Watching: Avengers: United they Stand (1999)

On the start of any kind of discussion about this 1999 Marvel venture, this cartoon was universally deemed an average at best television show. Avengers: United they Stand serves as an example of how the flaws of an aesthetic work serve as interesting aesthetic features.

 

I knew of this show when it was originally out but I had little interest in it. In an age nearly 15 years later where there’s a big cultural interest in comic characters and franchises/intellectual properties/money-making commercial properties (delete as appropriate), the Avengers: United they Stand (UtS) serves as a lovely obscurity.

 

After I finished episode 13 I then found out that was actually the final episode. I was then reminded of a discussion in the TV series ‘Toast of London’ (starring Matt Berry [a subject for a future blog post I’m sure]) in which the titular character, Steven Toast, wrote a book without an ending. The literary agent loved the book but said that it couldn’t not have an ending. Toast made this decision to write a well considered feminist novel but left it without an ending. As if its incompleteness left it complete.

 

I feel the same about this show. The premature ending with the unresolved plot lines and even an unresolved episode arc was a masterstroke of story. There was an unresolved romantic storyline between Vision, the synthetic lifeform created by Ultron (one of the main villains); and Scarlet Witch.

 

It is certainly true that the female characters left much to be desired in terms of developing a back story or sense of an inner world, but as far as 1990s kids shows went, it fared a hell of a lot better than most. The gender ratio was about 3:5 or 3:4 (if you consider vision as normatively male – which technically you shouldn’t as a robot is genderless). The flaw of having poorly developed female characters was not so much an issue of poor gender representation but poor representation of the character roster in general, as almost all of them hardly had much back story.

 

Perhaps the big thing that people point out was the obvious thing: How can you have an Avengers lineup that does not include Captain America, Iron Man or Thor? This notion made me think really hard. In recent comics (Uncanny Avengers, Uncanny X Men, All New X Men, Avengers, or in their unique cases: Wolverine and the X Men and Secret Avengers), characters such as Wolverine and Captain America are basically present either as main characters or significant background characters. Having a world where certain characters have so much of a role in that universe evokes a cult of personality about them. This could be said of world leaders or public figures who seem to be in multiple discourses (say, celebrity culture and political discourse combined).

 

Thinking about the B-team, or the other guys is a really neat angle for a TV show. Thinking back in 1999 when there was a dearth of big Marvel shows: X men TAS had finished, Spiderman TAS had finished and shows like X-Men Evolution or Avengers: EMH (which I have discussed in a previous post) had not arrived; having this bunch of B-teamers was inherently underwhelming for a comicbook franchise which put a high place on the heavy hitters.

 

There was something inherently equalising about the UtS lineup. Contrast UtS’s Hawkeye to the Hawkeye character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hawkeye in the Marvel Cinematic world was basically a pawn, the lowest fodder of a chess board and his abilities in the final fight were…staying on a high vantage point with arrows? Contrast this to ARC powered Iron Man who flew all around the city; Thor and Hulk who are comparably invulnerable to anything resembling human. There’s probably a good reason why Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye hasn’t found the right time to re-appear in the Marvel Cinematic universe and that is because it’s hard to have a place in such a super-powered world.

 

UtS’s Hawkeye is perhaps the best character in the show by contrast to his MCU counterpart (next to maybe Vision, but I’ll get to him). Hawkeye has a rough edge to him, being a former criminal trained in the circus (sensitive to his comic book origin). Hawkeye is very much a loose cannon, with legitimate trust issues and complex loyalties. Except for the ridiculous costumes they had (which were a very thinly veiled toy commercial), Hawkeye’s character made a Marvel character look…human when it is not desirable to be so in such a superpowered universe.

 

Vision is perhaps my favourite character in this show. Vision has the developing humanity and exists in a show where acting wooden was actually a benefit in the context. Some of the flaws of the ‘main’ characters who appear in the show are quite notable because they reveal something very human and real about them. Captain America’s cameo in one episode shows him as brash, and an inadequate leader compared to Hank Pym’s Ant Man. Even though Cap is the universal hero he is trapped by his own reputation and seen almost as if he were a better leader than he actually is. Kids watching this show probably would have lost this level of nuance.

 

By contrast, Hank Pym appears jealous, vindictive and self-doubting as a leader, and it makes him look like a very ugly person. In addition he spies on his wife visiting a family friend of hers in the penultimate episode and when she finds this out she is a little annoyed but shes seemed to let it go pretty easily. Hank Pym does look like a pretty horrible person in this show. Finally there was the appearance of Iron Man in a one episode cameo. Iron Man seems so single minded (as he was working in one of his commercial projects) that although he appreciated the help of the Avengers and joined in the action, he had no time for small talk, reflection or even acknowledgment that he was once on the Avenger roster. This shows an interesting side of Iron Man – flawed but not like the usual flawed depiction of an hedonistic and distracted Tony Stark, who lets his personal failures have implications on his professional life.

 

To close I thought I’d mention the honorable and noble aspects of the show. Although I’d think this show was absoutely rubbish as the 13 year old that I was in 1999. There are bits of the show that are farcical. For example, the NSA liason, Raymond Sikorski (who serves as a representative of the real world) continually notes things such as the poor public perception of the Avengers; how they caused millions of dollars in damages to public property. Not to mention the episode where Big Ben  is destroyed and nothing is mentioned of it at all afterwards, except to find out how it was caused. Have no doubt that this is not a great show nor is it a good show. It’s my view though that there are interesting psychological gems in the character development (or lack of) that as an adult (who probably should be doing better things), gives an interesting complexity to the show.

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A conflicted disdain for comics

I am reminded of Chris Bateman’s general view that mainstream kinds of games effectively enforce singular ways of thinking and the blockbuster game is pernicious to the extent that it basically builds on already established formats as gaming media. This can be highlighted by the ubiquity of very similar first person shooters where over the years, certain features are continually added but the genre largely remains the same: multi player death matches, or similar. This kind of view mirrors what I addressed in what I called ‘Musical Conservatism’ (albeit about music, and not games) in a previous post.

 

I am thinking along these lines about comics and even the comicbook film which seems to be so popular these days. I’ll pin my colours to the mast: I love Marvel comics and although I predominantly follow Marvel comics, I did recently voluminously read DC’s ‘Before Watchmen’ series. In recent weeks, Alan Moore wrote about his dissatisfaction with the immature preoccupation with comic book characters and the mythologies of the supertext universes of Marvel (inter alia). Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’ has been a subject of much hype in my personal circles and yet, even though I would definitely see a film about a tree man that only says ‘I AM GROOT’ and I’d probably enjoy it; I do feel a bit that poetic license is stretched too much with a super-soldier who was frozen from the second world war.

 

Perhaps every era needs its mythologies. But I also think that mythologies and the deities that exist within them can cease to be relevant, or that their applicability can be seen to have limitations. I often joke that Magneto’s current age must be between 70s to 90s, given the history that Marvel’s mainstream canon universe (earth-616) wishes to give him. I’d be thoroughly impressed at any senior person to wear that red outfit and still have bulging abdominal muscles and ripped arms, as he’s constantly depicted in the comics today.

 

It may be the case that our mythologies are getting a little bit stuffy, and holding back our attention away from other stories that could be told. Other accounts or exemplars of heroes that might be more representative, perhaps inclusive. Marvel does have an improving record of making female protagonists and beginning to introduce same-sex romantic plotlines without making too much of a big deal about it being same-sex. The relationship in X-Men Legacy between Northstar and his partner is refreshingly mundane!

 

Alan Moore pointed out that the fixation on the superhero reflects a sense of immaturity on the part of the reader. It’s certainly true that many comics hardly aim to be high art. I do wonder however, if a moment might happen, similar to the TV show Happy Days, when the Fonz leaps over a shark in an episode reflects the fact that a threshold of interesting stories has been reached, and a new medium or a new mythology is needed. I think about this because as someone who grew up admiring the Earth 616 universe of Marvel (and notably the Age of Apocalypse ‘Earth-215’) world, if the generation of comic book movies will decline just as it peaks, like, to put a crude metaphor, what the French call a ‘little death’.

1914

Since the start of the year, the BBC has announced a few hundred hours of broadcasting content to mark the years in which the Great War occurred (1914-1919). In particulary I have been following an excellent RSS feed from BBC Radio 3 called ‘Music and Culture of World War I’. It’s an understatement and probably too premature to say that the 20th Century was one of great developments not least in the idea of a cosmopolitan and internationally involved global world (what we might call the globalised world). I’ve always had an interest in historical periods but I’ve found that the historical periods that are closer to the world I am familiar with seems more – for want of a better word – familiar.

I wonder what its like for the generation of people who were born a bit after me who took high speed internet and mobile phones for granted, and it makes me think about how much of a game changer things like international telephone networks, or even innovations such as the automobile or the logistical networks we rely on such as water works and gas piping or power lines. In this way the early 20th Century seems to be a little bit more familiar in that it has these administrative systems being put into place and progressively so. My dad worked in telecoms and it interested me to learn about the laying of the Transatlantic telegraph cable around the early 20th century, talk about a commercial project with its challenges and massive impacts!

The early 20th Century is full of stories of great industrial efforts that shaped the world today. Following the Radio 3 series of podcasts and programmes, I am thinking about the cultural aspects. There’s a view, Spinoza had it, and I learned it from my old Classics teacher Dr. Carleton when he taught us Athenian Democracy, which was that – if we understand our past, we understand how shit we are as humans (the profanity suits Dr. C’s view more than Spinoza’s I think). Maybe, just maybe, if we saw the parallels of the past of human history, we could learn a bit about our present, and anticipate the possible pitfalls. Our history has given us technologies, constitutions and ideologies, but I do think that we as a whole are no more or less intelligent as the people of the distant past in human history.

One episode from the Music and Culture of World War I describes Elgar’s Nimrod as the evening to a perfect summer. A perfect summer may be extended, but it will inevitably end. An allusion was made to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that at the cusp of a peak, the Romans had their downfall, and the British felt that their autumn was due. I don’t happen to subscribe to that reading of Gibbon but I see the point that is being made.

Leonard Bernstein makes suggestions that (European) composers of the first decade of the 20th Century anticipated what would come next, this may be anachronistic but it seems like the favoured view of history now that we know what the future held for denizens of the 1900s and 1910s.

My piano teacher was born around 1910-1911 and many of his influences and consequently, his influences on teaching me, were shaped by two things: classical music that formed up to the time of his life, and the (non-classical) popular music that was around during his career as a jobbing musician. In the former case, Jack introduced me to Frank Bridge, whose vignette pieces I still try to play; and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whom I often go on about in conversations with many many anecdotes. The cultural education I had was the standard Bach-Mozart-Beethoven kind of spiel. With my music teacher ‘Bob’ (mentioned in a previous post), I learned a little bit about the 20th Century; how Romanticism went to Late Romanticism, and in another related direction, but modernist movements emerged.

I read about Modernism outside music from sociology studies. Modernist movements were multi-media, not just music, but also poetry and visual arts. Modernism pushed the boundaries of previous expectations of art. Of course not all modernist movements were the same, futurism was racist, and other movements had specific predictions and expectations that did not come into fruition. Perhaps as a catch-all term, modernism isn’t helpful.

I like reflecting on this period of history as it helps me personally connect with the world that my piano teacher was born in. It makes his history link to the world that eventually became my present. It makes me wonder what the world of his forebears lived in. The beauty of taking an historical view is that we see people in different aspects of their lives, but there is an ultimate continuity to it, a connective tissue.

The BBC radio 3 programmes of 1914 make me distinctly aware of my musical preferences. It also forces me to think about certain unresolved questions. When we have seen the extremes of the human condition and having known them realised, are we so far in the present from seeing similar in the present? Also, does our culture reflect the maturity of the wisdom of knowing that humanity’s capability of destruction is a very distinct reality.

Thinking about the past should make us think about the present. For many, the interpretation of historical events is not just an abstract matter but defines our identity for the present. Remembering the cultural moments that Radio 3 chooses to acknowledge interestingly points out how momentous that bad reactions to musical pieces were, that eventually became momentous works. Having a century of foresight gives us that advantage. I wonder if the events of 2013 in 2113 will consider lesser known moments that are under the radar, and the things that we might consider big today like consumer electronics and celebrity culture, will be as Klopstock or Telemann are to us today…hardly known except by those who take an interest in the obscure.

I do make a cult of personality about the serialist composers. Perhaps that is because I find the present so incomprehensible. With the pre-war period historians have made synoptic connections between culture and politics; philosophy and art. Today I see these things as existing in highly irrelevant, independent and unrelated ways without a unifying single narrative.

Another reason of course that I enjoy the surge of programmes relating to the war, is exactly because of the connections with the culture of that time. To wit of Tito, Hitler, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg, Freud etc. all living in the same city of Vienna during this period and not knowing each other is astounding, especially to consider their later impacts in their respective domains. I’d love to know what the people of the future considered as great works of the cultural present. I’d love to imagine who are considered the great political thinkers and who were the people that drove the geopolitics and economics of the 22nd century!

Musical Conservatism

I’ve written too many posts on Adorno and music to run away from a topic that has been in my mind for a while. I keep alluding to the idea of musical conservatism in the vague hopes that I might address it as a separate issue. In this post I’ll give an attempt at firstly trying to define what musical conservatism is. I might then try (but this isn’t the priority of the post) to clarify why this is important and what might be at stake.

Musical Conservatism (MC)

It is often said that some composers are conservative compared to their peers. A boon example of this is the composer Edvard Grieg. Grieg wrote in the Romantic style when it was the ‘safe’ thing to do and it was already established. By contrast, the impressionist and expressionist composers take to new grounds stylistically and arguably ideologically. There are of course more contraversial examples of a conservative composer: Richard Strauss. Strauss wrote der Vier letzte Lieder, and stylistically occupies ‘high romanticism’, written in the 1940s, a period of time when High Romanticism is symbolically an old grandfather who is just about to die.

I am a fan of the Four Last Songs, and I saw it conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and cried. It’s emotive power is undeniable, but is it stylistically raw and innovative compared to its contemporaries? I’d be forced to say…no. It’s no Schoenberg, it’s not even as innovative as more popular and appealing music such as Gershwin or Rachmaninov. However Strauss nearly 50 years previously wrote Salome, a work considered to be part of the Modernist kaleidoscope of its day. Some conservatives can have revolutionary potential, or once did have revolutionary impetus. Another example might be Stravinsky, whose rhythmically focussed Rite of Spring shocked audiences but his later work was less daring.

Conservatism as a mindset

Perhaps the thing that makes MC similar to a political form of conservatism (I don’t distinguish between ‘big C/small c’ conservatism for now) is a commitment to some sense of status quo. Conservatism works within already established media, and even though it might improve on, or add to an already established genre, it is that a genre or form is established that the contribution in question can be called conservative.

Conservatism of musical sorts is a mindset. It’s dad-rock, where fathers yearn for some actual or imaginary younger age in which their idea of rebellion was through the now codified bands of album compilations and general interest publications. Conservatism is the phenomena of making heavy metal culture a successful money making industry, with all the related trappings of metal festivals, metal radio stations and shows, metal forums, merchandise and paraphernalia. Once leather trousers and long hair (inter alia) are established symbols, we already play to the established channels of cultural communication, namely, one identifies with the tribe. This can be of course, through degrees of negotiation and separation through the hegemony, but there is still nontheless a tacit sense of hegemony.

Conservatism is codification. This can be through symbolic expression of the cultural consumers, this can be through the stylistic genre itself and its musicological features, this may even be through the economic model in which the music and industries around it support itself: the established toilet circuits in which bands must gain recognition, or the star DJs who grant recognition to bands, or the record labels that establish and confer status within the established order.

What was once fresh is now freeze dried for mass consumption

Musical genres, subcultures around genres or even mindsets around musical and cultural modes of expression, may have once been revolutionary, they may have once been entirely different. They may have once been so different that they did not fit into the established pre-existing order of genre hierarchies. I remember seeing an interview with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth in around 1988 or so, and he said that his music didn’t have a genre identity. This at the time was valid in the sense that what is now referred to as speed or thrash metal was not as codified. However, come today and we see bands with heavy and fast riffs using phrygian and dorian mode, exploiting 4-time tempi and lyrics about the distrust of the status quo, or violence, nuclear war or apocalyptic themes, and we might call it classic thrash metal.

Some presumptions

I’ve made some presumptions here. One is that conservatism means being derivative. I’m agnostic about this. Another presumption is that conservatism is inherently bad. Again I might say I would not feel obliged to respond to this point and leave this as an open question. Another open question I might put forward is: will everything that was once fresh become freeze-dried for mass consumption?

An analogy with gaming

An analogy with gaming might come into play. Chris Bateman often states his view that the games industry usually goes along with concepts that are already established and provide already-existing modes of activity and play. The next CoD game or Halo title is going to be largely similar to the last, in such a way that it’s almost immaterial that the next CoD includes a controllable doggy, or a powerlifter suit like the one Ripley piloted in Aliens. Innovative games are still possible and I think that seems to be the MO of those often working as indie developers or kickstarter-like budgets.

The musical conservatism that I put forward could be generalised as a cultural conservatism. There’s economic/business ramifications for putting forward recognisable products over untested and unknown quantities. However you often hear people talking about the freshness of when gamers first played Super Mario on the NES or came across a new gaming interface the first time. I remember my first Turn Based RPG like it was a first love. I’ve sought out many Turn Based RPGs since then but I begin to feel that it’s all the same after a while.

Musical Conservatism: so what?

Any fresh, idea-provoking or perception-challenging genre has the threat of appropriation. The appropriation of being a successful medium that brings in countless imitators. The original sense of perception-challenge is lost and simply absorbed into the status quo. Is it inevitable that we will all become musical conservatives? Even the genres that claim to be separate from the mainstream, have their own standards of conformity that dictate unto others what some sense of authenticity to the genre might be. In Black Metal such people are referred to kvlt and their seriousness is a form of self-parody. In modern parlance this very kind of discussion leans to hipster connotations. In my own time we might use these terms. In my own time it may be legitimate to demean me as a sad hipster seeking some sense of authenticity by the ratio of the more obscure something is, the purer it is as music. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to that point of view, as obscurity is not sufficient for authenticity (is it a necessary condition? I don’t suspect so either).

The issue of conservatism I suspect will spread to the future in whatever genres there are, and I am of strong conviction that there are historical cases in which such a discussion about whether a musician/composer/artist may be judged as conservative would be relevant in terms of their period.

JS Bach comes to mind when thinking about conservatism. I consider Bach as a composer superior to most of the greats. Is there a case for stating that JS Bach has revolutionary potential? In the 1980s there was a movement to return to Baroque repertories in the culture of studio recordings of orchestral works, in that sense there is an objectionable potential within Bach. In another sense, one might follow the Gould line and maintain that Bach upheld musical forms that were even in his own time, dated. I’ve been considering Bach in terms of the exegesis. But what about eisegesis? Bach is a pedagogical figure, a stepping stone to Beethoven, or Schoenberg, or even Jacques Loussier. Some people point to the mathematical nature of Bach, perhaps we might find fresh influence even still as musical work such as math rock, progressive rock, or the avant-garde work of say, Xenakis, that applies mathematical principles to compositional technique; might still have lessons drawn from Bach. If we are reading as Eisegesis, is Bach a conservative?

Coda: conclusions

Using the notion of conservatism I have found a form of self-critique in my own aesthetic preferences. I suspect that I am more conservative culturally than I might imply myself to be. What revolutionary potential is there in Schoenberg when his music is nigh-on 100 years old? What about the post-serialist composers and their radical potential?

I wonder if conservatism is inescapable. I wonder if its analogous to the insufferable conformist masses that Nietzsche described to be subsumed within slave morality, or like the conformist ‘sunday’ Christians described by Kierkegaard. Is there a potential to get out of such a place? When I read Adorno I keep a question like this in my mind and wonder if he leads to an answer. I also worry if committing to specific musical forms makes one historicist as well, but I suppose that’s a self-criticism for another post.

Two parables: The Comedian (II)

This story is about the curious and well documented incident of comedian Dave Chappelle leaving his successful comedy series in the making of its third season in the mid 2000s. I shall refer to Chappelle hence as ‘The Comedian’.

The Comedian grafted his way in an industry that sought to fit African American comedians through simplified stereotypes and personas. It took a while for Chappelle to make a presence in the entertainment industry and the right forum for his brand of comedy to have support from a television network or film studio, but eventually in the early-mid 2000s, it happened.

The Chappelle show was a very accessible insight into The Comedian’s vision of the world on issues of sexuality, race and politics. Chappelle’s sketches were not patronising and were recognised as breaching beyond ‘black comedy’ into comedy simpliciter. There is a monologue in Vin Diesel’s independent film ‘Multi-Facial’, that his ideal was to be a working actor that was an artist, not working to live. Diesel’s character makes a point that being committed to acting as an art form meant that some of the ‘greats’ of acting wouldn’t do advertisments. ‘You’re never gonna see (sic) Pacino do like potato chips or Denzel doing doughnuts’!, Diesel’s character says. Ironically Al Pacino appeared in a UK ad campaign for Sky Broadband this year.

Chappelle’s comedy sketches were both edgy and commercially viable. Chappelle support from other comedians such as Charlie Murphy and Paul Mooney (whose racial observations cut very deep). They say that DVD sales of the show had an unprecedented record high for a television show which led to much anticipation about his third season.

There came a point where the commercial success of the show was its undoing. The subtlety of The Comedian’s racial humour and the edginess of his socio-political observations were undermined by the commercially catchy one liners such as ‘I’m rich, Bitch!’ or ‘I’m Rick James, Bitch’, in my life, the line ‘cocaine’s a’helluva drug’ formed a backbone of in-jokes and references among my friends in 2006. The Comedian began to feel that the success of his show undermined his comedy, and was being interpreted in simplistic ways. Instead of challenging racism, the popularity of his humour (and its constant repetition) undermined this message and subversion became subverted. As a result to this, The Comedian left the show and was ‘missing’ for a short while leading people to speculate about his whereabouts. Some comedians speak of an informal ‘blacklisting’ of The Comedian since bailing on a $50mill contract. The Comedian still performs today, but not to audiences and the media outlets that he used to.

I think of this story as a way to understand the ways in which Adorno approaches culture. The Comedian’s story is one of a relationship with commercial success, having a social critique and the potential of social critique having a cultural impact. Does The Comedian’s account show, via negativa, that Adorno was right? That counterculture will eventually be subverted to the culture machine, unless it is all embracing of the negative. Through these everyday parables I would like to try and show the scope of what is at stake with the selected philosophical issues I’ve addressed over the past few years.

Remembering Paul Walker

I woke up today with a whatsapp text message, and from a different friend, a link to a news story: both relating to the event of actor Paul Walker’s unfortunate death. I don’t normally feel much about people in the entertainment industry but for a lot of fans of action films, this death has come to hit particularly hard.

 

This has been the year for when my friends and I have gotten into the Fast and the Furious (F&F) franchise. I remember cynically saying how the introduction of Dwayne Johnson was a bizarre way of revitalising a set of films that went on for too many sequels, by the time I finished watching F&F6 I knew two things: I MUST watch the sequel F&F7 (it was evident there was going to be a sequel – both in terms of the post-credits scene and the success of F&F6), and the other thing was: I’m going to watch this twice.

 

The film may not be cinematic gold like say, Empire Strikes Back or the Wizard of Oz, but for me there were personal moments for the film. There were comedic moments where watching with friends we bonded over the unbelievable and physically impossible stunts and set pieces. I saw the film twice in the cinema and the first time was with my friend who was writing up his Doctoral thesis and needed some time away from writing up for some comic relief; the second time was with my more ‘bro’ type friends. We laughed at the rapport between Walker’s ‘O’Connor’ and Diesel’s ‘Toretto’ characters, with lines like ‘I always preferred American Muscle’ (a reference to a type of car and obvious homo erotic undertone).

 

I have another fond memory of watching F&F2 with another friend of mine, it was a night when we were watching all action films, and when we made the bad decision of ordering fish and chips as well as a seperate chinese takeaway simultaneously. We laughed uncontrollably at the troll physics stunt at the end of F&F2 performed by Walker’s ‘O’Connor’.

 

There are many things painful about his death. The F&F films have given me a lot of joy in recent months, and its created a lot of bonding and humour among many of my friends, with some of the phrases in the films repeated in our common parlance (‘you’re going down, Torretto!’, or ‘why do I smell baby oil?’). The film made a lot of money and its kneejerk brand of action is made in a way that knows its audience. The way in which Walker died casts a shadow on what his film character represented and did. It makes the disclaimer at the end of F&F6 all the more poignant: that the stunts should not be replicated.

 

I feel very sad about Walker’s death, and my thoughts are with the friends and family. Those Fast and Furious films have given a lot of happiness to people around the world, and made the studios a lot of money. It should also be said that Walker’s last whereabouts were at a fundraiser for the victims of the Philippine Typhoon Haiyan, reflecting his real-life philanthropy. As a fan of the F&F films, I’ll remember him with fondness, and will continue to constantly re-watch the films. I had a plan to watch Fast 5 and 6 over Christmas Day. I think that I definitely will now.

 

Michael

“Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” – A MOOC from Jonathan Biss

This month I have been following quite a few MOOCs. One MOOC in particular, and the subject of this post, is “Exploring Beethoven’s Sonatas” delivered by the concert pianist Jonathan Biss. Watching this MOOC helped me with a few reflections about music appreciation in general, as well as my own aesthetic tendencies and preferences. I recommend the MOOC for anyone with an elementary or nonexistent familiarity with classical music.

Accessibility

One particular dimension of the course, which surprised me a lot, was that it was very non-technical. I was expecting commentaries from musicologists and extended discussions on cadences and fugal writing. However it was not the specialism of Biss, who as a concert pianist, to comment on those aspects of Beethovenian and 18th century composition. However it does serve as a good introduction for anyone who has a passion about music to understand more about the ways in which Beethoven has a distinct legacy and relevance to listeners today. You don’t need to know too much about music to understand this course.

Music appreciation is lifelong

One of the key themes to this MOOC was that music appreciation is lifelong. Coming to terms with great musical works is ongoing through our lives. I grew in my appreciation of Beethoven while going through the course. I used to be a massive fan of the Romantics, and as I got to learn more about musicians like Adorno and Gould, I became a little bit more formalistic and austere in my musical preferences. However I feel like I’ve gone to a middle-way with Beethoven. There are pieces of music which have special value, and their value can relate to a time of your life, or your way of seeing the world then.

The joy of having a lifelong musical appreciation is that you can revisit pieces of music and simultaneously revisit yourself in a dual form of internal critique. To appreciate music is to appreciate culture, and to have an engagement with culture often involves an engagement with our own sense of individuality. It is fair to say for example, that my appreciation of motets and choral forms comes as a default from having a Catholic upbringing, but something like Beethoven’s later period is not something I was introduced to, yet learning more about Beethoven’s work in the post 1810 era makes me feel like I’m discovering a new part of myself, and a different kind of appreciation as a musician and amateur performer. I’m starting to appreciate what some may call ‘mature’ works of piano, which require emotional maturity as well as technical competence.

Socio-historical reflections

There are sociological and borderline philosophical insights that Biss had about Beethoven which will at a later point inform my commentary pieces on Adorno and philosophy of music, however for now I won’t focus too much on that. What I will say is that Biss’s discussion about the ‘independent’ musician feeds very much into discourses of today. Heck, even technical discussions about sonata form relate to songwriting today (which is a sign of poor technical ability for pop musicians today). Beethoven, unlike Bach, was able to write music that he wanted to write. Biss establishes a two tier scale of the independence of a musician against their creativity. The scale goes something like this:

Bach

Prolifically creative, Patronaged musician

Haydn

Highly creative

Patronaged, then independent musician

Mixed ability during independent period

Mozart

Highly creative during Patronage

Poor ability during independent period

Beethoven

Poor creativity during Patronage

Highly creative during independent period

The idea of the creative individual, self supporting has implications from the Transcendentalists of the American philosophers to Romantic ideas of the Bohemian, and relates to the discussion of the Adornian cultural industry. Beethoven was the cultural archetype of the independent genius, which has been mimicked endlessly since. There is a very interesting discussion to be had about the nature of dependency for artistic types to perform their work, relative to the financial support that they have. This discussion I’m sure will prompt my thinking on Adorno’s capitalistic view of culture.

The cult of Beethoven worship

Beethoven, for many the name has establishment and bourgeoisie linked to it. Like say, Bach or Aristotle. There is a reason why there is such hero worship about Beethoven, and that is due to the depth of his genius. Often however we have dilettantes who may for instance reference Descartes without actually understanding it as a way of passing off cultural capital or intelligence, and this is sad and facile. Saying this may merit an accusation of calling me a musical or cultural conservative: there is a good reason why Beethoven deserves a high place as a landmark European figure, akin to say Aristotle or Newton. Beethoven’s Sonatas express a multitude of temperaments, technically speaking they are wonderful works of pianism, the ‘New Testament’ to Bach’s ‘Old Testament’ (i.e. the Well Tempered Clavier).

A course such as this helps to unpack some of the reasons of Beethoven’s greatness. It even addresses a comparative to Mozart, in which the latter does not fare as favourably in terms of creativity. I have recently been annoyed at someone who has been trying to start a philosophy salon without having a clue about how to conduct philosophical argumentation or even appreciate the depth of the philosophical ideas he’s trying to appropriate, to borrow Adorno’s word, it is dilletanteish . A course such as Biss’s on Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas makes accessible the numerous and profound ways in which Beethoven’s sonatas are truly powerful even as listeners in the 21st century.

Changing my own attitude to music appreciation

I’ll try my best not to sound snobby about music. Glenn Gould’s low opinion on Mozart’s later work is upheld by Biss himself. I remember a conversation that I had with someone completely unrelated to music, where the topic of piano appreciation came up. I talked about how I liked the showy Rachmaninov and Chopin pieces at the time, and he said how he enjoyed Beethoven Sonatas. I said to him that the Romantics were better than the Viennese classicals, and to me their appeal was much more obvious to me. The showiness and fanciful fingerings and exploitation of dissonances had a much more visceral and sensory appeal. The gentleman said to me that an appreciation of Beethoven comes from a more mature place and mature sensibility. I’m starting to be won over by that point of view. Not to say that I do not appreciate the Romantics anymore, but I am growing to enjoy the formalism and structures imbued in the more 18th century works. Biss emphasises the lifelong power of music appreciation. Music is a bonding thing between people and introspectively, music and its wonder is ongoing. Our relationship with the same piece of music can change, perhaps diminish or grow, and Beethoven’s Sonatas are a great example of a set of works that show development relative to Beethoven’s own life cycle, but also in response to our own introspection.

Michael