Schnittke's music involves a further exploratory voicing of this situation of witness, of art’s characteristic problem throughout the last century: the struggle of aesthetic form in a brutal era to articulate and stimulate consciousness, with its implicit ethical potential. His “post-everythingist” art exposes and travesties the deformations of power. Even the sound itself absorbs and protests power’s defeating brutality. There is the violin’s violent attack in the Fifth Concerto Grosso, or the massing of brutal cultural discards in the Fourth Symphony’s electric guitar distortion, or the First Concerto Grosso’s use of the intentionally deadened prepared piano melody—a sound which is said to resemble the old Soviet radio identification chimes, rather like NBC. (And that last coincidence reminds us of how complicit is the hyper-mediated sphere of consumer culture in the brutality and banality of modernity.) Where Shostakovich uses banal melodies and effects as the basis for tragic expressivity, Schnittke’s music reveals that our post-modern consciousness of extremity is identical with and emerges from the detritus, the absurd ordinariness and kitsch of the present. (There is a link here to the films of Schnittke’s friend Andrei Tarkovsky, which present lyrical forms infused with chaos and a defeating brutality. Think of the continuous envisioning of decay, detritus, and incineration in Nostalgia.) The pervasive brutalization of culture is rendered, assimilated, but transformed in Schnittke’s music, and this strategy has a double impact. It can seem to reproduce the affront of the uninteresting, and yet this nervous and energized evocation of crude banalities also enacts the springing vitality of travesty, its ironic and energized transformation.
This paradoxical confrontation of the brutalization of culture is dramatized particularly in Schnittke’s concertos, and the outlines of his characteristic musical and ethical strategies clearly emerge here. For example, in the second movement Allegro of the Viola Concerto, the viola's empowered individual personality, with its subjective extravagance of gesture, is pitted against the collective power of the orchestra's brutal march theme. The ironically excessive stylization of both orchestral grossness and the violist’s virtuoso intensity project a wild competition of nostalgias, a grotesque and ironic double valorization of both individual and collective. In this movement, we hear the withering excess of blasting factory sounds confronting the violist’s virtuosic yet fractured folk melody. At the movement’s catastrophic climax, the orchestral violence explodes and the brutality becomes explicit of the orchestral collective all sounding together; here, the viola is reduced from energized playfulness to fragmentary squeaks of sound, and its ghost of melody is now a trivial travesty of carnival tunes. The brutal, manic force of the Viola Concerto’s climax plays with power and the simulation of destruction; it ironically reproduces and explodes the ethos of domination in the blasted space of postmodern society, whether in autocracy’s propaganda theater or in media’s theaters of manipulation. Schnittke's listener must endure a version of that brutal blasting, but one also hears the coexistence—travestied and playfully ironic—of alternate voices, counter styles, other melodies.
Schnittke's music frequently strikes the ear as an overhearing of distressed, endangered conversation among a musical gathering of survivors who share jokes, stifle screams, search for solace, and vent a fragmenting rage. This effect is especially apparent in Schnittke’s chamber music, for example the Third String Quartet. In it, we hear a repeated collage of three thematic fragments: an antique and solacing modulation from Orlando de Lassus' Stabat Mater; then the dissonant kernel of theme at the core of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, the most radical destabilizing gesture in his late works; and finally, a sequence of tones based on the letters of Shostakovich's name. Haunting these fragments is the ghostly echo of a heavy-footed pesante folk theme. These themes represent fragmentary residues of musical traditions, of alternative pasts or inheritances, which have been retrieved in broken form, fragmented and—as such—transformed into what we have for meaning in a "post" or latter-day culture. This post-humanist transformation in Schnittke’s music is not parody but travesty. The musical fragments are clung to and valued for whatever grotesque and broken expressivity is possible in a usurped, harmed, and invalid culture. The musical gestures are reached for, mangled though they are, as all that is left for art to use now. (One is reminded of Schnittke’s Mann-like version of Doctor Faustus, desperately ransacking and travestying the past.)
A typical subject of travesty in Schnittke is the clichéd material of the Classical and Baroque eras, the musical conventions of Mozart and Haydn, Bach and Vivaldi. Classical form here is skewed into a means of assault. Take the form of the toccata, developing from Bach and the Baroque through Schumann to Prokofiev; Schnittke absorbs and deranges the form’s agitated and incessant repetitions into a sort of freakish intensity, disorienting and transformative. In his powerful Concerto Grosso #1, for example, the fifth movement drives a related repetitive Vivaldiesque violin figure into exaggeration and excess, loud and climactic, and then it is abruptly juxtaposed to tango. High and low styles are made to interpenetrate; in the tango, the Baroque harpsichord joins with virtuoso violin to express a sort of death: death of classical rhetoric, death by drowning in kitsch, which is confirmed by the climactic reentry of the deadened radio identification chimes on the prepared piano. Bathos is the risk and the cost of this strategy, and yet the music's violent voracity—absorbing all it touches, whether high Baroque or tango—becomes an expression of grief. Death of form becomes the energized occasion of witness, and desperation of gesture becomes a powerful incitement to attend to the haunted, blasted space of the postmodern. The sensations of Schnittke’s listerners are, at least in part, of enduring together as witnesses to a cataclysm, so that even the most innocently playful theme bears the marks of a sort of irradiation, of the grotesque, the harmed, as if the music were voiced and inflected by and within its own breakdown.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]