Sunday, October 4, 2015

Misbehaving: Richard Thaler and behavioral economics

Richard Thaler was one of the inadvertent founders of the field of behavioral economics. I say "inadvertent" because it wasn't clear to Thaler or his colleagues exactly what he was doing when he started looking into what he called "The List": discrepancies he'd noted between the predictions of economic theory and the choices people actually make. Those discrepancies profoundly violated the principles of traditional economics—and, crucially, did so in ways that weren't attributable to random error.

Here's an example: Thaler gave half of the students in one of his Cornell classes a university coffee mug. The students with a mug were then asked to write down the minimum price at which they would sell it, and the students without a mug the maximum price at which they would buy one; sellers were then matched with buyers. According to classical economic theory, if the mugs were distributed randomly about half the students with a mug should value them less than students without one, and so roughly half the mugs should change hands.

That's not what happened—repeatedly. What Thaler found is that students with a mug—chosen randomly each time—generally valued it significantly more than students without one. On average only about 5% of the mugs changed hands, as opposed to the predicted 50%. That's a difference of an order of magnitude.

You may be thinking, "Who cares about a coffee mug?" But that's precisely the point: no one cares much, unless they already possess one. Simply owning a mug, even when they didn't pay for it, even when they had owned it for only a few minutes, made students value it more. This is a violation of a key tenet of rational choice economics, in which preferences (in this case, for owning or not owning a mug) are assumed to be stable.

The coffee mug experiment illustrated some key principles of the then-emerging field of behavioral economics—that is, economics that tries to take our observable behavior into account, instead of treating us like the super-rational, utility-maximizing, optimal-choice-making agents of traditional economic theory. (Thaler calls these theoretical beings "Econs.") The first principle is loss aversion: losses are more painful to us than gains are pleasurable—in fact, Thaler's colleagues Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that losses give us at least twice as much pain than gains of the same amount give us pleasure. (I've also written a post on Kahneman's fascinating book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011).)

The second principle is status quo bias: we are resistant to change. We tend to stick with what's familiar or what requires the least effort, even when we recognize that there may be benefits (in the mug experiment, cash) if we're willing to change. Together, these behaviors result in what Thaler calls "the endowment effect": our tendency to value things we own more highly than things we don't—and more highly than things, including cash, that we could exchange them for.

The endowment effect depends on our ignoring what economists call "opportunity costs." As an example, imagine that you're a sports fan who has just been given a free pair of tickets to a key playoff game. You might be able to sell the tickets for $1500, but many fans would choose to go to the game—after all, the tickets were free, weren't they? To an economist, though, there's no difference between using free tickets worth $1500 to go to the game and paying $1500 out of pocket to go to the game, since you could have had that money if you had sold the tickets.

This example also illustrates the effects of framing on our choices. If a friend were to give you as a gift a bottle of wine they'd bought at auction for $150, you'd probably elect to drink it (on a suitably special occasion, of course). However, if you were asked whether you'd be willing to spend $150 out of pocket on a bottle of wine and then drink it, you might very well say no. Again, to a traditional economist there's no difference between the outcomes of the two scenarios—in both, if you choose to drink the wine you'd be a bit tipsier and $150 poorer than you might otherwise have been—and so your choice should remain consistent. It shouldn't matter how the scenario is framed.

That almost no one but an economist thinks this way, though, did not seem to bother economists for about two centuries. Instead, economic models that assumed hyper-rational behavior came to determine much policy and law. But it turns out that many of our actual behaviors are, as an economist would say, sub-optimal. The status quo bias, for example, means that when we are required to opt in to beneficial programs, such as employer-matched 401(k) accounts, too often we don't.

Thaler co-wrote a book with legal scholar Cass Sunstein entitled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008), which used the insights of behavioral economics to argue that instead of requiring people to opt in to beneficial programs, we should use the status quo bias for good and instead require them to opt out. Changing the default option can radically change participation rates.

But, of course, there's no reason why the principles of behavioral economics can't be used for other purposes as well, and they are: by political groups, advertisers, and companies trying to shift your choices in ways beneficial to them. Misbehaving is an entertaining way to increase your awareness of how, and how easily, we can be manipulated. And with that knowledge, perhaps, we can try to make our choices—political, social, and economic—more conscious ones.

Update 5 Oct 2015: Thaler has created a Misbehaving website which includes outtakes (passages cut from the final manuscript), resources for learning more, "characters" (colleagues mentioned in the book), and a blog discussing real-world applications of behavioral economics.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A byproduct of confusion: Revenge of the Mekons

Rock documentaries tend to follow a highly conventional formula: Gather the remaining/surviving members of the band to recount its history, and a few Important People to testify to the band's significance. Intersperse the interviews with footage and photos of the band's origins and early success; descent into drug and alcohol addiction, mutual recrimination and breakup; and then eventual triumphant reunion/re-emergence (which is often the impetus for the documentary). Edit into a tidy 90 minutes, and you have your movie.

Joe Angio's Revenge of the Mekons (2013) conforms to much of this template, but the film explodes the limitations of its formula because the band that is its subject is anything but conventional. Although the Mekons are about to celebrate their 40th anniversary, they've never tasted mainstream popularity—either they've never aspired to it, or they simply have had no idea how to go about attaining it. As singer Sally Timms says when a clueless radio interviewer asks them to explain their "success," "The stock answer is the lack of it. Success is the thing that usually kills bands in the end. We haven't had any success, so we've had none of the attendant problems."

Of course, "success" depends on how you measure it, but four-figure album sales and the long grind of low-budget touring can also kill bands. The Mekons' good humor and mutual regard, though, seem to have survived their four decades together intact. They never got around to (or perhaps couldn't afford) the standard drug binges and resultant rock band acrimony, and they can't get back together because they've never broken up. As original Mekon Kevin Lycett told Spin magazine in 1986, "We couldn't be bothered." [1]

What they have done is continue to produce new music of consistently high quality. Depending on what you count they've issued something like 20 albums and nearly as many singles and EPs, and they now have a catalogue of well over 200 songs to draw on for their live shows.

Formed in 1977 by a group of leftist art students at Leeds University who hung out with the Gang of Four, the Mekons were initially more of a conceptual art project than a band. (The Mekon is the alien arch-villain of the futuristic Dan Dare comics.) None of the original members could play at more than a rudimentary level, and their sound was deliberately raw. In Angio's film we see Mary Harron (later a director and screenwriter) reading from a review she wrote of the band in 1979: "Although at times the Mekons sound wildly experimental, that's just a byproduct of confusion."

Despite (or perhaps because of) their defiant amateurism, the band was actually signed to Virgin Records and released an album in late 1979. The front cover showed a monkey sitting at a typewriter picking out the Shakespearean title of the album—almost (The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strnen), while the back cover displayed a band photo of...the Gang of Four. Although the claim that this was an error by the record label is repeated in Angio's film, at the time the Gang of Four were on EMI, not Virgin—it sounds very much like a Mekons prank.

The Mekons were non-conformists even among punks: The Quality of Mercy includes the wistful "After 6," whose verse is a delicate tune that sounds like it could've have come from a less-slick version of Wire's 154 (the two albums were released almost simultaneously that fall). Clearly Virgin didn't really know what to do with them, and after releasing a double single (another Mekons paradox) let them go.

The band weathered the demise of punk rock by radically reinventing itself. When punk as both a social and musical movement began to ebb around the time of Margaret Thatcher's 1983 re-election and the miners' strike of 1984/85, the Mekons responded by incorporating elements of British folk and American country music into their sound. While the movie quotes Rolling Stone as saying that the Mekons invented alt-country, it isn't quite true. They weren't even the first punk band to go country: the Johnny-Rotten-less Sex Pistols had covered rockabilly Eddie Cochran in 1978, and in 1981 the Dils had re-formed themselves as the "cowpunk" Rank and File.

What made the Mekons unique was that they didn't attempt to turn country into punk, nor did they attempt to straightforwardly imitate country. Instead they found at the tail end of punk a kindred sensibility in classic country's pessimism, world-weariness and sense of inevitable loss, and they created a hybrid that drew on elements from both forms.

They incorporated traditional instruments such as the fiddle of Susie Honeyman (the Charlotte Rampling of rock) and the accordion of Rico Bell, but also employed pounding drums and squalling guitar feedback. For a taste, listen to the dueling vocals and guitars of Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford on "Hard to be Human" from their 1985 album Fear and Whiskey. (Since 1984 their excellent drummer has been Steve Goulding, formerly of Graham Parker and the Rumour; that's him, too, doing the famous drum part on Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives.")

They weren't remiss in paying homage to their influences: Fear and Whiskey includes a cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway," the 1985 Crime and Punishment Peel Sessions EP includes Merle Haggard's "(I'm Going Off Of The) Deep End," the 1986 album The Edge of the World includes a version of "Alone and Forsaken" which mashes up Hank Williams' original lyrics with the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song," and in 1988 the Mekons and ex-Fall member Marc Riley collaborated on a tribute album to Johnny Cash, 'Til Things Are Brighter.

After four excellent albums in as many years on independent labels, the band had a brief brush with mainstream fame when they were signed by A&M Records in the late 1980s. In the film we see a giddy marketing promo done for A&M record pluggers, and a video for their song "Memphis, Egypt," that would have looked extremely strange on MTV (if it was ever aired). As Honeyman recounts in the movie, during the label's annual Christmas party all the new acts signed that year were announced—but the Mekons were somehow omitted from the list. It was an ominous sign of the amount of effort the label was going to put into promoting the band's new album, Rock 'n' Roll (which some of us still consider their best). As Honeyman says, "We left thinking, 'Back in the van.'"

After A&M unceremoniously dropped them, the band continued (and continued to change). They toured, participated in art installations, collaborated with author Kathy Acker (supplying bawdy sea shanties for performative readings of her 1996 novel Pussy, King of the Pirates), and periodically issued new albums. Angio's film has some remarkable performance footage of the Mekons over the years.

But "The Curse of the Mekons" (the title of their first post-A&M album) has continued to haunt the band to the present day. Their labels haven't adequately promoted their records, and critical raves somehow have never translated into robust album or ticket sales. At the beginning of Angio's film we see the band setting out on tour (loading their own instruments into the van; Langford says only half-jokingly that "We used to have a roadie, but he became too successful to work with us anymore.") In the middle of their set during the first show of the tour a classic Mekons moment occurs when they urge the crowd to come see them at the next night's show in Sheffield—only to learn from their fans that the gig has been cancelled ("There was an e-mail," the nonplussed band members are told).

Perhaps the most compelling sequence follows the writing sessions for their 2011 album Ancient and Modern. From a sentence in Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams ("He found himself, as he had hoped, afar and forlorn; he had strayed into outland and occult territory") we see the song "Afar and Forlorn" slowly take shape through the process of writing lyrics, rehearsing music, recording, and live performance. It's a stunning montage that takes perhaps two minutes in the movie, but spans at least a full year of real time. It makes you wonder just how long Angio spent shooting footage for the film; then again, the Mekons seem to inspire obsession in their fans and followers.

("Afar and Forlorn" is far from the only Mekons recording with a literary genesis; apart from the Kathy Acker project, the title of their 2000 album Journey to the End of the Night is taken from Céline's novel, Rock 'n' Roll's "Only Darkness Has The Power" is based on a passage in Paul Auster's The Locked Room, and Fear and Whiskey's "Flitcraft" on a parable told in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. I'm sure there are many others. Perhaps that's why the Mekons can count writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Luc Sante, and Greil Marcus—all of whom appear in the film—among their fans.)

So Revenge of the Mekons transcends its genre in the way that the Mekons themselves transcend theirs: by combining familiar elements in continually surprising ways. Highly recommended.

For more information:

1. Michael Kaplan, "Punks on the Lost Highway," Spin, October 1986, p. 12.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Bollywood: A History

A monsoon-drenched Rekha in Utsav (The Festival, 1984)
The development of Hindi cinema offers an abundance of fascinating material to any writer. Studios such as the Hindustan Film Company, Bombay Talkies and RK Films were built on their founders' visions of possibility, willingness to take risks, tireless labor, and sometimes ruthless business practices. One of the biggest stars of the 1930s was a big-boned blonde woman named Mary Evans who did her own acrobatic fighting and horseback-riding stunts as "Fearless Nadia." Heroes such as Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand came to Bombay without connections or experience, and within a few years became screen idols worshipped by millions. Amitabh Bachchan, a gangly outsider who had once failed a voice test to become an announcer for All-India Radio, was cast as the lead in Zanjeer (Chains, 1973) after four better-known actors turned down the role; his searing performance made him a superstar.

So while the still of Amitabh's frequent co-star Rekha on the cover of Mihir Bose's Bollywood: A History (Tempus, 2006) was certainly arresting, I picked up the book because of its back-cover claim to be "the first comprehensive history of India's film industry." Unfortunately, the hopes raised by that description were dashed almost immediately. Bose's book is superficial, partial, and reads as though an unedited first draft was mistakenly sent to the printer.

An early warning sign was the repetitive writing. At the beginning of the first chapter, we are told the story of a woman at a screening of the Lumière Brothers' film "'Condeliers' Square'" leaping to her feet because it appears that a "hansom cab" is about to burst through the screen (pp. 38-39). Then, on the very next page, we hear about a Lumière showing in which audience members seeing "L'Arrivée d'un gare de la Ciotat…vacated their seats in a hurry" in fear that an arriving train will crash through the screen. Was it the hansom cab, the train, or both?

Repetition is only one problem; the book is also filled with errors, typographical and otherwise. In the stories about the Lumière Brothers, for example, the titles of both films are misstated (the second one nonsensically), and there is no hansom cab in "La Place des Cordeliers" (not "Condeliers"): there is a horse-drawn streetcar and a delivery van, but no hansom cab, as you can see for yourself. Neither story is given a source, so there is no way to judge the credibility of the reported audience reactions. Repetition, errors, and vague sourcing remain issues throughout the book.

Names are frequently misspelled: the Hollywood actors were Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, not "Mathau" and "Lemon" (p. 256); the Hollywood producer of Algiers (1938) was Walter Wanger, not "Wagner" (p. 138); Shashi Kapoor's wife Jennifer's actor father was Geoffrey Kendal, and the drama award named after him is the Kendal Cup—neither is spelled "Kendall" (p. 270).

Worse than careless spelling, though, is Bose's carelessness with facts: actor Hrithik Roshan did not appear in Karan Arjun (1995), but instead served as an assistant to his director father Rakesh, so the film can hardly be "notched up" among Hrithik's "blockbusters" (p. 347). The name of Rekha's great 1981 courtesan film is Umrao Jaan, not Umrao Jaan Adda—the latter is the title of Mirza Hadi Ruswa's 1899 novel on which the film was based—and it does not quite tell "the story of a thirty-year-old abducted and sold to a brothel" (p. 235). Bose writes that "Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was shot largely in Scotland," a claim that is true only of its title song (p. 349).

Writing of playback singing, Bose states,
In the 1930s and 40s, it was the norm for actors and actresses to both sing and act…But within a decade this breed completely vanished, so totally that cinemagoers of today's Bollywood would struggle to believe they ever existed…Bollywood had created a divide between singing and acting which has never been bridged. (pp. 93-94)
That this practice had "completely vanished" by the 1950s would come as a surprise to actor-singers Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar. Major contemporary stars Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Aamir Khan have all on occasion done their own playback singing. Further examples abound; while playback singing remains the standard practice, this is hardly "a divide…which has never been bridged." Here is Amitabh singing the Holi song "Rang Barse Bheege Chunarwali" from Silsila (1981):

For a description of the film, including the significance of this scene, please see my post on Silsila.

Bose claims that an early Indian filmmaker, Dundiraj Govind Phalke, was "far ahead of his time" (p. 53) when in the credits of his 1919 film Kaliya Mardan he showed the faces of his actors dissolving into those of their characters in full makeup and costume. However, this practice was widespread in the silent film era: for example, it occurs in Louis Feuillade's Fantômas serial of 1911-1913.

Bose is not a film historian or critic—his background is in sports and business journalism, two fields that are prone to hyperbole—and it shows when he commits errors of overstatement like these. But Bollywood: A History is also filled with non sequiturs and garbled grammar. Here are some examples, chosen pretty much at random:
Page 132: "Like Ashok Kumar, but perhaps even more so, he [Dilip Kumar] taught himself acting…" So Dilip Kumar is even more like Ashok Kumar than…Ashok Kumar?

Page 266: "It may be a coincidence that 1969, the year of Bachchan's debut in films, was also the year Indira Gandhi made her decisive turn in Indian politics, a few months after Bachchan's arrival in Bombay but, nevertheless, it is of some significance." Or not.

Page 299: "Yet, if the Indian media was easily cowed down during the Emergency, one of the most fascinating aspects of that time was that it came just as many things were bubbling away, which was to determine the course of Indian life for the decades ahead." Was it?

Page 344: "If Aamir Khan is the modern-day Raj Kapoor, although very different in many ways, then Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim born in New Dehli on November 2, 1965, and, like Aamir, married to a Hindu, Gauri Khan." Lucky Gauri!
Of course, occasional misspellings, grammatical awkwardnesses and factual errors are inevitable in any book-length project (this blog certainly has its share), but the sheer frequency of these problems in Bose's book is unacceptably high. And while omissions are perhaps inevitable, missing entirely from Bose's history or receiving only glancing mentions are such major heroines as Helen, Sharmila Tagore, Mumtaz, Sridevi, Mala Sinha, Shyama, Neetu Singh, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, and Rani Mukerji, among many others. Also, Bose's discussion of dance—a highly significant element of Indian musical films—is very brief and wholly inadequate.

So Bollywood: A History is poorly written, sloppily edited, and narrowly conceived. Surely there's a recent one-volume history of Hindi cinema that's written in a lively style, is well-sourced and credible, and which gives appropriate emphasis to both the men and the women who have created and sustained this film industry. Isn't there?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Obsession, perversity, and recapitulation: Hitchcock's Vertigo and its sources

Alfred Hitchcock was famous, or perhaps notorious, for making changes to novels and short stories when adapting them into films. Vertigo (1958) is a classic case in point. It was based on the 1954 novel D'Entre les Morts (From among the dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. The novel is centered on a detective, Flavières, who is hired to follow Madeline, the wife of an old friend. Flavières soon falls in love with Madeline, who believes herself possessed by an ancestor who committed suicide. When Madeline herself dies, Flavières is bereft; when he meets a woman who reminds him of Madeline, he begins to obsessively make her over in Madeline's image in a doomed attempt to recapture the past.

There are many differences between the novel and the film. Hitchcock altered the novel's settings and character names, and added characters and scenes that didn't exist in the book. Perhaps the most radical change was in the timing of the revelation of Madeline's identity: in the novel, there is a surprise twist at the end, while in Hitchcock's film, that twist is revealed at the beginning of the film's second part. As Hitchcock told François Truffaut, "Everyone around me was against this change; they all felt that the revelation should be saved for the end of the picture…We're back to our usual alternatives: Do we want suspense or surprise?" [1] As ever, he had no hesitation in making substantial changes to the source in order to make it more Hitchcockian.

One of those changes relates to a key scene in both the novel and the film: Madeline's attempted suicide by drowning. In the novel, Madeline is standing alongside the Seine when she suddenly steps off the quay and plunges into the water. Flavières, who has been following her, leaps in after her and pulls her out. She is conscious:
Her eyes were open, gazing pensively at the sky, as though trying to recognize something.
"You're not dead," Flavières said simply.
Her eyes turned towards him, and her thoughts seemed to come back from some other world.
"I don't know," she said softly. "It doesn't hurt to die." [2]
Flavières carries her into a nearby café. There Madeline is able to stand, shakily; the proprietress gives each of them some dry clothes to change into, and they return to Flavières's flat. As they enter, the phone is ringing: it's Madeline's husband, who is concerned about her lengthy absence.

In the film this incident is altered and elaborated in ways that are highly significant. Madeline (Kim Novak), followed by detective Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart), drives out to Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

Suddenly, she leaps into San Francisco Bay:

Scotty jumps in after her and pulls her out:

He carries her unconscious body to her car, where he tries to revive her without success:

There is a cut. When we next see Scotty, he's in his apartment; Madeline is in his bed, and her clothes—all of them—are drying on a line.

Madeline is awakened by the ringing of a phone: it's her husband, calling Scotty to find out where she is. She is shocked, first to discover that she's in a strange bed:

And next, by her realization that she's been completely undressed:

This moment—awkward and embarrassing for both of them—is also the moment when love begins to dawn between Madeline and Scotty.

I had thought that this scene was simply one more example of Hitchcock improving on his literary sources: it provides a basis for Madeline and Scotty's subsequent intimacy, while at the same time providing hints of Scotty's obsessiveness and perversity (particularly with regard to his minute attention to women's clothing).

But I think I've discovered that this scene has a cinematic as well as a literary source. Hitchcock seems to have adapted pivotal elements of this scene from another film: Hot Saturday (1932), a pre-Code film directed by William Seiter and starring Nancy Carroll, Randolph Scott, and Cary Grant.

In Hot Saturday, Ruth Brock (Carroll) tries to escape rumors that she's spent the night with rich ladies' man Romer Sheffield (Grant) by fleeing to the campsite of her earnest childhood friend Bill Fadden (Scott). Bill has returned to town after seven years away to do some geological exploration (but he's too shy to declare his real reason: his love for Ruth). A violent storm is raging, and as Ruth tries to reach the cave where Bill is staying, she slips and falls unconscious:

Bill hears a noise, investigates, and carries the unconscious Ruth into the cave:

Bill tries to revive her, without success.

 When Ruth awakes, her clothes—all of them—are drying on a line:

Ruth is at first shocked to discover that she's in Bill's bed:

And next, by her realization that she's been completely undressed:

The parallels between these two scenes seem too close to be coincidence. Although I know of no incontrovertible evidence that Hitchcock was familiar with Hot Saturday—it does not appear in the indexes of any of my small collection of books on Hitchcock—it was one of Cary Grant's first starring roles. Grant went on to star in four of Hitchcock's movies, and occupied a special place among Hitchock's leading men. Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock, wrote that "Cary Grant...represents what Hitchcock would like to have been." [3] Hitchcock himself, in an after-dinner speech given at the Screen Producers Guild in 1965, jokingly referred to Grant as his alter ego: "You may be sure that in securing an actor for my next picture I was more careful. I gave casting an accurate and detailed description of my true self. Casting did an expert job. The result: Cary Grant in Notorious." [4] It seems inconceivable that Hitchcock would not have seen all of Cary Grant's early films.

We know, too, that Hitchcock—shall we say, obsessively?—restaged and reworked similar scenes over multiple films. Such recapitulations have been the subject of at least one book, the not-very-enlightening Hitchock's Motifs by Michael Walker. Perhaps the most famous example is the heroine dangling from the face of Mt. Rushmore in North By Northwest (1959), prefigured more than two decades previously in Young and Innocent (1937):

Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in North by Northwest:

Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney in Young and Innocent:

In North by Northwest Hitchcock is restaging, on a grander scale, a powerful scene from one of his earlier films. What makes the Vertigo scene I've discussed in this post so unusual is that Hitchcock seems to have been adapting a scene from another filmmaker's work, rather than his own.

Boileau and Narcejac's Vertigo can be borrowed with a free account from the indispensable Open Library. Hot Saturday is available on DVD in Universal's Pre-Code Hollywood Collection, and is worth seeing as an early example of Cary Grant's screen persona (as well as for its eyebrow-raising sexual mores).


1. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, Revised Edition. Simon and Schuster, 1985, pp. 243-244.
2. Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Vertigo. Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury. Dell, 1958, pp. 41-42.
3. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Ballantine, 1984, p. 442.
4. Sidney Gottlieb, ed. Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, University of California Press, 1995, p. 56.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Semele e Giove, by Sebastiano Ricci

Marin Marais: Sémélé, Tragédie en Musique
American Bach Soloists Academy Orchestra and American Bach Choir, Jeffrey Thomas, conductor. San Francisco Conservatory of Music, August 14, 2015.

If you know the music of Marin Marais, it is probably through the recordings and performances of Jordi Savall. Savall provided the superb soundtrack of Alain Corneau's 1991 film Tous les matins du monde (All the mornings of the world). The Tous les matins du monde soundtrack and Savall's other Marais recordings primarily feature music for solo viola da gamba or small consorts, and if you're not already familiar with them I can't recommend them too highly.

But there is another side to Marais. In addition to his exquisite music for viola da gamba he also composed large-scale orchestral pieces, including several operas for the Académie Royale de Musique, the court opera of Louis XIV. Marais served as the conductor of the resplendent Académie orchestra for five years in the early 1700s.

When Sémélé received its premiere in April 1709, Marais was at the height of his fame. His opera Alcyone had been a huge success three years previously, and Sémélé was explicitly modelled on the earlier opera. Both operas featured a remarkable instrumental evocation of disaster: in Alcyone, a storm; in Sémélé, an earthquake. And both operas were based on tales from Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In Ovid's telling of the myth of Semele, when Jupiter becomes enamored of the beautiful young daughter of the king of Thebes, Juno becomes jealous. Visiting Semele in disguise, Juno tricks her into extracting the promise of a gift from Jupiter. When he swears an unbreakable oath that he will fulfill her wish, Semele demands that he prove his identity by revealing himself in all his glory. However, as Jupiter knows too well, no mortal can withstand the sight of him unveiled, and Semele dies. In Antoine Houdar de la Motte's libretto, though, Jupiter foils Juno by making Semele immortal; meanwhile, the luckless Theban citizens perish in "a torrent of fire."

But unlike Alcyone, Sémélé was not a success. While in the decades after its premiere Alcyone was revived four times, after its initial run Sémélé remained unperformed for nearly 300 years; it received its first modern performances in France only in 2006. But last week, as part of its Summer Festival & Academy "Versailles and the Parisian Baroque" under the leadership of artistic director Jeffrey Thomas, American Bach Soloists addressed this historical neglect by giving the first-ever performances of Sémélé outside of Europe.

Jeffrey Thomas backstage. Photo by Gene Kosoy, courtesy of ABS

In their program notes Jeff McMillan and Jeffrey Thomas attribute the opera's initial failure to Le Grand Hiver, the bitterly cold winter of 1708-09. The Seine froze, grain shipments were disrupted, and food riots broke out in many cities. While temperatures had moderated by April, the winter wheat crop had been destroyed and bread shortages continued. The general atmosphere of crisis may well have had an inhibitory effect on opera attendance.

Sémélé itself features a communal crisis, brought about not by the forces of nature but by human vanity and pride, a goddess's vindictiveness, and a god's rash promise. This social dimension is perhaps the greatest difference between Marais' version of Ovid's tale and Handel's opera of 35 years later on the same subject. Marais' opera features choruses and dance interludes which involve the entire city of Thebes in the tragedy, whereas Handel's opera keeps the focus entirely on Semele herself.

Another difference for those who know the Handel opera is that Marais' is much more richly scored, with a special emphasis on the low strings. For the Festival performances of Sémélé members of the ABS orchestra were supplemented by the ABS Academy, instrumentalists from their young artists' program. There were five contrabasses on the crowded stage, something I had never seen before, and the reason for their numbers became clear during the climactic earthquake scene.

The nearly 30-strong American Bach Choir and the 50-odd members of the ABS Academy Orchestra created a huge and beautifully intricate sound in the relatively intimate confines of the San Francisco Conservatory's Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. The vocal soloists, all drawn from Academy participants, were uniformly excellent; special mention should be made of Rebecca Myers Hoke as Sémélé, Sara LeMesh as Junon, and Christopher Besch as Jupiter, who handled their virtuosic roles beautifully.

The opera was given in concert—there would have been no room for a staging—but this led to the only issue with this otherwise splendid performance. Following the practice established by his predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marais filled Sémélé with dance numbers. But that meant that the narrative was regularly interrupted for extended instrumental interludes. Perhaps because we were hearing the opera for the first time, one menuet or passepied, delightful as they were initially, soon began to sound like another.

The dance music also brought the drama to a complete halt. In a staged performance the spectacle of the dancers might have allowed us to overlook the resulting dramatic stasis (or in the hands of an inventive choreographer, the dance sequences might have been a way of continuing the drama by other means). But when at the key moment of crisis in Act V when Jupiter is about to reveal himself Marais inserted three dances for the Thebans, the sense of dramatic deflation was palpable. Judicious cuts in the dance music would have made for tauter theater.

But to make this complaint feels unappreciative. To have the opportunity to hear this magnificent and unjustly neglected score was truly a privilege, and Thomas and his musicians are to be commended for performing it so beautifully.

Update 22 August 2015: Here is a small taste of the score from the recording by Le Concert Spirituel conducted by Hervé Niquet. In this duet, Shannon Mercer as Sémélé and Marc Labonnette as her father Cadmus urge Jove to descend; this brief duet occurs right after the Second Air for the Thebans and just before the Third Air for the Thebans and the earthquake scene: