Tag Archives: place

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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 (i)

7 May

In 1976 Carlos do Carmo represented Portugal in the Eurovision song contest and recorded what would become one of his signature tunes, ‘Lisboa, Menina e Moça’, a popular song which feminizes the city as a ‘young girl’. It was his 1977 album Um Homem na Cidade [A Man in the City], however, which really showcased what Carmo meant for the future direction of fado. Described by Rui Vieira Nery as ‘one of the most significant albums in the whole fado discography’, it consisted of a series of specially written poems about Lisbon by José Carlos Ary dos Santos and set to music by a variety of composers from the worlds of Portuguese pop, jazz and fado. It was a concept album and one which clearly was aimed at the post-revolutionary metropolis, showcasing new possibilities of being in the city alongside recognition of longstanding customs that predated (and could therefore escape the taint of cooptation by) the recently overthrown dictatorship. The album came with liner notes by Carmo, Ary dos Santos and two of the composers, António Vitorino D’Almeida and Martinho D’Assunção, all of which stated a commitment to creativity, modernity, Lisbon and the people. ‘With love we leave you this disc’, wrote Carmo at the end of his note. The ‘man in the city’ is also to be found in the dedication at the beginning of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and it is interesting to consider these two works alongside each other:

To the ordinary man.

To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets. In invoking here at the outset of my narratives the absent figure who provides both their beginning and their necessity, I inquire into the desire whose impossible object he represents. What are we asking this oracle whose voice is almost indistinguishable from the rumble of history to license us, to authorize us to say, when we dedicate to him the writing that one formerly offered in praise of the gods or the inspiring muses?

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

Certeau’s words bear an echo of the commitment shown by Henri Lefebvre to the lived experience of those connected to representational spaces. It bears a challenge to authority and the ‘view from above’, while also acknowledging the modest endeavour of a description of the everyday. So, too, with Carmo’s album, which mixes quotidian description with an imagination that recognizes the potential for transformation. Almost all of the tracks included in the album make reference to the city of Lisbon. In addition to regular references to the city as a whole, other features of Lisbon are hymned. The title track records the Tejo and the Rossio area, ‘Fado do Campo Grande’ refers to the area of the same name, and ‘O Homem das Castanhas’ uses Praça da Figueira and the Jardim da Estrela as backdrops to the chestnut vendor’s song. Two songs celebrate the public transport systems that connect Lisbon’s neighbourhoods to each other and to the world beyond. ‘O Cacilheiro’ describes the ferries that criss-cross the Tejo, connecting the quays of Cacilhas, Seixal, Montijo and Barreiro and carrying ‘lovers, sailors, soldiers and workers’ to their destinations, while the tram system is the subject of ‘O Amarelo da Carris’ (Carris is the company that operates the buses and trams in Lisbon, easily recognized by their distinctive yellow colour).

‘O Amarelo da Carris’ provides a good example in its lyrics of wider theories regarding agency, passivity, consciousness and the unconscious in the city. The first verse describes the tram which runs from runs from Alfama to Mouraria, from Baixa to Bairro Alto and ‘climbs shuddering to Graça / without knowing geography’. On one hand, the tram serves a purpose similar to the train in many popular song texts, providing a potent metaphor for the workings of fate as it faithfully follows its pre-designed course. Its passengers are passive citizens unable to alter the text of the city, etched as it is in the steel rails. Like the tram itself, which does not require knowledge of geography, the passengers can put their trust in the hands of the network and its operatives (which include, of course, the tram driver). On the other hand, they have chosen to be carried thus and are actively using the tram for their own purposes. They have a starting point and an ultimate destination; the tram and its driver are merely the means to achieve this destiny.

Similarly, the lovers described in ‘Namorados da Cidade’ are like Certeau’s ‘lovers in each other’s arms’, blind to anything beyond themselves while simultaneously creating that ‘beyond’ by going about their business. The protagonist of the title track, the man in the city, is the equivalent of the walkers found in Certeau, Aragon and Sinclair, going through the street under a ‘moon / that brings my Tejo into season / I walk through Lisbon, naked tide / that flows into Rossio’. Another song, ‘Rosa da Noite’, also hymns the incorporation of the city into the body and vice versa, claiming that ‘each street is an intense vein / where the song flows / from my huge voice’. The city is both body (a theme employed by other fados such as David Mourão-Ferreira’s ‘Maria Lisboa’) and a channel through which other bodies (human, non-human, mechanical) flow. Um Homem na Cidade celebrates all these corporeal manifestations. It is, importantly, an album, and therefore, like a photograph album, something to be taken as a whole; its songs are snapshots of the city and its citizens, a collective creating a collection, a thing. This sense of the album as a thing-in-itself was highlighted by the release, in 2004, of an album entitled Novo Homem na Cidade which recreated the original album with versions of its songs, in the same running order, recorded by twelve different artists, a number of them associated with the novo fado of the early 2000s. In addition to showcasing these younger performers, the album serves two other purposes, commemorating Carlos do Carmo’s original album as a thing-in-itself (without which the new album would not exist) and highlighting the continued relevance of the city of Lisbon as a thing-in-itself to be celebrated (without which neither album would exist).

Fado texts provide a tour of the city of Lisbon by incorporating various names associated with the city and, in Certeau’s terms, ‘liberating’ them into a new poetic and metaphoric language. Yet, given that we are dealing with a musical form, it is also necessary to remember the role played by sound in this process. If fado texts take us on a tour of the city, part of that tour involves the hearing of fado music itself. The sound of fado, its instruments and cries, are both representations of space and representational spaces, products of and responses to space itself. In Um Homem na Cidade, there are additional sounds of the city referenced, such as the sound of the tram bell emulated by the guitarra in ‘O Amarelo da Carris’ or the use of the chestnut vendor’s cry in the refrain of ‘O Homem das Castanhas’. This practice develops in sonic form a process earlier undertaken by numerous European and American modernist writers and artists to provide a representation of the noise of the city, albeit witnessed in silence (in the space of writing). For example, we find the following in Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet:

Future married couples pass by, chatting seamstresses pass by, young men in a hurry for pleasure pass by, those who have retired from everything smoke on their habitual stroll, and at one or another doorway a shopkeeper stands like an idle vagabond, hardly noticing a thing. Army recruits … slowly drift along in noisy and worse-than-noisy clusters. Occasionally someone quite ordinary goes by. Cars at that time of the day are rare, and their noise is musical. In my heart there’s a peaceful anguish, and my calm is made of resignation.

All of this passes, and none of it means anything to me. It’s all foreign to my fate, and even to fate as a whole. It’s just unconsciousness, curses of protest when chance hurls stones, echoes of unknown voices – a collective mishmash of life.

(Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 14.)

This ‘collective mishmash of life’ is wonderfully transformed in ‘Fado Varina’, from Um Homem na Cidade, into a noisy and salty metaphor suggested by the cries of a woman selling fish in the market: ‘Os teus pregões / são iguais à claridade / caldeirada de canções / que se entorna na cidade’ [Your cries / are like brightness / a fish stew of songs / spilling over the city].

Lisbon’s Narcissism (i)

7 May

In my discussion of real-and-imagined cities in Fado and the Place of Longing, I have attempted to place Lisbon into a wider discussion of urban space and place, for I believe that fado invites such a theorization. Yet, in attempting to make this connection, one cannot help but notice the absence of Lisbon, Portugal or the Iberian Peninsula from the discussion of much cultural geography, where the literature has shown an overwhelming obsession with Paris and the modern cities of the USA – Los Angeles especially. Areas such as the Algarve are seemingly in Lefebvre’s mind when he speaks of ‘the current [early 1970s] transformation of the Mediterranean into a leisure-oriented space for industrialized Europe’ and of ‘the consumption of space, sun and sea, and of spontaneous or induced eroticism, in a great “vacationland festival”’, but industrial centres of the Iberian Peninsula have not generally received the attention given to other European cities. It could be argued that this is due to a fairly late industrialization of this area but such an argument would neglect the importance of Iberia as a world centre in the past; it is Venice’s past, after all, rather than its present that made it exemplary for Lefebvre in his description of the city as work and product.

Prior to the obsession with American cities, the models had often been ‘literary’ European capitals such as London, Paris, Rome or Vienna. The Iberian Peninsula was less frequently brought into the discussion despite the presence of its cities in literature. As Joan Ramon Resina writes, ‘[f]or the Lisbon of Pessoa, the Madrid of Galdós, the Barcelona of Oller, Pla, or Rodoreda, there has been nothing on the scale of the attention brought to Paris by readers of Balzac or Zola or to Vienna by the great novels of Roth and Musil.’ Resina’s own response to this absence comes in the form of an edited book entitled Iberian Cities. While this endeavour is a laudable attempt to reassert the ‘place’ of these metropolises, the reader interested in the Portuguese city cannot help but notice two things: firstly, there is the country’s continued marginalization via the inclusion of only one city (Lisbon) alongside eight Spanish cities (one of which, Madrid, gets two essays devoted to it); secondly, it is hard to know what to make of the air of melancholy with which that one chapter is delivered by its author, Miguel Tamen. Tamen chooses to emphasize the lack of anything to see in Lisbon, the difficulty entailed in getting around due to the steep hills and uneven pavements, and the confusion produced by the different names given to places by official maps and everyday local usage. It is certainly the case that, outside the flat grid of the Baixa, the city provides certain challenges for navigation. It is also true that Lisbon does not offer up a host of ‘obvious’ monuments from which to fashion a tourist itinerary (although this did not stop Pessoa from doing so). But what those who have been drawn to the city have invariably reported on is the pleasure to be found in this lack of obviousness. This has particularly been the case for those coming from outside the country. Ángel Crespo’s tour of Lisbon dwells on the pleasures of the stroll, the literary and mythical connections encountered in the city, and the numerous opportunities to gain different perspectives on the city from a variety of vantage points.  Similarly, Paul Buck, in his ‘cultural and literary companion’ to Lisbon, is struck by the city’s potential for narcissism:

It is a beautiful city, for it is built on a series of hills and valleys whose steepness give rise to a multitude of viewing points, such that the city can become almost narcissistic, encouraging one to re-viewing it, akin to stepping inside a house choked by mirrors, continually catching the reflections, sucked into the space of admiration.

(Paul Buck, Lisbon: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Oxford: Signal Books, 2002), p. 2.)

There are, of course, a profusion of guidebooks and websites devoted to Lisbon, all of which maintain that there is plenty to see. All have their own agendas and may be more or less implicated in the representation of space that Lefebvre identified as the dominant mode of spatial thinking. It is less likely (though perhaps not for those who can afford to do so) that one would take the car tour suggested by Pessoa, not least because the streets are nowhere near as painlessly negotiable as in his day. It is quite likely that one might pay for a bus tour or take the ‘tourist tram’ that combines authentic travelling with ease of transit. But equally, one might choose to walk and, if not content to follow one’s footsteps, to take one of the walking guides on offer. One company that implicitly challenges Tamen’s assertion that Lisbon is ‘a town with no flâneurs’ offers a range of walks tailored to specific ways of seeing the city. One of these, entitled ‘Lisbon Old Town’, promises ‘Maze-like streets, ‘Hidden vantage points’, ‘Migration and dockers’ and ‘Fado as the soundtrack of Lisbon’ among its features.

Each of these is related to one aspect or another of the theories discussed in Fado and the Place of Longing. The maze-like streets are the embodiment of Certeau’s point about the blindness of the city, yet vantage points emerge from the confusion to allow a sudden switch back to the controlling gaze. The history of comings and goings that have created the riverside neighbourhoods of Lisbon (of which Alfama is just one) is one in which the precursors and contemporaries of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘postmodern vagabonds’ have plied their trades. As for fado as a soundtrack, it is worth noting that, due to the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of accurately mapping as Alfama in any conventional manner, music may be as believable a map of this area as any.

The Imagined City (i)

7 May

Another way of dealing with the relationship between citizen and city can be found in Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City (1960). Although dated in many ways, the book describes a way of thinking about this relationship which is still of interest. Lynch and his fellow researchers were interested in the ‘cognitive maps’ which people carry of the cities in which they live. Wanting to find out what the relationship was between these cognitive maps and official maps of the city, they asked people to draw their own maps of the city and of particular routes through it, supplementing this information with questions regarding how their respondents dealt with particular negotiations when using the city, what they thought of different neighbourhoods and features, and so on. The results of this research showed that there were quite different imaginations of the city and that these, perhaps not surprisingly, were dependent on particular subject positions. While this data, as Edward Soja suggests, ultimately had the effect of reproducing certain dominant discourses of the city and of social relationships, it nevertheless provided a valuable ‘tilting’ of the normally-designated representation of space from an ‘official’ to an ‘unofficial’, or at least ‘semi-official’ discourse.

Lynch identified five main elements of the city from his respondents’ representations:

  • Paths – ‘channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves … streets, walkways, transit lines, canals, railroads’. Lynch found that these were the predominant way of imagining the city.
  • Edges – ‘linear elements not used or considered as paths’, such as ‘shores, railroad cuts, edges of developments, walls’. These features help people organize and make sense of space.
  • Districts – ‘medium-to-large sections of the city’ which can be mentally entered and have some distinguishing feature.
  • Nodes – ‘strategic points in a city into which an observer can enter’, such as junctions, crossings, squares or other concentrations or condensations of space.
  • Landmarks – external point references whose ‘use involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities’.

(Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1996 [1960]), pp. 47-8.) 

To take some examples from the city of Lisbon, we might consider the following:

Rua Augusta, Avenida da Liberdade, the Avenida 24 de Julho, or the tram and Metro lines, paths along which one might customarily move;

River Tejo at Belemthe Tejo, Monsanto park, or the train lines at Alcântara, edges which help to organize space;

AlfamaAlfama, Bica, or Chiado, districts with distinguishing features;

RossioRossio, Praça da Figueira or Martim Moniz, nodes which act as points of concentration;

Ponte 25 de Abrilthe Castelo de São Jorge, the Ponte 25 Abril or the Elevador da Santa Justa, landmarks that can be singled out.

Fado hymns such elements while also overlaying them with a wealth of less obvious cognitive mappings such as alleyways, windows and rooftops.

Alfama Rooftops