It is not a coincidence that the two most significant stage pieces of 19th-century Europe, Goethe’s Faust and Wagner’s Das Ring des Nibelungen, deal with what the famous Wagnerian C.S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man as the “magician’s bargain.” For Lewis, the “magician’s bargain” is “that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power.”
These works were a reaction to the 19th-century’s “magician’s bargains” of Industrialization and Secularization. Both Faust and the Ring (and most religions) proffer the same solution to the “magician’s bargain” - sacrifice. For Goethe and Wagner, whether it be selfless actions, property, money, or blood sacrifice like Brünhilde’s self-immolation in Götterdämerung, sacrifice is the means by which we prevent ourselves from becoming mere automatons. Through it we retain our humanity and atone for all the ambition, greed and desire which we call “progress.”
Music has been one of the many things surrendered to nature in return for power; a victim of progress, and the changing consciousness that comes with it. Once upon a time man had an animistic, magical conception of music, as evidenced by something even so recent as the baroque Doctrine of Affects, let alone shamanistic uses of music and speculation about the role of music in ancient religious rites. Then music became less about the power of phenomena like rhythms and intervals, and more about the overarching structure and meaning of a work as a more humanistic and less superstitious worldview gradually took hold in the Early Modern Period.
The Romantics, especially Wagner, reacted against the rationalism and materialism that came along with humanism, and tried to fill the void left by religion with the sacralization of art, Wagner going so far as to consider his art salvific. The great enemy of this art-mysticism? The phonograph. Recording technology profoundly changed our conception of music, deadening it like a patient etherized upon a table, an object that could be fixed, dissected and studied. Most recently, the internet and streaming have made music a cheap commodity of infinite supply, at its worst reducing it from art to information.
Amidst all these assaults, art has sprung eternal from where it was once struck down. There are problems with recording and streaming, but who among us does not have a CD or YouTube video of a concert that we love, that we consider beautiful, and which has deeply moved us, more so than even some live concerts?
There is a prophetic line from Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, that captures this mystery: “the spear that wounds shall heal.” This is certainly applicable to Wagner himself. Wagner was reacting against the human and environmental degradation of the Industrial Revolution, but his operas also would not have been possible without it. The novel stagecraft and architecture of the Bayreuthfestspielhaus, the many instruments that were custom built for the Ring, and the network of international fans and donors that were necessary to fund his crazed dream were all made possible by the advancements in communication, transportation, and engineering of the Industrial Revolution. Wagner’s operas also healed and transformed the advancements in communication, transportation, and engineering - which had destroyed local communities, ruined ways of life, defiled landscapes, and sent many to economic servitude - into meaningful and beautiful art which could divert from and compensate for those horrors.
Amongst the 21st-century iterations of the “magician’s bargain” are blockchain technology, NFTs, AI art, and the “metaverse,” which have all become an integral part of my current recording project, Wagner’s Nightmare. Together with my partner, Pierre-Nicolas Colombat, we have created a verein in honor—and derision—of history’s most controversial composer, Richard Wagner. When recording our forthcoming album, we sought to both appreciate and “tease” classical music’s crazy uncle. Doing so required branching out from stodgy classical music to utilize all the tools technology had to offer—online community, multimedia, and even Web3 technologies like NFTs.
We’ve created an NFT recording, terming it a Limited Digital Album (LDA), as a digital asset that can be owned and enjoyed. A maximum of one-thousand LDAs for this release are being created. This will create “digital scarcity”: a unique concept that helps us fight back against deadening and cheapening technologies like streaming.
I cannot confidently say that we are healing with the spear that wounds. For one thing, we really do not know what this “magician’s bargain” of blockchain technology, NFTs, AI art, and the “metaverse” will cost us—what changes it will impose on our musical ecosystem or how it will change our consciousness. Second, we are trying to shape these new tools for our purposes, but admittedly they will also shape us. Toscanini and Karajan did their best (and did quite well) to make recordings a substantive medium for music. But they also facilitated a change in recording itself, in aesthetics and our perception of music. I am confident, however, that we are bringing something beautiful and valuable into the nascent NFT music landscape and fighting back, perhaps futilely, against the ills and failings of streaming. Hopefully other musicians, particularly classical musicians, will learn from our experiment and follow us on our haphazardly bushwhacked trail.
Daniel Orsen is a member of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and co-creator of Wagner's Nightmare.