Monday, March 14, 2011

music + violence (part ii: torture)

As you know, I've been thinking about this quite a bit. My current project involves understanding classical music as a product of eighteenth century socio-cultural machinations that constructed the body as a primary locus for the transmission of “culture,” class, and power. In varying guises, physical conditioning and observation were utilized to formulate an ideal, “docile” body.

A good deal of this is inspired by Foucault (here! here!) and McClary (go! read it!), but recent exposure to The Beauty Myth has inspired further thought on the violent effect of disciplinary practices. I've referenced Wolff before, however in light of my current project on the subversive, sinister underpinnings of eighteenth century music, I would like to reference and reflect upon her description of the Iron Maiden and its contemporary analogue, the "modern hallucination" in which we (women) are currently entrapped.

Wolff describes the aesthetic duplicity, formal simplicity, and functional complexity of the Iron Maiden writing: "The original Iron Maiden was a medieval German instrument of torture, a body-shaped casket painted with the limbs and features of a lovely, smiling young woman. The unlucky victim was slowly enclosed inside her; the lid fell shut to immobilize the victim, who died either of starvation or, less cruelly, of the metal spikes embedded in her interior" [1]. Although Wolff likens the device to the very condition (and indeed conditioning) of women in the late twentieth century West [2], the analogy can--I believe--also be applied to eighteenth century music.

Indeed, aesthetic duplicity and formal simplicity provide apt descriptors for the music of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven (and yes, Stamitz). The wise and wonderful Arthur Schnabel once said, "Mozart is too easy for children, but too difficult for professionals." The equally wise and wonderful Alfred Brendel explains this stating that potential performers of Mozart's keyboard works "...either don't see the complications and think the pieces are too easy, or they do see the complications and find them too difficult." [3] Both Schnabel and Brendel articulate the expressive difficulties of eighteenth century music, however I would go further to say that it is this very aesthetic deception that contributes to disciplinary function.

Ostensibly innocuous, music of the classical period reflects those facets of human experience so valued by eighteenth century culture: pleasure, nature, facility, subversive control. Operating similarly to the Iron Maiden, these aspects of classical style pacify potential victims. Circumscribed by perfect proportions, golden means, and symmetrical sameness, both interpreters and listeners are entrapped and subsequently suffocated by an artform that valorizes an intrinsically unattainable ideal. Like the victims of the Iron Maiden, classical performers find a horrific end. It is the deception articulated by Brendel and Schnabel that so effectively ensnares performers and listeners. Fooled by a pleasing facade (the proverbial Iron Maiden), we become unwittingly implicated in and controlled by centuries-old disciplinary practices. We are tortured, contained, and insidiously transformed into instruments of control. Slowly--and indeed painfully--we acquiesce to hegemonic normative practices that reinforce hierarchical social structures based upon class, gender, and ethnicity.

However, where the Iron Maiden operates with relative swiftness, music of the classical era erodes its victims and their surrounding milieu over time. Insidious, its contemporary performance--as a violent practice--is indicative of our age of illusion. The repetition integrated in musical text and integral to effective performance (read: hours spent practicing) divorces the interpreter from musical meaning. Furthermore, the proliferation of recordings of every stripe dehumanize, decorporealize the act of music making. We are instruments in our own virtual deconstruction.

Thus, like victims of the most elegant medieval torture devices our flesh erodes slowly, we are left to vanish piece-meal into the ether: rotting piles of putrid matter.

[1] Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: W. Morrow, 1991. 17
[2] Ibid. "The modern hallucination in which women are trapped or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted. Contemporary culture directs attention to imagery of the Iron Maiden, while censoring real women's faces and bodies."



    friend/composer you should check out...