Week 20 – D.Cheeseman, O.Hagen, R.Trotta – 18-24 May (by Alix Mortimer)

CFTY6MPWEAED2XYThis is week twenty, and once more we are in the white room drinking a sticky drink. This is where the truth/beauty-makers show their pictures and other made-things. You will have seen that AJ has already written about week twenty-one and put it up in its own word-pocket before this one. That’s because sometimes space and time are wavy, dark and confusing, and wind around in ways you would never expect! That’s exactly what the truth-beauty makers of week twenty-one wanted to show us, and also exactly what week twenty is about to show.

But all that is in the not-yet-tomorrow, and this is now. Probably. Today there are black shadows in the white room, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars. There are coloured lights which you can turn on by pressing something several feet away. The big black shadows are like the walls teachers used to write on. One of the black wall shadows is wavy and cut three ways, and on either side of it stand Ole Hagan, a truth/beauty-maker and Dr Roberto Trotta, a student-person who loves space and the stars. They are going to tell us about their different understandings – as a truth/beauty-maker and a student-person – of the all-there-is.

black shadows, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars
black shadows, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars

The thousand most commonly used words in the English language are surprisingly impractical. How often are you called upon to use the words “aunt”, “chairman” and “tomato”? Have you ever “smirked” at the “police”? Does your “dog” have “glass” “eyebrows”? And do we really drink so much more “coffee” than… the other common hot drink? The common words are short on Latinate higher register entries, obviously, but they are also short on conceptual language of any origin. I settled for “wavy” in the passage above and it isn’t doing a very good job – of course I never expected to find  “concertina’d”, even if I did work out how to spell it, but I thought I could rely on “crunched” or “folded” – nope. And hard cheese, or hard white bar of animal-water-food, if you have to count anything that numbers between seven and ten.


Roberto Trotta’s The Edge of the Sky is a book about the universe written in these thousand most commonly used words, and among the words it cannot use is universe, hence “all-there-is”. He gets round the numbers problem with word-sums, and the terminology problem with charming coinages – “star-crowd” for galaxy, “big-seer” for large telescope. But on the basis of my tortuous ten minutes composing the above I imagine his real problem was the lack of common conceptual words. Think of all the words you use to describe any concept – whether in particle physics, art or any other theory field, and you will be struck by how many of them are lumpy old Anglo-Saxon words used metaphorically. Common (but clearly not that common) words used to uncommon purposes. We “crunch” numbers as well as crisps, the universe in some conceptions is “folded up” and so is the ironing board, and all new theories or works “build” on previous ones. And in the biggest metaphorical catch-alls imaginable we talk about the “stuff” the universe is “made of”. In fact, public intellectual discourse is in the grip of a bit of a pride movement with the words “stuff” and “things” right now, and academics below a certain age are right there in it.

CFUcuUzWoAA7gWPAs such, The Edge of the Sky doesn’t actually make its subject matter any simpler. Leaving aside technical jargon which is easily unpicked with a glossary, we use simple words to talk about this big fundamental stuff already, and it’s still difficult. You’d be hard pushed, even in this elegant little book, to find a more pure and childlike coinage than the respectable jargon term “space-time” but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to get my stupid great ape brain round. Trotta describes his special subject, dark matter (both words which make the top ten hundred) as a metaphor for the bits of the universe that… well, frankly, we don’t have a damn clue what they are or what they’re made of. Really most of particle physics reasoning takes place on such a theoretical plain that the whole discussion is made of pure metaphor.

CFxBsGOWYAAyGysAnd what else is made of pure metaphor? Art. Art is as logical a way as any to represent the theoretical realities that particle physics seeks to describe. It certainly lends itself to depicting what dark matter might be. Trotta understands all this, because in the accompanying interview he doesn’t talk about his science communication work in terms of simplifying as such. You can’t simplify this, er, stuff, it’s just complicated. Instead he is concerned with “speaking to people’s hearts”, a subtly different proposition, and this is why he is interested in collaborating with artists.

CFxBpMKXIAAHTWDThis has happy potential, but I feel it all needs to gel a bit more before it can produce anything genuinely collaborative and new. I read the book as a result of going to the exhibition and I think I now understand – in a WTF way – dark matter. So that’s a result. And I liked David Cheeseman’s scrunchy, glittering blackboard sculptures and I understood instinctively that they were post-Newtonian models of the universe and were going to do as well as anything else at helping me conceive of what the universe is. But I didn’t really understand anything from Trotta and Hagan’s performative conversation (see if you can do better here), other than that they like collaborating with people from other fields. The conversation is not itself the exhibit, it’s just the happening that draws your attention to all the ideas underlying the exhibits. And at the moment I think the participants are still figuring out how these ideas fit together and how they can help each other.

CFhWDW3WEAAm6nMThere’s a point in their interview when Cheeseman discusses the parallels between the tools of the most advanced astronomy and physics and the perception-bending props of the magician. And you can hear Trotta demurring slightly, insofar as people of such charm and positivity ever demur. Perhaps this isn’t a useful parallel to him in terms of his mission. He wants to show – and find new ways of showing – what the all-there-is is, with the most direct and simply constructed metaphors he can find (whether made out of words or other artistic media). So maybe metaphors that wilfully introduce further confusion and baggage, like the intersection between science and magic, are unhelpful. On the night Trotta spoke engagingly about the history of particle physics and how the whole enterprise had been conducted for a number of decades in a spirit of “shut up and compute”. The twentieth century was the age of the pointless and sterile science/arts standoff, and the discipline of physics did not entertain the idea of collaborating with philosophy and the arts to find ways of describing reality. The next age of physics may well unfold differently, but only if all cross-field collaborators strip back everything they think they understand about each other and create a very basic new discourse in which to communicate. Possibly this is what Trotta was grasping towards by writing The Edge of the Sky.

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Alix Mortimer writes at https://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/, tweets at @alixmortimer, and has previously written here about Week 7.

Week 28 – Patrick Coyle & Francesco Pedraglio – 13-19 July

Fig-2_28_50_-1Fig-2 is famous for its collaborations. The project itself is a direct collaboration with each week’s artist where the artist and curators work closely to craft a seven-day show. Several of the weeks have also featured two or more featured artists in collaboration, and Week 28 was a collaboration between Patrick Coyle and Francesco Pedraglio. They both do a lot of spoken word performance and their show played brilliantly with interactions and slippages between the physical and the verbal.

Fig-2_28_50_36The studio space was set out in a backwards S shape demarcated by the free-standing panels. On the front of these, Francesco’s black vinyl strips were laid out like mazes. Within the back were disparate objects collected by Patrick. Around the space everything was lilac or purple. Ground acai and acai berries, meths in a Dewars miniature, Winsor and Newton galeria Acrylic (purple), random purple markings, a lilac gas canister, purple cups, purple staining. It’s like Prince had a loft clearout.

Fig-2_28_50_-28Throughout fig-2 we have seen the six skylights of the ICA studio space closed off or opened to light, given colourful gels, and with this week they found a new look. One of the skylights has at some point been stepped on and it’s concave rather than convex, so it’s like a sky pond. Patrick filled it with purple water and put in weird objects, some of which over the week went mouldy, some solidified, some returned to liquid.
11157432_806467892757538_4163445423355068377_oThis is reminiscent of Jacopo Miliani’s Week 16 in which the artist brought in flowers every day but left them without water so over the week they faded away, presenting in physical form an illustration of time, which is such an all-pervasive notion in fig-2 with it’s radically curtailed exhibition times and rigid lengths.

Fig-2_28_50_-29Just as Miliani presented space as a choreographic score, here the studio space contained the raw physical ingredients that would go into the word soup of a half hour performance. The pair took it in turns to ‘read’. Francesco delivered a memorised poem three times, delivered almost slickly, with Patrick reading his speeches about purple, the mating habits of cedillas, the acai, the acaiphabet, the lab goo. All of these things were drawn into a verbal texture during the performance that magically transformed words and ideas into new ones.

Purgatorio de l’inferno is a long poem by Genoese avant-garde poet and playwright Edoardo Sanguineti which is kind of a Marxist response to the Divine Comedy of Dante. Francesco read, retranslated and reinterpreted Sanguineti’s tenth canto, a section I read as a warning to the Damned about materialism.

Fig-2_28_50_-22It is in three short stanzas. In the first we see the cat in boots, the peace of Barcelona, the locomative, the peach blossom, the seahorse, and “if you turn the page, you see the money”. We see Jupiter’s moons, the sun’s journey, the checkerboard, Latin literature, shoes, the school of Athens, butter, a postcard from Finland, the masseter muscle, and childbirth, and “if you turn the page, you see the money.” The last section is ironic: we see the generals with their machine guns, graveyards and graves, savings banks, security, history books full of history, and then when you turn this page, “you see nothing.”

Fig-2_28_50_-13Francesco presented his own translation of this three-part poem three times, each time gathering subtle variations and additions (the Arab Spring, spring break, the first day of spring, as well as socks, pillows, headaches, phone bills, and kebabs after a drunken night) concluding the whole performance with the original Italian. For each thing that Sanguineti’s poem lists, Francesco called it into being through the performance, through the imaginative act of saying it into being. The vinyl strips on the walls reconfigured themselves into signifiers that represented like a new language, a neologism, the signifieds of the poem.

Fig-2_28_50_-25By the act of naming, objects are charged with symbolic value. Francesco used the tape as well as red window blinds, lightbulbs, stones, in each case claiming that they represented the postcard from Finland, or the peach blossom or the Peace of Barcelona. This is magical. Literally the essence of magic. The magician tells us that the assistant has been cut in half and we are prepared to accept it, to countenance a new reality imaginatively.

Fig-2_28_50_-26Similarly, we take on trust the signification of words during translation, that this means that. There’s every possibility we could be misled, as happens in the Hungarian Phrasebook Sketch where a prank language book misleads Hungarians. But if we so chose we could accept these alternative meanings, that “My hovercraft is full of eels” is a way of asking for a box of matches. This is literally how codes and cyphers work, by agreed renegotiation of signification.

Fig-2_28_50_-8Francesco stresses that his translation of Sanguineti’s poem is “unofficial”. This underlines the doubt about what is being transmitted, and the possibility of transforming it into something else, perhaps not intended. He could be giving us an accurate translation or he could be giving us a hovercraft full of eels. He is certainly taking a line on the wall for a ride round the poem, so how do we trust language? If we turn the page, is there money, or nothing?

Adam naming things in the Garden of Eden, Francesco redefining the line, Patrick beginning by asking if anyone can “do me a purple” was all part of a performative tapestry of re-appropriation and resignification too. It demonstrates the arbitrariness of signification. The magical realism of bringing objects into being by naming them, the imaginative act in which we are complicit every time we accept that the invisible surroundings portrayed by a mime, or the invisible interlocutor of a stand-up comedian up there on the stage.

Fig-2_28_50_-23Are they there or not there? In Week 18 we went into metaphor, the saying that this is that which occurs with the knowledge that this is not literally that, but our minds accept it for the purpose of comparison or instruction. The show is therefore all about the process of definition and signification, the hypnotic elixir of language that drugs us with its heady excesses of meanings.

Fig-2_28_50_-30The week’s Sipsmith gin cocktail was called the LIQUID HYPNOTIC ELIXIR and it involved orange, sloe gin, and, crucially, acai. The acai is purple. The acaiphabet is a secret cypher invented by Patrick, which is unknown to anyone else and encoded by arrangements of acai berries. This private language is another example of special verbalisation seemingly intended to manifest the non-verbal communications of plants that happens through their strange mating habits involving seeds and berries. Patrick admits good-humouredly that in curatorial terms this idea didn’t go much beyond apparently spelling out the artists’ names on the wall, but it fits into the themes of definition, communication and signification.

Fig-2_28_50_-4Patrick described the life cycle of the cicada, burrowing soon after birth into the earth and staying there, only emerging to mate and having mated dying. The funny little diacritical mark the cedilla, usually found under the c in words like Haçienda, can be found clinging limpet-like under the s in fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek’s name.  It is also found in the unfamiliar Açaí palm but not usually in the familiar Acai berry, the popular purple superfruit.

Having described the life cycle of the cicada, Patrick explained that, in contrast, cedillas live in the sky and burrow into clouds, emerging to mate; the winged cedillas attach to certain letters and once they deliver their seed they die a critic (diacritic). The young hatch and make their way through the artist guide, digging in with their strong legs to feed off “excess of egress”.

Fig-2_28_50_-31Excess of egress wasn’t to be found in the beautiful part of the installation that was a video of some viscous purple “Lab goo” being poured into a purple cup. This weird substance has the consistency of the melty terminator in Terminator 2 and won’t quite be poured into the cup but bounces back and forth without quite being poured. This is a wonderful thing to behold and in the performance brought Patrick to lilt poetically “lapping the side, lapping the side! slapping the thigh! lapping the side! shimmering bright – slapping the side! touching the left, lapping the side, lapping the side” – I thought I misheard all of this as “lapping the side” which amused me all the more, assuming it was “slapping” but it was actually “lapping” after all. Part of the show’s pleasure in wordplay delighted in such imaginative slippages as can take place between “the side” and “acai” and ICA.

The performance concluded with Patrick at the piano, and the song began with a reprise of “lapping the side” which you can listen to and enjoy via this here widget. It’s my favourite song. Cedillas sing it as part of their mating ritual.


POSTSCRIPT: The one week of this duo show was curiously dominated by threes. We had this in Week 17 where Charlotte Moth presented The Story of a Different Thought – “a bird with three eyes, three versions of the same name, three versions of a story”. It’s hard to say if this multiplication of threes could be said to be another theme weaving in and out of fig-2 or just a thing we have as a culture about threes, from at least Plato onwards if not earlier. Three’s company.

Week 21 – The Rot of the Stars – 25-31 May

CGHQHSTW8AAo7Kd“Rot of the stars” is one name given to ‘star jelly’ – the gelatinous substance found on grass and branches that folklore records as having been deposited by meteor showers or shooting stars or formed from the inedible bits of frogs and toads. Whether it’s bird vomit or extra-terrestrial star-slubber, it’s a fascinating example of a substance whose explanation seems to elude science.

“Rot of the Stars” is also the name of Week 21/50 of fig-2’s collaboration between visual and performance artist Jo Fisher Roberts and experimental musician, Strange Attractor founder and writer Mark O Pilkington. We met Mark back in Week 14 when he led a ‘world tarot’ reading using Suzanne Trister’s HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck which seemed to accurately predict the outcome of the UK election.

Fig-2_Rot_of_the_Stars_21_50_-install-12He’s a far out guy, and their fig-2 installation was pretty cosmic. The ICA studio space was set out with the minimum of light. In the corner a crawl-in fungal mycelium, a space like Shelob’s Lair hung with strands of silky crap that left you picking star jelly out of your clothes and hair. Hung charcoal drawings depicted cell structures at once beautiful and grotesque, depicting scales at once infinitely small and infinitely large.

CGP4_3EU8AE99oMThe performance itself was commendably weird, involving Jo draped in black crawling around a silk wigwam in the middle of the completely darkened performance space, splashing perfume and drawing a large circle around it with rock salt. Mark created feedback loops of sound that he manipulated electronically. A peculiar revery was set up by the strangeness and the darkness.

The handout at the show was a 1991 paper published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration Conditions That Appear to Favor Extrasensory Interactions Between Homo Sapiens and Microbes” (C.M. Pleass & N. Dean Dey). The authors attempted to study the possibility of extrasensory interactions between humans and unicellular microbes (actual ones, I don’t mean Daily Mail readers) through three series’ of experiments, concluding that it didn’t work but going on to blame science for not usefully understanding anomalous phenomena.

The Society for Scientific Exploration is “a professional scientific society” that publishes “peer reviewed research” into unconventional subjects including “consciousness, physics, alternative energy, healing”, that sort of thing. Crypto-zoology and that fun mindbending Fortean stuff. I’m sure they’re awesome but I must admit their name rings the same alarm bells as when you hear of a “Democratic Republic of…” – a moniker that instantly alerts one to the absence of any democratic republicanism in that country. Scientific exploration, that’s a methodology rather than an object in itself, unless your object is to apply scientific methodology to subjects that stubbornly resist such approaches. Arguably this is what Freud did in ‘making scientific’ the study of the unconscious, but we have been less successful in studying ghosts and UFOs.

CFeSmE0WIAANnLXThe ostensible purpose of the fig-2 show was to make an attempt to enter into an extrasensory interaction with the unicellular microbes that inhabit the plastisphere, an ecosystem inhabited by more than 1,000 species of bacteria and algae that have evolved to live on microplastic debris. This might even have been a serious attempt, given the precedent of the apparently serious experiments of the Society for Scientific Exploration.

As they explain in their interview with fig-2 curator Fatos Ustek, the idea of Jo and Mark’s collaboration and the Rot Of The Stars performances is to change your perceptions of space and time through plunging you into darkness. The ROTS performances chart an ongoing battle to black out spaces, in crypts under churches, in the Royal Academy, in studios in Berlin. They concede it would be easier to blindfold people rather than the space.

I can offer two experimental cases to illustrate the sensory deprivation in an art or entertainment context. Back in 2011 I attended “an evening of psychodramatic music” called “Disturbia”. The concert concluded with Luciano Berio’s long two-track tape piece Visage (1961), during which the audience was blindfolded with eye-masks. Something about sitting in an auditorium without the hallucinations of the imagination, the little flickers that think you see in darkness, demonstrated that sensory deprivation is not necessarily immersive and can be a bit boring.

_67505602_not-i-allan-titmussBetter was seeing Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s short play Not I for which the theatre actually switched off the Exit signs to present the spectacle of a disembodied mouth in otherwise almost complete darkness. The actor’s face was painted black with just the mouth showing, and the mouth seemed to move within the darkness, but this was an optical illusion: the actor was strapped in. A strange phenomenon and a unique theatrical experience.

Fig-2_Rot_of_the_Stars_21_50_-install-5In the Pleass/Dey paper they suggest (though can’t prove) that “the environment which an individual perceives may be a manifestation of their conscious and subconscious expectations”  which might give a clue as to why ROTS attempt to upset your perceptions. If the attempt to communicate with microbes is to be successful it might require stripping away other noise from the senses: to take away quotidian sense stimuli and replace them with suggestive images, sounds and smells to channel thought toward the object.

Maybe the illusions are more real than reality; in an atomic sense Lisa Dwan’s mouth speaking Beckett’s lines in the pitch black really was moving around. Our brains have to smooth out what we perceive because otherwise we’d go mad. What we experience as reality is in reality a simplification of noise.

CF7dFrgUMAAZnnBThere is plenty of anecdotal record of sensory deprivation as sensory immersion as sensory overload as sensory awareness, and its expressive and communicative potentiality. Jo and Mark connect it with the experience of epilepsy, and Dostoevsky describes the “amazing God-like God-visiting overwhelming feeling of connectedness to everything” that comes during an attack. It is at such moments that people go on about alpha waves and beta waves and how we move into different scales and non-rational modes of being. Out of body experiences would count among these, and the feeling that sometimes goes along with that (maybe while on drugs, who knows) of being able to talk to God.

Can we talk to the (micro)animals? We’d better hope that we can get in touch with these new microbes and try to chivvy them along to get stuck in and start eating up this plastisphere and turning it into something delicious. Plankton are eating plastic, meaning we are all eating plastic too, which is not delicious so much as incredibly toxic and harmful.

We need to literally sort out our shit as a species. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost bigger than Ed Sheeran, already six times the size of mainland Britain, a black hole of plastic waste sucking in hope, and growing, filling the sea, a continent of chemical disaster just below the surface of the water, a thick desert of death. Reports of sailing through it are pretty harrowing, and soon, when the sea finally congeals into Hello Kitty, there will be a place in history for the first person to walk on foot from San Francisco to Hawaii.


Week 18 – Kathryn Elkin – 4-11 May – The Elephants In The Room

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)
  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)
  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)
  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)
  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Death is love’s final form. The sexual climax, la petite mort, is the rehearsal. To die for love, what could be more beautiful? Silence, please.

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)

The fig-2 project is generating a huge amount of new work. Most of its weekly shows have been created specifically for fig-2 by the commissioned artists. For Week 18/50 Kathryn Elkin presented “The Elephants in the Room” documenting her collaboration with cellist Okkyung Lee. They spent a day in the studio working through the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The 22-minute film audio contained one complete solo cello take extemporised from the Mahler material, with the video taken from the conversations and experiments leading up to the take. In the fig-2 studio space the film was augmented by two performances entitled Mud, in which the artist and three volunteers read Elkin’s transcriptions of things she had said during the collaborative process: cringey, halting, nascent, funny moments.


A style of modernistic fragmentation is often used and abused to represent cognition in action, and there’s plenty of sub-Beckett around as a result. Until I listened to her interview with fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek I didn’t realize the words were a transcription. It feels better to know that it was verbatim, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Perhaps I missed this because I’d been volunteered to be the third reader on the Sunday performance, so I was probably trying not to trip over the furniture, so to speak. The words have a music of their own that correlates with the deconstructive, reconstructive, improvisatory opacities of the music itself:

10351658_813880422016285_101759427499973172_nWell what I ummmmmmm
well what I propose
at this piece of music
together and
I thought that it would be tooooooooo

To explain what I think her title “The Elephants In The Room” means, we are going to have to go on a musical journey through Mahler’s Fifth and Beethoven’s Sixth, try to solve the mystery of the “Immortal Beloved”, think about the difference between composition and improvisation, and finally consider Bernstein’s lectures on ‘musical semantics’ and what happens when we listen to and think about music.


  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has five movements. The fourth, the Adagietto, is famous as the theme to Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, as well as for having been conducted by Leonard Bernstein during a memorial to John F. Kennedy. These associations can make it seem all about death and mourning, but really it about love, written for his wife Alma Schindler, who claimed that Mahler left a small poem that may be understood to be the ‘words’ to this “love song without words”:

Mahler-5AdagiettoGIFbijgesneden“Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.”

(How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing and love.)

Mahler’s Fifth is the first of the central trilogy of works that abandon the use of voices and poetic texts, which were an important part of the previous four symphonies, whereas the fifth, sixth, and seventh, are thought of as ‘pure’ orchestral works. But how pure? Kelly Dean Hansen argues that it has “an inner programme” even if this programme is not explicit. The fifth in particular might be considered ‘transitional’ if we were to infer that the vocal elements of the earlier four might have existed in some sketch way before being transformed or cut – making the fifth less of a ‘pure orchestral work’ at least at the stage of composition. The existence of the poem to Alma and the fact that scholars have ‘reconstructed’ the song (see image) makes a strong case for but its absence from the symphony calls into question how much we can say that its attached resonances relating to Alma make it ‘about love’, just as how much as the listener’s associations of it with Death in Venice and John F. Kennedy make it ‘about death’.

In a nod to Beethoven’s ninth Mahler’s fifth has been called the “Funeral March to Joy” – it opens with a funeral march trumpet call followed by the orchestra’s opening which uses the same rhythmic motif from the start of Beethoven’s fifth. If Mahler’s fifth could therefore be said to be haunted by Beethoven’s, pity him the ninth. The ‘curse of the ninth’ is a common superstition among symphonic composers, because Beethoven never started a tenth. It affected Mahler to the extent that after his eighth his next three major symphonic works were each unperformed when he died. There’s an eighth-and-a-halfth Das Lied Von Den Erde which is a symphony disguised as a song cycle, then the actual Ninth and then a Tenth. Though perhaps he was right about the curse of the ninth – this tenth was thought incomplete until 1960 when the complete short score was discovered.

It’s understandable. From 1907 Mahler had been living under the shadow of death from a heart ailment, which did in turn lead to his death from a blood infection in May 1911, just eight months after conducting the first performance of his eighth. The Moebius strip of associated meanings is completed by our knowledge that the character of Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice was actually based on Mahler. Mann’s Aschenbach was a writer, but when Visconti adapted the novella for the screen, he made Aschenbach a composer, who not only looks like Mahler but whose death is soundtracked by the Mahler Adagietto.


  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)

While Kathryn Elkin was researching Mahler and Visconti her neighbour was playing Beethoven until 2am every night. The music was affecting her and fed into her thoughts about extra-musical meaning and musical semantics surrounding the Adagietto and Death In Venice.

Just as Mahler’s poem to Alma might be considered an extra-musical layer of meaning, there is similar speculation in Beethoven’s oeuvre. We’ll discuss the programmatic elements of his Sixth Symphony later, but let’s take a little scherzo into the matter of the “Immortal Beloved”.

Countess Josephine von Brunsvik might be considered the most important woman in Beethoven’s life. There’s little evidence of his having loved any other, and he wrote at least fifteen letters to her in which he called her his “only beloved” . She died in 1821, aged 42. During this year, Beethoven composed his very last Piano Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111, which are like requiems, with discernible reminiscences to the earlier Andante favori Josephine’s Theme“.

In Teplitz on 6/7 July 1812 Beethoven wrote a love letter that he didn’t send. The location and date of the letter were only established by scholars in the 1950s and it is addressed to an unknown recipient whom he refers to as “Immortal Beloved”.

Beethoven scholarship has a puzzling resistance to the most logical theories, and knowledge about Beethoven and his “Only Beloved” Justine was somehow suppressed for 150 years. There is still stuff coming out. In cases of cover-ups, there’s usually an elephant in the room, and so we find. Justine and he had separated two years before but it is possible that they met again at the time of the “Immortal Beloved” letters; the suppression of the Justine theory may be because almost exactly nine months later she gave birth to her seventh child.

According to her diary entries in June 1812 Josephine intended to go to Prague. At this stage, however, her and her sister Therese’s diaries end abruptly and do not continue until about two months later. Meanwhile, Beethoven traveled to Teplitz via Prague, where, on 3 July 1812, he must have met a woman he subsequently called his Immortal Beloved.

Steblin writes in 2007 “All of the puzzling aspects about Beethoven’s affair with the ‘Immortal Beloved,’ including his various cryptic comments, can be explained in terms of his one known beloved – Josephine. Why do we doubt his word that there was only one woman who had captured his heart?” The most recent decade of European scholarship seems to have been ignored in America, and the mystery remains unsolved.


  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)

Okkyung Lee’s music was developed through improvisation with loose instructions from Kathryn Elkin and the impetus of the Mahler score. The video doesn’t show her playing the ‘final’ take, which we hear, and we only see them working toward it. It’s somehow both improvised and composed. What is the difference? Chris Dobrian’s essay “Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation” draws the following conclusions:

  1. Composition is written. Improvisation is not.
  2. Improvisation takes place in real time. Composition does not.
  3. Improvisation is often a group activity. Composition is rarely a group activity.

The act of making a recording in a studio produces a ‘final form’ – so you could argue that the improvising musician is a composer as much as the traditional composer putting black notes down on paper. But improvisation isn’t quite the same as composition. It foregrounds the circumstances of creation at the expense of composition in a more formal sense.

By including the discussions she had with Okkyung, Elkins makes the video’s accompanying performance piece ‘Mud’ centrally about itself, about the process of creating and transforming meanings. Ordinarily we would not be party to all the thoughts or discussions that went into the creation of a work, but here they are presented as part of the work itself. These are transcribed, so in a sense the work is as much documentary as artistic, though the art comes with the selection and chopping and reordering of these thoughts, leading up to Elkin’s explanation of why the work is going to be called ‘Mud’. Just as Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu concludes with the author, another Aschenbach type character in both life and art, just setting off on the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu.

  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Elkin’s fig-2 show was crucially informed by Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on musical semantics, in which he frames musical meaning-making in the context of Chomskian structural linguistics. Bernstein argues that “music has intrinsic meanings of its own which are not to be confused with specific feelings or moods, and certainly not with pictorial impressions or stories. These intrinsic meanings are generated by a constant stream of metaphors which are all forms of poetic transformations.”

Artistotle puts metaphor mid-way between the unintelligible and the commonplace – it is metaphor which most produces knowledge. In metaphor an imaginative leap occurs in which ‘this’ is said to be ‘that’. Bernstein gives the example of “Juliet is the sun” We know she isn’t literally, but we understand that something has been expressed that might be inexpressible. This is how music conveys meaning and enables us to experience ‘this’ and/as ‘that’ at once like no other art form does. When music expresses something by recourse to individual feeling we feel “passion, glory, misty, something”. But we can’t report our precise feelings in scientific forms, only subjectively. Our descriptions of music vary wildly. One listener hears a sunset, another a bird. Similarly, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger Theme to several generations of listeners, just as the Mahler Adagietto is the theme from Visconti’s Death In Venice.

Regarding this associative personal dimension, Bernstein asks if there a transference of affect from the composer to the notes to the listener? “Did Beethoven feel like that or did I make it up? Or had the feelings been transferred? We’ll never know. The probability is that both are true.” This gives music a beautiful semantic ambiguity. It possesses the power of an expressivity that we can respond to, but it is a metalanguage that can “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable”.

Bernstein demonstrates the ways in which music communicates specifically musical meaning by analogy to metaphor, demonstrating rhetorical tropes, figures of speech, that he can find in music that are transformed in the Chomskyan sense to produce meaning. Anaphora, the repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, he finds right there in Mahler’s Fifth. (He even explores chiasmus, which I wrote about at some length in Week 17). Music is constantly transformative of material and it is here rather than in our subjectivity that he challenges us to find the  the ‘meanings of music’.

To illustrate this, Bernstein takes us in some detail through Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which bears a great deal of ‘extra-musical’ material. It is subtitled ‘Pastorale’ and each movement has yet another title. This is distracting enough if you’re trying to concentrate on the music as music, but Beethoven even adds bird calls and village bands and lightning and thunder, making the work as close to program music as he ever came. Bernstein asks if it’s possible to clarify between intrinsic and extrinsic metaphors. Is it possible to listen to it as pure music?

Beethoven’s subtitles are perhaps “suggestions” with the music not meant to be interpreted as “tone painting” but those extra-musical references are there and are hard to ignore, just as it’s hard to forget about Aschenbach or William Tell or the Immortal Beloved. They form a visual curtain of nonmusical ideas that interposes between the music and the listener. Bernstein at the conclusion of his lecture presents us with the challenge of ridding ourselves of all this rustic ‘Pastorale’ material and hearing the music as music. The Sixth is an extraordinary catalogue of variations of transformed elements of the first four bars, which are a simple bass motif in the chords F and C which forms a motto of whole symphony, just as the immortal opening bars of the Fifth underpin it and are similarly transformed throughout.

10846196_813547002049627_3720868295181635872_nThis explanation that the meaningfulness of music lies in its musical transformations chimes with Okkyung Lee’s development of the Mahler material and her radically transforming it. The experimental cellist’s use of improvisation and fractured syntax and modernistic harmonies and language takes it away from the familiar world of Death In Venice but it is not methodologically differently in what Beethoven does, or what Mahler has already done in the original Adagietto in transforming the basic material in the course of the piece. Those are mahler’s transformations, these are Okkyung Lee’s, not to mention Kathryn Elkin’s as a de facto co-composer, with the listener’s own semantic contribution by recourse to our subjective listening act.

“While I count to five, try not to think of an elephant” says Bernstein at the end of the lecture. It’s a classic thought paradox: as soon as you try not to think about something you are necessarily thinking about it. He asks that we abandon all extra-musical material (the programmatic elements) and just listen to music as transformations.

Katryn_Elkin_Fig2_17_50_-11The title of Kathryn Elkin’s week at Fig-2 “The Elephants In The Room” is nowhere explained, which might make it itself another ‘elephant in the room’ in addition to those I’ve outlined. I take it that the title comes from Bernstein’s lectures, and have used it to try and explore the presences and absences that go into how we find and transmit meaning through music (and indeed any art form). Bernstein concedes “I doubt that anyone succeeded in avoiding the elephant”. But next time you hear Mahler’s Adagietto, the one from Death In Venice, try Bernstein’s experiment: see if you can avoid the elephant.

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Bernstein lectures on musical semantics, different ways of translating musical ideas in terms of linguistics etc: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unanswered_Question_%28lecture_series%29

Musical phonology https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntmTQ8J7m5Y
Musical syntax https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlaeEJ6ASJw
Musical semantics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V82aqyG1k5M
The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7nVMx7zrk
The Xxth Crisishttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAuDrnkN080
The Poetry of Earth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=034GXOyVbjg