Sunday, 17 January 2010

"Like a wind-up toy, you stutter at my feet" : Towards an Aesthetics of Stammering

The Shows of London is a small reading group, based out of the King's College English department and interested primarily in the "entertainment and display cultures of nineteenth century London." Last week saw them mounting a half-day symposium in the King's old anatomy museum under the heading 'Stutter London'. London, it seems, has always stuttered, always been noted for its sounds and its machinic rhythms, and this brief conference set out to explore the stammering, spluttering sounds of the city as circulation and disturbance, synaesthesia and unrest. Can we speak of a radical stuttering whilst simultaneously maintaing due sensitivity to those for whom a stammer is a serious impediment?

Sara Thornton, in a presentation on Dickens's Bleak House, evokes Deleuze's paper, 'He Stuttered' in which the stammer is enlisted in the schizoanalytic opposition of the smooth and the striated, and for which, "Style is to stutter in one's own language." She opposes the smooth, oily discourse of Chadband to the ellipses and aporias of Krook, exploiting the potential for innuendo behind stuttering's pathological designation as a 'struggle behaviour'. Louise Lee, however, notes that Charles Kingsley, author of the Water Babies and Westward Ho!, was crippled by a paralysing fear of new and unfamiliar situations as a result of his speech impediment, suggesting that stuttering is perhaps just as likely to be an agent of conservatism as unrest. Kingsley went to great lengths to try and cure his stammer, frequenting the very same Harley Street specialist as another famous British stutterer, Lewis Carroll.
From my own perspective, the most fruitful of the day's interventions were those that drew the notion of stuttering out of the context of the Victorian novel and into the art forms of the twentieth century. Laura Marcus explored the cinematic genre of the 'city symphony' from Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures to Jean Vigo's A propos de Nice, via Ruttman, Vertov and Joris Ivens. The city symphonies of the late twenties sought to project a kind of isomorphism from the urban rhythms of their chosen city to the rhythms of film and montage. As each of the films under consideration were silent, their status as symphonies must be understood as figurative, synaesthetic (Germaine Dulac dubbed Ivens, "One of the visual musicians of the future," and in general it seems to be one of the ironies of history that film-makers tended to forget the close family relationship between music and film at the very moment the cinema becomes sonorised).

As 'symphonic' cinema, it is striking that such city films offer rare examples, for which they were highly praised by Ezra Pound, of a kind of object-oriented cinema (elements of which are taken up later, in very different ways, by Ozu and Tati). It is clear that the only protagonist of such films is the city itself, in which any human subjects are merely subsumed, participants in a rhythm which is not their own. In Ivens's Regen, set, though not obviously so, in Amsterdam, the city, as Marcus pointed out, "knows it is raining." We see the first raindrops strike the canal before we see a man's upturned palm, testing the air for precipitants.
Though containing as much as four months worth of footage, the narrative time span of such films tended to be compressed, in the edit suite, down to the passage of a day. In this respect, we might see them, as was pointed out by a question from the audience, as heirs to the late nineteenth century fondness for using stage lighting effects to recreate the sensations of dawn and dusk, common to Puccini and French realist opera. In other respects, the musical antecedents of Ruttman and Cavalcanti are not opera composers, but the Zukunftsmusikers around Franz Liszt whose programmatic symphonic poems would be the source of Liszt's break with Wagner in the late 1850's.

Following Laura Marcus's presentation, came Tom Fogg's exploration of the craze for 'stutter edit' and similar sounds in what he insisted on describing with the rather unfortunate American term, IDM. Ever since Karlheinz Stockhausen offered his 'Advice to Clever Children' in which, at the prompting of Radio 3's Dick Witts, he compared the repetitive beats of the Aphex Twin to being, "like someone who is stuttering all the time, and can't get words out of his mouth," electronic beats have stammered with an infectious aphasic arrhythmia. The use of the stutter edit in works by Matmos or Caribou, has a kind of anthropomorphic effect on the computer, claims Fogg, while insisting that, perhaps more than any other instrument, the computer was "always already anthropomorphic."
Fogg's paper restricts its attention to the use of specific stuttering software plug-ins in recent computer-based music, his conclusion that stuttering is then a consequence of spread of home computers and their domestification, is thus largely tautological. But what would a general theory of musical stuttering look like? One that would have to go way beyond the rhizomatic glitch techno of the Mille Plateaux label (and their various imitators, discussed by Fogg), to take in Steve 'Silk' Hurley's 'Jack Your Body', Paul Hardcastle's 'Nineteen', the "uh uh uh" of Laurie Anderson's 'O Superman', the voice phasing of Steve Reich's 'Come Out' and 'It's Gonna Rain', even the repeated staccato quavers tht comprise the colloratura of the Queen of the Night's "Der Hölle Rache" aria in The Magic Flute. Indeed, just think how commonly Italian opera singing (perhaps most obviously in Rossini) is characterised by precisely the repetitions, unnatural prolongations, and curiously placed (from a linguistic point of view) cessations that comprise Wikipedia's definition of stammering. And that is just to speak of the most obvious vocal stutterings, whereas Fogg has already shown the possibility of expanding the term to an anthropomorphic description of instrumental and machine-made sounds.

If any piece of music were to, "Der Hölle Rache", one of the most venomous, but also one of the most beautiful, and certainly one of the most difficult to sing arias in all opera, right at the very top of a soprano's range, sits well with Deleuze's notion of a language "so strained that it starts to stutter, or to murmur or stammer ... then language in its entirety reaches the limit that marks its outside and makes it confront silence." But perhaps Fogg is a little overhasty in dismissing the possibility of a psychoanalysis of sonic stammering. In 'O Superman', in 'Nineteen', even in Matmos's A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, don't we find precisely this re-mergence, this return of the repressed - as in the young Freud of his early Studies on Hysteria (co-authored with Josef Breuer), stuttering as hysterical symptom, "effects and residues of excitations which have acted upon the nervous system as traumas." The stammer marks the horror of the past, a nervousness towards the future, and the block of the unsayable.
All images taken from last summer's 'Stutter' exhibition at the Tate Modern.