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. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/3: A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams

A Sea Symphony was almost ruined for me forever, because it was during the car ride home after watching Leonard Slatkin conduct this work when I was ten years old that my father chose to give me the 'sex talk.' It has to be a great, great piece of music to recover from the pavlovian queasiness of that tragicomically horrifying memory. I doubt, were it Wagner or Richard Strauss, I could ever listen to those composers ever again.

The most important thing to demand from music, perhaps from art, is the inner glow. The glow that tells you we're not alone, that the world exists not only to demand of you but to give you something back without reservation, the glow that tells you that the world is always worth saying yes to, and that hope is always around the corner. You can appreciate art without the glow, you can certainly be infatuated by it, but I find it difficult to love, and I'd imagine that most other people do too. Those who claim to love it always require explanations for why they love such things, they cannot simply love.

When properly played, nobody gives us so much of that hopeful glow the way Bach does, and that's why he is even now when he's so overplayed he's the most beloved of all composers. Before Bach, perhaps most of the great composers had a clarion blaze of aural sun that was too brilliant for human ears, but all the greatest composers who come after Bach have some variation on his glowingly warm embrace of life. Mozart and Beethoven glow to nearly the same degree, Schubert and Haydn scarcely less, then perhaps Brahms and Schumann and Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Smetana and Janacek certainly have some kind of exuberant radiance to them - perhaps even a gusto, Rossini and Verdi and even Puccini have a shine to them if not a glow, Mahler and Bruckner are at very least incandescent if not glowing, perhaps Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and Mussorgsky have an ostentatious effulgence in place of the glow, Sibelius and Nielsen have a kind of cold glare, while Debussy and Ravel have at very least a beautiful shimmer, Americans like Copland and Ives and Bernstein certainly have warmth if not glow (and let's not even try to go through the many glories of Popular Music). The mystery of such music is not in its complexity, but in its seeming simplicity. How can such basic music concepts as a series of chords properly placed, perhaps over a melody, give off such infinite depth. This, to me, is the true purpose of great music, and the purpose which the 20th century, for all its many musical glories, did its best to kill off.

Wagner, on the other hand, does not have that glow, and neither does Liszt. Neither do Richard Strauss or Schoenberg, neither does Prokofiev or Liszt. Stravinsky and Bartok have it it in their folkier moments but that's the only music of theirs you can truly rely on them to get you through the day, and then there are the true moderns... There is awe-inspiring genius to all this music, but it is an empty kind of genius more interested in impressing us than embracing us, and listening to their music eventually makes you feel more alone, not less. I admire such composers, but I cannot love them, nor, I am convinced, can such music love me.

But what is the English form of this glow, the feeling you get from Britten, Elgar, Holst, and most particularly from Ralph Vaughan Williams? In keeping with the British culture of embarrassment, perhaps it's a blush... Or perhaps, coming from what the Germans called "The Land Without Music" ("Das Land Ohne Musik"), it's an afterglow... But regardless, why is the greatest music of England not ten times more beloved around the globe?

I have no idea if A Sea Symphony is a symphony at all, but if it is, it's the first great British Symphony - predating either of Elgar's by more than five years. Vaughan Williams was one of many composers in his time-period who wrote a huge sprawling work for huge orchestra and chorus as a very young man; long before any of them attained eminence in the hope that people would notice them - with very few exceptions, nobody did until much later.

It's such a sprawling piece of music that it's easy to think of as a piece of long-winded bombast. It's anything but that, though I wonder if you have to achieve a amount of life-experience in order to appreciate it properly. You have to have the kind of long-held memories of the Sea - of ritual trips with your family to the beach, of trying to reel in a fish during a boating trip with cousins and sailing in a storm with grade school friends, of good times with lost loves inside the beach house, of standing at night on an intruded upon private beach with half your close friends in the world as the more brave among them skinny-dip among the iridescent jellyfish and you playfully wrestle with your crush and lose your nerve to kiss her after you tackle her to the ground, of driving through the Pacific cliffs against the gale winds with your father and brother, of standing on the Maine coastline at your best friend's house with his family, of walking around the abandoned 1930's architecture of the Jersey shore with one of your other best friends and his friends from home, of summer camp campfires on a lake, of biking as a child along the Gunpowder River with your father, of walking on Lake Michigan in lively Chicago with your parents and looking out alone on Lake Erie in depressing Cleveland before your college roommate's wedding, of your first kiss in a Greek cruiseship on the Black Sea, of the overwhelming skylines while biking over the East River and the Charles and walking next to the Thames, of pulling your drunk friend back after he nearly falls off the Charles Bridge in Prague, of manmade canals in Venice and fountains in Rome, of beautiful women in Athens and the Greek Islands, of angry seagulls in Brighton stealing your chips, of festivals in the Baltimore Inner Harbor as you watch the boats pass through and risky drinking near the dock at Fell's Point, of canoeing rapids on the Rapahanock in Virginia, of douchey bars in Dewey Beach and huge beach houses in Cape May, of fording the Mediterranean with the legs of your pants up while trying not to gawk at the topless bathers of Provence, of walking the beaches of Tel Aviv in the early morning while seeing ancient Israeli veterans with lost limbs push themselves out to sea, of floating in the Dead Sea with your unrequited Israeli love, of walking next to the Mediterranean in Haifa with your closest female friend, of taking a fairy to and back from the great music of the Newport Folk Festival with one of your best friends as your heart is breaking from yet another unrequited love, of delicious meals and well-stocked English bookstores in Eilat, of riding your bike up the Delaware coast and seeing momentary views of the Atlantic on one side and the Bay on the other, of seeing 4th of July fireworks from a lakeside porch, of beginning this blog while living for a summer at the beach. Once you understand the Sea as only a person who's lived a portion of his life has, the maritime atmosphere of this music becomes so vivid and palpable, not just of your physical memories of the sea, but of the spiritual sea.

All through history and literature and art, the sea is the largest metaphor we have of the swirling, churning unconscious: from The Odyssey to Moses and Jonah to The Tempest and Twelfth Night to Moby Dick and the Ancient Marriner to Courbet and Gericault and Turner and Friedrich and Winslow Homer and George Bellows, to Wagner and Debussy and Britten, the sea has to mean so much more to us than merely the sea. It is that place which we mammals cannot fathom - and that place within ourselves to which it is lethal to dive in too deep, a place seemingly without bottom but with life and beauties and dangers beyond our imaginings.

The text is by Walt Whitman, a poet whom it's taken me years to love, but whom I finally seem to understand. I have little problem with Whitman's artlessness, my problem is Whitman's lists - the catalogues of all those far-flung people, places, and things he embraces. And yet, as I read The Sleepers on Friday night, I realized that within Whitman is precisely that glow which I so value in music. The catalogues are there to increase the connectivity of all things - there is nothing that Whitman does not try to love, and that love comes to us even today as a firm embrace of all things lively and exuberant.

Think of these verses by Whitman in the second movement of the Sea Symphony:

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future. 

A vast similitude interlocks all, 

All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time,

All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,

All nations,

All identities that have existed or may exist

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

I have to imagine that most humans who ever live have a luminescent moment on the water like this, when we are alone, but the scape is so beautiful that you feel both terrified and elated by your insignificance. You are present in eternity, the awesome is present all around you, a person can come behind you and kill you without being seen or heard, yet it does not matter at all. We come from the eternity of this natural scape, and we shall return to it. Listen to Vaughan Williams's music, this soft, brooding, levitating music contains all the luminescence of the universe we can possibly take in.

O vast Rondure, swimming in space,
Cover'd all over with visible power and beauty,
Alternate light and day and the teeming spiritual darkness,
Unspeakable high processions of sun and moon and countless stars above,
Below, the manifold grass and waters, animals, mountains, trees,
With inscrutable purpose, some hidden prophetic intention,
Now first it seems my thought begins to span thee. 

Down from the gardens of Asia descending radiating,
Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them,
Wandering, yearning, curious, with restless explorations,
With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish, with never-happy hearts,
With that sad incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied soul? and Whither O mocking life? 

Ah who shall soothe these feverish children?
Who Justify these restless explorations?
Who speak the secret of impassive earth?
Who bind it to us? what is this separate Nature so unnatural?
What is this earth to our affections? (unloving earth, without a throb to answer ours, Cold earth, the place of graves.) 

Yet soul be sure the first intent remains, and shall be carried out,
Perhaps even now the time has arrived. 

After the seas are all cross'd, (as they seem already cross'd,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish'd their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

This is just the first third of the Whitman verse which RVW employs. Or, if you have a spare half-hour, listen to the mystically transcendent finale. Whitman's verses here cry out for a music that not only takes in this spiritual sea. From this point on, Whitman exhorts the soul to soar and chart the innumerable dangers and beauties and visions and vitalities of this sea of the spirit. Here is the last little bit of his verse:

Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor! 
Cut the hawsers -- haul out -- shake out every sail!

Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me,

Sail forth -- steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all. 

O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail! 

And after Whitman writes this, Vaughan Williams allows for no more loud, crashing, bombastic waves of the shore. There is merely the pulsing of the deep sea tides at their surface on a calm night, to and fro, back and forth, port and aft, gently respirating like the very breath of life.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Musical Explanation 4/1: McCabe & Mrs. Miller

I don't care what anybody else says. The greatest American movies were almost all made around the 1970's, it's a proven scientific fact. It was universally agreed upon during this period that three directors towered over everybody else: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman. There were dozens of other American directors making wonderful movies, but until the emergence of the Spielberg juggernaut and the precedence of box office returns, no director fired the American imagination like these three. Among these three, Altman is easily the least remembered. Scorsese may be 5'3, but he's now the Giant of Cinema - the most legendary living director, still making movies in his seventies that are occasionally as amazing as ever before. Coppola is a nub of his former self in every way but his weight, but The Godfather Saga and Apocalypse Now will live forever.

Robert Altman's been dead for ten years, and so far time has done his reputation no favors. He is easily the most challenging of the three, and easily the least influential on contemporary American culture. There's nothing in his output that instantly acclimates you to its climate the way you might be to the Corleones or to the Goodfellas. He throws you into his plots with as much preparation as a prankster gives before dumping cold water on you - characters talk over each other just as they do in real life, and once you decipher what they say, what they say is often not that memorable.

And yet, the more I see, the more I wonder if Altman might well tower head and shoulders above the other two. Great as all three are, none of the three is so absolutely titanic as to be above criticism, but the criticism of Scorsese and Coppola has to be more basic than mere difficulty. Both Scorsese and Coppola are, in their unique ways, seduced by the lure of evil and violence to the near-exclusion of warmth, tenderness, affection, and gentleness. They tell manly stories about manly issues that have a perverse fear of women and the feminine. They portray very small, very particular slivers of humanity that venture hardly at all out of their realms of comfort. Their comfort is in violence, rage, ego, sin, and possession. Such subjects make for unforgettable stories, but also for lots of repetition - particularly with regard to women. In both Scorsese and Coppola, women exist as objects to be pursued and possessed. In Taxi Driver, neither Betsy nor Iris is ever seen as more than their purpose an object of male attention. In The Godfather, Kay is little more than a chaste breeding mare. Both Scorsese and Coppola are considerate enough to show these women bristling at being so constricted by men, but not remotely considerate enough to let female characters exist outside of stories about men.

This is not a criticism you could ever lay at the feet of Robert Altman. The true elite of the arts have androgynous imaginations. On my current, and always shifting, list the very greatest directors, male as they've been so far - Renoir, Ozu, Hawks, Almodovar, Lubitsch, Ray, Louis Malle, Altman? - one of the criteria is that directors have to demonstrate clear interest in the whole of the human story, not just obsess about particular slivers of it.

Roger Ebert called McCabe & Mrs. Miller a perfect film. It is emphatically not that. He also called it one of the saddest films he'd ever seen, it is even less sad than it is perfect. It is, in its bittersweet way, a joyous film, or at very least, a film about an oasis of joy amidst suffering. There is nothing in either Coppola or Scorsese's output that's anything like the overwhelming warmth and hope of this movie. At its core is not sadness but sacrifice - two hedonists found a whorehouse in a mining town that brings the town together. At the end of the movie, John McCabe may be shot dead and Constance Miller may be lost to opium, but in the wake of their lost business, the miners in the town will probably marry the hookers and start families. McCabe & Mrs. Miller literally gave their lives so that a new town could thrive.

In the unblinkingly masculine world of the Western, the subject of sex is almost taboo. There are women in the world of John Ford, but like so many things in the John Ford universe, they exist in a sentimental haze - even the hookers exist to be future saintly mothers, like a kind of proto-Spielberg heroine. Amid so many quarreling alpha males, you never see women with their own ambitions or motivations - they exist purely to support their men. But in such a rough and violent world, sex had to be a subject about which people were dealing with constantly, but in the age of the production code, who could possibly deal with it realistically?

Sex in the Old West must have been a terribly brutal thing. It was tough enough to be a man in the Old West, where men constantly had to prove their masculinity lest they seem less manly and unthreatening to people who could easily kill them for trivial reasons. But to be a woman in that period among so many madmen must have been its own kind of hell.

But in this pit of sexual despair there occasionally come women like Constance Miller. A low-class Cockney Londoner with an addiction to opium whose European experience can pass for classy in 1900 Seattle. She's long been a fallen woman, far too smart for her line of work, and she's starting to get older than her colleagues. She needs to become a Madame before her price goes down, so when she briefly meets a genuinely stupid man named John McCabe, she knows a great opportunity when she sees one. She goes from Seattle to the rural mining town where he wants to make it as saloon-keeper and a pimp, and she makes him the offer he needs to become a success. He puts up the money, she runs the saloon, and elevates it into an oasis of class and respect and dignity and happiness in a place bereft of those.

The saloon is obviously a one of the most honored places in the Western mythos; a place not only for socializing, but of virtually the only kind of love that existed in these towns. Crushed men without futures or commitments would go west in search of the opportunity they never had in the more respectable East. The only source of affection and love available to them was as a business transaction, and with the crushed women who kept them company, they could pretend for a time to have a bond more intimate than was ever allowed them... Or at least that was the ideal, the reality could probably be much more brutal. Nevertheless, there was a kind of courtliness and dignity in the transactions of the 19th century whorehouse that could never be present in an era of free love.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a flawed movie, but its flaws are the flaws of our own era. Between its sentimentality about sex, its willingness to blame unrestrained capitalism for every glitch in the best laid plans of mice and men, its soundtrack almost exclusively made of Leonard Cohen songs, and its video-game like shootout at the end, you'd think that it would be a perfect movie for 2016 - and yet hardly anyone in my generation's seen it.

Even Robert Altman's greatest movies come down to our era like a message of past solidarity with Bernie Sanders. For all his obvious humanity, here is a director who truly loathes capitalism, and one of his most glaring flaws as an artist is his willingness to lay every human problem at the feet of capitalism and industry. McCabe & Mrs. Miller's business is undone by the unrestrained, mafia-like capitalism of Sears & Roebuck, who make McCabe a not particularly generous offer to buy his saloon, and when he refuses, they send a hitman to kill him. The hulking presence of a faceless corporation in this movie is both terrifying and a little unfair. Surely a man as clearly incompetent as John McCabe could have come undone by something far more trivial.

But McCabe & Mrs. Miller is still a toweringly great movie in its way, and its scope and reach puts nearly any American movie of more recent vintage to shame. As it thankfully is in television today, the 1970s was a movie era when art, not money, controlled the means of production. A great artist like Altman or Coppola was free to pursue his vision to the ends of the Earth, and gave us a truly American art worthy of the name as never before or since. One day, I have to believe, these great movies of the 1970's will be rediscovered as perhaps the crown jewel of the art of moviemaking. I hope we're all still around to see it.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Musical Explanations 3/31: The Sad Fall of Jackie Mason

Nothing dates faster than comedy, and there is nothing sadder than a comedian past his sell-by date. Has time ever been so cruel to a celebrity as it's been to Jackie Mason? Had died twenty years ago, he'd be remembered as one of the funniest, most brilliant, most influential comedians of modern history - and now he's just a grouchy old bigot, a shandeh, a naar, total embarrassment to the comic genius and pride of a people he once was. In his old age, when he should be every bit the legend Mel Brooks now is, he's gone from menschllichker macher to schmutziker mamzer.

Search for Jackie Mason on youtube, and you can find a hundred-odd videos of Jackie Mason spewing unfunny op-eds uploaded directly to youtube that are nothing but right-wing bile, barely watched by anyone. Every one of them's introduced with Hava Negila played with the kind of bass riff that tells you he thinks he's being contemporary, but lost touch with what contemporary was more than thirty years ago.

It's especially sad, because Mason did as much as anyone to set the stage for the innovations of modern comedy up to this very moment - now more than ever. Watch him as the occasional Fox news sideshow commentator and you'd never know that this pint-sized fascist was once a giant. How could a man who spoke English so incomprehensibly handle it so brilliantly? Mason's old routines are clear influence for everybody who's anybody in comedy, not just George Carlin and Seinfeld, but Colbert and Louis CK too.

The bitterest irony of all is that the comic who inherited by far his spirit most directly is Stephen Colbert - the comic whose open-minded beliefs stand most clearly in contradiction to Mason's hate. Colbert's comedy draws from the exact same wellspring as Mason's, perhaps directly from Mason himself. Had Mason stayed the liberal he clearly was in his earlier career, he would probably be the most lionized living legend of comedy.

Both Colbert and Mason draw on that same source, irony in its most direct form - saying one thing and meaning another, often the exact opposite. When Mason focused on politics, a subject upon which he clearly as knowledgeable as any comedian has ever been, he would, like Colbert, approach from the open-minded liberal vantage point, and would pretend to praise and support right-wing politicians like Nixon and Reagan and then deliver punchlines that indirectly reveal that he loathed them. Colbert's irony comes from modern American life, but Mason's irony clearly comes from the rabbinic tradition in which he grew up. Mason may have been born in Sheboygan Wisconsin, but he grew up on the Lower East Side, and clearly spoke Yiddish as a first language. His father was an orthodox rabbi, his grandfathers were orthodox rabbis, all his brothers were orthodox rabbis. When Mason is ironic, the cadence isn't just Yiddish, it's Talmudic. There is a specific cadence to many of the Talmudic tractates where Orthodox Jews follow one interpretation of the Torah with precisely the opposite interpretation. It's a commonly shared assumption, at least among less observant Jews, that Charedi Jews give the word in the middle of the tractate the exact same emphasis when you get to the word in the middle "EPES!" ("BUT") which is usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug and a stuck up thumb that suddenly comes down. Over and over again, you see that ironic gesture in Mason's body language. How someone who grew up in so many layers of ironic tradition could stop being ironic and believe the very things he used to send up is a thought that can lead to despair.

In retrospect, you could probably tell that Mason would have this trouble earlier in his career, because Mason was always an asshole, but early in his career it was in the best possible way. When he first began in the fifties, he had enormous trouble because no comedian would ever be so acerbic. One of Mason's favorite tricks was to pick on someone in the front row of the audience and check with the guy to see if every joke is funny - it was as though the ultimate in Jewish neurosis came on the stage and as though he was angrily saying to the audience "Why am I not good enough for you?".When Don Rickles came on the scene a few years later, he did similar things and made insult comedy popular, but when Jackie Mason first insulted everyone from the audience to famous people, his audiences were shocked.

Ten years later, he'd become huge hit already, but he got himself practically banned from television for years because when Ed Sullivan held up his index finger from offstage to indicate that he had one minute left, Mason thought Sullivan was giving him the middle finger, and gave it to him right back while he was still on the air. It began a series of legal troubles for him that ended with a libel lawsuit against Ed Sullivan and his show, which Mason won, but the damage was done.

The real bad behavior began when he was a much older man, and the trouble just got worse and worse. In 1991, he referred to New York's mayor, David Dinkins, as a 'schvartze with a fancy mustache.' In 2003 he advocated the forcible expulsion of all Arabs from Israel, including the occupied territories. In 2012, he got into a physical altercation with a female friend, both sides claimed that the other initiated the fight, the charges were eventually dropped, but there's no way that anyone can believe that a snarling old man like Mason isn't capable of psychotic rage.

Every young Jew knows a Jackie Mason - maybe he's your bigoted grandfather or great uncle or cousin, maybe he's just a cantankerous old pot-stirrer in your shul, but every young Jew knows a couple old Jews who were unassailably liberal by the standards of 1965, but stood completely still while the world evolved and begrudges the world their mildly less privileged place within it. Sometimes he went by the name of Saul Bellow, or Milton Friedman, or David Mamet, or Irving Kristol, or Martin Peretz, or Joe Lieberman. He is almost always male, and sees himself as your superior by right of the fact that he's male and elderly. He assumes he should always be obeyed and differed to, not because of his virtue, but by virtue of being himself. He sees himself as much more liberal than his goyisher brethren in the white male community, and unlike them, he sees the liberation of women and blacks as a fundamental right. But he sees it as a right that should only be ascertained as a reward for good behavior. To ask for anything more is, to his mind, to be a parvenu, to not know your place, to be 'uppity.' Women can report abuse to the police now, blacks don't get lynched, 'So vat's de problem? Vy dey so angry?' In his dotage, Mason has become the voice of a particular substrata of white male rage in its Jewish variety. In the age of long-delayed Jewish prosperity, it was enough for many to assuage their liberal guilt by voting for Adlai Stevenson and contributing a few dollars to the SLC in the early 60's, so what's the problem now?

The clip I listed above comes from 1988. You can already see the open-mindedness of Mason's act fraying like an old rug. When it's brilliant, my god, it's electric as only the greatest of the great can be. But Mason was always a comedian who relied on stereotypes. Above all, he was a self-stereotyper, in incarnation of the ghetto Jew who was always willing to take a shot at himself before he takes a shot at anybody else lest the goyim beat the crap out of him again. The plurality of his comedy makes fun of Jews in everything from our little foibles to our grandiose self-delusions. Within it, you can hear in embryo the comic voices of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. But along with the self-stereotyping comes stereotyping of everybody else, and even in this midpoint in his career when he was in his mid-to-late fifties, you can hear Mason going to places that were terribly close to outright bigotry, even by the standards of 1988. He was not saying anything that can't be heard in most Jewish houses even today, but it doesn't make it any easier to take.

To our generation, Jackie Mason will probably be remembered most as Rabbi Krustovsky, the long-estranged father to Krusty the Clown. In a moment last year that was all too symbolic, Rabbi Krustovsky became one of the few characters The Simpsons ever killed off. That's just one of many ironies about Jackie Mason's presence on The Simpsons, but the largest of them all is that Krusty the Clown's biography is basically ripped from Jackie Mason's - a comic who rebelled against his Orthodox family that expected him to become a Rabbi. An atomically self-destructive performer who'll do anything to remain in the limelight. A walking anachronism whose comedy clearly dates from another age, yet stubbornly refuses to age gracefully.

As a friend pointed out when he heard I was writing about Mason, he is only 84, but he seems at least 100. Every decade, the toupees get more elaborate while the skin withers ever further. Mel Brooks is five years older than Jackie Mason, but he seems ten years younger and is every bit the comic icon Mason deserved to be, celebrated for his lapses into bad taste rather than alienated for them. Woody Allen is four years younger, his hugely productive career is still going strong, though his ethical lapses are of another order entirely from Jackie Mason's. Show business will forgive a sex criminal. In another ten years, maybe it'll even forgive Bill Cosby; but it will not forgive a Republican.

In the terms of comic genealogy, Mason is of the same generation as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. There is something, there's always been something, about comedy that draws out the most dangerous personalities. The job of a comedian is to push every conceivable boundary and find our weak spots. They are the frontier workers of our culture, working on our most sensitive fault lines. They inspire more love than anyone else in the arts, and consequently also inspire more hate. Comedy is virtually the only artform that demands a completely visceral response from the viewer - if you don’t laugh, the comic fails. No artform takes more courage to practice, no artform runs a greater risk of failure, no artform requires more refinement and evolution, and in no artform is the humiliation of failure so obvious. It therefore follows that the people attracted to comedy are the biggest risk-takers. They’re often the smartest and most interesting people in the world, and they’re often the most dangerous too. To be a good comic, there must be a hole in your life so deep and empty that only the sound of laughter can fill it. Jackie Mason is everything a comic is, was, and should be, and that's why he will never be an icon.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Musical Explanation 3/28: Lord of the Flies

I never read Lord of the Flies before last night. It was never assigned at Schechter or Beth Tfiloh when I was there, and my sense is that Hyde would have been idiotic to come within fifty miles of the book, lest it give their students any ideas. I'm sorry I've waited this long to read it, because beneath the simplicity - perhaps simple-mindedness - of its grim philosophical questions is a story about the torments we all face - regardless of age.

The parts of the book that will always remain with me are not the faux-cinematic spectacles of fire and blood, but the small moments of cruelty when the powerful subsume the powerless - it's a cliche that power corrupts, but power also infantilizes. It makes powerful people the least qualified to know what the best course of action is, both for themselves and the people over whom they rule. Civilization was and remains a hard-won achievement that's constantly corroded and rebuilt. If it functions properly, more and more of the powerless will gradually gain something resembling an equal footing with the powerful, and will add their natural gifts to the gifts which civilization bestows.

In other words, civilization (in this case perhaps, 'civilisation') was built for Piggy to flourish. He deserved better, and yet for every Piggy who has to endure being the victim of the work of fiction, there are billions of Piggys through human history, brought down by the brutality of the world before they had a chance to show what natural gifts they could offer to make our lives better.

I have no doubt that at that age, I'd have been a Piggy too, though perhaps without his common sense. Like all nerds from time immemorial, I had all those Ralph-like friends who turned their backs on friendship the moment it was expedient, and the sadistic Rogers who got a brief a taste of blood and became obsessed with drawing more, and oh boy did I ever know Jack Merridews - one of them even became a rabbi.

There is a cruelty about late childhood that is particular to itself, no other age can ever imitate it. You're old enough to grasp the basic conceits about right and wrong, but not old enough yet to internalize their importance. You're old enough to understand that your person and individuality can have power over others, but nowhere near old enough to internalize that power's limitations. It is an age when the terror of not understanding what you see can be all too real. I recall vividly the horrible dread I felt I was when my mother told me that in 4 billion years, the Sun would turn into a Red Giant and burn up the Earth. I still remember how terrified I was of the five foot stuffed bear that would sit right across from my bed, staring at me every night with its immobile smile - but I was too proud to tell my parents how horrifying it was. But it's also an age when you can become another kid's terror all too easily - I'm sure I was that too. There is no child too rough to never be a Piggy or a Simon, and no child too timid to never be a Jack or a Roger.

The problem is that while it gets better for us all as adults, or at least more domesticated, it doesn't get all that much better. One of the most striking details about Lord of the Flies, which I suppose you have to squint a bit to notice, is that the book portrays a dystopia within a dystopia. It takes place in some unspecified future date in which the world is already at nuclear war. The kids were not simply on a plane, they were on a rescue plane that was supposed to take them out of harm's way. For all we know, these kids were already traumatized like millions of children during the World War that occurred ten years before the book's composition in the early 50's. What happens on the island could be considered a microcosm of a world at war, and what happens to some of the characters in the book is downright merciful compared to the deaths that could await billions in a nuclear war.

Lots, far too much, is made of the symbolism and fable-like nature of these various characters: Simon seems saintly and prophetic, so perhaps he's Christ or Peter. Piggy, even with his low-class dialect, seems like a 10-year-old intellectual, so maybe he's Socrates or Galileo. Perhaps Jack is a standin for Hitler or a pint-sized Colonel Kurtz or even Satan himself (there's far more evidence for the latter than any other alleged symbol in the book...), and perhaps Roger is a Nazi torturer like Mengele or Dirlewanger or perhaps even a pre-teen complement to O'Brien from 1984. And perhaps the Beast can be anything from the human Id, to the primeval instinct toward fear and superstition, to our awareness of our limitations and mortality, to the burdens of history and consciousness. But to attach any particularly specific meaning to any of these characters is to completely miss the point - the point is to elicit comparisons and metaphors which are personal to each reader. If a metaphor occurs in this fable between a character and a larger figure in history or literature, that's certainly valid - and it probably will, but the point is not in what this fable means, but in wrestling with what this fable means.

Is Lord of the Flies as great as its reputation? Well... it's probably deserving of most of it... It's a tremendously effective and disturbing fable, but the fable is brought upon us with a tremendously heavy hand. William Golding, in spite of his Nobel Prize, is yet another of those 1950's writers who managed one great book and never repeated the feat. Most of us could easily name a dozen books from mid-century writers known for a single book that a book-lover hardly ever heard from again: Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon, Catch-22, Under the Volcano, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Winesburg Ohio, The Moviegoer, Watership Down... The list goes on and on, I can easily name a dozen more. Generally speaking, these are great books written by less than great writers. In the case of Lord of the Flies, Golding's grasp of ideas far exceeds the limits which his command of prose should allow him. Over and over again, Golding decamps from his sometimes magnificent prose to the world of cliche, the most famous example perhaps being right at the end of the book: "____ wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, the fall through the air of the true..." There is a still a kind of poignance in this writing - the character in question is still too young to understand the real depths of the world's darkness, so perhaps what's cliched to us is not cliched to him. But even so, a better writer wouldn't even make us ask the question.

In fact, a better writer would probably avoid making this story into a novel - realizing that a story with so many high-concept effects can be told much, much more effectively as a screenplay. Like so many of its successors, Lord of the Flies reads as a movie on the page. The novel can get us inside the heads of characters, but it can't possibly convey spectacle with the vividness of an actual picture. When you read all those macro microaggressions with which Piggy and the Littleuns are tormented, you might gasp. But when you read about the eruptions of the fires and the man in the tree, there is nothing about a written page which can render it with the vividness such images deserve. But this is what was asked of writers of that era, and what's asked even more of writers today.

Near as I can tell, there was something about the pressure of being a famous high culture creator in the Postwar period that was unbearable. This was a phenomenon by no means limited to novelists. Creating something great requires solitude, yet the media took the most promising talents in the English speaking world and immediately turned them into celebrities. How can a writer possibly create great novels when he has an offer for a $10000 speaking engagement every day? Norman Mailer tried to do both, but just about everyone but him agreed that he failed. Critics and fans have always been brutal in their assessments, but a disappointed fan could never call Balzac or Dostoevsky up on a listed phone number at any point during the day. Whereas the reading public of the previous age could only have their narratives conveyed to them through words, writers of the new era had (have) to compete with cinematic images. She has to not only create scenes that can inspire an imagination trained far more by Spielberg than Melville or Twain, but she has to create those scenes using a vocabulary that is, by definition, more limited than readers of previous generations because they don't spend as much time reading. When you think of it from that perspective, perhaps it seems like a miracle that so many talented writers managed even one great book.

Aside from the culture of celebrity, the ground for high culture was simply not as fertile in the 20th century. The most popular literary novels almost invariably have conceptual hooks - a novel can't simply be a novel that tells a meaningful story, it needs a quasi-cinematic conception to distinguish itself in the marketplace. Even the most talented writers can exhaust themselves simply coming up with ideas they can pitch to a publishing firm before they even write a word. Today, literature lives in an Age created by the ABC's (Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke), Heinlein and Vonnegut, JRR and CS, Jo and George. Fiction nearly requires a concept to be marketable. Concept now dwarfs actual story or character or language or psychological and philosophical depth. It's become all-important, if the concept is good, everything else about the book can suck and it can still be a hit. Instead of holding mass-appeal and elite/critical appeal in balance, the concept ensures the mass-appeal's mass primacy. To a confirmed stick-in-the-mud like me, I can't help looking and that and seeing (yet) a(nother) cultural disaster.

20th century novelists, like poets and composers and artists and choreographers, were like olympic swimmers with a hand tied behind their backs. Aristocratic artists writing for an aristocracy that can't possibly exist in a demotic age. Considering the impediments in their way, it's amazing that artists from high culture ever come up with anything good at all.