Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Grotesk Sérénade

Who says the grotesque must always be gross? Sérénade grotesque, composed by Maurice Ravel in the 1900s, is a more subtle creation than the other kinds of 'grotesque music' I have posted about.

Where does the 'grotesqueness' of this piece lie? According to one source:

"Composed about 1893, Sérénade grotesque was originally entitled just Sérénade in the autograph. Ravel admitted the influence of Chabrier's Bourée fantasque, written two years earlier, returning himself to the spirit later and in a more suggestive manner in Scarbo. There is also an association with Alborada del gracioso (Miroirs), where the Spanish idiom is likewise suggested by guitar-like strumming in the opening measures, marked pizzicatissimo."

Here is Emmanuel Alexis Chabrier's Bourrée fantasque for comparison:

While I am far from an expert in this area, it is clearly a subject of some depth. Jessie Fillerup's entire thesis, Purloined Poetics: The Grotesque in the Music of Maurice Ravel, examines this composer and his relationship with the grotesque.

His thesis abstract is very interesting:

"Since Ravel's death, both critics and scholars have questioned why a composer with his gifts would cling to convention--conservative forms, tertian harmonies--in an era of musical revolution. The grotesque, an aesthetic phenomenon characterized by unity among disjunction, engages this strand of criticism in three specific ways: 1) it provides an aesthetic framework for interpreting Ravel's diverse musical styles; 2) it offers a new context for his long-standing appreciation of Poe; and 3) it unveils transgressive elements within conventional musical structures. To differentiate the French grotesque from other varieties, I examine discourses by Hugo, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Berlioz before turning to the tales and criticism of Poe--a juncture where Ravel and the French grotesque meet. Four Ravel works--Sérénade grotesque, L'Heure espagnole, Daphnis et Chloé, and La Valse--manifest disjunctive relationships between music, text, rhythm and meter, gesture; these, combined with the works' reception histories, evoke the grotesque."

I am curious about how 'the grotesque' as a literary or artistic theory is translated into a principle understood to be communicable through sound. I am particularly intrigued by the suggestion that a 'grotesque' reading of certain music "unveils transgressive elements within conventional musical structures." This seems to echo feminist narratives in which 'the grotesque' is understood as a transgressive or emancipatory phenomenon that can be detected in particular representations of women.

Of course, there are some musical works that seem to defy theory. Like this 'ode' to Akzidenz Grotesk font.

This is giving me flashbacks to Grotext. There is something a little odd about these font-lovers.

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