Wednesday, June 13, 2012

800 Words: The Disorganized Imagination of Leos Janacek

I have a mind that goes into overdrive all too easily. I find that if I don’t write something – something long - every day, I spend whole hours or afternoons which should be spent at my desk finding ways to be productive in boyish fantasies of being productive – my favorite fantasy is indulging in the thought of being the great Maestro Ivan Tuckerini who made his debut conducting the New York Philharmonic when he was six. Now I spend only eighteen weeks of every year on the podium – six for orchestras, six for operas, six for choruses, and no more than eighteen weeks because any more feels utterly limiting for an artist of such burning creativity as myself. Another eighteen weeks of the year are spent writing Nobel Prize-worthy fiction, plays, poetry, history, and even the occasional symphony if I have a week to spare – every book I write makes the New York Times Bestseller list and my books are said to have initiated a new Golden Era of reading and writing for American society. Inner city children wander the streets quoting my poetry, sexually liberated graduate students hang on my every word when I speak at their colleges. The rest of the year I spend touring around with my grammy-winning classical/jazz/blues/roma/bluegrass/soul band for which I’m lead singer, violinist, and co-songwriter. The rest of my band consists of a Jewish folk-song expert from Minnesota who can’t sing, two Liverpudlian Brits, one of whom’s taken up with a Japanese conceptual artist; a working class New Jersey college dropout, two very sincere multi-instrument-playing Canadian hippies – one guy, one girl; two London art-school kids who love the blues, a New York Jewish son of a dance-band leader (though his singing partner doesn’t make it); and a gay piano player from the London suburbs who loves 50’s rock’n roll.

This life of selfless devotion to my art continues until I die at the age of 95 from complications due to a twelve-hour orgasm brought on by my second, much younger wife (I was an early widower who bravely raised three children by myself) and half-a-dozen groupies who accompany us from show to show. In my unauthorized biography, it is revealed that I negotiated peace in the Middle East and cured lymphoma.

Unfortunately, I have a mind that operates on spontaneous combustion, and order is utterly anathema to my brain. Even if I wanted to,I wouldn’t know how to organize my thoughts, and believe me I’ve tried. One can either beat oneself up for one’s faults or accept who one is, and above all else, I am thoroughly disorganized.

In art, as in life, my mind tends toward the disorderly. Give me the diverse ramblings of Chaucer, not the well-ordered tiers of Dante. Give me the mad confusion of the Marriage of Figaro any day over the plastic perfection of The Magic Flute. Give me Beethoven fugues, not Bach’s. Give me Bellow, not Nabokov. Give me Turner, not David. Give me Howard Hawks, not Stanley Kubrick.

It’s very easy to admire orderly things – well put together art, well organized buildings, well-built people. But perfect order is beyond us – humanity is not perfect, and perfect things are cold, distant, and unobtainable for us mortals. No matter how much we long to possess it, to understand its perfection, the experience of perfection eludes us every time - something is always in the way. Perfection, if it exists, needs nothing but itself, and no matter how much we try to love it, we ultimately fail because something perfect is incapable of loving us back - if it's perfect, it has nothing to do with us because we could only besmirch it. Perfection demands everything of us, only to give nothing back in return.

This is why Leos Janacek is such a necessary composer for classical music (a disorganized preamble if ever there was one…). In a century of composition that nearly banished all concerns but structure and design, Janacek stands out as one of the few great composers whose primary concern was human expression. The form of his music, such as it was, had no reason to exist except to fit the content. And if the content was too diverse for any form to fit, that was OK too.

I remember reading a music critic – Greg Sandow if I’m not mistaken – who compared classical music’s obsession with form to people who complement a woman for having beautiful face because her skull is perfect (why is this post so sexual?). To appreciate the design without the content which the design provides is to utterly miss the point of why music, why art itself, exists - it exists for us to love, not to worship.

I remember a harmony class with a professor I was (unsuccessfully) trying to win over. Like most music theory teachers, his mind went unfailingly towards the orderly and well-kempt. He was an organist who loved Bach and sacred music, so naturally we weren’t meant to get along. At the time, I was just falling in love with Janacek and I asked him what he thought of my new favorite composer. His response was instant, “He’s the best third-rate composer I know.”

Composers like Janacek will never appeal to the orderly mind. It still amazes me that certain classical musicians have overcome their hatreds of Mahler and Ives, composers of disorganized genius if ever there were any. But in some ways Janacek is on a level of disorganization entirely above even Mahler and Ives – even above Schumann and Mussorgsky (ok…maybe not Mussorgsky). In Janacek, there is no such thing as musical development. A theme can be non-chalantly thrown in only for another theme to replace it instantly, then another, and another, with no sense that one theme has anything to do with the other. At least in Italian opera, the various melodies and motifs are divided into arias (songs) and recitatives (sung exposition) - but no such division is necessary in Janacek. All that mattered to Janacek was to capture the right music to suit the expression of that particular moment, and if the music had nothing to do with the music that came before or the music that came after, that was perfectly acceptable. His only compatriot in this regard is Modest Mussorgsky - but Mussorgsky did not live long enough to stretch this technique to Janacek's extent. Other modern composers, like Debussy and Stravinsky, mostly rejected the very ‘German’ idea of developing the same musical themes. But of those who rejected musical development, only Janacek and Mussorgky made emotional expression their primary goal.

Like Ives, Janacek toiled for his entire career as a virtual unknown in the provinces – not acquiring a name for himself until he was retirement age. He made his living as nothing but a mere provincial organist and musicmaster, and came home every day to a disastrous lifelong marriage and children he eventually had to bury. In an era when Vienna was still the center of music, Janacek couldn’t even live in the second city: Prague. He lived in Brno, Prague’s grimy industrial counterpart in the Czech-speaking lands.

 (For me, the most terrifying scene in all opera, even if it's in the wrong language here - German rather than Czech. The old town sacristan convinces herself to drown her ward’s newborn bastard son in a frozen lake.)

It was in Brno, at the age of fifty, that Janacek penned his first masterpiece. As his daughter lay dying in the next room, Janacek wrote the opera Jenufa. In doing so, Janacek finished the job begun by Mozart to take opera out of the stylized realm of Gods and legends and put it squarely in the realm of human beings. For Janacek, opera was not poetry – it was everyday prose. Every emphasis of the words, every rise and fall in the melody, is as precisely notated as possible to correspond with everyday speech. When a person grows angry, he speaks in a different manner than he does when he’s happy, or sad, or ambivalent. Janacek’s great insight is to find the appropriate speech pattern for each psychological state. The result is a dramatic expression every bit as heightened as in any other great opera, but with a naturalness and believability that is only Janacek’s. Of course, for melodic passages he slows down the speech patterns, but they are still the same speech patterns, just done in half-or-quarter time.  This is musical organization of a type every bit as precise as anything in Monteverdi, but in a manner so different that to certain people it seems like a jumble of musical sludge in which one musical motif has nothing to do with any other.

(The astonishing finale of Jenufa from the astonishing third act of Jenufa. Just watch.)

To the end of his career, Janacek remained utterly devoted to his speech method. He would notate people’s speech precisely as he heard it, with cadence, rhythms, and notes on the page existing exactly as they were when they came out of people’s mouths, and in his papers there exists a page on which he notated his daughter’s dying breath.

There is not a single great opera composer since Janacek who has taken up his mantle. Britten and John Adams occasionally let their music speak through prose, but mostly as buildup to another poetic section. With the exception of Berg, none of the high modernists from Schoenberg to Birtwistle have cared a fig for making characters sing as people would speak. One can only surmise that had more composers followed Janacek’s example, the story of 20th century music would have been very, very different.

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