View From the East: Big Statements



Greg Sandow

Last month, I celebrated the diversity of new music—or, more exactly, how impossible it is to find a central style, tone, or meaning in what composers do right now. All of us are on our own; it’s fun to learn to live with that.

This month, I want to go to an opposite extreme. Why doesn’t new music have a central style or trend, or at least something so new and forceful that we all have to take a stand on it? Why don’t composers make big statements any more?

So what do I mean by a big statement? Lately, perhaps by accident, I’ve run into them in other arts. These are statements from the past, but that shouldn’t be an issue; it only puts in sad relief how little seems to be at stake for us right now. For instance, I was reading essays by William Carlos Williams. I’d become besotted with his poetry, found the book of essays, and was fascinated. In the first decades of the last century, Williams knocked himself out to define the job he thought he and his colleagues had to do—to forge modern American poetry, its language, its content, its very nature. One major benchmark (or monument or obstacle) was T. S. Eliot. He was American and seemed to be the voice of all modern poetry in English, but Williams thought he wasn’t American enough. This mattered. Williams couldn’t write a single line without descending into burning flames to learn by trial, error, and instinct what kind of language he should use.

Years later, in the ’40s and ’50s, Williams wrote his book-length magnum opus, Paterson, and still battled with these questions, not finding answers even at the end of his life. He fought with larger questions, too, since he wanted to penetrate the heart of the small city he lived in, to penetrate it and surround it totally, to describe it and account for it, starting with the force of its geography and ending with the lives its people lead, not leaving out the most circumstantial, anecdotal detail, whether that would be a mink fighting with a cat near Clark’s Hardware Store in 1878 (great commotion, recorded for posterity) or painful letters he received from someone angry with him. To use his own words, he wanted to record “the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city.” Whether he succeeded would be another story; the book-length poem strikes me as a mess. But it’s a pregnant mess, full of wonder and reality, mostly Williams’s, but also America’s. Has any composer tried anything that so urgently stretched and questioned the art of music and even doubted it? While trying, of course, to say something crucial about the world? Maybe Ives and Messiaen did, in very different ways. Certainly Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata sets forth the kind of large artistic goal we don’t see much of nowadays.

And then, centuries ago, there was Monteverdi, who in the foreword to his eighth book of madrigals wrote:

Having considered that our mind has three principal passions or affections—anger, temperance, humility, or supplication—as the best philosophers affirm and, indeed, considering that the very nature of our voice falls into a high, low, and medium range and musical theory describes this clearly with the three terms of agitated, languid, and temperate [he's naming three musical styles that theorists had described]; and never having been able to find in all the compositions of past composers an example of the agitated style as described by Plato in his third book On Rhetoric in these words: “Take up that harmony which, as it should, imitates the voice and accents of a man going bravely into battle”: and knowing that it is contraries that deeply affect our mind, the goal of the effect that good music ought to have, as Boethius affirms when he says: “Music is associated with our lives, either to lend honor to our manners or to overthrow them,” I therefore, with no little research and effort, set myself the task of discovering it.

He then describes his discoveries. And while the references—Plato, Boethius, old music theory, which, interestingly, considered not just the structure of music, but also aesthetics and even morality—are distant from us, we still can taste the scope both of Monteverdi’s ambition, and his success. What, he asked, is music supposed to do? Does it really do those things? No, he said, and went forth to do them, inventing string tremolos and in fact creating much of the musical language we still use to embody agitation and excitement. The piece in the eighth book of madrigals where he most crucially did all this was Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, not strictly a madrigal, but rather 17-minute drama with narrator, soloists, and instrumental accompaniment, full of rhythmic excitement that had never been heard before. At the Aix Festival four years ago, I saw a striking production, a kind of play within a play, in which the Combattimento was shown as it might have been staged in its time for an audience of preening, bored aristocrats—who, by the end, were shocked into attention, sitting open-mouthed, eyes wide with amazement. Does anything in music do that for us today?

And then I watched Antonioni‘s L’Avventura, a film that had transfixed me—struck me to my core—way back in 1960, when it came out and I was in high school. I was both struck dumb and devastated; somehow, I think I felt, the movie understood me, even though it was about rich and blank Italians, people I had no knowledge of, people who, though they couldn’t say so, did things with no real purpose, alienated from themselves and their relationships. Two of them fall in love, the man jaded, the woman hopeful. The woman finds the man with someone else, someone really cheap. At dawn he straggles out to a bench overlooking the ocean. Standing behind him, she looks at him with pain, then moves closer, and (to quote the script) “slowly, gently, and with an overwhelming sense of desperation, she caresses his hair.” End of the film, and, as Antonioni composes it, one of the most unforgettable scenes in cinema…

What did it mean to me? Well, I’ve been thinking of an essay I wrote in the ’80s about a moment from Mozart‘s Cosi fan tutte, when (in the E major trio in the first act) the unexpected chill of flutes combines with a diminished seventh chord under the word “desire” to become, with no warning, an avatar of endless longing. And the longing isn’t only endless—it’s also unappeasable and all but unrecognized, since the music moves from that chill into the most perfectly conventional of 18th-century cadences, as if the longing couldn’t be connected to anything in aboveground life.

That, I thought, might help explain why Kierkegaard and many others have so famously found Mozart not just poignant but inexplicably so, as if his emotions weren’t from this world. And I think I’m on to something: you can see from the objective facts of music how the emotions erupt and then disappear. But, as I look back, I’m unhappy with this essay, because I never said what desire meant to me or tried in any way to connect its chill in Mozart to the modern world. I’ve wondered (thinking now of rock critics, who include themselves and their world in anything they write about what music means) if I could redo this essay, to make it both more personal and more grounded, to use it, in fact, to dig out what all classical music might mean today.

To do that, I thought, I should compare it with other things in art, things about desire, that similarly have stopped me dead. L’Avventura would be one of those. I wondered if it still would hit me hard. So I bought the DVD and was once more transfixed. And I found, perusing the many supplements to the film included on the DVD release, that Antonioni had his own view of what was going on:

Today the world is threatened by an extremely serious split between a science that is totally and consciously projected into the future and a rigid and stereotyped morality which all of us recognize as such and yet sustain out of cowardice and sheer laziness…[T]oday a new man is being born, fraught with all the fears, terrors, and stammerings that are associated with a period of gestation. And what is even more serious, this new man immediately finds himself burdened with a heavy baggage of emotional traits, which cannot exactly be called old and outmoded but rather unsuited and inadequate. They condition us without offering us any help; they create problems without suggesting any possible solutions…

Why do you think eroticism is so prevalent today in our literature, our theatrical shows, and elsewhere? It is a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time. But this preoccupation with eroticism would not become obsessive if Eros were healthy, that is, if it were kept within human proportions. But Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse and he is unhappy.

Now, there’s always something a little sententious about Antonioni, and I can sympathize with people who’ve found L’Avventura static, inexplicable, or else obvious. Certainly Antonioni’s pronouncement, divorced from the artistic power of his film, seems to make a lot out of very little, especially now, when the thoughts in it are reasonably common.

Maybe he’s more sympathetic when he goes on to say: “And here we witness the crumbling of a myth, which proclaims it is enough for us to know, to be critically conscious of ourselves, to analyze ourselves…The fact that matters is that such an examination is not enough. It is only a preliminary step. Every day, every emotional encounter gives rise to a new adventure.” The point for me, though, is that—in 1960—he was on to something. My teenage gropings toward relationships all went on in the limbo Antonioni fingered; there literally were no ideas that could explain them, except the old ones of love and marriage, which couldn’t help us with the entitlement to freedom that we also felt.

Nor, of course, were teenagers the only one to feel this. Nor was Antonioni the only filmmaker who addressed it. Think of two other classics from that era, Godard‘s Breathless and Truffaut‘s Jules and Jim, both of which show morality suspended (Godard’s bandits on the run) or upended (Truffaut’s woman, moving at whim between two men) with consequences more dramatic than anything that Antonioni cared to show. An older generation would have staged these films as moral tales, with retribution (even in film noir) for those who stray. In Godard, Truffaut, and Antonioni there’s no morality, just consequences.

And, working this around to music, I’ve read an interview in which Philip Glass, who was in Paris at around the time these, films came out, compares them to Boulez. Or rather, when he’s asked about Boulez, he says more or less that Boulez and the new-music concerts he gave didn’t matter; the biggest thing in Paris arts were all those films. And of course that’s right. What did the world outside music care about back then? Certainly not Boulez and Stockhausen. But Godard seemed intensely important and in some ways still does. Artists, intellectuals, and others in what ought to be our music audience still care about him (and Truffaut and Antonioni and films today), while they neglect us almost completely.

Which brings me to my final point. Music has made statements. Steve Reich made them, not to everybody’s satisfaction, in Three Tales at BAM this season. John Adams made enough of one, at least implicitly, to get his choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer taken off a program at the Boston Symphony. And there are countless other examples.

But how much do these statements mean outside of music? Who notices? Who’s aroused, inspired? Whose life is forged? One sign of trouble stuck me long ago, when Adams’ Nixon in China had its New York premiere at BAM. Two people, well-known figures on the intellectual end of the classical music world, came up to me in great excitement, saying “Finally classical music that’s about something!” Meanwhile, people in theatre and dance were complaining to me, “But what this says about Nixon is ridiculous!” I don’t care, for the moment, whether they were right, but look at the gap—the awful gulf—between their reaction and the classical music one. Classical music people were thrilled that the opera said anything at all. People from other arts went straight for what they thought it said. These other arts thus seem more grounded and more contemporary than ours because the people in them care what something means. We in new music…well, really what excites us, then and now, is, too often, merely that something got performed at all.

Or look at the parade of history. Music once made statements (look at Monteverdi) both about itself and about the world it functioned in; these statements mattered because a lot of people cared. Or else, with Bach and his Passions, there were large, important statements made that everyone accepted because the music effortlessly reflected what most people in its culture thought.

Then you had Beethoven, straining toward an unknown future (but unlike Antonioni, embracing ideals with unashamed optimism). Then the romantics wrote music full of sadness, longing, and dislocation as the world began uncontrollably to change around them. Unlike Antonioni, they didn’t show people lost and helpless, groping for the very minor victory of feeling, if nothing else, compassion; their protagonists—in opera, most spectacularly—simply died. The power that had is clear from many sources, including novels of the time; performances of operas like Lucia seemed exactly to sum up what many people felt.

Then came Wagner, with his slightly aimless revolution, still grounded, though, in a perception that society was forced and artificial and attracting—transfixing—everyone in Europe who was adventurous and artistically advanced. And then (hopscotching through history) Debussy and Pelléas, important for Parisian aesthetes (Proust, home in bed, listened to performances through a special telephone connection). Then Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, moving to atonality embraced by abstract painters.

Then Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, which, whatever its musical value, not many people outside music cared about. Then serialism, a mighty statement inside music, but not, I think, influential in the outside world (despite attacks from the likes of Lévi-Strauss, aroused to anger because they thought the serialists ignorantly trespassed into subjects, like the nature of language, that they didn’t understand). Shostakovich, of course, was making large and sometimes dangerous, if mostly hidden, statements, but that was outside what then was seen to be the musical mainstream. And Cage and Feldman, moved in a wide artistic world, full of dance and painting. So did the minimalists and in part because of that—and because they were grounded in a culture bigger than themselves—Einstein on the Beach became the only new music event I can remember that jumped over the new music walls to arouse nearly everyone with any feeling for contemporary arts.

And after minimalism? Well, we returned to tonality and gratefully shook off the modernist yoke. We then were free to write anything we liked. But these, I’d suggest—no matter how avidly I said the opposite last month—are small artistic goals. Like the classical music reactions to Nixon in China, they focus on the act of saying something, not on what is said. The reaction in the outside world, I think, is “Well, how nice for you! But why should I care?”

I myself care (to reconcile last month’s column with this one) because I’m besotted with music, love new music just as much as old, and make my own connections with the world outside it. But people in that outside world, who don’t follow music on their own, need connections made for them. Or rather they need, and spontaneously react to, music that makes the connections by itself, that jumps to their attention.

Obviously non-classical music does that; I haven’t said so here, in part because we all know it. What we don’t acknowledge strongly enough is that our music doesn’t get to people. Sometimes we bitch that it’s not performed or publicized enough. But how could it be? The people who plan performances and do publicity, even deep inside the corporate machine, still live in the same culture they address. They can’t make famous something no one cares about. And in fact my experience in pop music showed me that things change all the time in mainstream culture, normally (though this is a longer story than I have time for now) without the machine having much to do with it, except to jump on the wagon when it’s already moving on its own.

What we might need is something with scope enough to make a difference. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce has his hero Stephen Daedalus say—in what’s accepted as Joyce’s own ideal of art—”I go for the millionth time to encounter the reality of experience, and to forge, in the smithy of my soul, the uncreated conscience of my race.” Do we have composers bold enough to do that?