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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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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]