Friday, April 05, 2013

Old Life org--Don't blame secularism, blame the GOP

McCarthy goes on to argue that the culture wars are simply hangovers from the Vietnam era and only make sense to baby boomers.
The “culture war” that Pat Buchanan spoke of at the 1992 Republican convention was, among other things, a symptom of Vietnam syndrome: a chance to right the wrongs of the 1960s and 1970s, if not in the rice paddies of Indochina then in the hearts and minds of Americans, turning back the clock to a more wholesome time before the war and its cultural coattails.

For younger voter cohorts, this couldn’t make sense. They were a postwar generation, culturally as well as militarily, and the idea of winning back what had been lost in the wars of the 1960s was emotionally incomprehensible. These voters lacked the psychological backdrop that pulled the Boomers toward the GOP after Vietnam. And over the next 20 years, as talk radio and Fox News continued to pitch the Republican message to Boomer ears, Americans born after 1975 simply tuned out.

It might be worth it to point out that people born from the mid 1970s on out could be construed as a postwar generation not simply in terms of Vietnam but as a generation that hit adolescence during a period when the Cold War ended.  This has far-reaching implications that influence even basic interpretation of pop cultural artificats.  Let's take Alan Moore's comic Watchmen.  Anyone who interprets Veidt's save-the-world plan as both necessary and effective may not understand the fatalistic doom with which progressives considered nuclear war, a thing that was inevitable unless complete disarmament took place.  Grant Morrison framed this vital bit of cultural/narrative understanding in Supergods. He pointed out that by making the reader the one who reads entries from Rorschach's journal Alan Moore shows that the journal went public in the end anyway and that all the work Veidt did, all the millions he killed, did not necessarily make the world a safer or saner place, after all.  Osterman told Veidt "nothing ever ends" but Osterman had by then passed beyond death and life in normal human terms after becoming Dr. Manhatten. 

People in their 20s now may not entirely realize how pervasive the fear of global thermonuclear war was in the days of Reagan, that other cowboy president that progressives thought might destroy both America and the world.  That didn't come to pass and when that didn't come to pass it didn't mean that a whole generation really retroactively reinterpreted classic comics like Watchmen in light of that observation.  Just as End Times true-believers keep recalculating because they're sure they will live to experience a Secret Rapture, so some people will still believe that certain things are inevitable, like certain politicians destroying whatever makes America great.

And older conservatives, seeing that generation’s disdain for the culture war, are apt to write them off completely. If you’re not outraged by same-sex marriage, how can you be any kind of conservative?

But the reason even young conservatives aren’t interested in those kinds of battles is that they’re fighting others closer to home. Americans born after 1975 have grown up in an environment in which, Todd Gitlin admits, “only the most sentimental ex-hippie could fail to recognize the prices paid on the road to the new freedom: the booming teenage pregnancy rate; the dread diseases that accompanied the surge in promiscuity; the damage done by drugs; the undermining of family commitment…”

Young adults who have come from home backgrounds marked by divorce, or from intact families that nonetheless never sat down at a dinner table, want to form stronger bonds than their parents did. Boomers who view post-Boomer attitudes toward sex in light of a “revolution” are doing it wrong. It was the Boomers, or at least a key cohort among them, who believed in free love as a salvific concept. Young American have grown up with promiscuity and knowledge of drugs, aren’t panicked about these things, but don’t see them as possessing redemptive significance either. Even most young progressives do not believe in personal “liberation” of the sort that was at the core of the ’60s left—just as no one today believes in the kind of “liberation” once associated with Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh.

What seems to have happened is that a kind of libertarianism has taken hold among younger people who in the past might have been more traditional conservatives.  Gulf War 2 is actually a significant point at which neo-conservatives and libertarians will likely continue to disagree.  I've seen and heard more than just a handful of debates among groups of men who might have been united in the Reagan era but, as D. G. Hart and others have proposed, the Reagan coalition was a one-off, non-replicable coalition that began to fracture once the Cold War was over.

To swerve back into pop cultural terms, people who have read a lot of Wenatchee The Hatchet may recall that I explained that The Simpsons and Batman: the animated series can be taken as some of the seminal truly post-Cold War pop culture landmarks in animation.  We were shown cartoons that were not merely for kids and that introduced heretofore inconceivable levels of moral ambiguity in a cartoon that was for kids on the one hand and a level of pointed satire of Cold War family ideals in cartoon form for adults.  The 1990s can be looked back on as a decade in which American pop culture looked back on the victory that we were told we got and wondered if "winning" the Cold War was really worth the price we paid along the way.  With this in mind the answer that Fox Mulder and Scully kept scrambling toward was the answer "No", we'd sold our souls to win a battle that may not need to have been fought or that was against the wrong enemy.

If Hart's right (and I admit I'm not entirely sure about that, or the authors he refers to) then the GOP bungled Gulf War 2 in a way comparable to Democrats bungling Vietnam.  I do think Hart is generally right about how and why the Right fractured after the Cold War.  The likelihood that traditional conservatives, neo-conservatives (aka formerly anti-communists who can be considered pro-war-on-terror) and libertarians will actually manage to reconcile any of their policy interests.  I recall that Joan Didion mentioned years ago that she voted ardently for Barry Goldwater and did not consider Reagan an actual conservative.  There are those who consider Reagan a conservative relative to where even Republicans were going with fiscal policy.  If that's the case then, well, perhaps the GOP has foundered in several ways because of a kind of conservative grade inflation. 

old at heart, a rambling reflection on how I came to enjoy a little horror now and then

For a variety of reasons I grew up being what I would now describe as old at heart.  I wouldn't say an old soul or the apparently common meaning for that term of being "wise beyond your years".  People told me that from time to time and I took it as a complement but it wasn't entirely true.  Wenatchee The Hatchet is pretty much about as smart or dumb as anyone most of the time. 

No, "old at heart" was a way of describing how even in my teens I found it easy to relate to people in their 30s or 40s.  I had a number of mentors in my teens and liked that period of my life even though other family members would say that particular time in life was pretty exasperating.  Every stage of life has its exasperations and perhaps that right there is a sign of what I mean by "old at heart".  There aren't many stages of life once I got past puberty where I haven't thought consistently about the sheer inevitability of death and how death destroys everything we work and strive toward. 

Maybe other kids around the age of 12 read Revelation and Ecclesaistes besides Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Around the age of 11 I was objecting to the grossly moral simplification of Transformers.  Yes, Wenatchee The Hatchet actually objected to the crude simplification of good and evil in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons.  The way life played out the kind of black and white moral assurances other kids were still enjoying felt stale and unconvincing to me.  I only eventually watched the animated Transformers movie just to watch Optimus Prime die because I found the character implausible overall.  So perhaps we could say I wasn't just "old at heart" but often gloomy and pessimistic in my outlook on people as moral agents and societies as things shaping people. 

By my teens I gained a loathing of Transcendalist ideals and got more into Melville, Hawthorne, Kafka, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and eventually Dostoevsky.  There was a summer in my early twenties where my big summer reading fun time list was The Brothers Karamazov, Heart of Darkness and the Metamorphosis.  I read Conrad in one sleepless night in a garage that was my bedroom and I was transfixed by the bleakness of the author's tale and the author's own eliptical complicity in the evil that Marlowe could both describe and participate in.  I guess I've been drawn to stories in which even heroes discover darkness in themselves.  There are few things that inspire me to snort more than tales of triumph of the human spirit and the victory of the so-called underdog.

We all die and no matter how high we may ascend we will all fall dead in the end.  You don't have to wonder what your destiny is going to be in this life, you're going to die and with you everything you built, at some point.  If you have children they will die, too, one day and if you're very unfortunate they'll pass before you do.  And yet as Koholeth wrote, it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion even if death ultimately reduces us all to thoughtless dust (we'll have more to write about Ecclesiastes in the future).

Cheery, yes.

Twenty years ago, particularly as a conservative evangelical Protestant (and I'm not saying I'm not one now, actually) horror movies would have been completely off limits for me.  Movies depicting evil and death and monstrosity were bad.  That monstrosities were perpetrated by figures in biblical texts had not quite dawned on me in my earlier teens because I had just gotten to prophetic literature and sorta cracked upon bits of the Torah, but the narrative literature was still before me.  I'd read Job and loved it, though, and in my teens I began to consider suffering because, well, it kinda happens, you know.

Over decades I have come to have a limited, qualified appreciation for horror.  I had a couple of friends in college who introduced me to some horror and seeing as the remake of the old Sam Raimi horror-comedy classic is upon us it was Sam Raimi who was the gateway film-maker to appreciating that horror could play with ideas.  Of course by now a lot of people know Raimi to have directed two pretty decent Spiderman movies and a disappointing third.  In a commentary on the original Evil Dead Bruce Campbell noted simply that everyone and everything dies in the first film.  You could say that pretty well sums up horror, recognizing that everything dies, no matter how young and beautiful.  That may be the most salient reason that most horror movies involve the dismemberment, evisceration and death of the young, the beautiful, the careless, the self-assured and the sexy.  There may not be a mountain of horror movies that deal with the anxieties and fears of the aged and the dying, though on that particular topic that's exactly what I admired about Bubba Ho-Tepp, that two old guys in a retirement home did battle with supernatural evil in a setting where basically nobody younger than them really cared about them. 

For a horror film to work it must appeal to fears we really have and for a horror film to work well it may need to appeal to a fear or a cruelty or a despair or a resignation that we realize we are susceptible to, something we wish we could hide from. 

Let's consider the book of Judges, which is arguably one giant narrative of escalating atrocity and horror.  In literary terms it seems to run toward the motiff that there was no king then and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.  And yet when the kingship is established it is just a few mere generations before it systematizes atrocities and horrors that in earlier epochs simply burbled up from the will of the people.  There is a sense in which to understand what we call salvation we have to have some grasp of horror, not merely of what we are saved from but what we are capable of in our lesser moments.  You see one of the recurring tropes in the horror genre is that inconsequential decisions can often take on catastrophic and irreversible consequences.  It could be as mundane and simple as reading something out loud from a book, for instance. 

If you've read the story about Eglon and the hilt of a sword then you may have an idea that Raimi's innovation of "splatstick" is, in its way, not a truly new idea.  This may be a truly grisly admission but one of my relatives jokingly suggested that there should be a suite of musical interludes called "The Levite's Concubine: 12 miniatures for piano".  I burst out laughing when I heard that title.  It's worth of Erik Satie in a way, though it would be better if it sounded more like Webern or Schoenberg or Berg. 

Believe it or not I think there may be a coherent point in this digression.  Raimi's development of splatstick hybridized slapstick elements with splatter film.  When this combination is finely and decliately balanced into a bloodbath that is both sickening and amusing we are not far from moments in the book of Judges, in which we can be simultaneously appalled and grimly amused at how we can surprise ourselves as humans with our capacity for cruelty and self-delusion, how our pragmatism can be brutally idealistic in its motives and how our idealism can be strangely utilitarian. 

I could write more about the process of coming to actually appreciate some of the horror genre when the me who was around twenty years ago would have been alarmed.  The short-cut explanation is that because I was old at heart, some part of me was already open to the possibility that death is inevitable and that no matter how beautiful we may be (or merely think we are) death will come for us, too.  If horror is something you can only ever describe as a feeling you have about other people then you may not be able to appreciate the genre because in a sense a horror story can often be a process of self-examination. 

Many of the great atrocities of the human race were perpetrated by people who found ways to rationalize evil and to find some mundane justification for it.  There is a sense in which there are two broad types of humor, deprecation of others and deprecation of self.  Humor is where we find ways to laugh at weakness, egotism and frailty (an interesting horror film, by the way, if you caught the title reference).  Horror is where we may look at and hear the same things and recoil in, well, you know.  But what is different?  It can sometimes simply be little more than the difference between seeing what we see others say and do and having a flickering moment of recognition in which we can see and hear ourselves able, maybe, to do the same kinds of things.  Or we may finally find ourselves confronting anxieties and resentments that, were we to follow them to some unbridled, unrestrained conclusion, might lead us to do and say horrible things. 

But that's enough of a ramble on that set of issues for now.

Internet Monk: on Michael Spenser

Spenser died three years ago. I never met Michael in person but that year a couple of other people I had known in person died.  Not really going to get into that here, though. 

Jane Austen's gift of making readers complicit in the misapprehension of her characters

... By her painstaking re-creation of Mary’s talk—her witty paragraph-length discourses on the absurdities of country life, the hypocrisy of the clergy, the abominations of her uncle the admiral—Austen makes us feel for Mary what Edmund feels. She once again makes us complicit.
That ability to make us complicit is essential to Austen’s art. A moralist can lecture, but a novelist must create lifelike moments that let us experience the consciousness of another. Austen does this so subtly that it can be easy to take for granted. ...
One of the finer aspects of Austen's art, even after every plot twist has been spoiled, is that she can lead us by the nose through the biases of her characters in such a way that her tone and sentence structure predispose us to reach the conclusions of her characters, even when those conclusions turn out to be spectacularly wrong.  While Austen didn't have any fear of telling rather than showing she still accomplishes a kind of showing in which character reactions and particularly their speech, show us quite a bit about the psychological state of a protagonist.  Austen and Dostoevsky can both be clever at using a third-person omniscient narrator that turns out to withhold details or is bound by the restricted vision of a central character. 

Thursday, April 04, 2013

JS Bangs: A Writer's Lent

A couple of excerpts

A maxim I’ve heard over and over again from pro writers is that you need to put your butt in the chair and write. No amount of other things can possibly make up for sitting down and puking out words until you have enough; and then you have to pick through your verbal vomit to find out which chunks of it are gold. Everything else is just idleness.

Does it need to be said? Writing is incredibly discouraging. You will work for weeks on a short story, or for months on a novel. It will be rejected. You will make it better, and it will be rejected again. And again. And again. You can expect to garnish dozens of rejections before you ever see an acceptance. And you must reckon with the fact, either disheartening or encouraging depending on your point of view, that being rejected often has nothing to do with your story. Lots of great stories get rejected. The only thing you can do is keep trying.

As there will be more posts in the series we can link to them as they emerge, or as we remember to go back and see that they went up. 

These posts JS has written reminded me of a certain lovely axiom, writer's block is for amateurs.  :)

Phoenix Preacher: "Things I Think" on "the biggest lie evangelicals have swallowed"

1. I think the biggest lie evangelicals have swallowed is that the fruit of the Word should be credited to the messenger of the Word. In that lie is the seed of almost every other ecclesiastical lie.

Could this be construed as an evangelical Protestant variation of transubstantiation, perhaps, in which the saving blood and broken body of Jesus exists within the vibrations of the air that are made when the evangelical Protestant pastor preaches? Just proposing the idea for consideration.

Roger Ebert has died,5,4663524,full.story

It may be difficult to overstate the influence of Siskel and Ebert over the last forty years and whether you liked them or not (Wenatchee enjoyed them) their influence is palpable. 

It may be worth noting that Ebert got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  After all, some people parade their ignorance of the beauty of criticism as an art form and a fine body of literature by occasionally tweeting to the effect that nobody ever made a monumen to a critic. ;)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cinemagogue Conference April 19-20

Having only just finished the book this weekend Wenatchee The Hatchet plans to write about Cinemagogue before too long ... then again consider how long ago Wenatchee was writing about writing about Ferdinand Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar! 

Nevertheless, follow this link to James Harleman explaining the upcoming Cinemagogue conference, which you can just show up to, though he'd appreciate it if you'd RSVP. Hope that if you're in the Puget Sound area and have an appreciation for James' work that you can make it. 

And a review of Cinemagogue will be forthcoming, even if it might take a little time.

a little music for Easter (Western calendar, at least)

Some guy apparently wrote a dozen studies in harmonics and some of them are based on traditional hymns.  Here's two of them that you can listen to if you're in the mood for a little music for Easter, or in the mood for music written using only harmonics on a single guitar. 

Study No.8 in Harmonics
Based on an old tune known to English-speakers as "Come Thou Almighty King"

Study No.9 in Harmonics
Based on the shape-note tune "Wondrous Love"

Wenatchee The Hatchet hopes you're having a pleasant Easter weekend.

Ruminations on Samson by way of Alastair Roberts and other places

Kinda late, this, but figured it's at least something to link to.  Have plans to consider Samson later on.

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar--No.2 in D major

Sonata for flute and Guitar in D major

This sonata opens with a broad, lyric theme that gently moves back and forth between major and minor modes.  We can be pretty sure we're going to hear a sonata and Rebay does not upset our expectations.  Theme 1 makes way for a second theme that is a type of inversion of theme 1's ideas.  The guitar has backed up the flute throughout and in theme 2 begins to be more assertive, introducing marching patterns as the flute soars above the guitar. After this languid exposition repeats Rebay begins to mine the minor keys in a development that seems to hint at harmonies and rhythms that would be typical of a work in Piazzola but with a more restrained and refined mood.

When Rebay comes to his recapitulation he gives the guitar a flourish and the flute a chance to embellish the first theme.  It is typical of Rebay that his development sections are generally short and simply wind down before he brings back his earlier themes and this sonata is no exception.  Here what Rebay does that it's a bit unusual for him is to develop some of his ideas in the transition from theme 1 to theme 2 in his recapitulation.  It gives this opening movement an element of surprise even in a very traditional sonata form.  

The second movement is a slow song that takes up fragments of the second theme from the first movement, giving them a bluesy turn here and a dark funereal turn there. This movement culminates in a delicate, somber presentation of its opening theme in a compound meter march (think 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring' but with more dirge-like overtones).  After this slow, solemn presentation of the theme Rebay abruptly introduces a short call and response episode of counterpoint in a minor key that gets us just as abruptly back to the opening theme of the movement as a sedate phrase to a coda. 

The third movement is an agitated scherzo in minor. Its central trio is a waltz so cheeky it wouldn't be entirely out of place in a Shostakovich string quartet.  As Gonzalo Noque mentions in the liner notes for this album this sonata for flute and guitar demonstrates a lot of attention to cyclical development of a few core ideas across the entire sonata and we can hear that in each movement.  This scherzo is an impeccably balanced form with the outer scherzo segments swift and agitated in a minor key being offset by a central waltz that's more a fantasia.  Outer stringency is offset by a central segment that's more laid-back. 

The finale is a grand set of variations (that's to say it's a bit more than 10.5 minutes long) that sums up what has come before.  Rebay doesn't do this through anything as literal as quotation of previous themes, which is what, for instance, Shostakovich very often did; instead Rebay employs intervals and gestures that evoke the parts given to the flute and guitar earlier in the sonata.  The flute has a melody built from octave shifts while the guitar has a strolling, marching theme that has intervals that evoke rather than quote the marching gestures given to it in the earlier movements. Rebay is also able to exploit traditional ideas like a parallel periodic structure to evoke harmonic turns from earlier in his sonata without having to be as literal as Shostakovich would tend to be in a finale.  

Here again, we can hear that Rebay is in excellent form handling variations.  He moves through 1) a broad pastoral variation to 2) a boisterous dance to a lilting march that evokes the trio from the third movement to 3) another boisterous dance evoking the scherzo to 4) a solemn waltz to 5) a minor key, slower iteration of the earlier boisterous dancing music to 6) a somber march that evokes the development from the opening sonata that turns into 7) a more agitated march in minor  that swiftly builds up to the finale within the finale.  The finale presentation is a transformation of the theme into a Beethovenian march almost as long by itself as all the previous variations put together.  Through most of this set of variations Rebay carefully controls the end of each variation so that it sustains the harmonic and rhythmic momentum of each variation so as to lead to the next.   

For alert listeners we'll have heard how each of the variations calls back to a gesture or rhythmic idea from earlier in the sonata. Rebay's bearing is so traditional and conservative so it can be easy to underestimate the level of control he put into this sonata precisely because the conservative style can make it easy to not hear what is actually going on.  Rebay's music is conservative in a way that makes it possible to underestimate the obvious, which in this case is how tightly he's controlled thematic relationships across and within the movements of this sonata.  Noque has described this sonata as having a Romantic mood and I don't disagree but I hear a Beethovenian background to this work, particularly as I've listened to it at least a dozen times and considered Rebay's cyclical approach (plus the sonata is simply very fun to listen to!). 

Rebay's music is so conservative in style and form that there's a sense in which, though it was written in the 20th century, it isn't exactly of the 20th century.  Rebay's music sounds as though it could have, in many ways, been written in the late 19th century.  Now for guitarists and listeners committed to progress and to the guitar being at whatever point we imagine the guitar to be Rebay's music can be considered a throwback.  That may even be true, depending on your point of view.  But for guitarists let us consider that Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues have not yet been published and Bach compiled book 1 of the Well Tempered Clavier more than two centuries ago. The thing about sidelining work that seems to be too old-fashioned is that as literature goes the guitar has often been bereft of forms and compositional approaches completely taken for granted in other instrumental and performance traditions.   

To go back to some earlier observations I've made, Rebay's chamber sonata cycle for guitar with various instruments began to take shape on a completely different track but during the same decades in which Hindemith began his giant cycle of chamber sonatas.  Much as I enjoy Hindemith I would not hesitate to say that Rebay's chamber sonatas, those I've heard, are easily more accessible and are worth getting a hearing.  As Matanya Ophee put it so many years ago, guitarists who want the instrument to be respected as at the level of other instruments should jump on the chamber music bandwagon and as substantial contributions to chamber music go we're only beginning to get an idea of the significance of Rebay's work.  Is it unusually conservative for 20th century literature?  Of course.  But the Cold War has been over for decades and in some sense the political weight with which questions of musical style and substance got freighted in the 20th century (as discussed at length by Alex Ross, for instance) seems virtually irrelevant to dealing with chamber music for guitar.  

Richard Taruskin has stated that concert music has so devolved into shoptalk that music criticism dealing with actual life and politics tends to only exist in pop music criticism.  That may be, and yet if shoptalk isn't going away in discussion of concert music surely there's nothing wrong with promoting music that is simple, conservative and attractive.  Rebay's music won't be to everyone's taste but I admit I enjoy it and find it rewards repeated listens.  I'll also admit that after decades of hearing the same old warhorses getting played through I think Rebay's music is worth hearing not just because it's worth hearing on its own merits but also because at some point some otherwise fine works can be reduced to what Ophee might call a lollipop.  In alto flute and guitar repertoire it shouldn't even be possible for "Toward The Sea" to become a lollipop and yet that might just happen! 

This is an unusually long review of a single disc and I've been mulling over this recording for months.  Obviously I've been eager to write about Rebay's music and to promote it.  A simple blogger can only achieve so much but I'd like to do what I can.  Belotto and Noque do a wonderful job interpreting very appealing sonatas for flute and guitar by Rebay.  Noque has been working on recording and publishing more of Rebay's work and I heartily endorse his recordings.  Noque and Maria Pilar Sanchez have done a great job recording Rebay's sonatas for oboe and guitar over on the Naxos label and I'd urged you to go get that recording, too.   

For all the times guitarists have considered our instrument a miniature orchestra the lack of enthusiasm for chamber music can be surprising.  Matanya Ophee's appropriately snarky retort to this bromide is to observe how few guitarists have any idea how to conduct.  If guitarists want to be at the same table as other musicians then let's consider the possibility that to move forward there may be some real ways in which we have to move backward, back to taking up traditions and forms and approaches that were so taken for granted by instrumentalists a century ago that the revolutions of the 20th century were possible.  Yet many guitarists actually believe that sonata form and counterpoint are not really feasible on the guitar, or that composing in all keys is passé now that tonality has been questioned.   

And yet, somehow, Andrew York sells a lot of music and people love listening to the Beatles.  I love Stevie Wonder about as much as I love Haydn and though I love Penderecki's music he's a sometime music.  I'm suggesting that if Rebay seems backwards, seems to exist in a musical realm where the 20th century didn't happen, let's remind ourselves that Bach compiled book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier two centuries ago and yet even now Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes for solo guitar are not yet in print.  Think about that for a while.  Clearly the reason preludes and fugues for solo guitar never tended to get written had virtually nothing to do with whether or not they were technically or conceptually feasible.  Rebay as a step backward from musical modernity as we know it is still a step we should take because the leap forward his chamber music constitutes for our instrument will be worth the effort of committing to music that may not feel glamorous to a guitarist but that is pleasing to listen to.  I'm definitely grateful Noque has so committed himself to publishing and promoting Rebay's music and hope that you will give his recordings of Rebay's music some serious attention.

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar--No.1 in E major

Ferdinand Rebay: Sonatas for flute and guitar
Brilliant Classics 9291, 2012 

Over the last few months I've been soaking up Maria Jose Belotto and Gonzalo Noque's CD of Ferdinand Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar (Brilliant Classics 9291) The sonatas in E major and D major were both composed during 1942.  Having written in the past about Rebay's sonatas for clarinet and guitar I had planned for some time to blog about more of Rebay's chamber music for guitar.  These two sonatas for flute and guitar are an interesting contrast to Rebay's sonatas for clarinet and guitar.  The clarinet sonatas were cast in the keys of D minor and A minor around 1941 and those works are pervaded by a Brahmsian melancholy with a few thematic appearances by Schubert.  Rebay's flute sonatas, by contrast, are bright, lyric, and neoclassical.  In fact Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar are suffused with a serenity that I find unusual even for flute and guitar literature, a serenity that can border at times on emotional detachment. 

Now it is possible the flute and guitar are simply a combination that inspires guitarists and composers alike to create unusually limpid and airy works.  Castelnuovo-Tedesco's duet is lively, sometimes thoughtful, but never particularly somber.  Giuliani's collected output for flute and guitar could be considered light, perhaps even trivial for listeners who haven't or won't take a shine to chamber music for the guitar.  Even if Giuliani's works resemble lighter moods from Mozart the lack of body in the guitar's voice and its remarkable decay rate can make a work in the Classic era style seem more limpid and evanescent than usual.  On the whole I have to search high and low for flute and guitar literature that is actually dark or brooding or fiery.  Piazzolla's work for flute and guitar gets fiery and somber, but I don't hear in them darkness so much as passion.  Only Nikita Koshkin's Sonata for flute and guitar, of the flute and guitar literature I've had a chance to hear, plays with darkness and grotesquery.  So when I wrote earlier that Rebay's flute and guitar sonatas seem serene even to the point of detachment I wrote that with this broader observation about the literature in mind. 

In saying that these sonatas by Rebay seem to have an emotional remove I'm not making a negative remark about them.  I love the music of Shostakvoich, which most people have understood to have within itself an emotional distance.  There may be bitterness or sorrow hidden behind ostensibly triumphant, heroic themes.  Even in his happiest music Shostakovich often conveys a subliminal misery.  I'm sure not everyone will agree that Rebay's flute sonatas have an emotional detachment, let alone that there is a peaceful undercurrent, a sort of serenity beneath the serenity that some might consider emptiness.  Well, I'm not the sort of listener who hears that in Rebay.  His sonatas are pristine and immaculate and if they were written this way in the midst of global conflict let's remember that a composer like Rebay didn't exactly give way either to the Expressionist or New Objectivism fads that permeated German music between the wars.  Rebay's style is deliberately conservative and now that Cold Wars and other ideologically saturated movements that Rebay didn't seem to be part of have long since gone it's just as well we've discovered Rebay's work roughly half a century after he passed.   

The Sonata for flute and Guitar in E major opens with a simple rising melody (that begins with a rising perfect fourth) that is often the start of a marching theme.  What we get is a more delicate and light-footed walk than a boot-wearing march.  The mood is light, airy and considered.  This is thoughtful happiness rather than explosive joy.  It is a happiness that can be continuously if slightly tinged with minor key interruptions and asides--we're given enough darkness not to hint at sadness so much as to give the happiness momentum.  The few dissonances in this opening sonata form we hear are given by Rebay as though to let us savor from a distance the unhappiness that isn't going to appear in this first movement.   

The second theme in this opening sonata form also begins with a rising fourth played by the flute.  This lilting theme transforms into a set of closing phrases, the flute rises higher and higher as the guitar winds down chromatically through lower and lower notes as both instruments work toward resolving the second theme.  When this second theme returns at the end of the movement it resolves into an ineffably delicate and composed ending.   

While Rebay's work has many neo-Romantic and post-Romantic traits what may be his most striking approach to sonata form is how his development sections tend to trail off and evaporate into the ether before his recapitulations begin.  As a long-time admirer of Haydn and Beethoven I admit this is a quality of Rebay's approach to sonata form I have had to get used to.  I like development sections in sonata forms to inexorably burst forward to the recapitulation.  Having said that, the overall sweetness and calm of Rebay's sonatas for flute and guitar make this aforementioned trait of his sonata developments thoroughly appropriate.

Now in preparing to commend Rebay's handling of variation form I admit I'm going to make a complaint about how some guitarists and composers compose variations.  Variation is a form and method beloved by many who write for the guitar yet it is hardly an easily done art and there are some examples of odious writing in variation forms.  At the risk of offending some people and naming names, I can't stand the variation movements in Carulli's Op. 21 guitar sonatas.  The themes themselves hardly lodge in the memory and the variations are blunt decorations of what are, for me, forgettable themes.  Decorative variation can be the refuge of guitarists and composers who do not understand how freewheeling their options and possibilities really are. 
Another problem guitarists (and those writing for the guitar) can often have (evinced disappointingly in Ponce's Variations and Fugue on La Folia) is making a point of writing variations in a manner which does not necessarily highlight the strengths and possibilities of a theme.  Ponce's work, for instance, makes use of character variation on a theme that I think is too short to sustain character variation form.  To pick two touchstones of variation as counterexamples, consider how long the foundational themes in both the Diabelli Variations and Goldberg Variations actually are.  Character variation works brilliantly in these cycles precisely because we're given themes long enough to give the contrasting characters of each variation time to matter.  It's not that a short theme can't be subjected to character variation, of course, it's that a composer should understand the elements of the foundational theme well enough to understand what shifts in character best highlight the way a theme can change while still being recognizably built upon the founding theme.

Now perhaps it may additionally be said that some guitarists and composers for guitar have simply opted for themes that were never suitable for variation to begin with.  Or perhaps they chose themes that could be varied and then varied them in tedious and uninspiring ways (e.g. Carulli's Op. 21 Guitar Sonatas).   

Having written all those criticisms of variation form from guitarist composers, none of them apply to Rebay's handling of variation form in general or of the variation movement that is movement 2 of his Sonata for flute and guitar in E major.  For instance, after his opening lyric theme is completed Rebay gives a first variation with the flute lilting through a waltzing tune.  Halfway through the variation the guitar plays a 2 across 3 rhythm, an abrupt shift in accent that will prepare us for the perkier second variation but suggests the potential to derail the meter away from 3/4 into 2/4. 

But instead we are led into a lively dance variation where the flute flutters up and down in a brief prelude to the climactic parallel minor variation.  It's common in Classic era variation forms to interrupt a set of variations on a major theme with an aside in parallel minor.  Rebay delivers and it's one of the moments in his E major sonata flirts with the edges of sadness. But not for long, the intimations of 2 from the rhythms of 3 turn up as a 6/8 dance that rounds off the variations.  We're given hints of the pathos from the previous variation but it's still a sweet, happy end to the variations on the theme.   

As if sensing that we've had too much laconic sweetness Rebay shifts gears with the lively scherzo that makes the third movement.  The opening theme is abrupt and, atypical of scherzo and minuets, does not repeat.  The repeating phrases are saved for the minor key trio.  But even this section has just one repeating phrase that is then sequentially developed in major, giving the flute and guitar cascading call and response phrases that lead back to the boisterous initial theme.  Here we see an example of Rebay's skill as a composer.  His opening sonata and variation forms made use of a lot of structural and conceptual repetition.  Rebay shows in the Scherzo that he appreciated the ideals of the Classic era in which balance and proportion were not just matters within phrases but in forms, even in forms within forms.  At the risk of making yet another aside about guitarists, this is the kind of thing I'm not always convinced we guitarists have taken fully to heart.  Rebay's music has a few lessons we can learn if we're game.  Of course the works of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart would also be instructive, to say the least.   

Rebay's fourth and final movement in the E major sonata is a laidback Rondo.  If it were any more laidback I could have mistaken it for something by Claude Bolling (if we took out quite a bit of the jazz influence). 
Obviously I've written at such length about the first sonata it will be no surprise I have enough to say about the second sonata that it will get a separate post.