saudade


The Philharmonia, conducted by Esa Pekka Salonen at Birmingham Symphony Hall, Friday 27th February 2009

So great is the size of orchestra and choir required to do justice to Schoenberg’s late Romantic epic that it is performed very rarely in its entirety. My school took a small party of students to see the Gurrelieder. This was a huge privilege: perhaps the only time in my life I will see this oratorio, I was also lucky to see Salonen conduct. Like the wood-dove herself, Salonen almost seemed to take off as he led the music. Was he lifting the orchestra or was the orchestra lifting him? Birdlike, always, at the close of the piece he held up his left hand as though cupping the essence of the Gurrelieder in his palm. Thanks to him, the great wave of songs rose and fell exactly as they should: extravagant, lush, precise and clear. A phalanx of musicians left the ground with him and landed again flawlessly. He, the orchestra, the choir, and the soloists had ballon; musicians, they were dancers too. Below is a short account of the work they performed.

Waldemar, Schoenberg’s lover-king protagonist in the Gurrelieder, opens the piece with an image of stillness:

Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton

Von Meer und Land.

‘Now dusk mutes every sound / on land and sea.’ Schoenberg’s oceanic final voyage into Romanticism, with its titanic orchestration,  unfolds from the day’s end, from silence. From nothing and from shadows this oratorio takes us on a journey to a castle (Gurre), where Waldemar visits his lover Tove. After the pair are reunited, the songs take us to darker places:  Tove dies at the hands of Waldemar’s vengeful wife, and, from there, Waldemar  journeys through the afterlife, rising from the dead with his vassals to go in search of his murdered lover.  No fulfillment, no happiness returns us to the peace we experience in those opening lines. Schoenberg’s theme  is longing or saudade, as the Portuguese would have it, and it is this saudade that gives the Gurrelieder its explosive drive. We glimpse rest and peace in the incipit, and every note that follows pulses with a desire for the peace of  ‘Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung jeden Ton.’ What doesn’t move creates movement.

From stillness, two choirs, two timpanists, a celeste, vast woodwind and string sections, four concert harps–even two piccolos–produce such a ‘call-note’ of longing that audience members feel obliterated by it. Hearing it, we are dislodged beautifully but violently from ourselves. ‘Holla’ sing the male voice choir in unison in part three as they hunt through the forest. The chase is on through the darkness to first light. Evening and morning, the last day.

‘You’ve made a blog…Clever boy! Next: flushing.’

Don Paterson

Blog. Such an unattractive word, along with its unlovely sister, blogroll, but perhaps appropriate enough for the secretions that make their way onto many websites. Blogs range from the quirky and literate to the downright loopy– why are so many religious fundamentalists dedicated bloggers? Perhaps the blog offers a kind of virtual pulpit for creationists and other types of religious eejit, a pulpit where crackpot ideas are more often affirmed than challenged.  As a ‘blogger’ (ugh, I wish those scare quotes were a pair of tweezers) I wish that the name for writing one’s thoughts down in the form of an electronic essay, available for the public to read on demand, had been better chosen. The French do it more elegantly, or they are trying to: the boys on the burning deck of  the Académie Française want the French to call blogs ‘jouebs’ whilst their French-Canadian camarades prefer ‘blogue.’ (1) The Canadian option is suave, the French is naughty and intellectual–it sounds as though it was invented by the shade of Roland Barthes, fascinated in the afterlife by le plaisir de la toile, the pleasure of the net–‘joueb’ being short for ‘un journal web.’ At least with with ‘joueb’ there are playful connotations (jouer) rather than scatalogical ones.

‘Joueb’ is a word I’m tempted to adopt here not least because it chimes with the serious play I wanted to be in evidence on The Casket. When I began, I did not imagine that this would be the kind of web log of events and feelings, the boring blogtease in evidence on so many sites. Instead, I wanted a more formal version of a writer’s notebook. The Casket is a room for improvised observations; for ‘working without really doing it,’ as Elizabeth Bishop once described letter-writing; or, for the bonsai or capsule essay. I wanted it to be the sort of place where William Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson and the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century essayists might want to kick their shoes off and sit down, alongside– in conversation and play with–other modern idlers, punks and thinking wastrels. Guy Garvey has a chinwag with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; John Keats plays pingpong with Nick Cave; that sort of thing.

That’s the Dream bit. The reality of writing here is always tempered by that toile of readers, and the ways in which you suspect you are being read. WordPress provide the blogger with stats, raw data, which give an insight into possible clusters of interest: the fans of Dude Lebowski often stumble here because of my Clive James piece, which happens to mention him; college kids, I guess, writing about F Scott Fitzgerald, stop by to read my comments on Tender is the Night. Nick Cave fans, Leonard Cohen fans drop in for some duende. But most readers are text-tourists, looking for something else. Search terms tell me that what they are looking for is often information about ‘people in caskets’ or ‘dreams of dead people in caskets’ or ‘images of virile beautiful men’ (that will be the Rufus Sewell essay I wrote when I first started). Occasionally, I now get searches directed at ‘Casket of Dreams’ itself, which is flattering, but generally, most Casketeers arrive here in some kind of hurry; possibly bewildered, but always wanting the answer to a question.

On the whole, I’m glad they do show up. This despite the fact that the feedback they leave is seldom edifying. Comments by readers are usually pretty useless:  the flatterers  usually want you to visit their joueb in return; the nitpickers are equally self-important (‘How dare you assert that The Arctic Monkeys are talented self-publicists?’  with best wishes from their manager, etc). Yet how long do my visitors stay, and what do they flick through, what consider? My stats cannot, thankfully, tell me that. Still, whether you are looking for images of the dead in caskets, or whether you want to think about saudade or negative capability, you’re welcome. F. Scott Fitzgerald is sobering up next door in in time for the final of scriptwriters’ pingpong, where he meets William Faulkner in the Hollywood grudge match of the century. Mark Rothko is talking primitivism and abstraction with Elizabeth Bishop over a glass of grog by the fire. So stop awhile. Put your feet up. The weather is drawing in, and in any case, there is plenty we have to catch up on.

(1)http://www.petiteanglaise.com/archives/2004/11/08/french-blogging-vocab/

‘The term [dude] is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant […] manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness.’ Scott F. Kiesling  (1)

‘Meestah Cliiiiiiive Yaaaaames.’ With those feather boa tones, Margarita Pracatan used to introduce Clive James on his television show some years back. Like a good many of my friends in sixth form, my first introduction to James was watching Clive James on Television. My friends and I tuned in, not so much for the international TV clips, but for what he used to say about them. Later, after his defection to the BBC, I used to make a point of watching Margarita, Vitaly Vitalyev, P. J. O’ Rourke and others being coaxed into giving up the very best of their wit to a T.V. audience by the outrageously twinkly Australian. James wasn’t so much a TV presenter as a cultivator of personalities. He nurtured his guests like an expert gardener might lovingly provide the right conditions in which some rare, delicate orchid could flower. Back in the sixth-form common room, during ‘frees’ when when we should have been writing essays on Hamlet, we would discuss the previous week’s guests and TV clips, laugh over the best jokes and feel a little bit more intelligent as we retold them, even though we couldn’t hope to imitate the composure of Mr James’s delivery. Clive James, my friends and I thought, was a dude.

‘Dude’ is, at first sight, a grossly inappropriate word to apply to someone who, as long as I can remember, has been cuddly and decidedly avuncular. ‘Dude’ is a word that seems to belong in Bill and Ted  or The Big Lebowski. It is a word that acts as punctuation in the speech of Bart Simpson. It doesn’t, at first glance, fit the meta-articulate James at all. But I mean the word in two very particular senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘street’ way of expressing admiration for a person, and in particular, their masculinity. The kids I teach often use the word in this way, boys sometimes greeting each other with ‘Yo! Dude!’ It’s a way for boys to say ‘I love you’ to their male friends without the other kids questioning their sexuality. The kind of masculinity these kids admire, however, is ‘gangsta.’ James’s masculinity couldn’t be more different. His wit is powerful but never violent, affectionate and yet unsentimental and undeceived. He’s a ‘dude’ not because of his swagger (he couldn’t swagger if he tried) but because of his genius for camaraderie and the seemingly effortless grace with which he writes and speaks. He is also a ‘dude’ because he is able to speak of everything from ‘the street’ up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and beyond. Recently, his unmissable Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ show encompassed Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, but he can write just as movingly on Auden or Roland Barthes.

Above: ‘Dude’ Lebowski being…a dude.

James’s Protean intellect makes him a dude in a much more archaic sense too. A dude was originally a New York aesthete, possessed of certain fastidious and refined sensibilities, a lover of beauty and truth. James’s whole career has been a defense of this old-fashioned worldview, but with one critical difference from the aesthetes of old: they were fond of championing art for art’s sake. James loves art for life’s sake. For him, to borrow from Blake, ‘everything that lives is holy.’

But Keatsian? Like ‘dude’ this is an honorary title, but perhaps even more of an apparently unlikely appellation. Or so it seems, unless you’ve had the chance to make more than a superficial acquaintance with the life and works of the early-nineteenth century poet. Keats had a reputation until relatively recently for being a rather fey, dreamy, wistful type. In the popular imagination he was rather feminine. (3) But as recent scholarship (most notably Nicholas Roe’s) has shown, Keats is tougher and far more politically engaged than was previously thought. Keats’s problem was his image. His was what he termed a ‘poetical character,’ delighting in whatever persona he created. He himself felt he was a thing of nothing. His friends (among them, Shelley) and enemies alike couldn’t bear this slipperiness and nothingness of spirit and tried to cast him as ‘piss-a-bed’ poet (Byron) or the wan and wounded Adonais (Shelley). Anything but that ‘poetical character’ Keats felt himself to be.

Clive James hasn’t had the extremes of critical response endured by Keats; he’s not consumptive; and has proven himself magnificently capable of avoiding early death.  However, I’d like to suggest a couple of gentle affinities. James is a little marginalised these days, the default Keatsian position (why isn’t he on BBC4 and ITV simultaneously,  being at once erudite and populist as is his gift?). In addition, his writing has a ‘poetical character’ to it: his TV criticism, his essays, his poems, his comic ‘to camera’ pieces, reveal a delight in Iagos and Imogens alike– all of that work fed by the Keatsian wellspring of permanent, discreet melancholy, beating in every measured word. ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’: surely James’s whole poetical identity (if he has an identity) feeds on the marrow of this axiom.(4)

 Benjamin Haydon’s sketch of Keats for Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.

 

 

1) American Speech, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 281-305.
http://www.pitt.edu/~kiesling/dude/dude.html

2) Watch James in Clive James on Television and listen with nostalgia for the intelligence and humour with which he dissects ‘Captain Power’ and the singing kiddy evangelists:  http://youtube.com/watch?v=eXf4ZtYsSWg

(3) Given my earlier comments on Rufus Sewell and ‘feminine’ masculinity, I also have a secret soft spot for this Keats, the Keats whom Byron accused of perpetually ‘frigging his imagination’ in verse. Nicholas Roe’s book is John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.

(4) James’s own website has a splendid selection of prose, poetry, audio, video work by James and people whose work he admires. www.clivejames.com

The Dirty Three are an unholy and a holy trinity: Warren Ellis, Mick Turner, Jim White have played together under this name since the mid nineties. Ellis is also a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and all three have played with an impressive number of highly respected artists such as PJ Harvey, Cat Power and Bonny Prince Billy. What’s in The Dirty Three’s rather splendid name? Are they a band of outlaws ? Musically, yes. Are they dirty like the Dubliners and the Pogues were dirty? Well, in a way: the Three’s dirt and that of their folk cousins is the dirt of raw emotion, whatever that may be–eighty percent proof, musical poteen. Their dirt is also the dirt of sex. Most music is designed to seduce, to lead up to sex. The Dirty Three, however, create music which is sex itself–sex and the post-coital come-down; abandon and melancholy, orgasm and after.

But what of this ‘after’ state, this melancholy? In actual fact, the Three also give us not just dirt but dust. There is a sense when you listen to an extraordinary album like Cinder that you are hearing a dissolve into death. The melodies (for the most part the band do not use words) hardly seem to be there at all. Their music doesn’t beat you into submission but soaks into you, patterned like ocean currents. As someone who loves singing to herself but who doesn’t perform and who has little or no technical knowledge of music, I can at least get a sense of how daring and experimental, how difficult and extraordinary these melodies are, by trying to sing them. As soon as I think I have understood a tune, I realise it slips away from me. The Dity Three’s music controls you, you do not control it.

And this is where the deity bit comes in–Orpheus to be exact. When you hear Ellis on violin or mandolin you realise the truth of those Greek myths in which Orpheus charms and spellbinds the humans, the plants, the animals into a kind of ecstatic sadness. Sadness (Saudade) here is medicinal. The frenzy of human activity, what Wordsworth called ‘getting and spending,’ is suspended as you listen.

Byron thought of Robert Burns as a rare combination of ‘half dirt, half deity.’ Rare indeed is the ability of musicians to be both of these things at once: outlaw and angel, fugitive and present.

Call a singer a ‘crooner’ these days and you don’t exactly appear to be giving them a compliment. ‘Crooner’ seems somehow to be the opposite of ‘rock’n’roll.’ Crooners are smooth, unruffled creatures of some bygone era: think of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr, Bing Crosby. You can’t easily mosh to ‘Volare,’ ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Isle of Capri.’ If punk is all pogo and piledriving, crooning is a fondle well-nigh horizontal. At odds with the times, it’s not designed for mp3 listening (you have to really listen to and feel the quiet bits–turning up the volume in your headphones as you pass the mechanical digger and the ambulance with its siren on won’t aid your appreciation of the music) and it don’t look good on the modern dancefloor. Why then, does crooning have such a bad press? Is it really a synonym for sentimental slop? Perhaps, if your name is  ‘Tony the Rat-Pack style Wedding Singer.’ But take a look at the etymology and there’s the beating heart of the word: ‘to sing in a subdued tone and reflective or sentimental style.’ Crooning, in other words, is singing that thinks, acts as a pure mirror, reflects back emotion. More than that, the word’s origin is ‘probably from Dutch cronen to lament,’ (Chambers Dictionary). And so we return again to duende, saudade; the great sadness that reaches up through modern masters like Richard Hawley and Nick Cave. A synonym for ‘croon’? Perhaps ‘ache,’ perhaps ‘grownup lullaby.’