The power of the cracks



Excerpt from the recently released book – a dialogue on the current situation of classical music

Flo Menezes (FM): It is interesting, albeit rare, the situation in which the same Text it is submitted by its own author, or by the one who affronts it, to different readings. In music, it took Alban Berg 25 years to do this, perhaps in a pioneering way, with a poem by Theodor Storm, Schließe mir die Augen beide, when, after having translated it into one of the most beautiful songs of the last key, in 1900, he revisited the text and submitted it to the writing of one of the first twelve-tone serial works with the beautiful song of the same name from 1925.

Years later, more precisely between 1977 and 1981, Luciano Berio, in collaboration with Italo Calvino, conceived something unusual in the field of opera – although he was reluctant to define it that way, preferring the term music store: an opera in two acts, The true story, but whose text of the First Act is identical to that of the Second, only being distributed or segmented in a slightly different way, but whose musical treatment is substantially contrasting. For years I thought that this idea by Berio and Calvino, without a doubt still of great originality, had as a precedent either the two songs by Berg, or some of the examples of breaking the isomorphic illusion between text and music that Berio himself manages to diagnose in some of the Lieder romantics, when the same poem is subjected to completely different musical treatments, even if, in these cases, by different authors – as is the case, typically, of Goethe’s poem, Kennst Du das Land?, masterfully set to music by Beethoven, Schubert, Karl Friedrich Zelter, Liszt, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, each of whom believed he had put the purest “truth” of the text into music.

But there are other precedents, and one of them is in the theater. In one of his didactic plays (in this case, a School Opera – Schuloper), Der Jasager und Der Neinsager [What says yes and what says no], 1930, Bertolt Brecht foreshadows the feat of Calvino/Berio and conceives a double work in which the text of the Second Act is fundamentally identical to that of the First, but with a radically opposite outcome: a risky expedition through the mountain to reach a village in the On the other side of the slope, where researchers arrived at the manufacture of a medicine capable of curing the plague that had attacked his mother and a good part of civilization – a situation very close to that of our days… –, a boy, who had convinced his teacher to take him together with his team in search of this salvation, he himself is affected by the disease, which makes it impossible for him to follow the path.

The impasse occurs right at the top of the mountain, halfway along the path, where you can only go to the other side through a narrow path. Fenda shored up on the one hand by thorns and on the other by the abyss, and which only a sane person can cross. The slit, so narrow, also makes it impossible for someone to be carried to the other side. Then, the boy himself is asked: would he agree that the expedition should continue and, since he could not be left behind alone, on top of the mountain, that he be thrown into the abyss? In Act One, the boy says yes and accepts death, knowing that with his sacrifice his mother will likely be saved. But in the Second Act, his choice surprises everyone and he betrays the tradition that, faced with an unusual situation like this, he sacrifices himself: the boy says not and he prefers life, wanting to return to his sick mother's side! Morally questioned by the teacher, dissatisfied with his attitude, he utters one of the most forceful sentences in defense of dialectic: “With each new situation, think again” (my transcreation of the sentence: "In jeder neuen Lage neu nachzudenken"[I]).

It is curious to think that, in such a dramatic situation as this, Brecht used the image of a Fenda. Such a conscious elaboration would have traced reference to the passage of the Inferno ao Purgatory na Divine Comedy from Dante? In the last verses of Inferno, Dante, still accompanied by Virgil, and after reaching the Ninth Cycle and having caught sight of Lucifer, squeezes himself down a narrow slope (dirty path) and, leaving Hell, manages to access the renewed vision of the heavens. The final verse of this part, of immeasurable beauty, enunciates the liberation of the poets from the torments of Hell and their reunion with the stars: “And then we went out to see the stars again"[ii] (“And so we went out to see the stars again”). If it is a Brechtian unconscious act, or if my (re)reading evokes the motto “if it's not true, it's ben trovato", it's from Fenda what is at issue here. And, in this context, I could not fail to make another curious parallel:

The syllogism is absolutely correct only when it is a tautology, that is, when it is sterile. The syllogism is “useful” when… it is incorrect, that is, when it admits “gaps” between concepts. The fact depends “entirely” on the permissible dimensions of the “cracks”. It is here where the dialectic begins. (Leon Trotsky, Philosophical Writings. São Paulo: ISKRA Editions, 2015, p. 103)

The cracks are, therefore, imperfections, but also edges, and, as such, they provide us with passages. They institute instability in concepts and promote healthy non-correspondence as a condition sine qua non of reflection. Maybe that's why you yourself quote Hegel's beautiful phrase, when he says: "That's too tender for the world: to remove contradiction from it"[iii]. I am led to believe that it is in this sense that you also speak of a “seduction of multiplicity and the non-identical” (Idem, P. 45), or even the irresistible act of “yielding to every charm of the heterogeneous” (p. 46).


Vladimir Safatle (VS): There are two interesting ideas here. The first concerns these ways of updating the concept that are built through the tension between divergent series. What does it mean to realize a concept? Are there not situations in which it is, in fact, a crack that opens up in the space between two divergent series that unfold from the same starting point? As if the concept were, in fact, the passage system between one series and another? The example of Berg's two plays is quite illustrative. And I think that, not by chance, the text is the poem Schließe mir die Augen beide. There is a greater ambiguity in the poem, as it deals with the junction between love and death. The poet asks that his eyes be closed with loving hands that will take away the pain, until the last beat. Perhaps talking about this point of junction between attraction and terror is only possible through something that needs to be produced through two divergent series, creating two systems of relations, even if they trace familiar relations. The interval pitches of the voice in the two versions of the song are similar in many ways. Just like piano intensities. This has always struck me: even the transition from the tonal system to the dodecaphonic serial system does not touch the intensity of the piano.

There is another case that also interests me. He is present, for example, in a play by George Crumb, from the series Macrocosm (no 11). It's called Dream images (love-death music). Also another piece that seeks to deal with the tension between love and death. The piece is organized based on a formal realization/suspension polarity. This piece is used a lot to talk about the use of quotations in contemporary music, since there is a continuous recurrence of excerpts from the Impromptu fantasy, Op. 66, by Chopin. But I don't think "citation" is the proper operation here. What happens is a recomposition that does not fail to weave interesting conceptual relationships with what was at stake in Berg's two plays. However, this recomposition, as it operates on historical material, has a retroactive power of resignification.

If we turn our eyes to Impromptu fantasy, we will see how its tripartite form (ABA') is taken to a point of paroxysm very evident in the sudden change of character with the entry of the Moderate Cantabile, central part of the piece. The physical exhaustion to which the pianist submits himself to interpret the first section with its continuous speed, with its dissociation between groups of 12 notes in the left hand and 16 notes in the right hand, its rapturous tone, contrasts this central part in such a way with the opening and ending section in C sharp minor that feels like it's been grafted onto the song, as if it were another piece. This contrast is a key Romantic feature, with its dialectical use of slits.

Well, it is exactly this structural tension that animates Crumb's recomposition. In a sense, Chopin's play returns, but with two decisive changes. First, the dynamic character of sections A and A', a character that was already an important reference to the dynamism of Beethoven's Sonatas, especially the third movement of Moonlight Sonata, is dead. Therefore, the use of static sequences of chords in short, whole-tone scales, among others. Furthermore, the strict distinction between sections in the Impromptu fantasy of Chopin decomposes as in a dreamlike image in which materials return as if they were in ruins.

In this sense, the polarity “love” and “death” to which the title refers appears under the marks of formal suspension, with its deadly staticity, and the fluctuation of returns from Impromptu fantasy of Chopin, in ruins. As if the romantic promise of struggle, recognition and integration of what could put the organicity of the collapsing form continued on our horizon, but now with the historical experience of refusal, as well as the awareness of the necessity of the need, to stop the movement.

I would still remember that this is a significant historical sequence for the genre. Fantasy. You know better than I how it appeared as a form of freedom that would be similar to the modes of relation and association at work in the imagination. Crumb's reference to the dream is astute, as it spells out something central to understanding the form in question. The rules of imagination will be present in the theory of dreams of the XNUMXth century.

But this form of freedom loses something of its affirmative character that was evident in the Romanticism and Fantasies of Chopin, Schubert and Liszt. Because this freedom, in order to preserve itself, must assert its impossibility of historical realization. Therefore, it does not return as a space of complexity, but of a certain exhaustion. This exhaustion, however, is a way of preserving what Fantasy once promised. For we no longer have the right to preserve the belief, proper to the nineteenth century with its revolutionary social transformations, that the form of free imagination is at hand. And I believe that, in this sense, Crumb's play is very successful.


FM: It is curious that I have always read Storm's text on which Berg's two songs are based as a gesture acousmatic, more of love than of death, in which the heart itself can stop beating so that the moment of love is, rather than suspended, perhaps eternalized. The acousmatics – that Pythagorean school that was based on listening “purely” to the teachings of Pythagoras through a curtain that concealed him, and whose image Pierre Schaeffer used to define the emerging poetics of concrete music, with those sounds that come out of the speakers without seeing their physical origin – is evoked there before la lettre as a promotion of the “pure” sensation, in defense of a skin-deep sensitivity: “Close both my eyes!” And such sensitivity is pure life! But the evocation of death, almost as an upside-down resolution, in which all sensitivity is absent, establishes the dialectical rift of that desire for pure pleasure. “Purism”, of course, must be placed in quotation marks, because no experience can be so naked as to completely abdicate its references, and when a John Cage says that when he sees a tree, he wants to “forget about all trees ” (“When I see a tree, I want to forget any other trees"[iv]), we know that the gesture is courageous, inciting us to that genuine, almost childlike interest in the New, but that it is also utopian, because not even the bird is capable of that: it soon learns to constitute cumulative references of its partial experiences in order to be able to land on some branch. we include things in a historical course that relates us to them, and everything is, in a sense, historicized by us. Maybe that's why Jean-François Lyotard, when he addresses phenomenology and refers to this intentional and instinctive search for the very essence of things – for an essence, perhaps, permanent and, in this sense, mortal – through the various particular experiences that add up in our lives, an essence that never fully reveals itself in the particular and individualized experience, has stated that “it is because inclusion is intentional that it is possible to found the transcendent No. immanent without degrading it”.[v]

But it is also a certain degradation that is involved when music and text make use of citation. There is, there, a certain fragmentation that is of the order of deconstruction. Certainly, as Berio so well said, “to be creative, the gesture must destroy something”[vi]. Without having made it explicit – which was common in Berio: multiple references thrown into the sea –, the Italian composer probably reported, unpleasantly, to Gaston Bachelard, when he states that “all knowledge taken at the time of its constitution is polemical knowledge; he must first destroy to make room for his constructions.”[vii]Perhaps, therefore, there is not undoing, but before deconstruction permanent. Deconstructing is, therefore, an operation that can legitimize significant constructions. The very permanent idea of ​​the Revolution is nothing more than this. But if in the literary body intertextuality – because that is what it is about – has as a resource the stagnation of time and the interruption of reading, an operation that allows the reader-interlocutor to search and decipher such references, in the time drained from the sounds in a musical composition every resource to citation is an invitation to not listen, to the stagnation of time and, perhaps, to the death of music itself. In this regard, Crumb's plays, when they appeal to this more literary than musical resource, pose a problem, despite their beauty. Because then, contrary to closing our eyes to a total surrender to the sensitivity of sounds and their structures, we have an invitation to suspend listening and the attitude that puts us, eyes wide open – and therefore alive on the one hand, but dead on the other. another –, in front of another score, trying to unravel the intertextual plots of the quotation. Strictly speaking, there is no more music there, but metamusic. In this sense, the citation, in music, is always, more than a polemical gesture, an act in which a certain lack of control over the materials appears. Allowing me a self-quotation, “quotation – despite the fact that in most cases it results from the composer's great love for the quoted work – seems to me, paradoxically, a betrayal – like an infidelity that the composer practices, as a lover, with the musical object of his own love.”[viii]

On the other hand, it is undeniable that we think more than we listen to the great musical work that touches us, and that therefore the intellective operations find a certain legitimacy there, even if we abdicate the concrete plane (but always and above all abstract) of the sound. The reverberations that the musical work exerts on our spirit echo in a much broader space-time than that limited to the precise moment of listening. This is the basis of the act itself scriptural, deed. It is processuality, the elaboration of materials, but it is permanently transformed into reflection, and for this reason the whole deed is permanent, as opposed to the contingent character of all writing. Also for this reason, writing can dispense with writing without ceasing to install the musical discourse. Consequently, to deprive the musical fabric of reflective content is not to recognize that the sensitivity to which we surrender in the act of listening is at the same time act e power, as if inverting the Aristotelian slit: first to action, then the elaboration, or, Freudianly, the perlaboration. Therein lies the act of Invention, that inaugural New that spills over into potential further developments. No wonder Beethoven, opposing the owners of the emerging bourgeoisie, said of himself – as Adorno well remembers – that he was a Hirnbesitzer - owner of a brain! He could be deafened, certainly...


VS: I wouldn't see this piece by Crumb as a case of "quotation". I don't think we are dealing with a “citation” operation in this case. For citation is the use of an excerpt from another text as confirmation of a reasoning that you control. The citation serves to endorse arguments, to consolidate unity. In that sense, it is not a special writing procedure; it is the very essence of writing. All writing is inhabited by citations, whether explicit or implicit. For all writing is “written from”. I write from another text, responding to another text, recovering paths already opened by other texts. Therefore, the space of writing is a full space, never an empty space. It is a field of resonance for texts that came before and that can be explicit or implicit.

Crumb's use of Impromptu fantasy Chopin has nothing of this nature. Stravinsky, when composing Pulcinella, makes the whole work a game of mirrors with Pergolesi, but it is not about citation either. Mahler, when he makes the strings ring Brother Jacques in minor mode in symphony no 1, also does not quote. Music cannot quote because it is not a causal chain of arguments. These procedures are something else. They are something closer to “contagion”. A contagion because what comes from the outside destabilizes the form, imposing a principle of heteronomy on it. They are foreign bodies that retroactively recompose the entire system of relationships that give structure to the work. In Crumb's case, Chopin appears practically as an “involuntary memory”, to speak like Proust. It seems to come from the decomposition of intentionality, as if it emerged in a moment of inattention, as if he were playing a piece and, suddenly, the pianist seems involuntarily to deviate from the score and start playing another piece. But this “other piece” that appears reconfigures the entire system of relations, operates a forward and backward process.

This forces us, in my opinion, to think differently about what we can understand by “composing”, at least in these cases. You speak of “degradation” to refer to certain literary processes in music, which end up producing something like a “certain lack of control over materials”. I think I understand your point, but I wonder if music shouldn't be, nowadays, a certain form of “heteronomy practice”. Because the lack of control you speak of seems to me to reverberate the fact that the constructive plan is, at certain points, deposed, being crossed by elements that I do not control. We know the way in which John Cage operates such depositions of the composer's will, making the works spaces for the construction of devices that must work regardless of the will of the composer, the performer or the audience. It is a fact that the common assertion that a good part of Cage's works are strong concepts whose realization usually does not seem to live up to expectations is something that shows a certain form of limitation of such strategies.

But there is another path that seems interesting to me. He starts from the assumption that, in our historical moment, a work that was completely composed, that was the consequent realization of its own constructive plan, would not fail to resonate its opposite, namely, the social reality that imposes absolute control of its own materials, which is oriented towards the elimination of all immanent contradictions, all structural antagonism, in order to place itself as a system. In this sense, shouldn't music be exactly the place where such an illusion dissolves? And for that, wouldn't she need to put the composer with the perpetual lack of control of his materials?

There is a beautiful analysis by Ligeti of one of the Sechs Bagatellen Op. 9 for string quartet by Webern, namely the fifth piece, in which he compares the construction process to a spider weaving a web. The metaphor was very well chosen, since the Bagatela starts with minor second intervals to gradually expand them, as if it were an organic form in principle of regular expansion. However, as Ligeti well remembers, organic forms are torn at certain points, they are not completed, that is, they are always dealing with the heterogeneous dimension, as if in some parts we were losing control. Thus, for example, the magnification symmetry between the high and low harmonic fields is broken at the end of the seventh measure: towards the top, the field expands one degree more than downwards, as if breaking the norm were a fundamental element for the constitution of the work of art.

I really wonder if the current function of musical composition would not be exactly this, namely, to make us lose control without this implying loss of freedom, to dissociate freedom and control, freedom and self-government, being a practice of heteronomy. I believe that pieces like those by Crumb show us the direction of this path. This implies a certain condescension with contagion, like the infection between forms that has nothing to do with eclecticism, but has to do with the elaboration of a new utopian potential for the works.

*Vladimir Safatle He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).

* Flo Menezes is a composer, professor of electroacoustic composition at Unesp. Author, among other books, of Risks on music: essays – repetitions – tests (Unesp Digital).


Flo Menezes & Vladimir Safatle. The power of the cracks. São Paulo, N-1 Editions, 2021.


[I] Bertolt Brecht, “Der Neinsager”, in: Die Stücke von Bertolt Brecht in einem Band. Frankfurt am Main: Suhkamp, ​​1987, p. 254.

[ii] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy – Inferno. São Paulo: publisher 34, 1998, p. 230.

[iii] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel apoud Vladimir Safatle, Giving body to the impossible: the meaning of dialectics from Theodor Adorno. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2019, p. 57.

[iv] Phrase pronounced by John Cage in one of his interviews on YouTube.

[v] "C'est parce que l'inclusion est intentionnelle qu'il est possible de fonder le transcendant in l'immanent sans le degrader” (Jean-Francois Lyotard, The phenomenology. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1986, p. 30).

[vi] "Per essere creativo the gesture should poter distruggere qualcosa” (Luciano Berio, “Del gesto e di Piazza Carità”, in: Script sulla musica. Turin: Einaudi, 2013, p. 35).

[vii] "Toute connaissance prize au moment de sa constitution est une connaissance polemique; elle doit d'abord détruire pour faire la place de ses constructions” (Gaston Bachelard, La dialectique de la durée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2006, p. 14).

[viii] See Flo Menezes, Risks on music – Rehearsals, repetitions, exams. São Paulo: Editora Unesp Digital, 2018, p. 263.

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