Category Archives: Classical Music

Memento Mori Theory Of Art

Depictions of Death Make For Important Art

Over the break I wanted to briefly write down some observations about the power of memento mori, but then I lost my post; then I tried to reconstruct it and lost my train of thought. Here is what remains of the wreck.

Memento Mori is of course the reminder of our mortality that is woven into themes and paintings. There’s a theory going around that the purpose of artistic endeavor itself is a kind of memento mori, and what makes art truly important is how powerful this reminder can be. This would explain the persistent popularity of such genres as Gothic Horror in literature or Goth as a style, and even heavy metal music. What struck me about this is that it is actually difficult to make something lasting without memento mori. In turn, the most popular works of any artist picked at random probably deals with death.

Shakespeare’s most famous play is ‘Hamlet’, and it has the famous “alas poor Yorrick” scene with skull in hand as well as the soliloquy about living and dying. If that is too literal, then at least it is worth considering that memento mori in literature marks most of the great books in any list. In the Iliad, there’s Achilles’ lament for Patroclus mirrored with Priam’s lament for Hector. In the Odyssey, there is the episode where Odysseus talks to the dead in Hades; The epic of Gilgamesh is about Gilgamesh’s search for immortality because deep down he fears death. It’s everywhere in classical literature. This is a tradition in narratives that flows through to modern texts.

So it seems to work for the importance stakes by just inserting death. For instance, if Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin didn’t die in those books, would they have been revered less or more? What makes every photo taken during the US Civil War so artistic but the intrinsic knowledge that all he people in it are dead, and that if they were soldiers, some of them likely died not long after the photo was taken. Doesn’t Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series milk this for all its worth? This suggests you can have a pretty good work of art and add death and it probably adds profundity – and what else is this profundity but the sentiment that is provoked by the memento mori?

Try this for an example: Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Mermaid’ has a sad ending. When Disney gets its hands on it, it has a happy ending, and a spin off TV series to boot. Which is more profound? We know it’s the original version with the death. I’m not really going anywhere special with all this except to say that it is a lot more ingrained in the arts than we might think at first glance. Is important Art then good art? The sizable audience to the Disney ‘Little Mermaid’ franchise might suggest otherwise. Critics always pick the less popular, but death-wedded original.

Modern Substitutions

I know I’ve mentioned this before that if you stick the Holocaust reference in to your film somewhere, it doubles your chances for an Oscar. This is suggested by some to be because the Academy is filled with Jewish people, but the more direct reason is that the Holocaust has placed itself as the ultimate memento mori that substitutes for all the massive death and destruction wrought in World War II. A film increases in importance simply because you have the Holocaust as part of the story; like a talisman it activates our awareness of death. Considering that Stalin’s regime killed more of its own people than the Nazis did to their own and others, and the demonisation of Communism through the twentieth century, it’s interesting to note that communism, gulags and the GRU don’t have quite the memento mori effect of Nazis, death camps and the SS. By comparison, the dull utility of comunism and communist design has far less weight in fiction and the arts in general.

Of course, it is easier to understand Nazism in  light of memento mori because in most part it was an attempt to aestheticise ethics. Thus, Hitler and Himmler adorned the SS uniforms with mystical symbols and a deaths head. It’s an instant fetishisation of death that is familiar to us. It is a familiar move because we’ve seen it before and since. But the allure of aesthetising death itself as a political act couldn’t possibly have so much meaning without the power of death in art itself.

The modern world of media and pop culture is filled with more references to death than you can poke a stick at.

Here are some examples worth pondering. My favorite Pink Floyd album is ‘Animals’; The best-selling work by Pink Floyd is ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ which in survey of ideas such as time and money, deals with death with the song ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ (which I covered, by the way, here).

For all its celebration of sex, a lot of rock is a kind of memento mori, what with all the heroes who have died young. The list of dead rock musicians who didn’t make it to a ripe old age is a significant list of names starting with say, Buddy Holly and Richie Valens.You only have to write the names of dead rock stars and it suddenly evokes the body of work in rock. Try these names: John Lennon, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, John Bonham, Marc Bolan, Keith Moon, Syd Vicious, Kurt Cobain. When you watch the Foo Fighters live, David Grohl himself becomes a kind of living memento mori in the memory of Kurt Cobain, which explains the morbid fascination surrounding the Foo Fighters.

Yet, of all the sub-genres of rock, the most enduring branches are in fact Metal and Goth because their visual motifs remain largely unchanged. Death features prominently in the oeuvre of metal and goth. Album after album by Iron Maiden is filled with ironic images of death. Death is central thematic unity of Metal. One could argue the excesses are a kind of kitsch but if you judge the sales of Iron Maiden albums to their die-hard fans, you’d have to conclude it is doing its job.

Recently I put together an electric guitar from Warmoth parts for a friend. It had one knob – a volume knob  and it was important that it had a death skull on it. The meaning of it was simply to imbue the guitar with a memento mori. “all shred axes should have a memento mori,” he proclaimed. It makes some sort of intrinsic and extrinsic sense, not only because it is to play heavy metal, but because deeper down playing music makes you count down time; and thoughts of time inevitably lead to thoughts of death, vis a vis ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.

The main character in the Star Wars cycle turns out to be Anakin, who is Darth Vader, and Vader’s helmet is like a skull with a helmet. In the original three movies, Darth Vader is like the big memento mori character – who of course dies at the end of ‘Return of the Jedi’; and in the more recent prequel trilogy, the audience grapples with Anakin’s descent into being Darth Vader.  It’s part of existentialism that the prior acknowledgment of one’s one mortality enables one to take on the challenge that the remaining time in our lives present, and yet it actually has artistic roots in things that go back to pre-history.

The point of all this is to say, it is everywhere, if you simply choose to look.

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History Is Now

The Sum Total of Human Experience For 2000 Years

A little while ago the Economist put up this chart in their Daily Chart section. I’ve been meaning to blog it but life has a way of getting in the way of blogging. It’s a chart of summing up the years lived and the economic output of humanity for the last 2000 years.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

For a moment, I want people to consider what this means. That 28% of human history and experience was lived in the 20th Century tells us that whatever was important leading up to the 20th Century, things that were just as important happened in the 20th century. Add in the 23% from the last 11 years of the 21st Century and basically, the last 111 years account for 51% of the sum total of human experience for the last 2000 years.

If you look at that gentle slope to the left of the 20th century, that includes the Empire phase of the of the Roman Empire minus the first 49 years which fell before 1AD, the various empires in the Middle East and Persia, the multitude of Chinese Dynasties since the latter Han Dynasty, and so on. The cultural output probably correlates with economic output as a proxy, so what this all suggests is that everybody from (just randomly, no relative importance implied) Tacitus and Suetonius and Zhuge Liang and St Thomas Aquinas and Renee Descartes and Johann Sebastian Bach, and Constantine and Napoleon, all fall into 49% to the left of the 20th Century.

In turn, if you had a detailed understanding of the 20th Century and the 11years of this century, you’d actually be on top of 51% (and growing in proportion) of human history since 1AD. This doesn’t immediately relegate the classics of any field to the dust bin, but it puts it all into a different perspective.

There was a study done in Germany that pointed to 1970 as the year classical education ended. That is to say, it was the year in which the teaching of classics was no longer the mainstay of education, that increasingly vocational education pushed aside the classical education. If you look at this chart, you can see why. The push of modernity was directly the push of the massive demographic that arose in the 20th century. It is possible more people were lost to war and violence than any other time in history in the 20th Century, and even then it managed to produce so many life-hours and economic output and by extension, cultural output.

In turn, what has happened since 1970 sheds a lot of light on this shift. The move from modernism to post-modernist philosophy was probably an attempt to accommodate this giant shift where overnight the classical teachings that formed the cultural framework became obsolete. Indeed, more humans have read the classics, listened to classical music alone in the last 111years, while things like cinema as a form of expression grew into maturity and needed to be discussed. Pop music of various shades supplanted the ‘importance’ of classical music and contemporary art keeps on rewriting the frontiers of expression at an ever more frantic pace.

The best book that in fact offers an insight into this might be ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler, because what is described in that book is precisely what this chart has shown, and the implications keep reaching out. I don’t mean to praise the book, but rereading it today would offer confirmation that indeed the future is not only now, so is history.

One of the important take away messages from the chart is that what we are doing right now, is just as important as what happened before. Your poem, your short story, your film, your song is no less important than anything that preceded it. It’s just that nobody has had the time to find your work unless you have become a celebrity. Not being famous and best-selling does not preclude you from being a valued contributor to the human experience. Be encouraged in knowing that what you are doing is meaningful. Go forth and create, secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is just as important as what came before. It’s counter-intuitive, but history is in the making, right now as we speak, and you are doing it.

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Blast From The Past – 12/Jul/2011

This Is Serious, Mum

When I was eight, I was given this album for a present.

It’s a Russian dude by the name of Leonid Kogan playing Tchaikovsky’s famous Opus 35 Violin Concerto in D. I randomly came across the page in Amazon the other week, and it set my mind racing, at first wondering if I still owned that LP – I did! – and whether I could get a CD of it. To the best of my knowledge, I think this performance is now re-packaged in this CD here.

It arrived today, and I skipped the piano concerto bit and went straight to the violin concerto, and sure enough it was the recording I thought it was. They even had the photo from the LP in the inner liner notes.

I’m not big on romantic period composers, but this record is an exception because of my own sentimental attachment. I don’t know much about Leonid Kogan except that he played a violin that was strung with steel strings right across, and that his technique has been likened to ‘heavy metal of violinists’, which I think it means, he had prodigious technique which he liked to flaunt. Certainly a fresh listen to this recording revealed that he had exquisite tone out of his 1729 violin, and played with amazing gusto. I have a Izthak Perlman version somewhere which is also played aggressively, but Kogan in this version supplies plenty of pyrotechnics. I don’t know how important a recording it is in the annals of classical recording buffs – I imagine it doesn’t rate that highly, but having revisited it after all these years, I’m very happy I managed to track it down.

Anti Everything, Don’t You Mean?

The other album I want to share with you today is this one, ‘We Are The League’ by the Anti-Nowhere League.

I was introduced to  recordings by the Anti-Nowhere League by a girl who was really into obscure crazy punk bands from the UK. It was white-bread milk-and-cookies rebellion, but it was rebellion all the same. Even back in the day it was obvious Punk was pretty silly in parts, and the Anti-Nowhere League certainly inhabited the silliest areas of Punk. Mind you, make no mistake, these guys were superlative bad-taste punk players. Their records are brimming with dissident energy and anti-social rants.

I always liked their song ‘So What’ because it lyrically echoed King Crimson’s ‘I Talk To The Wind’ while the actual sound was more or less Sex Pistols on ‘roid rage.

Well I’ve been to Hastings
And I’ve been to Brighton
I’ve been to Eastbourne too
So what, so what

Well I’ve been here
And I’ve been there
And I’ve been every fucking where
So what, so what

So what, so what you boring little cunt
Well who cares, who cares what you do
Who cares, who cares about you
You, you, you

Well I’ve sucked sweets
And I’ve sucked rock
And I’ve even sucked an old man’s cock
So what, so what

Well I’ve fucked a sheep
And I’ve fucked a goat
I’ve had my cock right down its throat
So what, so what
So what, so what you boring little cunt
Well who cares, who cares what you do
Who cares, who cares about you
You, you, you, you

Well I’ve drunk that
And I’ve drunk this
And I’ve spewed up on a pint of piss
So what, so what

And I’ve had scag
I’ve had speed
I’ve jacked up until I bleed
So what, so what
So what, so what you boring little cunt
Well who cares, who cares what you do
Who cares, who cares about you
You, you, you, you

Well I’ve had crabs
And I’ve had lice
And I’ve had the pox and that ain’t nice
So what, so what

Well I’ve fucked this
And I’ve fucked that
And I’ve even fucked a schoolgirl’s crack
So what, so what
So what, so what you boring little cunt
Who cares, who cares about you
Who cares, who cares about you
You, you, you, you….

I mean, how can you turn away from such honest, forthright, brutally frank, ugly sentiments? For years I would snigger through listening to Miles Davis’ track ‘So What’ off ‘Kind of Blue’ because the title reminded me of this song.

It took me a long while to track down this album too, but in the end I relied on Amazon’s third party seller to send me this number. I cherish it like I cherish my other CD by the Anti-Nowhere League, ‘Kings & Queens of Rock’n’Roll’.

Look, I’m probably the only guy to recommend both Leonid Kogan and the Anti-Nowhere League in the same entry, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely without taste.

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Censorship Blues – 13/May/2011

How About Arguments Based On Intellectual Merit?

Where does one start with the idiotic submission by Bravehearts to the Senate?

ONE of Australia’s most prominent child protection advocate, Bravehearts, has weighed into the art censorship debate, calling for the Classification Board to be overhauled and for matters of ”artistic merit” and expert evidence to be scrapped when deciding if art is pornography.

Bravehearts’s submission to a Senate inquiry into the film and literature classification scheme was one of several submissions highly critical of the board for allegedly sanctioning the exhibition of photographs of children that would otherwise be illegal, and for failing to halt the proliferation of images that demean women and pressure young girls to act in sexual ways.

Other community and Christian groups wanted the board’s power increased so it could censor outdoor advertising, which is at present self-regulated by an industry body, the Advertising Standards Bureau.

The executive director of Bravehearts, Hetty Johnston, an outspoken critic of the work of the photographer Bill Henson, called for NSW employment laws that ban taking photographs of naked and semi-naked children to be replicated across Australia and said such photos should be refused classification by the board.

”How is it that it was illegal to take the photos but not illegal to exhibit them?” she said, referring to photographs Henson took of a naked 12-year-old girl that were exhibited at a Sydney art gallery in 2008, sparking a ferocious debate about pornography and art.

That sound you hear in the distance is me grinding my teeth. I don’t exactly do art with nude teens in them, so it’s not a problem that sits in front of me, but I have written songs about an Orangutan sex slave prostitute and Josef Fritzl so I can see this sort of thing being a problem for my work as well. It may very well take Frank Zappa recordings off record shelves.

The problem is threefold.

The first problem is that the censorship board can’t be the board that decides if there is artistic merit or not. neither can it proceed with the notion that there is no such thing as artistic merit. Asking for it to discard notions of artistic merit and place judgments based strictly on whether there is a minor depicted in the nude or not, is grossly censorious and has terrible ramifications for ALL freedom of expression. It places too much under the blanket of a taboo, just in case there’s a pervert out there who gets aroused by art. Nobody would be able to discuss anything in fiction or art, because sure as hell it won’t stop at fears of paedophilia.

The second problem is that of defining pornography when removing the framework of art. In any age of history in age of differing societal standards is that it’s strictly in the eye of the beholder. It’s up to the beholder to decide how they respond to an image or an object. By Johnson’s logic, it’s only acceptable art if one doesn’t get sexually aroused. I don’t think that is going to work as a definition of art. And this has a corollary:

Let’s consider for a moment the humble rock melon. Most people on the planet don’t conceive of a rock melon as a sexualised object. Some people who use them as sexual aids for purposes of masturbation might consider otherwise. By Hetty Johnson’s logic, it would become illegal to display melons in shops because somebody might get aroused.

Similarly, if there are in this world bestial perverts and they were likely to be aroused by sheep, then why should there by all those naked sheep allowed to roam our countryside available to the person? How does Hetty Johnson suggest we enforce this issue? Putting diapers on all sheep in Australia? It’s clearly an idiotic position to take on what things are in the public view.

The third problem is that should it be possible to enforce censorship without notions of artistic merit, then where would such a revision stop? The naked cherubs in Renaissance paintings? The statue of David by Michelangelo and Donatello? David was a teen when he slew Goliath by biblical accounts, so by Johnson’s logic any statue of David should not be in public view, lest some pervert get aroused. Well, there happens to be a replica in a shopping centre on the Goldcoast, and it’s been there for years. She is really arguing that we shouldn’t consider the artistic merits of a Michelangelo, or Donatello, just focus on the exposed genitals.

Artistic merit of works is like the presumption of innocence in criminal trials. Without it, you’re going to have totalitarian repression of expression. If Hetty Johnson doesn’t understand this, it’s probably because she is happier with embracing fascism than actually trying to help kids from paedophilia. Picking on the arts is stupid.There’s no correlation between what artists do and child porn. Likening the two to one another is insidious. The fact that she can only see controversy and no artistic merit in Bill Henson’s work is not a failing in Bill Henson or his work or for that matter the Classification Board, it’s actually her problem and it rests squarely with her. She should seek help from a psychiatrist instead of wasting the Senate’s time.

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Blast From The Past – 13/Apr/2011

Remembering Gagarin

Not that I was around when Yuri Gagarin made his famous flight, but his name has always been the beacon of promise. Anyway, as yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of his big moment in history – and damnit I was going to blog it except I got distracted – it seems a appropriate to pay tribute with Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’.

Holst’s ‘The Planets’ is of course the collective cycle of music that formed the template for John Williams’ soundtrack for the original ‘Star Wars’, which if nothing else means it has much more reach than we ordinarily give it credit. It’s probably more meaningful in recent history than say the doodle of Erik Satie or something like the ‘Bolero’.

Today I present to you my favourite recording of this cycle of orchestral bombast.

This one is Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, originally released in 1987. What do I like about this recording? Let’s see… It’s fully digital from the recording to the mix to the mastering. And it has one of the fastest renditions of ‘Mars,  the bringer of War’. The ‘Jupiter, bringer of Jollity’ is dynamic and rich. The whole album is clear, it’s evocative and energetic and actually sounds quite a bit like its idiot bastard son, the sound track to ‘Star Wars’, which in its own way has an unique sonorous quality.

Because the piece is so popular, there are many performances of this thing in recording. Over the years across LPs and CDs, I have owned 4 versions of this thing by different conductors. Heck I have more of these than Goldberg variations or Bach’s Orchestral Suites or sets of Beethoven’s symphonies. I can only conclude by this numerical evidence that I must really like this bit of music.

What always amazes me is just how different these same pieces can sound with different conductors and orchestras and rooms. The differences can be quite surprising when listened to and given A/B testing. In many ways this album is an artefact of its time with its crystal clear, bell-like digital tones with somewhat jagged lower mids, but I do like how the dynamic range plays out in the recording as well as the gusto in the performance. It almost sounds reinvigorated as a result of the advent of ‘Star Wars’ movies and the renewed interest in the source material. Anyway, on the day after the day commemorating the first man into space, I thought this one might be of some interest.

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