Friday, 5 June 2009
Ken Russell's somewhat Grand Guignol biopic of the fin-de-siecle Austrian composer offers us, rather like the old Comic Strip Presents..., Robert Powell as Woody Allen as Gustav Mahler, via Laurel and Hardy, Al Jolson, the Marx Brothers, and, of course, Visconti. What we get, however, from the rather curious musical passages in the film, supposed to illustrate visually various excerpts from Mahler's music such as the Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen, remind us that Mahler's music marks possibly the last point in history where it is acceptable for progressive music to take as its model or muse some vaguely anthropomorphised image of 'Nature' - a mainstay of music aesthetics since Aristotle's Poetics, common, though articulated differently, to both sides of the 'War of the Romantics' in the mid 19th century. By the time we get to Erwartung, composed two years before Mahler's death, nature is no longer something gay and innocent, but a terrifying threat to the psyche. Four years later, Russolo's Art of Noises banishes, conclusively, the natural world from the avant-garde, and so it stayed throughout a twentieth century defined, musically, by noises both inspired by, and crafted out of, machines and the urban sprawl.