Monday, February 16, 2009

Static literature

Many years ago, I picked up a couple of books by Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, a poet of despair whose bleak outlook is second only to Samuel Beckett. Over the past few months, I've pulled out his memoirs of his early years, Gathering Evidence, reading each of its five sections as an antidote to both more whimsical crime novels or more focused music theory works. Although Bernhard's prose doesn't have the same experimental syntax as Beckett, with complete sentences and correct grammar, his works have no breaks for paragraphs or chapters, a long unbroken ramble over a few obsessive topics. A lot like drone music.

Bernhard wrote often about music, and, according to Gathering Evidence, he was a reasonably good bass with consideration at one time of becoming a professional singer. One of his novels, The Loser, is about a budding piano virtuoso whose life and career were ruined when he heard Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations, seeing therein a level of perfection to which he could never hope to attain. In another, Concrete, the protagonist is a musicologist struggling futilely to write a book on Felix Mendelssohn. So I don't consider musical comparisons to be entirely fanciful.

Gathering Evidence was originally published as five separate volumes, covering only the first nineteen years of his life. Each volume is bitter against his family and Austrian society around WWII (the book covers the years 1935-1950 or so), with plenty of bile for the medical community as well, as he spent his teenage years in a sanatarium for lung disease, misdiagnosed and surrounded by ineptitude of all kinds (plus ça change...). His ongoing attempts to gather evidence about his existence, despite fruitless efforts to learn from his family about his origins, leads to a rigorous self-examination of his motives and prospects. More successful than his eponymous loser, Bernhard elevates his rancor into an uncompromising indictment, as we know from Bernhard's biography as a successful, if controversial, writer.

Sometimes I look for parallels between the creative arts. Certainly several musicians have drawn parallels between static music and Mark Rothko's paintings, and I also see many of the same qualities in Bernhard's prose and drone music. An essentially static art, with small variations within the wide stream, Bernhard's drones start and stop in the middle of nowhere and never move very far from their origins. His obsession with relatively few themes, setting them in motion one against another, compares with how drone artists construct their work in layers, with different elements given local prominence. Even in his memoirs, he was really only able to change scenes by writing a new book altogether — the five books were only collected in translation, and were only available separately in German. In the past, I compared Bernhard to Bach, not only for the elliptical references to Gould, but because his themes are so intricately intertwined. But Bach's tonal harmonies and devotion to God are very different from Bernhard's shades of gray, and it's very difficult now to find in Bernhard any shades of reverence or emotional fulfillment.

Where drone music doesn't follow Bernhard, of course, is the bitterness and anger. Drone music is seldom so raw; even in its most low-fi examples, it produces a blur, a haze where clear distinctions are washed out, sanded away. Other music expresses anger and rage very well, but at the moment current events produce enough stress. I calmly accept drone music as a refuge, and turn to Beckett and Bernhard for the bracing purity of their indignation.

The photograph of Thomas Bernhard is copyrighted by Erika Schmied, and is taken from one of the German-language Bernhard memorial sites.


Jon said...

when I first met Kai Fagaschinski (2001), he was writing his thesis on Bernhard and turned me onto him, for which I'm forever grateful, one of my favorite authors. he's pretty universally admired among the musicians I work with, maybe as much as any writer.

I agree that his prose is very musical, but drone isn't what comes to mind, maybe more of a Coltrane jazz solo, where he goes around and around on the same bit of material, wringing every tiny fragment of meaning out of it, but also somehow always pushing forward (hence, not static).

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for the opportunity for clarification. I use the term "static" as discussed in Jonathan Kramer's The Time of Music, where he contrasts musical stasis (or "vertical music") with more linear, hierarchical music. Tonal music in particular has a clear hierarchy, with cadences providing the maximum points of closure and the most important parts of the piece. Vertical music need not be unchanging, but no individual part of the music is privileged over any other part. His examples include Rzewski, Terry Riley, Cage, Xenakis and Ligeti, none of whom are drone artists. A short response for a complicated question — I'll articulate this better in the future.

As for Coltrane, I've never really understood jazz, especially the types closely related to bop. I've always figured that my poor sense of harmony kept me from an appreciation of what the soloist was doing with the changes.