The Ifs of Language: the Poetry and the Proofs

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The following is the poetry, the voice-over script by Peter Lyssiotis, to the short film The Ifs of Language. The images above are from the proofs of the book of the same name. 

——–

maybe it’s the words we forget, maybe it’s the sentences we can’t finish that save us

day after day the words they use decay softly, this makes them wise, its makes want to talk again

sometimes over coffee in the kitchen, or while stirring fish soup over a humming gas jet, they begin to accustom themselves to that feeling of tenderness again

language opens up the same wounds as love

everyday all the good words are burnt in a clearing the size of my heart

our joys and our misfortunes are made of the same words

is it silent where the future is? how do you get back those moments words have lost for you? (with words still moist from that other world)

so much depends upon a fresh thought in the middle a frosty red plum

instead of god or the word, the splendour of black

even telephones have lost their voices

words cows words cows words cows words cows words cows words cows

ah, the pleasure of being a word, with other words, in an elegant sentence

why do expect these dry syllable to frame our shapeless worlds?

if we are not the words, can there be a story?

two words, three lies

and always the terrible machinery waits in place

words always arrange themselves to tell the same story, things will change, but words are heretics, and later in the fire, they will deny it all

these words send me aching towards another mistake

beware when an obedient language parts, we can only descend into an empty heaven

a long sentence slouches against the door like an axe with nothing to do

each words a trojan horse

which one of us will be bled to death tonight?

time now for the crying of statues

a man fell in love with the word, but the word didn’t care about him

the man looked for it in a dictionary, a thesaurus, the encyclopaedia, the newspapers, on signs, but the word couldn’t be found anywhere

the man recalled the word meant bird, meant sky, no, it meant homeland, perhaps it meant all these things at once, maybe it came from nowhere and meant nothing

the man can’t remember the word and it won’t let him rest

my father said that when he was young he saw a Greek word leap from the sea heart to the clouds and carry his village with it, but that was when fish were fish, and the the Mediterranean was still a myth

the last word my mother spoke left a small black hole in the air outside her kitchen window, just above the lemon tree…it’s still there

so here I am, a thief, stealing from thieves

——

Peter notes: “William Carlos Williams writes about ‘…the ifs of language…’, which I take to mean the possibilities or the potentials of language, that are beyond dictionary meaning. It’s what’s outside the frame, what is absent that interests Williams.”

Peter also notes this by Antonin Artaud: “This is all that language is good for from now on, a means of going mad, eliminating thought, rupturing; a labyrinth of foolishness, not a dictionary into which certain pedants from the environs of the Seine may channel their spiritual awareness.”

Peter: ‘It is the duty of the reader to take the writer to safety.”

—-

I provided the music and sound design to the film. That music can be heard as part of my album Manoeuvres 1995 – 2005. Liner notes to that album can be read here.

If thought needs words, then they both need proof. This is what language is, a neurosis for reality. And maybe thought needs further proof; in the sound of language, in its music. Music then becomes the sound of thought, its proof.

…the proofs of language.

Manoeuvres 1995-2005 liner notes

Manoeuvres 1995-2005 Cover Art

Manoeuvres 1995-2005 is a collection of recovered movements of a decade. Yet a decade never seems to sit in its limit; it leaks into its future as much as it remakes its past. The music pushes at these signposts like sentences sounding their thinking.

Far from finding relief in an ‘out-take’ genre, it is the setting of a decade’s limits that creates the album. This scaffold gives the compositions a grander scale than they deserve, but also an arrangement they relish. Though conceived years ago, the pieces only now begin to take shape; to cohere in the present like memories still forming. Whether from four-track cassette, eight-track tape, hard drive or cd, stereo mixes or multi-tracks, this music – now caught in an album’s net – does not sit idle, but challenges the present composer to address the musings of that younger one.

Manoeuvres 1995-2005 is a collection of sketches, out takes, film music and alternate mixes, that were recorded between the years 1995 and 2005. At one time or another these pieces were part of proposed albums, but these albums gradually mutated away from their initial themes, rendering the pieces stateless. As a result of this seeming relegation, these pieces lay in the bottom drawer for decades, and only now have found a theme to organize and animate them.

The pieces are like a poems, not simply in the tones of their expression, but in the actions needed to realize them in 2015. If imagined as an operation with words, then some had a word or two altered or included, while a few had a new sentence written. These types of actions emphasize the idea that to create a truth – in this case, the collection of a decade’s worth of varied music into an intelligible whole in the present – one might need to embellish, to alter – to abandon the idea that the original piece has an authentic quality not to be disturbed. This approach allows the music to settle into a time that it pushes and pulls against; past and future simply a manoeuvre of the present.

—-

1  Sixes and Sevens
This stereo mix was the only remnant of a recording session with the bass guitar take, before an irreparable hard drive crash. I am thankful. It is from 2001 and the last of a long line of versions started in 1997. It is an experiment in rhythmic tension between the six-eight and seven-eight parts that resolve into the driving organ and bass lines.

2  Unbound
Painstakingly extracted from a cassette whose hiss had reached wind-like proportions. It dates from 1995 and snapshots my love of backwards guitar and dual basses, that are given expression in the simple beauty of a pentatonic scale. An alternative version was used in the short film The Ifs of Language. There is something about this piece that for me captures a feeling of liberation.

3  The First If
Composed for the 2003 experimental short film The Ifs of Language, with words by Peter Lyssiotis and video by Michael Karris. In that sequence it hints at the melancholia and inabilities of language. The pulses of its five-eight rhythm were used to directly create the staccato melody that hovers with a minimal range of notes.

4  You Could Be Sky
This is a markedly different version of You Are Sky, which predates the one that appears on my 2006 album Fleeting Eternities. In this version the drums and bass are returned, as is the revealed guitar that generates the curtains of texture that drape the piece. I still hear a certain possibility of ecstasy up there.

5  Five Ate My Guitar
I had always intended to make a more sophisticated version of this circa 1996 piece. But its simplicity, the skippy rhythm parts and its lead guitar of stylings signpost a place that I had often wished I had visited more often.

6  Sailing to Nafplion
The third of the compositions used in the The Ifs of Language. It had no title within the film, and given a certain nostalgia in that closing sequence, an urge was created to savour the impossibility and fantasy that its given title now suggests. Nafplion is a coastal town on the eastern Peloponnese where my father was born.

7  Intermoderne
Somewhere in there are the hazy fragments of musical ideas from the 1890s and the 1990s; the interplay between their modernities, between guitar and keyboard, between the slow swing of the drums and the deep sounds of a tape echo machine. It is an edit of two versions decided in this one.

8  Always Known
This is a multitrack remake from 2004 of a 1993 piece. It captures my joy and indulgence as a lead guitarist. The original 1993 guitar solo was a single improvised take, and the attempt to reproduce it in 2004 had me toiling with multiple takes and edits; the broad stroke freedom of the former to the one-hair brush detail of the latter – hoping that the original feeling comes through.

9  Ripple Blanket
Laying dormant as a synth and piano piece until the addition of the whisk guitars. This guitar technique, once relying on the handle of a kitchen whisk, now uses the surface of a metallic pen. When rubbed over the desired note on the guitar neck, it produces a shimmering violin-like sound. It has long been a favourite technique of mine to create slow moving melodies and washes of atmosphere.

10  From This Hill
An alternative version of the closing theme to the 1999 multimedia theatre production The Wound. Work on this version continued after the stage production had finished, to explore parts in the original demo and to drench the melody with as much emotion as possible.

11  Persistence of Paint
An experiment in fixity and release. Its ascending and descending tones run forwards and backwards across a looping beat of five-eight. Detailed post-production allowed it to pass from being a sketch to that befitting the closing manoeuvre on the album.

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Listen to Manoeuvres 1995-2005 here

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Transfusion: Video, Topology, Sisyphus

Still from the video clip to the TJ Eckleberg remix of the Tom Kazas song, Transfusion.

Still from the video clip to the TJ Eckleberg remix of the Tom Kazas song, Transfusion.

Q: ??

A: Interesting you should say that, because working on the video clip to Transfusion -TJ Eckleberg remix brought back some of my curiosity about the links between topology and psychoanalysis. It reminded me that the lyrics to Transfusion are from the time I was making my cinema poem (short-film) the Topologist, that in many ways was trying to explore these connections. In simple terms, topology is study of the folding of space, the preservation of properties of space under transformations. This subject matter can also be imagined as the terrain of unconscious drives and desires; where separated histories and urges can come into connection, or where accepted associations become disconnected, where shape does not have to correspond to content, and where visually, (in a somewhat literal rendering for the Transfusion video clip), a multi-surface multi-angled scene represents such psychoanalytic structure and tension, or torsion, if you will. Loss, not only of present fixed co-ordinates, but of nostalgic co-ordinates and future co-ordinates, requires (and required of me in the making of the Topologist), a new way of seeing the world.

Some of these ideas were expressed via the narrative (or more appropriately the anti-narrative) of my film the Topologist; with its unidentified polyvocal voice-overs, its episodic sequences, and its representation of no ‘real-world’ terrain, that tries to question metaphor. With the video clip to TJ’s remix, all this was able to come together in a new way with the inclusion of the 3D image manipulations I created of a still from the Topologist. These image transformations (as seen in the image above) depict this multi-dimensionality and contrasting orientations, with that tiny figure of the topologist himself present in some of these Escher-like and Dora Maar-like scenes.

I was thrilled that TJ’s remix focussed on the lyrics: “I stepped out of the water, walked in from the weather”, because this couplet condenses the idea of transition from one terrain to another, of transformation from one shape to another that struggles for coherence. It poses an escape from a dense bounded space (in the lyric: a bathtub) to a somewhere-else, from a site of elemental turmoil (in the lyric: the weather) to a new space, that in many ways become equally challenging for the topologist. You see, as experimental as I tried to make the Topologist, that is, with its non-narrative features, the lyrics to the song Transfusion are certainly narrative in form. Namely, they describe a journey over time, where this movement can be plotted and its parts related, intentionally problematic as they made be. Elements of the ‘absurd’ now enter, especially with the sense of the absurd that Camus wrote about in his treatment of the myth of Sisyphus. That book became inextricably linked to my lyrics, that found some form in: “I revel in the burden that’s rolling up and down the hill.” But Camus’ book, the Myth of Sisyphus, deals with so much more. For example, how suicide as a response to the absurd is not an acceptable option; not a somatic suicide, not a psychological suicide, not an abandonment or apathy. But it precisely identifies the need for struggle, for a freedom that only becomes intelligible in the face of the absurd. One begins to see the political in this story.

What became interesting to me were the deeper layers to the character of Sisyphus. Sure, he was given an absurd punishment, but Sisyphus is not simply a criminal, nor a simple criminal. He can be understood as a hero. The Greeks certainly rendered him as such. He was a hero that challenged and disobeyed authority, the Law. He was equated with that other great hero who disobeyed authority, Prometheus. Prometheus was also given an ‘eternal’ punishment, but we celebrate his crime because it becomes the very beginning of humanity; we understand this act as a gift. However, this gift is not just that of fire, (the arts of civilisation), but one of the ‘act of disobedience’ itself. Eric Fromm identifies that civilisation can be understood to have been founded with acts of disobedience. It was this Promethean disobedience that brought civilisation to humanity. In the biblical myth, it was Eve who disobeyed and precipitated the Fall, that allowed humanity to begin. These Western creation myths embody, at their very heart, acts of disobedience. It is not a stretch to see that for society to evolve, at many levels, we need to acknowledge this deeper sense of the role of disobedience. (Fromm is clear to differentiate between the right and wrong kinds of disobedience.) Authority, whether political, economic, patriarchal, theological, cultural, etc, needs to be challenged by humanity for society to exist. For me, this is a crucial insight. Sisyphus, in the hands of Camus, becomes a character that disobeys, rebelling against the absurd of his situation. It is in this act that a deeper sense of emancipation is created; a rupture in the repetition. As Camus writes, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy,” and happiest in this situation. So that if freedom means anything, it means a predicament that necessitates struggle, and so this becomes the definition of happiness. These ideas were irresistible to me, so I had to title my ep, (the one that contains my mix of the song Transfusion), ‘Sisyphus Happy‘.

I won’t go into it here, unless you ask me a question on this, but the other major theme on that ep is the tension between presenting different remodellings of one song on the same ep. (There is yet another version of Transfusion, on this ep, called Revel in the Burden). The ep problematizes ideas of the original versus the copy, of cause and result, and of discovering alternate meaning by juxtaposing these remodelled versions. It comes full circle by trying to equate these songwriting ideas with the Sisyphean moments between ascent and descent.

Trying to make sense of all of this can be seen as an act of transfusion; of absorbing this absurd predicament as a life generating act, even as a therapeutic act. My lyric, “I read words for transfusion” not only references that act of reading Camus’ book, but also that words and language, with their structures (and poststructuralist implications), are a way to allow/restrict movement inside this topological terrain. I have never written many narrative song lyrics, and when I do, they generally start off as word poems, with the poetry of the music arriving much later.

Q: ??

A: …

Shimmering Reverb: Presence and Absence

photo from @EARTH_PICTURES

photo from @EARTH_PICTURES

TJ Eckleberg has devised a clever a method to achieve a shimmering ‘tuned’ reverb. This is detailed in an audio-video demo piece found here.  I can imagine situations where this would work a treat, as it does in his Emm Collins/Celemony example at that post: layering a chord, grabbing only the newly created notes and sending those to the reverb – lush. TJ of course acknowledges the Eno-Lanois ancestry and this effect, but kudos to him for detailing and demoing this method. Surely Celemony can invent an algorithm that encompasses these multiple processes to create a new audio plug-in, that might even be called…Eckleverb.

TJ’s ‘shimmer-verb’ method, by way of contrast, draws our attention to the operation of ‘standard’ reverb. This being that standard reverb is much less ‘tuned’, (dependent of course on the nature of the input source, among other things), or at best is one that achieves a smearing of pitches. It is this ‘un-tuned-ness’ that separates the reverb from the rest of the track, that allows space to be defined. This becomes a rather unique sonic position in the mix, given that everything else in the mix is tuned. (Although, this distinction is not that clear given some sounds, e.g. percussion etc, lack an easily discernible ‘note’.) In any case, if every other element in a track is tuned, a tuned reverb has to then compete in that dense tuned space. I’m not suggesting that such a sound would be unappealing, (quite the opposite), but I want to make the point that this new tuned-reverb becomes subjected to the challenge that all mix engineers encounter, that of trying to clarify and separate elements in a mix. As in TJ’s online demo, the sparser the setting, the more this tuned shimmer-verb becomes a lush and engaging element. However, one could argue that the act of creating this ‘shimmering’ already puts the reverb on the path of separation, away from our finessed and habituated listening to the qualities of standard reverb. Yet, what is of more interest to me is the very nature of all reverb itself, that a shimmer-verb allows us to highlight, that has implications for our sense of presence and absence in a sound world.

Initially, this leads me to think about another way of achieving reverb: the piano-sustain-pedal-method. This is one of my favourite acoustic experiences: press down on a piano’s sustain pedal, then simply shout at the strings. What is heard are the freely resonating strings; some in sympathy with the pitched parts of a shout, and others (I assume) reacting to the pressure waves of air. This shout (the cause), activates the ‘tuned’ piano strings (the result), where the moving air is translated into a tuned response by the piano strings. Ok, an electro-magnetic transducer, (mic or speaker etc), is much more impressive, and what I detail is an obvious (if a little unconventional) analog technique, but it does reveal that individual sounds have tuned components, and that any untuned components can be transduced as pitch. But there is a deeper transduction taking place in the use of reverb in sound production.

The beauty of TJ’s method is that it isolates the tuned-ness of the source, creates new harmonic layers, and shoots those new portions only to a digital reverb. And here is the point: this operations creates a ‘presence of something that is absent’. One transduces an absence into a presence by appealing to space, to a bouncing-back, to reverb. In simple technical terms, what we ultimately hear  in TJ’s demo is the ‘wet’ reverb only (the result). We do not hear the ‘dry’ pitch-shifted signals (the cause), for they are not put into the mix. It is not just the sensual texture of the resulting shimmer-verb that is engaging. For me, this operation creates the strong feeling that something can exist without any clear, direct, (or even conscious) referent or access; that only a remnant of something, in itself often hard to define, becomes present in the soundscape. Like a haunting memory of an event we are unaware of, or even the residue of an event we have never witnessed. It is this psychological effect, or rather the psychoanalytic effect, and certainly the psychoacoustic effect, (in this case more appropriately ‘affect’) that becomes overriding in the creation of a deep and reactive sonic space. A new emotional resonance is created by the predicament of a distinction between presence and absence.

It is this predicament that has always engaged me. The piano piece Berceuse, (from my album Verdigris), offers a rather extreme sonic example of this presence/absence binary, to the point where ‘absence’ becomes the privileged term. In this piece of music, the original cause, the piano, is absent. Only the many treated manipulations of that piano remain, that include variations of shimmering reverbs. A lush orchestral enormity replaces the small singular piano part. In this way, the piano becomes so much more than it could ever be, but only by its removal. To me ‘Berceuse’ is an example of, and clearly suggests that, results of an event can become so much larger and absorbing than the original cause; that features of the result are not present in that cause. Furthermore, it suggests that sometimes the original cause cannot be decoded, or retro-interpreted, from any resultant artefacts. The original cause becomes much less important (or at least much less sonically complex and interesting) than the result, and that only the remnant can take on new proportions and new meaning.

I think that we hear some of this predicament in TJ’s Emm Collins/Celemony demo. I suggest that one is responding to the situation, (consciously or not), whereby the source of this shimmer-verb has no presence in the dry sound world; that it becomes a ghosting from an imaginary event, and that a new and much stronger emotional power is created precisely by this separation, by rendering this distinction audible. One could even remark that this shimmer-verb allows us to hear the ‘potential’ of the lead vocal line, that is only expressed in the ‘actual’ reverb. I, like many others, have always found reverb astounding.

I think I’ll go and shout into my piano.