Amidst the varieties of stories that may be told in the medium of music, the tale of horror can exert a special fascination over both the ear and the mind, where the sounds of fright will affect the former almost irresistibly, while from this episode, once the latter begins to recover itself from it, questions then issue with a startling rapidity.
One instance of this – as though, the mind frantic, the body fixed to the spot, before one a region never seen nor heard before and inexhaustible in its very strangeness, is unveiled – is afforded by the music which Edouard Trolliet has been creating over the last couple of years. Trolliet is a sound artist in the French city of Tarnos, whose track “Never Look Back” was featured here several weeks ago; and beyond the recent individual pieces on his Soundcloud page, there are a couple of albums into which he’s bundled many of them on his Bandcamp page, a move which is well-considered on his part, as these numbers are formed from within to constitute so many installments in a soundtrack-like succession, or even to comprise a sonic sequence that even without a projection of images is already virtually a film.
We have no need of actual images for the horror films in our heads to begin to roll; all that is requisite is some trigger, and these well-known scenarios commence by themselves.
In Trolliet’s case, the longer sequences – notably A Journey to Jupiter – take the listener on a voyage into outer space; the variety of horror into which we are precipitated is the science-fiction kind, which is to say, he’s avoided to a considerable degree admixing the elements of this experience amongst heterogeneous ones (as often happens, whenever the protagonists, or, more to the point, the antagonists encountered in a horror story are other human beings): consequently, these elements manifest themselves rather clearly and distinctly here, and thus it seems, if one wants, that an analysis might at least be begun without too much trouble.
Trolliet does not hesitate to call himself a storyteller. “I will tell you stories. . . Don’t be afraid. . . Close your eyes, and welcome aboard. . . ”: this is his avis aux écouteurs. It’s a bold statement of intent; for how could an experience like an extra-planetary encounter, which would occur so far beyond our ken, possibly be recounted in the form of a story, this age-old mode of exchanging our experiences in order that a bit of sense or, with a bit of skill or luck, some wisdom might be gleaned from them? – this form of narration so closely tied to everything ordinary in human life, and sharing in the declining fortunes of the latter as it’s atrophied throughout the course of the last century – ebbing away so far that one of the age’s own great and hardly ever properly told tales would concern the travails of the twofold capacity to tell and to listen to a story – a human capacity overwhelmed by unprecedented events, traduced by new technologies and media, stifled by the increasing sensationalism and sentimentality of today’s society. And moreover, as this narrational capacity has evaporated, the fascination exerted by horror and even a need for the frightful as such, evinced most purely by the frequent anticipations of an ill-fated encounter with an other-planetary species, is rising – and its spectacular success may be taken as an inverse index of what’s happened to the other.
Stories still abound, of course, nominally, but most of what passes these days for one, is or aspires to be nothing but a novel in miniature, or else it is like a fleshed-out version of a shooting-script for the movies or television. When it’s not an instance of something abhorrent and thoroughly degraded, that is.
Strangely, then, of all things it’s a quasi-cinematic scenario of horror which is supposed to serve as the matrix of stories told in music . . . ? Yet perhaps it is precisely from out of this horrific heart of darkness that some elucidation may come of what the story once was, if a new example of it in something like its pristine form can no longer be reasonably hoped for.
So: a story in the original sense – what have I in mind by this idea? Well, a few of the remarks I’ve already offered draw upon Walter Benjamin’s concise essay “Der Erzähler,” and one or two of the other points made there I shall also invoke in this connection.
In it he addresses a number of the factors contributing to the decline of storytelling, unfolding them as different facets of the shattered condition of experience, the experience one can communicate, above all in the wake of the recent horror of the battlefields, which seemed to go so far beyond what the human body could bear, so far in excess of what human speech was able to tell, as to interject a cæsura into the history of experience itself. This he outlines in two pithy sentences in the first section of the essay: “Es ist, als wenn ein Vermögen, das uns unveräußerlich schien, das Gesichertste unter dem Sicheren, von uns genommen würde. Nämlich das Vermögen, Erfahrungen auszutauschen.” The cleft was revealed when those who returned from the front had at first nearly nothing to relay of what they’d witnessed, and this very incapacity entirely overturned the old certainties – or at least (to render the claim somewhat more definite) those certainties that are correlate to an implicit presupposition: above all it is visual phenomena which human speech is meant to articulate.
The capacity to exchange experiences through the medium of storytelling, which up to that point still seemed to be an inalienable human power, was shown up as quite alienable and indeed already alienated; after those of the war itself, this realization was the secondary shock which then precipitated an inquiry such as Benjamin’s analysis of some of the previously unremarked changes – in the constitution of experience on the one hand, in the mode of the story, on the other – which together had contributed to the event.
Both the constitution of experience and the form of the story had had something in common, and to this Benjamin returned several times during the course of his essay. Both of these were akin to handwork, that is, a whole process carried out by human hands, not merely the objects that were the results thereof, or at an early stage the two had even once been modeled upon it: that is to say, upon interactions such as the co-operation of eye and hand, or the mutual adaptation of the materials and the tools, causes and effects, or the purposive activity of a number of people in collaboration lightened by songs, banter, stories . . . In this handwork, these and other similar interactions were joined in a mode of activity differing greatly from those that commonly are involved either in simple menial labor, on one side, or in the creation of a work of art, on the other – a mode of activity whose rough perfection approached the condition of several of those by which the most conspicuous animal species variously distinguished themselves in human eyes, and the practice of which human beings may have derived to some degree from a selective emulation of the latter. Thus, in human handwork and its processes, there was a particular confluence of heterogeneous activities; and this continuously flowing stream, perhaps precisely because in its principle it was a recurrence without end within a channel slowly evolving in response, in turn had furnished something like an image, or even perhaps a model, both for human experience as it once was constituted and for the stories in which particular experiences were then given a pithy shape and by which they had been, in Benjamin’s word, exchanged.
This notion of the origin and first purpose of the story, is the one which I have in mind.
Now, for his part, Benjamin made sure to address the close connection between storytelling, as an open-ended activity in which one story could call forth another and so on indefinitely, and human wisdom, as something which might be gathered from the telling and then passed down by a further recounting, perhaps in the specific form of good counsel, thus possibly augmenting itself over the longer stretches of history (he goes so far as to speak, in the fourth section of the essay, of wisdom as being “die epische Seite der Wahrheit”). Most wrenchingly it was this nexus which began to unravel when the novel arose as the pre-eminent type of narrative, fraying further as journalism deluged everything under its gluts of so-called information while industrial technologies reshaped human life by means of the gigantic forces they had spawned, before it was finally ripped apart entirely in the World War – a planetary novum which overturned the very ground from which wisdom might earlier have sprung up.
Amidst the horrors of the battlefield, not the least of the victims was the old collaboration of the eyes and the hands, characteristic in particular of the handwork to which storytelling had been so closely tied; so it’s one of Benjamin’s most well-considered maneuvers in his essay (likewise in the fourth section) to convey the special pathos of wisdom’s demise not by means of a visual image, but simply in tactile terms: though wisdom was in retreat, this very fact “zugleich eine neue Schönheit in dem Entschwindenden fühlbar macht” – the emphasis is mine – whereas the word readers would most obviously have expected to encounter, was “sichtbar.”
With this unexpected choice of words, it is as though Benjamin wished, firstly, to alert to the risk that this pathos too might be swallowed up by a mere feeling of nostalgia – thus reduced to being a variety of the loud sentimentality produced by industrial civilization, here bemoaning hypocritically the absence of something with which it itself had dispensed and which it would hardly recognize if it did somehow happen to see it; but moreover, secondly, to hint that once the old order of the human senses had been destroyed, in the contact with powers of technology so utterly disproportionate to the human body in general and its organs of perception in particular, what beauty itself was – and also the ability to discern it – would be thrown into grave confusion. For what species of the beautiful is it which would be (to take Benjamin’s word quite literally) felt, if indeed this posthumous moment of beauty possessed any real existence at all and was not itself thoroughly illusory albeit seemingly real to the one afflicted by it, in the manner of an imaginary malady? Yet furthermore, Benjamin may well have had a third reason for choosing that odd term fühlbar, as it readily calls to mind one of the typical although at the same time thought-provoking characteristics of a feeling as such, namely, its brief duration – even before one knows it, it is gone; now, insofar as their very brevity is characteristic of feelings generally and especially of feelings of pleasure (which is the sort to which in this context Benjamin was referring), and insofar as this characteristic is exhibited most notably when the feeling in question pertains not to a positive pleasure but rather to the curiously euphoric and even more momentarily pleasing sense of relief that’s felt once something distasteful or painful to behold has passed, as a consequence, the exact nature of this feeling of observing “eine neue Schönheit in dem Entschwindenden” is itself cast into doubt. Accordingly, one begins to wonder: was it not so much a pleasure tinged with regret at the demise of storytelling in its old rapport with wisdom, as it was a pleasure of relief that they were gone, or, on the other hand, a quite unstable mixture of these two pleasures, or perhaps yet another feeling of an entirely different kind?
Who could have said with any assurance what it was? Thus the questions multiply – indeed, all the more so as, now putting the matter of feeling aside, there was more than one new beauty to be found in the demolition of the old certainties.
In the Erlebnisse on the front during the First World War, amongst all of the horrors which exceeded by many orders of magnitude that which the individual human being could possibly sustain, beauty itself was not entirely absent, though there it manifested itself in ways utterly new and often horrific, frequently to the point that the horrible and the beautiful were nearly indistinguishable (and this was a condition which older definitions drawn from art and aesthetic theory, even those relating to the sublime, could hardly comprehend). Of course, all of this experience transpired on the edge of danger, and so those exposed to it were aware that by certain modes of beauty one could just as easily be obliterated as enraptured.
Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören.
A quite hopeless admiration, this, one should like to retort – at which point one might then ask oneself what more could there possibly be to say (if, that is, one still does not intend to join in the society’s reigning penchant for cheap talk).
However, lest the main motive behind this essay be forgotten just as its end is shimmering into view, I’ll hasten to counter that the topics which it is tentatively exploring – they are, in the form of a somewhat immodest list: horror and beauty, the story and storytelling, and the conditions of wisdom and serenity and perhaps also that elusive state which the German language calls Gelassenheit – all evidently assume a different shape if, in an experimental mood, one elevates the ear above the eye as the foremost organ of perception and thus also of intellectual interest. And that experiment represents something that Trolliet appears to have in common with the poets and writers who are passing in revue here: each of them, to various degrees and in their different ways, was inclined to undertake it.
The impasse at which storytelling seemed to have arrived, in Benjamin’s doleful account, may open up when music is attended to as a narrational medium, being placed alongside the other such that the two might (pardon the expression) shed some light on one another, reciprocally.
With the eyes closed shut and the ears attuned, the capacity to tell a proper story might find itself anew in the medium of music – while the field from which it now draws its tales might be incomparably more vast than before, and the wisdom it could possibly offer, of quite another nature.
Considered from the present standpoint, it is as though the notion of music as a refuge for storytelling were already delineated in three significant sentences (or, in keeping with the actual flow of living speech, perhaps in fact these were the constituents of one single longer remark) uttered in an interview more than fifty years ago by Isak Dinesen – the nom de plume of Karen Blixen. (Alas, it was not possible to consult the transcript of the entire conversation, which was conducted by a Danish literary journalist: Bent Mohn, “Talk with Isak Dinesen,” The New York Times Book Review (November 3, 1957), p. 49.) In it the author had this to relate: “One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy.” Now, after an initial parsing one might notice that this statement was not formulated without an ambiguity or a few, and as this – this much one may assume – did not occur by chance, let’s turn to identify them briefly; for they seem significant in this context not least by virtue of one’s hesitation in deciding what precisely was meant: thus these were the deliberate ambiguities of a storyteller.
An infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. What the actual meaning of the superlative is, is not quite obvious: if it is an approbation, did Dinesen intend to underscore how inexhaustible a source of stories life can be, whenever, so to speak, the productive imagination within it is solicited in the right way? Or, if this phrase were introduced in order to convey a certain reservation held by the author with respect to this very great power within life itself, would this not suggest that stories can come to be only when a preservative distance from life’s mighty force is maintained? Yet more likely than either of these possibilities alone, was some mixture of both conceptions in the authorial attitude she took towards it, so that she might overhear it better.
The explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. Here the first ambiguity resides in the actual sense of Dinesen’s circumlocution which appears at first to be equivalent to a copula: exactly how is this explanation supposed to relate to this pattern or melody, and vice versa? Ought the first aim be to explain – to unfold and to clarify – life’s perplexities and conundrums as they come, eliciting some wisdom from them – deriving it from having solved them – and subsequently moving to assemble the results into a pattern or indeed a melody – life itself, then, revealing its pre-eminently aural nature for the most part towards the end, as a conclusion? Or will one be better off by listening to life right from the start as an acoustic phenomenon, construing it melodically to begin with, such that its very nature as melody would constitute the condition of possibility of all explanations that one might offer, while life’s phrases or notes, so to speak, would serve as the keys for any explanation in particular? And, secondly, when the story is told in the medium of music, what will the explanation add to life, if anything at all (does life in fact need an explanation?), and how would it add it? To put the matter differently: what might it say about life and life’s completeness if later we encounter the explanation again – now in the shape of an actual melody – being whistled or hummed as we are venturing along the streets of our lives?
All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them. When one reads this statement a second time, one may notice that Dinesen’s idea begins to sound facetious or mischievous, for in effect she likened the story to some sort of container – to a box, a vessel, or a cage in which to stow and with which to transport one’s sorrows, as though they were a kind of living cargo. So the aim in storytelling was to contain the sorrows as such, in both senses of the verb; while on their side, these sorrows were already ready to be contained in this way – their own share of significance, or else their own inner structure, predisposing them to be encompassed within a story, an arrangement which imbued the latter with both seriousness and longevity, while also rendering life a bit more bearable. Now, all this, it seems she implied, represented something like the common belief of storytellers generally, at least those working at the height of the craft, and it was thus something to which she too subscribed to some degree, ex officio; but by the same token, her notions of what she was accomplishing in her own storytelling activity, had diverged from that set of beliefs to an equal or even to a greater degree, and this, one may infer from what she said, completing the thought, to the extent that her works were alive with both music and horror.
Whether all horrors may be borne once they are set within a story, it is hard to say with any degree of assurance at all.
Und nicht ein Übel ist’s, wenn einiges
Verloren gehet und wenn der Rede
Verhallet der lebendige Laut,
Denn göttliches Werk auch gleichet dem unsern,
Nicht alles will der Höchste zumal.
– a passage in which, in the poem “Patmos,” Hölderlin, the great horror of a dying-out of human speech and perhaps also of other devastations ringing in his ears, nonetheless chose to desist from overweening reproof. (Here he employed a theological idiom equivocally, and this in itself may be taken as a sign that the poet thought of the very condition of Gelassenheit as that which would then remain, after the loss.) Confronted as he was by such a frightful fore-audition – please excuse the inelegant term – which somehow already resonates with that horror of horrors delineated in the science fiction of today, namely, extinction on a planetary scale, it’s as though these terse lines were transcribed for distant years even more than for his own.
For a further interpretation of those five lines there’s neither occasion nor cause now; it suffices for my purposes to suggest that in some measure this same attitude will be felt by a listener when the sounds of Edouard Trolliet’s musical tales of horror have ceased: and then, to embrace this attitude may be the small sum of wisdom which is all, under present circumstances, the power of storytelling can reasonably still hope to convey.
Well, by way of conclusion, it’s time to put this quite tentative essay to the test – of the music itself, of course.
The following are a few selections from the body of Trolliet’s work.