Archive for September, 2009

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High And Low Culture: The Price of a Ticket


I’m a fan of the opera. And generally when I bring it up in normal conversation, I can see a barrier form. Opera is high art, high culture, expensive— it’s for rich people, old money preferred. There’s a very thick wall between most people and attending an opera. When examined from a monetary perspective, the results are quite interesting. Buying a single ticket (without a season’s subscription) to see an opera at the San Francisco Opera will cost you between $15 and $210. If you’d like to sit in a box seat, it’ll cost $275.

If you wanted to see the band U2 in a stadium this summer, a single ticket will set you back between $30 and $250. A Bruce Springsteen ticket will cost you between $29 and $89. Rock and Roll was originally considered low art, low culture— something on the fringe of popular culture. Through the 60s and 70s, it slowly moved to the mainstream of popular culture. Pop culture is abundantly distributed in multiple distribution formats, it’s on the radio and television. You can buy it on CD and MP3 download, and you can preview it on or The price of a ticket is related to the phenomena of scarcity. There are only so many performances, and a fixed number of seats available for each performance.

Of course, opera was popular entertainment and part of popular culture for many years. However now, more often than not, it’s used as a signal of class differential.

The barrier that some feel when approaching opera isn’t related to the ticket price. For a medium priced seat there’s no difference between grand opera and any other popular entertainment. It has to do with the distribution of the free part of opera. Popular music is sampled widely to create a demand for performances and sales of recordings. There’s a dynamic feedback loop between exposure to an art form and interest in an art form.

Many people find baseball boring because they don’t understand the nuances of the game. It seems like nothing happens for inning after inning. And then, there’s a quick flurry of activity, and then back to nothing. A single ticket to a baseball game falls into the same range as an opera or rock concert ticket. To see the Giants (for a premium game), your ticket will cost you between $25 and $135.

Baseball, rock music and opera all depend on their stars to draw and audience. For the San Francisco Giants, I might prefer going to a game where I know that Tim Lincecum is pitching and that Pablo Sandoval will be in the line up.

If I get to see these players, I know that my chances of seeing something spectacular are much higher. It’s that possibility of excitement combined with the scarcity of the performance and the limited number of seats that defines the value/price of the event.

Opera also depends on its stars to draw an audience, in particular, its divas. On Wednesday night, I attended a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubador) at San Francisco Opera. Looking at the line up card, I could see that there was the possibility of seeing something spectacular. Nicola Luisotti at Conductor, Burak Bilgili as Ferrando, Sondra Radvanosvsky as Leonora, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna and the great Stephanie Blythe as Azucena. The team delivered, as the last note faded the crowd leapt to its feet shouting bravo and brava.

The grand opera is often thought of as a refined entertainment, an art form that considers the higher values of our culture. But Verdi’s Il Trovatore is nothing more than animal passion unleashed. A Count orders an old Gypsy woman to be burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. The gypsy’s daughter steals the infant son of the Count and throws it into a fire. A revolutionary war revolves around the passion two men feel about the beautiful Leonora. The Count di Luna obsessed with Leonora will commit any war crime to possess her. The gypsy Azucena will do anything to exact revenge for the death of her mother. These forces are unleashed without limit within the narrative of the opera. It’s the women that drive the story forward: Leonora and the men who lust after her; and the gypsy Azucena and her single-minded obsession with revenge.

Performances not to missed: Sondra Radvanosksy as Leonora. Here she is singing an aria from Il Trovatore:

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe also delivers as Azucena. Here she is in concert, singing an aria from Bizet’s Carmen:

This evening baseball and opera will intersect at AT&T park. In cooperation with the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco Opera will present a free HD simulcast of Il Trovatore at the ballpark. High culture and low culture mix and intermingle. Arias and hot dogs with plenty of mustard. Families spreading out a blanket on the infield and enjoying the high passion of Verdi’s opera. The gigantic emotions and passions of Il Trovatore will expand to fill the ballpark.

Here’s a preview of San Francisco Opera’s Il Trovatore:

Earlier this year, the Giants and SF Opera presented Puccini’s Tosca at the Ballpark. About 30,000 people showed up to enjoy the show. I expect to see a similar turn out for Il Trovatore. After Tosca was over, and the crowd began to leave, I noticed a young girl turn to her mother and say, “that was a great opera Mom.”

See you at the show.

Charles Darwin: The Evolution of Film Distribution


A film about the life of Charles Darwin called “Creation” recently debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. The film hasn’t found a distributor in the United States. The word is that film distributors are concerned about a backlash from the religious right. It’s interesting to observe the effect of fear and intimidation on our culture and the circulation of thought.

The absence of this film from the American market is a signal of an inflection point in the evolution of film distribution. Routing around the installed movie theater infrastructure will be enabled by a number of technologies including: semi-pro “home” theater, HD video distribution via the Network, and Microsoft’s Silverlight.


Movie theaters used to require that the projector be physically present in the theater. In the Network, every point in space is next to every other. The beam of light emitted by the projector can now be routed through the Network to any set of screens. It will much more difficult to block distribution through this kind of Network. Although I hope I don’t have to wait for the mechanics of natural selection to become operative before I have an opportunity to see this film.

The Varieties of Silence

We, perhaps, misunderstand silence. We think of it as the absence of sound. Or the absence of music. We might think the same silence fills each absence. But silence itself, is always full, whenever there is a listener.

In John Cage’s work 4:33, the performer and the audience become one. Every assembly of witnesses marks a different social graph, listens through a different network of consciousness, a different set of dreams.

The (TV) Guide is Broken: And Now Everything is TV


There’s an old joke that time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. But more and more, it seems like everything is happening at once.

Where television channels used to offer one program at a time, one after the other, laid out along a time line, now there are an infinite number of channels. To the extent that programming is recorded, or recorded live for broadcast, it can be tuned in on demand. Programs don’t need to unravel at a particular time on a schedule anymore. We’ve entered the era of random access; everyone can be watching different shows on the same channel— because it’s the watching that is the channel, not the broadcasting.

Live broadcasts used to be so labor and infrastructure intensive that it wasn’t possible to go live with more than one signal. Many broadcasters now emit multiple signals—different mixes and playlists of programming.

Assume for a moment that broadcast video/audio will move entirely to the internet—the new Network. How will you know what’s on? When everything that exists is on at the same time—how do you choose? This problem is similar to deciding which book to check out from a public library. The selection set you walk into the library with doesn’t include every book on the shelves.

I hate cable television listings because they present everything equally in a grid. And, of course, this is Comcast’s product—I understand that TiVo is much better. The schedule of programs knows nothing about me, therefore it presents everything in the equivalent of a comma separated value file with sub-primitive tools to work with the data. Everyone gets the same bad listing of a 1000 streams. There’s a sense in which this is the same problem users have with RSS readers and Twitter streams. Rolling cable television listings look disturbingly like an RSS or Twitter stream. They’re a linear representation of simultaneous data.

The suggested solution isn’t really a solution. It’s simply the acceptance that you’ll miss things that would be valuable for you to see. It’s noted that since you can’t completely consume a multivalent, multi-threaded real-time stream, instead you must simply jump in from time to time. When you jump out, you miss what you miss— and that’s okay. As with phone calls, if it’s important, they’ll call back.

With so much programming simultaneously available, its value is significantly reduced. Experiencing something and not experiencing it have a roughly equivalent value. This corresponds to the idea: The more information, the less significant information is. The less information, the more significant it is. Philip Roth put it this way: in Eastern Europe (before the fall of the wall) nothing is permitted but everything matters; with us, everything is permitted but nothing matters.

More and more we live in simultaneous time with links that provide us with random access to an almost infinite number of connections. The index was the first tool that was attempted, but the map could not keep up with the rapid growth of the territory. The search engine using a citation algorithm was the next tool. This would be a welcome method to discover when a program was on, when a program with an actor was on, when a program by a writer was on. More complex queries would enable more advanced discovery.

Why did the girl throw the clock out the window? To see time fly.

But as we live in simultaneous time so do the things that we experience. As McLuhan noted, everything has become television, streams of text, video and audio sensory data. We aren’t matching the grid of our daily schedule to a grid of programming. The grid is an artifact of linear time. The selection set in simultaneous time doesn’t contain everything, it emerges from a swarming micro-community in real time. The infinite universe is bounded by the social graph, but it expands into infinity through six degrees of separation.

The new guide leverages the swarm, the social graph, the real time network and track. So, what’s on?

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