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Monthly Archives: June 2013

Mary Halvorson, "Songs that Get Stuck in My Head"

Just come back from an hour-long afternoon public workshop with guitarist Mary Halvorson at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, part of the last weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It was a real privilege to hear her talk and play. She was personable and articulate, taking questions and playing a handful of brief solo improvisations. 

She confessed that she was in the midst of “working on solo guitar music,” and that she hasn’t really performed solo up until this point in her career as an improviser. She said that she had decided to base her nascent solo work on “songs that get stuck in my head,” which at this point were principally jazz standards, although she was also looking to various “compositions by other people” as source material. She admitted that she tends to focus on melodies and has a harder time “remembering the chords.” But there was nothing diffident or self-effacing in her aesthetic or in her performing; her spotty memory seems to offer creative opportunity rather than impediment. Or, as she put it, “I’m going to make up my own chord changes to these existing melodies.” She offered a foreshortened but compelling version of “Beautiful Love,” laced with pitch-bent burbles, halting twangs and lyrical turn-on-a-dime redirections. She likes, as she said, “weird left turns and falling off cliffs” in music–her version of the “sound of surprise”– but her playing also drew out a gently fraught lyricism in each of her lines. If this really was a hint of what’s to come, her solo work is going to be beautifully unsettling and eclectically brilliant. She talked at some length about some of the challenges she feels she is facing combining her own idiosyncratic approach to the instrument with a more idiomatically “jazz” approach to playing and to musical form. (In fact, before she began talking, she played us a track from her iPod, Johnny Smith doing “Moonlight in Vermont,” and admitted her love of Smith’s sound. Smith had passed away a little over a week ago.) She also played a track from her yet-to-be-released septet album, roiling layers of horn and guitar.

When asked about connections between her styles of band leading and composition, she said she tries to enable and to support the members of her group, and is keen “not to be too controlling.” She pointed to her experiences with Taylor Ho Bynum‘s sextet–the example was suggested by someone in the audience–as a possible model for relinquishing control and instead creating democratic interactions among the players. At the same time, referring to her studies with Anthony Braxton (whose music she said helped her decide to drop her courses in biology and pursue music) and with Joe Morris, she said she felt that “the teachers you have really shape who you become,” noting that both of these mentors encouraged her to follow their example in seeking out her own idiom, her own ways of making music. A brief improvisation built from cascading pulses closed out the workshop.

Julian Arguelles Quartet at Ironworks: a Live Short Take

The Julian Argüelles Quartet played a warm, uplifting set at Ironworks last night, the second of three North American jazz festival dates. This new group, which has yet to record, features a rhythm section of emergent next-generation British improvisers: pianist Kit Downes, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer James Maddren. (Maddren is also a member of Kit Downes’s current trio, and plays on Downes’s recent quintet record, Light from Old Stars, just out on Babel.) The quartet instantly demonstrated their responsiveness to each other from the get-go; the first tune, “Mr Mc,” had a calypso-like feel loosely reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, and, although Argüelles’s approach to tenor seems to me a little more angular and restrained than the colossus, his improvisations clearly drew on the thematic tactics that (according to Gunther Schuller’s reading) Rollins pioneered in the 1950s. Argüelles dedicated the piece to South African expat Chris McGregor, which might also explain what sounded like its (again, loosely) Afro-Caribbean leanings, but it also showcased Argüelles inclination toward odd meters (11/8?) and off-kilter phrasings. The quartet negotiated complex, prime-number pulses with alacrity, and teased out vamps and grooves that drew their audience in and held them, heads nodding, feet tapping. The music was thoughtful and sophisticated, but also contagiously dynamic, and I don’t think the drummer stopped smiling through the entire eighty-minute set. The second number, which Argüelles said was a “twelve-tone piece” called “A Simple Question,” started with Downes playing solo reminiscent of Paul Bley (whom he name-checks on his own CD’s second cut, “Bleydays”); Argüelles also offered lyrical and measured solo playing, but as the quartet entered the music took on a Phrygian feel and things morphed into what he described after as something “half Spanish” – his composition “Unopened Letter.”

But it was the fourth tune – called “Redman,” he said, and dedicated to “what could only be one of two saxophone players,” who turned out to be Dewey not Don – which clarified the influences on Argüelles’s conception of this group. I was hearing what I thought were echoes of Kenny Wheeler’s melodicism and – especially in the piano – of John Taylor’s latter-day harmonies, but “Redman,” both in the composition and in the improvisations that followed, hearkened directly and unabashedly to Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. The resonances were almost uncanny. I’m not charging Argüelles with derivativeness, but rather suggesting that Jarrett’s quartet music presents a lineage, and a potential, in quartet music that rarely if ever gets taken up by recent players. The groundwork laid by Jarrett’s group in the early 1970s brilliantly drew together groove and edginess, form and freedom; Argüelles seems to me, at least in part, to be taking up the provocations offered by the American Quartet in ways that are musically compelling and still, even this many years later, forward reaching. (Both “Mr Mc” and “Redman” were recorded in 2009 with an NYC trio – Michael Formanek and Tom Rainey – but those earlier versions seem to echo less the Jarrett group than Redman’s work with Ornette Coleman. The addition of Downes’s piano makes a huge difference in the overall texture of the music: Downes is among a youngish set of British pianists, including Liam Noble, Gwilym Simcock and Nikki Iles, who seem to me variously to have appropriated and repurposed some of Jarrett’s more open – and more polydirectional – musical trajectories, an inside-outside conception parallel to and even filtered though the work of longer-established players such as Paul Bley, John Taylor and perhaps even Stan Tracey.)
Of the remaining numbers in the set, “Phaedrus” seemed to draw on the idiom of Steve Kuhn’s ECM quartets with Steve Slagle, while the waltz-like ballad “A Life Long Moment” was affectingly lyrical. The alternately falling and lifting cadences of the oddly-monikered “Lardy-Dardy” produced a sinewy, organic swell and flux. “Triality” was built around a Dave Holland-like freebop line, while the quartet’s encore – called “Pick It Up,” I think – offered a floaty, looping shuffle. The concert felt like witnessing the emergence of a historically savvy, formally propulsive and musically progressive ensemble. It was a warm, involving and affirmative performance.

What John Coltrane Left Here for Us to Learn

Listening to jazz, to improvised music, changed my life, and for the better. The music started to matter to me early on, when I was still a teenager. It wasn’t that I had a particularly difficult life, but in the struggle through late adolescence to articulate myself as someone I hoped might become a coherent human being, the music was there, impelling. And I don’t exactly mean making music, since I was never a player. But for some reason, it presented me with a calling that has remained more or less insistent throughout my adulthood. Listening — actively, deliberately — to this music continues to offer me what feels like meaning. This kind of listening wants to be proactive and deliberate, a willful focusing of the ears and the mind. A concentration you have to work at. A version of this imperative, the call to pay attention, famously takes poetic form in the disjunctive closing line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (hardly a jazz poem, I’ll admit — it doesn’t even mention music, but dwells instead on the visual and the spatial), where a broken classical sculpture conjures the capacity to look (or to perceive, to attend) back through its viewers — its shoulders curve down, Rilke says, “durchsichtig,” which means translucent but also, literally, through-sighted — and to invite if not to demand, as the poem finishes abruptly addressing both onlookers and its own readers in the second person, that “Du mußt dien Leben ändern”: “You must change your life,” you must other your life, live otherwise. Illusions and delusions aside, I always knew I was never going to be much of a musician myself. But I still hear it, and write about it. It’s the experience of listening itself that continues to impel me, as what I hope to become as some sort of a creative maker, a poietes.

One of the metaphors that attaches itself to this music is curative; it’s good for you because, as Albert Ayler puts it, “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.” This kind of music makes the world — or at least my small corner of it — a better place to be. In “The Sick Man,” one of the poems gathered in Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa’s first Jazz Poetry Anthology, Wallace Stevens explicitly associates Southern Black American music — a mishmash of folk blues (“mouth-organs in the night or, now, guitars”), gospel choirs and jamming bands — with a capacity to heal an epigone (“late, late”), dispirited and ailing North, a cure that takes on a specific form of attention, a form of listening:

And in a bed in one room, alone, a listener
Waits for the unison of the music of the drifting bands
And the dissolving chorals, waits for it and imagines

The words of winter in which these two will come together,
In the ceiling of the distant room, in which he lies,
The listener, listening to the shadows, seeing them,

Choosing out of himself, out of everything within him,
Speech for the quiet, good hail of himself, good hail, good hail,
The peaceful, blissful words, well-tuned, well-sung, well-spoken. (206)

There’s an uncomfortable raciology here that needs to be acknowledged. Still, the seclusion Stevens describes as the generic solitude of the sick-bed is also uncannily analogous to the situation of the music fanatic, headphones on, volume turned up, listening to recordings. The poem attends, in the dual senses of waiting and listening, but it also promises to overcome in an imagined ideality the bifurcations of race, geography and history that both inform this music and mark its distance. What Stevens describes as healthy listening — betterment signaled repeatedly as “good hail” — is not musical imitation, trying to appropriate this music as his own, but verbal response, a mode of speech that wants to find its answerable style. The sort of listening that I find myself aspiring to practice, a listening invited and even provoked by jazz, impinges on the writing, critical or otherwise, here and elsewhere, that I’m trying to do. I aim to write out and to write through acts of listening, and to suggest how, in a number of crucial ways, we can come to recognize the temporal drive and the vitality of literary language — of the intensified, musical verbiage of poetry — by digging into the heft and flux of the improvised as it intersects with words, lines, periods: and by trying to feel, in some measure, the pull of its moment, the “choosing” for which Stevens’s poem calls.
On the back cover of Echoes of a Friend, a 1972 recording of piano solos of compositions by and dedicated to John Coltrane, in whose great quartet he played in the 1960s, McCoy Tyner cites an old Calvinist adage: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” His intention is clearly to honour Coltrane’s genius, to affirm the saxophonist’s singularity and to acknowledge with careful humility his own part in Coltrane’s legacy. But what emerges in this brief statement is a figuration of the instrumentalist not so much as co-author of the work, which Tyner clearly was, but as listener, as student, as apprentice: the passive voice — “are chosen” — suggests both a sidelining of artistic ego in the service of greater things and an erasure of artistic agency in favour of a more romantic notion of the artist as passive receptor, as Aeolian harp. Stevens, in a subtle but deft move, refigures the listener as an active presence, as hearing becomes a forging in the consciousness of the listener not just of sound but of aural form, and of meaning. Heartsick and passive though he — or she — may initially appear, the listener for Stevens intervenes in the music, which transforms from “singing without words” into a plenitude of speech. The change, the healing that jazz — that Black Classical Music, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk called it — affects in this outsider, is not a case of being called or chosen, but of choosing, of taking up that call and making it speak back, a form of existential call and response.

So then, here is a story about how I once missed my own calling. In junior high when they announced over the PA that anyone who wanted to be in the school jazz band was to come down to the auditorium, I must have been talking, because I missed the announcement. And it never occurred to me, naive and acquiescent as I was by nature, that I might have still been allowed to join up after that. When I found out after school about the call for the band, I figured that was it, I’d missed my big chance, although looking back now I can’t really blame anyone else, since I was probably just more interested in other things — other than music, I mean. (I was in the drama club that year, and worked on the yearbook.) I’ve always liked brass, and used to imagine myself with a trombone, an instrument my younger brother picked up two years later. (He was clearly the kind of guy who paid attention during home room.) Years later, at graduate school I used some of my scholarship money to buy a student-style Yamaha trumpet at a pawn shop; I still take it out of the closet about once a month, squeeze out a few awkward clams, then wipe it down and put it back in its case. If you don’t practice every day, you lose your lip. Like I said, I am no player. And, all things considered, I must never really have wanted to be one, or I’d have joined the band, somehow, long ago.

Taking part in improvised music, for me, hasn’t meant playing music so much as playing along, enacting a certain kind of participatory audience, of actively listening and responding, of aural interaction. Writing about jazz and improvisation, writing alongside, through and even against it, marks off some of the traces of that interaction, and also gestures at a language of enactment, of improvising critically and verbally, a form of what Ken Nordine and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, in different contexts, once called “word jazz.” (Reflecting on his 1957 LP Word Jazz, Nordine defined what he does as “a thought, followed by a thought, followed by a thought, ad infinitum, a kind of wonder-wandering”; essentially, as a precursor to the surreal monologues of Spaulding Gray or the transcribed monologues of David Antin, Nordine improvised serial text over a hard bop background, his first two records featuring a jazz quintet led by cellist Fred Katz.) What this meant, for me, was that there could be a viable intersection of language and music, of the written and the performative, of script and improvisation.

Things started, and kept on, with record collecting, a habit I acquired at fifteen from my friend who lived down the road from me and who had a good stereo. We used to hang around in his basement after school or on Saturdays, listening to his records and, later, some of mine. He got me into jazz. I don’t know where he heard about it. We lived in a small town in Nova Scotia, where the local AM station played a mix of country, the hit parade, and MOR rock. We were both pretty well-behaved middle-class fellows, but we were secretly hooked on punk, which was still around (this was about 1979 or 1980), though nobody knew Much about our two-person subculture, since we never actually dressed the part. But even if we never really walked the walk, we still tried to talk the talk. And we weren’t all that exclusive in our tastes, and would listen to anything with a bit of a rough edge: the Rolling Stones (Some Girls and earlier, none of that disco), the Who (anything with Keith Moon — and Pete Townshend loved the Sex Pistols, which was cool), Bruce Springsteen (The River was new), Elvis Costello (everything, which at that point amount to four records), and especially The Clash. And then, maybe out of boredom, maybe out of curiosity, we both bought some jazz. Well, I bought what he bought, which started out with two records. My Dad had some old albums by Dave Brubeck (Jazz Impressions of New York) and Al Hirt (On Broadway), but we disdained them as too mainstream and too tame — too middling white like us. We wanted something sophisticated, something unique. Something that didn’t fit. And I think in our own restrained way we wanted to rebel, we wanted out. So, we each got a copy of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue — ironically, one of the best selling and ubiquitous jazz albums of all time. And a copy of The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer compilation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk — an album that hardly anybody had, or ever would, although Rahsaan’s music, it turned out even more ironically, was even more closely in touch with mainstream pop, from Marvin Gaye to Burt Bacharach, than Miles Davis’s dressed-up “social music” of the 70s and after.

More often than not, that Rahsaan record was, to my ears, just plain weird, some of it to the point of being unlistenable. (There was a three or four minute meander on the nose-flute — Rahsaan Roland Kirk had a notoriously huge and abnormal instrumentarium, most of which he wore dangling from halters around his neck when he performed — called “Rahsaanica” that I could never get into, no matter how hard I tried to force it: Joel Dorn’s liner notes said it was genius, but I just heard noodling. It took me a long time to connect with what he called his “natural black inventions – root strata.”) Not too many people outside of aficionados and devotees, even now, have likely heard much of Rahsaan. (Most of the liner notes to recent issues and reissues of Rahsaan’s recordings used to be by Dorn, on whose independent labels these recordings often later appeared; in almost every one, he cites listeners who have experienced epiphanies — what Rahsaan himself might have called “bright moments” — at one of Kirk’s concerts: “I was blind until I experienced Rahsaan,” one listener rethinks the saxophonist’s disability into his own version of an amazing grace: “blind to the infinite potential of the human spirit.” Interestingly such insight, such personal revision, comes from Kirk’s auditory presence, his sound. Rahsaan, Dorn notes, “wasn’t given his due during his lifetime. He died frustrated, but he knew that someday people would get it.” Enlightenment, getting it, has been closely tied to jazz listening since its beginnings, even when it was essentially a popular dance music; the apocryphal story of Louis Armstrong’s response to a reporter asking him to define jazz — “If you have to ask, you don’t need to know” — implies a closed, cultish elitism that both informs the trope of “getting it” we hear circling around Rahsaan’s unjustly neglected music and runs counter to its fiercely loose populism, its imagined capacity to reach out to anyone and everyone.

Rahsaan’s music did reach me, however. I know this, because when I listened to one track in particular from that double album — a medley recorded live at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, which originally appeared on the second side of his Volunteered Slavery record — something was to break in on me: and not just for the first time, but every time I’ve played it on the stereo since then. The recording itself is pretty low-end. Rahsaan is backed by a great trio of pianist Ron (later Rahn) Burton, bassist Vernon Martin, and drummer Jimmy Hopps, but the piano is tinny and remote, the bass nearly inaudible, and the drums a slurry wash. But the technical quality, it turns out, didn’t really matter, and may even have pushed up the intensity of my bright moment, since Rahsaan’s flutes and saxophones are (in contrast to his band) miked so closely that the sound sometimes overloads with wow and flutter. He gets right in your face. While some might hear aggression in this performance, I hear energy, intensity, and explosive vitality. It’s next to impossible to describe what happens in the mere twelve minutes that this track takes, and it seems to me you need to hear it to believe it. Not because it’s transcendental in some naive sense, transporting us to realms of consciousness beyond words, no. But because it marks an intense collision of form and content, of tenor and vehicle, of signifier and signified that simultaneously informs and defeats what Roland Barthes once called being “condemned to the adjective” (180) in music criticism. It’s meaning, for me, consists in an iterable and nearly infinitely reproducible overwhelming of the break between act and description, a break that — if you think about it — actually forms the necessary gap across which meaning in language always occurs; this performance produces meaning both for and in the listener by closing the hiatus that requires language to mean in the first place. But I also need to be clear that I’m not talking about music itself, whatever that might be, but about a kind of affect, a response in and by a listener. About the ways in which the music enables and even contains a practice of audition, of audience.

On the recording, Rahsaan announces to his audience that he wants to play “a memorial and a short medley of tunes that John Coltrane left here for us to learn”; this particular Newport Festival happened almost two years to the day after Coltrane’s death, and the anniversary may have been on Kirk’s mind, although he also makes it clear that he “was playing this before [Coltrane] split, so I dig him very much.” It’s noteworthy that Kirk positions himself as a somewhat epigone synthesizer, a latter-day traditionalist who gathers and configures even the immediate musical past, demonstrating important continuities and influences; he gives his audience a lesson in jazz’s living history. Only one of the compositions Kirk chooses is actually composed by Coltrane, so the idea that the saxophonist “left” these tunes behind might at first appear odd. (The songs are Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Mongo Sanatamaria’s “Afro-Blue” — which has at times been miscredited to Coltrane — and Coltrane’s own “Bessie’s Blues.”) These tunes become Coltrane’s, however, not only in as much as he recorded them and put an almost indelible interpretive signature on them, so that they would be associated with him from that point on, but also because the first song in particular points to a continuity between Duke Ellington, from whose band book “Lush Life” comes, and Coltrane. Ellington and Coltrane recorded an impulse! album together in 1962, a session for which the pianist composed the infectious blues “Take the Coltrane,” its title signifying on another famous Strayhorn composition. The blues, as the basic idiom of an African-American folk tradition — Rahsaan called jazz “Black Classical Music” — also informs each of the compositions Kirk chooses from the Coltrane canon, but the blues is also variously skewed and rearticulated. Joel Dorn writes in his liner notes to The Vibration Continues that “Rahsaan was interested in preserving the music and reinterpreting it,” but his performance creates and sustains a more radical form of musical history than such banal statements indicate. Kirk invokes a complex network of associations and resonances that extend from New Orleans through swing and bebop to Coltrane’s avant garde output of the last years of his life; furthermore, he doesn’t simply replicate, as repertory, Coltrane’s style or sound, but reinvents this music as his own, accounting for Coltrane’s presence while freely — and even sloppily — adding in his take. Rahsaan’s classicism is neither staid nor fixed, but a renovation, an amicable and lovingly rough scouring of what has come before.

If his aim in revisiting Coltrane is pedagogical, if we are meant to learn something from this music and from Kirk’s revisionary re-performance of it, what we are taught, both by example and by participation, is how to listen. Kirk’s reworking of Coltrane is an act of directed listening, of “digging” what Coltrane played, but a listening that is also a musical performance to which we — the “us” Kirk invokes is both the audience at the live performance, who scream more wildly as his performance continues, and, because this is a recording, a more general evocation of his rather fallen and decrepit America (“Can you hear that yet?” Kirk asks Dorn, and, according to Dorn, also asks all of us) — are listening. His record becomes an occasion to relearn how to hear.

This insertion of the listener into the potential sound-space of the performance, the way in which the music makes room for response, for a kind of audience participation — or really, for audience as co-participation — emerges on the recording as the Coltrane medley gives way to a Kirk composition, “Three for the Festival,” which Kirk had originally recorded in 1961 for the album We Free Kings. Writing or playing himself into this medley might seem an act of egotism, working himself into the canon by attaching his own career retrospective to that of Coltrane, but “Three for the Festival,” as various bootleg recordings of Kirk’s performances demonstrate, was a staple of his live set. Nevertheless, Kirk clearly and unabashedly does write himself into that history, not only as an exponent but also as a living presence, its embodiment. This intervention is not, however, a form of hubris so much as a delineation in performance of that history, a lived iteration of the past not disguised as immediacy but reworked in a dynamic, present-tense, active mediation. “Three for the festival” is a show-stopper, which begins and ends with Kirk blowing a simple melodic line through three saxophones simultaneously. (Kirk continued to be charged by critics with mere gimmickry for showing off his multi-horn technique, but he was also clearly more interested in the musical potential of this kind of makeshift polyphony than in empty grandstanding.) This riff frames an extended solo on the flute, while the band double-stops behind him. The effect certainly centres the performance on Kirk and foregrounds his instrumental voice (as does the extremely uneven live mix of the recording, as I’ve already pointed out), but what happens during this solo has little to do with self-aggrandizement. Kirk customarily sang or hummed into the venturi opening of his flute, creating slightly detuned unisons or harmonies; the roughness of the collision between instrumental and vocal sounds isn’t so much a failing as a roughening designed to highlight what Barthes named “the grain of the voice.” Barthes’s essay focuses on operatic baritones, and on the demystification of a perfected tonality that essentially dehumanizes the voice itself. What we hear in Kirk’s tone is just the opposite, almost all grain. Breath, vocal cords, even musculature seem to sound across the mouthpiece of his flute, and because of the close-miking what we hear is the impact of air and lip on the surface of the microphone itself. As his solo continues, Kirk refrains from letting the flute sound, retracting his breath rather than blowing into the opening. Instead, a audible set of grunts, as he sings with his mouth nearly closed, along with the clicking of his fingertips on the flute’s pads, creates a species of musical mime, a refusal that sounds as music. The notes, held back in this way, become nearly pure percussion, rhythm without melodic content: we hear, in other words, the liminal background noise of the performance — the clicks and thuds of body and breath against metal that are usually covered over by the proper sounding of the instrument — now brought to the aural foreground. We hear the grain of his voice, as the voice holds itself contingently in abeyance; the grain, Barthes writes, is “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue” (182). “The grain,” he asserts, “is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs” (188). But there is more to this idea than a temporary reification of sound mechanics in Kirk’s solo; within seconds, the tension caused by holding back his breath leads to an explosion of sound, a slurry of spittle, ululation, laughter and unmusical noise into the flute. Kirk clearly loses control at this point in the solo, and as he works to find a tonality again, he starts speaking — well, cursing — into the flute. Here, not just sound but extramusical commentary enters into the performance; when we hear him stutter “god damn da da you [unclear swearing]” into his instrument, we also hear his struggle to reformulate his playing on the fly, and to acknowledge his failure to keep his music on track, in line with his intention. But that failure, importantly, also is his music at that moment: it’s still integrated into the solo, which never loses momentum, despite itself. Importantly, along with this collision of performance and commentary is a simultaneity of language and music, a simultaneity that Barthes (again, in a rather different musical context) suggests is the outcome of attending to “the grain of the voice, when the latter is in a dual posture, a dual production — of language and of music” (181). That grain, however, is better understood as friction than cohesion, “the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message)” (185). Barthes posits a new kind of criticism that becomes immanent to the object or performance that draws its attention, that catches its ear: the engaged listener doesn’t decode a message from the musical performance so much as experience, in this duality of word and sound, a rethinking of the structures of message-making themselves.

This doubling is what (via Rahsaan) “word jazz” is all about. This kind of critical practice, in as much as its calls for a newness, still depends on the delivery of a message, however, but it is not a content in the common sense of meaning or message. What listening to this music delivers, its message, is essentially a pedagogy, a mode of apprehension that wants to be learned, and relearned, rather than unquestioningly or casually regarded. You have to hear it, rather than just listening to it; you have to listen instead of merely hearing it. Such imperatives cling to this music, and form the core of what it not only invites but even requires from its audience. On his 1963 album Mingus Plays Piano, the bassist and composer Charles Mingus has a brief tune entitled “Roland Kirk’s Message.” (Kirk had played with the Mingus’s group that recorded Oh Yeah the previous year, with Mingus also on piano instead of bass.) One of my own responses to Kirk’s music was published in Descant in 1995, and takes up this idea of content, of message in the music, pace Barthes. It’s called “Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Message,” and it goes something like this:

Forget the word-jazz; tell it like it is.
Most people sleepwalk through their custard lives,
then waste what little snatch of breath remains
trying to talk their way out of waking up:

volunteered slavery. The world wears its chains
like a badge of honour. Nobody gives
a damn about nobody else. Who says
the blind’ll see? Darkness fills my cup.

Somebody tell me why. Charles Mingus said,
“Maybe someday they’ll hear,” but I doubt it.
The black and crazy blues pass on. We have
to bear the cross before the cross bears us.

The poem (I need to admit) is a tissue of quotations and intertexts from Kirk — including the titles of several of his compositions, as well as a modified line from his “word jazz” version of “The Old Rugged Cross,” which forms the last sentence of the poem. The lightly inflected African American idiom isn’t and can’t ever be mine, but remains an off-kilter ventriloquy of Kirk’s voice. This is my attempt, in a far more muted and formally constrained manner, to do something like what he did to Coltrane: not imitation, but tribute. The effort, as I know it, involves finding an answerable style; not trying to sound black, for example, but to collide my sense of my own subject position with Kirk’s to produce a tension between idioms, positions, languages. That tension, for me, also manifests itself as a refusal — again, ventriloquized through my imaginary, reconstructed Rahsaan — to accept the idiom in which the poem, as quotation, tries to cast itself; the call to forget the word-jazz, that is, is actually an instance, perhaps as best as I can contingently muster, of word jazz. The imperatives, miming Dorn or Kirk, also belie the demand for honesty, a demand that characterizes the canon of Kirk’s music and its interpretation quite thoroughly. An honest speech would, in at least one sense, be an embodied language that inheres in the grain of the voice, into which meaning collapses and from which it emerges as an undifferentiated manifestation of aural plenitude, as fullness. However, such a poem, as a demand, can never lay claim to any such completion. It opens a space, perhaps, but can never fill it, depending instead — whether as invitation or imperative — on the co-presence of another listener, to inhabit that gap.

One last note: the original publication of this poem carried an unattributed epigraph that I want to explain. When my friend first got The Vibration Continues, he played the Coltrane medley for a guy he knew, a trombone player from the school band. (Again, unlike me, he had paid attention during home room announcements.) After the trackfinished, my friend asked his buddy what he thought. “Well,” came the response, “I guess he made a few mistakes.” “Mistakes?” my friend said. “Man, that’s perfection.” The imperative, and even a certain elitism, in this statement sticks with me. Some people — well, all of us, really — have to learn how to listen, and listening — if anything can be said to be absolute about it, as an act — requires a renovation of expectations, and a willingness to open oneself to the possibilities of sound or text that isn’t necessarily cleaned up, even, rectified or fixed. “Perfection,” in this sense, names a phenomenology that is neither passively acquiescent nor egocentrically overbearing, but that seeks out a openings in structures of attention where self and other are held, contingently, in tension, as the technologies of making meaning, of meaning itself, are both produced and interrogated.

A Little Bit Late About Bettye Lavette

Like many listeners, I have come to Bettye Lavette’s music a little bit late. Just a few months ago, in a bookstore in Tsawassen, we picked up (for music to listen to in the car on the trip back home) the Bob Dylan tribute Chimes of Freedom, a January 2012 release that bills itself on its cover as “honoring 50 years of Amnesty International.” There are some great (and some mediocre) versions of Dylan spread over its 4 CDs, but when our player cued up Bettye Lavette’s cover of “Most of the Time,” I have to say that I was brought up short: it’s a powerful, fierce, committed, startling transformation of the song. “Who,” we had to ask ourselves, “is THAT?” It turns out that 2012 also marks 50 years in music for Bettye Lavette herself. Her first single, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man,” was recorded and released in 1962, when she was sixteen. Her career, for subsequent decades, seems to have been a long struggle for recognition, a story she tells in her forthright autobiography (also published in 2012, though titled after her first album for Anti-), A Woman Like Me. Her concert Saturday night at the Vogue, as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, was a revelation for me, a brilliantly orchestrated overview of that career, featuring songs from her early days to recent versions of Gnarls Barkley, but every song infused with aspects of that struggle to be heard and acknowledged, and given an edgy vitality, a moving immediacy and a grainy depth that lent her performance moment after moment after moment of true greatness.  As Marke Andrews notes in an omnibus review in The Vancouver Sunof the festival’s opening weekend,
Despite 50 years in the music business, [Bettye Lavette] remains largely unknown (“We’ve just completed the ninth year of our Who The Hell Is She Tour,” she joked to the audience), and seems determined to prove herself with each performance.
But there was nothing strained or effortful about her singing, only a fierce and unwavering commitment to the emotional substance of each song she chose. She engages lyric and melody on their own terms, but she also remakes them on hers. At one point in the concert, she admitted that she “wasn’t a writer,” but I think that might be exactly what she is. Most of her source material (from standards to Motown classics to country ballads to carnivalesque Tom Waits numbers) is so utterly and radically transformed that it becomes wholly her own; her re-casting of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” which she first covered in 1972, is nothing short of stunning, as she turns his frail nostalgic folk anthem into a tragically affirmative lament for lost days. The highlight of Saturday’s concert, for me, was a version of Pete Townshend’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which was the song she performed at the Kennedy Center in 2008 that seems to have secured a position for her in the pantheon of epochal voices. Slowing the song, almost to the point of fissure, at the verge of coming apart, drawing out the melodic line syllable by syllable as she felt her way along and through the notes – “Love … reign … o … ver … me …” – she made the music do what it needed to do for her, to allow us to recognize her, that is, to connect with her as a powerfully felt and powerfully feeling human being. I don’t mean to suggest that her voice was especially serene; any saccharine critical platitudes would be belied by her take-no-shit attitude toward her own 50-years-overdue canonization. I think there is something to be said for hearing her performance in relation to what Edward Said called “late style”:
The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works, often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of reality. . . . But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction?
Bettye Lavette offers us neither one of these alternative alone, but sings instead with a resilient, difficult beauty. “Late style,” as Said puts it, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.” In her voice, I hear a collision of fierce self-awareness and commanding aesthetic presence. For real.

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part One

In the next handful of posts, I’m going to parcel out some revisions of a sixty-odd-page draft of what remains of a chapter for a book (once called Earmarked) that was never to be, maybe never meant to be. The chapter, which I called “Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales, and the Commodification of Genius” was occasioned by me finding (about ten years ago now, maybe longer) a fairly pristine LP copy of Keith Jarrett’s famous and well-circulated Köln Concert album at a yard sale in Vancouver, and also by a brief and really unremarkable exchange I had with the seller over the right price. The chapter was intended as a recuperation of a Marx-influenced formalist materialism, close to the sort practiced by Theodor Adorno about forty years earlier; as an implicit plea for the necessity, in our own time, of a kind of critical archaism, a deliberately out-of-step temporality; and as an interrogation of the figure of the postmodern genius, or of the virtuosity of the extemporaneous thinker. How does improvisation either resist or accede to becoming cultural capital? Is its cultural capital, in fact, inscribed or encoded into the work of resistance?
I’ll start with two quotations, to set the project up, the first from music critic John Corbett:
One of the things I like most about LPs is the way they absorb history. By that I don’t mean the history of the music, but also the history of each record as an object; records are repositories of music’s material culture. CDs seem less historically palpable than LPs. Collectible CDs? Maybe, but not for me.
And the other from Karl Marx, the eleventh of his theses on Feuerbach:
Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern. (Or, something like, “Philosophers have merely and variously interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”)
Despite my hopes at academic relevance, it seemed quaint to me then and its seems quaint now to begin with such a citation from the “Theses on Feuerbach,” particularly this one, the eleventh, which has been flogged like a dead horse at the crossroads of interpretation and action, of what thinkers do and what they think they ought to. To me, now, it sounds more like an excuse than an imperative, a means of translating the feint of engagement in critical and academic writing into something that really matters, that changes the world. Marxism now, however various and unruly it might be, however impossible to frame as a coherent movement, has also come to appear dated at best: notions of socialism and social reform, class consciousness, commodification and exchange, property and value, have shifted so drastically in the last century, many to the point of conceptual dissolution, especially in the rather privileged Western European sphere. With multifarious levels of access to and exclusion from investment (everything from bank accounts to mutual funds), the blurring of ethnic and national identities, the suffusion of global capital into uncertain and contingent oligarchies like multinational corporations and free-trade alliances, the diffusion of a complex body of worldly information through the mass media, the idea of an economically determinate class, for example, seems historically remote, out-of-date. All this seeming is no doubt at least in part a function of my own economic and cultural privilege; I have the luxury and the leisure to release myself from the imperatives of social transformation, a comfort zone established by my rarefied – if still tenuous – position within many networks of value. Certainly there are haves and have-nots, the well-to-do and the poverty-stricken, but the boundaries and divisions are no longer so easy to determine, if indeed they ever were. Participation in the mechanisms of consumption and exchange is neither uniform nor closed, and the forms of consciousness and solidarity on which Marx might have depended for the renovation of labour and worth have become permeable, plural and radically indeterminate. It is truly difficult, for instance, to ascertain who exactly might constitute a proletarian body. Most late and post Marxisms, from Adorno on, have winnowed away the categories of Marxist analysis (from class to ideology) to the point that they can no longer find much of a purchase in the contemporary economic and political morass. It would be fatuous to dismiss Marxism as irrelevant; indeed, given the transformation of an orthodoxy of political economy into what Michel Foucault once characterized as “divergences” in a foundational “discursivity” (Rabinow 114-5), I should note instead how Marxism has come to designate a limited but prolific body of intersections, a master canon continuously inflected and re-written by an array of theoretical and critical modes:
Annales school historians, Frankfurt School theorists, Poststructuralists, Reader Reception Theorists, New Historicists and Cultural Materialists have reformulated Marxist principles and extended them by drawing more and more widely on other ideas from other texts — texts of philosophy, ethnology, anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis and religion. They have produced a variety of transformations, inversions, displacements and reformulations, resolving some of the impasses they inherited and reinscribing others. And they have made Marxism perhaps the most imperialistic discursive formation today. (Bannet 2)
I think I tend, however, to lose sight, in the wake of this permanently self-revolutionizing theory, of what might still be said to constitute the core of a Marxist critical praxis. (Bannet appears unwilling to grant the positional solidarity of a proper name to her “Marxism,” given its decentred plurality.) Returning to canon, to the classic statements of value and revolution we might associate with Marx himself, doesn’t prove particularly satisfying, either. The demand that workers of the world unite, for example, would serve as well for a slogan for Benneton advertising as it might for union bureaucracies, and clearly re-inscribe a deeply problematic collective determinism that is deeply endemic to the hegemonic forms of western politics. (What workers do we mean? What constitutes work? How is a proletariat demarcated? What world do we mean — first, second, third or fourth? Unite on whose terms? How?) It is difficult still to hear a deeply felt call for socialist revolution. Manifestoes date themselves, locked into their own inevitable anachrony.
The flipside of such anachrony, its camera obscura inversion, has to be nostalgia. I remember when I was fourteen, or fifteen at the most, I bought from our local bookstore a blue-spined Pelican paperback version of The Communist Manifesto. It’s short, a quick enough read, but it is also so historically and materially specific in its frames of reference, with its welter of dated prefaces and that its smallish scholarly apparatus (by none other than A. J. P. Taylor), that I had a hard time feeling anything of the insistent presentism of its famous opening: “A spectre is haunting Europe . . . .” but a spectre that felt, at least as an adolescent reading experience, more archaic than disturbing. I wasn’t a particularly careful reader, sure, but I seemed to know that the book, that this particular book, could have very real transformative power as a material object. I could use that manifest spectre, I mean, to scare my parents. Which is exactly what I think I did. I remember announcing to them from the back seat of the family car, book in hand, that I had become “a communist.” I hadn’t joined any political organizations, of course, and I don’t think I even knew anyone who was especially political. I think my parents took my declaration fairly calmly, assuming I had next to no idea what I meant, which wasn’t exactly true. I knew some things. I think, looking back, that this announcement offered me a point of Oedipal differentiation, a small shock I could leverage into separating myself from the everyday security of a safe middle-class paternalism. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this; privilege will feed and clothe you. Maybe I liked the idea of risk, without any experience of it. This moment, when saying “communism” offered me the literary pretense of action, a very small-scale moment of teenaged shock-and-awe, was also the moment when politics – at its very outset, even – deteriorated almost instantly into mere style.
In Why Marx Was Right (2011), Terry Eagleton reacts to this political anesthesia, symptomatic of late-stage capitalism, by arguing for – or at least asserting, declaring – the necessity of Marxist thought in a seemingly post-Marxist world, a world that appears to have left Marx behind. Marx’s “archaic” quality, Eagleton asserts (making a point about a return to “Victorian levels of inequality”), “is what makes him still relevant today,” that Marx still offers a means to regard capitalism, critically, from a contingent but critically-viable outside (Eagleton 3). “In these dire conditions,” Eagleton writes, citing Fredric Jameson, “‘Marxism must necessarily become true again’” (8). Marx is right for our own time, for Eagleton, because of his vatic prescience, because – against the odds, perhaps – in Adorno’s formulation, he threatens to be right, because we don’t want him to be. Eagleton suggests that Marx foresees the contemporary consequences of globalization, for example, and also offers a still-viable conceptual path for the critique of the massive commodification of experience. I think Eagleton is following Friedrich Engels, in a famously deferential note in the last chapter of Engels’s late book on Ludwig Feuerbach:
Here I may be permitted to make a personal explanation. Lately repeated reference has been made to my share in this theory, and so I can hardly avoid saying a few words here to settle this point. I cannot deny that both before and during my 40 years’ collaboration with Marx I had a certain independent share in laying the foundation of the theory, and more particularly in its elaboration. But the greater part of its leading basic principles, especially in the realm of economics and history, and, above all, their final trenchant formulation, belong to Marx. What I contributed — at any rate with the exception of my work in a few special fields — Marx could very well have done without me. What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a wider and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. I[t] therefore rightly bears his name. [Italics mine.]
Praising the genius of Marx, for Engels, is obviously a way of acknowledging both his intellectual brilliance and his visionary acuity. The Latin etymology of the term genius – a transliteration of the Roman name for something like a guardian angel or “tutelar spirit” – is linked (my old companion W. W. Skeat suggests) to the idea of the genus, genetic kinship, creative or generative origin, maybe even to push things a bit, something like a muse, an instructive spirit. Marx’s genius, along these lines, makes him into a corrective spectre who haunts our world, and who persistently speaks against the oppressive tendencies of our times, a counter-episteme. Eagleton explicitly states that this Marx isn’t the one he wants to recover, the Marx of “moral and cultural critique” who seems to him next to impossible to dismiss as foundational to most critical projects in the humanities. And maybe this means leaving Eagleton behind now in my current trajectory; but it’s important to acknowledge how even Eagleton’s doggedly practical and political recuperation of Marx depends upon and is haunted by that genius.
         The political and the cultural, that is, are difficult to disentangle, which seems like a banal enough claim to make, hardly a claim at all, except that the question of how that interdependency articulates itself, particularly across the domain of the aesthetic, becomes both crucial and vexed – bewitched, Adorno might say. Aesthetic abstraction, the rarefication of artistic material and experience, takes on the quaintly archaic appearance of privilege and withdrawal, but that rarefication can also be understood as an at least contingently foundational moment for political engagement, the fraught origin of what Fredric Jameson calls, potentially, “a radical intervention in the here-and-now and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities” (The Cultural Turn35). I hear Adorno’s negative dialectics all over Jameson’s argument:
In the old days, abstraction was surely one of the strategic ways in which phenomena, particularly historical phenomena, could be estranged and defamiliarized; when one is immersed in the immediate – the year-by-year experience of cultural and informational messages, of successive events, of urgent priorities – the abrupt distance afforded by an abstract concept, a more global characterization of the secret affinities between those apparently autonomous and unrelated domains, and of the rhythms and hidden sequences of things we normally remember in isolation and one by one, is a unique resource, particularly since the history of the preceding few years is always what is least accessible to us. (35)
Jameson is talking about theorizing the postmodern, but – and I don’t think I’m out of synch here – he is also outlining a poetics here, at least implicitly, and even – in his gesture at rhythm – a musical aesthetic. And he’s talking, for that matter, about how Marx’s genius might materialize in contemporary language, how it might sound itself.
What’s emerging, I think, is an aesthetic of relevance, of creative urgency that matters. How is it, the question goes, that Marxism might remain, as Marxism, relevant if not contemporary, given its archaism, its ineluctable entanglements with “the old days”? Douglas Kellner argues, following both Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, that Marxism is defined by its persistent field of crisis:
Marxism still has the theoretical and political resources to provide an account of contemporary history and strategies for radical social transformation. In a sense, Marxism is always in crisis as new events emerge that require revision and development of the theory. Marx himself and subsequent Marxists were always revising and reconstructing the theory to take account of historical developments and to fill in the deficiencies in the original theory. In this sense, “crises of Marxism” are not so much signs of the obsolescence of the Marxian theory as a typical situation for a social theory facing anomalies or events that challenge its theories. (16)

For Kellner, scientific or orthodox Marxism can only be misapplied and inappropriate, but critical Marxism remains relevant (especially Frankfurt school, especially Marcuse): “Because no competing economic theory or critique of capitalism has emerged to replace Marxism, it is still an indispensable part of radical social theory” (18). But what constitutes the core of a theory, the theory, which is wholly self-renovating? For me, it’s the collision of the archaic and the nostalgic – that is, in a sense of the ideological and the utopian – in textual-materialist engagements with the historical. Historicizing Marxism itself, which asserts its relevance as a theory of historical crisis and transformation, refigures its quaintness. Responding to critiques of Adorno’s Marxist anachrony, Jameson argues that “if you reproach Marxism with its temporal dimension, which allows it to consign solutions to philosophical problems to a future order of things, . . . a vision of postponement and lag, deferral and future reconciliation,” you are in effect assuming an a-temporal critical posture he associates with the postmodern:
it may be admitted that this future-oriented philosophy — which prophecies catastrophe and proclaims salvation — is scarcely consistent with that perpetual present which is daily life under postmodern or late capitalism. (Late Marxism 231)
The radical critique proffered by Marxism has remained, for Jameson, its “genuine historicity,” the insistence upon historical renovation — even to the point of facing its own immersion in the historical, its own perpetual theoretical anachronism — to which Kellner also holds.
      So, I want to use Marx as a point of departure for at least two reasons. First, my initial object of study, the yard sale, operates like a peculiar pocket of capital production and exchange both within and outside the complexes of regulation, distribution and control that constitute the wider market. Like Marxism itself, yard sales are inherently quaint. They are highly localized, interstitial formations at which nascent commodities, in the Marxian sense, are able to gestate, baldly exposed to view: yard sales offer an immediate display (an aesthetic) of capitalism in its infancy. Marxist critique, for a moment, applies. Second, the actual ideologeme that I want to isolate and interrogate – the production of “genius” – feeds back into the dialectic articulated by Marx’s eleventh thesis, tired as it may seem. How is it, I want to ask, that an acquired object – in this case, a particular record by Keith Jarrett – shifts from a thing interpreted (as valuable, as meaningful) to a political manifesto, an immediacy which no longer simply represents but enables participation in a kind of community of action, a shift, as Keith Jarrett might say, from the passivity of audience member to the activity of listener. An apparently trivial, everyday act – buying a used album in somebody’s garage – presents a potential moment to call radically into question the structures of consumption and determination that almost invisibly and nearly inaudibly govern and shape us.
         More to come. (Next, theorizing yard sales, then acquiring, and listening to, Keith Jarrett.)
Works Cited to This Point
Bannet, Eve. Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory After the Marxist
Paradigm. New York: Paragon House, 1993. Print.
Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage
to Dr. Funkenstein. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. Print.
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right. New Haven: Yale UP,
2011. Print.
Engels, Friedrich. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German
Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the
         Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990. Print.
– – -. The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern,
1983-1998. London: Verso, 1998. Print.
Rabinow, Paul, ed. The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon,
1984. Print.

Torn Daisies and Drift

Here are live recordings, from a concert this past Friday evening, of soprano Phoebe MacRae and pianist Rachel Iwaasa premiering two new art songs, each using text taken from my poem “First Person Shooter.” The first, “Drift,” is a setting by Vancouver composer Alex Mah. The second setting, “Torn Daisies,” is by Winnipeg composer David Betz. The premieres were part of the Songfire Festival’s “Playing with Fire” concert, showcasing new music emerging from this year’s collaborative Art Song Lab, part of the Vancouver International Song Institute. My sincere thanks to Ray Hsu, Alison D’Amato, Michael Park and Rena Sharon.

Ex Tempore


A quick post ad hoc from my mobile to initiate things. One of the research streams from the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative is called “improvisation and pedagogy.” A symposium on music education was held at the University of Guelph a couple of weeks ago that affirms a general tendency in this research stream to focus on improvised music, particularly jazz, as a model for education, particularly around practice-based research. Other significant threads want to develop community, collective and even networked paradigms for learning and for knowledge-sharing around the kinds of work done by the AACM in Chicago beginning in the mid-1960s. (See George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself.) My own interests, particularly as a pedagogically-untrained academic, involve assessing and exploring the implications of using both musical and theatrical improvisational techniques in the classroom. What are the cultural politics and the ethics around importing such aesthetic practices into an educational setting? How can improvisation be theorized as a pedagogical practice? More to come.

VISI Art Song Lab 4, Sprechstimme

What came to mind watching and listening to the rehearsals, the workshops and then the performances of art-songs created this past week was a tensile interdependence of cantus and poesis. The poems, as song-text, were written first for the most part, although during the week some alterations and revisions happened, as words were adapted for and inclined toward the music. In some cases, the same poem developed into two distinct versions; in my own case, the words didn’t change, but one of the two composers working from it, David Betz, used an earlier draft (which I had sent him by e-mail, to let him see the progress I hoped I was making coming up with suitable text) as the basis for his composition, so a few words and phrases don’t appear in the finished poem. (For instance, the title of his art-song, “Torn Daisies,” uses an adjective I changed [to “shredded”] in the final copy.) But I am very happy to let these slippages stand, partly because they work in his setting, and partly because I think that such misprisions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, cut to the heart of collaborative interdependence: the words take hold in the music, but also have to be let go, partially and partly, by the poem from which they originate. In David’s case, his setting deliberately mines the original poem for phrases and word-clusters that he seems to have felt resonated with his own textural sound-palette, but he almost wholly disregards the narrative or even syntactical order of the poem itself (although he does end his song, for example, with the last line of the poem, so some structural imperatives could still be translated, for him). In this instance, the poem has to be released from its formal bands, as speech, to adapt to the melodic contours of song.
This tug between cantus and poesis, between song and speech, can be read as a species of translation, but it can also be set apart from translation in its mundane sense, as derivative or secondary language, if by working between media we want to pursue a more primordial pathos. In À cor et à cri (Hue and Cry, 1988) the poet, ethnographer and surrealist Michel Leiris attempts, in a book-length collation of notes and lyric fragments, to map an alchemical genesis, a passage (cri-parole-chant) from visceral cry winnowed through words toward a condition of song: chanterfor Leiris means not merely to put words to music, not melopoeia, but also to materialize a perceptual intensity, gathered by and diffused through poetic language. He juxtaposes this heightened, conceptually genetic (that is to say, phenomenologically vital) modality to the servility of translation:
Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile des traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passe de la parole au chant?
In practical terms – that is, in terms of the realization of an art-song and not merely its conceptualizing as an idealized poetic state of language – I think one element that might enact this tension performatively, audibly, is the technique of Sprechstimmeor song-speech (literally, speech-voice). In Alex Mah’s setting of the middle section of my poem “First Person Shooter,” which he titled “Drift” after an early version of the text, the vocal literalizes (as a kind of active reading, a lettering) this tension in phonemic stutter and repetition at the outset of the song (“st . . . st . . . stalled . . . stalled”), as if the grieving singer were unable to find her words, as if singing itself, as keening, were an act of verbal grief, stalling on itself. This stutter suggests both semantic shortfall – not having the words – and creative agon, a voice contesting its existential impediments to find an expressive diction. The words of the poem initiate and thematize this agon, but it can only fully realize itself in musical performance, becoming song rather than recitation. A little further along in the setting, Alex introduces Sprechstimme, and even produces a performative version of what Paul de Man named an “allegory of reading” or what J. Hillis Miller might call a “linguistic moment,” as the vocalist falls back into her speech register to utter the word “unspeakable.” It’s a dramatic effect, certainly, but also a semantic paradox, in as much as she says that she cannot say, as song diminishes or frays back into utterance, retreating from the agon in the initial stutter, rendering it all but pyrrhic: a version, or perhaps an inversion, of what Martin Heidegger meant when he claimed, in poetry, that “Die Sprache spricht.” In the performance last Friday evening, Phoebe MacRae did a tremendous job conveying not simply the feeling of grief over the events to which the poem responds – the Sandy Hook shootings – but also the essential pathos of the shortfall of language itself, of our inability to make sense of the senseless.
         I want to try to frame this tension, which I think operates at the core of art-song as a genre, by looking to the last lines of another poem written for use by the Art Song Lab, Leah Falk’s “Directions to My House”:
I am also a door, remember,
                           hinged to wind
                           swinging between
                           a list and lost
It’s a fine poem, which both investigates and resists the teleology of directions, of the map, to interrogate lyrically the concept of home-coming, of nostos. But our sense of home at the poem’s formal close has been unmoored, even rendered abyssal. The speaker-singer herself becomes a transitory and contingent site, permeable and unfinished. (Notice the absence, for instance, of closed punctuation – these sentences begin, but refuse to conclude.) The poem as descriptive list, as a catalogue of traits or a repository of images, hinges on a vowel shift – from the typographical (door-like?) rectangle of the i to the open oval of the o – between empirical certainty and placeless vacancy. Leah Falk’s spare melopoeia, a muted vowel-music, draws her words close to song, while also refusing the semantic surety of bel canto. Pathos emerges for me, as listener and as reader, in negotiating the fissure, the persistent and lyric gap between sound and meaning, not in wanting to try to suture it shut.

VISI Art Song Lab 3, Compose

Tuesday afternoon, Jocelyn Morlock offered an open workshop intended to address some of the possibilities of art song from a composer’s perspective. Instead of examining work by any of the current participants in the Art Song Lab, she presented some of her own work for audition and scrutiny, describing the challenges she faced in composing for text and also inviting us to re-think with her some of the formal and conceptual choices she made in her work. She opened with a reconsideration of “Somewhere Along the Line,” a song she created recently with Tom Cone during the last months of his life, when he was ailing with cancer. “He never heard it,” she told us. It was first performed by Rena Sharon and mezzo-soprano Melanie Adams on April 29, 2012; as a circumstantially posthumous work, it became, Jocelyn Morlock said, “the collaboration I never wanted to happen.” But the recording she played also helped her and helped us to start to think about the tensions and convergences at play in the making of an art song, the ways for her – she suggested at a number of junctures – that the music both interprets and, with as much care and respect as makes sense (particularly in this song) for the perceived intention behind the text, misinterprets the words. All interpretations are, to some extend, inevitably misprisions and misdirections, but Jocelyn Morlock was particularly concerned with trying to find connections between the musical and verbal lines in “Somewhere Along the Line.” Her setting creates a gently constrained pathos – it’s a beautiful piece. But what makes it even more interesting from a compositional point of view – to a non-musician like me – is the way in which it exploits aesthetically the shortfall in meaning that the poem itself thematizes; that is, the text suggests a trajectory into uncertain space, which she identified with Tom Cone’s sense of his approaching death: in the poem, he is, she suggested, “completely on unknown ground.” For me, this uncertainty offers a potential egress into the formal and conceptual fissures between sound and sense, music and word, fissures that open in the idea of line, both melodic and poetic. “I try, but can’t,” the poem reads – but in that truncated half-stich, suggests not failure but a valuing of what it is to try, of asymptotic convergence, of the approach of declarative and performative. Music emerges in and as a kind of contingent suturing, not as closed concord but as carefully collided difference, as mutuality. (See the end of this post for the recording of “Somewhere Along the Line,” shared from her SoundCloud page.)
She played us another of her collaborations with Tom Cone, a less pietistic number for solo voice called “My Orange Thong,” as well as her own setting of Goethe’s Second Wanderer’s Nightsong (via Franz Schubert):
Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen in Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
Discussion about the composer as translator, as well as questions of deference and fidelity, came up around this piece. It seemed to me – although I’m not sure that everyone agreed – that what might be perceived as loveliness or even pathos in this lyric also leans, particularly in our own time, closer toward bathos and preciousness; how in or out of step is a Romantic impulse now? It’s a question worth asking, still, and worth addressing not just reflectively or critically, but also poetically, by translating. For me, who has only rudimentary and poor German, a word like “Vögelein” wants to be translated, deliberately, not as “little birds” but as “birdies” (or, someone suggested, “birdlets” – a bit like Chaucer’s “briddes” from The Parliament of Fowles:On every bough the briddes herde I singe, / With voys of aungel in hir armonye . . . ” [lines 190-1].) But such translation runs the risk of disrespect, and of puncturing the overly sweet lyricism (Chaucer says “ravishing sweetness”) of the text – a harmonious lyricism it appears many listeners still, 200-odd years later, expect and even demand of a poem. (While I’m on Chaucer, a few lines later in the poem, he describes a hybrid Ptolemaic-NeoPlatonic-Christian attunement of the spheres reproduced by that orchestra of birdies as a model for poetry, for art song:
Of instruments of strenges in acord
Herde I so pleye a ravisshing swetnesse,
That god, that maker is of al and lord,
Ne herde never better, as I gesse
But I also hear, no doubt anachronistically, a gentle prising open of high-blown seriousness in the playfully colloquial, mild irony [rather than stentorian certainty] of his last phrase, “as I guess” – not so much as discord, but as non-accord, as orchestrated difference. There was no reference to Chaucer, of course, in the discussion of Goethe and Schubert, but I’m digressing here to suggest the variously random and agnogenic resonances that emerged for me as I was listening and thinking about the respectful translation of text, from person to person, from setting to setting. I think that this playful uncertainty can offer a creatively energizing model – one path among many, perhaps – for translation, for collaborative intersections both within and among art-forms.) Her own resetting of the Goethe text, which she presented in a recording, was both lyrical and moving; but I also appreciated what I heard as Jocelyn Morlock’s willingness to embrace play in her music, not to undermine its aesthetic import but to sustain a non-exclusive openness that seems to me to be crucial to the collaborative work of art song in all of its styles and practices.
         Prodded by the session with Jocelyn, I took a stab at re-translating Goethe, with mild disrespect, I suppose, but also with an intention of opening up the text to other contextual and historical resonances, wanting to emphasize this brief lyric’s enmeshment in the allusive fabrics, the resonant polysemy, of our oversaturated and heavily mediatized brains; to me, the simplicity evoked not so much Chaucer (though “birdies” is still there) as Goethe’s near-contemporary, the rural wanderer John Clare, with his off-kilter homey syntax and his concision of diction around, of all things, the local Northamptonshire birds. So I tried a mash-up and re-mix as translation, a blurring of the particulate and the shared – still a little overcooked and thick, a little too adjective-heavy, I guess, I guess. But there you go. Thanks to Jocelyn Morlock for inspiration, and for an engaging and motivating workshop. (BTW, the word “exasperated” cut into the poem isn’t in Goethe, but it suggests breath and comes in this case from the annotations on Alex Mah’s score “Drift,” which was being rehearsed in the late morning before the workshop.)
The Vagrant John Clare’s Second Nightsong, Near Helpston, 1837  
Some kind of calm slouches
across these bald hillocks
Feeling stifles itself
in ruined choirs of trees
Exasperated birds
go mum, soon you will too
Soon enough you will too

VISI Art Song Lab 2, Practice

Betsy Warland conducted an excellent afternoon workshop on June 3 at the Canadian Music Centre focused on approaching art song from the vantage of a poet. She suggested moving beyond the poem as the genetic artifact for a song – as a source text that a composer then takes up and sets – and instead thinking more about the dynamic and nascent interrelationships between words and music, their interplay. Since the material coming out of the Art Song Lab is currently in development, participants are given a pretty much unprecedented opportunity to allow text and sound to intersect with and to reshape each other – a mutuality. Extending what Ray Hsu had said at our initial meeting the day before, Betsy Warland suggested that poet, composer, performer and even listener were engaged (both within and as a kind of network, I think) not merely in acts of interpretation but also in processes of mutual translation, a claim that for me gestures more fully toward the interplay of differences in the work, instead of encouraging a composer  to ferret out various hermeneutic cohesions between his or her composition and the poem and aspiring to make the musical and verbal likenesses. The emphasis on the creative potential of difference, tension and experimentation – trying out other things – really enlivened the collaborative aspects of compositional practice. Practice might be a resonant word here, in its temporally contrary senses both of praxis and of rehearsal.
         Betsy Warland also strongly suggested that we develop our art songs by focusing on emotional integrity, continuity and fidelity to experience – all of which will produce works that function as dramatic, communicative acts, as good songs. But I also hear a bit suspiciously in such very practical and excellent advice the ghosts of the kind of hermeneutic organicism I am  a little inclined to try to push through and to push aside in my own writing and thinking. She said she thought of art song as potentially negotiating a set of tensions (formal, conceptual, performative) in each song, on its own terms. Yes, exactly. So, the point might be not to discard the hermeneutic, but to tension it, to work at and through it.
         In the rehearsal sessions for the songs composed around my own poem, with soprano Phoebe MacRae and pianist Rachel Iwaasa, I found myself thoroughly impressed by the rhythmic sophistication both of the composers and of the performers. The poems on the page have very tight, specific syllabic rhythms (although the first section has been shifted out of an Emily Dickinson-ish small set of fourteeners and made into a brief prose-poem – though the folk-hymnal rhythms ought to still be ghostly there). Both  composers took up the words from different rhythmic angles; Alex Mah’s score seems fairly particulate, pulling at, and apart, individual words into their phonemic and syllabic components, working at the fragmentation of pulse at the level of the word, while David Betz has lifted phrases and segments from the poem, crossing over linear and spatial divisions (as I had arranged them, lineated them) to create what are still fragments, but which have more extension by enjambing – which has the effect of drawing out slightly longer cross rhythms from the language. I find I’m not especially attached to the poem as a verbal artefact, as something of mine anymore, or at all. I like the ways in which in these settings it takes itself apart, and reassembles as something else, someone else’s, but still linked to what I started with. Rachel also mentioned how she negotiated triplets and rhythmic clusters of fives and sevens, but overlaying them in her mind’s ear with words – a cluster of seven against four, for instance, can be felt by imagining saying the word “individuality.” Cool, I think. The abstraction of musical sound returns obliquely to the sematic loadings and rhythms of the colloquially verbal.