The Lost Art of Letter Writing

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

It is a truism of our age that we are witnessing the ‘death of the letter’, as a form of communication which, for all its appeal and communicative power, is in radical decline because of the increasing prevalence of electronic media. People are now contactable everywhere and every point in time, which the truism says exponentially expands the number of possible connections with others but also and at the same time replaces depth and meaningful exchanges with surface and the ratatat of immediate chatter-like expressions. Text and Twitter are eponymous, according to this view.

This is a truism, but it is not exactly nor entirely true, as I have discussed elsewhere (Stanley 2015 ‘The death of the letter‘). The same phenomena also represent a vast upsurge of everyday writing practices predicated upon the epistolary form, of stupendous numbers of dialogical communicative exchanges occurring in circumstances of temporal and spatial separation. More people than ever before are engaged in making such exchanges because, regardless of literacy levels, the functional literacy aspects of text permits this vast democratisation. And so on, in adding provisos to the truism.

Nonetheless, the basic point remains that the conventional forms of letter-writing as we presently understand them (in fact a product of Europe, a minority of its peoples, and just the last couple of hundred years, remember) are in decline, probably radical decline, almost everywhere. And what is replacing them are the myriad forms of epistolarity, rather than a variation on ‘conventional’ letter-writing. In this context the Australian composer Brett Dean, noted among other things for using music to engage with the political and social themes of the day, wrote his 2007 violin concerto, ‘The Lost Art of Letter Writing’.

IMG_0996The four movements of the concerto demonstrate very different individual moods, conveyed through Brett Dean’s interpretations of the letters each is based on. The first movement, ‘Hamburg, 1854’, is based on a letter from Brahms to Clara Schumann of 15 December 1854; the second, ‘The Hague, 1882’, references a letter by Van Gogh of 19 September 1882 to another painter, Anthon van Rappard: the third, ‘Vienna, 1886’, is based a Hugo Wolf letter to his brother-in-law Josef Strasser; and the fourth, ‘Jerilderie, 1879’, is a kind of open letter written by the outlaw Ned Kelly in Australia. For copyright reasons, extracts from the concerto alas cannot be provided here. It is, however, a fascinating piece of music and can be obtained on a midpriced CD as recorded by the Sydney Symphony under Jonathan Nott with Frank Peter Zimmerman on the violin in 2011.

The four movements of the concerto are very different from each other, and they create a strong sense of multiple voices each engaged with their own ideas and circumstances as these are being communicated with and in response to particular other people. They also convey strong sense of the particularity of the four letters that each movement is based on, and in this sense there is discontinuity between each of the movements, something unusual in a concerto form.

Brett’s concerto is about letters, and is itself a kind of letter. In some important regards it is letter-like in that it has letterness aspects, those I have associated above with epistolarity and the deeper as well as wider aspects of reciprocal communication with another or others across the separations of time and space. In many of the same respects it is also part of the new, in the sense of being part of the myriad of new forms of epistolariy-influenced communications supported by digital media.

It is a communication from one person, a composer, separated in time, space and other ways, to his addresses. It is from many other people too, the Sydney Symphony, the violinist, the conductor. It is from the composer to the musicians. It is also from the composer to the many audiences who listen and respond both to live performances and also by listening to recordings such as the one I have (and am listening to as I write this) and has a strong dialogical component built in. It is also a performance by those musicians themselves, to their audiences of different kinds.

These audiences involve many people, but at the same time the performances are heard by each individual themselves and they will interpret them differently. Indeed, I hear the performance differently when I am sat in my office listening to it, when it is on a Nano and I am in an archive with headphones plugged in, as it emerges from the speaker in my bathroom as I take a bath, and so on.

This piece of music as a letter-like entity has many dates of its inscription, involving both Brett writing the music over a period of time, and also the musicians and technicians involved in the number of takes required in recording it between November and December 2011. and it has equally many dates of reading or hearing, such as in my case in the Sydney Opera House, in my Edinburgh office, in a South African archive, in my north of England bath and so on.

But ultimately of course this is not a letter but a piece of music. It is the music that is definitional of its most important features, albeit that the epistolary aspects are interesting to contemplate.

Last updated: 21 April 2016


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