Sunday, November 27, 2011

truth thoughts

As I’ve delved deeper into the recent history of American music, I’ve become more and more fascinated about the shift—whether subtle or seismic—which occurred around 1980. I wrote about this briefly in my Time Curve Preludes liner notes; Nico Muhly has summed it up succinctly elsewhere. As a musicologist, I’ve been interrogating the concept of periodization, and can’t quite decide if it’s appropriate to declare a new period or style or something happening circa 1980, or whether that’s just a way of furthering a reductive narrative. The term postminimalism is now in the vocabulary, and I think it’s an appropriate one in order to help carve up the history of American music into chunks – I’m just not so sure how worth a task carving up history is.

But Satyagraha happened in 1980, and Satyagraha is a big deal. The Metropolitan Opera’s production, which I took in via an HD Broadcast last week, demonstrates this stunningly. From the very opening gesture, the music expresses, wondrously, what it is not. Listen to Einstein; listen to Music in Twelve Parts. The forcea driving the Glass of the ‘70s feel—and I don’t mean this at all disparagingly—mechanical, infused with a machine energy, driven and propelled forward in a kind of unstoppable onslaught.

Satyagraha is brittle; it is fragile; it is human. We begin with the human voice, a frozen melisma in Hindi, before the cellos begin to bellow their scales. It the voice of Gandhi, astonishingly personified by Richard Croft at the Met, in whose voice we hear immediately the frailty of the music and the message. In Act I, Gandhi is a mere learner, a lawyer in South Africa, and not yet the guide: “I see them here assembled, ready to fight, seeking to please the King’s sinful son by waging war.”

Einstein on the Beach begins with the drone of the organ, which plays a full iteration of its eternal, passacaglia bassline before the chorus of the Knee Play enters with their intoned numbers. Satyagraha’s vocal opening expresses all of the wonders of this subtle/seismic shift, from electric to acoustic, but also from abstract to not-quite-so-abstract. The audience may have no idea what Gandhi is saying, but there is a message.

The greatest strength of the Met’s production is that it powerfully navigates this balance of the abstract and referential, the timeless and the political. The directorial team, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, unleash a wonderland of newspapers and giant puppets, all of which appear wholly organic – a stagecraft which feels more real than practically any other opera production I’ve seen. Despite being a lover of the music, I had never glanced at the libretto for Satyagraha before going to the movie theater; the images which McDermott and Crouch create, though, carve out a theatrical space which feels visually effortless and immediate while also seeming to allude to deeper relations to the text. The chorus, which sings as narrator and commentator, moves like an actual crowd of people, acting as a signifier for the actual bodies of the masses—inspiring and inspired by Gandhi—as well as the morals of the Bhagavad Gita, on which the libretto is based.

In an intermission interview, one of the directors mentioned the idea of corrugated iron and newspaper as symbols, or even relics, of the colonial era (one wonders how long the visual metaphor of newspapers will last; longer, we hope). Each of the three tableaux features a thematic figure, a sort of angel of history symbolizing the movement: Tolstoy in the first, Rabindrath Tagore in the second, Martin Luther King Jr. in the third. It is a tricky path between universalism and particularism, but the Met’s Satyagraha achieves it just as well as Beethoven’s Ninth. McDermott and Crouch fix the figure in the background for the entire act as a silent but active presence. In the final moments of the opera, MLK gesticulates slowly towards an unseen audience, as Gandhi repeats the same ascending scale over glassy strings: the perfect balance of the hypnotic and the political.

Which brings me to the one gaping problem of the performance I took in. The cast was spectacular, the chorus at its usual level of excellence, and the orchestra sounded superb under Dante Anzolini, though somewhat deadened by the movie theater’s lack of dynamic contrast. But the Met’s HD system is woefully inadequate for this production, and I never felt like I was really experiencing more than 70% of the events unfolding onstage (I was hoping to attend yesterday’s matinee in person but missed out). The problem is inherent in the broadcasting system, which is geared around focusing on singers for close-up shots, attempting to do filmic justice to opera. Sometimes this works: the last production I took in, Peter Grimes, actually looked better in HD than when I went afterwards in-person, because the giant Advent Calendar made it difficult to grasp the individual characters.

But Satyagraha, especially in this production, is a triptych, and like a painting, you want to be able to see the whole thing at once, always. The importance of those historical figures in the backdrop is that they are always present, like the mesmerizing music; cutting away to focus on Gandhi’s face or a swath of the chorus disrupts the hypnosis. McDermott and Crouch conceive of the stage in its whole, but the image was sacrificed for individual moments in an opera in which individuality is anathema. In Satyagraha, transformation does not occur in a single aria or dazzling moment; its beauty, like that of life, rests in gradual, imperceptible metamorphosis.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

another word from hans magnus

Tonight, Juilliard is performing Peter Maxwell Davies' celebration of student protests, Kommilitonen! In light of this, a fun little quote from Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

"A critical rhetoric which transposes the concept of revolution to esthetic categories was only possible at a time when breaking with the conventions of writing (painting, composing, etc.) could still be regarded as a challenge. This time is now over. Proclamations and manifestoes announcing "revolts," "revolutions" of language, syntax, metaphor sound hollow today. It is not by accident that they meet with well-meaning understanding from the ruling institutions and are correspondingly remunerated.

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-Enzensberger, Commonplaces on the Newest Literature

Friday, November 4, 2011


WQXR has been doing, I'm going to go ahead and say it, a great job lately. Q2 is awesome. They've got a fancy new website. They've gone and hired some bonafide music journalists to write pieces for their site. I'm not happy about the quality of their signal (basically un-listenable in the area of New York I'm from), but I can't complain about much else (though the programming on their main station could be a bit better).

But then there's this.

As Lisa Hirsch raised yesterday: do we really, really need more Beethoven? The answer is, of course, yes: Beethoven is amazing, awe-inspiring, a constant source of new discoveries about life and music (full disclosure: my favorite composer). But do we really need more Beethoven awareness? And do we really want our dialogue about this to be: Obeythoven?

There is a strain of thought, that has been much parsed out in scholarship, about Beethoven; you might not know it if you're not a regular reader of musicology. The Beethoven Myth; The Beethoven Hero; the Cult of the German Genius. To simplify a bit: Beethoven dwarfs all other music, and in doing so, casts a shadow that not only pushes aside other composers but it makes us re-write all music history in relation to him. Huge swaths of great music become mere predecessors to him; other great composers who come after are defined entirely in relationship to him. For some reason, people seem to think they'll die after writing nine symphonies, because that's what Beethoven did (not really, though). Haydn becomes merely a father-figure, the step we had to take to get to the Greater Good of Ludwig.

Beethoven's story is a great story -- the triumph over poverty, the triumph over deafness, the triumph over Napoleon, the triumph over music -- but it's obscured by myth and legend, and ends up distorting our history and, much worse, causing many people to have less appreciation for other wonderful art. He dominates the scene too much -- I imagine that "world premiere" in Chicago got more press than many world premieres of actually new pieces ever have in Chicago.

And here's the thing: there is a ton, a ton, more to say about Beethoven. Don't stop recording his music, don't stop writing about his music, because we haven't even begun to delve beneath the surface here. One of the (but not the only) reasons he ignited the cult of German genius was because he was a German genius. I'm excited for Jeremy Denk's chat tomorrow because he is exactly the kind of person who has new things to say about Beethoven.

But do we really need a 24/7 live stream of his music and a concentrated awareness effort? This could be a fascinating project if we used Beethoven as a prism -- if that live stream gave us contemporary music by Spohr or Haydn, traced performance practice from Furtwangler to Norrington (a cursory glance of their playlist list of performers indicates fairly mainstream, modern orchestra taste), or even gave us some responses to Beethoven, whether 19th or 20th or 21st century. If you want to go stream Beethoven, you can do it virtually anywhere. There's no loss of free recordings. So why not take that 24/7 stream and use it to construct a narrative, to say something about what Beethoven means in 2011? And in light of the anti-authoritarian times in which we seem to be currently living, should the narrative really be to obey? How about to rebel? How about to engage?

ON THE OTHER HAND: I can understand exactly why WQXR chose Beethoven. There is a very, very limited amount of space in the broader cultural sphere for classical music. If we want to squeeze room for something very, very complicated into the unfocused attention span of popular culture, we need an enduring symbol that people recognize. If anyone in classical music has become a symbol in the past few centuries, it's Beethoven. And they have done a pretty good job with this ad campaign (though I question the use of the Obama-Hope-style posters; isn't it possible to do ads these days without just ironically tweaking someone else's idea? And isn't the Shepard Fairey thing a little old now?). I like the idea of a Beethoven workout mix; this is pretty funny. I appreciate them taking the time to think that classical music is something worth giving a viral marketing campaign to.

I'm just curious how broadly this will reach -- if the choosing-Beethoven-because-he-has-mass-appeal will actually have mass appeal. Otherwise, it is not a worthwhile endeavour, and I would much rather see an Adams Awareness, a Monteverdi Awareness, a Josquin Awareness, a Messiaen Awareness, and Ives Awareness, a Stockhausen Awareness, even a Brahms Awareness. This seems to suggest that they're in it for keeps. I'm guessing we will never find out if the money they spent paid off, but I wish them the best. Next time, though, Occupy Beethoven; Obey Ruggles.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

a word from hans magnus

"The funeral procession leaves behind a dust cloud of theories, little of which is new. The literati are celebrating the end of literature. The poets prove to themselves and others the impossibility of making poetry. The critics extol the passing of criticism. The sculptors produce plastic coffins for their plastics. The event as a whole takes for itself the appellation "cultural revolution," but it has more the look of a country fair."

-Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Commonplaces on the Newest Literature (1968)