I’m reading an excerpt from my book in progress tomorrow at Arnolfini, Bristol, as part of their Salon: Fictions and Ethomusicology.
In recent months I have become more and more concerned with responding to sounds by working on pacing and form. I’ve been writing a series of texts that start with a seemingly rational proposition and then crumble down into interpretive delirium: for me it’s a way to reclaim the enjoyment and complexity and intermittent incoherence in listening, and to work with the residual aspects of listening, all those thoughts and detours that are often dismissed as irrelevant and that seldom find a place in texts on sound.
I’m interested in trying to state the inability of naming ‘these sounds’ and yet the possibility of writing them nonetheless.
For example I constructed the following text in anticipation of and response to the sounds in a new CD by Stephen Cornford, Music for Earbuds, with repetitions and accelerations. I imagine it like a monologue read very fast.
The only information on these sounds I had from Stephen was: ‘The CD is called Music for Earbuds and is composed entirely from headphone feedback which makes some surprisingly organic (as well as electronic) sounds.’ I spent the following week dwelling on these surprisingly organic sounds as I imagined them, before even listening to them – or maybe I had begun to listen anyway. I have a habit with listening. When I hear of a record or sound piece before I hear it, I anticipate and deliberately infiltrate my experience and memory of it. Call it an exercise in fabulation, an investigation of the tangles in the listening-writing space, or simply the will to prove that a sound is never a self-standing entity but is connected, haunted and contaminated by its listeners and their histories. So here I am, skirting the edges of these not-yet-heard sounds, listening to, listening in, but always out. I have a habit with listening, it responds to titles before I listen, or maybe because I have always been listening. Music for Earbuds… ‘ear, buddy! Who’s out there? Sound it again, please? Who’s that? Hear! I have a habit with listening. It makes me write and today after playing over and over these sounds at last, I write: ringing buzzing these sounds spiralling frenzy. These sounds so stark and stubborn, as a listener I hit against their form, I slide on their surfaces. These sounds so alien yet alluring call me to spend time with them, attend to them. These sounds mark the edges of hearing and understanding. The rest will remain a mystery, this ring buzz these sounds spiral frenzy. I have a habit with listening and sometimes it’s obsession. These sounds take me to the edge of understanding. The edge here is the ear that hears. My listening encounters nothing but itself in these sounds. There is no key into or out of these sounds, only the endless play of their fabrications. Shatter any notion of sound as signifier. If I had to name these sounds it would be something wild and resounding: an incantation that returns and turns and generates a new meaning in itself, like these sounds. Why am I listening to these sounds? Because they’re there, and because they’re there I want to explore them and as I try, I fall into the circle of these sounds as I fall into the circle of myself. This circularity has no claims, it bounces the responsibility of listening back onto me. And I haven’t even started telling you of the void these sounds are set against. This void behind these sounds resounds my fluttering thoughts, terrors of understanding, interpretive delirium: Listen to the tweeting of the mechanical bird, listen to The Inner Dialogue Of The Lonely Mechanical Bird. In their exaggerated detachment these sounds mock the easy, dangerous assumption that a recording is true: maybe, maybe there is a mechanical creature, somewhere in my thoughts that thankfully does not have to be true to be experienced. I spend a good half hour contemplating this creature spawned by these sounds, crazed wind-up-toy running in circles. Its tones, sharp or rounded, puncture my understanding with their presence. The tangibility of these unnameable sounds. Is it a trap? Even the sounds of my keyboard as I type against these sounds, sound more terse and metallic. In these shortening days in the end of summer, there’s three of us and it’s a crowd: myself in the room, the headphone on and in my head, the mechanical bird with its metallic peal in my mind. These sounds. At the end I realise I might not have written much about them. I was too busy listening and writing these sounds, in but always out. In my brain they stay, at peace until they’ll reawaken to the next obsession. Go, listen yourselves. I told you I had a bad habit.
Each section in my book in progress is prompted by a page from another book. In somehow reverse fashion than the five blank pages in my copy of Melville’s Pierre, onto which En abime collapsed, these pre-existing pages are an attempt to bring reading into writing, even closer. Records of reading into writing.
Here is one of the prompts – most likely I will try and re-print these pages into the book as they are, as facsimiles, with my marks and underlinings (made at different points in time), each chapter merging into and out of each page:
Dialogue of Sound and a Writer was published earlier this month as part of Flash500, a project by Akerman Daly in which a number of artists and writers were commissioned a new text of 500 words.
I decided to write this dialogue partly as a homage to the satirical/imaginary dialogues of Lucianus of Samosata and Giorgio Manganelli that lightened up and engaged a good portion of my 2012, partly as yet another attempt in my ongoing search for ways and forms of writing with and without sound, while looking at theory ‘from the other side’ as if dead (theory, not me. As if.).
My next dialogues will be: Dialogue of Nature and a Field Recordist and Dialogue of Death and a Researcher.
two characters walking in a circle, anticlockwise and diametrically opposite
SOUND [singing along to the refrain of Flanders and Swann's The Gnu Song]: I’m a ssound. A most sinister s-sound…
WRITER [serious]: S-Sound? Stop and stop it, will you? We need to talk.
S [keeps singing and walking]: …the sinister-est s-sounding all around…
W [exasperated]: How am I to stop you and address you?
S [patronising]: Writer, writer, it certainly is good to hear from you, but then again, you are good with useless things: words. You infect me with your generalisations: you call me Sound. You’re asking the wrong question here.
W [dithering]: Are you not Sound?
S: I’m [pauses] s-s…, I’m eroded by your words and I vanish through time. Would you write this vanishing, instead of calling me Sound?
W [confused]: What does this mean, Sound? Are you speaking of a vanishing, or isn’t it a making, every time you sound and every time I write after you? There is something ghostly as you take on acoustic features that are to dissolve and yet mark your being differently, every single time. So tell me, what are you?
S [whispering]: I am s-s… and infinitely less. Your words after me are approximations of nothing. I exist in dissolving and yet you write after me, away from me. The risk is to lose me…
W [hopeful]: …the gain is to keep chasing you, along this circle, around and around. Yourself, do you ever feel lost?
S [sharp]: Sometimes I find mys-s in sounds I don’t recognise. And I keep moving! But listen, I have some advice for your fellow writers: tell them to stop discussing the absolute values of Sound, with difficult words.
W [disheartened]: But they will tell me that I’m ignorant and a fool, and that I blame their knowledge and discourse.
S [firm]: And you tell them, from me, they might be damned.
W [sighing]: Tell me then, what is at the end of Sound?
S [furtive]: Perhaps, if somebody attempted to write my many contradictions, they might glimpse past my vanishing. Listen, and you will know you’re being framed by my dissolving, and… you keep writing, don’t you?
W [in the vain attempt to conclude]: Well what have been talking about so far?
S [ironic]: What talk? There has been no talk, we have sounded sounds. Nothing has been reported or documented, nothing. We’ve been chasing each other, sounding. You should not have called me Sound, but told me of the sounds in s-s, addressed me with incoherent stories and undecipherable acoustic traces, signifiers whose sense is uncertain and that yet mean. Then we would have had something to say. Think about it: Absolut Sound is a slogan to sell, a portal into emptiness and oblivion.
W [yielding]: No words, then, for and after Sound?
S: No words: your words are to be for and after s-s…ounds. [starts singing again; skips off the circle, laughing] …Your sh-shifting words of s-s, round and round….
a version of the previous post from the minor angle, the less outspoken, to be whispered, by the whisperer
or, a quick view into my writing processes and how sometimes i build a text,
from notes written on scraps of paper and on notes on an iphone then lost and recalled in a lopsided way
longing for, attempting at a writing lost at sea
like bas jan ader in search of the miraculous lost toward the horizon of an ocean
and again i encounter borders of my self
and again I think of the horizon in melville’s late short story daniel orme, daniel the sailor landlocked and looking at the horizon
daniel, or me?
daniel a letter lost
and always a letter gained, in this country people often spell my name as daniella, i gain one L, a letter lost a letter gained, an A and an L
which amuses me, first because it makes my name sound a bit like a joke, where ella in the name rhymes comically with ella in the surname, the double L in italian drastically accelerates the way you pronounce a word, whereas the pace in ela is much slower and opens all up backwards toward the e
and secondly it amuses me because it makes me think, ah, L is listening, there you go, the gift you get from this added L to your name really wants you to find some meaning in it, a bit like that famous bullet with one’s name written on it, L is the bullet with the surplus of my name written on it and is bound to strike me.
so let’s go back to that book from the 24 july post, and the letters in it and here I have found my beginning and my L:
(This is to be read aloud)
. . .
A lead-coloured blanket crept up toward the edges of the sky and darkened it with restless flickers of anthracite shading. It then gradually thinned down and shaped itself into a word, I could read each letter one by one, emblazoned in capital letters the word was L I S T E N and the letter type was exactly the same one that appears in the poster of Max Neuhaus’ renowned performance from 1976. In my sound-art nightmare, one by one the letters began to peel off the sky and to fall on the ground, some of them denting the soil, others caught in tree branches, or cracking roofs, others splashing in the river, others shot off like silver bullets ready to peel off my ears. Some of them looked like they were ducking off edges to disappear. Others were big and still darkening even in their decay. I followed them one by one:
L , I , S , T , E , N .
L sounds the Italian word lontano, away, far away, L is away, listen and listening, lontanando, L landslides loops loiters laps lingers . . . . . and at last L leaks through the window of a library and lands, alphabetically observant, on an open book by Leopardi, Giacomo Leopardi the Italian Romantic poet who once wrote a poem looking at a hedge on a solitary hill and listening to the wind rustling through leaves and meditating on the passing of time, and infinite silence. L the letter lands on the page and sticks onto the first letter of another poem there, L as in La, in Italian it’s the musical note A, the note you use to tune an instrument, a beginning, and La is an article as in the, La, La sera del dì di festa, The Evening of the Holiday.
I look at some verses from the poem: E fieramente mi si stringe il core, a pensar come tutto al mondo passa, e quasi orma non lascia. And it grips my heart fiercely, to think how all in the world passes, and nearly leaves no trace.
I want to linger on that quasi, nearly: All in the world passes, and nearly leaves no trace. Nearly. And yet, a trace it leaves in its passing, this everything. The same heartache the poet got at the thought of things passing in the world, arises as he recalls hearing the echo of a song, lontanando, as it dies little by little, crushing his heart. Un canto lontanando morire a poco a poco / già similmente mi stringeva il core. Like Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s fictional Edison in his late nineteenth-century fiction Tomorrow’s Eve, who wondered what happened to the sounds he could not record before he invented the phonograph, Leopardi wonders about the cries of his ancestors, remote lost sounds of conflict and war. In the night of the holiday all is peace and silence, the world is resting, and so are sounds except for those of memory. The L in listening is away, lontano, it prompts memories from afar. How far back, in time?
Never satisfy, always point away and aside: on those borders between the I and the double you’s, and their doubles. I have been working these months to make my writing fleeting, to make it so that it’s not possible to take notes out of it, make it unquotable, no resolving sentences or all-encompassing conclusions. I have been drawn more and more to writing texts that have a tendency to disappear, and that will convey in you a feeling of ‘having been there’ although not quite sure where. (from a notebook, 18 August 2013)
I’m interested in the shift from real to fiction and back from fiction to real that occurs every time I am confronted with a memory and the impulse to document it. In such context I am not prompted to classify, but to interpolate: in its Latin origin the verb ‘to interpolate’ does not only mean to insert in a text something of a different nature, but also to refurbish it, at times even forge it. Our memories are refurbished and forged too, when we write them: they can never coincide with their event, and words will never be time-capsules-on-demand. A text is not an untouchable document calling for classifications: it elicits what is not there, what can be perceived across its borders.
So I think of the borders of my experience, recorded and recalled. Where, and how do I articulate it, when I write? Rather than considering memory, I’d like to think of the history of a memory, as it moves from fixed document to yet another reinvention, slightly different every time I write, transformative and entangled. Language, when I write after my recollections, functions as a field of associations, a weaving of phrases echoing other phrases, so that I can begin to be infected with the sense of other meanings from the past, within those present. It is not about remembering an immutable past: it’s about the possibility of a present, which at times can also be a sonorous nothing, a stuttering reverb, a resonating chamber for thoughts and clusters of words that were not created anew but cast from words that were before, recalled from archival layers. In proximity rather than in understanding I am cut through by voices I don’t want to explain, but hand over to you before they expire.
As I write I recall some verses from a favourite song by Arthur Russell called Home Away From Home, they seem to prompt me further: The birth of the moment is never ending / The rest is in the centre. I think of writing as the never-ending birth of a moment against the rest in the centre, its cry outstretched beyond its edge. Where is the edge of the tapestry of my I, woven in writing and unwoven in listening, reading and recalling? In the 1950 foreword to his ethnographical and autobiographical and truly visionary journey L’Afrique Fantome, Michel Leiris writes: ‘Truly a human measure, my horizon’. Sixteen years before, he’d closed the book saying: ‘There’s nothing left for me to do … but dream’. The time of each recorded memory is spanned by and spinned around the horizon of now and the edge of dream. In the thread of every memory I hear what wasn’t there and I make what is gone, actual.
When I tried to make sense of – dare I say, theorise – the proceedings around this, I failed. It was always as if my attention dwelled in the peripheral – accidents of hearing, stories, personal trains of thoughts – rather than the assumed core, up until the time I realised the very core of my research and writing was in fact what was normally deemed peripheral. I have spent all these months working on my borders and on my silences. With time, writing has become more and more a way of reaching into what I cannot grasp or keep within the dimly lit borders of the self and of the memories that still prompt it: a way of adding on to experience, or to reshape it. As Lyn Hejinian stated in the title of her 1978 book, Writing is an Aid to Memory. Not the reverse. Never. Writing does not derive from memory: it makes memory. It is an act of fabulation, rather than a transposition of a lost, detached, original truth: its engaged and mutable polyphony adds to an evolving process. Michel Leiris writes extensively in his autobiography Scratches/Rules of the Game, of the making of memory, of the reverse effect of a memory appearing solid, like a strange object reflecting ‘our real self’ on to us who seem lost and unreal and transient. His words outline a self-challenging ‘I’, body and mind, showing at once vulnerability, process and presence: they’re not concerned with making sense univocally, but with exploring possibilities for meaning.
As a reader, which is so strictly connected with being a writer, I participate in an act of discovery made accessible to me through other writers. I apprehend texts, even if I’m not acquainted with what they write about. I see their form that states itself and speaks to itself and to me and once more, I see in each of them the individuality of an I opening up to many you’s. Writing appears in its singularity and in its histories of relations, it does not need explanations that cling to external references. It is an event, unique and historical that sets the conditions of its own functioning. Michel de Certeau showed in The Mystic Fable how the act of fabulation is triggered by the statement, ‘I will’. I read this enunciation, all steeped towards the I and containing nothing unless I resounds once more in the double u of will. This means that I in its ambiguity, can be a source of misunderstanding on one side, but on the other, it emanates the thrill of making something happen. The creative imperative is a pull toward the unspeakable so strong, that you want to make it present. Where am I, when I write? I ask this question because language is also the matter in which I take distance. As Robert Duncan wrote in The H.D. Book: ‘…in writing, deriving as I do, I burn the nets of my origins’. So in my book En abîme. Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction I chose to make up and take distance from a number of scenarios. I did so to disrupt the mimetic function of the narrating I and any claims for an authentic origin, to play instead with layers of fabulation and focus on the actuality and impact of the text: I enacted my I, probing nudging teasing its doubles, turning into the double you’s of why where what whom. At some point I realised it was necessary to dismantle any nostalgic visions related to memory and recollections, so I decided to write a section of my book as a palimpsest of poems and texts written by other writers about a specific site in Rome, trying to exaggerate the effect on the edge between hyper-reality and artifice. The poems and texts I chose were all written in struggle and bloody occurrences by writers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Antonio Gramsci, Herman Melville, in times of personal and political conflict. The effect of hyper-real trick was exaggerated by the fact that I actually never was in that place that I was writing about. Or was I? I think I was, I think somehow I was there because presence is in the words, or at least I think we should challenge the assumption that presence is only made by actuality. What is present, are the borders of the I that make the text, their elastic boundaries expanded and refusing to be one and carved in stone. When they ask me where my authentic I is, I reply it’s in my words, not outside. Ultimately, to the readers, it doesn’t really matter if I was ever there: what matters is the here of their readings.
Where does the arbitrariness halt, in such type of operations? It halts once more at the borders of I and its fluctuating archives, on each individual permeable body. As I stitch words together and let the resulting off-centred construction clash with any ideas of permanence, I realise that a distinctive pace holds my words, with recurring rhythms and turns of phrase. Harry Mathews called it the experience of discovery through syntax. Flannery O’ Connor called it the mystery and manners of writing. At first I don’t understand it, yet I am open to the shape my words take on with their own pace. It is the pace of my thinking-breathing, that inhabits me although I cannot tell how it functions; the space where my archive really comes back to life, where I stitch all those fragmented records and traces together, the references that have been layered in my understanding through the years, the singular experience in every edit, absorbed and shadowed by what happens around my words and in spite of them. Then, I am tempted even more to claim for the precariousness of any writing. Because if I believed that words could stand forever on their own, and keep any experiences still, safe and protected within, I would be beaten: they are eroded by what they do not say but prompt to say.
In recent months I have become more and more concerned with responding to sounds by working on pacing and form. I’ve been working recently on a series of texts that start with a seemingly rational proposition and then crumble down into interpretive delirium: for me it’s a way to reclaim the enjoyment and complexity and incoherence in listening, and to work with the residual aspects of listening, all those thoughts and detours that are often dismissed as irrelevant and that seldom find a place in texts on sound. I’m interested in trying to state the inability of naming ‘these sounds’ and yet the possibility of writing them nonetheless.
In this context I always like to mention a passage from the book Sound and Sentiment by Steven Feld. At one point, he appears riddled while he’s cataloguing and classifying birdsongs, and one of his Kaluli guides tells him, ‘Listen – to you they are birds, to me they are voices in the forest’. I like to think of the references within a text as voices in the forest. They are not markers of something else, they make my words and prompt me to wander and get lost in them, not to classify them. Hopefully they also invite the readers to wander in their own forests too, and the entire process is like a passing on of prompts to pass around and through. My Pasolini and my Melville and many others are the voices in my forest, through which I have learned to understand and be accustomed to or curious toward the world. They don’t denote the stillness of classification but the contingency of my history with them. And when I say that each text has a history, it’s a history not with a capital H but a small h, and maybe we could talk about the aspiration in the h of history echoed in the h in ephemeral: a whispering, a transience. From the double you of where, to the h of history and how.
I told you of reference as material, now I’d like to switch from material to medium: a space to connect. My medium is listening onto writing and back, writing onto listening: there I connect. Medium is also illusion, and trick, and risk. Is it listening to, or listening through? Illusion, or understanding? I can never describe a sound, I can write sound: I can build a frail yet precise cobweb of words and cut-off blanks. It almost feels as if I was never quite entirely there. Not if I found the appropriate words, the correct way of speaking, the correct tone of voice. I write and each word is accompanied by another underwhispering, fragments rustling out toward me, kernels of another despatch, receiving and transmitting into this day and into the coming night and at once sending them inward, to the assumed crucial point of each memory. New memories mix with older, more traditional versions of my past and rewrite it, until sometime in the stiff dance of these alphabet letters I drift away absent-minded along broken lines and it’s really no longer I writing, but they. I begin to wonder about this system of tricks and echoes and relays in writing/listening – like Dante in Inferno Canto 13, when he’s lost in yet another forest, and hears disembodied voices as their souls are caught in trees, and there is one verse that goes ‘I believed that he believed that I believed’, I think of echoes and mishearings that write.
Discussing The Nature and Aim of Fiction Flannery O’ Connor wrote: ‘People have the habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement [such as]: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class” – or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. … Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the writer the whole text is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.’ Experience writes. It is generated by the time spent looking, staring, listening, recalling … reading. It will never reveal layers of clarity: it’s about deepening and articulating the sense of mystery and incoherence and complexity in life – what I can witness to, not what I can theorise about or clarify. That’s why I aim for what has not yet been written or understood.
Never satisfy, always point away and aside: on those borders between the I and the double you’s, and their doubles. I have been working these months to make my writing fleeting, to make it so that it’s not possible to take notes out of it, to make it unquotable, no resolving sentences or all-encompassing conclusions. I have been drawn more and more to writing texts that have a tendency to disappear, and that will convey in you a feeling of ‘having been there’ although not quite sure where.
Welcome to En abime, part 2: Ephemeral.