Month: January 2011

Vogel als Prophet

A while back, I decided (and I quote):

I don’t have a Twitter account, and I probably never will

As you can see on the right side of the page, I changed my mind on that one. What happened? Well, Emerson, after all. And flattery will get you everywhere. And I’ve been doing so much following on Twitter that my own account became a matter of efficiency.

But mostly, I became curious as to what a Twitter version of me would look like. I have a blog persona, a critic persona, a composer persona, a book-author persona—sure, they’re all kind of like me, but they’re also not really me (or they’re only distilled portions of me) in a way that I find kind of fascinating. So I wondered what part of my personality would come to the fore when forced into a 140-character suit.

(Though I still think that tweeting during concerts is a bad, bad idea.)

Leftover Beethoven Miscellany: Everybody’s Talkin’

From time to time until the book comes out, this space will feature bits and pieces that were too esoteric, tangential, or just plain odd to make it into the final version.

One of the casualties of the latest draft of the book was the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, reduced to a passing reference: even by my liberal standards, his connection to Beethoven is pretty indirect. But Herder is, I think, one of the most fascinating thinkers of the pre-Hegelian era, someone who, at times, seems to have wandered into the 18th century from some modern or even post-modern time. For Herder was a man fascinated by language.

Herder was a scrupulous thinker whose posthumous reputation was somewhat hijacked by his advocacy of the particular and all-to-easily simplified idea of German nationalism. But that was only a by-product of his overall philosophical goal, which was to put to bed the age-old problem of whether the mind was an understandable machine or a fundamentally mysterious thing, dualistically separate from rational analysis. Herder had the distinction of studying with both the über-rationalist Immanuel Kant and the loopy proto-Romantic Johann Georg Hamann; each held him in high enough regard to later feel betrayed whenever Herder tried to philosophically mediate between their two extremes.

Herder’s early career efficiently followed a best-and-brightest establishment path, aided by his own skill at wooing the power elite. He was so successful as a teacher that the city of Riga gave him two Lutheran churches to pastor in order to counter an offer from St. Petersburg. At the same time, his writings on German-language literature gave him a burgeoning regional reputation. Herder moved in the right circles, saying the right things. And then, in 1769, in his mid-twenties, he threw it all aside and took a six-month sojourn in France.

Herder’s reasons for going were not unlike those that drew a flood of expatriates to Paris in the 1920s and 30s—he had grown suspicious of his own respectability, and besides, French thinking enjoyed a continent-wide reputation for being on the cutting edge. But if Herder dreamed of becoming a philosophe, he was soon disillusioned, and the source of that disillusionment became the hub of Herder’s thinking: language. In Herder’s ear, the seeming universal appeal of French thought was, in reality, simply the appeal of the French language, its civility and polish and air of objectivity. From the diary Herder kept on his French journey (but which was only published over forty years after his death, in 1846, when the wave of German nationalism was once again cresting):

The question is not what a word can mean according to a few dictionaries, but what it means in the consciousness of living people—here, now, in all its capriciousness…

Languages, no less than governments, depend in this on the spirit of the age: this becomes striking to the point of being obvious, if one makes comparisons. The same spirit of monarchic manners which Montesquieu so strikingly portrays in his own person dominates his language also. Like the French nation, it has little real virtue, little inner strength; it makes as much as it can out of little, as a machine is moved by a small driving wheel.

French thought acquired its cosmopolitan reputation, Herder says, because the French language that such thought is beholden to is geared towards cosmopolitan niceties; but the demands of politesse and intellectual substance forms a zero-sum game. As scholar Harold Mah puts it, “In a society constituted by the requirements of civility, every linguistic act is a social performance, and every performance displaces the intellectual content of the linguistic act.” That, for Herder, marks the difference between the potential in French-language and German-language reasoning. In Mah’s summarization: “The French language suspends the mind above sense experience and therefore refers to nothing but itself; German goes all the way down to brute sense perception and, through it, goes all the way up to higher reason.”

Herder himself could indulge in less refined pro-German, anti-French rhetoric—“Spew out the ugly slime of the Seine!” read one poem, “Speak German, O you German!” But behind this linguistic chauvinism lies strikingly modern ideas, not only that the way we think is inseparably dependent on the language we are thinking in, but that the structures of languages themselves result less from human universality and more from particular cultural circumstances. (Contrasting the self-referentiality of French with the sensual omnivorousness of German, Herder not only anticipated the peel-back-the-surface approach of critical theory and cultural studies by nearly two centuries, he also offered an explanation why the German strains of such theory would focus on sociology, while the French strains would be more concerned with textual analysis.) Language became Herder’s philosophical touchstone. His theory of mind, which sidestepped the whole materialist-dualist question by positing the mind as a living organism, one with the body it inhabited (drawing on the latest biological research showing how muscles contracted when the attached nerve was irritated), was first delivered in the form of a theory of language acquisition: language evolved from man’s need to communicate survival techniques from generation to generation, reason growing out of the body’s needs. His view of philosophical discourse was bound up in the inescapability of language, leading him to elevate analogical argument to the point where he considers literature a better source of knowledge than philosophy:

[F]or the most part it was a single new image, a single analogy, a single striking metaphor that gave birth to the greatest and boldest theories. The philosophers who declaim against figurative language and themselves serve nothing but old, often uncomprehended, figurative idols are at least in great contradiction with themselves.

For Herder, “Homer and Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare and Klopstock have supplied psychology and knowledge of humankind with more material than even the Aristotles and Leibnizes of all peoples and times.” (It was this position that partially spurred Kant, a veteran declaimer against “figurative language,” to finish the third of his Critiques, the Critique of Judgement.) Herder’s pro-literature stance reveals Herder’s nationalism as more qualified than the following generation of German patriots. Herder’s nationalism was not based around geography or misty conceptions of the medieval Teutonic soul, but around language—his conception of German unity was a unification of everyone who spoke German.

Such a conception could introduce complications into an otherwise straightforward nationalistic spirit; any argument for national exceptionalism was actually an argument for linguistic exceptionalism, and, what’s more, an argument necessarily expressed within the language one wished to promote, and so on down the philosophical rabbit-hole. The way the German Romantics glommed onto instrumental music—that persistent claim that music picks up where language leaves off—can be read in part as a way to side-step the qualifications of Herder’s nationalism. That such instrumental music was so celebrated a product of German culture was an argument that there was something exceptional about the German soul that likewise went beyond language.

The Old Order Changeth

If [Milton Babbitt] had not opted to be a teacher and a composer, he would have been a great big league manager.

—Joseph Polisi, The Artist as Citizen

R.I.P.—nah, scratch that, rest in cheerfully generous, irascible opinions and good beer. I am forever indebted to Babbitt for instilling in me an admirable mistrust of authority—having heard that all his music was thorny and difficult and incomprehensible, it was a kick to discover how much fun those anthologized Semi-Simple Variations and All Set and Phonemena* and My Ends Are My Beginnings were.

This thing I wrote about Babbitt is something I rather liked, which is always a dubious sign. But here’s something pithier: a lot of American history—and the history of the American relationship with American history—makes a lot more sense when you realize that Milton Babbitt was, actually, a quintessentially American composer.

*And Philomel, which I conflated with it in an earlier version of this post—Philomena would probably be a pretty fun piece, too.

O caro, o bello, o fortunato nastro

Soho the Dog HQ has seen its online wherewithal this week preempted by those infernal twins, Work and Life, which means that, among other things, I missed Mozart’s birthday yesterday. Except that I didn’t, because last weekend, I celebrated in agreeable company and high style by hearing Goli, Box Five, and Molly Zenobia play a Mozart’s Birthday concert in Cambridge. The occasion was declared by Mary Bichner, Box Five’s whirlwind driving force, and as obsessively committed a fangirl as a 255-year-old wunderkind could hope for. (Bichner was even game to sing an indie-rockish Count Almaviva to Evangelia Leontis’s Susanna. La donna ognora tempo ha dir di sì.)

Appropriate costume was encouraged; here’s what I came up with:

If you want one, you can get one; all of my royalties will go to the Greater Boston Food Bank. For cake, I hope.

There is a bear in the woods

Yesterday, the Republican Study Committee, a group of House Republicans “organized for the purpose of advancing a conservative social and economic agenda,” announced a proposal to cut government spending; among the proposed cuts is the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was amused to see that the animus to arts spending among this particular branch of conservatism has become so ingrained and predictable that nobody on the RSC felt the need to defend, justify, or even mention those line items. (Maybe arts organizations should start front-loading their economic-impact studies with a bunch of cherry-picked Friedrich Hayek quotes or something.) Then again, the RSC has bigger fish to fry:

Every component of our plan will undoubtedly raise the ire of one group or another, whether it is labor unions who want more benefits or Angora goat herders who want more subsidies.

An angora curtain has descended across the landscape of American free enterprise! Ed Wood, threat to democracy.

Anyway, when the RSC chairman complains that a “bigger and more intrusive government leads to a weaker and less innovative economy,” I counter with the existence of piano-shaped toilet seats:

It’s even better if you quietly hum “America the Beautiful.”

Doesn’t think she waltzes, but would rather like to try

So by now you’ve probably heard about this whole 10 Greatest Composers thing over at The New York Times. As link-bait goes, it’s reasonably high-minded, and Anthony Tommasini is right to frame the whole exercise as cocktail-party game rather than serious cultural investigation. Still, two comments in—two—and someone is turning up their nose at Schoenberg because he isn’t popular enough. There, as Gore Vidal would have Henry James say, it is.

So instead of wading into that morass, here’s my kind of top ten list, a list situated at various intersections of greatness and obscurity: The Top Ten Composers That Will Never Appear Anywhere Near The New York Times‘ Top Ten Composers List.

  • Etienne Nicolas Méhul. Wrote wildly inventive operas (listen to his greatest hit here); Beethoven ripped off a lot of his best tricks. Not enough influence for you? He was Napoleon’s favorite composer. Beat that with a stick!
  • Johan Helmich Roman. Often referred to as “The Swedish Handel.” When Sweden needed a Handel, Johan Helmich Roman was there.
  • Hans Rott. Only wrote one major piece, but made it count: the Symphony in E major is pretty much the template for the Mahlerian style—as Mahler himself admitted. Rott went mad at the age of 22, on a train: he started waving a gun around, claiming that Brahms had filled the train with dynamite. Talk about going in style.
  • Muzio Clementi. Had he never lived, God only knows what millions of piano students would have started with. Besides, dude wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love.”
  • Anthony Philip Heinrich. Went broke, hiked 700 miles into the middle of Kentucky, and proceeded to come up with some of the most awesomely crazy and crazily awesome music of the 19th century. Like if Schumann had been one of the Beats.
  • Pierre De Geyter. Wrote the Internationale. In a morning. What did you do this morning? I reheated some soup.
  • Percy Grainger. Has there ever been a composer as cheerfully perverse as Percy Grainger? Playing Grainger’s music feels like you’re doing Freudian analysis while rock climbing. In a good way, of course. Also: probably the best composer to ever have his teeth X-rayed by the inventor of corn flakes:

  • Simon Sechter. As a good God-fearing American, I know that quantity and value are synonymous. And Sechter wrote 5000 fugues. (He also taught Bruckner—by mail. Imagine the “can you draw this?” ad that could have inspired.)
  • Luigi Russolo. Just remember, reactionary New York Times internet commenters complaining that modern music is nothing but “noise,” Luigi Russolo was way ahead of you.
  • Soorjo Alexander William Langobard Oliphant Chuckerbutty. Others got the glory, but no composer was ever more majestically named. While organs still play, the Chuckerbutty Paean will forever endure.

Now the gas station was closed, and the snow was eight feet tall

Snow day! Soho the Dog HQ has never looked lovelier—mainly because the snow covers up everything.

No better time to take in Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s 1952 animated adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Снегурочка (The Snow Maiden):

First time she really fancies a boy, she literally melts into a puddle? And you thought your first date was awkward. I was happy to find out that Irina Maslennikova, a Bolshoi Theatre stalwart in the 1950s who did the Snow Maiden’s singing, is still teaching in Moscow.

Those dancing cranes about three minutes into part one are going to be fantastic nightmare fuel the next time I drink too much—which, given the amount of snow I still need to shovel, may very well be tonight.

Post title via Albert Collins, singing about the Blizzard of ’79—still my personal touchstone for winter weather. The drifts really were eight feet tall.