“Mysterium.” This was the answer Leo Svirsky gave me some time ago, when I asked what his end goal with music was. Began by Russian symbolist Alexander Scriabin in 1903, Mysterium, is an unfinished musical work that the composer worked on until his death in 1915. The piece included an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, and incense. It was to be over a week long, take place in the foothills of the Himalayas, bring about the end of the world, and replace humanity with “nobler beings.” Listening to Svirsky speak about the present state of music, politics, and culture, one senses that such a spirit of upheaval is alive and kicking. Born in 1988, this young composer—much like his interviewer, guitarist and composer Michael Pisaro—pursues Mysterium’s reconfiguration of the world, but by opposite means: quietude. Eschewing Scriabin’s dreams of bombast in favor of meditative privacy, Svirsky searches for what can be heard in the unheard. With works for piano, orchestra, and ensemble, Svirsky lights corners of hidden musical worlds with a palm sheltering the flame.
Michael Pisaro I know you’re an artist invested in political questions. Given the current situation in the US, with the gathering dread, or a sense oncoming avalanche—of persecution of minorities, deregulation of the economic culprits, rape of the environment—what kind of response do you have? Is it something that can or should take musical form? If so, how do you address it musically?
Leo Svirsky This hyper-politicized atmosphere is still quite recent. For me though, the political has always been an intrinsic part of music making. My father left the Soviet Union as part of the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1979, and my mom was part of the generation of American Jews that were activists for the rights of ethnic minorities in the USSR. So, I grew up with this normative idea of art as a kind of resistance. That’s part of the culture of the thaw period—with artists and writers working in the ’60s (like the painter Mikhail Chemiakhin or the poet Joseph Brodsky), but also with books published for the first time then (like The Master and Margherita). It’s hard to place the importance of arts then in an American context; it’s not the same as a commitment to emancipatory politics, since the art of this period is in part mourning victims of the failure of the most ambitious manifestation of that politics. It’s also not necessarily art that’s meant to change the political sphere, since the task of art to make sense of such a catastrophe happens when the public sphere is either non-existent or unable to accommodate these voices. There’s an element of stoic humor, as in Joseph Brodsky’s response to “How can one write poetry after Auschwitz?”… “And how can one eat lunch?”
As a teenager, the first friends that shared an interest in contemporary or experimental music were people I met in the DC punk and hardcore scene. Music wasn’t a separate sphere at all, rather, being in a band and going to shows meant an explicit commitment to political activism. Concerts and festivals would have vegan food, skillshares, and workshops in civil disobedience. For me, this coincided with a deeper understanding of American history and world politics, but nonetheless, the subordination of an artistic project to a political one (which I fell into wholeheartedly) is actually quite terrifying for people who remember life under “real existing socialism.”
Classical musicians and advocates for classical music often describe Bach or Mozart as the feeling of everything good and whole and in the world, but, while I still love that music, I hear it as something complicated and morally ambiguous. The music that really gives me that feeling is John and Alice Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, or Horace Tapscott. It’s significant that while European avant-gardes were hoping for a clean slate, a break from the past and tradition, these musicians were interested in establishing themselves as part of a lineage—for example in the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s use of “Great Black Music,” or the Arkestra’s effortless blending of all parts of canonical jazz history with new textures and tunings that still sound surprising and radical decades later. I mean, you can see a direct a line between “strange strings” and Antoine Beuger’s approach to writing for strings! Activism always involves a kind of coalition building, but the kind of community art is capable of building extends further, to the dead and the unborn.
Historian Alexander Etkind refers to these as “software monuments” in contrast to “hardware monuments” (statues, museums). They exist because the circumstances that would permit “hardware monuments” are not there yet. Historians aren’t close to knowing how many victims there were of Soviet terror, or of American slavery (and the 100 years of terror that followed), let alone their names and genealogies. The Russian state still uses the language and iconography of Stalinism, and ethnic minorities in the US are still murdered with impunity. The DAPL is violating treaties made in the 1850s! I think about Joe Hill’s phrase “Don’t mourn, organize,” and I wonder if organizing isn’t the work of mourning, or if organizing isn’t what’s necessary to create the conditions that make mourning possible.
Morton Feldman described his musical world as a “haunted house with no ghosts,” but for me making art, especially sound-based art, means living with ghosts; it’s vibrations call forth spirits. That doesn’t mean it’s possible to speak for them. Stanislaw Lem, at the end of His Master’s Voice, describes this as an indecipherable howling, but music is the sphere of activity that creates a space where it’s possible to listen. That might be the most radical idea coming from Pauline Oliveros (or Wandelweiser), that music making is foremost an art of listening, or helping others to listen. What you describe in your question is a kind of apocalypse, and in thinking of an impending apocalypse it’s important to remember it’s dual meaning, not just an end, but a revelation, the vindication and resurrection of the dead.
MP I’m curious about the degree to which you think direct political consciousness should inform a work, if that can at all be stated.
LS Art making always involves asking other people for their attention and, in the case of duration-based work, their time. There’s a real responsibility that comes with that, which I think can only be understood in political terms. Art is always made relying on specific practices that have their own histories, that are kept alive by specific people, cultures, and institutions. The choice of which practices to use, and which ones to avoid is also deeply political. Art contains what anthropologist James C. Scott calls “hidden transcripts,” shades of meaning readable to certain social groups, but not to others. At the same time, politics involve a specific delineation between saying and doing, and in art, saying is always a form of doing, so there is a kind of opaqueness and ambiguity that creeps into speech as soon as it’s referred to as part of an artistic practice. There’s a kind of oblique language at work even in the most “directly” political pieces, like Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together.” The real subject of the work, the Attica riots, isn’t mentioned once; it appears by implication in the disjunction between music and text, in the knowledge that the author will die soon after the text is written.
Of course I think there’s power in using deliberately “direct” language, but it tends to always contain an element of the anti-aesthetic. It stands in contrast to an imaginary poetic and oblique speech that we expect (like in the Anohni album, which I love), but that contrast itself puts it back into the paradox of aesthetics.
MP I like this phrase of yours: “I wonder if organizing isn’t the work of mourning.” Can you expand upon that a bit? I tend to agree that “software monuments” (perhaps akin to what Beuys called “social sculpture”) represent the kinds of relatively local activities that art does well. You imply that this goes beyond making and performing work. Are there new ways of envisioning this that go beyond, or at least renew, the sense of a larger commitment to alternate ways of living, which is, I think, something we both experienced in relation to various American punk movements?
LS Absolutely, mourning also involves an element of celebration, an obligation to keep memory alive through practice. Making art also involves the logistic work of organizing your life in a way that makes it possible. There’s an open secret that DIY music is only possible because it involves a lot of people breaking a lot of laws (zoning laws, liquor laws, housing laws), which also makes these practices and spaces vulnerable. The kind of music we’re involved in relies on “low stakes” gigs, where it’s possible to fail and take risks, which automatically pits you against the logic of running a commercial venue, which basically relies on selling alcohol. Of course, the other reason people get away with breaking these laws is because these spaces are socially coded as white (which doesn’t mean they’re exclusively or necessarily majority white, though that’s unfortunately the case in many places as well), which also points to the limits of this kind of prefigurative politics.
One of the more powerful legacies of free jazz is the idea that a sonic practice can transform a space. The kind of extreme, ecstatic dimension of that music actively transforms a white-owned bar into a kind of temple. Or in contrast, Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations were not even meant as concert pieces, but more as self-care, a radical shift of the category of composition from a public to private space. So, I always see making radical music as part of a struggle for dignity and autonomy, control of one’s space and time. This means being aware that we’re not the first, that our practices were made possible by many people devoting their entire lifetimes in environments that were unimaginably more difficult than our own.
MP You’re absolutely right, in my view, when you say there are opportunities in an anticipated apocalypse for significant, even radical change in a positive direction. A certain dreaded future, whether it comes to pass or not, seems to create a corresponding need to imagine other futures. Do you see any of these positive projected or imagined futures in the present moment?
LS My friend Andrew Bernstein of the band Horse Lords said it best: “Radical music isn’t just for fun.” I feel really alienated every time I hear something like “Punk will get really great and political again,” because so many artists did powerful and political work all through the Obama years. But I do feel something is different, which is a growing sense of our own power and resonance. Agamben characterizes politics as the gap between law and life, and certainly this gap is widening. As a culture, we tend to look at history as a teleology, or an incremental progress, but this continuously underestimates the role of contingency, of senselessness and stupidity. It’s precisely because of senselessness and contingency that there’s a possibility of acting.
MP Most of your music seems to come from a place deep in the heart of a radical romanticism. This is not just a question of tonal chromatic harmony, but, to my ears, a sense of longing—possibly even of transcendence, if that’s the right word. I think of figures like Hölderlin, or Caspar David Friedrich, or even Bertolt Brecht. In other words, it strikes me that rather than anything “neo” you are actively trying to resurrect that spirit in thoroughly modern terms. Do you see it that way?
LS Radical romanticism is spot on, especially the radical part. But I don’t see it as a question of resurrection, and for the same reason I see neo-romanticism as a kind of impossibility. My perspective on the arts is that romanticism never really went away. At the most basic level, the instruments we use (with a few exceptions) were built for the performance of romantic music; they weren’t substantially modified for later aesthetic purposes. At the same time, the ideology of the avant-garde in some of its most radical and seemingly anti-aesthetic manifestations (Allan Kaprow, Situationist International) still comes from Schiller’s idea of aesthetics as foremost a radical strategy for living. To be honest, I don’t know the work of Caspar David Friedrich at all, or Hölderlin’s well enough.
Romanticism is important not just for its continued presence, but also for its danger. I think of tonality as more or less a technology for the mobilization of affect toward national or religious feeling. It’s precisely because of this that mid-century composers avoided it; it was dangerous. That’s why older intellectuals, like Adorno, were more terrified by than sympathetic to the student movements of ‘68. There was a resurgence of romanticism, and it was a populist romanticism that led to fascism.
Embedded in the concept of “experimental” music is a deep distrust of affect, and of symbolism—that making a sound “stand” for something hurts our ability to really “hear” it. I’m especially interested in how sound as symbol can also access different kinds of hearing—for example, Beethoven described the first recognition of his deafness as being unable to hear a distant Shepherd’s flute. What is the motif of this shepherd’s flute or the pastoral mean but a way of relating perception and distance, a “disappearing music”? Paul Valéry describes poetry as something “between sound and sense.” For me, music involves this play and destabilization of the two. When does sound become symbol and vice versa.
MP While I definitely understand the mid-century avant-garde position on tonality, what if they were wrong? What if it’s simply one tool among many that deal with affect? In retrospect, I think that association of tonality with nationalism and, more broadly, manipulation was an attempt to distance the composer from responsibility for human catastrophes. Should we accept some of this responsibility? And what forms should this responsibility take, perhaps going beyond symbol into action?
LS I guess seeing tonality as a tool is a bit misleading. Embedded in it is a way of seeing the world, an idea of listening, and a relation of subjectivity to the social body—a kind of political theology. There is a real power in this, as accessed in the work of Albert Ayler, in the hymn quotation in Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerilla”, or in the powerful reminiscences of Wagner in the memoirs of both Emma Goldman and WEB Dubois. It’s a pity to lose access to this dimension of feeling.
At the same time, I hesitate to criticize the post-war generation. I think their suspicion of national feeling and martial rhythms was more of a personal, visceral thing. It’s very hard to imagine the kind of power and trauma those sounds evoked for that generation, because they’re rendered almost harmless by the distance we have from those forms of media—the hiss of old records and radio broadcasts captures more of our attention than their content, and in a way shields us from their real power.
This is true of tonality as well. As a listener, though, I can’t listen to music from this period without hearing the shadow of tonal common practice, an uncomfortable absence as an uninvited guest. I like working with tonality as a kind of obsolete technology, as an archaic way of hearing and communicating, but also because it involves “getting your hands dirty,” getting involved in the symbolism of a supposedly old world that’s now rearing its head. I’m inspired by the way in which earlier discussions of representation in the arts (of the late 1960s–’70s) were framed as inseparable from discussions of practice—that, it didn’t just matter who the composer was, but rather how oppression was embedded in the way “composers” related to their performers, audiences, and the world around them.
Leo Svirsky’s new album Heights in Depths is now available from Catch Wave Ltd. He will be performing in England this month—at Post Paradise in Birmingham, Cafe Oto in London, Another Timbre in Sheffield, and Coach House in Brighton.