Yann Novak

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A Long Way From Home – A Journey Into Human Suffering


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Where art thou? I have been long alone. I wander up and down and make my music. O’er pathways that are paved with tender grasses. I seek but rest, rest for my lonely heart. I journey to my homeland, to my haven. I shall no longer seek the far horizon. My heart is still and waits for its deliverance. – The Farewell from Gustav Malher’s Song of the Earth

Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being – unequivocally, with the impact of whisky setting one’s guts afire as it goes down – still I find an endless nothing. – Kanzaburo Oe, The Silent Cry, Serpent’s Tail 1988, p 1

Human suffering has often been written about and expressed in a variety of musical forms throughout the ages. Requiems have dealt with mourning since the Renaissance, from the times of Johannes Ockeghem up to the present. Ex-Soviet composers in particular have proved well versed on the subject of pain with Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs where Every Verse is Full of Grief from his Concerto for Choir sounding like a programmatic statement. Alongside very private and intimate works such as Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa, written in memory of his wife, and Faradzh Karaev’s Tristessa I (Farewell Symphony), dedicated to his late father, stand examples of musical offerings which manage to combine the personal with the political such as Peteris Vasks’ Musica Dolorosa, a tribute to the composer’s sister who died shortly before the piece was written, which also alludes to the bleak political situation Latvia was undergoing at the time. “This is my most tragic opus, – wrote Vasks in 1981 – the only one where there is no optimism, no hope, only pain”.

A direct experience of war lead Yannis Xenakis and Luigi Nono to place human suffering into a social context, giving it a political reading. Xenaxis, once part of the communist National Liberation Front and sentenced to death in absentia by the regime of the colonels, translated the sounds of demonstrating crowds into stochastic laws refuting John Cage’s notion of chance music and turning bombings into mathematical equations. Luigi Nono even went one step further. A member of the Italian resistance in the Second World War, Nono not only condemned Nazi war crimes (Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz, 1965), the atrocity in Hiroshima (Canti di vita e d’amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima of 1962) and the Vietnam War (A floresta é jovem e cheia de vida, 1966), but also denounced capitalism (La Fabbrica Illuminata, 1964) and the exploitation of the workforce.

Nono himself was to become the subject of a mournful memorial by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, whose moving tribute Lament is in turn coloured by a sense of homelessness dictated by exile, with grief weaving sudden bursts of loud tones onto solitary violin lines, and fracturing the poetic spell of Hans Sahl poem Stanzas intoned by soprano Maacha Deubner.

 Quite slowly I am walking from the world. Into a landscape further off than far, and what I was and am and shall remain, as patient, as unhurried walks with me into a country never trodden yet.

The presence of music has always been constant during wars and even in concentration camps with Olivier Maessian composing and premiering his Quartet for the End of Time in the prisoner of war camp of Görlitz.

Throughout the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996, the city’s  Symphony Orchestra continued to play. In 1395 Days without Red, a collaborative film project by artists Sejla Kameric and Anri Sala, the orchestra rehearses Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, while an elegant young woman makes her way through the empty city. At every crossing she stops, looks and listens wondering whether she should wait or run, and whether she should take the risk on her own or wait for others. Her journey is punctuated by the Pathetique. The route the woman takes became known as Sniper Alley.

Sound is never suspended. “I always used to think hat the war was black and white. But it’s in colour. – writes Arkady Babchenko in One Soldier’s War in Chechnya – It’s not true what the song says, that birds don’t sing and trees don’t grow in war. In fact, people get killed in the midst of such vivid colour, among the green foliage of the trees, under the clear blue sky. And life hums on all around.”

The resilience of sound in the face of the devastating force of destruction is well exemplified in The Eternal Morning 1945.8.6, an orchestral piece for strings and tape where composer Toshiya Sukegawa gives voice to a small upright piano that was damaged during the bombing of Hiroshima and later partially restored. The piano has a peculiar sound with hammer and key noise carrying the memory of the atrocity. Its slightly distorted timbre, echoing the fragility of the human condition, eventually gives way, in the last two minutes of the piece, to the full clear sound of a new Steinway, which signals a rebirth amongst the pain.

As Jean Hatzfield writes, “That which cannot be said about genocide is not the horror, the abomination. Why should it be? The unspeakable is the destruction of a part of the memory at the same time as the destruction of men. It is the destruction of millions of Jews in Europe or Tutsis in Rwanda, because their memory has been destroyed and it is only them who could talk about this destruction, those who have been destroyed.”

When making the film Crazy (1999) about the traumatic effects of war on Dutch soldiers, film-maker Heddy Honigmann picked music as a powerful trigger to unlock their memories on a deeply emotional level. The documentary shows soldiers who served in UN peacekeeping missions reacting to music that holds particular significance for them vis-à-vis the horror they experienced while on duty in former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Rwanda. Honigmann asked her subjects not to listen to their chosen track until she actually filmed them while listening to it. One of these soldiers is marines’ commander Patrick Cammaert, who selects Crazy by Seal, which he associates to the attack on the market in Sarajevo with its ensuing bloodbath. Music awakens the emotional memory of these soldiers some of whom are filmed fighting the tears.

And yet, aside from sporadic attempts at tackling the subject, such as Amirani Records’ collective album On War, specifically designed to “provoke artists to compose around social issues”, there are few works within the experimental and electro-acoustic music bracket that deal directly with human suffering on a collective level.

In February 2010, when Simon Whetham was invited to perform at Audio Art in Krakow by Marek Choloniewsky, he proposed visiting the city for three or four days prior to the performance in order to record the sounds of the place, to compose a site specific piece for the event. Whetham stayed in the Kazimierz area of Krakow, the old Jewish area that during the Second World War became a ghetto through Nazi persecution. Walking the streets, he felt a certain sadness and longing that was almost tangible. Turning a personal experience into a poignant meditation on the fragility and the dormant power of memory Simon Whetham’s resulting work Payers Unheard evokes the pain and suffering of the Jewish people through the perceived echo of despair filtering from the field recordings.

Uncovering hidden sounds not audible by the human ear could be seen as a way to convey a ghostly presence or simply as a means to deconstruct the mechanics of the physical worlds. Dealing with a sonic experience of time, absence, and change – in an area haunted by an invisible and inaudible danger, amidst the slowly decaying remains of human civilization, Jacob Kirkegaard’s 4 Rooms, is a revelation of four abandoned spaces inside the Zone of Exclusion in Chernobyl. One of the inspirations behind this particular project was Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room. In Lucier’s case, though, words become unintelligible, whereas the resonance of the rooms recorded by Kirkegaard uncovers lives obliterated. Opting for a “no intervention” approach, and “simply placing a microphone in a room and leaving it alone”, Kirkegaard initiates an internal discourse between time and memory within each room. The locations, a gym, an auditorium and a swimming pool in Pripyat were selected by his guide, with a Church in Krasno completing the line-up. In each room, Kirkegaard recorded 10 minutes of sound and then played the recording back into the room, while at the same time recording it again. This process was repeated up to ten times.

Visiting the zone was undoubtedly the most interesting journey, I have ever been on. I spent three days travelling around in this wasteland, Surrounded by an outermost astonishing nature. The air seems so incredibly fresh. Of course you don’t smell or see radiation, you just know that it is there, and this makes everything seem very artificial. Nature all of a sudden looks and sounds so artificial, or ‘unnatural’. Very much like Tarkowski’s landscape in Stalker. It was very filmic in fact. The effect that ‘something is wrong here’, but it hasn’t revealed itself yet. Even the silence sounded strange. Radiation has added another dimension to what we know, something transcendent and mystical.

Travelling for hours in an extremely lonely, but colourful and overwhelming landscape in an October autumn, knowing that there is something in the soil, something around me that I cannot see, evoked a feeling, that is very difficult to describe. I have never found myself feeling outside reality (literally alienated from the world that I understand). There is a different spirit inhabiting the place, it is divine, but devilish. Something that eats you slowly, but there is no monster to see, only wild nature. It is like a spell.?So it is an extremely interesting place, and it reached beyond myself. Experiencing Chernobyl is like entering another zone in myself. – Kirkegaard describes his experience in an interview with Roger Batty

Many musicians however choose to eradicate all signposts severing any possible links between the darkness in their work and specific tragic events or personal traumas for fear of limiting any interpretation of their music. Different artists have their own language to communicate ideas. If their language is a very formal one, or just does not lend itself to communicating this kind of content, then dealing with deeply emotional or political topics might not make sense or be possible within their chosen idiom.

For a musician like Yann Novak, making work is an autobiographical practice, it is about documenting his own existence and translating that information into a form he can share with an audience. In 2006, when his mother passed away very suddenly his work became all about that loss culminating in the release Meadowsweet, that came out just a few months after her passing away. Two years later Novak released The Breeze Blowing Over Us. The music was based on a recording of a fan over his bed, which he took the first weekend he spent with his partner. The fact that his partner was a man and that being gay in parts of the US is still an issue placed the work into a political framework. The album acquired further poignancy once Novak moved to Los Angeles. His gallery show about the move entitled Relocation reintroduced feelings connected with loss and separation into his work colouring it with a deeply sad tinge.

Sending set questions relating to human suffering within the experimental music scene elicited few answers. As one label head put it, “If there is a lack of darker topics explored in this community, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. I think in the greater art world, there is a huge amount of work being made about really dark issues and this small niche could be providing a needed counterpoint”.