Sunday, June 22, 2008


Given the opportunity I paint brilliantly. This is my friend, Wendy's old pal
seen peering into--if not the abyss, then some dinner-based comparison
meaningful to a cat.

"Let's go back to the cottage, light a fire and you can play me the Schumann."

"Schu-bert! Schumann is flowery. Schubert is--reminds me of you, the sad one."

"Schubert. You have to teach me all that. I'm so ignorant to classical music."

-from the Woody Allen movie, Crimes & Misdemeanors

Woody Allen might be the great socialite-aesthete of our age. Just think: Truman Capote is gone, celebrity roasts have become grotesquely adaptable to cable tv, and orgies just plain old don't happen anymore. At the very least the quality of grapes has declined.

I love him because, beyond his great movies, he has great taste. Whether it's the taffysweet V Disc-era vocal pop of Radio Days, the Djangiography of Sweet and Lowdown, the fetishistically crackling Caruso 78's of (the odious) Match Point, or the animal violence of Schubert adorning Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen always tracks his work with terrific music, never losing count of the senses in his command while he has your attention.

This juxtaposition is fantastic because--savvy to the way us dummies think, Woody Allen wrote into Dolores' character ("I'm so ignorant to classical music") the intuitive linkage of Schubert and Schumann (cross index: SCHU-) eliding the century discrepancy by imagining them as next-door neighbors, on a street for big-haired composers, houses alphabetically assigned. Which for most of my life is what I did. And frankly if I'd never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors I would to this day.

There is so much confidence and pretentiousness in any given Woody Allen movie that one easily loses sight of the fact that he's a self-taught man.

Or am I wrong?

Is it that his erudition is so glaring and proud that had it developed by any means other than self-improvement it would be certainly much less confrontational? Well, both possibilities make sense. For now, kindly humor me. Let's go with the former.

I ask you to because the larger point I was trying to make was that pop culture is our widest (most natural) berth to the fine arts. If you're my age you can associate particular Hollywood movies (we could scarcely argue over which) with a poem by W.H. Auden; a double-sided painting by Wassily Kandinsky; Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto; the hampered ambitions of court composer, Antonio Salieri; the biographic pathos of Van Gogh's Crows Over the Wheat Field; and so on. We get turned on to new worlds, but there's a cost. We have to suffer that nasal voice from saint elsewhere.

My big problem with that bit of dialogue printed above is the same problem critics have with Wikipedia, what certain other reasonable critics have with organized religion. You can hide a lot of hogwash in a big book. Doesn't matter who wrote it.

I've come to regard Robert Schumann as the sad one; he's not flowery at all, at least not by comparison. At 18 Schumann was scarcely a man when the Austrian maestro, Franz Peter Schubert, his unaffiliated parapatronym, passed.

As a product of the 1970's I'm faithful to the notion that the documented life began in Plato's illuminated cave and became progressively more serious over time. It was inevitable that I sympathize with Robert Schumann.

There's a sophisticated wretchedness in Schumann, even as a novice listener I can hear it. Lately I've hunkered down with the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, op. 54. It has a loping, cosmopolitan exterior, and a folksy gait inherited in Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos, and thereby (possibly?) emanating an early idea of modernism. There are moments when left to the the soloist one can observe a bunching of notes, as if prowess and not balance was dictating the language of the work. Elsewhere, later in fact, there is such a sloppy tranquility--met by both piano and orchestra, that its modernity feels at odds with what we know, it feels anachronistic--like something Harmony Korine would rely on, or an avuncular note to Vice Magazine--so true and unembarrassed are the measures of loveliness and inevitable decline.

In the end it matters what Woody Allen meant when he wrote that Schumann was "the flowery one", that a clingy stewardess could embody him. Not that I don't appreciate Angelica Huston. But it matters that a canal of readership lies open, that we're soft to what gets said in a serious tone in Hollywood or out of Hollywood. And that our dull softness relies on the self-taught to govern a pause between pleasure and utmost privacy.


blackmail is my life said...

Now I really need to buckle down and read Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise already.

bryan said...

What I love about Alex Ross is--and forgive me because I don't read so much classical music writing that I can absolutely qualify this, but what I really enjoy is the way Alex Ross will talk about the elephant in the room. In a lot of ways discussing this kind of music is like discussing Faberge eggs, or Victorian zoological prints. It bespeaks a kind of elitist refinement that works against the magnificence and beauty of the thing itself. Ross noted how the avergae Joe would know a Picasso to see one, a Frank Gehry building to see one, but he'd be at a loss to identify The Rite of Spring--arguably the greatest work of twentieth century classical music.

The stuff is just entirely unrealistic to most people. Being such it gives guys like Woody Allen a lot of influence on the precious little we know (or even feel!) about classical music.

Just the other day I watched Guy Ritchie's atrocious "Revolver." In a key scene of violence, amid mounting tension, we hear music from Mozart's Requiem. I think, or maybe from Don Giovanni. Whatever it was I remember thinking he probably got the idea for using this music in this scene from one of those ludicrous NFL Films ads in which Vinny Testaverde is made to look like Alexander the Great. Either that or he heard it in an elevator.

dwr said...

My favorite songwriters are Kurt Cobain, ansd Schubert. Those guys were great songwriters.

bryan said...

I have a recent Schubert bio that spends considerable time on the composer's lost weekend with Cobain. Apparently the goddamned Melvins were responsible for that too. I never liked those guys. I call them THE BROKERS OF DOOM (and I hold my arms out, see-sawing side to side like Frankestein when I say that). And I say THE BROKERS OF DOOM in an evil voice.