On Getting my Clarinet Back

Last week I got my clarinet back. I realised a couple of things, one was how much I missed an opportunity of playing more back in the day. Another thing was how shit I am at playing the clarinet!

 

I got my clarinet repaired from an eccentric jazzman named Willy. I loved his antiquated slang, he would say ‘bread’ for money and call people cats; refer to old instruments as ‘war horses’ and joked about clarinet repetoire. I miss being around musicians, I was telling Jazzman willy about when I held a tenor sax one time and worked out the embouchure and its pitch range instantly. To which big Willy replied: the Saxophone is ten times easier than the finesse of a Clarinet! I laughed inside.

 

Finesse is a trait I do not have unfortunately. I’m still learning how to do the embouchure and I am remembering my old teacher telling me constantly what my playing flaws are. Getting my clarinet back has reminded me of how much I love just doing anything musical. I used my improvisation knowledge developed from the piano to blow out a few improvised melodies and modes and licks, and it feels like playing the clarinet is like revisiting an old friend. You change over time after meeting them for a long time, but also, the absence between us has defined us in a big way.

 

I’m looking forward to playing my clarinet more. When I hold the clarinet and make a melody, I simply think differently. I love the difference compared to the piano. The piano has a largely constricting aspect to it. When I improvise with chords, I make a decision about what to play, but also, what not to play. With the Clarinet, there is more emphasis on clarity of expression and less about decisions by denial.

 

My piano teacher made his career as a jazz saxophonist and clarinettist, yet we rarely talked about it in our work together on the piano. I love how playing on another instrument gives one a different musical identity, there is a beauty about having many identities, although you can’t play them all at once unfortunately.

 Michael

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Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (6): Phantasmagoria

Phantasmagoria

The only reason why Wagner’s characters can function as universal symbols is that they dissolve in the phantasmagoria like mist.

Adorno’s essay on ‘Phantasmagoria’ starts like a conversation that doesn’t have an introduction or preamble or any kind of context-setting. In the terms of modern gaming or films, it’s a cold beginning. The term Phantasmagoria is one which alludes to something in Marx’s Kapital, so says a translation note from Livingstone in my text. Marx’s Phantasmagoria, according to Livingstone, is the character of the effect that a commodity (that is, a product of human labour) is made to seem separate from the process of being constructed, or the fact that it is itself a result of human creation. Adorno does not lay this out, but presumably relies on our readership to have this familiarity. It’s not helpful to write about a concept without defining it. To describe a concept is not to define it. To ascribe what the concept is, is hardly explicative. Of course Adorno is dealing in a different set of intellectual standards to the likes of the contemporaneous Carnap – the former does not look so favourably in this particular essay. However I shall attempt to salvage some kind of thread from this very poorly written piece.

Wagner’s work is described with this concept ‘phantasmagoria’. Phantasmagoria in this context is a character or illusory status on the music. The illusory character that this work is not of this world, with no relationship with a grounded concrete reality. Surely this is a pretty neat innovation or property? Such a description reminds me of the impressionism of Debussy.

Through certain musical decisions, the instrumentation, the dynamics (volumes) and tempi, we may find ourselves in a world much different to the one that a 19th Century opera-attending audience had outside of the opera house. The air of a mystical fantasy world seems real with Wagner’s instrument choices in his part-writing, and the range of pitches he employs.

Phantasmagoria pertains to the effect an audience has from the music. Wagner successfully puts forward the dramatic worlds of the libretti text through music. A world of magic, of archaic character. This sense of convincing portrayal is illusion to Adorno. What the illusion consists in, is the concealment of the fact that this is a work of music, a work of performing instrumentalists following a score. Phantasmagoria is the end product and outcome that colours the whole experience and the whole process of tens of string players playing.

Adorno seems to suggest that this magic effect or phantasmagoria is the culmination of a Romantic ideal. A preoccupation with mystic, spiritual and dream-like imageries imbued in the musical text. What makes Wagner’s phantasmagoria different, is that this mysticism, this mist is a character of the commodity, it is a character of a wider capitalist, rather than aesthetic story. The problematic quality of the phantasmagoria is that it is a work of human effort, but effectively succeeds to conceal that fact. Perhaps an oversimplified way of describing this is to say that this is Marx’s alienation cashed out through the terms of culture.

Adorno considers phantasmagoria to have some relevance to a Schopenhauerian moral perspective, at this point I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on this too much. Phantasmagoria disguises an audience to the process of making music, conceals the fact of its construction. In doing so it contributes to a passive audience, phantasmagoria is conducive to duping audiences. In this way the Wagnerian compositional decisions are of a moral quality. Moral in the sense that they pertain to character traits: docility, passivity, subservience. We as the phantasmogorised (sic) audience are duped by the ephemera of fairy dust and glitter. I suspect that is as true today of pop music as it was then with the ignored fiddlers and horn blowers in the orchestra box.

Within the libretti of Wagner’s operas, Adorno (81) identifies an ascetic, self and pleasure denying mentality, which he describes as Feuerbachian (alluding to the Feuerbach idea that the Christian God is an internalisation of our desires and that our self-denial is key to achieving Christian moral ideals of character). Wagner seems to employ a sort of reversal of values, our suffering is a moral good and our pleasures are a form of sickness (82). To do so, according to Adorno is a phantasmagoria. In this description I find what is contained in this concept of phantasmagoria to be exceptionally broad, perhaps too broad to actually be rigorous.

I will focus subsequent attention to the essays as if they were a sequel to the thought begun in the essay on phantasmagoria. This is for two reasons, one is that to me these essays do not seem to make sense to me at all in terms of having some kind of unitary or thematic significance, and secondly, the only way to understand these essays in my view is in relation to Adorno’s concept of phantasmagoria.

Oddly enough, the essays in In Search of Wagner after Phantasmagoria tend to be the more philosophical yet for me, the most difficult to understand.

Michael

The ‘crack mayor’

Today I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the amount of coverage on Rob Ford, the incumbent Mayor of Toronto. For much of the day I’ve been sent a few of the ‘comedic’ treatments of the subject which I thought was notable from the US. For context (i.e. anyone reading this when this topic is long forgotten; Ford had an growing number of incriminating allegations about his behaviour which has recently exploded in his public embarrassments. It’s a comedian’s field day to have a story where a member of public office is found with street drugs, not least a conservative one on a grassroots ticket.

Examples of comedic treatment of the subject come from the following:

There’s a very obvious source of comedy from the revelations. I wonder if history will judge us differently about the kind of preoccupation on this story: are we being insensitive? Not specifically to Ford himself (although that is a consideration too), but to those who are troubled by crack-cocaine. It could be said that a member of public office who had made such a public denial prior to a retraction of such a denial of using crack-cocaine is an open house invitation to alleging some form of flawed character. But I wonder if in coming decades this will be seen as a questionable source of humour.

I find it particularly of interest how a few years ago, Craig Fergusson made a point not to make jokes about problems going on with celebrity Britney Spears with the suggestion that there may be some form of substance abuse, and Fergusson candidly opened up about his own experience with addiction and overcoming similar demons. However, it seems that this time, perhaps because it is a politician, or someone who made such a public denial, there’s little sympathy for Rob Ford. But what about the casual ridiculing of those other people affected by crack cocaine implicated by these jokes at Fords expense?

What do I think? well I watched those videos with a little bit of laughter, but I was a little bit self conscious about how potentially problematic it could be. I was then reminded of a Chris Rock stand up routine from ‘Born Suspect’ about a similar subject nearly 20 years ago.

Antisophie

On three pieces of music

Lately I have been introduced to different ways of thinking about specific pieces of music. Three examples of prominence come to mind. Firstly is the final movement from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 (BMV 1004), or perhaps just infamously known as the Chaconne. The second example is the final movement from the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ Beethoven Sonata (No. 14, Op. 7 no. 2) ‘Presto Agitato’ movement. Finally an interesting Channel 4 Documentary ‘Chopin Saved my Life’ covered the subject of the impact of Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor (Op. 23).

I was introduced to the Chaconne and the ‘Quasi Una Fantasia’ in particular detail through a couple of MOOCs on music history recently, I discovered that these pieces had been received particularly well by composer peers. Brahms wrote of the piece to Clara Schumann:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Likewise, there is a certain universality spoken of Beethoven’s final movement in Quasi Una Fantasia attributed to Chopin, in his praise of the movement. The idea of having a ‘Baroque’ or a ‘Classical’ period suggests conformity or some sense of homogeneity, which oversimplifies the greater moments of which the period is supposed to represent.

In a likewise comment, Vladimir Ashkenazy claims in the Channel 4 documentary that anyone who attests that the Ballade is Sentimental is ignorant of what this piece is about. Any simplistic overview of 19th Century work would use such terms as sentimental, or Romantic, or perhaps terms such as ‘world-weary’, supernatural or such.

There seems to be a tension. How autonomous was Bach’s greatest work from that of his peers? How Baroque was Bach? We can speak of a Baroque in terms of having certain features: figured bass, textured harmony and melody lines and so-called terraced dynamics of loud bits contrasting with quiet bits, but does that really distinguish whether Telemann is worth listening to compared to JS Bach?

The problem with historicising is oversimplifying and contextualising without emphasising the individuals. On the other hand, sometimes emphasising the ‘greats’ through history ignores us from everyone else who does not count as one of the pantheon. Will Durant’s ‘100 Greatest Books’ is an list of intellectual works that shows breadth and a critical sort of dialectical line progressing through the historical dates of the books. However, often the connections between those dates are interesting in themselves and overly canonising works diminishes the value of other works.

Examples of this would be the Renaissance philosopher Campanella who had a very interesting empiricism that resoundingly looked like that of Hume or Hobbes. Many of these ‘canons’ ignore women systematically, although recent scholarship is working to redefine these lines. When we think of great works of music, I wonder if it is our subjective response to it that grants it our sense of meaning, or our attempt to grasp something universally powerful. It was the Kantian project of aesthetics to say that one was the other. But lets leave that as an open question: is it? Is my appreciation of the Chaconne the same as yours? Is the Chaconne on the violin (original instrumentation) as powerful as Brahms’ Left Hand scoring? In my own head I leave these as untied knots, unresolved thoughts, as each of these open questions brings up more factors.

Sinistre

On USBM and its alleged uniqueness

Following my discussion on Black Metal hegemonies, and Non-European Black Metal, I thought I would continue in the further vein of the chapters on ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (2012, Stosuy eds.) with American Black Metal.

 

I’ve heard Wolves in the Throne Room bandied about on so many discussions on Twitter, Facebook and the messages I’ve gotten through last.fm. Wolves in the Throne Room are a US black metal band, but are seen to be stylistically unique to the European black metal forbears. Their popularity is also a source of inauthenticity. I’ve often heard through some personal friends the most ‘hurrendous’ allegation that more popular black metal bands, or the infamous ‘post-black metal’ bands have gigs where the performers and audience have….gasp, short hair!

 

This sort of reaction seems to show how embedded some attitudes are within metal communities, or the emphasis on authenticity. Ironically, often these same people complain about the purists who say that black metal is not kvelt enough. You really can’t win sometimes when it comes to authenticity. Although perhaps the best response comes from not giving a shit.

 

Discussion of (in)authenticity aside, some authors have given an attempt at explaining the uniqueness of Wolves in the Throne Room, and the wider so-called ‘cascadian black metal’ that they apparently represent. Brandon Stosuy encapsulates it through the paraphrased Darkthrone album title: A Blaze in the North American Sky.

 

Instead of retelling the Norwegian mythology of the 1990s black metal scene, the US bands who call themselves cascadian, draw from their own sense of mythology, from their own environment and in this way do not end up as derivative as genres such as raw black metal, true black metal etc. are.

 

The US scene has different origins, different founding texts. For one, Death Metal was more influential, as Stosuy points out, and a defining moment of Darkthrone’s second album showed the cultivation of mixing Death and Black metal aesthetics and sound. Often the two scenes are kept seperate or even with some disdain for each other.

 

Stosuy points out how USBM is seen often as a joke, but focusing on the positive mythologies of the Cascadian scene shows how it has something unique to offer. Often these groups draw from more identifiably American genres, such as Punk and Shoegaze. On the other hand, some also point out how the term of USBM is just as cynical and market-y as the same kind of derision to say that it is largely derivative and a carbon-copy. That is a problem of upholding any genre label, the fear that it doesn’t actually fit!

 

It is true that Norway has a different social and economic climate to the US, and the ideal of USBM would presumably reflect that, as Thrash metal reflected the dissent of youth in the 80s, Black Metal should come from its social context and reflect that status quo. Stosuy ends his essay with an interesting reflection:

 

Those who view USBM as inauthentic tend to do so because America seems an unlikely place for the icy, grim strains of Black Metal to flourish. But as the US dollar continues its nosedive, our Black Metal impulses become validated. We’ve become a nation of scrappy, lo-fi underdogs. Have you ever tried to buy a diner in Norway – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – with converted US currency? […] While Americans are often accused of lacking a history, we more than make up for that lack with our bleak view of the future. [Stosuy, 2012]

I have been continually thinking about this notion of being derivative against listening to one’s own sense of sensibilities cultural. It’s important to use those things around us as a source for our creativity, and much more enabling than simply copying what is currently done and what is currently in, in a given scene. I think about how Chopin turns the Nocturne (a genre invented by Irish composer John Field) into an expression of his more polish cultural sensibilities. It’s fair to say that often in European music history through the Modern period, that certain centres of power emerged between Italy and Germany – the lingua franca of written music still is Italian. Chopin expressed his cultural uniqueness by drawing from their sense of identity and context. The same could also be said for Bartok, perhaps even more so, as Bartok tried to do two things: firstly, to embrace and preserve select local folk traditions of central-eastern Europe through his Edison recordings, and also through a slight influence on his own music; and secondly through his attempt to help establish a unique American cultural identity. Bartok was not the only person with this project. One of my favourite composers (even if he’s not a ‘great’ composer like Beethoven), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor inspired the African Americans of his day to engage in the public life through culture, and the evidence seems to suggest, also politics.

 

Often in my Adorno-themed commentaries, there is a focus on the negatives of music and culture, such as homogeneity or the conformist way of cultural thinking leading to dullness of social imagination. However, movements that emphasise uniqueness or identity, such as the so-called Cascadians, may give potential for authentic expression, may give a genuine sense of cultural freshness and originality. It may even give a way of perceiving the world differently.

 

Michael