Visconti and Wagner

Irrelevant Reviews
#7
The Damned (1969)

Again and again, I return to the films of Luchino Visconti. Sure, they’re over the top and operatic, but they speak far enough from the past to prove informative. What I love about The Damned is that it is the best artistic summary of some tussles that get overlooked in mainstream Anglophone narratives of the Third Reich.

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From the get-go, the plot includes an exploration of the place of homosexuality in the early Reich. Two characters stand out, pointing to a forgotten dichotomy which arose towards the end of the German Empire and took hold during the Weimar Republic. On the one hand, we have Martin Krupp, the fictional gay son of an industrial millionaire who dresses up like Marlene Dietrich to perform cabaret numbers; and on the other, we have General Ernst Röhm, a real historical figure, famous for being the openly gay leader of the Sturmabteilung until 1934. These two figures typify two strata of thought concerning the meaning of what is was to be homosexual in the 1920s to 1930s. Magnus Hirschfeld’s work, popular among the urban upper middle classes in the 1920s, promoted the idea of a “third sex,” whereby homosexual attraction was a psycho-sexual embrace of gender androgyny or sexual inversion. But contemporary with Hirschfeld was Adolf Brand, who saw the value of homosexuality as being a form of comradery so strong that it eschewed any influence of femininity. Brand’s magazine Der Eigene fused art, poetry, nudism and pieces on sexual hygiene to promote the notion of gay men as fitting a Nietzschean paradigm of the Übermensch. Masculinity and virility were cast in social and hygienic terms, finding resonance among racialists, eugenicists and other pseudo-scientific progenitors of National Socialist thought.

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One might also view Röhm and Krupp as symbols of their respective classes. Röhm was a hero among the lower-middle class and working class brownshirts which comprised much of the SA’s membership, an organization whose leadership is now thought to have been as much 70% ex-communist and perhaps even 25% homosexual by 1933. Meanwhile Krupp’s fictional character hails from minor aristocracy who largely look down on National Socialism’s promotion of economic justice and class equity (for Germans, that is) in the aftermath of World War I and the 1929 financial crash. The SS drew most of its membership from the more affluent end of society, insisting on standards of breeding rather than behavior as the ultimate standard of Aryanism.

The struggle for power between the SA and the SS came to a violent climax, depicted in the middle of the film. Röhm and his men are purged by the SS after a night of orgiastic revelry, murdered in their beds as they hold their lovers. The Night of Long Knives was a watershed, kicked off the formal policy of intolerance of homosexuality in the Reich, despite having previously turned a blind eye. In the film, the double standard is completely apparent, as Martin Krupp is chosen by the S.S. to spearhead the production of armaments for the German military apparatus while Röhm and his lovers are slaughtered. Krupp also reveals himself to be a pedophile who abuses a seven-year old Jewish girl who eventually hangs herself, as well as a sociopath, willing to pull sexual strings with his own mother to take over the family business.

Music plays an important role in any Visconti film. While Krupp’s seediness is expressed in singing a jazzy cabaret tune on the night the Reichstag burned, one of Röhm’s men sings a karaoke rendition of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde as his orgy winds down (simultaneously foretelling his demise the next morning). In the minds of some, this ought to be the other way around. Our kitschy Netflix and Amazon shows love to show that Cabaret culture was the property of outsiders, and that opera has been and will always be some symbol of economic elitism.

tumblr_o0aox9KOis1tmf798o1_1280-1Visconti rightly alludes to a more complicated picture. It’s true that Wagnerian culture held resonance among the upper classes for its advocation of racial purity and visions of totality, but it also had resonance with socialists and those further down the totem pole. Heroes such as Siegfried and Parsifal overcome the circumstances of their births, breaking the shackles of systems which might hold them back, and the neo-Pagan backdrop opts for a reframing of Christian values into something more modern and nativist. But homoeroticism brims beneath the surface as well. Brünnhilde’s femininity is not revealed until after Siegfried has consummated their love (technically, she’s an ungendered Valkyrie). In Parsifal, women’s voices are perpetually peripheral so as not impinge on the Nicodemite fraternity of the Grail Knights. And who can ignore the fact that when Parsifal kisses Kundry, he withdraws in shame only to scream the name of Amfortas?

Visconti has been accused by historians and critics of being “ambivalent” or “indifferent” about his sexuality, though he himself was gay. But if anything is revealed in The Damned, it is a reminder that homosexuality is (and continues) to be indifferent to values, and is mutable and variable to the cultures in which it flourishes. This if course makes us queasy today. Who among us would be proud to acknowledge that Kristallnacht was undertaken by the Sturmabteilung, an organization which aided the rise of National Socialism through the promotion of a politicized interpretation of gender and sexuality? In my mind, it’s important to remember that Hitler’s gay purge didn’t start in the bars or brothels, but in his own paramilitary forces. No member of the SA need be memorialized, but the tragedy of the Night of Long Knives can serve as a lesson. Visconti’s voice is one of conscience, reminding us that if we act like sheep, we leave ourselves open to the to the likelihood of being eaten by the shepherd, gay or straight.


Wharton, Scorsese and Gounod

Irrelevant Reviews
#6
The Age of Innocence (1993)

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The lockdown has been long enough to prompt an existential crisis with regards to my televisual consumption. Yes, I’m 100% committed to finishing the entirety of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks with @amandavosburgh before we’re all allowed out again, but other than that, I feel as if I’m out of anything interesting to watch on my Netflix account. In an attempt to get the brain going a little more, I signed up for a Criterion Channel subscription, alternating edgy indie flicks with the daily Met Opera streams. Sunday was a double feature, undertaken after rereading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, beginning with a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation before watching the Met Opera’s stream of Gounod’s Faust.

I was interested to see what Scorsese would get up to, as his films about New York aren’t usually known for things like elegance, precision, or subject matter relating to high culture, faux aristocracy, etc. Indeed, the 1993 New York Times review accused the director of taking an “anthropological” vantage point towards the story’s characters, implying that Wharton was writing for her friends, a select group of wealthy and conservative (and, by and large, male) cognoscenti. The review was right that Wharton’s audience might have been select, but the assessment of Scorsese’s cinematic realization is perhaps unfair, considering the film’s immaculate level of detail. At the film’s opening, we are introduced to New York’s high society as protagonist Newland Archer spends a typical night at the opera with production of Gounod’s Faust ¾though in Italian, reflective of an antiquated operatic convention which Wharton herself implied was peculiar to New York’s snobbery.

“She sang of course, “M’ama,” and not “il m’aime,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded…” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

If you’re familiar with the story, it’s easy to see that these two sentences set the scene for the whole story. If not, a second recap: Wharton tells the story of a wealthy woman, Countess Olenska, who returns to America to seek a divorce from an abusive husband in Europe, much to the disapproval of high society. To complicate matters, her lawyer, Newland Archer, is in love with her despite being married to her cousin May. In the end, no real resolution is found, but rather a compromise to maintain appearances. The Countess returns to Europe, without a divorce. Newland and May remain married, despite the fact that his affections for the Countess were no secret. Much like the social mores by which Newland and the Countess must abide, it is not authenticity which is valued in society, but custom.

If anything, this is what’s missing from Scorsese’s adaptation. We can get an incredible visual sense of what the era was like in a way that’s much more vivid than a book. The costumes, sets, furniture, and even the china are all flawless. But the details that are sacrificed can only really be recovered in returning to the novel, to Faust, and to the history of opera in New York. We know there is a night at the opera, but we don’t know why. We can’t see or hear the alternative rendition of Gounod’s opera in French, nor can we see that it is Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson on stage.

From a certain vantage point, Wharton’s metaphor of New York’s operatic customs would be damning enough to paint a picture of a culture obsessed with imitating (and sanitizing) European customs. However, if we dig further into the details of Newland’s first night at the opera, we might find a more complex picture. There are so many details about operatic culture that perhaps Wharton is trying to ring certain bells in minds of the opera fans and haute-Manhattanites of her generation. At first, the evening’s events closely resemble the first matinée performance at the Metropolitan Opera on October 27th, 1883, which was itself a repeat performance of the opening night on October 22nd. Just as in The Age of Innocence, the role of Marguerite (the object of Faust’s desires) was sung by Christina Nilsson.

 On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York. Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

 It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupe.” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

Of course, Wharton wasn’t in New York in 1883, and according to her biography and letters, never witnessed Christina Nilsson sing Marguerite. We do know, however, that she loved Faust. One night at the Academy of Music in 1880 stands out in her letters. Her experience of mixing her own life and the subjects on the stage bears remarkable resemblance to that of Newland’s conflation of his betrothed with Marguerite. In reminiscing to her old governess about a performance in March 1880, she quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Ode to Beauty, writing:

I heard Faust sung on Friday night—at the Academy, and somehow you got mixed with the lyric rapture, and you were with me hearing it, and drinking your fill of those “Divine Ideas below / That always find us young / And always keep us so.” (March 27, 1880)

More curious is that Wharton describes an evening at the opera in which the role of Faust himself was sung by Victor Capoul, which only ever occurred once in New York. At the matinée on March 27th, 1883, the famed Italo Campanini, whose career had been built on Gounod’s Faust, had fallen ill and was replaced by Capoul.

“Faust” was repeated at the first matinée in the Metropolitan Opera-house yesterday. There was a large audience, the largest, in fact, that has assembled in the new building since the [inaugural] night. The performance of Gounod’s opera was, as might have been expected, smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation, and it was heard with much delight and many demonstrations of approval. Mme. Nilsson, being more familiar with the auditorium, sang at times with even more expression than on the previous occasion, and her impersonation of Margherita was notable for dramatic strength, as well as musical excellence. Signer Del Puente as Valentino and Signor Novara as Mephistopheles were both more satisfactory than before, while the place of Signor Campanini, who was unavoidably absent, was taken by M. Victor Capoul. (Review, New York Times, October 28, 1883)

“M’ama … non m’ama …” the prima donna sang, and “M’ama!”, with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

Wharton perhaps competes for the accolade of “Opera Buff of the Century.” It’s apparent that her first chapter isn’t simply fictitious, but historical and auto-biographical at the same time. She describes her own sensations of a specific performance in history, which she never witnessed and set back in time from the 1880s into the 1870s. It’s possible that this is not a random collage, but a select montage of persons, places and events which mirror her characters.

Above all, The Age of Innocence tells the story of a woman constrained by society. The mysterious Countess Olenska also appears at the opera that night, to the dismay and disapproval of society. Recently arrived from Europe, she openly seeks to divorce her abusive husband and forge a new life in a city which she hopes would be free from the shackles of convention. Of course, as the novel progresses, she finds these conventions to be all the more rigid, noting of her American compatriots:

“But, do you know, they interest me more than the blind conformity to tradition—somebody else’s tradition—that I see among our own friends. It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?” (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 24)

But despite the icy reception from high society, the reality is that New York was not inimical to the arrival of newcomers or independent women. This was no truer than in the case of Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson, a soprano whose career took many years to gain traction in New York. Though beloved in Boston, and even more-so among her Nordic fans in the Midwest, Nilsson’s stage presence was known for a certain passivity and austerity, seen as unfitting for the romantic female characters of French opera, who ought to be engrossed in their male counterparts’ passions. This was partly due to her singing style, which was known for a certain iciness, but also to a bygone manifestation of American racism which regarded Scandinavians as a largely uneducated agrarian populace.

In the centre of this enchanted garden Madame Nilsson, in white cashmere slashed with pale blue satin, a reticule dangling from a blue girdle, and large yellow braids carefully disposed on each side of her muslin chemisette, listened with downcast eyes to M. Capoul’s impassioned wooing, and affected a guileless incomprehension of his designs whenever, by word or glance, he persuasively indicated the ground floor window of the neat brick villa projecting obliquely from the right wing “The darling!” thought Newland Archer, his glance flitting back to the young girl with the lilies-of-the-valley. “She doesn’t even guess what it’s all about.” And he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity. (Wharton, Age of Innocence, Chapter 1)

But as time drew on, Nilsson soon became in demand, being invited repeatedly to perform Faust, including at the inaugural performance of new Metropolitan Opera House. Newcomers like Nilsson to the stage also mirrored the influx of a larger audience. No longer restricted to WASPS and visiting European aristocrats, the 1870s to 1880s saw an audience expansion across ethnographic lines with the maturation of the industrial revolution and the birth of a new middle class. Irish and Jewish immigrants once too poor to attend the opera (or excluded on the basis of ethnicity or religion) now had the means to do so. Such was the disdain for this operatic culture that on the opening night of the Met in 1883, it was apparent that many “typical” opera-goers (i.e. WASPs) were not present.

A NIGHT’S AMUSEMENTBOTH HOUSES CROWDED

Many surprises were in store last evening for that portion of fashionable and unfashionable New York society which had arranged for itself to go to the Metropolitan Opera House. Perhaps the first notable one was the disagreeable shock received by those who had thought to purchase the luxury cheaply.

These were absent when the curtain rose.

Next came the surprise (to many) of finding when the doors were opened, that although there were signs of haste here and there, everything visible was practically complete.

Next was a feeling of bewildered surprise at the unaccustomed paths to be trodden to go anywhere. And last was the enormous surprise that must necessarily have been kindled in the breast of Mr. Henry E. Abbey when the audience showed itself honestly cold in its criticism.

 THE AUDIENCE

The audience itself was a complete surprise. Not in proportions. It was certain that the house would be full. But those who were expected by the “habitués” of places of amusement in New York were not there, and those who were not expected were in full force.

“You see such a lot you don’t know, you know, and, you know, you don’t see the fellahs you know,” lisped one young man, whose attire was as faultless as his imported manner.

Yet, as no one outside of the few who had studied the matter knew exactly what to expect, the surprises were taken as a matter of course, and the praise and criticism freely uttered on all sides seemed entirely spontaneous. (Review, New York Times, October 23, 1883)

 The opera scene in The Age of Innocence does describe some Arcadian past, but it foretells the imminent changes about to beset New York.

The metaphors of the characters on stage become more apparent as the novel continues: May Wealand and Marguerite are fused, but the fate of Countess Olenska and Christina Nilsson are more closely tied, both women who managed to find their independence despite their disruption of social mores. As the novel continues, Newland Archer falls in love with the Countess Olenska as society watches silently. He thinks his affections are secret, but the dark reality is that everyone knows and refuses to say anything, preferring to manipulate the situation to remove the Countess from public view by returning her to her abusive husband in Europe. In this sense, Newland is like Capoul. The audience knows it ought to be Campanini on stage singing, and yet they abide Capoul (perhaps appearing in Campanini’s ill-fitting costume) and keep up the pretense that all is as it ought to be. Indeed on the opening night of the Met, the Times reported that Campanini and Nilsson “sang positively badly.” But five days later, despite issues with costumes, the same critic reported that Capoul and Nilsson’s performance was “smoother and in parts more effective than last Monday’s representation.”

Wharton herself was no stranger to the pretense of appearances when it came to love. Of the same period of the early 1880s from which Wharton’s operatic experiences are selected, Wharton would confide in her 1934 autobiography that:

“I inspired no romantic passions! It may be added that I felt none, & that the two or three young men who—in the natural course of things—honored me with their devotion, inspired me with no feelings but that of a friendly liking. I did not fall in love till I was twenty-one.”

This perhaps stands in contrast to the delight at having become engaged to Teddy Wharton in 1885, after a period of some emotional restlessness (after all, Wharton was careful not to name who it was she fell in love with when she was 21).

“If my present happiness had come to me at eighteen, I should probably have taken it as a matter of course, but coming to me after certain Experiences of which you know, it seems almost incredible that a man can be so devoted, so generous, so sweet-tempered & unselfish.”

What’s radical about this is not that Wharton liked opera, but that the experience of elation, transportation, and active participation as an audience member was vivid enough to inspire a novel forty years later. The Age of Innocence is an underappreciated novel in this regard, as it tells several different stories, or can at least be viewed several different ways. Like opera, the Age of Innocence contains personal, historical, and convivial elements which render a sort of universality despite dealing with highly specific subject matter. One does not have to be an opera snob to feel the emotional weight of the novel, nor does one have to know Wharton’s life story. But for those of us who do love opera, the novel is a reminder of the many benefits that a live performance can offer.

I ponder what Wharton would do with Met live streams today, having gone to great lengths to recreate a performance by Christina Nilsson that she herself never witnessed live, but only read about. Would it, like Scorsese’s adaptation, be a suitable and just compromise? For myself, I’ve certainly enjoyed the live streams, but I can’t wait for the return of live opera, where the size, emotional impact, and historical weight of a single work of art fuse into something personally meaningful for the listener. Wharton’s novel is but a glimpse into the totality of the operatic experience, reminding us that a night with Faust could prove to mean so much more down the like. When the lockdown lets up, what might a night at the opera hold in store for you, me, or any of us?

Direction: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer
Cinematography: Michael Balhaus
Music: Elmer Bernstein


Visconti and Bruckner

Irrelevant Reviews
#5
Senso (1954)

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Luchino Visconti’s penchant for opulence was in the making long before the great trilogy of The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig II. Senso is a beautiful work of historical fiction, beautifully adapting Camillo Boito’s novel into a work of art.

As the Italian Wars of Unification set the scene, one can easily mistake the film as a work glorifying the forward march of democracy as expressed through nationalism and self-determination. After all, the film opens with a political demonstration at Teatro La Fenice, staged to interrupt a performance of Il Travatore at the very moment when Manrico has completed “Di quella pira” and calls his men to arms to save his mother. The occupying Austrian forces break up the performance and disperse the demonstrators, at which point a tale of forbidden love ensues between an aristocratic Venetian woman and an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army.

It is from here however that Nino Rota’s score followed a peculiar directive from Visconti. Instead of Verdi, the audience hears only excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (with the occasional folk song from an Austrian officer or two sung on screen). Of course while Bruckner’s music needs no explanation or defense these days, once his music was under-appreciated once upon a time. Furtwängler wrote that prior to 1939, his own attempts to promote Bruckner’s music were seldom greeted with warmth and that (sadly) it was the Third Reich’s project of musical imperialism that saw a large scale revival of his symphonies, primarily in countries where the Nazis were occupying.

Everything in the film contains codes about the Second World War. The turning point of the film comes when protagonist Livia learns that Garibaldi has taken the town of Saló, the same town where Hitler established a puppet republic in 1943, after Victor Emmanuel III and the Italians switched sides and attempted to depose Mussolini. The backdrop of Venice is no coincidence either, as Mussolini and Hitler both agreed that Venice ought not to belong to Italy, but enter into loose confederation directly with the Reich.

When we think of Anschluss, we think Austria, 1938. But Visconti’s film points to cultural Anschluss that befell parts of Italy, as it did with Bruckner and other vestiges of Europe’s past. The Reich was known for absorbing that which was useful in order to promote its political viability. That said, one need not think too hard when Visconti’s film. For just as there is anti-Nazi sentiment in the metaphors of Saló and the liberation gradual liberation of Italy after 1943 by Allied forces, the movie is deafeningly silent on what came before. As with The Sound of Music, it’s perhaps too easy to believe claims of victimization by the Third Reich, when the history of fascism in Europe is far more widespread. After all, the political problems surrounding Hitler, Mussolini, Venice and Saló did not really touch on the political values of fascism and the redemptive qualities of violence, but rather if those values ought to come from the Italian people or from German directives. Senso is a gentle reminder that historical fiction can easily rely on fictive histories.

Direction: Luchino Visconti
Music: Anton Bruckner from Symphony No. 7, adapted by Nino Rota
Cinematography: G.R. Aldo
Starring: Alida Valli, Farley Granger


Godard (and Mao)

Irrelevant Reviews
#4
Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1967)

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A film wrought out of necessity as much as inspiration. Rivette’s La Religieuse, having been banned by the French government, proved a financial catastrophe for producer Georges de Beauregard. As such, Jean-Luc Godard was approached about a film which might bail Beauregard out. Godard had already begun work on “Deux ou trois choses” in early 1966, but the pace of production was increased to give Beauregard something more commercially viable to hand to the public.

Again, we can see a film as historical relic. Sure, Godard’s film constitutes a revolutionary work, openly comparing prostitutionin the new middle classes to the self-exploitation in American-style consumerism. In Brechtian fashion, the actors and actresses quote trendy philosophers and economists, carrying on with daily mundane tasks to highlight the chasm between images of deprivation from their prosperous descriptions. Yes, it’s Godard, so naturally the film is about capitalism. Scenes of women looking at pornographic magazines of the female form are interwoven with clips of the human toll wrought by Western intervention in Vietnam, commenting on the pornographic nature of photojournalism and the profligacy of televised media. Raoul Coutard’s cinematography is rather beautiful, and the slapdash informality of the film keeps one interested (no scene really lasts for more than four minutes).

But the film barters in lofty ideas with unsubtle currency. By laying out all the ambiguities of modern existence in the mind, there is no physical or emotional struggle with which to grapple. This stands in contrast to Rivette’s supposed flop, which focuses on the intricate and difficult topics of the invisibility of experience and the physicality of institutions. It’s perhaps not a surprise that Rivette’s less esoteric metaphors were all the more challenging to the De Gaulle administration, mired in its disastrous economic plans which served to entrench poverty and immobility in the new suburban banlieues.

I can’t help but sense greater authenticity in Rivette’s La Religieuse upon witnessing sheer idiocy Godard’s hyper-intellectualism. For what can suppress a struggle or conflict more than by convincing victims of their existence’s reducibility to thought and speech, rather than sight and action? Indeed, when the stakes are so low, it’s not surprising to imagine why the film enjoyed the commercial success it did.

Direction: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Catherine Vimenet, Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Starring: Marina Vlady

***

I ought to clarify that the film is not uninteresting, but rather trite, tastelessly Maoist and fucking sexist (think Henze’s operas in cinematic form). For those curious, a reading list for “Deux ou trois choses” is as follows:

Alleg, The Question
Aron, 18 Lessons about Industrial Society
Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues
Bradbury, A Medicine for Melancholy
Fourastié, The Great Hope of the Twentieth Century
Goldmann, Towards a Sociology of the Novel
Kardiner, Introduction to Ethnology
Kardiner & Preble, They Studied Man
Packard, The Pyramid Climbers
Simenon, Lost Moorings
Wittgenstein, Blue and Brown Books


Rivette and Couperin

Irrelevant Reviews
#3
La Religieuse (1966)
(Or Lace, Lesbians & Leçons de ténèbres: A Sequence of Unfortunate Events.)

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In a bleak adaptation of Diderot’s novel completed in 1780, a family from the petty aristocracy dooms their daughter Suzanne to a life in the church to which she openly does not consent. She’s apparently drugged before taking her vows (which she later does not remember), and her first convent is run by a sadistic Mother Superior who is bent on crushing Suzanne through starvation and psychological torture. A lawyer intervenes, and Suzanne is transferred to another (less strict) convent, only to the sexual obsession of the abbess. Another rescue attempt by a priest turns into yet another nightmare as he attempts to rape her. She escapes, but is unable to support herself except through work as a prostitute, leading her to throw herself off a balcony at the very end of the film. (This flick is no way, shape or form, an uplifting watch.)

Musically, it’s interesting to hear how conscious Rivette’s team was of historical specificity with regards to 18th Century French music (especially for a film made in 1966). One can hear the famous “Jod” sequence from Couperin’s Troisieme leçon de ténèbre as Suzanne describes Holy Week celebrations, and the passage of time in various abbess’s chambers include the playing the spinet, where we hear two nuns playing Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux.

Direction: Jacques Rivette
Music: Jean-Claude Éloy
Starring: Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver


Orson Welles (and Nazis)

Irrelevant Reviews
#2
The Stranger (1946)

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I’m curious as to exactly how a Nazi fugitive (played by Orson Welles himself) would be able to adopt a perfect mid-Atlantic accent to rival Angela Lansbury’s in The Manchurian Candidate.

From a modern standpoint, The Stranger offers retrospective insight into how Americans viewed National Socialism and the Holocaust in the first years after the end of WWII. Though being the first Hollywood film to use footage from the camps, the script and production seemingly tiptoe around the ideology of the Final Solution, using vague terms to illustrate Germany’s intent on biological subjugation of other nations, rather than the absolute destruction of a single group of people. At the same time, the extensive denial on behalf of the villain’s wife that her husband could be an ex-SS officer rings alarm bells, pointing to the compromised conscience of United States, who confronted the reality of camps only when it was totally undeniable. In a sense, it’s quite literally a film of its time, as had it been produced even one or two years later, it might have looked very different as the Nuremberg Trials became increasingly complex and politicized (Indeed, the incessant presence of the clock tower inneed of constant maintenance seems an important metaphor for the essentiality of time.)

Perks of the film include excellent film-noiry lighting, a shit ton of clocks and really (and I mean, REALLY) cheesy music.

Direction: Orson Welles
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Music: Bronisław Kaper
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles


Depardieu and Dutilleux

Irrelevant Reviews
#1
Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)

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Highly recommended for those with a love for: (1) creepy mysticism, (2) Gérard Depardieu, and (3) the music of Henri Dutilleux (extracts from his First Symphony).

Films about crises of faith can be trite and easy, bartering in tropes of devout individuals who restore confidence in their own sensibilities rather than in someone upstairs. Such is not the case in Pialat’s adaptation of Bernano’s magnum opus, whereby a priest’s obsessive mysticism renders a closeness to God as well as a hypersensitivity to the wiles of evil. The film isn’t really so much about religion, but rather the uncomfortable absence of solace in any human faith, passion or belief when possessed with enough fervor. (There’s a reason it was booed at Cannes.)

Direction: Maurice Pialat
Cinematography: Willy Kurant
Music: Henri Dutilleux
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Sandrine Bonnaire


On Tuning: A Brief Playlist

It’s a strange sensation to be in New York while technically being on tour. My pedal harp sits in Cleveland, my clothes remain in suitcases in Washington Heights (as I’ll be heading back to Ohio in 48 hours) and I think my organ shoes are in my office(?) so I can play for church on Sunday. For now, I’ve an enforced Sabbath of sorts, in which I finally have time to sit down and write, this time “from the road.”

Without being trite, the sensation of touring – that is, the necessitation of consistent performance combined with absence of routine or normative expectations – is not terribly dissimilar to the processes of getting out of one’s comfort zone with an instrument. Sure it can be tough, but you get to travel, meet musicians you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and get out the grind of the day-to-day music making at home.

I’ll cease being vague.

The last week with Apollo’s Fire has been a somewhat Sisyphean journey with tuning, a I’ve a small harp equipped with a single row of strings, no levers or pedals, and a task of playing everything from Sephardic songs to Monteverdi continuo, from Armenian love songs to Arabic longas, all in the same concert. Of course, there are occasional breaks to retune, but at certain points, the harp is required to play in g minor and e minor in the same set, back to back. On stage, lutenists Billy Simms and Brian Kay are seamlessly switching between ouds, theorbos, guitars and lutes at will, soprano Amanda Powell sings in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladinio from scores written in IPA, and Zafer Tawil seems wields a microtonal qanun, kaleidoscopically spinning song to song, flipping gears with his left hand to add other-worldly colors to the ensemble.

At improvisational junctures, recorder player Daphna Mor picks up a ney and starts discussing how she will move from point A to point B using modes in the Arabic maqam, the system which divides the octave into 24 notes, while adhering to a scheme of septatonic modality.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t feel rather sheltered and out of my depth. Surrounded by musicians with truly incredible fluency and flexibility, I realized I’d been placing my harp in a box – that is, a box of Western tuning schemes. Harmonic minor scales, duly memorized as a child for ABRSM exams, only seemed to go so far, didn’t match the level of flexibility or expression achieved by my colleagues. In listening to Zafer and Daphna sing and play, I got a rudimentary sense of the overlap between different modes, but I really needed to learn more. Asking Zafer what I should do, he told me to use my ears and go listen to some Umm Kulthum. “If you listen to one of her songs, you’ll hear all the modes you’ll need.”

Sitting at home after the first rehearsal at 11pm, I felt at my most peak hipster, putting on my headphones and turning finding an 1950s Arabic music playlist on iTunes. Pen and paper in hand, I tried charting the tetrachords used in Kulthum’s 45 minute meta-songs, seeing how they related using nothing but intuition. The next morning, sat back with the harp, tuning key in hand, I started to divide minor thirds in half, so as to give me an “inbetween” note for F and F-sharp, as well as for B and B-flat. Later, with some experimentation with tetrachords, I was able to tune one part of the rehearsal in Saba (صبا) and another in Rast (راست) so to having something consistent and plausible.

The result was not only functional, but colorful and expressive. My instrument now blended with others on stage, and no longer stuck out. Of course, I should not have been surprised. Alternate tunings are part and parcel of what many baroque musicians do, day in and day out. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas require retuning of the open strings of the violin, so as to access harmonies and voicings that would otherwise be impossible.

Of course this is nothing new or outlandish for guitarists, as seen in Joni Mitchell’s famous open tunings (of which she devised somewhere between 60 and 80!).

I’ll spare the readers an essay on the history of temperament and tuning in Western Music, as plenty of musicians have written relatively digestibly on the matter. What I will say is that again and again, in confronting baroque music and non-Western music, I realize how engrained my sensibilities are to accept a Steinway’s tuning as patient zero for the harmonic expression in Western Music. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, if one is sticking to the canon of Romantic and Twentieth Century music, but I wonder to what extent harpists are hindered by accepting their instruments for what they appear to be at first, and not what they could be with a little insight and curiosity. Especially here in the United States, hashtags like #practicalharpist seem to flood the social media profiles of my colleagues, who endlessly promote harp hacks and means of making the profession easier or more approachable for the player, rather than more meaningful for listeners or the musicians playing alongside them.

I understand the impulse, truly. No harpist needs me to remind them that the harp is an awkward and misunderstood instrument. But what if we’re thinking about practicality the wrong way, simply finding shortcuts so we can efficiently adhere to a narrow vision of the harp which fulfills some normative or conservative expectations, but which has not fundamentally progressed in 40 or 50 years. This is an aesthetic hindrance, for sure, but also an economic one: we supposedly relish our nation as one of immigrants, and yet much of the music we make and seek out fails to embrace those elements (such as tuning) which distinguish musical traditions and disciplines from each other, and which are on the rise as non-Western commercial music industries continue to grow in the USA.

Harpists across the USA continue to struggle to make ends meet as the symphonic orchestra as an institution continually faces an identity crisis, but the act of taking on popular musical genres, historical performance and non-Western music – that is, music which by necessity lacks elements of strict prescription – somehow relegate a harpist to the rank of sell-out, untalented, or “insincere.” How much more employment opportunities might there be if conservatories expanded the scope of musical skills at the harp bench, if harp dealers took affirmative stances with a wider variety of harps, and if promoters embraced the sea of change in urban centers. While changes are on the horizon, I fear a landscape in which the harp will once again be left behind, continually relegated to a role as a pretty but impractical instrument. But what could be more practical than getting our instrument to test some boundaries and expand its utility and beauty at the same time?

 


St. Cecilia’s Day, 2019

I normally find outpourings of grief on social media to be self-indulgent and over the top, but today has been at once rough and joyous.

Today, I remember Stephen Cleobury very fondly and with much gratitude, for no other reason than that he took a chance on me, appointing a kid from middle Tennessee whose childhood dream it was to be an organ scholar at King’s. Working for him was at once daunting and inspiring, as he labored tirelessly to shape the institution and future careers of choir members in the process. I know I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for him and his belief in the potential of all the choristers, choral scholars and organ scholars he invited into the fold.

He deserved a retirement, so I’m holding out that his reward will be beyond what any of us can imagine. Let’s all hope the choir and organists upstairs exceed his expectations.


Var. I, II, III

The few times I’ve tried to blog over the last year, I’ve attempted to put distance between myself and my writing. I wanted my life my life and observations on music to somehow read as effortlessly and romantically as Stendhal or Goethe, when in reality my thoughts on music are about as graceful as a horrible episode from Lena Dunham’s Girls. But when you’re in your twenties, that’s precisely what the internet is for, on the proviso that you just say “yo hell with it” and take advantage of the world wide web.

In avoiding my blog, I’ve been treating it like it’s precious, worrying about how things would look either in a year’s time or twenty years’ time, without remembering (a) the sheer size of the internet and (b) the ephemerality of any musical or intellectual idea. Over and over, I told myself I was going to write about the Goldberg Variations. Every week, I told myself I would start writing about my practicing, the things I was seeing it, etc. But over and over, I couldn’t really get past the Aria. I was fearful of saying too much, or stepping into musicological territory that I wasn’t qualified to talk about, or – God forbid – show an honest opinion. Isolation is powerful. If we let it go too far, it pervades not just our personal interactions, but the way we think about the things we do every day. Without realizing it, we can start putting up barriers where they shouldn’t be, lest we find something that taps into our senses too deeply for comfort.

I believe this is no less true than in the Goldbergs. If you go to any piece of writing about the Goldberg Variations you’re likely to get a lovely analysis of each movement on its own, with considerations of constituent dance forms, counterpoint and those little teeny tiny deviations from the harmonic structure set up in the Aria. This is fine, really. It’s a perfectly respectable way of thinking about the text of Goldbergs and how Bach was a technical genius.

But that’s just not the whole story. Consider that 99.9% of people who enjoy the Goldbergs don’t have the text memorized when they head to a concert. And even if a listener is a music dork or classical musician knows the piece really well, there’s no way for a performance of the Goldbergs to occupy the same time frame as a physical copy of the score. You can open up a score and peruse it, read through it, flip back and forth and have it all there for you at once. Meanwhile, sitting through the performance takes an hour or so. This is all to say that those wonderful analyses we read give us a fantastic idea of how to “play” or “read” but not necessarily how to listen, or to consider what the effect is of listening to the Goldbergs in real time.

While I was in Cambridge to record the Goldbergs, I started to read obsessively when I wasn’t practicing, as if I was literally slipping back into my former self as an undergraduate. The used bookstore around the corner from my room in St. Edward’s Passage had a handy (and cheap) selection of tattered paperbacks, some of which I skimmed, others of which I buried myself into through the drear of caffeine and jetlag. Unsurprisingly, as I was getting to be nostalgic, the books I picked up had either a Cambridge or gay connection of some sort (self-control victory: I stopped myself from picking up Brideshead Revisited for the umpteenth time).

(The following summaries are in run-on sentences for the purpose of appropriate intelligibility. And humor.)

The Illiad (?) Homer – shit goes down as the division between mortals and Gods gets cast in stone in antiquity.

Invitation to a Beheading, (1936) Vladimir Nabokov – Groundhog Day for Russophiles and Tories and there’s no Bill Murray thank God.

Maurice, E.M. Forster (1971) – Cambridge University’s poor man’s Brideshead but with more sex and less popery.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924) – Everyone dies because of tuberculosis.

Short Stories, Edgar Allan Poe – Everyone dies dramatically because of tuberculosis.

Exquisite Corpse, (1996) Poppy Z. Brite – Everyone dies because ecstasy fuelled Southern necrophiliac and Londoner psychotic cannibal find love in New Orleans in the midst of the AIDS crisis as they share in consuming a local Vietnamese heroin addict from head to toe #loveisloveislove.

Pale Fire, (1961) Vladimir Nabokov – reader is forced to sort through a bad poem (front of  book) with commentary by a murderous bipolar academic (back of book) more time is spent page-flipping than actually reading.

Cassandra (1984) Christa Wolf – Cassandra of Troy spews forth feminist stream of     consciousness about sexual trauma, gendered alienation, ethnic tensions at conclusion of the  Trojan Wars.

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 12.42.28 AM.pngIt was about the time that I came back round to Nabokov that I started laying down tracks for the recording. Perhaps the most conceptual of Nabokov’s workds, the reader is introduced to a 999 line poem by a slightly deranged aristocratic expat from a far-off nation (Zembla) ravaged by revolution. The poem’s author, however, is dead, thus leaving introducer cum commentator in the sole position of authority on how a poem composed on index cards ought to be read. As the poem is void of indices or reference numbers, one is forced to flip endlessly back and forth from commentary to poem, without any guarantees that the commentary will be of any insight into the poem at all. Indeed, Pale Fire isn’t about “reading” either the commentary or the poem, but the act of piecing the two together to decide (1) who murdered the author, (2) if the author ever existed, (3) where Nabokov is talking about himself or (4) where Nabokov is talking about his fictitious characters.

Back in King’s College Chapel, the act of repeating the Aria over and over during the sound check ushered in a bizarre memory trip that I took with me for the rest of the week. In practicing the variations the next morning, I felt as if I was living Peter Williams’ analyses of the Goldbergs in which every variation is related back to the structure and content of the opening Aria. The thought processes thereafter are not unsurprising: “Ooh this chord is different here than it was in the beginning, make sure to bring that out.” “That inner voice is mucho sexy, because you can hear it in the soprano in the Aria, but now it’s in alto and that’s cool and everyone should be made as aware of it as much as possible.” And of course, I would get out my iPhone and record myself paying attention to all these details like a good “performative musicologist,” and realize that my playing now had all the subtlety and poise of a rhinoceros passing a kidney stone the size of a DVD player. It wasn’t musical constipation so much as a hostage situation, as if I was trying force the listener to hear everything that I could see.

There’s an overwhelming temptation to treat the Goldbergs not just like a book, but a testament to mnemonic association. We get so fixated on the idea that the variations constitute individual and mutually isolated afterthoughts, that we train our minds to try and flip back and forth in our minds the way one would in reading Nabokov. Of course, that if one part of the story, as Bach and Nabokov both had their reputations for self-conscious intellectual naughtiness (I mean what could possibly be funnier than exasperating someone dumber than you, right?). The Goldbergs can exhaust your sensibilities if you let them, as your faculties can get taxed again and again as you struggle to remember how each variation is a pearl.

Of course, when I sat down to record, this all fell apart. More time was spent dealing with logistical issues of the fact that the Goldbergs were not in fact written for the harp. “Let’s get rid of that buzz, shall we?” “Let’s see if we can eliminate that creak in the bench.” “Is there any way to avoid that pedal noise?”At various points I found myself holding the harp with just my right shoulder, controlling all my pedaling with my knees and not my ankles (to make the action of changing sharps and flats as slow as possible), and changing all my lovely French technique and fingerings to iron out those eccentricities which I had so painstakingly cultivated. The notion of creating some lasting “permanent” interpretation of the Goldbergs had somewhat gone out the window, as the conditions of the recording session started to bear down. (In other words, a large, difficult work on a large, difficult instrument in a large difficult, room… is a large, difficult pain in the ass.)

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 12.44.01 AM.pngAs the sessions went on, I buried myself in Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, which I was inspired to read after listening to composer Michael Jarrell’s work of the same name. Cassandra of Troy’s memories of the war and her experiences in the palace of Agamemnon are scattered and chaotic. While one can try to relate her story either to Homer or Aeschylus, the incessance of the prose begs one to stay in the moment, relishing the kaleidoscope of ideas as they shift from one to the next. One minute, she’s remembering how Apollo spat in her mouth to give her the ability to prophesy, then on to she’s describing the water beneath a ship, and then further commenting on the consistency of wine drunk by the men who have enslaved her. Seamlessly jumping across time and space, Wolf’s genius in writing is the use of ideas like “liquid” to talk describe real events and foster metaphors for Cassandra’s emotional alienation from her plight.

In recording the variations, one by one, I had to give excerpts from the preceding and subsequent movements to provide adequate material for the producer for editing, as well as to provide tuning checks and tempo signposts. I think it was here that my view of the Goldbergs started to shift. For instance in moving from the Aria and into the next three variations, the subtle and most continuous connective tissue between them wasn’t a harmonic structure, but a cell of three notes.

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The ornament on the third beat of the Aria is one of the most famous in Western music. It places an enormous dissonance on a weak beat of a bar (an A over a G Major chord), and proceeds resolves it upwards briefly to a B, before returning back to the A which is now not a dissonance but part of a D major chord. That ornament apart from propelling the motion forward from the very first notes of the Goldbergs is pervasive throughout the entire Aria, providing space for all that languid harpsichord-y expressiveness that often sounds like the performer intentionally has no rhythm.

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But it doesn’t stop there. Just after the Aria ends, Variation 1 picks it up and uses it as a rhythmic engine. Not only that, but the left hand incorporates it as implying imitation and counterpoint – that is, providing the essence of two voices – with a single line. You can hear the two hands passing back and forth like an argument or conversation, providing the ears with something to latch onto.

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Go to Variation 2, and things get more interesting. The same rhythmic cell is used in the left hand, but slowed down by half, while the original quick ornament is used in the right hand to change that sacrosanct G Major chord into a spicy E minor. It’s crazy: the ornament has literally bifurcated itself, bringing the listener into two different temporal landscapes at once.Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 5.25.39 PM.png

Variation 3: a canon, whereby two voices copy each other exactly, but at different pitch levels. The melody – you guessed it – uses the same ornament, repeating itself right-side up and upside-down as if there’s an internal canon or imitation scheme going (not dissimilar to the left hand from variation 1). In listening, one can hear the repetition one on another like one of Escher’s staircases, weaving in and out of each other, using repetitive right angles to obfuscate a tangible sense of space or proportion.

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For me, I think this is why the Goldberg Variations make people bananas, as Bach engages both mnemonic and short-memory levels to create hourlong super structures in the mind, while engaging the ears in real time. Unlike a lot of music of the Baroque, and even some of Bach’s own music, the Goldbergs really show themselves in their intended medium for live performance and audiation, rather than textual study.

Of course, the highly technical language I’m using to describe these phenomena is possible due to my access to the score, but that doesn’t mean it’s not identifiable without it. One of the best things about Bach is the ability for beauty to be revealed without knowing precisely “how” he’s doing it. Though Bach may be driving the bus, the listener gets to sit inside for the ride rather than watch it drive by. To go along and really enjoy what Bach might be offering, it requires to you sit back and relish an experience in real time, and sometimes not to dwell in the past. Indeed, over-compartmentalization of anything can lead to a fragmented experience.

I’ve decided to let go, and accept that the last year with the Goldbergs has been part of a healing process. On a musical level, the flow and continuity of the work is too incredible to leave to one side. And, in my own life, I’ve grown tired of pretending that there are parts of my life that aren’t there, and haven’t shaped the way I look at a piece of music. I’ve decided to start reading again, getting that cup coffee, and taking the space to face the music as it hits me.