The Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn
Kip Winger’s Symphony No. 1 and the Semiotics of the Musical Sublime
This past weekend, the Nashville Symphony presented its “Evening of Firsts,” a concert program featuring the premieres of works by Kip Winger, songwriter and rock musician turned composer, and Brad Warnaar, a prolific film score composer and orchestrator, alongside John Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, Op. 9. While the program itself might lack some central, overarching thrust or theme of note (not even the official title of the program accounts for the presence of the Adams), the performances of these works showcased the strengths of the NSO as an ensemble, above all Guerrero’s ability to coax an almost-ethereal lushness out of the strings, especially during lyrical moments, and the technical precision of the woodwinds during some rather sadistic passages (Barber was especially cruel to the bassoons!). The main attraction of the night, though, was neither the Adams nor the Barber, despite how well performed. Instead, the two premieres were the center of attention, especially the new work, Symphony No. 1 “Atonement,” by Kip Winger, whose face looks out at us gravely from all of the concert’s promotional materials and even the program notes. No doubt the focus on Winger himself was primarily a marketing question, banking on the recognition of his face and name to sell tickets to those who might not otherwise ever pay to see the Symphony, let alone on a night featuring mostly music by living composers. And yet, despite what might seem like cynicism, I feel that Winger’s first symphony did deserve its pride of place on the program, and not just on the merits of its composition. The work, almost certainly through sheer accident, manages to partially invert and thus short-circuit a number of general cultural metaphors about music in a way worth detailing at length.
Before that, though, it’s worth first giving attention to Brad Warnaar’s very charming Cornet Concerto, which has unfortunately been mostly overshadowed by Winger’s Symphony. The concerto is in three movements, structured as a pensive lyrical movement (entitled “Bill Moore”) couched between two up-tempo ones. The first movement, “And You Are?…,” is chock-full of direct and indirect references to Sousa’s marches, but always in the context of a playful polystylism less reminiscent of Luciano Berio than Carl Stalling. The interplay of angular passages of non-tertian harmony and the technicolor bravura of a military wind band are delightful, but the ensemble writing was, only in a few places, a bit overpowering for the cornet solo, here played spectacularly by Blair School of Music Associate Professor of Trumpet José Sibaja. Fortunately, there were no such balance issues in the third movement, “The Ta-ca-Ta-ca Toccata,” which, as the title suggests, takes a quick, repeated sixteenth-note figure as its central motivic idea, which is not only developed brilliantly as it moves between the cornet solo and the orchestra, but also gave plenty of opportunity for Sibaja to show off his machine gun-fire articulation. This last movement is certainly the strongest of the three, but without question Warnaar’s concerto is an overall great showpiece for the cornet, something Warnaar shows we could do with more of in general.
Now to Winger’s Symphony No. 1 and its subtitle “Atonement.” “The idea [of the piece],” Winger tells us directly in a promotional video for the NSO premiere uploaded to his Twitter account, “is that a person receives Morse code messages of atonement from his own lost soul.” Each of the four movements is given a programmatic title, “S.O.S.,” “Eleos,” “Metamorphosis,” and “Metanoia,” each movement then depicting its respective stage of this process of atonement. So far, there is nothing too out of the ordinary here. There’s certainly nothing unprecedented about this kind of programmatic work, where each movement functions more or less as a character piece, a purely musico-metaphorical signifier for the signified hinted at in the piece’s title. And while this particular setup, commonplace as it may be, already presents some logical holes on the semiotics side of things (can the music of a particular movement really be said to signify its intended signified, if that signification is only legible in the presence of an altogether different signifier in the first place, i.e., the word in the movement title?) what Winger presents us here is yet another degree more complicated by the introduction of Morse code. Yes, Winger is not being metaphorical when he says that his symphony portrays someone receiving “Morse code messages” from the soul. He’s being dead-on literal. The movement titles in this work are not simply the de-coder ring given to us by the composer to make sense of the floating signs and sonic imagery of a particular movement—they are, in the process of being encoded into the long and short bursts of Morse code, also rendered into a new set of sonic, non-verbal signifiers. In other words, these movement titles are not an external means of understanding the piece—they are, in a fairly unique way, part of its very musical material.
Consider this in light of the quite tired cliché that “where words fail, music speaks,” a misquote of a line in Hans Christian Anderson’s “What the Moon Saw.” As easy as it may be to write this notion off as something facile, it nonetheless, even despite its gross oversimplification, manages to capture the sense of how we expect music (and above all classical music) to function. I say this not as a defense of the cliché, but rather to underscore that what may account for its persistence (just think of the countless times some derivation of the below image makes its way around social media) is that despite all better judgement, much of the way we talk about musical narrative, much of the way we fundamentally expect music to work, relies on some version of it anyways. Think of the adage “I know very well, but nevertheless…”
To explain what I mean, take the initial notion of a programmatic symphony I described, where movement titles work like the legend of a map to provide the listener with some very loose framework to interpret the sounds they encounter. The specific signifiers in the movement titles are necessary, but only insofar as they allow us to begin making sense of the entirely different sonic signifiers in the music itself. These musical sonic signifiers, at least as far as we tend to believe, by their nature as elastic and dynamic and multivalent, containing an overwhelming amount of potential signification, enable a non-geographical space where ideas normally beyond the realm of symbolization are freed of their constraints. Thus to be even remotely sensible they need the movement titles, and their reliance on our rather commonplace, practical world of everyday, necessarily-limited semantic language, which allow us into that non-space of music not despite but because of their limitations, of their “failure to speak.” But it is the contact with the non-verbal world of music (the music itself) that occupies our fascination and is the object of our analysis and study. This is, in short, the Romantic idea of the musical sublime—that which sits beyond the cusp of the sensible, something which is contained in nature, in music, in any such place where we might encounter it, but cannot be contained by it. The sublime not only resists our efforts to symbolize it, to draw it into the order of the comprehensible, it is categorically opposed to it, transcends it. It is something breathtaking, in both the positive sense of its beauty (if the word “beauty” can even begin to account for it at all) and in the sense of its earth-shattering force of destruction.
The formal scheme of Winger’s Symphony No. 1, then, at least partially inverts this process. I say partially because the journey is not one in the opposite direction. We are not simply moving in reverse from the Realm Beyond back into the mundane world of speech. The program of his symphony still relies on a similar metaphor—namely, that music might contain truth. The central figure of Winger’s symphony, the one who hears the Morse code, is still being “spoken to” by the music. However, the truth this figure is seeking out is not one that must be found in a realm beyond symbolization. Truth is not accessed by pivoting from a limited/limiting signifier into a sublime one, it must merely be decoded. That is, the “Great Truth” of Winger’s symphony is an immanent one—one that was always already there.
That is, the “Great Truth” of Winger’s symphony is an immanent one—one that was always already there.
I should be clear here. I am not offering up a “traditional” understanding of a programmatic symphony and then arguing that what Winger has written constitutes either some completely novel model or even one that fundamentally misunderstands the original. In fact, this partial inversion of the musical metaphor of the sublime is only operable in the way the symphony is planned out, but not really in the way Winger actually composes it. Yes, there are plenty of instances in “the music itself” where the presence of the Morse code is literal, and this no doubt ratchets up the semiotic complexity of the piece, but even despite this, Winger’s music is still primarily interested in conveying some affect or other ineffable quality of its movement titles. “S.O.S.” is not merely a presentation of a musicalized Morse code message which is then developed symphonically. Its harsh dissonances, the jagged syncopation of the S.O.S. rhythm itself, the way the whole movement climaxes with long, loud tutti orchestral hits a la the end of Holst’s “Mars,” all of these are expressionistic significations of crisis itself. The second movement “Eleos,” mercy, in contrast is quiet, serene—if there was even a single iteration of the Morse code for the word eleos I never noticed it, perhaps signaling the fundamental irrationality, even sublimity of clemency. In other words, I’m not claiming that Winger’s symphony really sits so far removed from our usual Romantic metaphors. Instead, there’s something about introducing the element of the Morse code to the musical context—something about translating a word into iterable pitches and durations—that reveals, at least temporarily, an irreconcilable rift in the usual logic. We see the uncanny double of Romantic music in Morse code. We are forced to confront, in a way far more direct than usual, that a fundamental leap of logic must occur to project symbolic order onto the formlessness of music. The reason this might present itself to us as a crisis has less to do with our love of music per se, I believe, and more to do with the way we transfer onto music our feelings about subjectivity itself.
Now this claim may itself seem like a fundamental leap of logic, and perhaps it is, but I don’t think it’s unwarranted. Remember Winger himself tells us that these Morse code messages are coming from the soul. Here I think we truly see the legacy of the sublime on Winger’s program. The confrontation with Nature in Romantic art, literature, and music is, of course, non-literal. It is a projection, a transference, of the internal search for meaning onto an imaginary external space. The sublime is not only something above and beyond us. Indeed, in the context of Psychoanalysis, this same void of the un-signifiable sits at the core of our subjectivities. The search for musical meaning, then, is but another transference, from the interior, where confrontation with the void is dangerous, characterized by the obliteration of subjectivity itself, onto music, where the same phenomenon is rendered (relatively) safe, bounded by its status as musical object. Perhaps this is the role of the Morse code in Winger’s piece. It isn’t so much an insistence on an immanent world, where truth is written into the very structure of reality itself, but instead a necessary displacement, a quasi-willful conjuring of a doppelgänger as means of keeping the sublime of the self (what Lacan called the Real) at a healthy distance.