Music and Silence Part I

Yes, I do realise that music and silence seem mutually exclusive, BUT it is possible (consider John Cage’s “4,33” for example). In Vasilii Grossman’s writing for example music leads to deep silent contemplation (see Krymov in Life and Fate). Silence has been a very popular point of literary and philosophical analysis over the past decades. For me the interest lies in its relationship to trauma, and its almost unchallenged status. In trauma studies silence marks an impossibility of responding to the overwhelming nature of the experience. Silence however, does not necessarily mean an absence of something, silence can be very charged and full of meaning.

One such instance that I particularly love and admire is the silence in the iconic Soviet spy-series “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (or Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii vesny). (big leap I know, but it only struck me recently how silent the film is) This miniseries is something that every Russian knows of and has seen. I remember its theme as a constant melancholy background in my childhood that made me wonder who this Shtirlitz is and what happened in those dark days of World War II. My father’s absolute love for the series also made me think that there must be something utterly exquisite about it. I also found that he was strikingly alike my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to meet but whose albums I used to spend hours looking through, seeing photos of him in his uniform on various marine missions. (My favourite one was a picture of him holding a huge bunch of bananas, now that was exotic!) It is only recently that I managed to watch the entire series and see the scene that everyone I know says is one of the most powerful cinematic moments. It is heart-breaking. The whole series is full of silence as Shtirlitz is a spy and thus carries an unspeakable secret; silence is at the centre of the story. In this scene however, Shtirlitz meets his wife in a cafe and cannot speak to her, due to the fact that he is a spy and cannot have any contact with his family. The two sit and look at each other across the room, like true “star-crossed lovers”. It is a very powerful scene that is made all the more moving due to the emotive and beautiful music that accompanies the scene. The music oddly highlights the silence in the scene. I also find it quite curious how the cafe in which they meet is called Elephant, and although there is no saying in Russian, there is one in English about “the elephant in the room”. So, it may only make sense to the English, but there is definitely an elephant in the room in this scene that creates the silence. Enjoy…

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Narrating History

To continue on the theme of music…

I have been thinking a lot about how history is depicted and embraced by creative narratives. History informs many novels. Sometimes it is a backdrop and other times it is the very subject of the novel. As shown in the previous post, it can also be a subject of music, or an inspiration in music. Creativity does not happen in a vacuum but is a direct response to experience or knowledge. Our present becomes the future’s history and therefore responding to it may be rather complex. Does one make it personal or general, could it be both? How exactly does one depict events that are horrific or even traumatic? And how does one respond to events without becoming too dogmatic and judgemental but at the same time respond to them from a moral position? The recent investigations into the riots in London attempt to understand or explain history as it is happening. Perhaps, we are hoping to understand the present so as to make sure it will be remembered in a certain way, that it will fit in with some kind of a master narrative of Britain’s “lost decade”.

I believe that sometimes creativity allows for a different kind of memory. This year PJ Harvey was the first woman to win the Mercury Prize for a second time. I listened to her album before this was announced and I was very pleased to see something rather difficult being recognized as an outstanding contribution. By difficult I mean that the subject of the record is difficult, rather than than the music itself. Harvey deals with the darkest aspects of our present lives in sometimes rather horrific depictions. I was listening to the album on my way to the Grossman events in Oxford in September and the words: “death was everywhere, in the air and in the sounds coming off the mounds” took me straight to Stalingrad. BUT this was not written about a safely distant past but about our present. It made me wonder, what will people think of our era when they look back on this album?

What most fascinates me about this album is how listenable it is. Harvey explains this very well and I think her observations are very representative of a lot of art and fiction. I can both see Iurii Dombrovskii’s approach to literature where he depicts the Great Terror of 1937 through a very creative and uplifting language (more on that later). And the work of Grossman who depicts war through the “human emotional perspective” (Harvey’s words). In the interview with The Guardian below, Harvey explains the need to make the music on the album rather uplifting to support the heavy and dark lyrics. The interview is very interesting and it makes me happy to see such wonderful artists out there who respond to the traumas in our world by giving this suffering a voice.

I love the way that she suggests that the album belongs to the times and not to her. I think that shows the elusive nature of creativity, which is born within an individual but exists independently outside that individual.

I thought I would also attach a song from the album as an example and it is so hard to choose one. I’ve decided on the clip below as it is a performance in front of David Cameron and involves a little confrontation. Go Polly!