An event of the soul

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Although billed as separate concerts, the Berlin Philharmonic's two Proms this year formed a single musical gesture. Friday's Beethoven and Mahler glanced ahead to Saturday's Wagner and Strauss; but what of Berg, Schoenberg and Webern - the second-half cuckoos in the musical nest? Rattle urged his audience to treat these Second Viennese experiments as, "Mahler's imaginary Eleventh Symphony", changing not only the way we listened, but the nature of the music itself.

Restored from wilful contrarian angst to a place within the continuum of the German musical tradition, the orchestral colours so often suppressed in this repertoire emerged, timidly at first in Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, but with increasing conviction through Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra and finally Berg's autobiographically charged Three Orchestral Pieces.

The quality of the hush in the Royal Albert Hall - disappointingly fragile this season - was testimony to the active listening taking place, as we re-tuned our ears and expectations of this "difficult" music. The enormous orchestral forces (including quintuple woodwind and six horns) spoke of the textural generosity of Schoenberg's early music - unmoored from symphonic structure, but not yet pledged to the ascetic self-denial of 12-tone serialism, "an ever-changing, unbroken succession of colours, rhythms and moods", as the composer himself described it.

Rattle's principal achievement with the Berlin Philharmonic has been fostering a blend of sound. Among woodwind and brass particularly, the bright, forward character of the Karajan/Abbado eras has been replaced with a more unified web, in which even the deliberately grotesque solo contortions of Vorgefuhle retained their relationship to the whole. Similarly in Das obligate Rezitativ, the macabre little touches - a mournful bassoon, a chatty viola crushed underfoot by brass - sustained a dialogue with the greater textural tectonics of the movement.

The Webern that followed presented something of a problem to the BBC, whose coloured onstage screens change to reflect the mood of each piece. There was blue for Strauss's Four Last Songs, fiery red for Berg, but Webern elicited such a confused mess of colours that it was clear that BBC officials were at a loss as to what we were supposed to be thinking or feeling. Fortunately the same was not true of the orchestra, who guided us through its inscrutable textures, articulating with precision the shift from muted nullity - a side-drum fluttering vainly against the oppressive hush - to a pianissimo acceptance and redemption.

Rounding-out the triptych, and pushing beyond stillness into rage, was Berg's densely-scored Three Orchestral Pieces. Here at last abortive melodies gave a focus to the Berlin Philharmonic's astonishing string section, their massed lyricism struggling against outbursts from solo strings and wind. The shocking conclusion, Paul Griffiths' "catastrophe in sound", attacked the hall, its shattering hammer blows proclaiming themselves the true heirs of Mahler, the evening's ghostly ancestor.

Famously described by Nietsche as "an event of the soul", the Act I Prelude from Wagner's Parsifal was a bold opening. The unison of the first phrase is a skeleton on which the smallest of deviations shows up as a tumorous growth, and unfortunately strings and wind never quite agreed on their rhythmic contours, unsettling the work's unearthly aspirations with all-too human error. There is no doubt that the Royal Albert Hall can take the slow pace set by Rattle here, but equally little doubt that this was the cause of the uncertainty, from which we never quite recovered.

Slow speeds also characterised Strauss's Four Last Songs, but here their poise was absolute. Karita Mattila, though hardly among the largest of Strauss voices, has a roundness and inhaled ease to her singing that suits the intimacy of these settings, and was matched tone for tone by the extraordinarily backlit sound Rattle drew from his players. Comfortable as a texture among the orchestra, Mattila relied on the audience's familiarity with the work, risking a delicate, self-abnegating performance that only occasionally flared forth into full vocal bloom. Such moments - the "bathed in light" of Fruhling, the final ecstatic verse of Beim Schlafengehen - had all the sheen that Wagner's Grail Theme had lacked: moments of pure and generous beauty in a concert of harder-won, if no less substantial, pleasures.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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