Six years ago by sheer luck I encountered Arcade, a work of mixed media by Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu, when it passed through my hometown of St. Louis. Layer upon layer of densely packed ink drawings, each separated by a layer of clear acrylic which gave a “floating” appearance to the ink in 3D space, I was struck by the piece’s intensity and scope, by the precise detail of each drawing and especially by its combination of disparate elements to form such a dramatic and unified whole. It reminded me of the music I was studying at the time, namely Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, which in its third movement combines forces as far-reaching as Mahler and Stockhausen in a unique sort of collage.

Arcade was so affecting that I immediately embarked on a quest to understand its organizing forces, and it wasn’t long before I arrived at Walter Benjamin’s monumental Arcades Project [Passagenwerk]. Whereas Benjamin’s interest was in the rich cultural exchange at work in the covered street markets of late-19th century Paris, Mehretu’s concern with militarism, consumerism, and how they colored the geopolitical climate in the 21st century nevertheless brought her in touch with Benjamin’s theories.

Benjamin’s work largely concerns how history is preserved in our collective memory. As a musician I suspect that our perceived aggregate history of music is an arbitrary fable of progress towards the goal of growth and development. It is widely recognized that this tendency to measure everything against the narrative of progress is a common symptom of early capitalist thought. Some musicians also recognize that widespread music education and theory coincided with the rise of capitalist thought, which could explain why our history has been forced into the same didactic mold. The work of composers and musicians in the 21st century—from most stylistic spheres—has been teleologically mystifying for nearly a century itself.

Since I discovered Mehretu I’ve been working closely with some of Benjamin’s ideas in my own composing. Among others, the flâneur is a major subject of attention: one who walks the streets alone, observing culture but not participating in it.[1] Often narrating Baudelaire poems, these flâneurs were the private eyes of Parisian streets through the arcades, able to read from and infer everything about the faces of passersby. Pierre Hamp wrote that to be a flâneur was “to walk out of your front door as if you’ve just arrived from a foreign country; to discover the world in which you already live.”[2]

Boulevard_du_Temple_by_Daguerre
Boulevard du temple in Paris by Daguerre (1838)

When I came to Taiwan two years ago I was as foreign as it gets. I began playing jazz immediately and was fortunate to find five like-minded musicians with whom I’ve been playing ever since. Our band Flâneur Daguerre was my original test of Benjamin’s ideas. In FD we explore jazz and avant-garde music, contemporary classical, folk and pop alike. We work with Benjamin’s theory of dialectical images to program carefully selected music as well as originals works. These ideas have become the dominant process in my non-jazz, “concert” composing as well.

The French chemist Louis J.M. Daguerre developed his daguerrotype photographic process by accident in 1835, which went on to become the first commercially successful photograph. Benjamin wrote about these old, faded photos and their ability to arrest and capture time in a powerful new way, promising the unveiling of a true cultural history. A dialectical image is said to be a “stop” or “freeze” in the synthetic linear course of history, “dialectical” for its embodied interplay of arguments, and for its ability to convey an eternal, mythical time as an alternative to the collective, utopian fantasy of progress.[3] Both the daguerrotype and the dialectical image are visual modes of capturing history and shaping our collective memory.

Music enters the dialectical image by way of surprising, even kitsch sounds. The act of composing is an act of listening. In the moment when you hear something that sounds funny, kitsch, or ridiculous, does this sound strike you because it doesn’t belong there? Or is this moment a rift in our perception of where sounds go?

If there is such a thing as a musical flâneur then we’ve all played that role before. We are simultaneously listener, observer, critic, musician and composer. We are all wanderers, especially through our historical epoch, when sounds from all different places and eras can be combined or juxtaposed at the drop of a hat. Wandering through musical space and time is something felt daily in both active and passive listening. The flâneur who passes through streets and infers a cultural abstraction from what s/he sees can be a listener who encounters by chance the “sound apparatus” of everyday life, including noises and sound sources apart from purely “musical” ones. Along the way there are glimpses of truth; moments we were taught not to believe in or “hear” but which reveal aesthetic pleasure on a personal and collective scale.

Imagine listening to something on headphones in public, it mixing with environmental sounds on the street, with the elevator music, Muzak or radio piped in at your favorite restaurant. Somehow the sounds fit together, and maybe you had a good laugh over how initially obscure it sounded. You’ve had one such moment. These everyday moments, or “images,” are like puzzle pieces once lost but rediscovered, returning an element of truth to understanding the wide spectrum of music and artistic value systems.

But how can musical works be experienced as images? One is temporal and another is singular, isolated and frozen. I use “image” because the temporal element of music combines with the specific time and place in which you as listener receive it. The aura of a musical entity can be felt statically, illuminating the conditions from which the work emerged and in which it is experienced. This static aura is missing from an objective approach to a true distinction between idioms of style and era, and therefore how we value our art. Its limits can be felt at the worn edges of a photograph and at the edges of musical time.

When I hear something that strikes me in this way, whether a preexisting work or some chance combination of sounds, I hear sound reaching beyond its own borders. Like peering through a window into another reality, this sound does not feel like it begins at the moment of attack nor ends at the moment of release. You get the feeling that more is there, waiting. You follow a photograph to any of its edges, but a dialectical image is one in which you feel the image stretch beyond its borders, as if you could climb through the frame of Hooper’s Nighthawks and walk the rest of that dark, barren street.

In The Work of Art In the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin describes what he calls “the apparatus” confronting the viewer of a film.[4] This apparatus includes the camera and all of the production behind it, designed to capture a synthetic scenery for film. Returning authenticity to everyday life, dialectical images provide the chance to climb through that apparatus into the reality of what is in front of the camera—or the microphone.

Our images are combined in a constellation of time’s passing; often of history’s “trash,” the noises of culture, lifted from their “embeddedness” and reconstructed into a new montage, or collage. The inherent tension among neighboring fragments reveals a new interpretation of time and collective memory.[5]

At one of our earliest gigs, the members of FD discussed this condition of the flâneur as observer, voyeur, and each of us relates to it on possibly multiple levels. Those of us who are foreigners certainly are confronted immediately with its effects, but so do our Taiwanese members. For me, I make this condition the focus of my written music. In compositions for FD, I look for relationships among styles or idioms. For example, in my piece Chase Music Without a Scene, I focus on the 1970s “chase” film genre and treated the music found in those movies as its own genre, related to but separate from jazz or spy music. Truthfully this music is easily recognizable but “off-the-map;” you’d never read about its “era” in any jazz history textbook.

In my non-FD works, I work with collage forms, idiomatic sounds and musical “gestures” found on specific instruments. In 地獄的錢 Di Yu de Qian ("Hell Money") for piano solo, I worked with quotations of pieces that involve idiomatic piano sounds—those which clearly evoke the characteristic sound of the piano in various genres of piano music. These fragments were combined, restructured and worked into their own short, mobile compositions which were then juxtaposed based on how I could make the whole piece flow and how I could make each fragment flow from one to the next, as if in and out of a canvas, from one dream into another.

The journey of the flâneur, and the use of dialectical images in sound provide an open framework to explore and describe how others have heard and composed for almost 100 years. The story of music as the development from crude fossils of tonality and form—which flourished all the way through the 19th century and broke down in the 21st century—does not give much attention to epochs of music outside mainstream Europe and the Americas, nor to the changes in modes of listening and production which drastically changed aesthetic expectations over the last century. Writing, listening, and playing music this way has also been a personal journey that continually promises new gifts and discoveries. It has opened up my ears and given me an awareness I never could have imagined.



[1] http://www.thelemming.com/lemming/dissertation-web/home/flaneur.html

[2] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Eiland & McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002, p. 435.

[3] Pensky, Max. “Method and Time: Benjamin’s Dialectical Images,” in The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 177-198.

[4] Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Jennings, Dougherty, and Levin. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008, pp. 14-30.

[5] Pensky, pp. 185-187.

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