Archive for October, 2010

Everyday actions become existential events

October 29, 2010

Of the many interesting things in Kurtag’s fragment cycles, perhaps the most signal is the removal of certain types of contrast. In an opera aria (a comparable genre) the material induces the audience to perceive and mimetically participate in some sort of dialectical and cumulative structure. Seven minutes of push and pull and repetition and development ensures this. In Kurtag, in, say, the Kafka Fragments, we have, instead, moments. Even the longer pieces of the cycle, those at three minutes, shatter into a disunity, or strain during a unity. Yet that momentary dynamic opens up a space of stark clarity. The moment is a cleansing one in these works.

In Peter Sellars’ staging of the work the aesthetic of the mundane, appositely for Kafka, is made the scene of revelatory shock. As it was put in a New York Times review of an earlier performance of this production at the Lincoln Centre, ‘everyday actions become existential events’ in this cycle. As such Sellars’ staging is all the more penetrating for so sensitively designing a context sympathetic to the minutiae of the work. It presents a site of the everyday where Upshaw’s existentially troubled housewife can, with the benefit of photographic and projected textual enrichments, think out her situation in a heightened setting congenial to the mundane vividity of Kafka’s texts, and Kurtag’s contexts. Drabness and acid sit alongside each other in this staging, making a peculiar coincidence for the similar admixture shared between text and music.

Each song fragment, some seconds long, some a few minutes, distinct from each other musically and emotionally yet conjoined by an infinite and piercing light, coheres around, in the director’s words, ‘a crystalline and blazing moment’. The moment is dense and condensed, sharply-hewed and gypsy-intense – the gypsy aspect shorn up by the stark instrumentation of violin and voice, and by the musical enhancements taken from its idiom. Yet we never gain purchase on these motifs as pastiche or homage. This music does not permit much purchase on anything at all, at least in the expected way, and that is its point.

The fragments are excised of growth, contrast, crescendo, and decay. Everything colludes to the sharpened flash of recognition, to the flicker of life.


Mountains of Creation: How many am I?

October 27, 2010

Why do we privilege humans over conventions?

We talk of particular movements, of works, of songs, of albums, and, above all else, of the people that make them. We promote a lie of creation in doing so. We think of the song as articulating a set of conventions or a style for a certain moment, as instancing a moment of inscription whereby conventions (understood in the broadest historical, technological, and acoustical respects) are used and exceeded.

What is really happening is a sleight of hand that robs the world outside of the human of its strange primacy. The act of creation is an act of illusion. It is troubling, and entirely telling, that the closest we get to thinking this weird root of creation is in artists’ fuzzy feelings of conduity. But even this talk of ‘just being a conduit’ doesn’t quite get at the simple inversion of moment and (broadly conceived) convention that I want to promote. The object-orientated allegiance of drone music is an exhibition at the terminus of the phenomenon under discussion, where, put simply, music (or, better, vibrations of matter resonating in an audible spectrum) largely plays people, as opposed to the other way around.

Such a spectral view of creation puts us in troubled mind of Fernando Pessoa’s questions; ‘How many am I? Who is me? What is this interval between me and me?’ That interval, in respect of creation, is made of the gap between the ego and the superego, the now and the immanent.

We talk of people to the detriment of sonics, senses, and the abstract collusion of culture. In this talking about people and their works we construct a useful and alluring apparatus for enriched communication. But this is surely not the whole story. Is the work in fact an interval?

Drama without drama

October 21, 2010

What is it with opera? It so rarely conveys to us real human beings in real human situations. What it offers instead is an image with the status of a metonym. When things on stage are going well the world is weak, the metonym strong. We don’t believe in the people, but we do the moment.

Opera must communicate this way for its music to bear effectively the extravagant emotional burden that the form aspires to. I am talking here about the traditional operatic canon more than I am any contemporary repertoire, for there various theatres have made eclectic what was once, in this core affiliatory respect, a unity.

When the music is doing its job, as in musical theatre, hardly convincing contours of emotion, thinly carved conflicts, dramatically undeserved redemptions, and unearned love scenes melt away in the burnished theatre of music, synthesising with melody and theme for an unmatched intensity. The missing drama is in the music. When it is not, or, when it cannot, when the cleavages of narrative or character are too strong, that whole appears as a drama without drama, a spectacle, a relic of a very different sensibility to that of our own. I felt both of these extremes at this week’s revival of Jonathan Miller’s well-received staging of La bohème. Read my full review here.

And he was happy!

October 10, 2010

Why was Wagner (I hope his name doesn’t cause confusion) much more interesting than most of the other acts on the first live show of the 2010 X Factor, despite being markedly less vocally accomplished?

He is older, and this is certainly important. Notwithstanding heart-stopping talent, it’s invariably more interesting to watch a 50-year-old sing (communicate emotion, situate a technical code within the context of a life) than a 17-year-old. This is particularly the case when the environment is one directed so aggressively away from diversity and age, towards constricting consensus. Wagner’s comparative lack of investment in the prize of the programme and thus his closer proximity to the real of each contestants’ abilities and experience is likewise crucial. Pure theatre, meanwhile, combined from these elements but consisting in more, is the true injunction of Wagner. And he was happy!

With John and Edward last year, and Wagner this, The X Factor is at least opening itself to an injection of the kitsch sublime (albeit one easily subsumed). The X Factor may now be entering its ‘late’ phase. Embrace the madness, as even Cowell interjected last night.

I wrote in the Journal of Music earlier this year that the power of the programme lies in the crosshatching of unisonality as experienced through music with the intensity of the collective gaze, as opposed to its wild pageantry, its consensual hearkening to an abstract ‘now’, or its deleterious ‘narratives’. When people are singing better, the X Factor is generally more engaging (except when it is embracing the madness). Mary’s, not least because of its vocal power, was the most engaging performance last night. Music is powerful, and the music on The X Factor is often overwhelming in its combination of aesthetics and collectivism. This is why the programme lays such a strong and, at this moment, seemingly universal claim on the emotional economy of so many people’s weekends.

Amongst the infuriating ephemera last night, meanwhile, particularly wearing were the false dramatics of the ‘difficult’ rehearsal, the judges’ inveterate ability to whitewash a performance with whatever critical narrative suits the needs of the programme (see One Direction), and the repeated appeals to candidates’ ‘uniqueness’ (how many ‘uniques’ before the concept becomes meaningless?).

Something else that seems unresolved. What tense does the X Factor happen in? When does the X Factor actually happen? When a performance is complete, it is spoken of in almost canonical terms – the memory of The X Factor is short-term, and one hour is a life time in this universe. Virilio’s dromology, the logic of late capitalist speed, the hypermodern implosion of humanism, captures perfectly the effect. We can’t make much purchase on the ‘nowness’ of a performance before it is sublimated by the irresistible force of the past tense. But the other way, protentive time, is warped in this space too. Events seem pre-ordained, the judges’ comments warmed up in the crucible of the ill-informed (except Danni) before the event has taken place. Perhaps this last is merely a result of the judges’ (not Danni) astonishing rhetorical vacuousness, a vacuousness which begets the comments’ seeming generative contour.

When knowledge could have happened without human volition, originating before its human mediation, it bears a spectral relationship to time, is almost adjunct to it. Wagner, again, was so refreshing because the judges still don’t have a code with which to blandish him (he also looks like the joyous older brother of Javier Bardem).

I know The X Factor did happen, and it did so last evening, but I’m still incredulous as to its purchase on time.

These are some of the many confusing tensions one experiences when watching The X Factor.

Blog Analysis

October 5, 2010

I just did a blog analysis thingy inspired by Infinite Thought, and got the exact same results as her! More appropriate on the gender front, but even more mistaken (I think) in terms of age. As for the rest, well who knows…

“ is probably written by a male somewhere between 66-100 years old. The writing style is academic and happy most of the time”.

(The picture, incidentally, is one of the first results I got from putting ‘happy most of the time’ into google image).