CROSS-ART FORMS: REBECCA HORN'S FILMS

 

 

 

Pound said poetry should not drift too far from music. In his rarely heard opera, VILLON (a BBC radio 70's recording of which you can hear in the National Sound Archive of the British Library) Pound shows what he means. Any decent stab at the score shows a poet really interacting with music, his settings for Villon (already a very voiced, very expressive poet) shining a light on the French poet's work, and doing no violence to its cadences - most of the subtleties coming through. By contrast, many settings of poems magnify an aspect (amplification, if you'll excuse the pun, and lyrics set to music, always going together) of the text but shout or mumble through the bits of the poem the composer had no use for. Still, criticism sweeps through a poem in the same way, and we can still feel grateful for it.

 

One can play a game about poets who attend to music. The poet cris cheek once said to me that he could guess a poet's record collection, what she or he had on when writing, from the writing. I am leaving aside the question of how poets emulate technical effects from music or the compositional whole of a piece they like. Because if this happens, it most often is done in a slippery way: it's the music you don't think you're emulating that comes through. Bunting said he tried young to emulate Beethoven - and his one small newspaper article on Beethoven from the twenties is wonderful - but switched, to Scarlatti. Many have taken him at his word. In my mind, Bunting's poetry is all Beethoven, if bad Beethoven.

 

What about texts to fit around music, or have music in them? We are, of course, entering the season of the truly dreadful Poetry at the Proms. Few of the poems commissioned, usually for the interval of a broadcast Prom, are ever commissioned to fit with the music being played. Few come alive because of the way the music up to the interval has trained and tuned the ear. Few make inspired guesses at the emotional heart of the music. You can tell Kierkkegard loved Mozart's Don Juan before he tells you, loved it in detail. Few Prom poets can join George Bernard Shaw or E.M. Forster in pleading weakness of detail mitigated by strength of basic hunch, when talking about music. The commissioned poets seem not to be able to concentrate on a piece of music more than 5 mins long, and can't write sustained poems of any length either. Their damp squibs are short but not brief: they lack the concision of a piano piece or a lieder.

 

So how is one to learn how to keep one's artform from drifting too far from music? These commissioned poets seem unable to take on board strategies of word fragmentation and big diction shifts (which is how avant-gardist make the word into a chord, listening for its two or three constituent notes and how they pick up or clash with constituent notes in either words; and how they make Stravinskian shifts of time signature and instrument colour) but they might find it less in-your-face to study, say, a visual artist tuned to music. Music for an artist in another medium disrupts the will-to-habit and makes a more broken medium, more fragile and dependent (on music and musical sensitivity). When one opens to music, one cannot go back to music unchanged. But I can say this to a fellow poet and leave them thoroughly unchanged. If they see music impact on a non-musical medium that is not poetry, they might be a little altered, subtly, sweetly.

 

Who will do this?  The visual artist Rebecca Horn is close to music, and is currently being given a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. There are passages in each of her three (rare) films devoted to echoingly recorded musical performance, usually a musician rehearsing, trying out a phrase from different angles. People play music in her films, not as a window on a character (think of Jane Campion's The Piano, where in a sense it might as well be silence, dialogue free stares, and a soundtrack), but to show the concentration, people devoted to what they do - the factor experienced music-goers love in musicians. Horn similarly features dancers at work, process artists finding their process, and people moving objects and dressing for maximum beauty. But as part of a narrative, not as a documentary showing professionalism, work ethic, "how it's done" etc.

 

What then is her approach to writers, to poets? Let's look at her dialogue writing, first. In LA FERDINANDA, someone recites medieval poetry at a wedding, and it exists as a sort of aria in the whole - the whole is otherwise made of up of banal speech, with a nice Cagean ear for sculpting flatness that she only achieves in this film, in German; the other films are both in English.  There is often a voiceover, or a voiceover in all but name, which has about it something of the "cool speak" common to visual artists, a little deadpan but full of colour. In DER EINTANZER (dialogue all in English) there is a good ear for British English and New York English as the same Mary Steenburgen-like twin sister will switch from being unshockable and wit-matching with the New Yorker, English rose and formal with the blind Brit.

 

 

The debt to poets is clearer in her overall dramaturgy. She has often said how she likes Roussel, and the Oulipo writer Jacques Roubaud has written a sequence of poems about her, NUMS. She then excerpted NUMS, and projected isolated lines around walls in her piece LIGHT IMPRISONED IN THE BELLY OF A WHALE. The respect for poets, at least in those around her, doesn't stretch to including the full Roubaud text  (otherwise very fugitive) in the book of  LIGHT IMPRISONED IN THE BELLY OF A WHALE, which otherwise has a CD of music to go with it (Roubaud's text would fit on a tenth of a floppy). The Hayward is holding a reading from some pre-fifties French writers, not Roussel as far as I know, the French household names, who are read in translation in Britain and still gather around themselves an oh-so-daring readership who will feel "out there" with Rebecca at this reading. In practice, they are the canon of the beginner for anyone French, the basics.

 

The hunch I had when I heard about the films she made incorporating her trademark art gadgets (jumping tables, peacockless fanning feathers etc) is the films would be very Oulipo and Roussel, and I was right. Horn won't release these films on video or DVD now, so it's a treat to see them, shown twice this week at the NFT. Think not so much of Perec avoiding writing with the letter E, but say the writing of palindromes that then stand in a narrative, or number games, or the way Roussel would make a sentence A echo itself into a homophonic sentence B with another meaning, and then put sentence A at the top of the page, B at the bottom, and write a story to link them. Horn emulates this by finding a narrative in which to embed her objects that also helps unpack the object. In a gallery, for example, one simply expects wacky materials. Put one of her opening feather fans next to a real bird, and it feels more vulnerable, more alchemical. Her attention is also to number games of sorts with a ruthlessly kept-to rhythm of cuts, short scenes of what feels like a consistent short length, intercutting between characters. One thinks of Peter Greenaway's book, GOLD, which keeps a finer neatness of keeping all its many episodes short than the timings in his films have. Horn eschews Greenaway's compositional "old master" eye. There are often ugly objects in the background in some of her scenes - in this, she feels more like a documentary or process video artist, the frame itself is not artful (when Sven Nykvist is cinematographer for BUSTER'S BEDROOM, it's all too artful and sheeny, like a metamorphosed more daring late Woody Allen film)  just the objects and the performance art required of the actors. (Again, in BUSTER"S BEDROOM, there is a conceit to emulate silent movie acting, but it perhaps is not woven into a sustained whole, as artfilm, as we have come to know it.)

 

Her objects are made to fit, and the narrative arises from trying to make them fit. Film, and film that is not shown much, like a performance art piece, stands in the memory as you wander round looking at the objects in a spare clear gallery. The objects are lovely, with their tense slow crouching and their sudden pouncing, their awkward gambolling. They are concept art which you keep with you as a memory, that you could maybe commission a replica of, what would be nice. They are not concept art as advertising, the quick hit debasement it has become. The films are valuable as co-text, as model for making a verbal artform that embeds a word-object into a narrative (say a concrete poem object inside a narrative), and in the case of DER EINTANZER, smooth and expressive film art, if slightly creepy. Not as creepy as David Lynch, from whom one expects little emotionally, but creepy given one's emotional response to Horn as an artist. Horn does a lot of over-identifying with the disabled - with those in wheelchairs, and the blind - and with twins, that sometimes reminds me of early Star Trek. Yet the multi-layeredness of her work, the way that layers interact, compensates. One feels a child's curiousity, if verging on slight self-pity, in these films, that falls away - that comes into equilibrium - when one thinks solely of the objects. I find a candour in this, where perhaps there could be a boldness too: yes, at least there are disabled people in her films, but something more beckons than she's doing, as a film-maker. One admires her very light and easy touch with including gay characters, where they are not so much having to bear the burden of being the Other for sensitivity, for trouble. Still, the films of an art genius, troubled by music, troubling film convention, are showing for the first time in a decade, to a half-empty house. Therefore, go see.

 

     Ira Lightman 2005