week17: shostakovich


I believe that of the leading twentieth-century Russian composers, Prokofiev is the finer artist of the two—his technique, his judgement, his range, outstrip Shostakovich. But I also believe that Shostakovich is the more important of the two. More than his colleague, Shostakovich witnessed the cataclysm of midcentury Russia before his eyes, felt it and lived it. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

this symphony in five words?—warring strings and militant percussions. the last time i listened to this recording, in late july, the temperature was stuck in the high twenties (and threatened low thirties)—no time at all for the fury and delirium of this tenth symphony’s Allegro. it’s as if the protracted length of the first movement was a design to lull the attention with the mirage of a scenery just shy of pastoral; only to arrive, at the end of that long and steady road, at the jagged shoulder of a wicked cliff— it’s a short fall, just above four minutes long, but the flailing delirium is not alleviated until well after the conductor’s baton has been tucked safely back into its holster.

i made plans back in july to come back to this symphony in second or third week of november, and even now i still feel it too early, still too warm for this symphony. december is a month wholly for russian composers of the previous centuries. not for the sake of any wool-slipper coziness, but of the pitiless gaze of their proximity to the iciest winters. and perhaps if you had to suffer stalin as a cultural and political one-man-legislature, winter is more than season… it is the ice-wall of oppression against which music must be charged like a bayonet, like an icepick—


Deutsche Grammophon Recording. Printed in West Germany // Dimitri Schostakowitsch (1906-1975) // Symphony no. 10 in E minor, op.93

Berliner Philharmoniker, Conducted by Herbert Von Karajan

Symphony no. 10

  • Moderato (moderate)

  • Allegro (quick, lively)

  • Allegretto (quick, slower than allegretto)

  • Andante — Andante (slow, faster than adagio)

Here is where the ambiguity of instrumental music comes into play, and the game that artists of any integrity must engage in under a totalitarian regime. Are those climaxes a matter of stern heroism, as Stalin would wish them to be, or transports of anguish and rage? “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

(seriousness in regards to music)———

 He had been something of a brash young man, a provocateur, but in 1936 after an outraged Stalin walked out on a performance of his rowdy opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a newspaper article declared that if he kept on this path “things could end very badly.” [...] Shortly after that, Stalin sent him to America on a tour. Shostakovich knew, and Stalin knew he knew, that artists returning from these tours often found themselves shot. It was maybe a little joke on Stalin’s part, to give the doomed a vacation first. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit


i can’t think of anyone since the Dixie Chicks whose music has been enough of a threat to an administration to warrant any serious kind of trouble—and though being told to shut up and sing is no invitation to creative freedom, it’s still in no proximity to the suffocating stringencies imposed upon dissident composers by dictators of the previous century (and of the current: vladmir putin v. Pussy Riot)—

Stalin, you see, was highly involved in the arts and convinced of their importance to society. That’s why he murdered so many artists he considered bad influences, and/or he just didn’t like their stuff. In general, when politicians get interested in the arts, artists better run. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

michelle obama was recently on the leading feel-tank for the democratic party: stephen colbert’s Late Show. she was promoting her new book ‘Becoming’, which, at first glance, would benefit tremendously from being judged by its cover—that combination of white, mint and black is the perfect abbreviation of the calculating intellectualism thinly veiled by a kind of chic charisma aesthetic of her husband’s talk-show appearances. her performance alongside colbert was magnificent. hers was the style i’d like to describe as a waterbrand (as opposed to a firebrand)—it’s the same intensity, mixed with a bankable knack for understatement. her tremulous barack-esq shout-whispers were as usual irresistible—especially since it's been so long since we’ve been tucked into bed tenderly by an american president (2 years and counting). but amidst all the stage-worthy cadences and dramatized pauses, she said something almost off the cuff that knocked the wind out of me, and was a reminder of what a miraculous gift that first family was to the PR department of american culture for eight years. it came during her explanation of her decision, in the first year of her husband’s presidency, to persist with a scheduled halloween white-house party despite the concerns of her advisors regarding the contrast between such festivities and the dire economic crisis gripping the rest of the nation. michelle is, on the whole, more quick-witted than barack, which is evident as she summed up her response with: ‘It’s halloween dudes, c’mon [...] the country needs seriousness—but they need joy at the same time.’

in regards to the musical experience in general, i can’t do without those two things: seriousness and joy. and perhaps i could make a case that one is impossible without the other: i have very little sympathy for that morose kind of seriousness, the kind mollified only by sighs and grimaces—and just as little for that nervous cheerfulness that is, ultimately, an evasion.

perhaps i’ve taken too long an arc to get to this point: that our music lacks, in almost every instance, seriousness. they are in an ever-shrinking minority, those musicians who are still imbued with the stark and vibrant colours that belie the spirituality of their art. do we still make music serious enough to make tyrants feels uncomfortable? uncomfortable because of the proximity of it’s howls of anger to the sighs of joy they can no longer tolerate?

no one has been more successful in the last century in exercising the imagination of the reading public in regards to the more unsettling details in the tendencies of a surveillance state, than george orwell. but a less than popular author of the same era is by far the more interesting psychologist in regards to the morale of the citizenry subject to tyrannical surveillance—and that is of course, aldous huxley. in fact a now famous comparison between huxley and orwell, made by neil postman in his book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ is especially pertinent to our topic here:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.  

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy.
“” neil postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

the same cautionary could be applied to music-making: what reason is there to ban a musician, if no one listened to her music with any seriousness? (and if i, in the meantime, struggle to define what i mean by ‘seriousness’ i’ll settle to articulate it as the opposite of passivity, trivial orgy porgies). the shooting of a single shostakovich upon his return from america is nothing compared to stalin’s unattainable fantasy of an audience who has cultivated a passivity to the urgently volatile ideations in his music. that fantasy in the kind of anhedonia of our current musical landscape, and the quality of our musical education. an anhedonia generated by our inability to navigate our ‘almost infinite appetite for distractions’...

classical music—instrumental music in general—is so far the best accomplice i could find for the navigation of a path towards serious in regards to music. which is as well a path towards joy—yet another probable translation of what our dear Nietzsche could have meant when he said: ‘what i really want from music is that be cheerful and profound, like an afternoon in October.’ profundity and seriousness, joy and cheerfulness—part and parcel of the classical repertoire…

there is as well a tremendous capacity for ambiguity in instrumental music that is precisely it most interesting feature: it’s both here and there; you can hear it for the hundredth time and yet your cleverness never runs out of stunts, out new meanings to throw unto the music, like a lampshade:

Music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are, the multiplied phenomenon of which constitutes the world of individual things. Therefore music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas. For this reason the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence. [...] We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self. “” arthur schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

(simón bolívar youth orchestra)———i was altogether disappointed by simón bolívar youth orchestra’s performance of this symphony—conducted by the always seemingly possessed gustavo dudamel (who has, perhaps second to pianist khatia buniatishvilli, h the liveliest instagram account in classical music). all the urgency (read: energy) of the piece is sucked out the front door. perhaps one would take more into consideration the fact that is a youth orchestra if it wasn’t for having seen other instances of their athletic flare and raucous string sections. i have in mind the first performance of theirs that i saw on that same stephen colbert’s Late Show (in its early days before it began clamouring for ratings). their performance of a rendition of maria teresa’s Fuga Con Pajarillo was absolutely magnificent. even moreso in the performance below wherein the soloist interjects with cadenzas that incorporate local venezuelan musicality.

unless, amid the mystic tones of reawakened tragic music, the gate should open for them suddenly of its own accord, from an entirely different side, quite overlooked in all previous cultural endeavors… “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

there’s an invigorating amount of opportunity for the hybrid creations between western classical music and ‘world’ music—the gate is opening wider now than ever for such cultural hybridizations...

week16: prokofiev, edouard vuilliard, gustave caillebotte


My music is not free from dryness, but that’s the price of precision. “” igor stravinsky

he would have said it better had he said: ‘That is the price I have to pay for precision’ ….

the discipline of precision, not for the sake of precision alone but of its service to the cathartic element in music, that is the promise and future of the classical canon’s accumulated repertoire. inasmuch as precision is a prefect to form, its ultimate realization in music is always subordinate to content and lyricism, the entire ‘terrible narcosis’ engendering the spirit of the neoclassical russian composer. ironically, this subordination of form to content, precision to languor, is the spirit and context of stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps.

prokofiev’s first symphony is an example of the codependence of precision and lyricism. it is in comparison a more humid, more mediterranean Sacre. it is characteristic of that same spasmodic jazz-age restlessness of Sacre (all of schoenberg’s ‘emancipation of dissonance’), but its sharp angles are softened in the slightest by a sort of waltzing lilt. and it is altogether more cheerful, sociable, in comparison to the more decidedly awkward manifestations of his contemporary’s experiments:

The Classic Symphony — whatever the initial intention of composer — reflects Prokofiev’s authentic lyrical gift and is the affirmation of the imperishable quality of lyricism in today’s world of dry and primitive styles of music. Perhaps it was necessary to treat the lyricism with ease…Prokofiev never lacked homour, contrary to some of his contemporaries. “” harry halbreich, notes from the recording.

the reference is obviously to stravinsky—and the shade is well thrown. nevertheless, there are few other places more interesting, or more imaginative, than the multivariety of unique identities that populated the first half of the previous century’s russian composers: stravinsky’s dryness, rachmaninoff’s lush lyricism—prokofiev: perhaps a mixing on both? all offshoots of course of that late 19th-century bellwether: pyotr ilyich.

but the comparisons aren’t necessary, these works are unique in their own context: the tremendous volleys of optimism launched by the breathless pistons of the wind section of the first symphony’s fourth movement—and the sprindrifts that are jettisoned from the lofty riffs of the cadenzas of the pianoforte in his third piano concerto.


Vox Recording. Printed in the Netherlands // Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) // Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classic” / Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 24

Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classic”

  1. Allegro

  2. Larghetto

  3. Gavotte (Non troppo allegro)

  4. Finale (Molto vivace)

Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 24

  1. Andante

  2. Theme and Variations

  3. Andantino

  4. Allegro ma non troppo


perhaps this is one of those petty things i’d be better off editing out, but: nothing propels me more in the other direction of seriousness in regards to someone’s taste than any talk or reference to an artwork as a ‘Classic’. ugh. it always rings in my ear, regardless of whatever tone is employed, as the clanking of a small chest being dragged up to the attic, stowed away and out of sight, never to be pried open again. that is the presupposition of the “Classic” label—an artwork whose value is undeniable, but cannot be taken seriously as having any significance to ones life simply because it’s not riding the wave of current events, one can only armire it at a distance…and immediately move on from it without penetrating anything more than the most superficial appraisal.  is it no longer the case that an artwork is successful partly because its seriousness surpasses the gaze of its immediate audience, and the bubble of the contemporary?

i’m not sure why prokofiev’s first symphony is subtitled “Classic”—but to the first-timing general public, such a moniker makes the symphony more susceptible to be relegated by posterity to a historical realm just beyond seriousness—or perhaps what i really mean is relevance? is it no longer the case that an artistry is expected to surpass—even if beholden to—the contemporary?

perhaps the same misnomer is suffered by the ‘classical’ genre as a whole. what is classical music at first glance except the upkeep of good posture and rigid poses in music?

(edouard vuilliard’s Théodore Duret)———


aside from roger ebert, i have very little mental imagery of what resembles an arts critic. what i really mean: is there a definitive aesthetic of the art critic?

théodore duret (1838-1927) was a french art critic and early supporter of manet, and impressionism as a style. perhaps as a thank you for his championship of their aesthetic, several impressionists painted the critic throughout his life, the last of which was courtesy of french painter édouard vuillard. it’s a picturesque snapshot of duret in his apartment, a cozy paper-smothered fort—the result of a lifetime’s refinery of taste, tastelessly scattered about him whilst he stares absentmindedly, inwardly and fidgets with his more attentive feline companion. in summa summarum: it’s a scene of which the subject therein appears socially unavailable…the partially visible door behind him perhaps was at once a revolving door for those artists he spent his life appraising.

 no—that’s not the image of the critic i have in mind, whose life’s work is a relic of the past, a wall of ‘classics’, a fortification against the onslaughts of the workaday...

perhaps my interpretation of the painting isn’t exactly accurate? or is it an idealized snapshot of a dandy recluse that belies the adventurous metropolitan japanophile that was a much younger théodore duret?


at first (second, third) and every glance since, gustave caillebotte’s painting ‘Jeune homme à sa fenêtre’ (Young Man at his Window) remains the best description of the art critic i can find: athletically vertical, severe in her spectrum of intrigues, a preference for anonymity, for whom every artwork encountered—regardless of its critical merit—begins with a tremendous question mark, a thing to be dragged into her most private corners and feasted upon….

at first (second, third) and every glance since, gustave caillebotte’s painting ‘Jeune homme à sa fenêtre’ (Young Man at his Window) remains the best description of the art critic i can find: athletically vertical, severe in her spectrum of intrigues, a preference for anonymity, for whom every artwork encountered—regardless of its critical merit—begins with a tremendous question mark, a thing to be dragged into her most private corners and feasted upon….

at first (second, third) and every glance since, gustave caillebotte’s painting ‘Jeune homme à sa fenêtre’ (Young Man at his Window) remains the best description of the art critic i can find: athletically vertical, severe in her spectrum of intrigues, a preference for anonymity, for whom every artwork encountered—regardless of its critical merit—begins with a tremendous question mark, a thing to be dragged into her most private corners and feasted upon….

feasted upon?—in his poem ‘Love after Love’ derek walcott poses a tremendous challenge in the simplest unadorned words with which he closes that poem: “Sit. Feast upon your life”—that is the essence of caillebotte’s young man standing at his fenêtre. and that is the essence of the art critic as i imagine it: a feasting fiend gnawing lasciviously at every artistic representation of her tremendous capacity for living. —and that’s the kind of shit you can’t do sitting down.

week15: stravinski, pina bausch, Bon Iver, paul gauguin


From the strange opening notes there was murmuring, which escalated to shouts as the ballet began. Soon the audience had descended to a donnybrook complete with fisticuffs between pros and antis—Maurice Ravel in the middle of the fray crying “Genius! Genius!” It is hard to say whether the outrage was provoked more by the music or the dance, though before long the uproar had overwhelmed the music. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

there’s nothing quite like stravinsky’s Rites—and not much use differentiating between the music or the dance. i think that to be the characteristic trait of the cathartic element in music: it’s ability to tranquilize the more critical tendencies of the human mind, to intoxicate, entrance and elevate consciousness to the height of a feverish dream-logic, a bottomless imaginarium no image or ‘plastic art’ could encapsulate. to dance in such a barbarous state provokes either ecstatic devotion or unreserved disgust—nothing in between. and that is the state of pina bausch’s dancers in the production below…

Music here was a terrible narcosis, a sort of intoxication and oblivion, a going off into irrational planes. Drunken mysticism, ecstatic sensations against a background of profound pessimism permeating existence. It was not form or harmoniousness or Apollonic vision that was demanded of music, but passion, feeling, languor, heartache. Such was Tchaikovsky’s music and such also what the music of Rachmaninoff developed into. “” leonid sabaneyeff, Sabaneyeff

Rites of Spring is the most potent assault and antagonism of form and harmoniousness in this catalog of composers. ‘drunken mysticism’—is that not what i anticipated least of the classical repertoire? ‘irrational planes’? and ‘profound pessimism’?—i couldn’t ever talk myself out of believing those were the only kind of music that mattered…


CBC Enterprises Recording. Printed in Canada // Igor Stravinsky (June 1882-April 1971) // Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) //

Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis

Part 1: - Introduction

  • Augurs of Spring, Dance of the Adolescents

  • Game of the Abduction

  • Spring Rounds

  • Games fo the Rival Cities

  • Entrance of the Celebrant

  • Adoration of the Earth

  • Dance to the Earth

Part 2: - Introduction

  • Mysterious Circles of the Adolescents

  • Glorification of the Chosen One

  • Evocation of the Ancestors

  • Ritual of the Ancestors

  • Ritual Dance of the Chosen One

(Bon Iver’s anti-lyricism)———

To put it another way, Stravinsky reversed the traditional relationship of content to form. In the past form was central, the content subordinate. The main point of a work was the whole. In Stravinsky and much music following him, the power of the ideas is the central issue; the form is looser, there to serve the content. [...] He died in New York in April 1971. For his resting place he wanted to return to the triumphs and excitement of his youth: at his request he was buried in Venice beside Diaghilev. I still have a newspaper headlining his death. Like many musicians I felt the loss personally. All of us wondered when somebody would step up to fill his shoes. To date, I think, no one quite has. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

content over form; whole over parts—these appear to me as fundamentally anti-classical instincts; instincts which, incidentally, form the majority of the musical experiences that have shaped my musical education: or how else could one describe, conceive, the landscape depicted in Bon Iver’s discography as anything other than a rebellion against forms, partitions, lyric, song (most of Bon Iver, Bon Iver is a long uninterrupted ‘song’). yet their musical landscape isn’t formless, or free from dissonant fragments (especially not). instead, it’s characteristic trait is also what makes catharsis in music possible: the instruction of form by content, parts by the whole—lyric by music. music of that sort liberates its audience from the competition for attention between lyrics and music; those aforementioned critical tendencies are first submerged by music and therein contours of this subterranean state of mind are refined by words. this is the power of music over lyrics. the power experienced as catharsis. the power personified moreso by Bon Iver than anyone else in folk music. --and perhaps the same can be said of stravinsky in the classical repertoire.

(a sophisticated primitivism)———

 ‘Contes Barbares” Paul Gauguin—1902—Oil on canvas

‘Contes Barbares” Paul Gauguin—1902—Oil on canvas

has there been a more convoluted misapprehension of historicism, or decidedly antagonistic attitude towards the relationship between words and their meaning, than the concept of a ‘sophisticated primitivism...

At this point Paris was at the center of a revolutionary fervor in the arts, some of which involved a sophisticated primitivism. [...] From the eerie bassoon wail that begins it, the piece is a revolution in sound and in its very conception, but a revolution founded on a return to the primeval. Winds twine like vines, strings pound like percussion, French horns howl like elk in heat. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

what is most compelling of Rites? is it not that it seems incapable of sophistication? incapable of every equivocal, triquivocal (quinquivocal…) systems of communication that civilized art cannot do without. Take for example paul gauguin’s painting Contes Barbares (Barbarian Tales)---the two women sitting in the foreground, their gazes aimless and serene, poses relaxed and athletic, enveloped in a scenery of cloistral greenery. in contrast to this primitivism, perhaps under the category of ‘sophisticated’, is a man cloaked in blue, with orange hair and green eyes staring rather aggressively at the viewer. it’s a painting that belongs neither to primitivism nor sophisticated civility--lingering in an eerie hyphenation of both.

Rites it’s music for the human animal, that being to which thinking happens to. how is possible to respond to music of that sort without equivocal gestures? what are the mimetic gestures of a musical idea that can be described as a ‘sophisticated primitivism’?—of the many possibly brilliant answers, pina bausch’s choreography remains the definitive one, par excellence:


The choreography was by Nijinsky, who was equally determined to revolutionize his art. [...] Nijinksy’s choreography is virtually antiballet, the dancers’ movements hunched, ungainly, spasmodic, but with a strange beauty. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

there’s this unmistakable quality of a genuine ecstatic possession in bausch’s choreography. its ‘strange beauty’. the singularity of their mental-state is refracted into a dissonance of gestures, slaps, sulks, leaps, contortions, yelps and gasps. the creative freedom to express this multivariety of dissonance requires a dominating musical spirit as a contrasting source of consonance. the brilliance of an experience like bausch’s choreography is at its highest potency when under the hypnosis of the strong intoxicating dionysian element in music, which becomes the source of cohesion and consonance in relation to other artforms.

Stravinsky began on a high plane with Firebird, topped it with Petrushka, and in 1913 topped it again with one of the most astonishing feats of musical imagination in history: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). Again the basic story of the ballet was Stravinsky’s. In a primeval Russian village we watch the various rites and dances of spring. At the end a virgin is chosen for a sacrifice: she must dance herself to death. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

not that she is chosen for sacrifice but that she must dance herself to death is the bridge between the choreography and the music. a ‘terrible narcosis’ ‘dionysian madness’ is the presupposition of Rites, it’s ‘content’. it is this wrestle between control and oblivion that gives this ballet its form—it is a triumph of a creative mission that the end of the composition (and choreography) ends in oblivion.

week14: sibelius, mary oliver, brit marling, edward hopper,


In all the works of Beethoven, you will / not find a single lie. //

All important ideas must include trees,/ the mountains, and the rivers. “” mary oliver, Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way (Felicity)

i’ve not heard them all, but i imagine that in all the works of sibelius you will always find trees, mountains and rivers; not as obstinate afterthoughts, but as green and organic ziggurats in a singular and thoroughly unified landscape...

i’m still not enough of a critic to speak eloquently and at length about artistic experiences that don’t inspire my devotion, and on the other hand, still learning how not to say too much about the ones that do. every little part of this symphony inspires the earnest, intoxicated attention that the piece as a whole deserves. from the barely-audible premonitory rattle of the timpani, to the violent laughter of the that instrument’s more cacophonous sections—seems emblematic of the spirit of the whole….

Try to imagine for a moment that you know nothing of Sibelius' mature music - nothing of his ideal of the seamlessly integrated, leaner and fitter symphony (the diametric opposite of Mahler's “symphonic worlds”), nothing of his technique of starting out with the bits and bringing them together (“synthetic”, as opposed to the traditional “analytical”, development), and nothing of his startlingly personal orchestral palette with its whirrings, shimmerings and glacial granite. From this position of blissful ignorance, what would you make of the First Symphony? It is, after all, often dismissed as “negligible, but nice” in relation to his mature symphonies. “” paul serotsky, www.musicweb-international.com

i, for one, cannot ‘make’ anything of it, except to be thrown beneath the spell of its towering cliffs chiseled by the string sections, its pillowy clouds blown over by the variety of horns, clarinets, and oboes—and the thunderous hammer of the timpani threatening the stability of the whole shimmering monument. great music, i believe, has the unique capacity to render irrelevant the entire class of questions regarding what to make of it. it is for the sake of these kinds of artistic experiences—spiritual experiences through and through—that gratitude pours forth continuously...

an especially noteworthy block of that aforementioned monument is the third movement: a short and furious scherzo that must be a sweaty exercise for the editing team that has to splice together all the action-shots of competing orchestral sections to keep up with the near impermeable cerebral density of this symphony—the wind section clearing a glade for the harp; the distinct and indescribable enchantment of the french horn, which is at once distant and intimate, full and hollow (like a cactus tree?).


[...] like Finlandia, it combines fighting talk, homespun nostalgia, and flag-waving. Sibelius' tonal palette is already unique - he is one of those very few with such an unmistakable “fingerprint”. “” paul serotsky on the First Symphony, www.musicweb-international.com

Angel Records recording. Printed in England // Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) // Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, op.39 //

Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Paul Kletzki

Symphony No. 1

  • Andante, ma non troppo—Allegro energico

  • Andante, (ma non troppo lento)

  • Scherzo

  • Finale (Quasi una Fantasia)

 Prominent among the “fingerprints” are (1) a fondness for pedal points, i.e. notes—sometimes harmonies—sustained for bars on end; (2) themes that start with an attacked, sustained note, succeeded by a decisive gesture which is often (3) a slow trill or turn around a note, or, (4) an unexpected triplet. All these are discovered in the introduction, 28 bars for solo clarinet, 16 of them accompanied by a timpani pedal on B. This introduction contains the germs of the symphony. “” andrew porter, notes for the recording

(russian cosmonaut)———

crying: “Beauty! Beauty!” Do they really bear the stamp of nature’s darling children who are fostered and nourished at the breast of the beautiful, or are they not rather seeking a mendacious cloak for their own coarseness, an aesthetic pretext for their insensitive sobriety; “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

there are a myriad ways to make that point without the eagle-eyed (i’m up here, you’re down there) Nietzschean tone, but some things can’t be said without every hint towards contradistinction—or in his own words: contra-descension.

another way of saying that comes by way justin vernon of Bon Iver interjecting his set at copenhagen this year with the admonishment that ‘This is not entertainment. This is a spiritual fucking thing.’———how much of our musical experiences are little more than seeking a mendacious cloak for our coarseness? how much of it is lubricating the grind and gristmill of the work-a-day? i probably shouldn’t listen to music when i’m biking (41 cyclist/pedestrian deaths this year, highest since 2007), but i’m afraid i’m in need of doing so. perhaps for the same reason i douse a liberal helping of wet lube to the underside of my bike’s chain: otherwise the internal links start ticking, and you begin to hear yourself churning…

a once-celebrated comedian (whose name will go unmentioned in this blog) once described the average pedestrian as a mouse in a cage, and the city as a stick poking this mouse all day long. is it this restlessness, hoarseness, this coarseness that our musical experience has been reduced to as a lubricant, entertainment, ‘an aesthetic cloak for an insensitive sobriety’. i’ve never been able to experience music as anything but a spiritual fucking thing.

yet another instance of making that same point: if justin vernon’s one-liner is a summation of the aforementioned excerpt from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, then a three minute excerpt from brit marling’s Another Earth (2011) could summarize the entire scope of that thoroughly clairvoyant book. in her brilliant monologue, she invents a metaphor to describe a possible (probable) origin of the spirit of music, it’s celestial magnitudes, it’s seriousness and necessity for the human mind, how much it surpasses the task of entertainment….

perhaps that’s what he meant when Nietzsche said, in one of his more famous asides, that without music, life would be unbearable. yet all of his leaps and bounds in The Birth of Tragedy could be summed up in a 3-minute monologue.   

(on ‘being who you are’)———first and foremost, that’s no way to be.


Switching back on our hindsight, it is tempting to see the First Symphony as “immature”. But, is it? Are Brahms' and Mahler's First Symphonies “immature” just because they moved on to greater things? Sibelius' First may not ooze the ground-breaking originality of his later symphonies, but it is still original - and it is as well bolted together as any contemporaneous symphony. Then again, hasn't he squandered enough tuneful material for three symphonies  - surely a sign of immaturity? Maybe, but if so, I think I'll side with immaturity this time! “” paul serotsky, www.musicweb-international.com

what is the essence of his music that is essentially sibelius? or where is it? in his choice of instruments? perhaps, but not entirely—these instruments are available to every serious composer (the classical canon affords that much) though he is especially fond of the accents of the french and english horns. is it perhaps in some signatory sequence of notes, like shostakovich’s DSCH motif? not quite—each of sibelius’ main compositions exist distinctly from each other. some of the complements available to his latter symphonies are denied entirely of this first one, for example. whatever makes sibelius sibelius is in every note and yet precedes its musical expression. this and other reasons had me thinking this week of the question of authenticity, originality, individuality and the long etcetera of synonyms to express that infinitesimal lacuna between waking and being, before the audiotrack of our thoughts begins its day-long monologue of who we are (or, just how well we’re getting away with who we’re trying to be.)

there are only few words in the self-help lexicon that are more misleading, more labyrinthine, than the allegedly axiomatic dictum to ‘be yourself’. words, despite how sincere and close to the core of expression, are always a left-hand turn in the burrowing labyrinth of meaning. hence the unique quality of music: to express without saying. what’s the best description of catharsis in music?—perhaps when jorge luis borge said “Somewhere there is a labyrinth which is a straight line.”.... to ‘be yourself’ is to adopt a mantra that is fundamentally, diametrically, opposed to the first-hand experience of the mind at work. that thing that is constantly glancing at it self, always telling itself to itself, always a slingshot and leap into a future, that thing that is always becoming—would want least of all to halt and be arrested to a set, inanimate notion of what it is.

Become who you are” was Nietzsche’s red sharpie to correct that ancient socratic mantra to ‘Know thyself’—which is the ancestor to being who you are. and indeed that correction is more honest, because it admits of a process. a process as indispensable to the established artist as to the layperson. the process that puts you always on your way to who you are, that admits the insufficiency of the aggregate of languages and their intractable dialects in identifying and expressing the thing that is doing you now, and now, and now….

and now. nevertheless, there is something noteworthy about what is most attractive about the imagery of being who you are. it’s the image of some kind of stripping, i mean of removing artificial layers to arrive at that organic and indisputable you that can be identified sub specie aeternitatis.

but the unfortunate truth, as a result of our mendaciousness in the face of the aforementioned process, is that we stop stripping just when thing are about to get interesting. just at the cusp of becoming who we are, we sneak in some pre-packaged corn-syrup nonsense regarding how just now we are quite sure of who we are…

 ‘11 A.M’ by Edward Hopper

‘11 A.M’ by Edward Hopper

what i really mean: edward hopper’s painting ‘11 A.M’. and something else i overheard: that you feel more naked when you’re naked with shoes on, than you would without shoes...

The point is , you’re you, and that’s for keeps. “” mary oliver, Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way

Week13; sibelius


He unites in himself, in fact, the characteristic qualities of the two racial types; the traditional charm, affability, and bonhomie of the Swede, and the fiercely independent spirit, the sturdy self-reliance, the love of isolation and solitude, the extreme reserve, of the Finn. “” cecil gray, Sibelius

those are incidentally the more apt descriptions of this recording’s  combination of sibelius’ fifth and seventh symphonies: the fifth being more of that genial and cheerful swedish hygge (actually danish). the seventh thereby more of that allegedly obstinate and austere character of the finns. even so, the seventh still travels at a lower altitude than the mountainous obstinacy of sibelius’ violin concerto and still several degrees warmer than the glacial austerities of the (upcoming) first symphony. in all of this 52-week catalog, i can’t at the moment think off a more bizarre ending to a composition than the one sibelius resorts to for his fifth symphony: ‘is my turntable broken?’ ‘of course sibelius would end it like it that’ ‘who else could pull that off, what a legend’———these and others were the succession of thoughts on the occasion of hearing this symphony for the first time.

there are about five exclamatory notes at the symphony’s exit, each of them spaced with an aisle of silence usually reserved for demarcating the end of a movement…

i’ve been in too good of a mood this week to speak at length or too fondly of the short brooding length of the seventh symphony—except that is hangs all throughout like an indecisive and heavy cloud. unable to relieve itself at the end with a caterwaul of a finale on account of having wasted its momentum on intermittent premonitory snide asides from the clarinet…

If the Fourth represents the highest point to which he attains in the direction of economy of material amd concision of form, the Seventh shows him at the summit of his powers in respect of fecundity of invention and subtlety and intricacy of design. It is not merely a consummate masterpiece of formal construction, however, but also a work of great expressive beauty, of a lofty grandeur and dignity, a truly Olympian serenity and repose which are unique in modern music, and for that matter, in modern art of any kind. It seems, indeed, to belong to a different age altogether, a different order of civilization, a different world almost---the world of classical antiquity. “” cecil gray , Sibelius



[...] for it is less difficult--though assuredly difficult enough--to do something which no one else has ever previously done, than to reveal a fresh and suspected beauty in the familiar, the obvious, the commonplace, the hackneyed even, which is what Sibelius does in this work. “” cecil gray on the fifth symphony, Sibelius

The Decca Record Company, Ltd Recording. Printed in London // Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) // Symphony No.5 in E flat major, op.82 & Symphony No.7 in C major, Op.105 //

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Lorin Maazel

Symphony No.5

  • Tempo molto moderato

  • Andante mosso, quasi allegretto

  • Allegro molto

Symphony No.7  

In the first place he is to-day an uncompromising champion of pure music as opposed to operatic and programme music. Wagner, in particular, means, and always has meant, precisely nothing to Sibelius; for him, indeed, the art of Wagner is simply not music at all. The only operatic music that he unreservedly admires and enjoys is that of the Italians---Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini even to a certain extent, and above all Verdi, for whom he has always cherished a deep respect and veneration. “” cecil gray, Sibelius

(a betelgeuse of music)———

  In The Golden Gloaming - John Atkinson Grimshaw 1883

In The Golden Gloaming - John Atkinson Grimshaw 1883

In the Fifth Symphony in E flat major, op. 82, there is no trace of the brooding gloom and sombre melancholy which is the spiritual key-note of the Fourth, like the Third it is a sunny, genial work throughout. [...] If the Fourth is a White Dwarf, in fact, the Fifth is its opposite, a Red Giant, a Betelgeuse of music, a huge work in which the substance is highly attenuated and rarefied.  “” cecil gray, Sibelius

you can never have a surplus of cheerfulness in music, it’s always used up. and in the landscape of sibelius’ music his Fifth is the shinning star, made bulbous by the ballooning horn themes and made celestial by the solar magnitude of the trumpet and trombone sections. it is indeed a betelgeuse of music, a protracted ovation of light, undergirded by what must be the opposite of a silver lining—a bit of seriousness, gloominess, solemnity….

the french horns at the beginning of the third movement are an example of that combination of joy and seriousness—which is in one word: triumph.

triumph is a thing heavier, gloomier and more cheerful than joy—this Fifth could, with an imaginative stretch, register as an ode to triumph.