Archive for October 13th, 2011

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.

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