Saturday, October 08, 2005

Berlioz // Mulvey : Rozen

In the years since its 1830 début at the Paris Conservatoire, a great many critical knives have been brandished over Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and what its purist detractors might characterize as compositional and harmonic weaknesses. As the paradigm has shifted to modernity, however, formalist rules have simultaneously slackened, in a sea change that has rendered contemporary grievances against the piece if not obsolete, then insufferably conservative sounding and dogmatic. And yet, an aesthetic quandary remains: How might one account for the subtle yet indisputable anxiety experienced by the modern listener when subjected to Berlioz’s masterwork? The listener who, blind to the tonal intricacies of classical form, can only rely on the composer’s narrative imprint to steer him through the symphony?

In a restricted amount of space, this brief essay intends to lay out the theoretical groundwork for a more elaborate psychoanalytic assessment of the listener’s grief. Drawing from the discursive models (but not verbatim premises) of heterosexual desire established by Freud in his Three Essays on Sexuality – and later implemented by Laura Mulvey to describe cinematic coding in her "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" – it will identify the Symphony fantastique as a purveyor of sensual confusion and, by extension, a catalyst for a certain unconscious, psychosexual crisis.

For the benefit of the argument, two preliminary relationships must be examined: 1) that of the spectator with any visual representation, and 2) that of the listener with music. Freud asserts “ego libido” as one of the heterosexual male’s attempts to differentiate himself from the female other, an unconscious pleasure instrumental to his sexual maturation. From this, Mulvey extrapolates a masculine dependence on visual codes – that is, men must see sexual disparity in order to rationalize their attraction to women. Citing the symbolic fear of castration Freud had once attributed to all men, she attempts to classify the psychological pleasure they experience at the cinema or before any narrative visual representation, where the spectator’s aggressive gaze serves as a buffering agent against the subjective threat posed by the woman as visual icon. If this account is to be taken seriously, it stands to reason that the visual medium aids the spectator (male or female) in overcoming the psychic threats engendered by the female presence.

Exploring the ways in which a visual narrative might work against such neuroses, Freud recognizes two avenues of escape. Fetishistic scopophilia represents a summation of the viewer’s isolated pleasure in looking at woman. In addition to isolating man from woman, scopophilia is interpreted by Mulvey as a worshipping impulse, a wishful substitution of the female image for the lost phallus. The second, which confers to the male viewer a more voyeuristic role, finds a correlation between visual narrativity and sadism, for as the female image is “investigated” by the viewer, an implicit subtext of guilt is projected onto the female icon. Alluding to classical narrative, Mulvey senses a trend in the masculine spectator’s desire to “ascertain [the female icon’s] guilt, and then subjugate [her] through punishment or forgiveness” – a thematic construct exploited to mixed effect, for instance, by the Romantic movement. Thus, the narrative thread of the story enables the viewer to derive sadistic pleasure from a visually enacted exculpation.

If Mulvey’s interpretation of the visual would seem to endow the heterosexual male viewer with disproportionate primacy over a passive (female) image, perhaps extrapolating sexual meaning from a converse sense would rectify the imbalance. In her article, “Music as a Gendered Discourse,” Susan McClary traces the semiotics of music over several centuries, only to discover a longstanding – though entirely arbitrary – tradition in the West of feminizing aural representation. Predicating her theory on the historical dominance of male musicians during the classical period, McClary blames little more than their arch reactionism (i.e. fear of “seeming effeminate”) for the sexual metaphor. However, she succeeds at problematizing this fallacy by challenging the notion of the aural as a differentiating mechanism similar in function to the visual. In turn, the ramifications of this theoretical shift have paved the way for a modern re-assessment of female representation in music – with the psychoanalytic equivalent to Mulvey’s visual-narrative work still constituting uncharted terrain.

Nevertheless, the implications are clear: Whereas the visual pleasure in narrative cinema suggests the discourse of a determining, masculine gaze on the passive female image, its counterpart, the aural pleasure in narrative music (“symphony” perhaps better completing the analogy), might have just the reverse effect. By McClary’s logic, the aural pleasure to be derived from the symphony would appear to stem from the listener’s passive desire to be differentiated as the external other – or, to put it bluntly, penetrated – by a masculine sound. This gendered interpretation of the symphony–listener dynamic would likely have infuriated Berlioz’s more sensitive contemporaries, many of whom preferred to regard their craft as virile ascendancy over sound, but nearly two centuries later, psychoanalysis would evoke a schism of the senses: a determining eye with no mention of a determining ear.

With the unconscious in mind, it is no wonder that the Symphonie fantastique would present the listener with a confused map of conflicting sexual codes. A narrator in the grand cinematic tradition, Berlioz partitioned his “movie” into five epic, imagistic scenes. His hero (or “alter-ego”), the “young musician of morbid sensibility and ardent imagination,” also serves a perfect ego libido for the spectator, the narratival trope of sexual romanticism (“uneasiness of mind, aimless passion”) yielding numerous opportunities for the viewer’s self-projection. As Mulvey would have it, the feminine icon (his “object of adoration”) is introduced almost immediately in the first movement as an apparition, an idée fixe – for there is no point to the turbulent tale without at least a measure of sadism – and the rest of the plot locks into place.

In a whimsical, waltzing interlude, she appears again, lingering quietly and luring him out of the ballroom and into a third movement. For all its fanciful pedantry, the “Pastoral Scene” imparts little more than Berlioz’s flair for the sentimentalist cliché: Signifying escape into a feminine realm of nature, the oboe/English horn pas-de-deux conjures the vixen's impulse to divert her Werther’s mannish, urbane good sense – if only for a little while – and seduce him between the trees.

But retribution is imminent, for in a fourth scene’s “March to Execution,” he dreams he has killed the strumpet, and – in a final, mordant juxtaposition of D flat and G minor chords – the figurative castration has been ideated. The final curtain, an apotheosis set in hell, can be the only possible dénouement to this grim fable: as the ego libido contemplates the death of its other, a Witches’ Sabbath begins to brew. As the composer choreographs it, “the Beloved Melody enters again, but she has lost her noble modesty and has become a vulgar dance-tune.” Her role, this time assumed by an E flat clarinet understudy and now an unbecoming foil for the Dies Irae, is officially that of the temptress – a stunning validation of the hero’s sexual anxieties.

This would all make for great cinema in the Freudian sense; the signifiers are all in place. What is missing is the spectacle. Even without its mise-en-scène, the work attempts to encourage the passive listener to dominate and “gaze upon” the music as he would a visual narrative. Berlioz’s audience is thereby psychically placed in a very difficult position, at the locus of two divergent discourses, to the discomfiting end that neither can be fully appreciated.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Taking it to Eleven

Loud, hyperbolic, and at times frustrating, the ending of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has provoked a range of responses from critics over the centuries. Where E. T. A. Hoffman heard “bright, blazing flames”, Ludwig Spohr heard only “empty noise”. The luminous imagery of the former interpretation invokes the idea of the Romantic sublime, the contact with the infinite that heroic art, and most especially heroic music, can give the audience. Once can certainly see this in the finale, the booming C chords of which provide a fitting counterweight to the symphony’s famous opening motive. Hoffman’s interpretation of Beethoven operates within the dominant interpretative strategy of his time, Romantic criticism. I emphasize this because the reception of the finale has changed greatly since its premiere as the musical episteme has changed from one age to the next. We listen to music not only vertically—for depth of meaning—but also horizontally, approaching any given work from with a particular interpretative strategy. In this essay, I argue for a listening of Beethoven under the criteria for experiencing the popular music of our time: rock ‘n’ roll.

After the age of Romanticism, the ostentatious ending of the Fifth Symphony became ripe for parody. Eric Satie, himself a symbol of the anti-Romantic French art scene during the turn of the century, parodied the finale’s multiple endings in his 1913 piano piece “Embryons desséchés.”
The light and witty piece ends with a monstrously grand ending of cadences and repetitions of the I chord that take explicit aim at the end of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Though Satie criticizes the Fifth Symphony’s grand finale, he does not do so by joining Spohr and calling it noise devoid of content. Rather, Satie rejects its content just as it was understood by critics like Romantic critics like Hoffman because of his anti-Romantic approach to art.

I cannot help but hear ending of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with the ears of some one raised in the age of rock music. The symphony’s finale certainly offers a lot in the way of rock ‘n’ roll. The use of trombones, the signifiers of the underworld in Beethoven’s time, invokes the kind of triumphant Satanism so key to rock mythology. More importantly, however, the trombones turn the music “up to eleven”, providing the kind of volume that is prerequisite for truly rocking out.

Syncopation is used prominently from measure 322 through the Presto at 367, and syncopated parts of the flutes and violins, respectively, have two-note grace notes leading up to their off beats, which brings to mind the note bending sloppiness essential to rock performance. The finale 60 bars of the symphony consist entirely of the orchestra vamping on C major with several V to I cadences thrown in, demonstrating the harmonic sophistication of your average rock and, more importantly, the rock ‘n’ roll ethic of playing what sounds good for as long as you can, as loud as you can. There are many great rock songs that consist mostly extended endings—“Hey Jude”, “Free Bird”, and “The End” from Abbey Road all come to mind. The symphony final is powerful and almost tastelessly loud, and more importantly, it is about being loud. As a rock and roller, I embrace the finale precisely for the same reasons critics like Spohr have rejected it.

Enjoyable though it may be, this rock ‘n’ roller’s take on Beethoven has its limitations. Such an interpretation is at a loss to describe the expressive subtleties of the symphony and is largely oblivious to the theoretical richness of the piece. Yet, I believe that judging high art by the criteria of popular idioms can yield great benefits to the extent that, as in the finale of the Fifth Symphony, the art lends itself to such evaluation. A rock ‘n’ roll listening gives the modern listener a way to enjoy Beethoven’s music in the age of irony, when the excesses and naïveté of the Romantic vision so easily lends itself to parody. The critical standpoint of the rock ‘n’ roll generation vulgarizes the lofty ambitions of the Fifth Symphony, but only through this vulgarization can a popular audience accept the piece’s grandiosity in this day and age. For a rock ‘n’ roll listening of a Romantic work to be valid, I have to oppose the hierarchized approach to listening implied in Fetis’s musings on instrumental music, since the criteria of rock ‘n’ roll privilege the sensual and dispense with much of the need for “artistic insight”. If we allow for a plurality of critical standpoints, rather than think of listening as a hierarchical process in which particular kinds of technical knowledge are directly correlated to the listener’s ability to understand a piece, we will find more possible meanings in music and enjoy of music more overall.