I had a funny moment the other day listening to a recent piece of mine, a song cycle based on texts by the French novelist Patrick Modiano. Commissioned by the first-rate French ensemble Accroche Note, the piece was premiered this past June in Strasbourg, during that three-week window when the pandemic was over and life was getting back to normal. Oh well.
Anyway, I love this piece, it feels to me like the best of myself, drawn to the surface by Modiano’s words like the moon pulling the tide. What I hadn’t realized, either in composing or rehearsing it, is that it’s lit up by the same fire I try to bring to my activist music, driven by an urgency that I want to feel in works I associate with the ongoing struggles besetting our nation, and our world. I’ve had something like this experience before, after composing a group of pieces around the loss of a very close friend, a musical soulmate. They ranged from a song based on Donne to a symphony based on the song. They came, to varying degrees, close to getting at what I was feeling, what I wanted to say about grief, about my friend, about this most essential human rite of passage, the shattering, firsthand Gethsemane of loss. They also all fell short, collapsed somehow under the weight of their significance, their overpowering need to speak an agonizing truth. Imagine my surprise, then, when hearing for the first time the score I’d composed for a showing of Murnau’s Nosferatu and recognizing in the music associated with Ellen (the Mina character from Bram Stoker’s novel) the unfettered expression of everything I’d hoped for in my symphony. The voice my grief was seeking had somehow escaped the works intended for it and had instead sung its heart out in this musical acting-out of a young woman’s efforts to save herself and those she loves from the grip of a vampire.
I think I may know what’s going on here. The unconscious often does not respond with alacrity to being told what to feel, what to express. Faced with such an ultimatum it often retreats, leaving us to battle things out on the surface, armed only with ego and fierce intention. Moving the gaze slightly off-center, away from the thing in question, the loss, the injustice, the shared tragedy, clarifies, illuminates the creative problem, the technical challenge at hand; the unconscious is (sometimes!) coaxed back out of hiding, and something authentic is catalyzed. Music with no explicit connection to any particular human event becomes explosively charged with what feels like lethal expressive power, sparking both individual catharsis and a sense of collective responsibility, a drive to action.
There are any number of works in the classical canon that have this effect on people (the St. Matthew Passion seems to be near-universal in this regard, as Peter Sellars’ recent staging in Berlin laid bare); out of dozens, I’m drawn to the Second Piano Concerto of Hans Werner Henze. The embodiment of the composer engagé, Henze was a true believer in music’s power to inspire social change, willing to risk the opprobrium of even his fellow Euro-Communists by moving to Cuba to teach and create collaborative works in support of the revolution. The upscale Left in Europe at the time found this to be a stylistically decadent move, betraying the apparently Marxist imperative of saving the world through high Modernism (I don’t know if it’s true that Luigi Nono dropped a casserole on the floor upon hearing the news but I choose to believe it, so indelibly goofy is the image).
Henze pursued his musical activism with rare devotion and imaginative brilliance. That said, while I admire works like Das Floß der Medusa (oratorio in memory of Che Guevara and dedicated to refugees everywhere) and Tristan (the ending of which was described by Henze as the death-cry of “the whole suffering world”), I love the second concerto. It’s a harrowing, lacerating experience, at the same time luminous, sensual, forever searching for a peace it never quite achieves. One hears in it vivid, terrifying recollections of the war (the snare drum tattoo that dominates the final section of the mammoth first movement is only the most explicit giveaway here); one feels the weight of that history, of the destruction of culture and the murder of millions. The music lives on that essential knife-edge between the personal and the collective, moving within the shadows both of the Holocaust and of Henze’s own conscription into the wehrmacht, as well as his struggles to reconcile his politics and sexual identity with the cultural norms of late-sixties West Germany. One hears all of these things and yet the piece remains open, syntactically flexible. Really the only defensible way to describe it is to say that “I hear all these things”. Someone else will doubtless find something very different, if no less emotionally forceful. Henze himself alluded only to the presence of what he described as “mourning music” running through the first movement and ultimately consuming the second. Anything more specific, more concrete in terms of the concerto’s meaning and intention, would narrow the field of possible relationships to it. More to the point, it would run the risk of short-cutting the whole developmental and cognitive spinning-out that reveals the piece over the course of its 50 minutes. This putatively “absolute” music is freighted with a human history that can be apprehended only in the telling. It is immune to sloganeering.
There’s a lot of wonderful music that inhabits this space between the personal and the political, all of it doing its particular thing in ways that are both subtle and unmistakable. I love how in Digable Planets’ Rebirth of Slick when Ladybug Mecca sings “Yeah, I’m thick like dat, I stack like dat, I’m down like dat, I’m black like dat”, DP’s ethereal, dreamlike brag rap becomes a fierce statement of identity, revealing the brag to be not just about the group, but about the whole Black community that is their ground of being; I love how in Suicide Alley when Shawn Colvin sings “The sun hatched me out, cradle and all, on the corner of first and insane”, she takes us inside the experience of depression and hopelessness not with judgy exhortations but instead through an intimate exchange with a fellow sufferer whose despair we can only imagine, but whose predicament opens a window for us into our own psyches; I love how in Hannah Kendall’s Glances/I Don’t Belong Here the sense of otherness, of the awkward juxtaposition of beautiful physical environment with social hostility is communicated solely by string quartet, through violent fragments offset by longer, lyrical passages that contain multitudes of possibility but are ultimately thwarted, giving way to the next encounter between the natural world and the divisive human presence within it.
In the case of my own songs, whatever it is that so binds me to them was surely seeded by Modiano’s singular, haunted texts. Over the course of thirty novels and one memoir Modiano has pursued one unbroken narrative quest: to sort through a half-century’s assembled fragments of memory and identity in the hope of mapping the self, of answering the simple question who am I? in the context of a world shattered by war and made unknowable by the depraved attempt to obliterate an entire people. The aftermath of the war, the occupation of Paris, and the Holocaust are the unseen forces, the aftershocks, that resonate in the lives of Modiano’s characters as they trace and retrace their steps through a landscape both familiar and weirdly alien, chasing the phantoms of friends who may or may not have existed, in the process trying to construct a personal history both rich in detail and yet strangely unmoored from any reliable chronology. Through simple, mesmerizing prose and a dramatic range from hilariously absurd to deeply moving, Modiano shows us the fragility of the self in a world in which history has been obliterated.
The texts I chose for the cycle (drawn from the novels Rue des boutiques obscures and Pour que tu ne te perds pas dans le quartier, known in English as Missing Person and So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood) mention neither the war nor the Shoah, though both are populated by characters who were caught up in the Occupation, evading capture, or who lived at various levels of the post-war underworld; nonetheless, every narrative action responds in some way to an erasure of identity either necessitated by, or directly caused by, the Holocaust. The cataclysm itself is at one or two generation’s remove, but the collective toll it has taken is reflected in the eyes of the individuals trying to solve the mystery of their lives. What I wanted in the music I composed for the texts was simply to light them up, to provide an atmosphere within which they could ask their vexing questions of who, where, when. Instead of linking musical gestures with specific characters or ideas, I allowed a small cluster of figures to free-float, attaching themselves to different text fragments at different points in the cycle, just as Modiano’s characters’ sense of their own identity is constantly shifting. Something in this compositional approach shook something loose, a feeling-tone, an imaginative depth, that I had not anticipated; it seemed to me to respond to the things of the world in ways that I had not originally intended. The final image, of a man in the grip of a recovered memory, re-experiencing his abandonment as a child and hearing once again the receding sound of the car carrying the one adult he had trusted away from him, became more than a sudden encounter with a formative personal tragedy: it was the acting out on a personal level of an unspeakable collective crime, one point of light in a constellation of heartbreak and madness. And it became personal for me, too.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that my cycle is some great masterpiece (that would be highly unlikely and not for me to judge anyway), just that the experiences of composing, rehearsing, performing and now listening to it have been extremely powerful for me, a direct encounter with an aspect of myself as an artist that I had hoped, but not necessarily expected, to find. For this I thank Modiano.
I love to imagine that I might, someday, write something as thrillingly galvanizing as What’s Goin’ On of Marvin Gaye, or Colvin and Earle’s Tell Moses, or Hendrix’s Machine Gun. I’m in good company: of the recent commissions and premieres funded by the various organizations supporting new music in this country, the vast majority are works of political discourse, championing the gamut of progressive causes and concerns, the central concerns, in fact, of this historical moment. This is, overall, a welcome development. But I wonder where Henze, et al, would fit into this landscape; I wonder if, in turning so much of our attention to the nation’s symptoms we’re neglecting the disease itself, something metastatic deep in the soul that thrives on political speech-as-commodity. Over the past forty years we’ve conquered what in the 80’s we called the “masterpiece complex”, shrugging off the weight of the Eroica and the B Minor Mass in favor of a music more in keeping with the transitory, market-based values of contemporary American life. We’ve embraced kitsch, ad-speak, and the same reality TV ethos that produced our 45th president. It’s no accident that today’s artists, no matter how radical their position, must self present in a manner consistent with media norms that support, rather than challenge, capitalism’s rapacious drive to monetize everything in its path. There’s a cost here, and I think we’re paying it.
We need music that allows us to hear ourselves as other than purely political beings, that plunges us into the mystery and multifariousness of being human, that brings us into ourselves and back out again ready for action, for voting, marching, educating, resisting. It’s worth remembering that both Malcolm X and Dr. King loved and found soul-renewal in jazz; King also leaned heavily on gospel and spirituals, whenever possible sung by Mahalia Jackson (he recognized the importance of We Shall Overcome as a motivating force in the struggle, but for his own sustenance he dug deeper); Nina Simone loved and was influenced by Bach; and Rita Dove writes with stunning force and radical urgency about Beethoven:
Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly–– I tell you,
every tenderness I have ever known
has been nothing
but thwarted violence, an ache
so permanent and deep, the lightest touch
awakens it. . . .It is impossible
to care enough. (Ludwig van Beethoven’s Return to Vienna, from Sonata Mulatica)
It is impossible to care enough! This rings true both for the fight against injustice and for the creation of music.
There are innumerable challenges coming in the years ahead, and nothing at the moment suggests that we, as a nation or a world community, are up to the task of meeting them. As our climate deteriorates literally before our eyes and our democracy continues on a path to self-immolation, pundits jabber, scholars equivocate and we all seek the root cause, the one explanation that will allow us to put everything right. There are any number of candidates, each one well-considered and certainly part of a larger, more complex truth. But, in the end, I fear that the reality is more disconcerting than we care to admit, that in fact there is no way of understanding the how and why of our current predicament other than as the gradual awakening of an archetype of hatred and fear, ubiquitous and independent of causality. In such a world reasoned political discourse is neutered, and even art, the one expressive ritual that can, in more “normal” circumstances, reach across hardened lines of division and quicken a sense of common humanity, finds its communicative power diminished. Which piece of mine would I want to take with me into battle, to prevail over the darkness that has plagued so many of us for so long, and that now threatens to engulf us all? I’m not sure it would be the one that started this blog two years ago, my meditation on Baldwin called Now, the Fire. I love it for all its little imperfections, its desperate need to have its say, to advance the conversation, to bear witness to a white man’s desire to share an experience that is simply not his, to say “I’m there, I’m with you!”, only to admit that there is a line he cannot cross. The piece is valuable for all of that. But no, I think I’d want my Modiano songs. Or my vampire music. I don’t want to confront the monster with well-intentioned incantations. I want a stake to the heart.