An exchange from the Prologue to Kora In Hell

William Carlos Williams Kora in Hell  is an unusual book. Its subtitle: Improvisations  promised me more than it delivered. Improvised or semi-improvised poetry, that true Jazz poetry where the author composes on the spot from themes or from spontaneous inspiration is something I admired and—to a degree—practiced in my youth. The improvisations of Williams’ book are usually classed as prose poems, but I don’t find much music in them nor a sense of surprise or discovery. They do reflect the influence of Dada and Cubism, and if I could hold my attention on them longer, they might still bring some pleasure and illumination to me—but so far I haven’t been able to do that. But nearly half the book as published is prologue and that was more rewarding to read.

One can get a real sense in the prologue to Kora in Hell  of where Williams found himself a century ago when it was written. There’s a lot of self-assertion, a lot of names dropped, a lot of debates on poetry and art where Williams as the author of the piece gets to be not just a debate participant, but the moderator, editor, and director of the debate. Poets Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, H. D. and Alfred Kreymborg make their appearance. In visual arts Duchamp, Man Ray, and Charles Demuth are referenced. Earlier this year I also noted that a forgotten Modernist poet and editor Orrick Johns has one of his poems quoted in the prologue without attribution.*

The point Williams seems to be making over and over again in the prologue is that he is just as important, connected, valid and artistically insightful as any of these. One can easily view this assertion in a multi-valent way. Williams could easily have felt isolated and left out, now resident in New Jersey and earning his living with a bourgeois job** as a physician. And however genteelly it’s couched, most artists must engage in self-promotion—it’s unlikely that any ego-less man or woman ever set out to write a poem or paint a picture. And the point he’s making, that he, Williams, has something worth considering has  since been validated by the canon-setters.

In the case of two poets, Pound and H.D., Williams has a personal history, having known them in his college years. And it’s an exchange of letters with H.D. excerpted by Williams in the prologue to Kora in Hell  that I used for today’s audio piece. In her letter H.D. is offering gentle advice regarding something Williams has written. She’s noticed some stuff that seems derivative and that she feels doesn’t represent Williams’ individual inspiration. She sets that observation in the context of a writer’s calling and the sacredness (in her view) of the artistic enterprise.

HD and WCW

Two initial American Modernist poets: H.D. and W.C.W.

 

Williams, the home team here, gets to respond in the bottom of the inning and he shrugs briefly before thundering. He doesn’t really address the substance of H. D.’s feedback so much as he jumps on the “sacred” sentiment it’s couched in. Sacred in Williams’ mind is associated with singular artistic criteria, the kind of thing that Eliot and the New Critics of High Modernism are starting to create in a revised standard version—and he’s again’ it. When Williams says “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other” it sounds as a ringing iconoclastic statement, but what does he mean? Is he saying “There’s so much crap around that folks think is great art, so who should care what little mistakes us Modernist innovators make.” Or is it something else? Is he perhaps saying something akin to a maxim I repeat here often, that “All artists fail.” Is Williams claiming that to attempt some impossible sacredness, forgetting that the artist will fail, will harm the work from that intention?

There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.

He then closes, in a sentence as musical as anything in the prose poems that follow, with a Dada litany. A half a century later, another Dada-influenced artist who influenced me, Frank Zappa, would phrase the same principles when he said his artistic rule was AAAFNRA, “Anything, anytime, anywhere for no reason at all.”

I’ll have more to say on this in a follow-up post, but this is long enough for one sitting and it’ll give me a little space to talk about the music in today’s piece. I got to use two new components in composing this. The opening section features a fine pipe organ virtual instrument from Garritan. In a vary real sense, the pipe organ was the first, wholly mechanical, embodiment of the synthesizer, and I personally can’t play or compose for it without thinking of Michael Barone and his long-running radio show “Pipe Dreams” featuring that instrument. The orchestra sounds are from Sonuscore’s The Orchestra which is a novel approach to orchestral virtual instruments. My initial encounter with using The Orchestra mirrors most other reviewers: it makes adding orchestra colors simpler than most while giving indications that it can be used deeply if one gets under the hood of the default ensembles.

This may be a good time to explain how I use virtual instruments here, and particularly orchestral instruments. I’m thinking that many of our casual listeners when they hear Dave or myself chanting or singing away with everything from a string trio to larger ensembles that I’m just dropping in some loops or samples from a recording. There’s a good deal of that done on the Internet with poetry and I won’t knock it.*** After all, I subscribe to the maxim of Duke Ellington’s that Peter Schickele sustained “If it sounds good, it is good.” However, because I consider myself, despite my limitations, a quasi-musician and an intentional composer, I choose not to do that. Those string and orchestra parts are played,  on little plastic keyboards or with a guitar MIDI interface. Sophisticated musicians probably already know that because even while using orchestral instruments my harmonic framework is either based on rock’n’roll/blues and their common “three-chord trick” or on older drone/modal folk music traditions.

So the opening H.D. section of today’s piece is a three-chord trick, something that any garage band or punk musician would understand. And the William Carlos Williams part that follows is simpler yet harmonically, based on just C to D major chords, though the color notes of the electric guitar solo extend that slightly. When someone asks what kind of music I write I’m at a loss for useful words. I’ve said extended folk music and I’ve said punk orchestral.

To hear me present the epistolary dialog between H. D. and W.C.W, use the player below.

 

 

 

*As I said when presenting John’s “Blue Undershirts,” it’s possible that Williams, who praised the lines he quoted and used a similar though extended expression in his anthology staple “The Red Wheelbarrow,” might have thought that Kreymborg wrote them, since he quotes them while praising Kreymborg.

**I have no idea of Williams’ intent in that “day job” choice—or even how good or bad he was as a physician—but given the latency and indirectness of writers and artists impact on their fellow human beings, such work may be a useful adjunct to the writing life. I myself spent nearly 20 years of my working life in the lower levels of nursing. As I told my wife recently in a moment of clarity, I figured that if I couldn’t help myself at least I could be some help to others. Young artists: consider this.

***I must also mention modern hip-hop production which has developed a class of composers who are very adept in using samples, bits of recordings, and timbral eclecticism in a way that if someone had described it in the mid-20th century it would have seemed the very essence of an elite and esoteric avant garde, and thanks to a blessed (as in The Beatitudes) audience, and a good dose of the ever-popular folk music elements: intoxicants, sex and violence, they’ve made widely-heard popular music with it. This strikes me, along with Bob Dylan completing the Modernist revolution in poetry, as the most significant and surprising artistic events of my cultural lifetime.

Leonard Bernstein’s 100th

Just a few words here to note this. I am not a studied musician or composer, and I’m not even passionately drawn to Bernstein’s own work in these areas. Why I pause to mention him has more to do with the particular role he took in introducing composition to young people of my generation.

He did this both with live events (most of which were in cities far from my little rural farm town) and with broadcast shows. He’s the first person who presented himself in greys between rolling bar-lines on my rounded TV screen telling me that actual human beings created these imposing orchestra pieces, and not only that, there were human beings from my own country who did that, and even more strangely, living people who still did this.

Why should this have been news? I don’t know for sure. And is that still news, information not yet widely known? I can’t say. But Leonard Bernstein did let me know that, sitting on the the floor of my mid-century childhood’s home. I can still recall him introducing American Modernist Charles Ives’ music to me, so many years ago.

Here’s an hour-long TV broadcast from over 50 years ago with Bernstein presenting Ives and his music.

I believe this is the program where I first heard Ives

 

If you’d like just a taste on how Bernstein introduced Ives, here’s a slightly later talk that is only a couple of minutes long


Bernstein links Ives words and music together in his explanation.

Conlon Nancarrow

A great deal of what you hear me play here is made possible by a 1983 invention, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a standard for communicating musical commands. MIDI lets me create piano parts I can’t play with my non-pianist fingers. I tell MIDI what to play, and MIDI then instantly responds by playing those notes on an instrument so I can see if they fit.

Given MIDI, I as the composer can have the equivalent of a pair or more of pianists willing to play as simply or complexly as I want them to, and not only are my MIDI pianists totally compliant, they can be preternaturally skilled as well, willing to play odd rhythmic displacements or impossible fingerings.

In the years between WWI and WWII, a young musician of no great wealth or social background was studying composition in Boston. He was said to have crossed paths with some of the giants of 20th Century music there, including Walter Piston, whose Harmony  book I once started many decades ago, and Nicolas Slonimsky whose book on scales later became a huge influence on John Coltrane and Frank Zappa.

However, the titanic forces of world events would soon sweep him away from all this. In the 1930s he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who volunteered to fight the Fascist forces seeking to overthrow a republic in Spain during a war that served as a beta-test for World War II. This was a complex event, but all we need to know for our young man is that the anti-Fascist coalition was defeated, and the survivors who had fought for the Spanish Republic ended up as men without a country.

Earlier this year I was reading some 1939 writing by Herbert Read where he was appealing for support for a plan to transport these Spanish war survivors from French refugee camps to Latin America. Our young man, who’d hobnobbed with key musical theorists before becoming a “premature anti-Fascist,” soon found himself in Mexico City, perhaps as a result of this plan.

It was there our exiled young man took a technological step as a composer. He chose to write his music using “player pianos.” Player pianos, also called “reproducing pianos,” were a home entertainment fad from the era before better quality electronic recordings. An elaborate clockwork rolled a scroll of punched paper across mechanical sensors inside the piano which then drove the hammers to strike the piano strings. Scrolls of piano music, some recorded and played by the famous performers of the early 20th Century could be purchased, and when inserted into the home player piano, and played back with musical fidelity.

Our young man’s name was Conlon Nancarrow. Over the next few decades he exploited the player piano, not for parlor entertainment, but to create striking Modernist music of otherwise unplayable complexity. He was hip to new varieties of rhythm and harmony not only from other 20th Century “serious composers,” but from Jazz too—and the mathematical structures of Bach-like cannons were well suited to the looping scrolls he would punch himself. He wasn’t reproducing music someone played, he was producing music he conceived and punched into the controlling scrolls.

In the first few decades of his work Nancarrow had no funds, no grants, no copyist/assistants, no local orchestral resources to realize his musical ideas; but this one artist, a player piano, and his own score-roll punching could produce work needing only himself and his ideas to sound inside his small Mexican apartment.

Except for it’s painstaking, mechanical, cuckoo-clock handwork, what Nancarrow did is schematically like how one can use MIDI today. In a tip to this heritage, MIDI scores are still shown on the lit-up computer screen like player piano scrolls.

Nancarrow Piano Part MIDI score

“Stuck in holes which once were dots”
One of the piano parts for today’s piece shown in MIDI “piano roll” notation

 

In 1969, using the high-fidelity home entertainment media of its age, an LP record of Nancarrow’s works was issued on a major, well-distributed record label (Columbia, the record company of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap). That’s when I first heard him. Acclaim in avant-garde music circles, and some grants and touring followed until his death in 1997.

In some ways the typical Nancarrow piece sounds like an artist who when finding out the vast capabilities of his new technology decides to use all of them. At once. A lot. Typical tempos sound like someone playing a recording at the wrong speed—and backwards. The number of simultaneous notes can be overwhelming, the intervals jarring, the rhythms insane. It’s challenging you to understand it, and it’s not a matter if you want to, you likely cannot. As with some avant-garde music, repeated listening (if one allows it) can increase comprehension of the ideas, but Nancarrow is never going to be shoving Billy Joel off the piano bench in popularity.



“Punched polyphony in a row” A Nancarrow scroll plays.

 

No, the reason I wrote this to celebrate Nancarrow isn’t because I think you’ll like his music, or even because he’d figure in any Desert Island Discs episode in my future (though through castaway days one might find the time to try to untie all the knotted ideas in a Nancarrow piece). No, it’s because I admire that kind of audacity and perseverance.

I originally wrote music of an acoustic guitar “folk song” sort, even though the poem sought to make use of eccentric meters and a tricky rhyme scheme to reference some of Nancarrow’s ideas. Today’s version has new music I wrote which fits the words better. Using MIDI-controlled pianos, it’s sort of “Nancarrow-lite” musically. To hear my audio piece for “Conlon Nancarrow,”  use the player below.