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Posts from the ‘Sebald & Music’ Category

Dreamlife of Debris

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In an interview with London Jazz News, musician Kit Downes talks about how his two recent albums Obsidian and Dreamlife of Debris (both for ECM Records, 2018 and 2019, respectively) were inspired by W.G. Sebald and by Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald):

LJN: And continuing the “place” theme in a more abstract way, can you tell us about W.G. Sebald (both albums contain references to his work) and his influence on the music?

KD: The title, Dreamlife of Debris, itself comes from a supposed quote by Nabakov, mentioned in a documentary film about W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn. The quote itself alludes to the way we can project emotion and character onto inanimate objects, to the point where they feel like they have their own life, dreamt by us – like a musician and their instrument in a way, especially the organ (being the enormous chaotic collection of pipes, whistles and reeds that it is).

These objects could be mundane and everyday, or galaxy clusters and gas giants – whatever the scale. This quote (in reference to the book) is alluding to the way Sebald finds meaning in these isolated landmarks and events on his walking tour through Suffolk by using them as springboards for enormous mental leaps of association and story telling – to places across the world and from other times.

This resonated with me – these unlikely combinations of instruments, alluding to different styles and periods, with no established pretext, meeting together in a space with no singular character. I enjoyed the risk of diving into that challenge, and enjoyed the strange dream-like space that we often found ourselves in musically.

There are several wonderful videos on Downe’s website, including one about Dreamlife and one for his piece “Rings of Saturn” from the Obsidian album. (Also, make sure to watch the video with Aidan O’Rouke.) If you are a Spotify subscriber, ECM recently released its entire music catalog on Spotify after years of refusing to. So go enjoy Kit Downe’s music there or find the CDs or LPs. Or go to Downe’s website where there are several older pieces you can listen to. This is terrific music, the instruments like sonic universes slowly passing by each other.

On the album, Downes plays piano and organ, Tom Challenger plays tenor saxophone, Stian Westerhus plays guitar, Lucy Railton plays cello, and Sebastian Rochford, drums.

UPCOMING CONCERT NOTE: Kit Downes will be appearing at the Royal Academy of Music, Sainsbury Theatre, London on January 31, 2020. According to its website, the “event opens with the presentation of honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music to eminent jazz pianist and alumnus Kit Downes, who then leads his trio, ENEMY, and students from the Jazz and Strings departments in a side-by-side performance.”

2632-downes-groupThe musicians of Dreamlife of Debris:
Sebastian Rochford, Kit Downes, Tom Challenger and Lucy Railton. Photo courtesy ECM.
(Minus Stian Westerhus, Guitar)

Sebald-Inspired String Quartet To Be Played in Brooklyn Dec. 5

Momenta Quartet

Contemporary American composer/musician Elizabeth Brown’s string quartet Just Visible in the Distance will be part of the Interpretations program at Roulette in Brooklyn Thursday, December 5 at 8:00 PM. It will be played by the Momenta Quartet, to whom the piece is dedicated. If you can’t make the concert, you can watch them play the fifteen and a half minute piece on Brown’s website. Brown says this about her composition:

Just Visible in the Distance (2013) consists of intuitively assembled small movements, each flowing into the next. Persistent musical material from some of my earlier pieces resurfaces often. The title is from W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I love and have read many times.

That night’s event also includes compositions by Frances White, performances by baritone/narrator Thomas Buckner, and a video/sculpture installation by artist Lothar Osterburg. More information can be found here. Roulette is located at 509 Atlantic Avenue (Entrance on the Corner of Third Avenue; Accessible Entrance on Atlantic Ave).

Sebald Events November – December 2011

The long-awaited 240-page volume of W.G. Sebald’s collected poetry is going to hit stores in the UK soon.  Across the Land and the Water will apparently be available in the UK November 3.  But according to the Amazon US website, it will not be available in the US until April 3, 2012, when both hardback and Kindle versions are scheduled to be ready.  I confess that I am not an immediate fan of the cover design for the UK edition, which reeks of lost innocence and suggests nothing more strenuous than a slow row across a lake on a hazy, hot summer’s day.  Perhaps Random House will develop a new cover for the North American market.  Here’s the blurb from the Penguin/Hamish Hamilton website:

When W.G. Sebald died in 2001, he was internationally acknowledged as one of the most important German writers of our era. Now, thanks to Iain Galbraith’s vibrant translations, the full breadth of his poetry is available in English for the first time.

This volume brings together poems published during Sebald’s lifetime with an additional selection of those which were found in his literary archives in Marbach and never published while he was alive. Arranged chronologically, from work published during his student days in the 1960s to the longer narratives he produced during the 1980s, the poems touch on the themes which were closest to Sebald – nature and history; forgetting and remembering; borders, journeys and landscapes – and express in short, lyrical form the same distinctive insight and sensitivity that shaped his great works of prose fiction.

Back in February I wrote briefly about a new work of musical theater based upon W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  The production of Austerlitz: Eine Kindheitsreise by Jérôme Combier and Pierre Nouvel is now moving on to Opera Lille for performances on November 18 and 19.

Finally, there will be Max: A Celebration – Remembering W. G. Max Sebald: Readings, Music and Film, something of a mega-event that will be held at Wilton’s Music Hall in London (near Aldgate and Tower Hill) on December 14, 2011, the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death.  From the website:

In this unique event, many of Britain’s leading writers and artists celebrate Sebald’s life and writing in an evening of readings, music and film. Drawing from his remarkable oeuvre and their own reflections, on the 10th anniversary of his untimely death, they will honour a man whose profound and searching work has exerted an almost uncanny influence on our times. Writers taking part include the multi-award winning essayists, novelists and poets A.S. Byatt, Dan Gretton, Rachel Lichtenstein, Andrew Motion, Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Stephen Watts. One of the world’s greatest tenors, Ian Bostridge, will sing from Schubert’s iconic song cycle Winterreise. Award-winning filmmaker Grant Gee (Joy Division) will present an exclusive ‘landscape edit’ of his forthcoming feature essay film Patience (After Sebald), a multi-layered meditation on landscape, art, history, life and loss, and the first film internationally about Sebald. It is released in the UK in January 2012 by Soda Pictures with thanks to Artevents. Finally, it is a privilege to announce that Sebald’s UK publisher Christopher MacLehose and his editor Bill Swainson will attend and share their recollections.

British Director Katie Mitchell To Take on Sebald’s Rings of Saturn

Katie Mitchell. (Photo credit: Luciano Rossetti © Phocus Agency)

A good friend of Vertigo sent me links for a forthcoming theatrical work based upon W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.  Buried in the 2012 calendar of the Cologne Schauspiel is the announcement of a new work based upon W. G. Sebalds Die Ringe des Saturn, under the direction of Katie Mitchell.  The premiere performance will take place May 11, 2012 in Cologne’s Halle Kirk.  Here are the details as given on the 2011/12 season program from their website.


Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit, zu Fuß. Mehrere Tage wandert er von Ort zu Ort durch die Grafschaft Suffolk, eine spärlich besiedelte, menschenferne Gegend an der englischen Ostküste, die sich südlich der Stadt Norwich erstreckt. Auf seinem Weg, seiner Pilgerreise findet er, zwischen Heidelandschaften und abgelegenen Küstenorten, „am äußersten Rand der Erde“ die ganze Welt wieder. Mit einer unsichtbaren Wünschelrute geht er durch die leere Landschaft, wo sie ausschlägt, beginnt er zu graben. Er tut einen Fund, stellt seine Fragen. Überall stößt er auf die Spuren vergangener Herrlichkeit und vergessener Schande, kreuz und quer durch Jahrhunderte und Kontinente, durch Raum und Zeit. Fundstücke und vergessene Spuren erinnern an die Aufstände der Taiping im China des 19. Jahrhunderts, an die Sklavenwirtschaft im belgischen Kongo, an die Verheerungen des Ersten Weltkriegs und an die Bombengeschwader des Zweiten.

Der Erzähler wird zum Grenzgänger zwischen Gegenwart und Vergangenheit, Menschheits- und Naturgeschichte, Traum und Wirklichkeit. Eine Reflexion über die Vergeblichkeit, dem Schrecken des Menschseins zu entgehen. Er berichtet von Seeschlachten und Heringsschwärmen, von Magnaten und Geheimwaffen, von Aufstieg und Niedergang großer Reiche. Den geringfügigen Rest am Wegrand bringt er mit halluzinatorisch gesteigerter Wahrnehmungsfähigkeit zum Sprechen. Jeder Stein kündet von märchenhaften und unheimlichen Geschichten, un- und überwirklich zugleich.  Wo er gräbt, stößt er auf Gräber. Tod und Verfall entdeckt er, eine dem Verschwinden geweihte Welt. Andere, die vor ihm in dieser entlegenen Gegend gelebt haben, begleiten ihn wie eine Geisterschar: Thomas Browne, Chateaubriand, Swinburne und Joseph Conrad. Die englische Regisseurin Katie Mitchell, die zuletzt am Schauspiel Köln »Wunschkonzert« von Franz Xaver Kroetz und »Die Wellen« von Virginia Woolf inszeniert hat, entwickelt ihre Theatersprache in Auseinandersetzung mit Sebalds Wallfahrt weiter, diesem Buch ohne Vorbild, das zwischen Bericht und Fiktion, Autobiografie und Geschichtsschreibung eine neue, eigene Form sucht und findet.


Mitchell, whose opera and theater productions often seem to attract some controversy in Great Britain, has turned to literature before, including Chekhov, Ernst Toller, Virginia Woolf, and Dostoevsky.  Last month, she won the Europe Theater Prize.

Meanwhile, on the website of London-based composer and musician Simon Allen, is the statement that “Forthcoming is a return to Cologne Schauspiel in 2012 to develop a performance based on The Rings Of Saturn.”  Presumably, these two websites are referring to the same production, as Mitchell and Allen have worked before.  In 2009, Allen participated on prepared piano in the production of her play Pains of Youth, described here by The Guardian:

How do you make a play sound like 1920s Vienna? By taking some high-tech digital sound effects, combining them with chamber music and doing some extremely odd things to a grand piano. Composer Paul Clark, sound designer Gareth Fry and pianist Simon Allen take us deep into the soundworld of Katie Mitchell’s evocative new production at the National Theatre.

Simon Allen’s website (no longer available) once suggestedwhy he might be a good match for Sebald’s book.

Together with composition for traditional instruments the core of his activity is a search for new acoustic sounds that overlap with the digital world. Using unconventional techniques and sonic resources, these materials are developed by way of both scientific approach and very informal experimentation.

This research combined with extensive work as a percussionist in new music and the experienced study of musical cultures around the world, results in the broadest sonic palette. As a desegregated approach to material, method and function, his work shares much with visual arts practices.

Recent projects have involved the modification of deconstructed pianos with found objects to create materials that deny any trace of traditional piano sound. These elements range from the purely musical to a kind of ‘noise’ aesthetic.

There are a number of short pieces by Allen available for listening over at Soundcloud.  Listen especially to the four works for theater, where bird calls and clock-like sounds become part of the instrumentation.

Austerlitz – For 6 Musicians and Actor

Over at Entartete Musik, Gavin Plumly is reporting on a new work of musical theater based upon W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.  The work, by Jérôme Combier and Pierre Nouvel, will be performed by the Brussels-based musicians Ensemble Ictus and a single actor, the Belgian Johan Leysen, and will premiere at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence on July 19 and 20, 2011.  Subtitled Eine KindheitsreiseUn voyage d’enfance, it will also include projections of some sort.  For a few days last August, Combier and Nouvel also kept a blog as they traveled and researched for the opera.  Scroll down the blog a bit and on the left side there is an audio clip of a solo violin piece composed by Combier called Noir-Gris.

Let England Shake – Prepping for Snape Maltings

CD Cover for PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake

The Guardian has posted the previously announced video piece of their writer Stuart Jeffries in conversation with filmmaker Grant Gee.  At 4:33 it’s a mere snippet and doesn’t provide much foreshadowing of Grant Gee’s new film Patience (After Sebald), which premieres in two days.

There’s better reading in The Guardian‘s interview with Patti Smith, who will play a concert this coming Saturday night

where she will improvise work based on WG Sebald’s poem After Nature. She has spent the morning reading him, and “listening to Polly Harvey’s new song – she has this new song, The Words That Maketh Murder – what a great song. It just makes me happy to exist. Whenever anyone does something of worth, including myself, it just makes me happy to be alive. So I listened to that song all morning, totally happy.”

Patti Smith. Photograph: Richard Pak for the Guardian

Sebald, Snape Maltings, and Smith (as in Patti)

Located in the beautifully-named town of Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Music is planning a weekend of film, music, conversation, and walks devoted to W.G. Sebald from January 28-30, 2011 called After Sebald – Place and Re-Enchantment: A Weekend Exploration.  Aldeburgh Music is a permanent performance center that has emerged out of the Aldeburgh Festival established in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier.  (In his recent book The Rest Is Silence, music critic Alex Ross made a brief but strong connection between Sebald and Britten.)  Below are some of the details of the weekend, which I’ve extracted from the organization’s website.

Friday 28 January
Patience (After Sebald) – World Premiere
Written and directed by the award-winning filmmaker Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald) is a multi-layered essay film on landscape, art, history, life and loss.  It offers a unique exploration of the life, work and influence of W.G. Sebald (1944–2001) via a long walk through coastal East Anglia tracking The Rings of Saturn. Visually and aurally innovative, Patience features contributions from Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane, Katie Mitchell, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion, Chris Petit, Iain Sinclair and Marina Warner.  After the screening, Grant Gee will be in conversation with prize-winning writer on place, Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places).

Saturday 29 January
Towards Re-Enchantment – Symposium
A day-long enquiry into the landscapes of Suffolk, the spirit of place and its various meanings, taking Sebald as its foundation. Presentations, discussions
and readings with Robert Macfarlane and other leading writers.

Saturday 29 January
Max: A Tribute by Patti Smith
Internationally renowned for her visionary creativity and commitment, the iconic musician, poet, writer and cultural activist Patti Smith needs no
introduction. In an exclusive concert created for this weekend, she will respond to Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature in an intimate evening of song and spoken word performance.

Sunday 30 January
Orford Ness Walk

This singular landscape has inspired many artists, including Sebald, whose visit, recorded in The Rings of Saturn, captures perfectly its unsettling presence and buried past. Take advantage of a very rare opportunity to explore this haunting location in the heart of winter.

Tickets. Weekend tickets (best tickets, excluding Walk and Lunch) are available at £55. Only Weekend tickets will be available from Wednesday 1 September; booking for individual events opens Monday 18 October.

More on Grant Gee’s film:

Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) is part of a new series of commissions from a group called artevents as part of their project The Re-Enchantment:

The Re-Enchantment is the first national project exploring culture and the rural through original artistic commissions. This ambitious project seeks to interrogate the various meanings of ‘place’ in the twenty first century.  At a time when globalisation, the implications of extreme environmental change and the multiple alienations of modern society all threaten our sense of belonging, the importance of ‘place’ to the enhancement of identity and creative possibility in life and art cannot be underestimated. The Re-Enchantment aims to deliver an imaginative response through art, live performance, film and writing to one of the most pressing issues facing the contemporary world.

Note: On Saturday September 11, Gee will talk about his film with writer and critic Chris Darke and apparently will show clips at The British Library, as part of a one-day program Landscaping: Artists, Maps and Britain.

Michael Hersch’s “Last Autumn” and Sebald

A world premiere composition by Michael Hersch entitled Last Autumn, a work for horn and cello, is “built around poetic fragments of the late W.G. Sebald”, according to a publicist for the event, which was held October 17, 2009 in Philadelphia.  Check out Hersch’s website for more information about the composer, including several video clips of the composer at the piano performing some of his pieces.

Another Musical Interlude


Last week I posted a little piece about the British duo grasscut, which is releasing a CD that opens with a song that quotes W.G. Sebald.   This week yet another British CD was announced that bears a relationship to Sebald.  According to, Sleeping States’ CD In the Gardens of the North is “a literary inspired album.”  The opening track Rings of Saturn is described as a eulogy for WG Sebald, while second track The Next Village is inspired by Kafka.  Sleeping States is the stage name for singer-songwriter Markland Starkie.  The CD comes out August 17.  The Guardian‘s take on the project can be found here.

A Musical Interlude


The work of W.G. Sebald seems to find its way into the work of a wide variety of artists.  The latest connection I have run across is a smart British musical duo – Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair – who call themselves grasscut.  They have been described as “a kind of Gilbert and George of electronic music,” which, as a huge fan of Gilbert and George, was a great recommendation to me.   grasscut‘s debut CD High Down (Ninja Tune ZENDNLS243) begins with a lyric that quotes Sebald:  “These forms exist. They simply have fallen into disrepair.”  Here is a description of the CD from the musical website

a transcendental journey from the Sussex South Downs of High Down to the Nintendo cathedral of Muppet. On its way it encounters both string quartets and casio keyboards, as well as a cast of voices including a 1920s tenor (The Tin Man), a Victorian singing poet (In Her Pride), gossiping mums and the Massed Voices of St Helier Choir (Muppet), a woman reminiscing about post-war rationing (1946), and two American property developers (Old Machines). The contemporary song cycle also features original vocals on several tracks.