There is another sunshine Part 2

As I warned everyone yesterday, I seem to like Daze & Weekes Sunshine Blogger questions a little too much. Longest post ever…

1. What inspired you to start blogging?

The Parlando Project started out as a podcast, which I wanted to be just the short audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with as varied music as Dave and I could produce, presenting just the piece itself, without chit chat. The Parlando Project is available on all the leading podcast sources, it still can be consumed that way, even though it’s not a podcast as the form is now expected to be. In contrast, I loved how pop music radio operated in my youth, when bang bang you’d hear 3 minute records by Aretha Franklin, The Zombies, Slim Harpo, The Beatles, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, James Brown and Bob Dylan all jumbled together without any defenses of their value other than the glorious, various, numerous sound that came out of the speaker grill.

But, some folks will want to know something about the pieces, and rather than rambling on mic about them, the “show notes”/ blog entries began to get more elaborate as the project went on. Last summer I started to think of the blog as the main thing instead of the adjunct thing.

2. What is your favourite post on your blog?

My favorite (losing u, and crossing the ocean—which sounds like the germ of a might-be-too-half-clever song)? The blog post is one of my shortest, and the audio piece doesn’t even have my voice, but The Garden of Trust  is the Parlando Project piece that moves me the most. I’d tear up when I was mixing it.

By far the most popular piece has been George Washington’s teenage love poem, “Frances.”  Why? Illuminati web-bots boosting Washington’s hits? Angsty teenagers? Xerxes fans looking for a break from Purim?

3. Who are the top 3 bands/musicians that most inspire and influence you as a musician?

Oh, this is so painful. The list should be more like 300. Even though the blog is about “Where Music and Words Meet,” I must rein back from talking about music on the blog or I’d wear a reader out. Doesn’t everyone understand that the book and movie “High Fidelity”  is a documentary and has no funny parts whatsoever?

Artists—just as important in some regard to me—will be left off! You ask three, so I’ll focus on musicians associated with words that motivated me most generally, and not singer-songwriters.

Frank Zappa. I met him and talked with him for a bit more than an hour in 1970. Reformed me artistically from a romantic to something else in that short of a time. I don’t completely share Zappa’s Dadaist sensibility, which is something like Dave Moore’s, but I need that to buffer my tragicomedy, even when it offends me. Here was a guy who didn’t separate R&B, rock, jazz, and “classical”/serious composed music. There was nobody who did that before him, and there’s nobody that’s done it since, so I try to do it at a lower level.

The Patti Smith Group. I could fill a list somewhere between 50 and 100, of artists who combined music with spoken/chanted word and poetry, therefore influencing the Parlando Project in doing the same; but if I had to pick one, it’d be the PSG. I’d read Patti Smith on the page before the PSG, and so I was already primed, but their first single and LP galvanized me when they came out. Taken together they are predominately spoken/chanted word records with co-equal music that’s not just a background sound bed. Obviously, there’s a sensibility there that comes from Patti Smith, but I’m saying the Patti Smith Group not just Patti Smith. Lenny Kaye from the first poetry readings with just Smith and Kaye on electric guitar had to invent something new with whatever musical chops he had on hand. I still think “What would Lenny Kaye do?” when working with a poet, and the younger Smith’s ecstatic vocal style, along with the other modes she added since then, is something I still aspire to.

John Coltrane. In regard to musical chops on any instrument, I’m not John Coltrane’s left pinky. I even have trouble faking saxophone lines. I like his later free jazz recordings in small doses, and appreciate the concept, but I can’t listen to it for hours, but when I’m most troubled or down on myself, listening to prime era John Coltrane just sets me vibrating with him on a molecular level. If I had to suggest a syllabus for a course on being an artist (any field) I’d suggest a John Coltrane biography or two. To me they’re like reading the life and sermons of the Buddha must be to Buddhists. It’s this, and his uncanny ability to speak wordlessly on his instrument, that makes me include him as a music/words influence.

Apologetically, I’ve just realized that none of these are musicians who are invariably easy to listen to; that they all have more detractors and “does nothing for me” listeners than fans. Two out of the three even offend on purpose when they wish too. That’s not representative of the whole of my musical influences, or how I want art to always work—but these are three who moved me to do work. If you want to stream a musician you haven’t heard of until you read it on a blog, then I suggest Bill Frisell, Steve Tibbetts, or Dean Magraw, all of whom have a breadth and beauty to their work I try to emulate, both as a guitarist and in my use of percussion.

Mason Zappa Cale Patti Smith Television bill
That last show in particular sure looks worth $9.50

 

4. If you could have a drink with any poet (alive or dead), who would it be?

Once more my love of variety makes for a hard choice. Often if asked, it would be the poet I’m trying to interpret with performance and music on that day! That said, I’ll say Emily Dickinson. I’d so want to tell her “You’re going to win! You and the immoral Mr. Whitman are going to be the founders of American poetry. Every single day, people are going to read and be pleasantly puzzled by your little verses, and esteemed writers will look at what you did and wonder how you could invent such a new way to speak poetically.” I’d want her to answer all the Sunshine Blogger questions and more, and finally, though we’d be challenging bladder capacity by then, I’d want her to dish.

sunshine

Alas, Emily Dickinson has no blog and can’t  be nominated

 

5. If you could go back in time, when and where would you travel?

Easy first part. I’d target the first two decades of the 20th Century. I’ve always been drawn there for some reason, even though it’s not a period that gets much attention generally. That feeling has only intensified from my need to draw largely on works in the Public Domain (pre-1923) for the Parlando Project. Modernism in a lot of delicious flavors was breaking out all over, and in every art. Politically, a challenging time of vast inequality, but also a time of great hope that change was at hand. So, like time-travelers everywhere I’m going to expect to be reasonably well-off—but where to land?

If New York City, a chance to observe the melting pot at its most brimming. Visit the 1913 Armory Show to watch the onlookers’ new eyes seeing for the first time the paintings by the new eyes? Hobnob with the political, social and artistic radicals, some of them recently emigrated from my own family’s base in south-eastern Iowa like my “cousin” Susan Glaspell. Maybe fake a letter of introduction from my grandparents and ask Susan to show me around the Provincetown Playhouse and Greenwich Village? Meet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Or Chicago? Meet Carl Sandburg and his young family. Swing by the offices of Poetry magazine and suggest to Harriet Monroe that she should read my blog (grin) for tips on hot new writers. Ride with Fenton Johnson in his electric motor car, and refrain from telling him he isn’t going to win and that there’s nothing I can tell him with my extra century of knowledge that can change the racial ignorance and prejudice of America between his time and now.

Or Paris. Meet Apollinaire, Reverdy, Picasso, Satie, and—oops! my French speaking skills are non-existent. OK, next.

London. That’s it! Frost! Pound! Yeats! HD! Florence Farr! George Bernard Shaw! Crash the Poets Club to meet T. E. Hulme and hope I don’t get on his bad side. Sit close to F. S. Flint as a cover and act like I know him. Ask Flint about Herbert Read. Learn to play the Yeats’ psaltery and find out exactly what the Yeats-desired music “chanted, not sung” style sounded like. Slip Rupert Brooke a can of Deep Woods Off and suggest he look up Pound. Visit with Rabindranath Tagore in Hampstead. And the clincher for London? Buy a Raleigh bicycle with a Sturmey Archer 3 spd hub and a kerosene headlamp and ride around town. Why is that the clincher? I’m an introvert. Sadly, I might never make those social connections, even after traveling through time, but the bike ride would be worth it.

1910_Raleigh
Yeats, Pound, HD, Frost, & Flint…tally ho and toodle pip!

Next up, my Sunshine Blogger questions and nominations.

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The Wild Swans at Coole

Let us for a moment consider length in English language poetry. Despite the customary inclusion of one or two very short poems in most American poetry anthologies (“The Red Wheelbarrow   or “In A Station of the Metro”  typically), one can easily derive from them an accumulated mainstream judgement that poems shorter than a sonnet’s 14 lines are judged slighter expressions of less merit.

Similarly, in music, for all the glories of the mid-20th Century’s two minute and forty second 45 RPM single, serious composed music demonstrates greater regard for pieces of at least middling length, and the 20 to 70-minute symphony is still regarded with reverence. And so on with improvised music practice, which seem to find the five-minute mark as a minimum. Even the later 20th Century movement that got called “Minimalism” worked the idea of fewer motifs considered at greater length.

And so it is when we consider swans, the largest waterfowl, in words. Our last post and audio piece used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans,”   a fine poem, but if one looks at the accumulated attention gathered in the roughly 100 years since each was written, Millay’s “Wild Swans”  is overshadowed by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

Yeats’ poem is worthy of this attention, and he does pack a lot into his mid-length 30-line poem, written by a late middle-aged poet as his colonized country has experienced a failed revolution and his world has seen the shocking mechanized slaughter of the original World War. All that violence is subtext—not once is it mentioned—and as we read or listen to it now, that violence may no longer be apparent, though the background of disappointment remains.

Millay presents the swans as something she cannot comprehend as they fly over her, with her disappointment, her heart at present “a house without air.” Yeats on the other hand presents an almost OCD-level attention with the swimming swans at the beginning of his poem. He has apparently been counting them on each visit for 19 years. He’s going to count them again. And then they fly off in clamor before he can finish his count even though he reports an exact number.

The specificity of those two numbers is curious. Is the 19 years of visits to Coole in Ireland a mere biographical fact? Are the “nine-and-fifty swans” he’s counted an actual census he took regularly? I do not know. Given that Yeats had a long interest in occultism, there may be some occult significance in one or both of those numbers. They are both large numbers for the things they measure: anything one has done for 19 years has a resonance for that long a duration, and given how magnificent the sight of a few swans gliding on the water are, the idea of 59 of them viewed together is an image of overwhelming swan-ishness.

What strikes me most about the two numbers subliminal effect is that both end in 9, and so, seem to be almost at an ending. As the poem develops, Yeats returns to that effect.

These details, written in Yeats typical lyrical fluency, accumulate throughout the poem. The lake and sky repeating each other. 59 swans. The “bell-beat” weight of their wings as they heavily swing them into flight, equally straining, equally coalescing into aerial rings. Their companionable swimming on the cold water “lover by lover”—ah, there’s that 59 again, an odd number—at least one swan has no mate.

But he doesn’t say that. The poem is all its music, the image after image, the beauty after beauty mixed with the undercurrent of impossibility of its permanency. The world will change, the poet or the swans will not return.

19 years of repetition does not mean 19 years of repetition to come. 59 swans is all but too much beauty, but one swan is without a partner.

Davis Coltrane Yeats Millay

John Coltrane: “Sometimes when I’m playing there are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. There’s never any end.”

Miles Davis: “Try taking the f’ing horn out of your mouth”

 

So, do the 30 lines of Yeats mean it’s a greater poem than the 8 lines of Millay, an objective judgement causing its greater fame?

Why do I have to choose? If Yeats had written 60 or 6,000 lines would “The Wild Swans at Coole”  be better? If Millay had written 80 lines, would her “Wild Swans”  have shown greater skill? We can derive from how anthologists, poetry critics and audiences respond what their preferences are, even those they never articulate explicitly, but in the end it is the longer poems that make the short poems concise and the short poems that make the longer poems seem overwhelming.

How many times have I listened toKind of Blue?”  Does Miles Davis need to play more notes? Does John Coltrane need to play fewer? Looking at these two poems about swans, they illuminate each other.

The gadget below will play my performance of Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.”

 

The Oven Bird

With today’s post, we’ve reached the 100th official episode of the Parlando Project, where we mix words from many sources (mainly poetry) with various kinds of music. For the 100th piece I’ve decided to feature an older recording of mine, almost 10 years old, of my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,”  because it marks some of the initial ideas that lead me to this ongoing Parlando Project.

Parlando Project 100th audio piece

the Parlando Project has posted 100 audio pieces combining music and words

 

Frost’s “The Oven Bird”  is a devastatingly accomplished lyric poem written early in the 20th Century. The rhythm of the lines both grooves and varies itself, like the best music, and the rhyme scheme is elaborate, yet it never falls into forced rhyme. Frost’s language here is so plainspoken, ironically saving the fanciest and longest word for the poem’s last line. Frost is as rigorous a modernist as any of his contemporaries in the Imagist school. He’s as willing as any of them to hack away all the overused and overgrown 19th century “poetic language” and to use no word more than needed, but he does it here while writing a sonnet in rhymed metrical verse that sounds as natural as any free verse.

Allow me to indulge for minute my musical interests for a moment. What Frost does here (and elsewhere) is like what John Coltrane did shortly before changing his focus to what was to be called “free jazz,” where melodic freedom was stressed by radically simplifying the underlying harmonic structure. Coltrane wrote and recorded the most devilish difficult set of rapid chord changes constantly shifting the harmonic center, an obstacle-course of a composition called “Giant Steps”,  and then proceeded to improvise over it as if it was no matter to him to make those changes. Like Coltrane, Frost could seem free, natural, and innovative, while writing inside a constraining form. This sort of kindred accomplishment speaks to what attracts me in the Parlando Project to equally privileging music and words.


“The Oven Bird”
  has a reputation as a downbeat poem, and while Frost will not sugar-coat the human condition, I did not, and still do not, find it so. In “The Oven Bird”  Frost draws our attention to a bird that sings on, past the promising days of spring, and whose song is none-the-less, loud and insistent, even though he’s singing in a season where he might well feel out of place and out of time for song. Then in the closing section we’re first told that the future holds the fall season—and by extension, both the fallen state of man and the death cycle of nature—and “the highway dust is over all.” Some have read that line as Frost noting the coming of the 20th Century roads that will close out even more forest and bring some measure of end to the natural world. I think instead the “highway dust” is more at a statement of the death of all living things (dust implies in my reading “to dust”) and that dust is the dust of a set, laid out, road.

Oven Bird

The oven bird: “He knows in singing not to sing”

 

Finally, Frost hits us, and me specifically near 10 years ago, with his conclusion—one that says much for this project that seeks to find “The place where music and words meet.” He says those of us, also mid-summer and mid-wood who listen knowing these things, sharing the bird’s predicament, should know that the bird has these teachings to pass on to us, “He knows in singing not to sing” (a zen koan of a line) and that the present question is “what to make of a diminished thing.” What a progression to this, from the plainest language with simple words never more than three syllables long, singing us the oldest cycle known to self-conscious humans—and then Frost gives us a line suitable for meditative thought and a question.

This is where I break from those who see this as a despairing poem about death, failure and decline. The poem asks what to make of that, offering the example to loudly sing.

To hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird”, the 100th offical audio piece posted here as part of the Parlando Project, use the player below. “The Oven Bird”  performance is voice and acoustic guitar, but if you listened to others,  you know that the music and poetry we use varies. If you haven’t listened to other audio pieces in this project, check out the monthly archives for more. And if you like this, hit the like button or the follow button, and share this post or this blog address on your favorite social media channels. Those who’ve already done so help keep Dave and I encouraged to create new material, and you have helped grow the number of people listening to pieces from “Parlando – The Place Where Music and Words Meet.”

 

 

Dream Big

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Alarmed Customer: What’s a fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: I believe that’s the backstroke sir.

Part of the humor here derives from the order brought to the chaotic event of an insect in the diner’s food. The waiter is able to observe the fly and classify its actions from an altogether different perspective. And the rest of the humor comes from the waiter willfully, or otherwise, misunderstanding the customer’s complaint as a mooted question.

Rhythm, a primary component of music and poetry, shares that ability to reshape chaos. The day after I saw the Emily Dickinson film biography “A Quiet Passion”  I returned to the same theater complex to see Chasing the Trane,” a documentary about musician John Coltrane, a man whose work and life story has carried me across many a low place. You could predict most of the talking heads (what director Warren Beatty once called, perceptively, “witnesses” in his John Reed biopic “Reds”)  that appeared in the Coltrane film. Coltrane’s children talk about their parents. Winton Marsalis and Cornell West are obligatory we suppose. A pair of Coltrane biographers chip in their perspective. The surviving members of Coltrane’s great combos, Reggie Workman and McCoy Tyner, talk briefly. Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s great contemporary, and Benny Golson, a musician who first knew John Coltrane as a fellow teenager in Philadelphia, are especially insightful.

And then John Densmore, the drummer from the 60’s rock group The Doors speaks. OK, I can hear a few saying “What’s he doing in a John Coltrane biography?”

The answer is: swimming in the rhythm of Elvin Jones (the great drummer of Coltrane’s greatest band). Like the original Homer who wrote our fly in the soup joke, Elvin Jones could converse with whatever new melody, whatever mistaken-for-mere-chaos invention, that John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy could invoke. Densmore watched him do that on the bandstand closely, and then applied what he learned when he later was called to add order to the Dionysian deconstructions of The Doors’ lead singer, Jim Morrison, a man who had the touch of a poet quickly smothered by drink, drugs, and uncharted celebrity.

Densmore’s part in the film is to add to the thought that John Coltrane lived as if  he could converse with the universe and approach its Creator with what he had heard from it. Densmore’s addition: but it’s the drummer that is the witness that this is happening now, in the time we are all beating. Coltrane may swim out in the tide of the cosmos, but Elvin Jones knows what stroke he’s swimming.

John Coltrane and Elvin Jones

Elvin Jones and John Coltrane: a conversation with infinity and time

 

I call today’s audio piece “Dream Big!”  June is the month of graduations and their obligatory talking heads delivering commencement addresses, most of them deputizing themselves as present-day Ralph Waldo Emersons with mature advice for the audience. However, “Dream Big!”  doesn’t present the tale from some sundry gray eminence—instead it has some words from a young man, the British musician Kiran Leonard, who asks us to look at the dream of Herman Sörgel.

Kiran Leonard

Kiran Leonard: quiet is the opposite of thoughtful

Kiran Leonard’s music takes several forms and may still be forming, but his words that I adapted for use with my music in “Dream Big” were taken not from a song, but from a short statement broadcast by the BBC. In it, Leonard uses Sörgel to encourage us to take on creative projects we think are beyond us. Good advice for young people—but I also took it as good advice for this old man as I started the Parlando Project in 2016, and needed to contact some hopeful audacity. And now, this week, as I am readying this post, I need John Coltrane and Herman Sörgel, Emerson and Kiran Leonard levels of such hope as I mourn the needless death of a young man and our pretentions that we can do nothing about it.

To hear more of Kiran Leonard’s music you can see this live set from last year here, or view the promotional videos for songs from recent albums here and here, or read this interview/introduction/review. To hear my performance of “Dream Big!”  use the player below.