Ordinary And Incomprehensible Glass
Mostly Pierre Boulez. A short poem by David Jones. A moment of Denise Riley. Tár (sort of, not really). Love wins. Heavy snow.
Hello, everyone. Thank you to the couple of people who have offered monthly money contributions Odradek’s Joy. I’ll be keeping it all free for the time being but maybe starting next week I’ll add the button that will allow you to contribute if you wish.
I hope you all might want to contribute in another way too, by turning this place into a conversation with thoughts and reactions below. I think there might be a switch I need to throw for you to comment. I’ll turn it on with this post.
And now for the show.
[New condos and a goose on ice near where I live].
Most of this week’s post will comprise a longish piece of writing I did a little while ago about some music by Pierre Boulez and why it reminds me of so much contemporary experience. (Really going for that mass readership here). But let’s start with a poem by David Jones.
David Jones is a wonderful poet, a lesser known, British modernist whose work falls into two long, challenging masterpieces, (In Parenthesis, one of the great accounts of the First World War, and The Anathemata, a sort of mystical Catholic history of Britain that W.H.Auden described as ‘very probably the finest long poem written in English this century’ while admitting that it is ‘frankly, a very difficult poem’), and a small number of other shorter poems, as well as essays, paintings, engravings and calligraphic works. David Jones has a very distinctive voice, very composed, quite flinty with precision and a chronicler’s careful iteration, etymologically aware, running easily into the demotic, and often grippingly physical. I wanted to carry some of that voice in my head and memorised this poem.
A, a, a, Domine Deus I said, Ah! what shall I write? I enquired up and down. (He’s tricked me before with his manifold lurking-places.) I looked for His symbol at the door. I have looked for a long while at the textures and contours. I have run a hand over the trivial intersections. I have journeyed among the dead forms causation projects from pillar to pylon. I have tired the eyes of the mind regarding the colours and lights. I have felt for His wounds in nozzles and containers. I have wondered for the automatic devices. I have tested the inane patterns without prejudice. I have been on my guard not to condemn the unfamiliar. For it is easy to miss Him at the turn of a civilisation. I have watched the wheels go round in case I might see the living creatures like the appearance of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected from the Machine. I have said to the perfected steel, be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt some beginnings of His creature, but A,a,a Domine Deus, my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible crystal a stage-paste …Eia, Domine Deus.
A poem about writing and a complicated one, for sure. On one level, Jones’s aesthetic priorities are unusual: a kind of incarnational poetry, one that enacts the anamnesis (the remembering that is a recalling into being) of the eucharist and other rites and makes present, makes a living space, for the eternal Christian truth. On another level, given a broad, ecumenical interpretation, his project is quite familiar: art and design that is substantial, connected to the real. To Jones’s dismay, he finds very little of this in the modern world.
There are a couple of things I want to pick out. One is that 'phrase ‘trivial intersections’ which is a great example of the etymological substrate of ordinary language being revealed by Jones. Beneath the familiar meaning of trivial is its origin in the Latin ‘trivium,’ meaning a division of three, with obvious connotations here of the trinity, and 'a ‘place where three roads meet.’ It was at a trivium that Oedipus murdered his father Laius. This resource of meaning and association is in direct opposition to the surface meaning of ‘trivial’ and is therefore a brilliant epitome of Jones’s argument, the disconnection of the modern world from its historical and spiritual roots.
In passing, I want to mention ‘I have journeyed among the dead forms/ causation projects from pillar to pylon,’ which I take to mean something like ‘I have lived among and researched the dead forms that mere practical necessity throws up, things like pillars and pylons.’ I like these lines because they speak to an experience that is hard to verbalise, a childhood sensation of mild distress, of subtle mental hurt at such dead forms. The thought of traffic lights changing automatically at empty intersections, or of the asphalt of a runways and the grass around them, bothered me. Something lonely, empty, inhuman about it. There’s something similar going on in a famous moment in Nabokov’s Pnin where an analogy is made between spaces in Pnin’s memory and ‘those displays of grouped elbow chairs, and beds, and lamps, and inglenooks which, ignoring all space-time distinctions, commingle in the soft light of a furniture store beyond which it snows, and the dusk deepens, and nobody really loves anybody.’ But the lyric surge here prettifies and obscures the experience I’m talking about which is of nullity, purely material and inhuman: dead forms.
Finally, I want to talk about the glass. As you’ll see below, the impressive glassy towers, their proliferation and display, are somehow evoked for me by Pierre Boulez’s music. These multiplying tall surfaces surround me in Toronto in new condo buildings as they do in London and many places I’ve been, a manifestation of our moment in capitalism and its profit from property. It might be easy to conclude that their ‘terrible crystal’ is a ‘stage paste.’ But there’s the beguilement too. Or the puzzlement. Here’s a lovely moment from the end of Denise Riley’s great long poem ‘A Shortened Set,’ when the speaker invites us to share a view of the newly regenerated docklands:
Sit. See, from the riverside winds buzz new towers of puzzling wealth.
If you don’t know Denise Riley’s work, I can’t recommend it enough. The Picador Selected Poems is a very good way to start, and ‘A Shortened Set’ probably my favourite of all her work. (It was my great good fortune to have been taught by Denise Riley at UEA. You’ll always have something to think about, to live up to, if you have in your memory Denise in a workshop sitting tall to quote César Vallejo or repeating “As Tristan Tzara said, ‘Thought is made in the mouth.’”)
And now the music. I’m aware that contemporary classical music is not to everyone’s taste. Music and sound is obviously experienced very differently to visual sensations. What I mean is, people can contemplate the most aggressive, form-breaking visual abstraction hanging on a wall with a serene equanimity that is immediately banished by the equivalent in sound. Harsh music can throw us into a fight-or-flight response and feels to many like a categorical betrayal of what music is supposed to be (pretty, formally clear, melodic). There is a transition to be made, certainly, that allows the enjoyment of contemporary music which is to accept the experience and interest of sounds that don’t always work like that. I suppose I’m saying this by way of inviting you to listen to and enjoy the piece I write about, Boulez’s ‘… explosante-fixe …’. It is, I think, a piece that offers a great deal of - possibly too much - pleasure. It’s certainly not “squeaky gate” music. Here’s a link.
Pierre Boulez. '...explosante-fixe...'
[Pierre making a salad].
Pierre Boulez. Luxury Opportunities.
An appointment with an artwork arrives. Out of all the reading and watching and listening, the pleasantly winding path that evolves as you follow the pleasure principle, it is suddenly the time for this one thing, for a different kind of transfixed encounter, a reckoning, a learning.
I knew a little of Pierre Boulez’s music and liked it. I had seen some performed but was not compelled by it until a couple of years ago when it suddenly completely commanded my attention. I found that I needed to listen to it and for more than a month I did so every day, often replaying the same piece several times a day. It felt like an addiction. I had the sensation that there was something in this music I needed, some unique compound that delivered a rush of stimulation and relief I couldn’t get elsewhere. I suspect that this may be literally true, that for some people music of complexity above a certain threshold induces a quantity of synaptic response that changes brain chemistry. I definitely felt that kind head rush and imagine its that produced in some people by the saturating stimulation in action movies or video games. But more than this sensory thrill, Boulez’s music seemed arrestingly meaningful, eloquent about the contemporary world in ways I couldn’t imeediately specify but which I knew I recognised, in other words, that there was in it my own experience ratified, patterned, illuminated in a way I hadn’t encountered before.
During this time I did not listen to the entire catalogue. I omitted the piano sonatas and the masterpieces of Pli selon pli and Le Marteau sans maitre, my ear was hooked on a particular set of later works – …explosante-fixe…, Répons, Dérive 2, Dialogue de l’ombre double – that share an elaborate excess, pieces liberated from the austerities of serialism into great rushes and flourishes of often highly coloured sound. They tend to be long, lasting somewhere between half an hour and forty-five minutes. For many people this will be dismaying music with “too many notes” flashing and disappearing, lacking in long-phrased melodies or familiar modes of musical development. This music feels impulsive, mercurial, prodigal. It is possible to open the hood and see how the music is engineered. Boulez explains his compositional principles in essays but in terms too technical for me to readily comprehend and which anyway seems as irrelevantly far from the experience of actually listening to the music as reading some raw Java code is from using a website.
[possible illustration from Boulez’s writings of one of his impenetrable diagrams]
Precisely this distance between arcane manufacture and user experience was, I realised, one of the ways in which this music struck me as sharply contemporary. Like so many technological interfaces, so much of the built environment, the music is generated according to opaque principles that the listener cannot identify or reproduce for himself. It grows, varying and replicating its dazzling surfaces. It is consistent, coherent, but also unpredictable in so far as the listener is unable to guess the content of the next moment, the completion of a phrase, in the way that one can for much earlier classical music. W.H. Auden writes that the most beautiful melodies seem ‘simple and inevitable.’ He would not have found them in Boulez’s music. He would also have been unused to the ways in which Boulez extends the acoustic timbres of traditional instruments with electronic sounds and effects, processed playback and the like. The relation between the two, between flutes, violins or clarinets, and mixing desks, software additions and speakers, resembles that between our bodies and our technologies, our phones and other small screen prostheses, our cars and escalators. In …explosante-fixe… it is often the sound of a flute that is changed, brightened, thickened, electrified, and relayed back. Particularly ancient, Arcadian associations attach to the flute, images of shepherds on hillsides blowing through cut reeds. Indeed, the earliest musical instrument yet discovered is a flute, made from a vulture’s bone about 35,000 years ago and is among the first signs of human self-expression. In French classical music, Debussy’s L’après midi d’une faune, set in a warm, languid, non-specific mythological past, begins with a winding flute solo. There is a particular traction, therefore, in Boulez’s version of modernity and his use of the flute in …explosante-fixe…, a sense in which it is braced against the deepest cultural history and the particular French tradition of sensual, poetic art music. The beauty in Boulez’s music begs comparison with that of Debussy, the blushing, erotic crescendos and gorgeous translucencies of L’après midi d’une faune. The differences between them may stand as a record of how things have, according to Boulez, changed.
…explosante-fixe, explores a new kind of ‘convulsive’ beauty decreed by André Breton in the first chapter of his 1937 work L’amour fou, Mad Love:
La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle, ou ne sera pas.
Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, explosive-static, magical-circumstantial, or it will not be at all.
In Boulez’s static explosions certain flute phrases are processed during the live performance and return through speakers like images on a screen, alienated and interesting, with the charisma of the technologically new, something of that information rich CGI, Apple product sheen. There is a double quality, however, to this electronically mediated sound that recapitulates some of our contemporary experience of technology: it arrives as both an exciting enhancement and a degradation. What is lost is the immediate legibility of organic sound production. What is gained is a new uncanny sound that is both human and inhuman, real and unreal. I’m reminded of our online lives where human interaction can pass borderlessly into encounters with bots and algorithmically generated content that speaks to us, that impersonates speaking to us. The transition from the real to the unreal, from us to not us, is now blurred. It is as though the distinction that D.H. Lawrence so confidently made in his essay ‘Why The Novel Matters’ between himself and the world - Me alive ends at my finger-tips. – can no longer be made. Our fingertips are too often dabbling at small screens or keyboards, our selves flowing on into a indeterminate space where they merge with others, alive and dead, present and absent.
This may seem like a lot to load onto Boulez’s use of electronics the principle and obvious effect of which is to add new colours to his music. For me, it is justified; this thinking through the new is so obviously what the music is committed to.
While …explosante-fixe is particularly preoccupied with exploring new beauty and the sensual through its shimmers and undulations and shocks of sound, all of Boulez’s later works share a Ravelian commitment to the pleasure of sound that may surprise those whose expectations are conditioned by his austere and sometimes aggressive public persona and earlier works to expect a gruelling intellectual dryness. There is certainly anxiety in this music, in the explosion and aftershocks and stuttering reactions at the opening of …explosante-fixe…, for example, but it gives way repeatedly to colour and incident, to ravishing effects. At times, these pieces seem constituted only of effects, freely explored and connected. When these works were premiered, some critics seem to have been unconvinced by their apparently aimless profusion and their exorbitant claims on the listener’s attention. Events occur in the music without an obvious sense of linear A to B direction. They expand. They elaborate. Sounds rush, shimmer, flow, shoal away, ignite, vanish, repeat and recommence, and they inhabit their own time in which to do so. A series of concerts of Boulez’s music at the Barbican Centre in London a few years ago was given the title ‘Exquisite Labyrinths,’ a phrase which advertises the large, centralised groundplans of this music and its intricate inwardness.
The time that the pieces take to perform is long enough for the listener to become habituated to their dazzling, unpredictable surfaces. It is always hard to concentrate on classical music consistently, particularly when pieces last for more than half an hour. The spell breaks; the mind wanders. …explosante-fixe… is long enough and sufficiently devoid of obvious development or argument for the listener to pass through rapture and to experience the sounds disconnectedly, from the outside as it were. What is then revealed is a strange desultoriness of beauty and outstanding artistic effect. You survive thee raptures, as it were, and listen in a kind of depression, thinking So what? Where does all this beauty take me? Then the music changes again, some new colour or pattern appears, and enchantment takes hold once more.
For a year or so I travelled a lot for work, teaching and appearing at book festivals in India, Russia, Kenya, Qatar, Malaysia, China, and I became habituated to airports and airports security, to moving walkways, shuttle trains, taxi rides from the outskirts where the airports were situated to city centres. On these journeys, I saw slightly varying adverts for the same products: watches, clothes, liquors, perfumes, sunglasses. In the cities, I found shopping malls of similar design, multi-levelled, with fountains and food courts, a single car on a tilted platform, different outlets for the same companies: Gap, Hugo Boss, Prada, Breitling, Banana Republic, Nike. Despite the great distances travelled, I was caught in an elongated version of my experience in London where I also travelled repeatedly from the outskirts, where I could afford to live, to the centre, spans of time lined with advertisements and that took me past the multiplying glass and steel surfaces of the new apartment buildings, the literal soaring upwards of a housing market inflated by international capital. During my addicted listening, these things kept returning to me, refreshed and perfected, out of Boulez’s music, the familiar attenuated sheen of contemporary consumerist spaces, the bright, reliable, insubstantial pleasures and aimless circulation. And they are pleasures, of course, the gourmet coffees, the streaming video, the apparently unlimited entertainment and cheap flights. But soon the gloss is too high, the shine too bright, I think immediately of the poverty that underwrites it, the low wages, the poor quality of the clothing with labels admitting manufacture in Bangladesh and Vietnam. We all know it’s there, behind the outlets and the showrooms, the factories, back rooms, the poor conditions.
The way in which Boulez’s small fragments of sound and phrase accumulate into an imposing, overwhelming whole remind me of something else: the gleaming international consumerist space is vast but the spaces we inhabit are getting smaller. I now live in Toronto, another city that has experienced a violent inflow of international capital into the property market. New condo towers are appearing all the time, uniformly glass and grey. (Occasionally there is some quirk in the profile of the building to give it personality, so that it can impersonate personality). These high yield investments are divided into living units that are as small as possible to maximise profit. Owned by foreign investors who may never visit the site and receive from a distance their thousands of dollars per unit per month, the apartments are inhabited mostly by single people as that is all that they will contain. There is now a demographic concern: what will happen when these people want to have families or a garden? Will there be enough solitary people to replace them? In the meantime, the occupants’ hold on their small spaces in the city is increasingly precarious. A news story from today details the increase in attempts by landlords to evict tenants on a “no fault” basis, to renovate or, more likely, to let again at higher rents; listed on Airbnb, a property that brings in thousands a month do the same in a couple of weeks or less.
I do not intend to suggest that Boulez’s music is in any way ‘about’ this material, only that in my own listening this is what I found, or rather, this is what the music found in me. It is certainly true, however, that Boulez was interested in movement through urban spaces as a special kind of intellectual investigation. Dérive 2 is a piece with a long developmental history that found its final form as a forty-five minute work for orchestra. The word ‘dérive’ refers to a specific conception of rapid and unplanned travel through a city invented by Guy Debord to uncover the physical world’s specific effects on the psyche. The idea is that the dérive disobeys the ordinary, automatic way of moving through these spaces in order to bring to light their actual content. This notion is foundational to what is called psychogeography, the practice of urban exploration that with its British exponents takes a particularly loquacious, local historical form. Dérive 2 travels between atmospheres and occurrences but does not explain. It generates experience, the spectacular contemporary plenitude that we don’t know what to do with, that we either enjoy or endure. This is, I think, the heart of my experience of Boulez’s late music, overwhelmed by its hypertrophy, subsumed in its largeness and detail and having to work to shape my understanding of it. This is why it felt contemporary to me. Perhaps the present moment is always like this, rushing in and over, and leaving little room for articulations of response or choice but I suspect there’s a new blend of saturation and enchantment and disempowerment that Boulez’s music makes audible.
During my period of helpless absorption in Boulez’s music when I was finding all this out and listening to nothing else, I went to two concerts in London programmed and conducted by the composer Oliver Knussen. In both of them he performed short pieces by Mozart. Attuned then to Boulez’s illegible structures and dashing, complicated colours, the Mozart came as a shock. The lucidity, the melodies, the clear, dance-like patterns, the harmonic progressions and moments of humour that made the audience laugh. What a world it implied – of delicate formality, tenderness, agreement, enfranchisement, possibility.
I saw Tár. We can talk about it in the comments, if you like.
I think the main body of Odradek’s Joy is for unambiguous enthusiasm. My review of Tár is … Memoria by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an absolute masterpiece that I highly recommend.
I also really recommend this lovely documentary about the conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla that is in four short sections. Subtitles are available.
Youtube Treasure #3
That might have been my Youtube treasure for this week but there’s more. Not an obscure gem but a famous marvel this time, one of my very favourite films, Chaplin’s City Lights. Truly life enhancing, touching, genuinely hilarious. And that ending. So moving, like a recognition scene in Shakespeare, that return of love, the fulfilment and relief that Auden captures in this poem. (And bright the tiny world..) Even Chaplin himself wept at the end of this film at its premiere.
Warm are the Still and Lucky Miles Warm are the still and lucky miles, White shores of longing stretch away, A light of recognition fills The whole great day, and bright The tiny world of lovers' arms. Silence invades the breathing wood Where drowsy limbs a treasure keep, Now greenly falls the learned shade Across the sleeping brows And stirs their secret to a smile. Restored! Returned! The lost are borne On seas of shipwreck home at last: See! In a fire of praising burns The dry dumb past, and we Our life-day long shall part no more.
And finally the answer to the question you’ve all been asking: what was the weather like this week?
2 degrees. Freezing rain, hissing through the trees. Skitter of ice pellets on the windows.
1 degree. A cold, constant, discouraging wind, and undulating through it, widely spaced, separate particles of snow.
1 degree. Overcast. Windless. The world is what it is. Waste ground weather. The sky a dumped mattress. The trees a wreck, left just anyhow. Unemployed water loiters in puddles.
0 degrees. Snow. The view down at the shore of Lake Ontario is a work on paper. The vast sky a single colour. Distant tower blocks have faded to a watermark. The horizon line is brushwork, softened by blur. Countless continuous snowflakes pour down and disappear into the dark blue surface.
2 degrees. Morning sun turning overcast. A day specializing in deciduous snow, quiet spills and drops from the ends of branches, landing light and precise as sparrows.
4 degrees. Looking up at the sky like looking down at mountains. Ridges of grey and white. Meanders of blue between the masses.
0 degrees. A snowstorm, a “winter whiteout.” It starts slowly, the snow light, persistent. Then an idea becomes an obsession. It becomes the only thing. The air is full of it. Soon the road is indistinguishable from the pavement. Traffic stops. The trees are all one colour. It goes on and on. In the evening it glows all one blue, still falling.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Boulez's music! I went to Alisa Weilerstein's Fragments world premiere at Kroner Hall yesterday where the solo cello performance interweaves Bach's cello suite movements and some contemporary pieces. Admittedly I haven't listened to contemporary (classical) music much at all but was quite intrigued by it. It also stuck me that, like writing, music essentially is a mind game between the creator and consumer, one tries to set anticipations and the other tries to guess where things go. In an active listening mode (as we are in a concert), this is really interesting to do. It would be much harder to listen to music we're not familiar with in passive mode. I wonder if this is your experience?