One of the particulars of childhood is that one can experience extraordinary things as usual. In the years of my childhood, protestant Christian church services always included the singing of several hymns by the congregation at large. I suspect this may be less common today. I believe larger churches now often feature talented musicians and singers performing more of the musical parts of the service, which makes the worship more like conventional entertainment. In many of the rural churches of my youth, even organizing a church choir for a single number might strain the resources of the smaller congregations. So instead, we held the hymns in our own breaths and wavering pitches.
The singing of such hymns, many from the 19th century, was part of my musical initiation. The melodies were various, some taken from traditional airs, others adapted from famous classical composers. The words? There was that ordinary/strange part. Hymn writers were often the philosophical sort, and their lyrics would drop esoteric theological terms and judgements as austere as their hopes were sure. It wasn’t just the children that would be asked to fill their lungs and sing these arcane terms, they were also not the common language of the farmers and tradesmen who filled the pews.
Often the minister leading the congregation would skip the more difficult verses, but I, enamored of words, would read them anyway and wonder at their celestial descriptions. This experience may have primed me for a later-life appreciation for Emily Dickinson, who sometimes used the common hymn meter for her own original and less than orthodox hymnal.
Well, that’s a long digression before bringing forth the author of the text I use today: Christina Rossetti. Rosetti often wrote short devotional poems, and while I don’t know if she intended them from the start as hymn lyrics, some were straightaway used for same. Her poem “Love Came Down at Christmas” is one example. It’s sung to several melodies, one of which is a traditional Irish tune which I used as a basis for my setting.
Rossetti as a poet is not often drawn to extravagant verse (unlike many of her Victorian contemporaries), and the text of her poem is quite short: 12 lines, 63 words. While not in an exact form like a triolet, rondel or the like, it makes significant use of repetition: 11 of those words are uses of the word “love,” and its relative “lovely” could make that count 12. The poem has only one rhyme, which sometimes just repeats its word rather than true rhyme: divine, sign, mine.
So, a simple structure, the kind of thing that is ideal for singing. None the less, it’s been altered in most performances I’ve sampled. The line “Love to God and all men” has sometimes been changed to inclusive language (“all of us”). The other common alteration is to drop the second verse. That’s odd, it’s not like this is a 48-verse ballad or something. I suspect that dropped verse is excluded because it uses those dodgey theological words.
Here’s Rossetti’s original second verse:
Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?
Many would be in the philosophic weeds there. The belief that sweet baby Jesus is an incarnation of the divine Godhead is orthodox Christianity, but it comes off kind of Hindu expressed so. And the last line is a bit awkward in sing-ability and sense.
The gifts are nice, but the Airbnb review Joseph’s writing will still be scathing.
Still, dropping it obscures the point Rossetti chose to make: that the incarnate Godhead is not something that we can invariably grasp. Use of three-kings astrology and wandering stars is not reliable after all. As the second verse makes way for the third, she chooses and old standby from folk-ballads for her compressed song: the love-token. In songs like “John Riley” long-separated lovers know each other by some special device they have exchanged, and in this case, love itself is the token. We will know the Godhead, and not some counterfeit, is present by love’s presence.
I took the liberty of revising Rossetti’s second verse rather than dropping it. Here’s how I rendered it:
If we seek the Godhead
Love incarnate, love divine;
Where to find our Jesus,
What would be his sacred sign?
I also took liberties with the music. All the repetition with the words often resolving down to the same made me think of musics based on similar relationships to departing and returning rather than a harmonic progression that goes onward. That and the second verse called for me to pull out the tambura and sitar,* and to play guitar and organ in a manner that would match them. The piece would benefit if a better singer in that tradition sang it than myself—but then, there may be a benefit to singing the hymns even if one isn’t the best singer in the congregation.
Choices like this as I pursue this project to introduce different words and music to each other is my adult way to make the extraordinary usual. The player to hear my performance of Christina Rossetti’s poem is below.
*Though I once played a copy of the Coral “Electric Sitar,” I no longer use that approximation of the real sitar. Instead I use my MIDI guitar to play sitar and tambura “virtual instruments” where the guitar (or keyboard) can trigger the sound of each note in the instrument’s range as one plays, using a variety of realistic timbres from the real thing.
Today’s text is a poem that works in the common garden using another poet’s central image. Christina Rossetti’s “An October Garden” is three lines in when she reveals that her garden isn’t growing nervous grazing watermelons—that what she observes there is the last rose of summer.
Irish poet Thomas Moore seems to be the writer who first struck that coinage, or at the least popularized it. His 1805 short poem called “The Last Rose of Summer” was soon set to music based on a traditional Irish harper’s tune, and the words and sentiments with the associated music has been sticking around ever since.* Moore’s poem is both dark and sentimental, a combination of ingredients that continues to impress audiences. Summarized to its core outlook, it’s a poem about surrendering (at least metaphorically) to loss.
Writing down to the bones & roses: “When the last rose of summer pricks your finger…”
What distinguishes Christina Rossetti’s use of the image from Thomas Moore’s? Rossetti’s is a bit shorter. It’s an unusual form sonnet, just 14 lines, vs. Moore’s 24. Rossetti’s sonnet form is neat: a pair of equal 7-line stanzas and an ABBAACC rhyme scheme. But furthermore, her take on the image is somewhat ambiguous. For one thing she notes there are other, more hardy flowers still around too, but her eye’s on that last rose, and however puny and forlorn it might be, she’s one for the roses and not them. Although no one would confuse her poem with a Modernist poem in the Imagist style, her presentation of the rose is more objective and there are fewer “feeling” words, and in their place: more observational words.
If one abandoned the structure she used, one could “translate” Rossetti’s poem into a free-verse Imagist poem fairly easily. But let me note one more thing about the structure: one could easily think that a need for rhymes has forced some word choices. The last rose “which cold winds balk” reads to me first and last as a forced rhyme. The literal sense is that the winds are still holding-back against this puny but still budding rose, but that’s not a strong statement (absence of the cold winds is less concrete than their presence). The other possibly forced rhyme is repeated twice:** “rosebud which uncloses.” This one is so awkward that I am still evaluating how it works. What a weird way to say what one could say simply “opens.”
There’s a dirty little secret about rhymes. More times than poets will admit, the need to make a rhyme will force a poet into a choice they otherwise wouldn’t make. There are times that rhyming need works like Surrealist tactics such as “exquisite corpse” or randomization techniques, it throws chaos and noise into one’s intent. When the result fails to set off sparks, it’s experienced as forced, a failure—but when it does work, the poem or phrase takes on a new freshness.
So which is “uncloses?” I’m still not sure. If one allows the oddity of the word, and asks what it could say that’s different than “open,” it’s saying that the last rose is making a choice in blooming, knowing that colder fall and then winter to come will make its feeble bloom even shorter. It suggests it’s choosing to not stay closed or to not close back up against the cold and bleak.
Musically I doubt my setting will do for Rossetti’s poem what music did for Thomas Moore’s, but it did give an excuse to break out the Mellotron sounds again. Musical instruments can accumulate associations, and for me nothing says sitting in an English garden like this wobbly keyboard instrument that tried to imitate orchestral instruments; and while failing in verisimilitude, succeeded in sounding like a memory of them.
My performance of Rossetti’s “An October Garden” is available with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, you can find all the audio performances here on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or most other podcast sources. You can find them at such places by searching for “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.”
*In that Wikipedia page that I linked above for the text of “The Last Rose of Summer” I draw your attention to the lower sections where the extraordinarly wide range of use and allusion the tune and the text has had is listed. A personal favorite is Robert Hunter’s grief-filled variation “Black Muddy River.”
**There’s an old Jazz improvisor’s trick that when a player flubs a note or makes a wrong choice when improvising, that a way out is to repeat it, or even make it a motif.
An artist named Linnea Hadaway made a book earlier this year. It had no words in it. She said it had no words because it was about listening.
Today is International Women’s Day, an arbitrary thing like all special days, months and years. I can hear some grumbling off in the distance as some read this: “Another one of those special-interest things. I go to poetry and music to get away from that faddish nonsense.” There’s consistency in that opinion: if one is upset at “identity politics,” dividing the world in halves is just as deplorable as dividing it into tenths or smaller.
Are there dangers in division? There certainly are. But I don’t see these sorts of things as division, but as requesting attention—and attention is what art, and this Parlando Project is about. You see, life is incarcerated in the ultimate special interest group, the ultimate identity, political and otherwise: our own selves. Breaking the cellular barrier to spill our selves, or enticing us into opening a tiny pore to stare across at the skin holding another self inside another world, the still unexplored world we share, is the whole of art.
There is no apportionment so small as to be smaller than that. There is no way out but the way of art, to pay attention. Our ears cannot see, they can only listen.
No planning in this, but the next three audio pieces in our Top 10 count-down of the most liked and listened to pieces this past winter use words written by women.
I think I’ve used more Emily Dickinson pieces for words here than any other writer. I didn’t plan it that way. I’m not sure that Dickinson planned it that way either. Obviously, she meant what she did, assiduously creating and collating the more than a thousand short and engagingly enigmatic poems that we now see as a cornerstone of American poetry.
But as a careerist she’s a mess. She showed some of her work to friends and family, but like most friends and family they probably saw them as artifacts of the ordinary Emily, that stubborn particular. Perhaps they understood or didn’t understand her poems better than we do; but we, her current readers, believe it’s the later.
She had a lucky break with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the critic and social activist who answered her letter and saw something there. Even in the intellectual ferment of Transcendentalist New England, how many would have? The posthumous publication he shepherded, made possible the Dickinson we have today. But did he understand her art? We, as posterity, think otherwise.
So, like the woman in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” Dickinson pressed on, walking, almost straight, and like the bravest, aware that the comedy of striding face-first into a tree was possible.
I was there! What a concert! The music was good too.
6. A Certain Slant of Light
I didn’t think about this while writing the music for and performing “A Certain Slant of Light” and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,” but these two Emily Dickinson poems are companion pieces. The Dark poem is more clear, even comedic, the Light poem more mysterious.
In my original post I decided to not talk about what I think the poem means. In some ways, I think that’s true to the poem’s “Where the Meanings, are.” I had fun with the mock psychedelic rock poster I created to illustrate it, but I think the core experience of the poem is the same that some were seduced into having by ingesting drugs, the insight that the universe’s meaning may be unknowable and its substitute only available by fiat.
Cure the cod-sitar sounds, and stereotyped sparkle-eyed hippie whooshing “Oh, Wow!” Of course, we must laugh. This is an insight available even to the young that can apparently be induced by mere intoxication.
But it’s true. It may be easier to see the borders of truth if one comes upon it without chemical aids; but even true, it’s an insight that’s hard to integrate into an active life and compassion. Dickinson integrated it with these little packets of poems. “None may teach it,” she says, but I can let you see my experience of it.
5. In the Bleak Midwinter
And one slot higher in the countdown, a woman who isn’t Dickinson, but is roughly her contemporary, English poet Christina Rossetti. Her’s is a Christmas and Christian poem, faith is her fiat; and a shaped and received story is her poems plot.
As this post talks about division, opposites—and how, if one distrusts them, one must cross them, sometimes listening, rather than shouting at them to come down—“In the Bleak Midwinter” is all about divisions and opposites, and where they fail to hold.
In the moment of Rossetti’s beautiful song, even if earth is iron and water stone, heaven cannot contain God, nor can the earth sustain winter or meagre poverty.
I remember someone asking one of the earnest folk-singers of my generation (alas, I can’t remember who) if a song could change the world. Their reply was something like, “Of course not, but during the time the song is being sung the world is changed.” Perhaps an argument for longer songs, better memories, or us slowly learning how to integrate the experience of art into the rest of our lives.
I plan to return tomorrow with the next three in our Top 10 count-down of the most popular pieces over the past Winter.
Tomorrow is Christmas, a holiday that in the English-speaking world owes a lot to the English Victorians in conception, which gives me an excuse to present once again the words of the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, this time in the guise of her popular and explicitly Christian-religious Christmas song “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
“You could have brought a casserole.” Victorian painter Edward Burne-Jones’ nativity.
Is it just me, or is Mary looking a little non-plussed by all the visitors?
The song used for Rossetti’s words seems to be attributed to Gustav Holst, a composer who is best known to me for his orchestral suite “The Planets,” which has been admired or borrowed from by both Frank Zappa and King Crimson. In my rush to complete this today I can’t say that I’ve done as much justice to his tune, though I used a rough approximation of it.
The tune is quite pretty, and it makes it a fine solo for any good singer, which therefore makes it a challenge for me, so I’ve resorted to my usual parlando. On the other hand, a great many versions of this song in hymn books and elsewhere seem to have modified Christina Rossetti’s words, changing terms and phrases, even dropping some stanzas, where I’ve been faithful to them. I don’t have my usual time today to research why this would be. The meter of her original text is slightly irregular, and so it may have been modified for better singability or for audience reasons.
Botticelli’s “Mystic Nativity.” Painted before the career of Raphael
So literally, a first-order “Pre-Raphaelite”
Rossetti’s approach makes use of her characteristic modesty in approaching religious subjects, with some lovely lines in the first verse picturing our northern Midwinter, and then going on to describe the stable setting, and the supernatural surrounding sentimental maternity and spiritual imminence.
Musically, I tried to compensate for my speaking the words by unleashing my bass playing. Like some gifts you may get this Christmas, it may not be the right size or color—but it was given in a good spirit at least.
Yesterday’s post and audio piece had Dave Moore combining the poetry of William Blake and Christina Rossetti, but today we have him singing the work of yet another English mystic as well as his setting of a lyric by Emily Dickinson.
For those readers and listeners in the Northern Hemisphere, tomorrow is Winter Solstice. I write from Minnesota, fairly far upward and north in latitude. Winter Solstice is the darkest day of the year, with the sun not rising until almost 8 AM and the sunset clocking out of work early at 4:20 PM. Despite our colder climate, that’s about the same as London’s solstice daylight and a hour longer than Edinburgh. Minnesota’s famous Scandinavian immigrants, as one comic once put it, traveled across the whole wide ocean just to find the one place as cold, dark and miserable as the place they’d left—well I checked—they picked up 2 to 4 hours more midwinter light.
Of course the new year is less than two weeks off, and solstice is the shortest day—not the entry into a dark season, but the beginning of a gradual expansion of daylight, cold daylight though it may be. For this reason it’s been a fairly widespread feast day across cultures.
However, for writers and musicians, the cold and the dark is no great hindrance. Sure it may blunt our moods, and stunt some mitigating outdoor activities, but our products are part of the festive in the darkness, and they can be like the shared quilt or blanket on the coldest night. Yes, before indoor lighting technology, scholarly reading was curtailed, but the poets of that dark time could recite from memory, needing no light bulb on their lectern. The sounds of strings, the dunest drum and the golden cymbal, travel without light.
And our partners and families don’t need light either to be known to us. They don’t even need poetry or music, their plainest word in the darkness is song enough, if we can hear that as one note in the slowest song that is our life together.
So, for today and the Midwinter Solstice, here is Dave Moore singing Robyn Hitchcock’s “Winter Love.”
The LYL Band tackles the darkest time of year
And for the short passage of the daylight, here’s Emily Dickinson’s sublime lyric about the transit of a day, “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose,” also sung by Dave.
And don’t forget, we have over 160 audio pieces here, available in the archives on the right. Why not check out some from before the time you first heard of us?
Today we offer a respite from my voice and the return of alternate Parlando Project presenter Dave Moore. And since it’s been a few days since the last new audio piece, today’s piece combines a lyric written by William Blake with one by Christina Rossetti. Two great poets in one piece! Ladies and gentlemen, there is no greater value you can find today in the poetic words mixed with music marketplace!
Both pieces are stated by their authors to be songs, either in the name of Blake’s collection where “The Garden of Love” first appeared, “Songs of Experience,” or in the title itself for Rossetti’s piece, which she called just “Song.”
So of course, both pieces have been set to music and sung before this, but it was Dave Moore’s idea to combine the two pieces; and one can immediately see once he did this, how tightly they fit, with Blake sorrowfully reporting the graves in the garden, and Rossetti musing on the grave and its landscape.
Rossetti wrote her “Song” while still a teenager. Unlike Blake who was born in a religious dissenter family and grew increasingly distrustful of the corruptions of organized religion, Rossetti would become one of the most graceful and modest of the poets of the Victorian Christian revival. Strange, isn’t it, that the two poems mesh together.
“If you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last”
Christina Rossetti listens for inspiration, or puzzles over her holiday gift list
Speaking from my poet/musician duality, the version of “The Garden of Love” that I most recall is the one recorded by Allen Ginsberg in December of 1969. Ginsberg’s recording is played, followed by a 20-minute discussion of the poem and performance here. The four speakers in this discussion mull on the country music waltz feel Ginsberg performed the Blake too. If I were in that room, I could have replied from the musician side of that duality, that in 1969 there was a bloomlet of counter-cultural figures essaying country-music tropes to the puzzlement from the hippie audience as to what level of irony was intended. Two musical figures close to Allen Ginsberg had taken part in that move earlier that same year: Bob Dylan with “Nashville Skyline” and Ed Sanders with “Sanders’ Truckstop.”
“A dominie in gray…led the flock away.” Blake’s self-illuminated song.
Our performance of this mixes Dave’s somewhat church-hymn organ (Ginsberg often used a hand-pumped harmonium organ in his live performances) with my country-ish Telecaster electric guitar, so perhaps Ginsberg’s country move was stuck in my memory as we performed this. Here’s what Dave Moore said about his performance:
“Wayback Machine time.
This song goes back to the early days of the Reagan years, which he ended up forgetting but we can’t.
Probably this is my first attempt to put music to classic poetry, I just thought they fit together so well & expressed both despair and hope so well. This one is my favorite vocal of all attempts at this piece. My introductory verses for each poet are new & I wish I’d separated them from the two little poems better, but that’s what you get with one-takes. Ah, sweet death, we can still sing.”
Dave points out a contrasting benefit of the pieces here performed as the LYL Band, which are not only “one-takes,” but are often pieces that only the composer-vocalist has any sense of the structure of, leaving the rest of us to follow and create parts on the fly. This leads to a certain roughness, and yes, at times, tentativeness too—but I believe there is a corresponding sense of the undiscovered and its discovery that may come across to the listener.
To listen to the LYL Band perform Dave Moore’s pairing of these two beautiful, yet sad, English lyrics, use the player below.
Today was the Autumn Equinox, which some use to mark the beginning Fall. Where I live it was very hot and muggy, hardly autumn-like at all, and even the reasonable breeze could not budge the heat. I went bicycling with my son, promising him ice-cream, which he accepted as adequate exchange, and picked up cold sandwiches for our supper, but in-between I worked on the setting for this piece, yet another by Christina Rossetti.
I wasn’t intending to return to Rossetti so soon, and I’m not sure how I ran into this poem, but it meshes so well with some others I featured here this month about summer and attitudes to love. I just couldn’t deny it.
Christina Rossetti: sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way
I know little of Christina Rossetti’s life, if she suffered from depression, or if this reflects a more temporary mood; but in whatever case, she fashioned a finely crafted lyric to present the experience. I find this sort of thing often in English poetry, sadness that none-the-less sings in a lovely way. Here is America we grew up some Blues, and we tend more to bargain with despair, or call it names and begin to insult its absurdity.
The title is a bit of puzzle to me, though. “From Sunset to Star Rise” has something of a “It’ll get better” connotation. Was she trying to remind herself of some wisdom that could come from this, or that there is some mystery yet to work out?
Musically I wrote this on acoustic guitar and the full arrangement retains the acoustic guitar part with some disconsolate drums and slowly building synth parts. To hear it, use the player gadget below.
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.
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.
See, E flat is so easy on piano, even saints can play it.
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.
The subtitle of the Parlando Project is “The Place Where Music and Words Meet”. As I mentioned last night, this project, which combines words sourced from a variety of sources with a variety of music, has now reached 100 available audio pieces since it’s official launch 11 months ago. Note that stress on variety. In terms of writers, I have my favorites, and the short format of our audio pieces strongly favors poetry, but the Parlando Project has featured words taken from other sources as well, and some of the poets featured were unknown to me until I ran across them looking for material, and I’m trying to vary the music as much as I can. Sometimes our pieces are as simple as acoustic guitar and voice, as in our most recent post The Oven Bird. Some pieces have full arrangements with multiple instruments, and some feature spontaneous performances by the LYL Band, a folk-rock band that’s been playing a rough and ready mix of electric instruments and literate lyrics since the early days of Minneapolis punk rock.
We’ve gotten thousands of downloads and streams so far, and though I don’t have the time to thank everyone personally for the likes and the shares, it’s been your passing on the existence of our audio pieces that has grown our audience from a few hundred downloads to thousands. I don’t have time for a social media presence myself. Researching, writing the majority of the music, as well as arranging, producing and recording these 100 pieces has taken an untold number of fascinating hours, but it leaves me little time to promote this work myself. So I’m very grateful for you, the readers/listeners who have done so.
Since we last did did a Top 10 in the spring, that growth in listenership has meant that there is only one returning piece since that list a few months ago. Which piece has the staying power? Lets start off the countdown in the traditional order, with #10.
10. Adlestrop – a late surge brought this piece with words by fateful British poet Edward Thomas into the top 10, just beating out Zalka Peetruza and Spring Grass as the final slot shifted back and forth this week. Adlestop’s download rate is noteworthy too in that its the newest post to make this list. Listening to this hazy slide guitar piece I still recall my own muggy summer unscheduled lay-over in Kingham a year ago, but that’s a private moment, though I feel somehow I’ve shared it with Thomas thanks to his words. In a more public way, this poem gains resonance from it’s connection to Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and to the Centenary of WWI.
9. Grass – speaking of WWI, here’s the first of two placings of a Carl Sandburg piece on this Summer’s Top 10. My private memory is performing this with the LYL Band, spontaneously as usual, with no rehearsal or warning as I read Sandburg’s words, and having us stop on a dime for line that starts “What place is this…” as Grass approaches Sandburg’s ending. For other listeners, particularly those with friends, families, and even ancestors lost to war, Sandburg’s piece asks a powerful question of forgetfulness.
8. Intro to The Waste Land – One could say this continues our WWI Centenary theme, as T.S. Eliot deals with his personal depression in the context of the aftermath of The Great War in this poem, but it was instead intended as part of our April “National Poetry Month” celebration, which I will always link to the poem’s famous opening line “April is the cruelest month.” This is one of my composed pieces musically, were I get to write and perform all the parts myself, which means I get to fully realize my personal “vision” of the music (something the listener needs to care not a bit about) and to therefore be responsible for all my own mistakes. My personal memories of The Waste Land are two-fold, one a memory of reading it for the first time in college, and though mystified, feeling an intense musical thrust in what Eliot wrote, and then to a time more than a decade ago when I felt just past my lowest ebb emotionally and then performed the last sections of The Waste Land spontaneously with the LYL Band, and found it as musical as I expected it would be, but also was surprised at how it expiational performing it was. Publically, the downloads of this have been steady, and have continued long past #NPM in April, so it’s either due to your sharing of it, or the poem’s continued fame.
7. To A Friend Whose Work Has Come To Nothing – Irish poet William Butler Yeats is another writer whose work we’ve mined for more than one piece here. One thing I learned while looking at material for this blog was that Yeats too believed that poetry performed with music was a necessary combination. Another investigation, brought on specifically by this piece, was to find out just who the friend was whose work had been thwarted, and what that work was. This has been another piece with a steady listening rate since posted. My guess is that the experience Yeats was telling us about is common to many, and whenever it is encountered it is not easily forgotten. Weeks after this was posted, I watched the former FBI director James Comey testify before Congress, and thought if Yeats was his friend, he would have said the same things in verse to him.
6. Clark Street Bridge – Carl Sandburg gets his second appearance on this Top 10 with this wistful story of day and night on this busy downtown Chicago river bridge. As a personal experience I got to see the Clark Street Bridge this spring on a visit to Chicago, and though the current bridge is almost 100 years old, it’s not the one Sandburg watched and wrote of. Another thing I learned during my trip: his night scene with silver singing stars equal in number to all the broken hearts in Chicago contained a larger number than I would have estimated from modern urban nights, as the poem was written before the widespread adoption of all-night electric lights. What are, or could, the listeners be attracted to? Well, broken hearts remain as numerous as the stars in a dark sky for sure, and Chicago has taken Sandburg to it’s heart; despite, or because, he says that that heart is broken.
5. The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton – I’ve written a number of direct tributes to musicians that I’ve featured here, but this is the most popular. Particularly now as the main lot of musicians fall back into the lower levels of the “gig economy” they gave their name to without additional payment, I see them as retaining the heroism of artists in general, who do what they do to general indifference, but now with a much lower chance of professional earnings. This is the only piece in this Top 10 where I wrote the words and the music, but that’s about the right amount, as the Parlando Project is about appreciating “Other People’s Stories” after all. The defensive shells and double-ended poison stingers that artists grow don’t always lead to happy lives, but those who knew Bruce Hampton have grateful things to say about him as a person and collaborator. And by chance, he got to come to the end his life with some of those folks thanking him, while he encouraged the creation of even more spontaneous art. I assume that’s the reason for so many people listening to this piece.
4. These Fought – Here’s one I’m a little surprised about. Ezra Pound may have done more than any other person to create modern poetry, but he’s less read today than many he influenced and championed. And though other modernists dabbled in between-the-wars nationalism and racial theories, Pound became America’s most notorious fascist apologist. And this piece, posted around Memorial Day is an uncompromising denial of the honor in the sacrifices of WWI. If you like your poetry feel-good and inspirational, if you like your poets cuddly and full of civic pride, this piece is not your choice. The LYL Band tries to equal Pound’s fierceness in this performance.
3. Love and Money – Unlike many other poetry and spoken word blogs, we feature other people’s words almost all the time in the Parlando Project. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with self-expression, but in following the Project’s dictum “Other People’s Stories,” we don’t do that often. Perhaps in consolidating that stated aim with the catalog of thought-provoking words that Dave has written over the years, many of the Dave Moore pieces I’ve posted so far have been performances where I perform Dave’s words–a mixed blessing that–because, to steal an old Columbia Records ad from the 1960s “No one sings Dave Moore like Dave Moore.” I was sold on this one the moment I heard Dave sing the first line of this piece as we spontaneously performed it, and there’s no way I could do it justice. The popularity of “Love and Money” probably has the same private and public reasons, it’s just a good song. Oh, and Dave’s pounding electric clavichord performance might have something to do with it too.
2. Up-Hill – Here’s an example of a poet I knew close to nothing about before looking for material in the public domain to adopt for Parlando performance. Having a long time love of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and knowing that poetry and poets were part of their artistic circle, I went looking for Pre-Raphaelite poems that I could relate to musically. I kept striking out. I really wanted to find something by Algernon Charles Swinburne, because, well, “Algernon Charles Swinburne”. Is there any name that says more clearly that you don’t give a damn about sounding cleanly modern and approachable? Only Ezra Pound’s invented persona “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” comes close. Alas, I could find nothing I felt I could inhabit–and then I came upon some of Christina Rossetti’s shorter poems. Read this on the page just once, and you know it’s crying out to be sung. Perhaps Up-Hill draws listeners because it’s a Christian religious poem, but Rossetti’s writing personally connects with me because it’s imagery and expression is so non-abstract and modest.
1. Frances – Here’s the only repeat from last Spring, and it’s still on top, with almost double the total listens since released of the any of the others on this list. I released Frances on a lark to mark US President’s Day last February. I suspect it got picked up and linked somewhere more popular than other pieces that have been linked from here, but I haven’t been able to find out where. Here’s an example of how relatively popular it’s remained, long after it’s author’s, the first US President George Washington’s, birthday this winter: it was the 8th most listened to piece from the Parlando Project in May, still 19th in June, and currently it’s the 13th most listened to song in July, with a hundred alternatives competing with it. What accounts for this? Well it’s a love song for one thing. Maybe it’s the pared back Pixies soft/loud arrangement? It’s a mystery.
So that completes the Summer 2017 Top 10. I plan to do another one next Fall. If you’ve got a favorite you’ve found here, do what someone must have done with Frances, and go ahead a link to it to see if it can get more listeners.
Last post I compared late 19th Century cultural hipsters with early 21st Century urban cultural revivalists. Did modern natural-fiber clad, skin-inked and perforated young people study up on William Morris’ Arts & Crafts movement and visit museums to absorb the Pre-Raphaelites? Some perhaps, not all. And the same can be said for what is carried onward from punks, hip-hop kids, hippies, beatniks, and so on. I’m too old, and too little a sociologist to answer this definitively.
I can say that when I tried to discover what kind of music I wanted to make in the 1970s I copied imperfectly many musicians from the previous decades as well as my contemporaries working down the river in New York City. And those NYC contemporaries? They too were looking backward to move forward. What had been overlooked? What had gone out of fashion for no good reason? What had been uncompleted? So, in listening to them, I was listening to their understanding and misunderstandings of the past too.
One of our principles with the Parlando Project is “Other People’s Stories.” Part of the above is “my story”—but my musical story is really made up of other people’s stories.
Tracing the path of influence is often hard to do. Today’s piece “Up-Hill” is an example. The words were written by Christina Rossetti, that sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Obviously, she’s familiar with the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle—but she’s also deeply interested in a Christian religious revival, and that too gets reflected in “Up-Hill.” Would she have known Anna Coghill’s poem that was set as the hymn “Work for the Night is Coming?” That’s unknown to me, but “Up-Hill” and “Work for the Night is Coming” are both poems understood in context as being Christian devotional, while containing not a single specific utterance about a deity, salvation, or an afterlife. With revivals, context changes things.
Christina Rossetti thinking about an up-hill journey?
And here’s another way that influence is hard to trace: it becomes unconscious. As I was writing the music for “Up-Hill” I was mostly interested in varying my customary harmonic cadences while keeping it to just two or three chords, a short number that often works best for performance with the LYL Band. And “Up-Hill” is, after all, a work of beautiful simplicity, saying something profound without pretentious elaboration. I settled on a simple I V IV I progression, and tried it with the band last month, but my vocal wasn’t working. Trying again this month, the unconscious struck.
“Shall I meet other Wayfarers at night?” The Velvet Underground certainly think so.
I didn’t realize until I was working out the rhythm track that I was falling into a Velvet Underground groove, like the one they used in “I’m Waiting for my Man,” a tune that is also understood as devotional in context—though to drugs, not a deity. Both songs feature a journey to a destination (up-hill or up-town), both engage in conversation along the way. Was this subconscious choice a sly comment on Christina’s brother Dante Rossetti’s addictions? A comparison of recovery to salvation, or of addiction to salvation? No, the groove was just working, and it helped me get a better vocal down. If I understood anything about what I was choosing while doing, it was that I was linking sub-cultures and following the near invisible web connecting Other People’s Stories.
So what would that sound like? Use the player below to find out.
Same as always, the player should appear below.to hear the performance of “Up-Hill.” And keep sharing the links, subscribing, and telling folks about the Parlando Project.