Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dreams, Piano and the Tyrant of Men

Lebensessenz is a pianist and songwriter who presently lives in Brazil, but would like to get gigs in the U.S. While his music is often lyrical and compelling, what's just as compelling is the intense personal story behind the compositions.

You can get hints of that story both in Lebensessenz's song titles and in his autobiographical essay "A Monologue About Lebensessenz," which can be found on his My Space page.

Lebensessenz says the motifs of the music are derived both from his "hard times" and "strong emotions." The hard times sometimes find musical expression in songs about dreams. (At least three songs have the word "dream" in the title.) The "strong emotions" aren't necessarily negative; for instance, Lebensessenz cites "happiness" (and perhaps in particular happiness over the recent birth of his daughter) as one of them.

But what's usually underlying his music is a keen sense of, and sadness about, loss or abandonment. Hard times related to loss have made Lebensessenz's music sensitive to matters related to love, intimacy and the denial of these. He's written a song cycle on The Sorrows of Young Werther — the best known literary work about unrequited love. And one gets an almost physical impact from the starkness of his 2008 CD title: "Tu deorum hominumque tyranne, Amor!" ("You, Love, Tyrant of Gods and Men." One of the record's songs is titled "Cruelty.")

As for the losses and abandonments that shook him hardest, in his essay he's explicit that these relate to his treatment at the hands of a distant father and to two important intimate relationships that ended badly. One reason we know the almost constant distance and apparent indifference of the father are important is that Lebensessenz writes a great deal about his feelings of rejection and sense of inattention on the part of his father and the effects of those feelings on Lebensessenz’s composing and compositions.

His father, who was, he says, a "fabulous musician," didn't live with him. The father, who was big on music theory, felt his son "needed to play with the correct methods" -- not something Lebensessenz was keen on at the time. As time passed, says Lebensessenz, "I wanted his help and his teaching, but, through a reason that I don't know," the father didn't want the same thing.

Even when the father was present, he seemed somehow absent. We are told he didn't comment on the early recordings of his son's music. “Why doesn't he say anything about what I do?" wonders the son. "It hurt me so much, but with time I just tried to forget it."

The result of all this was a son who was self-taught when it came to playing the piano. After the son’s composing began, the Father did, at one point, overhear the son playing the composition "Der Walzer von Lotte" ("Lotte's Waltz" – one of Lebensessenz’s most moving pieces and a surprisingly energetic work). The father told Lebensessenz 's mother that the songs were "sounding good." This Is the first time the father is seen as being aware and attentive to his son. It’s a moment Lebensessenz will mention more than once.

In a song cycle based on Schiller’s work The Robbers ("Die Rauber"), one song, “The Letter,” is about a character in the Schiller novel who writes a letter asking to be forgiven by his father. The son experiences "anxiety waiting for an answer."

Part of the result of Lebensessenz’s father’s distance and apparent indifference is the composer’s feeling of loss of the father. In the long process of creation behind the body of Lebensessenz’s work, there are times of fragmentation and total loss, at least as far as the work is concerned. He says that two early tapes of his music got lost in mysterious ways. In 2006, he says, he started to write a romance, but, in a statement that is itself mysterious, he says the romance now exists only in fragments.

Both in his writing and music titles, Lebensessenz makes frequent reference to states one easily associates with a sense of inattention at the hands of a valued object, or rejection by, distance from, loss of, such an object. The composer returns and returns to references to night, solitude, melancholy. "Most of my compositions,” he tells us, “emerged through nocturnal moments." The waltz Lebensessenz writes based on material in Werther is danced in the night. In 2005 he uses a computer to compose "Der Abend des Abschields" ("Farewell Night"). The title’s twin reference to night and separation is linked to music built on "longing, platonic passions" – the sort of passions one can develop for much sought-after objects who aren’t available. A 2006 composition is titled "Das Drama de Einsamkeit" (“The Drama of Solitude).”

When he became an adult, Lebensessenz asked his father "to help" him "with some exercises, but he was not so interested." He rationalizes his father’s lack of interest by considering that the father may think the son will lose interest. There is, perhaps, more rationalizing; in "refusing to help me,” writes Lebensessenz, the father wanted to give him “an answer to find my own way"

As years pass, Lebensessenz will engage in rationalization about his father that is more elaborately conceived and less convincing; he will state that he’s come to the realization that his father’s "silence of old times had its importance. He said few things, but it was sufficient ... “ And at about the time Lebensessenz realized this, he experienced a loss whose existence we don’t need to conjecture about: “In the same year, I lost him." In 2009, he is still rationalizing for the father; his album is titled Ihr Leben war fur mich ein Beispiel" ("Your Life Was An Example To Me"). But one song is titled "Days of Voluntary Exile." The solitude that has so often been the legacy he’s taken from his father is still with him.

After inattention, perceived loss, real loss of the father and a loss of two crucial intimate relationships lost as finally and as mysteriously (that is, with as little description) as the loss of the early cassettes, it is small wonder that Lebensessenz chooses to title a CD "Tu deorum hominumque tyranne, Amor!" ("You, Love, Tyrant of Gods and Men"). His music at this time is, he says, melancholic, introspective; his music continues to have "melancholy, sadness." Solitude remains, entrenched, and with its sometimes companion fragmentation: "Again I see myself alone.” Fragmentation of work still reflects fragmentation of life by the loss of key people; he says he remembers "the ruins of things that ended badly.”

But it is a distortion not to note the degree to which Lebensessenz says his music has been formed by feelings of happiness. The happiness is also expressed in the writings, and in particular in statements of such individuality that they are heartening and show the composer is driven by an energy that is, at least during much of his composing time, able to match the weight of the loss he carries. Here are some examples of the sort of aphoristic statements that Lebensessenz seems to be able to put to express with great facility:

The work, he says, is "a learning"
"There are no secrets in what I do"
"When I face good or bad situations, I play; when I'm quiet also, I play with all my heart."
"There are things that only me and my piano knows."

The music, which Lebensessenz calls neo-classical, always sounds like music of the 20th century and the first decade of this century. Quiet passages can sound like Satie or Poulenc. (There are also rare, extremely sparse passages that are reminiscent of Morton Feldman.) More complex, and slightly louder, post-Romantic stylings may sound a bit like, say Scriabin.

Then there are the pieces in which Lebensessenz performs in the neoclassicism so popular at the moment — a kind minimalist neoclassicism. While his pieces of this ilk can sometimes sound as calm and simply melodic as those of Harold Budd, more often they have the fast, driving quality of Robert Moran or Michael Nyman. In these driving pieces, which are liberally flavored by lyrical passages, the melodies are simple. The chord sequences are simple enough, and close enough to those used in rock, that even those who've never listened to classical music will be able to appreciate the music immediately.

A visit to Lebensessenz' My Space page will give you seven or eight MP3s of his songs to listen to, his blog, information about his CDs and books of essays, and ways to download or order.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On True Crime

Would you convict a man who had a pet ant to life without parole?

That's a serious question. I'll say more about it at the end of this essay.

First, let me tell you a story a friend once told me about his trip to a porno shop. It's an uneventful tale. What struck me was an observation, which I think I can express in words close to an exact quotation: "As soon as I went in the store, I smelled that smell that porno shops always have, and I got that feeling you get when you're doing something taboo."

What interested me was that he felt sure he was breaking a taboo even though he was doing nothing illegal.

Many of our taboos have nothing to do with legality. Suppose I give a speech to a group you belong to. And suppose I begin by picking my nose, burping, putting one of my feet up on the podium, pulling up my trouser leg and calling the audience's attention to my bright white athletic socks. In this story, I break at least three taboos in a few seconds. But I do nothing illegal.

The taboo against going to porno shops is of greater interest than the trivial taboos in my speech story be cause pornography has an effect on American culture that's far-reaching, profound and — because porn is taboo — off-limits to analysis. Before the Internet and DVD came along and vastly extended the range of porn, the sale of XXX videos was a $20 billion-a-year business. One of every five videos sold was rated XXX.

Obviously, many millions of Americans were privately engaging in an activity that in public they would assert was taboo.  Such a phenomenon must indicate something significant about American culture. But outside of the Village Voice and a few academic journals on popular culture, the phenomenon receives no critique whatsoever for the simple and obvious reason that the subject is taboo in this country.

All of that is a belabored way of getting me to the point where I tell you that I frequently read true crime books even though I know it is taboo to do so. Just as it's easy to find evidence of significant consumption of porn, it's easy to demonstrate that many people engage in the legal taboo of reading true crime by noting the significant presence of true crime books in any bookstore.

The taboo nature of true crime is lampooned to splendid effect in a book that is itself taboo — American Psycho. I refer to the scenes in which the killer protagonist disgusts his dining companions with details about serial killers he's gleaned from his reading.

While the scenes are humorous, I think the author, Brett Easton Ellis, was playing around with the reality (as he was during most of the book). The truth is most Americans do know at least the basic facts about such notorious killers as John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, and most who did not know would want to. Furthermore, Gacy's true-life story was less outré than that of the fictional sensation Hannibal Lechter.

In the situation depicted in American Psycho, the group aware ness of taboo arises when a speaker relates the dirty details of dirty deeds says something like, "Boy, I really get into reading about people who do stuff life this." Not until that comment was made would folks raise their eyebrows.

As an independent thinker, I read what I like without any concerns about whether the material is taboo in this or that place. I admit that if I'm in a bookstore whose counterperson has a sophisticated look, I won't buy a true crime book. There's still certainly that much of the bourgeois in me.

My motivations for reading true crime have changed over time. My first true crime reading spree began in the mid-1980s when I realized I was interested in what I called "marginal culture" — the culture of those who indulge in unusual acts or thoughts. At the time, I thought the gap between the marginal and the typical was much larger than I presently think it is.

These days I read true crime because reading it is the least demanding thing I can do without doing nothing at all. That's the case because I don't own a television.

At this point, I might as well mention that doing nothing is taboo. I say that not just to make a banal comment on the insanely frantic pace at which we choose to live, but also to point out that if a person genuinely does nothing — or comes as close as people can to doing nothing — he'll fear he's suffering from mental illness. In the psychiatric trends that obtain at present, "doing nothing" is a symptom of severe depression, and hence taboo. All of this may inspire even the most jaded person to think, perhaps at an unconscious level, that he "should" do something.

I fear that at times, such thinking is my motivation for picking up a true crime book. Reading true crime is a minimal way of doing something. It's an act that requires next to no intellectual activity. Like fictional works that fall in the category of subgenre, true crime is formulaic in the extreme. The reader never needs to struggle to impose order on the text.

Of course, it's the failure to use the formula in a thoughtful way that makes most true crime books the dreck they are. People read true crime books for one of two reasons: either they want to learn the gruesome details of crimes or they want to learn about the freaky personalities and idiosyncrasies of over-the-top criminals. The successful true crime writer will keep the focus on these motifs and never stray from them.

Most true crime books fall apart the moment the investigation of the crimes begins. In any major case, the sequence of events from the start of the investigation to the announcement of the verdict will involve dozens of individuals at various levels of the criminal justice system. Even a brilliant writer cannot develop so many characters. Yet most true crime writers try to do just that. The reader is inundated with banal detail about a multitude of players. Detective So and So, the reader is told, was tenacious, put in 14-hour-days, gobbled down Cheerios for breakfast at 5 am and paused once in a while for a Dunhill. Clotted with such tedious and pointless details, the book becomes a bore and is tossed in the trash.

I recently read the aptly titled book Rough Trade by talented true crime writer Steve Jackson. I kept noticing that Jackson rarely used even a sentence to describe one of the many individuals in the criminal justice cast. Often his only description was a short parenthetical phrase ("Police Sgt. Bill Smith, an old-school street cop, arrived ...").

Writers such as Jackson, or the more talented Jack Olsen, Ann Rule and Aphrodite Jones, keep their works engrossing by focusing squarely on the criminal at all times.

But why would one want to read such works, even when they're skillfully crafted? If one wants to
learn about freaky people in a fast, easy manner, or if one simply wants to make time pass, reading true crime is a viable activity. For those with no such desires, there's no reason to read it.

To say that true crime is taboo, has a limited audience and is usually poorly written is not to say it's worthless. Most true crime books provide a good view of the human condition, provided one is willing to read between the lines, and work backwards from the adult's expression of violence — the key subject matter — to the influence of the childhood role models for whom the criminal learned violence was an acceptable form of behavior.

Without exception, children who eventually grow up to be the subjects of true crime books are victims of repeated severe psychological, sexual and violent abuse by at least one caregiver, and usually by more than one. People who think criminals commit crimes because they read a particular book are people who haven't read true crime books.

The abusers who transform a child into a violent criminal are usually, though not always, relatives of the child. And it is inaccurate to assume the abusive caregivers are always adults. In the most dysfunctional families, children may be abused by caregivers who are 12 or 14 years old and have long since learned methods of abuse from adult role models.

But what does this have to do with the human condition? Aren't such extreme cases aberrations? They are. But the aberrations are skewed reactions to experiences that are universal. Early on, babies fear abandonment when they can tell a parent is leaving a room or house. And all children, when they are very young, fear they will be abandoned or rejected when they sense parents are displeased with their behavior. Parents with certain dispositions express disapproval of children's behavior by withdrawing affection from the child or becoming resentful or angry. Most parents, of course, will not do these things to the point of being abusive.

Children's fears of abandonment or rejection will be more or less pronounced depending on the parents' gifts at parenting. But even relatively minor childhood fears don't magically disappear when the child reaches the legal age of adulthood. Societies could not exist if people did not to some degree fear rejection or abandonment. Most adults deal with these fears by just coping with them in a catch as catch can manner or by channeling the fear into manageable neurotic symptoms.

The adult who's the subject of a true crime book learned from damaged caregivers that violence was an acceptable way of dealing with fear. At first, such adults don't seem to have much in common with us. But their behavior, extreme as it is, is a response to fundamental insecurities all people have: insecurities the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described with the term "lack." Throughout their lives, said Lacan, people lack a sense of completeness; of being fully understood and accepted by another.

In the rare moments when the brutal criminal sneaks through the filter of violence and expresses the feelings that motivate the violence, what he expresses is the same sense of lack, of incompleteness, of ultimate alienation, we all carry deep inside. This explains why a talented writer who carefully interviews and quotes a vio lent criminal can create passages that move a reader to intense empathy — empathy, not sympathy — with the criminal.

This brings us to the case of Riggans, the man whose brutal crimes Steve Jackson wrote about. When Riggans was interviewed in the Colorado State Penitentiary, he didn't cry about the wives who'd divorced him or the women he'd killed or abused. But he cried profusely when asked about a pet dog he'd had as a child. In a home where the people dispensed no affection, Riggans found it in a pet. That led a prosecutor to wonder whether Riggans had a pet in his jail cell. He did. A pet ant.

The three judges who determined Riggans' fate felt it was painful to pass judgment on a man so severely alienated he sought affection from an ant. But they also understood that if Riggans were released, he would certainly murder again. Their solution: life in jail without possibility of parole.

The book is taboo; the story is worth telling.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Fat Millie's Lament and the Metal Machine

This entry is the result of an effort to generate interest in this blog by creating a piece that will contain a host of potential search terms. In this case, the terms will relate solely to music.

In particular, it's hoped the entry will attract the interest of those with special tastes for dark ambient music, doom metal, black metal, experimental classical music, triphop and drum and bass. To maximize the number of potential search terms, I'll simply list performers (and in many cases, composers or songwriters) who make the kinds of music I've listed.

The list for black metal includes bad-news-making Scandinavian bands, such as Emperor and Belphegor, and their American counterparts, the not-bad-news-making Xasthur and Azrael. A stunning Greek version is Rotting Christ, whose short songs, usually built with traditional pop structures (but not pop delivery) are replete with soaring and substantial melodies.

Xasthur makes the least structured music of the bunch, with a sound that mixes overlayered grinding guitars and the simple melodic chord progressions associated with all sorts of minimalism.

For doom, the earth2 recording has yet to be surpassed for its calming effect; for agitated or frustrated individuals, early Swans is ideal doom.

The reach of dark ambient is vast, embracing Lustmord, Metaconqueror, Lull, Robert Rich and the dozens of recordings of Steve Roach.

Performers melding all the sounds mentioned thus far, and power electronics as well, are Navicone Torture Technologies (the project of a fellow who calls himself Leech) and Abyssic Hate — two acts whose recordings can always be counted on for rapturous beauty.

Less rigorous in its demands on the listener, but sometimes as lyrical, is the work of such triphop DJs as DJ Spooky, Coldcut, DJ Shadow and others. Comparable melodies (thought to be vaguely in the tradition of jazz) are found in the breakneck drum and bass beats of Kenny Kenn, DJ SS and the David Bowie album Earthling. To venture further into experimental electronic music, and formulate lists of the talented crowd that gets classified with such tags and terms as experimental techno and shoegaze music, would be to introduce a number of potential search terms too big for this writer to manage.

As for experimental classical composers (whose work often overlaps with dark ambient or power electronics), the very long list includes such names as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio (hear, for example, his Laborintus 2), Sal Martirano (for example, L's GA), Kenneth Gaburo (for example, Fat Millie's Lament), Maurizio Kagel, Luigi Nono. Such composers paved the way for the great, early nonacademic noise works, such as Lou Reeds' Metal Machine Music, the compositions and anguished and angry performances of Diamanda Galas and Joanna Went, and what I feel is the greatest recording of noise music to date, Yoko Ono's Fly. (For what it's worth, I'm guessing that New York No Wave owes a greater debt to experimental jazz than to experimental classical. While I'm not an unusually honest person, I'll admit I'm not familiar enough with experimental jazz to write about it with any kind of real authority.)

Additions to this very short list are heartily welcomed