I mention Rupi Kaur in an attempt at getting more followers

I refer to it less, but this ongoing Parlando Project actually causes me to spend more time with music—composing, playing, recording, and mixing it—than with the words. The words, of course, are mostly poetry, as condensed expression is so often found there mixed with musical devices in word form.

I’m not alone in thinking there’s a natural connection there. Perhaps that’s why you’re reading this, rather than a blog on cinema, graphic novels, or the interesting things I did last night. From what comments I get, the words, mostly poetry, are the larger draw and concern—or it may be that it’s easier to talk about words and their potential messages than it is about music.

But speaking now of America and the English-speaking musical world, what if it largely functioned in this manner…. Insert woozy musical cue here indicating we’ve moved away from our mundane current world into some speculative alternate reality as a new voice takes over this blog:

 

Music is a sublime art, which alas is much ignored and misunderstood by most people. Oh yes, there are occasional times when folks seem to pay some attention to what they think is music, but in fact it’s not really music they are listening to. For someone younger than I, it seems it’s always been so. How did this happen?

In my youth there were people who listened to a highly commercial aggregation of “musicians” who went under the name “The Beatles.” In their unsophisticated way The Beatles would bash away for a couple of minutes, never showing the development and dynamic range of actual music, and then they’d publish their “songs” on recordings that would be played on abysmal “record players” that were aptly named because they could only spin the vinyl record at something approximating the correct speed and could only transduce the rude noise to an even cruder racket. The Beatles, to be honest, weren’t the worst of those “pop musicians”—they were Stravinsky compared to some others in their field—clearly actual musical quality was beside the point.

Perhaps I shouldn’t object too much now to this commercial enterprise once undertaken by those naive or craven young men back in the 1960s, but what happened next was worse. Some actual musicians and musical critics started to give them big heads, and as a result, even worse crimes were committed. Throwing aside centuries of established artistic criteria, these commercial appeasers called what The Beatles and “pop musicians” were doing music. They would search for even a hint of actual compositional intent or accomplishment in these works, and praise them if they could pretend they found it.

Soon, The Beatles started to tack on elements used by actual musicians in their recordings. It was all transparently fake, and perhaps I should find it strange that even audiences ignorant of what real music is and can accomplish allowed it was art rather than pathetic pretense. And so, they presented recordings with string quartets, when none of them knew so much as which side of the bow to apply to the strings. They made fraudulent representations of actual music, using paid studio technicians who modified their feeble attempts at playing music so that they sounded profound to those “listeners” who didn’t know any better.

And now as I survey what could otherwise be our musical landscape and see young people who “listen” to what they “think” is “music” while playing their “video games”, dancing their interminable “dancing,” “streaming” it on their “phones” ( that they actually don’t use to make phone calls on), while “Tweeting” and “Instagraming” with tiny screen keyboards that make it hard to enclose every other word with quote-marks like an intelligent person.

I said I should be surprised. I take that back. In a world that has given us Donald Trump and Brexit and inconsistent intra-city train service, we cannot count on most people to have an authentic understanding of what they’re missing when they call such things music.

7-8th of Alban Berg is invisible

Now you know.

 

But let us, the intelligent critics who understand art and its important criteria, acknowledge the consequences of this commercial folly. Now we have people claiming to be musicians who do not play instruments, save perhaps for something called a synthesizer (a name like something from Aldous Huxley), a sequencer (gene therapy?), or drum machines (oh, such industrial nomenclature invades art in our year of Ford). They don’t know that 7/8ths of an Alban Berg is invisible, they can’t tell their krummhorn from their sackbut. When asked to defend this false and phony “art,” audiences say they “enjoy” it.

And while this pretense continues, actual musicians—people who create and perform complex compositions that take years of study to create, and nearly as many years of study to understand, are ignored.

Since when did enjoyment have anything to do with the sublime art of music?

 

Reprise that spooky musical cue that says we now return to our real world, and to Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet. Yes, our real world has musical snobs and exclusive musical passions, but in general, those haven’t harmed the ubiquity of music in our culture. Yes, musicians who produce music that challenges your expectations, usually have a harder time finding an audience, but a broad-based, vibrant musical culture has always allowed some of them to sneak in to a wider listenership, not prevented it. And musicians tend to be sensualists more than aesthetic puritans.

What can poets and literary critics learn from musicians?

 

 

(As to the title and occasion for this satire, an article has caused some discussion lately in poetry circles.)

Thanks Owing

A holiday for it, so this is due.

yard turkeys

Have you changed out your summer flamingos for autumn yard turkeys yet?

“The Parlando Project,” my 2015 dream to present over a hundred audio pieces combining various words (mostly poetry) with various music, has now reached 155 officially published pieces. For those who’ve taken some of your attention and spent it listening to me present my take on the words of others, primary thanks is due to you. Despite the amount and variety of material I present here, I respect that your attention is precious. Thank you!

Thanks even to the unintended. The strange movements of technology and trade have allowed highly flexible musical instruments to become available at low prices. Most of what I use to make this did not exist one hundred years ago, and in the past few decades, the cost of these instruments, software and recording technology has declined into broad affordability.

Similarly, the Internet, so easy to dismiss for its mundane temptations, has made the availability of artistic materials “ubiquitous everywhere” that tautologies are sold.

Both of these things, the music technology and the Internet, are so enabling of creative work that it seems almost sinful to me to not apply my human imagination to them. But, as with many things, avoiding one sin leads to the commission of others. So, thanks also to my family for the forbearance that has allowed this project to get the amount of time and attention it asks for.

Thanks to Dave Moore, who lets me take a break from presenting my voice uninterrupted , and whose words are presented in some of the most listened-to pieces presented here.

Thanks to the Modernists of  100 to 150 years ago, who showed us fresh ways to use language, and shared their complicated hearts, heart’s beats, and apprehending eyes. Thanks also to their foresight to publish their work before 1924, so that we’re free to demonstrate to the still living what they did. Alas, the leading sadness in this project for me has been the large number of works by no longer living writers whose work you and I cannot speak publicly, because our copyright laws forbid it.

No new audio piece today, instead, here’s one of the first officially released pieces of the Parlando Project, words adapted from Dave Moore. I view it as being about the people left even farther behind than the signed artists of famous paintings. It’s called “Netherlands.”

I’ll let it be a reminder that there is a whole lot of material available here now, so using the Search… box or just click-wandering through the Archives months on the right will allow you to listen to more of the variety that Dave and I do.

Subscribing to the blog either through the “Follow” button near the top, or on the WordPress Reader, will let you know about new posts as they occur, or if you just want an easy way to get the new audio pieces for listening to them off-line, you can do that by subscribing to the “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet”  podcast on  iTunes, Google Play Music, Player.FM, Stitcher, or wherever you get podcasts. The “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet”   podcast is free of course. [note: I’d previously mentioned using the little orange RSS buttons to subscribe to the blog, and for those who have an RSS-aware app they will  still work, but the Follow button I’ve just added today makes this easier for most.]

Here’s the player to listen to “Netherlands”

Did You Miss It?

Let’s get one more Halloween appropriate piece in before the holiday.

We’ve featured a lot of words from Dave Moore this month, but not enough of his voice, so let’s get to that with a performance by Dave backed by the LYL Band. Dave’s a founding member of the LYL Band, singing and playing various keyboards with it. Beside his own band, Moore wrote lyrics for other bands back in the beginnings of the Twin Cities punk/new wave/indie rock scene. Around the same time, Dave worked with Kevin FitzPatrick on a well-loved literary magazine “The Lake Street Review.”  Besides poetry and songs, Dave Moore has produced the comic “The Spirit of Phillips”  for many years.

Besides Dave’s words, voice and keyboards that are often present here, you’ve also read me talking about Dave’s father, Les Moore (he of the Bauhaus name). That should be enough background from me.

Alan and Dave Moore

Alan Moore didn’t share any birthday cake with Dave. “Isn’t the book enough?”

 

I found Moore’s “Did You Miss It” mysterious, in a good way, so let’s let him tell us how it came to be:

“I could have called this ‘3 Moores Stew,’ where the ‘philosophies’ of Dave, Alan and Les collided in my head around the issue of predestination. It’s also an attempt to celebrate first-and-only-take songs.

For my birthday last year (#67), I got (my hero) Alan Moore’s 1200-pg. novel Jerusalem.  Wonderful, literally. Took a while to read such an intricate structure, and parts of it started to show up in my dreams.

Concurrently, I was editing my dad Les Moore’s sermons, typing over 50 transcripts. I’d class him as liberal Methodist, the admirable socially involved 60s Christian. I heard him speak every week till I went off to college & expected that many of his words would bang something up from my subconscious.

The lyric starts in Alan-psychogeography-zone, where one of his characters is choking to death for hundreds of pages as reality is explicated.

The joke of the chorus is also from Jerusalem, shared by Sir Thomas More with another shade. How could you miss the free will you didn’t have?

2nd verse (‘more hairy’) extrapolates Alan’s simultaneous beauty & death across time.

3rd verse (‘Belief’) is Les’s gift of Heavenly beauty despite death.

4th verse (‘Lights go on’) Dave points out you make your own beauty & might as well enjoy it. If it’s yours, you can get the joke.

Unlike most of my mistakes, those in the concluding instrumental are intentional. If everything’s pre-destined, who would bother pre-scripting this? Or could they?”

Dinty Moore Beef Stew Can

“Beef stew, I tell you there’s no beef stew…”

 

Dave points out the contrast we get from having LYL Band performances mixed with the more composed stuff here, where I play all the parts. “Did You Miss It”  is one of those “first and only takes songs” that we’ve done, were the arrangement and parts are happening just as the recording light is lit. Trick or treat? Mostly treat here I think.

Use the player below to hear Dave’s song.

 

The Red Wheelbarrow

Obscurity in modernist poetry is a funny issue. What makes some writing hard to grasp, difficult to understand? Esoteric and little-known words like Wallace Stevens loved? Far-flung allusions to works in several languages like T. S. Eliot was prone to? Exploding normal written syntax and logical flow as Gertrude Stein did? Taking images into realms where direct one-to-one symbolic meaning is not only impossible, but more than likely, not the aim, as Tristan Tzara or Paul Éluard demonstrate? Presenting things “slant” in iconoclastic riddles as Emily Dickinson could? Writing works of epic length that few if any human minds can comprehend in their whole, like the Cantos of Ezra Pound?

And then there’s this poem, the basis of today’s piece, William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The Red Wheelbarrow

The whole of it: 16 words, no punctuation, all lower-case

 

From empirical evidence you could say that it’s the very peak of the canon of modern American poetry. Remember that compiled count of the poems that appeared most often in poetry anthologies, most of which were explicitly focused on modern American poetry? “The Red Wheelbarrow”  is alone at the top of that list, included in over half of the anthologies counted.

Does that make it a “best loved poem”? Does it even assure that critics consider it great, much less the greatest? No, it does not. I think I first ran into it as a teenage student, in one of those anthologies used in some English literature class. Did my young teacher point it out as a poem of special merit? Did I view it as such? No. If I can trust my memory, if it was discussed at all, it was as if it was some kind of stunt, an intended provocation that so short and mundane a piece could be considered artful. “Now class, let’s get back to T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”

And how about critics? They largely part like the Red Sea on “The Red Wheelbarrow”.  If we look to one side, in among the mollusks and manta rays now behind the water curtain of the divided sea, we find those who care little for it. There’s nothing there demanding to be written about. No virtuosity is demonstrated to be noted and admired. And what important point is it making, other than, well, no point at all?

So, we turn to the other side, those swimming with bemused dolphins who wonder if they could leap across the band of Israelites walking on damp seabed, those critics hoping to demonstrate their microscopic perception of the hidden art in this terribly short and compressed poem. Carol Rumens is concise and representative of this when she says of Williams’ poem “This is his manifesto, surely–a poem quietly declaring how modern poetry works.” And she also warns “A naïve reading could take it as a comment about the great usefulness of wheelbarrows on small-holdings where chickens are kept.”

And then, here I am, now. No longer the teenage student who was sure someone had figured these things out, and I need only to find them. I can’t see far enough ahead where Moses and Aaron are, nor can I see far enough back how close Pharaoh and those charioteers are getting. I’ve got my hasty bread and a few grabbed things in my little cart, pushing it across the mud. I think I must be naïve. Yes, Williams is a modernist, as committed to the new way of writing as clearly as possible, a proclaimer of “No ideas except in things,” which means in retrograde, the things must be the ideas. If he had wanted to write a manifesto, he could, and did in the other poem that stated that dictum.

The obscurity in this poem is that there is no obscurity other than what we bring to it externally. There is no allusive, secret meaning, other than the secrets we’ve kept from ourselves, of our tools and our companion responsibilities.

Yes, there is art in these 16 words: the line breaks that ask us to hold our gaze, even in the middle of words, the “so much depends” warning that bids us look. The choice to look at just these simple common things, is a choice, is an idea. I think the dolphin side of the parted sea has smarter companions than the mollusks’ side; but I am looking down at my wheelbarrow, and Williams’ wheelbarrow, and saying naively, that it matters, even if I’m in the middle of the band, unable to see Pharaoh or Moses.

I’ve spent too long on the words again, but I feel I need to say a bit about the music I composed for my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I chose to use a twelve-tone row, a modernist musical idea from the same time as when Williams was writing the poem. It would be pretentious for me to say I got this from deep study of Schoenberg or Webern, though I’ve listened to a good deal of modernist music. However, “serialism” never stuck with me until I heard the prologue part of “This Town Is a Sealed Tuna Fish Sandwich” written by Frank Zappa. I’ve loved that piece from the first time I heard it.

Twelve-tone music subverts expectations of a tonal center or “important” scalar notes, so it can sound a little woozy or random, but, of course it has its pattern, by definition, which the mind’s ear can hear if you stop thinking in expectation of familiar patterns, which is the simple and profound thing it is asking you to do.

Click on the player to hear my performance of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

 

Autumn Movement

I’ve been a bit long-winded in the past few posts, so a short-winded post about today’s piece. The words are another poem from Carl Sandburg, this time from his 1919 collection “Cornhuskers.”  There’s not very many words to it, a warning that there are not many leaves left here in the upper Midwest.

Cornhuskers cover

They were listening in London, and Sandburg’s “Cornhuskers” won him the Pulitzer prize.

I can compress talking about those words because I’ve already talked about Sandburg on the previous occasions when I’ve used his words here. In his poems of this era, he’s as perfect an imagist as any of the expatriates mixing up modernism in London and Paris around the same time.

Many of the Sandburg poems I’ve used previously have been from his landmark “Chicago Poems”  collection, but Sandburg, a child of middle, rural Illinois, spent time across the Midwest in his youth, from urban centers to the farms and small towns. The poem I use today, “Autumn Movement,”  is from that rural setting.

Images for autumn and fall foliage have been mined forever, which makes Sandburg’s key image here as unusual, even a century later, as T. E. Hulme’s red-faced farmer appearing as the harvest moon in his British autumn poem. Sandburg has the red and yellow of autumn leaves in a farm field vista as a yellow scarf with the copper color of a literally red-necked woman. So nearly has this skin color become an epithet, that few would think of using it today, as honest an image as it is.

Today’s audio piece is musically ars longa to the vita brevis of the words. I’ve been telling myself to allow space compositionally, and then going ahead anyway and filling things up like a compulsive cluttered room with only paths between piles of old newspapers. So, for this one, the drums (which are often quiet and spare) are the densest element. I added a simple bass line played on my fretless bass, a theme played on a Telecaster, and a digital synthesizer part that is a mix of four different patches played together rather than filling up the space with multiple synth parts. Give it a listen with the player  below.

The Emperor of Ice Cream

I was reminded of this poem, and Wallace Stevens in general, while writing about the 20 most anthologized modern American poems recently. It’s odd that I needed to be reminded of Stevens. His poems were always present in the anthologies of my school years, back in the last century, along with Frost (who I disliked when I was young), William Carlos Williams (who I didn’t understand), and Eliot (who I liked for his verbal music without much understanding). There must have been something about Stevens that attracted me, as when I recall the poems I wrote in my youth, they more often looked and sounded like Stevens than those others. There’s a wit of a very contrarian kind that’s all over Stevens’ work, so I’m sure that was a big part of it, but I think it was also Stevens’ verbal music that pulled me in, and unlike Eliot’s, I (subconsciously) imitated Stevens.

I later read that Stevens walked to his famously conventional job as an insurance executive every day, and composed his poems in his head as he walked. This makes sense, as I did the same thing, with the two-footed meter of walking informing the rhythm from the soles of the feet up, rather than from the head down. Another thing about writing while walking: the music of that rhythm carries you into a more hypnotic and subconscious space were lines that sound good and fit to the beat are carried and held into memory more than carefully considered phrases that one would compose at the keyboard or with thoughtful pen in hand—and that same flow can knit together the unlike before thought can reject it.

If you take Stevens’ particular perverse wit, and meld it with composition of poems while walking, you have the recipe for a Wallace Stevens poem like this one.

The title of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  has that impish quality. It seems to be light-hearted. Who’s his consort, the Dairy Queen? Is his uncle the King of Burgers? Did he know Prince? Queen Be? Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Gelato. And the poem starts off as if we are in a variation of the nursery rhyme “Old King Cole, he was a merry old soul” by calling for the strongest man to crank the ice cream maker.

A digression: do 21st Century people even know what an ice-cream maker is? It’s a bucket, no larger than one used to mop the floor, filled with ice that surrounds a smaller metal canister with a hand-crank-driven paddle screwed into the top. Salt is poured onto the ice, melting it so that it can get the canister colder than zero centigrade, as the crank is turned to churn the mixture of sugar and cream. As the process continues, the contents of the canister thickens and the force needed to turn the paddle increases. Even with a strong man cranking, the resulting ice cream will be softer than the concrete brick of modern ice cream, as that is a creature of refrigeration unknown in Stevens’ youth; but the cool, rich, sweet taste would also be all the rarer then too.

Ice Cream Maker Ad

“Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one” churning that 2 gallon one would take a mighty man

 

So back to the poem. We have the strong cigar-maker man churning, amidst young, common, unmarried women and boys bringing flowers. The resulting ice cream demonstrates Stevens comically expanded vocabulary, it’s “concupiscent,” lustfully good!  Freud may have famously insisted that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar,” but a multitude of Blues metaphors contemporary to Stevens would agree, this is a lusty scene.

And the title reappears. Pleasure, broadly drawn, is the ruler of all!

So far Stevens has only been perverse in the weird “Old King Cole”  language of the revelry, capped off with a word that most of us can’t even pronounce, much less spell or define.

Bang! Into the next stanza. I had always thought “dresser of deal” was flowery poetic diction for “we need to deal with” the situation in this next scene, but it’s more of Stevens’ vocabulary quiz. “Deal” is an archaic term for cheap pine wood. The exquisite detail of the missing drawer pulls, so much like the shabby second-hand dressers of the bedrooms of my pre-IKEA youth, yields to the fullness of the scene: it’s a room with a dead body.

Digression again: my son bursts into the room where I am writing this. He has just heard a robocall barking “If you or your loved one is over 65, they have a 1 in 3 chance of falling. Don’t let that fall be their last. Press 1 to…” He’s laughing, and continues “…hear about our warning-thingy scam…”

I follow on with my additions “…and press 2 if you want him to die anyway since he’s not allowing you any screen time today….and 3 if you are hard-of-hearing and WOULD LIKE US TO REPEAT THIS MESSAGE LOUDER.”

Back to the solemn dead body, cold and dumb, being covered with a sheet from the dresser of deal that is poignantly too short to cover the feet. Stevens leaves the light on, we need to see this clearly. And the title returns, now a refrain, and in this new context, the ruler of all offers only fleeting pleasures that one strives for, passes through, and melts away. The poem ends.

Stevens arrives at the insurance company offices. He strolls in past the receptionist, arrives at his office. Warren G. Harding is President. He asks his secretary to take this dictation. Obedient to her accustomed role, she folds back the steno pad, pencil in hand. Did she care for his poetry that she transcribed? That would be immaterial, she has only to listen.

Wallace Stevens Walking

Strolling Wallace Stevens in the 1920s. Cane in one hand, thesaurus in the other?

 

Two scenes. Two passing stations on a walk perhaps, or a flight of memories as lines emerge along steps. Only one more perversity to note, a puzzling line that looks like a typo: “Let be be finale of seem.” Let the steps the author is taking when he wrote this be our guide. One stride: “Let be”, then a double-time step: “be finale,” another step: “of seem.” I had never figured this line out, but someone on the Internet named Daniel E. Burke pointed me to this letter Stevens wrote in 1939. If Stevens had caught a crack in the sidewalk causing a hitch in his step, the line might have been more clearly composed as “Let being  be the finale of seem,” but the Hartford sidewalks were too-well maintained, and Stevens never cared to be understood anyway, only listened to.

 

I had meant to write more about the music I composed for this one, but I’ve run way too long again. I wanted prominent drums to represent the flow of time, a cello to represent the melancholy death thread and a jaunty acoustic guitar part representing the swiving partiers of the first part. Assessing the performance I first thought I should redo or remix it to keep the cello and the guitar to their respective stanzas, but then I rethought that too. Shouldn’t they both be present in each scene to give the flavor of Stevens’ perverse combination? To hear my performance of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”  use the player below.

 

 

The Self Unseeing

Today’s piece is our first proper piece by English poet Thomas Hardy. In America Hardy may be better known as a novelist, though he considered himself a poet first and last. When Hardy began writing poetry in the 19th Century, William Wordsworth was but a decade dead, and at the end of his career in 1928, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”  was several years old. So, Hardy’s career starts at the tail-end of the English Romantic revolution, and proceeds through the Modernist Explosion of the early 20th Century.

In some particularities of locales and events, Hardy’s poetry can seem of the 19th Century; but his language, direct, colloquial, and unfusty, seems as modern as the 20th Century modernists. Indeed, modernists from Robert Frost to Phillip Larkin found much to admire in Hardy. Setting many of his poems in the rural areas of western England diffuses the placement of some Hardy poems on a timeline, as the more rapid pace of cosmopolitan change does not mark them as sharply.

The Hardy Tree

“Strap yourself to a tree with roots”
Gravestones moved by Thomas Hardy when progress impinged on a country graveyard.

 

Today’s Thomas Hardy piece is “The Self-Unseeing,”  published in 1901, right in the turning of those centuries that Hardy spans. This is another poem brought to my attention by the Interesting Literature  blog, and I cannot improve on the excellent analysis of the poem there.

In “The Self-Unseeing”  there’s a visit, in a mix of memory and reality, to a long-ago childhood house, a mental voyage many of us can do, assuming we can ride out the emotional waves. Given the fires, floods, earthquakes and winds of the past couple of months across our continent, some will be being taking this visit now wholly in memory.

Thomas_Hardy's_heart

Bury my heart in Stinsford.

 

So, that’s it for analysis of the poem this time, but we’ll offer some music to go along with it: strummed acoustic guitars and bass, and a vocal that’s a bit more to the “sing” side of our usual talk-singing.  To hear it, use the player that should appear below. If you like the variety of what we’re doing here, combining various words with various music, please help us by sharing links to here, hitting the like button, or otherwise letting folks know. Thanks!