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On Turning a Peter Handke Novel into Music, or Not

By David Rothenberg

When I was first asked to answer the question, “have you been influenced by Peter Handke?” my inclination was simply to say “no.”  I had simply held his title On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House in mind for about ten years.  I had told myself: one day I will change that phrase slightly and use it for an album, calling the record One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  What would the music be that would go with this title?  I had no idea.

I first met Marilyn Crispell when I was asleep under a piano.  It was in Woodstock, New York, nearly thirty years ago.  I was visiting the famous Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, and couldn’t find anywhere else to crash.  The next morning I awoke to the sounds of expression, abstraction, immediacy pure and simple.  They were all around me.  A woman’s bare feet were caressing the pedals.  Her wavy hair descended to the ivory keyboard.  Her fingers were somewhere above me, playing a music unlike any I had ever heard.  After some minutes she stopped.  She got up silently and walked away.  I doubt she noticed I was under the instrument, now awake.

I didn’t see her again for many years.  I always knew that this great improviser lived near me, and hoped one day to play with her, but I was nervous about just calling up and introducing myself.  When I finally did she said, “wait a minute, I know you,” and though I thought she might have remembered me being asleep under that piano instead she said, “aren’t you the one who brings that little boy to late night jazz concerts and lets him dance alone to the wildest of music?” and I said yes, because it was true, when my son was about two years old and refused to go to sleep I’d toss him in the car and drive off to the Colony Café to hear whoever might be playing that night.  Of course he wanted to dance.  Everyone wants to dance to music they cannot explain.  But most of us are afraid to just get up and do so.

The music I recorded with Marilyn is completely improvised, though recorded after we had been playing concerts together for several years.  There is a passage in Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House that may help to explain the particular qualities music made in the moment might have.  The narrator, a wandering pharmacist not sure where he has come from or where he is going, explains why it is best to always live in the present.  Only then are you truly connected to the place where you are:  “The storytelling extended as far as the steppe all around me. . .  When I fell into such storytelling my thoughts weren’t actually elsewhere, even when the storytelling dealt with something absent and removed; I was actually taking in my situation more acutely than in and after a situation of danger.  And if not more acutely, then more cordially and richly.  The things inside and outside me interpenetrated each other, became home for one another.  Storytelling and steppe became one.”  With improvisation, musician and music become one, there is no score, no document, no text. 

Once we finished the record I knew that here was a project that might honestly be called One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  The white on black cover features an image by the English artist Martin Prothero, who left carbon-coated glass plates out on the Dartmoor to see what tracks might be left by creatures running over them in the night.  This one features the pawprints and movements of a squirrel.  Marilyn Crispell once had a flying squirrel who crawled into her apartment and refused to come out during the day.  She left food in a dish for it and it would skitter down from the rafters only at night, and it lived happily there for the better part of a year, before one day finding its way out and disappearing as mysteriously as it had appeared. Like the pharmacist from Taxham who is the protagonist of On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  A car accident renders him mute and then he goes on a mysterious dream-like journey with a famous poet and a former ski champion, wandering through an abstract Europe across a mysterious “steppe.”  At the end he wonders, “isn’t this word ‘steppe’ overused?  Does it even exist in Europe anymore?”

I have always admired this book, and maybe this circuitous tale explains why.  I have only met one other person who has read it, and that is Manfred Eicher of ECM Records, who released this disc for us.  When he saw my project and the name I came up for it, the first thing he said was, “Ah, but I love that book…”

The pharmacist sings his one and only song on page 183 in the book:

They grew unspeakably free with one another.
They grew unspeakably bold with one another.
They grew unspeakably grateful with one another.
They rewarded one another unspeakably.

One Dark Night I Left My Silent House
(ECM 2089) is released in the USA Tuesday June 22, 7pm, in a free concert and discussion in the Irene Diamond Education Center at Frederick P. Rose Hall, at Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60 St. and Broadway, New York.

Published Jun 18, 2010   Copyright 2010 David Rothenberg

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