Star-shaped Biscuit: haunting, spells, a drowning world

“The winter is the time of transformation and haunting, not necessarily hostile revenance, but the cold dusk offers access to a past that is almost overwhelming.” The Idea of North, Peter Davidson

In the mid-1930s, photographer and painter Dora Maar (also Picasso’s lover and model, seen in the portraits he called The Weeping Woman) bought a small star-shaped casket in a Parisian flea market. Inside was the fragment of a star-shaped biscuit. This fetish object was once the property of the eccentric French writer Raymond Roussel who had attached a label to the box: ‘A star originating from a lunch I attended on Sunday, 29 July 1923, at the Observatory at Juvisy with [astronomer and spiritist] Camille Flammarion presiding.’ The star-shaped biscuit passed into the hands of French surrealist Georges Bataille (Dora Maar’s lover between 1933-34), who spoke of being troubled by the object. ‘[Roussel] obviously wanted to appropriate to himself this edible star in a manner more important and actual than simply by eating it,’ he wrote. ‘This strange object signified for me the way in which Roussel had achieved his dream of eating a heavenly star.’ For Bataille, the biscuit was not unlike Proust’s madeleine, an unlocking of buried dreams and memories, a mythical object that can release ideas, images and myths for past, present and future. Others might think of it as the Roman Catholic sacrament (encased and ‘shown’ in its solar, or star-shaped monstrance), the various shape-changing foods eaten by Alice in her Wonderland, or the plant hallucinogens used in shamanic séance to effect travel between the worlds of the living and the dead.

A ghost story, perhaps? In a draughty room, on an island in a remote place (somewhere like Iceland, or a small island off the coast of Ireland or Japan), Dora waits implacably for apocalypse, the end of everything, a great silence. She waits for water to cover her island as the great melting returns us to the sea. Her external environment shrinks, submerges, just as her inner life moves toward a central core of silence, and in this state of suspension she travels through a land of death and memory, searching for ways to write and rewrite her story, particularly that part of her story written by others. The image of her as the Weeping Woman is broken down and reassembled like a puzzle that resists completion.

The setting: a space that seems ghostly and shadowed, the ground covered with burned tree branches, dry leaves, ashes, old machines, the ruins of the past, a consequence of some catastrophe. Dora has very little: a low table which serves also as a bed; a great book – disintegrating, worm-eaten, exuding red and brown powders – of her journals and diaries; water in a bowl, and a fetish object, a memento – the star-shaped biscuit. There are outbursts of anger, re-enactments of a breakdown, the inflicting of electric shock treatment. In her loneliness, she sings and speaks aloud to activate the still air of her solitude, ‘to set the darkness echoing’. Her memories are interwoven with spells recited to conjure the past. The air is alive with whispers, strange sounds, haunting echoes, as if the voice that she projects into space echoes back to her as stranger, usurper, saboteur.

The room is occupied also by two presences, or spirits. Their names are Euphrosine and Seabrook. Euphrosine seems to come from the 18th century, a character from a Fragonard painting or a story by the Marquis De Sade. Seabrook is an adventurer from the 1920s. They could be described simply as ghosts or revenants representing the errors of history but they can also be read as traces of Dora’s memories, as elements of her unconscious, or as manifestations of spirit guides who have been raised by her spells, her involuntary actions, her dreaming and the effects of isolation on her interior self. Like the puppeteers of Japanese bunraku, they are ‘invisible’ to her. Signs of their existence are only partially and slowly evident to Dora, as ghosts, apparitions, or auditory hallucinations, or as ambiguous, fleeting moments of feeling in which differences between outer reality and the inner life of the mind are uncertain. Without quite knowing what she is doing, she casts spells. Somehow, the presences are conjured, though she is only partially aware of this consequence.

When she rests, they slip into other times and places to enact their own past confrontations with voices of bewitchment and entrancement. Dragged back into the light, Seabrook examines his delirious fascination with exoticism. Euphrosine follows his example, exploring the myth of an operatic voice so powerful it could kill. Dora is drawn by these two liminal presences, conjuring them up, yet resisting their persuasive imprecations to pass over those faint boundaries that delineate the worlds of life and death. The star-shaped biscuit, the heavenly star, also pulls her back into nostalgia, history, the repeated mistakes of the past whose consequence is the catastrophe that has left her isolated in a drowning world. Should she eat the magical biscuit and fade back into the past or confront the unknown void ahead?

The text:

Voices are everywhere: the sotto voce comments and responses of singers to the main voice, along with recorded whispers, low voices and murmurs are heard all through the piece as an undertow that interweaves with sung voices, a confusion of stories, invisible presences, angels and devils, interior monologues and passages quoting either directly or obliquely from Dora Maar, and from other stories of island exile and haunting such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare’s The Tempest; from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Zeami’s 15th century Noh play Tsunemasa; writings by those associated with Dora Maar, including Jacques Lacan, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Andre Breton and Georges Bataille; by anthropologists and artist-explorers such as William Seabrook, Maya Deren, Henri Michaux and Antonin Artaud, by authors such as Vernon Lee, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, from Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen and Peter Davidson’s book, The Idea of North, and from Benjamin Britten’s Parable for Church performance, Curlew River. These fragmented texts set up polyphonies, interruptions, implications, interrogations and choruses out of which the live voices emerge.

  • Star-shaped Biscuit is composed by David Toop for electronics and a select group of vocal improvisers and multi- instrumentalists.
  • Cast: Lore Lixenberg (Dora), Elaine Mitchener (Euphrosine), Jamie McDermott (Seabrook), with Sylvia Hallett (viola, sarangi, saw, hurdy gurdy, etc), Hélène Breschand (electric and concert harps), Jan Hendrickse (bass flute, ney, bansuri, noh flute), Martin Allen (percussion, vibraphone), Simon Allen (percussion, strings, saw, glass).
  • Star-Shaped Biscuit, Saturday September 15th, 7.30pm,Derelict Building 9, Snape Maltings

About davidtoop

David Toop is a composer/musician, author and curator based in London who has worked in many fields of sound art and music, including improvisation, sound installations, field recordings, pop music production, music for television, theatre and dance. He has published seven books, including Ocean of Sound, Haunted Weather, Sinister Resonance, Into the Maelstrom and Flutter Echo. His solo albums include Screen Ceremonies, Black Chamber, Sound Body and Entities Inertias Faint Beings. As a critic he has written for many publications, including The Wire, The Face, Leonardo Music Journal and Bookforum. Exhibitions he has curated include Sonic Boom at the Hayward Gallery, London, Playing John Cage at Arnolfini, Bristol, and Blow Up at Flat-Time House, London. His opera – Star-shaped Biscuit – was performed as an Aldeburgh Faster Than Sound project in September 2012. He is Professor of Audio Culture and Improvisation at University of the Arts London.
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6 Responses to Star-shaped Biscuit: haunting, spells, a drowning world

  1. Stargazer says:

    a tiny, tedious correction: Flammarion was an astronomer, not an astrologer, famous as a writer of popular books full of poetic sensibility. As a spiritist and practitioner of psychical research he certainly deserves his place in this project’s prehistory and would no doubt have appreciated the character of Dora Maar’s survival.

  2. hello david, what a pity i won’t be able to attend this. it will be interesting to see if / how you decide to publish the libretto! a star-shaped libretto?

  3. Pingback: Star-Shaped Biscuit « Strange Flowers

  4. Hi….I posted a short piece about the Star-Shaped Biscuit performance at http://likeahammerinthesink.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/star-shaped-biscuit-not-a-review/
    It was a wonderful night…

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