Outwork
John Zorn
Education
J-S Bach
Deconstruction
John Cage










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Alt-Rhapsodie - J. Brahms

Alt-Rhapsodie

[1] Die Kunst einer Fuge. Ten interpretations of the first contrapunto of Bach's The Art of Fugue. Ten interpretations, dedicated to ten different composers, baptized with the names of one of their compositions.
Zacher's third performance is named after Johannes Brahms' work Alt-Rhapsodie, which was completed in 1869 and was written for a (male) choir, orchestra and solo alto. Brahms' composition is based on three stanzas from Goethe's poem, Harzreise im Winter, and is subdivided into three distinct sections. The rhapsodic nature of the composition is stressed especially in the third part: the choir sings a form of choral in support of an alto solo which is allowed to express itself more freely compared to the other voices. A rhapsody: A work having no fixed form or plan, a string (of words, sentences, tales), a composition of indefinite form (Oxford English Dictionary).
In 'Alt-Rhapsodie' Zacher revalues the alto part in Bach's composition. (Zacher's reference pertains more to the title of Brahms' composition and the nature of a rhapsody than to any similarities in sound. The nature of a rhapsody: stately, solemnly. 'Alt-Rhapsodie' lasts almost two minutes more than 'Quatuor', 'the most unambiguous exposition', dedicated to Bach.) Analysis of 'Contrapunctus I' made it clear to Zacher that the alto is the least developed voice in the piece. Apart from a pseudo attack in bar 48, the subject is exposed only twice in the alto, both times before bar 27, i.e. approximately before the first third of the fugue. Only during the two intermezzi in bars 27-8 and 36-9 is the alto bound to a canonic progression (with tenor and bass, respectively). Other than that, it plays a somewhat free, but subordinate and servile part (even though it has the least number of bars containing rests). 'From the viewpoint of strict formal construction (for which The Art of Fugue is renowned) this alto voice is poor: it begins with the theme, then it becomes an accompanying part, servile, episodic ... and falls silent. It begins again, again with the theme and at the same pitch as the first time, but again it becomes an accompaniment, still more subservient, merely episodic'.
In 'Alt-Rhapsodie', Zacher sets the organ register in such a way that the three other voices become subordinate to the alto voice (Alto voice: Tremulant. The three other voices all Quintade 8'). Even in the parts where the alto only slightly contributes to the progression of the fugue, without its developing significantly on its own, it bellows loud and clear above the other voices. Zacher supports this by saying that the subordination becomes an advantage in the final part of the fugue because it enables the alto to develop far more freely than the treble, tenor and bass who are bound to the strict rules of the fugal progression. Hence, the alto breathes more life into the 'Contrapunctus I'. 'Having twice begun the theme, it never again has its say before the end. But one can hear how this part lives, how it rises and falls, how free it is, far freer in its servitude than any of the others'. By emphasizing the freely moving alto, Zacher bestows a rhapsodic nature upon the fugue, rendering it a musical fantasy. 'The laurels go to the rhapsodies who disqualify the parts of a ... text whose mechanics are unknown to them', Derrida writes (Margins, p.189).

[2] To what extent can this interpretation be read as a deconstructive strategy? On the basis of conventional analyses, it could be posited that the voice exposing the subject is the dominant voice; the subject's role determines the frame, the departing point in the analyses. The other two or three voices are subordinate to the subject's voice at that moment. When the subject is not heard, the voices that relate in a canonic way amongst each other are in a privileged position with respect to the other voice. Hence, a series of hierarchical oppositions come into place where one voice takes up a superior position with respect to the other. In a sense, this hierarchy is necessary in order for the text to secure its thematic unity. However, this is precisely what deconstruction reacts against. 'To deconstruct the opposition is first of all to overturn the hierarchy', says Derrida (Positions, p.41). This is exactly what happens in Zacher's third interpretation. He reverses the hierarchy in 'Alt-Rhapsodie', where the central is put in opposition to the marginal, the essential to the supplementary. 'Why favor the alto voice in this way? - Because it was so underprivileged'. In revaluing the alto, he calls into question the dominance of (one of) the other voices. The supplementary, faint, undeveloped voice acquires a positive appearance in 'Alt-Rhapsodie', free and lively. 'It is the ferment which keeps the whole Fugue alive'. The opposition does remain intact, but the attention shifts from the previously dominant voice to the previously subordinate voice. However, the reversal of the hierarchy, the attention to the dominated voice, does not simply bring about a new hierarchical relation; rather, it leads to a subversion of the distinction between the essential and the subordinate. After all, what would the central be if the marginal were capable of becoming the central? In conjunction with its reversal, the hierarchy is subverted and dislocated.
Deconstruction shows that the priority of the dominant term can be reversed by actually staying close to the text. Because previous readings (both performances and analyses, with the understanding that the former is also a kind of analysis) have separated the text into essential and marginal elements, the text has acquired an identity that the text itself, on account of its marginal elements, is able to subvert. The common interpretation - where the voice that plays the subject's part is privileged over the other voices - is deconstructed in 'Alt-Rhapsodie'. The voice that is least subjugated to the rules that a fugue lays down - rules that determine the fugal nature, rules that turn a fugue into a fugue - is placed in the forefront by Zacher. But it is the text - 'Contrapunctus I' - that enables such a deconstruction. The text allows for such a reading on account of its textuality: the impossibility of a fixed signifying context, in addition to its materiality which no signification can resolve or replace.

[3] The explanatory notes on the third interpretation begin as follows: 'Here, for the first time, the interpretation could be described as a misuse of the Fugue'. Misuse. The derivative, the debased version of the term 'use'. The idea of misuse implies the possibility of a proper use. Misuse is an accident that sometimes befalls use. By activating the very term, misuse, Zacher confines himself to a widespread hierarchical opposition, namely the distinction between readings and misreadings. This understanding inevitably rests on a certain notion of identity and difference. It assumes that correct readings preserve, reproduce or maintain the identity of a text, while misreadings distort it; they produce or introduce a difference. However, when we apply this general idea to music and to 'Alt-Rhapsodie' in particular, the question remains as to what would be a 'correct reading'. First of all, it is difficult to determine what the musical text actually comprises. The score? If so, when would the identity of the musical text be maintained? At the first reading ever? By the reading that Bach advocates? In neither case can Zacher say that his third interpretation misuses the fugue for the first time. Is the identity of a musical text maintained when the right notes are played? Zacher does not play any 'wrong' notes in this version either. When it is played on the right instrument? In that case, the previous two interpretations ('Quatuor', dedicated to Bach, and 'Crescendo', dedicated to Schumann) are already misuses, as well. Or, would Zacher perhaps indicate that this third version is the first one that is really far removed from the conventional interpretations? That 'Alt-Rhapsodie' significantly deviates from the existing conventions? But is it really a matter of misuse? Did the conventional performances, in fact, maintain the identity of the text? Each performance differs from all others to some extent; apparently, however, there can be only one 'correct' performance (or none at all: perhaps, every performance of a score is a misuse by definition because it transforms the identity of the score). Are then all performances, except that one (which one?), misuses?
The possibility to misuse a score in a reading, an interpretation, a performance, an analysis. According to Jonathan Culler, all readings are, in fact, misreadings, since no reading can escape correction. The history of readings is a history of misreadings. In order for this history to take place, there must have been a certain instability, non-self-identity, or non-transparency of the text in question. Why present another reading if we agree that one particular reading is the only correct one? Interpreters are able to discover features and implications in a text that previous interpreters neglected or distorted. (A rhapsody. A string of tales.) This process may continue infinitely; a misreading is the unavoidable fate of reading. A correct reading becomes a special case of misreading for Culler; a misreading that is temporarily accepted as a correct reading, 'a misreading whose misses have been missed' (Culler, p.178). This line of thought leads to a radical complication of what used to be a precise and rigorous distinction. The irreducible possibility of misuse and misreading must always be taken into account; they are, in fact, always at stake. (We need not conclude that understanding is impossible, for acts of interpretation that seem perfectly adequate for particular purposes and circumstances occur frequently.)

[4] A misuse of the Fugue. One must assume that Zacher refers to conventions in the performance praxis of 'Contrapunctus I'. These conventions depend upon socio-institutional conditions, i.e., non-natural power relations that can be analyzed, transformed, deconstructed. Zacher disrupts a certain consensus by showing the possibilities of a differential play in the reading of a text. Only when seen from the power basis of conventional structures can the 'Alt-Rhapsodie' be regarded a 'misuse'. Zacher's comment is evidence of the force and function of these conventions. However, the fact that misuses are possible, is also evidence that the context is neither absolutely solid, nor entirely closed. It contains a margin of play, of difference, of openings. 'Alt-Rhapsodie' prompts one to consider the processes of legitimization, validation, and authorization that produce differences among readings, differences that enable certain readings to expose other readings as misreadings. In general, inversions of hierarchical oppositions expose to debate the institutional arrangements that rely on hierarchies and thus open possibilities of change (cf. Culler, p.179). A rhapsodie. A work having no fixed form.