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

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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