My friend Zach has gotten a lot of play recently from this article in which he and one of his critic colleagues discuss Danny B’s recent Bruckner cycle at Carnegie Hall.

And since this kind of thing is catnip for me, I weighed in on twitter:

and of course that awakened the sleeping giant, the Bruckner People themselves:

(In case it isn’t clear, “this guy” is me.)

The first thing to note is that this Bruckner Person (who turned out to be a convivial fellow after all) tacitly agrees with my assertion – he’s not offering a counterclaim that Bruckner’s music in fact has wit. Rather he’s making a tangential argument: that a lack of wit in a composer’s music doesn’t make that that music unworthy. (And before we go on, let the record show that I never said anything about Bruckner’s music being ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ or anything in between, and frankly, I don’t know what that would even mean. You do you, Bruckner People!!)

To buttress his claim, the BP cited works which, according to him, are just as bereft of wit as are Bruckner’s, and I’m so glad he did, because in fact, I agree with him – I don’t think either of these pieces are witty either! Yet they are both works in which I absolutely delight, meaning that they are the perfect counterexamples to further investigate my thoughts and feelings about Bruckner’s music.

Here’s where we arrive at an important point, which is that I don’t hate Bruckner’s music, not by a long shot. Every one of his symphonies contains music that stirs my soul or pumps me up, and yet I find listening to them from start to finish a punishing experience.

I’ve written about this before, and the conclusion I came to back then was that, among the many modes of Bruckner’s music, the holiness, the loveliness, the drive, and the intensity, the element that’s totally lacking is wit (or, one might say, charm.)

But now we’re back where we started, which means its time to look at these counterexamples, letting it be stipulated that we are in agreement that, like the symphonies of Bruckner, there’s not a whit of wit to be found in either Beethoven’s piano sonata Op. 111 or in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. So what qualities do they have that Bruckner’s music lacks?

Hold the phone though! We’re saying that Beethoven’s Op. 111 – the very boogie woogie sonata itself – isn’t witty?? This is literally one of those pieces that purveyors of classical music use to convince little kids that what they’re listening to is in fact ‘fun’:

And yeah OK, this is fun. It’s danceable and light and maybe even a little goofy. But I don’t think it’s really witty. (And, boy, I probably should have gotten to this a long time ago, but if you’re wondering what I mean by ‘wit’ in music, just go listen to everything Haydn ever wrote.)

The boogie woogie music serves as a leavening agent in a mostly serious piece, but this sonata contains multitudes: world-weary melancholy, bodily joy, smiling through sadness, philosophical introspection. And now we’re getting somewhere, because these are all items that I would add to the list of Elements Lacking in the Music of Anton Bruckner.

Elements Lacking in the Music of Anton Bruckner

  • Wit
  • Fun
  • Danceability
  • Goofiness
  • World-weary melancholy
  • Bodily joy
  • Smiling through sadness
  • Philosophical introspection

Now we turn to Wagner, whose idiom shares many more surface similarities with Bruckner’s than Beethoven’s does – the brass-heavy orchestration, the tertial harmonies, the rhythmic drive, the sonic intensity. Both their musics play out over celestial timelines, and they’re both aiming to express the nature of gods and godliness.

But here’s the crucial distinction: whereas Bruckner’s art is the manifestation of his deep religious devotion to God, Wagner’s is an expression of both the divinity and the devilry of Man. Wagner’s characters, his gods, his heroes, and his magicians, are all intensely human, imbued through his music with lust, love, envy, and fury. They are pure id machines, motivated above all by an unmitigated sexual drive. Bruckner’s is the Music of the Spheres; Wagner’s is The Music of the Genitals.

OK then, it’s time for a new thesis: it’s not just wit that Bruckner’s music lacks, it’s Earthliness. If you really look at it, wit is an earthly characteristic – it’s is how clever people entertain themselves when they’re confronted with the messy realities of life on our planet.

What Bruckner’s music contains is Heavenliness, and that’s not a bad quality in and of itself. A sense of the divine is something we all need, and music is perhaps its most genuine expression. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing, and for me, sitting in a concert hall listening to one of Anton Bruckner’s gargantuan symphonies, I find the music is always hovering oppressively above me, too far out of reach for a real connection. Bruckner’s target audience seems to be God himself. And to bring it back to Zach’s point, maybe that’s why so many fascists enjoy it – it flatters their sense of divinity.

Ask a Maestro: What’s the deal with vibrato?

OK I want to clarify my position here: I’m not in any way against performing music without vibrato. In fact, I think it can sound cool af. What I’m against is the rigid adherence to a doctrine of non-vibrato under the heading of Authenticity.

As usual, it’s the fans, admirers, and courtiers surrounding the Early Music set who are most ardent in their worship of senza vibratoism rather than the musicians and scholars who are better read and practically grounded (of course there are some real doozies in that bunch too…) I have heard many a Baroque enthusiast say that they simply won’t listen to a vibratoed performance because it’s not authentic.

The world, my dears, ain’t so black and white, and that’s what I’m trying to get at in this video.

All right: Come at me bro!

West Coast Story

La La Land is a movie I should have enjoyed, what with the singing and the dancing and its many references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and 60’s French jazz style – my very bread and butter! And occasionally I did enjoy it, but most of the time I just had this nagging feeling that something, or a lot of things rather, were missing.

There’s two basic approaches to a movie that trades in this brand of nostalgia:

  1. you tell a deeply felt story using an anachronistic style enriched with contemporary detail/sensibility to give it a new texture and a timeless feel or
  2. you do a loving, high camp homage that is all about style, recontextualizing/repurposing/juxtaposing it as the very clay in your hands.

or you know, some combination of both. Which is what I think La La Land was trying to do, but ended up doing neither, or, perhaps more charitably, did such a watered-down version of both that it canceled itself out and left us clad in GAP khakis when we’d rather be swaddled in mink stoles.

Strategy #1: historical style X contemporary detail = a new story imbued with a sense of timelessness

If you’re going to do this, you have to put a lot of thought into the details, because therein lies the interest and texture of the film (/play/opera/musical/project). Almodóvar does this even when he’s nominally going for the campier (#2) approach. He can’t help it.

So if you’re going to make a movie about a contemporary jazz pianist whose main struggle is one of artistic freedom v. societal norms and expectations it would maybe help to get the details right about what a contemporary jazz artist looks like w/r/t the realities of the music and such a career.

Now. Our protagonist’s basic musical sensibility is ‘pure jazz’ = McCoy Tynerish post-bop, ‘free jazz’ = Claude Bolling Writes a Cadenza, and ‘sell-out jazz’ = mid-career Stevie Wonder.

And you know, there are those dudes out there who are still into the post-bop purist thing, but if that’s what we’re going for, let’s go for it, especially in the music. The score, which consists of six original songs, isn’t bad but it definitely doesn’t go there. Harmonically, the songs hover in a mildly jazzy 5-to-6 chord pop fusion area, when they might instead ascend to a more complex 10-to-12 chord jazz standard territory, or even 8-to-9 chord broadway showtune territory – can someone give me a straight up secondary dominant up here??

[Cred where she be due though: the composer, Justin Hurwitz, wrote not only the songs, but the entire score, including the orchestration, a rarity in Hollywood, and I loved some of his orchestrational touches, with obvious nods to Philippe Rombi (Angel, for example) and the Björk/Vincent Mendoza collaboration on Dancer in the Dark (though I longed for that score’s kaleidoscopic brilliance!)]

Our protagonist isn’t only angry with every post-Weather Report development jazz, he’s also upset that his former club is now a “tapas and samba” place – as if that didn’t sound like a veritable match made in heaven! It seems to me like a more interesting and plot-consistent take on the new place would be if it were cast as a pop/hip-hop venue, aka the music of our very time.

But mentioning hip-hop or other Contemporary Urban Musicks would veer us into a whole racial dynamic that Mr. Chazelle seems very squeamish about, and any time the film strays too far into said territory it reveals a nervous tokenism. (Two lily-white protagonists? Fill up your jazz club with black people! That’s not what most jazz clubs look like these days, but hey, you stay balanced.)

Strategy #2: historical style X heightened/deconstructed detail = high camp (which often turns out to be a potent delivery system for a serious messages about our own time)

Chazelle leans more towards this approach and he has some successful moments. My favorite was the dream ballet at the end (whatup Agnes!!) with its use of On The Town style backdrops set on a studio soundstage and its nods to Jerome Robbins choreography.

Jacques Demy is a big influence on the film too, particularly Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. But it’s like, whatever you use as your starting point, you gotta Next Level that shit, and that’s hard to do with Demy, because his approach to film style and fantasy are already pretty gonzo (have you seen, par example, Peau d’âne??)

François Ozon is a director who loves to play pastiche with the likes of Demy and Minelli and these old Hollywood musicals and it’s worth comparing his work with Chazelle’s. In Water Drops on Burning Rocks8 Femmes, and Angel, Ozon imbues his stylistic allusions with a zany irreverence and a free spirit that makes La La Land look clichéd.

And here’s the secret about these two approaches: you don’t have to pick just one! Get you a man who can do both! You know how there’s “Serious Almodóvar” and “Playful Almodóvar”? Guess what girl – she the same mofo!!!

In Conclusion

Am I being too mean? The Dream Ballet, the Observatory sequence, the opening party were all fun and interesting and good. The movie offered these and other magical moments where the combination of picture and score set sail (flute trillz be praised y’all!)

But the stakes were low, and I can only imagine the protagonists’ bland trade-offs are indicative of Damien Chazelle’s rather frictionless career. This struck me as an honest movie, just not an interesting one.

And I’m not suggesting that he should write a gritty, racially-charged story of an out-of-control artist struggling with abuse. If he had just imbued this particular story with a richer level of detail and zestier approach to style, it would have burst off the screen instead of just sitting there. For a movie about lives not lived and paths not taken, there were an awful lot of missed opportunities.