Category Archives: Music

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.

Admittedly, it has an ability to hook into the mind. A certain stickiness, like a tune that you can’t get out of your head, which doesn’t mean it’s good or likeable (or bad). The question is what makes this novel sticky. To my mind, it is above all the contradiction between the work’s intended rational vision and its core sentimentality.

Sentimentality: it’s all about infantile, magical wish-fulfilment. Magic has to fill the gaps in the author’s vision of the blessings of laissez-faire capitalism, a kind of hero-economics, in which the producer is inventor, the inventor producer, and in his rigorous pursuit of self-interest automatically — that is, magically — benefits society, clashing only with his inferiors, never with his equals (never mind the masses).

This hero-entrepreneur makes no attempt to enter the arena of political debate. Instead, he “shrugs” and withdraws into a mutual admiration society. At best, or worst, he sermonizes. With his sixty page radio speech the novel’s superhero John Galt beats notorious bores such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez (and loses the reader).

Magical wish-fulfilment is present in the secondary story line, which is a kind of Lover’s Progress. With three heroes to one heroine (railroad executive Dagny Taggart), the choice is hers, and nibbling a bit off each of them she finds the next superior to and more excitingly violent than the former. From playing mate (Francisco) through working mate (Rearden) to superhero and Redeemer (John Galt).

Its ethics should clearly ban Rand’s ideology from the broad christian base of American conservatism; but as for inconsistency, there seems to be no limit to what people are willing to live by. Just as Rand has concocted her philosophy by inverting christian and socialist values (greed is good; altruism is evil), the imagery of her fiction reflects and inverts socialist and christian iconography.

Rand defies christianity by projecting inverted features of Christ onto John Galt, who, stretched out naked on an electric torture-bed, laughs at his torturers. (Laughter, in Rand’s world, has nothing to do with humour, which is mercilessly absent. It expresses feeling superior.) To make the message quite plain, in the closing sentence the dollar sign replaces the symbol of the cross in a blessing of the earth:

He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
(2007 Penguin ed., p. 1168)

(I wonder whether those in the Rand cult “dollar themselves” at rituals.)

In appearance, the hero-industrialist-entrepreneur resembles the worker-hero or heroine of socialist realism. Physically perfect, muscular, backlighted, hair waving in the wind.

He saw a girl standing on top of a pile of machinery on a flatcar. She was looking off at the ravine, her head lifted, strands of disordered hair stirring in the wind. Her plain gray suit was like a thin coating of metal over a slender body against the spread of sun-flooded space and sky. Her posture had the lightness and unself-conscious precision of an arrogantly pure self-confidence. (p. 562)

(Hair, by the way, is almost an obsession. Disheveled hair, a strand of hair across the face, “their hair mingled like the rays of two bodies in space that had achieved their meeting” (p. 750), and so on.)

Underground, unacknowledged sentimentalism explains much of the stickiness of this novel. On a more positive side, the author manages to guide the reader through its excessive length by using well-proven mystery devices. The gradual revelation of her superhero John Galt and his entrepreneurial conspiracy is of these the most obvious, but least interesting. More attractive, almost subtle, is the introduction of the composer Richard Halley and his Piano Concerto No. 5. Dagny first hears it in her imagination, during a train ride, unaware of the fact that she is mostly imagining it herself, prompted by someone whistling the theme in another compartment.

She sat listening to the music. It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and there never had had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance.

Somewhere on the edge of her mind, under the music, she heard the sound of train wheels. They knocked in an even rhythm, every fourth knock accented, as if stressing a conscious purpose. She could relax, because she heard the wheels. She listened to the symphony, thinking: This is why the wheels have to be kept going, and this is where they’re going. (p. 13)

She recognizes it as Halley, well knowing that she has never heard it before, and gets a hint of its identity by the whistler’s admission that it is Halley’s unknown Concerto No. 5 (not a symphony). As she later learns, it is subtitled Deliverance (an allusion, obviously, to christian “Redemption”). The composer has “delivered himself” by withdrawing from concert life and joining John Galt’s secret mutual admiration society. That’s where the story line stops holding interest.

Meanwhile, the reader may try to find real world references for Rand’s fictional music. Halley’s fourth concerto

was a great cry of rebellion. It was a “No” flung at some vast process of torture, a denial of suffering, a denial that held the agony of the struggle to break free. The sounds were like a voice saying: There is no necessity for pain—why, then, is the worst pain reserved for those who will not accept its necessity?—we who hold the love and the secret of joy, to what punishment have we been sentenced for it, and by whom? (p. 67)

The four piano concertos suggest an allusion to Rachmaninoff. And despite his very different emotional world, tainted by melancholy rather than rebellion and triumph, Rachmaninoff’s surging and soaring melodies and intense emotionality may well have been an inspiration for the author’s descriptions. Unsurprisingly, the older fellow Russian emigre was among the author’s favourite composers (though not, it seems, acquaintances). So, the reader is well justified in imagining something Rachmaninoff-like.

(Rachmaninoff, by the way, was as fond of fast cars and boats as Dagny Taggart is of fast trains. The chapter about Dagny’s first ride on the John Galt Line — at a record 100 MPH — stands out from the rest of the book in effectively conveying her exhilaration.)

The musical-literary leitmotiv of Halley’s Concerto No. 5 might function very well as a cinematographic device, as so much in this novel brings to mind movie clichés. Its setting is presumably contemporary (1950’s), but situation and characters seem rather to belong to the thirties, the age of rail and radio. It was also the time when Rand started to become critically engaged with US politics. Roosevelt’s New Deal was too reminiscent of the communism which had come down hard on her family. This retrospective aspect is ignored in the recent (2011-2014) mediocre and unsuccessful movie version, set in 2016. I can more or less imagine what the Coen brothers might do with the novel. Transposed to the screen in a fairly literal manner, in 1930’s black and white, it would almost automatically turn into satire.


Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

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Reverend Father Adam, Whence Didst Thou Get Music?

What is the origin of music? — And how does music relate to language? Scientific research into these questions is booming. Psychologists, neurologists, cognitive scientists, biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and musicologists are in the origins business. Despite the fact that we’ll never have the kind of evidence that may lead to a scientifically valid answer.

Theories may be fables. They still can be evaluated by how well they connect the things we know, and by their power to inspire new enquiries.

One idea that may seem obvious and common sense is that there are aspects of language — more particularly, of speech — that can be called ‘musical’ and expressive: the ‘rhythm’ and ‘melody’ of speech, or prosody. Rudiments of melody, or intonation, are present in the most basic human and animal vocal expressions — screams, calls, sighs, grunts, and so on. Continue reading

The Wötzel Puzzle

The word ‘declamation’ is likely to evoke negative associations — pompousness and a swollen tone. It was no different two centuries ago. At least in the German-speaking world, where, despite a widespread anti-declamatory prejudice (or sensible aversion) declamation as a stage art boomed around 1800.

This has been the subject of my research of the past few months. And that’s how I came across Dr. J.C. Wötzel’s Outline of a General and Comprehensible Doctrinal Edifice or System of Declamation (1814). It took me some time to get through its 840 pages even in hop-skip-and-jump fashion. For Wötzel uses three words were anybody else would use one.

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Seckendorff, alias Peale

Is speaking a kind of singing? Are we talking tunes?

The common sense answer is: evidently not. Music — most music at least — has fixed pitches, pitches that make up a scale. If we speak of ‘speech melody’, we’re simply using the word ‘melody’ in a broader sense.

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by Wilhelm Tischbein).

Seckendorff shows the expression belonging to a toothache (after a drawing by J.H.W. Tischbein).

Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff was not a common sense man. Seckendorff thought that speech too has its scale, though with much smaller intervals. Singing is a kind of speaking, but louder, and in the effort of producing volume we loose the finer pitch distinctions of speech. In fact, all speech is a kind of music – he called it ‘the concert on the musical scale of speech’.

This allows us, Seckendorff thought, to bridge the gap between speaking and singing. He demonstrated this by declaiming poems to his own piano accompaniment, producing a kind of speech-song, or rather song-speech. Continue reading

Four Funerals and No Wedding

Dust and Ashes, a new opera by composer Thomas Winstrich, was premiered last week in the State Opera of Brönitz. Those who were attracted by the production’s massive publicity and expected Gothic horrors were disappointed. For me it was the opposite. The work turned out te be more serious, subtle and ironic than its theme or title might suggest. Winstrich calls his work a “documentary opera”, not in the sense that it presents us with facts, but rather that it documents the universal human tendency to seek answers in myth, particularly concerning “this hardest-to-swallow truth: that there is an end to all of us”.

Dust and Ashes is exceptional simply because all its heroes are dead before the curtain rises. Its shows the funerals of four composers, Mozart, Paganini, Weber, and Liszt. Living protagonists there are only two: Richard Wagner, cast as baritone in the third act, and his wife, Cosima Wagner née Liszt (mezzo soprano), in the final act. Apart from a somewhat surrealist recreation of the funerary rites little happens on stage – it may be the most static and ritualistic musical drama since Parsifal. Luckily the imaginative cinematic stage design (by Voss & Tohanka) succeeds in keeping things alive.

The main action however is in the music. Though it is basically a pastiche from the four dead composers’ oeuvres, the complexity of its many levels of quotations and allusions exceeds familiar postmodernist pasting practices. Music is piled up layer upon layer in a score which demands a huge orchestra, a strong choir, and in acts 3 and 4 a wind band on stage. Despite the intensive use of borrowed materials, there is great inventiveness in the ways these are structured in waves of increasing and decreasing density. And if I can trust my ears and memory, there are quite a few original ideas hidden in between the stolen notes.

The opera’s first act is the shortest and maybe the most effective. Whether or not Mozart’s “third class” burial in a shared grave was disgraceful by the standards of the time, it remains a shocking idea to us that no ceremony took place at the graveyard and that no permanent marker was erected to identify the spot. Winstrich fills the void with a grimly humorous, Shakespearean dialogue between grave diggers, undertakers, coach drivers and a drunken priest, interspersed with fragments from Mozart’s Requiem and other works, which sound like they’re carried by the wind from a distant place.

The second act is maybe the weakest, due to the lack of any great mournful music by its deceased hero, Niccolò Paganini (1824). It also has the weakest foundation in known facts. The truth seems to be that the devil’s own fiddler died without absolution, and therefore was denied a religious burial. The body remained above ground for more than a year, then was moved from one temporary grave to another, and found its present resting place only in 1896. Legend has it that Paganini’s son Achille sailed the coffin from one port to another in despair, until he set foot on an uninhabited rock in the Mediterranean where he secretly dug a grave. With its maritime scenery, this act most heavily depends upon cinematic effects. Musically it works more or less like a grim symphonic scherzo, the apotheosis of demonic virtuosity, with an orchestra of ghostly violins in the air (playing in the pit and and projected above the stage). It refers, I suppose, to the burden of virtuosity (or eternal restlessness) carried by all post-romantic musicians.

Following chronology, the opera puts Carl Maria von Weber (1826) after Paganini, because what it shows is Weber’s second burial in Dresden, 1844. Already gravely ill, Weber had traveled to London, were he died without his family soon after the premiere of Oberon. His grave was neglected and nearly forgotten, according to Richard Wagner, who, 31 years old and an ambitious second conductor at the Dresden opera, took lead in an initiative to bring home the remains of his predecessor. For the occasion Wagner arranged fragments from Weber’s Euryanthe for winds, and at the graveside held the speech which is the basis for the first extended vocal solo in this opera (sung more securely than sensitively by Claus Sikurny).

“It happened to me (Wagner writes in Mein Leben), as I had started my speech with clarity and great sonority, that for a moment the sound of my own voice had such an almost frightening effect upon myself, that I was completely carried away and imagined not only hearing myself, but watching myself before the breathless crowd. This self-objectification created in me an intense expectation of the fascinating event which was about to happen before me, as if it was not I myself standing here, ready to speak. […] Only my own prolonged silence and the quietude around me reminded me of the fact that I had to speak, not to listen.”

His first inspiration for this work, Thomas Winstrich says, has come from this episode, at the heart of which is an astonished, self-reflective silence, a kind of Doppelgänger experience. Similar (yet differently motivated) silences are the core of each of the four acts, as a kind of “white hole” around which the musical waves “keep rotating”.

Act 4 is the weightiest, weirdest and saddest. Franz Liszt died in 1886, three years after his son-in-law Richard Wagner, during his visit to the Bayreuth festival. The focus is on his daughter Cosima, Wagner’s widow (intelligently interpreted by Angela Berger), whose monologue is set on an extratemporal plane outside the action, a reflection on life, death and pain drawn from her diaries and childhood letters to her father.

Not a note written by Liszt himself sounded during the real event, an omission redressed in this operatic recreation, which includes parts of the Requiem Liszt supposedly composed for himself (a little known, austere composition for male voices, organ and winds), as well as fragments from his many other funerary compositions. These are overlaid with a thick carpet of allusions which remind the spectator of the many directions the Liszt Nachfolge has taken in the 20th Century.

Musical density increases as the opera progresses, reflecting (according to the composer) “music history’s ever growing burden of riches”, as “a tribute to the presentness of the past”. This explains something of the haunting quality of this work. Never have there been so many auditory ghosts in my already overstuffed head.