Monday, May 21, 2018

How we killed the art of long-form thinking


In 2015 Mathias Enard's novel Compass [Boussole] won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France and it was shortlisted in 2017 for the UK's Booker Prize. The novel's central character is a Viennese musicologist, and its epigraph quotes Wilhelm Müller as set by Schubert. In the first two pages Britten and Debussy are mentioned and the CD seen above of Rumi settings sung by Kurdish Iranian tenor Shahram Nazeri is cited with these words:
...the swirling melisma of the Iranian singer, whose power and timbre could make many of our tenors blush with shame... What strength in this piece of Nazeri's. What magical, mystical simplicity, this architecture of percussion that supports the slow pulsation of the song, the distant rhythms of the ectasy to be attained, a hypnotic zikr that sticks in your ears and stays with you for hours on end.
All of which makes it puzzling that Compass is off the radar of the classical taste makers. Or perhaps not so puzzling when it is realised that the novel ventures beyond the ubiquitous Mahlerian existential angst which defines the stereotype of fin de siècle Vienna, to explore the fault line where Friedrich Rückert and others rubbed up against Orientalism. That creative friction produced, inter alia Goethe's West–östlicher Divan, a collection of lyrical verse inspired by the Persian Sufi poet Hafez. Despite this, the lineage of Daniel Barenboim's West–Eastern Divan Orchestra remains obfuscated: in fact the first result returned by a Google search for 'West–Eastern Divan Orchestra Sufism' is my 2014 Salzburg Summer Festival essay Listening with the ear of the heart. At a time when precisely defined congeniality prevails, West-East harmony spins well but mystical Islam does not.

Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran are among the unexpected locations for this novel about a Viennese musicologist. Mathias Enard's 2010 novel Zone - hailed as one of the most significant novels of the century so far - comprises one single 500-page sentence. The eloquent and similarly long-form prose in the masterly English translation of Compass by Charlotte Mandell is a salutary reminder of the damage inflicted by online journalism and self-publishing. But it is not just writing skills that have been irreparably eroded by our online culture. As Compass reminds us, we have also lost the art of long-form thinking. Here is Mathias Enard on the Kindertotenlieder:
... as a teenager, it was the only piece by Mahler I could bear, and even more, it was one of the rare pieces that was capable of moving me to tears, the cry of the oboe, that terrifying song, I hid this passion like a slightly shameful defect and today it is very sad to see Mahler so debased, swallowed up by cinema and advertising, his handsome thin face so overused to sell God knows what, you have to keep from detesting his music that encumbers orchestra programmes, the bins of record dealers, radio stations, and last year, during the centenary of his death, you had to block your ears because Vienna oozed Mahler even through the most unexpected cracks, there were tourists wearing T-shirts with Gustav's effigy, buying posters, magnets for their fridges, and of course in Klagenfurt there was a crowd to visit his cabin by the Wörthersee...
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5 comments:

Pliable said...

Is £80 for the top price tickets for Barenboim and the West-East Divan Orchestra at Snape on August 13th a record for Aldeburgh?

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Mark said...

'Compass' is a superb novel. Though ultimately about a failed encounter, and with a narrator who fails all along the way, it covers a vast range of 'obscure'/obscured musics. I read it on holiday and came home with a notebook full of leads to follow up.

Pliable said...

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JMW said...

Perhaps a remedy lies in the opening image of Ken Russell's fantastic film "Mahler": from the pastoral quiet of Wörthersee, his cabin is suddenly and violently enveloped in flames synchronized to the sudden and violent G sharp minor chord from the first movement of the 10th Symphony. As the unnamed American soldier in Vietnam famously said, perhaps we'll have to burn it down to save it.

Pliable said...

Quite so John. And perhaps the same remedy can be applied to social media.