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on elegance

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“I do not know where it comes from but many people carry this legendary concept that somebody on a high wire should not and cannot look down, because then they will instantly lose balance. …As I discovered the wire and as I practiced it, I discovered that it is beautiful to look down. …by looking down, you savor the taste of the void. It gives you terror, but it also gives you strength. It gives you the knowledge that you are mastering the void you imposed on yourself by walking in thin air. Thus, plunging your eyes into the abyss, looking down, is the wire walker’s affirmation.” -Philippe Petit

Erik Satie – Gnossienne n°1

The other day I came across an article about the release of the upcoming biopic Man On Wire, documenting Philippe Petit’s incredible 1974 walk across the wire he had “illegally rigged between the Twin Towers. With only a balancing pole and no form of security he spent forty-five minutes dancing gracefully across the immense void, 1,350 feet above the earth. (Acne Paper)” I remembered then that I’d sleepily encountered a lengthy interview with the same man in Acne Paper‘s issue on elegance, and I went back to read it. “I became a theatrical wire-walker, somebody looking for elegance,” Petit says in the interview. “There is nothing more simple and elegant than a beautiful walk on a high wire.” The whole issue covers elegance in different forms, from Alber Elbaz‘s new romanticism for Lanvin to sculpture by Terence Koh. It got me to thinking about how to define elegance, discretely: while Paper picked out a good number of things I would call elegant for one reason or another, I still came away from it wondering how to tie all of them together to pinpoint what lies at the heart of elegance itself.

To help answer my question I first took my usual approach and looked up the word, finding that “elegance” originated in the late 15th century, was used to describe a person “dressing tastefully,” and has its roots in the Latin elegans, elegant-, related to eligere – choose, select (also related: “elect”). I thought this was curious because of the frequency with which we pair the word “elegance” with “innate,” to imply that it cannot be learned, but is instead so attractive for its air of deep-rooted naturalness.  Next I consulted one of the most elegant people I know, my piano teacher Christophe Buren. He answered in his usual sincere way, standing very straight in the foyer of his house with his head slightly forward, eyes concentrated and with fingers pressed together at the tips that left each other only to make illustrative arcs in the air from time to time, at the level of his waist. He said that he thought elegance could not be learned, and took care to distinguish a qualitative difference between politeness and truly elegant graciousness. He concluded that it was something one knew and understood with all of one’s being; that the true meaning of elegance lay in harmony and in a unity between interior and exterior. Elegance as lack of veneer.

It seems that when one senses that one is looking at something truly elegant, it is because one is seeing a consonance between the inner and the outer – a melodiousness of being indicating that what lies within and without have tuned themselves perfectly to each other. Elegance in any form is a tunefulness of intention and realization, of impulse and action, that embodies a certain courageous honesty of the soul that cannot be learned or practiced. There is elegance of gesture, of writing, of speech, of curve and of line; of design, of hospitality, of ambition and of intent, and of execution. There is elegance in childhood and in the best of old age. In language, elegance can be a certain precision – a streamlined style in which no words are wasted and each one chosen rich with meaning and satisfying for its accuracy. With this definition, understanding elegance suddenly reminded me of gazing into the Mediterranean Sea on a calm day: even at depths of fifty feet or more, you can see straight down to the stones at the bottom, which seem to lie only a few yards below. The soul of an elegant thing is almost alarmingly close to the surface, but not two-dimensional for its honesty: one senses its great depth and, as one often does around such things, feels almost blinded by its candor.

There is elegance in anything that can view itself clearly and move deliberately towards this horizon; our pleasure in viewing it comes from being in the presence of a realized desire; of the mastery of the void between the inner and the outer.

“All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood.” -RMR

Written by bellaheureuse

May 9, 2010 at 1:52 pm

some thoughts on sound and color

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Collage by Alexis Anne McKenzie | More here

I am thrilled as pie (is that an expression? pleased as pie? yes) about my avant garde music class at Paris VII. Recently we’ve been talking about Messiaen’s work and I’ve been taking copious notes a) because I bought a fountain pen and love watching it write and b) because talking about his color-based theories for composition could not fit more cozily into the niche of things I try to wrap my brain around whenever it’s feeling flexible. We spent a good hour talking about the way he, because of his synesthesia, heard color in music – he describes chords with adjectives like “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white.” (If any of these remind you of words you’d use to describe the colors of a bird, there’s a reason: his music theory treatise was called Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie [Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong]). The treatise apparently manages to prove that color is not a decorative element of music, but instead absolutely ingrained in its fundamental structure.

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes I. La Colombe

Olivier Messiaen – Préludes II. Chant D’extase dans un Paysage Triste

The first track above  was written with orange in mind, and the second, a deep blue.

I’m so interested in the relationship between music and color, suddenly. Taking the term “chromaticism”, in its musical context, it might seem that color and music have always been associated with each other, but the word proves to be a bit of a red herring, if you will: it shares the same origins as coloration, or the medieval system of the coloring in of notes to indicate duration. The ties between the frequency of electromagnetic radiation (that is, color) and the frequency of sound still seem indisputable, however: lower frequencies are so fixedly matched in our minds to equal degrees with deep colors and deep sounds, and higher frequencies with brighter colors and higher sounds. I am hesitant to pretend I know more about science than I do, or to tentatively posit ideas that I am sure have been investigated in volumes already, but I find them to be so pertinent to things I think and write about that I can’t help but unpack them a bit for myself.

Messiaen’s use of color as a tool for the hearing and writing of music reminds me, as so many things do these days, of making a map: of using the parameters of one field both to define, and in so doing, to create, another. (Here we could also consider the colors used to indicate height and depth in mapmaking, and in linking these colors to pitch, consider the potential similarity between a musical score and a topographical map.) In thinking about Messiaen’s additional work with palindromic rhythms, I am reminded of mirrors and their central role in so much literature, philosophy and art. One could say that Messiaen’s work is a good indicator of the most basic desire humans seem to have to represent one thing with something else – put simply, to make art.

It is the indelible stamp of process – of distance between the real and the rendered – that gives art, as an act of transposition, its deeply human element. Mirrors, then, are appealing to us like anything that is untouched or otherwise without signature: as producers of no more or less than a copy, they present us with the purest form of parallel; with a result too perfect to be human. In Messiaen we sense this aesthetic gap both growing and shrinking: his representation of color through music is rooted in the fundamental fissure defining human art, while his fascination with the perfect, with the mathematical, with the mirror reminds us of the deep-seated longing we have to close this divide.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Written by bellaheureuse

February 17, 2010 at 10:50 pm

catch & release

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Today for work I did a translation, French to English, of an article about artwork and sound design. I had a grand old time and was still thinking about it later when I was looking at a book of Rilke poems I have, Poems from the Book of Hours. It struck me what beautiful translations, from German to English, the poems are, and it made me consider why I had so enjoyed the process of translating earlier in the day.

I like that the most basic meaning of “to translate” lies in transferre – literally, to bear across – and thus from its roots acknowledges that to translate is to carry a load. The task of the translator is a weighty one: he is bound inextricably by several opposing responsibilities. As only a creative mind is able, he must somehow see past the gleam of the finished product to discern the masonry beneath, and in retracing these steps seek to follow them himself. But translation is a creative act that does not give creative license: the translator has to understand that the tool he uses is not his own; that in his case creativity serves only to aid in the production of a loyal representation of an original. In short, the translator must look deeply into the polished surface of a work without seeing his own reflection.

The act of translating is a process marked by its tenuous balance between dutiful distance and moments of measured emotional release, at once intimate and bound by the most formal sense of duty and restraint. One must seek, find, and convey something without for a moment claiming it; one must break apart and reconstruct but leave no mark or signature. I think that an exercise like this – of holding without intending to own – stimulates in its sensuality an awareness that I’d like to experience more often.

On a totally unrelated note –

Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun

Jefferson Airplane – Somebody to Love

I just went to see the new Cohen brothers movie, “A Serious Man,” which arguably lived up to assertions that it’s the best the pair have ever made. These two songs played in the movie, the second pretty much throughout. I liked it more coming through theater-sized speakers than I ever have before, so maybe listen to it loud.

a man, a plan, a canal…

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Velvet Underground & Nico – I’ll Be Your Mirror

I’ve gotten to the end of Georges Perec’s Cantatrix Sopranica L, Scientific Papers, and have reached what I think is the best one so far. It’s called Roussel and Venice: Outline of a Melancholy Geography, and it deals with a lot of subjects that I get all hot and bothered about – maps, codes, mirror images, layers of meaning, and word-play.

The piece, like the others in the book, is written in the style of a scholarly essay directed at an academic audience, and thus is able to take the same liberties that an academic piece can in its ability to assume that a certain base of knowledge is present in its readers. Since these articles are parody, however, they have only limited basis in actual fact, and so we as readers can use little outside knowledge in our attempts to pin down what is significant. Because we are aware that applying fact to the fictional science given here would be ridiculous, we are unable to make few connections other than those that are provided for us, and so we become occupied with mentally cataloguing and fitting together the hints we are thrown as to the significance of words, characters, or places. The world within the book, because it is completely self-contained, becomes completely absorbing, in the same way that a novel does: Perec has succeeded in “using the expressionless terminology of sociology, entomology and linguistics to achieve effects they are distinctly designed to avoid.” If the terminology and style of academic writing is meant to describe a factual world, here they are used to create a world of fiction.

Below are some snippets from the Roussel and Venice piece. They are all instances in which the author tries to locate significance within “five unpublished sheets of paper [written by Raymond Roussel] he was lucky enough to discover and identify in the Fitchwinder University Library” by figuring out how they fit into the context of Roussel’s writing style and life.


Fleisch makes an obvious mistake at the end of his analysis when he suggests that the theme derives from the transformation of “La vérité sort de la bouche des enfants” [Truth comes out of the mouths of the children] into “La vérité sort de la douche des enfants” [The truth comes out of the children’s shower]. The transposition b/d is indeed common in Roussel (le crachat de la bonne à favoris pointus / le crachat de la donne à favoris pointus) [the spit of the maid with fussy suitors / the regalia on the dealt card with pointed sideburns], Dardanelles / Bard à Nesle [Dardanelles, Bard at Nesle], la place du bandit sur les tours du fort / la place du dandy sur les tours du fort [the bandit’s place on the towers of the fort / the dandy’s bet on the strong man’s feats])….

*Singe [monkey] could be a rebus-abbreviation of Saint-Jean Baptiste (singe en batiste [monkey made of cambric])

In this sense, Roussel’s voyage to Venice was his only journey (Venice becomes “Voyage,” “Voyage” becomes “Venice,” and V comes to stand for both Venice and “Voyage”).

There are then two superimposed topographies in Roussel. One corresponds to the world of his books and generally respects geoographical reality…; the other is the secret world of his Venetian life. The centre of the first is Paris, the centre of the second is the Hollenberg Hotel, where Roussel and his mother stayed. It is immediately obvious that [the topographies of Paris and Roussel’s Venice] are mirror images of each other.


The essay goes on to pose any number of possibilities to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Roussel’s plot and writing process, based on pun, rebus, and not least what we know about his life and history. The tools used to map out this possible story behind the story create for us a world in miniature and we find ourselves absorbed in piecing together the puzzle of a question that for us is as free of contextual import as the few pages of the “found” manuscript are free from binding. The Scientific Papers and the essay Roussel and Venice both manage to absorb us completely using no tool but their own decontextualization: they both contain only the amount of significance that we care to look for, and exist only to make us curious enough to inspect them.

“One cannot expect the exegesis of a few lines, however assiduously one may have dissected them from every possible angle, to cast much light on a body of work that was so well described in the words of Bachter as ‘a literary adventure having no source but itself, no end except its own existence, and no other meaning than the trail it leaves.'”

Written by bellaheureuse

January 12, 2010 at 1:44 am

biggie cartography

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Image to sound: an aural representation of any graph showing the directly proportional relationship between money and problems.

Recently I’ve had maps on the brain, both because of things I’ve heard about and because of work I’m doing myself. “Mapping” seems to be a useful way to approach a lot of things I’ve come across recently, from literature to art to music. There is now in my mind such a wide variety of maps that finding some way in which to link them all together, and create a navigable space for them to populate, will in itself be an exercise in cartography.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading Koffi Kwahulé’s Babyface. The kind of reading I’m doing is not for plot, but instead for structure: as I go along, I take into account things like the trajectory of voices, their interaction with each other, repetition and the appearance of leitmotifs, and changes in rhythm and tempo insofar as they are interesting in their ability to give the reader a feeling of proximity to, or distance from, the realtime (“real” time) of the narrative. In short, I am investigating the potential of the novel to be visually plotted, and more specifically, musically scored. Based on the knowledge that Kwahulé uses jazz as inspiration for the structure of his writing, using the vocabulary of the former to redescribe the latter seems natural. Inherently, the study of using the vocabulary of one field to define another has borrowed its process from that of mapmaking, which is based entirely upon clarification through recontextualisation. When you use musical conventions to give structure to your writing, you are borrowing not only the vocabulary of music but also that of cartography.

The trick of maps is their ability to clarify a foreign idea by placing it in a familiar context. If we can’t quite fathom the depth of a valley in relation to the height of a mountain, it becomes easier when we can see these comparisons in color (based, arguably, on our association with dark colors and depth, light colors and height, and etc. with the spectrum between). So we substitute color for space, and voilà! – topographical maps. The same principle applies when we visually represent sound, heat, or movement.

// TripTrop map of the distance between my old apartment and other places in NYC.

// Topographical map of the eyeball of one Murray McFadden, Surrey, England.

Cabinet magazine has a particular fondness, it seems, for writing about this process of substitution. In his (?) article “Utterance is Place Enough,” Frances Richard describes the process of mapping conversation, while here D.G. Burnett and W.J. Walter point out the “set of symmetries between the act of literary creation and the playing of a game of chess” and create for us a computer program that actually allows us to play out this system of substitutions. Elsewhere, Haemi Yun’s installation project Da Capo, Layered visually and aurally represents motion on an output monitor.

Watch the video of the Da Capo, Layered installation

It’s clear that people find some value in this kind of substitution, and understandably: it is always interesting – and sometimes quite necessary – to see one medium represented as another (that’s why we need metaphors). To me, though, the more interesting question then becomes: is it possible not only to redescribe one medium using the terminology of another, but also to redefine it, in the sense that to redefine is to give new meaning or significance?

In his piece on mapping conversation, Frances Richard points out that “In its objecthood, the map detaches from whatever landscape it purports to render; it slips into its own register as a freestanding unit, a self-enclosed area operating by reflexively validated rules. The tropes of mapping—including scale, legend, color, the use of contour isobars and other conventions for translating three-dimensional elevation into two dimensions—are no less stylized than the parameters of any other discourse.” Thus, we could argue that yes, in developing its own vocabulary and tools for success, a good map not only serves the utilitarian purpose of explaining the nature of something that is not itself, but that in doing so a map becomes its own autonomous work. A map is both the fulfillment of a goal and the product of its own success.

So how can remapping one medium in terms of another lead to a product that is more interesting than simply a new representation of an older idea? Only if in doing so, the map in itself becomes a freestanding work that expresses something that neither of the previous media were able to. In short, a good map must be greater than the sum of its parts.

Written by bellaheureuse

December 27, 2009 at 4:50 pm

copying other people’s art

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Here is a drawing of a Schiele painting, Portrait of the Painter Max Oppenheimer, I did today while listening to a This American Life on the health insurance industry. Woo!

A print of this painting was propped up in my room in New York all summer and it made me happy to bring it with me to Paris.

This song –

Kurt Vile – Breathin Out

is another thing that reminds me of summertime: it reminds me of the Hungarian Pastry Shop late at night, of St. John’s, of how bright the clouds over the park always looked from my fire escape when the moon was out, of Automotive High School, and of waiting for the subway at 181st St.

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December 2, 2009 at 12:39 pm

copy; cat

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I’m starting this at the same time that I’m reading Cantatrix Sopranica L., by Georges Perec, which in addition to giving my blog its tentative title, is a study in the imitation of scientific writing styles. It’s so fun to read because in manipulating these forms, constrictive with their innumerable requirements and formalities, Perec treats them not as so many cages but instead as, shall we say, jungle gyms. Rather than being constrained, he seems to use each rigid bar as a vehicle of fun; as a way to get to swing nimbly to something else. Also I like picturing him swinging around in there, curly hair blowing in the breeze, bare feet in the cedar chips.

Here’s a graph of the neurological reactions in sopranos being hit by 9 tomatoes per sec.


On second thought, I guess constraint was sort of Perec’s thing: writing an entire book with not a single letter E seems like it would be just as difficult, but just as fun, as trying to keep a rubber ball inside the lines in four-square.

Further on imitation: it occurred to me as I scrolled through other people’s blogs, checking for formatting and writing style and tone and font size before I started my own, that I was really just looking for something to copy. Maybe this came to me easily because I’m reading Perec’s imitative work, but perhaps also in part due to recent musings about writing: how much of people’s writing, and my own in particular, is an exercise in imitation – of others’ work, of speech – and does this make it any less legitimate? I think this question applies elsewhere; case in point, a recent New Yorker Out Loud audio I heard in which Malcolm Gladwell points out that the main catalyst for a child prodigy is imitation, while true geniuses are distinguished by their genuine creativity. (Genius? Genuine? Linked? Looked it up; turns out no –

genius – from the root of the Latin gignere – beget [attendant spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination]

genuine – from the Latin genu – knee, having to do with a father’s habit of seating his son on his knee, and later became synecdochized (?!) to represent birth, race, stock; genealogy, if you will.)

I’m sitting in the living room of my apartment, surrounded by windows and looking out at the towering library. The cat, who has recently been started on some sort of sedative pills to keep him from peeing all over the house on the daily, is stretched out beside me, limply. I like to pretend that his complacent responses to my insistent cuddling are a result of real affection for me, and not the result of a drug-induced haze.

Bonne nuit!

Written by bellaheureuse

November 10, 2009 at 12:10 am