You’d be surprised–or maybe not–by who reads “About Last Night.” Bob Brookmeyer, the composer and jazz trombonist about whom I’ve blogged on several occasions, wrote the other day to comment on my approving link to a posting in which artsjournal.com blogger Kyle Gann declared that “the entire body of serialist music produced nothing that will ever mean much to anyone beyond composers and new-musicians interested in its technical aspects.”
2 cases in point put a dent in the “beyond my ken” reaction — Berg’s Violin Concerto (one of the most moving pieces I have ever heard) and Webern’s Symphony Op. 21, which I — at age 20 — declared “the only perfect music I have ever heard” — both of these date back to 1950, for me, and time has only increased my love and wonder at the beauty and clarity “organization” can bring to bear. Berg, who was always regarded as the connection to the past, was one of the most organized composers in history, yet much of his music sounds almost improvised. SOMETIMES the means justify the ends. Much the same, for me, with electronic music. It all depends on the composer.
I agree, at least in principle (though not about the Webern Symphony, which has never made sense to me except when used as a ballet score by George Balanchine). The Berg Violin Concerto, for instance, also strikes me as profoundly moving. It is, however, a very special case, a piece of serial music based on a tone row whose interlocking major and minor triads are manipulated by Berg to create quasi-tonal effects. I think its appeal is essentially theatrical, by which I mean it’s not so much pure music as a piece of “representational” art in which Berg uses the tension between tonality and atonality to portray an extra-musical emotional state. (He does the same thing in Wozzeck, though the fact that Wozzeck is an opera makes it more obvious.) That doesn’t mean the concerto isn’t beautiful, though. Brookmeyer is right: like every other variety of art, music is an essentially empirical operation to which theory is ultimately irrelevant. What works, works. The fact that most atonal music doesn’t work says something relevant about the fundamental problems of atonality–but that doesn’t make it impossible for a genius to compose a piece of atonal music that does. In art, all definitions are slippery, which is one of the things that makes it so miraculous.
(If you’ve never heard the Berg Violin Concerto, by the way, I’m especially fond of this recording.)
Another reader of “About Last Night,” Toni Bentley, rose to the bait I offered in a recent posting in which I announced that I’d finally bowed to her wishes and watched The Red Shoes. Not only was Toni delighted that I liked it so much, but she sent me a speech she gave at a recent West Coast screening of Michael Powell’s 1948 film.
Here’s part of what she said:
On a more personal note I would like to comment as a former classical ballet dancer on the depiction of the dance world as portrayed in this film as demanding, difficult, and frequently physically painful–all of which is accurate. What is perhaps even more revolutionary now than in 1948 is that this film, while not denying the hardships and sacrifices, actually extols them as the worthwhile price of achieving great art. The dance world continues today to receive criticism as being a profession that demands too much of its young aspirants for a career that is brief, badly paid, elitist, undemocratic, and can be abruptly ended with an injury in the blink of an eye. I cannot in all honesty tell you that any of these complaints are not true. But more often than not these are the complaints of those who don’t actually dance, but those who observe–and, perhaps, covet the stage. What I can say, from the other side of the footlights, is that the reward of achieving some measure of transcendent beauty for those of us who pursued it, and for our appreciative audiences, was worth every bloody toe and every drop of sweat. And besides, democracy has never had much to do with making great art.
The movie that you are about to see is that rare work that argues that art is not only important but possibly the most important thing in life. “The Red Shoes,” wrote Michael Powell in his autobiography, “is an insolent, haunting picture the way it takes for granted that nothing matters but art, and that art is something worth dying for.” Ballet, in its deft defiance of gravity itself, is the ultimate metaphor for this transcendence of our wretched mortality. In our time of much meaningless death and much bad and boring art, The Red Shoes, 56 years after its premiere, feels like a breath of fresh air–and a call to arms–for Dedication, Beauty and Passion of the kind that helps the rest of us find meaning in something that surpasses our mere mortal selves.
I couldn’t have put it better.