04 December 2008

Ostinati Do Not a Prison Make (Do They?)

I want my MTV.
— Sting (singing to the tune, slowed down, of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”)

Only gradually (and with much interruption over time) am I making my acquaintance with the symphony cycle of Allan Pettersson. For a number of reasons (none of them immediately germane) it is several months since my last foray there; but on the indirect encouragement of a ‘virtual neighbor’ I cued up the Ninth Symphony this morning.

A big surprise! Out of luck of the draw, I suppose, most of the other Pettersson symphonies I have already heard left me with something of a lugubrious impression (meaning more musical arc than ‘tone’). But the Ninth strikes directly into a vital, energetic vein which reminds me more of US composer Peter Mennin, than it does (ironically) of the other Pettersson music I’ve listened to; there is a well-spun (and, it seems to me, non-maudlin) lyrical strain which takes the stage in the middle — and even a brief (and rather quirky) hint of a habañera rhythm. If I say that there are moments which subtly recall Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the comparison is an indicator of only general character, and of high artistic quality; this is a symphony with its own personality . . . and (perhaps curious to say) it is the first music of Pettersson’s which I have heard, in which I feel as if I have ‘met’ a musical personality. The ending I find tentative, and fairly serious, but not outright ‘tragic’. (I am searching for the right way to describe the tone I hear; I am not at all finding ‘fault’ in the tone of the ending, which in fact works perfectly well.) The closing statement in the unison string choir strikes me as rich and strong (not ‘isolated’ in the way that this reduction of texture, in music of quite another character, might sound), and this is confirmed by the peaceful plagal cadence (“amen”) in the winds which ends the symphony.

Earlier listening to (I don’t at present remember just which of) the symphonies had left me unimpressed and ambivalent, expecting at some point to try again, but feeling that I needed to be in a certain humor to try again. Here in the Ninth Symphony, I seem to have found a Pettersson piece for listening, without requiring a specific mood; an artistic plus, I think.

The following extract (from this document) refers to a “comparatively impressionistic article on the Ninth Symphony” by Peter Gülke, bearing the almost obviously eisogetic title “Protest, Futility, Denied Resignation: Thoughts on the Study of Allan Pettersson's Ninth Symphony”:
Pettersson blows up the continuous multi-movement structure by minimizing the coherence of the individual segments by including "associated encounters that are opposed to [each movement type]". The "symphonic process" thus permits "segmentation and editing". Coherence, when desired (which is not necessarily always) is often found (yet again) through the tool of the repeating ostinato, which Gülke interestingly describes as having "a nearly physical menacing force" (8). The effect is painted as "a blind loping through the world coexistent with the possibility of catastrophe" (9). These ostinatos, then, might be interpreted as an expression of the stifling imprisonment felt as a matter of course in the lives of the physically immobile. (In Pettersson's case, this imprisonment was not only physical at the time, but literal: He lived in a Stockholm walk up apartment, and literally could not leave his residence. Is it possible that these biographical conditions would not have a significant effect on Pettersson's music?)
Mention was made in the preceding paragraph of “a politically committed, defiant existentialism” which is proposed as the symphony’s “character and ‘morality’”; I will content myself here with the rhetorical question of how one composes political commitment or existentialism in music.

The writers referenced in this document know Pettersson’s oeuvre in general (and the Ninth Symphony — to which I am listening for only the first time today — in particular) much better than I do, so I haven’t earned my place at the table, you might say. But again, I hear what I hear; I’m just reporting, and I should think that the fresh experience of a listener who is also a musician, hearing the music for the first time, might be considered a species of valid input.

I’ve heard ostinati in a great variety of music: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Glass, Reich, Adams, & al. I’ve used many ostinati in my own music. Gimbel’s cautionary use of the modal might be is very well considered in his statement, “These ostinatos, then, might be interpreted as an expression of the stifling imprisonment felt as a matter of course in the lives of the physically immobile.” In my initial audition of the symphony this morning, I did not ‘interpret’ the ostinati in any such way; nor did I hear much which might answer to Gülke’s description of “a nearly physical menacing force.” (Well, all right, the snare-drum rolls get a bit old, maybe; but they don’t attain to menace.) I find it of interest that this is how Gülke perceives them; but as my own perception of them is very different, I entertain doubts that this is a necessary ‘interpretation’ of the musical document.

Gimbel’s closing question in that paragraph is of keen interest, too; it seems compelling: Is it possible that these biographical conditions would not have a significant effect on Pettersson’s music?

It seems not especially possible, but then, what is the nature (what the significance) of the effect? Is this effect felt in all the music?

I don’t hear ‘imprisonment’ in this music; the Ninth Symphony has immediately made an impression upon me as robust, and well articulated, which to me (in my admittedly incomplete awareness of his work) seems unusual for Pettersson.

The title of Gimbel’s paper is “Allan Pettersson as a Topic for Disability Studies in Music.” Is there a degree to which the music is being taken as a sort of Rorschach exemplar?

If so, in the paper Gimbel includes the seeds of his own corrective:

. . . “Missing from the German biographical literature [on Pettersson] is an example which offers as its recurrent minimal element something other than the constant iteration of illness” (41). What is needed, he writes, is to regard Pettersson’s disabilities as simply “biographical fact” rather than “fundamental quality (causation)”, with [Andreas] Meyer [in the article “A Background to the Development of Pettersson Reception in Germany through 1994”] proceeding to align such (mis-) understandings with the critical receptions of Mahler and Shostakovich, whose music also suffers from such conceptual abuse (42).
It is, perhaps, a cautionary example of letting the ideas which we bring to the music, drive the “meaning” of the music (the ‘conceptual abuse’ of which Gimbel warns us).

[ A bit more about menace here. ]


J.Z. Herrenberg said...

Excellent, Karl! And I applaud your open mind (I remember your caustic remarks about Pettersson quite well...) Your article - for that's what it amounts to - encourages me to take the plunge, too. Only No. 6, so far, really struck a chord with me; it spoke to me directly, just as No. 9 did to you... I don't have much time at the moment, but I'll be reporting back when I have listened.

Wurstwasser said...

Oh, you are a blogosphere ego tripper now, haha...

If you find the time Sym. No.6 will speak to you more intensively.

You have now opened the door to not have wasted your life, Karl! It's your main chance now! ;)

Karl Henning said...

Johan: Many thanks! One can only hope that the days of caustic remark at Pettersson's expense are not completely done with :^). The review of the complete set of symphonies, in the 2009 Penguin Guide, is fairly abusive . . . well, when I say that it made me feel defensive on Pettersson's behalf . . . .

Wurst: Well, I don't think my ego so large that I should trip over it . . . .

I have an idea that I've tried the Sixth ere now. Probably time to give it a fresh go.


Cato said...

Can Seelenwanderungen through Bruckner and Mahler symphonies be far away?

And do I detect some sort of mental revving up of the gears for the production of a Henning First Symphony?

Bruckner was 40 before he decided to risk attaching his name to a symphony: I think you can safely take the plunge without fearing the plunger!

Karl Henning said...

No plunger holds any terror for me.