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.

Disquiet

22 Jul

Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life.
What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.
… The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 30)

In summoning The Book of Disquiet to provide examples for Fado and the Place of Longing (the original title of which was to be Songs of Disquiet, a title I retained for the opening chapter), I wanted to connect fado to the Pessoan project of estranging the world, of locating its disquiet. This line of thinking stresses the links to modernity that one finds in both Pessoa and fado while also opening a dialogue with existentialism and phenomenology, highlighting fado’s links to perception and to lived experience, space and place.

It is also worth commenting on the fragmented nature of Pessoa’s most famous prose work. These fragments seem crucial to the growth in the twentieth century of archived knowledge, written texts, museum exhibits and recorded sounds: at once parts of a whole they can never fully catalogue and desperate attempts to salvage the present as it slips from view and earshot. They anticipate a whole range of fragmented experiences of the twentieth century: the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruin’ in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the wealth of ethnomusicological collections made possible by advances in recording technology; the broadcast media and its love of the soundbite; David Harvey’s ‘museum of modern knowledge’; the internet and its hyperlinked web of information.

Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

The Book of Disquiet is also a book about Lisbon and about the ways of living made possible by city life. The role of the observer and chronicler is crucial and Pessoa creates a special character, Bernardo Soares, to achieve this task for him. Soares interweaves his own existential confusions into his descriptions of other city dwellers who walk past his place of work, his rooms or the cafes in which he spends much of his free time. A self-described dweller on the fringe of society, Soares represents what had by this time become a defining trope in western literature, from Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840, rev. 1845) through Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). A strong sense of alienation amongst the crowd comes into play in Pessoa’s work, leading to yearning for a past in which individuals were more noticeable. In this way, Pessoa’s book speaks to earlier modern works on the city. The excitement that Walter Benjamin finds in the Baudelairean city, for example, is present in Pessoa yet it is an excitement that mixes uneasily with a sense of estrangement.

From where does this disquiet emerge? Perhaps it is from what Italo Calvino, writing on Balzac, calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’. The imposition of (the idea of) the city upon the citizen is alluded to by Svetlana Boym when she identifies the prevalence in the modern world of an urban identity which, while not vanquishing national identity, has taken over some of nationalism’s most pertinent features, yet which ‘appeals to common memory and a common past but is rooted in a man-made place, not in the soil: in urban coexistence at once alienating and exhilarating, not in the exclusivity of blood.’ This mixture of communal and alienating aspects is crucial to fado, where the modern disquiet of the city dweller so well captured by Pessoa is always already entangled in the responsibilities of communal living that urban society demands. If this disquiet is to be seen as one symptom of late modernity, it is possible to link the longing for freedom from the trappings of the past as another, something Boym seems to have in mind when she writes that the city is ‘an ideal crossroads between longing and estrangement, memory and freedom, nostalgia and modernity’. (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 76.)

Furthermore, there is a sense in The Book of Disquiet of the attempt of the individual to overcome the monstrous in the city, to imprint his or her own trace upon the structured, symbolic city plan. Such is the case in José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, where the figure of Ricardo Reis is witnessed in an ongoing process of walking the streets of Lisbon; even as he is marked for disappearance, Reis leaves his trace on the city, on the dead poet who haunts him and on the readers of Saramago’s text. Citizens are able to take partial ownership of the city. Yet that partiality only leads to a new type of symbolic ownership and, though the culturally-scripted city has been challenged by this new symbolic city, the new symbolic city becomes both familiar and fantastic.

With its always-threatened loss the symbolic city becomes an object of nostalgic desire, forever in danger of obliteration by the real city, which cannot be symbolized or familiarized. Into what we might term, following Barthes, the studium of the Symbolic irrupts the punctum of the Real, penetrating the studied and reliable, ostensibly ‘known’ city and lending an aura of disquiet to what was supposedly familiar. This disquiet, in turn, nags at any comfortable sense of nostalgia that contemplation of the familiar, familial, home might otherwise suggest, for there is a danger present: that the object of nostalgia might not, after all, be lost. This is dangerous because the object of nostalgia seeks to find its greatest effect in the safety promised by its inability to return and contradict the nostalgic subject. The lost and mourned object does not reply and this is part of what comforts the loser and the mourner. Yet at the same time that the mourner takes comfort in this stable situation, the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning (I can think of few more evocative examples than Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it).

A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972): 'the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning'.

Above all, The Book of Disquiet is a book of witnessing. Pessoa introduces Soares in his preface as someone who was looking for a witness, someone who would carry his story to the world. Soares himself describes the book as ‘a factless autobiography’, suggesting that it will be a biography without biographemes. It is arguably more like biography as a process of writing, a life produced by writing:

For a long time … I haven’t recorded any impressions; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m unable to write because I’m unable to be. Through an oblique slumber, I’ve been someone else. To realize I don’t remember myself means that I’ve woken up.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 314.)

But, if writing is presented by Soares as an affirmation of existence, he is not always convinced that the message can be transmitted to another:

What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 21.)

It would be unfair of us to expect a work as fragmentary and unstructured as The Book of Disquiet to provide a consistent viewpoint about the processes of witnessing as both seeing and saying. Rather, it is a book plagued by doubts such as those just cited, an internal conflict between the desire to record and an uncertainty as to whether the record should be passed on. Bernardo Soares realizes (as does the Pessoa who, having written as Soares, then stores the writings in an enormous case destined to some kind of future revelation) that between the extremes of ‘everyone’ and ‘I’, there is a community of like-minded people to whom he is speaking: ‘It sometimes occurs to me, with sad delight, that if one day (in a future to which I won’t belong) the sentences I write are read and admired, then at last I’ll have my own kin, people who “understand” me, my true family in which to be born and loved.’ And shortly after: ‘It seems that civilizations exist only to produce art and literature; words are what speak for them and remain.’ Soares is writing for a community that will come later, which is no doubt why he wants his manuscript to be taken by Pessoa and disseminated.

Ricardo Reis contemplates the city

25 Jun

Alfama Rooftops

Ricardo Reis crosses the park to take a look at the city, the castle with its walls in ruins, the terraced houses collapsing along the slopes, the whitish sun beating on the wet rooftops. Silence descends on the city, every sound is muffled, Lisbon seems made of absorbent cotton. soaked, dripping. Below, on a platform, are several busts of gallant patriots, some box shrubs, a few Roman heads out of place, so remote from the skies of Latium, as if one of Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro’s native rustics had been set up to make a rude gesture to the Apollo Belvedere. The entire terrace is a belvedere as we contemplate Apollo, then a voice joins the guitar and they sing a fado. the rain appears to have finally disappeared.

(José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, p. 49.)

RIP José Saramago

18 Jun

Here the sea ends and the earth begins. It is raining over the colorless city. The waters of the river are polluted with mud, the riverbanks flooded. A dark vessel, the Highland Brigade, ascends the somber river and is about to anchor at the quay of Alcântara. The steamer is English and belongs to the Royal Mail Line. She crosses the Atlantic between London and Buenos Aires like a weaving shuttle on the highways of the sea, backward and forward, always calling at the same ports, La Plata, Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Las Palmas, in this order or vice versa, and unless she is shipwrecked, the steamer will also call at Vigo and Boulogne-sur-Mer before finally entering the Thames just as she is now entering the Tagus, and one does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town.

(José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, tr. Giovanni Pontiero (London: Harvill, 1992 [1984]), p. 1.)

So begins The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the classic novel by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died today at the age of 87. The combination of the potentially fantastic and the banal, the metaphoric and the everyday, is typical of Saramago. There is always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations (as all stories are observations, ways of seeing the world) and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose–sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily though of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to drown us in the present–he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.

One does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, we know which town we have settled in. The novel tells the story of the dead writer Fernando Pessoa returning to visit one of his surviving heteronyms, the classically minded poet Ricardo Reis. In fact Pessoa is not quite dead, but rather existing in the exile of limbo while he awaits a more permanent death. Reis, too, is an exile, returning to Lisbon in the opening scene of the book after a period in Brazil. Over the course of the book, Reis  is constantly witnessed wandering the streets of Lisbon in a recurrent pattern that, spelled out on the sidewalks and in Saramago’s wandering prose, symbolizes his brief presence in the city as a kind of psychogeographer. Like  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, the citizen as walker is both reader and writer, at once subject to the pre-existing paths laid out in the city text and yet able to assert an agency via the sheer act of activity. But Ricardo Reis is not long for this world–he can not be seen, in however magical a reality, to exist beyond the fading memory of his recently deceased creator, Pessoa–and he always seems to be at the mercy of what Italo Calvino calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’.

Here is Saramago’s description of one of Ricardo Reis’s strolls:

Ricardo Reis walks up the Rua do Alecrim, and no sooner has he left the hotel than he is stopped in his tracks by a relic of another age, perhaps a Corinthian capital, a votive altar, or funereal headstone, what an idea. Such things, if they still exist in Lisbon, are hidden under the soil that was moved when the ground was leveled, or by other natural causes. This is only a rectangular slab of stone embedded in a low wall facing the Rua Nova do Carvalho and bearing the following inscription in ornamental lettering, Eye Clinic and Surgery, and somwhat more austerely, Founded by A. Mascaró in 1870. Stones have a long life. We do not witness their birth, nor will we see their death. So many years have passed over this stone, so many more have yet to pass, Mascaró died and his clinic was closed down, perhaps descendants of the founder can still be traced, they pursuing other professions, ignoring or unaware that their family emblem is on display in this public place. If only families were not so fickle, then this one would gather here to honor the memory of their ancestor, the healer of eyes and other disorders. Truly it is not enough to engrave a name on a stone. The stone remains, gentlemen, safe and sound, but the name, unless people come to read it every day, fades, is forgotten, ceases to exist. These contradictions walk through the mind of Ricardo Reis as he walks up the Rua do Alecrim…

(pp. 46-7)

Poetry, fantasy, the monumental and the everyday, the eternal and the transient, memory, loss, pathos, and the humour of pessimism: all this exists in Saramago’s late voice. He will be missed.

Flyer for book

4 Jun

A flyer for my new book Fado and the Place of Longing:

Fado & the Place of Longing June 2010

Book published

1 Jun

Fado and the Place of Longing

My book Fado and the Place of Longing: Loss, Memory and the City is published by Ashgate today.

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.

Fado’s invisible cities

19 May
Mouraria 1932

Mouraria 1932

It may be the case that, as Svetlana Boym claims, ‘places in the city are not merely architectural metaphors; they are also screen memories for urban dwellers, projections of contested remembrances.’  However, I would also suggest that it is necessary to keep in play the relationship between these types of space. I believe that fado song texts allow us to think of the city as both context and symbol. Taking on the dual roles of character and stage, the city acts very much as it might in a photograph or film; the same shift of focus from the cityscape to the human life within the cityscape occurs in fados, photographs and films. With the numerous references to the old city – the lost city that was the victim of demolition and renovation – the fado text becomes a snapshot of the past, rendered in sepia and always in danger of fading from view, of failing to be fixed for posterity.

Italo Calvino uses the imagery of the postcard to illustrate the role of the remembered city and the problems it forces upon both visitors and inhabitants, who find themselves contemplating it from the location of the remoulded city. Calvino describes Maurilia, one of his ‘invisible cities’, thus:

In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old post cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old post cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one’s eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was.

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, p. 30.)

One reason the city can be a source of nostalgia is that, despite the history of appeals to a rural Arcadia, the city of the past only ever survives as a fragment of the city of the present and loss is always referenced. The city is never static but is always rebuilding itself; the longing for stasis that has so often been connected to the (falsely remembered, idealized) countryside can as easily be transferred to the (falsely remembered, idealized) city of the past. The longing that is felt is the desire to see through the palimpsest that is the modern city.

The Reconstruction of LisbonAs Michael Colvin suggests, fados that bemoan the destruction and mourn the loss of the old Mouraria also come to stand as witnesses of the lost city, not only in recordings but also in forming the points of reference and even source materials for scholarly works on fado, such as Colvin’s own discussion of the neighbourhoods ‘condemned to progress’ by the Estado Novo.  The parts of the lower Mouraria that were left, such as the sixteenth-century hermitage of Nossa Senhora da Saude, become fetishized as remainders of the past: ‘The hermitage’s anomolic condition, perched unscathed among unsophisticated shopping centres and cement fountains … has made it a symbol of tradition in a Lisbon compelled to modernization.’  Fado, meanwhile, can act as a subversive text when highlighting not only the lost past but the wrong decisions made about the future: ‘Gabriel de Oliveira’s “Há Festa na Mouraria” has inspired a subversive trend in the fado novo: the idealization of a pre-Republican Mouraria … as an alternative to the Estado Novo’s notion of progress’.  If we compare the Maurilia of Calvino’s work with the Mouraria of fado songwriters we find a similar obsession with the city of the past, albeit articulated rather differently. Where Calvino’s narrator warns against praising the old at the expense of the new, many of the fados discussed by Michael Colvin have taken Mouraria as their subject matter have taken the opposite view. (See Michael Colvin, ‘Gabriel de Oliveira’s “Há Festa na Mouraria” and the Fado Novo’s Criticism of the Estado Novo’s Demolition of the Baixa Mouraria’, Portuguese Studies, 20 (2004) and his book The Reconstruction of Lisbon.)

Here, the city becomes both ‘theatre of memory’ and museum. It is not a museum that demands the silent contemplation of a preserved site but a modern, interactive museum, more akin to a performance space, where, as Kimberly DaCosta Holton points out, the ‘occularcentrism’ of traditional anthropology has been converted into an appeal to all the senses.  Yet, while museums have developed methodologies to bring the object ever closer to a point of virtual reality, the Baudrillardian conquest of the signifier over the signified has yet to come about.  This is in large part due to the act of ‘roping off’ that provides the necessary borderline between viewer and viewed; this may entail literal ropes, or it may involve a border of another sort, be it the walls of the museum or the entrance gate to the theme park, or the recorded boundaries of a song.

From transcribing to writing

19 May

When talking about witnessing we must be clear what we are describing. In his poem ‘Elegy’, Borges writes:

to have seen the things that men see,
death, the sluggish dawn, the plains,
and the delicate stars,
and to have seen nothing, or almost nothing
except the face of a girl from Buenos Aires
a face that does not want you to remember it.

(Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Elegy’ (tr. Donald A. Yates), Labyrinths, p. 287.)

The conflict between what the witness cannot forget and what the witnessed wants to be forgotten highlights three basic processes of witnessing: firstly, a reception of something (an image, a sound, a smell) that has left some form of imprint in the mind; secondly, a presentation (a making-present) to the self of the impression (memory); and finally, a re-presentation of that memory to an other (here, the reader). Of these, only the last might be said to be voluntary; Borges has not only remembered the face that did not want to be remembered but he has told his readers about it. Or has he? We still know nothing about that face, only his remembering it. We might compare this ‘witness report’ with that of Borges’s fellow Argentine, the novelist Juan José Saer, whose novel The Witness (1983) plays with the standard accounts of the colonisation of the New World by having a sixteenth century Spaniard caught and kept prisoner by an Indian tribe solely so that he can be released and act as witness to the tribe’s existence and destruction, to tell their story to the world.

This allows us to reduce the main aspects of witnessing to two: seeing and saying. In this sense we might call to mind the witness as used in law courts, where a witness who has seen but will not say what they have seen is of little use. The witness is carrying something that is wanted by the other; we might define the ‘active’ witness by saying that it is the desirability of their information that makes of them a witness. We also need to expand the notion of witnessing from merely ‘seeing’ to include the other senses. Borges has already provided guidance for this in his use of fragments that go beyond the visual in his short piece ‘The Witness’: the tolling of bells, the voice of Macedonio Fernández, the smell of sulphur. Listening, here, can be thought of as a carrying which may be borne but which may also be unburdened by passing on. In the latter process this carrying becomes a carrying-out – the completion of a task – and witnessing moves from a passive to an active role, as in the witness before the Law.

Witnessing, then, can be a productive force in that it results in the transference of a thing presented to a thing re-presented (this use of the word ‘transference’ serves to remind us that psychoanalysis is a form of witnessing: a kind of double witnessing, where the analyst witnesses the analysand witnessing themselves). Writing is an example of this, the transference from the witnessed to the represented. Something is inevitably lost in the process, as Roland Barthes observes in ‘From Speech to Writing’, an essay prefacing a series of interviews with him that have been transcribed: ‘This inscription, what does it cost us? What do we lose? What do we win?’  Jacques Roubard, in trying to weigh the benefits and dangers of writing, also stresses the notion of transference from one place or state to another:

Once set down on paper, each fragment of memory … becomes, in fact, inaccessible to me. This probably doesn’t mean that the record of memory, located under my skull, in the neurons, has disappeared, but everything happens as if a transference had occurred, something in the nature of a translation, with the result that ever since, the words composing the black lines of my transcription interpose themselves between the record of memory and myself, and in the long run completely supplant it.

(Jacques Roubard, The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, tr. Dominic Di Bernardi (Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992 [1989]), pp. 197-198.)

Roubard’s friend Georges Perec concurs: ‘The work of writing is always done in relation to something that no longer exists, which may be fixed for a moment in writing, like a trace, but which has vanished.’  We are back to the notion of forgetting and we can see here how writing, along with other methods of recording, is a vital tool in allowing us the possibility to forget.