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’.