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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rx for the Anchoring Bias in Music

By superior craft and musicianship, Paradise Is There, Natalie Merchant’s recent remake of her best-selling album, Tigerlily, has freed many of her listeners from their hard cognitive wiring to the earlier recording. That is no mean feat considering the infectious power and popularity of Tigerlily—a commercial and artistic success that two decades ago enthralled several million listeners.  

Put another way, Paradise has released us from many of the cognitive “anchors” that accompanied the earlier recording.  Once accepted and ensconced, anchors lock in normative elements and expectations for discourse, discussions, negotiations, and, yes, music. Tough to dislodge, they can bias and blind us to alternatives. (Read about anchoring biases here).
In music, listeners who internalize a favorite recording or performance adopt specific cognitive and emotional expectations. That can bring great joy and appreciation of musical nuances. It can also blind listeners to other interpretations, other performances.

Pull up the Roots
Through musicality and virtuosity, Paradise pulls up more than a few of Tigerlily’s entrenched anchors.  Recorded twenty years later, the remake is predominantly acoustic. A string quartet, acoustic bass, piano, accordion, and tenor sax complement uncommonly nuanced vocals. Merchant’s voice—an unselfish vehicle for her enduring songs—radiates extreme comfort in its own skin. 

An “old soul” when she crafted those songs in her early thirties, Merchant wrote them for adults (herself included). The songs endure as explorations of love and loss, chance and fate, obstacles and personal growth, shades of grey. Her ode to grey (my own personal favorite)—I May Know the Word— has the pacing and gravitas of a late Beethoven adagio. Quite an accomplishment for a thirty-year old who had just parted company with a progressive rock band (10,000 Maniacs). 

A new recording, of course, comes with a new set of anchors. Will I be up to task if Natalie Merchant unveils a third rendition some time down the road? My one request: No need to wait twenty years, but please, Natalie, cut me some slack in savoring my share of Paradise.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Sanctimonious Workplace Posters from the 60s

"Motivational products don't work. But our Demotivator products don't work even better," insist the pundits at The company is best known for its "demotivational" posters, like the signature one depicted above. 


Two weeks ago in my hometown, I chanced upon four framed sixties-era workplace posters appropriately well-hung in a cafe bathroom. How couldn't   the wags at not find the sanctimonious quartet below inspirational and motivational?



Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fooled by Ambiguity and the Unexpected in Amherst, Massachusetts

Compared with their brethren in more criminally poignant zip codes, the Amherst, Massachusetts police still have their challenges. Like periodically solving dubious problems for high-maintenance residents. Judging by the four local newspaper* clippings below, some Amherstites would do well to embrace ambiguity and think twice about attributing sinister causes to unexpected events. 

*from The Daily Hampshire Gazette

Item #1:

Item #2:

Item #3:

Item #4:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Marketing at the Clark: Nudes from the Prado in Williamstown, Massachusetts Evoke Boyhood Reveries

Who can blame The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts—arguably one of America’s elite small museums—for titillation via a mailer that trumpets:

Nudes from the Prado. A must-see exhibition, exclusively at the Clark!

And on the reverse side of the envelope just above my name:

  .  .  .  a sensuous exhibition of masterpieces . . .

Undressing the envelope for details revealed more:

Included in this sensuous exhibition are major paintings by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacopo Tintoretto, Diego Velázquez, Jan Brueghel the Elder, Guercino, Nicolas Poussin, Luca Giordano, Guido Reni, Jusepe de Ribera, and others. 

Delightful, I thought, but where in the bejesus was Goya?

 Nobody (including Quixote) trained a shaper lance on the consummately repressed culture that spawned the Inquisition and its descendant—ultraconservative Catholicism with feeling. And who but Goya—at the turn of the 19th century no less—would have spawned La Maja Desnuda and her scantily clothed alter ego, La Maja Vesta. By all accounts, he painted them for his friend and Spain’s prime minster, Manuel de Godoy, who displayed them discretely in a dedicated room with other “sensuous masterpieces.” More details here.

I first encountered La Maya in 1961 as an eleven year-old stamp collector. Spain had issued the first Majas in a centennial celebration of Goya in 1930 in the final years of the monarchy. It had hoped to draw revenues through her limited distribution targeted to stamp collectors. But some of the Majas did escape into the mails—with less than pacific results.  More philately here

As an 11-year-old lad, the Maja rocked my world, immediately occupying a place of honor beside several subequatorial issues of National Geographic. For moral support, I draw on the late Robert Hughes via his biography of Goya:

Compared with the classical and idealized nudes of the Renaissance, this is a sexy and straightforward girl, and her level gaze, which both entices and sizes up the (male) viewer, has filled more than one art critic—and, presumably, many more than one visitor to the Prado—with feelings of inadequacy verging on alarm. It is, in effect, a Spanish Olympia, and it rouses the same kind of feelings that are provoked by Manet’s great painting in all its sharp and independent sexuality.

Next up, a supreme test for a 65-year-old:

Can a Goya-less, Maja-less exhibit at The Clark work for me?