21 February 2005


Spurious on Cat Power:

What gives us an performer like Chan Marshall also takes her away from us; if she seems to present in her music what echoes in response to a future that has not yet come about it is the same future which seems to withdraw her from our presence. Even she seems to feel it, which is why, perhaps, when I saw her live, she demanded the house lights be turned on and the stage lights be dimmed to blackness. I asked myself: where are you, Chan Marshall? Where are you, behind the songs you refuse to play, beyond your yelps and chatter?

I could say seeing her perform live was a disappointment – she was, as Cat Power, the performer I wanted to see more than any other at All Tomorrow’s Parties. But something else happened, which I would say was fascinating if it were not also marked by frustration and a kind of sadness: she was, I think, too close to that uncanny place from which her music seems to arrive. I remembered, watching her, the obscure piping of Kafka’s Josephine. But also I remembered Gide’s account of seeing Artaud speak at the Sorbonne: Artaud who, at that time, had already disappeared into madness. Artaud was not as pathetic as Chan Marshall, and Josephine was not as enlivened. The audience, in the brightness of the house lights, chatted and catcalled. Chan Marshall, in the darkness – just her, I think, though there may have been another playing with her (it was too dark to see) - played only three songs in a set of one hours duration. And when she played them, they appeared in the midst of her tomfoolery, which meant their profundity was as though adrift, as if Chan Marshall were ashamed of what she had made, as though she could bear what she could sing and play only by laughing at the uncanniness to which strange genius exposed her. Her tomfoolery, then, appeared in the midst of songs which Chan Marshall was given to be able to sing, to play and this was not by chance. For what gives us her music also gives itself as the unbearable.

Chan Marshall falls below the level of her songs – how can she not? But in seeking to rise to the level of those songs, performing them, she breaks against them as against the heaven which will not admit the crows in Kafka’s aphorism. Heaven means: the impossibilty of crows. Chan Marshall’s songs mean the impossibility of Chan Marshall. Her performance: the fluttering of a crow already broken against heaven.

It may be self-indulgent of me to reproduce the entire post, but this is the best description of her I have read yet. (If Spurious ever finishes that book, I'll be at the front of the line for a copy.)

I remember talking to a friend about an interview with her I had read, and how she slyly evaded the pointed question, "Is 'I Don't Blame You' about Kurt Cobain?" Her response was something along the lines of, "That's an interesting thought, but no, it's not"--and she refused to say who it was about. My friend instantly responded, "It's about her. She's singing to herself."

I was struck by her matter-of-fact insight. Wow. Of course. Even if it isn't true, it makes a lot of sense.

Reading Spurious' post, I am reminded of the via negativa--the mystic route of apophatic theology--which strives for knowledge of God by describing what he is not. This is a way to get closer to the heart of mystery--through negation.

Does art at times betray the artist? Does the work and the creator sometimes cancel each other out? Can this negation reveal more than is originally intended? What is the difference between art that fills the disconnect between the internal and the external, and art that pulls them further away from each other?

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