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Review: Joseph Clayton Mills, “The Patient” (Entr’acte)

Franz Kafka died of starvation on June 3rd, 1924, his throat cinched by laryngeal tuberculosis. The intravenous delivery of food to sick patients wouldn’t be invented for another 35 years and the swelling in Kafka’s throat caused by the infection made swallowing even water difficult. Forbidden from speaking by his doctor at the sanatorium in Kierling, Austria, Kafka would often communicate with his friends and visitors by writing small notes on scraps of paper. Some such scraps were less notes and more fragments or disconnected ideas, phrases impossible to understand without context. It’s something Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, recalls in the opening pages of the booklet that accompanies Joseph Clayton Mills’s The Patient. “Usually these notes were mere hints; his friends guessed the rest,” he writes. Mills, accompanied by Olivia Block, Noé Cuéllar (Coppice), Steven Hess (Pan•American, Haptic, Innode), and Jason Stein take a shot at interpreting those fragments on this record, using Mills’s textual score to trace a line around Kafka’s final abraded thoughts.

“The goal of this document is to suggest a vocabulary of actions,” Mills writes. “It should in no way be seen as prescriptive or comprehensive, and the sequence of elements in this document should not be construed as implying a particular linear arrangement.”

The 52-page score for The Patient bears only a passing resemblance to traditional musical scores. It contains a couple of references to particular notes in the Western 12-tone system, a few bar lines (one set displays both a treble and bass clef, but is otherwise blank), a few more very precise frequencies for sine wave generator, and even a reference to Wagner’s “Tristan chord,” but the majority of it is filled with suggested actions of the sort written by George Brecht, La Monte Young, and Pauline Oliveros. They read, “play for longer than you think you should” and “image of water/droplets/dew” and “hushed breath/for unvoiced bellows/vocalist/friction on drumhead.”

Together they are enough to constitute a composition, only the number of performers is unspecified and there are no instructions for how to string individual performances together. Participants have only Kafka’s quotes and Mills’s accompanying directions to guide them, along with a handful of photographs, drawings, medical diagrams, story excerpts, and historical summaries. None of it is prescriptive, but all of it sets a very particular tone, which is why, despite the score’s innate openness, this performance of The Patient sounds so compact, controlled, and potent.

(Read More… with samples)

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Broadcast 09: Persists Into Winter

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Below are two links to the WZBC Archives where you can listen to my Super Bowl Sunday (February 2nd) radio show, broadcast on WZBC 90.3 FM in Boston. Those links will remain active until the 16th of February 2014, at which point the show will disappear and be replaced by a new one.

Lots of new music on this program, including two new songs from one of Joseph Clayton Mills’s most recent projects, The Patient. It’s an incredible record paired with a fantastic book that serves as a loose score for the music. The book includes notes written by Franz Kafka to his friends while he was suffering from tuberculosis of the larynx. The notes include common questions and observations that you might expect from someone unable to talk, but they’re also filled with peculiar fragments that seem designed to confuse. Mills takes advantage of their intensity and ambiguity and uses them as inspiration for recommended musical (and maybe non-musical) actions. The performance of those actions in whatever combination constitutes The Patient.  I talk about it a little on the show, but you just have to see it in order to appreciate how amazingly well it’s put together. Anyone interested in Kafka should definitely pick this one up. I have a review of that in the works, but if you want some information now, go here.

I also played a new piece from Anne Guthrie’s latest, Codiaeum Variegatum, due out on Students of Decay the 18th of this month, along with a composition by Jacques Lejeune,  who has a new 3CD collection out on Robot Records. Both are excellent, but I’m particularly in love with that Guthrie record. It’s one of my favorite albums of new music so far this year.

There’s a new song from Helm tucked in there and a new one from Machinefabriek too, plus a superb, low-key piece from Philip Corner. Italian Air: Wind, Water & Metal, the album it’s from, might be a little hard to find, but is worth seeking out. If you can’t find one at a local shop, copies are still available from Forced Exposure.

Any questions, comments, or requests, please send me an email or just drop a message into the comments section below.

Thanks for listening.

Laughter: February 2nd, 2014 – Hour 1 and Hour 2

  1. The Shadow Ring, “The World Phone” from Remains Unchanged (2012) on KYE
  2. Anne Guthrie, “Rough Above with Uneven Base” from Codiaeum Variegatum (2014) on STUDENTS OF DECAY
  3. Philip Corner, “Ear Wave” from Italian Air: Wind, Water & Metal (2012) on RICERCA SONORA
  4. Joseph Clayton Mills, “Part III” from The Patient (2013) on ENTR’ACTE
  5. Helm, “Analogues” from The Hollow Organ (2013) on PAN
  6. Aaron Dilloway & C Spencer Yeh, “The Hydra” from The Squid (2008) on HANSON RECORDS
  7. Jacques Lejeune, “Cri (Bursts/The Earth is Telling the Dead What the Living are Saying)” from Parages and Other Electroacoustic Works 1971-1985 (2013) on ROBOT RECORDS
  8. Baudouin Oosterlynck, “Le Point et la Ligne” from 1975-1978 (2008) on METAPHON
  9. Machinefabriek, “Manipulation” from Attention, The Doors are Closing! (2014) SELF RELEASED
  10. Joseph Clayton Mills, “Part I” from The Patient (2013) on ENTR’ACTE
  11. Zeitkratzer, “Four6” from John Cage [Old School] (2010) on ZEITKRATZER


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Joseph Clayton Mills: Music Inspired by Kafka

Lots of great records gets overlooked at the end of ever year, as everyone busies themselves with year end lists. The Patient, by Joseph Clayton Mills is definitely one of those records. It was released right at the end of 2013 as best as I can tell, and I’m not sure it’s been made available in the States since it’s released, but it looks and sounds fascinating. Here’s the info from Entr’acte:

“During his final illness (tuberculosis of the larynx) at the sanatorium in Kierling, Kafka was not supposed to speak, an injunction he obeyed most of the time. He communicated with Dora Dymant, Robert Klopstock, and others by scribbling notes on slips of paper. Usually these notes were mere hints; his friends guessed the rest.”—Max Brod

Inspired by and incorporating fragmentary notes written by Franz Kafka on his deathbed to communicate with friends and family, The Patient draws from the texts of these conversation slips for specific imagery, textures, mood, gestures, and instrumentation. The score—essentially an index of suggestions to guide structured improvisation—was initially performed at Chicago’s Experiemental Sound Studio in the fall of 2012 by Olivia Block (piano/walkie-talkies/objects), Noé Cuéllar (accordion/psalter/cassette player/objects), Steven Hess (percussion/cassette player), Joseph Clayton Mills (electronics/cassette player/objects), and Jason Stein (bass clarinet). Recordings of that performance were subsequently augmented, rearranged, and assembled by Mills into the finished album. Additional material provided by Megan Rodgers and Seonaid Valiant.

A sound sample is available via the label’s website, here. There’s also a short trailer for the album on Vimeo, posted by by Mills. I’ve embedded that below.

The music sounds excellent and everyone involved is incredibly talented, which is enough to make me want a copy. The A5 book that accompanies it and the Kafka connection put it over the top. Not a lot of info about the book on their site, but from what I can tell it includes some of the quotes from Kafka and is at least 40 pages long (check the images on the website).

Copies are currently available via the label, and should arrive at Erstwhile Distribution shortly. Don’t sleep on it. Looks like only 200 copies were made.

[vimeo 68893391 w=640&h=480]


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The Monthly List: 2012 in Review, Part Two

satantango_owlPart two of December’s Monthly List features my favorite movie of the year, which wasn’t even released in 2012, plus a few thoughts about a couple of books I read, one or two of the live shows I saw, and a brief reflection on visiting the Museum of Modern Art for the first time.

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A Country Doctor: The Animated Version

still_from_a_country_doctor Via Open Culture: an amazing animated version of Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” directed by Koji Yamamura. Available on the DVD Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor and other Fantastic Films. Of Yamamura, Wikipedia says:

Yamamura was born in Nagoya and studied painting at Tokyo Zokei University. His 2002 movie Mt. Head (Atama Yama) won the short film award for the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, the Grand Prize at the 2004 Zagreb World Festival of Animated Films and was nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short Film. Yamamura won the 2007 Ottawa Grand Prix with his animated adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor.” Both of the films were included in the Animation Show of Shows.

Definitely worth 20 minutes of your time. The music and sound are excellent, and the animation is every bit as surreal as the story.


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Kafka, the Pugilist

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I first read The Metamorphosis when I was 18—maybe 19—after it was recommended to me by my dad. I remember thinking it was a strange science fiction story. Completely unlike the Asimov and Clarke I knew. I registered that there was more going on in it than I could understand and I made a resolution to come back to it eventually. That never happened, at least not for a long time. A couple years later, I read In the Penal Colony when a friend of mine gave me a photocopy he’d made at the library, but my impression of it was quickly obscured and smoothed out by the many other books I was reading at the time. I essentially missed Kafka while in college.

And then, last month, a random conversation on an Internet message board reminded me of him. Now I find myself wrestling with A Country Doctor, the second collection of Kafka’s short stories published during his lifetime. After reading The Judgment and The Metamorphosis, it feels like catching a hard right hook to the jaw. The Metamorphosis eats at you page by page; you can watch it work on your soul and on your spirits; watching it makes it somehow easier. The conclusion doesn’t shock, there aren’t any twists or sudden turns, but it wears you down. At some point, you become Gregor Samsa and the world gets that much dimmer. The Judgment catches you off guard and steals a bit of your breath; it hits hard, but the conclusion is absurd, even to the point of being funny.

The stories in A Country Doctor, on the other hand, are taut, tough, and unforgiving. They jab, dodge, fake left, swing right, and crush. They’re bloody and a little ugly, and I’m left wondering how I am supposed to keep up. A story like “The Cares of a Family Man” isn’t even two pages, but it contains so many ideas that interpreting it looks impossible. It’s compact and muscular and if there is a touch of humor there, it’s camouflaged.

How to approach these stories then? Merely reading them gets me nowhere. I have to do more; come back swinging; get into shape and learn the footwork; I have to laugh off blows and toughen up; get bruised. In terms of reading and writing, that means doing the job of interpretation myself.

It’s temping to look for answers from scholars who have spent lots of time reading and studying Kafka’s life and works. Knowing how other readers have responded to him helps. Context helps. So does taking the chance on a personal encounter with his stories. I take comfort in the idea that Kafka can’t be interpreted. That I have to take from him whatever I can glean, and that if there is someone or something behind the text, something fixed and waiting to be found, it is a total secret impossible to penetrate.

I found the following quote while browsing different essays on Kafka. It reinforced this idea of Kafka as a pugilist for me, as somebody I have to fight directly, not vicariously. It’s from a letter written in 1904 to Oskar Pollak, one of Kafka’s classmates at the Altstädter Gymnasium:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

Wounded is a great way to describe how I feel after reading some of these stories. Especially the end of “An Old Manuscript.” Kafka describes an alien presence in an unnamed city; armed soldiers that steal and threaten violence; a cowardly defense force; animals eating other animals from starvation; nomads gnawing on bones and consuming raw flesh; and then a conclusion that falls like a blow to the gut:

“What is going to happen?” we all ask ourselves. “How long can we endure this burden and torment? The Emperor’s palace has drawn the nomads here but does not know how to drive them away again. The gate stays shut; the guards, who used to be always marching out and in with ceremony, keep close behind barred windows. It is left to us artisans and tradesmen to save our country; but we are not equal to such a task; nor have we ever claimed to be capable of it. This is a misunderstanding of some kind; and it will be the ruin of us.” (Willa and Edwin Muir translation)

Everyone knows Kafka’s a writer. He’s also a boxer. I can’t always see what he’s fighting with, but sometimes I catch one of his punches and it sends me reeling.