JOYCE & BACH (homage to Peter Kubelka). Interview with Leopoldo Siano, by Mariam Hakobyan

Reading Time: 17 minutes



JOYCE & BACH (homage to Peter Kubelka).

a lecture-performance between experimental cinema, literature,
music and cooking as an art form

[For the series of multisensory events “theatrum phonosophicum” at the “Ground Floor” of the State Philharmonia of Armenia, Yerevan, March 12, 2023]

Interview with Leopoldo Siano, by Mariam Hakobyan






Mariam Hakobyan – What prompted you to combine James Joyce and Johann Sebastian Bach in this new event in the multisensory series theatrum phonosophicum?

Leopoldo Siano – The answer is already in the title of the event: Peter Kubelka, in fact. He once, during a public conversation in Düsseldorf, said that Joyce and Bach are his "saintly" protectors. But he said it like this en passent, without giving further explanations... So this event of ours - between cinema and experimental literature, music and cooking as an art form - was a personal attempt to solve the enigma of this unexpected combination. Following the free associations of our own imaginative paths we have crossed the work of Joyce and Bach intertwining it with some major ones leitmotif Kubelkians.

But what is the solution to the enigma, what do Joyce and Bach have in common? After all, they are two very different artists...

Well, we tried several answers. The first: a listen.

Listening to running water…

Yes, water as a primordial element. Think of Thales and the many myths of the creation of the world, from the Bible to Upanishad…Johannes de Murris, the medieval theorist, stated: Musica est scientia aquatica. Music and water are intimately connected. And furthermore, embryology (amniotic fluid...) and cosmogony intersect with water. Bach in German means “stream”; his music undoubtedly has an aquatic character. (But Beethoven once said: “Nicht Bach, sondern Meer sollte er heißen“, not Bach, that is, “stream”, it should be called, rather “sea” – due to its immensity). On the other hand, James Joyce has gone down in history primarily for his literary technique stream of consciousness, of the “stream of consciousness”. Even the unconscious and its associative productions are similar to water. (Remember Sigmund Freud when at the beginning of Traumdeutung quotes Virgil: “Flectere si nequeo Superos, Acheronta movebo”). Nonetheless, the Joycean flow and the Bachian flow are flows of a very different type...


Peter Kubelka Musicus

Peter Kubelka has said several times that Bach's music is a sort of "daily medicine" for him...

Many have said so. On Bach there are beautiful quotes from Goethe, Nietzsche, and many others. I especially like to think of Emile Cioran, of his jokes such as: “If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it is God”, or: “Without Bach, God would be diminished. Without Bach, God would be a third-rate character. Only with Bach does one get the impression that the universe is not a failure. […] Without Bach I would be an absolute nihilist”. And Mauricio Kagel commented on his St. Bach Passion: “An Gott zweifeln – an Bach glauben” (Doubting God – believing in Bach). Bach is a sort of God in the history of music. There is certainly a Pythagorean Bach, esoteric, celestial, evocative of the harmony of the spheres; but there is also a Bach who is dramatic, tragic, profoundly human in the noblest sense of the word...

And Joyce?

What Joyce has in common with Bach, in addition to water, is his having composed "world-works", works that represent a cosmos in their own right. I think aboutUlysses et al Finnegans Wake. Peter Kubelka, still a high school student, heard one of his teachers talk about a very voluminous book which, despite its size, "told" the story of a single day: June 16, 1904 (today known and celebrated as "Bloomsday"). The author was called James Joyce, in fact. The young Kubelka had not yet read this book, but he immediately had the intuition that it would have a crucial importance for him... Not Leopold Bloom, not Stephen Dedalus, not Molly - the true protagonist of theUlysses it is the city of Dublin. Juxtaposing, interpolating, paraphrasing, quoting, deforming, associating, his play with language was radical. But this stream of consciousness, all free associations are however channeled into a superordinate structure.
And then the book is full of bodily impressions: food is often talked about, for example in this famous passage from the fourth chapter: “Mr Leopold Bloom ate the entrails of animals and birds with great relish. He liked thick giblet soup, spicy goiter, a heart stuffed with roast, breaded and fried slices of liver, fried cod roe. Most of all he liked the grilled mutton kidneys which left a fine taste of slightly aromatic urine on his palate”.
Furthermore, the book talks about defecation, sexual intercourse, masturbation, walks, arguments in the street, as well as fleeting and subtle perceptions, liturgies and epiphanies... There is a continuous mixture of the sublime and the vile, of erudition philosophical-theological and everyday banality. Joyce's prose has been an inspiration not only to many writers, but also to experimental filmmakers. Carmelo Bene admitted that theUlysses it was the most decisive meeting (not only literary) in his formation: “TheUlysses it's a fantastic game of signifiers. The thought is never described, but immediate. From the most learned fragments to the most common melodramatic places. No work is equal to him."

But when you read Joyce you have, so to speak, an opposite impression to that of listening to Bach's music...

Yes, because the latter is "cosmos", which etymologically in ancient Greek means "beautiful order". On the other hand, reading Joyce's entropic prose sometimes we end up not understanding anything anymore, we can get lost: therefore chaos. But what is chaos? In ancient times there were different concepts of "chaos"... For example, Hesiod believes it to be a primordial space with a concave shape from which all the forms and possibilities of being can emerge. However, it is usually associated with the concept of "disorder". Order and disorder… With Joyce, especially with certain chapters ofUlysses, but even more so with Finnegans Wake, the “disorder of words” is experienced. Despite this there is always, albeit hidden, an underlying order: the structure ofUlysses famously follows that ofOdyssey of Homer. And while theUlysses it's the story of a day, the Finnegans Wake it is the story of one night, a daring funeral wake, inspired by an Irish folk ballad.
The language of Finnegans Wake its circular structure is essentially dreamlike and psychedelic: it begins with the neologism “riverrun” (water again!), and ends in the middle of a sentence (“A way a lone a last a loved a long the” ), which is conceived in such a way as to be linked to the first word of the book (“riverrun”) which also begins in the middle of a sentence: it is a circle, therefore, reading should start again from the beginning… Right in the Finnegans Wake Joyce coined the word “chaosmos” (which John Cage liked so much): chaos And cosmos together. This is well suited to Joyce's "world-works". Bach's cosmos is instead a closed and perfect cosmos, like Dante's. While in Joyce's latest books we have an expanding universe, not only post-Copernican, but rather Brunian: infinite suns and innumerable worlds, a continuous proliferation of materials...
It is interesting to remember that Joyce's favorite philosophers were two Italians, or rather – two Neapolitans: Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico. From the latter Joyce derived his historical anti-teleologism: the courses and recurrences of history... Nihil sub sole novum, says the Qoheleth. There is no progress in human history. A civilization is born, forms, reaches its peak and inevitably begins its decline, finally disappearing, whether it leaves traces or not.


Leopoldo Siano and Shushan Hyusnunts

Apparently in Joyce's mature prose what matters above all is the rhythm, the timbre, the tone, in short the music...

Exactly! Nello stream of consciousness Joyceano there are certainly some parallels with theautomatic writing of the Surrealists, and the late experiments of finnegans they open a door to visual poetry, conceptual poetry and sound poetry. It is instructive to listen to recordings of Joyce himself reading his passages: it is a sort of performances sonorous. One of the Italian translators ofUlysses, Gianni Celati, explains that when reading Joyce, it is not important to understand everything, but to hear the music of the flow. Joyce was a man interested in music and very musical. During his period in Trieste he even took singing lessons, he intended to become a tenor; he also played the guitar and piano. L'Ulysses it is then full of musical and generally acoustic references: fromIntroibus to the altar of the Gods initial to various other quotations of Gregorian chant, as well as quotations from Wagner and other operas, Irish songs and nursery rhymes (childish or obscene). And then there are the various words that imitate the noises of the surrounding environment: “Tum Tum”, “Pflaap! Pflaap! Pflaaaap”, the viceroy's carriage passing along the riverside: “Clapclap, Crilclap”; the cry of the cuckoo: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo” etc. In the'Ulysses there is especially a Mozartian aria from Don Giovanni which often occurs: “There we will shake hands, there you will say yes to me. […] I would like and I wouldn't, my heart trembles a little”… In short, it seems that Joyce couldn't think of anything that wasn't a musical phenomenon. L'Ulysses and the Finnegans Wake they are not just polyphonic books, but a sort of sound scores.

A guest of honor also attended your event: Aram Pachyan.

Yes, he is a dear friend of ours. Pachyan is the Armenian Joyce. What Dublin was for Joyce is Yerevan for Pachyan. Luckily (for me) his books have already had translations into several languages that I can read. Aram Pachyan is a real literary animal. Smell, eat literature. With him you can only breathe literature. Not just a writer, he is a formidable reader - like almost all great writers. Joyce, in particular, had a decisive influence on him. During the preparation of the evening Joyce & Bach, we often thought of Aram, as he too is a Bach admirer. His novel Goodbye, Bird opens with a Bachian epigraph: “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639). But the idea for his intervention was born almost at the last moment, by chance. We had already thought of reading in public some passages from the Armenian translation ofUlysses. However, the fact is that we were unable to find an Armenian edition of the novel in any bookstore in Yerevan. Worn out. So all we had to do was contact Aram Pachyan, who kindly lent us his personal copy of the book, from which he and Shushan Hyusnunts read some passages during the evening. Shushan confirms to me that the Armenian translation ofUlysses it is excellent.


Aram Pachyan reads theincipit of the fourth chapter ofUlysses

Peter Kubelka is not commonly known to the Armenian public, could you briefly tell us who he is?

Kubelka is a extraordinary man (in the sense of Gurdjieff), who we also had the fortune of meeting in person and interviewing. It was Hermann Nitsch who strongly advised us to discover Kubelka's work. Very often Nitsch mentioned his friend and mentor Kubelka with deep respect: “Kubelka ist ein großer Mann” (“Kubelka is a great man”), he used to say. Indeed Kubelka is a great artist and thinker. After all, it is precisely the artists who have always been the most valid and daring philosophers. And the great philosophers, in turn, were always gods Künstlernaturen, of “artist natures”. Philosophy is not only a work with concepts, but also with the pathos and sensuality. There can be no other theory than the "theory of praxis". Thinking is an existential adventure and is an integral part of physiology. Kubelka is a philosophe-artiste, to use an expression by Jean-Noël Vuarnet, that is, a personality that cannot be easily framed and categorised.


Peter Kubelka sitting at his kitchen table

On what occasion did you meet him?

It was July 2020 when we first visited Peter Kubelka in his apartment in the center of Vienna, full of objects, books and musical instruments. We spent ten unforgettable, now legendary, hours with him: the first five talking (among other things, these conversations yielded a podcasts1, the other five at her kitchen table, eating and drinking with divine simplicity… Kubelka literally lives in the his collection, which is his life's work – and living in it brings it to life. It's a miracle assemblage of objects coming from the most disparate eras and cultures. The arrangement of these objects (ranging from prehistoric to kitsch tourist) does not follow any museum principle. Kubelka speaks rather of "cultural waste" ("kultureller Schutt"), anthropological debris and rubble, sometimes fossils, with which it is possible to establish a creative relationship by opening unexpected cognitive paths. Kubelka pursues the chimera of a general theory of the birth of art. His apartment is his existential-artistic space, a projection of his spirit, a cosmos, a Gesamtkunstwerk. In this space, together with Kubelka, there is no longer any difference between art, science and everyday life. His collection in itself is a “theatre”. Kubelka knows the history and background of each object. Objects and substances are always the starting point of his reflections. Kubelka can lead you on intellectual adventures of even the highest abstraction, without ever losing contact with tactile, sensual concreteness. All connections between objects arise associatively directly in his brain and heart. Kubelka is an extremely alert and lucid spirit, with an infinite thirst for knowledge.


Shushan Hyusnunts and Leopoldo Siano in conversation with Peter Kubelka
(Vienna, 3 July 2020) – [© Wolfgang Alexander Tiller]

Shelf from Peter Kubelka's collection in his Viennese apartment
[© Wolfgang Alexander Tiller]
Some biographical notes perhaps…

Kubelka was born in 1934, and started with cinema at a very young age, studying in the 1950s in Rome, at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He confesses that he has learned to think through his work with sound film. Then, almost involuntarily, he became an investigator of conscience tout court. His theoretical considerations are always of an anthropological or even cosmogonic nature. They soberly push us to question ourselves aboutorigin: on the origin of art, on the origin of man, on the beginning of the Great All.
After his successes as an experimental filmmaker, especially in the United States of America - where he became, among other things, a close friend of Jonas Mekas -, Kubelka realized that his culture was a bit lacking. So he decided to begin a systematic "de-specialization" program, that is: a re-education of himself, following the desires of his heart. He didn't want to just be "someone who makes movies." He felt the need to free himself from those definitions that are then written on the tomb: "filmmaker" or "theorist" etc. Rather, he wanted to try to become as universal as possible: a homo universalis. He began to be interested in many other things. He was already over thirty, but he began to seriously study the recorder and ancient music; years later he even founded his own ensemble, the group Spatium Musicum, ranging from the pre-classical repertoire to Austrian popular music, with some forays into modernity too (with a predilection for the "twelve-tone games" of theoutsider Viennese Josef Matthias Hauer). He also dealt with architecture, ethnomusicology, archaeology, ancient languages - and last but not least he started cooking, considering this last activity as a true art form, indeed: as the mother of all arts and all sciences.
Almost by chance Kubelka became an artist-lecturer, holding everywhere passionate and overwhelming lecture-performances, in which his arguments and his flights of fancy always take inspiration from concrete objects or edible substances. When in 1978 he was appointed professor at the Städelschule of Frankfurt am Main, Kubelka insisted on renaming the chair he was to occupy: he taught experimental cinema and cooking at the same time.
Her lectures I am a “Theater der Tatsachen”, a “theater of evidence”. They represent one mise-en-scène of knowledge. The starting point of his reflections are always substances, objects (usually prehistoric or "ethnic"), which he handles under the eyes of the public. The basis of his thinking, which can delve, as mentioned, even into rather abstract areas, is however haptic perception, touch and the other senses. In reality, only in this way is philosophizing legitimate and authentic. Studying or teaching philosophy is not the same as living philosophically. Kubelka does just that: lives philosophically. He is a man of great erudition, but in him knowledge does not come only from books or academic training, but rather from an inner impulse, from life experience, especially from sensory experiences. Experienced knowledge. Kubelka is a man who has traveled, heard, seen and experienced much. He is the father of six children, fluent in many languages. His culture, full of life and sensual concreteness, is incomparable to that of many so-called specialists, often university ones, with blinders and a lot of arrogance.


Peter Kubelka during one of his lecture

The scene of Joyce & Bach it was quite unusual for one lecture: in addition to a large screen on the side and two speakers, in the center there was a frugally laid table: with bread, wine, milk, fruit, vegetables, butter, oil, bowls, ladles, musical instruments...

Yes, the scene was undoubtedly a direct homage to Kubelka. From him we learned that starting from concrete substances, from objects that can be felt, held in the hand, gives another quality to thought - and is a precious aid for the storytelling.
Kubelka is a great example for us, a powerful inspiration for theatrum phonosophicum. When you are with him you no longer feel the dividing line between one lecture and a conversation at the kitchen table. Kubelka is always the same, genuine, authentic. With his artistic and intellectual intransigence he risked a lot as a young man: he put himself on the line, he put his life on the table. Kubelka demonstrates his art and knowledge by testifying to them with his life itself. With Kubelka it is always a celebration of knowledge.
While talking with him, we became aware that in Italian the word “sapere” and the word “sapore” are etymologically connected. A know to be such it must precisely "know" about something, have taste. Pleasure without knowledge can be crude, leading to fatuity and worldly triviality; but knowledge without pleasure is, not infrequently, very boring.


Leopold Siano he breaks an egg recalling the gesture of the demiurge who separates heaven and earth in the act of creating the world

Kubelka is an anthropologist of eating and drinking. Talking about foods he addresses profound philosophical questions and tells you the history of humanity and civilizations. Where do foods come from?, how are they produced? Today we increasingly lose awareness of cosmic cycles, of the agricultural calendar. Only contact with the land and animals, with farmers and artisans, allows us to fully appreciate the miracle of food. And then there is a profound symbolism connected to food.
A certain type of intellectual tends to underestimate the value of eating and drinking. (With contempt, Bertolt Brecht, very Teutonically, defined bourgeois art as “culinary” or “gastronomic”). The act of eating, however obvious it may seem to us, is an abysmal daily act: we do to disappear of existing things, foods, introducing them into that black hole which is the cavity we call the mouth: we chew them, we tear them apart, ergo we destroy, and then we swallow, we digest. The intestine, as Kubelka says, unites us with the universe. With the digestive system we transform and absorb material substances, releasing spiritual energies... The act of eating is an act par excellence of transformation of reality that allows us to stay alive. Again to quote Gurdjieff: life is nothing but eating and being eaten. You are involved in an incessant cosmic sacrificial rite. This lecture-performance it was also a nod to the Heraclitean lesson: panta rhei, everything flows, everything is in constant transformation. And to cook food, fire plays a central role, fire which for Heraclitus is the first and original element. The discovery of the domestication of fire, and millennia later that of electricity, constituted the two most revolutionary discoveries in the history of the species Homo.

Why is food so important in Kubelka's work?

It is with the mouth that we begin to "read" the world: the beginning of knowledge through the language. With the tongue we taste foods, and with the tongue we speak. Perception of flavor, source of pleasure, but also articulation of logos. Eating and cooking are a sensual experience that involves all five senses, and which fosters discovery and invention.


Leopoldo Siano assisted by Mariam Hakobyan during the lecture-performance

But in what sense is cooking art for Kubelka?

Cooking, as mentioned, is an art of transformation, in a certain way an "alchemical" art, if you will. And then Kubelka explains how cooking involves the creation of metaphors. The Greek verb metaphérein literally means “to transport”. This is what the poet does when he combines words from unrelated fields to create new images and sensations. This is what the cook or the person who prepares food does. Kubelka means cooking in a broad sense: even looking for ingredients and preparing simple meals, for example bread and butter, means cooking for him. In German the verb “dichten”, to write poetry, comes from the adjective “dicht”, which means “dense”. So “dichten” is a “verdichten”, “densifying” something. The poet creates density, intensity, loads every word with its maximum flavor. It is said that the Roman emperor Vitellius, apparently very debauched and greedy, once mobilized his entire fleet, sending ships to different corners of the Empire to collect delicious ingredients and quickly bring them still fresh to Rome: fish livers rare, peacock brains, flamingo tongues etc. This undertaking cost him as much as a war. But this soup, this metaphorical creation pushed to excess, could only be eaten by him, the emperor of Rome. Kubelka never tires of repeating that eating and cooking always have to do with the concept of power.


Leopoldo Siano comparing an apple (“pomme”, “Apfel”) with a potato (“pomme de terre”, “Erdapfel”)

How do you think Bach's music influenced Kubelka's cinema?

In any way, I don't see any immediate parallels… Perhaps unconsciously the polyphonic complexity and structural conciseness. However, it is worth saying a few words about Kubelka's work in the field of the so-called "experimental film", which goes beyond the mainstream of commercial cinema. Kubelka rightly argues that talking about “experimental cinema” is – ultimately – a kind of ridiculous contradictio in adiecto or a pleonasm. Better, says Kubelka, to talk about filmic art tout court and its intrinsic, structural and expressive potential.
In its most radical forms, “experimental film” is not something that can be told to someone who has not seen it; since his models are no longer nineteenth-century melodramas or novels, but rather a prose like that of the mature Joyce: not linear stories, but rather the proliferation of images and events, between abstraction, realism and surrealism. If the attachment to common sense is obliterated, the proliferating images can slowly transform the state of consciousness of the observer-listener... Kubelka's position is very intransigent, almost "ascetic": yet he seeks ecstasy - filmic ecstasy ; Kubelka is radically searching for the "most filmic" film there is - his main interest is in the very materiality of the tape (literally: movie; with digital – which he repudiates – then, of course, everything changes). For Kubelka the basic elements of cinema are light and darkness… Kubelka denies movement, therefore in a certain sense the very word “cinema”. Almost taking up the paradoxes of Zeno the Eleatic, Kubelka says: “cinema is not movement”. In fact, the movement of images is tacitly a perceptual illusion; a film is the rapid succession of individual frames which in themselves are static: “it's between frames where cinema speaks”, says Kubelka…
Despite its notoriety as filmmaker experimental, his cinematographic production is not vast. Kubelka used to work meticulously with his materials (images and sounds), taking a lot of time, primarily to memorize them perfectly, and then create hermetic-associative structures of extreme concentration with them. The most famous work is perhaps Unsere Afrikareise (1965); but it is also worth mentioning other films such as Mosaik im Vertrauen, Adebar, Schwechater, Arnulf Rainer… and last but not least the most recent Antiphon (from 2012). His films should not simply be seen: they must be watched and watched again. They require study on the part of the spectator-listener; a job similar to what the reader of a poem by Mallarmé or of Joyce's latest books does, to dissect and explore its density. It is not a purely intellectual work, but a perceptive-sensual one.


Shushan Hyusnunts, Mariam Hakobyan and Leopoldo Siano (Preparing bread and butter for the audience while listening to theSlowly of the sixth Brandenburg Concert by Bach, with an explicit reference to a touching youthful experience of Josephe Beuys)

What was your specific message to communicate to the public? Does it differ from that of Kubelka's work?

Such a one lecture-performance he is not so much concerned with the message as with the form which is substance. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you have "your own" thoughts to communicate. Philosophizing is here understood as a poetic activity, as a flow, as a faculty of doing gush thought… Opening unexpected horizons, creating experiential spaces, giving intensity, joy. Both Joyce and Bach are two "unique" artists who - like Kubelka (and indeed all true creators) - despite everything, despite the pain, death, ugliness and dust of the world, know how to say yes to life. Let us remember the last words ofUlysses: “yes I will Yes”.


Leopoldo Siano with tree frog and egg


More photos of the event on the facebook page State Philharmonia of Armenia:




1. The podcasts “Peter Kubelka Musicus”, in two parts, can be heard in the sound archive online of the theatrum phonosophicum:




Mariam Hakobyan, born July 14, 2003, art lover and experimenter. He is currently studying engineering atAmerican University of Armenia, at the same time experimenting in the field of cinematography. Since December 2022 he has been assistant of the "theatrum phonosophicum".


Leopold Siano, 12 August 1982, is a philosopher of music and shareholder of sound. At a very young age he moved to Germany. From 2012 to 2022 he taught at the University of Cologne (in the same Musicological Institute where Marius Schneider, his great inspirer, taught between the 1950s and 1970s); here he is also co-organizer of the acousmatic concert series Raum Music. He is the author and editor of several books (on Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hermann Nitsch, François Bayle etc.). His latest volume was published in January 2021 by the Würzburg publisher Königshausen & Neumann: Cosmogonic Music: von der Barockzeit bis heute (Cosmogonic music: from the Baroque era to the present). Together with Shushan Hyusnunts he is the creator of the theatrum phonosophicum and the series of the same name which began in the fall of 2022 on the “Ground Floor” of the State Philharmonia of Armenia in Yerevan.

* The picture by Leopoldo Siano is by © Mane Hovhannisyan


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