Here’s a poem by 20th Century American poet and artist Kenneth Patchen performed with music which manually realizes some ideas often produced by machinery.
Patchen is one of the original poetry accompanied by jazz guys, an idea that is one of the tributaries to the Parlando Project, but the poem of his I use today isn’t one that sings off the page when you first look at it. The speech in it seems casual, as if one is overhearing someone talking.
“Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” has a very unusual structure. It’s one part a Robert-Browning-like dramatic monolog and another part seeming snippets of a bar-room conversation. But Patchen doesn’t separate these out into differentiated sections of a multipart poem, rather the two modes seem to be occurring at once, the louder monolog spoken by “the old guy” to the younger man and then the often whispered and interrupted conversation between the younger man and a woman who is trying to pick him up.
Here’s Patchen reading this poem with a jazz combo. I also just discovered that The Blue Aeroplanes did a version of it with a rock band decades ago.
I first thought: oh, what a great thing for a recording! I’ll put one in one stereo channel and the other on the other side—but then I thought better. The claustrophobic nature of these two conversations is part of the effect Patchen has designed.
As barroom stories go, the old guy’s story is a good one, even if the younger man is only half-listening—but the second, whispered one, is all about what isn’t exactly said. I could go on at length about how the two stories connect, what they say to each other in the structure of the poem Patchen made, even though the two conversations in the bar never actually join each other. I found the poem quite moving, but I’ll leave it to you to connect them.
Instead, let me dance about the architecture of the music today. I’ve been on a loud electric guitar kick lately, which may frustrate those of you that prefer the acoustic music, which will return in good time. Music structured like this piece is often constructed by loops stored and manipulated by computer software or by small solid-state devices that can capture a phrase and repeat it. Similarly, the original rappers’ DJs used turntable manipulation to repeat a section of a grooved record, a task that can now also be emulated digitally at the press of a button. There’s nothing wrong with these methods or machines.
Still, I most often try to play the repetitive parts you hear here. It’s not something I’m naturally good at, and I allow some imperfections to occur. Perhaps I do this because I became enamored of the hand-played repetitions that made up the composed music emerging in New York near the time I left for the Midwest—but it’s not Steve Reich or Phillip Glass* that today’s piece sounds most like. The proximal influence is a record album that came out in the early 1970’s called “No Pussyfooting” by Eno and Robert Fripp. That record’s guitar textures were produced by mechanical means too, two tape recorders set several feet apart from each other so that the “looping” was really a long loop of tape between them that allowed measures played by the guitar to repeat and get gradually added to in approximately real time. This seemed magical then, but a tidy little box that sits on the floor and costs about $100 can do all that these days.
It was hard to find a barber shop with a fresh tarot deck in the ‘70s
There are two guitars in my music here, but the one that sounds throughout most of the piece I’m playing with loud sustaining notes that I (unconsciously) made sound as if they are a repeating loop with variations even though it’s real-time, straight through playing emulating Robert Fripp’s sound on that record which made such an impression on me at the time. One never knows what ghosts will visit when I plug in a guitar.
You can hear that music combined with Patchen’s words with the player below. The full text of “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” is available here.
*Reich did use tape loops as well as live through-played instruments. Seeing the small ensemble Phillip Glass toured with in the ‘70s: electric combo organs that sounded like “96 Tears” and “Light My Fire” along with a handful of wind instruments was amazing in a small space.