Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beethoven in Practice

Beethoven has been the subject of musical fascination among musicians, scholars, and audiences alike for years because of his out sized personality, internal conflicts, and of course the extraordinary quality of his work. There has been a staggering amount of research done into his life (I love Maynard Solomon's psychological biography and Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero) as well as analyses of his music (Lewis Lockwood's Inside Beethoven Quartets, etc...)

While there are many ways to approach his music, I believe that the best is perhaps to apply an intuitive aesthetic around the sound I will hear in rehearsal and performance. In other words, the live music paradigm is singular in its ability to impart musical insight and it is in this arena that common sense leads to beauty when applied with affection. This is not to say that preparation doesn't play a role - it absolutely does both in terms of analysis and musicological research. But all of this is a foundation for what will happen in the presence of sound, when decisions are made and when my imagination finally intersects with reality. This is when I see what Beethoven really did, because no matter how acute my imagination is, it never seems to compare with the beauty of sound heard in the present tense, and this is something also that can not be replicated by a recording.

Right now I'm looking at his 4th Piano Concerto, which simply put is a miracle. So far in this foundational period I’m finding the piece to be as multifaceted a statement as Beethoven ever made. It seems like the piano represents the person Beethoven wants to be. The solo part is virtuosic, deeply lyrical, rhythmically driving, rhythmically flexible, romantic, playful, humorous, cajoling, intellectually secure, sad, profound, joyful, free, contained, respectful, rambunctious, angry, loving, etc…It represents someone who tastes life fully. It is human to the core. The orchestra is compassionate, thoughtful, responsive, divisive, insistent, malleable, lush, frugal, egalitarian, hopeful, frustrated, hyper, calm, mysterious, open, rhapsodic, static, evolving, loving, etc… It is a community that cares.

While this is all interesting to me, what I find so compelling in this work is its authentic take on the journey of life. It’s as if Beethoven was touched by the finger of God in an effort to find the essence of our collective humanity - heavy stuff! It touches on so many emotional states with a rare sense of knowledge, but not one that is knowing, but rather feeling. One can dissect the harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, textural, and formal construction endlessly, but the piece lives in another world that is perfect and perfectly human on an intuitive level. This is the conundrum of Beethoven: he is an imperfect person by every account with wild insecurity, arrogance, talent, complete empathy for humanity and yet lacking in tolerance for the majority of those around him – a person endowed with tremendous positive and negative qualities and at the same time one who is made perfect in musical sound, the language of angels. He is a composer who can make an audience (and me for that matter) feel our best by showing us both our best and worst. This is what I feel in his music.

It will be fun to see how my initial ideas of the piece take shape with my colleague Ruth Rendleman and the students of the MSU Symphony - I can’t wait to get the music out of my head and into the real world. What I do know is that when music is experienced firsthand at the point of creation, especially through a work as wonderful as this concerto, I find myself in the middle of a magical time in which I am afforded an opportunity to see the truth of genius in a way that study alone does not allow. I think hearing it live will give you a similar experience, especially if you take a little time in advance of a performance to look a little more deeply at this masterpiece.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bartok's Miracle

I've heard from many corners that most great art is borne out of painful experience and it's something with which I completely disagree. Instead, I think art comes from emotional experiences that are wide in range, morality, and perspective. We have all heard music written just for the pleasure principle alone, or from virtually every emotion that our complex psyches can produce. But even those works written for the simple enjoyment of beauty usually draw inspiration at a deeper level from emotions that can come from many sources. Even more interesting to me are works that have many emotional layers drawn from multiple sources.

One such work is Bela Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin and I find myself completely fascinated by the sheer virtuosity of the writing and the emotional impact that these sounds create (I'm preparing the Suite right now). It's perhaps one of his greatest works and certainly in my mind a contender for one of the best of the 20th century. While not influential in the way the Rite of Spring has been, nor Wozzeck, or any number of other 'seminal' compositions, it has certainly been a score both musicologists and musicians have poured over with great interest, and beyond, one that has led listeners on a dark journey, yet one that is ultimately uplifting in a bizarre fashion.

This is what puzzles me: the source material that Bartok used was a 4 page lurid story by Melchior Lengyel, a radical Hungarian journalist and writer. This "pantomine grotesque: draws its inspiration not from pain, but from twisted passion as well. It tells the story of a young woman who is forced by three thugs to prostitute herself in order to lure potential men/victims into a room who they can then rob. She plays a seduction game with three men. The first two have nothing and are thrown out badly beaten. But the third, a Mandarin (a wealthy Chinese man), comes in and is fascinated by the girl. When the thugs rob him of his jewelry and money, they try to get rid of him by suffocation, then repeated stabbing, then by hanging him on a light fixture. When the lamp to which he is tied breaks and falls, he gets up, goes to the girl, and then finally takes delight in an embrace. With his longing satisfied, the Mandarin finally begins to bleed from all the abuse he has withstood and dies.

Pretty horrible stuff…

So I'm confused as to why I find myself absolutely enthralled by music that represents an idea that I abhor. As a result I have tried to figure out the process by which both I and countless others with a moral compass pointing in an opposite direction can embrace this sort of work.

I first have to understand Bartok's creative circumstances. If I think back to the time that he was composing (1918-1924) I find several striking aspects of his life that are salient. One is that he had just lived through World War I where millions of people died. His view of the world was upset by an upended power structure, and for him, the result of all this seemingly indiscriminate carnage led to the world's first fascist dictator, who took power in Hungary. At the same time cities were becoming industrial metropolises that were both creating wealth and an underbelly of crime, prostitution, and poverty. While Bartok was writing this score, there were gunshots he could hear outside his door.

At the same time he was fascinated not just by just folk music, as one of the first true ethnomusicologists, but also by music played in the emerging lower class. He felt there was something pure in expression when music revealed how people existed in poverty, in good and bad ways. It had nothing to do with any sort of posturing in his mind.

He was living in a time when Freud had been exploring repressed sexuality, which by all measure created many types of psychological problems. There were racy plays being written such as Lulu (which Berg later used for an opera) and Spring Awakening that were fascinating audiences. He must have been taken by these new powerful ideas that were coming out into the light, and this certainly could provide a type of inspiration that was much more impulsive and in line with the nature of folk expression - something unfiltered and unadulterated. Even then, sex sold.

Finally when one looks at the portrayal of the Mandarin, there are implicitly racist overtones that are offensive. However, Hungarians found a common thread between the barbaric nature of their history and that of the Chinese, combined with hyper intellectualism, so while the setting seems awful, in another way it represents what Bartok felt was a common base response shared between cultures, ultimately fueled by elemental passion.

So here is Bartok with all of these influences, putting them into amazingly descriptive sound, with a craft level that is astonishing, featuring all sorts of orchestral effects including chromatic scales, tremelos, trills, glissandi, cluster chords, mutes, percussive effects, all manner of string effects including quarter tones at one point, and fluttertonguing in the winds. Its orchestrational brilliance outshines most of the other scores I've looked at from this time period at the beginning of the 20th Century, and purely on a musical level, is breathtaking in effect.

Understanding where Bartok was when he was writing the music is helpful, because his response to much of what was happening in his life can still be contextualized today, with urban sprawl, cruelty, murder, abuse, and poverty around us every day. There's certainly a part of me that is looking to escape some of these terrible things, but another part wants to know and not ignore the difficulties others face. So to understand, sometimes one must dive into the experiences of others to feel their desperation, even it is truly at a distance. It's why we are many times attracted to movies that depict difficult things to see - it takes us out of our own lives and allows us to feel suffering, but without fear. Or why we work at soup kitchens, which if you have done so, will truly show how people exactly like you can end up in difficult circumstances.

While we are not in the mood for suffering every day, having the chance to understand a slice of history more deeply can be ultimately uplifting. How many films have we seen about the holocaust, lost love, grifters and thieves, people facing tough choices? Why is it that folks flock to see these movies, or go to art shows with similar material, but have a such a hard time accepting it in music?

I think the reason is that music can illuminate these challenging subjects in a way that goes to a deeper place of understanding, since it works on such an elementally emotional level. For me, this is what I find so compelling about The Miraculous Mandarin. It's like a film crafted at the absolute highest level, but one that takes me on a journey into darkness in a manner that is more personal and internal. At the end of the work, having traveled down this path, I feel moved by the pity and hatred I feel toward the thugs, the sadness I feel for the girl, and the pure passion that I see in the Mandarin that transcends what other humans can do to each other. The music creates a picture in my head that is at once captivating and repulsive. When I hear something that is purely beautiful, I have a basis on which to see it as such because of my exposure to works such as this.

It is true that I love comedies and laughter. But occasionally I find works of art from the dark side of human experience an extremely important part of my artistic diet. If you are not familiar with this masterpiece, I can recommend it to you enthusiastically, although in the same breath, it will not be a piece you go to every day. But occasionally, it will take you on a journey that is truly miraculous in nature.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Blessing of a New Year

As a New Year begins I tend to become reflective and grateful for simple gifts that surround me and those I love. Music is one of these without doubt - there is hardly a day that goes by where I am not touched by beautiful sounds at one point or another. There are many who feel this way, and you only have to look at the celebrations last night from around the world to see how music helps people start the New Year with renewed hope.

There are many great writers and musicians who have commented eloquently on music's role in our world, and I would like to share 10 of my favorite quotes as 2009 gets underway:

1) Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.
Ludwig van Beethoven

2) I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.
H.A. Overstreet

3) Music is love in search of a word.
Sidney Lanier

4) Music can noble hints impart,
Engender fury, kindle love,
With unsuspected eloquence can move,
And manage all the man with secret art.
Joseph Addison

5) Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

6) The earth has music for those who listen.
William Shakespeare

7) Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.
Berthold Auerbach

8) Music is what feelings sound like.

9) Music is the poetry of the air.

10) Were it not for music, we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead.
Benjamin Disraeli

The Beautiful is alive, isn't it? Even in face of unspeakable tragedy, I am always amazed by the resilence of the human spirit, from stories I read every day and from people who I'm so blessed to know.

I seem to be an optimist and am feeling that a world of wonderful possibilities awaits us all this coming year in spite of the tremendous challenges in every corner. My hope is that music can touch lives and be a healer as it has been for centuries, bringing people together, playing upon the best of our humanity in a time when the worst is too prevalent. From worst to first - it's possible - and music will be there helping us celebrate, commemorate, and remember the good that is within us all at our core.

Here's wishing you every blessing in 2009.