Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Alex Ross Discovers Diachronic Listening

I have to confess that, while I have not been shy about my negative impressions, I really enjoyed reading Alex Ross' post to his The Rest is Noise blog this morning, entitled "Chord of the curse." In all fairness, however, I should note that the primary source of my joy was this post's reinforcement of a personal ideology that I have explored and promoted here from my own pulpit. This ideology surfaced most recently last Christmas Day, when I was enthusiastically praising the presence of Robin D. G. Kelley's Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original on so many Christmas recommendation lists. This was one of those books I could not wait to start, in no small part because Monk occupies a generous portion of my CD collection. For all of that enthusiasm, however, I would be the first to admit that learning to listen to Monk was no casual matter, let alone an easy one, which is why I wrote in my Christmas post:

With Kelley's book, however, I now have the motivation to move from my past synchronic approach to listening (considering each track on its own terms) to a more diachronic one (embedding each track in its proper historical context).

Today's post by Ross basically takes this same approach to a passage in Richard Strauss' opera Salome (a rather interesting selection when one considers that Salome is the point of departure for the thrust of the principal argument in Ross' The Rest is Noise book). He considers the hypothesis that the musical setting of Jochanaan's curse has its origins in Richard Wagner's first completed (and all but forgotten before CD producers realized how exhaustive their efforts could be) opera Die Feen, in which there is a curse motif with an uncanny "family resemblance" (in Ludwig Wittgenstein's sense of that phrase). Furthermore, Ross offers a powerful warrant to affirm the claim of his hypothesis:

… when Die Feen had its belated world premiere, in Munich, in 1888, the young Richard Strauss conducted the rehearsals. "Wagner's lion's paw is already quite strong," he remarked.

In other words Strauss was not only aware of this music but also highly appreciative.

This is the basic methodology of diachronic reasoning. Given a specific instance, whether in a score or in the experience of a performance, how do we establish "its proper historical context?" Basically, we need to get beyond the "thing-in-itself" (that German philosophical concept that drew so much venom from Friedrich Nietzsche) and understand the past experiences of the agent responsible for bringing that "thing" into being, so to speak. Fortunately, Ross could rely on documentary evidence to identify a specific experience that would furnish a warrant for his Salome hypothesis. Where the performance of jazz improvisation is concerned, such evidence is not always as clear-cut, which is why biographies like Kelley's can be so valuable in informing the serious present-day listener. My fondest hope is that, now that Ross has provided a nice example of how this game is played, others will be tempted to follow that example.

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