Monday, May 23, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/22: The Dangerousness of Game of Thrones

(massive spoiler alert)

One by one, my remaining defenses against Game of Thrones as a great work of art are dropping as quickly as its characters. Game of Thrones is still incredibly melodramatic, its violence is gratuitously barbaric, the two-dimensionality of its characters is unmistakable (though that's better than one-dimensional characters), and the way the characters express themselves alternate between terrifying eloquence and laughable woodenness. But until tonight, my heart has never truly been touched by Game of Thrones, and this was probably the most sublime moment in the whole show thus far. As I watched tonight's episode with my mother (obviously never a good idea with this show, but she has HBO and I don't...), she literally broke down in tears at the end, while I sat perfectly still in my seat without moving for what must have been a whole minute. In the moment when you see Hodor meet his destiny, you are touched at levels both emotional and spiritual. You're heartbroken for a beloved character killed twice, perhaps you're weeping in sympathy for a boy cut down at the beginning of life and unwittingly betrayed by the very person he cares about most, and yet you're also awed by the cosmos ordaining a literally superhuman heroic sacrifice, and awed at how a lifetime can meet its destiny in an instant that takes decades to make sense, yet you're also devastated that you'll never know if this act of destiny will ever make sense to Hodor.

None of this will make sense to you either if you haven't seen the last episode, I think that all of it will make sense if you have.

I have no doubt at this point that if Game of Thrones will not be remembered as the greatest television show of all time, it will at very least be remembered as the greatest TV drama up to this point. This depresses me  As far as art goes, Game of Thrones has to be the most degrading artistic spectacle in the history of this country. I don't think I'll ever be able to resolve for myself if Game of Thrones is great art to contemplate or exploitative trash that exists to drive its viewers mad. We Americans have a pornographic (warnographic?) fascination with the show. Nineteen million Americans watch it legally, and untold millions more pirate it. I doubt they tune in merely for the violence, they tune in for how the violence manages to stay shocking because it inevitably advances a story. The fact that we're still shocked by the omnipresent violence is tribute to GoT's storytelling. Five-and-a-half seasons in, a moniker much higher than entertainment cannot possibly be denied it.

I've spilled enormous amounts of ink (bytes?) in this space about the awesome and troubling achievement that is Game of Thrones. I can't help it. There's just so much to say about it. Any discussion of contemporary America, or the world at large, that doesn't mention Game of Thrones does not understand either America or the World.

Art, among its many other precious qualities, is a societal seismograph. When the world is fundamentally in balance and secure, the world consumes art that reflects its balance - works that are elegant, engaging, seemingly simple. In this Age of Television, the fact that the world attached itself as it did in the 90's to Seinfeld - and the younger generation to The Simpsons - said something good about it. Yes, it probably signaled that our worldview was hopelessly immature, but it also showed that we were a country which could bare looking at the darkness of life with humor and resilience. A large part of Seinfeld's appeal comes from its formal perfection - not a single unnecessary word, not a single wasted moment on the screen. So even when Seinfeld was at its most shockingly misanthropic, it was executed so perfectly that you couldn't help but be shocked by how calmly you accepted it - "don't take anything too seriously" it seemed to tell us. The same went for The Simpsons, which mastered tone in precisely the same way that Seinfeld mastered form. Every foray into seriousness was immediately followed by humor, every foray into cheeriness was followed by darkness, every highbrow nod followed by a fart joke. Just as the relative optimism of the Clinton years curdled into the dark pessimism of the Bush years, the p erfect tonal balance of The Simpsons curdled into South Park's misanthropy. The perfect formal balance of Seinfeld careened into Arrested Development's baroque formal experiments.

It was only a matter of time before serious drama, dark drama that spares us nothing of human nature's full depravity, took its place. The Sopranos and The Wire were dark shows, but they were realism personified, trying in their different ways to portray well-rounded humans as they are, and always leavening their darkness with humor and philosophical distance. They were followed by dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which took the realism of their predecessors into a kind of cinematic hyper-realism. Breaking Bad was perhaps an obvious predecessor of Game of Thrones, trying to drive audiences into madness with the depravity and gloom of its realism, making us crave new episodes like a narcotic addiction. Mad Men, on the other hand, was a master of both form and tone. To my thinking, it was, and could always be, the zenith of TV Drama - as close to perfection as so many hours of TV film can approach. Every gesture, every movement, every nuance, is freighted with incredible meaning and soul. It was, in its twisted way, a declaration of optimism during the Obama Era. "We needn't be nostalgic for a past that had to end," it seems to tell us, and therefore perhaps that our best days are ahead of us.

But it is precisely the unbelievable example of balance and perfection of shows like Mad Men that makes Game of Thrones so effective. It aims not for perfection, but infinity, and to cast its viewers into as many directions and dimensions as possible. The objective of Game of Thrones is to locate all those rules of storytelling which we've long cherished in the TV age, and burn them all.

When reading history, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the more art a society consumes that shatters the balance, the closer that society moves to its own world shattering. It's as though Jung's collective unconscious perceives threats before they happen, and part of art's function is a warning system to make us aware of those threats. Only a life without balance would crave pleasures that make our senses fray and our nerves electrify, and it's probably much easier to keep the world in balance than to bring a world back to balance. If we're gripped by dark art, we will probably be gripped before long by dark things far realer than Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones has never reached so far into the artistic sublimity as it did tonight, and I worry it never can again. The world expanded and expanded and expanded for five-and-a-half years, but with Hodor's unconscious act of superhuman bravery, we have reached the zenith of how large the world of Game of Thrones can become. It was always a legendary world that transcended the normal constraints of place, but now it also transcends the normal constraints of time. What we see in Game of Thrones is not the primal mythology of an ancient civilization, what we see is the primal beliefs that guide our own civilization. We have the technology to leave earth behind, and yet we use it to recreate scenes of our origins.

The homing device of the primitive is innate in us all. The further remove we live from the earth, the greater our urge to reunite with it. The greater the comforts life affords us, the louder the moloch calls us back. The more science and technology we accumulate, the greater our taste to use that technology to use that technology like an aphrodisiac, our subconscious fantasizing from blowing up this prison of civilization and culture with every act of the most barbaric depravity we witness on TV, with still more barbaric ones present for us in every dark corner of the internet.

Perhaps what disturbs me most about Game of Thrones, about Fantasy Literature in general, is its nostalgia for the archetypes of former eras, not for their refinement or culture as in Mad Men, but most particularly the nostalgia for the barbarism of old times. The epics upon which works like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are based - works like Beowulf and the Edda and the Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied - were created out of naivete for a world any better and more true to human aspiration than the one in which their creators lived. There is no such excuse for Game of Thrones to hide behind, and while Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter place us squarely on the side of human virtue, Game of Thrones makes us root for the maximum possible destruction. Game of Thrones may now be considered more consequential to American and world culture than either Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter ever were. Lord of the Rings was a cult classic which then became the hit movie of its day. Harry Potter was Game of Thrones on training wheels, conditioning a generation of cultural consumers in the ways of magic and fantasy literature. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was a cult work that has become the dominant TV show at the moment when TV's control over the world is ironclad. It is the full id of the world psyche unleashed on the idiot box, it's like a work of art created by Lucifer. I'm convinced that no viewer actually gets pleasure by watching Game of Thrones, we are, rather, infatuated by it, inflamed by it, addicted to it like a powerful drug.

On the other hand, what amazes me about Game of Thrones is that it is less a fantasy world than a projection of a former reality - probably the most accurate projection we will ever have of what it felt like to live in the Middle Ages - omnipresent death, just enough technology for an overclass to control the underclass with an iron fist of squalor, and with an endless litany of belief in supernatural forces - often in conflict with one another - which guide everything about our world.

The Middle Ages was the ultimate world without balance. Political scientists talk greatly in our time about the differences between international systems that are uni-polar, bi-polar, and multi-polar - the bi-polar world being the most desireable and stable. But the Middle Ages was an utterly apolar world, ruled only by chaos. Every district had its own system of polarities, which could necessitate violent conflict that could draw in every other district. The result could only be an overwhelming violent chaos.











Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/16: The Brothers Ashkenazi

I did not know that it would be a defining, numinous moment of my life, but it most certainly was. It was 2004, I had just finished my summer program in London, and was staying for a day or two at the house of my father's extremely wealthy graduate school friend of thirty-five years earlier in Hampstead Heath before making my way up to see Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival.

On her bookshelf were two volumes which caught my eye. One was Dubliners by James Joyce, the other was The Spinoza of Market Street by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I don't know what made me pull down the Singer - perhaps it was the sense that Singer would be a much easier read. I later discovered that Dubliners was utterly unintimidating, but what I discovered that afternoon by pulling down the Singer was the most visceral reading experience of my life.

I don't expect gentiles, perhaps not even many other Jews, will understand just what makes my relationship with Isaac Bashevis Singer so personal, except to reiterate that Emerson quote I seem to pull out here from time to time: "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty."

It would seem that Singer was ahead of me on every thought I've ever had about the state of Jews and Judaism. For once, within all that jingoistic moralistic morass I grew up with about the superiority of the Jewish community and Jewish values, here, finally, was a writer available to confirm to me that Jews can be pretty goddamn terrible people, at least as full of cruelty and vanity as any other ethnic group. All which separates them from the cruelty of their goyisher torturers is their powerlessness, which in the paranoid delusions of the goyisher world, is often mistaken for omnipotence.

I didn't just grow up with living connections to the Yiddish speaking shtetlach in which he set the majority of his stories, or even the Yiddish-speaking American communities where he set most of the others, I grew up in a modern-day American shtetl where everyone from the highest macher to the lowest schlemiel was a Jew. I barely knew a non-Jew until I was sixteen, my only contact with the gentile world being the violin lessons in Towson to which I'd venture once or twice a week. Even if Singer's world was geographically distant from my own, he wrote of a world I knew all too intimately.

Furthermore, insofar as I ever believed in a world of spirits, either through conscious credulous belief or (I should not be ashamed to write this, yet of course I am) under the coercion of mental illness, here was a writer who gave me a specifically Jewish vision of that world beyond the world. In a sense, there is little more dangerous for a person under psychotic duress to read than to read books in which the supernatural so often takes flight. On the other hand, there is great comfort in it. It's not as though Singer could at all keep up with the hyperactivity of my own imagination at its worst. Instead, Singer's imaginings were a kind of company, of knowing that these extraordinary visions were, in some senses at least, shared by someone.

These and many more were the reasons that Singer's writing spoke to me on a primal level to which, until recently, no other writer has ever reached. Jew or non-Jew. Roth and Bellow could speak to the Jew in America, Zweig and Joseph Roth could speak to our cultural aspirations, Primo Levi and Kafka could speak to our existential dread as Jews and human beings, Isaac Babel and Grossman to life for our Soviet relatives, Oz and Amichai to what it's like for our Israeli families, but except for certain parts of The Bible, only Isaac Bashevis Singer has ever articulated the inner experience.

I don't know why it was such an enormous shock that Isaac Bashevis Singer's older brother could speak on the same subterranean level, a place that previously was could only be reserved for Singer and Chagall and certain Biblical Poetry and certain turn-of-the-20th-century composers.

Before there was Yud Bet Singer (Yitzhak Bashevis Singer), there was Yud Yud Singer (Yisroel Yehoshua Singer). Israel Joshua Singer was eleven years older than his now much more famous brother. They somehow shared the same head tonsured by Alopecia universalis, and clearly wrote their fiction by dipping their pens into the same alchemical stream. For the moment, Time has eclipsed both brothers, who wrote in a language which none but the world's most religious Jews use anymore as their everyday language. But if Isaac Bashevis's reputation has waned, then Israel Joshua's has vanished.

During the older brother's lifetime, he was the exponentially more famous Singer. It may be difficult to believe, but in 1936, an English translation of The Brothers Ashkenazi sold on par with copies of Gone with the Wind. More than forty years later, the younger Isaac Bashevis would be called to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize in Literature, but in the mid-30's there was already talk that the elder, but still only 40ish Israel Joshua, would get the prize.

In Jewish circles, there is much written about how Israel Joshua was the dominating personality - an outrageously brilliant intellect whose Orthodox Rabbi father could not refute his penetrating arguments, and so Israel broke irrevocably with traditional Judaism and lived the secular life of a Jewish intellectual which became so common among gifted Yeshiva students of that era who refused to join the Rabbinate.

But while the younger Isaac always looked with unfulfillable longing for the simplicity of the Shtetl world and its naive religious belief, the elder Israel Joshua had a cold intellect which longed for secular knowledge about the wider world. Both writers dip from the same alchemical stream, but after dipping, Israel Joshua turned around and used it to illuminate the world with it while his younger brother turned his pen directly into the alchemical stream of the inner life, and captured as much of its explosive power as a page can render.

The more famous younger brother, Isaac Bashevis, writes in the colloquial style of folk storytellers. Just as there is in Kafka, there is plenty of 20th century sophistication underlaying his deceptively simple surface. Isaac Bashevis wrote plenty of novels, but none of them have the power of his older brothers' novels. Isaac Bashevis was one of the very greatest short story writers. His stories are less stories than parables about faith and sin. Singer was greatly influenced by Chekhov, but extraordinary as the good Doctor was, Singer's power exceeds Chekhov's 'merely' human illumination. What is almost continually at stake in Singer is the existential issues of life and death, salvation and damnation, redemption and perdition. This is a writer to keep company with history's apocalyptic heavyweights: Dostoevsky and Kafka, Milton and Dante. But unlike the aforementioned four, there is no coldness to Isaac Bashevis, one can no more miss the human warmth of his best tales than one can mistaken them for sentimentality. Isaac Bashevis breathes a rarefied spiritual air, particularly for the materialistic twentieth century, and perhaps he can only mix the world of the earth with the world of the spirit so well because of that unique Jewish alchemy, which thrives on complexity and ambiguity, and thinks nothing from the Bible to Lena Dunham of mixing high tragedy with low comedy.

But if Isaac Bashevis creates a Yiddish world of the spirit, then Israel Joshua created a Yiddish world of flesh and earth. The title is obviously redolent of Dostoevsky, but the substance is much, much closer to Tolstoy. More than any novel I've read save War and Peace, there is an epic sense in this book of the world as a giant machine that constantly expands and contracts, that whirls itself into events beyond the control of any person and then comes to rest at its own caprice. In a world where Donald Trump comes so close to the Presidency, this tale of Lodz and Petrograd a century ago is all too vivid and chilling.

People call this the great Yiddish Russian Novel, but this tale is so much darker than anything in Tolstoy. Israel Joshua was a near-exact contemporary of Babel and Bulgakov and Pasternak, and his world contains at least as much graphic violence and dark human interaction as anything in Red Cavalry or Master and Margarita or Doctor Zhivago.

Like his younger brother, Israel Joshua creates a world that can almost seem apocalyptic. In Isaac Bashevis Singer, there is just as much depravity as in his older brother's work, but there is always a spiritual charge and hope to offset its worst moments. But in the more rational worldview of the older Israel Joshua, there is no such spiritual hope. There is only depravity, and oh my god, this tome is as pitilessly depraved as anything in I, Claudius or Game of Thrones. This is very much a realist novel, but it is a realist novel of our nightmares in which the author forces us to look unflinchingly at man's inhumanity to man. In peacetime, acts of cruelty feed on themselves themselves to create a world of still greater cruelty, which then leads to class struggle, which then makes war inevitable, which then makes revolution inevitable, and as the cruelty of these acts makes the world more chaotic, the chaos makes the characters subject to still greater acts of cruelty.

Isaac Bashevis did not truly become the giant he was until after World War II. After the Holocaust, Isaac Bashevis was the only experience that many people, indeed many Jews, had to conjure the Jewish world that was, a world about which they never knew anything, and which disappeared utterly in the span of merely six years. But there was one other horrific event which paradoxically launched his giant literary career at the end of World War II. The death of Israel Joshua, his beloved elder brother who brought him over and saved him from certain death and mentored him literarily and intellectually.

It's hard not to believe that Isaac Bashevis felt freed by his brother's death, no longer beholden by the relentless intellectual inquiries of the elder Singer to miss whatever was worthwhile about the simple religious life they left behind, he was free to explore the world that was and portray it as Jews once experienced it, warts and all, superstitions intact.

But in losing Israel Joshua Singer, we lost perhaps the one writer who could give us a true Holocaust novel. The Brothers Ashkenazi is, at bottom, a novel about Jews pitilessly caught in the grips of the Russian Revolution. In the Early 30's when The Brothers Ashkenazi was written, it was difficult to imagine that there would ever be a more consequential event in Jewish life than the formation of the Soviet Union, which so dramatically (traumatically?) affected the lives of every Jew still remaining in Europe. But when Israel Joshua passed away in 1944, there were two enormous events lurking on the horizon. One might argue that Amos Oz's memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, is, finally, the novel about the founding of the State of Israel which the world needs. But there has never been, and perhaps could never be, a novel about the Holocaust which does justice to the subject. It's difficult not to believe that the one writer who might have been able to do it died only a bit before he got the chance.




Friday, May 13, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/12: Harmonielehre



Ninety seconds from the end of the piece, we arrive in E-Flat Major heaven. E-Flat, the most freighted key in all of music history, the key of Beethoven's Eroica and Emperor and Harp and Les Adieux, of Haydn's Drumroll and Philosopher and Joke and Trumpet Concerto, of Die Zauberflote and the 39th symphony and more than half-a-dozen Mozartian concertos for which the master saved a particularly special reservoir of sublimity, of musical enormities like Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand and Mendelssohn's Octet, of the end of the Resurrection Symphony and the opening of Das Rheingold, of the Love Duet in Gotterdammerung and the Septet in the Act II Finale of Figaro, of the horn calls in Bruckner's Fourth and Schumann's Rhine and Sibelius's Swan Hymn, of the blazing brass of Elgar's Second and Mussorgsky's Great Gate of Kiev, of ironic tributes like Strauss's Heldenleben and Liszt's Triangle and Shostakovich's Ninth, and yes, of the 1812 Overture too...

E-Flat Major is not just any key, it is a declaration of larger-than-life magnitude; a dare to critics to cut the composer down to size. When a composer writes a blaze of E-Flat Major, he is venturing to take on the mighty company of the masters. Has any American composer of eminence ever dared it? Ives and Copland and Bernstein and Barber never did, lots of eminent American composers were never interested in such grand gestures - whether minimalists like Glass and Reich or atonalists like Carter and Babbitt. The loss is music's, and it is a failure of our country's imagination. We have, by and large, failed to reach out for the infinite and shake our fists after the manner of masters gone by. Some would say that more clinical, science-like manners of musicmaking are the true music of our time. Others would say that more populist, more simple manners of making music are our true music. Surely, as in any functional democracy, any such musicmaking, or any other, has a rightful and equitable place, but neither they nor we have any right to banish older traditions in the name of one's correctness at the expense of others'.

To get to that E-Flat Major Olympus, we have to pass through any number of chromatic snatches of composers' music who never resolved the conflict between chromaticism and consonance. A knowledgeable music lover can listen closely and not only hear those much vaunted paraphrases of Mahler Ten and Sibelius Four, but also fancy they might hear snatches of every opera in The Ring Cycle, of The Rite of Spring, Bluebeard's Castle, The Planets, Mahler Four and Six, Bruckner Nine, Honegger Two and Three, Prokofiev Six, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, Berg's Violin Concerto, Strauss's Elektra, Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements, Bartok's Four Pieces for Orchestra, Ravel's Rhapsodie Espagnol, Stravinsky's Apollo and Agon, Hermann's Vertigo and Citizen Kane soundtracks, Bernstein's soundtrack to On the Waterfront. In it's way, Harmonielehre, particularly the middle movement, is a companion piece from another continent to Berio's Sinfonia, with a very different, though no less compelling, answer to the twentieth century crisis. Unlike Berio, the answer here is not to scientifically record the stream-of-consciousness itself. The answer is to incorporate these snatches, these echoes, into a new way, an American way, of thinking about tonality.

Harmonielehre was written in 1985 - four years into the Reagan Presidency. No one paying attention could view America simply as a liberator for the world, America had become, like every other country, the latest incarnation of the imperial conqueror. Nazi Germany it wasn't and isn't, not even Soviet Russia is it still, but a country that twenty years before Harmonielehre showed the world that it too could struggle with the horrors of its past and transcend them through civil rights, social welfare, unprecedented largesse toward nations decimated by war, seemed determined to climb back onto the wheel of history. Perhaps it was inevitable, did we need to capitulate so suddenly as we did under Nixon and Reagan?

John Adams's America is not mine. His origins in this country stretch back well past its founding, and he rebelled against that inheritance like only a blue-blooded American WASP can. Even as a practicing Jew, I am not offended by his portrayal of Leon Klinghoffer in the eponymous opera - my faith in free speech is much stronger than my faith in God - but I can't pretend I don't understand why co-religionists were.

But the turn left of so many Americans of the Baby Boom generation was, at very least, understandable - as understandable as their turn right as they began to age. In the Western World's disenchantment with religion, millions of postwar boomers turned to alternative religious devotion, religious faith in radical politics, in Eastern religions, in psychoanalysis, in belief in scientism, in critical theory. John Adams seems at various points to have turned to all of these. He was, in his way, as seeker after God who never found one as Mahler was - and like Mahler, he probably fell for some pretty stupid things along the way.

In the best of Adams, there is a very complex spiritual import that far exceeds the rather narrow Eastern spirituality of Glass, and even the more complex Eastern spirituality mingled with Judaism of Reich. As Adams wrote Harmonielehre, he was in psychoanalysis, and the chromatic music present in most of Harmonielehre seems to recreate the inner, churning, psychological turmoil of composers from the period during which Psychoanalysis was invented.

But unlike late Mahler or early Bartok, he resolves this early-20th century chromaticism by reclaiming the unambiguous triumph of 19th century music on entirely new terms. Perhaps only a non-European, with no spiritual memory of a blown out continent, could make unabashed triumph again sound genuine. Perhaps it even takes an American musician, since after the 20th century, perhaps only Americans seemed to know what it was like to emerge triumphantly out of a struggle without ambiguity.

But how does Adams emerge from it? To me, the ending of Harmonielehre is an enobling, Whitmanian call to democracy from a man as deeply disappointed with America as I am - for us to remember all that was good about America and sometimes still is. It is a call for us to aim higher, not to not abandon those frivolous things which make Americans American, but to use those basic elements to make our virtues into a light unto nations again.

Among many other things, it sounds to me like a call to build an America in which serious music is more than simply a luxury product. This arrival at E-Flat Major took American musicians three hundred years to achieve. It is, in a musical manner, a particularly American take on that most German of musical rituals, the Verklarung. As Whitman wrote in section 52 of the Song of Myself: "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." We may be barbarians, but within our yawps we have that same metaphysical thrust within ourselves as any more cultured nation. Just as so much European classical music was once built from folk music, we utilize the energy and rhythm of drummers like Buddy Rich and Art Blakey, or the driving syncopations and modal harmonies of jazz soloists like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, and with these simple tools, we shake the very throne of music. We are America, and we have been fate knocking at the door of music for hundreds of years. We will no longer be ignored, and if absolutely necessary, we will take the Pantheon by force.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/11: A Streetcar Named Desire

"When, finally, she is removed to the mental home, we should feel that a part of civilization is going with her. Where ancient drama teaches us to reach nobility by contemplation of what is noble, modern American drama conjures us to contemplate what might have been noble, but is now humiliated, ignoble in the sight of all but the compassionate."

Kenneth Tynan

What an amazing insight that preeminent drama critic of that mid-century era had. Even today, the two archetypal dramas of American Theater are A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, premiered within fourteen months of each other under the auspice of the same director, Elia Kazan. Both Salesman and Streetcar are about the same fundamental problem: a small man or woman who aspires to be just a little bit bigger, only realize with crushing finality that their lives will always be unendurably small.

Theater and America never mixed particularly well together. America is too large and fast to be captured by a proscenium arch, it needs the dynamism which camera and film edits provide. And even if America can be rendered properly within a stage, there is still the problem that Americans don't like to be reminded of all those qualities which are the theater's great strengths. Theatrical tragedy excels at showing the fall of its protagonists, but Americans don't like to be reminded of failure. Theatrical comedy excels at showing the ridiculousness of aspiration, but whom among Americans want to be reminded that their dreams are ridiculous?

One might argue that we are not even a particularly artistic country. Art requires the humility to realize that we are well-nigh powerless to the infinity of metaphysical forces that shape us, but the ethos of this entire country was created as a demonstration that we might not be as powerless against fate as life leads us to believe. If we've ever truly excelled in the arts, its mostly in the 'popular arts,' whose purpose deliberately places contemplation as a distant second to entertainment. Within the popular arts, there is plenty of creations with contemplative force, but such contemplation has to be snuck in in a manner that disguises its nature to a public that wants nothing more from their art than entertainment.

There was a brief, mid-century, idyll, when the average American, fresh from intimacy with both Europe's culture and Europe's mortality, thought that they might like an import so un-native to our soil as the arts. But by the 'sixties', the idyll was almost completely over. Art has never again been consumed in America as anything but a luxury product. The great American artistic works which survive to our day in the public imagination generally do so not because of their artistic merit, but because of their superficial gloss. If works like The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire survive in the public imagination, they do so not because they are great works, but because they shroud their greatness with a sleazy sexuality.

There is a primal, ecstatic, almost Greek, tragic force about A Streetcar Named Desire which is both its great achievement and its great limitation. Like Blanche herself, the play aspires with great poetic artifice to say something profound about the frailty of civilization, yet all anybody wants with either this play or with Blanche is its superficial and exploitative eroticism. Some call Streetcar the Great American Play, but the truth is that it's not even the greatest play by Tennessee Williams. There is compassion aplenty for the plight of Blanche DuBois, but we're so excited by her descent into madness that we're almost made to root for it. The descent of Laura Winfield is pure understated heartbreak, the descent of Blanche DuBois is a nihilistic operatic spectacle, and we're so thrilled by her private agony that we become complicit in driving her mad.

One of these days, a budding high school feminist is going to wake up in the middle of English class and realize just how appallingly subversive A Streetcar Named Desire is to the mores of our time. When it happens, Streetcar will be taken off America's curricula for a century or more. This is a play that dares to tell a modern audience that masculinity is what it is, and will never change. It dares to tell women that they should know better than to walk into places which they know are filled with dangerous men. And if women go in, it dares to tell women that they should know better than to flirt with dangerous men. Most shocking of all, it dares to tell us that harrowing scenes between men and women are just something that happens in the eternal power struggle between the sexes, and that any attempt to escape from that cycle of violent anger and makeup sex is doomed to end in an unnatural madness.

I say none of this with approval for Streetcar's worldview, I don't even think Streetcar's worldview is anything but a small portion of the truth about eroticism. Even so, in the conflict between Blanche and Stanley, we see nothing less than conflict between civilization and nature. Blanche is more than just a hysterical floozy, she embodies the aspiration which every person who buys a theater ticket holds to learning, to beauty, even to culture and civilization. Blanche is that part of us all that aspires to be something more than animal, but she pays for her aspiration by divorcing herself from her most basic psychological need, which then returns to her with the added strength of a long unnourished part of one's psyche that will no longer be ignored.

But in Blanche's descent, we're not called to identify sufficiently with her, because we're called to identify with Stanley. Streetcar's failure in this regard is not simply a failure of misogyny, though I don't doubt many modern progressives would like us to view it that way - in spite of the fact that if Streetcar took place in 2016, Blanche DuBois would undoubtedly be graduate of Oberlin or Sarah Lawrence, about to attend her fifteenth reunion. Streetcar's shortcoming is a basic failure of compassion, in which Blanche's insanity is deserved because of the airs she puts on as a member of a higher social class against Stanley's direct masculinity. Yes, Stanley's a 'brute' (to use that old gay term), but like any self-respecting member of the modern Tea Party, he's a go-getter who demands results and picks himself up by his bootstraps while Blanche lives like a leech off other people's work. Unlike Laura Wingfield, Blanche is not a fellow being in need of compassion, she's nothing short of unnatural, and therefore her fate is inevitable. "Sure, civilization is nice and all that," the play seems to tell us, "but are you really willing aspire to be all that if it means going without sex?'


Friday, May 6, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/5: Sacred Harp Singing



Every culture, every era, perhaps every community, every family, every person, is either a dancing culture or a singing culture.

The difference between dancing and singing is the difference between outwardness and inwardness, the difference between materialism and idealism (in the old sense), between sense and sensibility, between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world, perhaps even the difference between polytheistic worship and monotheistic worship. It is the difference between what our bodies are, and what our bodies can do.

Dance is the ultimate physical manifestation, it is real. It is the creation of order out of the chaos of movement, or perhaps even the evocation of chaos as a rebellion against a world that demands order. It utilizes those extremities of our bodies most distant from our inner selves, and while the lungs and heart and brain create our movement, it uses our internal organs to create an external expression. It expends energy, and is irrevocably linked with the erotic, the ultimate energy-expending force in our lives. I would venture a guess that most countries closer to their expiration date than their conception are dancing cultures.

In a scientific sense, song (and music) is very much a physical manifestation. But it is not of a physical manifestation that we can understand without severe intellectual abstraction. Short of sex itself, music is the ultimate mystery in our lives. Out of the chaos of the universe comes a series of vibrations so ordered that existence itself finally makes sense. It is a series of vibrations that comes from the very inner core of our bodies, and while the posture of our extremities can assist, they must be at rest. After a few hours of singing, most people are not exhausted, but feel filled with renewed energy. Singing has been ultimate proof and expression that we are more than a collection of dirty neuro-physiological wires.

As dance has long been associated with the erotic and sexual, song has long been associated with the spiritual and ascetic. In a polytheistic worship, full of Gods with limitations who must compete with each other to appeal to us, it makes a certain degree of sense to exult them by worship through the physical senses. In polytheistic worship, one can take certain amount of sensual pleasure as one's due - as any particular God will manifest his or her favor upon you by granting you that sensual pleasure when another God would not.

But in a monotheistic world controlled by an infinite power, such a God does not owe you anything. You owe Him, and all which you do is a manifestation of Him, and therefore, all which we do is a reflection upon Him, for good or ill. As we are creatures of God, created in his image, it is a bad reflection upon God to allow ourselves to surrender to the dirty chaos of nature - with its lethal dangers and devilish urges. We may be made in God's image, but surely if God is virtuous, he would not possess our infernal lusts and wraths, and would not leave us to the mercy of our nasty, brutish, short existence without a greater reward - so we must prove ourselves worthy of this great reward, through order existence's chaos, which provides security and distance from these unknowable forces which well up from the depths of the sky and land and sea and the depths of our own souls. And perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this order is music - the invisible yet harmonious force that shows that the very air vibrates in celestial harmony.

It's glorious to hear Gregorian Chant, the unchanging and spooky monophonic worship music of the Middle Ages. It's yet another glory to hear the ostentatious, ornamentally louche Catholic worship music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras - with its roots in Greco-Roman paganism, which speaks of a God who manifests Himself as much through His material glory. It's perhaps still more glorious to hear the metaphysically charged music, a bit more distant from God, during the eras of the great monarchies of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras, so ostentatious because the Monarchical State itself which sponsored such music was the greatest manifestation of the Divine.

But there is no spiritual charge quite like the simple, unadorned, un-ornamented, but ever-sturdy music of simple Protestantism, music just complicated enough that it can stand forever as a plain edifice to the humble but proud people who sang it at the top of their lungs and vibrated with their whole beings to the frequency of their divine luminosity.

To hear, and still better to participate, in Shape-Note, or Sacred Harp, singing, is to evoke the very early days of this country, with its Protestant roots which themselves can take us back to the very earliest days of Lutheranism. It demonstrates a faith so plain, so ascetic, so confident, so serious, that it alone could have created the energy by which the American ethos conquered the world. It is (finally) an American music without frivolity, speaking directly to the existential dreads and metaphysical quandries of our lives. It is a singing beyond singing, not so much a song as a harmonious shout of affirmation. It is a regimented singing, without ornamentation or vibrato, utterly without nuance or subtlety. It simply demands your submission to the great harmony. The manner with which it is sung is so simple that, for the rarest of rare gifts in choruses, it is very rare to encounter intonation issues.

It is music that reminds us that often, there can be times when greater freedom is gained by the submission to authority. Perhaps such freedom is an illusion. But in questions of morale, there are times when the illusion of freedom and the actuality of freedom are one and the same. At certain points by surrendering small amounts of our freedom, we gain greater freedom later.

This week marked the return of Andrew Sullivan to writing. His subject was the subject which so many Americans are currently dreading - is America on the precipice of tyranny? And if we are, how did we get there? Sullivan's answer was Plato's, that we arrived here because democracy in America had become so fecund that paralysis was inevitable, and could only result in a tyrant rising above the chaotic din.

All things are attracted to their opposites, scientifically it's an idea from James Clerk Maxwell, but it was already shot through philosophy: from Plato and Empedocles to Kant and Hegel, and later Heidegger. Whether the unconscious is individual or collective, it seems to cry out at times for all it does not have as a means of attaining balance. At a time when the Protestants who founded this country lived lives of awesome regimentation, they formed the first lasting, overwhelmingly stable, Republic in millennia. At a time when the individual is so paramount, a gathering force has begun to show itself, an American iron curtain, which perhaps threatens by the very force of American democracy to put this country, finally on the precipice of achieving equal rights for all, back under Authoritarian rule. Equality for all under submission.

In our quest for greater freedom, we have abdicated the civic responsibilities that are the bedrock by which a Republic can grow into a Democracy. As always, the arts can show us the way. In this age when conservatives and liberals alike are obsessed with the rights of the bedroom, with the frivolous ostentation of modern life, there are remnants in America of an earlier faith; both more disciplined, and more ecstatic. It calls to us with its simplicity, reminding us that there are more fundamental concerns than anything of this small world, and perhaps by submitting to forces like it, we can enable the continuing spread of freedom for longer. Long after our epoch resolves itself, this early Protestant music will continue - a sturdy house built to last eternally.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

ET: Almanac

Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or habit. In disposition, is that transitory melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causeth anguish, dullness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions, no man living is free, no stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well composed, but more or less, some time or other he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of mortality. Man that is born of a woman, is of short continuance, and full of trouble. Zeno, Cato, Socrates himself, whom Aelian so highly commends for a moderate temper, that nothing could disturb him, but going out, and coming in, still Socrates kept the same serenity of countenance, what misery soever befell him, (if we may believe Plato his disciple) was much tormented with it. Q. Metellus, in whom Valerius gives instance of all happiness, the most fortunate man then living, born in that most flourishing city of Rome, of noble parentage, a proper man of person, well qualified, healthful, rich, honourable, a senator, a consul, happy in his wife, happy in his children, &c. yet this man was not void of melancholy, he had his share of sorrow. Polycrates Samius, that flung his ring into the sea, because he would participate of discontent with others, and had it miraculously restored to him again shortly after, by a fish taken as he angled, was not free from melancholy dispositions. No man can cure himself; the very gods had bitter pangs, and frequent passions, as their own poets put upon them. In general, as the heaven, so is our life, sometimes fair, sometimes overcast, tempestuous, and serene; as in a rose, flowers and prickles; in the year itself, a temperate summer sometimes, a hard winter, a drought, and then again pleasant showers: so is our life intermixed with joys, hopes, fears, sorrows, calumnies: Invicem cedunt dolor et voluptas, there is a succession of pleasure and pain.
———medio de fonte leporum
Surgit amari aliquid, in ipsis floribus angat.

Even in the midst of laughing there is sorrow, (as Solomon holds): even in the midst of all our feasting and jollity, as Austin infers in his Com. on the 41st Psalm, there is grief and discontent. Inter delicias semper aliquid saevi nos strangulat, for a pint of honey thou shalt here likely find a gallon of gall, for a dram of pleasure a pound of pain, for an inch of mirth an ell of moan; as ivy doth an oak, these miseries encompass our life. And it is most absurd and ridiculous for any mortal man to look for a perpetual tenure of happiness in his life. Nothing so prosperous and pleasant, but it hath some bitterness in it, some complaining, some grudging; it is all γλυκύπικρον, a mixed passion, and like a chequer table black and white: men, families, cities, have their falls and wanes; now trines, sextiles, then quartiles and oppositions. We are not here as those angels, celestial powers and bodies, sun and moon, to finish our course without all offence, with such constancy, to continue for so many ages: but subject to infirmities, miseries, interrupted, tossed and tumbled up and down, carried about with every small blast, often molested and disquieted upon each slender occasion, uncertain, brittle, and so is all that we trust unto. And he that knows not this is not armed to endure it, is not fit to live in this world (as one condoles our time), he knows not the condition of it, where with a reciprocalty, pleasure and pain are still united, and succeed one another in a ring. Exi e mundo, get thee gone hence if thou canst not brook it; there is no way to avoid it, but to arm thyself with patience, with magnanimity, to oppose thyself unto it, to suffer affliction as a good soldier of Christ; as Paul adviseth constantly to bear it. But forasmuch as so few can embrace this good council of his, or use it aright, but rather as so many brute beasts give away to their passion, voluntary subject and precipitate themselves into a labyrinth of cares, woes, miseries, and suffer their souls to be overcome by them, cannot arm themselves with that patience as they ought to do, it falleth out oftentimes that these dispositions become habits, and many affects contemned (as Seneca notes) make a disease. Even as one distillation, not yet grown to custom, makes a cough; but continual and inveterate causeth a consumption of the lungs; so do these our melancholy provocations: and according as the humour itself is intended, or remitted in men, as their temperature of body, or rational soul is better able to make resistance; so are they more or less affected. For that which is but a flea-biting to one, causeth insufferable torment to another; and which one by his singular moderation, and well-composed carriage can happily overcome, a second is no whit able to sustain, but upon every small occasion of misconceived abuse, injury, grief, disgrace, loss, cross, humour, &c. (if solitary, or idle) yields so far to passion, that his complexion is altered, his digestion hindered, his sleep gone, his spirits obscured, and his heart heavy, his hypochondries misaffected; wind, crudity, on a sudden overtake him, and he himself overcome with melancholy. As it is with a man imprisoned for debt, if once in the gaol, every creditor will bring his action against him, and there likely hold him. If any discontent seize upon a patient, in an instant all other perturbations (for—qua data porta ruunt) will set upon him, and then like a lame dog or broken-winged goose he droops and pines away, and is brought at last to that ill habit or malady of melancholy itself. So that as the philosophers make eight degrees of heat and cold, we may make eighty-eight of melancholy, as the parts affected are diversely seized with it, or have been plunged more or less into this infernal gulf, or waded deeper into it. But all these melancholy fits, howsoever pleasing at first, or displeasing, violent and tyrannizing over those whom they seize on for the time; yet these fits I say, or men affected, are but improperly so called, because they continue not, but come and go, as by some objects they aye moved. This melancholy of which we are to treat, is a habit, mosbus sonticus, or chronicus, a chronic or continuate disease, a settled humour, as Aurelianus and others call it, not errant, but fixed; and as it was long increasing, so now being (pleasant, or painful) grown to an habit, it will hardly be removed.



Robert Burton

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/30: Elektra - Was Strauss Serious?



The production I saw of Elektra today has been hailed around the world as the great final statement from the great opera director, Patrice Chereau. It has also been hailed as a potential initial foray into the Metropolitan Opera by Esa-Pekka Salonen, suddenly hailed by the New York Times as a potential savior-music-director in the wake of James Levine's chaotic final act.

To be sure, it was musically nearly unimpeachable. Esa-Pekka's musical priorities are generally not my own, he generally tends toward linear clarity and rhythmic punch while I love musicians who give us flexibility of phrasing and the savoring of the pungent harmonic colors. But he's clearly warmed up as he's aged, and now that he's in his mid-50's, nobody can deny Salonen's mastery. With the death of Boulez, Esa-Pekka inherits the crown as the great modernist figure of our era's concert halls, and he is a far more democratic emperor than his musical forefather. Whither he goest, I will go.

In the 'battle of the Isoldes', Waltraud Meier is somewhat past her vocal prime, which as Clytemnestra is forgivable. Nina Stemme is a little past her vocal prime, which as Elektra isn't quite forgivable. But my god, these actresses. It's one thing to have one transcendent operatic performance onstage, but to have two is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The problem with this point of view is that for anyone who has a bullshit detector (and Strauss's was as finely tuned as anyone's has ever been) there is no way on God's green earth that Richard Strauss meant all this seriously, and you could tell that Chereau took this with deadly seriousness. The gesture that nearly killed the whole thing for me was the moment when Nina Stemme had to do a kind of ecstatic dance which she clearly had no idea how to interpret. Elektra is clearly supposed to take herself up with violent paroxysm of murderous ecstasy, and I could almost hear the late Chereau screaming at the soprano in my head 'NO! NO! MORE DRAMATIC! DON'T FIGHT THE AWKWARDNESS!' Clearly though, Stemme didn't believe in it, and the result was of an awkwardness that killed the effect because it suddenly reminded us that this whole opera is more than a bit absurd and kitschy.

I do not consider kitsch the great horror which many do, and to call Elektra kitsch is, in my opinion, no disservice paid to its quality. On one level, Elektra is, as my friend described it, 'advanced Wagner,' and Wagner certainly took his intellectuality very seriously, nobody ever accused Wagner of having something so self-aware as a bullshit detector. On perhaps a deeper level, Elektra is a cynical and contemptuous middle finger to Wagner, Wagnerism, and its attendant temples.

The truth is that I love Richard Strauss as I love few composers, but had I ever the sense that Richard Strauss was serious about his musical pretensions and not more interested in having a private laugh at the intellectual pretensions of his followers, I doubt I would ever have taken to his music nearly so well. Strauss, ever the practical musician and cynic, simply spent the first half of his career writing the music his public demanded. When he was financially well-off, he spent the rest of his career writing the music he wanted to write - much more influenced by Mozart and Mendelssohn than by Wagner and Liszt. His training showed him how to be a second Richard Wagner, but in his heart he wanted to be a second Mozart. As his career progressed, it is truly extraordinary how close this composer of elephantine scores came to creating a second kind of German classicism.


(Der Rosenkavalier - the aesthete finally unleashed)

I'm currently listening to the Act III prelude to Strauss's Arabella. Yet another in a long series of orchestral depictions of coitus bearing the unmistakable Richard Strauss stamp. Strauss was never so subtle or refined that he could ever leave out any graphic detail of ordinary life that he could not put into music. In those flickering string figures, t's quite difficult to mistaken it for anything but the upward vocal glissando of a woman near-orgasm, followed soon thereafter by the post-coital catching of breath. Intellectuals certainly have the right to be as earthy as they want, but its the very pedanticism of Strauss's imagination that marks him out as something other than an idea-man. No true intellectual would be so obsessively literal in his depictions. Surely he would find a manner more imaginative to imply something so graphic. Mahler certainly has his passages of erotic love music, but eroticism in Mahler is never so blatant as to be pornographic (pornophonic?). Even in such well-worn bookworms as Berlioz or Schumann, there is always an imaginative leap which one has to make in order to arrive at the musical truth without it spelled out nearly so directly as it is in Strauss.

There is a cunning to Richard Strauss, an ease of technique so obviously fluent that it borders on contempt for his audience. It's as though he's saying to us, 'You want extra-musical description? Well, I can describe anything! You want sex and violence? I'll give you so much sex and violence you'll be sick of it! You want ideas in your music? Here are your f#R^#@# ideas!" There is something about his music that so blatantly panders to the audience that how can such obvious meeting of audience expectations be completely sincere? Strauss was, in no sense, an intellectual. He was an aesthete who resented his audiences for not appreciating beauty to the extent he did, and so for large swaths of his career, he fed them a steady diet of sarcasm - some blatant, some subtly implied.  The greatest Straussian conductors: Clemens Krauss, the Kleibers, Kempe, Reiner, Szell, Solti, never take Strauss particularly seriously. They always understand this sarcastic faux-intellectual virtuosity (of which Till Eulenspiegel is perhaps the most obvious self-portrait), and know precisely how to melt at the moment Strauss gives reign to his impulses toward pure beauty.


(No philsoophy. Just virtuosity. I can't imagine a time when Georg Solti won't be my favorite Strauss conductor.)

It's entirely possible that this proudly provincial American can't see modernism without the filter of how it most manifested itself in America - the gothic horror movies, the expressionistic film noirs, the campy science fiction, the sadomasochistic music videos, the sadistically violent fantasy fiction. Most Americans look at avant-garde set design in horror movies as teenage stars who were naked five minutes ago are being served up as an offer for slaughter to some psychopathic killer of our nightmares - Freddie Kruger, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lector, whomever else.... As they do their killing, we hear music straight out of Wozzeck. Many Europeans would argue, no doubt correctly, that this is a disgusting vulgarization, an utterly unworthy exploitation of the aesthetic ideals of European modernism. They would be absolutely correct. We all are what we are. But I suspect that this vitiated American modernism of exploitation is closer to the world of Richard Strauss than most of his modernist successors in Europe ever came.



 If Richard Strauss was a musical philosopher, he was a very poor one. Nietzsche was quite mad by the time Strauss adapted Also Sprach Zarathustra into a symphonic poem, but I suspect that had he heard it he'd have shouted bloody murder. It's great, virtuosic music, it's also very bad Nietzsche. Intellectually, it doesn't encourage philosophical contemplation anywhere near the extent it gives you the feeling of being trapped inside a pinball machine.

For Strauss, modernism was a means to an end, always accompanied and leavened (even in Salome and Elektra) by other traits. The younger Schoenberg - the Schoenberg of Pelleas und Melisande, and the First Chamber Symphony, and the Second Strong Quartet - was surely an influence on Elektra, but Schoenberg was 'merely' a brilliant musician with ingenious ideas. Richard Strauss, on the other hand, might have been a bona-fide musical genius who assimilated one means of musical expression before moving on to the next influence - never letting any one musical waystation inhibit him from absorbing things from another as any genius should. The expressionistic dissonances of Schoenberg were a mere waystation for Richard Strauss, for whom the extreme chromaticism that leads to atonality was passe by 1910.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/25 The Music of Shakespeare



Genius, true genius, comes from a place so deep that nothing is any longer what it seems. We call many people geniuses who are 'merely' brilliant. Brilliance suggests illumination. A brilliant person can suggest possibilities we've never thought of in our lives, open our minds and hearts and souls to possibilities undreamt. Such a gift should never be dismissed and always celebrated, but genius doesn't just suggest possibilities, it brings those possibilities into reality, fully formed and totally plausible. A genius doesn't just open us up to places, but to entire worlds and universes. The root of the word 'genius' antedates Latin and even Greek, it comes from the ancient Arabic concept of the al-Jinn, familiar of course to anyone who's dabbled in the Arabian Nights (and distantly to anyone who's seen the Disney version...), it has the same linguistic root as words like Genie and Genesis. It suggests not just illumination, but the very fabric of creation itself.

The theater of Shakespeare can take us anywhere - from the realest human conditions to the most fantastical and supernal spheres. The music of Mozart can play with form with the infinite flexibility of snowflakes, and through it all he can suggest to us any emotional state - often simultaneously. Goya's paintings can suggest reality in all its forms - from the blissful to the horrible to the erotic - yet also scenes of our deepest dreams and nightmares. Genius doesn't just transport us to distant places, genius transports us everywhere.

In these infinitely complex and fertile minds, irrationality and rationality intermingle. We don't just see the rational and irrational, but the irrational within the rational and the rational within the irrational. We see with perfect clarity how irrationality can lead Othello to madness, how supernatural events make hash of a brilliant mind like Hamlet's, how a superb executive like Macb*th can be slave to metaphysical forces of fate, how the irrationalities of age cloud the mind of a tyrant like Lear, and then invade his kingdom.

In some arguable geniuses like Milton or Wagner, we can see a majestically distant view of these universes, because they can show how universal, mythical, ecstatic truth forms the world for eons hence. But neither Milton nor Wagner are truly capable of zooming in upon the individual, small human, and showing us his or her beating heart within their breathtaking cosmos with their hopes and dreams in a chaotic universe full of teemingly diverse life. But in a Shakespeare play or Mozart opera, we can take in that totality from infinitely great to infinitesimally small - and because we can see the small within their work with such clarity, the great cosmos of their work can seem infinitely greater.

Worthy of the genius label as Mozart was, he still was not the Bard. Perhaps, had Mozart lived another fifteen years, he would be as dominant in the musical canon as Shakespeare is in our literary canon. One might be able to draw parallels in the plots between Midsummer Night's Dream and the Marriage of Figaro, or between Twelfth Night and The Magic Flute, perhaps had he lived a bit longer one could find parallel operatic works to Hamlet and King Lear, but it's still more than a bit of a stretch to make these leaps.

I wonder, is there something about the abstraction of music that makes it immune to portraying the rational in any meaningful sense? A romantic art-song or piano ballad can portray a disembodied emotion, but is there anything about it that can possibly be more subjective to it than what it makes us feel? Of course, Stravinsky and his acolytes would reply that emotion itself is subjective, and that there is nothing in music but notes, symbols, and vibratory frequencies. Nevertheless, even in a purely objective way, that is incorrect. It discounts how those frequencies affect the listener. Without some scientific sense of music's affective power, the possibilities of which are by no means guaranteed to ever be learned, we can never hope to get a sense of what music objectively is.

And since there are so many impediments to understanding music in the manner we understand more representational arts like literature or pictorial art, music will have a particular edge on the other arts in the portrayal of the irrational. Music and poetry have similarities, but music, the most romantic of all artforms, has little common ground with literature, the most realistic. Musical representations of the literary are always try to find a poetic truth in the literature they set, but you cannot render the banal details of life in music because the banal has little if any place within music. The great musical adaptations of Shakespeare elevate themselves to eternal quality by finding those irrational elements within Shakespeare plays and exaggerating them. The mature tragedies seem almost music-proof. No great work of music was ever made from Hamlet or King Lear. Verdi struggled his entire career with  finding an appropriate way to dramatize King Lear, and though he lived to nearly 90, he never found it.

I suppose it's arguable that Verdi's Macb*th and Otello are great Shakespeare adaptations. I certainly love them, but I doubt anyone would call them great in any manner that resembles Shakespeare. They're great Italian Opera, great Verdi, perhaps even great music and art. But what particularly makes Otello great is that Verdi circumvents the rational psychology Shakespeare establishes for Iago, and in its place portrays a character more like a nihlist out of Dostoevsky. Iago is not simply a smug mustache-twirling villain - though he's often portrayed as that by hammy baritones, and that's certainly better than no acting at all - Iago is a pure nihilist who mission in life is to serve cruelty. It is precisely the sort of evil that makes for the best possible portrayal in music - an ecstatic, seething evil that cannot be intellectually understood, but can be lived through our emotional consciousness. Perhaps the only musical work that truly does justice to Shakespeare is Verdi's Falstaff, which is arguably a much greater opera than Merry Wives of Windsor is a play.  Shakespeare is far too nuanced and rational a thinker for most of his plays to come to life in music without severe alteration. And yet Verdi finds a way to make The Merry Wives of Windsor work gorgeously - it's a play in which the magical final scene  takes place in an enchanted forest... except the forrest is not enchanted at all, it's a practical joke being played by hundreds upon one character. It's the perfect middle-ground melding of rational and irrational where a brilliant musician can portray a literary setting. Ralph Vaughan Williams (more on him later), also wrote a good opera based on Merry Wives called Sir John in Love. The opera itself is a solid effort by a great composer, but distinctly second-rate Vaughan Williams. What is extraordinary in Sir John in Love is his settings of folk melodies to Shakespeare's poetry:  Fair and Fair and Twice so Fair,  the EpisodeSigh No More, and of course, Alas My Love You Do Me Wrong, which is better known in its instrumental form as Vaughan Williams's famous setting of Greensleeves.

Some Shakespeare plays lend themselves quite well to music. There are three which are particularly obvious in this regard. Perhaps the most obvious among them is the most romantic of Shakespeare plays (in both,... or all three,... senses of the word), Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet is an orgy of musical sex and violence, conveying the theatrical immediacy of the play, but no sense of its subtleties. Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette is an oratorical tribute to the the story by setting the most theatrically vivid theatrical scenes in the play to music in the same manner that Bach's St. Matthew Passion pays tribute to the crucifixion through the Stations of the Cross. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is like a silent movie, it simply takes this most romantic of the world's stories, and lets the action play silently while he conjures the appropriate musical gesture to fit each moment.

The other two plays that seem to lend themselves particularly well are far more supernatural than simply Romantic. Very few composers could ever improve on Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, which brings out not only the magic of Shakespeare's forrest, but also the comedy, a combination which only this most rational of romantic composers could draw out. Stretching long before Mendelssohn, the great late 17th century composer Henry Purcell wrote The Fairie Queen - the title of which obviously comes from the Edmund Spencer poem from which Shakespeare drew so much of his inspiration for this play. The opera itself is a melange of Shakespeare, Spenser, opera, ballet, restoration comedy, and low vaudevillesque antics. The music for it works because it is of that particular nature which the Baroque era brought out in spades, a rawness and viperous danger existing right beneath the refined courtly trappings - a sense of danger that is often lost in the later refinements of modern style. A second great Midsummer opera came to us in the form of Britten's operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. If Mendelssohn brings out Midsummer's humane comedy, Britten brings out its perverse eroticism - a subject upon which Britten may or may not have been an expert...

But The Tempest, Shakespeare's final play of which he was sole author, was perhaps the most musical play of them all. There's ample evidence that significant parts The Tempest were intended to be sung, as though Shakespeare was pioneering Opera in London just as Monteverdi did the same in Venice. Indeed, The Tempest alone probably gave us more great music than any other Shakespeare. In his final romances, Shakespeare relinquishes his inquiries into rationality and focuses almost purely on irrational forces of human, and superhuman, nature.

It goes without saying that Sibelius, the greatest of all nature composers, wrote naturalistic music to accompany the play whose intensity is bloodcurdling, even in its quiet moments. It was one of the last works he ever wrote, surrendering his pen around the time he turned sixty with thirty years of life left to him. Who knows? Perhaps this music was so intense that it spooked him... What is a bit more surprising is that Tchaikovsky, ever the Shakespearean, wrote perhaps his most underrated work in his overture to The Tempest, a work which seems far further from his sensibilities than Romeo and Juliet. This score predates even his much more famous treatment of R&J. Like just about everything Tchaikovsky writes, it justifies its bombast with its gorgeousness and excitement. Though it may or may not be apocryphal, Beethoven's famed (and famously unreliable) factotum Anton Schindler claimed that one of his greatest piano sonatas was in fact based on The Tempest.

But greater still are two composers who convey not only the violence of The Tempest and the excitement, but the metaphysical cosmos that lay behind them. Both are scandalously underrated, but one particularly.

The first, far better known of the two, is our dearest RVW. Vaughan Williams knew his Shakespeare as well as any musician, and when it came time to set a commission for the BBC in the late 30's, he culled a whole heap of disparate quotes about music from The Merchant of Venice. This is music that is precisely the opposite spirit of The Tempest: it begins with the line "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank." This is the sweetly music of an untroubled landscape, written by an ageing master, newly in love with a younger women who would become his second wife, and possibly having good sex for the first time in his life (his first wife was an extremely severe arthritic).

That the Serenade to Music can come from the same composer who would write the Three Shakespeare Songs in his dotage is extraordinary. One can understand how a great composer can conceive music like Sir John in Love or The Serenade to Music, but the Three Shakespeare Songs are not music of this world. They come to us from a place that is utterly unlike any we know. Just as the elderly master painters (it's a long list...) can create a whole city of meaning a few strokes of the brush, there are a few old master composers (and far less than painters, composers seem to die sooner...) who can do the same with just a few simple chords: Verdi, Haydn, Monteverdi, Richard Strauss... who else but RVW?

The elderly Ralph Vaughan Williams, an almost morbidly overweight man in his late seventies, surely knew that he was nearing his end. As it happened, he had another seven years, and they were arguably the happiest of his life, but the closer we all get to the end, the relatively easier it should be to put all things in life, tragic and comic, within the context of time's passage. Even as far back as the Sea Symphony and the miraculous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Vaughan Williams always had an extraordinary otherworldliness within his makeup. But he was unfairly best known to the public for his easiest access work: like his arrangement of Greensleeves, and The Lark Ascending or the first Norfolk Rhapsody, which, while extraordinary in their small way, are minor league compared to his ocean of talent that could take in at least a very British segment of the entire Cosmos (a musical colonialist?). Works like The Lark Ascending are wonderful, but they paint a picture of him as a Neo-Romantic, unable to express anything much deeper than the pastoral landscapes such pieces conjure - far too small to realize the extent of his brilliance. Music history still gives the stench of condescension to his work - he was no Neo-Romantic, he was folkloric composer who used his brilliance plumbing the music of the Earth. He was to English isles what Bartok was to the Balkans, what Stravinsky was to the Russian Orthodox lands, what Janacek was to Moravia. But working as Vaughan Williams did in Western Europe, his incorporation of folk melodies yielded a somewhat less bizarre (though by no means unbizarre) harmonic and rhythmic language, because the musical language of Western European folk was already incorporated into Classical Music.

When you hear his two-minute setting of The Cloud Capp'd Towers, you hear the cries, the laughs, the achievements and frustrations of generations, epochs, whole eons. An entire beyond seems to be illuminated that had never occurred to us before hearing it. All things of this life suddenly seem utterly insignificant. This may be the greatest, most spirit-inhabiting of all Shakespeare settings.

Save two settings by one other composer, whom I hope to write about tomorrow...

... hopefully more then...

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/20: The Slavonic Dances



You don't even need to go into the popular canon to find evidence that light music can be more profound than music that's more ostensibly serious. Heavier composers can natter on for hours and hours yet say nothing. But all it takes is a single phrase of Mozart to make you realize that music can give truths more profound than any words.

Classical music used to be something far less serious, a virtually indistinguishable fusion that makes the profound out of the banal as all good things in life should be. Plenty of new classical music still exists that manages this feat, but I doubt I'm alone in feeling that it isn't enough. Just as popular music could and should learn more from us, we can learn from them. The artificial distinctions between the two hurt both.

Few understood this better than Dvorak. I used to be a bit dismissive of Dvorak because of his sloppiness with regard to form, but his melodic gift was so fecund that too much concern with form would have reined him in. He is condescended to still by many as a rustic, or a primitive - penalized for his likability. I should know, I was one of them. There are still some simpler composers whose music I still can't quite get around my slight contempt for their simplicity and directness - even names as big as Chopin and Verdi. Hopefully I'll one day see them with the same awe and love that I give so unhesitatingly now to my dear Dvorak.

For me, Dvorak is no primitive or rustic, he is little less than a folk Mozart. Mozart, to my mind, was far more a Czech composer than he was Viennese or Austrian. Prague was the city that appreciated the adult Mozart for all he was when Vienna tired of him as they did so many of their great composers. Had Mozart taken the hint and moved to Prague, he might have lived another thirty years. Schubert and Mendelssohn were the greatest inheritors of Mozart's divine legacy of unbridled genius, but far more than Mendelssohn, Dvorak inherited Mozart's and Schubert's humane legacy of sublimely expressive music that speaks to us with the intimacy and clarity a human being brings to his diary when he overflows with decency.

Updated to a 19th century setting, there is every expressive legacy in this music - romance, comedy, tragedy, irony, often existing simultaneously. Instead of placing it as Mozart does on the skeleton of mostly courtly dances of Austrian aristocracy, we have in their place the rough and tumble dances of the peasant classes. And yet all that Mozartean and Schubertian humanity is present, giving us devastating melodic truth, all the more shocking because it's disguised in the banal form of a background dance.

To be fair, neither Mozart or Schubert ever brought this level of profundity to their actual dance music, but nearly all their music was as informed by dance as Dvorak's was. To root one's music in dance, like song, is to root it in one of music's basic functions, and often prevents it from spilling over into indulgence. When Mozart and Schubert and Beethoven wrote 'dances', they were actual dances, meant to be danced to and talked over. But Dvorak would have been surprised to hear that people danced to his Dances. They were, after the manner of the Victorian era, meant to be played in the parlor by families for their own enjoyment.



In the 18th century, aristocrats would dance to refined music that spoke to the refinement they aspired to in their lives while pre-enlightenment squalor raged around them in every place that was not a drawing room. By the 19th century, life for the bourgeois was so refined that the middle class would sit down to play raw music that conjured a rawer version of life than they'd ever experience in the confines of their houses. Perhaps the aristocratic era of the Enlightenment was so refined in its tastes because it was so close to the rawness of pre-enlightenment life when the baser animal instincts still ruled over human life; and perhaps the late 19th century was so raw in its tastes because technology had so removed the bourgeois life from the baser life of the Earth. As technology has moved us ever further from the earth, the appetite for raw violence in our art grows ever greater.

If you're the type of listener who craves more formal cohesion than Dvorak can give, then one can't possibly have that complaint about the Slavonic Dances. Their brevity makes every one of them musically perfect, as finely cut as a twenty-four karat diamond. Everything that is life is present in these sixteen brief pieces, which disguise in their banal contents a rain of beauty as profound as any Mozart opera or Schubert lieder cycle.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/10: Everything



If you want to say something serious, be funny. If you want to say something funny, be serious. If you want to understand wrestling, relate it to philosophy. If you want to understand philosophy, relate it to wrestling. If you want to do some good in the world, go out and screw. If you want to go out and screw, do some good in the world. I have no way of knowing this for sure, but the more of life I experience, the more I think that it's the separation of polar opposites that gets us in trouble. What is totalitarianism? What is enslavement? What is dictatorship? What is segregation? What is corporate plunder? What are individual crimes like murder, rape, assault, robbery? What is the mass murder of animal species and the mass pillage of global resources? From a certain point of view, it is all the pursuit of desires so obsessively that the desires of other beings don't matter.

To live life as a decent person who not only is happy but increases happiness in others, isn't the most important thing to accept that anything in life that happens as we plan it is perhaps the only true harbinger of disaster? Dear life, so often regrettable life, this messy, chaotic, random thing whose circumstances are only within the control of dictators, is only worth living as an inclusive thing, when all things in the heavens and the earth are possible, and one day passes to the next with circumstances unknown. To plan, to have ambition, is an invitation to chaos. The only option left to us is to let the chaos in, be inspired by it, rejoice in it evermore.

Everything that was supposed to solve life's problems has never done so. Self-reliance fails us, community fails us, sex fails us, civic engagement fails us, virtue fails us, sin fails us, love fails us, religion fails us, reason fails us, science fails us, learning fails us, industry fails us, the market fails us, cultural studies and social theory fail us, frivolity itself fails us. The last four or five are particular maladies of our time, perhaps in ascending order, but every one of these has been ascribed to us by leaders in every modern time and place as a palliative that will cure our ails. Yet none of them have, the chaos of existence reigns unchecked, all the more powerful for our attempts to control it.

The only chance we have is to smush them all together and try to wallow in that pigpen where  interconnectedness and tension of it all smears us and everything unpleasant and unbearable intermingles with our blessings and pleasures. The tension between them all is what causes misunderstanding and such fervent desire for control, so perhaps the acceptance and love of the interconnectedness between them is what can make us feel whole - or at least give us a better chance than to dwell within any one of them as a cure. As that wise man, George Costanza, once did, whatever you wish for in your life, do the exact opposite.


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/5: Citizen Kane in the Age of Vertigo

Citizen Kane is seventy-five. The movie that spans an entire lifetime is now a lifetime old. It was nearly aborted in pregnancy, nearly killed by starvation in infancy, neglected in its childhood and adolescence, then quite suddenly feted when attaining maturity as the greatest of all movies, the feting remained until Kane reached its biblical three score and ten. In its dotage it begins to fade into the same sad obscurity that Charles Foster Kane did. It is seen by so many as a sad artifact of what cinema used to be: a pretentious relic from the era when movies were not only movies, but a synthesis of drama, literature, art, music, science, and philosophy. To many in our era, Kane is more burden than movie - a silly exercise in the grandiose during an era so flooded with Kane's innovations and insights that few can properly take the measure of how much this movie shaped our lives. 

What can you expect from a movie so routinely hailed as the greatest movie ever made by poll after poll, magazine after magazine, critic after critic? No work of art can survive that kind of universal praise without seeming vastly overrated. The pendulum had to swing back, and it's only begun to. I expect it'll take at least another generation for the wheel of fortune to revolve back in Kane's favor. In an era flooded by visual stimulus, by abstract ideas about social consciousness rather than the real thing, by verbal inarticulacy, by an aversion to realism (who'd have thought Kane could be undone for being 'too realistic...') Kane's primacy has been deposed. More and more, tastemakers and movie lovers are leaving the lure of the human behind for the lure of the inhuman. Visually minded movies with little dialogue are starting to ascend up the famous Sight and Sound Poll: cold and inhuman movies like 2001, Man with a Movie Camera, Rashomon, Battleship Potemkin, and especially Vertigo, find themselves with ever more supporters. Meanwhile, movies that are no less visually stunning, like Kane, Rules of the Game, Tokyo Story, Bicycle Thieves, and The World of Apu, find themselves with ever less supporters because, so these critics reason, a movie that smudges its visual austerity with messy human concerns cannot possibly be as profound. 

This isn't to say that a colder movie can't be just as great. Who could ever deny Vertigo's greatness? I would probably come closer than most. It's unquestionably great Hitchcock - but among the greatest movies of Hitch, it's also his least funny, his least comprehensible, his least interested in any human concern but obsession. Hitch was always a terrible obsessive, but his obsessiveness was usually offset by his humor and intelligence. There is a sickliness to Vertigo that puts his psychopathology straight into our view with no redeeming quality.  

And yet Vertigo is the movie which most critics center upon today rather than Kane as the greatest of all. It's the perfect movie for our age: so single-mindedly focused on visual effect that dialogue goes radio silent for fifteen minutes at a time. It is so focused on male desire to control women that it never think to explore about the personality of the controlled. It is so much a technical exercise and dreamscape that nobody ever stops to remember that the plot makes hardly any sense whatsoever. A great movie Vertigo certainly is, but it's not THAT great.

Htich's stock is higher than ever. I don't begrudge Hitch his high standing, I think I love Alfred Hitchcock as much as anybody does, but I can't help thinking I love him for different reasons. I love the humor that almost always exists just beneath the surface for anyone willing to look, I love the subtle way he tries to create modern myths - Psycho is like a Greek Tragedy written backwards, North by Northwest and The Wrong Man are Kafka stories about people stripped of identity masquerading as entertainment, Rear Window and The Birds are fables about the casual cruelty we partake in without even realizing what we do. But I think most people today love Hitch for the visual sense and glamor, for the way he addressed the captivity of women (without realizing that he looked on it with partial approval), for the unmatched perfection of his craft. Hitchcock's movies are amazing, gravity-defying leaps of cinematic imagination.  In his generation, Welles was probably his only equal as a genius of moviemaking, but Welles can sometimes seem bound by the conventions of theater and literature - trying too hard (for some people at least) to delve into the messy human motivations that can ruin a perfect craft. Not so in Hitchcock, his movies are pure cinema - perhaps the first pure cinema, and his characters exist to advance the story.

It's Hitch's world we now live in, not Welles's. The would-be Welleses of the next generation who wanted to begin where Citizen Kane left off are dying. The great auteurs of the screen are now to be found almost exclusively on television - influenced more by Welles's children than by Welles himself. Kubrick's been dead for almost twenty years - Dr. Strangelove is over a half-century old, and 2001 is very nearly there. Altman's been dead for more than ten, and while his best movies deserve far greater renown, they won't get further renown until the mostly European masters who influenced him are similarly remembered. Cassavetes has been dead for nearly thirty years, his movies almost completely forgotten. Coppola is now in his late seventies, The Godfather inches slowly toward its half-century and Apocalypse Now is nearly 40, it's enough to embed any career into the high water marks of history, but what has he done of note since 1980? Even the movie lovers who venerate Oliver Stone have to admit that their hero is twenty years past his best work. Spielberg and Scorsese currently straddle the sides of seventy, still adding movies to their storied careers, in their differing ways the flourishing success stories that were denied to the cinematic forefather that for all their differences they both clearly share. Other would-be-Welleses of that generation with the ambition to turn film upside down - Bogdanovich, Forman, Polanski, Kauffman, Cimino, Friedkin, De Palma, Boorman, Ashby, Fosse, - retreated into silence or mediocrity so long ago that they seem to us now like relics of an era almost completely forgotten. In our own era and country, movies are a tired artform. Even the best are more focused on visuals and irony and homages to former movies (the ultimate sign of an artform past its sellby date) than exploring the crevasses of the human soul: Tarantino, Lynch, Cronenberg, Fincher, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Tim Burton... There are individual exceptions in their outputs, and great moviemakers of their generation like Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater and Jason Reitman and Sofia Coppola to balance against them, but by and large, this is a generation of moviemakers so concerned with not selling out to the currents of modern life that they sell out life itself. The skill of these film brats is what you get from moviemakers who know everything about film and nothing about life. Their skill doesn't illuminate humans with insights, it exploits us with cruelty. If you want to find life portrayed in all its teeming vitality and diversity, find your remote.

In fact, the criticism that stays with me of Welles the most comes in precisely the other direction from Ingmar Bergman, who called Welles's movies empty hoax. In a sense, he's absolutely right. Welles was not a natural investigator of the human, he was at heart a self-aggrandizing showman - a magician who wanted above all to make the audience feel awe. After Kane, he would dream up enormous project after enormous project - it wasn't enough to simply make movies, every one of them had to be a masterpiece that would top Kane in grandeur: the Life of Christ, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Heart of Darkness, The Little Prince, The Great Gatsby, The Pickwick Papers, Treasure Island, Catch-22, Cyrano... One suspects that Kane got made because he (just barely) disguised his world-conquering ambitions with the veneer of doing a totally original project. 

But movies don't allow for the transcendent genius who views greatness as rightfully his the same way a hunter views the animals he shoots, not yet at least. The list of creative volcanoes that burn out or are tossed out of the business are far too long to list in this post. A director may be the principal author of his film, but a film has hundreds of authors, and a director has to collaborate with every one of them. Careerwise, film rewards the competent professional who delegates and doesn't impose his vision too strongly. So many of the great directors of Welles's generation: not just Hitch but Ford, Hawks, Keaton, Chaplin, Capra, Cukor, Curtiz, Minnelli, Sturges, Ray, Sirk, and Preminger, would have utterly blanched at the idea that they were artists. In their eyes, they were artisans, craftsmen working on deadline, little different than chefs or potters. Perhaps they were entertainers, but art was something made by New York snobs. 

Welles didn't aspire to great art that illuminates the human, he aspired to gigantic-size art - the type you get from Michelangelo and medieval Cathedrals and Shakespeare (or at least the more bombastic side of Shakespeare). He wanted an art that was synonymous with magic, that overwhelms the watchers and turns their knees to jelly. Such achievement is only possible on the scale of duomos, frescoes, tragedy, epic, historic portrayals of great men.  

Kane is a movie that endorses the 'great man' theory of history in an age that wants to kill the 'great man' theory off. But Citizen Kane itself is proof the 'great man theory' of history is true, or at least some revisionist version of it. Through a mixture of luck, force of personality, and psychopathic ego, there are some historical figures so titanic that the world must look different without their presence. To past generations, Citizen Kane was not only a monument of cinema, but a monument to an era of American History that was definitively over. The age of the robber barons and moguls was replaced by a mid-century era of generals who presided over peacetime and late-century diplomats who plotted wars. But look around you. Who can look at the early 21st century and not notice how much it looks like the early 20th. Ostentatious robber barons are everywhere, the presence of the corporations influencing media is everywhere, self-centered liberals selling out the working class are everywhere. Conspiracy theorists have it exactly wrong: the world is run not by a shadowy cabal but by a minuscule and extremely visible superclass with unimaginable wealth who can create and destroy tens of thousands of lives at a whim, just as feudal lords once did. We even have a superrich demagogue running for high office today labeled by half the country as a fascist and half the country as a traitor to conservative principles. This may not be a generation that appreciates Kane sufficiently, but perhaps that's because ours is a generation that lives Citizen Kane as no generation has since the first to see the movie. Forgetting the lessons of Kane may indirectly be what's lead us to this historical moment. The world will eventually come back to Kane, it can't afford not to. 

Aside from the jaw-dropping technique with which the movie was made in every sense from cinematography to editing to script to acting to music, what strikes you most in Kane is how every detail of the production is subordinate to the state of this twisted man's soul. The fluid camera work of the early scenes capturing the vitality and hope and gracefulness of youth, the overwhelming production design of the final scenes representing the entombment of old age - like the world's most elaborate mausoleum. This post is already much too long, perhaps Kane requires another post to do it justice, but it'll suffice to say that seeing Kane in the theater as Der Fersko and I did yesterday is an experience that adds an entirely new dimension to what one sees on television. On television, Kane can have plenty of the dramatic impact - hitting us in the pit of our stomachs like a great page-turning novel. On the movie screen, Kane is the Sistine Chapel. Is Kane the greatest movie ever made? I have no idea. I have no idea if it's even the greatest American movie ever made. But it is a Michelangelo-like edifice, a towering 20th century monument to what was an entirely new artform that will define the 20th century for all time.