Friday, July 13, 2007

"It's A Beautiful Night..."

"What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence."
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Been a bit distracted the last few days (by what?), didn’t get round to writing about it, but I finally saw Scott Walker: 30 Century Man last Saturday. Very good in terms of the footage it got – marvellous stuff from the studio during the recording of The Drift – but really got on my wick at the start: the usual correlation of Walker with the Orphic myth, the poet descending to the underworld. The media perspective of Scott swings between the two extremes – the ‘isn’t that weird?’ Mojo/Word view, relying on novelty value; and, on the other hand, the fawning, hyper-academic Wire viewpoint, in which the technical verities of the music become the sole salient point. Both completely miss the point of Walker’s late music, focusing on the avant-garde elements: his work is, really, an extension of the torch song tradition, only one where the music has changed to meet the demands of the Song. Just as in the torch song, the words cannot be translated as just the author’s viewpoint, correlating the authorial and narratorial ‘I’; if that were the case, the great singers like Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald would be wrecks (we won’t mention Billy Holiday) – songs are transposed from singer to singer, the singer merely provides the voice to articulate the sentiments. As Walker himself says, it is "just a man singing" – working on the same axis as Sam Beckett and Morton Feldman, at the difficult and paradoxical task of producing "lessness", of making silence. (He could also be compared to the Hungarian poet Janos Pilinszky, who had a similar time-to-output ratio: six books in 34 years, many of the later poems being little more than couplets.)

On The Drift, silence plays an important part, becoming the space from which the voice emerges, at times fraught and stiff like a rabbit from its hole; sometimes, as at the end of ‘Jessie’, an operatic soaring from the void: "Alive/I’m the/only/one/left/alive." Interestingly, there seems to be little of this supposed ‘real’ silences on the record: even when there is no visible (?) musical activity, a background hum of electronics or manipulated guitar marks out the music, gives it presence, preventing the listener from ignoring it – a technique used by Gyorgy Kurtag, the ‘Mr K’ whom he thanks in a note to ‘The Escape’ (who was also a fan of Beckett, and made a number of pieces based on his texts.) The avant-garde flourishes – such as the, um, unorthodox percussion used on ‘Clara’ (the notorious side of pork) and ‘Cue’ (the BIG BOX, captured in all its glory on the film), or the use of atonal string drones - serve the song rather than the other way around; he has to go out to the edge of musical expression – severing the connection between instruments, preventing ‘groove’ (co-conspirator Peter Walsh remarks in the film that during the recording of Climate Of Hunter "the melody remained a closely-guarded secret"; the musicians are not given ‘click tracks’ or guide vocals), abstracting instruments away from their usual sounds, textures and playing mode – because he goes out to the edge of linguistic expression – among those in the no-man’s-land occupied by Celan, Beckett, Blanchot, Emil Cioran (to a certain extent), Pilinszky, Sarah Kane, Harold Pinter (in his decent days), the cracked prophets in Iain Sinclair’s Conductors Of Chaos anthology (especially Brian Catling), where the entropy grows so great, the signal so weak, on the threshold between life and death, between where nothing is worth saying and where nothing ever can be said anymore.

I don’t pretend to know what large amounts of Tilt or The Drift mean, and I suspect that the excavation of every line would require the usual ‘a thousand geeks at a thousand typewriters’ trick (or as it’s better known, the Internet). It’s also, perhaps, just better to leave it as it is: the outward mystery at the core of a lot of Walker’s work is far more compelling than the easily-explicable works of a hundred songwriters, just like the enormous hole in his public biography (between about 1969, with Scott IV and 1978, with Nite Flights) is more interesting than most (and also prevents crass ‘biographical’ readings of his work.) The references one can catch – to Kabbala, Elvis’ twin brother Jessie, Adolf Eichmann (on ‘The Cockfighter’ from Tilt), the Srebrenica massacre – and the bits of what sounds like musical method acting – the ‘pow, pow’ on ‘Jessie’, the wailing voices on ‘Hand Me Ups’, the Donald Duck impression on ‘The Escape’ – meld together in an almost mystic, obliquely appropriate way; he’s going beyond the usual bounds of language, almost beyond what can be spoken, what can be made into music, groping for words where he can get them (music hall songs, ‘I Wish I Was In Dixie’), abstracting songs into collections of drones and sounds. As The Drift progresses toward the end, the characters seem to get weaker and more fragmented, like Beckett’s Malone, until, on ‘A Lover Loves’, it’s just spare guitar, a tiny, broken voice, that conspiratorial hissing; bittersweetly, only at death is "everything/within reach."

It’s easy to see why Walker seems to carry the image of a reclusive genius, a kind of sonic monk: he’s much more talkative in the interviews than you’d expect, especially when chatting about getting drunk with Playboy bunnies in the Sixties, but it’s apparent he’s really uneasy talking about his work; hesitating, fidgeting, trying, shaking with intensity as he answers; you suspect he never quite succeeds in explaining himself to satisfaction, that the latter-day work is as oblique to him as it is to many listeners. By contrast, in the performance footage of ‘Rosary’ he looks almost possessed, neck muscles jumping out; it’s as if he has no connection with the song, apart from putting together the parts – he says that he’s unable to force the creative process, that "You have to let it come to you"; a shamanistic channelling (of which we can see parallels in Ian Curtis), an auto-critique of the metaphysics of presence, a text without an author, a collage of voices detached from context, without origins. "Just a man singing." In that sense it makes it very difficult to write about, because the textual elements elude all the usual constraints and organising principles of writing, making the usual techniques of analysis and explanation redundant. (The film tried to get around this by supplying abstract visuals to accompany them, or have shots of people – well, David Bowie – listening to the records.) If there’s no permanence in the text, no author to speak of, no identity from which the words emerge, then the words are simply floating free, trickling down the pages of the CD booklets like concrete poetry. It’s at this point we start to overlap with the territory of Blanchot and Derrida: speaking the unspeakable, voices speaking out of silence, and going back to silence. In that sense, both Walker and the post-structuralists were children of Kafka, who, as Mark K-Punk notes, writes about "not a world of metaphysical grandstanding but a seedy, cramped burrow"; there’s a distinct sense of claustrophobia in the texts, paradoxes and difficulties, mortality, desolation and disease, the sheer awkwardness, the difficulty of material being, hemming you in; there’s something ineluctable, something neither you nor the voice can get past; an abandonment of the pretense of explicability, of the belief that words can really explain anything. The film ends happily - with Walker et. al fantasising about 'the next album' (whenever that's going to happen) - but it still felt like an anti-climax. It's idiotic to assume that 'explanations' could be found in a documentary, but it would still have been good: simply drawing attention to the oeuvre wasn't enough, as far as I'm concerned. I was simply left with the Grant Gee photos of Walker, rendered into static, the music from 'Face On Breast' playing over the titles as I left. Despite everything, you still have the urge to look for explanations, to try and grasp, to try and see behind that image. But it's irreducible. Silent.


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