Songs of a Girl II

I’ve mentioned I’m reading a couple of memoirs that cover the early 20th Century Modernist era in America this month. At some point there may come a post here directly about them — which this isn’t — but in one of these memoirs, Troubadour,  its author Alfred Kreymborg is discussing the launch of his crucial American Modernist poetry magazine Others.*   He writes that his initial goal in starting Others  was to publish Mina Loy** and William Carlos Williams, but as he and his main backer discuss their first issue, the initial work of selection is described as including Loy, but then another poet: Mary Carolyn Davies. Indeed, when the first issue of Others  arrives in the summer of 1915, the first poet presented is Mary Carolyn Davies and a version of her collection of short pieces called “Songs of a Girl.”***   Davies work directly precedes in Others’  first number the debut of Mina Loy’s set of longer “Love Songs,”  the series of caustic love poems which introduced Loy’s indelible image of “Pig Cupid.”

Mary Carolyn Davies

One of the few pictures of Davies

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In memoirs when I come upon a writer I’ve never heard of, a “I should at least check briefly on who they were, what they did” research reflex is triggered in me. “What? Not even a Wikipedia stub entry!” was one return on that. Just how obscure is this author? I’d say we know more about Davies than we know about Sappho, and less than we know about any other author that was published in Others  just a hundred years ago. Dates of her birth and death are not clearly known. The former somewhere in the 1880’s or early 1890s, and the later as wide as 1940 and 1974.  She grew up in the American Northwest, and this short Oregon Historical Society entry has the longest biographic note I’ve found. Her work was presented not just in Others,  but by the Provincetown Players too, giving some evidence that she was connected somehow with the bohemian New York City area avant guard in the early 20th century, but she’s also said to have published in a variety of mainstream publications, perhaps to keep the pot boiling.

Mary Carolyn Davies Play

This is Davies’ play which was performed with music by Kreymborg at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. Read this link for this  intriguing description of it. Now, to give some contrasting sense of what her potboiler work may have entailed, this hit recording with a Parlando recitation may have been from a published poem of Davies. Per the Oregon Historical Society bio, about this time Davies would have been destitute in NYC when this 1942 record was on the hit parade. The bestial creature with the whip in Davies’ playbill? The character’s name is Life!

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Some have compared Davies to Edna St. Vincent Millay, who of course is vastly better known. Encountered in a vacuum, Davies’ “Songs of a Girl II”  could be taken for Millay, and particularly with today’s piece, as a more explosive take on Millay’s famous “First Fig”  short poem published several years later.

In our time, I could casually compare “Songs of a Girl”  to modern “Instagram Poets” what with “Songs of a Girl’s”  short pieces and public intimacy.

Those who’ve read this blog over the years know I’m often fascinated by such mysteries, with those “Flowers [that] fail in wood — Or perish from the Hill” that Emily Dickinson wrote of. How widely or narrowly interesting is Davies’ work? I don’t know yet, but for about a minute and a half you can consider one tiny bit of it as I perform “Songs of a Girl II”  using the player below. If you don’t see the player gadget, you can also use this highlighted hyperlink to hear the performance.

*Here’s the Wikipedia entry for Others.  The contributors that wrote that want to make a strong case for the social and sexual radicalism of Others  in 1915. I don’t know enough to say if they overstate that case, but with Kreymborg’s determination to publish American Modernist work he was  pushing boundaries out every which way. Other important and sometimes longer-lived publications that included Modernists, like the Chicago based Poetry,  mixed in more conventional verse, while Others  stayed true to its credo: “The old expressions are with us always, and there are always others.”

**Mina Loy was once nearly as forgotten as Davies, but in this century her work has been re-examined and found by many who do that to be extraordinarily vital.

***I am unsure at this point what the entire contents of Davies’ “Songs of a Girl”  was intended to contain. There appear to be at least three differing collections that can be found under this title and author — all of them sets of short pieces without individual titles, each set off by Roman numerals. In one, today’s piece is “II,” and in another it’s “III” in a series titled “Later Songs,”  while in the 1915 publication in Others,  today’s short bit doesn’t appear at all. The version I saw first and used when preparing my piece today was in the 1917 The New Poetry  anthology edited by Harriet Monroe.

Perhaps Davies intended Songs of a Girl  to be like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an all-encompassing and evolving statement?

Trifles–I Know What Stillness Is

I made it! This is the 500th audio piece presented here as the Parlando Project since it began in the summer of 2016. In the month of December I’ll write more about what the work for this project has been like, and what I think I’ve learned. I’ll also share with you, my valued audience, what I plan to do going forward in some upcoming posts, but let’s get onto presenting today’s piece based on a small portion of Susan Glaspell’s pioneering American play about pioneer women and their isolation.

I’ve long wanted to do something with a text from Susan Glaspell since she’s partly responsible for this project so often dealing with the beginnings of Modernism in the first two decades of the 20th Century. In America, I think we have a cultural tendency to forget our pioneers, to think of them as imperfect, “beta test” versions of what we consider to be the current and vital expressions of art. We owe them some gratitude, an obligation, but it turns out that looking at first attempts, first intentions, can reveal insights we’ve forgotten, potentially useful tactics we set aside. That said, there’s coincidence in wanting to point out Glaspell’s work here, I’m related to her in one of those fractal-branched family trees; and elderly relatives I once knew, now dead, knew her as a living person, a person with roots in Iowa along the Mississippi River, a place that was home for some time to my people.

Susan Glaspell at the keyboard

Susan Glaspell at the keys. Can’t have a Modernist American theater unless someone writes some plays!

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In a previous post I’ve noted that some figures important to American Modernism came from that mid-river region. Carl Sandburg, the forgotten Imagist with dirty fingernails was one. Glaspell was another, not just forgotten as a Modernist, but forgotten as a prime-mover in Modernist American drama. You see, she and her husband had a wild idea while living in an artist’s colony on the East Coast: plays that reflected the “make it new” ethos, radical social analysis, and the symbolic undercurrent that European dramatists were exploring. The theater she organized in 1915, The Provincetown Players, was nothing less than the CBGBs of independent and experimental American theater.

The one-act play that supplies today’s text is her ground-breaking “Trifles.*”   It’s now remembered largely as a primary piece of feminist drama, rightfully so, and that outlook might see it as a piece of the social-realist school. There are good reasons for that. Recent scholarship has uncovered that Glaspell, as a young journalist, had covered a murder trial in Indianola Iowa with parallels to the story of “Trifles.”

But the Provincetown group wasn’t just about plays about issues, or gritty realism in opposition to melodramatic fantasy, gaslight adventures, and blithe romances. Modernist poets were also playwrights and actors in the group. “Trifles”  isn’t a verse drama, it isn’t a choral poem, but it’s also not unaware of those forms of dramatic expression. In the play’s language, Glaspell uses extraordinary compression, objects representing feelings not explicitly told, and long arias of extravagant emotional expression are conspicuously absent. I’ve never heard it called such, but it’s not outrageous to call “Trifles”  an Imagist play. In today’s presentation, which I call “I Know What Stillness Is”  I have extracted a section of dialog near the end of the play between two women incidentally drawn into a murder site investigation. One, Mrs. Hale,** a neighbor of the murder suspect, speaks first; the second speaker, Mrs. Peters, is the wife of the sheriff leading the investigation.

Original NYC production of Trifles

Picture of the original New York production of “Trifles.” The woman playing Mrs. Peters at the far left is Marjorie Vonnegut. Yes, she married into that Vonnegut family. So it goes…

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In my presentation, as per the ways of the Parlando Project, I want to combine music and words in some useful way that illuminates the piece. So, while not rewriting, I removed some sections of dialog, slightly compressing the scene, and added one subtle use of refrain not in the original text.***  If I was a bel canto singer perhaps I’d think of making this an opera, but instead I’ve kept the dialog spoken word, but by setting this to music I want you to hear the dialectical conversation the two women are having as one would listen to it sung. Does this work? Maybe, and that’s what I wanted to try.

One challenge I had in completing this given our pandemic isolation and my lack of collaborative resources was how to perform the two women’s voices, and I broke through that issue by finding and using recorded voices from a reading of the entire text of the play collected by Librivox. In the performance I used, the part of Mrs. Hale is played by Elizabeth Klett, and the part of Mrs. Peters by Arielle Lipshaw. The whole play is performed and is available here, but it’s a reading of the entire 1916 script, which includes Glaspell’s extensive stage directions which are read interspersed with the dialog.

I could go on about the things expressed in the play, the remarkably early and clear-eyed feminist analysis contained in it, but I thought my audio piece does well enough in portraying the sense of isolation that rural women of the time faced (and to some modern degree face again in our current pandemic.) There is an extensive overview of things others have noted in the “Trifles”  Wikipedia page.  Before leaving you to listen to our 500th audio piece I thought I’d say instead something about the music I composed for this. It’s an orchestral strings score with a female vocalese part, all of which I played via my MIDI guitar interface and little plastic keyboard. Musical mavens will note that I use simple musical devices in my orchestral stuff, and if I was high falutin I might call myself a Minimalist composer—but frankly, when exploring composition I’m naïve enough to find the simple musical materials produce results that I still find moving and effective.

500!

I started this project thinking I might get to a nice big number of pieces combining various words with original music, like maybe 100, or dare I dream, 200. Thanks for reading and listening along the way!

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Since this is the 500th piece, I decided to provide a bonus today for those that would like to listen more distinctly to the music I’ve composed by also providing a separate version without the dialog, just the instrumental music. The version with Glaspell’s words performed in a way to suggest the word-music in them, “I Know What Stillness Is,”   has a player gadget below. If you don’t see the player gadget, this highlighted phrase is a link that may work to allow you to hear it.

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And here’s the version with only the instruments and the wordless singer, and its highlighted hyperlink alternative, in case you don’t see the player below.

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*Glaspell later transferred the script into a short story which was titled “A Jury of Her Peers”  and the piece is therefore known under two titles. Much later (in that year that read the same upside down and right side up: 1961) the somewhat revised and extended script became an episode of the TV anthology show Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the “Jury of Her Peers”  title. In titling my excerpt and attempted recasting of the piece with yet a third title, I think I’m following a tradition.

**The part of Mrs. Hale was also played by Susan Glaspell in the play’s first production in Provincetown.

***The entire original script is available at this highlighted link. The section of dialog I used begins near the end of page 26 of this script.