800 Words: The Sardonic Catharsis of Shostakovich Part 1
High school musicians all love Shostakovich. The music is surly and ironic, yet horrifyingly sincere. He speaks directly to the deepest recesses of gloom, but still manages to conceal its gloom in just enough insouciance to glamorize it. Shostakovich, perhaps more even than Mahler or Tchaikovsky, is everything in music that is perfect for adolescents. And just as he's perfect for adolescents, Shostakovich is perfect for advanced music students as well. Like Beethoven, Shostakovich stretches a musician's technique to the absolute breaking point, and gives him every bit of the same abundance of emotional reward for their efforts.
College musicians hate Shostakovich, college composers anyway. They inevitably come upon a few professors who rant to them that the music is shit. Even if they don't believe anything else their professors tell them, there still remain the obvious nagging questions that yank through their new musical education and social security when they experience their former passion: Why all that gloom? Why all that bombast? Why all that structural padding and long-windedness? Why all the hostility to modernism? Surely, many progressive young musicians hear in his music a reactionary older relative lecturing them on the dangers of the slippery slope to socialism.
Personally, I don't think I understood truly Shostakovich, like Tchaikovsky, until I began reading Russian literature. When you read Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and particularly Dostoevsky, you read passage after passage of characters talking so frankly about the state of their souls that you begin to wonder if suppression of free speech was the only way Russians would ever get out of their own navels. Russia is known as having the most powerful novelistic and short story tradition for a very specific reason - the stakes are simply so much higher. These characters are confessing their deepest agonies, and you never doubt that the agonies are agonies that, if we are fully human, we absolutely share. Like human beings, their suffering is leavened by humor and absurdity, but never enough to forget that suffering is the most important component of their lives. It therefore follows that there's nothing truly philosophical about this manner of engaging with literature - because the needs of these characters are so much more viscral than any philosophical concept. Suffering, true suffering, is too primal to be dominated by any intellectual abstraction. Philosophy of course makes enormous appearnces in the texts of many Russian novelists, but for all the philosophical depth, the philosophy exists to animate the characters and story, not the characters and story existing to animate the philosophy.
German literature was once something light and witty - when you read Heine and Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm and Lichtenberg and Simplicius Simplissimus, you see that Germany was once a very different place: not a place with its head in the clouds but much closer to the Earth - humbler, less ambitious, less devoted to mastery of the world and its contents. Once you start with Goethe and writers he clearly influenced - writers like Mann, Hesse, Rilke, Joseph Roth, and no doubt so many other writers I have yet to read a word by - seem so bogged down by the heavy philosophical tradition which all the practitioners have to contend with, that creating a reality or characters that live off the page seems to be a secondary concern to translating philosophical ideas into stories. Only in music could did the German creators truly get away from philosophy, and Wagner did everything he could to stuff philosophy into music too.
English novels are just one facet of their long and glorious literary tradition, and hardly the most important - compared to the weight and urgency of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, George Eliot, for all her glories, seems like she's more interested in the trivial concerns and ethics of trivial people, and compared with Shakespeare, even the drama of Dickens is a bit weak. Given the weight and import of Shakespeare and the King James Bible and the metaphysical poets, it shouldn't be too surprising that England's best music also probably comes from the High Renaissance.
It should be obvious (but sadly, it isn't to many), even the best of our written literature here in America is a pale and weak brew next to our movies and TV shows. Past 1970, you can count the high literary fiction that broke into America's public consciousness on your fingers: Ragtime, The Color Purple, Beloved, Infinite Jest, The Corrections, Kite Runner.... As for our music, well... you probably know how I feel...
And let's not even get started on the French...
No one in their right mind would mention Tchaikovsky in the same breath as Mozart, or Shostakovich in the same breath as Beethoven. I also doubt that anyone with equal expertise in music and literature (which, in spite of the sweeping generalizations above, I should in no way claim...) would ever try to say Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich are equal to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in quality and influence. But it is astonishing how close they both get, because what was once true about German music from Bach until Wagner became true about Russian literature from Pushkin until... well,... maybe the death of Solzhenitsyn? What is most important is the emotional bond between creator and audience, everything else is masturbation.
What was the Russian difference? Why did the arts mean more over there than ever it does over here in our lifetime? Did they simply suffer more? Perhaps over a longer period of time they did, but it's hard to claim that they suffered more than Germans or the Chinese, particularly when Russia was responsible for inflicting so much of their suffering. Were their artistic creators more ambitious than in other countries? Hardly - there are relatively taxonomic creations after the manner of German and French thinkers who are more interested in theory than practice.
This is shameful pop psychology stereotyping on my part, but perhaps the difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe is that Russia is a relatively new modern civilization, emerging from the back woods of history only in the late 18th century. But unlike America, who emerged at a similar moment from a new continent in which they could evolve completely separately, Russia was fused by geography to Europe - to compete with England and France, they had to develop their own tradition, and develop it at a severely accelerated rate. America, so the myth goes at least, is relatively free to be frivolous, a vast expanse of arable land where you can be free to do whatever you like. Russia was, perhaps is, an even vaster expanse of un-farmable land in which society has to be ruled with an iron fist lest everybody freeze to death in the winter. To survive in Russia, you had to trust your neighbors with everything about you. To make the bleak mid-winters worth trudging through, you needed entertainment that was especially luminous and meaningful.
It's the same feeling you get from earlier German music, or earlier British verse, or Renaissance Italian art, classic American movies, or perhaps even Medieval French iconography. It's the feeling you get from documents that show a society, a people, truly grappling with themselves - the feeling that history is not something to study but something being written right now. You have finally learned how to paint, but the canvas is still blank, and you're painting not only for you, but for everyone you know, and every ancestor who worked and suffered so that you can finally make a mark on the world and be remembered in a way they never could. Here is what Carlos Fuentes had to say about it:
"Let me tell you about a curious experience I had this summer. I was writing a novella about the adventures of Ambrose Bierce in Mexico. Bierce went to Mexico during the Revolution, in 1914, to join up with Pancho Villa's army. I had the problem that the voice had to be Bierce's, and it was extremely difficult to render in Spanish. I had to make Bierce speak with his voice, which is available to me in his stories, so I wrote the novella in English. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. I would be writing along in English when suddenly from under the table Mr. Faulkner would appear and say aah, aah, can't do that, and from behind the door Mr. Melville would appear and say, can't do it, can't do it. All these ghosts appeared; the narrative tradition in English asserted itself so forcefully that it hamstrung me. I felt very sorry for my North American colleagues who have to write with all these people hanging from the chandeliers and rattling the dishes. You see, in Spanish we have to fill in the great void that exists between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries. Writing is more of an adventure, more of a challenge. There is only a great desert between Cervantes and ourselves, if you except two nineteenth-century novelists, Clarin and Galdos. ..I remember ten years ago I was talking to an American writer, Donald Barthelme, and he said, “How do you do it in Latin America? How do you manage to write these immense novels? Come up with all these subjects, these very, very long novels? Is there no paper shortage in Latin America? How do you do these things? We find we have great difficulty in the United States as American writers to find subjects. We write slim books, slimmer and slimmer books.” But what I answered on that occasion is that our problem is that we feel we have everything to write about. That we have to fill four centuries of silence. That we have to give voice to all that has been silenced by history. If you had asked me today where the novel is alive and kicking, I would say it's basically in Latin America and in so-called Eastern Europe, which the Czechoslovaks insist on calling Central Europe. They think of Eastern Europe as Russia. In any case, there you have two cultural zones where people feel that things have to be said, and if the writer does not say them, nobody will say them. This creates a tremendous responsibility; it puts a tremendous weight on the writer, and also creates a certain confusion, because one could say, Oh, the mission is important, the theme is important, therefore the book has to be good, and that is not always the case. How many novels have you read in Latin America that are full of good intentions—denouncing the plight of the Bolivian miner, of the Ecuadorian banana picker—and turn out to be terrible novels which do nothing for the Bolivian tin miner or the Ecuadorian banana picker, or anything for literature either . . . failing on all fronts because they have nothing but good intentions. But still, we had a whole past to talk about. A past that was silent, that was dead, and that you had to bring alive through language. And so for me writing was basically this need to establish an identity, to establish a link to my country and to a language which I—along with many other writers of my generation—felt we in some way had to slap around, and wake up, as if we were playing the game of Sleeping Beauty."
Just earlier today, I sat down and tried to start a violin sonata. I gave up after ten bars: some Shostakovich here, some Bloch there, some Beethoven everywhere in between. I have very little original to say as a composer, and my best written music is almost always either in arrangments or in borrowing other composers' source material. As a creative musician, I don't have an original bone in my body. But as an improvisor, I can go for hours on the violin, secure in the fact that I can do things no one has done on the page.
I'm going to 'humble-brag' for a moment, dear reader, and tell you that I've consistently heard myself called, by people in a position to know, the 'best violin improvisor in Baltimore.' I don't have anywhere near the traditional technique of people who other people who do similar improvisation and get much more prestigious gigs, but I can say with some degree of certainty that what I do on the violin is more creative than they, in large part because my lack of technique necessitates it. Their invincible techniques, and it's just as true for many guitarists in town, make them sound more anonymous, and the blandness of what they do on the violin blends their stage presence into ensembles far better than I ever could. They have technique that was churned out in a conservatory factory, their playing is virtually interchangeable with one another. They can get through a thirty-two bar solo secure in the knowledge that their technique will never fault them, and it shows - they don't have to live the music they play. I don't have that option onstage. My technique is just good enough for what I do, and not a scintilla better. The minute I start relaxing onttag and phoning it in, is the minute my playing goes out of tune or my bow goes flying onto the fingerboard.
And yet, I guarantee you, I feel freer onstage than they ever do. To do what they do, they have to be slaves to their instrument. Whereas until recently, I picked up my violin only at the few gigs I had every week. They're probably well-adjusted and functional people in their personal lives, but they have no idea what to do onstage once the violin stops playing. I still get stagefright in the wrong situation, but compared to my personal life, the stage is inevitably an oasis of calm for me, and I instinctually know what to do to keep people interested at almost every moment.
Why is this? Because, relatively speaking, there is so much less history to be burdened by in violin improvisation - the very term 'improvisational violin' is so unfamiliar that to most people that it sounds comical. Even if you borrow a snippet of Beethoven or Shostakovich here and there, the context is so unique that it can't help but be slightly original. Other violinists who switch from classical to bluegrass or jazz have a perfectly tried and true path, they've probably memorized all the same concertos, they probably know the same few licks from their preferred masters of the genre instrumentalists they play, they probably know bluegrass and gypsy jazz better than I do, and they probably know the same rock and pop songs we all know by heart (or at least everybody but me...), but they do not have on instant neurological availability the entire classical canon from Bach and so many before him to Shostakovich and so many after him. They have not committed to heart (not to brain, but to heart, the expression is vital) hundreds of years of accumulated musical wisdom as to what works and what doesn't. They play their instruments better than I do, but they do not play music as well as I do, and I play music better than they play their instruments.
Nevertheless, being called 'the best violin improvisor in Baltimore' has about as much practical use as being called the #1 expert on tropical climates in Greenland. Even so, it gives me enormous pleasure to do, and seems to give audiences some pleasure too. Sitting in front of staff paper, I often feel terrified. But with the violin, with no music in front of me and an audience to whip up to frenzy (and hopefully catharsis on occasion), I feel free.