on Lars Petter Hagen’s despair
Music, both ‘new’ and ‘classical’ is in a grim state. Composers are consigned to work in the crevices of the old institutions, as parasites on a decaying corpse that perversely celebrates its own disintegration in the fireworks of superstar conductors and soloists. Those that venture outside the institutions must cope with a no-longer-priviliged position in the underground, as a subculture positioned somewhere between free jazz and noise electronica. In the nordic countries we have the awkward siutuation of a field that is comparatively well supported, financially and politically, by the greater society, but in the same time totally marginalized in both the public discussion and the historical consciousness of the same society. In his position as director of Ultima, the biggest new music festival in the nordic countries, Lars Petter Hagen faces these depressing paradoxes every day. And I think this is an important backdrop to understand his orchestral work Kunstnerens fortvilelse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet.
Tragedy in the Philharmonic Hall
I was intrigued by the piece because it opened up a different perspective on some crucial questions in my own research project Again and Again and Again: Music as site, situation and repetition. The occasion was the premiere in Oslo Konserthus, given by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. The experience was that of seeing questions that I have been trying to sort out in my own work, both in music and words, phrased in totally different ways. Where my music tends to be loud, all-encompassing, impure and complex, Hagen's music is quiet, poetic, and with simplified textures. But when you get below the sheer beautiful surface of sound, you find a clear-cut challenge to the orchestra: Hagen deals with the concept of resignation. This is a word seldom used in the vocabulary of new music, with its rhetoric of ‘the new’. It is an un-heroic and un-modernistic word, an its challenge is not recountable by the usual terms of cultural critique, like subversion or negation. Hagen’s music is as much as anything a silent assault on the standardized and commodified vocabulary of “new music” – or more precisely: an attempt to avoid that the substance of any critical expression is washed away by stale rhetorical figures, musically and semantically.  Jacques Rancière, one of the filosophical playmakers in fine arts the last decade, has stated how the objects of critique, be it late capitalism or art insititutions, are only strengthened by the fact that it manages to absorb the dialectics of critique into its own forms. In his essay “The Misadventures of Critical Thought”, he describes “the law of domination as a force seizing on anything that claims to challenge it. It makes any protest a spectacle and any spectacle a commodity.” It is precisely this spectacular protest Hagen denounces. His gesture of choice is not an ‘up yours’ with the middle finger – it is to shrug with a heavy sigh and turn away.
Hagen’s music is far from ‘neo-romantic’ or ‘new simplicity’; it does not pose the simplifications these concepts suggests in the abandonment of ‘modern’ language as an optimistic alternative or a viable way forward. Hagen’s way is to reflect, to muse over things past, over something drifting away from us and into a hazy distance. But below this calm surface, there is a dangerous undertow in the expression of the tragic-heroic dimension of new music: this abstracted musing is a device of estrangement, indirectly pointing to the fact that the orchestral institutions no longer are open for true experimentation with musical form and context. At best, guarded experiments with language are possible, as long as it confirms to the given limitations of restricted rehearsal time and business-as-usual. But still, there is this will to confront the orchestra, to take it on, a refusal to leave it there as a thing of the past. And this contradiction between belief and resignation is at the core of Hagen’s new work. In Beckett’s words: I can’t go on. I must go on. I’ll go on. Or as the fundamentals of tragedy: The necessary coupled with the impossible. The only optimistic streak in this is that acknowledging the problem, eschewing the false rhetoric of the ‘new’, might inspire to actually act on the present impasse of orchestral music. But let’s not go there just now; let’s rather take a closer look at Kunstnerens fortvilelse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet, written in 2010 and commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. 
A staged Innerlichkeit
The title is borrowed from a painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli in 1778; it depicts a man sitting in despair with one hand on his head and one hand on a gigantic marble foot, an equally enormous hand looming in the background. The phrase translates to something like The Artist’s Despair Confronted with The Greatness of The Fragments of Antiquity.
The music gave me some of the same feeling as the ending of Mahler’s 9th symphony always gives me: something that is inevitably over, something slipping away, something that disintegrates. Resignation. Tristesse. Defeat. Nostalgia. (Only except the end of Mahler’s 9th is embedded in the historical narrative where it actually points to a new beginning, with Webern.) The Mahler connection is not only a fiction in my head – on-stage before the performance in Oslo, Hagen told how he regarded Mahler as the pinnacle of orchestral culture; the symphonic orchestra had expanded and developed along with the needs of the most radical composers, up until Mahler. From this point, around 1910, orchestral culture was fixed in a structure that no longer would change in synchronisation with change in musical and artistic thought. Hagen uses quotes from Mahler’s 3rd symphony, elevate them as enigmatic ruins and impossible achievements. But still, there is something wrong with the picture. Some mechanisms at work showing us that the air of resignation is not the fresh pine-scented air of Mahler’s beloved mountains, it is rather the dour odour of air freshener, something simulating the real thing but not fooling anyone. If we try not to notice it, we could say that it smells ‘good’. But if we really suck it in, we realize the scent is there to cover up for something that stinks. In musical terms: If we lean back and let the music pass by us, it is full of sweet niceties. But if we listen into it, taking in the context of performance and the institutionalized expectations of ‘new music’, we start to perceive the underlying matters. Hagen’s music is one of silent despair.
The Italian composer Aldo Clementi has programmatically stated that “music must simply assume the humble task of describing its own end, or at any rate its gradual extinction.” This is an echo of Jean Baudrillards dictum that the only possibility left to art is to objectify its own disappearance, to dramatize the indifference, in order at least to pretend there is something at stake. This dramatization is exactly what I feel is going on in Hagen’s work – albeit without Baudrillard’s cool distance or Clementi’s nihilist tendencies. There is something urgent and present in the hushed voice speaking to us through Hagen’s music. Rather unashamed, he uses all the tricks in the book to seduce the listener. Slow tempi, transparent orchestration, swelling strings, long phrases, detailed timbres. A lush atmosphere. But we soon understand that something is wrong – that what we are presented with is a form of staged innerlichkeit; one that is self-conscious, always seeing its own innerlichkeit in context. Maybe this “Innerlichkeit” is a case for the psychoanalytical term “overidentification”, coined by Slavoj Žižek as an inverted protest where you identify with a phenomenon to such a degree that its dark, hidden sides become apparent, often through a parodic gesture.  The term Affirmative critique might be as useful here – a critique confirming the opponent’s position to such a degree that it is revealed as impossible.
Another possibility is to reach back to Adorno’s reading of Mahler, where the immediacy of music, according to Adorno, is revealed as fictitious. For Hagen always keeps us fully aware of the staging mechanisms: The structure doesn’t fulfil the promise of the details. We hear sections that don’t really lead anywhere. Gestures left hanging in thin air. The use of obviously simplified statements never allows us as audience to sink into dreaminess. Like an attempt to reinvest music with passive resistance after Baudrillard’s “end of subversion”. The form soon reveals itself in its anti-epic attention to the moment; there is no Mahlerian wish to encompass the world here, just a rather futile groping to grab a handful of something, anything, and to gaze at it like some sort of long-lost gem. There are a couple of upshots, sudden displays of futile, half-hearted desire. But nothing is sustained, we float in an air of sexual melancholia, the feeling that the moment has passed, the possibilities of ecstasy has come and gone, unfulfilled. Clementi, again: “Exaltation and Depression have had their day: however you disguise them, they are modest symbols of a dialectic that is already extinct.”
One basic device of shaping these emotions is reduction. Reduction as key device to achieve the effect of estrangement. Reduction as the one constant feature of Hagen’s work from his early years as a retro-modernist. Take the timpani-solo towards the end of Kunstnerens fortvilelse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet – a very lonely fanfare. Mahler’s thundering timpani reduced to one muffled off-stage timpanist. The snare drum soloist, very un-soloistic, but in soloist position on the conductors left side. The strange midi-version of a fragment from Mahler’s 3rd symphony played from a small ghetto blaster, something of a signature gadget for Hagen. The double bassoon solo. Tragically heroic in its futile attempt to revive the richness of a full Mahler chord with only the fundamental note left.
We can sense the Baudrillarian concept of the posthumous passion here, the obsession with the past as nothing more than twitches in an obsolete cultural cadaver. But the title, with its syntactic chain of subject – emotion – relation points to a subjective authorship beyond the disinterested postmodernist game of masks. The emotion is not abstract; it emerges in relation to an object. And it is not an ironically guarded emotion; there is something there that one feels like taking for what it is, if such hilarious naïveté is permitted for a second. This is no game of differences; the composer actually identifies with the artist in the title when confronted with the task of writing for the symphony orchestra in times like ours. I have dealt with some subtleties of this task in other essays, so let’s jump to the conclusion right here: What Hagen proposes in this piece is to treat the orchestra as a ruin. And like English gentlemen of the late 18th century, he finds immense beauty and quality in these ruins.
One fun-fact of ruinology is the craze in the late 18th century, in British Gothicism, when members of the gentry started to build follies – new ‘ruins’, fake imitations – on their own land. Maybe on the ridge there, on the other side of the lake, something they could behold and contemplate on their afternoon walks on the grounds. In this tradition, one might say that Hagen is building his own ruin with Kunstnerens fortvilelse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet. Something to muse over, in remembrance over time passed and things long gone.
I am no stranger to the aesthetics of the ruins myself. In my chamber music cycle Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes, one piece is called Landscape with Ruins, and the music deals with the idea of the ruin. My point is, however, that I found my research material in Christopher Woodward’s book In Ruins, a book I had borrowed from Lars Petter some five years ago. Again, I see how personal relations and Oslo’s smallness threatens to topple this text; there is probably more to the ruin-link than just a borrowed book. And it strikes me that I have written at least two previous texts on Hagen’s music. One reason is that we are friends, and that I like his music, so drastically different from mine, growing out of the same background at the Norwegian Academy of Music in the mid-nineties. But it goes further; We grew up in the same musical “family” – a social category that writers from Dostojevskij to Franzen have shown the importance of. Musically, Hagen is a brother to me, together with a handful of other composers and musicians from Oslo. And as ‘siblings’ it is maybe not so strange that we express aspects of the same ideas, yet in very different ways, having shared so many foundational experiences that we remember and interpret differently.
Memory and Archive
So yes, bringing ideas of the familiar into this text means evoking the concept of memory. And in continuation: the concept of the archive. The family is the carnate archive of memories, both private and shared. In similar ways we keep with us the bodily memories of music, but this memory is always private: what is it we remember, when we say we remember a piece of music? Is it a structure? A timbre? A melody? An atmosphere? Or is maybe the music in question so closely linked with our biographies that what we remember is not the music at all, but ourselves? Like when I remember Berio’s Coro, all I can see is the red dress my wife was wearing that night, on that first trip to Paris, sitting on the balcony of Cité de la Musique and not really hearing the music, not really seeing anything other than ourselves and the affinities between our bodies.
Well. In his two earlier orchestral works, Norwegian Archives and Sørgemarsj over Edvard Grieg, Hagen works quite explicitly with memory and memorabilia, both on a collective level (e.g. the nation) and on a personal level. So why did Hagen choose a fragment from Mahler’s 3rd symphony for this new piece? I think I might have asked him, but as I recall the answer was very vague. Or maybe it is just memory failing me again. Anyway, it opens a room for speculation. There might be prosaic reasons, let’s say that the fact that the 3rd symphony is rated by many as the cheesiest of Mahler’s symphonies. There might be very private reasons, unexplainable to the outsider. What we call sentimental reasons in a very imprecise term. For is it not true that sentiment often is the spark that ignites the fires of creation?
What is in effect here is something like what Georges Perec is doing in his book Je me Souviens  – or in Joe Brainard’s I Remember, the book Perec lifted the idea from. Certain elements are extracted from the dark layers of personal memory, of the archive that we all carry around with us. One might even say that we are archives, walking and talking. So when this Mahler-fragment becomes central in Kunstnerens fortvilelse foran de antikke fragmenters storhet, it might be the simple case of Hagen remembering it, or rather, stumbling upon his memory of it, picking the memory up and letting it integrate with his own personal sense of musical style and technique. Style and technique is something we can’t remember ourselves away from; these personal qualities tend to exercise themselves on the most differentiated concepts and ideas that we put on our working table. Like in Hagen’s case, the techniques (and, indeed, aesthetics) of reduction. Or his ways of establishing distance through awkward instrumentation (ghetto-blasters, Casio keyboards etc.) or off-stage devices. What we can’t change is our ways of remembering, and the ways these memories are productive in merging with our imaginations in acts of artistic creation.
When discussing this piece, Hagen has told me about ‘the dream of the grandiose musical experience’. And I believe the piece is this dream, resurrected from some kind of inner sound archive, impossible to bring back to its full, original impact, only the shadowy sound of the dream itself is recalled. The original impact that prompted the dream is buried, too embarrassing to acknowledge or even touch, like the hidden desires we turn from in disgust when awaking from heavy sleep.
I remember a trip to Germany more than fifteen years ago; we were travelling to Leipzig to see the premiere of Stockhausen’s Freitag aus Licht. It didn’t impress us as much as the then-new Liebeskind-museum in Berlin, the Jewish museum. It wasn’t officially open yet, the collection was not installed, but we could wander around in the vacant structures, the empty archive soon to hold a painful part of European memory. When we got home, Hagen wrote a piece about the experience; the double emptiness, the empty museum awaiting the memorabilia of annihilation. And I remember his fascination for Boltanski’s archive art, drawing on some of the same reservoir of experience as Liebeskind, probably, in works that deal with World War II, the ur-memory of the late twentieth century.
The comfort of giving up
Hagen’s way of dealing with the past is not a celebration. It is mourning, a labour of loss, and a negation of the omni-access of postmodernity in its most blatant form. It does not confirm with a postmodernism of reaction that repudiates modernism in order to celebrate the status quo. But it does not confirm with its counterpart either, the postmodernism of resistance which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo. So what is at stake here? The mechanisms are subtler than this dichotomy described by Hal Foster. It is the work of art trying to elude theory, trying to state a point on its own terms. We know this is an illusion. But still. There is the effort of trying. The effort of the complex uttering, forging YES and NO into a YESNO. Or a NOYES. It is the heroism of trying, knowing that you’re trying the impossible: To revive the embers of the fires of the 19th century. Believing that it could be done would be pathetic. But trying, knowing that it’s impossible, is tragic. And not without a certain beauty.
We can read this contradiction even in the title, in the juxtaposition of the words fragment and greatness. Or in Hagen’s “dream of the grandiose” – an expression that contains the friction between grandeur and dream, the dream that pulls a curtain between ourselves and the real experience of physicality that we need to experience grandeur. Again we are reminded of Mahler, in the double entendres, the irony, the attempt of saying two things simultaneously and have them both ring true; the attempt to escaped fixed meaning, to unveil the illusion of music’s immediacy. More contradictions: Hagen always starts out with a rather conceptual point, and ends with very sensuous music. At some point he lets go and indulges in the delights of the orchestral sound. I can identify with that. But so, does Hagen then expose the consumerist commodification of classical music or does he de-facto celebrate it? Maybe we need to think these two perspectives together – like Hal Foster suggests in assessing Andy Warhol’s Pop Art. Which makes it interesting, in a kind of disturbing way.
The play of contradiction is also manifest in something we could call the double-faced critique of the work: On one hand we have the modernist concept of the critique of tradition. On the other hand a critique of the institutionalized ‘modernistic’ language. But it is not a critique from within the language itself, it is from the outside. Hagen has gone full circle in trying to achieve what the literary theorist Sjklovskij called ‘estranging’ – a pre-Brechtian concept of verfremdung, developed more or less at the same time as Schönberg developed the concept of 12-tone music. The question is: Is this a giving-up of the search for ‘newness’ in new music? I think Hagen denied this when I asked him in the pre-concert talk, but I don’t know if I believe him. In a discussion on Baudrillard and Lyotard, musicologist Ståle Wikshåland refers to Lyotard’s proposal for “a working-through of modernism, a meta-narrative on the general condition of art production that deconstructs itself as sociological theory. […] This anamnesis cannot lead to a grief over lost unanimity or in pragmatic resignation or unmendable melancholia over something that is lost forever.” This point leads us straight to an objection to Hagen’s project: If he wants to propose a potent critique of the orchestra and current orchestral praxis, resorting to resignation and melancholia is not enough. It is just a way of avoiding the hard labour of working through the devices of modernism in order to address the conditions of production on the orchestral site. And this, if we follow up on Lyotard, is not the end; this is the beginning, a beginning that is constant in its disrupted relation to the past. In not taking these matters into account, Hagen ends up with an ending that is just … and ending. He is, melancholically and with a kind of brutal sentimentality, if one can imagine such an oxymoron, fixed on the gesture of ending. It proposes no way forward, and in this it achieves less impact than it could have had. It is dangerous to criticize an artwork for what it is not, but I believe that Hagen could achieve a higher level of acuteness if he had expanded the scope beyond an insight that strictly speaking has been with us since the early eighties. (Although these insights rarely manifest themselves in orchestral works, let alone on the Norwegian scene.) But the question is: Should we take Hagen’s gestures of futility at face value? Or is this music an example of the dictum that any allegation that the time of art has passed will necessarily result in new art? There is maybe a paradoxical, desolate optimism in play, like the one described by Clementi when he states that “the end germinates naturally from saturation and fatigue, but it is never definitive: through a desolate familiarity we suddenly fall into the infinite and eternal.”
At this point we could return to Hal Foster, and postulate that what is interesting today is not the declaration of the end, but the present state of living-on. Within Lyotard’s dichotomy of the modern, between modalities of melancholia and novation, between sorrow and bravery, Hagen has found his position on the side of melancholia. It is a safe and reassuring place. But the method, the reliance on a (dis)play of sophisticated difference is a risky business. In a reductive manner it could end up as a way of safeguarding ones integrity, not risking anything by not really taking action. Rancière states that “Melancholia feeds off its own impotence”, and that it has reserved for itself “the position of the lucid mind casting a disenchanted eye over a world in which critical interpretation of the system has become an element of the system itself.” It makes it an expression of futility, but also a demonstration of culpability – and points toward a meta-critical position I sense Hagen would not oppose to. Instead of expressing himself with these futile means, Hagen exposes the same futility. And I remember something Foster said about W.G. Sebald, that a melancholic fixation is the price he pays for his courageous refusal of redemptive illusion. Which could maybe also be said about Hagen. Which brings us back to the heroic stance, which we have tried to escape. So enough with the circular arguments. Maybe I read too much of a critical position into Hagen’s piece; maybe the simple effort of posing a question, of trying to establish a dialogue, would be a more correct angle. In my friendly reading, the apparent beauty of the music is merely a thin veil covering a very real desperation. But maybe I’m just complicating matters, making it difficult, projecting my own ideas onto the piece. Maybe the truth is that Hagen just wants to write slow and beautiful music. But then again, I don’t think so.