Spring Grass

Did I just say it’s been awhile since I featured a piece with words by Carl Sandburg? I started this Sandburg piece early this month thinking it would appropriate for the onset of spring and National Poetry Month. It fairly short order, I came up with the general chord progression I wanted to use, one which is somewhat ambiguous as to key-center (D, A,  F# minor, E, with the cadence generally descending from D, but resolving either the A, the E, or the F# minor, and with a single B minor thrown in).

I liked this musically when I laid down the initial acoustic guitar track of the chords; but I intended to add additional parts to fill out the arrangement, and when I started that, I found I had given myself more of a challenge than I had anticipated. A better orchestrator than myself would have had less trouble I suspect, but I finally came up with something I felt I could accept yesterday.

Carl Sandburg Rocks Out

Carl Sandburg rocks out, no fancy arrangement needed.

 

If you search for other Carl Sandburg pieces that have been part of the Parlando project, you can see how fond I am of Sandburg as a writer of short poems. For someone who writes generally in free verse, Sandburg’s work has been set to music more often that one might expect. As I worked on “Spring Grass”  I assumed someone else had taken a crack at it, but I put off looking at that to concentrate on my own musical problems. This morning I did some searching and found that there are at least two other settings besides mine, one done by the young Phillip Glass, a composer I very much admire.

Phillip Glass Spring Grass

This guy probably had less trouble with his orchestration.

 
I find one word Sandburg used here intriguing: “spiffed,” which is obscure enough in his poem that I’m not sure what it means. At first I thought it was a nice onomatopoeic sound for the wind horse in the poem snorting gently near the poet’s face—and perhaps it is—but if I read Sandburg’s sentence right, it’s the spring grass smell riding on the wind that “spiffed” the author. Does he mean “spiffed up,” the only idiom I know that uses that word? I’ve never heard “spiffed” without the “up” myself.

Well, the word-mystery doesn’t stop the poem, there’s enough mystery in Spring itself.  Enjoy the rest of #npm17 and keep telling folks about the Parlando Project and our combining of various music and various words in various ways. To hear my version of “Spring Grass” use the player that appears at the end.

Advertisements

The First Cuts are the Deepest

Earlier this month I posted the Parlando Project audio pieces that were the most listened to as of the start of this Spring. Turns out it’s a pretty good mix of what Dave and I are trying to do with this combination of music and words. However, in looking at the stats for the Parlando pieces, it looks as if a lot of readers and listeners are coming in partway into the project, starting around the beginning of this year. That’s fine. I think I’m getting a little better as I work intensively on the goal of 100 Parlando Project pieces by August of this year, but I think some of the early pieces are missing the listenership they otherwise might have gotten if I’d posted them later.

Since we’re still in National Poetry Month (#npm17), it stuck me that this might be a good time for some of our audience to catch up. So here are a few of the 2016 Parlando Project “deep cuts” from last year that you might want to check out:

Stars Songs Faces.  I wrote the music for this Carl Sandburg poem as my tribute to David Bowie in January of 2016, and it was the piece I choose to kick-off Parlando. Although I’m not the first to write music for these Sandburg words, I still like what I did, and the LYL Band performance realizes my intention well. This piece also reminds me that it’s been awhile since I posted a Carl Sandburg-based piece here. I’m working on one this week, but the orchestration is not going as well as I’d like it to yet.

The Prairie.  One of things I enjoy most about coming up with material for the Parlando Project is finding things in the public domain poetry cannon that I’d never read or even heard of. This is one of them. William Cullen Bryant was not on my radar until Dave Moore visited the Mississippi river valley mounds last year and began to write about them himself. This audio piece is on the longer side, which may account for the lower number of listens.

The Green Fairy.  Here’s a good piece written and performed by Dave Moore that hasn’t been listened to as much as some other pieces he’s written here. My notes in the accompanying post were written in mystery about the actual intent of Dave’s words. I’ve probably got some other poets’ intent wrong too, but remember that’s one of the points of the Parlando Project: you can appreciate poems when they are accompanied with music just as one appreciates song lyrics (or even music without words at all), as bits and pieces of language that sound good, or as lines or phrases that attach themselves to you with little pieces of meaning without any requirement that you understand the whole thing.

This is the Darkness.  I ascribe the lower listenership on this one to the dark tone. And indeed it might be an odd piece to listen too in the late Spring as days get longer and eventually warmer here in the upper Midwest. None-the-less, living around the 45th Parallel Minnesotans and Canadians should understand this.

Christ and the Soldier.  When I was my son’s age, I was following a day-to-day summary in the newspaper, a series called “100 Years Ago in the Civil War”  which covered the events just out of memory of the living in the American Civil War.  And now, since 2014, I’ve been informally following the centenary of World War I, which has similarly passed out of the memory of the living.  Siegfried Sassoon’s poem is a biting comment on WWI from a veteran of that war’s trenches. You know that old saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole?” Sassoon has a more complex view.

What Is It the Rain Dissolves

Writers often like to compose their written works in their heads while walking, and poets, all the more so. It seems natural—the walking footsteps and the metrical foot compare apace.
 
I too have done this; and with poetry in particular, composing lines while away from any paper or screen may also help winnow out the more memorable flow from forgettable stumbles. But my old joints now rebel more at morning walks, and my later day is filled with daily work on the Parlando Project and the mundane tasks of living.
 
My solution to this is that great 19th Century invention: the bicycle. In wheeled weightlessness, I am able to roll along through nature and the city morning’s opening scenes: the gloved gardeners, the obedient dog owners, the students at their stops, the hopeful sidewalk joggers, the babies held crooked in the left arm as the right sweeps the straps from the child car seat. I do this in all weather, rain and snow included, not wanting to miss one act of the theater of the seasons.

Novara Safari Smaller

Can you fit #npm17 and #30daysofbiking into one post? Sure.

 
It’s April, the National Poetry Month in this country, and I ride in the experience of that Chinese birdsong that Du Fu and Meng Haoran heard once and I hear now, and I know that the birds need no translation.  One Sunday dawn, as rain threatened, the sun shined through the clouds as if they were translucent filters. The steeples of the churches and peaks of houses, illuminated thus, were indeed rose and violet as Emily Dickinson promised to tell us.

April isn’t just #npm17, it’s also serving up #30daysofbiking, and with the two in the same month I’ve said, “Emily Dickinson should have gotten a bicycle!” She could have maintained her thoughts’ enclosure, pedaled surely between the skeptics and the believers, and served her self-reliance within a somewhat broader world. Alas, she was just a bit too early for the modern bicycle—but it was close. Her mid-life “preceptor” Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a proponent of the bicycle and of women bicycling. Higginson, speaking about one of the early long-distance cyclists said:

“We found that modern mechanical invention, instead of disenchanting the universe, had really afforded the means of exploring its marvels the more surely. Instead of going round the world with a rifle, for the purpose of killing something – or with a bundle of tracts, in order to convert somebody – this bold youth simply went round the globe to see the people who were on it.”

Higginson, although speaking about my chosen ride, the acoustic motorcycle, seemed to be foreshadowing Robert Pirsig there.

19th Century lady and bike

A soul selects her own velocipede

 

Once more, a long preface to a short piece today. When I started the Parlando Project I thought I’d avoid that. Is another reason that April is National Poetry Month from the nursery rhyme “April showers/Bring May flowers?” Today’s piece “What Is It the Rain Dissolves”  was written on a bicycle on a morning ride in a light rain. I passed two kids trying to master skateboards and later a woman coming the other way on her bicycle, arms bare except for some elaborate tattoos.
 
Emily, is that you?

To hear the LYL Band perform the song “What Is It the Rain Dissolves”  use the player below.

To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing

Given that poetry contributes the great majority of the words to the half of the  Parlando Project “Where Music and Words Meet,” it’s reasonable to suspect, if you are reading this, that you like poetry. That’s too bad. Even during the National Poetry Month and #npm17 that were are talking about this April.

You see, poetry is often a frustrating thing. That high-flown language may be artful, but it’s an earful too. If you were seeking directions to escape some emergency, would you want your rescuer to choose the most precise and beautiful words, words that say more about what a clever speaker your rescuer is than about which way you must turn and where the dangers are?

Do you love the dense allusions and surprising metaphors of poetry? Do you admire the narrative fracturing and careful examination of the shattered facets that expose the common lie of ordered stories? The next time you are searching for how to work some complex gadget or system, do you want your tutorial or manual to scatter its tale in novel ways?

Speaking of too simple statements, here’s one: that there are people who simply like poetry. No, most people who like poetry sometimes, hate poetry sometimes; just as most people who like music, hate music sometimes. The intensity of the like times does not decrease the intensity of the hate times. I think it’s important that poetry tries to capture the allusiveness of things. I continue to admire some poems I don’t really understand—that’s what the music is for, both the poem’s own music and the external music we apply to the words here at the Parlando Project. But there are times when you just want a poet to come out and say what they’re getting at.

The words to today’s episode, by William Butler Yeats, are clear in their meaning. “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing”  is an example of “occasional verse,” a poem written in response to an event. In this case, almost everyone has forgotten the event, but the sentiments of the poem apply broadly anyway. Yeats has such a musical way of expressing himself, he could have flown off on some obscure path and we might have followed him anyway. As it turns out, the things he leaves out here, the particulars of the dispute, probably help the poem survive as a general piece of council.

Still, I’m a curious and literal sort. Who was the “Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing,” and what was the work? It was written about and perhaps to a man named Hugh Lane who wanted to donate his substantial modern art collection to a museum he proposed that Ireland should fund. And the man who would lie unashamed to oppose this? A newspaper publisher who opposed the gallery.

Hugh Lane

Yeats gave him good advice, but he didn’t tell him to not get on that boat.

 

What happened to Hugh Lane, whose work had come to nothing? About a year after Yeats wrote this poem, Lane went down when the Lusitania  was torpedoed during WWI. And his art collection? His will seemed to leave it to the British National Gallery after his proposal to fund the Irish museum failed, but Ireland disputed this will, and later in the 20th Century, after Lane’s and Yeats’ deaths, Lane’s collection was again on display in Dublin Ireland. So eventually, in prosaic history and after the work of some lean solicitors, Lane’s work succeeded.

Dublin City Gallery

The Dublin City Gallery where most of Hugh Lane’s collection ended up

 

Today’s audio piece is brief, so take a listen to the LYL Band performing “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing” by clicking on the player below.

 

Mr Nelson

It often takes a while to know who has died.

When Prince died a year ago, the shock-wave for fans was breath-taking, the air went out of the room, and for each of them there was something that went missing when they got the word: the promise of new music, a memory of concert or a night of dancing, a period of their youth now seemingly past all reliving, and probably a dozen or more other private things.

If it seemed impossible that Prince had died, it was because it was impossible that he had lived. About him it could be said that he could dance like James Brown, sing like Marvin Gaye, play guitar like Jimi Hendrix, write a song like Curtis Mayfield—and arrange it all, and play it all, and record it all for himself or other artists. He was the most astonishingly broad musical artist of our time.

And he did this over and over, for decades, to the point that no one could ever really keep up with all he did. I suspect the longer time we now have will allow us to discover, in his work, things that are still overlooked, ideas that he had that somehow weren’t understood, things we skipped over because we thought Prince should be doing something else.

Tonight, as I write this, I’m struck by one other thing: has there been enough recognition that Prince was in the vanguard of bringing women instrumentalists into the context of the rock band? Let’s propose a rock band gender integration variation of the Bechdel Test: name a successful band with two prominent women instrumentalists before The Revolution that wasn’t a “all-girl band.1” Every example that comes to mind (and it’s not like there are hundreds of them) stops the count of women players at one. I can think of only two 2, and neither achieved a modicum of the cultural prominence of Prince’s band.

Prince and the Revolution

It’s a little known fact that Prince was about two feet taller than the rest of the Revolution.

 

And he did it again performing with his late career power trio, 3rdEyeGirl.

That’s just a part of his career of course—but please, this isn’t some kind of rote identity politics thing, or merely a piece of trivia like “Name a band with two left-handed Canadians?”. This is half the human race!

With the Parlando Project I get to audaciously tackle the work of a lot of great writers. I use their words unashamedly and try to find something I can relate to you about their work. For some reason, perhaps because Prince Rogers Nelson embarrasses me as musician, I’ve been hesitant to post this episode, and to share this modest musical piece The LYL Band wrote and performed about his leaving.

But I’m going to do it anyway. The best parts of this piece “Mr. Nelson”  are the work of Dave Moore: most of the words and the electronic piano part. Footnotes at the end of this post for the obsessives. The audio player for “Mr. Nelson” is right below this. You can dance if you want to.

 

 

 

County Joe MacDonald and his All Star BandJoy of Cooking

Guy in the middle isn’t Prince.                  Joy of Cooking, pioneers.

 
1 I exclude the “all-girl band” not to denigrate the talents of those who performed in them, or because a band somehow needs men to be valid, but because however intended, the result in the 20th Century cultural context was seen largely for its novelty value.

2 The two bands I can think of: Joy of Cooking and the Country Joe MacDonald led “Paris Sessions” era All-Star Band.

Intro to The Waste Land

Readers of these posts may recall a discussion of the theory that Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature in later adulthood was caused by epilepsy and that her poem “I Felt a Funeral In My Brain”  may have been describing the auras experienced around epileptic seizure events.  I think it’s an interesting idea, a plausible one, but I also warned against reductionist explanations for art.

Even recognizing that danger, I’m about to risk that sort of thing again, for what I think are good reasons.

Is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” introduced to students later and less often now than it was in my youth? If so, I suspect this is because “The Waste Land”  does not present itself as a friendly introduction to poetry. It seems proudly obscure. There’s no frank self-expression in it where a recognizable author/speaker tells us about their life and outlook. Instead, there’s a flurry of voices and characters that are barely, if even that, introduced.  And there’s no interesting story, no fable or tale with a twist that carries us along. There’s a shortage of obvious similes, no “fog comes on little cat’s feet” to introduce metaphor.

In my youth, all these shortcomings of “The Waste Land”  as a teaching tool were overlooked because it was a landmark in the rise of Modernism, that defining artistic movement of the first half of the 20th Century, and because it was full of the stuff that made up a Liberal Education: foreign phrases, cosmopolitan settings, wide-ranging cultural references to other literary works from across time.

Waste Land title page

I always find that a little Latin and Greek on the title page helps perk up the reader.

And now? The odds are that if T.S. Eliot was to stand up at a Moth story-telling stage or a slam poetry event and deliver “The Waste Land”  in whole or in part, that boos, snores, or some variety of non-pleasurable puzzlement would result. We are inured to a different kind of poetry, confused enough, bothered enough, by modernity and its incessant messages that Eliot’s fragments shored up against ruins seems to offer us no balm, no pleasure of recognition.

I’ll offer two keys, two aspects of “The Waste Land”  that can allow you entry into it. The first is: it’s intensely musical. The imagery, outside of “The Waste Land’s” overriding dry vs. wet scheme, never strays far from sounds, and all those unintroduced voices are like new strains in a composition. No wonder the Parlando project is drawn to it, because we believe that one can appreciate poetry without understanding its meaning, in the same way that you can appreciate music without being able to somehow explicate it.

The second entry point, the one that risks being reductionist, is that this is a poem written by someone suffering from depression. Whatever voice is speaking in the poem, it is heard and reflected out the mouth of someone who feels it has all gone wrong, someone who cannot fully trust any other feeling other than that—other than the emotion of fear that that is the reality that any other feeling would mask. Although it must sacrifice the music, the incandescent reading of the “The Waste Land”  by Fiona Shaw illuminates this aspect.

Today’s episode is just a part of the first part of “The Waste Land,”  but it’s the part the begins in April, our National Poetry Month. I don’t know if Eliot intended to refer to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” prologue (our last episode), but it sure seems to rhyme. The opening of Eliot’s series of tales has, like Chaucer’s prologue, rain, flowers, journeys and travelers; and later in the poem Eliot will in bring birdsongs and churches. And Chaucer, who begins singing in Spring merriment, introduces at the end of the prologue the promise of “Strange strands,” and tells us that the pilgrims may be taking the pilgrimage because they have been sick.

Fiona Shaw’s il miglior fabbro performance of the whole “The Waste Land” will take almost a half-hour to view. My audio piece for today will take less than 3 minutes and has music. To compare to the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  check out the previous post here. If you want to hear Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan taking a run at the same part of “The Waste Land”  as I performed—and making his own connection to Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloomed”  in Eliot’s opening lines, you can hear that here. But give mine a try first, using the player gadget that appears at the end of this post. Thanks for the likes and shares over the past few months, and as part of April’s #npm17, feel free to link to this blog or share this post on social media.

Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.

In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s post “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  which begins:

“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”

Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.

Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.

Cortez 12 string Tibbetts Stringing Closeup

More thick strings, fewer skinny ones, setting up a 12-string Tibbetts-style

 

To hear the 12 string strung that way, and to hear about the English April in Chaucer’s report, use the player that appears below.