Musical Thoughts

On Josef Hofmann playing Chopin’s Concerto No. 2

It is not uncommon to speak of musical “ideas”. It has become very common, in fact, since a number German music writers in the early eighteenth century started speaking of musikalische Gedanken.

A musical idea is more or less what musicians and music analysts call a “theme”. One might think of a theme as a purely musical idea, a sound pattern. But Gedanke is more like thought, and “thought” suggest a thought process — typically, about something — rather than just sound patterns or shapes. Musical “thoughts” are what’s implied in musical “sentences”.

And what these thoughts are about is not necessarily something that can be put into words. Often, subconscious associations, which may switch seamlessly between vocal expression (the shape or “melody” of a sentence as we speak it), gesture, human action, natural processes, patterns of light and colour, and so on. Not or barely verbalizable, and therefore easily acquiring an air of mystery (“the ineffable”).

A sensitive performer reconstructs, in his or her mind, the notes and themes as ideas, as a thought process. Inevitably, an element of subjectivity is involved — but one that attempts to express itself from within the musical ideas, rather than impose itself upon them. This is what we call musical “interpretation”.

In the process of articulating our thoughts, we sometimes abandon them, run ahead of them. As when you’re talking, but finish your sentence mechanically, because another idea has already entered your head.

That’s what I was reminded of while listening to Josef Hofmann playing the opening solo of Chopin’s second Piano Concerto. The way the descending chords are broken sounds almost absent-minded. The forte bass octaves — padá-deedám — are like a call to order, but the second time a decrescendo sets in, the contours are softened by the pedal, and it sounds as if the thought is slipping from his mind, which may be anticipating the next idea, the cantabile melody.

Hofmann (1876-1957) is recognized as one of the greatest of romantic pianists. Few performers nowadays would dare or care to do something that so clearly goes against the score (the fioritura is marked con forza). Taking one outstanding modern recording for comparison, Krystian Zimerman’s second recording of 1999: it is striking how seriously every note, every phrase is put into place, how fully the sentence comes to a close. The interpretation is fully focused on the moment.

But we do not always speak our thoughts. Sometimes, they’re ahead of us.Chopin, Concerto No. 2, Breitkopf & Härtel 1836

Hofmann’s 1936 recording on youtube, starting at 1’40”.

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Ringtones and the Limits of Music

Having finally acquired a smartphone, I had to choose a ringtone. A trivial problem; but one that blew my thoughts into more philosophical directions.

Many people choose for this purpose some favourite piece of music. I find this hard to understand. Of all the music I know and enjoy, I can’t think of any piece I would want to cut down to a few seconds, degrade to a mere signal, to be controlled by any odd caller. Hey, pick up the phone!

For a ringtone is nothing but a signal; it’s not music. At least, I tended to think that there should be a basic difference between one thing and the other.
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Pulp Fiction, Politics, and a Whiff of Rachmaninoff

I should have heard that name long ago. It has frequently come up in headlines about the surge of the political right in the US; occasionally, in the European context.

Donald Trump’s Role Model Is an Ayn Rand Character — Ayn Rand-Acolyte Donald Trump Stacks His Cabinet with Fellow ObjectivistsTrump Administration Embraces Ayn Rand’s Disdain for the MassesTrump’s Favorite IntellectualThe New Age of Ayn Rand: How She Won over Trump and Silicon Valley

Ayn Rand, a Russian-American novelist and philosopher, and a powerful influence, apparently, on neoliberal and libertarian mindsets. Her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged  has sold nearly 9 million copies, according to the Ayn Rand Institute that takes an aggressive part in its promotion. Pulp fiction with spurious philosophical pretense, according to the vast majority of critics. For a coterie of cultish followers, however, “the greatest novel ever written”. I quote Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion (2007, p. 5), a publication that deceptively resembles a scholarly volume — until one starts reading.

Atlas Shrugged. I have repaired my ignorance and worked my way, hopping, skipping and jumping, through its 1200 pages.  Continue reading

On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (2)

Arctic Litter Trail
Litter in hunting area, Itinneq (Ole's Lakseelv). © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Rocks and clouds, shrubs and moss. A minimalist landscape in endless variations. The arctic tundra has a melancholy quality, with autumnal colours in late summer.

A different kind of melancholy was on our minds when we booked our passage to Greenland. Melancholy, or rather anguish: about the fragility of its habitats, the melting icecap, the opening northwest passage, container ship pollution and small ports exploding into large commercial centres. The doom of progress pushed onward by a mentality of environmental disrespect.

A mentality that leaves its traces, on a small but disturbing scale, on the trail itself. Continue reading

On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (1)

Two Towns, and What Lies between Them
Leaving Kangerlussuaq. © Lodewijk Muns 2017

The somewhat grandly named Arctic Circle Trail parallels a tiny 165 km segment of the Arctic Circle. It runs between two Greenlandic towns not connected by any road, Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. What lies between them is rock, swamp, shrubland, an uncountable number of picturesque lakes, pools and puddles, and a trail increasingly trodden by walkers from all over the world.

With snow covering the land for most of the year, an overland connection should be of limited use. Under a snowmobile’s caterpillar tracks the hiker’s 7-12 days journey shrinks to one of less than two hours. A car should be nearly useless, I would think, when all you can do is drive some 35 km to the ice cap in the north-east, and 10 km to the harbour in the south-west. Continue reading

The Art of the Branded Self

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

At the advanced age of 60 and with a name designed to be garbled, the painter Roald Häkschle has unexpectedly made it into the major museum circuit. It makes one wonder what makes a painter successful in an age in which the art of painting itself seems to be an anachronism.

The first requisite is, I guess, a simple formula. Better stick to one idea and keep repeating it. A Häkschle is easily recognized by its limited subject matter — blind walls and pavements, minutely rendered repetitive surfaces that never seem to be part of any solid construction. Subdued colours: shades of red, yellow and (occasionally) blue.

And of course we recognize a Häkschle through the omnipresent figure of the painter himself, foreshortened, with heavy legs and a little head, dressed only in a short raincoat, under a 1940s type of hat. Always gazing away from us, showing his gray ponytail (which, I’ve heard it whispered, is false). Continue reading

The Bad, the Ugly, and the Shameless

Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).

One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.

In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.

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