Visconti and Wagner

Irrelevant Reviews
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.


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.


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 importnat 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.



Depardieu and Dutilleux

Irrelevant Reviews
Sous le soleil de Satan (1987)


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


The sky is falling (or so I’m told).

I feel as if I’m in a chapter of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, being sequestered in Cleveland (a city relatively unknown to COVID-19 so far, save the few documented cases brought from D.C. this week) as I watch the Eastern seaboard melt down from afar, and witness doomsdayers and naysayers alike bicker on social media about what the appropriate response should be. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m taking precautions with my personal hygiene, but I’m also bearing in mind that a true victim of the panic doesn’t look like you or me, but rather like a passenger on the Grand Princess in the Bay Area, who waited an eternity to know if and when they could safely disembark, quarantine and get treated as necessary.)

In part, the lack of perspective about illness is a major theme in life and times of Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Hans Castorp. Nestled in a Swiss Alpine sanatorium, Castorp is surrounded by wealthy tuberculoids whose problems often have little to do with their supposed disease, but the manner in which they deny or exaggerate their ill health at the encouragement of Dr. Behrens, the resident medical expert and entrepreneur. As Castorp’s two-week vacation to visit an ailing cousing morphs into a seven-year incarceration, he comes to realize that the rampant illness in the Alps is not tuberculosis, but blind faith in the self-interested system of treatment which prioritizes its own existence over genuine care for patience. Obsession and hypochondria prove themselves to be games for those with an upper hand, as Castorp’s fellow patients appear to become more and more helpless, no matter how much money they have. (Of course, this is all a metaphor for the demise of all sectors of society during the First World War, who trusted that their governments would keep them safe, when in fact they were all used as canon fodder.)

While one cannot dispute the motives for the lockdown in Italy or the refusal to dock the Grand Princess in San Francisco, the jockeying of mass hysteria has proven itself to be a white-collar game. I’m continually shocked at the inability of people to realize that shutting things down is really only going to prey on those who need transparency the most. I’m not a huge fan of Mayor DeBlasio, but his decision to keep NYC public schools open is very wise. On a humanitarian level, 100,000+ children dependent on school meals will remain fed, and their parents will maintain a chance of continuing to earn wages. From the epidemiological perspective, maintenance of certain patterns of contact and communication can make the virus easier to track and study (after all, it’s easier for the CDC to gain access to a school facility than walk into a person’s home, at least in the United States). I cannot contain my fury that a school like Harvard is shutting down dorms, encouraging more population movement as students scramble to get housing (many with limited financial resources, and no guarantee as of yet of remuneration from the school) while expecting them to keep up with a high level of academic rigor.

I don’t claim any direct experience with poor health or disease, but my entrenchment in the LGBT community places me in closer proximity to narratives of communicable disease than many of my heterosexual counterparts. Anyone familiar with HIV/AIDS will know how incredibly painful it is to see normally reasonable people become incredibly selfish in their impulse to collapse rather than confront the reality of an epidemic. How much more could have been known earlier on if the City of New York had not undertaken a systematic approach to outright destroying the spaces of communication rather than carefully studying how they might be tracked? For all the freedoms Americans enjoy on an individual level, there can be no denying that we are susceptible to the forces of groupthink that would callously throw society’s vulnerable under the bus.

(For my straight friends, if you look at your Facebook feed, you will notice that older and gayer the friend, the less likely they will be to give into your self-pandering. This is not coincidental. This is a manifestation of differentials in privilege.)

Ich mußt’ auch heute wandern
vorbei in tiefer Nacht,
da hab’ ich noch im Dunkel
die Augen zugemacht.

Und seine Zweige rauschten,
als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
hier find’st du deine Ruh’!

Just now my journey took me
past it at dead of night,
and even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.

And its branches rustled
as if they were calling to me:
“Come here to me, lad,
here you will find your rest”!

I’ve been on a Twentieth Century German literature kick lately, particularly with writers from the 1920s and 1930s (Hesse, Man, Roth, Broch, Döblin, etc.). Willful blindness, while a common theme for many authors remembering the upheavals of the First World War, is peculiar in Mann’s Magic Mountain, where music symbolically upholds Hans Castorp’s clinging to his impetus to blindly protect himself. I admit to having been perplexed by the famous line uttered by Castorp’s liberal friend, Settembrini, that “there is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect.” Music, of course, like any art or media has the ability to lift the soul and embolden. But it also can have the effect of disarming the senses, prompting one to hand over not only their ears, but their sensibilities.

“Hans Castorp loved music from his heart; it worked upon him much the same way as did his breakfast porter, with deeply soothing, narcotic effect, tempting him to doze.”

Unlike Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where vague, fictitious pieces (such as the famous “Vinteuil Sonata”) prompt flurries of memory and distraction, The Magic Mountain shows a darker side of music’s powers. All around the sanatorium, great works from the German musical canon are constantly playing on phonographs, or in the bar with visiting musicians, or otherwise running through Hans Castorp’s mind. But the moments of intersection only arise at moments of significant challenge to the protagonist’s view of how the world ought to look. Through the two authors are sometimes compared because of their verbose expressions of appreciation for music, in many ways they could not be more dissimilar: where Proust would capitalize on excess, Mann expounds on raw inhibition.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, the fifth movement from Schubert’s Winterreise, once a simple tune which the patients listened to in the sanatorium becomes a point of refuge for Hans Castorp in the trenches. Singing to himself in the trenches of World War I, it is not so much that Castorp is in denial of his mortality, but that rather that he would continue to romanticize it and seek some means of self-redemption, rather than transcendence. Of course this is part of the sick charm of Schubert’s Winterreise, as a man who is love drunk would willingly sacrifice his life in the cold. The message isn’t one of romance or beauty, but of the dangers of fear, obsession and isolation. There is no modulation or smooth transition into the second verse – moving suddenly from E Major to E minor, the musical material from verse is repeated almost verbatim in the new key, only to return back to E major in the third verse. It lacks subtlety, poise and even profundity, save that of exhibiting the singer’s distraction in so willingly giving into the impetus to curl up and self-destruct. (N.B., I don’t like Winterreise personally, but serves as a perfectly fine metaphor for the dangers of sentimentality and saccharine self-wallowing in Thomas Mann’s epic novel.)


My concerns about much of society’s inability to see past the tip of its nose have been dim for a while, but the latest trends in relation to COVID-19 have made it all the bleaker. American liberalism and values of self-individuation are being clung to, even at the expense of the economic fibers which support the rights a lot of us hold dear. The disease at the end of the day will likely be manageable, but only if those of means resign modes of self-pitying and protection.

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?