April 07, 2006

Recent Reading

I think it's just a coincidence that I read Sexual Personae (Camille Paglia) and Opera, or the Undoing of Women (Catherine Clément) at the same time, but they ended up pairing very well together. Both of them discuss the sexual forces that motivate art (the art itself and its creation). They both share the pretense that they are stepping back and taking a broader look at the work they are considering than most other commentators. Clément sees misogyny from her vantage point. Lots of it. Paglia finds misogyny, but also transvestism, polyamory, vampirism, and an assortment of other behaviors that you probably don't discuss in most lit. surveys or music history classes.

To Clément, art is more or less a pissing ground for bitter, insecure men. Paglia sees a battleground for the irrational forces that society was meant to guard against. For her, misogyny is a fact of life. She isn't rushing to get the bumper stickers on her car, but she states that it's basically the reason Western civilization and culture exists. If women were in charge, we'd still be living in grass huts.

In case you haven't guessed, I found Paglia's arguments more compelling. They weren't always the most well-documented (many of her explanations boiled down to "because I'm Italian"), but when measured against my own experiences in and outside of art, they made the most sense. Clément seemed to be the truly embittered one, interminably pissed off that the operas she loved as a child turned out to mean more than she thought they did.

Perhaps less contentious ground was covered in Music Downtown, Kyle Gann's collected criticism from the Village Voice. Danny Felsenfeld did a thorough write-up for NewMusicBox on why unabashedly subjective criticism is a Good Thing, so I don't need to repeat what he already said so well. I only wanted to comment on one of the book's recurring topics. "Imagism" is Kyle's term for music that presents sonic images that stick into the listener's memory. It is a device not tied to a particular aesthetic movement: Fate knocking at the door of Beethoven's Fifth, the pure G major triads that occasionally surface in the "Thoreau" mvt. of the Concord Sonata, Stravinsky's instrumentation for the cadenzas in his Concerto for Piano and Winds (he doesn't recognize Debussy or Ligeti for their image-making abilities, but that's one feature of their music that's always stuck in my mind). Part of his presentation of the idea is that images help listeners immensely in making their way through a piece and that they're sorely lacking from Uptown music.

Feldman is cited as a preeminent "imagist," but in the process, Kyle makes an odd injunction of his Jewishness: "Within white culture, perhaps only a Jewish composer could have pulled off such a feat [reintroducing images to music]; not a hyperrationalist Jew like Babbitt, but a Talmudic mystic with respect for the unutterable" (263). Though Jews are "overrepresented" in music, Jews are less present in the visual arts. Kyle says that Christianity banished pagan images from its practices, though the stereotype of churches in my mind includes stained glass and visual depictions of the life of Jesus. I've never seen much visual art in synagogues, but I've seen more than one Torah proudly displayed for its highly disciplined caligraphy. We love words.

When you get into Jewish mysticism, as viewers of Pi may recall, words start to gain tremendous power. The golem of Prague was brought to life by writing emet (truth) on his forehead. Erasing the first letter changes the word to met (death) and puts the golem to rest. To me, Feldman's declaration of sound as the deity in his life and his desire to not "push the sounds around" are indicative of this deep respect of the power of language. Though perhaps Kyle was right to link this part of Feldman's style with his Jewishness, I'm not sure that the connection he made was quite complete. Sorry if it seems like I'm quibbling with technicalities here, but I think that's a Jewish thing, too.

One more point of comparison, on Feldman's "Jewishness":
Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai, and said to him: "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."
My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around." Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?"


Daniel Wolf said...

Gann's religious history is off. Iconoclasm has always been a central tenent of Judaism, beginning with the Decalogue's injunction against imagery. In Christianity, the relationship to this injunction has always been less clear, and controversies over icons are recurrent. Ever since the Pauline break with an exclusively Jewish Christian community, the debate has raged on and remains unsettled in the larger community of Christians. Catholics and Orthodox Christians follow St. Basil's thesis that "the honor rendered to an image passes to its protype", a notion unthinkable in any version of Jewish theology. Roman Catholics have statues, frescoes, stained glass, and wear medalians with images of Saints or Martyrs. The Orthodox Christians venerate icons, and the Orthodox and Coptic traditions are especially rich in iconographic traditions. But many protestants, especially those in Calvinist/Reformed traditions, are strict iconoclasts, and come to their iconoclasm largely through appeals to the decalogue. (Many, if not most Muslims are iconoclasts as well).

I believe that an articles on Feldman by Walter Zimmermann was the first to identify Feldman explicitly as an iconoclast; without using that term Heinz-Klaus Metzger's writings on Feldman appear to confirm that viewpoint.

emily said...

THe fact that you have time to read something sounding so interesting makes me really want to drop my other major...:P