A Politics of Absence
Reflections on music and language in Giorgio Sadotti’s 52. 68. 14
Richard Goldstein’s 1969 book The Poetry of Rock was made as a homage to the political and lyrical energies of rock and roll between the early 1950’s and late 1960’s. The book valorised the lyrics of young musicians of the time, claiming these as a new form of poetry. Goldstein believed that in isolating the lyrics from the music he was magnifying the political and poetic significance of these words to be studied and appreciated independent of the music.
Giorgio Sadotti’s 52. 68. 14 is made as a critique and mirror of Goldstein’s book, while asking of us whether the absence of the lyrics of early rock in his artwork dissolves the music’s contextual and emotive relevance, and questions to what extent this use of absence as a device allows us to re-engage with the political energies that were so infused in the music and language of early rock and roll.
This brief essay will reflect on the phenomenal paradigm of language as sound and as text in Goldstein’s book, before reflecting on how Sadotti’s use of absence as a medium and device can help us break politically and emotionally limiting traditions of nostalgia when listening to the music of the past.
Sound and music are a means of placing oneself in relation to the world. Language is the way in which we can understand it. Although we can think of language as both an aural and textual experience, the two are separable at the point of effect and affect. Whereas with one form the predominant sensory organ through which language is received is the ears, the other comes via the eyes. Making this aesthetic distinction is fundamental to understanding the perceptual impact that language has upon us.
Richard Goldstein’s appropriation of the language of rock and roll into a textual form at once renders the work silent and figurative. The words, although indexed from the vocals of the likes of Chuck Berry and Jim Morrison, now have a body and autonomy that isolates them in a fixed compositional and material space. Instead of temporal utterances, the words are now visual and made permanent, to be read and re-read, and are given value at the level to which they stand as prose or as poetry.
Goldstein believed that the lyrics could stand alone as words on a page and become poetry. However, what becomes apparent is the distinct lack of poetic sensibilities in many of the works Goldstein has chosen to highlight; the Silhouettes’ 1957 single Get a Job, with the lyrics “Sha na na na – sha na na na na”, is a noteworthy example. On the other hand, The Doors’ Horse Latitudes was written and performed as a spoken poem, rather than a piece of music, and must therefore be considered as independent of the generic rock and roll language that Goldstein was trying to define as poetry.
When the still sea conspires an armour
And her sullen and aborted
Currents breed tiny monsters
True sailing is dead
And the first animal is jettisoned
Legs furiously pumping
Their stiff green gallop
And heads bob up
Jim Morrison and The Doors, Horse Latitudes, 1967
There is a binary between lyrics and instrumental music that is ironically emphasised in the failure of Goldstein’s book to isolate the two. Socio-musicologist, Simon Frith’s critique of Goldstein suggested that instead of poems, music lyrics were effectively ‘speech acts’ and therefore closer to theatre, with the significance and emotive power of each word defined by the personal utterances of the actor, or vocalist. Therefore, by conclusion, the language of rock and roll would become ineffectual without the personal orchestration of a vocalist, who could harmonise the lyrics with the music.
In this respect, it is difficult to make a generalisation over the political and emotive significance of words and lyrics to the music of early rock and roll, for the essence of the language used by musicians is forged at the point of delivery. Instead, perhaps it would be easier to talk of melodic energies that may or may not reflect the intents of the language used by the band or musician. These melodic energies would encompass the music and lyrics as shaped at a single time and place of performance, and that would affect us in terms of both the performance of the artist and the context to which we receive and understand them.
The language of rock and roll makes sense at a prosaic or poetic level only in the mix of a collective grouping of contributors and audiences; accounting for the ideas behind the lyrics and music, the binding of abstract sound and figurative language, the space of performance, the varying orchestrations of the vocalists/instrumentalists, the size, type and energy of its audience, and so on… and the moment at which all these come together and relate with one another.
Sound is an abstraction that has profound emotional effects on our senses. Whereas the plastic arts command our attention in respect to their autonomy, solidity and permanency, sound and music abstracts the world around us, giving rhythm to the concrete, and warping our perception of time and space. Summarising, the emotional, poetic and political significance of the language of rock and roll is most effective and affective through the temporal meeting of multiple agents and contexts. Goldstein’s erratic attempt to make permanent this language as text loses the melodic energies that give rock and roll their meaning.
“Nothing is more fertile than emptiness”
We can think of sound and music as a filling of space with abstract energies such to affect and transform our experience of the universe. However, in the postmodern world, an iconography of absence has gained extended prescience given the ever growing wealth of images and sounds that perpetuate in western societies today. The Conceptualist movements of the 1970’s and later, for example, mirrored the visual extravagances of Pop art such to remove the dogma of media and place political power and individual thought back in the hands of the audience. By creating a vacuum around a work of art, artists could isolate an object from the idolatry and chaos of the everyday world, and develop a space of contemplation and reflection, much like a Church or other religious space.
We identify and understand everything with respect to its opposite. The visual Arts is a history of craftsmanship and of bringing objects and images into the world to accommodate for anxieties over God(s) and death. On the other hand, a modern and postmodern world treats absence and nothingness as a deviance to be scandalised and rejected, and is replaced by an iconographic hyperbole and a gluttony of images. Absence, in this context, is the paradox of iconography, and thus a useful space from which to frame our understanding of the world and the phenomena within it.
Mika Taanila’s My Silence (2013, 13 min, video) considers absence of language in respect to filmic narratives. The artist’s reductionist video edits out all moments of conversation at the dinner table from Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André (1981). The inference of potential and missing speech comes in the body movements, utterances and framing of the camera at the point at which a character would supposedly speak. The result is a frustrating collage of unfulfilled potential, and we are forced to either frame these edits through memory of the script, or build our own narrative based upon the fragments given to us. Absence here is the device by which Taanila invites us to participate and find ourselves bound in the critical process of constructing and de-constructing a work of art and traditional filmic narratives.
The example here is of course very similar formulaically with Giorgio Sadotti’s 52.68.14. The latter’s is, however, purely audio-based and, as will be discussed, the connection with music offers a perhaps different reading to that of Taanila’s reflections on film.
Giorgio Sadotti and a politics of absence.
52.68.14 (2014) is “a sound compilation or musical collage in temporal order of a selection of the featured songs [of Goldstein’s book] with the sung lyrics removed, so rendering the once textual music in a non-textual and non-contextual manner” (Sadotti, 2014). The accredited numbers reference the formative years of rock and roll, identified in respect to the artwork’s year of creation.
The piece is a play on themes of nostalgia in pre-recorded sound and, through the deconstruction of language, so emphasised in Goldstein’s Poetry of Rock, breaks with the familiarity we hold to the music of early rock and roll. Unlike in Taanila’s piece, there is limited visual accompaniment to the work other than the speakers in the centre of the room and the textual prints on the walls. The gestures of an ‘other’ in a given time and space therefore have no prescience, as they would in video, and the experience becomes far more personal and idiosyncratic to each individual’s experience of having heard the song in an alternate context.
“There is an autobiographical aspect to it. This was my formative musical period, so there’s a specific family relationship with me, it’s when I discovered rock, and in that sense I’m still in awe of it. I still think that a lot of this music has currency, and there was something to these formative moments of rock music that haven’t necessarily come again” (Sadotti, 2014).
Nostalgia is a symptom of loss and often a beatification of the past in the context of the present. Although, as was discussed earlier, language is perhaps often used more symbolically than prosaic or poetically, and that it is the melodic energies at the point of performance that give the music its emotional and political significance, the removal of language in 52.68.14 is itself more a symbolic gesture than politically transformative.
Language supposedly gives sense and order to the world, and meaning to the chaos of life. The removal of language in Sadotti’s piece would on the surface infer the disembodiment of meaning from early rock, yet, mirroring Goldstein’s positive discrimination of lyrics over sound, the artist’s effective negative discrimination of language would create a void to which we could project our own ideas and meanings with respect to our individual relationships with the music. Language would be echoed within us and given new form and potential through memory.
On the other hand, more than a mere juke-box playback, the experience of time for each track is broken, such that, although the gaps in the music exist, the opportunity to fill them with our own mnemonic energies is limited by the fracturing of time and continuity. The emphasis is again moved to the inference of the absence of language in the music, and the effect it has once removed. Whereas Goldstein appropriated language figuratively, embodying it in the form of text, Sadotti effectively appropriates an idea of language abstractly in space through its absence.
Language becomes abstract and is made political by its absence. Sadotti is here highlighting language in context, in the context of the era in which it gained prescience and in the context of the here and now, where its spectral ghost haunts the 21st Century landscape. Sadotti underscores, manipulates and makes absent the melodic energies of early rock, giving them renewed aesthetic and conceptual currency for a digital age that commodifies culture and smooths over the cracks and struggles of history.
Art is often said to be a mirror of the world, its paradox and frame. The 21st Century western experience is a postmodern one of limitless distractions and spectacles. Giorgio Sadotti’s 52.68.14 mirrors the digital experience through a politics of absence, whereby in taking an autobiographical reference to an era that maintains currency with the artist, he both evokes stirring memories of the melodic energies of early rock while positing a theory of absence as the framework by which we can reinvigorate the past before it becomes lost in the digital archives of idealised apolitical Spotify history.