Anatomy of Melancholy

Friday, October 7, 8pm, The Array Space: Anatomy of Melancholy by Rudolf Komorous

In part to celebrate Rudolf Komorous’ 85th birthday, I will be performing a new 157-minute version of Anatomy of Melancholy. Komorous compiled his Anatomy of Melancholy in 1974. It is made up of over 5 hours of musical segments—acoustic and electronic—of various lengths (some as short as 20 seconds) originally collected on 4 track, half track, and quarter track reel-to-reel tapes (in the 1990s the entire catalogue was digitized by another former Komorous student, John Abram). These recordings were made between the late 1950s, when Komorous was a central figure among avant-garde artists working in his home-city of Prague, and 1974, three years after he joined the faculty of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Anatomy of Melancholy is performed as a multi-speaker sound installation in which the musical segments are variously collaged and montaged according to a strict plan devised by the tape/disc/soundfile jockey. The listener is encouraged to move through and around the installation, free to enter or leave the performance as she or he wishes.

The piece takes it name from Robert Burton’s massive book of the same name, first published in 1621 and then added to throughout the rest of Burton’s life. One reviewer describes it as “not just Burton’s thoughts on the subject of melancholy, but the thoughts of everyone who had ever thought about it, or about other things, whether that be goblins, beauty, the geography of America, digestion, the passions, drink, kissing, jealousy, or scholarship.” Burton called it “a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dunghills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out.” Its sensibility serves as an apt conceptual antecedent to Komorous’ remarkable collection and the infinite musical tapestries it can produce.

Rudolf’s Anatomy of Melancholy  embraces and radiates the estetiku divnosti, an aesthetic he formulated with other like-minded artists in Prague in the 1950s. Divnosti is derived from the Czech word divny, most commonly translated as “strange,” but which also appears as “weird,” “bizarre” or “peculiar.” A recent Czech recording of Komorous’ early work translates estetiku divnosti as “aesthetics of curious things.” In Canada it came to be translated as “the aesthetic of the wonderful.” The group’s intention was “to drive every situation to its end-point, so that the serious and the trivial cannot be distinguished” as well as “to bring into play paradox and the mystifying, in the joy of experiencing the wonderful.” Rudolf further explained in an interview that, “the group’s main philosophy was that things should somehow be driven on the edge – on that edge when you cannot really recognize what’s serious, what’s not serious; you know, what’s true, what’s not true; what’s sort of from life and what is a sheer imagination. Simply that edge – because we thought that on that edge real things happen.” These quotes are highly loaded.  In the next few days I’ll be posting an essay I wrote on Rudolf and his music a while ago that unpacks them somewhat.  However, I will say now that the edge that Rudolf refers to above is the edge where my listening happens.  It’s the edge I’m referring to in the title of this blog, an edge that engenders speculations rather than conclusions.

One thought on “Anatomy of Melancholy”

  1. Looking forward to the music and next blog. I’m sure there is a connection here I can not pin down. Surely (?) the the estetiku divnosti you speak of, Martin, would have some parentage in the esthetics of “estrangement” or “defamiliarization”. This aesthetic concept emerged in Russian formalism in the earliest decades of the last century and traveled to Prague with the scholars who emigrated from Russia to Prague when intellectual freedom back home suffocated. The Prague Linguistic Circle eked out a few years of glorious and deeply humanistic theoretical invention with Stalin at their backs and Hitler rising to the fore–they would have to emigrate again. As I understand it, Estrangement was not an artistic program so much as a theory about how artworks in general, and from the bit I know, could not say much about music. I wonder whether Komorous might have been motivated to close that gap.

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