Glass invented meta-analysis to prove someone wrong

Apparently Gene Glass invented meta-analysis because he wanted to prove someone wrong:

…in the summer of 1974, I set about to do battle with Hans Eysenck and prove that psychotherapy – my psychotherapy – was an effective treatment. I joined the battle with Eysenck’s (1965) review of the psychotherapy outcome literature. Eysenck began his famous reviews by eliminating from consideration all theses, dissertations, project reports or other contemptible items not published in peer-reviewed journals. This arbitrary exclusion of literally hundreds of evaluations of therapy outcomes was indefensible to my mind. It’s one thing to believe that peer review guarantees truth; it is quite another to believe that all truth appears in peer-reviewed journals.

Next, Eysenck eliminated any experiment that did not include an untreated control group. This makes no sense whatever, because head-to-head comparisons of two different types of psychotherapy contribute a great deal to our knowledge of psychotherapy effects…

Having winnowed a huge literature down to 11 studies (!) by whim and prejudice, Eysenck proceeded to describe their findings solely in terms of whether or not statistical significance was reached at the .05 level…

Finally, Eysenck did something truly staggering in its illogic. If a study showed significant differences favoring therapy over control on what he regarded as a ‘subjective’ measure of outcome (e.g., the Rorschach or the Thematic Apperception Test), he discounted the findings entirely. So be it; he may be a tough judge, but that’s his right. But then, when encountering a study that showed differences on an ‘objective’ outcome measure (e.g., grade-point average) but no differences on a subjective measure (such as the Thematic Apperception Test), Eysenck discounted the entire study because the outcome differences were ‘inconsistent’.

Looking back on it, I can almost credit Eysenck with the invention of meta-analysis by anti-thesis. By doing everything in the opposite way that he did, one would have been led straight to meta-analysis. Adopt an a posteriori attitude toward including studies in a synthesis, replace statistical significance by measures of strength of relationship or effect, and view the entire task of integration as a problem in data analysis where ‘studies’ are quantified and the resulting database subjected to statistical analysis, and meta-analysis assumes its first formulation. Thank you, Professor Eysenck.

…[Our] first meta-analysis of the psychotherapy outcome research finished in 1974-1975 found that the typical therapy trial raised the treatment group to a level about two-thirds of a standard deviation on average above the average of untreated controls…

…[Researchers’] reactions [to the meta-analysis] foreshadowed the eventual reception of the work among psychologists. Some said that the work was revolutionary and proved what they had known all along; others said it was wrongheaded and meaningless. The widest publication of the work came in 1977, in an article by Mary Lee Smith and myself in the American Psychologist. Eysenck responded to the article by calling it ‘mega-silliness’…

My biggest complaint about

I use to track what music I listen to. Unfortunately, it’s not very accurate.

The first problem is that it doesn’t track music listened to on most online services (e.g. Youtube, Bandcamp). But I can’t really complain about that, since I just discovered there’s an app for that. Though, its Youtube support is shaky, I assume because it’s hard to tell what’s a non-musical video and what is a music track.

A bigger problem for me is that counts up what I listen to by counting tracks played rather than by counting time played. So if I listen to a punk band for one hour, and then I listen to Miles Davis for one hour, will make it look as though I like the punk band 10x more than I like Miles Davis, because the punk band writes 3 minute tracks and Miles Davis records 30 minute tracks.

A comparison of Mac and cloud programs for PDF rich text extraction

I like reading things via the Kindle app on my phone, because then I can read from anywhere. Unfortunately, most of what I want to read is in PDF format, so the text can’t “reflow” on my phone’s small screen like a normal ebook does. PDF text extraction programs aim to solve this problem by extracting the text (and in some cases, other elements) from a PDF and exporting it to a format that allows text reflow, for example .docx or .epub.

Which PDF text extraction program is best? I couldn’t find any credible comparisons, so I decided to do my own.

My criteria for were:

  1. The program must run on Mac OS X or run in the cloud.
  2. It must be free or have a free trial available, so I can run this test without spending hundreds of dollars.
  3. It must be easy to use. If I have to install special packages or tweak environment variables to run the program, it doesn’t qualify.
  4. It must preserve images, tables, and equations amidst the text, since the documents I want to read often include important charts, tables, and equations. (It’s fine if equations and tables are simply handled as images.)
  5. It must be able to handle multi-column pages.
  6. It must work with English, but I don’t care about other languages because I can’t read them anyway.
  7. I don’t care that much about final file size or how long the conversion takes, so long as the program doesn’t crash on 1 out of every 10 attempts and doesn’t create crazy 200mb files or something like that.

To run my test, I assembled a gauntlet of 16 PDFs of the sort I often read, including several PDFs from journal websites, a paper from arXiv, and multiple scanned-and-OCRed academic book chapters.

A quick search turned up way too many Mac or cloud-based programs to test, so I decided to focus on a few that were from major companies or were particularly easy to use.

[Read more…]

Jazz and other classical musics

From Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions, on what the book means by “classical musics” and why jazz is one of them:

The term ‘art music’ is too broad… ‘Court music’ would have worked for some traditions, but not for all; ‘classical’ is the adjective best capable of covering what every society regards as its own Great Tradition…

According to our rule-of-thumb, a classical music will have evolved in a political-economic environment with built-in continuity… where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms… almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and periodically renews itself from them;

…As a newish nation whose dominant culture is essentially European, America has – like Australasia – imported Europe’s classical music, but in jazz it has its own indigenous classical form. Those in doubt as to whether jazz belongs in this book should bear in mind that its controlled-improvisatory nature aligns it with almost all other classical musics. Doubters might also consider how closely jazz’s historical trajectory mirrors that of European music, if telescoped into a much shorter time. It too has vernacular roots, and was raised by a series of master-musicians to the status of an art-music; it too has evolved via a ‘classical’ period through a succession of modernist phases, and has become every bit as esoteric as European classical modernism. Since the 1950s jazz has had its own early-music revivalists (from trad bands to Wynton Marsalis) and, again like Western classical music, it too seems unsure where to go next. And now that it’s gone native on every continent, jazz is as global as Beethoven.

Some books I’m looking forward to, November 2015 edition

* = added this round

Some practical obstacles to becoming a fan of modern classical music

I think there is a ton of modern classical music (MCM) that listeners would enjoy if they had a way to more cheaply discover it.

Why can’t people cheaply discover MCM they like, and what can be done about it? Below are some guesses.


Obstacle 1: There are almost no full-time critics of classical/MCM music.

According to this post, there may be about a dozen full-time critics of classical/MCM music in the USA. This is probably more a symptom of the difficulty of exploring MCM than a cause, but it helps perpetuate the problem. The best solution to this is probably to increase demand for MCM critics by fixing the problems below (and perhaps others I’ve missed).

Obstacle 2: MCM critics do not rate works/albums or give them genre labels.

This one really bugs me. Honestly, how is someone with limited time supposed to navigate the world of MCM if nobody will tell them which works and albums are the best ones, and roughly what they sound like? Sure, this information is sometimes (but not always!) buried somewhere in reviews of new works or albums, but it needs to be at the top of the review, right under the artist and work/album title. Yeah, yeah, musical quality can’t be reduced to a single number and a list of genre tags, blah blah blah GET OVER IT and BE MORE HELPFUL.

Obstacle 3: Because of obstacle #2, there’s no way to aggregate expert opinion on MCM works.

Rock/pop fans have MetacriticAOTY, etc. This is impossible for MCM because MCM critics do not rate albums.

Obstacle 4: MCM critics don’t even make lists.

Even if critics didn’t rate every album they reviewed, they could at least make year-end “best of” lists and genre-specific “best of” lists. But MCM critics almost never do this. Seriously, how is anyone with limited time supposed to navigate MCM without listicles?

Obstacle 5: Many MCM works aren’t recorded for years after their debut.

Suppose you read a review of a new rock/pop album, and you want to hear it. What do you do? You stream it on Spotify or buy it on iTunes.

But suppose you read a review of a new MCM work, and you want to hear it. What do you do? The answer is probably “buy a plane ticket to another city on a specific date and pay $80 to hear it once in a concert hall, otherwise wait 1-15 years for the work to be recorded and released and hope you remember to listen to it then.” To someone used to the rock/pop world, this is utter madness.

To become more consumable by a mass-ish market, MCM works need to be recorded and released first, and performed for the public later, after people have had a chance to stream/buy it and decide whether they want to endure the cost and inconvenience of seeing it live.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the MCM business to know how to fix this.


Not on this list

Conspicuously missing from my list of obstacles is “most MCM composers write unlistenable random noise.” They do, of course, but I don’t see that as a problem.

“Unlistenable random noise” is hyperbole, I know, except for some pieces like John Cage’s HPSCHD. What I mean is that most MCM composers tend to write music that sounds to most people like “unlistenable random noise.” As Joe Queenan put it,

During a radio interview between acts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a famous singer recently said she could not understand why audiences were so reluctant to listen to new music, given that they were more than ready to attend sporting events whose outcome was uncertain. It was a daft analogy… when Spain plays Germany, everyone knows that the game will be played with one ball, not eight; and that the final score will be 1-0 or 3-2 or even 8-1 – but definitely not 1,600,758 to Arf-Arf the Chalet Ate My Banana. The public may not know in advance what the score will be, but it at least understands the rules of the game.

… It is not the composers’ fault that they wrote uncompromising music… but it is not my fault that I would rather listen to Bach.

If the obstacles listed above were fixed (plus some I probably missed), then MCM would be in the same place rock/pop music is: composers can write whatever they want, including unlistenable random noise, and some of it will find a big audience, most of it won’t, and that’s fine.

Chomsky on the War on Drugs

More Chomsky, from Understanding Power (footnotes also reproduced):

So take a significant question you never hear asked despite this supposed “Drug War” which has been going on for years and years: how many bankers and chemical corporation executives are in prison in the United States for drug-related offenses? Well, there was recently an O.E.C.D. [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] study of the international drug racket, and they estimated that about a half-trillion dollars of drug money gets laundered internationally every year—more than half of it through American banks. I mean, everybody talks about Colombia as the center of drug-money laundering, but they’re a small player: they have about $10 billion going through, U.S. banks have about $260 billion.

Okay, that’s serious crime—it’s not like robbing a grocery store. So American bankers are laundering huge amounts of drug money, everybody knows it: how many bankers are in jail? None. But if a black kid gets caught with a joint, he goes to jail.

…Or why not ask another question — how many U.S. chemical corporation executives are in jail? Well, in the 1980s, the C.I.A. was asked to do a study on chemical exports to Latin America, and what they estimated was that more than 90 percent of them are not being used for industrial production at all — and if you look at the kinds of chemicals they are, it’s obvious that what they’re really being used for is drug production. Okay, how many chemical corporation executives are in jail in the United States? Again, none — because social policy is not directed against the rich, it’s directed against the poor.

Books, music, etc. from October 2015



Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:


Ones I really liked, or loved:

The critical importance of good headphones

If you’re exploring musical styles, e.g. via my guides to contemporary classical and modern art jazzremember to get some good headphones. This is obvious in retrospect but often neglected. When I switched from cheap to good headphones years ago, I realized there were entire instruments in my favorite songs that I hadn’t been hearing. When my boss Holden finally got good headphones, he started to like minimalism much more than he had previously. Seriously, get some decent headphones.

Which headphones, exactly? Probably just get whatever The Wirecutter recommends for your style: on-ear vs. over-ear vs. in-ear, wireless vs. wired, exercise vs. normal, etc.

You’ll hear a big difference between e.g. the default iPhone headphones and something that costs $70, and you’ll probably hear another difference between a $70 set and a $300 set, but I’m skeptical that most people can hear a difference beyond $300 (for headphones).

If you’re very cost conscious, go with the currently-$23 in-ear headphones here or the currently-$85 over-ear headphones here.

If you’re less cost conscious, go with either the wired or Bluetooth noise-canceling over-ear options here. (I suspect everyone can tell the difference between active noise-canceling and no noise-canceling, but few people can tell the difference between the very good sound of the best noise-canceling headphones and the absolute best sound quality available from non-noise-canceling headphones.)

Alex Ross on Mozart, and on the avantgarde

From The Storm of Style:

What Mozart might have done next [if he hadn’t died young] is no one’s guess. The pieces that emerged from the suddenly productive year 1791 — The Magic Flute, the ultimate Leopoldian synthesis of high and low; La Clemenza di Tito, a robust revival of the aging art of opera seria; the silken lyricism of the Clarinet Concerto; the Requiem, at once cerebral and raw — form a garden of forking paths. Mozart was still a young man, discovering what he could do. In the unimaginable alternate universe in which he lived to the age of seventy, an anniversary-year essay might have contained a sentence such as this: “Opera houses focus on the great works of Mozart’s maturity — The Tempest, Hamlet, the two-part Faust — but it would be a good thing if we occasionally heard that flawed yet lively work of his youth, Don Giovanni.”

And, on a totally different topic, from Listen to This:

Picture music as a map, and musical genres as continents— classical music as Europe, jazz as America, rock as Asia. Each genre has its distinct culture of playing and listening. Between the genres are the cold oceans of taste, which can be cruel to musicians who try to cross over. There are always brave souls willing to make the attempt: Aretha Franklin sings “Nessun dorma” at the Grammys; Paul McCartney writes a symphony; violinists perform on British TV in punk regalia or lingerie. Such exploits get the kind of giddy attention that used to greet early aeronautical feats like Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight and the maiden voyage of the Hindenburg. There is another route between genres.

It’s the avant-garde path— a kind of icy Northern Passage that you can traverse on foot. Practitioners of free jazz, underground rock, and avant-garde classical music are, in fact, closer to one another than they are to their less radical colleagues. Listeners, too, can make unexpected connections in this territory. As I discovered in my college years, it is easy to go from the orchestral hurly-burly of Xenakis and Penderecki to the free-jazz piano of Cecil Taylor and the dissonant rock of Sonic Youth. For lack of a better term, call it the art of noise.

“Noise” is a tricky word that quickly slides into the pejorative. Often, it’s the word we use to describe a new kind of music that we don’t understand. Variations on the put-down “That’s just noise” were heard at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, during Dylan’s first tours with a band, and on street corners when kids started blasting rap. But “noise” can also accurately describe an acoustical phenomenon, and it needn’t be negative. Human ears are attracted to certain euphonious chords based on the overtone series; when musicians pile on too many extraneous tones, the ear “maxes out.” This is the reason that free jazz, experimental rock, and experimental classical music seem to be speaking the same language: from the perspective of the panicking ear, they are. It’s a question not of volume but of density. There is, however, pleasure to be had in the kind of harmonic density that shatters into noise. The pleasure comes in the control of chaos, in the movement back and forth across the border of what is comprehensible.

Academic music criticism of popular music

Academic writing on music is often pretty amusing and interesting, especially when it discusses popular artists.

For example, here is Brad Osborn on Radiohead, from a recent issue of Perspectives of New Music:

The British rock group Radiohead has carved out a unique place in the post-millennial rock milieu by tempering their highly experimental idiolect with structures more commonly heard in Top Forty rock styles. In what I describe as a Goldilocks principle, much of their music after OK Computer (1997) inhabits a space between banal convention and sheer experimentation — a dichotomy which I have elsewhere dubbed the ‘Spears–Stockhausen Continuum.’ In the timbral domain, the band often introduces sounds rather foreign to rock music such as the ondes Martenot and highly processed lead vocals within textures otherwise dominated by guitar, bass, and drums (e.g., ‘The National Anthem,’ 2000), and song forms that begin with paradigmatic verse–chorus structures often end with new material instead of a recapitulated chorus (e.g., ‘All I Need,’ 2007). In this article I will demonstrate a particular rhythmic manifestation of this Goldilocks principle known as Euclidean rhythms. Euclidean rhythms inhabit a space between two rhythmic extremes, namely binary metrical structures with regular beat divisions and irregular, unpredictable groupings at multiple levels of structure.

[Read more…]

Job openings in the EA-sphere, October 2015

There are lots of job openings in the effective altruism world right now. Many of these positions will be hard to fill, and I’m sure the hiring organizations would appreciate you sending their job ads to people who might be a good fit, or sharing the job ad on social media if your followers might be particularly likely to include some candidates who might be good fits.

Most of what you see below is re-organized from a recent EA newsletter. Jobs are listed by organization; organizations are listed alphabetically. Jobs that can be done remotely from any location are marked “(remote),” though I probably missed a few of these.

If you work at an explicitly EA-motivated organization and you have additions or corrections to the job openings listed below, please let me know.


80,000 Hours (Oxford, UK) wants a full-stack web developer with an eye for design. $1000 for successful referrals. Deadline is Oct. 18.

Animal Charity Evaluators (San Diego, USA) wants an Advocacy Research Program Officer. No deadline specified.

The Centre for Effective Altruism (Oxford, UK) wants an Event Manager, a Project Manager, an Office Manager, a Director of US Operations, a Finance Manager, a Full-Stack Marketer, a Strategy Fellow, and a Development Manager. Deadlines are Oct. 18.

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge, UK) wants four post-docs and an Academic Project Manager to work on extreme technological risk. Deadlines are Nov. 12.

The Future of Life Institute (Boston, USA) wants a Project Coordinator and a News Website Editor. Deadlines not specified.

GiveWell (San Francisco, USA) wants Summer Research Analysts for 2016, Research Analysts, Outreach Associates, Operations Associates, and (remote) Conversation Notes Writers. Deadlines not specified.

Giving What We Can (Oxford, UK) wants a Director of Growth and multiple Research Analysts. Deadlines are Oct. 18.

The Global Priorities Project (Oxford, UK) wants a Director of Policy and multiple Research Fellows. Deadlines are Oct. 18.

The Machine Intelligence Research Institute (Berkeley, USA) wants Research Fellows to work on technical problems related to superintelligence alignment.

The Open Philanthropy Project (San Francisco, USA) wants a Biosecurity Program Officer, Advisors and Senior Advisors for its Life Sciences program category, and (remote) Social Sciences Research Assistants. Deadlines not specified.

Sentience Politics (Basel, Switzerland) wants a Project Manager to establish the organization in Germany. Deadline is Oct. 31.

A few bites from Superforecasting

Wish I could get my hands on this:

Doug knows that when people read for pleasure they naturally gravitate to the like-minded. So he created a database containing hundreds of information sources—from the New York Times to obscure blogs—that are tagged by their ideological orientation, subject matter, and geographical origin, then wrote a program that selects what he should read next using criteria that emphasize diversity. Thanks to Doug’s simple invention, he is sure to constantly encounter different perspectives.

[Read more…]

Some books I’m looking forward to, October 2015 edition

* = added this round

Books, music, etc. from September 2015


I thoroughly enjoyed MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning. It does contain at least one error:

[Stephanie] didn’t know what [“bigger” thing she should be doing]… [maybe] preventing malevolent computers from attacking mankind, like the people at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute?


Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:


Ones I really liked, or loved:

Dietterich and Horvitz on AI risk

Tom Dietterich and Eric Horvitz have a new opinion piece in Communications of the ACM: Rise of Concerns about AI. Below, I comment on a few passages from the article.


Several of these speculations envision an “intelligence chain reaction,” in which an AI system is charged with the task of recursively designing progressively more intelligent versions of itself and this produces an “intelligence explosion.”

I suppose you could “charge” an advanced AI with the task of undergoing an intelligence explosion, but that seems like an incredibly reckless thing for someone to do. More often, the concern is about intelligence explosion as a logical byproduct of the convergent instrumental goal for self-improvement. Nearly all possible goals are more likely to be achieved if the AI can first improve its capabilities, whether the goal is calculating digits of Pi or optimizing a manufacturing process. This is the argument given in the book Dietterich and Horvitz cite for these concerns: Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence.


[Intelligence explosion] runs counter to our current understandings of the limitations that computational complexity places on algorithms for learning and reasoning…

I follow this literature pretty closely, and I haven’t heard of this result. No citation is provided, so I don’t know what they’re talking about. I doubt this is the kind of thing you can show using computational complexity theory, given how under-specified the concept of intelligence explosion is.

Fortunately, Dietterich and Horvitz do advocate several lines of research to make AI systems more safe and secure, and they also say:

we believe scholarly work is needed on the longer-term concerns about AI. Working with colleagues in economics, political science, and other disciplines, we must address the potential of automation to disrupt the economic sphere. Deeper study is also needed to understand the potential of superintelligence or other pathways to result in even temporary losses of control of AI systems. If we find there is significant risk, then we must work to develop and adopt safety practices that neutralize or minimize that risk.

(Note that although I work as a GiveWell research analyst, my focus at GiveWell is not AI risks, and my views on this topic are not necessarily GiveWell’s views.)

Pedro Domingos on AI risk

Pedro Domingos, an AI researcher at the University of Washington and the author of The Master Algorithm, on the podcast Talking Machines:

There are these fears that computers are going to get very smart and then suddenly they’ll become conscious and they’ll take over the world and enslave us or destroy us like the Terminator. This is completely absurd. But even though it’s completely absurd, you see a lot of it in the media these days…

Domingos doesn’t identify which articles he’s talking about, but nearly all the articles like this that I’ve seen lately are inspired by comments on AI risk from Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates, which in turn are (as far as I know) informed by Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence.

None of these people, as far as I know, have expressed a concern that machines will suddenly become conscious and then take over the world. Rather, these people are concerned with the risks posed by extreme AI competence, as AI scientist Stuart Russell explains.

I don’t know what source Domingos read that talked about machines suddenly becoming conscious and taking over the world. I don’t think I’ve seen such scenarios described outside of fiction.

Anyway, in his book, Domingos does seem to be familiar with the competence concern:

The point where we could turn off all our computers without causing the collapse of modern civilization has long passed. Machine learning is the last straw: if computers can start programming themselves, all hope of controlling them is surely lost. Distinguished scientists like Stephen Hawking have called for urgent research on this issue before it’s too late.

Relax. The chances that an AI equipped with the [ultimate machine learning algorithm] will take over the world are zero. The reason is simple: unlike humans, computers don’t have a will of their own. They’re products of engineering, not evolution. Even an infinitely powerful computer would still be only an extension of our will and nothing to fear…

[AI systems] can vary what they do, even come up with surprising plans, but only in service of the goals we set them. A robot whose programmed goal is “make a good dinner” may decide to cook a steak, a bouillabaisse, or even a delicious new dish of its own creation, but it can’t decide to murder its owner any more than a car can decide to fly away.

…[The] biggest worry is that, like the proverbial genie, the machines will give us what we ask for instead of what we want. This is not a hypothetical scenario; learning algorithms do it all the time. We train a neural network to recognize horses, but it learns instead to recognize brown patches, because all the horses in its training set happened to be brown.

I was curious to see what his rebuttal to the competence concern (“machines will give us what we ask for instead of what we want”) was, but this section just ends with:

People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.

Which isn’t very clarifying, especially since elsewhere he writes that “any sufficiently advanced AI is indistinguishable from God.”

The next section is about Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns, and doesn’t seem to address the competence concern.

So… I guess I can’t tell why Domingos thinks the chances of a global AI catastrophe are “zero,” and I can’t tell what he thinks of the basic competence concern expressed by Hawking, Musk, Gates, Russell, Bostrom, etc.

(Note that although I work as a GiveWell research analyst, my focus at GiveWell is not AI risks, and my views on this topic are not necessarily GiveWell’s views.)

Unabashedly emotional or catchy avant-garde music

Holden wrote me a fictional conversation to illustrate his experience of trying to find music that is (1) complex, (2) structurally interesting, and yet (3) listenable / emotional / catchy (at least in some parts):

Holden: I’m bored by pop music. Got anything interesting?

Person: Here, try this 7-second riff played repeatedly for 26 minutes.

Holden: Umm … but what about … something a little more varied?

Person: Check out 38 minutes of somebody screaming incoherently while 5 incompatible instruments play random notes and a monotone voice recites surreal poetry.

Holden: But like … uh … more listenable maybe?

Person: I thought you didn’t want pop bullshit. Well, here’s something middlebrow: a guy playing 3 chords on a guitar who sounds kind of sarcastic.

Holden’s three criteria describe a great deal of my favorite music, much of which is scattered throughout my guides to modern classical music and modern art jazz. So if those criteria sound good to you, too, then I’ve listed below a few musical passages you might like.

Osvaldo Golijov, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, I. Agitato, 4:53-7:45

A string quartet + clarinet piece with a distinctly Jewish sound which, in this passage, sounds to me like a scene of building tension and frantic activity until all falls away (6:23) and the clarinet screams prayers of desperation to God (6:59).

Carla Bley, Escalator Over the Hill, Hotel Overture, 6:26-10:30

A circus-music refrain ambles along until things slow down (7:40) and a sax begins to solo (7:45) over repeating fatalistic-sounding chords in a way that, like the clarinet in the passage above, sounds to me like a cry of desperation, one with a cracking voice (e.g. at 8:03 & 8:09), and, at times, non-tonal gargled screaming (8:32), finally fading back into earlier themes from the overture (9:45).

Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa, Ludus, 4:10-9:52

Violins swirl around chords that seem to endlessly descend until a period of relative quiet (4:50) accented by bells. The earlier pattern returns (5:26), eventually picking up pace (5:44), until a momentary return to the calm of the bells (6:14). Then another return to the swirling violins (6:55), which again pick up their pace but this time with a thundering crash (7:15) that foreshadows the destruction that lies ahead. The violins ascend to a peak (7:55), and then quiver as they fall — farther and farther — until booming chords (8:44) announce the final desperate race (8:49) to the shattering end (9:36). If this doesn’t move you, you might be dead.

Sergey Kuryokhin, The Sparrow Oratorium, Summer, 0:55-4:36

Squeaky strings wander aimlessly until the piece suddenly jumps into a rollicking riff (1:11) that will be repeated throughout the piece. Variations on this riff continue as a high-gain guitar plays a free jazz solo. The solo ends (2:30), the noise builds, and then suddenly transitions (2:46) to a silly refrain of “zee zee zee zee…” and other vocalizations and then (3:17) a female pop singer with a soaring chorus that bleeds into (4:05) a variation on the original riff with sparse instrumentation which then launches into a louder, fuller-sounding version of the riff (4:20). (To me, this track is more catchy than emotional.)

John Adams, Harmonielehre, 1st movement, 12:19-16:18

Melancholy strings descend, but there is tension in the mood, announced by an ominous trill (12:45), and then another (12:51). But then, the mood lifts with piano and woodwinds (13:03) repeating an optimistic chord. The music accelerates, and takes another tonal shift toward a tense alert (13:22). Booming brass and drums enter (13:41) as things continue to accelerate, and the drums and brass strike again (14:29) and drag the whole piece down with them, in pitch and pace. The strings and horns struggle to rise again until the horns soar free (15:11) . The instruments rise and accelerate again until they break through to the upper atmosphere (15:32). Then they pull back, as if they see something up ahead, and… BOOM (16:04) there are the thundering E minor chords the opened the piece, here again to close the movement.

Artistic greatness, according to my brain: a first pass

Why do some pieces of music, or film, or visual art strike me as “great works of art,” independent of how much I enjoy them? When I introspect on this, and when I test my brain’s mostly subconsious “artistic greatness function” against a variety of test cases, it seems to me that the following features play a major role in my artistic greatness judgments:

  1. Innovation
  2. Cohesion
  3. Execution
  4. Emotionality

Below is a brief sketch of what I mean by each of these. In the future, I’ll elaborate on various points, and run additional thought experiments as I try to work toward reflective equilibrium for my aesthetic judgments.

[Read more…]

Anthony Braxton albums

I recently listened to 70 albums by Anthony Braxton, several of them very long, between 2 and 12 CDs. I thought a few of his albums were pretty great as works of art, but I enjoyed exactly one of them (Eugene), and I thought zero of them were accessible enough to include in my guide.

I should also mention that I basically only listened to the albums with original compositions on them. And if you know Braxton, you know these compositions are complicated — e.g. Composition 82, scored for simultaneous performance by four different orchestras. The dude is prolific.

To see which Braxton albums I listened to, Ctrl+F on my (in-progress) jazz guide for “Anthony Braxton’s” (it’s in a footnote).