Monday, March 10, 2008

The Cult of the Composer

Oh my lord. So much for writing every day. We're moving out of our apartment! This will come as a great relief to everyone who has visited us in our present building, which is, er, a rotting little slum. Between the sudden, relative lack of hot water and the weird diesel smell coming up from the furnace(!!!) it finally seemed impossible to live here, and our friend David (pronounced dah-BEED) had to give notice on Mar 1st as to whether he was keeping his overpriced one-bedroom and so we're all moving in together! Me and JoJo and David and TygerTyger, finally moving into an apartment big enough for the four of us. JoJo is especially sweating the move, trying to figure out what books to pack and which to give away. I wish I hadn't left my camera in Vermont just so I could show you the giveaway stack, which actually runs up the stairway in a dramatic, fire code-defying fashion. You're all welcome to drop by and take something. If you do, feel free to slip a donation for moving costs under our door. (Update: Photo here!) Anyway, the things I would have blogged were I not busy alternating between apartment-hunting and the fetal position have been picked up by better bloggers than I: Jeremy Denk sticks it to somebody named Harold Fromm, who put this sloppy piece in the Hudson Review. The notion that we can get at the real Bach by desiccating Bach performance strikes me as... a bit misguided. Fromm's right to celebrate the notion that Bach, as opposed to, say, Beethoven or Mozart, is miraculously free from the sort of mythmaking that mucks up listeners' interpretations of a body of work. The picture we get of Bach from his paper trail, mostly business correspondence, gives a pretty realistic portrait of the artist as a serious workman—somebody with a job to do—which is, let's just say, NOT how we tend to imagine our Beethovens and Mahlers. Unfortunately, Fromm points out by example the converse hazard of interpreting a composer's music biographically, which is the perception that Bach was some kind of musical accountant. No. Bach's music is sentimental, at times even maudlin, and the notion that it should be performed bloodlessly is thrilling not because it is an 18th-century idea but because, as Richard Taruskin points out in "The Modern Sound of Early Music" (the Times headline is not his), it is a very 20th-century one. How odd that an article called "J.S. Bach in the 21st Century" should take its cues from a performance style invented in the age of Stravinsky and debunked in the Clinton administration! Fromm's article is not only useless, it is not even fashionable. Look and! An editor at ArtForum asked me to link to this thing they ran on Stockhausen at their website, but Alex Ross beat me to it. I've resisted commenting on Stockhausen's death mostly out of ignorance—like most new-music lovers, I'm simply unaware of most of his output, and I simply can't contribute more thoughtfully than so many commentators have already done. So I was excited to see Robin Maconie's piece, which presents in some ways a terrifically clear-sighted perspective on Stockhausen's work. Like: "Of the intricately interlaced mathematical rhythms of his early works, his pianist friend Aloys Kontarsky said, 'Oh, that’s just his way of notating rubato.'" How nice to read an article on Stockhausen that actually brings us closer to understanding his music! But then we get a little further and, hm, it seems that Maconie has, as they say, drunk the Kool-Aid. On his controversial 9/11 comments:

In a scathing and factually exhaustive account of what actually transpired at the fateful press conference, Stockhausen’s companion, American clarinetist Suzanne Stephens, defends him as a bewildered old man drawn into a media trap and cynically abandoned by the festival administration and its political backers, who had already been made uneasy by press accusations that Hamburg had provided a safe haven for some of the terrorists.

Pretty easy to believe, yeah. But then—

One can go a step further and interpret the entire affair as a fatwa deliberately engineered by the festival authorities, with the connivance of disaffected members of the press corps, to counter the massive loss it was already clear the festival was bound to incur in the wake of the Twin Towers attack, by removing at a stroke its single most expensive component—a four-day program of Stockhausen’s works....

"Fatwa"? Well, that's pushing it a little. The word is obviously chosen to evoke the way Iran tried to censored Salman Rushdie, and I'm sorry but canceling some premieres and promising to murder someone are not the same thing. Of course, Maconie isn't saying this is his own point of view, he's just throwin' it out there as something "one" might choose to believe... and then:

At Stockhausen’s level of awareness, however—a level of divination on which things that happened to him were construed not trivially or personally but as a convergence of “cosmic” forces for which the artist is simply a lightning rod—what mattered was not who was to blame or their individual motivations, but the absolute reality of 9/11 and the artist’s moral duty to account for it. Stephens was missing the point. The event had to happen because it did happen. That the composer was misconstrued is par for the course.

Er—"a level of divination"? I'm going to go ahead and suggest to each and every one of us that we back away from the implication that our favorite composer has mystical and/or supernatural powers. I mean, I'm being a bitch here, and I am grateful for Maconie's article, but there really is some crazy stuff built into his rhetoric. Much more plausible is Morton Subotnick's interpretation:

Egocentric people are usually distasteful, yet I didn’t find that with him. He got so much flack for calling 9/11 the greatest work of art ever. But I don’t think there was any malice in that. He was so involved with his own persona and with his own self. It was an innocent comment—very unfortunate, but innocent. Thank goodness we don’t all feel that way about things. But having a few such people in the world doesn’t hurt.

There we go. I hope that we can all agree that Stockhausen's ego was a great thing—who but a monster of ego would have attempted to build his enormous body of work!—fraught with disastrous potential. For instance, every vocal work of Stockhausen's that I have heard sets a text by the composer, always a gamble, and in his case invariably a losing one. His poetry is atrocious.

Which leaves Björk's response... not much for me to say here, actually. I think she gets it spot-on. Most electronic artists, when they talk about Stockhausen's influence, are being pretty superficial—like a playwright saying he was influenced by Shakespeare because he writes his plays in English. Like, it's true, but not very interesting. Björk's obituary, but also her music, reveal a real depth of familiarity with Stockhausen's body of work. Beyond his electronic innovations (cribbed by so many pop artists) and his arcane compositional processes (aped by the avant-garde), she's actually been listening to his music, its alien textures and strange, gnarled melodies. Listen to Medúlla or the Drawing Restraint 9 score again after hearing Stimmung or Tierkreis... it might illuminate a facet of Stockhausen's (or Björk's) oeuvre that you hadn't noticed before.


Straussmonster said...

Mmmyeah, I went "buh?" at the Maconie at the same place as you did.

(on vacation, where it is warm. w00t.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm where to begin. I'm not sure I agree with you assessment. Bach was indeed a megalomaniac of sorts and his music is the thing of legends. He may not be the kind mythic being that we associate with other artists but he was. Still I find his music to be less sentimental and more abstract and cerebral. You could say that it was ahead of it's time, very much like Stockhausen. In fact there is probably more in common with Bach and Stockhausen that one might think. Both were Germans, both had a knack for saying the occasional controversial statement, and both composed divinely inspired music.

You make the point that Stockhausen composed bad poetry but this is only because you perceive his writing as poetry and not for what it was actually meant to be - divinely inspired sacred text. He was not unaware but rather hyper aware of the events around him. The mystic is usually misunderstood by the common people first, only to to be wrongly worshiped later. This is the burden one has for saying the truths that need to be said.

Furthermore you make the mistake of doing precisely what you had previously criticized - placing 18th century expectations on 21st century music and vice versa. dissecting musical performance is crucial to understanding the truth of the matter. Like sacred text, it takes years upon years of commentary needed to understand what was and is being said.

As to Stockhausen's influence...its everywhere you see, much like Bach in the olden times. The person who writes plays IS influenced by Shakespeare because Shakespeare has influenced our language so much. His plays and characters have seeped into the human sub-conscience. For further reading on the matter might I suggest reading Harold Bloom's "Hamlet and the invention of the Human"? It should be standard reading for anyone who truly wishes to understand Shakespeare, or Bach, or yes for that matter Stockhausen. Just ask the Beatles, Bjork, Sonic Garden, or any artist born in the sixties. You've truly missed the boat on this one sir.

Dan Johnson said...

Anonymous, you are not disagreeing with me regarding Stockhausen's influence. I chose Shakespeare for just that reason. Stockhausen is inescapable! I only wish that, say, Sir Paul McCartney were able to digest Stockhausen's work as fully as Björk has.

As for the rest of your comments, that is a boat I am happy to miss. Bach was not an avant-gardist; he was not given to controversial statements; neither he nor Stockhausen was a prophet sent to us by God from the planet Sirius.

Anonymous said...

So the quote: "My present post amounts to about 700 thaler, and when there are rather more funerals than usual, the fees rise in proportion; but when a healthy wind blows, they fall accordingly isn't at least a little unsettling?" He was also quick to insult those around him who he deemed musically inferior.

Is it me or am I the only one to notice that Bach and Stockhausen possessed an enormous libido?

Regarding Bach's stance as an avant-gardist, he most certainly was. Yes he most certainly was. It may be odd for us to imagine but Bach was inventing things all of the time and was expected to from his patrons. Much of what he wrote was sometimes a shock to anyone who listened. And what do you make of the Art of Fugue?

As for their status as musical mystics, you cannot judge them from your point of view. Both men claimed to compose under the inspiration of a higher power. For Bach it was the Christian g-d and for Stockhausen, that Mormon deity or whatever he thought was coming from Sirius.

Anonymous said...

Dersu said....

Anonymous, you don't walk alone!
Re: "libido"
You and Anna Magdalena

Anonymous said...

So sorry, please explain.

Anonymous said...

Sirius is a star, not a planet.

Grrg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grrg said...

Why yes, anonymous, person, Sirius is a star, not a planet, and yet Stockhausen believed and repeatedly stated that he had come from there, just like Jesus had. Because he was NUTS.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall j-sus ever stating in the accepted cannon or for that matter the apocryphal accounts that he was a space alien from Sirius. The caparisons between Bach and Stockhausen are nevertheless startling. Perhaps it was Stockhausen who wanted to become like Bach but without all of the christian trappings so the comparisons might have been a bit forced.

Straussmonster said...

Anonymous, as far as I'm concerned, mystics don't get a free pass on their poetry being crap just because it's mystical.

Anonymous said...

Straussmonster, sacred texts are not by definition poetry. In the event one might consider it poetry, you could not on it's merits force some 18th century notion of aesthetics on a text from the 21st. It would be wrong for example to use today's analysis and sentiments on a piece of music or text from a century ago. You could find bits and pieces that work in this frame of reference but it would fail to hold up as way of describing a work because the poet or composer didn't have your sensibilities in mind at the time it was written. You could find lots in the lyrics and music in Bach because he transcends all space and time, he appeals to an eternal aesthetic. But he would be the exception. Stockhausen does attempt this in his work although I wouldn't call his sacred texts as poetry in the ordinary sense. If anything it is the poetry of the spirit, or soul. It does have a kind of other-wordly logic to it and isn't altogether that bad. You should stop using the precepts of dead white males who use medieval notions of what art is to judge these pieces. John Cage used chance operations and aspects of the I-Ching to compose many of his texts. Would you claim that he didn't wright poetry or music because it doesn't square with your Euro-centric world view?

Straussmonster said...


You should stop using the precepts of dead white males who use medieval notions of what art is to judge these pieces.

On the one hand, true. It's important to understand context and different approaches to works of art (if you even want to think of them that way) which come out of different traditions and are aiming at different things. It's rather pointless to criticize Gluck for not being Wagner, for instance.

On the other hand, I'm still free to heartily dislike something according to my own personal standards of judgment, regardless of what the author was aiming at. I'm even free to find the fundamental aesthetics of periods or movements not to my liking, and thus to casually refer to them as 'crap', should I so wish. Now, if we want to have a srs bzns discussion here on this blog, it's important for each discussant to make clear her biases. But that's not what I was aiming for; you may well differ.

Anonymous said...

Straussmonster, Fair enough, but you should have at least declared your preference of stogy, old, cloistered, white male prose before hand. This is of course a matter of preference and not a value judgment on the work of art at hand. Simply calling a piece of work 'crap' in no way advances the discussion. For example you mention that you think that period instrument practice is crap. You fail to explain why this is the case. You could have chosen rather to point out the inherent impossibility of such an aim. We are too far removed from the Baroque period to truly know what tuning system and other performance practices actually were meant to sound like. We can only speculate based on received tradition and disciplined scholarship how we are to approach these works of art. You could have chosen to point out that ,say, in the instance of Bach, the most recent spat of period performances of his cantata's are flawed from the beginning because they chose not to include a boy choir and soloists. This would be a fairer assessment of why you could concluded that they are in error rather than just calling it crap.

In the matter of Herr Stockhausen, you fail to admire anything that he was trying to do. You seem to hold on to an aesthetic that is so antiquated that anything remotely new and foreign from the white male European tradition is discarded out of hand before even considering it.
Even Mamet knows better now then to make hasty judgments.,374064,374064,1.html

What we all need to do, myself included, is to allow ourselves to broaden our horizons just a little and consider that there is more out there then what is in our small little cliques. You can dislike Stockhausen but please say why this is. Saying you dislike it is proof of willful ignorance and not informed opinion.

Straussmonster said...


Now you're imputing arguments (about period practice) to me that I never made, given my three (now four) comments on this post. I don't like having discussions with people who accuse me of saying things that I didn't. I also don't care for the massive hasty assumptions like the ones that you're making about my general perspectives, what I like, whatever, from these three (short) comments.

If you're addressing those specific accusations to someone else, make your attributions clear. And as much as I love anonymity in all of its forms (party hard!), it's nice in a forum such as this to give yourself a nom de plume (or guerre).

Dan Johnson said...

Anonymous, I'm afraid I don't see where Straussmonster made any of the comments you're attributing to her. Please try to keep things coherent and on-topic.

Dan Johnson said...

I'll also second S/M's suggestion that we all at least make up a name in the comments section, just for the sake of clarity and accountability.

anon said...

Straussmonster, I apologize. The comments where meant to cover a host of comments here and I didn't mean to accuse you of anything. If I've assumed to much from your comments I am the one a fault.

Curmudgeon Extraordinaire said...

Straussmonster, could you please be so kind as to expand on your previous comments?