Sunday, November 17, 2013

Visual Music - Grotesken-Album


I leaped for joy last night (or rather leaped internally as I remained sitting in my bed), because arguably the seminal document of Expressionist music has finally been uploaded to IMSLP in full.  Universal-Edition's Grotesken-Album, though mostly compiled from single movements of larger works as a marketing ploy, encapsulates a rich and striking moment in Classical history when horror, madness and mockery were the soups du jour.  Expressionism gained traction in music after WWI, and the freedom of dissonant architecture that works like Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and The Book of the Hanging Gardens introduced made a huge impression on younger composers.  Much like Impressionism, Ultra-Modernism and Scriabinisim, the fecundity of Expressionism was ultimately swallowed by movements defined by regularized architecture and reduced individuality.  That isn't to say that Expressionism didn't have its mediocre moments, and viewers of the Grotesken-Album may experience varied mileage with its mix of still-established (Béla Bartók, Ernst Krenek) and now-obscure (Felix Petyrek, Rudolph Réti) artists working in a volatile new language.  A fine example of the language in the book by a lesser-known composer is the Burleske movement of Eklogen, op. 11 by Egon Wellesz - just skip to 5:31.

Universal-Edition was unstoppable at the time, a new music juggernaut and bastion for all things exciting and Germanic (Durand had the French stuff).  What's so great about the collection isn't even how creative its works were at the time, but rather that it owes its existence to good old fashioned advertising tricks**.  And with such an inventive product to sell Universal-Edition felt compelled to market it inventively.  Thank God for inter-war irreverence.

A better grotesk cover couldn't have come to be even if Leviathan coughed up Behemoth onto your Thanksgiving dinner table to sing bawdy drinking songs.  The jester, Europe's longtime symbol of the Id's cruel laughter at everything sacred, is deformed into a skeletal, superhuman frame, head spinning like an Art Nouveau Regan MacNeil.  His clothes, along with the backdrop, are drenched in browns and grays, subverting any hope for a symbol of glory by presenting its messenger resplendent in mud.  The superimposition of fuschia and sky blue against charcoal is bizarre, almost beckoning the viewer to a demented carnival.  Much like Edwin Roxburgh's Labyrinth the title gains power by reaching past the frame, but instead of that cover's overwhelming font mass Grotesken's letters remain nimble and spidery, their overreach more a quirky mistake than anything else.  The grasp of exotic humorror*** on display is almost impossible to describe in words, so I'll let the inevitable realization by the viewer that the jester's left leg isn't attach to anything sink in.  It's too good for the music it's promoting, and while that may be a recurring theme in this series that shouldn't keep you from gobbling this anthology with as much speed as you can muster on a mid-November Sunday.  I can't guarantee you'll finish it with your head right side up, though.


*Isn't that font just fantastic?

**Is Scorewife an acceptable term?  Either way I'm using it.

***Humor-horror, but you can chuck that word into the dustbin if you like.  The jester got to me.

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