“Why do we reenact these rituals of revolution, when revolution is no longer at stake? How can an act of artistic radicalism retain the power to disturb after two centuries? What’s left when surprise has been neutralized and influence absorbed?”
In his 2010 article “Beethoven’s Kapow”, Justin Davidson asked these questions in lieu of a performance of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. At the premiere in 1805, Beethoven was razing music’s foundations. Now, however, he is columnar: a household name. “Beethoven toyed with expectations we do not have and dismantled conventions that no longer guide us. As a result,” Davidson writes, “the ‘Eroica,’ which emerged with such blinding energy that some of its first listeners thought its composer must be insane, sounds like settled wisdom to us.”
Why wisdom instead of blasphemy?
Walter Benjamin wrote about this when contemplating Baudelaire and Proust. He concentrated some thoughts on shock in his essay “On Some Motifs of Baudelaire’s” that will prove fruitful to this discussion.
“The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions,” he wrote, “the more constantly consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience, tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour in one’s life.”
Benjamin implies that we will be startled when we are not prepared for an experience. In regards to music, abrasive is not the only thing that could shock. It could be an aria of unimagined beauty or math rock tune of mind-numbing complexity. Emphasis is on unprepared and unexpected. Shock is all that can be emoted. Blasphemy enters. Our initial shock will seep into experience. We will remember it. Sooner or later our shock turns to curiosity. It gets to the point where we want to listen to it again.
And that is where the wisdom comes. The expectations that are being built act like shock defenses. With that we can begin to understand Beethoven’s 3rd. Coming to see it not as blaspheme, we absorb its influence. Wisdom enters.
With this newfound knowledge, however, we lose the radicalism Davidson mentions. There is something about the shock of a piece like Beethoven’s 3rd. We feed off of it. To go even further, it nourishes us. The shock of the 3rd is what we go back to even as it has become second-hand knowledge. That is what we want to recreate for ourselves.
Maybe that is what Stefan Wolpe was trying to do in 1920 as he played Beethoven’s 5th on eight phonographs simultaneously, each with varying speeds (here). It could be the “scrupulous historicism and tolerance for the technical imperfections” that enshrouded the John Eliot Gardiner led run-through of Beethoven’s symphonies during the late 90’s. Davidson saw it as capturing the 3rd’s “desperate urgency” and “violent defiance.” Ignorance could even be bliss in this situation as Davidson infers: “Classical music neophytes often worry that they don’t have enough background to appreciate a performance, but the opposite is often true: They’re the ones who listen without preconceptions and who are primed for danger and unpredictability.” We try to devise ways to chase the shock, to squeeze it out of a piece that is in danger of not giving any more.
“To dispense revelation is a daunting responsibility” Davidson says. That is what we are trying to do, be it through remixes or concerts. To find revelation is a daunting responsibility too, especially after receiving it once before. What we are left with is a simple question: how can we can we keep coming back to the well to find more revelation each time?