Saturday, July 03, 2010

Reliably Astonishing

Just finished Paul Auster's Invisible: once again had the enormously satisfying experience of an author in command of a style.  And since Auster is one of the writers I read all of (well, almost all: I couldn't even start to read his Timbuktu, preferring my narrators not to be canine) it was a distinctive but familiar style  The themes and material and diction were all more or less familiar, riffs off of a pool of Austeriana, but the particular mix was different and once again it was Auster's formal invention that made the whole work,  making the familiar once more new, strange and engaging.  I don't know that I would rank Invisible with Leviathon and The Book of Illusions, two books I have reread several times with increasing appreciation and pleasure (as well as a degree of disturbance!), but it is still a very fine novel with a striking form.

I've long insisted that it's the individual work — and sometime even only a moment in a work — that is important and not the entire catalogue of a composer or the particular repertoire of a place or time.  Catalogues and repertoires are uneven in quality — sometimes interesting just for their qualitative eccentricities — but uneven means good, bad, and everything (i.e. mostly) in-between. However, given the finities of a listening life and the vast vector field of possible music to pay attention to (or, books to read or films to watch or painting to see or dances to watch...), a catalog or a repertoire, when handled critically, can often provide a useful signal.   

Case in point: Last night, I heard The Damnation of Faust in the Frankfurt Opera. I went less because of the piece itself, which I had heard last as a teenager, but rather because Berlioz is simply one of the more reliable brand names among composers, reliable for a capacity to astonish.  And sure enough, Berlioz's Faust is quite unlike anything else.  It's neither opera nor oratorio nor symphony (the composer eventually named it a "légende dramatique" which certainly doesn't bring the matter of genre further) with only four solo roles, crowded scenes but rather discrete use of the chorus, and much of the narrative carried by the orchestra.   Some aspects of the work I can only describe as proto-post-modern  (I use the term with caution, intensely disliking much of the standard PoMo discourse)  with brilliant use of dramatic and musical framing devices, musics within musics, and a staggering use of highly differentiated counterpoint, sometimes using space as a critical parameter (heaven and hell are, acoustically, very different places for Berlioz).  His heterodox harmonic practice (with a particularly rich tension in his approach to voicing as to opposed to standard practice voice leading and tonal function) and his refraction of the revolutionary musical idiom are applied here with particularly sensitivity.  Now, all of these elements are the knowns and familiars about the brand name Berlioz(TM) , but the sui generis form of the individual work trumps all of that; the composer has his riffs and changes but his level of mastery and commitment to the integrity of the work at hand is such that the listener is never left with the feeling that the composer is just playing riffs and changes.   Berlioz could, famously, do large and outrageous things with an orchestra, but that's just not always where the real musical action is: if you have a chance to hear The Damnation of Faust, please pay attention to the variety and subtleties of the string writing first and then to the way in which tune and rhythm form Faust's diction: you will be astonished, well even before Berlioz brings Mephistopheles on stage and the magic begins.     

1 comment:

christopher said...

I've always been surprised that Auster doesn't get the same respect in the US that he does in Europe. The critic at the New Yorker, James Wood, wrote an entirely destructive review of this new book (and in turn criticizing everything else Auster has written) because of content issues--in particular this peculiar idea Americans have about sentence construction--missing the boat completely about what makes Auster such a great author. I agree this is not one of his greatest books, I've never been moved more by a recent book than his Book of Illusions, but Auster always writes better (and more concisely better) books than just about anyone else out there.