The Rest is Noise

A while back Mrs W decided we needed to come to grips with modernism and the 20th century. By “we,” she meant the two of us, not the world in general, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea, frankly. That’s another post, probably. We’ve been doing our part, I have to say, but more Mrs W than me—although I did have great fun reading Romantic Moderns, Alexandra Harris’s wonderful look at English art and literature in the inter-war period. We’ve got a reading list, and of course the best museums in the world at our fingertips, so we’re not exactly lacking for resources here. And then, at the Exaudi madrigal concert we attended a couple of months ago, she, and therefore we, decided we needed to come to grips with 20th century music. Just what is Schoenberg all about, anyway? I sang a cute Christmas song by him once years ago, but really, I have no idea, and I listen to lots of music.

So she went and picked up the Kindle version of Andrew Ross’s The Rest is Noise, published to a whole lot of acclaim in 2011. Ross, who writes about music for The New Yorker, pays a lot of attention to 20th century music, and the book, clocking in at 600 odd pages plus (apparently originally twice that length in manuscript form), covers the ground. So we have that on our Kindles now, and she’s been charging through it, learning quite a lot. “Such an interesting book,” she says. Boy, do I need to start catching up. But how to hear it? Yes, there’s a website devoted to the book, with an audio guide with lots of musical examples amplifying (as it were) Ross’s discussions of, say, Schoenberg, Sibelius, Berg, the influence of expatriate American black musicians and composers on European music in the early part of the century, whatever Ross chooses to write about. (Ross’s blog is a wonder—how does he know so much?)

Well, all of this apparently struck someone at South Bank as a nifty idea, because starting tomorrow is a year-long excursion into 20th century music titled The Rest is Noise, which is appropriate, since it’s based on Ross’s book. Things kick off with some discussions and interviews at South Bank during the day, and the concerts begin tomorrow evening, with the first program being Richard Strauss’ Salome, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and various songs and other works. Edmund de Waal makes an appearance as well. Sunday follows with more talks, and then a concert of piano music by Berg, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Janacek, followed by another concert in the evening titled Zeitgeist: Riot in Vienna. This one is just Schoenberg. What generated the riot is unclear to me, but I intend to find out (here’s a discussion). The weekend is just packed. And off we go from there.

The first half of the year, through June, ranges from the early 1900s to the Second World War, and is organized into six sections: The Big Bang (the beginning of the century), Who Are We (when everyone rediscovered folk music, especially Bartok), Paris (the 1910s And 1920s), Berlin (1920S and 1030s), America, and Art of Fear (music under Hitler and Stalin). We then pick up in September for the second half, which I won’t even get into at this point, because I have to make sense of the first half first. It will cover some of my favorite music—the Sibelius and Mahler symphonies, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s folk-based orchestra pieces—and a whole lot of stuff I have probably never listened to at all. Webern, for example. Why is Webern important? I have no idea, but I’m about to find out. Along with the concerts themselves will be lots of talks and discussions. This is all long overdue, frankly, and I’m looking forward to all of it. We don’t really have tickets for the whole thing, it just seems that way. I can always sell the car, which we don’t really use anyway. This pretty much locks up our concert-going for the year, probably. Actually, that’s not true at all. Who am I kidding? It just means we’re going to a lot more concerts than we usually would, and eating at home a whole lot less. We’re still going to see Richard Thompson when he comes through in February.

The Economist this week as a good article on the concert series, as well as an interview with Ross, as does The Financial Times. Ross is a busy guy this week, apparently. Whom I hope to get to listen to tomorrow—it depends on when he’s coming in from the US. London airports pretty much closed down today because of the snow, so here’s hoping. And Andrew Stewart over at The Independent has a handy little guide to the levels of difficulty involved in listening—why Stravinsky and Weill are “easy,” for example, and Schoenberg and Boulez are “hard.” Intuitively, I have a feeling about this, but it’s based on really limited listening—and I could hardly explain it to someone. More generally, here’s Gillian Moore, head of Classical Music at South Bank, introducing the festival in today’s Guardian. And Peter Aspden over at The Financial Times has some general comments as well. So we’re looking forward to filling a huge gap in our knowledge base. Expect to see lots of concert—well, I’m not about to call them reviews, because I’m hardly competent in this area. More like concert reflections. This is going to be great. I’m even taking notes.

It’s hard to find a good stamp of Schoenberg—Israel has one, much better than Austria’s, but it doesn’t seem to fit, somehow. Rather, this is a good one from Austria of Gustav Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde is up Wednesday evening.

We the petitioners

I’ve written in blog posts before how the Obama administration is probably the most Internet-friendly presidency to date. He was the first president to effectively use (and frankly have access to) social media to raise funds and win an election. He was the first president to do a Reddit AMA. So it seemed only natural that under the Obama administration, the first White House official online petition site would start.

We The People started in 2011 with the intention of allowing Internet users to petition the president’s policy staff on issues that they may be missing. Originally, the website required 5,000 signatures to warrant a response. Within two months of being introduced, the webmasters raised the signature threshold to 25,000. As of this week, the webmasters are once again raising the bar: a petition on the site must gather 100,000 signatures to require a response.

“As we move into a second term, petitions must receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to receive an official response from the Obama administration,” said White House digital strategy director Macon Phillips in a Jan. 15 statement.

The Daily Caller reported that the new rule “follows a series of provocative, awkward or embarrassing petitions, some of which attracted enough signatures to meet the threshold.” Mr. Macon said in his statement that traffic on the site had increased sharply since the election. “In the first 10 months of 2012, it took an average of 18 days for a new petition to cross the 25,000-signature threshold,” he said. “In the last two months of the year, that average time was cut in half to just 9 days, and most petitions that crossed the threshold collected signatures within five days of their creation.”

The idea of raising the bar to 100,000 signatures is a practical response to some very unpractical (and very funny) petitions. Too bad it won’t work.

The signature bar has already been raised twice, because of how quickly these campaigns go viral. If someone sees a petition that moves them – whether that petition asks the military to stop using monkeys for training at Aberdeen, or releasing the White House ale recipe – they can simply sign up for a WTP account, sign the petition, and click “share.” Their friends will do the same, the cause will spread to other places (for example, online communities like Reddit and 4chan), and the “daisy chain” of action will continue until a petition has thousands of signatures, which will then garner a response.

Now putting the bar at 100,000 may filter out some of the petitions, but some will still reach this number. Two already have – for example, a petition to deport Piers Morgan for his views on gun rights earned 109,334 signatories. And 324,522 people want to recognize the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group. The site will have to raise the bar again to an even higher number of signatories, which creates more problems.

The first article of the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans the right to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Which is exactly what We the People does. But people have different grievances they want redressed – some want a comprehensive approach to reforming Wall Street, some want a Death Star. And the First Amendment also protects speech, no matter how ridiculous it may be. So depending on how loosely you interpret the Constitution (which is a whole different argument), the First Amendment guarantees both our right to petition and our right to say ridiculous things in those petitions.

By opening this forum to the web, the White House has to understand that there will be ridiculous petitions, and many will get the necessary signatures to force a response – there are entire threads on forums devoted to driving up signatures on crazy campaigns.  The website could respond by moving the signature limit even higher than 100,000, but that would prevent any petition from getting a response, which defeats the point of the website. Plus, in theory, people could petition the We The People website to lower the threshold back down to 25,000.

The only definitive ways to prevent the “undesirable” petitions from popping up is to either hire a webmaster to take down the more outlandish requests – which could be interpreted as censorship, or take the site down – which would keep other legitimate campaigns from gathering support.