Selected Courses on Digital Art-UOWM

10 Απριλίου 2013

Filed under: Notes — admin @ 02:46
 Spoken Music
The poets portrayed in the Odyssey – Demodokos and Phemios – are singers. Ghandl’s poems were spoken, not chanted or sung, but they are musical in other important ways –
so much so that I think his work deserves to be compared to European music as much as to European sculpture and painting.
Musicologists like to distinguish between intrinsically musical abstract structures – fugues, sonatas, and so on – and program music, in which the composer has an extramusical plot to represent or an image to convey. The two kinds of structure very often coexist in the same piece – and the abstract structures of music have their counterparts, of course, in painting and in literature too. A painting or a poem can tell a story or represent an image and be rigorously abstract, or in some sense absolutely musical, both at the same time. Ghandl’s poem about the man who married a goose is an example. Consider, for instance, some of the symmetries in the poem.
It begins at a lake – a patch of water surrounded by land – where a young man falls in love with a soft-spoken, beautiful goose. It ends with the same man marooned on a reef – a patch of land
surrounded by water – where the man himself is squawking like a loudmouthed gull. At the center of the story is a pole that links the earth and sky. Either side of the pole is a series of tests and
exchanges, and framing these sequences are the two domestic scenes. The first is in the groom’s father’s house, where a vegetarian bride, who cannot speak directly to her mother-in-law, is
50offered food she cannot eat. The second is in the bride’s father’s house. There the omnivorous groom, who cannot speak directly to his father-in-law, tries to eat the same restricted diet as the
birds. In the groom’s village, the people insult the bride, whose connections with the skyworld have saved them from starvation, and the bride flies off. In the bride’s village, the groom insults the
people, who nevertheless respond with perfect courtesy, offering to fly him back to earth since he cannot fly himself.
There are more of these symmetrical inversions in the story,
but they are linked, like all good symmetries, to structures of
other, more dynamic kinds.
The old man gives the younger man a gift: a tool called skiiskil
tlxhahlgaaw, which is a marlinspike or bradawl used for working
with cedar-limb line. Then he instructs him to get eight things
for himself. The total is nine. At this point, every listener familiar with Haida narrative will know that there is one more gift to
come. In Haida, five and ten – tliihl and tlaahl – are perfect, or
consonant, numbers. Two, four and eight – sting, stansing and
stansingxha – are perfect numbers too, though in a different
mode or key. But nine is not. Nine in Haida is tlaahl sghwaansing
guu, “ten one minus,” or tlaahlinggiisghwaansingghu, “ten-lessone-many.” Nine is a dissonance. It is waiting to be completed. In
this poem, what completes the series is the mouse skin.
These ten items are like musical themes or motifs. They are
undissipated energies. All ten must be resolved in the unfolding
of the story. But Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas is an artist, who
likes to make a plot stand up and dance, so there is something
like a fugal structure to this aspect of the poem. The second subject – putting the ten medicine objects to use – begins before the
first, their acquisition, has come to an end.
The ten things are put to use in pairs, so five occasions are required. One of these occasions is the sky pillar itself. The other
four – symmetrically arranged around the pillar – involve extraordinary beings. Between their acquisition and their use, the
a story as sharp as a knife
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a story as sharp as a knife
ten charged objects, from marlinspike to mouse skin, are melodically and rhythmically recombined.
The rhythm and the melody involved have less to do with sound than with the order and the
tempo at which images are called before the mind – but they are called up in the context of a set of expectations and conventions, much like a system of musical modes or keys, which can work by
a mixture of statement and suggestion. Ghandl has to tell us that the salmon roe is used in combination with the mouse skin, but the other gift, the marlinspike, is never directly mentioned a second time. A reference to cedar-limb line and spruce-root cord is enough. That allusion brings the spike to mind.
The first pair of objects – oil and comb – goes to the holy fool:
a talented clairvoyant who cannot find his own lice.
(Elsewhere in the world, the same joke has been told of many wise men, including Herakleitos.) When a louse bites the back of his head, he turns around and looks for it behind him. This seer who is busy accomplishing nothing is followed by a woman who tries to do everything exactly as she is told. She is holding up the country:
Xhaaydla Gwaayaay tldaghawaay, the mountains of the Islands on the Boundary between Worlds. Beyond the pillar to the sky are two more figures – or two and a half. The first is half a man;
the second is a pair of fat old guys who act as one. The pair create the coho out of salmon-colored woodchips, while the halfman downstream spears them and puts them in his creel.
The structure created by these characters alone is a kind of complex narrative crystal, or a piece of conceptual music.
Butother structures are linked to it. On the terrestrial side there are the benefactors: the old man who lives at the edge of the village, and the Mouse Woman, whose large house is hidden in a clump
of ferns. On the celestial side there is a conclave of three carnivorous birds and a bear. Later comes another foursome consisting of three omnivorous birds – loon, grebe and raven – linked to a
man who is evidently also a bird, since his daughters are geese as well as women. In each of these two groups, one bird acts while the other two stand by. And there is one more bird in the last
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line 188
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chapter two: Spoken Music
scene: the gull, who counterbalances the brace of geese with
which the plot began.
Very early in the story, the man takes one of the two goose
skins – his wife’s – and gives her one of his two marten skins in
exchange. After losing his wife, he gets two other skins: a coho
skin and a mouse skin, which is the only skin in the story that
comes with claws. This skin-swapping is linked to that innocent,
even irrelevant-looking transaction between the eagle and the
bear. The story of the bear getting claws from the eagle is a stock
piece of North American folklore, slipped into the poem like an
innocent bit of folksong inserted into a string quartet or sonata.2
But it fulfills here an essential musical function.
The human husband is in heaven, where he cannot stay. He
got there by means of a salmon egg and a mouse skin. Before he
can return to earth, the energy residing in these images has to be
resolved, the way an errant theme in music must be modulated
back to its home key. But this is narrative music; it is not performed on a keyboard; it is played by calling images into the
mind with spoken words. For the story to seem complete, tensions that are built up by that means must be discharged in the
same way. The energy of the mouse skin is resolved, or answered, by the transfer of claws from eagle to bear, and the energy of the salmon egg is answered by the woodchips that transform themselves to salmon.
Between these events comes another resolution or response.
The story began with two geese who came out of the sky and undressed, becoming recognizable as women. Both were caught,
and one was released, by a single man. In the sky, that scene is
answered by another in which the roles are reversed and the
numbers cut in half. The man comes up from earth, dresses as a
salmon, and evades being caught by half a man. These scenes balance one another much as episodes balance one another in sonata
form, and as figures balance one another in pictorial composition. The “unnatural” figure of the clawless bear also mirrors the
“unnaturally” meatless diet of the famine-stricken humans, and
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a story as sharp as a knife
the bear’s unmistakeable politeness in dealing with the eagle balances the rudeness of the unnamed human whose words drove
the Goose Woman back to the sky.
The transfer of the claws is nicely symmetrical with another
event: the transfer of the spearhead from the hunter to the being
with one leg. It is, as we shall see, an old requirement that talons,
claws or fingers should change hands in this story. It seems that
they must also fall to earth – which they do when they are passed
from eagle to bear. The webbed feet and wings that belong to the
geese must also go back to the sky, and a man who masquerades
as a mouse and a coho must return to earth and water.
This structure was built by an artist enraptured by a story
that unfolds behind his eyes. And the story is more than just a
dance of the animal transvestites, a display of imagistic acrobatics, structural pattern or surreal cartoon ballet. It is grounded, let
us remember, in a poignant story of love and loss. It is grounded
in a world where perfection is perceived but imperfection rules,
and where humans and nonhumans sometimes both want more
than they can have.
Superficially, the story turns on the distinction between
xhaayda gataagha, human food, and hlgitghun gataagha, goose
food. The Goose Woman’s arrival in her human husband’s village, and the terms of her remaining there, are stated in a simple
sentence: Xhaayda gataagha waadluxhan gam lla taaghangas:
“She ate no human food at all.” Her departure is provoked by the
inversion of this sentence: Hlgitghun gataagha lla quyaada
ttlxhawgwa aa: “She thinks very highly of goose food.” Both a
famine and a feast intervene between these sentences. The Goose
Woman’s father sends the feast – but does he also send the
famine? Is the famine caused by the Goose Woman remaining
among the humans and in human form? If so, is the famine a test
for the human community to pass, or is it simply an inevitable
symptom of disorder in the world?
When her father sends food to the hungry humans, the Goose
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240 –244
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chapter two: Spoken Music
Woman tells them what is happening. Hakw dii xhaatgha dii gi
dangghattlxhattahlga, she says: “Now my father is sending
[something] down to me.” She speaks this sentence twice, to herald the arrival of two shipments of food. The complex verb she
uses, ghattlxhattahl, means “to move quickly downward.” This
verb will reappear, once only, later in the story – when the raven
delivers the Goose Woman’s husband back to the surface of the
earth. There the verb is differently inflected to form the second
half of a double subordinate clause (a convenient construction in
Haida which I cannot gracefully replicate in English). The prefix
changes too, from dang-(which points to the object of the verb)
to giit-(which points to the subject). The root form, nonetheless,
is unmistakeable:
Ll ghaaxhaghihljihliigaay dluu
lla dangat giitghattlxhattahldalaay dluu
nang qwaagadaaganga qqaayghudyas gha lla lla qqaa’adas.
When he grew very tired
and let himself fall with him,
he dropped him onto a shoal exposed by the tide.
The verbal echoes or thematic repetitions that are clear in the
Haida have been submerged in these line-by-line translations. In
the full translation with which we began, I added a phrase, “down
through the clouds,” to each of the three sentences in which the
verb ghattlxhattahl appears. “Down” and “through” have counterparts within that verb itself, but clouds are nowhere mentioned in the Haida. I put them in, to achieve in English a nouncentered echo equivalent in weight to the verb-centered echo in
the original. This is far from a perfect solution, yet I think something like it is required. The poem’s thematic echoes are not mere
accidents of language or ornamental rhymes.
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79 & 89It is a tale of transformation, or transposition, as musicians say:
bird transposed to woman; man to bird. In the interim, a mouse
becomes a woman and her burrow a big house; a man becomes a
mouse and then a salmon; joy becomes despair. Dead redcedar
springs to life as fish with cedar-colored flesh, and passion and
devotion die. Even as the headman’s loveliest and youngest
daughter’s husband in a fine house overhead, a hunter’s life becomes routine.
But there are other transformations here, and other continuities, that summaries know nothing whatever about. In the beginning of the poem, when the hunter sees the women in the
water and the goose skins on the shore, Ghandl says, in two superbly simple lines,
Lla qindi qawdihaw
lla dawghattlxhasi.
After watching for a while,
he swooped in.
The verb in the first line is qing, to watch or to see. It can apply to anything with eyes (and that includes, in Haida biology,
the earth, the sea, the forest and the sky, and nearly everything that lives in all these realms.) The verb in the next line is dawghattlxha. It means to swoop in order to catch prey. It calls
to mind one class of creatures only: the small hawks and falcons
that in English are called kestrels, merlins and sharp-shins. In
Haida, these three species have one name: dawghattlxhaayang.
The hunter of the birds, transformed into a gull at the end of the
poem, was himself a bird of prey in the beginning.
After Swanton put this poem in writing, he asked Ghandl if it
had a name. Ghandl called it Ghungghang llanaagha gha nang
xhitiit ttsinhlgwaangxidaghan. This means “In his own father’s
village, someone was just about to go out hunting birds.” The
a story as sharp as a knife
32 & 33:
lines 13–14verb used here includes a component,-xidi-, that makes it a verb
of anticipation or inception. The young man is getting ready to
go, or thinking of going, out to hunt birds, but he hasn’t yet gone.
In the opening lines of the story itself, Ghandl uses a different
form of the verb: not ttsinhlghwaangxidaghan but rather ttsinhlghwaanggwang, which implies that the hunting has begun. I
wonder if this subtle shift in the verb has something to tell us.
Should we take this story at face value as a tale of what happened,
maybe, once upon a time? Or does Ghandl’s title set it into a different context, as something that hasn’t happened yet but that
could occur tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow: something
like a dream, or a young hunter’s preparatory vision?
It is easy to imagine – and not very difficult, at present, to go to
a few galleries and see – how the elements in Velázquez’s Supper
at Emmaus could be differently combined by other painters.
Rembrandt, for example, painted the same subject ten or twelve
years later, while he was still in his early twenties and living in
Leiden. There is very little chance that he had seen Velázquez’s
painting – a work by another young artist like himself, with as
yet only a local reputation, living 1600 sea miles to the south –
but Rembrandt also knew the story. He assembled the same figures on his canvas, while turning the arrangement inside out.
The result (never trimmed or overpainted) now hangs in the
Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.
Rembrandt’s serving maid occupies the spot Velázquez gave
to the disciples. She is far off in the background to the left, perhaps suspecting nothing. Both she and Christ, who looms up
large and ghostlike on the right, are potent silhouettes. In the
foreground, also faceless, is a nearly invisible figure: a pilgrim
crouching down in sudden recognition. But at the center of it all,
as in a mirror, there is a face. It is drawing back, twisted with astonishment. It belongs to the other pilgrim – and to us.
chapter two: Spoken MusicGhandl’s poem, like Rembrandt’s painting, or Velázquez’s,
takes the form it does because that is the form its author gave it.
It has the human poignancy it does because that poignancy is
something its author had learned to perceive and communicate.
The images and themes of which it is made are largely materials
he inherited – and along with these components, he inherited a
narrative and visionary grammar for putting them together. He
could however have built them into a vastly different structure –
a more sentimental structure, for example, or a colder one, with
a lower emotional charge – just as any fluent speaker of a language can assemble a cluster of words into sentences with very
different values.
Pokhodsk is farther from Hlghagilda than Leiden from Seville. It is an overgrown mission station, trading post and neolithic
village near the mouth of the Kolyma, which empties into the
East Siberian Sea, 3000 rough and windy miles north and west of
Haida Gwaii. There in the summer of 1896 a Yukaghir woman
told several stories to a listener willing, like Swanton, to take dictation. I do not know her Yukaghir name, but a royalist Russian
missionary had given her another: Ekaterina Rumyantsev. Her
listener was a Russian political activist, anthropologist and novelist named Vladimir Germanovich Bogoraz.3
Ekaterina Rumyantsev had not only a Russian name; she had
considerable exposure to Russian colonial culture. She therefore
told her stories to Bogoraz in the Russian language. And some of
Bogoraz’s research in Siberia was funded, like Swanton’s work in
Haida Gwaii, through the American Museum of Natural History
in New York, at the instance of Franz Boas. The stories Rumyantsev had learned in Yukaghir and told to Bogoraz in Russian
were, for this reason, ultimately published not in Leningrad or
Moscow but in New York, in Bogoraz’s English translation.
In the absence of an actual transcription, there is no hope of
appraising Rumyantsev’s skill or stature as a mythteller, and no
hope of studying her work and Ghandl’s together on equitable
a story as sharp as a knifeterms. But one of her stories has something important to tell us,
even when reduced to English prose. Side by side with Ghandl’s
poem, it shows how the same events and characters can be assembled very differently by different human beings, just as the
same figures can be grouped very differently in different painters’ paintings and in different people’s dreams. This is Rumyantsev’s story as rendered by Bogoraz:4
here was a family of Tungus. They lived in a tent. They had
three daughters. The girls, when going to pick berries, would
turn into female geese. In this form they visited the sea islands.
One time they flew farther than usual. On a lonely island they saw
a one-sided man. When he breathed, his heart and lungs would
jump out of his side. The Geese were afraid and flew home.
After some time, they had nothing to eat, so they went again to
the sea islands for berries. Wherever they chose a spot on which to
alight, One-Side appeared and frightened them away. At last they
found a place full of berries. They descended and laid aside their
wings. They picked so many berries that they could hardly carry
them all. They went back to the place where they had left their
wings. The wings of the youngest daughter were gone. They looked
for them a long time. At last, evening came and the sun went down.
It grew very dark. The two elder sisters reproached the youngest
one: “Probably you have taken a liking to One-Side, and you have
asked him to hide your wings. Now remain here alone and let him
take you!”
She almost cried while assuring them that their suspicions were
unjust.“I have never seen him and never thought of him.”They left
her and flew away. She remained alone.
As soon as they were out of sight, One-Side appeared carrying
her wings. “Well, now,” he said. “Fair maiden, will you not consent
to marry me?” She refused for a long time. Then she gave in and
said, “I will!”
“If you are willing,” said One-Side,“I will lead the way.” He took
chapter two: Spoken Musicher to his house. It was the usual house, made of wood, with a
wooden Šreplace. He proved to be a good hunter, able to catch any
kind of game. Still he had only one side, and with every breath his
heart would jump out. They lived together for a while, and the
woman brought forth a son. The young woman nursed the infant.
But One-Side did not want to stay at home. He would wander about
all the time and bring back reindeer and elk.They had so much meat
that the storehouses would no longer hold it. He was a great hunter.
He hunted on foot on snowshoes, for he had neither reindeer nor
horses for traveling.
One time he set off to hunt as usual. Then his wife’s sisters suddenly came and carried the youngest sister and her little son off to
their own country. The small boy, while carried on high, shouted,
“O father! O my father! We are being carried by aunties to their
home, to their home.”
One-Side ran home as fast as he could, but he came too late.
They were out of sight. Only the boy’s voice was heard far away.
Then he shot an arrow with a forked head in the direction whence
the voices seemed to come, and the arrow cut off one of the boy’s
little Šngers. One-Side found the arrow and the Šnger and put them
into his pouch.
Then he started in search of his boy. He walked and walked. A
whole year passed. Then he arrived at a village. A number of children were playing sticks. He looked from one to another, thinking
of his boy. There was one poor boy who was dressed in the poorest
of clothing. His body was mangy, and his head was bruised and covered with scars. First, One-Side paid no attention to him, but when
he Šnally looked at this boy, he saw that the little Šnger on his left
hand was missing. He snatched the Šnger out of his pouch and
placed it beside the hand, and indeed it Št! The poor boy was his
son! “Whose boy are you?” asked One-Side.
“I am mamma’s boy.”
“And where is your father?”
“I have no father. I used to have one, but now I have none.”
a story as sharp as a knife“I am your father.”
The boy refused to believe it and only cried bitterly. “If my father were alive, we should not be so wretched, mother and I.”
The elder sisters had married and made their youngest sister a
drudge in the house.
“Why is your head so bruised and scarred?” asked One-Side.
“It is because my aunts order me to enter the house only by the
back entrance, and every time I try to go in by the front entrance,
they strike my head with their heavy staffs.”
“Let us go to your house.”
They arrived at the house. The boy went ahead and One-Side
followed him. They came to the front entrance. As soon as the boy
tried to go in, his eldest aunt jumped up and struck him with her
iron staff. Then the woman saw the boy’s father and felt so much
ashamed that she fell down before him.
He entered the house. They hustled about, brought food of
every kind, and prepared tea. They ate so long that it grew very late
and it was time to go to bed. On the following morning after breakfast, he said to his brothers-in-law, “Let us go and try which of us
can shoot the best with the bow! You are two and I am only one.”
They made ready their bows and arrows and began to shoot at
each other. The elder brother-in-law shot Šrst, but One-Side
jumped upward, and the arrow missed him. The second brother-inlaw also shot. One-Side jumped aside and dodged the arrow.
“Now I shall shoot,” said One-Side, “and you try to dodge my
arrows.” He shot once and hit his elder brother-in-law straight
through the heart. With the second shot he killed his other brotherin-law. Then he went back to the house, killed his wife’s sisters and
took home his wife and son.
One time he set off as usual to look for game. When he was out
of sight of his wife, he took off the skin that disguised his true form
and hung it up in the top of a high larch tree. He became a young
man, quite fair and handsome, just like the sunrise. He went home
and sat down on his wife’s bed. While he was sitting there, he was
chapter two: Spoken Musicabout to take off his boots. The woman began to argue. “Go away
from here! My husband will be here soon, and he will be angry with
me. He will say,‘Why have you let a strange man sit on your bed?’”
“I am your husband,” said he. “Why do you try to drive me
“No,” said the woman. “My husband is one-sided, and you are
like other men.”
They argued for a long time.At last he said,“Go and look at that
tree yonder. I hung up my one-sided skin on it.” She found the tree
and the one-sided skin, and now she believed him. Then she caught
him in her arms and covered him with kisses. After that they lived
happier than ever.
Ghandl’s poem about the hunter who married his prey has been
spared the indignities visited on many works of indigenous oral
literature. It was transcribed in the language in which it was spoken, and it has quietly been travelling the world since 1905 in
Swanton’s admirably faithful prose translation. In that form it is
also the subject of a sensitive, close study by the poet Gary
It is nonetheless a literary work that we have only just
begun to understand.
I have been calling it a poem and a piece of spoken music. That
is because I hear in it resonant textures and densities, and vividness and shapeliness and clarity that, for me, define the terms I
want to use. I cannot tell what terms to use for Rumyantsev’s
story, because Bogoraz’s translated paraphrase is all that now
Some things, nonetheless, can be known about the story on
the basis of the paraphrase alone, just as some things can be
known about a painting on the basis of a poorer painter’s copy or
a second-hand account.
The paraphrase can tell us, first of all, that the list of narrative
ingredients is very much the same – almost uncannily the same
a story as sharp as a knife– in Rumyantsev’s story and in Ghandl’s. The ingredients are
very much the same, but they are differently assembled by two
very different cooks, one of whom has learned the European
fairytale custom of serving happy endings for dessert. “The same
story” has become two wholly different meals for the mind. That
much is clear, though in the one case we can still attend the feast
– because we have the actual text – and in the other we can only
read the menu and collect the empty plates. There is no supper at
Pokhodsk because no one took dictation – just as, in the legacy of
Velázquez, there was once no supper at Emmaus because vandals, in whose hands the treasure rested, chose to have the
painter’s vision blotted out.
Digesting the sense of the world – of which we are made, and
to which we return – is just as essential to life as digesting its
physical substance. The mythteller’s art is as old, universal and
vital as that of the cook. The congruences between these tales told
by Ghandl and Rumyantsev are reminders of that fact. Drawing
on this old, shared recipe – as dormant in its way as Luke’s abbreviated version of the supper at Emmaus – and adding some
signiŠcant resources of his own, Ghandl could construct a work
of art that can stand beside the paintings of Rembrandt and
Velázquez or, I think, beside the sonatas of Haydn and Mozart. It
is a work of music built from silent images, sounding down the
years. It is a vision painted indelibly in the air with words that
disappear the moment they are spoken.
chapter two: Spoken Music

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