Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tristan & Toadies

The lush, slutty climax of the Transfiguration Scene is certainly more memorable, but Isolde’s most vocally heroic moment actually occurs even earlier, in act one of the histrionic death salute known as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It’s the point just after when, onboard a cruise liner bound for Cornwall, Brangaene gallops back from the poop deck to inform her mistress that Tristan is too busy aspirating in the backstage costume closet to deal with his prisoner’s operatic angst. And then we get magic: in a truly sensational display of laryngeal contortionism, the pre-bulimic Deborah Voigt – or whichever pneumatic soprano-truck driver’s on for the evening – delivers her frustrated tale of how she’d once saved Tristan’s life despite his role in her husband’s demise. For a few minutes, everything around her perishes and only she feels eternal.

In fact, if the beauty of Isolde’s aria feels as infinite as the sea, it’s only interrupted by the tragically dismal reality of her situation. Kidnapped by Morold’s killer, she’s been betrothed to her husband’s killer’s uncle, the paunchy basso nightmare King Marke. Will she fall for Tristan – or his uncle? Fifteen minutes into the first act, neither seems appealing. It is here that she dips into her secret stash of assorted potions, her actions rationalized by a freaky revenge fantasy in which she kamikazes Tristan and settles the scores.

It is also here that the audience begins to notice the weird incest vibes emanating from Wagner’s libretto. To my young and fragile mind, such sexual deviance could once be justified by sheer recognition of the story’s medieval folk origins: like reclaiming the Near East on some inexplicable reign-of-terror crusade mission, these devices were clearly all things of a more primitive era. Having recently reviewed Robert Bailey’s thorough – if somewhat breathless – mise-en-contexte for Norton, however, the more insidious muse for Wagner’s “all in the family” love triangle appears in fact to have stemmed from the incestuous fanaticism of his friends.

By my stars, it’s a marvel Richard didn’t letter bomb the sniveling mess that was Hans von Bülow at first opportunity. Bülow, whose completion and first performance of his compatriot’s Tristan Prelude earned little more than an epistolary slap on the wrists, couldn’t be swayed from masochistic subservience. Astonishingly, even more overt reprimands from his object of devotion – a bizarre exchange comes to mind involving a snooty, self-important letter from the bully composer to starry-eyed Hans, hauling him over the coals for what, in hindsight, was mostly just an embarrassing glut of compliments – didn’t discourage the conductor enough to stop him from sending desperate mea culpas to both the Blätter für Musik, comrades from the New German School, and the Niederrheinische Musikzeitung. Normally, one would feel sorry for this victim of Wagnerian browbeating – that is, if he didn’t seem to relish it so much: I read excerpts from these petty squabbles with the existential good humor of an elementary school teacher watching a scrawny fourth-grader get stuffed and locked into the janitor’s closet by his sixth-grade superior. “Does this mean our recess date is off?” he croaks from behind a dustbin. In the years to come, Wagner would commit the ultimate affront and make off with Cosima Liszt, von Bülow’s beloved wife. I’ll bet Hans paid for their honeymoon.

But for all his pathos, von Bülow was not the worst of the sycophants. Rather, this distinction is owed to the illustrious boot-kisser Franz Liszt. Father, not coincidentally, to Wagner’s stolen bride, Liszt cemented the incestuous circle of the Future Music coterie by dedicating his Dante Symphony – from the bottom of his “unchangeably faithful” heart – to his soon-to-be in-law. Wagner responded in kind: “It has made me positively red with shame, believe you me!” According to Bailey, the Ring-bearer’s less-than-gracious reception was probably appropriate given the circumstances: Wagner knew that such preciosity could only give the tittering Viennese press fuel for more of the same, cynical write-ups it had recently thrown his way. In my opinion, however, Bailey condones his subject’s insolence for entirely the wrong reasons: as stands, it’s a fairly undisputed fact that whatever decorum Wagner lacked, he made up for in a profusion of undeniably good taste. Liszt, creator of what I affectionately like to refer to as “Poop Music,” shouldn’t have dared place genius of such magnitude beside his frontispiece – it’s no wonder the German felt demoralized. Wagner’s music is a cosmic, almost mystical interpellation of base human pleasures enacted and reified onstage through modulation and tonal poetry. Liszt conquered the piano with impossible transcriptions and a dilettante’s enthusiasm, but never wrote an outstanding piece of music in his life.

There’s something delicious about an irreverent genius such as Richard Wagner. And yet, it’s somehow depressing to think that he spent much of his life broke and running from kowtowing birdbrains such as von Bülow and Liszt, whose self-affirming interest in their own progressivism feels somewhat narcissistic and vain. As though creativity were tenable or contagious. As though familial closeness might vindicate their masturbatory fervor. Ultimately, Wagner’s cynicism may have stemmed from the very friendships that might have otherwise spurred him to greater heights: trusting no one but his brooding menagerie of nihilist scholars, he came to see the compliment as a distraction. Whenever I hear the Liebestod, I feel the throbbing excitement of Isolde’s surreal, sexual pulse. But there’s also an edge that I can’t say I like, the nauseating wave of a ghostly social club, as countless, lusty Wagner kiss-ups sigh and climax into the stratosphere.

Allegory of Love

Allegory of Love
Fitzhugh B. Karol - November 2, 2005

In examination of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Love’s arrow I simply could not dodge. My romance began in Act II when listening, I found myself in King Marke’s garden. Flanked all around by tall trees. They looked like Cypress trees, foreboding my passage to the Isle of the Dead, but in my state I truly cannot tell. Wrapped in the mood of Isolde’s frantic banter I realize this garden in Cornwall is no more – a transfiguration of my own perhaps? I do not remember boarding any ship or sailing any distance. This must be a dream for only ‘The Dreamer’ enters this garden I’m told. At once the garden, humane as it was, fills with Gods, Temptations and Virtues. This garden belongs to Pleasure and hidden within I sense a love that I’ve yet to meet.
As I wander through the garden, stalked by cupid, I meet face to face in a reflecting pool with Tristan’s moment of rapture. In my ‘Allegory of Love’ I see in the waves of reflection, a rosebush that as I turn and approach presents me with one flower, yet unopened that promises to steal my heart. At that very moment Love’s arrow, tipped with sweet poison, pierces me and from the hollows of every tree surrounding comes a familiar tune. (drink/death motif)
In my ‘Romance of the Rose’ I am struck by four more arrows, completing my intoxication and as the poison enters my body so too does the poison draught course through Tristan – and with that the heart’s ‘tiny golden key’ is given over to Love itself and Love leaves us with our penance: “To fix your every thought on love, night and day, without remission; think of it always, ceaselessly, bearing in mind that sweet moment whose joy is so long delayed.”
Meanwhile, back in Cornwall and back in Act II, far above my garden portal Isolde’s longing for her lover builds with each passing minute. Her longing seeks to snuff the torch signal that keeps her beloved from her breast. As night falls passion awakes. Night is the lovers’ time; but does that make day the enemy of love? Here we find the most delightful romantic notion of all, shared by many poets and courtly lovers. The notion of which I speak is put so lyrically by our Mediaevals and is sung so desperately by our star-crossed lovers. The “l-i-g-h-t” motif. Love’s fury is unleashed on Tristan and Isolde as they embrace. Is this ‘that sweet moment’ that Love itself has promised? Wagner’s handling of this encounter suggests it is. But no sooner are passions lit than we are reminded of the bittersweet impermanence. L’aube, Alba, the light. Bewail the dawn and Tristan and Isolde do just that; as so many knights and truant ladies have done before them. If it weren’t for Marke’s castle couldn’t we find our pair in an orchard somewhere under a tree as dawn approaches. Oh woe. Isolde sings, “Day and death, would they not with equal force attack our love?”
The story of Tristan is so delightfully set in what we look back upon as the romantic ruins of the Middle Ages. The virtues of ‘courtly love’ then expounded for the world to look back at and dream with. With Tristan, Wagner, a dreamer himself in the garden of Pleasure brings a wonderful update to these sensuous myths. Once caught, once drunk or once pierced, how awesome the swells are. And what of conquering death, Love’s perilous grip? It is fitting that the “Romance of the Rose,’ where I began my swoon, was never finished by it’s original author, (Guillaume de Lorris. 1230.) The lover in his tale, universal as we can see, was left with his beloved trapped in a turret. Again I ask what of conquering Love’s spell? What of holding the key to our own hearts? Us romantics say never!

Alba - Ezra Pound, Langue D’oc

When the nightingale to his mate
Sings day-long and night late
My love and I keep state
In bower,
In flower,
‘Till the watchman on the tower
“Up! Thou rascal. Rise.
I see the white
And the night


Jackson, W.T.H., The Anatomy of Love: The Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg. New York/London. Columbia University Press. 1971

Lewis, C.S., The Allegory of Love. Oxford. The Clarendon Press. 1936.

Owen, D.D.R., Noble Lovers. New York. New York University Press. 1975.

Strassburg, Gottfried von. The Story of Tristan and Iseult. Trans by Jessie L. Weston. London. David Hutt. 1907

Taylor, Henry Osborn. The Mediaeval Mind. New York. The Macmillan Company. 1919

Wagner, Richard. Tristan und Isolde. Karl Bohm Conducting. Bayreuther Festspiele. Deutsche Grammophon. 1966.

The Bricoleur and the Beast

The notion of synthesis dominates both “high art” and popular culture in the postmodern age. Films like Pulp Fiction and television series like Aqua Teen Hunger Force achieve greatness by their clever recycling of cultural detritus, while composers like Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon write music equally indebted to Steve Reich, DJ Spooky, and Led Zeppelin. The postmodern synthesis has its roots in the somewhat less extravagant but no less bold idea of bricolage—the free use of pre-existing material and tools to constitute ones own work--that emerged in the writings of French structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Struass. While Levi-Strauss used bricolage to create an arsenal of interpretative techniques, for Igor Stravinsky bricolage meant creating art from a broad assortment of pre-existing styles. In this paper I want to try to present the compositional strategy of Stravinsky, and also his rivals, through the double lens of Jacques Derrida’s reading of the Levi-Strauss in Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”

Since this is a music class rather than a class on semiotic theory, I should give a short introduction to Derrida’s essay. Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” was delivered in 1966 at John Hopkins University, and was, depending on who you ask, one of the inaugural papers of post-structuralism. In the essay, Derrida evaluates structuralism in the context of metaphysics, bringing to light structuralism’s limitations and the ways to which it, as a system of thought, was chained to the traditional episteme of a metaphysics which favors centered systems and self-presence over absence and decentered play. In a typically deconstructive gesture, Derrida finds a partial solution to the problems of structuralism—in other words the beginning of the post-structuralist gesture—in the work of one of the pioneering structuralists: Claude Levi-Strauss.

In his book The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss contrasts two differing methodological standpoints which the theoretician may adopt: that of the bricoleur--the jack of all trades--and that of the engineer. Derrida writes that “The bricoleur, says Levi-Straus, is some one who uses ‘the means at hand,’, that is, the instruments he finds at his disposition around him, those which are already there… [and who is] not hesitating to change them whenever it appears necessary, or to try several of them at once, even if their form and origin are heterogeneous” (Derrida 255). I think already we can see Stravinsky as the bricoleur, reappropriating whatever musical styles he sees fit for his compositions, from his clever manipulation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ocatatonicism in Petroushka and The Rite of Spring to his mixing of jazz and baroque elements in his neoclassical works. There is even a similarity between Derrida’s description of the bricoleur and Stravinsky’s own description of how he approaches composition: “I shall over come my terror and shall be reassured by the fact that I have seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal… [and] that in all of these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience” (Stravinsky 64).

In contrast to the thieving bricoleur, the engineer seeks “to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon” (Derrida 256). He is “a subject who would supposedly be the absolute origin of his own discourse” (Derrida 256). Serialism, anyone? The fact that leading serialists actually were engineers (Milton Babbit and Pierre Boulez both studied math before they became composers) doesn’t help them deny the charge. For Derrida, Levi-Strauss, and, I would argue, Stravinsky, the engineer is a myth because no one can possibly hope to create or theorize without using the inherited language of a tradition. Only God, to whom Schoenberg subtly compares himself more than once in his Composition with Twelve Tones, could make any sort of self-present utterance unbound by inheritance from a tradition.

If the position of the engineer is naïve about language, then the position of the bricoleur is necessarily critical. One cannot capriciously employ heterogeneous styles of art or theory without disavowing the possibility of absolute style or self-present meaning; rather the bricoleur “preserve[s] as an instrument that whose truth-value he criticizes” [Derrida 255]. We can see this criticism of language in the writings and music of Stravinsky. “Danger lies not in the borrowing of clichés,” he wrote. “The danger lies in fabricating them and in bestowing on them the force of law” [Stravinsky 78]. Stravinsky’s music first criticized the gentility and individualism of the bourgeois with The Rite of Spring, and later brought down barriers between “high” and “low” art genres and other styles of music which seemed incongruous. When Stravinsky pleas for critics to spare composers from questions of form and subject, it is not, I would argue, because he wants his music to be taken at face value, but rather because he is aware these elements of his music have only face value. The bricoleur’s stylistic decisions have only methodological value, enabling him to accomplish his task but carrying no other inherent worth. However, “this methodological value is not affected by its ‘ontological’ non-value,” and indeed it is only by denying absolute truth or aesthetic value to any given approach that the plurality of bricolage is tenable. [Derrida 255]. Stravinsky’s musical eclecticism and Levi-Strauss’s structuralist method both embrace the superficial usefulness of their respective approaches while denying their techniques any claim to truth or absolute value, and this very denial constitutes a criticism of the languages each is forced to speak.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy. Ed Richard Macksey & Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970.

Stravinskky, Igor. Poetics of Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.