Month: April 2009

This and/or that

What’s the difference between a note composed and a note improvised? Pretty much nothing, at least according to Søren Kierkegaard. Not that Kierkegaard ever explicitly addressed the issue; in his most sustained exploration of music, the section of Either/Or entitled “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” Kierkegaard is primarily intent on demonstrating a) that the true value of a musical work is how well it seamlessly matches form with content, and b) the significance of music “as a Christian art or, more correctly, as the art Christianity posits in excluding it from itself, as the medium for that which Christianity excludes from itself and thereby posits.”

But Kierkegaard’s philosophical spelunking of the process of decision makes an interesting frame for a consideration of both compositional and improvisational choice. Here’s the turn-of-the-last-century Danish philosopher Harald Høffding writing about Kierkegaard:

The “qualitative dialectic” appears in Kierkegaard’s theory of knowledge in the sharp antithesis he draws between thought and reality. Even if thought should attain coherency it does not therefore follow that this coherency can be preserved in the practice of life. So long as we live we are imprisoned in becoming; hence we stand ever before the unknown, for there is no guarantee that the future will resemble the past.

In a lot of ways, this problem—the actual philosophical and psychological process of collapsing passive possibility into decisive actuality—is at the core of Kierkegaard’s work, the fixed point he aimed at from multiple pseudonymous angles. From Either/Or:

In making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses. Thereby the personality announces its inner infinity, and thereby, in turn, the personality is consolidated. Therefore, even if a man were to choose the wrong, he will nevertheless discover, precisely by reason of the energy with which he chose, that he has chosen the wrong. For the choice being made with the whole inwardness of his personality, his nature is purified.

Høffding explains:

No gradual development takes place within the spiritual sphere, such as might explain the transition from deliberation to decision…. Continuity would be broken in every such transition. As regards the choice, psychology is only able to point out possibilities and approximations, motives and preparations. The choice itself comes with a jerk, with a leap, in which something quite new (a new quality) is posited. Only in the world of possibilities is there continuity; in the world of reality decision always comes through a breach of continuity.

For Kierkegaard, theologically, that breach of continuity at the point of decision is a leap of faith, and marks the boundary between what he characterized as the aesthetic and the ethical modes of living. This contrast is easily seen in Either/Or; the famous/infamous “Diary of a Seducer” section, a wry ventriloquism of the aesthete’s disconnected, indecisive sensual limbo, shifts into the sober prose of “Judge William,” delineating ethical choices.

But the point here is that no amount of preparation for the decision, no amount of reflection or consideration, eliminates the decision’s essential discontinuity. To restrict the number of choices doesn’t smooth over the break. (“Anyone who seeks the aid of probability is lost in imagination,” Kierkegaard writes, “whatever else he may try to do.”) All choices—be they measured compositional considerations or spur-of-the-moment improvisations—are equally intuitive, equally risky, equally discontinuous. Composition and improvisation become like the two actresses director Luis Buñuel cast as a single character in his 1977 film That Obscure Object of Desire. A while back, filmmaker Errol Morris discussed the movie, and the two-actress stunt, on his New York Times blog:

ERROL MORRIS: Yeah. Perhaps Buñuel sees love as a series of continuity errors? People assume there are no continuity errors in reality.

—which is, in fact, a quintessentially Kierkegaardian idea. Kierkegaard’s writings about love and sensuality always mirrored his own experience; though sincerely in love with Regine Olsen, Kierkegaard nevertheless broke off their engagement. Nominally, the reason was concern over his own melancholic personality, but throughout his works, echoes of the relationship are constantly heard whenever Kierkegaard discusses a refusal to decide, a preference to remain lost in possibility. To declare a love for someone is to choose who to love, which, somewhat paradoxically, shifts the action from the sensual plane to the ethical. From Kierkegaard’s Either/Or discussion of Don Giovanni:

Don Juan… is a downright seducer. His love is sensuous, not psychical, and, according to its concept, sensuous love is not faithful but totally faithless; it loves not one but all—that is, seduces all…. But its faithlessness manifests itself in another way also: it continually becomes only a repetition.

A cursory extension of that analysis might extol improvisation as intuitive creation and devalue written composition as rule-bound repetition, but that misses Kierkegaard’s point—that Don Juan’s repetitive patterns are not a choice at all, but a symptom of his inability to make the leap—aesthetic to ethical—that a decision entails. (Even this is an either/or, as the French philosopher Jean Wahl explains: “But let us observe that for Kierkegaard inside freedom itself there is an action of the grace, of a divine necessity which guides us; that in the second place, the act of repetition is an act by which we say yes to our necessity and reality; and this leads us toward the understanding of what Kierkegaard means when he says that in the utmost freedom there is no more question of choice.”)

Maybe it’s an American thing. From a late lecture by the 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich:

When I came to this country and first used the word aestheticism in a lecture, a colleague of mine at Columbia University told me not to use that word in describing Americans. That is a typical European phenomenon. Americans are activists and not aestheticists. Now I do not believe this is true. I think there is quite a lot of this aesthetic detachment even in popular culture. It is present in the buying and selling of cultural goods… in which you often see a non-participating, nonexistential attitude. Here Kierkegaard’s criticism would be valid. Perhaps on the whole this is not a very great danger among the American intelligentsia. My observation has been that they jump very quickly out of the detached aesthetic attitude—in all lectures and discussions, in philosophy and the arts—to the question, “What shall we do?” This attitude was described by Kierkegaard as the attitude of the ethical stage.

Make a note of it. Doesn’t matter how.

Beat pattern

Stepping to the podium. Interviewing Shi-Yeon Sung.
Boston Globe, April 12, 2009.

Some cut-for-space quotes:

On charisma:

I don’t think charisma is always [imitates an angry tantrum] “AUAAAHH”; there is also soft charisma. It’s a different way of charisma. And that you can’t learn. The thing is, you have it, or you don’t have it. Also, if you just have this kind of thought in your mind—I want to put the humanity of the music, and the humanity of life in the music—if you have this kind of charismatic thought behind you, it comes out. Those things you can’t explain to the orchestra. If you have this, it comes out.

On still feeling like an outsider:

Actually, if I go to Germany, and I do Beethoven, I think I don’t always feel comfortable with this; because the German people are so proud of their hero, and some Asian girl comes there and conducts Beethoven? This kind of thing, maybe I’m not comfortable with this. [MG: Does it give you something to prove?] I don’t think so. I prepare just what I can, the best I can, and just go…. I don’t do overreaction, you know? (laughs) I think I’m [the type of] person, I accept every situation.

On competitions:

I remember, my first competition was a female competition in Germany [the Solingen Competition for women conductors], and I won first prize; and my professor was so proud of me, and he said, you have to go to the press office and announce your first prize. I just told him, no, no, someday I want to go to [an] international competition, with women and men at the same time! If we win there, then, I’ll go to the press office. I remember that. And then it came true!

"We must now have the courage to continue this exhilarating and frightening adventure without procrastination"

News of the day:

The Fairbanks Symphony is once again throwing down their yearly challenge: Run a 5K in less time than it takes to play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

A striking replica of Beethoven, Steve Bainbridge, runs to the beat of the music, so anyone who finishes the event ahead of the great composer will receive a voucher good for one of the Fairbanks Symphony’s season concerts for the 2009-10 season that starts in September.

Classical radio for animals. Critic-at-Large Moe approves. (The pun made him growl, though.)

Ravel becomes the latest composer to inspire speculation of secret musical codes. I blame Dan Brown!

R.I.P., Robert Delford Brown, artist, provocateur, founder of The First National Church of Exquisite Panic, Inc., and a performer in the legendary 1964 New York production of Stockhausen’s Originale. (Do him the honor of kissing a pig.)

I care not for Caruso

L.C. Davis and Charles Kunkel, “Baseball vs. Opera” (1912)

A little ditty for Opening Day (Zambrano vs. Oswalt, 7:05 PM), with lyrics by sportswriter L. C. Davis, from the days when sportswriters rhymed more than they do now. (Yeah, that’s me singing. Sorry.) “Shine,” by the way, is not a racial slur against Italians as well—it’s used in the turn-of-the-century sense of “show-off.” (Too bad—I thought I could mock two of my ancestries at once.)

I’m practicing Appalachian Spring right now, trying to get my hands to stop thinking about how they already know “Simple Gifts” and instead actually pay attention to what’s on the page. (I’m pretending to be an orchestra for a conducting class later today.) I’m also still bleary from the weekend: worked all day yesterday, stayed up too late on Saturday helping my UConn-fan wife obliterate the immediate past with mojitos and Classical Barbra, and was out too late on Friday witnessing The Bad Plus in the flesh and then finally meeting Ethan Iverson. I bought Ethan a drink, after which somebody else came up and wanted to buy Ethan a drink. That’s right—his fans were fighting over who got to pay for his alcohol. Ethan swore that this had never happened to him before. I’m not sure I believe him.

Foliage of the Heart

Guerrieri: Now Once More (2009) (PDF, 2 pages, 122 Kb; MIDI here)

I’ve never ended up hiring trumpets for Easter, since I’m always miffed at how much they want to gouge me. But a very nice person at my church had the wherewithal to recruit a couple players from the local high school this year, so I wrote an introit for them. I’m not sure I like it as much as our usual Easter introit, but when life gives you trumpets, make trumpetade. (Plus, the first line makes a good Beckett-like title.)

In other news:

  • Geoff Edgers profiles one of the best musicians I know.
  • President Obama’s gift to the Queen of England—an iPod loaded with showtunes—was actually rather spot-on.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, anti-piracy crusader! The original Phantom of the Opera is public domain, right? Puccini as well? Just sayin’.
  • Although I would certainly not turn down some of that filthy lucre in order to bid on an original edition of the Kandinsky/Marc Der Blaue Reiter almanac, including facsimiles of song manuscripts by Schoenberg (“Herzgewächse”), Berg (“Warm die Lüfte”), and Webern (“Ihr tratet zu dem Herde”). Christie’s gives an estimate of $40,000-70,000. (Compare that with the number quoted in the first item in this list.)

And you still wouldn’t want to see how it’s made

Thanks to technological acceleration, John Cage jokes are rapidly approaching their sell-by date (remember when 4’33” was this wild, crazy cult thing that nobody knew about?), but this riff is a worthy entry in the pantheon. Though I would still need to chase it with more canonic fare. (Hot Doug’s, by the way, is famous for their weekend-only duck-fat fries. Dieting is for the insecure!)

(Thanks to our librarian friend—really, all of you &c.Rebecca Hunt for the link.)

Canonic Suite

Reviewing the Boston Chamber Music Society.
Boston Globe, April 1, 2009.

Update (4/1): Reader Laurence Glavin pointed out that the Beethoven Cello Sonata is opus 69, not 67. I guess those post-concert margaritas were stronger than I thought. (And it’s not like Mozart, where you can always cover your tracks by claiming to be working from a particularly obscure revision of the Köchel catalog.)

Update (4/3): Fixed, at least online.