Learning from the listening skills of composers

When we discuss musical classical works that draw on other classical works we focus on allusions, references, quotes, paraphrases, parodies and the like, trying to see how new compositions revise and appropriate earlier ones.  However, I have been thinking that such inventive treatments are also the record of inventive listening.  Thus, we can listen to them to discover how composers listen to their predecessors, and we can learn from these creative receptions different listening skills.  For example, we may listen to several appropriations of Paganini’s 24th caprice in order to understand not modes of composition but composers’ techniques of listening which in turn may affect our own listening.

Three recent first recordings of new pieces drawing on Beethoven sent me back to two earlier similar pieces, and together made me think about techniques of listening to Beethoven.  If I were to learn from each one of these pieces, how would my classical listening be affected?

Raptus:  The Freedom of Beethoven (2019) by the German Enjott Schneider (1950) is a ten-minute orchestral piece in two parts depicting, first, Beethoven’s struggle for freedom, and then, his humble thanksgiving.  It uses numerous familiar quotes and dramatizes them by making them emerge in dynamic, self-affirming ways which reward the listener’s ability to recognize them.  It encourages a traditional hearing that seeks the composer, recognizes his endeavors, and honors his suffering.  So long as listeners admire a great artist’s fight for his “freedom,” they do not even need to know his music.  The quotes can do their own celebratory work.

Absolute Jest (2012) by the America John Adams (1947) is a twenty-five-minute concerto for amplified string quartet and orchestra which the composer originally was going to name after David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996).  It is a single movement scherzo that quotes numerous scherzi from Beethoven’s late quartets as well as symphonies and piano sonatas.  The quotes are not itemized and emphasized in their uniqueness but integrated in a higher synthesis, a symphonic monument to Beethoven.  As they revel in a universe lovingly composed with motivic gems and cells, towering toward a self-congratulatory crescendo, listeners are encouraged to admire, in “jest” as well as awe, the contrapuntal supremacy of the composer’s powerful yet playful world.

Con brio (2008) by the German Jörg Widmann (1973) is a twelve-minute concert overture that contains no exact Beethoven quotations but sounds like variations on fake quotes from the 7th and 8th symphonies.  It playfully challenges listeners to identify quotes they think they just heard or they are about to hear though actual quotes never materialize.  It sounds more like a survey of the ways in which composers from Mahler to Varèse to Widmann himself listened to Beethoven.  It certainly works as a deconstruction, not of Beethoven’s work but of the classical tradition, and, like any effective deconstruction, it ends up affirming its object.  Listeners are encouraged to recover this tradition, understand its codes, admire its operations, and receive it as its worthy inheritors.

Nine in One – You Really Can Listen to Beethoven (2018) by the Austrian Wolfgang Mitterer (1958) is a fifty-six-minute mash-up consisting of all the themes from all the Beethoven symphonies with running electronic commentary.  The composer took a 2006 recording of the symphonies and fragmented it through splicing, sequencing, looping and the like.  The mix & blend floats on an electronic space in a rather paratactic way.  Rather than a synthesis of some kind, this is a catalogue of samples of equal promise and availability from which anybody can draw for their own mash-up purposes, musical or other.  Listeners are encouraged to salvage and repurpose their own arbitrary choices from the detritus produced by the decomposition of classical organic forms.

Ludwig van:  Hommage à Beethoven (1969) by the Argentinian Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) is a non-work for any combination of forces lasting a minimum of fifteen minutes.  Its non-score consists of photos of fragments of Beethoven scores pasted over all walls and furniture of the music-room in Bonn’s Beethovenhaus for the purposes of Kagel’s film Ludwig van:  A Report (1969).  Any number/kind of performers play whatever they like, either from the non-score or any other sources.  This random performative activity does not even constitute an avant-garde engagement since it does not criticize anything in particular.  It just attacks what Adorno called the “musealisation” of tradition by demolishing the very conditions of that tradition.  Its nihilistic echoclastic (cf. iconoclastic) frenzy encourages listeners to denounce classical music as idolatry and never engage with it again.

I have commended briefly on these five works in order to illustrate my argument that they each suggest a different technique of classical listening (in this case, to Beethoven).  I did not comment on points of convergence (their shared gestural theatricality) and divergence (attitudes to canonical interpretation).  Since my blog is dedicated to the listening arts and skills, I wanted to indicate how our practices of classical listening may be enriched tremendously by learning from the codes and regimens mobilized by musicians who belong in some way to the same guild.  A similar argument can be made about listening energetically to other musical genres as well (pop, jazz, folk) in ways their masters do.  What remains very important to me is to continue meeting my other self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, where music and friendship converge, and learning from listening to him listening with me.

20 April 2020

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