Is serialism a classicism?

Why would classical art bring to mind twelve-tone composition? Writing to friends after a six-day, two-concert visit to London in May 1933, Anton Webern exclaimed: “I also saw the Parthenon Frieze! I stood there for an hour and a half. It’s an indescribable miracle.   The conception! It is the exact counterpart of our method of composition: always the same thing appearing in a thousand forms. Overwhelming. Comparable too with Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue'” (Polnauer, ed.: Letters, 1967, 20). Was he thinking of his musical grammar as a form of classicism? Might his be a classical “method of composition” that appealed to Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism and attracted him to Webern’s music?

May 20, 2016

Posted in Classical Music, Hellenism

Launching my research website “The Tragedy of Revolution”

This week I have published (that is, opened to general access) my research project, which runs parallel to this blog. It is a website/book-in-progress called The Tragedy of Revolution: Revolution as Hubris in Modern Tragedy.

This scholarly project explores the self-destruction of revolution as depicted in modern drama by analyzing a major scene in thirty political tragedies, from the 18th to the 21st century.  The website frames the analysis of plays with additional material curated from current events and debates relevant to the tragedy revolution.

Since the launch of this blog three years ago, I have been raising often questions of radical politics, with an emphasis on autonomist disengagement, and I will continue doing so. In addition, I plan to work contrapuntally on my blog and my site in order to keep them in regular dialogue and resonance.

December 26, 2017



Posted in Uncategorized

Three years of blogging about listening to music and poetry

Trifonov walks swiftly on the stage, bows to us, his audience, sits down, touches the piano … and Pantelis starts to play: I can hear immediately his distinct touch on the keys.

This is how our friendship works.  Today, 3 years since the day I made this blog public, I recall one of my other self’s firm promises: “Every time I play in public, I will see you in the front row, and every time you attend a live piano performance, you will hear me play.” This has been one way for friends to promise each other to a shared future, and my blog remains part of our reciprocal commitment with Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis.

December 25, 2017

Posted in Attunement, Friends, Listening

Friends promise each other to a shared future

Creative friends are both celebrating one another in everything they share and working toward the growth of their friendship. They work like two pianists devising contrapuntally variations on great themes of mutual interest.

Friends join forces to maintain and strengthen their solidarity as they prepare for their next shared exploration. They contemplate the evening moon and plot their activist future, like the two comrades in my favorite Friedrich painting, or like Walter Benjamin and Christoph Friedrich Heinle who, as college students in Freiburg and Berlin in 1913-14, played prominent roles in the Youth Culture Movement. With its reference to the moon, sonnet 14, one of the 73 “Heinle sonnets” that Benjamin wrote to mourn (in the Freudian sense) the death by suicide of his dear friend, reminds me of the crescent in the painting as the night sends the sleepless poet her light which “turns its ray on his true worlds/No other light will bloom upon his threshold/Memory his moon and his comrade” (Benjamin: Sonnets, trans. Carl Skoggard, 2015, 115).

Collaborative friendships like that of Benjamin and Heinel were very common at the time, as a reviewer pointed out last month: “German culture has a history of lifting creative friendships into an ideal. The Classicist and Romantic periods come to mind as high points, featuring as they did a whole parade of vaunted relationships: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, Henriette Herz and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and many more. But the modernist moment, too, saw a programmatic elevation of friendship, this time in the spirit of setting oneself apart from the ethos of bourgeois individualism and conventional family values. The circle of friends around Franz Kafka and Max Brod in Prague, the coffeehouse groupings in Vienna, ties formed in artists’ colonies and youth movements, Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin in Berlin: these connections and dynamics are staple topics when talking of German modernist culture” (Paul Reitter, TLS, Nov. 3, 2017, 27). These observations apply not just to Germany but to other modern cultures as well where friendship became a collaborative life-long Bildung of two or more individuals of any gender and age.

Collaborative friendship is future oriented as it works toward shared creative ideals. As “a real person, and not an unrealizable theoretical figure” the friend in it “is an actual person in a specific moment” (Fritch et al., 2016, 162). By working together, such friends “prefigure the world to be built” (163) and, like the virtues they embody, are “in need of cultivation” (163). Fittingly, a new dictionary of keywords for radicals has an entry on the “Friend,” which argues that the radical friend “harks back to the original friend (the heroic figure existing beyond the dominant patterns and relationships that order contemporary life) while defining the basis of friendship as a shared political commitment to a different world” (163). This seems to be what Benjamin and Heinle shared during the terribly short time they spent together contemplating and plotting.

Friends are even more important when their ideals die or do not materialize. As the Invisible Committee suggests, at a time when the revolution has not come, they are our comrades at the insurrection. “We do not command a movement, we do not belong to mass parties, the ruling classes do not tremble at out utterances, we are without an institutional base — still, we will always have our friends” (165). Together we can persevere in making plans and promises.

Drawing on Derrida, philosopher Linnell Secomb advocates “for thinking friendship not as an established and definable type of intimacy, benevolence, and/or love, but as a future-oriented process or enactment — a promise and performance of possibility” (“Performing Friendship,” in Christian Hite, ed.: Derrida and Queer Theory, 2017, 235). Friendship “is always the promise in the future of friendship; the promise that – in reiterating its heritage – friendship will be performatively transformed from a canonical, fraternal friendship into an incommensurable, strange, haunting friendship-to-come… [] Friendship becomes friendship through the citation and re-iteration of a history that is, with each enactment, ‘enriched,’ transforming and reinventing ‘friendship.’ Thus friendship is always renewed. Thus friendship is promised” (249). Pantelis and I have promised ourselves to it.

December 12, 2017

Posted in Collaboration, Friends | Tagged

Contemplating and plotting

My favorite painting of male friendship is the heavenly second version of Caspar David Friedrich’s Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819 and ca. 1830) which illustrates both my blog and my Facebook page.

The painting depicts two friends, seen from the back, pausing in their evening walk through a forest in late autumn, and looking at the floating moon and the evening star.  Writing about its different interpretations I highlighted the political one, which notes that [quoting an earlier post] “from the outset of the French Revolution, clothing was a principal way in which people showed their political affiliations. The two men in Friedrich’s painting wear medieval Old German attire that had been adopted in 1815 by members of the Jena Student Association. Radical students and other intellectuals opposed post-Napoleonic ultra-conservativism represented by the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) and its chair, Austrian statesman Prince Metternich. However, in 1819 repressive decrees placed universities under surveillance, banned all student associations, and declared this kind of dress illegal because it was considered the “demagogues’ uniform.” Friedrich ignored the law and used in his paintings the Old German dress until his death. He alluded to this political choice when he told visitors to his studio that the two men were “plotting demagogic unrest.”’

If the two friends and comrades are plotting unrest in the evening, what is their political activity during the day?  If associations are banned and universities are under surveillance, how do the two comrades operate?  I have found a splendid answer in a recent post by the “filokritos” Eric Ball which offers a complementary political interpretation to a contemporary musical work, Schubert’s Impromptu op. 90, no. 2 (1827), composed in the years between the two versions of the Friedrich painting.

Ball (Professor of Humanities and Arts at SUNY’s Empire State College) was inspired by a bold paper by Susan McClary where, after a musicological analysis of the piece, she ventured into narrative speculation to suggest that Schubert’s piece shares a pessimistic trajectory similar to that of a famous tale by H. C. Andersen.  Treating “music as fiction,” Ball offers his own narrative for the Impromptu, one that fits perfectly well with the political interpretation of the painting that I favor [here heavily edited]:  ‘It is Schubert’s dramatization of how some of the most “gifted” individuals of a people who are suffering under the yoke of tyrants pass secret messages to one another out in the open (so as not to risk being caught red-handed in the dark by the tyrants’ spies). The specific message that is being dramatized as being passed around might be this: That sometimes a subjugated people manages to find a little move that it can make that appears innocuous, innocent, and legal—i.e., one that flies under the radar of the tyrants—but carries within it the potential to set in motion the toppling of the self-satisfied tyrants.’

I would like to think that, in their at-tunement/Stimmung to one another and to the evening mood/Stimmung enveloping them, the two friends in Friedrich’s painting are plotting how to pass next morning “secret, subversive, liberatory messages out in the open via music” (Ball) which may sound quite like Schubert’s piano Impromptu.  I shall tell pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” next time we take one of our evening walks, contemplating the crescent moon and making plans to work together next morning.

September 18, 2017

Posted in Uncategorized

Beyond resistance and resilience

Minutes after burning the manuscript of his drama so that he and his freezing bohemian friends can keep warm, poet Rodolfo meets Mimi, a sick embroiderer of flowers, and introduces himself: “What do I do? I write. And how do I live? I live.”

In her provocative book Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism (Zero Books, 2015), philosopher of music Robin James argues forcefully that, instead of working as oppositional endurance and defiance, resilience serves neoliberal biopolitics (181): “Resilience is one technique for producing the ‘life’ or the ‘bio’ in biopolitics. It takes potentially deadly or debilitating damage and recycles it into new, stronger, better life, both for the resilient individual, and, more importantly, for the groups and societies to which that individual belongs. Resilience is a positive feedback loop” which has been “co-opted so that it’s a normalizing rather than a critical, counter-hegemonic practice” (167). It is a discourse that recycles “damage into more resources” (7), “noise into signal” (165). It does not renew, it re-authorizes in the name of sustenance.

Here there is a lesson to learn from the remains of resistance: “As many theorists have noted, traditional concepts and practices of ‘resistance’ have been so successfully co-opted by neoliberal hegemonies that they no longer have any counter-hegemonic punch. If you can’t ‘resist’ neoliberalism, what do you do? How can you critique or subvert the power over life?” (23) Since we are all resilient now, subversion may come only from the inside: “For those of us tasked with the labor of resilience, the question is this: how do we turn resilience against itself?” (181)

To pursue this, James mobilizes the distinction between mourning and melancholy: “Resilience is the contemporary update of mourning. … In this context, melancholia is not the failure to resolve a lack but a misfired resilience, the failure to bounce back enough and/or in the right direction” (19). In contrast to the success of resistance, which is so often appropriated, the failure to regain biopolitical strength is useless to co-opt since it’s good for nothing. “Melancholy isn’t opposed to or outside resilience. … [It] is not the rejection or refusal of resilience… Melancholic behaviors are ones that are judged to be insufficiently resilient” (20). They ignore health guidelines and warnings. Instead of overcoming damage, they wallow in it. “Instead of intensifying and investing in life, melancholics go into the death” (18). “If hegemony compels us to live, what sorts of counter-hegemonic potential is there in going into the death?” (25) Melancholy is “a method of going into the death” (20) of the medicalized biopolitical population (21) by underperforming in the economy of normality.

“So instead of producing dysfunction, as accelerationism does, melancholy produces suboptimal functionality, functionality that just doesn’t feel like it’s profitable enough” (20). “Melancholic subversion” deconstructs resilience by making “bad investments” (21) in unprofitable enterprises.

While searching in the dark with Mimi for the key to her room, Rodolfo finds her “cold little hand.” Ignoring every sense of resilience, he spends four melancholic acts trying to warm it up and “going into the death.”

November 19, 2017

Posted in Disengagement, Melancholy, Resistance

Modes of reading

The more familiar a piece of music, the more I am fascinated by the interpretive claims made on it by the musicologist, the performer, the listener, the recording engineer, the advertiser, the anthologist and many others involved in its circulation.

Within literary studies the conversation continues about the credibility of various kinds of reading such as (to use current terms) the surface reading, the close reading, the distant, the philological, the hermeneutic, the symptomatic, the reparative, the paranoid, the affirmative, the cognitive, and others. It would be interesting to test some of these approaches by using them to read scores in musical analysis.

For example, I can imagine readings of Rachmaninoff’s iconic 18th Paganini variation based on the original manuscript (philological), structure (close), cultural origins (symptomatic), recording history (distant), or neurophysiological reception (cognitive).  Furthermore, on the level of actualization, a performer may give the piece a surface (Lang) or a hermeneutic (Trifonov) reading. On the occasion of reception, a listener may give it a (life-celebrating) affirmative or (affect-restoring) reparative reading. Thus I can see the scholar, the musician, and the concertgoer drawing on this broad repertoire of readings to mobilize different approaches to classical pieces.

This is the subject of endless discussions with Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” who faces every day these as well as additional reading possibilities as a collaborative pianist and pedagogue. Our discussions often circle back to the literary domain to speculate about what the study and teaching of literature might learn from the practices of musical performance, specifically, what a performative reading and master class teaching of literature would entail.

November 3, 2017

Posted in Classical Music, Literature