HOOKED ON CLASSICS ‌ Like Clockwork 

On Beethoven and brainwashing

In writing workshops I often ask kids to tell the stories they hear in classical music — I like to play CDs of Rachmaninoff, Copland, or Miles Davis. Once, I had the idea of using Ravel's Bolero, each instrument added to the theme would become a new character or plot element.

A poet friend argued against. "You can't use Bolero," she said. "It's too associated with the food-and-sex scene from 9½ Weeks."

I don't know if people really can't excise the image of milk pouring all over Kim Basinger when they hear that repeating snare drum. I know that A Clockwork Orange wasn't the only thing I thought of at the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Opening Night, Sept. 30, when they rocked out Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to a packed house. But there's no film more associated with the Ninth.

Anthony Burgess, who wrote the novel about "ultraviolence," rape, redemption, classical music, and sex — and milk — was himself a composer. He said he wished "people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of as a novelist who writes music on the side ... Music is a purer art."

Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film version of Burgess' novel was the Grand Theft Auto of its time; the movie was called fascist by liberals and anti-Christian by conservatives.

For those unfamiliar, Clockwork is a futuristic tale of an über juvenile delinquent who worships Beethoven — a bit like today's gangbangers who get pumped up by Scarface. In prison he's subjected to a radical rehabilitation program, the "Ludovico technique" in which he's drugged and forced to watch films of atrocities while listening to the Ninth. It's been oft-parodied and referenced in music, film, television — The Simpsons, Zoolander, Farscape, Reservoir Dogs, you name it.

CSO bassist Tom Bresnick, who is about as peaceful a fellow as you'll ever meet, a practicing Buddhist and Siddha yogi, remembers seeing A Clockwork Orange in New York when it opened.

"During that part when they break into the house and are doing these horrible, violent acts, this woman stood up in the theatre and started yelling at the audience: 'How can you people watch this!'" Bresnick says.

Anthony Burgess hoped the music in the movie, which he called a "character in its own right," "could soften the scandal with the excuse of artistic uplift."

No such luck, but time smooths over most any scandal. Even after all my encounters with the Cohen brothers' Raising Arizona, it never occurred to me that the opening is a gentle Clockwork Orange reference. That's why a bluegrass version of the Ninth's "Ode to Joy" plays through this much lighter sequence of mayhem and recidivism — something I learned only in researching this column.

Now, 35 years after Clockwork, the Ninth still looms so grand, so vast, it can't be pigeonholed. When I asked Mark Gainer, CSO principal oboist, what he thought most people associated with it, he said hymns that use the melody, like "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."

The Ninth is the classic that most transcends classical music, if not music in general. Leonard Bernstein conducted it in Berlin after the Wall came down. It was played at the Tiananmen Square protests. I've heard for years that the compact disc was developed to be 74 minutes long so as to accommodate it (an urban legend, but still fun).

The CSO's recent version clocked in at 70 minutes by my watch, including a lengthy pause after the first movement to seat latecomers. And while there was a rousing (perhaps, for once, non-obligatory?) standing ovation at the end, no one stood up during the show to complain.


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