A Gut and Head Check

Theater director and theorist Jerzy Grotowski stressed the idea of theater being in a constant state between apotheosis and derision. Apotheosis is the elevation towards the sublime. Derision is bringing things back to earth. An audience will lose patience submerged in the sublime for too long. This is where derision comes in. Humor is just one example. Think of the comic relief in Shakespeare: Dogberry, Falstaff, Sir Andrew Augecheek. And too much derision can lead to banality. That’s where apotheosis jumps back in. It’s a never ending tag team.

Apotheosis and derision are also what makes music engaging and memorable.

Franz Schubert’s second movement of his String Quintet is a perfect example. If apotheosis had a sound byte, it would be the first section. The clouds part and gates of Heaven swing out. But as soon as we were getting used to it, derision takes place. No gags here. Schubert brings us back to earth with an aggressive and mournful minor theme. Then the gates of Heavens reopen and we enter for the last time. Never mind this one movement: the whole Quintet tugs between apotheosis and derision. That is one quality for me that makes it so memorable.

And what about The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds? That album just about alternates between apotheosis and derision song by song. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” opens with the lightness and gaiety of derision. Later in we get apotheosis in the serenity of “Don’t Talk” followed by the grounded, cheery, almost pep band like “I’m Waiting for the Day”. The album wasn’t exclusively derision: what we’d expect from pop. Pet Sounds infused derision with apotheosis, creating the album we cherish today.

Lest we forget Alban Berg too: someone who practiced cerebral serialism yet infused it with passionate feeling. No wonder his music touched so many outside of the ivory tower.

I don’t think it’s a secret. Composers, musicians, and listeners alike know it: the best music, the music that moves us on a deep level, balances between satisfaction on a guttural and spiritual/intellectual level.


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