Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Auf wiedersehen, Mr Beckett!

[text written and then shortened as a review for The Wire #333 which was in September last year]

Deborah Weagel
Words and Music. Camus, Beckett, Cage, Gould

In a way, relationships between words, especially poetry, and music, are self-explanatory, because poetry started as music or music started as poetry (Orphic hymns, oral epics, vocal music, oratorios, masses, operas). In turn, the idea of synthesis of arts, and especially a kinship between word and music appears first in the Greeks as ekphrasis, which is, in literal sense, an “expression” of an idea, a rhetorical device of expressing one art via another and perhaps also first ever definition of intermediality. Modern view on correspondences comes from German Romantics, who insisted on the idea of the interdisciplinary. Since then the idea of synthesis of arts was attractive to many, with Wagner’s Gesamtkunswerk as a most famous example and all kinds of 20th century avant-garde experimentation: Dada poetry, visual poetry or even concrete and sonorist poetry or contemporary hypertext. All that was usually evoking musical language, but treated rather as a metaphor, neglecting its primary meaning. Yet something about the idea of blurring the distance between music and literature still haunts the humanities and interestingly it is usually the literary scholars than musicologists, who want to prove it.

In Words and Music Deborah Weagel interestingly overlooks all the literary avant-garde traditions, from symbolism to dada, and chooses to focus on four artists, two writers and two composers/musicians, Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, John Cage and Glenn Gould respectively, which also happen to be well established High Priests of Modernism. She also states from the beginning, that what interests her are only two aspect of musicality of literature: music in literature and literature and music. First surprise may be engaging Camus to this crowd, whose work is not obviously musical. Yet, as it is exposed, author of L’etranger had a great affinity with both Mozart and Bach, believing, that music is an expression of “the unknowable world”, asscribing to certain natural phenomena, such as the look of the morning sun or of the sea thinkgs, like tonality and counter-tonality. Camus lived in an era full of all sorts of experimentation in music, from Schoenberg to Stravinsky or Messiaen, but it was a traditionalist Honegger, that composed music to his play. As we realise, the most common and perhaps basic way Camus and many writers understood musicality was a simple sonata form, A-B-A, that is: a topic, its variation(s) and a reprise. Yet the banality of the idea seems to be able to express itself in infinite number of ways.

In turn, there’s no doubt of Beckett’s interest in avant-garde music: minimalism and experimentalism of his work, from Godot to Krapp’s Last Tape invite comparisons to music and in his case rightly so. Sensitivity to voice, pitch, resonance and duration often make his manuscripts look like musical scores. There’s clearly parallelism between Beckett’s and some avant-garde artists, culminating in his collaboration with Morton Feldman on the play Neither. Playing with the idea of test/textlessness, Beckett’s primal element was word, and again, depending on what we understand by musicality of literature, we can take those experiments as inventing a new form or simply densifying of the linguistical texture. In turn, John Cage, everybody’s favorite avant-gardist, used certain musical procedures in his texts, such as Lectures on Nothing and Something or his famous book Silence. They were avant-garde, so not rooted in music or language yet – what gave an interesting, but perhaps one-off effects, that cannot be really pursued by anyone else. Cage’s elusive philosophy of work remains ever attractive, but it wasn’t actually a more flexible language of art, because it only can be bowed to Cage’s experimentation.

The last chapters, devoted to genius interpreter of Bach Glenn Gould are perhaps the least predictable and focus on his rarely discussed amazing radio works and auditions, like Solitude Trilogy, highlighting the piety and obsessive perfection, with which Gould approached editing and recording of sound. Trilogy is three sound documentaries, exploring the lifetime obsession of Gould, the counterpoint, with the spoken word, using the sound of the sea or train as basso continuo and exploring culture of Canadian Mennonites combined with songs of Janis Joplin. The author of The Prospects of Recording believed in the improving role of technology in maintaining our environment. Various kinds of sounds and the account of his less known work sound fascinating.

Yet, while being very informative, extensively footnoted Words and Music contribute less new to the general subject: it gathers the material, but do not attempt to demystify or challenge artists’ methods. What about Schwitter’s Ur-Sonate, Cage’s important influence: it’s a musical score written for speech apparatus, but there’s no meaning to it, then what does it have to do with literature, apart from its looks? You could say that these classifications aren’t necessary, that they impoverish an artform that is completely self-sufficient. Does this mean the efforts are futile? Not at all: it makes us contemplate the mystery even more.

No comments:

Post a Comment