Pam Shaffer – As We Are (popular song)

Posted on November 22, 2011


self released, 2010, CD/ DD album, 33m 12s

$7.50+ (DD), $8 (CD)

‘Literary’ is an adjective customarily applied to works of popular music when their lyrics use words of more than two syllables, or when they attempt to convey meanings more sophisticated than ‘I like your tits, lets dance.’ Sometimes it’s warranted, when the music adopts discursive strategies that bear some similarity to those more often found in poetry or prose fiction, or when its meanings are primarily located in its lyrical text (although I tend to argue that the very act of setting words to music supersedes the determining force of their denotational value). Only rarely are either or both of these justifications combined with a concern for literature itself, or, as in As We Are, for a literary figure.

Pam Shaffer has composed an album, or more to the point, a song cycle, inspired (almost to the point of adaptation) by the posthumously published diaries of Anaïs Nin. Nin is a figure who is perhaps as notorious as she is famous, and none of whose works are as well known as she is (aside from Delta Of Venus, a piece of commercially motivated frippery, that she would certainly not have wished to be remembered for – although I’m glad she wrote it, as when I read it at fourteen it set a high bar for the quality of the pornography I subsequently encountered!) Nin’s diaries (which I should mention I have not read) are notable as an example of the partiality of an edition: the books published before and after her death, drawing on the same periods of her personal journals, seem to concern completely different lives. It is clearly the latter publications that Shaffer bases her work on, although she chooses not to reproduce Nin’s frank discussions of her sexuality.

Instead she focusses on the various objects of Nin’s relationships, including herself and her diary, as well as the obvious ones such as June and Henry Miller, and her husband Hugh Guiler. Nin is represented as the fictionalised narrator of a series of monologues, directed in turn to each of the narrative’s other characters. This has the effect of breaking down Nin’s personality, or Shaffer’s account of it, into a number of distinct facets or categories. Although Shaffer warns (in ‘Anaïs’) that these ‘gazes…/ …are a mere facet of me/ The wholeness that you seek simply cannot be’, her topic is rendered quite glibly digestible nevertheless, as there is little other sense elsewhere in the album of Nin as a character larger than this representation of her.

These are sophisticated, complex songs, but they are also disarmingly simple: this simplicity is the album’s greatest strength, and also its principal weakness. Lyrically there is an economy of language, and a directness, that puts me in mind of the pared down exactitude of some early modernists, and although it is by no means devoid of metaphor, its meanings are addressed head on. One line, also from ‘Anaïs’, informs us that ‘I’m a steel-winged hummingbird/ strength hides in my beauty’: the arresting image is immediately assigned a denotation, and its meaning determined for the listener. This lyrical directness is matched by the use of musical materials, which makes makes extensive use of diatonic triads, frequently in root position, and frequently arpeggiated on the piano without syncopation. Shaffer’s voice is far from the anodyne neutrality of ‘classical training’: it is a strong, clear expression of her physicality, and it is the place in which her personal presence is most obvious. It is, however, possessed of a purity, and her delivery of a simplicity, that serves to reinforce the sense of straightforwardness established in the accompaniment, and the text.

The effect is a beautiful one, captivating even, and its representation of Nin is one of great clarity and precision. The experience of listening is one in which disbelief is easily suspended, and the narrator appears to live in the songs of which she is the subject. It’s easy to forget that this is Pam Shaffer’s utterance, not Anaïs Nin’s: she affects a directness that elides her authorial subject position, with her succession of addressees serving to distract the listener from the central fiction that is her version of Nin. Despite my earlier association of her linguist simplicity with modernism, Shaffer’s work belongs more clearly to the Realist tradition: its material is presented as found, its artifice is concealed, and the listening subject is constructed in an ideologically predetermined manner. Ambiguity is banished to dim corners by the floodlight of Shaffer’s voice.

While this over-determination may well be difficult to swallow for someone with their own strong views on Nin as a historical and literary figure, it’s not an area in which I carry any particular agenda, and to my ear the hermetic completeness of the story she tells is an invitation to put my criticality aside, and simply let her entertain me. As a programmatic approach to making a recording, As We Are’s strategy of representing a central character through her addresses to a sequence of peripheral ones, is possibly unique. It is very rewarding to listen to a ‘concept album’ whose central meaning is so coherently and cogently expressed: the pleasing corollary to Shaffer’s denial of her artifice, is that she is ruthlessly uninterested in her own cleverness, and makes aesthetic decisions of impeccable restraint and taste throughout.

Posted in: Music, Music reviews