Musicians Wrestle Everywhere — Emily Dickinson hears songs as they are created

I’ve just spent much of a day with Emily Dickinson. I’ll tell you it was enjoyable, not the least because there is a factor in many of her poems: they grow when you spend time with them.

It started late last night. I noted that I had been looking at early examples of “jazz poetry,” poetry from the previous Twenties that celebrated jazz music and jazz musicians. A thought occurred to me: I’ve gone too far into #NationalPoetryMonth without a Dickinson poem. Which of her poems might deal with music?

“Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  came up in searches, though it was not a Dickinson poem I’d seen before.*  Here’s a link to the full text, and here’s another to a manuscript of it in Dickinson’s own hand. After my first reading of it, my reaction was, “I don’t know if I can fit this with the jazz poetry. While ‘Musicians’ is the first word, the musicians largely go away and we’re off into Dickinson’s headspace.” Well, my second thought was, “This could work some other way and time, disconnected from the Jazz poetry stuff. Let me see what I can do about making it a song for later use.”

Dickinson attracts composers. She often uses a folk-music meter adopted also by many Protestant hymns,** and the compression of her poetry leads to short texts ideal for art-song. “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere”  has already been set by eminent American Modernist composer Elliott Carter.

I didn’t want to go toe to toe with Carter. My mood today was to make this somewhat foggy poem more immediately understandable on first listen, while Carter emphasized the poem’s more abstract thought-music. Wrestling with Dickinson’s words and my desire today as I tried singing it and working out my music, I decided to make some minor changes to the words*** and to add a refraining line. The former tactic is generally frowned upon, and many a living author will forbid it. The later, repeating a line or section, is generally allowed. One of the reasons that page poetry often seems less effective as song is that we have a strong desire for repetition in song. I think if even when silently listening we are “singing along,” and we desire to know when some part is recognized as coming around again. Refrains bring us into the song, even on first listen.

So, what is the poem’s point that I hope to make clearer in my song and performance? I believe that Dickinson is saying that musicians, and herself, extract from the time and vibrations of crowded reality our new tunes, rhythms, timbres, and harmonies. Those composing ears aren’t merely transcribing. They might refine melodies within the strife of conflicting environmental sounds, but to some larger degree they are hearing the unheard music that does not exist, though founded or surrounded, in observable reality or philosophy. In the final verse she mentions some think what inspires composers is the pagan “music of the spheres” or some choir of angels, or the departed in heaven — the later a place the skeptical Dickinson is not sure of.

So where does new music come from, if not just imitation, transcription, a cosmic mechanism or ancestral angels? This is the reason for my refrain, to make more adamant what I think Dickinson may be saying. Why are our April trees budding? Why is there new life in our spring without our trying or thought — and in notion of our stewardship of the Earth, despite our neglect? “I think it’s that new life” the now refraining line repeats. Life, creation, poetry, music, it wants to happen.

Elmo Hope is a thing with feathers

I would be ahistorical to suspect that Emily Dickinson’s piano improvisations were anything like Elmo Hope. On the other hand, if my lame joke tempts you to listen to some of Hope’s recordings…

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By the time I’d worked out a meaning to Dickinson’s poem I’ve come to think that it is a compliment to the Jazz poetry I was looking at before after all. The Jazz poems of the previous Twenties I’d seen mostly observed the musicians and provided a listener’s appreciation of what they were putting down. In Dickinson’s poem, she’s the musician, the composer themselves.

By late this afternoon I’d completed the music and recorded the acoustic guitar, bass guitar, cello and violin parts for my song setting of “Musicians Wrestle Everywhere.”  The player gadget to hear my performance is below for many of you, but if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play it too.

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*She wrote over 1800 poems, so another fine thing about exploring Dickinson is that there can easily be a new poem to experience. Which reminds me to point out that this project has over 500 pieces to experience here too.

**Yes, I know the bit about how you can sing many Dickinson poems to the “Gilligan’s Island Theme,”  or “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” or as this post reminds us, many hymn tunes. The post also has a short summary of what’s known about Dickinson’s musical involvement. The author notes that Dickinson was familiar with mid-19th century string-based dance music as well as having some ability to improvise on piano. I wonder at the Celtic and African strains that might have crept into Amherst by the 1860s. The only instrument Dickinson mentions in her poem is the tamborin, which appears to be an African derived hand-held drum instrument.

***I wanted to modernize the syntax and usage a bit to add to the clarity for the contemporary listener. A line in the third verse uses one of the few archaic terms in this poem “Dames” which has largely fallen out of American usage even as a faux-genteel slang term for women. By expanding the following term from “Men” to gentlemen I echo a somewhat outdated formality and may have helped make clearer that the “bright Majority” of “vanished Dames and Gentlemen” are the dead of the past.

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.