Early morning today spent reading The Relationship with Text by Arnold Schönberg, an essay published in Der Blaue Reiter almanac in 1912, advocating the primacy of intuition in musical perception beyond instructions and interpretation. The flow of thoughts and words by Schönberg in these pages is at its most Swedenborgian mixture of rigour and vision. In any point you pin music, he says, it will bleed. However you might want to analyse or dissect it, you will see the same blood. At the time Schönberg was writing against programme music, intended as a faithful, point-by-point correspondence between a prescriptive text and subsequent sounds. In his text he put forward an idea of music as a living entity supported by a singular driving force – hence the blood metaphor. I like to turn the issue upside down and think of the relationship between sound before, and the words that may or may not come after.
So what happens when I write after listening, when I write in a foreign language that I find demanding to articulate clearly, and that often leaves me speechless, helpless? Can I shift the trite question I am often asked, ‘Do you dream in English or in Italian?’ into something a bit more twisted: ‘Do you listen in English or in Italian?’ And then, write.
The fact that I am more willing to write of my listening experiences in English – a language that bears a lot more opacity to my eyes and ears, not being my mother tongue – tempts me to make the opacity between sounds and words even more obvious, without attempting any gentle fade-ins between the two, just considering them as different entities trying to look at each other through a thick fog, half-guessing each other but never clearly. They call for each other but the closest they can get is an unsteady unison, soon to be disrupted. In other words, I’m trying to leave aside the old point, ‘it’s impossible to write about sound’, and to think instead of ‘writing away from sound’. To stop considering writing as derivative of sound, hence constantly frustrated by not being sound, or watered down because it cannot be of the same essence: to consider the writing not as a document, but as a self-standing entity carrying as much presence and possessed by a singular driving force as much as sound does. Like music for Schönberg, if you pin the words they will bleed too.
Words exist in the porous, half-empty space of my listening in a foreign language, and struggle to be anchored to anything definitive or clear: because maybe the only steady anchors belong to another language, to another listening, another thinking – which are gradually drifting away, becoming more and more ambiguous. Can this writing be seen as a silencing – to which extent can these words be soundproofed, half-recalling the inner soundings of references, tradition, history?
After reading Schönberg today I listened to a London morning:
This coming to a foreign place: to be able to say its name correctly, to be at home. Around are plants whose name I do not know, and this broken weather, that I might be listening to with ardent quiet, and void between my listening and my words. See, nothing here is literal. Maybe a snap of thought uncovered something elsewhere: a note. This opacity of words of sounds begins to look like an uneasy special place. Deprived of proper words and of horizon I have no voice here, nor song, but a tongue tied to a thick rope of hemp right in my throat. It chokes me inside the barrel of my every London morning, in sawdust days of tea and tar.
‘Keep the words worn out, listless by this choking, keep the ruptured breathing’.