Archive for October, 2011

24 October 2011

The Sudarium of St. Veronica / put the music in its coffin

I was recently invited by Psykick Dancehall Recordings, in residence this month at CCA Glasgow, to take part in their project Put the Music in Its Coffin, charting people’s responses to sounds, performances and recordings that have been important for them.
I sent a text that I’d written one morning, after dreaming of a sound in Leif Elggren’s The Sudarium of St. Veronica.
[From the CD notes on the Firework Edition website]: ‘The basic sound source for this CD is the copper engraving The Sudarium of St. Veronica, cut by the French artist Claude Mellan (1598-1688) in Paris, 1649. A portrait of Christ engraved through a continuous spiral line that starts at the tip of his nose. An old heliogravure (a 19th-century reproduction of one of the original prints) was used to make a photo etching in copper to get a replica as close as possible to the original plate. This plate was played back with a specially constructed record player and recorded at Firework Edition, Stockholm, July 17, 2007′.

Lines written at the end of a dream, when I encountered Leif Elggren’s ‘The Sudarium of St. Veronica’ (Stockholm, Firework Edition Records CD, 2007)

I look straight at the heart (the nose, the hole) of it
in spite of its unfolding.
The face on the turntable, slit.
Its thorns and edges scratch the leaden aura deep.

Tapping in, the drumsindeath of the cut surface
remind of the repeated circling of an end: the unique one made by one, and over.
An ending lasts an hour
it spirals away on the margin of not.

Cut. Unattainable, unworldly, coppered, no more, departed,
this thorn of sound.
The first time it shields me
the second it skins me
then it breaks.

When in the spinous wavering I could hardly keep
I knew it was the end.
I woke. Scratch by scratch
lacquer by lacquer
terror by terror,

I woke and felt the fading sound, slow violent
and the mockingbird of my reasoning
could imitate no crackle
no spasm
only the pace of a slow Kyrie
only the slow.

What of the sounds? As sounds, they’ll stay as such.
What will this fragment be, it never will be sound.
A record: recordare: to remember.

It beats again again, that same repeating scratch, the same
Darksome plummeting on this day
Coldly and plummeting on my day
Darksome over the day, in this room and another.

I will circle a finger along the razor brim of a red-brown cup
I will spin.

And he? He is a sovereign of the past.
Inscrutable and taciturn, angular, non alter.

21 October 2011

removed from sound, writing / the violent bear it away

The three main characters in Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel The Violent Bear It Away are all deaf, in some way or other. Bishop, the ‘dim-witted child’: deaf by birth. Rayber, his father: deaf by accident. He uses a hearing aid and his entire character is a study into degrees of self-imposed silence and distance in perception. Tarwater, the antihero: not literally deaf, but deaf to anything that happens around him except for his intent. A lot of this novel is shaped on mishearing, on assuming to hear or pretending not to, on hearing voices from hidden recesses of one’s own mind, on placing and displacing voices, on the calling of the voice of what is assumed and forced to be religion. Entire scenes are described by means of aural perception and of aural distance; each sounding shade overwhelms the vision and the space it inhabits, it is absorbed in the wholeness of the narration.

O’Connor wasn’t specifically concerned with describing sound or moments of listening as self-contained experiences. The aural dimension, as it is written, exists within the complexity of her stories, where sound is neither an absolute nor a central category. It is encompassed in her ways of shaping her words, to carry ‘all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth’, as she once wrote. And she continued, ‘the beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the writer begins where human perception begins. […] Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction’.

Writing sound too takes shape as an experience, not an abstraction: it is the trace of the experience that makes it, every other today.


O’Connor, Flannery. (2007). The Violent Bear It Away. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. First published in 1960.

O’Connor, Flannery. (1969). Mystery and Manners. Occasional Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

18 October 2011

out, writing sound

18 October 2011

listening unprimed

I was at a conference on field recordings last night, and at some point one of the presenters mentioned the need for a structure, in order to place yourself in the condition to listen.

‘You wouldn’t listen without a structure’, he said.

And what happens to the unexpected, the fragmentary, the overheard sounds that catch us at those times when we’re not prepared ‘to listen’ and yet seem to capture our innermost selves nonetheless?

If we consider listening as an exclusive, absorbed and solely focused activity resolved in self-confined and self-induced moments of intentional awareness, a great portion of the complexity and elusiveness of listening goes lost. It might help to even stop considering it an ‘activity’ for a while – to let go of any implication of intention. To think of listening not as a linear, directional tool but as a softer-edged device, not perhaps outlined by ‘structures’ but by biomorphic accretions, liquefying odd-functioning contraptions, uneven syncretisms at best.

If we consider listening as possible only through and by means of a structure, then we favour the discursive, contextual approach and leave out all the engrossing, enticing qualities in listening that defy structure, discourse, perhaps even reason.

One of the clearer moments in my history of listening dates back to 1999. I was visiting the Venice Biennale and at some point on walking along the pathway leading to the Italian Pavilion in the Giardini, an echoing sound seemed at first to come from far away, then revealed itself as slowly and continually building within a circumscribed portion of space. The experience was defining – not ‘only’ for the quality of the sound as such, but for the combination of that sound with that place. I was then a student and had no idea of artists working with sound. What I knew then is, that sound opened up an unexpected dimension in my being there. I was surprised and teased into an unknown aural fold that day. The experience of that sound stayed with me anonymous; a riddle for many years.
Only five years later did I learn that at the 1999 Biennale I’d experienced a work by Max Neuhaus. At the time, it had appeared ‘only’ as an unexpected, continuous hum that caught me unprepared, unveiled a depth and somehow transfixed me and my aural experiences.
I listened with no structure, and yet listen I did.
And my experience of that continuous sound remains a riddle to date, nonetheless.

To listen is to become aware of each of our moments of being in a specific place at a specific time. The call for a ‘structure’ for listening seems to dismiss all those moments of unexpected aural occurrences that catch us unprimed – unprimed as a blank canvas on which colours are not fixed: they seep into the fibers, they are let free to flow away, off our own borders. No brushes, control or intention, only their movement and ours as we absorb it.

And so often with our ears unprimed, sounds dig deeper in our understanding of a place, a landscape, ourselves.

18 October 2011

from the outer edge of some buried age

Pier Paolo Pasolini, La Ricotta, 1963

15 October 2011

italy is ill

‘Italy is ill’.
Recorded by Gianni Bosio, Roncoferrato (Mantova), 26 December 1965. Sung by Andreina Fortunati, rice-weeder.

15 October 2011

sometimes they look

Franco Pinna, Nardò, 1959

13 October 2011

empty words

Watching TV on a late afternoon, in a suburban town in Central Italy. A young man with furtive black eyes and a haunted air, wearing a green caped mac and sporting a dishevelled mohawk, moves restlessly on the stage. A young woman appears, dressed up enigmatic in a white tunic and holding a staff. Her style, a nightmarish Art Nouveau: not the sleek lines of Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé but the slow, leaden posture of Theda Bara circa Cleopatra. In her aspect grace becomes nemesis. The man in the green mac starts to sing – no, it is rather a solemn invocation, vaguely out of tune yet self-assured, just like in a mass choir. The woman stands still. There is an adventurous absolute quality in this setup, it hovers between the imposing and the deranged. It peeks through the man’s eyes, that look like two leather buttons. It explodes in every word he sings.
The song is The Captain’s Testament. Exactly the same song from World War I, sung by an Alpine choir, featured in an old vinyl in my dad’s collection. Not exactly that one, so off-centred it sounds. How dare he? He dares. In the delivery of the song the man in the mac carries an awkward air of solemnity, a firm intent. And then the song slowly morphs into a manic, hammering rhythm.
Of course I did not know the term post punk at the time. To my teenager ears it was just a manic, hammering rhythm, the skeleton supporting those words: Curami curami curami, Prendimi in cura da te, Prendimi in cura da te, Cure me Cure me Cure me, Let me be cured by you, Let me be cured by you. Was it the captain of the soldiers asking to be cured of his wound? Was it the man in a mac pleading to be cured of his malaise? Was it an entire generation of Italian teenagers asking to be cured of Italy? That voice scratched and unmasked my teenager dreams. I suddenly felt alive, awake. It was March 1988, I’d just turned fourteen. A familiar melody had been distorted, and I’d just seen a band called CCCP on TV. Those were not easy years.

Especially today the words of CCCP sound prophetic. They sang of Italy, province of the empire. There were rumours, there were lies, there were noises. Buzzes. The sound of those years is a monotonous hum. Rewind, further backwards. Milan, 2 December 1977. The people attending John Cage’s performance at Teatro Lirico listened for over three hours to his meticulous and monotonous dissection of Thoreau’s diaries that began by omitting phrases, then words, then syllables until there was nothing but sounds. The atmosphere arose into an explosion of voices and dissent. There was Cage, his words weighing as much as the explosion of noises around. The audience started laughing, shouting, mocking, whistling and booing till it all turned into a carnival of infuriating chaos. Cage? He kept reading, responding with poised rhythm to the tension around, making it resonate even stronger. He called his performance Empty Words. The urgency of a situation broke into a cliché; the explosion of voices from a hidden past clashed with the present tense. It’s no longer just empty words, it’s the voicing of disquiet that matters. The aural matter is the sound of that disquiet.
Five months later Aldo Moro was murdered by the Red Brigades. I recall the astonishment of our neighbours outside and the deadly silence of my parents when the news broke, followed by all those phone calls as if the sound of daily chatter buzzing itself to oblivion could keep that deathly silence away. Then again there were rumours, there were lies, there were noises, buzzes. Since then, the whole history of my country has been like a prolonged line of rumours, lies, noises, buzzes.
Do I need any more than this? Do I need silence now?

13 October 2011

audio obscura / review

[To experience Audio Obscura, a new work by Lavinia Greenlaw at St. Pancras railway station in London, you are given a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and you are left free to wander for about thirty minutes, listening to an audio piece of fragmented voices against a backdrop of ambient noises].

‘Listen. The heart of it’ –

the first sentence I hear, in these recordings between speech and thought, pushes me out of my hearing. Soon I find my mind is cancelling the words – or at least my detailed following of them. I begin perceiving myself outside of the words in the headphones, and playing with my sense of being in a specific place instead.

I feel watched. As much as I might believe I’m wandering anonymously, the headphones are too big and too black to escape attention. Overtly conscious of the stage I’m unwittingly made to be an extra in, I look for fellow listeners. I spend ten minutes trying to make eye contact and study their reactions. One of them is sitting musing. One looks like he doesn’t want me to be aware he’s part of this. And as I see one on the escalator, going down as I go up, she smiles then turns her eyes. Monadic we walk undirected.

‘I want to tell someone that I saw a wonderful thing’.

I decide to stop after ten minutes of over-conscious wandering, because one issue that I’m finding hard to tackle is this open space; this deliberate sense of drift. Only when I stop questioning my movements, only when I abandon any pretense of mimesis and begin to think metaphorically, I realise how Audio Obscura has placed me right in that boundless space on which you skip after you’ve found the start of a compelling idea, after you’ve encountered a half-formed captivating thought: that hovering space that absorbs you as you start to make something. A space layered, time after time.

I sit on a bench. I watch St-Pancras-the-palimpsest as it flakes today in front of my eyes, ears and recollections. Once it was early autumn, the breeze freezing and the sense of this architecture of arrivals and departures amplifed. It was 2009 and I was taking part in a sound walk led by Hildegard Westerkamp. The frame of the work then was not given by sounds and words, but by a spatial trajectory – from Euston Road to Regent’s Park by means of detours in back streets and railway stations. Listening then turned me inside out, a resonant membrane for what was around, dizzying, disordered.
______The given trajectory across places enhanced my sense of listening to a soundscape around.

I indulge in St-Pancras-the-palimpsest as Greenlaw’s vocal palimpsest unfolds and draws me in. At its most fragmented and loose it creates spaces for echoes and questioning.
______The given texture of words takes me outside of words, enhances hesitancy.

I do not know these people and their voices, I can’t relate to them as people – they all become figures, signs, masks, vectors.

The voice of an old man, ‘I feel things falling through… I can feel each breath out of my body. The blood that’s so heavy goes so light’.

 ‘I suppose I was the maze’.

‘Listen. The heart of it.’
I wouldn’t call Audio Obscura an exercise in eavesdropping: the tension here is not much on intruding on other people’s fragmented voices and fragmentary stories. The tension of this piece is in bringing those sounds and those fragmented stories back inside the mutating landscape of my understanding, let them hint at my presence here, today.

Audio Obscura is not concerned with sound or listening as such. It builds singular experiences of being – and listening here is a gateway. It points to and expands what cannot be heard, what cannot be said. ‘Dark listening’, Greenlaw calls it. It covets the other side of listening, which could be called making, writing.

By using sound as a medium and as a space, Greenlaw has created a beguiling piece on the process of writing. ‘Listen. The heart of it’, those first words I heard evoke Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Voices, Voices… Listen, my heart’ in the First Duino Elegy – that moment when the poet’s voice breaks to stop and listen to the ‘stream of uninterrupted news that comes from silence’, lingers in that polyphonic hesitancy, then writes it into a poem nonetheless.

Greenlaw too is a poet, her Audio Obscura exists in the wavering space of creating or finding a poem: ‘the point at which we start to make sense of things’, she says. In the unspoken dark space of listening, when sounds before words generate riddles, in those spots that draw us in although we can’t embrace them, like the essential night embracing Maurice Blanchot’s Orpheus before his song takes shape. Audio Obscura is not a sound piece: it is where each poem begins.

12 October 2011

the land of remorse

I’m researching an article about the Italian ethnographer and historian of religions Ernesto de Martino, who led a series of field trips in Southern Italy in the fifties looking for the permanence of ritual and magic. In particular, he studied the lamentation techniques of mourning in the Lucania region and the ancient rituals of tarantism in Puglia where people, mostly women, simulated the moves of spiders to exorcise their ‘loss of presence’.

And I found this:

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