Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«Oct 2017»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


July 4, 2015

And another Fourth of July

Thirty-five years ago today, our pals Leonard Joseph and Sue Carter tied the knot, and had their wedding party in our back yard in Teddington. They had had their first date on the night our David was born, so there were already shared memories; we serenaded the neighbors with Sousa marches on the record player, and Leonard took charge of the fireworks. Tonight they are in Spain celebrating their anniversary, and our thoughts are with them.


July 4, 2015

Independence Day

Well, it was forty years ago today
The band at last began to play.

Forty years ago, on Friday, the 4th of July, 1975, I had been living in England for nearly two years. They had been tumultuous years for me. I will not go into any personal details unless some foolish publisher offers me a contract for an autobiography, but I had somehow escaped from the self-imposed limitations of flyover country.

The summer of 1974 had been dreadful in England, either so chilly I had to wear a jacket or so humid and close that I could hardly breathe, but suddenly in June of 1975 the weather had turned gloriously beautiful. My job in publishing (starting with "How It Works") is still the only real job I have ever had, except for the car factory. I belonged to the National Union of Journalists (another story), and in late June we went on strike, the only time I have ever been on strike in my life, because we were all broke and living on overdrafts while Marshall Cavendish was coining it: their excuse for not paying us more was the government's "social contract", which was a load of tosh. Inflation was raging and Prime Minister Harold Wislon (to use Private Eye's spelling) was a helpless hack.

So we picketed in Soho. ("It won't get better if you picket," we joked. It was a neighborhood where Japanese businessmen looked for hookers, and accosted some of our distaff colleagues: our gag line was "He's got a yen for you.") The strike was actually going well, the company beginning to move, until a cabal of the firm's crawlers took over a union meeting on a Friday and voted us back to work.

Some of us were disappointed, but we got together at our usual watering hole in Wardour Street on that 4th of July after work (the cabal conspicuous by their absence), and the acerbic barman made me laugh: "Today's the day we celebrate our independence from you." I was coming up to my 35th birthday, no longer a kid but not yet old, and I was alone, but free, it seemed, for the first time in my life.

In the pub I hoped to find someone I had met on the picket line, and she wasn't there, so I met someone else. I was still hoping to find a life partner, and it took another couple of years, but I found her.

That 4th of July was a special Independence Day.


July 3, 2015

I'm confused

At Musicweb, a CD review begins:

Carl LOEWE (1796-1869) Piano Music Vol. 1 - Linda Nicholson (pianoforte) rec. 2012 TOCCATA TOCC0278 [70:28] [JW] A splendidly realised project gets off to an ebullient start.

 How can a project just getting off to a start, er, already be realised?


June 30, 2015

"Marriage equality"

Initially I was not all that sanguine about gay marriage, because I thought that for thousands of years marriage was about blood, about ensuring that the next king would be legitimate, and why would people who will never make babies the old-fashioned way need to call it marriage? They should of course be able to have any sort of civil contract they want.

But that was too precious a view. The 50 states were never going to agree on a standard civil commitment (as I have been saying, we are not a nation but a loose federation of 50 squabbling little countries), and anyway the definition of marriage had changed a long time ago, with the shops full of pretty things where the bride could "register" and pick out her presents, to say nothing of Bridezilla herself, and a skyrocketing divorce rate leading to serial marriage. (And I ought to know about that).

And now there is the hypocricy and bullshit coming from those who disapprove of the Supreme Court's decision on the subject, like William McGurn in today's Wall Street Journal:

Welcome to Justice Kennedy's world. Where upholding the Kennedy definition of liberty--the right to define your own truth--turns out to mean denying that same right to millions of Americans who define marriage and truth in a way different from his.

Earlier in his rant, of course, McGurn mentions "free exercise of religion" and all of that. Nowhere however does McGurn or anybody else tell me how gay marriage could affect my personal religious belief (religion is about controlling yourself, not other people) or could devalue my marriage (that is, the one that has lasted 36 years so far).

McGurn thinks that 'the full furies have been released", that we will now have a new culture war on our hands. I think he is a toad. 


June 28, 2015

In the TLS

In the Times Literary Supplement for May 29 last, reviewing the Grove Dictionary of American Music (2nd edition, eight volumes for $1600), Stephen Brown laments that some of the entries don't contain "more humanizing, or at least particularizing, detail." He names several examples of the "gee whiz" factor that could have been included: composers William Thomas McKinley and Charles Ives were good pitchers, very attached to baseball; Adorno once wrote a "Tom Sawyer singspiel: Der Schatz des Indianer-Joe (genre: excrutiating)."  Then he writes:

On the other hand, the Billie Holiday entry, by Donald Clarke, is a model of brief biography. "Lady Sings the Blues (1956) was as gloomy and doom-laden as possible because it was written to sell to the movies, while her ghost-writer, William Dufty, described her as the funniest woman he had ever known."

Woot, and again I say, woot.

But the issue of May 29 was one of the best lately, and not just because I was in it. I haven't read any of Paul Beatty's stuff, but he has a new novel called The Sellout, and Bill Broun's review makes me want to read it. And there's some terrific history books. The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the Civil War, by Don H. Doyle, is about what the rest of the world thought about the War Between The States, and the effect the northern victory had: "The grandest problems of politics are up for solution", wrote a French professor in 1861; at stake was a retreat of popular sovereignty, and a world-wide victory for slavery, monarchy and aristocracy. 

And speaking of aristocracy, Nick Bunker's An Empire On The Edge: How Britain came to fight America is about how our War of Independence happened. The leaders of the British government at the time were not dunderheads; they were honest, hard-working, well-educated men who did not understand the changing times they lived in. Men like Lord North were landed aristocrats who above all wanted to preserve the status quo, a system that had worked well for a long time, and in which everybody knew their place: they could not understand the behavior of these uppity Americans. And they did not understand the increasingly speculative nature of the world's economy. From T. H. Breen's review:

The East India Company eagerlty participated in practices that seemed to guarantee fabulous returns--for the stockholders, at least--and when the directors found that they could not cover their debts, they did what so many modern corporations have done in similar situations--they begged the government to bail them out. The plan to dump tons of unsold tea on the American market was a direct result of the East India Company's gross irresponsibility. The House of Commons accepted the rescue plan, even though some members of the opposition pointed out that the Americans would never accept tea that carried a tax that they deemed unconsitutional. North paid no attention, unable to see beyond the saving of the company.

A British officer who witnessed the subsequent party in Boston harbor wrote, "The East India Company's tea has made a fine dust. The people are in actual rebellion, and where it will end no one can say." 

A long, fascinating review by Henri Astier of four French books defines some of the problems faced by all advanced societies today. In Britain, in the USA and in France, chauvinist right-wing movements are always on the boil, because "At a time when the classes populaires are being regularly lectured about their racism, their isolationism, it transpires that the better off increasingly practise a form of isolationism they deny to humbler folk." Christophe Guilluy, in La France Périphérique, goes on: the ruling establishment has torn up the nation's social contract, proposing a "metropolitan model" that is "diametrically opposed to the Republican model" (in France, an ancient pact based on national unity). In Le Suicide français, Eric  Zemmour offers the utlimate "benign neglect" theory: the second-rate politicians, bankers who who surrender economic sovereignty, bosses who move jobs overseas and all the rest amount to a break from the people: "the secession of elites".

And what do we have in the USA? a handful of the very rich (Soros, Gates, Buffett) who understand that there is a problem, while the rest of the rich just want to sell the country, except for the Koch brothers, who want to buy it. And as for second-rate politicians, take a look at the Republican clown car. (Our Republicans are very different from the French.) One could wish that our elites would secede to a desert island and stay there.

The TLS is published in Britain, so I get it a little late, and I am always a couple of issues behind in reading it. Every issue has much to learn in it, but although I won't be reading any books in French, the issue of May 29 set some sort of record for making even longer the list of books I'd like to read. 


June 24, 2015

In the snooze nooze

The New York Times today says: "With a poll showing nonwhite voters strongly favoring Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernie Sanders’s capacity to win support among blacks represents a test of his campaign’s relevance." It does no such thing. Sanders would like to reform the nation's economy so that poorer people might have a better chance to get a bite of the cherry; lots of poorer people will not understand this and will vote against their own best interests, and not just minority voters. Even more will not vote at all.

On the obit page, the inventor of the pink plastic flamingo has died. I could not possibly comment.


June 23, 2015

Public Muttering

Edward P. Lazear, in today's Wall Street Journal, trots out the mantra that the reason the recovery since 2008 has been so slow is that there are not enough right-to-work states, taxes are too high and so on. Well, he is a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and a Hoover Institution fellow, so there you are.

He quotes other experts as saying that "the deeper the recession the steeper the recovery". They are all talking about the recessions we have had every decade throughout our history, capitalism being very good at digging traps for itself, but the worst recession we ever had was the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it took a dozen years and a world war to get us out of that. So the right-wing economists cling to the word "recession", like the one in about 1959, when little American Motors was said to have sold more cars than Chrysler, but there were no banks collapsing.

On the other hand, I learn from the Internet, Edward P. Lazear is more precisely a professor of HR management, of which I have seen precious little. A corporate Home Resources department is usually managed like a bed of marshmallows in an oven having the heat turned up slowly so they don't notice; or when something comes up, like an avalanche of insensate mineral material plunging down a steep mountainside.

But as my old friend Roars Hamnix used to say about the university: "A sanctuary in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter and protection after they have been hunted out of every other corner of the world." Better still, old Roars was quoting Adam Smith, he of the "Invisible Hand", beloved of über-capitalists everywhere. (I do love to roll their own petard under them.)

Yet I have recently learned that Brian Ferneyhough, one of the spikiest and most interesting of contemporary composers, is now at Stanford. Aghast, I told my informant, who was whispering to me in a dark alley, that I would have thought the music professors at Stanford were all Lawrence Welk clones, but he said no, stifling a guffaw, Stanford's music department is cutting edge. Wait till Stanford's economists discover that. They will no doubt start a movement to close the music department, on the grounds that music like Ferneyhough's will never pay for itself.


June 16, 2015

Life in cyber alley

One of my music list colleagues has sent me to Shellackophile, which looks like a fun site, a collection of transfers of old classical 78rpm sets. When I try downloading I arrive at FileFactory, instantly get a funny-looking .dmg file which I could not open and warnings about a “Macfest” (?) that might be infected with a virus and which could be blocked but not deleted. Not too worried because I hadn't installed anything.

Then we tried Sendspace, which might be something like Dropbox, except that Dropbox works, easily and quickly and without any rigmarole. At Sendspace if I click where it says “click here to start download”, I get “503 service temporarily unavailable”. When I click on any of the other several download buttons (why are there several??) I have to register, which I ain’t gonna do. As I said yesterday, I'm through clicking on stuff and registering, logging in, joining and signing up. Don't need it.

The ignoramuses who design all this crap ought to be arrested for being in constraint of trade; they will choke the Internet to death before the FCC gets a chance to murder it.

I want to buy some music by Russian pianist Alexandre Pirojenko, but distribution of physical objects is collapsing, I’m not sending a credit card number to a Russian site, and my bank wants $55 for a wire transfer to Swedbank. Too bad!

Curmudgeons unite!


June 16, 2015

Free trade again.

In today's Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens in his Global View column ("The New Liberal Know Nothings") and William McGurn in Main Street ("Nancy Pelosi's Democratic Double-Cross") both chide the Democrats in Congress who have stymied the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Stephens:

So opposed is Mrs. Pelosi's party to free trade -- that is, so beholden are Democrats to organized labor -- that the party was prepared to defy President Obama [...] to scuttle TPP.

Er, no, Stephens, I am not beholden to organized labor (though I am a union member and proud of it), nor am I opposed to free trade, which has given me a standard of living that could not have been imagined by my grandfather. I am however opposed to a profoundly important piece of legislation being concocted behind closed doors, and its concoctors demanding an up-and-down vote without debate on something that no one has seen.

To begin with, there is every reason to suspect that TPP would give far too much power to multinational corporations, who would then be able to jerk us all around even more than they do now. Secondly, there are those old bugbears, the rule of law and the sanctity of contract. I assume that a "Trans-Pacific" partnership will include China, a backward nation (like Russia, Iran, Saudi and others) which will sign an agreement and then find a way do as they damn please, the opposite of the attitude that has made Western civilization the most (materially) successful in the history of the world.

Why can't we see the bill? The likes of Stephens and McGurn disapprove of everything Obama does, but they want TPP handed to him on plate? Are they taking baksheesh? I think we should be told.


June 15, 2015

Notes from the Springs

What a week! On Thursday to Packard Hall during the Colorado College Summer Music Festival to hear a wind quintet by d'Indy, then a sonata for trumpet, horn and trombone by Poulenc, followed by Music for a Farce, a set of eight short jolly pieces by Paul Bowles, intended to accompany film clips by Orson Welles in a theatrical production that never happened: the quartet included the beautiful Susan Grace, music director of the Festival. This was the first Bowles I ever heard, light and amusing. After the interval came a thrilling rendition of Franck's piano quintet in F minor, with Orion Weiss, piano; Stephen Rose and Stefan Hersh, violins; Philip Ying, viola; David Ying, cello.
      All the artists are world class. Rose for example is principal second violin in the Cleveland Orchestra, while the Yings are of course half of the Ying Quartet, who I met at Mary Robbins' house in Austin at least a dozen years ago. Ethne could not take her eyes off David Ying; she adores the cello, and we were sitting so close we could almost touch the players.

And yesterday! Ethne has a job in a nursery selling plants, so we both worked in retail yesterday morning. Then another concert in the afternoon: a jolly Serenata in vano by Nielsen, for three winds and two strings; two short pieces for piano and bass trombone by Duard Lassen, who I had never heard of, and two more by Schumann for piano and oboe, all curious divertessments; the oboist was Elizabeth Koch Tiscione, a former Colorado College student who is now first oboe in the Atlanta Symphony. And then another thrilling exercise for strings, the octet in B-flat Major by Max Bruch. After the interval a Mozart piano quartet, which believe it or not was a let-down after the Bruch. And after all that, in the evening a house party with eight people including our David, enjoying the garden in twilight followed by smoked salmon and other goodies...

A Concert at Midday today which I am missing because Ethne has the car. Invited to dinner tonight by some new friends. An orchestral concert tomorrow evening will include a Serenade by Strauss, Bartok's Music for strings, percussion and celeste, and Brahms' first symphony (my second live Brahms' first this year will probably be more fun than the first one). No wonder I don't have any time to blog.


My email spam is creeping up, junk somehow getting past the highest bar Earthlink provides. (This morning it was "Compare hotel prices on 208 booking sites at once!") I conclude this is the result of looking at too many cute videos on Facebook, so I'm taking the pledge. I enjoy Facebook, but there are safer ways to waste time.


From today's Facebook I gather there is an article in the current Atlantic (or on its website) about political comedy, asking why we don't have any "conservative" comedians. The reason we enjoy "liberal" comedians and have no "conservative" ones at all is that our heroes are sending up the world we all live in, while so-called "conservatives" are pissing and moaning about a world in which no one ever lived, nor ever shall.
      I've told this story before. I came back to the USA in 1998 after many years overseas and went to work at Barnes & Noble, where a customer asked me for a book called The No-Spin Zone. I had hardly heard of Bill O'Reilly. I got the book for the customer, and then went to look at a copy of it myself, intrigued by the title; I opened it at random, read a couple of paragraphs, and laughed out loud. It was all spin.
      So okay, Bill O'Reilly is a comedian. But it doesn't count if you're not doing it on purpose.


June 5, 2015

This does not compute.

A letter writer in the Wall Street Journal today says that "Human life has just been cheapened in Nebraska." Because Nebraska has decided it's not going to execute people any more.


May 27, 2015

So it goes.

Unlike in the anodyne letters pages of other newspapers, the readers of the Wall Street Journal argue with each other and with the paper. I thought this exchange about the plight of African-American families was rather sad: first a woman writing about the past from Minnesota, then a man writing about today from New Jersey:

We can look back at our our American history [...] employment that didn't qualify for Social Security (agriculture and domestic service), federal policy that prevented African-American families from getting mortgages (including our black GIs) until the 1960s, and highway development that cut through thriving black neighborhoods.

Our poor black citizens indeed have a harder tiime than the rest of us, in part because [...] liberal welfare programs and enmity toward traditional morality [...] preference for teachers unions [...] because of the policies advocated by MIchelle Obama and pursued by her husband.

Pity we Americans. We can't win for losing.


May 26, 2015

Russia today

A Russian immigrant in New York once described his home country as "Nigeria with snow." I've just finished reading Peter Pomerantsev's book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. Russia today is a zoo; maybe it always was. The fantasy-land of violence and corruption is scary and hard to believe...and maybe the West is coming to resemble it. 

I'm tempted to quote a long paragraph about the unbelievable corruption at the top of the greasy pole in Russia, but there are too many such paragraphs and it's too depressing. Russia has not yet recovered from the long Communist period, when it was necessary to believe ten impossible and contradictory things before breakfast. Take the book out of the library. 


May 22, 2015

MahlerFest XXVIII

Still coming down from last weekend's MahlerFest in Boulder. It was conductor Robert Olson's last, after 28 years; there were two performances of Mahler's 9th: Claudio Abbado said that the ending is supposed to sound like snow falling on snow, and Sunday afternoon I could not keep back my tears. Plus we got to hobnob with friends David and Mary Lamb, Mitch and Sue Friedfeld, Eric Sussman, Aaron Z. Snyder and others, all old chums from Jason Greshes's Mahler-list for lo these 20 years.

Having just moved to Colorado we had thought "Hot dog! Now we can go to the MahlerFest every year!" Then we were afraid that there wouldn't be any more Fests because founder Bob was retiring, but the search committee found the estimable Kenneth Woods. Maestro Woods is an American who lives in Wales, the conductor of a BBC orchestra there; he also leads the Orchestra of the Swan, which I guess he founded; and he plays chamber music (he's a cellist). He has conducted almost all the Mahler symphonies, and has recorded all the symphonies of Hans Gal and Robert Schumann, and much else. Furthermore, he is a thoughtful musician.

Joel Lazar told me a few years ago about a fairly famous conductor of the last generation, who he described as the most "incurious" conductor: having conducted a piece once, he never looks at the score again, until conducting it again. This is worse than a lack of curiosity. I have written here about the Pacifica Quartet's rendition of Beethoven's 11th string quartet, which I heard in a church on the south side of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a few years ago: in the last movement they did something so ethereal, so unexpectedly beautiful, that it lifted the whole thing onto another plane, without being unfaithful in the least to the score: they had clearly studied it and thought about it and found something special of their own in it. To judge from his very popular music blog, "View from the Podium", Woods is that kind of conductor.

There is a controversy over the order of the inner movements of Mahler's 6th symphony: it was published as scherzo-adagio, but then Mahler changed his mind, and apparently always played it adagio-scherzo. (Alma had stuck her oar in after Mahler's death, confusing things with a letter to the conductor Mengelberg.) Woods has decided on strictly musical grounds that it needs to be scherzo-adagio, that it makes more sense that way. He also thinks that the famous "train wreck" at the beginning of the 4th symphony should be played just as Mahler left it: that far from forgetting to put a ritard on the flutes and sleigh bells, he meant them to fade away into the forest like spooks (as it were), ignoring the strings as they enter. 

We Mahlerites are in for some endless discussion, which is what we like! Long live the MahlerFest!


May 16, 2015

Off to Boulder

We're off to the MahlerFest in Boulder to hear two performances of M9 and to see old friends. It might be the last MahlerFest, because the marvelous conductor, Robert Olson, is retiring after more than 20 years. This will be a sad and a happy weekend all at once!


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