Thursday, August 30, 2018

INEP #25 - Werther, Darcy, Onegin - Much More

So a few dozen of you, if you really care, might have asked where your once faithful correspondent has been. The answer is, he's been practicing violin, he's been addicted to duolingo and is trying, in his usual overly ambitious way, to learn four different languages simultaneously - and has so far progressed enough that he can at least say 'apple' in all four; and he's been searching his mind for a podcast format that would bring him and you the best possible results and satisfaction, only to draw the conclusion that he should keep doing this podcast exactly as it is without the slightest possible change.

But most of all, he's been reading, trying to learn the secrets of writers much better than he'll ever be, trying to figure out where his old fictional podcast, the podcast he was really passionate about making, perhaps mistakenly passionate, went off the rails, and trying to learn from the old masters how to make a coherent narrative and actually read the books he's always pretended he's finished, and occasionally never started.

So I want to talk in this podcast about three very similar characters from three truly cosmic masterpieces. Some books are Masterpieces with a Capital M. You approach them with awe, but it's almost impossible to approach them with love. Goethe's Faust is a great example of that. I have no doubt that for two hundred years, millions of Germans have taken Faust to their hearts like very few works in the canon. It's an endless source of poetic wisdom for German speakers, but my German is pretty f-cking horrible, and when I compare translations - and, oy gevalt, I read three translations of Part I, it's fairly easy to see how taken in some people are taken into thinking that a classic is terrible when what's really terrible is the translation. The first two translations I read conveyed hardly any flavor at all and I couldn't help but come away thinking what a pompous sage this Goethe is, but the translation of John R. Williams truly comes alive with all the playfulness and nature-painting and vulgarity that Goethe must read with in German yet so seldom seems to register in English. With Part II, I read only one, the one you can find online in PDF by A.S. Kline, and it was something of a bore that only came alive intermittently. Jesus, I'm not going through that experience again so soon of trying to understand Part II properly when getting my head around the spirit Part I was so hard.

That's not to say that even in a great translation, Faust is anything but long-winded, and it seems to take half of Part I to merely gain momentum. A number of pieces of classical music based on Faust are more consistently enthralling than the original source, particularly Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Even in the great parts, there are any number of exhilarating scenes that run too long to sustain interest all the way through. But Goethe is a master, and after reading Faust, perhaps I ought to say 'the' master, of rendering the potentially terrifying as something playful, almost harmless.

At first hearing, this ability may not seem like much of a gift, but consider two things. The first is that Faust Part I was published in 1808, when hundreds of years of religious dogma, perhaps thousands, were finally overthrown and Western humanity was, for the first time ever, allowed some semblance of a truly secular life, with some people, not even necessarily the rich, free to ignore the diktats of the Church. Faust is a poetic drama, full of characters but clearly not truly meant to be acted on the stage but rather, either read quietly by one's self, or read in a group of friends or family. Imagine, for the first time that wasn't on a Shrove Tuesday, being able to act out Faust's explosion of demonic characters among your friends, saying all manner of crude things free from censure of approbation, and realizing that demons are not things to be feared but cartoon characters of the imagination. Or imagine enacting a protagonist in our minds like Faust, as we all do when we read good books, a character who gives voice to the same existential doubts that plague any thinking person about the efficacy of the good we supposedly do, wondering even if good is good and evil is evil, and yet striving even so to evolve into a better version of ourselves, and willing to risk eternal damnation to do it. Art, maybe literature particularly, gives voice to the voices within us we didn't even realize were there, and the first time people read Faust's phenomenal doubts on a page, most readers must have realized that this was what they've always thought and felt without even realizing that they did.

But this rendering doesn't speak to why Faust, why Goethe, would still be valuable today. Goethe wrote 80 books, so it's not like I can give any kind of comprehensive overview of his work or define it in any truly meaningful way. But I can certainly contrast his two most famous works. One is a legendary and thin-aired Himalaya of World Literature - which, of course for those in the know, is a term Goethe invented. The other is perhaps Germany's most beloved novel, a book whose reputation he could never live down because everyone wanted him to write another Werther, but Goethe, like Faust, and as genius must, was always evolving, always searching for new avenues of interest and expression to add to his storehouse of knowledge and reevaluate his wisdom. More than any proper philosopher, he was perhaps the truest thinker the modern world ever had; the reason being that he was unencumbered by any system at all, and rather left his theories messy - half empirical, half Cartesian, and a third half metaphysical, and rather than fit them into neat proscriptions of any straightforward theory, he hedged his bets, never settling on any fixed truth as any one who values the truth ultimately must.

And it's this Goethe which we have to see for what he means. Goethe means so little to the American mind, to the 21st century mind, because everything about his ethos is so far away from our zeitgeist. Harold Bloom, not always the most insightful critic, does have a good line about Goethe, which is that the wisdom of Goethe seems to come from another solar system than ours. What matters in this distant solar system is just a pleasant, calm life of contemplation in which we all strive to take as much interest in all the world's manifestations as we can, its people, its nature, its laws both juristictional and scientific, and even its potential metaphysical secrets; and in doing so, we cultivate an inner life rather than try to announce ourselves to the world in any outward manifestation, we never stop evolving into better and greater versions of the people we already are and the people we have yet to be, we never cling too particularly to our previous assumptions and what we assumed about ourselves and the world in one year is not necessarily what we assume the next. But this above all else: to perceive the world in all its roundness. Instead of the small, flattened, perhaps even quantified and technocratic, concepts we have of our world in which code is binary and A is only A, in which we all cling to the beliefs we already have, to always be on the lookout for the interconnections between all things rather than isolated within the same assumptions about what the world is that we live and die with. And by doing all this, the head and the heart can live in greater serenity and harmony than would ever be possible without this constant metamorphosis.

This process has a word in German, everything has a word in German, but this is a particularly important word that we have no equivalent to in English - Bildung. We in America have devoted so much time and passion to the extension of freedom, even if every American seems to disagree violently on what it means to be free; yet how many people have ever given much thought about what all our freedoms are for? I don't think I need to give a long discourse about how this is related to American life, most people listening to this podcast probably live an American life and know what it entails, and the non-Americans might see what's wrong with America even more acutely than we do.

But I will say two things about it. There was obviously a big problem with Bildung, those German speakers who devoted their life to this self-cultivation could cast huge shade of disapprobation on those who did not, or could not, be free to pursue the same cultivation as they, and in that lay the intellectual seeds of how Germany destroyed Old Europe. Obviously it generally wasn't the exquisitely well-read and refined bourgeois gentry who perpetrated Germany's worst crimes, but they did look on Germany's crimes against humanity with indifference, and often even approval.

We in Contemporary America are not Nazi Germany, and no matter what the Trump Administration may still be hiding in store for us, we will never be anything even remotely resembling Nazi Germany. We are America, and these days, that's problem enough. People, including me, who constantly worry that we're about expire from totalitarianism are looking at the 21st century through the eyes of the 20th. We have more than enough existential crises right now without looking at them through the prism of existential crises of the past. At this point I really doubt this is the End of America or the Pax Americana, though it could very well be the beginning of the end, because a lot of ends are not sudden but extremely gradual. We are already failing existential tests of the 21st century with flying colors: ecological catastrophe, mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, bioterror, corporate data mining, fake news. Every hard scientist and political scientist seems to have solutions played out in theory, but no leader, not even an advisor to a leader, has the imagination to know how to enact creative solutions. Solving these problems, not just in conception but also in execution, can only be derived from vast humanistic training in which some of the interconnected metaphysical outlook of 19th century Europe is recaptured. We have so much quantitative knowledge that no one person can possess even a percentage of it, but the more comparative study there is between all of these fields, the more each field becomes better understood, and the more each field can yield pragmatic use. We have scientifically grown so quickly so fast that our technology may destroy the Earth. Technology evolves so quickly that humans have to retreat into fixed self-identities in order to have any solid ground on which their personalities stand, and we never have the time to properly learn all our science and technology is for. That can only be done by radically altering how we approach our thoughts, and the means to do it are right in front of us if only we can see what Goethe, what Faust, saw. Every civilization eventually is brought down, but if we're flexible enough in how we think, there may be ways to come down with a softer landing.

But the opposite of the Faustian outlook is Werther, always self-focused and indulgent, never able to live with himself because he sees validation only in how he is valued by the outside world.

-------------


Once God and the Devil no longer had a stranglehold on the human imagination, we humans were much more free to look inward to the workings of our own consciousness, and from that liberated inward gaze we got realist fiction, non-realist painting, absolute music ...





The neglect of Goethe in our era and place is one of the great scandals of modern intellectual life, because more than any writer I can think of, Goethe is exactly what we need right now. Is Goethe as boring as his reputation? Well, the only answer I can give from personal experience that has integrity is... often. But Goethe's peaks are so high that he's entirely worth the valleys.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

INEP #25: Werther, Onegin, and Darcy - Beginning

So a few dozen of you, if you really care, might have asked where your once faithful correspondent has been. The answer is, he's been practicing violin, he's been addicted to duolingo and is trying, in his usual overly ambitious way, to learn four different languages simultaneously - and has so far progressed enough that he can at least say 'apple' in all four; and he's been searching his mind for a podcast format that would bring him and you the best possible results and satisfaction, only to draw the conclusion that he should keep doing this podcast exactly as it is without the slightest possible change.

But most of all, he's been reading, trying to learn the secrets of writers much better than he'll ever be, trying to figure out where his old fictional podcast, the podcast he was really passionate about making, perhaps mistakenly passionate, went off the rails, and trying to learn from the old masters how to make a coherent narrative and actually read the books he's always pretended he's finished, and occasionally never started.

So I want to talk in this podcast about three very similar characters from three truly cosmic masterpieces. Some books are Masterpieces with a Capital M. You approach them with awe, but it's almost impossible to approach them with love. Goethe's Faust is a great example of that.

The neglect of Goethe in our era and place is one of the great scandals of modern intellectual life, because more than any writer I can think of, Goethe is exactly what we need right now. Is Goethe as boring as his reputation? Well, the only answer I can give from personal experience that has integrity is... often. But Goethe's peaks are so high that he's worth the valleys.

Goethe wrote 80 books, so it's not like I can give any kind of comprehensive overview of his work or define it in any truly meaningful way. But I can certainly contrast his two most famous works. One is a legendary and thin-aired Himalaya of World Literature - which, of course for those in the know, is a term Goethe invented. The other is one of Germany's most beloved books, a book whose reputation he could never live down because everyone wanted him to write another Werther, but Goethe, as genius must, was always evolving, always searching for new avenues of interest and expression to add to his storehouse of knowledge and reevaluate his wisdom. More than any more proper philosopher, he was perhaps the truest thinker the modern world ever had; the reason being that he was unencumbered by any system at all, and rather left his theories messy, half empirical, half Cartesian, and a third half metaphysical, and rather than fit them into neat proscriptions of any straightforward theory, he hedged his bets, never settling on any fixed truth as any one who values the truth ultimately must.

B. How, by embracing the spiritual world, Goethe was the central figure in neutralizing religious dogma's stranglehold, and how he did so.

C. Goethean Evolution and how we Americans have a fixed sense of identity rather than a continuously evolving one.

D. How we have to recapture some of the interconnected metaphysical outlook of the 19th century Europeans and be content to evolve or else we will not see the connection between the dots that can solve the existential crises of the 21st century: mass extinction, bioterror, nuclear proliferation, ecological catastrophe.

When Facebook Becomes Blogging

I finally couldn't take it anymore and I defriended a few Brit socialist Corbynistas - a few of which were genuinely eminent intellectuals - after being dared in his facebook feed by one of them for anyone to do it if I had anything at all nice to say about Jonathan Sacks. I guarantee the dude doesn't know a single other person who might have something nice to say about Rabbi Sacks, so I had no reason to wonder whom he could have ever been speaking. At least I had a few Corbynistas cramming up my feed to whom I occasionally addressed in recent days. I don't even like a lot which Sacks stands for, but Sacks is pretty much the exact locus point of modern Judaism. If a person isn't an antisemite before he says that he can't be friends with a person who has anything nice at all to say about Rabbi Sacks, he's definitely an antisemite afterward. I really unloaded on the dude and I blocked him before I could get any response. I'm sure the response I got was as blisteringly personal as I gave. I'm not sorry to have done it. It never stops being amazing how smart people can be such idiots and it wouldn't matter that the guy is a maniac but he is beginning to accumulate real prestige and power in music, much more than I ever will. I'm just a pygmy whose name shows no signs of getting any bigger, so I don't know how somebody that eminent could feel so provoked by me. I was quite fascinated by him, not just because his writing on music is better written than just about anybody's who had saner beliefs, but because he really does love classical music even if his love can be as warped as Klingsor's ( look him up...), and that's extremely rare in my generation. When you're an American of our generation, living among so many classical musicians, experts even, who seem to have such little love for it, see no value in what they do, and want to gleefully slam the door on the entire classical tradition, it's incredibly refreshing to talk to the few knowledgeable people of my generation who don't seem like they think the whole thing is completely useless. And furthermore, in spite of his Marxism he lives a kind of glamorous jet set European lifestyle full of bildung and kultur that a pointy egghead like me always dreamed of having, not filled with sailboats or paragliding, but concerts and museums and books. The hypocrisy was both kind of hilarious, and also quite reassuring that somebody, anybody in the world at all, could still do it on an academic's salary.

But what a fucking price to pay for it. The inability to relate at all to anyone not exactly like him, the surrender of every independence of mind because everybody's intimidated to voice thoughts outside the party line. As jealous as this clearly enormous ego of mine is, I also pity these people. They have more privileges than anyone would ever know what to do with, and it's never enough. They have to live with so much repression that even just a few negative words about what they believe drive them to such enormous rage that they can't even be friends with people who disagree. And for guys like that, all their outrage is purely abstract. It's not like they are ever personally affected by all the newspeak they spout; one way or the other, their position at the top of world society is completely unassailable. At least I put up with reading their crap about Corbyn for a period of years. How fragile can people be?

I'm sure I have more to say about this or related topics later, this will do for now...

Sunday, August 26, 2018

When Facebook Becomes Blogging


Conservatism will always be with us. It is as natural to the human condition as the urge to liberality, the urge to make all things socially just and equal, and the urge to submit one's will to an authority figure. We all have those urges somewhere within us, and we all have to live with those who choose to respond to different parts of our native selves than we do, and we have to respect those who make incorrect worldviews into something with which people can live.
McCain was the example in our time of Aristocratic Conservatism, a conservatism of duty and public service which believes that the privileges he inherited required him morally to give back to a country which gave him so much. This is the conservative tradition of Eisenhower, Adenauer, De Gaulle, Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Bismarck, Disraeli, and Edmund Burke, which now seems to be taken up by Merkel and Macron. It's a conservatism that only opposes the extension of freedom because the extension of freedom for those who are not free may dramatically curtail hard-won freedoms of others. McCain's conservatism knew that there was no world in which the upper class could ever be threatened by those beneath them unless those beneath them were provoked to do so. It is the conservatism we need from our Republicans. When allowed to flourish, it can be of enormous welfare to the un-prosperous in already prosperous societies, when allowed to die out, the conservatism which replaces it can destroy the lives of millions.
We are all thrown into this world with people with whom we could not disagree more strongly. Our only option is to respect those people with other opinions who are not so fanatical in their beliefs that they chase an extreme version of them. Without them, there is only a liberalism that curdles into revolution, and a conservatism that desiccates into tyranny.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Idea for Podcast Series: The 'Greatest Generation' of Composers

No, it's not the actual greatest generation. Even if that existed, this might not be it, and even if it were, how can one prove it? There is no 'greatest' anything in art, one can't quantify quality, one can only talk about various kinds of greatness. Perhaps people can objectively value one kind of greatness over another as being more essential to our quality of life, but even if we could, how do we quantify an essence?

Perhaps the only way to do so is by its uniqueness. And in the sense of what is unique, this period of composition - composers born between 1855 and 1885, is in many ways the most unique for reasons which we can get further into over these dozens of episodes. The basic thesis is this: 'absolute music' was so important to the life of the middle class over the long 19th century that this music, with its definite rules of tonality and sonata form, with its millions of amateurs who mastered instruments and learned to be musically literate just as they were literate in any language, accumulated ever new ways to be complex and unique until the invention of the electronic recording, which completely changed our relationship to music. Musicians and music lovers who did not remember a time when we could listen to music without playing it thought of music differently, wrote music differently, played music differently, listened to music differently. The era from which they emerged was a long and glorious sunset. With the dawn comes the excitement and hope for ever new possibilities, but also the necessity of re-learning from scratch everything we once thought we knew. 

Each of these podcasts will be no more than an hour long, with many recorded illustrations:

Unfinished Beginnings: Mussorgsky

Unfinished Beginnings: Bizet

Elgar the Pilgrim

Imperial Elgar:

Unimperial Elgar:

Verismo:

Verismo: Cav and Pag 

Verismo in Puccini:

Modern Puccini:

Mahler: Origins

Mahler: Originality

Mahler: Vienna

Mahler: Farewells

Mahler: The Anxiety of Influence

Debussy: Musical Stasis

Debussy: Musical Color

Debussy: Musical White and Black

Debussy: The Anxiety of Influence

Strauss: The New Poem

Strauss: The New Poem II

Strauss: Operatic Radical

Strauss: Operatic Conservative

Strauss: Collaborator and Mourner

Janacek: A Different Modernity

Janacek: Folklorist

Janacek: Slavophile

Janacek: The Power of Speech

Janacek: Old Man in Love

Delius in France

Delius in Germany

Delius and Fenby

Sibelius: Voice of a Nation

Sibelius: Ainola - Retreat to the Forest

Sibelius and the Gods

Sibelius in the Theater

Sibelius: The Road to Silence

Nielsen: Psychology

Nielsen at War

Nielsen: Tonality, Clarity, Strength

Busoni: The Piano Transcriber

Busoni Goes Home

Busoni's Faust

Busoni: That Piano Concerto

Koechlin: Forgotten Genius

Koechlin: Pantheist

Koechlin: Time Becomes Space

Koechlin: The Jungle Book

Koechlin: Hollywood

Schmitt: Imperial France

Joplin: American Bach

Joplin: Treemonisha

Beach: American Women

Price: African-American Women

Taneyev: The Russia that Was

Glazunov: The Russia that Was II

Arensky and Ivanov: The Russia that Was III

Zemlinsky: The Dwarf

Zemlinsky: Viennese Eros

Schrecker: Viennese Eros II

Schmidt: Viennese Eros III

Mystic Holst

Rural Holst

Choral Holst

Vaughan Williams at Cambridge

Vaughan Williams in France

Vaughan Williams's Women

Vaughan Williams in the Home Office

Vaughan Williams: The Lion in Winter

Reger: Variations on the Classical

Reger: Variations on the Baroque

Scriabin: Divinity

Scriabin: Ecstasy

Scriabin: Fire

Scriabin: Toward the Flame

Rachmaninov: Gold Watches and Hypnosis

Rachmaninov: Voluntary Exile

Rachmaninov: Involuntary Exile 

Ives in New England

Ives in Concord

Ives in New York

Ives in the Transcendent

Ives: The Anxiety of Influence

Ravel: The Apache

Ravel at the Opera-Comique

Ravel and His Mother

Ravel at War

Ravel: Le Jazz

Falla and Albeniz

Falla: Spanish Phantoms

Falla's Musical Puppets

Schoenberg: An Irritating Young Man

Schoenberg: Free Classical

Schoenberg: Other Planets

Schoenberg: The Twelve Commandments

Schoenberg: Arnie in America

Schoenberg: Arnie and Adolph

Respighi in Rome

Respighi in History

Respighi in Concert Mode

Bartok: No Hungarian Rhapsodies

Bartok: Rejected Love

Bartok: A Little Night Music

Bartok's Children

Bartok: East Meets West

Bartok in America

Bloch: Judaism Speaks

Bloch: Time Becomes Space

Bloch and the Quartet

Foulds: Forgotten Genius

Foulds: Mystic Researcher

Foulds: The World Requiem

The Kodaly Method

The Kodaly Voice

Szymanowski in France

Szymanowski's Men

Szymanowski in Poland

Stravinsky: Firebird

Stravinsky: Petrushka

Stravinsky: The Rite

Stravinsky: Leaving Russia

Stravinsky: Here Time Becomes Space

Stravinsky and God

Stravinsky and Gods

Stravinsky vs. Schoenberg

Stravinsky: The Anxiety of Influence

Villa Lobos and Bach

Villa Lobos and Brazil

Villa Lobos and Europe

Villa Lobos and the Guitar

Bax: Englishman Gone Irish

Bax: English Institution

Berg: Old Vienna

Berg: Wozzeck

Berg: Lulu

Berg: The Memory of an Angel

Berg: The Anxiety of Influence

Webern: Here Time Becomes Space

Webern and Science

Webern: Brevity is the Soul of...

Still need places for: Magnard, Dukas*, Bridge*, Suk*, Godowsky, Enescu*, Gliere, Kalinnkov, Liadov, Medtner, Myaskovsky, Stenhammer, Alfven, Wellesz, Casella, Braunfels, Albeniz*, Granados