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 . . .



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


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?



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 . . .

A Conversation with Mary Ruefle

A Conversation with Mary Ruefle

You have said before that within each poem lies another, smaller poem. What do you mean by that? And what is the relationship between the two poems?

Well, plenty of people would say that within each poem lies a larger, longer, more ambitious poem! But that’s not the way I look at things. Years of making erasures has led me to another view. One thing erasure work has taught me is that no matter how much you hone something down, you can’t lose the essence of what was there in the first place. A metaphor I might use to talk about this is the metaphor of a clay; within each day are hours, smaller units of time, and every day has some special hour that seems to be a distillation of the day. One hour which can be viewed as representative of the day. The relationship between these two is that of the part to the whole, and in all things we have no way of ever really knowing the Whole, but we can know a part of it, and that part has to suffice. I am definitely now talking about the universe and individual lives within it, and also of the sense that every poem is just a part of something, call it a life, the poem is just one little stone, no one can see the configuration all the stones make together, but on any given day, one stone will have to suffice. For the Whole. Oh, I am talking about fractals! I promised myself I wouldn’t do that! But when you think of it, in terms of fractals, those who think that within each poem lies a larger, longer, more ambitious poem, are right—the part and the Whole in the end are the same. But I am one who is inclined to chip away. You know what I love? I love haiku. It is impossible to find within them another, smaller poem. But in every novel there is a short story, and in every story a poem, and in every poem a haiku. And in every haiku there is a moment that stands for all of time.

But to answer your question directly, in a workshop when I say there is in a poem another, smaller poem, I am simply finding a pleasant, encouraging way to ask you to please make some more cuts!


When I first saw you give a reading, you read “that letter” from James Wright’s Selected Letters. (I am referring to the letter written to Susan Gardner on December 23, 1964.) Every other time I have seen you read, you insist on reading something someone else wrote. Why do you do that?

I like to read the writings of other people for several reasons. One is because they are so much better than my own! Another is because we simply do not have enough poetry readings of the great poems written by the great masters of the past, those who have died. Because of this, I once decided to give a “lecture” which consisted of nothing but me reading the poems of the dead for three-quarters of an hour. I read everything from Keats to Berryman to Desnos to Issa to Mew and back again. And it was a complete failure. My trusted friends and colleagues all agreed, we talked about it later—it was a failure. And we wondered why. Everyone had a different theory. To this day I don’t know why. Someone said it was because there was no “arc” but I’ve never been much invested in arcs. I don’t think that’s why. I think it’s because when we attend something called a lecture, we are looking for something, and of course poetry is just plain looking. And all these great poets, the only ones who can really teach us anything, I don’t think at that moment the students felt they were learning anything, and though that was my whole point—looking, not looking for—that was the lesson, the whole thing imploded in some terrible sad way, which broke my heart. It’s really hard to give a lesson about unlearning, because it’s such a contradiction in terms. It may well be impossible. On a brighter note, once I delivered, word by word, John Cage’s famous “Lecture on Nothing” and it was a great success. Cage was able to do it in his own way, using his own words, and that is really something. Anyway, when I read all those great poems from the past, I only read about a quarter of the ones I had chosen—there wasn’t enough time for them all—and I hope one day to read the rest, to just stand up and try again. And fail again. And keep failing. And keep having my heart broken. And this has everything to do with audience—finding the audience who is receptive to poetry rather than endless commentary on it. And yet I feel tenderness towards young people who are searching, who are seeking, who are looking for rather than looking, because I once was young myself, and doing just that, and I see now it is the beginning of the path that leads to looking.

On another note, lately I have taken to reading at readings a letter written by my great aunt in 1978, when she was 92 and senile. She wasn’t a literary person in the least, she was just an ordinary woman, yet remarkable in her day—she was born in the nineteenth century—insofar as she never married and held a job her whole life and thereby earned enough money to send two of her nephews (one of them my father) to college when they otherwise could not have afforded it. To contribute to the education of two children who are not your own—that strikes me as something.

It’s a quotidian, rambling letter about the weather and loneliness and stuff like that, but in it she repeatedly mentions writing—by which she means letter-writing, the only form of writing that ever occurred to her—as something essential to her life. I read this letter because I never sufficiently appreciated her while she was alive—I was too young and preoccupied—and because she clearly “got” something essential about writing, writing in any form, and because letter-writing is actually secretly perhaps my favorite form of writing, and it is near extinction. And because I want to give her an audience. This is a quote from her letter, “Seems to me I did just write to you folks but I will mail this anyway. I get a thrill just sitting writing a letter, so will just keep it up.” Which is exactly why, once having written a poem, we sit and write another. Which is why audience is of no import.


To read this entire extensive interview with Mary Ruefle, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .

Dios los cría. . .

Dios los cría. . .

Dios los cría y ellos se juntan: “God makes them and they find each other.” This is what comes to my mind whenever I think of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger. Now, I know that my Spanish friends will protest, arguing that this old adage is used to describe those characters who live on the other side of the fence, who, shall we say, profit through illicit activity or live on the margins of “civilized” society. But there is something about Homburger and Guy that places them on the other side of the fence—as cross-genre musicians they transgress carefully protected precincts of musical activity: Guy, the improviser, is equally comfortable in Baroque performance; Homburger, the Baroque music specialist, is an exceptional improviser. And there is certainly something that feels illicit in their live performances; when they play, flick knives are drawn. As the devil in Mann’s Doctor Faustus reminds us, the artist is the brother of the felon and the madman. But my real point here is that as individuals these musicians are remarkable; when they play together something even more extraordinary and unique happens. Dios los cría

I have heard Guy perform in many different capacities and groupings, and am slowly beginning to understand what might be described as his “signature” as a musician. Extraordinarily, each time I hear him, it’s like the first, because his improvisations always take you somewhere new. I distinctly remember first hearing Guy about fifteen years ago in St. Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny town. He came out with his bass and a tray of bows, sticks, mallets, and something that looked remarkably like a toilet brush. The moment the bow touched the strings, something magical occurred. It’s very difficult to describe the effect his playing had on me. This was the first time I heard sounds being created alchemically, as it were, in front of my eyes and ears; music that slashed at you, took your breath away, modulated suddenly from vicious stabs to tender caresses. There was an incredibly exhilarating physicality, in a true sense a “bodying forth” to this music-making. Gestures of color, line and harmony were spontaneously interwoven and in constant flux, but never incoherent. Everything seemed to be in the right place, and yet this was being formed, performed, enacted straight out of Guy’s physical and musical consciousness; the moment of composition, execution, and hearing was instantaneous. 

Despite the difference in genre, Homburger’s interpretations of Baroque music have quite the same effect. Yes, the music is largely notated, the melodic and harmonic trajectories set, but Homburger’s total understanding of performance style and her astounding technical prowess give her a freedom of expression that matches the seeming impulsiveness of Guy’s improvisations. Debates about performance practice are still divisive. It’s hard to deny the interpretative validity of some renowned performers who play Bach and Handel in pretty much the same way they play Schumann. Richter does bring a certain dark majesty to Bach (his Fugue no. 4 in C-sharp minor, from the Preludes and Fugues, for example). But in Homburger’s hands, we are brought very close to the true spirit of Baroque music. She utterly understands the rhetoric at the core of this music. So when you hear her perform one of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, for example, you are not only fully aware of her ability to musically characterize specific ideas and symbols relating to the subject matter of the music, you are deeply implicated in, and affected by, her rhetorical delivery. This is what makes her performances of Baroque music so special: like Guy’s improvisations, they are alchemical experiments. The listener is brought into an intimate, coterminous relationship with the music—an experience that can be both exhilarating and vulnerable. 


To read Benjamin Dwyer's entire tribute, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .

A Letter to Tânia Kaufmann

A Letter to Tânia Kaufmann

Berne, 6th January 1948


My little flower,


I received your letter from that strange Bucksy, dated December 30th. How happy I was, my little sister, with certain sentences you wrote. But please don’t say: I discovered there is still a large part of me that is alive. No, my darling! You are entirely alive. It’s just that you’ve lived an irrational life, a life that doesn’t resemble you. Tania, don’t think we are so strong that we can lead any type of life and stay the same. Even eliminating one’s own faults can be dangerous—you never know which is the fault that sustains our entire edifice. I don’t even know how to explain it to you, dear sister, my soul. But what I wanted to say is that we are very precious, and that it is only up to a certain point that we can give up on ourselves and give ourselves to others and to circumstance. After a person loses respect for herself and the respect for her own needs—after that you end up rather like a rag. I would like so, so much to be by your side and talk, and tell you of my own and others’ experiences. You would see there are certain times when the first duty to undertake is to yourself. I myself didn’t want to tell you how I am now, because it seemed useless. I only intended to tell you about my new disposition, or lack of disposition, one month before we went to Brazil, so you would be warned. But I live in so much hope that on the ship or airplane that takes us back I will transform instantly into the old me, that perhaps there wouldn’t even have been a need to tell you. Darling, nearly four years have very much changed me. From the moment I accepted my lot, I lost all vivacity and all interest in things. You’ve seen how a castrated bull is transformed into a bullock? that’s what’s happened to me…, though the harsh comparison weighs heavily… In order to adapt to what was un-adaptable, to overcome my revulsions and my dreams, I had to shed my spikes—I cut the strength within me that could harm others and myself. And with that I cut my own strength too. I hope you never see me passive like this, because it’s almost repugnant. I hope that on the ship that takes us back, just the idea of seeing you and recovering a little of my life—which wasn’t wonderful but was a life—makes me transform entirely. The other day Mariazinha, Milton’s wife, screwed up her courage, those were her words, and asked me: you used to be very different, didn’t you? She said that she had thought me ardent and vibrant, and that when she saw me now she said: this excessive calm is either an act or she has changed practically beyond recognition. Another person told me that I move with the lassitude of a fifty-year-old woman. You will see nor feel any of this, God willing. There shouldn’t even be a need to tell you, then… But I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to show you what can happen to a person who made a pact with everyone, and who forgot that the vital knot of a person needs to be respected. My little sister, listen to my advice, listen to my request: respect yourself more than others, respect your needs, respect even what is bad in you—respect especially what you imagine to be bad in you—for the love of God, don’t try to make yourself into somebody perfect—don’t copy an ideal person, copy yourself—that is the one way to live. I am so scared that what happened to me will happen to you, because we are similar. I swear to God that if there were a heaven, a person who sacrifices themselves out of cowardice—will be punished and go to any old hell. That’s if a tepid life isn’t punished by that same tepidness. Take for yourself what belongs to you, and what belongs to you is all that your life demands. It seems like an amoral moral. But what is truly amoral is having given up on yourself. I hope to God you believe me. I would even like for you to come and watch my life without my knowing—because just knowing about your presence would transform me and give me life and happiness. It would be a lesson for you. To see what can happen when you make a pact with complacency in your soul. Have the courage to transform yourself, my darling, to do what you desire—be that going out at the weekends, be that what it may. Write to me without worrying that you need to speak of neutral things—because how can we be good to one another without this smallest degree of sincerity?

May the new year bring you every happiness, my darling. Here is an embrace filled with saudade, with enormous saudade, from your sister,




Translated from the Portuguese by Ana Fletcher

To read the entire portfolio of Lispector letters, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .

The Last Interview

The Last Interview

In several interviews you’ve given, the question almost inevitably arises of: How did you start? When? You started when you were seven years old…

I know. Before I was seven I was already making up stories. For example I thought of a story that never ended… It’s hard to explain what that story was like. But when I learned to read and write, I also began to write stories. Little stories.


When the young, practically adolescent Clarice Lispector discovers that it’s literature, that area of human creation, that attracts her the most, does the young Clarice have any goal in mind, or does she just want to write?  

Just to write. 


Can you give us an idea of what the teenage Clarice Lispector’s production was like? 

Chaotic. Intense. Entirely outside the reality of life.


Can you remember any titles from that period? 

Well, I wrote lots of things before publishing my first book. I’d already written for magazines, stories, newspapers. I went with enormous shyness—but the shyness of someone daring—I’m shy and daring at the same time. I’d go to the magazine and say: “I wrote a story, do you want to publish it?” And then I remember once it was Raymundo Magalhães Jr., who looked at me, read a bit of it, and said: “Who did you copy this from?” And I said: “No one, it’s mine.” And he said: “Did you translate it?” And I said: “No.” And he said: “Then I’ll publish it.” That’s how it went at the beginning. 


Which publications were those?

I don’t remember. Newspapers, magazines. 


Clarice, when did you actually decide to become a professional writer?

I never did. I never did. I’m not a professional. 


Why not?

I only write when I want to. I’m an amateur and insist on staying that way. A professional has a personal commitment to writing. Or a commitment to someone else to write. As for me… I insist on not being a professional. To keep my freedom. 


Do you write frequently, or do you have periods in which you produce intensively?

I have periods in which I produce intensively and periods—hiatuses—in which life becomes intolerable.


Translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser

To read the entirety of Clarice Lispector's last interview, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .

An Interview with Barry Guy

An Interview with Barry Guy

How do you compose? At a piano? 

Yes and no. My compositions start their lives with reflections upon paintings, architecture and of course musical possibilities. So, before I really use the keyboard I normally accumulate various sketches that indicate (possibly) movement, energy, pitch areas and outline structures. The keyboard is used later in the process to confirm pitch relationships, note rows and other procedures that help during the composing process. If I ever wrote a piece based only upon my keyboard expertise, the composition would be destined for the trash can. 


What about when you compose for the baroque violin are there particular characteristics that you consider when you compose for that instrument? 

The characteristics I hear, relate to the intense and extremely varied colours emanating from an instrument in original baroque condition with a construction that allows the violin to resonate—with an overall lower tension caused by a straight neck and therefore lower bridge and also open gut strings. What comes over to my ears is a beautifully free sound with overtones resonating without “power playing” the violin. Composing music for this instrument has always presented me with a dilemma. The fact is that there is so much stunning extant music written for the baroque violin which begs the question—who needs more? Anyway, living with baroque violinist Maya Homburger has enabled me to gain confidence in approaching the subject of new music for this glorious instrument. 


How would those compositions differ if they were composed for a modern violin?

As it happens, the compositions I have written for the baroque violin can also be played on modern set-ups. There is a limit to how high one can write for instance, since the fingerboard of the original instrument is shorter than its modern counterpart. Also, I avoid percussive and pizzicato articulations because they would quickly detune the open gut strings. For the modern instrument I would use all of the above. 


You’ve used Beckett’s writing for pieces which, unlike your Mallarmé composition, don’t include any of his words. I’m thinking here of Fizzles, which you play alone on double bass? 

I’m a constant reader of Samuel Beckett and I find new discoveries every time I encounter his texts. Concerning Fizzles: Beckett wrote eight texts between 1960 and 1976, seven of which were written in French (under the title Foirades) and one—”Still”—in English. Each “Fizzle” is a short compressed outburst—literary chamber music of great power and beauty. It occurred to me that these “outbursts” could form the basis for little improvisations, each dedicated to particular bass colours and articulations. I have variously performed them in sets of 3, 5, or 7 according to the programme at hand. I find them to be a motivator for precise thinking and musical rhetoric.


To read the entire interview with Barry Guy, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .

An Interview with Maya Homburger

An Interview with Maya Homburger

When you first began to learn the violin were you playing the romantic repertoire? 

Like all young children (I started at the age of seven), I played baroque sonatas, etc., first, and then the classic and romantic repertoire. 


At what stage did you begin to be attracted to the idea of historically informed performance? 

This happened in 1979 on the occasion of a master class with Professor Eduard Melkus, who came to Bern to introduce us to the baroque violin. It was love at first sight with this instrument and resulted in me studying with him in Vienna at the same time as finishing my studies in Berne. 


If you were asked to play a Brahms violin sonata for some prestigious festival what would you say? 

I could not do this anymore since I have not touched a modern violin or modern bow since 1986 when I moved to England. I could not even cope with the weight of the modern bow anymore. 


How have attitudes to playing baroque music changed since you began to concentrate on playing music from that time? 

A lot of so-called modern players are much better informed about the historical way of performing baroque music. So, in general, I think there is more awareness for the special stylistic requirements of baroque music. Having said that…of course you can still hear the most famous violinists playing a Bach solo sonata or concerto as if it were a romantic piece to be played in a huge concert hall. And what you also get (sadly!) is a totally distorted vision of speed when it comes to for example Bach violin concertos or even fast movements within the solo sonatas and partitas: some modern players tend to favor extremely fast speeds which in my opinion reduce Bach’s music to light weight entertainment. 


What technical difficulties arise when playing one of Barry Guy’s compositions for baroque violin? 

Barry composes in a way which is very idiomatic for my baroque violin and its potential. So, there are not that many specific difficulties for the baroque violin. BUT, the pieces are in themselves very hard and virtuosic. So, it takes me a long time, in the case of Lysandra and Aglais for example even several years to feel really on top of it. Having said that, he has also devised a few techniques which go totally against all the engrained instincts, which are inbuilt for many years—one example being a passage in Inachis where one plays very fast virtuosic scales , but is not allowed to fully depress the string onto the fingerboard. So, the fingers only lightly touch the string but in the correct position. This took me many months to learn, but has had a wonderfully freeing effect on the overall left hand technique. 


How easy, or difficult, do you find it to improvise when you are required to do so? 

I am still not a REAL improviser. So, I only feel comfortable when I am led into an improvised passage via fully notated sections. 

Barry is a master at this. He can free me up by giving me for example a note row, or given pitches to be played in any order within a box of possibilities. In the case of “Amphi” for the BGNO and baroque violin he has also written passages where I play fully notated material, but at the same time can react to the glorious improvisations of Evan Parker, Agusti Fernandez, Johannes Bauer, etc. This gives me the chance to change the written material, extend and vary it, and feel as if I was improvising. A fantastic feeling.


To read the entire interview with Maya Homburger, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .

Remarks on Clarice Lispector

Remarks on Clarice Lispector

I discovered the work of Clarice Lispector rather late in life. When a reader is young, a constant stream of discovery flows through one‘s reading life, but after one has “read everything” (an utter impossibility, but nonetheless a persistent literary feeling) the authors that constitute a major discovery flood one with a special kind of hopefulness I cannot explain; who believes they will find a new best friend after fifty? But it happens. 

When I first read the stories in Soulstorm, they shocked me. And in the “explanation” that precedes the stories, Clarice Lispector says “I was shocked by reality.” This by a woman already famous for writing fantastical stories such as “The Smallest Woman in the World,” the tale of a lady 17 3/4 inches high, which I had read years earlier in an anthology and marked as a wonder, without paying much attention to who the author was. I was shocked by reality. This statement is an artistic one. It brings the world to a standstill, which is very often what art does; it does this despite the fact it is impossible.

When I think of Clarice Lispector, I think of her years as a diplomat’s wife in Washington, D.C., and the endless round of cocktail and dinner parties that are a necessary part of that life, and how her existence as a writer must have been relegated to a place so inner it was in danger of disappearing; at the very least, no one sitting next to her could see it. But this place—the inner life—is the one thing that can never vanish, or if it were ever to vanish, literature itself would vanish with it.


To read Mary Ruefle's entire essay on Clarice Lispector, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 4 . . .