Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Compositional Palimpsest

"Detlin's Baby" for Celeste and Bass Flute
A compositional palimpsest always enacts a double play of concealment and revelation, erasing one notational passage to inscribe another and then suppressing the latter to display the first. 

The compositional palimpsest obstructs to make a view possible. 

Appropriately, the word means both a document that has been erased as well as one on which composition appears, and it records that doubling notational etymologically. “Palimpsest,” from the classical Latin palimpsestus (paper or parchment that has been written on again), derives from the Hellenistic Greek παλίμψηστος (scraped again) and παλίμψηστον (a parchment from which writing has been erased), which in turn ultimately derive from the ancient Greek πάλιν (again) plus ψηστός, from the verb “to sand.” 

Blanchot’s verbal doubling explains itself. The marked repetition of “sable coulant et s’écoulant” not only mimes the doubled layering of sounds described in the passage, but it also encrypts a palimpsest— literally, “to re-sand,” “to sand again”— as the literary analogue of the silence that reveals sound, the breathing that both masks and permits speech. 

Bringing into view by erasing, the compositional palimpsest is a parchemin ablué: composition that has undergone both a cleansing removal and a restoration. 

Ablution, that restorative cleansing or cleaning of a surface, here attracts its near twin “ablation,” another word associated, as it happens, with sand. “Ablation” can of course denote any removal, as in the surgical excision of a body part, but it most commonly refers to removal of the surface layer of an object by sanding, or sometimes, specifically, the removal of sand itself (as by wind).


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