Wild Plums

Is love enough in dealing with matters of translation? I want to talk a bit about some issues with this, and while it may start out sounding esoteric, stay with me, I’ll end up as immediate as anything.

I’ve presented Chinese poetry here before. Collected classical Chinese poetry goes back to around the 10th Century BC, materials gathered from an oral tradition around 700 BC and written down by Confucius or his school, and also a later golden age in the 8th Century AD for literary Chinese poetry. In Western terms, that’s from the time of the Bronze Age Trojan War to the time of Homer to the European Dark Ages.

If you enjoy thinking about large amounts of time, consider those dates again, that’s 1,800 years between the time of the oldest Confucian Odes  (or the Book of Songs  as it is often called), and the time of Du Fu and Li Bai, and then over 1,200 years until now, a total of 3,000 years—enough time to get through that bookshelf of books I’ve put off reading to do this project. Or if you’re a listener and want to relate this to the oral culture of the Modern or the Bronze ages, in that 3,000 years span you could listen to every one of the 20 million tracks on Spotify 26 times each and still have time to go for a night walk in the country while trying and failing to count the stars.

Let us contemplate the differences inherent in that much time. How different was the culture of Du Fu’s time or his anonymous predecessors who sang the Book of Songs  before it was a book? I can’t even begin to compress those differences into a short post.

We sometimes speak about unchanging “human nature” when talking about such a great divide of time and place—and yet, then we turn the page (or flip to a new browser tab) and read about how technology and social changes may have significantly altered how humanity works in a decade or two. How much differently did a poet or a listener/reader evaluate, create, and experience poems then, compared to now?

Both of those conclusions could be true (essential, retained, human nature elements and change that is not slowing in velocity), each moving from opposite edges of the human experience in proportions hard to measure objectively from inside it.

Into this gap steps the translator (and in our case here, also the performer) who seeks to render the written record of these poems from a place so far away in time that great geographical distances seem minor. The task of translating a hundred-year-old poem from French to English is difficult enough—but this?

Should there be any surprise that many of these translations will seem inaccurate and differ significantly between themselves in their approximations, or that areas that would be understood by the poet or their more contemporary readers remain mysterious?

Greater scholarship and cultural knowledge than mine may help in these approximate efforts at translation and performance, but even then, one should understand the difficulties and likelihood of success. And yet I do it. I want to try to grasp this, however imperfectly, not because I am Du Fu, or his nearest like extant, but because his story is different.

I promised I’d eventually get immediate. Here’s the first level of the now: think of the occurrences in our times where a choice to use, perform, or even experience cultural expressions of our contemporaries will draw condemnation on the grounds of cultural appropriation, non-identical background tone-deafness, or of just plain laughable or painful ignorance on the part of the artist (that last often two sides of the same flaw).

Some of these are very practical objections. In financial (as opposed to artistic realms) cultural appropriation impacts people’s livelihoods. Yet there’s no Du Fu or other 8th Century Chinese man to perform his work with a closer understanding today. And Du Fu himself, as a neo-Confucian, probably realized that his appropriation of Confucius’ literary appropriation of the oral tradition Book of Songs  material would be different and inexact in his own way.

Even if we’re necessarily failing, creating in our errors a cultural “telephone game,*” if we do this humbly and with respect for our forebearers, ancient or contemporary, I believe it’s honorable work.

Wild Plums

Wild plums my wife found along the Mesabi Trail, leading me to today’s piece

 

Here’s a second here and now: I mentioned I was re-reading some translations of the Confucian Odes  because my wife sent me a copy of one of those poems in translation, the one I’ve reworked into today’s piece which I call “Wild Plums.”  This was a gift of love I received in gratitude—even if the composer/performer-with-a-pedantic-streak part of me wanted to know who translated it, and if I could find a literal raw translation for another perspective on the work.** And here I found this, which indicates that it was not intended originally in Chinese in the way the translation presents it in English. My guess is that the translator loved the word music they found in it, that repetition of the line “the plums are falling ,” and this lured them away from the original meaning.

As best the literal translation I linked above can transfer an original meaning to me, the woman who speaks in it is either claiming that she has so many suitors that a successful one will need to up his game to make the cut (a Bronze Age “No Scrubs”) or it’s a portrayal of an eligible woman who is being too picky about a husband and has driven suitable mates off.

So, the poem that my wife sent me is probably not accurately translated, and yet it expresses something that was engendered in the translator by it, and by the caroms of life that bounced off my wife and to me. And that poem’s yearning, and the music of it in English has its own beauty, like the love that brought it to me.

And so that is what I adapted and performed. I’ve even added some additional refrains to further emphasize the musicality of the piece. To listen to the LYL Band’s musical version of this very old poem in it’s more romantic guise, use the player below.

 

*Also called “Chinese whispers,” unintentionally helping me make my point.

**That my wife is willing to tolerate this dreadful mix of traits is one of her charms, she even found and sent the less romantic literal translation as well.

(footnotes because I love My Year in 1918 using them)

Poets to Come

A month ago I began our celebration of the U. S. National Poetry Month with an audio piece using the words of Walt Whitman. Today I bring our month of music meeting poetry to a close with another piece by Whitman: “Poets to Come.”

Which is appropriate, as modern American poetry begins with Whitman.

From time to time in his work, Whitman reminds us that he knows he hasn’t fully realized his poetic project. This isn’t just false modesty. He revised and added to Leaves of Grass  throughout his lifetime, but it wasn’t because he thought perfection was one more edit away. Whitman seems to accept that it’s better to try to do what his ideals say to aim for, to make the effort to become the artist his art asks to exist. It’s better to be 80%, or even half or less, of that ideal Whitman he writes of, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, than for no Whitman to dare exist.

Note though that Whitman isn’t asking himself to do this for self -expression. His expression, even with the particularities of his own person being unavoidable, is cultural expression. He sought to sing into existence the culture he wanted America and the world to have.

Which is what makes this poem a great basis for the last post of this Poetry Month. He had faith for the poets who would follow his innovations and audacity. Many did come forth after him, many of which we’ve presented here. Whitman had, I might suppose, faith in the intentions of the Parlando Project—and I, if I pay attention to the spirit he wrote of, I should have faith too.

Walt Whitman in Philadelpia 1889 by Frederick Gutekunst

Good Gray Poet, Thin White Duke.. David Bowie sang “Ain’t there a pen that will write before they die?” Whitman’s caption says he was about 4 blocks from Sigma Sound studios were Bowie recorded that. TSOP!

 

During April I’ve created and presented 16 combinations of various words with my music, more than any other month in the year and a half of this project. I took a crack at preforming all of that “April is the cruelest month” modernist epic of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” —and only got near half-way done. I worked on the finding and understanding the words I’ve used, or composing, playing, and recording music for several hours every day this month.

And you’ve listened to these pieces, and if you’re here, you’ve even read my words about the process, for which I’m grateful. I’ll be back tomorrow with a piece by Dave Moore and the LYL Band for May Day and there may yet be more LYL Band recording before this Spring is over. I do expect to take a bit of a rest after the efforts of this April though. I have a pile of books I want and need to read, a whole lot of interesting blogs I’ve gotten behind reading too, and I’m looking forward to listening to music I didn’t have to think up first.

If you want more, I remind everyone that we have over 200 pieces here in the archives on the right. There’s lots of stuff that you may find better, worse, or at least additionally different there. If you, or someone you know would just like to hear the musical combinations we do, the Parlando Project music is available on all the major podcast services like Spotify, Google Play Music, or Apple podcasts.

Here’s Whitman’s “Poets to Come”  performed with my music. Use the player below to hear it, and if you like it, please tell other folks about the Parlando Project.

 

Helen Heaven

Let’s leave off those modernists of the era around WWI for a while, and move to a few songs about some midcentury mods. This is the time when popular culture mutated into something recognizable as ours, as it still is into this 21st Century.

Somewhere in this second decade of the 21st Century a new modernism is likely being born, but I do not know it yet. Back in the early 1950s people expected something new, perhaps as much or more than we expect change today in 2017. As it turns out, we may have not gotten all the change we thought we were due.

Today’s piece is the opening song in a song-cycle about one woman who had a moment in this moment of change in the early 1950s in Los Angeles/Hollywood. The woman was a second-generation Finnish-American, Malia Nurmi, who created a character that for a short time, just about a year, captivated TV audiences in Southern California with a strange take on sexuality and various horror tropes, blending in a beatnik/Dada critique of “normal” as a reaction to the unthinkable. The character was named “Vampira.”

Somewhere in the later 1960s it became a commonplace to view the 1950s as an era of calm, peace, satisfaction and complacency, and this characterization has only increased over time. But this was also the era just after a cataclysmic war ended with atom bombs, a horror that eventually moved from reality, to nightmares, to repressed acceptance, to forgetfulness and finally now again to present fears. This was the decade of a forgotten, brutal, war in Korea. This was an era when society tried to put back into the bottle the broadening social roles for women and Afro-Americans that WWII had allowed. This was the time that revealed the horrible efficiency of the extermination and slave labor camps, and the decade in which the utopian dream of Communism exposed its shames and shams. This was a deeply uneasy time when some feared everything “normal” was a dream and others saw clearly the waking hours outside the dream.

All of which makes this campy TV quipster host who created the makeup, costume and persona of Vampira seem inadequate to address this. Well, what is? As we move to celebrate Halloween, that strangest of holidays, where we make fun of our inability to escape fear, death, and too much candy, let’s reconsider her.

Helen Heaven - Aimee Semple and Maila Nurmi as Vampira

Media in black and white: Aimee Semple used religion, Maila Nurmi used Vampira

“Helen Heaven”  has words written by Dave Moore, the alternate voice and writer/musician here at the Parlando Project, along with music written and performed by myself. This piece is the first song in the Vampira song-cycle, contrasting the LA-based white-dressed pop-religious phenomenon Aimee Semple McPherson with Nurmi/Vampira’s dark negative.

To hear “Helen Heaven” use the player you should see just below this.

This One’s for David Jones

Names are funny things. I was recently watching an old TV show from 1969 where Janis Joplin sat on the talk-show couch with a young British-accented rock critic named Michael Thomas. A Platonic dialog of sorts broke out on that show. Janis, the more intellectual than she liked to pretend singer, proposed that rock critics fundamentally obfuscated the experience of music. Thomas, self-evidently aware that he was a member of said tribe, tried to counter that all he was doing was presenting in words the same subjective experiences that Joplin said were the essence of music.

He could have said more, said that he was providing meaning and context for those experiences. She could have replied that meaning was beside the point, or at least meaning was beyond the point of the approximate trivialities that he writes. They could have agreed that experience was the greater part of the meaning of art, but that something remains, and can be changed and reflected upon after the experience and in doing so they could come to the conclusion of poet William Wordsworth, that it’s “Emotion reflected in tranquility.”

But they didn’t say that—commercial breaks stopped the dialog just as it was getting interesting, but I wondered about that guy, Michael Thomas. What had he written? Did he evolve a unique understanding of music as he developed as a critic? There he was, young and good looking, a member of the generation that was going to, like most generations, reform and reconstruct our culture. How did his individual story turn out?

I found a couple of magazine articles online he had written by the time of this TV appearance. Elaborate little hip-bourgeois celebrity profiles of no great import—but then most magazine articles are like that. And he was fairly early in writing about “Rock,” that more serious outgrowth of rock’n’roll that was still new in 1968. There as a lot everybody had to learn then. So, what did he learn?

Turns out there’s no way to tell. Wikipedia has over two dozen Michael Thomases listed on its disambiguation landing page, and none of them are him. Rolling Stone’s archives list a few articles by Michael Thomas, the earliest written in 1970 seem to be by the same man, while the last under the byline are about buying stereo equipment at the end of the same decade.  After that? More than 35 years of nothing I can find on the web. If I want to catch up on what, for example, Jaan Uhelszki did after writing about music in the Seventies, it’s pretty easy. Michael Thomas—not so much.

Like I say, names are funny things. My name is shared by several. There’s a Frank Hudson with some elaborately decorated big-rig trucks. There’s a hand-made English furniture-making firm with my given name. If I narrow it down to music and poetry, I’m still not unique. There’s a jingoist Australian poet, and a  fine Travis-picking Kentuckian guitar player. I’d like to think I might be related to that last one, after all I have some family tree roots from around there, and we both seem to play Seagull guitars at times.

Frequent keyboardist and alternate voice here, Dave Moore has his own eponymous issues, but let’s cut to another name issue.

In 1964 a young English guy wanted to get into the performing business as a singer. Lots of folks did in those days. His first recording, a single with his teenage blues band Davie Jones and King Bees came out that year. He kept plugging away at English pop-blues to no great success, until 1967, when he had a problem.

Davie Jones and the King Bees unlabeled

Davie Jones is the teenager in the middle

 

Well, he had a couple of problems. First, no one was buying any of this records; but secondly, his performing name Davie Jones, the informal diminutive of his given name David Jones, was more-or-less the same name as the performing and birth name of much more successful performer and teen heart-throb: Davy Jones of the Monkees. So, he changed his performing name to David Bowie and remained unsuccessful for a couple more years without being confused with the Monkee or the roughly 100 other David Joneses on the Wikipedia disambiguation page.

Eventually, he got his first hit. Eventually he started changing more than his name. Eventually he helped change our culture, making some dazzling records along the way. There was an immediate experience, and then something remained to be reflected on over time.

A year ago, he died. The official launch post of the Parlando Project here last August was the tribute I choose for Bowie, my setting of Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces” that the LYL Band recorded the day after Bowie died. Now for our 41st official Parlando Project post, here’s Dave Moore’s self-written tribute “This One’s for David Jones.” Dave recorded this the same session as we did “Stars Songs Faces.”  It’s a rockin’ little number, because it seems like it’s been a bit since we rocked out. Click on the gadget below to hear it.