“Life Performs Itself” – The First Valediction

Scottish artist Susan Philipz is part of Soundings: A Contemporary Score currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art. Her work in the exhibition is “Study for Strings.”

“It is a contemporary interpretation of an eponymous 1943 orchestral work by Pavel Haas (Czech, 1899–1944), who composed the score while imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. The Nazis filmed a performance of the completed work at the camp as part of the 1944 propaganda film Teresiendstadt. Almost immediately after filming was completed, Haas and many members of the prisoners’ orchestra were killed. The conductor, Karel Ančerl (Czech, 1908–1973), survived the Holocaust, and after the war he reconstructed the composition.

For her 2012 reworking, Philipsz has isolated only the viola and cello parts. Recorded onto multiple channels, the piece is a note-by-note deconstruction of the original composition, replete with fraught silence.”

When I entered the room it was being played at MoMA I remembered what Yasiin Bey had done with the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He’d performed “Coming Together,” a score composed by Frederic Rzewski.

“Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’ is unquestionably one of the great Minimalist masterpieces….It’s really nothing more than a short text read over a repetitive, fast sequence, much of which is played in unison. But the overall effect it creates is of a very slow build up of tension to an incredible climax after 19 minutes.

The text comes from a letter written by Sam Melville, who was an inmate at Attica prison, and was one of the leaders of the 1971 Attica riots, where Melville was killed.”

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Ray Daniels Okeugo, 1980-2013 [His last Facebook profile picture]
Ray Daniels Okeugo, 1980-2013 (His last Facebook profile picture)

Today I was told a friend had died. When I went to the bathroom to take my bath, fearing my tears would be inseparable from water falling from the shower, it immediately occurred to me how I wanted to mourn him – I’ll write an essay on his life and work as a photographer and actor with the title “Life Performs Itself.”

Everything about him surged with action and performance, as though the business of living was, as one moment followed the other, being restaged as drama. Even now, his death seems to me as life performing itself. I can think of it in no other way – it’s the only form of clarity I have amidst all the questions, the contradiction, the shock.

He performed life. It’s there, right in the way he looks in his profile picture on Facebook. Now he’s performing death. Nothing seems to be missing except his body. I carry about the memories I shared with him. The rooms we slept in together. The arguments we had. How I sometimes hated his guts, his bravado, his manner of approaching (no, performing) life.

Is it wrong to have the language for mourning? How can I write when I’m fighting tears? Why is my vocabulary not grief-stricken?

If I was in Lagos I might have seen him as he lay sick, and dying. Distance did not afford me that opportunity. And perhaps this is why my vocabulary isn’t grief-stricken. I mourn him with words, trying to figure out now what his life and work means. I might write about how I shared in his life in past tense, but not the photographs of contemporary Africa that he took. They remain an eternal presence.

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