Posts tagged ‘song’

10 April 2013

Cabiria, loneliness, ritual

I watch Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria and I’m transfixed. Before, I’d watched this film and La strada on TV when I was about four years old, and never again since. To date, these two films are my earliest memories of sadness, from an age when I could not have possibly ever experienced that type of sadness. Except through those films. I was always afraid of going back to them. So here we are, that sadness and I, thirty-odd years later. I find: a film of unstable balance between a profound sense of drift and emptiness (the bleak suburban Roman landscape, caves, open spaces, the main character truly lonely in every sense, no respite ever) and a lightness of touch, graceful interferences of unexpected gestures that place what is implausible in what is stark real. Rituals and representations exceed a self that is void, but not meaningless. At one point, Cabiria joins a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Divine Love and asks for grace. One of the women in the crowd shouts at the top of her voice, speaking to the Virgin Mary: ‘I am REALLY asking you. I am REALLY asking you’. As if screaming was the space where belief is validated. Cabiria cannot quite scream and barely sings, she is hushed and overwhelmed by the chanting and the demonstrations, the gestures, yet she is the only one who believes (maybe because she’s speaking to herself, not to any divine presence). In the next scene they all sit on a lawn having a picnic, life goes on untouched by the empty yet repeated ritual, except for Cabiria, who is deeply affected by the fact that, after the pilgrimage, ‘nun semo cambiate’ (in Roman dialect, ‘we haven’t changed’). At the end, the space of utter truth is revealed to be the space of utter deception; unlike later films by Fellini, here truth and deception exist osmotically, they do not outnumber each other by means of cartoonish exaggerations. The edge is softer and I am more easily driven in the film, not as a spectator but enmeshed, affected.

(Then I thought of another harrowing scene of loneliness, staged faith, make-believe and loss of belief, in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, when Bess goes to church for the last time and can no longer sustain the double-voiced dialogue with God that she’s been staging up to that moment, deceiving or asserting her own self by speaking in two voices.)

23 April 2012

painting, allegory, speech / Salvator Rosa, Dante Alighieri, Pier Paolo Pasolini

Not having much to write around music and sound these days, I turned to painting and poetry, philosophy and allegory. I knew I would found my way back into listening. Here are some initial notes, only a beginning:


                                                             Poetry, oil on canvas, c. 1641                                                                      

Philosophy, oil on canvas, 1640

Poetry holds a notebook and a quill. She is just about to write something, but glances backwards, toward me, with brooding eyes. Is that page the space of knowing that some truth somewhere exists? Have I just caught her writing? Is poetry that space caught between my guessing and her glance? Is poetry that woman’s face?

Philosophy is also troubled, his face so dark. He does not write though, his words have been written already – carved, it seems: ‘Aut tace Aut loquere meliora silentio’. ‘Keep silent unless what you are going to say is more important than silence’. Is philosophy this constant oscillation between an absolute silence, and the tension to say something so heavy that is heavier and more loaded than silence?

As it were, the real titles of these paintings are not Poetry and Philosophy, but Lucrezia as Poetry and Self-Portrait as Philosophy. The Italian 17th-century painter Salvator Rosa, author of both paintings, used a portrait of his lover alongside his self-portrait to give shape to his allegorical representations of Poetry and Philosophy. As if the two could not be without a relationship, a tension in between. It is not ‘poetry’ and ‘philosophy’ as absolute categories that he seems most concerned with, but poetry in the face of Lucrezia, philosophy in the shape of Salvator. Unique human beings, lovers; their glances and their gestures, engaging in a silent dialogue, outlining a changeable territory of seduction, and breakups, and attractions.

Looking for singular faces and catching the singular expressions of my Lucrezia Poetry and of my Salvator Philosophy, I imagine the possible words between them, or between me and each of them. I think of their singular expressions, one by one, I lose myself in a word, or in an inflection of the eye, rather than looking for any universal meaning or lines of demarcation beyond them. I am thrilled when I realise that a certain black in Salvator’s eyes is the same hue as Lucrezia’s. Or that they might share the sky above. Or that he is stuck in the immobility of his frontal posture, while she is all torsion and enclosed dynamism.

Both paintings are known to art historians as allegories. So: allegory. I could start with a Medieval saying:

Littera gesta docet,
Quod credas allegoria
.  .  .  .  .

The literal sense teaches what happened,
The allegorical what you believe
.  .  .  .  .

And with the excuse of being Italian, I would move to one of my favourite writers with no further justification: Dante Alighieri. In the Letter to Can Grande della Scala, he writes of the Divine Comedy: ‘The subject of the whole work, then, taken literally, is the state of souls after death, understood in a simple sense; for the movement of the whole work turns upon this and about this’.

For the movement of the whole work turns upon this and about this: the literal side, understood in a simple sense. What is remarkable is the emphasis on the literal truth as a foundation for any other levels of meaning. So perhaps I should look at these two paintings again in detail, and not think of Poetry and Philosophy at all, but of the faces and the bodies of Lucrezia and Salvator: literally. They seem to be inscribed in the same shade of grey, although more or less abstract in form. What happens when a poem is inscribed within a philosophical text? When thought flows into poetry?

I go back to another book by Dante. The Convivio is a treatise dedicated to Lady Philosophy; it is a book on knowledge, and it is full of poems. Furthermore, it is written in volgare, not in Latin: in 14thcentury Italy, Latin was the language of philosophy and vulgar was the language of the people, of songs, of poems. Philosophy is impersonated as a woman Dante loves; the proximity between philosophy and poetry is resolved by intersecting the argument in the text with a number of poems, and through a metaphor in which knowledge is a banquet, and the food is poetry, and the bread that goes with it is philosophy.
One of the poems in the Convivio, entitled Amor che nella mente mi ragiona, Love that converses with me inside my mind, ends up like this:

My song, it seems you speak contrary to
Words spoken by a sister whom you have;
For this lady, whom you claim to be so humble,
She calls proud and disdainful.
You know the sky is always bright
and clear,
and of itself is never clouded.
And yet our eyes, for many reasons,
Sometimes say a star is dark.
Likewise when she calls her proud,
She views her not according to the truth
But only as what she seems to her.
For my soul was full of fear,
And still is, so much that everything I see
Seems proud, when she casts her gaze on me.
So excuse yourself, should the need arise;
And when you can, present yourself to her
And say: ‘My Lady, if it is your wish,
I will speak of you in every place’.

Canzone, e’ par che tu parli contraro
al dir d’una sorella che tu hai;
che questa donna, che tanto umil fai,
ella la chiama fera e disdegnosa.
Tu sai che ‘l ciel sempr’è lucente e chiaro,
e quanto in sé, non si turba già mai;
ma li nostri occhi, per cagioni assai,
chiaman la stella talor tenebrosa.
Così, quand’ella la chiama orgogliosa,
non considera lei secondo il vero,
ma pur secondo quel ch’a lei parea:
ché l’anima temea,
e teme ancora, sì che mi par fero
quantunqu’io veggio là ‘v’ella mi senta.
Così ti scusa, se ti fa mestero;
e quando poi a lei ti rappresenta,
dirai: ‘Madonna, s’ello v’è a grato,
io parlerò di voi in ciascun lato’.

‘I will speak of you in every place’: could I think of the space opening up between philosophy and poetry as the space of speech? An utterance that is not necessarily delivered to destination, but that resounds nonetheless, and forms a space, makes the form of its understanding?

Now I think of Pier Paolo Pasolini in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, near the tombs of Antonio Gramsci and Percy Bysshe Shelley, before he wrote his poem The Ashes of Gramsci. Published in 1952, the poem breathed an elegiac and sensuous feel into the tight structure of a Dantesque terza rima. In these verses, Pasolini appears constantly torn between the moving force of thinking as a changing form and the pressing call of his aesthetic inclinations as the making of a shape.

Like Pasolini sitting in the Protestant cemetery and speaking out the words of Gramsci and the words of Shelley through his own verses, wondering how the words of the two could breathe and exist in the same ancient rhythm, what is spoken out appears as a space of osmotic exchange that brings poetry and philosophy together and makes them alive: resounding.

… – thus lives the I: I
alive, eluding life, while the feeling grows
of a life becoming grieving
violent oblivion … Ah how well
I understand, silent in the wind’s wet
humming, here where Rome is silent,
among wearily agitated cypresses,
next to you, Spirit whose inscription resounds
Shelley …

… vive l’io: io,
vivo, eludendo la vita, con nel petto
il senso di una vita che sia oblio
accorante, violento… Ah come
capisco, muto nel fradicio brusio
del vento, qui dov’è muta Roma,
tra i cipressi stancamente sconvolti,
presso te, l’anima il cui graffito suona
Shelley …

16 March 2012

writing, drifting, silencing, choking

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’.

18 October 2011

out, writing sound

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?

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:

7 October 2011

a beginning: a song

I want to tell you of a song.

It is entitled Lamento per la morte di Pasolini, Lament for the Death of Pasolini and it follows the structure of a traditional extra-liturgical religious ballad from Central Italy, the Orazione di San Donato, Prayer of Saint Donatus. It was written in December 1975 after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death by an Italian singer called Giovanna Marini. It begins like this:

Persi le forze mie, persi l’ingegno…

I lost all my strength, I lost my ability…

I lost all my strength and my ability, at some point about three years ago. Call me a writer of sound. I write of it soaring through the air, leaking into fabrics of words, haunting places and recollections, inhabiting visions and books. At some point about three years ago I no longer could see a consistent picture in all I’d done and written over the previous ten years. What had appeared until then like a congruous body of work, crumbled in a myriad scattered pieces that I knew I had to stitch together again. I lost all my strength and my ability and as I write these pages I go back to my old notebooks. As I read, as I listen and as I write I’m engulfed in an assonant riddle. It hovers between chi sono? – in Italian meaning both who am I? and who are they? – and chi suono?whom do I sound? – voicing the aural universe where my research moves. Many questions, infested by many who’s. These pages swarm with the voices of those questions, and when I say I it is in fact they: my archive of voices, of words, of sounds, outlining the landscape in which I moves. This blog is shaped through my collection and my recollections of books, music, sounds, songs; of encounters with books, music, sounds and songs. I inhabit my landscape of readings and of listening moments at times as a guest, at times as a stranger, at times as a parasite, at times as a ghost. I go for a walk around my favourite places of listening, I look for another way of understanding and of stitching those broken pieces together. Until I reach the edge of an abyss.

This is not the outpouring of an autobiographical image: it is an image distorted, reiterated, projected, reinvented and echoed into clusters of words. And not even just one image but clouds of them, attached to the same landscape. It has to do with remembering and returning, today and every other today; with the fixed rhythmic gestures that move my listening, my reading and my writing, where the formulaic quality of certain recurring images outlines the limits within which I can say I again.

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