Monday, July 29, 2013

800 Words: A Bi-Yearly Diatribe on Wagner...

As long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters - Edward Gibbon

Wagner is the very music of sociopathy, expertly moulding our emotions like clay into whatever he wills us to feel with no regard for how we feel after it’s all over. Bach is music’s angel, promising us full consolation for whatever suffering we’ve undergone. Wagner is music’s devil, exciting us with rancor and disturbance but with no guarantee of any stability. He’s every drug which addicts can’t help taking on the infinitesimal chance that the next hit will be as amazing as the first. He’s every girlfriend who sets fire to your living room right before and after amazing sex. He’s every boyfriend who looks dreamy in the leather jacket he took off to give you a black eye. No matter how much the man repels you, no matter how often the music bores you, you can’t stay away.

And that’s because Wagner is the door of perception which opens to the new world of music which we still don’t understand - and may never. Like Loge, he offers resources, wonders, and mischief beyond what any other composer can offer. Like Wotan, the chaos of a far-away journey is something we cannot resist. But only as Wagner can, he conjures a hidden dream world of a primitive man which we unconsciously worry may be far, far more sophisticated than any world in which we live.

Wagner was born in 1813. During his youth, Beethoven still bestrode the earth, while Mozart and Haydn were still talked about as living presences. It was the moment at which music seemed literally capable of expressing anything, and Wagner’s contemporaries - Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and Verdi among them, were centers in the most important intellectual debate of their generation - what is music capable of expressing? Every master had his own answer, but Wagner believed that in the 9th symphony, Beethoven ‘proved’ that music was so powerful an expressive language that it had become too grand to merely be confined to the realm of instruments, and Wagner was determined to show just how far the expressive power of ‘world-spirit’ which Beethoven demonstrated could be carried still much, much further. Beethoven, still alive until Wagner was 14, proved for all time that music was no mere artisan craft - it could express the entire world. And Wagner was determined to express that entire world to a purpose.

In Berlioz and Liszt, Wagner had a musical ‘big brothers’ or ‘cousins’, who regarded absolute music as a dangerously antiquated concept. But even Berlioz’s aims as a composer were so far removed from Wagner as to render Wagner sui generis. Berlioz, nearly as gifted a man of letters as he was a musician, and through the expressive potential which Beethoven unlocked, Berlioz aimed to create music that was as articulate of situational imagery as the great literary works. Liszt’s aim was closer. For most of his career, Liszt was a composing pianist who aimed to create music which would excite his public to a state which resembled worship. But Wagner’s aim was far more ambitious than either; he remained, to the end of his days, a lousy poet who happened to create great music to accompany his poetry. Nor was he ever a matinee idol or a skillful instrumentalist. Wagner required something more, Wagner wanted his music to express something far beyond great literature or even a cult of personality (hard as that may be to believe).

For Wagner, music was a means to an end, and the end was to provoke a particular response to the listener. His truest forerunners were romantic poets like Byron and Blake, themselves descended from his ultimate progenitor - Milton. And Wagner’s truest follower was Brecht. His art was not made to be appreciated as an end in itself, his art was made to provoke reactions in his listeners. It is hard not to believe he would have disagreed with Brecht’s famous quote: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Any argument that Wagner did not mean to disturb his listeners for a fully disturbing reason is willfully naive. In terms of techniques utilized, he has no equal and not even anything resembling a peer. He occupies that ground in music which Milton occupies in literature and Kubrick occupies in cinema - accorded a level of influence and control over his ability to practice his art which no other artist in his artform ever occupied or ever will again. To find an artistic predecessor, one must look outside of music to Blake or Byron or Shelley. To find an artistic successor, one must again look outside of music to Brecht or Chaplin or Ibsen or Zola, but you won't find one in music.  Wagner was not simply an artist or a thinker, he was a man of action who wrote operas as a means to hammer his society to better fit his vision of it. But the irony of his vision was that it was of a purely spiritual world of myth and legend. His vision was of a race of people who transcend the stupid, crass, messy material world of ours into a realm where all things are possible - in other words, a world only possible in myths. But in order to create that new world, he had to perpetuate the most dangerous myth of all - the old world has to be obliterated to make way for the new. Senta must prove her love by sacrificing herself so that the Dutchman can leave Earth. Tristan and Isolde’s love can only be consummated through death. Kundry must be kept alive and Amfortas wounded until a perfect fool arrives with no knowledge of our terrible world and all its misery. In the Ring Cycle, the entire corrupt world of the gods, giants, and dwarves, must be destroyed so that heroic men like Siegfried may try again and do better. It is the same myth perpetuated by every dictator, that if only we rid ourselves of the festering corruption of those other humans who prevent us from realizing our full potential, we would emerge cured as a pristine society.

And meanwhile, Wagner has music which fully equals the implicit cult-of-death of his dramaturgy. Many people like to defend Wagner by saying that music can’t show fascist sympathies. It most certainly can. What other word than the F-word is there for a five-hour opera in which harmonic resolution is denied until the very last moment when the titular characters achieve a blissful union through death? What word but the F-word is there for a fifteen-hour cycle of operas which plunges us into every possible contortion of tonal harmony to illustrate every shade of evil, only to achieve a blissful state of serenity at the end, after the opera’s entire world has been destroyed.

Wagner was a musician of genius - perhaps of a higher creative genius than the world has ever yet seen from an artist of any form. But music was never enough for Wagner. He was firstly an activist, secondly an intellectual, and only thirdly a musician.

Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde, the ultimate opera about love, immediately before he wrote Die Meistersinger, the ultimate opera about renouncing love. It was as though he wanted to prove that he was more than merely a creator of human considerations. Indeed, for five hours, Die Meistersinger is the most humane of all operas, creating a world of human beings with extremely human problems and joys done so uncannily that we can’t possibly mistaken this vision of life for anything but a world which teems with compassion for our fellow humans. But after five hours of pure humanity, there stands Hans Sachs, the great, benevolent hero of all Wagner, exhorting us to honor our German masters and protect the land from foreign invaders. After five hours of disguise, there lie the same warcries as ever before, all the more effective for being dressed up with so much Mozartian delight intermingling with heartbreak. Die Meistersinger is a perfect opera, with enough delight to make up for all the agonized moments in his operas and then some. It is therfore the greatest disgrace to our common humanity which Wagner ever created, and by far the most amenable of all the Wagner operas to propagandistic purposes.  

Wagner’s drama perhaps feels ‘real’ in the way that it’s entirely consistent with itself. There is rarely ever division between dialogue and song, and there are rarely ensemble numbers. There are merely a lot of singers standing in place and singing, with orchestral harmonies and effects swirling around them as though to explore every possible crevice of consciousness from these beings, a consciousness we can never understand because these beings clearly exist in another dimension from ours. If Verdi’s drama feels artificial, it’s also because he is so spontaneous and clearly ‘of our world.’ The musical development of Verdi is truly that of an organic composer (and anybody who thinks Verdi could not handle development in a symphonic sense is invited to deeply examine any opera of from Rigoletto onward). We recognize the emotions of Verdi’s characters, because they are our own emotions, even if those emotions are heightened and sometimes contained by ridiculous plots. But the development in Wagner’s music is not organic, it’s eugenic. It exists in a manner which is too controlled to convincingly portray the human. Wagner understood psychology, and he certainly understood human beings well enough to manipulate them, but he didn’t want to express anything which smacked of humanity. He wanted to portray humans through a mirror in which they were judged principally by how they measured up to his heroic standards. Within the Wagnerian universe, there is no good and evil in any traditional sense, there is only strength and weakness. And those who are too strong for our world as its currently constituted are exhorted to kill or be killed on the path to creating a better world. No, Wagner was not Hitler, and he shouldn’t be viewed as such. But it’s difficult to believe that he’d have looked at the cult of death out of which Hitler created Nazism partially from his operas with anything but delight.


No wonder Daniel Barenboim is so fascinated by his music, and no wonder hardly any other conductor conducts his music with such deep perception.

I have been looking forward to listening to this Ring Cycle for months because Barenboim may well be the greatest Wagner conductor of the recorded era. Look at the alternatives to that title - Solti is decent; Wagner through the lens of Salome and Elektra. Solti was never quite as inflexible and martinet-like as critics alleged, and he certainly has a great sense of theater and the sensational, but Wagner requires still far more flexibility and moods than Solti’s ever willing to give. Karl Bohm is Wagner by way of Schubert’s Winterreise, he has the Bayreuth orchestra at a great standard, with nearly all of Solti’s singers singing better for him, and he follows and supports his singers all the way through like a great lieder accompanist. But even so, he seems extremely unwilling to make the music move on its own with the flexibility Wagner requires. Wagner’s messy “unending melody” is not the precise elegance of Schubert - Wagnerian melody is grounded in harmony, not rhythm, and the conductor has to stretch tempos well over barlines for the phrases to create a life of their own which cannot be found in the score. James Levine is surprisingly fine at points, but utterly wrongheaded. Too rhythmically foursquare when it should soar, too perky when it should be weighty, too weighty when it should be perky. Levine positively basks in the Wagner’s refulgence, with no sense that he ever feels the need to follow the drama to its fullest plumage. Levine, a surprisingly great Brahms conductor, seems to see Wagner through Brahms’s lense - lots of warmth, but not enough heat. And if Levine is a Brahmsian Wagner, then Furtwangler is Wagner by way of Bruckner, often extremely exciting and moving, but with amazingly dull spots in between because we can’t ever forget just how ‘deep’ Wagner’s music is - I can’t help thinking that Furtwangler possesses a conception of Wagner’s music which is far loftier even than Wagner’s own. Boulez’s Wagner is Wagner by way of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. The singers aren’t quite as good as in earlier generations, but they almost don’t matter. He has an even better Bayreuth orchestra than Bohm’s, refined to the point of shine with every detail shimmering through an always beautiful sound - the singers sound like merely another line to clarify on the way to complete transparency. Clemens Krauss, easily the best of the old Bayreuth house conductors for my money, is like later Strauss, including in its underratedness (except among the most hard-core collectors). Here, at last among those mentioned, is a conductor able to articulate the full diversity of meaning in the Ring Cycle, but not quite able to summon the epic Wagnerian power within that framework. Maybe it’s the sound, but all that lightness and shade comes at a price. Joseph Keilberth is like a Brahms/Bruckner hybrid, warm, dependable, and still too heavy-going. And I still haven’t heard enough of Herbert von Karajan’s non-Meistersinger Wagner to make a judgement...

That leaves four major recorded conductors left who understand Wagner on his own terms. One of whom I haven’t listened to enough Wagner to make a judgement on his (Christian Thielemann). The other three are Hans Knappertsbusch, Reginald Goodall (Kna’s pupil), and Daniel Barenboim. I have no doubt that Wagner by way of Knappertsbusch and Goodall possesses a certain type of authenticity, but it’s no authenticity I want in my life - under Kna, Wagner becomes a static ritual, something to be worshipped rather than enjoyed. When I hear Knappertsbusch in Wagner, I hear Wagner as Wagner probably wanted to hear himself - an object for veneration rather than love. The dimension in which the characters of Wagner operas exist under Kna’s hands is so far removed from the human dimension that it seems to me a perfect representation of everything that’s noxious in Wagner.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, Barenboim is the only conductor of a major recorded Ring Cycle who seems to meet Wagner on his own terms. His tempos are both faster and slower than nearly any other conductor, and the sudden changes in tempo are so imperceptible that they seem like black magic. Barenboim doesn’t simply support his singers, he challenges them, he inspires them, he inflames them - and this clearly inferior generation of singers is inspired to a level of commitment unseen from far greater Wagnerian voices. For the first and only time among Ring recordings, Wagner’s cumulative impact is felt (just about) all the way through, every bar threatening to double the excitement and meaning of the last.

(A three hour Tristan, a three hour Tristan, a three hour Tristan)

As far as I’m concerned, there is only one more perceptive Wagner conductor than Barenboim, and it’s the infamous Artur Bodanzky. The sound of his 1930’s recordings is nearly unlistenable, but if you can get past the sound to hear the music, then Bodanzky’s Metropolitan Opera forces had probably the greatest Wagner singers the world will ever hear. And he inflamed those singers to the maximum possible commitment, whipped the orchestra into a constant frenzy of fast (but constantly shifting) tempos, and mercilessly cut out so many of the dull passages which cow the rest of us into avoiding Wagner when possible. Finally, here were performances in which Wagner is no longer a ritual for the believers, but a visceral composer for the theater, in which characters sing as though they have human motivations. For only in this time and place, the practical considerations of the listener’s attention span are engaged in Wagner. Wagner was not simply a religious ritual and pseudo-philosopher taken seriously, he was a theater composer to be practically engaged and enjoyed for pleasure as one would a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel. Never has the approach to Wagner been more Jewish than it was at the 1930’s Met.

Virtually every other conductor who’d be willing to grab the bull by the (jew)horns never gave us a recording of anything more than small pieces of The Ring: Eugen Jochum, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Charles Munch, Victor de Sabata, Nikolai Golovanov, Willem Mengelberg, Albert Coates, Carlos Kleiber, the young Leonard Bernstein or John Barbirolli or Colin Davis.... Perhaps there’s yet hope to get a great Ring from younger conductors like Manfred Honeck and Andris Nelsons. Hell, maybe even Simon Rattle or Valery Gergiev still have a great Ring in them somewhere (not yet...), and, perish the thought, maybe a millionth of a possibility of a great Ring from Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Perhaps it’s the congestion of the online sound, but something has changed definitively in Daniel Barenboim’s Ring Cycle conception, and not for the better. Life is not quite lived on the edge of safety anymore. People used to say that Barenboim’s Wagner was slavishly imitative of Furtwangler’s, but this past week’s Proms performance seems much closer to Furtwangler’s conception than his recording from twenty years ago. There is excitement to be had during those points where he keeps things flexible, and there fortunately are a number of moments when he does - but not quite enough anymore. Like last year’s Beethoven cycle which Barenboim conducted, I was put very much in mind of the older Bruno Walter. We have no way of knowing how the elderly Walter would conduct Wagner’s Ring, but I’d imagine it would be with great warmth and beauty of sound, and with the incendiary fire of his middle age dampened though not vanished. The musical depth which Barenboim used to imply is now self-conscious. This is no longer Wagner on his own terms, this is Wagner by way of a Schubert piano sonata or The Magic Flute. Amazingly beautiful, luminously so at times, but also a little sapped of intensity at times and not quite hanging together as a whole. It’s certainly great, but it’s not quite the Wagner which Barenboim made me love against my better judgement.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

800 Words: The American Lycee - A Syllabus - Grades 7-9 - American Stories

Submitted without comment or explanation.

Grade 7 - The Television Era: 1999-

The Sopranos
Freaks and Geeks
The West Wing
Late Night with Conan O'Brien
Malcolm in the Middle
The Daily Show
Six Feet Under
Family Guy (second incarnation)
The Shield
South Park
The Wire
Arrested Development
The Office (British and American)
The Colbert Report
Friday Night Lights
How I Met Your Mother
Mad Men
Breaking Bad
True Blood
John Adams
Game of Thrones

Additional Texts:


Three Kings

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The Social Network


The Dark Knight


United 93


Little Miss Sunshine

Thank You For Smoking

Up In The Air

There Will Be Blood

Brokeback Mountain

Gran Torino

Books (to be studied either complete or in excerpts):


Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Freakonomics by Steven D Leavitt and Steven J Dubner & Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Outsourced Self by Arlie Russell Hochschild 

Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama

Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

“A Problem from Hell” America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals by David Halberstam

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright

The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer & Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10th, 2001 by Steve Coll

The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand

The Closing of the American Mind by Alan Bloom

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture by Francis Schaeffer

The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington

Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman & The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria

Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin

Journalism by Paul Krugman
The Two Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren

Republic, Lost: by Lawrence Lessig

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips

House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger 


The Koran

Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Anne Proulx

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Empire Falls by Richard Russo

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen


Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

Avenue Q

In the Heights

Grade 8 - The TV Era: 1983-1999

Late Night with David Letterman
St. Elsewhere
The Golden Girls
The Cosby Show
A Different World
Picket Fences LA Law
Law & Order
Star Trek The Next Generation
Family Ties
Murphy Brown
Saturday Night Live
Married With Children
The Simpsons
Twin Peaks
The Larry Sanders Show
Homicide: Life on the Streets
The X-Files
3rd Rock from the Sun
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Beavis and Butthead
King of the Hill
The Drew Carey Show
Everybody Loves Raymond
Will and Grace
Spin City
Ally McBeal
Sex and the City

Additional texts:

Jaws & Star Wars

Close Encounters of the Third Kind & ET

Blue Velvet & American Beauty

The Breakfast Club

Do The Right Thing

Hoop Dreams

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Forrest Gump

Glengarry Glen Ross

Hotel Rwanda

Wag the Dog & Primary Colors

Dazed and Confused



Speeches and Letters by Martin Luther King Jr.

Autobiography of Malcolm X

News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father by Richard Rodriguez

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed Along With Our Families: by Philip Gourevitch

Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick

The End of History by Francis Fukuyama

The Age of Reagan 1974-2008: A History by Sean Wilentz 

The Starr Report by Kenneth Starr

Power and the Idealists by Paul Berman

What's The Matter With Kansas by Thomas Frank 

Capital by Karl Marx

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater

The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman

Twilight of the Common Dream by Todd Gitlin

The Big Con by Jonathan Chait

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stieglitz

America: The Book by Jon Stewart

Ashes to Ashes: America’s Cigarette War, The Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris by Richard Kluger


Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Watchmen by Alan Moore

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Rabbit is Rich & Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert M. Pirsig

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy


Angels in America by Tony Kushner

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson

Fences by August Wilson

Speed-the-plow by David Mamet

Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim

Assassins by Stephen Sondheim

Grade 9 - 1962-1983: The Film Era

The Manchurian Candidate
Dr. Strangelove
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Graduate
In the Heat of the Night
The Dirty Dozen
Bonnie and Clyde
The Producers  
Blazing Saddles
2001: A Space Odyssey
Easy Rider
Midnight Cowboy
Five Easy Pieces
A Clockwork Orange
Dirty Harry
The Last Picture Show
McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Little Big Man
The French Connection
The Godfather Epic
Mean Streets
The Conversation
The Long Goodbye
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Taxi Driver 
All the President's Men
Annie Hall & Manhattan
The Deer Hunter & Apocalypse Now
The Shining
Raging Bull
The Right Stuff


The Andy Griffith Show


The Brady Bunch


Get Smart

Hogan's Heroes

Mission: Impossible

Star Trek

All in the Family

Mary Tyler Moore


The Carrol Burnett Show

The Jeffersons

Good Times


The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith

Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan

The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan

The Making of a President by Theodore H. White

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

Ghandi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Non-Violence by Erik Ericksen

Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History by Norman Mailer

Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter

So Human an Animal by Rene J. Dubos

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan

On Human Nature by E. O. Wilson

The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

The Imperial Presidency by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls


Herzog by Saul Bellow

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying