The intimacy of the index
Listening notes on 'Concordance'
I love to be outside as night falls. Whenever I can, I mark the transition from day to night by walking through quickly darkening streets and peeping into the neighboring houses. My neighbors and I may have nothing in common beyond the fact that the light of day is fading for us all, but when I pass by their uncurtained windows I leave traces; a wake of moving air, the sound of a footstep, or the impression of a familiar face to someone invisible to me. There is an intimacy to this repeated, glancing attention. As I stalk the last licks of light, I am sutured into the lives lived behind the windows I pass.
Listening to Concordance, which opens with the tentative invitation to “Come in. Sit distantly close to me Snow Image,” opens up this same space of feeling in me. Be near me but apart, in body and in imagined reflection. Be your own person, with your own histories and knowledges, as we harmonize. Let’s fit and fill the spaces each other make.
In the course of the last seventeen or so years and across five recorded collaborations, Susan Howe and David Grubbs have found a complex though familiar collaborative form. The texts are assembled from across Howe’s writing, with little reverence for continuity or exact replication, which she performs as a kind of score. Grubbs, who has first familiarized himself with the manuscript, shifts his attention to respond to and reframe the aural document of Howe’s recorded words, by playing with sound, music, and noise, at times decontextualizing a source sound beyond its original frame of reference. The recordings continually turn around ideas of juxtaposition, collage, authority, interruption, and echoes. They are full of gaps that leave spaces open, and gaps that hold disparate parts together. Their first project, Thiefth (2005), examines the violent constructedness of American “wilderness.” Grubbs’s scrunches and percussions in the work mimic a kind of path-making, just as the text Howe reads depicts a land shaped by the prevailing language of those who narrate it. The precolonial land described in Thiefth is mapped, owned, privatized, exploited, and finally packaged for use in the present day as a mythologized and imagined space. A similar attention to ordering is examined in WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER (2015). The recording, taken during Howe’s residency at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, features canary song, the broom strokes of cleaning staff, and a gallery ventilation system. Via this adjusted listening lens and a text that considers the topsy-turvy world of fairy-tale contracts and military practices, Howe and Grubbs reimagine hierarchies of sound, voice, and noise. In both works, an American cultural project and an American expansionist military are woven together by the aural threads of a drone. Howe and Grubbs’s collaborations require sincere and sustained listening and reward it with strange and richly textured soundscapes where the political art of storytelling happens in syllables and scratches.
In Concordance we are presented with a very different aural space. A two-part recording pared back to Howe’s solo voice and Grubbs’s contemplative piano; this work may be strictly for Howe-heads. The themes mentioned above, which are all essentially social, are hard to locate in a work that at first listen gives the impression of two solitary individuals playing away in their own, separate, rooms. Howe’s text is studded with references to the unbreachable spaces between beings; the figures are all outside looking in or stuck at the threshold unable to step across, meanwhile Grubbs’s piano appears to be playing an accompaniment to a different recital altogether. However, over the course of the work, the continued parallels between the piano and voice draw our attention to the duet, the couplet, the couple. The spoken text and piano chords pivot around a critical inquiry of organizing structures and the complex “reciprocal reflections” between reader and read. We are reminded that even the most intimate of relationships, that of a reader with their own imagination, is a communally produced space, and a potential site for generative expansion. This is a work that invites us to interrogate the boundaries, intimacies, and problems of the couple form and to imagine ways a dialogue is not only, and indeed never is, between just two.
As with all Howe and Grubbs’s recordings, this is not a straight translation of the written text Concordance (New Directions, 2020), but a tapestry made of threads from older essays (“Vagrancy in the Park”) and poems, as well as some parts from the namesake text. Howe reads, whispers, shouts and sings (yes, sings!) a text that oscillates between direct address (“Echo echo I love you”), epistolic/archival fragments (“‘An envious Sliver broke’ was a passage your Uncle peculiarly loved”), repeated or listed words (“261 threshold 261 threshold 263 threshold 263 threshold 275 threshold”), and syllabic expressions. What, on paper, is a discontinuous nonlinear series of fragments and individual poems, becomes two long spoken texts joined together by Grubbs’s lingering piano chords that seamlessly bridge the two parts of the work. Grubbs himself describes the process of the collaboration as a transformation of “what was once a series of shorter poems or pages or collages [into] a single skein,” which is how a listener might feel the relationship between the words and piano. The music serves as a path through and between the different sections, one that runs parallel to the spoken words, not an accompaniment or background, but a kind of voice communicating on a sensory rather than a textual level. But just as Howe’s words at times fragment into texture rather than text (see her poem-collages where words are spliced, covered, and snapped into their constituent syllables or partial remnants of letters), Grubbs’s mashy chords that use the sustain pedal to transition between tonal shifts become a continual sonic texture that embraces/touches/opens peepholes into the next part of the piece. At times the two performers feel as if they pull against one another in jarring mismatches of feeling, but occasionally they harmonize in such a way as to open a door for the listener to step through.
However, even this suggestion of an open door very much depends upon the listener as an active attendant to the work, one who arrives with the following coordinates in hand. If we agree with Clint Burnham (in an essay where he calls Howe a “pervert”) on the principle that “coherence is the ideological structure whereby capital interpellates the subject,” then Howe’s multivocal and multitonal performance is an embodied resistance to such imposed subjectivity. In Concordance the range of voices insists on a space for the radically disordered feminist speaking and listening subject whose existence is “multiple and contradictory … constructed by a variety of discourses … precariously and temporarily sutured at the intersection of those positions.” Through this recognition of a constructed and partial subject, can we come to a different place of narrative where meaning is, necessarily, made socially. Furthermore, as artist and researcher into sociopolitical listening Salomé Voegelin suggests, because of the invisibility and all-encompassing nature of a sound work (and the solitude of listening to it on headphones), we are able to “contemplate its assemblage of things as a mechanism that builds a possible world.” This sense of a textural assemblage woven in resistance to rigidly linear narrative, while typical of Howe’s interests from across her transdisciplinary practice, seems particularly pertinent during a time of right-wing simplification. If we are to find our way through complex and wicked problems in a just and intersectional way, we must embrace disharmonious, partial, and incomplete solutions out of which those truly cooperative and social moments of clarity and alignment can be built.
This attention to the creation of utopic spaces sheds light on the title Concordance. Neither the audio nor the book is in fact a concordance. Rather, each work takes the organizing elements of textual indexicality and aural harmony in order to examine those very ideas. The index makes data out of expression while simultaneously bringing together disparate parts of a text. While not self-reflective, an index is pedagogic. It is a kind of key (in as much as it gives access to the whole work) and a breakdown, an unmaking of the text into its constituent parts. Concordances, as book-length indexes, split apart, turn inside out, and make nonsensical the linearity and order of authored texts; they spatially re-present the work along new lines of harmony and categorization. “Concordances were biblical at first,” Howe states. Her attention to these organizational texts is an attention to the way knowledge is produced and reproduced by writing. By locating the source of the concordance in the Bible — itself a highly contested and communally written and consumed text — Howe is asking: what other hierarchies are questioned or rewritten when texts are broken up and remade in this way? Concordances are a form of navigation through a text’s innermost workings, its textual secrets and desires. In Howe’s hands it is an intimate form of knowing that arrives via the feelings and the emotions produced by a work’s continued and cyclical (de)construction.
“The more I read you — the more I need you — the more I read you — the less I know you —” Howe writes in her essay “Vagrancy in the Park,” scraps of which crop up throughout the text recorded in Concordance. The essay — that considers the intimacy of reading via diary entries, correspondences, and descriptions of New England birds — is set both in Concord, Massachusetts, and at a concord (or harmonious agreement) between the desire-filled reader and the desired text. Intimacy, however, is not a fixed state; it is a continual process, one that has as many moments of discord as of harmony. The text of the book Concordance pivots on the tragedy of Margaret Fuller, whose writings were very much disordered when scattered on a beach near New York after her ship ran aground. Howe’s stitched and collaged concordance is an articulation of the multiple ways works can be ripped open to the readership of the elements — here, across the sand of Fire Island, above tramping through the snow-filled public parks of New England. If these works become, at their most syllabic level, public texts, they require public readers. But what does it mean to be a public reader? Do communal readers read communally? Am I, as a listener — with the very saliva of Howe’s mouth contributing to the watery whisper in my ear — experiencing something deeply private or something deeply public? Can reading be both at once, or is it something else altogether?
This new audio work, then, is not a meditation on the closed harmonies between the contented reader and text, but rather an investigation into the different kinds of readers a text encounters. We are not the original recipients of Emily Dickinson’s letters; we are not even the scholars who look to the Concordance to the Letters of Emily Dickinson as a crucial indexical document. As with my crepuscular rambles, we achieve a moment of transgressive voyeurism with a communally made readership of the texts. Howe herself is always oscillating between the civil and the peculiar. She is concerned both with the intimacy and privacy of a reader reading and the act as a public engagement, both in a pedagogic sense but also in the way she accesses texts. She scavenges language from archives and libraries, her works are set in art galleries, municipal gardens, private museums that have (willfully naive) mission statements to be places for “the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” Howe’s attention to the ownership of narrative is an insistence that American literature is communal ground, even as American land is parcelled, portioned, and privatized. If literature is one form in which we understand and create a kind of knowledge, then these questions are not just about who gets to edit, order, and give definitive structures to the collected works and letters of canonical figures, but fundamentally how our lived experiences are edited and ordered. Who has command of the definitive organizing structures and why?