On Monday evening I attended a performance of the opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers), by Bernd Alois Zimmermann. He began composing the piece in 1957, but it was not until 1965 that the first stage performance was produced. (Personally, I think I might go kind of nuts if I had to wait six years before hearing some music I’d written, but given the nature of the work, I doubt the delay came as much of a surprise to Zimmermann.) The opera is a classic of 12-tone technique, which means that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are permissible at any time, and none are emphasized over and above the others. This type of musical composition — initially devised by Arnold Schoenberg, then espoused and promoted by composers in the Second Viennese School, like Alban Berg and Anton Weberg — avoids being in any particular key, and thus, there is almost no conventional melody or harmony. To the ear, the notes appear almost random, though the textures change completely and wonderfully throughout. How the singers can memorize atonal, seemingly random sequences of notes is beyond me — it’s an inhuman exercise, a kind of sadomasochism perpetrated by the composer on the poor singers. Indeed the opera may contain organizing structures, but for most of us in the audience, they remained inscrutable.
The playbill refers to the piece as both a monument and a tombstone, since music in this genre couldn’t really develop any further. With this opera, the end of the road had been reached: like a Finnegan’s Wake of classical music, an aesthetic and formal investigation was carried to it’s logical — and some might say ridiculous — extreme. Joyce’s novel is just about as unreadable as this music is, for many, almost unlistenable. Funny that in the visual arts, it turned out a little differently: that same all-over chaos, no-holds-barred and no-rules-apply aesthetic resulted in works which many now find beautiful and pleasant to behold. (I think the same is true of the late 70s, early 80s No Wave bands, whose noisy music could only be enjoyed in short bursts, yet their artist friends expressing similar impulses became hugely successful.)
Despite being pretty much tuneless, the opera is far from chaotic. It opens with a sustained roar from the over one hundred person orchestra similar to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” a piece most of us first heard in the psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opera’s orchestral textures continue to mutate, and sometimes all the notes and instruments seem to be sliding from one to another, without regard to harmony of course. The effect is disorienting, as if the earth is being tilted and everything is sliding to and fro, and I assume this was his intention. At another point, low gurglings evoke the stomach rumblings of an invisible giant, and sometimes surprisingly gentle plinks and plonks sound almost pretty, but for their lack of melody and harmony.
Later, a lounge band plays on stage while the orchestra provides a dissonant counterpoint. At the finale, the volume ramps up with the addition of prerecorded industrial sounds and finally climaxes in a dissonant roar even more massive than the one at the beginning, which all implies the collapse of something very, very big. So, although there are no tunes to speak of, there is still plenty going on musically, and aside from fairly tedious dialogue scenes, the actions moves along fairly rapidly for an opera.
There are lots of books exploring what the fuck happened with 20th century classical music, when many composers willfully sought to alienate the general public and create purposefully difficult, inaccessible music. Why would they do anything that perverse? Why would they not only make music that was hard to listen to, but also demand, as in the case of Zimmerman, that the piece be performed on twelve separate stages simultaneously, with the addition of giant projection screens and other multimedia aspects? Were these composers competing to see whose works could be heard and performed the least? Why would anyone do that?
Having closely observed the behavior of New York’s downtown, avant-garde music scene for a few decades, I can say that this impulse is not limited to academic classical composers. There are many musicians and composers of experimental works who seemingly compete for the title of most obscure and most difficult for the listener, and even record collectors like to play along. In this world, any trace of popularity, however slight, is distasteful and to be avoided at all costs. Should a work become unexpectedly accessible, the artist must then follow the piece with something completely perverse and disgusting, encouraging members of the new, undesired audience to walk away shaking their heads, leaving behind the core of pure and hardy aficionados. This is elitism of a different sort. If one can’t be fêted by the handful of patrons at the Met, then one can be just as elite by cultivating an audience equally rarified in the completely opposite direction. Extreme ugliness and unpleasantness becomes the mirror image of extreme luxury and beauty.
Zimmerman, Schoenberg and a few others eventually saw their works performed, though not often. I visited the preparations for this performance about a year ago in Bochum, an industrial town in the Ruhr valley of Germany. The town’s former steel foundries closed down one by one throughout the post-war decades, and the vast, empty hangers and steel buildings are being converted into cultural spaces, mainly for performance. I was there to perform in a former foundry, and the old gas power plant, Jahrhunderthalle (or, Hundred Year Hall) was being refitted for a production of Die Soldaten.
Given the shape of the hall, I suspect that the production team decided that an unconventional staging would work best. As one can surmise, building a stage at only one end of this massive building leaves much of the audience ridiculously far away. So, in keeping with Zimmerman’s dream of “total theater,” the team employed an innovative alternative. They built a ramp that ran the entire length of the space, and at one end there was bleacher seating on either side. In front of the bleachers were rails, and the idea was to move the audience alongside the runway and the action would take place in stages. The German government subsidizes theater with massive grants, and the public has grown accustomed to weird, massive, innovative productions — but this one was rare even in that world.
This staging was recreated in the Park Avenue Armory here in New York. The choreographed scenes — with marching soldiers, bar patrons, society louts and others — were, well, horrific and beautiful, like George Grosz paintings come to life.
In one scene, a group of bourgeois businessmen in pig masks lurch along the runway followed by two guys in Santa outfits, one of whom rapes a young woman screaming ceaselessly. When I saw the approach of the evil Santas, I got all excited — we’d suddenly descended into slasher movie territory. Killer Klowns: The Opera! The folks around me did not seem amused; I’d never seen so much seersucker in one place in my life.
Still from the video "Die Soldaten: Opera in the Armory" on NYTimes.com
Another visual featured an incredibly bright HMI light at the far end of the runway, like an evil, cold sunlight piercing a smoky world. Very cool looking.
Sometimes the music was even ironic. At the end of an act, one poor character, abandoned by his lover for a sneaky baron, howls, “I’m not mad!” But the music, a sustained piercing note from the strings insists, “Oh, yes you are.”
Thankfully, the in-between scenes detailing the melodrama of a fallen and betrayed young woman are not too long, and regularly interrupted by choreographed pigs, Santas, topless women and men in bath towels.
It’s almost disappointing that all this fuss centers around one womanl, and the cruel Baron who betrays her. Faced with such wild, unearthly sound, one expects at least a plague of Biblical proportions, or an alien invasion, or the end of life as we know it. If only one could jettison the Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz play from which the opera was adapted, and substitute something more earth shaking or chilling. OK, maybe he wants this girl’s degradation to stand in for all the horrors of post-war Germany, but it just doesn’t quite do it these days.
Back to the music. The use of the orchestra defies traditional expectations, employed here as a massive sound effect machine. Rumbles, groans, roars and shrieks replace melody, and sometimes this sounds OK. We’ve grown accustomed to this kind of music these days, although not from operas or classical music halls. We’ve heard these sounds in movies and on TV, like the scene in 2001 that I mentioned previously. Bernard Herrmann, the film composer, was a contemporary of Schoenberg, and both were on a similar 12-tone musical road when they found themselves in LA. Herrmann was much more accommodating to the demands of producers and directors, and though he kept a surprising amount of creative control, his style varied considerably. Even so, one can hear elements of the 12-tone ethos in the shrieking violins of Psycho, and the bombastic theramins of The Day The Earth Stood Still. Schoenberg, predictably the greater purist, had relatively little success in movies.
We’ve become habituated to the use of atonal chords, weird, high suspended notes, and creepy plunks and plinks. In every apocalyptic sci-fi, horror and suspense movie for instance, this music warns us that something incredibly bad is about to happen — so, say your prayers now, ‘cause da creepy music has started.
As classical music followed this bizarre, perverted road for some half of the 20th century, the audiences left in droves. I hope the composers were pleased, because it seems they got what they wanted in that respect. Their compositional ideas live, and even thrive in movies; but as a form of music and music-theater, they simply died — rumbling and roaring all the way.