July 25, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Lance Olsen's [[ there. ]] is a stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, a book that acutely touches on how we think, remember, and learn.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
wrote [[ there. ]]—part critifictional meditation and part trash diary about what happens at the confluence of curiosity, travel, and innovative writing—during my five-month residency last year at the American Academy in Berlin. The book performs what it is thinking about, collaging together observations, facts, quotations, recollections, and theoretical reflections touching on various authors, genres, and places, from Beckett and Ben Marcus to David Bowie and Wayne Koestenbaum, film and architecture to avant-garde music and hypermedia, the Venezuelan jungle and Bhutanese mountains to New Jersey mall culture and Berlin itself.
Maybe 35 years ago, when I first started writing seriously, I listened to music all the time at the (then) typewriter: to get into the mood, to conjure a character's obsessions, to distract me from the world making noise on the other side of my imagination. But about half a decade into the process, I gave up. I noticed the music had a tendency to impose its own rhythms on my sentences—which is to say it became one more distraction.
Nowadays I'm pathetic. I write in a second-floor room with the shades pulled, the door closed, my cell phone off. Still, music continues to play a huge roll in my writing, both in form and content. I don't know where my language would be without it.
"Where Are We Now?" by David Bowie
Released 8 January, 2013—Bowie's 66th birthday and five days after I arrived in Berlin—"Where Are We Now?" became my anthem during my residency at The American Academy. It had been 10 years since we'd last heard new music from Bowie. The video, you may remember, features experimental filmmaker Tony Oursler's wife Jacqueline Humphries and Bowie as conjoined homunculi perched atop a pommel horse in Ourselr's junk-filled New York studio. Behind them runs grainy black-and-white footage from pre-Wende Berlin.
But here's the thing: that song isn't about a rock'n'roll suicide or a suffragette city. It's all about changes. Which is to say all about the thematics I was obsessed with while composing [[ there. ]]. Listen, and you hear a voice washed through with time—frailer, more spectral, yearning, candid than its earlier iterations. You hear Bowie hanging out with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed at the club Dschungel in the late seventies, throngs of East Germans passing across the Bösebrücke, the first border crossing that opened as the Wall fell on 9 November 1989—20,000 in the first hour, each unsure whether he or she was allowed to do what he or she was doing. You hear Bowie's heart attack back stage during a 2004 performance in Germany, his rush into emergency surgery for an acutely blocked artery.
What moves me most, then, is how shot through it is with that blue-eyed boy Mr. Death, how it could never have been written by a musician in his forties or thirties, let alone his twenties. After sixty, it says, your face becomes an accomplishment.
"Xenos III" by Beat Furrer
Emblem for the innovative gritty restlessness called Berlin. In this amazing sound experiment, a percussionist recites haunted language particles by the Austrian author Händl Klaus (who was born, inverted, as Klaus Händl) into the timpani while the orchestra presents itself as a miscellany of instrumental tremors, scratching sounds, long tones, and mini-gestures all designed to make you contemplate what we mean when we say the words instrument, hearing, and even music itself.
"Looking for Freedom" by David Hasselhof
The song The Hoff sang on stage in front of the Brandenberg Gate while sporting a jacket bedecked with myriad miniature light bulbs on New Year's Eve 1989, a month after the Wall fell. Matthew Wilkening of AOL Radio philosophized that this piece's presence in the cosmos testifies to nothing less than the power of music—horrible, horrible music—to unite and uplift us all. Another way of saying this: "Looking for Freedom" is emblematic of the opposite of Bowie's and Beat Furrer's music, different as those are from each other. It's an example of what the Germans call Schlager, the word (literally meaning hit—in the musical sense—as well as wooden club) for the overly sweet ballads with catchy melodies and love lyrics that were especially popular in the country during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and that saw a kitsch comeback in the 1990s and early 2000s. Schlager is the sonic lint Krautrock groups like Kraftwerk, Popol Vuh, and Tangerine Dream tried to sweep out the door. Schlager isn't political. That's exactly what makes it so political.
"Helden" by David Bowie
The German version of "Heroes" from Bowie's second album in his Berlin trilogy. Rich with Brian Eno's ambient sounds, replete with white noise generators, synthesisers and koto, "Helden" is the song The Hoff, if he had been someone else (a talented musician, for instance), would have sung in front of the Brandenburg Gate. I don't know why, exactly, but the German version about the divided city strikes me as tremendously more powerful and textured than the English. By the way, there's an awesome and awesomely sad cover of it by Andrea Schroeder, a Berlin-based young singer whose voice is inhabited by the ghosts of Marlene Dietrich and Nico, that you should check out here: http://vimeo.com/61810245.
"Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt" by Friedrich Hollaender & Robert Liebmann
Speaking of Marlene Dietrich. As femme fatale Lola singing this stunningness in a seedy cabaret at the end of what the Germans refer to as The Goldern Twenties in Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (Die Blaue Engel)—written, by the way, by the magnificent Thomas Mann's brother, Heinrich—this song embodies what Germany could have been had it not committed cultural/ethical suicide in 1933. The Golden Twenties begat the Bauhaus's unadorned functional cubism; Döblin's textual montage, Berlin Alexanderplatz; Lang's Art-Deco-gone-darkly-crazy Metropolis; Grosz's exquisitely demented caricatures; Brecht and Weill's socialist revision of John Gay's Beggar's Opera; Benjamin's hyperactive cortex. At the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, the director's name was Albert Einstein.
"Berlin" by Lou Reed
The title track off Reed's follow-up to Transformer, this one forms part of the dark, hallucinogenic concept album about a doomed druggy couple named Jim and Caroline, and captures beautifully the same vibe The Blue Angel did 43 years before. A wonderful joke about "Berlin" is that Reed hadn't set foot in the actual when he wrote it. The song first appeared 1973. He first traveled to Germany in 1975 to visit—who else—Bowie and Iggy Pop, with whom he crashed for a short time in a then-crapped-out flat at Hauptstraße 155 in Schöneberg.
Kind of Blue by Miles Davis
Almost every week I visited one of Berlin's best jazz clubs, the A-Trane, at Bleibtreustraße 1 in leafy Charlottenburg. The club's name is an amalgam of John Coltrane's nickname, Trane, and the title of Duke Ellington's "Take the A-Train." I would go there to be reminded to be more extreme. Structured as a series of modal sketches, a form of constraint writing, in which each performer is given a set of scales that defines the boundaries of his improvisation and style, Kind of Blue is art as possibility space. Play. Feel. Think. Repeat.
"Depuis le Jour" by Isabel Mundry
I first heard this at the famous Berlin Maerzmusick Festival last year and it utterly blew me away. Fifteen strings and two percussionists allow the contrapuntal music of Late-Renaissance Dutch composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck to swell among an atonal mulligan that's all about making difficult the idea of spatial and temporal locality, how the memory of art's past remains detectable in art's present, the concept of the truly unique, the new, invariably amounting to defective back-fence talk.
"Brandenburg Concertos" by Johann Sebastian Bach
Well, of course: the first classical music I ever fell head over heels for, this back as an undergrad, although I can't remember how I bumped into it. I must have been 18. In any case, it's followed me through the years as an aesthetic challenge: how does one create a piece of prose structured, not in the way conventional narrative is, but in the way a perfect piece of crystalline music can be? One of my attempts at an answer is [[ there. ]].
[[ Anything ]] by John Coltrane
"Sometimes I wish I could walk up to my music for the first time, as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I'll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and that's too bad."
"Polis" by Oliver Schneller
And speaking of art as possibility space: "Polis" is a sound installation I stumbled across in a hallway at Das Haus der Berliner Festspiele on my way to see a play I've completely forgotten. "Polis" generates the aural illusion of being in four places at once by producing ambient noise from a quartet of geographically separate locations through a quartet of speakers: 11:00 a.m. in Cairo, 11:00 a.m. in Beirut, 11:00 a.m. in Jerusalem, 11:00 a.m. in Istanbul. What, it asks us to ask, does sonic identity sound like, if it sounds like anything at all?
[[ there. ]] asks us to ask the same question, only in reference to written, historical, and existential identity.
"These Days" by Nico
Please don't confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them.
"The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" by David Bowie
If you start with Bowie, you must end with Bowie, and so: this is the second video released from his The Next Day last year, and it takes the form of a captivating Lynchian strangeness. Tilda Swinton and Ziggy Stardust's father play an older bourgeois couple whose comfortable existence dislocates when a pair of rockers (one a version of the earlier androgynous Bowie himself) follows them home from the neighborhood grocery store and commences haunting their physical and emotional space. Yet the predictable erotic/demonic alien invasion narrative perverts by the video's conclusion: the older bourgeois couple turns out to be the opposite of what we anticipate. They begin haunting the younger couple even as they are haunted. Interpretive dissonance erupts, unmooring the comment Bowie and Swinton exchange at the video's outset: We have a nice life.
The existence that the older couple performs/deforms disarranges their younger disruptors even as the heavy-energy vintage-Bowie soundtrack complicates any simple reading of "Where Are We Now?"—including the one with which I began this semi-essay.
Which is to say, for me "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" forms a parable that goes like this. Almost directly across the lake from The American Academy, where I lived and wrote for those five and a half months, sits a villa that looks more like a modest palace than someone's residence. Something called the Wannsee Conference took place in it on 20 January 1942. Reinhard Heydrich, whom Hitler referred to admiringly as the man with the iron heart, presided. The topic of the conference, which lasted 85 minutes, and was attended by 15 senior officials of the Nazi regime, was The Final Solution.
My wife Andi, an artist and videographer raised Jewish, took a photograph of that building from our balcony between 7:40 and 7:50 every morning. She is currently in the process of linking them together to make a fast-forward short experimental film because for her every click of her camera represents an affirmation in the face of what went on in that place.
I'm still alive, each photograph says. You're still dead. Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.
Lance Olsen and [[ there. ]] links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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