David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: music (page 4 of 13)

Divine Captives

Summoned up by seeing Martha Argerich play recently:

In that way Vinteuil’s phrase, like some theme, say, in Tristan, which represents to us also a certain emotional accretion, had espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was particularly affecting. Its destiny was linked to the future, to the reality of the human soul, of which it was one of the most special and distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is inexistent; but, if so, we feel that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, must be nothing either. We shall perish, but we have as hostages these divine captives who will follow and share our fate. And death in their company is somehow less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less probable.


Iannis Xenakis: Free Stochastic Music By Computer


J.M. Coetzee: Diary of a Bad Year

This is the third book in a series that began with Elizabeth Costello and continued with Slow Man. These books are fundamentally about being a writer who has won the Nobel Prize. Perhaps Coetzee keeps writing them because some people haven’t yet figured out that his fictional characters’ opinions are not his own; perhaps, as a writer already drowning in consciousness of tradition and context, he feels that these are the only sorts of books he can now write. I tell people when they read these books: remember that Coetzee has won the Nobel Prize, and think about what that means to him and what it means to people’s opinions of him. In having this title thrust on him, he is no longer any old author, but a certain sort of elder statesman. And being the sort of writer he is, he cannot let that stand unquestioned. And since academics are still using the animal rights sections in Elizabeth Costello as though they were freestanding philosophical essays, Coetzee takes further steps in Diary of a Bad Year to make it clear that the “philosophy” in the book is hardly meant to be taken seriously as philosophy. Out goes Elizabeth Costello; in comes J.C., a Nobel Prize winning South African novelist now living in Australia, just like Coetzee, except dumber.

The structure of the novel, in brief: several voices, those of a writer, J.C.; his amanuensis and crush, a cosmopolitan Filipina named Anya; Anya’s financier/scammer husband Alan; and most of all, the writings of J.C. as typed up by Anya. The writings are divided into two sections, one called “Strong Opinions,” written for some sort of German literary publication, and later on, “Soft Opinions,” written for Anya. Since these sections co-exist on each page, the book resists reading in an easy rhythm, as any attempt to read the three sections in parallel, especially early on, results in continual jarring shifts as the highfaluting tone of the “Strong Opinions” is undercut by J.C.’s earnest and vaguely creepy obsession with Anya and Anya’s own sardonic detachment. In some ways it comes as a respite, as the “Strong Opinions”–on the War on Terror, on torture, on intelligent design, and on other urgent political issues of the day–quickly become unbearably pompous, banal, and irritating. They are filled with cliched homilies familiar to anyone who has read the New York Review of Books in the last seven years and dilettantish excursions into areas that J.C. knows nothing about. I winced when reading his “opinion” on Guantanamo Bay that begins:

Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and desperate…In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.

Had I read these opinions in a Philip Roth or John Updike book, I would take them at face value and discount the author accordingly. But Coetzee is too smart, and any comparison of the “Strong Opinions” to his real opinions in his thoughtful, careful essays makes the difference blindingly apparent. (It does take something approaching guts for a Nobel Laureate to write something so profoundly trite and irritating and attribute it to his own ostensible fictional proxy.) As with many literary intellectuals, J.C.’s excursions into math and science are particularly stupid. By the time J.C. writes, “I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being” and invokes Heisenberg without knowing what uncertainty even is, it’s obvious that Coetzee has no wish even to defend thes opinions; he is making them transparently foolish so that readers examine the rhetoric rather than the opinions. Underneath the sanctimonious white male liberal pablum, including defenses of pornography, Adorno-esque cultural snobbery in indictments of rock music, latent sexism (captured especially well, complete with tired attack on Catherine MacKinnon), and sympathy with enemies of whom he knows nothing, there bleeds the personality that is revealed in J.C.’s internal voice lower on the page. With most would-be political commentators in the literati, it is not quite so obvious, but in J.C., Coetzee gives us tools for easily making the connection.

For it is Anya who carries the voice objecting to the “Strong Opinions.” Alan picks up this critique later in a less sympathetic fashion, but it is Anya who connects J.C.’s emotional life with what he writes on the page. I felt great relief to hear her articulate my thoughts (and no doubt those of many other readers) when she politely tells J.C.:

OK. This may sound brutal, but it isn’t meant that way. There is a tone–I don’t know the best word to describe it–a tone that really turns people off. A know-it-all tone. Everything is cut and dried: I am the one with all the answers, here is how it is, don’t argue, it won’t get you anywhere. I know that isn’t how you are in real life, but that is how you come across, and it is not what you want. I wish you would cut it out. If you positively have to write about the world and how you see it, I wish you could find a better way.

So we lead to the real problem, which is J.C.’s impotence in the face of the current world horrors and the disastrous results of the obligation he feels to be relevant. As the book continues on and reveals J.C.’s ignorance of the world in several ways, Coetzee spares him little criticism, but does ultimately make a case for his real art in the form of the lovely, impressionistic “Soft Opinions,” short lyrical reflections in the last half of the book that mercifully replace the “Strong Opinions.” These vignettes are written with Anya in mind and with no attempt to be politically incisive. J.C. describes his dreams, his doubts, his age, his friends, and his passions, as antiquated and pedantic as they may be. Most of all, he makes no attempt to suppress the “I” out of the fear that he must pretend to be something he is not in order to address the world with urgency. There is some resignation in this shift, but also great relief; J.C.’s mask has fallen and he returns to himself. It puts him in correct proportion to the thoughtful but non-bookish Anya and her powerful but cowardly husband Alan, and the shift in tone allows him to have a visible, evident effect on Anya, one (it is implied) far greater than that of telling a bunch of would-be intellectual liberals what they already know and having them feel good about it because it’s coming from a Nobel Prize winner.

The affirmation ends in a paean to Dostoevsky. It is one of the most straightforward passages in any of Coetzee’s books, so heartfelt and elegant that it shames the “Strong Opinions” even further. Having achieved some rapprochement with Anya, J.C. stands in relation to Dostoevsky and his books and not to the world, leaving those connections to those more qualified to make them. And with this it becomes clear that those who will best appreciate these unpolitical, abstract thoughts are the ones who will read Diary of a Bad Year, and understand it, in the first place. William H. Gass came to a similar conclusion:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be done for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that.

William H. Gass

The theme of the writer’s relation to the world has dominated Coetzee’s post-Disgrace work, and many critics seem downright annoyed that he hasn’t produced another easily digestible and Important book like Disgrace. It would be too easy for Coetzee to do so. The narrowing of his territory may be starting to produce diminishing returns–this book is not nearly as eerie and vertiginous as Elizabeth Costello, though it is more consequential than Slow Man–but the earnestness with which Coetzee crawls over it and avoids easy answers is exemplary.

Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury

I never thought I’d get the chance to see Partch’s Delusion of the Fury. The Japan Society’s production is the first since the premiere almost 40 years ago, and I get the feeling there’s not going to be another one anytime soon, since Partch wrote for his own unwieldy instruments and the requirements he placed on performers were rather strenuous. (Partch’s recommendation that his instruments be wheeled around on the stage during the performance, adding to their “corporeality,” was dropped in this production.) So I consider myself blessed to have the experience of getting some idea of what Partch had in mind, even if his full intentions were probably unrealizable. Partch was something of a magpie in stealing bits and pieces from other cultures–gamelan here, gagaku there–but the synthesis is so intensely personal as to be an unrecognizable miscegenation. His vaunted excursions into microtones are only a small part of Partch’s outre gestalt.

It’s because of the private nature of the work that I can’t easily assess my own reaction to it difficult. Partch may have thought that he was tapping into some universal mythos and music, but I have to say that at least in that regard, he failed. All of his work, and Delusion is perhaps the most fully realized work but not any more or less accessible than the others, springs from his willfully cultivated outsider status and mostly solitary development of his own musical theories and dogma. Partch was far from untrained, but he was not a social man, and it seems that estrangement came to him naturally, particularly from “The Establishment” and high culture in general. There are a number of other American composers that fall into this category, and they rank among the best the country has produced: Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles, Edgard Varese (not actually American, but tried his damnedest to be), Sun Ra, Lou Harrison, Cecil Taylor, and Anthony Braxton. All of them resisted (and continue to resist) easy assimilation into a larger historical context, and many actively tried to divorce themselves from being associated with any larger movement. (I do not think it’s a coincidence that many of them, including Partch, also happened to be queer, but that’s all I’m prepared to say on that subject. See also Percy Grainger, who ironically was too establishment to make the list.) Partch, himself quite the curmudgeon, extended this autonomy to the very instruments themselves, ensuring himself an even greater degree of personal control over performance. The resultant effect, no doubt intentional, is that there is more work to be done to get inside the corpus of these composers than those who exist closer to the mainstream horizon of recent times.

So here’s the plot, in Partch’s words:

It is an olden time, but neither a precise time nor a precise place. The “Exordium” is an overture, and invocation, the beginning of a ritualistic web. Act I, on the recurrent theme of Noh plays, is a music-theater portrayal of release from the wheel of life and death. It opens with a pilgrim in search of a particular shrine, where he may do penance for murder. The murdered man appears as a ghost, sees first the assassin, then his young son looking for a vision of his father’s face. Spurred to resentment by his son’s presence, he lives again through the ordeal of death, but at the end — with the supplication “Pray for me!” — he finds reconciliation.

There is nowhere, from the beginning of the “Exordium” to the end of Act II, a complete cessation of music. The “Sanctus” ties Acts I and II together; it is the Epilogue to the one, the Prologue to the other. Act II involves a reconciliation with life. A young vagabond is cooking a meal over a fire in rocks when an old woman approaches, searching for a lost kid. She finds the kid, but — due to a misunderstanding caused by the hobo’s deafness — a dispute ensues. Villagers gather and, during a violent dance, fore the quarreling couple to appear before the justice of the peace, who is both deaf and nearsighted.

Following the judge’s sentence, the Chorus sings in unison, “Oh, how did we ever get by without justice?” and a voice offstage reverts to the supplication at the end of Act I.

The near-total lack of narration and speech (partly for copyright reasons, apparently) does not make it easy to understand what is going on without the accompanying program notes, and the partial doubling of the actors in the main roles in the two parts is more puzzling than anything else. To the extent that Delusion reaches for universality, it is to a totality of musical performance. Watching it, I could only feel that narrative and thematic drive had been subordinated to the physical performance of music (and dance) itself, which struggled under the heavy responsibility of evoking those very traits. There’s a hint of this in Partch’s own description of his aesthetics:

The work that I have been doing these many years parallels much in the attitudes and actions of primitive man. He found sound-magic in the common materials around him. He then proceeded to make the vehicle, the instrument, as visually beautiful as he could. Finally, he involved the sound-magic and the visual beauty in his everyday words and experiences, his ritual and drama, in order to lend greater meaning to his life. This is my trinity: sound-magic, visual beauty, experience-ritual.

Where one might expect narrative, there is only raw experience and ritual, which I gather Partch intended to place in a prior and more fundamental place than what constitutes modern storytelling. The Residents, hugely influenced by Partch, drew upon this aspect in their own early work, particularly in the nonsense narrative of Not Available and the instrumental “narratives” of Eskimo and above all “Six Things to a Cycle” (off of Fingerprince), which is so Partch-like as to constitute a tribute. The plot: “Man, represented as a primitive humanoid, is consumed by his self-created environment only to be replaced by a new creature, still primitive, still faulty, but destined to rule the world just as poorly.” Its (entire) lyrics?

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

Chew chew GUM chew GUM GUM chew chew

[Smack Smack Smack]

So yeah, I think that says it all.

Yasushi Utsonomia

From the notes to Jon The Dog meets Mad Scientist Utsunomia :

I believe that place cannot be separated from performance and sound as a factor in music. Until quite recently, it was necessary to travel some distance to enjoy music, which would be performed at some specified place and time, and I believe there was a special value in this distance and place. There was a meaningful and close connection between the place and the music performed there, which somehow has become lost, resulting in a weakened music, qualitatively.

Especially the possibility of recording has weakened the role of place, and for that reason, music has lost much of the power and function it once had. Further, in many genres of music, the recording process adds reverberation and other information which was formerly a function of the place of performance, making a mere technical frame of something that was once essentially meaningful and purposeful.

There are many tacit agreements in recording technology and sound production technology. For example, though there is no use of human senses without some slight motion, for the convenience of recording, positions of microphones are rigidly determined, or moved at the convenience of the recorder. But with the physical act of sound reception as a basis, this is not a matter of interest for the brain. The brain processes sounds from perpetually moving ears as a means of obtaining a greater amount of information, which is the brain’s main interest. The amount of information spikes by this motion, but recognition that it is the motion creating the increase is not very common.

Because Utsunomia is a forward-thinking person, though, his approach is that rather than trying to simulate natural places in recordings through ever more synthetic methods, we should try to establish a sense of place specific to recordings which could not exist in real space. And this recording does it: it’s physically disorienting and destabilizing.

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