As annoyingly shiny highrises keep going up around the Upper West Side, I’ve come to appreciate the romance of chipped paint off walls in old buildings. A sheen of decay over some pillar of fortitude feels like the building is alive, that it ages like us, changing incrementally. All around Brooklyn especially, peeling lead paint, crumbling plaster, bricks with various levels of exposure seemingly animate any structure. But perhaps the most romantic of all such incarnations is heading to a decrepit old theater, the kind which has been intentionally allowed to decline to a state that it not only breathes or feels animistic, but is somehow part of the performance.
On Tuesday, I went and saw my first show at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Harvey Theater, their smaller and more historic venue, where holes in the wall, relatively dim lighting against muted reds and green add a humanizing or comforting touch to the performance on stage. I was seeing Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane, a tale of the intersections of class, gender and mental illness in post-war Ireland. Like many dramas set in this period in RI, it’s gritty and uncomfortable. There’s a ton of swearing, anger, deceit and frustration, but no redeeming characters. A mother and daughter struggling with borderline personality disorder don’t overcome. They don’t find a way to use their pain to move forward, no double standards, anything like that. The daughter simply ends up committing murder, only to find herself alone just like her mother.
The set and the theater couldn’t be more different from each other: a kitchen in a home in rural Ireland and a small opera house in waning grandeur. While the trend to build sterile spaces is still on the rise, I admit I wasn’t really distracted by the Harvey Theater; the subtle imperfections (completely curated of course) acted as a relaxing agent of sorts. The exaggerated hipness factor is perhaps self-evident, but the addition of natural decay to a performance – that is, something inherently something artificial or “put on” – felt like a pleasing little ruse. Obviously building inspections, fire codes, asbestos prevention, etc. are all measures that have taken place to ensure that it’s falling apart just enough. It’s trendy, right? There’s a sense of things moving along in one direction or another if something is a little out place. The field of economics loves playing with this, debating the appropriate levels of unemployment to render the sensation that an economy is going to grow (4% right?), price fluctuation, currency inflation and interest rates, among others. It’s become fashionable something beautiful and natural about the strange sensation that something is at once perfect and imperfect at the same time. It’s a subtle form of hypocrisy – a front is presented and seemingly transgressed at the same time.
The word may seem extreme, as we usually reserve it for high-stakes matters such as politics, ethics and personal relationships. It’s interesting how the viewed importance of a deliberate imperfection can alter the term we use for its occurrence. As a musician, the curation of imperfection is a large part of what I do. For centuries musicians have put pen to paper to describe the limits of dissynchronization – that is, the acceptability of how to play out of time and make something sound just bad enough to be pleasing. Naturally we’ve got a pretentious Italian term for it: rubato. It literally means “stolen time,” describing the process of certain parts of the musis moving ahead or behind as they wish, or for an entire set of musicians to change velocity concurrently. One great musician described it in his treatise as “the meaningful laxity in the tempo of the notes,” and another “an intentional digression.” It’s most commonly manifest at the keyboard, where multiple voices are played by the same person. For pianists, the idea is that one hand moves slightly behind the other, so that a tune or melody sounds distinct and emotive, and not really locked in. But of course, there are limits as “taste” can be lost; one can simply sound like they have no rhythm.
If the concept sounds strange or abstract, it’s not really; pop singers do it all the time. It’s that almost-lazy, dreamy quality you hear when the singer sings behind the band (back-beating). It’s paradoxical admittedly, as the sensation of detachment from the band is compensated for by the feeling that the singer is being more emotional, and is more in touch with herself, and as a result, you. Someone like Amy Winehouse (or her producer) is a pretty good example of something like this – she sings behind the beat ever so slightly, truly diverting from the beat only every so often, so it’s not so much a rule of expression, but more natural and spontaneous. The fact that it doesn’t draw attention to itself (that’s MY job, thank you very much) is the whole point. It’s so careful that it feels natural.
Obviously, it can go too far. Excess is around the corner (especially if booze and narcotics are involved).
OK, so maybe Ms. Winehouse (RIP) isn’t exactly the ideal example, but I think the general point comes across. Just like in cooking, too much of one ingredient can perhaps render a dish distasteful or even indigestible.
But there comes a point when musicians can’t really “feel” their way through it. It’s not so much that places with strict tempo make us uncomfortable, but rather the places when the element of freedom or discombobulation has been written out exactly, forcing us to make something so precise in order for the intended effect to come across. The imperfection is pre-ordained. It’s a problem because it begs the question of whether or not our own freedoms we wish add to the piece will get in the way of those that have been put in by the composer. On the other hand, would the composer have taken such liberties on his own? What’s to say that a composer’s bout of specificity implies a restriction on the performer?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of splitting hairs. In reviving a piece by Gabriel Fauré over the last few weeks, I’ve come across a passage where the hands intentionally fall out of sync with eachother on paper very suddenly.
For the non-musicians on here, you can spatially see the how the noteheads on the bottom and top lines don’t exactly line up vertically, so that if they were laid on top of one another only the first notes of each measure would actually allign. But in the previous measures, it’s in a style that would indicate that the left hand should precede the right hand, as we know was the style back in the day. But once we get to the complex passage, the strange dissynchronous effect would be lost, if the left hand were to start playing ahead of the of right hand – that is, all the notes except those at the beginning of every bar would line up with one another. Do the notes on the page accommodate what was then the common practice of the hands playing out of time with one another, or just the opposite? Do we account for the fact that physical “noise” of notes sounding at the same time is in fact perceivably louder and more aggressive than if they are out of sync, or do we also acknowledge that rhythmic complexity in noisy as it’s so dissimilar to the flow of what came before? Other indications in the score tell the performer things like meno mosso (a bit less) and a piacere (without pacing) – do these excuse a sense of consistency, of rules? What do we do?
I spent a good long time thinking about this this week, as my interpretation of how the notes line up with eachother appeared to be a mistake to a professor in a masterclass. It’s funny how one person’s interpretation can be another’s mistake, as passages which try to dictate the nuances and flxibility of expression inherently lack the little hypocrisy of musicianship: that the authority of a score can constantly be challenged, reappraised and improved upon. But in this tiny, isolated section of harp piece by Fauré, we’re not told that this “ought” to be played expressively, so much as we’re dicated that it “is” expressive – the rubato which was once a choice or open to interpretation, is no longer up for grabs. There is no stolen time, or any relative measures of how the passage of time feels or fluctuates. In a way, it’s an absence of time, as there’s no transgression that makes us aware of its stability and constancy.
I suppose this would be a good segue into Proust, but I’m gonna move onto George Orwell. Lately, the alarmists among us seem to see a lot parallels with 1984, but perhaps haven’t quite delved into why it all makes uncomfortable. Political philosopher and Cambridge professor David Runciman posited a cynical and seemingly contrarian argument that Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm were not hypocrites at all, but in fact represented the absence of hypocrisy. You see, the statement “some pigs are more equal than others” doesn’t rely on any form of double standard, notion of progress, alternative levels of equality. If it did, it would state that “some pigs should/ought to be more equal than others.”
Hannah Arendt speaks of the lack of alternatives and the absence of notions of improvement as being a key element to the banality of evil. It’s not that Nazi ideology rested on the notion that Aryans “ought” to be better than everyone else, but that Aryans simply “are” superior to other races. Again it’s extremely cynical, but there is a thread of logic: without double standards, there is no improvement upon one or another standard. Morality’s claim to universality rests on the challenges of aberrations, and the inversion of politics rests on the removal of such a duality.
If you find this to be a depressing notion, you’re right. The democratic exercise is essentially one in choosing how we wish to set and recreate standards while transgressing them for our own benefit. Sure, we can try to disentangle it all, but just like Fauré, it gets uncomfortable really quickly. Take the immigration debacle going on at the moment. Trump’s hypocrisy is decried left, right and center about restriction of immigrants from a set of blacklisted countries. And yet, the counter-arguments contain their own hypocrisies and historical fallacies: we can that this was a country founded on immigration, but I highly doubt that the indigenous peoples of North America view colonialism in the same light. We claim the “value” of immigrants, in their potential to improve our economy, our academic institutions, our diverse landscape. To me that sounds like a commodification of an immigrant based on their ability to improve my life, and not the other way around. Philosopher Joseph Carens, another cynic and contrarian, raised such points in his book The Ethics of Immigration. Even when viewed intersectionally, there is no means by which any immigration policy can be internally consistent and “fair”; if one values the moral over the global economic realities of population movement, then the onlt viable option is that of open borders and instantaneous access to participatory citizenship.
I remember my first encounters with all of these books as I sat in the library at King’s, going in on Thursdays to discuss them with my tutor at Cambridge. He was a rather quiet Weberian with tastes beyond the erudite – he had music by French composer Olivier Messiaen played at his wedding. But there was real sincerity in his fascination in the idea of the demise of liberalism. What would it look like? Isn’t it delectable to ponder? He was keen to get the idea in my head, so the year 2013 began with reading nine books by Nietzsche in three weeks. While learning a lot about the early critiques of nationalism and horrors of democracy, I also learned that the dystopic and fantastical were the the most worthwhile in the academic thinkbubble. “Down with liberalism” was on everyone’s lips at the time, as students once high on the mere act of protesting a hike in national tuition fees turned to dialetical discussions on how liberalism might be dismantled. “Rights” were fundamentally detrimental to any notion of equality and participatory democracy. Freedom was a farce. We got take Orwell from Reagan and Thatcher’s clutches and rehabilitate him as a true socialist, a “realist” even (as if reality was at stake us for Rapunzels in our ivory towers ). We even had our local heroes, gurus of the revolution such as Raymond Geuss, an elderly American with a penchant for Alban Berg and Karl Marx, served with a healthful Adorno sauce. He dressed all in black, save the military green East German coat which would let everyone know that he wasn’t just “that professor,” but that he was “that badass professor.”
I admit I was in sympathy with my colleagues, even though we are all blissfully unaware that our ability to criticize liberalism was a product of their direct benefit from certain fundamentals of liberal thought (such as free speech). The idea of taking down the symbols emanating from curated and aged buildings, destroying cycles of capitalism, using profanities denoting phallic penetration to decry the elevation of men in society (“fuck patriarchy”) etc. all took place through the haze of chainsmoking of imported tobacco from countries with little to no protection for their employees. Indeed, as much as hypocrisy got us mad, it was still the fuel that fired up our supposedly critical thought, got us high and got us drunk. Ditching hypocrcisy was distant and hypothetical, but it was most of all cool. We didn’t have to piss on the old buildings and chipped paint – we simply used them to ensure no more would be built, forcing Metropolis to operate within Arcadia.
But now that it’s arrived, I know that I certainly feel very differently than I did before. As I perceive what’s been going on the with the immigration ban, I don’t see hypocrisy so much I see as a lack of hypocrisy altogether. We’ve successfully moved from Trump’s campaign platform view that Muslims “ought not” to come to the USA, to Muslims “aren’t allowed in the USA.” Sure some countries are on the ban list and some aren’t, but there’s no inconsistent logic as far as Trump’s irrational line of thought goes. Some Muslims are terrorists apparently, and some aren’t. There’s no discussion on how they are distinguished, how we ought to go about telling the two apart – it’s simply an illiberal and arbitrary decision. The bad news is that a liberal framework can’t handle this style of politicking. By allowing tax-exempt religious institutions to resume political activity legally, a portion of the debate about church and state is shut down: the government in not interfering in what churches can or cannot do with their money, is inherently separating itself in such a way that says church and state “are” separate, in so far as they do not formally converge within the judiciary and constitutional frames any longer. It’s cuckoo, and it’s scary, as the various methods of incremental change and understandings of “rights” are no longer part of the debate. Why? Because at the moment, there is no debate. The last 10 days of executive orders have operated so far outside the frames of established political engagement with such limited flexibility, that moving around it is difficult at best.
Most musicians would tell you that when confronted with a score like the Fauré, the best course of action is to interpret it as literally as possible, as there’s no apparent room for debate. But in the realm of historical performance, there’s a certain sense of idealism that nothing in music is really closed to debate, except for the lack of debate itself. We early music nerds look to old sources and books, play old instruments, listen to recordings of generations past to ask what the various ways are that this can be worked through. There’s a convenient ability to take music of the past and look all around the past as much as we want to find answers. This is where I struggle, I must say. Trump, as much as people would like to compare him to Hitler, isn’t Hitler. And if history repeated itself, we wouldn’t need historians. I feel I can look to the past, to authoritarian figures of all ilks and I admit defeat. The past is bleak, but so is the present.
That leaves us with the future. While we are forced into hypocrisy by our system, there is a way in which Trump can be abided and reversed in the future. The place where Runciman, Arendt and Carens get it wrong is the lack of any notion of temporality. Musicians on the other hand, understand it well: pieces are revisited, put away and left for another day. We strive for perfection, but we don’t spend our musical lives on a single piece of music. In tha sense, maybe there’s a realism in musical performance that can aid political dialogue. In the 2018 midterm elections, there will be a dialogue though it will not be one we may enjoy. But the necssity to abide the present and simultaneously organize and educate ourselves is the only way to maintain the sheen of progress that American liberalism holds dear. Without the maintenance of hypocrisy, there will be no wiggle room, no precious individual freedoms, no democracy. There won’t be any chipped paint. There will only be one way to perform Fauré.