Kate (2013)
for singing cellist (or soprano and cello)

I. Looking
II. Recitation
III. Strange Calligraphy
IV. World Curator
V. 1186

Live performance 11/19/13 by Kathryn Brunhaver, cello and voice

Kate amplifies the study of loneliness that is David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988). The novel consists solely of prose being composed at a typewriter by a woman named Kate—prose conversational yet terse, freely exploring tangents yet cumbersomely precise. Early on one gets the sense that her interior life must be hermetic to some degree (as she is writing to no one in particular with no purpose in particular), but soon her remarks imply that she is the only person left in the world. The episodes she relates are fantastical. For instance, the novel opens with her account of living in the world’s most famous museums, wedging her own paintings between those on display and burning the frames of others for warmth. This is humorous on its face, but upon reconsidering what were the novel’s first lines after discerning that she is all alone, a darkness colors the humor: “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street. Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of them would say.” Certain of them—cumbersomely precise. The Louvre—fantastical. In the beginning—utterly sad, as since that time she has learned to stop looking for any trace of humanity. She seems to be getting by okay, but it is hard to know whether to believe that. She has to be severely depressed. There is also the matter of whether she is suffering from a delusion.

The first movement, “Looking,” sets text establishing the two poles of Kate’s narration. She discusses a trip to Mexico in the most romantic terms (looking for Zapata?!) but then reveals that she was merely looking for “anybody, anywhere at all” and that she cannot even remember when it was that she gave up looking. The music in this movement likewise accounts for the upbeat spirit and romantic imagination of the opening lines with the desperation and traumatic nature of the later lines with vocal sounds first playful and idiomatic but then astrin- gent and unhinged. Subsequent movements take up other avenues into Kate’s mind, from the cluttered, unconnected trove of details in “Recitation” to the nonchalance of building fires as a pleasant diversion in “Strange Calligraphy.” In each movement, astringent vocal lines and edgy tone colors alternate with sober consonances. The cello plays a ruminative role throughout.

text excerpted from David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988), courtesy of Dalkey Archive Press

I. Looking

I was looking when I went to Mexico too, naturally. …
Again symbolically, looking for Zapata. Or for Benito Juarez. Or for David Alfaro Siqueiros. Looking for anybody, anywhere at all. …
I do not remember when it was that I stopped looking.

II. Recitation

Still, perhaps there is baggage after all, for all that I believed I had left baggage behind.
Of a sort. The baggage that remains in one’s head, meaning remnants of whatever one knew.
Such as the birthdays of people like Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock, for instance, which … I might still recite if I wished. Or telephone numbers, from all of those years ago.

III. Strange Calligraphy

Now and again I have built fires along the beach, by the way.
This is always a pleasant diversion.
This is also not including when I have built other sorts of fires along the beach. Such as out of entire houses. …
Along the sand there will be frisky shadows, that will dance and fall away.
Or, if there is snow, the flames will write a strange calligraphy against the whiteness.

IV. World Curator

But then what is there that is not in my head?
So that it is like a bloody museum sometimes.
Or as if I have been appointed curator of all the world. Well, as I was, in a manner of speaking I undeniably am.

V. 1186

One one eight six, the last four digits of somebody’s phone number may have been.


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