The first transcription of a bird song appeared in Birds by Aristophanes and it consisted of the following stream of letters: “Epopoi poi popoi, epopoi, popoi… tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio… trioto, trioto, totobrix… Torotorotorotorotix, kikkobau, kikkobau, torotorotorotorolililix.” The first systematic set of transcriptions were noted by Johann Matthäus Bechstein in his book entitled The Natural History of Cage Birds (1795). It featured a section with a number of examples of bird songs that indicate the “dialects” for further research. They might have influenced Kurt Schwitters when he created his first sound poem: Ursonate (1922-1932). The first performance took place before an unprepared audience. At first the gathered public was baffled, then most people burst into hysterical laughter, but then as the piece progressed the atmosphere changed. At the end of performance that lasted over 30 minutes, the ambiance got more solemn and the applause at the end of the piece was as resounding as if Schwitters had put into resonance the souls of people themselves. Birds mark their territory with songs – the practice has a territorial aspect. Schwitters’s song announced the discovery and claiming of a new and unknown land, a place no bird inhabited before.
The previous list of incidents could be seen as unrelated, true or fictional anecdotes on interspecies relations. We could also treat them otherwise: as a sequence of moments in a story of constant translation and transformation. The birds that taught Aristophanes their chirps managed, thanks to that magical moment, to implant the lyrics of their song in the mind of an unsuspecting Bechstein, who in turn allowed Schwitters to become infected by this contagious warble. The same virus appears in some of the myths of the beginning of human music. The birds are the original teachers who present the gift that changes mankind forever – melody, whose magnetising power is still not fully comprehensible.
In 1976 Mark Twain wrote a short story entitled A Literary Nightmare. The narrator recounts an incident about an irresistibly catchy ditty that he encounters in the newspaper. Its simplicity conceals the real menace:
“Conductor, when you receive a fare, Punch in the presence of the passenjare! A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare, A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare, Punch in the presence of the passenjare!”
Twain (who doesn’t even hide his identity) narrates memories of the terrible days when the only thing he could focus on was the wretched rhyme. Naturally it was not the meaning of the piece that made it so hard to resist, but its sheer rhythm (as it was read in the newspaper it couldn’t have been supported by melody). The strangest thing occurs, however, when at last Twain finds a way to get rid of it: he tells it to a friend. From that moment it is gone from one person, but starts to inhabit and haunt the thoughts of another. The procedure is repeated again when the narrator decides to come to the rescue of a friend who suffers from a debilitating lack of concentration since the incident occurred. The strange disease found a way to be transferred from body to body by means of a spellbinding language.
Maybe it was an operation similar to the one described by Klee in his Pedagogical Sketchbook: the constant jump above the grey point. It functions as the undetermined centre of a set of opposing qualities, that is, the condition of dynamism and eternal movement. Its role is interestingly described: “Pathos (or tragedy) turns into ethos which encompasses energy and counter-energy within itself.” We should understand pathos here as a more general performance that offers a full array of “emotions” and ethos as a “character” that is the outcome of this practice.
Let’s try to transpose this mysterious practice into the experience of music. Theodor Reik in his book The Haunting Melody (1953) meditates on the influence of a certain composition by Mahler on his auto-analytical practice. He uses the notion of a loving couple to demonstrate how musical vocabulary can be used to understand social relations and processes: a society of two may represent society in general. The principle that everyone has his or her own rhythm that can either be in sync or out of sync with the rhythms of the surrounding is one of the most popular intellectual trends in psychology in the early twentieth century. Reik reaches a more important area when he observes that rhythm represents character as it structures diction; it gives form to ethos. A pre-inscription that sends us back to the chaos that obviously was not schematized by us so that we should appear as what we are. In this sense, perhaps, “every soul is a rhythmic knot.” We (“we”) are rhythmed.
Alessandro Bosetti’s relation with Janáček resonates with all of the stories. It reaches to the depths of the genesis of sound poetry from the chirp of the bird whose song became lethal once it became language. It restages the malady of the body being exposed to the worst examples of germs inhabiting tongues. It finally exemplifies how a self is being born and can be demolished by the act of repetition of the simplest words that enter into connections beyond understanding.
Leoš Janáček used to scribble notes and record the speech melodies that he heard everywhere around him. He did not care much about the possibilities enabled by the discovery of the mechanical recording technology of Edison or Bell, but preferred to write by hand for later use. The last element is a hypothesis because we could also assume that he used to scribble in order to get the melodies out of his head and enclose them in a sealed form that would not come back from beyond the grave to further haunt him.
Instead of trying to find melodies from notebooks in Janáček’s compositions, Bosetti set out to perform a bodily experience of re-synchronization with the sounds long gone, and took notes with the use of deficient but personal technology. The rhythm gets redoubled and the eerie effect of a personality split is re-performed. The bold decision to get himself infected with all the pain of the process of building the personality of a Czech composer brought Bosetti to a point where he, just like Schwitters, recites the meaningful (or meaningless) fragments of another reality.
Rhythm as the knot that gives the essence a form. Klee’s musical imagination enabled him to see the formation of an image as a process that is set in measured motion. A similar process is being recorded in the development of the self. Music is setting up a mechanism into motion. This is possible because the self is structurally similar to a musical piece.
Daniel Muzyczuk’s liner notes to “The Notebooks” CD release on Bolt Records.