Review by Matthew Lorenzon
“Exhausted is so much more than tired” begins Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Samuel Beckett (“The Exhausted,” trans. Anthony Uhlmann, 1995). Tiredness assumes there is more to be done; the exhausted has consumed, expended, or used up all possibilities. Everybody has experienced the former, whereas the latter is the stuff of mathematical definitions. Beckett combines the two. One can exhaust the possible combinations of objects in a series, just as Beckett permutes series of socks, stones, and physical movements in his plays and novels. “Beckett’s great contribution to logic,” Deleuze writes, “is to display that exhaustion (exhaustivity) does not occur without a certain physiological exhaustion.”
Bernhard Lang’s The Exhausted is a music theatre piece co-commissioned by the young Parisian ensemble soundinitiative for their debut at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Seated expectantly in the Capital Theatre, the audience was initially treated to only a momentary glimpse of the charismatic ensemble. The players wandered on stage, set up their instruments, and promptly exited. The next five minutes saw a constant flow of musicians entering and exiting the stage like waves lapping on the shore. The choreography by Benjamin Vandewalle made the most of the musicians’ natural and untutored movements. These were not actors and dancers striding purposefully on stage, but cellists and flautists repeating the gestural repertoire of the concert hall. The ensemble would stand, sit, slouch, or freeze with the simplicity proper to Beckett’s stage directions. The mezzo-soprano Fabienne Séveillac was no exception, though no other performer was called upon to sing vintage Deleuze upside-down beneath a table.
There is often a tenuous link between compositions and the philosophical texts upon which they are based. It is therefore wonderful to hear a composer developing his work so thoroughly from a single text. Objects on stage including a desk and a grey tape player are drawn directly from Deleuze’s essay. Beethoven’s Ghost Trio and Schubert’s Nacht und Träume feature in Beckett and Deleuze, though the pieces are cleverly introduced not underneath their description in the essay, but under Deleuze’s discussion of Beckett’s play Quad: “Four possible solos all given. Six possible duos all given (two twice). Four possible trios all given twice.”
Despite drawing heavily on Deleuze’s text, Lang has resisted the temptation to interpret Deleuze’s essay literally. He seeks the same nomadic movement of thought from Deleuze’s essay that Deleuze sought in reading Beckett. With all Deleuze’s talk of combinatory mathematics, it would be tempting to write a serial piece or engage in some other form of musical permutation, especially with such direct invitations as Deleuze’s phrase “Watt is the great serial novel.” While there may have been serial moments in the piece, the work seems to build upon the composer’s earlier Deleuze-inspired pieces by looping musical fragments, especially the jazz-inflected grooves of Lang’s student years. The piece, at least on one naïve hearing, plays to the tiredness inherent in repetition while referring obliquely to exhaustion’s formal properties.
Why repetition? A combinatorial sequence repeats the same elements in different ways, but Lang’s repetition is more static. A reader of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition will recognise that repetition is only possible because of the infinitesimal difference between each iteration. This difference may provide a path past exhaustion. The audience and the performers may realise that there really are tangential possibilities hiding within each musical fragment beyond its combination with others. But repetition is also fatiguing and there is always the possibility that tiredness will win out before exhausted repetition opens a window onto the new.
The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
The Capital Theatre
4 September 2015