BLESSAY 2: The Raw and the Cooked

I’ve been wondering why it seems to have become a recent trend to prefer works of art that are edgy, radical and transgressive over art that appears to be safer, conservative and genre built. I appreciate that you have to remain pretty open to keeping these descriptive terms in single inverted commas. (I won’t do it in print here. But just remember that fact, please!)

I’ve just read, in a friends blog, a great defence of the musical complexity of It Won’t Be Long an early Beatles song. He wrote this in reply to an online writer praising John Lennon’s solo liberating rawness, once he’d parted from the restriction of the over smooth harmonies that that Liverpool band were supposedly guilty of. And last month, I came across a person at the BFI Southbank, who was so full of praise for the “the subversive power.” of the film he’d just seen, that he then decried all conventions in art as detrimental to the fullest expression of the artist. Why can’t you have both? I said to him. The angry aesthetic grit of the now and the glue of structure and tradition? One doesn’t cancel out the other. Both can co-exist. And both, if they really succeed as art works, can have revolution and social order both paradoxically on their side, even when they first appeared this might not have been so.

Let’s consider Beethoven’s 3rd symphony. The Eroica is rightly acknowledged as a landmark for its assertion of innovative musical technique and form, its remarkable musical confidence and the drama of the composer, making himself damn well known to the world. It was and still is revolutionary. Yet it’s not a bomb going off in a musical vacuum. Behind the Eroica is Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven’s love of the heroic ideal in Homer, Plutarch and Napoleon (who he later dropped as the dedicated inscription on the symphony). Of course Beethoven both exploded and expanded musical form. But why should some conductors keep on emphasising  Beethoven as a revolutionary? That’s what John Eliot Gardiner  was doing last year at the QEH during a performance of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, as if this was the ultimate great transgressive point of all Beethoven’s creativity. Well it’s a part of Ludvig Van – but what about the gruff humour, the deep lyricism and the architecture? If you always conduct Beethoven as a radical force then the musical results can mean too much clipped  legato taken at a breathless speed that seriously underplays the tenderness and the warmth of the music. It’s not that there wasn’t humanity in Gardiner’s intepretation, but by over emphasising the Beethovian rebellion, found in the 7th and in the 3rd, it’s in danger of becoming a force, even mannerism, that makes the spirit of the music sound too cut and dried, so we miss the energy of something transcendent of human effort, not just a transgressive force that can seem to do away with human struggle.

Returning to the radicalism of the Eroica symphony. In its phenomenal way it breaks down the old music order at the same time as creating a new language.  We have assimilated the Ludwig newness – it has become part of the grammar of writing a symphony. A musical orthodoxy, following on from Beethoven,  might be one of the consequences of  his achievement, but the achievement itself, now an accepted part of the musical social order, has never dated or been tamed, or simply turned into a blind force,  so long as  you conduct it right.

Erich  Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Lovro Von Maticic all break the rules and reinforce them at the same time. Or to put it another way, they can will up the Beethoven sound without making it appear a self -conscious act of their conductor will power. They don’t transgress the material but transport you to Beethoven’s thoughts and feelings.  And angry and frustrated creature that Beethoven was, his music offers both conservative consolation (The Triple Concerto, big chunks of the Pastoral Symphony) and radiant, if disturbingly beautiful, innovation ( The opus 111 piano sonata and the late string quartets). Order and chaos come through the composer’s deafness and astound us. Beethoven’s achievement was to upset the norms of our hearing range and transgress the listening experience itself.

You may be wondering why this piece is called The Raw and the Cooked.  The title was pinched from a book called that by the anthropologist Claude-Levi Strauss.  I’m not about to map out a Straussian graph of  tribal myths, but perhaps I could suggest, for followers of this blog, that examples might be presented of works of art that are Raw and Cooked (transgressive and / or conservative), Part raw and Part Cooked, Fully raw and Fully cooked or maybe even frozen raw -tried to get into the oven to be cooked, but never quite made it!  You can’t make an easy distinction between ‘avant garde” art works and ‘bourgeois ‘ ones. God, I’ve finally inserted my single inverted commas!

Some ‘uncompromising’ and ‘conforming’ suggestions D.H.Lawrence’s Women in Love (both Raw and Cooked intimacies) Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Raw ritual magic) and  Brahms’s 4 symphonies (Well done but with chewy raw tonal bits).

PS.  I began my blog with Happy Days saying that this would be my first Bless – ay. The dash has now gone. That and all new blogs will now be Blessays. Thank  you. Or, bless you!

4 thoughts on “BLESSAY 2: The Raw and the Cooked

  1. T H White once wrote (in a piece for an English composition handbook for schools):

    “All rules exist to be broken for the sake of emphasis, but you cannot get your emphasis until you know the rules”

    Which for me really sums it up: the importance of there being tension between orthodox, established, conservative forms of expression (the cooked) and the new ideas being introduced to transgress those forms (the raw).

    In the case of John Lennon, the people who rate the man’s later music above his Beatles songs, because they are moved by his “rawness” are not really using “raw” in the sense you are hinting at here. They are admiring his supposed raw honesty and directness. But this is to elevate fairly superficial aspects of presentation and performance above genuine challenging compositional invention. If we’re to look for “raw” Lennon, in the sense that you’re using the notion of rawness here, then we need to look at his earlier work where he clearly understood the rules (cooked) and broke them selectively in order to find his emphases (raw). Later Lennon is often (but NOT always) pretty over-cooked: orthodox melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and structurally, though admittedly enlivened by the pugnacious immediacy of his presentation.

    • A lovely piece. Spot on.
      You carefully point out an obvious differentiation
      between the raw style and raw substance of Lennon.
      Overcooked. Yes. A word I’d also use to describe Tarrantino’s
      Films. But Django Unchained is sometimes effectively
      raw (well cooked) in the slavery humiliation parts. A pity
      about the last hour of the film when the comic strip shoot up
      and shoot out is burnt to a crisp in the usual Tarrantino oven
      of overdone parody and pastiche. Too much right on rawness clashing
      with moments of genuine passion.

  2. Ah yes. Tarantino is a good example for your raw / cooked analogy. He is someone who knows the rules and conventions of film making as well as anyone, and made a career out of monkeying around with them to (often) brilliant effect. I agree with you about Django Unchained. For the first three quarters of the film I was inclined to think that Tarantino had made something genuinely great. And then came the silliness. It’s interesting that you should use the term “comic strip”. I would rather say cartoonish. Inglorious Basterds is a kind of wish-fulfilment piece of historic revisionism: suppose that Bugs Bunny was sent to Europe during WWII to tackle the Nazis. Django is the same thing except with the slave-owning southern states. All good fun. But it’s a shame that the genuine human drama of Django (the touching relationship between Django and Dr Schultz and the very moving story of Django seeking his lost Broomhilda) was pulverised along with the exploding corpses at the end. Tex Avery would have shown better taste. Tarantino has a lot of genius about him, but needs a Fanny Craddock to pluck at his sleeve to dissuade him from being too cavalier in the kitchen.

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