This week I met with a small group of poets that have been sharing their work with each other for a few decades. At the end of the night one of us said that, despite the date, that love poems had been rare.
I said that I do try to look for love poems to present here as part of this project, but when I do I’m often waylaid by something gloomier—“But then, love poems can be as complicated as any other, and there’s always Lorca where the poem is ‘I love and desire you even while we’re between one foot and our whole body and soul in the grave.”
Did I mention the group is all old poets? Young poets can choose to be poète maudit types, and to mine the tropes of love, separation from all, and death—but past a certain age, us old poets have an organic attachment to that role that we’d have to actively deny to escape.
So, for Valentine’s Day, here’s a free-verse sonnet of mine that speaks about a kind of love that old partners may have. I think some readers could miss that aspect in “These Phones in our Hands (are so Magical),” working as the poem does to contrast the little glowing palm-shrines that are now common to most of us with other kinds of connection.
Long time readers here know that we’ll be back soon with performances of poems I didn’t write.
The magical incident it describes, of a phone that can display a picture of a couple seven years in the future is not entirely fantasy. As the poem jokes, there are processes that can age a photo to show how a person might look at an older age. For someone older, the assurance that one might see proof that one will be around for seven more years is magical in a more above and below-ground earthy sense. Young lovers can wonder if their partner will stay partnered with them. Old lovers know that they will part.
The final couplet may be tricky. The empty hands are not just empty of their magical smart phones.
I almost presented this with just the drums, but in the past week or two I’ve spent composing time blowing on the guitar because my fingers have been up to it, and maybe I can recover a little of the few chops I once had. Yet, in the back of my mind I’ve reminded myself that it’s been awhile since I composed an orchestra piece for this project, and that led to the strings today. The player to hear it should be below. If you’re reading this in the WordPress reader on an iPad or iPhone the player gadget may be missing. Why? I don’t know, as the player shows up fine in Safari—but you can subscribe to the audio pieces by themselves in the Apple Podcast app or find us as the Parlando Project on Spotify.
We’ve reached the top of our seasonal top 10 covering the pieces you most liked and listened to over the past three months, but before I reveal the top piece, let me cover one other area.
I know from growth in the audience that some of you are new to the Parlando Project. Because of that, every so often I should explain what this project does. We take words, mostly poetry, mostly other peoples’ words, not our own, and combine them with music we write and perform ourselves. Sometimes we sing the words, sometimes we don’t, sometimes we split the difference somehow.
By intent the poetry we use and the music we create for it varies. Most texts are used under public domain rules.* What kind of music do we use? I try to make it a whole lot of different. I’ve never been able to answer the simple-sounding question “What kind of music do you like?” because the idea of liking one kind of music is just not in me. So be aware that you may run into music here that you don’t care for, either because of our limitations as musicians or your own tastes and expectations—and that may happen right after a piece you liked. The same applies to the words we use. There are over 400 examples of what we do here in our archives, so you can move on and look at another one anytime. If you wonder if we’ve presented a poem or author, search here and see.
OK, so who sits atop our Autumn 2019 hit parade? William Shakespeare that’s who. That’s no surprise considering that it’s his Sonnet 73 which begins “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (but which I’ve always thought of as “Bare Ruined Choirs” for its most famous image)—one of the longest-famed “autumn of one’s years” poems in English.
Let England Shake-Speares. The title page of the first printing.
I wrote at some length about my experience of the poem in my original post here, but I’ll reiterate only one point: even though this poem resonates with many older people and older lovers in particular, it was written by a man in his early 30s. Consider all the exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnets that seek to tweeze out his sexuality, incidents to fill out his biography, or the identity of the fair youth, the dark lady, or “who really wrote Shakespeare,” and consider that they were written after all by an actor and a famously prolific creator of opposite and varied characters. I too want to invest those sonnets with his experience, to believe that this great artist is letting me see his heart. How much is intentionally or unintentionally “real,” and how much is a good illusion? We may never know, but we have the art none-the-less.
Here’s the player to hear my performance of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.” And a sincere thank you for listening and reading this fall. I hope that some of the pieces we’ve presented have pleased you and illuminated some matter or another.
*This means that the poetry is usually from before 1924. I happen to like (and have grown to like even more via this project) a good deal of early 20th century Modernist poetry, but we’ll jump around to older stuff than that too. While we’ve done many of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” over the years, I’ll use lesser-known poets and poems when they strike me as interesting.
Today’s post includes the 400th audio piece since this blog officially launched in August of 2016. For such round numbers it seems appropriate to use a representative selection, but then the Parlando Project’s aesthetic is to avoid formula. So, the text for today “Doubt Brings Autumn” is from my own poem. Long-time readers/listeners here know that’s not my usual practice.
When I started the Parlando Project I hoped to create 100 to 120 of these combinations of various music with various words. The music would test my limits as a musician and composer, and the words would be focused on “Other Peoples’ Stories,” an emphasis on other writers and artists rather than my own life.*
I had no idea how enriching it would be to encounter the work I would turn to, looking not just at “Poetry’s Greatest Hits” but also at the lesser-known poems and poets. That choice made around four years ago largely by intuition and confoundedness still seems to be the right one.
I started with some pieces already done, and some already expected. Not nearly 100, but once this project ignited it was hard to put the fire out. Now at 400, the natural urge is to press on to 500.**
One key to keeping this process going and to avoid the formulaic is to introduce random or coincidental elements into the making of these things. One favorite toy of mine to play with is to intentionally seek out and explore misinterpretations of sentences. Syntax and context is a slippery thing after all, why not have some fun with it? Until last month I didn’t know what to call this kind of language play, when it suddenly occurred to me where I must have picked this concept up.
There was once a great comic duo called Burns and Allen, whose career spanned the later vaudeville stages to radio to early television. The act’s trick was for George Burns, the straight man, to report some mundane event or judgement and for the comic, his wife Gracie Allen, to then find some confounding misinterpretation of that statement. Hilarity ensued, as any attempt to put the Dada spring-snakes back into the can was met by more sproinging twisting of the otherwise obvious meaning.
Poetic license: I couldn’t find any short clips of the classic double act, but the concept extends to this scene
That realization led me to name this kind of language play a “Gracie.”
“Doubt Brings Autumn” began with a Gracie. A blog I read regularly written by an Iowan, Paul Deaton, had in series discussed the seasonal cycle of his food garden and an orchard he works at over the past year. His posts, as well as alternative voice and keyboardist here Dave Moore’s garden probably led me to use more stuff related to gardens this past year. In one post this fall Deaton remarked that frost and even some snow had come and that “If there is any doubt, autumn has definitely arrived.”
We all know what Paul meant, but if one takes this as a Gracie, it could just as clearly mean that doubt, even in small doses, causes, brings on, autumn. That became the germ, the seed, of this poem.
It’s been through a number of versions and revisions, and I revised it yet again slightly this morning after the performance you’ll hear was recorded, but the idea, inherent in both Paul’s life (he’s contemplating retirement) and mine (I’m “retired” but working near-constantly on this project, my “garden”) was a rich one. Our doubts, our questions about how to continue and react to our own seasons, are they cause or effect?
This is the current version with a small change in the next to last line
The last line works not just from its sound but gains also from another accident of English. The words unraveling and raveling are not opposites, each form of the word means the same—but raveling is the rarer word and subconsciously adds a paradoxical element that winter could intensify instead of relaxing and untangling our unanswered questions, our doubts.
Another note on this poem in process: when I read an earlier version an accomplished poet whose work I respect reacted to the pun for frost and Frost*** with dismay. All poems and poets work from their own sensibilities, but mine steadfastly believes that humor, even the coincidental humor of Gracies and puns is unavoidable in the human condition. That other poet’s reaction was likely right, in that many (who knows, maybe most) will find the mood broken by that move in my poem. I do wish I didn’t confound them, but I somehow must.
Musically, I’ve finally been able to play fiddle rather than violin on a piece using the MIDI interface on my guitar. The sound of largo bow work is lovely, but so too are many folk traditions which saw away more insistently. The player to hear “Doubt Brings Autumn” is below, and thanks to all that read and listen here!
*This insight came from a review of a book of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poems, where the reviewer seemed surprised and delighted to find many poems there “with other people in them.” “Why should this be rare?” I asked myself. In a musical metaphor I’d remark that I love solo acoustic guitar—just one set of hands and six strings—but what if all music or even all guitar music was only that or even mostly that? So much we would be missing!
**If I’m able to reach that number, I think that would be a good time to reassess the effort and focus it takes to do this project. If you’d like to help encourage this effort, the best thing you can do is spread the word. I have (too?) little inclination to promote this project on social media or even face-to-face. But even if I had that useful skill, I wouldn’t have time to do it.
***In my awkward defense, I pointed out that Robert Frost likely intended to pun on his own name in his magnificent “October” where the endangered garden grapes have already suffered a leaf-wide incursion of burning frost.
Today’s text is a poem that works in the common garden using another poet’s central image. Christina Rossetti’s “An October Garden” is three lines in when she reveals that her garden isn’t growing nervous grazing watermelons—that what she observes there is the last rose of summer.
Irish poet Thomas Moore seems to be the writer who first struck that coinage, or at the least popularized it. His 1805 short poem called “The Last Rose of Summer” was soon set to music based on a traditional Irish harper’s tune, and the words and sentiments with the associated music has been sticking around ever since.* Moore’s poem is both dark and sentimental, a combination of ingredients that continues to impress audiences. Summarized to its core outlook, it’s a poem about surrendering (at least metaphorically) to loss.
Writing down to the bones & roses: “When the last rose of summer pricks your finger…”
What distinguishes Christina Rossetti’s use of the image from Thomas Moore’s? Rossetti’s is a bit shorter. It’s an unusual form sonnet, just 14 lines, vs. Moore’s 24. Rossetti’s sonnet form is neat: a pair of equal 7-line stanzas and an ABBAACC rhyme scheme. But furthermore, her take on the image is somewhat ambiguous. For one thing she notes there are other, more hardy flowers still around too, but her eye’s on that last rose, and however puny and forlorn it might be, she’s one for the roses and not them. Although no one would confuse her poem with a Modernist poem in the Imagist style, her presentation of the rose is more objective and there are fewer “feeling” words, and in their place: more observational words.
If one abandoned the structure she used, one could “translate” Rossetti’s poem into a free-verse Imagist poem fairly easily. But let me note one more thing about the structure: one could easily think that a need for rhymes has forced some word choices. The last rose “which cold winds balk” reads to me first and last as a forced rhyme. The literal sense is that the winds are still holding-back against this puny but still budding rose, but that’s not a strong statement (absence of the cold winds is less concrete than their presence). The other possibly forced rhyme is repeated twice:** “rosebud which uncloses.” This one is so awkward that I am still evaluating how it works. What a weird way to say what one could say simply “opens.”
There’s a dirty little secret about rhymes. More times than poets will admit, the need to make a rhyme will force a poet into a choice they otherwise wouldn’t make. There are times that rhyming need works like Surrealist tactics such as “exquisite corpse” or randomization techniques, it throws chaos and noise into one’s intent. When the result fails to set off sparks, it’s experienced as forced, a failure—but when it does work, the poem or phrase takes on a new freshness.
So which is “uncloses?” I’m still not sure. If one allows the oddity of the word, and asks what it could say that’s different than “open,” it’s saying that the last rose is making a choice in blooming, knowing that colder fall and then winter to come will make its feeble bloom even shorter. It suggests it’s choosing to not stay closed or to not close back up against the cold and bleak.
Musically I doubt my setting will do for Rossetti’s poem what music did for Thomas Moore’s, but it did give an excuse to break out the Mellotron sounds again. Musical instruments can accumulate associations, and for me nothing says sitting in an English garden like this wobbly keyboard instrument that tried to imitate orchestral instruments; and while failing in verisimilitude, succeeded in sounding like a memory of them.
My performance of Rossetti’s “An October Garden” is available with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, you can find all the audio performances here on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or most other podcast sources. You can find them at such places by searching for “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet.”
*In that Wikipedia page that I linked above for the text of “The Last Rose of Summer” I draw your attention to the lower sections where the extraordinarly wide range of use and allusion the tune and the text has had is listed. A personal favorite is Robert Hunter’s grief-filled variation “Black Muddy River.”
**There’s an old Jazz improvisor’s trick that when a player flubs a note or makes a wrong choice when improvising, that a way out is to repeat it, or even make it a motif.
Here’s another post in our informal series “The Roots of Emily Dickinson.” Now a title like that may lead some to think I’m some sort of Dickinson scholar—which would be a fine thing to be, but I’m not. Frankly, when I started this project a few years back I assumed I’d present some Emily Dickinson poems. After all, not only do they famously fit well to music, but she was part of the poetry canon that I was raised on. Then something unexpected happened.
When I started to dig into Dickinson poems they grew mysterious, not just the elusive mystery of their intent or even their true subject, but the somewhat more external mystery of how they came to be written in the mid-19th century in a town in rural Massachusetts without any sure models for Dickinson’s new kind of poetry.
We know how many other writers assembled their machines and what fueled them. Shakespeare and Bob Dylan worked within successful entertainment enterprises, even if they were to reshape them. T. S. Eliot had a scholar’s interest in a wide range of art and spirituality across history, and after the trauma of WWI a significant part of the culture was waiting for someone to reassemble it however dolefully, even if it was in his Cubist collage. The Surrealists were crystal-clear about their influences and the impact of Freud and psychoanalysis. The G.I. Bill after WWII and the following post-war American prosperity introduced large numbers to colleges and college towns, including some who would likely not have attended before the war. This fueled not only the Beats, but the more academic-associated American poets of my youth. The 20th Century urban migration of Afro-Americans and the Talented Tenth tactics of the early 20th century U.S. Civil Rights movement encouraged the Harlem Renaissance and similar artists.
Emily Dickinson? It’s just not so clear to me. My best guess remains that she was a Transcendentalist of some sort in a household dominated by a father that wasn’t. Transcendentalism, staunchly individualist in it’s outlook has no mandatory dogma, but the sense that the intense, even visionary study of nature reveals the deepest spiritual truths seem to me to be its core. Received truths, any established customs and traditions, are to fall before this apprehension.
However individualist in philosophy, the Transcendentalists and the Boston publishing and cultural nexus were intimately connected socially in a way that Dickinson was not.
One incident, often judged as a quasi-accident* closed this circuit. In 1862 as the 31-year-old Dickinson had begun her extraordinary five years or so of white-hot poetic composition, she wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed a few of her poems. A string of correspondence ensues, and eventually the two met in person.
Dickinson’s letter is conventionally seen as a “cold call” prompted by Higginson writing a magazine article in The Atlantic “A Letter to a Young Contributor.” That article is largely unremarkable if sensible, the subject one that is covered over and over wherever there are editors who accept written submissions. Submit clean, legible copy. Re-writing is as important as writing. Remember your audience and take pity on them. Hey, the editor is on your side—they, like the writer, want to produce good work.
And here we come to the next beat in the story as it’s usually told. Higginson is often portrayed as something of a doofus, the archetypal mansplainer who can’t understand Dickinson’s greatness. He suggests Dickinson write more conventionally and doesn’t think her work is suitable for publication. Presented with one of the founding geniuses of Modern poetry, he’s blind and hesitant.
Is that so? Well, there’s a lot we don’t know. First, we only have letters from Dickinson’s side of the correspondence. I’ve delayed this post so that I could at least read some of Higginson’s writing on other contemporaries of his and Dickinson, and one thing stands out from his later 19th century accounts of his life and times: he’s the soul of discretion (obscuring names for embarrassing incidents), generous even to his opponents, and extraordinarily hesitant in claiming credit for any of the things he may have been instrumental in. As an editor and literary critic, he seems to have a fairly good and objective eye, and he does not shy from pointing out shortcomings in writers he admires. I read his essay on Emerson written shortly after Emerson’s death, and his admiration for the man and his intellect does not keep him from agreeing with judgements about the faults of Emerson’s poetry. It therefore seems likely he could have suggested changes to Dickinson in his correspondence.
How artistically wrong would those suggestions have been? How harmful might they have been to the isolated Dickinson? Even if he was “wrong” could he have been tactically right about what mid-19th century audiences would tolerate? Here we don’t know the devilish details, but we know some things otherwise: Dickinson wrote most of her nearly two thousand revolutionary highly condensed poems as this correspondence was initiated. If Higginson squelched her or convinced her to temper her individuality, he must have been bad at it. If, on the other hand, what he said encouraged and kept her going, that would be consistent with what occurred.
Here’s something else we know objectively: in 1890 he was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s posthumous-published-career off the ground.** He did not prevent and may have agreed with the conventionalizing of Dickinson’s punctuation, adding of titles to title-less poems, and so on—but historically those editions sold well right from the start and gained Dickinson a reading public. He added his prestige to the launch with the book’s introduction where he framed her (not yet knowing how well Dickinson would sell) as a sort of art brut phenomenon:
“In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed.”
This may be false, even if it’s an accurate advertisement for the impact reading Dickinson for the first time may have on a reader. Yes, Dickinson was likely a more conscious and careful artist than this impression leaves us with. But it worked! Remember, there was no Dickinson tradition to be misinterpreted when he did this. To a large degree, the reason we have an on-going debate about Dickinson that more than a handful of graduate students and eccentrics like me care about is because of his work in insuring that original edition.
Now for a surprise. I did not know that Higginson had written poetry until I came upon this poem by accident while looking for June poems. I can find nothing about it, but in the absence of knowledge I’ll speculate it might be from Higginson’s college-age youth. Here it is:
I may be full of perplexing thought even if this June day isn’t
It’s a graceful sonnet. I’m not in love with the slightly over-egged consonance of the “Lieth the lustre of her lovely life” line, but I’d suspect other readers would point it out with appreciation. On the other hand, the vowels of the preceding line “All the long day upon the broad green boughs” are pleasing to me. And the poem’s fine opening line, referring to June’s summer overture, “She needs no teaching,—no defect is hers” is hard for me to not read, whenever it was written, as the proper way to approach Emily Dickinson’s genius. The ending of the octet “While too much drugged with rapture to carouse/Broods her soft world of insect-being rife” is a truly strange one, half awkward “poetic diction” perhaps necessary to make the rhyme, and half a striking William Burroughs a-century-too-early image of June on the narcotic nod as summer’s insect-being is partly suppressed for the moment.
The sestet is not as distinctive, and I wonder if “zone” was chosen for its rhyme rather than being the best word at the end of the 12th line, but overall more interesting than most 19th century American sonnets. In his “Young Contributor” article Higginson sagely notes that duality of the critic who’ll offer criticism when they themselves are not accomplished in the arts they criticize. “People criticize higher than they attain” he says.
After all that, here’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s sonnet “June” and my performance of it. The player gadget to hear it is below.
*The writer of the standard Dickinson biography Richard Sewell believed that regular Atlantic reader Emily Dickinson was attracted to Higginson’s nature articles which he’d published in The Atlantic prior to the “Young Contributor.” Early Dickinson biographer Genevieve Taggard speculates that George Gould (which she identifies as Dickinson’s ex-fiancé) may have suggested Dickinson write Higginson.
**I’m still underinformed on all the details of how we got to the 1890 publication of the first large batch of Dickinson poems. Originally, Dickinson’s sister looked to Sister-in-Law and intimate friend Susan Gilbert Dickinson to shepherd the publication. Susan Dickinson said (after the successful Higginson-introduced 1890 edition) that she had a big idea for presenting Dickinson in a fuller way from the start, but the project didn’t seem to get off the ground in the mind of Dickinson’s sister who was legally the rights holder. In an example of the multivalent family dynamics of the Dickinson family, the mistress of Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s husband (Emily’s brother, Austin) Mabel Todd Loomis, was then brought in as well as Higginson to edit and arrange for the first publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. Where Higginson comes in within this series of connections and who selected who, I don’t know, but seeing the book to completion and getting it published and launched with notice and eventual surprising sales has to be presumed to be largely Higginson’s work. He was the man with the connections, track record and prestige after all.
Today’s piece uses words by Robert Hayden, who was a 20th Century American poet who often wrote about that essential American subject, Afro-American history. He was born just before WWI, and was writing poetry both before and after WWII, during the rise of the New Criticism, which held that the poem exists as a thing created as a conscious work by an author but is best judged irrespective of who that author is.
Frederick Douglass used the power of the charismatic portrait as well as his powerful words
Robert Hayden had to rely more on the words alone, but what words they are!
To the degree that this theory was actually practiced, it solves a number of problems. One of them are the issues of discrimination, old-boy networks, and literary log-rolling where who you know or where you are in the social and academic order pre-emptively decree the worth of writing. It helps deal with thorny problems, like having poetic Modernism’s great progenitor Ezra Pound becoming a Fascist propagandist during wartime. If it was still in vogue, it might assist in considering issues around artists in our time who’ve committed heinous acts or supported political opinions we judge to be beyond the pale.
There’s a saying: in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is. Historically, the New Criticism as a critical movement didn’t consistently break down cultural barriers, though things like the post WWII GI Bill certainly did. Extra-academic movements like the Beats and their successors, and the Black Arts Movement did so as well. Great cultural shifts such as the civil rights movement have literary impact. In the end, the New Criticism seemed to restrict itself to giving students and academics a framework to discuss literature without the need to refer to the problems in their authors lives.
Perhaps too, it’s just easier to judge works based on friendship, affinity groups, or cultural and political stances. Even for an artist, how much can we live in an artistic world separated from the daily, inescapable effects of the political and economic world?
But let’s not be too unfair to the New Critics. They cared about the work as it exists, treating art not as inessential decoration for something else. They offered open structures, criteria that were open to any to master. When Robert Hayden, born in the crowded Detroit ghetto swelling with southern migrants looking for industrial work, mastered those structures, he (eventually) earned a place in the culture of his time. How did this play out as my generation, born after WWII, came of age? Let’s look at the tape.
15 minutes from a Robert Hayden interview in 1975.
This is a time capsule from over 40 years ago, yet it could be longer for all the patina of time. The monochrome of the film makes the impassive white interviewer, the smoke from his constant cigarette, and the later-life Hayden all look gray. You see the coke-bottle glasses on Hayden’s face, but not the tint of his skin that would have born him instant misjudgments throughout his life, misjudgments that he would have to have dealt with along with his art. You will hear him make the claim I made to describe him at the beginning of this: that he’s an American poet who will write about Afro-American subjects, and hear him begin to make the case as to why this distinction is important. I can clearly hear how important he believes this is.
Around 10 minutes in, he’s asked to engage with the separatist strain in Afro-American culture, and he offers his full-throated disagreement with what he thinks are their goals. That’s too big a subject to deal with here, but apparently at the point at which he was finally achieving some recognition for his poetry, some aligned with the Black Arts Movement saw him as an assimilationist. Some might view this part as a “damn kids, get off my lawn” generational moment.
Also, in the film Hayden reads two poems. One is probably his most well-known work “Those Winter Sundays,” and the other is today’s piece, “Frederick Douglass.” In the later, using only the eloquent words in his sonnet, Hayden makes that argument that he could write a political statement timeless and yet incisive, and in the former, he writes a poem of gratitude to his foster father, an unpoetic man who made it possible for him to be a poet.
“Those Winter Sundays” will be featured this month on Poetry In America on PBS. It’s a fine poem, and I’ll be interested in seeing what they do with that poem’s details, things that one needs to linger a bit to see. I, on the other hand, had already chosen to present “Frederick Douglass” for my first Robert Hayden poem here. If you take the poems together, you’ll see two arguments for paying attention to Hayden. One the universalist for liberation (a political theory Hayden shared with Frederick Douglass) and the other the argument for gratitude to those, however imperfect, that helped us.
When I first read Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” this year I was immediately struck by the poem’s uncanny details, laid in-between the eloquent flow. It was written over 50 years ago, but it’s more current than that B&W film from 1975. Perhaps you’ll hear them too if you attend to them: freedom that can be beautiful and terrible, hunted aliens, metal statues more valued than lives made possible.
Here’s my performance of Hayden’s words about Douglass. Use the player to hear it.
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.
“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.