Listening On The Edge: After Rudolf Komorous

I studied music composition with Rudolf Komorous in Victoria, British Columbia between 1983 and 1988. Rudolf is a composer of experimental music and he demonstrated what a high-stakes, multifarious vocation that can be. In particular, his ideas about wonder/strangeness – ideas that I first encountered when I met him in Banff in 1981 – have progressively backgrounded much of my thinking on life (including art, including music) ever since.

Rudolf started to formulate these ideas while still living in Prague in the late nineteen-fifties. He was a member of a group of artists who met regularly in the cellar of the Moravian Winery near Wenceslas Square and called themselves Smidra. He was the only musician in the group, which was largely made up of visual artists. Together they developed an estetiku divnosti. Divnosti is a plural noun derived from the adjective divny (Rudolf thinks Smidra might have coined it). Divny is most commonly translated as “strange,” but it also appears as “weird,” “bizarre” or “peculiar.” A recent Czech recording of Komorous’ early work translates estetiku divnosti as “aesthetics of curious things.”[1] In Canada it came to be translated as “the aesthetic of the wonderful.”[2] The shades of meaning implied by the complexity of translation fit well the kind of artistic engagement Smidra aspired to. 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.”[3] 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 recognise 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.”[4]  [One relatively superficial articulation of this sensibility can be observed in the group’s chosen name. Smidra is a character from traditional Czech children’s stories, often associated with puppet theatres (versions of these tales are common throughout Germany and Austria as well). He is the sidekick of Kasparek, the industrious little hero who cunningly and mischievously overcomes adversaries much more powerful than himself. Smidra on the other hand is a proud but oafish, well-meaning village constable – always carrying a sabre, but one that is usually uselessly blunt (each member of the Smidra group would wear a sash and carry an edgeless mock-sabre). And, as Rudolf puts it, “he’s incredibly dumb – incredibly dumb as a proper sidekick should be; always doing wrong things.” At the same time Rudolf is emphatic about the seriousness of the culturally subversive intent of this group of artists. It was both provocative and polemic to purposely take on such a self-deprecating set of associations, invoking a character stumbling around impotently, generating unintended chaos at the margins of heroic deeds. They were associations – involving a public official (a constable), uniforms and harmless weapons – made even more piquantly baffling in the context of Czechoslovakia’s Communist milieu, where artistic activity could be emphatically censored (the secret police took interest in the Smidra group as much for their sabre wielding as for their irregular aesthetic beliefs). Smidra’s very name generated a situation where it was continuously problematic to distinguish what was trivial and what was serious.]

The Wonderful is a peculiarly evocative name for that edge, enfolding the trivial and the serious. “Wonderful” embraces the innocuous – a hackneyed term of appreciation, a limp superlative. It embraces a range of reactions and actions that can be variously synonymous with other words like delight, amazement, astonishment, bewilderment, curiosity and questioning. And it can name an historically complex category which, most profoundly in the Middle Ages, belonged to that crucial area between the known and the unknown – between the mundane and the divine miraculous; denoting the passion of “wonder” in the presence of “wonders,” and whole orders of marvels – preternatural objects and occurrences.

Driving “every situation” to an endpoint – or better, an edge – where the nature of that situation is difficult to apprehend and evaluate may suggest an aesthetisised confusion – an intentionally provocative play with ambiguity and/or absurdity. Smidra’s maxims might hearken back to Baudelaire’s statement the “The beautiful is what is bizarre;” or Apollinaire celebrating his artist-friends’ ability to create beauty from a “new source: surprise” (a beauty worthy of Lautréamont’s simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”[5]). And there seems an obvious connection between the estetiku divnosti and André Breton’s declaration in the First Surrealist Manifesto: “Let us resolve therefore: the Marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful. Nothing but the Marvellous is beautiful.”[6] However, by ascribing beauty to the marvellous, the bizarre – that is, to divnost – the above implies traditional aesthetics: aesthetics as evaluation, as an appreciation of beauty; aesthetics as a judgement. It seems to me that the estetiku divnosti—certainly as it expresses itself in Komorous’ music—is pointing towards another kind of activity. Komorous’ music is not about strangeness or an appreciation of the bizarre. If encountering divnosti pushes one to “that edge,” the pushing, and what’s doing the pushing, is not the point; the point is what can take place on that edge – what those “real things” that might happen might be. As he stated in a recent interview: “Well you know, to do something weird or unusual is not very difficult. So you just…to do something…just against…but here it should be about something. It should have some depth you know, truth, as we say in art, but also life. This is a difference; it’s not a bizarre kind of thing, it’s not so difficult to do something bizarre or weird, but this [divnost] I would say is a much warmer kind of thing.”[7]

The estetiku divnosti embraces not-distinguishing, not-recognising, the mystifying, and paradox not merely to celebrate those conditions, but rather to break down that prevalent economy that limits the experience of art to an appreciation of its effects and affects—“do I like it?”; “is it good?” The estetiku divnosti posits art as a co-creative experience that proliferates from the passion of wonder. I’m going to defer to art-theorist John Rajchman in setting how high the stakes can be when interaction with art is activated and a listener/viewer/reader ceases to be only an arbiter of the worth of a commodity. The following quotes come from his book considering the thought of the late French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, The Deleuze Connections. Rajchman states that Deleuze’s “aesthetic takes the form not of a judgement, but rather of an experimentation and creation that defies judgement.”[8] It is important to register that the aesthetic fundamentally refers to the act of apprehending art in general. Thus, it is not the making of art that is being considered an experimentation and creation, but the experience of it. This notion already defies one pervasive formulation of art that views it as a medium that carries and communicates some kind of significant emanation from the artist that the viewer/listener/reader grasps and evaluates. For Rajchman’s Deleuze, “art (and thought) is never a matter of ‘communication’. . . . For what [art] supposes is a condition of another kind, not transcendental, but experimental. . . . In Deleuze’s aesthetic, a ‘will to art’ is always concerned with the emergence of something new and singular, and requires us to ‘invent ourselves’ as another people.”[9] For Rajchman art is not about life – it does not somehow symbolise the artist’s world-view. Nor is art a rarefied object – it cannot be reduced to an epiphanal manifestation of artistic vision, held aloft for a consumer to admire. For Rajchman, art is preternatural not supernatural. It is a psychic location that occupies the attention of someone who possesses the “will to art.” These are states of mind as “real” (and “truthful”) as any other; but which lie beyond (just beyond, or maybe beside) the conventions and praxis of the field of daily experience. These are states of mind that exist on Komorous’ edge. For Smidra and Rajchman, art is a way to get to that edge; and Rajchman suggests something of the nature of the real things that can happen there:

 “[The] aim of art is, through expressive materials, to extract sensations from habitual sensibilia–from habits of perception, memory, recognition, agreement–and cause us to see and feel in new or unforeseen ways. . . . Thus art is less the incarnation of a life-world [a kind of illuminating, if numinously poetic, representation of human experience, of humans’ interaction with their world] than a strange [divny] construct we inhabit only through transmutation or self-experimentation, from which we emerge refreshed as with a new optic or nervous system.” [10]

Rajchman refers to some other pervasive philosophies of art as “aesthetic pieties.” He states that “we must push sensation beyond transcendence where it becomes a matter of belief not in another world, but in ‘other possibilities’ in this one.”[11]

The above implies a dynamic way of being with art, any art. And Rudolf taught from the perspective of the estetiku divnosti, pointing at the wonders scuttling around the edges of a great deal of well-known music. Of course, these observations took a non-hierarchical form: Fux, Zelenka, and Corelli were considered more often than J.S. Bach; C.P.E. Bach and Haydn more often than Mozart (but Rudolf wasn’t being ideologically polemical: particular works of Mozart were crucial to him); Schubert more than Beethoven (although Rudolf’s example allowed me to drift freely through the utter divnost of Beethoven’s last two piano sonatas; I still use them to teach composition); Smetana more than Brahms; Janacek more than Bartok; J.M. Hauer more than Schoenberg. What had to be avoided were the ensconced codes and conventions that allow the generalised membership of (post-)European culture to be certain that the composers that follow the word “than” in the above list are patently Greater than those that precede it. And Rudolf taught me the joy of avoiding these codes when making work as well – listening to music and making music are profoundly congruous activities on that edge where real things happen; they are each aspects of sharing and taking part.

Of course, there are many makers of art uninterested in their audience taking part in a co-creative experience. They desire to be priests of “aesthetic pieties” – transcendental geniuses lauded by an appreciative public (they embrace, exploit, and assert those codes and conventions that authorise the value of their work). The convention that asserts that art is transcendent can be used as a tool to neuter its revolutionary potential—it supports belief in “another world” that we look up to, rather than inciting us to look around for “’other possibilities’ in this one.” I don’t think that culture at large (and I’ll accept all manner of suggestions as to what the hell that might be) wants “us to ‘invent ourselves’ as another people.” I think the estetiku divnosti does. I find in Komorous’ music a radical immanence – I’m not reaching out or up or beyond; the unknown is percolating through me right where I am, right at that moment. My attention and imagination are encouraged to move through and interact with what is there. I don’t mean this just in the phenomenal sense of attending to sound and how it takes up time. Rudolf’s music also embraces culture and history and the musical conventions that are carried along by tradition. However, he doesn’t embrace them to use them, to once again assert their power. He embraces them to rub up against them and feel their texture and pull at the threads that make up their weave. And any convention is potentially available for this synergetic/viral cuddle, including the ones that make high-art high (i.e. transcendental). In Komorous’ music they are stripped of their authority and brought down to us so we can go out and play in the wonderful weirdness of what they are (rather than what they mean).

How and why does Rudolf’s music make these possibilities so invitingly available and welcome (for all of its revolutionary potential, Rudolf’s Wonderful is indeed a warm kind of thing)? There can’t be a definitive answer to this (imagining this state intrinsically defies definition); it can’t arise coherently from a set methodology. As Rudolf put it: “Yes, you know, it [divnost] is about something for sure. But you often or almost always don’t know precisely what. You cannot put your finger precisely on ‘this’, because it’s on the edge, you know. . . . So you immediately can see something or it simply becomes bizarre, or weird, or fantastic. . . . Nobody knows what divnost is, there was that kind of feeling. We [Smidra] never tried to establish any theory, there was no manifesto.”[12] This is one way in which Rudolf is an experimental composer (and it shows again how close composing and listening is in this aesthetic). He doesn’t know in advance what wonder is; he has to experiment–he has to try activating situations that he/we might find wonder in.

When I try to represent to myself something of this divny state of mind, I find myself making a lot of metaphorical comparisons to the Wonderful as it was perceived in the Middle Ages: “Wonders tended to cluster at the margins rather than at the center of the known world, and they constituted a distinct ontological category, the preternatural, suspended between the mundane and the miraculous.”[13] Wonders/marvels were not really supernatural, above (super) nature. Rather, they were preternatural, beyond (preter) nature, often just beyond, on the edge of the mundane. Miracles were understood as supernatural. They were direct acts of God. They were transcendent, flowing from a spiritual realm. Wonders were immanent, in the world, a part of the world, but somehow remarkably other to its regularly experienced operations. This otherness could include everything from “accidental” aberrations of nature like a six-fingered child or magnificently astonishing and wildly rare and exotic phenomena such as manticores and dragons. Wonders, and the wonder they elicited, existed as a true margin: “Wonders as objects marked the outermost limits of the natural. Wonder as a passion registered the line between the known and the unknown.”[14] The medieval wonderful was an edge analogous in many ways to Rudolf’s edge. It wasn’t rationalised, either scientifically or theologically. Wonders were unknowable (if they became known, in the sense of being understood, they ceased to be wonders). They were defined merely by their effects. Daston and Park point out that, as in modern English, in a number of medieval European languages the same, or very similar words were used for both objects (wonders) and the passionate reactions they gave rise to (the feeling of wonder), “signalling the tight links between subjective experience and objective referents.”[15] An example of these tight links can be observed in their presentation of a thirteenth-century catalogue of wonders compiled by an English nobleman, Gervase of Tilbury. It is a wildly varied collection of one hundred and twenty-nine “marvels of every province – not all of them, but something from each one”[16]:

“At first glance, this list appears incoherent. It included plants, animals, and minerals; specific events and exotic places; minerals and natural phenomena; the distant and the local; the threatening and the benign. Furthermore, Gervase had compiled his wonders from a wide range of sources. Many (dolphins, the phoenix, the portents) came from classical texts, while others were obviously biblical or belonged to the capacious Christian corpus of wonder-working sites, images, and relics. Still others, like the werewolves and dracs, had their roots in Germanic, Celtic, or other local oral traditions. Yet for all their diversity, Gervase stressed the coherence of this catalogue of wonders, locating it in the emotion evoked by all of them.”[17]

It is significant that the criteria for being a wonder was, fundamentally, that it made one feel wonder. Indeed, other quasi-objective, analytical/hierarchical taxonomies (as in asking “how is it marvellous?” and “how marvellous is it?”) were not really applied when it came to organising an appreciation of the marvellous. Beyond the basic coherence of the passion of wonder, modes of grasping marvels were essentially local (that is, focused on the marvel’s peculiar locale) and particular. Marvels did not have to be spectacular or sensational. As French historian Jacques Le Goff observes “the marvel barely ripples the tranquil surface of daily life. What is perhaps most troubling about medieval marvels is precisely the fact that they merge so easily with everyday life that no one bothers to question their reality.”[18]

There’s something about the non-hierarchical particularity of medieval wonder(s) that suggests something of Rudolf’s compositional sensibility. His music is not about juxtaposition – for example, seriousness versus triviality. Trying again to express something about working on the edge, Rudolf says: “the root of it is that basically you take the opposites and drive them from, on both sides, to the edge. And there, at the edge, you know, you get that divny, that ‘wonderful’ meaning of the thing that really starts working in a full truth, and it sort of shows itself for what it really is, instead of just being half-covered….”[19] On the edge, the opposition of opposites disappears—they are driven from both sides, not just together, but to the edge. There is no dialectic at work—thesis and antithesis being reconciled in a transcendental synthesis, as the Surrealists sought after (they desired a synthesis of conscious reality and unconscious reality in a super-, that is, sur-reality). Komorous isn’t looking for a new, overarching reality. He’s trying to “push sensation beyond transcendence where it becomes a matter of belief not in another world, but in ‘other possibilities’ in this one.” He finds these possibilities on an edge of our world which, like the margin of the medieval wonderful, stymies formalising representations, definitive analyses, or narrative delineations – rational or poetic, material or spiritual. Again, he’s looking for radical particularity where a thing “shows itself for what it really is” and slips away from being judged for what it means.

Rudolf Komorous’ music has evolved through a number of phases and many different stylistic strategies have been deployed throughout this history: true minimalism (spare sounds utterly exposed); poised, elegant textures worthy of Haydn or Schubert yet insidiously skewed; evocative melodies, redolent with Czechness, which inscrutably dissolve into prosaic, generic ascending scale passages then suddenly evaporate; deliriously dreamlike waltzes and boogie-woogies; nightingale birdcalls and grinding ratchets effortlessly intermingling with virtuoso lyricism or lush hanging harmonies rolled on a vibrato drenched electric piano. This list never needs to end, for Komorous’ music is a gloriously bottomless pit of details. Like Gervase’s list of wonders, these details embrace evenly the grand and the demure (and everything in between and scattered all around). Moreover, this list is not simply applicable to charting Komorous’ historical development. Any of these attributes can be observed uncontentiously co-existing within a given work taken from any stage of his career. Komorous’ compositions are radically local. Each piece defines its own distinct parameters. There is no single strategy that can be generalised for the way he brings elements together. Yet, as with medieval catalogues of wonders, Komorous’ body of work displays a psychedelic coherence of character engendered by the wonder each piece elicits. Profoundly different textures and gestures can be starkly abutted without ever authoring a sense of dramatically pregnant contrasts. In this context, the experimental listener can engage with loud and soft, stasis and movement, major and minor not as opposites, but for their specific properties; and within wonderful relationships that retain their wonder even after the expectations they defy have ceased to bother entering a listening.

In his essay, “Choice and Chance in Cage’s Recent Music”, William Brooks considers John Cage’s music-making systems. He refutes the view of Cage doctrinairely adhering to pure chance and the systematic removal of any subjective intention in the creation of a piece:

“By a kind of self referential logic, procedures designed to accept changing procedures must themselves be subject to change; and by the same logic, if that which is accepted includes intention, it must be possible for these changes to be intentional. If taste is admissible, it must be admissible at all levels; yet, paradoxically, procedures which strictly exclude taste must also be admissible. In effect, the compositional universe must be open to all compositional techniques, from the most arbitrary to the most artful. . . .” [20]

Brooks points to the extreme openness of Cage’s later work where his soundworld could include protracted austerity (some of the number pieces) or unrelenting gestural specificity (Ryoanji) along with extreme diatonic melodicism (Cheap Imitation) or vernacular harmony (Some of ‘The Harmony of Maine’). And he observes:

“The world of music, with all its conventions, is returned to itself, together with all that was gathered on the way; only the values formerly attached to that world have been removed.”[21]

This openness to all that culture and history has to offer is at least as profoundly present in Komorous’ music, as is the stymieing of values (both Cage’s and Komorous’ “aesthetic takes the form not of a judgement, but rather of an experimentation and creation that defies judgement”).[22] However, Rudolf approaches this openness, this edge, from a very different direction (one could think of it as the opposite direction of Cage). Rudolf is a master composer in every academic and scholarly sense of the term. I don’t feel like I have to prove this, but, for example, he voice-leads harmony and moves through consonance and dissonance with a consummate (if abstruse) virtuosity that has me reaching out to everything I know about harmonic rhythm as counterpoint. However, he is still able to present the most basic harmonies in such a way that I feel that I have never heard them before (and I mean first inversion major triads). His textures are truly textures (not just a collection of frequency, amplitude, timbre, and rhythm). It is striking, for example, that the usually easily graspable difference between harmony and orchestration is often utterly confounded in his work.

Komorous sets up his experiments for listeners in the context of the conventions of standard repertoire—including what is for me its most defining convention: the tracing of narrative structures onto musical movement. Rudolf doesn’t eschew musical narrative codes nor does he subversively fracture them.   Rather, he thoroughly transmutates them (and the implication of alchemy is apt here). His music doesn’t narrate divny musical stories. Rather, it embodies divny narrative structures. What is most striking about these structures is that there’s nothing like a story to even intuit and there’s no aura of a storyteller trying to assert significance (Rudolf’s music leaves his motivations profoundly unknowable). All of Rudolf’s compositions are “full of memories” (and having “certain definite memories that occur in an indefinite time” is one of his most pervasive divny narrative structures). However, I never sense that I am hearing Rudolf’s memories but rather, my own—a kind of perpetual aural déjà vu that continues to feel like déjà vu even if I really have already heard the piece.

I remember being at a rehearsal of the Toronto-based new music ensemble Arraymusic, for Rudolf’s composition Dame’s Rocket (The Rainbow of Forgetting 2). After about eight and a half minutes of very divny music a waltz occurred. It was a very mysterious waltz that began with the piano alone. The pianist played it in such a way as to represent its mystery – a kind of nocturne-like quasi-rubato with a pensive, elegant phrasing that introduced the peculiarities of the melody. Rudolf thanked her for the fineness of her playing but stated that what he was after was a waltz, a real waltz – a danceable, cooking-right-out-of-the-gate, body-spinning (which includes head-spinning), everyday-ecstatic, wonderful waltz.  We were already on that edge—another real thing could happen and we could dance to it. The waltz was/is mysterious; it wasn’t/isn’t a representation of mystery and it didn’t have to be represented as such. Rudolf Komorous’ music is not about wonder, it allows wonder.

Endnotes:

 

  1. Peter Kofron, liner notes for the Agon Ensembles recording Czech New Music of the 1960s, translated by Karolina Vocadlova (Prague: ARTA Records, F1 0048-2, 1993), 17.
  2. This translation has a fittingly curious history: it resulted from an erroneous translation of a German programme note made for a concert in Victoria involving Rudolf’s music. The German note used a coined noun, Wunderlichen, built on the adjective wunderlich, which, like divny, is also commonly translated as “strange/ fantastical/ queer” (never “wonderful,” which corresponds with wunderbar or wundervoll). But I think this mis-translation was a happy accident. The English “strange” does not project all the resonances inherent in Wunder and div (like Wunder, a div is a “marvel/ miracle/wonder.”)
  3. Peter F. Bishop, “Rudolf Komorous,” Canadian Music Centre, 22 February, 2002 www.musiccentre.ca/CMC/dac_rca/eng/k_/Komorous_Rudolf.html.
  4. Rudolf Komorous in conversation with John Abram, Victoria, B.C., 1 February 2001. Recording from the private collection of John Abram.
  1. This brings to mind Komorous’ programme note for his piece Gloomy Grace, premiered at the 1968 Donaueschingen Festival: “Gloomy Grace is a composition full of memories. There are certain definite memories that occur in an indefinite time. They combine and separate again. It is approximately as if you were to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning with a razor at your throat. Perhaps such a situation seen in the movies would seem amusing to you. But don’t forget: it happens to us all once.”
  2. Smidra was certainly influenced by surrealism. In the 1930s, Prague was considered second only to Paris as the centre for surrealist activity (and these activities continue, continuing to invoke the title of surrealism, something that would be an historical anachronism in France today). Rudolf once called Prague the most surreal of cities. André Breton, lecturing to more than 700 people at the Mánes Gallery in Prague in 1935, stated: “Prague with its legendary charms is, in fact, one of those cities that electively pin down poetic thought, which is always more or less adrift in space. . . . when viewed from a distance, with her towers that bristle like no others, it seems to me to be the magic capital of old Europe. . . . By the very fact that [Prague] carefully incubates all the delights of the past for the imagination, it seems to me that it would be less difficult for me to make myself understood in this corner of the world than any other.” André Breton, “The Surrealist Situation of the Object,” Manifestos of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 255. For more on Czech surrealism see: Karel Teige: l’enfant terrible of the Czech avant-garde, ed. Eric Dluhosch and Rostislav Svácha. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999).
  3. Rudolf Komorous in conversation with eldritch Priest, Victoria, B.C., February 2003, published at http://neithernor.com/wonderful/interview.htm, checked September 27, 2003.
  4. John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connection (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2000), 114.
  5. Rajchman, 122-123.
  6. Rajchman, 135.
  7. Rajchman, 139.
  8. Komorous and Priest, op. cit.
  9. Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 14.
  10. Daston and Park, 13.
  11. Daston and Park, 16.
  12. Daston and Park, 21.
  13. Daston and Park, 21-23.
  14. Jacques Le Goff, The Medieval Imagination, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. A translation of L’imaginaire médiéval. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1985), 33.
  15. Komorous and Priest, op. cit.
  16. William Brooks, “Choice and Chance in Cage’s Recent Music” in A John Cage Reader, edited by Jonathan Brent and Peter Gena (New York: Peters, 1982), 95.
  17. Brooks, 95.
  18. John Cage met Rudolf in Prague in the 1960s and became a lifelong admirer of his music (I had the pleasure of chatting with Cage about Rudolf’s music in 1984). Shortly after Rudolf immigrated to North America, Cage was instrumental in getting him a job at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota where Rudolf lectured 1970-71, prior to taking the job in Victoria the next year.

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