Melody from chaos

From New Yorker Classical Music section, March 20, 2017, by Alex Ross (p. 18). On Esa-Pekka Salonen’s cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, which premiered March 15-18 at David Geffen Hall with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

The state of the world was weighing on him, and he wondered what a large-scale instrumental work could offer. “I suppose that to write a piece like this is, in itself, an optimistic gesture,” he said. “To devote thousands of hours to such a thing, over two years—you have to hope that people out there can accept a certain degree of complexity. I’m always suspicious of things that see themselves as art. That has to be earned. But if you happen to sit down and create something that turns out to be art”—he laughed at his own circumlocution—”then that is some sort of statement.”

I find the pomposity of this statement pretty amusing when paired with the following banality:

This is Salonen’s third mature concerto. Previously, he wrote a piano concerto for Yefim Bronfman and a violin concerto for Leila Josefowicz. “I’m doing things I haven’t done before,” he told me. “The opening is an attempt to show how consciousness crystallizes out of chaos. Out of a very thick twelve-tone structure”—he points to a dense spiderweb of figuration—”the cello slowly emerges and starts to sing a proper melody. After that comes a section where other instruments are shadowing the solo part, like a comet’s tail.” Later in the concerto, electronics assist in creating that shadowing effect: the soloist’s playing is looped at a mixing desk.

What a surprise! Yet another piece of modern music that relies on the juxtaposition between noise and melody. Melody yet again is burdened with signifying consciousness, meaning, significance, appropriateness (“a proper melody”?).


Aesthetic-religious redemption

Looking at Kita’s dissertation on aesthetic-religious redemption in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Lots of occultism and mysticism floating around. Is any of this useful to me? Mahler says of being in nature: “in isolation one finds oneself, and from there God.” This isn’t super interesting to me because it deflects attention away from the interpersonal. It’s this really super inward definition of redemption that doesn’t resonate with me. I think P/W/G are interesting because even though they all contain mystical themes, they aren’t satisfied with those themes. The lyric moments occur in spite of those themes.

It’s interesting to consider that in the Biblical context, singing is usually what happens as a result of redemption, or in praise of the promise of redemption. For instance, Mary’s “Magnificat” is a song praising God, who has magnified her. Or, from the Psalms, “Into your hand I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O God of truth.”

It’s not usually what you do in order to earn redemption. So how does song go from being something that celebrates redemption to being something that earns you redemption?

The answer: song as prayer, not celebration. Song as interpersonal communication. This happens a lot in Renaissance sacred music that uses direct personal address to the lord. “Miserere mei,” or “Kyrie eleison.”

I’m also looking at Tannhauser. And Abbate’s “Metempsychotic Wagner” and Levin’s “Interstitial Redemption.” How is redemption defined here, e.g. in the Song to Venus? What makes song redemptive or not, it seems, is whether it is sincere—authentic, spontaneous, expressive, etc. It’s something you can’t fake. This idea of something you can’t fake but is still communicative is inherently redemptive, because it redeems you to yourself and to others. It’s like Hegel’s definition of happiness—a congruence of what you want and what others want you to want. (I think.) The same goes for Walther’s song.

I’m thinking about my first chapter being sort of about Wagner’s song aesthetics…this peculiar combination of sincerity and communicativeness…and moving on from there to this idea of lyric as redemptive.

Because the reason why Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and (less explicitly) Cinderella catch their guy is because they’re able to give voice to song in this sincere yet communicative way, and in so doing they’re able to captivate an audience (upon which the prince steals as an unknown outside observer).

Scattered thoughts

The human is the transition between two thingnesses: that which we’re given to be and that which we envision for ourselves.

Rilke: The human is the silence between two notes. (For death will always claim the higher key.) Quoted in Parabola, current issue.

Marx, summarized by Thomas C. Patterson: the human is defined by the dialectical interplay between “biological substrate, which endows all members of the species with certain potentials, and the ensemble of social relations that shape everyday life.”

Safe enclosure. In Orwell’s 1984, the lovers mistakenly believe that their love for each other is safe from Big Brother, because he can never take it away from them. He cannot, they think, get inside them. The safety of this enclosure turns out to be false.

Is music a process of Vergeistigung (spiritualization), as Adorno would have it according to Max Paddison, or Vergegenständlichung (objectification), as Marx would have it according to Gur?

Is music autonomous (Hegel? Kant? Dahlhaus?) or … imitative? communicative? Is this the same question as the previous question?

Is music revelational (art-religion, Schleiermacher, Schopenhauer) or relational (Levinas, Warren)?

Is our relationship to music disinterested (Kant? Dahlhaus?) or based on need (Hegel according to Gur)?


Communication and communism

Adrian challenged me, saying that he was sure that people have already discussed Schoenberg and communication, especially mid-20th-century German musicologists.

So I’m doing some digging, and I might have found a good explanation why the two words are rarely mentioned, at least in the mid-20th-century German musicology that we’re usually exposed to, i.e., from the West side of the wall: communication was a keyword of Eastern musicology. That was how Eastern musicologists distinguished themselves—i.e., by defining music as a mode of human communication.

So there was some political distancing that would keep Schoenberg and the idea of communication very far apart.

I’m looking at Anne Shreffler’s paper on Dahlhaus and Knepler (Journal of Musicology 2003).

Disappointed mentors; apostrophe and intersubjectivity

In a way I could narrate my whole life as a series of disappointed mentors. Trailing in my wake is one disappointment after another. I have disappointed everyone, it would seem.

A striking number of people have told me, with great conviction, that I ought to be doing or being some thing. It’s often revealed that they themselves occupy the role they imagine for me (or are otherwise invested in it). Does this tendency to be the recipient of projections arise because I seem limned by  potentiality, as if I carry potential space around with me, a space that they want to fill with their own visions of a good life?  (The same dynamic has sometimes characterized my thesis project.)

Apostrophe is embarrassing, as Jonathan Culler says, but not in the sense that we should be embarrassed, but in the sense that it exposes something. To apostrophize and to be apostrophized are both to take a personal risk of self-exposure. In that risky and exposing movement is the possibility of a recuperation of the human: the transition between two thingnesses.

To have a genuine conversation, you have to apostrophize. You have to jump, and you may not land where there is any land to land on. (Cavell’s “leap into language” comes to mind.)

There are moments in conversation in which a break happens, a risk is taken. These moments are apostrophes. They require a leap between two things that are not connected, some sort of topological tear or flip. If I want to go from addressing you as I currently know you to you as a yet unknown possibility, I have to take the risk of behaving as if this other thing exists in you and is willing to be animated. Taking this risk is the indispensable origin of intersubjectivity.

This relationship between apostrophe and existence is encapsulated perfectly in St. Anselm of Canterbury’s so-called ontological proof. Pressed to write a rational argument for God’s existence that might be shared with students outside his direct sphere of influence, Anselm turns away from his students and apostrophizes God, whom he finds by turning into himself and shutting everything out—leaving only him and God. To address another when one is all alone requires, inevitably, a leap of faith. It is, you will argue, logically contradictory to place a leap of faith at the center of a proof of existence: the leap has rendered the proof unnecessary. Anselm’s proof is unlikely to convert anyone who doesn’t already believe. But it reveals that, for him, the notion of existence is fundamentally apostrophic.

The character in Chinese for “basic orientation toward virtue” is composed of two stroke-pairs. The character is homophonic with the word for person (rén), and it is moreover composed of two halves: one half that is the radical form of the word for person, and another half that means two. The simple interpretation: one’s basic orientation toward virtue is concomitant with one’s personhood and the significance of interpersonal interaction: to orient oneself toward virtue is to orient oneself toward other people, toward relationships. But I am tempted to go further and ask whether the insight that one’s basic orientation toward virtue comes with a basic sense of twoness is not a statement about the dual nature of how we perceive one another. In other words, is it the case that when we speak with another person, we always perceive them dually? You might ask: what is so special about the number two? Why stop there—why not three, four, infinity? And so, you might go on, rather than emphasizing the duality of others, we should always have already acknowledged their infinite multiplicity. But I have a suspicion that there is something special about the number two. Two is the number of contradiction, not three or even infinity; two is the number through which we grasp the significance of moving away from the number one. Three items become a list; two items invite comparison, opposition, differentiation. Differ, we say, not triffer. (And we speak of dualists vs. non-dualists.) So because of the power of the number two, we recognize that we are speaking to someone who is both x and not-x: inside and outside, actual and conceptual, life and snapshot, voice and thing, spirit and flesh, unknown and known. The number two in the Chinese character is a demand to recognize that knowing or being known by another person is not merely complex (which probably sounds oxymoronic) but actually a contradiction.

Three insights

  1. Definition. The human is the transition between two thingnesses: the thingness of what it’s given us to be, and the thingness of what we hope to make ourselves.
  2. Prayer is the initial stirring of movement that reaches from one thingness toward the other. Its locus spreads across the heart, the voice, and the hands.
  3. Song is prayer rendered in music: it is prayer that has become yet another thingness. Because of its relationship to thingness, song is always apostrophic, for it is always addressed either to someone other than the song’s actual addressee—but, by definition, intended above all for the addressee to hear—or addressed to that part of the addressee that either is already or could become thinglike. A love song is not a one-to-one communication to another human. For it silences the listener, who cannot speak while the song continues, or alternatively demands the listener to transform himself into the type of being that could reside within a world of song.

This after reading Barbara Johnson’s “Using People,” and Gies’s essay on Judith Butler, language, and liveability. As well as a discussion with Elizabeth. Anselm and Kleist are on my mind, as well as Xerxes and Caligula.