Archive for category Music
2012, for me, has been the year of the blog. The year that through this medium I found a creative outlet, met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful writers, engaged in some stimulating and unexpected discussions, and generally had my optimism about the internet reinforced. I’ve been uplifted, fascinated and inspired on a regular basis by bloggers such as Diana J Hale, Vertigo, The Fife Psychogeographic Collective, That’s how the light gets in, Weaver’s Journal, Steve Sarson and Decayetude. And my blog on the US election led to a mutually respectful encounter with Rick from Billerica, with whom I would disagree about pretty much everything, except the principle of mutually respectful encounters with those who hold different views. On the Our Island Stories blog, set up in the aftermath of the Olympics to talk about questions of national identity, we’ve had contributions from some of the above, and also from Kate Elmer, Mike Press, Emily Wilkinson and Diane Magras. To all of those people, and so many others, thanks!
The internet comes in for some harsh criticism – and I read ‘below the line’ often enough to be brought almost to despair at the bigotry, the hatred, the cruelty that’s out there, only needing the anonymity of an internet forum to come spewing out. But my own experience has been entirely positive. Through blogging, through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve made friends, had fascinating conversations, shared enthusiasms, learned stuff. I’ve connected with people I would never have encountered at all otherwise, and connected in unexpected ways with people I already knew. This obviously doesn’t invalidate the experiences of those who’ve been subjected to the viciousness of trolls and the deceit of sock-puppets – but it needs saying, that it can be, and often is, an enormous force for good , and that connections made via the net are not intrinsically less ‘real’, less worthwhile than those made by other means.
So, looking back at 2012, these have been some of the best bits, culturally speaking:
- John Akomfrah‘s extraordinary The Nine Muses
- Watching the ever elusive and enigmatic Last Year at Marienbad twice – to be the subject of a later blog.
- TV : Homeland - plot holes wide enough to swallow up the odd aircraft carrier, but the degree of ambiguity in all of the main characters has been wonderfully sustained, and the denoument was unforeseen. Line of Duty and Good Cop shared the best of those characteristics. Misfits and Being Human somehow survived a brutal cull of main characters to emerge still witty and surprising. The Walking Dead kept us on the edge of our seats, where we must remain until February, and anxiously awaiting news of Daryl’s fate (and the others, obv, but hey, Daryl!). Oh, and Dr Who continued to be marvellous, moving and magical.
- I’ve been reading Proust. A statement which will probably feature in my summaries for 2013, 2014 and possibly beyond. I’ve been fascinated by two particular elements recently – the constant referencing of the Dreyfus Affair, and the theme of sexual ‘inversion’ – and rather less fascinated by some of the aristocratic dinner parties that one has to endure almost in real time, such is the detail with which they are described. There have been moments when I’ve wished Robespierre had been a little more thorough. I’m about at the halfway point in the whole A la Recherche project.
- New great stuff from Stephen King (11.22.63), Hilary Mantel (Bring up the Bodies) and Jon McGregor (Even the Dogs)
- First encounters with writers I should have read before and will read more of – Hans Fallada, Alexander Baron, Haruki Murakami and Wilkie Collins.
- Lynn Shepherd’s Tom-All-Alone’s – I approached with caution knowing that she was riffing on my favourite novel of all time, Bleak House, but I need not have worried. Indeed, I went straight from Tom to her earlier novel (Murder at Mansfield Park), and have her next on pre-order – and she led me to The Woman in White as well.
- Theatre - Geoffrey Streatfeild in both Macbeth at the Crucible and Copenhagen at the Lyceum, Betrayal (lovely John Simm) at the Crucible
- Tramlines festival – Screaming Maldini and Early Cartographers in Weston Park, The Third Half at the City Hall, Soukous Revelation in the Peace Gardens, Jim Ghedi & Neal Hepplestone at the Cathedral, and Frankie & the Heartstrings, Field Music and We are Scientists on Devonshire Green. Three days of music spilling out of every bar and coffee shop, of sunshine and people dancing in the streets – literally – and generally being nice to each other.
- Music in the Round – a fabulous Quartet for the End of Time, an introduction to Louise Farrenc, and the early polyphony of Pérotin and the Notre Dame composers in Sheffield Cathedral.
2012 has been the year that the Hillsborough families were vindicated, utterly and unconditionally. The year that the truth was not so much revealed – it had been in plain view all the time – as spotlit, so that there were no shadows in which the lies could continue to lurk. And that justice seems finally to be within reach now. Massive respect to all of those who fought this battle when it must have seemed hopeless, when everything and everyone seemed to be against them.
And it’s been the year of Inspiration for Life. The year a dear friend and colleague, Tim Richardson, was diagnosed with a terminal cancer, and a whole community came together to support him, and to help him set up a charity to do the things he believes in – supporting living, giving and learning. We’ve been both devastated and uplifted.
So – onward to 2013.
No resolutions as such. But anticipations and aspirations -
- Graduating (again), and planning the next stage of my lifelong learning, and publishing (if I can, in real, proper, academic journals) some of my work on Michel Butor
- Fundraising for Refugee Action – having hung up my trainers, I’m not sure yet how I can best do this, but their work is vitally important and I want to do what I can
- Reading Proust, and lots of other stuff. Lots and lots.
- Enjoying to the full Sheffield’s rich cultural life – theatre, arthouse cinema, Music in the Round, Tramlines, Festival of the Mind, Arts-Science Encounters, Site and S1 and Bloc, and more
- Blogging, about Butor, Sebald, French cinema, refugees, Dr Who, national identity, and whatever else is buzzing around in my mind at any given moment
- Enjoying working with physicists, astronomers and other scientists, and facilitating what they do, through what I do
- Continuing to be an utter geek
- Listening to as much music as possible, with as eclectic a range as possible
- Getting Inspiration for Life going – with the 24-hour Inspire at the end of Feb (24 hours of lectures, activities and entertainments), the publication of Tim’s diary, and the art exhibition in May, funds from which will go to local cancer charities (Weston Park Cancer Hospital Charity, St Luke’s Hospice and Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice).
- Going on about stuff that matters – refugees, environmental issues, injustice, inequality, that sort of thing. Going on and on.
- Doing all the above whilst being a good-enough parent, partner and friend
Phew! No pressure then.
Thanks to all who’ve enriched my life in 2012, and with whom I’ve shared the best bits. Here’s wishing you all good things in 2013.
I’ve always been intrigued by the creative possibilities of mistakes. So many medical and scientific discoveries, after all, have come about through the combination of chance or error with painstaking research and experimentation. The key is to see the possibilities created by that chance or error, and to follow them through.
No. They are mistakes in the film, there are some shots misregistered that I use deliberately. Mistakes don’t exist in our digital world anymore. An effects man I spoke to in Germany said, “Analogue mistakes can sometimes be magical. Digital ones never are.” You know, the magic of mistakes and the magic of not knowing what you are going to get, these things are important.
When she talked to Michael Berkeley on Radio 3′s Private Passions, she chose as one of her pieces of music Allegri’s wonderful Miserere, a piece that never fails to make me want to weep. But the moment that does that most powerfully is the famous top C, which, according to some historians, is the result of a transcription error. If so, there have been few more marvellous mistakes in the arts.
There’s a difference between using creatively the mistakes that occur through chance or human error, and deliberately creating an environment where ‘mistakes’ are always potentially a note away.
Jimi Hendrix improvised constantly, whether he had an audience or not. He never played the same song exactly the same way twice, and given the chance (i.e. without an audience shrieking to hear ‘Wild Thing’ or ‘Hey Joe’) he’d mess around with the song, take it somewhere different and bring it back home again – the challenge for anyone else was to keep up.
But after his death the self-appointed keeper of his flame decided that we didn’t need to hear what he regarded as Jimi’s ‘mistakes’ and that we instead should hear doctored versions of his late unreleased work with other session musicians drafted in to cover the gaps and the glitches. Even when those musicians were of the calibre of the late lamented Bob Babbitt, this was a wretched way to treat the rich legacy of such an inventive and risk-taking artist. And not all of the musicians were of that calibre.
Greg Tate, in his fascinating book on Hendrix and the black experience (an oddly neglected area of study), says that Hendrix ‘took the odd pleasurable accident as not just serendipity but as a way to embark upon a new line of inquiry, the intent being not merely to duplicate the shock-of-the-new aspect of the thing but to intensely lyricize it. Like Jackson Pollock … Hendrix lived to transmute the accident into intention.’
Postwar composers such as Boulez, and Michel Butor’s collaborator Henri Pousseur, used what Boulez called ‘controlled chance’, where the possibilities are predefined by the composer, within parameters. The performer has choices to make, which leaves the audience – and fellow performers – faced with the unexpected. This does give the possibility that one performer’s choice will wrong-foot others, but this would still clearly be, in the composer’s terms, a mistake rather than a new line of flight. The overall course is fixed, only the ordering of the elements can be tinkered with. John Cage’s use of the I Ching in composition and in performance was far from random, but brought in an arbiter other than the composer or the performer, in line with his wish to take the preferences of composer and performer out of the music. But he did incorporate improvisation in some later works, in ways which did introduce elements of real chance. Could the performer in such works be permitted to ‘transmute accident into intention’ ? One suspects not.
Even where that Hendrixian alchemy is not encouraged, the possibility of mistakes, the risk of them, is part of the joy of live music, where the artists are confident enough to respond positively – like Ensemble 360 who responded to one member contributing a repetition too many or too few, thus throwing them all off track, by pausing, laughing uproariously, and then resuming the piece with their usual panache. Back to Hendrix again (always), and a gorgeous acoustic version of his blues ‘Hear my Train a Comin”, where he plays it one way during the intro, stops because he’s been thrown off track by the cameras (not that anyone listening would hear that) and restarts it in a completely different version.
For those of us not so gifted mistakes are to be feared, to be remembered with hideous shame and self-flagellation, to be avoided either by careful preparation or by shunning activities where risks are high.
But we admire those who go ahead anyway – I always loved Paul Scott’s Daphne Manners: ‘She had to make her own marvelous mistakes. She didn‘t ever shrink from getting grubby. She flung herself into everything with zest. The more afraid she was of something, the more determined she was not to shrink from experiencing it. She had us all by the ears finally. We were all afraid for her, even of her, but more of what she seemed to have unlocked, like Pandora who bashed off to the attic and prised the lid of the box open.” (The Jewel in the Crown, pp. 104 – 105).
And artistically, we often respond emotionally to the imperfect rather than to the inhumanly perfect. (Some people illustrate that distinction using Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, which I can’t accept – Ella’s voice doesn’t have Billie’s fragility but it has such incredible warmth that it is never merely a perfect instrument, it’s full of emotion.)
I had been trying to finish this post for months, and then read this wonderful and moving blog which says so much that I will leave Gerry (and Leonard) with the last words:
- Greg Tate, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003)
The next reading loop (Wednesday, May 2nd, 7pm, Bloc studios) will be a more experimental workshop, thinking through how a wasteland might be re-thought (and perhaps re-made?) through sound. We'll be asking not 'What do we want to see in this space?', but: 'What do we want to hear in this space?' The discussions will feed in to the broader project to develop a live project in a wasteland in the Shalesmoor area of Sheffield.
‘Silence is not nothing. It is not the null set’. Music in performance exists between two silences – the expectant pause before the first notes and the instant before the applause. Music and silence are in dialogue, mutually dependent. Silence is inscribed in the music, like its breathing. To put it another way, sound echoes silence, puts into words or music what was implicit, and the two bear traces of each other.
In 4’33”, John Cage’s best known and possibly most important work, the composer developed a ‘fully positive concept of silence’ (Visscher, p. 259) which required openness to the integration of all possible sounds. For Cage, silence is temporal and spatial. It’s the place where sounds appear, ‘made up of all the sounds that exist in permanence (=life) and which surround us (=place).’ (Visscher, p. 262). Cage explained that ‘we call it silence when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds’, i.e. the ambient sounds that are constantly present. 4’33” is a way of experimenting with one’s relation to the external world, silencing music in order to hear the world. For Cage, ‘it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life’. (Visscher, p. 264).
Cage’s piece invites us to hear all of these ambient sounds, and those that drift in from outside – sirens, wind and rain, traffic noise – or from the building – the air conditioning, the creak of floorboards – not as intrusions but as the work itself. It’s as difficult as any of the ‘difficult’ 20th century composers, and it bothers people. The commonest responses are either that it is a joke (yes, the way it challenges audience preconceptions is funny, but at heart it is serious, as Cage’s statements make clear) or that its acceptance in the musical canon (at least its avant-garde experimental subset) is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that the piece is essentially empty of meaning but given spurious significance by critics.
And even if one disagrees, it is an unsettling work. Where we expect to hear a performer and (apart from the performer’s footsteps, the creak of the piano stool or lid, the turning of the pages) instead hear ourselves, our neighbours, the building we’re in, we are uneasy. We know that in a concert hall we are expected to be still, to minimise the rustling, shuffling, and throat clearing sounds that we perversely become desperate to make as soon as it’s taboo to do so. We suffer agonies of embarrassment if a coughing fit can’t be held back, our stomachs rumble, or we applaud at the wrong moment, and we turn judgemental glares on those whose mobile phones ring.
Silence is a weighty thing for an absence. It fills with everything that isn’t being said, all of the sounds that aren’t being heard. Recently researchers from the Australian National University have tuned very sensitive light detectors to listen to vacuum – a region of space that was once thought to be completely empty, dark, and silent until the discovery of modern quantum theory and have discovered that vacuum has virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appearing and disappearing, giving rise to omnipresent random noise.
If Cage’s concept of silence was positive, our experience of it, our associations with it, are often more problematic. Collective, imposed silence, for longer than a few heartbeats, tends to create physical, visceral tension and anxiety, rather than a tranquil meditative state. And as soon as one considers the notion of collective silence, one encounters other, more troubling associations.
Silence became one of the dominant metaphors for the Occupation, a blanket of silence over all kinds of enquiry, an emptiness that filled up with fear (Butor described the feeling that ‘nothing was happening, but that this nothing, at the same time, was bloody’). Silence here could betray or protect, could be resistance (as in Vercors’ Le Silence du Mer) or (active or passive) collaboration. And when liberation came, the imposed silence was replaced by a chosen silence, as a generation (because of guilt, or horror) chose to regard the Nazi era as a nightmare that could be put to one side as an aberration. Thus for Butor, silence is something to be fought against – he sees writing, words and music as resistance, every word or note a blow for life.
For Sebald too, silence carries a terrible weight of complicity and conspiracy. Schlant has described West German literature since the war as ‘a literature of absence and silence contoured by language’. Sebald’s fiction has been characterised as presenting us with a ‘Holocaust in absence’ – ‘the edge of darkness that Sebald’s fictions repeatedly bring us up against: a place and a time in which the ordinary constraints of history give way to an immense penumbral continuum of human suffering, exile, and “silent” catastrophes that take place “without much ado.”’ (Anderson, 121). His references are often oblique – in After Nature, Sebald imagines the clouds into which ‘without a word the breath Of legions of human beings had been absorbed’ (96), and in the first of his ‘Poemtrees’, when the landscape that you pass in a train ‘mutely … watches you vanish’ (p3), because it’s Sebald, we think of the trains that crossed Europe, taking their passengers to annihilation. As Ian Galbraith says, ‘Sebald’s landscapes are never innocent’ (p. 189), citing the references to Landsberg and Kaufbeuren in ‘Cold Draught’, and to Turkenfeld in ‘Somewhere’ (Across the Land and the Water, pp. 57, 135)
As George Steiner writes, the points where words fail have traditionally been seen as the points where music begins, or where we fall silent in the presence of the divine, but there is a more recent phenomenon, where ‘language simply ceases … The poet enters into silence. Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night’ (46). Is this silence, a ‘suicidal rhetoric’, nevertheless a valid and moral alternative when ‘the words in the city are full of savagery’?
Mark M Anderson, ‘The Edge of Darkness: On W. G. Sebald’, October, 106 (Autumn, 2003), 102-21
Michel Butor, Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)
Thomas Clifton, ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, Musical Quarterly, 52, 2 (1976) 163-81
Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990)
Jean Guéhenno, Journal des années noires, 1940-1944 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)
Florence Rigal, Butor : la pensée-musique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004)
Florence Rigal, ‘De la polyphonie à la monodie: Butor, une voix politique’, L’Esprit Créateur, 47, 2 (Summer 2007), 33-42
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence. West German Literature and the Holocaust (NY; London: Routledge, 1999)
W G Sebald, After Nature (London: Penguin, 2002)
W G Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (NY: The Modern Library, 2004)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, Atheneum, 1982)
Eric de Visscher, ‘”There’s no such a thing as silence…” John Cage’s Poetics of Silence’, Interface, 18 (1989), 257-68
A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment. There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread. Or the song of Orpheus. … One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
(’1837: Of the Refrain, Deleuze & Guattari, pp. 343-4)
There’s so much in this short passage that resonates with me. Often with Deleuze my grasp is fleeting – I understand (or think I do) for a moment and then it’s lost again (rather like the offside rule, or long division). But that last phrase – ‘one ventures from home on the thread of a tune’ – stays with me, and moves me somehow. That thread – Ariadne’s thread – sounds so fragile. And whereas it led Daedalus and Theseus out of the labyrinth and to safety, this leads from home to who knows where. The music is the magic, the song is the charm.
Another phrase that’s lodged firmly in my mind since a fascinating seminar on Proust and Barthes by Thomas Baldwin from the University of Kent, is ‘variations without a theme’. If there’s no theme, then what is it that’s being varied? I think it’s Deleuze’s thread of a tune. Whatever we begin with changes as we venture further from home – music as a form of becoming - and we never go back to it, but what we hear is still connected, it carries the memory. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations give us a foretaste of what twentieth century composers would do with that freedom from the constraints of a theme – as Alfred Brendel wrote, ‘The theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed,disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted’ (Brendel, p. 114).
Music in the last century has truly ventured from home, and often denies the listener a reassuring homecoming, a resolution. Beethoven can confound the listener’s expectations along the way, can sound a century later than he was, but finally, we know that all the threads will be gathered together, in a very firm and decisive final chord (albeit one for which we are made to wait, thinking each could be the final one, only to hear another, and another – as unforgettably parodied by Dudley Moore). Even in jazz, we often know whilst we hear each of the soloists take the theme and play with it, however far out they go, that they will return at the end to the theme as we first heard it.
Music that doesn’t do that is hard. The ‘difficult’ composers of the serialist movement and the postwar era have not become mainstream – the process whereby what appears new and scary gradually becomes accessible worked for Stravinsky and Debussy but not (yet?) for Boulez and Stockhausen. We struggle to find the thread, to hold on to it, to follow it through the piece, and we feel unsettled when we end up not back at home but somewhere else entirely.
Deleuze and Guattari were drawn to Messiaen’s music because it puts ‘in continuous variation all components’ and forms a rhizome instead of a tree (Bogue, p. 24). As in a raga, the music could in theory go on forever, and so we hear it as part of something bigger, not complete in itself. (Sometimes an unresolved ending is very clearly an ending, nonetheless – I’m thinking of a chamber piece by Kurtag, beautifully performed by the incomparable Ensemble 360, which ends abruptly, cut off in mid-phrase, as was the life that it commemorates, and I wish I could recall its title.).
Butor’s long-term musical collaborator Henri Pousseur shared his vision of polyphony and openness, saying that ‘composition will not always be the production of closed and finished objects which one can buy and sell …. We will have to think increasingly in a collective way ‘ (Obituary), and in his work expanded serialist techniques to integrate past musics, to mediate between styles which might seem irreconcilable. As Butor said of poetry, ‘one can play infinitely, multiplying the variations and the processes of construction’, and he preferred to speak of art as transformation rather than creation, because the artist starts not with a blank slate, at the beginning of the process, but with all that there is already in the world, all of the words, the notes, the colours. The threads are there to be woven together, to be followed wherever they lead.
All music is a dynamic, complex conversation; it’s ‘the domain of possibilities, or potentialities … a fold, a flow, a source of possibility, and in consequence a labyrinth‘ (Bidima, in Buchanan & Swiboda, p. 179). The composer engages with the conductor and the performers, and they in turn engage with the audience in an encounter which will be repeated in other places and other contexts but will never be absolutely the same. Some have taken this several steps further, giving opportunities for participants (performers or audience) to change the music by making choices, or introducing elements of pure chance (albeit within predefined parameters). In Pousseur’s Miroir de Votre Faust (libretto by Butor), the soprano has to listen for her cue when a particular phrase recurs, and it recurs arbitrarily, because the pages, unbound so that the music can be shuffled around before performance, contain many ‘windows’ – rectangular holes that allow one to see through to the next one or two pages. The performer cannot be sure what is coming next or what will return in an entirely new context. In performance (and this can only work in performance) this creates enormous tension as she gathers herself up to sing and then pauses, realising this is not her cue, or launches herself, seizes the moment, just in time. The sense of risk is exhilarating.
In the post-war world the notion of going home became at the same time more poignantly desirable and more problematic. In Europe between 11 and 20 million people were displaced. Many never found their way home. Others did, but found that home, and they, had changed beyond recognition or recovery. Even those who were not displaced by war – Butor and Sebald amongst them – had to question notions of home. Butor, growing up in occupied Paris, saw a familiar childhood home become a place of darkness, suspicion, fear and danger, and his subsequent restless travels suggest that transformation had a long-term effect. For Sebald a growing understanding of the Nazi era forced him to see his childhood home as a place of darkness and he found it impossible to settle in Germany; he said once that his ideal station ‘would be a hotel in Switzerland’, just as Butor chooses to live near the French/Swiss border. So to be unsettled is to be of our times. To venture from home, like Butor and Sebald, like Revel and Ferber, is to accept risk, but to set off new harmonics, to find in a city of emigrants the thread that connects with the unrecoverable home: ‘The valleys of Bleston do not echo/And with them is no more returning’ – Bleston IV, p. 21).
Jean-Godefroy Bidima, ‘Music and the Socio-Historical Real’, in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan & Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)
Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts (NY, London: Routledge, 2003)
Alfred Brendel, ‘Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations’, in Alfred Brendel on Music (Chicago: A Cappella, 2001)
Michel Butor, Dialogue avec 33 variations de L. van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli (Paris: Gallimard, 1971)
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (London; NY: Continuum, 2007)
Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)
Henri Pousseur, Musiques Croisées (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998)
W G Sebald, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
‘Quand ta voix s’envolera
dans le battement des langues
les anciennes dissonances
fleuriront en harmonies’
(‘Le jardin des ages’, Michel Butor par Michel Butor)
It might seem odd to call Passing Time a musical novel. After all, music is conspicuous by its absence in Bleston. As Brunel says, ‘rich in references to the art of the stained-glass window, the tapestries, and even the cinema, the text of L’Emploi du Temps is poverty-stricken with regard to musical references’ (Brunel, p. 143). On the other hand, it is Brunel who calls the book ‘a musical novel’ (p. 17).
In the fog of Bleston, music can’t find a place. Revel sees in the stained glass windows of the Old Cathedral the ancestors of industry and music but in contemporary Bleston, ‘city of weavers and metal workers’, he asks ‘what has become of your musicians?’ (p. 73). Later, he describes how in these same windows, ‘everything was taking place in silence … the looms wove in silence, the hammers forged in silence, the musicians mimed their sounds in silence’. The silence is broken, as his earlier revery is, by mechanical noise, the screech and then the siren of a police car. Music in Bleston is stifled – lost in the labyrinth-city which makes Revel mute, and the woman he loves deaf to him – and the only real music Revel hears in the city is Horace Buck’s harmonica, plaintively recalling long-ago voyages in distant lands, music which unequivocally does not belong there.
The structure of the novel is based on the musical canon, ‘one of the fundamental structures of polyphony, … with reversals, with mirrors … These are the fundamental structures of our perception of time.’ (Curriculum Vitae, p. 74), or perhaps the more complex structure of the fugue, which allows more possibilities for variation. In Passing Time there are five parts, or voices. The twelve months of Revel’s stay in Bleston form our scale, and each of the five sections (each of which is also subdivided into five), move up and down this scale. In part 1 Revel starts writing in May to describe the events of October, in part 2, he’s writing in June, weaving together memories of November with events in June, and so on, as in each part a new voice joins in, until in the final part, we have his contemporary account interwoven with memories of five other months. As Mary Lydon suggests, Passing Time illustrates Bergson‘s ‘melodic concept of duration’: ‘the indivisible and indestructible continuity of a melody where the past comes into the present and forms with it a whole undivided and even indivisible, despite what is added to it at each instant, or rather, thanks to what is added to it’ (Lydon, p. 94).
These musical structures are potentially infinite and so the endings are in a sense arbitrary, as in the novel. As Wilfred Mellers has said of Messiaen’s harmonically centred, static technique, which ‘evades the concept of beginning, middle and end’, ‘there is no reason why [these pieces] – any more than a Gothic motet or the improvisation of an Indian vina player – should ever stop’. When Revel leaves Bleston, he leaves us with the lacunae in his story unfilled, the mysteries unresolved, the book ends as the train pulls out of the station, just as it began with the train’s arrival. If Revel’s writing has saved him, therefore, it’s the act, the process, rather than what he has written. ‘Writing in the labyrinth is … the only true way to try to recover the lost music’ (Brunel, 144), to achieve ‘new harmonic days’. Revel’s journal creates ‘a whole series of resonances of varying intensity separated by broad intervals of silence, like the harmonics into which the timbre of a sound is broken up’ (p. 281).
So, despite the failure of his quest (he loses the women he loves, and he leaves with his narrative unfinished), he has restored Bleston’s lost music, by triggering these harmonics. For Revel, and for Butor, to write is to live, so Revel predicts for Bleston that ‘my silent words may begin to echo through all your rafters, so that your own silent words may at last achieve passionate utterance’ (p. 260).
For Butor music represents the aim of all the arts. It’s ‘not an idle diversion, … music is indispensable to our life, to all our lives… it teaches us, even at its haughtiest, its most apparently detached, something about the world, that musical grammar is a grammar of the real, that songs transform life’ (‘La Musique, Art Realiste’).
Subsequent blogs will explore Butor’s relationship with music more fully, in relation to his other works, and I’ll also return to the Butor-Sebald connection in this context. More, much more, to follow….
Michel Butor, ”La Musique, Art Realiste’, Répertoire (Minuit, 1960)
- Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)
Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’. Le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)
Wilfred Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-century Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968)