Saturday, 16 June 2007

The Architecture of Shadows (2)

Previously, I referred to the common notion that a blending of light and shadows brings places to life. The revelatory aspect of light, as enlightening space, carries with it the surfacing of texture, depth, and form. The light which marks the interior of the domestic home, for instance, is at once homely and distant thanks to the darkness from which the lighting is offset. Void and presence entwine, allowing the body to be surrounded by a place with attributes distinct from the outside. As a result, the lighting of place is at the same time the means by which place becomes visible as qualitative, embodied, and sensory place.

Indeed, such is the centrality of light to the formation of place that Junichiro Tanizaki, author of In Praise of Shadows, is prepared to state that: “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house” (p. 28). Further still, Tanizaki goes on to describe how Japanese design orients itself around “neutral colors so that the sad, fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose” (Ibid., p. 30). The emphasis on the neutrality of space as a platform on which shadows form underscores the dynamic texturing of surfaces, as both morphing and enduring in time.

This confidence in depth, darkness, and mystery is, of course, largely obliterated today. No need to lament. In its place, a shadowless environment. Consider how this is played in terms of depth. The significance of depth is thus that it projects a qualitative dimensionality to space, which establishes itself as distinct from the geometry of a given place. Yet the flourishing of light and place is not simply constrained to the visual realm. Rather, the combination of geometrical properties and lighting instils an environment, which, though channelled through vision, affects the entire bodily experience. Thus, in the site/non-place/heterotopia, the eyes do not detach themselves from the rest of the body, but instead filter the affective dimension of the lighting—harsh, cold, and sterile—through the entire body.

In the face of industrial-scale halogen or fluorescent lighting, the play of surface and form is undermined by the colonising of consistency and the erasure of diversity. Because of this harshness, finding our way in a shadowless environment proves awkward. “The lighting,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “directs my gaze and causes me to see the object, so that in a sense it knows and sees the object” (p. 361). To know and to see the object means being able to place that object within a given context. Moreover, to have emerged form the dark is a prerequisite for finding out way in place. In relation, Merleau-Ponty goes on to say the following concerning vision and lighting:

If I imagine a theatre with no audience in which the curtain rises upon illuminated scenery, I have the impression that the spectacle is in itself visible or ready to be seen, and that the light which probes the back and foreground, accentuating the shadows and permeating the scene through and through, in a way anticipates our vision (p. 361).

The framing of place thanks to light thus serves to enforce a scene of visibility, even when that content of that vision is missing. As such, light gives form, and so pre-empts our navigation into and from place. By contrast, in the site, the aggressive lighting renders visible an appearance without form. In effect, all that is being lit is the presentation of a place de-formed by the very light that aspires to impose a form upon it. Without form, without texture, and without the shadows which lead us into place, the site disembodies, disperses, and disturbs the relation between body and world, such that the centrality of hereness must be called into question.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

A Singular Presence

Immensely glum news: David Osmond-Smith, professor of music at Sussex University and Berio scholar, has died. A very fine tribute has been written by Malcolm Miller, and can be found here. I had the pleasure to study musical aesthetics with David when I came to Sussex in 2004 as a graduate. I believe I was his last official student before he semi-retired. It was the single most academically inspiring experience of my life.

Difficult to describe David’s presence, difficult to do justice to it. I have never been in the company of someone who exerted such a singular presence. I came away from those seminars, which would often last up to 4 hours, marked by the encounter. His whole manner, from his wild gesticulations, fervent expressions, and imposing demeanour, was piercing. David personified a kind of militant enthusiasm. I remember one occasion discussing Beethoven and Nietzsche, in this small and crammed room adjacent to the music office, the way in which he would grip his fist with excitement. His voice would roar when discussing the notion of the sublime. Wonderful.

(Photograph from Music Dept.)

Fragments and memories: visiting him in his Lewes house, working through Nietzsche and Hegel, thinking about narrative, melody, and the sublime. The sparseness of the house, the simplicity of the decoration, the sun glowing intensely through the windows. A house which, at least as I experienced it, appeared to take on David’s presence: an austerity countered by a great warmth. And I remember, too: David seated in a corner chair, with his copy of The Case of Wagner. Huge scores lined up neatly. The sense of his perceptiveness: an understanding of the psychology of music.

The last time I saw him properly was September 2006, very shortly after he moved to his new house in Rodmell. I wanted him to have a copy of my book, since he had been such a source of support when working on it. The acknowledgment I offered in the book does little to articulate the thanks I owe to him: yet it is impossible to articulate such gratitude. I remember making my way over the River Ouse, flanked by fields and scarps of disused machinery. Some images from that walk:

When I arrived, I spotted David rearranging the plants. It was a pleasure hearing him talk about the new house, the new projects he would undertake there. He was working on a massive Berio project the last time I saw him: I only hope it will come to light. That afternoon, we spoke about phenomenology, Deleuze, Eco, academic life. I was always inspired to hear him talk about academia. He was contemptuous of academic vanity, dismissive of an academic system orientated toward the mere amassing of data. It was clear from the first seminar that David’s engagement with theory was marked by a radical commitment and a sense of purpose. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory was open on the table that afternoon, in preparation for a talk he was to give later that day for an Italian radio station. I saw him only twice after this. Once in the library and once in the corridor to the music department. His presence was always illuminating, even in those fleeting episodes. I will miss him greatly.