Listening to Schumann’s piano in May

Many great friends draw inspiration and fortitude from listening to music together.  To be precise, they listen to each other listening to music together.  Dr.  Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, is such a great friend.  Every May 8th I celebrate his birthday by listening to his wonderfully beautiful account of Schumann’s month of May.

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” is the first song in Schumann’s song cycle Dicthterliebe (A Poet’s Love, op. 48), composed in the last week of May 1840, based on sixteen poems on unrequited love by Heinrich Heine, published three years earlier. The song sets an unresolved poem to music that remains harmonically unresolved. 

“In the wondrous month of May, when all buds were bursting into bloom, then it was that in my heart love began to blossom./In the wondrous month of May, when all the birds were singing, then it was that I confessed to her my longing and desire.”

As the speaker tells a past romantic story, words and music seem to recount different aspects:  while the verses recall the first blossoms of love, the music worries that love is doomed, hence the song’s tension between elation and heartbreak.  The piano part starts with a famously ambiguous discord and consists of broken chords in a style that falters as the music shifts throughout the song between F# minor and A major, but never rests in either tonality.  This undecided tonality with its subtle dissonances comments on the text as it reflects from the start the apprehension of new love. 

In the month of May, as Pantelis and I walk in the park, blooming flowers and singing birds use undecided tonal ambiguities and confused harmonic expectations to talk to us about lost love and lingering longing.  Friendship works as an exercise in collaborative listening:  By listening to my friend listening together with me, I can hearken to the melancholy latent in the piano of a Schumann song, a part so well structured that it can stand alone as a composition.  Our friendship trains us to techniques of attentive listening and music making.

8 May 2021

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The contours of tragedy

Where does tragedy happen?  This is a major question that has been driving interest in the tragic phenomenon over the last few decades.  While scholarship and performance were still defining the norms of literary genre and moral conduct, the question “What is tragedy?” was of paramount importance.  But after attention turned from forms to practices, tragedy emerged as a general phenomenon of ethico-political significance.  Instead of offering more definitions, recent books have been exploring the contours of tragedy, taking for granted that it may be identified in a wide variety of contexts and circumstances, including several arts, sciences, regimes, and experiences.  Here are a few representative examples.

Contributors to Visions of Tragedy in Modern American Drama (2018), edited by David Palmer, investigate distinctly American visions by discussing productions and plays by seventeen major playwrights, from Eugene O’Neill to Suzan-Lori Parks.

Contributors to The Transformations of Tragedy (2019), edited by O’Neill Tonning, Tonning and Mitchell, explore Christian influences on early modern and modern Western tragedy, theology, and history, with special attention to upheavals in the church.

Jennifer Wallace’s Tragedy since 9/11 (2020) argues that the first twenty years of this century are “especially an age of tragedy” and offers a cultural analysis of war, revolution, trauma, climate change, and refuge crisis in terms of ancient and modern dramas.

Ato Quayson’s Tragedy and Postcolonial Literature (2021) uses ancient and modern tragedy and tragic thought to explore major ethical choices in postcolonial writing and propose an innovative understanding of world literature, including new concepts.

It seems that the notion of tragedy has rarely been so malleable or productive.

19 April 2021

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On lateness in listening: From late style to late mood

The scholarly symposium “Late Style and the Idea of the Summative Work in Bach and Beethoven,” taking place this month at the Department of Music & Dance in the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, inspired me to return to a particular aspect of lateness:  The late style, “the idea that the work of the last few years of truly ‘great’ creative artists is marked by a profound change of style, tone, and content which tends both to look back to the artist’s earlier years and forward, beyond his death, to future developments in the field” (McMullan & Smiles, eds.: Late Style and its Discontents, 2016, p. 1). 

The notion of late style has been invariably applied to creators (painters, writers, and especially composers). However, my interest lies in something far more common which has attracted very limited critical attention: The lateness not of creation but of reception. In this post I will concentrate on lateness in listening: Instead of the late style of the composer, I will focus on the late mood of the listener, differentiating among four kinds of late listening.

First, we may talk about listening that comes late in our lives, not necessarily in terms of age as much as in terms of experience.  After significant exposure to a great number of works, media, and occasions, we feel that we have become inveterate listeners with an overwhelming knowledge, secure in our command of the kinds of music we like yet increasingly uninterested in it.  We have crossed the threshold of having heard and experienced it all.  Bred from excessive familiarity, weary exhaustion settles in.  Because we have been experiencing it in inordinate amounts, music has lost its capacity to captivate us, and it now feels too late for us to enjoy another composition or performance.

A second kind of late listening is due not to over-saturation but to belatedness.  We listen to works we love while we are fully aware that the time of this type of music is over.  Whether it is a genre, a style, a performance technique, or a subject matter, it is something that is rarely if ever done any more.  We may continue to find it personally irresistible, yet we know that we have come to it too late since its moment in history has passed for good.  In fact, our belatedness may be a crucial aspect of our position and appreciation, it may express a desire to recover a lost place or salvage a damaged treasure, but it remains a modality of our listening.  We feel that we are longing for and at the same time becoming part of an entire legacy.

A third kind is not anachronistic but anticipatory listening in search of generative lateness:  We listen for works which came so late that they became early ones.  We listen forward in that we believe we can discover works that have prefigured, announced, enabled later ones.  These works grant us a sense of origin (where we trace the launch of our beginnings) and continuity (where we become the organic growth of that beginning).  After we construct a particular history of artistic impact, commonly known as tradition, we conclude that a very late work was in fact an avant-gardist one for its time and feel that our own lateness is of a rather experimental, rather than regressive, nature.

The last kind is listening that actively lates [active verb!] works by rendering them internally conflicted beyond any reconciliation and placing them in irreversible afterness (coming after).  It deciphers an extraordinary era by historically interpreting works that appear manifestly aware of their lateness and have become the era’s intrinsic critique.  By attributing finality and futurity to such works, it elevates them to a supra-aesthetic status.  More importantly, lating a work forcefully and appreciating in it the nature and operation of creativity in a particular era is an interpretive achievement that makes the listener equal to late thinkers, usually men of a Germanic philosophical disposition (like Simmel, Benjamin, George Steiner, Derrida, Said, and Agamben), and the work’s true heir (Karen Leeder: “Figuring Lateness in Modern German Culture,” New German Critique 125, 2015).  It also gives the late listener the cultural authority to determine how late it is now and for what (form, tone, theme, approach etc.).

To recapitulate, I have proposed four modalities of late listening.  Let us take as an example Brahms’ 1st symphony, which took twenty years to complete, was once called “Beethoven’s 10th,” and has returned in works such as Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan:  We may talk about weary, belated, anticipatory, and actively lating listening to this symphony.  If lateness is a matter of late style for the composer, it is a matter of late mood for the listener, who may turn out to be an uncompromising champion of negativity, resisting harmony and closure in composition. 

I call late listening a mood in that it represents a kind of critical attunement that collaborates in composition as precarious world making.  Inquiry into late listening questions lateness as the metaphysical primacy of creating that makes thinking belated and secondary (Hutcheon and Hutcheon: “Historicizing Late Style as a Discourse of Reception,” in McMullan & Smiles, p. 52).  There are, of course, many other practices of listening that have nothing to do with lateness and relate to music on a variety of other temporal planes. 

To my friend Marios Emmanouilidis, scholar, early thinker and late listener

7 April 2021

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“Ελευθερία ανάπηρη”

Καθώς η τωρινή κυβέρνηση, με την αμέριστη συμπαράσταση όλων των εθνικών επιστημών (όπως η ιστορία, η φιλολογία, η αρχαιολογία, η λαογραφία και η πολιτειολογία), τιμά την 200η επέτειο της χαμένης ανεξαρτησίας, οι άτεγκτοι στίχοι του Βύρωνα Λεοντάρη («μόνον δια της λύπης») εκφράζουν την απόγνωση της επανάστασης που κατάντησε επίσημος εορτασμός, περιγράφοντας τη θριαμβική και τελετουργική κηδεία του Μάρκου Μπότσαρη, που ακολούθησε όλο το Μεσολόγγι το 1823:

“Βροχή βροχή φαρμακερή
καθώς περνάει, Μάρκο, τό ξόδι σου
στητό δεμένο στ᾽ ἀλογό σου
κι ἀκολουθοῦν παπάδες καί ψαλτάδες
θυμιάματα λοιμοί καί καταποντισμοί
καί πίσω αἰχμάλωτοι ἐχθροί πισθάγκωνα δεμένοι
μεταξωτές σημαῖες νικημένες
ἂλογα καταστόλιστα
ἂρματα καί σπαθιά ντουφέκια γιδοπρόβατα
λάφυρα ἑνός ἀγώνα πού κολλάει καί μπλέκεται σέ βάλτα καί σέ βοῦρλα

βροχή βροχή φαρμακερή
Ἐλευθερία ἢ θάνατος…

Καλύτερα θάνατος καλύτερα θάνατος”

Τι να την κάνεις τέτοια κίβδηλη ελευθερία, ένα κακέκτυπο αντίγραφο σε εθνικό μουσείο ενός ψευδοκλασικού πίνακα που παριστάνει έναν όρκο που δεν δόθηκε σε έναν τάφο που δεν υπάρχει…

«Ο όρκος του λόρδου Βύρωνα στον τάφο του Μάρκου Μπότσαρη στο Μεσολόγγι». Επιζωγραφισμένη λιθογραφία, σχεδ. Ant. Dadola, λιθ.  Buzeghel.  Εθνικό Ιστορικό Μουσείο , Αθήνα Liberty Leading The People, Greek Independence, Greek History, Royal Guard, In Ancient Times, Ancient Greece, History Facts, Mythology, Revolution

25 Μαρτίου 2021

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The chains of liberty

This week’s celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence bring to mind a wall in a modern police station with a large reproduction of the famous Goya painting of the insurgents of Madrid who died in 1808 facing a French firing squad.

That year, Emperor Napoleon I sent troops to occupy Spain, an ally of France.  Coming in the name of the enlightened values of the revolution, they entered mostly unopposed.

The Peninsular War (1808-14), one of the first wars of national liberation, began on May 2, 1808, when the people of Madrid rebelled against the French occupation. The next day, hundreds of Spanish resistance fighters were rounded up and executed.

Meanwhile, the Spanish masses continued to support the reactionary Ferdinando VII, “the Traitor King,” who in 1814, when the monarchy was restored, abolished the constitution and pursued the opposition. They cried “Long live our chains” to endorse, in the name of security, the abrogation of their civil rights.

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya, who had supported the ideals of the French Revolution and hoped for similar developments in his country, was among those who initially welcomed the French as emissaries of Enlightenment egalitarianism but found himself in a very difficult position when he experienced the occupation of the foreign troops.  

After the expulsion of the French in 1814, Goya approached the provisional government, offering to commemorate the May 2, 1808, insurrection. His famous painting, The Third of May 1808 (which the Prado entitles The Third of May 1808 in Madrid:  The Executions on the Prince Pio Hill), honors the Spanish resistance by depicting the French reprisals during the early hours of the morning following the uprising.

Scenes of revolt and repression, accompanied by sounds of machine-gun fire, open and close the film The Phantom of Liberty (1974) by the Spanish director Luis Buñuel.

Its notorious opening in a way merges the rebellion of 1808 and the restoration of 1814.  Defiant patriots facing a French firing squad shout “Long live our chains” or, according to the English subtitles, “Down with liberty.”  The presumed forces of liberation (the French soldiers), who have turned into an occupying army, are executing the presumed forces of resistance (the Spanish loyalists), who will eventually welcome local oppression.  Revolution begets a new tyranny:  The people who fought for their freedom will soon forge their own chains.    

Later on in the film, a reproduction of Goya’s painting is hanging on the wall of the inspector’s office in a police station.  The new regime makes sure to honor the revolution that brought it to power.  At the melancholic end of The Phantom of Liberty, which takes place in the present, two police prefects, instead of quarreling over which one of them is real, work together to put down a new insurgency of people who are shouting “Down with liberty.”  The previous victorious uprising created its own chains and has provoked a new uprising.  Will the tragedy of the revolution repeat itself again?

The fetters of tyranny stir up the revolutionary desire for freedom. But, beyond state commemorations, which socio-historical conditions might make liberty more than a phantom?  

20 March 2021

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Heightening the contradictions of radical autonomy

I approached the new film Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) from the standpoint of political theory as a tragedy of revolutionary governance where the pursuit of an autonomous polity resorts to heteronomous means.

Its framework is state and stasis.  The film dramatizes a state in stasis, a government challenged by its people.  Under the tyrant Mayor Richard J. Daley and the abuse of power by the political and economic establishment and the police, the city/polis of Chicago in 1968-69 goes through a crisis as the people organize and rise to refute the authority of sovereignty.

“The Ten-Point Program” of the Black Panther Party (established in 1966) states: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends [inalienable human rights], it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government” (article 10).  The Party and its Rainbow Coalition represent the rebellion of constituent power seeking to inaugurate a radical beginning and constitute a new order, namely a socialist and anti-imperialist community.  The FBI considers the Party “the greatest threat to national security.”

To the Panthers, self-determination is fundamental: “We want Freedom.  We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.  We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny” (“Program,” article 1).  Rejecting all external political and ethical norms, the rebels are pursuing immanent justice and governance.  In addition to resistance as counter-conduct, their survival programs (free food, health care, legal aid, and education) represent practices of freedom that actualize the project of autonomy as self-sufficiency.

Showing the political work of the revolution, the film foregrounds the inherent contradictions of self-authorization and the antinomies of civic autonomy by contrasting freedom of action to the necessity of violence (such as engaging in shootouts with authorities that result in deaths of party members and police officers, murder of suspected informants) as “resistance to fascism.”

As they endeavor to “heighten the contradictions” of the oppressive regime and accelerate the decline of capitalism (the major theme of the work, which alludes to Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution), the revolutionaries fall into their own fatal contradictions when trying to control their destiny by using means of their oppressors, thus testing the boundaries of self-limitation.

As a tragedy of left governance, the film focuses on the extreme dilemmas of the legitimacy of constituent power.

P.S. The film may be also approached as a tragedy of the traitor (the Judas figure) who suffers through the irreconcilable contradictions of a radical Black life or as an allegory of the Way of the Cross of Christ (the Black Messiah figure) who sacrifices his life for the people.

25 February 2021

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Listening to classical cover versions

I read with special interest an interview that Benjamin Grosvenor gave recently on playing the Liszt sonata.  Instead of analyzing the work itself or placing it in the history of classical music, the 28-year-old pianist compared his recent recording to others.  His principle was this: “I almost feel like you should know the notable recordings of a work like this. [] More than anything, it helps you understand what works and what doesn’t work.”  To him, what matters in interpretation is not what the work means but what works in performance.

This unusual approach made me think of a comparable one in popular music, the practice of the cover, which assumes a particular attitude to the original.  Professor Ian Balfour (English, York) writes often on cover versions of popular songs, tracing with tremendous erudition a particular piece through some of its incarnations.  Reading on Facebook his scintillating commentary, I often wonder why we use “interpretation” for classical and “cover” for popular music remakes.  What kind of listening attention to an original and its reworkings does each term indicate?  And what would happen if we reversed their use?  How would our listening change if Grosvenor talked about the covers of Liszt by Horowitz and Cherkassky while Balfour wrote about Nina Simone’s interpretations of popular classics?

The idea of the cover certainly allows for great performative flexibility.  Grosvenor’s examples of earlier recordings show that classical pianists too can be quite irreverent.  Having listened to several highly idiosyncratic recordings of the Liszt sonata (with their omissions, improvisations, mistakes, exaggerations), I suggest that by designating them as “covers” we can be more receptive to their performative liberties.  This would apply even more to works where there is no definitive original, such as Verdi’s Don Carlo or several Bruckner symphonies as well as to transcriptions and paraphrases, which by definition remake originals.  I would find it thrilling to attend a recital with a frame of mind attuned to renderings that work rather than interpretations that un-cover and reveal.  After all, certain pianists, like Horowitz, Lang Lang, and Yuja Wang, not to mention Valentina Lisitsa (and going back to Liszt himself!), can be easily treated as “cover acts.”

I have noticed how every time Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” plays a classical work just for the two of us, he improvises his own subtle changes out of sheer performative confidence, strength, and pleasure, in a way conversing with the composer rather than serving him.  Instead of restoring monumentality to canonical works, powerful musicians make them their own in much the way that powerful covers become new originals (such as The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun”).  In discussing the Liszt composition, Grosvenor foregrounded this performative dimension, reminding me why we talk about the Cherkassky Sonata, the Richter 960, the Kleiber 7, and the Lisbon Traviata.

What journalist David Allen in the Grosvenor interview called (quoting Charles Bernstein?) “close listening” is a skill of the modern self that can only be invigorated when applied to cover versions of all musical kinds.

10 February 2021

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All the world’s a studio

The song produced by Phil Spector is the pop song as authentic concoction.

It is not emotional or sincere, it does not represent a slice of life, as did its immediate predecessors, the songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It is just genuinely artificial.

We notice its authentic artificiality from the start:  The very first thing we hear is the studio itself.  As soon as the song starts, above all it is the studio performing (as opposed to the band playing or the singer singing).  The orchestra too is a studio orchestra (there are no such orchestras outside the studio).  Multiple layering, reverb, and echo intensify the sense of a closed yet expansive space.

The topic of the song is always desire as affect, not emotion.  There is no subject speaking and there is no singer for the listener to identify with. The topic is desire as an affect that gradually feels embodied while it is enhanced and embellished into a full-bodied love song where rhythm prevails over melody.

This love song gives affect an intense theatricality as the studio turns into a stage.  There is no story telling, no development of a feeling or situation.  There is only a three-minute surge of pure desire into performed (rather than confessed) sentimentalism.

In the Spector studio, a pop song is given a Wagnerian climactic treatment as the music soars toward a choral crescendo, and a Schubertian simple tune explodes into a Mahlerian march.

28 January 2021

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Για την ποιητική και την ποίηση της Ελένης Βακαλό

Το δοκίμιο “Το όνομα και το πράγμα στην ποιητική θεωρία και πράξη της Ελένης Βακαλό” είναι η συμμετοχή μου στο εξαίρετο αφιέρωμα του περιοδικού Χάρτης (15 Ιανουαρίου 2021) στη μεγάλη αυτή μορφή της ελληνικής ποίησης και τέχνης.  Εδώ προτείνω πως, με τον ριζοσπαστικό μοντερνισμό της, η ποίηση της Βακαλό αποδεικνύει έμπρακτα γιατί ο παραδοσιακός μοντερνισμός της ποιητικής της είναι ξεπερασμένος:  “Δεν είναι τυχαίο πως, αν και ήταν επιφανής πνευματική φυσιογνωμία και μέλος πολλών κύκλων δημιουργών, η Βακαλό ώς τώρα παρέμεινε ένα απροσπέλαστο λογοτεχνικό στοίχημα και αίνιγμα. Φίλοι και συνάδελφοι τη λάτρευαν και ταυτόχρονα ομολογούσαν πως δεν την καταλάβαιναν. Δεν βοηθούσε και το ότι η γραφή της ήταν πολύ πιο προχωρημένη από τη θεωρία της. Παράλληλα οι πρωτοποριακές ερμηνευτικές μέθοδοι δεν αναπτύχθηκαν στην Ελλάδα κι έτσι δεν αποκωδικοποίησαν το έργο της. Μόνο πρόσφατα άρχισε να βρίσκει κάποια απήχηση στην ποιητική γενιά του 2000.”

1 Νοεμβρίου 2020

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Panel on “Tragic Conditions” at the 2021 MLA Convention

As the 2020 Chair of the Forum “Classical and Modern” of the Modern Language Association, I was happy to put together at the 2021 convention a virtual roundtable of great scholars with a special interest in tragedy.

MLA Panel no. 524Tragic Conditions, Saturday, 9 January 2021, 5:15 – 6:30 PM

Presider:  Vassilis Lambropoulos, U of Michigan, Ann ArborSpeakers:  Alexander Beecroft, U of South Carolina, Columbia; Joshua Billings, Princeton U; Blair G. Hoxby, Stanford U; Sarah Nooter, U of Chicago

Short description:  The question of what kind of work may be deemed tragic has been complicated by new criteria mobilized for the term’s definition and evaluation.  In addition to theatrical and moral criteria, scholars have been considering identity, affect, corporeality, and materiality, among others.  Participants discuss conditions conducive to the appearance of tragedy, conditions qualifying as tragic enough for the stage, conditions required for the genre of tragedy, and conditions considered tragic.

Long description:  Following a half-century of attacks on tragedy by writers from Walter Benjamin to George Steiner, a broad intellectual and artistic consensus emerged that tragedy is not dead, and does not need to be.  In fact, producing canonical tragedies, discovering forgotten ones, and making new works has become so widespread around the world that the genre has never been so popular since antiquity.  At the same time, research into the genealogy of “the tragic” has identified its origins in German Idealism.  While some sociologists and political theorists continue to work with this notion, literary and cultural studies have focused instead on the conditions of tragedy itself.  This roundtable will address concerns about the requirements of tragedy, the qualities that legitimize and validate it.As figures like Oedipus, Medea, Lear, and Nora travel across languages, arts, media, genres, and identities, critics and artists continue to use tragic tropes while at the same time renegotiating tragic limits.  As conventions like the chorus, modalities like ritual, and techniques like catharsis are invoked and refunctioned, the tragic space is reoccupied by forces that seek their own efficacy.  This roundtable will explore conditions that, at different times and situations, foster and facilitate the creative distribution of tragedy in particular cultures.

Participants may consider the following questions:

  1. Are there any historical, cultural, ideological and other conditions, usually codified as a period of crisis, that facilitate tragedy? Is tragedy a particularly productive artistic engagement for transitional times?

  2. Are there any literary and stage conventions and techniques that are important, even indispensable, for the function of tragedy? Is there a minimum of requirements for a tragic genre?

  3. Are there any rules that a play or other work needs to follow in order to work as tragedy?  Is there a poetics of tragedy, like those that writers for centuries have tried to devise?

  4. Does tragedy have its own critical vocabulary?  For example, is the Aristotelian, French neoclassical, or Brechtian terminology useful for a contemporary engagement with tragedy?

  5. Are there any tragic conditions in life that drama needs to take into account? Is it worth positing a certain equivalence between tragedy in life and in art at a particular historical period or irruption?

  6. Is there a necessary connection between tragedy and classicism?  Is tragedy required to draw on classical periods (e. g., antiquity), themes (e. g., tyranny), virtues (e. g., valor), and values (e. g., aura)?

My contribution

My project combines literary analysis, performance study, and political theory.

When there is a tyrannical abuse of power, a transgression/excess of rule by self-aggrandizement, we have a crisis of sovereignty and collapse of its foundations.  Revolution rises to challenge the legitimacy of sovereignty.  I study this political work of the revolution by analyzing the inherent contradictions of the exception and self-authorization when the extraordinary rebellion of constituent power seeks to inaugurate a radical beginning and constitute a new order.

I focus on the antinomies of civic autonomy, on the fact that freedom must be self-policed.  I treat the fundamental Idealist antinomy between freedom and necessity as the antinomy of arche as beginning and rule, revolution and institution, constituent and constituted, authorization & authority, stasis (the people) & state (government), polemos & polis.  I am especially interested in ways of limiting/controlling autonomy.

Foucault (Security) says that classical theater from Shakespeare to Racine is basically organized around the coup d’ Etat.  I propose that, starting with Romanticism, theater is organized around the revolution.

Modern theater stages the antinomies of civic autonomy as a tragic agon, the tragedy of revolutionary governance.  It dramatizes moments of extreme dilemmas/irreconcilable contradictions of legitimacy as contestation intrinsic to the revolution.

Modern theater is rich in historical and imaginary figures and events pertaining to revolution, such as kings like Philip II of Spain, emperors like Boris Godunov, presidents like Kazantzakis’ Capodistria and Cesaire’s Lumumba (Season in the Congo), revolutionaries like Marat and Toussaint Louverture, militants (Brecht’s Measures Taken, Müller’s Mission, Negri’s Swarm), terrorists (Camus’ The Just), outlaws (Schiller’s Robbers, Wordsworth’s Borderers), uprisings (Hauptmann’s Weavers, Grass’ Plebeians rehearse the uprising).

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