Saturday, November 2, 2019

Uncommon Truths

This won't be philosophy exactly, but that seemed the closest tag. I am nearing the end of Malcolm MacDonald's book on Schoenberg and he sums up like this:
Schoenberg, then, was essentially a religious composer. I mean that in the widest sense ... Almost all Schoenberg's vocal works deal in some fashion with the relation of the individual to the inner and outer the spirit and to the collective, to humanity at large and, beyond that, to the yet larger, eternal world of religious conviction and speculation ... Schoenberg would have placed far more importance on this aspect of his work, than on his intellectual achievements as a constructor of systems. In his music he sought to reassert the traditional romantic and religious values of European civilization. In this sense he was a conservative composer.
But because such a reassertion was not just aesthetic but ethical in intention, it inevitably involved an attack on the bogus traditionalism and intellectual inertia of the decaying society in which he found himself; and in this sense his approach was a critical, even revolutionary one.
That is certainly not how I understood Schoenberg for most of my life in music. I think the turning point for me was a couple of years ago when I was in Madrid for a couple of weeks and the opera then being performed at the Teatro Real was Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. Seeing that wonderful production and being in the theatre full of 2,000 or so people enjoying that music made a fundamental change for me not only in how I saw Schoenberg, but how I saw music.

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A number of years ago my half-brother-in-law (long story) told me that everyone should have a hobby and a job, but you should switch them every few years. He was an interesting fellow. Not only did he work for IBM for many years, in his spare time he built and flew his own ultralight helicopter.  I seem to have several jobs and hobbies, but I'm not always sure which is which! For example, I spend a lot of time creating posts for this blog, but since it pays nothing, it is obviously not a job. I spend much less time managing my investments, which do pay. In connection with that, I just ran across an absolutely fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal about the most successful investor in history--and I would bet you have never heard of him. Over the last thirty years he has averaged 66% a year! He runs a fund with very high fees: 5% of the principal and 20% of the profits every year. But even after that, the average annual return is 39%. Good lord, that means that you double your money every 21 and a half months. You may have heard of George Soros, Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch. Well, this fellow beats all of them. His name: Jim Simons. How did he do it? Big data quantitative analysis going back to the 1700s. I don't know if his fund is open to new investors or what the minimum is, the name of the fund is Medallion so you could look it up. But I can suggest a quite simple and effective investing strategy: just buy an exchange traded fund that tracks the Standard and Poor's 500 index. That's it. If you are older, put part of your investment into a bond fund. That really is it. And it beats 90% of the active money managers out there. Not Jim Simons, of course!

UPDATE: Just for fun I checked out the Medallion Fund and, you are going to enjoy this, investment is by invitation only! In other words, the only people who can invest in the fund are invited to do so. Never heard of that before, but hey, there is lots of stuff I don't know.

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 Here is another uncommon truth: the problem with a lot of public policy is simply that it is one-size-fits-all, top-down, dreary proceduralism run by faceless bureaucrats. Even if the policy is really well designed your life is still being at least partly run by those faceless bureaucrats who probably have a much better pension plan than you do because, hey, they are in charge. I have a kind of instinctive revulsion to this sort of thing. It partly comes from my father who had a bit of an obsession about authority, but it is partly from my own experience. I once had a job on the other side of the fence where I was collecting educational statistics and bullying high school principals if they did not deliver the numbers in the approved form. Sure, that was fun, but it is no fun being on the receiving end. How could you possibly want to have your health care delivered by a government agency? Sure, it's "free" if you live in Canada where they have a single-payer socialized system. But is it free? The average family pays about $4,000 a year in taxes to pay for the system and that figure is from years ago. And as I mentioned a while back, the minimum wait for an MRI in British Columbia is 41 days. And the maximum you might have to wait is 244 days. Here, in a private system, I got an appointment the next day and the cost was $150. No faceless bureaucrats involved. Now where I live there is a problem with cartel violence and the lack of a lot of government "services" but whereas there might be a 0.1% chance of me being the victim of cartel violence, if I lived in Canada there would be a 100% chance of my life being at the mercy of faceless bureaucrats and suffering my financial health being drained away by absurd taxes.

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You want another example? Here is a classic one. With all the best intentions, a "common core" curriculum with standardized testing was designed by experts to improve public education in the US. The results?
For the third time in a row since Common Core was fully phased in nationwide, U.S. student test scores on the nation’s broadest and most respected test have dropped, a reversal of an upward trend between 1990 and 2015. Further, the class of 2019, the first to experience all four high school years under Common Core, is the worst-prepared for college in 15 years, according to a new report.
That's from The Federalist. Also:
Common Core is a set of national instruction and testing mandates implemented starting in 2010 without approval from nearly any legislative body and over waves of bipartisan citizen protests. President Obama, his Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, and myriad other self-described education reformers promised Common Core would do exactly the opposite of what has happened: improve U.S. student achievement. As Common Core was moving into schools, 69 percent of school principals said they also thought it would improve student achievement. All of these “experts” were wrong, wrong, wrong.
This is a perfect example of "one-size-fits-all, top-down, dreary proceduralism run by faceless bureaucrats." Education is when a student goes to a teacher to learn stuff and the teacher responds to the student's needs. A fixed, standardized curriculum is precisely the opposite, about as useful as pushing on a string. I once had a new guitar student ask me what I was going to teach him. It was as if he were interviewing me for the job! I hadn't heard him play yet so I said "I have absolutely no idea what I am going to teach you or if I am going to teach you anything at all." He was really nonplussed by this so I explained. "I teach the student, not some abstract curriculum. I will listen to you play and from that I will derive an idea of what you know and don't know and need to know. That's where I will start." That's education. Everything else is posturing and job-creation for education bureaucrats.

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That's my rant for the day, so let's have some music. Here is the Suite for Piano, op. 25 by Schoenberg. This is his idea of neo-classicism!


Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

this post reminded me of Richard Taruskin on Scriabin and that, in turn, got me thinking back to a few other things I'd been mulling over. Schoenberg as a essentially religious composer seems to map with Taruskin's observation about late 19th and early 20th century avant garde composers being drawn to apocalyptic occultic millenarian type views. Taruskin proposed in Defining Russia Musically that if we jettison the apocalyptic occult mysticism and try to retain merely the techniques of the early atonalists it's not going to be a big shock if the second and third generation results are airless technocratic experiments.

Bryan Townsend said...

It really is time to re-read the later volumes of Taruskin's Oxford history. And I have not read the Defining Russian Musically volume, partly because it is not available on Kindle.

Marc said...

Sure, that was fun, but it is no fun being on the receiving end.

Someone should make a video game: 'Revenge on the Bureaucrats'. Who'd write the score for it, I wonder.

Schönberg as an 'essentially religious composer' will take me a while to get my head around. Hmm. I see a lot of chatter about e.g. such and such an ideological commitment being 'essentially a religion' or 'so and so's replacement for religion'.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Schoenberg as an essentially religious composer is a startling idea--at least it would have been had I not encountered it late in the book after having seen many, many instances of Schoenberg's engagement with religion and return to Judaism specifically. And after having seen a production of his only opera, Moses un Aron. He wrote a surprising amount of religious music, it is just not given a lot of performances. Also, I think that the ideology of modernism, which was the lens through which we saw Schoenberg for a long time, downplayed his religious side in favor of his system of composition. He was NOT religious in the sense of "art was his religion." No, he was religious in the sense of being religious as many pieces demonstrate (A Survivor of Warsaw, for example).

Maury said...

Many ethnic Jews in central Europe thought they could live peacefully by assimilating culturally and sometimes religiously with the dominant Euro culture. This belief was shattered in the 20s and 30s of course where it made no difference even if someone had left Judaism such as Mahler. The biography of Alexander Zemlinsky by Anthony Beaumont describes this issue in the Viennese music circle 1890-1938 fairly well. So there was some return to Judaism as a reaction to such ostracism. If you were to be condemned for being ethnic Jew regardless of current religion you might as well go back. Schoenberg's religious works date from his exile in the US. Moses und Aron I see more as an autobiographical statement than religious per se, ie Schoenberg as Moses with the pure but non mass appeal vision. So I view Schoenberg as reacting to external events rather than internally.

Bryan Townsend said...

At least a couple of Schoenberg's religious works date from long before his removal to the US in 1933. We could mention Die Jakobsleiter (1917-22) and Moses und Aron (1930-2). But you are right, he wrote more after 1933 and he only formally returned to the Jewish faith in Paris not long before leaving for the US.