Pain Means That You Have to Change Something
114 · 3 April 97
Shostakovich / Vasks / Schnittke: Dolorosa
So, this is the last issue of this column I will write in my twenties. It comes out on Thursday, I turn 30 on Friday. The occasion doesn't have to be portentous -- I'm not planning a party, things are too busy at work for me even to take the day off -- but a spiteful spring storm, goaded past tolerance by my taking a long jacketless walk the day before, dumped two and a half feet of snow on Cambridge Monday night, and as I walk around the city, watching it melt into the canals the plows dug, until it starts to seem like Venice occupied by Disney's vision of a Colombian drug cartel, it's easy to feel a sense of passage, as if the storm was the shuddering final chord of a turbulent symphony movement, and the crackle of the drifts slowly collapsing in on themselves as they melt is the rustle of the players adjusting their postures, flipping pages, drawing in breaths for the section to follow. Tuesday evening, as people awakened contentedly from long snow-day naps and tunneled their way out of half-buried front doors to see if trees had fallen on their cars, the collective sense of potential was palpable. More than just a day off from work, the storm had given the city a day off from its otherwise inviolable urban indifference. Strangers joked with each other as one stepped into a thigh-high drift to allow the other to inch tentatively past along the narrow strip of exposed pavement in the center of my street. I chiseled a path from my apartment building's entrance to the curb, and then went around the block to make sure the people in the building behind mine knew that half a tree was hanging from a power line in their back yard. Couples abandoned the hopeless task of exhuming plowed-in vehicles to wrestle each other into embankments, shrieking happily. Dalmatians poured out of limousines, yeti danced with elves, infant bats yelped adorably as the icicles from which they hung gave way in the glittering evening sunlight.
But I am being disingenuous. Weather bores me mercilessly, I think I strained a hamstring shoveling, and my delight at being spared a day of work was almost totally counterbalanced by my irritation when it dawned on me that the storm had shut down all my favorite CD stores on new-release day. But I find myself, as the calendar milestone approaches, scanning the world through a kaleidoscope constructed by crumbling a shattered amulet of apparent significance into the barrel. This birthday doesn't have to be a turning point, but I want it to be one. I am ready, I think, to declare an era of my life at an end, and begin writing the outline of the next one. My friend S., reporting back from a couple months' advance guard past the date herself, says she feels that there are fewer and fewer frivolous decisions to be made, and while there is certainly an element of wistful (or even anxious) regret in this thought, I find myself eager for the transition. Not that my life has been frivolous in the usual ways (I don't even drink, and I am reminded, as Katie Roiphe's new book, Last Night in Paradise, concludes with the desire "to do whatever we feel like after two drinks", how the network of gulfs spreads out from there), but I have let life-decisions be guided by circumstance and coincidence, not intent, and I suspect my dissatisfaction with the results is in many ways a consequence of this. I am old enough, by now, to be doing things for reasons. Or old enough, at any rate, to want to believe that I am. Unfortunately, reasons for actions imply goals, and goals imply understanding, and I don't have a clear enough idea of what I want next from my life to base my lunch-time Cheddar's order on it, much less set a life-course. My form of this mid-life crisis (except it isn't mid-, and it's not a crisis, which must mean it's only a life I'm having), then, is an obsessive appetite for input, a state of mind in which everything, every book, movie or album, even a storm to which I would normally have attached no symbolism, conceals a clue. The way Frannie, in Pagan Kennedy's character study in reserve, Spinsters, finds that deferring pleasure leads to fearing it; the way the curtain across the dressing room in What Happened Was... separates worlds as much as spaces, and behind it candlelight can invert personalities; the way my CRX turns into a bobsled in this weather. I am becoming, I think (although there's an alternate hypothesis that I just need a new girlfriend), a living incarnation of the massive, connection-sifting computer described on the back cover of the Foucault's Pendulum paperback, a machine that discovers, or perhaps invents, links between every obscure condition and ceremony known to history, an abstruse information-synthesizing engine whose power in the story is only checked by the fact that the person who wrote the blurb had obviously not read a single page of the novel, which features no such device. The clues, once you begin looking for them in this way, appear everywhere. The ridges of displaced snow snake through my neighborhood like the hand of God has altered the pathways of our mortal rat-maze to test out a new behavioral theory; the innocuous advertising slogan "You do have time for waffles" becomes a horrifying emblem of True Evil's insidious banality; the bafflingly redundant cardboard sleeves ECM puts over its CDs, merely duplicating the art revealed in the jewel case underneath, become, as I slide the disc in and out each time, a partial restoration of the physical ritual lost in the change of formats from LP to disc.
It is fitting in more than one way, in fact, that I should close out this era of my life with a status report on my ongoing investigation into classical music, which is responsible for the piles of stray such sleeves strewn around my player as I write tonight. The most suggestive explanation, I guess, is that my sudden renewal of interest in classical music is an attempt to assume the guise (or a disguise, if those are different) of maturity. Scholars captivated by this theory will nod smugly at the fact that I also recently purchased a dark, serious suit, a black wool trench-coat, leather gloves, a conservative tie, a shirt that requires ironing, and even some white t-shirts not in my usual size ("nightgown"), and not adorned with a band or Revolution logo. Yes, admittedly, these were all for a funeral, bought on two hours notice after I reluctantly concluded that my normal attire for all formal occasions (tails, a tuxedo shirt, an iridescent bow-tie and a cummerbund worn over black 501s and Nike ACG hiking boots, along with a Hat that The Cat wouldn't be caught In) was inappropriate for pallbearing, but the fact remains that I went back, afterwards, and had the jacket altered, and I've yet to conclusively dismiss the notion that I should buy an ironing board.
But that is not, I think, it. If this were a plaintive attempt to disown my youth, I'm sure I should be buying more Handel and less Messiaen, not alternating the Mass in B-Minor with the Wannadies or Mahler with Weeping Tile, and not looking forward with such anticipation to the new Sleater-Kinney and Cyndi Lauper albums. I am drawn to classical music, I am guessing instead, because it is another perspective, another line of inquiry into truth and meaning that has the potential to reveal different things, or at least other faces of the things. It's not that pop won't lead me to the Truth eventually, it's just that I'm so horribly impatient, and for some reason half-speed progress on two fronts feels more productive than a headlong assault on just one.
A different mindset is required for classical music, though, and this is in fact partly the point. Despite the occasional liner note's attempt to maintain otherwise, the usual first question asked of art, "What is it about?", here mostly doesn't apply. A Shostakovich string quartet is not about, in the sense that Black 47's Fire of Freedom is about being an Irish expatriate in New York, anything. It is certainly possible to compare his quartet writing to the form's historical antecedents, and analyze the context in which he composed, and derive from synthesizing the two the claim that his music is about freedom or expression or oppression or ideology or discontent or Russian winters, but what a string quartet is about drowns helplessly under what it is. Music, in isolation (and even much of the vocal music in the classical repertoire is effectively textless, especially if you don't know the language and don't read the libretto), is only its own language, and thus can only reason within the scope of what that tongue can express. You can write a pop song about a pregnant twelve-year-old's mixture of tragic love for and fury with her sixteen-year-old boyfriend, but a string quartet hasn't the words. It must address the emotions directly, without the help of narrative. This is, of course, difficult. And why, I presume, so much classical music is only about music itself.
Given this attitude, my history with rock, and my impatient angst, it is not hard to see the logic that runs through my personal experiences in classical music so far. My sympathies run to the bold, direct, imposing, intimidating and severe. I gravitate naturally towards edges, towards minimalism and cast-of-thousands symphonies and deranged contemporary lunatics like I do towards disfigured punk, byzantine prog-rock and obscure power-pop. There is something in Three Places in New England, I'm sure, but I don't have the patience for it. I'd rather have Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima howling in my head. Why twitter amiably through Mozart violin concertos when Henry Cowell could be hammering on the piano with his fists, like an avenging leprechaun stomping his boots on the keys? Give me riots, not powdered-wig courts, ice-blind Estonians, not jaded Continental cynics. It isn't attention-span I'm missing (five hours of Conlon Nancarrow player-piano music didn't bore me, and I blazed cheerfully through the complete symphonies of Sibelius and Beethoven), it's the other dimension, attention-depth or something. Rock music comes to you; I want classical music to treat me the same way, to blast and roar and demand that I react. This is the wrong year of my life for coy. McLuhan explained all this, but I can't remember which kind of medium was "hot" and which was "cold", and his book itself is the one I'm not in the mood for, so I can't even look it up.
The other paradoxical detail that biases my experience of classical music is that I am enslaved to the new. My interest in the world is practical, not academic, and so I want art that is part of an ongoing conversation, not marooned in history. In the Penguin Guide, it seems to me, far too much of classical music is buried two levels deep in the past, historic performances by dead conductors of historic compositions by dead composers. I go to the store with lists of catalog numbers in hand, because I really do believe they know what they're talking about, but when I get to the classical room a new-release rack beckons just as alluringly as it does in the other rooms, and so the album of Copland ballets I come home with is by the Cincinnati Pops, and I decide that hearing Colin Matthews is more pressing than Tchaikovsky, and Schumann and Schubert can wait, while two new Kronos Quartet albums whose composers I've never even heard of cannot. I need to feel that going backwards is somehow also going forwards (a pile of Byrds reissues and the new Bruce Cockburn album stacked on my tape deck remind me that it is the same for me in pop).
Or maybe, as I've theorized before, ECM's packaging designer just knows what I like. Any combination of these explanations is sufficient to explain what led me to buy Dolorosa, Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester's triptych of pieces by Shostakovich, Peteris Vasks and Alfred Schnittke. "Dolorosa" sounds sad, like Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"; Vasks is from Latvia, which I can't tell from Estonia, where Arvo Pärt is from; Schnittke and Vasks are both still alive, and Shostakovich at least didn't succumb until after I was born; Davies and assorted Stuttgarters played on some Pärt recordings I liked. And the album is new, and I like the cover.
The Shostakovich piece, Chamber Symphony, is a composer-endorsed 1967 orchestration by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich's 1960 eighth string quartet. I ought to have listened to the quartet version, so I could comment sensibly on how this differs, but my string-quartet process is still working its way through Bartok, and I imagine that the crushing weight of history is exactly what keeps a lot of rock fans frightened of what the Penguin people ominously refer to as "permanent" music, so let us press on with the momentum of obliviousness. The piece opens with a long, slow movement, heavy and sad, elaborate moans of bass and cello drifting under massed, languid, melodramatic currents of violin and viola. As with Gorecki (at least I'm consistently reverse-chronological), much of this is extremely quiet, the bass and cello parts often single whirring notes for measures on end, and the dynamic range is such that you must turn the volume knob way past where you'd usually set it for rock in order not to lose anything, at which point you risk skull fractures during the loud parts. Rock fans often stereotype classical music as background (even rock fans who say they like classical music), but in fact for volume reasons alone this is terrible background music. The closest thing to a compromise level is one where you can't hear it at all for minutes at a time, and then just when you've forgotten that it's on and gone to copy something or play foosball it explodes into a bellowing cacophony that does your office popularity no good at all.
The other thing that makes this piece unsuited for ambient fill is that the loud parts are witheringly strident and brash. The second movement, where things really start to get exercised, is filled with sawing, screaming, dissonant violin and viola figures that sound like a horror-movie soundtrack in which the music itself is the monster, or like a romantic theme for slow disembowelment via the thorns of a lover's rose. The third movement makes a feint toward conventional composure, the high instruments trading notes with the low ones, and fluttering through restrained expansions on themes like courtiers stalking patterns across a ballroom floor, but their choreography quickly turns menacing, and a ballet for the King's amusement turns into a plot for his overthrow, sketched out before his eyes in just obliquely enough a way that he is forced to pretend he doesn't know what they're getting at. A slow, pretty interlude right at the end of the movement seems to offer a reconciliation, but the last viola note hangs on way past propriety, and each bar it overstays its welcome makes it sound more mocking and defiant. It lingers well into the opening of the fourth movement, where massive orchestral stabs (hard to believe Barshai resisted the temptation to add timpani to these) eradicate all thoughts of a constitutional settlement. The viola's desultory mood persists throughout the movement, its resolute drone unbalancing several attempts at unison romantic grace. About three and a half minutes in, though, if you listen closely on headphones, there's a tiny sound like a door opening and closing (more of rock's legacy: taking incidental noises as part of the work), and after that the melody suddenly turns exquisite, as if some secretive truce has been signed. The fifth and final movement, slow again, is still dark and dirge-like, but flowing and tuneful where the first movement was spare and ambient. The masses of strings are disassembled, and each quadrant of the orchestra seems to make its separate peace before re-forming for the surging, concerted chords of the conclusion. Determination and concession twine around each other in this music, and I'm left peering at it sideways, trying to figure out how they contrive to coexist.
Vasks' piece, the short middle third of the disc, is the 1983 composition Musica Dolorosa, from whence the album's title. Much less episodic than Shostakovich's quartet, this one alternates pretty regularly between a single succinct hook, played over a pulsingly rhythmic foundation (including some uncredited percussion that might well be somebody getting carried away with themselves and stomping as they play, though probably this is both wishful and inappropriate thinking on my part), and interludes of wildly vibrating and developmentally static catharsis. A cello solo, after a couple cycles of this, expands on the central hook in a not un-pop-like fashion, and the last couple minutes crescendo circuitously toward a triumph that turns out not to be the restatement of melody I expect, but rather a reduction of the piece's impulses to a single emphatic note.
Schnittke's section, the 1987 orchestration by violist Yuri Bashmet of his 1985 Trio Sonata, is a fitting bookend to the Shostakovich opener. The two orchestrations, both by viola players, have a similar mutedness and mid-range density that follows logically from the instrument. The Trio Sonata, as long as the Chamber Symphony but in only two movements, is a bit like the sense of the disc's first piece recast at the pace of its second. Bashmet's quiet parts are louder than Barshai's, and his shrillest moments are more choppy and biting than Barshai's power-drill assaults. Where the Chamber Symphony often progresses stiffly, as if the orchestra resets emotionally after each crash, the Trio Sonata tends to gallop a little, letting inertia accumulate instead of dampening it, and the romantic moments of the sonata are less self-conscious about their sentiment. Of course, this makes it all the more disconcerting, I think, when a quietly composed melody is suddenly blasted out of existence halfway through the Moderato section, which proceeds to careen around frightenedly for most of the rest of its length, as if trying to negotiate a sharp-angled and repetitious labyrinth constructed of jagged-cornered sheet metal, with radio interference piped in for atmosphere. The adagio second movement is calmer, its segments of intensity reached through determined, but logical, surges, not oblique digressions. As in the Shostakovich piece, violence is the catalyst for progress, but the conclusion it leads to is more complicated. Alex, it occurs to me, having just reread A Clockwork Orange last night, would have had to stop all of these, unsatisfyingly, in the middle.
But what Alex was looking for was visceral encouragement, a soundtrack to an existing plan. I lack the plan. Perhaps its soundtrack is somewhere in this pile, in the way Giya Kancheli makes piety seem less like reaching out to God and more like a methodical elimination of distractions, or the way the frail falsetto conclusions of his prayers seem less like expressions of faith than like fragile equilibria that simply couldn't be sustained without it; in cellist Stephen Isserlis' reverent enunciations of John Tavener's chants; in the traces of progressive rock that poke out of Erkki-Sven Tuur's Crystallisatio; in something that the larger choir reveals in Hillier's new version of Pärt's Summa that his earlier four-voice arrangement couldn't show. Or perhaps it's in the other pile, something I'll get to next week or the week after, Delius or Bruckner or MacMillan or Holst. Or maybe this whole classical experiment is a tangent, after all, and I've only to play the Pulsars disc one more time and everything will become clear. I just don't know. I'm not sure my gear is calibrated well enough to tell whether I'm even struggling in the right direction. But my thirties, I am resolved, will be a decade of progress, and if movement isn't necessarily victory, stasis is still certainly surrender. Theresa, in Nancy Kress' Beggars Ride, the conclusion to her trilogy of social contracts, cultural ecology and the way technology reinforces human fears instead of dispelling them, says at one point that her pain is her gift, that pain is always a gift, because pain is how we know something has to change. So we sing sad, wordless songs to ourselves, to remember what hurts.