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.)