Sunday, May 20, 2012

Infinity: The Story of a Moment by Gabriel Josipovici

The composer Tancredo Pavone is sure of his quest: “The centre of the sound is the heart of the sound. One must always strive to reach the heart of the sound ... If one can reach that one is a true musician. Otherwise one is an artisan.” He compares himself to Indian sādhus, itinerant monks who make pilgrimages to holy sites by rolling all the way, often thousands of miles: “It did not matter to them how long it took to reach their destination. It did not matter if it took them a year or five years or a whole lifetime. They took the cloth from around their shoulders and held it in their hands stretched out above their heads as they rolled to stop themselves falling into ditches. It gave them equilibrium.” Composing music is then an impersonal demand, a spiritual endeavour, a life’s journey, anything but a career.

Pavone’s journey began in the early years of the 20th Century when he beat a piano with his fists and feet, continuing when his aristocratic parents declined to stop him. This is real musicianship, he announces, not notes and counterpoint but “the patrimony of hands and feet”. As a young man free from the need to earn a living he moved to Monte Carlo, dancing, romancing and writing waltzes, before moving on to other cities: “London was where I experimented with women and Vienna was where I experimented with notes”. In Vienna he studied composition and discovered that “thinking is the worst thing for a musician”. He says Schoenberg, who thought he had advanced the cause of German music by a hundred years, was a disaster for music: “the language of music is not the sonata and it is not the tone row ... it is the same kind of language as weeping, sobbing, shrieking and laughing”. Perhaps this indicates Pavone hasn't grown up, or has grown up but recognises what has been lost as a result. If so, that doesn't undermine what he says but strangely enhances our engagement, as if he's onto something.

It was only when he visited Africa with an ethnologist friend and stood before a granite slab sacred to the Ife of north western Africa that he recognised that this Dionysian inclination had a deeper purpose. Standing before the slab it was:
as if at every moment you are going either to be crushed or swept away, but you also feel as if you are in touch with the secret pulse of the universe. It is an extraordinary sensation ... a compressing into the moment of everything that has ever been and ever will be. It is this that I look for in each sound I imagine ... it is this that is at the heart of every note.
The same occurs when he listens to great trumpets played in a temple in Nepal. To cynical Western ears it sounds like Pavone is off his trolley, and he did indeed spend the Second World War with his wife in a sanatorium in Switzerland – “I thought, Europe is a madhouse, so the only way to stay sane is to enter a madhouse”. Still seeking the heart of the note, he sat at his piano and hit the same key over and over, eventually completing a piece called Six Sixty-Six in which the pianist has to play the same note with the same intensity six hundred and sixty-six times: “The world is there to be transformed. The human being is there to be transformed. When a note is played 600 and 66 times, it is transformed.” His wife left him.

Pavone also claims to have cured fellow patients by forming a choir and teaching them to make animal noises rather than merely sing: “Why are the sounds of twenty-eight animals all barking and braying and mooing and hooting in concert any less beautiful than Bach’s B Minor Mass or the last movement of the Ninth Symphony? Tell me that, Massimo, he said, tell me that and I will give you a doctorate in music.”

Massimo is an artisan, Pavone’s manservant. He manages Pavone’s household, he chauffeurs him around the Italian countryside and cleans and presses each one of his one hundred suits even if it had been worn only once. He is also the only other person allowed in his study and, as a result, becomes Pavone’s captive audience. Massimo’s dedication is such that he is apparently able to remember each of Pavone’s monologues, even if he has no interest in or knowledge of their subject. Infinity: The Story of a Moment comprises transcripts of Massimo’s answers to an interviewer’s questions about the late composer, beginning with awkward silences and patient prompting, then soaring to trace the arc of his master’s remarkable life.

Gabriel Josipovici’s new novel is “loosely based” on the life of the composer Giacinto Scelsi and incorporates fragments of his writings. It must be read as a 21st Century revision of Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel Doctor Faustus, the story of the modernist composer Adrian Leverkühn itself loosely based on Arnold Schoenberg, as told by his childhood friend, the humanist Serenus Zeitblom. Where Mann framed the composer’s genius as part of a Faustian bargain, as if Schoenberg’s tone row can be regarded only as a devilish alternative to the Western tradition, Josipovici offers a far more open, Eastern, comic attitude. When Zeitblom complains that the alternative to culture is barbarism, Leverkühn replies: “barbarism is the antithesis of culture only within a structure of thought that provides us the concept. Outside of that structure the antithesis may be something quite different or not even an antithesis at all” (translation John E. Woods). In Pavone’s view, Western music is, if not barbarous, then very immature, nothing but “delayed gratification ending in consummation and exhaustion ... The music of adolescent masturbators.” Instead, his music has sought that “something quite different”:
Our music has ... returned to its ancient roots. It has escaped from the puerile imitation of sexual congress, caress arousal, delay, frenzy, extinction, which was the pattern of Romantic music and the reason for its enormous popularity among the repressed middle classes of Germany and Austria, who imagined that it was leading them up to an aesthetic heaven. Well, he said, they had their climax twice over, first in the First World War and then in the Second World War. That should have been enough for them. But not at all. Look at their books. Look at the music they flock to listen to in the concert halls, this so-called intellectual elite. Caress, arousal, delay, frenzy, extinction. All the same. No change.
While we may snigger at Pavone’s arrogance, his dedication to seeking a different music – transformative rather than transcendent – has its equivalent in Massimo’s dedication to his employer and the novelist's to both. Something quite different finds its way. Massimo pays utmost attention and does not impose any opinion; he waits and lets the human person come forth. And come forth he does, in all his absurdity, arrogance, desperation, loneliness and magnificence. Even as we dismiss him, we admire Pavone's excessive commitment just as we admire Massimo's self-restraint, and recognise what art and the world lacks. He is infinitely quotable on the subject:
One cannot think one's way through artistic problems, he said, one has to go about it in a different way. Bach did not think, he said, he danced. Mozart did not think, he sang. Stravinsky did not think, he prayed.
Pavone did not think then, he listened. But Infinity should not be limited to a repository of wisdom about art. The form is its wisdom. The author does not seek to assert a resolution but calmly follows the course of a life, allowing a space to be cleared in which that life can be seen and felt as one moment, with the individual’s failings as prominent and as vital as his triumphs. There is also the moment of Massimo's interview quietly revealing that the gifts of patience and dedication are affordable in all walks of life. Infinity is a literary production in the spirit of Pavone the artist, Massimo the artisan and his unnamed interviewer.

One last time Massimo drives Pavone into the Roman countryside and places him wrapped in a blanket at the edge of a wood to listen to the cicadas. He tells Massimo how their song is as powerful as any noise emerging from a Buddhist temple in Nepal or Tibet.
What is it saying? Now, it is saying, and eternity. If you can hear the now, he said, you can hear eternity. That is what I have tried to do, he said, to write a music of now which would be a music of eternity. Then he was silent for a long time.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for recommending this fine little book.

    Here's what you've inspired (it relates also to your discussion of the standing stones of Easter Island):



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