Jocelyn Morlock on Magic Realism
In the meantime, through an oversight that José Arcadio Buendía never forgave himself for, the candy animals made in the house were still being sold in the town. Children and adults sucked with delight on the delicious little green roosters of insomnia, the exquisite pink fish of insomnia, and the tender yellow ponies of insomnia, so that dawn on Monday found the whole town awake.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Marquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude epitomizes Magic Realism, or ‘what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.’ Certainly, a town full of candy-munching insomniacs qualifies.
But when Franz Roh first invented the phrase in 1925, the meaning was quite different than it is today. Roh’s definition, applied initially to a new stream of representative visual art, suggested that any mundane object can appear fantastic and bizarre if we truly look at it. I believe this is the way children see the world, (in fact, I recall experiencing my own variety of Magic Realism the first time I saw an egg-beater) but as we gain familiarity, we gradually lose that sense of wonder.
The music of Salvatore Sciarrino might help us regain it. Among the most masterful orchestrators of the 21st century, he devotes obsessive attention to preternaturally quiet, strange, mysterious timbres. Not a note is produced in a traditional way, though acoustic instruments create every sound. His Lo spazio inverso breathes, rustles, and itches quietly and gently, ‘like the voices of sleeping birds.’ Like sleeping, mildly hallucinatory birds with translucent pterodactyls flapping through their dreams in a sort of spectral flash every now and then; there are sounds in this piece that make me want to rub my ears the same way you’d rub your eyes if you caught a glimpse of something incredible in your peripheral vision. Even though I know how the sounds are made, I can hardly believe them.
George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), written at roughly the same time as One Hundred Years of Solitude, shares with it a fascination with the odd, and a sense of being outside of time. Near the beginning of his novel, Marquez writes, “the world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” Crumb’s use of vocalization, amplification, lighting, and masking of the players gains us entry into a parallel universe.
Regarding musical representations of Magic Realism, Theft turns out to be something of a combination of the definitions. The initial inspirations for the piece were two arresting images found in One Hundred Years of Solitude: the insomnia-ridden town, and the “water-clock secrets of the moths.”
In Marquez’s novel, we never find out what the moths’ secrets are, and this mystery intrigued me. Moths continue to mystify the scientific world; despite careful observation, no one knows why moths are obsessively drawn to light. The moths are an enigmatic lot. The water clocks continue their inexorable theft of water and time, unchanged and unchangeable whilst the disturbed, possibly malevolent fluttering continues.
Insomnia, on the other hand, has a manic quality loosely based on the feeling of panic/fascination that ensues when you hear the birds start to sing loudly in the morning after you’ve been up all night. Much as I love birds, hearing them at that hour and in that mind-set they seem surreal and alternately evil/hilarious, as does much of the world if you’re sufficiently sleep-deprived, or following the recent machinations of the BC government. Weird cross-rhythms, abrupt shifts of mood, and extremes of register contribute to the general freakishness.
Common ground amongst Theft, Lo spazio inverso, and Vox Balaenae, then would be an interest in sounds and imagery both natural and nocturnal, a fascination with timbres and time (or timelessness), obsession with repeating background elements, and invasion of ‘realistic’ music by bizarre elements. And psychotic birds.
Other things you might find pleasing to know:
We owe the modern definition of Magic Realism as “…too strange…” to Carl Strecher.
James Agee described the voices of his parents, uncle, and aunt, heard from afar, talking outside on the grass, as “like the voices of sleeping birds” and I stole that description with gratitude for its aptness and whimsy.
Sciarrino describes his own music as akin to “an erupting volcano viewed from a distance.”
Water clocks are Klepsydrae, literally water-thieves. Long periods of insomnia will rob you of sleep and sanity, and eventually will kill you. You should get more sleep.