Each issue, the editors at Mousse invite a contributor to select a text or a group of texts to be reprinted in the magazine as part of their section “Reprint.” The reprinted work may be an article, a short essay, a piece of narrative, or something else, but the original layout is always kept. The scans are accompanied by a text/introduction by the contributor. I was delighted when they asked me to contribute and enjoyed the selection process enormously. The simple act of choosing a set of things and then writing something that helps to connect them was a productive one for me. My thanks to them for the opportunity, and for making it look great. — RG
Lydia Davis’s compact story “20 Sculptures in One Hour" begins like a word problem from a long-lost math class: "The problem is to see 20 sculptures in one hour." We wait for more, but that is the entirety of the problem, which is a classic half-empty or half-full scenario — though this one comes with a twist, as it must account not only for perception but for the passage of time. Once the problem is stated, Davis’s prose quickly double-backs on itself, repeating the worry that although "An hour seems like a long time" it also seems like "20 sculptures are a lot of sculptures." If anxiety can be described as the reflexive condition of worrying about worrying, then you might know where the first part of Davis’s story is heading.
I love Davis’s story all on its own, but I had the desire to stretch it out, to make it last longer, to parse it more closely, to somehow freeze-frame each sentence in motion, like Muybridge’s famous photographic study of a galloping horse. Muybridge’s images were made at the behest of university founder Leland Stanford in order to prove a supposition by French naturalist and early photographer Étienne-Jules Marey that all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground while galloping. With the help of twelve special cameras, Muybridge captured “movements whose speed exceeded the perception of any painter’s eye,” writes Prof. Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, and proved Marey correct.
By 1882 Marey had developed something better than Muybridge’s cameras for recording bodies in motion. Combining Gatling’s mechanized machine gun with a multi-chambered camera developed for capturing the night sky through a telescope, Marey introduced a “chronophotographic gun” that could fire twelve frames per second. “Shooting” film was born.
The chronophotographic gun was soon aimed at one of Marey’s assistants, Georges Demeny, who produced images of himself speaking common phrases in an attempt to understand the motor functions of the face and mouth in producing speech. He used his simulations to teach deaf and mute patients at the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The 20 millisecond-long exposures shown here animate Demeny as he speaks a declaration of love, “Je vous aime.”
Late in the evening, with a glass of wine, I’m sitting in a dark room trying to consider the packaging of an album by an Estonian composer named Arvo Pärt that will include a piece of his called “Fratres,” which is nearly 12 minutes long. Mine is an imaginary job, a problem for thinking through after dinner. But suppose I were to be faced with it. Suppose I were to try to contain this piece of Pärt’s, a piece that arises from design and vanishes from it just as quickly. How could it be done?
Memories strike first and hardest, and I begin to sort through them. The first time I ever heard Pärt was Thursday, 12 March 1998 on a cold night at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. That night, the sun set at 6:16pm according to the Almanac, but new snow and a full moon kept the city looking bright and blue well after nightfall. Earlier that day I had been at the Walker Art Center to see a show by the artist Robert Gober, and, by chance, I picked up a brochure that said “Sound Visions Spring Music.” I still have the brochure in my files today, and getting out of my red chair, I set down my glass to find it.In my hands is a CD-booklet-sized, 16-page brochure printed in black and cyan only. The typography is neurotic—four weights of Akzidenz Grotesk including the Condensed and Bold Condensed weights, a rounded vernacular gothic, and close-set Clarendon caps. Looking at it today, I think what it said was more important than how it looked. A “rare opportunity,” a “hypnotic vocal tapestry” in an “acoustically superb sanctuary.” The language now sounds as clumsy as the type. But at a time in my life when I thought Minneapolis to be so provincial that any rare opportunity was one worth taking, here was a promise to hear something beyond hearing. I remember walking to the box office to buy tickets immediately. Hours later, sitting in the Basilica, the singers’ voices started the “Kyrie” of the Berlin Mass. There were no words for these sounds, nor shapes to give them form. The music existed as an encounter with thresholds, like standing on the firm earth over a void. The encounter was thrilling.
Once I was aware of him, I began to encounter Pärt more and more often. I remember finding him in the listening library at college by accident when someone had left a CD in the wrong tray. Then again at a friend’s debut recital in New York City. His music seems to inhabit the films I watch: Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Michael Mann’s The Insider, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Julie Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left, and Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. You will find him in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, of Werner Herzog, of Mike Nichols and Michael Moore. I fell in love with a girl as I watched Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, where Pärt plays more than once.
As I consider the package, trying to bring a form from facts, I consider the process of listening itself. It is a process of building and unbuilding. The music I hear is first built for me, note by note, and I simply apprehend it. Then, with more listening and repeated playings, I break the shimmering thing back into pieces in an effort to understand its whole. There is, must be, a reason the filmmakers I watch, the designers I work with, the people I love, hear these sounds of Pärt’s and respond as they do. We all want to know: is what we’re hearing about Pärt or about us? Who is this package for, and what do its contents yield?
Part of me thinks of “Fratres” as a design. Its structure exists independently from its orchestration. It exists already as a piece for strings and percussion, winds and percussion, eight cellos, string quartet, violin and piano, and MIDI sequencer. Its phrases of four, six, and eight notes are voiced in three voices—high, middle, and low—over nine variations, or three triads of three. “Fratres” has three beginnings, three middles, and three ends in each of its three movements, and the arrangement of the three phrase-sets in the three different voices of each of these three movements creates first one, then two, then—just barely—three tonal centers to the piece. More than a third of the tonal experience of “Fratres” comes from the overtones that result from the three perfect intervals played—the octave, the fourth, and the fifth. So nothing exists: no given orchestration, no single experience, not even all of the notes on the page. This is fitting: Pärt often tells the story of a Russian monk he met, who, when asked how to improve oneself, said he knew of no way. Pärt said he tried by writing prayers and setting them to music. The monk shook his head. “You are wrong,” he said. “All the prayers have been written. Everything has been prepared. Now you must prepare yourself.”
This preparation comes from transcendence. In Pärt’s music, what is unknown is summoned from what is known through the natural variance of incantaton—of reciting something over and over—like the casting of spells and the saying of prayers. With no preordained thematic drive to obey, the music literally goes nowhere and operates with great drama by placing you where you are, intoning the same tones again and again to create a world of very few parts, a space that holds only the players, the sounds they play, and the person listening.
Though I am describing the music to myself now, the package I’m trying to design is no closer. Here is what I hear: “Fratres” begins quietly. A beat maps the space, a pulse. Then, a breath, the drawing of bows, timed with the beat. Four notes, arching like a sunrise, then six in a similar pattern, then eight. The four return again, slightly different but hopeful, then six, then eight. The players are quiet and find the pulse again. Now four tones dipping like a valley, more laboured on their journey uphill. The same pattern of six then eight. Four. Six. Eight. The sound is broadening, rounder. The pulse. The beats are a rhythm, an organiser for the arrangement of the notes, sounding as they did before, but more insistently now. Two forces in opposing directions. The movements in this interval are laboured and driving forward. At last, the sound rings. The pulse returns and the first third is complete.
More falling than rising, the opera is greater. The drama of the second third. Beat, beat, beat. Beat, beat, beat. The music insists and refuses to resolve, simmering, then vapourising the structure it found before. Now it finds itself in two states at once. Beats and then the weather. A thunderclap and air fronts inside and out. The music hall trembles, tensing for the storm.
The final third begins. The warmest sounds so far, like a folk dance or children running in a ring, yelling with joy. The pulse of night-time beats with the regularity of vespers. A hushing when the sounds resume. The quieter of the two voices is found lower down. On the refrain, it is quieter still, sounding as if, in an icy forest, someone has just stopped walking. The pulse trails off, drifting. Now, after the storm, the wind settling, the intensity of resting after a hard day, of releasing breath. A good job. The pulse, calm, falls silent.
Ideas from Pärt of a typographic sort: the tabula rasa (or blank slate)—his name for a skittering piece written for the violinist Gideon Kremer. The package is empty. When I was younger, learning to play the piano by ear, I would play intervals that made the best shapes. The beauty of a perfect interval is more than sonic. The Estonian alphabet has 32 letters. Bracketing those that are only used in foreign words, 27 letters remain. Three nines, each of three threes. Pärt’s process for composing much of his music, including “Fratres,” is one he calls “tintinnabulation,” which takes a certain chord and inverts it several times over to evoke the pealing of bells, modulating its register in a manner that suggests overtones. This is the beauty of well-chosen arrangements. The sound is simultaneously static (the chord is not changing) and in flux (the chord is permuting). The triad sounds over and over again as instruments trade its notes, passing them through the auditorium as other, quieter voices wander afield, uprooted. These bell-like overtones are slippery, toning and overtoning and changing between the soundings. Something happens when metal is struck with that kind of force, I think to myself. Something else resonates.
I am searching for answers by considering form. I pour another glass of wine. Digging through a pile of articles I’ve made on the floor, I find Pärt searching for answers, too:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this unimportant thing appear in many guises, and everything that is unimportant falls away.
I am frustrated by the answers I am getting. Maybe it’s enough just to enjoy the music. As quickly as I can ask, “Is Pärt a designer?” I am asking myself, “Should I try to be claiming him as one?”
With “Fratres” on the stereo, I am on the noisy internet, and it is getting later. I find I can type F-R-A-T-R-E-S with one hand. When I translate a French interview with Pärt, the word for “composer” comes out “type-setter.” I find that Pärt’s birthday is 11 September 1935—66 years (two 33s) before the towers fell. In his music, he says, the second iteration of the triad represents “terror.” I find the moment of Pärt’s musical transformation from his early serialism to his later minimalism coincides to the month with my own birth. I find a quote about the packaging of his music that coincides with this coincidence: Alex Ross of The New Yorker writes, “Even the packaging of the disks, all crisp lines and monochromatic fields, is a beautiful exemplar of minimalist style.” I find each of the package designs and note the typefaces: Palatino, Palatino Titling, Trajan, Gill Sans, stretched Avant Garde, Garamond Bold, Akzidenz Grotesk, Times Roman, Frutiger, Rotis Serif. These facts refuse me.
We must count on the fact that our music will come to an end one day. Perhaps there will come a moment, even for the greatest artist, when he will no longer want to or have to make art. And perhaps at that very moment we will value his creation even more—because in this instant he will have transcended his work.
We reach a consensus on things, and these things should be noted down. Here is one: the Estonaian composer Arvo Pärt. Here are my notes. The wine is done. The room is quiet. As I get ready for bed, I remind myself that there is, in fact, no problem here to be solved.
This article first appeared in Dot Dot Dot #9. © 2004 Rob Giampietro.
In recent months, so many important jazz albums have been reissued that it almost seems trendy. The flood of rediscovered albums is a wonderful complement to the complex, eclectic jazz being made today. Often these reissues are not classic recordings at all, but particularly avant-garde works by noted performers that have slipped through the cracks. Such is the case with Meredith Monk’s forgotten Dolmen Music. Following up on the success of Monk’s recent work, ECM has reissued this subtle and complex early recording.
The deepest of the album’s pieces is “Dolmen Music” itself, nearly 30 minutes long, which is as haunting as it is unique. Stonehenge, composed of dolmens (a type of rock structure scattered throughout the countryside in France and England), is the main influence. In this site, steeped in the mysteries of the cosmos, Monk finds a metaphor for the unpredictability of improvised music. Its circular formation is also important here, and the piece alludes to this through its looping vamp lines and in the nontraditional staging of the vocalists, who sit in a circle, surrounded by stones.
In “Overture and Men’s Conclave,” the first of the piece’s six movements, the sound of wind (summoned by an airy cello) becomes a recursive chant, then collapses into the murmurs of a men’s congregation that speaks in tongues. In “Pine Tree Lullaby,” an eerily soothing cello hints both at music’s power to bring sleep and at its vitality, persistent despite the darkness of the forest at night. The two elements—death and life—now brought together are held in tension with the final two movements. “Conclusion” loops back to the beginning, repeating the themes once more and making it seem as if death and life coexisted all along.
Monk’s eclecticism sometimes makes the music difficult to appreciate—as is the case with the other tracks on the album. But when it is poised in a situation as demanding as that of “Dolmen Music,” this eclecticism, a property intrinsic to Monk’s voice itself, shines as both the rock from which the others in the archway are hewn and as the gravity by which those rocks press the earth to reach, together, toward heaven. It is the voice that, pre-lingual, summons music and magic from these stone gates that are agape and singing silently—the mouths of God.
Art of the Trio Vol. 3: Songs, released at the end of 1998, marks the third in the Grammy-nominated series “Art of the Trio.” Each album explores the limits of trio music by exploiting the fullness (or emptiness) intrinsic to the trio sound. In his last album, Live at the Village Vanguard, pianist Mehldau blanketed the crowd with sound. Songs breaks from this strategy: recorded in the studio, the album has all the emptiness, loneliness, and introspection characteristic of Bill Evans.
The album hits its high point on Mehldau’s cover of “Exit Music (for a Film),” from Radiohead’s incredible OK Computer. The song, about Romeo and Juliet, carries the same melancholy plot line as the torch-song standards that surround it. Though thematically “Exit Music” draws from jazz, Mehldau rearranges the song into something that sounds more like a piano sonata. A classically trained musician, Mehldau acknowledges that often during composing and improvising he adopts from his favorite composers—Brahms, Beethoven, and Chopin. “Song-Song,” an original that opens the album, is a sad, slow waltz. After the short intro, bassist Larry Grenadier uses a bow to create the orchestral feel of Marccone’s Cinema Paradiso score. In “Unrequited” and “Convalescent,” Mehldau leaves behind the constraints of time signature, chord progression, and tonality, conjuring phrases that seem to flow from sadness itself.
Mehldau only falters when he tries to be traditional. The standards seem forced, despite the efforts of Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy. With “At a Loss,” the album loses steam. But at its best, Songs makes up in originality what it lacks in jazz tradition. Pat Metheny has called Mehldau “the most exciting pianist since Herbie Hancock,” and the ability of a young pianist to make one feel so deeply makes Mehldau one to watch.