February 20, 2004

Mandel Hall: something new, something old

This is the contradiction of the age: We don't want to be ourselves, yet we don't want to be who we were. Take music. Many of us would be hard-pressed to call much contemporary music beautiful. It might be fascinating, stimulating, innovative, experimental, avant-garde—but beautiful? And being beautiful, thereby deeply fulfilling? The music composed today, whatever else it gives us, withholds consummate satisfaction.

Such satisfaction, it seems, is found in the great works of the past. And certainly, if they are deeply satisfying, this has to mean that they are still contemporary—that they still capture something about us and thus achieve a more intimate form of communication than even the latest musical attempt to comprehend the age. Schubert, I would surmise, captures the movement of the human at least as well as anything that has come upon us since the age of computer-fueled serialism (what Heidegger called the age of "consummate meaninglessness").

And yet, to revive another commonplace notion, we would be disappointed if any contemporary composer managed to compose exactly like Beethoven, Schubert, or Bach. That would be too easy one might think: it has already been done and what we need is something new, something that takes what there is and goes forward. Not merely because the call for perpetual revolution of the means of expression lies at the very heart of the modern. Not merely because to be modern is to be curious, and the mere warming up of the old cannot satisfy this essential human concern. No—our reaction to someone who today attempted to compose Beethoven's Fifth Symphony once more would be this: "For all these years, you've lived in the contemporary world and your reaction to it is this!?" That is to say, the very fact of finding satisfaction in Beethoven, Schubert, Bach already implies a deep-seated discontent, an awkward nostalgia at once produced and forbidden by the movement of the modern. Spiteful of the past, discontent with the present, confounded by the future: that is the spiritual situation of the age.

To go all the way back to medieval chant, then, is something like the strangest of the strange. In the early English and Norwegian chant offered by the Trio Mediaeval, we find a purity of expression unheard of ever since—a purity that, in an important sense, became impossible with the onset of the modern. Even stranger, perhaps, that such purity should be presented by three young women whose success likely owes as much to their hipness and au courant hairstyles as to their ravishing voices. This music presents us with the untainted Absolute. The consoling power of pure chant does not represent or refer to God—it is God, in His showing-up and pure appearing. Beauty, Hegel said, is the sensuous shining-forth of Truth.

As such, medieval chant is untimely: untimely because it calls to us from a lost and foreign age, untimely moreover because the music itself seems to defy all temporality. This is a strange thing for music to do, for music only has its unfolding in time—only has existence insofar as it is temporal. But medieval chant seems to defy temporality precisely by refusing to involve itself in any unfolding. The modern strategy of Beethoven—where music not only happens in time but constitutes its own time—is absent. It is as though we only tuned in to the eternal chant of the angels, as though this music only speaks to us insofar as we are attuned to it. But in its untimeliness, it is also false. After a while, this infinitely beautiful music gets boring; it is a remnant of the past and cannot capture what we have become.

Pianist Jonathan Biss presented a wider spectrum of more recent works in his Chicago debut solo recital at Mandel Hall. Biss—a learned, sensitive, and somewhat nerdy young man—had recently made an apparently successful first appearance with the glamor-monger Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Expectations were thus high and were heightened even more by the enthusiastic opening words of series director Marna Seltzer.

Judging from this vantage point, this was a disappointment. Biss was good, but far from fabulous. The poetic episodes of his Schumann were the most successful of the evening: plain, unsentimental, well balanced, gorgeous. On the other hand, the Florestan episodes—pieces of wild and unrestrained youthfulness—came out rather clunky and disspirited. One got a similar impression from his handling of the fugue in Beethoven's sonata op. 110. The fugue was purely refined at the beginning, but the transition to passionate romanticism and exuberance was handled carelessly. Biss, in short, had trouble differentiating his fortes. (Or was it the notoriously unreliable Mandel Hall grand piano, which was particularly out of tune on Tuesday night?) His contemporary offering—two pieces from contemporary American composer Leon Kirchner—was dispensable. These pieces were little more than an epigonal, Scriabin-influenced or Ives-inspired ejaculation of empty virtuosity.