Welcome to the Birksworks Blog

October 7, 2018 8:30 p.m.

What am I listening to right now? <To be a continuing question>

Hindemith’s Symphony Mathis der Maler conducted by Hindemith himself with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1955. I used to know and love this piece but haven’t really listened to it lately. Why not remind myself of the felicities of harmony and drama and hear the message from the composer? What imaginary nuance can I ascribe to the ur-conductor, missing from more recent recordings with showier sound? Like Stravinsky, he ought to know how it goes. (How different are Stravinsky’s interpretations of his own work from the ones we hear today? I’d like to think I know, but I don’t. I do tell myself I have preferences in Mahler and familiar repertoire like Beethoven or Schumann piano music, however.)

I’m listening to the CD on my laptop, connected to a Bluetooth speaker in the den. [For posterity, I’ll say that I could have listened to any of the music on 2 terabyte disks accessible through my wi-fi.  The relatively high-end speaker is lo-fi, but serviceable. The whole music library database can be accessed by any device. I’m pretty proud of  figuring out how to plug the USB drives into the router. In reality, I believe that every teen-age geek knows how to do this. I’ve unscientifically tested this theory with several different groups of people in their 20’s. Both the graduate students and the working folks thought my setup was dope. I couldn’t believe it! I’d think this maneuver would be part of basic computer literacy these days. I can’t keep up with PC technology like I did when I was younger. Now I struggle to keep up, but I don’t try. Ergo, if I can do it, it shouldn’t be such a feat for these kids!  Even though I’m a liberal arts kind of guy, I’d think they’d learn something about networking in 8th grade—perhaps replacing the Constitution test. Isn’t that in the new STEM curriculum?

It occurred to me just now why these young people don’t like to mess with such stuff.  It’s a generational culture gap. The reason these folks never thought of accessing their music through a networked local database is due to my generation’s cultural assumptions about ownership and physical media. Decades ago I was a record collector: I owned hundreds of jazz and classical LP’s. Then came cassettes and CD’s. The albums were tangible. The music was mine. It lived in my house. Eventually there were MP3s and iTunes. Even though you couldn’t hold the music in your hand, it was your collection. As a collector, it’s always important to attend to a library’s topiary. Otherwise it would develop strange wayward growths. I do enjoy my little tangent suckers, though.

Young people these days either stream individual songs online or download them. An album-full of MP3’s or FLAC’s is an analog of a well-planned album of similar material with related notes (as on LP’s and CD’s) is a thing of the past. (I won’t mention the current retro-craze for vinyl. I don’t think its market share or the depth of its library will grow much.) There’s no context any more. Playlists generated by streaming services are more like robot/artisan-made smorgasbord of Top 40 radio. Are our attention spans so short?  

The Hindemith is a new acquisition from the library’s post-sale detritus from its annual sale of media nobody wants. I bought a few at $2, then a few marked down to $1. Now, a week later, I discovered other gems were for 50 cents each.

But I digress. I’m here to talk about a case of tragic irony in the MeToo era.

One piece of flotsam I snagged for a dollar was a 10-disk audio book: Giant of the Senate, read by the author, Al Franken.

I liked Al Franken as a writer and a comedian, but I loved him as a senator. On the cover of the audio book is a picture of Franken looking dour and statesmanlike, as if posing for Mt. Rushmore.

So much has happened in the MeToo world (and Trumpworld) since Al Franken resigned in January 2018. Dozens of rich, famous white men have fallen from grace. Al was one of the early casualties. Why am I interested in this de-tallised outcast? Of course, as a liberal, I’m dismayed to find one of my heroes as guilty as the rest. But it’s more than that.

Al was a smart smart-ass comedian whose nature it is to say or do anything for a joke, funny or not. Eventually, he got into trouble for a silly lecherous picture. It was bound to happen. I’m told that other women came forward to reveal some sexual misdeed or tasteless innuendo. (I’m sure he was big on innuendo.)

My unpopular opinion is that Al took one for the team. Even if the other women were subjected to sexual harassment (or worse) from him, I suspect it was more of the juvenile sexual humor or prank, rather than rape, masturbation, or quid pro quo favors so popular among the other perps. Almost a year ago, the MeToo movement was gathering steam. You don’t make exceptions at the beginning of a revolution. You just don’t. This is not to say that that it’s not about damned time that women spoke up about men’s piggish dehumanizing attitudes and behaviors for the last several thousand years. It’s that this poor schmuck got caught acting like a garden-variety asshole. And guess what? There are lots of them.

For all the time since Al became an activist, then a politician, I recalled something my father used to say to me over and over during my childhood (and later): “David, nothing you do will ever get you in trouble. It’ll be your mouth.” That’s Al. (Me too.)

One of the pleasures of listening to him read his last book is to hear stories about the suppression of his comedic reflexes during his time in the senate. During his first term many of his fans marveled at his ability to speak forthrightly about import issues without undermining his credibility with humor. Having established his bona fides as a serious liberal, the book—released in his second term—is the sound of him exhaling after holding his breath for 6 years. His publicity machine planted little buzz buds in the media: “Al Franken: safe to joke again!”

And what does he joke about? How naïve he was about political campaigns and the conventions of Congress. How he avoided calling someone a Big Fat Idiot—especially when he was right, goddamn it! His outing as a pervert was inevitable, especially with some non-partisan help from his detractors. As Donald Trump would say, “Sad!”

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