Anodyne Arts

Posted: June 2, 2013 in Artistry, Classical Music, Music, Taste
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Critics have complained for centuries that the arts are exhausted, much like the cultures surrounding them. One of the principal complainers was German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler, whose 1918-1922 history in two volumes, The Decline of the West, was once widely read and discussed. Its abject pessimism is still controversial. More specific to music, Virgil Thomson was another well-known critic whose 1939 book/screed The State of Music takes unflinching account of art music (as opposed to popular music and jazz, which were still then developing) while suggesting a proper role for the artist/musician in society. Why do I cite works of two early 20th-century critics? Because the declinist argument is old, and to those uncritically subscribed to the myth of progress, more than a little difficult to justify considering what’s transpired in the interim. Material progress across the past century is pretty much beyond argument, and plenty of new artistic genres have emerged and fallen away in that time; but I believe Spengler and Thomson, among others, are really discussing the social, cultural, and spiritual realms, which might be best understood as embodied in artistic expression. The nostalic frame may be at work no less than when Hesiod described the Five Ages of Man in the 8th century BCE, perhaps the first citation of a fantastic Golden Age that must yield eventually to degradation. Still, to a congenital pessimist and recondite fatalist like me, Cassandra’s wail reaches sympathetic ears. I want to offer my take on what I call the anodyne arts, which won’t be nearly as writerly (witty, searing, and quotable) as Thomson or as erudite as Spengler, the latter of whom was prone to dropping math equations, proper names, and untranslated Latin and Greek into his arguments with the tacit expectation that his audience, educated readers, would not be unprepared. I will adopt that perspective to a degree, trusting that my minuscule readership may already be aware of my own themes and some portion of the subject I mean to critique: classical music performance.

Unlike musicians prior to the mid-20th century, I appeared on the scene well beyond the era when one could only hear classical music in live performance or as the product of one’s own two hands on the parlor piano. Before recorded music, many ensemble performances were cobbled together by amateurish pick-up groups operating in a vacuum that eventually led to professional orchestras being mounted. A handsome discography was already in place by the time I discovered composers and performers who held my interest and fascination through their mastery and creativity more than, say, Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Paul Simon, and Elton John. On top of countless hours spent in the practice room, lesson studio, rehearsal room, and on the concert stage, I’ve racked up a parallel tally of hours listening to and studying recordings, which accounts for a large portion of my musical education.

From the start, my go-to ensemble on disc (first LP then CD) was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), which figured in no small way in how I ended up living in Chicago. More than any of the other big orchestras, the CSO had evolved a distinctive, muscular sound especially well-suited to the music of the Romantic Era, and it could lay claim to owning several subsets of that repertoire. The Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan was (IMO) the closest competitor, with its own distinctive, sumptuous sound. Beginning sometime in the 1980s, about the time both orchestras’ music directors and many tenured musicians ceded positions to younger musicians, the orchestral sound changed, just as it had changed previously from the distinctive sound of film orchestras of the 1930s and 1940s. Top orchestras lost none of their virtuosity, but spirit dwelling within the music was unaccountably stripped out. The CSO’s byline for a few seasons was Be Moved! Yet in live performance and on disc, the polished sheen of perfect performance had the hardness of steel underscored by a notable lack of musical feeling. A lack of rhetorical intensity or suspense from risks not being taken was readily apparent. Obviously, the effect was achieved through a lengthy transition, not like a toggle switch flipped off, but to my ear, the new technical sensibility was/is unmistakable. Moreover, it’s a subtle assessment not readily available to note-counters and nonprofessionals, which IMO includes a wide swath of school musicians (teachers and students) at all levels.

Other Chicagoland ensembles with which I became familiar exhibited the same technical prowess despite a glaring absence of musicality. For instance, I gave up my season tickets to the Chicago Lyric Opera when I was forced to admit that its performances, no later than the second act but usually earlier, always provided the most luxuriant sleep I ever get. The Grant Park Symphony, staffed by many of the same musicians and performing in a woefully inadequate acoustic (it’s inexplicably impossible to hear direct sound in the Pritzker Pavilion, whereas the lawn behind was always intended to be solely amplified sound — both locations forced to contend with nearby traffic noise), suffers the same way. A few others will go unnamed.

As it happens, I have taken lessons with members of both the Chicago and Berlin orchestras, as well as players from other major orchestras. Lessons after 2000, to my chagrin, often focused on purely technical aspects of performance, excluding style and sensibility, whereas those prior to 1990 strove elsewhere. No doubt individual preparation hangs on minutiae, but collaborative performance en ensemble is what animates music, not merely securing one’s own notes with flip disregard for context. Much the same has happened in rehearsal, where all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are made to fit together properly, but from the bottom side, displaying the grey paperboard instead of the far more interesting picture on the reverse. This remarkable accomplishment is even more virtuosically empty that good music-making precisely because it’s managed under unnecessary constraint.

Again, the argument is quite old. For example, in a fit of intemperance, American composer and wild child Charles Ives drafted a letter to Nicolas Slonimsky ranting about conductor Arturo Toscanini. The letter was apparently never posted. Maybe it was intercepted by Ives’ wife Harmony, but it was somehow preserved and found its way into Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives (quoted in The First Four Notes by Matthew Guerrieri). Here is a juicy portion:

[A]lmost as bad is the way the lady-birds fall for that $75000 masseur that old stop-watch … little metronome. “Arthur Tascaninny” with his “permanent waves” (in both arms) he hypnotizes the nice boys in purple coats & the silk ladies — & gets their money! He makes Beethoven an Emasculated lily-pad — he plays the notes B. wrote down — plays it nice, even, up-down precise, sweet pretty tone, cissy-sounding way — not the music of Beethoven. He makes it easy for bodily part of the box-sitting sap & gets the money! … A Nation Mollycoddled by commercialized papp — America losing her manhood — for money — Whatever faults the puritans — they were men — & not effeminate!! Wake up America — kill somebody before breakfast.

Gotta love that last line: kill someone before breakfast! It bespeaks a coarse masculinity found everywhere in American culture, though strangely absent from today’s performance ethic. Say what you want of the militaristic, triumphalist, fame-whore swagger of this orientation as expressed in geopolitics, sports, superhero and cops-and-robbers cinema, and elsewhere; it actually belongs in hyper-expressive Romantic Era music, which constitutes the primary orchestral repertoire because people actually like it and will show up, unlike the florid embellishments of the Baroque, the tidiness of the Classical Era, or the cold machinations of Modern and Postmodern musics. Virgil Thomson captures the orchestral character of much Romantic Era music as follows:

The Berlioz tradition of instrumentation … [includes] Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. It is differential instrumentation. Clarity and brilliance are achieved by keeping the different instruments at all times recognizably separate. A thin and reed-like fiddle-tone is presupposed.

The rival tradition is that of Meyerbeer, Wagner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Strauss, and Puccini. This is absorptive instrumentation. Emotional power and tonal weight are achieved by lots of doubling at the unison, which is to say by the building up of composite instrumental timbres, all sounding somewhat alike but differing greatly in weight and carrying power. It presupposes a husky and vibrant fiddle tone.

The distinctions between differential and absorptive instrumentation and their attendant fiddle tones are washed out of modern performance, where the strings sound always the same no matter the repertoire and individual woodwind and brass instruments tend to either recede into the texture or draw focus arbitrarily, both being anodynes that remove the edginess of extremes by meeting in the middle to apply a bureaucratic sameness that undercuts clarity, brilliance, and emotional power. This convergence is also partly why orchestras have become sonically indistinguishable from each other unless one picks out individual players, whereas they used to have distinctive approaches and sounds sometimes based on nationality and other times on adaptations to their performance halls. The CSO in particular abandoned its distinctive sound and now could be easily mistaken for any number of other major orchestras.

There is a paradox, however, about how and when to blend or project one’s tone, which true musicians figure out but mere players never seem to get. In tutti passages at forte or fortissimo (and beyond), carrying power requires that players risk sounding ugly, overplaying with a harshness that oddly enough works beautifully when everyone commits. When only a couple players are willing to go there, loud playing often as not sounds like jet blast. To the career minded, why would one ever risk sounding ugly, sticking one’s neck out only to have it cut off by the conductor (and later the personnel manager)? Well, because the music calls for it and its expressive power can lift audiences right out of their chairs. At the opposite dynamic extreme, it takes willingness to sacrifice one’s sound to play soft enough in ensemble to achieve tonal effects that rivet audiences by their extremity, as when whispers unavoidably draw attention. Strings can play breathlessly soft without much difficulty (the CSO strings have made a fetish of it), but winds and brass must strain to get down. Again, to the career minded, why ever diminish one’s sound quality just to play softly? Same answer: the aggregate effect is awesome. A careerist, keeping everything always clean and proper but rarely going to extremes, may enjoy surprising success keeping the job and getting others, but the music goes missing. The same is true of conductors, who rationalize their refusal to take interpretive flight by treating the score as a sacred object of inviolable subject matter. Interpretive rigidity is found especially in various student and adult music competitions, where judges succumb to the fallacy of objective measure (note counting) when the art ought to rise above such mundane concerns. Yet every musician of any experience ends up traipsing through such traps often and long enough that the limiting habits of performance for quantitative measurement (which informs auditions, too) lead to steady, safe playing within a narrowed range of expression. Ironically, singers in televised karaoke competitions are spared this indignity, as no one expects them to sound competently professional (read: bland) while everyone is waiting to be surprised and swept away by charismatic energy and emotion.

As it happens, I had the unexpected opportunity to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall in its season finale late last month. The experience was quite similar to the CSO concerts I stopped attending: clean, proper, accomplished playing but little to make me care. The opening piece was a staple nod to contemporary music: a short, new work of about 10 min. banished to the overture part of the program preceding the concerto, leaving room for a monumental 19th-century work on the second half. None of the works exhibited much style or sensibility in performance, though one could not fault orchestral accuracy. I had heard the Cleveland Orchestra quite a lot in the middle 1980s but not since, and I knew that its legacy from the Szell era, never eclipsed by Dohnányi or Welser-Möst, was leaner and lighter than the others of the Big Five. But the Beethoven concerto (C minor) and the Tchaikovsky symphony (E major) on the program both call for hushed intensity and raucous celebration. Indeed, the Tchaik might even have risen to hysteria had the conductor called for it or the orchestra braved it. Nothing exhilarating happened, and being far too familiar and jaded now with music being anodyne rather than stirring, I couldn’t exactly feel cheated. Let’s call it instead being underwhelmed by an orchestra that can and should muster much more. Nothing, however, stopped the audience from rising to its feet, sparked by the first ubiquitous Bravo! emitted like a half-choked death spasm by some dude straining to establish vanguard credentials.

So what’s going on here? Why have top-tier ensemble musicians retreated into machine-like performance? From Spengler’s perspective, a culture’s arts and artifacts are truer telltales of the times than are the press releases pronouncements from government spokespersons or even professionally written histories. Accordingly, the Zeitgeist forces its way through all obfuscation and is embodied, probably unwittingly, in the highest expressive forms, even those based on historical re-creation. The low forms, as noted above, remain organic, responsive, and vulgar. It is only with high levels of abstraction that music loses its thread and becomes formalistic. The obvious connection with the way life is now lived is something I’ve explored with some thoroughness over the seven years this blog has been active. Separation of the base from the banal is evident everywhere, but underneath it all is a thoroughgoing anti-humanist thrust that transforms lived experience into either an antiseptic anodyne of the real drama life inevitably represents or a disembodied virtual world of wish-fulfillment considerably at odds with reality.

In more tangible terms, we desire, because we’re told to, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and hardwood floors because, by proxy, they mask the difficulty of enduring what actually goes on in daily life, which is often dirty and messy. Surfaces can be cleaned and polished and all the messiness goes away. Admiration for those idealized states of cleanliness, however, ultimately strips the meaning out of experience. The real action is in the unpredictability and openness of the activity, not preordained results. Alternatively, if Iain McGilchrist’s thesis is correct (about whose book, The Master and His Emissary, I’ve blogged about at length), the left brain has succeeded in usurping the right brain and caused us to emulate and after a fashion become those same machines we so admire for their efficiency, uncomplaining labor, and emotional unavailability. We compute but don’t think, we act but don’t feel, we witness but don’t participate. Our range of operations is shrunk to a safe concentric circle just like the safe dynamic ranges of modern orchestral performance. Professionalism then becomes easy refuge for bureaucratization and corporatization, nonprofit status notwithstanding. Is there a way out of the maze? Not if artists are truly channeling the Zeitgeist.

  1. relentless says:

    Brutus: Thank you! You’ve nailed it! As a composer now entering the ‘dilemma’ of orchestration for my Earth opera, ‘Sphere,’ in this day of playing it safe, following the rules and opinions of experts and the safety police, which i cannot abide by, you enter my right brain domain, nearly begging for passionate, chance taking performances.

    In fact, in the introductory libretto, i suggest instructions for the orchestra members, vocalists and conductor, making it unambiguously clear that they should take risks, dance and stomp about (imagine the staid proper violinists doing this!) if the music instills such, expressing the depths of their hearts’ senses. I’m even adding some additional 2-3 variations for certain sections, in which performers can choose their variation (or even intermingle the parts), all of which would ‘work’ in the context of the entire opera. Tempo and dynamics are written with with no doubts as to this being music that demands an intensity often lacking in the mechanical perfection age.

    Essentially, i only ask that the musicians, conductor and vocalists consider the great jazz drummer, Elvin Jones, whose response when asked how he could, performance after performance, play with such deep feeling said: “I play as if it’s the last time i’ll ever play.” If music isn’t infused with uncompromising passion from beginning to finale from the performers, conductor AND the audience, what’s the point of this beautiful life? Music: powerful, ecstatic, magical, overwhelming joy for our being born.

    Thank you Brutus.

    • Brutus says:

      As a performer, I get instructions from the podium all the time to play clean and sterile. Like you, I can’t abide that approach, which has cost me some opportunities. But then, why bother to fret about it if getting those opportunities means I’m just dropping in my part without energy or interest?

      Good luck with your opera.

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