week14: sibelius, mary oliver, brit marling, edward hopper,


In all the works of Beethoven, you will / not find a single lie. //

All important ideas must include trees,/ the mountains, and the rivers. “” mary oliver, Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way (Felicity)

i’ve not heard them all, but i imagine that in all the works of sibelius you will always find trees, mountains and rivers; not as obstinate afterthoughts, but as green and organic ziggurats in a singular and thoroughly unified landscape...

i’m still not enough of a critic to speak eloquently and at length about artistic experiences that don’t inspire my devotion, and on the other hand, still learning how not to say too much about the ones that do. every little part of this symphony inspires the earnest, intoxicated attention that the piece as a whole deserves. from the barely-audible premonitory rattle of the timpani, to the violent laughter of the that instrument’s more cacophonous sections—seems emblematic of the spirit of the whole….

Try to imagine for a moment that you know nothing of Sibelius' mature music - nothing of his ideal of the seamlessly integrated, leaner and fitter symphony (the diametric opposite of Mahler's “symphonic worlds”), nothing of his technique of starting out with the bits and bringing them together (“synthetic”, as opposed to the traditional “analytical”, development), and nothing of his startlingly personal orchestral palette with its whirrings, shimmerings and glacial granite. From this position of blissful ignorance, what would you make of the First Symphony? It is, after all, often dismissed as “negligible, but nice” in relation to his mature symphonies. “” paul serotsky, www.musicweb-international.com

i, for one, cannot ‘make’ anything of it, except to be thrown beneath the spell of its towering cliffs chiseled by the string sections, its pillowy clouds blown over by the variety of horns, clarinets, and oboes—and the thunderous hammer of the timpani threatening the stability of the whole shimmering monument. great music, i believe, has the unique capacity to render irrelevant the entire class of questions regarding what to make of it. it is for the sake of these kinds of artistic experiences—spiritual experiences through and through—that gratitude pours forth continuously...

an especially noteworthy block of that aforementioned monument is the third movement: a short and furious scherzo that must be a sweaty exercise for the editing team that has to splice together all the action-shots of competing orchestral sections to keep up with the near impermeable cerebral density of this symphony—the wind section clearing a glade for the harp; the distinct and indescribable enchantment of the french horn, which is at once distant and intimate, full and hollow (like a cactus tree?).


[...] like Finlandia, it combines fighting talk, homespun nostalgia, and flag-waving. Sibelius' tonal palette is already unique - he is one of those very few with such an unmistakable “fingerprint”. “” paul serotsky on the First Symphony, www.musicweb-international.com

Angel Records recording. Printed in England // Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) // Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, op.39 //

Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Paul Kletzki

Symphony No. 1

  • Andante, ma non troppo—Allegro energico

  • Andante, (ma non troppo lento)

  • Scherzo

  • Finale (Quasi una Fantasia)

 Prominent among the “fingerprints” are (1) a fondness for pedal points, i.e. notes—sometimes harmonies—sustained for bars on end; (2) themes that start with an attacked, sustained note, succeeded by a decisive gesture which is often (3) a slow trill or turn around a note, or, (4) an unexpected triplet. All these are discovered in the introduction, 28 bars for solo clarinet, 16 of them accompanied by a timpani pedal on B. This introduction contains the germs of the symphony. “” andrew porter, notes for the recording

(russian cosmonaut)———

crying: “Beauty! Beauty!” Do they really bear the stamp of nature’s darling children who are fostered and nourished at the breast of the beautiful, or are they not rather seeking a mendacious cloak for their own coarseness, an aesthetic pretext for their insensitive sobriety; “” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

there are a myriad ways to make that point without the eagle-eyed (i’m up here, you’re down there) Nietzschean tone, but some things can’t be said without every hint towards contradistinction—or in his own words: contra-descension.

another way of saying that comes by way justin vernon of Bon Iver interjecting his set at copenhagen this year with the admonishment that ‘This is not entertainment. This is a spiritual fucking thing.’———how much of our musical experiences are little more than seeking a mendacious cloak for our coarseness? how much of it is lubricating the grind and gristmill of the work-a-day? i probably shouldn’t listen to music when i’m biking (41 cyclist/pedestrian deaths this year, highest since 2007), but i’m afraid i’m in need of doing so. perhaps for the same reason i douse a liberal helping of wet lube to the underside of my bike’s chain: otherwise the internal links start ticking, and you begin to hear yourself churning…

a once-celebrated comedian (whose name will go unmentioned in this blog) once described the average pedestrian as a mouse in a cage, and the city as a stick poking this mouse all day long. is it this restlessness, hoarseness, this coarseness that our musical experience has been reduced to as a lubricant, entertainment, ‘an aesthetic cloak for an insensitive sobriety’. i’ve never been able to experience music as anything but a spiritual fucking thing.

yet another instance of making that same point: if justin vernon’s one-liner is a summation of the aforementioned excerpt from Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, then a three minute excerpt from brit marling’s Another Earth (2011) could summarize the entire scope of that thoroughly clairvoyant book. in her brilliant monologue, she invents a metaphor to describe a possible (probable) origin of the spirit of music, it’s celestial magnitudes, it’s seriousness and necessity for the human mind, how much it surpasses the task of entertainment….

perhaps that’s what he meant when Nietzsche said, in one of his more famous asides, that without music, life would be unbearable. yet all of his leaps and bounds in The Birth of Tragedy could be summed up in a 3-minute monologue.   

(on ‘being who you are’)———first and foremost, that’s no way to be.


Switching back on our hindsight, it is tempting to see the First Symphony as “immature”. But, is it? Are Brahms' and Mahler's First Symphonies “immature” just because they moved on to greater things? Sibelius' First may not ooze the ground-breaking originality of his later symphonies, but it is still original - and it is as well bolted together as any contemporaneous symphony. Then again, hasn't he squandered enough tuneful material for three symphonies  - surely a sign of immaturity? Maybe, but if so, I think I'll side with immaturity this time! “” paul serotsky, www.musicweb-international.com

what is the essence of his music that is essentially sibelius? or where is it? in his choice of instruments? perhaps, but not entirely—these instruments are available to every serious composer (the classical canon affords that much) though he is especially fond of the accents of the french and english horns. is it perhaps in some signatory sequence of notes, like shostakovich’s DSCH motif? not quite—each of sibelius’ main compositions exist distinctly from each other. some of the complements available to his latter symphonies are denied entirely of this first one, for example. whatever makes sibelius sibelius is in every note and yet precedes its musical expression. this and other reasons had me thinking this week of the question of authenticity, originality, individuality and the long etcetera of synonyms to express that infinitesimal lacuna between waking and being, before the audiotrack of our thoughts begins its day-long monologue of who we are (or, just how well we’re getting away with who we’re trying to be.)

there are only few words in the self-help lexicon that are more misleading, more labyrinthine, than the allegedly axiomatic dictum to ‘be yourself’. words, despite how sincere and close to the core of expression, are always a left-hand turn in the burrowing labyrinth of meaning. hence the unique quality of music: to express without saying. what’s the best description of catharsis in music?—perhaps when jorge luis borge said “Somewhere there is a labyrinth which is a straight line.”.... to ‘be yourself’ is to adopt a mantra that is fundamentally, diametrically, opposed to the first-hand experience of the mind at work. that thing that is constantly glancing at it self, always telling itself to itself, always a slingshot and leap into a future, that thing that is always becoming—would want least of all to halt and be arrested to a set, inanimate notion of what it is.

Become who you are” was Nietzsche’s red sharpie to correct that ancient socratic mantra to ‘Know thyself’—which is the ancestor to being who you are. and indeed that correction is more honest, because it admits of a process. a process as indispensable to the established artist as to the layperson. the process that puts you always on your way to who you are, that admits the insufficiency of the aggregate of languages and their intractable dialects in identifying and expressing the thing that is doing you now, and now, and now….

and now. nevertheless, there is something noteworthy about what is most attractive about the imagery of being who you are. it’s the image of some kind of stripping, i mean of removing artificial layers to arrive at that organic and indisputable you that can be identified sub specie aeternitatis.

but the unfortunate truth, as a result of our mendaciousness in the face of the aforementioned process, is that we stop stripping just when thing are about to get interesting. just at the cusp of becoming who we are, we sneak in some pre-packaged corn-syrup nonsense regarding how just now we are quite sure of who we are…

‘11 A.M’ by Edward Hopper

‘11 A.M’ by Edward Hopper

what i really mean: edward hopper’s painting ‘11 A.M’. and something else i overheard: that you feel more naked when you’re naked with shoes on, than you would without shoes...

The point is , you’re you, and that’s for keeps. “” mary oliver, Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way