The notion of a “moving picture” was in its embryonic stage around the time of Wagner’s passing in 1883. Within a few decades, it was becoming a ubiquitous medium: film, cinema, or the colloquial “movies.” While a fair number of films contain music composed by Wagner, his broader influence on the form is arguably discernible. In 2010, Indiana University published a compilation of essays entitled Wagner and Cinema, edited by Jeongwon Joe and Sander L. Gilman. In the book’s introduction, Joe acknowledges the affinities between the composer’s ideas and the medium, but implies as well the risk of overplaying the case. Some of it depends on how one interprets the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk, more or less translated as “total artwork,” a term that Wagner employed in his 1849 essay The Artwork of the Future.
Since Joe’s and Gilman’s compilation contains a diverse array of subtopics, I’ll attempt not to retread the same ground. Rather, my aspiration is to expand on it, albeit in less academic language, based on some of my own personal experiences with film that brings to mind aspects of Wagner.
Besides John Williams, a number of film composers owe, and have even acknowledged, their debt to Wagner. This became most prominent in the “Golden Age of Hollywood” (approximately the 1930s and 1940s), after a number of composers fled political situations in Eastern and Middle Europe. Many left because they were Jewish, bringing with them a need for a living wage income, along with composition techniques filtered down from Wagner through such composers as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss. Names include Erich Korngold (1897-1957), whose music was derided by more “sophisticated” types as “more corn than gold”; Max Steiner (1888-1971), perhaps best known for King Kong (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), and Casablanca (1943); Franz Waxman (1906-1967), who composed scores for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Rear Window (1954); and Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979), who lent music to films ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) to the original The Thing from Another World (1951). During his acceptance speech for winning Best Score (for The High and the Mighty) at the 1955 Academy Awards, Tiomkin wryly thanked some people who made it possible for him and other film composers to succeed in Hollywood (his speech starts at around 2:10).
Along with a few others among the names he mentioned, no surprise about Wagner appearing among that bunch.
Despite his aspiration to be known as a “legitimate” (non-cinematic) composer, New Yorker Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) is one of the most renowned for his contributions to the medium, with a career stretching from Citizen Kane (1941) to Taxi Driver (1976). Unlike many of his near-contemporaries, he generally eschewed usage of leitmotif. Nonetheless, for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), he contributed music that alludes strongly to Wagner’s headily erotic (and arguably spiritual) opera Tristan und Isolde (1865). One can hear in both Herrmann’s Scene d’amour and Wagner’s Liebestod (Love Death) tender sonic tendrils in the strings, along with swellings of passion embedded in swirls of sound.
To a degree, one can even pick up on similar allusions to Wagner in Herrmann’s score for North by Northwest (1959), most especially in the piece “Train Conversations.”
Whether or not film composers deliberately plant “Easter eggs” for those who understand allusions to certain works, “Wagnerian” techniques continue to pervade film scores. I’ve even made some of my own personal connections, all of which I’ve tried finding information about… whether or not they were intentional. However, in many cases, I’ve had to go with vague hints and circumstantial evidence, and just trust my ears.
Perhaps a very apt one with which to start is the Chevaliers de Sangreal portion of Hans Zimmer’s (1957- ) soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code (2006), which seems to evoke both the Christian pilgrims’ motif from Tannhäuser, as well as musical strains from Wagner’s final opera Parsifal (1882)… also more or less “about” (given its arcane symbolism) the “Holy Grail.”
Götterdämmerung is an apt word for massive catastrophe, another stock in trade of the film industry. More so than its English translation “Twilight of the Gods.” It’s also, of course, the title of yet another Wagner opera. The final one in his Ring cycle. It concludes with what`s commonly known as Brunnhilde`s Immolation, which portrays the Valkyrie`s self-sacrifice to bring about the destruction of Valhalla (home of the corrupt and outmoded gods, derived from Nordic legend), making way for the dawn of a new world. Here’s the end of that sequence, and of the whole 14-16 hour epic, with subtitles:
Themes similar to the “redemption” motif, which appears throughout the aforementioned sequence, appear in other works. While West Side Story (1957) isn’t about large-scale destruction, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) integrated the redemption motif into the heartbreaking song “Somewhere.”
Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) typically drew inspiration from composers like Stravinsky, and never admitted to a Wagner influence as far as I can tell. Nonetheless, one can’t help but notice it in the film Gojira tai Desutoroia (1995). Listen closely to the “Requiem,” which portrays the nuclear meltdown and death of the iconic monster who has brought both terror and salvation to Japan.
I don’t know if this apparent allusion was deliberate on Ifukube’s part, but it seems a bit more than coincidental… and entirely appropriate. Oddly enough, someone took the battle preceding Gojira’s death, and set it to the previously-mentioned Chevaliers de Sangreal music from Da Vinci Code. Somehow, that seems to work as well. Something about our desire for saviours, perhaps…
Along with concepts, music motifs can also refer to individuals. Think about the themes associated with certain characters… a series of music bars that act as a sonic calling card. Again, while not technically Wagnerian in his technique, Ifukube gave many of the iconic daikaiju from Japanese horror movies some unforgettable themes, changing key, tempo, orchestration, and the like as needed. Here’s music for a battle between Gojira and his pteranodonian freinemy Radon, employing themes associated with both.
As mentioned in the last posting, Star Wars contains a number of motifs portraying characters, including this one in a “minor” key.
Also courtesy of John Williams, another character-related motif in a “major” key.
Another movie hero possesses a motif that sounds almost like it could be in minor or major key (although technically it’s apparently the latter). Someone whose womanizing and dirty work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service make him a bit less of a goody-two-shoes than Henry Jones, Jr. But not unlike Jones, he takes on villains with malevolent plans for such things as world domination. His theme initially appeared just over 50 years ago in a “jazzy” form, prominently featuring an electric guitar played by Vic Flick.
Whether Monty Norman (1928- ) or John Barry (1933-2011) originally came up with “The James Bond Theme,” the latter composed scores for many of the initial outings for British Secret Service agent 007. Some say that it actually originated with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), but I digress…
Barry used the theme in various forms, a tradition continued by current Bond film scorer David Arnold (1962- ). In the series reboot Casino Royale (2006), Arnold avoided explicit usage of the Bond theme until the very end. This was to indicate that Bond had (more or less) completed his first mission as a “00” agent… and that he had also “returned.”
I’ve always found the Bond film scores intriguing. In particular, related to my research interests, the tendency to move almost seamlessly among different genres. Most certainly, they possess a palpable conservatory sensibility amidst the pop and jazz elements. I suppose some might criticise Barry, especially genre-based purists, for not picking a style and staying with it. But his defiance of genre-based conventions more or less reflects the risky world of Bond, and ended up creating an oft-imitated style in itself… sometimes to the point of parody.
As stated near the end of this article on another Barry piece, regarding his score to Goldfinger (1964), the composer utilised what he self-deprecatingly called “Mickey Mouse Wagner.”
Technically, as Barry stated in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, the main theme to Goldfinger draws primary inspiration from “Mack the Knife.” Like “Goldfinger,” Weill’s song has undergone numerous renditions in many genres, ever since it appeared in Die Dreigroschenoper, or “The Threepenny Opera” (1928). Composed by Kurt Weill (1900-1950), the song portrays a villain and his sinister acts. The same for “Goldfinger,” although Barry embedded the Bond theme in it as well.
Still, the film’s IMDB trivia entry mentions the title song’s “huge, Wagnerian orchestral opening.” Even with the “five trombones, four trumpets, four French horns and a tuba,” even I (who can find musical similarities under practically every rock) believe that this notion overstates the case. That said, I think Barry’s statement hints that Wagnerian techniques pepper the score. And this is something I’ve suspected for years, especially in what I would call the “death” motif that appears throughout the film.
Let’s return to Götterdämmerung, this time to “Siegfried’s Funeral March.” Listen to the first minute or so.
And then listen to this, where one of Goldfinger`s minions kills a group of gangsters by trapping them in a room he fills with deadly gas.
(As a side note, with the relatively recent memories of concentration camps at the time of the film and the purported Nazi past of the actor who played Goldfinger, this scene created some degree of controversy. Perhaps when he composed the music for it, with his possible allusion to “Hitler’s favourite composer,” Barry had a similar connection in mind.)
The “death” motif appears in other segments as well, including when the sister of one of Goldfinger’s victims is herself felled by the villain’s manservant.
You might hear a bit of mournfulness, felt by Bond, in this track as well… almost reminiscent, I’d say, of the tenderness in Herrmann’s Tristan-esque music for Hitchcock (eroticism, death, etc.). The film contains at least a few other examples of this as well, but I don’t want to belabour the point.
For an example of a more lush contrast, also a bit reminiscent of Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock, the first two minutes of this clip feature a slightly different version of “Alpine Drive.” At least relatively speaking, it acts as a repose from the action, even though it’s merely a slightly less menacing variation on the title theme; in the most bucolic of settings, Goldfinger`s shadow imposes itself.
As mentioned earlier, Arnold carries on a similar tradition. I must admit to feeling gobsmacked when I heard what I took to be an allusion to Brunnhilde`s Immolation from Götterdämmerung in the main theme for Skyfall (2012), the most recent Bond outing. Considering what happens near the end of the film, I wouldn`t be surprised if it were deliberate.
To help underscore the comparison, start around 6:50 here:
Taking into account the examples mentioned above, along with those cited in numerous other writings, it isn’t surprising that a number of films have used Wagner’s compositions as well. A November 2011 article in the L.A. Times discussed its usage in two films that came out at approximately the same time: Melancholia and A Dangerous Method. Even the trailer for the former, about a previously-unknown planet approaching Earth, actually uses music from Tristan, which also appears throughout the entire film.
Even extramusically, some recent films have alluded to aspects of Wagner’s Ring. With the tagline “The Reich Strikes Back,” the tongue-in-cheek “Nazis from the Moon” film Iron Sky (2012) features “Siegfried class” warships, along with the massive ship Götterdämmerung. (There`s even a character with the surname Wagner.) Likely through the influence of opera fan Christoph Waltz, Quentin Tarantino alludes to the epic in Django Unchained (2012). While the film takes place before any of the Ring operas premiered, a number of articles (including this one from the New York Times) note a number of parallels between them.
This idiosyncratic perspective of mine on film music just scratches the surface of connections between Wagner and cinema. But the aforementioned examples should suffice, even if they might colour a bit outside the lines of what some find acceptable. Others have written elsewhere on these connections, too. The Joe / Gilman book mentioned near the beginning goes into much greater depth on such matters, and its essays can speak more eloquently for itself than I could.
Certainly, the distance between film scores and “classical” music isn’t all that great. Between “classical” and “popular” music in a broad sense, however, there exists more of an apparent division. Nonetheless, as my next posting will outline, Wagner’s influence has spilled into this realm as well.
In the realm of “classical music,” 2013 is a year of milestone anniversaries. For instance, 29 May marks the 100th anniversary of the legendary “scandalous” premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring). Nonetheless, some bemoan the whole notion of even acknowledging them. I understand what they mean about trotting stuff out: anniversaries are arbitrarily significant based on numbers; some things just are really relevant anymore, and we’re just going through the motions with commemorations; old stuff needs to make way for new stuff; and the like. But all I can say to that is this: Sorry, but I’m going to commemorate the things that are relevant to me, which I can’t help. And I would even argue that they might remain relevant at broader sociocultural levels as well.
For those reasons, and as un-PC as it may seem to some at a number of levels, I’m going to devote much space here to wrestling with the wide-reaching significance of German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose 200th birthday falls on 22 May. It will cover some well-worn ground to set context for novices, as well as provide some thoughts that reflect my quarter-century of active engagement with Wagner.
Reflecting the ongoing polarization and contradictory depictions of Wagner that remain, and about whom much has been written, just mentioning him to those who know the name is fraught with strong reactions. There’s also the all-too-easy trap of superficial understandings, perhaps because of these varying opinions and agendas, as well as the legendary complexity and purported “heaviness” of the man’s works (or at least the bits that get the most attention). For my purposes, however, especially given my interest in listeners’ notions of similarities of music from “very different” genres, I won’t pass judgment on what might be considered technically “incorrect” connections people might make between Wagner and other kinds of music… including some of my own.
Not unlike numerous musicians from “popular” genres, Wagner has been called many things. A scoundrel. A mooch. A serial womanizer. An ill-tempered, self-centred man-child. But what really sticks is his rabid anti-Semitism. He wasn’t unique in this aspect, especially during the times he lived. But his written polemics about Jews, along with his related influence on Adolf Hitler’s ideals, maintains Wagner’s status as a lightning rod for an almost unanswerable question: Can a work of art be evaluated separately from its creator? This is especially hard for those of us who can feel profoundly moved by Wagner’s music. In my case, the intellectual challenge of writing about Wagner was compounded by emotional challenges as well.
To paraphrase Isaac Hayes, Wagner was indeed a complicated man. In addition to its affective aspects, which can repel or enrapture listeners, Wagner’s music is among some of the most revolutionary and ambitious ever created. (As Mark Twain observed, “I’m told Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”) It influenced subsequent “classical” composers, who defined themselves in relation to him, whether as disciples or dissidents; filtered to varying degrees into “very different” musical genres, including heavy metal; and inspired creators in other forms, including literature. While the extent of his influence on cinema runs the risk of being overstated, one could even say that his vision for his music dramas (Wagner disliked the term “opera”) paved the way for that medium, and perhaps even virtual environments. A political revolutionary in his early days, he inspired thinkers who would be considered antithetical to Hitler. This includes Theodor Herzl, one of the prime movers of Zionism.
Like many of us, I probably first heard Wagner before I knew the name. Most likely, it happened during the Fantastic Fun Festival, broadcast from the ABC affiliate out of Toledo, Ohio, from 4:00-5:00 on weekdays after school. Some of you probably know where this is going already.
How could one forget Elmer Fudd in quasi-Viking drag singing “Kill the Wabbit,” with Bugs Bunny disguising himself in actual drag to avoid his eventual fate… Or, at least to postpone its apparent inevitability. After all, this is Wagner, where Fate and fatality both loom large. Unusual, given that Bugs almost always outsmarts his primary nemesis in most of their battles of wits. And even after getting what he wants, Elmer regrets that he has “killed the wabbit.” But as he rallies briefly at the conclusion to break the fourth wall, Bugs reminds us, “Well, what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?”
The music accompanying the conclusion draws upon the devout, weepy, and penitential motif that appears prominently in Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. It premiered in 1845, and focuses on a man torn between Christian redemption and the pleasures of the flesh offered by Venus, as embodied in the overture and Venusberg Music / Bacchanale.
Given the time period, you can probably guess which inclination wins out. Despite Wagner’s own proclivities for the latter, he makes both appealing. Only the most hardened of non-believers and non-sensualists need not apply.
I will admit, despite the comedic tone of What’s Opera, Doc?, there was something that still pulled at my heart strings about the music. But I told myself that shouldn’t happen. After all, it was only a funny cartoon.
Despite my mother’s love of classical music, she didn’t have Wagner recordings among her LP albums. I figured this out when I rediscovered classical music in high school, and flipped through the drawer of LPs to find no Wagner at all. Not that she was adverse to it; she had recently purchased a cassette of Wagner overtures and preludes, which at least intrigued me. I recall that it contained the overture from Tannhäuser. I found something about it moving… feeling close to tears, but not quite coming to it. Oddly enough, by that time, I think I had forgotten about What’s Opera, Doc?.
My search for Wagner occurred after hearing one of Wagner’s best known pieces, which did not appear on the aforementioned cassette: “The Ride of Valkyries,” or Walkürenritt, from Wagner’s Die Walküre (1870). While it’s recognizable as the inspiration for “Kill the Wabbit,” it became permanently etched in the popular imagination 20 years later, as the full-blown operatic version blasted from helicopters during a U.S. military attack in the iconic, harrowing, and surreal scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
It subsequently became overused in any number of other movies, television shows, commercials, and who knows what else. To a much greater extent, a similar fate befell perhaps the best known, and most ubiquitous, Wagner piece: the “Bridal Chorus” from Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin, better-known as “Here Comes the Bride.”
So the odds are pretty good that you’ve heard at least some Wagner. Not only directly, but also his influence in other contexts.
I finally bought a Wagner cassette with an orchestral version of Walkürenritt in due course, with Georg Szell leading the Cleveland Orchestra in excerpts from Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, of which Die Walküre is the second of four parts. Hmmm… A multipart epic involving a ring. Sounds vaguely familiar, even though the fellow who created the other one claimed, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”
The relative quiet of the “Bridal Chorus” notwithstanding, Wagner’s music is typically associated with outsized, overwhelming power, which can evoke associations with music from a more popularly-known multipart epic. One that has captured the popular imagination since it premiered in cinemas 36 years ago this month, just a few days after Wagner’s birthdate. As in stereotypical Wagner, its soundtrack also has the requisite thunderous percussion, sweetly “lilting” and sighing strings, sharp brass sounding at once as if anticipating a ritual both sacred and profane…
This was entirely intentional. As Wagner portrayed concepts and characters with recurring themes called leitmotifs in his music dramas, so too did John Williams (1932- ), even though he drew upon subsequent composers for inspiration as well. I think we all know who comes to mind when we hear this particular number.
Even retroactively, a leitmotif can predict the future. Note its usage near the end of Attack of the Clones, which actually embodies the growing Empire of Palpatine, rather than Darth Vader himself (still a whiny James Dean wannabe at this point).
Being a child of the late 1970s and 1980s, I have to wonder if perhaps my exposure to these kinds of scores also inclined me to consider Wagner, along with other “German Romantic” composers, most especially Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949), among the my top favourites. Granted, my mother did have LPs of those composers, which must have warped my fragile little mind. But I’m sure both worked in concert, so to speak. As suggested earlier, however, Wagner’s influence on cinema went beyond Star Wars, both in terms of music and “spectacle.” The next installment will discuss Wagner’s wide-ranging impact on cinema, and I’ll proffer a few personal connections I’ve made between some film soundtracks and Wagner’s compositions.
This is not a word I created. Rather, it was originally coined by Samir Kashyap, a student in the Media, Theory, and Production (MTP) program at the University of Western of Ontario. Like numerous other programs related more or less related to communications, including my own (Library and Information Science), it falls under the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
“Convergenre” first appeared in the December 2012 edition of OPENWIDE. FIMS alternative student publication. Kashyap’s article about it appears on pages 6-7. While I liked Kashyap’s ideas, including questioning the necessity of genre itself, I thought it would be useful to build on his article by discussing two areas where I could apply my expertise: categorization from the perspective of Library and Information Science, as well as the convergences (intentional and unintentional) of “classical” music with more “popular” genres. Furthermore, since Kashyap’s program is under the same faculty as my own and I’m really keen on interdisciplinarity, it seemed even more suitable to continue the discussion from a slightly different perspective.
My response to Kashyap doesn’t appear here, however. Rather, I have submitted a piece to the online version of OPENWIDE, and it was posted just today under the title Categories and “Classical” Music – A Response to “Convergenre: Music in the Age of Adaptation”. If the ending seems a little rushed, it’s in part due to the word limit. Nonetheless, it’s also somewhat deliberate, as I’m trying to create an impressionistic kaleidoscope of how musical genre has always been a vague concept… possibly even before the concept was created.
Author’s Note: I’m usually good with remembering dates. Various anniversaries, birthdays, commemorations, etc. Unfortunately, I had no idea that today commemorates the 70th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s birth. I just went through my doctoral program comprehensive examination this week, too, so my mind has been in a slightly different place. However, I do have this posting from nearly a year ago, which (naturally) ties in with notions of cross-genre similarity, as well as broader issues related to searching.
In case you’re wondering, the term “Search!Down!” comes from a previous blog of mine. Inspired by Stephen Colbert’s Threatdown, it will act as an occasional accounting of terminology that somehow guided people to Geheimnisvolle Musik. Some of them are “false drops,” a bit of library and information science lingo, which describes results that are not relevant or pertinent to the searcher’s intended inquiry. Needless to say, they can be quite amusing. On The Rest Is Noise several years ago, Alex Ross commented on how he does not have naked pictures of Karita Mattila, likely referring one or more of her performances of the “Dance of the Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome.
In my case, I had an interesting inquiry yesterday (15 February 2012): what does richard wagner and janis joplin songs have in common
I don’t have anything about that. They both appear in separate postings. Wagner I talk about a lot, while I only mentioned Joplin in relation to her singing “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Nonetheless, it is most definitely relevant to the overall spirit of the blog. Now I’m curious myself. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can expound on whether it is a correct notion. If we have evidence that a musician was influenced by someone else, that is objectively correct. However, I will flat out state that it matters not, whether the notion is ”right” or “wrong.” For this visitor to my blog, they made a connection that somehow made sense. Is Janis Joplin’s singing “Wagnerian,” whatever that means? Offhand, especially if my visitor comes back here, I can imagine that description being applied loosely to “Ball and Chain”.
It sounds very much on blues territory, of course, and Joplin’s soul-wrenching singing puts me in mind of heavy metal, which has been associated on more than one occasion with both the blues and Wagner. Try this search, as well as this one.
Now, what I have is a tangle of cross-genre associations, which derive from my own experiences listening to music. Still, I suppose many of us would like to know if there is a definite connection? In other words, has anyone (such as a musicologist) seriously tried connecting Joplin and Wagner? Hmmm… Well, there’s this story about the musical likes of the editor of the Financial Times, dated last week. He cites varying levels of response/usage, but the question remains: why Joplin and Wagner (and Beethoven)? Why not just musicians within the same genre-based orbit as Joplin or Wagner (not Joplin “OR” Wagner, in the Boolean sense)? That’s part of the reason why this blog exists. To facilitate the exploration of such questions, which genre conventions and confines implicitly prohibit.
I welcome your inquiries about musical connections, even if they may seem “out there” in relation to the ways we’re conditioned to think about music. I also welcome guest posters; just let me know, and you can contribute to the dialogue…
In a recent Arts and Culture article for the Los Angeles Times, Rick Schultz lists responses from conductors describing what they listen to for recreation. What I find interesting is the article’s angle: There’s classical music, and there’s other genres, especially with the diverse range of “non-classical” music mentioned by the respondents. Rock appears quite a bit, but so too does jazz, and even pre-rock popular music in one instance.
In other words, within broad cultural contexts, there’s still a certain element of surprise to the notion that classical music fans, performers, and composers aren’t part of some monolithic collective of “refined taste.” Far from it! But the stereotypes remain, even within the cultural contexts described by Schultz. As he points out, quite a few of these conductors grew up with rock music:
One reason for the change in attitude is the Internet, which gives busy conductors easy access to different musical genres. Another is simply that for baby boom conductors such as [Baltimore Symphony music director Marin] Alsop and Fabio Luisi, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, pop and rock was in the air during their formidable years. Even much of an earlier generation of conductors was swept up.
With his lifelong interest in popular music, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein receives mention in the previous paragraph as well. His approach might seem a bit paternalistic nowadays, at least if one uses as a frame of reference the avuncular and meant-to-reassure-adults CBS documentary Inside Pop – The Rock Revolution (1967).
Still, his advocacy of rock back in the 1960s likely seemed even more incongruous than it (perhaps?) does nowadays. He sure enjoyed performing it for the kids. The kids who are now the same age as those leading major orchestras… and even older.
And he seemed to have really loosened up by the time he won his Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, as seen in this footage.
And yet, even in these times, classical remains as some kind of separate entity from practically all other kinds of music. The aforementioned L.A. Times article, as well as the recent discussion that emerged over the exclusion of classical musicians from a New York Times Magazine feature The Lives They Lived, underscore this point. I reference similar writings in my posting on the latter, but it seems that the “greatness” attached to classical by its advocates many years ago have worked too well. They remain compelling to the point that they’ve have ended up backfiring.
Based on personal observations, I’ve noticed that people who enjoy classical music have popular favourites as well. The L.A. Times article seems to bear this out. I’m not so sure that it works to the same in reverse, however. (That said, counterexamples are welcome!) That is, unless things have changed substantially in the small rural town where I grew up, and unless some of the broader cultural issues mentioned in my posting on “marginalized elitism” have magically cleared up overnight.
In any case, there are times when I’ve detected some denial that there’s anything to this. That “we” already know about such similarities… “we” being those who are in an academic and/or culturally sophisticated environment. Or that people don’t care about finding music beyond a favoured genre. One person I spoke to recently assumed that I’m engaging in research on cross-genre similarity as a way to “elevate” listeners’ taste.
A person’s interest in a genre can wind down, especially if they have difficulty finding other things they like that fit that category. Perhaps this means that there are other musical features they find more compelling, without being aware of it. For instance, in my case, there’s Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms. Both German Romantics and near-contemporaries, always categorized broadly as “classical,” which is presumably “my music.” But I have multiple recordings of the same pieces by Wagner, and almost nothing by Brahms, whose music goes in one ear and out the other for me. That is, with the exception of The Hungarian Dances.
There are, in fact, plenty of popular musicians I’d rather listen to than [most] Brahms, some of whom I’ve mentioned in previous postings.
This might be an idiosyncratic personal trait, but I’d seriously doubt it. For every one curmudgeon who thinks I’m on a mission to make people more “cultured,” there are plenty of others who get excited in describing their diverse musical tastes. Maybe it’s not an unusual phenomenon, but it requires the creation of opportunities for people to rely on more than just chance to find something they like. For instance, how do I find something that’s different from what they I listen to, but that’s also sufficiently similar (whatever that might mean)? Where do I begin to explore heavy metal if I tend to like classical (or at least composers of a specific kind), and vice versa? A relevant account from Schultz’s article is conductor Osmo Vänskä’s story of hearing his son’s “battle metal” band:
“It was a great moment in my life,” said Vänskä, 59. “We can play loud too, but when I listened to them, my stomach felt the bass drum and bass guitar. I would like to get a similar kind of sound from the symphonists. There are things that should give exactly the same physical feeling in your body, like Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’”
Metal informing classical performance? Why not? As the stories of these conductors convey, there can be a richness to personal musical narratives that genre categories can overlook. The continuing polarization of “art music” against popular music doesn’t help much. Nonetheless, more stories like the L.A. Times piece can use this persistent cultural convention as a way to subvert it, and to invite broad musical exploration with less trepidation.
Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde is one of the most sublimely beautiful works within so-called Western art music. It is also one of the most influential, inspiring a number of creative minds outside of music as well. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo provides one such example, with Bernard Herrmann’s score alluding strongly to the opera.
One would be hard-pressed to come up with a polar opposite to Tristan, but industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 album The Downward Spiral could serve as one possibility. Certainly if assessed side-by-side, the conventions of the genres with which they are associated would underscore the case.
And that’s the problem.
What if both Tristan and The Downward Spiral contain complementary elements? Or perhaps, in fact, share more similarities than people might feel comfortable acknowledging? What I write below explores the possibility, which is why this blog continues to remain outside the periphery, or perhaps beyond the pale, of more legit writings on music.
This inaugural posting for 2013 focuses on the aforementioned topic for two reasons. This year marks the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth (22 May). Also, starting later this month, the Canadian Opera Company is putting on a new production of Tristan, which has an interesting connection to Nine Inch Nails. Despite living not more than a few hours away from Toronto, however, circumstances dictate that I likely won’t be able to attend any of the performances. Most unfortunate, given my affinity for the opera… even with some of its potentially troubling aspects, which also provide Tristan with some of its subversive and perverse seductiveness.
Some interesting talents are also associated with this particular production. Director Peter Sellars is well-known for iconoclastic opera stagings, such as a version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem.
In the clip below, Sellars describes the contributions of Bill Viola, whose video images explore states of mind within Tristan. Sellars’ and Viola’s work on the opera dates back to 2004 with The Tristan Project, developed in conjunction with Esa-Pekka Salonen, then-music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and the conductor of the Vertigo Scène d’Amour at the top of this posting). Since that time, the production has moved among different venues. Whether for characters or performance attendees, Sellars mentions how Viola’s visuals create, “a synaesthetic world where you don’t know where your senses begin or end.”
Viola also provides the aforementioned link between Tristan and Nine Inch Nails, as lead musician Trent Reznor brought him on to provide complementary visuals for some of its concerts. Viola describes how he used lighting and imagery to suit the change of mood between a high energy song to one of lower intensity, from storm to calm sea. The name of the latter should be familiar to fans of Claude Debussy.
Water imagery seems appropriate in relation to Tristan as well. The entire first act takes place on a ship returning from Isolde’s homeland of Ireland to Cornwall. Why is that, you ask? Well, like both opera and some relationships on Facebook, “it’s complicated,” both in the sense of “what’s happening” and in the relationship status of both characters.
Here are the essentials, which readers familiar with the opera can skip: Tristan is bringing back Isolde on behalf of his uncle King Marke, who wishes to marry her. Isolde is none too happy about this situation, however. On top of killing Isolde’s fiancé Morold, a wounded Tristan was brought back to health by Isolde under the assumed name (and interestingly apt anagram) “Tantris.” Isolde tried killing him in revenge when she figured out who he was, but couldn’t bring herself to do so when he looked into her eyes. Still, she wishes to poison both herself and Tristan. Isolde’s handmaiden Brangäne throws a wrench in this plan by switching the poison with a love potion, which Tristan and Isolde drink as they approach the shore. The opera continues for two more acts, concluding with both title characters dying together. Tristan goes first from wounds incurred during the second act. By his side, Isolde expires for no rational reason upon singing the Liebestod, or “Love Death.”
Thus concludes their journey into the endless night.
One could consider the on-stage action as literal, of course. Taking a cue from the discussions about Viola’s video installations for Nine Inch Nails and The Tristan Project, along with the twists and turns inherent in the plot, it seems more fruitful to consider Wagner’s music drama from a more symbolic perspective. The Act II Liebesnacht (clunkily translated into English as something like “night of love”) provides a perfect example. Tristan and Isolde have an illicit liaison while King Marke goes on a nighttime hunt. Since sexual union can’t be portrayed easily on stage for a number of reasons, directors have to figure out what the characters should do besides sing for approximately half an hour. As an example, this interpretation at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is a personal favourite musically, but the performers don’t do much other than stand side-by-side, lean against each other, and (at the almost-climactic moment) hold hands.
As seen in the second clip, the Liebesnacht concludes with what some aptly call opera’s “most famous moment of coitus interruptus,” as King Marke and his retinue unexpectedly return to discover Tristan and Isolde together.
Even listening to the final minute makes this assessment quite clear. The same theme re-emerges in the Liebestod, but followed by a “satisfactory” conclusion that releases the tension that has built up, whether over roughly four hours or (in a typical concert performance of the opera’s Prelude and the Liebestod) ~15 minutes. La petite mort writ large.
In writing about the challenges of indexing “nonbook materials” (mainly images and sound), Elaine Svenonius mentions that “what music represents, when it is used for the purpose of representation, are dynamic processes” (1994, 604). At least in contrast to so-called absolute music, which is typically about nothing per se (except whatever personal meanings we attach to it), we might have some clue what a piece of music is “about” if it has already a non-musical idea or story behind it. Nonetheless, it’s still difficult to describe or capture music easily in words. On the other hand, whether based on instinct or cultural conditioning (or, as I tend to think, a complex mixture of both), we can pick up on implicit similarities between music and just about anything from the everyday world. To underscore these points, Svenonius quotes extensively from the entry “Aesthetics, problems of” from The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In fact, it mentions the Liebestod as an example:
‘… the patterns of rising and falling, crescendo and dimuendo, rising gradually to a climax and then concluding (such as are to be found in the “Liebestod” of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) possess a considerable similarity or isomorphism with, the rhythm of the sexual climax (Hospers 1972, p. 48)’ (In Svenonius 1994, 604).
If such composition techniques are (more or less) “universally” understood as cultural conventions, intended to mimic a specific phenomenon in the everyday world, with the likely goal of creating certain feelings in the listener, it makes sense that musicians from different genres (at least within a broadly similar cultural context) would use them as well. Attach words that more directly portray what’s “happening,” especially in the language of the listener, and the non-musical meaning of the music becomes even more clear.
In some cases, starkly so.
The ninth track of The Downward Spiral is an unnerving and terrifying song, befitting themes explored throughout the album: self-aggrandizement, self-destruction, and ultimately hopelessness. “Big Man with a Gun” graphically portrays the protagonist’s rock-hard, but essentially impotent, machismo; an empty desire to use sex for power and humiliation. The lyrics make this very clear. In a way, so too does the guitar theme, which draws upon conventions similar to those described by Hospers. Not that it sounds exactly like the Liebestod, but there are vague echoes of it. Significantly, the Liebestod soars, while the guitar theme in “Big Man with a Gun” generally plays the same notes over and over, with no apparent resolution aside from a slight crescendo near the end.
Some of you may disagree, of course, that there’s anything to this idea whatsoever. I can understand why. Maybe I’m merely isolating the convention noted by Hospers to hype up similarities between two works from very different genres. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to deny the presence of such a convention, along with the extramusical theme of sex… even if it’s portrayed in very different ways in both.
In reality, I’ve considered such connections for many years, long before beginning my research, and even further back than when I encountered Svenonius’ reference to Hospers. The proof? A customer review I wrote for The Downward Spiral on Amazon.com, way back in 2001. I say some admittedly daft, pseudo-intellectual stuff in flowery prose… and I still stand by some of it.
According to the review, my first encounter with The Downward Spiral occurred upon hearing “Closer” on my car radio, with a certain word removed to appease the Federal Communications Commission. (I wanna what you like an animal? Lick? The imagination runs riot!)
I felt “entranced,” probably by the weird tension between its ethereal and mechanistic aspects. Oddly enough, before finding the review and while pondering this particular posting, I had thought that my first encounter with the song occurred a year or two earlier. A mild summer evening in 1995, near the sand volleyball court of a park in my hometown, with “Closer” rumbling angrily and hypnotically from a pickup truck parked nearby.
While my genre interests had begun to expand by the time I first heard “Closer,” it wasn’t quite at the same level as it is now. It seemed curious that I, a classical person, could be drawn to an industrial band’s song. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt drawn to music with trancelike, ethereal aspects. This includes some recordings that one might readily dismiss as “New Age.” Classical has some of that as well, with both Debussy and Philip Glass coming to mind almost instantly. (For what it’s worth, rather than using music for sleep and relaxation, I usually turn to an earlier model of this Brookstone device with a range of ambient noises.)
When I wrote the Amazon.com review, I zoned in on the parallels I noted between Tristan and “Closer,” perhaps the best-known song from the album. Half of the first paragraph (and all in parentheses) outlines this idea:
My opinions on the similiarity (sic) of themes of all-consuming love in both “Closer” and Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan und Isolde” would constitute an entirely separate, and likely incoherent, essay. Sufficed to say that one must consider Reznor’s agonized plea, “Help me think I’m somebody else…” It’s Tristan without Wagner’s newly-knowing, newly-glowing quasi-spiritual Romanticism, reduced to a panting animal. Listening to this, followed by Isolde’s “Liebestod,” is an almost heartbreaking experience.
So, what the hell was I talking about? More or less what I was alluding to at the beginning; the notion that The Downward Spiral, or at least parts thereof, shared some similarities with Tristan, or (again) parts thereof. In this case, the extramuscial parallels stood out. Even if they’re more stark, the lyrics from “Closer” parallel some aspects of the Liebesnacht. From the latter portion of the song:
Tear down my reason
It’s your sex I can smell
You make me perfect
Help me become somebody else
I wanna fuck you like an animal
I wanna feel you from the inside
I wanna fuck you like an animal
My whole existence is flawed
You get me closer to God
Self-destructiveness. Becoming somebody else. Sexuality as a means of obtaining a divine state. Those sound awfully familiar.
Are Tristan and Isolde not on a self-destructive path as well? One might argue that Wagner’s music sounds more lush, glorious, ecstatic than Reznor’s, with “more poetic” words besides. Nonetheless, it almost renders anasthetic, or helps us forget, how Tristan and Isolde’s mutual intoxication ties in with a desire that would be considered toxic in the everyday world. (I borrow this notion of “aesthetics and anasthetics” from a 1992 article by Susan Buck-Morss. It actually mentions Wagner quite a bit towards the end, and many of its ideas seem potentially relevant to this posting as well.) The final minutes of the Liebesnacht make Tristan and Isolde’s death-devoted path abundantly clear:
O endless night,
night of love!
Those whom you embrace,
on whom you smile,
how could they ever awaken
from you without dismay?
Now banish fear,
death in love!
In your arms,
devoted to you,
ever sacred glow,
freed from the misery of waking!
Furthermore, do Tristan and Isolde not wish to “become somebody else?” Again, going back to the Liebesnacht, a bit after the last passage and right before King Marke and his men burst in on them:
Without languishing …
enfolded in sweet darkness.
Without separating …
ever at one,
in unbounded space,
most blessed of dreams!
no more Tristan!
no more Isolde!
supreme joy of love
glowing in our breast!
Along with self-destruction in both Tristan and “Closer,” there’s also the theme of obtaining some kind of divine experience, which at least entails letting go of one’s ego. “You get me closer to God.” Perhaps Tristan’s anagram “Tantris” provides some clues about that aspect, with its possible connections to Tantric Buddhism.
Of course, I might be reading too many extramusical parallels between both Tristan and “Closer.” The same could apply to my thought that Hospers’ observations, about the musical patterns of rising and falling in Tristan, could apply to “Closer” as well. I’ve even picked up on other parallels between certain songs on The Downward Spiral and music by other composers, too. For instance, the vague echoes between the peaceful main melody from “A Warm Place,” and a couple of bars in a certain opera where a similar (but not necessarily the same) melody is played immer äußerst lebhaft. To express ardour, longing, newly-flourishing desire…
I won’t reveal what opera I’m thinking of, but I’ll provide a very oblique hint by mentioning that “A Warm Place” was inspired by “Crystal Japan,” a song by Reznor’s occasional collaborator David Bowie. (And I wrote something about Bowie a while back, too.)
Currently, recommender systems can only take into account similarities among items of a specific kind. In the case of sound recordings, or even videos focused on musical content, albums that share similarities to other albums, or songs that share similarities to other songs. But those are based on collaborative filtering systems that look superficially at tendencies in user behaviour; what tends to get purchased most frequently with a specific product, viewed most often with other videos, and so on. Based on my personal observations about both Tristan and The Downward Spiral, however, “similarity” can’t be as simple as matching one kind of object to another. Notions of similarity can be more complex than current systems typically take into account. It’s an uphill struggle when recommender systems remain stuck on algorithms that tend to be biased in favour of genre, but well worth it to get at potentially deeper truths about musical meaning, regardless of conventionalized notions of similarity.
With another year winding to a close, we look back on what transpired over the past 366 days. The events that caught our attention (or at least what the media saw fit to cover), as well as the passings of people from many realms of endeavour, such as politics, television, film, and music.
For music, I’ve noticed over the years a tendency to ignore classical musicians in such tributes, as well as in mainstream news coverage in general. Some names are too big to ignore, of course. Individuals like Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Pavarotti were too widely known to have been overlooked when they passed, in 1990 and 2007, respectively. At the very least, they act within a broader cultural context as symbols of the classical/opera world. However, most other major names from those genres tend to slip away with little or no notice, at least compared to musicians from other genres.
One example is conductor Sir Georg Solti, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1912. He still holds a record for winning the highest number of Grammy awards, and he recorded many albums between the early days of long-play records and the arrival of compact discs (including the first studio recording of Richard Wagner’s operatic epic Der Ring des Nibelungen). For what it’s worth, he passed away in early September 1997, around the same time as both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. I didn’t find out until a few weeks later, while I happened to be perusing an issue of Time.
A similar shock happened when I found out about Giuseppe Sinopoli, whom I consider one of my top five favourite conductors. At the very young age of 54, he had a heart attack in April 2001 while conducting a rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. This time, a month or so had passed when I stumbled upon an obituary, while I was looking up information about Sinopoli online.
While my concerns might seem highly idiosyncratic, they’re no more so than anyone else who believes that their pet issues and/or perspectives aren’t being addressed by the mainstream media. I’m also not the only one who’s noticed this gap. In a very recent posting that inspired this one, Alex Ross in the oft-mentioned-here blog The Rest Is Noise calls out a New York Times Magazine tribute to musicians who had passed in the previous year. He cites a posting by Lisa Hirsch on the blog Iron Tongue of Midnight, which has tracked the yearly tributes’ tendency to ignore classical musicians in favour of those from other genres.
I’m at least familiar with probably half the names from this year’s tribute, or some of the musical excerpts if nothing else. No one can know everything about all genres, of course. But even a quick Google search (classical music deaths 2012), especially followed up by just asking someone who knows about classical music to pick out “the big names,” would help someone compiling such a list. When you’re associated with a magazine whose title alone oozes cultural clout, the obligation is heavier. Even if a compiler for any such publication knows practically nothing about classical music, it would demonstrate some effort to balance coverage across many genres.
At a broader level, this tendency to ignore and/or stereotype Western art music (with the exception of a few towering tokens) symbolizes a deeper problem. The very “elite” sheen attached to it, both by detractors and more or less well-meaning fans, has paradoxically contributed to its marginalization. This notion gets hammered into our heads in any number of ways. Here are a few examples of commercials that do just that, and which share similar structures and tropes.
In terms of gender-based associations and expectations, classical music can occupy two contradictory realms. On the one hand, it is the music of “wussies,” which I personally heard often as an adolescent in a small rural town. Basically, “real men” don’t listen to classical music. On the other hand, it can represent White [Mostly] Straight Male machismo and oppression of women as well. This is most infamously exemplified by critical musicologist Susan McClary’s assessment of a section from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which (according to an article she wrote for a 1987 issue of the Minnesota Composers Forum Newsletter), “explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” I’ve always wondered how someone who has actually experienced rape would feel about that statement…
Others have written quite eloquently on the stereotyping of “classical music” and the way that it has been marginalized. Once again, I defer to Alex Ross. His 2004 piece Listen to This (also the title of a 2010 compilation of essays) resonates with many of my thoughts on the subject. Ross advocates on behalf of classical music with an opening statement that might shock some initially, but which makes sense if one really thinks about the genre-based associations and expectations attached to the term. Much of what he writes is quotable, but the following sentence especially gives one pause in considering classical’s “elitism” and popular’s “proletarianism”:
If you want to see an in-your-face, Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you.
I would add comparisons between tickets to primo seats at the Metropolitan Opera and cheap seats at the Super Bowl. Neither is cheap, but I always thought that football was supposed to be more “accessible” than opera. Certainly, the prices don’t seem to jibe with that.
Admittedly, this posting has wandered a bit away from the original topic: classical musicians remaining invisible from year-end tributes of those who have passed. Nonetheless, it’s important to consider the marginalization of classical music and opera, or “Western art music” if you prefer (for want of a better label), in relation to this trend. More specifically, how the “elevation” of such music as a signifier of cultural capital actually works against it. How it may be superficially admired for so-called “greatness,” while recordings of [Big Name Canonical Composer]’s Greatest Hits sit unloved in music collections of people desperate to show some level of “class” or “sophistication.” If one really thinks about it, it’s not much different from what happens in other genres. Similar to the example provided in the previously-linked definition of cultural capital, people might want to show diligent “hipness” by claiming they like an indie band; the more local and arcane, the better to demonstrate so-called “authenticity.”
With it being the new year, it sounds like a resolution is in order. To be honest with ourselves about what kind of music we like, but to be open as well to other kinds of music without regard to its sociocultural weight, whatever the context. It might not improve the balance of year-end coverage of musician deaths, but maybe it’s a start in liberating all kinds of music genres from the expectations we place on them.