A Conversation with Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen
Photo by Ahron Weiner

  • READ an excerpt from Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen.


    Frank J. Oteri: The InPrint section of NewMusicBox is geared toward a contemporary music-savvy audience and is usually devoted to a discussion of (and an excerpt from) a book that is specifically about music. So we’ve tweaked the paradigm a little bit here to feature your book, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, which is a novel. Your book seems tailor-made for a music crowd. Was that your target audience? Even the cover of your book is a reference to editions published by Schirmer.

    Joshua Cohen: “Tailor-made,” as you put it, is excellent praise, and apt, and I thank you for it: “Schneidermann” is, in German, the traditional surname of a Schneider, a tailor. This Schneidermann novel was made from the whole cloth of music—though, to thread this metaphor further, it was made to adorn “any body.” Its audience is anyone who can sit through, or stand, four hundred pages of prose that some have called “musical,” though others say incomprehensible, and asking too much.

    FJO: What do you think someone with a background in contemporary music might get from this book that others would not?

    JC: If you know “music,” or music theory, or instrumental practice, or score instructions in German, in Italian, you might get more of the esoteric joking, the insider punning—the vocabulary, the language. But in my experience, a background in music, as you put it, does not always translate to a background in, let’s say, biographical music: Knowing the technicalities of music is not the same as knowing the lives of musicians, of composers, and this book celebrates the life of music, musical lives, much more than it might observe theoretical thought.

    The difference would be, perhaps, the difference between music and musicology. Or, maybe, the difference between what’s been called “program music,” and the actuality, or reality, of such a program. I like the sea, I like all seas, more than I like La Mer. I am more interested in Schoenberg than in dodecaphony, though dodecaphony is a part of Schoenberg, and though Schoenberg—as a person, as a mind—is at least a twelfth or so of dodecaphony.

    This book is much more an analysis of death than it is a comparative analysis of the Requiem of, say, Berlioz and Verdi. Requiem, by the by, has no plural.

    FJO: The amount of detail specific to contemporary music composition found in Cadenza seems unprecedented in a work of prose fiction. Are you a composer? What is your own musical background?

    JC: I am not a composer, but I have written music—which might tell you everything you should know. I have studied music, both with musicians and on my own, but purely theoretically. I am practically inept, though I did play the guitar in restaurants and casinos and on a cruise ship for summer work. That said, I think of prose musically—and I think the greatest disaster of our “contemporary composed” prose is the sundering of subject and style. No one talks much about style anymore, in writing, in “literature,” and this is terrifying to me, both as a writer, and as a reader.

    “Music” is a subject, is the subject of my book, and that is why you are interviewing me here. If “music,” or “musical,” were merely my style, how many musicians would be interested in reading this, or in reading my book? To contrast: I listen to all music, not only to that concerned with literature. I’m not just sitting up late listening to the collected literary criticism of Schumann, or to those horrendous von Dittersdorf symphonies written after The Metamorphoses of Ovid.

    FJO: How much musical immersion did you engage in as preparation for writing the novel?

    JC: I wanted to write, all at once, between two covers, a novel that defined, through other lives, my feeling for music. It would be correct to say, then, that I have been preparing for this book for my entire listening life. Maybe pretentious. Might be inane. I read much about luthiery; I read a number of biographies, of musicians (Szigeti), of composers (Shostakovich), and autobiographies—but this was all, I think, for the detail, the confidence. I have always wanted to be a musician, and I wanted to exorcise that here. I think music is, perhaps, the greatest art, and it is not my art, and so I wanted to be done with it, all at once. Only after that, after Schneidermann, could the writing begin.

    FJO: Why was it necessary to you that the musical references in the book be so detailed and accurate?

    JC: Everything needs to be accurate, not just music, and not just the detail. This is a compositional principle. Because this interview will be read by musicians, maybe I can make an analogy: In a world lacking any standard, or commonality, of performance practice, would a composer today follow the example of Bach and leave his or her score without markings, without dynamics or bowings or the preciousness of instruction in a variety of European languages, say? Unless the idea was total interpretive freedom, or a form of “visual art,” the answer is no. To dance about architecture, for a moment: Mies van der Rohe’s popular “God is in the details” might be amended to “God is in the context.” Schneidermann, the composer, is a musician, a European, an American, and a Jew. He is not just made of music. I have to think he’s not just made of words.

    FJO: The principal characters in your book are an obscure composer named Schneidermann and the book’s narrator, Laster, who is seemingly a celebrated violinist and something of an amanuensis to Schneidermann. Are these characters modeled after anyone in the real world the way that Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus is something of a cross between Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg or Marcel Proust’s Vinteuil is probably Reynaldo Hahn?

    JC: Schneidermann is based, “loosely,” as it’s said, not on a composer but on an elderly Jewish man I once knew, resident of Tel Aviv and Prague. The model, then, is verbal, is one of thought. Musically, I intended Schneidermann to be an individual, an individualist. This means he is not a serialist. He has no system and he was made of no system. I was thinking a little of Bartók (the American poverty), and a little of an imaginary Mahler (the manner in which Mahler’s posterity has been infused with a perhaps false sense of Jewishness, of what’s been called, after the Holocaust, a Jewish identity). Ernest Bloch. Stefan Wolpe. Jews of that generation, mostly. I couldn’t make the character a reflection of any reality, because the idea of the book is the ideal of a type, of a way of talking, a way of thinking, and any correspondence I might create would distract, and might become a musical guessing game or parlor trick like “connect the notes,” or Biographical Bingo.

    Laster is also a type, even more so than Schneidermann, and his life is a virtuoso life, glamorized for the page from my own immaturely fanciful ideas of what it might be to be conflicted in the fulfillment of artistic expectations, and international fame.

    FJO: In the final analysis, your two old men are not particularly likeable: both are sexist, somewhat racist and terribly self-absorbed. Are these personality types perhaps part of the reason why this music does not appeal to younger, more P.C. intellectual types? You yourself are still in your 20s, which is shocking to me after reading this book.

    JC: I am 26, and pretentiousness is a great danger. Still, let me try. Schneidermann is racist, and sexist (or misogynistic) too, and also right, certain, and correct. Laster is as well. These two regard themselves as guardians of art—the last bastion of true “political correctness.” Their culture, European, Jewish, is now of use only as a corrective—to the American noise that surrounds. This is their suspicion. This is their fear.

    Their world is the West, or was, which, wars and genocide aside, is still, for them, pre-eminent. Their Bible is The King James Version of the Old Testament, which is better than the Koran, in terms of literary merit, perhaps, and in terms of moral merit, maybe. And, for them, too, “better” as a category exists. Without doubt such a conviction, taken to its extreme, becomes untenable, and hurtful. Western Art (as a form of what might be called, now, in America, “pretentiousness”) is dangerous because it is, above all, a world of ideas, of emotions, of values—not “Family Values” but those of, musically speaking, Beethoven’s Freude, which offers joy in return for nothing more than mere existence.

    Politics, though, and especially in America, which has perfected the political, is a world of a different equality. People my age were born into relativism—a twilight of ever tinier godlets, and less and less significant idols. The reaction to this, by Schneidermann and by Laster, is one of resistance. They do not like being historical. They do not like being displaced for the sake of appeasement. And this dislike, or disgust, makes them ugly, biased, and bigoted.

    Schneidermann, remember, survived the war. We all know black and white, and how those aren’t just two ways of imagining dualities, or a dialectic, but how they are, at the same time, the colorlessness of Nazi news reels. The West gave us Nazism, just as much as it gave us the art that the Nazis destroyed. Schneidermann knows this history, this decadent history, and he is reluctant to have survived it only to be told that his art, which damned him, which saved him, is only one of many arts, and that it deserves, empirically, no special primacy, or sentiment.

    He hates Asians, because many Asians play “his music,” and play it successfully, more successfully than do “his people,” his Jews. He hates homosexuals because their apparent freedom in the face of social norms forces him face his own inadequacies when it comes to living a completely free and realized life. And, lastly, he hates Jews, or people who say they are Jews, people who talk like Jews, people who walk like Jews, because when he was in Europe to identify yourself as a Jew was to identify yourself for destruction.

    He is afraid, is what. He fears American freedom. Most of my peers are afraid of hating that American freedom, thanks to what might be called political sensitivity, or the cult of correctness.

    To bring us back to our subject, though: Many of my peers do not, as you put it, find Western Art Music appealing, because they are free to not find it appealing. The culture once compelled them to listen to it, and to love it, but now that they have become, relatively, free from that compulsion they might feel that to capitulate now would be to politically surrender. This is all, though, unconscious, of course, buried deep.

    FJO: You mentioned that Schneidermann means tailor. Is your use of that name in the novel symbolic? What about Laster? (Also, I don’t recall either even being given a first name in the narrative.)

    JC: Schneidermann is symbolic of humble origins: a Jewish tailor’s son. Also, his life and his work are piecemeal, patchwork. He does have a first name, though – it’s buried, but there. As for Laster, he lasts – he speaks this cadenza aloud to the audience for hours, through the night. Gotteslästerer means a blasphemer, in German, a “mocker of God.” Laster is a vice, of a sort. The name is an anagram of the German rätsel, which means an enigma. But above all – I liked how they sounded.

    FJO: In an author’s statement by you that accompanied the copy of the book we were sent, you described the novel as being about the death of an art form – that specific art form being the composition of classical music. But there seem to be more composers now than at any other time in human history. Is classical music really dead, or has the media chosen to ignore it? What do you feel disconnects this huge amount of activity from large sectors of the general population?

    JC: This novel is about the death of an art form as meaningful, not practically, and that statement is, unfortunately, almost total bombast. The novel is dead, too, every once in a while. The implication, though, is obvious—what you call a “disconnect.” Such disconnect is this: Artists today, more than ever, must make for themselves, must gratify only themselves, because the audience is in another hall, probably dead themselves, or else watching a movie. This is wonderful, in its own way.

    Musically speaking, I meant music qua music was dead because no one (more bombast; read: very few) performs music on their own, plays on an instrument, for themselves, their own music, “classically,” or “composed.” This change is a wholly owned subsidiary of a greater change: There’s more to do and less mind-space, less mind-time, with which to do it.

    We all know all these arguments about art, and these arguments probably prevent us from appreciating art—we talk when we should listen. I apologize for that “author’s statement”—which was written while I was finishing the book, and was written in the voice, it seems, of Schneidermann himself. For publicity purposes. To make noise about music. I know what Schneidermann feels. What I feel is unsure—to me, wholly unknown.

    FJO: In your assessment, did composers in the 20th century lose touch with audiences by being too experimental?

    JC: Some did, others didn’t. It depends on personality, maybe. If you have a bald head and those bubble fish eyes of Schoenberg, and that ego—the whole world wants you to autograph their T-shirt. If you’re Ives and old and withdrawn, your audience—especially if posthumous—makes a fetish of your crankiness, your unwillingness to mother and coo. Though these approaches—if they can be called such—are different, are opposed, they can be brought together if we think about how those two composers thought about their own audiences, about “audience.” Both made no compromises, not many.

    If what you call experimental is genuine, is truly searching, then no touch is lost. We are entering the most false world possible—authenticity is to be prized, beyond price. “The Audience” is made of people like you and like me, and we are not liars, nor are we idiots. “The Audience” always finds its own way to the truth, though it takes time, though that time and its hardships often finds the artist dead, and without the appropriate lawyer.

    FJO: How is experimentation in music different from experimentation in visual art, which gained quite a bit of popularity? Or literature, which arguably is even more erudite than contemporary music? As a writer of experimental fiction, do you feel a special kinship with artists who experiment in other art forms such as music?

    JC: I don’t believe in experimentation. Rather, experimentation is often just trying to say what you want to say, what you need to say, in a way that isn’t blemished, or compromised. “Experimentation,” or the avant-garde, in visual art was popular because the visual is immediate, and not much thought is ever required from the amateur or the weekend speculator to attenuate emotionally, to assimilate and “respond.” Literature deals sooner with meaning, with intellectual or ideational content. And music is so abstract as to constitute either wallpaper or religion—theology. I feel kinship with anyone who says what they want to say, what they need to say, in the most perfect or perfected manner possible. I don’t like the language of progress in literature. I like to read an individual in history, but I don’t like to read an individual making history, or consciously trying to make history, because such an attempt almost always results in Babel, and, conversely, exposes such an individual artist as desperate product or relic of circumstance and abnormal psychology.

    FJO: I hope I’m not giving too much of the story away: in the novel, Schneidermann mysteriously disappears one afternoon in a movie theater. Is this a metaphor for so-called high art being displaced as a result of our society’s over saturation with popular culture?

    JC: It is. But it’s also a joke. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice. What does a genius do today? He goes to the movies. He or she becomes a virtuoso of failure, and waste. That humor is humor about Kultur versus popular culture, doubtless, but it’s also humor turned inward: Schneidermann is very aware of his disappointment, of his own weaknesses. His predilections and their guilt attending have, almost, displaced his own sense of self.

    FJO: Ultimately it would be difficult to “give the story away” because it does not follow a traditional narrative form. The basic conceit of the novel is that the narrator speaks this text in lieu of playing the violin cadenza of the concerto that he is in the middle of premiering at Carnegie Hall. Of course this is unfeasible in reality, but it makes a great frame. What made you choose to structure the novel this way?

    JC: Why is this unfeasible? If a rapper decided to address his audience instead of singing, or rapping, would that be unfeasible? He would be booed, eventually, but Laster is booed. Would that rapper or singer be escorted from the stage by Security? I don’t know. The President of the United States would be interrupted, I’m sure, by his handlers, his aides. But a popular musician, or a movie actor? Their pulpit is their own personality. They last as long as they last.

    This book is a cadenza because, if it is a cadenza, it has an audience already: everyone’s already seated, within the pages, ready for reading, or not. It’s a novel written with no requirement for readers, perhaps. It’s sold out, before it begins. I was fascinated by the form, or non-form, or anti-form, of the cadenza. It seems like a period of grace, of temporary insanity. It has its conventions, but it has no rules. It has its history, but it has no practical progress beyond the individual—again, the personality. It lives, and dies, by its nightly practice—always different, always the same.

    FJO: Ideally, what would you like readers of your novel to walk away thinking about classical music and its manifestations in contemporary culture? Do you hope it would make more people interested in listening to this music?

    JC: Readers should read, and they should heckle and boo Laster on cue, and then they should reflect and find those cues and then they should think about them and ask themselves: why heckle, why boo, why jeer? And why exactly here? And why precisely now?

    As for music—I hope it makes more people interested in reading my books, because I don’t make any money from record sales, nor from this book of mine increasing attendance at concerts through a commission scheme, say, or from directing people to certain listening options or venues. The day that everybody became interested in art is the day that art would cease to exist: July 4th, maybe, whatever year sufficiently far in the future for me, for us, not to worry.