The Beethoven Effect

Ahead of pianist Jonathan Biss’s first Sunday Concert (November 3) in a three-concert series exploring the Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven during the 250th anniversary of the composers birth, The Phillips Collection’s Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on Beethoven’s legacy at this milestone year of celebration.

The 2019/20 season marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most well-known and most admired Classical composer in the history of Western music. Beethoven’s status within culture is something akin to ubiquity; not only is his music performed more than that of any other composer but some of his works have made unusual symbolic leaps into broader cultural, political, and social spheres. Beethoven is the composer we turn to in moments of national crisis (as with the performances of the Ninth Symphony after the September 11 attacks), and the composer of unity, hope, and humanitarianism (the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony is the anthem of the European Union, and as recently as October 25 this year, the Ode was sang in Arabic by Lebanese protesters in Beirut). Indeed, the “Beethoven effect” can be traced in all manner of seemingly disparate fields of activity across time, from 18th-century philosophy to 21st-century film and pop culture, which says much about the adaptability of the Beethovian image and the enduring power of his music.

Illustration by Kathryn Zaremba

Yet the monumentalizing of Beethoven’s genius is not new; it began in his own lifetime, and his trajectory from earthly musician to transcendent musical prophet closely paralleled a shift in the perceptions of music itself. In the years after 1800, music as a practice both in performance and composition became less dependent on court appointments or church practices. The proliferation of public concert halls in the early 18th century democratized the experience of musical performance, whilst the philosophy and aesthetics of enlightenment thinkers such as Kant or Schlegel raised music’s status to that of the highest art, capable of speaking a truth beyond words, reason and concepts. Musicologist Mark Evan Bonds has observed that at the dawn of the Romantic era, the composer became “an oracle who speaks in tones that cannot be translated into words: rhetoric gives way to revelation.” In this context, Beethoven became the paradigm of the “liberated composer,” his music imbued with a metaphysical transcendence that was beyond the vagaries of the mundane world. As a means to interpret and understand this new revelatory power of music, new modes of poetic and descriptive written criticism proliferated. The influential writings of E.T.A Hoffman (which were published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) made Beethoven’s putative claim to the sublime clear: In his 1810 review of the Fifth Symphony, he writes that Beethoven’s music “opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro.” Within Beethoven’s chamber music, some of his piano sonatas gained nicknames such as “Moonlight” and “Pathétique” (added by critics and publishers), which lent opaque, suggestive, and poetic visions to the music. The practice of bestowing music with extra-musical allusion would have a long history after Beethoven but it began with his example. Long after his death, these fragments of history and biography stick to the mythology around Beethoven, both enriching and complicating our relationship to his music.

Assessing Beethoven’s legacy does not necessarily mean stripping back the excesses of Romantic-era thought, or returning an earthly, mortal image to this most immortal of composers. The 250th anniversary represents an opportunity to view the composer in his totality, celebrating the scope of his achievement in music, and his singularity as a figure in the history of art. He was one of those rare characters who both seized the spirit of their own epoch and left a body of artistic work that has only grown in popularity since his death. As the conductor Andris Nelsons has observed, Beethoven’s music is “for our time and all time.”

The Piano Sonatas

Within the many musical forms that Beethoven revolutionized, his achievement within the 32 piano sonatas represents something completely unique in his output. Generally split into three distinct periods, they exemplify the shift into early Romanticism, as Beethoven developed from the relative simplicity of the classical style in the first few sonatas, to the greater harmonic innovations and emotional complexity of the monumental final three sonatas of Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111.

For any pianist, recording the 32 piano sonatas is akin to summiting a (crowded) musical Mt. Everest. Yet it is an Everest that demands maturity, patience, and vision, as much as youth and ambition. In recent years, the acclaimed American pianist Jonathan Biss has brought such a balanced approach to his recording of the complete cycle, a process that began in 2011, and will conclude in 2020 with the release of the full box set. During Biss’s nine-year odyssey into recording the music of Beethoven, he has published an e-book about his experiences called Beethoven’s Shadow, and launched an online course exploring all 32 Piano Sonatas in collaboration with the Curtis Institute of Music. In the 2019/20 season, Biss performs full cycles of the sonatas worldwide, including performances at The Phillips Collection on November 3, December 1, and March 22 to explore sonatas from Beethoven’s middle and late periods respectively.

-Jeremy Ney, Director of Music

A Contemporary Music Interpretation of Soy Isla – A Response to Zilia

To get the full experience of this blog, we recommend listening to the Spotify playlist created by the author, Nia Gomez. The full track list is below.

  1. Teardrop – Massive Attack
  2. Anchor Song – Bjork
  3. Sullen Girl – Fiona Apple
  4. Dry Land – Joan Armatrading
  5. Symphony in Blue – Kate Bush
  6. Seascape – Tracey Thorn
  7. Salt of the Sea – Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions
  8. Sea, Swallow Me – Cocteau Twins
  9. Blue – Joni Mitchell

Soy Isla is an embodiment of artist Zilia Sánchez’s perception of self, a reflection on her place in the world (or lack thereof)—the dichotomy between self-ownership and solitude. This playlist is an interpretation of the Zilia Sánchez exhibition, using modern music to embody thematic elements of the artist and her work. The playlist is exclusively comprised of female artists, expressing the sensuality of the female physical form like the curved and stretched canvasses in Soy Isla. Works including Maqueta Soy Isla (1972/92), Juana de Arco (1987), and the lip-shaped imagery of El Silencio de Eros (1980) exude subtle eroticism in their composition.

Zilia Sánchez, Topología erótica (Erotic Topology), 1960–71. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 41 × 56 × 13 in., Collection of Jose R. Landron, San Juan

Zilia Sánchez, Topología erótica (Erotic Topology), 1960–71. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 41 × 56 × 13 in., Collection of Jose R. Landron, San Juan

Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” highlights the feminine sensuality and minimalism present in Topologia Erotica (1960-71) and Topologia from the series Azul azul. “Water is my eye. Gentle impulsion, shakes me, makes me lighter.” The muted pink and blue shades of the paintings exude a weightlessness upon the curves of the canvas.

The dissonant instrumental harmonies of Bjork’s “Anchor Song” mimic the dichotomy of peaceful and ferocious waves. A singular female voice sings, “I live by the ocean, and during the night I dive into it. Down to the bottom, underneath all currents, and drop my anchor.” Just as an anchor, Zilia is rooted as an island to her homeland of Cuba and current residence in Puerto Rico.

The separation of an island from other land is arguably applicable to Zilia’s experience as a queer Latina artist, disconnected from tradition and the mainstream art community. In “Sullen Girl,” Fiona Apple laments, “It’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion. They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea.” Apple refers to “they,” those who do not understand. Zilia states that an island “belongs to only one thing” and that they must “understand it and leave.”

The first piece in the collection, both the canvas Soy Isla (2000) and the performance video Encuentrismo–ofrenda o retorno (2000) depict the release of the work into the ocean. In “Dry Land,” the unyielding voice of Joan Armatrading declares, “Tides and waves have kept me, kept me going. I’m longing for the calm.” In Zilia’s performance video and Armatrading’s words alike, the ocean maintains its subject in constant motion.

“Symphony in Blue” is carried by a bright and assured soprano tone as Kate Bush sings of her past: “I spent a lot of time looking at blue, the color of my room and my mood. Blue on the walls, blue out my mouth.” Azul Azul (1956) carries the entire spectrum of blue on 23×21 inches of canvas. Blue is not only a dominant color of the exhibition and the ocean, but also a feeling associated with the work. As displayed in the geographic landscape of Soy Isla: Comprendelo y retirate (1990), a blue pointed center is isolated from a blue perimeter of the canvas. Circles of white and grey surround the center, creating a protective barrier from the origin of the circle outward. The blue center is isolated, potentially lonely, as the title of the piece asks the viewer to “understand and retreat.”

Zilia Sánchez, Azul azul (Blue Blue), 1956. Acrylic on canvas, 21 × 23 in., Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Zilia Sánchez, Azul azul (Blue Blue), 1956. Acrylic on canvas, 21 × 23 in., Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

The lyrics of the acoustic melody “Seascape” by Tracey Thorn allude to nostalgia and a relinquishing of control: “Watching tides that take me away, to a distant shore. And I don’t want to be saved.” Upon release in Enceuntrismo–ofrenda o retorno (2000), Zilia’s canvas is left to be governed by the intention of the waves. Coexisting as the black image on white canvas in Zilia’s Subliminal (1972), Hope Sandoval’s “Salt of the Sea” pairs a gently xylophonic chime with a wailing electric guitar. Above it, a sirenesque tremor whispers an ode of her wanted fate: “Waiting to fly around the salt of the sea. A way to be, a way to be.” The Cocteau Twins’s “Sea, Swallow Me“ from the album The Moon and the Melodies reflects multiple components of the exhibition: the presence of the ocean as translated in the blue tones of Azul azul and the lunar motifs of Lunar V (1973) and Lunar (1980).

Zilia Sánchez, Afrocubano, 1957. Oil on canvas, 27 ½ × 21 ½ in., Private collection, Madrid

Zilia Sánchez, Afrocubano, 1957. Oil on canvas, 27 ½ × 21 ½ in., Private collection, Madrid

Joni Mitchell’s iconic “Blue” references tattoos, which are featured on works including Soy Isla (1970), Untitled from the series Afrocubanos (1957), and Concepto Z (1976). Mitchell observes, “Blue songs are like tattoos, you know I’ve been to sea before. Crown me and anchor me, or let me sail away.” Tattoos, as markings on the body and imagery thought to be essential to ones sense of self, could further represent the experiences that shaped Zilia’s identity. Like Joni Mitchell, Zilia  knows the sea, feeling its presence as boldly as black ink upon skin. With intense sentiment, familiarity, and elusiveness, Zilia Sánchez proclaims her place as an island. This contemporary music interpretation is intended as a response, a respectful communication with the many forms of Zilia Sánchez represented in her work.


Echoes of the Ancient Baby

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

Anyone moving through the Nordic Impressions exhibition will have encountered Norwegian artist Tori Wrånes’s surreal multimedia work Ældgammel Baby (Ancient Baby). Whether you are entranced by its perpetual orbit or repulsed by its gargoyle-like ugliness, there is something unmistakably rapt in Wrånes’s dreamlike vision. The figure is not quite human, yet seems to be spinning in the amniotic fluid of modern human life: sneakers, oversized raincoat, and a shock of hair like a kitsch troll. Corporeal sounds emanate from the character, too, which appears aching to be heard and understood, if only we had the means to interpret its otherworldliness. The character’s groans sound pre-linguistic, echoing Jacques Lacan’s notion of the “object voice” or Julia Kristeva’s Chora—vocal utterances that articulate pure sound loosened from denotative meaning, like the sounds that babies make before they acquire language and culture. Voiceless and “othered” from such systems, the character’s seeming distance from the human lends a primordial character to its sounds. Cloaked in the heavy sonic affect of reverberation, they feel more elemental in their resonance, like the mysterious drone sounds of planetary vibration or the groaning tensile shift of tectonic plates. The sensation is that of being immersed in a sonic and visual deep-time, an eternal recurrence which is amplified by Wrånes’s conscious multi-layering of temporalities; you are both there in the vivid materiality of the present, yet absorbed within the longue durée of mythic or archaic time.

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

Tori Wrånes, Ancient Baby, 2017, Video projection, sound variable, Courtesy of the artists and Carl Freedman Gallery

There is another ancient means by which Ældgammel Baby seeks to communicate with us. It makes music. At points in the work, the character is seen blowing through a flute-like instrument, producing a deeply uncanny sound which echoes through the galleries in Nordic Impressions. Flutes are the most ancient musical artifacts, with archaeological examples of hollowed bone flutes dating from 40,000 years ago found in the caves of Germany and Slovenia. Is this bewildering yet tender moment of music-making simply another means of displacing our perceptions of time? Perhaps there are deeper art historical implications at stake, too; gestures toward the complex history of musical iconography in visual art, from the representations of instruments in Greek and Roman vase painting, to the domestic interior scenes of music-making in Vermeer and beyond. Often the depictions of musical instruments in sculpture and painting of the ancient past served as metaphorical symbols of Neoplatonic harmony; music as a representation of the aesthetic ideals of order and proportion. Yet in Greek mythology, it was flute that signaled the purely sensuous and moral danger of the god Dionysus. In Titian’s famous evocation, we see the Satyr Marsyas flayed alive for his hubris in challenging Apollo’s rational, celestial music of the Lyre with his passionate, discordant sounds on the Aulos (a flute). Perhaps, then, Ældgammel Baby is a floating Dionysus? A strange, unknowable god creature bound by irrationality and chaos, forever spinning in ritual abyss. However, Wrånes does not foreclose the notion that the Dionysian may also represent a utopia, a dreamlike vision of freedom from the strictures of convention, shedding light on the human condition and what we choose to represent about ourselves in our daily lives. “We are all trolls,” Wrånes has said in interview, “when visible, we try to show and present our best sides, to be happy and pretty. I am more interested in what happens when you turn off the light.” When the light turns off, it is the materiality of sound that we are left immersed in, enveloping the spectator in traces of an aural past (real or imagined) resonating in the acoustic present. What might we see in the echoes left behind?

—Jeremy Ney, Director of Music at The Phillips Collection