Wednesday, January 21, 2015

800 Words: New Tonality Playlist Part 3 - Bruckner

This isn’t the place to go into my long and deep love of Bruckner - how his music came to me at the cusp of my life’s lowest ebb, and how his ecstatic faith convinced me, if not of God, then that a world better than mine was possible. That post will one day come to be, I don’t doubt. It also is not the place to talk about how Bruckner anticipated all sorts of developments - from the heavy chromaticism of atonalists like Schoenberg and Webern to the cell-like mitosis of minimalists like Glass and Adams.

This is the post to talk about Bruckner’s impact on the future. Bruckner, for all his Teutonic heaviness, for all his reliance and reverence for the tried-and-true Western forms, is a strangely un-German, almost Byzantine-sounding composer. There is something about his music so unbelievably estranged from the German way of doing things that his closest parallels come not from music but literature and art. His music may sound superficially like Wagner, but the spirit of his music is diametrically opposed to Wagner’s. Wagner created a system of drama, instrumentation, vocalism, acoustics, and general aesthetics, meant to turn the world upside down: to overthrow traditional notions of Christ’s salvation with a Buddhist influenced concept of renunciation, replacing communal religion with Greek-influenced drama; upending bourgeois propriety and replacing it with a pagan-like embrace of bodily love’s holiness, and replacing the Bible with enactments of primal mythology.

Bruckner utilized many things from Wagner’s system - certainly he loved Wagner’s scale and even utilized an instrument or two from Wagner’s arsenal (Wagner Tubas, multiple harps) but his foremost desire was to fortify traditional authority. With only a few exceptions, Bruckner’s orchestra was entirely traditional. Wagner intricately interwove the densest and widest varieties of orchestral effects, counterpoint, and motifs; whereas Bruckner’s simplicity of means was almost monomaniacal. Bruckner developed 80 minute symphonies from two-note motifs, used the orchestra as though it was never more than three separate registers from his beloved organ, and used counterpoint as though the examples were lifted straight from a textbook. Wagner and Bruckner saw a kinship in each other because they both loathed the frivolity of contemporary society and its music, which they saw as distracted from eternal questions. But Bruckner’s and Wagner’s answers to those questions could not be more diametrically opposed. Wagner wanted to foster a golden age of Athens-like democracy with drama replacing organized religion as its spiritual guide.

Among the artistic giants, Bruckner’s closest contemporary spiritual brothers were not from the world of music but, surprisingly, from literature. Like his contemporary, Dostoevsky, Bruckner truly believed that salvation from the agony of human individuality which they dramatized so well can only be gained by belief in a divine heirarchy: an all-knowing God, His holy mother Church as intercessor, and a strong Emperor serving as His divinely anointed governor on Earth. Like another contempoary, Walt Whitman, Bruckner believed in vast, public statements that broadcast his faith from the mountaintops to the valleys below. Like still another, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Bruckner believed in religious ecstasy far more than bodily ecstasy, and his most powerful work comes from his enactment of that ecstasy.

Bruckner learned the musical language of Bach and Mendelssohn, but the musical language Bruckner required to portray that ecstasy practically bursts the seems of what Bach’s language makes possible. In order to create his music, Bruckner needed to reach out to other influences, and he found those influences not in Wagner but in the early music of the Catholic Church he loved so dearly. Brahms, another important antipode to Bruckner, derived his musical language from almost all the exact same music. Both hailed from a time when musicological study made great swaths music of a distant past available for the first time. But these two musical titans appreciated diametrically opposite qualities in the same music. Brahms loved the counterpoint, the formal experiments, the spirit of humility which they exuded, the micro qualities of the old masters. Bruckner loved the old masters’ macro qualities: the modal harmonies that sounded like another musical continent, the massiveness of the sound, the spirit of ecstasy.  

Bruckner’s musical language is a world apart from the Germanness of his time. He hailed from a small town outside Linz during a period when Krakow constantly traded hands between independence and subservience under Austria, which means that in his youth he may have heard nearly as much Polish spoken by native Poles moving over the porous border (or perhaps even Yiddish) as German. Whereas Brahms’s musical language, even when it’s experimental and chromatic, sounds fully ‘Western’ in its tonality, Bruckner sounds like he comes from a couple hundred miles East of where he hails - an almost Balkan or Russian composer. His chromaticism, compared to the ingenious tensions of Brahms and Wagner, comes in long sequences where the ideas are quite basic. His chords were fully Western (there’s a famous quote I can’t find about how Bruckner loved to play a long sequence of chords in the same key on the piano), but the way he modulates them is so unexpected, so distant from anything traditional harmony tells us to expect, that it surely must come from a different source and place. Brahms, almost entirely self-taught, had a mastery of form so innate that his music seems to have no awkward edges. Bruckner, an eternal student with more degrees than virtually any great composer ever attained, spent his whole career making ‘mistakes’ with form which Brahms must have found the height of amateurishness. As often as not, his symphonies sound like magnificent fragmented parts with no whole conception to keep them together. No matter how hard Bruckner tries to integrate them, his final triumphs often sound as though they come in no harmonic relation to what happens before. His transitions are not so much transitions as awkward-all-stop-emergency-breaks, his harmonies have no real relation to anything at all. As a result, his music has a visceral, emotional directness that in Brahms’s masterly yet humble hands would feel contrived.

Bruckner, for all his gigantism and erudition, was like a simple folk musician who found the world’s largest folk instruments at his disposal. His music has as much in common with Mussorgsky and Bartok as it does with Mozart and Beethoven. It is a music whose time has is still yet to come - when the sounds of different tonal scales, harmonies, and modulations intermingle freely, Bruckner will be seen as a foremost progenitor of the newly modern modulation - capable of expressing shifts in tonality both musical and (therefore) emotional at which no other composer before or since has arrived. Perhaps his closest musical kin is Tchaikovsky. Both tried mightily to stay within the bounds of Western forms, but both wrote music far too emotional to be contained within its bounds. In both of them, we hear in embryo a new kind of music - more visceral, more emotionally frank, less concerned with form and more concerned with challenging the listener.

Bruckner Playlist: (Bruckner requires a free hand. Most conductors insist on keeping the rigid structure of his music, which in a composer so untraditional in matters of structure, only goes to its detriment. There is an insistence in his music by gerontocratic conductors on funereal, rigid tempos, which many music lovers think are deep, but ultimately does little for Bruckner but preach to a small coterie of music lovers who regard Bruckner’s solemnity with reverence but have little regard for his ecstasy. Here is a composer who, like Mussorgsky and Janacek, composes as much by free association as he does by rigor. He needs a conductor who does the same: Furtwangler, Jochum, Barenboim, Kubelik, Abendroth, Volkmar Andreae, Tennstedt, Welser Most (surprisingly…), even Knappertsbusch… Here are Symphonies 3-9, in classic and modern recordings that do justice. Almost inevitably, the older performance is preferable - worse played and in worse sound, but to my mind, more exciting and ecstatic in spite of their flaws. But the newer performances are no slouches, and come in much better sound that can give novices a better sense of the awesome grandiloquence of Bruckner’s music when experienced live. My advice is the precise opposite of everybody else's when it comes to Bruckner. Don't be patient. Find a performance that grabs you within the first minute.)

(classic) Symphony no. 3 , (classic) Symphony no. 3 (if you didn’t know the later symphonies, you’d think this the strangest thing you’d ever heard in your life), (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 3, (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 3,(modern sound) Symphony no. 3

(his most traditional and popular...) (classic) Symphony no. 4 (classic) Symphony no. 4 (modern sound) Symphony no. 4 (modern sound) Symphony no. 4 (modern sound - has to be heard to be believed) Symphony no. 4

(classic) Symphony no. 5 (In my humble opinion, he greatest, most daring, symphony written in the era between Beethoven and Mahler… Both successful by the German standard of coherence, and by my personal standard of 'strangeness'.), (classic) Symphony no. 5 , (classic) Symphony no. 5 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 5, (modern sound) Symphony no. 5

(classic) Symphony no. 6 (some great performances in semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 6 (a still stranger symphony…), Symphony no. 6 , Symphony no. 6, (modern sound) Symphony no. 6, (modern sound) Symphony no. 6

(classic) Symphony no. 7 (The greatest slow movement ever written - IMHO) (classic) Symphony no. 7 (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 7 ( (semi modern) Symphony no. 7, (semi modern) Symphony no. 7 (modern sound) Symphony no. 7

(classic) Symphony no. 8 (I don't know what to say about it except that this Symphony changed my life) (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (semi-modern) Symphony no. 8 (modern sound) Symphony no. 8 (modern sound) Symphony no. 8 (still more modern...) Symphony no. 8 (still more) Symphony no. 8 (original edition in modern sound) Symphony no. 8

(strangest of all…) (classic) Symphony no. 9 (classic) Symphony no 9 (classic) Symphony no. 9  (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (semi-modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (modern sound) Symphony no. 9 (modern sound) Symphony no. 9

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

800 Words: Charlie Hebdo: When Facebook Posts Become Blogging Part 2...

“So, as a white western left winger who passionately speaks out about torture of Middle Eastern detainees, about racist policing in America and numerous other human rights problems in the West, I don’t appreciate those who try to appeal to the seriousness of those issues to try to minimize the utter and complete seriousness of the violent massacre. You are not allies to free speech. You are attempting to silence the kind of free speech you don’t like. You are apparently so ideologically partisan to whoever you simplistically see as marginalized and against whoever you simplistically judged as privileged that when innocent people are massacred your knee jerk reflex is to minimize the importance of the injustice done to them however you can. That’s more offensive and insulting to humanity than anything I’ve seen from Charlie Hebdo.”

The reason I’ve posted so many articles on facebook and flooded everybody’s newsfeeds is that what we saw last week is a once-in-a-generation moment, like the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989 - a 9/11 for intellectual engagement. It's also a sanity test, and one of the world’s rare moments of true moral clarity. There is no turning the clock back from this moment. What is at stake now is nothing less than the direction which freedom of speech takes in our generation. Freedom of speech may be violated all the time on issues of national security, but at least those violators generally think they’re saving lives by doing so, even if they’re often wrong. But in this case, freedom of speech is being violated in literally the most lethal of all ways, simply because a long dead person’s honor was insulted. This is one of the very rare moments when there is no equivocation worth making, no complexity worth examining, no criticism of the victims worth offering, because the totalitarian mindset which perpetrated this act does not allow for complexity. We’re either on the side of free speech, or of repression, and anyone who equivocates now is what Stalin used to call ‘useful idiots,' no better than that professor who in the days after 9/11 referred to the workers in the World Trade Center as 'Little Eichmanns.'

The flip side to this is the side that would use this as a moment to make greater incursions into free speech because of national security. Contrary to popular belief, France’s hate speech laws do not prosecute anti-semitism exclusively or even a majority of the time (as though there's not more than a hundred years of reasons France might decide to do that...) and the state prosecuted anti-Islamic speech quite often - including against the movie star Brigitte Bardot for her anti-Muslim comments, which is akin to America prosecuting a star with Marilyn Monroe’s charisma and Elizabeth Taylor’s longevity. Even so, France’s laws against hate speech are utterly misguided and give crazy bigots of all types a chance to pose as martyrs for their supporters. It essentially gives nutjobs a recruiting tool.

And no one lately, not even the Tea Party, recruits better than the European far-right. Whether it’s France’s Front National, or Greece’s Golden Dawn, or Finland’s Finn Party, or Holland’s Party for Freedom, or Hungary’s Jobbik, or the Austrian Freedom party, or especially Russia's Putinism, they are Europe's ascendant wave. Imagine a continent populated by little Putins (liliputins...) for leaders, that is a potential future which every European now has to at least entertain. Marine Le Pen, second-generation leader of the Front National and daughter of an unreformed Vichy brownshirt agitator, was already leading French polls for the next presidential election. Her lead will only grow now. In no small part, this all is made possible because of a European left that, like the American left only moreso, is so unyielding that it refuses to make the necessary political compromises to fight the spread of fascism. Around many countries in southern Europe, the unemployment rate has consistently threatened to break 30%, and youth unemployment often threatens to break the 50% barrier (!). Their giant, lumbering social programs have no real industry to support them financially, so when the Great Recession hit, they had no steady source of income on which to fall back. The European Union was supposed to be an ideal society, and created the highest standard of living the world has ever seen. But its hubris seems to be destroying it. European governments have promised to keep social services running that they can’t possibly afford, and many Europeans are furious that they were lied to. Some of them are gullible enough to fall for scapegoats like Muslims (and Roma, and Jews, and Eastern European immigrants…, and let's not even get started about the effects of anti-Americanism...).

In Northern Europe, country after country elected a generation of American-influenced politicians who took control and mildly reduced social programs that were only made possible in the first place by America's still unmatched largesse in the Marshall Plan. Even among the moderate cuts, some were undoubtedly excessive and discriminatory, but nowhere near as excessive and discriminatory as those a truly far right politician would make. As a result, Northern Europe is mostly immune from the worst of the recessions and the resulting political chaos and extremism. Southern Europe mostly refused to deregulate at all. To them, dreams were more important than facts, principle was more important than compromise, and no solution is better than a solution that won't work 100% of the time. A whole generation of progressives, European and American, abandoned practical solutions for pie-in-the-sky dreams, and refused even a seat at the table in the negotiations to determine the fate of social progress. Do not let it become two generations...

Meanwhile, rather than attack the causes of discrimination, the Left, at least in our country, has taken to using petty censorship as a way to intimidate heretics who don't follow their dogmas to the letter. History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. The same scared, prudish, delusional urge to censor which makes fundamentalist Islam so apoplectic to any depiction of their Prophet is exactly what causes so many leftists in the 'first world', particularly on the internet, to become in thrall to the dogmas of political correctness. The Left spent fifty years trying to wage a culture war against the Right's prohibitions on sex, only to mount its own prohibitions at the very moment they seemed to win this particular war against the Right. If the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders showed anything, it's that tropes about religion, about gender, about race, which some people find offensive can increasingly not even be used in defense of the disadvantaged without a massive, mob-like disapproval being voiced. Once again, today's Left's answer to an enemy is to pretend the enemy can be beaten simply by acting like saints. The more massively you censor simply because what people say might give offense, the more likely the counter-reaction is to be still more massive, and far more lethal. By trying to defend minority communities from any criticism at all, we've probably made life far more dangerous for them. And as always, what happens in Europe can easily happen in America...

Compromise is life itself, and the only way we can create peace within it. It applies to politics as to life, and whether the compromise is in regard to providing better healthcare for Americans, or peace in the Middle East, the alternative to compromise is fanaticism, and where there is fanaticism, there is only death.

...Back to my usual six facebook posts a day….

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Playlist I Made for a Friend

From an online list of the 200 best pieces of classical music. I went through the top 70 and found the best (as in my favorite among the available ones) youtube recordings I could find of each and ranked them by this scale. This should give you some to listen to for a few hours...

* Obbligation Masterpiece
** Absolutely Worth Listening To
*** As Amazing As It’s Cracked Up To Be
**** Extraordinary Even Beyond It’s Reputation

  1. * Bach Mass in B-Minor,
  2. **** Beethoven Symphony no. 9 “Choral”
  3. *** Beethoven Symphony no. 5
  4. * Bach St Matthew Passion
  5. * Wagner Tristan und Isolde - English subs, For Performance,
  6. *** Beethoven String Quartet op. 131
  7. **** Beethoven Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”
  8. *** Verdi Otello For English -,, For Perfomrance -
  9. ** Beethoven Appassionata Sonata
  10. **** Mozart Marriage of Figaro: For English -, For Performance -,  
  11. *** Mozart Symphony no. 41 “Jupiter”
  12. ** Mozart Piano Concerto no. 20
  13. * Bach Well-Tempered Clavier
  14. *** Schumann Piano Concerto
  15. *** Schubert String Quintet
  16. ** Verdi Aida For Performance English Subs
  17. *** Beethoven Piano Concerto no. 5 “Emperor”
  18. **** Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker
  19. **** Beethoven Symphony no. 6 “Pastoral”
  20. ** Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor, (for orchestra)
  21. **** Bach Goldberg Variations
  22. *** Mendelssohn Violin Concerto
  23. **** Schubert Symphony no. 9 “The Great”
  24. **** Mussourgsky Pictures at an Exhibition (piano), (orchestra)
  25. *** Debussy Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
  26. ** Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique
  27. *** Beethoven Violin Concerto
  28. ** Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1
  29. **** Schubert Final Piano Sonata
  30. *** Strauss Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks
  31. *** Beethoven Missa Solemnis,
  32. ** Beethoven Moonlight Sonata
  33. *** Puccini Madama Butterfly, Performance (also English)
  34. *** Schubert Death and the Maiden Quartet
  35. ** Rachmaninov Piano Concerto 2
  36. *** Chopin Complete Preludes
  37. **** Brahms Violin Concerto
  38. *** R. Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra
  39. *** Bach Chaccone for Violin
70. *** Beethoven Symphony no. 7