He who cannot find wonder, mystery, awe, the sense of a new world and an undiscovered realm in the places by the Gray’s Inn Road will never find those secrets elsewhere, not in the heart of Africa, not in the fabled hidden cities of Tibet. “The matter of our work is everywhere present”, wrote the old alchemists, and that is the truth. All the wonders lie within a stone’s throw of King’s Cross Station

March 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

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When Gould was not playing piano (or organ) he was fashioning something else—interview shows, portraits of artists, and oddities such as his arch dialogue on the dire impact of competitive sports on the world. But the peaks of Gould’s non-piano involvement with the medium were three sound documentaries, instances of what Gould called “contrapuntal radio” that were retrospectively grouped together as “The Solitude Trilogy.” The first, “The Idea of North,” was about just that, the enduring mythological significance of the Canadian North in the postwar era when its national integration was proceeding rather quickly; it first aired Dec. 28, 1967. The second, “The Latecomers,” was about the forced depopulation of Newfoundland outports as the colony became part the Canadian confederation; it aired Nov. 12, 1969. And the last, “The Quiet in the Land,” dealt with Mennonite accommodations to contemporary mass culture. It was completed in 1975, but did not air until Mar. 25, 1977. These three pieces are, by all estimates save one, fascinating, technologically adept incursions into questions of nation, sound, space, and media. The one reserved judgment belongs to Darrel Mansell who called them “uninteresting.”  He is more than balanced out by Richard Kostelanetz, who places Gould in the Text-Sound art pantheon—“a radio artist of the first rank, if not the greatest in North America.”

The standard interpretation of these pieces is biographical, and it runs more-or-less like this: After 1964, as Gould attempted to grapple with his own mediated career, he found in Canada’s national experience a collection of ready allegories. As his best biographer, Kevin Bazzana, puts it: “The train trip in The Idea of North stands in for the inward journey Gould had been taking since 1964. ‘It’s very much about me,’ he said of the program. ‘In terms of what it says, it’s about as close to an autobiographical statement as I am probably going to make at this stage of my life.’” What is more, Gould’s explorations of contemporary solitude were not only allegories of his own solitude and mediated public presence, they were original compositions, and as such they were compensation for his failure as a composer of music. Again, Bazzana: “Creating successful works in a new genre of radio art took much of the sting out of his failure as a composer.” As Kostelanetz puts it: “In 1967, Gould told me that he wanted to compose more difficult contemporary music, in the Schoenberg tradition… Whether he ever composed such music I do not know—nothing has turned up since his death in 1982. Rather, he produced these radio pieces that, let me suggest, represent the fruition of his compositional ambitions.” Radio as compensatory, allegorical autobiography.

Of course if one has put aside formal analysis, then the standard way to think about virtually all sorts of music has been through something like compensatory, allegorical autobiography. Still, Gould is an odd candidate for that convergence since his particular genius was for the strictures and systems of composers such as Bach and Schoenberg, what he would call a kind of “puzzle solving.” One can persist in regarding form a stalking horse for psychic torment, but whatever the source of Gould’s interest in form, he was, indeed, interested in form. For us, then, that translates into a need to explain allegoresis itself. More simply: why do Gould’s documentaries have a contrapuntal form? Needless to say, I don’t think that this is a biographical question but something like an aesthetic question, and to begin to answer it, I will turn to a shorter piece that is often left out of the Gould radio documentary canon, “The Search for Pet Clark,” a 23 minute essay that first aired Dec. 11, 1967, two and half weeks before The Idea of North. “Pet Clark” is a rehearsal of the great Gouldian themes—mobility, documentary, solitude, mediation—in a far more explicitly autobiographical vein. Those open commitments help us resist the temptation to see Gould’s radio career as a sustained yet unconscious effort to manifest his own unspoken self-involvements. Instead, we will catch Gould at a moment when his commitment to allegory will be raw.

“Pet Clark” is also technologically raw. Gould’s plunge into documentary making resulted in dramatic leaps forward in complexity; he built his later pieces at the very limits of what the CBC studio was then capable of. “Pet Clark,” in contrast, is utterly conventional.  read more

ART: Georgio Morandi

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I had already been to Europe, and liked it, so I thought I’d go back. I chose Germany, and they in their wisdom sent me to Japan

February 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Aware of Henze’s hostility towards much Wagner, his librettist WH Auden had coaxed him very much in that direction, insisting that he study the score of Götterdämmerung – Henze always had less of a problem with Tristan, and indeed would write his own Tristan-work himself – and even had him attend a performance in Vienna, where he met Adorno, incidentally, intently studying his score, in order, according to his autobiography, that he should ‘learn to overcome’ his ‘aversions to Wagner’s music, aversions bound up in no small measure with my many unfortunate experiences in the past’. And, of course, with Germany’s many unfortunate experiences in the all-too-recent past. Success was at best mixed. According to his autobiography:

I was perfectly capable of judging the wider significance of Wagner’s music: as any fool can tell you, it is a summation of all Romantic experience… But I simply cannot abide this silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect a neo-German mentality and ideology. There is the sense of an imperialist threat, of something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan in all these rampant horn calls, this pseudo-Germanic Stabreim, these incessant chords of a seventh and all the insecure heroes and villains that people Wagner’s librettos.

The result was nevertheless in many respects Henze’s most Wagnerian drama, and one which he considered confronted ‘this “I was always against the Nazis”’ position, ‘a banal and frivolous stance (created on… stage in the last scene…)’. At the time, Henze was willing to consider that the musical path from Tristan, at least, might be of some importance in his work. In an interview for Die Welt, marking the premiere, he proclaimed his belief ‘that the road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and with The Bassarids I have tried to go further along it.’ Moreover, he could claim impeccable musical and German warrant for what many would decry as the score’s eclecticism:

It may be unfashionable to continue musical traditions in this way [he is specifically referring to the use of symphonic forms in the opera’s four ‘movements’], but with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: ‘An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.’ If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics…

The composer could not, should not, ‘spend all his time destroying language instead of developing it dialectically’.

That said, the very success of the opera in so bourgeois a context troubled Henze, that unease not merely coincidental with his political move from what he would call ‘generalised anti-fascism’, inspired, he explained, by the example of Italian Marxist friends. He had intervened politically, not least in 1965 during Willy Brandt’s election campaign, but now, from Rudi Dutschke and his comrades he ‘now learned to see contexts, and to see myself within those contexts’. This was why he took the decision that he would write not for himself and his friends, but ‘to help socialism’, that he would embody in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and yet ‘transform these into something that the masses can understand’. This certainly did not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’. In September 1968, Henze published a declaration, ‘Mein Standpunkt’, ending:

Unnecessary are new museums, opera houses, and world premieres. Necessary, to set about the realisation of dreams. Necessary, to abolish the dominion of men over men. Necessary, to change mankind, which is to say: necessary, the creation of mankind’s greatest work of art: the World Revolution.

Those words could almost have come straight from an earlier German revolutionary-composer’s pen, from Wagner’s 1849 Die Revolutionread more

PHOTOGRAPH: miguelRS

Wenches emerge from scullery dimnesses to seat themselves at the tables of disputants, and in brogues thick as oatmeal recite their own lists of British sins

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

In my recent halting quest to delve more deeply into classical music, it occurs to me that I’ve been pretty trusting of people’s advice. For instance, everyone who has an opinion seems to think that Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is uniquely worthy of attention among his works, and so I got a recording of a performance from Netflix and watched it yesterday afternoon — turns out it’s pretty impressive. Similarly, I’ve eagerly acted on recommendations of books and recordings.

Why am I so trusting? Because basically no one is going to bother even claiming to have an opinion about classical music unless they know what they’re talking about to some degree. It’s totally “voluntary” to know about it — the culture has moved on, so there’s no payoff for pretension. Someone might tell you that The Wire is great just because they feel like they “should” think that; no one’s going to pull a similar move on Missa Solemnis.

In a way, this is a basic Adorno-esque point: previously elite artforms that have lost their accustomed role have a unique potential for “disinterested” uses. I wonder, though, how many other things are like this?  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Miroslav

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