When En Abîme was published, I sent a few copies of the book to a number of people and put a different postcard inside each copy. The postcards were a secret hint at other layers in the book, images that had been with me while I wrote it, and that had seeped through my thought processes and in the writing in a less evident way. I was so glad to read the response that Allen S. Weiss wrote to my book, and to see that he did see the postcard as part of the reading experience. Allen’s book Breathless: Sound Recording, Disembodiment, and the Transformation of Lyrical Nostalgia (Wesleyan University Press, 2002) is one of my key references for thinking of listening and recording, the making and unmaking of memory. Here are his words on En Abîme:
Two recent trilogies, of very different types, are particularly inspiring in regard to current considerations of the archive: Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, The Museum of Innocence, The Innocence of Objects – an extraordinary trilogy of novel, museum, catalog; and Daniela Cascella’s fascinating En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing, described as an “archival fiction,” where the trilogy is internal to the volume: meditative, discursive, nostalgic. I received En Abîme accompanied by the postcard of Salvator Rosa’s Jacob’s Dreams (1665), one of the most famous representations of the biblical passage (Genesis 28: 10-19) recounting Jacob’s Ladder, the dream that the Patriarch experienced after falling asleep during his flight from Esau. Particularly enticing – for the gastronome and wine-lover that I am – is the wine flask that appears at Jacob’s side, perhaps the efficient cause of this most famous of dreams, as I like to think that this is the earliest example of the aesthetics of intoxication, but I am nevertheless wary of anachronism. Vertically, we see the ladder, with the ascent and descent of angels, a fabulous axis mundi that proffers the very heart of the dream, articulating sleep and wakefulness, reverie and thought, immanence and transcendence, exile and homecoming. Horizontally, opposite the celestial ladder appears a wild landscape – more reminiscent of the terrible beauty of the Apennines than of a biblical topography – a paysage moralisé that distinguishes fantasm and nature, nostalgia and utopia, the autobiographical and the historical, the intimate and the political, the promised land of the biblical dream and the actual site of the painter’s awakening to landscape. But it is a most silent painting, despite undertones of the visibly apparent murmurs of the angels’ prayers, the rustling of leaves, and the breath of the wind. The oppositions, contradictions and paradoxes suggested by this painting offer a veritable allegory of En Abîme, a sort of pictorial epigraph. An irresistible impulse in the context of a book on sound would be to evoke Arnold Schoenberg’s Die Jakobsleiter (the unfinished oratorio of 1917-1921), that fascinating moment when the composer moved from free atonality to dodecaphonic music, from the decomposition of an old musical regime to a new sonic world order. This move from silence to sound suggests the necessary supplement to Cascella’s archival fiction, the archiving of those sounds that inspired her words. Where Pamuk has already written an elegy to Museums of Reading and Writing and created a museum thereof, what we now need is a Museum of Listening.
One of the very hidden inspirations for my book title, En abîme, came from a couple of sentences I found in L’Afrique Fantôme by Michel Leiris – a book that’s been haunting me since the nineties, when I saw it mentioned in James Clifford’s The Predicament of Culture as a book where Leiris ‘begins to keep field notes on himself, or more precisely on an uncertain existence’. I return to Leiris’ book in spite of my poor knowledge of French, that only allows me to glimpse these pages and not always entirely grasp them. They speak to me in fragments across an opaque screen of understanding, lit up by sudden flashes of clarity. Sybilline, you might say. And so it is no coincidence that a photo of the Sybil’s cave in Cumae, near Naples, appears on my book cover.
For further understanding I have to (I like to) trust Clifford. In particular his remarks on Leiris’ writing resonate with what I tried to achieve in my book: ‘…a systematically clumsy and complicated staging of the text for which the various elaborate explanations, supplementary notes, hidden prefaces, and prières d’inserer are props’.
On 10, 11 and 12 November 1931 Leiris visits the village of Yougo: ‘La Rome lunaire’, lunar Rome, he calls it. He writes:
‘Un paysage… de fin du monde. De pierre en pierre, de lieu sacré en lieu sacré, de cave en cave.’
‘Ici, tout n’est qu’abîme, plein ciel, ou souterrain.’
There is Pierre in En abîme, and sacred places, and subterranean caves.
In Rome today I walked, from the Protestant Cemetery to via Appia. Across trains shrieking and crowds rumbling in the streets, across the uneven rhythm of sirens, the roar of engines, the ceaseless hissing of people’s iPods, across the coarse texture of the city noise, a train of thoughts unwinds along my journey.
With great lucidity I recall a certain painting from the sixteenth century and with it the stupor that overcame me when I first saw it in a book at school. A Deposition: my eyes first encounter those of the young man who holds not just the heavy body of Christ, but the entire composition. No cross appears in the picture: this painter always hides the props. It seems that he does not need any architectural or structural grip to state his vision. All exists on the surface. The sky is defined only by a little cloud; only by a pale bit of ground, the earth. The colours one would expect in a landscape are transposed within the shapes of people: not only in their clothes but also in their skin, as if to reinforce the flatness of this surface and the non-hierarchical arrangement of its patterns. A face is scarlet as the burning of a silent fever, another yellowy green as of dry leaves. Pallid, pastel, pain-stricken poses seem to fix these figures in a cloud of melancholy rather than in the pangs of loss. Only their glances flee. No angular lines: all is soft curves, yet caught in unnatural poses. The modulation of hues and tones calls for focus and displaces. The contours do not constitute the volume of the forms, but prevent them from gaining volume. This is not painting and movement, this does not hint at sculpture and monumental balance. Classical forms here are devoid of any depth; they exist in their spiralling rhythm. This picture is resolved in the tempo of its shapes and this is a painter of visual poems.
The figure of Christ is bent in a double curve and swollen. His torso, a lump of pink flesh. The face is not that of an eruptive cadaver but of a still body. Against a barely-there sky, at some point this entire surface seems to bow down, almost to lean toward me. None of the ten figures in the scene, spiralling, none of them keeps watch over Christ: either their eyes are averted, or they look at me out of the surface, stuck in their impossibility of roundedness. The Virgin wears a cloak of the colour of the sky: there is no real sky in this painting, the sky is in her cloak. She is stuck pensive in her hushed lyricism. Maybe she is just about to sob.
The Deposition by Pontormo, kept in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence, was revisited by Pier Paolo Pasolini in a tableaux vivant featured in his short 1963 film La ricotta, shot in a site off via Appia in Rome.
In Pontormo’s painting each face and each figure is arranged within the logic of the plane and evened out in an appearance of sublime grief. In Pasolini’s film the sublime grief descends back to earth and the flatness gains volume out of the manners and the expressions of the people enacting the scene: the poor, the prostitute, the rich actress, the old man, all with their faces and postures, most of all with their direct presence. Human, and yet removed: La ricotta is a short film staging the shooting of a film, where the representation of the Passion of Christ is interwoven with the story of hungry Stracci, an extra who ends up being crucified – both literally, and symbolically. Orson Welles plays the film director, Pasolini’s actors of choice play the real people who play the saints and the real people in the Passion, the Roman suburbs play a scenario of golden stillness.
Be still!, shouts the voice of the director to the people in the film, who are staging the tableaux vivant reproducing Pontormo’s painting. You can’t move, you are the figures in an altarpiece! And yet they move; and yet the close-ups of the camera capture their most human gestures, they pry on the moments where hieratic poses merge into ordinary expressions, where solemnity is touched by distraction. Then the entire construction falls down, clumsy, and everyone laughs. Pasolini’s oxymoronic vision spans the two extremes; it distils the innermost essence of human nature into a glimpse of beauty, soon to be corrupted and to fall apart. In his representation of Pontormo’s painting he reveals the tangible and the unspeakable together, as one shakes the other in a vision of stillness before crumbling down.
WritingEn abîme in English also brought about a number of considerations on the construction of the entire project. I thought of my writing method through a few notions related to the Baroque as a technique devoted to making a space. I’m particularly interested in the notion of Baroque artificiality, stemming from the Latin word artificium as skill, technique – hence my references to Italian writer Giorgio Manganelli’s idea of artificium in relation to writing. The very foundation of this book, the English language, appears to be a form of artifice in itself: a construction, an enhanced exercise in a craft, an over-exaggerated mode of expression.
Reinassance and Baroque by Heinrich Wölfflin was instrumental to analyse the relationship between Kunstwollen (a notion defined by Alois Riegl, where art is the expression of a historically determined, constructed reality) and an idea of meaning which is not a value related to truth, but a skill: a creative production, building a history of vision and of visual strata. Very detailed and convoluted descriptions do not function as superfluous ornaments, but as consistent and necessary in the foundation of an autonomous linguistic and creative territory. I think for example of the elaborate, extravagant visions painted on the domes of the Chiesa del Gesù by Baciccio and of the Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio by Andrea Pozzo, both in Rome – both overwhelming with details and decorations, yet functional to the fictional expansion of the churches’ architectural frames. And indeed the scope of Baroque vision was a spatial one, like the Italian art historian Giulio Carlo Argan showed on many occasions, in particular with relation to Baroque and rhetoric.
In a note to Acquainted with Grief, Carlo Emilio Gadda addressed directly the notion of Baroque in relation to his writing, and spoke of the Baroque as an attempt to construct. He wrote at length on the subject as a technique of building the grounds for the self-contained truth within language.
Argan, Giulio Carlo. (1986). Immagine e persuasione. Saggi sul Barocco. Milan: Feltrinelli, pp. 19-24.
Argan, Giulio Carlo. (1957). L’architettura barocca in Italia. Milan: Garzanti.
Argan, Giulio Carlo. (1955). La Retorica e l’arte barocca. In: AA.VV. Retorica e Barocco, Atti del III Convegno Internazionale di Studi Umanistici Venezia 1954. Rome:, pp.167-76.
Argan, Giulio Carlo. (1988). Storia dell’arte italiana, vol. III. Florence: Sansoni. First published in 1968.
Gadda, Carlo Emilio. (1987). Quer pasticciaccio brutto di via Merulana. Milan: Garzanti. First published in 1957.
Gadda, Carlo Emilio. (1997). La cognizione del dolore. Milan: Garzanti, pp. 197-199.
Manganelli, Giorgio. (1994). Il rumore sottile della prosa. Milan: Adelphi. A collection of articles published between 1966 and 1990.
Manganelli, Giorgio. (1985). La letteratura come menzogna. Milan: Adelphi. First published in 1967.
Manganelli, Giorgio. (1997). Le interviste impossibili. Milan: Adelphi. First published as A e B in 1975.
Riegl, Alois. (2010). The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome. Translated from German by Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. First published in 1908.
Wölfflin, Heinrich. (1967). Renaissance and Baroque. Translated from German by Kathrin Simon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. First published in 1888.
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.
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.