Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Stravinsky and Barthes

Igor Stravinsky is one of my favourite composers. The Firebird and The Rite of Spring are, I think, two of the weirdest and most wonderful pieces of music ever written; by turns beautiful, wild, cold and unearthly. They're brilliant examples of the last flourish of Modernism; Stravinsky was to classical music what Wallace Stevens was to poetry - the zenith, the apex, before traditional Western art collapsed into naval-gazing, alienating postmodernism.

So I was interested to read the other day a quote by Stravinsky, who once remarked that "music is, by its very nature, powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc...If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion, and not a reality."

Which is odd, because it is reminiscent of the Arch Pontiff of postmodernism, Roland Barthes, and his famous assertion that the publishing of a work of literature constitutes the "Death of the Author". It was Barthes' belief that, when setting a novel loose upon the world, the author loses all control of it and it becomes a text wholly in the power of the reader to interpret and analyse. Stravinsky's comment seems to me to be hinting at the same thing (postmodern ideas being confirmed by one of the great figures of Modernism); once a work of music has been created, the composer's ideas and designs for it become meaningless because it now belongs to the listeners.

I'm not quite sure that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Postmodern theories and tropes always seem to me to be either completely banal (racism and sexism are bad, truth is contextual), or completely absurd (everything, including the holocaust and your breakfast, is a text), and this is really a little bit of both. But it certainly made me think, and the more I think about it, the more I start to see Stravinsky's point. Music, much more than literature, is for the listener to interpret, and while it is overstating the case that "music is...powerless to express anything at all", it is certainly true that once the listener hears a piece of music, the composer is powerless to influence their reaction, however much they might wish it were otherwise.

Everyone knows the story of how Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA, for example, somehow morphed from a song about bitter veterans of the Vietnam War into a jingoistic anthem in the mind of Ronald Reagan during the 1980's. Every Breath You Take was originally intended to be a study in voyeurism and stalking by Sting, but it is now a common feature on "Great Romantic Love Songs" compilation albums in HMV. Somewhere Over the Rainbow's lyrics are deeply melancholic, penned by a deeply melancholy man, but it now seems the very embodiment of hope - thanks to Judy Garland. You Were Always on My Mind is a very different beast when sung by Willie Nelson when compared to Elvis.

By a neat little twist, it was Stravinksy himself who was one of the most unfortunate victims of this, which is perhaps why he made the statement in question: when Walt Disney decided to use The Rite of Spring for his film Fantasia, he not only completely altered Stravinsky's original vision (changing the piece from an elegaic celebration of pagan Russia to an account of how dinosaurs lived), he also cut out whole segments, changed the order of huge swathes, and even fiddled with the rhythms. The "Death of the Composer", indeed.

I intend to follow this blog entry up with an essay for Harpers on the deconstruction of the song, I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts.


mattiecore said...

I agree with you to a great extent on many of your points here.

The weirdest thing about this all is that I just received a CD with both The Firebird Suite and The Rite of Spring (conducted by Leonard Bernstein), like, two days ago.

hellmarx said...

"the rite of spring" is really fantastic....
would like to know what you think about adorno's "philosophy of new music" and new music in general...

noisms said...

I've not read much of Adorno, but from what I understand he at least accepted that we can make judgements about the quality of music, which means he's a little more sensible than most postmodernists.

But in general I'm not a fan of composers like Schoenberg and that school of "corrosive unacceptability" or whatever their motto was. I suppose I just don't understand the attraction of being "unacceptable" for the hell of it. Music can and should be challenging and unusual (like Stravinsky's work was) but fundamentally it should always be some form of entertainment - not something that you have to sit and endure rather than enjoy.

That's why I prefer Modernist art to what is produced nowadays. In all fields (visual art, literature, music) the Modernists understood that it was possible to provoke and challenge while still creating beautiful, enjoyable work. Stravinsky, Stevens, Carlos Williams, Dos Passoss, Fitzgerald, etc., all walked the line perfectly.

Nowadays Western 'art' seems to have lost its ambition to do this: either it takes being "challenging" to a silly extreme (like most contemporary visual art), it is stupidly popularist (like most modern Western pop music), or it limits itself to being interesting only to a very few 'elite' people (like most contemporary literature).

mattiecore said...

Some of my favorite visual artists came from Modernist movements: Mondrian, Kandinsky, Duchamp (in particular for me).

I'm curious to know what you think of dadaism, noisms, since it was meant to represent the anti-art, the anti-aesthetic, in a very deliberate fashion. To me, there's nothing beautiful about Hugo Ball dressing as some sort of robot and reciting a jibberish poem, though it was quite challenging and provoking as art. And I certainly don't want to sound as if all dadaist art is ugly (or whatever the working contradictory of "beautiful" is for you); I find many dadaist works to be quite beautiful, in fact, but a good amount of dadaist art is more important for precedent and motivating ideas than for...looks, so to speak.

noisms said...

Dadaism (as with certain modernist writers like Gertrude Stein) was at the cusp of postmodernism in the sense that the art became subordoned to a desire to confound, posture, and "provoke"; like postmodernism, too, it ended up failing in that and petering into the banal. (Is a robot reciting gibberish really that challenging or provoking?)

I think any school that relegates the creation of art secondary to making a "splash" is bound for failure, because that sort of thing can only go so far: there are only so many ways to reinvent being "provoking" before it becomes old hat. That's part of the reason for the decline of Britart.

I find the history of Dadaism interesting though - the impact of World War I on European culture going so deep as to even affect the way people thought about something as fundamental as art.

mattiecore said...

I see what you're saying, but I'd like to point out that "Karawane," Ball's nonsense poem, was written and recited in 1916, which was very early in the dadaist movement.