Wednesday, 12 January 2011

One Essay - Joshua Jones

Building an Argument Towards Being: Dwelling in and on music

In ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’[1], Martin Heidegger formulated a model of Being around the interconnectedness of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’. Simply put, “Building is really dwelling” and “Dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the earth”[PLT, 146]. Building and dwelling are not separate activities: “to build is in itself already to dwell”[145]. He sources this theory through situating his meaning of the word bauen, to build, in the Old High German word for ‘building’, buan, which primarily means ‘to dwell’, and signifies ‘to remain, to stay in place’ . From this he traces the “original meaning” up to contemporary German: “ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be”. Bin belongs to the old version of bauen; thus, “ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling” . John Burnside, in The Asylum Dance[2], draws heavily on this concept: the idea that mortals “must ever learn to dwell”, that we are perennially homeless and that this homelessness is our home, a continual searching for and deferral of “the essence of dwelling”[PLT, 160-1]. Burnside incorporates this idea at and as the collection’s core, creating a poetry that is continually moving, continually finding and losing ground in time and place, seeing and letting the seen dissolve, documenting the yearning for “anything/we can use to make a dwelling in this world”[AD, 8]. The motion of deferral is the only stasis, and it is only in this never completed ‘building’ that we can truly dwell, can truly be. But how does this relate to music, and, more specifically, how does this relate to the music I would like to discuss in this essay? By looking at a selection of songs, as well as work by Roland Barthes, all the while bearing in mind the shared ontological stance of Heidegger and Burnside, I would like to show their interrelatedness; how, despite using different language (or no language at all), they are all, so to speak, playing in the same key, and when considered together coalesce into what is, for me (for what else, ultimately, is music, but for me?), an acceptably complete aesthetic-ontological approach to experiencing music.

Of all the Sunset Rubdown (Spencer Krug) songs, ‘Coming to at Dawn’ features the least instrumentation. It consists solely of Krug’s vocals and piano, the two interweaving each other’s minutely varied melodies. It is precisely this minimalism that makes the song interesting to look at here. Krug is the kind of songwriter whose lyrics matter very much in terms of appreciating the music as a whole, and despite the disparity between performance and page, the poeticity of his writing is evident even on paper. Nonetheless, it is his delivery that fuels the song, and it is the way the voice wraps around the words alongside the piano’s chords and arpeggios that renders ‘Coming to at Dawn’ important. The song conveys the sense of having compressed words and music down to their most naked form, their most bodily, which is reinforced by its lack of production. There is a tone of intimacy, of confession – not ‘confessional’ in an autobiographical sense (his songwriting is more mythological than personal), but in the sense that a body is performing. The term ‘body’, as used by Barthes in his later works, acts as a reinscribing of ‘the subject’, in opposition to, say, the conscious Cartesian self and, as in its famous cogito ‘I think therefore I am’, its focus on the ‘mind’. It is the ‘something other’ than conventionally logical and logocentric modes of understanding: “there is a chance of ‘avant-garde’ when it is the body...that writes”[3]. In music, Barthes listens not for what is “articulated” but what “is at once outside of meaning and non-meaning”[4], for signifiance over what is signified. He listens for the ‘grain’ of the voice, for “the body in the singing voice, in the writing hand, in the performing limb”[5]. The word ‘grain’ implies physicality, bodiliness, but it also signifies, for Barthes, something unquantifiable, unknowable, something one reaches for and simultaneously experiences and constructs – in this case in the act of listening to music – but which cannot be logically proven or even adequately explained.

The speaker in ‘Coming to at Dawn’ seeks to “Obliterate the memory of coming to at dawn, knowing only that the night has gone”[6], and the song itself is a performance of this act of obliteration. As the song progresses, “the night” as signifier and concept expands, becoming the passing of something both ‘natural’ (“wipe the grass stains from the cloth”) and primal:

Obliterate the raspberries and the wild cherry juices
That you trailed along the floor of the whore-house that you used
As a store room for your fox furs[...]

It becomes a site in which the conventionally ‘natural’ mingles with the underbelly of desire, the hunger of the id, and the impossibility of reclaiming a lost presence. The act of failing to remember exactly as it was is the obliteration. But it is not so much the specific content of the lyrics that expresses this as the phrasing. One example would be: “o-BLITerate the/MEM-ory of/COM-ing to at/ Dawn”, the way the stressed syllables slowly soften, linger on into the next stress, until there is the slightest pause before ‘dawn’, on which the piano line concludes itself and the voice sings just a note or two higher, reflecting the remove from “the night” in which “dawn” resides. Another example would be the way two different lines are elevated from the rest of the song due to the emphasised descending chords on the piano and vocal melody, each occurring once, in which an attempt to remember is made and celebrated but acknowledged as futile, before returning to the refrain of “Obliterate the memory...”. One listens as much to what is being said as how it is being said: the unconventional, impassioned lone voice, its tremors and flights around and via the sole piano track, the lack of an established self and, in its place, a body yearning to escape from the absence of a lost presence and into something else, into something other. All of which builds towards the song’s final assertion that

There is a tower with a winding set of stairs
You will descend into the absolute light.
Into the absoluteness of light
And become aware.

It is a desire that echoes the Barthesian notion of the aesthetic experience of listening to the grain of the voice, and is the point the song is building towards, the state of “becom[ing] aware”, which recalls the Heideggerian notion of Being equalling building/dwelling. One follows the song’s moving body, its building body (again, the word ‘grain’ seems apt in relation to the physicality of building), toward its own ‘completion’, which of course it and we can never really experience: the “absoluteness of light” ends the song; it cannot be depicted truly in all its absoluteness. Instead it is experienced via the ending of the song, which is now no longer essential – it is no longer concerned with forgetting/obliterating what was before, and has reached the inexpressible present moment, its dwelling place, its home; and the listener’s experience replicates this: they are directed towards a state of being one can attain via art by a song that itself yearns to build a site, a home, in which it can dwell. And while at the end of the song one can point out that it never really arrived at the place it sought, instead stopping just before it at “the walls which all discourse runs up against”[7] , it is in experiencing the body of the music that we experience the song’s building – in which all the keys necessary to comprehending the song’s dwelling reside, and in which a listener can experience a feeling of Being despite not necessarily being able to adequately explain it.

Burnside’s poetry, reaching for this same site (or non-site), echoes the song’s urging. Whenever his speaker encounters the possibility of a moment of Being, a moment of dwelling, he defers the impossibility of expressing it into talk of music and light (“head tilted to a night-sky packed with light/I waited for a music I could feel”[AD, 11]), in the process reinforcing the potential music has to situate Being. The other prominent theme in The Asylum Dance is childhood; or rather the absence inherent in any recollection of childhood, the remembrance retroactively altering that which is being recalled – one will never be able to remember the past as it was. The second song I would like to look at, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part One’, expands on and provides solutions to the difficulty of reconstruction. It begins with a series of whimsical non-sequiturs:

When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all round my feet[8]

sung over the top of elemental chords from a lone guitar. The singer’s (Jeff Mangum’s) voice is idiosyncratic and nasal yet loud and confident, throwing itself into the lines and holding notes seemingly for the sake of it. His singing, regardless of what is being sung, contains an undefined jouissance at simply being sounded, a relish for the creation of sound perfectly befitting the song, which, as the rest of the band kicks in, veers into slightly more locatable images. It becomes apparent that its subject is childhood, and it dips between lucidly unclear images of innocence stretching towards experience and the spectacle of parents’ relationship coming apart. Like an Ashbery poem, tense and speaker mutate, in the process decentring any stable self one could seek to find as well as disrupting the fictive present moment in which the song is being performed. As an unannounced ‘we’ “lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for”, it is revealed that “Mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder, and Dad would spill the garbage all across the floor”. This disparity in subject matter, sung triumphantly, is embedded within a woozy music, brass and wind instruments spilling everywhere, sounding like the internal experience of a drunken child at a parade being remembered by the same euphorically intoxicated adult. The song is its march, building towards something that will not be concluded – it is the procession, the spatter of memory and the movement of the music, that matters, along with the celebration that is the voice. Childhood cannot be adequately recalled as it was; Mangum’s lyrics, which on paper would lose a lot of their immediate quality, link with the voice and music to create a nonlinear impressionistic version of the wholly subjective experience of remembering what has gone, and it is only in the music that this idea can be understood. Which is, I believe, an important point for the efficacy of music: Burnside can indicate this reconstructive act’s need to operate ‘otherly’, but can only do so by reaching language’s limit points. Krug’s and Mangum’s music goes a step further, not dissimilarly to the idea of the divide between theory and practice. Their music acts out the ideas proposed by Heidegger and Burnside, becomes ‘living’ embodiments of the striving towards Being that is building/dwelling. ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part One’ creates a site in which what has gone can return, less hampered by the ideological problems posed by linguistic reconstruction. Of course, these ideas are obviously not inherent in the music, nor am I implying that Mangum and Krug are deliberately intending to convey Heideggerian theory musically – the ideas are reconstructed in listening and interpreting and, in this case, being elucidated and narrativised by my essay, filtered through my own ideological position and my subjective experience of life and of interpreting the abstract, and they arguably lose their force in the process of being diluted into the comparative finitude of language. This is unavoidable if one is to attempt to legibly express oneself. Language is continually building, continually deferring, always has the potential to guide and house Being (which, as established, is never static); music is too, albeit with different tools. It is for this reason that I would argue music comes closer to that which comes before the sign, the lost ‘original’ presence, the S[9]; that music can enact that which language can only point towards, even if language is very much essential to understanding music’s effects.

Sigur Rós are a perfect example of this. Their lyrics are to a Western audience largely incomprehensible: they are sung in Icelandic. More interestingly, a large number of the band’s songs are sung in ‘Hopelandic’, which is not so much an invented language as a “form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument. Jónsi [lyricist and singer] likens it with what singers sometimes do when they’ve decided on the melody but haven’t written the lyrics yet”[10] . While it is by no means original to describe vocals (and lyrics)[11] as just another instrument, Sigur Rós are interesting in that they’ve become very popular in this country, entering the mainstream charts and soundtracking any number of adverts and films, and yet they are singing not only in a language most people don’t understand, but also in a non-language, and it is very difficult for any listener without a knowledge of Icelandic to tell the difference. Listening to Sigur Rós becomes, from this perspective, a strange experience – the possibility of concrete signification is taken away from the listener. One has, so to speak, no idea what they’re going on about. The listener can, of course, simply apply a meaning to the ‘tone’ of the songs and neatly cross-out any uneasiness they may otherwise feel, but that would be beside the point. Instead, one can allow one’s control of the listening experience to be taken away from them, be cast into the realm of the signifier, of signifiance. But, unlike that Barthesian ideal, there is no body in their music. Or rather, the music is not so much nonhuman as unbodily. One cannot detect “the body in the singing voice” or in the otherworldly instrumentation. Instead, the band open up the possibility of a less immediately personal understanding of music. Their songs are a womblike site. One can be submerged in them[12] , can hear the trace of a time – unremembered – in which words did not yet exist. In many ways their music is re-enacting the ultimate lost presence, that of not yet being born – something every human being has (and yet has not) experienced. The music is thus not so much subjective as intersubjective, and yet never really explicable as such. It is a building, a homeseeking, a drive towards the originary dwelling place, a place, one could argue, of pure being. One listens to the words purely for the tactile pleasure of their signifiance the same way as one listens to the music: words/music ceases to be a binary. Of course, this place of ‘pure being’ implied by the song is just that – an implication. It is not something that can be attained. Rather it is the building towards it that constitutes the possibility of it and becomes, in the process, it, in the only tangible way possible.

So how do all of these approaches and interpretations relate to one another? And do they not simply highlight my failure to talk about music? In the case of the latter, I would argue not, and will do so in attempt to explain the former. Music, it seems, is both pre- and post-linguistic: it ‘better’ expresses the S, but at the same time can only do so in relation to language. It may offer up a purer (which is not necessarily what I am arguing) version of that which cannot be contained within words, but it only does so in the context of a linguistic society – we can only really understand it, or express it, linguistically, and it can only be purer than language if there is a language for it to be purer than. Perhaps that is not the case, though. Is not dance – the effects of music on the body – an expression of what music is doing? Of course it is, but even dancing, if it is to be discussed in a linguistic context (this essay), must be deferred into language. What the three songs I’ve discussed evidence is the way that what is arguably the purpose of existence – learning to be, building a dwelling – is so easily locatable in music, and so difficultly explained. If we listen for ‘the grain of the voice’, for the body of the music, we are searching for a recognition of the desire to be in another, for that ‘something other’ that resituates understanding. If, for example, I was to not write an essay drawing on philosophical sources and instead try and depict the same thing in a performative piece, would I not still be simply seeking to house my thought in a more fluid, less logocentric mode of understanding, trying to build a better place in which to dwell, from which to experience? That still wouldn’t bring me any closer to the music I love, nor would it bring the reader closer to it, to my subjectivity, to the possibility of an utterable intersubjectivity. Music makes this a possibility, and the songs, philosophy and poetry I have discussed enact and embody this possibility, each riffing in the same key. The movement of music and the building of dwelling echo each other, and the movement of a subject towards both is in many ways synonymous. One can sit passively and cower before “the not-pursued/each glimmer on the cusp/of touch/or loss”[AD, 18] , or one can pursue, can celebrate, as Mangum’s voice does, the moments of touch, of Being, and the moments of loss, as in Krug’s phrasing, that make possible the pursuit of Being. I don’t claim this to be any truer or falser than any other ontology of music – as stated, music is ultimately for me. Nonetheless, it is through language that we can come to terms with music, which is both diminished and furthered by it; and through music we can experience a jouissance that hints towards an experience of Being that language can only struggle to express. Understanding and articulating this is, I believe, as close to expressing what music is, subjectively, as is possible.

1. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) pp. 145-61
2. John Burnside, The Asylum Dance (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000)
3. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985) p. 191
4. Roland Barthes, ‘Music, Voice, Language’ in Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representations, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 284
5. Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’ in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representations, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 276
6. Sunset Rubdown, ‘Coming to at Dawn’, Introducing Moonface (Global Symphonic, 2009)
7. George Steiner, George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life (London: Phoenix, 1998) p. 64
8. Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part One’, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Domino, 2005)
9. See Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 2008)
11. Any number of bands spring to mind, the most immediate example being My Bloody Valentine on Loveless.
12. It is not surprising that the canny Wes Anderson chose their song ‘Starálfur’ for the final underwater scene of The Life Aquatic

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