Listening to music as a skill

What if listening to music is a skill, like playing it?  For example, listening to these pieces for ruined pianos arguably requires a skill.

In her book Intelligent Virtue (2012), philosopher Julia Annas, an authority in Greek ethics, draws on “the skill analogy” in Plato’s early Socratic dialogues to propose that virtues are analogous to practical skills, such as playing the piano, that need to be cultivated by regular exercise self-directed by “the drive to aspire,” the aspiration to do better through a greater understanding and command of the particular activity in which we are engaged.  We learn practical skills, be they piano playing or virtue applying, by practicing them.

To Annas, what makes virtue “intelligent” is that, to acquire skills, we need to comprehend what their techniques require, what their experts do with them, and how we can direct ourselves to do the same, and better, under diverse circumstances. Ultimately, acquiring and perfecting skills helps us master the art of living.  I suggest that listening to music intelligently (which I have discussed before as a practice and an ascesis of the self) is also such a skill with its own techniques and demands.  As my blog testifies from its very start, I have been fortunate to study and practice listening (and listening to being-with) with a master teacher and performer, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, my musical self.

In this particular post, I am including five examples of piano pieces which put extreme demands on the listener and require musical skills analogous, though not equal, to those of the performer.  In the first example (above), trying to salvage music from the ruins of the classical tradition (to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms), Ross Boleter improvises on smashed-up pianos found in the Australian outback.  In the next example, another improvisation drives an untuned piano on the back of a truck around a busy metropolis until the instrument is ruined.

In Ustvolskaya’s Sonata No. 6, the performer bashes out violently hyper-dissonant cluster chords.

In De Profundis, for “speaking pianist,” Rzewski incorporates an abridged setting of Oscar Wilde’s letter from Reading Gaol.

Last, in the demonic Klavierstück XIII, “Lucifer’s Dream,” Stockhausen asks the pianist to give a total performance treating the piano as a total instrument.  What would be a total listening experience of this piece?

25 May 2018

Posted in Classical Music, Piano, Listening

Mahler’s melancholic marches

While attending recently a performance of Mahler’s 6th, and comparing the driving march that launches the opening Allegro energico to the heroic march launching the Finale (here 51:10), I started going through the composer’s symphonies until I suddenly realized that this genre appears in every single one of them!

There is no Mahler symphony without at least one march!  Solemn, sarcastic, sepulchral, or sardonic, marches intone the composer’s steps toward success and salvation.  Yet these marches sound so striking and so different that, until now, I had not noticed how common they are in his symphonies and the rest of his work.

I now realize that the march was an ideal vehicle for the deconstructive uses of tradition that Mahler practiced with such virtuosity.  Whether in his native garrison town or in fin-de-siècle Vienna, that “city of paradoxes,” this genre exalted the local and national rituals of an empire in decline which would dissolve just seven years after the composer’s death in 1911.  Everything around him was escaping from the rigid disciplinary march into some liberal variation of it.  Mahler would take its commanding ceremonial music, reconfigure its beat, deform its regularity, and put it to unpredictable uses steeped in reverential parody, prefiguring the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Looking back at post-World War I Austro-Modernism, Marjorie Perloff writes eloquently about the combination of diagnostic nostalgia and retrospective irony that permeates the depiction of the three von Trotta generations in the novel Radetzky March (1932) by Joseph Roth, an admirer of the Habsburg dynasty and its Catholicism.  Yet the authentic soundtrack of this and other nostalgic novels, like Sándor Márai’s Embers (1942), is the Mahlerian marches that preceded the fall of the empire.  Cruel or emotional, desperate or triumphant, they break apart an entire cultural tradition to expose its brutality and artificiality, and do it with wrenching respect and affection for it.

In every other symphonic movement, Mahler’s marches mimic and mock the melancholy of monumental might long before the empire was gone.  I can now hear their echo in our rigorous footsteps as Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, and I pace in the Ringstrasse.

10 April 2019

Posted in Classical Music, Culture, Melancholy | Tagged

“Παίζουμε ένα ποίημα;”/4: Μάριος Χατζηπροκοπίου: “Των γυναικών του Κωνσταντή” (πουστιά και ποίηση)

Εδώ συζητώ έναν “πούστικο θρήνο” που δείχνει ότι “η ταυτότητα φύλου είναι θέμα όχι σταθερής ουσίας  αλλά επιτελεστικής διαδικασίας.  Πουστιά, καθώς και ποίηση, είναι ζήτημα περφόρμανς.”  

Below (first 32′) is an English-language lecture-performance at Brunel University in London by Dr. Marios Chatziprokopiou which, like his poem I discuss above in Greek, is part of his intermedial project of queering the national archive of Greek laments.

1 Απριλίου 2019

Posted in Greek Poetry, Greeks, Hellenism, Melancholy, The Arts | Tagged ,

“The Agonism between Democracy and Sovereignty as the Form of the Political”

My review of the challenging book Stasis before the State:  Nine Theses on Agonistic Democracy (2018) by Dimitris Vardoulakis in the journal of political and social theory Stasis.  I have discussed issues of stasis and agonism in “The Rule of Justice” (1995) and “Justice and Good Governance” (1997), among others.

March 28, 2019


Posted in Uncategorized

The decline of intellectual debates

Reading recently about the Löwith-Blumenberg debate made me think of the dramatic decline of the public intellectual debate as a cultural exercise and terrain.

Since at least La querelle des Anciens et des Modernes and The Battle of the Books, debates over cultural issues had been relatively common and popular.  Limiting myself to the 20thcentury, I can think (in no apparent order) of Freud-Jung, Heidegger-Cassirer, Bohr-Einstein, Sartre-Camus, Greenberg-Rosenberg, Kelsen-Schmitt, Arendt-Scholem, Castoriadis-Lefort, Nabokov-Wilson, McCarthy-Hellman, Baldwin-Malcolm X, Furet-Nolte, Poulantzas-Miliband, Steblin-Solomon, Naipaul-Theroux, Kerman-Lowinski, Foucault-Chomsky, and Derrida-Searle. This century, however, the practice seems to have disappeared.  Intellectual disagreement still happens but it is civil, conciliatory, and separatist (with both parties going the way of their tribe), not agonistic, divisive, and polemical (with parties pursuing victory and acclaim).

Many possible reasons for this rapid decline come to mind:  The role position of the eminent intellectual has disappeared.  There are no longer fora facilitating antagonism.  The rules of the competition game have changed. Audiences are no longer interested in achieving the self-worth or sense of community that taking sides promised. In terms of cultural capital, the stakes are low.  Lines of difference are drawn across identity, not ideology, and as a result toleration prevails over confrontation.  Everybody acknowledges that debates are not conducted but staged, like the last duel scene in Sergio Leone’s last spaghetti western, where Nobody became the name of Telemachus.

Not that I miss those old debates and their duelists.  But I find it interesting that today even the most visible, controversial, and feisty academic and cultural figures cannot generate a major debate in any public sphere.  The pursuit of inclusion has made agonism illegitimate.

10 March 2019

Posted in Culture

Werther’s lyric performance of a bardic self

The devastating aria “Pourquoi me réveiller?” in Massenet’s drame lyrique Werther (1892) portrays a poet (Werther) singing the poem of a poet (Ossian) singing (in a contest of poets).

But things are even more complicated.  “Within the opera and without, the poem is the fruit of numerous translations, ever since it was first attributed to a dwindling oral tradition” (Jason R. D’Aoust:  The Lied d’Ossian in Massenet’s Werther,” Journal of Musicological Research 36:1, 2017, p. 33).

The night before writing the third section of his last letter to his best friend Wilhelm, Werther visits his beloved Lotte, who is married to another friend.  They used to play music and sing together.  Will they ever live again such a moment?  She asks him to read to her from his translation of the medieval Gaelic elegiac Ossian, the poet who has replaced in his heart the ancient Greek heroic Homer.

In Goethe’s epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), at that meeting Werther reads to Lotte from four “elegiac songs sung years ago as part of a contest among bards, Ossian himself among them.  Here in ‘Songs of Selma’ Ossian sings about a gathering of poets and quotes and coordinates the songs which they sang as part of a contest” (Kathryn Edmunds: “’der Gesang soll deinen Namen erhalten’:  Ossian, Werther and Texts of/for Mourning,” Goethe Yearbook 8, 1996, 51).  These are songs of death and bereavement that Ossian learned from earlier singers, active participants in a bardic tradition and its annual celebrations.  “The songs that Werther reads are nothing but an enclosure of voices within voices, each voice recalling and rehearsing the death of voice” (David E. Wellbery:  “Morphisms of the Phantasmatic Body, in Kelly & von Mücke, eds.:  Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, 1994, 208).

In the fourth song, from the “Berrathon” poem, Werther reads lines which in the original were spoken to the gale by a beautiful flower about to wilt, lines recited by Ossian and foreshadowing his own death.  Thus in the novel Wilhelm, the editor & narrator, is quoting Werther’s letter which is quoting his recitation to Lotte where he quoted a flower quoted in a bardic song quoted by Ossian, who was invented by Macpherson, as translated by Goethe. “The intertextual reading of Werther’s Lied d’Ossian highlights the sonorous palimpsest of the aria” (D’Aoust, 54).

Young, highly sensitive, a reader, a poet, a hypochondriac, a neurotic, a melancholic, an onanist, a pantheist, a Romantic (he has been called all that, and much more), Werther is totally absorbed by his self-fashioning, specifically, his becoming a poet in literature.  “Werther is in love with the idea of becoming ‘Werther’” (Edmunds, 45), a literary hero, “the figure whose letters are read as literature (belles lettres) and whose story or fate is to be told to others (as with the warrior poets in the Song of Ossian or with Jesus in the Gospels)” (47).

In Massenet’s aria, the novelistic Werther, who has been worrying about his worth (German wert/value) and has made “frustrated attempts to become his name” (Robyn L. Schiffman: “Werther and the Epistolary Novel,” European Romantic Review 19:4, 2008, 435), can finally claim the worth promised by his name by singing in front of his beloved a bardic song, one that old poets used to sing in their contests.  By performing Ossian’s flower song, he can compete for her respect and win the contest with his inadequate self, becoming “Werther” in Lotte’s eyes.  The performativity of the aria is so effective, its artificiality so “natural,” that we the opera audience feel that it is the young poet speaking and not a flower, and through it an entire Romantic intertextual tradition.

The three repetitions of the opening question Pourquoi (with its vocal challenges for the tenor) are not pondering an answer but affirming that Werther can indeed sing the way bards used to, that he too can perform a bardic self and become the stuff of legend and literature.  When this tremendous Act III recital still does not earn him Lotte (who loves him but remains faithful to her husband), he decides to stage the ultimate last-act performance, his suicide.

Sometimes I think I am my other self’s Wilhelm, the close friend to whom Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis is always writing passionate letters about love, nature, and art.

20 November 2016

Posted in Classical Music, Literature, Melancholy | Tagged , ,

Heroic civic friendship

It comes as a surprise to see an entire act of Gluck’s Iphigenia in Tauris (1779) devoted to the magnanimous dispute between Orestes and Pylades about who is more committed to their friendship.

While the plot is hardly advanced, we watch a glorious sequence where the closest of friends try to save each other’s life by offering themselves for the ritual sacrifice ordered by the tyrannical King Thoas of Tauris and the cruel gods.  It takes Act III of this tragédie lyrique to determine that Pylades will be spared.  The scene, culminating in the duet Et tu prétends encore que tu m’aimes (and closing with Pylades’ aria “Amitié, divinité des grandes âmes”) dramatizes the ethical and affective bonds of civic friendship as a shared pursuit of freedom and virtue through resistance to both tyranny and divine wrath.

These bonds may be mapped on the basis of the fundamental symmetry of Roman amicitia/friendship as described by Edith Hall in her discussion of the very same scene in an ancient work, a lost tragedy by Marcus Pacuvius praised by Cicero.  Both parties needed to be of the same age group, life experiences, status, and loyalty. “Friends competed to show that they were superior in the performance of amicitia, both to their friends and also to the wider public in order to win political advantage” (Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris, 2013, 100-1).

“Who Killed Gluck?” asks Simon Goldhill in an admiring paper.  Why the decline of his reputation in much of the 20thcentury?  Goldhill’s first culprit is the Hoffmannsthal/Strauss Elektra, circa1910, which made Gluck “taken up as the icon of the most traditional view of Hellenism, the repository of the purity, chastity, and the safety of the white, Hellenic ideal” (in Brown & Ograjenšek, Ancient Drama in Music for the Modern Stage, 2010, 235).  His more historically informed response is that “Gluck is killed and revived at different significant junctures of opera’s love affair with the ancient world” (238).  To those two answers I would add that Gluck was also killed by the exhaustion of a particular mode of civic friendship, the heroic one that prevailed from the Romans of Cicero’s time to those of the pre-revolutionary Enlightenment.  Soon after the premiere of Gluck’s second Iphigenia, the heroic citizen friend was replaced by a different mode of friendship, that of the rebel friend.

Yet, friendships with a strong public/civic dimension in our world make my Orestes, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, and me believe that practices of fraternity continue to endure long after the Enlightenment faded away.

17 January 2017

Posted in Classical Music, Friends, Revolt | Tagged ,