Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/25/2011

A bizarre 2011 (inner) space odyssey

The world’s most famous organ chord is the giant C major chord hanging at the end of the opening gambit of Richard Strauss’ Symphonic tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra. It’s famous because the gambit is the music of the electrifying opening of Stanley Kubric’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey

The organ chord is deleted in the film, but millions of film buffs have bought recordings of the Strauss (1864-1949). In 1968 although I was as much an escapist as anyone else, I was one of three people on the planet who thought the movie was silly. (I still do, by the way.) I was much more drawn to Kubric’s Clockwork Orange three years later. It is real violence and insanity to sink one’s teeth into. 

Millions of film buffs also read Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra because they discovered Strauss’ music is inscrutably a setting of that inscrutable work.  Kubric’s use of Strauss at the  opening of his film is a fairly obvious move. Strauss wrote in the score these words from the Prologue of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,–and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it: Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest! (1) 

Recently I heard the Dallas Symphony Orchestra perform the Strauss, Roberto Minczuk conducting, and Mary Preston playing that chord full organ on the Meyerson Symphony Center organ. Even though the audience knew the chord was coming, everyone was caught off guard and—OK, I’ll be corny—thrilled by that sound. It’s as powerful and unambiguous as a musical moment can be, and the Meyerson organ seems to have been built for it. The hearers become “those for whom thou shinest.” Look. I’m not being maudlin or a drama queen. It just is what it is. Which is why it’s so popular. 

The entire work is more ambiguous. After that opening gambit, the C major tonality gets swept aside in a sort of battle among keys, ending with a struggle between the C major and B major—a gratingly unrelated key—that simply disappears into thin air at the end without any resolution. Strauss composed the work in 1896 when such tonal ambiguity was challenging to audiences (today’s audiences don’t even hear it). Joseph Kerman says that a 

. . . historical moment of great importance in the history of [music] theory was the advent of modernism in the years around 1900. . . the full articulation of tonal theory occurred only at the time when the principles underlying tonal music seemed to be under attack. . . . The menacing figure after 1890 was perceived to be Richard Strauss (2). 

Late 19th-century music theorists such as Heinrich Schenker were (at long last in the history of the development of the language of Western music) beginning to explain how music works, and all the rules were being destroyed. Strauss was among the destroyers. 

What Schenker might have thought of the central work on the DSO concert—the premiere of “Symphony No. 4 (An Organ Symphony)” by Danish composer Poul Ruders—is pointless speculation. The work is large-scale and complex, and its premier using the Meyerson organ perfect. My uncharacteristic use of “thrilling” to describe the concert applies both to the Strauss and the Ruders.  The work is not constructed on any of the patterns of musical expectation Schenker described or Strauss used as his musical language. If the “principles underlying tonal music seemed to be under attack,” and Strauss was the menacing, attacking figure in 1890, the attack has come to completion. Tonal music is (to many composers) a relic of the past. Or, that is, music that audiences can hear as “tonal.” 

All of that is common knowledge. 

The “thrill” of that C Major chord is still—after reading and studying for fifty years at least—a mystery to me. I have experienced the thrill many times in my own playing, almost always in practice when no one is close to interfere with my concentration. This is not going to degenerate into an essay on the esthetics or meaning or glory or whatever of music. I’m not sure how to connect what I’ve already written to the idea I had in mind at the outset but is not yet on this page. 

A few evenings ago I was slouched in my favorite couch potato position, a cat on either side, aware no self-respecting scholar or musician or grown-up member of the accepted social order would be where I was, disheveled and unmotivated and wasting time watching something on TV that would have been an embarrassment if anyone saw me. 

How does one know what one’s mind experiences? 

I was pondering my situation, my immediate activity (or lack of activity) as well as the bigger picture of my general confusion and my lack of success and direction, and my inability to feel tethered to reality. I was not judging myself, simply observing. I have small care for or interest in “success” or “direction,” or “reality.” Conversely, I’m nearly convinced that none of those things even exist. What is success? The most success I’m interested in is managing to be sheltered and fed for as long as my body, mind, and spirit remain here. 

This is the point at which I should stop writing and/or you should stop reading. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

My slouching consciousness, without warning, converged into a point and came to rest inside my forehead looking inward toward my brain, and I saw my whole self and all my thoughts and all I have ever felt and an exact picture of who I am. The experience was dumbfounding, more complex and powerful than I can describe—I’m grateful for that because if I could fully describe it, one of my relatives or friends would be sure to make arrangements for my involuntary admission to some care facility. The experience was absolute. Terrifyingly real. Bizarre.

. . . psychological organization will always be as ‘good’ as the prevailing conditions allow. In this definition the term “good” is not defined. It embraces such properties as regularity, symmetry, simplicity and others. . . (3)   

I know nothing about gestalt psychology (and Meyer’s interpretations are obviously outdated). However, he says we constantly look for patterns because “the mind is constantly striving toward completion and stability of shapes.” 

My mind, since that couch potato evening, has been striving for the completion and stability of shapes.  That C Major chord came along at the exact right moment for me. I know—I remember—that chord. Since 

. . . music is an art which is essentially without external referents, these [memory] processes occur within a more or less closed system, and memory operates either between different musical experiences or between different parts of the same experience (4). 

It’s not the film. It’s not Nietzsche. It’s not even the rest of the Strauss work. That moment of the unambiguous C Major chord is what I long for in music, that moment when my mind can stop
“striving toward completion” because it has found it. My mind knows the meaning of that C Major chord in the Strauss and in the film. But more important, it simply remembers the stability of C Major when it most needs the memory.
(1) Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book For All And None. Intr. Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche. Trans. Thomas Common. Weimar: Nietzche Archives, 1905. Publicliterature.Org. 2007. Web. 24. Jan 2011.
(2) Kerman, Joseph. Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985. (69).
(3) Koffka, Kurt. Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.: 1935 (110). Quoted in: ) Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956 (86-87).
(4) Meyer (89).


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