Week 32 – Oreet Ashery (Anoxide + New Noveta) – August 10-16

Anoxide is this death metal band made up of four glamour models and the midget off game of thrones. DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA. DJENT DJENT DJENT. SHRED SHRED SHRED.

anoxide-3“Who likes babies?”

MUTHAFUCKKAAAAA

“So this one…’

OLD PEOPLE SHIT

anoxide-4“…goes something like this…’

OLD PEOPLE SHIT

“We are Anoxide. Let’s do this.”

Anoxide are heavy as fuck and bringing it in this weird garage down a ramp at the top of an art gallery. The drinks are free but it’s neat gin, fuck that. We’re all screaming and throwing each other about. It’s dark, it’s green light, it’s your elbow in my eye. Everyone’s screaming and whirling about, the guys are making a circle pit while the band tear it. It’s not loud enough, it’s bad, the singer is screaming and growling, hands in the air and everyone is jumping and headbanging and moshing out.

MUTHAFUCKKAAAAA

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The guys are throwing each other around. They push into each other but never fall over. There’s the kid who was outside earlier playing this weird flute or something. He’d set out some kind of hamper and he was wearing Brighton-issue crusty crap. Here he’s the alpha dog of the pack, the one who starts and directs the trouble. He’s tossing rolls of blue cleaning paper across the space, up and across they go in bluegreen flames. Anoxide are heavy and crunchy as fuck. The low riffs turn into double time drums into screeching guitar solos into growling and chanting and djunt. Kill everyone and fuck every hole.

TIMG_0407hen the lights go on, and it’s blinding. A door opens, and a couple of girls wearing red dresses are dragging poles through the crowd. Everyone’s still screaming and there is piercing electronic noise from the speakers. Performance duo New Noveta, the two girls in the sexy red, are panting and sweating and they look distressed as they fuck about with this bucket of fish and these long white poles that they’re trying to move in the bright white garage light. The crowd opens as they move through it and they take ages to move along. The fire doors open and they go up out of it. The faces in the queue outside gape in at us. Did this really happen? The fire doors shut.

anoxide-2Four snare hits and Anoxide are back. The lights drop to darkness again. Listening at home to this shit gives me a fucking headache and racing pulse, which is what it’s supposed to do. I’ve left it way too long to write this fucking thing. And I cannot read the fucking logos of metal bands. UNFATHOMABLERUINATIONAre they deliberately unreadable? Look at this, their bandcamp says “lyrics written by anoxide” so it’s not just all growling but fuck me it has in fact literary qualities.

IMG_0398“Shout out to Stitches” he says, “Shout out to Stitches.” Stitches must be the one with the stupid flute who’s naked with a scarf round his neck. Everyone’s mates, we’re all having sex in the circle pit and sweating and dripping. We’re covered in sweat. Drenched. Wet. Wringing. Saturated. Fucking soaking. The band play an older one, it launches out then goes into a solo then a serious head banging riff and then the verse with the ride cymbal going over a chromatic descending riff. The guys are soaking, the roof is dripping, everyone is crazy, the garage is smashed up but sexy and beautiful. The riff opens up, we’re drunk and we’re dead.

Screen-Shot-2014-07-09-at-14.17.31-528x352This is exactly a year after I saw another death metal band do an art show. Unfathomable Ruination played a full set inside a soundproofed metal box containing no oxygen. I say ‘saw’, once the door shut you couldn’t hear or see anything. It was amazing. I really wanted them to die in that box. You’d be able to sense them all pass out as they used up all the oxygen and then the door would be opened and there would be a dead metal band.

Unfathomable Ruination played three days a week for a month in this box under the Gherkin in the shit City of London for ‘Box Sized Die’ as part of João Onofre’sSculpture in the City” project. On the last night of their residency they were allowed an extended set of 31 minutes and the bastards still didn’t fucking die. There are photos and there is a sound recording of this performance in the soundproofed metal box that you couldn’t see and couldn’t hear. Naturally the gig is edited down to a length of 4’33”.

File 17-10-2015, 15 20 15

FURTHER READING 

Should I worry if my child is a goth?
Blackest material ever made created by scientists
Did dark matter kill the dinosaurs?
Crude Behavior: How Big Oil Tries to ‘Artwash’ Itself
The Little Death: Living and Loving as a Necrophiliac
The pleasures of METAL DRUMMING
There is a death metal band from Santa Cruz called PARASITIC EJACULATION

FURTHER FURTHER READING 

Anoxide and New Noveta performed on the opening night of Fig-2 Week 32/50 in which Oreet Ashery installed a beautiful white space and explored notions surrounding death and dying as part of her ongoing project Revisiting Genesis.

Fig-2 page for Week 32
Fig-2 interview with Oreet Ashery
FB event page for Anoxide at Fig-2
Video of New Noveta at Fig-2

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Week 31 – 3-9 August – Broomberg & Chanarin

“It occurs to me to somehow reimagine the bouffon week as a punch and judy show involving Trump, Berlusconi and Boris. How would that work?”

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Part one: Punch & Judy (I)

ENTER PUNCH

PUNCH    Mr Punch is one jolly good chap,
He left his baby in the back of a cab!
After a country supper he came back
But the foetus had turned into a pig!

PIG        Oink, oink, oink!

PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

ENTER JUDY

JUDY    I’ve just seen the news on twitter!
Naughty Punch, you had better
Explain what it is you’ve had for dinner —
What have you done to my poor baby pig?

PUNCH    Calm down, dear! I’ve only done to this little victim
What I’ve been doing to the country since the election!

ENTER CROCODILE

CROC    Snap! Snap! Snap! goes the telephoto lens
Starving the poor to feed up our friends!
Let’s hope this party never ends!

THE CROCODILE EATS JUDY

CROC     Snap! Snap! Snap!
PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

ENTER SCARAMOUCH

SCARAMOUCH    Bunga! Bunga! What, again!
I’m not a Saint, you can tell by the tan!
It’s better to like beautiful girls than be gay
Ciao Pretty Polly, come stai?

PUNCH    Scaramouch, do you do the fandango?

SCARAMOUCH    Solomente for the love of Italio!
I had to a-save it from myself
Tutto for the love of obscene wealth!
The right-a man for the right-a jail!

ENTER THE DEVIL

PUNCH    There’s the Devil, Dodgy Vlad!
All his friends are in a body bag!
See him riding on a horse’s back —
Noone’s told him the nag is dead!

DEVIL    Spasibo! Now I am the Tsar!

PUNCH    Not so fast, you King of Vodka!
I’ve already planned for my successor
We’ve had cloned Margaret Thatcher’s Vagina —
Our mates did it cheap, it’s made in China!

MARGARET THATCHER’S VAGINA EATS THE DEVIL

PUNCH    That’s the way to do it!

Part Two:  The Bouffon

The establishment has always permitted a circumscribed degree of satirical attack as a means of enabling the downtrodden to let off steam. Historically, satire has always been bounded by either time (a certain day of the year in which “natural orders” were overturned) or person (only a specified highly ritualised figure is permitted to cross certain lines). The Romans had Saturnalia and the whispering slave on the triumphal chariot, medieval power structures had their jesters, King For A Day and Lords of Misrule.

IMG_0341Local permutations of the medieval jester vary, and for Week 31 of Fig-2, Ollie Broomberg and Adam Chanarin brought one of them back to life. The ICA studio became a ‘green screen’ studio inhabited by a bouffon figure, a grotesque lumpy hunch-backed clown. The Bouffon or ‘Dark Clown’ originated in medieval France. The undesirables of society, riffraff de l’autres, would be exiled from the town and forced to fend for themselves outside the city walls and starve in their own filth and destitution, much as benefits claimants and refugees are forced to by the Department for Work and Pensions. The beautiful people would allow them back for one day of the annual hock-tide celebration, when the Bouffon was invited to the Royal Court with explicit permission to ridicule the authorities. And this is where the problem begins, with regard to Week 31 and the problem of satire as a whole. The bouffon in its first incarnation is officially sanctioned satire, which is an oxymoron. The bouffon would have to be careful not to upset them too much. The pleasure of a pinch, but no blood.

Fig-2_31_50_1A camera filmed the bouffon and presented her on a TV screen with a background taken from the Imperial landscape that surrounds the ICA studio: the Mall, Downing Street, Horse Guards Parade, Buckingham Palace; an area characterised by daily military parades and other displays of state power. The bouffon mimed bumming the police and the Beefeaters, jumped in and out of traffic, and generally pratted about. A particular highlight was the bouffon pole-dancing around the Duke of York Column behind the ICA. You probably don’t need more than about twenty minutes of pelvic thrusting in any context comedic or otherwise but to its very great credit the performance went on for two hours. Was it funny? Yes, within the bounds of what we were there to enjoy, which was satire, and it has been long observed that satire doesn’t have to be funny to be effective. Not being five years old, we don’t actually find pratfalls funny, but we can contentedly agree to find them funny in the context of appreciating their implications in the company of a group of like-minded people who have come to appreciate the same thing.

Fig-2_31_50_8Was it effective satire? This is where we run into difficulties. Given the history outlined above, it is surely no coincidence that the bouffon’s style of ‘satire’ is limited to physical comedy. The bouffon’s comedy is literally silent, or rather, mute. The bouffon comes from a tradition of not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it. For satire to be successful, for it to be satire at all, it can’t just be mocking. But the bouffon is limited to mocking, restricting to poking fun but unable to construct the ironies necessary for satire to occur. The word bouffon is appropriate; it comes from the Latin verb buffare, to puff, to fill the cheeks with air. It just gives us hot air. The bouffon is intended to be provocative, to poke fun at everyone in society and reveal uncomfortable truths, but I’m not convinced. Not incidentally, there was something very comfortable about being in the studio that day. The police officers and guardsmen representing the establishment were, of course, oblivious to the Bouffon’s presence; tucked up in the ICA’s cosy home on Pall Mall, we all pretended to be doing something a little daring in the very heart of the establishment, but the fact is none of what happened there was projected outside the walls. It was the other way round; the establishment was projected in.

Fig-2_31_50_7Interestingly, Broomberg and Chanarin’s new film work Rudiments (currently on display at the Lisson Gallery) develops the themes raised in the Fig-2 show adding the missing element of direct interactivity. Instead of poking fun at soldiers digitally overlaid via green screen, the film documents a group of military cadets whose rigorous training of martial codes is interrupted by the Bouffon’s comic pratfalls and play. The conflicted reactions of the young soldiers-in-training gives a better illustration of the possibilities of the bouffon than the green screen perhaps could.

Part Three: The Buffoon

File 03-10-2015, 15 46 54A few weeks after the Bouffon’s cavorting at the ICA, it emerged that the four-dimensional lizard-made-of-ham Prime Minister David Cameron“put a private part of his anatomy” in the mouth of a dead pig’s head while he was at Oxford during an initiation ceremony for a drinking club called the Piers Gaveston Society. It’s the kind of revelation that will rot your teeth and straight up give you Type 2 Diabetes. My favourite thing about this story in a crowded field is that Charlie Brooker felt obliged to issue a disclaimer that he’d known about it when he wrote Black Mirror in 2011 in which the Prime Minister is forced to fuck a pig live on television.

File 03-10-2015, 15 48 29But even the pig is itself a blind, a sideshow, something George Osborne for one is quite happy for us to laugh at (witness his calculated snigger when asked about the revelations). Lawrence Richards (“What the British are really laughing about”) and Rob Fahey (“The PM, the Pig  and musings on Power” both quickly published impressive pieces that Joanna Walters (“Hazing, #piggate and other secret rites: the psychology of extreme group rituals”) also developed. They outline how Pig-Gate fitted into a tradition of “hazing” in networks of power. Throughout history exclusive and extravagant elites have bonded through rituals of humiliation. Revelations are held in check by a model of mutually assured destruction if anyone’s secret came out. The system is also upheld not so much by the threat of revelation as the curious fraternal bond of secret knowledge; possibly even a post-traumatic survivor’s mentality, particularly following instances of bestiality and homosexual rape in these rituals.

It has emerged recently that there was a rash of child abuse being committed by politicians in the 1980s, and that this was hushed up ‘in the interests of national security’. Richards examines how paedogeddon being committed by politicians was kept secret and how for the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this was useful as a way of holding power over others by holding their dark little secrets over them. She was a real nice lady, the Baroness. As with the Pig Gate revelations, it’s remarkable how no-one has questioned the truthfulness of revelations of a cover-up about paedo rings in the upper echelons of the Tory political class in the eighties. It’s just accepted as a fact, with a bit of a tut, but it’s abstract. And it is all so, so much worse than any of us ever imagined. I mean, secret cabals of powerful men (and so far as I know we are mostly talking about men) colluding in concealing child abuse and murder? Really? The stuff of paranoia, surely. Well, no it seems not.

piggate[1]

What is satire to do in the face of such dementedly awful realities? The prurience of the general public as presented in Black Mirror was dutifully reproduced by all us lot in our glee over PigGate, which is the main thrust of that show: Brooker wasn’t really satirizing politicians (who can do that themselves, after all), he was satirizing us. We’re left bitterly and humorlessly maundering on the street corner or screaming into the void of the internet, irony evaporated, stuck with raw sarcasm. It’s not just the bouffon. It’s the mode of the age, borne out of resignation and the impossibility of outdoing reality at its own self-satirizing absurdism.

150820175214-banksy-dismaland-super-169[1]Dan Brooks, writing about “Banksy and the Problem With Sarcastic Art” sees sarcasm as the dominant aesthetic of our age: “a contempt so settled that it doesn’t bother constructing ironies”. He discusses a passage of ‘snark’ a ubiquitous form of internet writing that participates in sarcasm “typically by adopting the derisive tone of satire without the complex irony… There’s no insight here to raise this irony to the level of satire. There is only mockery.”

But poor old snark is all we’ve got left, isn’t it. Satire is once more the preserve of the establishment just as it was in the age of the Bouffon. Mark Fisher (“The strange death of British satire”) deals with satire’s history in the twentieth century (or part of it). He traces the emergence in recent decades of the sniggering, knowing-yet-adolescent non-humour which now defines political light entertainment like Have I Got News For You and This Week and roots it in the survival techniques of pupils at British boarding schools, “self-mockery… used to ward off the threat of an annihilating humiliation”.

article-2182965-1453AD23000005DC-394_634x792[1]The star exhibit here is Boris Johnson. His antics are carefully calculated to look anti-establishment but serve to entrench it by neutralising criticism, dissolving it in mild self-mocking buffoonery shorn of issues of importance, full of a distracting power. The pseudo-satire of Bojo neutralises real satire. As in medicine, a little dose of the real thing helps us develop immunity. Boris is like satirical small-pox. Actually, to think of it, it was actually cowpox that Jenner injected people with to immunise them against smallpox, so in fact Boris Johnson is political cowpox.

slide_242179_1314827_free[1]Had Fisher cast his net further back in time to capture the likes of the bouffon he would have seen that the establishment have always taken a harmlessly low dose of satirical poison to inoculate themselves against true revolution. If it is true, as he claims, that truly satirical voices thrived as never before in the middle decades of the twentieth century, well, what we’re seeing now is nothing more than hammy, lizardy hands massaging it firmly back into its traditional box. The buffoon triumphs over the bouffon.

Satire as a force had eaten itself by the time Henry Kissinger, who as National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon had Vietnam napalmed, won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize. Saudi Arabia, a country that practices sexual apartheid, religious oppression, summary beheadings, and is about to crucify a child, a country that doesn’t even drink, has won its bid to become head of the UN Human Rights Council. This is like putting Gary Glitter in charge of a children’s party (or David Cameron in charge of the pig-feed). This stuff is irony writ larger than it’s ever been writ. There’s a room full of comedy writers somewhere outside the universe trying to outdo each other, but they all work in politics.

Part Four: Punch & Judy (II)

12063476_920632064639976_3708738705272456345_n[1]Jeet Heer (“Donald Trump’s Comedic Genius”) describes how presidential hopeful Donald Trump isn’t just a joke, but is a serious comedic talent. He has mastered disruptive comedy and the stand-up takedown in the comedy of insult. He is a clown who acts perfeckly outrageous but who “suffers no punishment—indeed, goes from triumphant poll to triumphant poll”, a punishment evading Pulcinella (Punch) self-describing himself as a “non-politician” in order to inveigle himself into politics. Like our own Jeremy Clarkson, he deflects criticism of his bigotry and misogyny by maintaining that he’s not politically correct. It’s just a joke, like on top Gear! Broomberg and Chanarin’s Bouffon is described as a ‘dark clown’ but it’s really acts like Donald Trump who are the dark clowns, “using laughter for sinister ends” to voice bigotry rather than interrogate it. Satire eats itself and shits out establishment heterodoxies. Funny that.

IMG_1202Just as Trump’s ‘humor’ actually leaves establishment assumptions untouched, you know that BoJo wouldn’t take the piss out of the changing of the guard like the Bouffon did at the ICA. Whereas in Italy Berlusconi cocks more of a direct snook at establishment symbolism because bribery and bureaucracy are part of the everyday life experience of Italy, so people really do object to establishment symbolism. Whereas the UK as a nation will happily celebrate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge having unprotected sex.

Riotta_TheEnduringAppeal.jpg[1]Fisher describes the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi’s analysis of Sylvio Berlusconi: “Berlusconi’s popularity, Berardi argued, depended on his “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals”. The voters were invited to identify “with the slightly crazy premier, the rascal prime minister who resembles them”. Like Johnson, Berlusconi was the fool who occupied the place of power, disdaining law and rules “in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”.”

In the not-quite-discredited-but-are-you-really-still-teaching-this Freudian structural model of the psyche based on the id, ego and superego the id is the pre-socialized instinctual impulsive driver of the libido and the dark slave of the pleasure principle that is held in check by the critical and rational agencies of the ego and superego.

Jheronimus_Bosch_011[1]Berlusconi and Trump are like Punch. Pure walking id, totally dissociated and always evading the consequences of their actions. I have to quickly tell you the synopsis of Harrison Birtwistle’s horse-scaring ‘60s opera Punch & Judy, because it is insane. Punch is rocking his baby, then throws it into a fire. Judy finds the charred baby and freaks out. He stabs her to death, then rides off on a horse to seek Pretty Polly who rejects him, and he murders the Doctor with a giant needle and the Lawyer with a massive quill. Polly rejects him again, and he murders the narrator by sawing him in half. He has nightmares about a satanic wedding with Pretty Polly. He goes to the gallows for his crimes but tricks the hangman into hanging himself. Pretty Polly reappears and they sing a love duet around the gallows, which is transformed into a maypole.

Like bozo BoJo, and the late Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump is an overindulged poster boy for the disruptive comedy of ‘plain speaking’ that prises apart but paradoxically reinforces the status quo. It does this by making politics look completely ludicrous and hopeless but without offering the possibility of better. In that sense it’s more related to Banksy’s sarcastic approach but coming from an establishment rather than anti-establishment perspective. How ridiculous it is, quoth-a, to aspire to change this leviathan. It is what it is. Let us laugh. Now vote, and we can promise you tax breaks for billionaires. The joy will surely trickle down!

Theirs is a comedy of disruption, not just that but Trump exactly fits the Borat model. Like Punch he is never punished for his outrages. Cameron too will make it through Pig-Gate largely intact and if he is remembered for being the Prime Minister That Fucked A Pig then history will have been kind to the PM that presided over the Bedroom Tax, taking away children’s school meals, privatising the NHS, tax breaks for billionaires.

IMG_1209Given that satire is now impossible because it’s been neutralized by buffoons and overtaken by events, we are going to need a sophisticated signalling system to tell us when satire is taking place. In Monty Python ‘SATIRE’ flashes up on the screen.  But if there is one thing we have learned from PigGate, and which Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle presaged in his satire of satire “What is satire?” it is that for any satire to be satirical it will require the involvement of an animal. “A toilet bowl full of goats? Satire. A limpet shell with a limpet in it? That’s doubly satirical to the point where it could almost be too serious. A crow inside a swift? Yes, that works: they’re two different animals. Sausages? Not on their own, no.”

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Postscript: STATE BRITAIN

Broomberg & Chanarin’s depicition of the Whitehall government area of London reminds me that the Whitehall area is suprisingly unfamiliar in art. I can only think of one other major example, but it is a masterpiece. Mark Wallinger’s State Britain (2007) was a meticulous reconstruction a ‘peace camp’ that protester Brian Haw had built up in Parliament Square from 2001 until in 2006 the ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibited unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square and Brian Haw’s protest was removed.

To my mind one of the greatest, most fist-pumpingly awesome Eureka moments in the history of art must be the moment Mark Wallinger noticed that the one kilometre exclusion zone exactly bisected Tate Britain. Marking this with a line on the floor of the galleries, he positioned State Britain half inside and half outside the border.

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Thanks to Alix Mortimer

Week 18 – Kathryn Elkin – 4-11 May – The Elephants In The Room

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)
  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)
  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)
  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)
  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Death is love’s final form. The sexual climax, la petite mort, is the rehearsal. To die for love, what could be more beautiful? Silence, please.

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)

The fig-2 project is generating a huge amount of new work. Most of its weekly shows have been created specifically for fig-2 by the commissioned artists. For Week 18/50 Kathryn Elkin presented “The Elephants in the Room” documenting her collaboration with cellist Okkyung Lee. They spent a day in the studio working through the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The 22-minute film audio contained one complete solo cello take extemporised from the Mahler material, with the video taken from the conversations and experiments leading up to the take. In the fig-2 studio space the film was augmented by two performances entitled Mud, in which the artist and three volunteers read Elkin’s transcriptions of things she had said during the collaborative process: cringey, halting, nascent, funny moments.

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A style of modernistic fragmentation is often used and abused to represent cognition in action, and there’s plenty of sub-Beckett around as a result. Until I listened to her interview with fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek I didn’t realize the words were a transcription. It feels better to know that it was verbatim, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Perhaps I missed this because I’d been volunteered to be the third reader on the Sunday performance, so I was probably trying not to trip over the furniture, so to speak. The words have a music of their own that correlates with the deconstructive, reconstructive, improvisatory opacities of the music itself:

10351658_813880422016285_101759427499973172_nWell what I ummmmmmm
well what I propose
at this piece of music
together and
I thought that it would be tooooooooo

To explain what I think her title “The Elephants In The Room” means, we are going to have to go on a musical journey through Mahler’s Fifth and Beethoven’s Sixth, try to solve the mystery of the “Immortal Beloved”, think about the difference between composition and improvisation, and finally consider Bernstein’s lectures on ‘musical semantics’ and what happens when we listen to and think about music.

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  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has five movements. The fourth, the Adagietto, is famous as the theme to Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, as well as for having been conducted by Leonard Bernstein during a memorial to John F. Kennedy. These associations can make it seem all about death and mourning, but really it about love, written for his wife Alma Schindler, who claimed that Mahler left a small poem that may be understood to be the ‘words’ to this “love song without words”:

Mahler-5AdagiettoGIFbijgesneden“Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.”

(How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing and love.)

Mahler’s Fifth is the first of the central trilogy of works that abandon the use of voices and poetic texts, which were an important part of the previous four symphonies, whereas the fifth, sixth, and seventh, are thought of as ‘pure’ orchestral works. But how pure? Kelly Dean Hansen argues that it has “an inner programme” even if this programme is not explicit. The fifth in particular might be considered ‘transitional’ if we were to infer that the vocal elements of the earlier four might have existed in some sketch way before being transformed or cut – making the fifth less of a ‘pure orchestral work’ at least at the stage of composition. The existence of the poem to Alma and the fact that scholars have ‘reconstructed’ the song (see image) makes a strong case for but its absence from the symphony calls into question how much we can say that its attached resonances relating to Alma make it ‘about love’, just as how much as the listener’s associations of it with Death in Venice and John F. Kennedy make it ‘about death’.

In a nod to Beethoven’s ninth Mahler’s fifth has been called the “Funeral March to Joy” – it opens with a funeral march trumpet call followed by the orchestra’s opening which uses the same rhythmic motif from the start of Beethoven’s fifth. If Mahler’s fifth could therefore be said to be haunted by Beethoven’s, pity him the ninth. The ‘curse of the ninth’ is a common superstition among symphonic composers, because Beethoven never started a tenth. It affected Mahler to the extent that after his eighth his next three major symphonic works were each unperformed when he died. There’s an eighth-and-a-halfth Das Lied Von Den Erde which is a symphony disguised as a song cycle, then the actual Ninth and then a Tenth. Though perhaps he was right about the curse of the ninth – this tenth was thought incomplete until 1960 when the complete short score was discovered.

It’s understandable. From 1907 Mahler had been living under the shadow of death from a heart ailment, which did in turn lead to his death from a blood infection in May 1911, just eight months after conducting the first performance of his eighth. The Moebius strip of associated meanings is completed by our knowledge that the character of Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice was actually based on Mahler. Mann’s Aschenbach was a writer, but when Visconti adapted the novella for the screen, he made Aschenbach a composer, who not only looks like Mahler but whose death is soundtracked by the Mahler Adagietto.

Beethovens-letters-to-his-Immortal-Beloved

  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)

While Kathryn Elkin was researching Mahler and Visconti her neighbour was playing Beethoven until 2am every night. The music was affecting her and fed into her thoughts about extra-musical meaning and musical semantics surrounding the Adagietto and Death In Venice.

Just as Mahler’s poem to Alma might be considered an extra-musical layer of meaning, there is similar speculation in Beethoven’s oeuvre. We’ll discuss the programmatic elements of his Sixth Symphony later, but let’s take a little scherzo into the matter of the “Immortal Beloved”.

Countess Josephine von Brunsvik might be considered the most important woman in Beethoven’s life. There’s little evidence of his having loved any other, and he wrote at least fifteen letters to her in which he called her his “only beloved” . She died in 1821, aged 42. During this year, Beethoven composed his very last Piano Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111, which are like requiems, with discernible reminiscences to the earlier Andante favori Josephine’s Theme“.

In Teplitz on 6/7 July 1812 Beethoven wrote a love letter that he didn’t send. The location and date of the letter were only established by scholars in the 1950s and it is addressed to an unknown recipient whom he refers to as “Immortal Beloved”.

Beethoven scholarship has a puzzling resistance to the most logical theories, and knowledge about Beethoven and his “Only Beloved” Justine was somehow suppressed for 150 years. There is still stuff coming out. In cases of cover-ups, there’s usually an elephant in the room, and so we find. Justine and he had separated two years before but it is possible that they met again at the time of the “Immortal Beloved” letters; the suppression of the Justine theory may be because almost exactly nine months later she gave birth to her seventh child.

According to her diary entries in June 1812 Josephine intended to go to Prague. At this stage, however, her and her sister Therese’s diaries end abruptly and do not continue until about two months later. Meanwhile, Beethoven traveled to Teplitz via Prague, where, on 3 July 1812, he must have met a woman he subsequently called his Immortal Beloved.

Steblin writes in 2007 “All of the puzzling aspects about Beethoven’s affair with the ‘Immortal Beloved,’ including his various cryptic comments, can be explained in terms of his one known beloved – Josephine. Why do we doubt his word that there was only one woman who had captured his heart?” The most recent decade of European scholarship seems to have been ignored in America, and the mystery remains unsolved.

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  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)

Okkyung Lee’s music was developed through improvisation with loose instructions from Kathryn Elkin and the impetus of the Mahler score. The video doesn’t show her playing the ‘final’ take, which we hear, and we only see them working toward it. It’s somehow both improvised and composed. What is the difference? Chris Dobrian’s essay “Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation” draws the following conclusions:

  1. Composition is written. Improvisation is not.
  2. Improvisation takes place in real time. Composition does not.
  3. Improvisation is often a group activity. Composition is rarely a group activity.

The act of making a recording in a studio produces a ‘final form’ – so you could argue that the improvising musician is a composer as much as the traditional composer putting black notes down on paper. But improvisation isn’t quite the same as composition. It foregrounds the circumstances of creation at the expense of composition in a more formal sense.

By including the discussions she had with Okkyung, Elkins makes the video’s accompanying performance piece ‘Mud’ centrally about itself, about the process of creating and transforming meanings. Ordinarily we would not be party to all the thoughts or discussions that went into the creation of a work, but here they are presented as part of the work itself. These are transcribed, so in a sense the work is as much documentary as artistic, though the art comes with the selection and chopping and reordering of these thoughts, leading up to Elkin’s explanation of why the work is going to be called ‘Mud’. Just as Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu concludes with the author, another Aschenbach type character in both life and art, just setting off on the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu.

  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Elkin’s fig-2 show was crucially informed by Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on musical semantics, in which he frames musical meaning-making in the context of Chomskian structural linguistics. Bernstein argues that “music has intrinsic meanings of its own which are not to be confused with specific feelings or moods, and certainly not with pictorial impressions or stories. These intrinsic meanings are generated by a constant stream of metaphors which are all forms of poetic transformations.”

Artistotle puts metaphor mid-way between the unintelligible and the commonplace – it is metaphor which most produces knowledge. In metaphor an imaginative leap occurs in which ‘this’ is said to be ‘that’. Bernstein gives the example of “Juliet is the sun” We know she isn’t literally, but we understand that something has been expressed that might be inexpressible. This is how music conveys meaning and enables us to experience ‘this’ and/as ‘that’ at once like no other art form does. When music expresses something by recourse to individual feeling we feel “passion, glory, misty, something”. But we can’t report our precise feelings in scientific forms, only subjectively. Our descriptions of music vary wildly. One listener hears a sunset, another a bird. Similarly, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger Theme to several generations of listeners, just as the Mahler Adagietto is the theme from Visconti’s Death In Venice.

Regarding this associative personal dimension, Bernstein asks if there a transference of affect from the composer to the notes to the listener? “Did Beethoven feel like that or did I make it up? Or had the feelings been transferred? We’ll never know. The probability is that both are true.” This gives music a beautiful semantic ambiguity. It possesses the power of an expressivity that we can respond to, but it is a metalanguage that can “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable”.

Bernstein demonstrates the ways in which music communicates specifically musical meaning by analogy to metaphor, demonstrating rhetorical tropes, figures of speech, that he can find in music that are transformed in the Chomskyan sense to produce meaning. Anaphora, the repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, he finds right there in Mahler’s Fifth. (He even explores chiasmus, which I wrote about at some length in Week 17). Music is constantly transformative of material and it is here rather than in our subjectivity that he challenges us to find the  the ‘meanings of music’.

To illustrate this, Bernstein takes us in some detail through Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which bears a great deal of ‘extra-musical’ material. It is subtitled ‘Pastorale’ and each movement has yet another title. This is distracting enough if you’re trying to concentrate on the music as music, but Beethoven even adds bird calls and village bands and lightning and thunder, making the work as close to program music as he ever came. Bernstein asks if it’s possible to clarify between intrinsic and extrinsic metaphors. Is it possible to listen to it as pure music?

Beethoven’s subtitles are perhaps “suggestions” with the music not meant to be interpreted as “tone painting” but those extra-musical references are there and are hard to ignore, just as it’s hard to forget about Aschenbach or William Tell or the Immortal Beloved. They form a visual curtain of nonmusical ideas that interposes between the music and the listener. Bernstein at the conclusion of his lecture presents us with the challenge of ridding ourselves of all this rustic ‘Pastorale’ material and hearing the music as music. The Sixth is an extraordinary catalogue of variations of transformed elements of the first four bars, which are a simple bass motif in the chords F and C which forms a motto of whole symphony, just as the immortal opening bars of the Fifth underpin it and are similarly transformed throughout.

10846196_813547002049627_3720868295181635872_nThis explanation that the meaningfulness of music lies in its musical transformations chimes with Okkyung Lee’s development of the Mahler material and her radically transforming it. The experimental cellist’s use of improvisation and fractured syntax and modernistic harmonies and language takes it away from the familiar world of Death In Venice but it is not methodologically differently in what Beethoven does, or what Mahler has already done in the original Adagietto in transforming the basic material in the course of the piece. Those are mahler’s transformations, these are Okkyung Lee’s, not to mention Kathryn Elkin’s as a de facto co-composer, with the listener’s own semantic contribution by recourse to our subjective listening act.

“While I count to five, try not to think of an elephant” says Bernstein at the end of the lecture. It’s a classic thought paradox: as soon as you try not to think about something you are necessarily thinking about it. He asks that we abandon all extra-musical material (the programmatic elements) and just listen to music as transformations.

Katryn_Elkin_Fig2_17_50_-11The title of Kathryn Elkin’s week at Fig-2 “The Elephants In The Room” is nowhere explained, which might make it itself another ‘elephant in the room’ in addition to those I’ve outlined. I take it that the title comes from Bernstein’s lectures, and have used it to try and explore the presences and absences that go into how we find and transmit meaning through music (and indeed any art form). Bernstein concedes “I doubt that anyone succeeded in avoiding the elephant”. But next time you hear Mahler’s Adagietto, the one from Death In Venice, try Bernstein’s experiment: see if you can avoid the elephant.

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Bernstein lectures on musical semantics, different ways of translating musical ideas in terms of linguistics etc: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unanswered_Question_%28lecture_series%29

Musical phonology https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntmTQ8J7m5Y
Musical syntax https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlaeEJ6ASJw
Musical semantics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V82aqyG1k5M
The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7nVMx7zrk
The Xxth Crisishttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAuDrnkN080
The Poetry of Earth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=034GXOyVbjg