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Davidson's Heredity


Lachrymae: Five Laments for Voice and Violin.

Ottaway, Helen. Artmusic, 2000. £10.00, compact disc. Available through the publisher at:

“The problem with postmodern theory is that it does not deal with pain.”

So said Anja Kloc in the fall of 1999, and I find myself in a similar situation now: trying to apply an arsenal of critical theory to Helen Ottaway’s Lachrymae: Five Laments for Voice and Violin. Latin for “tears,” Lachrymae is instantly evocative, producing a sonic environment of sadness and loss, longing and remorse.

Formally, the four short pieces on Lachrymae can be described as a collection of powerful, haunting vocal arrangements (reminiscent of Meredith Monk) accompanied by a mournful violin. The fact that the lyrics Ottaway has written are often in Latin, and often chanted in the style of Gregorian Monks, moves the music out of the quotidian and into a realm that might rightly be called religious. But if this is religious music, it is a highly personal religion, one not directed by writings or elders. It is as if Ottaway took a form of Western worship and left behind the content, creating a mythic atmosphere that the listener is free to contemplate and interpret for him- or herself.

The liner notes for Lachrymae explain that the CD represents “five walks around ‘Lachrymae,’ an installation activated by movement.” With this explanation, the CD can be considered in the same vein as many of Laurie Anderson’s commercially released recordings -- as a fragment of a larger work, a soundscape divorced from the physical, visual, or kinetic effects that it was designed to accompany. It is perhaps unwise to evaluate such recordings without considering them in conjunction with their complementary installations or performances. However, even without a clear idea of the original artwork, the music on Lachrymae seems entirely appropriate for an installation. Art installations generally differ from theatrical productions by virtue of the fact that there are no precise beginnings or endings; the viewer may engage with the piece as she or he chooses, entering and exiting from various points and meandering to contemplate what he or she finds interesting. Thus the phenomenal nature of an art installation varies from person to person: no dramaturgical arc or musical progression is meant to be communicated to an entire audience.

Ottaway’s music is ideally suited for an art installation because, like the work of Philip Glass, it is highly repetitious without a linear progression. Thus a person may start listening to the songs at almost any point without feeling she or he has missed something important. Furthermore, Ottaway’s use of language does not provide the listener with any real clarity regarding the artistic intent. Even the English words are chanted in such a manner that they are difficult to decipher. Definitive meaning is thereby discarded in favor of affective meaning. That is, Ottaway’s Lachrymae provides a musical structure of feeling, a structure that can be likened to Roland Barthes’ punctum insofar as it pierces through intellectual and semiotic analysis and strikes the listener on a vital/emotional level.

In the end, Anja Kloc might be right when she says that postmodern theory does not deal with pain. Lachrymae, however, does precisely this. In the mode of liturgical chanting, Ottaway provides the musical accompaniment for what Barbara Meyerhoff might call a postmodern ritual. Ottaway creates an atmosphere of sadness, which ironically serves as a source of comfort and as analgesic.

Tom Lynch