David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: March 2007

Sviatoslav Richter: Musical Strict Constructionist

It is at once ridiculous and absolutely fitting that Richter was an originalist (i.e., a believer in the original intent of the composer) in his views on music:

Following an absolutely frightful concert that I gave at the Fetes
Musicales de Touraine, when I played eight of Liszt’s Transcendental
Studies, and a recital in Japan, where I took fright even before launching
into Beethoven’s Op. 106 Sonata, I made up my mind never again to play
without a score.

It any case, what’s the point of cluttering up your brain when there are far
better things to do? It’s bad for your health, and it also smacks of vanity.
True, it’s not as easy to retain the same degree of freedom with a score
open in front of you – it doesn’t work straight away and requires a lot of
practice – but now that I’ve got used to it, I find that it has lots of
advantages. In the first place, I’ve never made any distinction between
chamber music and music written for a solo performer. But one always plays
chamber music with a score; why should one have to perform without one as a
soloist? In the second place, it’s easy enough to memorize a Haydn sonata,
but I prefer to play twenty while reading the music, rather than limiting
myself to two performed from memory. As for contemporary music, there are
only a few exceptional artists who are able to memorize a piece by Webern,
or Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis, but it’s a waste of time and effort. It’s not
*practical*. Moreover, even if the element of danger and risk aren’t totally
foreign to music, you feel more secure and can concentrate better if you’ve
got the score in front of you. Finally, and above all, it’s more honest to
play like this: you’ve got how it has to be in front of you and you play
exactly what’s written. The interpreter is a mirror, and performing music
doesn’t mean contaminating the piece with your own personality, it consists
in performing *all* the music, nothing more and nothing less. Who could ever
remember *all* the performance markings indicated by the composer? Failing
that, performers start to ‘interpret’, and it’s that that I’m against.

By freeing the brain of the useless task of memorizing the music, you can
also stop inflicting the same endlessly repeated programmes on audiences –
and on yourself.

(from Bruno Monsaingeon, Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, tr. Stewart Spencer)

This also makes him a Romantic Hermeneut (diagram c/o this link):

Except without those messy contexts:

The interpreter is really an executant, carrying out the composer’s
intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the
work. If he’s talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that
is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t
dominate the music, but should dissolve into it. I don’t think that my way
of playing has ever changed. Or if it has, I didn’t notice, Perhaps I simply
started to play with greater freedom as I threw off the shackles of
existence and rejected the superfluous and all that distracts us from the
essential. It is by shutting myself away that I’ve found freedom.

I might have had doubts about the extent to which I managed to play what I
intended, but from the beginning I was always certain that, for each work,
it was in this way, and no other, that it had to be played. Why? It’s very
simple: because I looked closely at the score. That’s all that’s required to
reflect what it contains.

Kurt Sanderling once said of me: “Not only can he play well, he can also
read music.” That wasn’t such a bad way of putting it.

This is, of course, insane, but who am I to question the ethos given the results? Likewise with Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton, two of the more articulate eccentric musical wonders of the age.

On Formalism: 5 Films

None of these movies merited a whole entry, but maybe we can find an interesting gestalt amongst them. I watched them in a 24-hour period last weekend in an attempt to clear my mind of impinging quotidian matters.

Dillinger is Dead (Marco Ferreri): Ferreri copped Godard and Bunuel’s provacateur attitude without putting much substance behind it. Everyman Michel Piccoli comes home from his job, puts his wife to bed, putters around the house for about an hour, then shoots his wife dead and takes off for Tahiti as the cook of a ship. But Ferreri doesn’t have the chops to move beyond the overt cinematic critique to something more interesting; you’re always at a distance from Piccoli, especially when you shouldn’t be. Godard could have pulled off an involving and alienating portrait of such ennui; hell, Bresson should have! (Am I the only person who thinks it would have been hysterical to see his non-acting and serious-serious-serious approach applied to modern domesticity?) Ferreri can’t, and the thing turns out to be a relic of the 60s in which edginess was charmingly naive and free of the tired shock tactics that Haneke, Noe, Von Trier, and others would bring to popular art film later on.

Anguish (Bigas Luna): And speaking of shock tactics, this is a film about a dentist who kills people and extracts their eyes under the hypnotic suggestions of his mother. Actually, no, that’s The Mommy, the movie that is being watched by a movie audience in Anguish while a killer stalks the theater. Then, of course, mother’s boy goes to a theater and much self-reference ensues. Were it merely a horror movie, the characters and settings would be all at the mercy of frights and gross-outs. Here, the characters and settings are at the mercy of the metafictional gimmick. Unfortunately, good horror movies know to provide payoffs every 10-15 minutes or so, and after Anguish shoots its metaphorical load in its first reveal, Luna runs out of tricks, though he tries his best.

Of Freaks and Men (Alexei Balabanov): A gang of S&M pornographers in turn of the century St. Petersburg wreak havoc on families and a pair of Siamese twins. Very formalistic, down to the sepia-toned film, it resists any but the most superficial psychologizing of its characters (the arid plot description that the link gives does not disguise any deeper depths). Spurred by dissatisfaction at what the film appears to present, I drew my own interpretation that the film is an analogy of exploitation and art film. By giving the (presumably highbrow) viewer all the signifiers of classicist, formalist “art,” it serves the same purpose as the short pornographic reels shot by the characters do for their intended audience. I’m pretty sure this was not Balabanov’s intent. Nonetheless, a beautiful final shot.

The Silver Globe (Andrzej Zulawski): Considerably chewier than the above. Based on the Jerzy Zulawski’s science-fiction trilogy The Lunar Trilogy about the colonization of the moon (published in 1903-1911!), the film was never completed due to government interference. It’s a bonkers tale of astronauts founding a primitive civilization on the moon, who then receive a later astronaut as their savior, who saves them from the hostile, animalistic bird creature civilization that is native to the moon. Fascinating but endlessly problematic, the film’s entire first hour is presented as documentary footage shot by one of the original astronauts via his helmet-cam, and everyone speaks in leaden, impenetrable metaphors. There’s much that could be construed as some sort of criticism of Communism, but the film is such a mess that its ultimate statement against Communism is the idea that such a whack film could be made in Poland in the 70s.

Street Trash (James Muro): I actually only saw the last half of this one, which probably wasn’t such a bad move. It bears all the markings of its time: 80s splatter gorefest about homeless people exploding and beating each other up. I wasn’t aware, but apparently the whole genre dried up when the Japanese banned the films after some serial killer claimed inspiration from them. Anyone have a cite? Anyway, I’m not much of a fan of splatter films because they all blend together, but this one has a few tricks. The standard schlock double irony is there (the film towards its material, and the audience towards the film), but the aggressively random plotting (mafia and Vietnam vets, but they never meet up)sends it into slightly more memorable Ray Dennis Steckler territory, even as the higher-than-usual puzzlement of the actors over how seriously to take themselves signals a death knell for the genre.

What I will say is that these films left me with little that I could take back with me as a writer, and with the exception of The Silver Globe, they left me with little that I could take outside of the realm of film itself. (The Silver Globe is something of a special case, as the movie text is mostly incomprehensible but its literary origins still show through.) So leave aside Zulawski’s film. Of the remaining four, even Ferreri’s film, supposedly about modern everyday life, is subsumed by the overwhelming sense of “Can you believe what they’re putting on the screen?!” For me, they all point out the fallacy that formalism must restrict itself to addressing the limits and variations of its own form. It cannot; instead, formalism must invoke other media and forms–real life being only one of them–in a way that is not explicitly representational. This is evidently not easy to do, but one glance at Godard and Jancso reminds me of the ever-fruitful possibility. But for formalism to comment on its own form alone: this is the point at which film becomes a fetish rather than an art.

Cesar Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

This book, about a supposedly true incident in which the German landscape painter Johann Rugendas was hit multiple times by lightning while painting in the mountains of Argentina, explains itself:

Were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Art was more useful than discourse.

Aira seems to romanticize the pure talent and inspiration that Rugendas possesses. It is chance, and it is individual, and his being struck by lightning is bluntly symbolic. In opposition to this spontaneity are the determining forces of history and culture. Rugendas’s solution, according to Aira? Get rid of history and remove the weight. Aira’s book is not a great one, maybe because Aira uses such a light touch to avoid piling Rugendas’s story up with what we would see as “history.” What remains is brightly optimistic, but ephemeral, since in Aira’s new world, art is a perpetual action and only the unaesthetic tools to create it survive over time.

Hegel’s Conservatism (and McGoohan’s Too)

Again on the subject of Hegel’s conservatism. I’m not really trying to convince anyone here, only to provide a verbal formulation for those who already suspect deep in their hearts that something about Hegel is deeply tradition-bound and backwards-looking. (Whatever his faults, Marx is not guilty on that charge.)

Jurgen Habermas to the rescue, then. He makes two points against Hegel in <b>The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity</b>. The first is that because Hegel cites the need for social and political institutions for human will to express itself, revolutionary movements that sufficiently reject the state don’t qualify as expressions of reason at all, and are therefore invalid. Habermas cites Hegel’s opposition to the English Reform Bill, but whatever Hegel’s political views at the time, I grant him some slack on this point. The notion of these institutions is sufficiently vague that I don’t see an open and shut case against revolution in Hegel’s writings on these grounds alone.

The second point is more damning though. Citing an early 1802 essay, Habermas says:

Hegel distinguishes two kinds of criticism. One is directed against the false positivities of the age; it understands itself as a maieutic of repressed life that pushes out of rigid forms: “If critique does not allow the work and the deed to be valid as the figure of the idea, still it will not deny the quest; thereby the properly scientific interest in stripping away the husk which keeps the inner striving from seeing the light of day.”…Hegel directs another kind of critique against the subjective idealism of Kant and Fichte. Of them it is true to say “that the idea of philosophy has been more clearly recognized, but that subjectivity has striven to guard itself against philosophy to the degree that it becomes necessary to save itself.” Here it is a question of discovering and laying bare a limited subjectivity which closes itself off to a better insight that has long since been objectively accessible. The Hegel of the Philosophy of Right regards critique as justified only in this second version.

Rephrasing: early Hegel is willing to grant the existence of minority and individual movements that strive to actualize repressed existence that the current system is currently suppressing. Later on, he rescinds this point. Hell, he contradicts it, implying that the subjective viewpoint is the object of criticism, and so the model of criticism is not the individual against the group but the group against the misled individual (or group of individuals that view themselves as subjective individuals in an objective world, Kant-style). The misled individual is not a symptom of the social order but merely a localized case of arrested development, to be corrected by the totality. Now doesn’t that sound ominous? Again, I don’t think it quite breaks down cleanly into government vs. individual, but Hegel does want to restrict criticism to those who are doing it thoughtfully and intelligently. Like philosophers.

From whence comes Marxism and left Hegelianism? From this, let’s go to The Prisoner. People everywhere quote “I am not a number, I am a free man!” as some defense of anarchist individualism, but Patrick McGoohan was and is a social and political conservative, and the ethos was far more Hayek than Marcuse. Remember this speech from the final, McGoohan-penned episode?

We have just witnessed two forms of revolt. The first: uncoordinated youth, rebelling against nothing it can define. The second: an established, successful secure member of the establishment turning upon and biting the hand that feeds him. Well, these attitudes are dangerous. They contribute nothing to our culture and are to be stamped out!

And then #6 gets effusively praised for his more thoughtful and consistent form of revolt. It’s arguable if these words are really McGoohan’s own beliefs, but they seem awfully congruent. Either way, it’s the same old manifestation of the elitism that Habermas trashes in Hegel. Revolt has to be done the right way, the polite way, and it must be done in good conscience, fully aware of the stakes of the battle. Otherwise, it’s just mindless violence. If you’re going to be that picky about the right form of revolt, all I can say is: don’t wait up.

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