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On Listening

 

The art of forcing contradictory things into a process of self-mirroring, so that the whole process points to the conditions of our perception, to the rupture that time opens up in us when our shaped perception and our lifeworld wildly diverge – yet all with a delicate gesture: not that of hard reflection, but something almost playful, is stirred here. The stakes of this game, however, are as high as can be: how do we understand what we perceive? How do we perceive ourselves? How do we take perception as reality? The five short lyric pieces by Christian Blom present an art that revolves around these questions.

 

Floating Paradoxes

Grieg’s romanticism, almost exaggerated and sentimental against Blom’s compositional will (which is both subjective and de-subjectivised through the technique of composition), which undermines the music recorded by Grieg, infects it with a hard, sharp, yet not brutal gesture of alteration. Grieg’s playing, immutably captured on wax cylinders against Blom’s composing and reshaping creativity.  Working away at the original to turn its solidity into something fluid. The creative transformation poured into a subtly shaped and shaping work, replacing creativity with order – but an order we encounter as unpredictable. Then, the result of transforming what has been developed from these paradoxes back into a piano text, from the sound file based on samples of a broken piano sound back to the romantic piano sheet music, to be interpreted in the old sense, but then realizing an entirely different sense as music that is heard now.

 

One senses treatment using some technology or other, the simultaneous presence of contradictory levels of experience: Grieg’s gestural-physical playing,  following conventional patterns, and thus a part of our trained perception, is roughened by Blom’s treatment, with the friction between its mechanical, somewhat angular gestures, its delicate sharpness and its slightly chilling coolness. The seemingly frigid text is returned to the hands of the pianist, whose interpretative logic lets the body back into the mechanisms, warms up the ice floes – but without turning them into water: warm ice, pulsating rigidity, meaty iron.

 

I imagine Christian Blom building a room made of mirrors, each of them displaying particular mirroring qualities, and all of them facing one another in such a way that each mirror contains the images of several other mirrors, superimposed and deformed by being cast back into further mirrors, and so on. Mirroring as a transformative process can only take place in art. The possibility of synthesising and reflecting several images means exceeding reality, in this case in the form of a sonic reality – a transcendence as reality without any religion, experienced at an entirely concrete and haptic level, simple and open to every ear.

 

As a listener I am part of this mirror system, I receive and thus perceive, I understand as I perceive, reflect and align with my experiences, transforming my understanding – almost as if I were casting my understanding of the pieces back at them, making them re-interrogate their own existence: as pieces of music by Grieg reworked by Blom, where the latter, acting as a rule-maker rather than a composer, designs a processing structure which then creatively examines Grieg’s text; and this examination is simultaneously my examination of what I view as lyric, as the piano and indeed as music. It is an examination of what I understand in listening, how I understand listening, composed by Blom. He withdraws himself as a subject, and doubly so: by treating a foreign source and through treatment via compositional technique in the broadest sense. But this withdrawal of Blom the subject is only apparent, of course: he crafts an area of friction between the originals and his own conception of music that carries out a form of physiological work on the properties of music and listening.

Blom not only works on Grieg’s pieces; he works on our preconfigured perception. The gestures this music (both Grieg’s and – opened and transformed – Blom’s) carries within it, all the phrases, have taught us to listen.

Working with what shapes us becomes our individuality.

 

The exposing of different layers makes the pieces seem like delicate open wounds, no pain (but perhaps with the memory thereof), nerves are exposed and display their firing, muscles twitch and show the possibilities of movement, blood circulates visibly in veins – the body of music becomes visible as the body of perception (a further paradox).

 

Living Mechanics

A paradox that can be experienced, and which fulfils itself rather than dissolving in the process, is the lyric element of these pieces. What do I perceive as lyric? That is the question being asked here. Grieg’s music manifests the concept of the lyric: the fixed, immobile, dead lyric element that, through history and tradition, has given us a concept of the felt, a matrix in our emotional panorama. But that is not FEELING. Feeling requires a treatment, a backing away, a deviation from the concept – the concept of the lyrical must become fluid, mobile, roughened and be questioned. In Blom’s pieces we hear a broken lyricism that really – that is, in the reality of listening – becomes lyric. The history of the lyric is present as a shadow, while the new and specific is experienceable – as yet with no concept or label. Blom’s lyricism ensues in the ambiguity between the dead concept of the lyric and the real production of a feeling (what particular feeling is left open, as this uncertainty constitutes the music’s content at the level of feeling) as a mobile lyricism that questions me and expands my feeling and thinking.

 

We also find lyricism – but inverted, as it were – in Blom’s wonderful music machine al Khowarizmis Mekaniske Orkester, which mechanically controls everyday sound sources brought to life by use and memory. Here too, lyricism is the transcendence of the paradox in the reality of the sounding structure.

 

A further paradox is the  detuned piano  becoming a sample.  Blom lovingly transforms it into an electronic instrument, subjecting it note by note to the simultaneously loving and cruel procedures of sampling, and that analogue inadequacy (the detuning of the strings through the use of the instrument) in turn combines with digital precision to form a sounding body that possess both: the flashing blade of the scalpel and the sentimentally-tinged familiarity of the old piano from a distant time.

 

There is a further irreconcilability this music enables us to experience: an ever-present tonality shining through all details of the compositional texture is broken via the cold replacement of frequencies, durations, dynamics etc., selected and ordered by a thoroughly non-tonally structured processing method (thus also a way of listening and an experiential form) that challenges the composer’s creative decisions with a system of rules (albeit a highly variable one). Friction ensues between tonality and an ordering system alien to it, and the friction produces something resembling the thermal energy of a cold sound.

To paraphrase Lévi-Strauss, « here a hot culture encounters a cold one, resulting in a new third form – one that is far from lukewarm, but rather redefines the parameters of heat and cold in a way that (for now) I lack the words to describe».

 

Griegs pieces are experientially conservative, mere variations on things that were already familiar at the time, hardly exploring the boundaries of possibility. In Blom’s palimpsestic overwritings, this perceptual rigidity is heated up; that is not to say that Blom intended to write a boiling music, but his approach creates tensions in the material, in tonality, that lead to very particular energy emissions, to the radiation of an as yet unknown energy. Tonal elements are pushed to the edge of their possibilities and dissolved, yet still remain palpable in the background. All formerly tonal parameters are distorted, overstretched, strained to the limits of recognisability and beyond. The energy that remains is lyric in the sense that the memory of tonality is fuelled by the presence of an entirely different sonic organisation. And this is what enables this paradox of warm ice or dark brightness.

And then  Ellen Ugelvik sits down with the pieces, now translated back into written music, and turns them back into piano music in the very old sense: interpretation of a text produced by a live spirit manipulating a live instrument. The paradoxes move in circles, whirl each other through the air, and make us experience all these irreconcilabilities. Listening, we understand the irreconcilable as unified in the reality of the sound structure, the reality of our own listening.

 

Music and listening

The way we have learned to listen is here put to a difficult test. Blom’s scalpel becomes visible with almost excessive clarity in the cuts it leaves in our listening, with such delicate feeling.

One does not need to know Grieg in order to experience the way his music – as a historically sedimented collective state of listening – encounters the present time of the composer Blom. The way it is reflected: a multiply refracted (but not broken) image of our listening and of music is cast back at us.

The state of listening as the shapedness of our acoustic perception: I have learned to listen through my environment, through the tradition that has shaped me, through my cultural and personal history. From this state of listening, which was shaped in a particular way by Grieg (and, far more than this, which also shaped him and is passed on through his music), we hear Blom’s as a processing of our state of listening, our shaped perception. Hence this music by Blom works on our perception, which is the real function of music as art.

 

As a prism spreads out colours, our experiential world now spreads out into a simultaneous presence of present and history. As if through a chemical reaction, these two are changed into a third element – the sounding music of the five Lyric Pieces by Christian Blom.

 

And yet everything sounds so unassuming, so simple and unexcited. There is no great gesture of rupture, reflection or novelty. The transformative events take place in concealment, in secret ­– a little like the way breath becomes visible at the flank of a sleeping animal, or the wakefulness of a person’s glance that informs us of inner movement. What exactly happens is the history of our listening to this music; listening to this music becomes a history of our listening.

 

Clemens Gadenstätter 3/13

 

Translation: Wieland Hoban

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