The Balancing Act and Impressiveness
Jānis Taurens, Philosopher
On a quiet and sunny and morning in August, at a coun­try house about four hours' drive from Riga, I open up Alessandro Baricco's little book about music, it contains two of his essays. Published by Neputns and designed by Inga Ģibiete, the oblique, as if fleeing writing on the cover, as well as the serrated edges of the text are in keeping with the title of the second essay - ‘Genius on the Run'. (The first one is no less intriguing: ‘Hegel's Soul and the Cows of Wisconsin'.) The book has neither foreword nor afterword, and my systematic mind does not manage to find any information as to when the essays were written, except that on the back cover there is a short note by Orests Silabriedis: "The very same qualified philosopher Alessandro Baricco who studies glass castles, silk and Homer (this being an indirect reference to his novels - J.T.) has reflected much on music in his youth." The serenity of the countryside, it seems, has also affected the speed of the internet, which is absolutely useless for an impatient search for information, and I indulge in Baricco's text, hoping to find the requisite references there. 
Alesandro Bariko. Hēgeļa dvēsele un Viskonsinas govs. Bēgošais ģēnijs. Rīga, Neputns, 2009. 127 lpp. In Latvian language
Little by little I manage to unearth several clues. Adorno's ‘Aesthetic Theory' has been published, the Berlin Wall has fallen, also the foreword to ‘Genius on the Run', dated 1996 and which contains the phrase "I wrote this book 10 years ago", enables me to determine the book's approximate publishing date. In order not to continue this slightly theatrical intrigue, I can reveal that ‘Hegel's Soul and the Cows of Wisconsin' was published in 1992, and ‘Genius on the Run' in 1988. Chronological order is not maintained in the book, and that is justifiable because the first essay looks at "cultivated music" (classical or "serious" music) in general, but the second is devoted to a more concrete subject - an analysis of Rossini's opera. The achievement of the translator must be recognised, because Baricco's metaphors and similes read easily, they are brilliant and original, the nearest in style - and also a source of influence - being Adorno, who is mentioned in these essays a number of times (the quotes of Benjamin and Adorno fit easily into Baricco's textual fabric). It is so tempting to underline Baricco's expressions, in order to use them in some later conversation or to incorporate them in an article. The "balancing act" of Baricco's language - and it's no coincidence that this is a term he likes to use him­self - is yet another reason why the book should have an afterword with some serious analysis. That is because explanation is needed, not only for formulations such as "the Darmstadt School" or for the differentiation of the terms "transcendent" and "transcendental", which may not be a simple task even for graduates of the faculty of philosophy, but also for the assumptions hidden among the lacework of language that compel Baricco to describe modern music as "tangled absurdity". Of course, Baricco's disclaimer is that his view is from an Italian perspective, and it is true, the west coast American avantgarde and the music associated with it, known as "minimalism", as well as the entry of Eastern cultures into the sphere of Western music is mentioned only once.

For a careless reader, the absence of comments makes it possible to slip up on the real meaning of Baricco's metaphors, also because in the first essay, which comprises four chapters or paragraphs ("long aphorisms", as the author likes to call them), he starts by expounding on the notion of the idea and interpretation of cultivated music, which, it seems, is fair enough. Further on, he talks about a rupture in the history of European music and its relationship with the public, characterized by Schoenberg's atonal music, but already becoming important here is the postulation that contributes to the construction of this gap, namely, the assertion that "at the basis of the experience of lis­tening are the reactions of guesswork and surprise, suspense and response (the bold letters are used in the author's text - J.T.)". This same premise colours the next one also, which, speaking about likely future of art music, demands: "That language (meaning the language of music - J.T.) utters reality, not just itself." With such a requirement, it is not an easy task to chart the paths of musical development, and in the fourth chapter Baricco attempts to accomplish this with the help of the concept of impressiveness of music, strategically retreating into the past and analyzing how this has worked in Puccini's operas, which "invented popular music" and "balance on the verge of an abyss, at risk of becoming a trite com­mercial concoction", and in Mahler's symphonies, which applied the principles of cinematic montage. Baricco's assumptions and perspective makes him regretfully admit that "at the cultural horizons of cultivated music, the idea of impressiveness has been left neglected, demonized and forgotten".

Given the space allowed for this review, I must stop this train of thought. I will only add that here one can see Baricco's skill in speaking about music, which was evidently developed when he worked as a music critic. His interpretation of the works of Puccini and Mahler leads the reader to pass on immediately to a no less original analysis of Rossini's operas in ‘Genius on the Run'. Here not only the comic operas but also a great many of Rossini's serious works, unknown even to serious opera fans, are discussed, (the socalled Italian period, from ‘Tancredi' up to ‘Semiramide'). In this case, without objection I succumb to Baricco's talent as a writer, and, notwithstanding his own opinion that the interpretation of Rossini supplied "is easier to grasp assisted by critical reflection rather than by unassisted listening", I am overtaken by a desire to find and to listen to Rossini's less known operas.

As for Baricco's analysis of Rossini - as in the case of Puccini and Mahler - it cannot be regarded merely as a self-contained balancing act of his thoughts. It offers a deeper insight into his thinking and assumptions, to some extent - but, it has to be stressed, only some - acting as a substitute for the nonexistent afterword.

/Translator into English: Egils Turks/

go back