Friday, October 22, 2021

Conductor Bernard Haitink dies at 92

The New York Times reports:
Bernard Haitink, an unaffected maestro who led Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for 27 years and was known for presenting powerful readings of the symphonies of Mahler, Bruckner and Beethoven conducting orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, died on Thursday at his home in London. He was 92.

Here he is conducting Beethoven's 7th Symphony — the famously moving second movement starts at 16:15:

The Times obit gives a sense of Haitink's personality:

Mr. Haitink let the music emerge from the orchestra, often transcendently, without imposing a heavy-handed interpretation that a star conductor might.

His self-effacing nature was noticed early on.

He was “not one of the glamour boys on the podium,” Harold C. Schonberg, the chief classical music critic for The New York Times, wrote in January 1975 after Mr. Haitink’s debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducting Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7.

“He does not dance, he does not patronize the best tailor on the Continent,” Mr. Schonberg continued. “But he is a dedicated musician, always on top of the music, getting exactly what he wants from his players.”

Reviewing his performance of the same symphony with the Philharmonic in 2011, the critic Steve Smith wrote in The Times: “Some conductors strive for mysticism in late Bruckner; Mr. Haitink, with his unerring sense of shape, transition and flow, lets the music speak for itself, with results that can approach the supernatural and often did here.”

Haitink conjures the towering greatness of Brahms's 4th Symphony:

More from the Times:

His reputation for being unassuming trailed him throughout his career. In 1967, Time magazine described him as “a short, quiet man who likes to take long bird-watching rambles in the woods,” and pointed out that “in a profession where flamboyance and arrogance are often the hallmarks of talent, the diffident Haitink is an anomaly.” A New York Times article in 1976 carried the headline “Why Doesn’t Bernard Haitink Act Like a Superstar?”

Mr. Haitink’s colleagues lauded his modesty, integrity and musicianship when he was awarded the prestigious Gramophone Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. The pianist Murray Perahia, who recorded the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Mr. Haitink and the Concertgebouw, praised him as being “dedicated to a real collaboration: neither dictating an interpretation, nor slavishly following — but a natural give and take.”

Haitink brings Debussy's cinematic La Mer to life:

The Times on how wartime in Haitink's childhood affected him as a conductor:

Bernard Johan Herman Haitink was born on March 4, 1929, into a well-off family in Amsterdam. His father, Willem Haitink, was a civil servant, and his mother, Anna Clara Verschaffelt, worked for the French cultural organization Alliance Française. Neither were musicians. The family lived under Nazi occupation during World War II, and Willem was imprisoned for three months in a concentration camp.

Mr. Haitink referred to his youth as his “lazy days.”

“I wasn’t stupid,” he explained, “but I just wasn’t there. Half the time we were taught under our desks because of air raids. But even when things became normal, I wasn’t interested. Maybe this is why now, when I am over 70, that people always ask me why I work so hard.”

Shostakovich's merciless 4th Symphony:

The New York Times obit ends with this:

In 2011, in [an] interview with The Guardian, Mr. Haitink mused on the strange life of a conductor. “I have been doing this job for 50 years,” he said. “And, you know, it is a profession and it is not a profession. It’s very obscure sometimes. What makes a good conductor? What is this thing about charisma? I’m still wondering after all these years.”

And here's the last symphony by one of Haitink's signature composers: Bruckner's 9th.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Flow author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has died at 87

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote the famous 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has died at age 87.

I haven't found any obituaries yet, but here's the announcement on his Facebook page.

In 2010, when I made a list of "the 12 books that have influenced me the most," I included Flow.

This post by Ann Althouse (my mom) quoted the book's summary of 8 features of the state of "flow":

First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing. Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing. Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and immediate feedback. Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life. Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over. Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.

Here's Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk from 2004: "Flow, the secret to happiness."

In Psychology Today, English professor Vivian Wagner wrote in 2018:
The flow state, a concept first recognized and analyzed by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi …, is a worthy goal for anyone who wants to think and live more creatively. …

In my composition classrooms, I often have students "freewrite" about whatever topic we’re focusing on that day. I find that while they’re freewriting, they enter a state of flow. … This is an especially valuable state because it’s then that creative connections are made. The mind allows itself to think, without the constraints and expectations of the external world. There’s time enough later to look at what we’ve written while in a flow state, but it’s important to be able to stay there for as long as possible in order to reap the benefits from it. …

In our era of multiple distractions, it can be difficult to slip into a flow state. Often, in the middle of doing something — when I might actually be in a flow state — I stop to check my phone or my email or search the web, and those activities break it up. More even than when Csikszentmihalyi first theorized about flow, we’re in great need of it today. …

It’s a beautiful, mysterious process — one that will change your life for the better and bring in a daily dose of creativity. And during those moments of flow, you’ll find yourself making connections, forming ideas, and thinking differently.

(Photo of Csíkszentmihályi from his TED talk.)

Friday, September 24, 2021

Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden released great albums 30 years ago

September 24, 1991 was a great day for music. 

30 years ago, Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind

The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik

[UPDATE: I originally said Soundgarden released their third album, Badmotorfinger, on the same day — which is what Wikipedia said on September 24. But later, Soundgarden did a Facebook post admitting that they had caused the wrong info to be put on Wikipedia. It was scheduled to be released that day, but it was postponed to October 8, 1991 because the band insisted on changing the album's front and back covers. You can see the original, atrocious cover art in their Facebook post.]

All three albums were commercial and artistic breakthroughs for those bands.

They're the kind of albums you listen to straight through, not skipping any tracks, because each one feels essential, from the hits to the songs you might have forgotten about but are happy to hear when they come on (Nirvana's "Lounge Act," RHCP's "My Lovely Man," Soundgarden's "Somewhere"). 

Nevermind has been celebrated for bringing an entire genre into the mainstream and signaling an authenticity-driven reaction against synth-heavy '80s music, even though the album itself has been criticized (including by Kurt Cobain) for being too slickly produced.

Nirvana thought "Lithium" was the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what

Two features of this song make it stand out as one of Nirvana's best. One is the lyrics, which were unusually clear for Cobain. "I'm so happy, 'cause today I've found my friends. They're in my head. I'm so ugly, that's OK, 'cause so are you. We broke our mirrors." There's so much you can read into that word, "ugly."

The other thing is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't a flashy bassist who drew attention to himself, but he gave extra attention to this song. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section.

The chorus of "In Bloom" is brilliantly self-referential in mocking the whole idea of a band with fans, while being more lovable than that concept sounds. "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along … but he knows not what it means …"

"Drain You" was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite Nirvana songs. I love how in the place where you might expect a conventional guitar solo, they instead do an eerie instrumental interlude with disorienting guitar noises and dissonances, culminating in a frenzied crescendo that leads back to the beginning. Grunge genius.

That same day, RHCP put out a 17-song funk masterpiece. "Give It Away" captures the essence of the band: gleefully sexual, deceptively simple, rhythmically infectious.

"Breaking the Girl" is an uncharacteristically acoustic Chili Peppers song with an electrifying percussion break (starting at 3:03). Chad Smith's propulsive drum beat gives a remarkable momentum to the song.

"Under the Bridge" is a haunting portrait of heroin addiction. I get chills when I hear the choir-like backing vocals start to sing: "Under the bridge downtown …" The beautiful interplay of the guitar (John Frusciante) and bass (Flea) at the end is worthy of comparison to George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Beatles' "Something."

"Power of Equality" kicks the album off with an urgent note of social awareness ("American equality has always been sour"). The Chili Peppers' singer/rapper, Anthony Kiedis, was clearly self-conscious about this white band being indebted to many black musicians: "My lily white ass is tickled pink, when I listen to the music that makes me think." He makes an explicit call for racial harmony: "Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan!" The song ends with an earnest lament:

People in pain, I do not dig it
Change of brain for Mr. Bigot …
Misery is not my friend
But I'll break before I bend
What I see is insanity
Whatever happened to humanity?

Soundgarden found their voice with Badmotorfinger, which kicks off with the frenetic "Rusty Cage."

"Slaves and Bulldozers" is a 7-minute epic that sounds like a fearsome machine, with staggering vocals by Chris Cornell.

"Mind Riot" is the relatively poppy side of Soundgarden.

"Outshined" defines the Soundgarden sound and attitude: powerfully heavy, and with a determination to get through life's dark moments.

Focus on the interlude that starts just before 3:00. On the surface, there's not much going on here — no key change, no guitar solo. But a gentle, introspective passage like this to contrast with the heaviness is the kind of thing that elevates a rock song, and distinguished Soundgarden from other bands of the time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Do trigger warnings work?

No, according to Amna Khalid, a history professor who says she won’t be using them this year (via John McWhorter):

Trigger warnings, the results have been clear, do not reduce negative affect and emotional distress. According to a recent study by Harvard psychologists, trigger warnings “were not helpful even when they warned about content that closely matched survivors’ traumas.” Even worse, the researchers found that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD. How’s that? Repeatedly reminded of their emotional wounds — and essentially encouraged to view new experiences through a prism of past trauma — participants came to “view trauma as more central to their life narrative.” The researchers concluded that, ironically, trigger warnings “may be most harmful for the individuals they were designed to protect.”

From my anecdotal observation as a professor of history, trigger warnings have not had a positive impact on the quality of education. Rather, they have become an all-too-easy excuse for students to opt-out of assignments and class sessions. And there has been a chilling effect in the classroom. Increasingly wary of teaching material that may be deemed too distressing for especially sensitive students, many educators are self-censoring....
A commenter on a public Facebook post says she’s not surprised by the study:
I have both PTSD and CPTSD and trigger warnings have always irritated me. They only succeed in bringing to mind trauma and the majority of it is completely unrelated to what the "warning" is about, for me at least. They might as well run around me in a circle ringing a bell and yelling out everything that's ever traumatized me.