swimming in (tempered) light

I’ve been scolded before, about leaving my books on the windowsill, exposed to the sunlight.

But, really, the windowsill-dwelling books are coping well. Because, one, sunlight is relatively rare. And, two, the layers of grime on my windows (composed of billions of car-exhaust-fumes-particles)  undoubtedly function as a high-protection UV filter.

Books-and-(tempered)- light obviously remain one of my favourite photo-subjects, especially now that I am testing a new camera. One that should be better at capturing the “aquatic” quality of indirect late afternoon light. 
Books swimming in light. And me in my element. 
That's worth a double exposure! 

About (not) putting music into words


Lovers  of art history books  of course know the exquisite sensation of reading insightful words that match the pictorial evidence.  The exhilarating interplay of seeing and understanding.  Describing paintings, there’s a whole  body of literary texts and poems devoted to it , and a venerable word to consecrate the habit:   ekphrasis.
And how about describing what we hear?  For sure, there are lovely poems built entirely around  onomatopoeia’s.  And language is sound of course.  Clattering rain – thundering thunder – twittering birds (1).   So yes, obviously,  we can describe what we hear – but can we describe music? 
While in art history there is a well established, long standing relationship between evocative descriptions on the one hand and the visual  arts on the other , this seems  less so in the history of music where descriptions tend to be either technical (and reserved for the musically initiated) or limited to the review of a performance. (2)

Descriptions of works of visual art  are both very precise and very imaginative, immediately conjuring up a scene or an image while also evoking emotional and philosophical meanings & associations. 
But a description in words that effectively evokes a piece of music for the non-initiated?  Well, there are the CD-sleeve notes that give a  blow-by-blow account of the musical progression in terms of instruments, motives, rhythm, melody – sometimes mixed with indications of “emotional” pitch.(3)  And yes, there may be program music where even an accompanying story can be told.  

 However, in musical history there seems  to be no equivalent (at lease not on the same scale) of  the formidable tradition of  "written-out art history", be it in the form of those innumerable “Ecrits sur l’art”  (by many a  poetically inspired writer or artist), or as libraries full of lavishly illustrated and copiously written art history books. 

A quick Google search yielded an interesting article (“Some Thoughts Towards a Theory of Musical Ekphrasis “ ) about Musical Ekphrasis, but tellingly enough it dealt not with  the poetic  description of pieces of music, but rather with the opposite question, i.e. whether music can describe scenes.(4)

Moved to silence  

Perhaps music is indeed too abstract and “springing from [...] depths of the human psyche” that are too deep to fathom?(4)  Maybe we should really follow “Einstein’s summary advice” about Bach’s music (and about music in general) :  listen, play, love , revere – and keep your trap shut” (5) .  

Luckily,  John Eliot Gardiner, for one,  did not shut up but wrote a wonderful  600+ pages book on Bach.  With insights and formulations that nearly belie the impossibility of describing music.  How well he does justice to the intricate evidence of Bach’s music itself: its mystifying complexity, sure,  but also its “rhythmical elasticity and buoyancy”, its dancing qualities, its empathy and emotional depth, “so full of poignant emotion that we are moved to the very core of our being “. 

Each of us has experienced the shattering effect music can have,  musical reception is highly subjective and the sheer depth of the accompanying emotions could make us (us = uninitiated but sensitive souls)  believe that we each  have some personal,  special insight in “the truth” of the music. This is most likely not the case, the emotion may very well be  not at all relevant to the composer’s aims, let alone to other musiclovers, it is a secret garden not to be shared. (6) 

So, not being a distinguished musical connoisseur, I shall hereby “shut my trap” – and finish with Auden’s words (7)

All the others translate: the painter sketches
A visible world to love or reject;
Rummaging into his living, the poet fetches
The images out that hurt and connect.
From Life to Art by painstaking adaption
Relying on us to cover the rift;
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is an absolute gift.

Pour out your presence, O delight, cascading
The falls of the knee and the weirs of the spine,
Our climate of silence and doubt invading;
You, alone, alone, O imaginary song,
Are unable to say an existence is wrong,
And pour out your forgiveness like a wine.”

Non-musical notes

1) Word-examples inspired by the impressive electrical storm we had here at noon : first an oppressive stillness, then a bang and a flash, heaven’s floodgates opened, and the rain started pouring down: first aggressively clattering, then turning into a soothingly purring noise.  And soon a few courageous birds started signing again, while the first  sirens started wailing ( a medley of car alarms and fire engines).

2) of course there are many many reviews, of concerts, of CD's, songs and tunes , both classical and pop/contemporary - , just as there are private testimonials/love declarations to certain pieces of music : but they are not an imaginative, literary genre in their own right 

3)   There’s an  app from Touch Press editions that offers a “multi-media” guide to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Quite impressive – while the music plays you can follow the progress on the score, you get to see the instruments taking their turns to perform, and there’s a continuous written comment running on what exactly is happening. All very instructive and insightful – but not qualifying as ekphrasis ... 


As I understand it, what must be present in every case of ekphrasis is a three-tiered structure of reality and its artistic transformation:
A.      a scene or story--fictitious or real,
B.      a  representation of that scene or story in visual form (a painting or drawing, photograph, carving, or sculpture (or, for that matter, in film or dance; in any mode that reaches us primarily through our visual perception), and
C.      a rendering of that representation in poetic language.

The poetic rendering can and should do more than merely describe the visual image. Characteristically, it evokes interpretations or additional layers of meaning, changes the viewers' focus, or guides our eyes towards details and contexts we might otherwise overlook. Correspondingly, what must be present in every case of what I will refer to as "the musical equivalent to ekphrasis" is 
  A.      a scene or story--fictitious or real,
   B.      its representation in a visual or a verbal text, and
   C.      a rendering of that representation in musical language.

5) John Eliot Gardiner – Music in the Castle of Heaven   http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/30/music-castle-heaven-js-bach-john-eliot-gardiner

6)    Gardiner has this lovely habit of not only having copious references at the end of the book , but also plenty of illuminating quotes at the bottom of the page (it’s surely not an accident that he refers to Walter Benjamin’s  constellations), such as this one by Peter Williams: “ The exquisite world of imagination opened up by any powerful music is itself problematic, for it tempts listeners to put into words the feelings it arouses in them and so to visualize a composer’s priorities and even personality. There must be few people who have played, sung, listened to or written about Bach’s music who do not feel they have a special understanding of him, a private connection, unique to themselves, but ultimately coming from their idea of what music is and does. This might be quite different from the composer’s “

7)  Trust WH Auden to write as insightfully about paintings (Le Musée des Beaux Arts) as he does about music (The Composer).  

This is Belgium! We don't do terrorist attacks!

Where were you when four people were shot at the Jewish Museum in Brussels

Not that far away, on a peaceful terrace, near the Soignies forest at the outskirts of Brussels.  
Utterly unaware of what was happening in the centre of town, reinvigorated by a walk in the woods , I sat there in the sun, sipping a glass of wine.  Alternating between reading (a book about the disastrous chain of events that led to WWI) and quarrelling with C. about  the Sunday elections.  

C. was making fun of my weeks- long fretting about how to vote, as if a single vote made any difference.  This had me arguing that every vote counted and that people had bravely battled for universal suffrage (Belgian women acquired the full right to vote only in 1948). But this principled democratic zeal of mine did not resolve my voting-dilemma  : not a single party-programme could entirely convince me.  Right-wing too right-wing, left-wing too left-wing, and centre-parties too fuzzily in the centre.   And why do politics always have to be so polemical? One interest group pitched against the other.  Can’t we all strive to work for the “greater common good”?   But then, of course, how could we ever objectively determine  what that greater common good is.  Perhaps the Chinese central committee thinks it can?

 But hey, tomorrow was another day. Nothing like a good night’s sleep to find electoral illumination. And staying far from internet and news services. Just listening to Bach sonatas to purify the mind and the senses.

So the next day, still utterly unaware of what had happened,  I cycled to the nearby voting office  – where everything went on as usual, in the jovial and slightly jocular atmosphere which always surrounds elections in Belgium. I had reached a decision too, proportionally (&selectively) doling out my votes.  I had no less than 4 votes to give away,  thanks to the complicated Belgian voting-system applicable to a Dutch speaking person in Brussels:  votes for the Brussels region, for Flemish community-issues, for the Belgian parliament and then of course for the European  parliament.  Whom did I vote for?  At anay rate, not for any excessively barking politicians neither for  any nationalists (those two categories  tend to overlap) . 

And then one does turn  on the internet to get the latest news. “Four people shot at the Jewish Museum. Three dead, one critically  wounded “ .  It’s a nice museum, with small but always carefully selected exhibitions. Without much visible security measures, no metal detectors or so. After all, this is Belgium!  We don’t do that kind of violence!  We don’t do terrorism!  (apart from some home-grown shady communist cells in the 80s.)
So please let this be an isolated act of a lone crazy gun man.  There are so many nationalities, races and religions living in Brussels – peacefully and without any trouble so far.  So please let this remain an isolated act.  Let us continue to have barking politicians instead of violent gunmen. And now I ‘m going to look where I can get flowers to lay at the doorstep of the Jewish Museum.      

a reluctant car passenger's praise

Train travel does suit me better - the rhythm of the wheels, the wheezing feeling of tracks, the excitement of the stations, ...

 In cars I get sick (unless drugged), the noise gives me a headache (the travel sickness pills too) and I'm usually bored because I can't read (which would set my eyes and stomach swimming) and because I can't get up and take a walk if I want to. (I'm indeed a dreadful passenger, either nagging or else cloaked in suffering silence).

And yet, there's one visual aspect regarding which I do concede that cars are superior to trains: as a front seat car passenger you get a full frontal view with a marvelously continuously moving vanishing point.  (I'm a dangerous passenger, too. Brandishing my camera and blocking the driver's view into the side mirror). 

tragedy or farce?

Joyous Brass Music in a Luscious Park

Nothing like a brass band melody wafting through a sunlit park, to stir memory and desire.  It was a jazzy melody, invigorating but mixed with languorous notes of regret.  I was supposed to get back to the office, having already used up the allotted lunch break time for a book-buying spree ahead of the Easter Weekend.  But the music was irresistible, luring me on, up a little hill, where,  half hidden in the lush spring green, a band was playing. Putting down my  satchel filled with books, I sat down on one of the sun-dappled benches, looking at the podium. 
And what a sight it was!  Neatly dressed in their burgundy red uniforms, the band members blended wonderfully into their elegant surroundings:  a splendid  19th C bandstand, built of  cast iron and wood.  The  conductor, vigorously leading on her troops, stood out visually too – her glaring white shirt contrasting with wavy red hair.

The audience on the benches was an accidental hotchpotch – office workers eating their lunch in the park, tourists consulting maps, elderly people resting, kids plotting their next exploits – but they all looked enchanted, tapping their feet, clapping appreciatively at the end of each tune.

Now, dear blog reader, don’t be fooled by the music and the greenery – rest assured, this blog has not succumbed to the frivolous entertainments of Spring!   To know what’s really on the mind of a Flâneur : look rather to the books she’s carrying... And that satchel, thrown  down so nonchalantly on the bench,  contained  quite some ominous titles: “The War That Ended Peace, How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War”. “The Sleepwalkers, How Europe went to War in 1914”. Literature to complement other recent readings such as “De Groote Oorlog”,  “The Price Of Glory, Verdun 1916”. (1)

 And the above evocation of joyous brass music in a luscious park?  It resonates suspiciously with  Stefan Zweig’s description of a peaceful summer day,  June 29th 1914, in his desperate autobiography "The World of Yesterday"  :  a happy and carefree crowd is promenading to the sound of music in the Spa park of Baden. The band  abruptly stops playing, a communiqué about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand has just been pinned up on the bandstand...

Ravages and Myths

C. was off sailing for the weekend,  so I could freely indulge in my customary sombre Easter reflections. And with the commemorations of the first World War in full swing, I didn’t lack books nor exhibitions to further nourish my native pessimistic assessment of human nature & history.  

Take for instance the Louvain exhibition, Ravage.  It not only documents the destruction of the historical university town of Louvain by vengeful German soldiers in August 1914: killing civilians, setting fire to  houses and churches, and burning down the world-famous library with 200.000 precious books going up in flames. The exhibition also evokes the fate of other martyred cities, across the ages, both mythical and real: Troy, Dresden, Beirut, ... 

The exhibition further shows how generations of artists tried to make sense of this eternally recurring destruction and suffering.  Versed as our scientific age is in evolutionary biology we know that spiteful behaviour such as harming non-kin is just one of the human strategies to raise the proportion of related genes. 
But we also know it is a costly strategy -  calling forth revenge and counter attacks – a strategy which in the end proves to be non-rational and sub-optimal, harming all those involved. (eg 10 million dead across the belligerent parties  in WWI)
But perhaps our scientific age is not that much better at making sense of war & wanton destruction than previous generations, who took recourse to myths.   Do not those allegories featuring fickle deities tell stories as revealing as the scientific accounts of selfish genes and game theory ?  

Like the allegory (2) of Mars, the God of War - killing, maiming, trampling the arts - being held back (in vain or temporarily at best)  by Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom, or by Venus, Goddess of Love.
Or take Charles Le Brun, court painter of Louis IV, who dared to depict his king torn between Mars and Minerva: on the one side a magnificent chariot - the image of  military glory - on the other side a stark desolate landscape with desperate war victims.  Louis IV usually chose Mars (and inter alia reduced Brussels to rubble in 1695). 

And what do myths tell us about coping with the ravages of war? Venerable bible stories tell us to not stand still in horrified stupor, to not look back, to not mourn all that is lost.  Rather they advise us to turn our back to the past, to get drunk, to rejoice and reproduce.  This at least seems to be the message of the bible story about Lot and his daughters (3) who escape the destruction of Sodom and who get merrily drunk while Lot’s wife, on the other hand, is turned into a pillar of salt because  she turned back to watch and grieve over the city being destroyed.

Riding a Tandem Bike in a (previously) Ravaged City

Louvain is a thriving university town now, long rebuilt,  and boasting a prosperous, young population.   One of whose representatives managed to get a brooding flâneur joyously participating in a tandem bike race.  I was indeed approached by a young woman about to get married, who needed help for one of the playful tests invented by her marriage witnesses. She solicited passers-by to help bring seven tandem bikes from point A to B.  It was great fun - try taking a sharp turn with something as unwieldy as a tandem!

But back to July  1914:  “And in Le Coq, the little seaside resort near Ostend [...] the mood was equally carefree. Visitors enjoying their holiday lay on the beach in brightly coloured tents or bathed in the sea , the children flew kites, young people  danced outside the cafés [...].All imaginable nations were gathered companionably there.
After all, we had had these diplomatic conflicts for years, and they were always satisfactorily settled at the last moment before anything really serious happened. So why not this time too?” (4)

Surely our diplomats have learned the lessons of the past? Surely Ukraine will get sorted out? Surely Poetin is merely flexing muscles?  And isn’t  Syria a long way off?  (No photos of ravaged Homs or Aleppo at the Louvain exhibition , but they did get duly mentioned in the catalogue introduction. )

I may well have become too defeatist...  Though I do agree that “optimism is a moral duty”.  And isn’t  humanity advancing towards less violence and suffering?  Well, perhaps. But this advance then is marked by many regressions indeed.


  “[...] it is a sight quite unfit...even for the most ordinary but honest man to see the human race advancing over a period of time towards virtue, and then quickly relapsing the whole way back into vice and misery. It may perhaps be moving and instructive to watch such a drama for a while ; but the curtain must eventually descend. For in the long run, it becomes a farce. And even if the actors do not tire of it – for they are fools – the spectator does, for any single act will be enough for him if he can reasonably conclude from it that the never-ending play will be of eternal sameness. “ (5)

Notes shored against the ruins
1   1)   WWI books respectively written by: Margaret MacMillan, Christopher Clark, Sophie DeSchaepdrijver, Alistair Horne
2   2) " Ravage, Kunst en Cultuur in tijden van conflict" – Hoofdstuk “Een Allegorie” – Koenraad Brosens, Goedele Pulinx
3   3)    A shuddering note of bible exegesis about Lot and his daughters, a horrendous tale really : having escaped from the fire, Lot’s wife turned into a column of salt, beholding from a distance Sodom&Gomorra’s hellish demise.  Lot himself and his daughters walked merrily on, accompanied by angels.  At night,  Lot gets drunk and incestuously proposes to  his daughters.  The old testament story quite repulsively presents this  as “blameless  Job being seduced by his scheming daughters” .
4   4)      Stefan Zweig:  “The World of Yesterday”   
5   5)      From Kant’s political writings (as cited in Hannah Arendt Lectures on Kant’s political philosophy)