in Opinion | 12 MAY 05
Featured in
Issue 91

Laughter, Tears and Rage

Three new releases of philosophy-inspired music

in Opinion | 12 MAY 05

‘I’m in love with a Jacques Derrida/Read a page and I know what I need to/Take apart my baby’s heart.’ So sang Green Gartside of Scritti Politti on ‘Jacques Derrida’, the band’s surprise almost-hit of the summer of 1982. The combination of ecstatic pop and deconstructive nous was an attractive one, even if, like me, you’d missed this first subversive insinuation and had to make do, a few years later, with the newly successful Gartside’s singular interview technique. He may well have been the most articulate pop star ever: coyly undercutting his every commercial triumph with relentless auto-critique, like a freshly bleached starlet substituting the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci for the latest New Age flummery.
But beneath the playfulness, the remnants of a more intense post-Punk moment were being slowly disowned. At the cusp of the decade, reading lists were earnestly brandished without enervating irony, and the band The Pop Group could still sing ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ without a knowing wink. Sincerity, it would seem, is what sinks most efforts to marry philosophical intricacy to musical force. (Sometimes it happens the other way round: witness the laborious pomp of Canadian Prog-rockers Rush, with their comically crude take on Ayn Rand’s individualist agenda and their lyrics about towering oaks.) So it’s instructive to note how three recent releases negotiate the treacherous territory between discursive seduction and bathetic hectoring.
The first dispenses entirely with the text of its subject. Released last year by the Portuguese label Sirr, Noli Me Legere is dedicated to Maurice Blanchot, who died in 2003. The CD compiles responses by seven musicians and sound artists to Blanchot’s writing, which was haunted by the notion that a silence lay at the heart of language itself – in this sense it’s fitting that only one of the seven is voiced. Brandon Labelle and Maria Nisson trade words (‘disturbance ... want ... resolution ... ignorant ... drink’), which may or may not be excised from Blanchot’s oeuvre. Christof Migone records the sounds of a human eye (adding Bataille to Blanchot): odd plosives, insectoid rustlings and squelches that sound scarcely human. The most successful approximations of a Blanchotesque spirit are in the extremes of quiet and noise: the tempered ruminations of Julien Ottavi and Paulo Raposo versus Stephen Vitiello’s recordings of French street protesters and Toshiya Tsunoda’s treatment of ‘cicada chorus resonating a bottle inside of a bottle’. This last is a reminder of Blanchot’s comments on the power of literature to silence the cacophony of the everyday: ‘it is like the void itself speaking, an insubstantial, insistent, indifferent murmur.’
Still, it’s not easy to discern just what Noli Me Legere is for. It’s not a substitute for reading the books, and it risks suggesting a fairly unphilosophical ‘essence’ of Blanchot within easy reach, stripped of the messy stuff of thought and style. By contrast, English philosopher Simon Critchley has put his own words at the centre of his collaboration with musician John Simmons. The resulting CD, Humiliation (2004), is perhaps the bravest, or most foolhardy, move by a philosopher since the infamous night in 1996 when Jean Baudrillard took to the stage of Whiskey Pete’s casino in Nevada and (accompanied by Mike Kelley, among others) performed, in full gold-lamé-jacketed cabaret mode, a text entitled ‘Suicide Moi’.
Critchley is similarly shameless when it comes to genre. Over a selection of often infectious, if somewhat dated, styles — muted Trip-Hop, Latin-tinged pop, anthemic Techno-lite — he reflects on the nature of sex, Jesus’ first miracle and a coming nameless apocalypse. ‘We live in a time ... when the wind is rising’, he intones over a funky flute. Critchley, the author of an excellent philosophical study of humour, has since hinted that the whole thing is the upshot of a mid-life crisis. But its most beguiling effect is to conjure an alternative musical history in which the philosopher actually made it as a global pop sensation. He professes a fondness for George Michael: at times, despite the inherent preposterousness of the entire undertaking, you can hear a new world in which Critchley, loving the Beckettian vacancy of it all, has shimmied his catchiest track, ‘Cependant’ (lyrics courtesy of Georges Bataille), to the very top.
For serious hilarity, however, a recent CD by Canadian artist Brian Joseph Davis is a joyous and thoughtful thing. Packaged like an old vinyl seven-inch, complete with the indie-label injunction to ‘pay no more than $4’, Minima Moralia announces itself as a five-song EP by Theodor Adorno. Davis has taken an aside from Greil Marcus’ book Lipstick Traces (1989) to the effect that Adorno’s melancholy volume is as frantic and raging as a proper Punk product — and made it real, putting the man’s words in the mouth of a female vocalist, Dawn Unwanted. Over Davis’ perfect simulacra of minimal Punk energy, Dawn comes uncannily close to early Patti Smith with lines such as ‘The evil principle that was always latent in affability unfurls its full bestiality in the egalitarian spirit’. Which is not to say that Minima Moralia is a one-chord joke: it’s now impossible to read Adorno’s text without hearing it as Agit-Punk. As the sleeve has it: ‘old school, new school, Frankfurt school!’