Interrupted tragedy

For the last couple weeks, my first year seminar on “Deals with the Devil” has been focusing on Goethe’s Faust. On the day when we read Goethe’s fragmentary and suggestive account of Faust and Gretchen’s tragic romance, I played for them Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” a youthful composition that revolutionized the approach to song in classical music.

This class exercise brought together two fascinations of mine. In addition to becoming ever more invested in Goethe’s Faust after teaching it for several years, I am also an amateur pianist and have been working at playing Schubert’s final piano sonata for a long time now. I will probably never have it performance-ready, but I am beginning to understand the piece in a way I have never understood a piece of music before — the complex development of key signatures, the parallel structures between movements, and above all, the abrupt and sometimes stunning transitions. (See score here.)

One thing that makes the piece approachable is that it is so clearly broken down into units of a page or a page and a half, which often seem to have nothing to do with what preceded them. Sometimes the effect is transformative — above all the abrupt shift into a pure C-major in the final lines of the second movement (pp. 15 to 16 in the PDF) — but often it is simply puzzling. For instance, one of my favorite passages in the first movement shifts the very recognizable “molto moderato” theme into a minor key (pg. 5), but the the chord that would resolve the melody line shifts into the beginning of a variation on an oft-repeated spritely theme that seems to shift back and forth promiscuously from major to minor. More striking is the most technically demanding passage of the fourth movement (pg. 24 of the PDF), which evolves out of the main theme of the movement seemingly without warning — only the shift from an eighth note to a sixteenth note on the first anticipatory beat of each phrase announces a change — and then shifts into a seemingly even higher gear in the following measures (pg. 25). But that “dramatic” gesture slowly fades, until we are simply reintroduced to the movement’s signature opening “chime,” as though nothing had happened.

I wonder, now, if Schubert was returning to his earlier fascination with Goethe. There is a fascinating article by Benjamin Bennett called “Interrupted Tragedy as a Structural Principal in Faust” (available in the Norton Critical Edition of Goethe’s play), where he argues that Goethe systematically undermines any cathartic moment — precisely so that the reader will not be able to purge or purify the emotions they are experiencing, but will be left to grapple with them. This seems to me to account for the abrupt ending of Part 1, where we get no resolution of the “main plot” involving the bet with Mephistopheles but are instead left to sit with the devastating human encounter between Faust and the woman whose life he has destroyed and whom he no longer loves. In most of Part 1, Mephistopheles is the tragedy-interrupter, injecting jokes and irreverence whenever Faust is having a “deep” moment of insight or tragic self-regard.

Something similar seems to be happening in the Schubert, where borderline-romantic passages, often in a minor key, often with a lot of black on the page, are abruptly interrupted with playful asides or simply left to fizzle out. And even the most sustained “serious” minor-key passage — the opening theme of the second movement — is constantly “deranged” by the repetitive left-hand gesture that jumps around the keyboard in seeming indifference to what the right hand is doing (beginning on pg. 12 of the PDF). Perhaps here we can recall Mephistopheles in his guise as a poodle, nipping at Faust’s heels as he muses about the restorative powers of nature and human companionship. This dynamic gives way (on pg. 13 and following) to a more “heroic” theme — but one that fizzles out, to be replaced by a return to the main right-hand theme that is even more insistently harassed by the left hand (pp. 15 and 16). Yet this is precisely the moment of the almost transcendent appearance of the C-major triad, a light piercing the darkness. But only for a moment.

A season at the symphony

Last night, a colleague and I took some students to hear the Civic Orchestra, a youth orchestra sponsored by the Chicago Symphony. It marked the end of a semester where I had attended the CSO at least every two weeks. I had been going increasingly often in recent years, but this summer I made a Facebook friend who plays with the orchestra and generously offered to track down comp tickets for me, meaning I could go much more often than I could normally afford.

The experience of being a “regular” has been different in ways that I didn’t anticipate. It’s not merely quantitative — being “in it” to that degree has deepened my appreciation and (I think) understanding of classical music. Without having to shell out for every ticket, I have been more open to whatever they happen to be playing, which has broadened my horizon beyond a certain early 20th-century modernist rut that I have been stuck in for a while. I’m becoming a better listener, to the point where I don’t feel like I always need to familiarize myself with recordings of a piece in advance.

The biggest change, though, is that I feel more confident in what a good performance or interpretation is. For instance, I heard Muti conduct Pictures at an Exhibition and felt that they kind of “phoned in” the finale, which other more experienced fellow attendees confirmed. Similarly, I heard Neeme Järvi conduct a program of Prokofiev and Sibelius and felt it was one of the best concerts I’d ever heard — and for the first time ever, I overheard multiple people on the way out gushing about how great the concert was. I was even so bold as to skip directly to a standing ovation after Denis Kozhukhin’s virtuoso performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto.

The shift in my perspective is similar to one I experienced a few years ago for visual art. I was teaching Shimer’s fine arts course and hence paying more concentrated attention to art than I ever had before. I always enjoyed it and was vaguely knowledgable about the basic outlines of art history, but it is proverbial that you only really know something through teaching. This happened to correspond to a period when I was doing a lot of travelling and so I got to visit several of the greatest art museums in the world within a short span of time. That level of immersion turned out to be a qualitative shift.

The root of my renewed interest in classical music — making it my primary musical diet instead of one thing among many — also corresponded with my teaching of the course, but my real immersion experience only came in the last few months. To make sure it sticks, though, I anticipate continuing with the same regimen for the foreseeable future.

Dreamers, they never learn

Radiohead belong to ‘rock,’ and if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free). Yet the first notable quality of their music is that, even though their topic may still be freedom, their technique involves the evocation–not of the feeling of freedom–but of unending low-level fear. — Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop Music

Yesterday I immersed myself in the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it brought me into an emotional space I hadn’t been in for a long time. Reflecting on the times when Radiohead had been most important to me — urgently, even embarrassingly important — I recalled that it was always when I most felt like I needed a way out. I didn’t want sheer fantasy, I was always too cynical and pessimistic for that. Nor did I want to wallow and emote, at least not in an immediately legible way.

A song like “Lucky” hit exactly the right mark, which means that it displayed all the right contradictions. The lyrics were “officially” optimistic and yet the musical context — not just Thom Yorke’s delivery, but the dark and foreboding sound — made them feel sarcastic. And even within the lyrics themselves, there’s a strange contradiction:

Pull me out of the aircrash
Pull me out of the lake
‘Cause I’m your superhero
We are standing on the edge

The superhero needs to be rescued? And the edge of what? We can’t be sure, but we do learn, in the next track, that we need to slow down — idiot, slow down, slow down. An airbag may have saved your life, but don’t tempt fate. Perhaps survival is the real superpower.

This album feels like a return to the OK Computer/Kid A ethos, not least because of the reappearance of one of their great orphan songs from that era, “True Love Waits.” The extant live recording (from the I Might Be Wrong EP) plays it as an earnest “acoustic guitar guy” ballad, a rare eruption of the raw emotion of the pre-OK Computer Radiohead. The current version presents that emotion — the desperation of an adolescent crush — as a ghostly memory.

It’s a foregone conclusion: dress like her niece all you want, she was never going to stay. That’s always how it was going to turn out, and the younger singer who is barely audible in the preternatural calm always knew (or wants to believe he always knew) that that was the case. Yet there’s nothing cynical about it. It’s not mocking the emotion — it’s somehow enshrining it in the very gesture of deactivating it.

By taking up a stance of contemplation, we become free, and dwelling in the deactivated versions of our feeling of being trapped, of all that paranoia and desperation and total alienation, is our way out. “Dreamers, they never learn” — but perhaps we can learn to dream differently.

Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Continue reading “Teaching music”

Music in The Leftovers

One of the most striking things to me about The Leftovers is the music. The signature gesture of the soundtrack is to deploy a “highbrow” version of a pop song — for instance, the piano arrangement of “Where is My Mind” or Lo-Fang’s slow, melodramatic cover of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease. The latter only occurs once, at a time when the viewer is starting to wonder whether the love between two main characters is merely circumstantial — basically a more dramatic and fraught version of a teenager’s summer fling.

The former is a more constant refrain, which sometimes sounds like the beginning of the show’s own “dramatic piano music” and sometimes transitions into the Pixies’ original recording. Here I think we’re supposed to hear a Fight Club reference, given that Justin Theroux’s character is living a double life (though we almost never see the dissociated version at first hand, much less the two versions interacting as with Ed Norton and Brad Pitt). Given that so many of the characters’ problems center on a fraught relationship with the Guilty Remnant, we might also view that cult as an evocation of the more militant “fight club” of the second half of the film. As with the evocation of Grease, though, in both cases the stakes are much higher, as we are dealing with an apocalyptic event rather than a nameless ennui.

More than any specific intertextual reference, however, I believe that this gesture of “classing up” pop music or cult movies reflects what the show as a whole is doing. After all, what idea could be tackier or lower-class from the perspective of high-brow cable drama than the fundamentalist Christian trope of the Rapture? What could be more distant from the cultural aspirations of the HBO audience than the Left Behind novels and films?

A question of interpretation

I’ve continued to work on the Schubert piano sonata I described in one of the least-read AUFS posts in history. I feel pretty confident on the first movement, though there are still places that need work. Now most of my efforts are directed at the second movement, which begins on pg. 12 of this PDF score.

Its most striking feature is a repeated background pattern in the left hand (modelled by the four C-sharps in the first measure). Being familiar with the piece from recordings, I didn’t find it difficult to execute, though it might have been hard to figure out how it all fit together without the recording. Yet it does present a question of interpretation: should the top note, which crosses over into right-hand territory, sound like a part of the melody? Continue reading “A question of interpretation”

Eine Kleine Blogmusik: Stumbling through Schubert

I’ve played piano for most of my life, and I still try to keep it up by practicing my old favorites and learning new pieces. Since I started teaching at Shimer, I’ve increasingly been called upon to teach musical materials, and that has shifted the way I look at my piano playing. I’m unlikely to do much if any public performance, so it has all largely been for my own pleasure. Now I’ve become more analytic — learning to play a piece can be a way of picking it apart and figuring out how it works.

Recently I set myself a major challenge: Schubert’s last piano sonata. (Click here for links to recordings and scores.) I’ve been working on the first movement for several weeks, and at this point I’m pretty confident on everything up to the repeat (pg. 6 of the first PDF listed, going by printed page numbers) and have established an outpost beyond it. There’s relatively little in this movement that’s “difficult” in the sense of requiring a lot of repetitious exercises (though I’m not looking forward to the last few lines of pg. 7), but it is surprisingly difficult for me to sightread (admittedly not a strong skill for me in any case).

As I’ve worked on it, I’ve started to understand why: Schubert is constantly trying to subvert expectations. It’s very difficult to place the intended emotional tonality of the first movement, which seems to lurch back and forth very quickly between different emotional registers. This is clear already from the very beginning, where we have a very stately opening theme, followed by the unexpected interruption of the low trilled G-flat and an indefinite pause. When the main theme returns, that very interruption already makes it feel different somehow — you’re set up to expect deviations into playfulness. But this very expectation of the unexpected is subverted on the second page when the main theme returns with the undercurrent of triplets. Things become very dramatic, setting up a shift into a minor key with the introduction of a secondary theme, initially underpinned by triplets and then repeated with variations over 16th notes. Things gradually unravel into a length passage that I would characterize as both playful and halting (especially the first ending, which is apparently not always performed, given how incredibly long the movement is even without the repeat).

The variation on the opening theme after the second ending has strangely proven to be the most difficult passage for me to learn so far (pg. 6). It took me several days of repetitive work, including with the left hand alone, to even get a feel for what seems like a very simple segment. I finally realized that it’s because the left-hand accompaniment will never settle into a standard pattern — instead, it shifts back and forth among what I would call three different standard patterns that never stay in place for more than a measure at a time. This makes what should be a straightforward minor-key variation on the theme feel vaguely unsettled, an intuition that is confirmed by the abrupt and unexpectedly early burst of major-key playfulness that follows. And that only serves to set up a very dramatic section (the dreaded pg. 7) that might itself be undercut by its very length.

This kind of fine-grained unsettling of expectations occurs throughout. In the section with underlying 16th notes on pg. 4, for instance, the base note of the left-hand accompaniment continually seems to shift at the “wrong” time, a beat too late or too early. And even in the opening theme itself, there are strangely dissonant notes that you hardly notice listening to a recording (the second full measure even briefly lands on a tritone, B-flat to E-natural), but that have an unsettling effect that makes the strange left-hand trill less jarring than it might otherwise be — or allows the trill to “preemptively” unsettle the main theme.

Overall, I can understand why these late sonatas had such a revival in the 20th century. Within the apparently very conservative framework of a piano sonata deeply indebted to Beethoven, there is an insistent undercurrent of experimentalism. And maybe by winter break I’ll finally be playing through the whole first movement with confidence.