Home > Uncategorized > Let’s Do the Time Warp: Older Music in Newer Contexts

Let’s Do the Time Warp: Older Music in Newer Contexts

Before reading this posting, think for a few moments about the music of your youth. Here are a few questions to guide you:

  • What did you listen to as an adolescent, or in your early twenties?
  • More broadly, what music pervaded your zeitgeist…the spirit of your time? Were you aware of that music?
  • Did you ever feel that your musical tastes were out of step with everyone else’s?
  • Did any music from previous times, such as the moving target of “classic rock,” ever resonate with you?

Based on personal observations, whether in-person conversations or Facebook threads, the music of one’s youth becomes a frame of reference for contemplating one’s place within… well, the world, maybe even the universe. The first two questions pertain to that notion. For some people, it can be a bit different, as the other two questions imply. As music journalist Alex Ross recounts in his 2004 New Yorker piece Listen to This (also reprinted in a 2010 collection of essays by the same name), he listened almost exclusively to classical music when he was growing up, hardly even considering the merits of popular music until attending university. In many ways, I can relate to Ross’ story. Possibly because of my own classical inclinations, I have occasionally pondered an interesting temporal trick: How a work composed one or two hundred years earlier could also be part of a broader contemporary zeitgeist. I know that makes little sense. The people who committed those notes to paper have been gone for decades, perhaps even a few centuries.

I started thinking a bit more deeply about this possibility recently, especially in relation to my research. When we think about music from a specific year (say as an extra-musical facet), could it include interpretations of works from many years before? The inconsistencies of dates on my iTunes account, sometimes derived from metadata found on compact discs, clearly illustrates this puzzle; it could be the original recording date, the digital remastering date, or the date of composition (which is relatively rare). Combine it with the notion of older music having greater personal resonance than newer music, and it gets even more confusing.
The catalyst for such contemplation derives from a quote found in Music and Mind in Everyday Life, written by Eric Clarke, Nicola Dibben, and Stephanie Pitts. It states the following within the third chapter “Expression and Communication in Performance”:

Recordings from different times and places demonstrate that expressive performance cannot be divorced from its cultural and historical context. Historical recordings of classical music are particularly interesting, because although the musical materials are constant, the performance styles can be radically different… In fact… musical structure, performance conventions, the emotional ‘narrative’ that a performer discovers or invents, the possibilities and limitations of the instrument, and the performer’s own engagement with it are all tightly bound together in a complex web of interactions, as the psychologist Patrik Juslin has tried to indicate in a model of expressive performance (p. 45).

I cannot speak about the perspectives of performers per se, but I can say that I tend to associate certain classical recordings with my adolescence. And not even necessarily recordings I heard at that time. Browsing through the selection of recordings at Harmony House in Toledo, Ohio, provided a heady contrast, or perhaps even complement, to the rock music playing in the background. In 1989, I bought my first compact disc (an RCA digital remastering of the legendary Artruo Toscanini conducting Wagner) at that store. That same year, Eva Marton performed the title role of Richard Strauss’ Salome at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Whether it was recorded from the radio, bootlegged, or whatever else, I very recently discovered a two-part upload of the final scene.

Even though I didn’t attend the performance, it brings to mind memories of that year: moving from the countryside into town; my sophomore and junior years of high school; the girls I pined for; various popular culture artifacts like Tim Burton’s Batman (possibly because of its own grimly comedic aspect, with Jack Nicholson’s Joker terrorizing a fictional analogue to NYC); and the historical significance of events that occurred later that year, which I’ll discuss in a bit. But what else was in the air musically that year? The top song that comes to mind is Madonna’s highly controversial “Like a Prayer,” whose parallels to Salome I outline in a previous posting.

In a series of two postings, I also discuss U2’s engagement with the Salome story in the early 1990s, around the same time as a number of new recordings of Strauss’ opera.

One early 1990s performance of the final scene became available four years ago on YouTube. More specifically, it is from the Wiener Staatsoper, with a recording date of 12 December 1991… not long after the release of Nevermind and Achtung Baby.

What was I doing then? Likely panicking about the end of my first term at university, preparing for final exams, looking forward to being home a few weeks during the holidays (during which time I had my wisdom teeth extracted, and attended a home basketball game), and approaching my 19th birthday. Despite the somewhat murky recording quality, those memories can emerge upon hearing the recording, along with fantasies of actually being there… an adolescent Gen Xer wandering around in early-1990s Vienna, with this Salome performance as a capstone, its climax firing my imagination as devastating sonic waves of desire and satiation reverberated throughout the performance hall.

It’s amazing how a recording can throw off our temporal sense, regardless of the time it comes from, or the type of music. How it can summon up memories, and perhaps even daydreams of alternative universes. But is this the kind of thing musicologist and social theorist Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) warned about, whether for old or new recordings? Escapism and sentimental wallowing (per his writings from the late 1930s through early 1940s) possibly acting as a soft-handed way of ensuring maintenance of the status quo? Not enabling music, preferably in the German tradition, to move “forward?” After all, Adorno made clear his disdain for both popular music and works by a number of composers (especially the romantics), due to what he perceived as an emphasis on emotional and/or physiological effect (or “manipulation”) over structural integrity. Given Adorno’s Marxist outlook, he probably would consider such listening practices as forms of temporal alienation, with (at least reading him literally) pretty much all of us who listen to most music being complicit in perpetuating any number of social inequities.

Adorno respected composers whom he identified as prioritizing structure over effect, like Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). He also admired Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) for composing music whose dissonant aspects “confronted” the problems of capitalist society, rather than smooth them over with the conventions of tonality. (Funnily enough, Schoenberg was not a fan of Adorno.) Even though his music is relatively more tonal, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) also became part of Adorno’s orbit of approved composers for similar reasons.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) also discusses those three composers in The Unanswered Question – Six Talks at Harvard. In this 1973 series, he attempts to apply Chomskyan linguistics to musical structure. Even though Bernstein provides a fair discussion of Schoenberg’s significance to “western art music,” his admiration for Beethoven and Mahler is more evident in assessing his overall career. In 1989, less than a year before he died, Bernstein came to Berlin to lead a Christmas Day concert of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Slightly altering the words to the fourth movement’s “Ode to Joy,” Bernstein changed “joy” to “freedom” (Freude to Freiheit) as a way of commemorating the monumental historical changes symbolized by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. A few years later, U2 incorporated a segment of the fourth movement into the opening of its ZooTV concert before launching into “Zoo Station,” named after the railway station at the Zoological Gardens in Berlin; put another way, a rock band made historically and culturally significant connections between one of its own songs and a classical piece.

Needless to say, especially since they used a fragment, Adorno would not have been pleased with Bono et al.

During the aforementioned Harvard lectures, Bernstein talked in great depth about the significance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Certainly, it had deep personal resonance for him. At least three audio recordings exist, from 1965, 1979 (his sole collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic), and 1985. A 1971 film documents an interpretation with the Vienna Philharmonic, some of which is folded into Four Ways to Say Farewell (his tour de force analysis of the symphony) and The Unanswered Question. In the latter, Bernstein muses on its significance to the whole of the twentieth century, which he assesses as a “badly-written drama” of greed, hypocrisy, hysteria, genocide, and totalitarianism. The antidotes to the overarching “angel of planetary death” aren’t much better. It being 1973, he mentions a number of general and specific fads from the time, along with a “well-bred paranoia, most recently on display in the high places of Washington, D.C.” (of which Bernstein was on the receiving end). Bernstein even suggests that Mahler sensed these kinds of horrors were impending. I don’t think we can ever truly know if that was the case. Nonetheless, Bernstein found Mahler’s Ninth very much contemporaneously relevant, even if he might have projected some of his own political and personal demons onto it as well.

Returning to the opening series of questions, what do we project upon a specific musical work when we think about its roles in certain time periods? This posting does not purport to hold an answer, but the anecdotal examples herein provide some ways of pondering this idea at a tangle of personal, sociocultural, and political dimensions. It can become even more complicated when one hears a recording of a live performance with deep significance at all of those levels. With that, I’ll leave you with another Mahler 9th story entitled Poignance Measured in Digits, its compelling personal narrative stretching from 1938 to 1989.

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