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The Artist’s Conscience Concert
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Matthew Paris

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 1:32 pm - The Artist’s Conscience Concert

On this late afternoon on September 18th after leaving schule I attended this spectacle at Alice Tully Hall featuring choral music of Luigi Dallapiccola and Luigi Nono. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish Rosh Hashonah than to attend such a humanistic rite as Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra had prepared for the New York community. Both Luigis, both ineptly named for us, two great composers, monuments to what music is all about, merely continued my Rosh Hashonah meditations about turning from the follies of the past in a slightly more guised manner.
Although only one of the texts for the music was from the Torah, these high and ethical works ware contemporary masterpieces in the sprite of a way of thinking that is rooted in Hebrew and Greek inquiries about the human spirit. Boethius, Savanarola and Garcia-Lorca are sages who have wrestled with all about how to free the soul from bonds of material flux to attain harmony and righteousness irrespective of all the celestial drew and darkness that threatens and cows the spirit.
All the texts were consciously in that prophetic or philosophic traction, aimed at that freedom, the testimony of men who took action to embrace that power to its end as did Abraham, the hero of the Rosh Hashonah parsha. Though some of these poets had inglorious ends in the material world they are part of our starry pavanne of prophets and patriarchs.
Dallapiccola and Nono as well as Botstein conspicuously offered this concert not as abstract music inviting us to enjoy the celestial logic of Pythagorean counterpoint as one might feel properly listening to a Haydn quartet or The Art of Fugue; this was exhortary music that was in the service of the human spirit in a theoretical way in the manner of Beethoven. Both Nono and Dallapiccola aimed at using the concert hall as a bully temple to savor the delicious and painful complex enigma of being human.
They fashioned these dolorous encomiums in a time in which Europe, which some rabid provincial among us still call the apogee of civilization, had almost blown up the planet, advanced some of the most weird and wicked politics one might imagine in a realm that had lived off a colonial mentality for centuries even in peace that treated metals, people and the hapless building blocks of the cosmos with the familiar emotion the grinning Frank Purdue flaunts toward his choice roosters.
Some of this music deals inferentially with the covert poisons of the soul that seep into our jejunum when after studying atomic physics we have a contempt for Creation. The vigor, beauty and elegance of these works we heard in Alice Tully testified to the power of the human spirit to live in such political odiums yet maintain charity, morals and sanity.
Botstein and his virtuoso orchestra were masterful and almost flawless outside of one unfortunate entrance of a viola. The Concert Chorale of New York under James Bagwell were astonishing. They negotiated treacherous leaps in this music as if it were easy; more importantly they fashioned it into a direct emotional language.
In the Nono Rachel Rosales, the soprano, was sumptuous and expressively dolorous, Rodrigo Gomez with a hard part not sprachstimme yet oscillating between speech and song was very earnest and persuasive. Laura Conwesser on the flute was stylish and elegant. Desiree Halac-Martinoli, the spoken voice in the last Nono movement was an epic theatre presence.
I think most of us at Alice Tully would be astonished even if the scores proved otherwise that we were listening to twelve tone music. The emphasis in the whole concert was on melody that seemed to work on altered chords, an implication of a tonal base, rather straightforward rhythms.
This wasn’t Pierre Boulez’ dream of ultimately serialized music. As Botstein points out both these composer and their model Schoenberg were influenced by Debussy.
At this point it isn’t easy for many of us in a concert to distinguish between the idiom as well as the intent of Der Jakobsleiter and the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. On the page it might look different; the aim and effect of both works is to create a very expressed nuanced and subtle musical language in which each note has its own miraculous musical integrity. The whole of these pieces are at once sensational and sensitive to the eternal concerns of the spirit. It’s not what’s there but what’s not there: discernable Western harmony, that makes this aesthetic possible.
Schoenberg after all gave us Moses und Aron, the Jakobsleiter, the Ode To Napoleon as well as his intriguing last choral pieces with their political overtones as spiritual-political theatre music. Botstein says both composers were thinking of Berg; I can't think of Berg ever being interested in this kind of moral theatre music. Lulu and Wozzeck are in the end Flaubertian nihilistic satire. Nono’s relation to Schoenberg is obvious beyond his marriage to Schoenberg’s daughter.
Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia is a remarkable setting of prayers written by celebrities who were about to be executed publicly by the state. Our American equivalent to this death row focus in our past might be Earl Robinson’s Joe Hill. Like Joe Hill and Abraham, these spirits allied themselves with a natural force in Creation more powerful than any age or government.
In his European shorthand Dallapiccola looks backward, especially to Savanarola, to a moral champion demanding ethical behavior in a regime that saw itself as our masters of genocidal political scene in the 20th century. Even if we are ineffectual epicures we ourselves may feel we have progressed beyond such narrow matters as morals.
Dallapiccola’s music is very startling for its breath and elegance; it has some of the sensibility if not the musical language we might associate with the both Fragaonard’s and Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse. Dallapiccola has two harps playing ostinato parts for this piece in a chamber ensemble including piano, percussion and vibraphone that has no instruments capable of sustained melody. The piano part had downward arpeggios that plummeted an elegant and tragic grace. It left the lines and emotional focus to the chorus.
The choral part writing was set transparently with the voices far parts; there is no density to the writing. The effect is of stellar sublimity and loneliness. The melodies themselves are never in more than three parts, mostly in two parts, sometimes were in unison or at the octave. There are some canonic developments that may oddly remind us in their fluidity and unhurried quality of Josquin.
These lines make frequent use of falling chromatic half steps. There is a plentitude of thirds as well as flatted sevenths and ninths we hear these days as consonances. There are spare but telling movements from the major to minor third or the other way, similar such propulsion both and forth from major and minor sevenths.
The music doesn’t go forward by resolving anything harmonically; it movies somewhat impeccably like the choral writing of Palestrina, Des Prez and di Lasso; in fact one is reminded of all these composers along with Vittoria often in the way the music moves from vertical affirmation to affirmation in the present. It like their music never appears to have a beginning or end.
Rhythmically the pieces look backward to those masters of musical consolations their lack of squareness and symmetry. It is high Art, not folk music, distinguishing itself from artifice fashioned from the materials available to us all at the bottom.
In this way it is a departure from Beethoven. It isn’t out to make the kind of embrace of nature and common people the more populist and pantheistic Beethoven was. Its language is more hermetic. The style to Dallapiccola might have some inferential resonance with the Manichean view of life of the Church though of course neither he nor Nono are taking that kind of institutional refuge from Creation at all.
One isn’t likely to hear any music more instantly perceived by all in a room as beautiful in the way that a young woman entering a salon can be at once stunning and nakedly elegant though she says and does nothing, than savoring the impeccable textures of the Canti di prigionia.
Most American pop songs are more hardly larded with dense vertical harmony than this piece. Like such sublime offerings of art and nature, half its magic lies in its naked simplicity. The audience of oldsters and music fanatics at this concert (Who else but such crones and zealots would come to hear it?), had probably been expecting some harsh twelve tone piece, were I think rather astonished at how easily likable this music was.
One shouldn’t diminish its achievement by saying it was not irremediably opaque. One of the hardest things to do in the Arts, as one can see from Blake and Verdi as well as Dallapiccola is to be at once great and simple.
The next piece, the Canti di liberazione brought a more conventional orchestra shuffling onto the stage. They offered a different side of Dallapiccola. The music was less fragile and more openly exhortary if the vocal writing had largely the same graceful virtues. The economy of the orchestral writing was sterling. No lines were doubled; the orchestral voices stood out very much as they do in Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, but totally unlike Schoenberg, there was a dearth of ferocity in this music. It had a gentle Satie-like Socrate ardor foreign to any of the Viennese masters of equal tones if they themselves were on the hierophant side.
It moved the audience to the point where at the intermission it didn’t get so much applause as a kind of silent appreciation of being in the precincts of Art of a sacred character. Dallapiccola’s concentration on vocal sound, his disinclination to move away from a near liquid character in his melody, his embrace of a lyricism some of us would call feminine resonated with this awed response.
Luigi Nono’ three epitaffi for chorus and orchestra are very different. They are settings of poems by Garcia-Lorca; they have with that allusive poet none of the direct approach of Dallapiccola’s implied sermons. Their mercurial symbolism is at a remove from the texts we had heard.
Tarde is a mediation on seeing a landscape and a star above it, that is, Earth and its source of reality, then dreaming of a “moronita de Grenada” that is, one of the maddens who in Grenada stand for the sensuality, passion, yet as well imploded tumescent innocence of the ferocious genius of femininity, a resident of a city filled with both Gypsies and Moors.
“Moronita” is translated respectably as “brown maid”; it also means a young Moorish girl whose passions both immerse her and hurtle her out of Grenada’s conventional institutional culture. The pithy poem is filled with images of life bursting out of order and death.
La Guerra is a kind of prayer in the middle of the Spanish Civil war that the broken, lacerated and tortured country which in passing is compared to Jesus, then mordantly contrasted with the indifference of passersby, could be healed by some of the balm of the twin fruit trees in Genesis, “los frutos devididos en la tierra.”
Casida de la rosa is a purely instrumental meditation of Nono on a poem about the openendedness of nature. The rose, chivalric symbol of ultimate spiritual focus, perhaps a sardonic image of fascism, is itself “buscando otra cosa”, that is in its very nature looking outward to a thing besides itself. It’s of paean to a expanded metaphysical sexuality Lorca developed quite remarkably in his still rather sensational and unknown play El Publico.
Nono doesn’t offer a choral setting of this poem; he instead produces a songful movement for flute solo and orchestra. Its easygoing lyricism seemed tender and insouciant as a slow moment in a Bach cantata. It certainly is the most immediately appealing movement in the otherwise sober Epitaffi.
Memento is an ironic contemplation of the poet of his own death. He affirms his adhesion to Grenada, its oranges, guitars; he says amusingly: “bury me if you can in a weather vane. The wind is seen as the poetical vision of time; his spirit and Grenada is beyond the wind, immortal.
The rest of Nono’s setting of this choral work is much closer to the Jakobsleiter and Moses and Aron than anything the audience we had heard from Dallapiccola. There are chorus in this Nono piece something like sprachstimme, speak-song, a style between speech and song of Schoenberg’s invention used in the last movement of Gurreleider and Perriot Lunaire a as well as the spoken part of Moses und Aron.
Perhaps the comparative density of the orchestral writing though there was still no doubling mirrored aptly the rhetorical and symbolic character of the text. Its audacity of expression certainly reminded one at times of the Jakobsleiter.
Yet there are melodies, even tonality in the Epitaffi; they are there as respites from the declamatory character of the rest of the piece. Since the text and music are in different ways allusive rather than direct the Epitaffi laments the loss of life and potentiality for human consciousness using a genocidal event as a fulcrum that all many in Europe (though Botstein in his notes comments aptly on current historical revisionism about Franco) regard as an ultimate atrocity.
I can't say the Nono work was as original as the two pieces of Dallapiccola; Nono’s music certainly had an intellectuality and symphonic character that was very persuasive in its blend of the classic and the polemical. I think it’s hard for us to listen to a great deal of music including Nono’s or for that matter Beethoven’s in the way the composer hoped for; we know too much about subsequent musical history and history in general to be able to do so.
Yet the Epitaffi are powerful, harsh, filled with a rage against oppression that can't be pigeonholed in time. The individual singers with chorus acts much as it does in Aeschylus’s theatre as a kind of human machine that stands in an patient way for justice.


Since this show was very explicitly meant by its composers and conductor to bring the audience to a temple where morality, charity, true religious piety and humanism were the subjects of a community rite, since Botstein very consciously choose at the end of Rosh Hashonah, a season of wrestling with flaws, turning from them, to present extensive notes adorning such his enterprise with a great breadth of critical political focus, it would be foolish to review this concert as if it were merely a mathematical exploration into the fugal ingenuity of Fux.
We take up our war with the state every time we elude a traffic ticket. Boethius, Mary Stuart, Savanarola and Garcia Lorca were martyrs to the murderous piety along with the Machiavellian politics that had destroyed the normative bumpy felicities of their time as well as their own lives.
The quote from Exodus makes it plain that all of these victims of state oppression along with the Jews in Egypt found within themselves an ally in God who stood above such seasonal material concerns. Boethius is a way makes the most obviously logical case for such detachment and freedom; his language in his Consolations of Philosophy is direct in its discourse, not mystical.
Dallapiccola and Nono, writing in a time not unlike the late Roman empire in which every ideology extant during their mortality flowered bloodily in genocide, land wars on their own soil and a harvest of intellectual bankruptcy and despair had every reason to look deeply into their own spiritual receivership to produce the evangelical theatre of humanism they did in the music we heard at Alice Tully.
Does this life or death desperation inherent in Nono’s or Dallapiccola’s music, its presumptive roots in European culture speak to us in New York or America as it does to the Old World? It’s hard to say. We can of course view ourselves as some do as affluent if sometimes philistine Hottentots, pretend we aren’t living where we are, Sometimes we don’t know what our own national experience is.
Though this ignorance and a Manichean disdain for experience itself is fashionable in colleges it has doomed the sanity if not the income of many; it is still a professorial schizophrenia unworthy of us.
Like turtles picked out of egg shells we all need to know instantly after birth who and where we are. We are living in a country that has not have a land war on its soil since 1864, no stifling class system terrible as the European models which amounted to forms of slavery, no anxiety of middle classes neither nobles nor louts but a warren of Luddite Anabaptists inventing themselves in a vacuum, no memory of being a parvenu for prey for nearly anybody for two millennia of a most wicked European history.
Our country never was the bloody theatre of two world wars, never the raw and naked colonial power the Old World has been and still is, never produced the awesome theory and technology that created the atom bomb if we made them when it seemed pragmatic to do so out of dregs of European science. With our at least titular republican values we are not only a singularity but in some ways the vulgar dream of paradise a third of Europe when they came over here in steerage, live or die.
Given our national nature, the music of the old World comes to us like letters of long lost cousins whom we had left behind while taking up Arctic or astral explorations beyond the inner and outer Plaeides constellations.
The composers of this music and their Old World audience, not emigrating here, often in hiding like outlaws, were bombed, strafed, massacred, had many relatives killed, were rendered in the last century almost extinct as a culture. Some might claim that Europe became a ghost in our lifetime without knowing it. Ghosts who devour are often treated like the living.
People who have been that close to death for a long time can savor their fragile existence in dismal and desperate leisure in imaginary bunkers write music differently from those citizens of the universe who are porkers at the trough asking thirds at the chow lines leading not to heaven but an infinite heap of olives and potato salad.
A European armed with memory and loss, Dallapiccola never went as far in his musical despair as did Nono; Dallapiccola was much influenced by the humanistic philosophy of Adorno and Walter Benjamin. He is what we would call a liberal. Nono joined the Italian Communist Party; he very much saw history and his own present as a hard edged battleground between state oppression and the common people.
Leon Botstein, the sterling conductor and essayist who brought us the meditations of perished genius, was obviously very pleased with at the amount of encores their masterful work had conjured from the audience under his own humanistic prophetic leadership; Botstein now has giving us over several years not merely works on never hears but is himself one who ponders on history and culture in a large way and means to offer his audience in New York the same inner hermitage for such august contemplations. Critic as well as educator and college president, he tries to address some of these matters season after season in his capacious notes to his concerts like a rabbi in a humanistic schule.
I shall quote two salient paragraphs of Botstein’s remarkably frank and broadly ranging political essay he offered for this concert:
“The works on today’s program were intended by their composers to be more than depictions of our reactions to the past and present. These composers wanted to create works that could serve as a shock, a call to resist the consolidation of economic and political power in the hands of a few. In their view art needed to inspire citizens to protect themselves against the oppression of freedom in the name of order and church and state authority.
“In both Dallapiccola and Nono, the answer to the question posed earlier of how to make one’s music relevant to and participatory in the social and political realities that influence eery other aspect of life is to offer highly personalized and riveting musical fabrics. Listeners may disagree and even object to their politics; there is little doubt that idealism and the ethical character of their aspirations are beyond reproach.
“Their music was designed to transform the listening experience. For them music is never a matter of entertainment or cultural condescension. The concert experience should be one in which music and art serve the task of awaking in listeners a sense of values and significance as actors in the public realm. “The world on today’s program affirms the possibility of each of us to stand up against uniformity, passivity, the absence of liberty and intolerance imposes not only from abode but from our fellow citizens.”
Well! In this fine Beethovenesque essay, in case we miss the relevance for us in the New World and in another time of such a stance, he also says:
“Today at the moment these works are being performed it is perhaps not too excessive to suggest that American democracy is itself in a precarious state. Our freedoms in the post 9/11 environment are being threatened by the politics of fundamentalist religion and mass apathy in the place of a healthy political debate, we remain as a culture stimulated only by obsession with commercial entertainment.
How else can we explain the continuing appearance of second rate movie actors as pollical hopefuls? Perhaps we might take some inspiration from the integrity and unsettling beauty of Dallapiccola’s vision of the possibilities of freedom and his setting of the voice of the oppressed.”
Well, well, well! I think it’s plain we owe this concert to Botstein’s very profound meditations on his own after the Big Kaboom, perhaps not all that different if less material desperate in his condition from that of the late Boethius. I would only add to Botstein’s initial remarks that exhortary moral anchor and political humanism has a firm line in Western music in opera from Mozart through Beethoven and Verdi if its temple was the concert hall and theatre as well. It is older than Aeschylus whose plays which were partially sung and chanted much like the pieces of Nono.
Western artists have been at this holy enterprise at their peril for at least two and half millennia. As a consequence they have never been all that popular with Western institutions in most times. As long as we’re born and live in a world which seasonally oppresses us we are going to have manuals and mystery rites of all kinds to libretti us from our natural fobs and will attend or make something like this music.
I wish Botstein hadn’t been so hard on fundamentalism, which is after all a neutral quotient in life which can inspire charity as well as rage and bombing. If we wait long enough the future will perceives us all as fundamentalists in which we were certain was science or self-evident. Ask any crone. Ask me.
Our difficulties with the bombers don’t come from their fundamentalism; it is the lack of internal moral wrestling, fixing on external enemies alone that is the dark side of instant piety common both to fundamentalists and our own irritable, egoistical, agnostic and fearlessly litigious epicures.
The biggest mass killers in history lately have been scientific pietists who claim to be the champions of Enlightenment, progress and science. Our colleges are infested with them; luckily for us they are a priesthood without an army. The claimed license to be the catalyst of benign genocidal changes or even private losses approved, they assert, by nature and history is embraced by people whom Botstein probably wouldn’t call fundamentalists but Enlightenment disciples on tenure.
It isn’t fundamentalism that kills people in a species not generally notable for their opinions or judgment about anything; it is a hunger for simple bellicose or seductive decisive action in a complex world that has intellectual roots in pure power Botstein hasn’t identified.
Botstein might have done better to look at the heady and large contributions of his own American college estate to promote the ills he very justly decries. Has any franchise in American history failed like the mandate of Academia in the United States to create our thinkers, artists, critics and leaders? If they haven’t been a catastrophe, where are the stalwarts they have offered us?
Beyond that, is it possible or even respectable to create an intellectual estate based on hermetic elite thinking, even a true gaggle of ippissimi who can claim such high office on honest merit, in a populist republic founded by rogues, supposed criminals, exiles and human trash whose very leaders in their rebellion would have been hanged if England could have caught them?
How many times have our universities and intellectuals bane on the wrong side subsequently of every just cause from Abolition to Prohibition, enemies of common people, patronizing the very fabric of our society as a server filled with churls or craven money-mad bourgeois saying “don’t make waves”? If it were true we would have been invaded by Mexico long ago, would be eating tamales out of Tex-Mex restaurants.
Our colleges have hatched boobs and sloths, an ultimate order below scrapple for about a half a century. It hasn’t helped democracy. Jefferson spent a good deal of his life as did Emerson trying to find remedies for the windflower nosegays of such hideous professorial termites they knew they had to purge to make democracy work.
Botstein as the president of on such spa, Bard College, should be able to name one champion from the whole of the college system in over five decades that had the credentials to lead us and has led us.
If he can’t, his estate, which is a kind of certification system of diverse yahoo experts, has contributed to all the follies he complains about as such as anybody. Unlike the bombers, his monkish bunch did it on tenure.
I don’t think we have mass apathy either as a culture; we have decades of epidemics of machine hacks and synthetic people from Kennedy to the current Bush II who have failed to represent us. Our obsession with commercial entertainment isn’t a mad taste replacing of political debates; its a Romish epicurean consolation after our personal lives have been assaulted by left and right wing carnival barkers and bounty hunters who have big plans for us.
We are a populace as much as Europe, Nono and Dallapiccola that have been emptied out by causes of all kinds, perhaps some of which Botstein approves of.
Not voting because you’ve smoked the wrong leaf, the one that doesn't give you cancer, isn’t democracy. Having the option to vote for one of two enemies who will try to destroy you is not democracy either.
Botstein’s central pedagogical dilemma is that he is not a populist in a country founded on some variety of populism. Why does he rail against movie stars running for office? They’re better than lawyers. Arnold Schwartenegger whom Botstein regards as a presumptive odium isn’t even second rate; he’s a legend who started out as a poor boy like Abraham Lincoln.
Arnold came ere with nothing, was born in poverty and intellectual bankruptcy; he has enriched us all, rather in the mode of Nono and Dallapiccola, while enriching himself. Does anyone think the once European Arnold didn’t have his despairs like Nono and Dallapiccola? Arnold is a marvel who beat every challenge there is including a residence in an inner American hell: being broke. Arnold changed our culture more than anybody in all the American colleges put together.
Botstein cannot name one American who is a harvest of our college system who has been the major influence Arnold has. He is more American than Elvis. Botstein sometimes takes on the wrong enemies. He does hit some of the right ones. He mentions that Nono was denied a visa here for his politics. Seems pretty silly stuff now, doesn’t it?
Of course populism has its reductive excesses; so do the fascist group statistical pseudo-sciences of our colleges. That crate an invisible world Cotton Mather would have approved of garnered from the unseen and unseeable. Which is more false and reductive? Botstein when he is wrong usually sees false foes because he is still linked to a noble class view one finds in most American colleges, a world still mired in a European senility that Europe itself hasn’t lived by for half a centra. Our American Academics may be the last serious Europeans; most Europeans are now Americans.
Our Art and politics comes up like the creature for the black lagoon from the bottom. Arnold and Jesse are from the dregs. So are we. So am I. So are you, Leon.
To the irritation of Europe we children of the latrine both running the planet and still the garbage of the world. Even our Native Americans were kicked out of Siberia by some noxious cabal 75,000 years ago that though their neighborly were the pits. Botstein should look in the mirror and see Arnold and Jesse. The WWF has more clout in America than the whole college system for good reason.
Botstein refers to the paradox of Nono using twelve tone craft, a discipline Schoenberg evolved originally to ensnare the dominance of German music and high art generally, a language to express a revolt the general populist intents of the kind of roguish Communism Nono had embraced.
One should say that European communism is labor-based, fighting a real class system going back millennia; it’s nothing like any radicalism in the United States. We don't have intellectual Reds like Sartre, Camus, or Nono.
We also don’t have populists like Stalin or Hitler; ours play the guitar and look soulful. We also (psst!) don’t have after half a century of endowing colleges with billions of dollars and putting our more intelligent hapless youngsters though the dozens of that venue have high Art of any kind.
Consequently we don’t have the feeling of Dallapiccola and Nono that high Art will appeal to highly evolved pele who have influence, at least as an aristoi to detach themselves from a dreadful materialistic slaughterhouse as Boethius and the other writers of the texts we heard did. As Americans for better or worse we think of high Art as the wolf in sheep’s clothing of our Old World oppressors.
I think Botstein would have made a better case for Dallapiccola, Nono and European music generally if he had written not that we have their troubles but that we might have them if we decline further. We can't as yet imagine the sufferings of Europe we have escaped. We haven’t have two hundred years and more of dreadful genocidal land wars, various holocausts; we also haven’t had the spiritual bankruptcy of Europeans of all persuasions.
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