Blog

Mar 19, 2015

Marcus Vergette February 2015: Did Marsyas Win Her Fight? (By Gary Bayley)


Marcus has said of his Marsyas Suite:
Inspired by the painting by Titian ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’. The suite tells the story of a shepherd who finds the flute thrown away by Athena after the gods tease her about her face turning red when she plays. Marsyas, after the initial problem we all have when getting started with an instrument, soon soars above the other musicians with a god’s instrument. News of the upstart reaches the ears of Apollo, god of Music. He challenges Marsyas to a musical duel; with the Muses as Apollo’s rigged jury, Apollo naturally wins. It ends in the usual way of a Greek tragedy, with Marsyas being flayed alive...
Posted by: Tim

Marcus has said of his Marsyas Suite:

Inspired by the painting by Titian ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’. The suite tells the story of a shepherd who finds the flute thrown away by Athena after the gods tease her about her face turning red when she plays. Marsyas, after the initial problem we all have when getting started with an instrument, soon soars above the other musicians with a god’s instrument. News of the upstart reaches the ears of Apollo, god of Music. He challenges Marsyas to a musical duel; with the Muses as Apollo’s rigged jury, Apollo naturally wins. It ends in the usual way of a Greek tragedy, with Marsyas being flayed alive.

In this piece of writing I ask three questions (but I answer none of them).
***
Firstly, why have artists been motivated/inspired by suffering? Is it a fascination with a contingent observed aspect of life, of history? Is it perhaps more than that: something lurking in the shadows of the artist’s own lived artistic-life that must be confronted? Certainly jazz musicians Mike Westbrook and Michael Garrick have put ‘suffering’ centre stage, as has Viktor Frankl in his harrowing accounts of surviving the concentration camps. Both jazz-men appear to have discovered something in their respective searches for meaning, for truth. Westbrook told Ian Carr in 1973:
That’s what I feel sometimes about some other music ... we’re all part of this thing and the sum total of human existence is, in a way, suffering. We struggle to blot it out, but the actual reality of humanity is suffering, and some races and some people have come much more to terms with it. In our world I don’t think we have. We’re very shallow in a way ... I feel very close to that ... and I know that this quality is there in all great art.

Garrick said in his autobiography: ‘I think folks will relate to something that comes from your deeper self, something you have lived through, something that your heart has suffered - it will communicate, given an appropriate form’. Is what is left after values and a sense of entitlement to justice are stripped away that which Jean Paul Satre named Nausea? and which Kurtz called The Horror? Frankl focused on suffering to find meaning in the horrific short-termism of brutish value-free life lived one day at a time:
... moments of comfort do not establish the will to live unless they help the prisoner make larger sense out of his apparently senseless suffering. It is here that we encounter the central theme of existence: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying. But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities ... The prisoners were only average men, but some, at least, by choosing to be ‘worthy of their suffering’ proved man’s capacity to rise above his outward fate.
Frankl went on to build a psychotherapy - called logotherapy - that has at its heart a patient coming to realise that s/he is responsible to life for something. Shepherds are ‘average men’, Marsyas and Marcus both are shepherds; if I am on to something here, then what is it?
***
Secondly, how is a theme or event in a work in one medium (that is extra-musical) presented, or represented, or interpreted, or even encrypted, in another medium (that is musical); what is the nature of the reference? We could of course ask Marcus in this particular case, but to paraphrase Professor Max Paddison: ‘Don’t ask the composers, they will lead you a merry dance’; no, this is work for the audience. Frankl said (above): ‘no man can tell another’, and Brecht too said this regarding the audience’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays. Here are a number of options that came to my mind during the performance:
Expressionism. Did it appear that the artist musicians were reacting to the painting and expressing their feelings in musical vocabulary? We can use Schoenberg as a musical guide here.

Impressionism. Were the musicians attempting to create in you the same impressions as you received from viewing the painting? Remember that the painting was projected behind the performers during the entire length of the performance, and as well as Marcus’s written composed material we heard musicians as improvisers with strong individual voices. Here our musical guide is Debussy.

Analogy. Were there sonic equivalents? For examples: flutes and babbling brooks, timpani and cannon fire, and the like. Don’t forget Marcus assigned roles. Tom Unwin on piano was Apollo, Roz Harding on alto saxophone was Marsyas, the three strings - Marcus on double bass and Janna Bulmer and Lucy Weisman on cellos - were the Muses. Musical guides here are Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Allegory. Did the musicians take on roles and interact such the real-time dynamic processes were drawn from processes discernible in Titian’s painting? Possibly the two artworks (painting and suite) essentially amounted to the same crystallisation, one full of epigrams and aphorisms; paramount is a symbolism guided by the artists’ sincerity and authenticity. All major poetry is allegorical - Garrick said that jazz is poetry, never prose. The mystical experience created by the visionary poet is the poetic material and not the poetic forms. Kate Westbrook has pointed out that thematic material need not be programmatic but instead can be used to create an odyssey. Our guides here: Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Mike and Kate Westbrook.

Of course we don’t want to get too hung up about justifying the artwork in words (contemplation) and put this above the experience of confronting the artwork (perception); regarding poetry as something to be explained Northrop Frye puts it nicely:
... the notion that any kind of commentary will ever explain any kind of poetry is of course vulgar. Even if there is a hidden meaning, a poem which contains no more than what an explanation of that meaning can translate should have been written in the form of the explanation in the first place.

***
Thirdly, what ever happened to Third Stream music: jazz at its most ‘arty’? We had Charles Mingus’ jazz experiments with classical music in the early 1950s. We had Gunther Sculler’s academic commissions and activities at Brandeis University involving European classical music. We had English poetry and jazz projects from Michael Garrick and Stan Tracey in the 1960s influenced by the American ‘Beat Generation’. More recently Bill Frisell’s product has involved jazz and Nashville. All these are deemed historically significant and placed in the centre of ‘movements’, in the books! but all seemed to have burned out pretty quickly - but why? If you were impressed by The Marsyas Suite then you could try the following listening list:
Mingus. Cumbia and Jazz Fusion and Music for Todo Modo.
Mingus. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.
Tracey. Under Milk Wood.
Westbrook. Chanson Irresponsable and London Bridge has Broken Down.
Have a listen and maybe let me know whether you think The Marsyas Suite can be located in this company?