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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, March 11, 2005

TRANSCENDENCE, GHOSTS, RECORDING, BACH (AND I CAN'T REMEMBER WHAT ALL ELSE)

“With records, one might say, we experience the immortality of others: of the human musicians whose spirits we invoke. In primitive magic the spirits whose powers are enlisted are nature spirits or the spirits of the dead. There is an echo of this in phonographic magic, lending it a certain eerieness. Record listening is a seance where we get to choose our ghosts. The voices we hear come from another world -- something voices are good at. So there is a certain bafflement: the voice seems to be coming from the medium, or the loudspeaker, but where is it really coming from? Sight, in the habit of tracing sound to its source, finds nothing but some wooden boxes and a spinning circle. At the end of the search for focus one finds a surd. The performer becomes (in the etymological sense) occult.” -- Evan Eisenberg, The Recording Angel, 1987

I’ve been re-reading Eisenberg’s book, which (the link above shows) is just about to come out in a new edition with a new afterword, which, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t sound promising. I read the book 7 or 8 years ago (not exactly sure) and love it as it is, and am not surprised to find its influence in my recent posts on the paradox of the materiality of the recording medium facilitating the interiorization of the musical experience.

Eisenberg is interested in the transcendent capacities of music, a concept that intrigues me but eludes my grasp. Lucky for me, George Hunka has been posting on the capacity of art to *transcend* the phenomenal world; even luckier for me, George has been providing, at my request, generous e-mailed private tutorial on just-what-in-heck this transcendence business is about. Still chewing on it, and thanks George!

In further coincidence, my friend Ross Lipman sent me a link to a very interesting article by James Gaines on J.S. Bach’s “Musical Offering” and the strained relationship between Bach and the piece’s patron, Frederick “the Great.” Gaines mentions that the Old Bach (as he was known then) disdained the “galant” style of his sons, which eschewed the father’s mastery of polyphony in favor of “the easier pleasure of song, the harmonic ornamentation of a single line of melody.” To quote Gaines further:

“For Bach this new, so-called ‘galant’ style, with all its lovely figures and stylish grace, was full of emptiness. Bach's cosmos was one in which the planets themselves played the ultimate harmony, a tenet that had been unquestioned since the ‘sacred science’ of Pythagoras; composing and performing music was for him and his musical ancestors a deeply spiritual enterprise.

“For Frederick and his generation, the goal of music was simply to be ‘agreeable’, an entertainment and a diversion. Frederick despised music that, as he put it, ‘smells of the church’, and in the disenchanted world of the Enlightenment, cosmic notions like the ‘music of the spheres’ were just more dark-age mumbo jumbo.”

Lots of pertinent, interesting stuff here -- the relationship between an art aiming for transcendence and an art aiming for entertainment -- interesting parallels to recent blastings of pop music by classical partisans. Mozart learned a lot from one of Bach’s sons -- J.C. Bach -- and never even heard of the Old Bach until he had been touring and composing for many years, at which point he studied him hard & seriously and undertook to master counterpoint himself and integrate it into his style, which had been so influenced by the “galant.” Symbolically, the classical tradition became conscious of itself as such in that act of recovery by Mozart. Before then, music had always been contemporary, even if some of it -- specifically, some church music -- might have been hundreds of years old.

The music of Bach’s sons -- and that of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and the Romantics -- has an aristocratic vibe, maybe even rhythm, that the Old Bach’s lacked. Debussy’s music got absorbed by film scoring, as did Schoenberg’s and Stravinsky’s, and lost its aristocratic patina. Pre-“galant” music sounds churchy by comparison, not aristo. I can’t remember the music of Debussy or Schoenberg or Stravinsky being used for period ambience, unlike the Romantics or the Classics, but I could be wrong.

Too late at night -- too much digression & ill-considered vagueness. G’night.
Comments:
Nice blog

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