Die Soldaten in New York

Or: How many nights do you need to sell out at up to $250 a seat before critics stop calling you perversely obscure?

According to David Byrne’s review of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten in New York, more than five. Byrne’s review is full of dumb*, but here’s a quick compare-and-contrast between his oppressively conservative version of the reception of 20th-century music and the more reality-based observations of Anthony Tommasini in the NY Times:

Byrne: As classical music followed this bizarre, perverted road for some half of the 20th century, the audiences left in droves. I hope the composers were pleased, because it seems they got what they wanted in that respect. Their compositional ideas live, and even thrive in movies; but as a form of music and music-theater, they simply died — rumbling and roaring all the way.

Tommasini: An unfortunate drawback of this ambitious production, which seems to have broken the bank of the Lincoln Center Festival, is that the seating area accommodates fewer than 1,000. With only five performances and top tickets going for $250, not everyone who wants to see it will be able to do so. But those who do will experience a miraculous realization of an opera once deemed unperformable.

*”How the singers can memorize atonal, seemingly random sequences of notes is beyond me — it’s an inhuman exercise, a kind of sadomasochism perpetrated by the composer on the poor singers.”

“The playbill refers to the piece as both a monument and a tombstone, since music in this genre couldn’t really develop any further. With this opera, the end of the road had been reached: like a Finnegan’s [sic] Wake of classical music, an aesthetic and formal investigation was carried to it’s [sic] logical — and some might say ridiculous — extreme.”

“György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” a piece most of us first heard in the psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” (a pedant observes that unless you arrived at the cinema 2 hours late, you first heard Atmospheres before the opening shot; you second heard it at the interval; and then you third heard it (although a different bit) in the psychedelic sequence.)

“At another point, low gurglings evoke the stomach rumblings of an invisible giant, and sometimes surprisingly gentle plinks and plonks sound almost pretty, but for their lack of melody and harmony.”

And so on.

4 thoughts on “Die Soldaten in New York

  1. Yes!

    And I know this isn’t what you meant, but I’ll take this a step further. Why is it that everyone talks about “sadomasochism” in music as if it were a bad thing? I say, it’s the composer’s job to be a sort of dominatrix: one of the greatest pleasures of listening to music is being subjected to something you don’t want, or at least don’t know you want.

    Isn’t everyone who goes to a rock concert thrilled that the volume consistently exceeds the comfort level? Isn’t everyone teased and titillated when a pop song goes on to another wordy verse, instead of to the catchy chorus? I’m not sure why it’s socially acceptable for music to be difficult, disturbing, or even physically painful, in certain respects, as long as the harmonies, melodies and rhythms are clear. Why can’t the harmonies, melodies and rhythms be disturbing, too?

    I love a spicy, spicy, spicy meal, as long as it’s thoughtfully prepared from high-quality ingredients. And I love noise, feedback, distortion, and dissonance in my music, as long as they are wielded by someone who knows what she’s doing. I can’t speak for Zimmermann—I was among the many who, as Tommasini suggests, were left out in the cold—but Byrne hasn’t convinced me that B.A.Z.’s methods here don’t match up to his aims. I’m not sure quite sure what Byrne (one of my, let me point out, all-time musical heroes) was complaining about.

    In conclusion: a gut-punching hip-hop bassline? Yes, please! An hour-long disc of drilling hardcore? Sure! A nightmarish twelve-tone opera? Thank you, ma’am! May I have another!

  2. You didn’t mention that Byrne could not even get Webern’s name correct (“Weberg,” no pun intended I’m sure)

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