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Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song

Following the performance of The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P. K. Page by Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is convening a colloquium called “Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song” from 2:00 to 5:00 on Thursday, 16 October 2014 in the Dodson Room of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia. Two panels of poets, composers, performers and scholars will talk about their own work and their collaborations. Presenters will be investigating the cultural politics of contemporary composition and performance by women: are there particular constraints or challenges that contemporary women artists face? Are there specific musical, textual or performative strategies that women employ in their creative work when faced with such challenges? Is it still necessary or even possible to address artistic work, as performers, composers and listeners, with attention to the complex cultural politics of gender and sexuality? In addition to the two discussion panels, there will be a performance by Lisa Cay Miller of her text-based improvisations for piano, “Lessing Stories.” Admission is free, and the colloquium is open to all, students, artists, academics and the general public.

Colloquium Schedule

2:00-3:00 Panel: Extending the Poetics of Song

Scott Thomson, composer and improviser, Montréal and Toronto

Susanna Hood, vocalist, choreographer, Montréal and Toronto

Sandra Djwa, P. K. Page biographer, Vancouver

Phanuel Antwi, Department of English, UBC


Lisa Cay Miller, “Lessing Stories”

3:30-4:30 Panel: Collaborations and Challenges, Sounding Out

Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate

Jacquie Leggatt, composer, Vancouver

Bronwyn Malloy, Department of English, UBC

A downloadable PDF version of the colloquium schedule can be found here: Extraordinary Presences schedule

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.

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.

VISI Art Song Lab 1, Opening

This week I’m taking part – as one of six poets – in the Art Song Lab, which is hosted by the Vancouver International Song Institute, an intensive set of early summer programs in art song performance and in academic approaches to art song. Now in its seventh year, VISI is the creative brainchild of Rena Sharon, a professor of collaborative piano studies at the UBC School of Music and one of the very finest pianists in the country. For six successive Junes, I have given lectures on poetry for VISI, and will be giving another one (on W. H. Auden this time around) on June 21. But this week, I’m a participant rather than a faculty member. The six participant poets were asked to produce a draft of an original poem in January, which would be set to music by two different composers – two art songs emerging from the same initial text. The composers then bring their draft songs to rehearsals in Vancouver, for a week culminating in a concert – “Playing with Fire” – at the Orpheum Annex on Friday, June 7, when each of the twelve compositions will receive its world premiere, as part of the month-long Songfire Festival

         On the afternoon of Sunday, June 2, we had an informative opening session with the three co-directors of Art Song Lab: poet Ray Hsu, composer Michael Park, and pianist Alison D’Amato. They invited questions and discussion – most participants had just arrived in the city, and were still orienting themselves – and then offered to give something of a demo, workshopping a composition that Ray and Michael were preparing with Alison and soprano Lynne McMurtry for its premiere later this month. During the discussion, each of the co-directors spoke about the opportunities for collaboration that the Art Song Lab offers. Ray compared the creation of art song – and of poetry itself, for that matter – to translation, an analogy that gestured back toward Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” though Benjamin went unmentioned. (Ray gestured at Benjamin’s notion of an Ursprache or primal language, I thought, which all works of art translate; difference becomes primary to any form of writing, any work of art.) I thought Renée Sarojini Saklikar, one of the participant poets, made a provocative point about “performance as a site of research” for poetry.
         The brief, open rehearsal for Ray and Michael’s new art song was really informative, a pleasure to watch and to hear. The text for the piece involved a re-purposing of material from an interview with Lynne about art song performance, which she then sang back in a kind of lovely recursive loop; one of the lines referred to “having something to say and the confidence to say it,” which she did.
         This first session for the Art Song Lab was followed by a plenary discussion for the whole of VISI; there was some thought-provoking talk about strategies for overcoming the potential hermeticism of contemporary art song and also about cultivating an aesthetic openness, an open-mindedness. I’m looking forward to seeing, and hearing, what happens this week. It was good to meet the two emerging composers who have created art songs from my work: Alex Mah and David Betz. I’m keen to hear what they have come up with. The poem I came up with is a three-part elegy for the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December. Here is an audio version of the poem.