Scholarly article on topic 'Understanding Otherness Through Music'

Understanding Otherness Through Music Academic research paper on "Art (arts, history of arts, performing arts, music)"

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Abstract of research paper on Art (arts, history of arts, performing arts, music), author of scientific article — Emanuele Ferrari

Abstract The present paper will focus on three, specific musical examples, in order to show: How the relationship between identity and otherness can be actually observed in a piece of music. Example 1) Stravinsky, Tango.How music can give voice to emotions that are others but not alien. Example 2) Debussy, Serenade for the Doll.How humour and playfulness in music can play down any rhetorical approach to the origin as “the true identity”. Example 3) Johann Strauss, Czardas from The Bat.

Academic research paper on topic "Understanding Otherness Through Music"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 47 (2012) 674 - 678 —


Understanding otherness through music

Emanuele Ferrari

Universita degli Studi di Milano Bicocca, edificio U16 via Thomas Mann 8, 20162 Milano ++390270631019


The present paper will focus on three, specific musical examples, in order to show:

1) How the relationship between identity and otherness can be actually observed in a piece of music. Example 1: Stravinsky, Tango.

2) How music can give voice to emotions that are others but not alien. Example 2: Debussy, Serenade for the Doll.

3) How humour and playfulness in music can play down any rhetorical approach to the origin a s "the true identity". Example 3: Johann Strauss, Czardas from The Bat.

Keywords: Music, education, otherness, emotions.

1. Introduction

The musical language is a sophisticated means of expression: on the one side, it is necessarily rooted in the composer's cultural milieu; on the other side, however, it has an amazing capacity to take on forms that come from the surrounding world, assuming new shapes and identities.

This relationship between identity and otherness can reach extraordinary levels of artistic perfection, providing a precious opportunity for a lifelong education to the globalized world. I'll try to analyze three pieces where this happens in such a significant way that music seems to invite the listener not only to hear, but also to think and, possibly, to learn something.

2. Feeling at home abroad: Stravinsky's Tango

The tango is a well-known genre of music, developed outside the European, classical tradition. It comes from Argentine, popular music. Nevertheless, its ritualistic, highly stylized character has sometimes attracted classical composers: Stravinsky's Tango for piano (1940) is an interesting example. This piece is not an ordinary tango, as its author is not an argentine composer, rooted in South American tradition. On the contrary, his background is that of a cultivated Russian person before the revolution, enlarged by many years of European experience. Thus, in a sense, this is not a natural product, something that simply grows from the roots of a tree. Its relationship to Argentine popular tangos is the same as the relationship between a photograph and the reality it depicts (Ferrari, 2011). Nothing in this piece is naive, nor are we supposed to listen to it in a naive way. Actually, Stravinsk's Tango tells us perhaps more about the composer than about tango music itself.

The beginning (mm. 1-8) is an introduction that brings the listener into the magic circle of tango, creating a well-defined atmosphere. Here we find some typical features of the tango that Stravinsky emphasizes, such as dark tones - the fascinating but severe sound - the rhythmical inexorability, and the dignified, nearly off-putting attitude. In the


1877-0428 © 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Huseyin Uzunboylu doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.06.715

following episode (mm. 9-12), Stravinsky emphasizes another typical character of the tango, the alloy of coldness and sensuality; it's a strange, paradoxical sensuality without intimacy that every viewer experiences watching Tango dancers: the bodies cling to each other, but the souls keep some distance. Then, something subtle but fundamental happens (mm. 13-15): the melody changes its nature. We understand that better if we imagine to hear the same melody sung at a lower pitch by a choir of black dressed monks. It sounds like a Gregorian chant, or, more precisely, it evokes the ancient, orthodox chant of the Russian church. The amazing thing is that this change is seamless: there are no changes in the atmosphere, and the liturgical insertion does not interfere with the tango, which goes on undeterred: it is the tango itself that turns into a prayer, without losing its nature.The result is original and bears the mark of Stravinsky: it is not a quotation, but a personal memory of the composer. Following the pun of one of the composer's most famous friends, the choreographer George Balanchine, we could say this melody is not a Gregorian, but... an "Igorian" chant (Stravinsky & Craft, 1982). And so, in the middle of a foreign country, Stravinsky, the Russian, finds his roots again (Kundera, 1993).

3. "Other" emotions: Debussy's Serenade for the Doll

Music can give voice to our emotions, our feelings. That's an obvious statement: almost everyone will agree this is the main reason we love and listen to music. However, what if the emotions at issue are not ours? The question is not as crazy as it seems at first glance (Ferrari, 2008). The history of music is full of pieces where something (the title, the lyrics, the libretto, the dramatic situation) compels the composer to imagine musical expressions suitable to something wholly other. A good example is Mozart's music for the statue of the Commander in the final part of Don Giovanni. How can (that is "sing", in an opera) the soul of a righteous man, murdered, departed and now back on earth to get revenge on the villain possibly speak? None of us can answer from his experience, thus Mozart is forced to invent a brand new musical expression for the occasion (Carapezza, 2004, pp. 144-145). The result is well known: a sinister, powerful speech, which combines the fixity of an inorganic body (the statue), the elusive remoteness of an unearthly essence (the Commander's soul) and the unfailing determination of an iron will (the will of revenge). Here we are confronted with otherness, but not with emotions, as the Commander is not supposed to have an interiority: what he stands for, coming for the other world, supersedes what he feels. But there are situations where, facing an "other" universe, the point at issue is precisely the emotion. This is the case of Serenade for the Doll, third of Debussy's Children's Corner. This piece gives voice to the dialogues between the doll mentioned in the title, and a rocking horse evoked by the music's gait, playfully if gently swinging throughout. Once again, how can two characters like this express themselves? As I mentioned above in an "other" language. This time, however, the otherness is not those of Hereafter, but the one of the magical dimension of childhood. "Other", here, means therefore "different from the adult speech" built for the rational domination of the world. Unlike Mozart, this otherness unfolds on the emotional ground, more than on the syntactic one. As far as composing technique is concerned, this music is less disconcerting of Mozart's; nevertheless, the universe of subtle feeling it encloses is equally distant from the everyday rationality. By and large, the whole Childre's Corner is spiritually very close to the later Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, so much so that, quoting from the book, also Debussy's piece would seems to be conceived only for the very few adults who can.. .distinguish the picture of a hat from the one of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant (Saint-Exup^, 1943). Moreover, Serenade of the Doll goes one step further: within the universe of childhood, here the point at issue is the eloquence of what is apparently inanimate. Wood, lacquer and other inert materials come magically to life, but only for those who can see - and hear them. At the mysterious boundary between human and mechanical, the doll and the rocking horse use a sort of encrypted frequency to communicate, full of subtle nuances. If we can tune on it, we get partial access to another universe of feelings (Migliaccio, 1997, p. 198). In an amazed and enchanting atmosphere, Debussy succeeds in giving musical form to the unspeakable confidence that - as we can suppose - reigns between a rocking horse and a doll, to the nameless feelings they share: the estranged melancholy of the former, the elusive and unattainable coquetry of the latter, the secret pathos that never gets overt expression, and many other niceties that the verbal language would be incapable to catch. These emotions are others but not alien: we can recognize them and respond to them, while respecting their otherness. The most touching point of this sophisticated process is perhaps the passionate declaration of love played by the left hand (mm. 93-101) before the last recapitulation of the first theme. On the one side, it is a confession made by the rocking horse to the doll; on the other side, however, the solemn introduction,

the deep "human" sound that reminds of the warm voice of a cello, and the narrative attitude give the listener the illusion of hearing, only for a while, the voice itself of Debussy. If the graceful and fragile doll is a symbol of lost childhood, we are maybe allowed to imagine that, in this yearning declaration of love, for a brief moment the voice of the rocking horse and the voice of the author, that is the magic and the real world, are but one.

4. Paradoxes of identity in Strauss's Csardas: blood willout?


Klrnge der Heimat,

Ihr weckt mir das Sehnen,

Rufet die Tränen

Ins Auge mir!

Wenn ich euch höre,

Ihr heimischen Lieder,

Zieht mich's wieder,

Mein Ungarland, zu dir!

O Heimat so wunderbar,

Wie strahlt dort die Sonne so klar!

Wie grün deine Wälder,

Wie lachend die Felder,

O land, wo so glücklich ich war!

Ja, dein geliebtes Bild

Meine Seele so ganz erfüllt,

Dein geliebtes Bild!

Und bin ich auch von dir weit, ach weit,

Dir bleibt in Ewigkeit

Doch mein Sinn immerdar

Ganz allein geweiht!

O Heimat so wunderbar,

Wie strahlt dort die Sonne so klar!

Wie grün deine Wälder!

Wie lachend die Felder,

O Land, wo so glücklich ich war!

Feuer, Lebenslust,

Schwellt echte Ungarbrust,

Heil! Zum Tanze schnell,

Csardas tönt so hell!

Braunes Mägdelein

Musst meine Tänz'rin sein;

Reich den Arm geschwind,

Dunkeläugig Kind!

Durst'ge Zecher,

Greift zum Becher,

Lasst ihn kreisen

Schnell von Hand zu Hand!

Schlürft das Feuer

Im Tokayer,

Bringt ein Hoch

Aus dem Vaterland! Ha!

Feuer, Lebe

Schwellt echte Ungarbrust,

Sounds of my homeland, You awaken my longing, Call forth tears To my eyes! When I hear you You songs of home, You draw me back, My Hungary, to you! O homeland, so wonderful, How clearly shines the sun there! How green your forests,

How laughing the fields,

Oh land, where I was so happy!

Yes, your beloved image

Entirely fills my soul,

Your beloved image!

And though I am far from you, ah so far,

Yours remains for all eternity

My soul, ever there,

Dedicated to you alone!

Oh homeland so wondrous,

How clearly shines the sun there!

How green your forests!

How laughing your fields!

Oh land, where I was so happy!

Fire, zest for living,

Swell the true Hungarian breast,

Hurrah! On to the dance,

The Csardas sounds so brightly!

Brown-skinned girl,

You must be my dancer;

Give me your arm quickly,

Dark-eyed child!

Thirsty tipplers,

Grasp the cup,

Pass it in a circle

Quickly from hand to hand!

Slurp the fire

In the Tokay,

Give a toast

From the fatherland! Ha!

Fire, Zest for life

Swell the true Hungarian breast,

Heil! Zum Tanze schnell! Csárdás tönt so hell! La, la, la, la, la!

Hurray! To the spirited dance The csardas sounds loud and clear! La, la, la, la, la!

Translation by Lea Frey. Copyright 1998, Lea Frey.

In Strauss's The Bat (Die Fledermaus), Act two, a cunning woman, Rosalinde, is chasing her unfaithful husband Gabriel. The latter is enjoying a party at prince Orlofsky's house in Vienna, eager to find new love adventures. Rosalinde pops up in the middle of the crowd of Orlofsky's highborn guests, disguised as a Hungarian noblewoman. At first the trick works: blinded by lust, Gabriel starts to court herwithout sensing the trap, but at some point some guests, suspicious of Rosalinde's masque, question the true identity of the unknown woman, jeopardizing her plans of vengeance. Who can guarantee she is really Hungarian? Music, is the answer. What follows is the well known Csárdás "Sounds of my homeland", meant as a witness above suspicion, an irrefutable proof of the true Hungarian origins of the mysterious woman.

Music is the voice of truth, this is the assumptions that underlies this wonderful scene. After all, blood can't lie, and here music is considered almost equivalent of blood: something that flows in one's veins, rooted in the inner depths of soul, naturally expressing - and revealing - one's most genuine feelings. A most reliable identity mark. In its own turn, this assumption is rooted in a larger ground, which I would call the myth of the origins (Bloch, 1949). This is the idea of a congenital relationship between some human attitudes or skills, and one's place of provenance: even nowadays, we happen to talk about the sense of rhythm of Afro-American people, the aptitude of Gypsies to music, and so on. Well, we have already seen Stravinsky, the Russian, writing a Tango, but now we could reverse the perspective considering the "Russian" episode of that Tango as a sort of symptom, a Freudian slip that betrays the true origin of the composer (of course, this is not my idea). True will out, in short. But what about Strauss's Csárdás? Are we supposed to find out a fault in the mechanism, the imperfection that mars the illusion and restores the true? It's interesting to note that Strauss himself seems to have faced the same difficulty: lots of friends advised him against writing a Csárdás, arguing that only a Hungarian composer could write a genuine one. So, the myth of origins connects to another one: the myth of genuineness. True Hungarian music comes from true Hungarian composers, as well as true Hungarian blood flows only in true Hungarian veins (Baumann, 2000, p. 205). Strauss, however, took the risk, and in the end also Hungarian listeners (here is another myth: "we are the best judges of our identity") acknowledged that the imitation was perfect (Jovino, 1985). Indeed, not an imitation, rather a forgery, as the key point here is authenticity.

Rosalinde's Csárdás follows the typical pattern of this genre of music: the piece is clearly divided into two parts. The first part, as far as both music and words are concerned, is suffused by homesickness; the singer evokes the beloved image of her homeland, longing for seeing it again. The text gives this idea great emphasis, shifting the tone towards quite a sentimental register. The music, for its part, perfectly expresses the sense of yearning and nostalgia for the Great Hungarian Plain, evoking space, remoteness and solitude, with intense and passionate feeling. The slow movement allows the sound to expand... and reach your soul, This first part of any Csárdás is named Lassu. Then, the rush: the Hungarian soul is bipolar, alternating the lyrical attitude with "fire" (according to the text) and "zest for living". An unstoppable, joyful impulse to dance seizes the singer, infects the audience, and dispels any doubt about Rosalinde's origins. This part of Csárdás, in fast tempo, is called Friss.

Thus, we could conclude that music can lie, that not always "blood will out", and that Strauss's Csárdás is at the same time a wonderful piece of music and a wonderful piece of... humorous critical essay. But there is more to say. Paradoxically, the alleged Hungarian manner that Strauss achieved to recreate, recognized as such by everyone, was far from being "the real one"! The issue is very complex and not to be treated here. I'll just note that the real Hungarian country folk music would have been discovered much later, in the next century, also thanks to the researches of Bartok and Kodaly (Castronuovo, 1995). What at Strauss's time was considered Hungarian music, was a sort of international Gypsy style, transmitted from a generation to another and carried around Europe by ensembles and bands. Hungarian cultivated composers also wrote in that "national" style, and so did great musicians abroad when writing in the Hungarian manner. Good examples of this international style, ruled by a number of conventions, are for instance Brahms's Hungarian Dances, or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. As we have seen before, the core of this manner is the polarity between slow, lyrical and nostalgic attitude, and wild frenzy for dance. We find this stereotyped image also in Liszt verbal descriptions of his encounter with Gypsies during his journey to Hungary in

1840. In particular, the attitude of flesh and blood men and woman is depicted in too a similar way to what "Hungarian" music conventionally does when passing from the slow part of a piece to the fast part, not to arouse suspicions:"Flying to their violins and cymbals, they began a real fury of excitement. The friska was not long in rising to frenzy of exultation, and than almost to delirium. In its final stage it could only be compared to that vertiginous and convulsive writhing motion which is the culmination point in the Dervish ecstasy". (Walker, 1983, p. 335)

To sum up: we have a nation, Hungary, the folk music of which is unknown abroad. Instead, the function of representation, at home and abroad, is taken on by a single feature of its musical heritage: the Gypsy music. This particular feature, in the hands of great, cultivated Western composers, becomes a system of shared conventions, that is to say an international style. This style is taken as a model by Strauss in order to compose a convincing forgery. The operation succeeds, and the result is hailed as genuine and authentic, within the fiction (by Orlowsky's suspicious guests, fully convinced by Rosalinde's performance) as well in real live! (Strauss's severe critics).

I'll finish observing that the power of myth (to quote Campbell famous essay) is so great that it goes beyond the musical field. In Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut Alice, a very beautiful woman, is at a party. Alone, waiting for her husband, she idly sips champagne and puts the glass on a table. A handsome middle-aged man with a slight Central European accent takes the cup and drinks slowly and voluptuously, looking shamelessly into her eyes as he does so. "I think that's my glass" Alice faintly complains: "I'm absolutely certain of it" is the man's surprising answer. The strange fellow goes on quoting Ovidio's The art of love, in a overt attempt to seduce Alice. He is clearly playing the mysterious knife, bold and unblushing but also subtle and passionate: a strong, fascinating personality, charming if elusive. After a while, with calculate timing, like a gambler who plays his best card, he introduces himself: "By the way, my name is Sandor Szabo. I'm Hungarian." Needless to say, even this time the brand of origin is not a quality guarantee. The exotic seducer quickly turns out to be nothing but a sleazy predator: in spite of the sophisticated aura of charm provided by his alleged origins, all he wants is sex.

Though apparently distant from our subject, this scene supports our case: music's identity, as well as human identity, is not a natural phenomenon, a mere product of a sum of conditions. Its structure is sophisticated, elusive, complex, and combines features coming from reality, culture and imagination. Art can manipulate and counterfeit it, playing and reshuffling cards; in this way, it offers us a precious, if disturbing, distorting mirror in which we can see others and question ourselves endlessly.


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