**This is an entry in the Spring for Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge. If you like what you read, please vote for me here.**
We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?
Coco says music.*
We may live in a visual age – more appropriately, we probably live in a digital age – but music is still the most consumed art form (besides the Hunger Games and Twilight, of course). Yes, this includes Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Lost in the Trees, and the Arcade Fire, all of which speak to contemporary attitudes and resonate with today’s daily life. But I’d like to hone in on a subset of a subset – the living composer, who writes works that address, critique, and engage with modern living.
Speaking about contemporary society can take on many forms. Artists can hold forth on their political beliefs; they can comment more obliquely on what place art has in today’s society; they can use art to give a history lesson, showing us how we got to where we are today; or they can carve out a space of tranquility, commenting on the relentlessness of daily life by creating a respite from it.
In the spirit of edification, let’s listen to some music and talk a bit about what perspectives it can offer.
First up: music as politics. Agit-prop is an effective political tool, and music has had an important role to play as political commentary – from Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock to Britten's War Requiem. Ted Hearne’s 2007 Katrina Ballads acts as both poignant memorial and biting political scrutiny. Each movement of the chamber work sets the words of different figures involved in the disastrous hurricane, from survivors to presidents. In some moments, it gives voice to the victims, casting eye-witness accounts in eerie chiaroscuro -- click ahead to Hardy Jackson, who describes in agonizing detail the loss of his wife:
In others, the work takes on a deliberate political edge. Here, Hearne viciously spins Bush’s famous “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” into a hiccuping, furious mantra:
This is a work that captures the horror at the senseless destruction of a city, but also the rage at governmental incompetence in saving lives. Plenty of music mourns the dead, but only rarely does a piece engage with the anger of those left behind, or cast blame on those responsible.
Example No. 2: art as release, but also reminder. Music can often act as a kind of narcotic, allowing escape from the burden of real life. John Luther Adams’ sonic landscapes allow one to bliss out for hours at a time, but they aren’t merely escapist: in conveying the vast expanses of Alaska and the brutally slow power of nature, Adams reminds the listener that there are spaces in the world that are fading.
Adams’ In the White Silence, like many of his works, builds massive arcs of sound sustained over Wagnerian lengths. The surface is gorgeous, with hushed, Feldman-esque strings, pealing bells, and plinking harp; underneath, complex mathematical structures lurk, driving the narrative.
Adams once wrote: “Much of Alaska is still filled with silence, and one of the most persuasive arguments for the preservation of the original landscape here may be its spiritual value as a great reservoir of silence.” In works like this, Adams replicates that great reservoir. If climate change and drilling eradicate the Alaskan stillness, his music may be the only thing we have left – a sonic artifact from a disappearing land.
A third thing : Art as history. All artists are obsessed with history in some way, regardless of how heavily they feel the burden of their forefathers weighing down. Some musicians takes on this historical bent head-on, making works which re-create the art of the past in a way that speaks to the present. Revisionist opera directors do this all the time, providing a contemporary note to Don Giovanni or Parsifal. Composers do it as well, arranging Renaissance madrigals or 18th-century string quartets for new forces, treating the past as a playground.
Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is one of these. Leeuw is better known as a conductor (run, do not walk, to the store to pick up his Messiaen and Andriessen recordings), but this re-imagining of Schubert and Schumann lieder is a masterpiece. Leeuw conflates two of the greatest song cycles of the 19th century – Dichterliebe and Winterreise – and mixes in other classics like the Erlkönig. Composing for actress Barbara Sukowa and the Schoenberg Ensemble, he radically re-writes the past, transforming the 19th century into the early 20th: Romantic art song filtered through the snarl of Brechtian cabaret. Here’s Gretchen am Spinnrade:
I see Leeuw’s piece as one of a vast number of post-1945 works which reckon with the German canon – attempting to grab a chunk of incredible music and liberate (or maybe redeem?) it from what happened to to the whole of Germanic art after 1933. In drawing a bridge between the worlds of Schubert and Kurt Weill, Leeuw re-conceives of the non-political Romantics as participating in the same kind of liberal project of the Weimar Republic as the Threepenny Opera. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what specifically that tells us about contemporary culture – German or American – but it speaks powerfully. I couldn’t help but include it.
And finally: Music as an alternate perspective. This is hugely important. In the grand narrative of art, certain stories are told again and again: the myth of Orpheus, the lechery of Don Juan, the return of Odysseus. And, though they are re-conceived in different eras and for different purposes, the point of view is almost always the same: the male. We have our central male protagonists, and their marginalized wives, girlfriends, mistresses. That's not to say that any of that art is inherently bad – but there is certainly room for seeing the classic stories from a different viewpoint.
And that’s where Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope comes in. Originally a monodrama by Ellen McLaughlin (it's coming to Chapel Hill soon!), Penelope was transformed into a song cycle by Snider. It tells the story of the wife of a damaged, amnesiac veteran who returns home; to help him remember, she reads to him from the Odyssey, the ultimate story of homecoming.
Conceiving of a Homeric classic from the female perspective has its own lineage – Christa Wolf’s incredible Cassandra tells the tale of the Trojan War through the eyes of its prophet – and Penelope is a truly contemporary retelling. We are situated in an abstract but very real space, one in which the Island of Calypso and the Iraq War coexist. “The story, his story,” McLaughlin’s lyrics read, and Shara Worden breathlessly intones. But the work's title is Penelope, not Odysseus: it is her story. These issues are all too relevant – a huge debate is currently taking place on NewMusicBox about the role of the female composer (to which Snider had one of the best things to contribute). Looking to the national scale, the effects of a male-dominated political discourse are obvious, and inconceivably dangerous.
Too often does great art (and, in particular, great classical music) gaze upon the female. Here, the female gazes back.**
*Yes, starting my post with one of our adorable cats is, in fact, a way of getting votes. I am shameless. And that is the score of one of Peter Lieberson's Rilke Songs. Here's Igor with Reich's Music for Eighteen.
**Please call me out if any of that sounded in any way misogynistic.