I think of Writing Sound as I read Philosophy of Landscape 3, a text published by Georg Simmel in 1913. He shows how landscape perceived as a unity is in fact the result of an activity of the human gaze – of the artistic gaze in particular – that fills in a number of discreet signals and constructs a landscape, every time anew. Simmel uses the German word ‘Stimmung’ meaning ‘atmosphere’, ‘mood’, and ‘tuning’. For him, mood, atmosphere and tuning do not portray a landscape as a whole still entity but make it over and over, across fluctuations and nuances that register how we situate ourselves in it: a construction that does not have to do with permanence, but exists and changes culturally and historically.
I would like to expand this notion of ‘Stimmung’ from looking to writing, as an activity shaped by the impermanence of sounds and by how we tune in them. I would then think of writing sound as a landscape insisted upon and modified by personal instances of listening, and of remembering listening; a collection and a recollection of places, mixed with invention but true to the score drawn by each singular experience.
I think of writing sound as the trace of the experience that makes it.
It conveys the sense of shaping, step by step along the journey of the listening and the writing ‘I’, words into places at once familiar and strange.
As I listen to sounds and then set out to write, I become more and more aware of my distance from them. My words cannot capture them: they let them go astray, dissolve. Instead, my words inscribe sounds with their own presence, they answer the enigma of sounds with yet another enigma.
I read David Toop’s words in Sinister Resonance: ‘If we expect sound merely to give, or to invade, just like the earth digger on the building site or the bass drum, then we miss the other side. Better we should think of sound as an ear, a mirror, a resonant echo, a carrier, a shell 2’.
What is the question that I whisper in that ear? What do I see appearing in the mirror of listening? What do I ask of sound? What echoes out of sound as I listen?
I think of writing as ‘the other side’ of sound. Instead of looking for answers it echoes questions with questions, it adds complexity to complexity. Writing sound tracesthe shifting in the tuning of my words, of my questions, of sounds drifting.
In the next few days I will be posting sections from my presentation ‘Something Missing’: notes on Writing Sound as Landscape and mise-en-abime at the Sound Art Theories symposium, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 5/6 November 2011.
The text is an edit from my book En abime. Listening, Reading, Writing.
An audio recording of the reading will be uploaded next month.
‘Something Missing’: notes on Writing Sound as Landscape and mise-en-abime
I think of the space of Writing Sound as I read a short text by Robert Walser, published in 1902 and entitled Music. At some point he says, ‘There’s something missing when I don’t hear music, and when I do, then there’s really something missing. That’s the best I can say about music’1. I wish to explore this space, delineated by ‘really something missing’ as the best that can be said about music. I wish my thoughts to exist right at the heart of Walser’s hopelessness for an encounter between music and words. And I wish to look at how writing sound fills a space apparently void, yet loaded; empty, but only just so. Music and sounds still resonate there, they can be sensed seeping through the words that speak the absence – or shall I say, that inscribe the absence?
Sound exists in Walser’s words in absentia, but it also exists in the actualityof its being written. The sense of missing calls for words: they crowd up against an outline of emptiness, swarm inside it, redefine and inhabit the space left by sound.
I think of this space as a landscape in perpetual transformation – occupied by sounds, left by them, filled in by words across recollections or anticipations, and over again. I look at the many ways of returning to and inhabiting this ever-changing, ever-familiar landscape as it is written. It is impossible to predict what might happen on any return: an accident, a happy discovery, a moment of contemplation, a fall.
Or even nothing special.
What is special about this nothing is its very precarious yet loaded quality, that I sense in my experience of being there, in listening, and not being there any longer, in writing – every time charged by the past, every time detached from it and informed by the new: a progression of moments of awareness, amassed into the now with all its load of then’s. Such a condition of estrangement from sounds does not call for unattainable wholeness, for absolute frameworks and legitimate ways of understanding, but rather for a syncretic, personal rearrangement of one’s array of the memories that shape each listening moment today. Such condition of estrangement from sound does not call for a complete, discursive space but for the making and the unmaking of memories in acontingent present singular.
On 5 April 2011 I recorded an excerpt from my book for the Phonographies archive of wax cylinder recordings, curated by Aleks Kolkowski. The chapter takes place along via Appia and the Catacombs in Rome. Most of the book is structured on layers and returns, and the idea of superimposing two voices on the same wax cylinder seemed appropriate to reflect the phasing and unsteady unisons that occur throughout the book.
Here is a longer excerpt from the book chapter:
Ghosts on via Appia this morning. Twenty degrees, rain and damp. Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, the archives of the primitive Church. Ninety acres of land, four levels of subterranean galleries twelve miles long. Half a million tombs. Cemetery of Saint Callixtus, Crypt of Lucina, Cemetery of Saint Soter, Cemetery of Saint Mark, Marcellianus and Damasus, Cemetery of Balbina. Tomb of Cecilia Metella. And when the sun falls down the pine trees I still walk on these stones and there is a humming coming from below the catacombs and these slabs of history. It whispers death along this evening, it breathes in, it breathes out, in, and out, following me chasing me out of this still city of tombs. I keep listening. This still dead city of tombs is chasing me, I walk. Up to this very moment walking, listening, recalling.
I return to via Appia and to those Roman aqueduct arches, and to the mellow suburban countryside on a hot, rainy morning, November 2010. Once it was August, the year 1995, the heat unbearable, the black silhouette of the Cecilia Metella Mausoleum and the maritime pines drawing a silent backdrop to the early evening walk, that you and I had decided to take. We’d spent the whole midsummer day driving around the ring road of Rome, in one direction and backwards, filming – an exorcism against the boredom of that Roman summer and against that whole year, as a double noose holding and hanging that whole year. We’d spent the whole mid-summer day driving around the ring road of Rome, in one direction and backwards, listening – in the extreme sunshine and in the lethargic pace of Roman summers, car windows open wide and music full blast, until the texture of those sounds reached and merged with the melting lights.
I return to via Appia and think of August. Signposts to depots circle like coils on this evening. Your Fiat Punto exhales hundreds of miles. We are going to circle, and circle. You scream, these coils are closing in. You’ve gone crazy in your rotten daydreaming. You’ve gone crazy for your rotten dreaming, that is to say: it hurts. We circle, enwrapped in this spiral of heat. It arrives as a piercing signal, a ruthless clasp of frequencies pointing right at the essence of rhythm. It arrives as the sound of a new disquieting language; as a rhythmic pattern and oscillation devoid of any reference, other that the push-pull of sound you feel in your body, and the grip of our sonorous now. A bony creature is dancing along the broken structures of audio tracks, built upon the sonic detritus of what once was called techno. Stark on a sensorial plateaux, a thousand needles pierce this sonorous now. Subtle, severe, insidious: here is a plus, here is a minus. A plus, a minus, a minus. Then come the bass sounds, to the earth and up from the earth. Don’t tell me these sounds are cold. If something resounds here, it is a shivering body: the body of rhythm exposed in its nerves, in the contractions that keep it alive. It might be mutilated by the cuts of this sonic blade but it is always there, in its presence and denial: a plus, a minus.
I return to via Appia, with you and it is evening. In you Fiat Punto we are listening to Metri by Ø, aka Mika Vainio, I think I wrote about this record sometime. Then we park and we walk along the stone-paved street from twilight into night, listening to noises sifted from the sheltered villas. A knot of voices, smells, slivers of light. All the buildings, pines and stones narrated by the daylight have crumbled down into a storyless black. Across the metal bars of gates and the tall brick walls the night is here again. A low hum propagates, made of the same substance of the heat. Our blinded eyes and our deafened ears hope to see a new vision and chase a new melody. I follow the train of my thoughts once more, and the visions of those trains along the tracks down South, to a small town where one of us was born, it has one of the few preserved mythraeums in Italy.
I returned to via Appia this morning, and I was lonely. Arthur Conan Doyle set one of his Tales of Terror just around here, The New Catacomb.The great Aqueduct of old Rome lay like a monstrous caterpillar across the moonlit landscape, he wrote. This evening the great aqueduct of old Rome in the moonlight doesn’t look much like a monster, but as a tamed force. I think again of your tamed silences, the long glances, and your restless longing for a space you will never allow anyone to circumscribe. I’m not sure if it is afternoon or early evening, but I know it was night when you first told me of this sense of waiting and longing. You are the imminence of a storm of ice, you smell of hunt and blood. You dark eyes, every day you lose some glow and gain some shade. Out of pure will you commanded your heart to be irregular as nothing ever in your life is regular: not the friends, not the hours, not your lovers or the lives you go through. Everything in your space deformed. Now a summer breeze moves through those pine trees, smells of sea salt and resin and cooking and smoke. Tomorrow it’s another go, another lap. You crawl.
I walk back, alone and toward home. I enter the Basilica dei Santi Quattro Coronati and listen to the enclosed nuns as they sing the Vespers. Even the stones are drenched in the void of this confinement. Spargens sonum, what is this voice whispering muddled tunes into my ears?
This morning I returned to via Appia, and to those Roman aqueduct arches and the mellow suburban countryside, following the steps of Rainer Maria Rilke, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville. I was on their traces along the old Roman road, and as I walked I engaged with all of them in a series of fictitious interviews.
I would ask Rilke of the void he saw in this sky while he walked along these same stones, while these same stones breathed into his verse another type of void, another type of voice. I would ask him of how lieber rhymes with Fieber. I would try to anticipate the answer.
I would ask Melville of the solitude and silence he felt around these Roman walls, in March 1857. Then he felt lost; this morning he was a reminder. To engage in an imaginary interview with Melville was like picturing Time in front of me: the Time of words when they take time to resound or seep through the mind, the Time of thoughts as they take shape into words, the Time of actions kept forever inside words. Everything seemed gathered, concluded; it now opens up again and draws a new horizon. It all has to be part of some other yet uncovered landscape.
I would ask Hawthorne of an entry in his diary, 23 October 1858. What now impresses me is the languor of Rome – its nastiness – its weary pavements – its little life pressed down by a weight of death.
Did you know this weight is even heavier today?
Between these unspoken interviews, loaded with memories and echoes, and filigrees of sounds recalled from reading, I did not feel any loss in the absence of my interlocutors. Maybe I just wanted to be in that silence, in the time of a recordare. To record, to recollect.