The Times Are Nightfall

There’s a musical theme in today’s audio piece: things that pretend to be another instrument, and while they don’t quite get there, are still something else.

That low bowed-string sound that opens today’s piece? It should be no surprise to long time followers here that it’s a Mellotron,* the primitive magnetic tape ancestor to today’s computer-based virtual instruments. It doesn’t really sound like a cello as it lacks any variation of articulation, but it does have a sound of its own.

There’s no bass guitar (the cello part is solidly in the bass register anyway), but to add a little punch I added an emulation of the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass most famously used by The Doors. Used as The Doors did, it can do a fair job of sounding like the plunk of an electric string bass, but I filtered it here so that it sounds less like a real bass. And yes, there’s an old-style electric piano in there too, an instrument that doesn’t really sound like a piano, having more of a bell-like timbre. I love the sound of a real piano, but there’s something else in the electric piano that I like too.

And finally, there’s the instrument I wrote the song on: electric guitar. I don’t know that we still think of the electric guitar as a “not quite” approximation of a “real” acoustic guitar, but one can define it so. There was more than the usual unamplified leakage of the electric guitar’s strings into the vocal microphone when I recorded the live take of the guitar and vocals for this. Normally I’d consider that a fault and record a clean pass of the vocal without that extraneous noise, but I kind of liked the accident and decided to keep it.

A little past half-way a pair of “real” violins doubling a new melody line come in, but since I don’t play real violin once more it’s a virtual instrument played on my MIDI guitar. Even in this simple section you can probably hear the difference in articulation from a modern VI instead of the Mellotron.**

My Red MIDI Guitar and G M Hopkins

“I see only the basic material I may use…you may ask me why do I fail” I put a MIDI pickup on a cheap battered guitar that found in a used shop. David Sylvian lacks Hopkins fierce collision of images, but shares a sensibility with Hopkins in his song.

 

Well, all this is backward from the usual post here, were we talk about the encounter with the text used*** and then have only a line or two about the musical process, but the Parlando Project isn’t about consistency—it’s more about its opposite. Which is part of why you, the listeners and readers here are different. If you were someone who likes but one kind of music or one kind of poetry, we could disappoint you here. Our way is not the way to do it for maximum audience size, but if you’re a writer or musician—and even if wise council may be to find your style and consistently present it—an experience of alternatives can enrich that.

And then too, think of all those failed, not-quite instruments that don’t actually sound like the real thing. They sound like the exact and different failures they are.

To hear the performance of Hopkins’ poem, use the player gadget below. The full text of “The Times are Nightfall”  is here if you want to read along.

 

 

 

 

*It’s not actually a Mellotron: a rare, complicated and maintenance-requiring electro-mechanical instrument. The technology that greatly extended that concept, the modern “virtual instrument,” can more than handily represent it. Unlike the Mellotron’s single tape strips for each note, a virtual instrument can (all in software) represent different articulations and the various electrical subtleties of how the Mellotron was amplified and recorded back in the day. Even the peculiarity of the Mellotron’s notes being stored on strips of tape (not loops) that meant that after a few seconds the note would just end abruptly can be emulated or bypassed.

Music geek section: The Mellotron “VI” I used today is the M-Tron, who pioneered the idea of a software Mellotron. So far, I’m not quite grasping all its options, and I think I still prefer the Mellotron that’s part of MOTU’s Electric Keys collection.

**If you listen to “Endless Circle”  from late last month here you’ll hear how today’s piece might sound with more realistic instruments: cello, violin, piano, acoustic guitar, and vibraphone. It’s very much the same palette as today’s piece. My frank opinion today? I prefer the musical accompaniment of “Endless Circle”  and could never get a mix I was entirely happy with of “The Times are Nightfall.”  But I much prefer the vocal performance on “The Times are Nightfall”  and was unhappy with the vocals on “Endless Circle.”  In each case, I settled for the best I could do that week so that Genevieve Taggard and Hopkins’ poems could get presented.

***Hopkins’ most famous series of poems are called The Terrible Sonnets  not because they’re failed works, but because they are saturated with terror at failure and imperfection in human life. This poem has that too, but in its final section it seems to draft, in a New Year’s Resolution sort of way, a hope that personal discipline can lead one out of that state. The poem ends with ellipses, and I believe the poem may have been left unfinished by its author. My dictionary tells me that “ellipses” comes from the Greek for “falling short.” Even if unintentional, those things add meaning to the poem for me.

Though human discipline can do mighty things, it will  fall short. Whether divine or personal, some grace, some mercy, some beauty in imperfection is necessary. Thus that blessing I give: “All Artists Fail.”

Song from Love’s Labour’s Lost

When I select which texts to present here it’s most often an informal, beneath the consciousness, process. This week I thought I’d follow on from my last post and continue on the theme of a poet’s experience of age, but instead the events and times we live in overcame me.

Earlier I was beginning to translate a French poet, but I couldn’t concentrate on that task. Thrashing about, I eventually found myself working on this song from a Shakespeare play. After all, songs in his plays are usually diversions: a little light variety to help entertain the audience or something to help bridge a scene change. So OK, a diversion—but when I check for the context of this song in the play that uses it, Love’s Labour’s Lost, I find that it comes at the very end of the play.  Could it be a diversion then, or is it an unusual summation?

On one hand it’s a very simple song isn’t it? A short nostalgic seasonal scene, though in Tudor-England times perhaps not so old-fashioned. Winter. Log hearth fires. Warm milk from the cow freezes in the pail. Icicles. The way-paths all fouled-up with snow and ruts.

But to throw it in at the very end of a play—a comedy yes, but one that I’m told is full of reference to all kinds of political events of Tudor times—that makes me ask if more attention is required.

One thing I notice is that although written centuries before the early 20th century Imagists, it operates just like an Imagist poem: it’s short, nothing is an elaborate metaphor developed over many lines. If it’s about winter and the cold, it never says “I’m sick of this lousy winter” or “It’s so cold!” Though a sense of palpable cold and wintertime stress pervades the poem, it’s only through physical images that this is portrayed.

A few minor language tweaks and it could have been written in 1915 not 1595 or so. Robert Frost could have hauled those logs. Ted Hughes could have witnessed the herdsman blow on his hands for warmth. The song could’ve appeared in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.

Scene from The Skin of Our Teeth2

“The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in.” A scene from the first act of Wilder’s  1942 “The Skin of Our Teeth.” That’s Tallulah Bankhead who’s broken up the chair for kindling.

 

 

Shakespeare’s winter song here is immediately preceded by another song in his play (the first song invoked spring.) Each song of the pair features a symbolic bird, and for this winter song we’re given an owl in its refrain,* a bird omen of unseen dread whose song, breaking with the Imagist show/don’t tell rule, is described as “a merry note.”

Merry? A little dark humor there I think. But even if that bird’s a bad omen, the fact that it’s singing means that it’s enduring. And the poem’s second and final stanza continues that theme of endurance. Everyone in church is sick and you can’t hear the sermon for the coughing (but coughing means you’re breathing, and who can tell how useful the sermon’s lesson might be anyway). The visible birds are hunkered down in feathers. There’s some crabs** sizzling in a bowl. There’s a fire. Tom’s brought more wood. There’s someone there to see greasy Joan cooking.

That refrain repeats and the song ends. Shakespeare’s play’s characters are kings, courtiers, and princesses and the plot their fancies. His actual world was full of war and deadly factions, brutal executions; a world of connivers, fools and tyrants, and even those who could combine all three. Yet, here he ends his comedy not with a wedding but with a song about modest endurance.

I think I lucked into this one this week. If one pays attention to this little song, it says something about those of us who are not kings or principal ministers.

Those who’ve endured my singing may be glad to hear this one is spoken word. The music is drums with a mix of four wintery synths played with my little plastic keyboard and MIDI guitar. The player to hear it is below. The full text of this short Shakespeare poem is here. I wish you the sustaining fires that are warm and illuminating, instead of the flames of fools.

 

 

 

 

*The refrain also features one of the more obscure words in the piece: greasy Joan is “keeling” the pot. I thought “stirring,” and there is some sense of that, though it may be particularly skimming fat off some stew.

**I thought of steamed crabs hissing, but if Shakespeare is remembering his rural Warwickshire it might not be seafood, but crabapples. Hot ale punch with floating crabapples was apparently a thing.

Winter Sleep

What age are we when we write poetry? What age should we be?

Poet Donald Hall while writing memoir in essay form after age 80 said that part of why he turned to prose was that after a certain age he no longer felt he had the urge to, or could, write poetry. I’m not that old yet, but after so many decades of writing poems I’m more likely to ask myself why this poem needs to exist.

This never occurred to me as a younger writer. It was enough that the urge was there, that the work of shaping it was rewarding, that the existence of some new set of words in some novel order representing a moment of experience had occurred. There are times when we may suppose this always is—at least approximately. We’re all our own first reader. For some of us, some of the time, our only readers. Even if we believe we’re writing a poem for someone else, that first audience is still inevitably connected with the poem’s creator.

I don’t know that there’s any pattern in that first audience disliking its own poem at times. Does one get better at crafting poems or observing experience with time? Does one get better at staying out of the way of the poem when that’s necessary? Does one get more preceptive at the ways the poem fails to meet, or cannot meet, some more perfect state? Does one just realize that some days you eat the bear, and other days the bear eats you?

A couple of years back I had some fun looking at a compiled list of the 20 most anthologized American poems of the modern era. Now of course such a list reflects any number of factors, some of which are extra-literary, such as prejudices, impact, and probably even some ivy-tower log-rolling. But still, these poems can safely be considered as successful with an experienced audience early in our century.

One thing surprised me. About half of these poems, the ones that are presumed to reflect the author’s masterpieces, were written in the author’s 40s. Six more were written in the author’s 30s. Just one was written by a writer past 50 (Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” published when the writer was 65). Only two were written by writer’s in their 20s (the list’s youngster was T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”,  completed when the author was 27.)

But how old were these poets in their souls of experience, the place from where they wrote these poems? It’s not unusual for younger poets to take on the air of more experienced people in their poems. This past fall we presented a couple of well-known and liked poems considered to be about old age: Rilke’s “Autumn Day”  and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 “Bare Ruined Choirs.”  Rilke wrote his autumn of one’s years poem in his 20s, Shakespeare’s was penned in his 30s.

Yet neither sounds false to this older reader.

Similarly, there are times when I’m writing that I feel younger than my years. It’s a commonplace that there’s a sense of play in the arts, something that past a certain age is increasingly rare to find in off-hand physical activity.

So perhaps you, like I, may feel unstuck in time when writing. Our writing may not be objectively timeless, but our mental flight seems so.

While thinking about these things this winter, I came upon this poem* that seemed to me to be a fine expression of the experience of old age experiencing the unsettledness of sense of age.

Edith M Thomas engraving

Edith Matilda Thomas. One thing I’ve found out: Emily Dickinson classmate Helen Hunt Jackson helped launch Thomas’ writing career.

 

There’s not much here today about the author, American Edith M. Thomas, who published “Winter Sleep”  in 1896, when she was just in her 40s. I don’t know that much about her yet. It’s strictly metrical and all rhymed up, but once or twice it seems to strain natural speech to make its rhyme and meter.

What’s impressive about it is that it strikingly presents not just old age, but the approach of death as an unstable state, the dream of life. This isn’t an “autumn of my years” poem—it’s a “winter of my years poem.” I immediately sought to set it to music for performance. To hear what I came up with, use the player gadget below.

 

 

 

*”Winter Sleep”  is another poem and poet I was introduced to by Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. Here’s a link to the text of the poem and you can sign up for Poem-A-Day there too.

Lights (There Is No Darkness)

We’ve come to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere, much more night than day where we live. But it’s also the season of lights: extra holiday lights decorate homes, Christmas markets, and some streets. Some are the lure of commerce, some the lure of religious worship. Some lights say that the desecrated temple can shine again. Some are an abstract decoration set against the dark and grey.

NASA photos of night-time Earth from space

Dave sings below: “Seen from space the earth is glowing…luminescent as a cinder…”

 

This has probably gone on at some level since we discovered fire. It could be illusion or illumination, but the lights are our human communication with the dark. We know the dark is larger, we know the dark will return—but we still want to speak our piece.

A few years back Dave Moore and I recorded a performance of a song he wrote: “Lights (There Is No Darkness).”  I improvised two longer guitar solos in the performance, neither of which are in any hurry, but I’ve come to rather like them along with Dave’s loping, chiming keyboard part. There’s a longer night to decorate, so why not share it here today I think.

The player gadget for “Lights (There Is No Darkness)”  is below.

 

 

Emily Dickinson’s Snow

I woke up this morning to learn that it’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday—and I didn’t get her anything.  Well, we do know how to do something here at the Parlando Project and that’s create musical presentations quickly, and it’s not like we’ve run out of Dickinson poems to use.

So today’s piece is a Dickinson poem about snowscapes. Having had the opportunity to visit the Dickinson family house in Amherst and hearing there that the area across the highway road was in Dickinson’s time a farm field helps me visualize Emily writing this. I can clearly sense her looking out the window from her bedroom writing table on that road and field that are this poem’s landscape.

This is Dickinson in her playful mode, but that doesn’t stop her mind from creating some exact and fanciful descriptions for the snowscape, starting right out with the snow fall being sifted like flour (do cooks still sift flour?) *

The least playful image in my mind is also the most striking in the poem, it’s a description of that farm field as “summer’s empty room”, not yet filled with snow (the furrows are still visible) and some now deserted plant stalks are jutting through picking up windy veils of snow. This is likely a poem written about an early winter, December, snow fall

In other work Dickinson can be harrowing or she might present us with some concise mysticism or philosophic equation, but that’s as close here to a darker note as we’ll get in this one. She seems content in her vision of a stilled winter and a smoothed and sparkling world—as I was today watching the white outdoors and below-zero temps just the other side of my glass as I wrangled a dense percussion track for this piece. It was afternoon before I moved on to a few keyboards. Then the final musical task was to add the 12-string electric guitar parts.

DeArmond S72-12

My electric 12-string, “recordless, but for them”

 

Long time readers here will know that the Twin Cities is something of a center for the 12-string guitar, an instrument I’ve used since shortly after I arrived here, but the electric 12-string remains a rare instrument here as it is elsewhere. Acoustic or electric, for each of the guitar’s conventional six strings the 12-string adds a paired string right next to it. Most of those additional paired-strings are conventionally tuned** an octave higher than the regular guitar strings, and the two strings when struck never quite vibrate in unison, adding a slight wobble that’s either charming or sea-sick depending on one’s taste and ear. I added to that with a whole load of echo, delay and reverb today, and all this called for the parts to be played sparsely and slowly. Even with an echo effect glitch*** that ruined the first couple of takes, I was able to lay down the parts quickly enough that you can hear it tonight with the player below. If you’d like to follow along with today’s poem (sometimes cataloged under its first line “It sifts from Leaden Sieves”)  the full text is here.

 

 

 

*Emily would have sifted as the household’s baker. The flour in her time was less refined—and sifting also removes things like bugs or foreign matter that might be mixed in with the flour. And sifted flour is more suited for blending with other ingredients. Sifting seems metaphorical matter for creating art, doesn’t it?

**Conventionally the high B and high E strings are tuned in unison and the bottom 4 in octaves, but some players tune additional strings in unison rather than octaves (Steve Tibbetts and Huddie Ledbetter/Leadbelly for two unlike examples).

***User error on the part of the producer, engineer and musician, which is easier when they are all me. I also make the tea, so there’s no one else to blame.

The Night Is Freezing Fast

One peculiarity in the process of producing these pieces is that I plan sometimes based on odd intuitions. So, as I was looking forward to another session with LYL Band keyboard player Dave Moore late this fall I made a snap decision.

I had earlier noted this turn-of-December poem by A. E. Housman and made a note that it would be a good way to transition from the autumn to winter season here. That’s planning.

Then intuition stopped by.

Is intuition the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or Disreputable Boy Friend of an artist’s mind? I don’t know, but intuition was suggesting that for music I could combine Housman’s words with Motörhead. Somehow it’s hard for me to visualize the graceful classical muses dancing about me with their lyres and lutes suggesting this sort of thing.

Minerva and the Nine Muses by Hendrick van Balen

Yes Dave, I’ve been working with cellos, violins and acoustic guitars a lot this fall. But the muses are suggesting: Lemmy!

 

 

I had less than a day to add more “plan” to this intuition. I listened to some Motörhead to refresh myself on them, and quickly settled on their name-sake song “Motorhead”  as a rough template for what I’d try to do with Dave the next day. Taking the Housman poem text, I added some refrains* to bring out more song-like qualities, and to closer match the text of Lemmy’s “Motorhead”  song.

Motörhead performs “Motorhead” for a group of people who seem to be waiting for the 12-step group meeting to start

 

 

Dave arrived and we did a quick pass through with the original lyrics to get the sense of the musical donor for this dodgy operation. I dropped a chord or two of this already simple song form, and then we were on to attempting “The Night is Freezing Fast.”

This week I listened to what we put down that day.

Dave acquitted himself admirably, as he often does, with this spontaneity. And the take you’ll hear below also has my original guitar playing from the session. But there was one substantial fault to it: all the tempo I could push myself to that day was still too slow for Motorhead.

Honoring intuition with plan, I none-the-less pressed on completing “The Night is Freezing Fast.”  I added bass guitar to the track, guitar under the guitar solo (it wasn’t manic enough to stand without a second guitar) and recorded a final vocal.

What you can hear with the player below is an imperfect mixture of plan and intuition. Considering it now I think the intuition was even better than I hoped. The overall plot of Housman’s poem is a little gem: the onset of cold winter recalls to the poem’s speaker the otherwise un-explained Dick who hated the cold—and then a mere one additional verse comes which by sideways description tells us that Dick is dead and buried.

I’m not familiar with English idiom of Housman’s time and place, but one line in his text “prompt hand, and headpiece clever” is colorfully awkward to me, but in the context of the poem I read a stalwart and resourceful friend or workman being described.

Lemmy’s lyrics had a strong fatalistic tendency that meshes well here. The lines I added that were meant to echo “Motorhead’s”  structure added an extra element to Housman’s spare poem, bringing out an undercurrent that’s there but easily missed. Housman says the dead friend has become the “turning globe:” he’s now part of the eternal seasons. The sea change (or ice change) that’s occurred implies that he’s become December, the always returning season of fresh death. In the run out after the verses I started interjecting some cries in the manner of John Lee Hooker.**  Melding Lemmy and Housman was intuition’s idea, and a good one.

My planning and execution were, I think, less successful. On the other hand, it’s the best Housman/Lemmy mashup you’ll likely hear today (or most other days). Housman’s original text is here. Lemmy’s lyrics to “Motorhead”  are here, suitable for your next book club or 12-step meeting. The player to hear the LYL Band performance of “The Night Is Freezing Fast”  is below.

 

 

 

 

*Refrains, choruses, hooks—these sorts of things tend to make page-words more song-like. In this project I’m helped by having a liking for songs and other musical expressions with words that don’t use those structures, but in this case I thought they’d also help intensify some elements in Housman’s poem, and in this setting, intensity is a requirement.

**Specifically, I was recalling Hooker’s “I’m Goin’ Upstairs,”  which ends with a magnificent and mysterious verse and an upper register ululation that chills me every time I hear it. Here are Hooker’s lyrics and the most-well-known recording.

Two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Let’s imagine that it’s 1914, and on both sides of the Atlantic curious short poems with precisely chosen and concrete imagery are appearing here and there. This is Imagism, the premier movement of Modernism in English. Long-time readers here will know* that these small and unpresupposing poems came from several sources: the away-with-19th-century-Romanticism ideas of T. E. Hulme, the promotional verve of Ezra Pound who also set out classical East Asian poetry as an ideal, things apprehended from French poetry by the slum-born F. S. Flint, and the fresh eyes and forms of Americans Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

This new poetry was quite unlike the Tennysons and Longfellows that preceded it, but also it is by and large not Modernist poetry as we’ve come to know it later in that century or in our current one. It seems altogether simpler, pared down. It partakes of poetry’s timeless lyric impulse: the thought that a poem need not be long to be complex if it keeps itself true to the goal that the poem isn’t about ideas but the instantaneous experience of ideas. Nor is it a marathon course of those feelings and experiences, rendered on kaleidoscopic canvases.

To some this new kind of poetry is cheating. Where are the grand themes? If the poem doesn’t develop itself like an essay or history where is the effort or the worth of the effort? The poems often don’t seem to use heightened poetic language, and they may at first seem to have no metaphors—rather, the poem is the metaphor.  That these poems often eschewed rhyme or conventional meter added to the “anybody can do this” sense many had.

As I imply above, this is not the Modernism that eventually emerged triumphant. Yes, a Red Wheelbarrow” and A Station of the Metro  will be constantly anthologized, but Williams and Pound will become known for their longer more esoteric poems. Even if some WWI poets could use these compressed poetic methods to express horror while the fighting was going on, the post-war world wanted it all expanded on, and the thought that expansive sur-rationality was the appropriate response to world-wide mechanized violence came to the forefront. Art needed to be as big or bigger than the things it was opposed to.

Adelaide_Crapsey

“Reading” pictures is risky, but this photo of Crapsey just seems to say determination.

 

All this ferment brings us to Adelaide Crapsey, a woman who has been forgotten in all the fuss. First, look at that name. It sounds like a character in a satiric novel. It’s so pre-20th century that you can’t imagine Modernist verse having it attached to it (perhaps Hilda Doolittle was savvy in immediately accepting Pound’s rebranding of her as H. D.). Also, if there was such a thing as Middle School in her youth, can you imagine the trauma of carrying her family name?

In The Year Imagism Broke, 1914, Crapsey was not only writing Modernist verse in the initial Imagist sense, she had made a study of English prosody and had created her own form to put her concise poems into: the cinquain. Just as many of the short Imagist poems owed some of their tactics to classical East Asian poems, the cinquain sought to create an English language equivalent to the understanding of forms like the haiku.

Just as with Amy Lowell from earlier this month, I think it may be worthwhile to not let these two poems of Crapsey’s that I use today wash over you quickly, as if they are essays or narrative personal memoir in verse. Each word was chosen carefully, precisely, to evoke a moment you might choose to share inside of her experience.

two Cinquains from Adelaide Crapsey

Ten lines and two of Crapsey’s cinquains that seem to tell the story of this year’s late fall

 

Am I setting this method of shaping poetry out as the best or only way to approach verse? No, though I’ve come to believe that we may have lost something when we abandoned it for the new more impressive edifices of post 1920s Modernism.

Musically I was thinking of one of my musical heroes and models, Steve Tibbetts, but alas my deadlines, and my musical and production skills this week produced only a rough approximation of what Tibbetts can do. I really tried to rip him off here: a down-tuned acoustic 12-string with paired unison (not-octave) strings. Lots of time-based effects (like reverb, phasing, echo, and delay). Hand percussion leading off to heavier stick drumming. Feedback-loud electric guitar arriving from off-screen into the landscape.

Yesterday, my disappointment in what I had down was fairly complete. My electric guitar solo could be better, and it’s been too long since I’ve played at that volume. The 12-string wasn’t naked and exposed enough. Where’s the space I keep telling myself to leave in? I had no idea of how to duplicate Tibbetts’ characteristic delay and echo effects. My percussion tracks had nothing like the splendid variety that Tibbetts’ long-time collaborator Marc Anderson routinely achieves.

But my son reminds me that Kurt Cobain thought he was just ham-handedly ripping off the Pixies and still came up with something that was worthwhile, and the Steve Tibbetts’ thing is not something commonly heard—so 20% of Steve Tibbetts level might still be worth listening to for what it is, not what it wanted to be. So, here it is, available with the player below surrounding those two 1914 cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey describing our current November season.

 

 

 

 

*This is a reminder that since “poetry is the news that stays news” that the Parlando Project has nearly 400 examples of what we do that may be just as interesting to you as the current post. Using the search function or just diving in at random to the archives is worth considering.