It’s usually of little use for an artist to apologize for their work, and this is so even though most have self-doubts. Perhaps more so, women artists will speak about “imposter syndrome,” but I’d guess that many/most male artists have the same feelings, they just don’t talk about it. The plain fact is that we’re all pretending to be what we want to be, to go to the place we want to go to. We maybe get there, we maybe don’t — but we’re all traveling, and we all get lost sometimes.
I even have trouble with the word “pretentious.” I say that, though I know the problem that word is describing: the embarrassing failure where something doesn’t achieve what it clearly wants to achieve. It’s just that most good, and nearly all great art, starts out with exactly that urge: to make something better, to make it new, to stretch and extend the maker’s talents, to make something over the horizon from what the artist knows. Since the same urge produces success and failure, it’s not the urge or the hubris that’s the problem. Don’t beat yourself up over that urge, don’t beat your breast over the failures. Reflexive humble-brag is exceedingly boring. If you must, get through any of that quickly. One of my animating maxims is “All Artists Fail.” As I’ve written about that maxim extensively here, that paradoxically comforts me.
I’m not an expert on Kenneth Patchen, but the general impression I get from him is like a 20th century American William Blake, that he self-invented himself and his credentials, and that’s easy for me to admire. I spent much of this week looking for a poem, a text, that would inspire me, and shake me out of some creative doldrums; and after striking out both swinging and looking during several at bats inside several books, I came upon this one. Since the text of this Kenneth Patchen poem doesn’t appear to be available to link, here it is:
One can think on the statement that “death is something which poems must be about.” That’s sort of true, and I laugh at it.
It doesn’t appear to have a title in the early Selected Poems volume I found it in, but the first line was used as such when Patchen was recorded reading it. The poem is read unaccompanied, but Patchen predated the Beats in doing the mid-century poetry with music thing that’s an inspiration to me. He reads it slowly, precisely. I hear it silent on the page as more anguished in its effect, and in trying to record a performance of it this week I first tried almost shouting out parts of it. After trying that I decided that wasn’t working, and tried a more understated take — only to find that my voice was horse from the earlier takes. I did my best in the time I had, and that’s the performance you can hear today.
“She had concealed him” seems to be using something of a collage of voices. Not so directly as a Patchen favorite of mine “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is,” but the opening seems like the start of a fairy tale, then there are bits of realistic daily speech, and then the fantastic metaphor of the poems final lines. As so often in Patchen poems, there’s a sense not so much that God is love, but that Love is god.
The music today makes use of some concepts of mine that are, to convention and many listeners, wrong. I like the rub of outside notes and grotesque melodic contours.* Rather than having a straightforward harmonic foundation below a singular or a mathematically related set of melody notes, I’m fond of twined melodic lines that respond or contrast in turns with each other. And as an electric guitar player accompanying singers or poetic readers, I clearly don’t know when to shut up and not play my guitar. This last one I might change, perhaps should change, but in the immediacy of the playing moment I’m believing that strong words, read with force, are able to stand toe-to-toe with electric guitar.
Frankly, I worry that the resulting musical performance may have too much of all of the above. Is that from a failure of nerve, or a failure of execution? Am I reflexively using old habits, not stretching out to something else? Well, I meant what I played, meant my reading performance of Patchen** — but meaning and intent didn’t allay my doubts. Yesterday I made four completed attempts to mix this. With my self-expected release schedule and time conflicts, it’s rare to go beyond two alternate mixes. I still decided to let the music continue for a bit more than an extra minute past the reading, because I liked the echoing musical conversation in the deep dark cave.
And there’s this perspective: all that is just one musical mode here. I have other pieces that are less cluttered, more accessible, and less contrary to expectations.
Returning to the thoughts of the opening of this post: the middle parts of what I write today are parenthetical and not something I want to take more of your time with. Non-paralyzing self-analysis is likely uninteresting to readers or listeners, but it can be effective as part of the journey of making art. I’m done trying to make this piece any better. I think the best moments that I hear in it and what Patchen wrote may be worth your time. My job with this Project is to move onto the next piece, to see what I can find and do with that. Thank you for reading and listening. The player gadget to hear the musical performance of Kenneth Patchen’s “She had concealed him” is below for many, and this highlighted link is there for the others.
*More than once, what I play has been characterized as out of tune or dissonant. Some of that is timbral, and some of it is wide vibrato, but often it is note choice and sequence. I don’t always hear it that way. I think harmony has rules, that can be broken or bent, but there’s propriety there. But melody? Melody is free. Yes, I’ll acknowledge that certain melodic contours generally cause admirable effects, but I myself am easily bored with stock moves. Two bands I admire, Television and the Velvet Underground, were each said to have banned playing Blues riffs that were part of the expected electric guitar vocabulary. I on the other hand, and in today’s piece for example, am playing Blues expression (stinky, funky notes and wide vibrato) without the expected sequence.
I think the opening electric guitar chord today was likely a subconscious attempt to refer to the chord at the opening of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac version of his “Black Magic Woman,” and Green’s Fleetwood Mac was another band like the combo I constructed for today’s piece that tried to find room for an overplus three-electric-guitar frontline. That band’s Live at the Boston Tea Party set is foundational to me.
**I felt my earlier more histrionic reading was less effective and my more resigned reading better and more true to the poem, not a retreat.