Friday, March 28, 2008

Experts find the oldest voice recording!

Person singing French folk song is 'like a ghost singing to you'

SAN FRANCISCO - At first listen, the grainy high-pitched warble doesn't sound like much, but scientists say the French recording from 1860 is the oldest-known recorded human voice.

The 10-second clip of a woman singing "Au Clair de la Lune," taken from a so-called phonautogram, was recently discovered by audio historian David Giovannoni. The recording predates Thomas Edison's "Mary Had a Little Lamb" — previously credited as the oldest recorded voice — by 17 years.

The tune was captured using a phonautograph, a device created by Parisian inventor Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville that created visual recordings of sound waves.

Using a needle that moved in response to sound, the phonautograph etched sound waves into paper coated with soot from an oil lamp.

Giovannoni and his research partner, Patrick Feaster, began looking for phonautograms last year and in December discovered two of Scott's — from 1857 and 1859 — in France's patent office. Using high-resolution optical scanning equipment, Giovannoni collected images of the phonautograms that he brought back to the United States.

"What Scott was trying to do in 1861 was establish that he was the first to arrive at this idea," Giovannoni said. "He was depositing with the French Academy examples of his work."

"We took those images back to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and found that (Scott's) technique wasn't very developed," Giovannoni said. "There were squiggles on paper, but it was not recording sound."

So Giovannoni, who collaborates with many other audio historians, including scientists at Berkeley, asked the French Academy of Sciences to send digital scans of more of Scott's papers. Those scans arrived on March 1.

"When I opened up the file, I nearly fell off my chair," Giovannoni said. "We had beautifully recorded and preserved phonautograms, many of which had dates on them."

While Giovannoni was excited by the images, they still needed to be translated into sound.

Creating sound from lines scrawled on sooty paper was a job for Berkeley lab scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. Haber and Cornell had previously created sound from phonautograms that Edison had created in 1878 of trains.

The scientists used optical imaging and a "virtual stylus" to read Scott's sooty paper. They immediately got sound, but because phonautograph was hand-cranked its speed varied and that changed the recording's pitch.

"If someone's singing at middle C and the crank speeds up and slows down, the waves change shape and are shifting," said Cornell. "We had a tuning fork side by side with the recording, so you can correct the sound and speed variations."

On March 3, Haber and Cornell sent audio back to Giovannoni, and another engineer further fine-tuned the recording to bring the voice out more from the static. A person can be heard singing, "Au clair de la lune, Pierrot repondit" ("By the light of the moon, Pierrot replied").

"When I first heard the recording as you hear it ... it was magical, so ethereal," said Giovannoni. "The fact is it's recorded in smoke. The voice is coming out from behind this screen of aural smoke."

Giovannoni said the reconstructed audio pushes back the frontier of recorded sound.

"It's like discovering the world's oldest photograph and learning that the photograph was taken 17 years before the invention of the camera," he said. "In this case, the oldest sound that we can generally hear, up until today, has been from 1888. This predates it by 28 years."

Scott never intended for anyone to listen to his phonautograms, Giovannoni said. "What Scott was trying to do was to write down some sort of image of the sound so that he could study it visually. That was his only intent," he explained.

Nevertheless, the result of his work is being played in public at last on Friday at the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University. It is also posted on the Web.

© 2008 MSNBC Interactive


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Alan Frogley and Reception History

I met Alan Frogley today, author of a fair number of influential studies investigating the reception of Vaughn Williams. A number of his articles attend to reception history from a vast array of perspectives including one on the myth of "Englishness" - what he terms the "sweet Anglo-Saxon spell" with regards to the rise of racism in the post-colonial United States. Reception Theory and the exercise of reception history in the discipline of musicology has been fairly well received. One need look no further than Mark Everist's essay in "Rethinking Music" that calls for Reception History as no less than an imperative in contemporary musicological scholarship. Briefly, reception history and theory assigns value to the event of a musical work's reception and proliferation in any given culture, taking into account the technologies of production and reproduction that defines its space in the invisible stepladder of music and listening.

And what a powerful suggestion Reception Theory has been! The appeal in reception history rests (in part) in the allocation of alternative musical 'truths' in the process of transference and dissemination. Also, it imparts the receiving end of the musical chain (the listener) with a certain elevated agency, perhaps even claiming that it is ultimately the hypothetical public that invigorates, validates or trashes music. Taken literally, reception history might be used to signal the empowering (and very appealing) claim that it is "we" who define and shape history, and following, the very parameters by which musical 'works' are themselves understood. In other words, stretched to extremes, reception history may masquerade itself as the golden key to musical ontology, if not at least to upset its stronghold on the author-text relationship.

Humming over lunch, I recalled an argument of one of my fellow students posed to my lecturer that ran in parallel to another of my worries regarding reception history. Plainly, I asked Mr. Frogley: "Where is the reception in reception history"? I had to quickly clarify myself. Reception history and its accompanying theory rests on the assumption not only of a hypothetical listener, but also on a certain vision of subjecthood, specifically that of the socio-cultural subject that can never listen with untainted ears. Easily dispatching with metaphysics and aesthetic theory, reception history presupposes that experience can only be informed by the historical subject afflicted by all kinds of intersecting forces which work to inform taste, value judgments and cognition. This is not the only blind spot.

The other problem regarding reception history is its predilection to the same old modernist critique, even though it may claim to liberate dominant discourses. After all, any formation of text must generalize, and therefore be subjected to implicit censorship. Some things will be included, other things omitted. While all this is well, good and inevitable, as one might say, there is a further related problem. How does one go about interpreting empirical data gathered for reception history? Very often, the very same sources acquired - journal articles, newspaper clippings, personal accounts, testimonies of other composers - are, in one way or another, share an umbilical cord with the same institutions that reception history attempts to criticize for exercising a monopoly over discourse. And, of course, reception is a dead end in itself. The act of reception ends in receiving. Any act of translating the inner-phenomenological experience of reception (making the intrinsic extrinsic and explicit) involves the act of translation and interpretation, which are filtered through the inevitable mesh of discourses invariably tied to common discursive practice. As the old saying goes "put it into words", one struggles to be productive in a different system. Even if no act of reception may be an innocent one, no act of speaking of reception may be an innocent one either.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Two Wagner Recordings in search of Drama

Götterdämmerung, Decca Records (1965)
Sir Georg Solti, Conductor
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wiener Philharmoniker

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Warner Classics (1991)
Daniel Barenboim
Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele

“Music, which does not depict Ideas inherent in the phenomena of the world, but is itself a comprehensive Idea of the world, includes the drama within itself, since the drama, in turn, expresses the only Idea of the world adequate to music … We would then not be mistaken if we saw in music the a priori qualification for shaping a drama.”

Thus spoke Richard Wagner in an essay entitled Beethoven dated 1870, around the time when he was fiendishly churning out music for Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final instalment of Der Ring des Nibelungen (or simply, The Ring Cycle to avid Anglo-Saxon Wagnerites). Wagner, who had written radically about the revolutionary potential of Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the future) since 1849 after a brief but inspiring encounter with anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, had already developed his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work) by 1851 in Oper und Drama. Another life-changing encounter, this time with the Romantic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, altered the fate of the characters in Götterdämmerung. In short, Wagner revised his earlier 1948 draft of Siegfrieds Tod, centering the Ring Cycle around Wotan (the chief of the Gods) instead of Siegfried, and decided to condemn all his main characters to a dramatic, fiery doom.

Indeed drama was of the essence to Wagner, who enjoyed the admiration of Ludwig II, Fredrich Nietzche, and a hefty proportion of the Third Reich. A relatively late bloomer in his career, Wagner’s attention to drama in his epic operas seemed inevitable, given his early predilections for Greek epics and dramas during his schoolboy days at the Leipzig Thomasschule. In 1849, Wagner proclaimed that his “revolutionary” ideal for music of the future was “to compel the public to focus its attention upon the dramatic action so closely that it is never for a moment lost sight of”. If so, then any contemporary interpreter of Wagner’s hugely complex operas must grapple with the problem of crafting clear dramatic action without being overpowered by the immense scale at which Wagner composed.

Scale is precisely what the hugely popular annual Bayreuth Wagner festival represents in importance and in profit margin: one can almost speak of a Bayreuth industry equal (if not larger) in magnitude accompanying the festival itself. And scale is precisely what Warner Classics’ release of a 1991 Bayreuth Festival live recording of The Ring Cycle seems to promise, under the assured baton of celebrated conductor Daniel Barenboim. As in any live recording, dramatic ‘liveliness’ is at its most palpable, and this recording is no exception.

There are many reasons to love the 14 CD Box Set, complete with (surprise!) a bonus DVD that includes rare clips of the actual 1991 performances. Compact and sleek, the set is stylishly designed and ergonomically packed to take up the space of about 6 stacked CD cases. Each of the 14 CDs are individually sleeved and labelled, accompanied with 4 booklets, choked with Leitmotifs strategically arranged alongside the libretto for easy reference. From the opening blare of the horns proclaiming the iconic Erwachens-Motiv (an Eb minor chord that transforms into a Cb major chord), the electricity of live-performance sparkles in the air. There is nothing quite like the actual acoustic magic of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (built to Wagner’s own specific directions), bewitching the orchestra into Wotan’s highly potent spear of god-like enchantment. Throughout the recording, the strings seem conspicuously thicker and meatier, while the woodwinds enjoy a warm resonance, at the same time according to the brasses a bright, rough-edged quality that cuts through Wagner’s dense tonal palettes as knife through butter.

However, the dramatic “liveliness” of a “live” space is not necessarily advantageous to an orchestra, and Barenboim’s somewhat heavy-handed approach to the orchestral interludes exposes the delicate balance between dramatic musical declamation and the potential of an acoustic space to muddle. This is especially so during Siegfried’s descent to the Rhine (CD 1 track 10), where the strings pick up a light folk-like motif that quickly segues into a pattern of chromatic descending fifths. Barenboim’s strings sound consistently weighty, giving the impression of furniture tumbling down a staircase rather than light frolic – with the pieces of furniture becoming increasingly bulkier. On the other hand, when the score calls for maximal orchestral participation, Barenboim milks volume for all it is worth, packing a theatrical punch of sonic surprise most notably in the brasses during Siegfried’s funeral procession (CD 4 track 14). Responding to the mourn-like chromatic movement in the lower strings, the brasses interrupt the uncertain timpani roll of foreboding with a C minor triadic blare of raw power and devastating finality, enough to make one’s hair stand on end.

Elsewhere, this “liveliness” of live-recording proves to be downright annoying. The sensitive mics tend to pick up everything, including popping, crackling, the brushing of clothes, and most of all, the plodding of feet on ground. This misgiving is at its worst during Siegfried’s heart-wrenching death aria to an imaginary Brünnhilde, where the lyrical beauty of Siegfried’s delicate solo competes with thundering soles – and loses. Otherwise, Siegfried Jerusalem makes a terrific Siegfried for all the right reasons (including the uncanny name resemblance), forgiving, of course sporadic moments whereby passion drives the voice off-key. Sans the foot-thumping, Jerusalem’s death aria is despairingly gut-twisting and a genuine tear-jerker, while his opening duet with Brünnhilde reveals both a lovesick fool and naive idiot that would have been worthy of Robert Hall’s “anti-intellectual hero” . As Brünnhilde, Anne Evans brings a mature quality to the role, depicting certain mellow thoughtfulness. In the end, however, it is the villains who steal the show. Philip Kang’s Hagen combines raw aggressive vocal power with dramatic sturdiness, while Bodo Brinkmann as Gunther demonstrates a brooding criminal mastermind with a rich, resonant baritone ring.

Decca Records’ 1965 release of Götterdämmerung by the Vienna Philharmonic led by maestro Sir Georg Solti promises a different sort of dramatic experience. Writing in the recording’s preface, producer John Culshaw admits that Wagner’s vision of total artistic-dramatic unity is “by its nature almost impossible to achieve”. However, Culshaw quickly goes on to make an audacious claim: that by the use of modern technical wizardry, the recording will set out to enhance the musical dramatic aspect by digital means otherwise unachievable in a real ‘live’ performance. For example, the acoustical setting for the orchestra is altered subtly over the course of the recording to invoke different timbral landscapes, while Siegfried’s voice is digitally tinkered to sound deeper when he assumes the physical form of Gunther. Surprisingly enough, the master-stroke of this recording is not its trifling in sonic legerdemain – with alterations so unperceivable as to be subliminal – but lies instead with the musical craftsmanship of Sir Georg Solti.

Although the Vienna Philharmonic may lack the Thor hammer-swinging impact of Barenboim’s Festival Orchestra, what the Vienna Philharmonic achieves in its lack more than overcompensates its inability to nail the decibels. To be fair, the orchestra does come across with a transparent quality of clearness that often feels un-blended, dis-unified and digitally superimposed. The strings lack the pendulous solemnity of Barenboim’s orchestra and sound shrill at times, whereas the woodwinds have an uncanny aura of intimacy, the clicks of instruments being glaringly audible. Musically however, Solti whips up an astounding performance from the Vienna Philharmonic that far outshines the fire-and-brimstone bludgeon of Barenboim’s. Solti chooses a more nuanced approach in dynamics, and the orchestra overall feels lighter, sprightlier and nimble, leaving just enough room for the earth-shattering crescendos. Just listen to Siegfried’s descent (CD 1 Track 4) and immediately one is struck with a breath of fresh orchestral air, the strings dancing with great rhythmic precision and tone contrast, cheerfully sounding Siegfried’s jovial heroic endeavours.

Solti delivers several sublime moments of orchestral surprise, including a breathtaking rendition of Siegfried’s funeral procession (CD 4 Track 8), achieving a balance between grave misfortune and the celebration of a heroic life. Solti has a knack for sustaining musical intensity through long build-ups; by the time the orchestra honks its horns on the prolonged dominant sevenths, it feels earned rather than contrived, awesome rather than awkward, subduing almost immediately to a minor transposition of the key ‘love’ leitmotiv. Under Solti’s direction, the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra is less an accompanist than a vehicle driving and participating in the unfolding of theatrical action. Take for example the jubilant instrumental excesses that nearly drown the “heil!” section of Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s opening love duet, crowning the love-satiated lovers with such innocent ecstasy that one could even forgive the cheesiness of their sweet-talk. Solti also achieves a chilling ‘Batman-theme-moment’ with the re-emergence of the Siegfried-Motiv in the final bars before the opera’s conclusion, before giving way into the sweet lyrical melody helmed by the strings. Here, Solti dives in for dramatic ambivalence more than decisive denouement, vacillating sharply between extreme timbral qualities as if Wagner had momentarily attained a Brechtian sheen.

As Brünnhilde, Birgit Nilsson a remarkable standout of this album, bringing a light soprano carefree to her character with just the right semblance of worldly inexperience to seem naïve in passing, and yet enough dramatic resolve that chills the blood when she finally decides to blaze the gods to the ground. Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried is also highly laudable, straddling the divide between youth and maturity. Despite the rave musical accomplishment of this recording, there are small details that you wished were rectified. For starters, the sound-effects chosen for the recording sound, well, amateurish, and grate jarringly on the carefully crafted orchestral soundscape. The individual tracks also run a tad too long, and one wished that Decca would have assigned track numbers more liberally as in the Warner recording. Still, on the whole, Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic deliver a power-packed dramatic surrogate of a disturbingly absent stage performance (as all recordings portend to do), that spans the spectrum between heightened emotional investment and Platnoic detachment that is truly a remarkable listening experience. This time, the marvels of recorded technology rule out the instantaneous charm of live-recording.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reception: a plea for musicological humanity

A plea for musicological humanity,
A plea that does not assume to discover, excavate or to unearth relics of historical value, but one that consciously remakes a Foucauldian present of the past.
A plea for humanitarian research, with the ear towards yesterday's listener today.
A plea for Bach enthusiasts to keep their CDs of the Goldberg Variations,
A plea for non-Bach enthusiasts to keep their CDs of the Goldberg Variations to aid a restful night's slumber.
A plea for the creation of new chronotypes that refashions the past, remodels our future and illuminates the worth of the space in-between.
A plea to listen to what matters to us most,
And not because some daddy thought it would make them richer,
Or more attractive,
Or better-liked.
A plea for the sake of pleading, not the sake of persuading.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Does Music Translate Anything?

That was the name of the talk that renowned Modernist scholar Daniel Albright gave at Wesleyan University last semester. Sadly, I did not manage to attend the talk, although some other music enthusiasts who did sit in gave me some vociferous (more like voci-ferocious) feedback. Although one of my previous lecturers did enjoy his spiel, others felt as if his examples lacked clarity and/or focus, and they walked away feeling either confused or unconvinced.

The lecture was given in conjunction with Wesleyan University's Center of the Humanities research theme of "Revision and Translation", a very useful way of thinking about problems in the arts. This theme has specific musicological resonances with topics I am interested in, and Albright must have had something going with his title.

Does music translate anything? What do we conceive when we attend to the semantic space of "translation"? Translation either implies what Julia Kristeva originally meant by "intertextuality" (I know I'm stretching this idea a bit) being the transportation of signifiers from one signifying realm to the next. When we translate a chain of signifiers from one language to another, we are invariably making creative choices, working to produce a parallel chain of signifiers that have varying degrees of compatibility with the signifiers of the previous language. In other words, we import abstract meaning (or the 'embedded' structure) of a signifying chain from one Symbolic realm to another. We leap across Semantic domains, crossing vast oceans while taking stock of similarities. Or, as Lawrence Zbikowski might argue, we enact conceptual mapping over cognitive continents.

Does or can music exactly achieve this? Of course, this question implicitly assumes that there is certain autonomy to the musical work (see the great deal of scholarship on the musical work concept) which, by extension, imparts whatever this abstraction called "music" is with a certain agency to 'speak' or communicate. But remembering Bakhtin, there can be no dialogue without an Other. Another problem also exists - are we falsely according an abstraction with agency where it does not exist? After all, although objects 'have' affective potential, it takes the recognition of another being to validate the object's agency. Its agency, thus, is a ghostly reflection of the receiving Other who imparts it with such post-fact. The 'facticity' or 'objective reality' of music has been much associated with movement and variation; a biasedness towards activity rather than stasis. As Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said put it in their joint book Parallels and Paradoxes, music is the movement from "silence to silence".

I might stretch the concept a little further, claiming that the negation of the space between silences effectively negates music. What Barenboim and Said argue for are datum points of beginnings and endings, and these datums are not solely temporal. Taking the extreme case studies, 4'33'' still 'marks' the poles of musical referentiality by denoting the beginning and the end of performances. Similarly, for an open ended work like Chopin's puzzling Marzuka or Satie's "Vexations", movement is characterized by the difference articulated at the local level - i.e. between two subsequent notes. Even in the case of LaMonte Young's String Quartets, variation is maintained on a macro-level by subtle harmonic changes to the chord-changes, while variation is sustained on a micro-level with minor fluctuations in timbre and volume.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Garage Band - the redistribution of composerly autonomy?

So in 2006, This is what Lev Grossman of Time Magazine boldly proclaimed:

"But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes." (see,9171,1569514,00.html)

And with gusto, for the first time in its publication history, Time Magazine declared the Person of the Year 2006 YOU, a veritable high point before it was to declare Vladimir Putin Person of the Year 2007 (and not without its consequent outcries). So for aggressively building facebook profiles, constructing immaculate virtual domains in which we reside and find authorial endorphines more of the time than in real life, The WWW version 2.0 has indeed accorded the well-equpped surfer with a newfangled sense of agency, but not without its material repurcussions. As Karl Marx insisted, subjectivity has a direct consequence on material reality, quoting the famous spin on religosity to 'kneel', and one will 'believe'. Genuflect to the hot musical gizmo that has taken users of the popular American I-Mac by storm, aptly named "GarageBand" that combines the squeaky professional finish of studio beats with the thrilling pride of the DIY phenomenon.

Since its development by Apple in the late 1990s, GarageBand has spawned a whole society of song-hammering addicts. With just 100 (free) musical loops, anybody could be the latest author of professional sounding tracks. Only 2 years has elapsed since GarageBand was announced in 2004, quickly becoming a popular source of amatuer enthusiasts, and undergoing 4 updates.

I first chanced across this nifty little application from a post-grad student doing research on club beats. Inspired by a book on musical analysis applied to techno, she decided to give beat-arranging a go using GarageBand. The results were pretty astounding, and I was considerably impressed. I was even more impressed when I started listening to some of the tracks individual students at my university were churning up, some of them combining live recorded tracks with the free track loops as supplied by the program. But before one reels back, roars at the air and declares the liberation of the composerly professionalisation, one should not forget the words of caution from Alvin Kernan's "The Death of Literature":

"Literature is disappearing into another category of reality where it is becoming only one technique for written communication, one among many ways, oral, pictoral, schematic, and many modes, print, television, radio, VCR, cassette, record, and CD, by which information can be assembled, organized, and transmitted effectively." (1990, 201)

Although one may not go so far as to suggest that Classical Music is 'Dead' by the singular hand of GarageBand, the negative dialectic speaks louder for GarageBand - that the liberation (or the personalization) of the composer has instead revolutionized the possibilities in music making, as well as the modes of musical making. If the discourse of classical music has been attacked for being too wedded to hermeneutics, then the cultivation of GarageBand type tracks neccesitates two ends. Either that there is an impermeable space of music-making unexposed to the hegemony of hermeneutical analysis, or that hermeneutics has to uncover a new mode of musical reasoning that goes into the production of these tracks.

Monday, March 10, 2008

That snivelling, appropriating Bastard! Paul Anka, appropriation, anger and the rock song

Paul Anka? You know Paul Anka? I know Paul Anka? For late initiates into the cycle of life, we are unfortunately cursed with the game of rifling through dad's old record collection to fish out the 50's and 60's super-teen-hit of that era, piping out favourites such as "Diana", "Lonely Boy" and "Put you head on my shoulder". At least one sixth grader has the capacity to croon out the melodic favourite of at least one of the abovementioned songs. Anka, who so captured the hearts of lovelorn American Teens way back when has made a surprising return, no so much in sappy love ballads, but donning the simulacrum of all-American Classicism (a subverting wink at the only musical context that celebrates a wrinkled brow like aged wine)

At the brimming age of 50, Anka has decided to re-establish his personal musical space through two acts of nifty appropriation. After snugly fitting into the medium of the All-American Swing-Jazz era that has ensured its own reproductive survival into the 20th century with youths such as Michael Buble and Jamie Cullum, Anka has turned to a new medium of expression close to the raw-breasted appeals of youths today. See for yourself:

In addition, youtube is literally awash with Anka renditions of rock masterpiece favourites, enacting the unthinkable (at least to some music reactionaries, anyway) taboo of high/art interfornication. One enraged fan remarked: "...performing It's My Life with Jon Bon Jovi, Martin Sandberg,..." ?? go to hell, sucker!". Although "lonel99's" remarks may have been but the minority, Anka's own appropriative strategies calls into curious question exactly where we derive our "auratic" field of authenticity from.

In Walter Benjamin's earth-shifting essay "Works of Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction", an oft-cited concept which Benjamin contemplates is the "aura" emanated by original artworks, as if they emanated a vapour of authenticity by virtue of their one-of-a-kind materiality. The autonomy of the single work of art, therefore, is drastically challenged with the technological innovation of mechanical reproduction, which allows not only for multiple copies of the same work, but also technologies defining new methods of artistic production that is predicated upon reproduction itself, photography (and now digital photography) being one of them. Benjamin's essay throws out an implied puzzler - where, therefore, is the 'work' of art located, supposing the existence of an aesthetic platonic heaven?

And, conversely, sources of antagonism. Can Anka's 'remake' of Bon Jovi's cult hit "It's My Life" authenticate its own existence, indeed have a complete ontology unto itself, without the umbilical of the original? Anka's toe-tapping pastiche extreme-makeover seems to stand well by itself, but fans are aware that such ahistorical methods of appropriation are legitimate by way of their novelty. The idea of the original, in fact, is what intravenously supports the system of approval around Anka, as long as the mode of appropriation does not cross niches that are too close for comfort. The 'author', as Benjamin has struggled with in other essays, has not been decentered. Rather, Anka's remake exists precisely as remake, an Other that is not the One, drifting about the periphery that feeds back into the center. But here, music does not lend itself so easily to Derridean freeplay. Rather, it points to the stronghold of authorship that lends itself to the preservation of these cultural artifacts and their social relations encoded within the performance, distribution and reception of the works themselves.

The great co-product

"Music", so claims Nicholas Cook, is the great industrial sham, the flamboyant pretender that masquerades itself as a singular, spatialized locus. Instead, Music has never been so wedded to the condition of it being a "co-product" as it has been today, or arguably so, even more today. Music and its scholastically illegitimate co-product scions have enacted such a sublime job keeping our eyes affixed on the nefarious empty goal which music purports itself to be, that we have failed to recognize the subliminal but equally powerful accomplices. Everything from the CD sleeve to the packaging and the glossy-finish on the latest MTV can now be reigned in for analysis, following Cook's proposal. That is, if we truly believe that the "peverse core" (to enact contextual rape on Zizek's phrase) of music is indeed an entirely unassimilable (and henceforth empty) endeavour. But Zizek's assertions emanate from the proposition that "empty" does not necessarily been content-less. Emptiness can be equated to that of a seamless brick, whose inside/outside binary falls into complication because of its coherence of the parts to the whole. The emptiness of the signified merely points to the fact that there can be no final signified for the chain of signifiers, and hence a chain literally in constant orbit about the frustrating kernel of the imagined signified. Thus that kernel, by virtue of throwing the signifiers into centripetal confusion, fail to come close to even attending to the core-in-and-of-itself. These chains of co-products likewise gravitate in motion about the perverse core of music, which stubbornly resists total absorption into the realm of the Symbolic, and can only be maintained by phantasy of its unified, total realm that precisely seeks to abolish the focus on its co-productive agents at hand.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

To Speaketh, or to speaketh not...

To speak or not to speak, that is the question. After all, music has endured an uncanny history of having its arm bent. In a scuffle-inciting essay by Carolyn Abbate "Drastic or Gnostic", the perennial question of whether interrogating music to discourse - any discourse at all - is worth its weight. Music, Abbate argues, has had enough with being used as a mouthpiece for authors with latent intentions. The musical-work-in-itself, to twist a little Kantian terminology, is intrinsically "drastic", that is, fundamentally performative, its ontology embedded in sonic spatiality. What it has suffered has been no less than semantic rape, ripping music from its privileged status in the active, performative realm of the sonic into the voracious all-consuming hunger of textuality and discourse. Let us forgo the metatextual intricacies of how the Tristan chord operates in Wagner, says Abbate, and focus our energies instead in that funny virtuoso passage that is "fun" to play. The gnostic, or the textual imperialism of discourse over the music-in-itself has caused scholarly bodies to create a polarization between two points of gravitation: the practical and the (written) scholastic.

Naturally, Abbate's little barb at the world of institutional hermeticism has suffered much a lashing from ruddy-faced musicologists, drilling at every crevice to dismantle her logic. This impetus is largely driven by a fear, however, a spectral fear that haunts every self-doubting text of music produced: that musicologists and theorists find themselves in a professional existential crisis. Abbate has not been the only whistle-blower, to be completely fair. In Kevin Korsyn's 2002 publication "Decentering Music", Korsyn unleashes a powerful body of post Structuralist thinkers to dismantle the mythic regalia of truth wielded by what he satires as a "Ministry of Truth" and a "Tower of Babel".

But have we moved away from this position of privilege in musical research? David Lewin seems to think so, preferring a "creative" approach to musical analysis and knowledge production that both verifies itself as artifice, and yet celebrates its status as such. Indeed, he envisions what he calls a "Bloomian" approach to musical discourse, in the sense that every text produced is inevitably a creative act, literally a "poem" of "another poem". While Lewin's formula works to illuminate the vast network of intertextualities that govern the sphere of knowledge production in the musical world, one could go on to argue that framing music analysis and discourse in such a paradigm is itself false, since the leap from note to page involves a disciplinary swerve. What may be an option is to fight fire with fire, or, to establish analyses through the creative medium of the "other poem" itself, meaning music. In this vein, it would not be too balance-throwing to re-imagine revisions of the work as literally analytical statements of a work along the signifying chain of its own production, or to compose a piece as interpretation of a former.

A Noisy Arrival, and certainly most welcome!

Alex Ross is an awkward man. Author of the highly popular music column "The Rest is Noise" for the widely read New Yorker magazine, Ross' demeanour threw me offguard when he silently appeared in the small sunlight music studio on Wednesday, sporting an understated maroon shirt partially obscured with a black jacket that looked as if it had been hung over his shoulders like a coat hanger. Speaking in a reserved voice, his eyes darted constantly, sourcing the regions of his mind for the right words - as he has been doing year after year, sourcing the precarious balance of words, critique, effect and affect. For his build, Ross might have fulfilled the personification or the homonculus reincarnate of Satie's furniture music. Nonetheless, this man has been bravely heralding the eyes and ears of New York concert goers to the sweet and oftern bitterly argued sounds of the 20th Century. His latest book which became available late last year has become an instant bestseller, and has made no silent splash. Ross' project, as one might imagine, is one that is simultaneously Herculean and, if the cynics are right, Sysiphian.

In "The Rest is Noise", Ross attempts no less than a thorough overview of the sonic landscapes which interpenetrate this confusing and intriguing musical domain music hostorians, composers and theorists have come to label the 20th Century. Indeed, Ross' subtitle goes on further to elaborate: "Listening to the 20th Century", and not specifically "20th Century Music". From cover to cover, Ross tracks through an intellectual mosh-pit of cultural, philosophical and historical facts in order to flesh out the social reality of the so-called 20th Century masterpieces, complete with the ever present anecdotal dirt. If nothing, Ross' extensive historical research teaches us that our favourite household names of musical modernity - think Schoenberg, Webern, Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky et al - were as human and as flawed as we would have loved to imagine them to be. As expected, Ross' most intriguing passages in "The Rest is Noise" dishes the dirt on the geniuses we so want to marr, covering illicit love affairs, belly-laugh-inducing moments of composerly foppishness, and inter-composer rivalry, all written with clarity, precision and wit that has characterized Ross' New Yorker career.

"The Rest is Noise" is certainly a grand achievement. Although it inevitably falls shy of Richard Taruskin's god-like achievement of the 6-volume Oxford History of Music released not too long before, Ross' widely accessibly writing style and (thank God-) manageable page length makes "The Rest is Noise" perfect for the bookshelf, the music-savvy partner, or for the scintillating read in the bathroom during an unusually long expulsion session. A grand achievement indeed, as Ross claims, it was 7 years in the making, with the author himself seeking reviews from some of the most established musicologists and historians in the field today. One cannot help but notice that Taruskin's own paragraph of endorsement is publically splashed on the back cover, although Ross hinted to the possibility that he did face a severe tongue-lashing from the Wotan of music-writing, and just perhaps the latter scrawled "BULLSHIT!" in one section of a previous manuscript.

However, the most remarkable achievement of "The Rest is Noise" is its simultaneous audacious daring as well as its timeliness. An exhaustive, yet accessible account of the 20th Century has been found wanting as we have delved deeper into the throes of the 21st century. Perhaps Ross is right, in that we have gained enough "temporal distance"to consider the 20th century as a whole, and how it has bled into the phenomenon of musical activity we tend to characterize as postmodern. And yet, Ross makes it deliberately clear that he was not out to set up a metanarrative of the period (as any critical-savvy journalist would immediately step up to say), acknowledging the complex plurality of musical practices, communities and styles that existed, indeed has always existed. Instead, Ross claims that he set the tome up as one might find the best route of navigation on MapQuest or Google; that individual composers or individual musical works served as routemarkers or "gateways" into exploring the vast possibility of narratives emneshed within and without these discrete but abstractly linked communities. And here is where "The Rest is Noise" displays its greatest strength as a publication, where it self-consciously deposes the very effort to radically reconstruct or reify a singular fabric of the 20th Century, priding the act of listening to the field of intellectual and scholarly "noise" rather than the sweet seductive strains of enlightened, rational and simple linearity.

In accordance with certain recent practices of hosting a website for books, Ross has exceeded my expectations by supplying information hungry readers (and listeners) with a virtual, spectral "afterlife" of "The Rest is Noise". Knowledge cannot be confined within the covers alone, and one of the "gateways" into exploring alternative paths of 20th century music appears brilliantly in the accompanying website, which I urge everyone to go visit. In addition to boasting links to Ross' frequent blog musings, Ross went through the extra trouble to make sound clips available on his website for curious listeners who lack the patience to scour alternative resources for music. Indeed, "The Rest is Noise" and its virtual twin may be precisely the new way forward in music history and music education because of its accessibility, and its intrinsic historical openness as a medium of knowledge accretion. As Mr. Ross got up to leave, I rose from my chair and hastened him to sign the book I knew would begin to change, provoke and challenge the way we listen to the 20th century - as well as send a wink to the inconceivable project of contemplating a history of the 21st Century.

"Queer" Silences and the problem with Cageian Historiography

I was preparing for a discussion surrounding the many myths of John Cage, famed composer of the iconic 4'33''. And why shouldn't the work have attracted the pens of theorists from a vast array of disciplines? Stubbornly silent, 4'33'' first premiered in a small artist shack in Woodstock (which still stands, although largely forgotten by the scholastic community of today). Ever since David Tudor lifted the lid of that fated piano years ago, music sloganists have never been so vociferous about its seemingly absented contents.

Although theorists have come a long way from the initial slander that surrounded the performance of 4'33'', our "modern" (maybe not post- but through-modern) sensibilities cannot be articulated without a spectral sense of guilt lurking in the shadow of a now-canonic piece. The problem is more than that of navigating the troublesome chasm between authorial popularity and radical reticence, for Cage never related a single legitimizing account of 4'33'''s "meaning", leaving scholars, listeners and even performers baffled in it's wake of ... well ... virtually nothing except for pure presentism under the uneasy tease of musical absentism.

"Not so fast" Philip Gentry seems to say (dissertation forthcoming), as many other writers who have joined in the "silent" debate. Orienting the debate towards the original score prepared for the Woodstock event, Gentry argues for no less than a 'musical' rather than conceptual frame by which the work should be judged. There are intrinsic problems in this approach, however, since if we were to predicate 4'33'' upon heuristic concerns (even open-ended approaches), we find ourselves locked in discursive back-peddling, for how does one articulate sonic presentism with absentism so foregrounded? Event should not be severed from musical performativity, Gentry claims, and rightly so - the conceptual impact that stoked critics therefore cannot be "silenced", no listening ear can ever be that austere. Even if one attempted a historical (drastic) evaluation, the discordance of absentism rang louder than the much-cherished consonances of "silence". This silence was a noisy one. Though chivalrous, Gentry's efforts at redirecting the discourse on 4'33'' is less enlightening than a glaring dead end - literally discursive silence on the topic rather than messy speculation. Of course, there are ethical dimensions that Gentry's chapter suggests, priviliging Carolyn Abbate's "drastic" over the "gnostic", and it is in this side departure that we may find an aperture into the hidden lascivious, slutty and even promiscuous secrets of 4'33''.

What exactly do I mean?

How can a work be lascivious, let along promiscuous? 4'33'' basks in a hermeneutic horizon, its statement at once ineffable and yet by virtue of its radical minimalism of sonicism, an alluring challenge to the disciplinary field, gently spreading its legs for the scholarly world to fill this gaping cavity of musical sense. With the proliferation of "recorded" works of 4'33'' (and there are a few), the orienting compass tends to hit a Bremuda Triangle, especially since technology can ensure that literally nothing gets transmitted onto the recorded medium for the stipulated time. Perhaps 4'33'' is thus domesticized, to be listened to at the player's mischevious will. Arguably, perhaps what 4'33'' does is indeed to expose music's perverse inner core of totalizing silence, despite its manifest sonic gymnastics.

For Jonathan Katz, Cage's 4'33'' may be an Ardono-esque labyrinth, that at the end of this long tunnel of silence lies some deeply disguised kernel of meaning. Katz's gold-digging allegory is undisputably appealing to the academic machine of production; that even though this perverse fetishistic core of meaning may turn out to be empty, part of the fun is in invested digging. Katz has attempted to fill the cavity (or to wrench out the gold tooth) of 4'33'', flimsily equating what he identifies as a "queer" silence on Cage's part to an act of "queer" resistence, inextricably wed to the discriminatory and homophobic policies of the McCarthy era. Gentry's own chapter resonates with Katz, and great care is taken to unmask this closeted celebrity as high-pitched flaming queen, carefully navigating presentations and representations of self. Unfortunately, the "Queer" in Cage's "Queer silence" is open to a disturbing question: When does "silence" become "Queer Silence"? The answer is not far from the shores of the page - literally when Katz decides to name it as such. The declamatory position of Katz's proposal does less to reveal than to plaster yet another mask over the many faces of John Cage - Queer (silent) rebel by virtue of ideology, the case thoroughly permeable to naiive romanticizing of the totalized and complete subject. Once again, Cage's silence is not merely made to speak, but made to squeal in a negative dialectic of subjectivization, a slogan carrying activist with nothing written on the slate.

If not "Queer", Cage's silence is an uneasy one, albeit a "queer-ing" one. Although I do not believe that 4'33'''s unheimlich elocutions are "Queer", the forces which en-force 4'33'' as a musical work (following Lydia Goehr's argument) go weak in the knees by the work's potential "To-queer". It is not already Queer; rather, it projects itself from a scaffolding of affect to cast grim light on the scaffolds already in place prepared to receive 4'33'' as such. But 4'33'' is no exception. In fact, it is plausible that ALL works of music outside the strongholds of the Symbolic are by virtue already queering. The very fact that we are anasthetized to their de-subjectivizing vitalities can be attributed to the fact that we have seized their queering forces and bent their arms of action by wrapping thick bands of discourse around the pieces conceived. This band of the Symbolic is no less than our theorizing and discursive tendencies already manufactured, disciplined and controlled to create the simulation of metaphor and control, helping us to colonize and effectively de-fang the threatening bite of an unbounded musical spectra.

4'33'' straddles this strata, allowing nothing and everything to enter the temporal boundaries errected by Cage himself. This Queering silence goes uneasy precisely because it is noisy, it subverts us by our own morbid and anxious acts of exclusion by threatening to silence our gnostic sensibilities with the noisy nooses of our own making. And this is why 4'33'' continues to be an important work, a git in the flow of our daily structuralizing tendencies, the spannar in the cogs - a work that still, although increasingly colonized by encroaching forces of production and reproduction, throws out a piece of the existential pie by forcing us to listen to our own ghastly silences, a beastly knell-like sound that tugs gently at the seams of the Symbolic, out of which we have made fancy armchairs.

The sublime ethics of a non-listening musicologist

The other day, crouched behind the music building, I hauled up composition student Bryan, sharing a smoke in the bitter cold. Somehow, we got to talking about music making, and he confided in me: "I really hate listening to music". On first encounter, I nearly doubled, but the ethics of anti-listening (a kind of prescribed silence to the vestiges of the grad student's symptom of overlistening) may have more serious claims that a mere perfunctory statement.

I, for one, share Bryan's sentiments about anti-listening. For starters, I'm not a very good listener. On a calm day, I'd rather be out running in the streets, mollycoddling a hot cup of cocoa with a group of close-to-hearts than sitting on my bench intently piecing out the different motivic varations of a Beethoven string quartet. To make matters worse, in the umbrella of listening, I'm probably the worst musician. Once my structural capacities (more strained to attentiveness than honed attuned-ness) grasp a work, I spend the next ten minutes busily chasing that little fractal of musical sound around like an enraged housewife running after a rat with a broom. No points scored there for either the rat or the housewife, but we've been led to believe that by appreciating the mere trajectory of the chase, we'll find a certain bend that speaks to our scholarly sensibilities. For this reason, and other more practical ones, I have never been one to sit through Mozart - forget Wagner.

This, of course, has had its multiple repurcussians. As a musicology minion, perhaps it is somewhat ghastly that I cannot list the opus numbers off the top of my head, nor can I recall major works as if it were the weekend top hits. Rather, I have been the academic parasite, homing in on certain areas of interest and exploding from within. On the other hand, the ethics of anti-listening may signal the rise of a new class of scholars - the theory is not a new one - entirely invested into the production of knowledge and the proliferation of new structural methodogies of entrainement. It would be naiive to simply attest that every knowledge worker who engages in the production of musical discourse inherently 'loves' the music. Academia cultivates, arranges and controls a certain stream of pleasure, jouissance, or what Zizek may even refer to as irrational enjoy-meant. Leaping off the Aristotelian board, perhaps there is striking wisdom in his claim that the highest pleasure of mankind is education, and the academic instution as a machine of endless texts can be even ascertained as a perverse pleasure machine. Certainly, as much as one may truly indulge oneself into a passionate desire-discourse with one's object of study, the reverse is no less true. Perhaps the disinterested philosopher is one that can mediate the problems of subjectivity, and signpost, with scrutiny, the effect from the affect.

The Emancipation of the ineffable

In the most recent American Musicological Society meeting in Quebec city earlier this year, Ronald Broude presented a paper that sought to "emancipate music" from the ambivalent strongholds of textual (literary) criticism which has, since the anthropological/literary turn of the 1960s and 1970s, been of much bane to the musicological knowledge-industry. He writes:

"The attitude of musicology towards textual criticism as it is practiced in the verbal dsisciplines is best described as ambivalent. On one hand, musicological editors have derived from the verbal disciplines their aims, their procedures, and their terminology. On the other hand, textual criticism has never gained a substantial following amongst musicologists."

And rightly so, Broude claims, because unlike 'normative' texts (or what he imagines them to be), 'musical' texts unfold in two simultaneous traditions, the "textual" tradition which resides in notated/written/scored documentation and the "atextual" tradition, an existence in an immaterial sonic environment. To this effect, textual criticism is found lacking potency to fully tackle the level of "performance variance" that governs the transmission of text, therefore "freeing music from the model of the silent-reading text".

However, what Broude fails to acknowledge is precisely how long it took the Western Philosophical tradition to dismantle our phonocentricism. If it was only within the last 40 years that Derrida finally exposed phonocentricism as an insidious kin to the Western logocentric condition, we therefore must be careful not to construct an inverted model of power-relations. Broude's own hypothesis may appear treading a little too dangerously close to music's own phonocentricity, an all-too-easy disregarding of semiotics for performativity and (inter-)subjective performance. This is highly problematic, since "interpretation" in the musical sense (in the atextual realm) does not coincide fully with "interpretation" in the critical idiom, embodying vastly differing cognitive practices. In lieu of heavy syntactical differences, a better paradigm would be to see how the musical immaterial "object" is informed by the dynamics of its creation, a process that involves bodies, text and subjectivity, such that the musical "body" (as it is fully realised in performance), is really a Kristevian "Subject-in-process", that cannot ensure its own durational integrity as a whole. Rather, it mirrors a Levinian "hoypstasis", continually working towards its own realization in the temporal present: within the act of performance, it continually has to create and reify its own historical "presencing", precisely historical because it presupposes the specific temporal moment that preceded it.

Satie & Martin’s “Sports et divertissements”: towards a (re)Object-ive historiography

First published in 1923, Erik Satie and Charles Martin’s Sports et Divertissements [Sports and Diversions] created a minor stir in the French musical world, if not more than a mere ripple or perturbation. Perhaps this was surprising, since Erik Satie, himself an iconoclastic figure, was already well known for his radically eccentric compositional style, a style only matched by his unorthodox personality and choice of fashion. This “Velvet Gentlemen”, as he was referred to in lieu of his “rather restricted wardrobe which consisted of a dozen identical grey (or beige) velvet (or corduroy) suits” , had already created a sensation in the French musical scene with witty and satirical pieces bordering on the ridiculous such as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (1903) and Vexations (1893?). As to why the former was titled so, Satie was reported as saying that “If they are en forme de poire [in the form of a pear] they cannot be shapeless” ; as for the latter, Satie’s performance directions dictated that the work was to be performed 840 times – exactly to the point of vexation.

If this snapshot of composerly stridence were not evidence enough, Satie appeared regularly in the news unleashing acts of physical violence against prominent critics . For this incendiary provocateur (who was to cause a major scandal in 1917 with his collaborative ballet Parade in 1917), Sports et divertissements suffered relative obscurity in postwar France. It was “largely ignored by the critics” and the public, but it “circulated quietly among musicians and connoisseurs” Within these intimate circles of knowledge, Sports et divertissements was silently hailed as a composerly masterpiece, proudly waving the national flag of the Avant Garde. Darius Milhaud proclaimed the work to be “one of the most characteristic works of the French school,” while Pierre-Daniel Templier (Satie’s first biographer) hailed the sensitivity of “Satie’s spirit and the spirit of French music … prodigiously alive.” Such Satie-trumpeting has endured well into contemporary biographies, with Allan M. Gillmor describing the piece as his

“[…] most ambitious piano work but arguably his finest creative achievement, a superb marriage of style and idea, a crystallization of virtually everything that had preceded it, the purest distillation of an aesthetic ideal toward which he had been groping for a quarter century.”

If Gilmor’s messianic pronouncements warrant a healthy dose of skepticism, then one should also be careful in “groping” Sports et divertissements for any cumulative “aesthetic ideal”. Indeed, Satie’s own handwritten preface may be a direct caution to modern-day musicologists as they were addressed to his readers:

“This publication is made up of two artistic elements: drawing, music. The drawing part is represented by strokes – strokes of wit; the musical part is depicted by dots – black dots [i.e., blackheads]. These two parts together – in a single volume – form a whole: an album. I advise the reader to leaf through the pages of this book with a kindly & smiling finger, for it is a work of fantasy. No more should be read into it.” (My emphasis)

Indeed, one of the contemporary crises of musicology is precisely the scholarly drive to construct water-tight narratives in order to sufficiently contextualize the work or composer in question. In particular, the historiographical revolution of the 1970s coincided with the intellectual rise of the Postructuralists, in which prominent French intellectuals such as Roland Barthes, Levi Strauss and Foucault repeatedly chorused the agency of epistemic structures in defining and redefining history and reality as we experience it. For these pre-postmodern intellectuals (especially for Foucault), the construction of a defining historical narrative was delineated and reconceptualized as an overarching “episteme” that sought to identify the overarching structural logic that governed all aspects of life within a particular frame.

Textually, these epistemic structures can be seen as moments of “consonance” within the “contrapuntal” texture of history leading itself to a tension between what Modernist Scholar Daniel Albright calls the “horizontal approach” (linear historical narrative) and the “vertical” one (the episteme). Similarly, it is easy to conceive of Satie’s Sports et divertissements as a point of consonance along multiple parallel, linear trajectories that narrate his developing compositional aesthetic, his musical and extramusical influences. As Michael Bentley points out, the tendency for musical historians and musicologists to “insert phrase-marks into successions of past events” in order to “achieve the [necessary] transition to narrative” can easily lead to blinkered overdetermination (overemphasis) of certain events and/or personalities over other ‘truths’ to preserve the integrity of the text’s self-unity. Lest we misinterpret them as factual ‘truths’, Bentley cautions us to remember that these unavoidable “phrase marks” are “as arbitrary as “those that the musician applies to a score lacking … crucial dynamics and fingerings” , to avoid turning the institution of musicological research into what Kevin Korsyn calls a “Ministry of Truth” and “Tower of Babble” .

On the other hand, aesthetically-inclined comparative studies purporting to tease apart the connections between text and image without proper foreknowledge of the historical construction of Sports et divertissements may lead to ill readings of the work. This is primarily because Sports et divertissements is also a document of its own publishing history, threatening to unravel initial readings of consonance between Martin’s sketches and Satie’s calligraphic notation. The work itself has been published and republished no fewer than five times to date, each publication embodying different versions of visual-musical pairings. To speak of an “original” or “authentic” version of Sports et divertissements is not only erroneous or inconceivable, but also non-existent.

The “authentic” Sports et divertissements as it was originally intended to appear, in fact, was never published. Initially conceived as a de luxe (not to mention expensive) collector’s album, Lucien Vogel – publisher of popular French high culture fashion magazine Gazettedu Bon Ton – planned to issue a limited-edition compilation of piano pieces to accompany illustrations by Charles Martin to be titled Sports et divertissements. These publications that fused different artistic disciplines into a single luxury item were already well known to upper class French connoisseurs and art-collectors, many of whom were collectors of the livre d’artiste: a “luxurious book of pictures and words and (sometimes) music” , originating from the famed cabaret house Chat Noir where Satie himself had been hired as second pianist from 1887 to 1891.

After being turned down from Stravinksy (who had thought the meager commission fee an insult ), Satie took up the project in 1914, and wrote 20 brief and humorous piano pieces to accompany Martin’s illustrations, embellished with funny handwritten texts underlying choice musical passages between 14 March to 20 May in the same year. Although the album was scheduled to be pressed in 1916, war broke out and delayed the publication (further postponed due to postwar legal difficulties) until 1923 – 10 years after it was conceived. When finally released, Charles Martin decided to revise his 20 sketches, and came up with an entirely new set in 1922 – unbeknownst to Satie – which then accompanied Satie’s 1914 score in a limited release of 900 portfolio copies . Only the first 10 of these 900 “first” editions included Martin’s original drawings along with his later revisions, copies which are of extreme rarity and are virtually invisible to the contemporary public eye of today.

Furthermore, prevalent claims of Satie’s mastery of text and image fail to hold water under historical scrutiny. In several studies of the work , it has been shown that Satie’s musical elocution failed to match up to Martin’s original 1914 drawings. Moreover, it remains unknown whether Satie ever did see Martin’s drawings at all, and if he did, it is still unclear whether he had access to all of Martin’s 20 sketches. In fact, claims of Satie’s autonomous authorship of Sports et divertissements fall under question since Martin had already completed and chosen the illustrations for the album long before Satie had even laid a notehead to the page.

The historical peculiarity of the album is crucial in attempts to “understand” or “contextualize” Sports et divertissements. Every historical claim that attempts to “stamp” Sports et divertissements with a singular, specific historical moment has to acknowledge that as a published object, the elements within the work are already historically discontinuous with each other. Rather, Sports et divertissements (as first issued in 1923) already represents a caesura in the logic of the linear historical trajectory insofar as it resists attempts to apply a totalized and discrete historical “frame” upon the work as a whole. And yet, paradoxically, Sports et divertissements is already “framed” by virtue of the fact that its elements occupy a fixed relationship with each other within the album (presupposing, of course, the singularity and authority of each individual published version).

Hence, declarations as celebratory as “Sports et divertissements proposes an art based on the interplay and equilibrium of sound, visual art, and language” or “only Satie employed a simultaneous counterpoint of poetry, music and drawing within a single composition” begs the question of agency in Sports et divertissements, a question so terrifying as revealed to us by the “silent” history of the object, that perhaps we have failed to ask it precisely because of its potentially devastating consequences. The consequence that, at least for Sports et divertissements, Erik Satie was not the artistic genius of interdisciplinary media, that Erik Satie was not agent to “the encroachment of everyday culture [in terms of sports and recreation] into the realm of high art” , Erik Satie was not the visionary icon that composed music that “corresponds perfectly to Martin’s illustrations” nor was he the sole mastermind of this “fragile multidimensional texture” impeccably crafted for the listener “to savour the full flavour of these intriguing miniatures and experience them as the composer almost certainly intended”

This is not to denounce Satie’s importance; in fact, Satie did tread innovative grounds with his witty insertion of musical quotations and harmonic gestures that invoked the concept of title allocated to each piece. Instead, this critical revision demands that we temporarily suspend (indeed, dismantle) our inflated fantasies of Satie’s sole agency within Sports et divertissements, and deconstruct the work’s revolutionary myth as not a consequence of artistic breakthroughs, but as a product of the commodity machine, more explicitly – a product of the forces of economy which govern the production of “fashion” and “culture”. Indeed, it has been largely forgotten or neglected in the discourses of Sports et divertissements that the album was initially a commodity meant for consumption by the rich and wealthy, celebrating the pastimes of a certain class of the French elite as well as reifying their position on the ladder of social hierarchy. To that effect, the Object-ive reality of Sports et divertissements as a cultural commodity also functioned as an insignia of wealth, rank or identity, very much in the same way that the 15th Century Loire Valley Chansonniers materially reassured its wealthy patrons of power of their rank and status.

This alternative contextualization of Sports et divertissements, therefore, asks us to literally take the work as “a whole: an album”, keeping our “fantasy” of the composer at bay, heeding Satie’s own advice that “no more should be read into it” than the fact of the material, limiting our scope of discourse to the materiality of the material: all 17 square inches of it. Put in a different prespective, Sports et divertissements proposes a new critical paradigm that considers what Ewa Domanska calls the “spatial dimension of presence” which focuses “on the materiality and thingness of the trace [of the past] rather than on its textuality and content.”

Turning away from the “anthropocentric character” of historical writing, Domanska takes her cue from the “return to things”: a historiographical trend popularized in the 1990s by theorists such as Bill Brown and Victor Buchli, who highlighted the “agency of things” in the sense that material objects did not merely exist in the world, but “also act and have performative potential” . Objects (or “things”), Domanska points out, enjoy a privileged relationship with their subjects to the extent that objects can literally

“[…] determine who we are; the thing becomes the “other” of human being; the thing that participates in creating human identity, legitimates it, and becomes its guarantor;”

Likewise, Norwegian archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen points out the ways in which “objects construct the subject” , ushering a new critical perspective that considers not only the material sciences (i.e. material hermeneutics as the role of material tools in influencing the production of knowledge ) but also a historical ontology of the subject predicated on the object. In other words, what theorists such as Bentley, Olsen and Domanska suggest is a study of the project of contemporary “being”, reoriented towards the subject/object relationship. Although it sounds suspiciously Cartesian, what these new material ontologists propose is not regression into intellectual backwaters, but rather, a renewed awareness of how the historical object sculpts and shapes our contemporary ideas of the past, while constructing the ontic reality of “being” in the present, such that the past is experienced as a “bubbling” in the present.

In the case of Satie and Martin’s Sports et divertissements, a useful project outlined by the theorists of material ontology would be a historical excavation the ways in which Sports et divertissements (as a historical object) has shaped our ontic conceptions of Satie today, through the contemporary “presence” of the material object itself: the published album. The importance of such a project cannot be understated, as it unveils the historical permutations which (unfairly) relegated Charles Martin to the margins of Sports et divertissements and reconceived Erik Satie as the preferred artistic champion, at the same time reifying his celebrity-like position as a textbook figure of French musical modernism. In short, it is an examination of the play between veritas and verisimilitude, an ideological dance that leads to fantasies of the “claim of authenticity”

A brief study of the publication history of Sports et divertissements immediately verifies the shifting power of authorship from Charles Martin and the fashion magazine world of Lucien Vogel, to Erik Satie himself. After the limited release of Sports et divertissements in 1923, Satie’s facsimile (in black ink only) was released in 1926 by Rouart-Lerolle, without either set of Martin’s illustrations; the same facsimile edition was then reissued in 1964 by Salabert (M.C. 194). In 1982, Dover Publications (New York, 1982) published Satie’s facsimile together with black-and-white reproductions of Martin’s 1922 illustrations.

Today, the main publications available to musicians are precisely Satie’s facsimiles, with or without Martin’s 1922 illustrations. If we take into consideration that Satie scholarship in the United States only caught passionate heat in the 1980s (aided by John Cage’s Satie festival at Black Mountain College in the 1960s), neither the 1923 version (and certainly not the first 10 editions containing Martin’s 1914 drawings) of Sports et divertissements would have been readily available to scholars. It was precisely to cater to a growing American Satie appetite that Dover Publications undertook the task to republish Satie’s facsimile in 1982, downgrading Martin’s painstakedly hand-coloured sketches to a black-and-white ghostly image of its former self. Already, the cultural significance of the published object had undergone a sea change: no longer were publishers interested in the luxuries of the deluxe livre d’artiste, it was the economic power of Erik’s Satie’s name which they wished to harness.

As the earlier versions of Sports et divertissements slipped into obscurity, Satie stepped into the musical limelight while Charles Martin played second fiddle as the artist who illustrated Satie’s masterpiece, his importance unacknowledged in a culture that hummed Gymnopédies over the radio. As the mass distribution of Dover’s Sports et divertissements saturated American Satie markets, this invariably led to an attachment of all-things-Satie with the piece itself; another feather-in-the-hat for a nurtured public consensus of Satie, so much so that it was instrumental in shaping mass ontology for the reception of Satie. Indeed it this constructed “authentic” Satie that merged music, text and image with such wit and skill was (and is), as Bentley states, the “presence of imagination” in which the performer, reader, listener or analyst exercises his role as a “witness” to “being-in-the-world” with imagination reflecting “this being, a rootedness in reality” . The material object, which Satie was incidental to, paradoxically framed a discursive space in which Satie could exist as an ontological “other”, a persisting historical “thing” in the world which continues to exert its force, its influence and its narratives of “genius” onto our contemporary existence – an existence, and ontology, that, in turn, also reinscribes the potency of his name onto Sports et divertissements in order to preserve that reality within which Erik Satie is enshrined.

early ruminations

I'm mildly annoyed by my final research paper; to quote Michael Bentley, I feel the awkward postmodern musicologist guilty of "acts of temporal [here I revise: disciplinary] rape" (Bentley: 2007). Always eager to impress (whom? Myself? My friends? My Professors?) the paper on Erik Satie and Charles Martin decided to take an elliptical spin into the orifices of material ontology. Before you hold up the red card and cry Marx, this current Historiographical "trend" does not reek of commodity-crisis. Instead, historians celebrate a 'new' approach of material hermeneutics, which grossly dissects the way the instrument (material/tool as text) informs and distorts the Kristevian subject-in-process. The theorists have taken to anti-Epistemological sloganing, and the hallowed names of Foucault, Strauss, Barthes and Derrida dumped aside for more austere inquiry into empiricism (without the bad breath of positivism, of course - theorists are very good at watching their backsides).

Interestingly enough, Eelco Runia envisions the "presencing" of the past as a form of metonymic process by which acts of "transferrence" occur. Meybe he's a slight mysticist, hands figuratively fingering the under-organs of the "thing-in-itself". He stands dangerously close to approving a doctrine of Hegelism telos, so watch out for that man. Also, the concept of metonymy over metaphor is not a new one, in fact, Runia is probaby about 40 years late. Already Roman Jackobson (and later Jacques Lacan) heralded the slippery slopes of meaninglessness precisely with the determination of metonymy OVER metaphor; hence Derrida's "defference". But Runia states that art exemplifies an "attempt to create an endurable and enjoyable intersection of both meaning and presence" - do we sense Clement Greenburgian high Modernism in his statement? Lest Runia be a historio-transcendentalist, he opens a few interesting questions which I would like to sink my jowls into.

Erik Satie and Charles Martin's Sports et Divertissements cannot be taken as face-value historical document (as ALL relics should be spared the fate of). Instead, it is a trace of historical change impressioned upon paper, fate to a confluence of artistic, intellectual, social, economic and political change. It represents a filthy marriage unworthy of empiricism: of historical "gradient" on one hand (Martin revisited the work and redid his drawings to "update" them) as well as insolent facticity (as far as I know, Satie did not alter the work at all) - leading to an illegitimate Bricade, a collage that challenges the viewer to make cohesive historical judgements about the work precisely because it resists a well-defined chronological cesura. Furthermore, it is part visual montage (image, text, calligraphy and handwritten notation) and part score; meaning that it was meant to be played. The "object" (as opposed to "thing") both acquires value in one respect, and is devalued as a thing-in-itself in another respect because it is essentially an object of transition, a template of transcience. Insofar as it is scored to be played, there always exists a fundamental lack in the ontology of the object that can only be temporally fulfilled by the performer, the subject. Incredibly, the Lacanian object petit a is precisely the subject which the object "desires" to conceal its inherent split.

But can an object have an "ontology"? Isn't it precisely impossible to talk of an object that suffers from a "split" when Lacanian's mirror stage presupposes the prelinguistic infant (and not prelinguistic mass of atoms?) Here is where Georgio Agamben's dessiction of the "human" subject (As opposed to animal) comes into play, driving the subject to its Freudian material "death", so to speak as inorganic and base. Such breaks the binary between object/subject, as either parties are inscribed into this new discursive rhetoric as co-habitant materials.

The First Cup

What does Teh-Ping and Musicology have in common? The subject as the arbiter of socio-epistemelogical reality, that mediates the hand that picks up a chilled glass of teh-ping, together with the hand that scribbles from the ear. In short, nothing. This is an experiment, pure and simple, according to the liberal rules that this medium may grant this author (which may mean scholarly slipshoddiness, but I'll try my best to be scrupulous), the rules of which, as Lyotard explains in The Postmodern Condition, are found only in retrospect. Where form governs the rule, which then becomes circularly appropriated as a priori. Hear me, because I'm listening.