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The Road to Novo Fado (I)

9 May

A number of artists who were identified with the Portuguese rock boom  of the 1980s made a connection with fado, no doubt as a strategy to localize the otherwise ‘placeless place’ of Anglo-American pop and rock. Mler Ife Dada, a group formed in 1984 in Cascais, provide a good example of this strategy. In 1986, the group were joined by singer Anabela Duarte, who participated on two seminal albums, Coisas Que Fascinam (1987) and Espírito Invisível (1989). The latter contained a song called ‘Dance Music’ which set up the complexities of the Portuguese popular musical field simply but effectively: over a funk arrangement of bass, horns and guitar, an angry male voice asks in a semi-rap (in English), ‘Why do you have to hear dance music on your radio / if you’re not dancing, you’re listening to the radio?’ and then ‘Why do you have to hear this song in English language / If you’re not English and this ain’t no English song?’  The first album contained a number of varied elements, from experimental pop-rock with dada-ist overtones to music informed by an explicit internationalism. ‘À Sombra Desta Pirâmide’ includes Arabic sonorities; ‘Siô Djuzé’, a brief duet between Duarte and Rui Reininho uses the style of Cape Verdean coladeira; ‘Passarella’ mixes English lyrics with Portuguese; and ‘Desastre De Automóvel Em Varão De Escadas’ uses random lines of German alongside wordless singing and a musical accompaniment that evokes the honking of car horns. ‘Alfama’ is clearly a gesture towards fado, performed not by a particular instrumental style but via the sense of place evoked in the lyrics and by Duarte’s voicing of the words. Against a minimal electric guitar, an associative style is used in which a number of features are hymned: the Alfama of painted shards, of paint, of winds on the river, knife tips, alpaca, famous people, the flea market, and ‘knife-like winds  / that slice Alfama  / into doors painted / with the fame of fado’.  The lyrics involve a series of plays on words and heavy use of alliteration so that the ultimate number of associations is multiplied, the portrait becoming more than the sum of its parts, an intricate word labyrinth that echoes the tumbling streets of its subject.

Duarte went on to release a series of solo albums, including Lishbunah (1988), which included traditional fado instrumentation (Martinho de Assunção on viola and Manuel Mendes on guitarra portuguesa), opening it with José Régio’s poem of fadontology, ‘Fado Português’. Over a decade later, Duarte produced a more ghostly and futuristic fado on the album Delito (1999), which reprised her Mler Ife Dada song ‘Alfama’ and introduced a new piece called ‘Planeta Phado’. The album did not utilize fado instrumentation but relied on a variety of sounds and recording and post-production techniques to lend the music a fractured, fragile quality. ‘Planeta Phado’ presents itself as a sort of palimpsest, a new song sung (or recorded) over the distant trace of a traditional lament. Speaking about her ideas for the album, Duarte said:

We need to take the fado further. Cut its corsets, let it breathe. There have been some bold attempts, but a cyber-fado would be something completely new. In Planeta Phado, I tried to mix Blade Runner with fado. The cloning and the mechanisms of fiction and the multiple directions, or simultaneous directions, the matrix, cyberpunk, is something that has not been attempted yet in fado. Phado Planet is there.

Duarte did not specify who had been responsible for the previous ‘bold attempts’ to ally fado with other sonic possibilities but she might have been thinking of António Variações. Variações (a pseudonym taken from the Portuguese word for ‘variations’) was responsible for ‘queering’ both fado and Portuguese pop by fusing elements of folk, fado, new wave and other contemporary pop forms in his music and by applying an openly homosexual appropriation of Portuguese musical tradition. Prior to his premature death in 1984, Variações released two revolutionary albums Anjo de Guarda (1983) and Dar & Receber (1984), the former containing a version of ‘Povo Que Lavas no Rio’ which removed the song from traditional fado accompaniment by adding synthesizer, drums and electric bass. Vocally, the song is not so far removed from Amália’s  version, with Variações’s vocals often operating on a high, ‘feminine’ register, and this was something the singer seemed to recognise in another song on the album, ‘Voz-Amália-de-Nós’, where he sings ‘We all have Amália in our voice’. At the same time, this register alternates with a deeper ‘blank croon’ (more noticeable on the album’s third track ‘Visões-Ficções (Nostradamus)’), suggesting a hitherto unexplored connection between Rodrigues, Nico and Brian Ferry, another of the singer’s influences.  Variações’s albums were popular in Portugal, suggesting the ways that the 1980s might sound and playing a dominant role in interpellating young people into the pop world, including those musicians (the fadista Camané among them) who came together in 2004 as the group Humanos to record a highly successful album of songs written by Variações.

Paulo Bragança is an interesting figure to mention in this context. Like Variações, he had a sacrilegious approach to fado that was nonetheless rooted in a serious consideration of fado’s possibilities. Declaring himself an enemy of the genteel tradition of the puristas, Bragança took upon himself the role of a ‘true fadista’ by drawing comparisons between the original fadistas and the punks. He would perform on the fado circuit barefoot, dressed in jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets and making declarations such as ‘Fado for Portugal is like a sacred altar covered in dust. And if someone dares to clear the dust, he’ll be shot.’  Bragança’s first album Notas Sobre a Alma (1992), which featured the guitarra of Mário Pacheco and the viola and production of Jorge Fernando (a major figure in what was to become novo fado), was restricted to mostly traditional fado, apparently at the request of his record company. His second, Amai (1994), was a different affair, featuring a wide range of instruments (synthesizers, samplers, organ, guitarra, accordion, and strings) and styles (fado, flamenco, rock, pop and Brazilian music) and containing a number of self-written songs and cover versions of non-fado material, such as Nick Cave’s ‘Sorrow’s Child’ (in English) and Heróis do Mar’s ‘Adeus’. The bringing together of Cave’s lyric and Pacheco’s guitarra, as mentioned in a previous post, was designed as a way of showing how saudade and a fadista worldview could reside in musics outside the Portuguese world. In 1996 Luaka Bop, the label created by David Byrne and Yale Evelev to promote progressive world music, reissued Amai for an international market; Bragança and Carlos Maria Trindade of Madredeus also contributed a track to Red Hot & Lisbon (1999), a compilation released by Luaka Bop as a snapshot of Lusophone music at the time of Expo 98 in Lisbon. Bragança released a third solo album in 1996 containing traditional fados and a fourth (Lua Semi-Nua) in 2001 which reprised the large instrumental palette of Amai and contained a number of songs written by pop legend José Cid, who also produced the album.

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The City Sounded

1 Oct

Lisbon StoryA number of themes covered in Fado and the Place of Longing are also explored in Wim Wenders’s film Lisbon Story (1994): the city as museum, tourist destination and object of navigation by its citizens; the importance of recording; stylization and the city’s style; the sound of the city; fate and deliberation. The film also allows us to focus on the role of technology in the processes of recollection, witnessing and representation, playing out the double nature of technology as recording and creative tool. Wenders’s film itself contains a film-within-the-film in which one of the characters, Friedrich Monroe, is attempting to document the city and to record the notable.

Lisbon Story began life as a commission from the city of Lisbon for Wenders to produce a promotional film in the year that the city was European Capital of Culture (1994). At some point Wenders decided to add a fictitious narrative to give the film more dynamism. The storyline allows his protagonist, Phillip Winter (a character Wenders would use in other films), to embark on various quests: for his friend Monroe, for a sense of identity, for love and for perfect sounds (Winter is a sound recordist).

Monroe has contacted Winter to ask him to join him in Lisbon, where he has been shooting film of the city and to add sounds to his footage that will bring his visual images to life. From the outset, sound is the medium through which the technological era is explored. The opening scene in Winter’s car as he drives from Germany to Portugal is accompanied by an ever-shifting radio soundtrack that acts as both travelogue and as an example of the web of broadcast sound which had come to dominance in the twentieth century. Winter carries with him the tools of his trade, a variety of recording devices and objects with which to emulate natural sounds. As we discover on his first meeting with the children who follow him around recording him on video, Winter is an illusionist, conjuring sound from the simplest of objects via the magic of technology.

Philip Winter

Monroe, meanwhile, is revealed as a psychogeographer, wandering the city reciting lines from Fernando Pessoa between ruminations on the cityscape; a figure resembling Pessoa is also spotted on a couple of occasions in the street. In the time between Monroe’s original invitation and Winters’s arrival, the filmmaker has become disillusioned; at one point he declares, ‘Images are no longer what they used to be. They can’t be trusted anymore.’

Music is a central component in the film, especially that provided by the group Madredeus, who had already had a prominent recording career prior to the film but gained even greater exposure after soundtracking it and appearing in it. Outside of Portugal, the group became one of the first Portuguese acts – and certainly the first ‘non-traditional’ act – to be included in the newly-formed ‘world music’ category, gaining them further exposure via the emerging world music media. Although there are elements of fado practice and style in the group’s music, theirs is not fado music. It does, however, provide a good example of the ways in which recording technology would be used in the subsequent promotion of ‘new fado’ artists of the 1990s and 2000s.

A notable aspect would be the use of what we might think of as the ‘sacred silence’ of world music recording. By this, I mean the use of recording technology to attain a crisp, digital silence around the voice and instruments and to single out individual sounds (Teresa Salgueiro’s voice, Pedro Ayres Magalhães’s guitar, or the accordion of Gabriel Gomes in the recordings leading up to Lisbon Story). This stylization of the group’s sound is extended into a visual stylization in Wenders’s film in what seems, at times, to be a promotional video for Madredeus.

The group are seen first playing the song ‘Guitarra’, bathed in light in a heavily stylized setting which Winter stumbles upon as an ‘accidental’ witness. The sound attains the clarity we have come to expect from modern studio recordings. These isolated sounds and visuals are contrasted with the ‘mishmash of life’ and ‘sea stew’ of background noises Winter witnesses as he wanders around the city with his microphone. These field recordings are opposed to the clarity of the rehearsal and studio spaces in a manner analogous to the contrast between ‘ethnomusicological’ and ‘world music’ recordings.

Philip Winter

Another way in which Lisbon Story is related to late twentieth century musical aesthetics is in its deliberate (some might say ‘postmodern’) use of glitch. Just as his character Monroe wishes to recreate the early days of cinema by becoming like Buster Keaton’s cameraman, so Wenders pays homage to early film by including deliberate glitches in some of his footage of Lisbon. Early film and early sound recording, of course, achieved their aesthetic due to the limits of the technology; what is notable about much film and music recorded at the turn of the millennium is that the loss of these limits evokes the desire to recreate them, not because it is necessary but because it is possible. Moreover, Monroe knows (because Wenders knows) that there is no one way to approach or capture the city; it must be ‘taken’ from as many angles as possible. Monroe realized the destructive force that can come with the representation of space: ‘pointing a camera is like pointing a gun. And each time I pointed it, it felt like life was drained out of things … With each turn of the handle, the city was fading further and further.’

Monroe’s radical solution is to assemble an archive of unseen footage, filmed automatically and not viewed but stored away for future viewings. His goal is to record the city ‘as it is, not as how we want it to be’. He here enacts a commitment, like Henri Lefebvre, to a politics connected to representational spaces and lived experience. He seeks restrictions that will allow him to remove himself from the controlling centre of representation, believing that an escape from perfection and a moving toward randomness and luck will help to bring the human back into the city.

Phonography (II)

28 May

Krapp’s Last Tape suggests an updating of relationships between the Proustian ‘involuntary memory’ and Proust’s project of refinding time and place via the act of consciously recording memory; the evocative power of the petite madeleine and the conscious act of recollection of time and place become one in A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust often plays out these different kinds of memory via references to music, such as the episode of Vinteuil’s sonata. Proust’s character M. Swann is initially affected by the music a year before the events being narrated but does not recognize it and has no way of finding out what it is. The following year, at a soiree, Swann rediscovers the music and is this time affected not by the immediate perception of it, but by the memory of it.

Yet, even on the first listen, memory was at work. As Proust describes the impossibility of capturing music due to its fleetingness, he describes memory, in a manner that utilizes an understanding of memory as place, as ‘a labourer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of the waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases’.  On Swann’s rediscovery of the music, however, he is furnished with a better way of keeping hold of it: ‘now he could ask the name of his stranger … he possessed it, he could have it in his house as often as he liked, try to learn its language and its secret.’  Proust here combines music, place and memory in a number of ways: firstly, Swann’s initial exposure to the music is described in terms of the fleetingness of spatial perception; secondly, his mind attempts to hold onto the music via the swift erection of memory places; thirdly, he is now able have the music ‘in his house’ where he can guard it and visit it as often as he likes.

An example of this process from the world of fado is provided in the figure of Alfredo Marceneiro. Marceneiro did not record extensively, preferring to sing live in the casas de fado in which he was a legendary figure. The contrast between this ‘authentic’ but undocumented world of fado performance and the promise of reproducibility are hymned in the liner notes to the 1960 album The Fabulous Marceneiro:

Here is, at last in high-fidelity, his husky voice, plaintive to the point of near-disintegration, singing fados, tilting melodies that intoxicate like wine. All this we can hear on record for the first time; and those who had the privilege of actually seeing him (a privilege he is jealous of granting) will recall the small figure, the wrinkled face contrasting with the surprisingly black, wavy hair, the swaying body accompanying the inflections of the voice, the silk neckerchief significantly protecting his throat from the outrages of time and weather: the true ‘fadista’, the living legend … For years and years we had been trying to get him to grant us a recording session in high-fidelity. When at last he bowed to our entreaties and could bring himself to come to our studio he was disgusted. He hates machines and things to ‘interfere’ with his fado (he hates ‘progress’ anyway). So he tried to sing with closed eyes not to see the outrage. And when that proved insufficient he grabbed his neckerchief, tied it round his eyes and started to sing all over again in complete darkness. Yet, it is to high-fidelity that we owe this rare joy: the fabulous, reluctant Marceneiro singing for us, in our homes, as many times as we please.

There is much to note here. Most of the points are based around the opposition between Marceneiro as an authentic, and somehow primitive, fadista and the producers and consumers involved in the recording process, who, while perhaps inauthentic, at least have ‘progress’ on their side. The ‘disintegration’ associated with Marceneiro’s voice is not only an aesthetic statement (although as an aesthetic statement it works quite well at pinning down the unsettling nature of his vocal style), but also a comment on a kind of loss that is extra to the loss of saudade being hymned by the singer: the fact that we might lose this voice to the ‘outrages of time and weather’. Without ‘high-fidelity’ recording we would have to rely on memory, just as those who ‘had the privilege of actually seeing him’ have had to do until now. But the recording promises to do more than just fix the voice; on hearing it, we will be able to recall the man himself.

Writing is as important as audio recording here in at least two ways that may not immediately be obvious and which are not stated explicitly. Those behind the recording, along with its consumers, are associated with writing while Marceneiro is associated with speech and the oral tradition. Those of us who have not been fortunate enough to witness Marceneiro in the flesh have been able to read a description of him penned by C. B. Carvalho, meaning that we now possess an image to accompany our listening. Marceneiro, meanwhile, can sing in complete darkness and without the help of a lyric sheet, summoning up the verses from somewhere deep inside him (no mean feat with a lengthy song like ‘Lembro-Me de Ti’. In this sense he is, as Paul Ricoeur says of musicians, an ‘athlete of memory’, set apart from the everyday person even as he lives his authenticity.  Finally, of course, there is the resonant echo of Proust in the closing declaration that we may now possess this elusive moment and relive it ‘as many times as we please’.

Phonography (I)

28 May

In ‘The Witness’, Borges provides us with a written report of his imagined Saxon’s witnessing but, in doing so, he reminds us that we have neither the Saxon’s own written account nor the sonic record of the bells he hears: those sounds are lost. Recording is intimately connected with the notion of destruction, both the destruction of the past and of the self, for there is a sense in which autobiography and the work of remembering can be seen as a self-witnessing and a destruction of the self’s past. Self-witnessing is dramatically exemplified in Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’ (1833, rev. 1845), where the narrator attempts to record his fate on a ‘doomed’ ship: ‘I shall from time to time continue this journal … At the last moment I will enclose the MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.’  The close of the tale, which we assume to be the found manuscript itself, attempts to stay true to this promise as the ship goes down in a whirlpool:

But little time will be left me to ponder upon my destiny – the circles rapidly grow small – we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool – and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering, oh God! And – going down.

(Edgar Allan Poe, ‘MS. Found in a Bottle’, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, ed. David Galloway (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp. 105-106.)

If Poe’s tale still bears a sense of horror nearly two centuries after its first publication, it is surely because we recognize that, even in an era where the black boxes of aeroplanes provide records of doomed journeys far more accurate than the writing and dispatching of the manuscript allowed Poe’s narrator, there is still a point beyond which nothing more can be recorded that would be of relevance to the person marked for death. As Poe’s epigraph to the tale translates: ‘He who has but a moment to live/No longer has anything to dissimulate’.  But what has been dissimulated up to that moment lives on, in a manner of speaking.

(This sense of being too short of time to communicate what is necessary is captured nicely in a fado performed by Ana Laíns and entitled ‘Pouco Tempo’ [Little Time]. The song describes a situation in which there is not enough time to ‘keep everything I carry / in thought / to write everything I feel’; everything disappears in the wind.)

What are the limits to witnessing? Can we be witnesses to our own destruction? In the sense of Poe’s narrator, the answer must be no: we are always stuck in a ‘working-towards’ such a witnessing via a process of ‘getting down’ what we can get down before we ‘go down’. From another viewpoint, however, we might say that remembering is about witnessing our own destruction. Both of these possibilities are played out quite literally in Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), in which we witness a man, Krapp, witnessing his own life as he records memories onto his tape recorder in ‘celebration’ of his birthday and plays back old recordings from previous similar occasions. The 39-year-old Krapp – the ‘middle voice’ of the three (re)presented – is ‘played’ by the actor manipulating a tape machine on which is heard his ‘younger’ voice; the ‘actual’ Krapp being played by the actor is thirty years older.

‘Middle Krapp’ recounts his thoughts on listening to an earlier tape (which we do not get to hear) made when he was younger. He is furious with the romantic idealist he used to be and mocks his younger self, allowing ‘Old Krapp’ to join in as he listens. But the 39-year-old still holds to certain ideals, the recording of which is now treated with contempt by the old man, who then records his own critique. The process we catch Krapp in, then, is similar to the perfecting process, or ‘working-toward’ mentioned above. Each successive attempt to fix life and thought somehow gets it wrong and must be updated, though for how much longer we cannot be sure due to Old Krapp’s admonishments to himself to cease this endless torture and to the ‘last tape’ alluded to in the title. Do we know this is the last (final) tape that we are witnessing being made in the same way that we know we are reading the message in the bottle in Poe’s tale? Or is ‘last’ only supposed to refer to ‘preceding’, as in the way Krapp continues to listen to preceding attempts to come to terms with his life?

Krapp’s Last Tape provides a good example of how nostalgia and loss interlock with technological attempts to prevent loss, and how those attempts are both a damming of the reservoir of memories and the means by which that reservoir can be tapped. Krapp is caught in a cyclical process of remembering and memorializing, of recapturing the past and planning for the future (a future where the importance of remembering the past now being recaptured and the moment of recapturing it will prove both fascinating and repellent. In other words the past of the now and the now are the raw materials to be mined in the future of the now. The now, at the same time, is the repository of the sum of experience of the past of the now – the latter has no substance outside of the former – just as the now will become a part of the repository that constructs the future of the now.

In the words of film director Atom Egoyan, who filmed Beckett’s monologue in 2001 (thus providing another kind of ‘last tape’ in the form of a videotape), ‘With [the play], a man listening to his younger self commenting on his even younger self – Beckett is able to express the central paradox of personal archiving technology; its ability simultaneously to enhance and trivialize experience.’  David Toop, who discusses Egoyan’s work, has his own ‘take’ on this: ‘a strip of tape passing through the playback head of a tape recorder, threatening to unspool as it comes to the end of its reel, is analogous to the memory of a life threading through the space and time of the world, then unspooling into nothingness.’

It is possible to bring together the Beckett of Krapp’s Last Tape, the Roland Barthes of Camera Lucida and the Walter Benjamin of ‘The Work of Art in the Era of Mechanical Reproduction’ in considering the implications that mechanical reproduction has for the process of witnessing. In all there seems to be a division between the faithful witnessing offered by the mechanical process of recording and that element that breaks through (punctures) the ‘merely’ mechanical. This element is the fetishized object, the aura regained. It is this regaining of the aura that is connected to Egoyan’s point about technology enhancing even as it trivializes.

It is useful here to consider the ways in which recording has followed writing in embracing a dialectic of transcription and creation. Just as writing is both a creative and transcriptive act in that it not only records but invents (is inventive), so mechanical reproduction is, as is already apparent in its name, a form of production as much as mimesis.  As has often been noted, composition in western classical music developed to such a degree that it reached a point where music no longer preceded text – the complexity of the orchestral score was such that the realization of it in music was inconceivable without the finished ‘text’. In considering Krapp’s Last Tape, we must not only dwell on the use of recording technology to ‘memorize’ the protagonist’s life and experiences but must bear in mind the use of the same technology to allow Beckett to create his dramatic monologue.  In this sense, recording has a creative as well as transcriptive role ‘to play’. This is a point that Toop takes up in connection with his own work as a musician and composer. Refusing the ‘pessimism’ of Jean Luc Godard – who has one of his characters suggest that ‘technology has replaced memory’ – Toop claims:

Other than those times when I’m sorting back through boxes of tape, like wearish old man Krapp, delving into the archives for the purpose of resuscitating past music for a new audience, I record on minidisk, onto CD, or directly onto the hard disk of my computer. Then I work on the sound files, burrowing into their imaginary space microscopically, transforming them from raw material into a sketch, a fragment moving towards a composition, even a finished composition.

In one sense this is comparable to the practice of composing music by writing notation on staves, building a composition by remembering or imagining sounds and their organisation, then documenting by purely visual method the information needed to bring that remarkable feat of imagination to life at some time in the future.

(David Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2004), pp. 99-100. However, Toop does go on to say that ‘in another sense, it’s completely different’ as his music is all stored in the computer and the computer can play it, with no need for an ensemble.)

The use of recorded sound to reconfigure the sonic past has been central to sample-based musics such as hip hop and its numerous offshoots, leading to a revolution in the way popular music is produced, performed and heard (albeit one that has numerous precursors in twentieth century avant-garde music).

There are spatial as well as temporal implications arising from these processes, all of which contribute towards the production of social space. Beckett’s stage instructions and Egoyan’s filmic interpretation are important in this regard; in both we find that a space of intimacy is produced. The use of microphones, tape recorders, cameras and broadcasting technologies create a totally reconfigured sonic space in the twentieth century.

The implications for fado practice, as for other popular music genres, are numerous. Not least among these is the fact that there is no longer a necessity for projection, or rather that there are possibilities for new kinds of projection. What defines many modern fado singers such as Carlos do Carmo and Camané is their ‘microphone voices’, a point to which I will return. These technologies also have implications for the process of bearing witness, bringing with them new possibilities of surveillance, bugging, and listening-in. This allows a removal from the ‘primal scene’, a putting-off and making-distant of the act of witnessing, notable in the experience of the contemporary listener of music. The fact that witnessing can involve removing oneself from the action via technologies of surveillance is often forgotten in the literature on witnessing, no doubt due to the emphasis placed in that literature on ‘first hand’ witnessing, of having been there.

The Witness

19 May

One of the things I am interested in throughout my work is writing (in its broadest sense) as a form of fixing. In order to do the work of remembering, be it a melancholy or a militant elegizing or a post-traumatic ‘working-through’, there is generally a clear desire to ‘get it down’ somehow. Writing functions as a form of witnessing. The process is beautifully summarized in a short piece by Jorge Luis Borges entitled ‘The Witness’:

He is awakened by the bells tolling the Angelus. In the kingdoms of England the ringing of bells is now one of the customs of the evening, but this man, as a child, has seen the face of Woden, the divine horror and exultation, the crude wooden idol hung with Roman coins and heavy clothing, the sacrificing of horses, dogs and prisoners. Before dawn he will die and with him will die, and never return, the last immediate images of these pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon has died.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Witness’ (tr. James E. Irby), in Labyrinths, ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1985 [1964]), p. 279.)

Borges is here exploring one of his favourite themes, oblivion. He goes on to note that with every death ‘one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies’. And he finishes, not surprisingly, by reflecting on his own transient world: ‘What will die with me when I die, what pathetic or fragile form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernández, the image of a red horse in the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulphur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?’

What is notable here is the recourse to the ‘pathetic or fragile form’, the suggestion that history and biography be thought of as fragments, seemingly unimportant details that have stubbornly persisted in memory. In this sense they resemble the memories of the ‘I remember’ school discussed in another post,  those random fragments, personal or shared, that are placed together to form a life. In terms of biography they accord with Roland Barthes’s use of the ‘biographeme’, the detail that escapes the remembering of an individual in terms of chronology. As Seán Burke notes of Barthes’s use of the device in the latter’s Sade, Fourier, Loyola:

These details – Fourier’s cats and flowers, Sade’s dislike of the sea – are crystalline moments in lives whose motion and totality are necessarily irrecoverable. While the conventional biographer will seek to mimic the impetus of a life, to register it according to certain representative proportions, the biographeme breaks with the teleology implicit in this lambent narrative movement. Events are not connected to imply any destiny or purpose in the course of a life, rather the biographemes are the shards of any such forward movement, those velleities that are passed over in the more frenetic, directed movement of the footprint-following biographer.

(Seán Burke, The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, 2nd edn. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), pp. 38-9.)

In doing so, the biographeme partakes of a process similar to the ‘flash’ of history that Walter Benjamin proposes.  This notion of history is similar to the kind of collective memory that Gilbert Adair evokes when he describes his versioning of Roland Barthes and Georges Perec as ‘tiny shards of a common nostalgia’.  The shards suggest a series of broken-off memories that, while difficult to locate, may prick the conscience at any given time. As Burke says:

The biographeme suspends narrative time and the telos that only such time can insure. Its ethos has affinities with the Proustian concept of ‘involuntary memory’ as it has too with the repertoires of ordinary memory. Those who have lost their nearest and dearest do not recall their departed in the manner of the monumental biographer, but through discreet images, a love of cats and flowers, a liking for particular cakes, watery eyes like Ignatius of Loyola.

Lost shards become found through this involuntary process, bringing the past to the present: ‘For Barthes, never far from Proust, the biographeme reverberates with the pathos of lost time, and yet participates in its recovery.’

There is still no certainty of any kind of permanence to these shards. Yet Borges and Barthes are already attempting a solution to the problem by writing it down. As Barthes struggles with the dilemma of whether or not to keep a diary, he records the following:

Death, real death, is when the witness himself dies. Chateaubriand says of his grandmother and his great-aunt: ‘I may be the only man in the world who knows that such persons have existed’: yes, but since he has written this, and written it well, we know it too, insofar, at least, as we still read Chateaubriand.

(Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, pp. 362-3.)

Fernando Pessoa had earlier discussed a similar process and its implications:

We say ‘Cromwell did’ but ‘Milton says.’ And in the distant future when there is no more England … Cromwell will be remembered only because Milton mentioned him in a sonnet. The end of England will signify the end of what we may call the work of Cromwell, or the work in which he collaborated. But the poetry of Milton will end only with the end of all civilization or of man’s presence on earth, and perhaps even then it won’t have ended.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Selected Prose, ed. & tr. Richard Zenith (New York: Grove Press, 2001), p. 166.)

There is clearly an importance being placed here on biography, for biography is strongly associated with the types of remembering associated with death rites (the witness, the epitaph, the obituary, the gravestone). Furthermore, biography serves both to distinguish individuals from each other and to bring them together in community through similarity and shared qualities, intimately connecting personal and collective memory and identity while attempting to fix the messy fluidity of lived life. Mark C. Taylor, in his fascinating survey of final resting places, Grave Matters, discusses the rise of biography following Augustine (whose Confessions may remind us that autobiography is not so much telling the truth of oneself as deciding what, how much and to whom to confess). Taylor suggests that the rise of cemeteries and marked graves ‘invented’ death, a point that relates to the notion that writing invents speech and that scores, transcriptions, instruments and ultimately recording invent (or at least reinvent) music.

It may initially be hard to see popular song in similar terms given its apparently transient nature, but the contention throughout Fado and the place of Longing is that popular song, as much as any other part of popular culture, has, in the modern era, become subject to the kind of desire for perpetuation that has long been literature’s domain. This has happened via the technology of recording and storing but also by the desire that drives the development of such technology, the desire to ward off loss, to archive, to remember even if it is by means of a relegated memory. There are important differences, of course. Recorded music has not had nearly the erasing effect on live performance that writing brought about and it has never been convincing that preservation is recording’s raison d’être in the way that it is arguably writing’s. But even these differences, in the work of a thinker such as Jacques Derrida, can be seen to be constructions.

“New” Releases

10 May

Four CDs picked up on my last trip to Lisbon in December 2009. All were fairly recent releases at the time. It’s interesting to note the similar design aesthetic; black and white and red remain the dominant colours in the projection of fado in the twenty-first century.

Cover of Katia Guerreiro, "Os Fados do Fado"

Cover of "Goncalo Salgueiro"

Cover of Ana Sofia Varela, "Fados de Amor e Pecado"

Cover of Ana MOura, "Leva-me aos Fados"

The Ana Moura CD has just been given an international release and the next post will consist of a review of the album which I wrote for PopMatters.

Recording (i)

7 May

When Badiou speaks of the theatre-idea as a possibility that only emerges from the theatrical event, he puts in mind the absolute precedence of this event. If anything can come after it to recall it and keep it within knowledge, it can only be a transcription. As Certeau and Lefebvre point out, this scriptural process can only be a reduction of lived experience. And yet we cannot deny the desirability of such transcriptions, a desirability born from a need to revisit these evental sites. We need, therefore, to distinguish between the event and the knowledge of the event which can only come after. This realm of knowledge is where recording resides, a thing we can go back to, a sonic space we can tame and revisit and a fantasy we can enter.

Recording may reduce the complexity of the sonic space just as knowledge is always a reduction of what just is. The danger for Lefebvre is that this knowledge can become the basis for a dominant ideology. The solution is not to get rid of the representation of space (Lefebvre knows this is not possible) but to recognize how it works in conjunction with spatial practice and spaces of representation. As Victor Burgin suggests, ‘The city in our actual experience is at the same time an actually existing physical environment, and a city in a novel, a film, a photograph, a city seen on television, a city in a comic strip, a city in a pie chart, and so on.’ (Victor Burgin, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1996), p. 28). This ‘and so on’ must include music, for the city is also a city in a song. Our knowledge is gained both from lived experience and from the representations of our and others’ experience. Sylviane Agacinski recognizes this in her account of Walter Benjamin, the archetypal flâneur, pointing out that he is never innocent of the city through which he strolls:

What Francis Bacon called ‘lettered experience’ (experience transmitted through books) interferes here with a reading of the city that comes about through walking. Thus the walker’s lived experience is traversed by a ‘second existence,’ the result of books, in such a way that the different types of experience merge and fade into one another.

(Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia, tr. Jody Gladding (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003 [2000]), p. 56.)

Music has an important role to play in these processes, as George Lipsitz notes:

Through music we learn about place and about displacement. Laments for lost places and narratives of exile and return often inform, inspire, and incite the production of popular music. Songs build engagement among audiences at least in part through references that tap memories and hopes about particular places. Intentionally and unintentionally, musicians use lyrics, musical forms, and specific styles of performance that evoke attachment to or alienation from particular places.

(George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place (London and New York: Verso, 1994), p. 4.)

Memory is both the unexpected and the desired revisiting of the past. It is both voluntary and involuntary: we can choose to (re)visit places via deliberate musical choices, or we can be taken unaware by musical madeleines.