Meant to Tell You

True love is a conceptual shape: two facts swoop by each other, before asymptotically diverging. One line follows from the obvious thought: I love you with such certainty that it could only have been preordained. The other follows from the reply: But clearly, when we run through the sequence of events that wound us together, every moment is full of choices that could so nearly have been otherwise. Although, in narrating our shared history, we might feel the need to plot the convergence of necessity and choice, such a reconciliation would be false. These facts never rationally meet: their truth is in the tension that holds the strands apart, yet within the same image.

The purpose of a concept is to enumerate and then to savor the distance between thought and reality. Slowly, we try to bring the two together, by imagining that reality comported itself identically to our concepts. Because our concepts remain imperfect, so too do our actions. Whatever folly results offers us a recommendation for a revision of our concepts. We adjust them, and try again. New mistakes continue to be made, of course; accuracy remains distant. Yet our hope in the project persists.

In the case of certain concepts, we have taken that distance and made it internal to the concept itself. These are the concepts that are hardest to describe, because in their effort to name the real, they have taken on the very reality of the distance between experience and reason. In doing so, they forfeit a sense of cohesion, but gain access to a poetic logic: they mimic the shape of thought itself.

Love is one of these concepts. The distance between the arcs of the inevitable and the chosen contains love’s power. It is the mutual commitment to sustaining this tension that animates our bond.

Speech takes a similar form. When I speak, I am trying to form the exact string of words that holds the thing I believe. At the same time, however, I am searching after a shared language with you — I am trying to communicate. So often, the right thing feels as though it’s about to pop out of my mouth, but then I wonder if it will make sense to you, and the way you think, and the image crumbles. On the other hand, when I concede fully to your language, I have lost the images that were possible in mine. Both honesty and communication are necessary, yet they refuse to complement each other.

But conversation is more difficult than love. Maintaining the necessary tension between the constitutive facts of speech is often exhausting, because conversation stands on delicate promises. By breaking eye contact one time too many, you have stated that you no longer care to work towards the other person’s thoughts. They are left speaking to themselves. After a number of these interactions I find myself fatigued, and I go home.

In my sophomore year I joined the college radio station, where I worked in the classical music department. Its anonymity was half of the appeal: I was given an open space to think out loud without worrying about any particular audience: I can’t picture a college radio listener, and I can’t tell if they switched the dial. I did, however, know they were out there because people would call in, sometimes twice in the same show, to tell me how nice it was to hear someone caring for the music they loved.

My first show — “on Tuesday nights, 6 to 8” — was an intellectual survey of Arnold Schoenberg and his students, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Known as the Second Viennese School, they styled themselves as descendants of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, if not in musical style then certainly in seriousness. I had spent the summer doing a research project on listening cultures around the turn of the 20th-century, and through Schoenberg’s arch inattentiveness towards his audiences I became caught up in the arc of his thought.

When I first started, I would tinker with my weekly scripts for hours to get the intonation just right for each syllable. I think I used the word “posture” three times over the course of the first few shows: decadent, late-romantic posture ... recessive posture ... struck a posture that called the attention of the listener without imposing. Slowly, I fell into bad habits. After a couple weeks, I was hurriedly writing my lines while broadcasting the piece I was going to comment on. This gave my sentences a certain performative fervor, although my delivery became less confident.

By the fourth week, I was so engrossed in the music that I failed to write anything at all. As the record spun to my left, I tilted my head forward and let the microphone rest in the nook between my nose and upper lip, the plasticky smell of the red foam cover dulled by a trace of mildew. On that particular week, I had lots to say: we had finally gotten to the first of Schoenberg’s operas, Erwartung, and it was my belief that Schoenberg’s worldview was most fulsomely disclosed in his operatic experiments. But the Google doc displayed on my laptop browser was empty, save for a list of quotes. I don’t remember the sound of whichever choral song was so distracting to me, just the sense of gentle focus that a needle extracts from vinyl.

The record faded out, I listed the artists printed on the sleeve, and started reading from my computer.

You are listening to WHRB Cambridge, 95.3 FM, and streaming online at

A few lines before we begin:
––ich allein in den dumpfen Schatten
(I am alone in the heavy shadows)
––eingeklemmt?… Nein es ist was gekrochen… und hier auch… wer rührt mich an? Fort… nur weiter, um Gotteswillen
(trapped? … No, something crawled… and here too… who touches me? Go… keep moving, for God’s sake)
––aber du bist nicht gekommen
(but you never did come)
––alle Farben der Welt brachen aus deinen Augen
(all the colors of the world broke free from your eyes)
––dein Blut tropft noch jetzt mit leisem Schlag… dein Blut ist noch lebendig
(your blood still drips with a gentle beat… your blood is still alive)
––ich suchte
(I sought)

And so here is Arnold Schoenberg’s first opera, Erwartung, or Expectation, opus number seventeen, here performed by Soprano Janis Martin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Pierre Boulez. This comes to us on a Sony compact disc.

The first minutes of the opera jump between flashes of warmth, light fingers pressing briefly into cold skin. Slowly, the space of the music reaches a stable temperature, an equilibrium that can sound alternately cantankerous and dull.

I immediately wished I had said something more useful. When I had collected the quotes, I intended to use them as part of a plot synopsis that I would improvise. Recently, with no one there to watch me, I had found that ideas were turning into sentences at exactly the rate of speech, a skill I had never mastered elsewhere. But for some reason, confronted by this music, I couldn't find the words that were meant to come in between the quotations. So I found myself wondering what I would have liked to have said, had I the ability to reverse time. I could have pitched the opera from the ether, perhaps, a secret story in an opaque world:

A woman staggers around the dark woods. In the moonless night, it is impossible for her to orient herself. She grazes against tree trunks and dead branches, asking each one: is it you? But nothing ever replies.

She has a faint recollection. She had come from somewhere safer, a little enclosure bursting with green and red. Under her arm, she carries a bouquet that she picked from the floral beds.

Finally, she finds what she is looking for, but it is too late: the man is dead. She screams at him, tears running down her cheeks. She feels the blood as it drips down his abdomen: some spiritual energy still beats.

This is expectation, Schoenberg’s Expectation, or Erwartung, opus number seventeen …

I have always been confused by the way music is changed through explanation. Why is it that, if I put my head down to read the program notes during a Mozart piano concerto, the music is so much brighter and more moving when I look back to the soloist? These notes offer details that might illuminate the music’s internal organization, but isn't structure meant to strike us with its own power? What is power if it needs to be explained before it can be felt?

When I’m writing for broadcast, I’m always aware of the distance between emotional and intellectual intelligibility. My Schoenberg show was interested in exposing the truth that this art holds in a way that made the recordings themselves come to life. But the underlying assumption of all aesthetic interpretation is the reverse: that the feelings we get from great art signal its truth content. Only after its impact has ricocheted across our chest do we feel the need to analyze the origins of the experience. If, in telling you the formal meaning of this or that piano sonata before you’ve heard it, I change the feelings you get from the sounds, aren’t I cheating?

Woozy reflections like these are, of course, the currency of the WHRB studio, the fluorescent-lit basement of a freshman dorm staffed 24/7 by undergraduates. As the second scene of the opera began to trickle out of the speakers, I found myself admiring the various artifacts of thought: the little erotic illustrations that rock DJs had drawn in pen on the walls, the block-letter stickers reading GOD that were stuck on the broken clock, the notebooks left open on the couch so thoroughly stained by sweat and food passed from one mouth to the next that no adult would dare sit on it. I thought back to the moment before I hit play. Had I not been so concerned with the nature of my role, maybe I would have mustered an interpretive account about the meaning of the opera. Everyone I read seems to think the Erwartung is a psychodrama about the baseless nature of desire. But the bodies are too present, I think, and the way the woman relates to them is all wrong. She just wants to be close to somebody, to find the space for something intimate and rich. I imagined myself spinning something like this:

Frankly, I find it difficult to speak about Schoenberg’s operas, because they present themselves so overtly as autobiographical ruminations, and there’s a certain shame, I think, in reverting to the biographical register of interpretation. The cliché that describes ruptured thematic material in late Beethoven as if it’s nothing but a symbol for the composer’s loss of hearing and subsequent despair rightly strikes us as vapid. But in Schoenberg, narcissistic recluse that he was, the characters he put on a stage could only ever be the voices in his head. Maybe this is the only responsible way for us to talk about the modern composer: when the myth of the composer as genius, endowed with the subconscious gift of aesthetic truth, is no longer viable, we are forced to see that the composer is compelled to write music by personal commitments which will doubtlessly make themselves apparent in the music itself.

Oh–– unser Garten
Oh–– our garden

It seems important to note that there are two gardens in Erwartung, Schoenberg’s first opera, from 1909. The first is the one from which the opera’s sole unnamed Soprano escapes. It is enclosed by a high wall — stone, we could imagine, an oasis jetting out the back of a Cotswold home, full of roses and vines. We are led to believe that the woman grew up here, sheltered among the flowers that she would water with her mother on summer evenings, peering through little holes in the wall to catch a glimpse at the outside world when nobody was looking. This can be our fiction — the text doesn’t tell us much about the garden, except that the woman fell in love with a man who came to visit her there. He wanted her to leave to the garden to meet him in the forest, so as night fell she ventured outside for the first time.

In the darkness she finds outside, the only information she can gather about the identity of the objects around her is their silence: they are not the man she seeks. Otherwise, the forest presents itself to her in its outlines. “There a black object dances, a thousand hands — don’t be foolish, it is the shadows.” She can sense the surface of things, see their silhouettes and touch their edges, but never apprehend their identity, except to know what they are not.

I think the garden gestures towards a useful duality here. For people like my mother, gardens are the places in which they tended to life, felt responsible for the care of little seedlings, and, in time, found gratification in the relationships they had built with the plants. For people like me, however, who couldn’t tell a daffodil from a daisy, a garden represents pure sensory information that is difficult to make sense of. Sometimes a smell will catch me off guard, or a particular arrangement of colors will stand out, but I will always have trouble caring about these patches of cultivated earth because the organisms that make them up, their identities, interactions, and needs, are concealed from me.

In this second sense, the dark woods are a garden too. When the woman sings that infamous, mournful line, she refers to two tragedies: that she has left the comfortable, enclosed garden for good — Oh—— our garden, that we left — and that the place she escaped to was not a forest filled with old secrets and new possibilities, but another sort of garden, an expanse that she could sense but not comprehend — Oh—— our garden, that you’ve led me to.

While the score of the half-hour-opera situates our ear within the second garden, it is clear that the enclosed first garden would have been filled with the achingly soulful sounds of late romantic music, the style that was taught to Schoenberg by his teacher and father-in-law Alexander Zemlinsky. It is the sound world we associate with the dripping, lyrical music of composers like Richard Strauss, the final installations in a method of tonal maneuvering — known as diatonicism or, more colloquially, as tonality — that had been developing continuously for no fewer than four centuries. As we’ve heard in recent weeks, much of the young Schoenberg’s fame came from his works that participate in the twilight of that period of common practice; the Verklärte Nacht from two weeks ago, a conventionally tonal work written for string sextet in 1899 when Schoenberg was 25 and living in Vienna, remains his most frequently performed work. To his teachers, he seemed to be the heir to the great tradition of high bourgeois art music: he adored Mozart and Mahler, Brahms and Wagner, and his musical voice seemed strong enough to sustain their commitments into the modern age.

By 1908, however, Schoenberg had identified the ideological spirit at the core of the old diatonic system: namely that, particularly in the most decadent of its romantic postures, it professed to offer an emotive rejoinder to the universalizing claims of enlightenment reason and the technological revolutions it set in motion. The passionate outpourings of Schoenberg’s teachers were not bastions of true virtue against a corrupted world. Instead, their music engaged in an increasingly futile battle against the elements of human nature that the levers of the machine, the centralized powers of the nation-state, and the replicating imperatives of 20th century capitalism were making apparent.

As the distance between modern experience and the available diatonic formations widened, it became clear to Schoenberg that despite its claims to the contrary, musical language had never grasped some higher truth of nature. Instead, it had always been a tool devised by mere people for a purpose.

So Schoenberg broke into a mode of composition that he called free atonality. This is the music we hear in the Erwartung, the music of freedom, of the outside. Just like in the Second String Quartet that we heard last week, the rules that had dominated pitch relationships for centuries are entirely forgotten; instead, each interval imparts its precise meaning in its shape. A diminished seventh doesn't carry meaning because we anticipate it to resolve in any particular direction, as the rules of music within the diatonic system dictated. Instead, the diminished seventh is exactly what it sounds like in any given moment, nothing more. Like the wooded world as it appears to the Soprano in the woods, the musical scene that surrounds her is fashioned of pure contour.

The project of free atonality was emancipatory: it sought to redeem the interval as such by freeing it from its entanglements. When the Soprano sings of the “Flowers for him,” the bouquet she brought from the old garden to the promised meeting, she hopes to save the best of her old, confined life, and bring it into her new, free one. This opera’s hope isn’t to be found in the buoyant almost-melodies that animate Schoenberg’s early masterpieces. Instead, it lies in the incompleteness of the musical phrases that recur whenever the woman brushes up against the shadows of the dark night. Each time, she believes she found something, and we believe that some inner logic will reveal itself in the music. But it never does.

The free-atonal years were emotionally troubling ones for Schoenberg. Forced to leave Vienna for Berlin to earn a living, the musical and social traditions he had absorbed in the Austrian capital were upended in the younger, openly commercial city in the north. A parallel conflict played out internally. Schoenberg wrote at length to his friend and protege Alban Berg about the compositional malaise that consumed him. In the 16 years between the first atonal string quartet in 1908 and the first serialized Five Piano Pieces in 1924 he averaged fewer than one work per year, many of which were miniature in scale. Years go by in their correspondence filled with complaints that, for various reasons, Schoenberg could not muster the energy or the will to write. During this period, he took on few new students and lost touch with just about all his friends, mainly relying on his two star pupils from the prior decade to manage his affairs. In short, Schoenberg was experiencing a crisis of meaning.

But this music he was creating, like Erwartung, was not entirely emptied of meaning. Instead, it answered directly to the whims of Schoenberg’s own subconscious, as he described it in his journals. While the music outlines a non-language that could not be made semiotically legible, it does follow certain patterns and create particular effects that resonate with Schoenberg’s persona.

Therefore, the music was emotionally intelligible only to those who knew Schoenberg personally, those who understood the life that acted as referent. In response to the 1911 premiere of the early free atonal choral work, Friede auf Erden or Peace on Earth, Berg wrote to Schoenberg:

It’s impossible to tell you what a profound and joyous impression the work made on me: only you can speak of peace on earth, you who have known all its torments. But we who went through them with you can understand your longing for it. Which is how I explain to myself why this work will never have a so-called public success or failure… all of that is nothing for the masses, who after all long only for their petty but overrated passions to be stirred, or want to fancy they hear them where they do not exist. That’s impossible with this chorus––and so they’re mystified, and applaud out of a sense of shame.

Under Berg’s noxious elitism, we hear him explaining that Schoenberg’s free music, the music we hear in Erwartung as well, can only do what art is meant to do for his closest personal circle: the people that came with him from the walled garden to the dark forest.

In the concluding scene of the Erwartung, when the Soprano finally finds the limp body of the man she had been searching for, she cries out:

Don’t be dead, my lover … how dreadfully cold are your eyes… you never did come.

The promise of freedom, the love that the woman hoped to find in the open expanse of the night, was false. Schoenberg felt his own life deadened by the new approach to personal expression he had assumed as he realized that, in its attempts to portray pure personal truth, it precluded connection with any new audience. What does this realization amount to? The realization that, in life as in art, freedom and meaning are opposing pursuits. Or, put simply, freedom is just an excuse to do unmeaningful things.

But there remained a shimmer of hope. Schoenberg’s original insight, that the rules of composition were nothing more than human creations and therefore unnecessary, was a precursor to the realization that allowed all of modern thought to collapse: that every human system is socially constructed, and dependent upon closed ideological frameworks. This, perhaps, offers the chance to build something new. As the Soprano inspects the body of her lover, she notes, how your blood still drips with a gentle beat; your blood is still alive

And so here is Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, or Expectation, Opus number seventeen, here performed by Soprano Janis Martin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Pierre Boulez. This comes to us on a Sony compact disc.

With the end of the opera’s brief third scene comes a shift. The given shapes of the long groped-after world, represented in the sympathetic music material as pure disorder, are exchanged for a new purity in the opening lines of the fourth scene, the purity of the promise. From my swiveling leather stool, I could clearly hear when the soprano stumbled upon the path that would eventually lead her towards the opened body, and the music responds with anticipation. Chords grow faster and more jarring, as it begins to seem as though some resolution might be found. The pure promise of the appointed end, sustained by a conflict empty of characters, is the underlying force of romantic music, the sum of a scorned yet still valiant humanism. As rising chords snap and dissipate again into disorder, the music rehearses the tragic history of ideological purity. External ideology is cast off: the ideology of givenness and its truth content. Then humane ideology: the ideology of hope.

There are at least two ways to explain why I feel so compelled to talk about sound, or hear others do so. On one hand, maybe digesting words about music makes us feel more invested, so we become more open to the impact of musical shapes as they hit us. The meaning of any given phrase was always there, but, like a muffled telephone call, was indecipherable until we realized that there was a voice to listen for, not just static and the sound of rain. Or, maybe sound only ever reaches us as shape––that is, maybe sound has no voice––but for it to be music we must be called to process it in a certain way, one that calls us to invest a bit of our thinking within it. In music schools, a constant refrain is the “power of the phrase,” the arcing line of intention that makes a promise: the return to a home chord, a little cathartic release. Maybe we enjoy these sound objects because we believe its lines are the outlines of something full, something we’ve trained ourselves to value. This is why it's so hard to make old music go away: because the images and memories we attach to it aren’t parasites on the body of the sound: they are the music itself.

I heard a shuffling sound, one hand rubbing against the door as the other turned the knob and Lucy’s head popped out. She smiled as she spread out on the sofa at the back of the studio, feet hanging off the armrest. Where are you living this summer? she asked. I told her, and then she told me where she was living, and we realized that we would be very close. She reached her hand behind the couch to pull out the station’s communal penguin head and lowered it over her face. We laughed, and she told me about the worst class she had ever been to. It’s called A Deep History of the Arts of the Secret, she said, which is obviously the best title a course has ever had, and it’s in comp lit, but the teacher makes me want to pull my teeth out and fill my ears with them. Lucy’s words were slightly murky, coming from inside the huge head.

She and I had been close the summer before: a project about Keats had brought her to the same Library I had been working in. I had struggled to recognize the figurative precision of the english language until she read to me from To Autumn. It suddenly struck me that I might have failed to find the words for this opera because the real reasons I cared for it so deeply were explicitly personal, but that I felt classical radio to be an improper stage for my confessions. Maybe I wanted to give my own story with the Erwartung, when it came into my life around the time as Lucy:

I grew up playing Schoenberg; his Five Orchestral Pieces cycled through repertoire lists a couple times in my youth orchestras, and a chamber music ensemble of mine was assigned to play the Wind Quintet for a month or so. It was tough music to line up; the clarinetists next to me never quite found the necessary rhythmic groove, and there were very exposed and very quiet sextuplets in my bassoon part that I struggled to place. I didn’t come to love this music until doing research work last summer in the university special collections.

That I would have ended up at a university at all was never assured. In fact, my parents and I had decided when I was 14 that I would go to a music conservatory after high school, to train in the narrow art of winning orchestral bassoon jobs. This would have taken me to one of the tiny — often fewer than 300-student — institutions that train the next generation of sub-virtuosi to play Haydn and Dvorak. At any of these schools, I would have been surrounded by a familiar social network. The community of overachieving high school musicians becomes tight among those who are most committed, especially the people who see themselves as primarily orchestral players. We all cycled through the same constellation of fancy institutes and festivals during the summers, returning to our local youth orchestras or pre-college programs to gossip about the bleach blonde Californian oboist at Interlochen who played on thick European reeds, or the lanky bassist at Tanglewood who had hooked up with the conductor’s daughter on the roof of the concert shed. Everyone knew everyone, everyone loved the same music, and everyone developed that same pit in their stomach about their future job prospects as we all started to notice the preponderance of teaching assistants who were no longer in their twenties, but had been taking professional auditions every month since their second year in school.

In the end, though, I chose to go to an academic school so I could meet people. To recede into the pocket of the music world seemed extravagantly lazy. When I first heard Erwartung last August, a month I spent reflecting on my freshman year, I realized that, although I had met many people in college, the experience was not as I anticipated. People meet and disperse, webs of oblique connection extending across campus. When I pass men whose names I remember at parties, there is an expectation that we will do some sort of handshake which, bizarrely, no one ever teaches. We curl our fingers around each others' for just a second, then let go.

In an open social space, creating connection requires a force of character that is fundamentally presumptuous: it requires the assumption that, among all these people we are free to know, you might want to settle into something confining with me. Last year, I eventually made my way back towards some of the musicians I had known peripherally in high school who had also ended up here. But their reasons for being at a university were different: they wanted a place to quietly work, so they could avoid the professional insecurity of the music world. I ended up spending a lot of time in the library. Erwartung, in its hypostatization of disconnection, made good sense. And so here is Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, or Expectation, Opus number seventeen...

Lucy had momentarily broken the seal of my stupor, but then I started thinking about the shows to come. That week, I was writing an essay about Schoenberg’s two pupils, Berg and Webern, ostensibly for a class but also to help me formalize an image. Having come to terms with the failure of pure freedom, Schoenberg created a new systematization of composition known as the twelve-tone method. He hoped to animate his expressions with a framework that people could learn to trust just the same way they fell in love with the old diatonic system, only this one, he promised, was better. But I believe that the best way to understand it is through the way it incorporates the insights of Schoenberg’s students, whom Schoenberg himself looked to for inspiration in the 1920s. The experiments they had undertaken with different styles of expression during their mentor’s fallow years had proven fruitful. From this vantage I hoped that listeners could hear the twelve-tone method, Schoenberg’s eventual attempt to breathe life into that body of bleeding atonality, with an ear to the opposing conceptions of meaning which constitute it. It’s a strange arrangement: opposites are combined through a process that appears highly technical, but the exact point at which they integrate remains inexplicable.

I wondered what I would say about the two, when I introduced their music on the show the next week. Perhaps I would need to veil any technical analysis in an affective scene. Even without context, something about Lucy would be appropriate:

You just heard Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, here performed by the Pro Arte Quartet. That performance came to us on a Phillips compact disc. In this, Berg’s most famous piece of chamber music, allegedly a work about his passionate love affair with a young woman, you can hear what I want to call a high-friction system of meaning: that is to say, a system of import and that privileges the action. It begins with the assumption that it is fundamentally difficult to do things, that there is a grating difficulty in managing everyday life, of pushing through. Thus, doing anything is immensely meaningful, and the actor is only meaningful secondarily, insofar as they did the action. We hear this friction in the effort pull apart little motivic bits, the tugging and ripping that defines the string lines, and the joyous, if fleeting, moments of reconciliation, as the effort of pulling apart these little themes, and in this case, the heaving pain of acting while under the intoxicating influence of love, is exalted.

In the mature works of Anton Webern, which we heard earlier in the hour, we are confronted with an entirely opposite system of meaning: high-density meaning. “The music seemed to send little cells of sound into space, where they expanded and took on a whole new quality and dimension of their own.” These are the words of Yves Gaucher, the great Candaian painter of color fields, upon first hearing a concert of Webern’s music. That cellular quality, that sense of an interior pull with multiple loci, speaks to an understanding of both objects and subjects that assigns them their own gravity, and therefore value. What matters, for Webern, isn't that acting is inhibited by friction, but that things and people themselves are essentially dense, heavy, difficult to tip over. The world that Webern sketches in sound engenders a sense of awe in the self-referential integrity of everything. Thus, things in themselves are meaningful, and actions undertaken to change or develop them are only meaningful secondarily.

Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system itself is built up from fixed tone rows, or sets that contain each of the 12 possible notes laid out in a particular order without repetition. This creates little units of meaning, each note intelligible internally in relation to the 11 other notes of the row. These rows are then played around with, transposed and turned every which way, but the sanctity of the initial intervals is always preserved, in their purest forms, as is the integrity of the unit. Dissonance remains emancipated, but its meaning is re-systematized. This interior sanctity comes straight from Webern. But every so often, this structure is torn apart. Schoenberg explains that he follows his instinct above form when they are in disagreement, and in those instants there is an ecstasy in feeling the fabric of the tone row torn apart from every-which-way. This is the intrusion of Berg’s high friction meaning. The two are held in opposition, yet together. On that note, here are the Fünf Klavierstücke, or Five Piano Pieces of 1924, performed by Glenn Gould on a Phillips compact disc.


You just heard the Funf Klavierstücke, or Five Piano Pieces of 1924…

I think the five pieces lumber under the weight of their new structure, but then suddenly a sense of almost magical power seems to emerge. I allow them to have an organizing power over my memories. Schoenberg considered the set somewhat bulky even when he published; ever since last summer, I’ve liked it.

No. 1, Sehr Langsam (Very Slow)

The first piece has always felt particularly vocal to me. Strings of pitches don't push up or down, and the range is notably restrained for this sort of piano writing. The animating pressure is on how the miniature gestures push forward, or hold back. The way the melodic line grows in warmth as it moves towards a point then recedes, to pose a question that is less clear, reminds me of a voice from last summer. I was lucky to have been doing research around a small group. Advising us was a woman named Emilie, a punk-rock librarian with enormous tattoos just under the sleeves of her black sweater. When she spoke, there was always a wildness behind her words, but just before the energy of the sentence ran out she would pause slightly, and stare at me, as if to ask me what her thought had made me wild about. Slowly, I assumed some of her tone and some of her hope.

No. 2, Sehr rasch (Very fast)

This is music about edges, in some sense. The way the pianist’s fingers are asked to prod at the notes resembles the way a young child might poke a turtle, wishing for it to emerge from its shell. But almost immediately, the motions slow down, and become more careful. I think that, to our detriment, touch is typically cast as the buffoonish sense. The first time I sat down with artifacts (a collection of 19th century program books) in the research library, I wanted to figure out what the weight and texture of the objects could tell me about what it might be like to read from them, but it took awhile to remember how to be perceptive with my fingers. I looked across at Lucy, who seemed to be equally befuddled. She smiled and pushed her papers towards me, and, with her watching, I leafed lightly through the pages.

No. 3, Langsam (Slow)

The glassy surface of this piece conjures images of the Charles River for me. In the warm breeze of a summer night, the flat water shimmers, bookended by the two fully illuminated stone bridges. Walking along the North bank, I would talk with Lucy and Nicola and the others before we slept, musing about the tarot readings that Emilie had guided. Sometimes, it seems that only the mystical could account for a thing as strange as community.

No. 4, Schwungvoll (Spirited)

There was a moment when it seemed like Lucy, Nicola and I were going to take over directing the research program for the next year. Emilie was not the only anarchist in that library. It was hoped that, in future years, we would be best positioned to help conjure the sort of community for others that we had made for ourselves. We sat up together for twenty hours to write a proposal, which ended up including the word “crystal” four times.

Emilie sent us the manifesto that had founded the research program. Here, we saw the serendipity of each meeting codified, plans for every interaction. Behind the magic, a system. We wrote more, about funding and about institutional relationships.

Writing together is difficult. In this piece, the passing of sound from one hand to the other is as precise as it is loving.

No. 5, Walzer (Waltz)

All good things end with a dance. Tom was doing research nearby, but he had entered into our fold. When we danced I could only notice the soft tips of his fingers and the spindly ends of the white flowers on his shirt. This waltz almost tickles, but it doesn’t dislodge your composure. It guides you into something so softly that it cannot be escaped. This is not a sex scene: we just cared.

By this point, the opera had become difficult to follow. The soprano cried out various questions, accompanied by popping brass sounds. With each burst, the form of the opera is pantomimed in a millisecond. Presence followed by absence. But there is an affectionate manner in the way lips buzz together behind a trumpet mouthpiece, a loose coordination that proves capable of producing a unified sound. Each lip has a feel for the other that requires no rational consideration. A gentle intimacy, if well hidden, is possible amid severity.

Lucy asked me what I was working on that week, and I told her about my essay. I pulled out my computer: to prepare for my show on Schoenberg’s final opera, I had already condensed the paper’s final argument into a draft of a broadcast, so I read it aloud to her as she ran her finger up and down the side of the couch:

In grappling with the composition of Moses und Aron, his unfinished 1932 opera, Schoenberg believed he had revealed his attempts to create structure to be futile. The text, written by the composer himself, relates the story of the two brothers as described in Exodus. As Moses leaves the Israelites for Mount Sinai, where he will receive the ten commandments, Aaron stays behind in the Egyptian desert to maintain order. To inspire his community, which remained uncaptivated by the power of the new faceless monotheism, Aaron institutes the cult of the golden calf, an idol to serve as a proxy for the true monotheistic transcendence. When Moses returns, he is aghast. Why has direct faith given way to corporeal approximation? Aaron sings to Moses that he has bowed to necessity. Moses responds, in his disenchanted shouts, Must I falsify the idea? The one God is unthinkable, according to Moses, and His power cannot be communicated. Attempts to enunciate God in semiotic discourse necessitate His representation as an idea as opposed to the pure Name, the immanent fact of the divine.

The opera narrates Schoenberg’s newest commitment: that the final normative truth could never be communicated, neither through speech nor, more importantly, through the inherently representational high bourgeois artwork. So then what was he communicating in his new language? A cordoned off, insular truth — mere ideology if introduced in the real world. Something dependent on circumstance. The real world cannot accommodate the preconditions of, for example, both the high-friction and high-density meaning systems, but because Schoenberg’s artwork does, we are reminded that its claims to truth content cannot map cleanly onto the real world. And anyway, the twelve-tone system was never emotionally intelligible to many more listeners than the freely atonal works. Those with technical knowledge grasped it; those without were still left “applauding out of shame.” In a rationalized society, unintelligible is synonymous with unfeelable.

So Schoenberg could no longer tie up the ribbon around his work, the final act that would seal it off from any public. He left it unfinished. This inaugurated a series of overtly publicly-facing works, emulating the sounds of Hollywood and the stage, in the style of his adopted American culture.

For Theodor Adorno, former composition student of Berg’s and the most famous interpreter of Schoenberg, the opera’s incompleteness reminds us of sacred art’s impossibility in a secular world. But he hated the music that followed, which he believed to be a capitulation to the degraded and fetishistic ears of the general public. When he assessed Schoenberg’s career as a whole, Adorno — a thinker from the highest cusp of modernism as it teetered toward the midcentury — believed that the attempts of the twelve-tone system to unify truth into one structure was false from the start, as “unity is a watchword for ideology.” Any attempt to replicate a unity which does not exist in the fallen world is a capitulation to the structures of social domination. It is power that imposes the original lie of unity, the lie that our world is fully rational, fully comprehensible as a whole if we were to simply think hard enough. Instead, Adorno wants us to see the world with an eye for parataxis, so that we might understand it as a collection of individuated, self-referential units of intelligibility.

Schoenberg comes to a similar conclusion of his own music from a more practical angle. As Schoenberg realized, unity has a bound: it must follow unworldly laws, as worldly laws do not yield pure unity. Nothing can; even the totalizing language of mathematics requires an axiomatic basis, an unworldly, constructed system. The trouble with those bounds is that they require an intellectual understanding of the otherwise-language in use, which by definition is not naturally intelligible. It requires a trained audience, an audience of insiders. Only to them is the apprehension of a grandiose, hopeful performance of unity — which often masquerades as transcendence — feelable.

What I want to say is that these assessments of insularity were both ahead of and behind their time. Ahead of their time because the uncovering of ideology within aesthetic experience was among the insights that allowed post-modern thinking to undermine enlightenment philosophy’s late theological aspiration to immobile truth. As it became clear that there is no sort of experience that could offer direct connection with the Name, then the opportunity for metaphysical thought began to wither.

But they stood resolutely behind their time because they assessed insularity as if its lack of metaphysical content made it disposable, as a true modernist would have. Released from the theological inheritance we understand thought to be a concept-creating enterprise, one that only finds truth in relation to the usefulness of the ideas it conjures out of an immanent world. Therefore, calling a particular concept or social structure a relic of ideology is unnecessary, because they all are. There is just one test: how useful is this concept?

So here, I want to offer up the concept of enclosure as the key to a contemporary understanding of social life. If we accept that all structures of meaning are unrelated to any absolute normative truth — be it natural, material, or divine — then we must foster conditions for communities and groups to create their own systems of meaning because, assuming no new monotheism takes hold, many possible structures of significance will emerge. For this to occur, we must enable groups of people to create confining relationships with each other, relationships sustained by insular systems of meaning. Insularity allows us to be with one another. The alternative, I guess, would be to dispense with the concept of enclosure as another barrier between us and absolute freedom, as Adorno and Schoenberg might advise. Then, we would have won for ourselves the hollow promise of pure freedom: the freedom to yell into the ether “is it you?” and receive silence in response.

The intensity of the opera was beginning to die away. Reading this script aloud, something had begun to trouble me. The issue with telling this story is that, having illustrated Schoenberg’s trajectory, it begins to feel inevitable. He leaves an enclosure for freedom, then devises a new enclosure for himself,then escapes that one too. It might seem pertinent to note, at this point, that in the very last years of his life Schoenberg turned back to religion not for its intellectual resources but as a practicing Jew, perhaps a final attempt to integrate himself into a pocket of coherency.

Lucy listened almost too carefully, looking down only once to answer a text. She had taken the penguin off. I wonder if she thinks my stance is naive. I want to argue that there’s some moment of enclosure we can hold on to, a closed ideological view that, nevertheless, fulfills us. I want to believe that there might be a social apparatus that we could sustain.

When I shed my radio persona, that voice so eager to fill dead air with ever nimbler analyses, it seems to me that perhaps the most useful part of Schoenberg’s story is the way he acts out a new way of life, one that slips into and out of various enclosures continuously, freedom and structure receding into each other as each reveal their inadequacy.

As the music rushed breathlessly to a close, Lucy looked up from her phone to ask me what I was going to say on air, and I told her that I probably wouldn’t say much. Enthusiastically she suggested that we get lunch at some point, maybe get the cohort back together and then she left.