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Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound
By Daniela Cascella
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Daniela Cascella
All rights reserved.
Dialogue of Sound and a Writer
Two characters walking in a circle, anticlockwise and diametrically opposite
SOUND [singing along to the refrain of Flanders and Swann's The Gnu Song]: I'm s-s-sound. A most sinister s-sound ...
WRITER [serious]: S-Sound? Stop and stop it, will you? We need to talk.
S [keeps singing and walking]: ... the sinister-est s-sounding all around ...
W [exasperated]: How am I to stop you and address you?
S [patronising]: Writer, writer, it certainly is good to hear from you, but then again, you are good with useless things: words. You infect me with your generalisations: you call me Sound. You're asking the wrong question here.
W [dithering]: Are you not Sound?
S: I'm [pauses] s-s ..., I'm eroded by your words and I vanish through time. Would you write this vanishing, instead of calling me Sound?
W [confused]: What does this mean, Sound? Are you speaking of a vanishing, or isn't it a making, every time you sound and every time I write after you? There is something ghostly as you take on acoustic features that are to dissolve and yet mark your being differently, every single time. So tell me, what are you?
S [whispering]: I am s-s ... and infinitely less. Your words after me are approximations of nothing. I exist in dissolving and yet you write after me, away from me. The risk is to lose me ...
W [hopeful]: ... the gain is to keep chasing you, along this circle, around and around. Yourself, do you ever feel lost?
S [sharp]: Sometimes I find mys-s in sounds I don't recognise. And I keep moving! But listen, I have some advice for your fellow writers: tell them to stop discussing the absolute values of Sound, with difficult words.
W [disheartened]: But they will tell me that I'm ignorant and a fool, and that I blame their knowledge and discourse.
S [firm]: And you tell them, from me, they might be damned.
W [sighing]: Tell me then, what is at the end of Sound?
S [furtive]: Perhaps, if somebody attempted to write my many contradictions, they might glimpse past my vanishing. Listen, and you will know you're being framed by my dissolving, and ... you keep writing, don't you?
W [in the vain attempt to conclude]: Well what have been talking about so far?
S [ironic]: What talk? There has been no talk, we have sounded sounds. Nothing has been reported or documented, nothing. We've been chasing each other, sounding. You should not have called me Sound, but told me of the sounds in s-s, addressed me with incoherent stories and undecipherable acoustic traces, signifiers whose sense is uncertain and that yet mean. Then we would have had something to say. Think about it: Absolut Sound is a slogan to sell, a portal into emptiness and oblivion.
W [yielding]: No words, then, for and after Sound?
S: No words: your words are to be for and after s-s ... ounds. [starts singing again; skips off the circle, laughing] ... Your sh-shifting words of s-s, round and round ...CHAPTER 2
A note like a minute that has to cross a century.
Henri Michaux, On Music (1949)
A string of clusters, one note only, falling, stubbornly hitting that note again, falling. At the end, after six and a half minutes: falling. A funereal fitful sequence of soundbursts, a cluster, a distortion, a soundburst, a distortion, a soundburst, forty-three times.
I am falling into Giacinto Scelsi's Fifth String Quartet (1985).
I am listening to a series of beginnings that curl back onto themselves and begin nothing other than a muted, repeated, flawed and everincomplete involvement with sounds.
* * *
Scelsi dedicated the quartet to the memory of his friend Henri Michaux after his death. As it marks an end it demands to listen to a series of beginnings that curl back onto themselves.
Scelsi and Michaux and beginnings and cycles mark the burning, frayed core of this book that only exists in its end as a series of beginnings — knots of inflections, tangents and horizons.
Following his groundbreaking work in 1948, La nascita del verbo, Scelsi stopped writing music: he wrote poems. He wrote poems after a music piece entitled The Birth of the Word. I take this fraught relationship between words and sounds, beginnings and breaks, as one of the prompts for these pages.
Scelsi, or: the spectral movements of sound as a whole of harmonic frequencies, some of which we cannot hear, some of which we do not want to hear, and that nonetheless constitute a listening, even in spite of ourselves. Scelsi, who advocated the spherical dimension of sound and in the later part of his life chose to notate his musical improvisations by capturing them on tape — a flawed trace, the mark of a passing, the ephemeral nature of sound in spite of objects and supports.
* * *
The Fifth String Quartet unravels in change through repetition. The forty-three sound units are reiterations of the same gesture, a slowly decaying cluster that he once compared to the sound of exploding asteroids. As if we knew what that sound is. Because we don't know what that sound is. Because we can imagine how that sound might be and it doesn't really matter whether it was ever recorded or we were ever there.
Before this quartet — the reworking of an earlier piece, Aitsi for amplified piano (1974) — Scelsi hadn't written music for eight years. As I listen again, my attention steers away from any attack or origin: I only hear decay and transformation. Sound is sound as it comes into being. Sound is. You could listen — and in its ephemeral impossibility of being captured, writing begins. Like Scelsi's writing at the edge of absence of sound, yet resounding.
The quartet was written four years before his death, for a dead friend — an impression of sound into some place beyond, one last gasp. Many years before, in 1953, Scelsi had also dedicated Five Incantations to Michaux. Incantatory repetitions, dark passageways, titles such as Wild and Strident, Slow and Mysterious, Supernatural. What is this magic, this auditory sphinx that is often referred to in writing about Scelsi?
* * *
It was Michaux who wrote: ... to think it's a piece when it so happens you don't like pieces, but repetitions, long boring passages, just going my way, but there is no way, to return, to return to the same thing, to be a litany, a litany like life, to take a long time before the ending ...
It was Scelsi who printed geometric figures in place of words, in his collection of poems Cercles (1986), forms with the impossibility of words of sounds yet sounding words nonetheless: words always more obscure ... more void ... the end.
* * *
At the end of these variations around a phantom, this book might begin.CHAPTER 3
Dark, the Dim Hear
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 13 February 2014
Magic and trial by ordeal. A hand. Cast brass amulet, against the evil eye. From Naples.
The dim here always struck me. It's dark, the dim hear as I tentatively tune in voices and whispers from the past. The dim light in the museum, the amulets against the evil eye, the empty drawers under the glass cabinets prompt me to linger in the voids and in the gaps, to imagine and recollect gestures and rituals around them: they set up a scenario and make me step into a past, in the Seventies in Southern Italy, when in dimness of memory I hear, out of the hazy layers of my recollections I hear a grainy persistent breath, a fatigued whistlebreath emitted not as a sign of life, but as the last aural sign of a life about to expire, it is my great-grandmother in her bed, not because she is ill but because she is very old, slow, at the border of life yet clings to life, poisonous and persistent like ivy my grandmother would say, lying, breathing in a dark grey room at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, when dusk comes in, in my recollections I hear the dim, recall a persistent broken sigh in the shape of a breath and then a stop, a convulsive breath and a stop, as if a rusty hook had caught that breath to prevent it from expiring, and she lies in a tall bed, maybe tall because I was little, although I later learned that beds at the time were in fact taller, I hear that convulsive breath as coming from an underworld of hidden whispering galleries, it is my great-grandmother's but to my hearing it sounds as if it is the whole room breathing, and I'm left there, I can barely see her but I hear my larvae-great-grandmother disappear into her broken sigh, sighing herself into the room.
Other voices are plotting next door. For some days I have been weighed down with a persistent headache and sickness. They bring her a small bowl full of water and a bottle of olive oil. She pours some drops of olive oil in the water and begins to hum, hums, a circling incantatory spell begins to coil around my hearing, then out of the bundle of bed sheets a tiny hand appears, withered and wiry, shadowed by wrinkles and by time, as she repeats small circular motions on my forehead with the tip of her thumb mumbles mumbles, I'm unsure if she really means anything or if she is just repeating a gesture passed on to her, soiled and half-broken, across who knows how many generations, I'm unsure whether to laugh at all this or be very serious and solemn, I am here little I listen but I don't know what's going on and maybe I'm not supposed to. Why is everyone suddenly so serious and solemn. Many years later I learned, in a car at night, speeding past the streetlamps at the edges of town where rubbish heaps, half-built tower blocks, concrete walls taken over by ivy and nettle bushes hide another past and another layer underground, past one of the few surviving mythraeums that nobody ever stops to visit, the light and speed and summer air taking my breath and absorbing me in that uneven mix of ritual and disillusion, of life expiring and ritual dying, of spells persisting yet changing, it all came back to me in a flash, ferocious like the heads of pigs hanging in the windows of a butcher shop to point at its deathly sales, a glimpse of something recalled in a splinter of a moment in transit, ferocious because it was her last spell before her death, later I learned I'd been subjected to a spell against the evil eye.
I give you an ear because you saved my ear.
I give you an eye because you saved my eye.
I give you a leg because you saved my leg.
And my foot. And my torso.
And my heart.
But what would I give you if you saved my voice?
The only information on these sounds I had from Stephen was: The CD is called Music for Earbuds and is composed entirely from headphone feedback which makes some surprisingly organic (as well as electronic) sounds. I spent the following week dwelling on these surprisingly organic sounds as I imagined them, before even listening to them — or maybe I had begun to listen anyway. I have a habit with listening. When I hear of a record or sound piece before I hear it, I anticipate and deliberately infiltrate my experience and memory of it. Call it an exercise in fabulation, an investigation of the tangles in the listening-writing space, or simply the will to prove that a sound is never a self-standing entity but is connected, haunted and contaminated by its listeners and their histories. So here I am, skirting the edges of these not-yet-heard sounds, listening to, listening in, but always out. I have a habit with listening, it responds to titles before I listen, or maybe because I have always been listening. Music for Earbuds ... Ear, buddy! Who's out there? Sound it again, please? Who's that? Hear! I have a habit with listening. It makes me write even when I don't now what to say, and today after playing over and over these sounds at last, I write: ringing buzzing these sounds spiralling frenzy. These sounds so stark and stubborn, hit against their form, I slide on their surfaces. These sounds so alien yet alluring call me to spend time with them, attend to them. These sounds mark the edges of hearing and understanding. The rest will remain a mystery, this ring buzz these sounds spiral frenzy. I have a habit with listening and sometimes it's obsession. These sounds take me to the edge of understanding. The edge here is the ear that hears. My listening encounters nothing but itself in these sounds. There is no key into or out of these sounds, only the endless play of their fabrications. Shatter any notion of sound as signifier. If I had to name these sounds it would be something wild: an incantation that returns and turns and generates a new meaning in itself, like these sounds. Why am I listening to these sounds? Because they're there, and because they're there I want to explore them and as I try, I fall into the circle of these sounds as I fall into the circle of myself. This circularity has no claims, it bounces the responsibility of listening back onto me. And I haven't even started telling you of the void these sounds are set against. This void behind these sounds resounds my fluttering thoughts, terrors of understanding, interpretive delirium: Listen to the tweeting of the mechanical bird, listen to The Inner Dialogue of the Lonely Mechanical Bird. In their exaggerated detachment these sounds mock the easy, dangerous assumption that a recording is true: maybe, maybe there is a mechanical creature, somewhere in my thoughts, that thankfully does not have to be true to be experienced. I spend a good half hour contemplating this creature spawned by these sounds, crazed wind-up-toy running in circles. Its tones, sharp or rounded, puncture my understanding with their presence. The tangibility of these unnameable sounds. Is it a trap? Even the sounds of my keyboard as I type against these sounds, sound more terse and metallic. Today there's three of us and it's a crowd: myself in the room, the headphone on and in my head, the mechanical bird with its metallic peal in my mind. These sounds. At the end I realise I might not have written much about them. I was too busy listening and writing these sounds, in, but always out. In my brain and on this page they stay, at peace until they'll reawaken to the next obsession. Go, listen yourselves. I told you I had a bad habit.CHAPTER 5
An artist we might call S. digs in search of a way of presenting her sculpting. Not only is the digging metaphorical. She actually digs holes in the ground, leaves huge heaps of earth all around them, and records the sounds of these procedures — partly to fill the emptiness of explanation, partly to make sure that a trace of her sculpting remains: a sculpting, not a sculpture. In matter she digs. In matters of words, she admits to a tendency toward broken utterance. Her choice of speaking in half-finished sentences embodies a form of resistance: not against speaking in itself, but against a canon of speaking. Her words are like those heaps of earth: a layered mass, and then they crumble. On a rainy morning in Bergen, Norway, she once showed me pictures and played sounds from a recent sculptural installation with the holes and the heaps of earth. I remember: a conglomerate of screechy and muffled noises, heaps of earth probed by long mechanical sticks, and a sense of scale that overwhelms the human yet is tentatively measured by it; rawness of materials, punctured by a sharp sense of observation, fullness of materiality, corroded by thought processes that are as ephemeral as present.
Where present? In those sculptures I might never reach? In the space of S. and myself talking, looking, listening? In the work enmeshed in a web of connections always recalled, always shifting? It would be silly to think that all of these talks and thoughts and considerations will not enter my experience of the work, even if I don't get to see it. Since I saw the pictures of those heaps of earth, and heard those primordial sounds, I've been haunted with the presence of those holes and heaps of earth cut through or grazed by mechanically-operated sticks. The pictures that S. showed me are dark and dense and layered, like her broken-up words. I wonder if it is pictures of her works that I saw, or charts of geological strata, muddy and thick. I find myself inexplicably drawn to those dark and muddy conglomerates — not sure whether this is because of some inherent quality they have, or because they remind me of a past, much more primitive and compelling space, a call from afar. Or maybe because the installation is entitled Writings.
* * *
S. and I talk of caves and the storage of knowledge for three whole days of rain, we talk, the rain like a grey soft blanket, three days curl themselves against the black rocks of Norwegian dark mountains, into each of our darknesses. The night outside, congealed. The grey soft blanket, no longer thin and fluttering, descends to enclose the world it once concealed in a web of darkness. It seems to me there should be a shape for these hidden processes, a shape formed out of our caves and that earth, and the sounds in and out of those caves, before the grey soft blanket covers it all again. It's time to go before the crystal-clear surf of thinking returns to wash these words away or tidy them up ... It's time to go and our journey involves mud, matter, shades ...
... and a tendency towards incoherence, which I find enjoyable. Infatuated with whispers, we speak and continue to dissolve in this twilight of matter. A little more intangible every day, and then we can no longer understand those caves, the sounds out of them or the simplest tune, or sculpting or writing any longer.
Excerpted from F.M.R.L by Daniela Cascella. Copyright © 2014 Daniela Cascella. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Dialogue of Sound and a Writer 1
2 Falling 3
3 Dark, the Dim Hear 6
4 These Sounds 9
5 S. 11
6 Borders 18
7 A Nosegay of Culled Flowers 32
8 Boxes 37
9 Leftovers: From the Notebooks on Writing Sound 48
10 Lakes, Sounds, Sculpture, Really 63
11 Inner Voices / Sound is as Real as Hell (after Dante) 68
12 Kinships 82
13 The Record Itself Doesn't Matter 91
14 Leftovers: From the Notebooks on Writing Sound 97
15 LISTEN 110
References and Credits 123
Selected Bibliography and Further Reading 132