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Do You Love Wagner?

available at Amazon
Mike Svoboda et al. Horsing Around With Wagner

If so, how? For all my love of Wagner, I am not a Wagnerian. For starters, I think that Tristan & Isolde, not Parsifal, is his best opera; I inexplicably find Siegfried and Das Rheingold more interesting than Die Walküre. (Perhaps not so inexplicably – the drama in Siegfried and the character of Loge in Das Rheingold fascinate me and are more, erm... believably ‘human’ to me.) I don’t consider everything about Wagner and his music as operatic ex cathedra statements. And I am fine with the use of the word “Opera” when (casually) talking about Wagner’s work.

If that is more or less how you feel about Wagner as well, you might find enjoyment in Mike Svoboda’s concept/performance-art cum Wagner tribute on Wergo, titled do you love wagner?. Part persiflage, part tribute, part mockery of the myth around Wagner and Bayreuth, it is an off-kilter musical look at Wagner’s music and statements about his art by followers and opponents alike. If you know the work of Uri Caine, in particular his Mahler tribute Urlicht / Primal Light and the reworking of Bach’s Goldberg Variations you will have somewhat of an idea what is going on in the stage show of Messrs. Svoboda, Fernow, Kiedaisch, and Roller.

Alas, Uri Caine’s ethnomusicological explorations of Mahler are more reverent, more insightful, flimsy. Of course, Mahler’s character is less susceptible to the treatment that avant-garde trombonist and Stockhausen-student Svoboda inflicts upon Wagner. His interspersing Wagner-themes of Lohengrin with texts of Nietzsche about his (Nietzsche’s) encounters with Wagner isn’t entirely successful. The use of spoken text around music in general is a difficult feat to pull off, and few have even begun to rival Hans Zender’s use of it in his stunning Winterreise treatment, much less the mother of modern spoken word/music combinations: Dame Edith Sitwell and Walton’s Façade. Like the latter, Svoboda speaks his texts over the band’s noise with a megaphone.

mix and match, with music from Die Meistersinger, is rather neat if lacking particular insight, and foreplay to t-chord, with the Tristan chord on accordion and two ever so slightly off-tune harmonicas, is hilarious and a most enjoyable, wacky tribute. It gets the help of Mike Svoboda’s trombone for lovedrift, their take on the Liebestod. tango tea parties is a wild tango (mis-)treatment over the text of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s somewhat pathetic diatribe against tango-parties of high-society ladies around Bayreuth performances of Parsifal. It is downright vicious and has actual musical worth. Erik Satie’s text of Wagner, le franco-allemand is cute at best, but the music for it doesn’t strike me as having any worth; a missed opportunity where Wagnerized Gymnopédies could have been great fun.

The booklet states that rock riffs, jazz improvisations, funk grooves, and the sound world of the avant-garde are woven into this exploration of language and music, seriousness and slapstick, high art and delicate irony. A circus polka is shredded up and a musical melody is vocalized in harmony. Thomas Mann and Camille Saint-Saëns are summoned. Well… more or less. I find none of that in the second-to-last piece, river run, but it is a nifty jazz work. The last work, overweight baggage, might finally drive any self-respecting Wagner lover stark-raving mad. It’s the Tannhäuser overture, badly whistled in a choo-choo train rhythm. Perverse as it may be, it actually invites whistling along – then supplies the trombone alongside, which suddenly seems pretty straightforward Wagner, comparatively speaking. More whistling follows, and then the music is broken up until the overture continues polka-style, then joined by what seems like the drunken, expelled, and disgraced chapter of the Swingle Singers.

I don’t know if I exactly enjoyed the hour of impish and respect-less Wagnerizing. Perhaps I expected more of it, and the fact that the hour seemed to pass extraordinary quickly could be a good or bad sign. ‘Bad’ in the sense that I was waiting for more… more substance, more novelty… a ‘something extra’ that Uri Caine gives me and Mike Svoboda doesn’t. On the other hand, Wagner, the person, and legions of dead-serious Wagnerians really ask for that sort of a treatment – and as a curious mind- and ear-exercise after or before your next Parsifal session, it has its charm. Perhaps most reassuring and telling is the fact that Wagner still occupies the mind, and spurns the creative endeavors, of avant-garde musicians in 2004. It (reluctantly) gets one of my thumbs up – a motion you will undoubtedly agree with, if not the choice of digit.

Two short excerpts of the album can be listened to on Svoboda's webiste.

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