The psychiatrist and the prospector: Tristan Honsinger's Soap-Slippery Prose

by Kevin Whitehead

Cellist and composer Tristan Honsinger is good with words. An adroit verbal improviser, he can lose himself in character parts on stage: an old woman out to purchase fresh fish, say (hear In the Sea on Relative Pitch, by his string trio with Joshua Zubot and Nicolas Caiola). He writes whimsical lyrics – such as the ICP Orchestra’s “Oh! My Dog” about a deer-chasing canine named Kafka, a sketch taken from life (in Bologna) – for songs whose melodic cadences may contradict the lyric’s. He’s staged occasional theatricals, in the tradition of Holland’s 1970s-style improvisational “music theater,” a poorly documented movement, although Honsinger’s band/company This, That and the Other’s Sketches of Probability recorded at the 1996 AngelicA Festival gives a glimpse – skits with music: a museum docent’s spiel; programming at a tanktown TV station. Around then he toyed with writing an opera about the inventor of a drug that makes you fall in love and then gives you amnesia. Then, crestfallen, he declared that drug already exists: alcohol. e and In conversation he thrives on misunderstandings, not least among folks who don’t share a first language. As a diehard internationalist (US, Canada, Holland, France, England, Italy, Germany) he has been party to a few such careening conversations.

He doesn’t need music, or even to open his mouth, to improvise. In his homemade-looking book Wander and Wonder (Berlin: Topsi/Umdicht Förlag), he does it page by page: content created/handwritten one sheet at a time, filling that white space in a way that lets you feel him seizing the moment and improvising his way into and out of trouble. The content poured into the 19 x 25mm form: you name it. Poet’s jangle/Gysin parody: “spic the kick/Hit a pit/Sheep out keep/Tick upon slip...”. A sequence of spatial poems snake-and-ladder around the page, maybe with some mirror-image writing in the mix; the crisscrossing lines might outline a face, or a gravy boat. “Markings of the Soul” is a sequence of 75 random-y words, 64 of them sternly crossed out. These graphic departures resemble Tristram Shandy’s black or marbled pages, or the cut-up PTSD episode in Richardson’s Clarissa: throwbacks to early novelists free to try anything because the rules weren’t set. In Wonder and Wander there are dreams, and daydreams: something about an Inuit igloo carbonated currant-juice factory. I think. There are (necessarily short) dialogues, some scored (a music staff, no clef), as if opera excerpts (duos for a monkey and a screwdriver, a refrigerator and a tomato, the llama and a helicopter). Other dialogues sans music (the policeman and the farmer, the osteopath and the chiropractor) have fussy-playwright’s accent marks over select spoken syllables. (You must feel the cocyx first.” “I crack the spine before anything.”) Lyrics to “five miniature songs”: “On a bay in a box on a ship. Ahoy! Ahoy!” Split pages: top, a sober observation about depression; bottom, fable of a Siberian hare’s mushroom-stoked quest for immortality.

There are philosophical musings with a direct bearing on his art(s): “Make believe is not lying.” “Be gullible when you fear the ominous.” Or: “I have no choice but to choose the free associative principle. It is flexible in thought.” Then he continues, daring himself onward: “As promiscuous weather shifter to waves of volcanic heat almost visible to grey-hounds after the sacred chase.” Sudden reversals are surrealists’ bread-and-uranium of course. He doesn’t need an exquisite-corpse chain letter to achieve wrenching juxtapositions. Honsinger’s a one-man game of telephone. The book begins:

“Alas Frogette was considering a mock funeral for stick bugs. which way is the summer moving asked the stool to the wind? My stairs are calling to the stratos-phere to alleviate dark ness from the allegorical. Beginning with forceps to erase the memory of configuration. Mind your main, said the cow to the field other-wise the lightnening struck bread will fly on wednesday....”

The trick is to make it diverting enough sentence by sentence to pull the reader (and automatic writer) along, putting both in the same free-associative space, the dreamtime, keeping up that feeling for pages at a stretch. But his scratchings reveal the process isn’t purely automatic. You can see from the look of a page when he’s planned ahead: When he begins with smaller than usual print, knowing he has more to say. On certain pages, owing to a change in nib quality, you can see where he’s gone back later to add a coda, or squeeze a few words into blank space.

Tristan’s friend/frequent employer Misha Mengelberg loved catch-all musical forms, such as his pocket-orchestra piece Dressoir, comparing its desultory nature to stuff you’d find rummaging in a bureau: a mateless sock, forgotten cookie, loose change. Given everyone’s love of narrative, we who view such assembled bits seek to impose order, stitch them into some coherent whole. The potential for creative misunderstanding is vast. The reader may proceed like a psychiatrist, seeking to divine what’s a feint (“Soap gets in your restlessness”) and what’s telling. Or like a prospector, squinting to distinguish gold from pyrite.

Wonder and Wander is liberally illustrated – kid’s-squiggle line drawings, thick cloudburst inkswabs – by Swedish/Berlin bassist Joel Grip, recently heard on disc with a Rüdiger Carl trio and the Abdul-Malik repertory band Ahmed. His “ink and graphite drawings and paintings” are mainly representational, and often quite striking: charcoaly smudges revealed to be pelicans in flight, a dreamer’s apparition, stingray, uncatalogued beasts. They have very much the same hasty but committed quality as the prose: freeze-dried improvisations.


© 2022 Kevin Whitehead


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