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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Whatever Happened To Outrageous?

Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead held that the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I hold that musical modernism consists of a series of footnotes to Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (1913). These ground-breaking eruptions convinced many of my generation to become composers, and they remain the benchmark by which subsequent forays into musical radicalism have been assessed (none too favourably at times). One might well ask whether the two great innovators themselves survived the notoriety of their most celebrated creations.

That the debut of these works was tumultuous has long been enshrined in legend, especially in the case of Le Sacre. But have we grasped the true significance of the opening-night disquiet? There are two defining issues here: the extraordinary historical moment that could produce such a revolution, and the preternatural rightness of the music itself.

Virginia Woolf speaks to the first issue evocatively:

On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

As to the the second, Stravinsky called Pierrot, “The solar plexus as well as the mind of early twentieth-century music." For his own part he reflected that, "Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed."

Those initial rioting audiences knew instinctively that their 19th-century worldview was being demolished before their very ears, and it was being done by music that was simply outrageous. It was also the stuff of genius (hence the vehemence of the reaction), the effect of which was to point human consciousness in the direction of a new perception of reality. By virtue of Stravinsky's radicalization of rhythm and dissonance and Schoenberg's radicalization of dissonance and atonality, music had suddenly been wrenched from its traditional role as a contrivance for "singing and dancing." Thus the first-night listeners were reacting to the fact that music was undergoing a process of de-aestheticization and depersonalization. It was being abstracted as a truth-telling energy that sought the shortest route to the psyche, unmediated by codified aesthetic norms or conventional narrative structures. This was music intended to put people in their truth, in a radically non-subjective way. As Stravinsky put it, “There are simply no regions for soul-searching in Le sacre du printemps.” To the criticism of blasphemy in the Giraud poems, Schoenberg responded, "If they were musical, not a single one would give a damn about the words. Instead, they would go away whistling the tunes." I like to think of Stravinsky and Schoenberg from this period as shamans, engaged in an archaic revival of primal musical archetypes: Stravinsky as Siberian shaman, for whom drumming is not "percussion music," but a trance-induced portal to the upper and lower worlds; Schoenberg as desert anchorite, whose ecstatic if tormented glossolalia finds voice in sprechstimme by way of the fractured shadow world of Pierrot.

In the wake of a hundred years of musical "footnoting," where is the New Outrageous to be found? Pierrot and Le Sacre were seismic landmarks in the millennium-long journey of Western music, but what they opened up has by now been processed and internalized. There is a new shift in consciousness trying to be born, which would see human character change yet again, and perhaps more momentously than in 1910.

We await the next revolution and its new music.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Back To The Future

Far from New Age, my musical engagement with the labyrinth is, if anything, Old Age. Old in the sense that the inception of the labyrinth in the Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth-century was precisely contemporaneous with the first great flowering of classical music in the West. As the medieval stone labyrinths were first being laid down, the dawn of polyphonic music, the Ars Antiqua, was rising over the choir loft at Notre Dame de Paris, for me a gravid symbolism. 

What is striking about this conjunction is its Borgesian circularity. Almost nine hundred years on, the archetypal journey that is the labyrinth is enjoying a groundswell revival. The ur-composers of the Notre Dame school, Léonin and Pérotin, having essentialized diatonic minimalism ab ovo, now inspire contemporary composers such as Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt and György Ligeti.

But all these are mere harbingers. What can such musical and labyrinthine creation myths tell us about the next turning of the musical dharmic wheel? Might our newly-won, post-Boulezian manumission clear the way for a circularity capable of reorienting the course of Western music itself?

More on that downriver . . .

Friday, January 15, 2016

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The End of an Era

Pierre Boulez left us just as the old year transitioned into the new. His passing marks a sea change in Western classical music, which has lost the last of a priestly caste. An august lineage is at an end, its legacy in abeyance. 

Boulez's musical universe was eminently patriarchal: power, domination, control; complexity, abstraction, hermeticism. Ego. Yet, as the I Ching would have it, the situation is evolving slowly, and yin is gaining ground. From an animus esotericism of the head to an anima esotericism of the heart. One hundred years ago modernism shattered a worldview. One hundred years later we can begin to grasp wherefore.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

New Blog, New Century

Having finally decided, after years of deferring the matter, to start a blog, I find myself in the agreeable position of having to decide what it should be about. Beyond the fact that it exists under the banner of my musical work with the labyrinth as both metaphor and practicum, its purview is an open one. I can however frame a focus by invoking the musical term ricercar, meaning to search out, to explore the permutations of a given motif, by which is here meant the alchemical marriage of music, mind and spirit.

Twentieth-century music having fading into history, we hold vigil for its successor. Modernism and post-modernism having razed the old, we await a new consciousness that will raise the new. Bridges were burned, by which light new bridges could be built. Bridges over the great chasm separating what has passed away and that which has yet to be born.