The Fires of August (Part II)

Heraclitus was most profound when he addressed the λόγος at work in the human soul: here one is least sure one comprehends all that he himself meant by these terms, here the possibilities of dispute are the greatest. (The two relevant fragments are the forty-fifth and the one hundred and fifteenth in Diels’ edition.) Yet it does seem to be the case that this λόγος designates at once the soul’s own inner drive towards knowledge and also the soul itself considered as one of the objects to be known: in both respects it is virtually infinite and actually self-increasing. What will be the significance of this energetic expansion in accordance with its nature? The question appears all the more pressing, as the self-induced growth of the λόγος is bound to generate much new strife in turn.

For this dimension of Heraclitus’ thinking, an especial sensitivity was shown by Blücher. The human soul as the object of its own drive to know, will always prove elusive. Any knowledge it manages to obtain of itself will only augment it further, and then the bits which it did comprehend will themselves become different than they were. Confronted with this alteration, however, it need not become despondent – indeed, the spirit or fire within the soul, or, in other words, the mind’s intellectual courage, can burn hotter in consequence.

Just because the human mind can enflame its inner drive to know, it will do so. By his unflinching espousal of this ceaseless activity, Heraclitus proved himself a visionary, for, said Blücher, “if we look at the development of the sciences, where every day something new is added and almost every four weeks a new science is made possible, then we must conclude that indeed, he was right, our knowledge of man is permanently growing.” As the intellect grows, it itself precipitates new conflict, inside, around, and apart from itself. “Unfortunately, the other parts of our mind are not growing as fast as science,” he added. “The intellect has outrun us, and science has been triumphant, because of, or thanks to, Heraclitus.”

In view of the great efflorescence of the sciences from the early nineteenth century onwards, many were the attempts to construe the sheer movement of the growth of knowledge as an evolution, that is, as going in a definite direction and even towards some sort of goal. The ultimate question posed by any such notion of progress, Heraclitus himself would have rejoined, cannot be answered, and hence it would be senseless to ask it at all. For him, by contrast, the increase is an unending end in itself, and thus he accepted, as Blücher put the point, that “the whole process of the cosmos leads to absolutely nothing. Except more development of energy, more quarrel, more strife, and that seems to have been his greatest joy.”

The fanaticism of detachment itself can develop into joy, if only it is pursued consistently and energetically enough. Strange joy! “To Heraclitus, the growing consciousness of the world, the growing world itself, is the only aim. There is no other aim. That makes the whole thing, finally, a bit grotesque. Doesn’t it?”

Yes, most likely – whenever this consciousness is pre-eminently visual in its operations. But if the λόγος within it seeks knowledge by means of the ears, and in so doing acts in accordance with dimensions of the λόγος in the cosmos which the eyes cannot hope to perceive, what then? In that case, would the growing awareness that is the endeavor’s sole aim seem quite so odd? After all, the fanaticism of detachment from what one sees and then knows, is rather different than an attitude by which one maintains some distance from what one hears and understands.

At this point, and in order to reassure the reader that all this strife has not signified nothing, it is time to return to music. For music, as a unique power in human life, has also expanded itself throughout the course of its own pursuit, much as knowledge has done. And would all the work that goes into music (both the making and the listening) ever be expended without a great drive to ascertain what orderly arrangements there may be in the cosmos and in the human soul, not visually but acoustically? Accordingly, the λόγος in the human soul increases itself by musical experience no less than by scientific-visual observation, does it not?

Hence it is not only scientific knowledge strictly speaking, but also the power of music which grows through, indeed, by virtue of the universal principle that Heraclitus called πόλεμος.

One instance of how this happens is afforded by those varieties of music most closely linked to the life of peoples, namely, the folk musics in which their historical experiences are given an audible shape, and specifically the musical genres which follow on from wars, in shared mourning and commemoration: dirges, laments, threnodies, and the like. Here, at least some of the time, the actual sounds of those wars, the sheer sonic tumult to be met everywhere during them, are incorporated but largely tuned down, transmuted into the relative stillness of sorrow for the losses. These thoughtful ceremonies diverge in their mood so far from the spirit of war itself, as themselves to be in conflict with it – and yet it can also happen that, at some later moment years afterwards, the music played during them has almost imperceptibly changed character and has itself become capable of inciting or strengthening a warlike spirit amongst those who are listening to it!

On the other side, the genres of folk music in which war is expressed directly – the various sorts of patently martial music, comprising fittingly hard sounds – could well provoke something quite other than warlike spirit in their audiences, even eliciting an antithetical sense of sadness, dismay, or horror, however much they too may later find themselves in war’s midst.

In such vicissitudes of music as these, however unexpected they might be, a listener may discern how the alterations in kind which Heraclitus had visualized by his notion of the πυρὸς τροπαὶ, can also occur in the realm of eminently acoustic phenomena.

Many are the ways by which war enters into music, and in turn is begotten by it.

Both in remembrance of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and in order to exemplify some of the interrelations amongst music and war, some quite apparent, others considerably more subtle, and a few nearly imperceptible, I have put together a diverse though generally subdued Soundcloud playlist.

The first of the tracks in this playlist is by Daniele Corsi, a composer in Rome of whose work one piece was featured here last month. This one is a composition for string quartet, “Perpetuum mobile,” in a performance given four years ago by the Cedag Quartet at the Forum austriaco di cultura di Roma.

Quite possibly the title of this piece might refer to the life led in large cities, full of incessant motion which seems to sustain itself, for the time being; right from the start one seems to hear a succession of tightly-wound people rushing onwards, arriving and going in groups, rapidly. These sequences sound like public scenes, their venue the city street, overhung with a tension felt by all: throughout these locales everyone moves very nervously. Listeners can feel the strain, as though they were there, too; when short passages of older popular music seem to flit by, one might infer that these people on the move are whistling or humming them to themselves, and then one begins to wonder about the precise date of all these happenings. These brief bits of the more popular music seem like they hail from the beginning of the twentieth century, and so the circle closes: something of that shared feeling of apprehensive expectation – the common attitude the present essay took as its starting-point – with which the coming war was awaited by many during the summer of 1914, did find a way to enter into, and to echo through, this piece of music. The listener is put on edge as a result, and once in this mood, when subsequently in Corsi’s work there is heard, not snatches of the popular music of a century ago, but bits of the melodies which circulate during our own times, a silent sigh may be let out: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. And yet this very acknowledgement of a recurrence, in one further twist à la Heraclitus, could lend new strength to the λόγος in the soul which exhales it.

The second item in the playlist is the main part of an EP put out via the Internet by In absentia, the moniker of a guitarist in Texas by the name of Ren Risner. Entitled Solitude, in it a solitary musicianship is presented, showing what the instrument in his hands can accomplish: Risner’s voiceless experiment upon folk music, by the tuning of memory’s strings, does draw forth from within it the melodies of loss latent there.

In one of his numbers, those melodies are themselves handled in an evocative manner. (The seventh and last of these tracks, a cover, has been omitted in the playlist.) In the fourth of them, “You and I,” in the acoustic foreground the listener may observe a scene of leave-taking between the two people of the title – taking place with a suppressed undercurrent of emotion, as though this time could well be the last – while off in the distance, out of sight but nonetheless quite sharp and loud in their sound, other activities are ongoing. What could they be? Why, perhaps one is hearing the preparations for the deployment, conducted by means of an array of shrill sonic signals. Indeed, the setting of this goodbye could well be an army base.

Through this piece of music, therefore, the listener may hear the echoes of a few originally martial sounds, reverberating in a quite dampened manner, and yet still somewhat piercing; as such these elements of the guitar-work do or could refer to an actual experience, or else prompt the listener to imagine what it would be like, in the fellow-feeling of a sympathetic act of reception: while in Risner’s reverential hands the effect of all this is both understated and affecting.

To my ears, therefore, “You and I” constitutes the emotional centre of Solitude, and furnishes a map to the listeners who want to light out for the rest of Risner’s album.

A song by the English duo now known as Whom by Fire – in their earlier incarnation, they went by the name Caleb, and it was under this moniker that I wrote about them around two years ago – is the third item in the playlist. Oddly enough, it too is entitled “Solitude,” and in the dark turn they give to the blues, Dan Halamandres and Elyza Nicholas also wield their guitars quite evocatively.

In their “Solitude,” several forms of mourning in music are mixed together, in voluminous insistence, and so here too the listener senses the proximity of war. Probably it was always there in the blues as a kind of folk music, but in this duo’s adaptation of it to other environs – they reside in Southend-⁠on-⁠Sea – it comes to express some of the specifically coastal sorrows, and in particular the uncertainties hanging over both the seamen and the sailors and those they leave behind on land. Hence their blues takes on a naval shade, and they make impressive use of some of the elements of maritime music, the focused singing, the shifting rhythms, the syncopic transitions: the characteristics which in themselves seem to anticipate how things may have been cut short while one was waiting as best one could.

Next in the playlist is a cover of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” by the San Francisco band Uke-⁠Hunt, courtesy of the Soundcloud page of its record label Fat Wreck Chords. This version, quite distinctively, is built around the frontman Spike Slawson’s ukulele, while alongside him, who is also the main vocalist, Uke-⁠Hunt also comprises the saxophonist Jamin, the percussionist Randy Burk, and the bassist Joe Raposo.

Prominent in this rendition is the as it were polemical manner in which Slawson utilizes his instrument, making an aggressive rejoinder to those who prize it for its smoothness, while his vocal delivery, too, can be blunt, with some quite pointed vowels and ominous distributions of emphasis. So here it is not only the words like violence which break the silence and come crashing in, but the music as well; those who wish to enjoy the silence will have to hunt elsewhere for pieces of music less obstructive of that nearly solitary dream, but aficionados of rougher or more unusual musical genres or sub-genres – Hawaiian neo-neo-punk? – may find much to appreciate in this band’s efforts: it has recently released a first album.

Fifth in the playlist is another entire album, entitled Early & Late by the Danish ensemble Gáman, an initiative of the accordionist Andreas Borregaard, whose projects I’ve featured twice before, along with Bolette Roed on the recorder and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen on the violin. This trio comes together in a shared love of Scandinavian folk music, and in particular that of its own country, which is itself already diverse – all the more so when the Faroe Islands and, further afield, Greenland are included, as this album does. In several of its eleven tracks, these folk musics are performed in accordance with the “sound world,” as the notes to Early & Late remark, of contemporary music, the classical, minimal, and electronic kinds in particular, in order to see how well the old and the new genres will work with one another and thus “perhaps to reveal similarities and contrasts” between the acoustic comprehensions and self-comprehensions comprised in each of them. So this album, in the terms of Heraclitus’ fundamental conception, can give one to understand how music, as a sui generis activity of knowledge, may bring about the growth of the λόγος in the human soul. (Moreover, and as a further dimension of this experiment, also featured are the trio’s performances of three recent works by the composers Rune Glerup, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, and Sunleif Rasmussen.)

The interpretations of these folk musics offered by Early & Late, do at times seem to accentuate the quality of sorrow in them. But rather than attributing this characterization to a decidedly nostalgic attitude, as though in so doing the musicians had wished to intimate how near they stand to extinction, instead the interpreters’ choice seems to underscore the close proximity between the folk music and the people’s historical experiences which it had in some manner memorialized: first and foremost, wars and conditions analogous to them and the fatal consequences thereof. On the contrary, this datum of the history quite possibly constituted the musical brisance which excited the trio to undertake its experiment in the first place. If that is right, then so little were the trio’s interpretations performed in the mood of nostalgia, that their actual aim is to suggest how there still persists within the folk music itself the force of something like an unexploded shell. Hence the album is inscribed with an invisible but not illegible warning: the older music always should be handled with great care, as it remains, even now, very much a live power.

Next is a new work by the Amsterdam composer René Baptist Huysmans, no stranger here, with a title – “Cusp” – which itself is already resonant.

To be sure, the cusps he refers to are those within the composition itself, which “announce each time a different texture, with a different intensity or character,” yet these announcements of incipient transition, although they themselves are anticipated, become perceptible only once a slight interval of time has elapsed and the listeners, if they are listening hard, have been able to take a first reading of the soundscape in its new arrangement. Now, could one not with some plausibility, especially given our current circumstances, comprehend these small interstices of disorientation as akin in miniature to historical experiences of the brief interregna that are virtually impossible to ascertain in advance and afterwards nearly as difficult to define precisely? Therefore, right now at least, the ominous mood throughout “Cusp” is both untimely and timely. Hence, as unsettling as it may be in itself – and this work should unnerve the listener – it also seems to be an index of . . .

Seventh in the playlist is a short electronic work by the Israeli pianist and now also the electronica experimentalist Shiri Malckin, with the Parisian musician Jean-⁠Marc Zelwer laying down a few small stones of his own by some phrases blown on the duduk. She has entitled it “The Salted Kiss” and so this lamentation – as it plainly seems to be – has for its occasion a poisonous intimacy. By the sound of it, here some sort of love has gone terribly awry.

The further one listens to this piece, or the more closely, the greater the sense that it is actually a dirge. Something is being laid to rest, in a confusion of distress, relief, and love – for love become grievous, nonetheless remains love of a sort. The inner indecisions of such a state of mind as this, are given expression in the variations which mark every slow step taken by this procession. By its very formality it affords all of them alike the room they need.

Another threnody is the eighth item in the playlist. This “Lament for Young Lives Lost” is the work of the young South African composer Ernst van Tonder, and where the previous work was stately and reserved, this one is brief and even at points briefly overwhelming in the expression of its sorrow.

In the beginning the mechanical sound of a music box is heard (as though in a distant reprise of the horrible incident recounted in Jünger’s Kampf als inneres Erlebnis), and with the crescendo that follows, this work does more than invite the listener to grieve along with it. The composer has dedicated it to the “memory of all the young lives lost each day” – and here one hardly has to say how.

Ninth in the playlist is a “Trauermarsch” by the German pianist Thoralf Dietrich. Last year one of his own compositions was featured here, a piece influenced by Erik Satie, and in this one as well the Frenchman has played a role, although Dietrich’s sense for composing is already rather distinctive, and if he follows through he could become the author of an interesting œuvre.

The last item in the playlist is an older work by an English composer, the late Hermione Harvestman (1930-⁠2012), whose first involvement with music was as a pianist, while later she became enamored of the Clavivox (one of the first synthesizers), and still later developed a considerable proficiency on the organ. The echoes of this personal history may be heard in “Most Kind & Gentle Death,” a work written in 1975, but at the same time, it is a memento mori which may speak to a listener at any point, and especially now, anno 2014.

Harvestman accounted for her productivity in a memorable way. “Music is a necessity I face on a daily basis – I think of it mostly as a curse – it haunts my dreams, and insists on being made corporeal,” the composer said. “The only way I can get it out, is to record it.” So hers was an inner detachment of a sort which further thought may help the curious listener to fathom; but in the meantime, how soothing her piece sounds!

For the moment, that meantime is the place to abide awhile in, as the end of August has nearly arrived.

In conclusion, accordingly, and occasioned by her name, an old Greek adage. After the summer harvest, the war. Θέρος, τρύγος, πόλεμος.