Friday, 23 September 2011

Minority pursuits

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Minority pursuits
I.M. Milton Babbitt, 1916-2011

The world has been making do without Milton Babbitt since 29 January this year. I came to Babbitt far too late: his music first caught my attention little more than a year ago, which illustrates how careless and unsystematic my listening has been. To some extent I can plead a natural progression of interests: five or six years ago I realised that I had the material capacity to explore and develop my longstanding fascination with electronic and electroacoustic music; since then I’ve been attempting to train myself in just about every aspect of music-making, and the study of serial composition techniques came up along the way. From Reginald Smith Brindle’s 1966 text Serial Composition I eventually ended up at Milton Babbitt’s critical writing and started to explore his musical language. I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover how engaging, lively, and profoundly satisfying Babbitt’s music is, but I was, because I had allowed myself to cultivate a relatively narrow field of musical interests. I grew up listening to radio programmes hosted by people who had been (as I can see in retrospect) profoundly influenced by the neoclassical and nationalist strains of twentieth century music: who had ‘been through the Boulangerie’, as Babbitt once put it. The notion that one could describe serialism with words like ‘engaging’ and ‘lively’ never crossed my mind until I began my own study of the stuff. This, too, ought not to be surprising: most music tends to sound better once you become aware of what it’s doing, either by long exposure, your own musical practice, or a certain amount of specialised study.
Those familiar with Babbitt’s career – and specifically with the aspect of it that was most visible to the general public – will recall that he got into trouble over the notion of specialisation. Any time someone offers a summing-up of his ideas about music, there’s always a mention of the article he wrote under the title ‘The Composer as Specialist’ but that High Fidelity magazine published (in 1958) as ‘Who Cares if You Listen?’ – a tag-line that followed him around for the rest of his life. The point behind Babbitt’s preferred title was simple enough: why not look on advanced musical composition as a specialised activity like advanced physics or engineering – something that naturally requires a certain amount of familiarity with the field on the part of a potential audience? His ultimate goal in the essay was to argue for an ‘academic’ music based in the university system, analogous to pure research in the physical sciences: something of little obvious practical utility, which most people will find obscure and irrelevant to their lives, but which contributes to the sum of knowledge in the field, and without which no real innovation or development is possible. Babbitt’s 1958-vintage faith in the university system is probably no longer tenable (not least because the university system as it was in 1958 no longer exists), but the basic conception of specialised activity as being something one must prepare both to perform and to receive is well worth remembering. It also happens to be one possible way to conceive of taste and sensibility, neither of which comes into being without effort.
In his 1958 essay, Babbitt wrote about withdrawing from the arena of public performance: about pursuing the music itself without being concerned about ‘the public and social aspects of musical composition’. That said, he did not go so far as to suggest that advanced music need not be performed at all: he simply located the ideal venue of performance in a semi-private, cloistered space. Babbitt was forever being accused of being an elitist, but to say he was by virtue of the nature of his work a member of a more or less involuntary and beleaguered elite would be closer to the truth. By writing deliberate, serious, and thoroughly composed music, he naturally fell to the side of what a mass audience probably wants – or rather, what the people who curate the idea of a mass audience chose to conceive as being the wants of this audience: an audience in no small measure invented by the said curators as the object of their own professional and commercial interests. The experience of hearing Babbitt’s music is much like that of hearing Babbitt himself conduct a conversation: not in terms of what he said, but in the structure of his speech. He spoke in long, flowing sentences, branching and diverging, taking up minor points and running them to ground before re-establishing what he originally had to say. Babbitt sentences were, as he spoke them, intricate structures that seemed to spread out beyond what one breath could contain, but which ultimately demonstrated cohesion and direction. The past tense is a concession to the tragedy that there will be no new Babbitt sentences, just as there will be no new Babbitt compositions, to read or hear; but what he left behind will remain a powerful evocation of the composer’s unique sensibility and taste.
The same commercial media that give us easy opportunities to write and publish blogs also make it very easy to write our own music, and realise performances of it in electronic form, and people are taking up writing and composing in droves. At the same time, neither writing nor composing is as easy as it seems; and as the managers of our new media delight in serving the markets they create, how-to publications and do-it-yourself kits abound. In terms of music, much of this advice involves the latest versions of common practice tonality; as well it might, because tonality is everywhere around us, in popular music, in the music that serves as a soundtrack or background to everyday life, and even in the chirruping of telephones and other electronic gadgets. It’s always faster to plug into something ready-made than it is to develop a language from scratch, and it sounds nice, too. In this respect, tonality is like the super-glue that comes with a plastic model kit: given the right bits and pieces, if you get the chord progressions right, you’re writing music. The forms of electronic music that currently enjoy mass appeal can be built up at home from an ever-expanding supply of made-to-order sounds meant to ease the kit-building process: synthesisers and sample-based instruments pre-programmed with timbres, rhythms, and fragments of melodies ready for use in producing one’s own version of the most popular styles and genres. Here we should recall that the early appeal of electronic music was not in the novelty and timbral richness of the sounds it could produce, and certainly not in the medium’s ease of use, but in the degree of control the technology allowed the composer to have over the finished work. Such control was particularly important in Babbitt’s approach to serial techniques, where every aspect of a composition could be approached via a set of organizing principles that had been devised uniquely and exclusively for that piece of music. The great achievement of this form of serialism is the understanding that each work can be made utterly unique, referring to nothing outside itself: that each musical composition involves the creation of a new world. As distinct from music that relies on traditional practice to support itself, his is a music that relies on its own structure, its own underlying principles, to develop: music that is as much itself as it can possibly be, and that contains as much of itself as it can. This kind of music demands exhaustive work put in by the composer, so as to determine what a specific piece can be. What are the possibilities inherent in a particular combination of intervallic relationships? The composer’s role is to discover as much of this potential as can be found, and to give the music as much development as possible. Ultimately, the virtues of such music grow from the force of personality that went into making it: the composer’s sensibility has been brought to bear on every aspect of every sound. Babbitt’s sentences are difficult to understand if one only half listens to them, and his music is difficult to understand in much the same way. This is music that should be experienced in toto: to allow its systems of internal relationships to unfold and draw us in; and to listen for what the music has to say about itself. Each piece is an essay in being, expressing its own intrinsic shape, which is itself a reflection of the mind that created it: a very pure form of minority pursuit, in that the composition pursues the mind of the composer, as the composer pursues the composition; and the listener’s own experience as the composition unfolds becomes the best possible guide to interpreting the music. As we listen, as we read, as with all experience, only a constant process of refining our own taste and sensibility can help us to bring a sense of order to what we perceive, as each of us become minorities of one.
I wager that it’s fairly rare for people to actively seek out the minority position: most of us end up stumbling into it, and being by degrees surprised and dismayed by what we find here. Interviews with Milton Babbitt conducted in the past ten or twenty years present us with a man who always worked passionately for what he understood to be the things most worthy of commanding his interest and attention – and he was passionately interested in a very wide range of things indeed, including beer and baseball, popular songs of the 1920s, and the combinatorial potential of tone rows. He was a thoroughly grown-up intellectual, who had the misfortune to grow older in the context of a culture that had come to value youthful instincts more highly than mature refinement. But that, of course, is just what happens to people – not to all people, and perhaps not even to most people, but to the fascinating and endlessly stimulating minority that until 29 January of this year included Milton Babbitt as a living eminence. He seemed to accept the minority position more or less gracefully, while being a clear-eyed and properly strict critic of the sillier things the majority gets up to. All in all, his was a condition to admire and to aspire to.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Limiting our options

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Limiting our options
Wondering what to do with the e-books

For about twenty-five years, I have been intermittently involving myself in attempts at publishing, most of which have proven to be abortive or unsuccessful. This lack of success is entirely my fault, because I am timid, and timidity is a very poor ally in the publishing world. I suppose the history of my literary and quasi-literary follies must imply some kind of affection for books and what they contain; that I have also spent an inordinate amount of time and energy studying book design and typography should indicate a commitment to the printed form of books as well. But when I come to think of a potential answer to a couple of simple questions – do I like books? and do I like reading? – I realise that I have nothing simple to say. Perhaps this is because I experience written language as I do the consumption of food and drink: as a necessity of life that, of itself, I don’t think about much, but which also involves wanting to prepare things well, and appreciating good things that are well worth consuming. Such a torturous idea, this is; but with a purpose: when I do find myself thinking about food and books, I try to avoid thinking in terms of pleasures, because pleasures have always struck me as being optional, ephemeral things – and I want my food, wine, and literature to be eternal. Not just torturous, but a dour sort of idea as well, and doomed to be disappointing, given that everything is, ultimately, ephemeral; but I’ve never been able to shake a nagging sensation that we ought to be serious about things like cooking dinner and reading about (let’s say) the experience of cooking dinner in Cairo in the early part of the last century. Whereupon I timidly start to chase my tail, because a nice meal in my kitchen or in the prose of Naguib Mahfouz is a pleasure, isn’t it? Isn’t that a good thing in itself? The foolish truth being that I still haven’t managed to figure it out.
These things have been shuffling on and off my mind recently because of two unrelated events: the London Book Fair, which came and went far away from me a couple of months ago; and the fact that I recently came across a good system for consolidating and arranging the various e-books I’ve accumulated over the past two or three years. Book fairs, of course, are required to produce newspaper stories about books, and for many years now the news about ‘the book’ has been that it will soon to give way to something else. Newspapers – in whatever form one happens to encounter them: I come across them via websites – are run by strict dialecticians: there must be a worrisome thesis (publishing is doomed because publishing is all about conventionally-printed books), which leads to an antithesis in which we receive a breath of hope (new technologies are all about creating splendid new opportunities to do things better), whereupon we depart relieved in a happy and fatuous synthesis (the future of publishing will be different because it will use new technology). And of course people should be stimulated into buying something: in this case, gadgets for acquiring, storing, and displaying books published in electronic form, to say nothing of the electronic-format books themselves. As I catalogued and arranged them, I discovered I had more than three hundred of the latter, which suggests first that I don’t mind them, and second that I’m finding them useful. Certain kinds of reference material do lend themselves to circulation in electronic form, particularly books that date quickly or that involve topics I wouldn’t really care to have permanently on my shelves: mainly these are work-related books about computers, electronics, and sundry branches of applied science and electrical engineering. Academic research also suits the relatively ephemeral non-paper approach, as does anything where one usually winds up searching for one bit of information at a time. It’s in the latter category that I start to see problems with the ‘pure’ e-books (those that are published in an e-book format, unlike PDF versions of a printed book): where the publishing format starts to change how we encounter information, and tends to limit our options in terms of how we make and use published material.
Although the distinction between a book and an e-book is likely to fade over time, much as the distinction between mail and e-mail has done, it will always be useful to think of them as fundamentally different things, and not just as different bowls for the same kind of soup. Books have many functions, some of which are strictly practical (in terms of providing access to the book’s content) while others are ontological, with respect to how a society thinks, acts, and remembers. A book is an object: an object with a present context, defined by where we find it and where we read it, which also amounts to a physical linkage between the past and present of all other books; even the most modest book thus comes equipped with the history of the publishing culture to which it belongs. E-books are packages of information, which carry their own kind of history and make their own specific demands on readers and publishers: these sometimes overlap with the physical-cultural meanings of books, but more often they are unique to the emerging medium. The question of design is the first to start troubling me, given all the years I’ve spent preparing to be a book printer in a world where my preferred kind of book printing has all but collapsed. To be less vague: my ‘ideal’ for the form of books is based on design principles articulated in the early to middle decades of the previous century, in a time when we could expect books of all sorts to be printed using a letterpress process. With such a book, just about every aspect of how the reader encounters the text can be designed: the size of the paper, the relationship between the text and the space that surrounds it, the running heads and page numbers – one could go on and on. The latter two aids to navigation make obvious a point that inheres in every aspect of book design: that the design of a book is an act of creative interpretation of the book’s content. The book designer in effect creates the local context of the book: how you read the book has been shaped or conditioned by design decisions made before the book was printed; by the same token, a lack of design decisions, or bad decisions, gets in the way of your attempt to read the book – it wasn’t all paradise in this Eden. With electronic publications, the design choices are radically limited: the context in which you encounter the book is a function of the technology used to deliver it to you, and the designer has very little control over how the material appears on the reader’s screen.
E-books are something like scrolls with indexes: most of them don’t have pages as such, but rather a continuous flow of text that starts when it starts and stops when it stops. A scroll is not a ‘book’, in the front-to-back, pages gathered in signatures, bound and flippable sense of ‘book’, and lends itself not only to a different kind of design, but also to a different kind of writing, a different approach to literature. Many things are possible with a scroll that we gave up long ago on moving to bound-in-boards books; and many other options that we gained over the past thousand-plus years of book culture are closed off. This is not just about the appearance of the published material, but the state of access to it as well. With printed books, if you have a desire to get hold of one, you can walk into a shop and take it off the shelf: no further apparatus is required save the ability to read – and the cash to buy it, or (if you are in a public library) the right to borrow it. Apart from the need to possess a reading device (and to possess the means to keep it running and supplied with content), electronic publishing as it now stands involves a host of restrictions to access and use that were never possible (or at least very difficult) with print publishing. I have quite a few PDF books that have been encrypted such that their content cannot be altered: this is a reasonable means whereby the publishers protect the security of their material; but it also means that I have books that cannot be annotated – books where the publisher has been able to close off the possibility of my making notes in them. And of course we’d do well to keep in mind that with all forms of electronic distribution – be it books, music, or the software on our computers – we do not actually own what we buy: we purchase a limited right of access to the content, but ownership of the digital ‘things in themselves’ is retained by the publishers. This is a limit that could be changed if the laws were changed, and which need not apply if a publisher so decides. But the notion of a book – or of a piece of music or of a photograph or a film or any number of such things – as an ephemeral quantity to be traded and consumed as just one of a host of digital content commodities: this leads us into an unexplored set of relationships between readers, writers, publishers, and the culture as a whole. With this thought, I end up stuck at the tension point in the dialectic: I don’t know where it’s all going, but I can’t help suspecting the newspaper’s optimism is misplaced. That there will be new technology is neither here nor there: there is always some kind of new technology to chase around. That we will let this new technology drive our habits right up to the level of food and books; that we will let it change our culture and ourselves without much noticing what we stand to lose; that we might end up with merely synthetic gains, which we neither wanted nor needed – these thoughts keep shuffling in and out of my head, as the rainy season brings an old pond back up to the surface of my garden, as the London Book Fair fades from the newspaper’s memory, and as I wonder what to do with all those e-books I’ve now put into order and still have yet to read.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Bakunin desire

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

The Bakunin desire
Die Lust der Zerstörung ist zugleich eine schaffende Lust!

On the 25th of May last year, I dropped one of our soup bowls into the kitchen sink and broke it. This was a sorrowful event, not because of the material value of the thing, but because I feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility whenever I am the cause of death; in this case, ‘death’ I define as the cessation of this particular bowl’s state of being a bowl: the end of its ability to function in terms of what it had been called into being to accomplish. We had bought the bowl at a hundred-yen shop about ten years before, in the first year we lived in this house. It and its companions (other bowls, both shallow and deep, and a few large plates) are examples of a pattern that was common at the time, but which has since disappeared from the shops. They must have been machine-made to some extent, but each one is different: there are subtle distortions in the form of the bowls that suggest human involvement in shaping them; the glaze was applied to each in a similar style but with a slightly different effect each time. The pattern on the plates and inside the bowls is a gentle, graduated spiral caused by spinning the unfired dish while quickly running a brush charged with glaze over its surface. These are simple, cheap vessels, which still manage to possess the virtue of things passed from the hand of the maker to the hand of the user, although this passage admittedly involved industrial-scale mediation between makers in China and users in Japan, at quantities of several thousand units at a time. Bowls from China are still available from the hundred-yen shops, but this kind of bowl is no longer made: once our supply is exhausted in random incidents of clumsiness when I am at the sink, there will be no more. The bowl I broke on the 25th of May last year was once a simple thing, acquired casually and for no other reason than the fact that we happened to lack bowls of that size; but, over time, the accidents of industrial production had turned it into a rarity, and years of good service in use had imbued it with the beginnings of a personality. Sentimentalist that I am, it seemed to have a tragic and forlorn conclusion: this line of thought that spun out in my mind as I finished washing the dishes, taking as much exaggerated care with the survivors as I did with the memory of the newly-deceased bowl.
When I broke the soup bowl, it moved me to reflect on how I break things: the effects of clumsiness both small, such as dropping a bowl in the sink, and large, such as inadvertently throwing over a whole way of life. Twenty-one years ago, in the spring and summer, I was engaged in the business of leaving university and faced the prospect of choosing what would become my career. Without giving it much thought, I fumbled a couple of academic options to continue my studies, dropped a couple of job opportunities that would have kept me at the university, and bumbled my way into a clerical position that I went on to occupy for the next ten years. Then, when I decided to move to Japan, in all the excitement and novelty of my new experiences, I failed to notice one of the terrifying consequences of emigration: that it is no longer possible for me to bumble, because I no longer have access to falling back on what I had done before, if what I try to accomplish fails to work out. There’s nothing unique in these aspects of my experience, save in the particulars of the situations I encountered, but my example does serve to illustrate how easy it is to break dishes on a grand scale. A time of decision can slip by without being noticed; out of manic enthusiasm, a decision can be taken without forethought: these simple acts of clumsiness can bring the structure of a life crashing down, and shut off access to a way of living. It shows how easy and how difficult it is to change: how quickly one thing can be destroyed and something else move into view, even though the ‘something else’ may be terrifyingly vague and formless. At the same time there’s a shining beauty in the act of falling off the flatbed-truck of destiny: failure pushes me to embrace the forces of creative destruction. In one of my notebooks, I called this ‘the Bakunin desire’.
When I speak of this ‘Bakunin desire’, it reflects an error in my thinking: it cannot refer to Mikhail Bakunin himself, because my ‘desire’ does not reflect any desire of his, nor is it a desire to be like him; it has nothing to do with political philosophy at all. I am using ‘Bakunin’ as an adjective, referring to an urge to synthesise all the contradictory impulses and impressions that come upon me when I think about change and destruction: it’s all very mystical, and distinctly non-revolutionary. Still, Bakunin’s famous maxim was not the product of the mature anarchist’s thinking: he wrote about the creative aspect of the destructive urge not long before he threw over an academic career of his own, after he’d already rejected being a member of the military or civil service in Russia. He was still an intoxicated Hegelian at the time, and mystical, too; the full conclusion of his essay The Reaction in Germany reads: Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too! He wants us to think of the great dialectic of History here, but of course he’s not very far removed from Shiva and Vishnu, or of the conception of divinity long held here in Japan, as being inherently creative and destructive. Which is to say that destruction is not an evil in itself, but an expression of one aspect of a continuity of being that is the source of all creation, of all life. Bakunin is inviting us to see radical change as something emanating from the same quasi-divine force that quickens all living things. If I can hold up under the pressure of the unknown, it may even relieve some of my anxiety at the number of times my hands have lost their grip on what I was meant to be holding.
Bakunin escaped his Siberian exile by slipping out of the country aboard a trading vessel bound for Japan. He was briefly in Yokohama in the fall of 1861, before making his way back to Europe via San Francisco, Panama, and New York, with a spell in Boston. His life was a series of arrow-shaft trajectories between clearly defined points, with little time spent fumbling and bumbling as I have done. When he spoke of trusting in the eternal Spirit, of the unfathomable and eternal source of all life, he had the good fortune not to be as superstitious and sentimental about it as I am. The Bakunin desire, the desire to submit to creative destruction, has always left me feeling at once liberated and terrified. I can’t imagine that such thinking ever bothered Bakunin very much, but I inevitably find myself wanting to hold on to everything as it has always been, even as I embrace the idea that the destruction of our civilisation would not lessen the store of creative potential in the world. On the 26th of May last year, I glued back together the pieces of the bowl I had broken in the kitchen sink. It no longer has the strength to function as a serving-bowl for food, but I have it here beside me on the desk. Some chips are visible on the outside, where bits of the bowl had been too small to recover, but the pattern of swirling brushstrokes is still clear, and the form of the bowl is still as lovely as ever. Whatever Bakunin desires I may harbour, still my revolutions are always accidental, the products of clumsiness rather than any overall plan. Whatever it is that I have been called into being to accomplish, I hope I can get it done without breaking too many more dishes.

The quotation from Bakunin’s The Reaction in Germany is from Sam Dolgoff’s 1971 translation.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Like to a little kingdom

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Like to a little kingdom
On private scales of insurrection

I no longer recall where I came across my latest copy of Julius Caesar, but I’m reasonably certain it was here in Fukuoka. Ten days ago, the book called out to me from its shelf as I was passing by; I took a few steps past before giving in, and then brought it down to the study. I noticed (I had forgotten) it has a bookmark in it: a ticket with the name of a wine bar in Stratford-upon-Avon. The place it marks is one of Brutus’ well-known asides to himself, in his garden, as he struggles with the tension of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

The act of looking, when I did, into this copy of this book at this passage, set in motion a string of associations. Whoever owned this book before me seems to have taken it along to Stratford-upon-Avon, to the Vintner wine bar, which is the latest occupant of a building that may have been where Shakespeare bought his wine. (A wine trader set up shop there in 1600; Shakespeare likely retired to Stratford around the time the Globe theatre burned down, in 1613.) Curious to see if the bar was still in business, I looked it up in a Google map, and there it was: a very attractive little place, with lots of polished brass and a tapas bar. In the Google street-level view, a woman who looked remarkably like my mother had been accidentally photographed glancing at the front door. This copy of Julius Caesar is a 1986 reprint, which happens to be the year I went to England (although not to Stratford-upon-Avon); I arrived a couple of weeks after the Reagan Administration’s bombing of Libya. I took the book off the shelf on the 20th of March, which was the anniversary of the 2005 Fukuoka earthquake: a magnitude 7 quake that was centred on a point offshore about fifteen or twenty kilometres away from my study. Some of the worst damage occurred in a part of town that had been built over a section of Fukuoka Castle’s water defences; construction of the Castle itself finished in 1607, which was around the time Shakespeare bought his house in Stratford-upon-Avon. The earthquakes and bombing campaigns of March 2011 are ongoing.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing | And the first motion – in Shakespeare’s English, the acting refers to the doing of the thing, and the first motion to the impulse behind it. Brutus, of course, is thinking about the plot to murder Caesar, and he calls it a dreadful thing. We should be careful with this dreadful: careful to distinguish between the modern colloquial ‘dreadful’, as something very bad, and the old, formal ‘dreadful’, as inspiring dread or reverence. The word points to awe and terror: the emotions that arise from confronting things that are larger than what we are. Brutus is caught up in a very specific kind of suspense: that of waiting for the event in which he will act to change the course of history. But dreadful things are not limited to people in his rare condition: this little passage marked off in my book by the Vintner’s ticket also describes the general effect of suspense on the mind, while we wait for a certain beam to fall, while we wait for a dreaded, anticipated event to arrive. Before 20 March 2005, I had never experienced an earthquake of any great force. Once it started, once I understood that a truck had not hit my house but the earth itself was moving, I entered the state of dread: standing below a beam between the living room and kitchen, wondering when the movement would end, wondering if the beam would hold. In an earthquake of great strength, one has a lot of time to experience dread: the shaking goes on for much longer than I ever imagined it would. As it was happening, I understood an awful helplessness, that I was in the power of something far removed from the scale of human agency, that the earth would not stop moving to answer my concern about a single beam. Between March and the end of April we experienced a series of aftershocks, some big, some small, including a magnitude 5.8 ‘after-quake’ on 20 April. That one came in the early morning, when I was still in bed, and on the second floor of this old house, about five metres away from the bookshelf that held my latest copy of Julius Caesar. The second floor of an old house moves around quite a bit when the earth shakes. For many months after, little shudders in the house, the quite natural little shudders native to an old building, served as the first motion of an earthquake fear: would it continue? How big would it be this time? What of the beams, and all the bookshelves?
Between a dreadful choice made and the actions that result from it; between a perception, an understanding, that something dreaded can indeed happen, and its arrival: all the interim is | Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream. This word ‘phantasma’ refers to an illusion, a vision, a dream: something that is not real, but that is nonetheless presented to the eye. We are capable of creating within ourselves the phantasmas of what we fear: for the first year I lived in this house, I perceived a ghost inhabiting the space below the stairs and in the wall of the kitchen; in the second year, I learned that my ghost was a weasel, and I frightened it away by holding a ringing alarm clock up against the wall in the evening in spring. Since the earthquake, both ours in Fukuoka and this month’s quake in the north, I have imagined the ghost of my study and books as a heap of rubble, and experienced the hideous dream of choosing what I might take hold of in flight if this house were to collapse around us. (In reality one is not to take anything: the act of salvaging something of the pre-quake life in flight is a sure-fire way to wind up dead under a mountain of debris.) This phantasma is not something that will be put to flight by an alarm clock, but distractions cause it to recede from the foreground of daily life.
The genius and the mortal instruments | Are then in council, and the state of man, | Like to a little kingdom, suffers then | The nature of an insurrection. The private insurrections between soul and body – The genius and the mortal instruments – are wildest with the narrowest and most personal gaps between the acting and first motion: wildest, because a perpetual state of strife cannot go on together with a healthy mind; and both the soul and body have an interest in maintaining themselves together with a healthy mind, yet neither will be willing to lose ground in the face of dreadful things. And yet, as time goes on, and strangely so, this insurrection wears itself down as we become ever more aware of all the dreadful things that can happen, that will happen, as the field of the phantasma becomes the waking dream of everyday life. The scale of private insurrections lessens with every moment lived, with every moment we survive; although the inner council can be called back into session at a moment’s notice, convened by an outer stimulus, one that recalls us to possibilities we normally keep in deep recess.
Walking down the street on the morning of the 20th of March, an hour or so after I took my latest copy of Julius Caesar down from its shelf, I suddenly heard the air raid sirens going off. The local traffic, and the people in the town, all carried on with the progress of their motion as though nothing had been heard, as though the sound of the sirens had been a waking dream. Later on I was reminded that the 20th of March was the anniversary of the earthquake, and presumably the sirens had been sounded as a memorial. That was when I noticed I had forgotten the date of our earthquake, and the time. The daily experience of dread, the suspense, the private insurrections and the hideous dream: all these had passed away without my noticing. During an aftershock on 20 April 2005, when I knew nothing of the Vintner wine bar in Stratford-upon-Avon, and when Julius Caesar was still in its place on the second floor, I was seated in this chair with my main cat on my knee. He has since passed away, but at that time, when the shaking had continued for longer than my little kingdom could allow, as I convulsively clutched at his fur, he looked at me with calm eyes, to say that all would end in its good time, and that we were doing fine, because we were alive.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Discarding the nation, and localising

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Discarding the nation, and localising
A long answer to a simple enough question

On his ‘Ephemeris’ website the other day (see the entry March 17-18, 2011), Norm Sibum outlined a conversation he’d had: a young poet put it to him that the concept of a ‘national literature’ was at best artificial and at worst actively pernicious; Sibum replied that we may as well acknowledge that a national literature will exist anywhere there is something resembling a ‘national temperament’, and that a ‘state literature’ masquerading as a national literature is the real cause for concern. I suspect these two were talking about varieties of the same thing: Sibum’s point implies that nationalities can develop a temperament and thence a literature, organically, from the base up; the young poet’s position suggests that there is no such thing as an organic literature on a national scale, that such a literature inevitably converges with state literature, as an imposition from above on the living society. With apologies to Sibum and his companion for putting words into their mouths, it seems to me they are roughly agreeing in principle and conflicting in practice: both place a higher value on a literature that grows up independent of superstructural influences (that is, impositions from a more generalised level of social organisation); where they differ lies in where they draw the borders around what one might reasonably consider to be a necessary level of independence. To put it baldly, Sibum accepts that there is, or can be, such a thing as an organically-constituted nation, whereas the young poet would have us move the relevant boundaries down to a much smaller level of society. I must also note that I am reporting on a conversation that took place in Montréal, in Québec, in Canada: a context that guarantees more uncertainty about the nation and its potential literature than would be occasioned here in Fukuoka, in Kyushu, in Japan. But this concept of where to draw the borders of a nation has a great deal of significance for me. In most circumstances, being from Fukuoka, and being from Kyushu, leads to a perception of being Japanese; but this ‘being Japanese’ will never be extended to me. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and after that lived for a number of years in Vancouver, British Columbia, both of which happen to be in Canada; my native language is English, and I started to acquire the language of my present community less than twenty years ago. These considerations compel me to admit that allying myself to a Japanese nationality is presumptuous at best; and yet, it also feels misleading to claim anything else, given that my particular temperament leads me to weave the whole fabric of my life into the neighbourhood of my daily experience. Thus the topic of Sibum’s conversation, although simple enough in itself and not really linked to the life of an English-speaking permanent resident of Japan, has touched on an exposed nerve in the bandaged-together corpus of ‘myself where I am’.
Whenever I meet new people, they inevitably ask me where I’m from, and almost every possible answer is misleading. So I say that I’m from Ozasa, which is my adopted nation. I am an English-language culture in a semi-suburban residential enclave built upon a few hills and valleys in what was the unoccupied northern extremity of a farming village to the south of a regional administrative and trading centre in the north part of the westernmost main island in the Japanese archipelago. There, at the end, comes the identification of where this neighbourhood may be said to lie in terms of a national culture. And there, at the end, I betray myself, because it happens to be the case that no-one will ever allow that I am, in some capacity, Japanese. Most people I meet share a tacit acceptance of a deterministic sense of nationality: they expect that I will naturally declare myself for the nationality of the place where I was born and raised. I lived for seventeen years in the Winnipeg and Manitoba culture, and then attempted an emigration to the Vancouver and West Coast culture for a further fifteen years; for about eleven years now I have been here in my Ozasa and Japanese culture. Curiously, at no point in my life have I accepted the notion that I might be something called a Canadian. This derives in part from the provincialism of my experience: an abiding sense that wherever Canada might have been, it was something devised and maintained far away from me. It is, in part, a private ideology: a desire to resist nationalism in all its forms, to reject the nation’s claim on me; a stubborn, cantankerous individualism that grew from my own character and from the tenor of the times when that character was formed. And it is partly an accidental offshoot of my upbringing and inclinations: as I was growing up, my immediate family were keen to oppose the conception of Canada that was then gaining acceptance among the country’s governing elite, and they had also long maintained the habit of looking to England for a sort of common identity and background. As time went on, I expanded outward not from Winnipeg to a broader Canada, but from my inner England to pursue a long-distance and chimerically European set of cultural inclinations. All of these private factors, like the concept of nation itself, are a heaping-up of illusions into an ordering fiction: a means of applying structure to psychic reality, one’s inner world, which then serves as a convenient way to bind oneself to other people in a community.
These days we all have lots of communities to choose from, and order our social lives according to a case-by-case agglomeration of these influences. Which is to say that our communities come into being on a case-by-case, local, individual basis: every nation is invented by individual people, one person at a time. In political and social matters, collective fictions are often desirable, but as applied to culture they strike me as poisonous. The aspects of culture I value most highly are those that develop organically, from below; of art, I see the greatest value in particularity: in the tendency of art to express aspects of its creator’s experience. I want to advance being small, being local, being particular; this necessarily puts me at odds with being large, being national, being general. Of course there is a danger here: the danger of being narrow and provincial, of individual chauvinism. But such dangers go along with the big-scale perspective as well. The most useful challenge is to develop one’s own particularity while remaining as deeply accommodating to other individuals as it is possible to be, recalling that personalities interact in the manner of chemical reactions, not that of accumulations of liquid sludge. We clash, we blend, we explode, we release pleasing scents, we give off poisons. The process of negotiating our individual balances and accommodations goes on every day, and will never end.
And so Norm Sibum’s innocent references to national temperament and national literature have led me to the crux of my own problem, to a raw nerve I expose voluntarily: my fruitless struggles against the impositions made, without malicious intent, upon the cranky substructure of my individualism. Whenever I meet people, they ask me what I am, and my reply, that I am their neighbour, simply fails to make sense. They expect a simple statement of nationality, but for me, who feels no such nationality, who is even actively hostile to the very idea, it leaves me in a pickle. I doom myself to being confusing, and yet, to remain honest to myself, I must keep at it. Whenever I meet new people, they ask, ‘Where are you from?’ My reply can never begin with a nation I discarded because it never fit me. My reply begins with the local, ‘I am from Ozasa, in Chuo Ward, in Fukuoka.’ And because this seeds confusion, they ask, ‘No, no: I mean, where were you from before?’ Slowly, indirectly, I move toward defeat, but along the way I stubbornly push my simple self-introduction into the messy complexity of my own experience. As Sibum said, wherever there is a poet within a certain set of borders, there you will find a national literature: and here I am, a singularity, a nation of one. I hope to remain indivisible, and, as fate permits, to burrow into the understanding of my neighbour-nations, if only just a little.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

That which we love, and to which we cannot return

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

That which we love, and to which we cannot return
I.M. Aldo Clementi, 25 May 1925 to 3 March 2011

Aldo Clementi passed away on 3 March; over the past week or so I’ve been listening to the recordings of his music that I’ve been able to accumulate, arranged in chronological order, except for a few cases of duplication, where I repeat a piece or two a bit out of sequence. There have been few notices of his death in the English-language press, which seems rather odd. Together with his near-contemporaries Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, and Luciano Berio, Clementi was one of the giants of post-war Italian music. In photographs I’ve seen, Maderna usually has an air of Boulezian confidence about him, Nono inevitably looks like he’s angry about something, and Berio seems genial and about to lend someone a hand. Clementi often presented a dour face to the camera, although his expressions seemed to become more impish as he got older. Among that group of four, Maderna and Nono were Venetians, Berio was born in Liguria, and Clementi in Catania, Sicily. Being a provincial myself, I tend to see a non-metropolitan unsettledness in Clementi’s development, in his progress through the usual mid-twentieth century upbringing from Webern to Darmstadt, and then to his own unique style, which leaned heavily on influences from the visual and plastic arts (Pollock’s paintings; Calder’s mobiles). In the latter influence he is somewhat like Morton Feldman, but where Feldman’s music sets up expansive textures like a Rothko painting, Clementi’s burrows into dense networks of interlocking lines. Both composers appear to struggle against the monumental uncertainty of music-making: the unsettled ground occupied by the avant-garde in the aftermath of both common practice tonality and serialism. The generation born in the early to middle 1920s was largely responsible for reinventing the European avant-garde after the war; perhaps because of their radical experience with destruction, both physical and moral, they had a tendency to be even more emphatic about sweeping away the old than had been the post-WWI generation of Modernists. And of course this led into a dark, uncomfortable corner: the death of artistic expression itself, or at least of any kind of honest belief in the inherited systems which had provided an expressive mechanism for artistic ideas. This impasse led Boulez into elaborate clockwork castles, and sent Stockhausen right off the earth; Clementi found a language that could balance his love for what had been lost against the necessary understanding that there is no right of return to the pre-modern certainties. Even as it documents the last days of European music, Clementi’s work holds up a brave commitment to continue, somehow, to exist. And of course Aldo Clementi was a radical: a member of the avant-garde; although in his case it would be more satisfying to identify him as an avant-garde of one, singly pursuing a conviction well in advance of the rest of us, a figure making poignant gestures alone on the edge of an abyss we will all approach sooner or later.
I have been listening to my Aldo Clementi, and wondering what I might say about him, about the struggle with what can and cannot be said when the language itself is fatally compromised. Which then throws up the question: is it really necessary to approach aesthetic ideas in such apocalyptic terms? Perhaps it is in my case, because I am serious about being a Modernist, with the big ‘M’, and it is impossible to get away from the fact that my chosen movement has lost momentum, that we have become locked in a particular kind of self-made ice. But why would I want to ally myself with a movement that has already produced its own successor movements, when even these post-movements have started to fade from the scene? There is no way out of Modernism: it is not over yet, and will not be over until the circumstances that led to Modernism themselves disappear. And what are these circumstances? The experience of alienation in the world-culture of electricity? A sense of loving that to which we cannot return? It involves a permanent crisis in aesthetic being: the old ways of doing things are no longer viable, and this turns out to be a rolling decay, always rolling forward, always rendering the recently-viable old, and frozen. This is the state of being ‘modern’, this rolling-forward of decay, with the ground beneath us changing constantly. A form that promises order can never be trusted, because it must be built on either an illusion or a falsehood. Sometimes both of these are useful, and necessary; but an avant-garde Modernist has no choice but to insist on illuminating our illusions and falsehoods, even while being aware that this goal itself is quixotic, and itself untrustworthy.
The essay that accompanied a 1982 recording of Clementi’s 1980 vocal-dramatic work Es described a battle then raging between ‘younger composers… convinced that in some cases, the renewal [of music] is already taking place,’ and ‘others… convinced that the glaciation of the musical planet is already inevitable.’ I have always felt myself trapped between these two positions: between the sensation that everything is always renewing itself, and the conclusion that everything is always ending. It reminds me of the popular science books I used to read out in the country, in the summer of my childhood, the most memorable passage having been my discovery of the entropy principle. The word itself fascinated me, and I’d inscribe it in notebooks as one might doodle pictures of guitars or girls in pigtails. This, and the line from Keats, half in love with easeful death, which has as its corollary being half in mortal terror. The pain of not-being always coupled to faith in the world’s power for self-renewal: a faith in something awesome and profoundly non-human, and thus a very cold faith. Art can only offer us a palliative, which will inevitably be illusory, against the vast terror of being; the act of making art inevitably involves us in form and structure, which creates a false promise of permanence and stability. One must be honest about art’s potential, yet if honesty compels silence, what does it imply for everyone who attempts art without being silent? Is any act of artistic creation necessarily a dishonesty? And yet dishonesty is not an absolute, a pole away from what we should desire: honesty, of one variety, involves being clear about which contradictions we choose to call into service at any given time. Why are we not silent? Because we cannot remain silent. It unhinges us, it goes against our nature: humanity is social, and we cannot help seeking after connections with other people. Thus we constantly attempt to communicate, and the richest form of communication (other than love) is art: art will emerge, even if it emerges as a long-extended assertion of its own exhaustion in the face of the world in which we find ourselves.
Which leads me to a rhetorical question: why did Aldo Clementi continue to write music? We can ask a similar question about Feldman and music, and about Beckett and literature, and about anyone who harbours the classical doubts of post-war Modernism, myself included. The resulting art will be restless, often full of self-doubt, but at the same time it will possess the paradoxical self-confidence of a lament, a cry of pain. It will be, like Aldo Clementi’s work, a vertigo of shimmering elements, struggling to express what may no longer be expressible, offering an honest look at its own decay. As Clementi said of his own music, it will be an art that accepts ‘the humble task of describing its own End’.