That which cannot be said must be passed over in silence: thoughts on setting Thomas Bernhard to music


My introduction to the author whose work would destroy a year and a half of my life, and will most likely poison many years more, began the evening of a horrific party filled with so-called artists of the sort with which London is littered. Yelling drunken inanities and clumsily attempting to lure each other to beds, dozens of them swarmed around the warehouse in which, back then, I made my home. “Listen to them,” I yelled, gesticulating at a half dozen or so sat opposite me, “sitting there in their wrongness, being wrong.” My interlocutor, a German journalist whose presence at the party remains a mystery to this day, presented me with a copy of Thomas Bernhard’s Holzfällen the next day. And so it began.


“All of the decrepit garbage of this totally decrepit European civilization, or rather, to hold nothing back, this totally decrepit modern world of ours, this era that keeps grinding out nothing but intellectual muck and all this stinking constipating clogging intellectual vomit is constantly being hawked in the most repulsive way as our intellectual products though it is in fact our intellectual waste products…”


Months later I found myself in a quandary. Put it this way: imagine you have a feeling that bears expressing. As with all feelings, words can at best render it imperfectly. Through metaphor and juxtaposition, you could, perhaps, render it obliquely, creating a map to the feeling with its scale different for each reader. Or else you could render it scientifically, describing its effects while hammering out any trace of its essence. 


Here’s another scenario. If you’re Thomas Bernhard, crushed by the misfortune of having studied music alongside a genius (Glenn Gould), you could, at least, try to get words to come as close to music as ever they have.


And if you find yourself, as I did, thirty years after Bernhard’s death, trying to create orchestral music (“serious music”, as its rather wonderfully rendered in the German-speaking world), you might find yourself – for a variety of reasons – wanting to complete that translation back from words to music. What emerged would become my recently performed piece The Bernhard Suite. But more on that later.


Bernhard’s Correction depicts its first person-narrator coming upon the deceased genius Roithamer’s papers, which it is his obligation to edit. Reading through Roithamer’s heavily edited treatise, “Concerning the Cone at Altensam”, he is struck by the passage which gives the novel its name, in which Roithamer depicts his work as an endless series of corrections on a no-longer-extant primary work. He states his aspiration to “correct” the manuscript into saying the exact opposite of what it originally said, and then, ultimately, to reduce it until it says nothing at all.


The Wittgensteinian element of this thought is obvious, and Roithamer is indeed largely based on Wittgenstein – both Austrians who violently hated Austria, a rage equaled only by their (related and unrelated) self-loathing. Most importantly, he takes Wittgenstein’s sense of the inability of language to express anything beyond language, and wrestles with it in language to a perfect and irreducible deadlock. “We read a book, we’re reading ourselves, so we loathe reading, so Roithamer…”


Formally, Correction is an archetypal Bernhard novel. In narrative terms, very little happens. Horror is everywhere, but will not allow us to settle into the comfortable groove of pessimism. The horror-in-everything is explored through a series of ‘fixations’ – our narrator first encounters the horror of one situation, explores it in excruciating detail, then, well before he has managed to penetrate its essence, he finds himself overwhelmed by the horror of something else.   


What drama occurs comes from a tension between, on the one hand, his central characters’ sense of a darkness that exists just outside us, permeating the people and places who surround us, constantly closing in, and on the other hand our sense as readers of a concurrent darkness eating up Bernhard’s narrators from the inside out. 


But why did I find myself so drawn to his work? Bernhard correctly identified that our culture was without a redeeming feature – this I understood immediately. It took me longer to realize the peculiarity of the ‘our’. As a hostile red-faced journalist from a rural German newspaper put it, “What can you, a boy in his twenties from South Africa understand about one of the greatest figures in our culture? And what can you expect to tell us about him?”


The answer, in short, was Bernhard’s Austria was my South Africa. For Bernhard, everything that was wrong with the world had its archetype in Austrian society, which he hated more than everything else that he hated, but to which he felt himself irrevocably tied.  From the “Eferding woman” (an uncultured Austrian, Roithamer’s mother) to the attendees at the theatre in “I have lunch with Claus Peymann” (“A Nazi… A Nazi… a Nazi and a dumkopf…”) to the “so-called celebrated artists” of Holzfällen, to the “national tendency towards suicide and morbidity” in Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Gargoyles and others, Austria was “fundamentally sick”. Writing of its cruder, quasi-Biblical, depiction in the poems, James Reidel memorably notes that “the very land is evil”.


If he was living with the historical guilt of the Nazis, so was I with that of apartheid, whose legacies and dissimulations permeated every aspect of my childhood. But it feels like more than that, as no doubt it did to him. The always-about-to-occur explosion in my head that Bernhard is so perfect at creating is one with which I am all too familiar.


In any event, it reached the point where every musical-phrase I wrote was a Bernhard-phrase, and I needed to fight my Bernhard-horror (transposed) as much as Bernhard needed to fight his Bernhard-horror.


Which left the question: how to render Bernhard in my musical language?


all this stinking constipating clogging intellectual vomit is constantly being hawked in the most repulsive way as our intellectual products though it is in fact our intellectual waste products…”


One could certainly imagine Beckett, with whom George Steiner lumps Bernhard, embracing this as a badge of honour. After the age of totality collapsed, with Wagner as its tombstone, what are artists to do but scrabble in the sandboxes of our artistic inheritance, and to construct collages from the broken images we’ve been left. This can certainly be said of many of the finest modern orchestral writers: Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, even Martin Matalon, for the most part.


But this state is not one with which we should be satisfied, even if we are to start from it, even if we are doomed to fail to escape from it. The self in The Bernhard Suite, as in life, as in Bernhard’s writing, is a construction stemming from our relationship with the outside world, not independent of it. So Bernhard’s narrators are built from this negative dialectic: in so far as there is a resolution, it is always a downward synthesis. It is based on the detritus of the world around us (or against  it – the two positions are interchangeable) that we create ourselves.


The central issue of Bernhard’s work, the gap between us and the world-as-it-really-is, and our sense of struggling to create a self against the backdrop of this undefined world is the central problem of European culture in our times, and which underpins all the others. In the absence of a Master (God, King with Divine Right, what have you) as ultimate guarantor of who we are (and whether we uphold these Masters or struggle against them is the same thing!), we fight blindly against we know not what and we know not how, to try to create a position from which we can exist.


“We see a landscape and we see a man in that landscape and the man and the landscape are always different, each moment, although we assume that everything always remains the same, and thanks to this false assumption, we dare to go on with our existence, so Roithamer.”


Knowing that the assumption is a false one, we still need to make it. But how?  In musical terms, the position is analogous to the crisis that classical music found itself in after Schoenberg, from which it has never truly recovered. Systems could be produced, but harmony and melody, the Son and Holy Ghost of music, if you like, had no place beyond the sentimental (i.e. a fairytale of saccharine totalities, late Rachmaninoff at his schmaltziest).


You start with a feeling, and desire to render it, but the language has collapsed around you. So you prop it up by whatever means necessary. In my case, with Bernhard’s words.  In the first five pages of Woodcutters, a simple series of directions becomes a spell to break the spirits of the reader. In Old Masters, In Correction, “Altensam”, the “Eferding-woman”, “black bird” become the involuntary curses of a Tourette’s sufferer blessed with a divine sense of rhythm, pejoratives piling up ever more unbearably, line upon line, flooding the senses.


Throughout his work, “sogennant” transforms itself through repetition from a Germanically-accurate observation (‘so called’) to a term of abuse to an existential frustration with the gap between the idea of life and the day-to-day performance of it (that is to say, with each moment of life being founded on dissimulation and pretension).


Setting Bernhard’s words (some from Correction, some from Woodcutters, Old Masters and Extinction) to music created a sense of absurdity: while as text, the ‘music-like quality’ of Bernhard’s words would dance, kick, punch, with actual music underpinning them, they became a demonstration of the lack-of-music-in-them – which is of course an accurate way of seeing the words, on a stupid epistemological level, but completely misses the point of their brilliance.


To double up content through two simultaneous forms (text, music) is not fidelity but excess. From Wagner, who self-identified as a poet and gave readings of his libretti (needless to say, infinitely duller without the music!), to more recent successful poet-librettists like David Harsent (I am thinking here of The Minotaur), texts for music are necessarily substantially scaled-down from pure poetry, which “does everything music can do” (the basis of the feud between Mallarmé and Wagner over the supremacy of their forms).


Hardly surprising, then, that the only works that could bear music were the poems from Under the Iron of the Moon: less Beckettian, less repetitious, more plaintive, they are by some way Bernhard’s weakest – and perhaps, paradoxically, least poetic – works. Working with them was easy. Once yielded to the temptation, some beautiful apocalypse-scapes appeared.  


But you start with a feeling, and if you veer from it you’re lost and lost forever, and they missed the point of that feeling as the poems miss the real horror in Bernhard, which comes, as I’ve said, far beyond or beneath sturm-und-drang.


Alain Badiou, writing of the challenge of staging a modern production of Wagner, is absolutely right to insist that the only way to guarantee failure is to attempt ‘authenticity’ to the style and fashions of the original stagings. To do so reduces the works to artifacts and museum pieces rather than living, breathing manifestations of truth in time with the ability to still inflict on an audience the sensory overload and emotional charge that they originally carried.


So how to capture the essence rather than the details of Correction in a piece for strings, choir and piano? Perhaps through taking the ‘sense’ of the novel in word, and the musicality of the prose in… music? Divorcing sense from content, Žižek argues, rightly, is certainly the only way to adapt a novel for cinema. He’s entirely correct to observe that the criticism ‘the film wasn’t true to the movie’ is generally misapplied. To veer from the words or plot of a text may the truest way to capture and transport its essence into a form for which it wasn’t designed. For the essence, rather than the ‘technical’ accuracy, is always the real point in such an adaptation, even as it inevitably creates a ‘new’ work.


A second draft of the suite was then created in this spirit. Here attempts were made to account for the excess created by setting words-like-music to music – effectively to rewrite Bernhard’s own words into a prosier form that would let the music be music, and the words be words. And this worked to an extent. The clash / excess was not as evident, and words and music cohered. But the defenestrated words used carried with them the absence of Bernhard’s own phrasings. Just as there is no way to set to choral music: “with what incredible energy Hoeller was now stuffing the bird with polyurethane, I couldn’t imagine that so much polyurethane could be crammed inside that bird, yet Hoeller kept stuffing some more of the polyurethane into the bird, suddenly I felt repelled by the process of stuffing polyurethane into the bird,” so feathers, blackness, hell, feathers, polyurethane, stuffing, black bears witness to the absence of the elegant initial formation – the details, in isolation, are irrelevant, and though they do not harm the music’s setting, they contribute senseless – accurate – detail rather than meaning.


What of polyurethane? As a substance, it is neither good nor bad. The subject of the passage is the horror, which happened in this case to manifest itself through Hoeller’s stuffing of polyurethane into the infinite cavity of that infinitely black bird. Clearly the details were wholly superfluous. Which is how it came to be that after three drafts, the so-called Roithamer process reached its perhaps inevitable conclusion: complete correction – the obliteration of words. Needless to say, the choir was not pleased.  


“The end is no process. Clearing.”


All of which, most obviously, says nothing at all of The Bernhard Suite, the piece of music that forms the subject of this essay.


But what can usefully be written of a musical work that seeks to capture a feeling, based on texts which attempted to render words in music, written by a composer driven to write a musical work on the basis of the inability of words to express a feeling…?


At most, the piece can be described obliquely through metaphor and juxtaposition.  It is the drama of an attempt to create a self out of the detritus of the world that exists. To allow harmony to arise honestly from dissonance. But to do so is simply to create a map to the feeling one seeks to express, with its scale different for each reader.


Or else, one can render it scientifically:  it is written for string orchestra and piano, consisting of three movements, respectively 27, 25 and 3 minutes long, and so on, which describes the work perfectly its while hammering out any trace of its essence. 


Or one can side with Wagner, and put Mallarmé to one side. That which cannot be said…




Adam Donen and Roger O’Donnell’s The Bernhard Suite premiered on 26 October 2013, performed by the Wurttemburg Chamber Orchestra of Heilbronn and Anna Zassimova, conducted by Ruben Gazarian. A subsequent performance takes place at Cadogan Hall, London, in June 2014.