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Opera meets Industrial: Tristan and Isolde’s Downward Spiral

June 10th marks the 150th anniversary of the premier of Richard Wagner’s opera (or music drama, per Wagner’s preferred terminology) Tristan und Isolde. Given its importance to the history of opera, as well as its personal resonance, it seemed appropriate to do a related and timely posting. That said, I have nothing truly new to contribute, other than this updated (and hopefully improved) version of some musings I wrote in early 2013.

This posting relates to connections between Tristan and another work that seems “very different” on the surface, but which (to me, at least) might share deeper affinities. This is by no means a proper, polished academic study, and this blog is no place for such a thing. However, what follows does demonstrate how a listener might make “odd” connections between different kinds of music.

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 the score by Bernard Herrmann 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 connections 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.

Two years ago, the Canadian Opera Company put on a new production of Tristan. Some interesting talents contributed to this particular version. 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 a 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 30-40 minutes.

The Liebesnacht breaks abruptly 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 melody for 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, and not just because we’re “supposed” to see Tristan as “high” art with poetic lyrics, while “Big Man with a Gun” is of a “lower” form with obscene lyrics. 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 white noise or, for brief naps, this track from Brian Eno’s 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks:

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
(Help me)
It’s your sex I can smell
(Help me)
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.

That is, of course, if one believes that Tristan and Isolde are (at least subconsciously) 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, one could also argue that it almost renders us anaesthetic, 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:

BOTH
O endless night,
sweet night!
Glorious, exalted,
night of love!
Those whom you embrace,
on whom you smile,
how could they ever awaken
from you without dismay?
Now banish fear,
sweet death,
ardently desired
death in love!
In your arms,
devoted to you,
ever sacred glow,
freed from the misery of waking!

Furthermore, Tristan and Isolde 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:

ISOLDE
Without languishing …

BOTH
enfolded in sweet darkness.

TRISTAN
Without separating …

BOTH
without parting,
dearly alone,
ever at one,
in unbounded space,
most blessed of dreams!

TRISTAN
You Tristan,
I Isolde,
no more Tristan!

ISOLDE
You Isolde,
I Tristan,
no more Isolde!

BOTH
No names,
no parting;
newly perceived,
newly kindled;
ever, unendingly,
one consciousness;
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. And, as discussed in the Canadian Opera Company interview with Viola and elsewhere, Wagner was influenced by “Eastern” culture through the writings of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

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. And maybe I’m reading too much into Bill Viola’s contributions to the The Tristan Project as another connection.

The same could also be said for an article about underground industrial musician Pig, where we are asked to:

Imagine for a moment that Trent Reznor and Richard Wagner had an illegitimate mutant child and raised him in London on nothing but tequila and peyote with plenty of power tools and knives to play with. Next, imagine that they unleashed him on the unsuspecting world of underground industrial music in 1988.

Or a discussion thread that lists The Downward Spiral and The Best of Wagner as the best Gothic albums of all time, per Q Magazine.

Or the lineage mentioned in Metal Evolution from “pre-Metal” (which contains Wagner and other musicians from various genres) to Shock Rock to Industrial Metal.

Or an article about a University of Calgary undergraduate research symposium, which happens to ask by way of example, “What was Richard Wagner’s influence on Heavy Metal, Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails?”

Or, in a posting about his work with film director David Fincher, some discussion about Reznor’s usage of leitmotif in albums like The Downward Spiral:

What makes these albums so cinematic is not only their emphasis on story but their reliance on leitmotifs – that is, the repetitive use of short melodies, chord progressions, and/or rhythm patterns with which the Romanic opera composer Richard Wagner experimented in the nineteenth century. An example of the use of leitmotifs in Reznor’s work from this time period is the simple piano figure with which “Closer” closes and reappears in later songs on The Downward Spiral.

(Although that figure actually reminds me a bit of Va, pensiero from Nabucco, but we’re not talking about Verdi here…)

I will resist, however, trying to contemplate the possible connections among Fincher’s adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor’s musical contributions to the film with collaborator Atticus Ross, and the fictional Nazi-tainted anti-Semitic (ahem) “Vanger” clan…

Currently, a number of recommender systems generally draw upon collaborative filtering algorithms, which take into account similarities among items or users, but not much deeper levels than those (and which end up reflecting genre-based categorization). However, as discussed above with regard to Wagner and Nine Inch Nails, notions of musical and extra-musical similarity might be more complex than current systems typically take into account, with seemingly “random” connections potentially belying deeper sociocultural and psychological roots, regardless of genre.

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