TQW Magazin
Marino Formenti on George tremble by Samuel Feldhandler

I WISH YOU NOTHING (Or: The Book of the Dead)


I WISH YOU NOTHING (Or: The Book of the Dead)

The sounds are not sounds but shadows.
They are obviously sounds; that’s why they are shadows.
Every something is an echo of nothing.
(John Cage)


I was asked to write about Samuel Feldhandler’s Georges tremble because I’m a musician. But: Is music the thing that “sounds”? (I don’t give a fuck about sound.) Is music the thing you structure “rhythmically”? (I don’t give a fuck about musical structures.)

If Samuel is a highly sensitive musician, this isn’t because he uses musical structures in his work or takes inspiration from John Cage. There are, for example, rather unerotic performances about “sex”.

Maybe he’s a musician because his piece provides many occasions for thinking about music.



Elizabeth and Yari and Mani are dancing the same sequence of movements, over and over again, it is increasingly deprived of meaning.

One possible definition of music (of white music, at any rate) would be: sound versus gesture.

I am constantly faced with the question: To what extent should the “meaning” (signifié) of gestures be visible or invisible? It’s a tightrope act of choosing the lesser of two evils: if I overuse gestures, such as “sighs”, the music degenerates into a banal-onomatopoeic affair, but if the “sigh” as a concept is removed completely, the music might turn into an abstract, amorphous mass (or else an impressive representation of nothingness, of death – as perhaps in Samuel’s piece?).

To begin with, (white) music is peppered with loud gestures that “mean” something. A melodic downward interval is called a “sigh”, it’s practically ubiquitous in love arias, from Bach to pop music; an exclamatio is a melodic leap upwards that gets things going, like, well, an exclamation. And so on. These gestures used to be widely accepted and recognised, they were organised repeatedly in strictly codified catalogues (similar to dance, I believe).

So it seems that we cannot avoid gestures, we appear to have them in our blood: if the “gesture” is ignored completely, there are, quite simply, ramifications. What is certain is that a (sound) movement performed by humans, while narrating as little as possible, cannot actually resemble the “meaningless” dance of leaves in the wind because the insignificance of the no-longer-gesture is experienced as a loss – including the consequences, of course.

Even an aesthetic decision is a gesture: after all, non-narrative music does narrate that music doesn’t narrate anything.

Now Yari and Elizabeth are dancing exactly the same way.

As far as the struggle between narration and abstraction is concerned, there are positions that tend to point the finger in one direction or the other; and, at first, I was generally more suspicious of one – the “abstraction” – than the other. This is because when I was growing up, abstraction was very en vogue. Primarily, the musical “parents” with whom I studied, to me, were nothing short of somehow puritanically objectifying fathers who needed to be killed. I still haven’t quite rid myself of the suspicion that behind the search for abstraction is often just prudish fear. Many times I thought: so the stuck-up white middle class are at it again.

A suspicion that is actually confirmed when looking at history. Two similar aesthetic trends manifested themselves in the period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (around 1550): the first-person narrative and the contemplative. The desire for “contemplative” music was ordained directly by papal decree: not entirely a good sign.

But I soon learned that I wouldn’t go far with “expression” alone; and made perhaps the most important experiences with “contemplative” motets.

Now an electric guitar has been added; but it, too, plays only lost scraps, almost completely deprived of their meanings.



Samuel has written a choreographic score in meticulous detail. Samuel is as white as I am, by the way.

For us European men (whose main purpose has always been to possess, and consequently to keep, inherit and bequeath, as well as to boss others around) it became necessary to develop an ever more accurate script: it served as a means to keep a record not only of slave purchase contracts but also of beautiful musical scores for eternity.

The system has become increasingly more sophisticated: while a score by Bach contains 100 pieces of information, a score by Stockhausen contains 1,000. Over time, a division of labour established itself between composer and interpreter, eventually creating an almost insurmountable gulf. All a performer has to do today is to simply execute 1,000 pieces of information-turned-commands contained in the score. So the development of writing down music went hand in hand with the development of increasingly toxic power structures.

There is a difference in this regard between dance and music. Samuel’s performers, like many others, are choreographers themselves, independently thinking individuals; from what I could see, Samuel meets them on an absolutely equal footing.

And Elizabeth keeps dancing.
She is now a washing machine, a car park barrier.

Does this mean that writing a score is an intrinsically toxic undertaking? Of course not. But I did ask Samuel if he didn’t feel weird about demanding of three thinking individuals to execute so precisely these identical gestures thought up by him. However, for my part, I was grateful of the opportunity to play the information-heavy Stockhausen scores: it was a matter of blood, sweat and tears but, in the end, I discerned a very noble kind of freedom. So, doubtless Elizabeth appreciates Samuel’s little tap routine.

Now Mani executes the movement in a way completely different from Elizabeth. It’s his movement, it belongs to him alone.

Plus, it soon turns out that what defies his will still matters to Samuel. Music is playing simultaneously; pictures are hanging there, it isn’t really clear why; two men are caressing each other amid the otherwise increasing level of abstraction.

We were reflecting on Stockhausen’s commands. This is when John Cage goes out, buys an eraser and then sits in front of the completely erased, empty sheet of paper. However, Stockhausen’s overcrowded sheet and Cage’s completely empty one only appear to be contradictions: Stockhausen produced the 1,000 commands by way of mathematical processes and thus freed us from the expressive “gesture” much like John Cage, who left the sheet empty.

But despite even the most extreme attempts to eliminate the gesture from music by black (Stockhausen) or white (Cage) saturation of the score, it comes back in through the window. Then you suddenly hear the sound of a single bell, and the sound image is back to being a concept again in no time, and the bell means death or faith.



(So young and yet so dead.)

Two hands thrown in the air.

Right from the start they are barely even gestures, almost without meaning. Not only in terms of meaning but also in terms of physical movement they are only hinted at: barely decipherable remnants. 

You could imagine a part of the performance that nobody got to see and that might have lasted for centuries before the curtain went up; in which the gestures were still alive.

Two bouncing steps, you think you recognise where this is coming from, tap dance? But also barely decipherable.  

Cheerfulness, cheekiness flicker through the mind: like Stockhausen’s extremely short bell sound and the resultant “association with death”,

but the dancers are somewhere else entirely yet again.

As for a logic that links these remnants, it seems that they might originate from a diverse and possibly incoherent great common memory: like in the dream in which the Darmstadt summer school and my tongue coexisted with Aunt Franca holding a salami in her hand. Or like in the rubbish bin. Everything looks more alike in the rubbish anyway. Or maybe like on YouTube. When I type “classical music” on YouTube, I first come across pages of things that have nothing to do with anything “classical music” ever “narrated” to me: empty piano sounds that are suitable for university studies, rearrangements of Chopin for a shampoo advertisement, etc.

A music that originally wanted to say something is irrevocably emptied of its meaning through repetition and reproduction.

At some point, we are faced with a music without having a clue what it wanted to say.

And Yari keeps dancing and dancing and dancing and dancing and dancing. Now he is gone.

Even the structural-musical forms used to be expressive, narrative “gestures”. Here, they, too, seem to me like remnants that are no longer “comprehensible”.

A sonata form, for example, is a template to which wig-wearing men, who were much more convinced of the legitimacy and significance of this form, took exception centuries ago. But do we still know why?

In conventional use, repetition serves to reinforce the expressive power of that which is repeated. Just think of pop songs, where the repetition of the chorus boosts its effect.

Here, repetition has the opposite effect: in the end, the vacuitous repetitions deprive the movement of all expressiveness, if it ever had any.

Call it annihilation by dance.
All that is left in the end is nothing.

I observed a similar process between rehearsals and the performance: while rehearsing, the dancers made the movements their own little by little, they slipped into them and gradually disappeared in them, and, by degrees, died.

In the end, I saw in Samuel – and perhaps I am doing him an injustice with a great compliment that might border on a misunderstanding – a pronounced pessimist. But maybe I just projected my own pronounced pessimism on him. (If a piece is supposed to be a metaphor for YouTube, it might actually be intended to be quite tragic. But I am 57, Samuel isn’t.) 

Elizabeth is gone now.

At the end of Georges tremble, it was as if I was standing in front of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Looking at an almost disintegrated palimpsest, I see nothing but gaps and emptiness, scraps of scraps at best that are barely visible. At some point, it won’t be long now, even these scraps will be gone.

Every now and again, something that could be considered a “message” does appear. Two dancers caressing each other – a music that should gradually have faded was reversed chronologically in such a way that this almost results in a “gestural” heightening.

But perhaps these few decisions are also just: remnants.

Now Mani is gone, too.

All of a sudden, and in all seriousness, I find that I want to make music with Samuel one day! Before I’m well and truly gone and dance with the worms.

This I wish for myself; him I wish absolutely nothing:

Years ago there was a game Philip Guston and I used to play. We were the last artists.
More than a philosophic toy, “nothing” [was] a crucial point of arrival and departure.
It is obvious that we dont begin with nothing, less obvious that after years of working one arrives at very little.
We are confronted with the fact, or rather it is more in evidence, that we have very little to bring, extremely little to say.
(Morton Feldman)