Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sonic Pastiche

Strolling back and forth in the shelter of what was left of a high wall, against which the gusts of sand hissed. A week later, Don Juan described the iron reinforcement material poking out of the wall and the unearthly music the powerful wind made in the tangle of wire, rods, and pipes above their heads. The assault of air and grains of sand on the iron was intermittent, at least for a while. For moments at a time it would gain in strength, then ebb a bit, then rise to a new crescendo, then weaken to a whistling, then to a mere fanning, whereupon it would set in again, more violently than ever, and so on, without ever dying away and ceasing altogether. The wind set up a constant reverberation in the iron fretwork sticking up into the storm, and whereas nothing but a howling, roaring, and pounding, thoroughly monotonous, would have been heard if the air currents remained steady, instead a veritable melody took shape, something that was steady in an essentially different way. And it was a harmonic melody. True, its measures were all different in length. And between the highest and lowest notes steps would have had to be added to the scales at the top and bottom. But the transitions between almost inaudibly high and barely audible low notes, and the alternation between the shortest and longest measures, between loud and soft, did not occur abruptly or suddenly, by chance or at random, but rather harmoniously, and in time blended with the melody—in a number of languages the word for “time” was the same as for “measure”—the instrumental accompaniment being provided by the vibrating wire, the half-loosened iron rods drumming against each other, and especially by the system of pipes, open to the storm, which served as the leaders of the melody, so to speak, while the wire and rods created the rhythm. Don Juan hummed and sang the music to me, his voice scratchy at the beginning, then increasingly powerful, as he rose from his storytelling chair and with arms outstretched stalked up and down Port-Royal garden, and I, who for so long have not been sure of anything, was sure that if he had performed this piece of music in public, it would have conquered the globe as hardly any piece of music could.

—from Don Juan: His Own Version: A Novel by Peter Handke, translated by Krishna Winston, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

It would be interesting, for me at least, to examine this text in the original language, but, nonetheless, the translation seems wonderfully apt. The strolling and hissing of the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, as they whistle and fan, hum and drum, pipe and open a musical scenario into being, all the while counterpointing the essential elements of the story being told throughout the novel, time, Don Juan, his story being told by himself, his own version, in the third person, but a dialog, this paragraph moving from the location of the story to the location of the storytelling, gradually revealing that the musical recounting, the measure of the soundscape, is being performed by Don Juan himself in a stalking performance that cannot help, with a systematic vibration, cannot help but to remind the reader, so long not sure of anything, of the lost manuscript of Diderot, translated by Goethe where a performance by the fake-real Rameau is described:

And then there he goes walking around, humming some tunes from l’Ile des Fous, Peintre amoureux de son Modèle, Maréchal-ferrant, and Plaideuse. From time to time he lifted his hand and eyes to the sky and cried out. “Isn’t that beautiful, by God? Isn’t it beautiful? How could anyone have a pair of ears on his head and even raise such a question?” He began to get worked up and to sing very softly. As he grew even more impassioned, he raised his voice, and then there followed gestures, facial grimaces, and bodily contortions. I say, “All right, there he is off his head, getting some new scene ready.” Then, in fact, he set off with a loud shout, “I am a poor wretch. . . . Monseigneur, Monseigneur, let me go. . . . O earth, take my gold. Keep my treasure safe. . . . My soul, my soul, my life, O earth! . . . There it is, my little friend. There’s my little friend! Aspettare e non venire . . . A Zerbina penserete . . . Sempre in contrasti con te si
sta . . .
” He crammed together and jumbled up together thirty songs—Italian, French, tragic, comic—in all sorts of different styles. Sometimes in a bass voice he went down all the way to hell, and sometimes he’d feign a falsetto and sing at the top of his voice, tearing into the high points of some songs, imitating the walk, deportment, gestures of the different singing characters, by turns furious, soft, imperious, sniggering. At one point, he’s a young girl crying—portraying all her mannerisms—at another point he’s a priest, he’s a king, he’s a tyrant—he threatens, commands, loses his temper. He’s a slave. He obeys. He calms down, he laments, he complains, he laughs—never straying from the tone, rhythm, or sense of the words or the character of the song.

All the men pushing wood had left their chess boards and gathered around him. The windows of the café were filled up on the outside by passers-by who’d been stopped by the sound. People gave out bursts of laughter strong enough to break open the ceiling. But he didn’t notice a thing. He continued, in the grip of some mental fit, of an enthusiasm so closely related to madness that it’s uncertain whether he’ll come out of it. It might be necessary to throw him into a cab and take him straight to the lunatic asylum. As he was singing snatches from Lamentations by Jomelli, he brought out the most beautiful parts of each piece with precision, truth, and an incredible warmth. That beautiful recitative in which the prophet describes the desolation of Jerusalem he bathed in a flood of tears which brought tears to everyone’s eyes. Everything was there—the delicacy of the song, the force of expression, the sorrow. He stressed those places where the composer had particularly demonstrated his great mastery. If he stopped the singing part, it was to take up the part of the instruments, which he left suddenly to return to the vocals, moving from one to the other in such a way as to maintain the connections and the overall unity, taking hold of our souls and keeping them suspended in the most unusual situation which I’ve ever experienced. Did I admire him? Oh yes, I admired him! Was I touched with pity? I was touched with pity. But a tinge of ridicule was mixed in with these feelings and spoiled them.

But you would’ve burst out laughing at the way in which he imitated the different instruments. With his cheeks swollen, all puffed out, and with harsh, dark sounds he delivered the horns and bassoons. For the oboes he produced a shrill nasal tone, and then accelerated his voice with an amazing speed for the stringed instruments, trying to find the best approximations for their sounds. He whistled for the piccolos, warbled for the flutes, shouting, singing, carrying on like a maniac, acting out, by himself, the male and female dancers and singers, an entire orchestra, the whole musical company, dividing himself into twenty different roles, running, stopping, looking like a man possessed, frothing at the mouth. It was stiflingly hot, and the sweat running down the wrinkles in his forehead and down the length of his cheeks mixed in with the powder in his hair came down in streaks and lined the top of his coat. What didn’t I see him do? He cried, he laughed, he sighed, he looked tender or calm or angry—a woman who was swooning in grief, an unhappy man left in total despair, a temple being built, birds calming down at sunset, waters either murmuring in a cool lonely place or descending in a torrent from the high mountains, a storm, a tempest, the cries of those who are going to die intermingled with the whistling winds, the bursts of thunder, the night, with its shadows—silent and dark—for sounds do depict even silence. 
—translation of Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau by Ian C. Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, available at Project Gutenberg Australia.

At the time in question, I was cooking only for myself, for the time being, in my country inn near the ruins of Port-Royal-des-Champs, which in the seventeenth century was France’s most famous cloister, as well as its most infamous. . . . In May I pretty much gave up gardening in favor of simply watching how the vegetables I had planted or sown either thrived or withered. (Handke, p. 1–2). 

No matter what the weather, rain or shine, it’s my habit every evening at about five o’clock to take a walk around the Palais Royal. I’m the one you see dreaming on the bench in Argenson’s Alley, always alone. I talk to myself about politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my spirit roam at will, allowing it to follow the first idea, wise or foolish, which presents itself, just as we see our dissolute young men on Foy’s Walk following in the footsteps of a prostitute with a smiling face, an inviting air, and a turned-up nose, then leaving her for another, going after all of them and sticking to none. For me, my thoughts are my prostitutes. (Diderot)


  1. how nice of you to remember your diderot i didnt and wrote a 15 k commentary on Handke's extraodinar and very dark DON JUAN at the Don Juan page of the handke-revista-review blog, links below:
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  2. Thanks for the comments,
    Gringovitch noted in an e-mail to me: "Shackleton makes a remark in his diaries about the constant wind and the effect on the emotional and mental health of his men during the horrible trek on the ice after Discovery sank. Apparently there was little respite from howling 45-90 mph winds with the constant sibilance of the shifting snow coat on the ice in addition to the constant shifting of the ice with all that creaking and groaning."

    And MEM adds:
    "So we have here a 'Sonic Pastiche', an intriguing subject and a challenging approach. The most successful feature of these sequentially assembled excerpts (to call them juxtaposed is not entirely correct) is the taste & judgment behind the selection of the excerpts themselves, whether come upon entirely by chance or pulled from the assembler's impressive repertoire of printed texts which discuss or recreate sound in its myriad manifestations, silence being but the negative manifestation of sound, if not the universal suggestion of sound. A pastiche, as presented here, is not an arbitrary assemblage of this & that -- it is nothing like the cut-up method of Wm S. Burroughs -- but rather something more methodical & deliberate. In this case, we have a variety of interesting excerpts, each serving as appropriate commentary on one focused theme: sound. And thus, they are all related; the subject of sound is the common thread. What I enjoyed most about these excerpts, in addition to the crafted writing in all selections, is the arc -- the progression -- of sonic motifs throughout this patchwork. This piece begins with a loud auditory landscape from Peter Handke's brilliant novel on Don Juan -- the violent cacophony of wind against wire, rod, and pipe -- but the piece concludes quietly in a state of relative silence consisting of the reverie ("thoughts") of Diderot's famous narrator. A satisfying harmonic closure to a satisfying management of material & theme. Overall, the pastiche approach introduces both assembler and reader to the unexpected, if startling, possibilities of (imposed) textual intersection / combination."
    ~ MEM, New York / 24 June 2010