Friday, October 29, 2010

The Opera of All Operas

223 years ago today Don Giovanni premiered at the Estates Theater in Prague. We discuss the opera here from time to time (See the Mozart and Opera tags) but this year on the anniversary of its premiere I thought I would look at some contrasting interpretations of the finale, specifically the penultimate scene. Obviously these productions all share the commonality of the libretto and music, but each also makes a different aspect the chief characteristic of the scene.

(see last year's selections)

I. The Moral

With its horrific visions of demons and the punished this production picks up on the lines "Da qual tremore insolito / Sento assalir gli spiriti! Dond'escono quei vortici / Di foco pien d'orror?" and Tutto a tue colpe è poco! /Vieni, c'è un mal peggior!" and emphasizes the punishment that awaits the Don for his sins.

II. The Manic

Terfel's wide-eyed and manic performance is the center of this production. Seeing the Commendatore his shock turns to glee and we see the Don as a sort of unleashed id, acting and reacting not rationally but wholly unconstrained. The Commendatore's arrival, then, feels particularly paternal.

III. The Defiant Don

Here our attention is nealry all on the Don himself, the camera focusing on him even when the Commendatore is speaking. By that and Raimondi's seething scowl Giovanni's sense of defiance is the crux of this interpretation of the finale. Recall that the Commendatore came not to condemn but to offer repentance (Pentiti scellerato!) and here we see the Don's disgust at the thought of bowing to anything other than himself. In contrast to Terfel's Don, Raimondi's is rationally rejecting repentance.

IV. Disbelief

Initially this performance seems to be playing it straight, not calling attention to any one element. Yet Siepi's Don walks around rather casually. Then he attempts to stab the Commendatore and, having failed, grows more and more nervous as he becomes persuaded that the Commendatore is not of this world. We sense the Don didn't really believe this was possible and we sense this terror as he cannot break free from the Commendatore's grasp. In his final moments when the lights go out, as he tries to escape but is finally carried off, we seems to say, "This wasn't supposed to happen, this wasn't supposed to be possible!"

V. Ambiguity

With the removal of the Commendatore's presence from the scene Giovanni seems frustrated as he addresses the void. Might he have sought forgiveness had he known the identity, and authority, of who called him to repent?

VI. The Rake

Rather self-explanatory, it seems.

VII. The Cosmic

Clearly the simplest of the performances we've looked at, it reflects most the spirit of the overture. The simple staging reflects the cosmic contrast of the overture, that between being and non-being. Even the costumes have an elemental contrast. Here, Don Giovanni is not so much punished as simply unmade and scattered back into the continuum of the universe.

video of performance unavailable

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More Choice Mencken

Selections from A Mencken Chrestomathy
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. 1949.

XIV. American Immortals: Mr. Justice Holmes

I find it hard to reconcile [Holmes's opinions] with any plausible concept of Liberalism. They may be good law, but it is impossible to see how they can conceivably promote liberty. My suspicion is that the hopeful Liberals of the 20s, frantically eager to find at least one judge who was not violently and implacably against them, seized upon certain of Mr. Justice Holmes's opinions without examining the rest, and read into them an attitude that was actually as foreign to his ways of thinking as it was to those of Mr. Chief Justice Hughes. Finding him, now and then, defending eloquently a new and uplifting law which his colleagues proposed to strike off the books, the concluded that he was a sworn advocate of the rights of man. But all the while, if I do not misread his plain words, he was actually no more than an advocate of the rights of law-makers. There, indeed, is the clue to his whole jurisprudence. He believed that the law-making bodies should be free to experiment almost ad libitum, that the courts should not call a halt upon them until they clearly passed the uttermost bounds of reason, that everything should be sacrificed to their autonomy, including, apparently, even the Bill of Rights. If this is Liberalism, then all I can say is that Liberalism is not what I thought it was when I was young. . . To call him a Liberal is to make the word meaningless.

Let us, for a moment, stop thinking of him as one, and let us also stop thinking of him as a littératur, a reformer, a sociologist, a prophet, an evangelist, a metaphysician; instead, let us think of him as something that he undoubtedly was in his Pleistocene youth and probably remained ever after, to wit, a soldier. Let us think of him, further, as a soldier extraordinarily ruminative and articulate – in fact, so ruminative and articulate as to be, in the military caste, almost miraculous. And let us think of him still further as a soldier whose natural distaste and contempt for civilians, and corollary yearning to heave them all into Hell, was cooled and eased by a stream of blood that once flowed through the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table – in brief, as a soldier beset by occasional doubts, hesitations, flashes of humor, bursts of affability, moments of sneaking pity.

XVI. Economics: Capitalism

All the quacks and cony-catchers no crowding the public trough at Washington seem to be agreed upon one thing, and one thing only. It is the doctrine that the capitalistic system is on its last legs, an will presently give place to something more "scientific." There is, of course, no truth in this doctrine whatsoever. It collides at every point with the known facts. There is not the slightest reason for believing that capitalism is in collapse, or that anything proposed by the current wizards would be any better. The most that may be said is that the capitalistic system is undergoing changes, some of them painful. But those changes will probably strengthen it quite as often as they weaken it.

We owe to it almost everything that passes under the general name of civilization today. The extraordinary progress of the world since the Middle Ages has not been due to the mere expenditure of human energy, nor even to the flights of human genius, for men had worked hard since the remotest times, and some of them had been of surpassing intellect. No, it has been due to the accumulation of capital. That accumulation permitted labor to be organized economically and on a large scale, and thus greatly enhanced its productiveness. It provided the machinery that gradually diminished human drudgery, and liberated the spirit of the worker, who had formerly been almost indistinguishable from a mule. Most of all. it made possible a longer and better preparation for work, so that every art and handicraft greatly widened its scope and range, and multitudes of new and highly complicated crafts came in.

XVII. Pedagogy: The Educational Process

That ability to impart knowledge, it seems to me, has very little to do with technical method. It may operate at full function without any technical method at all, and contrariwise, the most elaborate of technical methods cannot make it operate when it is not actually present. And what does it consist of? It consists, first, of a natural talent for dealing with children, for getting into their minds, for putting things in a way that they can comprehend. And it consists, secondly, of a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a kind of passion. A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it and dreams it – this man can almost always teach it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is as contagious as fear or the barber's itch. An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the glad news bubbling within. He thinks that it is important and valuable for to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a pupil to start with, he will fan that glow to a flame. No hollow hocus-pocus cripples him and slows him down. He drags his best pupils along as fast as they can go, and he is so full of the thing that he never tires of expounding its elements to the dullest.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mozartian Counterpoint, Part III

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | Part V | VI | VII

13. String Quartet in A major, KV.464

Few works so clearly demonstrate Mozart's genius for manipulating both harmonic and metrical rhythm. It also demonstrates his genius for variation, particularly in the Andante, here the third movement of the quartet. This is also a rather dense and complicated work in which Mozart draws not only on varying the theme, contrasting dynamics, contrasting texture, harmonic modulation, and variation of the meter (within the flexible 3/4 time) but all of these features and all in the opening Allegro. It has become trite to say a piece rewards repeated study and listening, but this quartet most certainly does.

I. Allegro | II. Menuetto | III. Andante | IV. Allegro non troppo

While only the andante is in variation form the whole quartet is a journey of variations, the outer sonata-form movements in particular sharing a symmetry. In the opening Allegro Mozart begins imitative procedures on the main theme in the tonic (E) minor as soon as sixteen bars into the movement, development we would not expect in the exposition. At the near end of the exposition we see each instrument effectively in its own time before, in the development, we begin a new contrapuntal exploration. The last movement too, Allegro non troppo, is an exploration of a theme. It begins in dazzling imitation but at m.113 pauses and begins, piano, a tender and somber theme, an exploration which will run through all of Fux's species of counterpoint. 

It is impossible not to mention the Andante to this work, which Beethoven saw fit to copy out (possibly along with the finale)[7] yet I don't want to yank it apart for study. The unfolding of the variations is so extraordinarily transporting I will just leave you with Abert's words, that rather than mere theme and variation, we have a "dreamily wistful transfiguration." [Abert, 858.]

14-15. Duo for Violin and Viola in G, KV.423 & Piano Trio in G, KV.496 - Andante

We group these two works together on account of their light and Rococo nature enlivened by the wealth of variety of technique Mozart imbues in them. Mozart's craftsmanship is visible in works like these also, not just in the monumental works. Here we have contrapuntal treatment of light and even slight themes.
Duo for Violin and Viola in G, KV.423

16. String Quartet in D major, 'Hoffmeister,' KV.499

This quartet too tends to get rather slighted, falling as it does between the sets of the "Haydn" quartets and the final set of three quartets KV. 575, 589, and 590. We see here as  in the A major quartet KV.464 contrapuntal and often canonic treatment of the main theme amidst development. Alec Hyatt King hinted at the peculiar mood of this piece, pervasive through the movements: is it wry humor or veiled sadness?

I. Allegretto | II. Menuetto & Trio (Allegretto) | III. Adagio | IV. Molto allegro

17. Ein Musikalischer Spass in F, KV.522 - Presto

Here is one of Mozart's most humorous statements in this "musical joke." Scored for strings and horns it is a symphony of sorts, sometimes classified as a divertimento. The piece is splendid piece of humor poking fun at a would-be composer, perhaps someone in particular. It is also a sort of contrasting companion to the contemporaneous Serenade Eine kleine Nachtmusic, KV.525. This joke is in four movements, all of which are filled with a variety of mistakes of the sort a bumbling composer trying to write a popular piece might make. In the final movement this "poor composer" twice attempts fugato and both times fails, the structure falling apart after a few bars. Who can repress a smile when the horns bumble in with their jocular them in place of a contrapuntal development?

We must make a special note about the following two pieces, which are not only among Mozart's greatest works but among music's greatest, though they are not quite as famous as the final symphonic trilogy, the operas, and others of great popular esteem. They are also among Mozart's biggest structures, the first movement of the quintet at over 350 bars (over 1,100 total) and the first movement of the concerto at over 400. As such, and also consistent with our survey, we will but lightly be touching upon these works and while Girdlestone in his (and the) classic work on the concertos discusses KV.503 at length and Rosen in "The Classical Style" does the same for the quintet KV.515, study of these works is far from exhausted.

18. Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, KV.503 - Allegro maestoso

Part I | Part II

Years ago I attended a summer concert at which this concerto was performed. After the performance, during the intermission, a woman in the row behind me began to speak about the concerto, referring to it quite casually as "concert" music, i.e. "just concert music." You know, that pleasant-sounding but vapid sort of filler. Quite unlike the Beethoven which was to follow, of course. To this day I cannot account for the comment, I really cannot. You see, it is of course possible to be unaware of the structure of a piece. One can simply follow it and take in what one can, perhaps even drifting away here and there. Yet there is, of course, ingenious structure in Beethoven too.[8] My best guess is this poor women simply saw the Beethoven as "serious" and the Mozart as "pretty." Aside from the crudeness of such categories and the injustice it does composers to lump them into genres and styles, the statement reveals a particularly lamentable view both of life and of Mozart in particular. In his essay on the G minor symphony KV.550 Tovey quoted the English poet Edward Fitzgerald who wrote in the 19th century that "People will not believe that Mozart can be powerful, because he is so beautiful."

So let Mozart and this magnificent concerto, with its ingenious conception and painstaking working-out, with its soaring majesty, its vigor and its tenderness, its lyric songfulness here and marching there, teach us that to be beautiful and joyous is not to be weak or shallow. Far from it. Indeed this concerto is the life-affirming and life-exalting counterpart to its cataclysmic predecessor in C minor.

Both Hutchings and Rosen noted the great economy of color that is one of this concerto's hallmarks. Specifically here we see a great economy of color, contrasting between major and minor. We will also see the orchestra to be the predominant force of this concerto and its prelude is a masterpiece in itself.

We begin with a clear and bold tutti forte, with the tonic harmony contrasted with the dominant. The grand opening is immediately contrasted by the bassoons and oboes, which in turn offer a gentle little phrase. It is as if we have been thrust to great heights and the winds then keep us aloft. After another tutti outburst the bassoons and oboes repeat their work and trade the phrase an additional time. Now the violins trade a dotted triplet figure back and forth in imitation against a rising bass figure before a tutti forte outburst launches the violins into a sprinting ascending scale and their previous figure falls to the basses who now use it to punctuate the scales. They then trade again, the basses with the scales and the violins with the dotted figure. Now the first violins trade the figure against the rest of the orchestra and the tension builds until it overflows in descending scales in the violins. Only at last do a series of G major chords with the rhythm of three quavers followed by a crotchet arrive and slow us down.

It is important to repeat on of Girdlestone's points about this opening and piece overall: it is marked maestoso and not brillante. "The work is majestic, not festive; if it is taken too fast the majesty vanishes and breadth of line gives place to something skimped and curtailed." [Girdlestone, 422] Yet we cannot look here at this marvel in its entirety but cut to the height of the development section and ask pardon for doing so. Here is the climax wherein the figures of the subjects break up into different groups, delving into canon which then loosens into imitative passages. Charles Rosen describes this well:
The final triumph of the massive power of KV.503 is the second half of the development section which–in addition to the piano's figuration is in full six-part polyphony, with imitative writing almost strict enough to be called canonic, a tour de force of classical counterpoint comparable to the finale of the Jupiter symphony or the ball scene in Don Giovanni. [Rosen, 257]
19. String Quintet in C, KV.515 - Allegro I

The contrapuntal heights in the development here serves as the climax of the movement as in the previous concerto. The addition of the viola to the string quartet gives Mozart more possibilities for grouping instruments and moving themes amongst parts and with that flexibility Mozart greatly expands the scale of this sonata-form structure. This expansion is that of the tonic section, in which he remains exceedingly long through ingenious turns of modulation.
The unprecedented majesty of this work comes from the long immobility and the firm tonic harmony, its lyric poignance from the chromatic alterations that made the proportions conceivable. . . If listeners measured their experiences by the clock, the development section of the C major Quintet would seem too short; but complexity and intensity are a more than adequate substitute for length. The development is one of Mozart's richest: the climax is a double canon in four voices with a free counterpoint in the fifth (second viola) and almost the whole development is in minor, making the return to C major grand and luminous. [Rosen, 272]

Girdlestone, Cuthbert. Mozart and His Piano Concertos. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1964.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 1971.

[7] see Yudkin, Jeremy. Beethoven's "Mozart" Quartet. Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 30-74
[8] Of course given the structural similarities between this concerto and Beethoven's practice, such a shallow comparison is even more foolish.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Meditating with Marcus Aurelius

This brief post has in fact several origins. Such is because its brevity had until now dissuaded me from posting it until I could write at greater length and significance. Yet now I am prodded into posting. Again, the origins are as follows:

1) I want to note that Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius from 2009 is excellent and well worth reading. I'm not too keen on reviewing biographies, not quite knowing what to say. Aside from whether or not it held your interest and informed you, I suppose you "review" the ideas, in which case you could review those ideas by themselves. Anyway, it is well worth reading.

2) Likewise for the Hicks' translation of the writings of Marcus Aurelius, the "exhortations to myself." Their translation is currently published by Scribner under the title, "The Emperor's Handbook." It is far and away the best translation I have read. Oddly, though, the thin volume is a hardcover and while the cover is of a high quality the pages are of a very poor quality: dry and slightly yellowed after only a few years.

3) Philosophy can be a very ascetic discipline, sometimes, even often, too ascetic. Likewise even moral philosophy, which considers others and their rights, always seems to reduce to what it is best that I do

4) As regular readers know we pay manners a good deal of attention here. We like to maintain a gentlemanly disposition and keep up at APLV a congenial yet vigorous atmosphere. One might say most briefly that we refrain from being needlessly intemperate. This requires some kind of understanding of one's self in relation to his surroundings. Now as you might guess I'm inclined to make a philosophical problem out of that situation: i.e. people need philosophy and there really ought to be an argument as to why manners are necessary. Yet many manners are simply traditional. Too I don't think many people really want to quibble about the philosophical roots and dimensions of manners.  I think Fred Astaire was right too when he said, "The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any."

So lack of manners can be part lack of understanding and part lack of emulation. (Let's not split any more hairs about that, shall we?) Some people are, of course, rude. Yet something rather perturbed me just before. In the comments section on what I had considered a particularly civilized corner of the internet an author, scholar, and bright fellow reacted to a rather innocuous comment by saying, as if to someone else, "This nobody. . ." Aside from having seen arguments to better advantage, and what is that comment other than an attempt to discredit, what a nasty thing to say. It is even nastier upon further consideration. Now nasty things get said all the time and I wouldn't waste your time calling on everyone to be nice. I'm sure you could find something quite intemperate on cable news after only a few seconds.

My point is that he is a well-thought of and, I'm sure, normal person. Yet he just publicly referred to someone else as, essentially, being an insignificant non-entity, and when I read that I thought, "I don't want to be like him." That's what reminded me of Marcus Aurelius, since Book I of the sayings collected and usually published as his "Meditations" begins with a series of reflections on people in his life. He writes on about sixteen or so people, "From him I learned X."
Alexander the Platonist cautioned me against saying or writing in a letter, either too often or without absolutely needing to, "I'm too busy," as well as against using the demands of work as a constant excuse for ducking my social obligations and family duties.

Catulus taught me not to ignore a friend who is cross with me, even if I have done nothing to deserve his bad temper, but to seek to regain his affection.

My father enjoyed, without pretension or self-indulgence, the luxuries that his fortune lavished upon him; but when these were not available, he never seemed to miss them. . . He respected sound learning and those who seek the truth, and he remained on good terms with the rest, but from a distance.

From my father I learned "a cheerful and friendly disposition, within reason" and "a true regard for those who have mastered a particular skill or subject."
There is a great deal to discuss when considering these writings, but here I just want to note that this seems to me to be a fruitful exercise. The reflection is practical and personal, centered on people we know. It helps one see oneself in relation to others and to learn from and appreciate them. Also and considering our discussion of manners above, it helps one learn from the mistakes of others. Have we all not, at some point, met someone not so dissimilar from ourselves and not really enjoyed his company? On the other hand is there not someone we seek to emulate in some way? Surely most people we know are worthy of emulating in some way. This reflection seems also to emphasize considering character, our own and others', and not just isolated deeds. Do we like our character, do we work at improving it or is it a passive process of ossification by which it changes? What about the people we know? Do we want to be like them? Do we like them but still not want to be like them?

It seems to me this type of reflection might make for a third of a program of reflection. One like this which focuses on reflecting on others, one which focuses on one's personal character (perhaps something like Benjamin Franklin's "Thirteen Virtues" books) and something focusing on spirituality, like the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

That probably sounds like a lot of reflection to some people, but consider the alternative.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Great Victor Borge

Last week in a broad discussion of character and disposition, we discussed the Roman concept of comitas as relief from overwhelming seriousness. We concluded that a balanced disposition, predominately serious but relieved by humor, would be ideal. Let us consider the objects of humor. There would seem to be two choices: what you don't approve of and what you do. In the former case one is of course at great liberty to ridicule, satirize, and so forth. This can range from light mockery of the object to a devastating lampooning. Yet how does one see humor in something which one essentially takes seriously?

For example, of course we expect an artist to have a "serious" commitment to his craft and we expect him to have principles by which he creates his work. Whether the work is comic or serious we expect the artist to have a consistent vision for what he can, ought to, and wants to achieve. We would not like it if he had a trivial view of his craft, thinking his work disposable, ineffective, or slipshod. We expect a seriousness and consistency of purpose, or constantia.

Relief from this overwhelming seriousness, then, would have to be of a particular nature not to demean the craft. It would have to refrain from trivializing and not turn the craft into a farce. Humor at art's expense ought to poke fun at what is already odd or esoteric instead of turning its virtues into vices. One ought not mock its purpose but rather the often idiosyncratic means of the craft. 

Enter Victor Borge

Our discussion continues below, but only read after you've watched the video.

Part I | Part II

First, the jokes are not broad but of a specifically musical nature. It is odd that in opera you sing the same thing over and over, it is odd that you sing a word with all sorts of effects, and it is odd when you're playing that you start to hum and sway. It's funny to see him call attention to curious conventions by doing something "wrong." He points out the oddness that what is really just a name becomes and immortal symbol, that Joe Green becomes "Giuseppe Verdi." We see the wacky gestures of conductors and what we all pretend makes sense in musical theater (see videos below.)

Other details simple tickle the funny bone, "Oh you don't tune," his shock when she bursts out singing, changing his playing style, and substituting a tune here or there.

Pardon this detailed look at comedy, but it seems we don't often analyze what we laugh at. I'm not sure why when we so painstakingly look at "serious" works, but it seems prudent to take closer look at least to make sure we're not trivializing something we do find important. For example, none of the conventions of performance Borge makes fun of are of value in themselves, but only at the service of performance and opera, i.e. artistic expression, which he does not mock.

Lastly, he pulls off the whole routine without either pretentiousness or vulgarity, and without demeaning his craft. It's not mean-spirited or divisive. He's a gentlemanly pianist just wondering why this lady's standing next to his piano and screaming. Oh, and he's hilarious.

See also:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mozartian Counterpoint Part II

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V| VI | VII

We have, as we noted at the outset, not been comprehensive. We overlooked examples in Mozart's string quartets from 1773, KV.158, 168, 171, and 173, in which the teenage Mozart continues to react to the great advances thrown down in Haydn's series op. 20. Mozart would not return to the genre until 1782 with the great G major quartet, KV.387. We also overlooked one piece we certainly should not have, Mozart's variations on the French tune 'Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman' KV.265. Aside from being a charming and clever work the variations employ a variety of contrapuntal practices. As such and because many already know the tune it makes a great piece to start looking at different techniques like countering 4:1 and which dissonances are permitted under which circumstances. (Does Mozart follow Fux's rules?)

Neither have we looked at every canon, fugato and instance of imitation, for example in openings to movements like those of the Presto to Symphony No. 27 in G major, KV.199/161b and the Allegro finale to the "Paris" Symphony in D, KV.297. Fine and effective as they are we have confined our look somewhat. Alec Hyatt King's essay, "Mozart's Counterpoint: Its Growth and Significance" [4] includes an apt survey of this period of Mozart's work and development as well as some other pieces we will not look at in great detail.

This time we will not look at all of the pieces in chronological order but rather look at the Da Ponte collaborations of Figaro and Don Giovanni. In turn we will then look at the final four symphonies, then the remaining chamber works and sonatas, and finally the late works Die Zauberflöte and the Requiem.

11. Le nozze di Figaro, KV.492- Act II, Finale

No one wrote a finale like Mozart, which was fortunate for him because theater-goers expected a big finale. The poet of Mozart's Figaro, Lorenzo da Ponte, was sensitive to this theater convention in which one simply had to produce the whole cast in a big and exciting finale with which to end the act,
The finale must, through a dogma of the theater, produce on the stage every singer of the cast, be there three hundred of them. . .and if the plot does not permit, the poet must find a way to make it permit. . . and if then the finale happens to go badly, so much the worse for him!"[5]

At over 900 bars this finale is astoundingly large. One by one another character joins the ensemble as the plot untangles onstage until at last Marcellina and her party (the remainder of the cast) burst onto the stage. The whole group erupts into a big argument with their individual lines contrapunting [6] off one another yet it feels so natural one simply gets caught up in the drama. Indeed the drama and music complement so that the scene feels a perfect whole; one is in fact quite disinclined to take it apart. How can all of this bickering and this great squabble be so beautiful and appealing? Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus put it like this:
Sire, only opera can do this. In a play, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise. No one can understand a word. But with music, with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at once, and it's not noise - it's a perfect harmony. Isn't that marvelous?
Indeed. Here the music, both the force of the development leading up to the finale and all of the voices bouncing around at the end, breathe life, beauty, poignancy, and of course excitement into what is otherwise a domestic squabble. We often get sidetracked looking for complexity and hidden profundity that we forget that making something beautiful is an end in itself.

12. Don Giovanni, KV.527
N. B. We cut right to the Act I Finale as we have already discussed the Overture here in reasonable detail a few months ago.

Act I: Finale: Venite, pur avanti. . .

In the Figaro finale we saw the counterpoint was more or less invisible; it did not really call attention to itself. Perhaps we might say it was hiding in plain sight given its form and function in the piece. Here we see a similar use: in Don Giovanni's great ball at his villa he has several bands playing different dances. Yet all of the bands play these dances at the same time! Mozart has written a scene for us in which all of these dances with their different rhythms play on together but with each one naturally coming to the forefront every so often.

Mozart's delicate act of balancing the rhythms of a minuet, a contredance, and an allemande goes practically unnoticed as the ball unfolds: the peasants dance, Don Giovnanni corners Zerlina into a contredance, and Leporello busies Masetto with an allemande. Indeed the scene unfolds so smoothly and we fall so readily into the dances that when they break away all of a sudden we are all the more startled.

This is a busy scene and it may help to follow the score here where the three bands are separately notated. See the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe Act II, Finale. starting with m. 360.

Act II, Sextet "Sola, Sola in buio loco. . ." and Quintet, "Mille torbidi pensieri"

This scene requires a bit of summary. Leporello, in his master's clothes, has lured Donna Elvira from her house so Giovnanni could woo Elvira's maid. Leporello and Elvira wander into the garden where they are soon joined by Donna Anna, Ottavia, Masetto, and Zerlina. The quartet corners Leporello, disguised as Giovanni and in a shocking admission Elvira defends him and confesses her love for "her husband" as the angry quartet demands he die. Fearing for his life, Leporello takes off his disguise to the astonishment of all and everyone launches into a great bother.

While Leporello clings desperately to small phrases and rapidly stutters his fears, the Quintet rages in anger about Giovanni and in desperation at their fate that they should not only be tormented by this man but impotent before him. Leporello gradually recedes from the scene and the remaining lines diverge into polyphony as each character is carried away with his and her personal despair. The sudden breaking off and change of texture is extraordinarily arresting and the quick change back only serves to intensify the effect.

Leporello Quintet
Mille torbidi pensieri
Mi s'aggiran per la testa;
Se mi salvo in tal tempesta,
È un prodigio in verità
Mille torbidi pensieri
Mi s'aggiran per la testa:
Che giornata, o stelle, è questa!
Che impensata novità!
Fear and doubting quite distract me,
All my head is in confusion,
Would indeed 'twere a delusion,
And I safely from this spot.
Fear and doubting quite distract me,
All my head is in confusion,
'Tis a vision, a vile delusion!
Be this masking, be this masking ne'er forgot!

In discussing Piano Concerto No. 14 we quoted Arthur Hutchings referring to a particular aspect of Mozart's contrapuntal style and we would be wise to note it here also:

So sure is Mozart's sense of contrapuntal style that in all kinds of unexpected places–the finale presto of Don Giovanni, for instance– he makes a fugato gesture which makes us we are going to have something on the scale of the 'Jupiter' finale; yet when the parts disappear in smoke, or find themselves on firm homophonic ground, we are aware of no incongruity." [Hutchings, 87]
Once again calling for Giovanni's head the parties enter and harangue a terrified Leporello. Are they going to fly off in different directions as in the Act II sextet? No, larghetto they fall into separate asides about how they will continue their lives now that Don Giovanni is no longer. Then we launch into the D major Presto finale: are we building to some polyphonic extravaganza now? With rushing scales rising through two octaves starting on the tonic and alternating dynamics we are surely building to something. Yet we still find ourselves on homophonic ground. The sextet sings the moral and we go home. Fine dell' Opera. Having grown used to his style throughout the opera, here the absence of the expected is a great effect in itself.

[4] Music & Letters, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 12-20
[5] Quoted from p. 107 of Levarie, Siegmund. Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro: A Critical Analysis. University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 1952. Quote translation by Elisabeth Abbott, from the edition by Arthur Livingston (Philadelphia and London, 1929), p.133
[6] Credit to Dr. Levarie for this clever use of the word.

Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Democracy and Culture

Earlier this week we looked at some issues surrounding democracy and government. Our look at some popular music also tended in the direction of looking at democracy but in the context of culture, a vantage from which Sven Wilson of Pileus [1] and Damon Linker of The New Republic have looked today. Before we begin we ought to make the distinction that we're looking at not just democracy but a specific blend of liberalism and democracy. By democratic we mean that the law is determined predominately by the will of the people and by liberal we mean that the law tends to favor liberty over other goals like stability, security, et cetera.

Let us begin with Mr. Linker's essay, which itself begins with a fine summary of liberalism and what is perhaps its most important feature: that it excludes certain discussions from the law. That is, there is no consensus on certain issues. For example, in the United States everyone is bound to an accord on, say, "the right to be free from unreasonable searches," but not on what is moral. Linker's example is perhaps even clearer: that we agree on a right to happiness, but not what that happiness is. There is no accord as to whether a commercial or contemplative life is best. Yet undoubtedly people have their own answers, of some sort, to those questions. Mr. Linker has neatly addressed the crucial point that liberalism considers liberty to be the greatest good. It sounds obvious of course but such has great implications: what you consider good is somehow or potentially subordinated to liberty. Of course you are free to pursue that good for yourself and are free to encourage others to follow your view too, but you cannot ensure the good. Of course liberalism by virtue of protecting one's life and property goes a long way toward promoting what most people consider the good, for example the right to your life. Nonetheless the problem is ineluctable as questions of morality and law continue to generate conflict because of lack of consensus on a metaphysical issue.

Now Mr. Wilson addresses a unique feature of democracy: the great variety of ideas. Plato called democracy a "bazaar of constitutions" (παντοπώλιον πολιτειῶν) [3] Now in the absence of consensus on certain things (a feature of liberalism, as we just noted) some of that variety is bound to be considered bad (let us permit this vague word in this instance.) Now Plato considered [4] there to be an anarchic element to democracy and also to the democratic man: that the proper (good) element in society and in him is not what holds sway. Where then does the good come from in a liberal democratic society?

Undoubtedly there will be some idea and ideas considered good or better than others, and those ideas will be consolidated into two places: institutions and idealized individuals. To preserve those two elements, and thus the good, what is needed? To preserve an institution some kind of conservative element must prevail, and since it is conserving what is thought to be the good we may call it aristocratic. We do not here inquire here about means, i.e. how the proper people are found and brought to perform the necessary conserving.

In this group we may class institutions of education, connected with holding public office, and of religion. All of these institutions affect what is thought to be good and try to bring about that good. What Aristotle said of education[5] implies in some respect to all of these institutions: they attempt to make a plurality into unity. Yet Aristotle also says that like a harmony passing into unison, a state may be too unified. This is an inquiry of its own: to what extent does a plurality and a atmosphere of challenging ideas promote the good? What ought to ground society: what it firmly believes to be good or a spirit of inquiry toward the truth? Such inquiry would inherently challenge the status quo at all times and be damaging to stability. Would it turn all truth into a potential provisional truth? Speaking of inquiry specifically philosophy, Nietzsche wrote, "if philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker." [6]

This is perplexing. We need both plurality and unity, we need stable institutions but the potential to correct potential mistakes. (Aristotle questioned the wisdom of fixing even bad laws, because what you gain in justice you may lose in stability because such changes weaken confidence in the constitution. [7])

Of institutions then we see that balance is the most prudent course, between extreme rigidity which may harbor injustice and extreme laxness which commands no authority. Of the people we see a need for a balance there too, between an aristocracy which may corrupt to on oligarchy and a populism which may devolve into extreme democracy.

Yet what of the "idealized individual" we spoke of? Of course in any society some people are thought well of. Aristotle wisely made the connection that "to praise a man is akin to urging a course of action" and which people a society chooses to praise, be they real or fiction, modern or ancient, is akin to extolling particular virtues and action. We may then say that leading a public and good life is necessary in a liberal democracy. It is not sufficient simply to extol virtues but people must see that they can be lived. Thus to retreat from public life is damaging for at least two reasons. First, what is bad is most often well-known if not outright sensationalized. I say well-known because it is not necessarily qualified. Thus not to make the good known is to give what is bad full or fuller sway. Second, it makes one question as to whether what is good is plausible to do. Even if someone thinks a particular trait is a virtue, if he doesn't know anyone who lives that way, is he likely to emulate that behavior? It is doubtful.

Of course we must realize that any society short of a tyranny, either a tyranny by one or by many, will permit some diversity. In any non-tyrannical society some things will be common and some private. Forcing the good on some will gradually lead to tyranny and not acknowledging the good will lead to a relativist anarchy. Promoting the good, then, relies in some measure on strictly cultural forces, what we might most generally call the varieties of expression. Those expressions will demonstrate the bounds, and values, of the society.

All of these features, though, tie tightly into the individual. It is with thoughts and questions about the nature of the citizen and individual with which we ought to end our considerations. The question of whether the good individual and the good citizen may be one and the same was too perceived by Aristotle. In Book III of the Politics [10] Aristotle said the virtue of the citizen was relative to the constitution of which he is a member. Thus unless all men of the state share in perfect goodness, i.e. if they agree in all respects what the good is, then the good citizen and good individual cannot perfectly coincide. Yet Aristotle also says the purpose of the state is twofold, not just to fit him for the good life but to do so satisfy his social instinct. So if man's social instinct is liberal in nature our paradox makes more sense. It is then understandable that, totalitarianism and tyranny being unnatural, the type of government we attempted to describe and whose features we tried to balance is not unfitting.

Lest we be thought too tidily to have solved this timeless problem, one ought to concede a difficulty: that of tying action to cause. Aristotle stated [112 that actions are due to seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reasoning, nature, appetite. How a society chooses to determine what action is caused by which of those causes will determine much.

[3] Republic VIII. 557d.
[4] Republic VIII. 558c.
[5] Politics II. 12263b.
[6] Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. s. 27
[8] Politics I. 1269a.
[9] Rhetoric II. 1367b.
[10] Politics III. 1276b.
[11] Politics III. 1278b
[12] Rhetoric III.1369a

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gravitas and Comitas

In a recent conference between your humble co bloggers I commented that a lack of seriousness in one's character and purpose is not admirable. Likewise an overwhelmingly somber character is not particularly healthy or satisfying for one's friends either. No one looks forward to the presence of the dour fellow, no matter his brilliance, who drags down an evening's pleasant badinage with his dilemmas. The remaining question of course is how to balance the two and the apparent dichotomy has fascinated, or plagued, man for ages, from the time of Greek tragic and comic theater and the contrasting personalities of Heraclitus and Democritus (the "happy philosopher" and the sad) to Milton's poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, in which he characterized and contrasted the happy man with the thoughtful man. Of course different movements and cultures had their ideals too but two of them to me seem particularly wise, and similar. 

The Romans contrasted the virtues of gravitas and levitas. Gravitas is the characteristic of man who understands the the importance of the matter at hand and in turn treats the matter with appropriate seriousness. Maintaining such a disposition requires stability of character (disciplina) and a firmness of purpose (constantia.) For example, one takes placing his vote seriously because he is aware of many aspects of it which are serious, the history of his nation and government, the fact he is delegating his natural right to someone else, the need to do good, and so forth. To treat it lightly is to treat it as if it is trivial and thus demeans it. Eventually, demeaning it will result in it. . . not having any meaning. Thus treating that which is serious with levity is in fact not just foolish but damaging. It is not levitas which ought to balance gravitas, but comitas, a general "good humor" and relief from the burden of seriousness. It does not exist for its own sake but in order that you may do what is necessary. Such a distinction is not too removed from us, wherein one used to speak of being "amused" or "diverted" by something, something which was appreciated for the relief it provided but not praised too much. Aristotle put this is in similar terms:
The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. And we say that serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement, and that the activity of the better of any two things-whether it be two elements of our being or two men-is the more serious; but the activity of the better is ipso facto superior and more of the nature of happiness. [Ethics,; Trans. Ross]
Indeed the idea of "good humor" was up until recently fairly common. A little farther back, John Adams was quite fond of the turn of phrase and the ideal of the man of good manners, sound judgment, and balanced disposition that it connoted. "When a young New England merchant named Elkanah Watson, the son of a friend, wrote to inquire what sort of manners he should cultivate in anticipation of touring Europe, Adams's answer went far to explain his own conduct under the circumstances and the kind of guidance he was giving his sons."
You tell me, sir, you  wish to cultivate your manners before you  begin your travels. . . permit me to take the liberty of advising you to cultivate the manners of your own country, not those of Europe. I don't mean by this that you should put on a long face, never dance with the ladies, go to a play, or take a game of cards. But you may depend upon this, that the more decisively you adhere to a manly simplicity in your dress, equipage, and behavior, the more you devote yourself to business and study, and the less to dissipation and pleasure, the more you will recommend yourself to every man and woman in this country whose friendship or acquaintance is with your having or wishing. There is an urbanity without ostentation or extravagance which will succeed everywhere and at all times. You will excuse this freedom, on account of my friendship for your father and consequently for you, and because I know that some young gentlemen have come to Europe with different sentiments and have consequently injured the character of their country as well as their own bother [and at home]. [McCullough, 237]
Adams speaks of a balance, an "urbanity without ostentation" which seems most reasonable. The advice has a clear Roman sensibility, unsurprising given Adams' education and his knowledge of and respect for those ancient people. One ought to cultivate good sense and a manly simplicity, not let one's character be whittled down by activities which dissipate. Be serious, but do not offend with severity, be neither too easygoing or rude in sternness. Of course one ought to attend to his affairs and duties also. You'll be respected for when you abstain and when you retire from fun to attend to your private affairs you'll be well-thought of.

Of course achieving this requires time and experience, but it also requires one to know himself and where to draw the limits on all things. To perfect such a disposition you ought to pull it all off in your own idiom and with a congenial charm. Simple, no? No, it's a life's work of conscious effort, but when you're done so you might just be an old gentleman.

McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York. 2001.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Primitive Romance

A preliminary excursion to the crossroads of individual taste, society, culture, and art.

We'll look at these ideas in greater detail and with other examples in the future. Again, this is just a first look at the complex crossroads of many other ideas and problems. Comments, questions, and animadversions are welcome as usual.

It is not my custom here to reflect on things I dislike. I mostly only deviate from this rule to examine novel arguments but when it comes to art I'm particularly reluctant to discuss what I don't like. Such is because, first, that I do not want to endure the displeasure of experiencing bad art. Second is because such negative discussion serves less the purpose of persuading those who disagree than does praising what one sees to be good. This second reason is also more amicable to a gentlemanly disposition. Every so often, though, there is a piece of art which is very well made but not to my taste and such does have an interest for me. In those works are expressions by talented or intelligent, if not inspired or ingenious, individuals who simply have different taste than myself. That fact inspires inquiry: that reasonable people have different values. Also, such an inquiry might be reveal interesting aspects of culture.

The following work I am about to explore will likely be outside the taste of many readers. Feel free not to read the middle part of this essay: I won't take it personally! I have too much appreciation for what art can mean and be to an individual to blame someone for not wanting to see something they don't like. (Though I can blame them for their taste.)

Yet this piece has two additional interesting aspects which I would present in the light of statements from two different authors.

First from Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind"
Plato's teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror. Nietzsche, who in large measure agreed with Plato's analysis, says in The Birth of Tragedy (not to be forgotten is the rest of the title, Out of the Spirit of Music) that a mixture of cruelty and coarse sensuality characterized this state, which of course was religious, in the service of gods. Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech and it is alogon, without articular speech or reason.  It is not only unreasonable, it is hostile to reason. Even when articular speech is added, it is utterly subordinate to and determined by the music and the passions it expresses. [Bloom, 71]

To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul–to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness. . . Hence, for those who are interested in psychological health, music is at the center of education, both for giving the passions their due and for preparing the soul for the unhampered use of reason. [Bloom, 72]

Nietzsche, particularly, sought to tap again the irrational sources of vitality, to replenish our dried-up stream from barbaric sources, and thus encouraged the Dionysian and the music derivative from it. . . This is the significance of rock music. I do not suggest that it has any high intellectual sources. But it has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere where there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions. . . The irrationalists are all for it. . . But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire–not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored. [Bloom, 73]
Please pardon the length of the quote from the late Professor Bloom, but I think he puts the situation, noticed long ago by Plato, particularly well. We do not quite, or perhaps at all, know why music moves us the way it does, but we know that it is powerful. We may also say rather safely, I think, that art is important to people. It gives life and expression to the innermost emotions. One's taste in art, and thus what it unlocks in you and what it vivifies, suggests what one likes having unlocked. The unique blend of emotions brought out by each artist and each work gives the artist and the work its unique character, and sometimes one may find it corresponds with his own to remarkable degree. Ayn Rand was right to say that when one finds such a work, one ought not say that "I like this work, but I am this work" [1]

Music and society are intimately related too. Adopting the positions from above, one can only imagine the significance of being able to play music. I reflected on a fugue from Bach's Art of Fugue a few weeks ago. [2] Consider that fugue, and then add the dimension of being part of it. Music is unique amongst the arts in that it requires a human to make it again and again. The composer brings it into existence, but it must be kept alive by others. Music is not the note on the page but the note as it is played; it exists only for a time and requires a human to give it pattern and, rather literally, life. Aside from solo works, music is uniquely collaborative too: music with multiple parts requires a particular degree of communication, affection, and unity amongst the players. It is by its nature a unifying, harmonizing, of individual parts. It is no wonder thinkers from Aristotle to Emerson have used musical analogies to describe the ideal natures of human relations.

Again, there is considerable mystery here. Why do certain cadences and intervals seem to have the characters they do? Why does one march to a march and waltz to a waltz? Many forms are of course formal inventions and conventions, but they are rooted in something natural to us. To return to Bloom and Nietzsche, the elemental power of music is undeniable. This is not a new discovery. Countesses swooned for Beethoven's sonatas and the Greeks certainly knew the strength of music. One is unsure whether Bach's audience knew to what heights they were being called or if Mozart's Vienna knew what he had gotten away with in Don Giovanni. We recently discussed two takes on Wagner's overwhelming scene in Act II of Tristan und Isolde [3]

All of the art we have discussed on this blog has used a sophisticated, traditional yet evolving, musical language to apply power toward different ends. Some composers were more conservative than others and some had varying ideas on when passion passed the point of being pleasing or elucidating. In September 1781 Mozart wrote his father to discuss Wolfgang's upcoming Opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
A person who gets into such a violent rage transgresses himself every order, moderation, and limit; he no longer knows himself.–In the same way the Music must no longer know itself-but because passions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and Music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing, in other words always remain music. [4]
Art then is not simply realism, but a particular representation of life. Such requires shaping, restraint, and taste, and there are as many variations as artists, as we said above.

Yet some music, it sounds curmudgeonly and passé to say 'rock and roll' as Bloom did and besides I don't really know what that genre is, either in essence or practice, so I'll just say "some music," and art does not utilize sophisticated and intellectual means of expression. It does not require appreciation of subtleties of structure or symbolism. It needs no "pattern." You need not bring anything to it. In discussing Dante and his travail in the underworld we saw the case of Paolo and Francesca and said "It is the vulgar moment that knows only itself." [5] To expand that, we might say the vulgar individual is who does not know the culture from whence he has sprung, his place in it, and the fact that he is contributing to create a new one. We may say precisely the same of art.

Such brings us to our second point, which we see in T. S. Eliot's 1948 essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." This is in fact a corollary of our definition of vulgarity, which is that culture requires participation and an overlapping of shared interests. [Eliot, 27] Both such interests but also conflicts must have meaning before they can be dramatized and perceived as significant as an audience. As such, individual, culture, and art are all inextricably linked. (This line of thinking has interesting implications for the nature of pluralistic societies, but we will discuss them, and the rest of Eliot's essay, at another date.)

One might even propose a "cultural way of thinking." Such may sound contrived or perhaps indistinguishable from being simply intellectual yet I believe the distinction is worth considering. Eliot wisely noted [Eliot, 22] that artists are frequently insensitive to other arts and that who contributes to culture is not necessarily cultured. Additionally, consider that humans are uniquely able to pass on their knowledge and experiences which crystallize into a larger conception of the past. Such "pasts" vary locally, regionally, nationally, and so forth. Thus a great deal of simply and strictly "intellectual" knowledge in fact has a tradition. For example, it is no simple act of endearment to write a sonnet for someone since a sonnet has a long and rich history. Names too have cultural histories, and even the most culturally insensitive person chooses the name of his child with care. (The invention of "new" names here is significant, I think.) This sense of cultural thinking is closely related to the importance of storytelling in a culture. [6] Words too, and many of them, have particularly interesting and significant histories, and though it sounds trivial to say it, to use a particular one means something. Using our definitions of culture and vulgarity, imagine a "vulgar" sentence: you wouldn't know what any of the words meant. It would be a different language.

What kind of "art" would result in the absence of culture? We'll revisit this questions after we look at a particular piece, but for now consider two possibilities: it would either be wholly new and so lacking a past would require one to learn it as a new language or it would be consciously primitive, using only the most fundamental means of communication to get its point across. I propose to examine such a piece now, with your indulgence.

Looking at
Bad Romance
by Lady Gaga

[see the music video on YouTube]

N.B. It was my original intent to make this a video review, but I didn't feel like wrangling with issues of copyright for posting my commentary over the whole video on YouTube. In this written form, though, it is impractical to add so many pictures so I suggest you keep the video open in another window and manually scroll it along as we look at it.

N.B. Certain words have been translated into Latin for courtesy and decorum.

The opening is surprising. It in fact begins with a canon [7] on a sort of harpsichord-sounding instrument. I don't suspect many people have noticed this, and such is significant in consideration of our discussion of culture. Significantly, she's playing the music from a recorder, which she shuts off. The canon and the language and world they represent are not the world of this video. Such is consistent with the title, Bad Romance. Putting aside the history of the word romance and its despoiling, we may take it at the obvious face value and say it simply refers to relations between men and women. Bad, usually a useless and generic word, is in fact significant and enough here. She's seeking out a bad romance, clearly indicating she knows not what the good is, but that something better is possible. (That these are relative terms here is not significant.) This is, then, at least a somewhat consciously primitive expression. Yet is expression the proper word. The title and opening suggests some (however general or peripheral, one cannot say) awareness of the cultural contrast we are discussing, and thus a deliberateness in construction. Such of course does not preclude drawing conclusions about the significance of its popularity.

Notice the visceral nature of the opening frame: the feline postures of the women and the aggressive postures of the men. Notice how offensive the back-lighting is, how the dog is pretty much on par with everyone else. Notice her baroque clothes and shoes in contrast to the poor dress of the others and the starkness of the room.

The first music is the video's only music, the vocal "oh" theme, the "caught in a bad romance" theme, and the thumping bass. Could it get any more "barbaric?" The lens flare in the dark evokes a vague sense of the cosmic. Notice I say, "evoke" since there is no significance of the cosmic here. There is merely effect and an appeal to the emotions evoked by the image of colored spheres against blackness. No relationship is suggested.

The title in the next scene, "Bath Haus of Gaga" is too an evocation: an appeal to, for Americans, the foreign and exotic. Surely something exotic happens in a bath haus, far away, no? Consider the dialogue:
Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah
Roma, roma, ma
Gaga, ooh, la, la
Want your bad romance

Essentially nonverbal grunting, again against the throbbing bass. When the characters come out of their cases, they introduce what becomes a motif throughout the video: the curled, claw-like hand gestures and the staccato swiping gestures. It is as if they are being born: they are blind and swiping about, and all they know is "want." Now the motion of the characters becomes synchronized to the beat, a feature which will remain throughout. Again, this synchronization is an old trick: anyone who has set slides to music knows the ease with which one may synchronize the two. This synchronization, here, fosters the frenetic mood of the video. To, say, syncopate the movements would have made a statement of contrast. Not to have synchronized anything, a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, would invite contemplation. This is a simple, primal, thumping: the libidinous rhythm.

Note the cacophonous and negative vocabulary:
I want your ugly, I want your disease
I want your everything as long as it's free
"Free" as in disconnected, without asking for anything in return, without bounds.

I want your drama, the touch of your hand
I want your leather studded kiss in the sand
Look at the contrast there: a pleasant image, a very human one, of the hand contrasted against "leather studded kiss in the sand," a nonsense phrase used for contrast and to evoke the primitive as she grasps her ilum. She proceeds to make a gun gesture with her hand, pointing up, a gesture simultaneously phallic and adversarial. Now this pink-tressed version of her takes the stage, in a gesture rolling her eyes back and partially sticking her tongue out, suggesting an ecstasy of abandon. Also, note the disproportionately large eyes. Human eyes being unique in size, proportion, et cetera, they are enlarged here to more strongly suggest humanity and innocence, since otherwise we would grow disconnected and disenchanted. We will see scenes of a far more pure version of her, clad in white and with white hair, inter-cut toward the same purpose. Yet she chants, "bad, bad, bad."
The following scene and dialogue again is all effect, with no particular connection or conceptualizations. It includes the taped papillae, (of course drawing more, not less, attention to them), the forced bathing, forced drinking, the spitting, the crying; none of this has any meaning other than the crudeness of it, to be associated with the baseness of the urge.

Consider more of the words and note their adversarial nature:

I want your love, and all your love is revenge
I want your horror, I want your design
'Cause you're a criminal as long as you're mine

Now we shift to two new scenes which will alternate. Starting with the second: she's in a sort of cylindrical semi-cage in a room with white tiled-walls and lit with white light from above. It's an antiseptic environment, essentially a sterile torture chamber. She's tortured by the urge. Again, realize all the images are deliberately evoked and consistent. See her protruding spine and the bald bat on her head. She looks like an animal in a cage.

To the return of the "gah gah" theme and thumping, she's stripped by the women down to what looks like an ancient ecdysiast's outfit, something worn long ago to please a far away potentate.

I shrink from the task of interpreting the following:
I want your psycho, your vertical stick
Want you in my rear window, baby, you're sick
Now we see the male figure. He is presented as the superior: seated, with a brass jawpiece, (emphasizing his jawline and thus masculinity and also his superior status by its artifice), drinking out of a glass. She, in her outfit, crawls towards him on all fours and the camera shot is from between his legs. The words illustrate a contradiction: "You know that I want you. . . Cause I'm a free canicula, baby!" More words, not reproduced here, escalate the innuendo.

Now she takes the stage. Even more scantily clad, she stands amidst clear jewels suspended in the air, as if a constellation revolves around her. A scene where she is adorned by a series of hoops follows, again another image of her centrality. These are both more cosmic invocations. Also, now she is the center of attention, encircled by men instead of having to approach them.

Rosary beads are draped around her and a clear crucifix is draped over her ilum. She proceeds to make the sign of the crucifix. Why? She is not using the rosary (i.e. praying the rosary) or venerating the crucifix. Such would in fact draw on cultural notions. It is invoked as a totem, perhaps even in a sense an example of sympathetic magic, wherein by having this object and making this gesture, what they stand for is hoped to be brought about. But what do they stand for? Merely, "something significant."

Now she chants mostly meaningless phrases as she walks about, adorned with colorfully studded costumes. This scene is redundant as it merely emphasizes her new success.
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
Walk, walk, fashion, baby
Work it, move that thing, crazy
The coda is redundant. The final scene however, begins with another animal: a bearskin costume (with head) which she disrobes from, revealing her derriere. The bed, on which the man sits, is flanked by animal heads on the walls. She repeats the main phrase, only now in French, again only a gesture of exoticism (and euphony, here.) The bed bursts into flames and the final shot is of a charred mattress, her lover's charred skeleton, and her sparking mamillae. The "harpsichord-theme" plays but this is only to create a sense of symmetry with the beginning.

The release of her desire is of consumption and destruction, instead of consummation. There is release and destruction. Again, this is consistent: what else could there be? Using our earlier defined sense, this is vulgar, it is disconnected from a culture of ideas. The primitive music and symbols could appeal to the most undeveloped individual. I would suggest only in the actual absence of culture could this video be so popular as it is. What could the video mean to someone with a culture, with a way of relating to the world, a way both inherited and created? This video speaks no language. It is either acultural or a subculture of barbarism. In the absence of a shared culture, shared language and conceptions, we get the primitive.

To speak of the matter in the reverse: in the absence of inherited forms, i.e. mainly symbols and structures, a work is left either so that it can be understandable only on its own terms or appeals only to the basest experience of life. In the former case the work speaks only its own language, putting it at great distance. In the latter case, the work feels primal, without any layer of removal. Such art may have great power and indeed it is possible to have the forms without the sense of the fire and depths below. The use of a particular body of forms, though, creates a particular cultural identity, one inherited, added to, and passed on. When forms die they become relics, which are used without any sense of the intense connection to the concepts with which they were associated. One might argue they when that connection is lost they ought not to be used. Perhaps, but their passing should be noted.
In this respect it is possible to speak of a culture as alive, one which accepts its inherited forms and with enthusiasm reworks and modifies them. For such to happen the connection to the original concept, the passion for it, must endure, in the context of whatever emotion in particular.

This new acultural art would be desperate to re-kindle feeling and significance. Bad art, perhaps it might be, but it would represent a cultural bottoming-out and an attempt to start anew. (If not in the intent of its creation, then so if it is popularly well-received.) It would be primitive, consciously or not, because of the absence of the old, archaic, forms which have lost the power to communicate.

Instead of shared concepts we see invocations of items: images to bring about feelings but not ideas. None of the animals depicted (or mimicked) are symbolic, they are simply present as animals to evoke a sense of savageness. There are no symbols of sexuality, like the snake or a brace of hares (a Late Gothic symbol.) The functions of the imagery is not dissimilar from that of the roots of animistic cultures and those associated with fertility rites. Yet in the West those roots grew into structures and culture. Here we have the raw forces with no interpretive layer between us and those forces. There is simply yielding to the force and no conceptualization of it. There is only the rawness of the desire, no suggestion of what the human reaction ought to be. There is no attempt to understand the force as part of something larger. There is no sense of binding with or understanding the nature of things, of religio and reason. We have the the "dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul" but no attempt to make them "serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man's duties a fullness," by use of form and beauty. There is also, then, no elevation of such to the realm of the transcendent.

The following comparison is made not to contrast the quality of the music, but because the following is the perfect opposite of the aforementioned. Consider the final opera of Wolfgang Mozart, Die Zauberflöte.[8] In it he uses a wealth of language to elevate the opera's themes (love, the relation of men and women, knowledge, the good) to the level of the sacred. He uses all manner of symbols, instrumentation, cadences, harmonies, words, et cetera, to elevate the ideas to sacredness. Discussing Nietzsche, Bloom wrote, "a shared sense of the sacred is the surest way to recognize a culture. . . What a people bows before tells us what it is." [Bloom, 204]

Love proclaims the nobility of man and woman and together they reach toward the divine.

Act I: Dutet, Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen

Not only the moral world but the mood of The Magic Flute is the opposite of the music video we discussed. Here one does not yield to desires but channels them in particular expressions, sometimes the opposite of the emotion: to achieve knowledge you must go by the way of unknowing, to achieve unity you must go by the way of separation.

What ended in destruction, base release, and vulgarity above, ends in sacred, harmonious, unity in Mozart. He uses and builds on an inherited tradition and culture his audience knew to say to them, "See, see how glorious these things, our things, are!"

Act II, Finale.

[1] Citation needed. I'll provide it soon.
[4] Letter of W. A. Mozart to his father, in Salzburg. September 26, 1781 See, Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life. Edited by Robert Spaethling. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 2000. (p. 286)
[7] for a primer on counterpoint, see introduction here:
[8] It is worth noting the trend of increasingly elaborate opera stagings, i.e. attempts to add easily-understandable spectacle and effects to make the opera more exciting, appealing, et cetera, instead of relying on the music to do such. Karajan's 1987 production is a great exception: see the "simplicity" of the cosmic dimension:

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.

Allan Bloom on Nietzsche & Nihilism

On Teaching Nietzsche. Delivered at Boston College, 1983.

Democracy and Freedom

A Response to "What Kind of Person Runs for Public Office?"

A Talk From Doug French
Mises Daily: Monday, October 04, 2010 by Doug French

This argument, it seems to me, is not so dissimilar from the usual Classical Liberal position of government. Both acknowledge, axiomatically, "something" ill-tending in the human condition. Likewise, both acknowledge that it ought to be counter-balanced. The Classical Liberal thinks the ill-tending aspects which damage "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are counterbalanced by permanent mandates in law applicable to all. The anarchist position is that even such initially sensible a mandate will give way to more and more coercion. Also, enshrining anything in permanent law invariably binds one person to the will of another. Thus private law, between consenting individuals, is thought ideal since, by nature, it only involves consenting parties. This seems sensible but also seems to me to create three problems: 1) How do you prevent the rise of a state, and 2) on what grounds without implicating others and placing them under your private law. Also, 3) how does one address the problem of third parties, for example how would you punish a breach of contract? Of course ideally you would spell it out ahead of time but people being fallible, there will be vagaries, differences of opinion, and omissions. Arbitration seems a plausible solution, but how would you compel him to arbitration?

Of course over time there could be conventions and procedures which, while nonbinding, might be able to smooth private dealings. This brings us to Mr. French's points, via Hayek, about democracy, which seems to me to be novel. Heretofore I have understood the nature of government to be the central issue to the anarcho-capitalists, i.e. that its coercive monopoly of the law is the their primary complaint. Yet French cites three additional problems of a democratic nature which Hayek, who was not an anarchist, outlined in The Road to Serfdom.
  1. People of higher intelligence have different tastes and views. So, as Hayek writes, "we have to descend to the regions of lower moral and intellectual standards where the more primitive instincts prevail," to have uniformity of opinion.
  2. Second, those on top must "gain the support of the docile and gullible," who are ready to accept whatever values and ideology is drummed into them. Totalitarians depend upon those who are guided by their passions and emotions rather than by critical thinking.
  3. Finally, leaders don't promote a positive agenda, but a negative one of hating an enemy and envy of the wealthy.
These are cited axiomatically and I shall take them as such, not endeavoring to prove them. Let us keep this discussion theoretical. Now these features are those of a democratic state, let us say. Yet in an anarchist society, one free of coercion, these forces would be just as free to play out as they would in a democracy. The intelligent would have to seek a way to appeal to the foolish, perhaps condescending to "primitive instincts," and they would be free to promote a negative agenda. Thus it is possible for such undesirable things to occur in both anarchist and democratic societies. What difference would there be? First, not everyone would be implicated. If you didn't want to follow you wouldn't have to. Second, unlike in a democracy which implicitly relies on a sanction of majoritarianism, in an anarchist society what they did would not have any particular sanction except 1) that the parties involved gave their permission, and 2) that only parties who gave their permission were involved. This sounds like a significant improvement. But what if the majority wanted your land? To what authority or counterbalance of force would you appeal? I don't think anyone would suggest such an example of theft would not occur simply because it was illegal. It could of course happen quite suddenly: the Athenians famously voted to execute all the adult men of the island of Melos during the Peloponnesian War.

Now let us also assume Hoppe's statement is true also, that the best naturally rise to the top, that is if the law is not rigged against them and/or in favor of others. French continues:

On the other hand, democracy affords the opportunity for anyone to pursue politics as a career. There is no need for the masses to recognize a person as "wise" or "successful," as Hoppe's natural order would require. Nor does one have to be born into the ruling family, as in the case of monarchy.
This does not seem to follow, to me. French attributes as unique to democracy a feature which is not a feature of government but of public life in a free society and thus one which is common also to an anarchist society. A fool can get up in a democratic or anarchist assembly and speak. Is he more likely to be accepted in one of these forms than the other? Why? It does not seem one is more likely than the other. Also, it is not a question of incompetence. Rather it is a question of the ill-tending we spoke of earlier. Indeed unless government jobs are apportioned at random in the democracy there is equal incentive for competence, the question is what else is there incentive for? One may be highly proficient at his job and still be a criminal and use his position for great evil. One might also say competence is not the greatest prerequisite for a position. There are in fact other characteristics which people, even rational people, prize, such as charisma. Famously and lamentably, brilliant men have been taken in by charismatic leaders.

French also quotes approvingly of Hoppe's notion that "natural elites" have some better quality than "democratic elites," i.e. elites voted to be elites by a majority. French goes on to write:
On the other hand, in democracy politicians demand attention, seeking acclaim for anything they do, continually taking credit for policies they say have made our lives better when in fact these interventions make our lives worse. There is no need to list the names of politicians who have committed crimes or ethics violations — it would take all day. The point is made.

Even if we take the dichotomy as axiomatic, this contrast is not persuasive. There is just too much assumed here: does the demand for attention translate into something more tangibly and demonstrably bad? Is the intervention in question actually worse? Plenty of people, government officials and private citizens alike, commit crimes and ethics violations. Also, sometimes members of both groups get off without just punishment. The question is about the nature of power and whether someone with authority will misuse it. Earlier this year we examined this question and saw that Hobbes, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin had, quite appropriately, ask the question too.[1] Simply put, who is more likely to be corrupted by power (and toward what kind of corruption would he tend), a rich man or a poor man?

French, paying due credit to Judge Andrew Napolitano for the insight, appropriately quotes Augustine's conception of libido domini — the lust for domination — which "entices men towards waging wars and committing all manner of violence." If I may speculate, French and also many anarchists would suggest that the state is what enables people with such desires to dominate. Eliminate the state, and you will eliminate the domination. Eliminate the means and you prevent the end. Yet, and we return to what we asked before, how do you eliminate the state and moreover how do you prevent it from coming into being? Moreover, how do you prevent it from coming it being without coercion and without creating public mandates, i.e. common law? Additionally, what would become of the desire? It would undoubtedly persist, and is it not possible for a demagogue to gain a willing majority in any population of people in a free society?

Regarding Maslow's "morality pyramid" it certainly seems as if any successful person would fit the characteristics of a "self-actualizer." Since I don't know how Maslow defines morality I cannot comment on it, but even tyrannical leaders would fit his bill insofar as they undoubtedly think they are moral. Yet French's point is that these people desire fame, which brings us back to our observation from the previous paragraph: what's stopping them from acting on this desire in an anarchist society? French seems to assume that such power-hungry people are incompetent and thus a free market would mean they would fail in competition with the non-power-hungry leaders who are competent. In contrast, power-hungry people are often quite competent and indeed they are often the most effective, for good or ill, in the long term.

Mr. French via Maslow, has already said only 2 percent of people are self-actualizing: we might wonder then, what percent of people know that when they see it?

The question any student of politics asks, and which everyone from Plato and Aristotle has asked is, how does a society get the people who are good at doing something doing that thing they are good at? It is another, though closely related, question as to how to deal with the human desire to control. It seems to me Mr. French's argument interpolates these questions and such is why the result is ultimately not persuasive. Undoubtedly the similarities to the Classical Liberal position demonstrate why the two groups are often in the same camp on issues. Untangling the two positions is surprisingly difficult work and probably seems like hairsplitting to firm statists.

It would seem though, that if one assumes what we have discussed about human nature to be true, some state is inevitable even if it is not wholly desirable. Liberalism presents all liberals with a problem, since what destroys it is not the state or a particular ideology (though the means of repression is the state and it is concentrated in certain ideologies) but in human nature. The liberal paradox is that freedom exists naturally and is destroyed naturally, or if not naturally cyclically. (Might one say what is cyclical is natural?)

I agree with Mr. French that many ardently pro-democracy people lose sight of freedom and some do offer the mantra that "we just need to elect the right people." Yet this essentially the same question as "how does a society get the people who are good at doing something doing that thing they are good at?" Yet doing the good always requires people who can do the good. There does not seem to be any guarantee to me of having such people. It is unjust to force people and people can be quite irrational and unreasonable, and unpredictably so. Now I'm not saying a government cannot be inherently unjust. They most certainly can be, often are, and often governments turn unjust.

French continues:
. . .it can safely be predicted that the democratic welfare state will collapse, according to Hoppe, and what is necessary besides a crisis is ideas — correct ideas — and men capable of understanding and implementing these ideas once the opportunity arises.
Well why haven't they yet implemented such ideas or attempted to? Perhaps because the government has a monopoly on the law. Yet Mr. French's points have all been about democracy, in particular points which cannot be undone without force. Likewise he writes, "So the natural elites have an obligation to make sure the truth is spread." Perhaps it would be more useful to suggest they become the democratic elites. Unless, of course and in the paradigm of Hayek, whatever is popular is "of lower immoral standards." But that observation is much wider implications as one might notice. One must be wary of casually uttering maxims. Nonetheless Mr. French ought to be lauded for suggesting people personally support people they think are doing good.

At the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin said that even good government "is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall be come so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other."

Maybe that's so, maybe it's not, but it seems more plausible than endlessly fingering the state either as the cause or solution to all problems.

[1]See Part II of Thoughts on the American Executive.