Millay’s Spring

Yesterday’s Edward Thomas poem “Thaw”  had an irony, he had rooks, a bird used symbolically to represent death, as messengers of Spring’s arrival. Walt Whitman ironically used early spring flowers to start his Lincoln elegy, and T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,”  a long poem that we’ve been performing this April for National Poetry Month, followed flowered suit. Here’s a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that tackles some of the same tensions that Eliot put in in his longer poem, but in just a few lines.

“Spring”  is Millay at her most Modernist. It’s free-verse, not the metrical verse, often in traditional forms, that she used elsewhere. Is she copying Eliot’s landmark poem, as many would try to later? No, “Spring”  was published in 1921, a year before “The Waste Land.”

One of the good things about doing this project is moving from looking for poems to use, selecting them, and then one-by-one grappling with how to perform and accompany them with music. This poem is so full of complex, multivalent perceptions that I think I could perform it many different ways. Because of the production schedule I’ve set for myself here, I almost never spend more than a week on the production of any one piece. That means I must decide things about the composition and presentation fast. In the absence of limits, this piece could have gone on in search of a more perfect version. I’m comfortable with many of the choices I made here, but one bothers me still.

I decided early on I would sing this one. That decision came from the text itself, it wants to express a variety of things intensely. Good actors (something I’m not, or not yet) can put great shading on a speaking voice, but the singing voice has more tools to bring to the expression of a text. I am under no illusion that my singing voice is strong or skilled, and I think a better singer could improve this. What you hear here is simply my honest attempt to do the best I could with a text that I grew to admire considerably as I worked with it.

Musically I once more found myself using several tracks of Mellotron, the primitive 1960s tape-sample “virtual instrument” before it’s time. The topline melody is carried by violins and the famous Mellotron flute samples that are an audio madeleine for anyone who listened to certain English bands in the age of groovy. Each note played on a Mellotron keyboard sets running a short length of tape playing that pitch recorded from the “real” instrument.

 

Some random dude shows off the cheesy rhythm machine no one used before playing something you may recognize.

 

I can’t afford the cost and complexity of an actual Mellotron, but I use a good approximation issued by MOTU a few years back. One thing I perversely appreciate about it is that, just like the real thing, any note just stops after 8 seconds, when the strip of tape in an actual Mellotron would come to its end. Avoiding this can force you into some odd playing techniques when used in a slower tempo piece. If you listen very closely in “Spring”,  I just let that abrupt tape end-stop happen for effect several times. For a sustaining note to end like that gives it a catch-in-the breath gasp effect.

 

For electro-mechanical nerds: the low down on how the real Mellotron worked, mostly.

 

One image in Millay’s poem puzzled me over the week I worked on it. “Life in itself is nothing…a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” I can find no one who has made any sense of it. The best I can figure out, knowing houses from Millay’s time first hand, is that while any stairs between floors of a properly furnished home would have likely had carpet runners, utilitarian stairs, such as ones to the basement would not be carpeted. I took that understanding, and had the melody fall down as the word “stairs” is sung.

Anyway, after all this talk about the utilitarian work of making these pieces, please take time to listen to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring,”  using the player below.

 

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Ring Out Wild Bells

This guy was once famous. Not just writer-famous, but Beyoncé or Beatles famous. In England, and to a large degree in America, he was the face of, and the center of, Victorian poetry. And poetry in Victorian times, the written-down and printed in books kind, was still a force in mass culture.

tennyson

Once an empire’s most famous poet, now reduced to modeling a Slanket.

 

The town I grew up in was platted and settled around 1880, its success achieved by the industrious Swedish-American farmers around it and the railroad that went through it. The town was named Stratford, after Shakespeare’s birthplace, and so it was that the town’s main street, with it’s block of stores, was named Shakespeare Avenue. Shakespeare Avenue was met just north of the shops by the town’s central cross street, Tennyson Avenue.

That’s a remarkable piece of trivia isn’t it? Think of how many suburbs and housing developments were similarly planned and platted in the centuries since in the United States. How many of them had main streets named for contemporary poets? Milton and Byron had their streets along with Shakespeare in Strafford, but even Byron was 50 years dead; but here was Tennyson, a man still in his career across half a continent and one ocean away, and here this proud avenue in a farming town was written down to bear his name.

The problem with being a big-thing Victorian, as Tennyson was, is that our Modernists came after them. Came after them in time and eventually, opposition. Even though you can see the influences of the Victorians on the early work of some Modernists, you can also see the things they came to reject in search of an art for their own time. In those scattered small settlements where page poetry is still read or studied, we are now more likely to be reading Hopkins or Hardy for the English, or Dickinson or Whitman for Americans, or hinge figures like Yeats who spanned the eras, than Alfred Lord Tennyson, the once leading poet of his age.

Besides the street in my tiny town, Tennyson lives on in a handful of phrases from his poems that have become commonplace mottos such as “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”words well-enough known even as their author’s fame and esteem has faded, that many people think they must be Shakespeare’s.

Today’s words come from another section in the same long poem or collection that premiered the “loved and lost” phrase, Tennyson’s broad meditation on loss and perseverance “In Memoriam A.H.H.”  If we’ve forgotten Tennyson, this makes it possible for him to be new again, and this is a piece, as I recast it, that seems very appropriate for our age—even for this year. The New Year’s bells ring in a new year, but they also chase away the devils of the old one.

So, enjoy the music I wrote and recorded for “Ring Out Wild Bells”,  but you may be surprised at how well Tennyson’s sentiments fit as you sing along with them while 2017 ends. The player for the audio piece is right below this.

 

 

Summer Is Icumen In

I sometimes like to ask musicians who sing folk songs “What is the oldest song you play?” As a person attracted to traditional English folk music at an early age, I often marveled at the gloriously old traditional ballads collected by Thomas Percy and Francis Child. There’s something interesting to me about singing not only “other people’s stories,” but very old stories at that.

Turns out that they are likely not all that  old. Most of them are no older than Shakespeare, and despite many antique words and usages, they are in more or less modern English. That’s old, but it’s not old like Homer, Sappho, some of the Chinese poems I’ve set to music here. Today’s piece, “Summer Is Icumen In”  was nearly as old to the typical Child ballad author as Shakespeare is to us.  You can say it’s words are written in English, but that’s only English within the broadest of meanings, as the words are even farther removed from the language we speak than Chaucer’s.
 
Unlike the now lost ancient Greeks’ music to accompany poetry, we even have the 13th Century music and a notated arrangement to present it sung as a canon or round.

Summer Canon [Reading Rota] - caption: ''Sumer is icumen in''

Old joke. Q: how do you make a guitarist turn down? A: put sheet music in front of him
New joke: Q: how do you make a lead singer ask for less in the mix? A: put old English lyrics in front of him

One tradition in folk music is to not be overly traditional in re-using it, and I’ve done so here. My melody is only tenuously related to that old one. The original music is minor and mine is major key, and I don’t do it as round. Furthermore, I’ve taken liberties with the various modern English translations of the words. I have replaced a phrase with one that I like better, completely blowing a raspberry toward those who translate uerteþ in the original text as “fart”.

I’ve fattened up the arrangement with a goodly helping of a traditional English instrument of the antique 20th Century, the Mellotron. I told Dave Moore after I completed the mix with the new Mellotron parts that the singing wasn’t good enough for it to sound like the Beatles, and it wasn’t stately enough to remind anyone of King Crimson, and it didn’t have any undeniable pop music dynamics like the Moody Blues either—but what I may have gotten too was something in the 2000 light-years neighborhood of the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request—which I will confess was one of the first trio of records I bought back when the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper”  was threatening to reshape all pop music (a threat that was not carried forward for both good an ill).

Stones Album cover

Don’t adjust your monitor, the original LP’s 3D cover is really that blurry.
Also, any mention this Stones album’s name must now be done in Dana Carvey’s Church Lady voice.

Anyway, I’m using digital replicas of the original Mellotron’s cranky tapes in “Summer is Icumen In,”  but even in that remove they add a certain character to the string parts. Dave’s original organ part, mixed in the right channel, now seems like a top line to the Mellotron parts, but it’s a good part, so listen for it. To hear the LYL Band’s performing this old English lyric in a non-traditional way, use the traditional player that appears below.