Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Classic 100 top ten predictions

Here\'s by best guess as we reach the 50s:

Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending
Prokofiev - Peter and the Wolf
Elgar - Cello Concerto
Orff - Carmina Burana
Holst - The Planets
Gershwin - Rhapsody in Blue
Shostakovich - Symphony No.5
Sibelius - Finlandia
Barber - Adagio
Copland - Fanfare for the Common Man

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Firing the canon

I am not a huge enthusiast for perpetuating the classical music canon - or any other kind of canon, for that matter.  I had no interest at all in the ABC's original Classic 100, or the JJJ version that runs each year.  But I guess because my own research used to be about twentieth-century music, and how it communicates (or doesn't), and becuase I so much enjoy debating almost anything on Twitter, I got sucked in to following the most recent: ABC's Classic 100 Countdown of the Twentieth Century.  And as this exercise in musical democracy has unfolded, I have been disappointed and then annoyed by two things.

What disappointed me, of course, was the reams of mindless pap that got voted into the list.  Of course it did not surprise me in the least.  Nevertheless, it was a bit demoralizing to have to actually watch  Lloyd-Webber's Requiem following the music from Lord of the Rings as the sort of stuff that the Australian Classic-FM-listening community voted as the 100 best, favourite or most important pieces of that fascinating century.  I, like several, expressed my disappointment on Twitter.

And that leads to what annoyed me.  There was a backlash of commentators on Twitter decrying the "elitism".  Like this tweet from @bonfesse:
I was dismayed about the presence of purists in the #classic100 on @abcclassic but their "art music" only exists in their imaginations.
Or @cosmicdancer's observation (to be fair I think he or she was observing, not advocating):
Seriously people. It's a popularity contest, ahem, poll of favourites. What were you expecting? No real surprises so far #classic100
 Actually, people, you are completely wrong.  The whole point of this exercise is to establish a canon.  You might not agree with that aim - I think it's amusingly ludicrous - but logically, if you are running a "top 100" list, then by definition you are accepting the premise that some music is better than others.  I personally have a totally relativistic notion of musical taste, in which people are free to like what they like.  That's why I don't really agree with exercises like this.  But if you are going to have the canon-forming exercise, you have to accept value judgements.  If you are going to get irritated about purists, you are simply not understanding.

I'm perfectly happy for people to enjoy McDonalds more than a healthy home-cooked Jamie Oliver recipe.  I'm perfectly happy for people to enjoy Celebrity Apprentice more than Casablanca.  And I'm perfectly happy never to make a list of the top 100 meals, or top 100 bits of film and television.

But if you do want to go ahead with such projects, and you genuinely want to rank McDonalds higher than Oliver on the list of 100 best foods, then expect  people to call you an uninformed trogdolyte.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

ANU student pieces for radio

Here is a central comilation of all the music tracks for the UC/ANU reporting refugees project:

[Kimberley/Ewan Companion House story]
2 tracks of slow fairly desolate violin and clarinet music:

[Jane/Michelle Vietnamese refugee]
2 tracks of ambient piano music (Hannah):

[Elise/Natasha - child's perspective]
James - some ambient electro music:

[Linda/Clare refugee jobseekers]
Fast uneasy quartet music:

[Ting Walker UNHCR story]
Hannah provided music :-)

[Xiyue/Benhamin - Burmese student]
Leonard's piece:

[Mel/Brock - Sudanese refugee]
Using Jonathan's ambient music, plus an upbeat version:
and some more upbeat gamelan improvisation:

[Jaime/Jessica - refugee sexual health]
James and Nichaud:

[John/Courtney - refugee resettlement]
No extra music required

[Patrick/Alex football]
Zimbabwean football song:

[Dion/Gabrielle - Calvary]
Vorarit Treyanurak guitar solo 2:

[Grace/Joe - Steve Doszpot]
Edges - Stephanie Jones et al:

[Karen/Stephanie - Review Tribunal]
Hannah Murray live:

[Sarah/Grant - refugee student]
Hannah coming up with something

[Ashley/Lucy - yasameen]
Jonathan providing music:

[Sean/Michael - Cambodian chef]
String music:

[Ashley/Rach - JJJ style vox pops]
James Adler:

[Rachel/Olivia - Teclu]
 Vorarit Treyanurak guitar solo

[Thomas/Simon - Football]
JP to source - maybe something like:

[Amy/Kathleen - female sexual health]

[Jing/Ryan - refugee student]

[Huw/edwin - Sudanese refugee]
African drumming: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/10160070/djembe.mp3

[Ambient sound files by Jonathan]
Anyone feel free to use:
Bells/ocean: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/10160070/ocean-bells.mp3
Whales/thunder: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/10160070/whales-thunder.mp3
Gamelan/whales: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/10160070/gamelan-whales.mp3
Drifting music: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/10160070/drifting.mp3

Djembe drumming: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/10160070/djembe.mp3

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Gwen Harwood

Professor Eisenbart, asked to attend
a girls’ school speech night as an honoured guest
and give the prizes out, rudely declined;
but from indifference agreed, when pressed
with dry scholastic jokes, to change his mind,
to grace their humble platform, and to lend

distinction (of a kind not specified)
to the occasion. Academic dress
became him, as he knew. When he appeared
the girls whirred with an insect nervousness,
the Head in humbler black flapped round and steered
her guest, superb in silk and fur, with pride

to the best seat beneath half-hearted blooms
tortured to form the school’s elaborate crest.
Eisenbart scowled with violent distaste,
then recomposed his features to their best
advantage: deep in thought, with one hand placed
like Rodin’s Thinker. So he watched the room's

mosaic of young heads. Blonde, black, mouse-brown
they bent for their Headmistress’ opening prayer.
But underneath a light (no accident
of seating, he felt sure), with titian hair
one girl sat grinning at him, her hand bent
under her chin in mockery of his own.

Speeches were made and prizes given. He shook
indifferently a host of virgin hands.
“Music!” The girl with titian hair stood up,
hitched at a stocking, winked at near-by friends,
and stood before him to receive a cup
of silver chased with curious harps. He took

her hand, and felt its voltage fling his hold
from his calm age and power; suffered her strange
eyes, against reason dark, to take his stare
with her to the piano, there to swap
her casual schoolgirl’s for a master’s air.
He forged his rose-hot dream as Mozart told

the fullness of all passion or despair
summoned by arrogant hands. The music ended,
Eisenbart teased his gown while others clapped,
and peered into a trophy which suspended
his image upside down: a sage fool trapped
by music in a copper net of hair.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Smells in the city

For me, the most vivid way to recollect a city is through its smells.

Every city I have lived in or visited for any length is imprinted on my memory as a unique collection of smells. Take New York, for instance. For me, New York is a combination of slightly rotted vegetables, the steamy acridity of the subway vents, and above all the smell of money. Arriving in New York meant exchanging crips plastic Australian bills for a wad of smelly green paper, seemingly imprinted with the sweat of a thousand bluffed poker hands. Not being as particularly visual person, the skyline left me underwhelmed. The Empire State Building looked bigger on TV. But the smells made a deep and unique impression.

London, I'm afraid, is the smell of sweaty Englishmen. Packed together on the Tube; packed in the streets and shops of un-airconditioned Oxford Street. Overlaid with a hint of the ubiquitous dog shit and underlaid with the faintly miasmatic background smell of the Thames. I don't have many happy memories of London and I guess I have the memories of the smells to match.

Liverpool is another matter. I spent five years in London and Oxford, packed into the centre of a teeming Britain, and I shall never forget first getting off the train at Lime St Station in Liverpool, walking outside and smelling the salt tang of the sea breeze for the first time in years. It smelled like home: that sea-smell could wind its way around the world like a nineteenth-century clipper and draw me back to Sydney harbour like Ariadne's thread. Add to that sea-salt smell a dash of mango chutney and a pinch of gunpowder, and it could be the smell of the British Empire itself.

Of course, the world is full of exotic-smelling cities. Bangkok is uniquely by its particular blend of river, spice and two-stroke petrol-oil fumes. Cairo is sand: the sand of the desert, the sand of the sandstone used to construct just about everything, and a sort of gritty sand that guts up your nose and in your eyes and in your pores. Not exactly a smell, but hard to pin down to any one of the senses.

Canberra, where I now live, has no smell. It is prohibited by by-law. Once, it had a faint tang of pine, from the pine-plantations, but they burned down in 2003 and in any case the smell of pine only ever served to reinforce the antiseptic flavor of the place. Now there is nothing. Sanitization is complete.

And my favorite? Sydney, of course. I guess that is why I am writing this now. Spring in Sydney brings the smell of warm jasmine over the top of the background smells of the harbour - seawater and the marine diesel of the harbour ferries. Add to the mix the crackling ozone tang of a November thunderstorm just over the horizon, and it smells like paradise, and it smells like home.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Students document the Canberra International Music Festival

Those of you following my tweets over recent months may have picked up that I have been running a course for first-year students in the ANU School of Music that has involved them responding in a variety of creative ways to the Canberra International Music Festival.  I asked the students' permission to share some of the outcomes publicly, and here they are.

The responses ranged from the creative through to the journalistic.  In the latter category were some newsletters produced by students, one focusing on the student experience of the festival, the other dealing with the audience experience of the venues, as did this report based on audience surveys.

Many groups embraced online media.  This tumblr about the Australian composer graham Koehne contains videos, compositions, reflections and photos of the students' experiences working with Koehne during the festival.

The Bachelor of Education students produced a fascinating project reflecting on the role of "conductor as educator", which they published as this blog.  Another group interviewed performers and composers, blogging the results here.

Another group put together a blog about Steve Reich's Deserts Music.

 One powerful group project was this video made by a group of students about a concert of works focused around the Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly.  Kelly was a soldier in World War One, surviving Gallipoli only to die on the Somne.  He wrote two sonatas in the trenches, one unfinished.

There were several extremely creative responses.  Students wrote compositions in response to the music they heard and played at the Festival, such as this work for string quartet.  Another group made a series of arrangements of the same music, reflecting their individual responses to the festival.

One of the most interesting responses, sadly too large to upload, was a video of an interview with a flute and guitar duet that performed on original early nineteenth-century instruments during the Festival.  The students - another duet - attempted to recreate the stylistic elements of the performance on modern instruments.

Drawing on the symbolic use of colour in the programming of the Festival, one group created artwork and improvised in response to the various colours and images, and discussed this on a video:

Colourisation from James Adler on Vimeo.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Online learning - why bother?

So this is a blogpost as rant/cry for help. I have read plenty of these before, but never written one.

I'm Head of Musicology at ANU School of Music, and Chair of the Education Committee there.

My main responsibilities in the first job are to coordinate the academic areas of music students' study - music history, cultural inquiry, music theory and analysis, non-western musics - and to teach the first-year course in same (of course the most important course the students take!). I'm just coming off a hugely successful blended course in first semester, about which I am presenting at Moodle Moot AU in a month.

In the second part of my job (Chair of Education Committee) I'm responsible for coordinating the introduction of a wholly new BMus degree by 2013, one that is built upon principles of flexibility, student-centered learning, and makes full use of current and future learning technologies.

Just now, I have had to make a change in staffing for music theory teaching in semester 2: the person scheduled to teach it now won't be. So, looking to make an opportunity out of adversity, I decided to teach the course myself, online.

Now, this makes excellent pedagogic sense. Learning music theory requires students to learn a set of skills and concepts that are essentially compositional: how to put notes together to make coherent structures of pitch and voice. They do this individually - while I am a big fan of group learning, music theory is probably one thing that needs an individual focus. But the plus side of this is that students can work at their own pace - theory is probably best taught asynchronously, with the students having as much (or as little) time as they need to tinker, to get it right. There is minimal "content" - the notion of a music theory lecture is almost absurd. The students need to practise these skills, sometimes many times (thus whetting my appetite for a gaming-based course progression). They need individual feedback on their attempts - an individual dialogue with me the tutor. They above all need to hear their work, see it written down, and make corrections - music theory is an ideal instance for multimedia learning.

For all these reasons, music theory is just made for online learning, if it's put together well. I intend to put together 16 or so 15-minute podcasts - all of which can be accessed from the beginning of the course - with me talking through some concepts and examples while the student see them unfold on the score. The students will then work through some examples themselves, which I'll post as MusicXML files; they can upload their attempts, with questions, and I'll give them feedback.  As they successfully complete the exercises, this will unlock new pathways and concepts.  I'll stream the students into groups on Moodle so they can see the questions and feedback of students at about their level. I'll give extension/creative work for the students who really have a flair, and who want to extend the slightly artificial world of the harmony exercise into full-blown composition. Finally, I'll offer a two-hour "drop in" face-to-face opportunity each week, if the students really and literally need me to hold their hands as they complete these exercises. Summative assessment will by the submission of a folio of sixteen completed exercises. They can do all these in week one, or in week twelve, or do one or two a week - whatever suits them.

Now the rant part.

So, I explain all this to my colleagues who I am supposedly leading to a bold new educational future, expecting at the very least some thanks for bailing them out of a difficult staffing situation. But what do I get? Sheer, unadulterated horror at the idea of the students not getting "face-to-face support". An automatic assumption that online learning is to save time and cut corners. That is is second-rate. One colleague, a very nice guy, even offered to take some tutorials himself, if I didn't have time, so "the students weren't disadvantaged".

I patiently explained that the students were going to be better supported this way than if I had crammed them into tutorial groups of twenty and spent two hours wandering about looking over their shoulders correcting consecutive fifths; that in fact, doing it online was going to take considerably more of my time than doing it face-to-face (LOTS of preparation time and LOTS of feedback time, whereas face to face I could literally do with no preparation, half asleep); but that the reason why I'd teach it online was to give the students a better-quality learning experience.

No dice. The colleagues offered sheer, blank incomprehension of this argument; worse, a smug certainty that, whatever I said, they were never going to question their own assumption that being in the holy physical presence of the divine lecturer was going to be a superior learning experience, come what may.

Must be something in the deodorant they wear, I guess.

So, frankly, I'm wondering why I should even bother. I'm going to be putting myself out doing something innovative (but not all that innovative!), something better - but I'll have several vultures looking over my shoulder waiting for something to go wrong. I feel like binning the whole idea, and hiring some matronly back-room piano teacher to drill the poor buggers in cadences, Dulcie Holland style, for two hours a week for thirteen weeks.

I'm not going to, of course. I'm going to go ahead with my plans. But I'd really appreciate some moral support from the eLearning crowd who might have been here before.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn: presence in absence

 The following is the text of a talk I gave about the first of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder at the ICTM "Laments" Symposium at the ANU on April 20, 2011

For some months, in preparation for this symposium, I have been trying to define the characteristics of the idea of “lament” in somewhat structural terms.  In fact, this goal of  articulating “lament” as a concept, as opposed to merely letting the multiple meanings of the word resonate as they will, has been, for me, a persistent irritation – like a mosquito constantly buzzing about one's head, impossible to swat.  Or perhaps it is more like one of those occasions when one forgets a name, or a word, that then remains frustratingly,  infuriatingly on the tip of one's tongue, because the tantalising idea that underpins the concept of “lament” is surely one of absence.

Every lament is an encounter with an absence.  The classic, canonic and central laments are the elegies and threnodies that mark the felt absences of death.  But, life being what it is, there are many other subjects for lamentation: lament for lost love, lament for lost youth, all the way to Beethoven's rage over a lost penny, which certainly qualifies as a lament, even if an infantile one.  And what has been frustrating me in my definitional musings is that I cannot think of one single example of a lament that does not encounter the lost, the absent; either actual or potential.

The nature of this encounter with absence vary by context.  A musical ritual of mourning usually serves to place an individual's grief in a communal context: to share, and to locate mourning within a cultural tradition.  In the lament as ritual, private grief is made public through communal enactment. 

By contrast, an artistic response to absence usually creates a presence: through art, music, poetry, an image of what or whom is lost is created within the work.  In the lament as art-form, from a real or literal absence, a figurative presence is generated: an image of the departed.  Here, private grief is made public through communicative representation.

The majority of my paper concerns the nature of this communicative representation in the first of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder  - “Songs on the Death of Children”.  The notion of “presence” is loaded, theoretically speaking, and is a contested one, and in some senses this short song of Mahler's is about to become the battleground on which the theoretical struggle for presence will be waged.  But first I'd like to fling a few visual and textural laments into the mix, to provide some depth and perspective on the relationship between presence and absence.   

Sir George Clausen painted Youth Mourning in 1916.  Interpretation here is not problematic: the image is of youth, as a vulnerable, naked young woman, lamenting the dead young men of the First World War.  The kneeling figure in a ritual posture of grief, together with the partial cross, frame in the background the waterlogged shell-holes of a Flanders field.  The interesting thing here is the portrayal of absence: in particular the cross being truncated at the edge of the canvas tells us that the focus of the composition of the painting has been shifted to what is central, to what is even more important.  The cross and the woman frame, enfold – cradle, if you will – what is at the centre of the painting. And what is central is … absent.  A palpable absence.  We could imagine the mourning woman as Isolde, singing to a dead Tristan that only she can see.  It is not that there is nothing at the centre of the painting: on the contrary, there is something, gone.  A presence through absence.

Rather than my waxing lyrical about this conceptual inseparability of absence and presence in the lament, it is probably better to let Shakespeare do so for me.  Certainly, Harold Bloom would approve of letting art speak in place of criticism.  Shakespeare's Sonnet 64 is both a lament and a love song, and makes the point of presence in absence more compellingly than I could:

When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

“A thought … which cannot choose but weep to have that which it fears to lose” actually maps the absent onto the present by force – weeping in the presence of the beloved in the face of the inevitability of absence.  There are two powerful presences in this sonnet: one is the speaker, invoking the personified force of time, ruin and destruction.  The other is his beloved – but she is absent.  She does not speak.  Her presence is only affirmed, held, cradled, by the words describing her inevitable departure. There is, it seems, inhabiting the concept of the lament as artwork a structural pairing  between presence and absence, in which the figure, the image of one gone is enfolded or framed by what is present: the metaphor I have been using is that of “cradling”.

This notion of cradling the lamented is useful in thinking about the first of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.  The original Kindertotenlieder were a group of 428 poems written by Friedrich Rückert in 1833–34 in reaction to the illness and death of his two children Luise and Ernst.  They were an essentially private set of laments, not intended for publication and only published after Rückert's death in 1872.  Mahler chose five of the poems for his setting, which he wrote between 1901 and 1904.  I want to look in detail at the first.

Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn!
Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein!
Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein!

Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken,
Mußt sie ins ew'ge Licht versenken!
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!

 Now the sun will rise as brightly
 as if no misfortune had occurred in the night.
 The misfortune has fallen on me alone.
 The sun - it shines for everyone.

You must not keep the night inside you;
 you must immerse it in eternal light.
 A little light has been extinguished in my household;
 Light of joy in the world, be welcome

Already we have several presences.  Mahler's music enfolds and cradles the presence of the poet, himself gone, but allowed to speak through and with the music.  And the poet  inscribes a protagonist, the one who speaks and sings; a father who has lost as child in the night.  Overwhelmingly, though, the most palpable presence in the song is the absent  one – the dead child to whom the second stanza of the poem is (perhaps) addressed. Mahler's music cradles an image of the dead poet, whose poetic imagination enfolds an imagined grieving father, who speaks of, holds, cradles in words his absent child.

Now, at this point, as presences multiply alarmingly, it might be wise to invoke some theoretical and semiotic perspectives.  The aim is to seek clarification, but the probable result will be no doubt to further complicate the issue.  In a different domain – or possible different - the battle between “presence” and “absence” is the central issue of theory and criticism of the late twentieth century.  The deconstruction of what Derrida termed the “illusory metaphysics of presence” is the first item on the post-structuralist agenda.  For the criticism of literature and the arts, Derrida's assault on presence, simultaneous to and cognate with Barthes declaration of the death of the author, had the effect of rendering impossible the idea of authorial presence in a work.  Meaning is generated through the interplay of texts, the constellation of signs and codes brought together and to bear by the reader or listener in the act of interpretation.  The very idea of authorial presence – the notion that Mahler, or Rückert, are speaking to us through the words and music, bring a privileged and essential meaning to the work – is called into question by the inherent nature of language itself (and here, we treat music as a language) to subvert its own meanings: meaning is always partial, incomplete, deferred, provisional, in an endless cycle of intertextual interpenetration that Derrida terms difference.

This post-structuralist and deconstructive position is theoretically compelling.  However, it does have its opponents: John Searle was Derrida's most famous sparring partner in the world of philosophy, but in literary criticism the key figure is perhaps Harold Bloom.  Bloom's concept of artistic meaning is so centred in the notion of the artist wrestling with tradition, with the oedipal ghosts of his or her predecessors, that some notion of real authorial presence by necessity underpins his conception of meaning.  Christopher Norris described it well when he wrote “Bloom [seems] torn between a defence of poetry which holds to the ethos or Romantic individualism, and a deconstructive poetics which tends to dissolve such themes into an abstract system of tropes and relationships.  In the last resort, however, Bloom is always willing to invoke the terminology of 'voice', 'presence' and subjective origin which Derrida so resolutely tracks down to its metaphors”.

Less well-known than Bloom is George Steiner.  Steiner's 1989 essay Real Presences - subtitled “is there anything in what we say?” acknowledges the theoretical unarguability of a deconstructive position, but takes issue with it on ethical rather than theoretical grounds.  I shall return to Steiner's intriguing position at the end of my talk.

In the Mahler, we can see representational and intertextual signification at work in the song at the most obvious and accessible level of interpretation of musical meaning.  This is at the level I would term mimetic semiosis: the music makes imitative reference to ideas in the text, or to ideas that are easily inferred from the context, through the invocation of a referential musical language, to the vocabulary and grammar of which each listener has different and provisional access.

For instance, the repeated, paired couplets are a familiar musical figure, standing for, signifying “sighing” and invoking musical texts from Dowland through Mozart to Wagner, for those able to understand the code.  Second, the abrupt shifts of modality from major to minor evoke the shifts from light to dark in the poem, for listeners with even the most cursory familiarity with the affective references of Western music since 1500.

There are more specific intertextualities.  The ascending chromaticism, descending diatonic minor vocal lines, and tonic pedals all recall Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen, clearly a resonant and appropriate text for the Mahler to evoke. There are other parallels with songs from the Schwannengesang cycle, Schubert's last.  Once the door of intertextuality is open, of course, many visitors come flooding in; for instance, Kofi Agawu has observed the presence in the music of the Kindertotenlieder of Brahms-like developing variation, and harmonic practice that echoes agner's Tristan.

One aspect of mimetic semiosis that draws attention to itself is the Mahler's use of the repeated glockenspiel strokes.  This recalls the sound of bells tolled to announce a death – the eponymous “death knell”.  Sometimes the age of the deceased dictated the number of bell strokes – and here, there are two strokes. 

Semiotically, these bells are doing more than making a mimetic imitation of funeral bells. They are of course small, and high – child-sized tolling, if you will – and quite specifically echo the text “Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!” - a little lamp has gone out in my household.  The little lamp is the soul of the child, and with these glockenspiel strokes Mahler offers an aural depiction of that childlike soul.

The graphic explicitness of this aural image of the soul is slightly trite.  Indeed, it is possible to find it quite comic – although revealing that we do not do so.  There is a visual analogy for this depiction which could be illuminating.  I think what Mahler has done sonically is similar to what the director has done visually in this piece of film:

The visual representation, from the third Harry Potter film, is of the soul leaving the body  - a bright white point of light, the visual analogue of Mahler's glockenspiel strokes.  This is extreme mimesis, representation or metaphor driven to excess.  It permits the most anachronistic intertextualities, between Mahler and Harry Potter – although I wouldn't go so far as to deny the aesthetic similarities between to two.  It is also, in both cases, trite in the extreme.

So where does this leave us in terms of presence and absence in the lament?  A surface level investigation of  semiosis, which highlights  the intertextual interplay of mimetic reference, quickly confirms a post-structuralist reading of presence in the musical text.  There is a shifting, provisional and partial presence of Rückert, Mahler, the imaginary father and child, conveyed through bells, sighs, and overtly referential musical symbolism.  It's not that difficult to follow the chain of intertextuality to find the presence of Schubert, Brahms, Wagner … or indeed Harry Potter.  

Indeed, perhaps because of this lack of interpretative difficulty that the entire deconstructionist project left music relatively untouched, compared with literature and philosophy.  The notion that referentiality in music is provisional, deferred, partial and incomplete is not exactly earth shattering, as it proved for language, as the specific nature of referential signification of music has always been problematic.  On the contrary, traditionally, the quest for musical presence, for authorial voice, has been located in the domain of structure; in the musical syntagm, rather than the musical vocabulary.  The presence of the composer has been observed in ideas like the unity and organicism of the musical work as a demonstration of compositional vision; or through the conceptual superstructures afforded by syntactical tools such as the leitmotif, or dodecaphonic organisation.    

Seeing the work's structure, rather than referents, as the site of meaning is what I shall term allegorical semiosis. This terminology follows that of postructuralist Paul de Man who sought to reprioritize structure – the 'rhetoric of pure figuration' – over symbolic or referential modes of meaning.  What happens when we look for meaning in the syntactical structure of music, without reference to possible mimetic, intertextual or extra-musical signification; but equally without reference to pre-ordained codes of musical structural interpretation – sonata forms, presuppositions of unity whether motivic or harmonic, as well as more recent a priori music-analytic symbologies such as gendered structures?

The results of this allegoric structural reading of the first of the Kindertotenlieder are significant.  Structurally, the music is extremely predictable.  There are two generative voice-leading principles at work.  One is a classic Schenkerian descent from the fifth scale degree towards harmonic closure:

But of course simple harminuc closure is never achieved.  Rather, the upper voice resolves upwards by semitone (another “sigh” in the mimetic plane).  From this point of quasi-resolution then initiates the second generative voice-leading principle: a non-functional ascending linear chromatic motion that rises as high as the B-flat (the highest point, as an accented upper neighbour-note, of the original structural descent) at which point harmonic function kicks back in, the B flat is reheard as a dominant minor ninth and the passage moves back towards the first principle of tonal resolution by stepwise descent.

This gesture essentially happens the same way four times in the song: each time there is a moment of discontinuity, a point at which the upward chromatic linearity overpowers the gravitational pull of the functional harmony.  This discontinuity is paralleled at the cadence points, in which linear chromatic motion arbitrarily intrudes and disrupts the goal-directed voice-leading.

The point is this: there is absolutely no rational  - musical – reason for the change of modality that precipitates the upward chromatic motion  and its consequent emotional intensification.  It is precipitated by a musical deus ex machina – a sudden and entirely logically inexplicable assertion of lightness or positivity.  This abrupt move from darkness to light entirely parallels the structural unfolding Rückert text : “The misfortune has fallen on me alone. The sun - it shines for everyone.” 

Theoretically, there is an important distinction here.  The music is not symbolizing grief, or giving some metaphorical representation of grief.  Rather, we are given in the actual structure of the music a play of figuaration that is that of grief, in abstract: the chaotic and unpredictable shift from hope to despair that characterises the structure of mourning.  This is where the fine distinction is to invoke the notion of allegorical semiosis - the rhetoric of pure figuration – instead of representative mimesis.

We are nearly at the end, and have explored some of the theoretical issues to do with the location of meaning in the first of the Kindertotenlieder.  We have looked at mimetic semiosis, representation, intertextuality, allegorical meaning, and musical structure as the site of the communicative power of the Mahler's music.  However, I would wager that we have been left unsatisfied: that none of these semiotic processes have adequately described what it is we understand from this music, and certainly none has captured the trope of presence in absence which seemed so intuitively compelling at the start of this paper.

In Real Presences, Gearge Steiner writes:
Face to face with the presence of offered meaning which we call a text (or a painting or a symphony), we seek to hear its language.  As we would that of the elect stranger coming towards us.  There is in this endeavour, as deconstruction would immediately point out , an ultimately unprovable hope and presupposition of sense, a presumption that intelligibility is conceivable and, indeed, realizable.  Such a presupposition is always susceptible of refutation.  The presence before us may be that of a mute (Beckett edges us towards that grim jest), of a madman uttering gibberish or, more disturbingly, of an intensely communicative persona whose idiom – linguistic, stylistic, hermetically-grounded – we simply cannot grasp. (p. 156)
And here perhaps is the elephant in the room.  This Mahler musical text comes towards us as a stranger, offering unprovable hope: that in this music, in these words, are cradled real presences, with whom we have genuinely transformative encounters: a grieving father, a lost child.  It is not, ultimately, the processes of signification that generate the most important meaning; it is ultimately ontological semiosis – the nature of being, the being-in-the-work; the presence and absence of real mourners.

What moves us, what makes the music profound, is that Mahler cradles in music Rückert's real and authentic grief.  The grief is not yet Mahler's own: Mahler had lost no children when he composed the Kindertotenlieder.  Sadly, he lost his four-year-old daughter soon after completing the piece, and wrote “When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more”.  And maybe this comment should alert us to what is at stake.

Steiner argues that while the deconstructive position is theoretically irrefutable, ethically we need to make a wager on the real force of ontological semiosis; on the power of being-in-the-work to be a communicative force; and thus on the value of the arts to be a genuine tool with which to understand the human condition.  Steiner particularly emphasis the role of music in this wager.
Music makes utterly substantive what I have sought to suggest of the real presence in meaning where that presence cannot be analytically shown or paraphrased.  Music brings to our daily lives an immediate encounter with a logic of sense other than that of reason. It is, precisely, the truest name we have for the logic at work in the springs of being that generate vital forms. (p. 218)
And there I have to put to rest my own investigations into the semiosis at work in this little song of Mahler's.  It feels like I have conjured up a theoretical maelstrom whirling around the still, calm, centre of meaning in the song: which is the real, palpable presence of an absent child.  And despite the luminous theoretical reputations of some of the spirits I have conjured; Jacques Derrida,, Paul de Man, Harold Bloom, George Steiner – I might, in the end, leave the last words on the subject of the ontological question of the reality of presence to Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore:
'Tell me one last thing,' said Harry.   'Is this real?  Or has this been happening inside my head?'
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry's ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
'Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?' (p. 579)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


On the ABC Drum, editor Jonathan Green posted a marvelous piece about the media coverage of the Christchurch earthquake - "The media is not here to help. It does not feel your pain"

I posted a comment, which I am reposting here in an expanded form.

Great piece, Jonathan.

There is a curious thing happening here: in the interest of "human interest", the actual humanity of the subjects the media reports is stripped away. The human dignity and respect; the families and relationships; the complexities of why, and how, and what it means for individuals to be caught up in these terrible events - these things are jettisoned so the media can easily and quickly project an uncomplicated, powerful, but ultimately superficial image. Get the bloody headshot on the front page, and bugger the consequences. Or the context, or the respect, or the sympathy.

You pick yourself up on how the story becomes a "story" - going from a complex, human narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with characters and richness and depth, to a short, sharp, media moment. But the word - "story"- has lost its meaning. The actual story just an excuse for the images and their predictable effect. Just like porn, really, which a lot of this voyeuristic coverage is starting to resemble quite closely.

Increasingly, the actors in these porn-films-masquerading-as-journalism are the media personalities themselves. It happened during Cyclone Yasi, where the focus most of the commercial television wasn't the cyclone and its impact, it was shots of Peter Overton standing in the cyclone. It happened during the flood coverage, with Peter Doherty turning himself into an image, the only reasonable story behind which had to be "Journalist Makes Himself Look Like a Goose". These were both covered deftly, and scathingly, by Jonathan Holmes on Mediawatch.

Worst, it happened in Egypt, where the world's commercial media seemed to queue up to report themselves reporting from Cairo. For a week a complex story unfolded: a story about history, the nature of political pressure from popular support, the values of the Egyptian military, the nature international reaction in the US and the Middle East, Mubarak's personal intransigence, and the unique cultural, post-colonial and political context informing Egypt's lengthy and difficult history of self-determination. This story was covered, in places brilliantly, by analysts, commentators, and writers around the world.

Few of them were in Egypt.

The commercial television journalists in Egypt were there, in truth, for one reason: to get the shots of bloody heads, corpses, and wailing women when the real fighting started. Thankfully, the Egyptian people and military displayed more sense than the hungry TV news editors, and catastrophic violence was largely avoided - except for that ludicrous cavalry charge that was staged by Mubarak's heavies, I can confidently assume, precisely because the world's media was there to report it.

On ABC local radio just now there was an interview with a NZ Salvation Army major who is in Christchurch helping with the necessary counselling for shock, loss and grief. He is staying in a motor park, and talked of overhearing the occupants of the next-door cabin, a father and daughter. The daughter was asking when she could go home; the father was gently telling the child that their home was broken; then it caught fire; and now it is gone. They will not go home.

This is a story; and its a story that is being told hundreds of times across Christchurch.

Maybe we need more stories, and should grow up enough to read the ones that don't have pictures.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why I use Twitter.

Just now, "educational technologist Mike Bogle" (or maybe just Mike Bogle) deleted his Twitter account, and wrote this excellent blog post describing why.

I posted a comment on his piece, and because it touches on the whole reason I believe (or want to believe) that Twitter is valuable, I'm posting a slightly edited version of my original reply to Mike here:

I’m determined to believe that the point of Twitter is precisely to break online identities out of professional or special interest silos, and give us the chance to interact as holistic individuals. I say I’m determined to believe it, in the sense that I think that’s what it can be, and maybe should be: but I remain to be convinced that’s what it is.

Ultimately I think that the way forward for education lies in finding ways to engage whole people in learning interactions, not just the narrow slices of ourselves we choose to portray as our identities in any given context.

Anyway, that’s my excuse for subjecting my twitter followers to a random mix of professional links to education and music articles, political commentary, word games, jokes (often ribald) and the odd tirade about the Australian rugby team. I know that mix sits oddly with those who started following me at (say) an education conference.

But that’s who I am.

I do wonder why we try so hard to present edited versions of ourselves , and I’m also convinced it has something to do with the level of disengagement currently endemic in Western education at all levels. Among students and teachers, if we are honest about it. It’s a crisis of relevance; of failure to see the point (and here I mean the human point, the existential point) of learning; and I think that’s because we don’t connect with whole people.

Twitter lends itself to this role because of its intrinsically democratic structure: all tweets have equal place in the timeline, and the 140 character limit forces the dominant to "yield the conch" to the next speaker in a delightfully leveling way.

I guess I could advocate a similar argument for how Twitter and other social media are potentially transforming journalism, politics ... but the bow I have drawn is already long enough.

Sorry to use your comment section as a rant opportunity, but I think you have hit on something very important.