[These thoughts on Schnittke can be read either individually or in order parts i to iv - see i through iii below - or altogether on the "Art of Travesty" page. Also, for my discussion of Joseph Conrad - specifically "Speech and Silence in Conrad's vision of Russia" - see the Conrad page here.]
The disintegration courted in each Schnittke score both distorts and salvages the contents of his society's music—its classical inheritance, its popular kitsch, its military marches, its buried religious forms, its peasant modes. He recycles these forms of music in such a way as both to salvage them, harmed and fractured as they are, to expose their fracture points, and to reveal the extremity which shadows survival in any totalizing order and which harms the members so “ordered.” As Adorno observes about Mahler, in Quasi Una Fantasia, “the individual’s fractures are the script of truth….In them any social movement appears negatively, as in its victims: the marches in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony are heard and reflected by [and from the standpoint of] those whom they drag away.” Similarly, in Schnittke’s travestied marches, tangos, or baroque obbligato, the distorted resurrection of haunted form itself becomes a mechanism of confrontation. The effect achieved here is similar to that of “the marginal, undomesticated element” in Mahler’s music, as Adorno describes it: “[That element]—archaic, outdated, [and] inimical to compromise—bound itself to traditional material, [which] was thereby reminded of the victims of progress, even musical victims: those elements of language ejected [but also calcified by tradition were] endowed with power in order to resist power. The shabby residue left by triumph accuses the triumphant.” Schnittke’s own accusatory and uncompromising travesties are akin to Adorno’s idea in Negative Dialectics of thought which scrutinizes itself and confronts its own complacency; music today must equally measure itself and be “measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, [or] it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.”
Taruskin, in his discussion of the composer, makes use of the idea of ‘negative dialectics’ in order to characterize Schnittke’s use of resolution as a sign of degeneracy, as an ironic consonance, so that the noise of great affirmative gestures is exposed as noise. As we have seen, Adorno’s conception can lead to a still deeper understanding of the ways in which this composer’s art aspires to reach through and redeem the haunting and negated discards of history. Such music attempts not only to voice what Adorno calls, in Mahler, “the shriek of horror at something worse than death: pogrom music,” but to restore the life-after-death of history’s broken, extinguished, discarded elements. The notion of restoring the potential of what falls between the cracks of history is developed by both Adorno and his colleague in critical theory Walter Benjamin. Their shared aim is to formulate a critical witnessing of what is suppressed by societies based in rationalized domination and the manipulation of reason. The stance of such witnessing shapes and underlies the late- or post-humanist identity of Schnittke’s postmodern art.
Benjamin and Adorno help us to clarify, in particular, the relationship of Schnittke’s art to grieving. In a discussion of the modern fate of storytelling—analogous in key ways to musical form for a composer like Schnittke—Benjamin suggests that the vanishing remains of life and of an entire tradition can be reclaimed as images, in the “transmissible form” of aesthetic figments. As such music gazes backward like Benjamin’s Angel of History on its vanishing tradition, on the history of musical form, its simultaneous complicity and defiance become apparent in the face of the power of the encompassing society. Music like Schnittke’s witnesses there all the discarded forms, the dashed hopes for transformation and the struggles against silence, which are lodged like “chips” of Messianic hope and expectation in musical history, as in human history. This looking backward exerts a profound pressure to hear what has been silenced, to redeem what has been cancelled, to restore the suppressed to expressivity and an existence in the world of sound. The fertility and wit of Schnittke’s retrievals of past musical gestures—for example, his travestied Classical and Baroque effects—are examples of such resurrection and reconnection, not in a complacent ‘neoclassicism’ but as a means of showing us how grotesquely haunted and pregnant with suppressed possibility is our present in the light of the transformative expectation of us implicit in past art.
Travesty is Schnittke’s mechanism for affirming the expectation that the capacity to generate meaning can endure in the face of unmeaning, of the death of meaning in a commodified and media-dominated world. Travesty becomes productive as a form of mourning. The elegiac generosity and wit of his retrievals of a whole range of music—from hymn and fugue to tango and punk—coexist with the effect of grievous shock which his voracious imitations achieve, sometimes in the very brutality of their sound. In this way, his art creates a double perspective which joins a stark veracity of critical witness with the voracity of travesty, and this double strategy energetically exposes the brutal power of domination in contemporary society, as it simultaneously testifies to what is left out, what has been discarded in the garbage bin as invalidated and invalided. Experiencing the brilliant wit and grief in his musical travesties, a tentative community of listeners is developed. Each of us becomes a witness to the dwarfing excess of power and the haunting distortion of our own complicity, yet each of us also participates at least as auditors in an act of startling and even healing generation, giving voice to what survives, however banal or eccentric or deformed by the scarring dialectic with society’s force.
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.]