Poetry

Today’s audio piece marks the 200th published by the Parlando Project! Since presenting our first piece, Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces”  back in 2016, we’ve combined words (mostly poetry) with original music as varied as we can make it. Those who’ve followed along know that the words we use are generally written by others, because that lets me encounter them, as I hope you do too, freshly, to discover anew what charms they have.

Not only does the music vary, but how we present the words varies too. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we just speak them, sometimes we chant or intone them.

Marianne Moore with pony

“Like a horse that feels a flea” Marianne Moore around the time she wrote “Poetry”

 

Through this past couple of years, Dave Moore has been the alternate reader here, and I expect that you enjoy the break from my voice once in awhile (as I do). For today’s 200th piece, and for April’s National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”  read, not by me, but by the “Lake Street Writer’s Group,” a small group of usually poets who’ve met since the 1970s, which took it’s name from the inner-city commercial street near where they lived. The first voice you’ll hear is poet, musician, and comics artist Dave Moore again, the second is poet and writer Ethna McKiernan and the third is poet Kevin FitzPatrick, who has the honor of having the latest book published by a member of the group, Still Living in Town”.

Minneapols Moline Tractor

MM of another color. Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors in a Lake Street factory. Marianne Moore was once asked by a car company to suggest the name for a new model. One of her suggestions: Utopian Turtletop

 

It was my idea to ask them to read Marianne Moore’s poem, since Moore herself breaks her poem up into various voices, not only from abrupt changes in diction but with the use of quotes. My thought was the changing voices would emphasize the poem’s stance of speaking for poetry’s audience.

I broke this on the group of poets cold, and they are reading the poem off a page I gave them, which divided “Poetry”  up in small beats and phrases of the poem. Remarkably—well, maybe not all that remarkably, Dave, Ethna, and Kevin are all excellent readers of their own poetry—what you hear is one take, just as they read it, just as they handed it off verbally from one to the other around a room. They had no musical backing to hold their cadence, only Marianne Moore’s words. I wrote, played, and recorded the music later: drums, bass, guitar, and piano.

What I hear coming out of this is the same thing I aim for often here. Just as you are encountering the poem’s words freshly, as they hit your ears, the performers are doing the same. Sure, we may have heard or read the poem before, but it’s another’s voice, happening now, that is conveying it to you. We use music with the words here, and with the other Parlando Project pieces, for several reasons: it reminds us that poetry is musical speech, that poetry works in its sounds, its rhetorical flow, and the harmony of imagery like music; and because it offers the option to relax the cause of the words meaning.

There’s not one missed word in the trio’s cold reading, which is more unusual than an accident.  When I’m improvising melodic lines freely, I accept that I’ll need to deal with “wrong” notes, musically creating (to vary from Moore’s famous line) “imaginary gardens with real clams in them.”  To hear the group read “Poetry,”  use the player gadget below.

 

The Death of Col Bruce Hampton

It’s probably one of the best quotes in the history of music criticism: “I’ve heard that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” The man who said it was a 19th Century American humorist Bill Nye. No, not the Science Guy, the other Bill Nye.

Bill Nye SG greyscaleEdgarwbillnye

The Nye on the right summed up challenging music in a sentence.

 

Nye’s great one-liner points out that unfamiliar music may gather approval of those who appreciate its novel approach while leaving a puzzlement as to what pleasure may be derived from it. In the late 19th Century, Richard Wagner’s music was radical. It was heard by many as having stretched the harmonic bonds of symphonic music past enjoyable boundaries. Nowadays Wagner is more in danger of seeming preposterously old-fashioned. He’s just the thing to let you know that Elmer Fudd is a fuddy-duddy when he breaks out into re-purposed Wagner and sings “I Shooot a Waaabittt!” in cartoons. Wagner’s music hasn’t changed, but fashions, expectations and experience have changed.
 
Back around 1970 a band from Atlanta Georgia called “Hampton’s Grease Band” released their only album. The story is told that it sold the second fewest copies ever in the history of their record label, who dropped them right after its release. There are reasons for that. Most cuts were over 10 minutes long. The music was eclectic and the beats eccentric—but what really unsold the record to many audiences were the vocals and lyrics by Bruce Hampton, who rasped like a southern Captain Beefheart with an outlook that mixed Dixie and Dada in quantities you didn’t want to get near enough to the caldron to measure.

This stuff still sounds avant-garde, but Hampton kept evolving after this band’s failure. He self-applied the conventional southern honorific “Col.” to his name, but he always kept a big streak of weird in his music, and by the 90’s another musical movement he helped form made odd music with obscure lyrics and long improvised instrumental passages commercially viable. The usual label for the groups who played this music was “jam bands.”

I could write more about jam bands, but since I need to move on, I’ll say that they were an attempt to invent jazz as if jazz had never existed before. By this I don’t mean to say they were wholly ignorant of jazz or prejudiced against it; what I mean to say is that they created as if they were starting the idea of jazz all over, more or less from scratch. Just as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood thought they could start medieval religious paining all over again or William Morris’ Art and Crafts movement sought to start an artisan practical crafts industry out of nothing, they didn’t seek to learn from and extend the existing practices so much as to do a complete reboot.

Bruce Hampton and band

Everything but the kitchen sink—ah, maybe we need to include that too.

 

Now we’re back in the hipster territory that I’ve been discussing in the last few posts. Depending on which generation and which sub-cultural alignment you have, jam bands can be an example of an ignorable genre of music that can only be endured for extra-musical reasons, or an organic expression of music that refuses to be contained and regimented by the formulas of other commercial music. It’s that double-edged nature of the hipster label people throw around as if a label was an analysis. Are they “hip” to something novel that has unconventional value, or are they bogus “-sters” consumed by useless difference for its own sake? And if you’ve read the other posts this month, you’ll realize I’m not just talking about one generation or one sub-culture here.

My guess is that’s it’s always some of both, and the exact proportions cannot be discovered while it’s happening.  Perhaps, like improvised music itself, it has to happen for sober judgements to be made later.

And how can one tell who’s the poser and who’s the sculptor of something new? Persistence is one test. Remember William Blake’s great proverb on persistence: “If a fool would persist in their folly, they would become wise?” Here’s Bruce Hampton on patience and persistence:

I’ve gotten everything I’ve ever wanted – 20 years after I wanted it. And that’s been perfect for me to not get things when I want them because I’m not ready for them when I want them.

Today’s audio post, “The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton”  presents an sincere account of the unusual death of Bruce Hampton earlier this month: on stage, performing at a tribute to his 50 years of making adventurous music, surrounded by scores of other musicians who learned from him. You may still find his music better than it sounds. He played and sang a lot notes over a lot of time. Some of them were right, and some of them were wrong for the right reasons.

bruce-hampton last jam

Col. Bruce Hampton at his last concert says keep playing

 

To hear my audio piece “The Death of Col. Bruce Hampton”  use the player below.