A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

DJ Sniff
Albrecht Dürer: Melencolia I (detail)

Hanging on the wall to my left as I write this is a small painting, on paper, by Edmand Lei, which I saw in a Vancouver gallery window a number of years ago. I was initially drawn to it, walking by, because of its simplicity, and depth – it’s mostly black, with a few clots and slashes of white and grey and an irregular column of white and grey covering the left hand margin. It seems to me both thoughtful and spontaneous in an undemonstrative abstract expressionist sort of way of dealing with space. I also associate with it a feeling of melancholy, although I can’t be sure if there’s something in the concept or execution of the painting that is suggestive of melancholy or I am projecting my own perspective onto it.

Recently, clarinetist Theo Jörgensmann and violinist Albrecht Maurer released a provocative record on the Nemu label, consisting of a nine-part suite with epilogue, entitled Melencolia. The connection with Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I is apparent; a portion of the 16th century engraving is reproduced in the CD package, and its significance proposed by Robert Bossard in his liner notes. The music, from a live performance that was, I suspect, mostly improvised with a few predetermined themes, has its pervasive charms and magnetic details. Jörgensmann and Maurer are exceptional musicians, experienced (together and separately), fluent, and imaginative, and the conceptual thread they’ve chosen here ties the individual pieces together with a common tone and attitude. Consistent to their point-of-view is a sense of exploratory probing; melodic material exposed, examined, and extended in twisting counterpoint. Their intertwined lines are intense but not flamboyant, rather, for the most part, contemplative, rhythmically free but occasionally alluding to archaic forms and harmonic movement – a violin drone under an angular clarinet, a jig (or gigue), a hardscrabble fantasia – subtle references, perhaps, to the music of Dürer’s time, and slightly after. One clue to their intent may come from the fact that on a previous Nemu release, Hidden Fresco, Maurer and duet partner Norbert Rodenkirchen improvised atypically, atemporally, on medieval instruments – fiddles, flutes, and chamber harp – and one particularly evocative piece was titled “Melancholia,” setting a precedent for the later program. Both albums contain unexpected and fascinating music, and certainly stand on their own, but what I equally appreciate about their vision is the breadth of associations – the whole damn history of melancholy – they set into motion.

Melancholy, it could be argued, is man’s natural state of mind – if thought of in terms of our need to contemplate the vagaries of existence. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates and his contemporaries believed that melancholy was one of the four physical ailments caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids (in this case an excess of black bile) which affected one’s mental state, but they attributed to it not only the inertia of sadness and despair but also the ecstatic powers of creativity. By the Middle Ages melancholy had in some circles become a metaphor for a sublime mode of existence characterized by knowledge, denial, and sacrifice, the latter two epitomized by the cult of chivalrous love which proscribed that the best and only true relationship was one of total devotion and total physical abstinence – the sweet pain of love as a non-contact sport. And yet, given their abbreviated expected life span, the persistent presence of plagues, wars, class inequality, religious persecution, and the lack of indoor plumbing, a little melancholic introspection makes perfect sense. In fact, it might be thought of as fun, a way to kill time, or at least an excuse for those pesky bursts of creative inspiration.

Thus Dürer’s engraving, circa 1514, which, in addition to the brooding artist/angel, head in hand (body language to be repeated endlessly in the future), contains a number of symbolic references to geometry, architecture, and the arts, including the numerical Magic Square, an image that would come to represent the mathematical devices employed by a select list of composers including Bach, Webern, Birtwistle, and Maxwell Davies, among others across the centuries. But if Dürer’s depiction can be seen as a bridge between medieval and modern attitudes, it is the curious polyhedron shape to the left – the uncarved block of artistic potential? or the unmotivated life? – which, in either case, as suggested by Laszlo Földenyi in his article “Melancholy and Abstraction” (sightandsound.com), replaces the traditional, familiar iconography of melancholy with a new “inscrutable” abstraction. And, as music is the most abstract of the arts, it is understandable how the great Elizabethan and Jacobean composers, for example, came to rapturously convey the melancholic passion that swept through English society in the century after Dürer.

“I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs,” says Jacques, a prototypical grouse, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Though composers of his day were primarily responsible for functional music – that is, for the church, and for the dance – gradually a refined, stylized, emotionally abstracted music came to popularity. In pieces like “Forlorn hope fancye,” “Farwell,” and his trademark “Semper Dowland, semper Dolens” (Ever Dowland, ever doleful), John Dowland’s lute music, with and without texts, provided a gloomy, dark, resigned parallel to the playwright’s haunted, inward-obsessed characters like Hamlet and Macbeth. Lutenist Paul O’Dette does a fine job of capturing the tone and spirit of Dowland’s various degrees of depression and diversion on his multi-volume Harmonia Mundi instrumental-only survey. Ironically, the improvisatory gestures and timbral elaboration which reedman John Surman and bassist Barry Guy, in conjunction with period-players, bring to his music on three ECM releases of The Dowland Project enhance rather than detract from their melancholy demeanor. Surman’s bass clarinet, especially, adds a noirish edginess to the chromatic curves of “Flow My Tears” and “In Darkness, Let Me Dwell,” and the bleak, shadowy ambiance is a chilling echo of T.S. Eliot’s lines in “The Hollow Men:” “Between the desire / And the spasm / Between the potency / And the existence / Between the essence / And the descent / Falls the Shadow.”

Eventually, Dowland’s exquisitely dour, sharply detailed lute songs would be overtaken by the lush, quivering, somber bowed sonorities of the viol consort, raised to expressive heights of despondency and woe by, among the dozen or so brilliant if comparable practitioners we know, such personal favorites as the wondrous strange William Lawes and Matthew Locke (think dissonances and weird modulations). In their idiosyncratic spirit, even more radically, contemporary British composer Peter Maxwell Davies has taken material and inspiration from similar 16th and 17th century sources and reconfigured them with fantasy, foxtrots, and Magic Square serialism, so that a work like his Tenebrae super Gesualdo offers a spooky abstraction of the distressed (and murderous) Italian’s dark mood even as patches of Gesualdo’s original music peer through the fog of time – a post-Freudian take on a timeless malady. The next step forward on the same path, though without the quotations from the past, would be Harrison Birtwistle’s Melencolia I, in which Dürer’s artist/angel protagonist (here portrayed by clarinet), stymied by metaphysical insecurity and self-doubt, must cope with a hostile, wayward, ever-changing environment, much the case then as now.

If Dowland’s songs were his century’s anticipation of the Delta blues (is it pure coincidence that both the 17th and the 20th centuries had a famous lute- / guitar-plucking Robert Johnson?), other related abstractions have flourished in our own time – not always easy to recognize, but even harder to place in context, given the 20th century’s preoccupation with anxiety and escapism (which requires a treatise on pop culture, fortunately not my job). Could Rachmaninoff’s morose and stormy “Prelude in C# minor” be heard as a severe and frustrated abstraction of Bach’s initially contemplative, gradually monumental “Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor?” Does Scott Joplin’s graceful, pensive “Solace – A Mexican Serenade” (or, for that matter, William Bolcom’s wistful “Graceful Ghost Rag,” penned some 60-odd years later) owe a debt to any of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas? (I’m thinking of K. 87.) What about the death-obsessed late violin and viola sonatas by Shostakovich? Where do the hopelessly desolate piano blues of Jimmy Yancey – once called “inconsolable” in a poem by Hayden Carruth – fit in? Or Mahler’s yearning? John Cage’s emotional abnegation? I’m not a big fan of the Romantics, but if you want to throw in Schubert and Chopin, Blake and Byron, feel free. The list is endless.

There are times I can look past the computer screen out my February window and see, as did Emily Dickinson, “…a certain Slant of light, / Winter afternoons - /that oppresses… / ‘Tis the Seal Despair….” It’s in the urban paintings of Edward Hopper and the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi. And, I think, in the Edmand Lei painting, though it’s not so obvious. It’s so much a part of our culture, and our cultural heritage, and hopefully reminds us to pay attention to what is meaningful, to what is fleeting, and to what lasts.

Art Lange©2011

> back to contents