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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  1. #1 by PlastiCités on April 3, 2012 - 11:38 pm

    Reblogged this on occursus.


  2. #2 by fifepsychogeography on April 8, 2012 - 5:07 pm

    Fascinating post.


  3. #4 by spilledcookies on April 12, 2012 - 4:31 am

    I have to agree, it truly is a fascinating post! I really enjoyed reading it!


    • #5 by cathannabel on April 13, 2012 - 12:54 pm

      Thank you – I enjoyed writing it! Good to get feedback from fellow bloggers – and I have been enjoying your posts too.


  4. #6 by decayetude on May 28, 2012 - 1:29 pm

    Cath, this is a mouthwatering(for reading Butor) and intriguing piece: I am sending for “Passing Time” as i have found it for cheap on Amazon!i think your musical links are astonishing: you obviously have some musical knowledge, as do I, to a reasonable degree; i understand fugue structures mainly, including fugues whch slightly go off at (rhizomic) tangents, with multiple themes sometimes;Busoni “Fantasia Contrapuntistica” is the most complex i can think of, where he finishes with FOUR fugue subjects, three based on the three from Bach “Art of Fugue” and makes up Bach’s missing one(or was it, like part of your thesis, only to be IMPLIED, as somehow being the shadow reflexion of silence); I don’t know-it is certainly a contrapuntal tour-de-force and furore!An another recent example I heard was Paderewski’s marvellous and little known “Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat minor, op23″(available on Hyperion and possibly utube, played by Jonathan Plowright), where the main fugal theme is simultaneously sounded together with some kind of elongated version of itself or counter fugal melody(not sure which).
    I personally believe writing STRUGGLES with the contrapuntal; ok, you can have a number of “motifs” that are interwoven within the text,- eg the way Sebald goes off at tangents which are somehow related to his main, overt tenets(eg “ROS”, where desuetude in the empty vastnesses of Suffolk, with its concomitant psychological malaise, leads to ruminations on the destructiveness of man in eg. the Belgian Congo)-but, unless you skim-read, or know the text so well and simultaneously remember all the threads(fugal themes), you still have a linear structure, not a polyphonic one, because , in music, contrapuntal themes sound SIMULTANEOUSLY, ie their IS a linear progression but the threads/musical motifs/themes literally sound TOGETHER. Someone even produced a psycho-geographo-historical map of the interwoven, tangential threads of “ROS” to accompany the new film, “Patience”; this is undoubtedly an aide-memoire:) But is not the same as hearing the threads all together; so what i am saying is that the sense of the simultaneality of all the layers/threads is more apparent and, thereby, successful in music itself. That is not to say i am not fascinated by writing that apes musical structures!Steve Benson


    • #7 by cathannabel on June 2, 2012 - 12:04 pm

      Agreed – there are things music can do that no other art form can. It’s more abstract, open to infinite variation, can be truly polyphonic and collaborative, and truly contrapuntal as you say. I’d say it’s the most powerful of the arts, for those reasons and because whilst all the arts can reach the emotions and the intellect, music reaches the gut, the hips and the feet as well! Perhaps writers and visual artists actually aspire to what music can do and whilst the limitations of their media prevent them entirely achieving it, the work is richer for that musical dimension. What can other arts do that music can’t? Abstraction is a limitation – ok, there are pieces of music that ‘tell a story’ but unless one knows, one wouldn’t understand the story simply from the music. And being time-based is a limitation too, in a way – a painting or sculpture can be seen as a whole in an instant, and whilst closer examination or repeated viewings will enrich the understanding, music can’t replicate that instant impact. There’s several PhD theses in here and I’m not the person to write them – but maybe a few future blog posts!


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