Joseph Clayton Mills
The Patient
Book [210×148 mm; 56pp]/
CD (E167)

“During his final illness (tuberculosis of the larynx)
at the sanatorium in Kierling, Kafka was not supposed
to speak, an injunction he obeyed most of the time.
He communicated with Dora Dymant, Robert Klopstock,
and others by scribbling notes on slips of paper.
Usually these notes were mere hints; his friends
guessed the rest.”—Max Brod

Inspired by and incorporating fragmentary notes written
by Franz Kafka on his deathbed to communicate with
friends and family, The Patient draws from the texts of
these conversation slips for specific imagery, textures,
mood, gestures, and instrumentation. The score —
essentially an index of suggestions to guide structured
improvisation — was initially performed at Chicago’s
Experiemental Sound Studio in the fall of 2012 by
Olivia Block (piano/walkie-talkies/objects), Noé Cuéllar
(accordion/psalter/cassette player/objects), Steven
Hess (percussion/cassette player), Joseph Clayton Mills
(electronics/cassette player/objects), and Jason Stein
(bass clarinet). Recordings of that performance were
subsequently augmented, rearranged, and assembled
by Mills into the finished album. Additional material
provided by Megan Rodgers and Seonaid Valiant.

See also
The Patient on Vimeo
Joseph Clayton Mills/Zyxt
Out of print

Edition of 200 copies
Mastered by Brian Labycz


Franz Kafka died of starvation on June 3rd, 1924, his throat
cinched by laryngeal tuberculosis. The intravenous delivery
of food to sick patients wouldn’t be invented for another 35
years and the swelling in Kafka’s throat caused by the infection
made swallowing even water difficult. Forbidden from speaking
by his doctor at the sanatorium in Kierling, Austria, Kafka would
often communicate with his friends and visitors by writing small
notes on scraps of paper. Some such scraps were less notes and
more fragments or disconnected ideas, phrases impossible to
understand without context. It’s something Max Brod, Kafka’s
friend and literary executor, recalls in the opening pages of the
booklet that accompanies Joseph Clayton Mills’s The Patient.
“Usually these notes were mere hints; his friends guessed the
rest”, he writes. Mills, accompanied by Olivia Block, Noé Cuéllar
(Coppice), Steven Hess (Pan•American, Haptic, Innode), and
Jason Stein take a shot at interpreting those fragments on this
record, using Mills’s textual score to trace a line around Kafka’s
final abraded thoughts.

“The goal of this document is to suggest a vocabulary of
actions”, Mills writes. “It should in no way be seen as pre-
scriptive or comprehensive, and the sequence of elements in
this document should not be construed as implying a particular
linear arrangement”.

The 52-page score for The Patient bears only a passing
resemblance to traditional musical scores. It contains a couple
of references to particular notes in the Western 12-tone system,
a few bar lines (one set displays both a treble and bass clef,
but is otherwise blank), a few more very precise frequencies
for sine wave generator, and even a reference to Wagner’s
Tristan chord, but the majority of it is filled with suggested
actions of the sort written by George Brecht, La Monte Young,
and Pauline Oliveros. They read ‘play for longer than you think
you should’ and ‘image of water/droplets/dew’ and ‘hushed
breath/for unvoiced bellows/vocalist/friction on drumhead’.

Together they are enough to constitute a composition, only the
number of performers is unspecified and there are no instructions
for how to string individual performances together. Participants
have only Kafka’s quotes and Mills’s accompanying directions
to guide them, along with a handful of photographs, drawings,
medical diagrams, story excerpts, and historical summaries.
None of it is prescriptive, but all of it sets a very particular tone,
which is why, despite the score’s innate openness, this perform-
ance of The Patient sounds so compact, controlled, and potent.
The instruments and sounds used to build it — piano, walkie-talkies,
an accordion, bass clarinet, and even pages torn from a psalter —
reflect Kafka’s illness brilliantly. They are harsh at times, and dry;
distorted and lethargic; then atmospheric and feathered with
granular noise. When they appear, words and phrases rise almost
to intelligibility, then stop abruptly. They are threaded with inter-
ference, whispered breathlessly, and cut off as if by pain.

Still, every component is clearly expressed, even when it’s
truncated or mangled. Most passages are uncluttered and there
are long spells of silence or near silence scattered throughout
each of the piece’s seven mostly instrumental parts, but that
only emphasises the anguish in the sounds. It’s as if the audible
distress of Kafka’s tuberculosis, latent in the notes he wrote,
has been brought back to life. The wheezes, spasms, and sudden
shocks of panic aren’t just musical expressions, they’re echoes
of his condition that have traveled quietly through time for
nearly 90 years.

But does it have to be so? Could The Patient ever be just an
index for future performers, and so escape the gravity of Kafka’s
life? What Mills put on the CD is a combination of improvised
sounds inspired by his own text and a conscious arrangement
of those sounds assembled after the fact. In this case, it’s
almost impossible not to think of Kafka and A Hunger Artist
or Before the Law because the text and the music is so filled
with Kafka’s voice, no matter how scattered and disembodied.
Maybe we access Kafka’s private world by a secret musical
door he never suspected, but that this world is put together
from fragments and disconnected ideas constantly nags the
mind. Whatever narrative can be spied in those scraps of paper,
they’re a product of reflection, not the scraps themselves. The
score sets a tone, but that tone could slip away like a breath if
the performers wanted it to. This particular performance pays
homage to the score’s inspiration, but another might focus on
the peonies, birds, or durations mentioned by Kafka in his
notes. Yet another might obscure Kafka almost entirely and
present a series of bodiless inflictions instead. That Kafka could
disappear behind his own text is fitting. “Order and accidents
seem equally impossible”, he wrote. The Patient renders that
paradox beautifully and asks its participants, whether listener
or performer, to decide whether order or accident prevails.

Lucas Schleicher at braniwashed