|For somebody who's so biased towards classic music as I (nowadays) am, world music should be a forbidden area. And believe me, I wouldn't trespass into something that is so far from my minuscule competence unless there was this:
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'gung g'gung!
Giigara-Lina Wiiy Rosina.
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'gung g'gung!
Rittara-Gritta, d'Zittara witta.
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'ung g'gung.
Giigaralina, siig'R a Fina.
G'ganggali ging g'gang, g'ung g'gung!
Fung z'Jung, chung d'Stung.1
Many years ago on my way back home to Finlandia, I decided to check on the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern/Switzerland. It's a great museum in that even if the temporary exhibition turns out a failure, they have a meaty collection of Paul Klee there (as well as Kandinsky and Picasso). One of the best I know of in fact.
|So in I went. And came out ... well, a changed man. I had seen some of these paintings before in the Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne. I had been browsing what Jean Dubuffet and Michel Thevoz had written on their maker. But I wasn't prepared for this shock. I was haunted.
I saw about a hundred -- perhaps more -- paintings or drawings if you like, filled with circles, ovals, stars, notation lines, zigzag lines, spirals, squares (mostly not), small figurative spots etc. structured by means of horizontal, vertical and diagonal ornamental strips, animal forms, letter forms, geometric forms, mandala forms, the whole often framed with running decorative bands, sometimes symmetrically composed, but more often the compositional structure simply making way for the stupefying ornamental fireworks; largish, mostly pencilled on a brownish paper, some colored charmingly, some collages.
It was great, extraordinary in fact, but I didn't know right off the bat what to think about it. I felt a helplessness that soon turned to irritation when my intellect worked out to say something but the mind was fed up with concepts and dull adjectives.
Adolf Wölfli was a painter (1864-1930), a manic one at that with 1400 separate drawings, each of which would require a month's intensive work by an average person - plus 1500 collages. But he was also a writer and poet, with 20,000 hand-written and drawn pages in a series of vast hand-bound books; a mathematician creating his own algebra; and an explorer who made frequent trips to remote regions, which he describes in his Scientific Voyages, Hunting Expeditions, Casualties, Adventures, and other experiences of one gone astray on the whole earth globe; Or, a servant of God, without a head, is poorer than the poorest wretch, one of the many startling travel books he wrote.
Wölfli was also a composer and musician. In one sense, music had a more significant role in his life and cosmology than images or words. He wrote songs, polkas, mazurkas, waltzes and marches in the style of folk music. He performed his music by blowing into paper horns whose sound contemporaries compared to country brass-band music.
|Wölfli lacked any kind of musical training. That didn't prevent him from writing a body of extraordinary musical scores. Notations with common and mysterious signs appear in his numerous drawings and texts. The canonical view has been that Wölfli's musical notes mainly serve symbolic and decorative purposes but are musically illegible - "tending toward, but not quite attaining, full musical sense" as one commentator puts it. More recent studies show, however, that at least some of Wölfli's scores make musical sense. Streiff and Keller, for example, claim that his choice of musical pitches hardly was a matter of sheer coincidence.2
|There have been very few efforts to interpret Wölfi's music. A very rare LP Gelesen und vertont exists in which this has been attempted. I'm a happy owner of one. It tells much about the project's difficulty in that only a few purely instrumental pieces have been included in the LP, the rest being more like song poems. This doesn't matter, however, as in Wölfli's poetry words were chosen not primarily for their meaning but rather their rhythmic and sonorous effects. Words are split into syllables and letters and then combined into often senseless neologisms. Rhythm and repetition are essential to Wölfli's music - as well as art in general.
|In addition to the LP, there presumably are only two CDs containing Wölfli's music. In one of them, several experimental artists, fascinated by Wölfli, pay tribute to the composer. The other is by Graeme Revell who, based on the study by Streiff and Keller, creates his own interpretation of Wölfi's music ["Necropolis, Amphibians & Reptiles - The Music of Adolf Wölfli"].
Just like Wölfli's drawings and paintings have inspired many famous painters (e.g. Andre Breton), and his texts famous poets (e.g. Rilke), the musical undercurrent of Wölfli's art has stimulated many contemporary composers (e.g. Wolfgang Rihm, Per Nørgård and Terry Riley). One of the presentations in a recent Nordic Musicological Congress held in Helsinki was devoted to music brut and works based on Adolf Wölfli texts. Furthermore, some commentators have paid attention -- without claiming a causal connection -- to the fact that many of Wölfli's musical experimentations were explored in later 20th century music: folk music (Bartok), aleatoric music (Cage), birdsong (Messiae), graphic scores (Stockhausen) and architectonic ideas (Xenakis).
|Yes, Wölfli was a schizophrenic. He suffered from hallucinations (voices) and frequently behaved violently. Most of his adult life was spent in Waldau, an asylum near Bern. It was there where his artistic career developed slowly.
There are many aspects of his art that have to be seen against his illness: his fear of empty space or dead time expressing itself in his hyperbolic use of numbers, music (melomania), words (logorrhoea) and images (iconophilia) and tending toward extension to infinity; the interplay of harmony (cosmos) and chaos (catastrophic destruction of the cosmos) etc. These are all means of reducing the anguish and holding one's identity together. It is therefore important to not to forget that Wölfli's music and art, just like his everyday life, are "ruled by the particularities of his paranoid thought" and "split" soul.
Despite all this, it would be a misjudgment to refuse seeing the artistic value of Wölfli's creations. His drawings, for instance, have obvious aesthetic qualities which are easy to appreciate irrespective of the knowledge of his metal condition. Beyond this -- and without falling into the trap of romanticization and idealization -- one can also take Wölfli's work as confronting the essential questions of art and philosophy. What Wölfli is saying with his example goes deeper than the skin of his often complex and puzzling paintings, writings or compositions.
First, he teaches us genuine enthusiasm. I'm not talking about the obsessive behavior one frequently comes across in our audio hobby. I'm talking about the great seriousness and wholeheartedness with which he went about every project of his, the quotidian and spiritual being always united. In the Ancient Greek, "enthusiasm" meant "inspired by God". Perhaps that would do justice to Wölfli's unrelenting creative drive. What he accomplished has a certain true greatness in it, not that of the great men of the history books but of the potential for creative greatness in all of us.
Secondly, he urges us -- again indirectly -- to dump many of those silly and small-minded distinctions with which we chain our life. No fear of being a dilettante, for example: "From now on the geographically described regions will be praised musically", he once wrote and so went for making music. No fear for showing child-like artistic impulses and so on.
|Raw art -- Art Brut or Outsider Art, one of the greatest representatives of which Adolf Wölfli is now acknowledged to be -- is sometimes defined as art which owes nothing to tradition or fashion. A point is thus made on its divergence from the institutions of fine or beaux arts; no pleasing of galleries, museums, generally accepted tastes or any prior notions of what art is.
But there seems to be more at stake here than the mere freedom from the culturally indoctrinated ways of doing art. It concerns itself over freedom from everything that is seeded in us ever since we were born, through socialization, cultivation and the massive whip of civilization. It is this freedom that seems to be intimately linked to the very process of creation itself and at the root of appreciating art in the first place. If Adolf Wölfli is to believed, to be free from all the inhibitions and social conditioning, one needs to turn one's eyes inward and listen to the deep music of one's soul. It is tempting to think that it is this fundamental music of our inner world that ultimately makes us appreciate the music of other people and cultures.
Allen S. Weiss writing on Wölfli's magnum opus, The Funeral March, says: "We can never know the full meaning of The Funeral March, for it was sung by Wölfli alone, for Wölfli alone, a sort of autistic music. And yet, is it not precisely in such works that autism becomes communicative and that we reach the inner recesses of another's soul? Is it not only in such extreme cases that we can even begin to imagine the depths of another's soul, as well as of our own? How, indeed, do we sing? For whom? And against what?"
1 Allen S. Weiss, Shattered Forms, Art Brut, Phantasm, Modernism, State University Of New York Press, 1992. This story has benefited from the insights given especially in the chapter "Music and Madness".
2 Peter Streiff and Kjell Keller, Adolf Wölfli, Composer, in Adolf Wölfli (Adolf Wölfli Foundation, 1976)