“Smart critiques. Stupid creates.”
Three entries from a project log
So yes, again, I return to the question of critique, this time at a point where I’m supposed to wrap up my project nice and neatly. But the itch I have tried to rid myself of is still there, manifest in an uneasiness about trying to be both inside and outside – inside the music while looking at it with an outsider’s gaze. The need is still there, to look for alternative ways to come to grips with the ambition to ‘use the language in which I write to critique the language with which I write’. And again, I’m looking for an alternative to the topos of critique; for words that are less harsh, with fewer, let’s call it discursive, connotations, but perhaps more true to something that is, after all, not an academic task but a reflection on the making of artworks. And in the process of making, the c-word might become limiting, narrowing the scope instead of opening it up.
One reason for this notion could be that I’m in the middle of the last piece in my project, a work I call Schubert Lounge. And it is a work that, at least for me, calls for opening up rather than narrowing in. Because, after investigations on the site of the symphony orchestra and the situation of the chamber music performance, it is necessary to investigate a locus even closer to home, namely the withdrawn, Godlike position of the capital-c Composer. And, with it, the grail-like status of the score, which I have already questioned in Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio. As Composer, armed with the score, I am in a privileged position to manipulate other people’s bodies, to dictate the working schedule of a hundred people at the time with Prussian rigour, to utilize hierarchies almost unaltered since the French revolution and to inflict my own emotional extravaganzas on musicians that have no option but to consent. This omnipotence is of course effectively restrained by the counter-forces of tradition and the inner operations of the machines of the musical institutions. But even so, the insulated and withdrawn position is one that is increasingly problematized. Not only by musicians, who engage in improvisation and start composing themselves, but also by composers. There might be many reasons for this movement that we have seen in recent years – on one hand you find a resurgence of composers writing scores for themselves to play; on the other hand you have the laptop-performer emerging from EA-, DJ- or improvisation cultures who take the stage as musicians. You also have the theatrical or conceptual arenas where composers take part in a wide array of activities related to stagings of musical performances, including composers being part of ensembles or writing roles for themselves alongside ensembles of classical music. There is probably a wide range of motivations behind this tendency, not least in economical and practical terms. In a culture that is more about the visual and spectacular, performance has a supremacy over creation, not least in the new technological arenas of social media. Or to put it differently: If you want to create, and also communicate what you create, this communication needs to be performative. These are some of the motivators, I believe. But more philosophically, I think people also are interested in questioning the ontological status of the composer, and that the composers themselves, many of them really want to investigate the performative aspect of musical creation and communication. Not least is the desire to work in real-time, to sense the acute flow of time in musical performance, something that motivates to leave the desk every once in a while – or on a permanent basis, for some.
So what I do in Schubert Lounge is basically to sing and play Schubert-songs. Being neither a pianist nor a singer, I am nevertheless looking for a way of articulating these songs that somehow resonates with musical practices of our time. And I don’t mean practices of ‘new’ or ‘experimental’ music here, but practices emerging from and embedded in popular culture. The singing of songs.
The singer/songwriter is a posture belonging to the sixties and seventies, but the posture is ubiquitous also in post-millennial popular music. And what I want to do is to remould Schubert’s songs into the posture of the singer/songwriter. It really shouldn’t be that hard, since in reality, good old Franz himself was exactly that: A man who could play and sing his songs, among an inner circle of friends in homely circumstances. The first context of these songs was not gilded concert halls and shining Steinways, but Schubert’s get-togethers and the tinkling sound of his hammerklavier. What did Schubert’s voice sound like? Was it strong, weak, balmy, harsh? We have no exact idea, of course. We can assume that it was pretty high-pitched, since many of his songs originally are written in a high register. It’s an interesting question, but not crucial to my take on these songs. I am not aiming for neither werktreue in the sense discussed by Lydia Goehr, nor a correct rendition of Schubert’s voice. The important aspect for me is the do-it-yourself quality of the first performances of the songs. In Schubert Lounge I will regard this element as one of the important parameters of composition; I will transpose the music ‘back’ from the spectacle of the concert hall to an intimate performance in my own home in Oslo, thus utilizing the topos of the Hauskonzert. I am going to use my own voice, untrained in a classical sense; what little singing experience I have (outside the compulsory choir-singing through the academy) comes from early musical experiences basically in the style (or rather affectation and vocal posture) of Anglo- or Afro-American popular music.
Yes, it is a critique of the classical lied-tradition, with its serious audiences listening to grave men singing Schubert’s simple songs with near-operatic pathos. Or let me borrow the words of composer Anders Hultqvist, who put it more elegantly in a text written in connection with Hultqvist’s own recomposition of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony for the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in November 2011:
As for the social construction around the making of an artwork, in the 1960s Pierre Bourdieu asked “who creates the creator?” […] Which leads me to ask: in whose interest is the present interpretational tradition upheld? Is it for the sake of the art object or just for upholding the business around virtuosity and genius? Is it that concert halls thrive on this elevated sense of ‘going to church’ to meet the icons of classical music and thereby fear the liberation of the musical artwork?
The liberation of the musical artwork, no less. But Schubert Lounge is also a labour of love. Not that of professional skill, but of the amateur, the liebhaber, of stubborn desire, of will to devour these songs and make them my own. It’s very human, to want to own what you love. As is the urge to share it. So, in keeping with my idea of context, I will share these reshaped songs with my friends in house concerts in the loft of my own house. And in keeping with tradition, both that of Schubert and that of the singer/songwriter, I will accompany myself on a Rhodes electric piano – the standard keyboard-instrument of the 1970s, the decade in which the singer/songwriter arrived at the prominence of musical culture. And to add to this temporal ambiguity I will record the material and release it in the semi-obsolete format of Vinyl EP. The vinyl-record was the dominant distribution media of the singer/songwriter. But recording is also an important vessel of the classical music industry. The intimate situation of listening to a recorded voice not only reflects the intimacy of the house concert, but also surpasses it and creates the opportunity of a totally personal, private musical space. It’s you and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau then, in your own dim-lit living room, a glass of wine, maybe, flickers from the fireplace, and Svjatoslav Richter at the piano.
Of course, popularized versions of classical music may not be a very original idea. The composer/performer Chris Newman has since the early eighties been singing his own songs in almost brutally ‘popular’ renditions, songs written for and performed within the institutions of new music. Songs like “Good day after good orgasm” have made a lasting impression on Yours Truly after first hearing it some time in the nineties. Within popular culture proper, singers like Josephine Foster have made their own renderings of Schubert-songs. And I do think that the process lends itself to a wide array of idiosyncratic expression. It is not merely a concept or an idea, the actual musical performance and ‘personalization’ of the songs are crucial elements, whichever musical domain you work inside. Again, the sensuous experience of music, the skin of time, is the vehicle for formulating the idea and proposing a different view on the songs and their performance-tradition.
This approach is closer to the composed interpretations of Hans Zender than the earlier works in my project. Zender’s intention is not to remould the music; He doesn’t want to tell a completely new story. It is more a case of telling the underlying story to today’s audience by changing some of the musical architecture in comparison with the original material. But I think my transformation of the vocal expression, not only in stylistic terms, but also by transforming the shape of the songs, sets it apart in some crucial ways from Zender’s approach. In his version of Schubert’s Winterreise, Zender reformulates and orchestrates the music in order to ‘actualize’ and renew our experience of the effective apparatus of the music. The vocal style is however basically untouched, still lingering in the pathos of the ‘classical’ voice. I’m not saying that my Schubert Lounge is without pathos. But it is a different kind of pathos. As contemporary observers it is difficult to uncover the network of material practice in which our own endeavours are embedded. I am trying to unmask some of these practices classical singing is embedded in, by filtering the material through the radical other (i.e. the untrained voice.) So Schubert Lounge is not about the songs that are sung, it is about the singing of the songs. This is similar to how Johannes Brahms Klarinetten-Trio is not about Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Trio but about the chamber music situation.
In my work, the crucial point is the voice, which, to many modern-day listeners is where the whole iconic identity of the lied lies. In popular lingo, the lied voice is ‘opera’, at least where I come from. You play a Wagner-aria for someone not-at-all-interested-in-classical-music, they say, ‘Oh, it’s opera.’ you play Brahms Requiem, they say ‘Oh, it’s opera’. You play a recording of Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert, same thing. This is a bit far fetched, I know, but it says something about how iconic the human voice is to us. We identify style, pathos and posture long before we identify what we would call musical content. And the voice, we all have one, is a primary tool of communication and identification. The sound of the voice is not reducible to its morphology of pitch, timbre and time; the way we perceive it is very much as an artefact of culture.