Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Music

The Lebowski Gambit part 2: Whiny Guys on The Escapist


Well, that was some mighty long groundwork-laying, wasn’t it? I promise I’ll get to the point very soon, but there’s just one more bit of background you might need.

Who is Anita Sarkeesian?

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist who has created two popular video series on Youtube (Feminist Frequency and Tropes vs. Women) and is working on a third (Tropes vs. Women in Video Games). I watched a couple of her videos when they started appearing in the news recently. They’re not my thing, but they’re well made and have pretty sound analysis (though as always there are things here and there I disagree with). The only complaint you can reasonably make about them is that they’re too basic and never really go beyond the 101 level. However, 101-level stuff often needs restating, and she’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. She’s just trying to provide a feminist voice in a venue where you still don’t have to go far to find neo-Nazis.

When Sarkeesian announced her new series on video games and set up a Kickstarter page to fund it, harassing, misogynistic comments started flowing in. There were death threats, there were rape threats, there were unspeakable things said. Anyone who has spent any time reading feminists on the Internet (as I do now and then) knows that this is fairly common, although it doesn’t usually happen on this scale and this publically. When the story got picked up and amplified, donations to her Kickstarter went through the roof, and as I understand it now her project is quite well-funded. So, bad things happened, but it came to a happy ending, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, the Escapist thread I happened across seemed to be accusing Sarkeesian of being a scam artist. There were very few dissenting voices, and even they made a few concessions to the OP. Among the people who most need to hear Sarkeesian’s message, some really shocking ideas about her are in common currency. My intention here is to mount a defence of Sarkeesian against these people.

More importantly, a twenty-minute, two part video was linked in the OP of that thread. The video is repulsive throughout and at some points so shockingly stupid I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But the video’s maker (hereafter referred to as “the video guy”) would claim to be a serious person, and I feel a certain amount of responsibility to deflate this claim definitively. As the actress said to the bishop, I have a feeling this is going to be a long one. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lebowski Gambit: or, A Matter of Opinion

Over the last few months I’ve written several times about people I’ve referred to as “lily-livered opinion-mongers”—the ones who turn up in the comment threads of negative reviews everywhere and demand that “but that’s just my opinion” be used as a hedge. I feel that it’s time for a long-form statement on the subject, clarifying what this phenomenon is and what’s wrong with it. This is something I’ve always wanted to write, but never gotten around to until just now. As a bonus, I am going to weigh in on the Anita Sarkeesian Kickstarter thing, although that’s going to be in part 2. —TMI

“That’s just your opinion”

The first order of business is to make it clear what I’m talking about. In the movie The Big Lebowski, The Dude and his friends, sitting in the bowling alley and shooting the shit, are interrupted by their arch-rival, Jesus Quintana. The following immortal exchange occurs:

Jesus: Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.

Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.

What has happened here? Why is this exchange funny?

Jesus has advanced a proposition. Call it a hypothesis. No, even better, call it an opinion. He says that his team is going to beat the Dude in the bowling tournament.

The Dude responds. He does not agree. But neither does he offer a counter-proposition (“no, actually we will fuck you and Liam up”). Instead, he makes a statement that is epistemologically correct, but irrelevant. Of course it’s Jesus’s opinion. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t his opinion. The question is, is Jesus’s opinion right or not? The Dude has given us no reason to believe it is not.

This is all funny because it’s in a context—amateur bowling leagues—where there are objective and uncontroversial ways of determining whose opinion is justified. Compare scores of recent games. Factor in practice time. Or even just wait a week and see who wins. The Dude says “that’s just your opinion” when he could say “our averages for the past dozen games are higher than yours” or something like that.

Unfortunately, outside the artificial realm of sports you’re unlikely to encounter situations that are this cut and dry. That’s where “that’s just your opinion” starts to muddy the waters. It can be, and often is, not just a confused statement, but an attempt to shut down an argument by someone who doesn’t like where it’s going. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Aesthetics of Music

Looking at Roger Scruton’s political credentials, it’s easy to imagine him as some kind of slobbering reactionary, the philosophical equivalent of Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. I was quite disheartened when I saw this, because I had already committed myself to reading The Aesthetics of Music and wasn’t eager to subject myself to a 500-page book that would be more accurately entitled Bitching About Schoenberg. Luckily for everyone, Roger Scruton is not nuts; he just has some bad philosophical odours here and there. A quick glance through the preface was enough to set my mind at ease. Whatever else he may be, Scruton is a real philosopher and a real musician interested in making a real contribution to the field of aesthetics, and though he ultimately comes down against the Schoenbergian tradition, he gives Schoenberg his due as a composer.

As Scruton notes in the preface, music is extremely important to the philosophy of art, but it has been under-served by the great philosophers. On the few occasions they do turn their attentions to music, many of them (e.g. Kant) only show their ignorance and apathy. The fanciest pre-20th century thinkers to remark on music are Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Boethius, and all of them are writing about something so removed from our experience of music it hardly seems relevant (as I recall, Augustine’s treatise never mentions pitch). Whole aesthetic philosophies have crumbled because their creators never bothered to consider how music fits into their scheme. The 20th century saw a proliferation of aesthetic philosophies and therefore a large number of works on the aesthetics of music from various perspectives, but we have seen very few accounts as complete as Scruton’s and his work would be valuable for this alone, even if it was completely incoherent. Read the rest of this entry »

Listening List: A beginner’s introduction to early 20th century music

So you know a bit classical music. You go to the symphony now and then, and you like Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms—all the big names of the 125ish-year period that most orchestras focus on. But you’ve tried to listen to some newer music, and just couldn’t get into it.

(If this doesn’t sound like you, go away. This post isn’t for you.)

When someone mentions “twentieth century music”, the image that pops into your head is probably of John Cage playing the piano with a hammer, or dancers for some avant-garde ballet company screaming and karate chopping each other. In other words, weird bullshit. Or maybe you think of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern and their twelve-tone (“atonal”) style. Music that is meant to be read, not heard.

So you’ve been understandably reluctant to listen to anything new. You’re not alone. Many people are in the same position, and while most musicians and composers would sneer at them for not understanding anything they didn’t hear on Bugs Bunny, it’s not their fault. We’ve developed a poisonous musical culture over the last century that is deeply impractical and often hostile to audiences, so we should hardly be surprised when audiences don’t respond well to it.

But there’s more to the music of the twentieth century than silly pageantry, unpleasant noises, and experimentation at the expense of coherence. It’s a rich and extremely varied musical tradition. The breakdown of rules once thought to be inviolable has meant anarchy in some circles, but in others it just opened up new possibilities. There’s a lot of twentieth-century music in the “classical” tradition that people would appreciate. It’s not talked about as much because there’s simply more you can say about the latest concerto grosso for slide-whistle, theorbo, and tenor muskmelon.

So here is a list, in no particular order and with no serious scholarship behind it, of early twentieth century works that would speak to a general audience. I’ve focused on transitional figures and pure twentieth century composers, not holdovers from the nineteenth century like Rachmaninov and Sibelius, who belong to a different tradition. Some of the mentioned works were written in the 1890s, but they are still part of the “twentieth century” movement.

These are pieces that your dad could enjoy. And who knows: after broadening your horizons with some of this stuff, you might just hear that concerto grosso with fresh ears. Maybe you’ll see where the composer was coming from. Read the rest of this entry »

Concert Review: WSO with Alain Lefevre, Mathieu and Sibelius

I had never heard of Andre Mathieu before I saw that his fourth piano concerto was being programmed opposite Sibelius’s second symphony at a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert. The ridiculous number of honours that were heaped on him in life are like something out of a movie: he composed his first concerto at about five, performed one of his compositions on CBC at 7, won a New York Phil. composition contest at 12, and shortly thereafter performed one of his own works at Carnegie Hall. He was praised by Rachmaninov and compared to Mozart. But before he was twenty, he became disillusioned and fell into alcoholism, and died an early death at 39.

His music was mostly forgotten by then, and remained so until concert pianist Alain Lefevre started a campaign to repopularize Mathieu’s work. It was none other than Lefevre who the WSO brought in to play the fourth concerto. Lefevre played to a house only about a quarter full, a small but dedicated crowd mostly of music students and seventy-year-olds. Read the rest of this entry »

Have some Mendelssohn

See also:

Music to Write To

Some time ago, I was writing something with a tight deadline, and I got stuck. It was one of those ruts, where you can’t think of what to do next, so the writing becomes unpleasant, so you avoid doing it or even thinking about it, which makes it even harder to think of what to do next. One day, I steeled myself to do it no matter what. I put on some Holst, sat down at my desk, and wrote until the damn thing was done. It took me less than half an hour. My usual routine had been writing with rock music playing, but I think I get caught up listening too closely to the music and wanting to sing or play along. Classical music seems to transport me away, to put me in that thinky mode where there’s nothing between me and the writing. Same with jazz, but that’s another story for another time.

I don’t think it’s anything to do with the merits of classical versus popular music. It’s probably just the lack of words (I don’t listen to opera or art songs, under the principle that even the best opera and art songs are terrible). Since then, my classical playlist has grown to gargantuan proportions. It’s now about 22 hours long, all told, which allows for plenty of variety. Read the rest of this entry »

Itzhak Perlman playing Mendelssohn

It’s music like this that makes me wish I’d taken up the violin.

RIP Clarence Clemons

Just found out that Clarence Clemons has died of complications from a stroke. He was a monster of a sax player with a huge, solid sound that could knock you off your feet. Rest in peace, the greatest human being that ever lived.

Guitars, Boots, and Panties

Just come in from across the world: Ian Dury’s New Boots and Panties!! and John Hiatt’s Perfectly Good Guitar. Personally I discovered John Hiatt by hearing his song “Thirty Years of Tears” on an episode of Crossing Jordan (don’t judge me). I looked him up and was astounded. He’s written some of the greatest music to come out of the US in the past few decades, put out nineteen albums, been covered by just about everybody, and I had never even heard of him. Perfectly Good Guitar was supposed to be his “breakout” album. It’s a lot heavier and more guitar-driven than his previous work. The genre suits him well–with a rock-solid backing band and his classic voice and witty lyrics, he manages to rock harder than a Nashville musician has any right to. There’s only one particularly weak song on the album, “Angel”. However, that’s balanced out by “Buffalo River Home”, “Old Habits”, “Permanent Hurt”, “Blue Telescope”, and the title track. Plus, possibly the funniest song that deals with both suicide and Barbie dolls.

As for Ian Dury, it’s easy to think of him as a novelty artist. Outside of the UK, the only songs he’s known for are “Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. If you look deeper, you’ll see that he has songs entitled “Fuck Off, Noddy”, in which he talks about the dirty habits of British cartoon characters; “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards”, in which he says that Einstein, Noel Coward, and Van Gogh “probably got help from their mum”; and “Spasticus Autisticus”, which is a song called “Spasticus Autisticus”. But if you look even deeper, you’ll see that he’s an intelligent songwriter with an eye for interesting characters, an ear for rhymes, and a band full of world-class musicians. He’s one of my songwriting idols, though I wouldn’t want to sing like him. There are bonus tracks on this CD, unfortunately, but there’s also a second disc with demo versions of the songs. That strikes me as a good idea–put bonus material on another disc, keeping the original album intact.