That portion of contemporary classical music that is mainly about other music or other artworks which are in some way musical without themselves being music (if it is indeed “about” anything at all) can tantalize our ears with a subtle acoustic experience; although the result need not necessarily sound as though some heavy weight burdened it, only rarely will it be light-hearted or light-footed, either: frequently, however, while it’s being played, all its air seems to become atmosphere, something that can be difficult to move through and yet which is suffused with refractions one will hardly meet with anywhere else.
Such is the case, to my ears at least, with the works of the Frenchman Franck Christoph Yeznikian, whom one can certainly call a composer’s composer – his œuvre includes works that pay tribute to some of classical music’s greats with both deference and distance – and who, although he’s gone to school with the usual French theorists, philosophers, aestheticians, etc., and mentions them by name on occasion in his own short texts, also evinces a selective but at the same time, it seems, a growing interest in developments in art, film, and poetry in German and English-speaking countries. So it’s not surprising that the musical compositions of someone who’s inclined to devote them as readily to Twombly, Celan, or Brakhage as to Mahler and Schumann, should be complicated and dense by dint of the crisscrossing of these references.
A musicologist or a critic could certainly delve into the matter of these references and explicate many of them and their interrelationships or rather – to employ terms that Yeznikian himself might prefer – their interpenetrations and mutual supplementation, all the while searching his compositions for possible manifestations of an “anxiety of influence,” and the inquiry would perhaps in the end clarify some aspects of things; but here I have neither time nor world enough for a project like that, and even if I were such a professional (which I am not), one or two other questions would still interest me much more.
But first things first. Of especial note musically is Yeznikian’s readiness to compose for unusual instruments such as the sixteen-tone piano invented in the middle of the last century by the Mexican composer Julián Carrillo; this Yeznikian did in “Un Trouble si clair,” and it was a perfect choice for a work in which the Baroque influence is apparent even in the very title.
That influence is not limited to a single composition of his. Even apart from the fact that they often take the form of an homage to this or that other composer or artist, and leaving aside specific references to their works, Yeznikian’s own seem to owe a lot to the music of the Baroque period and also to its painting: in these compositions there are numerous passages that sound as though they are intended as acoustic transpositions of the visual clairs-obscurs which were so plentiful then. (This piece of Baroque influence extends so far that in the performance of his piece “Lacrimis Adamanta Movebis” by the Orchestre national de Lyon, with Michael Hall conducting (the end of the recording is missing), the conductor and musicians themselves are lit as though they were figures in just such a painting, with everything but the essential receding from view into the fuscum subnigrum of the background.) The interference of the visual in Yeznikian’s compositions is so thorough that I should like to typify these works as “oculoacoustic” ones in which particular passages or moments are imbued with an energy having a particular color which could be described with some specificity in this or that case, with the whole work gradually beginning to shimmer by their effects upon one another, or, to put the point a bit more, well, colorfully, by their reciprocal irradiations.
Now, if this is a plausible description of what Yeznikian’s music is about (again I leave to one side the reference they make to other works), then a fitting understanding of these works would also be oculoacoustic to begin with – attentive to the various ways in which their different moments musicaux strike our mind’s eye, so to speak – and moreover, it would have to be nimble, ready and able throughout the course of the composition to register the shimmers and the sparks struck as the sonorous images expand, interpenetrate one another, and are extinguished (to adapt one of Henri Bergson’s characteristic figures of thought).
The task would not be easy in any case, and the particular disposition of time in the measured movements of Yeznikian’s compositions renders it even more difficult; leaving the listener in a peculiar state of suspense which often seems to be one of their programmatic intentions – even a twofold state of uncertainty, as one can be waiting for some musical images to cease to interpenetrate and others to commence (but will they do so?), while the looming end of the composition casts more and more of a shadow over the scene (but when will it arrive?). And then the stage is as though set for the fortuitous occurrence that will throw new light on the work, both from within and from without . . .
It’s remarkable that something of the kind actually has been caught on film; it transpired during the performance of his composition “Allmälicht mahlerisant” (the German-looking term in the title actually seems to be a portmanteau word that’s suggestive perhaps of a light brightening gradually – and if one squints one might catch a glimpse of something like an Alma in there too) one evening in Bergamo by the Ensemble Texture Milano, when, at ten o’clock, the bells of the municipal clock tower began to toll – precisely at a moment in the course of the piece when they seemed as though called for and as forming part of the work as written. (And, of course, it had to be a musical homage to Mahler during which such an event took place.)
Not to be overlooked while reflecting on this incident is the fact that it’s actually very funny, though at the same time disquieting – and the audience noticed this, as is manifest in the laughter that was let loose once the music finished, which had, if one listens closely, a nervous ring to it at the same time that it sounded like a sigh of relief.
Now, laughter in which both these traits may be heard is laughter of the sort that weighed on Bergson’s mind throughout his essay on the subject, which arises in the face of an experience that’s very disconcerting precisely because it’s felt to be comical, as he does not fail to note – laughter in the face of any incident in which an individual’s specifically human freedom of action is momentarily switched off, revealing underneath the operations of some mere mechanism. A most thought-provoking laughter, surely, more bitter than sweet, and accordingly, even after Bergson turned his attention to other varieties, it patently continued to preoccupy him: a circumstance which gives one a reason to educe a general hypothesis from the following sentence (Le Rire, chap. I, pt. IV) even though he framed it with reference to that particular case alone: “Cet infléchissement de la vie dans la direction de la mécanique est ici la vraie cause du rire.”
What was and remains most thought-provoking – and bewildering – is the suspicion that there may be far more mechanism within the specifically human than one ever had surmised, and then our evident freedoms of action and even of thought look in effect as though they are little more than a thin veneer, or even simply an outright illusion that’s akin to a trompe l’œil painting on a building wall of windows in the very spots where the real ones ought to have been. Whereas those freedoms had been appreciated as by far the most serious matter in our lives, so serious in fact as to require some interlude of comic relief every now and again, once one begins to espy mechanisms nearly everywhere at work in human action and perhaps also in thought, most of life would come to seem comical – terribly comical – and it’s the few moments of serious freedom which remain that might punctuate that awful spectacle and offer some relief from it.
But to return to Bergson. In his time the comic and the serious were exchanging the places they had been assigned in the course of life, and this inversion he was aware of, to judge by what he writes a bit later about the marionette as an image for the risible human being (chap. II, pt. I): “Tout le sérieux de la vie lui vient de notre liberté. Les sentiments que nous avons mûris, les passions que nous avons couvées, les actions que nous avons délibérées, arrêtées, exécutées, enfin ce qui vient de nous et ce qui est bien nôtre, voilà ce qui donne à la vie son allure quelquefois dramatique et généralement grave. Que faudrait-il pour transformer tout cela en comédie ? Il faudrait se figurer que la liberté apparente recouvre un jeu de ficelles […] Il n’y a donc pas de scène réelle, sérieuse, dramatique même, que la fantaisie ne puisse pousser au comique par l’évocation de cette simple image.” What follows easily from this is that such an image of a marionette could be called upon so frequently as nearly to drive that form of a serious life from the field entirely, or – to put the matter a bit better – afflict it with trepidation at the prospect that whenever it would need to enter onto the scene of human endeavors, just such a treatment could or would again be meted out to it. Here the anticipation of ridicule was indeed intimidating, and from this point onwards that older kind of serious life would not often be heard from. (Perhaps this is the place to note that Bergson resorts deliberately in this passage to an exaggerated pathos and enwraps everything in it; it was an application of tone which should suffice to direct the reader to consider the larger arena within which he was situating these questions: to be more specific, his mischievous invocation of that pathos may be taken to indicate, amongst other things, that while he did not endorse the old serious attitude, he did not favor its successor either. In fact he was enjoying a laugh at the expense of both.)
Yet the varieties of seriousness are many, of course, while human freedom fortunately remains even more manifold, and thus the strife between the serious and the comic is still bound to be played out on any number of fields – so let’s hasten back to Bergamo and the pealing of the municipal bells there.
A carefully composed piece of music such as this one which keeps the audience’s anticipation in play, is a work that bespeaks both seriousness and freedom: and when interrupted by the mechanical sound of the time being told it seems as though it is now complete! We’ve seen that an occurrence like that can occasion laughter, nervous and uneasy as it may have been, and I’ve brought in a plausible hypothesis concerning the cause of it: what remains is to try to put into words the thought to which the event might have given rise amongst those in attendance and of which they were then perhaps relieved by their laughter.
This sonic intrusion from without also sounds as though it were emitted from within the work, and so, if the veil surrounding such a piece of music is unfolded, as it seems we just have been invited to do, what will we hear and see ticking away if not a very subtle complication of acoustic mechanisms marking time in a mode that however fine is still mechanical, in the place of what we had taken to be an autonomous work of art in its quintessentially human temporalization? And not just this, but do we not also discern in ourselves as an audience that strictly speaking it is not WE who are listening, but some musicotemporal mechanisms of apperception, of whose operations we may be able to observe a few if only we are honest enough to admit their existence and their sway?
This very serious line of thought is at the same time exceedingly comical in its consequences. Or ought we instead to conclude that the contrariety of serious and comic is itself outmoded and it’d be better to discard it altogether?
There are some artists whose work can be understood to instantiate a choice in favor of the latter alternative, and it’s not exactly a coincidence that Yeznikian has composed works of homage to two of the best of them: Cy Twombly and Stan Brakhage.
At the conclusion of this text that’s already far too long, let me refer to a very nice anecdote of Stan Brakhage’s concerning another artist who was often said to work in an automatic or mechanical fashion: Jackson Pollock. It speaks more eloquently than I have done to some of the concerns raised here, and for this reason I’ve waited until the end to embed the playlist of Yeznikian’s compositions – which are, after all, what all this is about – for at the beginning of it, as an hors d’œuvre, I’ve included the video in which the deft little tale is told.