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, April 30, 2012

Beethoven xv - playing Beethoven

Hypnotic is a word to use about the experience of playing Beethoven for both the performer and the listener. We’re drawn into a world which is self-contained as it works through its expressive possibilities, its rich and nuanced thinking, its emotional tensions and equanimities.

Imagine a piano in a crowded setting, like the communal room of a boarding house. Mute, unplayed, the piano has sat there for the first month of a freshman student’s first semester. (First year students at Berkeley live in a regulated setting – such was the case in 1961 and probably continues to be – in boarding houses, dorms, or Greek houses.) Finally the seventeen-year-old - bewildered and desperate for a piano to play - sits down at the piano, amid the chattering crowd, and he begins playing Beethoven. Conversations do not stop; nothing much changes, except that inside the mind of the young man, there is a nearly hypnotic zeroing-in on the sense of working out the motifs and possibilities of a beautiful structure in sound.

Some people listen to the piano being played by the very young man with bushy red-brown hair, thick horned-rim glasses, and pale green eyes. There is some pleasure in hearing the Beethoven sonata being played amid the cooking smells, the chatter and laughter. The sense of “making music” (or the player's experience of "musica practica") – of an emotional  and intellectual structure being built in ephemeral sound - has its own fascination for the player/hearer.

I remember being that young freshman, though it is hard for me to claim him as myself – he is I and yet also somehow another self. Which says something about the distance in years: I and not I. But it says something as well about music – for it draws from us a sort of double-consciousness: in the moment of living and in the moments of the music at the same time, here and there at once.
I remember also the sonata I played (there were subsequent sonatas played on that piano, once humiliation or death had not descended on the player at the first try). That first work was Beethoven’s opus 22 in B-flat, which is the same key as the great Hammerklavier sonata, composed twenty years later.
Opus 22 is not great, yet by virtue of its greater ordinariness, it offers other pleasures. First, it is a sort of pause before Beethoven’s creation of first the experimental sonatas (some offering slow variations or fantasies like the “Moonlight” in their first movements) and then the immensely powerful works for piano of 1805 – the Waldstein and the tragic Appassionata sonatas.
In contrast, this eleventh sonata looks back on the form of the previous ten and offers a summary and even a teasingly long-winded parody of their basic form: exposition of themes, development, recapitulation, and coda. Long but humorous and clever, the sonata was fine and fun to play, for it superficially did not contain the emotional and intellectual demands of the subsequent works.
Yet opus 22 does contain a sort of bounding energy (this and its length offer slight links to the later B-flat sonata): it contains the essential quality that one senses in Beethoven’s music – that working out of an inner “organic” dynamism. Whether playing or listening, there is the feeling that one is witnessing and subliminally – in the mind – participating with the working out of the structure of an entire world, with all its parts growing finally to cohere in a vision of force and order.
In my next post, I’ll try exploring a few more, related issues about experiencing Beethoven.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Beethoven xiv: Adorno on Beethoven iii (revised) - the late works

In approaching Beethoven’s late works, Theodor Adorno in his Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music (pages 90-111) earlier explores “the renunciation of symphonic mastery" even in the Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral (1808-9) or in the Archduke Trio, opus 97 (begun in 1810) and in the last Violin-Piano Sonata, opus 96 (1812). This loosening of the grip of sonata structure – of conflict and resolution – occurs in works which are contemporaneous with the great sonata-form works Beethoven composed in his late thirties and early forties (for example, the Fifth Symphony, finished in 1807 and revised in 1809, and the Seventh Symphony from 1811-12). In contrast to the Appassionata’s first-movement struggle against the recapitulation, the Archduke Trio contains an “unobtrusive recapitulation.” Characteristic of this alternative version of the sonata form is a sort of “smiling play” which is “reticent and not triumphal” – in the Pastoral Symphony, for example, we hear a sort of “dillydallying as utopia,” “setting time free.” In such moments “of stand-still: here the memory of the human survives, that all reification is not quite serious, that the spell [of domination] can be suspended and we can be called back to the human.”

The spell of domination, as I tried to show in my previous post, is located by Adorno in the mechanistic “autocracy of the recapitulation” but also in the occasional moments of “ostentation…intended to present something magnificent [but] remaining simply empty” (75-79). Adorno is by no means referring to the cohesive intensity of the Appassionata, with its moments of violence as it drives sonata form into extremity. Rather he is identifying an opposed tendency when Beethoven’s music “takes on something brutal, Germanic, triumphalist” – not merely in Wellington’s Victory but even in the Piano Sonata, opus 31 #1, which is almost a parody illustrating “the entanglement of lucidity with pomp.”

Beethoven’s late works “show how it is possible for art to divest itself of the ‘self-deception’ of totality,” of such dominance (80). These great works were written in his late forties and his fifties – from 1817 to 1827, during the last ten years of his life. This achievement is the focus of the final seventy pages of Adorno’s book (pages 123-193). The first four pages reproduce “Beethoven’s Late Style” from Adorno’s Moments Musicaux, (pages 123-126), and the opening sentences are not infrequently quoted: “The maturity of the late works of important artists is not like the ripeness of fruit. As a rule, these works are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured…They lack all that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demand from the work of art.” The reprinted essay’s few pages offer a brilliantly compressed account of Beethoven’s own late aesthetic, accounting for the insertion of conventional formulas and phrases into the late sonatas and quartets – the decorative trills, cadences, the improvisatory embellishing fiorituras, abrupt breaks, sudden crescendos and diminuendos, the octave unisons of empty phrases, then passages of baroque polyphony, etc.  As we listen to these effects in the last sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, and the late quartets, the question Adorno poses is why these “conventions are made visible in their unconcealed, untransformed bareness.”

“Conventions are split off” in “fissures, rifts, and fragments,” in response to the fact that the purposeful subjectivity of unfolding Appassionata-like sonata structures “breaks away” or has broken down. All the often antique conventional effects – “as splinters, derelict and abandoned – finally themselves become expression…no longer of the isolated ego but of the mythical nature of the creative and its fall.” In this way, conventions and antique phrases become “expression in the naked depiction of themselves” – become emancipated: “To liberate these phrases from the illusion of subjective control, the emancipated phrase speaks for itself.”

Beethoven’s late works, Adorno writes, “still remain a process, but not as a development” like the middle-period sonata forms; the “process” of the late sonatas and quartets “is an ignition between extremes.” Extremes are forced together within the moment, where “the empty phrase is set in place as a monument to what has been – a monument in which subjectivity is petrified,” the now dying subjectivity of Beethoven’s past. The sudden “caesurae, however, the abrupt stops” are, however, moments of breaking free, for “the work falls silent as it is deserted, turning its hollowness outwards. Only then is the next fragment added, ordered to its place by escaping subjectivity,” the failing “light in which the fragmented landscape grows.” In his late creation of fragmented and juxtaposed phrases, Beethoven “as a dissociative force tears them apart in time, perhaps in order to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes” (126).

In the pages that follow the above essay, Adorno’s notes (for those are what much of his book is comprised of) offer many, often fragmentary insights into the five late piano sonatas (opuses 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111), the Bagatelles for piano opus 126, and the late quartets (particularly opus 132 in A minor receives more sustained treatment). The Ninth symphony, finished in 1825, is criticized as a reversion to the middle period – a late work not in his late style. There are some brilliant comments on the late style’s sudden “harsh contrasts” between fugal effects and chord-like “simplicity,” its “splitting itself into monody and polyphony,” and the purity and depth of its commitment to such fragmentation of effect – clear for example in the wondrous shifts of effect in the great last piano sonata, opus 111 – classical music’s last great piano sonata, marking, as Adorno explained to Thomas Mann, the death of sonata form itself. This is Adorno’s key focus, then: “To be purely the matter itself, to be ‘classical’ without adjuncts, classicity bursts into fragments. This is one of the decisive tenets of my interpretation.” Here is a link to Stephen Kovacevich’s brilliant performance of op. 111; the slow Arietta begins at 8:35: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E_amCDr77Q&feature=related.

Rather than detailing additional specific insights into the music (there will be another time and place for that part of my effort), I’ll conclude by mentioning two of Adorno’s more startling formulations. One is in response to Walter Benjamin’s conception of “the name,” of Adam’s task of naming in Genesis, as a form of prayer. Adorno sees Beethoven’s music as a similar process with a similar relationship to language (161-4). “Music saves the name as pure sound, but at the cost of separating it from things.” In enacting that separation, it conveys ultimately an awareness of death, of the self-awareness of the disappearance or “insignificance” of subjective individual experience. Music’s “gaze” may be on the human, but the art of music is “imageless:” like prayer, it is an “image of the imageless.” Later (on 176) Adorno likens imageless music’s “destruction of the particular,” of the relationship with the life of “things,” to the Talmudic prayer about the “grass angels:” “all perishes in the sacred fire.” And yet Adorno’s speculations paradoxically convey the power of prayer, aesthetic and secular as may be the hope embodied by Beethoven’s “demythologizing” late music (193). It is as if Adorno here seeks an art form that can withstand the terrible fire which consumed the period he survived of the Holocaust.

In the light of those speculations in extremis, the other extraordinary formulation I would mention speaks for itself (154): “In Beethoven, the spirit remains master of itself in experiences which are otherwise inevitably purchased with madness. These experiences, however, are not those of subjectivity but of language…Beethoven looks the bare language of music in the eye.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beethoven xiii - Adorno on Beethoven's Appassionata

A source of power in the Appassionata sonata’s first movement is that it keeps unfolding wave upon wave of creative transformation with relentless iterations and variations of its core motifs, so that the sections of the first movement begin to meld together. Each eruption of development becomes part of the creative flux: the differences between motifs are elided (the foreboding and ferocious first theme, for example, finds insistent echoes in the jaunty, striving third theme), and the differences between sections are all subsumed within the unfolding process: the initial statement of themes quickly and inexorably yields their massive development, and the restatement disintegrates into an enormous redevelopment in the coda. Here is a link to Barenboim’s great performance of the movement in 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPR3pkcNbKI.
In Adorno’s Hegel-inflected formulation in Beethoven: Philosophy of Music, the movement maintains a defiant “diversity [which] evens out into unity but keeps diverging from it while the form remains an abstract sheath over the diversity,” a “sheath” comprised of the unity of sonata form. The continually unfolding sequences and motifs become examples of a tragic, subversive “subjectivity veering into wretchedness” (51) with the “individual moments estranged” (13) from the enveloping and enabling bourgeois conventions of sonata form with its false promise of freed and empowered expressiveness. The tragic power of the first movement of the Appassionata is that it transforms what is false and perfunctory into “a terrible beauty” (to use Yeats’ term), so that the eruptive music of the Appassionata sonata unfolds “a total becoming” within the dominating form which it inhabits (46).

Adorno’s earlier statements bear repeating here: “If Beethoven is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is esthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer. His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” (43). And: “By its power, his successful work of art posits the real success of what was in reality a failure,” for “that bourgeois society is exploded by its own immanent dynamic – this is imprinted in Beethoven’s music,” whose creative process both reproduces and puts to shame (“explodes”) the “esthetic untruth” of bourgeois expressiveness and freedom, which are revealed as a deluded and null in comparison to the power of the music (46).

These formulations locate a paradox in Beethoven’s sonata suggestively reminiscent of a paradox in Dostoyevsky’s novels: in them, a protracted act of confession is expected and exacted from the protagonists, and yet their subversive voicing of the convention of confession is performed in such a way as to cast into question the very nature and substance of the confession. It is an index of their modernity or proto-modernity that the society-sanctioned forms are simultaneously fulfilled and subversively transformed. After Beethoven (or for that matter, after Dostoyevsky), one next step in the history of the arts is modern and postmodern travesty and pastiche.

Adorno offers many specific insights particularly into the Appassionata’s middle, development section in the “dialectical” first movement of the sonata (60). In this section, the sonata hugely expands the development and finally synthesis of the sonata’s two major thematic motifs not only in this middle section but in the coda as well (51-2). These “improvisatory” sections pit the resources of “fantasy” against the rigidity and restraint of sonata form, and they seem “haplessly to desire the suffering” of the confrontation, with its “extra-human” harmonies, their sforzando “minor seconds,” and the hammered chords and demonically driven arpeggios. These effects all place the listener, as it were, in mid-stream, in the midst of extreme turbulence, and instill a continual awareness of the “incompleteness of what has just been formed” – i.e., the open-ended power and shattering freedom of the creative process unfolding before us.

A significant crux for Adorno is the sonata form’s requirement that the original main theme be brought back by the “recapitulation” section after the shattering development. This reprise of the main theme is exposed, he writes, as an act of “crushing repression,” as “a trait of esthetic untruth” implicating bourgeois society’s imposition of and insistence on “the conjuring of static sameness amid total becoming” (44, 46). In the Appassionata, Beethoven refuses that complacent sameness by infusing the recapitulation with instability, continually generating newly energized details and accompanying the reprise with a low-pitched pulse of repeated notes, a constant agitation, quickly leading to the newly massive development of the coda. The sonata in this way exposes “the reprise as a problem,” subverting and upending “the moment of untruth in bourgeois ideology” (16) – and so for “Beethoven, then, the traditional forms are reconstructed out of freedom” (61).

The symphonic equivalent of the Appassionata is the first movement of the Third Symphony, the Eroica, composed just a few years before. For Adorno, the orchestral work’s earlier genesis and its more public “writ-large” gestures of “symphonic mastery” rather streamline the effects of the work. Nevertheless, a tension is once again set up between the “closed symphonic” (sonata) form and the “open” improvisatory organic episodes of “epic” development. There are the harmonic collisions in the Eroica from the opening bars on and the many other intentional irregularities, particularly – once again – in the development and coda sections. The many developments Adorno notes all conspire to reveal the turbulent and even tragic “incompatibility” of those rival, “irreconcilable” conceptions – of the “open” and the “closed,” the improvisatory and the conventional, the “epic” and the “symphonic” (105-6). In Adorno’s Marxist-Hegelian view particularly of hearing such a work in isolation in media remote from the concert hall, the collision of forms in the Eroica confirms “the truth of the unreconciled condition of the individual in bourgeois society” (120) – in part because one exists self-consciously both within and outside the inhabited society [a version of this Hegelian formulation -  stressing the music's ironic Goethean wisdom of simultaneously enacting 'within' and narrating 'outside' - can be found, too, in Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero (146)].

In my next post, I’ll attempt to explore Adorno’s rather more detailed and remarkably responsive formulations about late Beethoven and his self-consciousness about convention and innovation.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Beethoven xii - Adorno on Beethoven

I recently finished reading Beethoven: Philosophy of Music by Theodor Adorno, and I’m tempted to try to “reduce” – literally and figuratively – some of his main formulations to a posting or two of commentary here. Reading his extraordinarily insightful yet fragmented and abstract commentary is, of course, a challenge. However, the book provides at times such a revelation, particularly about Beethoven’s late works, even as Adorno’s prose is designed to repel easy assimilation (the Jephcott translation is not unapproachable - is probably more approachable for explicitly being a set of fragments [Stanford University Press, 1998]). So, for better or worse, I hope here to make a bit more accessible some of that commentary.

Here is an early example of Adorno’s stark formulations:
“It is conceivable that Beethoven actually wanted to go deaf – because he had already had a taste of the sensuous side of music as it is blared from loudspeakers today. ‘The world is a prison in which solitary confinement is preferable.’ Karl Kraus” (31). Then he quotes George Groddeck: “‘Beethoven went deaf so that he could hear nothing but the singing daemon within him.’” Later, Adorno comments on the composer’s solitude in the midst of “the plebian habitus of his humanity…which – suffering and protesting – feels the fissure of its loneliness. Loneliness is what the emancipated individual is condemned to in a society retaining the mores of the absolutist age” (45). As his music “goes beyond” the conventions of “bourgeois society,” Beethoven “exceeds the bounds of a reality whose suffering imperfections are what conjures up art” in the first place (47).
The first forty or so pages of Adorno’s book offer many such stark paradoxes (often seeming to mix Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche) in what amounts to a sort of overture of fragments, a disassembly of motifs; these motifs are also presented in a more integrated fashion in a sequence titled “The Mediation between Music and Society” from Introduction to the Sociology of Music (43-49). From about page 50 to 123, the commentary focuses more fully on Beethoven’s middle period and particularly on the significance of sonata form with some attention to the powerful example of the Appassionata sonata (also, in the midst here, there is a chapter discussing the symphonies, the Eroica, etc.). The seventy pages following page 123 are focused more fully on Beethoven’s late works.
For Adorno, the significance of Beethoven’s music results, on the one hand, from its power as form, its autonomous structure of expression, and on the other hand, from its resistant engagement of his society’s “ideology,” its assumed values and power relations. This dual emphasis is clear at the very start of Adorno’s commentary when he declares that the “ideological significance” of Beethoven’s music is that it is “a voice lifted up, that it is music at all,” and this significance is heightened beyond the ordinary because, for Beethoven, the very possibility of having an uplifted voice is placed into question by bourgeois ideology – is falsified by its domination of thought and expression (6).
Beethoven’s music attempts to overcome that “crushing” domination and the seemingly patent “a priori untruth” and falsity of having a voice in the first place in such a society, and he does so by creating music which is continually in process, absorbing, moving, and dodging among conventions, and “unfolding truth” from “nothing,” from the barest motifs: “Beethoven’s work can be seen as an attempt to revoke the a priori untruth of music’s voice, of its being music at all, through its immanent movement as an unfolding truth. Hence, perhaps, the insignificance of its starting point: this is nothing…” (7). I’m reminded of the notion of “making music” I broached in my last post – that in performing Beethoven’s work, one seems to be not only witnessing but participating in the creation of the piece, the working out of motifs, the resolution of tensions, the upwellings of feeling: in short, we feel we are participating with Beethoven in ‘making’ the music.
What we witness and “realize” in sound, in Adorno’s view of Beethoven, is music in the very process of creation: music that “brings forth itself...as a tour de force, a paradox, a creatio ex nihilo…a ‘floating’” experiment, forming music out of the simplest details, even as – in this Marxist-Hegelian view – its form is “mediated” and “comprehensible only in terms of its function within the reproduction of society as a whole.” The “liberated details” of his music enact and resist – through a process of estranged open-endedness – the concept that in “bourgeois” society all is “interchangeable” or “fungible,” that no individual detail (no musical note, banknote, or person) exists in itself and everything exists in relation to the whole (34). Beethoven’s reimagining in music of the relation of parts to the whole confronts and intentionally disturbs the typical bourgeois listener, for whom the “amusement” of music is embraced as “a way to defeat boredom” (8), as a distraction from the ennui familiar to Baudelaire.
“If Beethoven is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is esthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer. His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” (43), and the music does so by “reconstructing out of freedom” the otherwise self-deluded bourgeois assumptions about the power of self-projection and the free will to impose a masterful unity.
“By its power, his successful work of art posits the real success of what was in reality a failure,” for “that bourgeois society is exploded by its own immanent dynamic – this is imprinted in Beethoven’s music,” whose creative process both reproduces and puts to shame (“explodes”) the “esthetic untruth” of bourgeois expressiveness and freedom, which are revealed as a deluded nullity in comparison to the power of the music (46).
Though my account here may well misrepresent (or at least fail to clarify) Adorno’s difficult formulations, I’ll keep trying and turn to Adorno’s treatment of the Appassionata sonata in my next post.