Bromsgrove, 17 January 2020
I’ve borrowed the title for this quartet from a prose piece (‘a little ramble’) by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. ‘A Paul Klee in prose’, Susan Sontag called him, ‘ — as delicate, as sly, as haunted.’
The music came first, and the title is a response to it, rather than the other way round. I find it difficult to write about abstract music (particularly my own) but instead I can offer a couple of literary analogies. Both my piece and Robert Walser’s story are miniatures (the quartet is about ten minutes long), both are journeys and both episodic. Robert Walser’s narrator wanders through a landscape: he sees a river, a train rushes by, two young wanderers pass by with music… ‘I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing…’
The views on my little ramble include several recurring features, particularly big unisons and a pizzicato refrain which changes as the perspective changes, like a mountain seen from different points of view along the way.
I’m sympathetic to the way Robert Walser constructed his work: ’If I am well-disposed’, he said, ‘that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines…. The novel I am constantly writing is always the same one, and it might be described as a variously sliced-up or torn-apart book of myself.’
My other literary analogy is with ‘Tristram Shandy’ (‘the greatest shaggy dog story in the language’):
‘Laurence Sterne's great invention was the novel that is completely comprised of digressions’ wrote Italo Calvino. ‘The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion in flight. But flight from what? From death, of course, says Carlo Levi, in an introduction he wrote to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy’:
‘If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows -- perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.’
My quartet is a short shaggy dog story.