The Letter

The Letter is a medium of communication. The letter is usually intended for only one recipient and written for an audience of the directed person. Sometimes we have letters which are ‘open’, a recent example of this is from Stephen Fry. Where an audience of the thinking public are also witness to the content of the letter.

 

Chris Bateman wrote a blog post recently about the way in which social media is changing the pre-established norms of blogging. As there is less of a ‘bloggosphere’ as there used to be, media like Huffington Post, or major news services with comments pages and open columns like Guardian’s CIF seem to merge the established print media with online media, as well as its interactivity. Bateman gives a suggestion of models to keep blogging communities going.

 

When I was thinking about Bateman’s suggestions, there is an implicit or explicit (I can’t tell which) implication of two things:

 

  • Explicit claim: We should keep the blogging communities we have established in lieu of the more interactive and diverse media outlets out in today’s internet age

  • Implicit claim: There is something worth preserving in the medium of blogging as it is construed

 

Bateman invited some reactions to his post, in a way I am reacting to what was written, but on the other hand not replying to it at all (I call this the Adorno response) in the terms he has set it. To get back to the original point of my post, lets start thinking about letters again.

 

Letters have been an invaluable historical resource for scholars in philosophy. Descartes’ had extensive letters from his publisher, and through his publisher, a network of critics, which included Thomas Hobbes, on his ‘Meditations’. The letter has been of interest in personal correspondences as well, in instances where there has been philosophical import as well as a telling amount of personal insight into either of the writers also. It has recently been in blog discussion of a series of letters between Mercuse and Adorno on the 60s student activists. This serves as social document, historical and intellectual document and records of a life.

 

Of course there are other mediums these days. I know of friends who have little conversations through the medium of tumblr posts and hashtagging, there are short and not always sweet messages through twitter, which effectively serves as the equivalent of a world wide IRC where everyone is invited and there are no proper admins (yet). There are of course IMs. Most of the emergent forms of contact are much more immediate than the letter, and give much more of a sense of ephemerality to them. That said, I am reminded of an romantic couple who once said their IM conversations should one day be the thing of published prose, due to the juxtapositions of romantic messages to a sudden shift to banal topics.

 

The blog in the age of instant transmission, served as a more enduring form. The blog served as preserving the vanguard of media such as the essay, the discussion, the panel, the contrarian response. I like blogs. I like the diversity of them. Like paper, they can be hidden, sometimes burned away though not as easy to forget them as so much of online content is archived these days. Blogging has more potential for bringing diverse audiences than the printed essay, blogging can communicate many different things. I follow a blog from an olympic weightlifter who talks about her diet and social life or being starstruck meeting celebrities; I follow fitness blogs; I follow blogs about cancer.

 

Then there are blogs which serve as a lightning focal point, although not intentionally so or even with such initial pretensions. Leiter Reports has reached its 10th year and has brought about discussion of issues which have framed academic philosophy from within and without. When I think about the blog (as a genre) and its future, I think about the letter. I suspect most contemporary philosophers will have letters, although I’m more certain many philosophical correspondences have occured through emails or facebook messaging. I wonder if things like that might be studied in the future for some kind of exegetical import.

 

I have a few friends with whom I prefer contacting them through long emails. We write in essay length format to talk about ourselves, things on our mind, and general insights. I have one blogging friend who I have encouraged to document some of her experiences through the medium of blogging, so that our conversations have had a much wider audience. I don’t think the letter has died, or will die. There are still people who will have pen pals, still people who will write letters. Or it might be that the notion of letter writing and correspondences may be superimposed upon emailing, or through the blog. Likewise, blogging does not have social media and a changing online climate to worry about, it will change in some way to account for it.

 

When I think of the letter I think of how immensely informative and insightful letters are in historical philosophy: such as the correspondences between Leibniz and Clarke; Frege and Russell; or anyone Kant or Adorno corresponded with. Letter writing is not lost, it’s just different now. I’d be interested in seeing what emergent forms arise.

 

Michael

K457: Mozart as a metaphor

After my solo performance last month I have been thinking about continuing with my piano practice. I have also thought about picking up exactly at the point where I left off with my late piano teacher. Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor. That’s sonata 14 K. 457. The last few pieces that I worked on with my piano teacher in the final few weeks were scary. In some ways the represent something analogous to old relationships, old romances.

 

There is something unresolved about those pieces. Those pieces represent something unresolved in me. There’s a Rachmaninov piece where I just couldn’t get some of the speeds right, or just didn’t put the elements together in a performance worthy way. With the Mozart piece, I am reminded of the fact and semi-insult of my music teacher ‘Bob’, that I work very much on showy vignette short pieces. Could I ever work on an extended piece, such as a whole Sonata? I did perform Coleridge-Taylor’s Petit Suite de la Concert. But I never felt that I had performed or learned a piece that was part of a deeper pianistic canon.

 

So lately I’ve been trying to resolve this. IT feels like an internal journey going through the Mozart piece. There are different movements, a fast one, a slow one and a recapitulation one. Typical Sonata form. There’s something about Mozart that I find terrifying. Most of the other pieces of music I’ve worked on can be often clever, but there’s something continually insightful in the fingerings, the harmonies and the structure of Mozart’s music. There’s something beautiful about it that is not as obvious as the actual sonic experience of the music. I enjoy playing fun stuff like Scott Joplin or jazzing it up with friends, but usually there is not much intellectual depth to it. The pedagogical issues in Mozart are such that one cannot cheat with practicing and good technique.

 

This Mozart sonata is more than a piano piece to me, but reflects a form of philosophising, a form of introspection, a form of therapy. I fear it, therefore I must face it. There are many things in life that we fear that seem to become bigger as a fear object if we avoid it. This is one demon I wish to face.

 

There are other kinds of morals as well when practicing Mozart. The vision of music (and the world) as a variety of nuances: Forte vs. piano, legato vs. staccato, left hand vs. right hand. In music as in life, we can’t be overly one of these things all the time, doing so would be a flaw of character and a lack of depth and diversity. I tend to go for pieces that fulfill certain tendencies, but Mozart reflects and emotionally tempered and varied outlook, much more than say, Beethoven or Chopin after him. Often playing piano or legato can go against one’s present mindset, and so playing Mozart requires one to forcibly summon the mindset for smooth legati or piano volumes when the piece needs it.

 

One the thing I especially like about practicing Mozart is how it stays with me after I play it. It stays with me in the harmonic vocabulary when I’m improvising something else or even in a different style. It stays with me in life, knowing when my behaviour needs a staccato or a forte volume. It stays with me from the very careful passages I go through in a microscopic way, if I see it in another piece that requires say, an arpeggiation. It’s quite intimidating how much level of detail is in the Mozart sonata. Its exactly because it is daunting that I am so drawn to it. That has become an aspect of my outlook, to know that the daunting things often are most rewarding

On Improvisation

In my education and training as a musician, I have never learned to improvise. However my teachers had much experience with improvising. My teacher of music history and harmony often improvised offertories and other such situations in the sacred contexts of Catholic Mass as an organist, and my piano teacher Jack Daniels as a jobbing jazz musician in the early 20th Century.

Learning to improvise makes me really feel like I am playing when, performing as a pianist. Play comes to mind very strongly. For me, improvising as a form of play establishes a set of rules, and follows its own sense of momentum when done successfully.

I’ve been jamming (as we call it, rehearsing is my favoured term though) with some friends lately, and one particular friend is a self-taught musician. I have been introducing improvisation to him by trying to establish little tricks, little maxims. These are:

  • Know the tonal centres: what is the tonic, what is the dominant. If in doubt, hang around those notes

  • Take risks, get out of your comfort zone, learn to make something new.

I’m still learning myself about improvising. However as I work within genres when it comes to improvisation it feels like playing within rules, then potentially following them, subverting them or creating a new set of rules. Musical improvisation feels like an immensely imaginative and creative activity for me. However in my approach to improvisation it relies very much on the pedagogical playing principles that I have developed and continue to develop as a player. In short, the more I learn how to do things by the rulebook (be that Bach, Romanticism or Pop Songs) the better I am at having a recourse and a vocabulary in which I can create.

Improvisation feels like playing. It feels like an authentic and original outlet for creativity and one’s inner aesthetic sensibility. Improvising feels very much the pinnacle of Kant’s notion of the ‘free play of the imagination’ between the faculties. Kant’s notion of genius can also be typified by the exemplaries of originality: to follow no rules but the ones one sets for themselves.

Michael

 

Black Metal Hegemony

I’ve finally started to read ‘Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness’ (Stosuy Eds). My recent penchant for musical thinking reflects a cultural and intellectual sensibility that art should aspire to be radical and affect change.

 

One of the things I like about the anthology is that at the outset, it tries not to tell the same old story about Black Metal, instead, portraying Black Metal as a scene, a mindset, an art form that has been claimed by many people in different ways. There are many documentaries and places where the same old stories are told about Mayhem, Burzum, Bathory and even the British band Venom. In a way those stories have formed an hegeomonic claim to the genre, and this is wrong.

 

I like the notion of hegemony as a conceptual frame here. I was talking to a friend who brought up to me how certain cultures have hegemonic loci that relate across cultural and linguistic boundaries: for example, how India forms a cultural hegemon to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh, or the USA to many parts of the English speaking world. Some voices are more prominent than others. When it comes to Black Metal, it is my view that the really interesting voices come from plurality, and avoiding the temptation (and it is particularly strong for me), to generalise too much.

 

I really liked the chapter on the overview of concurrent black metal scenes at the same time as the Norwegian movement. Poland and France have particularly brutal reputations when it comes to ‘rawness’. Greek Black metal (which I have more familiarity with in terms of 2000s bands) emphasies mysticality in their own unique way that is not imitating anyone else. One author wrote an essay about their own band from Latvia and how cultural contact was limited due to economic and cultural conditions such as the ‘Iron Curtain’ and scarcity of outside music. I thought it was interesting when Kvetkovskis of Skyforge points out how the pirated cassettes of outside metal music was brought alongside more popular outside music like Madonna.

 

Growing up I spent a little bit of time in the Philippines and saw the way that cultural products from outside came in. Often there aren’t really hard distinctions made between say, rock and metal; or likewise, extreme metal genres (black metal, grindcore, death metal etc.). Each country, due to their own circumstances, draws from it in a different way. It would be far too judgmental to critique a band because of the ways they categorise metal genres.

 

Perhaps the one thing I thought notable about many of the European black metal scenes described in the book, is how they have differing relationships to the issue of their nationality and the connection to their folk culture, particularly the relationship to Christianity and their folk culture. As I’m reading another book on Wagner at the moment, the comparisons are inevitable and too obvious. I feel that the more I read about black metal, the more I seem to understand Adorno’s perspective on Wagner. I see a certain blackness/negritude to the cultural politics of Wagner; and I also see a certain Wagnerian Romanticism about some elements of black metal scenes too.

Michael

Reading Adorno: In Search of Wagner (2) ‘Gesture’

 

In this piece I shall address Theodor Adorno’s essay on ‘Gestures’. In this essay, Adorno wears more of a musician’s hat than his many other hats, like say, the Freudian psychoanalysis hat; the sociologist hat; or the philosophers’ hat.

 

Give them what they wantThe Allegory of the Running Man 

 

Perhaps the most informal way of trying to understand this essay, and that is by no means to say that I do in fact understand it; is to try and make a couple of cultural touchstones. There’s an expression among my friends which comes from the film ‘The Running Man’, which is about a totalitarian imagined future (from a 1980s perspective) where in order to ignore the reality of martial law, entertainment is used to pacify the audience, to use crass consumerism and aspiration as a ploy to accept the dominion of the status quo. One of the tools to do so is by the entertainment show ‘The Running Man’, where convicted persons go on a sadistic game show to fight for their lives. The character Killian says at the start of the show: ‘We give ’em what they want’. What an interesting parable to allude to when discussing a Marxian theorist of culture. The film itself is almost like some Frankfurt School parable. Later on in the film, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character makes a step towards overturning  the false class consciousness of the audience and then before he kills Killian, Arnold’s character (Ben Richards) recapitulates the phrase but giving it a new context: ‘and right now, I’m going to give the audience what I think they want’.

 

While I could say more about how this film is a parable for the Culture Industry thesis of Adorno, I might instead talk about Adorno’s damning essay on ‘Gesture’ that accuses Wagner not merely of bad character as he did in the essay ‘Social Character’, but of poor composing ability. I think the most salient and boiled down version of what Adorno says of Wagner in this essay is that the Saxony composer wrote unstylistically, and perhaps even unmusically. Wagner is putatively understood for being the composer of long phrases and lucious chromatics, building tensions and creating erotically charged dissonances, but to Adorno, there is compositional merit to this, and the reputation he has built on his composing is effectively a shallow populism: it is akin to Killian’s ‘give them what they want’. 

 

The Wagnerian Gesture 

 

One of the things I hate about academic writing is when a term is used, and can even be an everyday term, but it is not defined. I’m probably guilty of this myself on occaision. As this essay concerns the gesture. We might ask what is a gesture. Instead of giving a definition as such, Adorno points towards how Wagner’s work is gesture-like. Perhaps that is the closest we can get to for understanding a gesture.

 

One point Adorno makes is that as a person, Wagner’s traits show in his music, and both in terms of his music, and personality; Meister Wilhelm is a dilettante. Perhaps another crude way of putting this is to say that Wagner is a Jack of All Trades, and master of none. Wagner in his later operas put much effort into elements outside of the music itself: the libretti, mythology of the texts. It is even said that Wagner put much effort into the costumes and even the physical considerations of a concert venue in his Bayreuth opera house. Wagner was an ambitious person, and his music met such ambitions. However, to be dilettante is to be amateur. Adorno’s acusation is something as follows: Wagner’s ambitions were shallow, and this is reflected in the lack of depth in his music. This is what seems to me the meaning of a gesture.

 

Wagner as a bad composer 

 

Adorno does not say this without reasons. There are specific things that, within the musical work of Wagner’s work (in contrast to say the mythology of the libretti). Adorno has very specific things to say to accus Wagner of being a bad composer. They are the following:

 

Wagner emphasises the role of the conductor as a ‘master’ of the music. In historical context one may accept this and see this as leading to a future where conductors are on a level of musical artists as say, the composer. A generation after Wagner, notable composers had reputations as conductors, in particular Mahler must be mentioned. Mahler was almost as much a superstar conductor of his day as he was a notable composer!

 

Adorno also makes the point that the music Wagner makes is compatible with or conducive with the emphasised nature and centrality of the conductor with specific respect to tempo. Wagner also makes a claim that I’m still trying to work out in my own head, that there is a distinct atemporality to his music. I may take this to mean the way that the harmonies and textures of the compositions are atemporal both in terms of being otherworldly and not obviously alluding to the work of past composers. Compare this to say Brahms, where in much of his work the Beethovenian and Baroque elements are quite evident (and much pleasantly so). Not being an expert on Wagner, I will take this on face value about atemporality.

 

The other point about atemporality may be construed in terms of being immaterial to the historical based conditions of the music and the settings of the grand stories of Wagner’s operas. Atemporality also refers to the respect that the melodies don’t go anywhere interesting. Instead they simply and frustratingly stay in the same places without a good amount of development. Atemporality is something Adorno is using in a variety of senses, some ideological, some psychoanalytic, but all musically justifiable. To provide and example of the atemporality as a lack of melodic development, Adorno appeals to the infamousTristan concert prelude.

 

Wagnerian gestures try to speak of a grand view through big instrumental sounds of the symphony orchestra, but they are gestures because of the poor score-writing. Adorno specifically refers to poor modulations and disapproves of the secondary modulations present in much of Wagner’s score-writing to be sloppy.

 

Adorno references another Wagner commentator, Alfred Lorenz. Lorenz put forward a notable study of Wagner’s work and points out specifically the use of ‘bar form’ in Wagner’s work. Adorno picks up on this as a lack of form, and this is a big part of what Adorno seems to find disapproving in Wagner. I think something that wikipedia noted to me is that Lorenz is considered as a discredited authority on Wagner, due to the former’s associations with Nazi ideology. Adorno in the purposes of this essay, however, takes the bar form (AAB melodic phrasing) as horribly generic and unstylistic.

 

If I were to pretend to be Zizek and be facetious, I might give a crass analogy. Adorno here is employing something of an Oedipal fascination and protection of his mother against what he percieves as a threat to his mother, the father. In this crass parody of a Freudian analogy (which I urge you not to take seriously), the unwelcome father is Wagner who is courting the mother’s affections.

 

So who is the mother? In this essay I might take it to mean the ideals of Viennese Classicism. But to me this is not a good enough answer. If Adorno valorises the greatness of Mozart and Beethoven, I contend it is only mediated through the other masters of Viennese form: Adorno’s own divinities: Schoenberg and Webern. But let’s take a step back and talk about Viennese Classicism.

 

Viennese Clasccisism

 

What Adorno refers to as Viennese classicism refers to a golden age around the middle of the 18th Century (ah, the 18th century, my favourite time in philosophy), where the greats such as Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn developed stylistic innovations which emphasised a particular brand of balance, and form over feeling. I am led to feel that this historical ideal of the 18th Century is clouded by Adorno through the Schoenberg perspective. Late Beethoven cannot be said to exhibit balance in its emotional temperament. Perhaps Adorno’s understanding is anachronstic. It is often said that talk of a ‘First and Second Reich’ only came about when the Third Reich was conceptualised as a notion. Likewise, there seems to be no Viennese Classicism in Adorno without what had come to be known as the Second Viennese school. There are reasons to support this interpretation in other essays where Adorno compares and contrasts Wagner’s composing and scoring to Schoenberg. The essay ‘Colour’ comes to mind when thinking of Adorno comparing to another ‘Viennese great’, which I shall write about hopefully soon enough.

 

Why is Viennese Classicism so important? This to me is the real issue of this essay. If Wagner is a composer of gestural motions, it is because he does not pay attention to the innovative aspects of his forebears such as Beethoven. Beethoven and Mozart were masters of form when it came to composition, they were masters of developing melodic lines and harmonies and of transitioning keys. I take this to be more than a musical opinion but a strong personal conviction. However I am sceptical of Adorno’s disapproval. I understand the ideological and cultural grounds for saying that Wagner fails as a composer compared to Beethoven. Then again, almost every other composer fails to compare to Beethoven, and those that dare to surpass him number on a four-fingered hand. Of course Adorno would think Schoenberg numbers among that four (as do I!).

 

The Tristan passage which Adorno is highly distainful of, I find hard to be convinced that this is terrible part writing. Adorno talks more about the Tristan passage in his essay ‘Motiv’. Which particularly goes into what I consider as a very contraversial view about Leitmotif. If Wagner was a composer of gestures, then he has fooled even me that his harmonies are luxurious. Indeed Meister Wilhelm even convinced Nietzsche for a time. Adorno stated in his own musicological way of the shallowness of Wagner’s writing which has a simultaneous appeal to it, because it is gestural. Adorno says this where Nietzsche says in much pithier words: Only sick music makes money today.

 

Some conclusions

Part of me wonders as I read this book, and as we had also written an essay on Glenn Gould on this blog some weeks ago: what would have Gould thought of Adorno? Adorno very much resembles one of the personalities that Gould adopted in his broadcasting work, of the avant-garde radical composer. Both are fans of Schoenberg, I keep emphasising this because there are very few of us in the world, living and dead! However, for very similar reasons, Gould enjoys Bach where Adorno valorises the Vienna 18th Century. Gould however, was no big fan of Beethoven or Mozart (Gould once made the infamous comment that ‘Mozart died too late’). Part of me wonders whether Adorno’s vision of music prefigured a character like Glenn Gould, or whether Gould’s later piano career could be seen as reflecting some of the musical ideology that could be said to be ‘Adornian’. This is a thought that I will try to develop more hopefully as I am going further along in assessing these essays.

A serious point is to be made here. I could take Adorno’s views here seriously, and I would respond to say I am not convinced that a lack of form is such a bad thing in something like the Tristan concert prelude. However, I find Adorno’s reasons very apt, if they were applied to other music. Something that I have also been suspecting about Adorno is finding textual evidence. Namely, that Adorno could have been a formalist aesthetically speaking. Formalism is the view that what makes something beautiful is the form of it, and the underlying rules and principles that govern that art form. Those are the things that made Beethoven great, those are also the things that made Schoenberg a great composer too. But if Wagner were a great composer, it would only be for him as a dilettante. But that said, that to me is not necessarily a bad thing. This is an essay where Adorno is uncharitable, but his points force me to take them seriously because of the strength of the psychoanalytic association between Wagner’s character and the shallowness of his writing. Perhaps if we are to take formalism seriously as an aesthetic view, we may draw from an essay like this to evaluate its merits, by looking at the demerits of its alternative.

Michael

The Cult of Glenn Gould

 

As many of you can tell, I’ve been blogging a lot about music lately. I have always had thoughts and Ideas about music and I always considered that eventually I would come to speak my views or embed them in unsystematic places through other discussions, such as my commentary blog pieces on Adorno.

 

However I thought I might just try and address some of the thoughts and issues directly. With that in mind I thought I would write about my favourite Musician: Glenn Gould, and try to articulate some of the things I find interesting about the pianist-broadcaster. Part of the reason I felt it important to talk about Glenn Gould is because part of his insight will, I suspect continually be referred to if I continue to write on issues musical. Gould is as a pianist, as influential to me as say Kant is as a philosopher.


Why I like Glenn Gould 

 

Glenn Gould is one of my all time favourite musicians. I say musician and not concert pianist. Gould composed works in his own time which have been of little recognition, Gould also had very deep thoughts on music history. Glenn Gould worked with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in producing programming that engaged with the public about music, in the way that the likes of Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins did for science, or Marcus deSautoy for Mathematics today. I consider Gould not just as a performer, but someone who was a performer with a composer’s mentality, someone with ideological views on music, its direction and its history. Gould was someone who lived in the age that transitioned the end of classical music as we know it and saw the emergence of popular music styles which took the place of the big composers.

 

Gould is a divisive figure, many have a dislike for him for giving the impression that’s okay to play the piano with poor pedagogy, or while humming, using an inappropriately low chair. On the other hand, it is the eccentricity of the man that I love. It is the out of this world nature of his personality, that also reflects the other-worldiness of the composers that he favoured: Bach and Schoenberg. I will consider the many different dimensions of Glenn Gould and have some closing reflections on the ‘cult’ of Glenn Gould.

 

Who is Glenn Gould? 

 

Gould the performer 

 

One of the things I am attracted to about Glenn Gould are his performances. The way that Gould makes 18th Century J.S. Bach come alive in a way that gives it a distinct freshness. Gould’s interpretation of the Brandenburg Concerto is considered a benchmark, and Gould’s career can be book-ended by his early recording and his late recording of the very same piece

 

One thing I find particularly interesting about Gould is the choice he made for his recordings. Gould avoided Romanticism a great deal, and expressed a certain Baroque-ness in all of the pieces he recorded. Gould’s choices in music reflects a lineage, from Bach to Schoenberg, from Rhineland old to Rhineland recent. There are however some choice exceptions to Gould’s work: his interpretation of Mozart leaves much to be desired, and the choice of recording Scriabin leaves me unsure of what to think. I am particularly surprised at some of the Richard Strauss lieder recorded by Gould.

 

Gould the ideologue 

 

Gould nailed his colours to the mast about many issues. Perhaps bold enough to say that Mozart ‘died too late’ as a form of disapproval of the latter’s later work. Gould was a pianist who was known more for their voice than his hands. Gould was very vocal on his feelings for Bach and Schoenberg and many of the ideological baggage that he carried has chimed a lot with my own musical upbringing and influences. In a way Gould is a natural extension of my musical worldview. I particularly like the way that Gould conflates or expands (depending on how you see it) the role and position of what a concert pianist should be. Should a pianist play, or contribute to a conversation about music and what music means?

 

Gould the Studio Musician/perfectionist 

 

Glenn Gould famously refused to be part of the concert scene and chose not to engage in live performing. Gould had distinct reservations about the way in which music is performed to an audience, and the way that the distinction was made between performer and audience. Gould was then led to taking a more studio oriented approach to performing and propagating his music. There are amazing videos out on youtube showing the ways in which Gould had been involved in the studio process of making music, not just in terms of playing the piano, but in the post-production stages of mixing audio and cutting tape. I’ve lately been working in some home studios with very fancy software like Digital Audio Workstations, but I am astonished at an age where cutting up a recording and splicing with other takes literally involved cutting tape! Gould was a perfectionist of the classical music variety, in an age where the studio was emerging. Gould made himself a recording artist from a performer, and this is something very telling about the status of musicianship today and the scope of what musicianship involves.

 

Gould the firebrand/anti-conservative 

 

Gould is a figure who is inherently disagreeable to some, or may I even say many. This is a fundamental aspect of what makes anyone a firebrand. There is a story of Glenn Gould meeting another notable musician (and musical intellectual) who found Gould’s interpretation disagreeable, but noteworthy enough to deserve engagement. That musician was Leonard Bernstein, someone who I also have great admiration for as a musician and a composer (and no I’m not so big a fan of West Side Story).

 

Gould held strong opinions, from Romanticism to Modernism; Bach to recording methods. Gould remained a distinct face and one who ruffled feathers by his distinctness and presentation. Glenn Gould was not just an eccentric and a passionate person of the world of classsical music, but was distinclty a person of 20th century sensibilities as well, doing things that other classical performers would not do. Like this!

 

Gould the broadcaster 

 

Glenn Gould’s greatest legacy may very well be not in his playing, but the efforts he made to educate the public in music and culture. Very similar to Leonard Bernstein, Gould made entertaining material from discussing the history of music, discussing style and reaching audiences through CBC broadcasts in an accessible fashion. We speak of the public intellectual like a rare breed of broadcaster these days. We also normally think of such intellectuals for science, mathematics or even history and philosophy –  but …whither music? The Unanswered Question.

I particularly enjoyed the ways in which Gould would parody the pretentiousness of the world of classical music by the various fake characters that he would perform, and at the same time embody in all seriousness the very kind of persons that he would lampoon. Such a strange and contradictory state of affairs it is to be Glenn Gould. It is with greatness that one can both parody experimental composers and music critics, and both be an advocate of Serialism in all seriousness as well as having very strong views on issues musical. This contrast between the serious and playful/funny Gould is something that any public intellectual can learn from. Gould contains great comedy as well as seriousness. As evidenced from things such as hisso you want to write a fugue’. A fugue about writing a fugue. Talk about parody as a form of art.

Gould the ‘bad example’

Gould is, lets face it, a bad example to emulate as a pianist. Gould does a lot of things ‘badly’, pedagogically speaking. The chair he sits on is too low, Gould strikes with an overhand that is too dominant; humming is not desirable plus the movements are far too eccentric. Of course when it comes to virtuosi they are a law unto themselves. Like performers like Louis Armstrong, their eccentricities are evident of their skill, but not things for mortals to emulate.

Gould’s in wider historical cultural context

Glenn Gould was born in an age where notable composers wrote notable works, but then composers became less notable and their works less notable still. We think of composers more now as institutionalised figures from the universities who studied composition, or jobbing composers who work in film or commissions. This kind of historical situation gives less of a scope or an opportunity in my view, for the kind of classical music we may have envisaged of earlier centuries, or perhaps the whole notion of a classical music is an anacrhonism in itself. Gould acknowledged that there was a world outside of the classical, there was music outside of the world of R. Strauss and Hindemith. In that way I see Gould as a transitional character in the grand scheme of things. One who engaged with a changing world, where things like television and radio media are innovative ways of engaging with the public, and that engaging with the public is a social good. It’s a vastly different world from the old masters. Although to a lesser extent than Bernstein, Gould did make an effort to bridge these worlds together in a way where he seemed to both belong to them and be apart from them.

Conclusion: The Cult of Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould has something of a cult of personality about him. Gould’s eccentricities and his views are a package deal. I refer to Gould’s following as a cult in that fewer people these days are familiar with his work and fewer people still remember what he represents. As I am getting more engaged with music I find some inspiration from Glenn Gould, not just as a musician and as someone with a stylistic outlook, but as someone who talked about these things rather than just doing it, and as someone who shows the potential of being a public intellectual about music. That, and few other people in the old world of music make me laugh as much as him.

Michael

On being part of a musical ensemble (and my sudden interest in Faure)

It used to be back in the day when I practiced and learned pieces as a Piano soloist, that I’d be interested in the intensive pianistic writings and performances pieces by the likes of Chopin, Rachmaninov and Liszt. You know, the showoffy type of music that exhibited ‘big fat chords’, rich harmonies and shimmeringly fast melody lines.

Lately as an ensemble performer I have found working with a group of musicians with differing musical interests is a conversation. Trying to put forward your ideas, trying to be open to others and having that very important but polite conversation about disagreeing.

One of my friends, an actor by trade and training, likes to suggest crooner songs and early jazz. Another friend, interested in the early 20th Century, Jazz and a trumpet player, is in broad agreement with this cultural tendency and this gathers influence. I am not so familiar with Jazz (despite my former piano teacher being a former Jazz musician), and I quite enjoy learning about the new chords, enhancing my chord vocabulary and stretching myself to new styles.

One of the things that has surprised me is the way I have been drawn to chamber music  and composers who I normally wouldn’t consider. Working with the piano makes one think mostly or almost completely of the pianists-composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. It’s always important to remember that there were non-pianist specialising composers as well, and not all classical music is defined by that one instrument.

I’ve lately been drawn to Gabriel Faure. Faure has a beauty and darkness, a gentility and subtlety to it that communicates beauties of the human condition. Faure is also technically interesting because he is said to write his piano work like an organist. There is a philosophical distinction that I learned from my logic lecturer, Finn Spicer years ago, the difference between ‘being hard to do’ and ‘being tricky’. Faure’s works as I have come across them have been tricky, I’ve had to do some hard thinking about fingerings and stylistic considerations.

I think many of his popularly known works show beauty: the Sicilienne (which I want to try on Bb Clarinet, but I’m also playing as accompanist), the song ‘Apres un reve’ (After a Dream), which I wish to perform with cellist. There is the wonderful ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ which I once performed as a bassist at Westminster Cathedral (which I have fuzzy memories of now). Lately one piece in particular has taken me, has enamoured me, has dared to look me into the dark abyss, which is the Opus 24 Elegie, which I aim to one day play as an accompanist.

Lately it has been a great joy to perform as part of an ensemble, not just with long time friends (where I feel the shared feeling of love shows in our playing), but also the way that performing as a musician forms a powerful medium. I often like to think of myself as a person of few words, despite the fact that I go on and on and on when I’m blogging on here about a variety of topics, there is nothing I can say that is more profound and complete than the expression of music. There is a beautiful ambiguity sometimes in music, and at other times, or even simultaneously, a great degree of specificity. The C-minor introduction asserting the tonic in the Op 24. Elegie is definitely a C-minor tonic (specificity), but what it expresses is so powerful and can also mean many different things to many people -representing many different mental objects in the same sonic experience.

I think it’s odd how I’ve come to enjoy Gabriel Faure so much. I thought that the next composer I might be enamoured with would be say, Haydn, or going deeper into Beethoven, or Mahler, following my interest in the likes of Schoenberg, Bach, or the Romantics. There is a moderation to Faure that appeals to me, a gentility that does not always need to go to the extremes of the human condition in the way Schoenberg or many Romantics would.

Michael

Rediscovering musicianship in 2013

I think its fair to say that its official. It’s only been a few rehearsals so far, but I am part of a group of musicians who are performing together. We are a group of about 4-6 friends (depending on who is available/venue/available instruments) and between us is a lot of friendship, love and passion for performing.

I think it becomes official that we are a committed group when my friend who hates playing the Cello announces to great shock: I think its time to bring this along to our playing sessions. I have been rediscovering my musicianship over the past couple of years, by regularly practicing piano again and performing last year to an audience. Rediscovering involves an inward reflection of finding what it was in my past that made me a musician and re-learning what I used to know.

Lately I have gone beyond rediscovery and I am going into new and uncharted territories. I have experience playing as a piano soloist, but I am now going into accompanist mode. I’ve been playing accompanist lately for a singer, a trumpeter and a saxophonist. I’ve attempted to go through a piano duet (Faure’s Bercuse from Dolly Suite) and I am exploring some pieces that I’d love to play in an ensemble context. However it seems that I have a lot of emphasis on Gabriel Faure’s repetoire. There is an odd thing that the music I listen to is vastly different to the music I perform, and the classical music that I tend to lean to is vastly different to the music I want to play.

As a performer I am strongly leaning to the Romantic and to a much lesser degree the classical and baroque period. However if I were to talk intellectually about music my interests lay in composers like Bach and Schoenberg. I arrogantly said this week that ‘Beethoven may be a brilliant composer but Bach is a genius’. There is an odd tension between my performing life and my intellectual and aesthete sensibilities. On the way to the rehearsal I had a lot of heavy metal playing on my mp3 player. I play a lot of indie and other various genres on my monthyl playlists and I am very wide about trying to find music that I want to discover and listen to, but when it comes to musicianship as a form of self expression – things like black metal, heavy metal or Schoenberg go to the wayside in favour of Debussy, Faure and ballad like pieces. I’m a contradiction: Romantic at heart, but modernist at mind.

I think there should be more to be said for this strange contradiction. I may explore my musical sensibilities in future posts, especially as my involvement as a musician has expanded greatly recently. What a joyous thing it is to be able to perform with friends! I’m also going to try and break out my clarinet in the next couple of months…

Michael

On Guilty Pleasures (or, shall we eat cake?)

The more I think about it, the more I see the proliferation of guilty pleasures. What is a guilty pleasure? A guilty pleasure is a thoughtless form of satisfaction, it requires little critical effort and one engages with it in one’s own terms. The more a guilty pleasure is consumed, the more it is made as a desirable end. A guilty pleasure is something that usually one knows that they should for whatever reason know better than enjoying. One should know that there are more thoughtful, more refined or more engaging sensibilities. But for whatever reason, we will always have our guilty pleasure. So ends my definition.

I was thinking about this from one particular thing. It started with a bus advert, it was for the upcoming Sly Stallone film ‘Bullet to the Head’, which reminded me of how comforting I have found Stallone films. The comfort comes from the predictable nature of action films. It is predictable that there will be juxtapositions: of the older man handling a post 2010s world with a 1970s outlook; the juxtaposition of how physical violence is socially unacceptable, but seeing it on film gives one such an animalistic buzz when it is executed with comedy and finesse, or a one-liner. The year is 2013 and there are a whole lot of bus adverts with a 60-something action hero returning to doing films of a genre that was out of date two decades ago. However I might poo-poo on the action film. I grew up with it and many other people my age and older had, and it is a guilty pleasure. For all the critical things I have said I’m probably going to watch the film in the cinema and I’m probably going to laugh at the gags and have a good time with my friends. I find it interesting how the film critic, who is supposedly the bastion of cultural sensibility and critique, have so easily chosen to take an uncritical view of a film.

I think perhaps the most notable way of showing the guilty pleasure and how it affects our mindset is when certain topics come to mind that evoke comforting associations and a completely different way of thinking to normal, this may involve things such as: cake, sex, alcohol, LAN parties, football, poetry slams (delete as appropriate). I’ve been following the film reviews of the upcoming Kim Ji-Woon directed film ‘The Last Stand’ and many have pointed out how the film is mediocre, except for the fact that it serves as a return of action film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Richard Roeper gives it a B- review. The editor of Shortlist Magazine, Martin Robinson (sic) said something to the effect of how despite how he may boast of his refined cultural sensibilities: he has seen The Seventh Seal maybe twice, but he’s seen Commando over 160 times. The Guardian Film Review’s Peter Bradshaw reflects on effectively giving the film a metaphorical get out of jail freecard just for reinforcing the cult of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the ‘good old days’ of action films. A guilty pleasure is a great way to hide critical thinking.

The guilty pleasure may be seen as harmless and sometimes it is not necessarily making an explicit point about the world. However, it is hardly apolitical, insofar as the following truism remains. If one chooses to indulge in a guilty pleasure, they do so willingly to the avoidance of something else. This is not harmless in itself, but what if we are surrounded by advertising appealing to guilty pleasures to a degree that temptation and it acknowledgement is impossible. Advertising for package holidays, nice shoes, the next series of your favourite drama series, celebrity gossip on your news feeds or the desserts that are right by the door on supermarkets the country over. If the way we spend our time is oriented or centred around guilty pleasures? Where is the time to think, and think differently? Where is the time to challenge the status quo? It’s one thing to talk about figuratively voting with our feet, what we choose to watch on television (or whether we choose to watch it) is something we can control. But we cannot escape many of the advertisements ubiquitous in social spaces to remind us of the ways we can find hedonistic enjoyment.

I definitely would hold that the guilty pleasure is something that is here to stay and it would be wrong to deny this. I must admit that I have mine. In my mission to redefine my body mass through weight training and other strenuous activities on a regular basis, the proclusion of cake (inter alia) is advisable. However my other guilty pleasures involve little games on my smartphone; the occaisional day in or night out with my friends; comic books; or old-school heavy metal tunes pretend to say that I have moved on from. Despite the ways in which I am otherwise Spartan and ascetic. I still accept the occaisional frequent guilty pleasure.

Part of me wonders if Adorno would have really denied the importance of guilty pleasures in addressing its ideological implications for capitalism. Adorno himself was a fan of very bad cowboy western films. I am in a broad agreement with the Adornian point that a culture of satiation has political ramifications for late Capitalism and the eroision of counter-discourses. Shall we let ourselves eat cake?

Michael (based on a conversation with Antisophie)

Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
 
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.

Dispositions

Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.

Disinterest

Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael