Welcome, welcome to Garden Europa! Well, no, not welcome exactly—because you cannot be allowed enter—but welcome to the fence. Peer just over the wire. Look, isn’t it beautiful? Everything’s clean, everything works! And listen, listen to this: our anthem, our glorious anthem, the height, the apotheosis of music—of culture!—itself: Beethoven’s (surely you’ve heard of him?) “Ode to Joy” (surely you’ve heard it before?). Can you hear it ringing throughout our Garden, our Elysium? Soon, maybe, if you’re lucky, we will play it in the Jungle as well. Oh, I hear it now:
Be embracèd, all you millions
Share this kiss with all the world!
Way above the stars, brothers,
There must live a loving father.
That father’s name is Europe; this kiss is for you.
Enough for now.
I echo here Josep Borrell, the Spanish High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union, whose recent, racist comment on the “Garden” of Europe versus the “Jungle” of the rest of the world has been widely lambasted for its overt bigotry and stupidity even as it lays bare a sentiment so commonplace in the “West” (not only Europe) that it is perhaps only its utterance, not its content, that has shocked—shocked!—the people of the Garden and the Jungle alike.
The above-quoted verse is from the final stanza of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” which Beethoven used as the text for the final movement to the Ninth Symphony. The European Union adopted the piece (sans words) as its official anthem in 1985, declaring that “this anthem expresses the European ideals of freedom, peace and solidarity.” The piece has also been used to express these ideals of freedom, peace, and solidarity in such places as Rhodesia (national anthem, 1974-1979), Nazi Germany (employed frequently to mark momentous occasions, such as Hitler’s birthday in 1942), the Berlin Wall (famously performed by Leonard Bernstein to celebrate the wall’s destruction), and Kosovo (used to celebrate the country’s declaration of independence).
This is to say that the “Ode” has a long, mixed history. But, despite this checkered past, the use of the “Ode” is far from complex. Always (in its official usage at least) it is used—with all its bombast, glory, and beauty— to consecrate a government or its ideology, to place them firmly within the long tradition of Western Cultural Achievement™.
With such a past, saturated as it is by propaganda and repetition, it seems unlikely that there is much a contemporary artist can do with the “Ode” beyond stale recapitulations of its theme for flashmob videos or aging concert hall audiences. And yet, with their performance and sculpture piece “Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’ for a Prepared Piano,” the artist duo of Jennifer Allora (born 1974, Philadelphia) and Guillermo Calzadilla (born 1971, Havana) have managed to breath new life into a long dead (or should we say, taxidermied) piece of music.
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For “Stop, Repair, Prepare” (performed at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin every day until October 30), Allora & Calzadilla carved a hole in the center of a piano—nullifying the instrument’s middle register—in which performers (Ben Cruchley, Paolo Gorini, Eleni Mitrousia, Ido Ramot, Galina Ryzhikova, Marcin Wieczorek), who alternate by day, stand and play the final movement of the Ninth Symphony from behind the keys as they walk the piano around the lobby.
The tone of the work is set right from the opening chord, which sounds gnarled from the preparation of the piano and from the overexertion of the strings through a month of performances. The missing middle register, which is used to great effect as percussion, serves to create a hollowness, a literal void, in the middle of the piece’s usually rich harmonies, which in turn underscores the slightly disjointed and episodic structure of the movement. The requirement that the piece be played upside-down results in fumbled fingerings, in accidental clusters of dissonance—classical piano filtered through Thelonious Monk. The resulting piece, which includes short moments of improvisatory modernist intervention, sounds like a deconstruction, almost a parody, of the famous work.
To give “Ode to Joy” this treatment is an undeniably political as well as artistic statement. As the poison of nationalism is again metastasizing throughout Europe—the war of aggression in Ukraine, the closing of the continents’ borders to refugees and immigrants and the attendant Frontex border agency violence, the re-entrenchment of right-wing ideology from Italy to Hungary—the piece and its (here, silent) lyrics ring false or, even crueler, ironic.
Thus the clusters and dissonances—both comic and childlike as well as jarring and razor-sharp. Thus the trudging of the piano across the room during the Turkish March (Turkey—to which the EU outsources much of its brutal management of the refugee crisis in exchange for ever-delayed membership in the Union, arms deals, a blind-eye towards the country’s wars of aggression against the Kurds, and its ever growing repression at home—is, in so many ways, the bad conscience of Europe), is here given a distinctly martial flair due to the snare-like percussion of the empty middle register and the actual marching of the performer. Thus, the missing middle register—a suggestion of the extremity of the global situation.
Thus, too, the effect of the marching on the crowd. When the performer moves around the Neue Nationalgalerie’s open modernist lobby, it is as if they are chasing away the spectators, who must disperse to make way for the piano. When the performer settles into stillness in an empty space, the crowd reassembles. The whole dance, which repeats throughout the performance, can be taken as a potent visual metaphor for the refugee crisis—for a Europe that tries, but fails, to chase away those attracted by its promise even as it waxes poetic about that very promise.
The dissonance and clumsiness of the piece emerges as a product of the physical constraints placed upon the performer. In this rendition, the piano, like the Ninth’s ubiquitous and inescapable theme, has become like a cage in which both music and politics are trapped. The dead weight of the repertoire (how many times was the Ninth played during the Beethoven-mania of 2020 alone?) crowding programs to the detriment of contemporary work and underrepresented voices from the past; the dead weight of a decaying liberalism, self-assured as ever, celebrating its theme-song as the world burns around it.
It is worth mentioning that the performance has evidently changed quite a bit since its debut in 2008. In a 2008 version by Luca Ieracitano (who is also the musical director for the piece) at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, the piano appears to be in much better shape, its sound significantly richer and more resonant. The performance revels in the movement’s slower sections, mining a new, chilly beauty from the work. The clusters and dissonances are few and far between, the staccatos less violent. In the Neue Nationalgalerie version, the piano sounds ragged and aged, and, instead of softening to meet the instrument in its fragility, the performances have only become more aggressive, more staccato, as if seeking to squeeze, by means of ever greater pressure, the last bit of life from the dying strings.
The cage of the piano, the inability to escape the “Ode” and the compulsion to repeat performances (indeed, this compulsion is itself a part of the piece—played once an hour from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for a full month) is the very thing that leads to its deformation, its growing dissonance, to its ever-more-pathetic impotence. That the piece should be performed in the lobby of the Neue Nationalallerie—an undeniable masterpiece of modernist architecture that was nevertheless built by a man, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who briefly courted the favor with the Nazi regime and which, as a “gallery of the 20th century” also retains a distinctly German, i.e. national, character—adds one more layer of irony, an irony of which the curators are fortunately well aware.
"As the poison of nationalism is again metastasizing throughout Europe…the piece and its (here, silent) lyrics ring false or, even crueler, ironic." An 'Ode to Joy' for These Times™ @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
Let’s end back in the Garden. In the fourth stanza of Schiller’s poem, he writes:
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise;
But any who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
The “universal brotherhood” the “Ode” is used to declare is in fact, in the text, not conceived as universal at all but rather specifically exclusionary of those without either love or friendship. Those who are already excluded must remain so. As Theodor Adorno wrote on the Ninth Symphony, and this passage in particular, “It is peculiar to the bourgeois Utopia that it is not yet able to conceive an image of perfect joy without that of the person excluded from it: it can take pleasure in that image only in proportion to the unhappiness in the world.”
The image of the Garden cannot exist without the image of the Jungle, and the happiness of those in the Garden, their delight in the Garden itself, is enhanced in direct proportion to the misery they perceive in those in the Jungle. Both the piano and the “Ode” are a cage trapping the performer in. Together they are a cage which keeps the audience out. ¶
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