In his 1963 article ‘Dire, jouer, chanter’, Pierre Boulez (1925–2016) explained his use of certain exotic sounds in Le Marteau sans maître. ‘I chose this “body” of instruments with the influence of extra-European civilizations’, he wrote: ‘the xylophone transposes the African balafon, the vibraphone refers to the Balinese gender, and the guitar recalls the Japanese koto’.Footnote 1 The composer insisted, however, that ‘neither the style nor the very use of these instruments is related in any way to the traditions of these different musical civilizations’.Footnote 2 Boulez did not wish to represent the music of peoples outside Europe as an ethnologist might when organizing artefacts into a colonial exhibition. Rather, once purified of context, these sounds would ‘enrich the European sonic vocabulary through extra-European listening’, and, Boulez hoped, have a refreshing and estranging effect on the listener accustomed to traditional western timbres. With this move, Boulez also hoped to sever his chosen sounds and harmonies from the historical baggage of the classical tradition, and thus to amplify the presence of music in its moment. In this endeavour he took a cue from the creator of the Theatre of Cruelty. ‘Music should be collective hysteria and enchantment’, wrote Boulez in 1947, ‘violently modern – following the direction of Antonin Artaud, and not a simple ethnographic reconstruction in the image of civilizations more or less remote from us’.Footnote 3
What does it mean for a composer to take sounds from the ethnographic other without ‘reconstructing’ the other? This article will argue that Boulez's endeavour to aestheticize the ‘hysteria’ he perceived in the culture of the other was a moment of ontological appropriation, turning the other into sound. Composers of art music had long sought fresh styles and new sounds by reconstructing a non-European other, whether through Mozart's imitations of Turkish music, the exoticized characters of Bizet's Carmen, or the rhythmic counterpoint that drew Debussy to Javanese Gamelan. I suggest that these endeavours to imagine and to appropriate ‘extra-European’ sounds became specifically ‘ontological’ by the mid-twentieth century. Boulez's aim was not to reconstruct a specific other. Rather, sound was the other: it emanated from someplace strange and primitive, carrying a visceral immediacy that could be leveraged to puncture the façade of western musical meaning. Boulez sought a compositional method that would, to use his own term, render sound neutral: a sonic colour rather than a musical sign; a ‘pure’ quality rather than a representation.Footnote 4 I will argue that Boulez's compositional strategy prefigured recent claims on behalf of the ontology of sound: that sound can put us in touch with a world more real, or perhaps that sound simply is the real. This search for pure sound, a recurring refrain of twentieth-century musical modernism, is, and always has been, inherently ethnocentric. It is a process of making sound ontological.
While the question of otherness is seldom addressed in scholarship on Boulez, it is clear that his sense of sound developed as he reconstructed ‘extra-European’ expressions in sonic form.Footnote 5 In the first section of this article, I use Artaud as a foil to explore how Boulez's idea of musical writing – or écriture, his medium to write sonic ‘hysteria’ – took shape as he distilled and sublimated otherness. While Boulez credited Artaud with forging a style of expression that would re-create ‘collective hysteria and enchantment’ without aspiring to realist ethnographic representation, the composer endeavoured to push Artaud's expressive style beyond what even the theatre guru had achieved. For Artaud often acknowledged the sources of his ‘delirium’: he mimicked the rituals of the Rarámuri tribe of Mexico, infusing his performances with cries, gasps, and ululations, a style of vocal performance that well captured, as Boulez put it, ‘the basic preoccupations of music today’.Footnote 6 Boulez's exoticism, by contrast, was more veiled: rather than follow Artaud to intensify the alterity of the other, Boulez sought instead to purify or occlude otherness, a stance that can be seen as continuous with surrealism.
The approach Boulez took to sound could be called ‘ontological’ because he treated sound as something more ‘real’ – more evocative and powerful – than anything that had been, or could be, expressed through the normative musical languages of the western tradition. In what follows, I will first suggest that Boulez's philosophy of writing hinged on an ideological distinction between ‘the West’ and the Rest, and then will follow the composer to South America with the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault to hear how he filtered sounds from an ‘extra-European’ source that he never acknowledged outright: Afro-Bahian Candomblé. I will suggest that Boulez modelled the poetics of one movement of Le Marteau sans maître, the ‘Commentaire I de “Bourreaux de solitude”’, on the ritual of spirit possession he witnessed in Bahia in the company of actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault (1910–94). Unlike Barrault, who claimed that the Candomblé embodied the essence of Greek tragedy, Boulez neither wanted nor cared to turn the Candomblé into an allegory for an original western essence. The ‘delirium’ of Candomblé practitioners in the throes of physical spasms and amid abrupt vocal utterances – the kinds of experiences that Artaud emulated directly – took sonic form in Le Marteau. As Boulez modelled the ‘Commentaire’ on a fictive narrative of spirit possession, I suggest, sound became an allegory, a figure for an original essence and a kind of elemental force.
Boulez's sounds are still with us today. Following Christoph Cox or Nina Sun Eidsheim, one might argue that a supra-audible ‘sonic flux’ or reality of vibrating matter exists beyond human perception, a virtual ground for the sounds that we actualize when we make music.Footnote 7 The concluding section of this article suggests that every scholar who holds that sound is a link to the real, to a reality beyond or behind what we can know and represent, implicitly relies on a notion of sound as allegory – a notion that links sound studies to Boulez and a group of his contemporaries in France. This attitude towards sound, often touted as a way to think beyond entrenched West-versus-East and Self-versus-Other dualisms, risks re-inscribing these dualisms on an ever-deeper level. The problem is not with thinking imaginatively about sound, but with the philosophical idea that guides scholars to take sound as an allegory for truth and reality: ontology.Footnote 8
The term ‘ontology’ has enjoyed a resurgence of late as a marker of a kind of cultural relativism following the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology and as a substitute for ‘aesthetic autonomy’ in sound studies. However, I am not convinced that the idea of ontology can be purged of its history as a ‘philosophy of power’, to quote a phrase from Emmanuel Levinas.Footnote 9 The very idea of ontology presupposes a relation between the knower and the known such that the known entity, by becoming an object of knowledge and a figure of western writing, loses its alterity.Footnote 10 Levinas coined the term ‘ontological imperialism’ to describe the greedy egotism through which ‘the West’ constitutes itself by first imagining and then incorporating the other.Footnote 11 To the extent that Boulez attempted to transmute ‘extra-European’ sounds into the realm of musical writing, he was an ‘ontological imperialist’. He constituted an idea of sound, not by representing the other as other, but by subsuming the Other into the Same. Recent scholarship, too, treats sound as a figure of radical alterity, yet sonic allegory becomes a means to bolster scholarly authority. The quest for ‘pure’ sound has an unacknowledged modernist history.
Boulez, Artaud, and the ethnographic other
‘By the time he was eighteen’, biographer Joan Peyser writes, ‘Boulez had turned against his father, his country, and everything else that had been held up to him as sacred … . He repudiated Catholicism, spouting Latin obscenities when he was drunk … he never studied under any one man for any length of time, “detesting the father-son relationship”.’Footnote 12 While this phase of Boulez's early life clearly had a strong Oedipal dimension, it was Boulez's defiance of the role of the religious Father in French society that made him so receptive to Artaud's cries, shouts, and profane challenges to God's judgement.
As Edward Campbell, Peter O'Hagan, and François Meïmoun recount, Boulez saw Artaud read his own texts at Paris's Galerie Loeb in the summer of 1947, witnessing the dramatist performing the kinds of vocal expressions that would be recorded by the Radiodiffusion Française later that year.Footnote 13 The broadcast Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (recorded in November 1947) documents Artaud during a period of rapid physical decay following a series of electroshock treatments administered against his will at the Rodez asylum (1943–46).Footnote 14 The forty-minute broadcast consists of readings of Artaud's texts by the writer himself, his friend (and later literary executrix) Paule Thévenin, and the actors Maria Casarès and Roger Blin. Censored by Radiodiffusion Française (RDF) just before its premiere in 1948 (due in large part to Artaud's inclusion of anti-American rhetoric, ill-timed in the wake of the war), Pour en finir allows us to hear the voice that Boulez experienced live that summer.Footnote 15 In his opening unaccompanied monologue, Artaud shouts in his high register: ‘I learned yesterday’, and then pauses. His pacing deliberate, his rasping voice swooping low, he describes ‘one of the most sensational official practices of public American schools’: a ‘sperm test’ in which all young boys are required to give sperm for the government to build an artificial army. America not only manufactured people, but also warships and plastic consumer products, inaugurating ‘le règne … de tous les faux produits fabriques’ (‘the reign of fake fabricated products’) and replacing everything natural with ‘les ignobles ersatz synthétiques’ (‘awful ersatz synthetics’). These words come at the end of a series of short phrases in which Artaud crescendos, charging the text with belligerent vocal expressions. On fabriques, his voice quivers as if a mocking laugh; on les ignobles ersatz, he tightens his throat, pushing air with tremendous strength to produce a guttural growling; and before the final syllable of synthétiques, he pauses as if out of breath, separating the last ‘-que’, a percussive click, from the rest of the phrase. Artaud believed in the music of spoken utterance, in the voice's ability to create meaning through its own contours, sometimes bolstering the literal meaning of a text or – in this case – working against the meaning of the words (‘fabriques’, ‘synthétiques’).Footnote 16 He rails against an ersatz, synthetic American war machine and then introduces a contrasting figure: ‘I love most the people who eat off the very earth the delirium from which they are born.’ His voice shivers; he blurs ‘la terre’ (earth) to sound like ‘le délire’ (delirium); he whispers: ‘I speak of the Tarahumaras … . Thus you will listen to the dance of the Tutuguri.’Footnote 17
The collective enchantment that enthralled Boulez was thus achieved through the rites of the Rarámuri of the Sierra Tarahumara, whose peyote rituals, Artaud claimed, revealed a primordial state of being. After a silence, the next section of Pour en finir begins as Artaud screams, a pair of drums and a gong accompanying his ululations as he soars into his extreme upper register. This crude ‘ethnographic reconstruction’ of a primitive ritual seems to account, in retrospect, for the stammering articulations and long drawn-out pacing of the broadcast so far: Artaud speaks as if in a trance. Casarès then enters to read the ‘Dance of the Tutuguri’ text, her enraptured voice vibrating as Artaud's shouts continue. This text describes a ritual in which six Rarámuri men, each symbolizing a sun, surround a seventh who races across a primordial land nude upon a horse. The dance culminates with the letting of blood and the ripping of Catholic crosses out of the Mexican soil.
For Boulez, Artaud's alternation of words with ‘shouts, noises, or rhythmic effects’, and his effort to push vocal utterance beyond what any written text can convey, felt like an affirmation of the emerging musical language that the composer was in the process of conceptualizing and putting into practice. ‘I am not qualified to discuss Antonin Artaud's use of language’, he wrote,
but I can observe in his writings the basic preoccupations of music today; hearing him read his own texts, accompanying them with shouts, noises, or rhythmic effects, has shown us how to affect a fusion of sound and word, how to make the phoneme burst forth when the word can no longer do so, in short how to organize delirium.Footnote 18
Boulez's efforts to ‘take delirium and, yes, organize it’, however, masked Artaud's explicit exoticism. Perhaps we can hear something of Artaud's ‘shouts, noises, and rhythmic effects’ in the musical language that Boulez forged in his Piano Sonata no. 2 (1948), written after Boulez heard the raving dramatist in person.Footnote 19 During the climax of the fourth and final movement, Boulez prompts the performer to ‘pulverize the sound’ in a short passage composed of a rapid-fire succession of quavers and semiquavers leaping between the extreme high and low registers of the piano – rhythmic effects. This harried back-and-forth motion culminates with abruptly attacked chordal clusters – shouts – before a series of connected pitches in the left hand (marked ‘Élargir rapidement’: expanding quickly) winds upwards towards a group of descending dyads in the extreme high range – noises. Boulez commands the pianist to play ‘in a very strong shade’, to sound ‘exasperated’, commencing another phrase of leaps.
Boulez put little stock in verisimilitude, refusing musical ‘topics’ that his listeners or critics could have taken to represent images or scenes in a narrative mode. But although he downplayed the representational function of music – just as he disdained ‘simple ethnographic reconstruction’ – Boulez's musical gestures were often visceral, demanding an identification between his listeners and performers on a corporeal level. His early pianistic language might not ‘represent’, but certainly presents rapid leaps, sweeps, and chordal clusters, modes of attack that were part of the composer's endeavour to forge a new kind of musical experience – a pianism otherwise.
Boulez's concept of écriture, the French term that connotes not only literal inscription but also the symbolic reasoning behind it,Footnote 20 took shape through a compositional practice that consisted of creating contrasts such as that between the leaping attacks of the Piano Sonata no. 2 – in which pitches seem to be either isolated or slammed together – and moments in which successive notes are smoothly connected into lyrical fragments. Boulez's musical language consisted of opposing features like this, a dialectical approach to timbre and phrasing that Jonathan Goldman describes through various binaries: figure versus structure (i.e., part versus whole), chord-figure versus interval-scale (i.e., ‘chord’ versus ‘scale’, or vertical versus horizontal construction), and smooth versus striated time – the list goes on.Footnote 21 Boulez owed this approach in part to the voice that we can hear in Pour en finir. Rasping and low in one moment, then quietly drawing breath; suddenly shouting and leaping into the falsetto; finally slowing, stuttering, gasping out of breath: this voice is a model also for the sonic palette of the Livre pour quatuor (1948–49, 1959–60).Footnote 22 With each movement structured around a contrast between longer resonant tones and short percussive attacks, the violent oppositions of vocal sounds echo in ever more abstract form.Footnote 23 The first four bars of Movement 1b of the Livre, for instance, feature a series of intervallic leaps, starting in the viola and echoed by the violin, which sustain long tones in the upper register against a quiet cello attack below, pizzicato. After a fermata, the second short phrase is abrupt, the cello rushing upward to meet the trills and pitch clusters in the violins
Scholarly writing on Boulez, which seldom addresses the question of otherness, is often caught in a hermeneutic ‘double bind’. By approaching the music as an object that requires laborious decoding (searching for the tone rows and tracing their genealogies, for example), we perhaps miss some of its most striking qualities.Footnote 24 One does not need to listen ‘hermeneutically’ to hear that the ethnographic other is simply there in the music; yet when we delve beneath the surface for compositional processes and deep structures, the other vanishes. This is a problem that seems to haunt studies of Boulez (and, more generally, of serialism): the rigorous methods employed in creating this music seem to demand decoding, as if there is always a hidden order behind every musical utterance. But precisely when we engage in decoding, the music's ‘otherness’ is concealed.
This double position, I would like to suggest, was part of Boulez's distinctive mode of appropriation. In contrast with Artaud, who sought to present the ‘extra-European’ as radically other, Boulez sought to occlude difference, and musical writing was his medium to do so. This mode of appropriation involved a specific attitude towards sound and writing that Boulez received partly through Artaud, but also through a larger movement of which Artaud was – at least initially – a part. Though he broke from the official surrealist group led by André Breton (1896–1966) in or about 1926, Artaud retained something of the surrealist attitude towards cultural order and meaning. This attitude had to do with re-assessing ‘the West’ in relation to its newly exhibited others: as James Clifford has suggested, the artefacts imported from France's colonial possessions indicated – to Breton and to other surrealists – that ‘culture and its norms – beauty, truth, reality’ were merely ‘artificial arrangements, susceptible to detached analysis and comparison with other possible dispositions’.Footnote 25 Detached analysis and comparison were central in the emerging ‘ethnographic surrealist’ view of cultural order – a view according to which western culture is merely an arbitrary collection of signs ready to be reconfigured and jumbled like objects on display in an ethnographic museum. We might call the surrealist mode of appropriation, then, a symbolic mode, since the poet was to engage with society's signs on a second-order level of observation: fragmenting and juxtaposing verbal signifiers in order, as Breton once quipped, to widen the gaps ‘between the words’. Through the hodgepodge logic of the dream, Breton's surrealism aimed to re-appropriate society's signs to new expressive ends.Footnote 26
While second-order reflection on culture and its signs was an essential aspect of the ethnographic surrealist outlook, Artaud took a different tact: the ‘extra-European’ seems to have impelled him to intensify the first-order gut reactions one can have in the presence of performance. Artaud's mode of appropriation might best be termed an affective mode on account of the emphasis he placed on bodily immediacy: he sought to plunge headlong into the unconscious abyss that Breton's surrealism opened up ‘between the words’. ‘It is essential to put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text’, Artaud declared in his 1932 Manifesto of the Theater of Cruelty, ‘and to recover the notion of a kind of unique language half-way between gesture and thought’.Footnote 27 The sound of Artaud's voice, echoing in Pour en finir, gives us a sense of how this language was to work. Words become gesture through the act of enunciating them with sudden shouts, leaps, and screams – that is, by filling the gaps ‘between the words’ with sound. The normative written systems of western theatre were therefore inadequate to afford the kind of expression that Artaud sought to make available. The movements and utterances of Artaud's ideal theatre would live only for a moment, beyond what could be written and repeated from reading a script; hence, ‘let us leave textual criticism to graduate students, formal criticism to esthetes’, he exhorted, ‘and recognize that what has been said is not still to be said … that all words, once spoken, are dead and function only at the moment when they are uttered’. This is why ‘the theater is the only place in the world where a gesture, once made, can never be made the same way twice’.Footnote 28 At stake for Artaud was the contention that the culture of the West had been dominated by a theological metaphysics according to which life in the world – like the actions on a stage – are subordinate to an original presence, the Divine Word contained in the texts of the Bible, or the theatrical Word written in a phonetic script. ‘Cruelty’ not only meant engulfing viewers in a sensory barrage – producing the kinds of visceral gestures that we can hear, for instance, when Boulez's pianist ‘pulverizes the sound’ – but also demanded a commitment to staying as close as possible to the limit of representability.Footnote 29 Rather than confront society at the level of its representations, Artaud dreamed of a pure presence, an ideal of immediacy and un-representability. Hence the Theatre of Cruelty, in Jacques Derrida's words, would be the art of ‘pure presence as pure difference’: it would move like a language, carrying a signifying force, yet without forming iterable signs.Footnote 30 Producing an always-renewed effect of presence, a cruel theatre would seek to elide the movement and mechanisms of re-presentation.
But, like Boulez, Artaud needed writing. As we have already seen, ethnographic reconstruction was a part of how the dramatist enacted his ‘pure presence’, and he anticipated Boulez's own search for a new form of writing that would organize the delirium that Artaud imagined to emanate from Mexico or elsewhere. Artaud saw a vision of this new writing when he witnessed Balinese theatre at the 1931 Exposition coloniale held in the forest of Vincennes outside Paris. There, the French government hosted groups of people from Africa, Oceania, West India, and other colonies to exhibit arts, to make food and crafts – including the Oceanic artefacts that fascinated Breton – and to perform music and dance like the Balinese spectacles that Artaud witnessed, claiming that the Balinese embodied ‘the idea of pure theater’.Footnote 31 It is unclear (to us) what Artaud actually saw at the Exposition, though he wrote of Balinese theatre as if it was a collage of ritualistic movements, song and poetry, costume and other visual elements – all appearing before his eyes as a kind of hieroglyphic writing. These ‘spiritual signs’, he declared, ‘[strike] us only intuitively but with enough violence to make useless any translation into logical discursive language’.Footnote 32 The non-phonetic writing of Artaud's ideal theatre would arrange configurations of bodies and objects, mapping out events; thus it would silence the voice of the absent author-creator, all in an endeavour to approximate the immediacy of ‘Chinese ideograms or Egyptian hieroglyphs’. Rather than inscribe dialogue, staging directions, and the like, this writing would directly deal ‘with objects … like images, like words, bringing them together and making them respond to each other’.Footnote 33 However, while this new non-phonetic writing would bypass the written voice of the author, it would not silence the voice of the actor. Far from it: Artaud insisted that the hieroglyph would give a new place to voice, to the real embodied voice onstage, since vocal sounds would no longer be texted, reproducible, and representable. He dreamed of a radically other voice.
Boulez stood at a distance from the symbolic and affective modes of appropriation that characterized Breton's surrealism and Artaudian cruelty, but, as I have suggested, Artaud's vocal sounds continued to echo under Boulez's pen. We can hear how Boulez entextualized the ‘delirium’ that he heard in Artaud into an abstract musical language.Footnote 34 But while the composer aimed to produce sudden first-order gut reactions through musical violence, he also reflected – in published essays and later lectures – on the processes through which this violence would be produced. He sought a technique through which to build upon the ‘pure presence’ of Artaudian expression, taking up Artaud's aesthetic ideal into an ideal musical writing. With the emphasis he placed on writing and structure, therefore, Boulez positioned himself as part of a lineage of French artists and intellectuals leading from the ethnographic surrealist moment of Paris's interwar years towards the mid-century, in which tremendous theoretical weight became attached to the notion that culture is written. The surrealist conviction that Beauty, Truth, and Reality are mere products of symbolic arrangements laid the groundwork, as Clifford suggested, for the ‘semiotic’ view of cultural order that one can read, for instance, in Roland Barthes's famous claim that ‘everything can be a myth, provided it is conveyed by a discourse’. If culture is a collection of signs, then forms of discourse – ‘modes of writing or of representations; not only written discourse but also photography, cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity’ – inevitably entwine themselves with power.Footnote 35 Artaud, in seeking a form of vocal utterance beyond the ‘mythical speech’ that had upheld bourgeois normativity, gave a specific privilege to sound as a vehicle of transgression – this is the kind of sound we can hear in Boulez.
Boulez's stance towards sound was imminently surrealist since it was a musical response – albeit a very abstract response – to the transgressive aesthetic put forward during the surrealist years. As Clifford wrote, ‘the exotic [was] a prime court of appeal against the rational, the beautiful, the normal of the West’, allowing thinkers in the surrealist camp such as Georges Bataille – inheritor of a transgressive avant-garde spirit that dates back at least to Baudelaire – to deconstruct the hallowed beliefs of western culture by claiming that every cultural norm contains and conceals its obverse. Tonal harmony, on this view, is one European social myth among others, tired and two-faced: confront tonal harmony with its other – dissonance – or confront good with evil, piety with perversion, and one can see that every norm contains the seeds of its own dissolution. This valorization of transgression, in Clifford's words, ‘[provides] an important continuity in the ongoing relation of cultural analysis and surrealism in France’. The present article is meant as an entryway to examine the role that music and sound played in establishing this transgressive aesthetic – an aesthetic that links ‘the twenties context of surrealism proper to a later generation of radical critics’.Footnote 36 The jumble of non-European signs presented at colonial exhibitions (and later housed in the Musée de l'Homme) not only prefigured the semiotic view of cultural order in vogue by Derrida's day, but also suggested that new and violent sounds – ‘shouts, noises, and rhythmic effects’ – might echo from between the cracks in western cultural meaning. By liberating a stream of speech through surrealist automatic writing, or by shouting, stuttering, and speaking in tongues, sound became ‘other’: that which resounds beyond the norms of pictorial and linguistic representation, ‘between the words’. Hence the free play of signs was not only Oriental, but was specifically sonic. This is the Artaud that Boulez found so alluring:
[B]y an altogether Oriental means of expression, this objective and concrete language of the theater can facilitate and ensnare the organs. It flows into the sensibility. Abandoning Occidental usages of speech, it turns words into incantations. It extends the voice. It utilizes the vibrations and qualities of the voice. It wildly tramples rhythms underfoot. It pile-drives sounds … . It ultimately breaks away from the intellectual subjugation of the language, by conveying the sense of a new and deeper intellectuality which hides itself beneath the gestures and signs, raised to the dignity of particular exorcisms.Footnote 37
In his disavowal of ‘ethnographic reconstruction’, we can sense that Boulez distanced himself from Artaud even as he drew inspiration from the theatre theorist. The ethnographic other was not a favourable alternative to ‘the West’ for Boulez. However, as I hope to demonstrate, Artaud and Boulez each participated in the mutual construction of ‘the West’ as opposed to ‘the Rest’, an opposition that undergirded each artist's essential views about their respective media – theatre and music. Boulez's mode of appropriation was ontological because he aimed to reconstruct the ‘hysteria’ of the other at an ontological remove from any specific people or place. He whitewashed ‘extra-European’ sounds in an endeavour to create what he called ‘pure sounds – fundamentals and natural harmonics’ that could be subsumed within a musical fabric.Footnote 38 This process of purification was always a part of Boulez's stance towards sound, part of his own transgressive modernist aesthetic. Yet, as this section will demonstrate, the search for a new form of écriture tied Boulez and Artaud to a much older, and explicitly ethnocentric, philosophy of writing.
In practice, Boulez's écriture was a medium to organize delirium, and in theory, too, écriture hinged on a distinction between individualized sound and neutral sound, itself a species of a more general dichotomy between a western self and the ethnographic other. ‘The more a sound has remarkable individual qualities, the less conformable it will be to other sounding phenomena’, instead ‘[preserving] its own individual profile’, stated Boulez in a 1994 lecture at the Collège de France.Footnote 39 In this he echoed a trope that he had voiced much earlier in a 1949 preface to John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. Expressing a deep respect for Cage's use of ‘non-tempered sound spaces’ as well as ‘sound complexes’ in his experiments with the prepared piano, Boulez nevertheless suggested (rather subtly at the time) that his American correspondent was barking up the wrong tree.Footnote 40 Cage did not produce pure sound, relying instead on the individualized characteristics of sounds made from placing bits of metal, screws, and paper clips amid the piano strings. This endeavour, inspiring and fresh though it was for the young Boulez, ultimately constituted a regression in musical thinking. In a 1972 conversation with Célestin Deliège well after Boulez and Cage parted ways, Boulez aligned Cage's use of individualized sounds with the twanging and buzzing of the African sanza (or mbira): ‘In the music of some African peoples (not the most highly-developed from the musical point of view) we find an instrument, the sanza, that has vibrating blades [which] could make up a neutral universe – they form a scale that is fixed and modal, as all African scales are.’Footnote 41 Without the mutes and resonant rings that mbira players attach to the vibrating blades, the sounds of the blades ‘could’ be neutral, just as the notes of a piano are neutral before a composer inserts debris between the strings.
Boulez's mention of an African instrument bespeaks the composer's interest in non-European instruments, an interest that he developed quite early in his musical life as he honed his composerly skills by transcribing musics from outside Europe – a practice that undoubtedly informed Boulez's view of individualized versus neutral sound. During the summer of 1945, while a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Boulez heard Balinese music in a class with Olivier Messiaen, and as he would later account, ‘dreamed, for a moment, of specializing in musicology: not in the study of texts, but in ethnomusicological investigation in connection with a department of the Musée de l'Homme or the Musée Guimet’.Footnote 42 This was not just a dream: after listening to discs of various non-European musics, Boulez planned to go on an ethnological expedition to Cambodia and Laos hosted by the Musée Guimet in 1946, a voyage quickly cancelled as the First Indochina War broke out that winter.Footnote 43 In preparation, however, Boulez transcribed various songs including a ‘Laotian song of possession’ for two voices.Footnote 44 This was an ethnographic reconstruction in the most literal sense: according to Luisa Bassetto, the composer likely jotted down this song – as well as others from Cambodia and Cameroon – quite quickly, perhaps as part of a dictation test prior to the ethnographic voyage.Footnote 45 Transcriptions like these are precisely what the Boulez of 1947 would renounce as Artaud's voice rang in his ears. Simply reconstructing (i.e., transcribing) the sounds of ‘extra-European’ ritual or spiritual practice did not go far enough for the restive composer, who ultimately did not seek ethnomusicological knowledge for its own sake, but rather for the sake of expanding the timbral and rhythmic possibilities available in new music.
Boulez adopted (by default) a Eurocentric view according to which musical writing allows for a level of abstraction and sophistication unknown in cultures that lack a written musical system, and his transcriptions of these songs give us a hint about what neutral sound came to mean for him. While the recordings housed in ethnographic collections – including those of André Schaeffner, whom Boulez would meet in 1949 and with whom he would correspond for nearly two decades – exerted a particular allure for the composer, he was most interested in exploring what a song of spirit possession might become through the act of transcribing it and studying its written form. While Cage (from Boulez's standpoint, anyway) perhaps would have believed that the specific characteristics of sounds – Laotian or otherwise – were interesting enough on their own, Boulez felt that merely letting sound be sound (to paraphrase a well-worn Cage-ism) was inadequate. Sound had to pass through the medium of écriture – Boulez's medium – to truly become music. There is perhaps no better summation of Boulez's take on the difference between his and Cage's approaches to sounds – and, for our purposes, of Boulez's own sense of the difference between individual and neutral sounds – than his statement in the 1949 Cage essay: ‘Noise does indeed have a very great immediate physical effect, but utilizing this is dangerous, since its novelty rapidly wears off’.Footnote 46 Noise can strike us powerfully, but only so many times. Buzzing and twanging are insufficient. In order to preserve the immediate physical effect of noise, perhaps to base a musical language on its visceral presence, a composer must put sound through écriture.Footnote 47
For Boulez, Cage's approach to sound was not only mistaken; it was primitive. ‘In that kind of musical civilization’ – Africa – ‘and with an instrument of this sort’ – the mbira – ‘the procedure has every justification’: those civilizations are simple.Footnote 48 But it would be unjust and ‘contrary to the entire evolution of music’ for a European composer ‘to delimit an instrument within highly typical and individualized characteristics, since we are moving more and more in the direction of relativity’, that is, towards rendering sound neutral.Footnote 49 Only neutral sounds can be subsumed into a broader texture, allowing their ‘true’ individuality to ring.
Of course, Boulez's specific approach to sound evolved: the violent gestural language of the Deuxième sonate, the system of total serialism through which Boulez composed Structures I (1952), and the computers in use at IRCAM two decades later, represent different moments in Boulez's development – he was always on the move. Yet, despite the various approaches that Boulez cultivated, his essential view of sound and writing seems not to have changed throughout his career. ‘Neutral’ or ‘pure’ sound was an enduring conceit, and since sound can only be ‘neutral’ once it is written – that is, once it passes through écriture – neutral sound is only accessible to a western composer whereas unwritten ‘extra-European’ sounds are always ‘individualized’. The term écriture, therefore, not only connotes a compositional method – which may change through time – but also, more fundamentally, encompasses a philosophical view of writing premised on the difference, formally and ideologically, between individual (primitive) and neutral (written) sound. Like one of his early influences, Boris de Schloezer, Boulez believed that écriture allowed for an idealization of sound that was impossible, once again, in cultures that lack a written language. The same year he heard Artaud at the Galerie Loeb, Boulez studied Schloezer's newly published Introduction à J.-S. Bach (1947), in which the musicologist, anticipating Boulez's own attitude towards the mbira, claimed that non-western musical cultures were limited to the material conditions of their instruments. ‘The essential characteristic of the space elaborated by western musical culture’, Schloezer trumpeted, ‘is its total independence from sonorous material.’Footnote 50 Though these remarks come in the context of a work devoted to Bach, at this moment of the text Schloezer's argument becomes broad and sweeping, having more to do with an essential view of western versus non-western musical systems than with any specific composer. Through the medium of writing, a composer takes a sound as a ‘number’, not as a material element, amounting to a ‘dematerialization’ of the sound space.Footnote 51
It is through Schloezer's affirmation of the western composer's writerly authority – his claim that the ‘creative act of the artist is to embody this number, to charge it with a certain reality, to confer a qualitative value upon it’ – that we can hear the echoes of an earlier philosophy of writing. By affirming that western phonetic writing is the Aufhebung or ‘sublation’ of non-western forms of writing, G. W. F. Hegel performed the kind of ‘dematerialization’ that characterized Schloezer's notion of the western sound space. ‘Intelligence expresses itself immediately and unconditionally through speech’, Hegel proclaimed, affirming that hieroglyphic or pictographic scripts are merely material.Footnote 52 A pictogram creates meaning through the physical trace of a word, whereas phonetic writing activates the medium of voice, floating free of materiality.
Even as Artaud disdained the metaphysics of phonetic writing, he still relied implicitly on this metaphysics. According to this metaphysics – which Derrida famously termed logocentrism – the presence of voice, of vocal sound, grants western forms of writing a privileged ontological status.Footnote 53 Though Artaud sought, in his own theory of the theatre, to disavow the representational norms of theatrical writing in ‘the West’ (as he construed it), the theatre theorist's dream of a ‘hieroglyphic’ writing hinged on the same East–West dualism that Derrida found in Hegel's philosophy. And even though Boulez's own musical writing was never, strictly speaking, ‘phonetic’, écriture was his vehicle to subsume expressions drawn from sources outside of Europe. Thus the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between ‘the West’ and the rest, was not only affirmed but also served as a basic premise of Boulez's musical language through the various stages of his development. To hear how Boulez ‘dematerialized’ the sounds of Europe's others in a slightly later phase, let us follow him to South America with the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault. In the period following his early encounter with Artaud, Boulez's lifelong quest for ‘pure’ or neutral sound took shape as he heard the percussion of Afro-Bahian ritual, sounds that fuelled his endeavour, as he later put it, to ‘absorb’ non-European sounds into the abstract and ideal space of western music.
‘A magical Greece’: Bahian ritual in Le Marteau sans maître
[This], for me, is very important: that we absorb other cultures not only by their content, but also by the way they are transmitted through sound.– Boulez, from a late interviewFootnote 54
As the musical director of the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault (from approximately 1946 to 1956), Boulez encountered many ‘extra-European’ sounds. ‘I am already back at work on Le “Marteau sans maître”’, he wrote to Stockhausen in August 1954 while on a boat from Brazil to Dakar.Footnote 55 ‘I've brought back a haul of ‘exotic’ instruments: wooden bells, double bells made of iron [‘cloches doubles en fer’], Indian flute, little Indian guitar, frame drum, bells [‘grelots’], Jew's harp [‘birimbao’] (a very curious instrument from Bahia, but of African origin).’Footnote 56 This curious collection supports Boulez's admission that the timbral palette of Le Marteau sans maître derived from sources beyond the borders of Europe, but the connection between Le Marteau and Brazil goes a step further. While visiting Bahia during the Compagnie's tours of 1950 and 1954, Boulez and Barrault witnessed spiritual rituals that the composer dismissed as ‘ineffectual rites and cults’ and that the actor championed as expressions of the essence of Greek tragedy.Footnote 57 ‘I saw macumba’, Boulez stated – a term that refers to many varieties of Afro-Brazilian magico-ritual practice.Footnote 58 ‘Some absolutely incredible things occurred’, he continued: ‘I remember now, for example, that there was a black man who weighed at least 110 kilos, huge’; after entering trance, ‘he spun like a spinning top, very quickly’, and while ‘all of this … seemed very dangerous and violent at times, it ultimately was not at all, since you have kids from four- or five-years old in the middle of it all’.Footnote 59 What Boulez and Barrault likely saw in Bahia was a Candomblé xirê or ‘liturgy’. The term ‘Candomblé’ connotes various religious practices of West African origin.Footnote 60 Once imported to Brazil beginning in the early nineteenth century, Candomblé became a complex syncretism of African and Catholic beliefs – still today, Yoruba and Fon deities (orixás) are often idolized as Catholic saints. In a later interview with O'Hagan, Boulez expressed awe at the percussion of the public Candomblé ceremony he witnessed, much like Barrault, who, in his 1959 Nouvelles réflexions sur le théâtre, described his obsession with the Candomblé after witnessing a man spinning about in a trance.Footnote 61
The manner in which a being, whether black or Indian, suddenly finds himself struggling as the Spirit is transmitted to him; the manner in which the medium, after transmitting the Spirit to him, follows alongside this being; the manner in which trances are developed; the ‘purified’ calm that follows; the ritual of these nocturnal ceremonies – all of this struck me, and, so to speak, bound me to these mysterious and endearing people.Footnote 62
It may seem outlandish to suggest that any part of Le Marteau sans Maître, a monolith of autonomous modern music, was in fact modelled after a Candomblé liturgy. While Boulez did not explicitly cite the Candomblé as a source for Le Marteau, by examining the ‘Commentaire I de “Bourreaux de solitude”’ alongside Barrault's account, we perhaps discern traces of spirit possession taking musical form.Footnote 63 Boulez finished the ‘Commentaire’ in South America, mailing the first completed draft to his publisher, Universal Edition, during the 1954 tourFootnote 64 – and he had already witnessed Candomblé at least once (if not several times) by this point. The poetic arc of the ‘Commentaire’ follows that of the Candomblé xirê – or, at least, seems to follow the ‘ethnographic reconstruction’ of a xirê that one can read in Barrault's Nouvelles réflexions, or see in another contemporaneous source, director Marcel Camus's film Orfeu Negro (1959). While Barrault and Camus each turned the Candomblé liturgy into an allegory for a kind of timeless (but ultimately western) spirituality, Boulez relocated the allegory from the level of representation to the level of sound, employing what might be called sonic allegory. Of course, Le Marteau does not ‘sound like Brazil’; it is not a literal reconstruction. Boulez neither cited Aeschylus (like Barrault) nor the story of Orpheus (like Camus); instead, I suggest that Boulez's sounds became infused with mythical presence through an allegorical use of the Candomblé.
Figures of the Candomblé liturgy described in ethnographic sources align with the principal characters in Barrault's account. In his Nouvelles réflexions, Barrault describes entering a large gymnasium and watching a group of white-clothed initiates walk together towards their pai de santo, the main priest.Footnote 65 Accompanied by the regular beat of a drum – presumably played by the master drummer, or alabé – the practitioners gather before their priest, who is seated next to an altar scattered with Catholic relics and a large statue of Christ. ‘The glance of the priest and his smile’, writes Barrault, ‘the huge Christ's sorrow dominating the table, and the pervasive scent of the incense gave an unusual touch to this small-town cocktail-party.’Footnote 66
The liturgy that Barrault describes unfolds with a specific pacing and a gradual increase in intensity – a kind of dramatic arc reminiscent of Boulez's ‘Commentaire’. The opening bars produce a similarly meditative mood, complete with a subdued processional rhythm (Example 1).
Warming up with three leaps of a flute, a xylorimba and pizzicato viola playing short percussive attacks, the ‘Commentaire’ is a rhythmically layered fabric supported by the irregular accents of a frame drum (like the one that Boulez brought home from Brazil). The score partakes of the cryptographic sublime: with many changing time signatures, the music seems to conceal an underlying order. Even without cracking the Boulez code, though, we can hear that the ‘Commentaire’ shares a basic rhythmic feature with the Candomblé: a regular pulse – notated with vertical lines in the score – which will undergird a longer unfolding progression.
In Barrault's account, the regular drum rhythms accompany the practitioners as they sing a ‘canticle’, and then, during an interval of silence, the main priest and practitioners begin smoking ‘cigars … that stimulate hallucination’.Footnote 67 This moment of silence is crucial to the overall narrative arc of the ritual that Barrault describes, just as the insertion of a fermata one third of the way through the ‘Commentaire’ prepares ground for the tumultuous section to follow (Example 2).
During the lull, as Barrault accounts, a medium elected by the high priest – perhaps the babakekerê or pai pequeño (‘little priest’) – begins to walk among the initiates. The drums start again; the practitioners sing; the medium wanders among them; and as the canticle becomes more intense, finally the medium provokes ecstasy: ‘All of a sudden one of the choir singers was electrocuted by the medium. Like a wounded man he bent forward and moved inside the circle.’Footnote 68 Following the motions of this initiate, Barrault begins to insert vocal utterances drawn from a much different source. ‘Let us follow the “wounded” man. At first the others do not notice him … . He looks surprised: “O to to toï”. Something like a burning arrow has stuck in the middle of his heart’, and with a grimace of pain, he cries ‘Popoï da!’Footnote 69 This ‘wounded man’ begins to writhe, his movements
reminiscent of sex or of nausea, of carnal trembling or of vomitous expulsing: his mouth is twisted, his eyes bulging out. ‘Apollo! Apollo!’ … . He begins to whirl round like a top … his face is completely deformed … . He sometimes seems to be in contact with the Spirit who clings to his neck and speaks to him; he lifts his eyelids and eyebrows to ask: ‘Apollo, god of voyages, where are you leading me?’Footnote 70
After the fermata, an increase in tempo accompanies an intensification in timbre as the next section of the ‘Commentaire’ commences. The xylorimba player switches to hard mallets and the tambour player to four bongos. Boulez notates the pulse with triangles and brackets rather than vertical lines – pulse areas rather than distinct beats – and he inserts momentary pauses: we can imagine the wounded man bending to the side for a moment before the spasms continue (Example 3).
The ‘Commentaire’ eventually calms, the original tempo returning as the bongo player switches back to the tambour; then decrescendo; then lull to a quiet end. It is the intensification midway through this movement, and the subsequent thrashing, jolting rhythms, that betray Boulez's ethnographic source. ‘The candomblé was … most impressive’, he recounted, presenting ‘a mixture of sound: the excitement of the percussion, and then … a calm moment, … always with voice – the contrast between percussion-voice, like psalms.’Footnote 71 The four instrumental voices in the ‘Commentaire’ mirror the four main percussion voices in the xirê: the smallest drum (the lê), the middle-sized rumpi, and the bell (agogô) repeat their own distinctive patterns, while the largest drum, the rum, organizes the choreography. The rum player, according to Gerard Béhague, spurs practitioners to trance through techniques of dobrar – or diminution, ‘doubling’ the frequency of repetitions – and virar, abruptly shifting to denser rhythmic patterns.Footnote 72 The intensification midway through the ‘Commentaire’, a kind of virar spurred as the tambour player switches to bongos and as the tempo increases, echoes the kind of rhythmic diminution and timbral intensification through which Candomblé drummers thrust practitioners into bouts of santo bruto – or ‘wild god’, an especially exuberant form of spirit possession.
This moment of spirit possession seems to pose certain questions of an anthropological bent about the Candomblé as a performed event (what is going on? how do practitioners understand what is happening?) and about the Candomblé's authenticity (does a practitioner really enter the trance state? does a god really possess him?). In the state of ‘wild god’, Béhague continues, initiates appear to become ‘horses of the deities’ (exin orixá). The ‘thought-image’ of a particular deity comes down and ‘mounts’ the devotee who enters santo bruto; through a divination game, the main priest interprets these acts of spirit possession to determine which orixá has mounted the initiate, who henceforth devotes him or (more often) herself to this deity.Footnote 73 Boulez's observation that the xirê ‘seemed very dangerous and violent at times’ but ‘ultimately was not at all’, since children walk among the practitioners, had implications that the composer may not have intended. Candomblé is itself a kind of reconstruction, a deliberate and consciously practised performance through which practitioners can enter another state of awareness, but always with an element of control. Santo bruto allows the illusion, as David Graeber has written with reference to certain African fetishes, that the apparent magic one witnesses is both a farce and an authentic spiritual transformation. Both positions seem to coexist, however impossibly: that the Candomblé is ‘mere show’ – a god does not ‘really’ mount its devotee – and that santo bruto is a genuine process of becoming. The writhing body is both an actor and a god ‘in the process of construction’.Footnote 74
The seeming or real presence of gods – depending on one's perspective – has allowed the Candomblé to become an allegory for various kinds of spiritual experience. In Barrault's account, it became an allegory for an originally western theatrical essence, the ‘wounded man’ embodying the spirit of Aeschylus's medium, Cassandra. In 1954 the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault adapted the Aeschylus trilogy Oresteia, a production for which Boulez, eagerly at work on Le Marteau, would provide music. In Cassandra's opening utterance of the Agamemnon, ‘Ototoi popoi da; Apollo, Apollo!’, unintelligible, foreign syllables burst from her lungs as a choir sings, much as the Bahian chorus accompanies the wounded man's spasms. She calls out to Apollo as she prophesies Agamemnon's impending murder, soon to die with him. While sketches of the Compagnie's production, L'Orestie, are scarce, and Boulez's music is incomplete and no longer performed, I wonder if Cassandra's ecstasies found their way into Le Marteau. According to his and Barrault's plan for the production, Cassandra's prophecy was to be accompanied by an extended percussion passage (in place of Aeschylus's choir), and one can imagine that this music would have sounded a lot like the ‘Commentaire’.Footnote 75
In any case, Barrault whitewashed the Candomblé as an expression of primordial Greek-ness. His account concludes with a vignette of himself, back home in Paris. He pulls his copy of Aeschylus's tragedy off the shelf and re-imagines Cassandra's prophetic bouts of hysteria as if she were a Bahian native, believing that the nameless wounded man's cries and spasms revealed a pure and timeless ‘true life’.Footnote 76 A narcissistic projection indeed, the Bahian ritual reflected for Barrault a deeper Self through the fantasy of the Other: ‘not something erudite, not the famous Greek harmony of our grammar schools, not the Greece of bleached statues, but an archaic, juicy, human, anguished Greece in constant contact with the mystery of life: a magical Greece’.Footnote 77
Barrault was not alone in viewing the Candomblé as an allegory for a magical Greece. In Camus's Orfeu Negro, released the same year as Barrault's Nouvelles réflexions, the Candomblé becomes a moment in Orpheus's journey to the underworld to find the soul of Eurydice. Set in the mid-twentieth-century slums of Bahia, and featuring Orpheus (played by Breno Mello) as a black guitarist ready to play at the carnival, Orfeu Negro depicts the Candomblé as an authentic expression of contact between the living and the dead. The gold-clothed Orpheus attends a liturgy led by a cigar-smoking main priest, and which features both an altar to Christ and a circle dance in which a female practitioner becomes possessed, writhing and screaming. The Macumba scene culminates as Eurydice's spirit takes possession of an elderly woman standing behind Orpheus: Eurydice's acousmatic voice begs him not to turn around, and when he inevitably does and sees only an elderly woman, the voice bids Orpheus farewell forever.
Boulez never credited the Candomblé as an explicit influence on Le Marteau, and never would have stooped to the ‘simple ethnographic reconstructions’ that we can read in Barrault's Réflexions or see in Camus's film. To take the Boulez of 1954 at his word would mean believing that the Candomblé had hardly made an impression on him. The natives exhibited ‘some impressive hysterical states’, the composer wrote to Pierre Souvtchinsky, ‘but the rites and cults … addressed to God, to the devil, to the phallus or to the virgin, are always ineffectual rites and cults for their own ends’. It is conspicuous that Boulez, at this stage of his development, distanced himself from Artaud – ‘I am more and more convinced that Artaud was on completely the wrong track.’ He dismissed the rituals for much the same reason that he dismissed Catholicism (which he must have seen reflected in the Candomblé): worshipping God or the devil, the virgin or the phallus is ‘ineffectual’, in his words, since ‘hysteria [is] one of the most passive states’.Footnote 78 To ‘reconstruct’ hysteria in the manner of Artaud's Pour en finir, from this perspective, would be to aspire to a ‘passive state’, while Boulez sought something more active and also more abstract, musically removed from Bahia. To ‘organize delirium’ means to consciously create it, to write presence.
The accents of Boulez's frame drum, unlike a Candomblé bell pattern, are quite irregular, hardly an ostinato; the voice of Boulez's flute is neither repetitive nor diatonic in the manner of a Candomblé vocal melody. Yet this is Boulez's composerly conjuring trick. The rhythmic character of the ‘Commentaire’ mirrors that of the xirê: starting with a regular pulse interspersed with accents, Boulez follows the poetic arc through which a practitioner, guided by rhythmic and timbral intensification, enters another state of being. He wrote this being into music. Barrault's all-too-obvious allegorization of Candomblé as ‘a magical Greece’ is, I suggest, an apt analogy for Boulez's own (more covert) appropriation: sound itself became a kind of redemptive western allegory through which Boulez affirmed the mysterious power, the elemental force, of sound.Footnote 79 Even in Béhague's ethnographic account, the power that music can seem to wield over Candomblé practitioners becomes an oblique allegory for musical autonomy. ‘The immediate call to possession’, he stated, ‘comes from the music itself’.Footnote 80 Music wields its own mysterious powers: the effects of the Candomblé drums become an allegory for the immediate spiritual power of the music itself, a tacit acknowledgement of the autonomy of musical aesthetics. And ‘the music itself’ was the site of Boulez's own allegorizing.
Musicology has encountered this situation before. Boulez appropriated an originally spiritual form without its original spirituality, a bid for musical purity along the lines of Igor Stravinsky's disavowal of his own ethnographic sources. The mythic power of a springtime rite becomes relocated, through a composer's disavowal of ‘extra-musical’ influences, into the autonomous space of music. Debunking this modernist myth of ‘the music itself’, Richard Taruskin cited the many folk songs that Stravinsky wrote into Le Sacre du printemps, and demonstrated that Stravinsky invoked the poetics of the rite – whether a virgin sacrifice or the wedding depicted in Les Noces – to convey a primitive immediacy of consciousness. For Taruskin, Stravinsky's autonomous music was an endeavour to embody in musical form a Eurasianist dream of a united Russian spirit and Russian land between Asia and Europe. It was a land floating somewhere in the music itself.Footnote 81
For Boulez, too, the primitive state evoked by a rite beckoned towards a sonic utopia, but this utopia was even less worldly. He did not call for a new national consciousness, nor did he imagine that the sounds of the ethnographic other could uncover a more original or more ideal political reality. Instead, his effort to forge the essence of the other's hysteria without representing a specific ‘other’ reflected perhaps the oldest, purest, and quintessentially western philosophical dream: ontology.
Conclusion: To have done with the judgement of Ontology
[I]n its closure, it is fatal that representation continues.– DerridaFootnote 82
There is perhaps no better term for Greek essence than ontology. ‘A Greek invention first of all’, to quote Derrida, the term refers to a discourse (logos) about being (on), premised on an ontological difference between particular things of the world and their metaphysical ground.Footnote 83 Drawing from Heidegger, Derrida held that ontology presupposes a difference between ‘Seiend (being in English, étant in French, ens in Latin)’, and ‘Sein which means in French Être, in Latin Esse. In English, there is no way to translate the difference between Seiend and Sein’, which is why translators sometimes render ‘Seiend as “being” with a lowercase “b” and Sein as “Being” with a capital “B” which is rather problematic’.Footnote 84 Lowercase ‘being’ refers to an entity existing in its temporal and spatial specificity – we can think of the specific sounds of Boulez's ‘Commentaire’, or the writhing body of Barrault's imagined ‘wounded man’, as ‘beings’ in this sense – whereas Sein (or Being) refers to a more abstract sense of presence that is presupposed whenever one writes. However, as Derrida contended, ‘Être/Sein is nothing’: there is no single ‘essence’ in which to unite diverse beings, since ‘You can never find anything anywhere that we can call Sein, and yet Sein is presupposed each time we say “this is a being”’.Footnote 85 This linguistic difference between Seiend and Sein became, in Derrida's philosophy, an ontological différance between the signifier – the particular material word – and the signified, which is ideal and immaterial. By observing that the signifier and signified, like ‘being’ and ‘Being’, imply distinct and incommensurate temporal orders, Derrida argued that the whole of western metaphysics, which ‘has been constituted in a system (of thought or language) determined on the basis of and in view of presence’, had been operating under the spell of a fiction.Footnote 86 Presence, or Being, does not ‘exist’ in the strict sense.
Ontology, the bedrock of European philosophy, appears often in Derrida to be little more than a game of writing – though far from inane. It is a discourse that grapples with the nature of being through the logos; that is, through ‘reason, discourse, calculation, speech – logos means all that – and also “gathering”: legein, that which gathers’.Footnote 87 If a logos is a ‘gathering’, ontology gathers many disparate beings under the general sense of Being. This is why, for Levinas, ‘ontology as first philosophy is a philosophy of power’.Footnote 88 Philosophical discourses about Being had always been constituted through a process of appropriation-by-assimilation, since an ontology takes form as the other – whatever is outside of Being – becomes ‘gathered’ within a western logos. Though Levinas articulated this ‘ontological imperialism’ in the abstract, his political implications were clear enough. As Europe asserted its ‘being’ through economic exploitation and military domination, ontology arose to legitimize the coherency and intellectual supremacy of ‘the West’. This ‘West’, in turn, held ontology as a ‘pure’ and neutral medium to comprehend the world, since ‘Being, without the density of beings, is the light in which beings become intelligible’.Footnote 89 ‘The West’ gathers itself by subordinating and subsuming whatever does not enter this light.
Artaud and Barrault were after a kind of essence: the sensory barrage of the Balinese theatre or the spasms of a Candomblé practitioner became allegories for the Being of theatre. Even for Artaud, this essence was (sometimes) Greek: a Tarahumara rite that he witnessed in 1936 became, in his writings, ‘the rite of the kings of Atlantis as Plato describes it in the pages of Critias’. He continued:
Plato talks about a strange rite which, because of circumstances that threatened the future of their race, was performed by the kings of Atlantis.
However mythical the existence of Atlantis, Plato describes the Atlanteans as a race of magical origin. The Tarahumara, who are, for me, the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, continue to devote themselves to the observance of the magical rite.Footnote 90
All this allegorizing amounted to a navel-gazing fantasy that a deeper Self might emerge from the Other, somewhat like a Catholic cross emerging from the Mexican soil. ‘Philosophy is an egology’, Levinas declared, because ontology assumes that difference is but a mirage concealing sameness.Footnote 91
By disavowing the ‘simple ethnographic reconstructions’ that we can hear in Artaud or read in Barrault, Boulez displaced these explicit western allegories onto sound. Sound became ‘radically other’, and écriture became Boulez's ‘neutral medium’. This is ontological appropriation: musical writing becomes the pure light through which a composer writes the other into the ideal space of western music. ‘Real’ sounds, what Boulez called pure or neutral sounds, emerged for the composer only when the specific sonic world that he heard in South America, or that he encountered through recordings of Laotian or Cambodian song, were effaced, neutralized, and made part of his abstract musical imaginings.
Is this not how an ontology – any ontology – is made? A process of extraction and inscription makes reality thinkable beyond faulty appearances, a process of writing that makes the very distinction of reality from appearance possible. However, studying Boulez might remind us, to play a bit with his own concepts, that sound does not ‘become ontological’ until it passes through écriture. Ontology is neither a given nor is it a neutral medium – it only seems so, as if to name an ontology is to name what really is, which is part of the trick of the term. Ontology also cloaks the real with a shroud of mystery: a veil conceals many actual voices, ‘individualized’ sounds that fall mute whenever an ontology comes into being. And this same veil often functions as a bolster for scholarly authority. Ontology is a writerly conjuring trick, though a peculiar one because it seems so innocuous, connoting the ‘in itself’ of things – a real sound beyond language; a presence beyond what we can re-present.
In recent decades, however, many have sought to rescue ontology from its historical baggage as a philosophy of power. For proponents of the ‘ontological turn’ in anthropology, there are many possible ontologies. The anthropologist's job, according to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, is not to ‘[explain] the world of the other’, but instead to ‘[multiply] our world’ – that is, to expand the discursive ‘worlds’ of anthropology by letting the other remain other. ‘The Other [is] the expression of a possible world’.Footnote 92 From this standpoint, ontology is no longer ‘a discourse (logos) about the nature of being’, but, as David Graeber writes, has become ‘a word for “being”, “way of being”, or “mode of existence”’.Footnote 93 The state of santo bruto cannot be judged as real or phony if the practitioner belongs to a completely different order of being. Yet, if it is an ‘illegal move’, as Viveiros de Castro claims, for the anthropologist to call what appear to be magical moments such as santo bruto either true or false, holding instead we are witnessing a radically other ontology, then the ethical field becomes flattened.Footnote 94 The idea that many other worlds exist, protected from the anthropologist's Eurocentric gaze by a shield called ‘ontology’, seems to fall into an ethical dilemma familiar from the days of Franz Boas and his students. If we place the other in another ‘possible world’ – which is, after all, of our making – then there is no basis for truth, and no reason to take the other seriously. Hence no matter how ‘radical’ or progressive, to quote Paul Rabinow, attempts to construct relativistic theories of cultural difference risk ‘[leading] – despite their intent – to a form of nihilism, a reduction of the Other to the Same’.Footnote 95 Ironically, in this flattened field in which many ontologies become equally possible, ‘ontology’ regains its original meaning. If any entity might have or belong to an ontology, then everyone and everything is equally ‘ontological’ (and, then, why not have ontology on the beach? or ontology in bed?).Footnote 96 Though it may seem radical to think of many possible ontologies, as soon as the term is in play, there is only ever one ontology. It is still a discourse, a light through which to illuminate ‘beings’, making other worlds part of our own.
Ontology has not changed much since Derrida or Levinas wrote about ‘the West’. It has only become a kind of trump card for scholarly authority, since, as Graeber suggests, ‘the problem with cultural relativism is that it places people in boxes not of their own devising’: ontology ‘just substitutes a deeper box’.Footnote 97 In the musicological ‘box’, meanwhile, ontology seems to have ‘imperialized’ how some scholars think about sound. Applying Eduardo Kohn's rather simple definition of ontology – ‘the study of “reality”’ – to the study of sound, we can see that sound often stands for just that: reality.Footnote 98 ‘Noise [is] the ground’, as Christoph Cox writes, ‘that provides the condition of possibility for every articulate sound, as that from which all speech, music, and signal emerge, and to which they return’. Conceiving of the ‘sonic flux’ as an ‘immemorial material flow’ that humans can actualize by making music, but which always goes beyond the human, Cox positions noise as Being itself: the form of presence through which any particular sound or piece of music can be understood.Footnote 99 United in a project that Brian Kane termed ‘onto-aesthetics’, Cox holds that sound art discloses its own ontological condition just as Nina Eidsheim holds that certain forms of avant-garde practice – such as underwater singing – reveal the vibrational matter at the heart of sound.Footnote 100 While sonic flux resounds beyond human perception, vibration – which is Eidsheim's update to ‘noise’ – becomes the elusive pure presence underlying what we can represent. Ontology, in this sense, is a means to reconfigure subjectivity – ‘if we reduce and limit the world we inhabit’ by holding to preconceived notions about sound, she argues, ‘we reduce and limit ourselves’.Footnote 101 A distinction abides between music-as-appearance (something created) and sound-as-reality, and ‘sensing sound’ allows one to break free of Self-versus-Other binaries that continually ‘reduce and limit’ our self.
Despite these endeavours to ethically remediate the idea of ontology, the resonances between our present-day sonic ontologies and the sonic allegories of Boulez and Artaud's day should make us cautious about using ‘ontology’ as a stand-in for reality. Of course, there is a great distance between Artaud's pure theatre and Mexico, as between Bahia and Barrault's magical Greece. Simply describing Artaud and Barrault's writings is sufficient to uncover the ethnocentric mindset that we know (by now) to have been a part of artistic modernism. But somehow when the ontology of sound is in question it becomes harder to answer: where is reality and where is appearance? For Clifford, all ethnography is (in some sense) surrealist because ethnography always involves aestheticizing its findings.Footnote 102 The other appears to me through the writing that I know, becoming comprehensible as my representation; the art forms and expressions of the other resonate with my perception of my own culture, and thus the other's culture, viewed against mine, becomes a form of art. In sum, all culture can be something of an ethnographic artefact and a work of art, real because farce.
If all ethnography employs surrealist procedures, at least tacitly, I would venture that sonic ontology-making is surrealistic too. Which amounts to a rather simple conclusion: ontology-making is, after all, just that. A making. But it is a peculiar kind of poiesis, since ontology claims to present things as they really are. Thinking through Derrida's conclusions about Artaud, however, I wonder if ontology ‘really’ gets us closer to the real. ‘In its closure, it is fatal that representation continues.’ Precisely as he sought to disavow an older metaphysical regime – in Derrida's words, to ‘kill the Father’, both the religious Father who judges the world from afar and the Author-God who makes theatre into a mere ‘double’ of a metaphysical script – Artaud stayed within metaphysics. As soon as one acknowledges presence, it is already a representation. Presence is a mirage of the real, an illusory sur-reality vanishing like sound. We can see the limits of representation, its closure, but we cannot move beyond it. Instead, sound studies often ‘reconstructs’ an old modernist conjuring trick. Ontology-making conceals the maker, becoming another discursive guise for western Writerly Authority. Perhaps it is time to find a new tool. Or rather, perhaps it is time to have done with the conceit that sends us on endless discursive quests for sound beyond the human, or sound ‘post’-human. Let us dispense with reality once and for all.