The Radical Subjective Contingency of Enjoyment

Bear with me, kind Detritusites.

Andrew S. Hughes, South Bend Symphony, Photos Enjoyable In Concert

Jeff Dunn, Spaced-Out Mussorgsky

Innovation has always been tricky in classical music. The search for new sounds and forms has long been a part of the tradition. Some innovations become part of the canon they challenged; some do not. Often, public reception to the New is mixed and both curiosity and hostility encountered. Reception, and by extension, criticism, is necessarily dependent on the receptor, the person, the subjective bundle of notions, tastes, and experience that witness (and in the case of the critic, bear witness to) the event.

Both of the articles above are reactions to multimedia productions of classical concerts. Images or video in both cases were timed to accompany the music, played live by an orchestra. What are the critics' reactions, and why?

First, Hughes:

In concert with guest artist James Westwater, Maestro Tsung Yeh and the South Bend Symphony Orchestra gave an enjoyable performance Saturday night to a larger-than-usual audience at the Morris Performing Arts Center.

Enjoyable and larger-than-usual audiences are both positive adjectives in the opening paragraph, which sets a tone for the review.

Although works such as Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings qualify as among the most popular in classical music’s repertoire,

Although they do...they're hopelessly overplayed?

Westwater’s choreographed use of photographs set to the music — photochoreography -

Yeah, I got that.

probably drew more people to the Morris than the concert’s light and accessible program of music.

I don't know whether this bespeaks a need for more adventurous programming, but the audience seemed interested, which is good, if you're a small-market orchestra trying to make an impact in the community.

Saturday’s multimedia concert also may have had its biggest success in that respect — as a vehicle to expose more people to the power of a live orchestra,

Which is excellent.

even if the music did more to enhance the photographs than the images did for the music.

The Preposition Police called, the "for" is unnecessary.

However, the observation that the photographs became somehow central to the experience is noted, with interest. This did not dissuade the reviewer from liking the concert or overall effect; it was different. And, potentially, gets people interested in going to the orchestra.

The critic, here, is writing for a small paper in a small-ish community, and is happy that the effect achieved is potentially good for the arts in the city.

Compare, then:


Another milestone in the history of American showmanship hit Walnut Creek’s Hofmann Theater last Sunday and Tuesday:

Is that sarcasm? Is someone making Sarcasm Soup here somewhere?

California Symphony's claim to the world’s first presentation of a 3-D video

Oh, maybe not!

to accompany


— or rather, subordinate — a live performance of a symphonic work.

Ahh! The symphony is being subordinated! Whatver shall we do? What exactly are we scared of? Who are we being made to serve?

The plea for more funding that followed was justified by the quality of the previous numbers on the program.

So, it was the last number, then? Okay. What? Oh, the other music was good (or at least "quality"), which justifies...pleas for funding.

Yet the grand finale, a video extravaganza of space photography, visualizations, and animation, to the music of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, fascinating as it was, did a disservice to the performing, if not the astronomic, arts.

Really? A "disservice?" Not an experiment? An adventure?

Curiously, the so-called "flyover state" concert reviewer was open to the adventure, while on the Left Coast, Hotbed of Experimentalism(tm), a similar concept left the reviewer feeling subordinated.

Clearly these are not all of the variables in this equation.

What is the subjective position of the two reviewers that causes the reactions to the concerts?


"You are witnessing something we have never had here, a new art, photochoreography," Yeh said after the concert’s opening selection, a stirring performance of Copland’s Fanfare. "Normally, I encourage you to sit back, maybe close your eyes. You can still sit back, but if you close your eyes, you’ll lose half the value of your ticket."

Were tickets double the normal price? Has the music been, literally, devalued? Moreover, are people in danger of leaning forward during the concert?

Much of the time, Yeh and Westwater proved the conductor right.

Westwater’s photographs were beautifully shot and edited with rich colors and dramatic uses of light and shadow, and his arrangement of the images displayed impeccable timing and understanding of the music.

His use of dissolves to create contrast between images that momentarily overlapped — a quick-cut from a sun-drenched plain to a dark-and-stormy-night scene to coincide with a sudden change in tone in the music — and his choice of dramatic images all played to the rhythms and character of the music the orchestra played, and fulfilled the potential this program held.

At times, however, the beauty and, sometimes, the mere presence of Westwater’s photographs rendered the music secondary to the images, even though the orchestra performed at its usual level of superb quality and, possibly, with even a little more energy than normal.

Hughes was clearly aware of the possibility of detraction from the musical experience, but the overall quality of the photographs and the production seem to have left a more positive experience than not.

(He also really, really likes the words "beauty" and "beautiful" to the point of rendering them meaningless.)


To give credit where credit is due, José Francisco Salgado, listed as “film creator” below Tao’s name in the program, did a stellar job of assembling and presenting the video visuals.

It was well-done. Okay...

A Ph.D. astronomer and “visualizer” for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Salgado knows his business well and is on a world tour with his sensitive coordination of images with Mussorgsky’s music. Only in Walnut Creek, so far, will the presentation be in 3-D, but it’s an especially effective technique for portraying two of the show’s many segments: solar flares and colliding galaxies.

Sensitive Ph.D., check...

Jekowsky, as well, is to be congratulated for superbly executing the coordination of the music with the video, thanks to a monitor below his music stand.

Also well-executed. What's the issue, again?

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not report that patrons thoroughly enjoyed the program and appeared unharmed by any perceived violations of concert convention caused by the experiment.

And...the audience liked it, too. What's the issue, again?

Innovation, or Degradation?

Um, here we go?

Yet I must severely question the artistic (not necessarily financial) wisdom of this sort of innovation. In sum, Salgado’s approach to entertainment (and education) degrades the composer, the performer, and the listening experience.

No one's threatening to take away non-multimedia concerts. Apparently, the audience likes it, it's well done, and potentially financially rewarding. Why is it degrading? And why so to the performer and listening experience (do we really mean "the audience?" No? Then why not?)

Mussorgsky’s intentions were to portray with his musical imagination specific paintings by Victor Hartman, not outer space.

Any claim to know authorial intent should be regarded with suspicion. In the case of a programmatic piece, the line is fuzzier, but the issue is far from simple. Was Mussorgsky's intent to portray the pictures in music, or record his impressions of them? Or were they simply a starting point for composition or inspiration? Can we imagine the pieces with an abstract or non-programmatic title and still understand and/or enjoy them?

And why can't we decontextualize or recontextualize them? Clearly, Beethoven had orchestras of a greatly reduced size from our modern ones; should we then not play them with full string sections (and so forth)? What about period instruments?

These are all issues not new to classical music. What's the real problem?

The piece is suffused with gestures related to these works.

Or inspired by them, or evocative of them. Or something.

To co-opt them for other uses in a formal concert setting does an injustice to the composer, and disrespects his art.

Really? I don't think ol' Modest M. cares a lot at this point. Also, why care? Are you entrusted to his legacy or estate? Or are you his mom? "Modest didn't get the lead in the Christmas pageant? But he's a composer! He's special! How dare you?!"

Not that this doesn’t happen all the time.

I'm confused. Does this support your argument or not?

I draw attention, in particular, to the egregious interpretations of Wagner’s Ring cycle that would have made a murderer out of poor Richard, were he alive to witness them.

Where are we going with this? What's the beef?

More pointedly, what could be going on in this review? The small-town small-orchestra multimedia concert was met with some concern, but overall acceptance and even enjoyment. The West Coast, better-funded, better-covered, concert is getting resistance to change? Recontextualization?

Why? The legalized pot/gay marriage/Hollywood liberal crowd is standing up, pounding their fists and tearing their hair out because, dammit, that dead old white canonized composer just isn't getting respect? Really?

Figure 1: Resistant to change, the San Francisco area is known for deeply held conservative beliefs in politics and the arts

Figure 2: Indiana: Up for whatever!

Sure, on one hand, it's nice to upend this stereotype. But what gives?

Absorbing as Salgado’s program was, I still ask: Why have a live orchestra at all?

It sounds better? Also, it's more of an event, a thing if you will, to go out and see something with live music in a theater, potentially wearing something uncomfortable. Or not.

Also, it sounds better. Way better.

The audience was thoroughly engrossed with the visuals, crying out “Ooh” and “Ahh” when letters of the alphabet flew through the air toward the credits, and many other times in addition. The stage was darkened, and the large screen obscured most of what the players were doing.

Like an opera? Yes, like an opera. Or a film, sort of. But more like an opera.

But who cared what they were doing, anyway?

Playing their instruments, presumably. Making that sound you hear. Or at least that's what makes sense. Sort of the way you assume the orchestra is playing their instruments when you're in the cheap seats at the symphony, because you can't really see much going on anyway. Unless you're a critic? Do you get good seats? For free?

No one was looking.

They could have been looking...at the screen. What? Also, there was this 3-D thing going on at the time to sort of distract them.

Almost like an opera.

The result is dehumanization of the performer, the human presence of which is a chief reason to attend a symphonic concert.

Like an opera. So no, no, not really.

The phenomenon is similar to what occurs when orchestras play film scores live, such as Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. At least in the case of Nevsky, the composer intended the music to be played with a film.

What? Yes, sort of. Or like, you know, an opera.

Also, it sounds better.

The only advantage to a live performance, in my view — and a small one at that, considering today’s home technologies — is improved sonics.

Yes. It. Sounds. Better. Plus, you get to go do a thing with seats and bells and people and drinks and stuff.

You think the orchestra feels degraded? They'd rather have the music piped in? And, as a result, get payed for playing once? Ask the Broadway musicians about that.

Finally, there is the problem of the listening experience itself, which in this case parallels a disturbing trend in society generally: If we all sit passively, ingesting spoon-fed images as given without time for our own mental intermediation, our imaginations will atrophy.

Okay? What? Like an opera, except not, in what way?

The onslaught of cable TV has done this to many already.

Presumably in rural Indiana, where people actually enjoy trying new things. Or something else?

Why bring the scourge into the concert hall, where one of the most delightful aspects of experiencing music is to imagine your own “gnome” or “catacombs,” as outlined by Mussorgsky.

Sorry; I thought we were all about the composer's intent, which is the Hartman paintings, right? But you want your own "gnome" as well? I don't think so.

Why let Salgado, expert as he is in astronomy, deprive you of that possibility by throwing galaxies at you so fast that all you can do is ooh or ahh?

Because either or both activity can be enjoyable, interesting, fun, rewarding, challenging, beautiful, or just cool. Just sayin'.

For its (mostly unobserved) part, the California Symphony reserved its best for the nonexistent Hartmann Pictures, and is to be congratulated.

"But, also, well done, chaps."

Here’s hoping that the launch of Interplanetary Pictures at a Virtual Exhibition burns quickly on reentry, to become a splendid home video someday, where it belongs.

You hate it so much you hope it fails?

Also, the audience has somehow disappeared. The "sonic experience" being "degraded" apparently belongs to the reviewer. The audience, reportedly, enjoyed it. The reviewer misses his opportunity (which he'll have again--that is in the universe where somewhere, someone plays "Pictures" again) to visualize his own images as conjured up by the music.

Someone's trying to steal his gnome.

Figure 3: If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed, now.

It seems that there is more than an aesthetic problem. The way the reviewer organizes his enjoyment of concert music is threatened. He even seemed to like it, kind of, or appreciate it for what it might be. But it's deemed symbolically unacceptable, so arguments are organized in order to cast it as somehow wrong; the composer, music, players, and sonic experience (still not the audience) are cast as victim, degraded (somehow) by images of galaxies and disemwordened (?) letters ("of the alphabet" no less) in space.

Enough analysis, then. Jouissance is impossible; enjoy your symptom!

Figure 4: Good luck avoiding the real of desire


Empiricus said...

You've been reading your Zizek.

By the way, don't forget that claiming authorial intent sublimates the pursuit of desire. Thus, as you've pointed out for a different reason, jouissance is impossible.

Or for a more Derridaian reading, the author didn't say anything except that there were too many symbols signifying nothing. Maybe that's Cage...

I don't remember.

jason said...

And here I was reading teh interweb to *avoid* a Zizek/K. Silverman paper. Why is every act a repetition?

Sator Arepo said...

Sorry jason. Sometimes what you put inta has to come outta.