Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking

Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking

The house was old. They were older. The sisters. They celebrated Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Cried at her funeral. At least if they hadn’t actually seen these events they witnessed it all in the newspapers. The house full of newspapers. Paper bags within paper bags. Letters. Photographs. Pieces of brocade. Satin. Ribbons. Lockets. Hair. Broken spectacles. Medicine bottles. Empty. Foreign coins. Trunks. Cases. Cake. Biscuit tins. And mice. The child never knew whether it was the mice or one of her aunts wheezing in the long nights. Or maybe just the wind from the sea. The downs. Whistling in the chimney. Other nights she knew it was Aunt Molly battling with her asthma. Or Aunt Sally sucking tea from a saucer. And the bed creaked in the room below. As grandma turned over. Back again. From the waist up. Did she have legs? The child thought of them. Thought she saw them like sticks under the sheet. About to thrust up. With barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging. The old woman’s flesh. Scaly. Her eyes like someone just risen from the ocean bed. But then she was grandma. And all grandmothers must look like that. Confined to an enormous bed. Yet not so enormous. For she filled all parts. At all times. As she filled the house with her demands. Commands. In her little girl’s voice. When not eating. Not sleeping. Whined for the bedpan. Another cup of tea. And if Aunt Sally stopped making kitchen noises then she whined for the bedpan again and accused her younger sister of indulging in forty winks. For the house belonged to grandma. Every item down to the shrimp pink corset and purple dress Aunt Sally wore had been billed to grandma. She after all had been married. And no one now would point out she had stolen Aunt Molly’s intended. That a long time ago. And he who had made the mistake by proposing in a letter from India to the wrong sister had long since departed. They lived as best. The three. In the worst. Through thick and thin. They lived their roles. Respected. Detested. Each other’s virtues. Little vices. Whims. And waited for the day the child’s father would pay a visit. That day would surely be tomorrow. If not tomorrow then the next day. When Nicholas Montague. Monty to them all. Would tread the path. Into the house. Receive their love. And tell them of his travels. Successes. Though Aunt Molly would look past him. As if she recognised in his shadow some remembered dream. Go on sorting out little bundles of letters. Comb her long white hair. Thin. So thin it was more of a veil covering her head. Face of crushed carnation that sprouted from the black bent root of velvet. The child would look past him too. Perhaps. At the portrait. For comparison. While Aunt Sally clucked around him. Teeth clicking. Little bird eyes upon the nephew who could do no wrong. If he did a wrong in others’ eyes then he did it because there was no alternative.

The days grew into each and out of each night. With the habits. Dreams. Tales of days gone by. The horse-drawn buses. Dinner. Tennis parties. Musical evenings. Picnic outings with cousins by the Thames. Sunday strolls in Kew Gardens. And the Crystal Palace. For the child these stories merged with those of The Goose Girl. The Snow Queen. And Cinderella. Each of these she was. Saw her aunts as grown ancient but with a wave of the magic wand they would change into beautiful queens with quick queenly steps. She felt sure her father would have this wand. Transform the old castle on the hill. The old ladies. Herself. Into a magical world where they would all live together happily ever after.

Weeks. Months. Years. Came. Went. After hours of anticipation. The child saw the calendar only in the mirror. She was still not taller than Aunt Sally. She thought the day would never come when she would be . . .

 

To read the entire story, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 7 . . .

The Ages, Coming to Bear

The Ages, Coming to Bear

Listening to the music of Lera Auerbach, we are immediately touched by several impressions. First, that we’ve been waiting our entire lives for this music. And it has such emotion, such soul, it so floods the space around us, that a second impression soon follows, that of the great multiplicity of the music’s facets, its meanings. At some point Bach, having failed to become a discoverer of new paths, grew instead into the embodiment of an enormous musical language—of all that had gone on in Europe before him. In the English Suites, the French Suites, in him—that is, in Bach—we find the spirit of Italy, the Spirit of Vivaldi, the spirit of the Reformation and of the protestant choir; in other words, Bach, in his work, brought many different runnels and rivers flowing into one another, merging into the singular “ocean” of his—that is, of Bach’s—music. When I listen to Lera Auerbach’s music, I cannot help feeling we have received a comparable gift. Without daring to compare Bach and Lera Auerbach in terms of their importance to world music, I can confidently say that we see before us not just a polystylist, but one who has brought the most disparate tendencies together, successfully merging them under a single roof—tonality alongside atonalism, Russian melodicism alongside Mahlerian, the elements of ancient cultures combined with the simplest children’s songs. And together with all of this are colossal structures—whether of the late-romantic sensibility, or of the twentieth century itself . . .

Translated from the Russian by Ian Drieblatt

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 7 . . .

“Each a hand’s breath on”

“Each a hand’s breath on”

There’s a case to be made that the letter “z” functions as a signpost for deception in Hamlet. Think of the crucial “z” words—“buzz, buzz,” “blazes,” “squeezing,” “buzzers”— and by whom and when and why they’re spoken; think of the “z” names—Rosencrantz, Gonzago—and the different forms of artifice they evoke; then think, beyond the play, of the evasive zig-zagging of the pen itself as it makes the mark on the page. Most compelling, perhaps, is the fact that Ophelia never uses the letter “z.” By excusing her from using it, by refusing her its usage, there emerges the possibility that Shakespeare is suggesting something about Ophelia’s exceptional truthfulness in a corrupt state, about the limits of language and the limits of the world, about the relation between materiality and meaning in writing, and so on. If that sounds far-fetched, then it’s because it’s exactly the kind of far-fetched thought that I find myself having when reading let me tell you, one of my favorite novels. Indeed, far-fetched is what it feels like to think about this novel: it’s something I have to go back to in order to believe that it exists. It can’t be possible! And yet there it is. I get that familiar fear that in some other universe the text is slightly different, a fear let me tell you seems continuously preoccupied with: how did I end up being exactly myself? But the other versions are all contained in there. “But I could will it another way.” There is something awful, almost illicit, about the thought that every word or mark on the page can be examined in some new light to reveal hitherto unnoticed properties and resonances. The subtle modulations in meaning Griffiths achieves give a sense of limitless abundance and inexhaustibly fine detail, offering even the most mundane of Ophelia’s words a distinct and independent afterlife. Who knew she could speak French, or sing the Beatles, or remember a Nō play? The remarkable achievement of the work is to extend Ophelia’s world into impossible realms, while remaining something which feels organically of a piece with, and connected through deep feeling to, her original. She resembles herself.

 

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 7 . . .

Unpacking Ann Quin’s Comic Tragedy

Unpacking Ann Quin’s Comic Tragedy

The One-Liner

It’s hard to imagine a book that clashes comedy and tragedy quite so blatantly as Berg, Ann Quin’s 1964 reimagining of the Oedipal myth. Rare enough is a book that begins by stating its intention—

A man named Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . .

—rarer still one that proceeds to do seemingly everything it can to avoid following the path its intention has laid. True, Quin’s novel teems with violence, but it’s violence offered as a substitute for a patricide that never quite takes place, and this substitute violence is almost entirely, even hysterically, absurd. 

Take the scene in which Berg drops his father Nathaniel’s beloved pet bird, still in its cage, down several flights of stairs as his father looks on. On the face of it, this act is frankly cruel and violent; yet the bird was already dead when Berg dropped it, and he knew it was when he did. In fact, Berty the budgie had been previously starved and/or strangled by Nathaniel’s mistress, Judith, in retaliation for Nathaniel’s crime of accidentally letting out her cat, Sebastian, who was then killed, perhaps accidentally, by Berg, though no one knows Berg did it, and he didn’t know it was Judith’s cat when he did. So while Berg doesn’t set out with intentions to hurt Judith or her cat, he winds up killing the one and upsetting the other; and while he professes a desperate desire to murder his father, instead he drops a dead bird down some stairs. Throughout the novel, Berg’s violence is a joke (if not so funny for the cat), and moreover was set up as a joke from the beginning, an Oedipal one-liner with the sing-songy rhythm of a syllogism . . .

 

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 7 . . .

A Conversation with Paul Griffiths

A Conversation with Paul Griffiths

SE: Your book let me tell you is a novel you wrote from the perspective of Hamlet’s Ophelia, and, in an Oulipian twist, you only use words that Ophelia speaks in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I found the results to be quite remarkable. To start, a very fundamental question—perhaps the key question: why Ophelia?

PG: I began with the idea of taking all the words spoken in Hamlet and rearranging them into a new text. However, it didn’t take me very long to realize that while initially I could say almost anything with this stock of words, unless I took huge care in monitoring what I was using, I could easily end up with a highly resistant residue of archaisms and prepositions.

I therefore decided to use not all the words in the play, once each, but all the words spoken by one character, with no restriction as to number of uses. Now if you choose Hamlet as your character, his vocabulary is so vast there’s virtually no constraint—and I needed an active constraint to make the book work. If you choose Francisco, there’s the opposite problem, of being able to say only a very little. Ophelia has enough words to express herself on all sorts of matters, but also few enough that she is constantly bumping up against the unsayable.

The constraint also allowed her to give readers the experience of reading words they have read before but are reading now in a new context. Because her mad scenes introduce a language that is unusual and therefore memorable, the reader easily recognizes, for example, where “rosemary” comes from.

At the same time, I wanted the book to do what novels generally do: tell a story. Ophelia has one of the play’s most powerful lines: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” My attempt was to give her something of what she may be.

Also, and again quite aside from the constraint, here was a character who invites questions, a character who has very little opportunity to speak for herself in the play, and may now do so . . .

 

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 7 . . .

Home Away from Home

Home Away from Home

I won’t go into all the ways Dubravka shaped my life—how she helped me put together my first book of fiction, a collection of rewritten stories, like her own Lend Me Your Character; the forceful advice when I needed it that won over the woman I would later marry. I hope someone else in this issue talks about how the patchwork novel Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life [collected within Lend Me Your Character], stitched together out of women’s magazines, sewing patterns, dialects, storylines, ideologies, and clichés, is the best postmodern feminist novel ever written, and by far the funniest. But I do want to describe the two things Dubravka said that I think about all the time, to this day.

She took me along to a dinner with one of what she always called her “countrymen”—a former-Yugoslavian, in several senses, washed up in Amsterdam and making his way as best he could. He was kind, in a way that didn’t seem quite right: a little too Buddhist, a little too California. You could see all the work he had done to convince himself, or at least Dubravka could. I liked meeting him, but Dubravka was fuming, furious: she couldn’t stand the forgiveness shtick. “No sympathy for jerks!” she announced to the canal and me on the walk home. “I’m not fuckin’ Dostoyevsky!”

She also told me that no one should be allowed to publish fiction or poetry—no one had the right to expect to be read—until they had done some service to other writers: as an editor, professor, publisher, translator, critic. It’s a beautiful vision, not of hard-honed craft but community, the global cultural citizenship that so much of her work proves and champions. It is tragic how little the world seems to go along with her, unless those historical upheavals she lived through and our idiocracy of culture are what create that vision in the first place. No glorious non-Dostoyevskies without jerks to non-sympathize with, no heroine of civilization without the barbarism. None of her humor without everything she has to laugh at. It’s not fair to her, but, as I can hear her say in her wonderful low voice, “No one ever said life is fair!” She can take it.

 

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written

A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written

6.

 

In this Moscow—where philologists, both local and foreign, hunted witnesses to the previous epoch; where the widows of famous writers were worshipped (Nadezhda Mandelstam, for example); where anyone who had survived, outlived others, and was in a state to testify about it, was worshipped; where the world was alive with memoirs, mementos, and diaries, with collectors and archivists, with artists real and phony, with those who had ‘sat’ (sidet’), i.e. been in a camp, and those ashamed that they hadn’t—I met Pilnyak’s son, Boris. I didn’t think of myself as a “hunter”; the pervasive zeal for biographism held no appeal, though I understood where it came from. In this milieu, the battle won by the Russian Formalists—the great battle for the text of a work of art—proved futile. The texts of innumerable authors disappeared beneath a stampede of biographical details…

Boris Andronikashvili was Pilnyak’s son from the writer’s third marriage to famed Georgian screen actress and director Kira Andronikashvili. Boris was tall, strong, and handsome, and also a trained screen actor. He felt himself Georgian, was proud of his aristocratic surname, spoke Russian with a heavy Georgian accent (as all Georgians do), in his house they drank chacha and ate khachapuri: his true home was not cold and scentless Moscow, but “the city of roses and mutton tallow,” as Isaac Babel wrote of Tbilisi. By the time we met he had abandoned film and now occupied himself with the administration of his father’s estate. With no training in such matters, he did so in an amateur fashion. He himself had written several works of prose. He was in his second marriage, from which he had two children, five-year-old Kira, and two-year-old Sandro.

I never wrote my Master’s thesis on Boris Pilnyak; I gave up halfway. Later, I translated The Naked Year, “Snowstorm,” and “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written” into Croatian, and I did write a Master’s thesis, but on something entirely different. I saw Boris twice more, the last time on September 6, 1989, during a short stay in Moscow, when he gifted me a volume by his father, printed the same year, the foreword for which he had written himself. Were it not for his dated dedication in the inside cover, I wouldn’t remember the details. I almost didn’t recognize him, his expression one of indeterminate internal capitulation. We exchanged several letters, and then lost all contact. The Soviet Union fell apart, then Yugoslavia fell apart, and I left the country. I have closed many files, among them, the year in Moscow when I was supposed to delve deep into the work of Boris Pilnyak, but instead, in place of literature, I delved into life, even though at the time, the two appeared difficult to separate.

Boris Andronikashvili died in 1996, in his sixty-second year of life. I discovered that on the internet. His collected works were published in 2007, in two volumes. His daughter Kira did her Master’s and published a book on her grandfather, as well as editing two impressive volumes of Pilnyak’s letters. I’m not sure I’ll read those books. I travel a lot, crisscross borders, and try to carry as little luggage with me as possible. I’ve closed many files. And once closed, files gradually become unreadable.

 

To read the entire story, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

I Ask to Fall Silent

I Ask to Fall Silent

I’ve always found it awkward to talk about myself. “I’m a composer.” I just keep an ear to the world, follow its transmissions. That’s all the word “alive” really means. I just live, and the music emerges.

The most important moment in my life, I think, was when I discovered the “ear within.” It was a couple years ago, as I walked through the woods under a green canopy of trees. Suddenly, all of space seemed to curl itself around me and immediately begin running backwards. At this moment of coagulation, what I experienced was the absence of whatever time usually is—instead, I became totally immersed in a single, infinitely prolonged instant. The state I was in felt incredibly loud, absorbing all the sound of the world and exploding into silence. I had the sudden feeling that something in my ears had been sharply broken, and I could feel a resounding white emptiness pouring in. I can remember the sympathetic vibrations between the dome of my skull and the dome of the forest.

I take this moment as my starting point, my passage through zero. Everything before it has vanished, reduced to ash. All that remains is “I exist! Here I am!” But I don’t mind the forgetting. To let go is to receive. I suppose I’m closer than anything to the spirit of ancient Chinese art, characters written in water on the road. Lines that evaporate before the image they constitute is completed. From absence to absence. Or as Keats had written on his tomb, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.”

. . . Music, I think, you can’t hold onto. In music, you have to get attuned purely and precisely to the subtle vibrations of the World Spirit. And then it can either be born through you or not, depending on its will. “We’re only mouth.”

 

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

Arvo Pärt at 75

Arvo Pärt at 75

He speaks just as simply as he writes. But hidden in this simplicity is great depth, so that one immediately falls in, is made an unwilling party to, its secrets. He has the eyes of a child—so blue—and a bashful smile. A giant forehead and calm hands. Any communication with him, even the briefest, sketches the lines in you of something at first very quiet, but so clear, so certain, that you become ashamed of yourself, your vanity, your pathetic attempts to hide behind culture, your hollow postmodern games, your desire to parade around as a Faust, an Orpheus, someone else. But in fact, you need only one thing—to discover your pure source, your identity, your idiom, your unity—just as he has. And so, having resolved this, you stand before him, a base, pitiful, hopeless sinner, but perfectly happy. “I’m so sorry, but somehow I don’t seem to have any questions for you,” you mutter. And you hear: “And somehow, I have absolutely no answers!”

Pärt is himself the answer.

 

To read the entire article on Arvo Pärt, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

A Conversation with Victoria Polevá

A Conversation with Victoria Polevá

Did you undergo any personal or creative transformations in the early part of your career?

Yes. In 1994, I wrote Transform, which marked a transition to different, newer material. It was at this moment that the Word became a part of my music and work. The Word permeated the fabric of my music, which had formerly operated strictly within the categories of sound. After this work, it was as if the Word began to take root in me. My music changed dramatically.

 

Are any of your works exemplary in this regard?

Poverty, written in 2013. The name alone tells you very much. This period in my career, so closely bound to the Word, is more ascetic. You could say that asceticism replaced the color and brilliance that had previously dominated my music.

 

Do you mean poverty of soul?

Yes, spiritual poverty, as it is called in the Gospels—but not only that. I set the verses of Zinaida Mirkina in the music:

        A certain silence works within us, and all our needs disappear.
        The mind just shrinks, the heart expands . . .
        In the beginning the world is born, and enters a breast . . .
        There are no separations, no sins, the soul without a sound . . .
        It’s poverty, the same that is made sacrosanct.

 

You consider Poverty to be one of your fundamental works. But listeners cannot completely distinguish its poetry over the sound of the music. There are several reasons for this: first, the syllables are sung in isolation, making it impossible to gather them into an audible unity; second, the tempo is slow, as if time itself were stretched out. It’s true that many listeners experience this work as being at the extreme limit of meditativeness in music. Do you agree with them, even if you don’t experience it that way yourself?

The words become submerged and drowned in the musical text: they dissolve, they cease to be audible, and nevertheless, they are present. Like drops falling into the ocean, they become the ocean itself. The words are mysterious, detached. Here there is a slow, as if eternal, present. The words are concealed. A mystery submerged in the matter of the music. In a certain sense, this music is not for listening, but for contemplation.

 

To read the entire interview, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

A Conversation with Alejandra Pizarnik

A Conversation with Alejandra Pizarnik

I see the mirror, the other shore, the forbidden territory and its oblivion, as expressing in your work the fear of “being two,” an idea that transcends the definition of doppelgänger and includes every person you were.

You put it nicely, it’s the fear of all the selves struggling inside me. There is a poem by Michaux in which he writes: “Je suis; je parle à qui-je-fus et qui-je-fus me parlent . . . On n’est pas seul dans sa peau.

 

Does it show up in any particular moment?

When my child’s voice betrays me.

 

According to one of your poems, your most perfect love was your love for the mirror. Who do you see in it?

The other that I am. (The truth is that I’ve got a certain fear of mirrors.) Occasionally we come together. Almost always when I write.

 

One night at the circus “in the moment that the horsemen with torches in hand were galloping in fierce circles around their black cage” you recovered “a lost language.” What is that thing that is “for my heart like the hot sound of hooves against sand?”

That’s the undiscovered language I’d like to find.

 

To read the entire interview with Alejandra Pizarnik, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

From Alejandra Pizarnik's Diaries

From Alejandra Pizarnik's Diaries

Saturday, 9 July [1960]

Empty happiness. I spent the day reading poems. Trying to learn the technique, in a miserly and premeditated manner. Sometimes it makes me nostalgic to think of children, for whom every action is play. For me, to read poems is work, a great effort. To manage to focus my attention on other people’s words and feelings is a battle against myself. I made two poems. And yesterday another two. I think I won’t ever be able to make a novel, because I’ve nothing to tell in many pages, and even if I had something to tell, but no, I’ve nothing to tell.

And another thing: my greatest happiness or well-being happens on a day like today: alone, reading and writing. Everything else, even the fact of going to the cinema, and worse, seeing people, is a painful effort. I think I need to have psychoanalysis because without doubt I’m hiding myself. It’s not possible for a human being to be happy if turned into a machine for making and reading poems. Apart from this today was a long silence, in which I didn’t even hear myself, I was so quiet, so self-engrossed, so diligent, like a delightful little animal. Only two or three fears burst into me but soon went away. I think no one, but myself, has so little talent for life. Such little calling. Here in Paris I’ve had the experience of tedium, one of the most terrible that exists. It’s like a tap letting one drop fall after another. I the tap and I the drop.

Now I see that what I like about studying at university is that it forces one to spend many days like today: seclusion and books; coffee and cigarettes. If I weren’t a stammerer, if I were not.  Damn it, I would now be studying, and there’d be nothing else. Instead here I must go out and look around because that’s what I’ve come for. I have to see streets and paintings and people. And I’ve no desire to see. I want to be locked up in a room, whatever country I’m in. But I want to go home, to my little room, I want to read and write. It’s been proven that my enthusiasm for Miller’s books was nothing more than the attraction of opposites. There’s nothing of Miller in me: I’m not interested in human or divine adventures, nothing appeals to me, either from here or there. And the truth is reading and writing don’t appeal to me either, but I’ve grown used to it, I’ve already mapped the way ahead and there’s nothing else to do but follow it. That’s it. To continue exploring the technique. What’s essential is form. The rest is silence. In my case, always, always in my case.

 

To read the entire selection from Alejandra Pizarnik's diary, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

An Overdose of Seconal

An Overdose of Seconal

The myth of Alejandra Pizarnik grows apace, not because she killed herself young—an overdose of Seconal, at the age of thirty-six—but because the strengths of her language, a few “solitary ladies, desolate,” resist the passage of time. These solitary, desolate ladies were words, which, in turn, were subjects for her. Each word a subject. Sleep, death, infancy, terror, night. She combined these subjects tirelessly with a great trust in language, which paradoxically ended up awaking in her the suspicion that her words had a mortal dimension and that perhaps the only thing they named was absence.

“Alejandra Pizarnik. Just saying her name sends vibrations of poetry and myth through the air. An extreme lyric and a tragedy, too,” her compatriot Luis Chitarroni has written. And so, what with things said of her by various people, the unstoppable myth of Pizarnik grows, above all among younger readers, who see in her someone with the stature of Lautréamont and Artaud, who see in her a poet who entered hells seldom visited by contemporary Spanish-language poetry. Her myth grows among the young because they are discovering, all by themselves (for publishers today are not exactly making it easy to do so), that there was a time in literature when writers were figures shrouded in mystery: eccentric, inexplicable characters; people from another world, not like modern-day writers, most of whom profess to be ordinary people, with an ordinary current account at the bank, administrating literature from a bureaucratic desk in their ordinary office.

To the allure Pizarnik has, as a figure wrapped in mystery and an inexplicable personality, must be added the fact that, word by word, she “wrote the night,” and the reader who takes an interest in her will discover that this nocturnal writing, which had a great sense of risk, was born of the purest necessity, something seen in very few twentieth-century writers: an extreme lyric and a tragedy.

 

To read the entirety of Enrique Vila-Matas's essay on Alejandra Pizarnik, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

Bright Lights, New Lights

 

The following profile appeared in the 16 February 2015 edition of Der Tagesspiegel. It has been translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West.

 

The journal Music & Literature attempts to establish a new canon that cuts across disciplines and cultures—going beyond academic specialization and journalistic caprice. 

In their own circles, they no longer need any introduction. No one who cares about new music has to be nudged toward Kajia Saariaho: the Finnish composer’s scintillating, deeply emotional pieces ring out in concert halls around the world. And every reader with the least acquaintance with Scandinavian literature has stumbled onto the obsessive darkness of the Norwegian poet and novelist Stig Sæterbakken—as well as its ramifications in real life: in 2012, the author took his own life at 42 years of age. Then there are the works of the Beijing writer Can Xue, with their shadings of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, which appear so un-Chinese at first glance; ever since Susan Sontag singled out her prose as worthy of the Nobel Prize, she has been an aspirant to Olympus.

Still, the person equally acquainted with all three of these artists has yet to be found. After all, even if names today travel around the globe faster than ever before, the various scenes still stick to themselves, and the gravitational pull of national and regional cultures is often insurmountable. For every successful export there is a failure, especially when expensive translations are necessary. And the market, which is both saturated and dwindling, depends on subventions to self-exploitation: for a long time now, the international and the provincial have gone hand in hand. Neither Stig Sæterbakken nor Can Xue has books in German translation.

The English-language biannual journal Music & Literature, along with its website, is casting a wide net for the fifth time now, seeking to cut across disciplines and cultures in search of a new canon determined neither by academic publications nor newspapers –– especially not American ones. Its blend of rigor and readability is rare even in the European context. A single 150-page section of the current issue is devoted to original texts, interviews, and essays on Saariaho. Equal space is given to Sæterbakken and Can Xue, who is far from overlooked in the United States, as a look at this page will confirm. Nonetheless, all deserve greater attention than they have received up to the present moment. Taylor Davis-Van Atta, who oversees production from Montpelier, Vermont, and who shares editorial duties with Daniel Medin, a professor at the American University in Paris, intends to change that—with the help of events centered around each issue’s themes.

Their eclecticism was already apparent in earlier issues. Where else could the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, whose labyrinths of consciousness have undergone a recent renaissance in Germany, have rubbed shoulders with the married couple Maya Homburger and Barry Guy: he a double bass player and free jazz virtuoso, she a baroque violinist with a penchant for the contemporary? Where else would Australia’s metaphysical conjurer Gerald Murnane meet the Slovakian composer Vladimír Godár and Iva Bottová? And is the volume on the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, his friend, the director Béla Tarr, and the Berlin painter Max Neumann not in some measure responsible for Krasznahorkai’s newfound triumph in the United States?

The history of Music & Literature, which also relies on the active collaboration of the artists themselves, is still too brief to pass a verdict on the nature of this new pantheon it is giving rise to or the quiet authority it hopes to command among future readers and scholars, as is the publishers’ not-so-quiet hope. From Germany to France to England, the areas of resonance are so distinct that what finds listeners here is likely to be shunned elsewhere. What in one country looks like a long-overdue discovery may have the stale whiff of the established in another. In this sense, to produce a magazine for European and American readers poses both a dilemma and an opportunity.

 

Twenty-Five Years of Tenderness

Twenty-Five Years of Tenderness

For twenty-five years, you have bravely fought against all kinds of attacks, hypocrites, moralists, priests, idiots, conformists, all who have labeled you a demon, a provocateur. And you have defended yourself against all these charges in a thousand different ways.

You have said that your writing is an examination of society’s boundaries, of the way morality functions. You’ve said that you want to shake up the reader, reveal ambivalences. You have said that you fight against prejudices and fixed attitudes. You have said that you want to change the world and change us. You have said that you write to purify yourself and the reader to the point of a catharsis that will leave us refined.

But you lied.

Your critics were actually right: you are a demon. You don’t know why you really write. You just can’t stop. I think that your defense, your insistence that you’re actually a kind person, is an attempt to hide a fundamental fact: Like all writers, you hope to destroy the world and annihilate us.

You write to tear us to pieces. You are Sophocles: there’s no point to Oedipus’s suffering, incest, eye-gouging, eternal suffering. You are Dostoyevsky, minus the painful afterword to Crime and Punishment. This is literature where everything has simply gone to hell with such a great force that we are utterly crushed. 

It’s often been said that you are interested in good and evil, in what is moral. But you yourself have written that “the dichotomy of good and evil might be humanity’s greatest bluff since the Ascension of Christ.” Evil is the thing that essentially and quite vulgarly inflicts pain, what aches, what makes sure that it stings, throbs, and feels sore. Nothing hurts more than when tenderness conceals a sharpened knife. 

The hypnotic chanting in your monologues make us defenseless, allowing you to strike. You lie in wait in the dark and you knock us out, you tie us up in the cellar and torture us, you force yourself on us with an almost psychopathic, monological calm that arouses within us a terrible sense of dread, but also a terrible love. 

Your monologues hurt. You try to touch our unprotected hearts. You are vicious. Your writing is total destruction, a natural catastrophe. But what sets you apart from most authors who poison this hell on earth otherwise known as the “publishing industry” is that you recognize writing for what it really is: annihilation of the cosmos.

 

To read the entirety of Carl-Michael Edenborg's essay on Stig Sæterbakken, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 5 . . .

Dust

Dust

We are dust in the wind. In the wind, our dance is disordered. We dance as randomly as we want. When the wind pauses, we scatter as we will onto the rooftops, onto the windowsills and balconies, into the flowerbeds, onto the roads, on the heads of the passersby and on their clothing. Sometimes we cluster and sometimes disperse, sometimes solidify into coarse flecks and sometimes turn into powder, without conforming to any law. Yet I, being a single particle of dust, have a secret: I know that every speck among us believes itself to be a flower. How strange that I seem to have known this secret ever since I entered the world. Why do they think they’re flowers? Such wild presumption. Everyone knows that dust can’t compare to flowers. Flowers are alive, they have beautiful contours.

Tonight the wind is blowing from the north. Our collective of dust twitches in the dark wind, one part condensing into a whip and beating the leaves of the trees while another large part changes into a mushroom cloud rising to the sky. The little girl behind the windowpane holds back her tears. We call out to her, silently: “We are flowers! We are flowers!”

The city is dust’s proper home. We have never left the city. We enjoy sticking to the windshields in a thick coating, infuriating the drivers. This is no prank, but rather a means of communication. I often wonder, does the city make us cherish this dream that we are flowers, or are we actually flowers after all? The drivers don’t believe we are. They roughly sweep us away with the wiper fluid so that we run down onto the concrete, then slide into the sewer. But, after a few days, we become dust in the wind again. We sweep across the city. We are everywhere, but we never stay for very long.

 

To read the entirety of "Dust," purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 5 . . .

Sacred Tears

Sacred Tears

1.

QUICQUID DEUS CREAVIT PURUM EST, it reads above the entrance to Tomba Emmanuelle, EVERYTHING CREATED BY GOD IS PURE, in what seems to be the perfect antithesis to the dark inferno of sex and death one enters seconds later. But only seems. For what, if not purity, is the very essence of VITA, with its never-ending cycle of birth, growth and death, purity of vision, and purity of form, all of mankind’s vitality and anxieties and unspeakable fears frozen in almost ornamental patterns of naked figures? The scenes are those of both productive and counterproductive human activity, men and women engaged in Kama-Sutra-like lovemaking side by side with skulls and bones and decomposing corpses, with the ultimate synthesis of life and death conjured up in what is perhaps the most extreme image of them all, that of two skeletons copulating at the base of a monolith of levitating infants.

 

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to call it a marriage between Heaven and Hell, the heavy lumps of struggling bodies on each wall transforming into lighter elusive shapes as they hit the ceiling, evaporating into some unknown realm. Yes, Vigeland’s VITA is Inferno and Paradiso combined, depicting raw nature with a sort of sublime dignity, the latter underlined by the fact that one has to lower one’s head when entering, bowing for what is slowly to become extinguishable in the semi-darkness of the crypt, placed in a small niche just above the entrance door, still, even after a while, only barely perceptible against the dark brown wall: a hollow stone—an urn—holding the artist’s ashes. It is as concrete—and as abstract—as it gets. And what a great metamorphosis as well: the artist’s studio turned into the artist’s tomb, the spirit of Emanuel Vigeland (1875-1948) forever contained within the walls of the magnificent brick building at Slemdal, with its legendary acoustics, creating droning dreamlike soundscapes out of the lightest footsteps, the slightest cough, a sigh or even a single breath (the reverb lasting up to twenty seconds, I’ve been told). Why the hell isn’t every artist buried where he or she worked?

 

2.

Inspired, possibly, by the shape of the room, I always think of Jonah and the whale whenever I visit Tomba Emmanuelle, the ceiling curving like gigantic ribs above me. And given the two representations of the artist himself, both in the right corner of the entrance wall, one—alive, brush and palette in hand, in the act of painting (VITA)—above the other—dead, with the palette and brushes scattered on the ground, as if the work itself has first exhausted him, then killed him—I can’t help thinking that there is a third representation as well, which is the crypt itself, and that while Dante and Virgil had to climb over Satan’s hairy body to get to Purgatorio, the dead Vigeland has left his mouth open, in rigor mortis, for us to climb in, down the throat and into the holy chambers of his chest and stomach, the naked bodies crawling all around us playing the role of the mental intestines, so to speak, of his—literally—inner world.

 

To read the entirety of "Sacred Tears" as well as three other pieces by Stig Sæterbakken, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 5 . . .

A Discussion and a Monologue

A Discussion and a Monologue

Peter Sellars: Was Kaija’s music always, even from the beginning, conceived imagistically?

 

Esa-Pekka Salonen: I think always. I think that was the identity of hers as a composer from the very beginning.

 

PS: I mean, while the boys were dealing with a lot of theoretical questions and scientific relations…I have a sense that Kaija is always functioning on her inner image?

 

EPS: Yes. In Kaija’s work, the visual and the aural are linked.

 

PS: Synaesthetically linked?

 

EPS: Yes, but not in terms of conventional synaesthesia, where one color would correspond to a harmony or a pitch. It is more like if you were to translate a musical experience into another medium, in Kaija’s case it would be a visual image, although for many others it would be verbal.

 

PS: Right.

 

EPS: So we guys were dealing with concepts, and by definition “concept” is something that you define in words. 

 

PS: Right.

 

EPS: Even in the early days, Kaija was not interested in concepts; and now that you mention it, that was a profound difference. Then there comes a moment in life when you stop trying to translate between language and music and realise that music is in some ways like a butterfly: if you touch its wing, you will destroy something and then it cannot fly any more. Music has to be allowed to be its own thing rather than trying to organise it through another medium. But in Kaija’s work these two kinds of expression breathe the same air, so to speak.

 

PS: I just do not know this first piece that you’re describing. Is it an immersive, physical experience?

 

EPS: Well, it’s a process. Kaija’s early pieces were almost always manifestations of one process, so there was one formal idea, and that was the piece, to put it simple.

In Verblendungen, the dramatic arc of the piece is formed by a sort of textural metamorphosis. That sounds very theoretical, but it was very expressive. She had made a tape part at IRCAM, and this was at a time when the computer stuff that came out of IRCAM was not very expressive but kind of cold and theoretical, but hers was different. Her metaphor was a painter’s brush, and the piece is one stroke of a brush, basically: the paint is thickest at the beginning of the stroke, and then it thins out and disperses into strands, and every strand is a different shape, and then they all run into nothingness at the end. That was the form, basically. The tape was loosely synchronised with the orchestra, so it was not a click-track job for me.

I remember a very funny thing about that concert. I was a guinea pig for the applied arts school at that time, and one of the classes had an assignment to create a conductor’s outfit. So I was wearing this conductor’s outfit in this concert, and it had a sort of tunic-style upper part that somehow just would not stay on. It was slipping down over my shoulder all the time, so I was conducting this piece, one of my first real concerts, and the world premiere of a really talented friend of mine, and I was fighting with my damn jacket at the same time. But it was fine.

 

PS: At that time, were you guys still involved in intense conversations and discussions about what everyone was making? Or by that time had she gone away to Paris and was no longer a part of ongoing conversation here?

 

EPS: Well, what happened was of course that everybody in the core group of the society went somewhere. Kaija went first to Freiburg. She was there for a year or something like that.

 

PS: Oh, with Ferneyhough?

 

EPS: Yes, and Klaus Huber, those two. And actually Magnus Lindberg and I, we made it to her diploma concert in Freiburg.

 

PS: No. No!

 

EPS: Yes. We took the train through half of Europe and made it to the diploma concert. At that point we had not slept for two days. Kaija was very touched by us being there, and so were her parents. It was kind of funny, because there we were, Magnus and I, we had made it, such a relief; and we were sitting in the first row, and the concert began, and we promptly fell asleep! Because we were so relieved. And Kaija was like: you guys are just hopeless.

 

PS: It is something special to have friends.

 

EPS: But we made it there! And that was the big deal.

 

PS: That’s fantastic.

 

To read the entire conversation between Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen (concluded by a brilliant monologue on Saariaho's work by Sellars), purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 5 . . .

My Library, from Words to Music

My Library, from Words to Music

At the heart of my library is a shelf filled, in no particular order, with my favorite books. Surrounding this shelf, in perfect order, are my books on music and all the other books. I come back to the shelf with my favorite books every time I want to take a retrospective look at my life. I choose books that are dear to me, I flip through them and reread them while paying attention to the feelings they arouse in me: what has changed?

In my childhood, poetry captivated me above all, and when I seriously began to set down on paper the music that came to me, this music often took form thanks to a poem. I felt particularly close to the poet Edith Södergran. Her collection Runoja (Poems), collected by Lauri Viljanen from the poems he translated from Swedish to Finnish, was one of my nightstand books until adolescence. When I began to read Södergran’s poems in Swedish, the colors and the rhythm of the original text inspired me in a new way and, around some of them, musical ideas were created in my mind. As a result, in 1977, I created a small collection of songs titled Bruden. One of the songs’ first verses described the collection rather well: “I am nothing but infinite will, infinite will, but to what end, to what end?” These words came from the poem “My Life, My Death, and My Fate.” This was my first “serious” composition. Aside from these songs, which I composed ten years ago, when I was still a student, I didn’t compose any other music based on Södergran’s texts. These poems, for me, were part of my childhood, which I couldn’t and didn’t want to touch again. They encouraged me while I was trying to find a path and a goal for my ideas. When I read them again today, these poems which once transported me now bring back these feelings from my childhood. I’m surprised to realize that, after that point, there wasn’t any possibility of transforming poems into music, and that I had already set that aside in the interest of developing an abstract musical language.

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a novel where creative intelligence and complex metaphors combined, reflects particularly well what I was looking for in my music. The richness of her language escapes simplistic interpretation and I asked myself how to achieve a similarly prismatic language in music. This question was amplified by my reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; I was more and more interested by the exactitude of language. I still remember those sunlit April days when, recovering from a throat infection, I savored Swann’s love while telling myself: I don’t want to come to the end. Behind me, I heard Pierre Boulez’s Structures II, which, aside from those few days, I have never appreciated. The cold intelligence of this music mixed with Proust’s text, and the text illuminated Boulez’s French world in a new way, by giving him the heat that had otherwise been missing.

This idea of a synthesis between language and sound became a goal. This goal was to develop an abstract reflection and, by means of this reflection, gain control over my sensibility, and gain equilibrium between the mind and the heart.

 

To read the entire collection of Kaija Saariaho's essays, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 5 . . .

A Mind of Surplus

A Mind of Surplus

Mary Ruefle’s website claims that she doesn’t have an email address. For a writer with what one might assume to be an aversion to the feverish of the digital, her poems function as both an exorcism and curation of excessive information and imagination. She is a remarkably controlled poet, but is frenetic within this control, leaping from one pocket of image and allusion to another. Her poems, in effect, comment on excesses of information, and disallow any hope for moralistic or pedagogic resolution. What exists in Ruefle’s lines, then, is the aesthetic of a fable, the familiar tropes and vehicles that exist within the room of the “usual” parable: bringing the concept of reaching toward morality to a poem saturated with image and ideas.

Ruefle’s poems, often one-block stanzas, exist as solid pieces of an entire structure working toward the ideal of fable, but they never quite impart the experience or any lesson which is a defining trait of the classical morality tale—nor does Ruefle intend them to. If we were to call her poems fables, we would do so in positing that they are fables not broken by modernity but wary of singular direction or consequence because of it: they hinge on the strain of a surplus of image, ultimately receding into either a large and unknown or a small and obscure entity as they finish. Ruefle shuns the desire for an epiphanic conclusion, resisting our preconceptions informed by the fable archetype in order to avoid any glimmer of moralizing. We find this in the final lines of “The Beautiful is Negative,” for instance (“Or crickets scraping away / when words fail you”) and in “Depicted on a Screen” (“I know this world up and leaves / on a lacquered palanquin, / taking with it a splendour / I won’t see again.”), where Ruefle offers a portrait of something vital disappeared, changed beyond recognition.

This resistance to moralizing constitutes her poems’ successes, as we find in “Lullaby”:

My inability to express myself

is astounding. It is not curious or

even faintly interesting, but like

some fathomless sum, a number,

a number the sum of equally fathomless

numbers, each one the sole representative

of an ever-ripening infinity

that will never reach the weight

required by the sun to fall.

Reaching toward knowledge or epiphany—and falling short—is perhaps Ruefle’s comment on the inadequacy of morality forms in a modern context. In Aesop’s fables, promises and warnings are inevitable consequences of certain behaviors. With images stimulating seemingly endless thoughts and tangents for possible thought, Ruefle’s poetry faces us with an almost existential idea of the moral, an inevitability of behavior without prescribed consequence. What will happen will happen—often absurdly, whether we behave ourselves or not. Behavior itself—of animals, of humans, of relationships, of words—unravels in her poems toward something absurd or obscured, bleak and metaphysical. These poems are fables as replications of life—broad and three-dimensional, curated. They misbehave and carry forth with abandon.

 

To read Rachael Allen's entire essay, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .