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Jane Benson’s “Song for Sebald”


Detail of a “Song for Sebald” print, © Jane Benson

New York artist Jane Benson has been exhibiting a series of hand-cut archival inkjet-prints called “Song for Sebald.” In the exhibition, the prints are accompanied by music Benson has commissioned from Matthew Schickele. Here’s the full description from her website:

In “Song for Sebald,” Jane Benson explores the themes of separation and belonging through a radical encounter with the writer W.G. Sebald’s novel, The Rings of Saturn.  Benson begins with the physical text of the novel and a knife.  By carefully excising every part of the text except the syllables of the musical scale – do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti – she uncovers what we might call the “potential music” of Sebald’s prose:  a set of notes with a full tonal range hovering both inside and outside of the novel, untethered from the original text and radically disjointed within itself.  

From that point of radical excision and destruction, Benson moves to the process of re-creation. Benson actualizes the novel’s potential music through a process that links together author, artist, composer, and performer.  Each of the novel’s ten chapters produces a separate movement created collaboratively by composer Matthew Schickele; in each, the pace of the music is guided by the spaces between the excavated syllables (the spaces Benson has cut) and its emotive lyric determined by a set of improvisations guided by elements of Sebald’s prose.  Each chapter/movement has its own mood, dynamics, and process of creation, depending on the characters and themes of the original novel, and on interactive processes determined by Benson and Schickele.  The collaged recordings of each movement are encountered by viewers in sound pods equipped with headphones that are presented alongside each chapter of incised text, with the entire score played in the gallery daily at noon. 

Sebald’s experimental fiction and essays demonstrate a preoccupation with displacement, foreignness, and extraterritoriality, reflecting his own experience of self-imposed exile from his native Germany.  Both thematically and formally, Sebald’s prose reflects its author’s experience of radical dislocation; his narrators often seem to stand apart from their physical and textual surroundings, the stories they tell – at once personal and impersonal – reflect the creative potential of estrangement and disorientation. 

Benson’s work explores and expands this same creative potential; her elaborate and multi-stage process creates gaps and absences in order to stitch them together over time and across media, in a process of collaboration that links together nationalities, disciplines, genders, and fields of creative work.  In this, Song for Sebald not only gestures toward the work of a single author, but also speaks with urgency to our present international moment, in which the plight – and the promise – of displaced persons has become more important than ever before.

At Benson’s website, you can see all of the images and hear an eleven minute sample of Schickele’s haunting and spare music. (And yes, Matthew Schickele is the son of Peter Schickele, the sometimes comedic composer.)

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ian #

    Interesting – my immediate response to this work was to check if Benson had used the translated text or the German original and it appears she has used the English translation. Her website does not appear to make mention of this choice. Given that the concept of the piece is concerned with textual features rather than meaning, it’s conceivably that she could have used the German text (this sent me down another rabbit hole investigating whether the syllables of the musical scale are identical in German…). It seems like a missed opportunity, given the themes of this work, for the artist (or, at least, the person responsible for the summary) to acknowledge the ‘dislocation’/’re-creation’ processes of the translator and add another link to the series connecting ‘author, artist, composer, and performer.’

    June 30, 2019
  2. Dear Vertigo,

    For a long time, I following your blog about the many views on W. G. Sebald and the important literary legacy he has left us.

    From 2015 to 2018, I did a great deal of research that inspired a body of visual work that was funded by the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec and that was exposed to Montreal in the spring of 2018.

    As we all know, in 2021, it will be 20 years since Sebald left us.
    I am therefore looking for events that are either literary or visual in preparation that I will be able to address to propose some unpublished works.
    So I appeal to you in the perspective of obtaining information tracks that would allow me to get in touch with certain artistic directions

    Hoping to be in the right place for this request
    Best regards
    Josée Pellerin

    July 4, 2019
    • Jose, I am traveling for several weeks and will reply when I am home and am able to think about your request. Terry

      July 4, 2019
      • Josée Pellerin #

        Thanks Terry and have a nice traveling

        July 4, 2019
    • Josee,

      I have just found out about one event in Amsterdam this December. Unfortunately, the deadline for proposing papers has already closed. Here is the link: I am trying to find out about another event in Sweden in 2020. I will let you know.

      July 29, 2019
      • thank you very much for the follow up

        July 29, 2019
      • Josee, my friend who told me about this conference in Amsterdam, said you should get in touch even though the deadline has passed. He thought there will probably 2-3, maybe more cancellations at any 3 day conference, so if the organisers are interested in what you do (and given that the conference focusses on art/photography) they might still be looking for participants. Terry

        July 30, 2019
      • Thank you very much once again.
        This morning, I sent them a proposal and I also mentioned your references. We will see for the future

        July 30, 2019
  3. Stephen Howell #

    Is that Sebald in front of a tree? If so, where is he and is it a Yew tree?

    July 5, 2019
    • Stephen, I don’t know the answer to this, though it looks like Sebald to me. The image is from Benson’s website and she gives no info on the images she uses. Sorry!

      July 5, 2019
  4. Stephen Howell #

    Ok Terry, thanks for the reply.

    July 7, 2019

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