Rhetoric program notes bvy Leigh Harrold

Rhetoric to drive home a point.

Rhetoric is nothing less than the art of sophisticated brainwashing in order to drive home a point.

Rhetoric is one of the three subjects of the Trivium, and was a core University subject until well into the nineteenth-century. A typical rhetorical argument opens with a single, isolated statement which could be seen as outlandish and attention-grabbing. An orator would accept nothing less than the total capture of their audience’s attention from the outset – this was part of the art .The remainder of the discourse serves as a sort of sophisticated brainwashing in order to drive home a point.

Rhetoric, however, is not restricted to being just one of the three subjects of the Trivium, and as it was a core University subject until well into the nineteenth-century, its persuasive principles began to bleed into other art forms. Brett Dean’s Old Kings in Exile follows the traditional structure of a typical rhetorical argument in order to build a major work of considerable emotional power.  It opens with a single, isolated statement which comprises a rubber ball scraping achingly against the skin of a bass drum. While this could be seen as simply outlandish and attention-grabbing, in this case it serves as a call to the other instruments, who respond with their own set of muted voices. The clarinet quickly assumes the role of an orator as a tale of heartbreak and hope begins to unfold. Charles Ives is also an expert story-teller in his Fourth Violin Sonata. In the second movement in particular, he encapsulates the evangelical zeal of those religious preachers who would accept nothing less than the total capture of their audience’s attention from the outset – this was a formative part of his childhood, the memories of which were fundamental in creating his art .The remainder of the work is a discourse between the instruments on fond memories – the violin sings while the piano serves as a sort of commentator on events. In a way, it’s atype of sophisticated ‘brainwashing’ – a recreation of the past which may or may not be fully accurate, but evokes nostalgia in order to drive home a point.

Rhetoric, however, can assume many guises. As it is not restricted to being just one of the three subjects of the Trivium, and as it was a core University subject until well into the nineteenth-century, its persuasive principles began to bleed into other artforms and constructs. Lerdahl’s Time After Time – like Brett Dean’s Old Kings in Exile– also follows a variant on the traditional structure of a typical rhetorical argument in order to build a major work of considerable emotional power.  It opens with a single, isolated statement which comprises a low trill on the woodwinds.  Here though, there is no trace of a rubber ball scraping achingly against the skin of a bass drum – all the instruments stick doggedly to traditional playing techniques. While this could be seen as simply a way of deliberately avoiding any gestures which are outlandish and attention-grabbing, in this case it serves as a call to readiness for the other instruments, who respond with their own sets of motifs – sometimes muted, sometimes with full voices. The clarinet quickly assumes the role of an ever-more passionate orator and lamenter as a cyclic tale of heartbreak and hope begins to unfold. Unlike Charles Ives however (who is, nevertheless, also an expert story-teller in his Fourth Violin Sonata), Lerdahl tells a story which never ends. In the second movement in particular, he encapsulates the circular nature of time by continually departing from – and arriving back at – the piano drone which opens the movement. The first movement does this too, but with greater drive and evangelical zeal.  Reminiscent of those religious preachers who would accept nothing less than the total capture of their audience’s attention from the outset, each ‘cycle’ becomes more impassioned and lengthy, rising to ever-more ecstatic heights, despite essentially repeating the same material. This piece was a formative part of Lerdahl’s compositional development, embodying a lot of his ideas on childhood, and on how the memories of musical ideas works within us – ideas which were fundamental in creating his art .The remainder of the work’s structure is a discourse between the instruments on both fond and foul memories – the violin sings along with the cello in dark octaves, the winds chatter excitedly, while the piano serves as a sort of faceless commentator on events along with the tuned percussion. In a way, it’s a type of sophisticated ‘brainwashing’ – a constant recreation of the past which may or may not be accurate, but evokes nostalgia nonetheless, simply because each time we return to the starting point we feel a welcome sense of familiarity. The piece’s crowning conceit is that it essentially presents the same paragraph four (or five) times, just fleshing out more and more detail with each repetition. Incredibly though, with the addition of each detail, the meaning and the message seem to completely change. Clever, or a bit pretentious? Ultimately, that’s for you decide. It certainly seems a fairly extravagant length to go to in order to drive home a point.

©Leigh Harrold 2014

Program puzzle. Have you worked it out? from Syzygy Ensemble on Vimeo.