Amor fati/ Frigor mortis

Programme note 1 Dec 2006English

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Contextual note
This text was written for the programme of 'Raum' by Dieter Roelstraete.
Why is it that we “love” death like we do, and why do we desire it? Why do we long for the Great Beyond that will silence all? Perhaps the answer is precisely here – in the promise of (deathlike) silence, in the refuge of absence. Why do we like the desert, and the forbidding expanses of arctic whiteness?
Those are the classic questions that riddle the enigma of masochism – a very important concept.

“We forge our bodies in the fire of our will”. [I cannot bring myself to disclose the provenance of this wonderful quote, but it is no less wonderful for it.]
Yet we also steel our bodies in the icy cold of our determination to transcend the fiery tempers of this will. There is a painting by Fernand Khnopff in a museum in Brussels that is called “En écoutant Schumann” (a composer who perhaps seems far removed from the Spartan sonic regime of Morton Feldman, who has been Marc Vanrunxt’s musical compagnon de route for a number of years now); it is a monument to music’s spellbinding powers of absorption. In tune (sic) with Khnopff’s own décadent leanings, this drama of absorption has a decidedly morbid quality: the crouching listener’s desire to “disappear” or dissolve into the sheer experience of Music – she shields her face from the viewer’s penetrating, voyeuristic look, a monumental lump of blackness not unlike James McNeill Whistler’s Mother – presages the abyss of Thanatos, the originary “death drive”. Khnopff’s painting symbolizes music’s powers of dissolution, that is, music’s own relentless march of “progress” towards a terrible void and certain death. [It takes a trained eye to discern, all the way in the upper left corner of the painting, the bodiless arm of the piano player.]

Piet Mondrian once said: “I enjoyed painting flowers, not bouquets, but a single flower at a time, in order that I might better express its plastic structure”. [While Christian Wolff held that “eventually everything becomes melody”. Are these observations in any way connected?]
This makes me better understand (though not condone – but who cares?) the obsession with loneliness and isolation in so much of Marc Vanrunxt’s work. I have been going to see his pieces for years now, and yes indeed, I’m starting to find this obsession frankly depressing. Perhaps this is the whole point, I don’t know – and maybe I don’t want to know. For one, I don’t want to be lonely – and I don’t want the spectacle of loneliness. Why do these cold and upright flowers (“performers”) continue to skim past each other without so much as a rustling of the leaves brushing against one another? To better express the plastic structure of the performer as monad – of “flower-ness”.

We enter a forlorn and barren Raum devoid of love, longing or desire, like the Platonic realm of ideas perhaps. [Never a good idea.] The bouquet (the gathering of flowers, the sensuous entanglement of their leaves, lobes and stems in a single container), by contrast, is a voluptuous proposition, a paean to erotic life and to the ecstacy of communion; bodies that touch do so for a reason – for the sake of lack, want and will. Desire is the most basic fact of existence; conversely, the subjugation of desire signals the triumph of death, of non-being. One of the great mysteries of human existence, therefore, is how and why we desire this very subjugation. Why do we desire our own oppression? Why do we marvel at this spectacle of alienation?
Perhaps the association of sound with architecture (as a corollary of the continuity of space and time) is overrated; in any case, it has given rise to much dreary discourse. [If symphonies are “cathedrals of sound”, what then would be a “shopping-mall of sound”?] Music makes space, because music itself is made of the clever uses of time – those very same uses-as-choices our bodies are faced with making, when they go out into the world to measure it.

What “happens”, in fact and effect, in the music of Morton Feldman? Nothing much: in it, the drama of eventlessness takes place – and this is something the western ear (or mind, for that matter) has great difficulty in accustoming itself to, because the western mind is particularly obsessed, one could argue, by the event; by that which emerges suddenly, by itself, without prior warning – and imposes (or, better still, forces) itself upon us as a fate larger than life. “Something happens”, something takes place, and the world will never be the same again; this is how history happens, and history is the overriding phantasm of our culture. However, there are no such events in the music of Morton Feldman, which is governed instead by the mighty, droning voice of sameness and stasis. If ever a music was space – a “divine order” marries music to the visual from times immemorial – it is Feldman’s, for what is space but the coagulation and solidification of time, the freezing of movement? Space does not belong to the order of the event, for in space “nothing happens”, and space itself does not “happen” (“take place”) either – it is always already there, and will forever remain after everything has happened.
There is no progress, no development, only time – at a standstill.
This is not to say there is no motion (movement, momentum) in the music of Morton Feldman; this music moves to bridge the gap between space and time – it is thus engaged in an act of building, it is an “architectural” project.
But what good, ultimately, is all this movement? [I ask you.] Why do we want to “get on with it” anyway? There are many great quotables in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, but there is one that certainly stands out above all, in the great man’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”: “The aim of all life is death.”