A couple of years ago, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist in Lille, Pierre Laplace, and his niece, the neophyte chanteuse and occasional guitarist Léonie Gabriel, joining forces as The Sandman’s Orchestra, began to compose and record a number of contemporary folksongs, soon compiling these into a self-produced first album entitled Silver Linings, available inter alia on their Bandcamp page, which attracted a considerable following (it wasn’t long before the two were honored as “Soundclouders of the day”); since then they’ve continued to develop their music (representing themselves in addition on Myspace, Reverbnation, and Youtube), and a second album, Nocturne, was likewise released around two months ago.
Just prior to its release, a song from the first album, “Hello Stranger,” was featured on this site one Sunday evening; another of those loaded on the duo’s Soundcloud page, “To the Moon,” with its arresting contra-arrangements of strings and drums, also calls out to be included here.
Now, with its lunar, oneiric, and tenebrous predilections, and even more by virtue of its very name, The Sandman’s Orchestra summons to mind the fantastic paraphernalia of Hoffmannesque literature; yet this music does not aspire to remain a pendant to some antiquated romantic exercise in mere lyricism or in music that would be tone-painting and little more: rather, by its choice of means the two allow electronic instruments a noteworthy role in their sonic phantasmagoria – and the shadows these cast sharpen up their acoustic scenes as a whole, and in particular the lyrics, which often are intelligently pointed to begin with. Moreover, here one will not encounter the sounds of a free-floating Weltschmerz or world-weariness so much as those of an attitude that is more definite and precise in its correlation to today’s society; for it is the latter, and not the world per se in this or that definition of the term, which lives and thrives on our exhaustion and thus in turn renders us – Gesellschaftsmüde, in something of the way that conditions in the mid-nineteenth century led many on this continent to become Europamüde, albeit without having ready at hand a similarly obvious remedy for the complaint: so it’s this twofold fatigue of today, rather than the simpler and less specific sort of yesteryear, which is manifested in the mobile clair-obscur of the duo’s variety of folk-music.
Patience that is itself nearly exhausted – perhaps this is what one hears conveyed through the special tempo of their music, if one has time enough and ear to hearken to it.
In these numbers, it isn’t that feelings, moods, or tones which have been forgotten are called back to a sort of eerie half-life, at once sepia-stained with age and yet now again outfitted with a potent presence, even though the band’s visual materials may leave the impression that their music might well be filled by so many sonorous analogues to the old obscure photographs of those long gone whose personalia have vanished with an even greater finality, such that the songs would be circumscribed in their choice of themes by the sentimentality which arises with a peculiar pathos from our industrial civilization as its requisite supplement. No, that does not seem to be the case here at all, and in fact, to the extent that folk-music generally has been entrammelled in just that subservient supplementary role, this entire situation itself could well be amongst the topics the two are exploring, in an undertone as is their wont.
All of these concerns and more come together in an occasional song (it is included on neither album) which appears nonetheless to afford insight into what The Sandman’s Orchestra is about at bottom, namely, a number in which that spectral poem, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The City in the Sea”* (recited by Martin Lucas), has been set to music.
* First published in The American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Science (New York: Wiley and Putnam), vol. I, no. IV (April 1845), p. 393.
The mythical Atlantis of course stands as the matrix of the poem, though it is never named as such; the poet’s refusal to identify it, ensured that “The City in the Sea” did not enter the orbit of an artificial antiquity, for Poe evidently already intuited how far the elaboration thereof, in the midst of modern industrial society, would most likely become a mere sentimental pastime or a treacherously false refuge from the latter – hence it was a literary practice better avoided to begin with.
Poe, moreover, had quite another literary use in mind for the topos of “antiquity,” and so did not intend to squander it needlessly.
Which city does his poem actually speak of? The modern one – as it will one day be, and indeed as it itself means to be, one day. Much as Baudelaire would ascertain a couple of decades later, Poe divined the plan to become an antique ruin within the very constructive fury by which in his time the modern city was materializing, often so rapidly that it was as though sprung up out of thin air; a condition which once it had taken centuries to bring about, was now reckoned with as a fate not all that far off, one whose approach was actually accelerating; and this prospect was being built into the city’s form itself, both on the whole and in its constituent parts. Therefore, given this inner tendency, as though the modern city was arising in an emulation of Atlantis, what cause would the poet have had to utter its name at all?
The fate however which this city seemed to envision and desire for itself, this he did put into lines that spew more and more fire the closer one attends to them. (Again like Baudelaire, in the last of the Fusées, it often seems Poe too put pen to paper that he might “dater mon colère.” And the other poet’s sketch of himself there, was eminently suited to him as well: “Perdu dans ce vilain monde, coudoyé par les foules, je suis comme un homme lassé dont l’œil ne voit en arrière, dans les années profondes, que désabusement et amertume, et, devant lui, qu’un orage où rien de neuf n’est contenu, ni enseignement ni douleur.”)
This nameless city swallowed whole by the sea, would now, preserved under something like a pane of glass, exhibit its architectural daring to a view obliquely from above (it had always seemed to want above all to be regarded from that angle) –
So blend the turrets and shadows there
That all seem pendulous in air
– as though to underscore that the ulterior aim all along was to illustrate how far its higher stories (even before the advent of the elevator the height of modern buildings was on the rise) had attained a state of near or virtual independence from the solidity of the foundations, a marvel of human industry which even as ruins these constructions would continue to illustrate, not least by virtue of the uncommon degree of exertion required of nature to reconquer them.
At the same time, Poe found it disturbing to perceive that the rationale or even the raison d’être for the modern city as the illustration par excellence of industrial civilization, was an ultimate state in which all its activity would have ceased, all its tumult been converted into the silence and stillness of something that thus showed itself to have been all along intended solely for the eyes of its posterity. O what a sight it would then present!
For no ripples curl, alas!
Along that wilderness of glass–
No swellings tell that winds may be
Upon some far-off happier sea–
No heavings hint that winds have been
On seas less hideously serene.
The very motionlessness of these remnants of a civilization in the sea, and of the waters encasing them, as though to say that its structures are thus set beyond time’s reach, suggests how during its nascence industrial civilization was content to justify itself in terms lacking the boldness which would have befitted the upheavals brought about by its unprecedented activity: for in this vital question, without originality and even timidly, in effect that civilization deferred to an opposing “way of life” as the ultimate arbiter, for whose sake all of it would have been done, a highest and last inheritor which would then be yet another iteration of the ancient βίος θεωρητικός with its specific preference for the time-less tranquility of θεωρία and its prejudgements vis-à-vis the city as such.
To judge by the fire in his poem, the prospect of this spectacle dismayed Poe greatly.
Furthermore, the lines just quoted also allude to one of the wishes this civilization has induced in its denizens from its beginnings, evidently inexorably, as an intrinsic by-product, namely, to find relief from the weariness it inflicts on them as the entry-price of their participation; this hope it is which is registered in the image of a sea without wind or waves. Though he recoils from the extra-temporal state thus envisioned – this was a desperate remedy for a desperate situation – as regards the weary sentiment from out of which it arose, one may notice that his anger is tempered, and conclude that Poe too must have known the feeling quite well.
All of this together should lend a special edge to this poème maudit in particular and shed a somber burning light on its creator’s motive. Of it he could have avowed, to cite a pertinent line from the Aeneid, “flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.”*
* Bk. 7, l. 312.
Now – to come back to this musical interpretation of Poe’s piece – in keeping with the fiery spirit of the poem itself, Lucas moves to stir up its meaning by his emphatic manner of recitation.
Well, by means of this tour through the modern city taken as a topic of reflection, it seems to me that some further light is shone on present-day folk-music, or, more precisely, on the significance of the vogue for it. Even when, as is most often the case, this kind of music exists simply in order to feed and at the same time to stoke the hunger for easy sentiment aroused by our contemporary society, the deliberate cultivation of an anachronistic form, precisely because it is outdated, conveys despite itself some awareness of the ways in which this society’s products have been pre-formed from the beginning – shaped from the outset, in other words, by something like a yearning to hasten towards their own fate while remaining capable somehow of seeing themselves thus transfigured. (An acoustic medium is perhaps especially suited to register the existence of such a twofold wish and to plumb its depths.) Thus when, as with The Sandman’s Orchestra, the folk-music is more thoughtful, informed by a greater quantum of irony, and situated on a higher plane of reflection, that wish might be extruded audibly as such, so that, if we want, we could guard ourselves against the society’s sentimentality and its temptations – not the least of which is that horrible desire of falling precipitously into ruin.
Enough: it’s time to turn to The Sandman’s Orchestra’s recent album, and to hand the last word over to four of its tracks which, with their arresting titles taken as indications, should do more than a commentary can to render listeners wary of present-day society and its matrix, our own weariness.
Here are the four songs, in order.
“The Last Night of the Old World.” – “In Your Wake.” – “On a Cloud.” – And the eponymous final track, “Nocturne.”