Adam Cuthbért’s close friend and collaborator on the Sight/Sound festival, Daniel Rhode, is likewise a composer, and though he currently lives in Michigan while in the last phase of his university studies, in his compositions it seems that he too has moved to New York and joined the hard-to-classify scene that thrives there in the interstices of contemporary classical and experimental music; and since where there is personal liking we go, it stands to reason that in the near future this virtual New Yorker will relocate there in actual fact.
(While compiling the text about Cuthbért, I failed to note that Sight/Sound has not only a Youtube channel but also a Bandcamp page of its own, on which further biographical information about the two composers is also provided.)
The most recent, “Vertigo” (directed by J. D. Forslin), perhaps precisely because it was filmed at night in a Grand Rapids that seems nearly deserted by its inhabitants, sounds and looks as though it already points towards a life in New York; thus, to my mind, this is a work whose character is personal and anticipatory: and as the rearrangement of one’s life that goes with such a change of locale frequently comes with some inward upheaval, it may be presumed that the title was not chosen adventitiously but that it might actually express an impending state of feeling Rhode would already have encountered in himself and which he’d have transcribed from within, if for no other reason than the aim to surpass it or to assign a date to it.
In this composition, musically speaking, there’s a build-up of some tense expectation suggestive perhaps of the feeling someone has while striding along one of the avenues in Manhattan to an important interview (for instance, for a first full-time job after graduation) or some other kind of significant business meeting of a sort one’s never yet handled – of a mix of feelings, namely, in which jaunty self-assurance but also awareness that everything to come will depend on oneself and one’s own comportment, are both comprised, prolonged and punctuated, for some few instants that feel like forever, by the thump of one’s shoes on the sidewalk, the loud beating in one’s chest, the hum in one’s ears.
Meanwhile, as regards the visual dimension, in the video we see the bright lights of the city at night, which the camera as it were grasps for so avidly that they nearly become swatches of abstract intense color – when it is not engaged in panning rapidly back and forth, registering them then as even more abstract horizontal blurs, as they are likely to appear when one spins one’s head quickly around, seeking on all sides something to hold on to without finding it at all; a nearly delirious state in which concern in the face of a future that’s rushing straight at one threatens to overwhelm the present and one’s presence of mind altogether.
At a certain point something like a calm after this vertiginous tempest begins to shimmer through (it gains ascendancy, it seems to me, from approximately the 2:54 mark onwards) and the piece concludes musically on a note of composure, visually with a blurred registration of a pair of what could perhaps be traffic signals, which turn green just as the video ends.
A quite different variety of feeling is sounded out by Rhode in “Resolution.” Here it is anger and actions correlate to it that we are given to see; in a hard-edged black and white, as though it were an animated sequence of silkscreen stills (and the degree of visual abstraction increases in the course of the video), a couch is shown first, shot from various angles and at different distances, which a young man seats himself on briefly, who then proceeds, after a few tense seconds when he apparently is deciding what he wants to do, to strip it of its upholstery and to attack with a hammer the frame underneath, which in short order he thoroughly demolishes. The moments in which he is most at one both with his anger and his instrument are filmed in an especial close-up, as though to focus our attention not on him per se but on the force of will that’s welled up in him and by which he himself is moved: these sequences are lent an extra weight in the context of the whole montage, for the footage is repeated a couple of times and slowed down to some degree – and in part it’s even played in reverse.
This last aspect may offer a key to the work’s meaning, or to a portion of it. Here we’re shown something that succeeds above all else in infuriating the human will (which of the various powers of the mind is the one aroused the most whenever one encounters a significant recalcitrance), something that it would give just about anything to conquer if only it could, namely, whatever has already entered the realm of time past and now partakes of its essential fixity; it burns the will up that this, seemingly by virtue of its very definition, escapes its power to unfix, insofar as the will is a prospective, a forward-looking, a power of futurity: and thus its rage when it comes up against this, its own intrinsic direction and limitation, the rage that it cannot affect the past too, is bound to go far beyond the anger that may well accompany it in the exercise which is properly vouchsafed to it.
That idea constituted the crux of Nietzsche’s insight (which I’ve done no more than summarize here) into the nature of the human will, as he expressed it in the section entitled “Von der Erlösung” in the second part of Also sprach Zarathustra. There we are told: “Nicht zurück kann der Wille wollen; dass er die Zeit nicht brechen kann und der Zeit Begierde, – das ist des Willens einsamste Trübsal” – and from that destitute state, readers can infer, it may well seek to distract itself by means of arbitrary acts of violence.
The will cannot will backwards into the past; but it certainly knows how to lash out in fury on all sides, against all sides.
As regards “Resolution,” behind the man’s apparent anger, it is to this feature of the human condition and the fearsome rage it can engender, in the face of the evidently irrevocable direction of time and time’s desire – or time’s greed or even its covetousness (as the word “Begierde,” in Nietzsche’s hands at least, eludes any simple translation into English) – that the video wants to direct our attention.
Yet can it be said so definitively that all this in fact describes a fixed constituent condition of the nature of the human being? Nietzsche would not have been Nietzsche had he not, with his pregnant formulations, put his fingers on the exact spots from which potent counter-thoughts could well issue.
“Ohnmächtig gegen Das, was gethan ist – ist er” – the human will – “allem Vergangenen ein böser Zuschauer.”
In our age where it no longer seems quite so obvious as it once did that whatever has been done originated in an actual deed, nor that all that’s past is past with exactly the same kind of finality it used to possess in the past – and the devices whereby film or video footage may be mounted and played in reverse (as they also are in “Resolution”) constitute one small but symbolically significant part of the technologies without which this age would never have come into being at all – one may now perhaps find it more difficult to deny categorically that the human mind, prodded by its own inventions, could possibly stand on the verge of discovering within itself some new power such that, under particular definite circumstances, it would in fact be capable of willing backwards.
The common certainty that any such power is intrinsically impossible, may for its part rest to an uncomfortable extent on an unacknowledged assumption, which Nietzsche’s sentences have the virtue of putting into so many words: in its relation to the past the human will is essentially a spectator. (How benign or malignant is here of secondary importance.) And then the very vividness of the past as something seen would contribute not a little to solidify the sense that what’s past has become irrevocably final and thus eludes the reach of the human will, simply by virtue of its pastness.
However: vis-à-vis the past, could not the human will, with equal or greater plausibility, instead be called an auditor?
When, in “Resolution,” the rage is done and nothing remains, are we not told in effect that the spectator’s day is up? (For where is the spectator who has no need of a seat?)
Shouldn’t one then replay the video but this time attend far more attentively to the music (even to the point of closing one’s eyes entirely)?
So doing, elements in the arrangements of “Resolution,” such as the tape glitches and other similar audio effects or the off-kilter piano (to specify only two of them) begin to sound even more significant in the context of the whole; the latter in its totality then could give one an idea of the music that might fill from within a mind which has started to discern in itself (this being a discovery correlate to tomorrow’s technological changes generally) some ability to will back into the past – a peculiarly unsteady and unsure inner realm of sound: for nothing in the foregoing should be taken to suggest that an acquisition of a retroactive power by the will could ever come easy, nor that the exercise thereof could ever become routine or habitual. All of it (just as with this whole line of thought) would always be bound to remain tentative in the best case . . .
To my ears, these thoughts are where “Resolution” actually intends to leave its listeners.