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Engaging Wagner

Posted by acdtest on February 23, 2003

Engaging Wagner

eblogger Greg Hlatky writes:

I’ve always had trouble assimilating the later (i.e. post-Tannhäuser) operas [of Richard Wagner]. […] My hypothesis: Wagner’s operas are so closely tied to the theater that unless one actually attends a live performance, or at the very least can imagine the theatrical context while listening to a recording, something of Wagner’s genius is lost.

and then invites comment from myself.

It’s quite true that Wagner’s music-dramas (i.e., his works post-Lohengrin) are theatrical (i.e., of the theater) to the very bone, which is to say one can’t experience them with any degree of real comprehension by simply listening to the singing as one can in the case of ordinary (i.e., Italian-form) opera. More to the point, Wagner’s music-dramas each constitute an organic dramatic whole that must be experienced in toto to be understood. One need not attend a live performance to experience that dramatic whole, however. In fact, given the Eurotrash nature of most live performances of Wagner today, one is well advised to stay as far away as possible from the theater. The trick is to visualize in the mind’s eye the drama that’s being played out in the organic union of libretto and music.

That means, of course, with Wagner’s music-dramas — and unlike Italian-form opera — one must at all times know pretty much verbatim what the singers are actually saying, as it’s not songs they’re singing, but dialogue just as in staged straight drama. Also, and again unlike Italian-form opera, Wagner’s music-dramas don’t traffic in soap-opera melodrama and cookie-cutter plots, and to have only the gist of what the characters are saying is to become hopelessly lost within, or miss completely, the intricate web of dramatic and psychological complexities and nuance that are fundamental, integral, and essential characteristics of all Wagner’s mature works.

Perhaps even more importantly, and once again unlike Italian-form opera, without knowing what the characters are saying as they’re singing, one will miss totally the organic dramatic synergy of the libretto with the music as that music issues from the orchestra in which resides the very core and essence of the (music-)drama, the libretto giving the necessary particular and concrete dramatic and narrative details which are at once both the (music-)drama’s armature and context which music alone is incapable of conveying.

In short, while one can in large part engage Wagner’s early works in just the same way one engages an opera by, say, Verdi or Puccini, for any of Wagner’s mature works that simply won’t do, and attempting that sort of engagement is a virtual guarantee of missing most of what Wagner’s colossal genius has to offer.

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Adams Remembered

Posted by acdtest on February 10, 2003

Adams Remembered

his month marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of the celebrated American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The anniversary is one I ought to remember as the transcendent work of this great artist played a not insignificant role in my life; in fact was responsible for one of its turning points.

After spending years training for a career in music, I quit conservatory having convinced myself — rightly, as I then thought (and today still think) despite protestations to the contrary by mentors and teachers — I lacked the native gift required to excel in the field, and as a matter of necessity turned instead to the world of business where, to my utter surprise and mild horror, I became fairly well-off (if not genuinely rich) fairly quickly. After spending some ten years at this, I glimpsed into my future, and was there confronted by the bleak and depressing prospect that the most my life would ever accomplish would be to make more money. Well, money is important only when it’s lacking, and as one of my favorite movie lines goes (this one from Citizen Kane, and as verbatim as I can remember it): “It’s no trick to make a lot of money — if all you want to do is to make a lot of money.”

So, at the ripe age of 30, I left the world of business, and struck out on a new career in the world of the arts — sort of. What I did was take up a career as a photographer of architecture. This seemed for me a natural as architecture was one of my lifelong interests, I already had a secure knowledge of basic photographic technique which knowledge I was certain I could expand easily to become expert, and by my taking on a well-chosen clientele I felt certain I could earn an at least bread-and-butter living by my efforts.

And so it worked out just as I’d envisioned — better than I envisioned — until one day I encountered an original print of this by Adams (click on thumbnail for larger image):

and I was lost. I then and there abandoned photographing architecture forever, and embarked on a course that for years after was determined to follow in Adams’s footsteps.

So what’s with that photograph?, you may ask It’s simply a pretty picture. And indeed it’s nothing more than that — until, that is, one has seen at first hand an original Adams print of that pretty picture, whereupon the pretty picture immediately becomes something infinitely greater; something almost unimaginable for one with no prior experience of an original Adams print. The initial experience is one of aesthetic shock; or better, aesthetic arrest, to use Joyce’s language. One even has some difficulty seeing the print as a photograph so physically different does it appear from an ordinary black-and-white photographic image. The blacks are impossibly deep; the whites, impossibly radiant; the gradation of tones from deepest black to most brilliant white, impossibly rich, subtle, and delicately detailed; and the lambently luminous whole so seemingly three-dimensional one imagines one could reach one’s hand beyond the print’s surface and deep into the image itself.

All that is the product of Adams’s prodigious technical skill, and as well an essential element of the uncopyable core of his singular visual genius. That technical skill can be acquired by most dedicated photographers possessing a good photographic eye, but even when acquired is but groundwork only; a matter of craft the possession of which is expected of any serious photographer working in black-and-white. Adams’s art, however, goes beyond — way beyond — questions of craft in his mature landscape work (his early work is, well, early work, reflecting the perversely in-fashion painterly look of the time, and his non-landscape work unremarkable).

At their best, Adams’s prints of landscape subjects transfigure and transcend their subject matter, and render in the processed image not the subject’s outward appearance, but its mystical center as Adams “previsualized” it when looking at the framed view of the scene on the ground glass of his large-format view camera. (“Previsualization” is Adams’s term for seeing in the mind’s eye the finished processed print of the image seen on the ground glass.) “I look upon the lines and forms of Nature as if they were but the vast expression of ideas within the Cosmic Mind,” said Adams. Indeed, and it was precisely that, not the “lines and forms of Nature” which he captured in his prints, thereby permitting us to experience it as well.

I’ve never met a serious photographer, myself included, who, for the first time ensorcelled by an Adams’s print, did not initially imagine he could exactly match its qualities if he worked assiduously at learning all the necessary techniques. Indeed, Adams himself fostered and encouraged such an idea, and enthusiastically shared his methods and techniques with others, wrote detailed books on the subject that are still earnestly studied classics in the field, and was generous almost to a fault with his time in giving personal help and guidance to other serious photographers. Thousands — again, myself included — have benefited from his teaching, but none — not one — has ever succeeded in producing a finished print of a landscape subject that could be mistaken by an experienced eye for a genuine Adams-visualized and -made print.

There’s a famous story of the great critic and photography historian Beaumont Newhall who one day, while thumbing through a magazine, unexpectedly came across an Adams landscape image the original print of which was known to him. His fresh apprehension of the image made him literally fall back in awe on the couch on which he was sitting, murmuring to himself that Adams must surely be the greatest photographer who ever lived.

The story is not apocryphal, and in his assessment Newhall was not far wrong.

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Wagner Musings

Posted by acdtest on February 4, 2003

Wagner Musings

ecently, on the Usenet Wagner newsgroup, one new-to-Wagner member ventured he’d heard some of conductor Karl Böhm’s Wagner readings, and was thrilled by them because

Böhm has a special magic when it comes to Wagner. For example (besides his 1967 _Ring_) his 1972 rendition of the _Fliegende Hollander_ overture is by far the most transparent and thus musically interesting of all the conductors I’ve heard.

That notion struck me as being particularly perverse as the very thing that makes Böhm’s Wagner so unsatisfactory (and so completely un-Wagnerian) is the orchestral transparency on which he (Böhm) insists. Böhm reads a Wagner score as if it were a score by Mozart (of which composer’s music Böhm is a master interpreter).

Böhm is by no means alone in misreading Wagner, especially egregious when the scores of the mature Wagner operas (i.e., those operas post-Lohengrin) are at issue. As a matter of fact, most conductors misread those scores, even some of the greats (Toscanini, my personal god among conductors, is a prime example), their misreading consisting of their reading the orchestral part of the music as “absolute” music à la, say, Beethoven or Mozart. Wagner was unique in that he didn’t write, in fact was incapable of writing, “absolute” music, his few attempts producing only embarrassments, self-acknowledged (his 1876 Centennial March, written on commission from the United States government for mucho bucks, is a standout example).

The thing that distinguishes Wagner’s orchestral writing from that of all other composers, including even those who followed closely in his footsteps (or as closely as is possible, which is not very close at all), is that being written as the primary element of his music-dramas (as opposed to the orchestral writing of the composers of Italian-form opera where the orchestra is in large part merely accompaniment for the singers) in it resides the very center of the music-drama itself, and any reading that does not realize that core characteristic in performance is in fact a misreading.

Referring back to my above comment on Böhm’s Wagner, Wagner’s musico-dramatic and symphonic contrapuntal genius is always realized in the massing, never in details of inner line, and Böhm’s transparent readings of Wagner wherein the revealing of inner line is prominent are therefore just plain wrong (un-Wagnerian). They’re wrong because while the revealing of inner line in the music of, say, Mozart or Beethoven is to reveal the very soul of the music, the revealing of inner line in Wagner serves only to reveal how the sorcerer accomplished his magic. Not a good thing, not a good thing at all, as any self-respecting sorcerer will confirm.

In addition to the business of getting the massing right, there are two other critical elements in getting Wagner right in performance: The continuous micro-adjustment of tempi, and Wagnerian pacing; the two closely related and interdependent, but the latter having particularly to do with how a conductor moves the music across, or “dissolves”, the bar lines.

I once had a delightful discussion with a delightful man; a conductor famous for his love of Wagner, and equally famous among Wagnerians for always getting it pretty much wrong (he shall here remain nameless for obvious reasons). We got onto the matter of Wagnerian pacing, and I couldn’t seem to get across to him exactly what it was I was driving at. In desperation, I finally asked him how many bar lines there were in the first act of Tristan. He immediately came back with a number in the hundreds, whereupon I told him he’d grossly miscounted as there were in fact only two: One at the beginning of the act, and one at the end. He understood me then perfectly, smiled and nodded his agreement.

He understood perfectly, always did understand, but that hadn’t helped him in performance one iota. The curious thing is that a strictly intellectual and musical understanding of Wagner in performance on the part of a conductor is not nearly enough. Over the years there have been so few conductors who really got it right, and a few of those few not otherwise especially distinguished as conductors (Solti is a good example), that one is driven to the conclusion that getting Wagner right in performance is at bottom strictly a matter of special intuitive gift, one a conductor either possesses or doesn’t, and which gift I’ve elsewhere dubbed the “Wagner Gene”, for in its absence nothing avails.


As if Wagner in performance didn’t already present problems enough.

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That Evil Herbert Muschamp

Posted by acdtest on February 1, 2003

That Evil Herbert Muschamp

everal webloggers, in furtherance of their campaign against what they term elitist architects, elitist architecture, and the elitist architectural establishment (the term elitist as used by these folk has much the same connotation the term child-molester has for just about everyone), railed rantingly some months ago against most of the designs for the rebuilding of Ground Zero, and more particularly against the New York Times‘s “evil architecture critic,” as one of them put it, Herbert Muschamp.

And what do they have against Mr. Muschamp?

This, for one thing:

[A]s an elitist, Muschamp has to constantly keep pushing himself into realms were [sic] common folk can’t follow.”

And this for another:

[Muschamp’s] contempt for popular tastes in architecture is virulent. Today [23 December 2002] is the third time in a week he has slammed the husband and wife design team of Peterson Littenberg [sic] which he dismissed on Sunday as “followers of the reactionary architect Leon Krier, Prince Charles’ architectural adviser.”

Curious complaint, that last. The Peterson/Littenberg design for Ground Zero deserved a slamming — in spades. A vapid, unimaginative bit of dross that had no right ending up as a finalist in the competition in the first place, and did so, I’m reliably informed, only because of Peterson/Littenberg’s special connection to the competition’s sponsors.

Now, I confess I rather prefer the steely, incisive, and aesthetically sharp-eyed commentary of an Ada Louise Huxtable (whose NYT’s columns I sorely miss) to the at times esoteric, head-in-the-clouds visionary maunderings of a Herbert Muschamp. But more often than not, Mr. Muschamp’s head and heart are in the right place, and his informed commentary pretty much spot-on, and squarely against the populist notions of such as the above noted webloggers.

And what sort of architecture are these webloggers and scores like them for? For buildings designed in accordance with the tenets of architecture movements with names such as Traditionalist, New-Traditionalist, New-Classicism, and New Urbanism. And just what are these movements about? These webloggers would say they’re about architecture done by those who “…are more interested in user-centric values (comfiness, neighborhoods, context, tradition, craftsmanship) than they are in showing off their design prowess.” I would say they’re about building being done by those with essentially the same vision as William Levit when he built the first Levittown: Offer the common man what he wants and feels comfortable with at the right price, and he will come — in droves. Buildings built according to the so-called Traditionalist, New Traditionalist, and New Classicism aesthetic are little more than nostalgic, picture-postcard-pretty, gussied-up historical copies; and communities designed according to the aesthetic of the New Urbanism, little more than upscale, prettified Levittowns — Levittown with tasteful historical elevations and “details”. Buildings and communities built according to these aesthetics positively reek of “comfiness”; the comfiness of an old shoe — or an earth-dug grave.

In short, they’re all irredeemably dreadful as architecture; in fact do not even deserve to be called by that name. They’re merely buildings built by builders, not by architects with any aesthetic right to the title.

Architecture (and I’m here talking about single buildings or group of buildings for a single project only, not communities or cityscapes which no individual or single architectural firm ought to have design control of at all except in grid) has always been the most difficult art because of its obligation to utility. But all art is quite useless, said Dear Oscar famously, and Dear Oscar was right about almost everything as Harold Bloom slyly informs us.

All art is quite useless indeed — with architecture the single, and singular, exception. And make no mistake. The one thing — the only thing — that distinguishes genuine architecture from mere building is that genuine architecture is always art first and foremost, and building second. No art, no architecture.

But architecture’s obligation to utility is a most special one; in fact a sacred ethical and professional obligation that must never be glossed or indifferently attended to. The measure, however, of how faithfully an architect has fulfilled that sacred obligation is not the degree to which he gave his client what he (the client) wanted, but rather the degree to which he gave his client what he (the architect) thought he ought to have as an answer to the detailed program of the building supplied him by the client. Any architect worthy of the name knows that in his bones, even though in today’s out-of-control equalitarian climate he’d be loath, not to say reckless, to voice it in just that way, even in private. As the great Mies said, “I will teach people to live in my buildings.”

Just so.

I guess what I really find grating about the attitude of the aforementioned webloggers and others of like mind is the (at least) implied extended notion that where public rather than private building projects are concerned, popular opinion — the opinion of The People, the common man — ought to be consulted in aesthetic matters.

On first hearing, that notion sounds perfectly reasonable. After all it’s the common man who will be paying for those buildings, and who will have to live and work in them once they’re built. Why shouldn’t his aesthetic opinion be consulted, and his aesthetic wishes be incorporated in their design?

For the same reason that not even the most rabid populist would so much as think of suggesting that the opinion of the common man be consulted and incorporated in the actual construction of those buildings, or in, say, the design of a rocket ship to Mars, or in the methods used in the diagnosing and treatment of a lethal new disease. In such cases, we want the opinion of gifted specialists — trained, qualified, and experienced experts — to prevail at all times: the most gifted, the best trained, the best qualified, and the most experienced possible. We want that because these specialists know their stuff and the common man doesn’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, in matters such as these the common man is an ignoramus.

Just so in aesthetic matters of public moment. The common man is largely an ignoramus aesthetically, and knows only what he likes. That’s OK when the decision involved is, say, what clothing to buy for the big bash next weekend, or what color his next car should be, or what paintings he wants hanging in his living room. But that’s where the OK stops — or ought to. If aesthetic decisions of public moment had in past been left to a consensus of the opinion of the common man, painters would still be painting with spit and vegetable dye on cave walls and on the walls of makeshift hovels. You know, the very caves and makeshift hovels in which we’d all still be living and working.

No, the opinion of the common man controlling aesthetic design decisions of public moment just won’t do. We need gifted specialists — trained and qualified experts, the very best possible — making all such decisions. And we need gifted specialists — trained and qualified experts, the very best possible — keeping tabs on those decision makers: encouraging, scolding, and goading them on from journalistically privileged critical positions, and offering as well trenchant, sharp-eyed, and informed public commentary in and for the public interest on their doings.

You know. Experts like Herbert Muschamp.

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