Monday, 17 July 2017

Eulogies #4

Stockhausen is a common figure in German cultural history. He is the idealistic individual filled with ambitious, monomanical, absurd and ridiculous goals. At its best, this Teutonic tendency produces the likes of Stockhausen. At its best, it produces Wagner and Beethoven. Stockhausen has lofty, demanding ideas which require strenuous rehearsal and patience.  (And a few helicopters would not go amiss.) The end result is usually cryptic, dense and indecipherable. At its worst, this tendency in the German consciousness results in Adolf Hitler. Hitler, too, filled his head - and the heads of the German people - with ambitious, impossible goals. He wanted to create an empire that lasted a thousand years. (It only lasted for thirteen years in the end.) He wanted to create state of the art buildings to accompany it. At the same time - and here the nastiness really comes through - he wanted to eradicate the Jewish people and create an Aryan race.

That is not to say that Stockhausen had this nasty streak. However, he was selfish, rude and arrogant. His selfishness bordered on solipsism. As time wore on, Stockhausen became quite the cranky hermit. He lived alone in a large house composing overblown Wagenerian pieces. He came to believe that he came from the star Sirius and that he would go back there once his life ended on Earth.

Post-war musical life was truly exciting. Its participants - people like Boulez, Kagel, Ligeti, Nono and, indeed, Stockhausen - were determined to take serious composition as far as it could possibly go. Their model was Anton Webern. Webern wrote serialist music where all twelve tones were ordered in series. This was to get away from the 'tonality' of earlier music - i.e. music played in specific keys. Stockhausen and his cohort took this further with 'total serialism.' In this manifestation, the duration and dynamics of the notes are subjected to the same order as well as the pitches. They often brought in theories from mathematics.

This might sound quite dry and cold. That was certainly embodied in Boulez. Boulez never had a wife - quite probably never had sex seeing as he was such a grouch - and led an ascetic life. Boulez thought that music was just controlled sound. Boulez also had a political agenda. He was determined that the new music would get into the concert hall. He wanted to blow up opera houses. (He was later investigated for this eruption later on.) Boulez was cold and he also was a political radical who wanted to change the destroy the old and replace it with the new.

Stockhausen was not like this. Even in the 50s, he was always passionate. Later on, he became quite the hippie mystic. His earliest music was innovative and radical - and certainly excited many people. One of his pieces was written for four concurrent orchestras. In the late sixties, he became mystical and religious. He started to wear garish clothes. He used hippie-dippie phrases. He started to write overblown pieces about everything is cosmic. (Of course it could never be as plain as that, it would have to be cryptic.) He often wrote large-scale pieces about dreams that he had experienced. The musical establishment became radicalised. They started to read Marxist literature and tried to break cars, hit street lamps and fight the police. Stockhausen became more hermetic than ever. He became persona non grata for these leftist twits.

Yet Stockhausen didn't want to destroy the canon. Sorry, Boulez the Mona Lisa will always be great. The enterprise of destroying things and tearing things up is asinine. May '68 was just a spoilt tantrum. Stockhausen's ideas were certainly radical. He ignored existing musical forms - and often invented his own. What he was trying to do was merely to simply add something new to the existing musical canon.

Stockhausen has been likened to a 20th century Beethoven. This kind of makes sense. Beethoven was the rugged individualist who tried to remake music and his pieces were grand and ambitious. Ditto Stockhausen, except that he was living in the age of technological progress, consumerism, two world wars and the holocaust. Some of his pieces I really like, others I just can't make out in the slightest. However, his attitude, his ideals and his sense of self excite me.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Eulogies #3

I admire Heraclitus because he was an archetypal outsider. (Yeah, yeah - there goes that tired cliché again.) He was a misanthropic loner who nonetheless defeated cruel time. When human civilisation comes to an end, history books will still have entries on Heraclitus.

Yes, it is ironic that he did indeed defeat 'cruel time.' Heraclitus thought that everything was subject to constant change. 'You can never step in the same river twice,' he claimed. He also thought that everything that we saw was a clash of opposites. Everything was 'strife.' That would make him a dualist. To add to the confusion, he also claimed that everything came from fire. That would make him a monist!

In many ways, Heraclitus was right about the nature of time. There are many Heraclituses. Our understanding of Heraclitus is different from the medieval understanding. For instance, our understanding of his thought is coloured by Einstein's theory of relativity. All history is indeed subject to constant regeneration.

And yet all we have left are tiny little fragments. I bought his book Fragments and found it infuriating. All it had was tiny little aphorisms containing really general statements. The secondary criticism I have read was a lot more detailed. It always emphasises how it's often conjectural. Still, these books of criticism just consist of a few pages. I really would like to read a whole book about him. These books exist, but they are inordinately expensive! The secondary criticism also adds that his thought is very obscure. Hegel - the archetypal obscurantist - considered Heraclitus his favourite philosopher. Plato and Aristotle read his full texts and found them puzzling. This is part of this appeal - he is so obscure that, even if you read the original text, you might not be able to make it out. However, even his original text was aphoristic in nature, so I might not be missing out on much. If I had a time travel machine, I would want to salvage a copy of his magnum opus from an ancient library.

And Heraclitus was a misanthrope. He lashes out against people and their ignorance in many of his aphorisms. One of his aphorisms was later rewritten - perhaps unknowingly - by John Stuart Mill: 'One man with an idea is worth much more than a thousand others.' He was a loner and detested democracy. The former endears him to me, the latter doesn't.

Despite his elitism, he was also sceptical of education. He claimed that it was a barrier to original thought. He did not like scholars who studied Homer, their equivalent of The Bible. Curiously, many people have written about this later on. The more books you read, your original insights are reduced more and more. 'Knowledge doesn't teach insight,' he claimed. In these times of hyper-specialisation, PHD students have to sift through a mountain of research to arrive at an original contribution to knowledge.

Yet there was no real knowledge in Heraclitus' time - apart from Homer and a handful of cranky pre-Socratic philosophers like Pythagoras. Heraclitus found underlying phenomena fascinating - and was determined to understand it without any empirical or analytic framework.

Heraclitus also found dreams fascinating - and claimed that they are the real world and that waking life is a mirage. Heraclitus is the archetypal loner. Alone with his thoughts, bitter, speculating and dreaming, he created a myth and consecrated his place in history.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Eulogies #2

Apologies for the delay. Well, you don't care - no-one cares! Nonetheless, here is the second instalment. This one is about Lisa Simpson, a cartoon character!

Lisa has always been my favourite character in the series. She is quirky, uber-intelligent and has encyclopedic knowledge. She is surrounded by a sea of ignorance, which frustrates her. Nonetheless, she gets on with things with stoic resilience.

Lisa is a cartoon character. As such, her virtues and her abilities are exaggerated. She is capable of coming up with dazzling scientific inventions. She is capable of solving the most flummoxing moral dilemmas. She is, for her age, a brilliant saxophone player. She reads advanced literature. She likes to solve advanced mathematical problems. She is interested in everything - and she is exceedingly good at the things that she takes an interest in. And whilst she might appear a tad arrogant at times, she does have emotional intelligence. She understands human relations and wants to support the people she cares about, including Bart.

For all her individualism, Lisa has a strong interest in social justice. She cares about the environment and animal rights. She actively tries to help those in need. Inequality bothers her - and there is an abundance of that in the USA.

And while her interests are by no means the average eight-year-old interests, she also likes girly things. She likes to play with dolls. (The function of toys is to help them achieve whatever your imagination wants them to achieve. As such, Lisa uses makes her Malibu Stacey dolls give speeches about feminism.) She likes horses. She can also be prone to childish blunders - and she shrugs them off with sweet insouciance.

Lisa is passionate about all of her interests. Like many bright people, she is also competitive. She cares about getting good grades and she also cares about her future career. We can tell that this auspicious child will go on to great things in the future.