Sunday, February 23, 2014

classical perfection

I'm gonna geek out about classical music for a minute or many.

I'm in Berlin and in three days have seen two of the best classical concerts of my life (and I've seen a lot[1]). Of course, I should admit that my enjoyment of a concert (in any genre) is quite strongly correlated with how familiar I am with the music ahead of time; I'm very artistically dense and have to hear things a few dozen times before I appreciate them. And both of these concerts (or, the parts I intend to ramble about) were performances of music I was already familiar with, in extreme detail when it comes to the Appassionata. But even controlling for familiarity, they were exceptional.

The first was the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Sir Simon Rattle, performing Brahms' 3rd symphony, Debussy's La Mer, and some awful contemporary premiere that I'd prefer not to dwell on. I'm not a huge fan of Debussy, but when played live by the Berlin Philharmonic, it's definitely not bad. But the Brahms was what really blew me away. I'd have been happy shelling out the exorbitant last minute 64 Euro price just for that (and it makes me willing to overlook the Haas... though I really shouldn't have to plug my ears when I go to the symphony!)

In my limited historical understanding, Bach perfected and completed the baroque era. Beethoven perfected classical and started and defined the romantic era. Brahms perfected and completed the romantic era[3]. As you might expect from that categorization and my partiality towards romantic era music, I don't think I've ever heard anything by Brahms that I didn't like. He was maybe not quite the genius that Beethoven was, but much more consistently mindbogglingly wonderful.

Anyway, not only is Brahms' third symphony wonderful, the Berlin Philharmonic is the greatest orchestra in the world. And it's been so long since I've seen a really top notch symphony, I was re-surprised[4] by how noticeable the difference in quality is[5]. Each individual appeared to be as intensely focused and engaged with the music as you might expect from a concerto soloist.

And so accurate. The difficulty with string instruments is that it is really, really, really hard to be exactly in tune all the time. Even the greatest violinists in history, playing solo rather than trying to match a group[6], play plenty of notes that are a bit uncomfortably too high or too low, if you train your ear to notice[8]. So you can imagine the difficulty in getting 40 different string instruments to simultaneously be perfectly in tune. That's what makes orchestras sound distinctly like large groups of instruments, with a somewhat harsh edge to them. I'm convinced that a big part of the reason why violins have a bit of a bad reputation for being irritatingly harsh is because they're most commonly heard in orchestras instead of solo (or played by mediocre soloists...). But the magic of the Berlin Phil is that it sounds like one huge perfectly integrated instrument. It's absolutely stunning.

I guess my overall point here is that I find it fairly unfortunate what a high percentage of variance in quality in string music is attributable to intonation. Obviously stylistic differences are just as large as between, e.g., pianists, but those differences take a back seat: I'd rather hear a very good performance with excellent intonation than an excellent performance with very good intonation, and that is very frequently the real tradeoff between musicians in the highest echelons[9]. None are perfect. (Itzhak Perlman, and more relevantly the Berlin Philharmonic, get close :)

The second concert was a solo piano performance of three Beethoven sonatas and some variations on a theme, played by Lief Ove Andsnes. This was partly a ridiculously fantastic concert because I was seated right there on the podium, about 8 feet from the piano, with a clear view of the whole keyboard. There is literally no other seat in the entire room I would've wanted to trade with, and it was also the cheapest ticket, by some great mystery of the universe[10].

The key part of the concert for me was, of course the Appassionata, which I've probably listened to 200 times in the last six months or so, to a whole bunch of different recordings before settling on one of Sviatoslav Richter's as the best. I like to think I know this piece about as well as a non-musician can.

Listening to this recording, in mental comparison to Richter's, was another illustration of the tradeoff between technical prowess and artistic styling. Not to say that Andsnes isn't technically outstanding (I'll get back to that in a minute) but his interpretation of the third movement might make you think he isn't at Richter's level. For the first movement, I thought the two performances were on equal footing. Andsnes perhaps pulled a little ahead due to his more dramatic rendition. But Richter is a little ahead in that dimension that I don't have a name for but which I'll try to describe: You know how when music seems to depart from the underlying rhythmic structure, but then circles back to it, kind of like a generalized version of syncopation? Sort of like in a lot of African music in which you can never tell where the measures are because the different instruments and different parts of the song weave in and out of different patterns of emphases so smoothly? Some musicians do that so well that you immediately mentally switch to the alternative rhythm and then have to readjust to the underlying framework when it circles back around. And other musicians get there a little more forcefully, so that you can always hear the underlying structure but with some forced off-beat accents. That's the other dimension in which Richter and Andsnes differed a bit. Richter is able to more perfectly fluently switch between metrics. For some reason that mental state of being not quite sure where the true rhythmic framework lays is a really satisfying attribute of any music that uses it well (i.e., again, a lot of African music).

In the second movement, Andsnes was unambiguously preferable to Richter, due to his artistry. And that's all I have to say about that.

In the third movement though (the really famous one), Richter is clearly ahead. This movement is brutal: the faster the better, unlike almost anything else.  It ideally needs to wash over you like a 12 foot wave of indistinguishable notes, so that the melody that occurs at the full-measure frequency scale comes through as the dominant thread, even though four or eight times as many notes as that are happening. I can't even think it as fast as it should be played (as Richter plays it).

I personally don't think Richter sacrifices any artistry in his rendition, although maybe a robot with arbitrarily fast fingers could be programmed to add a bit more of that and I just can't imagine what it would sound like. So when I hear anyone play it slower, I assume they just can't play it faster. For example, compare the above link to this one. The overarching melody drags unbearably and I have to stop it after a few seconds.

So, when Andsnes started the third movement about 30% slower than Richter does, I chalked it up to a (very excusable!) lack of Richter's superhuman skills. It was still very very good, of course, but Richter really spoils you[11]. But then, to my surprise, in the last break before the final wave (at 6:12 in the first link), he picked up the pace to match Richters. And he's right to do so! There should be a jump in speed there, but when you're going as fast as you possibly can to start with, that jump isn't achievable. But nonetheless, I much prefer that tiny oversight/sacrifice of Richter's to a wave of notes that's more gelatinous than fluid, even on top of the slight noticeable sloppiness of some tiny bits in Richter's[12] that is probably as inevitable as imperfect intonation is for violinists. If Andsnes can keep up the pace he had at the end for the rest of the movement, he can do it.

And now it's 3:40am and I'm going to end this ridiculously long blog post and go to bed.


[1] In junior high orchestra, we got extra credit for going to concerts if we brought back a program signed by our parents. I brought these back almost every week[2], and one Monday brought in three at once, from the previous Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. My orchestra teacher, with an expression of sudden realization, said to me "you have to actually go to them!" I was quite indignant at the suggestion I might be lying about it or silly enough to think that bringing in random programs was sufficient, but luckily he believed me.

[2] People really underestimate small college towns, for this reason. There were so many concerts or other cultural offerings through the university and not enough of a population to drive the price above nearly zero. And I could bike to them all.

[3] Well, there's Rachmaninoff et al... but that kind of romantic music has a distinct later flavor. And Rachmaninoff died in 1943, well into the contemporary period.

[4] I also saw the Berlin Philharmonic play Beethoven's 7th symphony in 1999, which also makes my list of best concerts ever, although the conductor's interpretation wasn't my favorite.

[5] To be fair, part of the greatness of the experience was due to the audience, which was informed enough to clap at the right times instead of stutteringly shattering the intentional silent transitions between movements, and was also very polite: hardly anyone even coughed, the ones that did almost all saved it for the gaps, and you can bet your life no one's phone even vibrated. Makes an enormous difference! Especially compared to free concerts in the park, which have been most of my symphony experiences for many years.

[6] That is, it's much easier to notice when two simultaneous notes are 1 hz off from each other than when the gap between two consecutive notes is 1 hz larger than it should be. Soloists really have a lot of leeway for that reason[7], and really fantastic string quartets are the ones who have been playing together for so long that they've learned to tune to each other nearly perfectly.

[7] And even better, play a fretted instrument... a BIG part of the reason why Chris Thile's mandolin renditions of Bach's solo violin partitas are so wonderful is that every single note is exactly on. Plus the ability to do 3 or 4 part harmony. Plus... it's Chris Thile. This is also why I love classical guitar and piano music; I can listen to it without my subconscious being slightly on edge about the possibility or remembered reality that the next note might not be exactly what I want it to be. Speaking of which, why is there no such thing as a fretted violin? Sure it would limit a lot of things, but in many cases I think that would be a great tradeoff. It would certainly make grade school orchestra concerts a lot more bearable...

[8] And so the danger in my habit of listening to the same piece on repeat for a hundred times in a row until it's essentially in my ears' muscle memory is that those uncomfortable notes become ingrained in my brain in association with the piece. I'd suggest iterating between several recordings, but that's often not possible: no one plays the Beethoven violin concerto like Perlman, and there's only one recording (to my knowledge) of him doing so.

[9] Then again, once again, I'm artistically anti-gifted, so maybe that's just me.

[10] As a stereotypical economist, I was elated before the performance even started by this outrageously good deal. 8 euro! And to think I was about to pay 35 euro for a seat up in the rafters when the website cut off pre-sales and claimed it was sold out! And what a stroke of luck that I showed up to see about last minute tickets at exactly the right time to get to the front of the line, and then left for dinner and came back once again at exactly the right time to get to the front of the open-podium-seating line.

[11] For this reason, I have no desire to ever hear the Beethoven violin concerto played live unless it's performed by Perlman. It's impossible that I wouldn't be disappointed with such a high reference point.

[12] There's one wrong note in the recording I've listened to a hundred times, and it's ingrained in my memory (see [8]) and drives me crazy. I need to go back and find another of his great recordings (there are several, but some definitely better than others) without it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Ridiculous things I've said, or come close enough to saying that I ended up stuttering around for long enough that my interlocutor just interrupted me in English (which isn't saying much - this usually takes about two seconds. Everyone speaks English and rarely lets me get through a complete sentence in German, so consistently that I often forget I'm in a foreign country and say 'hi' or 'sorry'):
  1. Currywurst con pommes.
  2. Dos stücke, bitte.
  3. Un brezl.
  4. Die sekretariat de schule...
  5. Gracias, tschüss.
  6. Wo sind los toilettes?
  7. Si. Er, oui. Er... *nods*. (At least a dozen times, it's crazy. There is no easier German word than 'ja'.)
This is why I like ASL (well one of the many reasons). When I'm trying to come up with the word 'hilfen', I never inadvertently stick my right fist out on my left palm.

I'm so bad at languages; it's a wonder I'm the offspring of a linguist. (Although, still not as weird as being descended from a long line of church organists...)

Friday, February 21, 2014

half an hour in Oslo

I'll come back to Australia later and Germany...

Two fantastic things heard during my stop in Norway:
  1. "It's a beautiful day here in Oslo, at negative 3 degrees."
  2. "May the odds forever be in your favor."
Also, I don't think I can honestly consider myself blonde anymore.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Sudoku gets boring very quickly, but there are two other new types of puzzles that use very similar reasoning processes, the satisfying sort of mostly-algorithmic thinking that brains love, that seem much more fun. But they're hard to find. So someone please write a good generator for them :)

The first are regular expression crosswords. Beyond that introductory site, this is the only really good one I've found. So. much. fun.

The second comes from the wonderful NYT Numberplay column. It's called Combonoku, and like Sudoku involves putting numbers in certain allowable combinations. Maybe I liked it so much because there was only one hard one to work through so it didn't have a chance to get boring, but I guess I'll have to wait until one of you writes a generator for them to find out.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

targeted advertising

Matt hates advertising, so when I couldn't get him to watch the puppy commercial I ended up defending ads. Mostly, of course, ads provide me with all kinds of amazing free services (subsidized by people who don't bother installing adblocker...) But they're also occasionally informative. For example, I'm quite happy I saw an ad for Doritos locos tacos when they were invented :)

The weird thing is, untargeted ads are the ones that are more likely to actually succeed at getting me to buy something. There are of course the trivial comically extreme cases of failing targeted advertising, like when you buy one pair of leg warmers on amazon and then are bombared by ads for legwarmers, as though you might want 12 more pairs, but that's not even what I mean. Telling me about economics books or hard drives or telescopes is never going to be a successful strategy (unless maybe it's a special discount sale) because I already know what I want in those areas.

But ads for cars keep me informed as what's available nowadays so I know what I want to look for when I get a new car eventually, likewise for phones or computers, fast food ads regularly get me to try new junk food inventions, special sale ads for grocery or department stores or restaurants are useful, etc. Ads for baby products and cosmetics and jewelry are never useful, but anything in that valley between "irrelevant" and "highly relevant" has a decent shot at being useful.

I wonder if it's just me, or if companies haven't yet figured out how to get at that sweet spot.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Notes from Chile

Three-ish weeks late as well...
  1. Flew to Santiago via Madrid. Passport stamp says that counts.
  2. Santiago looks just like LA. Palm trees everywhere, some nice areas and some poor areas, hispanic population, same latitude, same weather, same slightly-inland location.
  3. Chile confusingly uses the same "$" sign for its currency, but the exchange rate is around 500 pesos to the dollar, and they Europeanly switch the role of dots and commas in numbers, so everything looks half as expensive as it really is. Ie $10. means approximately 20 USD. I discovered this when I accidentally withdrew twice as much as I intended from an ATM.
  4. The southern hemisphere must really have a recruiting advantage in the economics job market. It's summer and beautiful.
  5. Doing Spanish Rosetta stone for a few weeks a couple years ago totally paid off. With just that limited vocabulary, I can decipher most signs. Spanish is so easy, it's actually pronounceable, and phonetic, and genders are obvious.
  6. The kindle free 3G model is still the best thing I've ever bought for international travel.
  7. I wanted a convenience store to buy diet coke in Santiago. I searched google maps for "supermercado", "Mercado", "bodega" and "tienda". No luck. Walked around and discovered they're all called "market" or "mart"...
  8. Similarly, a Chilean who went to grad school in the US laughed at the fact that what Americans calls "plazas", Chileans call "malls".
  9. Comparing average prices between Chile and the U.S. indicates that they're about the same. But variance is key. Restaurants seem to be either substantially cheaper or substantially more expensive than the U.S. Downtown in the main market, every meal costs about $20 or more, but a few blocks away, you can get chicken and salad and bread with French fries or rice for less than $3.
  10. And real estate is cheap. If you can move there on an American salary, you can live very very well. (Hint hint: if you've been stuck in Oklahoma for awhile and can no longer afford to trade your house back in for one in your preferred major American city, consider Santiago...)
  11. And despite that, it's more civilized than, say, Oakland... Safety statistics are better in every dimension. And I never once smelled urine! Or any of the other mysterious scents of the Mission.
  12. And there's a fantastic subway. The city is overall about as accessible as New York. It's not open 24 hours a day, but it's incredibly cheap, clean, and comfortable. And if you're out late, the taxis are MUCH cheaper as well. 50 cents to start instead of $2.50 or whatever it is now, and about half the per mile rate.
  13. Like Gabon, stray dogs are everywhere, and they're incredibly sweet (but healthier and better fed than in Gabon). This is a major, but unintentional, public good :)
  14. I definitely took many wrong turns due to the sun being to the north instead of the south.
  15. Also like Gabon, the standard food paradigm seems to be choice of meat + choice of carb. No matter where else in the world I travel I seem to come back to California craving vegetables like crazy.
  16. Gabon is actually entirely dissimilar to Chile despite the two comparisons above; funnily, however, a couple professors seemed a little sceptical that I might want to come to a "less developed" country, and asked if I'd travelled in less developed areas at all, and I said well I went to Gabon for a month, and that seemed to reassure him. That really cracked me up. Despite the fact Gabon is doing very well compared to most of sub-Saharan Africa, Santiago is much more like a standard American or European city than anywhere there.
  17. In fact, the most significant aggravating thing I heard that there is to deal with is poor customer service. This stems from a general lack of trust/trustworthiness, which in some ways isn't so bad if you're American, because they know you're trustworthy. Getting an apartment is apparently trivial as soon as you show up as a tall blonde person.
  18. Santiago is also a paradise for anyone who likes the outdoors. In the same day you can *easily* go surfing and skiing in the same day, and stop at a volcano and a glacier in between.
  19. I was surprised, however, how much I stuck out just by being blonde. Anyone who spoke English automatically addressed me in English.
  20. Watching the NFL in Spanish was exceedingly entertaining. If I concentrated I could understand a bit of what they were saying, but it's bizarre to have Spanish followed not by mariachi but by the NFL theme music.
  21. To watch the conference championship games, I went to "California Cantina", a bar filled with ex-pats. But despite the fact the workers and clientele were predominantly American, the first menu section was "California favorites", from which I didn't recognize a single dish.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Notes from Britain

Three weeks late, but frankly I'm surprised only that. With all this exciting international travel, this is gonna have to turn into a more personal blog for a little while...
  1. The British seem to be very stubborn about the necessity for everyone else in the world to learn their language before visiting. First, in the customs line, a group of Chinese tourists were standing together trying to figure out which line to get into, and finally one came up to the Heathrow staff member, pointed to their boarding pass, and said "Glasgow?", obviously asking "Is this the right line to get into if I'm going to Glasgow?" The staff member, instead of nodding helpfully, scoffs disdainfully and says, oh so informatively "Use your head! Everyone else here is waiting in line." (apparently oblivious to the fact that there were half a dozen other lines to choose from as well.) I tried to nod and point helpfully, but then luckily an English speaking Chinese tourist jumped in and explained that they were in the right place. Later, walking through the departures lounge, I saw two foreign people trying to order a muffin from a coffee stand, and the woman asked if they wanted a box, which they didn't understand. A normal person in this situation would have done the internationally understandable thing of pointing to a box, raising their eyebrows to indicate a question, and repeating the question. Instead, she just said the same thing again louder, and then gave up and put it in the box anyway. Then even I, an English-speaking American, was treated like a dirty foreigner when I asked where I needed to go to rebook my ticket, since I'd missed my connection. The conversation went like this: "Pardon me, I missed my connection; could you tell me where I can rebook my British airways flight?" "Airline connections are downstairs." "Oh - what are airline connections?" "AIR-LINE CONN-EC-TIONS." "Um, ok, and that's where I can rebook my flight?" "Follow the signs." It's apparently inconceivable that anyone wouldn't know that's what they call the rebooking desk for all airlines, rather than the direction to go towards other flights or something...
  2. The British Airways staff, on the other hand, were super friendly and helpful. Ahh, that wonderful profit motive at work again...
  3. A sign in the US saying "A day without wine is like a day without sunshine" (in Heathrow) would be scandalized for promoting alcoholism. It's so unbelievably obvious that the cultural treatment of a substance will dictate how responsibly it is used. But you still get people like David Brooks who rationalize their socially conservative gut instincts with unbelievably transparent B.S. like this... David, with this single article you've destroyed your credibility with me. Now when I read your articles praising the social constructs of organized religion and stable families, which I agree with despite having no personal interest in organized religion or stereotypical 1950's families, I'm going to know that you're just rationalizing your preferences instead of uniting left and right with the aspects of social conservatism that serve the left's interests.
  4. The British are so proper I feel perpetually like a loud slob. It's bizarre that they can be so puritanical about those things but so unpuritanical when it comes to alcohol.