The following speech was delivered by Naja Marie Aidt on 20 November 2014 at Scandinavia House NYC. This event marked the U.S. release of Music & Literature no. 5, which is devoted in part to the life’s work of Stig Sæterbakken. "Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music" was published in the inaugural issue of Music & Literature.
Stig Sæterbakken is one of the most important Scandinavian writers of my generation. His novels in many ways resemble paintings by the Danish artist William Hammershøj: scenes of one or two persons in an otherwise empty room, painted in shades of white, gray, and black. The models often turn their back to the viewer. Occasionally you glimpse a pale face in a mirror. There are sometimes endless corridors, and open doors that lead to a room with more open doors leading to yet another room with yet another open door, and, behind that door, darkness.
Stig Sæterbakken’s writing is comparable to the work of many writers from Nordic countries, in that it is often described as “dark.” Gloomy and dark. But what does dark mean in the context of Sæterbakken’s work? So much of Scandinavian literature is about loneliness, depression, desperation, disillusion, and describes a society that is in many ways effective and very democratic, but that also contains a culture that dates back millennia and that values the importance of keeping everything to yourself, of not interacting with others more than is necessary, of not getting involved if you can avoid it. It is a culture driven by the thought that it is always better to return home and sink into the darkness of winter, to regret everything you never did and to give up on any plan that could make things better, because it is not getting better. As when Sæterbakken, in the novel Self-Control, has his protagonist, Andreas Feldt, express the following:
And I thought: I am never ever going to experience happiness again. No, it was no thought, it was a certainty…an overwhelming and all-pervasive certainty that rose up inside me like a silent flood… I am never ever going to experience happiness again.
But the so-called darkness also has to do with something else, I think: an urge to describe the world as it is. No intention of making it more glamourous, smooth, or attractive. No need to avoid the ugly facts of life: the body fluids, the smell of death, the sound of anxiety, the terrible feeling of mental and physical pain. Sæterbakken is no sweet-talker, that’s for sure. Hamsun was no sweet-talker. Nor was Bernhard. So many other European—and especially northern European—writers are not. And yet, the writings of Sæterbakken, Hamsun, and Bernhard are, at times, hilarious, because there is no laughter as great as the deep dark laughter from hell! That’s Scandinavian style. The urge to explore the most painful and unbearable aspects of human life are likely to turn out as grotesques soaked in “dark” humor. Almost everything resides between the lines. Tiny hints, but not everything is explained or unfolded. The reader is along for a ride, and she must draw her own conclusions.
Sæterbakken made his literary debut when he was only eighteen years old, and I read his books with delight and fear; they left me staggered and shaken. From him, I learned about the importance of disturbance and suspense, and how to create it even if I was writing a text about two people sitting in a kitchen in complete silence. When I reread his novels, it struck me how deeply my own writing is related to his. We are both drawn to high intensity and an upbeat tempo. We both explore the big dramas of everyday life and of human emotions, especially the hidden emotions. We are drawn to all the wonderful taboos in our culture. And we are both influenced by music. The music in Sæterbakken’s writing is probably what I love most about his work. He was able to turn writing into music because he knew the importance of catching the rhythm of the language in every little word, in every tiny comma, in every beautifully crafted sentence. He was able to actually compose his work as if it were a piece of music, and I admire him deeply for that. To me, and I think for Sæterbakken too, language is everything. And if language is music, music is everything
—Naja Marie Aidt
Why I always Listen to Such Sad Music
“Why do you always listen to such sad music?” was the question someone asked me once – she came by unexpectedly one evening while I was working, and as usual, when working, I was listening to music at full blast – a question that was impossible for me to answer for two reasons. First of all, because never, until that evening when the question was first put to me, had I thought of the music that I enjoyed as sad. Secondly, because it was a question – “why?” – that demanded a justification of my personal preference for that which had just been given a name – sad music – a name I could not really say that I was familiar with, but on the other hand, not really brush off as incorrect either. No, maybe it was not so silly, this term that she had just applied, for wasn’t there something somber and gloomy, yes, and almost disconsolate about the music that on this evening, like so many other evenings, filled the two rooms that I had at that time, as if those musical tones stood like solid walls around us, as impenetrable and strong. Sad? Yes, it’s possible, I said, half approving. Yes, it is indeed possible that you are right, that there is something sad about the music that I like. . . an admission that was not free of ulterior motive since I hoped with my tiny compliance to avoid answering the question she had actually asked me, which was not to what extent it was sad or not, the music I listened to, but why I listened to it, no not just that, but why I always listened to it, not because I listened to the same kind of music all the time, but because she had noticed that sadness was a distinguishing feature of the music that I enjoyed the most.
What was I listening to that evening? I think it was Arvo Pärt. “De Profundis” most likely. In any case, she was right, my unexpected houseguest. I always listen to sad music. And when I think about it – and that’s what I am doing now – there is probably nothing that I so deeply and intensely and so absolutely detest and despise than any form of cheerful music.
Instead of sad, might one say melancholic? Music must be melancholic in order to move me, the melancholia that at one time was explained as an excess of black bile and thereby an imbalance between the four bodily fluids, the calm and harmonious person was the square foot, so to speak, of blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. And why not? Maybe melancholia is caused by an excess of black bile, who knows. Medical science seems at least poised to restore just about every kind of banned diagnosis given that the occult allows itself to be replaced by biology, chemistry, and/or pathology. And maybe there is an excess of something black in the music that we can call melancholic, a dark element, which that evening was labeled “sad,” and which, just as it comes into contact with us, brings us face to face with an enormous chasm, an alluring abyss, where that should have been, which if it were there, would have made us whole, would have satisfied us totally and completely, and given us peace, but which, because it is not there, keeps us longing for something alive. And maybe that is what sad music calls forth in us, just as it brings us to the edge of our inner abyss, a longing to remain standing there, unfulfilled, in this longing, which is a longing for another music than the one we actually hear, a music that resembles it, but which is not identical to it, and which is a music we desperately want to hear, but which at the same time is available to us only through the other that we listen to right now, that which can only be distinguished as a possibility, so to say, in the music we listen to, which is not the music we are longing for, but which resembles it, a similarity that is like a delightful satisfaction and at the same time a frustrating absence of satisfaction. As if the pleasure in the one consists of a vague sense of the other. A sense that calls forth a desire in us, a desire that, instead of being soothed, becomes stronger and stronger, because we never get to hear what we really want to hear, just about, always just about, so close at times that it seems like we will manage to perceive it only if we turn a tiny bit to one side or the other.
As if listening to Pärt’s “De Profundis” enables me to imagine that other piece by Pärt that he hasn’t written, and will never write, but which if he had, would have satisfied my whole need for music once and for all.
Within every piece of music, there is another piece of music, one that we will never hear because it can only attract us by means of its elusiveness, its unattainable nature, imperceptible but for this reminder of it, via the piece of music that resembles it, but which is not it, the feeling of how it could have been, a feeling that would have been pulverized in the very moment it was confirmed, and which we therefore do not wish to have confirmed, because that would take from us our deep and heartfelt wish to have it confirmed.
Maybe that is what is melancholic about music, this reminder of the other music, which would have fulfilled us completely, and which gives us that insatiable need, like an auditive abstinence: a need to hear more, hear more, and not the least: to hear it again and again, the same piece. Yes, I believe it is that which is the melancholic quality of music, and which can be experienced as a sweet, joyful disharmony: the inconsistency between what we hear and what we really would want to hear. Within each piece of music there is another piece of music, and that is the piece of music that we truly want to hear, and that is the piece of music we will never get to hear, and that is the piece of music that binds us to the music we hear, because it brings us into an unbearable almost-contact with what we yearn for, that which we, as we listen to the music which almost is, but which nevertheless is not, can’t bear the thought of being without.
In a rational world, these questions remain unanswered: How can it be that we are ready to enjoy something sad? How is it possible to delight in being in a state of melancholy? Why do we also see beauty in disharmony, not just in harmony, in asymmetry, not just symmetry, when it ought to be only the evenly balanced and harmoniously proportioned things that appeal to our aesthetic sense, when it is only the well-placed, not the ill-placed, that ought to awaken our satisfaction with form?
Because, I believe, disharmony and asymmetry correspond to a disharmony and an asymmetry within us, because we ourselves are not whole, or complete. Because we are never fully and completely ourselves. Because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us. Because our wounds are meant not only for healing, but also the opposite, to be kept open, as a part of our receptivity to that which is around us and within us. And because there is also relief in this, not to be healed, not to be cured, melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction, it calms us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency, the state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.
Moreover, won’t fulfillment of something always be linked to terror, since we know that that will also be the end of it? We want to hold onto our strongest desires. We want to remain unfulfilled. We want to be alive. Because we know that afterwards, it will be over.
And maybe every form of art has that at its core; a subconscious inclination to force us to think about the nothingness we know – although we wish we did not – awaits us. As if the music must exist in order to provide us with the idea of silence. As if literature must exist to provide us with the notion of something wordless.
The wordless, musicless vacuum we came from, and which we will return to someday.
Works of art are temporary, fleeting and transitory – since they are wished for and created merely to fulfill that wish – like a short break in a tremendous silence, the silence that actually prevails, and which is like air, which always surrounds everything, except for all of the places where it is broken.
The music as an extended, but not everlasting sound, right between two silences: the one before music existed; the other after the last person has died who could hear it.
The overarching theme of art: death.
The world before the first human: the total absence of composition.
Stillness, silence, is art taken to its most extreme consequence. Music cannot express this stillness. Literature cannot express this silence. It remains unrealized, like an artistic utopia, forever unattainable. Fortunately. Just like reading does not make the reader speechless, but on the contrary gives him or her an aching need to talk about what he or she has read.
Translated from the Norwegian by Stokes Schwartz.
Banner image: a still from the documentary film "Stig Sæterbakken skriver Sauermugg," directed by Morten Hovland.