Patrick Farmer’s new book “Yew Grotesque” is published by the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University. It recounts the thoughts and imaginings of a fictitious man of letters, an academic of sorts, as he prepares in his hotel room to give a conference lecture on the filmmaker Luis Buñuel and the writer Federico García Lorca. As his mind wanders, his two subjects (who were close friends in real life) continue an ongoing dialogue in his head, sometimes bickering with each other, sometimes rambling and raving at length, pausing only to check that the other is still listening. The implication is that the man in the hotel room, whose name is Gray, is channelling ghostly voices from beyond the grave. Some way into the book, it is revealed that Gray has received a serious medical diagnosis.
It initially seems odd that such a book, apparently a work of experimental fiction, should be published by SARU and funded by Sound and Music, as if it were in fact a work of sound art. The characters of Buñuel and Lorca expound on the topic of listening at several points in the text, but not in a manner that could be called philosophically robust or even broadly coherent. If one happens to believe, however, that sound and the subjective experience of sound ultimately fall outside the realm of language-based discourse — that “we can’t think thought while listening listens”, as Buñuel (or is it Lorca?) puts it — then the text’s way of skirting round the issue ostensibly at hand could be seen as a way of trying to short-circuit the normal unfolding of discourse and catch a glimpse of listening unawares. Prise a gap just wide enough, or stretch language until it becomes translucent, and try to peer through. Or perhaps: sound exists within language as its immanent critique, the other within itself — so take a stick of dynamite, and blow the whole thing apart.
I’m not convinced that sound and listening are exterior to discourse, or even exterior-interior; rather, my guess is that the field of discourse touching them is such a vast accumulation of disparate and often contradictory ideas, experiences, and assumptions that they inevitably end up appearing immediate, instantaneous, and without history. Like the way a forest stretches away from you, its complexity and diversity expanding much faster and further than your comprehension-perception of it, until it is reduced to a single moment of ‘forest’. Desire has something to do with it, probably: it could be said that discourse progresses by means of the perception of an elsewhere, if perception is understood as transforming things into objects of yearning.
“Yew Grotesque” seems written from a different point of view, but nonetheless commits to taking the bull by the horns and not letting go. The structuring devices borrowed from fiction, such as the characters, the scene-setting, and the slipping from description to reverie and back again, help give form to Farmer’s somewhat challenging prose. There’s no doubt that his writing presents an aesthetic surface that is engaging and often attractive, even when comprehension is limited. This is achieved without diminishing the impression that perhaps — if one strained hard enough — one might hear something.