Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Morning Wreckage

I cannot just charge my cell phone; it must be coaxed. The slightest spatial disruption of the connection, a feather-light brush of the cord with my elbow, for instance, will destroy a tenuous symbiosis and cost me another 10 minutes of pleading and cursing. Occasionally it will say "Unable To Charge." Which I find curious, even peevish. To display this message, or any message at all, it must have noticed it was plugged in, which is to say, it has detected the presence of power; but it refuses to acquiesce. Of what does this inability consist? Is the battery not in the right mood? At these moments the cell phone is like nothing more than a reluctant lover; we have a problematic, codependent relationship; it refuses sex (charging) when it feels neglected, perhaps, or when it needs attention of a different kind. Sometimes I am feeling callous; I say: "Go ahead, don't charge, I don't need you!" And I storm off half-happily. But the phone (I kid you not) holds a grudge. It has enormous patience and power of will, sitting there by the socket. And I grow needy, talk-hungry. The lower I allow the battery to ebb, the more difficult the eventual charging (i.e. make-up sex); the more time I must eventually lavish: a week's worth of roses, dinners out, abject apologies; and finally, perhaps, according to whim, and not according to any logical sequence of events, or any model of circuitry one can imagine, I connect things just right, I hit the phone's magic spot, the battery icon begins blinking and the renewal can commence. And then, when the phone says "Charge Complete," we are in the midsummer of our love, and I pick it up and tear it free from its cords carelessly, and talk like no tomorrow; and the cycle of degradation begins again. No I don't see any similarities to any other areas of my life, what are you talking about????

In a completely unrelated development, I had bought a CD alarm clock some time ago which I rhapsodized here, but for a long time now the CD slot in it has yawned empty while I yawned awake to sterile, unimaginative beeping. This morning I realized, as I awoke at 6:45 AM... the sunniest moment by some devilish chance in my apartment ... that music was a void (among others) that needed to be filled and I shook off my flannel duvet and stumbled over my ironing board towards my laptop/jukebox and put on "Rufus Wainwright," the debut album of Rufus Wainwright. Particularly I wanted to hear a couple harmonies in the song "Sally Ann," the harmonies for the line:

You realize you've been there before.

There is a little minor key Schubertian inflection in there that seems to me totally top-notch, especially combined with the country-western crooning of the whole. I put it on repeat, and standing there in my underwear in the wreckage of my bedroom I realized I was very very happy, even in the morning. I declined to analyze the various reasons. But it definitely had something to do with that sad, beautiful harmony. And the harmony kept running through my head while my faulty Starbucks cup dripped scalding French Roast onto my hand in the subway, while I clung for dear life to the nearest pole, and the train lurched spastically, and I gymnastically revolved--drippingly--to allow everyone their circuitous, irritable routes into the sardine can labelled #2. A little circle of spots on the floor of the train ephemerally marked my place, and I licked brown caffeine from my aching tingling fingers. Still, I was happy. Even amid the commuter chaos of Penn Station, that one bittersweet harmony seemed triumphant. The QuikTrak machine did not pose an obstacle either, it spit out my ticket obediently. It was only when I came to order my bagel that a serious problem arose, thus:

Me: "Poppy bagel."
Europan Employee: [harshly] "No poppy."
Me: "OK, onion bagel."
[10 second pause]
Europan Employee [Even more harshly] "No poppy."
Me: [Screaming] "OK, onion bagel, toasted, with cream cheese."
[10 second pause]
Europan Employee: "Yes we have onion."
[9 second pause]
Europan Employee: "Toasted?"
Me: "Yes, with cream cheese."
[Employee slices bagel; various other employees and customers intervene; orders fly overhead; chaotic commuters everywhere; I am at the intersection of a thousand journeys; I notice the employee is spreading cream cheese on an untoasted onion bagel.]
Me: "Umm, i wanted it toasted."
Europan Employee: [Smug, wronged.] "Well, you should have told me."

Happiness is an evanescent thing. I lost it, but recovered some while contemplating a hypothetical Arts Section headline: "Pianist arrested for assault with untoasted bagel." Or perhaps in NY Post: "Pianist testy over toasting."

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Transition States

Friend C wants to be made King. Take note: he does not want to BE King, or act in a Kingly way, or possess or deserve any of the trappings or temptations of power. He wants to live perpetually in the state of being inaugurated; in other words, so that the party never ends. Impossibly prolonged: the adventure and delight of being lifted into a new state. Perhaps party boy should read these harrowing lines of Horace, which left me breathless on the number 2 train en route to Brooklyn:

To Lydia

It happens less and less often, now, that you
Wake up to hear the sound of gravel thrown
Against your shuttered windows in the night.
It's very seldom, now, that you can't sleep
The whole night through. There used to be a time
The hinges of the door to your house moved ever so
Easily back and forth. Not anymore.
It's very seldom, Lydia, now, that you
Can hear a lover out in the dark complain:
"O Lydia, Lydia, why are you sound asleep
While all night long I suffer in the alley?"
You're going to have your turn out there alone,
Old crone in the nighttime alley weeping, weeping
Over your faithless boyfriends while the North Wind
Coming down from the Thracian cold blows ever
Louder and louder through the dark of the moon,
And ulcerating lust such as the lust
That tortures the mare in heat tortures your heart.
Out there in the night you'll moan that all the young men
Prefer the lustrous ivy and lustrous myrtle
To the withered leaves that winter's companion the cold
Wind causes to scatter and scrape along the alley.

Is it not eloquent enough just to say "wow"? In this poem, the party is definitely about to be over. I cannot judge the translation (David Ferry) on its faithfulness to the Latin, sadly, but the wham-bam of the poem comes through, like a knife in the heart. Whatever Lydia did, she probably didn't deserve this black, black ode; she probably doesn't deserve to suffer the ingenious, Hellish, dual tortures of convulsing like "mare in heat" and shivering under the cold, bitter, desiccating wind. Poets can really be jerks when they want to be. People looking for truly mean things to send their exes need look no further; a better bitterness is not to be found.

Speaking of bitterness: I recently played Winterreise and had some curious qualms, after the fact. I was blearily watching the news in my hotel room, the morning after the performance, and some newscaster was interviewing a woman who lost her son on 9/11, about the discovery of bone fragments on top of the Deutsche Bank building adjoining Ground Zero. Her voice modulated into a well-worn "sensitive mode;" it dripped as she commiserated: "I know this must have been such a hard week for you." They glanced at each other, cued mournful glances. The televised sympathy made me feel ill. She was a stranger to them, sympathizing with their loss in front of millions of strangers.

Maybe because the first word of Winterreise is "Fremd" (roughly translated: "stranger") I made the uncomfortable connection... Something about that song cycle is so dark and personal that perhaps it should not be observed, made public; it is at times almost obscene. Randall and I were not playing for charity; we made money off the emotional spectacle. What is the difference between our public, reimbursed display of sympathy via Schubert, our exploitation of those dark emotions, and the newscasters' televised, simulated grief? I could not easily dismiss the question.

Normally, I steer clear of discussions of the ethics of music; they bore me to tears. I wanted however to be able to say with a clean conscience, quickly and unambiguously, that something about the intrinsic beauty of the music (some innate, intangible quality) makes performing Winterreise morally "better" than exploiting 9/11 emotions for the willing camera. This seems to be a commonsense truism (but watch out for those); probably many people would agree with this statement, in a general way; and why did I feel uncomfortable with it? The vague intangible felt like a copout, perhaps. How can a classical music concert be an "immoral" act? (I have heard performances, pieces, I considered immoral, at times.) Sometimes I do feel "bad" while playing Winterreise; sometimes I feel bad in the sense of approaching the emotional states of the song cycle (which is pretty damn bad, i.e. suicidal); and sometimes it feels like I have to pretend in order to get there; and between my pretending and the sacredness of the music there is an unpleasant rift. Bad either way: a lose-lose situation. So why do I love the piece so much?

So many of the songs of the cycle begin with rather typical premises, situations, or metaphors drawn from nature--really just clichés of Romantic verse--and then these premises and images have to be "explained" as parallels to the narrator's own experience. For instance: the stream which once ran quickly (in the summer) is now frozen stiff. Love (which once was) is now frozen, sterile, stopped. Yawn. Or, in another song, a leaf hangs on the tree; we watch it, and it falls to its death, like the hope of the lover. Yawn again. There are 24 songs, 24 situations, 24 descriptions: an exhausting array of metaphors for the lover's misery. There is nothing to love about this, per se. What redeems these clichés? I'd suggest the answer to this question is linked to the ethical question I posed earlier. It seems to me that these descriptions, these constantly posed premises, are all fakes, all facades; they are merely the refuge of the narrator, his only defense. Schubert obligingly text-paints these premises; we hear the dogs bark, the stream freeze, the leaf fall; but his real business lays far beyond landscaping, far beyond the too-easy metaphor, and resides instead in the destruction of these metaphorical premises, and in the creation of a musical counter-meaning (a musical insurgency): i.e., that the verbal metaphors are just flood-gates: comforting and distancing scraps of meaning and narrative which hold back impossible rushes of emotion.

From the first song, even: the narrator is attempting to "tell a story," "set the scene," etc. etc. He is very nearly whining. "I used to be happy. I was almost married. Then she left me, and now life sucks, and it's fucking cold." (I hold the rights to this rather loose, contemporary translation.) Schubert's music obligingly walks in a minor key with the narrator; the verse structure sets forth the various facets of the textual description, allows the various complaints to be enumerated and articulated; allows, in short, the story to be told. No, let me put it another way: Schubert's setting allows the narrator to pretend he is telling the story.

But in the final stanza of the poem, Schubert noticed not just the obvious, the more tender tone, but a more subtle and crucial change, a slight shift of the terms of the perennially rewritten contract: Who is telling this story? The famous shift to the major for this final verse, a Schubert cliché (once again he dips into the familiar barrel of tricks for yet another miracle trick), necessitates some reharmonizations, some new interpolated leading tones (E#, G#). These leading tones are uncannily beautiful, and soften the march-steps of the narrator. Who is operating behind the scenes to make this happen, to make the voice-leading work? The composer, of course; some ulterior force. These notes call attention to themselves, and to the narrator beyond the narrator.

Schubert is drawing a distinction between the "gute Nacht" of the previous (minor-key) stanza, which is a brave renouncing farewell, in the mode of a story which is already over, in which distance is already at work, in which the frame of the narration is clear; and the "gute Nacht" of the next (major-key) stanza, which is hopelessly cowardly, impossibly involved, ambiguously told, the frame shifted, in which the Narrator is at war with himself. If he would like to put everything in the past tense ("in the good old days"), the music tells us we are very much in the present tense (you are living now, whether you like it or not); the narrator is a character in his own story; he is not telling the story, the story is telling him. The major key tells us the narrator is false; the perspective he has been adopting, the story he has been narrating, is a sham; and this new "happier" sound world is no comfort. It is, rather, the erosion of refuge, the destruction of metaphorical or narrative shelter, and the intrusion of the vulnerable self: the dangerous, unstable moment where the tenderness emerges from beneath the facade.

The narrator promised a story of a certain type; but now, all bets are off. What is the nature of the story we are about to be told? We have no clue. If everything is over, Mr. Speaker, why is the cycle just beginning? These lies and contradictions are laid bare by the beauty of the music.

Some of the songs of Winterreise are content to remain in abstract realms of rhetoric; they allow the pessimistic metaphors of the narrator simply to stand and exist, as morals, or islands of thought in the story. (But this cycle is not a "story" in anything like the conventional sense; it has no plot; it is entirely a matter of wandering through forests of associated meanings; a story in search of a story.) The song about the will-of-the-wisp is a good example of one of these rhetorical, static gestures. It has a moral, like a fable. Its moral is the metaphor of the "Irrlicht;" everything is elusive, changing, ephemeral: everything is nothing. There is no perspective shift in this song, no moment in which its facade erodes; its irony and pessimism stand unchallenged, knowing, miserable: a song about shiftiness paradoxically uttered from a stable point-of-view.

These songs provide a welcome contrast to the more devastating songs in the cycle, the more centrally shifting and dangerous songs (i.e. not just "about" shifting, but "enacting" shifts), which attempt to evoke not just emotional states or ideas but the vulnerable moments of transition between different states: unbearable breakdowns.

"Im Dorfe" begins (as usual) with the narrator setting a scene: nighttime, barking dogs, rattling their chains; everyone is asleep. Hello, Romantic cliché: the lonely lover awake, attentive, miserable, while happy others slumber. This would be boring; but Schubert's musical agenda is totally elsewhere. In place of a minor-key nocturnal scene, something plainly reflecting darkness--something conforming to the cliché--Schubert's setting is disquieting, worse than one could imagine. He provides a tenuous major key world with minor-key inflections that appear and get washed away... an eerie harmonic half-light. The major-key chords grind uneasily against the rattling/barking motive in the left hand of the piano. And then there are the silences; each bark is answered by two beats of nothing. These silences force the harmonies to leap over them, in long, intense, suspenseful arcs. The voice makes no effort to bark like a dog, but simply poses the endlessness of some imagined, hypothetical phrase against the halting quality of the motive. I call this phrase hypothetical because it creates no melody per se; there is only the motive, and the changing underlying harmonies (like the first Prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier); no reassuring, predictable melodic contour to absorb meaning, to serve as a cipher, to distract from the "scene": no melodic refuge (melody as persona) for the narrator: only these barking dogs.

The barking of the dogs is clearly a metaphor for menace; but is this menace real? Is the narrator describing a scene, or his own unease? Why, in the night, does he particularly notice these barking dogs and their rattling chains? Clearly, he is externalizing, summoning and noticing these images in order to explain himself to us, under the guise of description. And this ruse continues, as he dwells on the dreams of the sleeping people all around; they were dreaming of all sorts of things ...

And in the morning all will have vanished.
Oh well, they had their share of pleasure
And hope that what they missed
Can be found again on their pillows.

Here the music shifts, the barking ceases, and presumably we enter the world of the dream, a hovering dream on the dominant. (Have we left, or entered, reality?) This musical shift is oddly mistimed, since the dreams happened earlier in the poem; now the text is just commenting, in hindsight. The narrator is pretending to tell us about other people's behavior; he assumes a patronizing attitude towards the foibles of humanity: they who dream of joys that will never come, that always vanish.

The music sees through the lie: it blossoms into incredible tenderness (though without leaving the contingent, temporary dream-world of the dominant), exposing a raw current of desire. It is the most beautiful, stunning moment in the song... and the narrator is stuck there, supposedly telling the cautionary tale of humanity but clearly having his own tale told, against his will. The music is first person though the text is third person. He is stuck between his words and the music, pronged by their contradiction of tone, a contradiction which exposes the narrator's sham, his own attempt to hide behind the facade of metaphor, his facade of a persona. And the reason he hides is made evident by the music: the emotion behind the wall is too unbelievable to contemplate; there is so much desire in the dream, so much longed-for happiness. (There it is, in the suspensions in the piano.) Having spun out this beauty, but without resolution, the dominant-dream fades back into "reality"--a magnificent transition which avoids any sense of ending or beginning---and renewed dog barks... the dream's moment of honesty is held uneasily, only through tremendous reserve, in the structure of the song, like a suspended bubble.

And I think this is what Schubert was after: unbearable, tenuous glimpses of things... of emotions. He manages to crystallize a strange transition-state: the surge of unwilling emotion, in which a horrible, unwanted happiness comes to disturb an accepted despair, a boundary at which reasonable expression is no longer possible. I have only seen this kind of expression on people's faces at truly life-changing moments; and it always makes me want to look away. Schubert brings himself to the image-repertoire of lovesickness with a vengeance, with a terrifying imagination, with cruel, tremendous powers of musical metaphor. In a conventional view, he brings the poems to life, but he does so partly by destroying the clichés upon which they are based, by murdering their inert parts, by exposing the lies and shams of the text. I do not think he is "faithful" to the poems, or "unfaithful;" he does not contradict the poem, but the poem after his treatment is surely not what it was.

On the news, you cannot show the lies and shams of grief. Grief on TV is a glassy thing, which you handle with care in order not to break it open, in order not to offend anyone; and obviously there is no need to "question" the sadness of 9/11 relatives. It exists, so much worse than we imagine or broadcast. Schubert does not handle grief with care; he tosses it around like a child's toy, and if it shatters into 24 songs so much the better. His carelessness is inspiring. Somehow I think this makes it so much more, somehow morally "better" than an exploitation or description of grief; he refuses to let the symbol stand for the thing itself, and he keeps grabbing the thing out from its expression no matter how painful it is. He is there to witness it all, hanging on. destroying grief's facades, freshening our experience even at its worst.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Old Friends

"Certain people, whose minds are prone to mystery, like to believe
that objects retain something of the eyes which have looked at them,
that old buildings and pictures appear to us not as they originally
were but beneath a perceptible veil woven for them over the centuries
by the love and contemplation of millions of admirers. This fantasy,
if you transpose it into the domain of what is for each one of us the
sole reality, the domain of his own sensibility, becomes the truth.
In that sense and in that sense alone (but it is a far more important
one than the other), a thing which we have looked at in the past
brings back to us, if we see it again, not only the eyes with which we
looked at it but all the images with which at the time those eyes were
filled. For things--and among them a book in a red binding--as soon
as we have perceived them are transformed within us into something
immaterial, something of the same nature as all our preoccupations and sensations of that particular time, with which, indissolubly, they blend. A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables
the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were
reading it. And this is why the kind of literature which contents
itself with "describing things," with giving of them merely a
miserable abstract of lines and surfaces, is in fact, though it calls
itself realist, the furthest removed from reality and has more than
any other the effect of saddening and impoverishing us, since it
abruptly severs all communication of our present self both with the
past, the essence of which is preserved in things, and with the
future, in which things incite us to enjoy the essence of the past a
second time. Yet it is precisely this essence that an art worthy of
the name must seek to express; then at least, if it fails, there is a
lesson to be drawn from its impotence (whereas from the successes of
realism there is nothing to be learnt), the lesson that this essence
is, in part, subjective and incommunicable."

... Marcel Proust

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I, Odysseus

"Heidi," I grunted into my cell phone, "do you have what I need?" The breeze was stiff and my mind was scattered. At some point in every day, I realized, I reach a mini-crisis contemplating whether someone will, in the long- or short- term, have something I need.

In this case, classical musicians will know to whom I refer: the indomitable guardianess of Frank Music, on 54th Street. She and I have had a mostly mock antagonism for years, since I first glanced askance at her prices. I remember well the subsequent punishment she doled. They say a butterfly in China can cause a hurricane in Florida; and similarly my slightly raised eyebrow (at a Barenreiter price), perhaps the motion of a half centimeter, precipitated a tremendous verbal, virtual storm: off she went about her pitiable situation, and how she didn't get into this business for money but all she hears about is money money money... and never before or since have I felt like such a miserable, soulless mercenary trampling on music's sacred grove. I begged her forgiveness, of course. She has a magnificent ability to evoke the miseries of her business at a moment's notice, threading, like the great composers, masterful variation on top of limited themes; you feel guilty for even noticing the prices she is charging, for imagining that music could ever be expensive. This is just one of the qualities that makes Heidi a paragon of the True New Yorker, and, along with necessity, keeps me haunting her unadorned abode. The shop also smells wonderfully, like Old Library, like the Performing Arts Library when it used to be temporarily in the wilds of way west 43rd street, in an old school building: like must and mold and books and--dare I say it?--it even smells like having a ruler rapped on your knuckles, like a life lived in fear of headmasters and nuns. Somehow I find this smell and its associations weirdly focusing, even addictive; perhaps subconsciously I get some rush of pleasure from the idea of being forced to study ... there is some element of lovable punishment in visiting Frank Music.

Upon returning from my visit (which Homeric incident could Frank be compared to--the island of the sacred cows? the lotus-eaters? Hades? Circe? The cyclops?) I found myself oddly drawn into another adventure. Usually ascending the stairs from the 96th St. station is a glum, treading affair--with the tiredness of commuters like a prolonged, silent, surrounding sigh--proceeding more or less in a linear, uneventful fashion. I trod. There was a tremendous violence, suddenly. All around me, suitcases were falling down steps, collapsing onto people; girls were squealing and cussing; I heard a flurry of "ganz schlecht" and "scheisse" and other phrases which I'm sure were less reputable, and I realized I was caught in a maelstrom of visiting, beautiful German students, and it seemed strange to me that all this youth and freshness was able to be significantly bummed out, even stymied, by a flight of stairs. They clustered and regrouped like foreign bees unsure of their hive. It was impossible to walk around them; I was caught in their midst, fearing a suitcase at any moment, crashing from steps above; I was in mortal peril from these clueless youth. There was a TOTAL STOPPAGE; I imagined impatient Real New Yorkers from behind, building up pressure as water behind a dam, and hoped I would not be drowned in some melee. The noise and confusion was terrifying; then, somehow, I broke through; I passed the turnstile, homefree, and jogged by the leader of the pack, the Mother Superior of the young Germans, looking up unhappily, assessing the next and final flight. Would her birds survive? The Germans ate my sneakered dust. Whew, I thought, as I passed the shoal of Starbucks, I must head home and lick my psychic wounds. What suitors will I find there, disrupting my happiness?

A giant pile of unlearned music. A sink full of dishes. A table full of mail.

The suitors all need my attention; I cannot slay them without another Odyssey, more perilous than the last. And the object of their wooing, their Penelope, is my attention, which I must give over to them, willingly; I have to pay their many and varied debts.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Brahms the Sicilian

Unless I am running for my train, I find it difficult or impossible to pass through Penn Station without getting a Red Sicilian slice at Rosa's Pizza. It appears to be an unruly sea of roiling tomato sauce barely adhering to a thick chunk of bread, but some cheesy, salty secret lies hidden, baked in the redness. How did the tomato find such luxuriant and wonderful friends, and why are they all in my mouth at the same time? Such touching questions are dismissed in favor of rabid munching.

I would like to think some similar, ineluctable urge caused Schoenberg to abandon tonality. Today we say "it was atonal" glibly: ho-hum. But imagine the excitement of those composers, writing atonally for the first time, as they "felt the air of other planets." After all that overwhelming beautiful history, the recorded human history of writing centered around a tone or tones... to step off and deliberately write music with no pitch center at all! No wonder they got kind of Messianic; it must have been thrilling. Just like the moment, after pouring off half of the grease, when I lift the lumbering red slice to my slavering mouth. Yes, the doctor will frown after your next cholesterol test, and yes you may be condemned now to writing some of the least loved music ever heard, but what of it? According to that crazy cat Anton Webern:

Only when Schoenberg gave expression to the law were larger forms again possible. Adherence to the row is strict, often burdensome--but it is salvation! The dissolution of tonality wasn't our fault--and we did not create the new law ourselves; it forced itself overwhelmingly upon us. The commitment is so powerful that one must consider very carefully before finally entering into it... almost as if one took the decision to marry; a difficult moment! Trust your inspiration! There is no alternative.

If Anton hadn't passed away some time ago, I would seriously have recommended some therapy. Need I enumerate my reasons? 1) Schoenberg (as father figure) giving the law. 2) The law as salvation; am I the only one smelling Kafka here? ("The door was meant only for you, and now I am going to shut it.") 3) The law "forced itself upon them": the law as rapist, as seducer? To be oddly and immediately followed by 4) The law as bride, as lifelong romantic committment? Umm, perhaps I prefer the law of Law & Order. But finally, the voice of reason: "Trust your inspiration! There is no alternative." This, at least, I can agree with.

If indeed the idea of composing without a dominating single tone was a unbelievable thrill, comparable to the arrival of the 40-cent Triple Chocolate Brownie cookie at my local Starbucks (which I now order in satisfying, cute clumps of 4), I had managed to take it for granted, or subjugate it as merely a relic of Music History Survey Class--with all its associations of furtive caresses in library carrels and listening booths--and today, perhaps in karmic retribution for this neglect, I felt completely incapable of convincing a group of Bard students of this thrill, which I glimpsed ... But perhaps I was more disquieted at being unable to communicate the power of the fragments of nineteenth-century tonality they left behind... For example, in Schoenberg's Op. 19, #6, this one climactic phrase:

I have to feel sorry for these beautiful, yearning, enigmatic notes, crafted so that you cannot decide between them, and adding atop this ambiguity the rhythmic befuddlement of quarter note triplets, beginning with a tie and resolving into thin air. A "hairpin," headed for a central intense point, fading away, and to what end? A romantic gesture stripped naked, purged of its underlying signifying harmonies, and trying to mean so very much in their absence: being forced to do so: trying to assume the burden of all that meaning. All right little notes, we've coddled you too long, you're on your own now!

Parenthetically, I'm not sure how I feel about sentences with two colons in them.

A similar sense of crisis, I think, but from just the other side of the divide, haunts Brahms Op. 119 #1 (a place which makes you "feel sorry" for Brahms?)... a piece with strikingly beautiful opening bars, in which thirds spread out like tentacles from a single note, connoting triads freely, kaleidoscopically. Each bar is a fragment, listening to the consequences of these roving thirds, offering no resolution, looking for some more definitive continuation. (A letter of Brahms indicates how he wished these bars to be performed--indications which are often ignored, oddly.) These harmonies--9th and 11th chords etc.--are so familiar to us now from jazz and the whole mishmosh of 20th-century "extended" musical language, that perhaps we have an unfortunate tendency to hear them as "pretty sounds." However, I think their power resides in a double meaning, in the play of meanings, a kind of irony: the uneasy coincidence of a discovered sensual beauty with a sense that somehow this is "not right," a betrayal of principles, of the very things that made his music possible in the first place. Brahms suspects his inner sensualist. This beauty is treacherous. This irony is compounded: Brahms' life's work is filled with powerful use of thirds (perhaps more characteristically than any other interval)--as building block of melody and as prime mover in bass; and now this easy movement by thirds erodes the edifice, threatens to take down the tonal structure: Brahms' own style, subjected to introspection and magnification, threatens to destroy itself.

But, as Anton says: "trust your inspiration! there is no alternative." Brahms is forcing himself into this place, confronting the limits of his own language... accepting the collapse of any language.

Unwanted Metaphors

As regular readers know, I am all for metaphors; I love them like I love the sour jelly beans at the bodega on 92nd Street. But sometimes, enough is enough.

"That's where biological psychiatry was then," she told me. "It was about the brain as a bowl of soup. You whip up a chemical, add it and stir"...

Setting aside the bowl-of-soup model did not mean deciding that neurochemicals weren't important. Rather it meant deciding that neurochemistry, and particularly the chemistry dictating how individual neurons communicate with one another, was probably driven by traffic between different brain areas, and that identifying the patterns in that traffic might yield new understanding. (Or, using another metaphor, if the brain is an orchestra, then the neurochemical approach focuses on how well individual players listen and respond to the players adjacent to them; the network approach, like a conductor, focuses on how the orchestra's sections — strings, winds, brass, etc. — coordinate and balance volume and tone. When both are working well, you've got music.)

--David Dobbs, New York Times magazine: "A Depression Switch?"

Need I say more? I certainly don't enjoy thinking of my brain as a giant bowl of soup--though often it behaves that way, kind of splish-splashing around up there--but I certainly prefer the soup model to a symphony orchestra. Imagine the intrigues and infighting, in my own neurons! Imagine how they would kvetch about the chief neurons, behind their backs! And if there are brass players in my brain, I don't want to know about it (sorry, Eric and others, just kidding haha!!!!) Etc. etc. And that last line: "When both are working well, you've got music"? In your dreams, maybe.