Do we think differently in another language? Jonathan Franzen. Beethoven wants to punish you, but so do Robert Fripp and Charles Ives. Larks Tongues In Aspic
Roger CortonSo we’ve been talking about all of that Beethoven and pretty expensive stuff. I think it’s time to bring it back to what any of that has to do with progressive rock. By the way, you do seem to keep vamping on all this German culture stuff. Any reason why that should be of interest to anyone else?
JCHThat’s a great point. And the answer is “no”. I’m getting more interested in the German culture stuff simply because I’ve had time on my hands over the last couple of years to get back to reading German-language things like those Beethoven conversation books I mentioned last time. And before I bring it back to progressive rock, I want to indulge in one more tangent.
RCWhy should this time be any different?
JCHWhy, indeed? Okay, you like Jonathan Franzen right?
RCThe author? Sure. I thought you didn’t.
JCHI don’t, but he wrote this book called The Krause Project a couple of years back which I stumbled on at the Library.
RCI did not read that. I took a look at it in a bookstore and it was boring!
JCHRight, it’s basically a translation of articles by a German newspaper columnist from the turn-of-the-century. He rants on a lot about the end of culture in the face of new technology. It has a lot of resonance with today. And Franzen got caught in the trap that a lot of people who speak another language do.
RCAssuming that just because you find something interesting everyone else will too?
JCHPrecisely. Look, when you take the time to learn to really understand another language, you tend to get all jazzed about everything you read. You know all that stuff people are always saying that ‘people are people’? Well, I think people who say that are likely people who only speak one language. When you speak another language you realize that others think differently. It’s very interesting when you think in another language you feel differently. And you want to share that with other people by translating.
RCBut then it gets lost in translation.
JCHRight. It’s no metaphor that you cannot get the joke (or not easily) from a translation. That’s why I think it’s an absolute miracle when any book written in another language thrives in an English translation. Just look at any movie with subtitles. It’s really hard to convey feelings or jokes in another language, let alone things that were funny hundred years ago. People feel differently in a different language and they felt differently than we do hundred years ago and even more 200 years ago. That’s why I’m always so reluctant to guess at how someone felt about anything. And I’ll give you an example.
When Beethoven’s Third Symphony came out a very common expression that people use to describe it was “brutal”. You see it in many, many reviews. And they were not being metaphorical. They found the sound of it to be literally punishing. And I’m not talking about effeminate princes and guys with powdered wigs. I mean everyone found it dissonant and loud and a lot like…
RCSwedish Death Metal?
JCHThat’s why I paused. I was trying to think of something today that would sound punishing to people. But even Swedish Death Metal doesn’t convey that because we don’t take it all that seriously.
RCYou mean that it’s sort of like professional wrestling, in that it’s theater?
JCHIt is? … er… right. It was no joke for Beethoven. He wanted to startle and alarm his audience. Overwhelm them. And we can’t hear that today. We hear the parts that they found truly shocking as these pleasant common sounds. In fact, I was thinking that there really isn’t any music that is truly shocking or brutal in that sense.
RCWell, music doesn’t do that anymore. You can make music so loud that it’s painful, but I can’t think of any music that would make me “fearful” or overwhelmed in any way. That sounds more like a horror movie to me.
JCHRight. When I was a punk in college I asked one of my professors if he knew of any classical music that was “brutal” because none of it sounded truly hardcore. That’s what got me thinking about this when I started noticing these audience quotes about Beethoven’s Third. I had been listening to King Crimson’s Larks Tongues In Aspic and for me, that was a watershed.
RCOur “classic”, I might add.
JCHIndeed. And the thing I noticed immediately about that version of the group was just how punishing the sound was. It had a dissonance and harshness that I hadn’t heard in any rock up to that point.
RCIt’s funny you mention that because I feel the same way. A lot of bands like Tool and other prog metal groups reach for that, but Fripp nailed it right out of the gate. I can’t think of anything heavier than 21st Century Schizoid Man or Larks Tongues In Aspic. It just doesn’t get any heavier. You can make it louder, you can tune it down, but you cannot make it any ‘heavier’.
JCHPreach, Brother. That’s the closest that I’ve come to hearing music in my day that sounds truly “brutal”. That was the reaction that Beethoven was going for. Anyhoo, so I ask my professor if he knows of any classical music that is “brutal” because I had heard, like ‘Rite Of Spring’ and even that stuff seems tame. He looked genuinely puzzled. So finally, he says, “I don’t think so. That’s not really what concert music is about.” And later I ran into him in the halls and he recommended a piece by Carl Ruggles called “Sun Treader”. And I went and I listened to it and it didn’t really grab me at the time so I totally forgot about it for 20 years.
But later on I started listening to other 20th-century American composers and guys like Ruggles and Charles Ives really did try to push the boundaries of dissonance. And my favorite anecdote about that… I love this… After a performance of one of Ruggles pieces where Ives was in the audience some of the people were complaining at the end that it was just too noisy and Ives stands up and says something like “You big, bunch of sissies! Shut up and take your dissonance like a man!”
RCNow that’s funny. And he wasn’t kidding.
JCHNo way. There was this whole generation of American composers who invented that ‘sound’ you hear in John Wayne movies. These guys really believed in the idea of masculine, red-blooded, American concert music.
RCI love it. Red blooded Americans. None of that French cookin’ for those boys.
JCHExactly. Ives sincerely felt that he was writing manly stuff. Like Hemingway. And it should have that ability to beat one down when necessary. And son, you best be able to take it! And as silly as it sounds, I agree. But I don’t know how to get there. You can make music louder you can add more distortion, but I don’t know how to make sounds anymore that feel like a punch to the solar plexus. That make people feel like Ludwig Van did in 18 oh whatever or Robert Fripp did in 1973. I wish I did.
RCMaybe that’s why music has become more about theatrics as you often say.
JCHSure. I don’t think that music in itself has that ability right now. And here’s the ironic part. The only way to hear Beethoven the way that people did back then is to study the music. In other words the more you hear and the more you learn about it the more shocking it becomes.
RCThat is kind of funny. I think of classical music lovers as, don’t take this the wrong way, people in bowties and saying “please pass the Grey Poupon”; not the kind of people you see it a Swedish Death Metal concert.
JCHExactly. But they’re both trying to get to the same thing: shock awe, baby. The more time you spend studying ‘The Eroica’, the more it feels like that punch to the solar plexus that you get at a screaming rock show. And I know no one will believe that because I wouldn’t have believed it up until I was like 40 or 45 and had been able to study the score and put myself back in that place a little bit.
But the important thing, the thing that has gotten lost is that Beethoven was trying to do pretty much the same thing as Fripp. Shock people. Punish them. Hit them in the chest.
RCI think you may be more into this whole S&M thing more than you realize…
JCHEasy, big boy. Make music that has this intellectual thing going on but also makes yer ears bleed.
RCWell, everything sounds dated after a while, right?
JCHI’m not sure. I don’t think Larks Tongues In Aspic sounds dated at all. I think it still has that punishing brutality right now. I think it stands up to anything that any metal group could do today.
RCYou’ll get no argument from me there. But are you prepared to put Larks Tongues In Aspic on the same artistic level as Beethoven?
JCHOnly in the sense that they both had that ability to shock and punish and be brutal and be creative technical achievements. Obviously Beethoven’s stuff is incomparable. But it’s the goal that matters. Beethoven was using a lot more advanced materials but it’s the same goal; to express some really intense feelings, to really make the audience have some emotions that I don’t think you can get to anymore with music.
RCYou really don’t think it’s possible to make music anymore that has that sense of “punishing”?
JCHI’ve tried, dude. And it’s brutal.