Friday, August 26, 2011

1500(0) words: For Interpretation - a lame attempt at an Essay

When you begin something, write fifteen hundred words, and realize that the end result might be ten times as long. It's time to post what you have as a sign of good faith and try to move to something else.

Back to hurricane prep...

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”

- Noam Chomsky

“All meanings, we know, depend on the key of interpretation.”

- George Elliot

"Well, I believe in the soul, the c&*(, the p@#$%, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap."

- Crash Davis


(Holy Crap. It’s up on youtube already)

The latest experience of art was a concert broadcast. The Brahms piano concertos and the final two Brahms symphonies. Bernard Haitink conducting, Manny Ax playing the piano with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

The value of this art is self-explanatory to anyone who knows who any of the above figures are. To others, it must be justified.

The value of this art is ritual. Two old rabbis pour over the same sacred texts over which they’ve poured for half-a-century, and gather the congregation for a D’var Torah so that they might impart their newest findings. We, the faithful, listen eagerly for their newest revelations: a rhythm newly bent in the hundredth bar of the opening, an especially soft pianissimo in the scherzo, a 1% brisker tempo in the slow movement. Those are the delights which permeate the comforting balm of hearing music we know nearly as well as the performers do - like droplets of Tabasco in a brisket barbecue. This is the ritual which passes from generation to generation - each new generation of masters providing an infinity of infinitesimal permutations to the meaning of a sacred text which the faithful commit to memory, and our delight in these new meanings is similarly infinite. It’s what we live for.

Even though these concerts are pure Brahms, with nothing on the program which would challenge the listener, this is a concert as a religious experience - a sermon meant for the choir. Few music lovers who’d never heard Brahms would understand why Brahms is great after this performance. We are hearing Brahms so pure that the only pleasure lies in grasping at the essence of what makes Brahms Brahms, and he who does achieves a kind of revelation.

The approach we hear in the clip near the top is an approach which longs for the pure essence of the composer. In a recent Guardian blogpost, Bernard Haitink was quoted as saying:

"this word 'interpretation' should be forbidden … We have these wonderful scores and what we have to do is make sense of them. Why can't we just make music?"

In this vein, Haitink surely observes that Brahms wrote a metronome mark over the slow movement which prescribes 84 beats to the quarter-note. With as much liberty as must be made for the resonance of sound in a large concert hall, Haitink observes the metronome marking to the dot.


This is the moment when Susan Sontag would drag in Plato...who are we kidding, it would be in the first sentence. I’ll drag in Wynton Marsalis, Jack White and Pierre Boulez.

For better or worse, they are the preeminent conservatives of their genres. Both of them wish to reconstruct a past that may or may not have existed. In order to recapture it, they consciously ignore developments since that period which do not correspond to their own visions of what their idealized past entails.


(The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Homage or Perversion? Does it matter?)

In the Obama Era, Wynton Marsalis has become the cultural ambassador for Jazz. Not Jazz as music, but Jazz as history.

On March 30th, 2009, Marsalis gave a lecture that will one day be marked as a watershed moment in American cultural history. This was the day when Jazz became Classical Music. It was the day when Marsalis became the first jazzman with the vision, eloquence and desire to articulate a vision of jazz history that placed it within the wider context of America and the world. He mounted the stage, and in a lecture as rabbinic in tone as anything by Leonard Bernstein, he gave the world jazz as a piece of our past, not of our present.

This is the Jazz as it was when it was ‘pure.’ When it was uncorrupted by the polluting forces of other genres and naive enough to preserve itself away from other cultures. Marsalis advocates a theory of the arts as a moral force which integrates the best of everything. Yet his vision of Jazz is anything but all-inclusive.

Jazz musicians always said that Marsalis could best any jazzman in history for technique. But as an improviser, he is distinctly mediocre. He was the man who classicized jazz. He made it more about having the technique to recapture styles that its greatest practitioners were not even aware were styles. In this way, Marsalis is perhaps the first true jazz conductor. As important to the development of jazz as a classical music as Hans von Bulow and Arturo Toscanini were to the development of Romantic music into classics.

The difference between Marsalis and Ellington is like the difference between a conductor and a Kappelmeister. The bandleader was like the Kappelmeisters of old - the German/Italian court and church musicians who would preside over performances, hire the musicians, write the music, and oversee the entire business of music-making at court/church. Being a Maestro di Capella was far more difficult than being a conductor ever was, but it generated half a millenium of great music from There is something conservative about the very profession of conducting - an authority figure who presides over musicians for the purpose of subordinating their ideas to express the individuality of musicians who are already dead (rewrite to make clearer). Presiding with authority over the other musicians not through fear or love, but through reverence. Reverence not for the conductor, but for whom the conductor speaks. It Bessie Smith was thought of a harpy who purveyed the Devil’s Music. Wynton Marsalis is now as priestly a force in American Life as Leonard Bernstein.

When Jazz was brought into the wider world, it was a forbidden for Marsalis. The progressive jazz of Ornette Coleman and he free jazz of of Cecil Taylor and Sun Raa, even the eclecticism of Joe Zanuwil and the late Miles Davis were cut off.

From time immemorial, this has been the relationship of talent to genius. Talent genius assimilates what he


Jack White


Pierre Boulez

(“Russia has Stalin, Classical Music has Pierre Boulez” - Ned Rorem)

He was so successful at every one of his aims that he wiped the slate clean. He lived to see classical music take its first steps into the wider world. History will remember him as the 20th century tyrant of music whose blood waters the meadows for 21st century composers.


This kind of conservatism is inevitable. And when confronted with so much ‘modren’ mediocrity, a call for less corruption of all that was good about the past can be a great palliative against the excesses of the present. In a decadent periods, these conservatives have a point. The past sometimes did get better results than the present, and perhaps we should immerse ourselves in it if we want a better future. That is why we study history. Hopefully, the further back we look, the further forward we can see.

Even if conservatism is grounded in a false vision of past greatness, when this vision is executed with talent and integrity, it is far preferable to mediocrity with good intentions. But to insist upon conservatism for others is a recipe to kill innovation - in art as in politics.


Lots of musicians - never geniuses but very talented ones - mine the same idea for their entire careers. It's not in them to adapt to new times or new styles. Music meant exactly the same thing for them in when they were twenty as it does when they’re sixty. They hang on to a set idea of what great music must be and they think any divergence from that idea somehow cheapens the art. And because their idea of music never changes, they see music not as an infinite series of possibilities but as a 2-D model that can be mastered. So whenever they encounter genius, the same story ensues: the genius takes their musical contribution, assimilates it into his/her musical vocabulary, and then moves on to soak up a different set of influences, and the mere talent cries bloody murder.


This is the moment when Susan Sontag would mention Aristotle. Who are we kidding...Susan Sontag would have mentioned Aristotle and Plato by the first half of the first sentence. But for our purposes, let’s look at three other examples: Sufjan Stevens, Leonard Bernstein

Jack White has thus far devoted his career to preserving Rock Music’s storied past. Sufjan has devoted the same time to creating a new future.


In a perfect world, Leonard Bernstein would have written a dozen West Side Stories and another dozen Candides. And there would have been performers of vision ready to champion every one of them.
Marsalis wants to make a music thought dirty into something respectable. Bernstein wanted to make a music thought respectible into something dirty.

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