Non-lieux Ties

Non-lieux Ties was originally written to feature on a CD of works by a diverse range of Scottish composers from the Baroque to the present day.1 Knowing that information before I started writing the piece was a blessing and a curse and I became unusually aware of lineage and heritage: ‘where do I fit in to all this?’. In specific terms, my relationship to composition, composers and the existing canon; what is it to be a Scottish composer? What is it to be a composer (full-stop)? In more broad terms: identity and belonging.

I began to realise that in many ways I’m only Scottish in blood; I don’t necessarily feel Scottish, but I can’t deny possessing a certain Celtic sentimentality. It occurred to me that because of this lack of belonging—a lack of clan, if you will—I often find myself attached to quite banal places and things. Or if not banal, things that don’t have any real humanity. Or at least, on the surface they don’t.

As I was in the early stages of writing this piece, I happened upon the work of Marc Augé, a French philosopher / anthropologist, who coined the term ‘non-lieux’, or ‘non-places’. His 1992 book on this subject—Non-lieux, introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité—notes that certain spaces are so anthropomorphically lacking that it is almost too much to call them a place. Hence: non-place, or non-lieu. But, like the greatest works of philosophy and anthropomorphism, this seems to raise more questions than it answers. Reflecting on the work in 2008, Augé comments:

For me, place has never been an empirical notion. Anything can become a place, every space can be one, if in one manner or another encounters take place there that create social ties. A space can be either a place or a non-place, or a place for some and not for others. One classic case is the airport, which is a very different case for someone who works there regularly, with colleagues and relationships, and someone who passes through once only, or by chance.2

This passage really hit home: the idea of place being defined by social value; the fixed notion of place in stark contrast with the transient non-place—functioning not really as a home for people, but rather some sort of through way; this concept seemed to encapsulate and metaphorise everything I had been thinking about. It was the perfect trope.

It would be too literal to say that Non-lieux Ties is ‘non-lieux set to music’, but certainly it helped to contextualise all the hazy ideas of identity I had floating around. (Maybe Identity Crisis Set to Music would be a more fitting title.) Either way, these musings are manifested as empty references to other composers; other eras; solitary themes (music and otherwise) I can’t shake; nostalgia for places and people who—on pitiful reflection—are as anonymous, fleeting and unconnected to me as a subway escalator. I consider this piece an exploration of my personal mixed heritage, various attachments and hang-ups. My ties to these non-lieux.

  • The work didn’t end up on the CD in the end, but to give you an idea of what I was up against, here’s a link to the project anyhow #
  • from ‘Places and Non-Places—A Conversation with Marc Augé’. (On The Move, Skira 2008) #
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