César Aira: The Musical Brain and Artforum

Life is like a book of short works by César Aira; you never know what you’re gonna get. But do try one and surprise yourself. Besides, who can resist book covers such as these? And how cool is that lenticular?

I have now accepted that a César Aira title is a blind date with a story or an essay. There might be some straightforward titles, but they are still no indication as to where his imagination will take you. How could I have known that A Brick Wall would be musings about cinema and childhood memories, or that the most musical one would not be the title story, or that Artforum isn’t exactly about art, or that my favorite line would come from one of the stories that didn’t appeal to me so much?

But then again, he writes in Athena Magazine, “Wasn’t that the definition of literature: the world turned upside down?”

The favorite line: “Elegance is a form of energy.”

The titles I recommend from The Musical Brain, and in this particular order: Picasso, In the Cafe, Poverty, and Acts of Charity.

As for Artforum, I don’t think any other author could be more eloquent about the maniacal acquisition of the printed word, a.k.a book-hoarding:

“One can say that they are only material objects, that other things bring true happiness. But would that be true? There always has to be something material, even love needs something to touch. And in my proceeds of that joyful day, the material was so entwined with the spiritual that it transcended itself, without ceasing to be material…they were paper and ink, and they were also ideas and reveries. They reproduced the dialectic of art itself… material made spirit is the luxurious border where reality communicates with utopia.”

You’re welcome!

Lev Ozerov: Portraits Without Frames

“Fifty shrewd and moving glimpses into the lives of Soviet writers, composers, and artists caught between the demands of art and politics.”

Fifty portraits in words by this man born in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire, this man with Jewish origins who extraordinarily survived the Shoah, and who walked among Akhmatova, Pasternak, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich and many others “who lived / in times that were hard to bear.”

Fifty poignant poems, written “so that those who did not know will know” and read by this reader as “what happened long ago / becomes current again.”

Fifty intimate portraits that initially seem to be of individual people but soon become apparent as an exceptional, panoramic depiction of an era of art choked by tyranny.

Little did I know that it would become one of my most treasured volumes of Russian literature. I love how clueless we sometimes are of a book’s value until we read it and become acquainted with its soul.

Amit Chaudhuri: Finding the Raga

A note that aches to resolve on the semitone next to it is called a leading-tone in Western music theory. While it comes closest to what a shruti is in Indian classical music, they are not equals; and although shruti literally translates to “what is heard” in Sanskrit, it has another meaning in Hindu sacred literature. Shruti in Indian classical music is the smallest gradation of pitch discernible by a human ear and the tiniest interval of pitch that a singer or musical instrument can produce.

But it is not my intention to bore non-musician friends with more of that. Finding the Raga is a poetic and accessible introduction to Indian classical music. It imparts an ample amount of artistic insight to share in future discussions. Aside from suggesting that our understanding of music enhances our appreciation of literature, language, and the world, it is an enlightening reminder that there are other lenses in which to view the world and other modes of music through which we can listen to the world aside from the Western.

It was, however, the idea of shruti that made itself heard to me more resoundingly, and exactly what I needed to read and learn on the first day of the year; because while leading-tones in music to which I am accustomed communicate a certain unease and a longing to resolve, in the raga, “Shruti has to do with the note’s anticipation of the next note, as well as its refusal to be immediately transformed into it. It’s to do with sometimes preferring a state of becoming, of being transformed…”

Once again, this in-betweenness. The last book I read in 2022 was Olivia Manning’s School for Love, a coming-of-age novel set in Jerusalem after the Second World War that seemed to me about the state of in-betweenness. It made me ponder on the truth that life itself is an entire in-betweenness and that, perhaps, the true test of our lives is in how we navigate through the uncertainty.

And now, this whole concept of shruti, a coming to terms with, and even a relishing of, this in-betweenness.

Finding the Raga has set the tone for my year. Here’s to making the in-betweenness both the journey and the home, the way sadhana does not differentiate between labour and its fruit or between preparation and performance, the way a khayal does not demand the listener to distinguish between process and finished product; and here’s to fine-tuning life for this interval of in-betweenness that can be made beautiful.

My Initiation to László Krasznahorkai

As if in sync with my protracted pace in gathering enough courage to take on a Krasznahorkai, it also took a while for my order to arrive. 

When at last his books occupied the Hungarian section of my shelf, I timidly went for The World Goes On to sample one of the short stories. Catching the name of my favorite city in the table of contents, I immediately turned the pages to The Swan of Istanbul.

The Swan of Istanbul (seventy-nine paragraphs on blank pages)

In memoriam Konstantinos Kavafis

My excitement was fueled upon seeing it dedicated to the writer of my favorite poem! (Too excited, in fact, that my eyes skipped the words in parentheses.)

What greeted me was the literary counterpart of John Cage’s 4′33″. Blank pages, ladies and gentlemen.

These thoughts assailed me as I flipped through the emptiness of each page: Doesn’t Krasznahorkai have a reputation for composing entire books with a single sentence? Where was the intimidating muchness of which they spoke? Should I lazily call this pretentious without giving it much thought and expose my limited knowledge of post-modernism and deconstructivism? But also; László, I like you already.

And yet, after “reading” the blank pages, I closed The World Goes On and tried my hand at The Last Wolf. There I found the labyrinthine thoughts and lines for which he is known, a philosophy professor who thinks he is mistakenly hired to write about the last wolf of Extremadura, a wasteland in Spain that was once part of what the Romans called Lusitania, and yes, the solitary period at the very end.

As the story spirals out, the reader is made to ponder on the hunter and the hunted, how the two are very much alike and are part of the same thing; gentrification, not just among humans but among animals; bestiality and humanity intermingling; the incomprehensibility of existence, and how man is a prisoner of thought.

If John Cage’s 4’33″ was meant to be the embodiment of the composer’s idea that any auditory experience may constitute music, what if reading Krasznahorkai is to explore, to be surprised, to question what constitutes a reading experience, and to challenge what else literature can be?

Thad Carhart: The Piano Shop on the Left Bank

Not the West Bank this time, just the Left Bank. The thing about my Silk Route | Fertile Crescent reading project is that — despite being a source of enlightenment through discovering underrated but astounding literature — novels from this route in question are usually emotionally taxing.

Although I have sensed that I am drawn to writings from places of conflict for the reason that they have a sensitivity to beauty commensurate with their heightened awareness of the fragility of life; once in a while, I need a breather, and that’s when I turn to books related to other interests. In this case, not merely an interest, but a love.

But as love would have it, we oftentimes become accustomed to a beloved’s presence and we slowly take its magic for granted. 

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier refreshed me about the intricate workings of a piano; of how extraordinary this instrument is; of the alchemy and difficulty involved in piano-making and music-making; and how beautiful tone production relies so much on the precision of piano makers, the skill of piano technicians, and the heart and hands of a pianist. This rekindled a fire that led me straight to the piano after turning the last page.

But this book is not just about pianos and trivia from the music world. (Although, while we’re at it: Did you know that when the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the first thing to be hauled to the rooms at the top was a piano?) It is also about the Paris that is inaccessible to the tourist. In fact, this would make a lovely pair to Mercer’s Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.

Surely, these books did not intend to rival Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or the aching poignancy of Truong’s Book of Salt, but at times, lesser-known books are beautiful for the simplicity that they lead us to find something that draws out music from within.

Containers for the Human Music

It is little known outside Ex Libris Philippines that this book club was founded by music and architecture majors during their university years at UP Diliman. 

On a trip to the capital last month, the music section of Ex Libris was able to convene whilst the architecture section was excellently acknowledged through the venue — The Library Cafe at the Ramon Magsaysay Center, an architectural icon in the Philippines named after our seventh president. 

I took this photo on our way in and it made me reflect on how architecture, literature, and music are the same spirit taking distinct forms and harnessing different planes of space in our lives. 

Although, through the years, I have come across books in which literature and architecture occupy the same space, and it is nothing short of fascinating when they do: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Boris Pekić’s Houses, Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina, Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants, Elif Shafak’s Architect’s Apprentice, and my current read, Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral. And as we can see, when these two meet, sumptuous covers are a given.

In an interview on his book, Apeirogon, Colum McCann likened novelists to architects who create a structure aspiring that it will house the best of human endeavor and hope for it to endure, and for people to enter and be changed by it… so that it becomes “a container for the human music”. 

The idea and the verity of books as containers for the human music… Isn’t that beautiful?

Julian Barnes: The Noise of Time

How do reading friends try to lift your spirits? One brought me to Solidaridad, the legendary bookshop founded by the late National Artist for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, and forbade me to exit the shop empty-handed.

“It’s on me,” they’ll say, and treat books like a drink in which you’ll drown your pains.

Thousands to choose from, and yet I clung to this one as soon as I saw it. I was unaware that 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning author, Julian Barnes, wrote a novel about Shostakovich! For an idea of how fond I am of Shostakovich’s music: I performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 on my first solo recital and named a pet fish “Shosta” after him — never mind that this pet fish leapt outside of the fishbowl to his doom and died a very dramatic Russian death.

But I digress… needless to say, I took The Noise of Time home with me and finished reading it on the day the 2022 Man Booker Prize winner is expected to be announced.

It is surprisingly an apt read for a time when many Russian musicians and artists are being cancelled worldwide for not publicly denouncing Putin and the war against Ukraine.

This book suggests that it is not always as easy as it seems to make a public stand.

Shostakovich, who enjoyed international success after his first symphony, dealt with a blow when his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (a title familiar to NYRB editions enthusiasts) was condemned by the Soviet government in 1948, endangering his life, family, and career. Although the aforementioned work was a success after its premiere in 1934, Barnes highlights the capriciousness of the Soviet state: “What the party had said yesterday was often in direct contradiction of what the party was saying today.” As if under similar laws of energy, Soviet power evolved and mutated from one form to another.

How Shostakovich had never joined the Party initially, but had allowed himself to be seen as supportive of the Party, and how his subsequent decisions played out, appear to be a question between cowardice or courage. But wasn’t this too much to ask from a man who simply wanted to compose music?

What becomes of art when it is suppressed or governed under tyranny — “art made tongue-tied by authority”?

This book has some beautiful answers:

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”

“Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say or wish for.”

But if those lines still cannot convince one of the purity and the incorruptibility of great art, the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 just might.

Luis Sagasti: Fireflies

Scheherazade in A Musical Offering, Penelope in Fireflies. I see what you did there, Mr. Sagasti! The mother weaver of stories of the East, and the mother un-weaver of storytelling of the West. Spun and spanned. And spangled.

“Now I’m drunk, with universe.”

Ever since the two Zweigs that got me through the long wait at the polling precincts, I have only found myself turning pages of several books but absorbing nothing, only to reread the same pages and still end up drifting. The way many people have treated our national elections like they would a mere cockfight is confounding. Your books are beautiful reprieves. Write some more, please. This is going to be a tough ride. We will need more of your magic.

Is there anything to understand?

Without the slightest doubt, art is the answer.

What we can’t be sure about is the question.

Luis Sagasti: A Musical Offering

“Weren’t you just reading The Books of Jacob?” My mom asked when she saw me with this a day after I finished reading Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus.

“Recovery read,” I answered with a wink.

She shot me a questioning look.

“You know how runners do a short recovery run within 24 hours after a marathon?”

She could only laugh and shake her head.

It was the perfect easy run for this reader! In fact, I think every little detail of this book is perfect!

From the cover design, to the French flaps, to the first page that quotes Leonard Cohen:

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you?

And truly, if you care for art and music, brilliant is an understatement of how this book is written. Think Apeirogon, think When We Cease to Understand the World but instead of physicists and mathematicians, musicians and artists — Bach, The Beatles, Brahms, Messiaen, Glenn Gould, Rothko, Mahler, Scheherazade… yes, Scheherazade!

Haven’t we already noticed that literature around the world is still undoubtedly under her spell, especially the Eastern Europeans and South Americans? Argentine Luis Sagasti’s musical offering puts us in the shoes of the bewitched Persian King Shahryar.

And we can only dream of a thousand nights more…

Conversations with Edward Said and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What a pleasure to have spent the past few days eavesdropping on these conversations!

My introduction to Edward W. Said was not through my current reading project but through classical music years ago via the Daniel Barenboim connection when they co-wrote an illuminating book and founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra — Said a Palestinian intellectual and Barenboim an Israeli pianist and conductor, bringing together musicians from areas of conflict to show the world that it is possible to create peace among people from these nations, to harmonize, and produce beautiful music. And now, I am reintroduced to Said through the enlightening forewords he has written for many of the literary works I am reading from that part of the world.

As for dear Gabo, I still vividly remember the day my best friend presented me with my first Marquez in our teens and I gave him John Fowles’ The Magus in return. This act of his, which was not entirely innocent, led to a Latin American reading stage that brought me to magical literary adventures.

When asked whether the inability to love is very serious, Gabo replies, “I don’t think there’s any human misery greater than that. Not only for the person afflicted but for all those whose misfortune it is to come within his orbit.” Love is something to be learned, he adds, and even lets one of his fictional characters echo this.

Said on the hand, gave me more lines to note in my journal and reminded me why he was once an intellectual crush.

“I’ve never felt myself to belong to any establishment of any kind, any mainstream. I’m interested in mainstreams, I’m jealous of them, I sometimes, occasionally, envy people who belong to them—because I certainly don’t—but on the whole I think they’re the enemy. I feel that authorities, canons, dogmas, orthodoxies, establishments, are really what we’re up against. At least what I’m up against, most of the time. They deaden thought.”

“I think a lot of this business we were talking about earlier, about politics and culture being separate, is really laziness. There’s a critical establishment that says you’re supposed to only study this, and that’s because you don’t have the time or the energy to study other things. For me it’s a manifestation of laziness and idleness. And all of them, it seems to me, in the end, really don’t advance to anything.”

“And far from being right, I think it’s important to be critical.”

These conversations bring together two significant reading phases of my life. 

What struck me this time was in realizing how much their musical tastes influenced their writings greatly. Chopin among others for Said, Bartok and Caribbean music for Gabo. Because he was a revolutionary says the former and the mixture of the two had to be explosive says the latter. Through this we see that they did not confine themselves to one form of art but saw art as something encompassing rather than something to be compartmentalized. 

Said and Gabo are very much alive in these pages. These great minds that impacted and straddled two centuries while they lived; and even in death, continue to change the way we think, read, and perceive the world; their inspiration consistently outliving the last page of each of their books; saying it in their own distinct way but always reminding us to live as fully and as passionately as we can.