Friday, June 13, 2008

Repetition without Being Repetitive

I realize that when, at the beginning of this week, I wrote about Philip Glass calling what he composed "music with repetitive structures," he was probably reflecting a historical continuity even stronger than the one Anton Webern had pursued in his Path to the New Music lectures. Indeed, to the extent that listening to music (or, for that matter, listening to anything) is, as I have claimed, a matter of forming perceptual categories, any deliberate attempt to eliminate repetitive structures is more likely to result in noise, rather than signal. Thus, it should be no surprise that so much of the overall architecture throughout the history of music has involved what is generally called "ternary form." Reduced to the simplest possible terms, the structure of this architecture (with numerical support) may be described as:

  1. Do something
  2. Do something else
  3. Do the first "something" again

As Webern pointed out in his lectures, this framework was already well in place at the time of Johann Sebastian Bach and ran through most of nineteenth-century music like a spinal chord, serving as the very basis for structural experimentation by both Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler. (Really, is there anything wrong with considering the music of Glass and Mahler in the same paragraph, regardless of their different takes on repetitive structures?)

What makes it all "music," however, comes down to the extent to which doing that "something" again involves also doing something different. When we view the experience of listening to music through this lens, the San Francisco Opera has provided us with an interesting framework, which began with the world premiere of Glass' Appomattox and is now about to conclude with Ariodante, by George Frideric Handel. Could any two composers be more different? Could any two operas separated by such a wide gulf of time be so similar? To be sure, the two compositions do not sound particularly similar, to which someone like Brahms surely would have remarked, "Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel." If we really want to talk about similarities and differences, we have to dig beneath the surface.

On the side of similarity, I continue to hold to my primary impression of Appomattox as a dirge scaled to the duration of an entire opera. Now, while Ariodante is not a dirge on that scale, it is, in many respects, a musical examination of the human heart subjected to the most intense mourning. The tragedy of two lovers, each of whom thinks the other is dead, goes all the way back to the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe (which only William Shakespeare could have mined for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and the comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream). Handel establishes this perspective in the second act of Ariodante, giving each of the lovers da capo arias of some of the strongest emotions we are likely to find in the history of Western music.

Yet it is in the formal aspect of those da capo arias that we also encounter the key difference across the centuries in which these two operas were conceived. The da capo aria was the ternary form stock-in-trade for the operas by Handel and his contemporaries. They were the primary window on the reflective nature of the character doing the singing:

  1. The character "does something," which is usually a matter of expressing some feeling
  2. Having made that expression, the character usually elaborates through "doing something else"
  3. Nevertheless, because that initial feeling is so fundamental, the character does that first "something" again

The repetition reinforces the primacy of the feeling, establishing that it is so important as to be the focus of the character's reflections. The reflection is, in a sense, as literal as it is figurative.

The trick to making this work, though, is that the repetition of that "again" must not feel repetitious, so to speak. Things have changed since the character began the aria. Having first expressed the feeling, the character departs for "new territory," only to return; and returning to a place is not the same as remaining in that place. (Jews know this through the concept of teshuvah, which, as I previously discussed, is the idea that God attaches more value to returning from sin to piety than to unwavering piety.) The challenge, however, is that, in most da capo arias of Handel's time, the notation for the return is identical to the notation for the initial expression. Thus the score provides the performer with no information about what makes the repetition of the text different from the initial statement. That difference must be worked out by the performance itself; and in opera this tends to involve a collaboration of the stage director, the conductor, and the singer.

There is then a further challenge, which is that almost every number in a Handel opera is a da capo aria! That makes for an awful lot of reflection in the course of an evening! All the characters may not be equally important, but we end up encountering them all through a musical form the highlights their personal reflections. (Even Shakespeare knew better than to give every one of his characters a soliloquy!) Thus, stage director and conductor have to collaborate further on the overall architecture of the entire evening, lest the succession of da capo arias turn into Winston Churchill's "one damned thing after another!"

On the other hand, as far as I can tell, Glass was far less flexible in his demands on the performers. There are decisions of expressiveness that may be applied to the score, but the score is far more specific than anything that Handel had written. Nevertheless, as I had noted at the time of the premiere, it was virtually impossible to find a review of Appomattox that did not invoke the noun "monotony," which is just another way for the reviewer to say "one damned thing after another!" It is thus not too far-fetched to suggest that the challenges of performing Appomattox were not that different than those of performing any Handel opera, because there is yet another similarity, which is the similarity of the listening situation that is shared by Handel operas and Glass operas.

There is thus an interesting pedagogic value in the opera season that provides us with Handel, Glass, and a rather broad sampling of "everything in between" those extremes. The whole season is a journey. However, it is a journey that had already been related to us in "Little Gidding," the last of the Four Quartets of Thomas Stearns Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I can think of no better way to know the "place" of Handel "for the first time" than through a da capo exploration that led us through the music of Glass!

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