Sunday, November 16, 2008

Description through Music

Before going over to Davies Symphony Hall last night for one of my San Francisco Symphony subscription concerts, I found myself reading "Just Remember This," Michael Greenberg's review of Sue Halpern's book, Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research, in my just-arrived New York Review. Greenberg's observation that "our memory is the fullest record we have of ourselves" reminded me of what I still feel is the most important lesson from Plato's "Theaetetus," which is that any understanding we may achieve of the nature of memory will, of necessity, be tightly coupled to the related concepts of description, being, and knowledge itself. I was thus pleasantly surprised to discover that, while the three compositions on last night's Symphony program may not have set out to penetrate the realm of knowledge, each offered its own approach to description, memory, and a sense of self, albeit in decidedly different ways.

The first of these was Joseph Haydn's incidental music for a German version of a French seventeenth-century comedy about absent mindedness by Jean-François Régnard. Given that Halpern's book is concerned primarily with efforts to treat Alzheimer's Disease, one might think that an association with such low humor would be politically incorrect, if not downright cruel; and certainly one will not find any clinical understanding of the mind in Régnard's text or Haydn's associated music. Nevertheless, when Haydn recast his work as his sixtieth, C major, symphony, he attached the name "Il Distratto," the Italian translation of Régnard's title; and this version makes for an interesting perspective on the vagaries of the easily distracted (attention deficit?) mind. Some themes are intrusively interrupted, while the second theme of the first movement seems to lose touch with its own orientation through a prolonged diminuendo. This may well have been perceived as yet another instance of Haydn injecting humor into his music; but, even if he was playing for laughs, Haydn seemed to have tapped into some of the key traits of the easily-distracted mind and captured their nature in his composition. Thus, what may have begun as low humor now carries a sense of poignancy in an age that knows more about the mind but is still humbled by how little it knows about mental disorders. Thus, when the finale of the symphony is preceded by an episode ostensibly compensating for the orchestra having gone out of tune, the humor of the strings struggling to pull themselves back into tune carries the bitter sadness that comes with the confrontation of a mental incapacity that we discover in another or perhaps in ourselves.

Haydn's symphony was followed by Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," a setting of a prose poem by James Agee, which the author later incorporated as the prologue to his novel A Death in the Family. When the text was first published, Agee offering the following introduction:

We are talking now of summer evening's in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.

In other words this is description in the service of memory as a vehicle for the discovery of self, the most fundamental instance of being. Whether or not one would call that "knowledge" may be debated; but it certainly makes a good twentieth-century case for what the eighteenth-century philosopher Giambattista Vico called "poetic wisdom." There is a tendency to treat such self-discovery through memory as self-indulgent sentimentality; and there are those, such as Joshua Kosman in his San Francisco Chronicle review, who hear Barber's score as matching Agee's sentimentality, teardrop for teardrop, as it were. However, this dismisses the sharp edge of Agee's introduction (not set by Barber), which as much as confesses that what is about to be offered as memory deliberately incorporates a layer of deceptive illusion. Barber's score does not so much seek out that illusion to inform the listener as much as it raises its figurative eyebrows when the text tends to drift into the too-good-to-be-true. In last night's performance this made for an interesting complementation of resources. Soprano Erin Wall sang the narration of Agee's text with all the sincerity of its surface appearances, while Michael Tilson Thomas gently but persuasively used the orchestral setting to let us know that there was more to this text than those surface appearances. The result was a convincing case that Barber was not only aware of Agee's poetic wisdom but capable of communicating it through his own musical resources.

It is unclear how much the descriptions of Ludwig van Beethoven's F major symphony (Number 6, Opus 68, "Pastoral") are a reflection of his own memories, let alone his sense of self; but they definitely push the envelope of how music could be applied to description. What is most interesting about this symphony is the extent to which that description emerges through short motives that get repeated so many times that one might feel there is a connection to Philip Glass. However, those motives are cast in large-scale dynamic progressions, such as those I recently examined in the Opus 109 piano sonata, resulting in what I called in an earlier post "repetition without being repetitive." Thomas negotiated these dynamic progressions with a sure hand, to the point of often specifying the number of strings playing at any given time. Since he was working with a reduced string section, this made for striking sonorities quite unlike any I had heard in previous performances of this work. Social theory tells us that domination ultimately comes down to the power to manage resources. It would be harshly objective to reduce this performance to a matter of resource management; but it would still be fair to say that resource management added a "secret sauce" to the recipe that made this particular Beethoven listening experience such a memorable one. Through that memory we may discover that, as was the case with Barber's setting of Agee's text, there was more poetic wisdom in this symphony than might have been taken from its surface appearances.

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