Saturday, June 28, 2014

Art that is Heard is Not Like Art that is Seen

   Writing about the New York Philharmonic Biennial, the New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, wrote, “As the title makes obvious, the Philharmonic is emulating the glitzy rites of the contemporary art world, which has no fear of confronting the public with novelties and extremes.  . . . This Biennial fell somewhat short of its models: the programming . . . failed to create the buzz of scandal that seems essential to any successful art fair.”* There are reasons—and not trivial ones—why such a similarity cannot be expected.
   People who are considered to be cultivated tend to be “consumers”—usually in unequal gobs—of the visual arts, frequenting galleries and museums, as well as listeners to music, attending concerts.  This fact, call it a social fact, leads observers of the art scene to make comparisons of the two art forms and of their presentation, as does Mr.  Ross’s comment just quoted.  Yes, of course paintings are seen and symphonies are heard; nevertheless, both Rembrandt and Beethoven are transcendently great artists.
   Of course.  But that fact does not wipe out the profound differences of the two art forms—I would call them ontological differences if that were not a bit pompous—differences that are rooted in the senses by which they are apprehended and hence experienced, that is, in particular, two fundamental differences between hearing and seeing.
   Hearing, to turn to the first dissimilarity, is coercive in the way that seeing is not.  Assuming that a  healthy person, senses intact, is brought into the presence of a painting.  She looks at it, sees it and, after a moment or minutes, she looks away and doesn’t see it any more.  It is her choice as to how long to see it or even whether to see it at all.  Looking is voluntary.  Now think of the same person entering a concert hall or, for that matter, Grand Central Station.  There sounds are emitted, musical ones in the first place, a mixture of noises in the other.  No way can our model listen away.  (Unlike looking away, that’s not even an English expression.)  If need be, she can put her hands on her ears—very uncouth in Carnegie Hall—and would thus shut out the sounds, if not very effectively.  Indeed, one would have to go to some length not to hear at all; hearing is the normal waking state.
   The second fundamental dissimilarity is that hearing takes place in time.  When talking to you, your friend does not convey his meaning at an instant; he tells you what he wants to say one word at a time, getting done in a minute or an hour, depending how much he wants to convey.  Similarly, music is conveyed—via the ears to the brain—in time.  The Minute Waltz takes one minute; Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony lasts about 40 and for the first act of Götterdämmerung you have to sit still for three hours. Most gallery goers will spend that waltz’s length of time on a particular work and only devoted professionals devote as much time to a painting as the duration of the average symphony.
   These two differences between seeing and hearing account for a good deal of the dissimilarity of the reception by the public of modern and contemporary art and music.  You go to a Whitney Biennial and wander around the Breuer building—indeed, for the last time.  You look here, you look there; if you like what you see or find it interesting, you linger, if not, you move on to another display.  If something strikes you as particularly awful, you turn away promptly.  You are of course not in charge of what you will see, but you are very much in charge of what you will look at.
   Music doesn’t work that way.  If indeed it is fortunate that you can look away, concert goers are
not that lucky.  Once they are in the hall, they are stuck.  While the Minute Waltz is by far the
shortest piece one is likely to hear at a concert, they have to sit through and hear whatever is being
played.  There is a German saying, “mit gefangen, mitgehangen”—caught with them, hung with them.  Accordingly, being afraid of what might be dished out, audiences stay away of what they think of as modren music.  Or, worse, they walk out when the suspected piece is about to be performed.  As a mere member of the audience, I was deeply embarrassed, mortified, when Michael Tippet attended a Pittsburgh Symphony concert and watched a significant portion of the audience walk out when his piece was about to be performed. You can look away, but you can’t hear away.
   I am not sympathetic to that, call it conservative, rejection of post-romantic music, but I think I understand it.  And, again, the difference between seeing and hearing is central.  Of course there was fierce criticism—perhaps too mild an expression—when the impressionists and their still more radical successors forever changed the visual arts.  Max Nordau, as I recall, could understand what was going on in his day only by supposing that those new-fangled “impressionist” painters were suffering from defects of their eyes.
   Yes, plenty of vehemence was directed at the various movements that changed painting from, say, Ingres realism to Fauvism and Cubism and points north.  But while there are similarities in the reception of changes of the two art forms, there are significant differences that hang from those fundamental differences between seeing and hearing.   It was surely a very rare hyper-sensitive creature (if there was such a one at all) who was literally pained when gazing, say, at a Braque still life.  The anti-modernists were primarily not complaining about what it felt like to look at those odd paintings.  Rather, they had theories about what paintings should be doing—that is, depict the world in the way it actually looks.  Their objections were cerebral rather than visual.
   On the other hand, the people who walk out of performances of contemporary music are unlikely to have any theories at all about what music should be doing.  They are not objecting to the fact that there was no development section before the second theme was introduced; what they don’t like is the way the so-called music sounds.  Not all that dissonance, please; and give us tunes that we can hum.
   So, da capo.  If these observations about the differences between seeing and hearing are correct, even the bravest Alan Gilberts of this world will need to worry about filling their concert halls and keeping their customers from chasing out, while the managers of the likes of  Whitney Biennials can do their damndest.
* The New Yorker, June 23, 2014, p. 86.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Götz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews? as a Supplement to Elon’s The Pity of It  All

   I just finished reading Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust, a 2011 book now in English by the German historian and journalist, Götz Aly.  (Oh so by the way, Herr Aly was born in 1947 in Heidelberg, exactly twenty years after I was born in the same city by the Neckar.)  His book overlaps significantly with Amos Elon’s 2002 volume, The Pity of It  All, 1743-1933, which I read some years ago and which, to my astonishment, is not included in the extensive Aly bibliography.  I don’t intend to review either book, but will merely give a short account of a couple of light bulbs that went on in my head when reading the Aly essay.
   The title of Elon’s book says a lot.  In spite of persistent anti-Semitism in Germany, the half million or so Jews made a huge amount of progress in that period before the fateful January of 1933.  Restrictions on what they were permitted to do were progressively reduced until, during the Weimar Republic, Jews played leading roles in law, medicine, education—including in the university professoriate—in journalism and various levels of government and civil service (an uncle of mine was a high-up official in the German railway system) and, of course, in banking and business.  I say “of course,” because during the centuries in which Jews were prohibited from owning land and thus prevented from farming; kept out of the guilds and thus incapable of engaging in the crafts: no Hans Kahn as a Jewish version of the Meistersinger:  Schuhmacher und Poet dazu.  That left trade—from lowly peddling to importing and exporting goods of all kinds—and banking; the latter abetted by Christian
restrictions on charging interest.
   With the waning of Christianity-based anti-Semitism that regarded Jews as Christ-killers, much of more recent anti-Semitism is rooted in those “traditional” occupations with Jews seen as money-grubbing, devious, manipulative, conspiratorial, etc.
   The Aly book also gives an account of Jewish successes in Germany during a period that is a bit shorter than that covered by Elon.  A main theme of his, however, is to look at these achievements in comparison with those of non-Jewish Germans.  So he notes, for example, that a striving Jewish father would work hard and scrimp to provide his sons with an education of quality, assuring what today we call “upward mobility” for his offspring.  In that same period, many a non-Jewish father, Aly reports, would scheme to get his son a job in the postal service to assure that the son will receive a pension from the state when he retires.  This, by way of concrete example of the contrast between the Jewish impulses of individual initiative—what today is one meaning of liberalism—and the German desire for protectionism, that is, a brand of statism.
   As background to these kind of examples, the book sketches out a historical account of the disunity and wars of the German Länder and above all most recently, Napoleon’s devastating invasion.  All these developments had a large proportion of Germans living in small towns.  At the same time Jews, many of whom were later arrivals from the East, were concentrated in the larger cities.  
   In support of his aim to depict Jewish ambition and drive, Aly provides, among other examples, statistics that show Jews to be successful as students in significant schools (which he contrasts with the mediocrity of most conventional German schools) and, especially, at the level of the university.  This Jewish participation in education of quality was vastly greater than would be predicted from the size of the Jewish population—shockingly so.  In addition to statistics, the author also provides anecdotal examples of individuals, including some from his own family.  An important conclusion: a weighty ingredient in German anti-Semitism and one that of course remains mostly unexpressed, is envy.
   There is a notable contrast, as well, at the collective level.  Jews, though dispersed around the globe during two millennia and more often persecuted than not, nevertheless have always had a coherent tradition, rooted in significant myths and a history of elders and sages.  They possess, as well, a common language with its own alphabet.  As late as 1870 there was no such entity as a German nation nor was it clear which Teutonic dialect would become the official German language.  Jews have precisely the “deep, meaningful roots that patriotic Germans were forever digging for”—a void that was filled with the invention of the sacred German race.  This disparity between the German and Jewish—call it heritage—was another largely unspoken source of envy.
   Why should this highlighting of Germans’ envy of Jews have a bulb flicker  in my head?  Not because I think it explains why a considerable number of Germans actually engaged in the murdering of Jews.  For that account one might have to go to Daniel Goldhagen’s “eliminationist anti-Semitism,” though I propose to stay away from that controversy.  Rather, I think that envy is a partial explanation for the fact the largest number of Germans simply turned their gaze away from what was happening to their Jewish neighbors.
   While, perhaps, apathy needs no explanation because it is everywhere the normal state, Götz Aly puts forward two further reasons why somewhat later so much of the German citizenry looked the other way.  Many of them profited from the persecution of the Jews.  When Jews were barred from a large number of positions and jobs, those became openings for German gentiles.  When Jewish businesses were closed, competition was shrunk for those who remained.  When Jews began to emigrate, middle class housing became available at bargain prices.  And when, after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the Endlösung of the Jewish question was unleashed, the spoils for German gentiles were multiplied a thousand fold.  Still, universal customs have it that one grabs quietly and does not talk about dubiously gotten gain.
   A further Aly-introduced (at least to me) component in the explanation of the apathy of the greatest portion of the German Volk are practices engaged by Hitler long before 1942.  In order to ensure the purity of the future German race, a two-fold practice was initiated.  Large numbers of German men and women were sterilized to prevent those that were regarded as likely to have “unwanted” offspring from having children. The second practice was more drastic still.  Those adjudged to be physically or mentally unfit were quietly “euthanized.”  That term, too, refers to a medical procedure or to the slaying of animals.  There were probably few Germans who did not know someone who had suffered a loss in one of these ways.
   Why bring up these “procedures,” engaged  long before the Endlösung der Judenfrage was initiated?  Because they contributed significantly to inuring the German population.  Enforced sterilization, a violent incursion into a person’s private life was somehow converted into a necessity for the commonweal  The killing of those regarded as unfit was not murder of human beings, but either a  needed medical procedure or the equivalent of euthanizing a sick animal.  In short, in the minds of ordinary Germans these precedents converted the killing of Jews from the most cruel instances of murder into measures that were drastic but necessary for the future benefit of all.  It’s best to look the other way.

   I’m not a historian, not a historian of Germany nor of the Holocaust; just an occasional reader of material that pertains to me as a Jew born in Germany six years before it became a Nazi state.  For me, Götz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews? has provided me with some new insights.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reviewing New Music
   A number of topics are routinely expected to be found in a review of a concert, whether orchestral or chamber music, while opera criticism calls for a few extra wrinkles that won’t  concern us here.  Since the majority of concerts consist (mostly) of performances of acknowledged masterpieces that have long since been in the repertory plus others widely regarded to be worthy to be performed—and heard!—with no objections expected or only a few.  So, except for a mild aside—such as, “Isn’t Ravel’s Daphnis a bit long?”—the review will mostly be about the nature and quality of the performance of such compositions.  Really negative criticism of works by canonical composers are likely to be limited to odd-ball pieces, such as Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, of which I for one have never heard of a live performance.
   Given that the reviewer’s focus is largely on the character of performances, a critic’s fund of adverbs and adjectives are most valuable, since that set will—only very partially!—overcome the deep chasm between descriptive lingo and the music it proposes to describe.  And interestingly, judging by the New York Times critics, for example, the level of performances must be pretty high, since one seldom reads a truly negative review.  Not surprising, really; the competition at all levels is fierce and it would take a lot of nerve plus either lots of money or influence for a mediocre player or group to show up in Carnegie Hall, playing a less than competent Beethoven violin concerto, say, or a mediocre Mozart viola quintet.
   But then there are concerts of recent or new music, or concerts that include such works.  There are vastly more of these than there used to be, at least in New York if not in the provinces.  When I was a student, you had to go to Columbia University’s Macmillan (now Miller) Theater or to an occasional Town Hall concert to hear music not in the standard repertory.  In the first of these halls I heard a piece by Cage for the first time (in the late 40’s, as I recall it) and in the second I witnessed an unforgettable performance of Schoenberg’s 2nd  string quartet, the soprano Astrid Varnay’s feet firmly planted behind the players of the Kolisch Quartet.
   What about reviews of concerts of new music?  Not long before my day, they could be vehement.  An allegedly distinguished “head of music theory at what would become Julliard” greeted Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata as follows: “I hesitate to call it ‘music,’ for I believe in accurate definition.” While the journal Music & Letters is quoted to have said that “Mr. Ives’ style is sadly familiar here . . . at any rate in households where the baby or the cat has access to the piano.”[1]
  A favorite example of my younger days is the ultimate reviewer’s reductio, perpetrated by Olin Downes, then the reactionary  chief music critic of the  Times.  In a review of a New York Philharmonic concert, conducted by Dimitri Mitropolis, Downes wrote at length about the opening work, Brahms’s First Symphony.  When done with that, just one more sentence (as I remember it):  “After the intermission, Mr. Mitropolis conducted Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony.”  Period.  I was a Times copy-boy for a short time between getting out of the Navy and starting college and frequently carried copy from that great critic.  Luckily it was verboten to speak to the journalists except when needed to do one’s job.
    Things have changed a lot since those days, at least in the non-specialist publications I read.  And they have very much changed for the better.  New music is almost universally greeted with respect, even when it uses hitherto untried techniques of many different kinds.  Many sentences tend to be devoted to descriptions of the works  and when, as is often the case in the many new music venues of New York, there are several new pieces on a program, the critic may often tell the reader which he or she particularly liked, without being negative about the others. 
   This is all a good thing.  Unlike Mr. Downes, most of the reviewers I now read are open to new things and by and large are not judgmental.  I think there is more than one reason for that. 
   To start with, a dollop of music history.  Eduard Hanslick to the contrary notwithstanding, one can regard Wagner as the beginning of the end of a mode of composing—call it late romanticism—rather than a new beginning, though that ending has been lingering on well past the 100th anniversary of  the composer’s death.  But look, by way of contrast, at what happened during the few years—not selected arbitrarily—between 1909 and 1913.  Richard Strauss’s Elektra (by a good bit his most “radical” opera) was first performed at the beginning of that period, while the unruly Uraufführung of the Rite of Spring came at the end of it.  In between saw the composition of Bartok’s first quartet and, as a kind of apotheosis of Wagner’s influence, Mahler’s 9th Symphony.  But that period also greeted the first performance of Daphnes et Cloé and in the same year, that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
   The tradition that the era of Schumann and Brahms (whose last works were written in 1896) had dominated was thus broken up into a number of very disparate styles just a bit over a decade later.  (I am unsure as to how much one should regard Debussy as the forefather of these coming innovations; his Quartet, barely resembling anything that had gone before, is vintage 1893.  As I vaguely recall, Debussy is the first composer discussed in the closing chapter of Paul Henry Lang’s history of music, the chapter entitled “The Decline of the West” followed, if I remember correctly, by a question mark.
   That revolutionary period of the early 20th century, of which I give only a sample, put new ideas, new styles, on the map.  Of course there were not then generally accepted and, as I suggested, to hear music of the newer sort one had to be alert to infrequent appearances and special venues.  But what did change, since the days of Olin Downes and his fellow travelers is that music critics have on the whole embraced the much-increased world of contemporary music concerts in those centers, above all New York, where they are to be found.  There are many more such concerts and many more reviews of them than in decades past.
   All of this is a Good Thing.  But I do have a complaint.  The small selection of critics I do read seem to have tamed their critical impulses.  Description is all; judgment—well, some other time—maybe.  I don’t pine after the days when insulting Charles Ives—without even giving an explanation—seemed to have been acceptable “criticism.”  But I do pine after a day, perhaps seen through rose-colored glasses, when the music to be heard was evaluated by those reporting about it.  Two negative examples, given my own views; let readers will put forward their own examples.  First, John Cage.  Nice man whose mushroom salad I greatly enjoyed when he came to a Carnegie Biennale.  But a good deal of his music, produced via some “intellectual” formula is not very interesting to the ear or even to the mind’s ear—at least not mine.  Prepared piano, Yes. Watching David Tudor’s scrambling was the least of it; what he produced was a new kind of music, interesting music to hear.  But music derived via I Ching, who cares?  The method by which the composer got there is seldom relevant to the experience of a musical work.  We don’t sit in the concert hall, aware of the fact that Beethoven filled many notebooks with tentative scribbles before winding up with a symphony, while Mozart limited his sketching mostly to his chamber music?  Cage’s ingenuity is much prized.  Am I the only one who finds some of his music just plain tedious?  Am I just not getting it? 
   A second example.  I’ve never seen references to Morton Feldman’s music that were not positive, respectful.  I’ve not heard much of what he wrote—and certainly not his 2nd string quartet, over six hours in length.  But what I have heard I have found boring, tempting me to say, Brooklyn 1940’s style, “Get On With It Already Yet.”
   Now, finally, to a mild but heartfelt conclusion to this rambling.  While we don’t need the insulting receptions of the Concord Sonata quoted above—not because of their negativity, but because they are useless, shedding no light on the music; they only tell us what the critic feels, not what he thinks, if anything.  But in an era in which music of many different and ever varying styles is performed, I want to suggest that even the broadest minded critic should have opinions as to what is better and what is worse, of what works and what doesn’t or only barely.  My premise here, as must by now be clear, is that music is indeed fodder for the mind, but it is that mental stimulus that reaches the mind through the ears.

[1] All this Ives wisdom comes from the literate pianist, Jeremy Denk’s review of Stephen Budiansky’s biography of Ives in the New York Review of Books, (6/10 – 7/9/ 2014).

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why Hillary Rodham Clinton Should Not Run for President

Note:  Having a blog is most conducive to spouting off.  The opportunity to be heard, if by limited audience, comes close to inducing opinions that cry out to be expressed.  So it did not take long for me to create a post on foreign affairs--on the strife in the Middle East--and now one on US politics.

   While I voted for Obama, I was nonetheless a fan of Ms. Clinton and still am.  Still, I believe she should not run for president in 2016.  Were she to run and win, she would be over seventy years old when sworn into office.  She would be the oldest person to take on the presidency, even senior to Ronald Reagan who now has the record of being the oldest person at inauguration.  Granted that 70 is the new 62, say, there is virtually no chance that Ms. Clinton, were she to win, could capture a second term, making it highly probable that, if all went well, she would be in the White House for a single term.  Times have changed since genial and wily Reagan was able to age, not all so gracefully, in the Oval Office.
   While the Democrats should know all that, the Republicans surely do.  It is highly probable that the GOP establishment will be firmly in the leadership in 2016.  They know that Tea Partygoers will not elect a president and, whatever happens to the House and Senate this coming November, the powers-that-be will give their party a centrist cast—Republican centrist, to be sure.  For sure they will aim at mainstream voters and not at a right-wing fringe.  Accordingly, Ted Cruz will not be the candidate nor will Rand Paul.  Nor will his ill-tempered corpulence, “Chris” Christie, who should now be looking for a well-paying job for when his second term as New Jersey governor ends.  Nor will it be the thinly-veiled phony, Marco Rubio, who may nevertheless be able to look forward to a lengthy career in the Senate.
   The candidate of the Republicans may well be Jeb Bush (even his mother has withdrawn her reservations), who would be 64 at a January 2017 inauguration, an age that raises no issues at all.  If not Bush, some other Republican governor or former governor, between 45 and 65 years old.  The candidate will be a fresh face on that stage and a new voice and is likely to be someone who will know how to couch the Republican ideology in a more or less populist way.  There will be no talk about  those 47 percent of takers!
   And the fact that the voters will in all likelihood hear a new voice may well constitute an even greater handicap for Hillary Rodham Clinton than her age.  She has been on the national scene since her husband’s first campaign for the presidency.  Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, so, for at least twenty-two years, she has been in the public eye, very visibly for 12 years as First Lady, visibly as Senator from New York, immensely visibly as candidate in a very long primary for the presidency, and by no means invisible as Secretary of State. 
   I have no doubt that Ms. Clinton will have new and worthwhile things to say were she to run again for president, but she cannot change her voice and a visage.  However new her thoughts, her ideas, she will come across as spoken by a voice from the past.  She is unlikely to persuade enough voters that she should be the country’s leader, as the first quarter of the twenty-first century comes to a close.  For all those reasons, I repeat: Hillary Rodham Clinton should not be a candidate for president in 2016, but step down gracefully.

   And I have one more request.  Ms. Clinton should not wait too long to declare that she will not run.  She should be allowed six months of uncertainty about her intentions so as to reap the maximum benefits from her new book.  But no more.  It will take quite a bit of time for alternative Democratic candidates to emerge and to make themselves widely known, before one of them can effectively be chosen.  I will not now speculate as to who these potential candidates might be.  I will merely assert that there needs to be a period of sorting out, so that the next Democratic convention is in the best position to select a candidate who will bring another eight years in the White House to that party.