Book Review: Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

wheretheheartbeats-2.jpgJohn Cage was arguably one of the most fascinating and enigmatic composers of experimental music of the 20th century. In this book, Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (, Amazon UK), Kay Larson, art critic and Zen Buddhist, looks at Cage’s life and the relationship between his work and Zen Buddhism.

The book is a sort-of-biography, covering Cage’s early life, his student years, and his first forays into composition. A curious man, Cage had begun delving into the works of the Orient, and the turning point in his life, and in his approach to art, came in 1950, when he met D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese author and lecturer who settled in New York City. His earliest book, which had been published in the United States in 1927, came out in a new edition at that time. Suzuki was to start teaching Zen to all and sundry, and Cage absorbed all that he could.

Cage had been involved in many experimental works, including “happenings” and works with what was considered to be non-musical sounds. In the 1940s, he developed the idea of the prepared piano, where he inserted objects and and between the strings of the instrument to give it a more percussive sound. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (, Amazon UK) was his first major work using this technique.

Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

But the discovery of Zen, along with the I Ching – the Chinese oracle book – which was given to him in 1951 by Christian Wolff, led him to embrace indeterminacy and chance. He was later to use chance operations in all of his compositions.

I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.

His first major work using the I Ching was Music of Changes (, Amazon UK), a four-part work for piano where Cage used chance operations to determine the score.

They proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own passing safely through many perilous situations.

Cage was to develop this procedure over the years, and it became his main method of composition. But he was also a lecturer and author, and some of his writings are more profound than his music. (See, for example, his 1961 collection Silence (, Amazon UK).) In his Lecture on Nothing, he made the very Zen-like statement:

It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.

But Cage was just an intellectual Buddhist. Suzuki didn’t teach meditation, and there is no suggestion that Cage practiced meditation at all. He clearly internalized many Buddhist concepts, but he was not a Buddhist.

It’s hard to pin down John Cage, and this book offers more questions than answers. It ends more or less in the 1960s, and doesn’t discuss much of Cage’s work after that period. One could say that Cage had done all he had to do by then; he had made his statements and developed his technique, and the rest – the next three decades – were merely more of the same.

I have very mixed feelings about John Cage. To me, he was a brilliant man, but he was also a bit of a trickster. In writing, for example, 4’33”, a piece where a pianist sits in front of his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, playing nothing, Cage showed us that the sounds around us can be music. But at the same time, this piece was a provocation, one that was similar to the white paintings of of Robert Rauschenberg from 1951, or Richard Serra’s later black paintings – say nothing. Unfortunately, those sorts of statements are dead ends. But Cage went far beyond that with his later random-generated music, which I find to be of varying interest. Some of these pieces are brilliant, and others sound, well, random.

1333127842-ln1uth25edxiht5n-1.jpegI met John Cage in late December, 1986. At the time, I was living in Paris, and was editing a journal about the I Ching called Hexagrammes. I was very interested in the idea behind the I Ching at the time (something that is no longer important to me), and together with sinologist Cyrille Javary, who directs the Centre Djohi in Paris, I translated several books on the subject, and edited this journal. I had contacted Cage to ask if I could interview him the next time I was in New York, and he graciously accepted.

Cage was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and the smile on his face that you see in the photo on the left, was his default expression. He gave me the feeling of being a true bodhisattva, and everything he said was carefully weighed and to the point.

HexagrammesHe explained his process, which turned out to have little to do with the I Ching itself. He had simply adopted a method of using random numbers to fit into preset conditions for his music. His assistant would run a simulation on a computer that was the equivalent of throwing coins (a method used when consulting the I Ching). He would use these numbers to determine notes, durations, rests, etc., all based on decisions he made for each piece. While I was there, he composed a few notes of one of his number pieces, Music For…. It is described as follows:

This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.

Cage recounted, in detail, how he proceeded, telling me that he had just begun writing the fourth part of the piece. The process seemed sterile to me, but Cage’s goal was to get out of the way of the music, and let the process do everything, without him making any value judgements. (I have a detailed description of the process, in French, in issue number 3 of Hexagrammes. One day, perhaps, I’ll translate it; I’ve lost the original English tapes and transcriptions.)

But in spite of this, Cage was a fascinating man. We shared two favorite authors: James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. It turned out that Cage was to be the first reader in a marathon reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a few days later at the Paula Cooper Galler in Soho, and invited me to attend. Cage read this work – the opening section of the novel – with grace and style, which is no mean feat:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…

No matter what, John Cage was a fascinating man. This book, Where the Heart Beats, tells the story about how Cage discovered the tools he would use for his compositions, and for some of his writing. Like his music or not, he was one of the most important people in experimental music in the 20th century. I grew up listening to some of his music: his earliest string quartet, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Music of Changes. While there’s a lot of his music that I find uninteresting, it’s fair to say that Cage was unique.

Watch an interesting video of John Cage on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, here he performs his percussion work Water Walk. Many laughed, but Cage took this very seriously, and so did the host of the show. It’s quite surprising that someone playing this sort of music was on national television in the United States.

You can also listen to an interesting conversation with John Cage and Morton Feldman.

Was William Shakespeare a Sockpuppet?

I’m sitting in a hotel lounge in a town in the West Midlands of England, and I’ve just done one of my favorite things: seen a play written by William Shakespeare. It was a hot ticket; David Tennant, famous for having incarnated Doctor Who on TV for 6 years, played the venal Richard II, who pays for his conceit and falls from his throne.[1]

While the audience for Shakespeare’s plays is generally diverse, tonight’s crowd has a bit more tattoos and brightly-colored hair than usual. As my girlfriend and I eat a late dessert, people at the tables around us are discussing the play. Some of the younger spectators – mostly female – are delighted that they got David Tennant to sign their programs at the stage door. Some older people discuss the staging. And, in the corner, someone says, “But you know, Shakespeare didn’t write this play.”

David tennant
David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

I’m in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, and the hotel is across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Ask any of the actors in this play, and they’ll most likely shrug off the suggestion that Shakespeare didn’t write this play, or any of the 37 others attributed to him. But for nearly 200 years, people have been trying to prove otherwise.

“He was the author, thou the instrument.” Henry VI Part III

Scholars have long known that Shakespeare didn’t write all of the plays himself; he collaborated with other authors on some of them. John Fletcher, for example, probably co-wrote Henry VII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with Will. Other authors contributed to different plays, such as Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, and even Macbeth. And there are others: a volume just published under the auspices of the RSC ( collects “collaborative plays,” ones that Shakespeare co-authored with fellow playwrights, which are not currently part of the canon, increasing the list of plays that bear Shakespeare’s name.

But the “Shakespeare authorship question” is not about plays where the bard of Stratford co-authored, contributed a scene or two, or performed the task of the script doctor. It’s about trying to prove that Shakespeare could not have written any of the plays or poems that have been published under his name. That some average guy from a sleepy little town, three days’ ride from London, could not have transcended the art of the theater.

What is it about Shakespeare that makes his works so well-loved, yet his identity doubted? Why does an actor of David Tennant’s stature return to the RSC to play the role of a forgotten English king in one of Shakespeare’s lesser dramas? For some people, there comes a time when you get Shakespeare, when you appreciate the subtlety of the stories and the beauty of his language. For others, his plays are just hard-to-understand 400-year old bores. But Shakespeare managed to wed story and text in a way that no other playwright of his time was able to, and the greatness of these works ensured that his reputation would live on.

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s identity have been around for a long time. The main crux of the anti-Stratfordian argument, as it is called, is this: Shakespeare was not educated enough to have written the plays. He was not an aristocrat, and only those at the pinnacle of society could have known the inner workings of the court. He never traveled to the places that figure in the plays, wasn’t a lawyer (some of the plays mention legal issues), had no experience with falconry or tennis (both mentioned in the plays), and, basically, was a commoner. The thought is that Shakespeare was a sockpuppet; his name was used to obscure the hand behind the plays, that of a man who couldn’t admit his authorship for political reasons.

“I will fight with him upon this theme, Until my eyelids will no longer wag.” Hamlet

I met with the doyen of Shakespeare scholars, Stanley Wells, to discuss this question.[2] Professor Wells, together with Paul Edmondson, his collaborator at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, recently published a free ebook, called Shakespeare Bites Back[3], to counter these arguments. He was moved to do this for two main reasons:

“Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous… [and] because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now — one in America, one in England — where you can do courses in authorship.”

Stanley wells
Professor Stanley Wells. Photo Shakespere Birthplace Trust.

Anonymous (IMDB) tells the story of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, one of some 77 candidates for Shakespeare’s ghost writer. (“It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story,” said Wells.) Others include Sir Francis Bacon, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, or even a group of writers, the Elizabethan equivalent of the writers’ room, where today’s TV series are scripted. Even Queen Elizabeth I has been suggested as a potential author of the plays. The names have changed over the centuries, but there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to find possible authors for Shakespeare.

Professor Wells questions why people get involved in these theories. “What is it in their psychology that makes them question received truth?” he asks. “It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. It’s not one to which I have any easy answer.”

But much of the explanation is based on an elitist attitude that a commoner couldn’t have written such great works of art. Anti-Stratfordians claim that Shakespeare wasn’t educated enough to write anything, let alone Hamlet, and that, coming from the “backwater” of Stratford-Upon-Avon, he couldn’t have had the knowledge required to create such intricate works.

“In some cases it’s snobbery,” Professor Wells said, “which is often based on ignorance of the sort of education that you would get in a grammar school in England. Of course we can’t prove that Shakespeare went to the grammar school, because we can’t prove that anybody went to the grammar school… Snobbery, then, is partly behind it, [the idea] that it must have been an aristocrat.”

The lack of records and documentary evidence is one of the main arguments used to bolster the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. Only a handful of documents in his hand exist, and naysayers point to the fact that he spelled his name differently at different times, though English spelling was not normalized at the time. But there are more than enough contemporary mentions of Shakespeare as the author of specific plays and poems, to show that he was well known; that “Shakespeare” as a brand was familiar.

“Do you doubt that?” Hamlet

Questions about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays go back to the early 19th century. This was a time when the status of the author was rising, and when textual criticism had shown that Homer didn’t write The Iliad and The Odyssey, and that the Bible was written not by a single hand, but by a diverse group of people over several centuries. The Romantic concept of the author also led to the idea that an author’s works must reflect his life and experience. William Wordsworth said, regarding the sonnets, that “Shakespeare expresses his own feelings in his own person.”

An 1805 lecture by Joseph Corton Cowell sums this up. Cowell said, “there is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveller, and the associate of the great and learned.” Later skeptics would repeat this idea, choosing a specific favorite as candidate for authorship of the plays, riffing on the idea that, as James Shapiro says in his book Contested Will[4], “Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers or imagined.”

Shapiro points out that, “We’ve inherited many ideas about writing that emerged in the eighteenth century, especially an interest in literature as both an expression and an exploration of the self” As we are more interested in artists’ lives, we try and fit their work into their experience.

Even this engraving of Shakespeare, included in the First Folio edition of his plays, has fueled conspiracy theories. From

If you take this idea at face value, you could say that Shakespeare could only have written about murder – as he did in many plays, such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard II – if he had committed the foul deed himself. And that he could only have written about Titus Andronicus killing and cooking two of Tamora’s sons in meat pies if he, himself, had such culinary experience.

Over time, leading candidates for Shakespeare’s place in history have changed, as some have been sufficiently debunked, and others have fallen out of fashion. Elaborate theories have been constructed based on secret codes, acrostics, and even forgeries, and, more recently, the internet has renewed the ability for anyone to argue this issue. Self-published books abound, championing one potential replacement or another.

In Shakespeare Bites Back, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson point out that, “At the last count 77 individuals had been named. The fact that there are so many of them should be enough in itself to topple the whole house of cards. Every additional name added to the list only serves to demonstrate the absurdity of the entire enterprise. All of these nominations are equally invalid; none has a greater claim than any of the others.”

“Tell truth, and shame the devil.” Henry IV, Part I

But in the end, why does it matter who wrote the plays if they are great works of art? If you go to the theater and enjoy a play, does it matter who wrote it? Professor Wells told me, "It matters a great deal who wrote the plays. Partly because the plays are inevitably the product of the community in which their author was born, similar to the way in which Dickens’s are rooted in London, perhaps not to that extent. It matters because young people shouldn’t be subjected to conspiracy theories as if they were truth.

“It matters because history matters, because truth matters.”

Originally published in issue 15 of The Loop Magazine.

Death to “Hidden Tracks”

BrianEno&JahWobble-1995Spinner.jpg[I wrote this back in 2005. I’m reposting it because, well, I still find it annoying. I came across a CD recently with a hidden track, and it still infuriates me. I wonder: is it becoming less common these days, with more digital music being sold? I’ve come across some hidden tracks in downloads, but not many.]

I don’t know when it started, this idea of including “hidden tracks” on CDs. You know, the kind of track you only hear when you don’t get up and take the CD out of the player at the end; after a minute or two of silence… Like many useless things, or bad jokes, it was cute once. But then you get tired of it.

First of all, hidden tracks aren’t listed on the CD or the liner notes. So you don’t know what they’re called, how long they last, etc. Second, you’ll miss them unless you’re too busy to change a CD after the end. In many cases, you’ll listen to a new CD a dozen times before you notice. And, finally, it’s just obnoxious. If a band’s got something to say, let them say it out loud, not hide it. With digital music, this is even stranger: since you see the actual timing of the last track, you know that it’s either long or that there’s a “hidden” song. But that’s the whole point of this article: with digital music, the track isn’t hidden, so the “cuteness” is gone.

I’ve had enough of hidden tracks: they’re annoying, and I’d really like to be able to hear them in normal conditions. If I’m listening to music on my iPod, then I’ve got to either listen to air or fast-forward. The problem is that bands think it’s cool to add hidden tracks, that it serves some sort of ego-boosting purpose. If they thought about their listeners, then they might think a bit differently…

I’m not going as far as suggesting that someone start a petition against hidden tracks; that would be as foolish as the hidden tracks themselves. But if only musicians realized that they do little more than annoy listeners, maybe they’d stop, and maybe we’d be able to know about all the tracks on their albums.

Wikipedia has a huge list of albums with hidden tracks, and albums with tracks hidden in the pregap, before the first track on the CD.

iTunes Tip: Make Your Own Genres

If you organize your music, movies or TV shows by genre, and use genres to search for them in iTunes, on an iOS device, or on an Apple TV, you should know that you’re not limited to using the genres that Apple gives you. You can create any custom genre just by typing it in the Genre field when tagging files:


Above is a recording of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, and I’ve set the genre as Minimalist. I have other custom genres for my music: Chamber Music, Keyboard, Opera, Organ, Dead (for Grateful Dead and related artists), and many more.

When you click the arrow on the button to the right of the Genre field, you’ll see all the genres that exist in your iTunes library. Some of them won’t be for music; you can see below that many of these genres are for films (Epic, Family) or books (Fiction, Fantasy).


Since you can set your own genres, think about the best way to categorize your media. For music, I have 37 genres, some very specific (Dead, Bach Cantatas), others vague (Rock, Orchestral, etc.). For movies, however, I don’t really pay much attention to genres. I don’t have enough of them that I look for films that way; the same is true for TV shows.

006.pngAnd for apps, I ignore genres. I find it odd that apps even have genres, since there’s no genre view in the Apps library. I would actually find a genre view useful for sorting through apps when I want to decide what to delete.You can actually sort by Genre when viewing apps, as you can see here; at least you’re supposed to be able to do so. When I set the first sort to Genre, nothing changes, and my apps still appear in alphabetical order. You can, however, sort apps by genre when in list view, as below:


With all this in mind, you may find it useful to create custom genres at least for your music, so you can use smart playlists to find more specific selections of music.

iWant: an iTunes Server

As media libraries balloon with tons of music, movies, TV shows, podcasts, audiobooks, and apps, many iTunes users seek ways to organize and consolidate this content in a central location. Instead of each member of a family having content on individual Macs, it would make sense for all of this content to be stored and organized on a single computer.

While iTunes lets you share libraries, play content on another Mac, and even synchronize some content from one iTunes library to another using Home Sharing, the app isn’t designed to work with multiple users. The solution could be a server version of iTunes, which would let households organize all of their family’s media on one computer and allow each user to connect to this Mac to listen to music, view videos, and sync their iOS devices. Here are some ideas for how an iTunes server might work.

Serving Media

If several people in a household have iTunes libraries, they can share content using Home Sharing; Alice can load Bob’s iTunes library and play his content. But the problem arises with syncing to iOS devices. If several people in a family share media, each one needs to copy that media to their computer to be able to sync it to their iOS device(s).

If Apple were to create a server version of iTunes, the app would be similar to the current version of iTunes, managing all of the content on a single computer. It would also function as a conduit for media files so they can be transferred to and from the server and stored in the master library. This would meet the needs of families with large amounts of media files, and eliminate the need to duplicate many of these files on different computers.

iTunes Server would allow each user to set up an account and build a personal library. These accounts would ensure that the server program knows exactly which files each user wants to access. Users’ library files would remain on their individual computers, and they would be able to create their own playlists, add ratings, and keep track of their play counts and last played dates.

When the server is first set up, users would be able to choose which files they see in their copies of iTunes; this would also affect what they can sync to their iOS devices. During initial setup, as media files are uploaded to the server, there would have to be some way of ensuring that there are no duplicates. Once this is done, however, each user should be able to access a “What’s New” playlist to see what other users have purchased from the iTunes Store, or have uploaded to the server, and that are not in their individual libraries. Each time someone buys music from the iTunes Store, rips a new CD, or adds a new video to his or her library, these media files would be copied to the server so everyone in the family can access them.

Users should also be able to choose which types of content gets stored on the server, and which they keep on their own computers. Some people may have favorite podcasts that they know their parents or children don’t care for, and would rather store them locally than on the server. The same may be the case for mobile apps used on an iOS device; there’s no need to share all of your content with the rest of the family if you don’t want to.

iTunes Server would need to sync to iOS devices connected to different client computers. This would require a relatively fast network – 802.11n or faster wireless or ethernet — and, while the first sync to a device may take a long time, subsequent syncs would be much quicker because there is much less content to change. (It would be no slower than using Wi-Fi syncing in iTunes 11.)

iTunes Server could be installed on a Mac or PC, but Apple could also create a device, similar to a Time Capsule, or an AirPort Base Station, containing a hard drive and the iTunes server software on board. (Or even a new Apple TV: if it had a USB port, it could host the server software, and work with a hard drive connected to it, to provide both local and remote access to its content.) This would eliminate the need to keep a computer on all the time. It would also make iTunes server easier to integrate into a network, since it would provide the necessary disk space that may not be available on any individual computer. However, for those with large libraries, it would have to support externally connected USB hard drives. And it should allow for a second hard drive to be connected for backups.

Hurdles to overcome

A number of issues would need to be dealt with in order for this to function smoothly. Initially corralling all the family’s media and ensuring that there are no duplicates — or at least culling duplicate files — would have to be done in a way so that files with slight differences in tags are not duplicated. Also, if one user wishes to change some of the tags for certain files, this could lead to problems locating the files. Ideally, one person would have to be the “librarian” of the media library to ensure that all changes are made correctly so each user’s library remains in sync with the content on the server.

While the number of users who might want an iTunes server may be relatively small, the ubiquity of digital media means that, as time goes by, more people will be tempted by this sort of a solution as their libraries grow. Many iTunes users already store their media on a shared volume or a NAS, but iTunes Server would simplify this process and go much further, allowing each user to have their own individual library rather than access one monolithic shared library.

One final issue remains to be seen: how iTunes Server would work with multiple iTunes accounts. There’s no longer a need to authorize computers for music, but DRM is still applied to movies, TV shows, audiobooks, and apps purchased from the iTunes Store (and many users will have legacy iTunes tracks with DRM). While you can use more than one iTunes Store account on a given computer, iTunes Server shouldn’t require a family to have a single account. If it did, the issues of authorizations could get quite complex.

Will Apple provide an iTunes Server soon? With the ease of use of AirPlay to stream media from iTunes, it seems that iTunes Server could be the perfect missing link not only to provide content to the living room, but also to serve as a central media library for any family. iTunes Server would simplify the use of large media libraries, and more iTunes users are accumulating content which would make such an app useful.

An earlier version of this article appeared on Macworld in 2010.

How About an iPod Pro?

In my latest article for The Loop Magazine, I muse about the possibilities of an iPod pro, a version of Apple’s media player designed for discerning listeners. Check it out here.


Book Review: Orfeo, by Richard Powers; Classical Music and Terror

Orfeo_0.jpgEver since I first discovered Richard Powers’ novel Gold Bug Variations (, Amazon UK), I have been following this author’s work closely. I await each new novel with impatience, as he has one of the most fascinating voices in modern fiction.

Powers often writes novels where science is an important character (and some which is properly science fiction). There are scientists, neurological illnesses, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. But Powers is also clearly a music fan, as Gold Bug Variations shows (partly based on Bach’s Goldberg Variations, partly on Poe’s The Gold Bug). This love for music can be seen in his latest novel, Orfeo. (, Amazon UK, iBooks)

Powers is a master stylist; he is a master of the sentence. Reading a novel by Richard Powers can be like strolling through a museum. Each sentence, each paragraph stands out like a painting, giving a specific view of the world. As I was reading Orfeo, there were hundreds of sentences that I could have underlined, because they were so breathtakingly beautiful. (Well, I don’t underline in books; I can’t deface them. I stick little post-its to mark my favorite passages.) Powers said, in an interview with the Paris Review:

A lot of people who have written about me have written about the architecture and the large-scale design of my work, which is important to me. But it’s really the individual sentence that I work at again and again until it becomes the thing it’s trying to describe. To me, that sense of complete commensurability between form and content at the level of the individual sentence is really what writing is all about. I love to see how much load a sentence can bear. I don’t want it to be a performance. I don’t want it to call attention to itself as a virtuosic set piece. But I do want somehow to do this double-voicing where a sentence can reflect the virtuosity of the human mind. Reflect the multiplicity and richness of a sensibility as it tries to synthesize all these inimical things in the experiential world. What I really like to learn how to do is to build sentences that are equal to mental states.

Orfeo tells the story of an avant-garde composer, Peter Els, who, in his early life, had considered becoming a chemist. Now in his 1970s, Els starts dabbling with biochemistry: home DNA experiments on bacteria. When some federal agents find out, he becomes branded a bio-terrorist, and flees, setting out a journey to exonerate himself while becoming an internet sensation. He even tweets from @TerrorChord; a real Twitter account exists which contains all the tweets that were made in the book. (The author has confirmed to me by email that he is not behind that account.)


The novel alternates between the story of Els in the present, on the run, and the story of his life as a composer. Beginning in the earliest days, when he makes music that only a select few want to listen to, Els tries to find his voice, to find music that will change the world. But, when he is a fugitive, he realizes that he had once:

… believed that music could save a person’s life. He could think of nothing now but all the ways it might get a person killed.

Throughout this trajectory, Powers riffs on music and terror. He focuses closely on a number of works, which feature as plot points for Els’ life:

  • Mozart, Jupiter symphony
  • Mahler, Kindertotenlieder
  • Messiaen, Quatuour pour la fin du temps
  • Cage, Musicircus
  • Reich, Proverb
  • Shostakovich, 5th symphony
  • Lieberman, “Amor mío, si muero y tú no mueres,” from Neruda Songs

Powers’ comments about music are perceptive, and his comments about the way people listen to music even more so. Watching a young woman jog, Els thinks:

A tinny munchkin backbeat trailed from her earbuds in her wake. Els couldn’t make out the flavor of her bliss. This part, these advance spring flowers, the sixty-degree air stolen from paradise, were colored for her by invisible instruments that no one but she could hear.

But much of this novel is also about the irrational reaction to “terror” that has gripped the United States. Els was merely playing apprentice sorcerer with banal bacteria, the kind that we wear on our skin. (The reader learns why at the end of the novel.) But, as Els says:

The nation has been panicked for ten years. And if spreading panic is the measure, every news anchor is a terrorist.

As Els thinks to himself:

You’ve just turned some stupid misunderstanding into a federal offense by acting like a criminal.

The novel must reach a conclusion, and it does, in an unexpected way. But not without raising poignant questions about music itself. Much of this novel asks the question, “Why music?” What does music do for us; why do we react in the ways we do. Els applauds the vast catalog of music that people can call up at will on portable devices, and he later asks the question, “How did music trick the body into thinking it had a soul.”

There is no answer to this question, but if you care about music, you’ll want to read Orfeo. Even if you don’t like classical music, you’ll find a taut thriller, interspersed with reflections on art. Either way, this is a page-turner that explores the place of art in our lives.

As Powers says, “Life is an escaped experiment, say the artists, and the only real safety is death.”

Once more with feeling…

P.S.: If you’re a science fiction reader, Richard Powers’ Genie, a Kindle Single (, Amazon UK), is one of the most moving first contact stories I’ve read. It is also somewhat related to the theme of Orfeo…

Review: Tooway Satellite Broadband from Avonline

Update, April 4, 2014: Tooway satellite performance has degraded substantially in recent weeks. At peak times, I’m lucky to get 50 K/sec downloads. It seems that they have way too many users, and their network is saturated. The slowdowns I mention in the article, such as from the iTunes Store, have become the norm, in spite of Tooway’s speed tests showing that I have more than 10 Mbps downloads.

The satellite provider, Avonline, is switching me to another service, Avanti, which has only been available for a short time. I’ll post a review of that service soon. But if you’re considering Tooway, I strongly recommend you don’t go that route based on my recent experience.

Update, September 25, 2014: I’m seeing the same problems as described above with the Avanti satellite service. Today, I was getting 15 Mbps in a speed test directly with Avanti, but only a few K/sec downloading content from the Mac App Store. On the same Mac, I get about 3 Mbps on my DSL connection. I’ll be canceling this service as soon as I can; unless you can’t get any DSL, you won’t be satisfied with this satellite internet service.

In a Macworld article that was published today, I describe the trials and tribulations of getting a decent level of internet access at The Barn. I moved to this nearly-rural property in December; it’s on the edge of a village a few miles from Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a lovely area to live, but it’s poorly served by both broadband and mobile phone providers.

The barn

The Macworld article discusses the overall issues involved, but I wanted to write more specifically about the satellite broadband service I’m using, because I’ve had a number of queries about it from others in my situation.

001.pngtooway is a satellite internet provider which offers “high speed internet” to 55 countries in Europe, north Africa and the Middle East. Using the Eutelsat KA-SAT satellite, this company provides broadband access at “up to 20 Mbps,” which is sold through a network of distributors. There are several in the UK, and I chose Avonline Broadband, because their offer corresponded best to what I needed.

I remember early satellite internet which used a combination of a satellite dish for downloads and dial-up internet for uploads, but the technology has improved. Satellite internet now uses a two-way satellite dish, which has a diameter of 77 cm. As long as you are in line of sight to the satellite, you can get internet access just about anywhere.

Avonline sent a technician to install the satellite dish. Given the configuration of The Barn, it was easy to install, and isn’t very visible. A cable runs along the outside of the house and enters my office, which is where I have the satellite modem. I connect this, in turn, to an AirPort Extreme base station, and use an AirPort Express on the ground floor of my home to extend the network. Since I live in a stone house, wi-fi doesn’t propagate very well, and I need the extra boost downstairs.

Satellite dish

As these companies say, you can get “up to 20 Mbps.” As with all internet providers, the theoretical maximum speed is not something you will see all the time, but you will get that speed occasionally. I have seen speeds up to about 21.5 Mbps in the morning, but later in the day, speeds drop, often to around 2 Mbps in the evening. And that’s the problem with this satellite internet: when I want to download a movie, I need to think ahead. Last Saturday evening, I wanted to rent a movie from the iTunes Store. I initiated the rental, and my Apple TV told me it would take about 5 hours. So I stopped, and downloaded the movie the following afternoon.

Peak periods, as I have seen, tend to be from 6 pm on weekdays, and much of the weekend. So getting faster speeds then is a problem. However, one advantage of Avonline’s offer is unlimited downloads from 11 pm to 7 am. I use this to download large app updates, movie rentals, etc., without affecting my quota. Because that’s another problem with satellite internet: you can’t download all you want. My plan has a 50 GB limit per month (not counting the unlimited period), but other plans offer less. The first month, I used up data very quickly, and found that my “smart” TV was sucking data, in small amounts, all day long. When I took it off the network, my data usage dropped a lot.

So you need to juggle two variables: speed, which can change from blisteringly fast to a trickle during the day, and a quota. With 50 GB, I can safely download the updates and apps that I need to do my work, and still have room for a movie or two. But I check my data usage every few days to make sure I’m not getting close to the limit. There’s a page I can visit to check the status of my modem, as well as my data usage. It’s not presented in numerical form, unfortunately, but in seven steps, each corresponding to 1/7 of the total data allowance for the month. (In my case, each square represents about 7 GB. In the example below, I’m one week from the end of the month, so I have no worries about downloads over the next seven days.)


As you can see above, my “default” speed is 20000 kbps down, and 6000 kbps up. While download speeds vary a lot, I’ve found that the 6 Mbps upload speed is pretty stable. I’ve never had uploads that fast in the past, and, while I don’t often need to upload a lot of data, it’s good to know that I can when I want to. (If you have satellite internet already, read my Macworld article for some tips about how to best optimize your download limit.)

The other main issue with satellite internet is latency: the time it takes for a request to be received and acknowledged. With satellite internet, this is between 700 and 800 ms, whereas with DSL, I get about 30-35 ms. Because of this, web pages load very slowly, and things like checking email can take longer than they do with normal broadband. But this only affects the first connection, so once a web page starts loading, any images on it do download quickly, at least when the speed is high enough.

However, it seems that tooway throttles some internet services. When I couldn’t download that movie to my Apple TV last Saturday, I stopped the download, went to my computer, and ran a speed test. I got about 6 Mbps downloads, which was more than enough to stream a movie from the iTunes Store. I’ve seen other times when downloading music from the iTunes Store where speeds were slow, and given my experience with the iTunes Store, it’s a lot more likely that this is the satellite provider throttling access than Apple’s servers being slow.

As for Avonline, they’ve been good enough, but not great. The technician who installed the satellite dish was excellent, and very helpful in explaining to me how the system works, and how to best use it. Customer support has been iffy: I’ve only had to call them a few times, but the wait can be very long. I’ve sent some questions by email, and have gotten replies to some, and others have been ignored. On the other hand, they were very helpful in the first few weeks, when I couldn’t figure out how I had used so much data. The support person suggested that I take my TV off the network – I’ve switched it to the DSL – and that make a huge difference in usage.

Avonline offers a “technology guarantee,” saying that if fiber is installed, you can cancel your contract with 30 days’ notice. I have a 12-month contract to start with, and it’s good to know that I’m not locked in should the telecom companies decide that areas like mine deserve better internet access.

All in all, I’d rather not have had to choose satellite internet. The speeds are too variable, and the fact that I have a monthly quota is annoying. But I don’t have much choice: the DSL I got (as a backup, and to use when I’m just surfing the web) is 2 Mbps, far too slow to download 1 GB updates to iOS, or OS X betas, which can be 4-5 GB. There are currently no plans to improve the broadband where I live, so I’m stuck for now.

Satellite internet is the internet of last resort, and its price and quality make it something you don’t really like. I had 15 Mbps DSL in York, before moving here, at less than half the price. But it’s better than nothing, and it’s a lot better than the overpriced DSL access I get here. (I pay the same amount for my DSL access here as in York, for 1/7 the speed.) And I get to live in a beautiful barn, in a lovely area. Life is made of compromises.

PR Done Wrong

As a journalist, I get lots of pitches from PR people. Some people pitch me to talk about their products on Macworld, for whom I write as a freelancer. Others contact me to pitch me on topics for this blog. In some cases, I actually follow through on the pitches (including one which has led to a guest on next week’s The Committed podcast). But most pitches go right into the bit bucket, because they’re just wrong.

I wrote about how music PR people often get things very wrong, and most don’t really consider anything other than simply getting a journalist to reply. This is short-sighted, because every failure leads to less attention in the future. It doesn’t take much to get a journalist to ignore a PR person permantently.

In the past week, two of my Macworld colleagues have posted interesting thoughts on bad PR. I thought it would be useful to link to them, so any PR people who read this might try and do just a bit better.

Chris Breen gives some very simple guidelines in an article on his blog, To get it right, don’t get it wrong. Chris, as a Macworld editor, gets far more pitches than me, and is more ruthless than I am. His Do and Don’t tips should be part of PR 101; but, unfortunately, they aren’t, and many PR people make the same mistakes.

Dan Frakes, another Macworld editor, has been tweeting “PR tips” for a while, and he has collected them here. Dan has been writing these for more than five years, and each one is inspired by real events; pitches he’s received or other PR errors he’s encountered in his work. Again, these are PR 101, but it shows how many tips PR people need.

I’ve encountered many of the problems that Chris and Dan mention, and it’s frustrating to see them all collected in this way. If you do PR, or if you’re working for a company that has a PR firm handling your products, you’d do well to read these two pages, to know what you should do and should avoid. Because you’ll never get coverage if you irk journalists.

Theater Review: Coriolanus, by the Donmar Warehouse

Last night, I saw Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as part of the NT Live series of plays broadcast to cinemas. Playing at the tiny Donmar Warehouse in London – a mere 251 seats – this was the only way to get to see this production. The main draw was the lead actor, Tom Hiddleston; while he was excellent, the rest of the cast was also up to his level.

The Company of Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson.jpg

Coriolanus is set in a time of strife. Romans are demonstrating because they lack food, and the leaders have been withholding stores of grain. They blame Caius Martius, a Roman general, for this. Caius Martius critizes them, but when he hears that a Volscian army is approaching Rome, he leaves to fight the Volscians in their city of Corioles. He returns, after defeating the Volscians, and his deeds earn him respect. He is given the agnomen of Coriolanus, and is encouraged to run for consul.

He wins, but the people doubt his honesty in attracting their votes. He eventually gets banished from Rome by the same people who want him to be consul. Leaving Rome, he heads to the Volscian capital of Antium, where he seeks out their leader, Aufidius, and plots to attack Rome. This being more or less a tragedy, there is a tragic ending.

Director Josie Rourke manages to take this play about war and dissension and squeeze it into a small space. The stage of the Donmar is tiny, and the set was sparse. There was a wall behind the stage, where people wrote graffiti, and a ladder leading up from the stage, as you can see above. Other than that, the only elements of staging were the occasional chairs and lecterns that the cast brought out. During parts of the play, the cast sat against the wall in silence, as other actors were “on stage.”

Hiddleston is a riveting Coriolanus. He is cold and calculating, violent and bloody. But he nevertheless remains a flawed human. He goes through many changes, some self-imposed, others the result of a manipulating mother. He never manages to free himself from his mother, however, which leads to his tragic end. The only area I felt he was weak was in showing his disdain for the people of Rome. He chose a snickering disdain, which didn’t feel totally sincere; it didn’t feel like the type of disdain we see from politicians, where contempt is hidden behind a veneer of caring.

Tom Hiddleston Caius Martius Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson 4

While some plays with stars tend to be imbalanced (see my recent article Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?), this Coriolanus has a cast that doesn’t let Hiddleston steal the show. Mark Gatiss is excellent as the “humorous patrician” Menenius, and Deborah Findlay was a strong and powerful Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother). I felt that Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia was a bit wishy-washy; at times she was absent, and at others she overacted. But the rest of the cast was excellent and there were few weak moments.

The NT Live production, however, had some problems. During the first part of the play – up until the intermission – the sound was iffy. At times, it was hard to hear what was being said; when people were talking softly, or when they were very loud. It didn’t seem as though the actors were wearing microphones, and the miking was not excellent. Hiddleston seemed to be acting for the cinema, not the stage; he didn’t project his voice well enough. This improved in the second half, though I could not make out Aufidius’ final growling words at all. And the music which was used to punctuate scenes was annoying. I’ve heard this sort of banal, generic electro-pop in several theatrical productions, and it adds nothing to the play; it just seems out of character. I also found a bit disturbing the fight sequence between Caius Martius and Aufidus early in the play. There was a handheld camera very close to the actors, that seemed to break the “invisible wall” between the stage and the audience. I felt that I was too close to the action; zooming one of the cameras off-stage would have been fine. And the handheld was very shaky; this could have been avoided with a steadicam. I wonder how the spectators in the theater felt about that intrusive camera.

(We could also do without some of the interstitial chatter, that just wastes time, and takes audience out of the atmosphere of the play. I’m glad that The Guardian finally reacted to the bogus “bonus” features in NT Live productions.)

Near the end of the play, when Coriolanus stands at the corner of the stage as his mother, wife and son beg him to spare Rome, Hiddleston manages to visibly tear up. This is no mean feat, and this tearful remorse says a lot about this violent man who has decided that peace is the better choice.

“Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you: all the swords
In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace.”

Rourke makes a lot of cuts at this point, moving directly to the final scene, where Coriolanus tells Aufidius of his agreement to save Rome, and then to the denouement of the play, and of Coriolanus’ fate. For those unfamiliar with the play, this transition might have been a bit jarring and confusing, since it suggests that Coriolanus met his mother, wife and child in Antium, but that it was indeed just outside of Rome where he had the long conversation with them. Here and elsewhere, the spatial element of the production made it hard to know where events were taking place. Some more visual cues might have helped.

Nevertheless, this was a powerful, raw production of a play that should be better known. Coriolanus as a character presents many traits that we can relate to, and the protest at the beginning of the play is, unfortunately, a familiar element in today’s society. The cast earned a standing ovation from the theater’s audience, deservedly so. I would very much like to have seen this live.

Note: For a different take on Coriolanus, see this excellent film with Gerard Butler and Ralph Fiennes. (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)