Presence/Absence as Problem & Possibility in “On The Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci” and ODESZA

In October, I found myself facing a new problem in the interpretation of music, with broader implications for the engagement and understanding of the arts generally. It has taken this long to begin to work it out. Then, I saw the contemporary indie electronica group ODESZA. The show was amazing. Yet, it yielded a profound sense of vertigo, the kind we all sense, and become been sensitized to, in romantic poetry. How do we contend with art when the aesthetic object–traditionally understood–radically recedes from view?

Think of Percy Shelley’s On The Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci. The poem is ekphrastic. It takes its point of departure from a description of a work of visual art. Yet, Shelley’s ekphrasis is one in part without an object. In On The Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci, there’s no artwork to describe. The painting Shelley’s text marshals was mistakenly misattributed to Leonardo (on the basis of an anecdote in Giorgio Vasari’s 1598 “La Vita di Leonardo,” the accuracy of which art historians now doubt). It is an image without an artwork. As an object, the material actuality of the canvas dissipates into the virtual imaginary of Shelley’s poem.

It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky.

Upon the cloud mountain peak supine;

Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;

Its horror and its beauty are divine.

Upon its lips and eyelids seem to lie

Loveliness like a shadow, from which shine,

Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,

The agonies of anguish and of death.

 

Yet it is less the horror than the grace

Which turns the gazer’s spirit into stone;

Whereupon the lineaments of that dead face

Are graven, till the characters grown

Into itself, and thought no more can trace;

Tis’ the melodious he of beauty thrown

Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,

Which humanize and harmonize the strain.

 

And from its head as form one body grow,

As [   ] grass out of a watery rock,

Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow

And their long tangles in each other lock,

And with unending involutions shew

Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock

The torture and the death within, and saw

The solid air with many a ragged jaw

 

And with a stone beside, a poisonous eft

Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;

Whilist in the air a ghastly bat, bereft

Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise

Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,

And he comes hastening like a moth that hies

After a taper; and the midnight sky

Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.

 

Tis’ the tempestuous loveliness of terror;

For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare

Kindled by that inextricable error,

Which makes thrilling vapour of the air

Become a [   ] and ever-shifting mirror

Of all the beauty and the terror there—

A woman’s countenance, with serpent locks.

Gazing in death on heaven from those we rocks.

The poem’s persona—as point of view, the reader’s point of entry constructed immanently within the text —is that of a severed head. On The Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci thereby eliminates the very possibility of a present rational cognition in confronting its meaning from within. The reader’s mind doesn’t find its proxy in a text about a painting, without a painting.

An interplay of subjects emptied of subjectivity defines Shelley’s artwork. Medusa, as a subject, is dissociated with her remains. The poet refers to the Medusa’s head as a mere object: “It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,” the Shelleyan poet writes. The subject’s not stated. The reader becomes responsible for supplying the connection between Medusa and her remains.  Adjacent to “a stone,” a “poisonous” newt–whose toxic body might itself produce the lifelessness  the now vitiated stare of the Gorgon Medusa once could have–gazes into Medusa’s lifeless eyes. A “bat” the poet announces to be without “sense” is present. The creature likewise intensifies the text’s theme of absence with respect both to rational cognition and subjectivity.

I bring Shelley’s ekphrastic poem to the fore because ODESZA’s music, when performed live, likewise engages, mobilizes, and contends with similar aesthetic tensions between the presence and absence of subjectivity and the art object.

The emergence, withdrawal, and erasure of presence operates at the core of ODESZA’s work. However, it primarily becomes available as a problem with which to grapple in performance. On their autumn tour, the group opened with their track “iPlayYouListen.”

ODESZA members Harrison Mills and Clayton Knight start the show by triggering both of their laptops on stage to each start a set of samples, pre-recorded and arranged. Live, the song opens with a laptop-based piano riff. Yet, the two performers then approach two drums, positioned stage right and stage left. Mills and Knight each play a syncopated rhythm live alongside the pre-recorded and arranged samples that drive the track. This is followed by choruses in which the live drumming falls out. What emerges is a kind of narrative revealed through the arrangement of present and absent sources of sound. In live performance, “iPlayYouListen,” draws upon, and suspends, a play of relationality between acoustic and electronic, actuality and virtuality, presence and absence.