Well, another Sunday evening has come, while the world at large looks to be in no better state than was the case two weeks ago – in the interval I was quite under the weather and had no chance to post anything, mea culpa – and in light of it all I’ve been pondering, amongst other things, how elusive it can be to maintain a certain measure even as one moves to hold one’s distance from the spectacle. So easy is it to go too far in withdrawing from the latter, or rather, from one’s own disgust in the face thereof, or, on the other hand, not nearly far enough. Where in the end is the spot on which one could hold one’s ground, and with just the right quantum of vehemence? . . .
This quandary, along with some of its more and some of its less immediate ramifications, was never far from from my mind when I draw up tonight’s selection of three tracks.
To begin with, an original work by a young composer, conductor, and trombonist currently studying at Southern Illinois University, Michael David Krueger, entitled “For Patrick,” well performed by the Truman State University Wind Symphony.
Few bars in this piece have to pass before one hears that it draws systematically on that old standard by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg, “Over the Rainbow,” sung on the screen by Judy Garland, arranging a number of the song’s tones, phrases, and moods anew into another register, and upon further reflection this feat calls for a remark or two. By these transpositions, Krueger evidently has unearthed something doleful and forlorn behind or underneath the sweet wistful surface of the original tune which one barely had ever noticed before, if at all, and yet in the absence of which it would never have elicited all the signs of recognition from so many hearts in the many decades since: an obscure source of its affecting undercurrent of loneliness, a source of which the work itself might have seemed to encourage the disclosure, one day. Around a year ago, I suggested, in the case of Friedrich Hollaender and Robert Liebmann’s standard as sung by Marlene Dietrich, “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt,” that it had been waiting the whole time for Interpreten who’d uncover the inner desolation within what was essentially all along an anthem of those whom the big city has fatally ensnared – now it appears to me that a comparable operation typifies Krueger’s instrumental citations of and variations upon “Over the Rainbow.” Not for nothing was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, first published by L. Frank Baum at the very turn of the twentieth century in the aftermath of one war, revised for the cinema nearly forty years later during the approach of another; these world-events are there in his literary work, registering in the sonic shape of undertones that many may fail to notice, yet from which the moments of joy, camaraderie, and good cheer in the music of the cinematic version, though they turn this way and that, never separate themselves entirely: and indeed, their very attempt to extricate themselves from those conditions adds something further to the general desolation. This is the conundrum. With considerable finesse Krueger has faithfully delineated it again by musical means in his piece.
Of course, quite some time before Baum conjured up his cautionary tale, the whole problem had already been foreseen by Nietzsche, circumscribed in one compact line of the Dionysos-Dithyramben. “Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt. . .” Whatever may beckon to the desperate as offering them a way out of the wasteland, might well only lead deeper into it or bring it to spread still further. (Where is die Wüste, the desert? – once again, that probably is the question with which one ought to begin.)
Yet he, to be sure, was not entirely alone in prophetic awareness of the circumstances to come, even then. Quite early – presumably without any knowledge of either the name Nietzsche or of his work – they were limned in the poems Stephen Crane presented to the public midway through the 1890s under the title The Black Riders and Other Lines, as well as in a subsequent collection issued towards the end of the decade, War Is Kind and Other Lines. (By the latter title one is already given a foretaste of the twentieth century’s special verbal cynicism.) Several of these correspond rather closely to some of the philosopher’s trains of thought and abound in the moods correlate to them. It is to the credit of another young composer, this time an alumnus of the California State University in Long Beach, Casey Martin, to have compiled a few of these poems into a song-cycle, which he has entitled simply “Songs of a Desert.”
As befits such a cycle of art-songs, the arrangements are spare throughout. These words have not been set there to be overwhelmed, no matter how beautiful the music might aspire to be. Accordingly, a lesson or two could well be generalized from the very restraint of this instrumentation.
For the last of tonight’s tracks, we’ll abruptly shift gears, locales, languages, and moods, and move around the world and into the present – to St. Petersburg. In that city, currently, a new pop band has begun to make a name for itself which, but for the language in which it sings (and also, of obvious importance these days, publicizes itself), would fit in well in one or another of the many scenes in London or New York. Not without some linguistic humor of its own, it calls itself Mayakovsky (Маяковский), and though I cannot know what the lyrics are actually about – I don’t even have a text to refer to, dictionary dutifully in hand, to elicit some vague idea of their content – it would not surprise me very much to learn that in their way they too unsettle the conventional language. Inducing disorientation in idioms and styles could well be a goal that a band like this aims at, and while such a thing has itself become routine throughout the Anglophone world, one does wonder what the increasing prominence of these musicians might signify in the Russian-speaking realm.
Lacking the requisite linguistic skills, I can only proceed on the basis of the music and of some apprehension of the few words I am able to make out. For the time being, therefore – I suspect that I’ll have occasion to pay further attention to this band in the future – here is a number called “Огни,” that is, the lights or matches smokers have need of. (Whether or not it is relevant here to mention that in the singular, огонь, this word also refers to flame and fire, I cannot say, and so I may as well err on the side of a surplus rather than a scarcity of facts.)