Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Silencing powers of Spectacle: A State Sonata

This is not a descriptive essay, merely a speculative one, an essay that attempts to creatively deconstruct the givens of ritual performance, suggesting the hidden ideologies that bear significance on Singaporean Govermental-ity (Foucault). This is an essay that is yet to be written, but is contained in abstract form as such. The excessess of Spectacle is a well-studied one (Debord), and the yearly Singaporean Spectacle - a highly ordered ritual tampering of cathartic energies - should, by no means, be spared analysis. Every year, the nation tunes in either on TV or at a predetermined location to participate in the festive ritual of National Day. Of particular significance is the temporal ordering of events for National Day, a propagandistic tool that reproduces a formal structure year after year in the Sonata Form.

First, the exposition articulates a hypermasculine aesthetic, represented through the contingence of State Power: the Armed Forces. Simultaneously touted as the chief means by which "internal" security is managed and maintained (at what expense?), uniformity, rigor and the sacrifice of individuality (the sacrifice of individual to State for an ideology of the collective) is stressed, ex-pressed as a macho spectacle of dominance, and protection (which functions as presented negative). The Second Subject introduces the second-ary, namely the collective individualities themselves in a flamboyent display of Nationalized individuality. This too, is seized and absorbed under the umbrella of National discourse, such that individualities are re-produced as signifying archetypes. Development - struggle between the (already repressed) representation of archetypal individuality and dominant aggression - usually the military is called on to "perform" along with other constituencies. In doing so, hypermasculine modes of identification (first seen with uniforms) are vagarized by demeaning the soldier to the level of the performer, usually decking him out in "costume". The hypermasculine is emasculated, so to speak, the soldier on the performance tarpaulin is not one performing his excessive gender, but one who is forced to perform in drag.

Thirdly, Recapitulation. But here, recapitulation does not take the form of the domination over masculine/feminine appropriations. Rather, recapitulation articulates itself as a third component of the ideological triangle: multicultural (albeit plural) egalitarianism, symbolized by the harmonious integration of both Repressive State Apparatus and Expressive State Apparatus sharing the common performance tarpaulin. Here, military contingents reappropriated in uniform stand shoulder to shoulder (but not mingle!) with other contingent performers, enounciating the need for radical tolerence, although only a tolerence tolerable by keeping differences distinct both spatially and ideologically. Last, Coda, fireworks, but first - the medley of National Songs. "Count on me Singapore", "This is my country", "We Are Singapore", first seperate entities, then, in counterpoint. The bedazzled spectator ascribes to the power of voice, but disciplined voice. Nonetheless, the spectator may choose one of the contrapuntal voices to mimic - let it be known that his mimesis is one already predetermined, composed to be poylphonically consonant with rudimentary harmonic progressions that resemble a perpetual canon. Like the canon, the citizen sings forever, repetitively, doomed to reproduce a melody that is not his/her own.

What else is there to do as a last resort but to push this perpetual canon to its limits of intelligibility, that is, to push musical harmony to its extreme: that of censorship. In a startling catharsis of repressed jouissance, the medley is put to sudden cadence - interrupted, if you will - by fireworks. This explosion of sound, a carefully controlled dionisiac phenomenon, is less celebration than it is violent explosion. This is always Subjectivity's participation in State Apparatus driven to its end: it always concludes with the violence. What else are fireworks than the ultimate antithesis to ordered harmony, noise itself, absolute unintelligibility? But in this excessiveness of noise (unintelligibility), the individual voice as last means of agency to song is completely eradicated and overpowered. No voice can compete with the thundering silencing effect of complete devastation and destruction. Ironically, fireworks are usually accompanied by Tchaikovsky - an individible remainder of European colonialism, or the suggestion that the machinery that lurks behind this implosion of Self/State is really self-colonialization in process, the grand Singapore Dream not to disrupt the system of colonialization, but to sit at its head seat.

But fireworks are controlled explosions. The disorder that blinds its citizenry turns out to be ordered spectacle. Indeed disorder itself has to be silenced to make way for its final instalment of the ritual: the national pledge. All semblance of melody is effaced, supplanted by the single, mechanistic unision that regurgitates a familiar prose, in rhythm. Counterpoint has collapsed into syllabic repetition (the regimentality of hypermasculinity, perhaps, making a recovery?) at the expense of any last possible harmony. Nobody ever sings the national pledge, it is seen as a mockery, an act of insurbordination. Here, Barthe's "grain of the voice" - the last resource of the individual by means of the body - is totally and completely silenced by State-demanded euphony. The president leaves, and the crowd is dismissed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A primer on Schoenberg as Postmodernist

By 1908, Arnold Schoenberg had completely abandoned traditional triadic tonality, signalling the consummation of a process that had begun in 1900. While Schoenberg had tinkered with the limits of traditional triadic tonality in his early song cycles such as the expressionistic Gurre-Lieder (1900-1901) and Zwei-Lieder (1907-1908), his final break with triadic tonality came with the composition of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (1908). Set to the tragic love poetry of Stefan George, the piece was notorious for its radical use of chromatic harmonies without any single established tonal center. Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet (1908) set out to further develop his newfound compositional idiosyncrasies, although its critical reception met with similar ends, that is, uproar, disapproval and harsh criticism. Needless to say, the premiere of Das Buch der hängenden Gärten in 1910 hardly fared any better. Life, it seems, was a bed of nails for Schoenberg: besides facing rejection from his critics, he was also rejected by his own wife, who ran away with mutual friend and painter Richard Gerstl.

Given these circumstances, it is easy to see why Schoenberg prized the “struggle for [artistic] truth higher than the truth itself”. Seen from a different angle, “struggle” could be interpreted as Schoenberg’s strategy of romanticizing or justifying personal crisis by conflating the realm of the personal with the realm of the artistic. “Beauty,” he claims, does not reside in the completed artistic object but “in that everlasting struggle for truth”. In the first published edition of Harmonielehre (1911), Schoenberg’s preface clearly instructs the pedagogue to adopt the philosophy of the struggle in which “the search itself” for artistic truth is valorized. For Schoenberg,

“[The] thinker, who keeps on searching ... shows that there are problems and that they are unsolved ... Those who so love comfort will never seek where there is definitely not something to find ... movement alone can succeed where deliberation fails ... Only activity, movement is productive ... Comfort avoids movement, it therefore does not take up the search.”

The impulse to “movement”, as demonstrated in the rest of the Harmonielehre, was one that sought to move beyond the “comforts” of traditional triadic harmony, a “search” that involved the exploration of new laws and organizing principles beyond the limited scope that traditional tonality had permitted. It would be nearly a decade later before Schoenberg finally reaped the fruits of his “search” with the invention of the 12-tone composition system. Until then, Harmonielehre was at best a traditional harmony textbook peppered with ruminations and speculative thought, making arguments for what was eventually (and famously) known as “the emancipation of the dissonance”.

Indeed, what Schoenberg set out to demonstrate in various chapters of the Harmonielehre was precisely the very constructedness of tonality as a compositional aggregate of laws and common practices. For Schoenberg, traditional tonality “is no natural law of music [which is] eternally valid” , but a historical construction which has gained its validity through years of shared practice, a “system of presentation (Darstellung)” through which the production and reception of music occurs. This Darstellung may ensure a common tonal language between producers and receivers, but what Schoenberg also points out is the way in which “Tonality” as a system is disciplinary in nature, qualifying certain practices under its umbrella while rejecting other practices as invalid or incorrect (such as parallel fourths and fifths in counterpoint). Schoenberg rejects the totalizing tendencies of the tonal disciplinary system, claiming that any meta-theory of art must necessarily “consist ... of exceptions”, although he remains aware of how the establishing of artistic laws can often “influence the way in which the sense organ of the subject, the observer, orients himself to the attributes of the object observed”.

Based on this logic, Schoenberg deduces that the dialectical separation between “consonances” and “dissonances” within the logic of tonality is inherently faulty for two reasons. Firstly, given that the basis of tonality rests on the acoustical properties Klang (tone), then the Klang must already be intrinsically “dissonant” by virtue of the “dissonant” partials heard in the higher overtone series. Since the “dissonant” partials are higher in pitch and therefore less audible than the “consonant” first few partials of the fundamental Klang (the octave, the 5th and the major 3rd), it follows that the distinction between consonance/dissonance is of “degree, [and] not of kind”. In other words, the consonance/dissonance antithesis is a false one; in the acoustical reality of the Klang, they are merely coordinates on the same trajectory. Secondly, Schoenberg argues that the binary distinction is cultural and based primarily on the level of acceptance of the listener. If the chromaticism of Wagner, Debussy and other composers can be successfully recruited into the realm of “consonance” by acculturated listeners, then it would only be a matter of time when the “growing ability of the analyzing ear” is able to embrace “the whole natural phenomenon” of Klang as consonant.

The longevity of the consonant/dissonant binary (which privileges the former), Schoenberg posits, also partially lies in the historical treatment of the identified “dissonant” tones as “passing tones”, consequently reifying or confirming “the phenomenon of dissonance itself”. What Schoenberg refers to here is the way in which the linguistic tropes used to characterize “dissonances” (i.e. as merely “passing”) simultaneously serves to construct a hierarchy of tones, an act of proscription which “names” certain intervallic relationships as less-essential than others. For Schoenberg, the “dissonant” had to be disciplined by the logic of tonality by constructing an epistemological binary (consonant/dissonant) which served to maintain the pre-established hierarchy, albeit by articulating a repertory of rules by which “dissonances” were to be “treated”: “Dissonance was accepted, but the door through which it was admitted was bolted whenever excess threatened”.

It is important to note that Schoenberg did not altogether dismiss tonality as a tool for the artists’ kit. On the contrary, Schoenberg sought to criticize the way in which tonality as a Darstellung was asserted as natural law or unquestionable rule. “Tonality” for Scheonberg remained a viable “formal possibility that emerge[d] from the nature of the tonal material, a possibility of attaining a certain completeness or closure (Geschlossenheit) by means of a certain uniformity”. To the extent that Schoenberg claimed to be “emancipating” the dissonance, this purely meant that he was attempting to undo a deep-rooted epistemological bias in the tradition of tonal music that established a hierarchy of privilege, assisted by rules of “proper treatment”. Simultaneously, as a composer, Schoenberg was attempting to establish theoretical grounds by which his non-normative chromatic dealings were justified.

To the end, Schoenberg remained resentful of the term “atonal” – an invention of the rival Hauerian school of thought which Schoenberg vehemently disagreed with. For Schoenberg, the notion of ‘atonality’ was oxymoronic in the sense that it “could only signify something inconsistent with the nature of tone”. By proposing the use of “polytonal” or “pantonal”, Schoenberg was sending a clear message that he was not attempting to adopt a radically relativist position in opposition to traditional harmony. Rather, Schoenberg saw himself as reworking the basic assumptions of tonality, rethinking the organizing properties of traditional tonality in terms of the twelve tone chromatic scale. By the end of Harmonielehre, Schoenberg expressed his excitement that:

“[We] are turning to a new epoch of polyphonic style, as in earlier epochs, harmonies will be a product of the voice leading: justified solely by the melodic line!”

In the mid 1920s, Schoenberg’s dreams for a utopian tonal democracy finally came to be realized in the tone row – a series of the twelve chromatic tones arranged without any repetitions. Once the “Basic set” (BS) of 12 non-repeating tones had been established, a series of rows could be derived from the basic set through (1) inversions, (2) Retrogrades, (3) Retrograde inversions, and (4) transpositions of the rows. Through a single BS, 36 different rows may be generated, forming a pool of creative raw material to draw from. Schoenberg’s so-called “method” of composition with twelve tones was not the only system in existence. Josef Matthias Hauer, a rival theoretician, had similarly come up with a system and theory of ordering twelve tones in a composition, based upon pseudo-Romantic ideas of “spiritualization” and “the purely musical phenomenon of the interval”. Similarly, Hebert Eimert’s 1924 treatise entitled Atonale Musiklehre attempted to treat Hauerian speculation in a systematic way, while excising the more abstract “spiritual” claims.

Although both Schoenberg and his rival schools each drew up ideological systems in which to justify and systematize the handling of twelve tone composition, their individual philosophies and approaches to dodecaphonic music differed vastly. Schoenberg harshly criticized Hauer for attempting to elucidate the “natural laws” concerning twelve-tone music, claiming that “[Hauer] looks for laws ... where he will not find them”. Instead, Schoenberg accused Hauer of “inventing kinds of form that will make it possible to accommodate the twelve tones without repetition” as merely “a means to an end” . In other words, Schoenberg accused Hauer of doing exactly what he was accusing tonal conservatives of in Harmonielehre, which is, seeking totalized epistemological universes that try to “round off the system” by increasing the girth of their theoretical fences. Schoenberg, of all people, understood the problems which “theory” and “established convention” inflicted upon the discursive field of music. While “theory” portends to describe, too often it prescribes, and ultimately proscribes, as Schoenberg had argued with the case of the consonance/dissonance binary. Similarly, newly erected laws would inevitably enact new modes of disciplining and hence new methods of exclusion by defining itself against a non-privileged musical “other”.

After all, it was the unshakable walls of historical tradition and musical “law” that operated to “exclude” Schoenberg from wider circles of musical acceptance. In Schoenberg’s eyes, he knew he was categorized as the dissident “dissonant” out of line with conservative “consonance” in Viennese musical life. At the same time, he was painfully aware of the ways in which these binaries operated to affect public musical tastes, and the reception of his works. In some ways, Schoenberg’s utopian ideal of “pantonality” underscored a personal yearning for a plural universe where his music would be properly ‘understood’; a musical universe in which the dissonant could lie beside the consonant in ‘harmony’; where the diversification and conflict of musical “laws” reflected nothing more than personal compositional and theoretical choices; where the “struggle” for truth was to be venerated over (the potentially tyrannical nature of) truth itself. To this end, through the vision of a post-consonant/dissonant world, Schoenberg was already espousing an ethics of postmodernism.

Schoenbereg: the Postmodernist?

The postmodern condition which I see prevalent in much of Schoenberg's writings (especially in his early work from Harmonielehre onwards) one that finds consonance not in Frederic Jameson's conceptualization of "Late Capitalism", which finds its form in a crises of historical representation, but one that is closer to Jean Lyotard's work (see especially the Postmodern Condition), which treats the condition of postmodernism as an epistemological one, albeit a structural condition concerning the production of knowledge, and knowledge systems. According to Lyotard, postmodernism as a condition of knowledge [systems] 'reject' overarching "metanarratives" that attempt to shoehorn a discontinuous, sublime discursive field into legible scripts, through various explanatory (and ideological) models.

This was precisely what I feel Schoenberg was reacting to by discussing the "emancipation of dissonance", that is, the rejection of the Modernist tendency (eg. Hauer) to articulate new disciplinary laws to organize 'new' discursive practices within the twelve-tone field. For Hauer, this new attempt of organization was rooted in neo-Romanticist notions of transcenence and transhumanity. By figuring the realm of the 'atonal' as a more 'authentic' intermediary space between author (composer) and reader (listener), Hauer pretty much rehearsed old Humanist neo-Platonist thought loosely through the frame of the philosophers of his time (eg. Nietszche, Schopenhauer... et al). His predilections for the "spiritual" vaguely recall absolutist visions of "Musica Mundana", whereby "God" or "Universal Harmony" is simply replaced by a conflation of the Hegelian "Geist", Kantian "Idea" and Nietschean/Schopenhauerian "Will". Human agency and heavenly spiritual realm are thus connected through mimesis of this spiritual realm, "performing" the inevitably flawed "musica instrumentalis" of higher organizing laws. In Lyotard-language, Hauer was merely repeating the act of epistemological (re)closures, finding new manipulations of an old structuralist formula. As it were, you can't teach an old dog to perform new tricks, but the dog may simulate the new by reapplying old methods.

Schoenberg's response is decisive by moving away from the Foucauldian field of "discourse" (and all its entrapments), and into the realm of the "discursive", which, as I have argued in my paper, offered a more democratic reflection of musical practice which Schoenberg both utopianized and idealized through the "emancipation of the dissonance". Read allegorically, this "emancipation" was not a liberation - Schoenberg himself asserted that it was not an excuse for absolute relativisim; and I quote:

"... [A] composer with twelve independent tones apparently possesses the kind of freedon which many would characterize by saying: 'everything is allowed'. 'Everything' has always been allowed to two kinds of artists: to masters on the one hand, and to ignoramuses on the other." (1941)

The "emancipation of the dissonance", put another way, is a crisis in 'freedom' (in the tyrannical Lacanian psychoanalytic "Real") that threatens to overwhelm "ignoramuses" with the harsh rays of meaningless relativity. It is as if to say, one were looking directly into Socrate's Sun years after lazing around in the cave of traditional tonality. And Schoenberg himself was aware of the 'dazzling' (read: overwhelming) implications of this liberation. Conversely, he was aware of false attempts that tried to completely theorize the space under the shadows of tonality (like Hauer) would be quickly recruited as a new 'metatheory', indeed a "confusion would arise" (1936) -

"I could have forseen that, when in 1921 I showed my former pupil Erwin Stein what means I had invented to profoundly provide for an organization, granting logic, coherence and unity. I then asked him to keep this a secret and to consider it as my private method to do the best for my artistic purposes." (December 1949)

Once word got of Schoenberg's method had reached the Viennese and American composerly spheres, Schoenberg was adamant about refuting any alliegence to "theory" of any kind:

"... when I came to America I could not change my trade-mark. I was the man with 'the system of the chromatic scale' ... I was of course only capable [of delivering] a superficial explanation, a description, of the methods of distribution of the twelve tones. I was always aware of this imperfection, and this is why I gave to the lecture the title - METHOD OF COMPOSING WITH TWELVE TONES!" (ibid.)

Clearly, Schoenberg insists on the tone-row method merely a method for composing, and not the be-all and end-all of compositional possibilities. Towards the end of his life, Schoenberg suprised critics and the interested public with a slew of tonal composition, although based on his principles, we should not be surprised at all. While decrying the disciplinary tendencies of tonality (in its construction of laws and strategies of proscription), at the same time Schoenberg recognized the immense value and worth of these limitations as formal constraints for creative composition. Indeed "abandoning tonality can be contemplated only if other satisfactory means for coherence and articulation present themselves". (1934) Tonality was one method of "articulation", but evidently not the only method of articulation.

Schoenberg's split with traditional traid-centered tonality was then secured with a pact: by abandoning the regimented ordering system of presentation (Darstellung), Schoenberg had to first reject the totalizing claims of any theory or musical law that touted itself to be ahistorical and transcendental. As mentioned earlier, this meant retreating from the sphere of discourse to the sphere of the discursive, a 'regression' of sorts. Of course, this was partially ideological. Recycling worn notions of psychological realism, subjectivity and the Freudian Unconscious (all large polemic topics of the late 19th and early 20th century), Schoenberg initiated a movement back to the (composerly) self:

"Tonality's origin is founded ... in the laws of sound. But there are other laws that music obeys, apart from these and the laws that result from the combination of time and sound: namely, those governing the working of our minds." (1926)

The composer then, became the locus of creative and "formal" energies, the ordering authority that authenticates its products based on "sound" as raw material. The consequences are immense, for this meant shifting away from the strongholds of a Tonality as "not an end in itself, but means to an end" (ibid), therefore leaving the system unclosed, open and therefore implicitly plural, susceptible to other laws drawn up by the composer himself. Lyotard sees this pact of knowledge as a postmodern condition, the rejection of metanarratives, whilst operational "rules" of the postmodern "game" are found preceding the "game" itself, i.e. based on the assemblage of raw material.

By harking towards a fluid self-defining concept of "unity" as found in the "Grundgestalt", Schoenberg sought to give name to the unnameable - a phemonenon that could be described as motivic "shape" on one had, or (in my preference), "structural trace", the assemblage of a basic rule or datum that structures the ordering of the entire composition (a lynchpin, if you like). One way to read the "Grundgestalt" is in its linguistic peculiarities. On one hand, "Grund" directly translates into "ground", or "soil", while "Gestalt" (making loud indications at German Gestalt psychology theory) implies "to take shape" or "to show one's true colours" (Collins Dictionary). By combining the seantic fields of both words, one imagines an Organicist idea of the "Grundgestalt" as a growth from "soil" to its full "shape". The "true colours" of the Gestalt, as it seems, would be contained in its germination (i.e. an cosmic-atomist view of musical composition).

Joseph Rufer's ruminations on the "Grundgestalt" implies an abstract germinal musical aggregate that gives rise to an entire composition (1954). Following, it is easy to see how Schoenberg's idea of the Basic Set fit the criteria of the "Grundgestalt" comfortably, a primordial compositional tool with which to flesh out the rest of a composition. On the other hand, the "Grundgestalt" rejects any resolute definition, it is an empty signifier that points to structural possibilities without itself being a determinate structural entity. Is it not so that the "Grundgetalt" as "structural trace" exists as a Lyotard's postmodern prefiguration of the compositional space with an indictement to construct rules BASED ON whatever fills the "Grundgestalt". The "Grundgestalt" therefore fulfills its own organicist destiny by creating rules (structural significance) by virtue of its filler components.

In closing, it must be said that Lyotard's formulation of the postmodern proceeds from the qualities of paradox (eg content (Grundgestalt) prior to rules (Structure)). As Lyotard claims, the postmodern is deceptive: while its etymology suggests a temporal 'afterwards', the postmodern itself resembles something more of the 'pre'Modern, although the condition itself can only arise as a consequence of the Modern. It is as if hitory, surveying its own ideologies, decides to take a step back in time to the messy inter-existing matrix of pre-ideologies with one foot still standing on the beyond. Is this then not Schoenberg, decrying the impoverty of totalizing theories as a modernist tendency, taking a historical step "backwards" to the 'free' indecisive moment of plural composerly activity which structures itself along its own "Grundgestalt"? Is this not Schoenberg, who embodied the very manifestation of paradoxical subjectivity by appealing to both "methods" of composition during his lifetime? Is this not Schoenberg who envisioned new possibilities of "unity" by rejecting epistemological claims to singular truths? This is Schoenberg, I believe, the postmodernist.