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.]

Monday, June 6, 2011

Notes on the modern period - 26 - the modern use of folk and popular art (Brecht/Weill and Bartok)

From its beginnings, classical music has made use of folk and popular melodies and dance forms – the waltz, the minuet, the gavotte, the sarabande, etc. In the visual arts, too, communal sources and the “populace” provide the audience and origin of much art – religious art, for example, like a classical statue of Athena or a painted or sculpted Jesus, even as these art objects may aspire to high art. In the modern period, Picasso (along with, of course, many others serious artists) adapts and distorts folk images – the African masks in “Desmoiselles,” for instance – as well as quotidian popular motifs from Paris, Spain and elsewhere.
In modern music, as we discussed earlier, Mahler travesties lullabies and marches. Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” (composed during World War I; here's a cd link - Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky: The Mono Years) plays with and parodies various military marches and dances, and “The Rite of Spring” adapts Russian folk melodies. An example from modern literature is Joyce’s Ulysses, which incorporates popular songs, advertising jingles, and much slang in its effort to encompass the entire world of modernity, past and present. Eliot’s The Wasteland “do the police in different voices,” echoing everything from that bit of Dickens to “O O O O that Shakespeherean Rag,” etc. 
Modernist adaptations of popular and folk materials involve an active distortion, making the source motifs ironic and “difficult.” This process is partly a sort of estranging of popular materials, but it’s also an assimilation of those motifs into the larger forms and aims of the artwork. Brecht and Weill offer a key example of the estrangement technique, and Bartok’s music provides a brilliant instance of the process of assimilation into “serious” art.

In Brecht/Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1928), for example, there is the “avant-garde” use of what Bertolt Brecht calls the “alienation” effect, which here mixes the aims of art music with lounge and music hall tunes and employs, too, the noises of the culture (blowing police whistles at the audience, for instance). All these ironies invite (or force) one to see the links between the opera’s criminals and the economic establishment (which “eats up the poor man’s bread,” in Eric Bentley bitterly poignant version: “For the ones, they are in darkness and the others are in light. And you see the ones in brightness. Those in darkness drop from sight”). The sharply ironic transformation of pop music aims to expose the society’s decadence and to “alienate” the normally passive popular consumer of such music. This alienation technique aims to stir the audience’s active critical engagement, yet simultaneously – like travesty – Kurt Weill’s mocking and brilliantly inventive transformation of popular materials holds onto them, in a double irony, as offering all that is left of expressiveness in a corrupt society. Mockery becomes the necessary added ingredient to restore their expressive potential. Here is “Mack the Knife” sung by Lotte Lenya, Weill’s wife, who appeared in the original production of the opera: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpMh5auMaVQ&feature=related. This is a recent, fairly idiomatic version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0HZsiFNxN0&feature=related. And here it is sung by the popular “alternative rock” singer Nick Cave: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3_2zbZwDlM&playnext=1&list=PLD97706DDFA894823&index=1. Here is a cd link to the opera: Weill: The Threepenny Opera.
Travesty and mockery are not emphasized in Bartok’s music, which synthesizes and assimilates (“holds onto,” but not as travesty) Eastern European “folk” music of which, as a young musicologist, he made a careful record. In his powerful and beautifully conceived music, these unfamiliar “folk” elements are radically transformed into core motifs and experimental harmonies; as well, “primitive” dance syncopations and percussive rhythms are often driven to the edge of violence. Here are examples from his Piano Concerto No. 2 (first movement – Ranki, pianist, and Kocsis): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_36cPkLyvI&feature=related – and the Piano Concerto No. 1 (first movement – Pollini, pianist, and Boulez) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMwH3011tTk&feature=related (a cd link: Bartok: The Piano Concertos).  Here is an example of this driven, demonic quality joined also to inventive whimsy and to destabilizing, dissonant modernist harmonies, in the Violin-Piano Sonata No. 1 iii (Kremer and Argerich): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4DzOzckOpg&feature=related. And, for a final YouTube illustration, here is a similar combination operating at the most ambitious, complex, and abstract level of classical form in the String Quartet No. 5, i: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2diuSD2pLic&feature=related. There is a wonderful early Perahia recording of Bartok's Piano Sonata (1926), which contains this extraordinary synthesis of classical form and folk elements – and which was important in prompting my description of the character Petrov’s performance in my novel Hungry Generations; the cd is available at this link: Murray Perahia Performs Béla Bartók (Piano Sonata; Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs; Suite; Out of Doors; Sonata for 2 pianos & 2 percussion).

Just a final note on modern music: the image I used above of “music being driven to the edge,” as if of a precipice, suggests a quality I’d like to try defining a bit further. As an art form, music rises above material reality, even as human beings commission and produce it; as pure sound, it is the most immaterial of the arts. From its vantage point, it places our material world at a distance and, as a result, seems more “hospitable” to the life of the spirit – of consciousness and imagination. The extraordinary achievement of music, from at least Bach to Stravinsky, is – in Erich Heller’s words – “the speechless triumph of the spirit in a world of words without deeds and deeds without words.” Beethoven represents a sort of mid-point in this apotheosis of the human spirit; his attunement to matters of the will, to the value and force of what Adorno calls “the revolutionary bourgeoisie,” is complicated and in a sense made ironic by the fact that he could not “hear” the music he composed as well as by the fact that the power of his music “explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” – that’s to say, the music expresses a transformative force and masterful beauty that the  society lacks. Both “facts” confirm the god-like or at least Prospero-like quality of what his music seems to convey, that it exists at a level of transcendent fiction which positions us, his listeners to, “reflect critically on the world and on themselves.” The notion that abstract (and in the case of the modern, experimental) form challenges the perceiver is made more palpable and intense when music seems “driven to the edge,” destabilizing and demonic, as I've tried to show with regard to Bartok and other modern composers.

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