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Score Another For The Philistines

Posted by acdtest on January 24, 2004

Score Another For The Philistines

The murderous onslaught on high culture by the philistine horde continues, the latest salvo proceeding from the venerable New York Times as outlined in an interview with New York Times Book Review executive editor, Bill Keller.

The nub of it:

He [Keller] promised “dramatic changes” in the Sunday section [of the Book Review] now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom.

And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world,” Keller says. “Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.”

What’s more, if you’re perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we’re told. After all, says Keller, somebody’s got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

Charming.

Idiots.

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Posted in Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature, Print Media | Comments Off on Score Another For The Philistines

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Posted by acdtest on January 13, 2004

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

ots of play has been given this post by weblogger Michael of 2Blowhards contrasting the professional movie- and book-persons’ view of trash and art generally, and in the books world in particular. The post is of ghastly length, but still interesting reading written as it is by a long-time professional observer of the arts biz, tendentiously biased though his views may be.

As an indefatigable cheerleader for all things pop cultural, and a hater of all things even marginally elitist even though himself a ressentiment-saturated crypto-elitist, it’s not surprising Michael’s post is a thinly veiled if uncharacteristically muted advocacy of books valued by pop culture, and one which makes the contrasting observation that professional movie people — whose business is, after all, rooted in trash — are, generally speaking, free and open-minded sorts accepting of both art and trash and well able to laugh at themselves, and professional book people, generally speaking, uptight, long-faced, unreasoning enemies of trash who take themselves way too seriously.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the comments thread attached to Michael’s post; a thread some 86 messages long at last count, and consisting of thoughtful and fairly lengthy comments by readers responding to Michael’s call for “any thoughts about what a more down-to-earth and pleasure-centric view of reading-and-writing might be like” (nice touch, that), and for a ‘fessing up to “any guilty reading-and-books secrets” his weblog’s visitors may have.

In that 86-message-long comments thread, the majority of commenters standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael’s take on things (Michael is forever saying or implying he encourages discussion and debate, but what he’s really on about, always, is soliciting agreement with his own views), there were but two clearly dissenting voices.

Said commenter Ulf, bravely:

Living, like I do, in the ultimate low-brow city, Las Vegas, I nonetheless would consider myself a book person, having worked in NYC publishing before moving here.

I admit that I’ve read very little genre fiction or whatever you want to call it. But not really for snobbish reasons, I’ve tried, I really have, but more often than not I find such books unintentionally funny, when the author threatens to trip over his own sentences.

To me, the real pleasure in reading is a pleasure of language, which is probably why I read a great deal of poetry. Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of fabulous living or recently deceased poets whose work seems to bring the kind of pleasure many who posted here are looking for. Why are they not buying that stuff? And they aren’t since contemporary poetry sells about 500 copies on a very, very good day.

To plug just a few: Fred Chappell (also a fine fiction writer), Kelly Cherry, James Merrill (who died too young), Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hartnett and Tony Hoagland.

The pleasure of a well-written sentence/stanza far outweighs any need for literature to represent reality as I see it. The most fabulous fiction writer of the last couple of decades was W.G. Sebald, whose books, difficult though they may be, I challenge anyone to put down unfinished? I once found myself re-reading “The Rings of Saturn” three times before moving on to the next book, all within a few days.

The genre fiction I’ve tried to read has just not had that kind of pleasurable effect on me. My last attempt was “The Da Vinci Code,” surely a popular book by anyone’s standard, and I found myself laughing so hardily at the awkward prose and repetitive cliches (not to mention inept descriptions) that I could not follow the story for very long. I eventually gave up on the thing about 200 pages in.

And, just as bravely, commenter Jason followed with:

I happen to enjoy reading the New York Review, Proust, and Faulkner — so I guess that puts me in the books category. Not that I don’t also enjoy lighter fare like campy films, blithe.com, and fun short fiction. But there’s something deeply satisfying about rich, finely crafted prose that the cheap shit can’t replicate. Trashy novelas may offer ephemeral pleasures. Great novels stay with you. I find lines from Baldwin or even Kirk Vardenoe coming back to me at random points in the day. They speak to something beyond the immediate circumstances of their construction, they achieve something higher and purer. In short, they offer the reader wisdom, not just pleasure.

I absolutely agree that postmodern literary crit is pontifical dreck. And self-consciously “literary” fiction is unbearable. But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I’ve found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary.

The ratio (2/86) is about what would be expected in a matter such as this, but still encouraging. It suggests the poisonous pop cultural tide has not totally succeeded in overwhelming appreciation of what’s genuinely important, worthwhile, and, yes — Michael’s tendentious insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding — “pleasure-centric” in literature.

A small encouragement, to be sure. But an encouragement nevertheless.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature | Comments Off on Let’s Hear It For Trash!

I Saw The World End

Posted by acdtest on December 19, 2003

I Saw The World End

or the past couple weeks I’ve been immersed in Deryck Cooke’s I Saw The World End, an unfinished study (Cooke’s untimely death in 1976 prevented its completion) of Wagner’s great tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen. (The title of the book is taken from the closing line of an ultimately rejected closing scene of Götterdämmerung.) The book was first published in 1979, and my coming to it so late is the consequence of my ordinary practice of never reading any analysis of an artwork until I’ve worked things out for myself to the fullest I’m able. Only then can I be certain that my ideas were formed by a study of the artwork itself, and not by sources after the fact and external to it.

And a good thing I followed my ordinary procedure in this case as Cooke, an incisive and perceptive Wagner scholar and first-rate musicologist, is almost irresistibly persuasive. In this volume — which volume deals only with the texts of the first two music-dramas of the Ring (Das Rheingold and Die Walküre), Cooke’s death preventing analysis of the texts of the remaining two, the planned but not-started second volume to have dealt with the music — Cooke examines the sources consulted by Wagner in his construction of the drama of the tetralogy, and demonstrates through informed conjecture, and truly encyclopedic scholarly research, how Wagner condensed, altered, conflated, and shaped the wealth of mostly mythological material at his disposal into the cosmic drama that is the Ring, and in the process created a new mythology of his own invention (that last contention mine, not Cooke’s). What is to me astonishing, however, is Cooke’s absolutely categorical conclusion from his researches that

The central reality [Das Rheingold] is concerned with…is the social and political history of mankind.

and that Das Rheingold,

…was intended as, and stands as, an allegory of the social and political world we live in…; and is nothing else.

That idea, of course, is nothing new. Wagner himself, in his first prose sketches for Das Rheingold, was much of the same mind (his thinking was altered radically by the time he came to write the first music for the Ring). And George Bernard Shaw, in his tendentious, witty, but ultimately silly reading of the Ring — the thinly veiled socialist tract, The Perfect Wagnerite — came to pretty much the same conclusion.

Can Das Rheingold be interpreted at that level? It can indeed. As Cooke himself says, “[O]ne can in fact interpret [Das Rheingold] as symbolizing practically anything one likes….” But an interpretation at that level is a relatively trivial and earthbound one, and the music — in Wagnerian music-drama, that in which resides the essential core of the drama — argues against such an interpretation being anything more than trivial; little more than an interesting aside, if you will.

Anyone proposing seriously to put forward such an interpretation of Das Rheingold‘s “central reality” has to contend with two extraordinary episodes in the music-drama that give substantive lie to such an interpretation: the orchestral prelude to Das Rheingold, and the “tremendous, breathtaking surprise,” of the “most unexpected of all the unexpected events in the Ring,” as Cooke put it: the mystical and foreboding rising in Scene 4 of Das Rheingold of she who “know[s] whatever was, whatever is, whatever shall be”; the primordial earth-goddess, Erda.

Erda rises to warn Wotan, in ominous words and to compellingly ominous music to match, to give up Alberich’s ring (which Wotan has just stolen from the hapless Nibelung), and flee the curse placed upon it (by Alberich).

Why would Erda, the very incarnation of Nature itself — in the Ring, the controlling power of the world — rise to involve herself in the affairs of gods and men if what was concerned was merely their social and political machinations and development, both of which are exclusively the quotidian concerns of gods and men? The clear answer is: she wouldn’t. The very idea is thoroughly absurd. It’s something far more dire that provokes Erda into making her extraordinary and (presumably) never before made appearance to the gods. Alberich, as a condition for being empowered to forge the rheingold into the ring of unlimited power, was required to transgress Nature’s most sacred and fundamental law by foreswearing and cursing love forever. That cursing and foreswearing is the Ring‘s Original Sin, and that primal sin is reified and made palpable in the ring Alberich has forged. Were the corrupt and evil power entailed by its forging permitted to pass into the world, the world’s end would be the ineluctable consequence, and it’s this that has provoked Erda to make her extraordinary appearance.

Hear me! Hear me! Hear me!
All that is shall come to an end.
A dark day dawns for the gods.
I charge you: Shun the ring!

And then there’s the extraordinary prelude to Das Rheingold, with its clear intimations of First Creation, and its establishing of the vast, cosmic time scale not only of Das Rheingold, but of the entire tetralogy. Why a prelude so cosmically portentous to a drama whose “central reality” is concerned merely with the essentially quotidian and earthbound “social and political history of mankind”? Again, the very idea is thoroughly and patently absurd as Wagner himself discovered before setting pen to paper to write the prelude to Das Rheingold, the first music written for the Ring.

One cannot help but conclude that Cooke, by his extensive researches into the biographical background of, and sources for, the Ring, has been led astray by that which is extrinsic to the artwork itself. I’ve here and elsewhere more than once declared that all authentic works of art, and most particularly those works of art which are the products of authentic genius, are totally self-contained entities, and require nothing extrinsic to themselves to be understood fully, all that’s required for such understanding being contained within the artworks themselves. Cooke, it would seem — even Cooke, who I know knew better — was overcome by the intoxication of his own formidable researches and scholarly bent, and so permitted the merely extrinsic to distort his vision of the one, the only, thing that matters: the completed artwork itself.

Posted in Books, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on I Saw The World End

Firsthand Witness

Posted by acdtest on September 7, 2003

Firsthand Witness — Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’

ate in 1872, four years before the first Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner wrote to longtime member of his inner circle Heinrich Porges,

I have you in mind for a task which will be of the greatest importance to the future of my enterprise [the Bayreuth Festival generally, and the first performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen specifically]. I want you to follow all my rehearsals very closely…and to note down everything I say, even the smallest detail, about the interpretation and performance of our [sic!] work, so that a tradition goes down in writing.

The result was the book Die Bühnenproben zu den Bayreuther Festspielen des Jahres 1876 (The Stage Rehearsals for the Bayreuth Festival of 1876), which was first published in installments in the official Wagner journal, the Bayreuther Blätter (1881 and 1896), and the English translation of which (by Robert L. Jacobs) was first published in 1983 by Cambridge University Press under the title, Wagner Rehearsing the ‘Ring’ (unhappily, now long out of print).

That Porges was thoroughly qualified to make such a record is beyond question. He was not only a long-time member of Wagner’s inner circle, but an expert musician and music critic, a learned scholar, and intimately familiar with the score of the Ring. And as for trusting what he wrote, it goes without saying that before first publication (in the Blätter) every part of his work was vetted either by Wagner himself, or by the Blätter‘s editor, Wagner factotum Hans von Wolzogen.

I’ve just finished reading a copy of that Cambridge University Press translation (literally a copy; I spent an hour at the library Xeroxing the entire book as there was not available even so much as a single copy of the volume on the used book market), on which there here follow a few random thoughts and impressions.

My first thought is that no conductor, no producer, no director, no singer, no scenic designer, no anyone ought to be permitted to have anything to do with a production of the Ring without first committing to memory and total understanding what Porges records in this book, and then swearing a sacred oath to never, on pain of death, depart from what’s there written, remembering that what Porges recorded were Wagner’s directions and insights on the Ring and its performance, not his own. I take special pleasure in saying this as everything I read in this book accords perfectly with my own independently arrived at views, and I’m not in the least above a little self-congratulatory backslapping on that count.

Some examples (this on the Prelude to Das Rheingold, the Ring‘s first music-drama):

…An instruction given by Wagner for the performance of the main theme illustrates this difference between mere display of feeling and a truly artistic delivery [quotes the opening theme from the Rheingold Prelude]. He wanted the high notes of the horns, especially the climactic G of the widely arched melody, to be played “very tenderly and with sustained softness”, and this to apply to every subsequent repetition. The players must consciously counteract here the natural tendency to make a crescendo on a rising progression; only then will the figure have the desired quality of ideal freedom. Furthermore, sustained softness will serve to clarify the overlapping deliveries of the theme in the [opening] complicated passage for [these] eight horns.

Regarding the orchestral prelude as a whole, built on a single E flat major triad, Wagner insisted that its huge crescendo should throughout create the impression of a phenomenon of nature developing quite of its own accord — so to say, an impersonal impression. Nothing must be forced; there must be no sense of a conscious purpose imposing itself.

Wagner gave especial attention to the harmonic figurations of the strings’ accompaniment to Woglinde’s joyous song just after the rise of the curtain. They should be as pianissimo as possible. The unexpected conversion of a powerful crescendo into a piano created the effect of a transformation of the waves of water into a single human figure…

[author’s footnote]: The device, frequently used by Beethoven, of a sudden pianissimo after a crescendo is of the utmost stylistic significance in that it can be regarded — so it seems to me — as a direct expression of that control of form over matter which Schiller held to be the supreme function of art.

[all emphases mine]

(Regarding my above bolded portions: The “sustained softness” and “subsequent repetitions” comments refer solely to the eight horns, which begin p [pianissimo], and after bar 40 or so are all marked immer p [always pianissimo] which remains in force for the entire Prelude. The “huge crescendo…throughout” comment [i.e., huge in extent, and huge throughout as the crescendo builds slowly from the very beginning of the Prelude to its end, and builds almost solely as a consequence of Wagner’s preternaturally brilliant orchestration even though that slowly-built, Prelude-long crescendo is nowhere notated] refers to the orchestra overall, excluding the eight horns. The “powerful crescendo” comment refers to the entire orchestra for the final seven bars of the Prelude, and to the final bar opening onto Scene 1 in particular, where crescendi are actually notated.*)

As invaluable a record as this book is, however, one cannot shake the feeling that Porges has shortchanged posterity in recording but the tiniest fraction of what he could have recorded, thereby largely failing Wagner’s mandate to “…follow all my rehearsals very closely…and…note down everything I say, even the smallest detail, about the interpretation and performance of our work, so that a tradition goes down in writing.”

Porges’s failure notwithstanding, this volume is the only systematic firsthand account we have of Wagner’s own handling of the musical and dramatic performance sides of this monumental undertaking, and we ought to be grateful for even small such gifts. (There are other more or less desultory firsthand accounts of the first Bayreuth Festival by various members of the production team and cast from the perspective of their own specialties, but none of the systematic nature of Porges’s effort.)

Porges’s record was quite rightly written for working professionals — moreover, for working professionals already thoroughly familiar with the scores and texts of the Ring operas — and so what Porges records (with copious musical quotations) are Wagner’s directions which are supplement to the directions notated in the scores themselves, which scores are already more densely notated with musical directions than any other pre-20th-century score of my experience.

What strikes one most about Wagner’s directions is how often he directs subtle measure-by-measure (sometimes even note-by-note, and sometimes not-so-subtle) adjustments of the “main tempo,” and even of the notated rhythm, in order to achieve the dramatic and psychological effects he desired. That’s in perfect keeping with Wagner’s perennial excoriation (in his writings) of those conductors he referred to as “quadrupeds,” with their foursquare readings of his scores.

One example from the book is particularly telling in this respect.

Porges records Wagner’s handling of Siegfried’s Trauermusik (funeral music; from Act III of Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final Ring music-drama) thus:

The unison passage [here Porges quotes the opening two measures of the Trauermusik proper] requires especial attention. By making a powerful crescendo and slightly altering the time-values of the rests to make them uneven, thereby bringing them alive, Wagner gave those two bars a quite extraordinary significance…. Regarding the performance of the funeral music — that unique heroic lament in the style of the ancient epics — Wagner gave no further directions. To a creation such as this, those words of Goethe, “If you do not feel it, never will you find it,” are more than usually relevant.

Just so, and that intuitive “feel[ing] it” by conductors of what’s hidden beneath the markings of the printed score, so to speak, is precisely what I’ve elsewhere and often characterized as their possessing the “Wagner Gene”.

It was of some interest to me to note (as well as a source of some pride as it again confirms my thinking independently arrived at) that of the available recordings of the Ring with which I’m most familiar, it’s clear that Solti has read Porges’s record, and notated everything said there into his own copy of the score, so perfectly does he follow Wagner’s directives as recorded in this book; while Karajan, Böhm, and even Levine (whose Wagner readings are nothing if not meticulous) have either not read that record, or reading it, have largely ignored it, or were otherwise incapable of incorporating its directives into their own performances.

In summing up, I can’t urge too strongly those with more than a passing or listener’s interest in the Ring to somehow acquire a copy of this invaluable record, if for no reason other than to gain some small insight into the inner workings of the colossal musical and dramatic genius responsible for the creation of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

*Those wanting a fuller explanation of the dynamics of the Prelude may read my analysis here.

Posted in Books, Music, Opera, Wagner's Ring | Comments Off on Firsthand Witness

On Matters Cosmic & Atomic

Posted by acdtest on September 2, 2003

On Matters Cosmic, Atomic, and Everything In-between

ince childhood I’ve been something of a mathophobe, a non-word I coined to signify a psychoneurotic condition wherein one virtually breaks into a cold sweat on encountering any mathematical symbol less familiar than those of the four arithmetic operations. That pathetic condition notwithstanding, I’ve a deep fascination with the principles, derivation, and implications of the fundamental laws that govern the physical processes of the universe. As all such laws are expressed in the symbolic and abstract language of mathematics, indulging that fascination makes life for all such as myself a tough proposition. We must either stoically and painfully thread our way through expert accounts of physical theory, gleaning what we can along the way, or content ourselves with reading pop expositions which mostly simplify to the point of almost deception while producing in us a false sense of real comprehension.

Every once in a very rare while, however, there appears in print a treatment of this esoteric domain that meets the impossible challenge of explaining substantively in nonmathematical language the principles of a physical theory in a way that neither overwhelms the nonmathematical intellect, nor simplifies to pap the theory’s inherent complexities. My first experience of such a treatment was Lincoln Barnett’s 1948 (rev., 1957) The Universe and Dr. Einstein, a slender volume that substantively lays out the principles, derivation, and implications of special and general relativity in nonmathematical language so lucid, and even at times poetic, that even a mathophobe such as myself emerges with a genuine (if non-functional) understanding of Einstein’s revolutionary and world-transforming contributions to our knowledge of the universe and The Way Things Really Work.

In its scant 118 pages, The Universe and Dr. Einstein skillfully takes the reader from Einstein’s first thought experiments leading to the mind-bending principles and implications of special relativity (and the world-famous E=mc^2), through the equally mind-bending principles and implications of general relativity, all the while sparing the reader no fundamental or important details, but setting everything up and spelling it out in clear nonmathematical language completely understandable to any educated and interested layman.

An authentic tour de force, unhappily now out of print, but sometimes available through the secondhand market (see link above).

But relativity is old-hat theory today. Today the Big Thing is something called string theory.

And just what is string theory all about? Everything — quite literally. It’s an attempt at solving a problem Einstein spent the last quarter century of his life trying to solve: The Theory Of Everything, called by Einstein a Unified Field Theory; a series of mutually consistent equations that seamlessly integrate, first, the forces of gravity and electromagnetism, and ultimately the theories of the very large (general relativity), and the very small (quantum mechanics). Einstein failed in his attempt, and half a century later string theory took up the challenge, and ran with it.

Crudely and briefly (very crudely and very briefly), the problem is that while general relativity explains with astonishing accuracy and surpassing elegance the physical dynamics of things macrocosmic, it runs into problems when applied to the microcosm. More precisely, general relativity seems fundamentally at a loss to explain the dynamics of phenomena operating at the most ultramicroscopic subatomic scale where nothing but the most untoward weirdness prevails. Quantum mechanics, however, works splendidly at providing such explanations, if not quite as neatly and unequivocally as general relativity works at explaining phenomena at the scale of the macrocosm.

So what’s the problem? When one needs explanations of things macrocosmic one uses the equations of general relativity, and for explanations of things at a very tiny subatomic scale, the equations of quantum mechanics. No problem at all, really. Except that it’s intellectually, and even intuitively offensive to imagine the universe operating in two fundamentally different and incompatible ways depending only on the scale of the thing in question. If theory says it does, then that’s the signal — the red-light, alarm-bell signal — that something is amiss with theory, not the universe. What’s needed is a theory that accounts for all physical phenomena in a mutually consistent way regardless of scale. The difficulty is that when a marriage of the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics is attempted, the results are absurd. More specifically, the marriage of the equations of the two theories gives infinity as an answer when such an answer is pure gibberish (e.g., an infinite probability).

Enter string theory. It seems to have the promise of explaining all physical phenomena in a mutually consistent way regardless of scale by having the ability to alter the equations of relativity in just the right way so that a marriage with the equations of quantum mechanics becomes possible, and it begins by replacing the ultimate-lower-size, zero-dimension point particles of classical theory (i.e., relativity and quantum mechanics) with spatially extensible, one-dimensional vibrating filaments or strings whose extensible size is, on average, on the order of what is called the Planck length, an incredibly tiny number (10^-33).

Talk about mind-bending! String theory is all mind-bending stuff — way more so than general relativity — and horrendously complicated (as opposed to horrendously complex, which it also is), and seems to a mathophobic layman such as myself incredibly messy, something which, with the help of the guiding hand of Lincoln Barnett, relativity most emphatically does not.

But help for laymen such as myself is at hand. Brian Greene, in his 1999 book, The Elegant Universe, attempts to do in 448 pages for string theory what Barnett did in 118 for relativity. Greene’s not quite as successful as Barnett, but he’s successful enough, and for laymen wanting to understand the basic principles of string theory I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It was in fact by virtue of Greene’s guiding hand that I was able to write with confidence what I’ve here written concerning string theory.

(Actually, it’s not quite fair of me to suggest that Greene is less successful than was Barnett. String theory — all five of them — is a theory still in the throes of building, its equations so complex that none has ever successfully been put in precise form, physicists having to make due with approximations, while relativity was a fully worked out, many-times tested, and fairly mature theory by the time Barnett set to tackling an explanation of its complexities for laymen. All things considered, Greene does a more than admirable job of explaining what he sets out to explain.)

I confess I’ve a secret wish that string theory turns out to be the wrong way to go. I intuitively don’t like its messy, complicated feel, in the same way I intuitively dislike the probabilistic basis of quantum mechanics. (I’m in good company vis-à-vis the latter. Einstein was unhappy with quantum mechanics for the same reason. It was what provoked his famous, “I cannot believe God plays dice with the universe.”) But perhaps when the precise equations of string theory (all five of them) are finally derived, solved, and unified under the construct called M-theory (don’t even think of asking!), those equations and what they describe will prove string theory as elegant and, more importantly, as inevitable as relativity. If that day ever comes — and the smart money is betting that it’s a matter of when, not if — man will truly have succeeded, in the words of Stephen Hawking, in reading the very mind of God.

Neat trick, that, and a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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16 June 1904

Posted by acdtest on June 16, 2003

16 June 1904

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