To Dance

On the itchy chair I watch the orchestra as it lies prostrate on the stage like a giant animal scratching its ticks, and I remember that a conductor is not at all leading a vehicle but operates the way a sculptor does, smearing the sounds into shapes with his hands.

Being part of an orchestra always felt to me like being someone else’s paint, someone’s matter, a sensation I found twofold even then, perversely so, on the one side my desire to give life to my own mind in space, and on the other the delight of being only a small part of that living body, my instrument’s voice pushed around to make sense alongside the others, all of us melting into place under the hands of the person painting this deliberate, fleeting masterpiece with the colours we provide. 

Do I miss it now? No, I left it behind, like so many ways of being.

But my body remembers what it felt like, the rasp of resinous hair on strings, how the arm lifted and the breath changed when he raised his hand and closed his fist.

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Radio

Podcasts are great, and there are so many of them. It is such convenient fun to listen in on the research and/or thought collection of another person, often some-one specialising in a field I am interested in but haven’t done much delving into of my own. Someone is talking into your ear as if telling you a bedtime (or any-time) story, except they are telling you about the connections drawn between the various sources of information they have found on a particular topic.

That said, not all of the podcasts I listen to are effectively non-fiction; some of my regulars are also artfully composed digests on literature or music. But the thing about podcasts that brings about a kind of fatigue, sometimes, is that they involve choice, specifically the choice to give oneself over to what is effectively another person’s realm, voice, and material. I have to be in the mood for the host’s voice, timbre, diction, and favoured topics.

You could argue that this is just as much the case with radio, but the nice thing about radio is that you tune in and things have just been streaming on without you, you dip into something that’s just going on already, and whatever host is there, whatever piece is playing, you settle in and listen to it: it’s the equivalent of sneaking into a performance room with the lights out, taking a seat at the back, and not having to explain yourself or introduce yourself to anyone. Things just unfold in front of you at their own pace, in their own time, and if you leave, they will continue even if you’re not there to listen to them.

Psychologically, there is something soothing to me in this, and radio, much more so than podcasts, is a medium I love. The fact that I can tune in and tune out and encounter a surprise, is so relaxing. I don’t have to choose whether I’m more in the mood for a podcast on the misuse of apostrophes or an interview with Damien Hirst, whether I’d rather listen to a woman’s take on contemporary slang, or a man’s; I can just tune in and see what’s there.

All this to say the following: my one true love, as far as radio goes, is a station [the Belgian classical station MUSIQ3] that has been in my life since I can remember grasping the concept of radio stations, and being able to differentiate one station from another. It plays in my parents’ house, and now it plays on my laptop whenever I want audio company but don’t want to let one of the usual podcast hosts or Youtubers* into my space. For some reasons, radio hosts (perhaps it’s just this particular station, though) seem less intrusive, simultaneously less rambling and less scripted, and they give more space to what I need: music I didn’t choose, but that someone else (smarter, with better taste, passionate and well-intentioned) chose for ‘me-the-audience’.

Radio is my permission to let someone else decide, to drift along with a programme that isn’t directed specifically towards me and my preferences (inferred from whatever links I may have clicked, or tastes I may have indicated on social media) but exists on its own merit. This all probably sounds too much like I’m asking for permission to like and listen to radio, when a lot of people around me seem to have time only for things that are specifically designed for them, things that will in some way improve them or boost their knowledge, but I like the drifting, leisurely quality of radio, the way it doesn’t want to do anything for me in particular. It lets me listen in, float along with the programme, without pretending to make my life any more productive.

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* Don’t get me wrong, the video essay is one of my favourite contemporary forms, and I love watching, and learning from, those – but sometimes I like tuning in to something for any other purpose than listening in on something.

Quadrat 1 and 2 (Beckett)

Another old favourite, rediscovered this morning.

[“Description: Cloaked, cowled figures wander in patterns to rhythm instruments.” *as well as the rhythmic shuffling of their own feet*]

This piece, more pared down, dare I say, than most of Beckett’s other stage work, opens up [in my mind] an enormous amount of space for reflection on a) choreography b) rhythm c) geometry d) the progressive disappearance of those others we connect to [co-trot with] – and as they one by one walk off stage are we then condemned to persist in our patterns as if the others were still with us rubbing the stage floor with their feet?

[Then, I think about beehives, and about six corners instead of four.]

Be all that as it may. Aside from the existential, it is mainly choreography this piece has made me think about, and I’m someone rapidly made to feel at odds with the unspoken choreography of busy public spaces.

Four

Doodling is often made easier by distractions. If I have something nearby to soften the sharp tones of my mind, starting a doodle is easier, and bridging those moments of suspension where I fall out of the flow becomes easier, those moments when I finish a segment or line and suddenly find myself staring into the blank space where any new line is possible but I don’t know how to choose which one is ‘right’.

Music distracts me from that fear of doing something wrong by creating a rhythm I can let myself fall into. I can follow the music and use it to quiet the thoughts that come up whenever I stop drawing. This, however, does not work with writing, where the distraction of music becomes a distraction from words. Music, in my head, tends to replace words; it becomes a case of either-or.

I was musically trained according to the French system, meaning the notes have names:

Do-Ré-Mi-Fa–Sol-La-Si-Do

And those are the names I hear in my head when notes are being played. Those names push out the sounds of words, distract from these English words that come easily but are nevertheless never completely my own. I have to chase them sometimes, woo them. There is always the possibility they might abandon me.

In some way instrumental music is worse for writing than music with lyrics – if the lyrics are insipid enough I might manage to drown them out for a while. But the notes and their names are something else. They are the first language I learned. They were there when I was a baby, according to my mother even earlier, in the womb, they were there in my parents’ living room, in the kitchen, in music school. They call to me in a different way. They like it when I draw, they don’t when I write. They are jealous of the other language, the one I’ve chosen over them. But they are alright with lines, with colours, those complementary movements, just as they are okay with dance.

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On that day I felt vulnerable, I guess, to the seriousness writing can represent. I wanted to hide, as I often do when doodling, in a nook of my mind where language is not king, where only shapes and movement and music reign. That nook is a silly place, and things in there don’t need to make sense. I’d watched O Brother, Where Art Thou a couple of days earlier, and what stayed with me the most was 1. the music (obviously) and 2. the bright yellow of the grass and trees, anything that should’ve been green, really. I found myself walking through the world for a while colour-correcting it in my mind: mustard yellow grass, orange leaves on silver tree trunks, a bright lavender sky.

In my head, personal jukebox, the lullaby from the film that plays as the Sirens walk out from the stream and seduce Ulysses, Pete and Delmar. The song sung and written by Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Allison Kraus.

I walk around for a few days with that song in my head until I finally sit down, let it pour from my speakers, and start drawing line after line, winding lines, squiggles, until there are enough of them and I start filling them in with as many colours as I can find.

The second to last line from the song has always been the most striking to me, although I am not sure why. There’s something about the words ‘bones’ being laid down on ‘alabaster stones’ that embodies fully the closeness between the kind of sleep called forth by lullabies and the rest of death, both extreme forms of exhaustion that long to drift away in a cooling, safe embrace, the softness of an arm’s flesh, the smoothness of water-polished stone. In Madness, Rack, and Honey. Collected Lectures, Mary Ruefle says this:

And in the best of all possible lives, that beginning and that end are the same: in poem after poem I encountered words that mark the first something made out of language that we hear as children repeated night after night, like a refrain: I love you. I am here with you. Don’t be afraid. Go to sleep now. And I encountered words that mark the last something made out of language that we hope to hear on earth: I love you. You are not alone. Don’t be afraid. Go to sleep now.

[Mary Ruefle – On Beginnings]