Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An Abhorrent System

In my entry to my new academic institution, I was recently introduced to their academic culture module. One of the first few concepts they emphasised was on independent learning and inquiry. Upon coming out from the module, I felt like I've been waddling in a pool of mud. Here's a short summary. In the independent quest for learning, they taught four methodologies, namely survey, compiling documented information, experiments and reasoning. After that follows mandatory steps of justification and critical thinking. I wouldn't go into the details, but you get the rough idea they're advocating.

How am I supposed to reconcile this with the way I function in the artistic field? I'll give an example - aesthetics. Beauty is a central concept in the arts, at certain times even prized higher than values like truth and goodness. Here's an imaginary scenario of myself in a conversation with someone else upon graduation out of this academic institution...

(looking at an abstract form in marble in a sculpture exhibition)

Friend: This is beautiful...
Me: Why do you think so?
Friend: Huh?
Me: As in justify your statement, why is it beautiful?
Friend (hesitatingly, for now his statement concept of beauty is being questioned): The usage of the black marble and spheres, arranged in the simplest manner...
Me: Let's work this out one by one. How does black marble make it beautiful? How does the colour itself and material itself trigger your aesthetic nerves?
Friend: It just comes together. Marble, polished with such meticulous care, painted in black, would result in such a beautiful effect.
Me: So it's the shiny surface of marble. What if he had used glass or a form of well-polished metal for it? Wouldn't it achieve the same effect?

And so the conversation can go on and on, questioning each individual quality in the sculpture, to the way they interact and even on to our perception of beauty, the way we perceive it. (One might argue that aesthetics is such subjective issue that it shouldn't be subject to any justification or any form of rules or trend in the first place, how about issues like capital punishment, euthanasia etc? Aren't there so many perspectives and controversies around these issues? Despite that, they're still being brought up for discussion in such a systematic scientific way.)

How destructive such learning concepts are to the appreciation of artistic objects and forms. And here, in this renowned institution, such skills (based on these concepts) are honed until they're second nature to the student! The picture now. This institution, or rather most academic institutions locally, instil this raging desire to question, research, reason and justify in order to learn. All to the point that without an answer, they wouldn't be satisfied. No satisfaction without an answer. The students are pushed until they can see the inner workings and mechanisms of it all. Going far too fast. How can one fully appreciate and learn about an artistic work and form in such a manner? Can one learn about an artistic work after taking it apart into its smallest components like the way a technician learns?

I'll end off here with a passage by "Speaking of Beauty" by Denis Donoghue.

In "The Artist of the Beautiful" (1844) Hawthorne tells of Owen Warland, a young man who works as a watch-repairer but who lives his true life in search of the beautiful. He is gifted with a acute sense of the delicate and minute. Mind and hand are turned towards the exquisite. Owen thinks of his work as a tribute to Annie Hovenden, whom he loves and regards as his ideal companion, best recipient of the beautiful. For her, he makes a metal butterfly that perches on one's hand, flies off, and returns. It is a work of extraordinary refinement. But Annie marries Robert Danforth, the local blacksmith, a man of iron, and they have a child who resembles his father in that respect. Peter Hovenden, was once a watchmaker and Owen's master, but he is now retired. He is a materialist and despises Owen's yearning for the exquisite. (...) The implied narrator is on Owen's side, because he believes that the "deeds of the earth, however ethereralized by by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit." After many tribulations and lapses during which he ceases "to be an inhabitant of the better sphere that lies unseen around us," he succeeds in making the butterfly, giving it his own life. One evening he shows it to Annie, Robert, their child, and Peter:

Nature's ideal butterfly was here realized in all its perfection, not in the pattern of such faded insects as flit among earthly flowers, but of those which hover across the meads of paradise for child-angels and the spirits of departed infants to disport themselves with. The rich down was visible upon its wings; the luster of its eyes seemed instinct with spirit, the firelight glimmered around this wonder - the candles gleamed around it; but it glistened apparently by its own radiance, and illuminated the finger and outstretched hand on which it rested with a white gleam like that of precious stones. In its perfect beauty, the consideration of size was entirely lost. Had its wings overreached the firmament, the mind could not have been more filled or satisfied.

Annie thinks it beautiful and wants to know if it is alive. Robert laughs at it. Peter wants only to see how it works. The child grabs it. In a few moments, meeting those roughness and vulgarities, the butterfly loses its beauty and dies...

Sunday, July 29, 2007


... a few years down the road, what audiences will get at the Bayreuth Festspiele wouldn't be and exclusive seven evenings of only-Wagner operas, but instead, a mixture of other German operatic productions as well. Our dear Richard Wagner would probably flip in his grave if he knew how his operatic productions in his very own Festspielhaus had changed over the years. Superficial caricatures of the originals. With the invasion of productions of operas by other composers, he would soon flip out of his grave... What a desecration of the Festspielhaus...

Do head over to the A.C. Douglas's website for updates on the Bayreuth Festspiele 2007. He has diligently consolidated the reviews and articles, on top of his own, on this topic.

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Die Walküre

Die Walküre, the First Day of the Ring, was on this evening, a continuation from Das Rheingold from the previous evening.

I started listening from Act II on the Dwójka Polskie Radio this evening. Having accessed the webcast a couple of minutes late after what I supposed what the starting time, I was surprised on hearing the Valhalla leitmotif, which I vaguely recalled its appearance only during the second act. It was only after some time later that I realised that the operacast website had printed the timing for two of the radio stations wrongly. By that time, it didn't make much sense to switch to the other radio station with the delayed broadcast since Act I would have been more than halfway completed.

I thoroughly enjoyed Acts II and III this evening. Albert Dohmen, as Wotan, caught my attention with his confident and powerful delivery. Together with last evening's performance of Das Rheingold, I find that he was adept in bringing out the multifaceted character of Wotan vocally. I was moved by the way his voice shimmers above the orchestra in proclaiming his [sadly temporal] support for Siegmund, and when he was conflicted upon Fricka's chastisement of his notion of love and his ways as a god and husband, his immanent frustration upon killing of Siegmund, and of course, his most intense nostalgia in the closing passages of the last act.

Linda Watson, as Brünnhilde, wasn't as consistent. In the dramatic sections whereby her vocals were supposed to float above the orchestra, she was drowned out by the latter. On the other hand, her rendition of the monologue at the end of Act II Scene 2 was the most beautiful I've heard thus far. In heart-rending passage with such poetic libretto, she brought out conflicting wretchedness in Brünnhilde in the most alluring manner.

And of course, now to the tragic hero, Siegmund, sung by tenor Endrik Wottrich. How I wish the lifespan of his character was lengthened! Such power and intimacy in the same voice! I shall take note of the re-broadcast, and indulge myself in his proclamation of love to Sieglinde in Act I Scene 3. I have no doubts that it'll be superb.

The Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele under Christian Thielemann was strong, as like the last evening, stringing every single unit of the opera together to create the most complete and coherent picture. Come to think of it, they're unrivalled when it comes to Wagnerian repertoire.

Thankfully, there'll be a break of a day before Siegfried will be shown. Being situated in an obscure corner of Mars, the time difference is just horribly different. I shall attempt to compile the available reviews on this entire Bayreuther Festspiele in the next coming few days. Apparently, the opening night wasn't well received with the radically different production by Katharina Wagner. We shall see how it turns out. Right now, I would personally prefer a traditionalist to the throne (all three candidates are, as quoted from A.C. Douglas, unfortunately, supporters of Regietheater and none seemed like conservatives), as I'm still considerably new to Wagner music. Give me a few more years of largely similar traditional productions and it'll difficult to say though...

Darn, I'm more interested in the politics of the Bayreuther Festspiele than the local politics.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold

The production of the legendary Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuther Festspiele 2007 has started. Christian Thielemann will be conducting these four evenings of the entire cycle.

Das Rheingold! Behold the conflict between love and power! Introduced this very first evening will be the multifaceted character of Wotan, the renunciation of love for power by Alberich, the craftiness of Loge (with a flawed sense of righteousness so despised by Wagner), the superficiality and simple-mindedness of the giants Fafner and Fasolt...

So much to write, but I need to go back the music. To end off, here's the cast for this evening's performance...

Conductor Christian Thielemann
Production Tankred Dorst
Sets Frank Philipp Schlößmann
Costume Bernd Ernst Skodzig

Wotan Albert Dohmen
Donner Ralf Lukas
Froh Clemens Bieber
Loge Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt Kwangchul Youn
Fafner Hans-Peter König
Alberich Andrew Shore
Mime Gerhard Siegel
Fricka Michelle Breedt
Freia Edith Haller
Erda Mihoko Fujimura
Woglinde Fionnuala McCarthy
Wellgunde Ulrike Helzel
Flosshilde Marina Prudenskaja
(most are similiar's to last year's)

I'm thankful there wouldn't be any intermission tonight. Given the length of the intermissions for the previous two evenings, I am speculating that they have a shortage of cubicles over there...

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

I have to admit that I clicked on the webcast with that a slight skeptism, despite my love for Wagner's operas. I was almost preparing to turn in after a long day earlier, if the first few minutes into the opera didn't move me. The moment the first sounds of the production this evening came forth through my headphones, I knew I was hooked for the entire duration of it. For the few times when I've gone through the entire length of Wagner's operas, they were all savoured together with the visual staging. This was by far the first time I was hooked on the entire production simply based on the music without any visual stimulation.

Such a wonderful opening to this year's production of the Bayreuther Festspiele! Sebastian Weigle conducted the Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele with such Wagnerian charm, with the right touch of humour in this opera. The soloists sounded beautiful this evening. If the staging was anywhere as good as the music, this completely new production by Katharina Wagner would have been a success.

As to the composition of this opera, the libretto is beautifully and poetically written! Lighter in mood compared to his other works, but it certainly doesn't lose out in depth compared to them. How can one not be impressed when confronted by the Wagner's ingenuity?

So much to talk about, but I shan't disgrace myself further by showing my ignorance. I'm still new to the Wagnerian opera scene and have lots more to learn. Let's wait for the professional critics to come out with their reviews...

Almost seven hours of live audio webcast of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg after a full day of activities, it's nigh time I catch some sleep. And Tannhäuser's on tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bayreuther Festspiele 2007

There it goes by again... The Bayreuther Festspiele 2007 opens today with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. And there seem to be some pretty intense fireworks this year between the 29-year-old great-granddaughter of our beloved Richard Wagner, Katharina Wagner, with her cousins, Nike Wagner, 62, a musicologist and artistic director of the Kunstfest Weimar arts festival, and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, her step-sister from her father's first marriage, also 62, artistic adviser to the Aix en Provence opera festival...

It's on now. Schedules on the official website. Catch the webcast here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tabula Rasa

Have been drowning myself with a great deal of recordings of modern works lately, with works by Messiaen, Takemitsu, Arvo Pärt, Penderecki and others appearing on my player more often than before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is most well known for his third and current phase of compositional style, which he himself termed as tintinnabulation. It's intriguing to learn of how he has progressed since he first appeared on the scene. From an experimental twelve-tone compositional technique following Schoenberg, he reached an interim phase whereby he made use of collage techniques whereby he "cut-and-paste" sections from pieces ranging from the renaissance to the romantic periods onto his twelve-tone compositions. Being still unsatisfied, he went into a stage of self-imposed silence, only to emerge with a most unique voice.

I was first drawn to his music by his most peculiar concept of sound and have been hooked since. I surprise myself when I look at recordings of his works which I've amassed over the past few months. One could almost see a holy aura surrounding the music from the very moment the first note is sounded. Here, I shall attempt to put into words my reflections on one of his most famous compositions, Tabula Rasa.

Scored for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano, this work consists of two movements - Ludus (with movement) and Silentium (without movement). For the first time, I actually loved and could understand the sounds of a prepared piano. The prepared piano uses a tonic pedal to give the pulse and movement, like a breathless race through time. Some other points, it was used to create the bell tones like those coming from a monastery. At other times, it is used to create a tone cluster of an unimaginable depth to sound a death knell.

The first movement is just a simple yet profound alternation between two sections - the theme and silence. Behold the depth in the impulsive pulsing sections where the instruments come together to create tensional surge to propel the music forth, choking the listener of the space to breath. It is only resolved in a series of monastric bell-like sounds on the prepared piano before fading away into midst of of the calm and tranquil silence. The extended periods of contemplative silence provide the much needed deliverence from the tensional rush, such stoic moments so indifferent to the contrasting sections encompassing them.

How can one help but be drawn into this masterful blend of arsis (movement and impulse) and thesis (rest) - a rhythmic technique found commonly in Gregorian chants in the renaissance era? The two solo violins, as the music progresses on, engages in an almost devilish dance, encouraged on by the sounding of the death knell on the prepared piano, originally sounding once every time the theme comes on, but recurring repeatedly like a hounding nightmare in the last segment. In a most enigmatic way, all the tension is resolved in a cold A min drone, creating the effect of sounding on for eternity.

How apt, when it leads on to the 2nd movement, where for the sixteen over minutes, Arvo Pärt creates the most beatific effect of a most tranquil suspension in eternity. When it all ends, I sense in myself a disappointment in the very fact that it has ended. I guess I shan't go too much into the second movement for any form of description in words would be far from sufficient to put that music into words.

Nonetheless, it's been a most spiritually rich journey, not just through this particular masterpiece, but through his other works as well. Truly blessed this deeply spiritual man is, with such an esoteric concept of sound and ability to create such exoteric compositions palatable for most.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Been a long time since I last updated this place. Just an entry to update my readers that I'm still alive. I've been caught up with loads of work recently and barely have the time to have a proper rest.

A friend came over to share some music over at my place today. In an attempt to showcase his conducting skills under the tutelege of respectable conductors Leonid Korchmar and Alexander Polishchuk from the St. Petersburg Conservatory when he was over in Russia, he introduced the 1st, 2nd and 4th movements from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5. Such heartwrenching pain in the first movement. Such grandeur and passion in the march at the end. In the middle lies the most beautiful second movement. Such earth-shaking exaltation, when salvation is used as a theme, in a stark contrast to his Symphonies No. 4 and 6. In the heat of his passion at the end, he proclaimed it, together with several Russian compositions, to be the best music around. And of course, given his ultimately huge ego, he couldn't help exalting the Russian school of conducting as he compared the German, American and Russian conducting styles at the same time. Such haughtiness.

Naturally, I knew I had to protect German music, with names and reputations of our beloved Bach, dramatic Beethoven, poetic Schubert and romantic Brahms in danger of being overwhelmed by the Russian masters at that moment. In jest, I decided to launch a counteroffensive. For that moment, he was the nationalistic Russian, and I, the nationalistic German. Mentally, I was in a mad rush to scan through all the German composers and their compositions. I needed to fight on home ground, at the same time not too distant from what he was familiar with in order to convince him. An orchestral composition, with a strong nationalistic touch, a contemporary of Tchaikovsky. Time was ticking. Yes, if he was going to overwhelm me with the unmistakable stench of Bolshevikian mass marches, I would retaliate with the mind-blowing aroma of Germanic romantic chivalry. He probably knew more about Brahms than I do. Yes, Wagner! I whipped out my recording of his ultimate Tristan und Isolde by Daniel Barenboim (whom he had earlier flamed jokingly on his flowery conducting technique in his recording of Brahm's Symphony No. 1 with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra). Strictly speaking, it wasn't orchestral music, but since he wasn't that familiar with operas, I guess the prelude would make a great candidate. The prelude was sufficient, more than sufficient to counter his three movements of Russian nationalism. And there, as the first sounds came in, culminating in the famous Tristan chord, I conducted this time with passion and gusto (probably more like a lunatic for conducting isn't my forte). Waves and waves of unresolved dissonances together with the intense and sensuous conversations between the instruments. Prima!

*Maybe at this point, I should clarify. Both of us are truly all rounded music lovers. In fact, I fell in love with Russian music much earlier than any music by Bach, Beethoven or Wagner. And as for him, he worships Beethoven and Brahms. Our quibble was a suitable impetus for us to start hurling music at each other to widen our musical repertoire while in a heightened and alert state of mind.*

Being clearly deeply moved by the Wagner, he braced himself and retaliated with Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. I groaned. It was going to be a long evening. Not having sufficient rest and recovering from the excesses of last evening weren't helping much! My mind was spinning for the entire day. I couldn't escape sitting through the entire Pictures, but I sure did enjoy it. Beautiful composition by Mussorgsky and masterful orchestration by Ravel! Such colours and evocative paintings of sound.

It was pretty much bombing each other with pieces for the entire evening, a full five hours. It didn't end with Mussorgsky! We had Brahm's Symphony No. 1 after that and a load of his compositions and projects after that. A most taxing music sharing session but ultimately satisfying.

Earlier throughout the day, it was strange how excerpts from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana played on repeat mode in my mind. I hadn't touched that recording probably for the past century, but to think just a mention of it by Ivan last evening got it all back into my head. Or was a it a subconscious attempt of my mind to get rid of all the most repetitive music I had been exposed to the previous evening? I can safely say that I've survived 5 hours of continuous blasting pop band music and 5 hours of continuous gigantic classical works the following day. Gained much from both marathons in very different ways, though I'm still pretty much zonked out from all the activities for the past few days.