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“Capital Ideas” in Music: Part I

June 10, 2015 Leave a comment

Introduction

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the joint Annual Conference of the Canadian University Music Society (MusCan) and Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (CAML). The title for this posting derives from this year’s theme for the broader Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, of which the MusCan / CAML conference was a part, and where various scholarly organizations in Canada hold their annual meetings. This year’s venue was the University of Ottawa, its location within the Canadian capital likely accounting for the pun-worthy theme.

My ability to travel to Ottawa was made possible by winning CAML’s first-time presenter award, which covers pretty well all travel expenses. My talk lasted 20 minutes, which necessitated covering just the essentials of my research interests…musical omnivorousness, recommender systems, the construction and problematic aspects of genre, and the methodology for my doctoral research (a topic I have yet to discuss on here). The purpose of this posting isn’t to provide an overview of my talk, however. Rather, I want to discuss the other ideas that emerged from the conference, including the ones from presentations that were part of the same session as mine, and which shared some affinities with my own research.

The talks I attended on Wednesday tied directly to MusCan, so I suppose the ideas I took away (and the questions I brought) were more uniquely tied to my library and information science background and the perspectives of casual listeners. Like the CAML session where I presented, each session consisted of four talks lasting (ideally) 20 minutes each, followed by 10 minutes of questions.

Europe

The session on Europe oriented more closely towards “classical” music, with presentations that had personal resonance for me. Kenneth DeLong, from the University of Calgary, talked about the usage of musical excerpts from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval (Florestan, Coquette, and Lettres dansantes) to underscore the first person interior monologue in Fräulein Else, a 1924 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. The name might be familiar to Stanley Kubrick fans, as Schnitzler’s 1926 Traumnovelle was the inspiration for Eyes Wide Shut (although one could imagine the novella under consideration as more fodder for Kubrick as well). No questions emerged right away after the talk, so I felt compelled to throw out my own half-baked ones. One related to parallels that emerged for me between the novella’s climax, where a naked Else’s thoughts are further underscored by the Carnaval excerpts, and the dances / “mad scenes” from Richard Strauss’ operas Salome and Elektra. Of course, I realize that Schumann’s music is supposed to be diegetic, and that one can’t reach any definitive conclusions “as an academic” (to use DeLong’s words) without further evidence. But the connections seem in keeping with the turn-of-the-century Viennese Zeitgeist, and Schnitzler was a contemporary of Strauss’ (born in 1862 and 1864, respectively). Indeed, DeLong did mention that Schnitzler knew Strauss fairly well, so maybe my impertinent question wasn’t too far off, at least for further consideration of parallels, if nothing else. That said, I have no real stake in the matter, but the potential connections strike me as at least intriguing in terms of broader trends.

Adalyat Issiyeva, a doctoral candidate at McGill University, discussed the influence of French Orientalism on its Russian counterpart during the 19th century. In the realm of music, Russian composers tended to critique (at least in writing) the French approach to portraying broadly “Asian” themes… even as some of them borrowed musical ideas from the same composers. An interesting undercurrent is their admiration for Hector Berlioz, who was also French, but whose approach to orchestration a number of Russian composers found particularly noteworthy. My notes include some scribblings about artistic truth (rather than literal truth) and harmonics being important to the Russian composers discussed during this session. Some personal favourites of mine were name-checked, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (quite a bit) and Alexander Borodin (more towards the end) in relation to the topic. They were among some of the first composers I listened to when I got back into classical music in high school, so it was especially interesting to hear about another dimension related to the context in which they composed.

Also from McGill University, Christopher Antila and Lydia Huang attempted to contextualize both the “Girl” and the Mandarin from Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, drawing upon “[Michel] Foucault’s and [Homi] Bhabha’s writings about sexual and racial identities.” Is “Mimi” (Huang’s name for the Girl), for instance, actually a prostitute (per conventional wisdom), luring men like the Mandarin into a room to be robbed by her three associates? Or is her identity, even backstory, more complicated than previously imagined? Especially considering the time period during which Bartók worked on The Miraculous Mandarin (1918-1924), is the title character more of a flesh-and-blood contextualized person… not so much an allegory, but more a bureaucrat who escaped from the 1911 China Revolution? Certainly, it goes to show that seemingly allegorical works don’t just “happen,” but that they are historically-situated. As well, I’ve always wondered about the city in which the work takes place. The presenters leave it at Budapest, given Bartók’s nationality, which makes sense. But for some reason, I always imagined someplace like New York, which would have had more urban hustle and bustle, as represented in the piece’s opening. In any case, it’s good to hear an original contextualization that brings the admittedly vague “story” of The Miraculous Mandarin to much deeper life.

Also original was Julie Anne Nord’s presentation about the role of the bass clarinet in Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which also happens to celebrate its 150th anniversary this month. Expanding on Strauss’ claim that the bass clarinet symbolizes “solemn resignation” on the part of King Marke, Nord draws upon Thomas Turino’s ideas of semiotic snowballing to claim that the instrument symbolizes ideas of chivalry and Marke himself throughout the opera. Among other things, the bass clarinet makes its final appearance at the beginning of the Isolde’s concluding Liebestod (“love death”), likely symbolizing the supplanting of chivalry with forgiveness of Tristan and Isolde. Interestingly, as I mentioned to Nord in the Q&A session, the bass clarinet seemed to sound more like low notes played on a regular clarinet. But the bass clarinet is there in the score, which perhaps makes the assumption (by Wagner at least) that more discerning and musically literate minds would detect the bass clarinet’s presence. And, as Nord suggested to me, perhaps it’s because of my own musical background. Indeed, my own formal training was in trumpet in middle school band, and I don’t recall bass clarinets in that. In any case, a compelling argument on the topic of “tone-speech” or timbre, which apparently isn’t studied much in music.

Identity

This session, which focused on a more diverse range of genres (albeit with two of four talks related to classical music, broadly speaking), began with a presentation by Jon-Thomas Godin (Brandon University in Manitoba) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Drawing upon a brew of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, and Sigmund Freud, Godin took a psychoanalytical approach to discussing why audiences end up feeling sympathy for the title character, even with his rather sordid actions. At the risk of oversimplifying Godin’s ideas, such sympathy emerges due to Giovanni’s lack of identity (which is defined by others in the opera) and self-awareness, the latter equating with a sense of mortality, which only emerges as he is literally being dragged to Hell near the end. Prior to that, however, Giovanni is more action-oriented, his thrill-seeking in petites morts standing in for achieving self-awareness and identity (even if, despite his reputation, he’s generally unsuccessful in his pursuits of women).

The second presentation, by Steven Hicks of Carleton University’s Music and Culture program, discussed the identity of one composer tied in with that of another, with deeper cultural and political undertones. He focused on Richard Wagner’s A Pilgrimage to Beethoven, which I found rather amusing, as I kept thinking about Wagner’s piece as a kind of proto-FanFic, with him as the tale’s Mary Sue. Wagner inserts himself into his story as someone who is eventually able to befriend Beethoven (never minding that Wagner was a young adolescent when Beethoven passed), diligently drawing connections between himself and his idol as “pure” artists. A moneyed Englishman also appears in the story as an antagonist, with the ultimate goal of figuratively “collecting” composers in order to build prestige. Of course, there’s a strong German nationalistic element as well… at least in a cultural sense, given that Beethoven was Austrian and Wagner German (even though Germany didn’t actually form until 1871, roughly around the final decade of Wagner’s life). Indeed, one can imagine the story tying in with the notion that Germans care more about art and culture instead of money, unlike “those people” who may or may not be wealthy Englishmen.

Although Wagner certainly has cult-like aspects attached to him, the next presentation by Dawn Stevenson (also of Carleton University Music and Culture program) talked about an actual cult leader and his own dabblings in music. More specifically, she discussed the formation of the Apollo Stars by none other than L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame. Of course, L. Ron was a polymath… more so than Wagner… who knew what was what, on everything under the sun, including music. He developed a rather idiosyncratic view on, and quite colonialist classification system of, various musics of the world. Whatever one thinks of his beliefs about music, the formation of the Apollo Stars reflected his own awareness of trends in popular music over the years, as well as his own interest in possible connections among different kinds of genres. Given my own research interests, this idea intrigued me, so I asked after the talk what kinds of discernable connections existed among the music on the Apollo Stars’ 1974 album The Power of Source (especially given its ostensibly religious connections ), and how Hubbard conceptualized connections across genres. Stevenson mentioned that there seemed to be nothing readily discernible in terms of connections among the album’s tracks, and that Hubbard’s ideas about connections across genres mentioned concepts like “melody,” “harmony,” and other such terms. On that topic, perhaps it remains up to an exceptionally intrepid scholar to try getting into the mind of old L. Ron, although it seems apt to take a few minutes to chill and listen to a sample of his stylin’s…

The final MusCan talk I attended was given by Jada Watson of Université Laval, and focused on the connections between various kinds of country music and the construction of geo-cultural identities by country artists. More specifically, Watson considered Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, and (perhaps better-known to Canadian audiences) Corb Lund of Alberta as case studies related to different regions. More “hard core” musicians tend to have a firmer sense of place in their music, while other “soft shell” musicians talk more broadly about romanticizing rural versus urban environments. Of course, such tendencies may change over the course of one’s career, from writing and performing songs about one’s sense of place to a broader notion of “the simple life.” (Although I’m not sure where one would actually be “tipping cows in Tulsa.”) Interestingly, the ideas from Watson’s presentation resonate with my own research, as a fair number of respondents in my study have made some interesting observations about the kinds of country music they like. More specifically, they’ll contrast their country preferences with the kinds they don’t; in one case, one respondent described alt-country (which Watson described as a more “hard core” kind of country) as a contrast to “contemporary country” with its pro-America (or, perhaps pro-‘Murica) stylings. It will be interesting to see what further comments emerge regarding country music in my own research, especially bearing in mind that I’m speaking with people who are currently living in an urban environment in Canada (which, as alluded to above, has its own versions of country music as well).

(Actually, at least a few times when traveling to and from Texas during my time living there, I might have driven through “where 69 meets 40” [U.S. and Interstate routes, respectively].)

Conclusion to Part I

As one can see just from the sessions I attended, MusCan offered attendees an opportunity to learn about music from a variety of genres. Of course, “classical” remained prominent (although it might’ve just been the sessions I attended), but it’s interesting anyway to think about how a diverse range of music can be discussed in a manner that accords them some degree of serious attention, regardless of our own personal opinions of value, and even as the narrative of “austerity” in higher education tries dictating that such research is basically frivolous. As mentioned by someone whose talk I’ll describe in the second part of this posting, there are definite reasons why various kinds of music resonate within broader cultural contexts, and they are all worthy of study, regardless of whether they are slapped with “high-“, “middle-“, or “lowbrow” labels. And certainly, that’s part of the reason why I’m doing my own research into notions of similarity beyond the conventional confines of genre… which is why I found just the handful of sessions I was able to attend at MusCan so fascinating and worth writing about.

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.

Virtual Environments and Opera: What’s the Connection?

October 9, 2013 1 comment

Author’s note: Published on 14 February 2012, this posting originally appeared on tl;dr (derived from the techie colloquialism “too long, didn’t read”), a now-defunct blog that focused on video games and information. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof of its existence. Currently in its place is some generic webpage advertising various things. While it would’ve been nice to know from the tl;dr administrators that they were no longer hosting the site, especially since it has been on my curriculum vitae, I had the foresight to save it, and to bring it back for those who might be curious about this particular topic. Regular readers of this blog might notice a slightly different style of writing, as I probably would have made this at least twice as long on here, and would have gone into greater detail about musical similarities.

A few years ago, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote a post on his blog about the performance of video game music at orchestra concerts. He included a trailer for a PBS special called Video Games Live, which features an orchestra playing music from video games. Orchestras strapped for cash in already economically dire times have used this strategy to appeal to a broader audience. The concert in the trailer provides an immersive experience, complete with visuals to remind the audience what the music is portraying. Speaking for myself, it dictates too much what one might be better off imagining. After all, the target audience is presumably well-versed in some of the action that occurs in various games, and they might prefer to reflect on personal memories and experiences; the times they defeated a particularly challenging boss, or bonding with comrades in an MMO environment.

As the trailer points out several times, the audience consists of young people who might not have dreamed of going to an orchestra concert. I agree in principle (if not with the execution featured in the clip) with the idea of video game music acting as a way to expand the musical interests of those who might otherwise remain unexposed to “classical music” Note that I say “expand the interests” instead of “improve the tastes,” because the latter is a loaded judgment. (I’ll spare you from a digression into the ideas of cultural theorists like Adorno and Bourdieu.) Also, I place classical music in scare quotes because it is a highly problematic term. As much as I love the music itself, I dislike the term for reasons that would constitute several essays. (Ross’ 2004 essay Listen to This does an exemplary take-down of the term, which he describes as a “tour de force of anti-hype.”)

Video games share a number of similarities with film, such as the accompaniment of music to pre-crafted sequences, as opposed to the stage-based experience of live opera. Furthermore, both forms may incorporate music from any genre; this brings into question the parameters of both film music and video game music. Since much of what appears in the Video Games Live trailer sounds firmly rooted in the “classical” realm, it brings to mind the ideal of the “total art work,” or Gesamtkunstwerk.

And now, for a brief lesson in opera history. To paraphrase Dante, I assure you that it relates to video games…

You’ve probably heard at least a few snippets from operas by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), such as the ever-ubiquitous Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, as well as Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Although he did not originate the term Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner has become most commonly associated with it. He coined it to describe his aesthetic ideal, an “artwork of the future” that incorporates all art forms: design, literature, performance, and practically anything else you can imagine. The Festspielhaus (festival theatre) he had built in Bayreuth for the performance of his own “music dramas” aided in realizing this vision. The hidden orchestra pit was designed to compel audiences to focus on the stage, ensuring that their eyes wouldn’t wander to the musicians. Boston-based Unitarian minister and music critic John Sullivan Dwight referred to the intended effect as a “wall of sound,” a phrase recycled over 80 years later to describe the Wagnerian ambience that record producer Phil Spector wanted to achieve in his pop music recordings. Completed in 1876, the principles of Bayreuth presaged those that gradually emerged in cinema. Audiences have now become accustomed to watching premade “total artworks” in theatres with hidden sources of sound. A compilation of essays in Wagner and Cinema (2010) delves into these connections further.

A century after Wagner launched Bayreuth with his multi-part mythical epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (of which Die Walküre is a part), George Lucas brought home the connections between cinema and the “total artwork” with one of his own. Right down to a Wagner-influenced soundtrack by John Williams.

In some ways, video games are yet another extension of the aesthetic ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The difference, of course, is that their audiences actively participate in guiding the action… at least insofar as designers allow them to do so. When George Lucas made the first Star Wars film, the video game experience was limited to things like Pong. Now, video games have become substantially more immersive, making them more and more similar to the theatrical ideas promulgated by Wagner. (By the way, how’s SWTOR going for you?) As more immersive “total artworks” emerge, and if gamers of all ages (a notion the video game concert clip sidesteps) can learn more about the complex genealogy of the music that accompanies the games they play, perhaps the process begun by Wagner will come full circle.

It is up to us whether future immersive gaming environments are as relatively benign as the holodeck, or as malignant as a self-centred and intolerant dystopia. We must remember that Wagnerian aesthetics has its own dark side as well, most infamously embodied in the idolization of the composer and his anti-Semitism by one of history’s most infamous monsters. Similar considerations could apply as well to increasingly dynamic information environments, with the promise of immersiveness connecting us with many configurations of various modes of information, or Balkanizing us into highly specialized clusters of users.

Still think that these ideas about the similarities between opera and video games (or, more specifically, Wagner and virtual reality) are a bit “out there?” Others are actually way ahead of me in that respect. An entire book and a related website have already considered them together.

[Below is a convention for tl;dr, which appeared at the end of each posting.]
tl;dr

The affinities between immersive virtual environments and opera are more powerful than you could possibly imagine. Wagner established the foundation, embodying both its light and dark sides.

Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training.

An Ambivalent Commemoration: Wagner at 200 (Part 1 of [probably] 4)

May 19, 2013 1 comment

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.

Right?

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.”

http://www.tolkien.co.uk/Pages/Home.aspx

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 discusses Wagner’s wide-ranging impact on cinema, where I proffer a few personal connections I’ve made between some film soundtracks and Wagner’s compositions.

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The Search!Down!: Janis Joplin and Richard Wagner

January 19, 2013 3 comments

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…

Slight Return: A Psychedelical Classical Tribute to Jimi Hendrix

November 24, 2012 2 comments

Image

Phonecard from Deutsche Telekom (1991)

Thanks in part to the wonders of YouTube, my CD collection remains stuck where it was roughly around the fin de siècle. Most of the recordings are in three-ring CD binders, alphabetized by “main author” (to use librarian jargon). Composers for “western art” (or “classical”) music, performers for “popular” music, all interfiled long ago per my belief in the equal status of all types of music. The same goes for my Bigso Box of CD booklets, which excludes the thicker librettos and liner notes from boxed opera sets.

Flipping through the booklets is sometimes like a walk back in time. Between The Best of Isaac Hayes and Bernard Herrmann Film Scores, I have five booklets from a musical enthusiasm I developed in the mid-1990s. It has cooled somewhat for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but my respect for one of the greatest guitarists ever remains. This posting commemorates him, Jimi Hendrix, who would have turned 70 this year on 27 November.

It was during my third year at university, spring term in 1994, when I first became acquainted with Hendrix’s virtuosity. Not that I had never heard of him prior to that. Like Mozart and Beethoven to people who shy away from classical music, Hendrix was that way to classical- and opera-obsessed me. (And, I’m sad to say, there remain a number of rock bands that still have that status in my mind, including Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.) In a high school art class many years before, my oldest brother made a clay sculpture of Hendrix’s head. I remember it resting in either my parents’ living room or in our nominally “finished” basement for some time, its almond-shaped blank eyes lending the head an air of mystery. If memory serves correctly, one of my suitemates from my first few years at university had a poster of Hendrix on his side of the suite. That said, I don’t recall him ever playing anything by Hendrix. For some reason, I also remember a snippet of a conversation where one of my more sober-minded and witty friends talked about Hendrix being “awesome.” Of course, some of the legends that formed around Hendrix had become almost as big as his music, including the one about him playing guitar with his teeth.

Not too long after that, a student from Pakistan named Kamran decided that I should become acquainted with Hendrix’s genius. I was visiting his apartment, a high-ceilinged and dimly-lit place above a storefront, in a building likely constructed a century before. Regarding the recording he selected, for some reason I remember it being from a live performance in California. Possibly 1967 or 1968, maybe from the Monterrey Pop Festival or Winterland in San Francisco. For whatever reason, my ears were receptive to this music, even though it seemed “very different” from my more “cultured” listening habits. It might have been the right combination of good recording practice and the spontaneity of the live performance.  No controlled substances were consumed, either.

As I listened, I kept thinking about how this was from the ‘60s, man. That Hendrix’s guitar playing was appropriately “freaky,” while also demonstrating a very keen talent. “Psychedelic,” to employ the overused (and abused) word, whose mind-expanding nature has fallen into ill-repute and caricature. Transcendent, almost extraterrestrial, perhaps even spiritual. This was like nothing I had heard before. How did he get the guitar to make all these weird and wonderful noises? To go all over the scale? To screw up the tension towards a satisfactory release? To sound, I daresay, almost romantic?

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. It took some time for me to make the connection to the blues, along with other genres one could perceive as flowing to and from Hendrix. Leonard Bernstein talked of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde as being “the central work of all music history, the hub of the wheel” (and to which I will return at a later point). Albeit from a different genre and time period, one could set aside some space within the hub for Hendrix as well. Liner notes tend to play up the work of the artist in question, but I can believe the claim made by Rob Partridge in the booklet from the first Hendrix CD I purchased (Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience, MCA, 1993):

In the two decades since his death, Hendrix’s legacy can be heard across an extraordinary range of musics, from funk to jazz, rap to soul, blues to rock. Hendrix is a cornerstone of modern music (Partridge 1993, 3).

In addition, as Butt-head points out (I believe from the Ensucklopedia co-authored with his compatriot Beavis), “Some radio dude said heavy metal owes a debt to dudes like Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Beavis says it’s only, like, five dollars.”

In other words, Hendrix didn’t achieve renown just by being some crazy guy who did weird things with his guitar during the 1960s, likely under the influence of a constant high from hallucinogens supposedly hidden in his headband. Granted, it’s difficult to eschew that image completely, but there’s so much more. Otherwise, why would musicians continue to remain in awe of him, and draw upon him for inspiration? When I finally became acquainted with U2 roughly 10 years ago, I immediately picked up the strong Hendrix influence on The Edge. Especially in “Bullet the Blue Sky,” one can almost imagine Hendrix himself returning to possess “David Evans” during a performance.

A year after getting into Hendrix, I purchased Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix. The new versions generally provided some excellent renditions. One of my favourites is Belly’s erotically-charged rendition of “Are You Experienced.”

Personally, I actually prefer Belly’s rendition over the diligently trippy original, which would probably get me in serious trouble with Hendrix purists.

But then, any creation is always open to reinterpretation (even in terms of extra-musical meaning, as seems the case here), and may at times transcend the original. For the most part, however, many of the other songs on the album are pretty faithful updates and re-imaginings of the Hendrix “sound,” even if they aren’t from the master himself.

Funnily enough, the one track I find weakest is the tribute to “Fire,” led by violinist Nigel Kennedy.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “But, Jason, you’re a classical fan, and you’re into cross-genre similarity. Why aren’t you keen?” Of course, my big purpose on this blog is to emphasize similarities between “very different” types of music, most especially “classical” and “popular” as they’re generally understood within a “Western” cultural context. That doesn’t mean I like the execution, and I have in fact written already about my problems with many crossover albums, as a number of them try too hard to bridge the classical and popular gap.

Released in 1995, In from the Storm makes such an effort, with various popular musicians like Sting, Carlos Santana, Stevie Vai, and Brian May playing Hendrix-associated songs with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. I recall it being an okay effort, but I still got just enough of the nagging sensation of caricature in the convergence of popular and classical realms.

Granted, explicit examples of genre crossover are relevant to my research interests, providing solid evidence for my central point. Nonetheless, I’m actually more interested in the more subtle currents of similarity that can exist, whether consciously or (even better) unintentionally. As far as I can tell, aside from the liner notes for In from the Storm, there’s a paucity of information about the connection between Hendrix and classical music. One interesting story I do recall, however, comes from Humphrey Burton’s excellent biography of Leonard Bernstein (like my first encounter with Hendrix, also from 1994). It mentions the conductor and composer attending a Hendrix concert in 1969, before flying off to Vienna to conduct Ludwig van Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio.

More recently, from Johnny Black’s Eyewitness Hendrix (1999) and John McDermott’s Setting the Record Straight (1992), I learned that Hendrix’s manager Michael Jeffery arranged for the Jimi Hendrix Experience to perform something called “An Electric Thanksgiving” in 1968. The deal stipulated that someone from Experience would play classical music with the New York Brass Quintet, with a performance by the band itself afterwards. In Black’s book, drummer Mitch Mitchell describes having tea with Leonard Bernstein, as well as being the only member who agreed to perform with the ensemble (170). McDermott writes that bassist Noel Redding simply refused, while Hendrix “soured on the idea… upon learning that Jeffery had helped set it up” (156). Nonetheless, McDermott also suggests that Hendrix “may have been flattered by the offer.”

The liner notes for In from the Storm, also by McDermott (1995), illuminate this possibility. Several months before Hendrix’s death in September 1970, construction finished on his Electric Ladyland Studios. The quality of the facility provided him with an opportunity to expand his musical scope, and he had begun to meet with such jazz legends as Al Brown, Gil Evans, and Duke Ellington as part of the process. In addition, McDermott quotes classically-trained audio producer and engineer Eddie Kramer in describing Hendrix’s interest in classical music. According to Kramer, “’We talked about classical music and, to my surprise, he told me that a lot of his inspiration came from listening to it’” (McDermott, 14). The paragraph that follows is worth quoting in full:

Like his firm grasp on other styles of music, Jimi’s appreciation and understanding of classical music helped to form his own unique synthesis. While it is unlikely that he would have undertaken a traditional symphonic production, performing with a symphony orchestra… had long been a dream of Jimi’s. Classical music, as seen through Jimi’s prism, had a decided role to play in the grand design he envisioned for his future sound. Typically, Jimi offered few specifics, opting instead to describe his plan in cryptic by colorful language, perfectly content to let the music speak for him (McDermott, 14-15).

Interestingly, Hendrix’s timing would have been just right to go in such a direction. The Beatles became one of the first rock bands to draw upon Western art music, old and new, for inspiration. Furthermore, progressive rock began coming to the fore, with bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer incorporating classical elements into their songs… even going so far as to quote classical pieces directly.

But what did Hendrix listen to? McDermott mentions some of the canonical names more readily familiar to a broader public: Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Interestingly, however, McDermott also includes a massive quote from the man himself, which mentions some other names. It begins thus:

I dig Strauss and Wagner. Those cats are good. I think that they are going to form the background of my music (15).

Given my penchant for both composers, I was floored upon reading that. Perhaps that explains the affinity I developed for Hendrix when I first heard the live recording in Kamran’s apartment many years before. Maybe subconsciously, I picked up on specific attributes that somehow put me in mind of Strauss and Wagner. (That is, assuming Hendrix referred to Richard, and not a member of the Viennese waltz family… although Manic Depression, with its portrayal of “a cat wishing he could make love to music,” is in 3/4 time.) While I didn’t buy In from the Storm until 1998, when I first encountered the intriguing quote, I did make some personal connections between 1994 and that time.

In terms of Strauss, the Hendrix song that really puts me in mind of his typical composition style is “Stone Free.” The first few minutes of this 1969 performance from Albert Hall provides a perfect example.

It starts somewhat audaciously, followed by a quieter section that simultaneously manages to maintain and contain the initial excitement. As the music builds, there are a number of apparent key changes that emerge over increasingly shorter periods of time, building to a satisfying payoff that brings us to the song’s “hook.” The vocal range of Hendrix only adds to the song’s Straussian aspect.

In terms of Wagner, the affinities I see with Hendrix are highly specific, relating to his opera Tristan und Isolde. Now, how can one associate that with a psychedelic mindset? Tristan is, after all, the central musical work according to “classical” musician Leonard Bernstein. On the other hand, this is the same Leonard Bernstein who apparently had an interest in Hendrix, as described earlier. Furthermore, Michael Long’s Beautiful Monsters (2008) recounts an interesting story about a supervised LSD trip taken by Allen Ginsberg back in 1959, which inspired his poem Lysergic Acid. His choice of music to accompany his journey: Tristan (Long, 111-114).

On The Ultimate Experience, I usually skipped “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” to get to songs I liked better. For whatever reason at the time, the opening drove me to move on. However, while engaged in a politically-oriented activity one weekend at Ohio State University, I stepped into a quiet on-campus café with another student who had come along on the trip from Ohio Wesleyan University. I sensed some indications that she might have been interested in me, but I wasn’t sure, and she was already with someone. While we were there, “Burning” appeared on the café’s speaker system, and I ended up hearing the whole thing.

Perhaps due to the overall context in which I heard it, the post-introduction elements within the song brought forth a strong Tristan connection for me. It was a brief notion that entered my head, but I found it best to dismiss the possibility. While I somehow thought of it as being kind of like the opera’s Liebestod, or “Love Death,” I knew a direct overlay would not work.

Contemplating it now, I think my dismissal was valid, but still off the mark in a sense. It wasn’t until 1996 when I first got a complete box set of the opera (Karl Böhm’s white hot 1966 version from the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, Birgit Nilsson doing what she did best). Now I realize that the connection might have been with the overall soundworld of Tristan, more specifically the ethereal and nocturnal Act II Liebesnacht (or “night of love,” pardon the hamfisteffed translation).

While not similar in terms of melody, just jumping in and listening to both together at various points brings forth some intriguing aural affinities.

On a related note, I also imagined years ago what it would sound like if Hendrix shredded the Liebestod. Considering Hendrix’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner, Wagner purists would likely have protested in horror about “brutalization” of one of opera’s most sacred moments. While I love a good note-for-note rendition of the Liebestod myself, and have great respect and love for Wagner’s creation, I also think it would be perfect raw material for something else profound. What would’ve happened if Hendrix had the opportunity to improvise from Wagner’s original notes? Would he have amplified the already soul-crushing / life-affirming aspect of the work? Following Ginsberg’s Tristan-tinged trip, would Hendrix have brought out the potentially psychedelic elements of Wagner’s piece? Even if someone decides to take up the challenge, we will unfortunately never know what Hendrix would have done with it. But anyone who enjoys both Hendrix and Wagner can always dream. Although not right in terms of mood, the structure of one of the main themes from “Manic Depression” might provide a few surface clues.

As this tribute to Hendrix comes to a close, one extra-musical theme seems to have emerged. He has not only the readily-acknowledged strong ties with many forms of popular music. He has less apparent, but very strong, connections with classical as well. Had he remained with us, getting ready to celebrate his 70th birthday, who knows what he would have accomplished over the past four decades. Based on what we do know, however, one can readily say that Hendrix stands as a central point among many kinds of music, their similarities more intriguing than their differences.

Under My Skin: Beautiful Music, Horrible Memories

September 29, 2012 2 comments

During an already bizarre election year in the United States, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) has created a strange ad. Essentially, it tries to persuade Jewish Democrats not to vote for Barack Obama, due to various stances perceived as against Israel. “Is this still your Democratic party?” the ad asks. “Or Obama’s?”

The message alone does not make the ad strange, however. In the background plays ominous music. Groaning strings and horns, interrupted by thunderous brass blasts, all punctuated by the almost irregular-sounding beats of the timpani. Sounding almost like a portent of death itself.

Anyone sufficiently well-versed in opera (or, at least, that of the Teutonic kind) should recognize it: The “Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the final opera from Richard Wagner’s quadrilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.

For readers who might not know what makes this strange, an Israeli political interest group is pushing its agenda by using music composed by a virulent anti-Semite. On top of that, Wagner was one of Hitler’s favourite composers. In fact, Wagner is typically portrayed as Hitler’s favourite overall, and for good reason. The dictator not only enjoyed his music, but even described Wagner as a prophet foretelling the rise of Nazi Germany. Due to these associations, a long-standing unofficial ban on performances of Wagner’s music remains in effect in Israel. In this light, the usage of Wagner by the ECI comes across as either very disingenuous, deliberately provocative, or some combination for both: Especially with the implicit cultural knowledge embedded within the ad, one could associate “Obama’s Democratic Party” with the Nazis… and the “Arab American Democrats” seen three times in what I call the “Nuremburg rally cut,” lifted from the Democratic National Convention. On the other hand, it could backfire, and one could equate the politicized usage of Wagner by the ECI with that of you-know-who.

In this day and age, concerns about rock ‘n’ roll seducing and corrupting youth have generally fallen by the wayside. They occasionally flare up into melodramatic moral panics about sex, drugs, Satan worship, faux-Illuminati “occult” imagery, and so on. And yet, as we approach the bicentennial of the long-dead (since 1883) Wagner’s birth, he continues to spark fierce debate about whether one’s art can be tainted by the character of its creator. It’s understandable, considering that Wagner might have indirectly and posthumously inspired the mass murder of six million Jews. Although not a smoking gun, Wagner’s reaction to a theatre fire in Vienna seems damning when one thinks about the crematoria at the death camps. Since the fire took place in a Jewish section of the city, he “joked” that, “All Jews should be burned during a performance of Nathan the Wise.”

I can only imagine the challenges of wrestling with the anti-Semitic legacy of this angel of music, especially if one is Jewish. In an unfortunately unavailable and incomplete film made in Vienna in the mid-1980s, conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein makes a statement that summarizes the strong mixed feelings that can explode to the surface: I hate you Richard Wagner… But I hate you on my knees. Conductor Daniel Barenboim who has tried subverting the unofficial ban on Wagner in Israel (and who has worked to bring together Arab and Jewish musicians) has been called a “court Jew” by the less-than-charitable.

In the BBC documentary Wagner and Me, actor Stephen Fry explores his own mixed feelings about the composer.

Of Wagner, he says:

Music… it’s made me do things inside… it’s released forces within me. And no music has done it like Wagner’s. Over the years, my relationship with Wagner’s music has grown deeper and stronger, but also more complicated. Because it’s no secret my passion was also shared by him. And some people believe it even inspired his terrible crimes. I’m Jewish, so those are hard facts to face. And there have been times when I wondered if I ought really to love Wagner at all.

I’m not Jewish. More like German-Irish, with my parents having the surnames Delventhal and Neal. (It probably also accounts for why Salome is my favourite opera; a German composer adapting a play by an Irishman.) There are some exceptions, including a “freed man of color” 200 years ago from Massachusetts on my maternal grandmother’s side. So my own take on the issues surrounding Wagner is somehow paradoxically more and less fraught. On the one hand, there is the possibility of being considered a potential anti-Semite since I can’t claim Jewish heritage. On the other hand, I can’t be called a “court Jew” like Barenboim, or a “self-loathing Jew” like Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Like Fry, however, I’ve been swept up by Wagner’s music since my own youth. Needless to say, writing about this juxtaposition is very hard, especially in public as I try to keep a lid on my own strong feelings. In a bid for some kind of moral purity during adolescence, I even tried renouncing Wagner and all his works when I found out about his associations. But I could not, as his music can bring me to the most sublime heights of musical ecstasy. Not all of it, of course. Not Die Meistersinger, as, at least in my book, it’s not up to other of works. It is no Tristan. Besides, there’s the speech by Hans Sachs about protecting German art from “foreign” influences. A handy way for me to compartmentalize, I suppose.

What’s amazing is that all the people mentioned here never experienced the horrors of the death camps firsthand, with Wagner playing in the background as some apocryphal stories recount. Maybe it’s because his reach has been so broad and difficult to ignore. For many years after Wagner’s death, composers defined themselves in terms of being pro- or anti-Wagner. Creators in other media, including a number of authors (T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann), have alluded to Wagner in their works. Film and virtual environments have become more recent manifestations of the Gesamtkunstwerk (“total art work”) Wagner advocated. And, yes, a number of film composers cite Wagner as an influence. Of course, his operas still appeal to a number of aficionados, who at the very least appreciate the genius of Wagner’s music. Perhaps even more, they are drawn by its beauty, willingly drinking of its seductive and potentially deadly potion.

Not unlike Wagner’s cultural influence, the Holocaust continues to cast a large shadow as well, nearly 70 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Perhaps this accounts for the ongoing debate about Wagner, and the strong associations made to him by at least trying to imagine the Holocaust’s unimaginable horrors. Even if they are more direct, the connections between our personal lives and direct musical memories can pale in comparison. And yet, they are strong in their own way. For instance, without going into detail, I recently had a difficult falling-out with someone who introduced me to U2. (Also part of the reason why I hadn’t posted anything here for almost three months. Doing much better now.) In my own mind, can I listen to… can I somehow reclaim, maybe even enjoy… that music without making the association? Again, it’s most certainly not at the same level as the Holocaust. On the other hand, it’s more personal and recent.

Like Amfortas’ physical wound in Wagner’s final opera Parsifal, we have emotional wounds that might never heal without a miracle. Music can at least help with that. That’s why so many of us turn to it in our times of greatest need. But for those who associate certain music (especially very beautiful and well-crafted pieces, regardless of genre) with personal and historical traumas, that tension still might never go away. The debates about separating a work from its creator (and, perhaps by extension, other extramusical associations) will rage on, both within and beyond ourselves. The only thing we can do is try to resolve it for ourselves, as Stephen Fry does at the end of Wagner and Me:

Wagner’s music is bigger and better than Hitler ever imagined it to be. And Bayreuth, the theatre Wagner dreamed of creating for so long, is also redeemed by that fact. Which is why I’m not prepared to surrender either of them to him.

And…

I still believe, as firmly as I believe anything, that his work is important and on the side of the angels. It is fundamentally good.

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