How a Wagnerian performance distributes the sensible and controls access to it

This is an attempt to think the performance of Richard Wagner’s operas in terms of Rancière’s aesthetics.

According to Jacques Rancière, the distribution of the sensible is “a generally implicit law that defines the forms of partaking by first defining the modes of [sense] perception in which they are inscribed.  The partition of the sensible is the dividing-up of the world and of people, the nemein upon which the nomoi of the community are founded” (Dissensus 2010, 36).  The partition divides up the world by defining modes of perception, and then divides up the people by defining forms of partaking.

Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (The Politics of Aesthetics [2000] 12).  The common/le commun is “what makes or produces a community” (102-3).  Distribution refers to forms of inclusion and exclusion.  A distribution of the sensible “establishes something common that is shared” and a community of those who share it. 

“This apportionment of parts and positions is based on a distribution of spaces, times, and forms of activity that determines

[1] the very manner in which something in common lends itself to participation and

[2] in what way various individuals have a part in this distribution” (12). 

[1] “The distribution of the sensible produces a system of self-evident facts of perception based on the set horizons and modalities of what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made, or done” (85).  It is “a distribution of what is visible and what not, of what can be heard and what cannot” (Dissensus 36).

[2] “The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed” (12).

Erik M. Vogt draws on Rancière to discuss the ways in which Richard Wagner negotiates, both in his writings and his operas, the borders between the arts as well as the promise of an aesthetic revolution in art and life: “Do not Wagner’s music dramas, as impure genres that confound and blur modernist separations and oppositions, exemplify the kinds of redistributions that characterise Rancière’s aesthetic regime?  Are they not also expressions of the problematisation of the modernist separation between the arts, between art and non-art, between art and life? [] For Wagner’s critique of traditional opera not only brings to light the hierarchical relation operative between opera’s internal principles of form and construction, but it also examines this relation in its analogy to societal hierarchy” (“On Shoemakers and Related Matters:  Rancière and Badiou on Richard Wagner,” in Cachopo, Nickleson, and Stove, eds.:  Rancière and Music, 2020, 320-21). 

The total artwork or the artwork of the future, writes Vogt, “is presented as the medium and site of the sublation of the divided aesthetic and social existence of the human being in capitalist society” (321).  It “expresses the indistinctness of art and social life. [It] demarcates the specific and isolated space of aesthetic experience, and at the same time posits this as the promise of a common space that would no longer articulate any differentiation into specific spheres of experience” (322).  “In sum, the Wagnerian theatre serves the purpose of the restoration of the communal essence or as ‘assembly or ceremony of the community’ [Rancière]:  a ceremony in which the audience transcends its position as mere passive spectator and enters directly into the theatrical ceremony to find its proper place in the community” (323).

I am willing to accept that this vision of direct democracy is the internal “aesthetic metapolitics” of Wagner’s Meistersinger (1867).  However, if we consider his operas from the perspective of their cultural operation, we see a very different picture.  Thinking in terms of the distribution of the sensible, specifically, the “implicit law” determining what is common to the community of the audience and who can have a share of it, we notice that operatic listeners are a very special community whose inclusion is limited, and membership controlled.  In fact, throughout his career, from Dresden to Bayreuth, both in his writings and operas, Wagner had a tremendous sense of the distribution of the sensible, thinking deeply about the apportionment of the parts of drama and the positions of the listeners.  Performances of his total artworks remain consummate manifestations of the kinds of total distribution that characterize the modern “aesthetic regime.”  The performance of a Wagnerian opera divides up modes of operatic perception and forms of audience partaking, establishing a highly structured system of sensibility and a community of initiates who are part of it.  This community of aesthetic education and practice is select and exclusive.

10 March 2023

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“H ελληνική ποίηση του 21ου αιώνα – από την εξουσία στην παρρησία”

Η ελληνική ποίηση του 21ου αιώνα, η οποία δεν ενδιαφέρεται να εξουσιάσει συμπεριφορές ούτε να ελέγξει το πολιτιστικό χρηματιστήριο, δρα με επιτελεστικούς και ριζωματικούς τρόπους στα διάκενα και τα περιθώρια του κυρίαρχου λόγου.  Συνομιλεί ενεργά με την κριτική θεωρία, το αχειραγώγητο φύλο, την αναρχία, τη νομαδικότητα, την μετα-αποικία και τον παγκόσμιο νότο αμφισβητώντας με παρρησία την αλήθεια, την μεταφυσική, την κανονικότητα και την ορθότητα”.

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How Schubert listened to the brook’s lullaby

Franz Schubert’s lieder do not sound like poems set to music.  They sound like actualizations of musical settings.  It is as if the composer cast in notation the inner musicality of these pieces which, to his mind, were already written as verbal compositions.  The piano part too sounds as if it emerges from a deeper layer of poetic structure rather than an addition to the poem.  Schubert could do that fluently some 600 times in the 31 years of his life because, when looking at verses, he was not reading words but hearing chords.  In turn, when exploring his songs, we are listening to works that each time emerge as total and leave us wordless.

The miller:

“My dear beloved mill stream

So wise and so true 

But do you know what love does?

It tears you in two

Your waters can soothe me

So cool, so deep

So hold me and enfold me 

And sing me to sleep

Yes, hold me and enfold me 

And sing me to sleep.”

23 February 2023

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Piano paraphrase

What is a piano paraphrase?  Part of its seductive fluidity is that it is not a transcription (faithful rewriting), an arrangement, a piano reduction, a fantasy, a souvenir, or reminiscences yet it may contain elements of all of them.

Furthermore, it is not a survey (of sections in chronological sequence), a summary, or a medley of popular sections of a large-scale work.

It is a seemingly improvisatory (no variations or fugue), virtuosic, and agonistic homage to an earlier work.  It praises it while seeking to exhibit its own superiority.  It showcases it while undermining its uniqueness.  It venerates it while domesticating it.

Operatic paraphrases (and comparable fantasies and reminiscences) are especially fascinating since they often have something wildly … operatic about them.  Flamboyant, melodramatic, adventurous, histrionic, they flaunt their grandiosity and turn their performer into a protagonist. The performer “dramatizes his struggle to release the composer’s sacred message from the cage of the piano.  He thus seizes upon the instability of transcription and folds it into his general concert practice, which constantly stages dramas whose telos is to entice, squeeze or force ‘spirit’ out of the mechanical piano, or release expressivity from material boundedness” (Dana Gooley: “Liszt and the noisiness of pianistic mediation,” Musiktheorie 25: 3, 2010, p. 240).

As a splendid example, here is Liszt’s Paraphrase de concert on Verdi’s Trovatore, S. 433 (1859), which takes on the Act IV Leonora-Manrico duet and the orchestra and the chorus singing the Miserere.

Franz Liszt wrote some 150 piano arrangements of different kinds based on composers from Bach to Wagner.  “Opera paraphrases were an integral part of Liszt’s musical personality” (Charles Suttoni: “Opera Paraphrases,” in Ben Arnold, ed.:  The Liszt Companion, 2002, p. 179).  He composed some 50 opera paraphrases and fantasies throughout his career (1824-1882).  “The operas he paraphrased were almost all contemporary works by living composers.  Typically he wrote these pieces within a few years, if not within months, of an opera’s premiere” (180).

Opera paraphrases were very popular and “dominated the concert stage for much of the nineteenth century in an age when pianists of the day performed the music of their own time.  That was only as it should be.  Opera ruled the lyric stage. [] Pianists were quick to capitalize on opera’s popularity, and that appeal, coupled with the instrument’s improvements in mechanical action and sonority, fed to ever more ingenious elaboration of operatic material.  Virtually every concert program from about 1830 to 1860 included opera fantasies, with each pianist usually writing his or her own, and it was these pieces, not the piano works of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, or even Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, that provided the standard concert fare of the period” (179).

The question of cultural context is also very interesting. “In 1800 the instruments and ensembles that constitute musical media – organ, wind band, choir, solo voice, orchestra, etc. – are tied to specific audiences, social contexts, rituals and technical practices that are differentiated and heterogeneous to one another” (Gooley 228). In sharp contrast, in the piano paraphrase, the original socio-spatial context is drastically reconfigured as the earlier piece (say, an opera like Trovatore) is transferred from its original instrumentation, typical venue, standard occasion, assigned time, and audience community (Matthew Gelbart: “Layered Genres and the Development of Modern Listening,” in his Musical Genre and Romantic Ideology:  Belonging in the Age of Originality, 2022).

Offering return and repetition through recomposition, a paraphrase elaborates a critical commentary on the earlier work, affirming its place in the canon as it deconstructs it, subverting its apparent artistic unity and exposing its internal (musical as well as cultural) assumptions.

26 January 2023

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Participatory listening

I call “participatory” the creative listening where we are invited to contribute actively to our musical experience as opposed to sit back and absorb it.  In participatory listening we are expected to play an energetic role in the creation of the actual music work.

My favorite classical genre of participatory listening is the piano paraphrase, which was invented by Franz Liszt and remained popular in the concert hall between 1830s-1930s.  It is commonly associated with composers Thalberg, Gottschalk, Tausig, Busoni, Godowsky, Sorabji, Stevenson, and Finnissy, and with pianists Horowitz, Cherkassky, Bolet, Wild, and Hamelin.  Composers still produce paraphrases based either on other composers (Timo Andes on Brian Eno) or on their own work (Thomas Adès).

Here is a representative and popular example, Liszt’s “Grande Paraphrase de Concert sur le Rigoletto de Verdi”, S. 434 (1859).

To fully engage with this spectacular piece our approach needs the following qualities:

We need to be open to an experience resembling a lecture recital, since the paraphrase analyzes critically an earlier work.

We need adequate familiarity with that earlier work (in this case, Verdi’s opera).

We need to listen in a compensatory manner that makes up for missing or distorted parts: “an act of mental supplementation on the part of the listener is required” to make the piano version equivalent to the earlier one (Dana Gooley: “Liszt and the noisiness of pianistic mediation,” Musiktheorie 25: 3, 2010, p. 225).

We need to be ready to luxuriate in a recollection that both relishes and revises.

We need to enjoy the socio-cultural intimacy of this refined experience, destined for a select audience.

We need to have a broad and deep command of the classical canon since the work may participate in diverse games within it.

In the case of this particular Liszt paraphrase, when we activate these and similar qualities in participatory listening, we discover what a dramatic revision of the famous quartet this is.  Of the four personages, Liszt reduces drastically Rigoletto, absorbs Gilda into Maddalena, and concentrates mainly on the latter’s tryst the Duke.  Verdi’s four singers, with their very different attitudes, are transformed into a lovers’ passionate and happy duet, a paraphrase suggesting that father Rigoletto and daughter Gilda should be seen as lovers too.

Before Liszt, things worked differently. “Transcribers of the previous generation … were content to transcribe literally, transferring notes from the original score to the piano score … in what we might call a ‘transcription of the letter.’ [] Liszt established a new paradigm, a ‘transcription of spirit’ where the composer’s idea is privileged above the notes of the original score” (224).  “The Lisztian transcriber possesses artistic insight and practices a form of hermeneutics:  he looks beyond the signs of the score to discover the true and deep meanings beyond them” (230). Furthermore, a mutually constitutive relationship develops between piano paraphrase and the concept of the work as manifestation of absolute music.  “The emergent concept of the musical ‘work’ … divorces musical essence from all contingencies of media and event. [] the work is fundamentally an Idea, a mental representation that exceeds its manifestations in signs” (230). Thus a paraphrase does not reduce or betray the work but, on the contrary, aspires to capture its ethereal essence.

I can listen to paraphrases for hours because they energize me as a classical listener and inspire me to come up with my own participatory contributions to music making.  While in collaborative listening (two friends listening to each other’s listening) I am invigorated by the presence of my “other self,” in participatory listening I am stimulated by the tantalizing absence of an original work. It is an anachronistic askesis in Romantic aesthetics that also makes me wonder why we have relatively few poetry transcriptions.

25 January 2023

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Φάνης Παπαγεωργίου: “Ποίηση και κοινωνική πραγματικότητα: η καθοριστικότητα του βιώματος”

“Η εμπειρία των ματαιώσεων, των διαψεύσεων, της κρίσης, της όξυνσης και της ύφεσης των κοινωνικοταξικών αγώνων διαπερνά το ποιητικό πεδίο και τα καλλιτεχνικά υποκείμενα.” Ο ποιητής, δοκιμιογράφος και πανεπιστημιακός Φάνης Παπαγεωργίου συζητά πολυπρισματικά τη σχέση του σύγχρονου λογοτέχνη με την κοινωνική πραγματικότητα, και συνομιλεί δυναμικά με τη θεωρία μου για την «αριστερή μελαγχολία» της νέας ποίησης του αιώνα μας.  Ο διάλογος με τιμά.

19 Ιανουαρίου 2023

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“Ανοίγοντας τη συζήτηση για τις εθνικές αρχαιολογίες”

Ο ομότιμος καθηγητής Κλασικής και Συγκριτικής Φιλολογίας Βασίλης Λαμπρόπουλος έθεσε το ερώτημα: «Πώς μπορεί ένα έθνος κράτος να είναι ανεξάρτητο όταν ορίζει και υπερασπίζει την ελευθερία του με αποικιακά μέσα; Αν δεν μπορούμε να υπερβούμε την αντινομία της αυτονομίας, οδηγούμαστε σε μια τραγική ελευθερία, και έτσι η αντινομία της ισραηλινής και ελληνικής ανεξαρτησίας οδηγούν σε μια τραγική κρυπτοαποικιοκρατία. Δηλαδή κάνουν τις δύο χώρες ένδοξα ελεύθερες, όντας αποικίες του δυτικού φαντασιακού» (Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών, 17 Ιανουαρίου 2023). 

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Τι ήταν ο ελληνισμός πριν γίνει έθνος και ο συγγραφέας πριν γίνει Έλληνας;

Την ερχόμενη εβδομάδα παρουσιάζονται στην Αθήνα δύο σημαντικά καινούργια βιβλία που συζητούν τον ρόλο της ελληνικής λογοτεχνίας, επιστήμης και τέχνης στο πέρασμα από την αυτοκρατορία στο έθνος, την φυλή, την κλασικότητα και την αποικιοκρατία στις αρχές του 19ου αιώνα. Τιμή μου να συμμετέχω στις δύο εκδηλώσεις.

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My lecture on “The tragedy of autonomy in the modern theater of liberation”

As soon as the post-colonial state was established, it fell short of its egalitarian aspirations as it limited domestic dissent, punished political opposition, and faced secessionist challenges that led to civil wars.  During the 1960s, while politicians and intellectuals confronted the dilemmas of governance, several authors wrote major plays to dramatize the antinomies of autonomy.  Long before the “tragedy of colonial enlightenment” was theorized, it appeared on the stage, placed in the era of the Haitian Revolution by Edouard Glissant, Derek Walcott,  Lorraine Hansberry, Aimé Cesaire, Langston Hughes, C.L.R. James, Hénock Trouillot, and others. This was the topic of my hour-long talk in the series “Politics of Liberation” at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Athens, Thursday, October 27, 2022, at 7pm. 

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Postcolonial tragedy in the 1960s

When George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy was published in 1961, it was meant to complete a fifty-year Messianic project and bury Greek tragedy for good.  The project originated in the period around the First World War when German-speaking Jews (Freud, Cohen, Simmel, Lukács, Mannheim, Scheler, Rosenzweig, Shestov, Bloch, Benjamin, Cassirer, and later Arendt, Weil, and Goldmann) often negotiated their cultural orientation by questioning tragic thought and theater.  However, instead of dying, tragedy in the 1960s found new life in several parts of the globe in terms of both translations/productions and original works. 

A particularly interesting example was the interest in a tragic Haiti during that decade.  The failure of postcolonial self-determination that started in the 1960s was dramatized in tragedies of autonomy that focused paradigmatically on Haiti, such as Monsieur Toussaint (1961) by Edouard Glissant, Toussaint (1961) by Lorraine Hansberry, Drums and Colors (1961) by Derek Walcott, La Tragedia del Rey Christophe (1961) by Enrique Buenaventura, The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963) by Aimé Césaire, Les Briseurs de chaînes (1961) by Claude Vixamar, Emperor of Haiti (1963, final version) by Langston Hughes, Boukman, ou Le rejeté des enfers (1963) by René Philoctète, and The Black Jakobins (1967, revision of the 1936 play Toussaint Louverture) by C. L. R. James.

By the time Raymond Williams’s Modern Tragedy was published in 1966, there had been an entire constellation of works exploring postcolonial tragedy.  To the Haitian plays above we may add other plays such as The Screens (1961) by Jean Genet, 1865 Ballad for a Revolution (1965) by Sylvia Wynter, and Kongi’s Harvest (1966) by Wole Soyinka; novels such as Explosion in a Cathedral (1962) by Alejo Carpenter; poems such as Rights of Passage (1967) by Edward Kamau Brathwaite; and major studies such as The Wretched of the Earth (1961) by Frantz Fanon and The Black Jakobins (1963, revised edition) by C.L.R. James.

As Jeremy Matthew Glick put it: “Tragedy as the literary form par excellence for staging the dialectic of freedom and necessity is configured theoretically from a Black radical position as the interplay between democracy, self-determination, and revolution” (The Black Radical Tragic:  Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution, 2016, p. 3).

10 September 2022

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