Thursday, October 08, 2009

It's not the tune, it's the telling

This afternoon, I was sitting on a bench outside the stage entrance to the Frankfurt opera, waiting for my daughter to finish her rehearsal with the childrens' choir. It was about an hour before the evening's performance was to begin, so there was quite a bustle of musicians and singers and technicians and supernumeries coming into and going out of the house, in addition to the street noises behind me. Accompanying all of this was a low lyrical brass line that came out of a rehearsal room window, a cimbasso, in fact, the valved contrabass for the trombone section required for a lot of Italian opera repertoire. (If you haven't ever encountered a cimbasso in the flesh brass, suffice to say that it looks like something that Dr Seuss could've built, and sounds much lighter and agile, if somewhat thin, in the low bass register than a tuba or a low slide trombone.) The actual music that the cimbassist was playing during his warm-up was negligible, forgettable, just bits and pieces of warm-up tunes from opera accompaniments, but as an more-or--less continuous accompaniment to the unpredictable and transient sounds of all that activity around me, it was absolutely marvelous.


Ron Silliman has a great post (here) on reading Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.   He zeroes in on Pynchon's ability, as a storyteller, to weave so many strands and elements and characters together into a book which is more about that experience than about carrying a single plot forward.  Indeed, the most breathtaking aspect of ATD (like V and Gravity's Rainbow before it) is Pynchon's ability to let disparate threads resonate together at the level of theme and tone rather than the immediate connections formed by conventional narratives.  (Even in Mason & Dixon, in which Pynchon has a relatively conventional plot line to follow, the deeper coherence of the novel is not the tender story of the friendship and adventures of the two title characters, but much darker themes which Pynchon almost never allows to be explicitly articulated, making the book a curious experience of simultaneous good cheer and profound melancholy.)  

One of the real wonders to me, though, is that Pynchon's work remains in such a special class of work.  When one considers that it has been more than two hundred years since Tristram Shandy, in which Sterne definitively elevated storytelling above the mere act of telling a story, to the point of almost obviating the plot altogether, it is somewhat disappointing.


I think that it was Hector Berlioz who definitively pushed music into this direction.   His idea of intermittent sounds remains astonishingly radical.  In the Symphonie fantastique, they punctuate the big tune at unpredictable, almost random intervals, yet their presence is essential. Indeed, when one thinks about it, the tune is just another tune, with very little special about it, but those accidental bits of accentuation and interruption make the tune into something auspicious.  Or in the Scène d'amour from Roméo et Juliette, in which the composer's heterodox harmonic practice renders the tonally banal into something very special: another melody, with nothing special at all about it, becomes one of the most effective and affective tunes in the repertoire, in that, in its initial appearance, it is harmonized wrong, an A major tune harmonized in c# minor; indeed, it is presented so strangely that the eventual presentation in the "correct" tonality cannot be heard as ordinary.  Like a good storyteller, Berlioz makes a tale told a million times interesting by the way he tells it.  



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