For the show on The Partially Examined Life podcast episode 115 where we spoke about Schopenhauer and aesthetics, we read the third book of “The World as Will and Representation,” (or, “…as Will and Idea,” written in 1818, and then a revised and fuller version in 1844, so, from Beethoven to Wagner) specifically with respect to his take on aesthetics. A lot of the whole book is about trying to ascribe a “will” to the essence of Plato’s Forms without being theistic. It’s a tough call. The Will is somehow separate from the Form or Idea or Representation, which is isn’t the thing itself anyway, the Will is the thing-in-itself instead of its self in a causal world. And for the most part we only know of things through our senses, which means that we only know about their causality, (which would follow, from the Principle of Sufficient Reason, because anything you can see came from somewhere, for some reason, yeah), so even knowing the timeless Ideal Form of a thing, from your perspective as a human being, like the idea of “moose” as opposed to the moose you see over there eating a tree branch, involves your subjective understanding of moose given your own limitations of existence on a planet that has moose. So from Schopenhauer’s take on this, there’s an underlying level of is-ness to the moose, the will that is the objective thing that it is. But it’s unlikely that you can experience that, unless you have complete objectivity.
You know, like with Kant’s idea that to know a thing in and of itself outside of its existence in time and space requires a kind of knowledge that is not that that we obtain with our sense, but a direct knowledge of a thing, a transcendental knowledge rather than an immanent knowledge of something’s literal existence in the here-and-now. So how does a human experience transcendental knowledge? Via art, of course! Schope says: “What kind of knowledge is concerned with that which is outside and independent of all relations, that which alone is really essential to the world, the true content of its phenomena, that which is subject to no change and therefore is known with equal truth for all time, in a word, the Ideas, which are the direct and adequate objectivity of the thing-in-itself, the will? We answer, Art, the work of genius.” But of course it has a much to do with the self-consciousness of the knowing person and their own ability to objectify the world around them, separating their reaction from the knowing of the object/art/world. And he goes on about experiencing beauty (which ain’t good, as it’s sensual, you know, so non-objective) versus experiencing the sublime, which is the ultimate transcendental knowledge as it transcends our own individuality.
Well, as you can imagine, this goes on with examples and descriptions of what’s good and bad aesthetically. The will itself has motion and desire, so things that fulfill its desire and provide satisfaction don’t allow the self to transcend its own relationship to the object or art, so what you’d be after here is something unfavorable to the will and its desire that you could contemplate. So attractiveness, beauty and charm, that’s just tawdry. The sublime is reached when the will is transcended consciously. Pure will-less knowing. (And he goes on about how symbolism is crap, etc.)
Anyway, though he talks about how rhyme and rhythm are “aids” to poetry, he can only think so because of the direct connection to temporality in our human perception. They are a means of holding attention. What’s the real and true representation of the will, of course, is music, I’m guessing because it’s an abstract and is never literal even if it tries to be representational of specific things. He does say that great poets can present the thing-in-itself by understanding the inner nature of man and presenting it with adequate objectivity, but somehow he believes the music is a direct copy of the will itself, not itself a representation.
Really, I found a lot of his ideas to be contradictory, but what do I know about 200-year-old thought. He abhors symbolism but then classifies the parts of music symbolically, the bass being unorganized nature, the mass of the planet, which has to move in large intervals, the other tones the organization of harmony on top of that corresponding to animal life, then the melody is the great human being, the knowing guiding light. What a crock. I hate this Man-as-lord-over-the-earth crap. The whole dominion over the earth and animals thinking is what got us into destroying the planet we live on. It’s an ecology, we’re part of it. You’re soaking in it!
So anyway, the will strives, seeking fulfillment, and the absence of satisfaction is suffering (he had been reading Buddhist tracts!) Music is a universal language that expresses exactly this. Music is the metaphysical to everything physical in the world, and as the thing-in-itself to every phenomenon. We might as well say that the world is embodied music. He seems to have read a lot of theory about music, he knew his harmonic theory and mathematics of tuning. He had already gone off about the idea of the sublime in mathematics, (Germans are into that, as seen still in the Ritter Sport chocolate bar “Perfection in a Square”) and he goes off for a while about tuning ratios and how the physical world simply can’t even hold a perfect music because of the Pythagorean Comma and other deviations from perfect whole number tuning systems, saying how temperament is just the way our imperfect physical world has to deal with what would be otherwise perfection, and I suppose is perfection in the will.
I didn’t mean to write an overview of Schopenhauer here, but I get started and this is what happens. It was fun to read and talk about, you can listen to the whole podcast here, but you know where this kind of thinking goes, Nietzsche picks it up with the Will idea and goes for it, then more dominion-over-earth-and-people crap and then you get Nazis.
The fact that the passage of time disproves old science and old philosophy is ironic when you consider the intent in both is to understand the unchanging essence of the universe. Schopey had a lot to say about music and aesthetics, but music changed an awful lot after him, and went all abstract once the media technology could accurately represent sound (or vision: after the camera, painting got wild. That’s another essay…) One thing that stuck with me was his use of the word (in English translation) superfluity, which described the state of artistic genius, or art in general: the idea being that genius is an excess of knowledge that goes beyond just the needs to service the individual will, and can provide the genius with a “clear mirror of the inner nature of the world.” This is funny to me, as superfluity means overflow, of course, but we usually use the word superfluous, which just indicates that it is excess and unnecessary. So, art in general is superfluous. It is, indeed! It can only be there when the basic needs are taken care of, when the body is fed, clothed and sheltered. In fact, all art is superfluity. It’s overflow.
I’m one of those overflowing people, I recognize myself in this: if I’m fed, the next thing is music. And I acutely recognize the ridiculousness of making music in this day and age, when the very existence of our species is threatened by its own idiotic furthering of “individual will”. I mean, go back and read “Not a Tour Diary.”
The next day was 4/20, dude, a Monday. Our family-friend Joa was singing Nielsen’s Third Symphony at Konserthuset, and I had a comp ticket, though nobody else could go (well, it was either me or Sanna, but somebody had to stay home with the child. I suppose it could have been the grandparents, but somehow none of this worked out. Nor did Joa’s parents come, for some reason.) This meant that I would be sitting by myself in the concert hall amidst all the Stockholm cultural elite. Best thing to do would be to smoke half a joint that I managed to procure from the previous week of studio activity. This is a much more difficult endeavor here in Stockholm than in, say, Oakland. Or anywhere else in the world, actually. Swedes think pot is a narcotic. It’s some weird cultural norm that all drugs are considered evil, even though alcohol use and abuse is rampant. Even when my wife moved to California, she was shocked that people smoked pot. Cannabis is severely illegal in Sweden. Well, that would make it unthinkable that I would just sit there and smoke it, right?
So I sat in Hötorget on the back steps of the concert hall with a hundred other people and ate a falafel, had a beer in a brown paper bag (bought from Systembolaget downstairs in Hötorget Hallen, so not cold. They don’t even make that easy*.) and then I went around to go pick up my ticket. I went around to the entrance to the concert hall and walked up the stairs to ask the ticket taker where to pick up my ticket, which was off to the side by the entrance, which was also the entrance to a coffee shop. After convincing the will call people that yes, this weirdo in front of you had a ticket left for him by a performer, I went back outside to smoke part of a joint. I figured standing there on Sveavägen would hide me in a crowd, so to speak. So I stood outside the coffeehouse and lit up. A black guy came out to talk on the phone, I offered him a hit, he looked at me like I was insane and ran back inside. Right, not Oakland, I forgot. I smoked about four hits, couldn’t hold on to it anymore, nobody seemed to figure out what was going on, so I threw the roach into the gutter and popped a piece of gum in my mouth and went in to go to the bathroom and wash my hands. I walked back up the stairs and handed my ticket to the guy, I just knew he knew I was stoned. Found the bathroom and waited in line with the well-dressed middle-aged men needing to pee before sitting through some classical music, washed my hands and face so nobody could smell the lingering scent and bust me. I felt like I was in high school. I made my way through the foyer with the exhibits about Sibelius and Nielsen and noted that I should check them out before the Nielsen symphony. Found my seat and sat down, luckily with nobody on either side of me.
Oh shit. I am really high. I’m so high I’m about to pass out. This is what you get for lowering your tolerance. This is a beautiful concert hall! Sounds amazing. I hope these nattering old ladies behind me don’t know I’m so high. Shit, my gum is not holding together, what the hell? Why would gum lose its consistency? It’s like strings of syrupy gunk falling apart in my mouth. Maybe it had some weird chemical reaction to the pot. Or the falafel. I have to get up and throw it away, shit. Ok, ok. I can do this… So I made it up and back to my seat, and then the orchestra people were coming out on stage. They are all dressed the same. In little rows. All those violins!
Right, they’re going to play Beethoven. Beethoven’s Third Symphony, The Eroica, 1805, the heroic symphony supposedly written for Napoleon and then rescinded lest the composer should subsequently lose a commission from a royal patron. Here they go.
Two hundred years have passed with this same classical language now being used to death to lead us by the nose in every movie score to indicate tension and release. Man, I’m getting tired of it. I’m tired of this theme from the first movement. I remember being so into Beethoven symphonies when I was young, but this endless drilling of melodies in diminished or dominant 7th chords, just waiting to resolve is awful! It’s endless purposeful tension—Oh! It’s Schopenhauer’s striving will. Right, his book was first published in 1818, this is what he meant by music. Shit. Right, let’s try to listen to this as the direct copy of the will.
The will is frustrated. And all those musicians all in lines, all wearing the same thing, sawing away, all playing the exact same thing. So fucking fascist. This music is fascist. And it’s about “heroism”. Right. I hate this symphony. Why did they choose to play this? Who the fuck put this on the program with Nielsen or Sibelius? The program says something about relating Beethoven’s Third to Nielsen’s Third, a hundred years apart. What the fuck. Was Nielsen writing about heroism? I doubt that.
Ok, ok, listen to the underlying will, the truth of people and reality back in 1805. Shopenhauer pointed out how poets presented history in more accurate ways than historians because they were free of the literal. This thematic material is being beaten to death. What do these people around me think? There’s a guy in a suit to my right in front of me nodding his head, he’s dancing a bit in his little way. The old ladies behind me are enjoying it. Or sleeping. Wasn’t there a movement of this symphony that I liked? I hope it’s the next one.
Nope, not the second movement either. The funeral march. That’s not super nice for Napoleon, is it? He didn’t die until 1821. At least is has some interesting fugal stuff. God it’s long. Right, it’s the will, endless, striving. Sweaty. Maybe it’s the third movement I liked.
Ok at least I don’t feel like I could faint at any moment now, and my adrenaline reaction to the situation and the fascist orchestra is dwindling a bit. Maybe I can begin to enjoy Beethoven. This movement has a funny thing in the totally gay Scherzo melody, it’s like the melody is presented, dit-dit-dah, dit-dit-dah, over and over, so dumb, then the response, and at the very end right before it’s supposed to end there’s a fragment, a little last turn of an appoggiatura, like fuck you, we’re leaving, but we just have this last thing to say. The fuck-you bit. I like that. Ha. Here’s the melody again, dit-dit-dah…and the responses, bah-da, bah-da, bah-da, bah-da… and there we go, diddle-dee-dit, fuck you. Have to remember that fuck-you bit. We’re going out, but, oh, one last thing: fuck you.
And now the last movement, finally. It sounds great in here, you know. I thought the way they had the violins with the first on the left and seconds on the right with the violas and cellos in between was gonna mean that the faces of the seconds were facing backwards and we wouldn’t hear them as well, but they’re some sort of reflective surface above and right behind the orchestra, so all parts are there. They’re all lined up in their tuxes, playing their lines all together. Like a good army. This movement is theme an variations and it never ends. Continuous tension in the only way we knew dissonance could be two hundred years ago, those tritones and dominant 7ths. And to think that people are still speaking this language, all the stupid film composers forgot the lovely dissonances of the 1940s and 50s films and went back to THIS. Let us show you to what you are supposed to feel! Shut up, Beethoven. Ok, it’s not your fault, but you started it. You and your trombones and piccolos. Oh wait, it’s only horns in this one. I think? Can’t quite tell, they are really blaring. And you guys are all sawing away on those diminished chords, let’s drag this out, and finally, finally get back to that big Eb. And Again!
Yay, you did it! The orchestra stands up and bows, sweaty. You did it, you guys, you played a Beethoven symphony. That’s what I think as I clap. You did it. You can go home and think, hey, we performed a Beethoven symphony, all the way through. What a feat.
Ok, shit, it’s intermission now. I’m gonna read the exhibit in the foyer and wonder why the fuck they put a Beethoven symphony on this week-long program of Sibelius and Nielsen, and why I didn’t get any Sibelius. Gotta maintain, here in public. Can I read? Oh yeah, I seem to be able to read, ok, I think I can do this. Maybe I can even buy a bottle of water.
Nice little museum of information in the foyer, I learned that Nielsen played folk music and that he was a violinist. I went back into the hall and listened to the sound of the hall. This hall sounded great. Some musicians were on the stage making little notes and sounds, people were milling about. The sounds from everywhere were available to me as I sat there on the main floor, back a ways but generally in the middle. I like the way they set up a reflection baffle directly behind the orchestra, but then there are rows of seats above that behind them with nobody in them. I love this music, the music of the random bits the musicians are playing and the sound of the reverb in the hall, and various little subdued conversations. Ahhh.
Eventually everybody has filed in and the conductor comes back out and the symphony starts. It’s obvious that the composer was a string player! This is very cool, open strings and melodies obvious to the left hand, with a harmonic language of big open intervals, fourths and fifths and seconds. This is from about 1910. Cool harmonic language, not exactly tonal but with melodies that suggest tonality, but move away from it, or move in and out of various tonalities. Very folk-music rhythmic. Why did they put Beethoven with this?
The second movement segues in and it’s fairly slow and static, then holds on a specific set of pitches and suddenly, hey, there’s Joa! He’s in the balcony row above the back of the stage to the right of the orchestra, like a little balcony. He sings a melodic vocalise over the static chord, maybe 32 bars. Now there’s a woman on the same level, stage right, she sings the same melody a couple octaves higher. Ok, that’s it, over and back to the orchestra jamming away on their folky melodies. That’s it? No more singing? He came all the way from Berlin to sing 32 bars? Wow.
When the concert ended, I was mellow enough to maintain, went outside and called Joa to see if he was going to come out or what, he texted back to say he was going to go across the street for a beer with a friend of his from school whose dad had been the horn player in the Royal orchestra here when Joa’s grandfather was the principal flutist. So I met them and we went over there, and asked them a bit about the program, trying not to be so obvious about that fact that I just could not comprehend why on earth they had put that Beethoven piece on there. Joa’s friend said, hey, ask my dad, he’ll be here in a second, he is the program director and this is his final program, he put together this whole Sibelius and Nielsen program. Oh shit! Well, dad came over, and they proceeded to eat dinner and we had some beer, and they talked about how horn players were great—and great drinkers. And about various conductors they had worked with and such, I tried a little to ask about the program idea, but couldn’t quite understand his concept beyond the two composers’ third symphonies a hundred years apart, but then I realized that he was a french horn player, and Beethoven really wrote the shit outta that part for this symphony, before he discovered the trombone. And there’s that part in the last movement where the horn precedes the main melody entrance, and they talked about horn players ripping it at that moment. Ok, so he had some special thing for this one. I guess it’s excusable. Maybe.
After this, Joa and I walked around and went over to the Glenn Miller Cafe, which is a small jazz club, to have another drink and listen to an entirely different kind of music. This place had Lagunitas IPA on tap, so I was happy. And Joa knew the bartender, she was a singer he had gone to school with also. There were about 4 people there listening to a trio of bass, drums and saxophone, who were good, not too inside, not too outside, just right for late on a Monday night. When they took a break, a couple sitting at one of the tables came up to ask Joa about his performance, (he was still in a tux and carrying a bouquet of roses) and it was obvious that they too were singers, the guy had the most huge low voice even when speaking. They talked a bit about the schools here and singing the Nielsen piece, which I commented was such a small bit for a solo for an out-of-towner, Joa said that was what made it critical! You were there to sing for less than a minute, at the right time with the right tone, better get it right!
We tried to make it back to Hötorget station but were too late for the subway on a Monday night and had to catch a cab all the way home to Blackeberg.
I had some time the rest of this week to work on organizing and beginning to figure out what all I had recorded so far from both studios and try to think about where this completely superfluous musical addition to the world might end up, aesthetically. To say nothing of where it might end up economically, which was a foregone conclusion anyway. Plus I had one more gig coming up the following weekend with The Dead Pollys, a Stockholm punk band whom I had recorded a violin track for on one of the songs (“All the Gold in the Land”) on their new album, “A Bullet for the Wicked“, which this show would be a release party for.
(I ended up railing on Beethoven in the “after show” discussion on Episode 115 of The Partially Examined Life, a video chatroom where people discuss the podcast. And then discussing more about aesthetics and authenticity on Episode 118 with Victor Krummenacher there too.)
*That’s on purpose. The idea is to make it harder to get alcohol (anything above 3.5%) by only selling it in state stores from 10am-7pm on weekdays and Saturdays. They even had ads on TV around the holidays featuring the ghost of Christmas present sort of thing to show how your life might have been if alcohol had been easier to get, how you would have wrecked your family life and your job by being a drunk.