“By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or caldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth. In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him.”1
Although it is certain we have long since scientifically and intellectually surpassed them, the classical elements have maintained over the millennia their powerful grip on our cultural imagination. It is a simultaneously primitive and modern preoccupation, cathecting the world with ceaseless animation and insisting upon a reasoned and consistent way of relating to this vital and vatic world. Like eyes entranced by the sumptuous blaze of the ritual bonfire or motes driven to flurry by dervish-minded dust devils, this magnetism of the elements — so powerful as to seem immanent to the structure of human thought2 — directs and informs our experiences on every level, from the mundane (the sucking of a cigarette, the minor spark, the scattering ash, the errant droplet) to the mythological (the violence of the wind, the wisdom of the flame, the labyrinth of the earth, the dolor of the deluge). Our attraction is fundamental, as it remains our strongest link to the primordial, to the what-once-was.3
All things are hot or cold, and all things are dry or wet; via these conjugations, we can design a universe inhabited by fire (hot, wet), water (cold, wet), earth (cold, dry), and air (hot, dry). It is a logic of flow, of one thing becoming another, as postulated by Anaximenes who saw air as the foundation of all matter. “Πάντα ῥεῖ” said Heraclitus, glimpsing the world through flames.4 Everything moves and distributes, variegating the world by mixture of the elements, and when these flows are joined in the belly of behemoth or the length of leviathan, they are the might of creation.
By their time, the Stoics had identified the animating principle, πνεῦμα, at the seam where fire and air meet. Πνεῦμα is breath, motion, life, will, soul, psyche, circulation. In the elemental economy, the velocity of air and fire together creates matter and movement and differentiation. Breath is the push and pull of all existence housed in the furnace-chest of man.5 We are nothing without our breath.
Gaston Bachelard writes of the enchanting power of the flame in The Psychoanalysis of Fire. The first intellectual use of fire was as a focusing device, training the mind on the flicker of the flame and inciting reverie. As we sit in repose around the glowing, golden hearth, we see in the depths of the blaze a desire for change, for speed, for expiration. It is a drama of consumption dissolving the logs into ash before our very eyes. Bachelard finds this fascinating: “it magnifies human destiny; it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano, the life of a log to the life of a world. The fascinated individual hears the call of the funeral pyre. For him destruction is more than a change, it is a renewal.” Fire is the human element; why else would fire, a rare occurrence in nature, be one of the fundamental elements were it not the source of reverie and analogy, were it not the very stuff of human thought?
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.6
Perhaps that is why the newest release from Francisco López is somewhat of a disappointment. In light of this grand and encompassing socio-cultural history of the elements, Anima Ardens7, a soundscape for a homonymous dance performance, never manages to capture that elemental awe, the sheer sublimity, of its subject matter. What should have been volcanic and tempestuous was instead flaccid and sterile. This is not to impugn López’s stature within the sound art and experimental communities, but rather to articulate disappointment for a promise undelivered. López is undoubtedly a master of his craft, whether that consists of conjuring the astonishing and grotesque fecundity of the rainforest or capturing the wind scimitaring its way along the surface of Patagonia’s skin. Ironically, what this newest piece lacks is anima and ardor.
The sound wants for warmth, for ephemerality, for rupture; it demands an event. Within Anima Ardens, there is an event, but for the listener, it remains unseen. This event is, of course, the dance the sound is meant to score. Eleven men, constantly nude save a small appearance by a white sheet, sway and scrape and stomp and thrust and salute; they rave. Most important, however, is that they breathe. They breathe great breaths, rhythmic grunts synchronizing each body with the ritual. Thierry Smits, the Belgian choreographer, sees these 11 as a short-lived community exploring the continua of intensities embodied within each dancer, as individuals and as components. The language used to describe the piece — supposedly at “the limit of trance practices” — outlines Smits’s intentions clearly, and the nudity of the dancers, the explosiveness of the movements, and the coarseness of their expirations all serve to cast Anima Ardens as an elemental ritual, a bringing-near of the primeval relations between the body and the world8.
However, therein lies the problem: the stunning vitality of its kinetics eclipses the piece’s soundscape and leaves it sterile as a recording. As Bachelard asks, “How can one admire a spectacle that one has never seen?” and the question looms over the soundtrack of Anima Ardens. The correspondence between sound and movement is not only tenuous in performance, but nonexistent in listening. Without the dancers, the sounds seem groundless. There are cybernetic choruses of insects and fruitless skittering clicks. There are sounds murky and dense. Perhaps even some field recordings blended in. Are those frogs?
It has the texture of a swamp.
The long, chthonic rumbles that open the piece seem at odds with fire and air, just as the granular dripping and chirping seem to belong to some other element’s ken. The wind that buffets Anima Ardens is arid and incombustible; I imagine it frigid. When we speak of the soul9 afire10, we always speak11 of violence12. There is no violence in López’s synthetic ecosystem. Loosely connected elements chatter lazily and toward silence. There is energy, but it is not transformed. There is no heat on this breath.
Anima Ardens as a performance is, at its core, a human performance. It insists on human vitality as a mode of communication and a mode of knowing. Unfortunately, there is nothing human in López’s soundscape. Nothing stunning in its incandescence nor punishing in its vorticity. The act is separate from the sound; breath does not become fire, and fire does not become breath. The link is undone and πνεῦμα leaks away thinly.
No, for someone who understands fire and air, we should turn towards Empedocles:
And therefore, O ye elements! I know —
Ye know it too — it hath been granted me
Not to die wholly, not to be all enslaved-
I feel it in this hour. The numbing cloud
Mounts off my soul; I feel it, I breathe free.
Is it but for a moment?
— Ah, boil up, ye vapours!
Leap and roar, thou Sea of Fire!
My soul glows to meet you
Ere it flag, ere the mists
Of despondency and gloom
Rush over it again,
Receive me, save me!13
1. Job 41:18-22, KJV↩
2. Within and without, the elements have always constituted human experience. For example, humorism, which imagines the personality and behavior of man as completely contingent on the relationship between the elements in the body.↩
3. Vide Cecrops, the first king of Athens, begotten of the earth, whose trunks were but snakes.↩
4. Thales, the teacher of Anaximenes’s teacher, considered water to be the materia prima, positing that the universe merely floated along lazily in some grand cosmic swimming pool. No recorded pre-Socratic considered the earth to be the true firmament. Without a god, it seems, they were unable to imagine Holy the Firm. ↩
5. The Stoics believed the universe to be structured cyclically and central to that was the notion of ἐκπύρωσις, that the universe would be purified in a cosmic conflagration and begin again.↩
6. T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, 1942.↩
7. Depending on your translator, this could be rendered in English in any of the following ways: ‘burning soul,’ ‘burning breath,’ or ‘burning drive/desire.’ We will use all of these translations here.↩
8. Cf. Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, 1764. ↩
9. “Out of my heart and tongue you made burning coals by which you cauterized and cured a wasting mind of high promise” & “By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards: we grow red hot and ascend.” St. Augustine, Confessions, Books VI & XIII. ↩
10. “The ear is aflame… Sounds are aflame… The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame… The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame… The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame…” Adittapariyaya Sutta.↩
11. “’To disappear, to be swallowed up, to leave no trace!’ roared the woman’s heart, intoxicated with a desire of destruction. ‘That fire could devour me in an instant like a dried stick, like a bundle of straw.’” Gabriele D’Annunzio, Il fuoco, 1900.↩
12. “His thinking was a dusk of doubt and self-mistrust, lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it had been fire-consumed.” James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916.↩
13. Matthew Arnold, Empedocles on Etna, 1852↩