Unfinishment: (In)completing Mahler’s (In)completion

(Nexus entry.)

From the opening bar of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, we are plunged into a memory space populated by ghosts of the Prelude from Parsifal, the Prelude from Tristan, and the final movement of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. In fact, the opening of Mahler’s Tenth feels like a renewal of the conversation that Mahler had with himself in the Ninth. Like Hermann Hesse or William Faulkner or Terry Gilliam, there were certain topics that Mahler, once he had introduced them, simply couldn’t let go.

Of course it’s possible, however unlikely, that Mahler’s Tenth wouldn’t seem this way if the composer had finished the symphony himself. For over fifty years the world only had the colossus of an opening movement and the featherweight sidekick of a third movement, a self-effacing Allegretto with the bizarre appellation “Purgatorio.” Then Deryck Cooke (1919-76), who never finished his own planned study of Wagner’s Ring (mentioned in my last entry), made a performing version of all five movements of Mahler’s Tenth, which premièred in 1964 and was published in 1976. Other performing versions have been made, but Cooke’s is distinguished by being the first and having more than one famous name attached to it. Brothers David and Colin Matthews both helped revise Cooke’s orchestration to achieve something approaching a Mahlerian sound. R-3485643-1332258657.jpeg.jpgThe recording I was listening to, incidentally, was of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, which accompanied the August 1994 issue of BBC Music. In some ways it makes a great deal of sense to listen to this live performance, as the 1964 concert that brought the fully realized Tenth to the world was part of that season’s Proms.

The three movements that Cooke’s completion introduced to that 1964 audience (II, IV, and V) make for a fascinatingly symmetrical form in performance: around 23 minutes for the first and last movements, around 11.5 for the second and fourth, and a four-minute middle movement. Mahler clearly intended this symmetry. The outer movements are slow and share with the last movement of the Ninth an autumnal atmosphere that ranges from desolation and despair to searing pain—including the most dissonant sonority Mahler ever wrote, out of which blazes a solo trumpet, which is then submerged again in a “poisoned” chord—to visions of paradise and achievement of rest. The second and fourth are scherzos, similar to the placement of the Nachtmusik movements in the Seventh Symphony. But unlike the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, which are clearly differentiated, the scherzos and slow movements of the Tenth, respectively, feel like siblings, so that the interrupted kinesis of the first scherzo is picked up again in the second, and the solemnity and scope of the first movement are picked up again in the fifth. The sense that any Mahlerite has from the first note of the Tenth—that this symphony is a return, after an “interruption” between symphonies, to the essence of the Mahlerian conversation—is mirrored in the finale’s “return” to the first movement’s manner, after the interruption of three movements, and in the fourth movement’s return to the scherzo language of the second movement after the interruption of “Purgatorio.”

In a symphony that blends Mahlerian tropes with extraordinary surprises, one of the things that surprises me most is the language of constant interruption that Mahler cultivates in the scherzos. Motives are cut short; phrases are arrested; cadences are unfulfilled. Mahler has created a style in which a sentence almost never ends; instead, it gets turned into another sentence, which itself does not end. There’s logic to this—a way of the music—but the logic is one of incompletion. What Mahler does with form at the largest scale, he also does with material at a local scale: incompletion has become a sort of aesthetic, made poignant because of the unfinished state in which the composer left the symphony.

What does incompletion mean? Is it a sign for nervous anxiety, the impossibility of positive action in the symbol-laden decaying world of fin-de-siècle Europe? I think people often feel compelled to read Mahler like that, to look for ways that the music expresses the extraordinary emotional contours of its creator’s thinking in a Freud-filled, angst-bedeviled prewar context. But I confess that as I was listening to the scherzos of the Tenth this week, thinking about the aesthetic of incompletion that they embody, I perceived not a neurotic rhetorical hyperactivity but an achievement of rhetorical emptiness. One can only follow so many changes of mood before the rapid-fire volte-face of happy face-sad face-happy face-sad face—emoticons spinning in a slot machine—loses its precision and ceases to mean in conventional rhetorical ways. It feels to me as if in these two scherzos Mahler is unhooking mode and gesture from rhetorical function. He seems to be trading in musical twists and turns shorn of their communicative inheritance, a world powerfully close to Schoenberg’s where musical extremes need not signify emotional ones. I increasingly hear the two scherzos of the Tenth Symphony as a kind of kinetic workshop, a place where the composer was thinking, through music, about where music was going.

And what does this mean for the diminutive “Purgatorio,” a movement that spends a good deal of time spinning its wheels, like Gretchen am Spinnrade, with an empty oscillating figure underlying more conventional statements of melody? This is clearly Mahler’s Lieder style, and arguably it’s a more specific reference than that, but it’s so strange to hear this between the boldly fragmentary, proto-modernist scherzos, a leaky skiff bobbing along between Scylla and Charybdis. (Romantic metaphor-of-the-day award winner). I place the blame for this ridiculous metaphor squarely on Mahler. 61uYgohaXCL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHe’s the one, after all, who called his middle movement “Purgatorio,” suggesting the epic scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy and practically begging a listener to look for an Inferno and a Paradisio. Or is it really the middle three movements that function collectively as a kinetic purgatory—a waiting place, an interruption—foil to the first movement’s hell and last movement’s paradise? Music musics, ultimately, and any narrative parallel fails to fully accommodate those qualities that make the music so extraordinary.

One of the extraordinary features of Mahler’s Tenth, the narrative significance of which is elusive, is the final movement’s shape, which begins and ends with expansive tempos and features a central Allegro moderato. This shape echoes the rhythmic profile of the entire symphony, an echo enriched and complicated by the resurfacing of motives from earlier movements in the finale. There can be no question of the “validity” of a narrative reading here; Mahler brewed up such a complicated potion that one must simply accept that multiple readings, resonances, visions and revisions abound. Mahler has created a space constituted of reflections and refractions, making the nature of any one fragment difficult to pin down.

I’ll mention just one more such feature, which seems more powerful to me the more I hear this symphony. One of the principal motives of the last movement is a trumpet figure, another in a long line of funereal brass motives whipped up by Mahler. 800px-Richard_Strauss-Woche,_festival_poster,_1910_by_Ludwig_Hohlwein.jpgBut this one bears a striking resemblance, I think, to the motive from Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) that Lawrence Gilman called the ¡¡¡EnTiCeMeNt!!! motive in his 1907 guide to the opera. In isolation, the connection would perhaps merit little attention, but taken with the bass drum hits that open Mahler’s finale and the return of the “poisoned” chord, both of which have parallels in Strauss’s score, I cannot resist the comparison. (It’s the bass drums, remember, that crush Salome with their shields [or something like that], and who can forget the “poisoned” chord when Salome kisses the forbidden fruit, the severed head of Jochanaan?) When Mahler was sketching his Tenth the music of Strauss’s operatic success de scandale was all the rage, and Mahler certainly knew the score well. What’s Mahler doing here? Perhaps he’s contemplating, through music, another recent development in music, in just the same way that the internal scherzos reflect a kind of Schoenbergian shearing of aspects of signification from musical gesture. If Mahler is thinking about Strauss in the finale of his Tenth, the music is too potent, too evocative and immediate not to spark narrative dimensions. What forbidden fruit has Mahler’s symphonic protagonist tasted to be crushed in this way? Whatever it was, Mahler himself didn’t live to taste it. In listening to the last movement, we hear Mahler from beyond the grave, expressing things he did not have the time to express.

(Nexus ex. . .

Placing Tania León, Indígena of the In-Between

For the last entry I listened to an album with origins in Carnival on Trinidad: steel band music, preserved for posterity (thanks, Nonesuch!) as it was in the mid-1960s. No performers are mentioned by name on the album; it’s just The Westland Steel Band, so that the listener is encouraged to conceive of “music as culture” instead of as an account of the intersection of the complex lives of complex individuals.

The album I listened to this week—Indígena, featuring music by Tania León (b. 1943)—also has a connection to Carnival in the Caribbean, this time in Cuba. 515J6W88JEL.jpgBut perhaps it’s better to read the composer’s explanation of the work’s background: “Growing up in Cuba was a kaleidoscopic experience with sound. . .You have all of these revelers in the back of my home, preparing themselves for the Carnival. Even when I was actually trying to play Chopin or Tchaikovsky or, you know, I mean, Czerny, they would parade in front of the house, I would stop playing the piano, go, see the revels pass by, and when they pass by, we all dance, you know. And then, when they were gone, everybody went back to their chores. I went back to the piano; I continue practicing. . .Of course, upon my return [to Cuba, years later], I realize that the revelers were not there anymore, and these are just my memories.” [1]

In January 2018 there are lots of places one can go to read about Tania León’s life and career: her own website, Grove, several dissertations and scholarly articles. But here are three pieces of information, culled from those sources, to provide a bit of context or to send you looking for more. The first is reported almost every time León is introduced in print. She claims five distinct sources of heritage: French, Spanish, Chinese, African, and Cuban. She “take[s] pride” in each and “represent[s] all of them.” [2] Second, she was a founding member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and served as accompanist, and later music director, resident composer, and conductor of its orchestra. Third, León is currently working on a new opera—with libretto by Thulani Davis aided by “historical research” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—called Little Rock Nine, about those extraordinary black students who began attending Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. [3]

What do we take from these three pieces of information? Something about race or ethnic identity? Something about musical influences? Something about the production of contemporary concert music in late-20th-/early-21st-century America? If you read any interviews with or writings about León, it quickly becomes apparent that she resists attempts to make her into the voice of a particular ethnicity (and/or gender). Marc Gidal discusses this at length in a 2010 article for Latin American Music Review, ultimately arguing that Homi Bhabha’s phrase vernacular cosmopolitanism is a useful concept for understanding composers such as León, finding in it a way “to join contradictory notions of local specificity and universal enlightenment.” [4]

Local specificity. Such as? Well, for example, in Indígena (from which the album takes its name), after a spiky and dissonant, almost Varèse-like opening, León “conjures up a comparsa, the group of revelers that roams the streets during Carnival season.” A solo trumpet even quotes an “authentic comparsa melody.” [5] This is local knowledge. And universal enlightenment? This is achieved through the expert use of orchestra—a sign for universalism, however problematic—with ample evidence of mastery of the musical modernist’s toolbox. Read against the interview with León quoted above, Indígena becomes more than a juxtaposition of distinct cultures, coming together for a multicultural extravaganza. A new creature is made, growing from exile and loss, memory and a wealth of contemporary experience. The title of León’s piece, Indígena, is not an answer, but a question. She is not saying, “Listen to my indigenous, Cuban authenticity in the context of a universalizing orchestral treatment.” Instead, she is asking us to consider what in-between place she is an indigene of, from what “cosmopolitan” city-state of the mind she has picked up all these intriguing elements. Those synthesized elements are capable of communicating broadly, in part because of connections they spark with people who recognize the individual elements, in part because her audience includes fellow in-betweeners who also live a synthetic existence. Indígena seems to ask the listener to consider how we all come to create our sense of belonging in this world when we’re made of so many fragments, disconnected from their original context.

Nexus entry.

Having felt myself invited, I journey. When listening to this album of León’s music, so many fragments and elements come to mind from the world of twentieth-century concert music. The second track, Parajota Delaté (1988), which means “For J[oan] from T[ania]” was written for the Da Capo Chamber Players, for which Joan Tower (b. 1938) was longtime pianist. The ensemble—flute, violin, clarinet, cello, piano—is of course the Pierrot ensemble, and the experience of listening to the piece for me was like listening to a telescoped version of Pierrot lunaire (1912), with textural, timbral, and rhythmic ideas pointing to specific songs in Schoenberg’s twenty-one-movement work. 51zrYS4zNmL._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe connection is suggested in part because of the episodic nature of Parajota Delaté: a gait is established, then arrested and joined to the next by an interlude, as often in Pierrot. I hear fleeting references to “Enthauptung,” “Serenade,” “O Alter Duft.” Is León suggesting some alternate reading of the Pierrot narrative or exploring the ensemble in a way that playfully interacts with one of the touchstone works of the twentieth century? According to Ellen K. Grolman’s Grove article on Joan Tower, the composer “sometimes offer[s] musical salutes in titles of her works” (e.g., Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, in response to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man), so there’s also a kind of echo in León pointing to Tower (and, more obliquely, to Schoenberg) through a work for her and her ensemble.

The only solo piano work on the album, Rituál (1987), seems to me to possess a sort of dance logic. The opening—sonorities built from accumulating ascending pitches—is like a body in a crouched position gradually opening up, gaining height and exploring space. A contrapuntal section with jazz-tinged harmonies gives way to a one that K. Robert Schwarz describes as having a “savage, brutal rhythmic power.” [6] That description of a solo piano work inevitably calls to mind Bartók’s Allegro barbaro (1911), though Bartók’s suite Out of Doors (1926) might be a more apt comparison. Then the next work on the album, León’s A la Par (1986), for piano and percussion, just as inevitably descends from Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). Both A la Par and Bartók’s Sonata are in three movements, with a fast-slow-fast(er) design, and both find ample room for the atmospheric and the kinetic, though of course Bartók’s rhythmic drive draws from a different source. The two works inhabit different timbral universes, too, with Bartók’s score favoring timpani and “old-world” percussion and León’s highlighting “new-world” percussion (e.g., toms, marimba, vibraphone. . .bottles!)

The final work on the album, Batéy (1989), was written with “Dominican-born pianist and composer” Michel Camilo. MI0001119973.jpgIt’s a work of about twenty minutes for six amplified voices and percussion, on a text created by the collaborators in a mixture of Spanish, Yoruban, a Cuban dialect, “nonsense syllables,” and a little English. Sometimes it reminds me of Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981), another work situated at the fruitful intersection of art music and a distinctive linguistic and spiritual heritage. In Batéy’s third movement, “Rezos” (“Prayers”), composed entirely by León, I hear a debt to Luciano Berio’s choral writing, particularly as found in “O King,” the second movement from Sinfonia (1969). The final word in “Rezos” is the English word “DREAM!” which references the famous speech by Martin Luther King. Why? A batéy is a slave village at a sugar plantation; the text of the piece fittingly centers on labor and oppression, on the one hand (and also weather, which perhaps signifies powerful forces beyond our control), and, on the other, the freedom achieved through ritual, community, and music. Perhaps this collection of ideas suggests parallels with the civil rights movement in the U. S., which in turn anticipates León’s current operatic project, Little Rock Nine.

Nexus exit.

Does all of this make León speak a language of “vernacular cosmopolitanism” as Marc Gidal proposes? I wonder if León would prefer to think of it in terms of inviting her listeners to hear as vernacular cosmopolitans.

[1] American Composers Orchestra, “Composer Portrait: Tania León,” August 2, 2007, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpXH149-bBY.

[2] Tania León, Indígena, liner notes by K. Robert Schwarz, CRI eXchange 662, 1994, compact disc.

[3] Carmen Pelaez, “‘The Little Rock Nine’: Composer Tania León Hopes Opera Fosters Important Dialogue,” NBC News, September 25, 2017, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/little-rock-nine-composer-tania-le-n-hopes-opera-fosters-n803931

[4] Marc Gidal, “Contemporary ‘Latin American’ Composers of Art Music in the United States: Cosmopolitans Navigating Multiculturalism and Universalism,” Latin American Music Review 31, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2010): 40-78.

[5] León, Indígena, 6.

[6] Ibid, 5.