Do You Want Three Hours of Meditation on Meaninglessness? Mix Schnittke with the Coen Brothers

Maybe you have a favorite uncle who on taking leave of you, jauntily winks as he advises, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Well, after the way I spent Saturday, evening, I advise you to think twice about doing anything I would do. The day started reasonably well, teaching a fistful of piano lessons to some of my favorite students, several of whom I’ve had for years. A leisurely walk home, while listening to some Panufnik on the ipod, only to find several packages of books I had ordered waiting in the front vestibule. So far so good; I thumbed through a biography of Hindemith I’ve been wanting for some time, as a reasonably entertaining football game played out on the TV. And my wife was baking a ham. A real ham, not ham and water or whatever.

And then I ruined everything.

First mistake:  I listened to Schnittke’s First Symphony. Now, the antecedents for this wild chaos (composed in 1972, I think) include Mahler and Ives, and maybe even Berio’s “Sinfonia”, when was that written? And did Schnittke know it? Was it unavailable to a composer working in the Soviet system? I’ll look this stuff up, if nobody enlightens me before I get around to some fact-checking. In any case, the piece is closest to Ives’ collage pieces, but on steroids. I’m planning on discussing Schnittke next semester, so he’s become a project of mine. He is generally associated (rightly) with a Shostakovich type ethos, but the First Symphony owes little to Shosty, although I do think I found some quotes from Shostakovich amongst the bedlam. This is a formidable piece. The scoring requires more players than the entire population of Cameroon in the 15th century. It is confrontational, violent, despairing, cruelly humorous, and ultimately demoralizing. So, naturally, I followed it up with a second mistake, by going with my wife to see the Coen brothers’ new movie, “No Country for Old Men”- which is confrontational, violent, despairing, cruelly humorous, and ultimately demoralizing.

Both pieces are exemplars of what is sometimes called post-modernism. Both are informed by a savage intelligence and irony, and both create worlds of sheer meaninglessness. For an hour with Alfred, and 2 hrs. with the Coens, you’re plunged into a weird, intractable void. You’re much better off with what Ives called “sissy” music- maybe some Boccherini or something. And if you’re gonna see a movie, go into screen seven and see “The Bee Movie” instead of screen eight, where “No Country” is… 

More on Schnittke anon. I don’t anticipate discussing the Coens any further. (Yes, I recommend both symphony and movie, if you’re confused.)