Archive for April, 2012

Affective Landscapes

Thanks to Attic Fantasist for the following:

Info on an upcoming conference at Derby University, covering a range of topics including psychogeography, cultural politics of identity and landscapes,national identity, edgelands, landscapes of trauma and memory, theories of affect and landscape

And another link of interest to Sebaldians, this interview with the director of Patience (after Sebald).



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Butor and the iPad


Michel Butor découvre l’iPad, une grande première à l’occasion de sa venue dans sa ville natale (Mons-en-Baroeul), une autre grande première au bout de 84 ans, le samedi 5 mars 2011. Une approche nouvelle pour cet immense écrivain et poète, créateur de livre objet.


Butor Soirée at San Francisco’s Alliance Française

Soirée Documentary about French writer Michel Butor with the director

Friday, Apr 27 6:30p to 8:30p
Price: Free for members, $5 for non members
Phone: (415) 775-7755

A movie about French writer Michel Butor
Friday April 27th at 6:30 pm at the Alliance
Free for members $5.00 for non members
In Partnership with the French American Cultural Society

Michel Butor The director, Blandine Armand, will be present to answer questions and discuss the movie. Author Michel Butor is best known as a leading proponent of “Le Nouveau Roman,” a post-World War II French literary movement that departed from classical genres.

Butor has authored Passage de Milan (1954), L’emploi du temps [Passing Time] (1956), La modification [Second Thoughts] (1957), and Degrés (1960), among other works. Butor’s novels, poems, and essays demonstrate how a place can influence and inform a way of thinking.

Blandine Armand est une réalisatrice française dont l’axe principal de recherche s’articule autour des processus de création artistique. Pour Arte, elle a réalisé plusieurs documentaires sur des metteurs en scène : « Poésie de l’Ordinaire » qui éclaire le travail de Joël Pommerat lors de la création de sa pièce Les Marchands, « Voyage Immobile » sur la pièce Hanjo d’après Mishima mise en scène par Julie Brochen, « Faire bouger le monde » à propos du travail de Guy Alloucherie et « Raconter l’indicible réalité » qui accompagne la création de Pinocchio de Joël Pommerat,

Elle travaille également comme vidéaste. Elle a ainsi réalisé des vidéos de création pour différents lieux de théâtre ou compagnies comme la Chartreuse de Villeneuve-les-Avignon (Centre National des Ecritures du Spectacle), le collectif F7 ou encore Julie Brochen pour son spectacle « Variations ».

Blandine Armand vient de réaliser un portrait de l’écrivain Michel Butor diffusé sur France 5 ainsi qu’un documentaire sur la création de Dom Juan par Julie Brochen au Théâtre National de Strasbourg.

Lire un article sur Michel Butor.

Alliance Française de San Francisco
1345 Bush St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 775-7755

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Butor exhibition at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC), Mexico City

See below for details of a new Butor exhibition/event at MUAC, Mexico City:

The MUAC, through the Arkheia Documentation Center will present an exhibition on the french writer Michel Butor’s (France, 1926) file, including some of his works and books about artists and contemporary art.

Michel Butor has over 1500 publications covering various fields such as music, science, philosophy, literature and the arts. He is known in the field of French literature, mainly due to his most famous novel The Amendment, considered one of the pillars of what is known as the new novel (Nouveau Roman) written from start to finish in second person singular, the spanish equivalent to “thou”.

This novel was adapted by Michel Worms into a film in 1970 with the same title. After posting grades in 1960, Michel Butor stopped writing novels and by 1991 he abandoned teaching and retired to a village in the Haute Savoie. Since 1986 he has worked with over two hundred painters, sculptors, printmakers and photographers from different nationalities and published with them essays and books.

As part of this exhibition, a group of Mexican intellectuals close to Butor, undertake a series of conversations to be held in the auditorium of the MUAC.

Mexico City
Insurgentes Sur 3000 – Centro Cultural Universitario
+52(55) 5622 6972

Michel Butor
dal 20/4/2012 al 20/5/2012

Wed-Sun 10-18, Thu and Sat 10-20, Mon-Tue closed



Music and Silence

‘Silence is not nothing.  It is not the null set’.  Music in performance exists between two silences – the expectant pause before the first notes and the instant before the applause.  Music and silence are in dialogue, mutually dependent.  Silence is inscribed in the music, like its breathing.  To put it another way, sound echoes silence, puts into words or music what was implicit, and the two bear traces of each other.

In 4’33”, John Cage’s best known and possibly most important work, the composer developed a ‘fully positive concept of silence’ (Visscher, p. 259) which required openness to the integration of all possible sounds.  For Cage, silence is temporal and spatial.  It’s the place where sounds appear, ‘made up of all the sounds that exist in permanence (=life) and which surround us (=place).’ (Visscher, p. 262).  Cage explained that ‘we call it silence when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds’, i.e. the ambient sounds that are constantly present.  4’33” is a way of experimenting with one’s relation to the external world, silencing music in order to hear the world.  For Cage, ‘it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life’. (Visscher, p. 264).

Cage’s piece invites us to hear all of these ambient sounds, and those that drift in from outside – sirens, wind and rain, traffic noise – or from the building – the air conditioning, the creak of floorboards – not as intrusions but as the work itself.  It’s as difficult as any of the ‘difficult’ 20th century composers, and it bothers people.  The commonest responses are either that it is a joke (yes, the way it challenges audience preconceptions is funny, but at heart it is serious, as Cage’s statements make clear) or that its acceptance in the musical canon (at least its avant-garde experimental subset) is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that the piece is essentially empty of meaning but given spurious significance by critics.

And even if one disagrees, it is an unsettling work. Where we expect to hear a performer and (apart from the performer’s footsteps, the creak of the piano stool or lid, the turning of the pages) instead hear ourselves, our neighbours, the building we’re in, we are uneasy.  We know that in a concert hall we are expected to be still, to minimise the rustling, shuffling, and throat clearing sounds that we perversely become desperate to make as soon as it’s taboo to do so.  We suffer agonies of embarrassment if a coughing fit can’t be held back, our stomachs rumble, or we applaud at the wrong moment, and we turn judgemental glares on those whose mobile phones ring.

Silence is a weighty thing for an absence.  It fills with everything that isn’t being said, all of the sounds that aren’t being heard.   Recently researchers from the Australian National University have tuned very sensitive light detectors to listen to vacuum – a region of space that was once thought to be completely empty, dark, and silent until the discovery of modern quantum theory and have discovered that vacuum has virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appearing and disappearing, giving rise to omnipresent random noise.

If Cage’s concept of silence was positive, our experience of it, our associations with it, are often more problematic.  Collective, imposed silence, for longer than a few heartbeats, tends to create physical, visceral tension and anxiety, rather than a tranquil meditative state.  And as soon as one considers the notion of collective silence, one encounters other, more troubling associations.

Silence became one of the dominant metaphors for the Occupation, a blanket of silence over all kinds of enquiry, an emptiness that filled up with fear (Butor described the feeling that ‘nothing was happening, but that this nothing, at the same time, was bloody’). Silence here could betray or protect, could be resistance (as in Vercors’ Le Silence du Mer) or (active or passive) collaboration.   And when liberation came, the imposed silence was replaced by a chosen silence, as a generation (because of guilt, or horror) chose to regard the Nazi era as a nightmare that could be put to one side as an aberration.  Thus for Butor, silence is something to be fought against – he sees writing, words and music as resistance, every word or note a blow for life.

For Sebald too, silence carries a terrible weight of complicity and conspiracy.  Schlant has described West German literature since the war as ‘a literature of absence and silence contoured by language’.  Sebald’s fiction has been characterised as presenting us with a ‘Holocaust in absence’ – ‘the edge of darkness that Sebald’s fictions repeatedly bring us up against: a place and a time in which the ordinary constraints of history give way to an immense penumbral continuum of human suffering, exile, and “silent” catastrophes that take place “without much ado.”’ (Anderson, 121).  His references are often oblique – in After Nature, Sebald imagines the clouds into which ‘without a word the breath Of legions of human beings had been absorbed’ (96), and in the first of his ‘Poemtrees’, when the landscape that you pass in a train ‘mutely … watches you vanish’ (p3), because it’s Sebald, we think of the trains that crossed Europe, taking their passengers to annihilation.   As Ian Galbraith says, ‘Sebald’s landscapes are never innocent’ (p. 189), citing the references to Landsberg and Kaufbeuren in ‘Cold Draught’, and to Turkenfeld in ‘Somewhere’ (Across the Land and the Water, pp. 57, 135)

As George Steiner writes, the points where words fail have traditionally been seen as the points where music begins, or where we fall silent in the presence of the divine, but there is a more recent phenomenon, where ‘language simply ceases … The poet enters into silence.  Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night’ (46).  Is this silence, a ‘suicidal rhetoric’, nevertheless a valid and moral alternative when ‘the words in the city are full of savagery’?


Mark M Anderson, ‘The Edge of Darkness: On W. G. Sebald’,  October, 106 (Autumn, 2003), 102-21

Michel Butor, Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)

Thomas Clifton, ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, Musical Quarterly, 52, 2 (1976) 163-81

Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990)

Jean Guéhenno, Journal des années noires, 1940-1944 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)

Florence Rigal, Butor : la pensée-musique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004)

Florence Rigal, ‘De la polyphonie à la monodie: Butor, une voix politique’, L’Esprit Créateur, 47, 2 (Summer 2007), 33-42

Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence. West German Literature and the Holocaust (NY; London: Routledge, 1999)

W G Sebald, After Nature (London: Penguin, 2002)

W G Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (NY: The Modern Library, 2004)

W G Sebald, ‘Bleston.  A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, Atheneum, 1982)

Eric de Visscher, ‘”There’s no such a thing as silence…” John Cage’s Poetics of Silence’, Interface, 18 (1989), 257-68

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15 April 1989

I wasn’t at Hillsborough that day, though I’d thought of going, my first football match in years, to watch my team, perhaps meet up with my brothers, like old times. Instead I was standing in our kitchen just the other side of the valley, wondering what was going on, why they weren’t playing football. I’d have known little more had I been there – I would have been a football pitch away from the people dying behind the goal, and I would have been frustrated at the delays, and angry with the troublemakers. Instead I was watching and listening all that afternoon and evening as grief and horror and disbelief mounted.

I wasn’t there that day but I remember afternoons in the Trent End, when a surge from the back of the crowd forced me stumbling forwards, feeling very small and vulnerable, trying to keep my footing, or pressed against a barrier till my ribs were bruised, and I can imagine so easily how it happened. I can understand after so many other games ruined in those days by people who cared more about fighting than football, some of the cumulative, and catastrophic errors in planning, in crowd management, in communication, in emergency response.

But I can’t understand how long it took to see that there were people dying, how the pleas and desperate cries could have been ignored, for so long. And I can’t understand why the injured and the survivors and the families desperately searching for their sons and daughters and partners were treated as criminals, why information was withheld from them, why misinformation was wilfully disseminated (and not just by The Sun).  I can’t understand why, still, after the Taylor report, and all of the information we now have in the public domain, the old lies about drunk and/or ticketless fans being to blame are still trotted out, every time that day is discussed.

I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone at the Liverpool end behaved impeccably – some may well have had a drink or several, some may well have headed across the Pennines hoping to get a ticket when they got here, or to get in without.  But actually, that’s by the by.  Because the awful truth is that no matter how many of those fans were drunk and how many were there without tickets, if there had been stewards in front of the entrances to the Leppings Lane pens, directing fans away from the already crowded central pen, then no one would have died.  No one.  It’s horrifically, tragically, simple.

Taylor called this a ‘blunder of the first magnitude’.  From this blunder stemmed the desperate attempts by South Yorkshire Police to cover their own backs, to blame the fans, to propagate distortions and falsehoods that would persuade the public that what we had here was yet another example of football hooliganism, rather than a terrible error by those in authority.  That’s why, despite the regular calls for the victims’ families to ‘move on’ and ‘let it go’ (clichés favoured in general by those who have not experienced anything approaching this degree of trauma ), there is still a need for information to be brought into the public domain, for light to be shed and records to be set straight.  If there had been a swift acknowledgement that a hideous mistake had been made, and the energies of the authorities had been channeled with as much vigour into helping both the victims and their families as they were into blaming them, then the families would be grieving rather than campaigning, commemorating the ones they’d lost rather than fighting for the truth to be told and the lies to be nailed once and for all.

That afternoon twenty-three years ago is vivid in my memory, and I’m thinking as I do each year of all the people who never came home from that match, and all the people who waited for someone who never came home, and all the people who still live with that horror.

You’ll never walk alone.



Butor’s ‘Mobile’

Intriguing notes here from John Latta’s Isola di Rifiuti blog, quoting Paul Metcalf on Mobile, Butor’s ‘study for a representation of the United States’:

Paul Metcalf, regarding Michel Butor’s 1963 Mobile, A Study for a Representation of the United States,with its dedication to Jackson Pollock:

. . . it is the first full-length prose work I know in which—as in Pound, Williams, Olson—the meanings are stripped of all literary trappings, lying (as pigments) nakedly side by side, the shock of juxtaposition unmitigated.

has Butor read our poets, or did he get it from the painters? In any case, this is a re-emergence of an old tradition of franco-american interchange, one that involved Jefferson, Franklin, Crevecoeur and de Tocqueville . . . it is also in the tradition of that secondary European greed, not the landgrabbers, but those who gathered, at second hand, the land’s natural life: as, Coleridge mining the Bartrams—here, Butor makes a feast of Audubon, picking the birds clean.

And, countering “Jonathan Williams, in a letter,” who’d complained the book “is merely grist,” Metcalf quotes Wright Morris’s The Territory Ahead(1963):

Walt Whitman . . . is the forerunner of those anonymous classics the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues. The poetry of things. The poetry of the sheer weight and number of things. The uses, abuses, and value of things, the appearance, description, and nature of things, the name and number of things, with their price, place, and listing in the great plan. . .

“The mystic meaning proper to objects themselves is the poetry in Whitman. The mere sight of things, a listing of their uses, excites in the American a rudimentary aesthetic. It is not uniquely American, but as Americans we rely on it almost uniquely. After all, what else is there?”

Metcalf adds: “we see this reappearing in PATERSON, the geological analysis of the Passaic riverbed, listing of the sediments, and in MAXIMUS Olson’s fondness for lists of maritime provisions. Here in MOBILE, there is the incessant listing of place names, small and large, from all over our map . . .” Out of the Robert Buckeye-edited From Quarry Road: Uncollected Essays and Reviews of Paul Metcalf (Amandla, 2002). (Metcalf’s own 1979 Zip Odes is “composed entirely of place names, as they appear, state by state, in the U. S. Postal Service Zip Code Directory . . . nothing has been added—there are no ‘filler’ words, or ‘combining’ words.”)

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Variations without a Theme

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath.  He walks and halts to his song.  Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can.  The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos.  Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace.  But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment.  There is always sonority in Ariadne’s thread.  Or the song of Orpheus.  …  One launches forth, hazards an improvisation.  But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.

(‘1837: Of the Refrain, Deleuze & Guattari, pp. 343-4)

There’s so much in this short passage that resonates with me.  Often with Deleuze my grasp is fleeting – I understand (or think I do) for a moment and then it’s lost again (rather like the offside rule, or long division).  But that last phrase – ‘one ventures from home on the thread of a tune’ – stays with me, and moves me somehow.  That thread – Ariadne’s thread – sounds so fragile.  And whereas it led Daedalus and Theseus out of the labyrinth and to safety, this leads from home to who knows where.   The music is the magic, the song is the charm.

Another phrase that’s lodged firmly in my mind since a fascinating seminar on Proust and Barthes by Thomas Baldwin from the University of Kent, is ‘variations without a theme’.  If there’s no theme, then what is it that’s being varied?  I think it’s Deleuze’s thread of a tune.   Whatever we begin with changes as we venture further from home – music as a form of becoming –  and we never go back to it, but what we hear is still connected, it carries the memory.  Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations give us a foretaste of what twentieth century composers would do with that freedom from the constraints of a theme – as Alfred Brendel wrote, ‘The theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring.  Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them.  Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed,disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted’ (Brendel, p. 114).

Music in the last century has truly ventured from home, and often denies the listener a reassuring homecoming, a resolution.  Beethoven can confound the listener’s expectations along the way, can sound a century later than he was, but finally, we know that all the threads will be gathered together, in a very firm and decisive final chord (albeit one for which we are made to wait, thinking each could be the final one, only to hear another, and another – as unforgettably parodied by Dudley Moore).   Even in jazz, we often know whilst we hear each of the soloists take the theme and play with it, however far out they go, that they will return at the end to the theme as we first heard it.

Music that doesn’t do that is hard.  The ‘difficult’ composers of the serialist movement and the postwar era have not become mainstream – the process whereby what appears new and scary gradually becomes accessible worked for Stravinsky and Debussy but not (yet?) for Boulez and Stockhausen.  We struggle to find the thread, to hold on to it, to follow it through the piece, and we feel unsettled when we end up not back at home but somewhere else entirely.

Deleuze and Guattari were drawn to Messiaen’s music because it puts ‘in continuous variation all components’ and forms a rhizome instead of a tree (Bogue, p. 24). As in a raga, the music could in theory go on forever,  and so we hear it as part of something bigger, not complete in itself.   (Sometimes an unresolved ending is very clearly an ending, nonetheless – I’m thinking of a chamber piece by Kurtag, beautifully performed by the incomparable Ensemble 360,  which ends abruptly, cut off in mid-phrase, as was the life that it commemorates, and I wish I could recall its title.).

Butor’s long-term musical collaborator Henri Pousseur shared his vision of polyphony and openness, saying that ‘composition will not always be the production of closed and finished objects which one can buy and sell …. We will have to think increasingly in a collective way ‘ (Obituary), and in his work expanded serialist techniques to integrate past musics, to mediate between styles which might seem irreconcilable.   As Butor said of poetry, ‘one can play infinitely, multiplying the variations and the processes of construction’, and he preferred to speak of art as transformation rather than creation, because the artist starts not with a blank slate, at the beginning of the process, but with all that there is already in the world, all of the words, the notes, the colours.  The threads are there to be woven together, to be followed wherever they lead.

All music is a dynamic, complex conversation; it’s ‘the domain of possibilities, or potentialities … a fold, a flow, a source of possibility, and in consequence a labyrinth‘ (Bidima, in Buchanan & Swiboda, p. 179).  The composer engages with the conductor and the performers, and they in turn engage with the audience in an encounter which will be repeated in other places and other contexts but will never be absolutely the same.  Some have taken this several steps further, giving opportunities for participants (performers or audience) to change the music by making choices, or introducing elements of pure chance (albeit within predefined parameters).  In Pousseur’s Miroir de Votre Faust (libretto by Butor), the soprano has to listen for her cue when a particular phrase recurs, and it recurs arbitrarily, because the pages, unbound so that the music can be shuffled around before performance, contain many ‘windows’ – rectangular holes that allow one to see through to the next one or two pages. The performer cannot be sure what is coming next or what will return in an entirely new context. In performance (and this can only work in performance) this creates enormous tension as she gathers herself up to sing and then pauses, realising this is not her cue, or launches herself, seizes the moment, just in time.  The sense of risk is exhilarating.

In the post-war world the notion of going home became at the same time more poignantly desirable and more problematic.  In Europe between 11 and 20 million people were displaced.  Many never found their way home.  Others did, but found that home, and they, had changed beyond recognition or recovery.  Even those who were not displaced by war – Butor and Sebald amongst them – had to question notions of home.  Butor, growing up in occupied Paris, saw a familiar childhood home become a place of darkness, suspicion, fear and danger, and his subsequent restless travels suggest that transformation had a long-term effect.  For Sebald a growing understanding of the Nazi era forced him to see his childhood home as a place of darkness and he found it impossible to settle in Germany; he said once that his ideal station ‘would be a hotel in Switzerland’, just as Butor chooses to live near the French/Swiss border.  So to be unsettled is to be of our times.   To venture from home, like Butor and Sebald, like Revel and Ferber, is to accept risk, but to set off new harmonics, to find in a city of emigrants the thread that connects with the unrecoverable home: ‘The valleys of Bleston do not echo/And with them is no more returning’ – Bleston IV, p. 21).

Jean-Godefroy Bidima, ‘Music and the Socio-Historical Real’, in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan & Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004)

Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts (NY, London: Routledge, 2003)

Alfred Brendel, ‘Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations’, in Alfred Brendel on Music (Chicago: A Cappella, 2001)

Michel Butor, Dialogue avec 33 variations de L. van Beethoven sur une valse de Diabelli (Paris: Gallimard, 1971)

Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi (London; NY: Continuum, 2007)

Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989)

Henri Pousseur, Musiques Croisées (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998)

W G Sebald, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)

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Engaging with the city’s past


A number of the discussions we’ve had about the city over the last two years have touched on how we engage with its past. We’ve discussed post-traumatic urbanism through the lens of Lebbeus Woods’ War and Architecture(see also the fascinating exhibition of Woods’ early drawings) and have also begun to think through our engagement with (or perhaps literal and/or conceptual avoidance of) recent sites of trauma in the city. We’ve walked around Kelham Island, considering the ways in which a city’s history becomes heritage, but also how certain narratives become dominant and survive, while others are minorised and erased.

Our current project engages with figures and movements from Sheffield’s past: Ebenezer Elliott, the Sheffield Socialist Society, Edward Carpenter, the Chartists… And we would like to invite people to contribute their thoughts, memories and expertise to an archive that will be accessible through our new interactive…

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