Thursday, December 29, 2011

new pieces

I recently played a recital at the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC. On the program were many of my own pieces. I had to learn them a bit too quickly for my liking, so the performances aren't exactly polished, but representative enough of the compositions that I hope you'll give them a listen if you weren't there! Here they are, with the notes I wrote for them.

Notes on the original works performed tonight:

I've been trying to compose music, on and off, since I was very young. I wrote quite a few “model” compositions—works modeled specifically after the styles of past composers—in college, but I was only ever satisfied with one of them. It wasn't until just over a year ago that I managed to compose with any consistency—or any general success (though I suppose the jury is still out in that regard). The Silent Night fantasy, which you will hear tonight, was cobbled together in two days, one year ago, in the run-up to my recital in this same hall last December, and revised this fall. The Fugue from the Prelude and Fugue in D major, after Bach was written in 2007, when I was a junior in college. The Star-Spangled Banner Fantasy was written in the last week of June, just before this year's 4th of July, while the rest of the pieces were written from September onward.

These pieces were written obsessively and unpredictably, in fits and starts. At times, I would sit down, intent on working on them, and nothing would happen at all. At other times, needing sleep, I would stay awake as long as the ideas kept flowing. All in all, (too) many of them came together in their final form about two weeks ago. You may believe that since I wrote these pieces, they should be easier for me to play, when in fact, the very opposite is true. Because these pieces have in many cases been through multiple revisions, it has taken extra time and care to delete the past versions from my memory and muscle memory, and replace them with the new ones. Accordingly, I put aside my originally ambitious plan to complement my own pieces on this program with other pieces that were new to me, in favor of some music that I'm more comfortable playing.

When you hear my music, you might miss the influence and inspiration of one “composer” if I didn't give her due diligence. Gabriela Montero is not only my favorite living pianist, but a truly brilliant composer, though her “pieces” are all improvised. Since I discovered her improvisations two years ago, they've been a revelation for me. She improvises with the skill of a jazz player, but in a huge range of styles. She can take any tune, from any time, and turn it into something completely different, all seemingly instinctively and almost without conscious thought or foresight. Her playing was critical to making me realize how rhythmic and textural variety can add so much, can indeed completely change the character, of a simple melodic or harmonic idea. She made me realize also that composing is just as much a physical act as a cerebral one. So much of the music I've written came about not from thinking, but just from putting my hands on the keys, seeing what came out, and then refining it.

The “style” of these compositions, if I may claim have the authority or perspective to comment
on them, is eclectic, but they share a conservative outlook, a debt to past styles that is extremely uncommon in modern “classical” music. A good friend of mine heard another one of my pieces (not being performed today), which I wrote and performed in June, and criticized it on the grounds that it “sounded like a hybrid of Mozart and Schubert.” My immediate thought was, that's a criticism?! But at the same time, I feel such a need to justify the existence of this music, that I suspect deep down, at least a part of me shares his criticism.

The question he raises is a serious one, and gets at the heart of what we consider the value of art. Is it, at its core, an aesthetic experience, or do we care about authenticity, about the meaning behind the experience? On the one hand, I believe that music is just music, and all that matters is how it sounds. If it sounds good, it is good, and if it sounds vaguely like Mozart or Schubert, then it's probably really good. People like to say there's no point in writing music in Classical style (capital c-Classical denoting a system of form and harmony in common practice in Europe from roughly 1750-1830) because we already have the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. But if, tomorrow, we discovered a trove of previously unknown, mature works by any of the above, is there any doubt that they would

dominate concert programs all over the world? That if Mozart had lived another 30 years, he wouldn't have written hundreds more works that we would still be playing today? Perhaps this is an irrelevant thought experiment, mostly because I don't claim to be capable of writing music that could be mistaken for that of any of these composers. But that doesn't mean that music that sticks to old styles has to be strictly imitative. Each of the above found a way to express himself within a set of rules that gave his music structure and definition, and I think that's what all composers, indeed all artists, strive for.

That being said, only one of the pieces you'll hear tonight was conceived specifically to sound
like music from a by-gone era (the prelude and fugue that opens the second half). I haven't set out, generally, to write music in any specific style, but rather to play only that which I find good enough to be worthy of repetition. Still, the things I write have a habit of sounding as if they were written for another century, , which, at least superficially, defies the idea that music is a reflection of the culture and the times in which it was conceived. I think people who would make this claim confuse the normative with the positive, the idea that music is inevitably looking back, a reflection of its time, vs. the idea that it must be, in a predictable way, reflective of its time. Nobody in 18th century Europe knew how Classical style was especially suited to its time and place. All I can reflect on in my own music is my own philosophy regarding music; if I am so lucky, perhaps one day people will see some connection to the world in which I lived. But to me, it doesn't much matter.

Sam Post
December 20th, 2011

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Life and Tragic Death of Recorded music

I've already decided on an early New Year's resolution: listen to music. Seems so simple, right? In truth, it is deceivingly difficult, maybe impossible.

I mean, does anyone listen to music, for long stretches at a time, without undertaking any other distracting task, except in a concert setting? Put on a CD or turn on your ipod or other cloud-playing device, sit down and just listen with no other short-term goals in mind?

I suppose maybe most people never did this; certainly very few people, if any, do it today. But I used to do it all the time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gouldberg Variations

I wrote this for a magazine a while back, but as of right now, it still hasn't been published. I was reminded of it again by a recent conversation I had about recordings: are they gateways to musical enlightenment, joy and ecstasy, or destructive pieces of garbage that ruin music for everyone? These are, of course, the only two choices. The essay is about Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations, and me, but gets at the question of recordings too....naturally, my answer is: it depends! Recordings can be great, but their influence, proliferation, and the way we listen to them, makes them terrible too...

The lights dim, the audience grows quiet, and the film begins. It starts so simply, so innocently: two tones, two octaves apart, ringing purely, seemingly alone in a dark room. The camera turns and the scene reveals their source, as the music unfolds slowly, methodically. At first from a distance, we see a man, aged beyond his years, crouched behind a piano, head scarcely visible rising above it. As we approach, we see him seated about a foot above the floor, arms bent unnaturally, his gargantuan glasses nearly touching the keys as he sways back and forth, appearing to speak each note as he articulates it with his long, spindly fingers. The scene is somewhat unsettling; the music, divine.

Thus began my visual introduction to Glenn Gould, at a “concert” screening of his 1981 Goldberg Variations film at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Nothing brings out the inner blogger in me like Atul Gawande. I just finished his latest New Yorker piece on expertise and coaching, and as usual, it was illuminating and extremely relevant! Its lesson is one that is all-too-easily ignored: even true experts in a field are easily blinded to their own shortcomings. Even after eight years as a surgeon, Gawande needed a "coach" to point out his weaknesses and help him improve, even if he could spot the very same weaknesses in other people. People are so invested and so involved that when it comes to our own weaknesses, we lose perspective, and the ability of unbiased judgment along with it.

The article talked a lot about schoolteachers and musicians, of which I am now both. Both examples are interesting for me in very different ways. No one will admit more quickly than I will to the value of having a coach for schoolteaching, and yet, teacher coaches are relatively rare.

My feeling about musical coaching is more nuanced.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I love Slate, but....what?!

Whoa! What's with this article? For something that makes some really good points, and forces me to somewhat re-evaluate my own view of the implication of twin studies, the good points are buried beneath poorly worded (at best) or completely bungled (at worst) statements about genetics and heritability. The argument reflects a common misconception about the very concept of heritability, and is in fact, somewhat self-defeating.

First, here's the real logic behind twin studies (not the bastardized version given in the Slate article). Siblings and twins are more genetically similar than two randomly chosen members of a population. Here's where the confusion typically begins. As a shorthand, people often say, "siblings and dizygotic (fraternal) twins share 50% of their genes." That's sort of true, but also misleading, because all humans have about 99.9% of their genomes in common. Out of about 3 billion base pairs, two people typically vary by a few million only. So siblings clearly share more than 50% of their genomes. A more precise statement about siblings would be "siblings and fraternal twins, on average, have only 50% of the genetic variance of two randomly chosen people."

Monozygotic (identical) twins, on the other hand, are even more genetically similar than dizygotic twins or siblings. For the moment let's assume they are genetically identical, even though it turns out that's not really true. Many studies then look at sets of fraternal vs. identical twins, who encounter similar amounts of environmental variation within pairs. That is, the differences in the experiences of two fraternal same-sex twins is likely to be similar to the difference in the experience of two identical twins. Then when they're adults, you measure them for any number of behavior traits--height, weight, political affiliation, whether they prefer calling or texting. The members of the sample then give you a range of responses, or data points. Take height. In a typical sample of 100 males, you might find a range of height from 5'3''-6'5'', or whatever. If you choose two people randomly from this sample, the likelihood that they are close in height is a random function of the sample itself. But if you choose two fraternal twins, you find a correlation: fraternal twins are much more likely to be close in height than two random people. And if you choose two identical twins, you find an even better correlation.

Conclusion. Genes determine height. JUST KIDDING. That's the straw man version of the conclusion given by Palmer, which no one who really knows biology would ever claim. The conclusion is that a certain proportion of the variance in height (best estimate: ~50%) across a population sample is correlated with genetic variation. This is very different from the idea that "your genes determine 50% of your height." That statement, about an individual, is utterly incoherent. An old psychology textbook I read used the analogy of a rectangle, with width being its metaphorical genes and area being its metaphorical traits or behavior. The latter statement would be equivalent to saying "a rectangle's area is determined 50% by its width." But that simply doesn't make any sense, because area and width are measured in different units, and the area is entirely determined by the height and width together. What you can do is compare two (or more) rectangles and say "50% of the difference in their areas is due to the differences in their widths." That's what geneticists mean when they a trait is 50% heritable.

So when Brian Palmer says "genes determine half your altruism," or "one quarter of your financial decision," he's seriously mischaracterizing, (in the name of simplifying?), what some study found about altruism and financial management. Genes don't make your financial decisions for you, genes interacting with an environment create a person who makes those decisions. But like the rectangles, differences in genes can account for measurable differences in behavior across a given population, including your behavior with respect to financial decisions. This is not at all surprising.

What's new to me is this idea that identical twins' genomes are actually quite different, and I'd have to read more about it to fully understand "copy number variations." But unfortunately for Palmer, I don't think this fact actually helps his argument at all; if anything, it hurts it! Consider: you take a sample of identical twins (let's say separated at birth so we can ignore the effects of parenting or "shared environment, although *new tab* these effects turn out to be quite small), and a control sample, and find that, for a given trait or behavior (let's stick with height to keep it simple), the twins' scores correlate 50% better than the control sample. That is, identical twins are 50% more similar in height than two random people. Your initial conclusion: height, in this population, is 50% heritable. But wait! It turns out, identical twins aren't genetically identical at all, they in fact differ genetically quite a bit. Does that mean we should downgrade the heritability we estimated for height? No, in fact, it means the heritability is in fact higher. Each twin's environment varies, on average, as much as the people's environments taken in the random sample. That means the 50% correlation coefficient is best explained by genetic similarity (or more precisely, a lack of genetic variation) among the sets of twins. But if that genetic similarity isn't 100%, but lower, then less genetic similarity has to account for more behavior similarity, which means the behavior similarity to genetic similarity ratio has gone up, and genes are more important than the initial conlcusion suggested.

Heritability is something that can only measured in a given population, and genes never "determine" any portion of behavior in an individual. Palmer's other points are largely irrelevant to the value of twin studies, and population genetics more generally.

book club, part two

While we're on the subject, I was just reading this little guy about religion and morality in the Times. Just in the first two paragraphs it highlights and interesting conflict for most theists: are they really worshipping God, or some moral code that is in fact above God? This tension was on full display in the book mentioned in the post below this one. The most hard-core believers, the fanatics, tend to heed God's word (however they interpret it) with no moral filter, which is what leads to anti-social and seemingly immoral acts on the part of the true believers. Indeed, most doctrines and holy books tend to put God ahead of any moral code; thus the all sorts of gruesome things that God orders in the Old Testament, or the belief that you can only be saved if you believe Christ is your savior, etc. etc.

But for most rank-and-file religious folk, the hierarchy is switched (or so it seems to me). They don't think it's right to murder in the name of God, but see religion as a gateway or a path to a moral life (and so would say God would never have such a desire anyway). They tend not to think it's critical to believe in the one true faith that they adhere to. But then what's the point of religious faith if God answers to some higher moral calling anyway? Isn't that moral framework then, like, the whole point?

Monday, August 22, 2011

book club

I just read an awesome book about the history of Mormonism and the modern fundamentalists (the latter are really crazy! There are pockets of thousands of fundamentalists living in essentially totalitarian communities, like, right now! In the US!). Somehow I have managed to survive in complete ignorance of everything Mormon through high school (thank you, GDS american history!) and college (well that was my fault I only took one history class...fuck), and despite the fact that Mormons used to live in my basement. In my defense, they moved out when I was five (?) on account of having too many babies.

Of the many aspects of Mormonism that make it so incredibly fascinating is the fact that it was gettin' started recently enough that there's such a rich record of its origins, which, unfortunately for Mormons, this don't make for the most flattering picture. It also makes various claims in the Book of Mormon eminently falsifiable, like the fact that all Native Americans are descended from the Israelites (DNA sequencing has shown their last common ancestor to be much older).

Monday, July 25, 2011

subjectivity and consciousness, again

Well now that that whole debt crisis is over and the US economy is back to being awesome! (Oh wait...) Earlier this summer I wrote a couple of posts about philosophy of mind. I got all excited about it, and even bought two books off Amazon while I was away, planning to supplement my uninformed ramblings with some solid backing from knowledgeable sources. Then I lost my backpack with both the books in it, just as I was just getting into them, so that plan was out the window. But back in Evanston, equipped miraculously with a new student ID that they for some reason decided to issue me after my graduation, I've found both books—and many more!—at the library. (My love for Parks & Recreation notwithstanding, it's pretty great to have access to free books all the time, especially with some glitch in the system that appears to have extended that access through 2013. Woohoo!)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

a few more things i don't understand about the f***king debt ceiling

I've already noted, as have many other people with brains, that the whole "debt ceiling" thing is completely ridiculous. Congress has already approved all the money the federal government spends, as well as all revenue it receives; imposing a debt ceiling on top of existing law is nothing but a cheap gimmick, Congress' way of having its cake and eating it and then shitting all over the country's credit too. If you don't want public debt to rise above $14.3 trillion (or whatever) then why the fuck did you vote to spend so much and tax so little in the first place??

Though this appears to me to be the most fundamentally inexplicable thing about the debt ceiling, there are a number of other things that don't make sense to me. Lil' help anyone?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

more on medicine

A few months ago I came across this outstandingly and amazing and fabulously terrific article from a few years ago in the New Yorker. (I don't know how I missed it the first time around in 2008, but my god I made a huge mistake in doing so). In the article Gawande talks about the failure of conventional medical wisdom to explain things like chronic itching or sensations in phantom limbs, in heart-wrenching—and also somewhat terrifying—fashion. He starts to hint at how a not-really-so-recent-anymore revolution in cognitive psychology—suggesting that our perception of bodily sensations is much more brain-directed, or "top-down," than we intuitively believe—is juuuuust barely starting to influence medicine, where that influence is long overdue. The article will fascinate almost anyone but it resonated especially with me due to my history of chronic pain that was for years grossly mismanaged and misdiagnosed—at great cost—by dozens of doctors. If you haven't read the article, do yourself a favor and read the article; it's worth half an hour of your time.

Monday, June 20, 2011

what's the big deal: mental causation

Mental causation is something that's so natural, so routine, that we hardly ever stop to think about it. Even when we do, it's often to reflect on how obvious it is, and how it's weird that scientists ever ignored it. It makes perfect intuitive sense to think that mental events—thoughts, desires, beliefs—cause physical events, i.e., make us do things. I think the apple looks delicious, therefore I eat it. I believe the tiger will eat me, therefore I run away from it. Even though the intuition in favor of mental causation is so strong, it wasn't until the "cognitive revolution" in the 1960's that psychologists began to take it seriously. But what could be simpler than the idea that our thoughts influence our actions?

Philosophically, though, it's not simple at all.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

summer time, part 2

Okay, so for the time being I'll try to steer clear of anything that could possibly be connected to illegal immigration (see comment here—I feel like the Volokh Conspiracy or something!).

I had a psychology professor in college who used to say science is filled with puzzles of two distinct kinds: problems and mysteries. Problems are those questions that fill up most of a scientist's day-to-day life, and most scientists' entire lives, but mysteries are the sorts of things that require revolutionary theories and ideas. For instance, before Newton came along with his theory of gravity, the orbits of the planets and the pull of the earth were mysteries (notwithstanding some people's continuing state of ignorance). Before Darwin, the complexity of life was a mystery, something not only that science had no explanation for, but that science seemed incapable of ever addressing. The mysteries of the universe have long been the sanctuary of religious and philosophical beliefs; wherever science stops, religion has typically taken over, but the march of science into the domain of the traditionally religious has been constant and unrelenting, leaving less and less room for the mystical and supernatural.

One of the last and biggest mysteries—for me at least—is consciousness. A different psychology professor of mine from college is famous (I use the term loosely) for his contention that humans are "intuitive dualists," that we cling naturally and innately to the idea that our minds and bodies are separate entities.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


It's summer again! Now that I finally have nothing to do and no employment prospects for the foreseeable future, I figure it's time to go ahead and revive the ol' blog. I miss it terribly. I know you do too. Without a World Cup like last summer, the topics will be varied and eclectic. On the docket and in my thoughts: some amateur philosophy, some current events/politics, and of course, some music. But first up, a quick rant (oh goodie!) about my unfortunate lack of employment prospects for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

something for everyone??

Wow, have I been lazy these past few months or what! A brief summary on what has happened in the world—for those of you who use this website as your primary news source—hey it beats fox news, and who wants to pay for nytimes these days anyway?? Neither of them would have covered this illustrious first category anyway:

Friday, February 4, 2011

Top 10??

I was recently referred, by several people, to the long-winded discussion of the NYT's music critic Anthony Tomassini about the 10 greatest composers ever. Rather than try to argue endlessly, as I could (and reserve the right to), about why list would be superior, I'll sidestep the issue and instead make a list of favorite and perhaps under-appreciated recordings that everyone should cherish as much as I do, 'cause they're awesome.