Sunday, May 27, 2012

Federico Mompou: Música Callada

Musica Callada - Herbert Henck

La noche sosegada
en par de los levantes de la aurora,
la música callada,
la soledad sonora,
la cena que recrea y enamora. (San Juan de la Cruz, "Cántico Espiritual")

The tranquil night
at the time of the rising dawn,
the silent music,
the resonant solitude,
the repast that refreshes, and deepens love. (St. John of the Cross, "Spiritual Song")
Música Callada ("Silent music") is a collection of 28 short piano pieces by the Catalan composer Federico (Frederic) Mompou. Although the pieces make use of a modern and occasionally dissonant harmonic language, they create an atmosphere of stillness and inwardness. And although they were published over a 15-year-period from 1959 to 1974, they are remarkably unified in style and feeling.

Most of the pieces are headed by a marking which indicates its intended emotional affect and performance approach; these include lento (slow, applied to nearly half of the works), afflito e penoso (melancholy and painful), cantabile (singing), placide, tranquilo, and calme (sometimes très calme). Here is Federico Mompou performing the first piece from Book 1, which is marked angelico (angelic):

As the pianist Herbert Henck points out in the notes to his recording of Música Callada (ECM 1523), the pieces "seemed to continue beyond their conclusion as the composer—at least in the first two books of the cycle—consistently omitted the traditional double bar at the end. Ties on the final notes led symbolically into emptiness, meaning that the pedalled sounds should be...fading and losing themselves in the instrument and the surrounding space."

Mompou's sound-world evokes Erik Satie (especially his Gymnopédies and Gnossienes) and Debussy, whose music he encountered when he lived in Paris both before and after World War I. But at the same time Mompou's music conveys a deeply personal sensibility, especially when these quiet, contemplative and reflective pieces are heard as a series.

I'm aware of three complete recordings of Música Callada. Mompou himself recorded it in 1974, at the time that Book 4 was published (Ensayo 9716). While I haven't heard this disc, judging by the performance above Mompou plays these pieces expressively, often slowing or playing slightly behind the established tempo. Herbert Henck's traversal of the series is mentioned above; his approach is somewhat more rhythmically regular (and somewhat quicker) than the composer's, but for me that cooler, more "objective" approach also works well. There is also a new recording by Jenny Lin (Steinway & Sons 30004) that has received high praise; again I haven't heard it, but it seems to offer an interpretation closer to the composer's own, with modern sound quality.

Coda: Mompou himself was apparently a shy, reticent and gentle man. So it was a shock to discover that he was (initially, at least) a supporter of Franco. Since it seems unlikely that Mompou identified closely with either Franco's politics or his martial values, I can only assume that the devout Mompou saw Franco as a defender of the Catholic Church. I can attest, though, that you do not have to be a devout person to be powerfully affected by this profound, introspective music. As Mompou wrote of Música Callada, "This music is silent because it is heard in one’s inner self...It is my desire that this music should bring us closer to the warmth of life, and the expression of the human heart, that is always the same and yet constantly changing."

For the complete text in Spanish and English of "Cántico Espiritual," see joshuabocanegra.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


I confess to approaching Anubhav Sinha's Ra.One (2011) with dread. It's exactly the kind of movie I usually avoid, filled with two-dimensional characters, chases, explosions, and special effects.

But I have to question my own aversion to these kinds of movies. After all, thrills, chases, and special effects have been important aspects of cinema since its invention. The Lumière Brothers' L'Arrivée d'un Train à la Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station, 1895) reportedly had audiences scrambling to get out of the way of a train that appeared to be about to burst through the screen and crush them:

Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) was filled with chases, explosions, and shootouts, and ended with a bandit pointing a gun at the audience—and firing. George Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) showed intrepid adventurers entering a capsule, being fired at the moon from a giant cannon, striking the Man in the Moon in the eye, and emerging to discover themselves in a fantastical landscape, surrounded by moon creatures who disappeared in puffs of smoke when struck.

So Ra.One, despite its high-tech gloss, is just continuing a time-honored tradition that dates from cinema's beginnings. But I have discovered that my tolerance for loud, cartoonish movies has diminished pretty drastically since my teens, and the advance word on Ra.One from other Bollybloggers and reviewers was not good. Plus I had some cognitive dissonance to overcome: didn't Shah Rukh mock the clichés of superhero and action movies in Om Shanti Om (2007) and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (A Match Made In Heaven, 2009)? And now here he was, starring in the most expensive special-effects extravaganza ever produced in India.

But despite my dread, I actually found Ra.One to be entertaining for the most part—as long as I remembered that, like a soccer ball aimed at a crotch, the movie is aimed squarely at 12-year-old boys. On the evidence of my enjoyment of (most of) Ra.One, a 12-year-old boy still exists somewhere deep inside me. (I can hear my partner thinking, "Not so deep!")

Even my inner 12-year-old, though, could see that Ra.One is a mashup of Krrish (2006), Spiderman (2002), The Matrix (1999), Speed (1994), Terminator 2 (1991), and Tron (1982). And I could identify the borrowings even though I haven't even seen half of those movies.

I'm not going to worry about spoilers, on the assumption that 99% of the people who are interested in seeing Ra.One have managed to see it already, and everyone else has heard so much about it from the film's relentless year-long promotional campaign that I won't be giving anything away. If you somehow fall outside those two categories, you have been forewarned.

And if you've been living on another planet for the past year and don't know the plot of Ra.One, Shah Rukh plays Shekhar, a dorky, soft-hearted computer-game designer who lives in London with his wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) and 12-year-old son Prateek (Armaan Verma), who is at the stage where he finds everything his father does to be embarrassing. In Prateek's defense, most of what Shekhar does is embarrassing, like a really terrible Michael Jackson impersonation.

At Prateek's urging Shekhar designs a game where the villain, Ra.One (= Raavan, the multi-headed demon king who abducts Sita in the Ramayana) is stronger than the hero G.One (= jeevan, soul/life force). On the night of the game's launch things go haywire, and Ra.One enters the real world in the guise of one of the members of the design team, Akashi (Tom Wu). Looking for revenge against "Lucifer" (Prateek's gaming name), Ra.One kills Akashi and Shekhar. But G.One (Shah Rukh again) follows Ra.One into the real world to protect Prateek and Sonia and defeat the villain, even though there is only a "0.01%" chance that he can do so. Many chase/fight scenes later, G.One, Prateek, and Ra.One meet in a final confrontation.

As Ra.One's second incarnation, Arjun Rampal is an excellent villain (as he also proved in OSO, so the jokes about him being typecast as a robot seem unfair). Kareena mostly just has to look astonished, which she manages to do convincingly enough. There's an intriguing moment midway through the film where Ra.One takes over Sonia's personality, and some Evil Mom possibilities are raised, but all too quickly she returns to normal. Apart from this brief mind-meld, Ra.One never takes Sonia hostage, as you might expect from the Ra.One-Raavan / Sonia-Sita parallels. We're even set up for this development by Prateek's early dream sequence where a damsel (Priyanka Chopra) is held hostage by Khal Nayak (Sanjay Dutt reprising his iconic 1993 role)—but it never happens.

The many chase and fight scenes are choreographed and filmed pretty effectively, although there are a few visual and narrative incoherencies (probably unavoidable in a movie on this scale). There are also lots of slow-motion shots of glass shattering and cars flying towards the camera, which were pretty clearly intended for viewers watching the movie in its 3D theatrical version. (In typical action-movie fashion, despite all the explosions, fires, smashed cars and collapsing buildings, no bystanders are ever hurt.)

There is one highly disturbing moment at the end of the runaway train sequence, which manages to combine images that suggest the famous train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895, and both the 9/11 World Trade Center and 26/11 Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus attacks. It's a jarring but momentary acknowledgment of the real real world, the one in which terrible things can happen, there are no special effects, and people actually get injured and killed.

But this moment aside, the movie rarely loses sight of its target demographic. There are so many blows to crotches and jokes about penises that I stopped counting, Kareena wears tear-away dresses not once but twice, and the song "Criminal" intercuts video game action and dancers in spangled hot pants making their booties go bop, bop, bop—all clearly intended to appeal to adolescent male sensibilities. I enjoyed enough of Ra.One to keep watching, but your response will vary, I think, depending on the degree to which you share (or at least are willing to tolerate) those sensibilities. For some, that will quite understandably be not at all.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


As I watched Prakash Jha's Raajneeti (Politics, 2010), I began to experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Bhanu Pratap (Jahangir Khan), the stricken patriarch of a powerful political family, designates his younger brother Chandra (Chetan Pandit) as the party's new leader. Bhanu's decision to bypass his son Veerendra (Manoj Bajpai), who has his own ambitions for party leadership, sets off an intra-family war.

Shortly afterwards Chandra is shot in an assassination attempt. His sons Prithviraj (Arjun Rampal) and Samar (Ranbir Kapoor) rush to the hospital to discover that their father's bodyguards have all disappeared. When a corrupt police inspector belatedly shows up, it's clear that he has conspired with Chandra's enemies to give them the opportunity to finish him off. When Prithvi responds angrily, the inspector blusters and throws his weight around.

Sound familiar? It will if you've ever seen The Godfather (1972). Once I'd made that connection, it became clear that Raajneeti was consciously modelled on the earlier film. There's the youngest son (Samar/Michael Corleone (Al Pacino)), who has distanced himself from the family but finds himself being drawn back into the ruthless and violent struggle for power. There's his outsider girlfriend (Sarah (Sarah Thompson)/Kay (Diane Keaton)), who finds herself increasingly alienated as the son is drawn deeper into the family concerns. There's the rash, charismatic older brother (Prithvi/Sonny (James Caan)), who ultimately goes off the rails, and the wise consigliere (Brij Gopal (Nana Patekar)/Tom (Robert Duvall)), who strategizes behind the scenes.

Speaking of scenes, in addition to the one at the hospital there are several others that have parallels in The Godfather: there are very similar car-bombings, betrayals, and bloody revenge killings. There's even a version of the horse-head scene! Only, the Raajneeti versions have nowhere near the impact of the originals. The hospital scene is a case in point: in The Godfather, it's an incredibly suspenseful set piece, and also the moment when Michael makes his final, fateful choice to embrace his role in the family. In Jha's film the scene's suspense is thrown away, and Samar's choice is made later.

The pleasures of watching the all-star cast—which also features Ajay Devgn as Veerendra's ally (and unbeknownst to (almost) everyone, Prithvi's and Samar's half-brother) Sooraj, a wooden Katrina Kaif as Indu Pratap/Sonia Gandhi, and (too briefly) Naseeruddin Shah—don't compensate for Raajneeti's weaknesses of script and direction. Those weaknesses become glaringly apparent in the second half. Where The Godfather is brilliantly structured (it is framed by a wedding, a funeral and a baptism) and sustained, Raajneeti degenerates into violent chaos, with characters getting rubbed out right and left. No matter how brutal the actions Michael Corleone must take, he somehow never forfeits our interest or sympathy; the same can't be said for Prithvi or Samar. There are also signs of crude re-editing, probably because the movie was running long: two utterly gratuitous song numbers are abruptly truncated after a few seconds.

Anyway, I was feeling clever for recognizing the Raajneeti - Godfather connection, only to discover afterwards that it was being touted by Jha himself in the film's pre-release publicity, and has been mentioned in virtually every single Raajneeti article and review since (along with parallels to the Mahabharata and the Congress Party). So much for my unique insight.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow

"...[System 1 is] that stranger in you, which may be in control of much of what you do, although you rarely have a glimpse of it."
—Daniel Kahneman 

Daniel Kahneman, along with his partner Amos Tversky, economist Richard Thaler and other collaborators, revolutionized the understanding of how we make choices. Kahneman sought to explain observed departures from the pure rationality assumed by economic theory, and quickly discovered that such departures are the norm rather than the exception.

As an example, you are offered a gamble on a single coin toss. If the coin comes up heads, you lose $100. If it comes up tails, you win $125. Would you accept the gamble? Most people say no. Their aversion to a loss of $100 is greater than their attraction to the prospect of winning $125. The average person requires a potential gain of around three times the potential loss in order to be induced to take this gamble.

So, you might say, in general people don't like to take risks. Consider, though, the next pair of options:
Option A: You lose $50 for sure.
Option B: On a single coin toss, if it comes up heads you lose $100; if it comes up tails, you lose nothing.
Which option would you choose? For many people, it's Option B, even though the potential downside is twice as great as that of Option A. When faced with two possibilities, both bad, people become much more willing to take risks. Kahneman and Tversky developed a theory, called "prospect theory," to explain these apparently contradictory results, an innovation for which Kahneman was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (Tversky died in 1996, and the Nobel is not awarded posthumously).

Kahneman's recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) is a survey of his life's work, and it's fascinating stuff. He begins by describing the evidence that there are two modes of thought that we each employ. What Kahneman calls "System 1" is automatic and quick, and is engaged for things like emotional responses, intuitions, snap judgments, or well-practiced associations; "System 2" is more analytical, rational, and conscious, and is engaged for things like calculation or logical argument.

Because engagement of System 2 is effortful, it is often bypassed, and so doesn't provide a check on System 1. Here's an example:
If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long will it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets? 
For many people the first answer that comes to mind is 100 minutes. But the correct answer is five minutes: it takes each machine five minutes to make one widget, so 100 machines will take five minutes to produce one widget each, for a total of 100 widgets. The correct answer, five minutes, is a System 2 response; the quick but incorrect response, 100 minutes, is a System 1 response.

Experimenters gave a test that included this problem and two others to Princeton students, and found that 90% of the students made an error on at least one problem. (The other two problems:
A bat and ball together cost $1.10, and the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
In a pond there is a patch of lily pads that doubles in size every day. If it takes 48 days for the patch to entirely cover the pond, how long would it take to cover half the pond? 
Answers given below.)

But the error rate on this test plunged from 90% to 35% when the problems were presented in a hard-to-read font. Counterintuitively, the harder the problems were to read, the easier they were to answer correctly. The reason? The hard-to-read font forced the students to concentrate, engaging System 2, which is more analytical.

The problem is that it is relatively difficult to engage System 2. We often operate on System 1, and while sometimes the consequences are beneficial—we can sense danger very quickly, for example—sometimes they are dire. As Kahneman writes, "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth." Even more frightening,
"...[Y]ou do not even have to repeat the entire statement of a fact or idea to make it appear true. People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase 'the body temperature of a chicken' were more likely to accept as true the statement that 'the body temperature of a chicken is 144 degrees' (or any other arbitrary number). The familiarity of one phrase in the statement sufficed to make the whole statement feel familiar, and therefore true." (p. 62)
Any resemblance to recent political discourse is entirely intentional on the part of people who know that a repeated lie will continue to be believed even after a factual rebuttal.

It's the primacy of System 1 as our typical mode of thought that leads to phenomena such as:
  • Anchoring and priming, where random suggestions can affect our estimates and judgments; 
  • Formulation and framing effects, where we can come to diametrically opposed decisions depending on how a choice is presented to us; 
  • The Law of Small Numbers, where we wildly overestimate how representative small samples can be; and 
  • What You See Is All There Is, where we focus on the immediate details of a problem and ignore crucial information from its larger context.
If you are at all concerned with how your decisions can be influenced by elements outside your consciousness and your control, I strongly recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow. But it's also one of the most entertaining books I've read in the past year, filled with puzzles, problems, and brain teasers. You'll never look at apparently simple choices in the same way again—and that's a good thing.


The ball costs five cents, not ten cents; the lake would be half-covered in 47 days, not 24 days