Brief Prose Alap, Remembering Ravi Shankar
When I was a first-year undergraduate at Western, I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t really try all that hard to make any. I spent much of my time between classes the same way I spent my evenings at home, sitting at a stereo with a pair of headphones on, listening to music. The university’s music library had maybe twenty listening carrels, surrounded by shelf loads of records, mostly classical, but there were no restrictions preventing non-music students from using the collection, so when I had a free hour I would walk down the snow-covered hill from the arts building to the music faculty, and sit through a couple sides of whatever interesting lps I could find. It was here that I first heard the great Bill Evans Trio (with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian) at the Village Vanguard in 1961; the library owned a twofer compiling most of the tracks (except “Porgy,” I think) from the two albums, and I remember being blown away by the surging, elastic rhythms of their version of “Milestones,” needle again and again. I can’t say how many times over I played the first side of Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert; those gospel-tinged, life-affirming cadences have been incised into my aural memory, as they have been for so many people – although, for me, those sounds are also marked indelibly by the context of their first hearing, at a turntable in one of those carrels. I also found a copy of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, which I didn’t own at the time, and could give “Chasin’ the Trane” the sustained close attention its deserves. I tried new music – they had a complete set of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen – and found some rarities (a great set by Anita Ellis, elegantly accompanied by Ellis Larkins, which I’ve never seen again or since; an amazing Elvin Jones-Richard Davis duo on “Summertime,” which was long out of print at that point, though it’s since been re-issued). There was a pile of Smithsonian recordings of American folk: my ears were opened, my aural horizons maxed.
There was one other record I found myself coming back to, a 1981 Deutsche Grammophon release called Homage to Mahatma Gandhi by Ravi Shankar, which combined two side-long sessions with the sitarist and tabla master Alla Rakha. With Ravi Shankar’s death a week or so ago, I started to remember hearing this music, and to think about its impact on me – immature, solitary, arty – a quarter of a century ago. I came to this music via my enthusiasm for Coltrane’s “India,” a sort of minor-modal adaptation to Western ears of Indian idioms. I knew and I know next to nothing about the technicalities of form and structure in Indian classical music, but I do know something about what I thought I heard and can still hear in Ravi Shankar’s recording. He apparently composed Rāga Mohan Kauns, the four-part raga that takes up the first side, extemporaneously and live, at the request of a radio producer in Bombay in 1948, a handful of days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. (The note-sequence that acts as a modal basis for the raga, Ga Ni Dha, is based on Gandhi’s name, a musical code from which Shankar’s extended improvisations gradually take flight.) The first section of the raga is an alap, a slowly building encounter with the basic melodic materials for the piece in non-metered time, without percussion. What I take away from Shankar’s recorded performance – with its tensile, wobbling tones, his languorously whelming, softly metallic attack coupled to a strangely inverted and resilient decay – is a stretching and even a suspension of time. In the encounter with mortality, in a public act of musical mourning, of grief, Ravi Shankar finds for me a pathos, a held poignancy that recalls both the resistance to and the inevitability of death. Rhythm, as he feels his way fingertip by fingertip into his notes, emerges not as virtuosic dominion but as a vibrant elasticity, an opening of the self that bears tactile witness to its calmly passionate refusal of extinction.
I have been listening to Atemwende, a recent CD of music composed by Bojan Vuletić for string quartet and trumpet. His work is new to me, and I bought the CD because of the presence of Nate Wooley on the recording. The composition is a suite in nine movements, and each section is derived from Vuletić’s reading of a poem by Paul Celan. These aren’t settings of text, and there is no vocalist, but Wooley’s idiosyncratic trumpet lines often cleave close to the range and timbre of the human voice, and the music sometimes seems to aspire to the condition, to the textures, of speech, particularly in the trumpet obbligatithat occur in most of the movements. I can’t really comment knowledgeably on Vuletić’s compositional method, although there are times when the textures he achieves remind me of the chamber music of Giya Kancheli, or of Krzysztof Penderecki in a rhythmic mood. But that’s just an impression: the music is accomplished and well-crafted.
It’s very tempting to hear the suite as a series of sonic allegories, as mimicking the collapse of meaning in much of Celan’s later work – a poetry that skirts the epistemic and phonemic edges of its own language. Vuletić invites exactly such an interpretation when he cites, in lieu of a liner note, a key passage from Der Meridian, Celan’s 1960 acceptance speech for the Georg Büchner Prize (the translation, uncredited on the package, is by Rosmarie Waldrop):
Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automaton runs down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?
Celan’s challenging poetic, I want to say, ties neither to inspiration – to the romanticizing of personal transcendence – nor to expiration – to a fraught modernist teleology of collapse. Instead, it seeks in the dissolute fraying textiles of his own language (a dire and lyrical German that offers him both enmeshment and estrangement) a semiosis, a graining of air across the larynx. Celan’s voice, the “I” that finds itself estranged poetically from itself, that appears to inhere in that very estrangement, can also temporarily – extemporaneously, for “one brief moment” – find the means to sing: es sind / noch Lieder zu singen jenseits / der Menschen (Faddensonnen, “Threadsuns”). That passing contact with a music other than or “beyond the human” can happen so fleetingly it’s hard to trust it happens at all: it’s worth listening to Celan himself read to hear if that breathturn can be made audible in his own elocution.
Eric Kligerman reads Celan’s Atemwendedifferently, as the moment in a poem when mimesis dissolves into a terrifying, stony silence; representation, as achieved semiosis, collapses into empty phonemes (as it does, literally, at the close of Celan’s Keine Sandkunst, “No More Sandart” – Tiefimschnee, / Iefimnee, / I – I – e), a loss which for Kligerman can be mapped over “the horror of an historical erasure” (118-9), an address to the unspeakable event of the Shoah. Celan’s poetry, for me, offers no simple redemption, but neither does it fall to pieces before the unspeakable; I take Kligerman’s point, but I still want to claim that Celan’s words effect a contingent but necessary return to the aural grounds, the sound-loam, into which human speech roots itself and from which it emerges. It’s risky, I think, to attempt what Vuletić attempts in recasting Celan musically, in as much as those settings might pretend as glib heurisms to give voice to the unspeakable, rather than, as Celan seems to seek to do, to find a language that takes up a fraught alterity at its core. “After Auschwitz,” as Theodor Adorno puts the problem in Negative Dialectics, “our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims; they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate,” because such sense-making, for Adorno, is altogether too bleak, an “absolute negativity” (361). Celan’s poems, I believe, respond to this terrible linguistic quandary, this crisis in sense itself, not by refusing to speak, but instead by attempting to voice that resistance as feeling, as such.
It’s tempting for me to hear Nate Wooley’s untempered trumpet lines in Vultelić’s suite as a tense, unruly sound-commentary on the through-composed string quartets. Wooley sounds very occasionally like a kind of Maurice André-Chet Baker hybrid, but more often produces a species of brittle, breathy, steel-wool (pardon the pun) sound. The seventh section, named for an early Celan poem Zähle die Mandeln, opens with a single tone (a concert G?) attenuated through circular breathing and played into what sounds like an aluminum pie-plate (I have seen Taylor Ho Bynum produce a similar timbre using a CD-R as a mute); the quick, resonant rattle not only picks up overtones, but also essentially de-tunes the sound, shivering the harmonics into a myriad of metallic threads; when the note moves a whole step, and Wooley’s starts alternating between G and A, the effect is to overlay a stannic breathy wash onto the audible effort of embouchure and string to find the sweet spot in their given pitches, to make their notes resonate and sing. At those brief moments, as sound-grain and resonance pull at each other, I think I hear a kind of breathturn begin.
Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics. Trans. E. B. Ashton. New
York: Continuum, 1973. Print.
Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Manchester:
Carcanet, 1986. Print.
Kligerman, Eric. Sites of the Uncanny: Paul Celan, Specularity and the
Visual Arts. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007. Print.
Vuletić, Bojan. Recomposing Art: atemwende. Nate Wooley and the
Mivos Quartet. Ignoring Gravity Music IGM 12-13. 2012.
On my web pages yesterday, I posted a version of a sonnet I have been working over for some time – and I’m still not convinced of its success, but I feel like it needs to go out into the world – occasioned by the anniversary of the so-called Montreal Massacre, the killings of 14 young women at l’École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. I think I remember the night – I was in Toronto at the time. It was bleak and dark and there was heavy mucky snow. I chose the sonnet for its deliberate and slightly archaic formality, a bit of the distance of craft. And because the fourteen lines correspond. The lines themselves have been rhythmically foreshortened and fractured, which seemed appropriate. There are some references to Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue,” which for me find a fraught kinship in response to atrocity; they’re not meant in any way to be glib, or to collapse one horror into another. Or to re-appropriate the grief of others. At the time, in December 1989, the news broadcasts focused on naming and identifying the gunman; like many of the ceremonies and memorials that have happened in the wake of these killings, especially around the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, the full importance of honouring and naming those women has become increasingly apparent – something that, to me, a poem can in its small way try to do.