Paternal Melancholia: h hunt’s ‘Playing Piano for Dad’

“h hunt ‘Playing Piano for Dad’: Paternal Melancholia” read by Pale Sutler

‘I’ll leave you to it…’

As a writer, or more specifically, a blogger, there is an overwhelming desire to incorporate yourself into what you are writing about. A perfect example of this follows. Moreover, there is an even greater impulse to use your power of analysis and prose to ameliorate whatever you are writing about; should it be a piece about food, one’s criticism or praise is precisely the means by which to incorporate and ameliorate. The same goes for nature, literature, film, or music. The latter, being a medium I contend with the most, is a perfect example of this concern. What is an audible mode of expression, music seems particularly imprudent to write about — what can one gain from a read that a listen will not grant? Such was the impasse when I decided to cover h hunt’s oneiric, enigmatic Playing Piano for Dad (2016). 

On the surface, the album is simple, almost empty. Boasting a similar basement, eight track aesthetic to Daniel Johnston, Playing Piano for Dad features the musical talent of Tasty Morsels’ co-founder Harry Hunt, on what can only be described as an unintentional, instrumental piano session. In an interview with In Sheep’s Clothing, Tasty Morsels’ co-founder, Rory McCarthy, said that he and Hunt were at their Paris studio when Hunt decided to record himself playing piano for his father as a Christmas gift. 

‘He sent me it after he’d given it to his dad,’ McCarthy explained, ‘and it was very obvious to me we should release it. … It’s a bit like seeing a non-actor in a film; it’s so shocking [though] because [he’s] actually being normal and not ‘acting.’ He really at no point in the process realized we were making an album, so it really is very sincerely not trying. That’s extremely rare, I think.’ 

Such an effortless trait divorces Playing Piano for Dad from the normative parameters which typically dictate solo piano records — or any record for that matter. The solo piano, as a style, is an art which defines musicians such as Chopin, Scott Joplin, and more recently, pianists such as Mark Fowler. However, perhaps no two individuals expound this style with more priestly authority than Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. With records such as Thelonious Alone in San Francisco (1959) and Evans’ Conversations with Myself (1963), the two jazz pianists successfully created a standard, sound and feeling that few have matched since. And although culture has ceased to view jazz as a popular genre, the solo piano persists. Such examples can be found on Hailu Mergia’s delightful ‘Yefikir Engurgur,’ and even Fugazi’s ‘So Tired,’ which nonetheless incorporates vocals, still manages to audition that sustained melancholy only the solo, acoustic piano seems to abide. 

As is the case for most solo piano records, an element of lonesome solace defines Playing Piano for Dad. Although Evans’ Conversations with Myself features two pianos — both played by himself, hence the record’s name — such a quality lingers with the dour pianist as he maneuvers the technical and haunting melodies of his solemn duet. Moreover, it is no accident that Monk’s preeminent solo piano record is titled Thelonious Alone in San Francisco, the music itself seeming to illustrate the typically charismatic, debonair pianist as a man in an attempt to whistle his solopsim away amidst a bustling life. Songs such as ‘Everything Happens to Me’ seeming so empty without traditional accompaniment, made somehow more so as Monk fights the desolation with his trademarked, frenetic use of major keys. On the other hand, Hunt accepts it. Instead of whistling like Monk, Hunt (literally) hums — a kind of audible embrace.

The album’s sound is indicative of this embrace of loneliness; a kind of emptiness and sadness mark this record. On tracks such as ‘Having a Bath,’ you almost expect to hear the fathomless wails of Giles Corey’s ‘The Haunting Presence.’ In fact, the whole album flirts with this idea of venturing into Giles Corey’s register of the Real, an environment Giles Corey (2015) explores with a kind of shattered dignity. Playing Piano for Dad, with its empty halls of piano and the voice of a non-singer present on nearly every track, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dan Barrett’s spectral acoustic project. What’s more, h hunt resists that temptation, instead adopting more of the ethereal sadness and lonesome spaciousness present on an album like The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (2011). The piano’s minor key and the sound of wood and background noise substituting for Leyland Kirby’s vinyl crackle and parking garage Cole Porter samples. Unlike Giles Corey, and even The Caretaker to a certain extent, Hunt’s sound does not traumatize, it merely (if anything) unsettles just enough, allowing its listener to relax back into its unoccupied atmosphere and restrained sorrow.

Hunt’s musician name, h hunt, adds to the album’s morose undertone, as the delicacy of lowercase words indicates more than just a grammatical transgression. As pre-K and elementary school kids, we learn to write both ways — in caps and lowercase. If we can remember back to when we learned to read and write, we were taught to familiarize ourselves with each version of these new symbols. Yet, it is a long time before any sort of fluency in correct capitalization calcifies in the young mind. Until that point, letters are turbulent and random in their size. Such an act of writing in all lowercase, although not orthographically correct, triggers a certain unhomely element, at the same time comforting and aimless, almost lost — one need only think of the popularity of this tendency in the generally nostalgic lofi hip-hop genre. The act of writing in all lowercase, therefore, proves to be a kind of relapse into the realm of the child. A journey to a period before rules, and a looming specter informing the reader there is no such place that exists anymore. Writing in all lowercase is a transgression of the gentlest order. One which h hunt both evokes and perhaps remains unconscious of, however intentional Hunt’s other choices are. 

As previously mentioned, Hunt’s mellifluent humming is a vital instrument on the album. In fact, all manner of sounds which are typically filtered out during the recording and production process can be heard throughout. The result is more or less the creation of a space. While most music depends on the mixed and mastered result, tuned and perfected to simulate its creation in a vacuum, Hunt refuses this virtue. Hunt’s humming is picked up from where he sits behind the keys by the mic meant for the strings. The sound of the keys, not of the reverberation of the strings, but of the material of the keys hitting the wood underneath, is ever present; even Hunt clearing his throat and breathing after takes factors into this space he’s created. The album is like listening to a friend play a tune before a church service, or hearing a relative in their living room play to themselves.

Moreover, Hunt’s humming, especially on songs like ‘Go Home,’ exposes a feeling of sorrow or loss — even the title, ‘Go Home,’ betrays this suspicion. The song hints of a kind of mourning process, like someone humming a peaceful elegy. But it does not sound like he is mourning an individual, as the idea behind the album was a gift for his (alive) father; maybe, then, one can think of mourning a lost place, or a lost time. I certainly do. Don’t you think of these songs as elegies? Perhaps for a dilapidated place once very beautiful, made somehow all the more by dereliction and neglect?

What’s more, this record walks that line between the elements of mourning and melancholia — and as listeners we are forced to decide which it is. To Freud, mourning and melancholia both contend with loss. In mourning, the subject experiences the slow withdrawal of libido from the lost love object, whereas melancholia locates attachment even after the loss has occurred. The latter takes place in the unconscious mind and is pathological; the subject is unable to identify or communicate in symbolic terms the event of the loss, ‘experiencing the regression of libido into the ego’ (Freud, Mourning and Melancholia, PDF, p 160). In other words, what is lost stays with the melancholic, haunting them even though the object is no longer present. Mourning is seen as healthy and normal; melancholia is not. 

With this line of reasoning, and with the idea behind the album clear, it is hard to listen to Playing Piano for Dad without feeling the presence of the paternal figure — Dad — and the ambivalence which that idea assumes in our unconscious minds. For Zizek, psychoanalysis concludes that the Oedipal desire wishes to see our fathers dead. ‘We don’t want our fathers alive,’ Zizek said. ‘We want them dead. The ultimate object of anxiety is a living father’ (Zizek, S., The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, PDF transcript). In Freudian psychoanalysis, such logic follows. As young children we are not yet introduced to the object-choice world of desire — that is, sexuality. However, once this introduction takes place, our unconscious contends with the idea of the same sexual phenomena as it applies to our parental figures. Freud writes:

‘Brutal pieces of information, which are undisguisedly intended to arouse contempt and rebelliousness, now acquaint him with the secret of sexual life and destroy the authority of adults, which appears incompatible with the revelation of their sexual activities. The aspect of these disclosures which affects the newly initiated child most strongly is the way in which they apply to his own parents. This application is often flatly rejected by him, in some such words as these: ‘Your parents and other people may do something like that with one another, but my parents can’t possibly do it.’’ (Freud, A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men, PDF, p. 4)

This realization also brings along much more contentious psychoanalytic baggage. As the child — we will use the example that Freud used of the male child — begins to come into this new period of development, certain unconscious ideas still linger. That is, the idea of the mother as ‘a person of unimpeachable moral purity’ due to an ‘infantile fixation of tender feelings,’ persists well into adulthood (Ibid, p. 3, p. 4). Therefore, as the child develops into sexual maturity, he locates this new found desire in his mother as the result of said ‘infantile fixation.’ ‘He begins to desire his mother herself in the sense with which he has recently become acquainted, and to hate his father anew as a rival who stands in the way of this wish,’ Freud wrote, ‘he comes, as we say, under the dominance of the Oedipus complex’ (Ibid., p. 5). 

Today, Freud’s fascination with our relationships with our parents is almost common knowledge. What’s strange then, is an object such as Playing Piano for Dad in this Oedipal world we traffic. It is very obviously an act of love — incredibly beautiful, much too so to even try to describe. I can only imagine how Hunt’s father reacted to the gift, as it is my understanding, from the McCarthy interview, that his father didn’t even know that Hunt could play the piano — if I reacted with restrained tears at certain points, I can’t imagine how Mr. Hunt felt. What’s more, this is what makes the album such a fascinating object for critical analysis. Yes, it is the sound and the minimalism which creates an atmosphere of longing and sorrow; but it is also the greater context of what the idea of the paternal figure represents in our lives. 

I cannot speak to Hunt’s relationship with his father, however, from my own experience, I can say with a degree of certainty that it has most likely been anything but an easy road to traverse. From a developmental sense, we are introduced to our fathers in the pre-Oedipal stage, as infants. We are just a collection of raw id, our egos still struggling to find a footing; our fathers then, love us and we see them as a figure of love. Seeing our fathers this way may never change, although we will all experience the degree of struggle which comes with maturity and our fathers adopting the role of the disciplinarian — our mothers very much so as well of course. However, this dynamic, especially in the male child-father relationship is not without its tribulations — a veritable proof of Freud’s Oedipus complex in concrete form. In an article Peggy Orenstein wrote for The Atlantic titled ‘Toxic Masculinity and the Brokenness of Boyhood,’ she identified this struggle that boys have with their fathers. Two boys that she interviewed both said they felt they could not be themselves around their fathers despite their good nature. ‘He’s a nice guy,’ the interviewee said of his father, ‘but I can’t be myself around him. I feel like I have to keep everything [that I’m feeling] behind a wall where he can’t see it.’ The other boy effectively expressed a similar sentiment, and Orenstein highlighted this trend as the norm. 

Where Freud would see this dynamic and exclaim the correctness of his theoretical conclusions, I would take a look further down the life-history timeline. Let’s say, thirties, as I am fairly certain that is about how old Hunt was when he recorded this album for the father he unconsciously desires to see dead; and yet, such an act seems to be an affront to this notion. Although this act does not necessarily divorce Playing Piano for Dad from the Oedipal object-choice world the Freudian subject occupies, it does expose a certain element similar to the maternal ‘infantile fixation.’ In this case, it happens to be the father we experience this with. However, since the paternal-child relationship is defined by sexual competition at the onset of maturation, I see no sexual desire element attached to this. What I see, instead, is a depressive tendency. It is this figure of the loving father, the pre-Oedipal father, that we find ourselves longing for; a figure who we strangely find again later in life as he develops into a being who grows closer to death. We then experience the choice to mourn this mythological figure, the pre-Oedipal father. However, according to Derrida, since the mourning process can only begin once the lost object is ‘conjured’ away, and since the aging father is still alive, a pervasive melancholia ensues as libido remains attached to the idealized pre-Oedipal paternal figure. 

In my head, h hunt hums for this pre-Oedipal father. I think we all do. But what do I know? 

And this was my problem — right? How can I take such a simple — albeit delightful — album and say anything else than what it already says without delving into some psychic abyss of partial nonsense and personal speculation? Moreover, the interpretation of the album seems quite clear after just a cursory reading of the McCarthy interview: it is categorically beautiful, yet it was an accident. Hunt was left alone with mics and a piano — a fact apparent on ‘C U Soon’ when we can literally hear McCarthy say ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ closing the door on his way out. It was an album meant for Hunt’s father as a Christmas gift, therefore, there are obvious questions to ask about familial and social implications of the paternal figure — but that’s a stretch, don’t you think? It is slipshod, raw, empty and lonesome. It evokes everything under the sun but present warmth, its only solace seeming to be in its nostalgia for some other time and place — it is melancholic in this regard. But what does that all say, really? Nothing. This is one album I will forever wish I could say more about; and yet, I think I have said too much as it is.

Published by Pale Sulter


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