December 12: Seth Brodsky

Seth Brodsky is Assistant Professor of Music and the Humanities in the College at the University of Chicago. He is also Affiliated Faculty in the Departments of Germanic Studies and Visual Arts.

Return of the Repressed, Return of the Real: Staging New Music in 1989


1989 isn’t exactly a Red Letter Year for New Music. Popular music, even at its most abject, is making history: witness David Hasselhoff lip-syncing his German hit single “Looking for Freedom” from an elevated crane to tens of thousands at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Eve. Classical music too testifies to the Event, from Mstislav Rostropovich’s impromptu Bach recital at Checkpoint Charlie, only days after it opens, to Leonard Bernstein’s lurid Christmas Day rendition of Beethoven 9, retooling Schiller’s Freude with Freiheit. There’s something garishly New Testament about these spectacles, staging with a “resurrective” pomp the restoration of an ageless patriarchal glory. New Music, by contrast, seems almost Talmudic: archeological, melancholic, bitter, frangible. Works from 1989 “sing” Freiheit, but put it in the mouths of apoplectic soapboxers ranting about Freiheitdreck; works stage Bach on solo cello, but less as surrogate sermon than manic twittering machine, breaking down; works even retool Biedermeier symphonic masters, but not Beethoven, Schubert, and not finished Schubert but unfinished Schubert—and not that unfinished Schubert, but the irreparably un-done sketches of the Tenth Symphony. It would appear that European New Music is, among other things, a field of production in which the present’s more robust musical fantasies—which often involve older music—are broken down and shown to fail. In psychoanalytic terms, these fantasies are traversed: the musical “analysand”, his or her desire no longer upholstered in place by fantasy, experiences a kind of “subjective destitution”, and comes to identify with the symptom, rather than continue attempting to abolish it; desire, rendered inoperative, clears the way for a recognition of the drives. New Music becomes the couch on which “Old Music” spins its yarns, unravels, and, presumably, comes to know itself.
While I’ll discuss all this in a bit more detail in my talk, I’m also hoping to push through to the other side of this premise: namely, to the counter-premise that European New Music at the closing of the last century has made fantasy-traversal into a collective fantasy, a basis for its (unconscious) ideological commitments. While its surrounding cultures may stage desire-fostering visions of reconciliation and emancipation, New Music stages the failure of precisely such visions: it is the cause of New Music’s desire, and and emerges with a technical and stylistic multiplicity Adorno could barely have imagined, better yet accounted for. My talk will conclude by focusing on two such constellations of this counter-fantasy, all from 1989: a group of “Schubert works”, in which the composer’s music and imaginary are figured as illusory, impossibly distant, inoperative or undead; and a motley group of string quartets which each stage a self-dissolution around similar figures (night, repressed texts, latent opera, the composer-as-martyr). This last group in particular demonstrates the “long tail” of New Music’s fantasy of fantasy-traversal: the self-dissolving string quartet is one of its most venerable genres, from Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1980)through Alban Berg’s Lyrische Suite (1926)through the late Beethoven quartets (1820s). What, in 1989, is at stake in the perpetuation of this fantasy?