Shadows on the sun
I was going to write a friend a letter. It would have started like this:
You won’t read this, but I remembered the other day talking about the case of bullroarers in the Pitt Rivers: the oddness of a musical instrument you can only play set away from the body, can hardly control the pitch of, subject to the volume and force of wind at that moment, heaving air through or around a hollow body that sounds like a cycling guttural scream. I don’t think you were that interested: we always, it seemed, talked if not at cross-purposes then at oblique angles to each other, trusting—maybe wrongly, who knows—that what we had to say would intersect somewhere. But I had some vague knowledge about the ritual meaning of bullroarers in the numerous and widely separated cultures that used them: their frequent association with burial and the spirit world, embodying the voices of ancestors or the dead; the Dogon (I learned years later) used bullroarers as part of funeral rites, in connection with the ancestor from whom their people are all descended. As heard on François di Dio’s 1958 Disques Ocora LP Les Dogon: Les Chants De La Vie - Le Rituel Funéraire, it sounds like a hovering voice that speaks a language with no signifier to its signified, as village dogs bark to drown it out. Nature muttering and screaming. Earth, booming vacancy, funeral pits, the winds above that only the spiritual elect can decipher. Was music meaning or feeling? Or in the situation of haptic responsiveness where music happens, that determines what music is, are the two undecideable?
I thought better of it, though only partially. The unsent or open letter, to the recipient typically without right of reply, is a genre that’s become newly full and tedious, a tendency that probably goes back to the revival of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick (1995). The letter is never really addressed to its subject, but to the loyal audience, borrowing the weeds of intimacy and confession to signal an interesting interiority worth paying attention to. It’s a handy way of being humble and devoted on the cheap, of laundering otherwise terminal self-importance. It mimes, nostalgically, the moment when it could have been taken as a more discursive, less impersonal alternative to the novel—that is, for what was once known as “public culture”. (Everyone yearns now with adolescent insecurity to be Woolf in A Letter to a Young Poet or Baldwin crafting The Fire Next Time.) But, more than that, it seemed unsustainable to speak in the second person of things both of us already knew, like those tv-drama conversations David Mamet condemned where two characters discuss things purely for the audience’s benefit. But more than that, I have an increasing revulsion against rhetoric. Language promises, in the sedimented associations of its structure, access—immediate and full, except for the afterthought fear-tremors of “fake news” and “gaslighting”—to truth. In contemporary media culture this relation to truth has been emphasised at the same time that it’s become the vehicle only of a covert mendacity. Uncertainty, doubt, absence, the blank emptiness of a shattered referentiality enter the syntax of reviews and the “first-person industrial complex” only in the form of vacillation, “on the one hand, on the other hand” and bracketed “(well, maybes)”. Music, of course, isn’t very much better. Contemporary music journalism, where it pretends to venture beyond consumer recommendations, so often roots its object in the truth-claims of particular identities and the value of their oppression and/or joy that form itself is subsumed in the analogical semblances it’s taken to be the expression of. In this sense it unknowingly replays 19th-century debates about the value of music. In The Case of Wagner, Nietzsche, writing at the height of scientific positivism, criticised Wagner for making his music so heavy and misty, weighed down by the Christian gravity of the “love of truth”. 16 years before Wagner had appeared to Nietzsche as the creator of a new myth for a disenchanted world; now his music was trapped in the carapace of “grand style”, and Bizet had become the avatar of a music that laughed at the horror and agony of existence, that had no reference to truth. Music preserved and intensified the power of untruth, the capacity to create what Deleuze would call “percepts” and “affects” in the world without indexing these to the Platonic Forms of some other world beyond. I doubt that F.—or Frances, as I knew them—trusted that power in the same way I do these days. But its fictions, at least, are more consoling.
There’s another difficulty. I knew Frances for more than 10 years, but we’d been out of touch for nearly half that time. We lived at different ends of the country, and neither of us was much interested eventually in keeping things up not face-to-face. In the period since we’d last seen each other—although I knew very little of this—they had become increasingly debilitated by serious mental and physical health problems that, the prognosis went, would only get worse with time. They had dwindling capacity to stay friends with anyone over long-distance. When I learned of their death at the end of last year, one of my immediate feelings was horror that so many of my memories from the period when we were (as I felt) close friends had disappeared. I’d even lost the burnt CD-r, with handmade artwork, they’d given me of their first mini-album. I felt embarrassed by much of the part of my life when we’d seen each other regularly and tried to put it behind me. But now there wouldn’t be the chance to speak again when I felt more able to live with it. To say anything much, as someone with only very mild mental health problems, who isn’t dead by their own or anyone else’s hand, seemed and seems obscene. But what do you do with the lingering fact of death when the memories of life hardly remain, except perhaps talk about yourself? The only thing I can do is talk around, not of, these things, for a moment or two.
Frances was a remarkable musician and artist in a scene of unusual creativity for its inauspicious setting. When I started going to gigs regularly in 2007, there would be at least one to three events a week worth attending in Bournemouth. Even larger indie bands, if they played that part of the south coast at all, would rather play Southampton (the Joiners or Engine Rooms). There was no label interest of any scale. Everyone had day jobs. Three or four venues regularly put on bands, two of which would be out of business by the time I moved away in 2008. As you left at the end of the night—I’d often cycle home half-cut—stag parties would weave past. Five to ten of the same people would always show up and drink the same non-craft beers, including, to my ongoing delight, a quiet middle-aged geezer in a punk leather cut-off and bondage collar. It couldn’t be anything more than decent fun, but the median level of local bands on a given night was much higher than the circumstances would lead you to think. I reviewed shows for a local website, an idea that eventually bridged the gap for me between late-adolescent blogging and the lower reaches of print. The first time I saw Frances play, the resulting review was especially extreme in its gushing style. (Hopefully no-one remembers any part of it, least of all me.) Their songs only reluctantly settled for an unstable union of dolorous acoustic guitar lines, kitsch-textured keyboards, wavering falsetto vocals and playbacks of booming, foggy noise. When we first talked, after that review was published, I talked about Francis Bacon’s versions of Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X, and his refusal, when in Rome, to see the original, trusting they’d know what I meant by it. It seems symptomatic now: of over-writing as a vocation and compensation for psychic sickness, of a naive trust in enthusiasm, detached from skill, to provide the tools to avoid confronting life. A version of those terrible lists that haunt Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. The aesthetic as a means to justify staying on the outside looking in. (Hornby’s novels solve this dilemma via the marriage plot: not an option for me.)
Until they moved to Brighton and I moved to Coventry the following year, we’d see each other at gigs and the occasional house party, and by then I thought of us as friends. Over the following 7 years I’d see them on visits to Brighton—particularly at the Colour Out Of Space festival—or over Christmas in Bournemouth, later on less often in London. I learned soon to avoid discussing or encouraging too much their work, which always seemed to be in a state of flux. They were intensely self-critical, recording little and being often vocally unsatisfied with what they did released. The few performances of theirs I saw in those years—of which hardly any documentation remains—were increasingly abstract and fragmented, putting the voice and what it had to say not under erasure exactly, but an enormous doubt and pressure that splayed open the emotional architecture of “cheap music”, its capacity to say something about our lives, often despite our best intentions. Instead, I’d talk to them about unrelated topics I thought had some relevance to them. Gossip about the music press or Bournemouth indie. Field recording, musical automata, 90s “clicks + cuts”, hypothetical cat organs. Picasso’s guitar players, or Errol Morris’s short documentary about Temple Grandin. (This is, I’m sure a reader may interject, “typical spectrum behaviour”. That may be factually right but I think it explains little.) The letter above is a fiction but not completely fake: my only encounter with the Pitt-Rivers bullroarers was under quite special circumstances, at an event where David Toop and others improvised along with field recordings of music by Bayaka pygmies from the Central African Republic; I peered into the musical instrument case standing next to Toop, whom I couldn’t work up the courage to chat with; I talked to Frances about it later, in terms I think I wanted to be light and non-philosophical, because I had nothing much else going on at the time (getting out of bed was often enough of a task). I saw them once more after moving out of London: staying round the flat they were sharing at the time, we discussed something I was writing about Christian Marclay, before I left early the next morning.
There, essentially, is where the story ends. After they died, I looked through the few emails we exchanged and Facebook messages going back to when we first met—human beings love living out clichés—to see… I’m not sure what. What had happened, what our friendship, what their music had been. But there was nothing there, and nothing now in the real life that we’re told is the alternative to social media. And yet I knew it had been one of the most important bonds of my adult life. They were difficult to get along with sometimes: flaky, unaccommodating, wilful and messy, inflexible and stentorian in some of their political orientations in a way that chafed against many of mine, particularly on gender (I think our disagreements came down more to styles of communication, “talking at cross-purposes”, than substantive questions of who was ‘right’ about a given topic, though their claims have dated rather better than mine). It made it harder, as time went on, to keep up a relation that, after a certain point, was really only periodic Facebook comments. But it never got rid of the knowledge that they deserved love and I gave it them, even if only in a remote and unspoken form, that that was only right for having become, to whatever degree, a different person through knowing them. (It had been real enough that a mutual friend at one point asked me, perhaps just for the sake of conversation, if we were sleeping together.)
The injunction to remember someone as you knew them at their best is an easy one to follow, because no-one shares memories. Their positive qualities would be easy enough to enumerate from what friends said in the days that followed: their generosity and kindness, their openness and ability to make friends, to encourage others and grasp what was worthwhile in their work, their seeming lack of concern with distracting fripperies that interfered with life as an unfolding of passion, will and discovery. La vie bohéme (the words sigh with the air of the past), made doubly obsolete by history and the craven professionalisation that is life in ‘art’ now. I could conjure up disconnected memories with a little effort—the mechanical grinding of Proust’s mémoire volontaire—that seemed charged with significance, but of what I couldn’t say. For example: staying at their flat near the hospital in Kemptown, walking back just after leaving because I’d forgotten the copy of Scritti Politti’s Songs To Remember I’d bought the day before, knowing at least they wouldn’t make me feel embarrassed about it (as I’m currently working on something about Scritti, that LP sits nearby as I write). Frances telling me, at a gig in Bournemouth after some of my poems had been anthologised, that it would be better if I “put in more of your own voice”—advice I took belatedly by writing sonnets, mostly alas unpublished, about Yves Klein and buttfucking. Drinking outside The Bees Mouth in Hove during one Colour Out Of Space, feeling for a moment what it would be like to have a community. But there’s no madeleine I can eat to knit together the substance of the past—to restore the dignity and fervour, the evanescent savour of life and presence, that hovers around those moments.
This is, I suppose, mundane enough: for people to find, as a friendship or relationship ends, that it isn’t what you thought or hoped it was, and now can be nothing else. (Afterwards of course the mind also reels back with the second thought: was I just a bad friend. Occam’s Razor and all that. I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of this habitual thought, even when there are no obvious problems in a friendship, unless you’re gifted with a total absence of self-awareness. That would be nice. Contemporary culture makes a sport of peering into friendships or relationships and identifying “toxicity”, unhealth, abuse, as agon or “drama”. It feasts on knowledge, but only as Truth. The incongruity of subjectivities, the limits of shared forms—culture, “organising”, sex—aren’t very interesting now.) Remembrance isn’t the place for generalisation, that blunt tool—neither is revewing, but those early reviews are full of them—but I have hardly anything else now. It strikes me as strange now—to generalise in the realm of the “vivid particular”—that this experience doesn’t usually put friendship (or relationships) in general in question. People understand those categories, perhaps, in the way they do the forms of social life in general after Freud: as containers for forces, of conflict, aggression, cathectic entanglement, that dissolve those forms only at their dissonant extremes. This experience of the lapse of experience—the end of friction or alterity, of mutual reflection and misunderstanding—itself is a reminder of the separateness that subsists in any friendship, the substrate of individuated consciousness as prison or world. (Words, words, words.) One of art’s capabilities is to make such moments of the negative visible: shadows against the pitiless light of everyday life. Against the horrible normality of memory’s failings, or the platitudes of ‘resilience’, it gives them “a local habitation and a name”. They find their analogue in alchemy, in the figure of the sol niger, the black sun: the state where matter has died and dissolved, but bursts beneath its surface with the yearning for new life.
Another: taking the train back from Bournemouth to London after Christmas or easter, I was re-reading Toop’s Haunted Weather, and Frances took the same train as far as Southampton. I recently read Haunted Weather for a third time, and it’s a fascinating picture of experimental music at a time of flux where digital technology coexisted uneasily with the kinds of haptic techniques that had structured it for much of the 20th century. While many treat the era of Powerbook performance as an embarrassing past we’ve thankfully overcome, it often seems music keeps encountering the problems Toop identifies. There remains a confusion and opportunity over what instruments can do, of how music relates to an everyday life pervaded by globalised media, of how the work of memory integral to making music is affected by the induced amnesia and hypermnesia of the web, a crisis deepened by the takeover of digital distribution by the streaming giants. He looks back to skills, practices and philosophies of the expanding system of post-war “music”—free improvisation, soundscapes, lowercase music, graphic scores, musique concréte, non-narrative sound art, the film music of Toru Takemitsu—as resources for negotiating this. In one of the most striking sections, he writes at length about Morton Feldman. (At the time I think I talked about Gentle Fire or Music Improvisation Company, maybe about Hugh Davies’ contact-miked DIY instruments. Memory fails.) Writing of the 90-minute solo piano piece Triadic Memories, he compares it to the “unpredictable temporal division” of the Japanese suikinkutsu, the water harps installed in temple and palace gardens that generated uncontrolled pitch sequences with weird, layered harmonics and echoes through drops of water from a hand basin used before the tea ceremony.
Feldman’s piano pieces could be described as a surgery of memory. Their organisation over lengthy durations is compelling, yet the divisions between notes, those absences we call silence, demand a huge effort of memory in order to retain a grasp of this unfolding structure….
Feldman presents specific problems of interpretation. His work is a meditation on memory, sounds carrying the listener into a state in which variations of sounds and repetitions of phrases that have gone before have the effect of rubbing out their predecessors. Painters illuminated the elusive for Feldman. Pianist Mats Persson illustrates this with a story about the artist Cy Twombly’s meeting with Feldman in Rome, in connection with the premiere of his Samuel Beckett opera, Neither. ‘Twombly was to have a direct influence upon Feldman’s music’, he writes, ‘and it can be seen as a prime example of how the hypersensitive Feldman not only registers visual impulses but transforms them into his very own. Working on large canvases, Twombly starts by sketching delicate lines in oil colours, pencil and chalk. The lines are then covered by thin layers of white paint that partly hide and veil the contours and figures, making them seem as if emerging from a mist. This is where Feldman gets the idea of letting the right pedal remain depressed throughout the whole of such piano pieces as Triadic Memories.’
Paradoxically, the effect of this erasure that takes place in the mist of sustain is cumulative, yet any conventional idea of development is far less important than the sense of being absolutely in the moment of present time. The sound itself is beautiful, an oscillation between fragility and strength that never threatens for even a second to fall into the banal prison of audiophiliac, New Age beauty. Captured in acoustic space, the notes hang and disperse in an air that becomes cloudy with fading sound. Muted and soft-edged, they are located at exactly the right distance to make us feel we are sharing the space with the piano….
Continuity was the air itself. Washed by the infinitely subtle gradations of tone that linger after the echoes of repetition, the room becomes silent sound, the memory of sound and the future of sound.
Unlike structures like the sonata form, which organised sound as a complex and highly interrelated structure where the past and origins returned in whole but altered form in the recapitulation, Feldman’s compositions turn the passage of time into an experience where the moment to moment emergence of phrases and tone clusters exists in a necessary but immensely difficult relation to what has come before. Melodic material doesn’t simply evoke, recapitulate or vary the past—Western music’s version of the metaphysics of presence—but instead echoes and mirrors motifs or phrases from any given moment, like the patterns on the woven surface of a Turkish carpet. Each moment is charged with the whole of recollected time, but only in the form of fragmentation, partiality, the whole or integral artwork present only in the negative: the plenitude of the black sun. Where contemporary therapeutic homilies conceive of memory as reparative, a power to suture time into a biographical whole, here memory is everywhere, washing in the flutter echoes of recollection, but fixes nothing. When I was in the Pitt-Rivers, half-cut off free wine, my interest in ethnomusicology (if you can call it that) was really a search for origins, for sounds that speak from somewhere before the everyday life of compromise, loss, failure, mere interpersonality. (Shades of Lévi-Strauss combing through the dreams of the Americas in his ivory tower for Mythologiques.) But if the past is real—a prospect at once dread and redemption—music tells us nothing true about it. It refuses to be a fixed monument, a graven image of time. Even its grandest attempts to make itself eternal—Wagner setting up his own temple in Bayreuth—always dissipate and fill with gaps, collapsing into the contingency of music as act and process; the horror and opportunity of being merely here and now, in an incomplete time that cannot be identical with itself, filled with memory as residue, remainder, echo, dust. It’s not much to live with day to day—beauty, finally, never is. Perhaps it’s enough.