the shipwreck of the singular

2/2/2017 | read

A few thoughts on our upcoming performance of Antoine Beuger’s piece …of being numerous

In the 1930s, shortly after setting up The Objectivist Press with Louis Zukovsky and Charles Reznikoff with support from Ezra Pound, George Oppen abandoned poetry for activist work with the Communist Party in Brooklyn. Oppen was drafted to fight in the Second World War, but in the 40s he and his wife Mary fled to Mexico out of fear that their political history would attract the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Commission. They did not return until 1958. In 1968, Oppen published the volume Of Being Numerous, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.

Dutch composer Antoine Beuger writes in the preface for his piece …of being numerous that each of the twenty pages is “a place to dwell.” Beuger’s music requires complete immanence; the score asks us to “listen inward rather than outward.” The materials are simple: a few small stones, dry leaves, humming, a few syllables or words one knows by heart. But the practice of the piece resonates with the opening lines of Oppen’s poem:

There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.

The existence of the surrounding world is a necessary part of who we are, both as singular selves and as a numerous body—numerous: a quantity of discrete elements, not a volume. Yet we are in a moment of political and social turmoil, and our sense of numerousness is splintered along multiple axes while political forces seek power without consent. If music depends on a certain elemental singularity of the event, and collective singular selves experiencing it—rather than Oppen’s bewildering “shipwreck / Of the singular”—can it still be productive among the splinters?

The frame required by performance is anechoic; the materials of music are often severed from the exigencies of the material world. Critic Michael Davidson speaks of Oppen’s unease with “a world inoculated from experience.” Davidson writes:

Rather than compose elegies for Lenin, as Zukofsky did, [Oppen] channeled his labor in a different direction, joining the Communist Party, organizing tenant strikes, and working as an organizer. … [T]he facts of economic depression at home and the growth of Fascism abroad placed demands on his aesthetics that could not be resolved through aesthetics.

Eventually, of course, Oppen returned to writing poetry, but his focus on the bare materials of language reflected a poetics suspicious of both poetry and politics: “it is only in its reduced, functional state that language may reveal its complicity in the production (rather than reflection) of reality.” The barest elements: a few small stones, dry leaves, humming, a few syllables or words one knows by heart.

I hope that you will join us on February 24 at 7 pm, to experience and participate in this act of being numerous. Beuger’s piece enacts a practice—a way of being—that balances the singular and the collective. It is this way of being that we will need to practice in coming years: maintaining our singularity, and yet still our solidarity.

—Andrew C. Smith, Feb. 2, 2017