Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jan Swafford explains the path from loathing to loving Mozart


... When I first heard the opera in my mid-20s, I hadn't yet learned, among many other things, that the greatest art is not necessarily the most perfect. Bach wrote tremendous vocal music but was strangely oblivious to the fact that singers have to breathe. He wrote vocal lines as if they were for violin. The finale of Beethoven's Ninth is clunky and episodic in its form—enough so that Beethoven talked about replacing it. Shakespeare is notoriously weak in dramatic construction and often didn't know when to shut up. I once sat through a reading of The Tempest with a playwright who bitched all the way through, saying that Shakespeare isn't any good because his dramatic arc is so bad.  Today I'd argue that among other things a great work is one that has the power to make its faults, even the obvious ones, irrelevant to the experience of the work.

Technique is important; bad technique can sink a piece. In most of his music Mozart is celebrated for the near perfection of every element. But in the end I think none of this makes the ultimate difference in the power of an artwork. Nobody would claim Berlioz was the craftsman his contemporary Cherubini was. Beethoven admired Cherubini, and Brahms had a portrait of him on his wall. But most people these days have never heard of Cherubini unless they know Medea, his only opera still mounted with any regularity, while Berlioz fans are legion. The art that lives through the ages is not just the tightest, or the most organic, or the most anything. It just has a mysterious power to reach us, thrill us, fascinate us, draw us into its world, and to renew itself through the course of our lives and through the centuries.

There is no work of art that is completely unassailable. There is no perfect art because there can be no perfect people.  Ideas and idioms develop within settings and experiences and cultures that do and don't connect.  When I was younger I found the Psalms to be strange, emotionally implausible, even in some cases offensive.  Expressing the desire to smash the heads of babies against stones was not something I found relatable.  David's capacity to be so sure of his being in the right and so sure of being blameless made little sense when I looked at his life described in the books of Samuel. 

The pious bias of contemporary American evangelicalism can at times be "I'm far from perfect but ... ."By contrast, David would remorselessly say "I am blameless." Cottage industries have emerged to make sure this sort of rhetoric from David is conveniently subsumed into atonement theology so David doesn't come across as too egotistical or self-assured. As a certain Mars Hill music pastor once put it, David often comes across as a whiny, self-absorbed emo boy.  But let's step back and think about that a moment ... we're not that different, are we? How can we look down on David's emo histrionics in the Psalms when we live in the age of blogging and tweeting?  We paradoxically embody no better a realm than that inhabitated by David and other psalmists, do we? 

Let me try to put it this way, if you don't know what synthetic parallelism is as a literary device the Psalms will seem full of pointless and even infuriating repetition.  Why say the same thing twice before moving on to the next idea?  Well, uh, blues lyrics do this all the time so in a way it's not so shocking, is it?  Do twitterpated lovebirds get tired of saying "I love you" to each other?  Not at first.

What about the perfunctory acrostic poetry in the Psalms?  Well, this, too, can make sense in its way if you appreciate the aim, which is to show the comprehensiveness of an experience or idea.  If the Law touches on every aspect of Israelite life then it makes sense to use a flamboyently artificial poetic device of running through the entire alphabet. The way language itself gets employed becomes a type of symbolism.  Now it's too bad this sort of symbolism is incapable of coming across adequately in translation but that's the thing about translation, something will get lost along the way.  Yet we know from the sheer longevity of biblical literature that the content within the material is able to transcend the limitations of time, place and the conventions of art in another language for us to appreciate "The Lord is my shepherd."

Then there's the other side of the coin. Our experience of art goes in both directions. Of many examples in my life, it bemuses me to remember that I used to be a devotee of Philip Glass.

What happened to divide me and Glass was simply this: Around 1973 I attended a concert of the Philip Glass Ensemble. At that point I was a country schoolteacher in Vermont preparing to go to grad school. With great excitement I shelled out some money I didn't really have and drove 100 miles to hear a Glass concert at Dartmouth. I walked into the hall a fan and walked out with a headache, my ears ringing, seriously pissed off. The once-so-cool hypnotic effect of the music now sounded to me unearned, all too easily achieved by the dumb device of repeating things over and over, like "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Bach and Brahms and Bartók are multidimensional; they throw ideas and developments at you constantly. Glass boils all the possible dimensions of music down to one idea and beats you senseless with it. [emphasis mine]
So I dropped Philip Glass from my listening list. Whether history will do the same remains to be seen. What happens with works in the course of our lives is a microcosm of what happens to them over the decades and the centuries. That Mozart's contemporaries didn't understand or appreciate him is a myth. By his last years he was the most celebrated and best-paid composer alive—but he had a problem hanging on to money.

As someone who has always detested Glass but admired Steve Reich it warms my heart to read such a deconversion experience regarding Glass's music.

Sometimes what can seem to be flaws in a work of art can paradoxically become the thing you appreciate about the art.  When Batman: the animated series first aired twenty years ago I was graduating from high school.  I had seen the Burton films and the then new cartoon seemed trying too hard to be serious and taken seriously.  Compared to the Saturday morning cartoons I had enjoyed as a kid there was a weirdly self-serious, almost self-aware ambition to the thing. The Joker seemed too manic and the humor didn't connect with me for his character.  How was this cartoon that seemed determined to split the difference between being a show for kids and having a dark and even morbid tone going to get anywhere?

Twenty years later I own every episode and Batman: the animated series is arguably my favorite TV show, and the subsequent DCAU is something I consider to be one of the best cumulative works in the superhero canon and in kids shows.  A lot changed and I admit a lot of that was me.  When Paul Dini and Bruce Timm's creation first hit television the Cold War had ended only a few years earlier, the cartoon moralism of Reagan era cartoons and the corresponding marketing juggernaut often associated with each cartoon was not there with this Batman cartoon.  A friend of mine would later tell me Gargoyles did things better than Batman: the animated series but I've never seen an episode of Gargoyles.

In terms of fans of Classic era composers a lot more people like Mozart, it seems, than Haydn.  Haydn doesn't seem as profound or as polished as Mozart.  Well, let me propose that BTAS was Haydn to subsequent cartoons indebted to its influence.  When you have the potentially thankless task of revolutionizing cartoons for kids by obliterating the simplified moral categories anchored in blunt physiognomy and go so far as to introduce Two-Face when no one in pop culture had put his half-burnt visage in front of kids before history won't be kind to the failures but history can be kind to the winners. 

Thanks to the passage of time and a deeper appreciation of the historical moment I can look back on Batman: the animated series as arguably one of the first truly post-Cold War cartoons for American kids. Presenting to children a series of stories in which even the good guy has some significant character flaws and the bad guys can be charming or relatable was pretty revolutionary.  Now I can appreciate the show precisely because it was trying, and trying very hard, the pretense toward art that I found off-putting as a snobby 18-year old thinking he was too grown up for this is what I find endearing about the show as a 38-year old.  The darkness in the series no longer seems like an earnest affectation, it is integral to the show.  The first few episodes, I admit, are not as compelling as the ones that came later. The more the show and its creators embraced the darkness and reveling in the idea that the human condition is dark and broken the more compelling I found the show. 

In a way, as I discovered in my eventual appreciation of the Psalms, what can seem like cartoony expressions of loss, despair, loneliness and abandonment  ends up resonating rather than seeming forced.  The heart knows its own sorrow and no other shares its joy.  Even in a smiling face can hide sorrow and the end of joy is grief.  Those repeating lines in blues songs that could seem annoying like the synthetic parallelism in the Psalms stop being annoying to the 18 year old and take on a strange, formalistic beauty to a 38-year old.  The repetition comes to mean, "And this keeps happening to me."  To put it somewhat comically, it's like a scene where Hellboy is preparing to leap out of a burning, crashing plane and he has no parachute.  He sighs and mutters, "Why does this keep happening to me?" So it is with the Psalmist, who time after time runs into a problem and whose expressions of lament, requests for help, and considerations of woe seem to say, "I thought I was going to get over this!  Why does this keep being so lame every single time it happens to me!?"

Maybe it took 30 months of not having a job to appreciate the poetry of an annointed king on the lam who keeps wondering how long it's going to be before the beatings stop.  Maybe it took a few years of just living life to appreciate that there's something about Batman we can relate to, there are some wounds that hit so deep that you don't get over them, they just become part of who you are and if you're going to be a better person from it then you let that wound shape you in a way so that it becomes the basis from which you seek to help rather than harm.

Considering that Christians like to quote Isaiah and speak about the man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering and grief maybe that's my own highly idiosyncratic take on how and why the previously overwrought and over-earnest aspects of Batman: the animated series were things I eventually warmed up to.  The fights and dark jokes admittedly won me over.  It's dark little moments that stick with me like when Harley Quinn hears Batman laugh for the first time in "Made Love". She shrinks back and says fearfully, "I've never heard you laugh before. I don't think I like it." Is that artificial? Yes. But I admit it's that kind of cruel irony I find compelling in the show--year after year Harley would claim the joke was on B-man but Batman knows that in the end the cruelest joke is on her and he can't convince her otherwise.  When you're about to get killed by the delusional henchgirl of your arch-nemesis what else can you do but laugh? 

No comments: