Grant Hart, and where’s the new stuff?

A slight apology for the slight drop off in posts so far this month. While I could say I’ve been struggling a bit with some frailties,  there’s also been an element of needing to prod myself to get going again after reaching and exceeding the original goals of the Parlando Project. Don’t forget, we’ve been going on for over year now, and there’s over a hundred audio pieces available here of different kinds of words (mostly poetry) mixed with music that varies as much as my talents allow. If you’re checking in, and wondering where’s the new audio piece, remember there’s probably another piece you haven’t heard yet waiting to delight or confound you in the archives listed on the right.

This week, I had the good fortune to see Kevin FitzPatrick and some other younger poets read at the funkiest reading space in town as part of the Midstream Reading series.  Kevin is starting his short reading tour to promote his excellent new book “Still Living in Town,”  which is not yet available through Internet book merchants. He’ll next be reading on September 21st at the Har Mar center Barnes and Noble in St. Paul Minnesota at 7 PM and then on November 14th, also at 7 PM at Magers and Quinn in Uptown in Minneapolis.

Husker Du fell back into the last century, but Grant Hart kept writing great songs.

 

I’ve been noting also this week the death of Grant Hart, songwriter, singer, musician, artist and founding member of Husker Du, one of the greatest of the “get in the van” indie bands of the 1980s. Despite moving in some circles that overlapped, I never knew him, but we apparently shared one personality trait: we never figured out, or cared to figure out, how to promote the art we make to bring it to attention of others. Others who did know him, and who have a higher professional profile than he or I have,  have written eloquently about him this week, but one thing I didn’t see noted in any pieces I read—his short name, said aloud, two syllables long, is a complete prayer: “Grant H(e)art.”

Somewhere or Other

Today’s audio piece is another by Christina Rossetti, connected through family with the Victorian art and literary movement that called itself the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In their painting and artwork, the Pre-Raphaelites often appeal to me. The paintings sometimes have a stunning, oversaturated palette; and they are fond of symbolic and esoteric subjects which fill the paintings with interesting details.

John Melhuish Strudwick  When Apples Were Golden and Songs Were Sweet

Eb Bb , Ab Eb , then Fm Fsus4 Fm, and Ab Eb Ebsus4 Eb—flat keys are murder
on guitar, just so Frank can play simple black key stuff on keyboards

Many associated with the PRB wrote poetry as well, but when I’ve gone looking for pieces I can present as part of the Parlando Project, the brothers in the brotherhood just didn’t do much for me. Surprisingly, the poet who did was Christina Rossetti.  I don’t recall if she was even included in the “New Criticism” curated English literature anthologies of my school-age youth. She isn’t a poet with a lot of flash and filigree. A poem like today’s has not a single arresting image, and its language is simple too.  Using the criteria of the Modernists who came to dominate the assessment of poetry in the 20th Century, this poem should have nothing to recommend it.

So, what does it have or do, why did I bother to write some music for it and perform it for you?   Well, first it has a refreshing modesty of expression. This is a song of longing from first to last, a universal human experience. And the subject of the longing, is it for an earthly partner, the age-old “when will the right one come along” wish? Or is it for an otherworldly, completing partner, a presence beyond the moon and stars? Despite Rossetti’s homey words, it could be either, and the alteration of “near or far” with “far or near” in the 2nd and 3rd verses encourages us to see it both ways.

If one must choose which supposition, I lean to the spiritual object, and if so, the image, such as it is, if off-screen here: earthly love may stand for the longing for religious meaning and connection. The last couplet, the dying leaves falling on “turf grown green” is strangely incoherent, and it reminds me of some of images or rebirth and salvation in British folklore, leading me that way.

But if could also be a song of simple earthly longing for a suitable partner. Adding music to Rossetti’s “Something or Other”  both adds decoration to the simple words and allows the listener to relax in that ambiguity without a need for an immediate conclusion.

John Melhuish Strudwick - Saint Cecilia

See, E flat is so easy on piano, even saints can play it.
Both of today’s paintings are by  Pre-Raphaelite John Melhuish Strudwick

 

Today’s music for Rossetti’s poem combines acoustic guitar with some cello and strings integrated with a couple of piano parts in the background. It’s another short one, so go ahead and use  the player below to listen to it.

 

 

Parlando Project Status Report

This summer I completed the goals I set out for the Parlando Project, which I originally envisioned as a one-year project to combine performances of various words with various music which I could present to the public here on this blog, or as podcast that could be automatically downloaded if desired. My original goals was to try to present 100 to 120 pieces during that year, and I hoped, despite (dare I hope, because of?)  the variety that I would achieve a few thousand downloads for the entire series of pieces.

What a year it has been! The 100 pieces goal looked ambitious to me, and indeed the amount of time to write most of the music, produce and record the performances, and the research into their presentation—most of which remains unseen to the readers and listeners—was considerable. As of this week, there have been 128 Parlando Project pieces since our official launch. Hundreds of hours have gone into this year, and as with all such intense pursuits, the artist’s family gets to wonder why someone would spend that much time staring at the thing the artist is making instead of the very real people who surround them. That’s a very good question that no artist really has an answer for, save for most artists’ recognition that they seem to have no choice in the matter once they feel what the thing they are making could be. So I thank them. And Dave Moore, who’s not only written several of the most popular pieces here, he has been key to this. He’s allowed me to use his voice so you don’t have to always hear mine, as well as playing most of the keyboard parts on the Parlando Project music pieces. The Parlando Project wouldn’t be what it has been without Dave.

Calliope_by_Marcello_Bacciarelli

I suppose I should thank the muses too, but she thinks it’s a lyre,
even though it has no strings. Is it just part of an old chair?

 

Audience growth has been beyond my expectations over the year. Streaming web stats, at least as I get them and understand them, are less definitive than I would have hoped, but by this summer thousands of streams or downloads a month had become the norm. Blog readership here is more in line with my initial expectations, and lower than the podcast stream numbers, but the blog readership is still it’s growing steadily from what I can tell.  This only concerns me in that the show notes with the podcast are a poor substitute for the richer presentation of the material about the piece in this blog, and through iTunes the show notes are about to get much briefer and simpler. Maybe this is a sign I should stop talking and simply Kick Out the Jams?  If so, I’m going to be a bit dense and put even more emphasis on the blog in the next few months.

But I can’t leave this discussion on audience without thanking each of you who read this, and to thank several times over those of you who’ve linked to Parlando Project pieces on social media or other blogs, or who have taken the time to click the “like” star on a post here. I’m fine on focusing in close on creating what I hope are interesting pieces, but I’m not good at promoting them. You are the ones who’ve done much of that. I’m not always sure who’s done this linking, I only see the result when a piece starts getting more attention. If you’ve one of the readers/listeners who’s done so, and don’t mind saying so, please let me know in the comments.

Going forward I’m intending to keep the audio pieces coming. If I have the time, I even hope to spend a little more time looking for permissions to include works still under copyright. It’s distressing to me that there are authors whose work I’d love to present here, some of whom are long dead and whose work still speaks to us, but I feel constrained by law from doing so, and feeling lost as to the methods to get around this issue.

It’s this connection with authors who can no longer speak for themselves that has been a surprising, but most moving part this project. Reading and translating Du Fu, coming across writers I knew only as names like HD or T. E. Hulme. Finding out more about Yeats or Carl Sandburg, their poetry and politics. Finding out that Bob Dylan was the second or third songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and that the first Nobel songwriter,  Rabindranath Tagore, was such a mammoth figure standing outside my view until I looked. Or that Christina Rossetti spoke to me more clearly as a poet than the other Pre-Raphaelites. Without this project I’d never have learned that I had this unscheduled train layover in the English village of Kingham one hot summer day just down the track from where Edward Thomas was still listening to all the birds in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. That the teenage love poem of George Washington still could have a listenership. That the simpler Emily Dickinson speaks, the more sharp the ambiguity, all needle and no embroidery. Hearing and relaying the words of Viola Davis about art being the “Only profession that celebrates what it is to live a life.”

Calliope with long blog post by Charles Meynier

I know I’m supposed to be inspiring and all,
but isn’t this blog post getting a little long?

 

So I’m going to continue here with the Parlando Project to “Tell Other People’s Stories,” but here, with this blog, I’m also going to spend some time talking about art, particularly about the intersection of music and words. These blog posts are going to be longer, perhaps more theoretical, but don’t fear too much theory. I’m still going to be elbow deep in making more Parlando project musical pieces, and work rounds off the sharp edges of theory.

Let Us Live and Love

A while back here there were several episodes where we discussed songwriters as literary figures, using the springboard of Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan was the third songwriter to receive this award, preceded by William Butler Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore. But the Nobel prize is not really all that old, and the idea of the singer-songwriter is older. We know little about how the ancient Greeks performed their poetry, but accounts consistently say that it was accompanied by music, and in the case of at least Sappho of Lesbos, it’s specified that the lyricist played the lyre as well. Similarly in ancient Hebrew, David and his harp, or the west African griots and their Koras, and so on.

So, despite the idea that lyrics sung to music mark an inferior art, or that performing poetry to music is an affectation hardly to be endured, history says this was not always so. Of course, the way it’s done can please or not please, and it’s still possible that such performances are an obsolete form that we’ve now superseded with hugely popular and culturally significant poetry chapbooks and small press poetry collections—I kid! I kid!

Today’s piece is by just such a singer-songwriter, an Englishman born in 1567, Thomas Campion. He wrote his lyrics, wrote music for them, and was an accomplished lutenist, so the chances are that he was discovered by John Hammond and played the authentic Elizabethan blues music he misheard from 78 r.p.m. discs of Catullus. Well no, doubting Thomas, once more I Kyd.

Thomas Campion with Lute

Poetic Campions compose. Thomas Campion with his lute.
If he looks glum it’s because it’s two centuries until Martin Guitars is established, and 350 years until the Telecaster.

He did write lovely songs, in a style I can’t come up with a way to present. “Let Us Live and Love”  was one. You can hear it sung beautifully to his tune here. So instead of exploring my counter-tenor range, I’m going to go with a sort of loose skiffley blues in my performance.

I’m going to lean on my blues audacity hard here, because the poem is addressed to the singer’s lover, Lesbia. Beavis and Butthead style giggles are breaking out in the back, I can hear you.  Turns out Campion took the lover’s name and the idea for his first verse of his lyric from a Latin poem by classic Roman poet Catullus, before taking off on his own thoughts on the matter. Classics scholars explain this by saying the Sappho of Lesbos’ association in classical times was more at a widely experienced lover, not necessarily a lesbian one.

Catullus Comforting Lesbia over the Death of Her Pet Sparrow and Writing an Ode

OK, OK, forget the one about you might as well have sex with me.
How about this, we’re all going to die, just like that bird, and…

 

Another category “Let Me Live and Love”  could be put in would be a “Carpe Diem” poem, which is not the Department of Natural Resources limit on the number of bullheads you can catch, but is more Latin meaning: “seize the day,” which in the case of poems usually doesn’t mean seize the day for fishing. Instead, Carpe Diem poems usually offer this proposition: “We’re all going to die, so you might as well have sex with me.” Seriously. Poets have actually made that seem like a smooth line.

The twist Campion puts on Carpe Diem is to bend it around a bit. His song has it that you already love me, and that makes the idea that we’re all going to die bearable. That’s at least a little more flattering.

To hear my performance of Campion’s “Let Us Live and Love”  use the player below.

 

The Heart of the Woman

There’s two things that attracted me to T. E. Hulme, the lesser-known Modernist poet and theoretician that I’ve featured a few times this summer. The first is the sense in his poetry and critical writings of the limits of humankind. The other is his poetry’s surprising modesty and restraint, something embodied in the very brevity of its poetic expression and his images linking the mundane and the cosmic.
 
This was a man who wanted to overthrow hundreds of years of poetic tradition, and a person whose stubbornness kept him in trouble with authority figures throughout his youth, and yet Hulme expresses himself in these spare lines, as if the first lesson he’s teaching himself is to know his own limits. This seems to be Hulme’s problem with Romanticism as he saw and opposed it: humankind is not limitless, though our imagination says otherwise.
 
Today’s piece, William Butler Yeats’ “The Heart of the Woman”  moves in opposition to that outlook, but not in opposition to that expression.
 
Here in North America, many in the southern region are spending this week either cleaning up from a massive hurricane or clenching their jaws in anticipation of an even larger one due to strike this weekend. Peaceful, Rousseauean nature this ain’t. Hobbes is is a weatherman.

Hurricaine Irma

“Come in she said, I’ll give you, shelter from the storm.”

Yeats’ poem is as measured and modest as one of Hulme’s, though it is rhymed and metrical. When one is a good as Yeats is at that, one hardly notices the form. 12 lines, not even a sonnet in length. Like Hulme, this is no great ode of endless argument. On the face of it, it’s a love song, a basic trope of Romanticism, the reason we talk about human attraction and pairing as “romantic.” Its images are centered on a couple embracing.

Yeats by Sargent
Why Mr. Yeats, I didn’t realize you were, well, dreamy, without your glasses

But look closely in those dozen lines. The woman who’s singing it, has left religion (“prayer and rest”) and family, and has followed a lover’s invitation into what is introduced as “gloom”. Merely the dark of night?

No, in Yeats’ lovely line, darkness is found inside the “Shadowy blossom” of her hair which will hide the lovers from the “bitter storm.” Now we are fully in the Romantic world, where our own darkness may be willful, wishful, blissful, ignorance of the “hiding hair and dewy (blurry) eyes.”

Are there any more Romantic and romantic three lines as Yeats’ final three that conclude this piece? If there are, I can’t recall any at the moment. That the simple murmurs of human breath can seem to equal a hurricane’s—is that glorious or folly or both?
 
In the spirit of defying human limits, this is the first time you’re going to hear me sing a Parlando Project piece acapella. And though Yeats’ poem doesn’t rule out the same romantic faith on the part of the “he” in this poem, I’m somewhat troubled by the idea that romantic devotion is presented here as female, from the poem’s title onward, so I’ll undercut that by singing this. My less-able singing voice is one reason that we chant or speak-sing a lot of Parlando Project material, but my young son’s carefree acapella singing is reminding me of the value in the singing voice. To hear “The Heart of the Woman,”  use the player gadget below.

Trenches St Eloi

I was talking with my wife this weekend. She’s reading a memoir about current military deployments (and redeployments) and she said a Wilfred Owen poem was mentioned in it.

“Well, World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.” I replied. Which is not strictly true of course. World War II generated a number of poems I’d love to share here, but I have no time to try to track down the rights issues to use words that still may be under copyright. And I suspect other wars have generated other poems since then, even if I don’t know many of them. But that’s not what I meant.

World War I was the last war to be covered by poets.

What I meant was that WWI was the last war in which a considerable portion of the English-speaking public looked to poetry for meaning and consolation regarding the battles and their losses. I’m not sure if they looked to poetry more than journalism or political oratory, but I believe that poetry then still operated somewhat in the same theater as these other words when addressing current events. Longer forms of literature, such as novels, tend to lag events substantially, changing or fixing our view of things afterwards, instead of framing it while the picture is still moving. I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”

I think of two epithets, for journalism and then for poetry: “The first draft of history” and “The news that stays news.”

This morning, my son wanted to show me this brilliantly parsed cartoon summary of the Iliad. The narrator there has a lot of fun with the meandering and seemingly arbitrary plot of that Greek epic poem, but it struck me that it’s possible that the ur-version of the Iliad might have been written contemporaneously to the events, only to be shaped afterward like a collection of old news dispatches repurposed for later use.
 
So, this is a long tradition in Europe from Homer to the war poets of WWI, for the battles and the experience of the battles being reported in poetry.

Why has this use of poetry, to report current and crucial events, fallen away? The first explanation that occurs to me is we have other media to do this now. Film, radio, video, and now cellphones capture the moment without pretending to rely on subjective art. The Imagists who forged their poetic theory in the years around WWI, would seem to have lost their territory as their theory won the war. A cellphone or nose-cam video of the bomb exploding follows two out of the three famous Imagist rules: The “thing” is treated directly, there are no unnecessarily words (indeed there may be no discernable words at all), while more or less ignoring the less-noticed third rule (the one we at the Parlando Project keep pointing to and speaking about), the one that asks for musical phrasing.

Hulme's company in the trenches at St Eloi
This photo shows men in T. E. Hulme’s Artillery company at St. Eloi in 1915

  
Poetry, like painting, is no longer necessary for reportage. Modernists often chose to respond to this by a movement into abstraction, conveying thoughts in motion and novel conceptions, seeking to demonstrate what can be meaningful without meaning.

Today’s piece “Trenches: St. Eloi”  is attributed to T. E. Hulme, a man who helped form this Modernist revolution and died before he could live in it. I say “attributed” because, like Homer, he did not write it down. The exact attribution is “Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH” when it was published by Ezra Pound, and it may have been Pound who chose what to transcribe or how to lay out the transcription. My guess is that some of the language sounds like Hulme (the unusual, but so perfect word choice of “pottering,” the homey image of trench soldiers strolling compared to the shoppers on the busy London street of Piccadilly), but the overall arrangement sounds like Pound to me.
 
We know pretty much the where and when that is being talked about, more than we know of the actual history of Troy. Hulme got a chance to relate these details while in an English hospital after being wounded in the spring of 1915 in trench warfare in St. Eloi. He recovered, returned to the war, and to his eventual meeting with a German artillery shell that ended his life.

T. E. Hulme may have said it, Ezra Pound may have edited it and written it down, but to hear me perform it with my musical accompaniment, use the player below.

Fall 2017 Parlando Project Top 10

It’s time to report the most popular audio pieces posted here over this increasingly busy summer. Before I get to this season’s Top 10 countdown, I want to thank everyone who has listened, followed, liked, or shared our posts and audio pieces on social media or on other blogs. I don’t have time (or perhaps the talents) to do all the promotion that some other blogs do, so it’s the kind words and enthusiastic work that you readers/listeners do that has spread the news about this combination of various words with various music.

Lots of changes from our last Top 10, so let’s get started. There should be a player gadget after each piece on the list, so you can easily hear the audio combining those words with music we create and perform as part of the Parlando Project.

10th place? Turns out it’s a three-way tie for 10, and since the three pieces demonstrate the variety I seek to present here, let’s just dispense with tie-breakers and list all three audio pieces that are tied at number 10..

“Sonnet 18”
  is, so far, our only Shakespeare selection. Shakespeare is, or course, inescapable, and setting Shakespeare’s sonnets to music isn’t a rare thing either, but one of the good things that comes from the Shakespeare phenomenon is that a listener can hear a lot of different takes on one text. I choose to bring out the brag in this one.

A Summer’s Night”  uses a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first widely published Afro-American poet who died tragically young in 1906. A lot of Dunbar’s success during his lifetime was with dialect pieces which he had ambiguous feelings about. He sometimes said that he wished to be known more for his poetic work in standard English, something that “A Summer’s Night”  demonstrates.

 

“On the Troop Ship To Gallipoli”  demonstrates a small bit of artistic courage on my part to pay tribute to the real-world courage of Rupert Brooke, who died in service to his country in WWI. The “Great War” redrew the world’s maps, overturned several empires, and it also drew a literary dividing line, as post-war poetry embraced Modernism which made the poetic stylings of Brooke seem decades old only a few years after he wrote them. Those who lived through that time often adapted to the new ideas of modern poetry, but Brooke never had that chance. So, in this piece I recast a late fragment of Brooke’s words as if it was an Imagist poem.

In 9th place, we have “Zalka Peetruza (who was christened Lucy Jane),”  which uses a poem by journalist and poet Roy Dandridge, who coincidently like Dunbar, was another Ohio Afro-American. By evidence of this poem, Dandridge deserves to be better known than he is, as it’s a tart observation of the art of getting over while Black, in this case by passing one’s self off as exotic.

8th place goes to a bit of a surprise, my slightly Beefheartian musical setting of two sections of Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons.”  Don VanVliet (Capt. Beefheart) and Gertrude Stein were both uncompromising artists who hoed their own rows, so I viscerally made the connection in creating this piece.

7th is Sir Walter Raleigh’s damning litany “The Lie.”  It’s a poem I’ve loved since my youth and I don’t think one has to add much musical vengeance to amplify Raleigh’s words. 400 years old, and still pissed off.

6th slot goes to one of my translations, Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  I did this translation a few years ago, and it was intended to be a somewhat freer variation. As I learn more, I think my assumptions on what the poem was getting at were wrong, but this looser version got 20 more listens that it’s more literal translation I also presented here this summer.

Halfway to number 1, at number 5, is Parlando Project alternative reader Dave Moore’s tale “I Was Not Yet Awake.”  Dave also plays many of the keyboard parts you hear here, including the organ part on this.  “I Was Not Yet Awake”  is short for a story, but longer than many pieces we present here. Dave’s story is so well told that it still managed to pick up a lot of listens this summer.

At number 4, dropping down from two straight appearance as number 1, is “Frances,”  a teenaged George Washington’s acrostic love poem. That’s still a marvel, as week after week I look at stats and see that it’s still getting listens, long after its appearance here last February.

Top 3 time! In position 3 is “The Death of Apollinaire,”  my translation of Dada principal Tristian Tzara’s surprisingly sincere eulogy for the multi-national poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who invented the term “Surrealism” and helped weave together many of the strands of European Modernism before he died from complications of wounds he suffered in WWI.

And in position #2, up one place from 3rd in the last Top 10, is Dave Moore enigmatic song “Love and Money.”  It may offer an American answer to the question the Beatles once asked in “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

adlestrop Station

“The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came…”

Position number 1 is another return, and an even higher rise in the chart due to the large number of listens over this summer: “Adlestrop,”  British poet Edward Thomas’ famous moment on train platform on a hot June 24th 1914, were nothing much happens, but everything palpably is.

The poem portrays the train’s stop as unscheduled, but research into train schedules (see them here in this blog post at The National Archives) says otherwise. Adding this element was a conscious choice by Thomas.

It’s a much-loved poem for many reasons. Some find extra resonance in the lines describing calmness in the tiny village train stop, the literal calm before the storm of WWI, and that’s a fine thought for those that hold it, but I believe the poem exists beyond those associations. “Adelstop’s”  closing lines are sublime even without that particular war, that particular trauma to that specific nation, and as it was, to the ending of the life of its author Thomas, who became another of the poets killed in that war.