Posts Tagged Messiaen

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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In Search of Lost Music

‘Quand ta voix s’envolera

dans le battement des langues

les anciennes dissonances

fleuriront en harmonies’

(‘Le jardin des ages’, Michel Butor par Michel Butor)

It might seem odd to call Passing Time a musical novel.  After all, music is conspicuous by its absence in Bleston.   As Brunel says, ‘rich in references to the art of the stained-glass window, the tapestries, and even the cinema, the text of L’Emploi du Temps is poverty-stricken with regard to musical references’ (Brunel, p. 143).  On the other hand, it is Brunel who calls the book ‘a musical novel’ (p. 17).

In the fog of Bleston, music can’t find a place.  Revel sees in the stained glass windows of the Old Cathedral the ancestors of industry and music but in contemporary Bleston, ‘city of weavers and metal workers’, he asks ‘what has become of your musicians?’ (p. 73).   Later, he describes how in these same windows, ‘everything was taking place in silence … the looms wove in silence, the hammers forged in silence, the musicians mimed their sounds in silence’.  The silence is broken, as his earlier revery is, by mechanical noise, the screech and then the siren of a police car.  Music in Bleston is stifled – lost in the labyrinth-city which makes Revel mute, and the woman he loves deaf to him – and the only real music Revel hears in the city is Horace Buck’s harmonica, plaintively recalling long-ago voyages in distant lands, music which unequivocally does not belong there.

The structure of the novel is based on the musical canon, ‘one of the fundamental structures of polyphony, … with reversals, with mirrors … These are the fundamental structures of our perception of time.’ (Curriculum Vitae, p. 74), or perhaps the more complex structure of the fugue, which allows more possibilities for variation.   In Passing Time there are five parts, or voices.    The twelve months of Revel’s stay in Bleston form our scale, and each of the five sections (each of which is also subdivided into five), move up and down this scale.   In part 1 Revel starts writing in May to describe the events of October, in part 2, he’s writing in June, weaving together memories of November with events in June, and so on, as in each part a new voice joins in, until in the final part, we have his contemporary account interwoven with memories of five other months.  As Mary Lydon suggests, Passing Time illustrates Bergson‘s ‘melodic concept of duration’: ‘the indivisible and indestructible continuity of a melody where the past comes into the present and forms with it a whole undivided and even indivisible, despite what is added to it at each instant, or rather, thanks to what is added to it’ (Lydon, p. 94).

These musical structures are potentially infinite and so the endings are in a sense arbitrary, as in the novel. As Wilfred Mellers has said of Messiaen’s harmonically centred, static technique, which ‘evades the concept of beginning, middle and end’, ‘there is no reason why [these pieces] – any more than a Gothic motet or the improvisation of an Indian vina player – should ever stop’.  When Revel leaves Bleston, he leaves us with the lacunae in his story unfilled, the mysteries unresolved, the book ends as the train pulls out of the station, just as it began with the train’s arrival.  If Revel’s writing has saved him, therefore, it’s the act, the process, rather than what he has written.  ‘Writing in the labyrinth is … the only true way to try to recover the lost music’ (Brunel, 144), to achieve ‘new harmonic days’.   Revel’s journal creates ‘a whole series of resonances of varying intensity separated by broad intervals of silence, like the harmonics into which the timbre of a sound is broken up’ (p. 281).

So, despite the failure of his quest (he loses the women he loves, and he leaves with his narrative unfinished), he has restored Bleston’s lost music, by triggering these harmonics.  For Revel, and for Butor, to write is to live, so Revel predicts for Bleston that ‘my silent words may begin to echo through all your rafters, so that your own silent words may at last achieve passionate utterance’ (p. 260).

For Butor music represents the aim of all the arts.    It’s ‘not an idle diversion, … music is indispensable to our life, to all our lives…  it teaches us, even at its haughtiest, its most apparently detached, something about the world, that musical grammar is a grammar of the real, that songs transform life’ (‘La Musique, Art Realiste’).

Subsequent blogs will explore Butor’s relationship with music more fully, in relation to his other works, and I’ll also return to the Butor-Sebald connection in this context.   More, much more, to follow….

Michel Butor, ”La Musique, Art Realiste’, Répertoire (Minuit, 1960)

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

Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’. Le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)

Wilfred Mellers, Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth-century Music (London: Victor Gollancz, 1968)

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