Let ‘Em Out of the Padded Cell

A particularly emotive and unhinged set of pieces at a concert last night brought to mind an old quote about Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Stravinksy called it, “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever,” and I completely agree—those frantic, leaping minor 10ths and diminished 12ths can’t ever sound old-fashioned. Yet, in Beethoven’s catalog, what makes the Grosse Fuge so much more “contemporary” than any other work? Even 180 years after it was composed, it still manages to sound like it’s rebelling against or moving beyond something, a phenomenon that is often lost on audiences today for many of his other works. In its own time the Fifth Symphony was certainly breaking furniture and setting things on fire, but now is the Grandest and Noblest of Warhorses.

It brought up another question: Can we actually hear when the envelope is being pushed to its limits? I decided to think up a few other examples that I would say fit Stravinsky’s description: Gesualdo’s last two books of madrigals, a number of Charles Ives’s pieces, and Scriabin’s late works. Not a significant list and certainly one than can be added to, but I tried to keep historical perspective intact by not picking anything too recent. Doing my best to objectively analyze it, I would venture a guess that it had something to do with extreme emotional and visceral expression in an unfamiliar and malleable musical syntax. But perhaps it’s better said that all these examples are completely insane. They all flirt with madness, and live in extreme worlds that few of us inhabit.

They also, in their own day, elicited equally extreme critical reactions—Ives and Gesualdo were deemed amateurs and madmen, and the immortal Louis Spohr called Beethoven’s late music an “indecipherable, uncorrected horror.” All these composers have been deemed, in one way or another, wildly incomprehensible, and they all crossed a barrier that most people aren’t willing to cross. It is likely that today’s listeners who love the Eroica still find the fugue to be an intimidating behemoth. And yet for many of us, these megalomaniacal attempts to control chaos now actually invigorate and call to attention the most remarkable things about the human condition, from Scriabin’s apocalyptic eroticism to Beethoven’s histrionics in the face of something he knew he couldn’t control.

However, I can’t help but wonder—has this all become passé in today’s contemporary music scene? “Controlling chaos” has practically become a chapter in the textbook for Composition 101, or the latest Max/MSP plug-in. Tearing shit up is now an accepted, analytical process; I guess the only thing that’s lacking is the insanity behind it.

10 thoughts on “Let ‘Em Out of the Padded Cell

  1. robteehan

    Well, I think there’s a certain amount of megalomania in the works of some young composers who play the ‘controlled chaos’ card. Think about it – a composer we recognize today as a master is spurned by his contemporaries for pushing the envelope too far, only to be recognized as a genius by later generations.

    Therefore, if I am a young composer, I can write chaotic, crazy music that redefines every element of music, and it’s okay if nobody else thinks it’s any good, because eventually my genius will be recognized by later generations, just as it worked for Beethoven, Ives, Gesualdo, etc. But because, as you’ve so rightly put, we’ve got the process without the insanity, most of this music falls flat. I think it’s the “insanity” – or, in other words, the real, visceral emotion that guides the compositional impetus – that must determine the process. So if you try feel like you have to be insane, then write insane music, but don’t do it just because it worked for Beethoven.

    I wonder if there were other composers in the time of Beethoven who did the equivalent of ‘tearing shit up’ without actually creating good music at the same time, and have therefore been forgotten by history? If so, you could argue they were similarly all insanity, no process.

    Reply
  2. marilyn

    our own envelopes
    I think, absolutely, each listener can hear and feel when her envelope is being pushed to its limits–but this is experience may be personal, and unique to the individual. We don’t all live in the same “envelope.” Some listeners may hear this breaking point in Beethoven, Ives and Scriabin…This music was revolutionary in its own day, although, for myself, these revolutions aren’t ongoing. For me, there are pieces of Tristan Murail, Jonathan Harvey, Helmut Lachenmann, Chris Dench….in which I sense rupture, transcendence, abandon….an unhinging which may be like what you identify as “insanity” or “tearing shit up.” I don’t know if generalizaions of “good” and “bad” come into play. Order and chaos still have meanings, but the boundaries between them may be in very different, and private, places for each listener.

    Reply
  3. Colin Holter

    I think I agree; in fact, I agree so much that I’d probably choose four different living composers to illustrate the point! (OK, Dench might make it in there.) At the same time, there’s something about late Beethoven that does still seem “new” to me–same with some Ives, some Rameau, some Maderna, etc.–but it’s not quite the same phenomenon as something new new. This question always reminds me of the fourth Dismemberment Plan record, an album that couldn’t have been made even fifteen years earlier because it addresses categories of experience that just didn’t exist in the mid-80s.

    Reply
  4. William Osborne

    Regarding “tearing up shit,” there is a very interesting article about video games, destruction, carnage, and catharsis in the current issue of Wired. I saw it listed on ArtsJounral.com

    http://www.wired.com/gaming/gamingreviews/commentary/games/2008/02/gamesfrontiers_0211

    I have finally decided I have to get an Xbox or a powerful gaming PC and start learning what that world is all about. Video games are such a central part of our culture I can’t any longer ignore the genre and feel that I am at all informed. Does anyone have suggestions for what equipment and games might be a good start? Or articles that might introduce the subject with practical advice? I would appreciate any help from folks hipper than me. What is life without cascades of carnage, full body shock, shrieks of pain, physics porn, and Beethoven’s Fifth?

    I have to be in Malaga, Spain for a few days taking in the sights, sounds, and perfumes of Andalusia (and oddly, the defense presentation of someone who has written a dissertation about my far less violent media work,) but will catch up with any possible responses when I get back. I hope one of the NMB staff might do a Chatter blog about gaming. I think it is something composers need to discuss. Any gamers among you?

    William Osborne

    Reply
  5. Colin Holter

    This is way lame, I know, but in response to Osborne’s question I want to cite something I wrote here a long time ago. It doesn’t go into the violence Osborne mentions, but if he wants to get a gamer’s-eye view (something I’m not qualified to offer, by the way), he should first understand that now more than ever violence is only a small part of the video game world.

    Reply
  6. Colin Holter

    Real quick: The Nintendo Wii and DS, two video game systems that take advantage of unconventional control mechanisms (6-degree motion control and stylus touch control, respectively) have both dominated the console/handheld market recently because they promise to break video gaming out of the male 18-25 demographic which, although a lucrative bracket, expects certain lowest-common-denominator genres of games (e.g. Halo, the Madden franchise of football simulations, etc.). The Wii and the DS seem to appeal to wider audiences across sex and age lines, which is why we now have games like these. As I said, if you want in-depth info, you’ll have to go elsewhere; I can’t afford to participate in the current generation of video gaming because I am a graduate student in music, and I only follow the industry with a dilettante’s curiosity.

    Reply
  7. William Osborne

    Before she left the planet, Theresa Duncan also created a new style of games. They were specifically designed to be alternatives to a traditionally male-dominated field. They emphasize search and discovery over combat and conflict. The games won several awards, including People magazine’s best CD-ROM of the year. Everyone seems to think wii is the device to have, but I understand they are difficult to obtain. This stuff is expensive. Seems like something for grown-up kids….

    William Osborne

    Reply

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