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On White (seven fragments after Edmund de Waal)

On White

(seven fragments after Edmund de Waal)


What is the sound of white?

Edmund de Waal, the ceramic artist whose eloquent porcelain installations are inextricably bound up with this colour, asks the question early in The White Road, but offers no answer.

I am no synaesthete; I am no more able to respond than de Waal. In any case, the question is, strictly speaking, nonsensical. But it is an intriguing proposition. If we could hear the colour of milk and snow and clouds and sunlight, what music would it make?

Over strong coffee on a grey London morning in early January, Edmund asks me to do just that.


In fact, he asks me to do somewhat more: to write a piece of music that triangulates white, the poetry of Paul Celan and, by implication, de Waal’s own creative practice. Beyond these requirements, I am given free rein: musicians from the Aurora Orchestra will perform; the premiere will be part of de Waal’s White exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and then subsequently at King’s Place during an evening devoted to Celan’s poems. There is to be no conductor. I am excited.

iii – White (1)

I’m not the first, of course. I am following in des pas sur la neige of a great many others before me – Debussy, Abrahamsen and his Schnee, Schubert’s Winterreise (my first real musical obsession, I lived with Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus for months) – not to mention the prosaic but far-from-irrelevant notions of white noise and white notes.

I need to find my own space, away from these literal whites and hibernal whites.

I suggest white light refracted, scattered in a prism, echoed in a thousand different colours. I sketch a rough triangle with a quartet at each apex and a harp in the centre. I talk – somewhat over-enthusiastically – about the spectra hidden within every instrumental note, about the beauty of microtones, about revealing unheard parts of sound, of imagined melodies and the secret inner life of tones. I’m not sure I make sense, but Edmund seems happy.

I take B as my ‘white’ pitch, set up my prism, and listen to the echoes.

iv – Celan

White for Celan is the snow of his mother’s death, executed in a Nazi concentration camp. How can I respond to this; what right have I, a privileged Millennial, to offer musical gloss on a horror that is beyond my comprehension? So again I must approach white indirectly, as silence: the white space that dominates the pages of Celan’s later poetry; the empty responsory of his hymn of praise to an absent god, Psalm.

Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lohm,

niemand bespricht unserm Staub.



Celan’s psalm aligns with the prism I have made: David was a harpist; my orbital ensembles are antiphonal choirs; the reference to a potter is pleasingly apt. This psalm offered to No-one, with no possibility of response, suggests to me a musical situation in which harp and ensembles exist in different worlds and the harp ‘cannot hear’ the echoes she generates.

I wonder about singing, about the wonderful heterophony of Gaelic psalmody and about the ‘crimson word’, the sole sung element in Celan’s Psalm, which appears only as a recollection. The memory of a song.

v – White (2)

In Asian cultures white is the colour of mourning. Is Celan’s psalm to a god that has died or a god that never was? Death of an idea is still a kind of death; we may be released into a new way of thinking, but the memory of what has been lost is not easily erased.

Morton Feldman talked about his attitude to being a composer as ‘like mourning […] something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.’ I have always found this comment deeply affecting – perhaps it’s my love of Schubert; perhaps it’s the idea that making something new involves departure, and also memory.

So: my harp strikes thick, resonant bells, tolling white. There is no singing.

vi – de Waal

De Waal describes his craft with characteristic humility: ‘The gamble of making fragile objects out of porcelain and placing them near each other and inscribing a name in the air over the whole enterprise.’ It’s a type of magic, the way his titles bind these collections of individual objects together, invite you in to a particular space for contemplation. His installations aren’t pushy, they don’t demand to be read in a particular way, or even ‘read’ at all, but they make certain connections possible, they generate a field of potentiality.

And they have rhythm, these sequences of vessels: they breathe.

I want to write music like this. It isn’t my usual way: I tend to trade in narratives and arcs and directed motion. I tend to write the whole thing at once; one note follows another, and it has to be this way, no other way; it’s all about getting somewhere and I have a very clear idea of the shape of the journey in advance. De Waal’s cargoes offer another, more meditative approach. I wake each day and write a ‘vessel’: a harp plea and an ensemble response. I will collect them and then arrange them in space, let them resonate, let them breathe.

vii – White (3)

Whether to do with my temperament or with the essential temporality of music, my grand plan to be the composer-potter calmly arranging fragile objects does not succeed. No matter: white is also hope; white is a space to start again.

My harp calls out to a deity she cannot hope to hear; but yet she calls. She is David and also Orpheus and the world she conjures is gleaming shining microtones and spectra and white light scattered and reflected and in the end there is song, or the memory of song.

The premiere of Psalm with the Aurora Orchestra is on 9th November at the Royal Academy of Arts

Paul Celan: Sounds and Visions is on 12th November at King’s Place

The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts is published by Chatto and Windus





One response to “On White (seven fragments after Edmund de Waal)”

  1. […] white, the ceramic art of Edmund de Waal, and the poetry of Paul Celan. I described the experience here, highlighting the difficulties of taking a concept out of its home domain and trying to realise it […]

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