Impressionism in painting details, quite to the contrary of its musical correlate, the very constitution of the world — whether with Monet, who captures the confluence of eye and object in which evanescent perception is not fixed in contour but blurred between light and air, or with Cézanne, who depicts the emergence of matter into form, where haze and blur are not properties of the veiled eye, but a subtle illumination from within, light congealing into the solidity of substance.
But impressionism in music? Neither the first utterance nor an enduring logos — a song singing the world into existence — this sort of impressionistic music details the world’s disappearance beneath its song and despairs in its futility with the foresight of the world’s endurance.
Under the thrall of these aetherial or submarine (never terrestrial, never corporeal) folk albums, I would never admit to myself these misgivings — because I love them — but after the music ends, I find their melancholic tenor suspicious, even manipulative. In the shell-shock of a silence that is not a silence but the sound of the world rebuilding its brutal objectivity in the dying reverberations of my memory of the music, I distrust the soporific tones under whose spell the world only seems to disappear. With the click of the tape cassette or with the whirling hum of a record that, no longer transfigured, returns to its status as an object, a material thing, I am left in awe of the possibility of its disappearance, and I am left disgusted by its all-too-blunt rigidity that was always there, even beneath the spell-bound seduction of its songs.
Lee Noble seems to be aware of the doubleness in the margins of dis/appearance, and, what’s more, he problematizes it — both as a revolutionary aim to establish (“Working”) and as a mythological text to revise (“Elektra”). Now it is a task of liberating the human voice (ψῡχή as soul and breath) from the material in which it’s trapped and from what is requisite to its liberation: violently yoking its spirit to the tape1.
On “Working,” Lee Noble quotes, or rather adapts from the treatise The Coming Insurrection written by the anonymous collective, The Invisible Committee, purveyors of revolution's irruption out of its postponement. He sings, "We're not depressed, we're on strike/ For those who refuse to manage our lives." Compare this with the source, which reads, "We're not depressed, we're on strike. For those who refuse to manage themselves, ‘depression’ is not a state but a passage, a bowing out, a sidestep towards a political disaffiliation.”
The reading hinges upon the crucial preposition “for,” meaning either “on behalf of/representational of” (we’re on strike for x) or “the recipient of” (depression, belonging to x, means y). In the source text, depression, as an exit from the public realm, becomes itself political once power reaches beyond the public into the private — that is, once a biopolitics is formulated, once power is exercised directly upon bare life. Depression then demands to be treated, not because it is a sickness, but because it prevents one from selling their labor or reproductive power. In this world, to be depressed, to be mad, to be hysterical is itself a form of protest only if one refuses to be treated. In the song, however, we hear the demand to be treated, to be managed, thus placating the silenced desire for self-management, breaching the picket line and picking at the scabs.
So, it’s quite perfect then that on “Elektra,” Noble chooses as a source text, not Aeschylus, Euripides, or Sophocles, but the fin-de-siècle librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the first lines of whose libretto for Strauss’s opera Elektra, a chorus asks “Where is Elektra?” Like with the male psychoanalysts, prison guards of the hysterical woman, Elektra is introduced just moments after the opera begins with the booming minor triad motif for Agamemnon, the absent, murdered father — that is, the woman’s identity is never in relation to herself, and woman-woman, woman-mother relationships are only derivative of the oedipal law of the father. Asking “Where is Elektra?” is tantamount to raging at her otherness and seeking to destroy her exteriority. She has no place in a patriarchal discourse; she can’t sing (her motif is a dissonant rupture of her father’s)2, so her last words in the opera are “schweigen und tanzen!” (be silent and dance). In Noble’s rendering, instead of rage, we hear sorrow, as if he were apologizing for his helplessness, for watching without intervention, for letting her be buried in her madness.
Noble’s sounds of submersion perhaps are not so nobly sounded — what we hear put to music are sounds that by nature can’t be put to music, which is why the songs themselves are buried beneath drones, the ghost of structure, and percussion as sparse and touching as the wisps and whispers of the dead.
Instead of the shimmering sounds of a new world coming into being, we listen in heartbreak to the silencing of the old into slumber (and oh how pretty is its futility). As a chorus, one can’t intervene in the world; one can only watch in a despair that is but the closing of one’s eyes to the despair of the world. One can only sigh, but it is not certain that one’s sigh will even be heard above the matter in which it is contained. The cage replaces the world, then when the music ends in the world’s disappearance, Dis appears, in sleep as it were, in the Hell of you, exeunt.
1. Some etymologies: (i) Record > re (“back, again”) + cor (“heart”) — thus, to record is to call back the heart is to turn away, to turn back from the heart. (ii) Tape > Middle Low German tappen, tapen (“to grab, pull, rip, tear, snatch”). (iii) Cassette > Old French casse (“box, container, etc.”) > Latin capio (“capture, seize, take”). Recording on a tape cassette is a violence, it is a capturing of the heart as well as a distancing oneself from the heart.
2. Agamemnon’s motif is a d minor triad, Elektra’s is a combined e major and c# major — her identity is split around the locus of her father. But of the mother? Nothing.