Month: September 2008

You Stepped Out of a Dream

Franz Schubert has to be one of the most subtly great of the Great Composers. I mean, he is a great composer, but so much of the time he doesn’t seem to really be doing anything very special, and you’re left wondering what exactly it is about his music that makes him so much better than, say, Carl Friedrich Zelter. So here’s an idea. It has to do with one of my favorite Schubert lieder, his Goethe setting “Heidenröslein.” Here’s a score, courtesy of the IMSLP:

And here’s a translation of the lyrics:

A boy saw a rose,
A rose on the heather,
It was young and beautiful as the morning,
He ran to get a better look
And viewed it with joy.
Rose, rose, red rose,
Rose on the heather.

The boy said “I’m going to pick you,
Rose on the heather.”
The rose said, “I’ll prick you,
So that you’ll always remember me,
And I will not let you.”
Rose, rose, red rose…

And the wild boy picked
The rose on the heather;
The rose fought back and pricked him,
But the pain did no good, and oh,
Such suffering must happen.
Rose, rose, red rose…

Let’s take a look at this little tale using Freudian dream interpretation. (Why Freudian dream interpretation? If the flowers are talking back to you, you’re probably dreaming, right?) I don’t think any of us would have too much trouble coming up with a pop-Freudian interpretation of Goethe’s poem, one having something to do with, oh, I don’t know, maybe sexual loss of innocence. (Every rose has its thorn.) I think that’s a pretty reasonable interpretation, and one that would probably be reasonably obvious to anyone listening to the words.

But for dream interpretation, as Freud saw it, that’s only half the process—and not even the most important half. Freud would call the actual dream—in this case, the poem’s literal meaning—the dream-content, while our pop-Freudian analysis he would characterize as the dream-thought. Freud prescribed interpreting the dream-thought, but only as an intermediate step. Because what he was really interested in was the dream-work, the specific translation from latent thought to actual dream. Here’s how he put it in the sixth chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams:

All other previous attempts to solve the problems of dreams have concerned themselves directly with the manifest dream-content as it is retained in the memory. They have sought to obtain an interpretation of the dream from this content, or, if they dispensed with an interpretation, to base their conclusions concerning the dream on the evidence provided by this content. We, however, are confronted by a different set of data; for us a new psychic material interposes itself between the dream-content and the results of our investigations: the latent dream-content, or dream-thoughts, which are obtained only by our method. We develop the solution of the dream from this latent content, and not from the manifest dream-content. We are thus confronted with a new problem, an entirely novel task—that of examining and tracing the relations between the latent dream-thoughts and the manifest dream-content, and the processes by which the latter has grown out of the former.

Freud agreed with previous theories that dreams were a psychological effort at wish-fulfillment, but saw the representation of those wishes not in the dream-thought, but in the dream-work; the unconscious desire that fuels the dream can be found in the particular way the dream-thought is transposed into an actual dream.

So how would this apply to “Heidenröslein”? We’ve established that a plausible dream-thought for the song is the loss of sexual innocence, but why turn that into a ditty about a young boy and a rose? Freud would probably say that the unconscious desire behind the poem is for sexual activity to be regarded as carefree and natural as children’s play. Which is exactly what Schubert portrays in the music. The musical content is that of a children’s song; the strophic structure actually diminishes any sense of conflict; the insouciant ritornello—

—resets each verse like rounds of a game.

But I don’t think it’s just coincidental—Schubert is, at the same time, acknowledging the desirous intent musically: the shift from C-natural to C-sharp between measures 2 and 6, the way the repeated “Röslein” of the refrain is set to a rising scale, one that them humorously tumbles back down the octave range of the song. Schubert’s genius is that he is anticipating Freud’s psychological insights by nearly a century, and illustrating them with his musical choices.

This is a pretty specific example, but I think we all have some intuitive sense for this sort of thing. I wonder, in fact, if it’s how we decide whether or not to accept people bursting into song during musicals—that transition, after all, pretty definitively shifts any narrative’s level of realism into the realm of dream-reality, so maybe we only buy it if the musical addition sufficiently mirrors what we (perhaps subconsciously) recognize as the dramatic dream-work, the unconscious desire motivating the shift from speech into song. A lot of my favorite opera works this vein as well—Verdi’s music often seems to be at tonal odds with the events of the plot (the final ensemble of the ball scene in Traviata, for instance), while Puccini’s often seems too big, too melodramatic for the plot to justify (pretty much all of La Bohème), but they’re not illustrating the action, they’re illustrating the desires that fuel the action, which are psychologically dissonant or out of proportion with not only the characters’ actions, but sometimes even their own testimony.

One last thing: what makes music such fertile ground for this sort of interpretation is its semiotic flexibility; what a particular bit of music “means” can slip into a slightly different meaning without too much trouble. Freud again:

I know a patient who—involuntarily and unwillingly—hears (hallucinates) songs or fragments of songs without being able to understand their significance for her psychic life. She is certainly not a paranoiac. Analysis shows that by exercising a certain license she gave the text of these songs a false application. “Oh, thou blissful one! Oh, thou happy one!” This is the first line of Christmas carol, but by not continuing it to the word, Christmastide, she turns it into a bridal song, etc. The same mechanism of distortion may operate, without hallucination, merely in association.

Play a piece of music for an audience of 100 people, and you’ll get 100 different interpretations. The basic outline may be similar across the board. But the variations? They’re hints to what each person really wants.


According to certifiable genius Alex Ross, today is Worldwide Atonality Day, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Schoenberg’s lied “Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide,” from Das Buch der hängenden Gärten. Alex also noted that this month marked the 50th anniversary of the composition of LaMonte Young’s “Trio for Strings,” as plausible a birthday for Minimalism as any.

The calendar is unusually cooperative in this case, but fifty years does seem a relatively reasonable tick of the clock for musical styles, give or take. Try these birthdays on for size:

  • Baroque: ca. 1685 (birth of Bach)
  • Classical: ca. 1750 (death of Bach)
  • Early Romantic: ca. 1809 (death of Haydn)
  • Late Romantic/Impressionist: ca. 1869 (death of Berlioz)
  • Atonal expressionism: ca. 1908
  • Minimalism: ca. 1958

I wouldn’t face down a firing squad over that chronology, but I don’t think it’s totally out of bounds. It does seem that every 50-60 years, the historico-stylistic playing field changes.

Which, of course, means that we’re due. If you accept Barzun’s concept of Decadence, if not his pejorative sense of it, we do seem to be in a decadent period, a transition between stylistic epochs—or, at least, the dawn of a novel one. So if you’re in the mood for prognostication—what’s the new school/paradigm/category/thing?—what should you be looking for?

Before we answer that, it needs to be pointed out that, especially in the past century, such overarching categorization is ignoring a lot—neo-this and -that, jazz-classical hybrids, various nationalist styles, that whole Hindemith thing, &c. Atonality and Minimalism have just been the most coherent stylistic developments, the ones that were a big enough break from what came before, while being possessed of a repertory of features that made them easily recognized as styles. And one more thing: I think they’re both kind of like religious fundamentalisms, in a particularly post-Enlightenment way.

From one of Slavoj Žižek’s more recent efforts:

No wonder then that religious fundamentalists are among the most passionate digital hackers, and always prone to combine their religion with the latest findings of science: for them, religious statements and scientific statements belong to the same modality of positive knowledge…. The occurrence of the term “science” in the very name of some of the fundamentalist sects (Christian Science, Scientology) is not just an obscene joke, but signals this reduction of belief to positive knowledge. The case of the Turin shroud is here symptomal: its authenticity would be awful for every true believer (the first thing to do then would be to analyze the DNA of the blood stains and thus solve empirically the question of who Jesus’ father was…), while a true fundamentalist would rejoice in this opportunity.

What I think atonality and Minimalism have in common is this similar appeal to science. Atonality built up its own scientific edifice, via serialism; Minimalism rejected that edifice on the grounds that it violated laws of acoustics and neurobiology (it’s just not natural to hear music in that way). Does that make the respective practitioners fundamentalists? Both schools do seem to inspire some amount of fundamentalist behavior—Rochberg’s “apostasy,” debates as to whether John Adams is a “true” Minimalist or not, and so forth. But that’s also because (as previously mentioned) the stylistic boundary lines are bright enough to make such judgments.

So if I was looking to predict the future, I’d be keeping my eye out for any category displaying a) a sufficiently clean break with the past, b) scientific justification, and c) some form of circumscribed vocabulary. Spectralism is an interesting case in this scheme: a definite reliance on scientific analysis, but retaining connections of vocabulary and sonic effect with post-serialist atonality—not, in its current form, enough of a break. Straight-up computer-generated music might have a claim—by definition, it relies on positive knowledge, at least of software and engineering—but the vocabulary remains wide open. If I had to bet a dollar, I’d say that the new paradigm will come out of the use of the computer, but I’d only bet a dollar. That’s the fun and frustration of living through cultural decadence—it’s all up in the air. I don’t think we have the clear outlines of that 2058 anniversary concert just yet. For now, a revival of “Anything Goes” will do nicely.

All your compliments and your cutting remarks / Are captured here in my quotation marks

Our favorite anti-academic academic Kyle Gann did his annual extolling of odd meters this week, with the added, especially fun bonus of some published transcriptions of Bulgarian folk music. And he had this to say in passing—

From my readers’ previous very informative debate, I know that some will object to the very notating of these traditional tunes, claiming that they can only be learned orally, and I reiterate the most relevant comment left by someone who knew this music:

[T]he Bulgarians DO NOT count out every “8th” or “16th” note while performing their music. They express them as long and short beats. They actively discourage trying to count it out, and expressed that the only way to hope to begin to play it accurately would be to feel the long and short beats.

Doubtless true, making the whole topic an excellent entrée into teaching students that there’s more than one way to scope out rhythms, and entire societies in which consecutive beats are not assumed “steady,” but can be different lengths.

—which, I realized, is a nicely efficient wedge into the whole question of notation and tradition and modernity and its discontents.

Kyle characterizes the objection to notation as “doubtless true,” and while the objections certainly exist, I myself have rather serious doubts whether they’re valid or not, especially nowadays. I would venture to say that a good musician could learn Bulgarian folk music from a combination of notated music, written description, and recorded examples, and play it just as well as someone who learned the tradition exclusively orally. What’s interesting to me is what the persistence of that distinction—between learning via oral tradition and book learning—says about the importance of folk music in modern society, a society that is a long, long way from the one in which such music was originally created.

There was a time when the only way to transmit folk culture was orally, but that time is gone; most folk cultures have been pretty well ethnographically mapped, and what few corners of the world there are still untouched by mass media and digital connectedness will be on the grid before too long. In other words, to learn a given repertoire exclusively through oral tradition and personal interaction is now a choice, not a necessity. And the criterion behind that choice is the perception of authenticity. I myself am pretty agnostic on that score—authentic, synthetic, I like them both—which probably means I just don’t feel as anxious about the fundamentally alienated condition of modern existence, or something like that. But I have no objection per se to an asserted authenticity, which I think makes for an interesting and sometimes provocative frame for an artistic experience.

That said, though, I do think that “authenticity” is an illusion, that all musical activity is in some way stylized and synthetic, and to make a moral distinction between oral traditions and written traditions on the basis of perceived authenticity is invalid. And what’s more—and here’s where my own personal annoyance springs to the fore—it verges rather uncomfortably close to anti-intellectualism.

This sort of privileging of oral tradition, as applied to music, always seems to me to be disingenuously ignoring the fact that classical musicians are trained just as much through a similar oral tradition as through scores. That’s why you study with a teacher, that’s why you study recordings, that’s why you go to concerts to hear various interpretations of the repertoire. There is not a musician in the world who thinks that the printed score is a complete and accurate representation of the musical experience—to notate the rubato in even the most Apollonian rendition of a Chopin nocturne would probably make one’s mathematical hair curl. Of course notation is an impoverished version of music, but all musicians know that, and approach notated sources appropriately. (Notice that to critically describe a performance as “mechanical” is never, ever a good thing.) Nevertheless, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read or heard such classical training patronizingly disparaged by those partial to an oral, vernacular tradition.

I don’t pretend to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I do rather proudly aspire to being an intellectual, in the sense that I take great joy in the possibility that some sense of the complexity and depth of the interaction between an active mind and the world it perceives can be generously communicated to complete strangers. I was tickled pink to see Kyle’s notated examples, because they represent a portal into a tradition that, for reasons of geography and time management, I otherwise wouldn’t have. To dismiss such communicative efforts strikes me as not only parsimonious, but distressingly unambitious—especially given the way the combination of notated and oral musical traditions catalyzes the process of learning. The true core of the intellectual tradition is not obscurity, not a discriminatory use of jargon, not any of the unfortunate abuses that are demagogically expanded into anti-intellectual bludgeons—it is, rather, the faith, the intellectual security that a persevering mind at any stage of learning can master any idea, any practice, any subject, and can then transmit a roadmap to such mastery to anyone else inclined to take the journey.

I don’t really have a personal motto as such—I’d hate to settle on any one—but definitely on my list of candidates would be a line Emily Dickinson once included in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “My Business,” she wrote, “is Circumference.” (Another poem of hers was addressed to “Circumference thou Bride of Awe”.) That process, and possibility, of expanding the mind to encompass any topic is half of the beneficial heritage of intellect. The other half? It’s the reason I can commune with Dickinson’s ideas, with the thoughts of a virtual homebody over a century removed from me. She wrote them down.

Update (9/30): Ethan’s smart comments goad me into summarizing the musical point in a different way: to the assertion that you can’t learn such music from a book because a book can’t capture the groove, I say that, if you know how to groove, of course you can learn it from a book.

Wide-mouth glass

So if you came up with a nice, light, effervescent sweet wine and wanted to name it after a musical instrument, which one would you pick? Yeah, probably not this one.

That’s a half-bottle of Bava Wineries’ Bass Tuba Moscato d’Asti (DOCG) I found at the store over the weekend. According to the Bava website:

We are still convinced we have chosen the right instrument for the label, suggesting celebrations and rich band sounds, as distinctive as the aroma of Bava Moscato.

Obligatory joke: Bava has apparently been hanging around unusually good-smelling brass sections.

In the interest of alcoholic comprehensiveness, “tuba” is also the Philippine name for fermented palm tree sap, which can either be made into a wine-like beverage or soured into vinegar. (The drink also made its way to Mexico.)

Eamus catuli



Song of the Bear Society

Sung and told by Letakots-Lesa (Eagle Chief)

The men of the Bear Society [of the Pawnee] are called Bear Warriors. The Bear, the great Spirit-Bear, receives his power from the sun, and so it was through the sun that the Bear Warriors had been victorious. In this song they are returning from war just as the sun rises. The women go forth with song to meet the victors, who are coming all splendidly decked and painted….

The rays of the rising sun now touch the earth and speed swiftly over the ground until they shine upon the victors. The hidden meaning of the song is the victorious power of the sun.

In the first stanza, the “many coming” are the warriors: in the second, the sunbeams. This is a very old song, and is sung in ceremonies of the Bear Society just as the sun is about to rise.


Rerawha-a rera e

    Para riku ratutah
Rerawha-a rera e

Hi tzapat rakuwaka kuatutah

Rerawha-a rera e

    Para riku ratutah
Rerawha-a rera e

Rasakura rukuksa rerawha-a

Rerawha-a rera e

Rasakura rura whia
Rerawha-a rera e
         (Literal transition)

      Yonder coming,
      Yonder coming,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

Mine, too, might have been a triumph
   Like the many yonder, he—

Cried the woman,
   Would that I were like to these
      The many coming,
      Yonder coming,
      Yonder coming,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

Mine, too, might have been a triumph
   Like the many yonder, he—

Now the rising sun hath sent his rays
   to earth,
      A many coming,
      Yonder coming,
      Yonder coming,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

Sunbeams o’er the ground are speeding,
   Lo, the many yonder, he—

—Natalie Curtis Burlin, The Indians’ Book
(Harper and Brothers, 1907)

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: The fact that I get to do a post like this two years running is a sure sign that phantasms with scythes will start riding out of the clouds on skeletal horses before too long, so if you haven’t gotten around to, say, trying Häagen-Dazs Fleur de Sel Caramel ice cream, better sooner than later, if you know what I mean.

1941 program image lifted, again, from this awesome use of the Internet.

Frederic’s out of his indentures

Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

An enormous, taxpayer-financed program to buy up bad mortgages and other distressed debt is necessary to protect the savings and aspirations of millions of Americans, President Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. said on Friday.

“We’re talking hundreds of billions” of dollars, Mr. Paulson said at a briefing in which he underscored the depth of the problem, pledged to work with Congress to address it quickly and voiced optimism that, in the end, the country would emerge from the financial chaos.

Seeking to dispel any impression that the bailout would amount to a rescue of greedy Wall Street executives by Main Street Americans, Mr. Paulson said the program would “cost Americans far less than the alternative.”

The New York Times, September 19, 2008

I hereby propose that, from now on, any banker who disparages government arts funding as unfairly rewarding organizations that can’t make it in the free market gets the business end of a broken beer bottle.

Have I been talking a lot more economics in this space lately? Yes, actually—out of curiosity, I pulled up some of the more dismal-science-heavy posts on this blog, and sure enough, most of them are from this past year. When in Rome (circa 476 A.D.), &c. Here’s a list, in case your Friday procrastination needs a lift. I haven’t re-read through all of them in detail. I wonder how many of them I’ve changed my mind on.

Casino Royale
One way or another
Stimulus package
Greetings from Hooverville
Down a Country Lane
Bread and Roses
E pur si muove
Who Cares If You Save?
You’ll Never Get Rich
Searching for Love
Get on Board
The bustle in a house
There’s a hole in the bucket
“Oh, take your next vacation in a brand-new Frigidaire”
A chicken in every pot
I couldn’t p now if I tried

Fragende Ode

Mauricio Kagel has died at the age of 76. (Via.) I had the great and entertaining fortune of studying with Kagel as a Tanglewood fellow in 1998. He was endlessly good-natured, and as intellectually mischievous as you might expect from his music, but I also remember his uncompromising sense that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about putting music together; his attention to detail was an indication of how seriously he took even the most playful music. (He reprimanded me for using neologistic Italian-language performance directions but not conjugating the verbs correctly.) For that summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music, I performed Kagel’s General Bass (for “unspecified bass instrument”—I used an accordion), a little piece of typical, mysterious wit consisting of sparse, disconnected phrases that hint at some absent, traditionally tonal grandeur. Kagel a) was mildly disappointed at the fact that my piano accordion was not a bandoneon, but took it in stride, and b) was very particular about staging—seated, not standing; very still, as if one player within a giant ensemble; and making sure to underemphasize any espressivo possibility in the fragments. It was a bit of master-class in how to play off of performance expectations, and in how magically you can up the stakes of humor the less you give away the joke.

Kagel could be intellectually unforgiving, but even his criticism was cloaked in the graceful good manners of an old-school radical; if he thought I was young and stupid (which he probably did) he never let on, instead giving the generous illusion that the time he spent with me was time well spent. If I’m any less stupid now, at least some small portion of that is due to my briefly crossing his path.