Your friend Artichoke is going on hiatus. I’m sorry I didn’t write this letter sooner. I meant to write it almost immediately after November 9, but I never actually had the time until just now.
There are number of letters I had planned for the next few months, and I even had one half-written for November. (It was going to be about the short stories of Victor LaValle in comparison to a novel by E.R. Frank.) But it feels very difficult to muster the energy and thought to complete it, at the moment. And possibly it is not the place that I want to be directing my energy and thought, for now.
It’s not that the election results have shaken us all—though they have, and it took many of us a couple of weeks to start sleeping properly again, or eating properly again. And it’s not that I was finding it hard to concentrate for over a month—though I was, I certainly was, and some of that lingers. Rather, it’s that most of my free time doesn’t feel so free anymore.
Many of us are mobilizing politically. Or trying to, and teaching ourselves how to do it, and that still takes time. More time than most of us would have liked to believe. (I definitely burned myself out over the past fifty days, and am trying to teach myself pacing.)
But we know that we might not make it through intact if we don’t do whatever we can to fight.
A lot of us are reaching out to our most vulnerable friends, and building and re-establishing our social support networks, and portioning away parts of our monthly income for donations, and portioning away parts of our week for whatever forms of activism we might be able to take…
And it still won’t be enough. Our coworkers will disappear despite it. Our friends might vanish despite it.
But even if the worst happens, we’ll still be trying to fight, because what else can you do, other than fight?
We will always need people who are willing to fight, who are willing to support the vulnerable—especially for those times when we ourselves are no longer able to do it.
And it takes energy and time, it takes a constant and large amount of both: hence the hiatus.
I was so looking forward to the end of the election season. I was so looking forward to relaxing at last, at least for a month or two. Instead I’m finding that we’re all going to have to work four times as hard just to survive.
This letter is named “In Vain” because of one of those letters which I’d been hoping to write over the next few months. The particular one that I’m thinking about feels relevant this week, this year, this decade.
In 2000, the composer Georg Friedrich Haas premiered his seventy-minute magnum opus, in vain. It is a piece of music in one movement, played by twenty-four instruments.
I think it is a glorious piece. It is simultaneously large and microscopic, and even when aware of all the technical wizardry involved in its performance, I feel that listening to it is a bit like floating eternally through outer space. I heard it for the first time in 2011, when I was very lucky to be able to attend a live performance. I had no idea what I was walking into when I sat down for the performance, which was maybe for the best.
I’ve since listened to the whole thing dozens of time, in several recordings, and I’ve listened to fragments of it many more times than that.
For nearly two years, I’ve been meaning to write a letter about in vain, analyzing its structure and particularly how pulsations drive the logic of the piece as much as tonality does—and there is a lot to say about the particular musical brilliance of in vain, completely removed from any metaphorical or political context.
But I also wanted to talk, even then, about how there is a metaphor to the music. The title describes the structure, but also the metaphor, which is within the history of the piece itself: the “why” of why it was written.
No traditional story is being told by the music. It is not a symphonic poem. But there are ideas which are hard to name precisely though they can be articulated as you listen—personally I think of them in terms such as Erasure and Compromise and Stillness and Memory—and these ideas are stained into the musical events of in vain. There is no traditional narrative but still the musical fragments and evolutions will swell and skitter across the instruments like living things, with distinctly assigned personalities, with contrary motives—
My program from the 2011 performance of in vain includes the following little detail:
“However we might to interpret the title, we should probably remember that on February 4, 2000, a new Austrian government was sworn in, with an extreme right-wing party involved in the ruling of a European nation for the first time since 1945.”
Or as Simon Rattle puts a little more bluntly:
“The piece was composed [by Haas] as a response to the rise of the far right in Austria, and has partly to do with Haas’s despair at the situation.”
So there’s that.
The ensemble of in vain strains towards escaping the erasure of the locked twelve-note tuning system which so many of us take for granted; and it expands and glows with depths and possibility and freedom, nearly achieving it several times and in different ways (most tragically at the section that starts around 45:00 and evolves for the next ten minutes), only to find all its supposed progress inevitably transforming, polluting, reducing, tumbling backwards, time after time, consumed into the faceless hurricane, into the meaningless petty storm of disjointed scales and notes—
I have been thinking a lot about in vain these days.
I am going on hiatus.
I hope, I hope that it will not be for too long. I hope there will be a point, in the next few years, when we find ourselves able to relax, just for a little bit, before forging forward with renewed enthusiasm.
I hope that it will not all have been in vain.
We have to try, at least.