MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Bleeding Together, Falling Apart: Marc Weidenbaum on Aphex Twin

aphex-twin

There are some real gems in the innovative, ongoing 33 1/3 series from Bloomsbury (which now numbers 90 crisp little volumes) — and I’m not claiming that just because I personally know several of the authors. Or because two of the most dazzling of those gems are by friends: Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the latest in the series, on Aphex Twin’s seminal Selected Ambient Works Volume II by Marc Weidenbaum.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, I also highly recommend Weidenbaum’s fascinating and long-running webzine disquiet — named in honor of the Portuguese poet, critic, and philosopher Fernando Pessoa — where you can find his fascinating collaborations, interviews, experiments, and musings on ambient and electronic music.

Just published last month, his new book is already harvesting a bumper crop of impressive reviews — and deservedly so. Any in-depth consideration of a musical landmark needs to offer the simultaneous perspectives to which Weidenbaum alludes when he writes that Selected Ambient Works Volume II, as Aphex Twin (aka Richard D. James) enigmatically titled this 1994 album, “may be timeless music, but it is still very much a product of its time.”

Weidenbaum gracefully sustains that double focus through his close listenings to each of the 25 tracks and his evocative contextualization of the album’s origins, recounting, for example, its emergence amid “the populist flowering of British occultism, a rave-era echo of the Summer of Love.” He also deftly weaves into his discussion points about the cross-connections between ambient music and classical composers and ensembles like Alarm Will Sound.

When the composer Caleb Burhans (a member of Alarm Will Sound) was assigned the project of scoring the “Blue Calx” track for his group with only acoustic instruments, he played on references to the beginning of Mahler’s First Symphony; the music of John Tavener and Ingram Marshall provided other classical precedents as well.

Paul Gleason points out that this isn’t just another exercise in music criticism: “both the album and the book stretch listeners and readers to develop new definitions of what music means.” He continues:

One of the most compelling sections of Weidenbaum’s book is on the so-called “beatless” nature of “Selected Ambient Works Volume II.” To put it country simple, when people first heard the record back in 1994, they had a hard time hearing beats. This, of course, was anathema to any electronic music fan back then. But what Weidenbaum shows in some truly deft and exciting passages is that – get this – the record’s beats emerged over time. This analysis is so cool because it shows that a record’s meaning and innovations (the beats are subtle) emerge over time and that, more generally, the meaning of a work is created in time. I don’t know whether Weidenbaum was thinking about Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutics, but I certainly was.
[…]
Like all good critical studies, [his book] doesn’t provide the illusion of closure; rather, it expands minds, fostering the creation of textual meaning.

Weidenbaum has gathered together here all of the pieces he posted separately on disquiet for each of the album’s tracks (which were originally untitled, except for “Blue Calx”). In an interview with his publisher, Weidenbaum explains what attracted him to writing about Aphex Twin:

What drew me in particular was the album’s deep, resounding, unrepentant murkiness — which is to say, its absence of what might be considered particular. The record evades the idea of particular, except to the extent that its pronounced murkiness is particular to it. Tracks seem to bleed together, and to fall apart … … Ambient music is often packaged and promoted as being ephemeral, ethereal, but this album is more so than most; it’s tantalizingly difficult to get a grip on.

He also refers to one of the many challenges he has taken on here — and so beautifully addressed. Selected Ambient Works Volume II is almost entirely instrumental. Weidenbaum says:

One of the great benefits of a record with no words is how it doesn’t respond directly to your writing about it — it doesn’t purport to explain itself in the way that records that consist of words, such as a traditional rock and rap records, explain themselves. This is very enticing to me.

Filed under: aesthetics, book recs, music writers

Opening the Door into Bartók

Bartok

Hearing a super-charged performance of Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet by the Ehnes Quartet on Sunday – a condensed cosmos of formal and tonal experimentation – reminded me of why this composer’s quartets are genuinely comparable to what Beethoven achieved with the medium.

By happy coincidence, my friend Philip Kennicott, one of the most brilliant critics writing today, had just been immersed in the entire Bartók cycle on the other coast, back in my old hometown. The performers were the Takács Quartet. (I’d heard their two-evening Bartók cycle in D.C. back in the ’90s.)

In his reflections on the experience, Kennicott makes a very important point about the much-misunderstood presence of “folk elements” in Bartók’s music: “The turn to folk music was not, for Bartók, nostalgic, but rather a way forward. What he found there wasn’t simplicity, but density, and in that density was a modernity as vital as anything hatched in the musical systems of Paris and Vienna.”

And on Bartók’s sense of an ending:

So the music is always anxious, always driving forward, which is both exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps that’s why Bartók’s endings—ironically anticlimactic, humorously flippant, pompously emphatic—are so appealing. By the time Bartók ends something, no honest listener could claim to want to hear more. The idea, the gesture, the mood has been wrung out, used up, finished off. And then it’s on to the next thing, with renewed energy and relentlessness.

Kennicott then works George Steiner’s interpretation of the door metaphor in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle into his discussion:

We open successive doors in Bluebeard’s castle because “they are there,” because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind’s own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal—radical, self-mutilating—of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species.

This was Steiner’s best hope for hope, after the brutality of World War I, the obscenity of Hitler, ages of anti-Semitism, and the terrors of the post-war age, especially its predation on what was once called, without embarrassment, Culture. It is also a perfect description of the powerful, dutiful, heroic denial of self in Bartók’s string quartets, which also proceed by a logic of intensification, and which leave the listener grasping at “the mind’s awareness of being.”

Filed under: aesthetics, Bartók, chamber music, James Ehnes, music writers, string quartet

O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Vielle player from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1300

Vielle player from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1300

That recurrent non-news “story” — a proclamation of the alleged “death” of classical music — has been making the rounds once again thanks to a laughably obtuse article for Slate by Mark Vanhoenacker, whose credits also include reflections on the shape of public toilet seats and “the beauty of the airline baggage tag.”

It was gratifying to see contemporary “classical music” composer Mason Bates call out Mr. Vanhoenacker for this dreck — and right after the San Francisco Symphony had concluded a much-lauded festival pairing Mr. Bates’s music with that of Beethoven.

Now comes an excellent rejoinder by William Robin for the New Yorker‘s “Culture Desk.” Robin quotes Charles Rosen’s crisp bon mot: The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition” and goes on to consider the recurrent “doom-mongering” when it comes to this art, “as though an autopsy were being conducted on a still-breathing body.”

Or as if those of us who love — and can’t live without — an ever-evolving lineup of composers and performers constitute a population of the walking dead.

“What supports these jeremiads is the implicit idea that classical music is an aberration in the United States, something to be regarded with suspicion,” Mr. Robin observes. “…But, like plenty of other great things in the U.S., classical music has endured because it has been made American.”

The statistics that get routinely cited show how “the doomsayers also like to cherry-pick a few crisis-ridden institutions and use them to generalize about the art form itself.” Mr. Robin continues:

Classical music is the sum of all its institutions, performers, and listeners, plus a thousand-year-old cultural lineage; it can’t be snuffed out through any combination of bankrupt orchestras and mediocre album sales. What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is that the industry remains relatively vibrant in the face of an American media culture that appears so determined to marginalize it.

The classical-music declinists rarely consider the value in having a few of the greatest orchestras in the world located in America, the so-called homeland of pop culture. Or the civic pride that the citizens of Chicago and Minnesota take in their symphonies. Or the lifelong bonds forged between musicians and their audience. Or the uncanny thrill of hearing Mahler live, an experience like no other.

I would hasten to add that these naysayers willfully overlook the very essence of what we’re so awkwardly labeling “classical music”: its ability to allow us for a brief moment at least to step outside the everyday, the routine, the zero-sum-game assumptions of modern capitalist life. And, no, that doesn’t mean it has to be music by a dead composer.

The same applies to the undertakers who glibly pronounce the death of the novel, of poetry, of live theater. Why have the visual arts managed to escape? Because of their market cachet, the dizzy price tags for “Old Masters.” And, it hardly needs to be pointed out, ours is a predominantly visual culture.

But then the “declinists” (great word, Mr. Robin) demonstrate all the subtlety of their business school models that normalize the inherent rapacity of the capitalist market.

Filed under: culture news, music news, music writers

Satie’s Importance

satie

Reading an early collection of essays by the brilliant critic and musicologist Wilfrid Mellers (there’s another centennial coming up – next year), I came across this astute reflection on Erik Satie and his significance (from the essay “Erik satie and the ‘Problem’ of Contemporary Music,” published in 1942):

At a time when the dominant characteristic of the artist’s sensibility is isolation, he accepted the spiritual aridity to which ‘cette terre si terrestre et si terreuse’ obliged him, even though he knew that acceptance meant in the end a kind of death; that he steadfastly refused to falsify or distort his responses to the slightest degree in an age in which the temptations to emotional insincerity are perhaps greater than ever before. For this reason I believe that no contemporary music has more to tell us about the position and predicament of the composer in the modern world than that of this slight and apparently unimportant composer.
 

Filed under: composers, music writers

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