My statement to the Shutesbury Select Board regarding the Black Lives Matter banner on Town Hall

(With updates added on September 30)

I request that the Black Lives Matter banner now hanging from Shutesbury Town Hall be taken down. I do so for three reasons.

First, Black Lives Matter is not just a three-word sentence affirming the obvious message that Black lives indeed matter. Black Lives Matter is also a movement and an organization. The BLM movement espouses the contentious and, I believe false and destructive narrative that African-Americans are under existential threat from police violence. The data do not show this; quite the contrary. Please read the voluminous reporting on this from Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute or consult the research of Harvard economist Roland Fryer to see alternative fact-based views on this issue. BLM’s anti-police message is not supported by most Black Americans. According to a recent Gallup Panel survey, over 80% of Black Americans are either satisfied with the level of policing in their communities or want more. There are legitimate concerns about policing and the Black community that need to be addressed. But there is no evidence that a “never-ending list of innocent people of color continue to be murdered” by the police, as Michelle Obama claimed during the DNC. None.

BLM’s emboldening demonization of the police (see the #DefundThePolice campaign on their website), influencing city government-mandated reduction in policing in several localities, has helped lead to an increase in crime in many American cities, including homicide, almost all of it involving Black victims. They have also led to an increase in attacks on law enforcement officials, including a five-fold increase in Chicago in 2020 over previous years. To put a face on this, please look up a recent video from a female African-American principal of a mostly-minority inner-city Minneapolis high school, decrying the violence and lawlessness rampant in her city, and offering firm support for the disempowered and demoralized city police. The video was made the day after the shooting death of a Minneapolis high school senior, the third city student killed during street violence over a period of five weeks. Their lives mattered, too. No comment from Black Lives Matter, by the way.

Two of the three founders of BLM are avowed trained Marxists who advocate the dismantling of all American systems, using violence if necessary. Until it was quietly removed a couple of weeks ago, the BLM website featured a “What We Believe” page that advocated, among other things, the “disruption of the Western-prescribed nuclear family.” If you go back a few years, their beliefs also included opposition to Israel as an apartheid state committing genocide against the Palestinians.

Black Lives Matter activists and supporters have used intimidation, harassment, looting, threats, property destruction and physical violence to make their point. While it would be wrong to attribute all of this to the entire movement, the BLM leadership has rarely, if ever, condemned it. On the contrary, I can provide several official BLM statements of support for illegal action, threatening more if they don’t get their way. This constant mayhem has eroded national support for Black Lives Matter protests, now down to 39% from 54% in June.

Second, Black Lives Matter consists of a national organization and several regional affiliates. Each has a web site on which they promote organized events and actions, offer biographies of their leadership, and solicit donations of funds. The national organization is affiliated with a Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation which raises funds to support organizing work. The BLM national organization is also affiliated with a 501c3 non-profit called TIDES, which supports BLM’s distribution of grant funds.

The Black Lives Matter banner affixed to Shutesbury Town Hall, in my admittedly non-expert opinion, could be construed as an in-kind contribution to and a solicitation of funds for Black Lives Matter and its affiliates. It also could be seen as tacit support for the Biden/Harris campaign, which has promulgated the views of Black Lives Matter. Perhaps the select board, if it has not already done so, should consult with the town’s legal counsel as to the legality and advisability of the banner. If necessary, I will investigate legal action.

(UPDATE: I spoke on September 29 with an attorney with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign & Political Finance. He told me that the banner is not in violation of Massachusetts campaign law.)

Third, it should not be the function of the select board to vote to display a political message on public property such as Shutesbury Town Hall. The function of our governments, whether federal, state or local, is to protect the citizens’ right to think as they please. It is not to tell the citizens what to think. Even if the message is supported by a majority of townspeople, it is an inappropriate statement not supported by the entire community. You might as well hang a banner stating “Planned Parenthood” or “Make America Great Again.”

Reviewing the minutes of the June 9, 2020 select board meeting when a citizen proposed the banner to the board during public comment, I note that the board went against its usual policy of not circling back to issues raised during public comment, but instead proceeded to a vote on the banner during the same meeting. The customary procedure, as I understand it, would be to include the banner issue as an agenda item in a future meeting, thereby giving citizens to ability to look ahead to the agenda and decide whether to participate in discussion. I don’t know whether this is in violation of town bylaws or merely unethical. Either way, it is outrageous.

(UPDATE: On September 29, I discovered the following two passages from the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law Guide (.pdf here), p. 10, under the heading “What information must meeting notices contain?”

Meeting notices must be posted in a legible, easily understandable format, contain the date, time, and place of the meeting; and list all topics that the chair reasonably anticipates, 48 hours in advance, will be discussed at the meeting. The list of topics must be sufficiently specific to reasonably inform the public of the issues to be discussed at the meeting.

If a discussion topic is proposed after a meeting notice is posted, and it was not reasonably anticipated by the chair more than 48 hours before the meeting, the public body should update its posting to provide the public with as much notice as possible of what subjects will be discussed during the meeting. Although a public body may consider a topic that was not listed in the meeting notice if it was not anticipated, the Attorney General strongly encourages public bodies to postpone discussion and action on topics that are controversial or may be of particular interest to the public if the topic was not listed in the meeting notice

Thus, the vote on June 9 was not in violation of Open Meeting Law. It did, however, go against the guidance of the Attorney General.)

I am disappointed that the select board did not perform due diligence in researching the full nature of Black Lives Matter – the message, the movement and the organization — before voting to hang the banner. I fault the select board for justifying the banner with their personal opinions without respecting the diversity of views among Shutesbury residents. And I resent the select board using town property and town funds to support a movement and organization that I and, I suspect, many other Shutesbury residents oppose. The banner is highly divisive, despite its inspiring slogan, and it should be taken down. Thank you.

From the NEPR Archives: How I spent my Christmas afternoon

With a new star-studded movie version of Cats about to open, and with the news that the great Stephen Sondheim musical Follies is about to be filmed, let me share my impressions of an earlier screen adaptation of a huge music theater hit, originally posted at the NEPR Classical Blog on December 27, 2012.

So, The Wife, The Big Sis and I spent two-and-a-half hours of our Christmas afternoon at the local cineplex attending the new Tom Hooper film of the hit musical Les Misérables, which we might have been the only people in the packed house not to have previously seen.  We paid our seven bucks each and took our chances.  I went with an open mind and an appetite for entertainment.  And I got sucked in, too…for about 20 minutes.  Then I found myself gradually detatching from the on-screen proceedings, and noticing stuff.  Why did they do it that way?  What could they possibly have had in mind there?  I promise; I don’t go looking for things to pick at.  They just sometimes have a way of finding me.  So, without in the least desiring to diminish your own eagerness to endure, er, enjoy the movie, here’s what hit me:

1.  If the darned thing were 15 minutes longer, I would have finished counting the follicles in Hugh Jackman’s beard. Really, especially from the third row, the constant close-ups were oppressive. Even in Anne Hathaway’s gripping “I Dreamed a Dream” scena ed aria, I had to turn away from all the tears, blood and mucous. There is some benefit to the distance a stage provides.

2.  Ever noticed how when people on stage break into song, it seems perfectly normal, but when people on screen, captured in natural settings, break into song, it seems…odd?  No wonder so many of the classic movie musicals were about thespians putting on a show, thereby making the songs plausible.  This one jumped the proverbial shark about a fifth of the way in, and never won me back.

3.  There is a difference between an actor who sings (see:  Crowe, Russell) and a real singing actor (see: Jackman, Hugh).  A big difference.  It can be somewhat mitigated by tessitura, technology and outright trickery.  But it will out in the end.  While the sub-standard singing of much of the cast of Les Misérables didn’t sink to the disgraceful level of the awful Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter film of Sweeney Todd,  neither should anyone pretend that it was actually, you know, good.  Worst for me was Amanda Seyfried, whose paper-thin warble made the singer who did Snow White sound like Ethel Merman.  Come on, film folks.  There are some really, really good singing actors around today; I bet they’d work for less than you paid the fancy but vocally challenged stars.  (Speaking of Ms. Bonham Carter and Sweeney :  Did she just leave her Mrs. Lovett makeup on for her Les Miz  role?)

4.  For a “popular” stage musical to be sung throughout or for long stretches, as opposed to songs separated by spoken dialogue, is nothing new, going back at least as far as The Golden Apple  of 1954.  It’s a cheap way to lend more operatic “class” to shows on big historic themes, like our dear Les Miz.  But it’s a place very few composers and lyricists should go.  Unless you have the verbal dexterity and musical craft of a Stephen Sondheim, you’re going to embarrass yourself — which, IMHO, is the fate shared in this case by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and English lyricist…excuse me, librettist  Herbert Kretzmer.  It was bad enough that the inter-song ariosos increased the unreality of the whole enterprise (see No. 2 above),  It was worse that their modal meanderings sapped what little melodic freshness the actual songs might otherwise have conveyed.  But oy, were the lyrics disfigured by the corniest, most forced rhymes I’ve ever heard! I swear, I expected a Burma Shave ad to pop up at any moment.  Someone, anyone, please  tell me it worked better in the original French.

I know, I know…there are millions who love this musical, quite a few of whom were packed into the theater on Christmas and cheered like crazy at the end.  If you’re a Les Miz  lover, go ahead and tell me what I’m missing.

“A Chronicle of Verie Coole New Things I’ve Been Listening To, Or…

…If the Recordinge Industrie is in Such Bad Shape, Why Does It Still Put Out So Much Good Stuff?”

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Beethoven: Triple Concerto, Choral Fantasy. Two of Beethoven’s one-of-a-kind works for soloists and orchestra receive fresh and lively (indeed, recorded live) performances by conductor Laurence Equilbey, the Insula Orchestra, Accentus Choir (which whom Equilbey has made several beautiful albums) and soloists Bertrand Chamayou, David Kadouch, Alexandra Conunova and Natalie Clein. A nice touch is the use of an 1892 Pleyel piano, “authentic” for neither Beethoven’s time nor ours, but just right nonetheless. The performers sound like they’re enjoying themselves with works that benefit from not being approached with great solemnity. Listen on Tidal or Spotify.

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Anna Meredith: Fibs. The final “Album du jour” on this blog before our long hiatus was “Varmints,” the 2015 debut techno-pop album by British classical composer Anna Meredith. I was blown away, almost literally so in the case of its opening track, “Nautilus.” Now, just in time for the rebirth of the blog, Meredith has put out “Fibs” a wild ride of beats, bleeps, soaring tunes and non-stop invention. I dare you to resist! Listen on Tidal or Spotify.

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The Beatles: Abbey Road (Super Deluxe Edition). Most fancy new remasterings of favored old albums have struck me as little more than excuses to buy them again, to which I plead guilty on several counts. This one’s more than that. Supervised by Giles (son of Sir George) Martin, the present redo of the lads’ final masterpiece brings the musicians into intimate contact with the listener, for once justifying use of the cliché “like hearing it again for the first time.” The release also includes a zillion extras and outtakes that may interest you more than they do me, but since I’m listening via high-quality streaming (Tidal and Qobuz, more about which in a future post), I don’t have to feel guilty about how much I shelled out for the whole package. Give it a listen on Tidal or Spotify.

The Unpublished Letter

Here’s a letter I submitted a few weeks ago to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, but which has not been published. I’ve added some hyperlinks, but the text is otherwise unaltered.

Last month, Slate.compublished a transcript of a secret audio recording of a “town-hall” that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet held with the paper’s staff regarding the Times’s coverage of the Trump presidency. One of the key takeaways was that the Times’ coverage of “Russiagate” was driven as much or more by established narrative as by emerging evidence – or lack of evidence – and that now that the Mueller report has basically put that story to rest, it was time for a new anti-Trump narrative. That turned out to be “Trump is racist,” a narrative that would drive the paper’s coverage going forward, and which led to the “1619 Project,” a series of articles based on the premise that the legacy of slavery still underpins virtually all American institutions. Never mind the facts, the historical context, or other opinions – it was the narrative that counted.

As at the Times, so at the Gazette in its “Covering Climate Now” series. What’s the narrative? Let me quote the opening of one of the articles in the series: “It’s a problem threatening our very existence on Earth.” Not “is it” an existential problem, but “it is” an existential problem. Case closed, narrative established. But while there is consensus (which I agree with) that the earth is warming and that much of the warming is attributable to human action, there is no such consensus that warming threatens human existence. Read the likes of Dr. Judith Curry and Bjorn Lomborg, check out “Watts Up With That?” blog, and read the reports of the IPCC, and you might come away with a far less dire prognosis of the earth’s future health. Of course, even bringing this up gets one ostracized by climate alarmists and activist scientists, and will doubtless lead to furious letters in response, but that doesn’t mean that these heterodox opinions are invalid. The Gazette, like the Times, disserves its readership (which doesn’t look to the Gazette’s staff to be its thought leaders), and damages its journalistic reputation by its narrative-first coverage, and by suppressing the evidence that does not fit the narrative.

What Think You: Should the Music Stop When the Phones Come Out?

The Wife® just forwarded me a Classic FM article about the latest collision of traditional classical concert etiquette with changing times and new technologies. Here’s the gist:

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was in the middle of performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto last night when the glare of a smartphone stopped her mid-movement.

Mutter was performing the slow, middle movement of the concerto, when she suddenly stopped and confronted a member of the audience in the front row – because they had their phone out and were filming her performance.

So what do you think — did Mutter do the right thing or the wrong thing by stopping the show? Please add your opinion in the comment section. You may choose to do so before reading my snap judgment, which follows.

OK, here goes: I think she was wrong. This is not an endorsement of the audience member’s behavior. I’m not asking Mutter to alter her opposition to being recorded. But this was not sufficiently disruptive behavior to disturb the entire audience’s enjoyment (which they paid for, of course) for one person’s action. What’s next — stopping the show for one too many unwrapped candies or foot shuffles? Of course, the concert staff should exhort the audience not to use their phones during the concert. But this is a case when the reaction to the misbehavior was more disruptive than the misbehavior itself.

What think you?

From the NEPR Archive: Woodman, Spare That Piano!

On Sunday afternoon, The Wife and I are heading to one of our favorite classical concert series for a recital of Romantic piano music on an 1893 Pleyel piano. For background on the series, here’s a blog post I wrote for New England Public Radio in July 2012.

 

Dueling Goldbergs

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“Quick, Robin — into the Bachmobile!”

The older I get, the less I latch onto one all-time favorite recording of a great classical work. Indeed, I find discussions of which is the “best” recording of this or that piece deeply boring. This may seem paradoxical, but only if you correlate — falsely, in my view — advanced age with stubborn adherence to the good old days. In my many decades of music presenting, I’ve heard from plenty of very open old folks and very closed young ‘uns. If there’s one thing that may correlate with advanced age it’s the decreased willingness to put up with lousy-sounding crap because some smart people said you’re supposed to like it. Life’s too short, especially when there’s less life ahead of you than behind you.

No, for me the score is never settled on the great works, and I’m always on the prowl for the next interesting version.  Such as two 2016 recordings of one of my all-time faves, J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations ( known to Bach-geeks as BWV 988, i.e., No. 988 in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis, “Catalogue of Bach’s Works”). And what a matched set of brilliant young keyboardists are featured on the recordings, Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (b. 1987) and Iranian-American harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (b. 1988).

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I’d really rather not get into a better-and-worse comparison, since both Goldbergs are conceived and executed at the highest musical level. I will say, however, that I found Levit’s, for all its taste and control, and for the notable tenderness of the minor-key variations, a little dull. This is playful music, damn it, and I miss a sense of play in Levit’s Bach. Is that ungenerous? You may think so after listening on Spotify or Tidal, or downloading from Presto Classical.

Then check out Esfahani (download, Spotify and Tidal) and see if you can hear why I was vastly entertained by his flexible and creative approach. It helps that he’s playing a beautiful-sounding harpsichord (modeled on a German instrument from Bach’s era) with one of those great Baroque tunings (I couldn’t tell you which) that give each harmony a different color — it might sound sour at first, but you’ll get used to it. While I’m sure he planned and practiced everything to a fare-thee-well, Esfahani gives the illusion of making the piece up as he goes along. OK, he takes a few liberties, including a stripped-down, ornament-free rendition of the opening “Aria” (the first time through, at least), like seeing a beautiful face for the first time without makeup or jewelry. You got a problem with that?

 

 

The Blog Is Back…

…for the first time since I started Uber driving in early 2016. Let’s get right to it.

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What I’m listening to: Jaime, the debut solo CD by Brittany Howard, the 30-year old lead singer for Alabama Shakes, absolutely knocked me on my tukhes. Which at my age, could cause such a pain. But the risk is worth it in order to experience music this personal, this powerful. Name your favorite diva of American song, whether Bessie or Billie or Patsy or Janis, and young Ms. Howard does not disgrace herself by comparison. Purchase CD or download (high-quality, please) here. Spotify here. Tidal here.

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What’s coming up: Chris Goudreau has a nice write-up in Thursday’s Gazette of this Friday night’s concert at the Northampton Center for the Arts by archguitarists Peter Blanchette and Mané Larregla. Wait — there are two archguitarists? That’s right! Maître Blanchette, who invented the damned thing as a baby (OK, as a teenager), almost went and croaked on us after falling ill during a European tour last year. But judging from last weekend’s out-of-town tryout at the 1794 Meetinghouse in New Salem, his playing has lost none of its softness and sweetness. Neither has he lost a jot of his endearing on-stage loquaciousness. And this time, Peter’s joined by his Spanish friend Mané, an accomplished guitarist and recent convert to the archguitar. Renaissance dances, Satie, and of course, Bach — what could be bad? Details here.

That was fun. Maybe I’ll do it again soon. Stay tuned…

 

Album du jour: Anna Meredith, “Varmints”

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You may want to fasten your seatbelt before you start in on this album, lest you be blown out of your chair by the irresistible force of its opening track, a skipping, loping fanfare called “Nautilus.” One could well imagine it, rescored for standard symphonic instruments, lifting the lid on a classical concert, not to mention threatening to lift the lid off the concert hall.

And Anna Meredith could do the rescoring too, since she’s a bona fide classical composer, graduate of the Royal College of Music and former composer-in-residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. So, what’s a nice composer like Anna Meredith doing in the world of techno-pop? To quote from Laura Snapes’s profile of Meredith in the Guardian:

Eventually, though, Meredith decided that she wanted to explore an area that few classical composers tiptoe into: the pop world. To be more specific, the avant-synthpop and peak-time howlers of her debut album Varmints. She had grown frustrated by classical’s constraints, where months of work can climax in a single performance – and often to a sneery audience. “I don’t want to write music that people are enduring just to get to the Elgar in the second half,” she says wearily. She repeatedly highlights the snootiness during our gallery walkabout – an awareness that safeguards her own compositions. “I’ve got quite a pretentious-ometer running. If there’s ever a more direct way to say something, I’d rather do that. That’s what I’m asking myself the whole time: can you be braver, can you be bolder, can you be simpler?”

(Ms. Snapes, by the way, also gave “Varmints” a glowing review in the American indie music mag Pitchfork.)

Then again, Anna Meredith doesn’t just compose “nice” classical music, to judge from her best-known works, such as her big hit from the 2012 BBC Proms, a visually and aurally arresting spectacle called “HandsFree”:

Now, if I hadn’t known about Meredith’s background before listening to “Varmints,” would I have guessed that it was the work of a classically-trained composer? Probably not, especially during the approximately half of the album (e.g., “Taken,” “Something Helpful”) with a strong pop orientation, replete with melodic hooks and conventional pop vocals (some by Meredith herself). But on the big instrumentals, such as “R-Type,” “The Vapours” and the aforementioned “Nautilus,” the shaping, shading and invention of the music equals or excedes that of almost any techno artist now active. They also really rock. So for now, at least, classical’s loss is our gain. Check it out below or at Anna Meredith’s
Bandcamp page, where you can purchase “Varmints” on CD or vinyl with complimentary download.

Why choose bad sound when you can do better?

Which would you rather hang on your living room wall: A fine print of your favorite artwork, or a reproduction cut out of a magazine and blown up on a photocopier?

What would you rather dine on: A dish made from whole, fresh ingredients, or one made of processed foods and reconstituted freeze-dried vegetables?

As the late Christopher Hitchens was wont to put it, “to ask these questions is to answer them.”

Then why oh why, fellow music lovers, would you willingly settle for sound-reproducing technologies that strip the sound of its clarity, color, dynamics and beauty — the very qualities the musicians practiced for years to cultivate — when you can do better? In other words, why would you listen to your favorite music via MP3, when you can stream, download or purchase the music in far higher fidelity? Don’t you think that by doing the former you not only do yourself a disservice, but also do a disservice to the music and the musicians?

Yeah I know, I’ve been banging away on this topic (including in this blog post) almost as long and as tiresomely as Bernie Sanders has been blustering about billionaires. But this time, I’m going to put aside the analog vs. digital culture wars. If you really think vinyl records sound better than CDs, I will magnanimously permit you to go with what you prefer. What a guy, huh?

In the spirit of comity, let vinylphiles and digiheads unite against a common foe! MP3s and other “lossy” formats suck. They denude the music of its sound and its soul. While listening to MP3s does not by itself make you a bad person, it certainly arouses suspicion. What other crimes against humanity might you be committing? And where do you think all the digital bits stripped out of the music to make MP3s get dumped? Probably in some depressed minority neighborhood or third-world country. (OK, I made that last thing up.)

So, my non-negotiable demands: When either streaming or purchasing for download, don’t settle for MP3, any more than you would settle for just the “food” you can find at Aldi. Go for FLAC or other “lossless” audio formats. Here’s a good technogeek explanation. Not that its owner Jay-Z needs any more of our money, but I strongly recommend his Tidal service for hi-fi music streaming. I’ve done comparisons between Tidal and MP3-only Spotify — and there’s no comparison. And when purchasing music for download, stay away from iTunes. It only provides lousy alternatives. I’ll do a survey of download sites with better choices later this week.

Two qualifications: I’m not saying you have to buy super-fancy, super-expensive audio toys. You’ll notice the difference even with a decent inexpensive system or even a pretty good pair of headphones. Neither do you have to spring for “audiophile” 24-bit and other fancy download choices when offered. 16-bit FLAC is perfectly OK and costs less too.

The Brits have a wonderful expression that fits perfectly here: “The better is the enemy of the good.” In this case, MP3 and its crappy cousins are the enemy. It’s time to destroy them once and for all.