The poetry of Paul Celan occupies a unique sensory space. Spare, self-fragmenting, full of tortuous syntax and line breaks like broken glass, Celan’s words grow super-charged by their isolation: they burn brighter by making us aware of the huge silence that surrounds them, the vast space within which they are fractured signs.
Celan, a Holocaust survivor whose parents died in the camps, made it his life’s mission to write a poetry that was true to his experience without being, superficially, “about” the Holocaust. Rather than surrendering to the tyrannical notion that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz” (an idea that is itself a misquotation and decontextualization of Adorno’s words), Celan strove for decades not to say the unsayable but to find what is sayable. And in order to do that – to find the condition of openness and innocence that is a precondition of making art – he had to treat words as music.
What does it mean to treat words as music? For Celan, it meant a purification, a stripping-away of the layers of secondary meanings that words accrue over time. Words are, after all, both sensual objects and symbolic ones: we perceive them as articulated musical shapes, whether sonic or written, but they also “stand for” objects outside themselves. Language is thus both music and not-music, and in Celan’s lifetime, the non-musical associations that plagued his mother tongue, German, threatened to cripple him as an artist.
What does it mean to treat words as music?
Celan felt that the German language, the very material of his art, had been polluted by its association with the Third Reich. (The musical analogy to this phenomenon, the posthumous poisoning of the music of Wagner, is more familiar to us today: Wagner lived and died in the 19th century but, since his music was beloved by Hitler, it is still illegal to perform it in the state of Israel.) The Nazis had tried to claim everything German as their own; you sense in Celan’s poetry that the words themselves are shellshocked, that nothing means what it once meant, that it sometimes feels transgressive to speak even the most essential words: bread, stone, love, star.
So how does Celan reclaim his own language? He musicalizes it: familiar words behave in unfamiliar ways (“We shell Time from the nuts and we teach it to go / then Time returns to the shells”); words seem themselves to be sensory objects, natural-or-supernatural presences (“I heard it said there was / a stone in the water and a circle / and a word over the water…”). Celan makes us notice that words, like chords, seem to have a life of their own outside the meanings we thought we knew.
The Celan Fragments, for violin and piano, are the first fruit of my effort to engage with the material of music in a way analogous to Celan’s engagement with language. I want to manifest, in this music, the tension and reciprocal desire that exists between music and speech – the sense that, just as Celan yearns to treat words as “pieces” of music, so can instrumental music strive for a speechlike clarity. What is the border between music and speech? When do we cross it? What are the strengths and limitations of each medium? In this highly condensed music, I hope to deepen these questions – but not to answer them.