Hearing the musical rhythms of Self

I spent most of yesterday working with Ableton Live, a music composition software/hardware program that allows you to manipulate audio files. For my purposes I was trying to automatically match several song tempos to see how they’d blend. In the end, I got Keith Sweat’s “Twisted” to blend with Yo La Tengo’s “You Can Have it All” and it was quite magical because to synchronize these two opposite song meanings according to audio semantics produces a strange but smooth type of collision. Visually, here’s what it looks like.

It brings me back to Uthid Hemamul’s novel กระจกเงา | เงากระจก (or Mirror Image [2006]), and Chapter 12, which I call Morn’s Sonata–though the author begins the chapter “I heard the musical rhythms of self” or “I heard my musical rhythms”–hard to do justice to this (because the ‘self’ is the underlying problem of the novel). Morn is in his mid-twenties, has stopped attending art school, and has been disrupted by the recent suicide of his longtime lover. He works as a DJ at a RCA (Royal City Avenue in Bangkok) club called Brown Sugar. In anycase, one could call this 12th chapter “Morn’s Sonata”, but the author’s point–and the reason Ableton Live returns me to the chapter–is how the ‘self’ is caught up within these rhythms. That in our most disrupted state, the organized rhythms in our surroundings act as a social metronome (mitigating disorder).

Most importantly, the chapter starts off with an epigraph explaining what is to come. It basically reads like this:

Experience shakes me as a witness
Fragmenting and disordering
I have to organize it with corresponding points into a musical harmony
No, it won’t be poetic, nor a love song, nor midday contemplation
If I can do this, though a wandering and directionless bout it may be
This should be…my sonata

Music is the narrative and form-oriented thematic of this chapter. Morn floats about promoting a Brown Sugar event of diverse musicians, a lavish dream of creativity funneled into modern nightlife conformity. Then comes the rhythm of tickets being punched, money entering the hands of the doormen, people socializing in both interior and exterior spaces of the club, and the DJ spinning an eclectic mix of party music: from DJ Cam to David Byrne to Grace Jones to The Cure. All of the planning and handing out flyers (e.g., at Jatujak outdoor market where so-called ‘creative types’ gravitate) that Morn and his sound engineer friend Teddy put into this party is playing out in terms of rhythms, hesitations, ordering, and a heightening level of irritability. Several brief tangents emerge: Morn avoids and seems to look down on a “sassy girl” that has been pursuing him; Teddy conveys a tension at his sound engineering duties being replaced by the responsibility of handing to out party promotion flyers; the irony that the creative band, around which the event is organized, is not interested in money but in playing music in “this atmosphere”. The most interesting dimension of this chapter is wound with two strings: Morn’s musical harmonizing of the stream-of-consciousness Brown Sugar scene he narrates as a “metronome” (205) and the fact that this isolating machine-like factor counters the very collective ‘socializing’ scene he sees. Therefore, in the end he refers to himself repeatedly as a “time bomb” (205), the possibility of escape from this ordered machine-like metronome.

At the end of the chapter, after the music has finished, he narrates a later conversation with his mentor–and Brown Sugar club owner–Na Pae, wherein he resigns from Brown Sugar as a means of exiting the metronome previously narrated. This is Morn’s sonata, a homophonic excursus on affect and tone over voice and melody; a principle of organization inevitably designed to render visible the fragmentation of parts (and of self specifically); most importantly, in formulaic sonata structure it is designed to open the reader to another movement, closing Part II of the novel in order to usher in the final Third movement. It reminds me of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend. Morn is kind of like the Adrian Leverkuhn of contemporary Thai fiction. Morn’s sonata falls within a tradition of musical reflections on the social metronome, a rhythmic form to replace the inadequacies of dialogue.

The role of the DJ in the book is quite fascinating however, about synchronization, flow, and the ordering of song sequences. It finally hit home when I spent 8 hours on Ableton live yesterday. It reminds me of the old days.

My old South Bronx apartment at 111 Henwood Place

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