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.]

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 25 - Modern Music iii

Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the two most compelling masters of modern music, have fascinated me from the beginning of my listening life, to the extent even that I imagined them as characters in my novel Hungry Generations about the tense friendship in Los Angeles between a young studio composer and the family of a virtuoso classical pianist, a European émigré and friend of both composers. Also, especially Schoenberg haunts one of the stories, “Contrapuntal Piece,” in my new novella and story collection Acts of Terror and Contrition. As well, his conception of atonal music is one subject in my critical study Fullness of Dissonance: Modern Fiction and the Aesthetics of Music. Modern music, then, has been central to my imaginative and intellectual life for many decades, let alone a source of great pleasure.

Before I turn to Stravinsky and Schoenberg, I’d like to offer a bit more commentary on the connection between Debussy and Mallarmé, a connection which my last post mentioned in too hurried and compressed a way (I'll try to work on that tendency!). Particularly for the poet’s work, consciousness can seem wavering and tenuous and to verge toward a state of non-being. That ‘state’ can be both a symptom of and a response to a culture dominated by technology, materialism, and war, when the human can seem reduced to the condition of an automaton or an animal. The experience of modern life as a sort of spiritual death-in-life prompts and frames the struggle to express, to preserve, to “deliver up the volatile scattering which we call the human spirit, who cares for nothing save universal musicality” – in Mallarmé’s words. Each of the poet’s characteristic elegies (for Poe, for Gautier, for Wagner, etc.) confronts the pervasive sense of death in his era and renders it paradoxically as both a sign of modern paralysis and an opening toward transcendence, whose adepts have incurred the ultimate and universal payment. (This idea is evident also in Proust’s meditation about Swann, music, and “not-being” as “perhaps our true state:” if so, as we perish, “we have for our hostages these divine captives” of music. And the idea is present too in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus I, 3: different from the voice of passion, “true singing is a different breath, about / nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.”)

In “Literature and Music,” Mallarmé writes that there is no adequate language to render the paradoxical experience of modern consciousness except through a joining of poetry with music. For example in “The Afternoon of a Faun,” Mallarmé and Debussy, in his setting of the eclogue, evoke nymph and satyr, the sensual inhabitants of the imagination, by employing an evanescing stream of both sensuous sounds and silences: “these nymphs, I would make them endure…hovering yet upon the air / heavy with the foliage of sleep,” projecting paradoxically a “sonorous voice” on the edge of “silence.” The sinuous, intentionally disintegrating ‘voice’ of both the poetry and the music “hovers” on the edge of disappearing; it enacts yet transfigures the potential erasure which is everywhere possible in the modern period. Even as modern consciousness and the spirit may seem on the verge of disappearance, music – the weightless, airborne, least “materialist” art – becomes the sign and sanctuary of the human, “now vanishing into obscurity, [yet] now radiating unconquerably.” (Here’s a YouTube link to the opening of the Debussy – Gergiev/LSO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xK0F5KkfT4&feature=related - here, also, is a great recording with Boulez conducting: Debussy: Images / Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune / Printemps - The Cleveland Orchestra / Pierre Boulez.)

Stravinsky and Schoenberg offer two differing ways to confront the disintegration of traditional language and inherited convention in modern music. Stravinsky saw himself as shepherding classical music into an era of new opportunities to refresh inherited forms. In view of the riot the initial performance of The Rite of Spring provoked, he notes (in Poetics of Music) that “the tone of a work like The Rite may have appeared arrogant, the language that it spoke may have seemed harsh in its newness, but that in no way implies that it is revolutionary….If one only need break a habit to merit being labeled revolutionary, then every musician who has something to say and who in order to say it goes beyond the bounds of established convention would be known as revolutionary….To speak of revolution is to speak of a temporary chaos. Now art is the contrary of chaos.” This paradoxical argument is illustrated by the extraordinary precision Stravinsky’s scores require of musicians as they execute new ideas of rhythm (abrupt shifts, surprising syncopations, and unprecedented time signatures) and render unstably shifting, newly dissonant harmonies. [A powerful example of “harshly” innovative intensity joined with control is evident in the following YouTube excerpt from Salonen conducting the ending of The Rite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi16suM21jQ&feature=related.] No matter how radical his new means sounded to listeners, Stravinsky saw himself imperturbably as “daring” but never “disorderly,” a model of autonomous art never given over to “gratuitous excess.”

Like Picasso, he continually sought inspiration in past or primitive art (in an earlier note - 14 - on the modern period, I suggest how a laying bare of essential form is at work in both modern art's primitivism and its experimental abstraction). An appropriated and concerted primitivism is evident in the erotic sensuality of his adaptation of Russian folk melodies in The Rite and other scores; the result is a sensuous array of sounds and sensations which repeatedly well up unexpectedly with intentional violence. [In the following YouTube excerpt from Boulez conducting the ballet, listen particularly to the powerful transition at 3:38: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrOUYtDpKCc]; his wonderful Cleveland Orchestra performance is available here: Stravinsky: Petrouchka / Le Sacre de printemps (The Rite of Spring) ~ Boulez.] In the 1920s Stravinsky turned to earlier music (Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Pergolesi, Vivaldi and Bach) in order to create a sometimes grotesque hallowing; for example, he both masters and parodies 18th century Baroque style in the Violin Concerto, through allusion, inter-textual quotation, distorted imitation, and joining Baroque conventions with modernist dissonance and explicitly machine-like rhythm. In such acts of travesty, the pastiche of the past supplies an otherwise unavailable sense of unity and centeredness. [Here are YouTube excerpts from Gil Shaham’s performance of the first and third movements: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxgHH2eeFQ&feature=related and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cS0rMOXD5mg&feature=related. Here’s a link to a Stern recording: Stravinsky: Violin Concerto / Rochberg: Violin Concerto / Stern / Previn. There’s also Peter Serkin’s brilliant recording of the piano sonata: Stravinsky: Serenade In A, Sonata / Lieberson: Bagatelles / Wolpe: Pastorale, Form IV ("Broken Sequences"), Four Studies on Basic Rows, IV: Passacaglia.]

Stravinsky’s sense of sometimes grotesquely-achieved centeredness, unity, and objective mastery distinguishes his music from Schoenberg’s intentionally difficult and harmonically uncentered music. The latter presents almost no stabilizing repetitions of consonant harmonies and little sensuous celebration of dance rhythm and melody. Even the decadent dancing around the Golden Calf in Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron is leaden and spikily dissonant. To confront the 'world' of pure dissonance and to avoid any back-sliding into worn-out 'invalid' harmonies, he developed a “serial” scheme of rendering the twelve half-tones of the scale as a means of ordering his atonal music, but it does not diminish the sense of struggling integrity his music conveys as it faces the dissolution of traditional harmony, explores the “chasms in its clichés,” and fiercely opposes music for easy mass consumption. Descended from Sinai and witnessing the Golden Calf, Moses’ final ‘spoken song’ – “O word, thou word, that I lack!” – embodies a “surviving message of despair from the shipwrecked” (in a phrase from Adorno, who elevates Schoenberg music above Stravinsky’s, which he argues tends to promote “the illusion of authenticity and unity”). Much of Schoenberg’s work mourns the modern loss of sacramental human speech and meaning. [Moses’ last utterance is at about the 5 minute point in this YouTube excerpt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kLFz5b13RU&feature=related. And here is a fine recording: Schoenberg - Moses und Aron / Pittman-Jennings · Merritt · Boulez.]

Another example of Schoenberg’s struggling ‘integrity’ is the String Quartet No. 2 (from 1911). The fourth movement (1911) opens with a reduction to the barest elements of the scale, then yields the accompanied song, which constitutes the first completely atonal classical music. This music embodies the difficult autonomy and abstraction which are central characteristics of modernism, as the singer here recounts a traversal of the painful breech between woeful modern reality and the possibility of an alien transcendent joy like that which Rilke and Mallarme evoke: “I feel an air from other planets blowing,” the soprano sings (in Stefan George’s words – sung after the 3 minute point in this excerpt: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90cgDmMhh0E.) [There is a great recording by the LaSalle String Quartet available: Schoenberg; Berg; Webern - String Quartets – and also at Amazon is a wonderful Glenn Gould recording of Schoenberg’s piano works, including the opus 25 Suite, Schoenberg’s successful foray into Neo-classicism (and, as explained above, travesty); particularly Gould's performance brilliantly projects a wide expressive range, from the tragic even to the joyous: Schoenberg: Piano Works.]

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