In recent months I have been listening to Benjamin Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 (1945) and trying to describe something, anything, about it. Describe seems too weak a word when there exist long formal analyses of the piece: nevertheless, analysis seems easy, and description much more difficult.
It might be a vocabulary and grammar and syntax issue: I’m not sure we have any of those for music like this. Mervyn Cooke says of the first movement: “The overall effect … is highly unusual.” This is the reassuring resignation of a music writer.
Roland Barthes: “Music, by natural bent, is that which at once receives an adjective.”
Yes, the Britten quartet is highly unusual. Its key is C major. The rare moments when we in fact get this chord feel like a brief truce, a favor granted to us to snatch a breath of familiar air. Otherwise it moves relentlessly through accidentals and harmonies. Through time signatures, too: but the beat is constant, almost innocuously present and obvious: you could do a spin class to the propulsive beat of the scherzo. It defies us to find anything else amiss: here is a pulse, what more could you want?
The piece is illegible, I think. Britten seems to be reading aloud, quite fluently, from something we did not recognize could be read at all. It is—if not untranslatable—at least untranslated.
Leonard Bernstein said of Britten’s music: “There are gears that are grinding and not quite meshing, and they make a great pain.”
(Insert compulsory mention here of Britten’s homosexuality and pacifism, and resulting social alienation. Insert compulsory countermention of his enduring, loving, mutually supportive thirty-nine-year relationship with the tenor Peter Pears.)
Britten composed the quartet a few months after visiting Bergen-Belsen and playing with Yehudi Menuhin for liberated prisoners of the Nazi camps. He had spent the first part of World War II in the United States, and upon returning to the UK registered as a conscientious objector. He spoke little about the trip to Germany, but Peter Pears said much later that it colored everything Britten wrote afterwards. When the quartet premiered, the proceeds were donated to a fund for survivors of the 1943 Bengal famine, a humanitarian disaster caused by the criminally exploitative and neglectful British colonial government, with Winston Churchill at its head.
The quartet is also described as robust.
Other adjectives employed by music writers for the quartet: austere, uncanny, misty, magnificent, sly, dark, tantalizing, restless. I have to admit it sounds particularly good played on these days of frantic autumn wind.
There are dry disgusted bits and straining tender bits. Sometimes the quartet seems to forget about beauty for minutes at a time—gets taken over by defiant cruelty and cheerful dread—and then suddenly remembers it in a shaft of damp sunlight. (In this way it is faintly recognizable as “English.”)
There are bizarre bits and frenetic bits and grinding determined bits. It feels something like trying to outrun a migraine, which I can do sometimes with caffeine and a cold shower and keeping busy but which is always a set of blind tactics against my body’s favorite mystery. Hard to hear the sharp C major chords as anything but the migraine’s triumphant stabs of pain.
The quartet was officially composed as a tribute to Henry Purcell: the last movement is a set of variations called a chacony (or chaconne), an old dance form. Variations demand a specific attention, each time: find the theme, then find the variety. After the theme is stated, there are twenty-one variations. Try counting them!
One variation has a cello line like a man turning over in his sleep. Another sounds like a methodical sorting, arraying, and cataloguing of our souls in all their various parts. Another is a jolly death train chugging out of a station.
At the end of the final variation it rolls back into C major and declares, I told you I knew the way. All the passengers are green and shivery with motion sickness, but nevertheless, we are home.
—Rosalind Brown, author of “A Narrow Room”
Partly legible notes scribbled while engrossed in the dance performance choreographed by Moriah Evans at Performance Space New York in the winter of 2022 are my only documentation of Remains Persist. This was a durational affair lasting four hours in which nine performers, acting as either research subjects or examiners, carried out a series of timed, highly structured tasks. These tasks corresponded to two types of research, which Evans, in the show text, refers to as “remains studies” and “resignation studies.” Both happen through movement in real time: the former consists of “excavating the body” to locate the remains of something lodged within, and the latter results from accepting “something inevitably present but invisibilized in the body.”
Before being assigned a type of study to conduct, each performer was queried by others playing the role of examiners, who asked the “subject” questions centered primarily on their body’s relationship to memory, control, and narrative of the self, among them:
Is the body disciplined?
How did the self educate the body?
Is part of your flesh in someone else’s flesh?
Would you describe the self as chaotic or well-maintained?
Does the body feel happy?
What does the body have to say right now?
What stuff are you always carrying with you?
While answering these questions, the subject performed movements that seemed to radiate from the inner organ or body part being targeted by the study. Throughout the performance, various commands were repeated, with variations, by alternating performers: Initiate speech. Resume your organ work! Dance with and from the remains! After each round of tasks, the performers would swap roles and start over again.
Rapt as I was for the show’s entire duration, I’ve never been more aware of my expendable condition as an audience member. Performers were actually at work, plumbing their physical and psychic interiors, and they seemed concerned with being witnessed by the audience only circumstantially. Poet that I am, I tend to be skeptical of seductively vague catchphrases concerning “writing from the body.” Here, this happened to be exactly what was unfolding before me. The deliriously vivid speech that the performers produced on the spot as part of these studies stunned me. This was unrepeatable language opening up their bodies, transforming them before our eyes, bestowing on them an obdurate, unique, all-too-human dimension. This was ecstatic writing produced by bodies in a trance whose defenses were pulverized, revealing the terrifying truth of an innermost language—proof that the self is as much written and underwritten by the body as the other way around.
Of course, Evans didn’t seek to control the audience’s comings and goings. People could move around, leave the theater and come back later, but in the program notes, she warned: “The longer you stay, the closer you get to theater.” By the end of the show, the performers had become characters in a play with whom I’d experienced a wide range of emotions instead of virtuosic figures whose stamina and mastery over their bodies in motion I couldn’t but admire. (Although there was that, too.) What they offered was catharsis—the spectacle of the body healing itself through the process of ejecting the stories and verbiage bodies tend to hold. Who said this type of verbal outpouring has to remain relegated to drama or poetry?
Dance with and from the remains! It’s all we can ever do if we let the body celebrate the exuberance of its own ability to move itself and others.
As it happens, if you’re on the West Coast, you can catch the show today or tomorrow at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
—Mónica de la Torre, author of “Flip Side”