval chant. You climb up the mountain, go down the other side, and when you reach the ground again, you're at late 20th century minimalism.

Higher up the mountain doesn't necessarily mean "better." It has more to do with how structured the music is. When you go from Baroque up to Classical, the arc of a piece becomes more dramatic. (As the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey said, you can drop into a Classical piece you've never heard and have some clue about whether you're hearing the beginning, middle, or end of the movement; this doesn't work with Baroque.)

In the Romantic era, you start going downhill, with plenty of that old Classical form, but also a looser, more improvisational sensibility.

The 20th century goes steeply downhill, challenging all expectations of structure, harmony, melody, and rhythm.

At the top of the mountain — fusing the best aspects of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic (with a dash of prophetic modernism) in magnificent, awe-inspiring structures — is Beethoven.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (4, 3 . . .)

(The complete list.)

4. Bach

Bach composed during the late Baroque, so he didn't forge a new style the way Haydn or Debussy or Schoenberg did. And the Baroque style itself is more limited than the music that would follow him. Yet he's so widely called one of the top 3 composers of all time that I feel slightly apologetic at ranking him "only" #4. Evidently, greatness is not just about originality. Bach transcended the limitations of his era and brought an intellectual depth previously unknown to Western music.

I think of him as generally mild-mannered and contemplative, but he was also capable of overwhelmingly intense emotion. Here's "Herr, Unser Herrscher" ("Lord, Our Master") from the St. John Passion, conducted by Richard Egarr:



Bach's Cello Suites allow the cellist to explore melody alone, in a way no other composer has equalled. Here's Mstislav Rostropovich playing the 4th Suite:



If you wanted to choose one little piece by anyone that perfectly distills the idea of pure, simple music for music's sake, it would be hard to do better than the 1st Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Sviatoslav Richter plays it here, followed by the 1st Fugue:




3. Brahms

Schoenberg famously wrote, in an essay called "Brahms the Progressive," that Brahms had been misunderstood as one of the more conservative composers of the Romantic era, and that in fact he foreshadowed the atonalism of the 20th century. Fortunately, we don't need to take a stance on this musicological issue to become immersed in the autumnal world of Brahms, where every note seems to be aching or yearning or striving for something. Brahms, who died in 1897, often sounds to me like he's saying a long farewell to pre-Modern classical music itself.

Here's one of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard. Piano Trio #1 (Op. 8), first movement, played by Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose:



Here's the first movement of A German Requiem, where the non-religious Brahms put his individual spin on a traditionally Christian genre. Here's the whole thing, conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. The first 2 movements are spell-binding.



Here's the first movement of Brahms's 4th Symphony (his last), conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say music just doesn't get any better than this.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (6, 5 . . .)

(The complete list.)

6. Haydn

Haydn is known as "the father of the symphony." He might not have actually invented the symphony, but he made it great. The same is true of the string quartet.

Most 19th century composers paid little attention to Haydn, but it's hard to imagine Mozart or Beethoven without him.

He claimed he wasn't a very happy person, but who else has ever produced so many compositions (over 1,000) that sound so much like sunshine? Here's the first movement of his 104th Symphony, conducted by Hubert Soudant (the music starts after 0:40):



His comical approach of toying with your expectations was especially strong in his finales; for instance, here's the last movement of the 96th Symphony, with Jan Caeyers conducting Le Concert Olympique:




5. Debussy

You could easily pigeonhole him as a composer of pleasantly "impressionistic" music on the borderline of Romantic and Modern. I prefer to think of him as the most revolutionary composer of the 20th century. If you had to pick just one composition that gave the Modern era permission to disregard everything that came before, you might pick Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prélude à L'Après-Midi d'un Faune). It flows along gently instead of hammering you over the head the way other revolutionary pieces (like the "Eroica" Symphony or the Rite of Spring) do. Here's Ion Marin conducting:



A more overtly Modern work is the 12 Etudes. Here's #9, For Repeated Notes (Pour les Notes Repétées), played by Yegor Shevtsov:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The top 10 greatest classical composers (8, 7 . . .)

(The complete list.)

8. Chopin

The quintessential lone pianist exploring his soul through the instrument. The most intimate and introverted of the greats.

Some of the most characteristically Chopinesque pieces are his 58 Mazurkas. (A mazurka is a traditional Polish folk dance that might have been fairly obscure if not for Chopin.) Here's one of them, played by Vladimir Horowitz:



Here are some of the 24 Preludes (#10-14 and 16), played by Andras Schiff:




7. Schubert

Impossible to neatly label or summarize. Is he Classical or Romantic or what? Who cares? His body of work is fascinatingly varied and staggeringly huge, yet he died at only 31 — a terrible loss to music.

He's perhaps best known for his over 600 songs (by which I of course mean the traditional sense — "short pieces that are sung" — not the iPod sense of "tracks from an album"). But I'm more interested in classical music without vocals, so here are a few of my favorites:

Schubert's 5th Symphony is like the best Mozart symphony Mozart never wrote. He was only 19 when he wrote this. Here's the first movement (conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy):



His String Quintet (for the unusual lineup of string quartet plus an extra cello, instead of an extra viola) is at the highest level of any chamber music by anyone. It was his last instrumental composition, written just two months before he died. This performance by the Afiara Quartet plus Joel Krosnick starts at 8:20, after Krosnick's introduction:



I had lent a few CDs to a friend who was getting into classical music, and he brought up the last movement of the "Trout" Quintet (which also has an unusual lineup: piano, violin, viola, cello, and double-bass). I've talked before about how it's the rare piece of music that gives me a strong feeling of: "Aha, this is it!" My friend essentially told me he felt that way about the "Trout" finale. So do I, and here it is (played by Julian Rachlin, Mischa Maisky, Mihaela Ursuleasa, Nobuko Imai and Stacey Watton):



The "Unfinished" Symphony has a profound sense of completeness:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Who are the top 10 greatest classical composers? (10, 9 . . .)

That question has prompted over a thousand readers of the New York Times to give their opinions (here and here and here and here). [Update: Commenters on my mom's blog are also opining.] The Times writer Anthony Tommasini still hasn't given his list yet; he's running a series of pieces where he agonizes over who should be in the top 10 (also at those links).

I'm going to follow Tommasini's rules:

I am focusing on Western classical music. . . . [G]iants like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Stephen Sondheim are outside my purview here. And on the assumption that we are too close to living composers to assess their place and their impact, I am eliminating them from consideration.

Finally, I am focusing on the eras since the late Baroque. You could make a good case for Josquin or Monteverdi, but I won’t. The traditions and styles were so different back then as to have been almost another art form.
Now, here's my list. I'll add 2 a day from now to Friday.

[UPDATE: Here's the complete list.]

10. Dvorak

A Czech composer who did better than any American at capturing the essence of our country. Here's the first movement of his famous "American" String Quartet (#12):



His Cello Concerto is the best composition of its kind, and one of the most emotional, invigorating orchestral works I've ever heard. Here's the first movement, played by the great Mstislav Rostropovich:






9. Stravinsky

Debussy started the ignition of the 20th century, but Stravinsky drove down most of its roads. He would layer one key on top of another, or one rhythm on top of another; this shouldn't work in theory, but he made it work.

To sample a few of his many styles, try listening to the playful, childlike Petrushka (conducted by Andrey Chistiakov) . . .



. . . then the ferocious and radical Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps), conducted by Pierre Boulez here . . .



. . . then the majestically neoclassical Symphony in C (first movement, conducted by Georg Solti).

Sunday, January 9, 2011

2 descriptions of what a good date conversation should be like

1. "The mixing of clever women and clever men brought sex and intellect into a different relationship. Men and women learned to value one another for their character, rather than their appearance, profiting from their differences to try to understand themselves and each other. Their meetings gave birth to epigrams, portraits, eulogies, music, games, which were discussed with extraordinary thoroughness but without spite, for the rule was that the participants had to be agreeable." — Theodore Zeldin (An Intimate History of Humanity)

2. ‎"Talking with her, it was like talking with you, but, you know, obviously much better." — Jerry Seinfeld to George Costanza (pilot episode of Seinfeld)

Friday, January 7, 2011

"It's a chemical world."

"Learn to live with it."

A friend of mine posts that link to Facebook and asks:

Can we ditch "all-natural" while we're at it?