Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Confirmation Bias at the Symphony

July 8, 2008

Ottawa National Arts Center Orchestra photo

I just got back from a concert at the National Arts Center in Ottawa. It was the NAC orchestra led by Pinchas Zukerman. More details here.

When we got to our seats, I noticed that we were sitting next to an Asian-looking couple. What immediately popped to mind was “Oh yeah, not surprising, classical music is relatively popular in Asian culture right now” because of some articles that I read about how Asia is training more classical musicians than anywhere else, and that “Western” classical music might have a brighter future there than in this hemisphere.

But that was just confirmation bias.

If I had really wanted to look at this more rationally, a good start would have been to find out what portion of Ottawa’s population is of Asian origins, and then to look at what portion of the concert’s spectators was of Asian origins. I don’t know these numbers, but it might very well be that there were less Asians in the room as a percentage than their ratio of the local population. This could mean a lot of things, like that people of Asian origins who don’t live in Asia anymore aren’t more likely to be classical music fans than the general population, or that age is a bigger factor (lots of white hair in the room) than cultural background. Etc.

Bottom line, just remember to check for confirmation bias often. You get better at catching yourself with time, and someday it might help you avoid a bigger mistake than having an inaccurate belief about Asian culture and classical music.

See also: Rationality.

Dead Geniuses

March 13, 2008

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart drawing image

Mozart was 35 years old when he died. By that time, he had composed about 600 musical pieces (that we know of). He started playing the piano at 3, and at 5 he was composing. As those who have seen the movie Amadeus know, he died before he could finish one of his greatest compositions, his Requiem. It didn’t happen like in the movie (which is fiction, based on a play), but he did die of a strange illness:

The cause of Mozart’s death cannot be determined with certainty. His death record listed “hitziges Frieselfieber” (“severe miliary fever”, referring to a rash that looks like millet seeds), a description that does not suffice to identify the cause as it would be diagnosed in modern medicine. Dozens of theories have been proposed, including trichinosis, influenza, mercury poisoning, and a rare kidney ailment. The practice of bleeding medical patients, common at that time, is also cited as a contributing cause. However, the most widely accepted version is that he died of acute rheumatic fever; he had had three or even four known attacks of it since his childhood, and this particular disease has a tendency to recur, leaving increasingly serious consequences each time, such as rampant infection and heart valve damage.

Could modern medicine have saved him? Probably. What if he had lived to be 77 like Haydn, 65 like Bach, or even 56 like Beethoven? What if he had lived to be 120? What if he was still alive and healthy (not a frail decrepit old man) today? What if these other genius composers I just mentioned also had lived longer or not died? That’s worth imagining, no?

Some individuals definitely contribute more to humanity than others (lets not kid ourselves). These statistical aberrations don’t happen very often, and it is regrettable to see them extinguished by random diseases, caused by old age or not. Don’t get me wrong, any loss of life is sad (except for some evil tyrants, maybe), but some deaths create bigger ripples in humanity’s pond than others.

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Internet is the New Turn-of-the-Century Vienna

February 18, 2008

Map of Vienna, 1958 image

Vienna, the capital of Austria, was the place to be at the end of the 19th century. Unlike Paris and London, it was quite small: You could walk across it in half-an-hour. It had operas, theaters, museums for natural history and the arts, good banks, a stock market and some of the best universities in the world.

It was almost impossible not to constantly meet friends, colleagues and relatives on the street. Even the most famous and powerful people were close:

Opera singers, stage actors, and members of the royal family [were on the streets]. When a famous singer walked by, or one of the more than sixty archdukes drove by in their carriage, people would greet them with spontaneous applause. […] Yet the best example – and almost unbelievable for us today – was [emperor] Franz Joseph himself, who frequently departed in just his carriage from the […] palace. Anyone could walk within reach […] and lift his hat to the white-haired emperor.

Within two generations, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert appeared on Vienna’s stages in rapid succession, something that is without precedent in history. Passion for music united all strata of the population. In the words of William Johnston: “Slovenliness might be tolerated in politics, but not in musical or theatrical performance.”

The elites did not confine themselves to exclusive social circles and ivory towers. In cafés, the Viennese met to talk business, exchanged ideas, debated issues and met people who worked in various fields. For students and young intellectuals, school was very hard at the elite gymnasiums, much closer to modern college than high-school, but their education did not stop outside the classroom: the cafés were also a place to learn and grow.

The better cafés subscribed to the major international journals of science, art and literature. Designed for the entertainment of customers, these subscriptions made the cafés function as a kind of private library.

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I Love Klezmer

November 9, 2007

Over the past few months, I’ve been slowly discovering klezmer and jewish music. Not being jewish, I had never really been exposed to it until I heard some Masada during my jazz explorations about 5-6 years ago. The music and instrumentation was still jazz, but the scales and melodies were unlike anything else I knew and I just loved it.

Masada - Live at Tonic 2001 The Circle Maker

I ended up buying Live at the Tonic 2001 and later The Circle Maker (chamber music arrangements of songs from the Masada song book). Loved them both, but stopped my exploration there. For some reason, I never thought about exploring jewish music in a non-jazz context.

The Klezmatics Album Covers

Then a few months ago, a friend made me listen to Jews with Horns by The Klezmatics and Dance me to the End of Love by the Klezmer Conservatory Band and I just loved it!

Klezmer Conservatory Band

It profoundly touched me in two ways: It made me want to get up and dance (something I never do with other music), but it also had a very cerebral quality with excellent musicianship, complex arrangements and harmonies, interesting song structures and tempo changes. For weeks I had melodies from these two albums stuck in my head — I knew I had to explore the genre more.

The KlezmerShack writes:

Unlike rock, or African-influenced music, klez is made for dancing while holding hands, or dancing with a partner. It doesn’t bounce, it flows. It swings, it cries.

I think this is what makes it different to me, what makes me want to move. It doesn’t hit me in the same way that 4/4-based music does.

There’s also a very organic quality to a lot of the soloing, with clarinets and violins sometimes appearing to laugh or wail. Close to jazz in some ways, especially since a lot of modern klezmer has direct jazz influences, but even the Eastern European/Gypsy-influenced branch has those “human” sounds.

I’m far from being an expert on jewish music, but I’m learning. Here are the albums that I have recently ordered:

Can’t wait to get them!