Torture by Music: evidence from The Piano Teacher
by Daniel Goode
I. The situation
This essay is not about the Nobel Prize winner, Elfriede Jelinek, nor is it about her terrifying book, The Piano Teacher (nor the film made from the novel). It is not about the curriculum of the Western conservatory which trains musicians world-wide, nor about certain Viennese or Austrian personality disorders, nor about the “Dinnersteinian man” within mother daughter bondage.* Nor is it about how one can play Schubert, Beethoven, or Brahms so as to bring out what the great Conservatoire tradition says about them.
No, not at all. But the laundry list of excerpts from her book, which follows does not avoid these topics. In fact it etches these topics so deeply as to draw blood every time. Jelinek’s language by itself makes a “theater of cruelty.” You want to duck as the verbal projectiles fly over your head. And you want to say, hope to say, as a famous composer and his pianist interpreter said to me: “this is a terrible book.” But no, it’s the message, not the messenger that is terrible.
So this essay is not about that book, nor about its principle characters: Mother, Daughter [Erika Kohut], Piano student-lover-hater [Walter Klemmer] and the destructive whirlwind the three of them have brought on themselves. No, not at all. Rather:
To help clarify the argument, I’ve annotated my quotations from The Piano Teacher with a set of abbreviations. I capitalize Conservatory to raise the music institution to a generic in a kind of Platonic Hell. Platonic because it is the perfect form or idea of something: Hell because you may be tempted to consider a Geneva Convention outlaw status for the institution. Here is the key:
sm = sado-masochism, or domination-submission, pleasure from__.
sm2 = sm-squared, an exponential upgrading of sm via the multiplication of the mother as tormentor and sufferer.
smc = the multiplication of sm by Conservatory culture, really the apex of “torture by music.”
v or smv = the language of violence which is Jelinek’s weapon of choice. Either in the service of sm or the author’s language-lense with which she observes life in general.
e = the erotic component
vr = the language of violence balanced by remorse: the “kiss and make up” of emotional aerobics obtained by swinging between violence and remorse (which can include guilt as a multiplier). Exhausting! Enervating in its downward spiral.
Some common transformations:
sm2 becomes smv, becomes vr.
sm, sm2, even smv take on e almost inevitably so that we don’t need to make an elaborate chart of sme, etc.
A – the authoritarian and institutional Conservatory culture which freezes into architectonic friezes the dynamism of my multiplication tables of torture.
Page numbers are from the paperback English edition of The Piano Teacher.
“Erika dismissed her last student three hours ago, after heaping him with scorn.” sm, 3
“Her briefcase, filled with musical scores is wrenched from her hands—and Mother instantly finds the bitter answer to all questions.” sm2, 4
“…Erika already has her own realm, her own roost, which she rules and is ruled in.” sm, A, 5
“…she sits at her piano, pounding away at her long-discarded career as a concert pianist. Or else she’s an evil spirit, haunting some rehearsal with her students.” v, smc, 6
“And she [Erika] didn’t even have to pay her dues by teaching at one of the neighborhood music schools, where so many people grind away their young lives, turning dusty gray, hunchbacked…” v, smc, 7
“The daughter comes back, upset, weeping. She curses her mother, calls her a vicious bitch, but hopes Mother will make up with right away. Kiss and make up.” vr, 9
“Mother and daughter spray acid at students who do better than Erika or threaten to do so.” v, 9
“Some students rebel against their piano teacher. But their parents force them to practice art, and so Professor Kohut can likewise use force. Most of the keyboard pounders, however, are well-behaved and interested in the art they are supposedly mastering… Vienna, the city of music! Only the things that have proven their worth will continue to do so in this city. Its buttons are bursting from the fat white paunch of culture, which, like any drowned corpse that is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more.” smc, v, 12
“She [Erika] stands alone against the broad mass of her students, one against all, and she turns the wheel of the ship of art.” A, 13
“Erika struggles for a tiny place within eyeshot of the great musical creators. This place is fought for tooth and nail…” v, 14
“The interpreter has a modest goal: to play well. He must, however, submit to the creator of the work, says Erika… She simply cannot submit. Still, Erika has one goal in common with all the other interpreters: to be better than the rest! sm, 14
Thus a zero-sum game, only one can succeed, the rest must fail. Leave it to the Conservatory as Authoritarian master (student as submissive)—to sort this all out.
“The creature [Erika, for example] feels it has dormant strength for which music does not suffice. The creature clenches its fist around the handles of violins, violas, flutes. It likes to make negative use of its energy, though it does have a choice. Mother offers the selection: a broad spectrum of teats on the udder of the cow known as music… SHE bangs into people’s backs and fronts with her stringed instruments and wind instruments and her heavy musical scores. Her weapons bounce off these people…Emulating a kamikaze pilot, she uses herself as a weapon. Then again, with the narrow end of the instrument (sometimes the violin, sometimes the heavier viola), she beats into a cluster of work-smeared people.” v, 15
“They look at the music student and imagine that music has raised her spirits; but the only thing that’s raised is her fist. v, 16
“Almost casually, she viciously pinches the female calf to her left or her right… A bruise awaits the victim… SHE acts as if she were yielding to those mysterious powers of musical romanticism, powers moving to ever higher emotional peaks—she acts as if she could not be thinking about anything else in the world… It couldn’t have been the girl with the machine gun. The populace is wrong again, as it so often is. v, 18-19
All through these passages we see the language of violence expressing the worst part of the elitism in the classical arts: the scorn and disparagement of the masses by the knowledgeable, skilled artist. This becomes the underlying Weltanschaung of the Conservatory. Erika exhibits the false consciousness of hiding her aggressive violence in “those mysterious powers of musical romanticism”—the coercive use of musical ideology is false consciousness.
“…and laughing at pupils who played worse than she. She wants to teach people how to be afraid, how to shudder. Such feelings run rampant through the playbills of Philharmonic Concerts.” smc, 19
QED: instilling fear is the m.o. of the educational system of classical music.
“A member of the Philharmonic audience reads the program notes and is prompted to tell someone else how profoundly his innermost being throbs with the pain of this music. He’s read all about it. Beethoven’s pain, Mozart’s pain, Schumann’s pain, Bruckner’s pain, Wagner’s pain. The pains are now his sole property… Beethoven manipulates the levers of fear, and these owners make their workers jump fearfully. There’s also a Ph.D here who’s been intimate with pain for a long time… She bites a hole in the flesh of one of the great geniuses [Mozart] and pushes her way inside. In rare cases, one grows along with the genius. sm, v, 20
A kind of “pathetic fallacy” is demonstrated here. (“The tears of things” becomes the pains of the famous dead composers.) Projecting pain into the great composers makes it alright to give pain to others. It seems that suffering is part of the artist, so inflicting suffering on the passive audience on behalf of the artists’ sufferings is justified. And there’s also a whiff of the ancient warrior’s magical thinking: eat the organs of the strong man or strong beast, and you will partake of their strength. The last sentence shows there is also an alternative path (a rare concession of the author’s): growing along with the genius.
“ They [the dirty bodies of ordinary people] have to be punished. By HER… And yet, unbidden, they rummage around in her, they observe HER innermost thoughts…that they don’t even like them. Why, they actually go so far to say they don’t like Webern or Schönberg.” v, 22
The hostility of the public is the artist’s fantasy, the putative enemy on which violent thoughts and actions can be unleashed. Intensified by their even greater lack of understanding of the high modernists, Webern and Schönberg, than of the Romantics.
“ Mother, without prior notice, unscrews the top of HER head, sticks her hand inside…then grabs and rummages about. Mother messes everything up… [T]he way you twist a knife into a meatgrinder.” sm2, 22
“Sometimes, of course, art creates the suffering in the first place.” sm, 23
Now the picture is complete: the artist projects suffering first into the iconic artists of the Pantheon, which requires pain and suffering from the interpreter in order to interpret. Then the whole of art is a source of suffering, rather than the projection of a mythology. That makes it perfectly alright to have the Conservatory become the nexus or tool of the whole mythology, the cruel manipulator which reenacts this suffering, passing it on to the next generation so they can enter the world of pain which is the high art of music.
“Then, one day, at an important concert at the Academy of Music, Erika fails totally. She fails in front of the friends and relatives of her competitors and in front of her mother, who sits there alone. Mother spent her last penny on the dress Erika wears for this recital. Afterward, Mother slaps Erika’s face, for even musical laymen could read Erica’s failure in her face if not her hands. Furthermore, Erika did not choose a piece for the broadly rolling masses. She decided on a Messiaen, against her mother’s urgent warning. This is no way for the child to smuggle herself into the hearts of the masses, whom mother and child have always despised: the mother because she has always been merely a small, plain part of the masses; and the child because she would never want to become a small, plain part of the masses.
“Erika reels from the podium, shamefaced. She is received shamefully by her sole audience: Mother. Erika’s teacher, who used to be a famous pianist, vehemently scolds her for her lack of concentration. Someday soon, Erika will be envied by no one, idolized by no one.
What else can she do but become a teacher? A difficult step for a master pianist… Conservatories and academies, as well as private teachers accept a lot of students who really belong on a garbage dump or, at best, a soccer field. Many young people are still driven to art, as in olden times. Most of them are driven by their parents, who know nothing about art—only that it exists. And they’re so delighted that it exists! Of course, art turns many people away, for there has to be a limit. The limits between the gifted and the ungifted. Erika, as a teacher, is delighted to draw that limit. sm, A, 26-27
Let the Conservatory be the tool in the cultural field of music that does the dirty work. That work is the burying of culture using the very tools of culture. All those geniuses of the past are turned into battering rams to exclude the poor schlubbs of the present from the territory of Art. But why does Music become the battering ram, not painting, acting, writing, dancing?
This long passage also reveals that there is a culprit, a smoking gun: the ignorant parents who force their children into the Music Academies, knowing nothing, but thinking it will propel their progeny to a better life, the life of art, not a life of the “plain part of the masses.” A folie a duex, (it takes two to tango): the stupid parents and the suffering administrator of punishment: the one to provide the probable sacrificial victim to be weeded out by the other. The untalented, once weeded out, excluded, cannot then participate in the utopian heaven of art. The administrators and employees of this Utopian Heaven of Art need the uneducated “broadly rolling masses” not for their validation (they know they are good), but as fuel. A few diamonds will be plucked from the coals to become the next talented elite. But there is no way that art will need to be something shared, enjoyed by many, each having a function in making it happen, some to be happy go-fers, producers, funders, party-givers, creative event-makers, etc., but all enjoying the fruits of a long-maturating culture of the arts. No alternative vision like that, nor like any other is possible once the zero-sum game begins. So group experience is denied. Shared culture denied (except as the dog is part of the culture of its owner). And finally no pleasure, none of that massaging of the brain stem and of the emotions, the exquisite merging of mind and body into some kind of self-charging battery, something that culture is so good at doing if we let it. That’s the worst of the self-denials. Finally, it’s an assault on the body which can’t stand too much lack of pleasure.
That all of this is expressed in a novel about Vienna, is just the worst kind of news for those who were nurtured on music from this general part of the world. You wonder how the music and the individuals who invented it survived the culture. Maybe because the Conservatories were not that strong as institutional guarantors of culture yet. The composers of the music we love were not, on the whole, Conservatory teachers, that we know.
“For many of her students, music means climbing from the depths of the working class to the heights of artistic cleanliness.” A, 28
This is not true of America, but more of Europe, or parts of Europe. What the Conservatory has done here is to turn its battering ram against itself, and its own repertory. The “fuel” for the Conservatory can rescue itself in this country because there are so many other models of culture, whether commercial and commodified, or not, whether transgressive or ameliorative, mainstreamed, or passionately idealistic. And there are other, more effective ways of rising from the working to the middle class, than riding forth on the train of pianistic virtuosity.
There is another theme in Erika’s moment of failure, above: Her choice of a piano piece by Olivier Messiaen, rather than a warhorse, or other well-accepted show-off piece. She is punished both for this choice and for a lack of “concentration.” These may be two different failures or one, it’s hard to say. The concentration failure may be simply flubs, a bad day, or just a normal imperfect day. (Maybe the dread erotic distractor is implied in her failure to concentrate.) Or maybe it is a failure to concentrate on one’s future by not choosing instrumentally (in both senses of the word), the kind of repertory that brings success through the sheer athleticism and familiarity of virtuosity. To choose Messiaen, instead, is to make a choice for the imagination, the sonic and poetic imagination that cares nothing for virtuosity as a goal. Difficulty, yes, but the difficulty that releases the imagination and sends its messages back to the listener, the receiver who wants and desires something from music. The complicated destructive dance of Conservatory and its “fuel” is too engrossing to the participants to take notice of the “masses” who want and desire something from music, from sound, and from a collective, group experience of both. Conservatory culture is too busy spiraling in on itself in self-repressive implosion to notice these needs of its students and of its audience.
II. The one-on-one situation
“He [Walter] gazes expectantly at his teacher, hoping for a hint, lying in wait for a pointer. His teacher [Erika], on her high horse, cuts the young man down to size when she sneers: You still don’t know the Schönberg all that well. The student enjoys being in the hands of such a teacher, even when she looks down at him while holding the reins tightly.” smc, 30
“Her fingers press the painful steel strings down the fingerboard. Mozart’s tormented spirit, moaning and choking, is forced out of the resonator. Mozart’s spirit shrieks from an infernal abode because the violinist feels nothing, but she has to keep enticing the notes. Shrieking and groaning, the notes squirm out of the instrument. smc, 35
Now the microscope is turned on the teacher-student relationship, which parallels the mother-daughter one. Maybe the connection between these two passages is that once the performer trained in Classical tradition fails to perform at the level which Mozart requires, his “pain” (projected of course by the living performer) becomes her negative legacy, a “pass-along” to her students similar to the “pass-along” of mother to daughter. The institution, the Conservatory, in this case, is like a railway switching mechanism, shunting the biological-psychological energy into a cultural format where it can cause the same kind of harm to the progenitors of culture and their progeny. It may be “a reach” to assume an institution can embody the individual duo of domination-submission in its standardized treatment of its members. Nevertheless this seems to be the author’s explanation. The institution is the individual writ large.
“If she can’t reach a note at first swoop, she simply leaves it out. Skipping notes, a subtle vendetta against her musically untrained torturers, gives her a tiny thrill of satisfaction.” smc, 37
This is “mutually assured destruction” between performing artist and her public. They, the audience, fuels the artist, but also poisons her (“her musically untrained torturers”). She takes her revenge. A pain-pain relationship. Never forget, this all occurs in “The City of Music.” Is it all a horrible coincidence that the author was a conservatory student in Vienna? The huge success of Germanic music from the 18th into the 20th Century is related how to the dysfunctional pain-delivery system Jelinek is laying out for us? And causing pain too for the reader, as she must know: the music lover, culture-lover and reader can’t just let these scorching sentences pass over without notice. One starts to think the whole system stinks. Is Beethoven responsible? His students? Mozart? No, not Mozart. Everyone seems to agree Mozart is a victim, everyone’s victim. A polyphonic victim. But he must bear some responsibility as the seducer of the next generation of artists. But how? How did it all go so terribly wrong? When I look into the eyes of the next classical musician I meet, will I be seeing the perverse victim of the high-culture music machine?
A pall is thrown on our primitive worship of the past, the music that was MY fuel. It all seems contaminated. But maybe this is just guilt by association. Just take the music and run. Don’t think about the system of transmission of culture by which I came to the music. I don’t think I can brush it off that way, with the handy little phrase, guilt by association.
My colleagues want to say that this novel is only about the Mother-Daughter relationship. I’m finding too much else in it. But I’m not confident of that. Too many bells go off in my head as the three characters and Music go at each other. The idea of a musical instrument as a weapon (Erika on the bus with a violin case knocking against people) has weight for me. Not as in the bus example, but an instrument as a non-creative tool. The instrument is taught as if a weapon. Not as a recipient of creative energy. You “master” it. Period. But finally all the themes are joined at the hip: Authority; Mother; Music.
“Erika feels nothing, and has no chance to caress herself. Her mother sleeps next to her and guards Erika’s hands. These hands are supposed to practice, not scoot under the blanket…” sm, 52
“Erika simply sits and peers… [she’s at the peep show.] Erika looks… Erika watches very closely.” 53-54
Evidently pleasure is out of the equation with music. Only passively as a voyeur can one get that which is not allowed in both the training and the practice of the classical musician. Perhaps a time lapse of 1983 (publication of the novel in Austria) sets this situation apart from the America of now, or possibly from America in general. Because in American classical music, it took minimalism—a militantly anti-academic, anti-conservatory movement—to restore pleasure to music, as it indeed exists in most cultures. In Vienna, as in all European cities, the varieties of popular music take up the space reserved for: pleasure+music; while here, there is a still a sliver of passionate post-modernist (classical) music composers who feel at least comfortable with a relationship of some kind between music and pleasure. So now the fault lines are drawn. Even though some kind of historical treatment of minimalism is found in today’s Conservatory, the Music Theory program is still stuck where Erika and her mother are: in a medieval scholastic, authoritarian, rule-based discipline that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years despite the huge gains in psychoacoustic knowledge, musical processes undreamed of by theory programs, and despite the advance towards a world music consciousness that makes the leaps of affinities possible nowadays. Worse, the performing artist virtuoso who teaches along-side the theory professor, doesn’t have the acumen or the courage to challenge the theory profs in their blinkered lack of theoretical heft in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
“These people love music, and want others exposed to it too. With loving patience; if necessary by force… The latchkey child, who stoutly resists, but has to submit in the end. No snacks are served during a recital. Nor can you nibble on the hallowed silence… absolutely no bubblegum!… Erika has virtually subpoenaed all her piano students. The professor only has to wave her little finger… Death would be the sole excuse from abstaining from art…Pupils scrape their feet…their heads filled with evil desire, but lacking the courage to carry them out. They do not escape from this chicken coop of artistic devotion though the laths are quite thin.” smc, 61-62
If one rules out slavery as a condition to try to get children to become musical, what can be done to teach music using its natural pleasure principle instead of cruelty and sheer authoritarianism? Before we can contemplate this, we must try to figure out: what is the relationship between pleasure and music? And first what kind of pleasure? Since no one, in my opinion, who writes about this does much more than use the word, sometimes preceded by the word “sexual,” I feel I can speculate without guilt. (Two books come to mind which talk about pleasure and music: Feminine Endings  by Susan McClary, and Repeating Ourselves  by Robert Fink.) First there is pleasure in the simple act of recognition of something heard before which is it at least acceptable, even if not passionately loved. I get pleasure from certain 12-tone pieces in spite of my hostile feelings about the “12-tone mafia” as I called the reigning powers when I was getting my musical education. Simply the recognition of certain patterns of musical thoughts and sounds is stimulating, and hence pleasurable. Even the mental act of turning against the piece or composer can bring the pleasure of decisiveness, certainty in ones ideas and opinions, or even a pleasurable change of opinion as in “gee, that’s not half bad; maybe I gave it a bum rap years ago…” But associational triggering like this is the most various kind of triggering there is—by definition. It’s your own process of association of anything with anything else, as peculiar to you as anything can be. That makes it less than acceptable as a general principle to use in finding what is pleasurable about music.
Then there is something quite different from pleasure-by-association: Anticipation, stimulation, the release of emotional feeling, satisfaction. These are perhaps the ingredients of pleasure that come from hearing music that one really holds dear. Or is it so different from the pleasure of recognition? Maybe just in degree. What I’m struggling with I want to call a “triggering mechanism.” Some set of circumstances that sets off a chain like the one above beginning with anticipation. Clearly music, thoughts about music, about specific pieces of music is a triggering mechanism. Is it simple Pavlovian conditioned response? Please, experts, come help me!
And finally there is dance music. And the epigone of dance music (I’m being cruel here): Classical music that has been pressed through the prism of dance and of dance music, maybe that aspires to dance music, that wants to ride on its power. Music by Beethoven, Ives, Mahler, the Slavonic composers, Copland, Bernstein (he’s an interesting case of almost the “real thing”). And I include myself in this group, but more as a wannabe “real” dance music composer.
What’s happening with the real, or with the prismatic (faux?) dance music composer? Clearly with either, pleasure is their prize and their assumption. Maybe now is the moment to make use of that wonderful, pregnant word, entrainment. Just as we are entrained by the Circadian rhythms of the planet, so we are entrained by rhythm and pulsation. The “groove” is the code word for this relationship. The stimulation and pleasurable release brought on by repetitive rhythm is a constant of the species. It is also, mysteriously, one of the things that somehow can release or trigger sexual feeling. These are the species givens, in my opinion. But I can still have this doubt: Maybe the entrainment of rhythmic pulsation is once more an associative triggering peculiar to me, maybe not to another (composer, Tom Johnson hates Ravel’s Bolero with as much passion as I love it. It’s such a sexy piece!) And even with actual dance music we should remember that there is always a wallflower at any dance party. But even the wallflower (if from “our culture”) is cognizant of the trance-inducing frenzy of dance rhythm. It’s by (cultural) definition “catchy” even if the wallflower can refuse its invitation. Let’s also put in the big caveat: all specifics are assumed to be culturally determined. Only the big generality: “dance music is catchy” to those in its cultural orbit, is a general truth.
“During the final movement of the Bach, Herr Klemmer…unselfishly admires Erika’s technique, he admires the way her back moves to the beat, the way her head sways… He sees the play of muscles in her upper arm, he is excited by the collision of flesh and motion. The flesh obeys an inner motion that has been triggered by the music… He masturbates in his seat. One of his hands involuntarily twitches on the dreadful weapon of his genital.” 64
Certainly the first level of sexuality in music is that which relates to the bodily production of rhythmic movement within a musical structure. It is simply the erotics of dance, but voyeuristically applied to musical performance. Familiar, repressed in classical music, but as powerful as the more overt version of sexual stimulation in watching dance.
But this is not the more subterranean and hard to locate “construction of desire” that the modern musicologists now talk of. These analysts look at the queasy chromatics of the “Habanera” in Carman (the sexual Other doing her thing), and the equally sleazy downward chromatic line of the second theme of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, first movement (McClary). Or the long-distance “teleological” disco experience with it’s implied orgasmic moments when something changes in the texture, just at the right moment to bring the dance floor into ecstasy (Fink). They see something in common between the dance floor and the concert hall. The dance floor gives the orgasmic tendency a symbolic outlet in group movement among sexually aware social dancers. The concert hall confuses everyone, because there is no outlet other than dynamics and harmonic closures. How can one justify sexual feelings or thoughts in this milieu, except as extraneous? It’s a recipe for sublimation, which risks repression, and leads to sm-type fantasizing. In this world we should be happy to see the flamboyant excrescence played out by these modern Viennese inhabitants of the City of Music, as illustrative, if not explanatory of our more inhibited versions of their emotional behavior. After all, Americans don’t have to be inhibited. They have outlets! They may have to forget classical music to experience their outlets, but they have them in quantity. And since neither their Music Theory courses, nor their instrumental instructors are able to relate the erotics of life to the erotics of music, those sensitive to these painful inner conflictual feelings will flee mentally and even totally from authoritarian Conservatory culture which has no ear for this, and maybe a good deal of hostility to it. Yet the modern musicologist keeps rubbing it in: that music can inscribe sexuality. Eat your heart out, Musician! you can’t avoid it, and you probably won’t understand your own pain and discomfort. Thus you are a ready victim for the sadistic music teacher. Your defenses are down, and no knowledge has been imparted to you with which to defend yourself, let alone give yourself the pleasure that music is supposed generously offer you. Suffer, or bail out—your only choices. Shouldn’t we acknowledge the self-repression and dysfunction among classical musicians, given this dynamic?
“SHE cannot overlook the tiniest mistakes; they sting and stab her for months on end. Often she stubbornly broods about what she might have done.” smc, 83
Nothing yanks pleasure from the playing of music faster than obsession with mistakes. It sucks pleasure out like a vacuum pump. Leaving a guilty, authority-ridden empty space where Conservatory culture can rush in with its bias towards “perfect” performance of the masters, rather than on creativity, which in fact warms one’s interest in the masters, and in the performance of their work. In that frame of mind (the obsession with mistakes) you can’t possibly consider interesting things like how minimalism returns pleasure to listening and playing.
But it’s not an easy subject. A lot of the playing of minimalistic works is very hard, sometimes tedious with deferred gratification coming more from the successful group effort than directly from playing one’s own part. But then there are the other scores, where just stepping into the sound that you are making (with others usually) gives such a rush, you never want to leave. And there are in-between situations with special moments, like the resolution of out-of-phase patterns which give the kind of pleasurable boost of old-fashioned harmonic progressions, that thrill as melody and harmony grind to a cadence.
The cliché is that minimalist music “puts you into a trance,” or can only be experienced in a trance, maybe a drug induced one. Surely these things happen often, but nothing is guaranteed. And since “art music” is not required to give pleasure, minimalist art music may be just as much a laboratory demonstration, or an academic demonstration, or a virtuosic demonstration as any other style, or any historical period of classical music, and susceptible to just as much routinization. Nevertheless, whatever trouble we may have thinking about how music and pleasure are related, the neuroscientists, have none at all. They say the parts of the brain that “light up” when we hear music show that music gives pleasure. That is unless culture puts a “governer” on it, an inhibitor—clearly one of the underlying threads of the novel.
IV. Music as punishment
“In order to expand her taste in music and force it on her students, she [Erika] occasionally attends concerts. She weighs one interpreter against the other, annihilating the students with her yardstick, to which only the greatest musicians can measure up… Without saying a word, she walks on. No ideas are exchanged, but the student knows that he has once again not practiced enough because his mind was on something else… By the time they get to Bach, right after the scales and finger exercises, the student’s insecurity spreads out and takes the upper hand. This intricate musical texture can endure only the secure hand of the master pianist, who draws the reins gently. The main theme was messed up, the other voices were too importunate, and the whole piece was anything but transparent… Erika jeers at her student’s Bach… Deliberately trying to humiliate the student, Erika praises Bach’s work to the skies. She claims that Bach rebuilds gothic cathedrals whenever his music is played… Then she tells her student: That was not exactly a cathedral he was playing.” smc, 98-101
Though it is completely alien to music as a communicative culture, the idea of music as only for the “greatest musicians” bears comparison with the New York (or other) Marathon. But only to show how far off Conservatory culture is from any model of reality. Yes there is a winner of a marathon, a wonderful winner to be celebrated, but in and among the thousands of runners up there are whole worlds of accomplishment, drama, pain and joy. So Erika’s zero-sum game has no correlative, other than the self-humiliating one of one’s own tortured consciousness. Hers, in particular, is the exemplar of the Western music academy.
But in fact music in world culture is not a series of marathons, or races that go to the swift. Music is a world of communications, decentralized, unresponsible to a single authority. So, it’s fair to say that music in the City of Music has been hijacked. And this hijacking has spread around the world, beyond the West, wherever Western music culture has gone. And perhaps, though I cannot prove it, it may be part of the reason for the “decline” (possibly this is a myth, however) of classical music, because of the queasy suspicion of those millions who can only entertain the thought that classical music is “strange.”
Not for them. A healthy response if one has even hazy suspicions of entering a snake pit.
“But, she triumphs, Bach…is a commitment to God; and the latest edition of the Encyclopedia of Music, Vol. I, even trumps Erika by crowing that Bach’s works are a commitment to the special Nordic man struggling for God’s grace.
“The student resolves never again to be caught in front of the photograph of a naked woman… Erika pines for difficult tasks, which she then carries out badly. She has to be punished for that. This young man who is covered with his own blood, is not a worthy opponent; why he was already defeated by Bach’s miraculous music. Imagine his defeat when he has to play the role of a living human being! He won’t even have the courage to pound away; he’s much too embarrassed by all the notes he’s fluffed. A single phrase from her, a casual glance—and he falls to his knees, ashamed, making all kinds of resolutions, which he will never be able to carry out… She knows about the form of the sonata and the structure of the fugue. That’s her job, she’s a teacher. And yet, her paws ardently grope toward ultimate obedience. smc, A, 101-102
The toxic brew must be complete: we now add in the ultimate authoritarian figure. He is the punishing Nordic God, under whom the Nordic man struggles for grace. (It could just as well be the punishing Jewish Jaweh.)
Does such a familiar invocation, literally a deus ex machina, get to escape scrutiny, because, at least since Nietzsche, God has received such a lambasting, it hardly is worth kicking the old dead horse once more? End argument! It would be good to be able to say that in the U.S., at least, the role of this punishing institution, the Conservatory has been taken over by the Christian Evangelical movement as expressed in the perfidious “Focus on the Family” organization. I don’t know if I can say that for sure. Especially when I read in Susan McClary’s Feminine Endings: “But classical music is perhaps our cultural medium most centrally concerned with denial of the body, with enacting the ritual repudiation of the erotic—even (especially) its own erotic imagery,” [page 79]. To her, we’re not out of the woods yet. We’re bound, like Erika, within those five lines of music paper:
“Nor can anything be altered in the notation of music by dead masters. What you see is what you get. Erika has been harnessed in this notation system since earliest childhood. Those five lines have been controlling her ever since she first began to think. She musn’t think of anything but those five black lines. This grid system together with her mother, has hamstrung her in an untearable net of directions, directives, precise commandments, like a rosy ham on a butcher’s hook. This provides security, and security creates fear of uncertainty.” 190
We get the “dead masters” to take the rap for the control-freaks who have installed themselves within our culture of classical music. It’s this notation which enslaves us, we seem to be saying, not we who have allowed or made it happen. And it’s a “calling,” the interpreting of these dead masters. This is how we allow music to become punishing.
V. Conclusion: poor Schubert
“Erika, scarcely moving her lips, warns him that he is sinning against Schubert… Klemmer then recommences the great A major sonata by the Biedermeier bourgeois who was head and shoulders above his time. Klemmer plays the piece in the spirit—or rather spirited unspiritualness—of a German dance by the same master. He soon breaks off because his teacher derides him. He’s probably never seen a very steep cliff, a very deep chasm, a raging creek smashing through a gulch… Such violent contrasts are expressed by Schubert… Klemmer blusters: If anyone knows what a raging creek is like, then it’s him…whereas his teacher always muddles in dark rooms, next to her mother’s old age…” v, smc, 184-185
Behind the mutual derision, and Klemmer’s attack on old mothers and their puritan daughters who don’t know the reality of the flesh, or the rage of a real creek, there is the voice of disembodied music (expressed through Erika, the metaphysical pedagogue) which claims to be about violent contrasts, but is really afraid of expressions of the body as found in dance music and dance rhythm. It’s a typical Romantic ploy, co-opting “Nature” and famous composers as allies to criticize a student who can’t (yet) mobilize the expressive resources of music. The refutation follows:
“This woman can peer into music the way one peers into the wrong side of a telescope, making music look very distant and very tiny.” 186
Even if many do not experience the titanic struggle of Music vs. music in the way that these characters do, many, many must intuit it in some way, however indeterminate, but enough so that popular music, commercial music, ethnic music is the winner, and Classical music is the loser. Particularly irritating is that modernism, post-modernism, experimentalism are all, by convention, shoe-horned into Classical music, hence also tarred rightly or wrongly by Conservatory culture in which they are only a minor strain.
There are two ways in which the Conservatory betrays music: First, by using unspiritualized repetitive motion to make virtuosi. Second, by unthinkingly reproducing in music theory the scholasticism found in the medieval church-centered curriculum, (which included music among the disciplines of its quadrivium). Somehow, music theory (or “a theory of music”) was bypassed by all reformist educational movements (with the exception of Rousseau who had a libratory music teaching system) until the 20th Century. And mostly the 20th ignored music theory, consigning it to the backwaters of intellectual life. Creativity in music had to find itself elsewhere. Musical thinkers became mavericks with no spiritual home. Music theory typically became the taxonomy of labeling music-things. Naming does not generate anything but more labels.
There are three great tragic heroes of music in modern literature: Adrian Leverkuhn in Thomas Mann’s Dokter Faustus, Joseph Knecht in Herman Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel, and now, Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher (Die Kavierspielerin). They all can be said to be victims of Classical music and its travails.
* see The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein