THE DRAMA OF THE ART OF PURE LIVING

A longer version of the essay published with the DVD/Blu-ray of Kaija Saariaho’s opera Only the sound remains, in the stage production by Peter Sellars (2016).

The opera Only The Sound Remains owes much of its uniqueness and essential concentration to the fact that it stands at the crossroads of many artistic paths. Its philosophical DNA should be traced back to the life-long project of the poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and his quest of the universal, through poetry viewed as a transformative force in mankind. Over half a century Pound worked on his ultimately unfinished epic poem The Cantos, an ambitious attempt to reach across genres and languages by interweaving elements borrowed from various cultures and timeframes, and exploring the tension between those forms of beauty that circulate throughout the world and those that are ‘untranslatable’. Fundamental to the beginnings of Pound’s project was his fascination for Asia and its culture, and his very erudite knowledge thereof, which found its most concrete form when he came into possession of the unpublished manuscripts of Ernest Fenollosa, a renowned American orientalist and art curator. Fenollosa’s widow had entrusted him with the task of editing her late husband’s works, which he did by completing and publishing a collection of Chinese poetry, and the anthology of Noh plays (1916) from which the two works at the core of Only The Sound Remains were picked. Fenollosa had a deep and first-hand understanding of Japanese language and arts, and of Noh theater in particular (he had studied it with the Noh master Umewaka Minoru for twenty years), providing Pound the material and tools to reinvent as a poet an art form he could otherwise only fantasize: in his own words, ‘my work has been that of a translator who had found all the heavy work done for him and who has had but the pleasure of arranging beauty into the words’.

Fenollosa was well aware that he participated in what he described as a thousand-year-old tradition of a stagnant Western culture being rekindled by inputs from the Asian continent, carried along by immigrants, Crusaders, Silk Road merchants, Jesuit missionaries, and most recently scholars whose translations and studies on Middle Eastern and Chinese literature had been instrumental to the birth of English and German Romanticism. The new wave of this cultural tide was now in motion: the poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats, who collaborated with Pound on the editing of the Fenollosa manuscripts, was deeply influenced by the discovery of Noh theatre, and helped spreading knowledge of it in Europe through his own theatrical experiments. Yeats belongs to the founding fathers of a long dynasty of Western theater makers who saw in the use of formal convention and ritualism of Asian theatre, and in its challenging of questions of morality, community and spirituality, an antidote to the stiff naturalism of European drama and its degeneration into meaningless entertainment. The focus always being, of course, on reinterpreting freely these foreign theatre forms, rather than simply imitating or mimicking them. 

As a director, Peter Sellars was bred and schooled within such a dynasty. He gorged on many forms of puppet traditions, including Japanese and Balinese, already during his training as a puppeteer in his teen years, and at Harvard University studied with the onnagata (male kabuki actor playing female roles) Onoe Kuoremon, before writing his final thesis on the work of the Russian avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who drew his syncretic inspiration among others from traditional Chinese theatre. As he was creating his own blend of cosmopolitan music-driven theatre, like his predecessors he found in the Asian traditions insights into ‘what Western theater must have been like before the nineteenth century came along’. But most importantly, creating bridges between art forms from different continents has held for him and many others a broader meaning and agenda than simply reinvigorating one’s own artistic language: participating in the construction of an enlightened ‘world culture’ based on dialogue and mutual knowledge and influence, stressing common traits as well as singularities that make mankind more diverse and colorful, and dismantling anything stemming from isolationism, chauvinism, and the simplistic ideology of ‘the clash of civilizations’. Some famous examples of such a ‘Poundian’ endeavor in Sellars’s body of work include his commissioning of new Western-Eastern syncretic music from Chinese composer Tan Dun as a response to the classical Kunqu style opera The Peony Pavilion (1998), or his collaboration with John C. Adams on A Flowering Tree (2006), an opera based on a South Indian folk tale. It is no surprise that Sellars has been aware of and fascinated by the Pound/Fenollosa translations from early on, and had already staged their version of Tsunemasa in 1986, thirty years before its reinterpretation in Only The Sound Remains.

The art of Kaija Saariaho has drawn from Asian traditions in ways very similar to Sellars’s in their method and intents, for instance in her study of the Japanese shakuhachi flute, which has immensely inspired her work on breath and extended techniques applied to Western wind instruments. But the spark for Saariaho’s and Sellars’s latest collaboration was not their shared interest for Japanese culture, as one could have expected: it was the poetic work of Ezra Pound. When the prolific artistic pair first discussed of possibilities for a fourth joint operatic venture, in 2011, Saariaho happened to be working on a piece for baritone and small ensemble called Sombre (premiered in 2013), based on three poems chosen from the last drafts Pound wrote for The Cantos, heart-wrenching comments on the failures of his life’s quest for absolute beauty, that had led him to most tragically misguided ways, such as his emphatic support of Mussolini’s Fascist regime: ‘I have tried to write Paradise (…) Let those I love try to forgive / what I have made.’ Only The Sound Remains does not simply reflect Saariaho’s and Sellars’s shared fascination for Pound’s peculiar poetry, that blossoms in his Noh translations, especially those two they chose together to work on: it delves deeper into the crux that was at the center of Sombre, that of the human mind’s relentless yet helpless yearning for beauty in all its forms, including moral, hindered by our own weaknesses, and by the very fact of being part of this world as it is. This yearning, that can be expressed in both mystical and practical terms, is central to Pound’s life’s struggle, and was also beautifully expressed by French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, to whom Saariaho and Sellars had devoted their third collaboration La Passion de Simone (2006): ‘This world is the entrance. It’s a barrier. And at the same time it is the passage.’ ‘The beauty of the world is the gateway to the labyrinth.’

While this intuition had guided much of both co-creators’ achievements before this work of shared maturity, it finds a consummate expression in the language of Noh theatre, which always imbricates human drama into a broader cosmic frame. Pound, whose role-model in building his own coherent universal epic was none other than Dante Alighieri, found the qualities of the Italian master’s mystic and poetic quest of beauty in the Noh plays he translated, likening for instance the Tennin’s dance in Hagoromo, that mirrors the phases of the moon, to the heavenly smile of his love Beatrice when she contemplates the light of Christ in Paradise, in the final section of the Divine Comedy. And while natural elements have always been part of Saariaho’s operas, in Only The Sound Remains they seem for the first time to come together in a fashion that can only be compared to a music of the spheres enveloping the stage and the audience in its mystery —backing Sellars’s intuition that her musical language possesses the particular quality that the Japanese call yugen. Fenollosa writes that ‘the Japanese people have loved nature so passionately that they have interwoven her life and their own into one continuous drama of the art of pure living.’ Nature has been part of Saariaho’s musical world on all levels, from recorded forest and wind sounds to the influence of French Spectralism, that relies on the use of the very laws of sound to develop compositional parameters, both in sound-color harmonies and on the broader scale of musical architecture —so to speak, making music out of the very physicality of sound and matter.

This strand of Saariaho’s music is strongly present in Only The Sound Remains, as is her lasting interest in Asian musical traditions, that translates here in personal though perceptible ways in her writing for the flute, percussions, and the traditional Finnish plucked-string instrument, the kantele. Avoiding any form of orientalism or undue cultural appropriation was as important musically as on all levels of this peculiar ‘Noh project’, as is also to be witnessed in Sellars’s signature use of syncretic body language, and his invitation for Julie Mehretu to create the stage design: this Ethiopian-American visual artist’s often large canvases have been termed abstract, but could rather be described as exploring a space between purely expressive brush-strokes and drawing, graffiti, calligraphy and architecture —a space that seems to eerily exist in-between and beyond all pictorial traditions, while stemming from their shared origin.

The result of this collaboration that sums up the essence of the life’s work of a handful of artists from such diverse crafts and backgrounds, this performance that is as minimalistic and strikingly lush and intoxicating as the original Noh theatre itself though bearing so little resemblance with it in practice, does not offer itself to us as some sort of final monument. It is rather an invitation to partake in ever more celebrations of the unknown that is to be found among ourselves and each other, the stage being the place where such a feast can take place. By such means, Ezra Pound’s dangerous quest is perhaps redeemed, and continued.

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