Like Olives

Like Olives (2010) For Wind Ensemble


For thirty-five years now I’ve been in wastepaper, and it’s my love story….For thirty-five years I’ve been compacting wastepaper and books…compacting it all in my hydraulic press…But just as beautiful fish will occasionally sparkle in the waters of a polluted river that runs through a stretch of factories, so in the flow of old paper the spine of a rare book will occasionally shine forth….and then comes my ritual, my mass: not only do I read every one of those books, I take each and put it in a bale, because I have a need to garnish my bales…I’m the only one on earth who knows that deep in the heart of each bale….buried beneath a mound of blood-soaked cardboard, lies a Hyperion…I’m the only one who knows which bale has Goethe, which Schiller…in a sense, I am both artist and audience…

-Excerpts from Bohumil Hrabal’s ‘Too Loud a Solitude’

An initial reading of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude elicited a visceral and ultimately negative response in me—there are some truly revolting descriptive passages. The text is repetitive, almost musical, and this quality fits the protagonist’s obsessive personality. His artistic ritual of compacting bales of wastepaper speaks to two fascinating concepts, though: creation through consumption–as his creative work is in the placement of texts within the bales–and the juxtaposition of intellectual beauty and physical filth. The latter is present not only in the bales that the protagonist creates, but also defines the main character himself.

Transformation is an important theme in the novel, and a prime example involves the transformation of the protagonist’s first love interest from a young woman plagued by shame and unfortunate circumstances to an angelic-like persona in her later years. Early in the novel we see her thoroughly embarrassed in a series of unfortunate social situations involving feces; later in life we find her likeness being carved in stone as an angel by an artist, inspired by her beauty.

In composing like olives, I set portions of the repetitive text as melodic ideas, and I recreated the creative process of compacting bales of trash by adapting and juxtaposing crass and refined musical elements from pre-existing works. I also assigned the musicians roles: the clarinets as the protagonist and the series of small chamber ensembles that begin the piece as some of the bales of compacted wastepaper. At the very end of the piece, in the first sustained tutti of the work, the musicians take on another role: they become the hydraulic press itself. Here they symbolize the end of Too Loud a Solitude, in which the protagonist commits suicide in his hydraulic press, after discovering that his profession is going the way of the factory-assembly line. Though a gruesome image, the text at this point is beautiful, almost uplifting:

I make myself a little bed in the wastepaper, I still have my pride, I have nothing to be ashamed of, like Seneca stepping into his bath I throw one leg over, then wait a bit and bring the other one over with a thud, then I roll up into a ball, just to see what it’s like, and then I get up on my knees, push the green button, and roll back into the bed among the wastepaper and books…my finger marking the sentence that has always filled me with rapture. I smile blissfully, because I am more and more like Manca and her angel, I am entering a world where I have never been and holding a book open to the page that says, “Every beloved object is the center of a garden of paradise.” Instead of compacting clean paper in the Melantrich cellar I will follow Seneca, I will follow Socrates, and here, in my press, in my cellar, choose my own fall, which is ascension, and even as the walls press my legs up to my chin and beyond, I refuse to be driven from my Paradise…

And it was this image that ultimately inspired the title for my work.

For we are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.

-The Talmud, as quoted by Hrabal’s protagonist in Too Loud a Solitude

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