Taking on Taruskin

Interview time. You go to the local public radio station, everything seems to put you at your ease. They’re charming, they wear sweaters, they hand you terrible painful coffee in a styrofoam cup, they ask you how you are. There is an sense of beneficent NPR hovering over everything. Then, the microphone turns on, and they hit you hard: “What exactly do you do,” they ask, “when you’re not playing the piano?” Aww man, I just woke up, don’t ask me to justify my existence. How I wish I had some fascinating hobby like cheese curdling, ballooning, breeding wolves! How can I explain that most of my life not playing the piano is spent in recovery from playing the piano? “Actually,” I say, “I love to read.” A mist of boredom fills the room. “Well,” sigh, “what are you reading now?” and I am forced to admit the devastating truth: “I’m reading some musicological essays by Richard Taruskin.” The interviewer gazes at me with such pity, deep marveling pity.

My Kindle also pities me. Each time I order a new book I can hear it saying “really? really? that’s what you think your life needs right now? … I use the word ‘life’ loosely …” And then I put it to sleep, where it still mocks me, I’m sure, in the sub-ether of gadgetry.

There I was, nerdily paging through the Mozart section of Taruskin’s Text and Act, giggling at its gratuitous insults, when I came across:

For us today, Don Giovanni, say, is not just the opera Mozart and da Ponte knew, bearing only the meanings it had for them and for the audience that greeted it in Prague two centuries ago. Don Giovanni is also something E.T.A. Hoffmann has known and construed, and Kierkegaard, and Charles Rosen, and Peter Sellars. Its meaning for us is mediated by all that has been thought and said about it since opening night, and is therefore incomparably richer than it was in 1787.

A very beautiful, hopeful, interesting, false thing to say. Bewitching fallacies are everywhere. As a foil, how about the famous passage from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, the moment when Murray and the narrator drive past miles of premonitory billboards to the Most Photographed Barn in America:

We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.” …

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said.  ”What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns?  We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures.  We can’t get outside the aura.  We’re part of the aura.  We’re here, we’re now.”

Let’s say the barn is Don Giovanni.

For starters, Taruskin’s assertion sets up a really bad binary: richer/poorer. I am surprised he let himself be tempted by it. Is a meaning richer when there’s more of it? Does a work’s meaning automatically increase as we add interpretations to it? The image Taruskin is painting is that “all that has been thought and said” somehow magically gets piled on the work of art: it amasses wisdom, associations, it grows and grows, like certain alien beings in science fiction which draw detritus into themselves, and thereby become ever greater monsters, ever more powerful beings.

Another problem is that Taruskin fails to distinguish between things said about Don Giovanni that are stimulating and interesting, and things that are entombing, distancing, destroying. Actually we need not be black-and-white. There’s a continuous spectrum from stimulating to entombing; perhaps the most middling comments are the most dangerous of all.

There can be destructive interference of meaning, meanings which in their profusion cancel each other out.

I suppose this is a silly example, but I recall taking a course in Mozart’s Operas in Bloomington, Indiana, with an unnamed professor. He began the class by reading to us the New Grove Biography of Mozart in his mellifluous monotone. This took three sessions. It was not mellifluous, by the way, but it was virtuosically inexpressive, and would have been hilariously boring, had it not been 8 am and we all crammed in the fluorescent desks of hell. The smell of this room stays with me, mold, chalk, overhead projector lamp heat, I feel I can almost smell the New Grove Biography of Mozart, as the smell of that room fuses with the monotone of the voice and my fuzzy head and the sense of data, dates, data, data, dusty data floating until it finds its home on a multiple choice exam, there to be guessed at. (To this day I am terrified of Mozart’s biography.) I felt insulted, infantilized even, by this lecture style, and refused to take notes. But my housemate Sasha sitting next to me was furiously scribbling and scribbling. Sometime in the second day, a bit flabbergasted by his diligence, I glanced over to see what the heck was going on. There I read: “Mozart’s goat Nannerl dies; replaced by new goat, also named Nannerl. New Nannerl subsequently writes minuet.” I laughed out loud, abruptly, caught by delicious Mozartean surprise. I destroyed the non-mood of the classroom, caught a withering glare from the professor, but my faith in life was restored. In these pages of falsified facts, in their gleeful irreverence, there was more of Mozart than you could find in the entire New Grove Biography.

And let us not forget (Taruskin, I’m talking to you) that the world is more than reading Kierkegaard, or pondering Sellars productions; there is plenty of cultural noise, not related to the work at hand, that mediates meaning in weird ways. For instance, when I was growing up, there was a commercial—perhaps you know it—in which certain household pets sing a descending four-note figure, not melismatically, but syllabically. Inescapably, this commercial is imprinted on my mind, genetically fused with those four notes, and so every time I play the Franck Sonata, and I come to the last movement with its repeated four note descending figures … at least one of these measures I sing to myself: meow meow meow meow. I just cannot help it! . My interpretation has a certain deranged feline intensity, I cough up hairballs of ecstasy. Sometimes I fantasize that we will be playing along, very seriously, in some dour venue, just another violin recital, when suddenly at that moment thousands of cats will come on stage, fireworks, jazz hands, etc. etc. Classical music is saved!

If you think that entire last paragraph was a silly, gratuitous plug for my upcoming CD of the Franck with Joshua Bell on Sony, you are a cynical perceptive person.

OK, let’s get serious again. Taruskin’s vision omits a central human fact: that we forget (Roland Barthes: “it is precisely because we forget that we read.”) We can add information to our understanding, but old information is always crumbling away. Meaning is not additive; this is true individually and collectively.

Let’s say you go to a talk on Don Giovanni … then you hear a recording of Don Giovanni, but weirdly the performance seems to conflict with what the lecture said. Are you disappointed by the lecture or the performance? Some years later you are listening to Don Giovanni, and you vaguely remember the gist of the lecture, or more likely a line or two, and this vague recollection merges uncomfortably with the new hearing, is this the same piece? Actually your favorite moments of the piece turn out to be the ones you forgot were there; that is, you learned more from surprise than from knowledge.

I once went to a lecture on the A Minor Mozart Sonata by a great musical mind, the thesis of which was “is it permissible to take time at measure X of the first movement?” Seriously: the 45 minute lecture was to diagnose whether a small amount of license could be applied in one measure. One of my favorite measures. My reaction then and now, my perpetually immature instinct, is to take a truly spectacular amount of time there, just because some dude (who is brilliant) tried to tell me I needed permission to do it. Did that lecture add meaning or did that act of hyper-attention (like all the lined-up photographers) limit my ability to see? Does everything that has been said about Mozart contribute to his meaning for us? Or does the profusion of essays and interpretations sometimes lead to nausea, exhaustion, blindness, ennui? Does Taruskin ever think to himself on the morning of a conference, “Oh God if I have to hear Susan McClary explain another modulation in Schubert as a symbol of anal fixation I think I might just kill myself”?

We wouldn’t play this amazing music without craving ever greater understanding, without wanting to delve. But eventually the knowledge clutters up the room; we need a spring cleaning to see the work anew (but with the knowledge still lurking back there somewhere). We dream, so to speak, of a clean room informed by its former filth.

I guess I’m verbosely fleshing out a feeling here, that the process of being in touch with the meaning of an artwork isn’t essentially additive, or cumulative. It is something more beautiful and maddening, more a kind of ebb and flow, an adding on and sloughing off, like a snake, or a butterfly. You keep trying to return to that state where you “see” …. You add on layers, layers, like a cocoon, but then suddenly one day you scratch at one spot (perhaps that piece of information no longer seems important, relevant) and that spot widens, because you see the work more clearly now that you have begun to clear away the cocoon… gradually you are naked again, vulnerable, alive. Your skin feels raw. The work feels new. The work means something to you again; at one level you have forgotten everything you learned.

Let’s be fair to Taruskin. His larger point: it’s dubious to try to get to the “original” meaning of Don Giovanni, it’s impossible for starters, but also we would lose all the wonderful thinking that’s been done about the piece since then! Maybe it would be a shame to lose all that thought, but doesn’t he see why one would want to? I’d draw a connection between the desire to recreate the “original sense” of Don Giovanni and the desire to hear it as you heard it the very first time: both Fantasies of Fresh Ears. Moreover … If you think about it, shocks in Don Giovanni, shocks in Beethoven, the continuous switching of dynamics, mood, texture of the classical style: don’t these seem like ways to get the listener to listen newly, to build chained moments of reborn attention into the musical fabric? The music we have entombed, enshrined so profoundly is also the music that begs us to hear it the most freshly.

To balance all my unfairly negative examples of musical talks, I’d like to recall a wonderful lecture given by Michael Oehlbaum at Marlboro, on the last three Beethoven Sonatas. The thing is I remember very little of it. I remember he said, or more like chanted, “Beethoven again visits one of his trenchant anomalies upon the world!!!” He raised a foreboding finger like Moses on the mountaintop. And I laughed, yes, I thought, trenchant anomaly!, thunderbolt of weirdness, everything goes funny for a moment, then you’re back on the road, but something crucial has shifted, you’re not sure what. That is what Beethoven can be like, that is how he mirrors common experience and at the same time creates his own surreal world. The other thing I remember was Oehlbaum’s explanation of the theme of the last movement of Op. 109: “it’s as if Beethoven looks at you very seriously, earnestly in the face and says, the Tonic goes to the Dominant.” Then he played the gorgeous theme, saying dryly over it “one goes to five” each two bars, and it was oddly funny but so beautiful too, this theme which appears kaleidoscopic is at heart a repeated harmonic cliché. It’s astonishing (almost disturbing) how Beethoven hid a seesaw behind such ravishing beauty.

This insight is contagious; I use it (plagiarist that I am) at masterclasses everywhere, and the students always sprout a smile of surprise and pleasure—not bad for music theory!

I was so delighted and inspired by this talk that I didn’t expect David Soyer to throw cold cynical water on it. Oehlbaum was demonstrating subtle motivic connections between the “anomalies” of the last three Sonatas, and Soyer, who sang with such tenderness in rehearsals, said quite roughly “Couldn’t it all just be a coincidence, I mean, do you really think the composer meant all that crap?“ (He may not have said crap, but boy he meant it.) There was an undercurrent in the room of agreement. It seemed sad to me, this guy had travelled all the way up from New Jersey just to share his insights, and there it was, his insights were resented. I wanted to blame a certain Curtis mindset. But later I felt the impulse for his outburst wasn’t resentment, but a parental protectiveness, a fear that music is throttled by endless consideration.

I don’t believe this; I don’t think thought and music are enemies, obviously … but they are complicated friends. We can only keep Don Giovanni alive by playing it, thinking about it, writing about it, talking about it. But in a sense we also keep burying it under our interpretations, and we have to keep digging it out again. It never stops.

Morning after four days of recording. Awoke intensely dazed in the guest room of E’s house. Pleasantly dazed, relieved. (If only I could apply this relief after the task to the task itself.) Sleep caked in eyes. In boxers and T-shirt I wandered out to the living room, waking up two dachshunds and E. The dachshunds ran about abruptly delighted by the morning and I schlumped to the kitchen island. E walked the dogs. She began frying bacon. She does not need to ask me how I like my eggs. Burnt smell of toast. The recording finished, a great project off my mind. A plate arrived in front of me, munch munch. No, no hot sauce. Barefoot, gripping coffee, I padded out to the deck without saying anything and sat looking at the trees. I’d brought with me Nabokov’s short stories, without really thinking about it, for no reason, and read:

At some distance, Schramm, poking into the air with the leader’s alpenstock, was calling the attention of the excursionists to something or other; they had settled themselves around on the grass in poses seen in amateur snapshots, while the leader sat on a stump, his behind to the lake, and was having a snack. Quietly, concealing himself in his own shadow, Vasiliy followed the shore, and came to a kind of inn. A dog still quite young greeted him; it crept on its belly, its jaws laughing, its tail fervently beating the ground …

The room itself had nothing remarkable about it. On the contrary, it was a most ordinary room, with a red floor, daises daubed on the white walls, and a small mirror half filled with the yellow infusion of the reflected flowers—but from the window one could clearly see the lake with its cloud and its castle, in a motionless and perfect correlation of happiness. Without reasoning, without considering, only entirely surrendering to an attraction the truth of which consisted in its own strength, a strength which he had never experienced before, Vasiliy in one radiant second realized that here in this little room with that view, beautiful to the verge of tears, life would at last be what he had always wished it to be. What exactly it would be like, what would take place here, that of course he did not know …

I’ve read a ton of Nabokov. How could he surprise me? But I was ambushed by this sincerity, by cynical knowledgeable Nabokov resting hope in this simple room and its view, refuge from the cynical world. (The others are photographing, but only Vasiliy is seeing). I shivered with admiration for this beautiful writing, I was darkly jealous of his genius, but simultaneously, I was in love with him (again, anew).

Meanwhile: breeze, waving trees, morning without agenda. The paper page present, tactile. I wiggled my toes happily. I burped bacon. I held on to the moment, I inhaled, I tried to become a sponge for experience, I didn’t know how long this magical newness would last.

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  1. Posted October 16, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    but….but….but….doesn’t spending more time with a piece of music through the decades and seeing it in all sorts of different contexts let you have more experience of the possibilities of the thing in itself? the of course, there is inevitably going to be boring, stiffling stuff. but isn’t that part of the power of forgetting?

  2. Daniel Wolf
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    In other words: yes, Richard, you can listen to the Guillaume Tell Overture and not think of the Lone Ranger.

  3. Janet
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    In response to the above comment, I’m not sure you can. Seventy years ago, the New York public schools taught “music appreciation” by having the kids sing along with various famous themes. My Brooklynite parents passed these down to me (making me probably one of the few members of my generation who can instantly recognize “Narcissus by Ethelbert Nevin,” or “Rustle of Spring by Sinding”). Even secondhand, so many years later, these songs are indelibly fixed in my mind. (“Morning is dawning and Peer Gynt is yawning…”) I was at a production of *Tales of Hoffman* last week, and sure enough, at the beginning of the third act, I found myself silently singing along: “Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman written by Offenbach…” And now I’ll have to add the meow theme from the Franck sonata to my list. I’m sorry to report that these simple-minded ditties have probably had a much more immediate impact on my listening experience than anything Kierkegaard or Peter Sellars has to say.

  4. Nate BH
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    “You keep trying to return to that state where you “see” …. You add on layers, layers, like a cocoon, but then suddenly one day you scratch at one spot (perhaps that piece of information no longer seems important, relevant) and that spot widens…”

    Yes, exactly… Exactly.

  5. Robert E. Harris
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I need to listen to Don Giovanni again. It’s been almost a year since I heard a good recording. (I saw an interesting production at the UMKC Conservatory last spring.) I came to the Don cold, nothing about opera (aside from the word) in my experience then, 59 years ago, but I heard a recording and then saw the SF Opera production, and I was hooked. On the Don.

    I stopped reading fiction a couple of years ago, I guess I need some Nabakov.

    Thanks for writing. It’s good, and this old chemist likes your style.

  6. Eduardo Fernandez
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Great post as always. But hadn’t Borges already said it? I mean, Pierre Menard’s paradox. Write “Don Quixote” again and it becomes a different novel.

  7. Posted October 20, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    You’re right, and the barn analogy is especially helpful. So much baggage has accumulated about Don G that people just can’t go back to basics, to even tolerate the thought that Mozart and Da Ponte, as in the original Burlador play, might be suggesting that Anna did not want to be (as William Mann horrifically put it in his usually good The Operas of Mozart) ‘pleasantly raped’.

    All this changing of thoughts about what that character, above all, might mean say much more about Hoffmann’s, Brigid Brophy’s, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s etc sensibilities and times than about the piece. Productions can come closer in shedding new light, but only about a quarter seem to manage it. And have you noticed how looking at the music per se gets lost in debating the characters?

  8. Posted October 21, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    I certainly agree that music and thought are most emphatically not enemies.  The problem, however, is not “endless consideration”; that is, the quantity of thought about music. Rather, the problem has to do with the quality and the character of the thought.  I think this is what you were getting at by positing the stimulating/entombing continuum.  

    I’ve considered such a continuum myself, but I don’t think “stimulating” and “entombing” hit the nail quite on the head.  Too many musicians consider technical and theoretical  thought, like that which Soyer wanted to dismiss as coincidental, “entombing.”  I, too, have sat through theory courses during which students asked “why must we learn this” or “did the composer really intend all this” or offered the incomprehensible (to me) cop-out “all this bologna is just going to get in the way of my intuitive musicality.”  I think a better way of describing the continuum would be “superficial and/or irrelevant” at one end, and “profoundly meaningful/useful epiphany” at the other.  Theoretical insight is always useful, provided it’s correct.  (BTW, to be sure, there are and have been lesser composers who commit things to paper having stumbled upon them by accident, or without really understanding why the passage works, or more often, doesn’t work.  But the greats were undoubtedly in total control of their creations.  No, Beethoven did not unwittingly create anomalies.)

    It is a profound tragedy that the postmodern approach has so firmly entrenched itself among those who would be musical thinkers.  But it’s perhaps not surprising.  Armchair fantasizing of the “modulations-representing-anal-fixation” type is easy.  Worthwhile, meaningful, useful and real insight is difficult to achieve.  Not every idea is a good one.  Not everything goes.  Some thought deserves to be “privileged.” “Endless consideration” itself is not in danger of throttling music.  ”Scholarly” works that assert the borrowed harmonies infiltrating Schubert’s music can be explained in terms of the syphilis that had infiltrated Schubert’s body (Cone) are what throttle music.  Works that take theosophy as a worthwhile topic, in music or, indeed, at all (Cowgill).  Works that, to offer a less absurd example, assert something banal, but pretend it’s profound, i. e., Taruskin’s “conclusion” that, yes, we can call Stravinsky’s music Russian.  What a nearly meaningless (or at least superficial) adjective.

    I’d take one chapter of Schenker over a dump-truck full of recent musicological papers (my choice of conveyance is not a coincidence).

  9. Posted October 24, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    It is going to take you a *long* time to get through that book if a single paragraph caused you to uncork at such length….

  10. Posted October 25, 2011 at 3:57 am | Permalink

    Funny, but your critique here recalls some of the stuff I retained from this book on the early music movement, where Taruskin contends that the musical point of all that historical research is its capacity to refresh our ears, and strip away the accretions of our cultural habits. We can never recover the music as it was when it was new, but we can make ourselves listen to it anew by giving it a radical makeover.

    I just realised it’s 15 years since I read Text and Act, and it still feels like a dose of intellectual caffeine! Thanks for jolt :-)

  11. Reed
    Posted November 13, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    There are still (dear God, we hope) listeners at our concerts who have never heard the piece(s) on the program. I have so many powerful memories of hearing certain works for the first time. No matter how many years we’ve known the piece, there’s someone out there at each concert who gets the gift of being knocked over by some fabulous piece of music, just like I was decades ago. (And still am, from time to time.)

    And though I still like to read biographies and essays on composers and their works, I find I have less and less patience with the philosophical ruminations of some Great Thinker as he or she chews on the Significance and Meaning (or lack thereof) of the piece I’m studying or performing or listening to. These days, I find I’m even more in sympathy with Toscannini who, when asked “what is Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony about?”, replied: “It’s about E-flat major.”

  12. Posted March 16, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    I just discovered your blog, Jeremy, and it is brilliantly written and very fun to read. Have a look at mine sometime if you get a chance. Refreshing comments on Taruskin. I’m just working my way through the Oxford History and have to say I find most of it very enlightening indeed. But when I take off my musicology hat and put on my composer hat, this quote comes to mind:

    “Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees”

    –Paul Valery

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