Parlando Project Winter 2017–the Most Popular Piece of the Last Season

The last few days I’ve been looking back over the past three months at the audio pieces that received the most listens and likes from visitors here, and we’ve now counted up to the post revealing the most popular piece.

But before I get to that, let me let newer visitors here know what the Parlando Project is. For the past few years I’ve been experimenting with the ways that words can be used along with music. Most of the words are going to be poetry, if only because I like shorter pieces for this, and poetry accommodates that desire most easily. The music? My goal is: as varied as we can make it. The “we” here are largely myself and Dave Moore, who I’ve played with as the LYL Band since the late 1970s. Dave also is the alternative voice of the Parlando Project, one that’s read or sung several popular pieces during the history of this project.

Dave and I have also been writers (Dave’s also a cartoonist) since our youth, but this project is not, in it’s greater part, about presenting our written work. Rather it’s about looking at a variety of other people’s experiences and expressions, reacting to them, and seeking to embody them in a way we hope you’ll find interesting.

Do we turn the poems into songs? Sometimes. Sometimes they were, or were meant to be, songs anyway (Tagore and Campion for example). But often we aim for something that is cast between spoken word and chant. As best as I can figure out, this is akin to what William Butler Yeats once aimed to do with poetry and poetic drama, and he thought William Blake, Sappho and the Celtic bards did the same. And for myself, in addition to those Yeats pointed to, it’s my spin on what Jack Kerouac, John Lee Hooker, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith (along with others) did.

Rap/Hip Hop does this too, but as varied as those artists’ approaches are, most of their tactics I can’t make work for me. No disrespect, it’s just my limitations.

Well, here’s the Parlando Project’s most popular piece from the last three months: Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire.”  It was number 3 last September, so it’s been getting the listens since last summer, yet it’s not one I selected because it was well-known or sure to be popular.

Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay

Accessorizing with knitted wear was the most important artistic dictum of Dada

Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, is not that widely available in English, and even the subject of this elegy, the influential Polish-French writer and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, has a fame that doesn’t transfer with full brightness off the European continent. I did my own translation from Tzara’s French for this piece. And though I’ve attempted to do this, off and on, since my youth, translating Surrealist, much less Dada, poetry into English has it’s extra complications: to what degree is an image meant to be impenetrable and random, meaningless as a stance; and to what degree is it instead a shockingly fresh juxtaposition?

I have a prejudice for the later. When I am translating poetry I take it for a given that I will not be able to convey the auditory music of the original, though I try to retain the musical development of its statements, and above all, I try to find English words and idiom that will grab the English-speaking reader’s interest with vividness.  This approach has it’s dangers, as I’m not enough of a scholar of the lives of writers or of the their languages to make the most informed decisions, but in the case of “The Death of Apollinaire”  I feel this leads to a very effective and affecting statement about the death of an artist still suffering from his battle wounds just after the end of the WWI.

My limitations aside, I hope I was faithful to Tzara’s voice, and I hope you’ll find it moving too. You can listen to it with the player below.

New pieces will be coming soon, so come back and check, or hit that “Follow this Blog” button up near the top-right to get notices of new pieces.

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The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 3

Here we go, continuing our Top Ten countdown for the most popular audio pieces from the past Fall as counted by your likes and streaming listens. In the past two posts we’ve done numbers 10 through 5, so let’s move on to number 4.

One thing I enjoy about this project is that I can’t predict which pieces will get the most response, and in 4th place this past Fall we have my rendition of a excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s arch-Modernist “Tender Buttons.”  Not only was it popular last Fall, but it actually improved on its 8th place position from last Summer’s Top 10.

Stein’s experiments have to be seen as the forerunner of what came to be known decades later as “Language Poets”—poetry that reveled in the indeterminacy of our language, that exploited all the cracks and odd turns in our real everyday spoken syntax. This poetry can seem intimidating if one is pressed to extract a meaning immediately, but one value of the Parlando Project is that we’re free to perform the poetry with music and allow any straightforward meaning to take a back seat to the sound and flow of the words. And the poetry of “Language Poets” often gains some singular meanings when read aloud, because our everyday spoken syntax is nowhere near as clear as good written prose would be. We commonly understand meanings when words are  spoken from inflection and our groupings of words that no diagramed sentence can measure.

Musically, I doubled down on the Modernist tilt of Stein’s words by speaking them to my interpretation of the style of Don VanVliet who performed as “Captain Beefheart.” VanVliet took the vernacular freedom of Delta Blues music and expanded on it even further. His own lyrics, like his own music, like Gertrude Stein’s words, don’t seem to make sense at first, until you open up and let them in for awhile, until the off-center is normalized, and you begin to see the facets of the brilliant corners. That journey starts—maybe only starts—when you listen to this piece the first time.

 

At Number 3, we have another returning piece from last Summer, “On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli,”  based on my recasting of WWI poet Rupert Brooke’s late fragment, written down shortly before his death on the way to the front in Turkey. If the soldier’s death of Modernist instigator T. E. Hulme (whose “Trenches St. Eloi”  was earlier in our Top 10) cost him the opportunity to solidify his position as a founder of British Modernism, Brooke’s death gave him no chance to outgrow or adapt his 19th Century poetics to the new realities of warfare that WWI revealed to many others.  So, while maintaining my respect for Brooke’s experience as he wrote it down, I tightened and modernized his language and presentation to create the kind of poem Hulme, F. S. Flint, Ezra Pound, or Siegfried Sassoon would have written.

I tried to work the time-worn musical tactic of the slow build in my setting for this one. The final fuzzy musical strain in this is a conventional electric guitar played with an E-bow, a device that magnetically drives a string without plucking it, somewhat in imitation of what a real bow does on a bowed string instrument.

 

Robert Johnsons

One of these two guys cut a crossroads deal at midnight that let him use Shakespeare’s lyrics

 

At number 2 in our Top 10, we’re back to a piece that hasn’t made a Top 10 before. It just so happens that it’s another adaptation or free translation, this time by Elizabethan physician, poet, musician Thomas Campion. With “Let Us Live and Love”  Campion’s first stanza is a faithful enough translation of a poem by the Roman poet Catullus, but he then decided to develop his own path out of that beginning.

And so, by the second stanza Campion comes close to coining the Sixties’ slogan “Make Love not War” and he closes with a mighty invocation of love as the great illuminator of our darkness.

The Elizabethan age saw a flowering of lute player/composers. Many of them adapted the words of Elizabethan poets as well as writing and using their own poetry. One of Campion’s contemporaries was the great John Dowland, and another was a man named Robert Johnson. A perfectly common name, but a name that many people today associate with another singer/composer/stringed instrument player, the famous Delta bluesman.

So rather than using Campion’s own tune, I chose to set Campion’s words to my own Blues tune with slide guitar and harmonica.

 

That leaves only Number 1 to go. What piece was the most liked and listened to here last Fall? Check back tomorrow to find out.

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday, here are the next three most popular audio pieces based on readers here hitting the like button along with the number of streams and downloads counted during this past fall.

Number 7 is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “”Sonnet 43”.  I seem to be coming to a greater appreciation for Millay as I do this project. Like my long time favorite Carl Sandburg, Millay “suffered” from too much popularity in her heyday, and like Sandburg I believe that her popularity in non-academic circles at the least caused critics to feel that they need not bother to examine her work more closely.

I’ll admit, I was one of those that thought she sounded like someone trying to be a 19th Century poet when the 20th Century was well and truly underway. Now in the 21st Century, I find this less of a crime, and when I let go of that, I find I like this sonnet’s complex appreciation of love’s limits.

Musically I love that I was able to play a convincing arco bass using a MIDI-controlled virtual instrument for this one. Bowed string bass is like the snoring of the bear mother in a winter den to me, immense, and yet sweet and comforting.

 

 

 

Speaking of Carl Sandburg, his “Autumn Movement”  made it all the way to number 6, and that’s remarkable because it was only released on October 20th and thus had less than half of the Fall interval to pickup likes and listeners. I love the central autumn image in this one from Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers”  collection, and it reminds us that Sandburg, known also for his acutely observed Chicago poems and journalism, was from the very start of his career interested in conveying rural life as well.

Musically, this piece demonstrates how recently I had seen Bill Frisell in concert—and seeing him, and the musicians he plays with, is something I try to keep always recent in my experience. Of course, Bill Frisell has an immense amount of musical vocabulary under his fingers, and I don’t; but I tried to make the best of mine, which is all any musician can do.

 

 

Bill Frissell with books

Besides his music, I admire Bill Frisell’s interior decorating sense and, alas, his sartorial style.

 

Our number 5 piece in popularity this fall was T. E. Hulme’s report from “Trenches St. Eloi.”   Many of the Modernist soldier/poets who served in WWI grew not only to  hate war, but to distrust their country’s cause and justifications for their particular war. Hulme is something of a exception. As far as I can tell, he remained supportive of the British war effort in which he eventually lost his life. That doesn’t make “Trenches St. Eloi”  propaganda, for it’s far from blind to the horrors and difficulties of extended conflict. Hulme’s death shortened his career and helped mask his seminal contribution to modernizing British poetry.

Since starting this blog, I’ve been following the centenary of World War I off and on in the background, which meshes well with much of the material I can present here without running into rights issues, since modern public domain status cuts off at 1924. The material from the poets who served in the war or were otherwise touched by it, is, not unexpectedly, downbeat. Just as the Modernist revolution changed poetry, WWI changed how war was written about, breaking millenniums-long Homeric traditions of war heroes, that however flawed, were able to shape battles by their character, into stories of endurance like this one.

This is another one where the bass guitar gets to carry a lot of weight.

 

 

Thanks again for reading and listening. It’s been a huge amount of work this past year to bring you the Parlando Project pieces, hundreds of hours of reading, studying, translating, composing, playing, and recording these unique combinations of various words (mostly poetry) with various original music (as varied as Dave and I can make it). That wasn’t drudgery—far from it—it’s brought joy and amazement to me to see what’s out there that I haven’t heard or imagined before, and I hope some of that wonder and discovery comes through to the readers and listeners here, because it’s our goal to surprise and delight you, to show you new facets of poems or poets you thought you knew and to introduce you to some writers that didn’t get included in your textbooks.

Here’s what I ask you to do if we’ve succeeded in that, even if only for a piece or two out of the more than 160 pieces we’ve presented so far: let others know about it. Tap them on the shoulder, show them the URL, link us on your blog or on social media, stick an earbud in their ear. Every like, listen, link and comment helps me keep doing this. I know I should be a better promoter of this work, but frankly, I’m too engaged in the work itself to do as much as is needed.

And standby, the next three most popular pieces from the past fall will be posted soon.

The Parlando Project Winter 2017 Top 10 Part 1

I’m going to do the top 10 list a little differently for the past fall,  doing it in parts, so as to not overwhelm visitors here in one post with more audio pieces than you might have time to listen to. I’m also a bit pressed for time right now, and this fits with my schedule as well.

In traditional fashion, we’ll start with the 10th most popular audio piece from the past three months, and work our way up the list in popularity judged by your streams of the audio and likes on the blog.

Number 10, we have my looser translation of Rainier Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval,”  which is one of five pieces that are returning from our last Top 10 from September.  I translated this a few years back, making choices at the time (as translators must) as to what the author was getting at in the original German, and what English could most effectively reflect that. Knowing just a little bit more about Rilke, I think I’d make some different, better informed choices now, but the choices I made then do make for a particularly apt Winter poem with it’s opening skiing metaphor that was my most audacious choice. Rilke’s lines “I can speak in many voices/but this voice shuts up quick.” remain personally meaningful.

Musically, this is one of the short and pretty ones, so go ahead and listen.

 

 

Number 9 finds the piece that remains a perennial on the Top 10 lists, a little angsty ditty written by a love-lorn teenager infatuated with a neighbor girl. Although he didn’t actually complete the piece, with it’s acrostic scheme that was to spell out the young woman’s entire name left abandoned partway through the last name, and even though he apparently didn’t get the girl, you have to admit it’s an ambitious move by a young poet or suitor.

I titled it with the love object’s first name “Frances.”  The guy went on to military and political success, capping it off eventually with popular success as a wordsmith here. You may have heard of him: George Washington

 

 

Rose3

“When the last rose of summer pricks my finger…” photo by Renee Robbins

 

 

Well, is it all going to be repeats from last time? No. At number 8 we have a newer piece, making it’s first appearance on a Top 10 here, William Carlos Williams’ “It Is a Small Plant.”

My late wife often found pleasure in looking at things closely. How intent and intense could her focus become, and what would that reveal? If she found out, she could never tell me exactly, only that she was drawn to do that. Many years ago, after her death, I took to digitizing the photographic slide prints that she took, some of which were as close to buds and flowers as her lens could focus, and the feeling of being behind her eyes, looking with her intent, fell over me.

Williams does something like that in his poem, which also cannot tell you straightforwardly what it apprehends, while the power of the seeing is overwhelming. I like the music I played for this one quite a bit, particularly the fretless bass part, an instrument that I took up this year, and have felt greatly rewarded by.

 

 

That’s all for today, but three more of the Top 10 will be posted here soon. And remember, we now have over 160 pieces posted, so if you’d like to see what else we’ve performed and interpreted, the Archives (to the right on the web page) will let you listen to other pieces.

Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day

November 11th was first celebrated as Armistice Day, the day that World War I ended 99 years ago. As wars—even World Wars—continued after that war, the day has been pressed into other service. In the United States it’s Veteran’s Day, a day to think of and thank those that served in the armed forces. In the UK and Commonwealth Countries I hear it’s celebrated as Remembrance Day, making it more akin to the US Memorial Day.

Because I like modern poetry, and the most recent poetry I can use freely here is from before 1924, and because we are marking the centennial of World War 1, I’ve performed a lot of things from the the WWI era here, including poems about that war. Since many of you are new to this blog (traffic has grown considerably since this summer) I’m going to take this day to point out a few poems about the experience of soldiering, many of which are written by the veterans themselves.

“On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  has turned out to be one of the most popular pieces here. It’s my adaptation of a fragment written by Rupert Brooke. Brooke was a believer in the British cause in WWI, and this piece comes out of words he wrote shortly before his death of an illness he contracted while on the ship taking him to the front in Turkey. It’s a testament to people willing to put their life on the line for an idea.

 

 

“The Trenches St. Eloi”  is nearly a dispatch from the front in poetic form. It was written by T. E. Hulme, one of the founders of Imagism and modernist British poetry, though his own poetry is less known than it should be. St. Eloi was a major front in the trench warfare that stagnated for much of WWI. Eventually elaborate tunnels were dug at St. Eloi by Welsh coal miners in hopes of gaining an underground advantage. Hulme was wounded there serving in the British Army, came back to England to heal, and then returned to the war where he was later killed in action.

 

 

“South Folk in Cold Country”  was published in this form during the time of WWI, but it’s a translation (by Ezra Pound) of a work by classical Chinese poet, Li Bai. In it, the lot of the soldier sounds eerily similar to that Hulme was experiencing a thousand years later. Li Bai is the same poet that Pound used as the source for the more commonly anthologized poem “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Anthologies, and perhaps readers,  seem to prefer love poems to poems about war.

 

 

“Christ and the Soldier”  is by Siegfried Sassoon, who was a decorated hero of Britain’s army in WWI. However, he was at least as courageous in publically taking a stance against the war while still in service. A compromise was reached that he would be treated as a casualty of “shell-shock” at a asylum in Scotland rather than charged with treason or some other serious crime. Sassoon published poetry about the war during the fighting, but this one was held back and was not published until later.

 

As a break from the gravity of these men’s experience, let’s remember that the experience of soldiering, even in wartime, is not without absurdity. After WWII, several artists had a hit with a spoken word record written and originally performed by T. Texas Tyler called “The Deck of Cards.”  And it’s been occasionally revived, slightly revised, for later wars—which is only right, as the original concept of the disreputable deck of cards that symbolizes what is holy goes back to at least the 18th century. The song’s performer usually follows Tyler’s model and says at the end of the piece that they know it’s a true story because “I was that soldier.” Well, Tyler wasn’t from Texas and I’m not even sure he served in the second great war, but its enduring popularity says that the story of a disrespected common man who shows the brass that he’s just as pious and knows a thing or two is just so satisfying. English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock performed a parody of Tyler’s song from a more Dadaist angle a few years back, and this is my version inspired by Hitchcock’s. I’m not a soldier, but the story is  true: B. B. King did  ride a bicycle out of the Mississippi Delta to Memphis.

 

 

Finally, a complete change of mood, and perhaps more in the Remembrance Day or Memorial Day spirit, but here’s Spanish American War veteran Carl Sandburg’s elusive elegy to the peace all wars fail to, “Grass.”

 

The Death of Richard Wilbur, A Difficult Balance

It was only days ago here that I was remarking that Richard Wilbur was still alive while talking about the roughly half-portion of dead white men in a collated list of the most anthologized modern American poems. His poem “Love Calls Us to Things of This World”  written in the middle 1950s was one of that list, and one of the few I had no memory of having read.

Richard Wilbur 1950s

The modest house, the pipe, the tweed jacket, the Brylcreem hair with the straightest furrow—
Richard Wilbur impersonating the 1950s so that we don’t have to

 

So of course I read it, and rather enjoyed it. You could do the same via the hyperlink. There are a few things in it that one might quibble about, the heightened language (even if that is undercut by its over-riding conceit, a meditation on hanging laundry) including words that stop the modern colloquial speaker, such as “halcyon,” and the brief but passing use of rape for an image which causes me a concerned pause and objection now. There need be nothing censorious about such thoughts, as they are about the writer with his peculiarities, his time, and his blinders. They might remind me of my own limits in these regards.

The obituaries point out a controversy over Wilbur that, like his poetry, I was not much aware of. He was increasingly thought out of touch with the later 20th Century with his, on the face of it, impersonal outlook, his wit in place of rage and heated vision, and his devotion to a classic verbal music of accentual/syllabic meter.

All that may be so. Like I said, I’m generally unfamiliar with Wilbur’s poetry. But let me bring up some possible approaches from our current century, now nearly matured to voting age, to query those opinions from the 20th Century. The first is, how much do we need our poets to act as the shaman and feel for us?  Does such a need say that we ourselves cannot feel or imagine adequately, or that we cannot validate or understand our feelings and visions until demonstrated by the artist? I do not know a complete answer for this. I know that artists expressions seem to have helped me clarify and understand visionary and intense things, but I also think that the lens of wit makes clear the limits of our perceptions and emotions. Is the ecstatic visionary who can make real and palpable the dark shapes outside the fire-circle the wise one, or is the wise one the one who sees clearly that we cannot see far into the darkness and are apt to stub our toes on rocks if we think otherwise? Can only the former move us to action, can only the later keep us from recognizing foolish action?

I don’t think I know the answers, though I do think I see some of the questions. Just yesterday I wrote about how one of the  Parlando Project mottos “Other People’s Stories” shows a paradox. I feel it’s interesting—no, I’ll go farther—it’s important for us to experience other people’s subjective experience, to inhabit it to the degree we can. To do that, I’ve chosen to predominantly present other writers’ self-expression here—but to do that, I rely on others who interestingly express their own subjective experience. So, in a sense, I require others to not follow one of the principles that my artistic project goes by.

That brings up another Parlando Project principle: “Various Words with Various Music.”  Does not soft and consonant music not sound softer and more consonant when considered in the context of loud or discordant music (and vice versa)?  To fully have either, you must have both. Wilbur may have seen enough darkness to look for truth where the light is, to try to see, as his poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” concludes, a “Difficult balance.”

He was so singularly great, they called him THE Lonious Monk!

So, I ride off to breakfast this morning, and when I open the paper I see this advertisement for a tribute show planned for this fall:

100 Years of Lonious Monk

I applaud the artists, organizers, and promoters of this tribute to another great American artist. After all, I do the same kind of thing here:  asking you to pay notice to other artists—but sometimes there’s no substitute for the genuine article!

Thelonious Monk's rules as transcribed by Steve Lacy

notes on Thelonious Monk’s advice written down by Steve Lacy.

Lot’s of good advice on those two notebook sheets for musicians and writers.