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.]

The Art of Travesty: Schnittke, Shostakovich, Mahler

Schnittke, Shostakovich, Mahler, and the Art of Travesty

[a version of this essay was delivered as a paper at the International Association for Philosophy and Literature conference at Trinity University in Hartford, May 2001)


The music of Alfred Schnittke, who died in August 1998 at age sixty-three, embodies crucial features of the postmodern fate of art. Its signal quality is an encompassing passion for transformation; its lustful and consuming energy seeks to absorb the entire tradition of music, from medieval chant through classical conventions to punk rock. New transformation, new appropriation, is its formal prerogative, whether in music of repose and silvery calm or in the midst of frenzy. Like Karamazov’s buffoonery and the Idiot’s fit, his music consumes all the energy in the Hall of Music, deranging, zapping, and travestying all the disintegrating forms and ruined or falsified vocabularies resounding in the Hall’s grave air. With its “polystylistic” pastiches and travesties of earlier composers, this music has proved to be widely compelling to audiences in Russia and also in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The reasons for its impact reflect on both the nature of postmodernism and the situation of music in recent decades.

In the nineteen-nineties, two discussions of the composer helped to clarify his impact and influence. In 1996, the larger of these studies appeared, Alexander Ivashkin’s Alfred Schnittke in Phaidon’s Twentieth Century Composers series. Here we learn of Schnittke’s Russian, Jewish, and Catholic German background, his early exposure to Viennese musical culture, the formative impact of Shostakovich’s work, and the influence of his teacher Philip Gershkovich’s conception of a polystylistic music, which would echo and absorb the full range of music from pre-Baroque to Webern and beyond. Ivashkin is particularly interested in exposing the hidden content of Schnittke’s music, its “submerged symbolic element” and “spiritual content.” He argues on the basis of its musical echoes of various liturgies that Schnittke’s music conveys and depends on a particularly Russian form of mystical Christianity. Given the extraordinarily wide range of sacred and profane echoes in Schnittke’s music, it is a bit reductive to zero in on its “mysticism.” More interesting than the putative hidden content here is, I think, the intention itself of hiding content. That there are multiple levels of suggested and obscured meanings is characteristic of its musical formations. The significance of its multifarious form is not that it bears a specific meaning but that it enacts the promise of meaning when no meaning can be “spoken”—when meaning-making has become packaged and propagandistic, a usurped if not obliterated activity.

The capability of music to express the potential for meaning when meaningful utterance is obliterated by a society’s apparatus of cliché is a subject approached ten years ago in Richard Taruskin’s delving study of the crises of identity shaping Russian musical history, Defining Russia Musically. It is Shostakovich’s music which Taruskin sees as offering Schnittke a model of musical “polysemy,” a term for the strategically ambiguous voicing of multiple “subtexts and multivalent meanings,” expressing—or, better, insinuating—potentially and simultaneously both “freedom and constraint.” In the repressive context of Soviet society, music (famously, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony) offered “its blessed polysemy, [which] afforded…a consolation no other art could provide.” The dire sense of the Soviet context is most evident in Taruskin’s chapter on Schnittke. In his analysis of the “posteverythingist” composer, Taruskin notes that the late Soviet version of the “’semiotic’ or signaling aspect, a traditional characteristic of Russian music”—say, in the use of “discord”—is transformed by this music into a sort of screen onto which any meaning can be projected in “whatever terms (ethical, spiritual, autobiographical, political) the listener may prefer.” Given its ambiguous and ironic recycling of “prefabricated associations” and bathetic clichés, “the result is socialist realism minus the socialism. It implies dramaturgy and aspires, beyond that, to the condition of philosophy.”

Taruskin is undecided about Schnittke’s realization of this aspiration, and he spends some pages exposing what he perceives to be tasteless and omnivorous exaggeration and bathos: “No other composer so fearlessly recycles cliché.” Yet he also identifies the gamble implicit in Schnittke’s ambiguously transforming into extreme travesty and irony all the bloated entities of musical cliché (whether Soviet dreck or commercialized pablum or academic still-lifes). Where Taruskin perceives the risk of loss—of the failed gamble—Ivashkin hears a quasi-messianic Russian Orthodox strain in Schnittke’s music. Both formulations would do well to acknowledge more generously its key feature: its voracity, a voracious welcoming even of failure and collapse, or especially these, for the lust of appropriation in this music is matched only by its sense of mourning. (In his opera, Life with an Idiot, Schnittke has Proust, Dostoyevskian doubles, and all the others wildly, absurdly waltz about only to collapse in acute pain before our eyes and ears.)

A certain pudeur is understandable in the face of such lustful musical extremity, as we witness the imaginative voracity intensely charging each of his best scores, continually assimilating and transforming musical materials into deracinated and destabilized ambiguity. (One is reminded of Edward Said’s Adornian conceptions—in Musical Elaborations—of transgressive music and of performance as “an extreme occasion.”) Such music enacts a passionate, uncontainable consuming of all music in its path, “without respite, which makes us, the spectators[/listeners], gasp with anguish at the idea that nothing will ever be able to stop it.” These are Artaud words, in “Theatre and the Plague,” describing Giovanni at the climax of “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” Ford’s boundary-violating, genre-exploding Renaissance drama. Schnittke similarly explores a region of transgressive and outrageous travesty, yet it simultaneously ranges into a zone of outraged grief, of mourning for the death of the very forms its so prodigally travesties.


To listen to Schnittke’s music is akin to hearing the teetering songs at a wake, songs of rabid and consuming drunkenness. It is as if wild voracity becomes a sign of grief. One searches for the appropriate critical language in order to evaluate the unstable “situation” of expression and reception into which such music draws the listener. Partly this difficulty of critique results from the extremity of that “situation,” that of apocalyptic and at times tortured witness to the endangered process of making meaning itself. To analyze the paradoxical effect of moral and emotional witness in Schnittke and the model he offers music at the start of the twenty-first century, a crucial guide is provided by Theodor Adorno’s idea of negative dialectics, of thinking against itself, against the grain of its own founding assumptions. Particularly relevant is Adorno’s use of such critique in his analyses of Mahler’s beautiful, desperate, massive symphonies in Quasi Una Fantasia and Mahler. Adorno’s conception of Mahler’s symphonies can be linked also to Shostakovich’s concerto and symphonic works, and we will see that the musical ideas both composers develop find their inheritor in Schnittke, in his exposure and explosion of symphonic and concerto forms.

Like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony or Shostakovich’s concertos for string soloists, Schnittke’s Fourth Symphony and his First Concerto Grosso and his Viola Concerto expose and travesty a fundamental assumption in certain uses of symphonic and concerto forms. That is their capacity to project the potentially totalitarian communal power of massed orchestral forces, all concertedly sounding together, whether in early modernist Vienna, in mid-century Soviet Russia, or in our own brave new century. These orchestral forces move toward obliterating the struggling individual voice of viola or violin, and the agon between individual and collective is marked in such music by a markedly exposed and disintegrating extremity. The music of Schnittke, like that of Mahler or Shostakovich, witnesses and estranges society’s gestures of power and expressivity, and—in Adorno's phrase from Minima Moralia—reveals those gestures to be, with their rifts and fissures, as indigent and distorted as they would appear in a transfigured, messianic perspective. This conception of aesthetic and ethical witness helps us to clarify why—as Ivashkin and Taruskin assert—Schnittke is the postmodern inheritor particularly of Shostakovich’s mantle.

To see Shostakovich in relation to the idea of witness is to recognize both auspicious expectations of his work and their ironic defeat. One aspect of Shostakovich's paradoxical struggle—in the Eighth String Quartet or his Fifth Symphony, for example—was to absorb into public, Soviet musical conventions certain otherwise abhorred features of early modernism: the Mahlerian symphony; the Neo-Classical transmutation of Bach's contrapuntal example; and the development of chamber music further into the region discovered in Beethoven’s late quartets, in what Schoenberg termed the "progressive" chamber works of Brahms, and in Bartok’s quartets. Subversively assimilating these modernist prerogatives, Shostakovich's major quartets and symphonies express a self-challenging awareness of the ways in which ethics and aesthetics can articulate or collide.

Shostakovich's complex sensitivity to the tension between aesthetic and ethical elements in modern art has often been interpreted in reductive terms, which ascribe either dissident or Stalinist motives to the composer, as he struggled to advance the Western musical tradition within the oppressive and totalitarian context of Soviet Russia. Given the range of his putative motives, to assert that his music is ambiguous does not merely celebrate its modernist autonomy—its brilliance as self-sustaining form; it is to point also to the music’s capacity to evince and even to liberate a range of interpretive responses in the face of a society dominated by assumed and preformed interpretation. Taruskin argues this same point in Defining Russia Musically. He shows how the motifs of the march or of grief in Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony can become infused with ironic transformation to the point of interchangeability. In the familiar material of that symphony, the first movement's sensitive, inward, grieving second theme becomes transformed into the development section's violent, manic march theme, the same theme ironically yielding now a terrifying display of power. There is the inversion of this ironic transformation when the Scherzo's manic travesty of carnival music makes way in a sudden, breathtaking caesura for the Largo's dire requiem—or when the Allegro finale with its catastrophic and brutal march yields suddenly the grievous stagnation in the final few minutes before the rousing and punishing coda.

These transformations render, from within the totalized society, the ironic extremity and the interchangeability of inner complicity and of witness, the sensations almost simultaneously of assimilation into and victimization by the power at work in such a society. At the first performance in Moscow of the Fifth Symphony, the audience of party bureaucrats and musical aficionados was enveloped in a mutual catharsis, drawing from them open weeping and a sense of uplift rousing the audience literally to its feet. This symphony had given subjective voice to the simultaneous sensations of inner complicity and of agonized witness, but not only in the Soviet Union circa 1950. Shostakovich's rendering here of the interpenetration of power and grief is—in Taruskin's words—“an act of witness that gives voice to the silenced cost” from the perspective of the subject within a totalized society.


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.


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.