Sunday, June 20, 2010

Wagner Invades Poland

I've recently read a few descriptions of the music of Richard Wagner which struck me as true. Although these were not actually intended as arguments against Wagner's music, I think they work pretty well in that regard as well.

First is one of several reviews of L.A. Opera's Ring cycle by L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed. The title of this one is Mission Accomplished: L.A. Opera's 'Ring'. 

"Mission Accomplished" itself is arguable.  While the Opera's mission of producing a complete Ring was obviously accomplished, their goal, as stated in an early press release, of creating "a defining moment in the cultural history of Los Angeles" was not.  Los Angeles is no more of a Wagner opera town post-Ring than it was before.

Anyway, here are the first two paragraphs of Swed's review:
Sunday, midnight, Los Angeles Ordinance No. 181069, which is meant to close down numerous medical marijuana dispensaries around town, went into effect. No police, however, needed summoning to the Music Center. Los Angeles Opera shooed away its regulars by 11. Nine days earlier, the company had begun dispensing a drug with the street name of the "Ring" (short for its pharmaceutical appellation, "Der Ring des Nibelungen").

This opiate, invented in the 19th century by one Richard Wagner, is not, strictly speaking, a chemical substance. But it operates on the central nervous system like any other narcotic, altering perception, consciousness and sense of time. And, yes, it is highly addictive.

The comparison of Wagner's Ring to an opiate is apt.  Morphine and codeine are opiates you might have heard of; both are carefully controlled substances, dangerous in the wrong hands.

I've recently watched the effect of morphine on two terminally ill patients.  Although they seemed to feel no pain under its effect, it was not pleasant to observe them as they struggled to breathe their last breaths.  We wondered what dreams could penetrate such a drug haze.  From the objective external evidence it was difficult to convince ourselves that the drug had put these dear people into the pleasant, quiet reverie we wished for them.  It would be easier to imagine those drugged dreams came with a churning Wagnerian sound track.

Judging by stories of Ringnuts who attend uncountable numbers of Ring productions, Richard Wagner's Ring does seem to be "highly addictive".  Maybe the government should consider protecting its citizens from such a dangerous substance.

The Times theater critic Charles McNulty reviewed the Ring as well.  One of his articles was entitled Critic's Notebook: Götterdämmerung’ -- twilight of a hypnotic spectacle.  Here's his first sentence:
The end of the first complete cycle of Achim Freyer’s staging of the “Ring” for the Los Angeles Opera left me simultaneously energized and exhausted late Sunday night, as though I had just undergone intense hours of dreaming without the restorative benefit of sleep.
I wonder about the phrase "without the restorative benefit of sleep".   It makes me think that listening to this Ring was not an entirely pleasant experience for him and that he found himself uncontrollably and unpleasurably bouncing off the walls.

I do think the word "hypnotic" is revealing.  Hypnotism is a state of mind in which a subject is made to strongly focus on outside suggestions.  These suggestions might overwhelm their own  natural protective inhibitions.  Some people are more susceptible than others.  I've always felt that those who enjoy immersion in Wagner's music must be very accepting of his constant stressful flow of suggestive musical tensions and emotions.  Who knows what crazy ideas might come to mind from Wagner's unrelenting stream of innuendo.

I'm reminded of Woody Allen's hysterically immortal line:
I can't listen to that much Wagner. I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.
I'm now going to explain this joke in detail because I suspect some people take Wagner far too seriously to appreciate its humor.

You must first remember that Hitler, who was more strongly influenced by Wagner than any other evil military dictator in history, actually did conquer Poland, committing the most unspeakable atrocities along the way.  But Woody Allen is not Hitler.  He's the poster boy for underweight, meek neurotics everywhere and Jewish to boot.  It's completely impossible for him to invade Poland.  Like the Pope, Woody has no divisions. 

His absurd suggestion that he too might try to overrun Poland simply because he had heard too much Wagner creates a tension in the mind of a person who hears the joke.  Woody juxtaposes the silly with the horrific.  Many people find this jarring - and they spasm involuntarily in response. That strange human spasmodic behavior is called laughter.  Things which produce laughter are called funny, hence this joke is funny.  But it has a tinge of human suffering and catastrophe about it as well.  Laughter seems like a callous response.

I recently found a Facebook page named loosely after Woody's joke.  It's called When I Listen To Wagner, I Get The Sudden Urge To Conquer Poland  It's a public page which anyone can visit - but few people have left comments and as of this writing the last activity was eight months ago. 

There are a number of droll suggestions about using the joke as a motto for German language clubs in high schools.  And several people mention how they use Wagner's only authentic cultural meme, The Ride of the Valkyries, as a highly amplified inspirational soundtrack for driving dangerously.

But one quote struck me as unintentionally revealing of the true nature of the music of Richard Wagner.  In September 2007 someone named Nick Jacobs wrote:
I conducted selections from Der Ring des Nibelungen last semester at my have no idea that power trip I was on at the time. It was wonderful.
A wonderful power trip from conducting Wagner?  Obviously conducting Wagner is an experience I'll never have, but Nick's comment seems quite revealing and believable.  Anyone could test this idea by turning up the volume on a recording of the Ring and pantomiming conductors patterning in front of the speakers.  It must be dangerously thrilling to control such a stream of powerful energy.  I bet James Conlon would understand completely.

To review:
  • Wagner has been described as an opiate.  
  • Wagner is revealed as a source of hypnotic suggestions.  
  • Wagner sends orchestra conductors on a power trip.  
All these notions fit with my own impressions of the music.  None of them would ever make me think producing Wagner's Ring is good for Los Angeles.  Or even that listening to Wagner's Ring is a positive thing to do.

In my wildest imagination Wagner would be regulated.  You would not be allowed access to Wagner without a prescription from a pyschiatrist and a clearance from a Doctor of Music.  Wagner recordings would be locked up behind the counter in record stores (if any record stores survive).  There would be an age limit like for attending certain movies.

None of this is likely to happen because no one pays attention to what I think.  But if they did, I'm sure the people of Poland would be eternally grateful.

Opiated Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

1 comment :

MarK said...

You are not giving Woody Allen enough credit. His joke is more universally funny than the way you have explained it here. It isn't just the persona of his character that is incompatible with "an urge to conquer Poland". The notion that any normal person who did not have such predisposition before would suddenly turn into a "hitlerian" by hearing any kind of classical music is so preposterous that it is ridiculously funny, regardless of who proposes it. And i am glad that Woody Allen understood that.