Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation, or, a Tentative Conversation with Wagner, Puccini, Adorno, and The Ronettes                                           


  1. I’ll close with two final examples, one visual, the other sonoric.

  2. Among the more curious pictorial subjects popular in northern Europe in the 17th century at the dawn of modernity, were so-called “Bird Concerts” (see Figure 1 below), representing the most splendidly imaginary of natural and sonoric landscapes; such images typically gathered together birds both local and exotic, from climates hot and cool, dry and moist, the governing principle being their visual splendor. In this aviary, whose inhabitants come from the old world and the new, predator birds co-mingle with their would-be prey in an Eden without humans—but not without the trace of humans.

    Jan van Kassel the Elder, "Bird Concert"
    Figure 1. Jan van Kassel the Elder (1626-1679). Bird Concert. Private Collection.

  3. The painting is organized through the suspension of ordinarily violent intra- and inter-species relations, as though the world were a peaceful aviary: the European swan, the African ostrich, the New World macaw. The binding force for the harmony among species is music, but it is not the natural “music” of the birds themselves, for their sounds are not really musical in the ways that westerners conventionally philosophize about music. Rather, the birds’ music is the music of men, inscribed on the choir book propped on the ground around which the birds gather like a schola cantorum. What can this mean if not the control of nature by the Word? That is, control of nature by culture, as embodied in language—text accorded privileged status over the things of this earth. Yet the “word” is more than text—it is texted music.

  4. This visual-musical trope demarcates aesthetics, wherein music as practice and as a metaphor for society meet in a self-conscious and problematic relation. Music here serves a diverse “society” of birds not only as a sonoric, texted binder that suspends the impossibilities of geography and the likelihood of killing, but also as a practice that draws attention to itself as something separate and momentary. The birds sing what humans have given them. They sing in unison (that much is clear from the notation), following our musical orders—as though the birds’ very naturalness is an affront to our status and as such must be subsumed into a unitary script of our devising, and according to which their world must conform. The music of the bird concert does not define the birds, instead, it violates them by misrepresenting their nature. The pleasure of their “music” is not theirs, but ours. Their “music” is coerced. It is no longer Orpheus who charms the animals, but man’s rule that classifies them. So in the end, Platonic metaphors of music serve to define the terms for life itself.19

  5. The sonoric landscape results from cultural practices—in short, from the history with which it engages. Acoustic landscapes at their best introject themselves on the grid of human subjectivity as expressions of the desire for inter-subjective connection and reconciliation with nature in the broad sense of which the human subject remains a part in spite of itself. In short, musical sound evokes the angel of history. History’s angel “wants to go back and fix things, to repair the things that have been broken. But there is a storm blowing from Paradise and the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future. And the storm, this storm, is called Progress.”

  6. I’m quoting Laurie Anderson who herself paraphrases Walter Benjamin’s 9th aphorism from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (257–58).
    Walter Benjamin
    Walter Benjamin
    The song is titled “The Dream Before”; it connects historical time to the mythic time of a violent children’s story and thrusts the story’s characters, little Hansel and Gretel, into the real time of the aftermath of their escape from the primeval forest and its wicked witch. Now grown up and living in the postmodern metropolis, they take on more or less menial work, and survive—but not happily ever after. They went flying backwards into the future, and history intervened. The historicity of their condition was not a pretty prospect, and it caused them to drown in alcoholic stupor. What keeps faith in the future—to which they’re blind—is not the dystopian text that narrates their pathetic circumstance, but the minimalist fragment of a sonoric landscape into which it’s set. Anderson’s song, in fact dedicated to Benjamin, honors the messianic import of his seemingly hopeless hope: the claim, made in the last lines he lived to write, that any moment in time could serve as a gate through which the Messiah might enter, leading the way towards human emancipation—towards what Adorno termed reconciliation with nature, without which, he insisted, neither emancipation nor a realized human subject was possible. Anderson’s music is so minimalist as barely to qualify as music, and precisely by that means effectively evokes music’s discursive agency while sonorically engaging a history that posits all too effectively the opposite of the historicist dream of Progress. What’s left of music, she seems to suggest, is the barest minimum of what constitutes music, though like Benjamin, Anderson’s work taken as a whole makes clear her belief that through that narrow gateway there might eventually still pass a cause for rejoicing in the possibility, however remote, of Paradise. (Hear Ex. 7)

1   2   3   4   Endnotes   Works Cited



Paradise, Nature, and Reconciliation

“Hello Cleveland!”


Yatrika Shah-Rais

Review Essay


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