On Narrative Listening, Part One – The Labyrinth Within

The Dead Publisher

The image almost looked like a Polaroid picture. She sat on the red soil, so typical for the island where I spend the summer of the year two thousand. Fig trees grew on the land, wide apart from each other. They seemed to be frozen in a complicated modern dance move. A big blue sky was over us, and she, uncombed black hair, was smiling the smile of a young woman, who had walked away from home long ago.

She walked away even further and stranded in a city at the other side of the ocean. I lived in her rooftop apartment close to the central market in Barcelona. Sundays were silent. From the little balcony I could see a stretch of the sea, hear the seagulls, and listen to the church bells of the nearby cathedral. The little radio would transmit for its own pleasure; a muffled voice spoke a foreign language.

According to the newspapers those autumn months in Barcelona were pretty dangerous. Eta put a few bombs, a police man died. I enjoyed dwelling the streets, imagining harbor life, that didn’t exist anymore, but had left its marks. The old popular houses downtown would have to disappear one day, just as the poor people, the junkies and the immigrants who filled the shady alleys. The smell of piss was unbearable in some corners. But in a way it added to the aesthetics of my existence as an outsider.
I worked on the final editing of my book and never in my life I had come so close to the romantic vision of a writer being poor, alone, but silently happy. I hunted the traces of a dead publisher. At the other side of the Diagonal, where streets were filled with roaring cars, I found his office. I spoke to his grand daughter who had sat on his lap, heard of visits by Céline. In the library in Hospitalet, a beautiful ex-monastery in a run down street, I read about the Spanish war, and found the article that mentioned his death.

I actually found him in a grave that faced the Mediterranean sea. At the other side of the horizon was the little village that he had left at the turn of the nineteenth century. The passage to the new world started in Genoa and took him via Barcelona to South America. The years he spend over there were a complete mystery to me. I knew of some of his moves, though. And I knew of her moves: she had made peace with her mother, and was on her way to Buenos Aires, leaving the newly found boy friend in tears.

The Last Breath

The image on the poster reminded me of something angelic, the angels Thomas Moore wrote about. Those must have been the last ones to occupy the European spheres. Put against a wall of yellow bricks, it stood out like a sign. If I consider what path I have been following ever since, it certainly was. It was the announcement of the LEM- festival. It stretched out over a period of three months, most of the concerts were held in small bars, and, what was important to me: they were free.

When Manuel Motta, a tall young man with an introverted look, started, I soon noticed that he would not play any melody at all. It reminded of my time as a residence artist in a big house in a tiny village. It had a chapel like room with a vaulted ceiling. The acoustics were perfect for religious chants. I played my electric guitar, that I couldn’t play at all. Lots of sounds must have escaped from the chapel, into the empty houses or up to the castle, frightening the cats. Maybe they chased some birds for ever. Manuel seemed to have picked up all those loose ends, and now he got them back to me, neatly packed.

Peter Cusak’s guitar resembled a bit a rowing paddle. Peter looked like a teacher during whose class you would fight against sleep. This image didn’t work against him. Almost from the beginning his paddle produced a penetrating sound. Up to now I can not explain why I imagined him walking down the stairs in his house, heavily disturbed by the neighbor’s drilling. While continuing playing on the stage, standing in a yellowish floodlight, in my imagination I saw him executing a genial plan. He actually managed to get hold of the penetrating sound and changed it into something more pleasurable.

I swear to God, I got only a few puffs of the marijuana: two, maybe three. On the streets of Spain you share a joint with a lot of friends. We smoked an hour before the first concert started. THC, or not, my imagination got even wilder. Cusak, satisfied he had pacified the drilling sounds, walked out on the streets. It was a clear slightly windy day with a sharp sunlight contouring houses and cars. Way up in the sky fluffy white clouds were strolling along. The guitar sung the song of gentle citizens.

On stage Peter Cusak had the guitar on its lap, a stick divided the strings in left hand and right hand territory. In the village he had climbed the stairs up to the bell tower. The mumblings rising up from the town square met up with the gossip of the pigeons. I looked down, and then – I don’t know where I got the wings – I looked at him as he was standing on the very edge. He had transfigured into a weather puppet that only comes out when the bells ring. But this little puppet got mad. He hit every little voice that rose up to him as if it was a mosquito. I cannot remember anymore how he managed to calm down. I hope he did, or else he will be forever chasing mosquitoes.

I was ready for a break. But there is not a lot of things that make breaks useful when you are down and out and can’t even afford to buy a bottle of beer. I watched the stage instead. Somebody camouflaged from head to toe brought a chair. The sound engineer on my right pointed his chin as he snapped his fingers. In the half shade close to the wall and its emergency lights visitors were engaged in talks that seemed to consist of fragmented sentences and unproved thoughts.

Paolo Angeli had the appearance of a marinaio, a sailor. There must be thousands of kitchens and restaurants in Italy where you can find a painting of a fisher’s boat town on the beach, with women standing around it, the men emptying the nets. He could have walked right out of such a picture. Soon I imagined him on deck of a steamer that would bring him to South America. What I heard was the ballad of my dead publisher. The passage encountered a stormy sea at night and a peaceful one in daytime. As Paolo worked himself through the concert with enormous vigor, the world of the publisher opened itself.

I actually was him, and saw the dust and poverty of the sandy roads, the first settlements, the bars with its fights and ladies. I was lost for years following a woman. I could feel the pain of longing for something I would never reach. Then I went back to Barcelona. Soldiers and citizens were fighting in the streets. I can remember looking up at Montjuic at a cold rainy day. The rain washed away every hope that the sun would ever come back again.


Quite regularly I read a short text in which an experimental musician introduces himself. This habit must have filtered through the mazes of my reductionist employment. In the early days of my existence I went into a short lived exile while having breakfast. The news paper then existed of only two parts, the international one at my right laying next to my father’s plate and the regional one at my left, laying next to the coffee cup of my mother. I would read the texts on the various jars in front of me.

There is absolutely no need to read what those musicians write about themselves, if not for a shimmering hope to encounter something interesting. The ultra short biographies are set in the third-person form. Verbs are most of the time absent, as is anything that could indicate that the person is 1. Made of flesh and blood and 2. Still alive. The result is a botanical account linked to a pretentious desire that the description is fit for the encyclopedia.

Introductions have also secondary purposes. They define the character of the expected audience, and they define the vision towards organized sound. Once the last obstacle is taken (the paying of the entrance fee) the visitor and interpreter are ready for a shared experience. Non-initiates would break the spell. Yes, I used terms that can be applied to ritual.

You need a megalomaniac’s mind set if you agree that all organized sound is music. To a lot of people a formula one race or language, other forms of organized sound, are a formula one race or language. In fact, in these times of disintegrating definitions it is hard to stick to abstract formulas. So, if you want to be sure, then the abstract has to be as realistic as possible. If you want to define music, it is best to stick to the notation. Once the reading results in playing, something else happens, something that is too personal to bring it back to an intellectual idea.

I don’t know of Motta’s, Cusak’s or Angeli’s intentions. The experience from that evening stayed with me as a memory, a point of inspiration, a story to tell, but also as a comforting thought: sound is at the heart of all matter. This thought is a travel companion to another one: all matter exists since the beginning of the universe. No matter how big the chaos, harmony will always remain a constituent part of it, maybe the one and only part.

(Way In) = (Way Out)

A long time ago I got almost killed. Willem de Ridder, a myth in the radio phonic world that spans from Beromünster to Mt.Carlo, had organized an evening for the Holland Festival. I was in my thirties, immersed in elegantism, and floating on waves of great expectations. Boy, did my shoes look good. De Ridder’s idea was to have ensembles play in front of the closed shutters of the shops all around the Leidseplein in Amsterdam. These ensembles should all play at the same time. And all of them should play a composition by John Cage.

Wondering what that would sound like I visited the event and walked from one ensemble to the other. The musicians looked like street musicians in a Hollywood musical. I didn’t like what I heard. I decided to walk around and have my ears guide me to the place I liked best. There was no traffic for the duration of the multiple concert. I actually found a place; the cacophony was perfect. At one point I saw De Ridder and Cage walk by. Their faces were shining with joy. Maybe they also had decided to compose their own piece of music by walking around. I thought of going up to the old master to shake his hand. I liked too much what I heard, didn’t move from my spot, so I let them walk past me at five meters distance.

I must have been lost in sound. A tram came around the corner, its wheels screaming in the tracks. At the same time a taxi claxoned behind me, passing with great speed. Before and behind me there was hardly half a meter. I had found a place at the most dangerous point of the Leidseplein. I looked up and saw trams gliding through the neon landscape from all angles. Taxis were coming and going. The usual snotty Leidseplein youth was walking around in groups. There were no more musicians playing in front of a snack bar. The concerts had stopped. I never realized at what point exactly.

There are these images of conductors in which they rise from petrifaction. Statue like they stand, lost in concentration, and then suddenly, either with gestures that resemble the movements of underwater plants, or bodily contractions as you see by people in a deep deep sleep, they loosen themselves from the temporary immortalization. Conductors tend to become legendary in their after life. They have offered numerous people a unique experience.

Classical music survives because it is written down. The notification, and the sheet of paper that has carried the information through the ages, is music at its purest form. Once a conductor starts working with his orchestra, the result will be different from that what the composer could ever have heard with his inner ear, simply because the composer and the conductor are two different persons. But also because there is no way out of the experience, unless you leave the concert hall. Even then one will need time to hear the outer world with every day ears. By the way, a member of the orchestra will never walk out.

Immersed in absolutism it might be hard to think of expiring dates. Knowing things are short lived is also a comforting thought. This article that I am writing ( and is read by you after an interval of time, that seemingly doesn’t exist in the traffic writer->reader) has its intrinsic truth. Enclosed in a temporary absolutists capsule it will create a universe of its own with a very unique constellation.

But Then It Stops

History is made from written down accounts. One can only guess why somebody wants to write down the report of a period or event that – obviously – has made a big impression. My curiosity goes out to the sounds: what did the chronicler hear while writing, what had he heard when the story came to him? Was there a sonic environment that caused an inner fine tuning? Are the body and soul elements of a much bigger part that can be tuned? And once they are tuned, is any creation, be it music or a written account, the result of a special touch? In our present day language we can still be touched, even if English is not spoken.

Every moment of intensity needs to be followed by relaxation. Peace is a (collaborative) result of (re-) organizing, or if one prefers (re-) composing a certain space at a certain moment, for a certain duration of time. In this two-step thought, the enthusiasm is left out. Maybe I did so, because I am writing at this very moment. Spielberg would make two hands grow out of the screen… to strangle you, to caress you or to draw you in? You can relax, I am not Spielberg. Though you might hear my voice…



5 responses to “On Narrative Listening, Part One – The Labyrinth Within

  1. Ha, ha … No, actually this time around I did *not* hear your voice, Rinus. I must’ve been too busy _reading_ the words, and then they ended up sounding all by themselves, in that ‘universe of its own’ that you mentioned. Very nice, thx!


  2. Eta bombing in Barcelona? Are you sure?


  3. ok. wealthy and informative! -figured out (with help) that eta stands for ‘Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’ , remember them from my visit to catalonia. I’m not sure about the LEM Festival. ‘latino existential music’?’Loud Electronic Mummy’?