Wayne Koestenbaum - Notes on Affinity
The first time I heard Brahms's D minor Piano Concerto, in 1973 or 1974, on an LP, I felt affinity for the ugliness of its opening movement's stentorian theme, and for the theme's avoidance of happiness; I understand the inability to pursue happiness, and I wanted to build a life around hiding from closure, from optimism, and from productivity. And so once again I played the LP of the first movement, to cement my affinity - but not to understand it. I wanted to know why the first theme mattered - not the second ("feminine") theme but the first ("masculine") theme, perhaps derivative of Beethoven, perhaps too luridly striving, perhaps too Promethean - or was the problem the trill, a tremolo that created dissonance and unpleasure, a tremolo that disseminated an illusion of pneumonia, of croup, of rattling phlegm in an infected pair of lungs? I wanted to step closer to that oscillating phlegm, to approach its magic circle (Grand Grimoire?), not because I'd ever say "I love it" but because it confirmed (or teased onward) some tendency of my own, a tendency I'd probably then have called Satanic, anarchic, psychotic, world-destroying, family-destroying; but the opening theme was also the song of ambition, a diseased gaze away from futurity, a wish to throttle the environment, a refusal to cooperate. I call the emotion I felt upon hearing that first theme (not an emotion! rather, an awkwardness, a stirring, a hesitation, a fear, a disgust) - I call this uncertainty the birth of an affinity because the sensation brought no intellectual program in its wake, and it brought no possibility of an argument, no possibility (so I wished to believe) of ideology (as if "ideology" were a toxin I could define, circumscribe, and exile from my imagination). When the piano soloist (Rudolf Serkin) played that phrase, I felt it vicariously in my fingers; my stymied hands, lacking technique and experience, could sense an affinity with tremolos and octaves I could never execute. I label that emotion (or that stirring, that tendency, that tropism toward love) an "affinity" because the gnarly Brahms phrase was secretly my father; I can now imagine that wrecked, Olympian phrase as an ugly father with whom I might bed down, incestuously. (Or perhaps the phrase was simply vocation, father-as-vocation?) I was "called" by the phrase, but how could I invent a language (or set of actions) with which to answer the summons? Writing about this affinity, I'm thrust back to my childhood bedroom, its carpet, its curtain-filtered sunshine, its pessimism, its cramps, its Mod Squad, its dead flies; and I'm back, too, with my failure to imagine a location more romantic (or more estimable) than that immature phrase, whose ugliness I want now to emphasize as the aspect of its face most worthy of love.
I haven't defined affinity or taken a serious step toward articulating why it is a useful, attractive, or seductive category. I've said one simple thing, and I'll say it again. I call my first rendezvous with the Brahms phrase the stirring of an affinity because I can't name the object with which I felt the bond. Was Brahms the object? Was it the particular interval (minor seventh? ninth?) that the opening phrase traversed? Was my object the octave unison, two notes chiming together as one? Was my object the piano's affinity with the orchestra, an ensemble chained to the dominating, hubristic piano? Did I feel affinity with finger-wizard Rudolf Serkin, with maestro George Szell, or with their imagined affinity? Was my object - affinity's bull's-eye - my piano teacher, a diminutive young woman who'd played that daunting concerto, a few years earlier, as soloist with a college orchestra? Did I feel affinity with this teacher, whose narcissism, and whose audacious virtuosity, I imagined as a nougat I wanted to eat? Did I feel an affinity with D minor itself, the signature of woe and of containment within that comfy category, "woe"? Was I inspired by D minor's affinity with D major, or D minor's affinity with its cousin key, F major? Did I feel mirrored by D minor's affinity for F major? And thus was my affinity triangulated, a bastard version, not safe for child consumption? Was I mesmerized by Brahms's affinity with Beethoven, or Brahms's tie to Schumann? Did I feel an affinity for Brahms's regicidal riposte, his production of an unlyrical, anti-Schumannesque phrase (heroic, stony-hearted, marmoreal, morgue-cold as the Otto Wagner church in Vienna's Steinhof hospital), a phrase more pugilistic than Schumann's wildest dreams? Did I feel affinity with a composer's envy and love for a rival? Did I feel an alien's affinity with my own fingers, their wish to commit a revolutionary, exhibitionistic folly? Did I feel an affinity with modernity, or with tonality's rupture, even if tonality wasn't yet being destroyed, even if I'd be a fool to say that this opening phrase predicted Schoenberg? I call my alliance with this Brahms phrase an affinity because it fell short of love. My alliance (an undeclarable sensation I could barely notice) predicted for me a strange vocation: the phrase insinuated that my self-destructive mission would be to pursue dominant magnetisms (musical, visual, aromatic, tactile, syntactical) that in vain I'd dream of snuggling up to and conquering. Said more simply: I developed an instant crush on that phrase, and smack in the crush's central seam I understood that the infatuation was implausible, a crush I had no right to feel, a crush that would not win me friends or sympathizers; by announcing to myself that I felt affinity with that phrase, I was destroying other pacts, other possibilities of sociability, belonging, conformity, communicability. Even these sentences I'm now writing prove how damaging that affinity - or any affinity? - was; for by letting myself fall under its sway, I gave up comprehensibility. I decided: I'll side with what I can't understand in Brahms's phrase; I'll side with the possible rottenness of an object I might one day love.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Wayne Koestenbaum, "Wayne Koestenbaum - Notes on Affinity", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2011. Consulté le 26/09/2023. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/arts/musique/wayne-koestenbaum-notes-on-affinity