I Had a Terror Since September

How much do we know about Emily Dickinson as personality, as a living person? I can’t say that we know much at all. Originally, she was marketed as cypher, an enigma, a hermit/shut-in, and this reflected a valid aspect of the later parts of her life. The self alone is not a no-place, but it’s a hard-to-know place. In my lifetime there’s gradually been an understanding that it’s not the whole picture however.

Her youth seems to have included an above average circle of experiences for a woman of her class, time, and place. And her most productive writing years, those of her early thirties, seem a middle ground, with some travel amid mysterious and undetailed accounts of illnesses.

Her poetry, still revolutionary, no longer needs the biographical mystery to market it, but that doesn’t stop us. Its domestic strangeness makes some of us look for a Baedeker to help figure out the sites and landscape.

I say this because it appears that yet another attempt to portray a living Emily Dickinson is upon us. In 2017 we had A Quiet Passion  portraying an intellectually vital person dealing with a rigid society, and only this year we had Wild Nights with Emily  which tried to illuminate Dickinson’s emotional life and the revolutionary artistic aspects of her work. Both of these films have to deal with issues that any biopic about an author will: watching people write is boring second-unit stuff, connecting written work designed for the page to a visual performance is not straightforward, and what writers record in books is not a one-to-one reflection of their own personality and character. I’m willing to cut filmmakers some slack because of these unavoidable issues.

None-the-less, Dickinson,  one of the tentpole series that Apple TV+ has announced for its nascent Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming video competitor this fall, is raising eyebrows and guffaws. Here’s the trailer.


Midway through Emily and Lavina rock-out in their underwear on ukulele and banjo.

 

 

Let me summarize some comments the trailer has drawn:

“That’s crazy pants”

“Instead of the classy story-telling Apple has promised for its new video service, this looks like a CW* series.”

“What were they thinking?”

“Portraying a famous recluse as a wild child? Really?”

Well I’m not going to predict anything (I’m bad at it). The hyper-fast cutting of the trailer should almost come with a strobe-light seizure warning and makes it even harder to determine how the series will work than a run-of-the-mill promotional clip, a form already infamous for misrepresentation. I’m not going to throw stones at the EDM soundtrack of the trailer though. Indeed, I’d hope Dickinson is as audacious as I’ve been here in mixing “wrong” music with older art.

A worry is that if it tries to modernize Dickinson without comic awareness and savvy, it could be unintentional comedy that goes nowhere. As with previous Dickinson movies, I suspect it will give in to the dramatic temptation to compress and confuse the time-line of Dickinson’s life. I know nothing of the show-runner’s previous work, but title-role-actor Hailee Steinfeld was great with vitalizing 19th century dialog in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.

A list of recurring characters gives hope that the show will try to deal with some of the formative influences on Emily Dickinson: Susan Gilbert, the eventual sister-in-law and possible romantic partner, Benjamin Newton, generally recognized as a mentor to the young Dickinson who died at age 32, and George Gould, who Genevieve Taggard identified as once engaged to Emily and who might have continued to serve as a connection to outside literary and cultural forces per Taggard’s biography.

I’m even more heartened by the presence of actor Chinaza Uche in the regular cast, which indicates that Amherst’s African-American presence will be included. How complex will they allow that element to be?

Much of what we know about these people comes from Emily Dickinson’s letters, a form in which Dickinson performed, taking a series of personae. Within a variety of frames and masks understood and puzzling to the recipients, she herself remains unrevealed while revealing. The letters don’t tell us how Emily was like to be around, they tell us the ways that Emily wants to express herself on paper. Tantalizing and frustrating for biographers—when Dickinson writes of her life, the enigmatic poet side comes out.

Today’s piece is an example. Indeed, if one wants to contrast Walt Whitman to his fellow American mid-19th century poetic innovator Dickinson by saying that Whitman was able to write free verse while Dickinson was content to write irregular stanzas with looser than “proper” rhymes, passages like this from a letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862 are vers libre without being published as such.

The first “tutor” she mentions in this letter is usually identified as the doomed Ben Newton, and the second may be Gould, who had to leave Amherst to seek a living, eventually traveling overseas. Other dramatis personae: Emily’s famous dog, Carlo, and her piano, the instrument she was known to have played in the home with some skill. But what is the terror since September? Illness? Artistic sturm und drang? It’s tempting to say that the letter-passage’s sundown and the hills reference another famous Dickinson poem, but what is the noise in the pool? Is it “public—like a frog?”

So, regardless of how entertaining, enlightening, or disastrous Dickinson  turns out to be, there’s evidence for presenting a rather outrageous, self-dramatizing, and rapidly thinking person who relates her own poetry to her life. That is, if the Dickinson of the letters is like the young, living, social Dickinson.

No dance-oriented Dickinson today listeners, and I had to be literal and include some piano due to the reference in the text, though no singing pond-frogs or dogs. The player gadget to hear me perform part of this letter is below. The full text of the letter to Higginson is here.

 

 

 

 

*The CW is a minor American broadcast TV network that targets its programming at younger audiences. Just to go on the record: as long-time readers here might suspect, I’m not immune to meta-rich transformation of historical subjects with references to modern phenomena. I love Upstart Crow  because it sitcom-frames Shakespeare’s life as if it was The Dick Van Dyke Show  (which itself was a Sixties recasting of Carl Reiner working on Sid Caesar’s show in the Fifties) with lots of wink-wink anachronisms. Dickinson may not have yet reached the level of dead-white-male canonization that allows Shakespeare to be deconstructed for laughs though.

Conlon Nancarrow

A great deal of what you hear me play here is made possible by a 1983 invention, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a standard for communicating musical commands. MIDI lets me create piano parts I can’t play with my non-pianist fingers. I tell MIDI what to play, and MIDI then instantly responds by playing those notes on an instrument so I can see if they fit.

Given MIDI, I as the composer can have the equivalent of a pair or more of pianists willing to play as simply or complexly as I want them to, and not only are my MIDI pianists totally compliant, they can be preternaturally skilled as well, willing to play odd rhythmic displacements or impossible fingerings.

In the years between WWI and WWII, a young musician of no great wealth or social background was studying composition in Boston. He was said to have crossed paths with some of the giants of 20th Century music there, including Walter Piston, whose Harmony  book I once started many decades ago, and Nicolas Slonimsky whose book on scales later became a huge influence on John Coltrane and Frank Zappa.

However, the titanic forces of world events would soon sweep him away from all this. In the 1930s he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Americans who volunteered to fight the Fascist forces seeking to overthrow a republic in Spain during a war that served as a beta-test for World War II. This was a complex event, but all we need to know for our young man is that the anti-Fascist coalition was defeated, and the survivors who had fought for the Spanish Republic ended up as men without a country.

Earlier this year I was reading some 1939 writing by Herbert Read where he was appealing for support for a plan to transport these Spanish war survivors from French refugee camps to Latin America. Our young man, who’d hobnobbed with key musical theorists before becoming a “premature anti-Fascist,” soon found himself in Mexico City, perhaps as a result of this plan.

It was there our exiled young man took a technological step as a composer. He chose to write his music using “player pianos.” Player pianos, also called “reproducing pianos,” were a home entertainment fad from the era before better quality electronic recordings. An elaborate clockwork rolled a scroll of punched paper across mechanical sensors inside the piano which then drove the hammers to strike the piano strings. Scrolls of piano music, some recorded and played by the famous performers of the early 20th Century could be purchased, and when inserted into the home player piano, and played back with musical fidelity.

Our young man’s name was Conlon Nancarrow. Over the next few decades he exploited the player piano, not for parlor entertainment, but to create striking Modernist music of otherwise unplayable complexity. He was hip to new varieties of rhythm and harmony not only from other 20th Century “serious composers,” but from Jazz too—and the mathematical structures of Bach-like cannons were well suited to the looping scrolls he would punch himself. He wasn’t reproducing music someone played, he was producing music he conceived and punched into the controlling scrolls.

In the first few decades of his work Nancarrow had no funds, no grants, no copyist/assistants, no local orchestral resources to realize his musical ideas; but this one artist, a player piano, and his own score-roll punching could produce work needing only himself and his ideas to sound inside his small Mexican apartment.

Except for it’s painstaking, mechanical, cuckoo-clock handwork, what Nancarrow did is schematically like how one can use MIDI today. In a tip to this heritage, MIDI scores are still shown on the lit-up computer screen like player piano scrolls.

Nancarrow Piano Part MIDI score

“Stuck in holes which once were dots”
One of the piano parts for today’s piece shown in MIDI “piano roll” notation

 

In 1969, using the high-fidelity home entertainment media of its age, an LP record of Nancarrow’s works was issued on a major, well-distributed record label (Columbia, the record company of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap). That’s when I first heard him. Acclaim in avant-garde music circles, and some grants and touring followed until his death in 1997.

In some ways the typical Nancarrow piece sounds like an artist who when finding out the vast capabilities of his new technology decides to use all of them. At once. A lot. Typical tempos sound like someone playing a recording at the wrong speed—and backwards. The number of simultaneous notes can be overwhelming, the intervals jarring, the rhythms insane. It’s challenging you to understand it, and it’s not a matter if you want to, you likely cannot. As with some avant-garde music, repeated listening (if one allows it) can increase comprehension of the ideas, but Nancarrow is never going to be shoving Billy Joel off the piano bench in popularity.



“Punched polyphony in a row” A Nancarrow scroll plays.

 

No, the reason I wrote this to celebrate Nancarrow isn’t because I think you’ll like his music, or even because he’d figure in any Desert Island Discs episode in my future (though through castaway days one might find the time to try to untie all the knotted ideas in a Nancarrow piece). No, it’s because I admire that kind of audacity and perseverance.

I originally wrote music of an acoustic guitar “folk song” sort, even though the poem sought to make use of eccentric meters and a tricky rhyme scheme to reference some of Nancarrow’s ideas. Today’s version has new music I wrote which fits the words better. Using MIDI-controlled pianos, it’s sort of “Nancarrow-lite” musically. To hear my audio piece for “Conlon Nancarrow,”  use the player below.