up in the air
”Yet: freedom is like air. You realize its value when it starts to lack…” - Piero Calamandrei, Speech on the Constitution, 1955
Up in the air
With your nose in the air
Pluck something out of the air
Out of thin air
On/off the air
Felt in the air
Float/walk on air
Finger in the air
Disappear into thin air
Clear the air
Build castles in the air
Airs and graces
A breath of fresh air
Air, also called ether, is a natural element often associated with the properties of purity and spirituality. It represents warmth, humidity and the male gender. East, its cardinal point. Among all humors, it rules blood. In alchemy, it’s associated with the triangle, with number 3, as a mediator between fire and water.
Nature abhors emptiness (Horror Vacui); as soon as it tries to “form itself”, it works itself to take place along matter.
According to Tommaso Campanella the natural world was permeated by an attractive force that induces all bodies to seek mutual contact, in order to fill every portion of the space and eliminate the void.
According to Tommaso Campanella, the natural world traversed by an attractive force that induces bodies to seek mutual contact in order to fill every portion of the space and eliminate the void.
In every era and culture, the concept of breath has gone beyond the physical act of taking breath. It has always implied symbolic meanings related to the idea of our spirit, soul and vital energy. In many cultures, when the body dies and resetts its vital functions, the soul comes out of it in the form of a last breath.
In classical Greek culture, the word pneuma meant both, breath understood as the air that enters lungs, and the vital breath as the spirit that inhabits the body.
A great man, in Sanskrit maha-hatma (great soul), is the one who with his own breath, inspires other souls and makes them vibrate and breathe along. What is inspiration but a deep breath?
In China, and mainly in all oriental cultures, the concept of Qi represents energy, the life force that manifests itself through breath, but also through the circulation of every vital fluid. It fills the individual’s body, as well the space between heaven and earth.
In philosophy, pneumatology is the science of the spirit, not to be confused with pneumology, that is, the branch of medicine that studies the respiratory system.
Breathing is the act that allows oxygen to reach the organs and nourish them; it keeps us alive, but it is also the bosom of our soul, of spirituality. In this sense, many oriental disciplines focus their attention on the act of breathing. By concentrating on it, we focus on ourselves, we recover direct contact with our body, as well as with our spirit: we listen to it and support it, we recover calmness, control and what is essential.
With the lacking of air the lungs shrink, and human thought shrinks. They asphyxiate and get vitiated.
Air is also necessary to any form of oral language. The numerous sequences involving mouth, pharynx and larynx, induced by the stimuli of the cerebral cortex, could not produce sounds without the presence of respiratory air controlled by the rib cage.
And it’s just with the air of space, through the air of the body, and with the pneuma of the spirit that the work of Henri Chopin manifests itself.
Between a structuralist vision that considers the grammatical and syntactic structures of language universal and, a romantic vision that instead sees the spirit of an entire people submersed in language, this stateless (but citizen of the world) artist sought a synthesis through his own artistic practice.
Chopin was born as an oral poet for the Parisian theater and radio.
Around 1954 he received a tape recorder as a gift and with it, he began an electronic exploration of voice and body. If Joyce had experienced a decomposition of language, Chopin’s intent is to work on language to reach its essential particles, going beyond what Dada did and working on simple phonemes (the minimum phonological units of a linguistic system). By recording on magnetic tapes, listening and recording over the tape, cutting and pasting, slowing down and speeding up, and then gradually using amplifiers, mixers, and more sophisticated equipment, Chopin becomes a true explorer of the body’s voice. In it converge veins, vocal texture, vibrations of the larynx, lip clicks, hisses, all body and guttural noises. The powerful and free voice is picked up electronically, but with it, the poet intends to reach that primitive energy that it represents, to record all that total sensory experience manifested in a calculated disorganization of all the senses. Certainly, Artaud’s lesson was not indifferent to him. The idea of shock in art, of a physical and sensorial theater capable of creating surprise, disorientation and catharsis, accompanied the formation of his poetics and his artistic practice. His ultimate goal was that of freedom. And if this concept brings to mind early Futurism, Marinetti and his parole in libertà, which certainly together with Dada and Surrealism, as well as Antonin Artaud and Lettrism, that represent those indispensable ancestors and colleagues to Chopin, he comes to make an even more violent steering of language and poetry. His idea of freedom, in fact, represents a reaction to that idea of Logocentrism that sees in common and rhetorical language, an unequivocal form of totalitarianism, oppression and domination. Language, understood as the convention through which all social relations are carried out, is nothing more than a form of power exercised by socio-political hierarchies over the masses. It regiments us, through it we are “guided”, led, pushed towards a specific social behavior within codified productive structures. Chopin says: we are slaves of rhetoric, prisoners of explanations. Here is that poetry, understood as primary energy, becomes a disorienting force capable of undermining an entire system. Poetry in Chopin gets rid of verbal and semantic formulations. It becomes non-verbal, non-semantic, it becomes a celebration of the anarchy and exuberance of voice. The phonetic microparticles from which it is composed, become the disordered alphabet of a new potentially universal language capable of breaking down geopolitical boundaries and cultural barriers.
This experimentation is carried out in search of prelinguistic phonic matter and in an abandon of traditional writing. In reality, through the practice of concrete poetry, Chopin visually enacts what he experiences audibly. His dactylopoems are typed pages where the phonetic reduction becomes sign reduction. The minimal signs of language (letters, punctuation marks) are repeated on the sheet, creating a dense and organized score, which follows compositional patterns that give life to works that are formally ordered and rhythmic. These black, blue, purple signs are repeated on typewritten paper and are later imprinted on transparent acetate sheets, giving it an even more symbolic air. Similar to the light panels used for eye examinations, these tablets also represent an other interpretation of reality. They act as screens through which to exercise a new and free vision of things, as opposed to the television screens with which Orwell’s Big Brother spies and plagiarizes its citizens in the state of Oceania, where all forms of critical thought are canceled precisely through the creation of a Neolanguage (Newspeak), devoid of any nuance and interpretative subtlety. In this language each word has a closed and minimal meaning, perfectly coded, so as not to give rise to interpretative needs or ambitions: no questios askedn, no doubts, no mental gymnastics. All intended to achieve mental atrophy, that state of critical paralysis necessary for the prosperity of any form of dictatorship.
In a letter dated January 17th, 1967, sent to the magazine Artes Hispanicas, Chopin writes: “What then is the function of the Word which has the pretention to affirm that such a thing is clear? I defy the Word.” He continues “ we are slaves of rethoric, prisoners of explanation that explains nothing. Nothing is yet explainable.” And he still adds “ Let us know that the day is of oxygen, that the night eliminates our prisons, that the entire body breathes and that it is a wholeness, without the vanity of a Word that can reduce us .” 1
On the one hand breath, the body, truth, on the other the word, its mendacious uselessness. The body is constantly becoming, it participates in the constant and incessant flow of chang, it cannot be circumscribed, defined, registered. In this sense, Chopin’s sound poetry represents an act of resistance to any form of regimentation, an act of self-affirmation.
For Chopin there is no life without a body. How much has this concept been questioned lately… I am reminded of Galimberti’s essay entitled The Body 2, and his attempt to oppose the dictatorship of technology that makes man just an organism under the control of medical science , which controls its vital parameters, ignoring that a body is the union of the aforementioned organism with its mind (its operational center) and with its soul (the engine that makes it vibrate through vital breath). Between the fear of the virus that has subjugated and annihilated us and the denialist controversies, there are innumerable nuances concerning the impossibility of being reduced to just surviving for fear of dying. A twilight zone, a land “on the edge of reality” made up of philosophical and practical paradoxes has emerged. If man is a social animal, his sociability undermined by the virus can now only be realized virtually through the many devices that inhabit our homes. But the virtual contact is a paradoxical one, a contradiction in terms, since without my body I do not fully exist.
And does society exist without the mass? Without the mass, society is zeroed and so its thaumaturgical power. Canetti writes: ”It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear of being touched. That is the only situation in which the fear changes into its opposite… As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there… The more fiercely people press together, the more certain they feel that they do not fear each other.”3
Fear, instead, hovers all over in this historical period. It is airborne as the virus that attacks our lungs and wants to prevent us from breathing. Which separates us by imposing social distancing. Which forcely transfigures us by the use of a mask over our faces, that distorts our physicality, our identity.
Chopin refuses to subject Life to Word. The body is essential to life because it alone can hear, see, smell, touch, thus live without the need to making it all become a “discourse”, an explanation, without the need for a verbal and semantic transmission. The written word is far away from life and for him, it represents a lie that is perpetuated infinitely by repetition. The sound of word, on the other hand, represents that moment of truth that manifests itself in its being here and now, which lives in the present and cannot be captured, replicated, transmitted. The word in the now, is a gesture that explains nothing (since there is nothing to explain), but wants to transmit itself through vital energy, through breath; it wants to achieve the sharing of a state of mind, an emotion, an emotional and affective exchange. Utopically, this new non-semantic language can represent a free and universal form of communication that can actively participate in the creation of a new, free and truly democratic world.
The word’s sound alone, is the only real, not its written simulacrum.
If Artaud was looking for a word preceding logos, for Chopin the written word is a corpse, and only its sound becomes flesh. For this reason, in 1972 Chopin creates an incredible and apparently absurd work entitled La Digestion. By swallowing a probe microphone that records the sounds of the digestion process in the stomach, he intends to subvert the idea of the word as arising from the oral cavity, through the articulation sequences of the mouth, pharynx and larynx. He reverses the process of phonation and swallows the instrument that is normally used to record and reproduce a word. He, in a way, swallows the word, celebrates its sublimation in the hidden meanders from which it should spring, in that stomach (from the Greek stoma) which originally meant mouth and only later became, by synecdoche, the term to define the digestive system.
Technology becomes an instrument of experimentation and liberation capable of contributing to a reorganization of chaos. Body, sound and machine work together. The microphone becomes a magnifying glass under which the voice is fully manifested through its rhythm, breath, gutturality, labiality, timbre, warbling, vibration of the vocal cords, tongue clicks, mouth clicks. The body participates as an orchestra conductor that synthesizes the various elements in a free and always changing score. For this reason, Chopin began to create performances that allowed him to give life to that oral and gestural writing, that even the tape recorder could compromise by compressing into a deadly stillness. Like a contemporary noise-maker, the artist engages in a tête-à-tête with the pre-recorded material and with his gestures on stage, directs the sound engineer in the backstage modulating the response of each instrument. Performance becomes, in the unique present time, a lively and potent celebration of total art.