Flow, Fissure, Mesh

Home » 2015 (Page 2)

Yearly Archives: 2015

The Crucified Earth: Jan Zwicky, Robert Bringhurst and Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurstcomposed new poetry for a week-long series of performances of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” for string quartet, collaborating with a quartet from Early Music Vancouver that included Marc Destrubé and Linda Melsted on violins, Stephen Creswell on viola and Tanya Tomkins on cello. The last concert of the series took place on January 24, 2015, in Pyatt Hall in the Orpheum Annex in downtown Vancouver, with the space arranged as a café with candlelit tables, setting a mood of intimate intensity. Performing Haydn’s Op. 51 presents some unique challenges, not the least of which is what to do with what Bringhurst and Zwicky call in their programme notes “the presence of a text” in a work “designed as a magnificent musical envelope with seven pockets for spoken words.” The seven “words” are “seven short phrases from the Latin bible” that register in the rhythms and phrasings of musical lines, and it’s tempting to hear a form of textual mimesis in Haydn’s music, not unlike (for example) the fourth section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in which a “psalm” is delivered as a verbal recitation in the lead melody: “the musical phrases,” Zwicky and Bringhurst note, “rise from the meaning and shape of the text.” This noetic melopoeia seems to be what draws Bringhurst’s ear, in particular, to this work; his poetry recurrently pursues what he has called “the musical density of being.” I’m not sure that Haydn’s classicism would effect quite as much pull, although its measured textures mesh well with the chiseled exactitude of Bringhurst’s sense of line. Zwicky, too, shapes lyrical meshes of the musical and the philosophical in her poetry, and she has mined both Classical and Romantic European musical history for source material for her work.
In a pre-concert interview, Zwicky and Destrubé described the rehearsal process (at Zwicky and Bringhurst’s Quadra Island home), with Zwicky noting how for her, above all else, both poetry and music strove to realize an immediacy and a clarity, that the work could be taken in at “one hearing.” In their programme notes, Bringhurst and Zwicky describe how they developed a more ecumenically ecological set of texts, cued by the lines from the Latin translations of gospels that provided Haydn’s music with its original scaffolding, the seven last words of Christ at his crucifixion; noting that other poets – notably, Mark Strand – have written poems to accompany Haydn’s music, and that performances and recordings of the quartet have included interleaved readings from the biblical texts and other “poems on Christian themes,” they frame a pressing compositional problem:
After all these experiments, and in the face of Haydn’s own wordless eloquence, could there still be something to say? One reason to think there might be is, of course, that the crucifixion has never ceased. Man’s deliberate and vengeful inhumanity to man – and to just about everything else – is no less vivid and casual in the twenty-first century than in the first. So in 2014, when we were invited to supply some words for a performance of Opus 51 by Early Music Vancouver, we said yes. And our theme became what we thought it had to be in our time: the crucifixion of the earth.
This last phrase echoes the title of Zwicky’s award-winning 1999 collection, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, as well as the text of Bringhurst’s “Thirty Words” (1987), which was revised and expanded in the subsequent decade into an ecologically-focused liturgy, his “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Oreamnos Deorum”:
Knowing, not owning.
Praise of what is,
not of what flatters us
into mere pleasure.
Earth speaking earth,
singing water and air,
audible everywhere
there is no one to listen.
(Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press, 159)
The kind of listening Bringhurst both calls for and wants to enact in his work refuses the “mere pleasure” of distraction and pushes instead toward the excoriation and even the extinction of the callous “inhumanity” of the human, an audibility that demands that “no one” be listening, not in the service of nihilism but rather of the dissolution of our domineering egocentrisms. Zwicky can sound, at times, less confrontational, but she is no less exacting in her demand that, as Rilke famous has it, we change our lives: “Learn stillness,” she writes, “if you would run clear.” The clarity of style and the communicative immediacy that she wants in her poetry incline toward just such an attentive stillness, an extinguishing of our all-too-human desires for control and agency: a relinquishing.
         I’m going to concentrate my commentary on the poetry, which I’m recalling from memory (none of the texts is published, and all were newly written for the Haydn) and from whatever notes I managed to take. The string quartet played with lyrical ferocity and focus throughout; their performance was, for me, a marvel of concentration and emotive power – not at all, I have to confess, what I expected from a concert of Haydn. As for the poetry, the first of the seven pieces was a colloquy, a dialogue between the two poets modeled on the polyphonic (that is, multi-voiced) forms of Bringhurst’s “The Blue Roofs of Japan” or “Conversations with a Toad,” or Zwicky’s Wittgenstein Elegies. Both poets exchanged admissions of failure, their mea culpas, with Zwicky intoning how, as human subject, “I” have “failed to let the great breath of you move through me.” Uncannily, the concentrated, collective intake of breath by the members of the string quartet was audible as they launched into Haydn’s music with fierce conviction and palpable energy, making the lines appear to breathe through them. If Zwicky and Bringhurst acknowledged human failure, that loss was answered by the creative drive of the music that followed, a gesture at some form of responsive forgiveness. Bringhurst’s poetic prelude to the second sonata  (“Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43) declared that “This is it,” that humanity needs to recognize that paradise is present to us on earth, if we can recognize it. To lead into Sonata III (“Woman, behold thy son,” John 19:26), Zwicky picked up on this same imperative, to behold, to come to awareness, but again stressing the haecceity, the this-ness or the present-ness of the earth as it is, vitally:
Look up.
It’s the sky.
And the rain that is falling
is rain.
(I have no access to the print text: the line breaks are based on how Zwicky paused as she read.) That honouring of things in themselves was counterpointed by Bringhurst’s hard-edged text for Sonata IV (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46), which began by declaring almost Miltonically that “Hell is the absence of heaven and earth.” Bringhurst also composed the poem for Sonata V (“I thirst,” John 19:28), which again took up a condemnatory tone: “They will take much more than everything you have.” Notably, Bringhurst’s texts often distanced and objured the human – theywill – while Zwicky’s texts tended to emphasize collective complicity – we will . . . . For Sonata VI (“It is finished,” John 19:30), Zwicky offered a list of extinct species, in what was perhaps the most deeply affecting moments of the performance. She also closed out the poetic part of the performance, leading into Sonata VII (“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” Luke 23:46) with a lyrical framing not of guilt or condemnation but of tenderness,
                    a tenderness we can’t imagine
but still recognize, opening
and opening
its hands
(Again, my line breaks – not necessarily Zwicky’s.) That recognition, if only a prayerful gesture toward the relinquishment of shared self, a selflessness we might share at the limits of words, opened into a passionate musical response from the quartet, as the potentially cold edges of Haydn’s calculated classicism evolved into what felt to me almost Steve Reich-likerhythmic loops and cascades: a present-tense music that wanted to open our ears, collectively in that space and that moment, to hope and to possibility.

Vanderpump Rules Third Season Reunion Show, a Preemptive Précis (Poem)

Lisa
Don’t mistake fame or your beauty for mine.
Stassi
Come back, if only for the goat cheese balls.
Jax
Whatever else, the sex was adequate.
Tom Sandoval
Cover-up applies better clean-shaven.
Sheanna
Few become their own crop-topped bridal stylists.
Ariana
Who should be smart enough to know better.
James
Leave him to his posh busboy puppy love.
Katie
Nobody’s fool would motorboat a d.
Stassi
Betrayal wants another bff.
Lisa
Translated, the maid’s name means something pink.
The Other Tom, Tom Schwartz
Marriage gives most guys the jitters, bubba.
Ariana
Check your text messages, smirk and look up.
Jax’s “Therapist”
 The world will always validate your needs.
Peter, Vail, Kristina, Rachel, Shay,etc.
Second-string friends, bit players, fiancés,
third-rate fifth business, wannabes, the rest.
Line Cooks at SUR
(High five: some heinous puta just got fired!)
Katie
No proper girl wants a ring on a string.
Kristen
Your best and only boyfriend is the truth.
Chorus, led by Tom Sandoval
Shut up, Kristen, shut up, shut up, shut up.
Lisa
Who makes the rules should never sign the cheques.


Sleeve Notes for Vanderpump Rules Third Season Reunion Show, a Preemptive Précis

I was unabashedly hooked on the third season of the Bravo reality show Vanderpump Rules, which began its television life two years back as a spin-off of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I came across this season’s first episode late in 2014 while channel-surfing, and found myself unable to look away. The blurb on the Slice TV website says each week the program offers “yet another explosive wave of shocking betrayals, bold confrontations, and petty grudges,” which sound like reason enough to keep tuned in, but my own fascination and nascent fandom, I’m starting to realize, has less to do with salacious voyeurism and more to do with the pop poetry of their pervasively empty interactions. When Stassi claims she’s been betrayed by Katie, or when Jax recounts his own largely fictional version of some gossip that’s transpired earlier, I find myself at a loss to understand what exactly it is that these people are in fact talking about. Frankly, I don’t think I have ever known what any of them means, or means to say, most of the time. They’re usually talking about talking about nothing. Nothing. But their seemingly shallow and vacuous speech, embedded in what feels like a relentless carrier-wave of romantic pop-culture clichés, is also often tangibly bursting with strange verbal textures, inadvertently startling lines, weird resonances. They seem constantly to be saying nothing, but also to be articulating some emergent poetic language sui generis, to be touching on some shared and common fabric of language as such.
And so I aimed to make a sort of poetry, as a listener and as a committed viewer, out of segments of what they’ve said about each other. The reunion show, part one of which was broadcast this week in Canada – a week behind the States – and part two of which is still pending, saw the actors arranged in an amphitheatrical semi-circle in a room at SUR, as participant-spectators, both viewers and viewed. (Several of them, notably Stassi and Kristen, made careful note that they had “seen the show” – watched themselves on the show – in the interim between filming last summer-fall and this reunion.) The reunion is designed to elicit some degree of critical reflection from members of the group, but really the intention is to aggravate the controversies and to stir up old trouble. It struck me that, in the slippery double displacements of subject and object being staged at this reunion – they comment on themselves commenting on what they say and have said about each other – there were peculiar echoes of the populist aspects of Shakespearean meta-theatre, as well as repositioning of the agonistic choric odes of Euripides or Aeschylus, maybe along the lines of Anne Carson’s skewed anachronies.
My own small project also tries to mimic the Pentametron bot on Twitter: each voice could be rendered in something like an iambic pentameter monostich, an aphoristic reduction of what they might have said, and sort of did, or didn’t. The resulting text would be an aggregate of linked non sequiturs, a sort of compilation. There are no subjects, however, beyond the accretion itself: nothing but sound bytes of fanfiction-mediated personae, their un-voices. Because the poem is assembled from what must be public, fair-use artifacts (along with a hodge-podge of nods to various famous sonnets, to Irving Layton, to Gilligan’s Island and to David Peoples’s Blade Runner script),  I think the piece needs to be published as a blog entry, with all the attendant narcissism of self-publication (which, maybe, fits with the source material). And maybe I’m being pretentious trying to explain myself like this. Because really, who am I to talk?

Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown: Tuesday Night at Ironworks, 3 March 2015


Still a jazz childat eighty-six, Sheila Jordan – who performed in her duo with bassist Cameron Brownlast night at Ironworks in Vancouver – has a vitality and playful joy that show no signs of abating. Her two sets consisted of well-developed material – medleys of standards and classic bebop, peppered with a few originals – that she’s been performing for decades, emerging primarily out of her work with Harvie Swartz. That said, every song sounds thoroughly fresh, immediate and compelling. Her lower register has taken on a little grain, but her lilting scat lines, the chirrup and purl that are hallmarks of her vocals, are undiminished: the lightly off-kilter cadences of her improvisations are as intimately compelling and as warmly engaging as they have been since her stunning 1962 debut record, Portrait of Sheila (where she defines close relationship to the bass – in this case, Steve Swallow – that comes to shape her music for the subsequent half-century). 


          We all have our favourite Sheila Jordan records; aside from Portrait of Sheila, which is an indisputably essential album for any collection, I love The Crossing (1984, on Blackhawk) and her performance on Steve Swallow’s settings of Robert Creeley poems, Home (1980, ECM): I often find myself unexpectedly humming “Sure, Herbert . . . ” out of the blue. Despite what can sometimes feel like a timbre of quiet restraint, Sheila Jordan’s voice attains a peculiar resonance; it stays with you, softly plangent and quickly sonorous. The performances last night closely matched the material on Celebration (2005, High Note), which is I think the first live recording of her work with Cameron Brown, but you could never tell that this music was over a decade old. This is late work, for Jordan, certainly, but it’s also vivacious and exuberant; aside from some street noise coming through the club walls, the audience was so quiet and intensely focused on the music you could hear Cameron Brown’s fingers brush along the strings of his instrument.

A Sheila Jordan gig offers enraptured attentiveness, a focused close listening, but she’s also just so infectiously happy, laughing and larking through each song. Commenting on the flubs she sometimes makes in her “old age,” she said there was no need “to get uptight about it. As long as your heart and soul are in it, it doesn’t matter.” She and Cameron Brown started off with an introductory blues – “And so I’ll sing of joy and pain for you / With all the happiness this melody brings” – followed by a standard, “Better Than Anything.” A version of “It’s You or No One” came next, which Brown had also recomposed by adding a new, boppish melody to the changes, and re-naming it “Sheila, It’s You.” Cameron Brown is an extraordinary bassist, his fleet and virtuosic lines emerging from a depth that recalled Charles Mingus. (Shelia Jordan opened the second set with an anecdote about singing in duo with a bassist for the first time when she was sixteen and Charles Mingus called her onto the stage to do a version of “Yesterdays”; they also offered a take, amid a tribute to Billie Holiday, on Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”) There was a medley of dance-themed tunes dedicated to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (“I loved this cat, I’d walk two miles to see him dance . . .”), and another medley of songs associated with Oscar Brown Jr. that included her wonderful version of Bobby Timmons’s “Dat Dere” (which also appears, in tribute to Sheila Jordan, on Rickie Lee Jones’s Pop Pop). To set up her “Blues Medley for Miles” (“Blue Skies,” “All Blues” and Jon Hendricks’s transcription of the trumpet solo from “Freddie Freeloader”), she told a story of Billie Holiday sitting in a dark corner of a club warbling out “Miiiiiiiiles, Miiiiiles” while Davis soundchecked in a basement club in New York: he apparently asked if a stray cat had got into the room, which she thought was hilarious. Sheila Jordan – her music and her persona – is all about jazz history, recounting stories of her encounters with musicians in the 1950s, especially Charlie Parker. She did versions of what might have been “Yardbird Suite” – I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes – and what was definitely “Scrapple from the Apple”; Bird, sixty years after his death, was still a keen and powerful presence. She also gestured at her own Seneca heritage, vocalizing in an American Indian style to frame a version of the Jimmy Webb country ballad “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.” She acknowledged that the Seneca Queen Alliquippa was her great-great-great grandmother, – and so, she said, if it hadn’t been for Columbus she might have been royalty. The second set closed with an invitation to guitarist Bill Coon to join Jordan and Brown for a trio version of her anecdotal “Sheila’s Blues.” She offered her healing, restorative song of recovery, “The Crossing,” as an encore. As she left the stage, she laughed and called out to everyone: “Have a beautiful life, and if I don’t see you again, I’ll meet you in heaven.” Her music and her voice offered us all a gift of affirmation and of colloquial joy.


On Stephen Burt, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place

Stephen Burt delivered the 2015 Garnett Sedgwick Memorial Lecture at U. B. C. yesterday on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place.” For those who don’t know his work, he’s a professor in the English Department at Harvard University, currently teaching courses on “ways of reading and ways of hearing poetry” and on literature and sexuality; he’s also written extensively on poetry and poetics, particularly on the work of Randall Jarrell, and he’s published three collections of poetry. What I have discovered I like most about Burt’s critical writing, apart from its combination of clarity and intensity, is a willingness – or better, an articulate desire – to recoup lyric vitality from ideologically and aesthetically disparate poets, writers who, as he puts it, tend to disagree “in first principles, and  . . . come from all over,” yoked by an inclination to stylistic difficulty (see his Close Calls with Nonsense, page 6). Poems communicate texturally, for Burt, and those textures can sometimes be recalcitrant and forbidding, seemingly within the purview of intellectuals and literary academics; but poems also communicate, nonetheless and despite themselves, with certain affective immediacies, and it’s that public reciprocity that also draws his eye and his ear. As he puts it addressing himself in “Over Nevada,” a poem describing – circumscribing? – the prospect from an airplane window over Las Vegas, poetry distills formally from language a vital creative muddle, interstitial reciprocity, Simonidean coinage, exchange, indebtedness and gift: “How could you ever sort out or pay back what you owe / In that white coin, language, which melts as you start to speak?“ The communion of readers is fleeting and spectral, , but also, despite its frustrations, it is of this exact shortfall, it is this exact shortfall, that lyric language materially speaks.  


         His talk drew out a conceptual antithesis that marks the lyric, an ambivalence between the transcendental, “departicularized” tendency of lofty abstract language – that it happens anywhere, outside of history – and the concrete particularities of descriptive circumstance, that whatever happens inevitably has to happen somewhere, to someone. What’s interesting for me aren’t the terms of this opposition, which are so general as to be fairly banal, but Burt’s energetic investigation of the tensions between them as the stuff and the source of poetic work. Most loco-descriptive poetry, he argued, connect outward geography – I’d suggest, physiography – with “inner life” – I’d suggest not only physiology but also psychic topography. What persists, despite claims by Charles Altieri and others that the poetry of place has long since run its course, is according to Burt an intuitive sense of commonality tied to imagined place: that place, however articulated, is still  intersubjective, communal. He concentrated on the work of two key poets, for him: C. D. Wright and Mary Dalton. Quoting from Wright’s “Ozark Odes” – “Maybe you have to be from here to hear it sing” – Burt developed the homonymy of here and hear to suggest that Wright’s poems generate the textures and particularities of place apophastically, allowing the reader access through lyric attention, through the melopoeic richness of her geographically precise diction, to a phenomenologically rich encounter with that particularity. You hear the place, you sense it, palpably, in Wright’s words, despite and even because of her skeptical refusal to claim communicative success. The withdrawing “melt” of her language, in other words, is also recombinant and evocative, a plenitude. Burt gestured at Elise Partridge’s poem “Dislocations” (from Chameleon Hours, 2010 version) which also presents a “hybrid” form of lyric apophasis, refusing to lay claim to any naïve or grandiose transcendence while also, at a moment of surprising intensity, discovering how poetic intelligence still fuses to its descriptive objects, as “you feel your strengths intermingling.” One of the pleasures of Elise Partridge’s poetry, Burt said, is that its “attention to place does not preclude migration from one place to another,” and that some of her best work inheres in those transitions and intermediations. He concluded his talk with an investigation of some of the poetry of Mary Dalton. He was especially taken with how human geography and dialect words, in her poems, “imply the physical geography that the words produce.” He focused on the seductive estrangements of encountering the moments when she seemed to open her Newfoundland word-hoard. “Maybe you don’t have to be from there,” he concluded, “to hear it sing.”


Briefly, Taylor Ho Bynum and Francois Houle Duo at The Apartment, Vancouver, August 29, 2014

[There are a number of things – poems, travel, concerts, media stuff – from the summer and fall of 2014 I was set to write about, but life and whatever seem to have taken precedence, so I’m going to try to catch up on some of these things in the next few weeks. I have about a dozen or so fragments that need reworking, expanding, editing and polishing before they can make their way into the Frank Styles neighbourhood. Here’s the first of a bunch.]
On the night of Friday, August 29, Taylor Ho Bynum played a duo concert with François Houle at The Apartment, a small gallery on East Pender, just off Main Street in Vancouver’s Chinatown.  It’s been a while, but I took down a few notes to jog my memory. Taylor started with a solo piece; the concert was the first semi-official stop on his solo West Coast Bicycle Tour, which would see him pedal a huge number of miles alone down the left coast of North America, through September to early October. He kept an on-line diaryon his website, and has put up excerpts of his musical encounters – some planned, some by happenstance – on a Sound Cloud page. The solo had shards of marches, echoing maybe a little some of Anthony Braxton’s interest in John Philip Sousa and brass marching bands, but with mixed in growls, swoops and other cornet chop suey, concocting a few momentarily avant-Cootie-Williams-like lines. 


François Houle joined him for a version of Taylor’s composition “All Roads Lead to Middletown.”  Here is a field recording of their performance:

And here is a  duo version Taylor Ho Bynum recorded with Anthony Braxton in 2002 at Wesleyan: 

A version of Houle’s composition “Seventy-Three” followed, a tune originally recorded on his album In the Vernacular (Songlines, 1998), which is dedicated to the music of John Carter. Carter, Houle said afterward, would have been seventy-three at the time of the recording. Much of the music, besides its in-the-moment spontaneity, was vitally self-aware of its own historicity, its sense of a present deeply enmeshed in lineages and antecedents, but dynamically and restlessly so. Houle also mentioned Carter’s duets with Bobby Bradford: forebears who continue to open up new and challenging possibilities for this music, as part of a living tradition of experimentation and forward motion. The duo played “Shift” from Taylor’s suite Apparent Distance, and then closed with a blistering and challenging reading of Anthony Braxton’s Composition 69c, a sinuous monody combining bluesy flatted fifths with angular sonic geometries. (At the set break that followed, a little out of breath and a bit unsatisfied with his performance, Taylor recalled speaking with Kenny Wheeler about how difficult and even lip-splitting playing Braxton’s compositions in the quartet could be.) For the second set, the duo returned with versions of two Carter pieces (played originally with Bobby Bradford): “Comin’ On” and “Sticks and Stones.” 

The concert closed with an extended trio; Houle invited tenor saxophonist Nils Berg to come up, and they offered a ten-or-more minute extemporaneous tone poem, with Berg’s contributions recalling the restrained lyricism of late Lester Young, or perhaps even Warne Marsh in a reflective mood. Beautiful things: bright moments, as Rahsaan might have put it. Here is Taylor’s field recording of the trio, so you can hear it for yourself.


Frankly,
KM

Short Take on Thumbscrew Live at Ironworks (Vancouver, 7 February 2015)

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara (obscured behind people and a post)
Thumbscrew offered up two provocative and powerful sets at Ironworks on Saturday night. Building mostly on compositions from their eponymous album (released on Cuneiform last year), the trio’s music combines infectious come-and-go grooves with rhythmically angular, kiltering melodies and collaboratively deconstructive improvisations to create warmly engaged yet restlessly exploratory performances. Mary Halvorson’s guitar alternated between keening warbles and electrified growls, mixing bendy Johnny Smith-like chords with harder-edged Hendrixisms, cross-purposed and glassily recursive loops with tensile, open mellifluence. Her focus and calm demeanour on the bandstand seemed almost belied by the metallic, clarion fierceness of her sound. Michael Formanek’s firm, resonant bass prodded the trio forward, pushing at the leading edge of the beat. He frequently smiled, looking back and forth between his bandmates as his he drew reverberant, lithe lines from his instrument – which underlined the joyful intensity of their collaborative playing. Tomas Fujiwara’s drumming danced in and out of the pocket, by turns muscular and fleet, turbulent and tight. His body angled slightly back from his kit, he tended to face away from his bandmates, eyes closed, but only to increase what felt like his closely attentive, kinesthetic enmeshment in the group’s shared sound, their collective pulse. A few of the pieces were counted in – 1, 2, 3, 4 – but, still palpably embedded in a fixed metric, they were able to pull and surge and suspend and attenuate the beat to the extend that time itself became organically elastic, fluid, distal.  
The first set list, as far as I could make out from their announcements, started with “Line to Create Madness” (Halvorson), followed by “Buzzard’s Breath” (Formanek), “Nothing Doing” (Fujiwara), a fourth piece the name of which I missed, something called (I think) “Barn Fire Slum Brew” (Fujiwara) and “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” (Formanek). After the break, they returned with “iThumbscrew” (Formanek), “Falling Too Far” (Halvorson), “Goddess Sparkle” (Fujiwara), a new piece by Mary Halvorson called “Convularia” – which she said had been named at her father’s suggestion after a “sweetly scented and highly poisonous plant,” the contrariety suggesting something of the tensions between the lyric and the spiky in her own and in the trio’s playing – followed by a fifth piece that might have been “Fluid Hills in Pink.” They were called back by an enthusiastic audience to play an encore – “we have exactly one more song” in their repertoire, they joked – which was an edgy ballad, to close a terrific evening of music by a brilliantly innovative trio.

"A Friend in the Art": For Elise Partridge

Galanthus, 31 January 2015
Weeks early,
snowdrop clusters poke
through moss and unraked, rotted leaves:
green, fetal fingertips,
small-scale
backyard congregations, the chewed
ends of some child’s coloured pencils,
spring stubs.
Friends in the vernal art,
they’ve already
managed to start
unclosing their glandular blooms,
split, mute bells
inclined to tremour
in this one winter’s milky breath.

This piece is for Elise Partridge, who died a week ago. Her poems and her friendship over the past twenty years have meant a great deal to me. I hope my brief elegy pays some tribute to her life and work by attending to the kinds of small, often unremarked things, like snowbells, that her poems often did, in a mode that wants to approach her own careful craft. Hers is a poetics of care — in its senses of close attention and rapt formalism, of respectful humility and warm concern. I last heard Elise Partridge read her poetry in January 2012, at the Vancouver Public Library on a triple bill with Stephanie Bolster and Barbara Nickel, two other members of the Vancouver Poetry Dogs. That night, I bought a copy of her chapbook, which was a supplement to her second book, Chameleon Hours, and she autographed it for me, as “a friend in the art.” Elise had done readings with me many years ago — I recall presenting on poetry and translation with her at Brock House (Esther Birney and Miriam Waddington were in the audience) in, maybe, 1998, and she had also invited me to several meetings of the Poetry Dogs, though I soon fell away from attending. In the past year or so, I hadn’t seen very much of her at all, and I regret my negligence. She was a deeply kind, warmly engaged person, and a truly gifted poet. 


A Short Take on Vertical Squirrels, Time of the Sign

Time of the Sign, the third album from the improvising collective Vertical Squirrels (and their second on Montreal’s Ambiances Magnétiques label), is a modest masterpiece, and ranks for me among the very best recordings of 2014. Vertical Squirrels formed as a quartet in 2008 in Guelph; its core members are faculty at the university there, three of them researchers with the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative. Pianist Ajay Heble is the founder and (until this year) Artistic Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, and his academic and curatorial work have brought him into close contact with some of the finest free improvisers in contemporary music. Guitarist Daniel Fischlinhas collaborated with Heble on key works in improvisation scholarship (including The Other Side of Nowhere [Wesleyan, 2004] and The Fierce Urgency of Now[Duke, 2013]) and is an eminent Shakespearean. Electric bassist Lewis Melville taught in the Department of Botany (now Molecular and Cell Biology), and the quartet’s original percussionist Rob Wallace was an ICaSP postdoctoral fellow. In the years leading up to the recording of Time of the Sign in June, 2012, Wallace moved on to other academic employment, and was replaced by drummer Ted Warren.

         The band is expanded to a septet for this recording, and includes Jane Bunnett(on flute and soprano saxophone), Scott Merritt  (on guitar) and Ben Grossman(on hurdy-gurdy), with contributions from Larry Cramer (on trumpet) and – not, perhaps, to be underestimated – Dave Clark (improvised conduction). Many of the musicians double on miscellaneous electronic and little instruments, an echo of some of the performance practices of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. The Vertical Squirrels’ electronic press kit suggests that the group was “initially conceived as an informal outlet to get Heble back into playing piano after years of curating the Guelph Jazz Festival (but rarely performing himself),” but the music doesn’t centre on Heble. Lewis Melville also (on this and the other recordings) is credited as the principal producer, and seems to be something of the instigator for the group. (A recording of his composition for foghorns at the Sound Symposium in St. Johns Newfoundland is also used as a sonic underlay for the last track on the album.) But I think it’s important to emphasize the decentred character of this music: not that it’s ever incoherent, but that no single voice ever predominates or directs. There are no solos on this record, which is partly why I wanted to emphasize something like its modesty: not to say that any of the players is ever diffident or deferential; if anything, each contributor’s line or instrumental texture only adds to the gathering energies, the obvious vitality and shared dynamism that every track evinces. But there is also a proactive humility, a thoroughly engaged mutual practice of listening, that informs this music: each player seems instinctively to know when to sound and when to lay out, and what results is a set of warmly shifting, variegated accretions, folds of resonance and dehiscence, an electro-acoustic version of what Byron, of all poets, once called “voluptuous swell.”

         By saying that there are no solos, I don’t mean to indicate as absence of melodic line or improvisational drive, but rather that this music emerges from simultaneous reciprocities, layers of polymorphic call-and-response but also of departures and excursuses that loop in and out of the general, generative flow. (The music was recorded live, open to the public, over the course of two days: the session announcement is still on Facebook.) The press kit, again, compares their music to some of the improvisational jams of Frank Zappa, and I can hear that, certainly, in their communal emphasis on rock ostinato, riff and groove. But I hear a collation of influences, closer at times to, say, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time group around Virgin Beauty (1988) – without the insistently spiky harmolodic angles of the leader’s alto – or, at other moments, echoes of the audio-Americana of Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny. (Ted Warren’s electronically treated vocals on the title track closely recall Mark Ledford’s melodic doublings with the PMG.) The compiled electric pianos of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way sometimes feel present, and the opening track, “Falling from the Ground Up,” recalls as it unfolds McCoy Tyner’s work from the early 1970s, while Lewis Melville basslines fall at several points into a Tinariwen-like pulse. None of these audible influences ever quite settles or takes hold for more than a minute or two, however, and what emerges as each cut builds is a buoyant, unstable and living audio organism, a porosity. Each time I listen, I hear new things, other textures: the shifting mesh, for instance, of Fischlin’s and Merritt’s guitars set against the phasing, metallic stringiness of Grossman’s hurdy-gurdy and Heble’s roiling and gangly piano makes for a rich differential polyphony. This music is essentially collaborative not because it demands agreement but because it honours co-creative multiplicity, a coming together apart, not to produce community in difference, not to overcome a plural and sometimes unruly lived humanity, but a community of differences, a soundscape that embraces and welcomes the open auditory field of the many, of disenclosure, of more. Time of the Sign is one of the great recordings of committed collective improvisation. 

Isabelle Stengers, "the most amiable of philosophers"

I’m intensely grateful to the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies (STS) at UBC for inviting Isabelle Stengers to lead a seminar on her reading of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and on what she calls “cosmopolitics.” In practice, she didn’t really lead a discussion so much as aim to foster spontaneous interchange and to interrogate and even challenge some of her own thinking; her recent book is called Thinking with Whitehead (2002, trans. 2011)—rather than thinking about or explaining—and the character and practice of that with-ness, of a reading that involves co-creatively being witha work rather that staging some sort of magisterial (professorial?) exegetical mastery of it, is what I think for Stengers makes philosophy matter.
Still, the seminar involved less mutual interchange—less a practice of collaborative speculation, a discursive echo of the “open ontology” she wants to address—and became more about participants posing questions to Professor Stengers about her work. She had offered two papers for participants to read ahead of time, in the hope, perhaps, of avoiding professing, although given the opportunity of having her present in the classroom, it’s certainly understandable why a rather formal question-and-answer session might happen. Describing, in one of those papers, the emergence of her term “cosmopolitical,” she points to how “gripped by worry,” by what sounds like anxiety over philosophical reach, she “needed to slow down.” That slowing is not a diminution of attention but rather its intensification—an attention, moreover, that remains iterative and hermeneutic, but that also aspires to a reading practice that is co-creative rather than derivative or, in the mundane sense, rather than merely critical. “It’s better to read slowly,” she said in the seminar, “in order not to have understood everything.” Reading doesn’t aim at comprehension, but to actualize the creative potential in careful misprision.


She doesn’t really articulate an aesthetics in Thinking with Whitehead, if by aesthetics you mean a theory of art. But what she calls the “adventure of the senses,” of aesthesis, pervades her meditations on Whitehead’s writing and thinking. What Professor Stengers wants a seminar to become, I think, is something that Whitehead describes, in Process and Reality, as “intense experience without the shackle of reiteration from the past. This is the condition for spontaneity of conceptual reaction” (Process and Reality 105). The active mind slows into the present tense, but that spontaneity—I want to call it improvisation, but Stengers does not—is not without relation to a past, without any iterative purchase on (reading) history. Rather, the active, embodied mind, as one reads, becomes (to borrow a few metaphors from both Whitehead and Stengers) an electromagnetic resonator, an amplifier, an interstitial matrix: “It receives from the past, it lives in the present” (Process and Reality 339). The interstice—the fictive and material space “between the lines” of tissue, of both flesh and text—is a crucial trope for Stengers, marking both a material and a societal openness, a biological and a conceptual betweenness (betweenity?) that offers the condition of possibility for communities of difference, for community as difference, the unresolved and contrary, risky situation of the speculative seminar itself: “speculative presence, and the eventual efficacy associated with it, constitutes the wager of the interstice” (Thinking with Whitehead 514). “Life,” as Whitehead puts it, “lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain. In the history of a living society, its more vivid manifestations wander to whatever quarter is receiving from the animal body an enormous variety of physical experience.” (Process and Reality105-6) Those “vivid” intensities don’t and can’t happen all the time, and I’m not even sure what a seminar conducted along those lines of sustained risk might look like, might feel like, but in the classroom yesterday, what for me was notable was how often Isabelle Stengers laughed. Her laughter was never nervous or imperious or cynical—although she did make it clear that she doesn’t abide thoughtlessness or “stupidity”—but manifest moments of vital warmth, her celebratory enthusiasm for thinking that matters, in the present. I couldn’t help but hear, as well, the nascence of an interstitial poetics, an ecology of writing that attends to some as-yet-unapprehended upwelling of life between its own unfolding lines. 

Books
Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild
Creation of Concepts.  2002. Trans. Michael Chase.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, corrected
edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne.
New York: Free P, 1978.