Friday, December 07, 2007

Hang on a few while this pretends it's about Tristan. It's not really.

Almost everyone learns the same lesson the first time he or she hears Tristan und Isolde, at least supposing the listener in question is a fanatic of the voice and not, say, a Furtwangler nut who's listened to every possible recording of it seven times through. The listener I'm imagining, who was me, hearing Tristan for the first time has heard pieces, and most especially the Love-Frog, as we have taken to calling it, the Love-Frog over and over and over. It's a fine thing to know and of course stands on its own as a piece of heavenliness, but what you learn later on is that it is in fact even more exquisite if you've just listened to all of Tristan und Isolde. It's a lesson about water and thirst, not to say that the rest of the opera is a lack of something, but if you know what the crowning moment is, you'll be thinking of it throughout. Won't you? And, unless you are a Wagner fanatic of the first rank, there really are moments of Tristan that it's tough to get absorbed in, and in those moments especially, you might think, "could someone sing just a few phrases of the Liebestod, please?"

This is a little like what happens with Einstein on the Beach unless I'm totally wrong and it's not that typical to have heard the closing monologue long before ever hearing the other 3-5 hours of music. My friend the classical guitarist in college who introduced me with contagious enthusiasm to many things ranging from pot to Perotin to the Pixies once said (and maybe he was stoned) you have to listen to the end of Einstein on the Beach, because it's so great, and then he recited a little of it in a creaky old-man voice that made me assume Einstein was actually a character in the opera. And I had heard this and that in high school--my friend M. and his friend M. would act out one of the Songs from Liquid Days--but there is something sweet and instantly memorable about that last scene with its text. It gives you very little flavor of the rest of the work if it's what you've heard first, because it makes narrative sense, and is concise, but there it sits at the end, like the Love Frog, and it's even better if you've just been through a lot.

Saying it that way makes Einstein sound like an ordeal, and it sort of is. Maybe I'm speaking here for the listener still somewhat ambivalent about much avant-garde music (and yes, E on the B is thirty years old and it's only minimalism and etc etc etc but it's a challenge, verily.) Jonathan says that in the most positive way, there are parts of this piece that make you want to scream. I can't disagree. It's sensory overload, and for me the only way to enjoy it is to go in having written yourself a permission slip to let your mind wander as it will. Unlike Tristan, E/B has moments that you simply cannot process: the text is solfege syllables, going by at a rapid clip to changing rhythms, and the most you can do is register it unless perhaps you're my other concert-going companion A, but I'd venture to say most of us aren't. Hell, in fact all of us aren't, except A.

I'd like to think of this kind of listening not as inattention but as the psychoanalytic concept of floating consciousness or, as one analyst has it, listening with the third ear. You will almost inevitably go in and out, especially if you're seeing it in concert without any Robert Wilsoning going on in the background, and some of the sonic assault may in fact be difficult, unpleasant. You can't not hear it, and perhaps it will resonate in your head as any number of things including fear and distaste, which are a valid response to art as well, and do not mean the art is bad. And when, as floating consciousness implies, you tune finely back in, it may be on a moment of textual revelation or sonic splendor. I'm not guaranteeing anything, but it might.

So was for me, at times, as in Tim Fain's solo in the "knee play" section: precise, elegant, alarming on the simplest level of "how does he keep count", and with a core of emotion and dynamic nuance you may or may not associate with this kind of music. At other times, I read my program notes, more than once over. Mrs. Dalloway remained closed, at my side, though at times I wondered what the reasonable limit might be on my decision to drift in and out of music deliberately devoid of obvious footholds. What is the difference between thinking about your day while the tedious dancing gypsy scene in Traviata goes by and cracking a book at Einstein on the Beach, especially in the age of mechanical reproduction of music, some of us listening to Penderecki on the treadmill?*

Lucinda Childs (whose name I almost typed as "Lucinda Williams" and kept mentally confusing with minor 90's pop chanteuse Toni Childs during the performance) was on hand to deliver what the program note described, I believe, as her famous reading of the "Prematurely air-conditioned supermarket" monologue, and indeed it was something to behold. I'm told by A, who knows more about these things, that it's kind of crazy and wonderful of her to show up to do this as she is, as confirmed by her program bio, busy elsewhere being Really Important. The "lovers on a park bench" monologue I started talking about back before the Rhine overflowed was delivered by Melvin van Peebles, who is a little bit mumblier than whoever does it on the old recording, but speaks with poetry in his voice, so it was fine.

It's tough to comment on the rest. This is obviously not an opera review. I'm not sure it's a review at all, and I'm not sure it's an opera. Most things seemed to go musically very right, and it was another fun evening with Event Buzz in the air. It was also pointed out by those present that, given E/B's busy performance schedule on the order of once every fifteen years, we may have witnessed the last performance led by its creator, which is a large thought to get in one's ear, a responsibility almost.

*not me, not bragging here. I hate exercise and am not sure about Penderecki.

Next up: Iphigenie! Unless I decide to write about the play I'm going to tonight.


Unknown said...

unless you are a Wagner fanatic of the first rank, there really are moments of Tristan that it's tough to get absorbed in, and in those moments especially, you might think, "could someone sing just a few phrases of the Liebestod, please?"

I'm pretty sure I count as a Wagner fanatic of at least the second rank, but I find Tristan really hard going. I may go this year ummm just for Matti Salminen, but I'm bringing my flask with me.

I like Glass' work on Koyaanisqatsi, partially because it was involved in my favorite movie night Double Feature ever, where a friend and I drank Delerium Tremens and followed the above film up with Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, which I highly recommend.

Unknown said...

Excellent non-review of this great non-opera (now I'm kicking myself for skipping it -- only excerpts, I thought; I'll wait for the planned revival at the NYCO a few years hence). I've always held that the problems (well, some, anyways) that people have digesting the music of a particular composer often lie in their attempt to try to apply a particular "mode of listening" that is incompatible with the work, and that if they could only re-examine this "mode of listening" approach, they might actually find themselves discovering, or even enjoying, something. Interesting that you discuss "Einstein on the Beach" and Wagner in the same piece because I remember this was one work and one composer that pushed me to learn to listen in new and different ways, an experiment that has paid off with many hours of enjoyment.

Congratulations, btw, on the Time Out NY mention.

Henry Holland said...

One obvious difference in the way one can listen to a live performance of Tristan and Einstein is that if you got up and left and tried to come back --a bathroom break, for example or you just want another gin & tonic before the Libesnacht-- during the Wagner, you'd not be allowed back in (AND you'd get stares of death from the first-rank Wagnerians), whereas the Glass assumes you're not going to sit there for all five hours, getting up and coming back is assumed.

As for Tristan, I think it's simply the greatest opera ever written, by anyone, anytime (note: I'm not a full-on Wagnerian: I love The Ring, Tristan and Parsifal, think Lohengrin, Tannhauser and Hollander have moments but are mostly meh and actively loath Meistersinger). I went to the full-evening "Tristan Project" at the Disney Hall a few months ago and it took me a good hour after the performance to come down from the experience.

I hope the NYCO does Einstein complete.

Maury D'annato said...

Wagnermonster: the 'qatsis are favorites as well (though I never saw the third.) Powaqaatsi I saw on a giant screen at UT with the Glass Ensemble and though it's not as pure in vision as the first one, I remember the opening scene as a real knockout.

r: thanks, and thanks for the tip about the TONY mention (I almost said TONY nod but then it sounds like I'm being nominated for my turn as Ophelia at the Shubert.) "Modes of listening" is a good phrase for what I spent a bit more verbiage trying to say, I think.

Maury D'annato said...

HH: One cannot decide whether an open policy on coming and going is a good idea or a nightmare (cf: Wellsung on Einstein.) I was certainly intrigued by The Tristan Project but opted for paying the rent that month!

Chalkenteros said...

I'm glad you went to this. I had sort of a brief pang of regret that I wasn't going, but then I thought, "do I really wanna go to this?" Nah. I bought my EOTB (the Nonesuch recording) when I was about 20, and listened to it A LOT when I was in college. My family thought I was cuhrayzeeeeee. But now I don't listen to it so often.

Ok, I am a tiny bit jealous that you got to see Lucinda Childs do the "Prematurely air conditioned supermarket" bit. Yeah I would love to have seen that.

Anonymous said...

She was good in the "Prematurely air conditioned supermarket" bit, but there seemed to be a miscue at the very end when one member of the ensemble came in early and the singers still had a few beats left of music to sing. (I know, how can one tell if there's a miscue in Philip Glass? If it sounds non-hypnotically weird, it's probably an error.)

Tim Fain's Knee Play 2 was kick-ass awesome. That may well be one of the best virtuoso displays I have heard in a long time.

The choir was awesome, and I agree with J von Wellsung that the soprano in the electric organ/soprano duet was rather painful.

Will said...

I agree about the love-frog, and I think Wagner specifically set it up that way. Certainly it can be enjoyed as a solo selection, but after three acts lasting somewhat over four hours of harmonic non-resolution, it becomes the capstone of an incredibly large and complex structure.

I've felt this every time I've experienced Tristan in an opera house (less so on recordings and DVDs--too many outside distractions), and I'm not a score reader or musical theorist. I think Wagner wrote it so that you sense the musical frustration and non-resolution; the tension builds throughout the long night until finally you arrive at the AAAAAHHH!
moment where it all comes together.

The best on-stage example of this effect for me3 was Bayreuth, 1995 in the Heiner Muller production. Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier were alone in a dilapidated room with plaster fallen on the floor. He lay dead in a collapsing gray armchair, she stood center stage in a dull gray metallic gown. As with Wieland Wagner, it was all done with light--she sang and the music surged, amber/gold lights focused tightly on her slowly turned the gown brilliant as the sun. She never died, just stood there radiant, shining like a torch in the darkness. It was one of the most gorgeous things I've ever seen on an opera stage--and I just teared up writing about it.

JSU said...

"I'm bringing my flask with me."

Wait, what?

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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