Tag Archives: witnessing

Witnessing, Carrying, Bringing (I)

1 Mar

As suggested previously, the acts of carrying, bearing and bringing-to-bear are crucial to the process of witnessing. The kind of carrying I am thinking of can be heard in a fado written by Amália Rodrigues and recorded on one of her late albums. It is entitled ‘Trago Fados nos Sentidos’ [I Carry Fados in My Senses]:

Trago fados nos sentidos
Tristezas no coração
Trago os meus sonhos perdidos
Em noites de solidão.

Trago versos trago sons
D’uma grande sinfonia
Tocada em todos os tons
Da tristeza e d’agonia.

[I carry fados in my senses
Sadness in my heart
I bear my lost dreams
In nights of loneliness

I bear verses, I bear sounds
Of a grand symphony
Played in all the tones
From sadness to agony]

This is the form of witnessing which I believe is most important to fado, this sense of carrying and unburdening, of passing on. Interestingly, in other versions of this song such as that recorded by Cristina Branco, the word ‘fados’ is changed in the title and the verse to ‘fado’.  The change is slight but helps us to make the claim for fado not only as a series of witnessed symbols but also as a process of witnessing.

The verb ‘trazer’, from which ‘trago’ comes is very popular in fado texts. It can be translated variously as ‘to bring’, ‘to wear’, ‘to bear’ and ‘to carry’. Among contemporary fado lyricists, Helder Moutinho seems particularly fond of the verb. In ‘Ai do Vento’, he sings ‘Sao as saudades que nos trazem as tristezas…’ [It’s saudades that bring us sadness]; in ‘Ao Velho Cantor’, he addresses an ‘old singer of the past’ whose eyes ‘trazem imagens de fados’ [bear images of fados]; in ‘Não Guardo Saudade a Vida’ he claims ‘Trago a saudade esquecida’ [I carry a forgotten saudade]. One of Moutinho’s albums even bears the title Que Fado É Este Que Trago? [What Fado/Fate Is This That I Bear?]. Even when this verb is not used we find many lyrics which deal with what is borne or held inside by the singer, such as the ‘fado no peito’ [fado in my breast] in Moutinho’s ‘Lisboa das Mil Janelas’.

A vital correlative, and one which connects with the sense of fate, is the sense of being carried too, as in Ana Laíns’s ‘O Fado Que Me Traga’ [The Fado/Fate That Carries Me]. A crucial metaphor in bringing together these senses of carrying and being carried is the air, and especially the wind, that carries our testimony to others and delivers theirs to us. Helder Moutinho’s ‘Fado Refugio’ speaks of carrying ‘in my voice / the life that has been offered me’ and each verse contains the line ‘Eu trago na voz o vento’ [I carry the wind in my voice].  Many fados talk about the wind and things which are carried on the wind, not only the seagulls that populate numerous songs but also the uncertainties and hopes of the future. The wind is also a force against which things are fixed, so as not to blow away or be turned: the wind of change, or of destiny. The wind is both something that carries, upon which one can be passive, and something that threatens loss: words disappear into the wind. Ana Laíns’s ‘Pouco Tempo’ is an attempt to preserve what is being lost to the wind. This is the message the written text (a poem by Lídia Oliveira) tells us and to a certain extent it is the message that the song enacts; by being a song it is a song dispersed in the air and lost. Like the poem, though, the CD on which we find Laíns’s performance tells us something else: the concept has been fixed in rhyme, set to music (‘set’ promises permanence) and recorded.

‘Ai Mouraria’, recorded by a number of fadistas, speaks of ‘Amor que o vento, como um lamento / Levou consigo / Mas que ainda agora / A toda a hora / Trago comigo’ [Love that the wind, like a lament / Carried with it / But that still now / All the time / I carry with me].  In this song, the love that the singer remembers and that disappeared with the wind, is connected to the winds of change and destiny that would affect Mouraria itself, making it both an example of the kind of mourning work described by Michael Colvin and an example of the bringing together of personal and public memories. The numerous recordings of the song by Amália at different points in her career helped to ensure that this relationship remained in people’s minds.
By the 1960s, when Amália came to record this song once more, the trope of the wind was prevalent in many popular songs. Bob Dylan used it in a number of songs that looked back to the folk, blues and country traditions of singing about travelling and being ‘in the wind’. Most famous, however, would be his use of the trope as a political metaphor in ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. The lyric of that song finds an interesting parallel in a song entitled ‘Trova do Vento Que Passa’ [Ballad of the Wind That Passes], written by the Portuguese poet Manuel Alegre and roughly contemporaneous with Dylan’s anthem.

Alegre had been imprisoned by the PIDE, the special police force of the Estado Novo, for his political views. Following his release he spent half a year in Angola, returning to Portugal in 1963 where he wrote ‘Trova do Vento Que Passa’. The words were set to music by António Portugal and performed by Adriano Correia de Oliveira, a singer associated with the Coimbra fado. ‘Trova’ made an instant impression with listeners and became a popular staple of the student resistance against the Salazar regime much as Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ would in the US Civil Rights Movement.

Adriano’s version had three verses, which describe the poet asking the wind for news of his country but hearing nothing. The second verse claims that ‘There is always someone that sows / Songs on the wind that passes’, while the third affirms that ‘Even on the saddest night / During time of servitude / There is always someone who resists / There is always someone who says no’.  The verses provide a number of issues familiar to the other songs mentioned above, including the unanswering wind, a voice lost in the wind and a sense of futility. But the message changes and the crucial final lines get their full enunciatory power as the repeated words that resolve the song, becoming the ‘answer’ that had been missing. Manuel Alegre himself emphasized the importance of music in the creation of poems and poetry; music allowed the poem ‘to be a vehicle of history and memory, to sing of love or to give the signal of past or future epics, to inform and to form, to witness and to bear witness.’

Amália recorded Alegre’s poem in 1970 on Com Que Voz, her album of adaptations of great Portuguese poets, with different music composed by Alain Oulman. The version adds a verse that highlights the carrying nature of fate, describing rivers that ‘take dreams and leave sorrows’.  Amália recorded two more verses of the poem, making her version more wordy than Oliveira’s. She did not, however, include the outspoken final verse and, unusually for a fado, the final lines of her version are not stressed; instead the voice disappears and the guitars bring the piece to a restrained close. It could be argued that these two versions present opposing qualities of activity and passivity. Although Amália’s version is sometimes cited as an example of her alliance with committed leftists poets, the use of different music and the removal of the ‘call to arms’ could be said to severely lessen the impact, making it a universal song about love, exile and loss as Amália was to also say of the song ‘Abandono’ which she recorded around the same time.


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.


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.

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.

The Witness

19 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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