Tag Archives: city

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.

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Zora’s secret

19 May

In Fado and the Place of Longing, I describe the ways in which the city of Lisbon and fado songs bear witness to each other. As the fado singer Beatriz de Conceição sings, ‘Lisboa é testemunha’ [Lisbon is witness] to the life of its citizens and the history of change in its streets.  By asserting this in song, Conceição also proves fado itself to be a kind of testimony, presenting evidence of the everyday life of those same citizens and streets. The questions that interest me in this area concern the desire to bear witness, the methods by which subjects do so, and the ‘use’ that can be made of both witnesses and their testimony.

Memory and forgetting are intricately connected to our sense of place, as a number of late twentieth century works have shown.  A number of these works draw on ideas from the classical period relating to the use of place in the perfecting of memory. The history of mnemotechnics has been well described by Francis Yates, but I have also been drawn to the more poetic work of Italo Calvino. Calvino’s Invisible Cities presents itself as a series of tales told by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan about the cities he has visited on his travels. All these cities are grouped according to a range of features: memory, desire, signs and meanings, continuity and discontinuity, and so on. Zora, a city associated with memory, is presented as the exemplification of mnemotechnics:

Zora’s secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced. The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower. the melon vendor’s kiosk…

(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, tr. William Weaver (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974), p. 15.)

To a certain extent, this relates to the idea presented in earlier posts of the city as a text which can be read, although there is already a suggestion in the associative nature of the series of memory places that this is not a text that can be taken in at a glance but one which has to be negotiated ‘point by point’. Like the memory theatres described by Yates, it is the bringing together of the spatial and the temporal that aids recollection. But Calvino/Polo finds a paradox: in order to be an effective memory theatre, Zora cannot change. By remaining static, the city ‘has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.’

A related idea comes in the form of the danger presented by repetition, as in another invisible city, Zirma, where the narrator is forced to claim that ‘The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that something will stick in the mind.’ But memory is equally redundant: ‘it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.’  The desire to fix something that is in danger of being lost leads to often paradoxical ends. As Paul Ricoeur recounts, the tool which would come to be seen as the ultimate solution to such a problem – writing – was the very thing that, for Socrates, would be the end of true memory, demoting recollection to recitation.  And, as Jacques Derrida showed, the philosophical problems raised by the interaction between memory, speech and writing would continue to resound well into our own era.  Similar problems emerge with the onset of recording technology in the photographic and phonographic eras, as numerous thinkers have explained (key figures for my purposes include Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Sylviane Agacisnki, Andreas Huyssen and Evan Eisenberg).

Festas 2010

14 May

The programme for this year’s Festas de Lisboa has been announced. As normal, fado plays a prominent role. Fadistas appearing include Camané,Rodrigo, Cristina Branco, Celeste Rodrigues, Pedro Moutinho and Katia Guerreiro. Rocker-turned-fadista Paulo de Carvalho will also take part in the fado programme, as will flautist Rao Kyao and fado-influenced rock band A Naifa. the Lisbon-based venues include the Castelo de São Jorge, the Museu do Fado and Fábrica Braço de Prata, a converted factory which now hosts cultural events.

The festas provide one of the more explicit ways in which fado repeatedly takes place and produces space.

The Taming of Space

7 May

In ‘The Right to the City’, Lefebvre provides us with an excellent way to move from Certeau’s ‘written’ city to a sonic one when he observes that ‘The city is heard as much as music as it is read as a discursive writing.’ For Ángel Crespo, too, it is necessary to encounter the city via its flavours, smells and music. And while it is not at all surprising to us to think of the city as a site of noise, we need to consider the differences between seeing from a distance and hearing from a distance. Sonic knowledge can only be a local knowledge in that, moving away from the site of the sound we lose earshot. We cannot have the extensive zooming-out of the visual realm, though on the other hand we can hear around corners and through walls. We can also distinguish between background noise and differentiated noise, and it is possible to imagine a sound that would zoom in and out between the dull roar, the resonance and the zoned, and we can still think of music as organizing the chaotic space of sound. As Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of the Senses: ‘Sounds have to be located in space, identified by type, intensity, and other features. There is a geographical quality to listening.’ This is true for both our perception of the world ‘outside’ and for the more intimate place of private listening where music can act as a taming of space.

Festas

7 May

It is well worth paying attention to the role of music and festivals in the city as forms of both divergence from and reassertion of social norms. In Lisbon, this is particularly notable during the period known as the Festas de Lisboa, a series of festivals held in celebration of the ‘popular saints’ and in which there is an interesting mixture of official and semi-official events. The former comprise concerts, marches, exhibitions, screenings and so on. The semi-official include the taking over of public spaces by stalls serving drinks and stages where music is played. The fact that the predominant music at this point is pimba and that the food served is grilled sardines reflects the sense of tradition and of the country in the city (pimba is generally more associated with the countryside). Pimba is explicitly rude, does not attempt any of the erudite airs and graces of fado (although there is a rude undercurrent to fado too), and, as a music that cannot be cleaned up or made cool, lurks as the obscene underbelly of popular culture in Portugal.

Such events allow power to continue, as Slavoj Žižek explores in much of his work. Using the example of the mutiny against Captain Bligh on The Bounty, Žižek focuses on the uses of unofficial power and the relationship between power and enjoyment. The enjoyment, or jouissance, associated with unofficial power – the power that operates ‘below decks’ – must be recognized and allowed to operate by the forces of official power ‘above’. Should the official power attempt to curtail the unofficial, the latter will most likely rise up against the former: ‘The mutiny – violence – broke out when Bligh interfered with this murky world of obscene rituals that served as the phantasmatic background of power.’ (  Slavoj Žižek, ‘“I Hear You With My Eyes”; or, The Invisible Master’, in Renata Salecl & Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 100.)

The connection between official and underground power tends to be more prevalent in the case of authoritarian regimes. It is interesting to note the use of music and festivities in films from the era of the Estado Novo to see how this connection is played out. In Canção de Lisboa (1933), there are various moments when impromptu moments of transgression break out, such as an improvised fado in the street and a drunken rant by the main protagonist against fado and fadistas, during which he proposes an ‘anti-fado’ week to cure the nation’s social ills. As commentators on the film have noted, however, these are moments of mild transgression which allow for the presence on screen of police officers or other patriarchal figures associated with the state to reassert the law. In this film, as in others such as O Costa do Castelo (1943), Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira (1948) and O Grande Elias (1950), fado is cast as both hero and villain. A common theme is commitment to the social group, often epitomized by the family, with a typical plot involving deception or abandonment of certain family members, resolved by a conversion in which the transgressor sees the error of their ways. In Fado, História D’uma Cantadeira, the fado singer (played by Amália Rodrigues) abandons her family to become a famous performer. She transgresses to such an extent that she even abandons fado. At the point where she enacts the ultimate betrayal – not reading a note that has been sent to her regarding a family illness – she is seen singing flamenco.

This dialectic between transgression and the law is visible also in the mass fencing-off that is the result of what Lefebvre calls ‘vacationland festival’, those areas marked off for rest and relaxation that promise utopia but rely on careful staging and investment by capitalists.  It is visible too in the spaces allotted to fado, from the taberna to the large scale shows put on for the Festas. In these events, fado fills the streets and lays claim to the city, to the people and to an escape from its boundaries. What we can determine from the festival and other negotiations of power in the social space is a reliance on a script which may be exceeded but cannot be done away with.

The Sounded City (i)

7 May

Michel de Certeau was keen to present the negotiation of the city as both writing and reading, an in-between process where one is constantly aware of shifting perspectives and of alternations between activity and passivity. However, it is necessary to consider the potential problems of this association between street and page. In his book Species of Spaces – a work that has influenced my own thinking about the possibilities of building relationships between different spatial categories – Georges Perec begins with the space of the page upon which the letters he writes are displayed, before zooming out to the book in which he is writing, the desk upon which the book sits and so on until we have left the room, the house, the street, the city and even the world far behind. The ‘problem’, however, is that we reach the end of his adventure without having really left the space of the page.

Derek Gregory highlights a similar issue in the work of geographer Alan Pred, who explicitly uses wordplay and textual strategies (like Perec, Pred utilizes white space, unconventional line breaks and vertical text) to introduce a spatial element into his writing and to let it perform what it is writing about. Pred describes this as an exploitation of ‘the landscape of the page’ and, while it is true that his reader is forced to be aware, like Derrida’s, that a point is being made about the performative power of writing, his account of the landscapes he describes remains a description and not the landscape itself. Gregory finds more success in Pred’s inventive visual mappings of the itinerary of workers’ everyday lives, where the routes traced by workers are superimposed in a temporal-spatial representation onto the terrain of the city. But, like Certeau and Perec, description is still anchored to the page no matter how much it drifts.

Certeau seems aware of these issues in his comparison between walking and speech acts. Just as a written text cannot represent for us what the speaking (or singing) voice can do in the process of enunciation, neither can the tracing of an itinerary on a map give us a clue as to the processes involved in traversing territory:

Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it “speaks.” All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, changing from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. They therefore cannot be reduced to their graphic trail.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 99.)

Certeau’s reliance on a musical vocabulary is particularly telling. Henri Lefebvre, meanwhile, is interested throughout his later work with a theory that begins with the body. Indeed, Lefebvre’s insistence on the centrality of the body and on others’ bodies, constantly encountered in the production of social space, is one of the areas in which representations of space and representational spaces are seen to come into close relationship with each other. Lefebvre finds the representation of space connected to the dominant order (what Jacques Lacan would call the Symbolic Order) to be one that relies on illusory symbols:

Perhaps it would be true to say that the place of social space as a whole has been usurped by a part of that space endowed with an illusory special status – namely, the part which is concerned with writing and imagery, underpinned by the written text (journalism, literature), and broadcast by the media; a part, in short, that amounts to abstraction wielding awesome reductionist force vis-à-vis ‘lived’ experience.

(Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 52.)

In contrast to this, Lefebvre suggests that music and other ‘non-verbal signifying sets’ (painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre) that rely to a greater extent on space than do ‘verbal sets’ are more likely to keep a sense of space alive, thus challenging the reductionist abstraction of the verbal.

For Alain Badiou, theatre is distinct from the other arts because of its reliance on being acted out in space; the fact that it cannot come together until the time and the space of performance gives it an ‘evental’ quality that makes each performance singular:

[T]heater is the assemblage of extremely disparate components, both material and ideal, whose only existence lies in the performance, in the act of theatrical representation. These components (a text, a place, some bodies, voices, costumes, lights, a public…) are gathered together in an event, the performance, whose repetition, night after night, does not in any sense hinder the fact that, each and every time, the performance is evental, that is, singular.

(Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, tr. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford Unbiversity Press, 2005 [1998]), p. 72.)

Musicologists reading such a passage will no doubt be struck not only by the fact that musical performance could be spoken of in much the same way, but also that it has already been done, most notably in the work of Christopher Small. I’ll stay with Badiou, however, in order to maintain the idea of the theatre event and what he calls ‘theatre-ideas’, the ideas created at the point of performance which could not have been created prior to it or in any other space. This has relevance for the importance we place on the text in a theatrical event (and I am thinking of a musical practice such as fado singing as precisely such an event), for ‘[i]n the text or the poem, the theatre-idea is incomplete’. Until the moment of performance the theatre-idea is in an ‘eternal form’ and ‘not yet itself’.

While this seems evident in terms of a play we might go to see in the theatre, it is equally true of the theatre of everyday life that Lefebvre recognizes in the street: ‘here everyday life and its functions are coextensive with, and utterly transformed by, a theatricality as sophisticated as it is unsought, a sort of involuntary mise-en-scène.’ Here, the ‘external’ text would be the symbolic law of the representation of space, the legal script that underwrites how we perform in social space. Lefebvre would later develop these ideas in his essays on ‘rhythmanalysis’, where patterns are discerned in everyday life. The practice of everyday life exceeds the dominant script of symbolic law but it does not get rid of the script. Lefebvre speaks of a ‘spatial economy’ whereby users of a city space have an unspoken ‘non-aggression pact’ that determines their rules of engagement with each other. It is this spatial economy that determines what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White call the ‘politics and poetics of transgression’, those moments when the rules of engagement are ignored but whose ignorance relies on the economy both for its beginning and its end (the return to normality).

A Man in the City (ii)

7 May

Carlos Saura’s use of ‘Um Homem na Cidade’ in his film Fados (2007) is rather more postmodern but maintains the idea of a tour through the city. Saura’s visualization of the song opens with Carmo standing in front of three musicians (guitarra, viola, viola baixo), who in turn are sat in front of a screen showing filmed footage of Lisbon street life. As the song progresses, Carmo walks forward until he is flanked by two large screens with photographs of Lisbon on them. He walks between these screens, advancing towards the camera, between further pairs of screens all depicting the city until he comes to a halt during the closing of the song in front of what is now a collage of images made up of the photographs he has passed. In a sense he is touring through the city but it is a city of mostly static images and the focus remains on the singer throughout, zooming in on him as he delivers the final line of the song.

Saura has arguably missed something in the song by singling out Carmo and superimposing him on both the musicians and the city. To see what he is missing, let us return to Certeau’s rousing dedication:

The floodlights have moved away from the actors who possess proper names and social blazons, turning first toward the chorus of secondary characters, then settling on the mass of the audience… Slowly the representatives that formerly symbolized families, groups, and orders disappear from the stage they dominated during the epoch of the name. We witness the advent of the number.

(Certeau, p. v)

Saura, then, has returned the floodlight to the individual, as have I. There is a seeming paradox here. How do we reconcile an insistence on the number, the everyday, the move away from the proper name, with an account such as that presented in Fado and the Place of Longing, which emphasizes biographies and recordings of prominent fado stars? Would it not be more apposite to Certeau’s vision to take the route more usually frequented by the ethnomusicologist and attend to the everyday practice of fado by less well-known amateurs (‘users’, in Lefebvre’s and Certeau’s formulation)?

The key is in Certeau’s mention of metonymy, the part taken for the whole. It is time, he says, for the floodlights to move from the actors representing the people to the people themselves. But what this does not take into consideration is the audience’s desire, the fact that they came to the theatre in the first place wishing to see themselves represented by those privileged, highlighted and floodlit actors. The same is true for the godlike view of the city, a view that is actively desired. People want to get out of the city and look back or down on it, to look back, as it were, on ‘themselves’ in the place where they normally are. It should be remembered that the request for representation of the community – be it visual, sonic, theoretical, or academic – comes from within the community itself. There is no privileged ‘theorist’ forever in a position on the ‘outside’. Which is not to say that there is not power, and abuse of power and misrepresentation and non-reflexive categorization. All this exists but it cannot all be laid at the feet of those with proper names. Celebrity culture is something that feeds on a desire that emerges from the everyday. This paradox is also encountered in those artists who are simultaneously feted as ‘one of the people’ and as celebrities. Even the celebrant of anonymity and the practice of everyday life still attaches to his celebration a proper name: Michel de Certeau.