Dissertation, SUNY Buffalo, 2001. Performance clip from June in Buffalo Music Festival; Buffalo, NY, featuring Lorena Guillen, Eryk Anspach, Philip van Maltzahn, Satoshi Tokini and Noriko Rin.
Duration: 12 minutes
I am especially interested in the moment that the start of one sound and the ending of another become blurred. This idea actually started for me in a literary context with Wallace Stevens’ poem “Man with the Blue Guitar.” The key line of the poem is “things as they are changed upon the blue guitar,”[i] raising questions about the distinction between the real and the unreal or imaginary, the artistically possible and the artistically ideal — that which can never be achieved in art, but only sought after. The second stanza is the artist speaking about how art is never real, “Although I patch it as I can.”[ii] This line originally gave me the idea of meshing two seemingly different sounds into one to create an effect in which the listener cannot discern the difference, mimicking the poet’s theme and merging the poet’s form and content. Realizing that this particular text was too colossal, I began considering other poets whose ideas were similar.
I became attracted to Borges because many of the issues he deals with conceptually, I have interest in confronting musically. Always compelled by the cyclic nature of his short stories, I became curious about his poetry. As I read, themes from the Stevens’ poem became apparent to me … what for Stevens is the interweaving of different voices, for Borges is the interweaving of different logics; however, both poets are concerned with the relationship of fantasy and reality, the artistically feasible and the artistically impossible, and both yearn toward an ideal subtext, which can only be implied. In the poem “The Sea,” Borges uses the symbol of the sea for the unattainable and ever irresistible artistic perfection. In fact, the poem is a succinct statement of how the poet defines his artistic self with relation to “the always sea.”
Before our human dream (or terror) wove
Mythologies, cosmogonies, and love,
Before time coined its substance into days,
The sea, the always sea, existed: was.
Who is the sea? Who is that violent being,
Violent and ancient, who gnaws the foundations
Of earth? He is both one and many oceans;
He is abyss and splendor, chance and wind.
Who looks on the sea, sees it for the first time,
Every time, with the wonder distilled
From elementary things – from beautiful
Evenings, the moon, the leap of a bonfire.
Who is the sea, and who am I? The day
That follows my last agony shall say. [iii]
(translation by John Updike)
Initially, the sea seems to represent fantasy while the self is reality; however, as the poem progresses, this distinction becomes less clear. Somewhere about mid way through the poem, the subject matter and imagery shifts from the sea to the self. Toward the end of the poem, it becomes clear that the sea and the self are metaphors for each other, therefore blurring the seemingly opposing distinction between the two.
The cycle of the poem works on many levels –the immediate flow of words as well as the progression from discussing the sea, a massive entity of nature, to ones discovery and questioning of self. The way that these two ideas merge, through the contradiction and reflection of life and death, determined both musical materials and techniques in mirar. My use of the text perhaps best illustrates this analogy. In using both the original Spanish text and the English translation, I simulated two versions of the same material, clearly each having its own sonic and semantic meaning, within the formal context of timbre, texture and register. I chose instruments based on their ability to blend with one another, yet ones that still maintained their own individuality, in effect creating an appearance of inflection. Through the merger of the text translation, the move from sung to spoken text and the blurred “blendings” of instruments, I have created a continuum between seemingly opposing parts to create clear shape.
In addition to the interweaving of two or more logics, and the conflict between fantasy and reality, other themes I find intriguing in Borges’ work and that I explored in mirar include: reversed symmetry, reflection, echo, multiple perceptions, chains of association, mirrors and their proneness to folding back on themselves. Artistically Borges’ work is powerful because he not only presents the irony between opposition and congruency in his subject matter, but he also structurally and technically executes these concepts poetically. In his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures given at Harvard University in the late sixties, Borges creates a tremendous analogy between the creator of art and his creation. “Whenever I have dipped into the books of aesthetics, I have had an uncomfortable feeling that I was reading the works of astronomers who never looked at the stars:”[iv] For Borges, “drinking in” poetry is the solution he found in his own writing – -always maintaining a balance between the sense, sound, and form of his writing. Like Borges, I am interested in breaking down barriers between the listener and the composer, so as to include the experience itself, allowing the listener to hear the piece as evolving. In mirar, it was my aim to achieve a relationship between the process of composing and the composition itself. The intimacy with which form and content merge is of utmost importance to achieve the listeners’ and composers’ subconscious as well as conscious engagement.
[i] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, (The Man With The Blue Guitar), New York: Vintage Books, 1954, p. 165.
[iii] Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (The Sea), translated by John Updike, edited by Alexander Coleman, New York: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 241.
[iv] Jorge Luis Borges, The Craft of Verse (Charles Eliot Norton Lectures), edited by Calin-Andrei Mihailescu, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000.