my adaptation of Li Bai’s “Staying the Night at a Mountain Temple.”

Let me write today about two possibly useful incidents in this project’s working process. Let’s start with the process of translation or adaptation of 8th century master Chinese poet Li Bai’s words. Long-time readers here will know I rely on English language glosses. Here’s the one I used to start work on today’s piece:

High tower high hundred feet
Hand can pluck stars
Not dare high voice speak
Fear startle heaven on person

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Unlike some other glosses I start with, this presents a fairly clear setting: there’s a high tower, from the title, part of a temple. It’s so high and the 8th century sky is so clear at night that one can imagine grasping the stars. The final two lines say there’s a compelling notion to not speak loudly, that heaven might be startled by a loud voice. The first two lines, clear, objective, the last two lines, in that they seem to be reflecting something subjective, open to interpretation.

Here’s an even-tempered and minimal translation into modern English:

This tower is a hundred feet high.
From its top one’s hand can pluck down stars.
I shouldn’t talk in a loud voice,
for I might startle the people in heaven.

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I could leave it at that. One might consider the above an accurate translation of a modest thought. One might ask why the concluding fear/shouldn’t statement, and answer that matter by saying the poet is in awe in this high nighttime temple. I later saw at least one published translation that goes this way.

That could be  what poet Li Bai was saying, or would say if he was speaking to us in modern English today, but I made another approach. My understanding, limited though it is, is that Li Bai was often not a respecter of conventional piety, and legends include stories of his early life as some kind of free-lance swordsman*  and his lifelong habits of drinking and intoxication. Chinese scholars think Li Bai helped bring an individualized mode of expression to classical Chinese poetry and that’s part of what he’s revered for.

Audaciously thinking then that I know those things, I took almost the same English words, and even though classical Chinese writing has no equivalent of the question mark, made the phrases questions — impudent questions at that, aimed as replies to whoever might be hosting a boisterous poet. This is the result of that approach:

Mountain Temple

Later below I mention my persistence in composing music, despite my limitations. Why not? Am I afraid I’m going to bother the people in heaven?

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I like that. I think it’s a better poem in English, though I could be wrong about Li Bai’s attitude. Do not trust me as a Chinese scholar! Furthermore, do not trust fully any  translation. Even better scholars than I are making best guesses and practical choices while enclosed in their own mindsets while translating.

For a second chorus, here’s a short tale of how my music for this came to be. I’ve been dissatisfied with my musical efforts as of late. I call myself “a composer” because I don’t think I’m a competent musician most of the time.***  Yet a lot of the things I’ve been presenting lately are mostly to entirely live takes. Of course, instantaneous improvising is composition of a rapid kind. I enjoy that as a listener and player — yet I also didn’t think I was presenting enough music recently that was reflectively devised to my plans, making choices and re-choices before presentation. Even though I felt that, I couldn’t get started with that mode. And this was so, even as this spring I’d sprung for a yearly subscription to a larger set of orchestral virtual instruments. Weeks had passed by, and I hadn’t made use of them.

Would I this week? I kept telling myself: no, you have too many distractions, your energy level is too low, your musical concepts are probably too simple-minded anyway.****  But I willed myself to sit down with them and my MIDI keyboard and guitar and….

Several of the new sample libraries, present on an external hard drive, wouldn’t load. Couldn’t be found. I’d told the software where they resided, but somehow it hadn’t understood. I thrashed about trying to figure this out for nearly an hour (I’m not quick witted) and then finally told them again where the sample libraries, all those gigabytes of notes and articulations of notes, were sitting.

And that worked! By this point I was a bit mad at myself or the software or fate. But mad is energy. Over the next day or so I worked on today’s music as I made myself familiar with some of the new software’s system. Some of that aggression found it’s way into the orchestral swells, and I think it fits well with my portrayal of Li Bai’s belligerence when told to be quiet.

You can hear that example of my composed music, and my adaptation of Li Bai’s words in the recorded performance below using a graphic music player that many will see. Don’t see the player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to play it.

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*Obligatory explanation: how Chinese character names are presented in western alphabets is a fraught process. Li Bai has often had his Chinese name presented in the West as Li Po. Same guy, just a different system/approximation.

**Given that early history, I’m tempted to adapt a Charles Mingus phrase about the influential bop saxophonist: “If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats.” The story is that Li Bai was handy with a deadly weapon. If Li came to us out of a time-machine, Western authors of inessential haikus — or chancey translators like me — might want to up their armor class before meeting up with him.

***This is not humble-brag, but a clear-minded evaluation. I’ve never developed a goodly number of useful musician skills, and even those things I can do some days to my reasonable satisfaction escape me on other days. A musician has a baseline and a variety of dependable skills I don’t have.

****I sometimes call what I do with orchestral instruments “Punk Orchestral” in that it asks simple motifs and naïve playing abilities to carry the weight over greater elaboration and musical knowledge. Via that approach, what comes out sometimes sounds to others like that Mid-Century musical movement that was dubbed Minimalism. I was aware of that movement in the 70s and 80s, attending Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and others’ performances and listening to eventual recordings. But I don’t have a theoretical basis for what I do, I just make music with what I can figure out to do, trusting that simple concepts sometimes produce equal effects to more elaborate ones.

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.”