Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation, or, a Tentative Conversation with Wagner, Puccini, Adorno, and The Ronettes                                           


  1. Both Wagner and The Ronettes confront us with what might be called “sonoric landscapes”—or what Murray Schafer has more elegantly and more broadly termed in his book The Tuning of the World as a “soundscape.”12 My phrase, however, is intended to be more site-specific than Schafer’s; I refer specifically to land. Four basic assumptions are embedded in my use of the phrase “sonoric landscape”: (1) that sounds surround us and as such help to construct us as human subjects, locating us within particular social and cultural environments; (2) that humanly produced or manipulated sounds are the results of conscious acts, hence carry semantic and discursive charge; (3) that all sounds—even those not produced by humans but ones “merely” heard by humans—are subject to being read or interpreted; and (4) drawn from the preceding three, that sounds are a means by which people account for their sense of reality: as it was, as it is now, and/or as it might be. That is, people do not employ sounds arbitrarily, haphazardly, or unintentionally—though the “intentionally” haphazard may itself constitute an important sort of sonoric discourse.

  2. In thinking about the terrestrial landscape we tend to make a distinction between the earth as a physical entity and as a landscape proper. Landscape is a perception, that is, the sense of a specific and ultimately confined view of a portion of the land which somehow seems to be “worth” viewing, because it is somehow noteworthy—and in this regard it doesn’t appreciably matter whether we’re discussing a scenic viewpoint of, say, the Grand Canyon, or a Bierstadt
    Bierstadt, "The Sierra Nevada in California"
    Bierstadt, The Sierra Nevada in California
    painting of the West. Landscape is the different within the same; it is what draws attention to itself. What we tend to define, and separate out, as a landscape is that which appears in our consciousness as something at once “itself” and as a representation of itself. That is, when a portion of land is raised in our consciousness to the status of landscape, the physical entity is reconstituted in our minds as something in excess of the factual. I take this excess to be experienced as a representation—and as such to be discursive.

  3. By the phrase “sonoric landscape” I wish to evoke the ubiquity of sonority—the broad sweep, like the land itself—of sound encountered by our ears. But I also wish to evoke the particularity of musical sonority within the larger agglomeration of sounds and the particularities of musical sonorities of different sorts.

  4. Music has played a highly problematic role in the history of Manifest Destiny, to the extent that it has commonly served to aestheticize the violence that accompanies westward expansion. It is not by accident that a concern to link nature to music arose in Western history even before the dawn of modernity which, for convenience, we might date at least as early as the 17th century. Modernity emerges through a self-reflexive conjunction of space and time, whereby time is altered in Western consciousness. Time’s primordial cyclical repetitiveness is thrown over in favor of a linear conception of chronos: time ceases to spiral—time now marches on. The past is not repeated; there is only the future. In short, time emerges as a developmental parameter of human experience, just as space emerges in modernity as a terrain for development.

  5. Since music is by definition both a temporal and spatial art, it’s not surprising that it was early and often called upon to represent modernity—all too commonly to cheer modernity onwards, sometimes to engage modernity critically. One response, often in protest, was the valorization of nature, increasingly placed in binary opposition to culture. It is this history that informs the rampant increase of interest, in all of the arts—literature, visual art, and music alike—in representations of nature and place: from Wordsworth’s daffodils to Karl May’s German Westerns, from the paintings of hyper-wild mountain-scapes by Vernet in the 18th century and Moran in the 19th, to the hazy flower-strewn scenes by the Impressionists. In music the list is virtually endless: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, Debussy, and, God knows, virtually every note that Mahler composed; Ives, Messiaen, Pauline Oliveros, Alan Hohvannes, R. Murray Schafer, and so on. And musical modernity is similarly obsessed with place (if not always precisely “nature”): The Pines of Rome, The Fountains of Rome, The Grand Canyon Suite, An American in Paris, maybe even “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

  6. With regard to the larger trope of nature and reconciliation, I’d like to consider the representation of the natural place in music. I’ll concern myself with the West, or, to be more accurate, the West of the imagination and to one musical work. That is, my concern is not music’s more typical invocation of nature via a transliteration into music of the acoustic phenomena of nature—whether birds, babbling brooks, or thunderclaps—but, of nature’s spatial dimension, something rather more rarely addressed in music and for very good reason: namely, because the literal space of nature is, perforce, by definition utterly silent.13

  7. The setting is the majestic, forested Sierra Nevada, in a deep gulch, in a tiny
    Giacomo Puccini
    Giacomo Puccini
    Gold Rush community, replete with something like fifty sex-starved and largely unsuccessful prospectors. There’s just one woman in the camp, and she’s something of a saint. Belasco’s “Preliminary Note” to the libretto describes the opera as “a drama of love and of moral redemption against a dark and vast background of primitive characters and untrammeled nature” (Puccini Girl of the Golden West 5). The composer said that he intended his music as an evocation of the California primeval forest—which he’d never seen—where stand the giant sequoias, and the highest mountain on the continent outside of Alaska: Nature at its most spectacular, and most overwhelming, and least disturbed. This West was experienced only at the greatest geographical and psychic distance; it was imagined by an Italian opera composer who got no farther into the New World than Manhattan’s Metropolitan Opera House. So far as I know, he never made it to the Jersey shore. But he wrote an operatic western for the benefit of New Yorkers who, like the composer, knew the West principally from sensational novels about the Gold Rush and, so far as the Sierra Nevada is concerned, the grim history of the Donner Party.

  8. Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is based on the David Belasco play, The Girl of the Golden West.14 It premiered in 1910 with Toscanini conducting, Emmy Destin and Caruso singing the principal roles. What clearly mattered to Puccini was finding the musical means by which to evoke the California of his imagination—“raw” Nature—and also to lend authority to that evocation by means of empirical musical evidence, in a way that even half a century earlier few composers would have bothered with.15 That is, Puccini’s attempt to get it “right” underscores his modernist-businesslike approach to bourgeois music, of which he was a master. So among other things, he nailed down the setting with musico-cultural American facts.16 Thus, when the libretto calls for a lonely miner to sing a folksong about his loneliness, Puccini finds an appropriate American source and borrows it.17 The opening act takes place in the Polka Saloon, and the local-color snippets are many, with miners calling out lines like “Hello, Joe” [not: Giuseppe] and “Whiskey per tutti,” and singing doo-dah days from “Camptown Races.” To be sure, a great deal of this, to modern ears can be pretty hysterical. But I’m actually after something serious, and not least because this opera strikes me as extremely interesting, aesthetically as well as ideologically.

  9. Puccini was mesmerized by the issue of vast untamed physical space—as it were, space remaining in the State of Nature—and the challenge to evoke it in sound. He had confronted the challenge to represent the continent’s vastness once before in his first operatic success, Manon Lescault, set in the 18th century, whose last act places the forlorn lovers in America, specifically on what the libretto describes as “[a] desert plain on the borders of New Orleans, bare and undulating, the horizon boundless.” But in that opera, he only needed to figure out in a few measures how to capture the sense of the landscape (however oddly he conceived of it). By contrast, in La fanciulla del West he had to deal with the seeming boundlessness of pristine western Nature for the better part of two and a half hours, since everything that happens in the opera in one way or another is determined by its overwhelming setting; indeed, the characters themselves are transformed by the locale, which is largely foreign to them until, at the end, the setting metaphorically morphs into the homeland which the lovers must leave, very much against their will.

  10. Puccini’s devices are several. (The least interesting and the most predictable, wholly borrowed from Belasco’s strikingly filmic theatrical production, involve wind and snow machines to emulate the fierce storm that helps determine the opera’s outcome—cosmic sympathy run amuck.) Among the musical devices, one in particular stands out: Puccini made the decision to evoke the vast California wilderness by producing for his audience a sense of distance by means that articulate not only space but also—and crucially—time and memory. Puccini’s West, above all, is spatial; this dimension controls his understanding of the West’s essence—as would be the case a generation later in the films of John Ford, albeit by means of the backdrop of Utah’s Monument Valley rather than the Sierra Nevada.

  11. The opera’s characters enter as if in a never-never land: when they arrive they bring history with them and when they leave, history exits as well. A natural paradise remains, but only so long as it is un-peopled—when it is only imagined or remembered. Puccini marks the phenomenological spatial excess that defines everything important about the opera by means of what we might term the fade-in and fade-out. Repeatedly, his characters are heard well before they’re seen on stage. This might seem a bit old hat, like Manrico in Il Trovatore, but there is a crucial difference. In Verdi’s opera, Manrico sings from a stationary off-stage position; he is serenading, after all, with feet firmly anchored. In Puccini’s opera, the voices are invariably on the move, as though making their way through the deep forest. In each of the three acts, off-stage voices reach our consciousness as if from nowhere, from great distances, ever so slowly approaching the acoustic proscenium separating opera from audience. In one sense, the obvious one, they approach town from working their staked claims, but in another sense, they approach as if being recalled from a faded memory of a time long past—spatial and temporal nostalgia in the heart of bustling 1910 Midtown, the epicenter for the full confidence of modernity’s Industrial Revolution in its final moment of near total self-confidence. The gap between the New York setting of the world premiere and the scene on stage, in the first major opera about America and specifically commissioned for an American audience, carries a significant ideological burden. The vastness of the opera’s natural setting holds out the promise of an American paradise—eternal, without boundaries, a Utopia of striking visual splendor—despite the fact that the old-growth forests of the Sierra Nevada had long since been exploited by 1910. In other words, Puccini’s West of the imagination, aesthetically speaking, provides modernity’s rapaciousness with the deniability it ethically craved.

  12. The arrivals of the voices from the wilderness and from the past make their appearances, speak their peace—and then depart, often with voices fading away. Puccini uses one particular borrowed theme repeatedly throughout the opera—the tune more or less constitutes the opera’s defining leitmotif: it is called “Echoes of Home.” Whether intentional or accidental, this citation marks a perfect coincidence between time, space, and place, on the one hand, and memory in relation to loss, separation, and alienation, on the other.

  13. The opera’s conclusion is a musical departure. The two lovers are reunited, the male partner having literally just escaped being lynched, saved by his lover who rides in—armed—from off stage. Announcing herself from the distance, via vocalized screams, she enters astride a horse (at the premiere there were ten horses in all). As with other crucially important entrances throughout the opera, we hear Minnie well before we see her. She rides in, in essence, so as to ride off forever with Dick Johnson (alias Ramerrez).

  14. The opera’s ending is, perforce, “happy.” As everyone knows all too well, Puccini conventionally killed off his sopranos, whereas no one actually dies in La fanciulla del West, odd also for a Western. The lover’s astride their horses slowly depart, their voices only very gradually fading as the dawn breaks. In short, the lovers move forward into time and history, but not so much with a sense of new beginnings. The audience is left less with a climax and more with the dynamic decay and inevitable disappearance of music itself. With the music’s fading, the opera’s own time fades into the timelessness of the vast forest that swallows up the departed lovers as they themselves head off into uncertainty. (Hear Ex. 6)

    Addio, mia dolce terra!
    Addio, mia California!
    Bei monti della Sierra, nevi, addio!
  15. The distinctive and often dissonant rhythmic percussiveness that marks much of the opera, and which delineates the real time experienced by the characters—modernity’s freneticism, or something like that—fades into a virtually rhythm-less drone in the orchestra’s strings, as the lover’s voices trail off above this line. They fade, like time and memory; next to nature they are nothing. Nonetheless, as they voice their goodbyes to their beloved California, what’s striking is less the happy reuniting of the young lovers—that fact seems rather an afterthought—but rather the sense that their mutual terrestrial salvation comes with a bill attached: their expulsion from a natural paradise which they had experienced in a perpetual state of paradox if not dialectical contradiction.18

1   2   3   4   Endnotes   Works Cited



Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation

“Hello Cleveland!”


Yatrika Shah-Rais

Review Essay


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