The eternal recurrence

Academy of the Overrated

In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Mary (Diane Keaton) and Yale (Michael Murphy) devise what they call the “Academy of the Overrated” for such notables as Gustav Mahler, Scott Fitzgerald, Isak Dinesen and Carl Jung.

“Lenny Bruce, Can’t forget him, can we?”

“How about Norman Mailer?”

“I think those people are all terrific,” Woody argues back.

They go on to name Heinrich Boll, Vincent Van Gogh and Ingmar Bergman.

“Gee, what about Mozart?” says Woody. “You guys don’t wanna leave out Mozart.”

Suffice it to say, none of these artists is overrated. Reputations come and go, and sometimes an artist lauded in one generation is ignored in the next. But real work by real artists, sweating blood, can never be simply “overrated.”

Some may be overexposed, however. There is a problem in hearing a piece of music too often, or seeing a painting or a play too many times, so that familiarity breeds contempt.

Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Can anyone actually hear it anymore? It has been so overplayed for the past 200 years, that it no longer astonishes us, but rather fits into the comfortable, velvet-lined depression we have made for it in the jewel case of classical music. It is too well known to be heard.

Or Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. How many angels support the Creator in his cloud of flowing robes? Without checking, you don’t know, because the picture has been largely reduced to our recognition of the electric spark that invisibly pops between the two mated fingers at the center of the scene. The picture as a whole doesn’t much count: The only thing that we think about is the punchline.

Michelangelo Creaton of adam

Or maybe the snigger we pretend not to snig at the tiny peanut between Adam’s immense, muscular thighs.

These things are not “overrated” any more than their creators are. They are simply overexposed.

Of course, the symphony a great piece of music – one of the greatest – but heard so often, we cannot absorb it anymore. It is nothing but “dah-dah-dah-DUMB” now.

It is a problem many things face in life: Too much of a good thing and we become vaccinated against it.

Pachelbel’s Canon, Ravel’s Bolero, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. They are all overexposed.

The Nutcracker is a fine ballet, with great music, but when it’s performed 23 times every December, it wears out its welcome for the dance aficionado. It becomes Muzak.

The eye-rolling is a response that many things get, and not just in opera and classical music.

— In pop music, Led Zeppelin’s anthem, Stairway to Heaven, is now a joke, and ripe for snarky parody. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. has been ground into the dust by overuse, and usually for reasons at odds with the song’s actual content.

— The TV show, M*A*S*H, has been in reruns for so long, that the thought of another 30 minutes with Alan Alda can drive us to emigrate to Siberia – where they probably run it dubbed into Russian or Yakut.

— Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken, or Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening are turned into one-dimensional parodies of their author. Both are subtle poems with equivocal readings, but not in the popular mind.

There are others:

— Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

— The Seagram’s Building in Manhattan. It has come to stand for all the bland steel-and-glass International Style architecture that followed, but there’s elegance, proportion and detail there.

seagram's building

The Beethoven’s Fifth dilemma even extends to typefaces. Everyone’s computer comes with the Helvetica font installed. It’s everywhere, to the point one designer always calls it the “dread Helvetica.”

But it is an exceptionally well designed typeface, which is exactly why it is so miserably overused.

And more:

— Ahi tuna.

— The New York Yankees.

— The Mona Lisa.

— The Grand Canyon.

The problem is that it isn’t just that familiarity breeds contempt, but that it breeds invisibility. Overexposure itself wouldn’t be a big problem – we could just refrain from programming such things for a while – but something else happens: Wide dispersal of anything in popular culture transmutes it from an experience to a reference. All you have to do is refer to the Hallelujah Chorus and your audience “gets it.”And so, God’s creation of Adam turns into a potato chip ad.

Creation potato chips

It keeps us skimming along the surface of things.

You have to pay attention, to react deeply enough to get the most out of a poem. Otherwise it becomes possible that The Road Not Taken, or Sylvia Plath’s Daddy become completely so decontextualized that we can refer to a phenomenon without registering the emotions, or understanding its complexity.

Another way of putting it is that the familiar work becomes a shorthand. When we want sad, we go to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, when we want momentous, we go to Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Never mind that the originals are complex and layered.

They become a shorthand for “funny music,” or “dramatic music,” or “ironic music.”

When referencing or quoting these things, it’s not about the original anymore, but about a new meaning that’s been given to it. Some of these things – which we may only know as a catch-phrase, joke or a snatch of music – are never considered on their own terms and we forget the quality of the original.

The Godfather, a sprawling multi-part epic, gets reduced to Marlon Brando mumbling. And the image of Marlon Brando mumbling now means something else – a cultural stereotype of the Italian Mafia or the promise and perils of method acting.

So, Beethoven’s Fifth becomes a shorthand of: 1. Classical (i.e. “longhair”) music in general; 2. “Fate knocking at the door;” 3. The granitic monumentality of “Great Art” (and conversely, its ponderousness, compared with pop culture); 4. the triumph of the finale over the hardships of the beginning movement, and a template for symphonies to come for the next hundred years; 5. The morse-code ensign for Victory in WWII (to the point that it even becomes, in altered form, the wartime fanfare at the beginning of Fox films).

It is also the theme song to OCD. (In the seven or so minutes of the symphony’s first movement, you hear the four-note rhythm 382 times.)

So, can we actually hear the damn thing anymore? It takes a concerted effort of will to listen to it “again for the first time.”

But to hear, or see, how good something it is, it has to be more than a tic in the cultural compost pile. You have to actively pay attention. You have to engage. Art is not a warm bath.

Certainly, this is one of the wellsprings of any contemporary art: the need to make art new, fresh and meaningful, to break through the cliches that the older art has become. We need to keep making it new.

Sometimes, that comes in the form of a new performance practice for the older music, as when a Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner takes up the Beethoven Fifth and plays it at race-course speed, glossing over the speed bumps that its composer put there. It gives us a fresh take on an golden oldie.

But is that enough? Perhaps Gardiner misses something essential from the original by tossing out the 200 years of tradition behind it.

There will come a day when the new, zippier performances of 19th-century classics becomes so old hat, a new generation will discover the depth in performances by Wilhelm Furtwangler or Willem Mengelberg. And what now seems old will be fresh once again.

beer creation

TOP 10 BEETHOVEN FIFTHS

Beethoven’s Fifth – A number of Fifth Symphonies could make this list: Tchaikovsky’s, Sibelius’s, even Mahler’s – at least the Adagietto. But Beethoven’s is the champ, so familiar it is almost impossible to hear anymore.

‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ – The opening “Sunrise” section has become the de facto theme song of any momentous introduction, most famously in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but also for former professional wrestler Ric Flair’s entry into the ring.

‘Nessun Dorma’ – This tenor showpiece from Puccini’s Turandot shows up everywhere from car commercials to the theme song of the 1990 FIFA World Soccer Cup and in so many films: The Killing Fields, and Bend It Like Beckham. Aretha Franklin even sang it for the Grammies.

Pachelbel’s Canon – The bane of classical music radio stations everywhere. When satirist Peter Schickele made up his mock radio station for his PDQ Bach series, he called it WTWP – “Wall-to-Wall Pachelbel.”

‘O Fortuna’ from ‘Carmina Burana’ – The powerful choral piece once expressed Medieval violence in movies such as Excalibur, and the torments of drug addiction in Oliver Stone’s The Doors. Now it sells Gatorade and Old Spice after-shave. It’s everywhere.

Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ – There are 220 CDs available currently: Everyone with a fiddle has recorded it, and there’s even a version for Japanese kotos and another for pennywhistle. Dude, he wrote 600 other concertos. They’re good, too.

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor – Bach wrote this improvisatory organ work to test new organs; now it tests our patience. It shows up anytime you need “spooky” music in a haunted house, and it is also the “inspiration” for much of the faux-organ music in Phantom of the Opera.

Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ – The most demoniacal offender: Not only has Bolero been repeated endlessly in movies, TV commercials and ice-dancing routines, it repeats endlessly in any performance: The one tune over and over till it drives you nuts. The New York Times suggests Ravel was in early stages of frontotemporal dementia when he wrote it. We give it a “10.”

Hallelujah Chorus – Another movie cliché: When the hero or heroine finally understands, or opens the door to discover something unexpected, cue the Hallelujah Chorus.

‘Adagio for Strings’ – Once voted the “saddest classical” work ever, it has become the movie cliché of all times, giving emotional weight to Platoon, The Elephant Man, Amelie, Lorenzo’s Oil, S1m0ne, and even Michael Moore’s Sicko. The Internet Movie Database lists its use 26 times.

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3 comments
  1. This is a great piece! I think you’ve hit the problem on the nose, but I also feel that this same “over-exposure” can be part of the solution. I’m sure many (maybe even most) people have never heard these pieces EXCEPT in those car or aftershave commercials. They understand the reference-the surface-without ever having had the actual experience. Who knows? Maybe the fact that people have “heard” these pieces can act as a segue to get folks to stop and take a minute to really listen to something they think they know with fresh ears.

  2. a said:

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