Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On the road with Lutoslawski


When I was writing about Jordi Savall's epic new project Jerusalem I quoted Timothy Leary's observation that 'thinking is the best way to travel'. Over the past four years I have wandered as far as Asia and Africa as well as across a lot of Europe. But, increasingly, my travels have shifted from macro to micro. Travelling short distances on the ground, but great distances in the head, is also the theme of an extraordinary work of literature that has recently become available in English translation.

Julio Cortázar's Argentian father managed family business interests in Belgium, and the author was born in Brussels a few days after the German invasion of the country in 1914. As the conflict spread the Cortázar family moved first to Switzerland and then to Spain, before returning to Argentina. Despite not completing his degree in philosophy and languages at the University of Buenos Aires, Cortázar became professor of French literature at the Univeristy of Cuyo in Argentian in 1944. Seven years later Julio Cortázar's opposition to the regime of Juan Domingo Perón led him to emigrate to France. In 1952 he became a translator for UNESCO and continued to live in France until his death in 1984. Towards the end of his life Cortázar actively opposed human rights abuses in Latin America, and he was a supporter of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

Many of Julio Cortázar's major works were written in Paris. His output included short stories, poetry, drama, non-fiction and novels. His 1963 novel Hopscotch (Rayuela) is probably his best known work. One of his short stories was based on the life of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Jazz improvisation was an important influence on Cortázar's style. He was a pioneer of the use of interior monologues and stream of consciousness, and art forms from other disciplines, including Surrealism, influenced his work. Cortázar's writing is sometimes categorised as 'magic realism'. The mystical elements in his writings link it to the Zen Buddhist teachings of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki and others. These elements, and the use of non-linear forms, also link Cortázar with the contemporary movement known as downtown music. The Argentian composer Amanda Guerreño (born 1933 - do follow that previous link) has set several of Cortázar's poems to music.

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, co-written with his third wife the Canadian author and photographer Carol Dunlop, was one of Julio Cortázar's last works. The subject matter could not be more unlikely. In 1982 Cortazar and Dunlop spent thirty-three days travelling the 485 miles from Paris to Marseille in a classic Volkswagen motor home (as in the header photo). It is a route I know well, and which has provided the starting point for many paths, including those about new music for the kithara, a reflowering of contemplative thought, a contemporary music festival and a a gypsy saint.

The journey made by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop was rather different to my own flat-out blasts south on the Autoroute du Soleil. In a mirror of the I Ching (and John Cage) the authors made a series of micro journeys governed by pre-determined rules. These rules determined that they travelled only on autoroutes (French freeways or motorways). They never left the autoroute during the thirty-three days. They stopped at every single service and rest stop en route, and they stayed overnight at every other stopping point. Each day's total driving was therefore only around thirty miles. So the journey itself became secondary. The book is a meditation on the act of travelling, both mentally and physical, rather than a homage to the destination.

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute was originally published in Spanish in 1983. It was given a superb English translation by Anne McLean in 2007, and is available in paperback from independent publishing house Telegram, who, rather wonderfully, have offices in London, Berkeley and Beirut. My beautifully designed copy, which has photographs by the authors (including the cover seen below) and sketches by Dunlop's son, was printed in the Lebanon. This book is both an affordable object of beauty and a wonderful introduction to Julio Cortázar's work.

Written as a diary with accompanying photos, Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a forerunner of the blog. But it sets a standard which the humble blogger can only dream of reaching. This is not travel writing. This is an amusing, playful, inventive, optimistic and moving reflection on our strange journey through life. Shockingly, that journey was to end for both the authors soon after they travelled through France in 1982., Illness took Carol Dunlop, aged 36, before the book was finished, and Julio Cortázar died of leukemia two years later. In this superb English translation Autonauts of the Cosmoroute should join W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn as a contemporary 'road trip' classic. If you crave for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without the pretentiousness, Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is the book for you.
'I'll never know how I bought three cassettes of Fats Waller and only one of Ellington and one of Armstrong; I'm not making value judgements, but it's funny to find an hour of music by Charles Mingus and another of Jelly Roll Morton against barely ten minutes of Lester Young; I think I was half asleep that morning, although thank heavens I remembered to bring the best of Bix and Trum, which sounds so perfectly clear in the rest area nights. And there's also Schubert's quartets numbers 804 and 887, played by the Juilliards, and Arnold Schoenberg's first quartet. But in the end I think I was right to overdo it on the Lutoslawski, because it's what I listen to most and best these days. There is something in his prodigous String Quartet, in his 'Music for 13 instruments' which chimes marvellously well with the sonorous atmosphere of the rest areas where the sound of the freeway is a mere backdrop for birds, insects, broken branches, all that feeds into the texture of the music although musicologists won't believe it ~ page 321 of Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

'We dedicate this expedition and its chronicles to all the world's nutcases and especially to the English gentleman whose name we do not recall and who in the eighteenth century walked backwards from London to Edinburgh singing Anabaptist hymns' ~ from the authors' introduction to Autonauts of the Cosmoroute.

Anyone who doesn't read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease, which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder ... and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair' ~ Pablo Neruda says it all.

* 'Anyone who hasn't heard Lutoslawski's bracing Quartet is also doomed. Well, not quite. You can make it's acquaintance quite painlessly in an excellent performance by the Alban Berg Quartet. It is on an EMI double CD of the composer's music that is currently available on Amazon for just £8.79. Which is a bit of a contrast to Nonesuch who see fit to charge full price for the Kronos Quartet's recording which comes without any coupling. That translates to a very post-modern £12.69 for just over 23 minutes of music. More on the EMI double CD here.

* On An Overgrown Path will be taking one of a series of extended summer breaks at the end of this week. By a neat piece of synchronicity we are off on a road trip to France. And yes, Lutoslawki is on the iPod.

My copy of Autonauts of the Cosmoroute was bought online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

9 comments:

Pliable said...

I listened to Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra on a now deleted Decca double CD while uploading this article. Hearing that work again confirmed my view that this is a composer who should be reassessed. As indeed should his compatriots Karol Szymanowski and Krzysztof Penderecki. Surely these composers deserve at least some of the attention showered on Henryki Górecki?

Lutoslawski stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the modernists. Yet the majority of his music is accessible without falling into a formulaic nationalist style. It is a mystery why, for instance, his Paganini Variations are not better known.

The reason is probably because a handful of acerbic works (e.g. his 1986 Chain 3) has resulted in his music being categorised as forbiddingly 'avant-garde'. A great shame and a great mistake.

Pliable said...

And talking of contemporary Polish composers -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2009/02/more-than-sum-of-parts.html

Pliable said...

Department of semantics. Karol Szymanowski is categorised as a Polish composer. In fact he was born in Tymoszówka, which is part present-day Ukraine.

thedentist said...

Speaking of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, check the DG Concerts download of that work and music by Liget and Husa, with Salonen and the LA Phil. One of the concerts from the "Shadow of Stalin" series at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Pliable said...

TD, many thanks for that helpful comment.

I was particularly interested that Lutoslawski had been programmed in the LA Phil 'Shadow of Stalin' series.

I have his Chain 3 and Novelette on a now-deleted 1992 DG Classikon CD coupled with works by Ligeti and Schnitke.

The DG Classikon series set important works into their historical context, and the booklet includes essays on The Historical Background and The Cultural Scene plus a timeline on the fall of Communism.

Putting music into context seems an obvious and worthwhile idea, in fact it is what I try to do in a modest way. But, sadly, the market for contextualised music is finite. The DG Classikon series, like Communism, has passed into history.

Pliable said...

I should have added that the DG Classikon series featured contemporart art on the CD inlay.

The Schnittke, Lutoslawski and Ligeti disc features Kasimir Malevich's Suprematist Composition -

http://www.malevichsociety.org/pages/ms.html

Pliable said...

Email received:

Dear Pliable : What a pleasure to know you enjoy the work of Julio Cortazar.

The way he uses language made me think that an essential core from his writing would be lost on translation, something deliciously local, but then again, he was an european mind as much as an argentinian.

Oddly, having read most of his oeuvre in my youth, it is via this path that i´m now curious about "autonauts", which is one of the few i haven´t read yet. (and the Lutoslawski String Quartets have tickled my curiosity too).

Just a note for starters: "Rayuela", even if it is his most popular work, is not the best place to start. I would suggest some of his short stories collections: "Todos los fuegos el fuego", "Final de juego", "Bestiario" or "Octaedro". They are truly wonderful.

So, good trip!
Ricardo Messina

Pliable said...

Ricardo, thanks for that. I totally agree with you about the importance of the translation.

Fiction translation is an overlooked and undervalued art form. To recognise this I always try to credit the translator if I can, and Anne McLean received a well-deserved mention and link in this piece -

http://www.archipelagobooks.org/trans.php?id=28

klangerin said...

The story based on Charlie Parker is featured on "Las armas secretas" (the secret weapons).

And if anyone wants a side order of Cortazar´s more pataphysical writings, try "Historia de Cronopios y de Famas". Both are essential reading.