On the Border of the Illusion

Because of music's inherent abstractness, it is the most fundamentally subversive of the arts. It says something very specific, eliciting overpowering responses, and yet it has the luxury of being able to claim that it has said nothing at all.
12/12/2014 02:11 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

I'm generally met with reactions of surprise and intrigue when my musical works based on Jacqueline Rose's writings are presented. The general idea, it goes, is that the connection between a work like Proust Among the Nations and a piano sonata is not an easy connection to make. I've never understood this perspective and, needless to say, it makes no sense to me. As a composer, I've written a large-scale piano sonata based on my reading of Proust Among the Nations, a double concerto on States of Fantasy and another piano sonata that takes The Last Resistance as its point of departure.

One only needs to look at the history of music to understand that the relationship between the critical text and the musical composition has been an intimate one. Whether we are thinking of Wagner's obsession with Schopenhauer, Mahler's deep reading of Nietzsche in his Third Symphony or Strauss' shallow reading of Nietzsche in Also Sprach Zarathustra, it's clear that the relationship between music and text goes beyond the confines of poetry and opera libretti.

Jacqueline Rose's work, though, is inherently musical. The fact is that I could not help but hear music in the pages of States of Fantasy. My music generally occupies the space between poetry and statecraft: on the strange border of realpolitik psychology and the psychological state of musical fantasy. Because of music's inherent abstractness, it is the most fundamentally subversive of the arts. It says something very specific, eliciting overpowering responses, and yet it has the luxury of being able to claim that it has said nothing at all. Because of this, music can so easily be the art-form of the political refugee, the exile, the critic.

Music is also the most psychologically driven of all the arts. Bypassing the "concreteness" of day-to-day life, it delves straight back into the instinctual, primordial stew of the id. "We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations", Freud writes. "It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle."

He could be describing the energy of music itself. The fantasy of it all.

But the substance of music is a very powerful and intoxicating thing on its own. So our history as composers has been to impose a state onto the music: a form like a sonata or a concerto. By doing this we control the dangerous, almost illegal, substance of music but we also give it a sense of "direction" and social ritual.

I'll never forget Jacqueline Rose's response to Edward Saïd's lecture at the Freud Society in London where he took Sigmund Freud, finally, out of Europe. The combined brilliance of Rose and Saïd gave Moses and Monotheism a global view. Hearing it, witnessing it, early in my life has had an indelible imprint on my work and development as a composer.

So it's no secret that I feel a kinship to Jacqueline Rose's work. She has helped me conjure up the sonic lamentation of Freud in Abu Ghraib, understand the strange and perverse fantasia of national anthems and bring our artists like Proust from the stars to the nations where we all belong.

Jacqueline Rose is a tremendous inspiration and it is my honor to be inspired by her in the great tradition of critical thinkers inspiring artists. In a small way, I hope that my readings of her work are more akin to Mahler's readings of Nietzsche than those of Richard Strauss. If not, I'll settle for being a first-class, second rate reader. In any case, I am grateful for her incalculable contributions to the world and to me personally.

Mohammed Fairouz, Symposium in Celebration of Jacqueline Rose 2014, Queen Mary University of London