A neat decade after its inception, this musical project is starting up for a second round. Its long hiatus was unfortunate, but unavoidable. Several years ago I was overtaken by private demands and could thus no longer attend to it with the time and the care it had need of, were it to bloom into anything even a bit worthwhile, for myself and, more to the point, for the music and its lovers. Hence the decision to set it to one side, though this was not done entirely all at once, for I then held the vague expectation that one day not so far off it might recommence. Soon enough, however, I did exchange my nom de projet for a silent though not static anonymity.
Hee that lives in hope danceth without musick,* said Herbert.
* Ovtlandish Proverbs, 1006
Thinking up that moniker was a stroke of luck: how I came upon it is recounted in the Preface to the Compendium, which I shall not now rehearse. It says as clearly as any portmanteau neologism can that alongside music it was that complex datum, care, which most occupied me throughout the whole endeavour. For this there was ample reason, back in the middle of 2012, and the intervening decade has hardly assuaged the concern. Far from it! In the years since it has swelled up in a crescendo of unease, yet I should like to underscore immediately that I was not, or not mainly, in flight from care itself (though I have had my share), as I was interested in fathoming it. And indeed, to attempt the thing in some degree of freedom. Whether there “must be” a great pressure exerted by time and circumstance before one is brought to the point of thinking about care, does seem unlikely, if only on account of its patent inexhaustibility as a theme so abundant in variations, thus as an almost infinitely or infinitesimally open expanse environing in every direction, and by no means only or even in the main horizontally, the attentive and active listening mind.
The conjunction of music and care that interested and still interests me very greatly, was accompanied back then by a resolution on my part to circumscribe the project by the limits of the requirements of the present: not the present moment’s facts and data strictly speaking, no, but that for which it is starved, that around which its ideas circle. This domain I wanted to explore while preserving some inward detachment and some outward levity, for, on the other hand, it’s not exactly a new thought that an anxious involvement in the cares of the day will soon rob anyone of the present (and thus of his presence of mind along with it) and then abscond too with any future. Just this admonition was put with an admirable brevity by Ficino, to call in a writer and correspondent well-positioned to caution others about the existence of these pitfalls: [S]ollicitudo præsentium rapit uobis præsens: præripitque futurum.* In short: to listen to and then think about the cares of the present, as expressed in music and in sonic forms adjacent to it, without falling under their sway, was what I found myself attempting to do, once this project commenced.
* letter to G. Canacci, B. Canigiani, and A. Corsini, September 16, 1489
In keeping with this intention, excursions into the past, which I undertook a number of times during the first iteration of this project, were conducted with the present in mind, and as best I could on each of these occasions I turned back towards the locales of our day before the end of the text, albeit with a telegraphic compression of phrase in some instances.
All the same, not to be permeated by the cares of an arid present is more easily wished for than done, and one’s own worry that the future, or rather a future too will be stolen, and then one’s outward efforts to forestall such a thing from happening, may themselves contribute to bring it about! That is the risk to which Ficino alerted his correspondents in his very next remark, even more terse: for, what to his mind was evidently still worse, the result of this turn of events will be to thrust one back into the past, and this could indeed transpire with fateful suddenness. Curiositas futurorum celeriter in præteritum uos traducit.
Being translated or traduced into the past in just such a way, par la force des choses: this I had very much wanted to avoid throughout the work on the project. However, something like this having in fact overtaken me, during the course of 2015, my own aims notwithstanding, I decided after a while to stop; the tones were no longer amiable. Why not own it now? – And moreover, sometimes an impasse precisely as an impasse can be the most thought-inceptive thing, under the given circumstances.
On such a self-removal into a dimension of that which is or appears to be gone, in order to make the second best of a recalcitrant situation, one may draw a brave face and call it an “emigration into the past” – but the great frustration which precipitated the inward change of locale should not be forgotten.
Yet I must also admit, a prolonged incursion into the past does come with its pleasures, however much these may seem tinged with melancholy or moroseness in the eyes of an onlooker. Perhaps it need not simply comprise a virtual exile. Could it not also signify, to a certain degree, a manner of homecoming? If some joy wells up after one disembarks in a time past, it may flow from that recognition, however narrowly the limits around it are set. In my case it was nearly an opportunity in itself when, having put aside the active work on this music project, I could make a better acquaintance with some primary documents of the century which set the pattern for musical life as it still exists today, the nineteenth. (Here, to avoid misunderstandings, let me say that by this shorthand term I refer mainly to Europe from 1815 until 1914.) Although those hundred years in their aggregate were like a grand concert-hall, into which the sounds of the previous very different period broke and were heard only intermittently – when they were borne into its successor, how it all then resounded! Re-encountering those loud interruptions was one of the desiderata of my researches, while at the other end of the scale from the largest events I did not overlook (overlook?) a few of the tiny but sudden changes taking place in that sphere of life which is so hard to render into words with any precision, I mean les mœurs and their alterations, which as the century wore on succeeded one another more and more rapidly, such that, already in the 1840s, within the passage of just a few years any number of them would arise and expire completely, as Barbey d’Aurevilly exclaimed.* In some of these ephemeral alterations, and in particular those of an acoustic or sonic nature, I was also very interested. – By setting up a listening post in the midst of my reading, and straining to catch what I might hear of the noises of the nineteenth century generally and of its capital cities in particular, whether they were loud or soft or embodied some confusion of both, in order to apprehend the qualities of these bygone sounds as they had been recorded on the page, my intention was to learn better how to discern the sound of quality that may endure beyond the present, ours, mine alone, or even any present, the present as such. An exercise in a type of literary ear-training, that’s what I undertook, and as such varieties of exercise often do, it had compensatory pleasures to bestow.
* Du Dandysme et de G. Brummell, vi
This activity along with its characteristic pleasures, as a thoroughly private endeavour, was my main intellectual theatre for the next several years; the domain where I then felt myself to be most at home, but also in some sense, by no means the same thing, the most free. Let me not in retrospect characterise my “innere Emigration” (for that turn inward probably is often the other face of an immigration into the past) as having been anything which it was not at the time. A considerable discomfiture in the background, yes, but no hardship, as regards material conditions.
How quickly have changes in the world followed one another since I first initiated my musical project! From the outset of the year 2020 their rapidity has been supercharged. (To avoid any misunderstanding, in what follows the implicit context is the Corona epidemic in the broad sense: not the virus but rather the policies it occasioned and the responses to them, are what concerns me here.) That watershed it is proper to mention, as an attempt to understand what has happened subsequently will I believe thread itself as a Leitmotiv throughout much of whatever I may publish on this website in the time to come. Where ever do we now stand, at what point have we arrived? – to put the title of Giorgio Agamben’s collection of occasional reflections* on these last years in the form of a plaintive and not very rhetorical question. As far as I am concerned, in fact, his query is posed in a quite earnest way; for it was with some such question that I began once again to change the locus of my attention, or a major part of it, this time back into the present.
* A che punto siamo? L’epidemia come politica
From the first months of 2020 onwards, some of the items and ideas, mœurs and manners, places and persons, symbols and sounds I came across in my research (which took me mainly into the nineteenth century, but at times further afield), began to disclose other facets of themselves than those of which previously I was most aware. And as this jolt of discovery struck me again and again during those months, these small shocks too contributed to my resolution to focus, to divide my intellectual attention anew.
With the experiences of 2020 in the forefront of my mind, some of the objects of my inquiries were as though rotated, permitting me to see them from another side which had been up to that point assiduously hidden, and thus inducing a new unease and sense of distance in me as an observer; as though in illustration of the procedures for re-awakening capacities of perception which had been worn down or dozed off, to which Victor Shklovsky gave the name “остраненія.”* But he spoke of techniques which the best writers had employed upon the things which they wanted to present afresh to their readers, as if on the first day; while in the context of my research it seemed like these things themselves had suddenly changed their positions, and often also their places, as though it was they who now wished to be the authors of their own estrangement (the term with which Shklovsky’s is most often rendered) – seemingly as though they were intent at long last upon admitting, boasting, or confessing what they had done to set the stage for the experiences which we, so many years later, found ourselves living through, starting in 2020.
* “Искусство какъ пріемъ”
With these experiences very much on my mind, the shift in my rapport with the things I came across in those primary texts of the nineteenth century, was perplexing and disconcerting. But as or even more strange to me was what I often observed whenever I then turned my attention to the critical response to our present circumstances by the polities of our times in general and by individuals in particular. Very often I could see none – by which, to be very clear about the matter, I mean the following: the rapid crystallisation of disparate elements (to adopt Hannah Arendt’s apt image for this coalescence*) into a totalitarian form of rule, a process abetted by a hysteria- or psychosis-engendering mass media and capitalised upon by cynical politicians in this or that country who never let go to waste “crises” they themselves had fomented or even created nearly ex nihilo – all this quite often elicited virtually no significant response at all, or at best in effect a shrug of the shoulders, as though these circumstances were just the way things are and as such more or less unobjectionable. And in the very next breath, often the epithets “fascist,” “Nazi,” and the like, long since rendered almost meaningless by rampant over-use, whereas they ought to have been preserved for cases when they might really be needed, would be brought out yet again and bestowed upon the few movements and figures of a conscientious and effective opposition. Moreover, in some instances, alas, such a non-response was what I encountered in the relatively best cases. – In short, at some point in the last months of 2020, the obtuse indifference I observed did begin to interject considerable estrangement or de-familiarisation (which is another common translation of Shklovsky’s neologism) into my own relations political and personal, those I had thought I knew or understood tolerably well.
* It appears as an elucidatory image in her Origins of Totalitarianism and some of the writings affiliated with it.
The essay in which Shklovsky introduced his novel concept was written during the First World War, the epochal event whose outbreak in one stroke sprang from, terminated, and – yes – de-familiarised the whole nineteenth century.* This is a background which ought to be borne in mind if one delves into his essay, considered as a formalist manifesto. That I will not digress to do here; but I should like to note that visual perception is Shklovsky’s paradigm. Цѣлью искусства является дать ощущеніе вещи какъ видѣніе, а не какъ узнаваніе, he wrote: the perception of some thing which it seems art aims to give, is vision (видѣніе), not recognition. Thus, to summarise what he then said, a work of art should, amongst its other goals, strive as far as it can to disencumber perception of its inherent memories or to distance it from the power of memory, in favour of an experience which would be both arduous and prolonged, but also, by way of compensation, intrinsically new.**
* Of course this is not merely my own notion of what transpired in August 1914. The shocking ἀναγνώρισις was conveyed already in Henry James’ letter to Howard Sturgis of August 4-5, 1914. ** Evidently Shklovsky knew Henri Bergson’s Matière et mémoire very well indeed.
Because several of the nineteen-century things I’ve encountered in my researches, and, as this project is largely about music, in particular the virtual sounds, have come to seem more familiar again, but in a manner that is for them relatively unfamiliar, when looked at or listened to over against the obtrusive circumstances that have made their public debut since 2020; and also because the concept of остраненія, if it is to say anything distinctive at all, itself requires some de-familiarisation, given how out-of-focus it has gotten after being re-cited innumerable times by obtuse academics and the self-styled “theorists”: at this juncture I should like to underscore that an estrangement of sonic phenomena, whether it is their own active change of position and place in relation to the hearer, or the distancing the hearer experiments with at the behest of an artist of sound, will in all likelihood be manifest in another way than in the case of the ocular kind, the variety with which Shklovsky mainly concerned himself.
However, in this connection one brief bit in his initial definition of остраненія does have a suggestive ring to it, even or especially now. Stating his belief that this “device” (пріемъ) could be one of art’s most important tools, he wrote this: чтобы вернуть ощущеніе жизни, почувствовать вещи, […] чтобы дѣлать камень каменнымъ, существуетъ то, что называется искусствомъ. In other words: to bring back the sense of being alive, to augment the feeling of things, to make a stone a stone, what is called art exists. Curious it is that an object as particular as a stone (камень) should feature in such an abstract definition – unless Shklovsky, perhaps inadvertently, was thinking not of an image of a stone as something to be “estranged,” but rather of the sound that’s made when one is struck by another. For him, was the basic test-case for ascertaining how far powers of perception could be reinvigorated and renewed, that which registers in the ears of the inattentive as being simply a noise?
To circle back to the sounds of the nineteenth century, now I’ll say more precisely what quality it was which caught my attention again and again from the beginning of 2020 onwards: a sonic indication that the things which emitted them (when touched or pressed in thought) were not as solid as I had thought them to be. Whether it was the tone of a poem, the tenor of a parliamentary speech, the timbre of a passage of music (not to mention the thunder of public events), the solidity of the underlying things themselves seemed as though it were melting away into air – or else, to refer only to the sounds and the interval between them and myself, it was this un-inert medium which seemed more and more often to amplify something of the hollows or vapidity otherwise latent within them.
This development is already uncanny in its own right. Perhaps even stranger was when I noticed something comparable transpiring in the present – the quality of public speech, to mention only the most obvious sort of sonic phenomena, rang with a tone different than the one it gave off even a year or so before. From this change too the inference that a watershed had taken place was hard to deny; and if it is plausible to term the construction-process of a totalitarian form of rule a “crystallisation,” then this new-old quality of sound it and its constituent elements now openly emit may fittingly be called brittle.
With my ears more and more “estranged,” already a few weeks into the next year, the annus horribilis 2021, I had begun to hear, with some salutary exceptions, hardly anything but sonic phenomena marked by their brittleness, their hollowing-out, their obduracy – and this by no means only in the public sphere. In private life, too, the tepid justifications or excuses for what was being done, which I heard so often, sounded usually as if those who voiced them did not believe what they themselves were saying. Or else there was a noticeable strain in the tone with which the explanatory offerings of the propaganda apparatus were recited by the many addicts of television and other official or quasi-official media, especially if one called attention to the fact that these often stood in blatant contradiction to what the very same outlets had insisted on earlier, and sometimes even merely the week or days prior. Or else, whenever real forthright objections were raised to what was happening, the non-response was merely a stony silence. (Or, since in this connection I am speaking, not exclusively, but first and foremost about the Netherlands, perhaps this was on occasion not a stony but a stoned silence.)
All these moments of small studied indifference and synchronised diffidence were in their aggregation – for from the beginning of 2020 onwards they have been akin to a contagion spreading from person to person, often even unawares – a plague far worse than the virus. That so many have succumbed to it dishonours us all. As for myself: though there was real opposition to these developments during 2020, I have to admit that at that point I did not join it, actively; this lapse on my part is a mark against me. From the summer of last year onwards I have done what I can to make amends for it.
Plague sat paramount the while, and laughed us to scorn.
– Mary Shelley, The Last Man
For any definitive assessment of all this it is still far too early, but provisionally I can call 2021 the year of the greatest acceleration, and thus too of the most considerable displacements brought about by the “de-familiarisation” which flowed from it nearly ineluctably.
Not wanting to rehearse the course of last year again, I shall mention only the most salient point: by the end of the summer the régime in the Hague adjudged the moment opportune to introduce the so-called “green-pass” system. The announcement of this decision was made while I was abroad on a trip to Vienna, in which city it had already been implemented and where I thus was able to see it in operation at first hand. This experience confirmed me in my resolution that such a policy, whose only purpose is to foment a division within the body politic which may then be manipulated by politicians without scruples in the best divide et impera tradition (the consequence of internecine hatred and the risk of civil war or the bellum omnium contra omnes be damned), I would neither accept nor participate in at all. Alas, the system was enacted at the end of September, and all in all the Dutch populace appeared to accept it. (In this connection a number of bizarre incidents spring to mind, but I shall perhaps speak about them on another occasion, or I may choose to consign those moments of gross indecency to oblivion.)
With this popular acquiescence I had an answer to what has been, intellectually and ethically speaking, perhaps the question of my life. To have this answer thrust upon me, I hardly need say, is exceedingly disorientating (and this is a topic which, in its relations to music and the musical, I may indeed write about in times to come) – yet it also, and in a quite radical manner, clears the ground for other undertakings, other projects, other interests.
But to see and hear it all around myself, from the end of September onwards – soon proved unbearable to me, and so after a few weeks it became evident that my remaining days in the Netherlands were numbered. (During that last period, I should like to acknowledge how much solace I derived from one or two performances by Simon Keenlyside, and especially from the recordings of that extraordinary counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński.) As December arrived I was readying myself inwardly to leave.
Peu de maladies guérissent dans les circonstances et les lieux où elles naissent et qui les ont faites.
– Jules Michelet, La Mer
A choice of destination was for me not exactly a new topic of reflection, yet under the given circumstances satisfactory options were few. But one country which I wanted to visit again, Spain, distinguished itself on a number of points, not least by virtue of its music, on one side, and by what I understood to be the particular latitude afforded to freedom there, on another. As for the other centre around which this project revolves, care, I had a pre-sentiment, which subsequent experiences have begun to flesh out, that it would be possible to think about it in new ways, and not only as though through a muffling cloud, once I set foot on Spanish ground.
When I did reach Madrid, I knew pretty much immediately that here I would remain. For me this city contains an entrancing mixture of things familiar and things strange, and it is so very open to newcomers. And indeed, not the least of the discoveries I have made in my first months in this “poor man’s Paris,” as it’s been called, is the fact that since 2020 it has witnessed a considerable influx of those like myself who do not wish to acquiesce to the developments of the sort I have recounted in this essay (for what has been done thus far will I fear show itself to be but a prelude), and has even seemed to welcome them in something of the way that the exiles, émigrés, and refugees of the nineteenth century, during long stretches at least, who alighted there were received in Paris. This is another matter which I may explore further later on, as circumstances permit.
The musics of Spain and of the Spanish-speaking world, both low and high, I find very interesting indeed, not least on account of the particular degree of freedom they often exhibit over against the pattern for musical life that has been inherited from the nineteenth century, which as a basis is still adhered to rather closely in several countries, including those I know well (or thought I knew); it is quite likely that they will be featured often. In addition I intend to pay special heed to some works about music by authors such as Lorca and Carpentier, as they too seem as though they stand to the side of the tradition in a way that might now be exemplary. Documents like theirs which situate themselves athwart, apart, against, at this point to which we’ve come, these now appeal to me more and more. With their help, I hope to learn better how one listens askance.
As for the pace at which I shall be posting texts on this website in its second round – since I have already spoken and very likely will speak again elswhere of the acceleration which has become so overwhelming beginning in 2020 – the odds are it will be rather slower than the rate which was often attained during its first iteration. And, nota bene, it certainly will be less regular, more occasional.
In this way I hope to reduce the number of false starts and unfulfilled promises of which I too, like many creators of music in our times of haste, was guilty on occasion during the first iteration of this website. With regard to one of the main inducements to all these high-speed distractions, namely the social-media paraphernalia, I have decided after some thought to opt out of all of it; to the extent that I still could (for some have become impossible to access during the hiatus), I have terminated the accounts I used to maintain with those services. Readers who wish to be notified of new postings are able to obtain the information via this website itself; for publicity this option will have to suffice.
Henceforth, the entries themselves most often shall be longer than was the case before, but hopefully somewhat lighter in their execution, their phrasing, and indeed in their footwork. Quick on their feet and nimble some will have to be, as each of these individually shall need to bob and weave like a pugilist or contender in the παγκράτιον, once dispatched by a last keystroke into the ring. The present text, in its more pugnacious moments, may have conveyed a taste of what I mean by this.