Music, Prose, and Visual Arts

This will be a short, casual, comfortable (I hope!) blog piece—not an essay. Lately, I’ve been focusing, in essays I’ve included here, on poetry and music, but I think it interesting, doing the research I’ve done and also random reading, just how often–in prose–I keep finding analogies between music (the eternal source of everything?) and whatever subject is being discussed.

In his book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio, a neurologist/philosopher writes: “Feelings of pain or pleasure or some quality in between are the bedrock of our minds … there they are, feelings of myriad emotions and related states, the continuous musical line [italics mine] of our minds, the unstoppable humming of the most universal of melodies that only dies down when we go to sleep, a humming that turns into all-out singing when we are occupied by joy, or a mournful requiem when sorrow takes over.”

Here is a photo of Damasio (as if he were conducting an orchestra!), and his book: (Photo credit: YouTube.com)

Antonio Damasio     Looking for Spinoza

In “Breaking the Rules,” from The Writing Life, novelist/short story writer Ellen Gilchrist says, “Rules are made to be broken … Show, don’t tell, always ricochets because every great writer has told us plenty. The work for the young writer is to find the balance. This is the work of the ear [again, italics mine]. A good writer is a person with a good ear who can hear what the sentence or paragraph is supposed to sound like to the reader. It must ring with the writer’s voice. Voice, ear, the ability to write is like a singing voice.”

And here are Ellen Gilchrist and her book: (Photo credit: uprees.state.ms.us)

Ellen Gilchrist 2      Ellen Gilchrist The Writing Life

In “On Going a Journey,” classic 19th century personal essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “The mind is like a mechanical instrument that plays a great variety of tunes, but it must play them in succession.”

And from contemporary essayist Phillip Lopate’s excellent prose account (“Chekhov for Children”) about getting New York school kids (ten to twelve year olds: fifth and sixth graders!) to bring off, successfully, a performance of Uncle Vanya: “Here at last would be a chance to dig in and demonstrate how a great literary work was like music [italics mine], with patterns and refrains and variation, adagios as well as allegros.”

I’ll complete this set of “illustrations” with a drawing of Hazlitt (an engraving after a sketch by William Bewick, 1829) and a photo of Phillip Lopate: (Photo credits: telegraph.co.uk; azquotes.com)

WILLIAM HAZLITT   Phillip Lopate

I’ve been playing music most of my life (since the age of twelve), but I was originally trained as a visual artist (University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, University of Hawaii, University of California-Berkeley), and while I was at Pratt in the mid-Fifties, and Abstract-Expressionism was not just “in the air” but everywhere, there was much talk of and much effort spent on attempting to have painting attain “the condition of music”—or in the words of one of the early advocates of this ideal, Wassily Kandinsky, permit “technique and intuition to merge with the sort of immediate sensory experience provided by music.”

Here is a portrait of Kandinsky painted by fellow artist Gabriele Munter; a color woodcut by Kandinsky called “The Singer”; and samples of five of his subject-free “musical” works: (Credits: wikiart.org; mrspicasso’artroom; commons.wikimedia.org; sai.msu.su; actingoutpolitics.com)

Kandinsky portrait by Gabriele Munter      Kandinsky Singer

Kandinsky painting 5

Kandinsky painting 3   Kandinsky painting 4

Kandinsky painting 1    Kandinsky painting 7

In the words of another early advocate, Paul Klee, painting should aspire toward what “the time-bound art of music has gloriously achieved in the harmonies of polyphony.” According to author Will Grohmann, at one point in his life, Klee felt that “modem music was more advanced than modem painting” (paradoxically, he felt it had been his good fortune “to develop painting, at least on the formal plane, to the stage reached in music by Mozart”; he regarded Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony as “the highest attainment in art”). Music held a central place in Klee’s art (he was also a fine musician). He told his pupils that he preferred the word “absolute” to “abstract” for the “new” art, because the absolute was something “in itself,” like the “absolute of a piece of music, psychical not theoretical.”

Grohmann cites such musical features of Klee’s paintings as “their rising or falling rhythms, brief or broadly arching melodies, subdued or cheerful keys, polyphonic or harmonic phrases, tonal and atonal counterpoint”–and even such strict forms as fugues and sonatas. “All the music that was in him,” Grohmann writes, “he utilized as a foundation on which to build a science of artistic form.”

Here’s Paul Klee at work—and three of his “absolute” or musical works: (Photo credits: en.wikipedia.org; wikiart.org; commons.wikimedia.org; sai/msu.su)

ikleepa001p1    Paul Klee painting 1       klee.southern-gardens     Paul_Klee_-_The_Lamb_-_Google_Art_Project

It also seems that for much of my life, I have attempted to merge or fuse these three art forms: music, literature (both prose and poetry) and visual art—most recently integrating two of them (poetry and music) as song. Unlike the sources I’ve cited here, I do not have all that many theories on the process of reconciling such seemingly “discordant elements.” I just try to do it!

In the past, on this blog, I’ve cited a song I have written (based on a poem, “My Fingers Refuse to Sleep,” published in the journal december), as sung by vocalist Jaqui Hope (with Heath Proskin on bass and yours truly on piano). Now I’d like to “exhibit” some of my own visual art work which I feel may qualify as “musical” in effect. Aside from a bit of identification, I’ll just let the examples speak (or sing) for themselves:

(1/2)   Two paintings from my own “Abstract [Absolute] Expressionist” phase; (3) Just for the heck of it: drawings I did for an anatomy class at Pratt Institute–included because I’m still pleased to see how much m0vement (“music”) I could find in those static old bones; (4/5) two woodcuts of poems by Archilochus and Buson in which I tried to capture  the original “dancing” words of Classical Greek and Japanese; (6/7) a woodcut and ink painting (mythological themes); (8) woodcut on a Biblical theme, and (9) Jaqui Hope, Heath Proskin, and I (the You Tube video of “My Fingers Refuse to Sleep,” for which we have had 550 visitors, can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLqjmDeiz2shttp ).

Berkeley-Honolulu Paintings 5       Berkeley-Honolulu Paintings 6

Pratt Drawing 9      Archilochus2

Buson1       Gypsy Wisdom2

Goat Pan and Couple Dancing     Woodcut Prints Lilies    It's a Wonderful World 3

Perhaps, in a future blog post, I can come up with some reflection (theories) on the “marriage” of these different art forms, or music as “a foundation on which to build a science of artistic form”; but I hope, for now, you have enjoyed this somewhat casual edition of Bill’s blog. I certainly do not intend to compete with Kandinsky and Klee, but thanks for a chance to show my “stuff” (my own art work).

 

 

Poetry & Music: A Preface

Having revised and posted (on this blog) some pieces (I liked) from a manuscript I’ve been at work on for some time, I’ve been (semi-) joking about forsaking, or abandoning, that project as a potential “book”—one that bore the burdensome title “Poetry & Music: An Autobiographical Historical Study from the Birth of Speech in Song to the Present Day,” altered (and you shall see why) to “Song: A History of Poetry and Music from the Singing Neanderthals to the Present Day.”

The problem I’m having as a writer with my own defection is: I keep finding “stuff” I like in the original manuscript: material which, I feel, not only presents a unique approach to the subject, but (forgive the lack of modesty) was well written as well, even in draft. Consequently … I’d like, today, to offer a new version of the original “Preface,” re-considered and re-written, but still dedicated to that point at which my interest in the subject of the marriage of poetry and music began–the journey revisited, but with a fresh “take” for this blog.

I realized I could not come up with many “illustrations” (photos) for this blog post, for the ancient forerunners (especially the Neanderthals) were shy about having their pictures taken—but then I thought of something I could do, just for fun (and I am not at all opposed to having fun on this blog)—even though it might prove incongruous: I could accompany the text with photos taken of major musical artists I have been fortunate enough (no blessed) to hear; those I have written about and actually came to know—and my own musical experiences with local artists, and even family members. That way, we can merge ancient origins with a “slide show” of musical life as we know it today.

As a start, here are three giant jazz pianists: Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Hank Jones. Only instrumentalists, I know, not poet/musicians (sorry, ho ho), but I shall never forget the experience of hearing the first two, “live,” at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan in 1952; and I came to know the latter well when, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, I interviewed him for a 1987 JazzTimes article:

Art Tatum  Erroll Garner  Hank Jones

The subject of the evolution of music (whether instrumental or “song”) is huge, I know, and I wouldn’t have attempted to write about it at all had I not loved and studied and played music for sixty-six years and loved and studied and written poetry for sixty-one years. I have a large stake in the topic, am obsessed by, and thoroughly curious, especially, about the marriage (and occasional breakup and sometimes messy divorce) that occurs between these two art forms.

In an essay called “Poetry & Religion” (one I did somehow manage to keep down to a single essay, not a book!), I concluded that while I am, admittedly, no “anthropologist” and may not have read all the right books on that topic, it seemed to me a common sense conclusion that poetry may have begun as a form of music-based incantation, an extension and refinement of crude chants already in use by which people attempted to pray, praise, petition, plead—whatever form their natural inclination might take. As evidence (highly personal, I’ll confess—but confession is a significant portion of religion too), I offered examples of just how closely the rhythm of poems I loved and would later learn by heart (poems by Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Yeats, Rilke, Gerard Manley Hopkins; even Robert Burns’ highly secular–bawdy–poems) matched the cadence of the prayers I’d learned and intoned at night (and sometimes by day) as a child—having been conscripted as an acolyte at age eight.

I’m still no anthropologist and still, perhaps, have not read all the right books on this subject, but I’ve read enough of them and discussed the topic often enough with those purported to know, to have sensed that poetry, indeed, may well have originated in such music. Once again, this conclusion seems common sense. Have you ever found yourself sitting, feeling you were not just in a “pretty good” but an excellent mood, or else not just “down in the dumps” but feeling the true blues, and you suddenly find yourself tapping on a table top while you begin to hum some vague tune and even attempt to match that tune, to embody it, with words, even if those words seem somewhat nonsensical at the time? I do this often and I’d be willing to bet that you do too, (or at least on occasion). The process seems natural, instinctual; it’s what links us to those distant ancestors who first wed music with “poetry,” however crude that poetry (and the music as well perhaps) may have been. I’ve yet to find an exact date as to when this marriage first took place,but that seems beside the point (when they “dig up” the fossil phonograph recordings someday, we’ll know!)—the point being that the marriage and its evolution were inevitable.

Let’s take some time out (“Take five”) from the main focus of this essay, for some more photos of musical folks I came to know and have written about—international artists: pianist/vocalist Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh from Azerbaijan (whom I interviewed in Moscow for Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Though the Soviet Union); pianist Kotaro Tsukahara from Japan (with whom I played in Tokyo in 1996); drummer Akira Tana (for a program promoting my Jazz Journey’s to Japan: The Heart Within at the San Francisco Public Library in 2004); and with flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi, with whose quartet–the thrill of my life!–I sang (“Saint James Infirmary”) at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2005:

Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh   Bill at Piano with Kotaro

Akira Tana    Flugelhornist Tiger Okoshi                                    Bill with Tiger Okoshi Quartet 2

Fond memories to look back on—but back to the track: I don’t write down what I find myself humming at the kitchen table, for much of it is tentative (a euphemism for “nonsensical”), not yet of “literary merit,” while some of it may well emerge as a poem someday, just as in the case of our ancestors. Most of my poems seem to “arrive” in the shape of musical cadence; I hear the overall rhythm, first, before the words arrive.

What poetry first came down to, or up to (perhaps) was not just the need to pray, praise, petition, or plead (as I assumed in “Poetry & Religion”), but a very human need to retain and transmit “information” of some sort, information about oneself and/or one’s own “culture.” Whether tapped out on a crude tabletop or on an equally crude “drum,” the rhythms that gave birth to words allowed people—first perhaps as individuals attempting to communicate, then “families,” then as “tribes”?—to use their own voices as instruments: instruments that could convey information at will. Not that the world was neatly divided up into tidy units of bassos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, mezzo-sopranos and sopranos at the start (I’m not sure I would want to have been on hand to hear those first attempts to speak, or sing, in chorus!), but sound invites patterns of repetition, and it might be assumed that the next step was as natural, as inevitable, as the first: once the possibility of “poetry” (repeated verbal patterns) was in place, people began to recognize the basic ingredients of poetry: ingredients that made it easier to say or sing it (and more about that in a moment).

Once I had formulated my own brilliant theory on the origin of poetry in song, I did undertake extensive reading on the subject, and I discovered–of course–that the subject was far more complicated than I’d thought, that not everyone agreed with me (how dare they not!), and that there was a wide range of discrepant opinion—some of which placed words or language in the lead as far as evolution came about, somewhat or even far ahead of music. With regard to “origins,” opinion ran the gamut from sex (Darwin thought music preceded speech as “an elaboration of mating calls,” both sexes attempting “to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm”) to the notion that music is “species-specific,” based on our, in author John Blacking’s words from his book How Musical Is Man?: “Essential physiological and cognitive processes  … musical composition and performance may even be genetically inherited.”

Igor Stravinsky suggested that we might have had to travel a bit further along the line, or “down the road a piece” of development, when he asserted that “tonal elements become music only by virtue of their being organized and that such organization presupposes a conscious human act.” Other “experts” maintain that, given “group” needs, “the use of rhythm and melody for the purposes of speaking sentences grew directly out of its use in choral singing”–as the result of  “social-bonding.” Some anthropologists did maintain that vocal music began as a special way of communicating with the supernatural—the first collective “church” music (how well I remember standing up, abruptly, at a very early age, when the collection was taken in church, attempting to lip sync “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”). Yet Blacking finds, in national dance performances, “the highest degree of individuality is the largest possible community; a combination of opposites rarely achieved”—as anyone who has ever been abandoned, or lost, in one’s own “self” at a rock concert knows.

Another theory finds the origin of “poetry” in music far more intimate, personal–claiming that the “lulling of infants” or mother/child “talk” is responsible. Ellen Dissanayake writes: “Music originated in the ritualized verbal exchanges which go on between mothers and babies during the first years of life.”

And speaking of childhood, it’s time for some photos of my early efforts as a musician: a fledgling pianist at age 14; then with the J.P. Wolff Band (a “professional,” no less) at age 15; a wanna-be guitarist at age 15; behind my first set of drums (Slingerland Red Pearl) at age 16; and playing those drums (behind a vocal trio) on a fraternity Mardi Gras float in Ann Arbor, Michigan at age 17.

Bill age 14 at piano   Bill with J.P. Wolff Band

Bill with tenor guitar age 15  Drum Set1

Bill on Drums Sigma Chi Float 2

To extract one more theory from the deck: author William Poe claims that “the earliest forms of music probably arose out of the natural inflections of the voice speaking”—or adult “talk.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau put the musical cart before the horse of speech (or alongside it), saying that “at the early stages of human society there was no distinct speech apart from song” (that must have been fun; I’m sorry I missed out on it: our earliest conversations chanted, or sung!) and Giambattista Vico believed that “human beings danced before they walked”—the world according to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or better yet, Nijinsky, gravity challenged from the very start!

I have not attempted to present these theories in any systematic order, or to arrange them thematically (those that seem to agree with one another somewhat, as opposed to those that beg to differ)—but to present them as I “fell upon them,” so to speak, or as they came to me, with all the consternation such multiplicity can cause. Things really got good when authorities began to discuss the origin of musical instruments. Daniel J. Levetin writes, “Music predates agriculture … musical instruments are among the oldest human made artifacts we have found.” The Slovenian bone flute, for example, dates back 50,000 years–and percussive implements, apparently, go back thousands of years before folks began to blow into such a thing as a flute.

In Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination, Robert Jourdain describes the first trumpet: worn atop the head of Parasaurolophus, “the most majestic of the hadrosaurs,” a family of dinosaurs that evolved late and thrived “right up to the great extinction sixty-five million years ago.” Parasaurolophus was “nobly crowned” with a five-foot-long tube arching from its nostrils “to well beyond the back of its head”—if not exactly a trumpet, close enough (regarding its originality): a “resonator—a closed vessel for amplifying particular frequencies”—an instrument that Parasaurolophus “used to trumpet its cries far and wide.” Jourdain claims that hadrosaurs may have been smart enough to identify each other by way of these trumpet blasts, and that the sounds they produced were not “just any old sounds, but musical sounds—tones.” He regards this crest as one of the first musical instruments.

With that in mind, here are: the trumpet skull of Parasaurolophus; an archeological shot of me (in the middle) when I played with a folk-rock group called Bill, Blake, and Rick in Wisconsin in the late 1960s (I was writing my own songs by then); playing tenor guitar (alone, and with “Big Lee” Rexroat, an amazingly versatile musician); an aging pianist with a slightly smaller nose than Parasaurolophus; the same guy playing drums; the same guy with two groups he’s been fortunate to perform with: The Something Cool Quartet (guitarist Brice Albert, vocalist Julie Capili, me, and bassist Heath Proskin); and my favorite group: The Something Cool Trio with drummer Jenn Schaff, Heath on bass, and your truly on piano:

Parasaurolophus_skull_NHM   Bill, Bkae and Rick2

Middle age Bill on guitar   Bill Playing with Lee  Rexroat  Bill at Piano1  Bill at drums recentBill at drums

Something Cool with Brice and Julie2  PG Something Cool DVD Cover

Something Cool Trio Alternative

Meanwhile … whatever, or whoever got there first, it seems to be a “fact” that by the time of recorded (written!) Greek history, music and poetry were inseparable–an important feature, according to author Anthony Stour, of domestic celebrations, and religious rituals. In this sense, Homer reciting the latest news from Troy (accompanied by a lyre) was the very first Anchor Person. Thank goodness the equivalent today–whether female or male–is not required to sing the news. The Greek word melos (the origin of our word “melody”) does stand for both lyric poetry and the music to which a poem was set.

All of these experts seem to be asserting what another author, Raymond Firth, assumes: songs are not, as a rule, “composed simply to be listened to for pleasure. They have work to do, to serve as funeral dirges, as accompaniments to dancing, or to serenade a lover.” They serve a purpose—however humble or grand that purpose may be. Song is the means, as Bruce Chatwin has written, by which “the different aspects of the world were brought into consciousness, and thereby remembered.”

Most of these theories imply a certain degree, or even a high degree, of intentionality. Reading, or discovering them, I did feel my own account wasn’t really that far off the mark, even if the origin I’d concocted seemed a bit simple, casual, suitably “primitive” (ho ho) by comparison. Before “aging” set in (limitations on legs, vision, and vestibular system), I was an inveterate “walker,” not just because I may be one of those odd creatures who doesn’t drive an automobile (although I am), but because I love the act of walking. I have a feeling that “feet” may have proceeded both music and speech—given birth to them in fact. I get my best poems, I feel (or the initial rhythmic sense of them; as I said, for me, the rhythm of a poem often precedes actual words), while walking; and the great Russian poet Osip Mandlstam, in his essay “Conversations with Dante,” insists that in order to read The Divine Comedy properly, one must equip oneself with  “a pair of indestructible Swiss hobnailed boots,” because Alighieri himself must have worn out countless “oxhide soles” or “sandals” walking the goat paths of Italy, composing his work—work that, in Mandelstam’s view, glorifies “the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the footstep and its form.” The human “step, linked with beauty and saturated with thought” Dante understood, according to Mandelstam, was “the beginning of prosody.” “The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of the step.”

Add to this basic “beat” the use of rhyme (one of those ‘ingredients” of poetry I mentioned previously—this one to assist the singer in remembering what she or he is supposed to sing), plus the various other tricks of the trade we are now familiar with, such as “alliteration,” “assonance,” “consonance,” and “onomatopoeia,” and poetry is off and running—or walking, as the case may be. Accompanied, always, of course, by that essential, concomitant, ingredient—its source, that which gave birth to it in the first place—music, now absorbed, embodied in the words, having taken up residence within them.

As time passed, the emphasis seems to have become reversed in people’s minds, so much so that in an essay called “Poetry as Music, Music as Poetry,” Al Rocheleau finds it necessary to remind poets where and how their art began, and to recommend close listening to Chopin’s “Nocturns” as a means to improve their own poetry—music which he feels “captures the dynamics inherent in all fine poetry.” Starting with the assumption (fully valid to my mind, and ears) that “it is the music of poetry that truly sets it apart,” he claims that close listening to the right sort of music (Chopin is his preference—but Radiohead would serve as well for me, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, or the work of a first-rate jazz vocalist such as Kurt Elling or Karrin Allyson with their fine phrasing–and certainly Hector Berlioz in just about everything he did!), such close listening will improve every aspect of what they write: “lines will become more elastic,” meter “more flexible,” assonance and consonance “less forced” (“but probably more prevalent, as tone colors come out in the form of intermingling vowels and consonants”). Elements frequently used in jazz emerge, such as “rubato,” the pulling or stretching of rhythm as “written” (in a score) or prescribed—accents placed just before or just after “what is expected” (slowing down or speeding up, all those wondrous, sophisticated “tricks” that keep a listener slightly off balance but alert) to enrich and enliven one’s own poems, and certainly enhance “live readings” or performance.  My Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music translates “rubato” as “robbed time”—“what is ‘robbed’ from some note being ‘paid back’ later, creating “an admirable sense of freedom and spontaneity.”

And if you can abide one more “photo shoot” of musicians in action … it’s friends and family time, for here are: harmonica master Ricard Rosen and I; good friend and clarinetist Joe Gallo and I; and yours truly performing with son Tim (clarinet); with son Steve (bass); with Steve’s wife Yoko (“watashi no subarashi yome”: my wonderful daughter-in-law), singing Japanese folk songs; and a folk trio made up of singer/songwriter Nancy Raven, Karl Dobbratz and me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    Bill and Joe Gallo

Bill and Tim Playing Music   Bacon Fest Steve and I Jammin 5

Bill with Yoko Singing    Nancy, Bill, and Karl Dobrettz

Although much of the historical evidence I found may seem “tentative” (until something better or, as the song says, “the real thing comes along”), inconclusive, it makes good sense to me that music, in no matter how crude a form it may have arrived (grunts and groans attempting to locate a common pitch) may well have preceded speech with its crude yet gracious (in intent) attempts at love-laced song. Not long after I felt that, in my initial draft, I’d wrapped up this Preface, I discovered Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, a book which seemed to substantiate the “hunch” I had about the marriage of poetry (or early “speech”) and music.

Steven Mithen is an archeologist who surveyed the earliest-known musical instruments (discovered by Nicholas Conrad and his team from the University of Tubingen): 35,000 year old “ancient flutes carved from the bones of swans and the ivory tusks of mammoths.” (quote from Elena Mannes: The Power of Music: Pioneer Discoveries in the New Science of Song). Subsequent discoveries in 2009 led to a five-finger-hole flute “made out of a griffin vulture radius”—an instrument on which “one can play any song you can hum.”

Archeologist Mihen felt that, until recently, music had been regarded as “purely a cultural phenomenon” (“something to do with expertise and performance and something you could specialize in”), but he believes music pervaded every stage of human life, and he turned to fossils for evidence—to the Neanderthals, surmising they were more than likely anatomically equipped to make “as wide a range of vocalizations as we can.” (Rather than attempt to summarize The Singing Neanderthals, I will rely here on Elena Mannes’ succinct quotes from interviews she conducted with Steven Mithen for her two-hour PBS special, The Music Instinct: Science & Song, reproduced in her book The Power of Music).

The Neanderthals had stone tools, but these tools remained the same for thousands of years. They were not “advanced” tools whose origin would have required language ability. So what use did the Neanderthals find for their suitably “empowered” vocal tracts? Mithen’s answer is “music.” “They must have had a sophisticated form of communication. Just like modern humans, they would have had to have told other people how they were feeling. They would have had to look after their children and nurture them [those “ritualized verbal exchanges which go on between mothers and babies during the first years of life” again!]. They would have had to make plans for group hunting and general movement.” Mannes summarizes: “Mithen imagines a kind of musical language made up of ‘holistic’ phrases with specific meanings”—each phrase “being complete in itself. For example, there could have been a musical phrase for ‘let us share meat’ or for ‘we’ll go hunting.’”

Mithen says: “And it’s not half-language or half-music. It just is what it is. This is just a perfect, adaptive form of communication that evolved. The ability to use rhythm, to use variations in pitch, to develop melodies, to sing in harmony. That comes … long, long before language—hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions of years before language. It’s a much more basic, instinctive capacity that we have than even language itself.” No such thing as syntax yet! No set vocabulary! We sang to one another, before we learned to speak! But, in Mithen’s words: “I really don’t want to separate sound from body movement and dance. I think they go together. And it’s in our society today when we separate them, it’s a really artificial separation … I think the way we should express it is that musicality came before language.”

Steven Mithren ends The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body: “My conclusion is the same as John Blacking’s in How Musical Is Man? [previously mentioned]: ‘It seems to be that what is ultimately of most importance in music can’t be learned like other cultural skills: It is there in the body, waiting to be brought out and developed, like the basic principles of language formation’ … In spite of all this, words remain quite inadequate to describe the nature of music, and can never diminish its mysterious hold upon our minds and bodies. Hence my final words take the form of a request: listen to music … [and the following, more than likely, in response to Harvard cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker’s contention that music is “auditory cheesecake”—enjoyable, pleasurable, but not essential to natural selection] When doing so, think about your own evolutionary past; think about how the genes you possess have passed down from generation to generation and provide an unbroken line to the earliest hominid ancestor that we share. That evolutionary inheritance is why you like music—whatever your particular taste.”

I couldn’t, of course, help but like Steven Mithen’s book and its basic hypothesis, which I felt “fleshed out” or granted fully articulate (fully researched) verification of my own initially crude thoughts and feeling as to the origin of “song.” So thank you, Neanderthals, for getting us off to such an important, essential start–and thanks to everyone else along the way (on this basic beautiful journey) who contributed to the union of poetry and music.

And as far as “visuals” go, I’ll close out with more of my own musical journey: some shots of groups I’ve been fortunate to “sit in” with (playing and singing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with the great Jackie Coon on flugelhorn and “Fast Eddie” Erickson on guitar; and with the “house’ band at the 60th high school reunion my wife Betty and I—who were classmates—attended in Birmingham, Michigan); playing at East Village Coffee Lounge with Heath Proskin and flutist Richard Mayer; and a  photo with my most recent group: vocalist Jaqui Hope, Heath Proskin on bass, and me on piano. We have, within the “tradition,” one of my own poems–“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”– set to my own music on YouTube—and you can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLqjmDeiz2s.

Bill with Jackie Coon and Eddie Erickson

Bill with HS Reunion Band 2  Heath and Me at East Village

Heath, Bill, Richard

It's a Wonderful World 3

And here are two CDs I have recorded: the first–Bill Minor & Friends–of my own poems from a book, For Women Missing or Dead, set to original music; the second–Love Letters of Lynchburg–an original score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia, to accompany a reading of very moving letters exchanged by a married couple throughout the Civil War (this CD is available at: http://www.historicsandusky.org/shop.htm ).

Cover Bill Minor and Friends CD   Love Letters Cover

I hope you have enjoyed this odd combination of ancient history and relatively contemporary photographs of musical activity. Next blog … I probably won’t be so playfully adventurous (or incongruous)—but in the words of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “One never knows, do one?”

Heloise & Abelard

My last three blog posts on the “marriage” of music and poetry have prompted me to go back and take a good hard look at what I was doing, or attempting to do, in a book-length manuscript project (undertaken some time ago) on “song.” I am surprised at, and somewhat amused by, the “ambition” of one of the chapters: “From Plain Song to Polyphony: The Wandering Scholars, Peter Abelard, the Troubadours & Trouveres to Guillaume de Machaut”—a huge extent of time and genres I intended to include and cover (and I can see, now, why I abandoned that chapter before I’d even finished with the “troubadours”!). I did like what I found–by way of a draft–on Peter Abelard and his extraordinary counterpart, Heloise—and (what’s been billed as) “the tragic story of those immortal twelfth-century lovers.”

Working on the original book-length manuscript, which took me from the Middle Pleistocene age (781,000 to 126,000 years ago) through 13th century BC Egyptian love poetry and songs to Ancient Greek (covered in two recent blog posts) and Roman eras of song, and building to the Renaissance of the 12th century, I became intrigued by the tug of war that took place between “sacred” and “secular” song, and just how much they leant to one another (perhaps without knowing it). Even more exciting for me, was to discover actual music—re-created in recordings, now, and available in notation to boot!—and this the music of one of my favorite human beings, Peter Abelard, who, paired with the brilliant Heloise, became my favorite Medieval “couple.”

Helen Waddell introduced me to Abelard and Heloise, by way, first, of The Wandering Scholars; her novel Peter Abelard; and Abelard’s own extant work in Medieval Latin Lyrics. I then read his Historia calamitatum, an account of the calamity that befell him as a result of the romance with Heloise; their letters to one another (including Constant Mews’ The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard), Etienne Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard; and James Burge’s Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography. Then I found the music: two hymns by Abelard with the musical settings.

Here are: Helen Waddell’s novel; Mews’ Lost Love Letters; Gilson’s Heloise and Abelard; and the James Burge biography:

Heloise and Abelard WaddellHeloise and Abelard Lost Love Letters

Heloise and Abelard Gilson Book          Heloise and Abelard 3

The bare bones of the couple’s sad love story are familiar, the “plot”: 1100 northern France as the “intellectual hub of Europe,” and the name of Peter Abelard sounding loudest in the ears, not just as the forceful, dynamic teacher of logic in Paris that he was, a brilliant and attractive philosopher, but a popular (secular) songwriter–something (at age thirty-seven) of a “rock star.” Engaged as a private tutor for a quite young (sixteen or seventeen years-of-age) Heloise by her uncle and ward Fulbert (a canon at Notre Dame), their study sessions led to an inevitable “sating” of passion, which led to their discovery by Fulbert and the castration of Abelard—the lovers eventually (and again, inevitably?) ending up as Abbot and Abbess of respective monastic institutions, one Abelard himself having founded, the Paraclete, granted to Heloise and her nuns.

It is a sad tale, for Heloise never stopped loving him in a way he was no longer equipped to acknowledge or fulfill (they’d had a “secret” marriage and even produced a son, named Petrus Astralabius), but Burge’s book provides as much of a “happy ending” as one may have a right to expect–outside of Hollywood. “Reunited” after ten years of silence without contact, Abelard was asked to write and made good on 133 hymns for use at the Paraclete—although “the music for all but two of them is lost”: the two I found! (more about them in a moment). Burges writes that one reason to believe that Abelard visited the Paraclete in later life is “that he obviously loved the place,” and when Heloise took it over, “he had even more reason to love it.”

They were by now “a mature couple” (she in her mid-forties, he in his late fifties), and “the passion of their early life could be expected (even in their case) to have diminished.” Burge presents a very pleasing picture of the two of them walking the grounds of the Paraclete (I like to see them holding hands beneath or within their robes!), discussing “plans for expansion” or visiting the site of the new church under construction. “They would have had plenty to talk about.” Philosophy, theology, the future of the Paraclete, “while all the time avoiding topics that related to the unresolved aspect of their lives.” Burge reminds us that Heloise had left a loophole in one of her letters, saying, “I will therefore hold my hand from writing words that I can’t hold my tongue from speaking,” and that whatever passed between them “did not prevent [her] from drawing Abelard even closer to the convent they both loved.” The author ends this appetizing portrait with the words: “Perhaps, however, her greatest achievement was to harness the very aspect of Abelard that had made her first love him: his ability as a songwriter.”

The lovers are interred, side by side, in Paris. In May of 2004, when my wife Betty and I made a trip to France, I went to Pere-Lachaise Cemetery to pay homage to Heloise and Abelard. Here are photos I took at the time: a “pathway” that immortalizes their names; the shrine in which they reside; Heloise’s “side” of the shrine; Abelard’s; and a shot I wish I might have taken, but didn’t: (Photo credit: missedinhistory.com)

Paris Heloise and Abelard        Paris Heloise and Abelard 2

Paris Heloise and Abelard 3  Paris Heloise and Abelard 4      Heloise and Abelard side by side 2

In the first letter Heloise wrote to Abelard after contact had been re-established, she recalled her first acquaintance with him, at the time his “manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body”: “What king or philosopher could match your fame? What district, town or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you or crane his neck and strain his eyes to follow your departure? Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence; queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.” At the time of their love affair, those joys had been celebrated in song–songs composed by Abelard, known throughout Paris, and beyond. “You had besides, I admit, two special gifts whereby to win at once the heart of any woman—your gift for composing verse and song, in which we knew other philosophers have rarely been successful … The beauty of the airs ensured that even the unlettered did not forget you; more than anything this made women sigh for love of you. And as most of these songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me.”

In his Historia calamitatum, which is largely an account of the insidious run of ills that came about in consequence of their “forbidden” love, Abelard could not resist pointing out to the monk friend for whom it was intended (as admonition to avoid such ills) that, his “musical offerings have, fifteen years later, stood the test of time and did indeed reach their intended Audience … A lot of these songs as you know are still popular and sung in many places, particularly by those who enjoy the kind of life I led.” Burge adds, “As his pride in the success of his songs shows, Abelard was not displeased with the idea of being a celebrated lover.”

It’s a shame those songs could not stand the test of (a thousand more years of) time, rather than just fifteen … for none of them are extant.

Here are: a painting of Heloise and Abelard at their “lessons”; another (a close up) from a painting of “the whole show” (being discovered by her ward, Fulbert): (Photo credits: kimberlyevemusings.blogspot.com; painting by Jean Vignaud (1819): scanalouswoman.blogspot.com; historia.ro)

Heloise-Abelard 2     Heloise and Abelard 5 Scandalist

Heloise and Abelard 6 encreviolette

Grand as Abelard’s reputation was, historians find Heloise equal to him in about every way. She may well have complemented and completed him where he fell short. In James Burge’s biography, the author mentions the “lost years” or seemingly unaccountable years, 1137 to 1140, and states that “there are substantial reasons to believe that there was a great deal of contact between [Abelard] and Heloise during this period,” that they “met frequently,” or that Abelard even remained for some time at “the convent that he had named the comforter” [The Paraclete]. When Abelard fulfilled her request to “prescribe some rule … suitable for women,” and supplied what seems “a critique of rules in general rather then a request for more of them,” he replied in a manner “consistent with the ethical viewpoint they shared,” one based on a belief that “intentions rather than actions were the criteria for deciding whether something was good or evil”–Heloise asserting the need to be “totally occupied with the inner man [or woman!] rather than outward works.”

A book, Problems of Heloise, framed as a conversation between them, contains forty-two questions Heloise posed (all “intelligent and challenging,” according to Burge), each with an answer from Abelard. Burge concludes, “It seems most likely that this collaboration would have taken place during face-to-face encounters rather than by letter.” Another book on cosmology (an interest they shared throughout their lives: “Their early love letters are filed with references to the stars,” and they named their child, Petrus Astralabius, after “an instrument that models the movements of the heavens”), this book called Hexaemeron, was written at Heloise’s “instigation and persistent urging.” One of the hymns he wrote for the Paraclete nuns (and her!) celebrates human love as “strong as death for those who know the Lord” (“Rising as the morning light she walks on high / Bound to Him.”). This hymn is cited as possessing “a specially personal meaning for the couple while ostensibly celebrating the relationship of nuns to God.”

Constant Mews, the scholar who identified newly discovered letters as those of Abelard and Heloise, and included them, with abundant commentary, in his book. The Lost Letters of Heloise and Abelard: Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth Century France, believes that a hymn the Paraclete nuns sang on Easter Sunday, the Epithalamica, was actually written by Heloise (“Desire made unbearable by waiting, / Till lover comes to visit the beloved”), along with two short sequences about Mary Magdalene. Mews points out that Heloise’s ideal of love integrated three normally distinct concepts: amor (passion or subjective experience), dilectio (the choice of or decision to love another person), and amicitia (friendship), and that the quality Abelard “so much admired in her was that her words were matched by her behavior,” whereas other people’s words “seemed to him to be empty by comparison.”

Mews also cites other occasions, such as their mutual reform–or revision–of the Lords’ Prayer, in which it is not clear “whether the initiative” came from Abelard or Heloise. Saying that she “seems to have been sympathetic towards simplifying religious observance at an early date,” Mews mentions a poem of “unusual sensitivity” offered by a nun at Argenteril in 1122, “remarkable for its sophistication and interest in human sorrow,” a poem that provides “little reason to doubt that Heloise is its author.” Another long poem written by “an admirer of Aristotle and the discipline of logic,” found in a 12th century anthology, also appears to be the work of Heloise—and Mews concludes that she enjoyed “a reputation of her own as a poet,” at a time when women were not so acknowledged, even if they were poets of merit.

Here are: a highly romanticized painting depicting her departure from Abelard when she  became a nun; meeting again at the Paraclete; and “Hollywood” versions: two scenes of before, at their “lessons,” from the film Stealing Heaven—and after: Diana Rigg as the Paraclete Prioress Heloise: (Photo credits: historyandwomen.com; wikepedia.org; Cineplex.com)

Heolise and Abelard Farewell Getty Images  Abelard_and_Heloise

MBDSTHE EC005
STEALING HEAVEN, Derek de Lint, Kim Thomson, (as Abelard & Heloise), 1988.

Heloise and Abelard at their lessons         Heolise and Abelard Dianna Rigg

Peter the Venerable (Abbot of the monastery at Cluny), who consoled Heloise at the time of Abelard’s death, compared her to famous women from the Bible and throughout history, and told her that, “even though he did not meet her,” he had heard of her thirty years before as a young man when, even then, she was already “famous for her scholarship and devotion to serious study.” At the time of Abelard’s death, he wrote her, saying, “You have surpassed all women in carrying out your purpose and have gone further than almost all men.”

I literally “ran across” Abelard’s “Dolorum solatium”—David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan—in a book called With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made by Leo Treitler (a book that was of much value for understanding this music). I found notation for Abelard’s piece in a final chapter of Treitler’s work called “The Marriage of Poetry and Music.” There, he summarizes a contention developed throughout the book regarding this union, stating that it is “mainly through the correspondence of melodic and poetic syntax that medieval musicians conveyed their readings of the poetry they sang. They did not go out of their way to achieve that; it was for them the central compositional process, the natural way of articulating meaning. And when their teachers set out to explain the syntax of melody, it was through its reflection of language syntax that they did so … A poem, like a melody, is a sounding phenomenon and it is as both sounding phenomena and syntactical orders that poetry and melody engage one another.”

Treitler demonstrates this conclusion by way of two manuscripts of transmission of Abelard’s “song,” and I was able to “flesh out” what I found there by not only playing the respective melodies as written (on the piano), but by way of a recording I found: baritone Paul Hillier’s Troubadour Songs and Medieval Lyrics, and then a second version or interpretation by a group called “Ensemble fur fruhe musik Augsburg” on another CD: Hildegard von Bingen and Her Time: Sacred Music of the 12th Century.

Here are: Jonathan taking leave of David; David and Saul; and two sides of Abelard as a bard (a medieval manuscript painting and a statue): (Photo credits: wikepedia.org; en.wikepedia.org; sonusantigra.org; historymedren.about.com)

Jonathan_Lovingly_Taketh_His_Leave_of_David_Wikepedia   Davids lament over Saul and Jonathan Wikipedia

Abelard as bard 2   Abelard statue

The Hillier “reading” begins with two instrumental lute chords that seem to set the key rather than evoke a mood, to function as cue cards rather than sonic support, although Hillier’s voice is solemn and respectful from the start, the clear articulation of plain song or chant employed to tell the tale (without extraneous dramatization), no striking ‘dynamics” or stark emphasis such as one finds in 19th century “song” (a la Berlioz or Richard Strauss), yet the story is emotionally engaging, quite “moving” as the narration unfolds. The opening words set the tone of sorrow (“sadness most fitting”) the music providing simple accents rather than overt emotional enhancement:

Dolorum solatium / Laborum remedium / Mea michi cithara, / Nunc quo maior dolor est / Iustiorque meror est /  Plus est necessaria.

(As a consolation for sorrow, / as a healing for distress, my harp for me—now that sorrow is heaviest / and sadness most fitting—become more than necessary).

We learn of the “great massacre of the people,/the death of the king and his son,/the victory of the enemy,” and the overall vocal tone does reinforce the fact of “the multitude’s despair” that fills “all places with mourning.” The line “The faithless nation hurls insults” is emphasized, but the mood remains surprisingly “even” (stoic?) until the lines “The mockers say–/Behold how their God, about whom they babble,/ has betrayed them.” The effect of the line “the vanquished king is dead” is striking, followed by a reflective pause, respect for Saul forcefully enunciated or declared rather than dramatized; and what follows builds to outright grief: “Ve, ve tibi madida / tellus cede regia” (“Woe, woe unto you, Saul still moist with kindly blood”), a rise in voice, and pitch, then easing into the sincere remorse of “Planctum Sion filie/super Saul sumite” (“Daughters of Sion,/lament over Saul”), the singer’s, David’s, sorrow explicit in “Alas, O why did I agree/to such an evil resolution,” his contrition over having failed to come to Jonathan’s assistance in battle (“Jonathan, more than brother to me”)–the language handsomely translated by Helen Waddell:

Low in thy grave with thee / Happy to lie, / Since there’s no greater thing left Love to do; / And to live after thee / Is but to die, / For with but half a soul what can Life do?

The narrative that follows is straightforward, yet remorseful, an instrumental “break” (which is dramatic) inserted, and we return to the sentiments expressed in the first six lines: “Do quietem fidibus’ vellem ut et planctibus,” which Waddell renders as, “Peace, O my stricken lute!”—the voice so soft at the close it does resemble “sleeping strings,” a nearly whispered melismatic “spiritus” the last word in the song.

The second version of “Dolorum solatium” (David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan), the ensemble interpretation on the Hildergard von Bingen and Her Time recording, is far more elaborate than Paul Hillier’s, and commences with a lavish instrument intro (more about re-creating the strictly musical ambiance of these songs in a moment), and then subsides into a single male voice delivery much as the other, a straight-forward rendering albeit heavily “graced” with instrumental flourishes, one that forced me, I’ll confess, to “tune out” the more the ensemble joined in. The entrance of a contra tenor was accompanied by somewhat jazzy rhythms which, augmented by a host of instruments (it seemed), threatened to turn Abelard’s solemn “Plactus” into the sort of thing you might expect to hear at an Appalachian blue grass festival. The instrumental flourishes tended to obscure the text, the variety of rhythms and stark stress on certain words not always in accord with the overall “sense.” A significant passage, spoken directly to “my Jonathan”—“Alas, O why did I agree / to such an evil resolution, / that thus I was not able to be / a shield in battle for you?”—is so inflated as to seem shouted rather than sung.

The first male voice comes back in on, or for, a stanza that begins with what Waddell translates handsomely as “So share they victory, / Or else thy grave, / Either to rescue thee, or with thee lie; / Ending that life for thee, / That thou didst save, / So death that sundereth might bring more nigh,” but the rhythms that surround it prance as if in a dance, a pretty frisky “Planctus” or lament, nearly “hip hop”–or more like what might accompany a wake rather than a restrained memorial service. The ending does succumb to, or just dies, in another soft “deficit et spiritus.”

Here’s the Hildergard von Bingen and Her Time recording on which I found “Quanta Qualia”; and a “chart” for the piece as written by Abelard—along with a close up of the sculpted portrait previously shown, and a photo of Le Pallet, where he was born and grew up in the Duchy of Brittany, and where the “love child” of the union with Heloise, Petrus Astralabius, was also born. (Photo credits: fsu.digital.flrc.org; historicaldilettante.blogpost.com)

Abelard on Hildegard album            Abelards Quanta Qualia chart

Abelard sculpture   Abelard home at Le Pallet

There’s a disclaimer, or rationale for the approach, in the CD’s liner notes: “The limited tone range of the Gregorian Chants were for Hildegard [but this is a piece by Abelard, not her] no longer sufficient enough to express her exultant love of God.” Hildegard of Bingen (also known as Saint Hildegard and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath) insisted on composing “dramatically emotional, jubilant sequences of melody that testify to great musical talent.” She and Abelard were contemporaries, and “Planctus” was found, apparently, in the library of St. Martial in Limoges, a center for Aquitanian polyphony of the 12th century—along with numerous names of instruments, which are cited (recorder, shawn, psaltery, chitara saracenica, harp, vielle, lira, miscellaneous percussion and even “hurdy gurdy”)–the existence of which at one time “enable and justify [the producers of the recording claim] using many instruments of this era.” I can see the “necessity of harp” as “consolation of sorrow / as a healing for distress,” but I’m not at all certain that the fact so many interesting instruments existed justifies attempting to use all of them at once. That seems a typically 19th century grandiose rather than a “medieval” approach.

The “Ensemble fur fruhe musik Augsburg” made amends, for me, with their interpretation of Abelard’s other hymn, “O quanta qualia,” the blending of voices beautiful, and respectful of the occasion, each word fully articulated, enhanced by pitch rather than distorted. The interlacing melodic lines bring out the best in the words: “ubi non praevenit / rem desiderium, / nec desiderio / minus est praemium”—and as rendered in English, again by Helen Waddell, they are the best, paying homage to “Sabbato ad Vesperas,” the peace “the high courts of heaven” bring “the weary” (“When God in Whom are all things/Shall be all things to men.”):

Where finds the dreamer waking / Truth beyond dreaming far, / Nor there the heart’s possessing / Less than the heart’s desire.

The ascent of the female voice is perfect for “Nostrum est interim / mentem erigere / et tois patriam / votes appretere” (“But ours, with minds uplifted / Unto the heights of God / With our whole heart’s desiring, / To take the homeward road”), and this piece does reach and satisfy “The fullness of the heart,” with dignity and restraint.

Listening to this performance, it’s not at all difficult to understand why Abelard was held in such high regard as a “songwriter,” and again, I couldn’t help but wish that his secular songs were available as well. I had the additional fortunate (and by surprise) experience of finding both of these pieces available on YouTube, along with Epithalamica, the piece Constant Mews actually attributes to Heloise, not Abelard.

Commenting on the six laments that Abelard wrote, and calling “Dolorum solatium” (David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan) “the greatest of all,” Helen Waddell wrote that within it, “the passion that never escaped in those strange remote letters to Heloise for once awakes and cries.” Constant Mews claims that “David’s lament that he has lost half his soul echoes those love letters in which Heloise offered [Abelard] ‘half a soul’ and described herself as part of his soul,” Mews adding “While writing about the parting of David and Jonathan, Abelard was mourning a relationship with Heloise which had never been allowed to come to fruition.”

James Burge praises the amazing couple, their extraordinary “collaboration,” when he writes that, composing the Laments, Abelard not only became “a significant champion of the rights of women in religious orders but he has started to apply his intelligence to questions of feelings … he begins to dramatize (and therefore at some significant level to analyze) the feelings of others regarding the universal experiences of love, pain, and separation.” Burge finds it “credible” that the “Laments and their subject matter would have been discussed during Abelard’s visits to the Paraclete,” and that “it is not so farfetched to see Heloise’s influence in Abelard’s new areas of interest.”

Here are: Heloise “crowning” Abelard as a Philosopher King (in “better days”); Abelard greeting Heloise at the Paraclete; a statue of her; the cover of John Marenbon’s excellent book, The Philosophy of Peter Abelard; and a final quote from Abelard: (Photo credits: robertplantconundrum.blogspot.com; quirkality.com; abilardandheloise.com)

Heloise and Abelard 4 Robert Plant        Abelard and Heloise at Paraclete

Heolise statue 2        Abelard philosophy

Abelard If I am to be remembered

In The Philosophy of Peter Abelard, John Marenbon shows that, whereas Abelard ‘was controversial in his lifetime and remained so after his death” (seen, then and until recently, by his detractors as “superficial and misguided”), he was in actuality a “constructive” thinker who produced “cogent and often original answers” to the philosophical questions he raised; developed “a sophisticated account of the semantics of universal words”; and “elaborated a coherent, systematic and wide-ranging moral theory.”

Abelard’s life, although productive in this sense, was by no means “easy” once separated from Heloise. His arch-rival, “Saint” Bernard of Clairvaux, succeeded in having him declared a heretic; a ban was placed on his writing and his books condemned. Having abandoned teaching (what Pope Innocent called his “perverse doctrine”), Abelard would end his days at a Cluniac priory, “over sixty years old and possibly suffering from a form of cancer” (in Marenbon’s words). Peter the Venerable was able to have the “sentence of excommunication” lifted, and, his “time spent in prayer, reading and what writing his health allowed,” Peter Abelard would die in April of the year 1142.

At for the love between Heloise and Abelard, at the close of his biography, James Burge concludes that the couple’s collaboration over the Paraclete “must have been, for those who knew about it, an example of the possibility of true friendship between a man and a woman. As one commentator has recently put it, they had given male-female friendship a legitimacy. How far Heloise herself saw the final stage of her relationship with Abelard as the success of her quest for the perfect combination of love and friendship is less easy to know. We can only guess whether or not the lives they shared at this period did indeed begin to provide the comfort of friendship for which she had begged in her letters.”

I don’t need to guess. I am certain that it did.

An interesting documentary on the romance of Heloise and Abelard—Famous Love Stories: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NY75SqBrDo –and excerpts from two films: Abelard’s hymn, “Quanta Qualia” as part of the first, Stealing Heaven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jueyUN5H4hc ; and a second film, Cesare/Lucrezia: Abelard & Heloise, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nAETpRO0cM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet Osip Mandelstam on Music, and Beyond

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing the last two blog posts on Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient and Modern (Parts One and Two), and I’ve had some positive responses to that work. Thanks! I’d like, now, to stay with the general subject—the “marriage” of poetry and music—for one more post: this time with an emphasis on the thoughts of my favorite 20th century poet, Osip Mandelstam, on the topic–and attempts on the part of composers to set his poems to music.

In the best book I’ve read on Mandelstam, An Essay on the Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: God’s Grateful Guest, author Ryszard Przybylski writes, “Opinions of professional musicians about a poet’s attitude towards music should be considered authoritative,” and he goes on to cite composer Artur Sergeevich Luriye saying that Mandelstam “loved music passionately, but he never talked about this love. He kept it deeply concealed.” Przybylski concludes that Mandelstam “listened to music and said nothing about it. He said nothing and he wrote. And thanks to that writing he entered the history of Russian music.”

Here’s the cover of Przybylski’s excellent book—and two photos of Mandelstam as a young poet: (photo credits: Gregory Freidin, from his fine book, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation, which I’ll also show here; and ralphmag.org).

Book on Mandelstam    Mandelstam

Mandelstam 6     osip-mandelstam5

We’ll take a look at what Mandelstam wrote in the way of poetry in just a moment, but first: an observation of his in prose that I found interesting: “Musical notation caresses the eye no less than music itself soothes the ear … Each measure is a little boat loaded with raisins and grapes.” Mandelstam appears to have loved everything about music—including the sight of it and even the suggested taste!

In a poem written in 1931, “Self-Portrait,” in which he makes fun of his own peculiar (verified by nearly everyone who knew him, including his wife) appearance, he says (translation by James Greene):

Here is a creature that can fly and sing, / The word malleable and flaming, /And congenital awkwardness is overcome / by inborn rhythm!

Przybylski writes, “He treated everything he did as flight and song … a poet who heard existence … who felt he was filled with rhythm, the fundamental form-creating element. He was incapable of separating poetry from music because he was incapable of separating form from content. For him art was music, which, as Boethius explained, “sometimes makes use of instruments and sometimes creates poetry.”

Here’s a series of drawings and woodcut prints I did myself—in homage to the various stages of Mandelstam’s   life (and more about the last “stage” later):

Mandelstam 1 Mandelstam 2Mandelstam4

Osip 10Mandelstam5  Mandelstam 3

In a poem written in 1908, the first poem in his first collection Kamen (or Stone), Mandelstam hears (Przybylski’s own translation) “The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree! / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”; and Przybylski responds: “In the beginning there was silence. Nothingness is silence … All things arose through sound, and without sound nothing which exists would have come into being … Thus, sound is born from silence’s singing. Silence is music. This seeming paradox haunted Mandelstam throughout his life [in 1910, he wrote about a “soundless chorus of birds” that flies through “silence at midnight”] … Music, then, incorporates both silence and sound. Singing man is a form of God. The interruption of silence means the appearance of form.”

Przybylski spends considerable time on alternate theories regarding this “birth”– theories Mandelstam eventually rejected—such as Theophile Gautier’s concept of the birth of Aphrodite from ocean foam as “the birth of love,” Russian Symbolist Sergey Solovyov’s notion that she initiated a “paradise of love,” and neo-Parnassian Alexander Kondratev’ s view that Aphrodite became an emblem for “the joys of life.” Mandelstam broke with these Neo-Platonic traditions, for his Aphrodite is Anadyomede, or the one who simply “swims out of water,” and Aphrogeneia, the one “born of the ocean foam.” The Greeks believed that all births required motion and moisture (as they do )–two things “that the sea has in excess.” In another poem, “Silentium,” one of my favorites, Mandelstam sees Aphrodite as both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence.

Here are two classic interpretations of this moment, one the famous painting by Botticelli (“The Birth of Venus”); the other a 2nd century Roman sculpted piece: (Photo credits: waymarking.com; wikipedia.org)

Aphrodite 1  Aphrodite 2

Przybylski quotes musicologist Paolo Carapezza: “In ancient times music and the living logos [phonic organization of words as language] were an inseparable unit, and what is more, the former was considered to be the conscious and deliberate perfecting and refining of the latter, the revelation of it internal essence; the living logos was music in raw form, like gold in the form of ore.” Carapezza also cites a time of “esthetic transformation” when music stopped being “an extract of logos” and became “that in which the logos swims and by which it is surrounded.” Music was no longer structured on a plane equal with the word, “not according to the word,” but “appropriately according to its own patterns.” Music began to be constituted “independently of the word.”

Mandelstam, according to Przybylski, understood the meaning of this process well. In his essay “Pushkin and Scriabin,” the poet wrote: “The Hellenes did not allow music any independence: the word served them as the requisite antidote, the faithful sentinel, and the constant companion of music. Pure music was unknown to the Hellenes; it belongs completely to Christianity. The mountain lake of Christian music grew calm only after the profound transformation which turned Hellas into Europe.” And Przybylski adds, “The symbol of this unity of music and logos was, for Mandelstam, Aphrodite, but … before she swam out of the ocean foam, when she was still living in the foam or, better yet, when she was foam. For among the Greeks love was an initial movement and very quickly it became a unifying force. Thus, it fused meaning with song, intellect with rhythm, communication with expression. Thanks to love, music was born of the natural prosodic melody of the word. Each thought arose out of music, all music gave birth to thought.”

Mandelstam rejected Vladimir Solovyov’s Goethean “Eternal Feminine.” For him Aphrodite was the “primal Aphrodite, mythical, cosmogonical.”

Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

For Mandelstam, ocean foam symbolized primal chaos, but not as a “negative value, an evil, or a threat.” Chaos, like silence, was “a collection of all possibilities, a prenatal anxiety, a formless proto-unity.” It was precisely this proto-unity that made it possible for the word to be “united with music.”

Again, by way of contrast, Przybylski separates Mandelstam’s beliefs regarding the marriage of music and word from those of his contemporaries and predecessors. Andrey Bely had accepted German musicologist Hanclick’s thesis that “music is a more elevated language than speech,” and Bely approved of Schopenhauer’s concept that “the esthetic priority of symphonic music, which is a ‘product of reflection,’ is completely separated from the world of phenomena, and cleansed of all contact with the word.” The Russian Symbolists praised the emancipation of “pure music,” but, according to Przybylski, a paradox existed at the foundation of their “linguistic Utopia”: the despised word had to take on the function of pure, instrumental music, which became “the highest value only because it had separated itself from the word.” Mandelstam resolved this paradox. For him, the conscious sense of the word, the Logos, was “just as magnificent a form as music is for the Symbolists.” He endorsed the wisdom of “origins.” He did not seek the essence of musicality “in an instrument, but in the word.”

Mandelstam rejected the era’s “beloved paradox” (“Yearning for wordlessness is in essence yearning for music”). He turned away from Tyutchev’s “silence as the music of the soul, deprived of the possibility of authentic communication” and even Homer (“the soul itself is a form of music, a harmonious chord”), and, unconcerned with the music of the soul, he saw “silence” existing “only in order to change formless possibility into sounding form.” Again, silence was the “expectation of sound,” “the collection of possibilities.”

O Aphrodite, remain foam! / Let words return to music, / Heart, stay heart, ashamed /If not coupled, always / With where and how you began.

Although Stravinsky never set Mandelstam to music (that I know of), Przybylski  couples the two, citing the former’s “Le Sacred du Printemps,” in which he interpreted the myth  “as it suited his music,” and sought primal musical material in the ancient world–a “vision of a ritual rite of the rebirth of life” in the ballet, “thanks to which man, steeped in the primitive sound of primal musical material, makes contact with the biocosmic unity.” The piece, “thanks to its ‘barbaric’ rhythms,” is transformed into “an apotheosis of sacred eroticism.” Both Stravinsky and Mandelstam sought the “same value” in primordial chaos: “Freudian Eros, the instinct of love, which supports the current of life, continually renewing the cosmos and building culture.”

Here’s a collage with Stravinsky imposed upon Henri Matisse’s painting “The Dance” (I didn’t realize how large, how monumental, this painting was, and when I first saw it, “live,” in the Hermitage, I told my wife Betty she should come back in a month or so and “rescue” me from viewing it!); scenes from “Le Sacred du Printemps,” the original production and a contemporary performance  (Joffrey Ballet performance at Los Angeles Music Center); and a portion of Stravinsky’s score (Notice all those small dancing “raisins and grapes”!): (Photo credits: NPR Today; theguardian.com; huffingtonpost.com; YouTube).

igor-stravinsky-with-dancers-by-matisse-collage-npr-today1

Rite of Spring  Rite of Spring 2

score for Rite of SpringIn his poem “Silentium,” Mandelstam’s “silence” has a “musical character.” In his invocation to Aphrodite, if she will remain foam, the word will return to music, because “every renewal takes place only after the return to beginnings.” Mandelstam’ s “silence” was not a “criticism of language as a means of communication … primal silence was a phenomena in which form, Aprodite, is concealed.” Like Mozart, Mandelstam saw silence optimistically. Mozart “insisted” that silence was more essential than sound in music, because only in silence, “filled by mental effort, is a decisive grasping of form possible.” The “Prince of Silence,” Miles Davis, is known to have said “In music, silence is more important than sound.”

Przybylski concludes this portion of his book by asserting that Mandelstam’s “silence” is not a “modernistic Nirvana, but the source of creation. Creation, in turn, is affirmation of life, the acceptance of the material world, the joyous sensing of things.” Mandelstam “linked his art with life, with the earth.”

Przybylski then turns his attention to a “primal abyss” that some people feel as a threat. He says “we should not be surprised that Mandelstam expressed the thought that music is unable to save us from the primal abyss. Music itself, after all, belongs to a certain extent to the abyss, because it was born out of silence … but a sound can interrupt the terror silence, it can charm the abyss. That is why the soul signifies a bursting into song. One must summon rhythm, even though it appears only rarely, like grace. Only a singing soul can create form. The poet, then, is a man in whom molino vivo, the creaking mill of life … has not destroyed his ability to sing. Creativity is a kind of song. That is why Mandelstam did not just recite his poems and did not try to force the meaning of the lines into meter. If a sentence in a poem does not fit the melody, it has no meaning. The meaning of a poem is in the music. So that Mandelstam sang his poems.”

Przybylski reminds us of a single phonograph recording of the poet “singing” a poem of his [and more about this poem at the end of this blog post], and the testimony of his contemporaries bear this out. “The wandering aoidos probably sang Homer’s epics like Mandelstam”–which reminds me of what I’ve said elsewhere about Homer as the first “anchor person,” but singing the evening news: “There was a fierce battle in Troy today,” et cetera.

“The musician is depicted in Mandelstam’s poetry as a priest entreating the abyss,” Prybylski writes, and once again, he asserts: “To create, then, means above all to create music. For the wave comes out of the sea to a measured beat … rhythm is the source of shape. A poet is a creator only when he creates musical shape. The musician is the archetype of the creator.”

Przybylski offers Mandelstam’s thoughts on Bach and Beethoven, for the poet has written a poem about each. For the poet, Przybylski claims, Bach was an artist who understood music as “the organized resistance of the spirit against the elements … Above the dust of time, above the disharmony of sounds swirling in taverns and churches, [Bach] triumphs like a new Isaiah, because Isaiah is continually proving the obvious: that God exists, that A = A.” Mandelstam himself has written, “Logic is the kingdom of the unexpected. To think logically is to be perpetually astonished. We have come to love the music of proof.” And he found such music in Bach.

The introduction of the words “logic” and “proof” after “Isaiah” and “God” made me think of an interesting book I am reading just now: physicist/saxophonist Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and The Structure of the Universe. In the Introduction, the author writes: “Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking … The intricate way that the fundamental laws of physics work together to create and sustain the overarching structure of the universe, responsible for our very existence, seems like magic—not unlike the bare bones of music theory have given rise to everything from ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ [the “bare bones” or underpinings of the song “It’s a Wonderful World”] to Coltrane’s Intersteller Space. By using an interdisciplinary focus, inspired by three great minds (John Coltrane, Albert Einstein, and Pythagoras), we can begin to see that the ‘magical’ behavior of the blossoming cosmos is based in music.”

Here are: cover of The Jazz of Physics; Stephon Alexander at work; the cycle of fifths, and cosmic conclusions John Coltrane (literally) drew based on the cycle of fifths (a diagram he entrusted to saxophonist Yusef Latif): (photo credits: sourcesnpr.org; Miles Okazaki).

The Jazz of Physics   The Jazz of Physics 2

circle-of-fifths-3     John Coltrane drawing

Throw in a little Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Richard Feynman for good measure. And within Osip Mandelstam’s inclusiveness (the “sum of opposites”: his unique blend of religion, mythology, and pagan ritual), he maintained a healthy respect for empiricism. He once wrote: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral crystal enjoys.” And he included the following two lines in a poem: “… here on earth, not in heaven, / as in a house filled with music.”

Mandelstam also believed the “abyss” could be controlled by an artist who was the opposite of the reasonable logical Bach: a mad, Dionysian artist like Beethoven, whose music was “a modern orgy, a holy intoxication, a momentary deification of man”–madness which allowed Beethoven, for a time, “to achieve the fullness of existence.” Przybylski adds, “On this is based Beethoven’s joy … Like an epic poet, an artist in the full sense of that word, [Beethoven] transformed his ‘I,’ that Dionysian arch-pain, into the subject of art, and sang it in Apollonian measure.” Przybylski believes that “to prove or to drive mad” is the function of art: “to lift man above his terror.” He mentions the word “panmusicality,” for he feels the world itself “has a musical character.”

So much of what Przybylski says is said in the name of Mandelstam: thoughts that derive from him or which would have met his approval. For Mandelstam, music was “divine fullness, the sum of opposites, silence and sound, primal formlessness and form, barbariousness and culture, fear and joy, terror and liberation … Mandelstam loved the logic of forms in music, but he was also fascinated by screams of pain … as a sum of antinomies, music has a divine nature. Musical form is the product of wonder, and its function is proof.”

Robert Tracy, who has translated Mandelstam’s first book, Stone, points out that the poet “only rarely” had a room of his own in which to work and write–that he usually composed his poems in his mind “while walking the streets and wrote or dictated them only at the end of the poetic process.” He cites a question Mandelstam asked regarding Dante: “How many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?” Mandelstam imagined his “admired Dante sharing his own work habits”–that The Inferno and especially The Purgatorio “glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking.” And Przybylski reminds us that “that is why Beethoven also fascinated him as a walker measuring the fields and woods in the environs of Vienna.”

Here are: Dante’s first encounter with Beatrice on one of his walks (painting by Henry Holiday); and, coming up next, Terpander with his lyre (looks as if he’s playing a game of tennis!): (Photos credits: Wikipedia.org; findagrave.com)

Henry_Holiday_-_Dante_meets_Beatrice     Terpander

Przybylski’s book on “God’s Grateful Guest,” contains some final thoughts on, a summary of, Mandelstam’s love of music in a chapter called “Terpander’s Lyre,” focused on a stanza from a poem, “Cherepakha” (“Turtle”), dedicated to that poet’s “Turtle lyre,” the stanza itself dedicated to musicality, that is, to “that element of poetry which Parnassus had completely forgotten” (Przybylski’s own translation):

Unhurried is the turtle-lyre / Fingerless, she just barely crawls out./ Lies about in the sunshine of Epirus / Silently warming her golden stomach. / Well, who will fondle such a one, /  Who will turn over the sleeper? / She is awaiting Terpander in her sleep. / Anticipating descent of the dry fingers.

What a set of wild, sexy images; what graceful lust for an instrument made from a turtle’s shell in order to make music come alive–with the assistance of a poet’s “dry fingers” of course! Once again, Przybylski hammers home the “exceptionally high value” [highest?] that Mandelstam placed on musicality in poetry. “He was pleased that Verlaine placed “De la musique avant toute chose” [“You must have music first of all,” Verlaine adding, in the seventh and eighth lines: “Nothing more dear than the tipsy song/Where the undefined and Exact combine.”] at the beginning of his Poetic Art. Convinced that poetry’s origins are in song and that the phonetic element is more essential than the pictorial in poetry, the author of Tristia [the book in which “Turtle” appears] could not follow the path of the Parnassians, “who did not understand that admirers of Hellas cannot ignore and reject musicality … Despite the set opinions of several scholars who were fascinated by the plastic arts, it was music that occupied the central position in Greek esthetics. Among the Greeks a true creator was a poet or a musician: a sculptor was only a craftsman … according to legend, the lyre fell from heaven. It was a gift of the gods. The seven planets were compared to its seven strings. The canon of beauty was based on the numbers which the harmony of tones dictated.”

Przybylski claims that Mandelstam rose above any “artificial division” or distinction between the “Classical” and “Romantic,” that he had reached back to a tradition that was earlier than the “French error,” and arrived on his own at the genuine tradition of Classical poetry: molpe–song and dance. “The ancient Greeks’ bard was at one and the same time a leader of the dance and a director of the chorus. His poetry was not performed in isolation. Words were always tied to music and the rhythm of the dance. ‘Dance’ and ‘music’ also had a different meaning in those days, and were certainly not specialized. The ancient Greeks’ poetry was created, then, by the musically inspiration of the bard.”

Przybylski concludes: “Mandelstam linked musicality with inspiration. In his conception, music liberates in the poet thought which has been prepared by intellect … he placed a high value on … incantation, without which he could not imagine intensity of experience. The element of incantation, remaining forever in a poem, could evoke in the reader a movement of his soul, or ecstasy, which allows him to understand the poet’s thought: to recreate the creative process.”

The greatest gift that Google has ever given me is the actual voice of Osip Mandelstam. I made this discovery inadvertently, by accident, searching for something else: any and all musical settings of his poems by composers–a number of which I did find. The surprise that came up was a 1924 recording of Mandelstam himself reading his poem “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” this and “Tsyganka” (“Gypsy Girl”) on a Northwestern University site called “From the End to the Beginning: A Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse,” a site that also contains several of his poems in print.

I was only partially prepared for what I heard. Here was Mandelstam himself–actually standing, reciting, no, singing, in my studio! I had previously run across various accounts of, testimonials regarding what it was like to hear him read when he was alive: his body “slightly rocking to the rhythm of the verse,” his entire face “so transformed by inspiration and self-abandonment” that, ordinarily “unassuming,” it had become “the face of a visionary and prophet.” Those attending such performances claimed they could feel “the presence of the spirit possessing the poet”; they could hear the poet’s “oracle” and experience “that which is sacred but remained concealed in ordinary life.” At one reading, Mandelstam presided as “a shaman for two and a half hours,” as if in trance. Boris Pasternak was present and was overcome by “the terrifying exorcism.”

What I heard–in spite of the heavy pops and blips and crackling that accompanied this nearly prehistoric recording–more than verified what witnesses had described: that Mandelstam did not just recite but sang his poems. He did not do so in the somewhat “singsong,” wistful, studied, somewhat theatrical style of Yeats reading “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” but in the highly urgent, instantly affecting manner of that Russian tradition that Vladimir Mayakovsky made familiar, “at the top of his voice,” and Andrei Voznesensky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko perpetuated throughout the era–the 1960s–in which they made their public readings available to listeners like me. The closest American equivalent may be our own tradition of public oratory, but Mandelstam’s purpose was never overt or all-too-obviously political or religious persuasion (the two so often combined in our culture), but the art of poetry itself. Mandelstam enunciates each syllable as if it were as round and real as his beloved stone, a phenomena sacred in and of itself–and the total result is an aria as memorable as any you might know from opera by heart (but free of the schmaltz occasionally associated with opera). Mandelstam sings the pure joy of language that embodies all that human music can contain.

After being stunned by this experience, and having played the recording over and over and over again (I didn’t want him to leave the room!), I turned my attention to composers who had attempted to set his poems within their own music: Elena Firsova (who has provided chamber cantata for solo voice and ensemble settings from the poems in Tristia through the Voronezh Notebooks–“the most tragic poems,” in her estimate by her “favorite poet,” as he is mine). Firsova comments, “From his poetry I learnt that we can speak very quietly about the most important things, and that we can see the most tragic occurrences in the light of beauty.”

Here are Mandelstam and Elena Firsova: (Photo credit: YouTube)

Mandelstam by Firsova

I also listened to Yelena Frolova’s “Russian Silver Age” settings (which includes poets Blok, Bely, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, and Yesenin as well as Mandelstam); Gordon Beeferman’s Now no one will listen to songs, which features “With vaguely-breathing leaves,” the last stanza of Mandelstam’s “Why is there so little music/And such silence?”; Vladimir Dukelsky’s (otherwise known as Vernon Duke) Ode Epitaphe 1931; a song cycle by Michael Zev Gordon; Giya Kanchel’s  Don’t Grieve (presented by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky as vocalist soloist); Valentin Silvestoir’s Silent Song (six poems by Mandelstam); and a Dances for Petersburg program presented by the University of Michigan Dance Company, which offered Jessica Fogel’s “We Will Meet Again in Petersburg” (a cycle that includes that poem, “The Admiralty” and “At a terrible height”).

Some of what I’ve heard seems to carry too much self-conscious “weight” for what would be appropriate for or equal to Mandelstam’s work–an attempt on the part of the singers to out-Chaliapin Chaliapin perhaps, bypassing nuance for the sake of overlarge boulders that do not, to my mind, possess the fine resilience of the poet’s beloved stone.

A well-meaning effort that, unfortunately, suffers from this fault is Steve Lacy’s (and he’s one of my favorite jazz soprano saxophonists) Rushes, 10 Songs from Russia, which pays homage to Marina Tsvetayeva and Anna Akhmatova, as well as Mandelstam.

Here are poets Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva: (Photo credits: wikipedia.org; silveragepoetry.com)

altman-akhmatova         TsvetaevaM

One of Mandelstam’s poems represented is “I say this as a sketch and in a whisper,” other favorite of mine (here in David McDuff’s excellent translation):

I say this as a sketch and in a whisper / For it is not yet time: / The game of unaccountable heaven / Is achieved with experience and sweat … / And under purgatory’s temporary sky / We often forget / That the happy repository of heaven / Is a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere.

Stacy’s stated purpose was to make the poet’s words “better known,” to set the poems “without betraying their spirit, into jazz art-songs,” but my disappointment was immense when I heard what he and vocalist Irene Aebi had done with this poem–its “spirit” betrayed from the very start, to my ears: Aebi shouting, nearly screaming “I say it … in a whisper.” The conception struck me as totally contrary, at odds with the intention and tone of Mandelstam’s fine, subtle poem.

A poem previously cited (“The cautious and deaf sound / Of the first fruit, torn from the tree / Amidst the resounding sound / Of the deep forest silence”) provokes, after a handsome subtle Tracy instrumental introduction, the same sense of over-kill–of being at odds with Mandelstam’s concept of music “emerging from silence.” Another of my favorite poems  (“I have the present of a body–what shall I do with it / so unique it is and so much mine.”) is rendered in French (this after Lacy, in the liner notes, has stated as a disclaimer of sorts: “The Russian language is already music”); and a very moving poem about the  Terror–“Into the distance –go the mounds of people’s heads / I am growing smaller here–no one notices me anymore”–is rendered redundant through over-dramatization.

As composer, Lacy may have been too preoccupied with Mandelstam’s ultimate fate (those who know of it can’t help but feel considerable compassion), for he states, “Real jazz is dissident music. In Russia, poetry can be fatal” (which is true enough), but he goes on to say that Mandelstam was “crushed like an insect, after having brought forth a carefully preserved, full life’s work, of timeless literature.” Mandelstam’s fate was cruel (more about that in a moment), but this was a man who stood up to the regime in his poetry, who refused to succumb to “official” jargon, the trite slogans of the era (publicly pressed at a reading as to what he “believed in,” he bravely replied that he believed in “world culture,” not Soviet)—a man who believed there was nothing tougher than a human being. Osip Mandelstam was decidedly not someone “crushed like an insect.”

I’ve spent some time on what I feel is a misrepresentation of his poetry in music because it’s something one does encounter, on occasion, on the part of well-meaning composers and singers not fully “in tune” with the work itself. When that happens, I almost wish they’d just left the poem alone, and stuck with a strictly Schopenhauer “’product of pure reflection’ … cleansed of all contact with the word.”

That was not at all the case with another discovery I made, again, by way of a most fortunate  “accident”– another gift that made Mandelstam truly come alive for me through a marriage of poetry and music. In the summer of 1990, my wife Betty and I traveled 9,000 kilometers throughout the former Soviet Union, gathering information on and interviewing musicians for a book subsequently published: Unzipped Souls: A Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union. We met and spent time with a host of fascinating folks–both musicians and jazz fans–but two of the most interesting and engaging musical artists were composer Igor Egikov and his wife, singer Irina Vorontsova.

Here are: the cover of my book; a poster for a “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”) concert by Igor and Irina, and the Novospasky Monastery (to which they took Betty and me): (Photo credit: Moscow.info)

Unzipped Souls    Vorontsova and Egikov

Novospassky-Monastery 2

I fell in love with the delightful Vorontsova the instant I laid eyes on her. Her face is round above Tatar cheekbones (an ancestry of which she is proud), a face framed by long hair, unzipped dark eyes beneath handsomely arched eyebrows, a small pug nose, and a generous mouth. Meeting her and Igor came about by chance. I had shown a Professor of American Literature at the University of Moscow, Irene Norikova (who was helping me translate), a booklet of photographs our son Stephen took of my own woodblock prints and paintings of Russian poems, the text included in each work. Irene was interested in my having chosen poems by Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, for she had a friend who’d set their work to music she said, adding, “He is an excellent composer, and his wife is a famous singer.” Irene arranged for us to meet them.

Neither Irina Vorontsova nor her husband, Igor Egikov, spoke English, so we relied mostly on Irina’s cheerful disposition and devastating smile to convey the meaning of her brilliant chatter as we set out, packed into their small car; on a grand excursion to a Moscow we would otherwise never have known, ending at the Novospasky Monastery (New Monastery of the Transfiguration of the Savior) on Krutitsy Hill just above the curl of the Moscow River leading out of town (the first monastery to be founded in Moscow in the early 14th century). In spite of a slight drizzle, we strolled the grounds, Irina singing Bulat Okudzhava (my favorite Russian “troubadour” of the 1960s) songs at my request. Igor Egikov was cheerfully reticent. A pupil of Aram Khachaturian, he specializes in writing music for his wife. According to a review in the Boston Globe, when the couple performed in this country, Igor was interested “in finding a new direction for music, a third stream, that would reconcile serious classical music with popular idioms.” The Globe referred to “the vibrant Vorontsova, a world class cabaret singer,” as a woman who “talks with her eyes.” She does, so I listened.

Outside the monastery we sat in their car and drank fine Georgian wine they had given us as a gift along with a large poster announcing a concert “Dvoe i Pecnia” (“Two in Song”—the name of an album they also gave me), an evening of songs, romances, ballads and poems by Akhmatova, Okudzhava, and Marina Tsvetaeva set to music. We had insisted on sharing the wine there and then, Igor acquiring a glass, our loving cup, from one of those vile gazirovannaia voda vending machines (mineral water dispensed in cups that everyone shares, a highly suspicious rinsing device also provided). We chatted and joked, exchanging pictures of respective families, discussed art and music and life and all things under the sun as best we could with what we had by way of mutual language.

It was time for Betty and I to return to the Variety Theater for the final concert at the jazz festival we were attending. Here’s a flyer I saw posted on a wooden wall in Moscow—the event the “First International Moscow Jazz Festival”:

First Moscow Jazz Festival

As another parting gift, Igor and Irina gave me a cassette tape with a single poem by OsipMandelstam on it, a poem entitled “Where Are They Taking Me?”, written in 1911, but a poem too prophetic, for Mandelstam would die, as a political prisoner, in a transit camp in Vladivostok in 1938 at the age of 47, initially arrested in 1934 after reciting, at a party, within earshot of a few close friends, a sixteen line poem highly unfavorable to Stalin (calling him a murderer in fact). Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, in her miraculous book Hope Against Hope. suggests, in a chapter called “Who is to Blame?”, that no one person was responsible (even though they knew who turned him in), that everybody was culpable: mutual complicity, the outrageous compromise of, at that time, an entire society.

Here are: a photo of Mandelstam as a political prisoner, and another quote from his wife, Nadezhda: (Photo credit: poetrysociety,org; azquotes.com) The translation following is mine:

Mandelstam 4  Mandelstam 7

How slowly the horses step, / How dimly the lanterns glow. /  These strangers surely know /Just where they are taking me.

And I entrust myself to them, / For I am cold. I wish only to sleep. / Suddenly, at the turning, sharp / I am thrown out among stars.

Jolted, my head swims feverously, / But icy fingers sooth me. / The dark shape of a fir tree / Lingers, out of focus.

The Russian, the language alone—as Steve Lacy recognized—is  beautiful:  Kak malo v fonaryakh ognya / Chuzhie lyudi, verno, znayut, / kuda vezut oni menya / A ya vreryayus ikh zabote … / Goryachey golovy kachane / nezhnyy led ruki chuzoi–and Igor and Irina transform and transmit that language with full respect. The piece opens with Igor’s solo piano vamp (in F minor), one that matches or imitates the pace of the horses perfectly–and softly, slowly, like a “dimly” lit lantern herself, Irina’s voice enters, rich with troublesome irony (“These strangers surely know / Just where they are taking me.”), fitting in light of Mandelstam’s subsequent experience, but not exploiting it. The only “content” not in the poem is her subtle and moving “ejaculations” at the end of each stanza: a single syllable, “ah,” repeated, and, before the last stanza, “oi yoi yoi yoi yo oi,” which perhaps I could have done without, but which again are fitting (“earned”) and not overly dramatic (in excess of tone and circumstance)–offered so “delicately” and inobtrusively that I feel Mandelstam himself would approve, would not object.

The couple’s interpretation of this poem is so handsomely self-contained (just like the poem itself), consistent in tone (like the poem again), the dynamics so fitting, subtle, everything so “well placed,” the economy so in keeping with Mandelstam’s intent and style (Irina’s voice disclosing maximum effect with regard to the words without impeding them in anyway), I cannot imagine their version being improved in any way. Bravo! Thank you (spasibo bolshoi), Igor Egikov and Irina Vorontsova, for showing just what can happen to a poem, emotionally, when the word, logos, is truly married to music—that balancing act Mandelstam managed so well in his work: a blend of romanticism and equilibrium, logic and a touch of madness: poetry all the more powerful for its depth expressed through economy and restraint.

I wish I could close this blog post with an example of my own attempt to set a poem by Osip Mandelstam to music, but, whereas I have set a few of my own poems that way, I have yet to find music for one of his. I do have a reading I did (on YouTube) of “No, I was never anyone’s contemporary,” which I translated. My friend, the amazing Bob Danziger, a gifted musician, composer, sound sculptor, inventor, author, entrepreneur, and a key player in the alternative energy industry for over thirty years, undertook the video project, and he asked me to participate directly. First he had me select a piece from his exceptional music project, Brandenburg 300; then, in his studio, he asked that I read Mandelstam’s poem over (and “within”) this music–to which he would add visual material (I gave him the names of Russian artists from Mandelstam’s era: Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” Levitan, Vrubel; and also, at his request, some of my own art work, a series of drawings and woodcut prints I’d done of Mandelstam and other pieces, and some photos from my own life).

Bob located excellent photos of Mandelstam (and the art work from his era)–his intent to make this video a genuine “Mandelstam and Minor” (the title of the piece) collaboration: to honor the poet and also, as he put it, the fact that I have “survived.” Bob submitted “Mandelstam and Minor: I Am No One’s Contemporary” to the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival: films to be shown at an award ceremony at the Lighthouse Cinema in Pacific Grove, California, and the film was accepted. Our homage to Mandelstam can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxliLhcnyAY.

Here’s a “still” from the video of me reading “No, never was I anyone’s contemporary”:(Photo credit: Bob Danziger and the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival).

Mandelstam and Minor photo

I’ll close with a poem of Mandelstam’s I did a painting of (“Insomnia”), the painting I stood in front of for the film–a poem I’ve also translated (and appeared in the literary journal  Hanging Loose 49).

Mandelstam Helen2

Mandelstam's InsomniaI love the line “The sea, Homer–everything is moved by love”; and that seems a perfect “note” on which to close.

 

 

 

 

Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern, Part Two

I concluded Part One of this blog post on Greek Music & Poetry with what, I hope, was a satisfactory look at the experience my wife Betty and I had with such “song” when we lived in Greece in 1979-80, and with a solid glance at my favorite Ancient Greek poet, Archilochus–plus reflection or theories (speculation or hypotheses) on early Greek music. The question yet to be addressed (and it will be now) is: How did that music–and the contemporary poetry set to music which Betty and I heard–actually sound?

The oldest musical fragments available date back to the 3rd century BCE, but complete examples that inspire actual musical interpretation were composed in the Greco-Roman period, and one of my favorites (on the basis of level of interest and “listening pleasure”) is a “Hymn to the Muse” by Mesomedes of Crete, a court musician at the time of Hadrain (117-138 CE), written in the Lydian mode (the most popular mode of his time). I have a recording called Musique de la Grece Antique, by the Atreum Musicae de Madrid, but there are other interpretations of this valuable surviving work.

Here are: the cover of the recording I have; a woman holding a kithara (more about this instrument in a moment); a man playing a kithara; and an original manuscript by Mesomedes (Photo credits: YouTube; ancientolympic.org; forum.index.hu)

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover        Kithara in Hymn to the Muse

Man playing kithara   Mesomedes manuscript

On the recording I have, a female voice offers (ancientpeoples.tumblr.com):

Άειδε Μούσά μοι φίλη, μολπής δ’ εμής κατάρχου, αύρη δε σων απ’ άλσεων εμάς φρένας δονείτω. Καλλιόπεια σοφά, Μουσών προκαθαγέτι τερπνών, και σοφέ Μυστοδότα, Λατούς γόνε, Δήλιε, Παιάν, ευμενείς πάρεστέ μοι.

Sing, Muse, dear to me— / As prelude to my own song. /  Inspire my heart with breezes / from your own groves; make / my soul tremble. / O wise Calliope,  / who leads the gracious muses, / and you, son of Latona, Delian Paean, / who guides the mysteries– / assist me with your favor.

The voice is light, nearly delicate; pleasant, nearly “pretty”–as much chant as song. Heartfelt enough, it is not really “emotive” in the way we think of emotion (there’s no vibrato, thank goodness, on the words “make/my soul tremble”); it is not noticeably “dramatic,” for the overall tone is one of truly classical restraint and proportion. The pitch is exact, distinct. Both Calliope and Apollo (“son of Latona, Delian Paean”) are supplicated in the sense I mentioned in the Preface (“prayer, praise, petition”), but with humility, with considerable modesty. Author Alan Shaw (whom I quoted in the last blog: his “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music”; online, 1997) mentions melodies “based as they were on an elaborate system of scales and modes, some of which engendered our own, some containing ‘microtonal’ intervals that would have sounded very exotic to us,” and how they “might have added many subtle inflections to the vocal delivery of lines,” but I don’t hear any microtones here, and while the inflection is “subtle” enough,” it is also very simple, straightforward, unpretentious.

The instrumental accompaniment–totally in unison with the voice, replicating the vocal line, the melody, pitch for pitch, note for note (with some subtle delays or hesitations in time, some “displacement,” but within the same range as the voice, not an octave higher as advocated by Archilochus)–is that of the kithara, which, according to notes that accompany my recording, is “a more perfect and elaborate stringed instrument than the lyra,” different in its sound-box, size, and sonority (larger, wooden, producing a fuller, more “sonorous” tone; possessing seven strings and employed largely by professionals–not restricted to amateurs, as the lyra was). A second instrument employed is the monochordan, which was used to determine the “instrumental relativity of musical sounds.”

Here’s Pythagoras of Samos playing a monochordan. Regarded as the first pure mathematician, his Musica Universalis or Music of the Spheres disclosed numerical ratios of pure musical intervals, creating harmony, or celestial bodies as musica – the medieval Latin name for music. Next to Pythagoras is a white-ground lekythos (a vase used for storing olive oil) showing a young woman playing a kithara: (Photo credits: thankanon.org and ask.ca):

Pythagoras_and_his_Monochord      Woman playing Kithara

It is not at all a large jump from this second century CE piece to one I first heard in Crete in 1979: Mikis Theodarakis’ setting for a poem from Georgos Seferis’ “Mythistorima,” sung by the exquisite Maria Farantouri: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

“O hipnos se tilixa, O hipnos se tilixa, me prasina pheella anasaines; / san ena thentro, san ena thentro, me prasina pheela anasaines; / mesa sto iseecho phos, mesa sti thiaphani pigi, koitaxa ti morphi sou. / Kleismena blephara, kleismena blephara, kai ta matokltha, charazan to nero.”

Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree; / you breathed like a tree in the quiet light, / in the limpid spring I watched your face: / eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.

Here are: Theodarakis conducting; Theodarakis with Maria Farantouri: (Photo credits: YouTube and dw.com)

Mikis Theodarakis

Thorarakis with Farantouri

The piece begins with a two guitar chorus, laced with bouzouki trills, of the melody (which, as in the case of Hymn to the Muse, is quite handsome, though simple): a distinct, even, four beat rhythm beneath a liquid, floating effect, fully appropriate to the setting (“in the limpid spring”). Farantouri’s voice is quite “classical” (full of restraint and proportion), not overly “emotive,” understated, yet all the more meaningful because of that (a paradox that fits the poem!). The chordal pattern is “folk”: tonic/ dominant/sub dominant chords with aptly added minor extensions. In both pieces–the “ancient” and the “modem” (even with the richer orchestration of the latter)–the music does not attempt to interpret or “enhance” (add extra dramatic emphasis to) the poetry in the manner that pieces we will encounter later (Robert Schumann and Richard Srauss settings for the poetry of Heinrich Heine; Hector Berlioz settings for Theordore Gautier); it remains in the background, or alongside in a manner that does not call all that much attention to itself–a suitable “sidekick,” as it were: simple, elemental accompaniment.

Author Alan Shaw concluded the article “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997): “The main evidence for the compositional power of Greek music, so far as we can still see it, is in its rhythm. And for all but purely instrumental music, that was given–schematically of course, but with far greater precision than in any English song–by the scansion of the verse … In terms of rhythms, Greek verse had indeed a heritage almost comparable to the heritage of melodic and harmonic motifs in Western classical music. And in a large composition like the first chorus of the Agamemnon, this heritage is played on with the same kind of allusiveness, subtle modulations and unexpected transitions that we find in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony … and it was the poet’s creation, not a creation of ‘pure’ musicians or an automatic result of the Greek language’s musical qualities … If modem poets are intrigued by the results, they have only to look to the neglected music of their own languages, and see what might be done.”

By contrast, the earlier Homeric bard, or aodoi, according to Stefan Hagel (“Homeric Singing—An Approach to the Original Performance”), sang his songs accompanied by a four-string instrument, the phorominx, “improvising his four-note melody at the same time as he improvised his text, which was unique in every performance.” Jazz?! Perhaps not, for Hagel adds, “His monotonous melody, far from interpreting the text, served only as a medium to transport the words and to catch the listeners’ attention by their intrinsic rhythms.” Sounds more like the evening news on TV–which in a very real sense it was, or at least a forerunner. Homer as the first “anchor person”?

Here are: a phorominx, and three early figures of Homeric Bards: (Photo credits: Wikipedia; millvlle.sps.edu; englishare.net)

Phorominx     Homeric bard 2

Homeric bard 3-cycladic            Homeric bard

I have commented on two “lyric” pieces of poetry set to music, but I have also listened to contemporary dramatic constructs similar to the sort Shaw compares to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Two are from Georgos Seferis’ “Mythistorima,” set to music by Theodorakis and sung, again, by Maria Farantouri–this time with her large voice (and she has one!). The first is “In my breast this wound opens again,” a piece filled with an “epic” or anthem quality: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 Sto stithos mou i pligi anoigei pali / Otan kamilonoun t’astra kai seeggeneuoun me to chormi mou /Otan pephetei sigi kato apo ta peimata ton anthropon

In my breast the wound opens again / when the stars descend and become kin to my body, /when silence falls under the footsteps of men …

Shortly after this opening segment comes powerful emphasis on the line ti thalassa, ti thalassa, polos tha boresei geera kai sto geraki (“The sea, the sea, who will be able to drain it dry.” One line Seferis borrowed, appropriately enough for our purpose, from the Agammenon; Clytemnestra justifying Agammenon’s treading on the purple carpet leading into the palace). Farantouri’s voice seems to contain all the wild majesty of the classic Greek tragic heroines–prophet and priestess and poet herself. The piece starts with guitars that complement each other, interact handsomely–one melodic, the other offering arpeggios–and the rhythmic pulse is hypnotic, heroic, offset by tympanis, an instrument Theodarakis obviously favored for a piece such as this, evoking as it does, the human heartbeat.

The second piece I love, sung again by Farantouri, begins: (Translation: Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Ligo akomaltha ithoume tis ameegdalies n ‘anthizoun / ta marmara na lampoon ston ilio / ti thalassa na keematizei Ligo akoma / nasikothoume / ligo psilotera, ligo psilotera, ligo psilotera.

A little farther / we will see the almond trees blossoming / the marble gleaming in the sun / the sea breaking into waves /… a little farther, let us rise a little higher.”

Pure anthem! Pure assertion! Pure praise! This will happen, no doubt about it–no matter what! Farantouri’s voice is filled with total conviction, as is the music that surrounds it. Another single poem by Seferis set to music by Theodarakis is called “Denial.” I came to know this poem/song so well in Greek, and sang it so often while we were there, that I stopped thinking of its “meaning” or “being” in English, but I will include, here, a translation I did when I got home—along with the poem in Greek and “vocabulary” I jotted down in my notebook. I’ll also include the first page of that notebook (which I would fill with poems and songs throughout our journey): a page that starts with a quote from Karagozis (Καραγκιόζης in Modern Greek), a shadow-puppet theatre and fictional character from Greek folklore: “Long live freedom!”; the word “translation,” notes by Georgos Seferis for “Mythistorima,” a quote from Axion Esti” (“THIS WORLD / this small world the great!”) and a popular Greek saying (or maxim), “Long live madness!” (Photo credit: Suitcase & World: Traveler’s Diary, by Julee):

My book of translation in Greece 6 My book of translation in Greece 3  Karagiozis Poster

Denial

On a secret seashore / White as a dove, at noon / We felt thirst, but found / The water was brine. / There on golden sand / We wrote your name together /–How splendidly the sea breeze / Blew, but erased your name. / With such heart, with such spirit, / Such passion and such pain / We lived a life together—a mistake! / So turning away, we changed.

Here’s a photo of Georgos Seferis; a plaque in London which honors the time he served as an ambassador there; and an album I brought home (songs by Theodarakis, in which I found his absolutely perfect, beautiful setting for “Denial.”): (Photo credits: Wikipedia; Waymarking.com)

Giorgos_Seferis_1963        Seferis plaque in London

Theodarakis Best Of

Here are: The town of Parokia, and the Byzantine Road between Lefkis and Prodromos in Paros. Because I had heavy boots in case of an encounter with unfriendly critters, such as snakes (of which Betty is not all that fond), I walked ahead of her on our across-the-island hikes, but I did see the most beautiful green and golden “serpent” (Milton’s “subtlest beast of all the field”: this one about six feet in length) curled up in a rock wall just like the one depicted here: (Photo credits: tripadvisor.com; Norbert Hohn)

parikia-town           Byzantine Road Paros

Not long after we arrived in Paros, we were sitting in a restaurant in downtown Paroikia, and I saw an advertisement, tacked to the wall, announcing a performance of Axion Esti, the epic “spiritual autobiography” of Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis (with portions of the poem set to music by Mikis Theodarakis, as I’ve mentioned). The piece would be performed in the small town of Marissa, on the far side of the island. On the day of the production, Betty and I took a bus there, and we were the only non-Greeks on it. The same was true in the one-room schoolhouse–site for the show–we entered when we arrived: the place packed with Greeks ranging from age seven up to late seventies, some of the former hanging out of the windows. Up front, a high school teacher we recognized from Paroikia had outlined Elytis’ not-at-all easy poem (accessible in terms of its complex forms, and even imagery) on a blackboard, and three musicians (bouzoukia, and two guitars) were tuning up.

After the mayor of Marissa, and three others from adjoining towns (Marmara, Prodhromos, and Piso Livadhi), gave speeches, we were, for the next three hours, treated to not only the music, but a detailed exegesis of the poem itself (including its intricate rime scheme and elaborate structure) and its origin in Greek experience; recitations of its individual, component parts by high school students; and then–most amazing of all–after the musicians introduced a song (and a repeat performance of that night on which I couldn’t believe my ears in Crete, when the university students came up our street singing a poem from Axion Esti after a full evening of disco dancing), every single Greek person in that one-room schoolhouse, from age seven up to late seventies, joined in to sing it! I was stunned and thrilled by what I heard.

Here are: Odysseus Elitis; the Athens State Opera performing To Axion Esti; the cover of the recording I brought home, and a performance poster: (Photo credits: Nobelprize.org; insider-publications.com)

Elytis    ΚΡΑΤΙΚΗ ΟΡΧΗΣΤΡΑ ΑΘΗΝΩΝ 2014

AxionEsti  Performance poster Axion Esti

The only American equivalent I could think of, dream of, might be to attend a performance in some small Kansas farm community of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” (not an easy poem at all itself!) set to music by Charles Ives, and have each person present, knowing both words and music by heart, join in the singing, as if they were in church singing hymns long familiar—an occasion which, in many ways, I couldn’t begin to imagine taking place.

In Marpissa, I couldn’t hold back tears when I heard those voices sing, in unison, from the Thoxastikon (“Gloria”) section of Axion Esti: “Axion esti to phos kai i proti charagmeni stin petra euchi tou anthropou” (“Praise be: the light and man’s first rock-carved prayer”), the piece ending with “Kai Aien 0 chosmos 0 mikos, 0 Megas!” (“And Forever this small world the Great!”). Later, when we were back in Athens just before returning to the States, I told our friend Evangelos Pappas about what we had witnessed on Paros, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “We learn those songs when we are in kindergarten. They teach poetry and music quite early in our schools; those songs define us as a people.”

I thought those words would serve well as the last for this two part account of Greek poetry set to music: past and present, but I remembered a post card Betty and I brought home after visiting the Byzantine Church of the Virgin, at Lindos in Rhodes: the interior a perfect “metaphor” for the inclusive nature (everything from secular “sensual strife” and Χαρά—joy–to sacred ascent) of Greek poetry married to music, for every square inch of the Εκκλησία (church) was covered with another extraordinary art form: εικονίδια (icons).

I also just finished reading Ali Smith’s amazing book, Artful, in which she brilliantly combines fiction (the return of a deceased husband) with fact (four very insightful lectures on art and literature). At one point in the book, the husband describes a Greek actress, Aliki Vougiouklaki, who played Antigone, Evita, Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music), Sally Bowles—as well as “Shirley Valentine and Shaw’s Pygmalion and Aristophane’s Lysistrata and the leads in My Fair Lady and in Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth … she was the Greek Monroe, Bardot, Loren, Hepburn (both Katherine and Audrey) … all of them rolled into one … she had an eager spirit. One mentioned a possibility and she met it, like the next line of a song.”

Reading this, I wasn’t certain whether Aliki Vougiouklaki was a fictional character (just “made up”) or real, so I checked her out on Google, and up she came, singing a song I myself first heard and learned in Greece, a song I sang often: “Ypomoni.” I realized I had discovered another perfect ending to this blog piece. And you can find a delightful YouTube video of Aliki Vougiouklaki singing “ὑπομονή” (which means “Patience”) at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0HfuqtKbPA.

Here are: the interior of the Byzantine Church of the Virgin in Lindos; Aliki Vougiouklaki; the song “Ypomoni” as I jotted the words in Greek in my notebook; and, as a last entry for this blog on Greek Poetry and Music: Ancient and Modern, I will include the lyrics (somewhat similar to Georgos Seferis’ “A little farther / we will see the almond tree blossoming …”) as translated by Ali Smith in Artful: (Photo credit: Illyria Forums)

Greece Church interior on Lindos

Aliki V 2    Ipomoni

YPOMONI

“Neighborhood, your streets are narrow / Frost and gray skies / Life is dark, day and night / For company, cloudy skies /… Patience … / Have patience and the sky will become more blue / Have patience: a lemon tree will bloom in the neighborhood.”

 

 

Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern

I have been working for some time (more than a few years now!) on a book-length manuscript: a study of the history of poetry “married” to music, or “song,” from the Singing Neanderthals (see Steven Mithen’s excellent book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body) to the present day. Mine is a “book” grown so copious (I’m only at English Renaissance poet/composers such as Thomas Campion now), I may not be able to finish it within my lifetime. And I know there are other fine books on the subject (James Anderson Winn’s Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music; Ted Gioia’s Love Songs: The Hidden History); yet I have a friend who is interested in ancient Greek poetry set to music, and he asked if I knew anything about it—which I do. Both Ancient and Modern Greek poetry set to music in fact (there’s a definite continuum there)—so I’d like to “share” what I know by posting it on Bill’s Blog.

In Chapter Four of what I ‘ve written so far, I had the audacity to call the Greeks (both Ancient and Modern!) “my friends,” and that’s because they were, or became so, when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece (on Crete and Paros, with many side trips to other islands) for nearly a year in 1979/1980–and also because I have enjoyed reading both classical and Modern Greek poetry (in the original) and hearing it combined with music, since 1959, when I began to make a serious effort to be able to do so. In this post, I’d like to start with the near present (1979) and work my way back to “antiquity,” because this marriage of poetry and music displays amazing continuity, and longevity, and–to my mind and ears–has provided one of the most fortunate “blends” of the two forms.

When Betty and I left Greece in 1980, we gave all of the warm clothing we’d brought (wool sweaters and lumberjack shirts) to our landlord and landlady on the island of Paros, where we were living at the time, and I filled the suitcase with phonograph records: LPs that ranged from Vitzenzos Comaros’ epic poem from Crete, Erotokritos; Tragouthia tou Gamos (wedding songs from Crete, as well as Greece at large); instrumental music from Crete (tambouras [small bouzouki], laouto [lute], lyra [three-string bowed instrument]); vocal music from Crete (mostly mantinades: two fifteen syllable lines which rhyme, set to music); and Mikis Theodorakis’ handsome settings for the poetry of Giorgos Seferis (Mithistorima), Yannis Ritsos (Epitaphios), and Odysseus Elytis (Axion Esti).

Here are: the cover of a recording of Ancient Greek music (Musique de la Grece Antique: Atrium Musicae de Madrid) and a poster for a performance of To Axion Esti:

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover     Performance poster Axion Esti

When we first arrived in Greece, we took–after a short stay in Athens–a boat from Pereus, landing in the town of Chania in Crete. We thought we might find a house or apartment there; but Chania–in spite of its interesting history (the town built on the site of Cydonia, which dates back to just after the Minoan period) and an appealing waterfront–seemed too large (38,467 inhabitants at the time) and intractable. Also, we couldn’t find any music! So we got on a bus and headed east along the north coast, to the town of Rethymnon, which we fell in love with immediately–and which, throughout our four month stay there, would provide us with “live” music nearly every night. There is a saying in Crete: “Chanians for arms [at the time we were there, Souda Bay was not only the largest most secure bay in Crete, but in the entire Mediterranean]; Rethymnians for arts”–and that proved to be true. Here’s the harbor in Rethymnon, with its Fortetsa on the headland in the distance: (Photo credit: galaxie.gr)

rethimno harbor from air

While the Turkish occupation may have compromised the town’s famed artistic “flowering” (which took place during Venetian times), Rethymmon is still decidedly picturesque, with its two snowcapped mountains (Psiloritis or Mt. Ida, one of several birthplaces of baby Zeus in Greece, and Lefka Ori), red tiled roofs, narrow Venetian streets, old Venetian mansions, its Fortetsa on the headland (which harbors an abandoned mosque); three minarets (one the high point of the town, at its center), and a small, intimate, compatible harbor–even though I discovered the words “Exos Americanos” inscribed in large letters on one of its walls (“Americans, leave!”), and did not tell Betty, nor our son Steve (who was traveling with us after having just graduated from high school) this until much later. Here are: Mount Psiloritis and the Fortetsa in Rethymon (Photo credits: Fysimera.com and destinationcrete.gr)

Greece Mt. Ida         Fortetsa in Rethymnon 2

A spanking new tourist office was run, proudly, by a short, balding man named Kostos Palierakis, for whom I would soon be doing clerical work, helping to translate letters he received and responding to them. Kostos immediately found us a small house just a block from the beach, one with a heater that had to predate the Minoan civilization, a heater we would share (a blanket cast over our six knees beneath a table, to retain the heat) and a shower with a timer–hot water lasting all of about three minutes; the drain set on the high side of the floor not low, so the flood of water would rise above your ankles.

Here are: the view outside the window of the house Kostos found for us, and Kostos Palierakis himself with Betty:

Greece Crete WindowGreece Kostos and Betty

The small yard contained citron and olive trees, a grape arbor, trumpet vines, roses, Bird of Paradise, geraniums, and mandrake. We also fell in love with the town’s market area: its shops and periptera (kiosks), gypsy visitors leading a baboon through town, along with a huge bear with a ring in his nose. We found fresh fish daily (barbouni [red mullet], maritha [smelt], lithrini [sea bream], mourouna [cod], and fresh hot psomi [bread] we tucked beneath our arms for warmth (the Biblical name for “shop,” Astorieon, appropriate: “Give us this day our daily bread”). We found elies (olives) galore; giaourti (yogourt); meli (honey); turi (cheese: kasseri, kafaloteri, Cretan graviera)and britzoles from the butcher just beneath our house (when I asked for this, a lamb chop, he simply reached behind him and grabbed any piece of meat available, chopped it, and handed it to me!). We were provided with wine from the woman who ran the pool hall beneath the post office: wondrous Cretan kokkino krasi–red wine–for fifty drachmas (about $1.35) for a 1 ½ kilos jug. When I first went there I purchased the same amount of ouzo for 60 drachmas, but deciding I did not wish to die within a week, I never bought ouzo there again. Here are some streets scenes from Rethymnon: (Photo credits: synergise.com; tour-smart.co.uk; Jasmin Spiridaki)

Street scene in Rethymnon 2   Street scene in Retymnon 3Street scene in Rethymnon 3

So what does any of this have to do with the marriage of poetry and music in Greece? Well, everything! To my mind, the Greeks–in antiquity and down to the present day–were/are the first people to realize that such a union could never come about without acknowledging the full range of human experience: a complete social context in which song might evolve, even from seemingly trivial “daily round” or “day in the life” stuff, or subject matter, all of the commonplace richness of the human condition: food and drink and shelter (complete with imperfect toilet facilities) and sleep and a full palette of human aspiration that included every form of sensory activity, including sex–and then being willing and able to celebrate it all, both joyously and sadly on occasion, in song.

This came home to me, vividly, one night, lying in bed after midnight, fully content before falling asleep, having returned “home” after helping Kostos write some letters. No matter how elaborate the demands of potential American or European visitors (frequently professors, on sabbatical, like myself, but these seemed to require a plethora of rooms, toilet facilities, maid service, etc.), Kostos would command, “Vasilis [my Greek name], please, take letters; write, ‘Come to Crete!’” And that was it. He’d rewarded my efforts that evening with a couple shots of what he called “good Cretan water”: soul-bracing, throat-scouring raki. At home, attempting to fall asleep, I heard a group of university students (from a university located on the outskirts of town) coming up the hill by our house after a night at the local disco. Saturday Night Fever had come out in 1977, and John Travolta’s charismatic oscillations were still very much in vogue (not yet pronounced dead by Staying Alive), but these young men, having danced to such music all night, were not singing disco tunes. They were singing a poem from Odysseus Elitis’ epic work Axion Esti, set to music by Mikis Theodarakis:

“Tis agapis aimata me porphirosan/ Kai chares aneithotes me okiasane/ Ocheithothika mes sti votia/ ton anthropon/ Makrini Mitera, Rotho mou Amaranto.”  

“The blood of love has robed me in purple / And joys never seen before have coveredin shade. / I’ve become corroded in the south wind of humankind / Mother far away, my Everlasting Rose.” (Translation: Edmund Keely and George Savdis: The Axion Esti, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974)

I couldn’t believe my ears! These kids were singing, in fine chorus if a tad inebriate, the words of a Nobel prize laureate set to music by one of the finest composers in Greece–and doing so by choice, after an evening of ordinary fun, not coercion. It was the first time I’d heard this amazing cultural phenomenon in Greece, but it would not be the last.

Betty, our son Steve, and I began to explore the harbor area and found a small, casual, cozy restaurant (“Taverna Adelphia”) owned by a family named Koumiotis. Together, the youngest son, Tony (Andonios, who was the same age as Steve) and the oldest son, Thomas, proved to be a force when it came to attracting people of diverse national backgrounds to the place. I’d brought my guitar along on the trip (it proved to be an invaluable “passport”) and even on nights when we’d taken a stroll, sans guitar, and stopped off at the restaurant, Papa Koumiotis would reeve up his motor scooter, stash me on the back, and off we’d go to our house to fetch the instrument. Thus commenced a series of full-fledged hootenannies in which the common denominator of the French, Australians, Germans, Welsh, and Scandinavians present would be the tune “Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” or, after Thomas sang a Greek song that included animals, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” with each nationality providing its own linguistic equivalent for the “critters” called off. Another popular tune at the Koumiotis was the Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

Here are photos of: the entire Kumiotis family with Betty (Mama, Tony, Papa, Thomas); Tony holding the sign I painted for the restaurant (not all that pleased, because “First born” brother, Thomas, insisted I put his own name alone on the bottom):

Greece Kumiotis Family

Greece My Sign for Kumiotis

Even better than these sessions at the restaurant were nights at the Agrelia, a tavern run by a man named Nikko, located in a whitewashed former Venetian stable with vaulted walls (the troughs lodged in the walls now held candles), the place buried amidst the narrow, winding Venetian streets. The Agrelia featured the owner on bouzoukia and an excellent guitarist named Paskalis, assisted by another guitarist named Dotheros. I began to take my guitar there, and on one occasion, that trio playing a Cretan tune with heavy Middle-Eastern overtones, I was told, “You can’t hear our rhythms,” but later, when they tried to play jazz, I got revenge—just short of saying, “You can’t hear our rhythms.” And we all got along beautifully from that point on.

I never heard Nikko speak a word of English, until, much later, on a day in March, the winter chill not having abated but he walking with a Danish girl who’d returned to Crete, I said, “Kanee kreeo” (“It’s cold out.”). Nikko replied, in perfect English, “No longer; I am quite warm now.” Up to that point, the talk and the music had been strictly Greek, which was good enough for me. Especially with regard to the music, although Paskalis refused to write down any lyrics of the songs he’d sung.

Here are: Nikko (bazoukia-player and owner of Agrelia) with Betty; Paskalis; and  Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night. The harbor wall behind him is the one that bore the words “Exos Americanos” (“Americans: Leave!”) when we arrived:

Greece Taverna owner and Betty in Crete            Greece Ponos Guitarist in Crete             Greece Plate Smasher in Crete

“You know that song you sang about ponos (pain) last night?” I would ask; “Would you write down the words for me, parakalo (please)?”

All of our songs are about pain,” he replied, a bit short. “And I’ve heard you speak Greek, good, so all you should need to do is listen. ”

None of the Greeks ever used “charts,” or written words and music, no matter what they played (I had “cheat sheets,” lyrics with the chords, for Leonard Cohen songs, which they seemed to love, Cohen having once lived in Greece). They felt, working strictly from oral tradition as they were, that I should be able to do the same. I began to excuse myself from the taverna, as soon as I heard a song I liked–such as “To Pallikari echei kai ‘mo,” a Theodorakis setting for a poem by Manou Eleutheriou, translated as “the Young Man Is Sad,” but the context of which is really “tonight, the brave young bachelor shall find more grief, because of women”–“kai’mo” being one of those wondrous Greek words which implies a grief so terrible, so unbearable, so full of unamendable sadness, it cannot even be named. I would walk up and down the beach until I had both words and tune down by heart, at which time I would return, proudly, to the taverna. The process required lots of (mental, and emotional) effort on my part, but I filled two notebooks with songs I’d learned by the time we left Greece.

After he had collected names and addresses from foreign tourists his age whom he met at the Koumiotis restaurant, our son Steve left Crete to travel to thirteen different countries on his own (from Egypt to Sweden), and I became a regular at Nikko’s (Betty’s journal began to include entries such as, “Bill took guitar to taverna again last night, and retuned at 3:30 am”). There was music at all hours, night and day. When Betty went to the greengrocer just below our house for eggs, the owner played the lira for her. At the time of Epiphania (Epiphany), children came to the house to sing “Kalanda.” One of these kids, who sported the remarkable name Robogianomis Phragmismos, repeated the words of a song to me in Greek so I might copy them down to translate:

” … I am given/ the pearl, the key/ to open Paradise, to drink cool water,/ to pass into sleep/ beneath an apple tree–/ apples falling at my feet,/ roses upon my head.”

Mama Koumiotis, who had worn black from head to toe following the death of her father, years ago, never left the kitchen of the restaurant (except to shop, I suppose), but she would–from within her “station” there–sing mantinades (popular Cretan couplets, even inscribed on calendars), and I would frantically jot down the words, for she, too, thought I should just listen, and she wouldn’t repeat them:

“Departed, far away,/ the rose that I love,/ yet the fragrance is strong/and still burns me.” Or: “To Psiloritis peak/ the birds cannot go,/ but my love flies there/ and returns, freely.” To which Papa Koumiotis would respond: “Four crosses hang/ upon the neck of the priest;/ the faithful kiss them, but I would rather kiss your cheek.”

Itinerant musicians–bouzoukia, lira players–would arrive in Rethymnon, and word got around quickly (grigora) that they’d be playing at one of the taverns or restaurants. After one of these spontaneous performances at a place called Yannis, I remember watching “Charlie’s Angels” with Thomas and Tony (a very popular program with the pallikaris: “brave young bachelors”), the sentence “You’all can go ta hell in a breadbasket!” translated as “Fige parakalo” (“Please leave”) in the subtitles. While Steve had been in Crete, he and I heard vocalist Viky Moskoliou live at a local theater on which a billboard for an American film, Super Vixens, was translated into Greek as Girls Who Are Dynamite in Bed.

I had once, in my teens, worked as a real estate sign painter, so the Koumiotis asked me to paint a new sign for their restaurant, which I did. It attracted so much attention that fishermen, who were repairing and repainting their boats for spring launching, asked me to re-paint the names on the sides of their boats. I received so many requests that we decided it was time to leave Rethymnon (on sabbatical, the last thing I wanted to do there was work!), and we did, heading north to Paros, in the Cyclades Islands. We would miss the music–and other small stuff, like a guy named Yannis Theodarakis who, following the national ban on shattered crockery occasioned by the movie Never on Sunday, was allowed by the Kumiotis to smash a single plate–just one!–over his head each night: a privilege he took full advantage of. I also had the privilege of meeting a legendary local poet, Andreas Spanouthakis, who recited his poems for university students while he prepared souvlakia (shish-kabob) for them at the grill of the stand he owned.

He also recited–or sang!–his poems for me, and played tapes of rizitika (folk songs from the eastern mountains of Crete). Here he is—and while I’m at it, I might as well toss in a photo of a man playing a goatskin bagpipe (τσαμπούνα: tsambouna). Lots of interesting music in Crete!

Greece Souvlaki Singing Poet            Greece Man playing goatskin bagpipe

The presence of the university (the young people I met spoke pretty good English) had preventing me from using and adding to my mostly (aside from reading) “functional” Greek in Crete as often as I’d wished, so on Paros we deliberately found a place to live about two miles from the town of Pariokia, in a valley, and I had to use the language on a daily basis because our landlord, Tasos, and landlady, Helena, did not speak any English. The taverns in town had all gone strictly “disco,” so there was little cause to go to town at night anyway (no more Agrelia, and Nikko and Paskalis!)–so I settled into a pleasant routine of sitting on our comfortable small porch, which faced a field of barley and other fields being cultivated by our landlord, plus the Aegean Sea, and played and sang the songs I’d learned on Crete.

Here is the house we found on Paros (in the Valley of the “Petaloudes”: Butterflies), as seen from the fields of barley in front of it (with a small chapel just across the path that led to the house); Betty on our front porch—my guitar (a tenor guitar: four strings, tuned like a mandolin) to her left; me with our landlady Helena (right) and her daughter and her child; and our son Steve (who returned eventually from his travels and joined us on Paros), our landlords (Tasos and Helena), a neighbor and her mother.

Greece Our house on Paros

Greece Betty our porch on Paros with guitar     Greece Me with landlady and her daughter on Paros

Greece Steve and Betty with family on Paros

Archilochus:

Paros–and it was not by accident that we had chosen to go there–was the birthplace of my favorite Greek poet of antiquity: Archilochus, born in the first half of the 7th century BCE: inventor of the iambus and a professional soldier. A mercenary with a mind of his own, he was driven out of Sparta because he wrote a poem about abandoning his shield, “beside a bush,” in favor of saving his own life; a poem mocking, in Guy Davenport’s words, “uncritical bravery” (the shield would bring “joy to some Saian,” a soldier from Thrace), and Archilochus felt he could find another just as good elsewhere. The poet was a satirist with a “nettle tongue” so effective that, when a man named Lycambes retracted his daughter’s hand after having promised it to the poet in marriage, the latter’s abusive verses were said to have driven Lycambes to suicide. The influence of Archilochus was so persuasive that both poets Sappho and Alcaeus were said to base their “measures” on his. Plutarch credited Archilochus with the invention of trimester: unique combinations of “unlike measures.” He was also the first poet to employ stanzas of long and short lines, or “epodes,” recitative or rhythmical recitation of poetry to music (and the style of music to which recitative was set); and he has been credited with reciting iambic lines to music and singing the others, a technique afterwards employed by the tragic poets (and opera: recitative!). Archilochus was thought to be the first poet to set the music of an accompanying instrument an octave higher than the voices, instead of in the same register as had been the custom of his day.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian thought Archilochus had acquired “the highest degree of facility” as a poet, possessing the “greatest force of expression,” with phrasing “not only telling but terse and vigorous,” the “abundance of blood and muscle.” Contemporary scholar/poet Guy Davenport names him “the second poet of the West. Before him the arch-poet Homer had written the two poems of Europe,” but Archilochus, both poet and mercenary, was the first poet flexible enough to combine a host of original ingredients that range from satire (his tomb was said to read “Hasten on, Wayfarer, lest you stir up the hornets”) to pure lyricism (The Greek poet Meleager called him “a thistle with graceful leaves”—like 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who described himself as “a cloud in trousers”?).  And Archilochus could be bawdy! A long poem said to be by him (not just a fragment as too many available are) turned up in 1974. Raucous, comic, British poet Peter Green called it “The Last Tango in Paros.” The tone is that of Francois Villon (another favorite poet of mine!) and the concluding lines, as translated by Davenport, read: “I caressed the beauty of all her body/And came in a sudden white spurt/While I was stroking her hair.” On a more delicate note, he defined “music” as “My song/And a flute/Together.” Another fragment states: “Myself the choir-master/ On the chant to Apollo/ Sung to the flute in Lesbos.” Here are two sculpted homages to Archilochus: (Photo credits: aboutparos.gr)

archilochus statue 2    Archilochus statue

Unfortunately, there are no extant phonograph recordings (ho ho) of Archilochus set to  or accompanied by music, but one of my favorite poems of his is so inherently musical that it’s difficult for me to recite it without singing it (I can hear the music!).

Echousa thallon mursines eterpeto/ rodes te kalon anthos, e de oi kome/ omous katestiadze kai metaphrena.

Here’s my own translation (not half as musical, I know!): “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back.”

Archilochus is said to have been killed by a man named “Crow,” who claimed it was “a fair fight” but was banished from temples for having slain a man “sacred to the muses.” Indeed, when the poet’s father inquired about his son’s birth, Apollo himself foretold that he would beget a son who should be immortal. And Archilochus is, through his poetry. I just wish I’d been there to have heard it sung! I did manage to get as close to him, the poet ranked “second only to Homer,” as I could. Betty and I hiked to the cave, located behind Cape Aghios Fokas on a sheer rock cliff, where he was supposed to have sought inspiration. I’m not sure how he ever got down there, unless he invented rappelling by rope as well as the iamb, although the terrain may have changed (considerably) since the seventh century BCE.

Here’s the view from inside the cave where Archilochus wrote his poems–and here I am (that’s not another sculpted homage to Archilochus, ho ho) at the cove (across from a beach in Paros) where Betty and I went each day–and where I wrote my own poems and translated both Classical and Modern Greek poetry: (Photo credit: paros.gr)

Archilochus cave

Greece Bill at our cove in Paros

An interesting article by poet/composer Alan Shaw, “Some Questions on Ancient Greek Poetry and Music” (online, 1997), is set up as a sort of debate, the author responding both “pro” and “con” to questions related to specific issues, such as, “Was ancient Greek a musical language?” Shaw states, right off the bat, that arguments for the “intrinsic musicality of a language are apt to be rather circular” (he provides the example that people may talk of Italian as being musical simply because a number of operas have been written in it–and vice versa!). The prevalence of “open vowels” is cited in favor of Italian as a musical language, but Shaw points out that one could “just as well say that English is more musical than Italian because it has a much greater variety of vowel sounds.”

In favor of the musicality of ancient Greek, he provides evidence of the “intimate relation–indeed the theoretical identity–between Greek music and poetry,” and the fact that the two most basic elements of music–“the duration of sounds and their pitch”–form two “clear and distinct systems” in Greek (whereas they tend to get “confused” in English). In Greek, poetic meter was based on “the relative duration of syllables, which permitted a fairly direct translation into musical terms.” Word accent was based solely on pitch, and “hence has often been called a ‘musical’ accent.”

Here’s a copy of the “original” of a poem by Archilochus–alongside a woodcut print I made of another poem previously cited as I translated it: “She held a myrtle shoot: delight in this and in the rose; her hair shadowed her bare shoulder, and her back”:

Text of a poem by Archilochusarchilochus myrtle shoot

On the “con” side, Alan Shaw finds the notion that “ordinary spoken Greek was naturally closer to music than other languages” misleading (doing actual damage to understanding ancient poetry and its relation to music). “It may be true that certain qualities of the language made it easier for the Greek poet-musician to set words to music,” but the fact that something is done easily “does not necessarily guarantee a superior artistic result.” He refers to English, saying the language falls easily into verse measures of four beats, “which is the ‘common time’ of most Western music,” but this has rarely been used as an argument for the inherent musicality of English, and can actually serve as a “hindrance” as much as an aid for some composers (the four beat pattern is too obvious and has to be evaded–or “transcended”–somehow, I suppose).

Shaw asks if the melodies of ancient Greek music actually followed the accent of a text, and once again, he finds the evidence “confusing,” and the answer is at first “no,” then “yes.” The few available fragments (and there are just a few) from the classical era would suggest that “they did not necessarily do so” (most lyrics were in “strophic form, and a melody designed for one strophe would rarely fit the accentuation of the other”), yet Shaw cites jazz singing as an example of a form, or nomos (a “tune-making formula or family of tunes”) that allows “great freedom in this regard, mostly for purely musical reasons, but often to better express the words of different verses as well.” If there were no requirements at all that different strophes have the same melody, it “may be that the metrical identity–the identical pattern of long and short–between strophes was enough for the Greek ear to recognize them as the same” (“a particularly subtle form of strophic song, of which modem examples could be found as well”).

Here are some samples of Ancient Greek musicians playing instruments that might have accompanied such poetry: (Photo credit: iconicmusicacademy.com; Wikepedia; danaspah.top)

Ancient Greek double flute and lyre

Delphi: Apoll     Ancient Greek double flute

Ancient Greek Music

Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suggested that the similar accent may sometimes have been indicated by a downward rather than an upward “jump in pitch,” and if this happened in ordinary speech, it would make a “correct” observance of accents much easier in singing, especially if “different verses were really required to follow the same melody.” Shaw states that pitch in a musical context is quite different from pitch in ordinary speech (“strange things, akin to optical illusions in painting, can happen”) and that, as song composers know, “the same sequence of pitches can accentuate a syllable in one context, and leave it unaccented in another.”

Did ancient Greek poetry have a beat? “Beat” is quite different in English poetry (the word used as a synonym for “stress” or “accent”) than it is in Greek. “Stress” has no part in classical Greek prosody. The ancient term for “beat” is ictus, which “the testimony of the ancients said clearly existed, at least in poetry associated with the dance,” but its nature was controversial. Again, Shaw finds the issue “relative.” In one sense all music, or at least any music that involves more than one performer, has a “beat” (“otherwise the players or singers couldn’t stay in time”), but we do distinguish music that has a definite beat (such as rock n’ roll) and that which does not (such as Gregorian Chant). “The ethereal rhythms of chant have attracted many as a model for what Greek choral music must have been like.” Like Greek music, chant was monodic, and “drew its rhythms directly from the text”–yet chant was “not danced to, as Greek choral music was.”

Shaw considers other aspects of Greek poetry and music: such as tempo (What happens when you slow it down? Poems recited at a “plodding taste”–T.S. Eliot reading “Prufrock” anyone?–lose the “beat”); duple and triple meter (“Greek verse, scanning by the rule that one long syllable equals two short ones, is often neither clearly in one nor the other”); and Greek musical notation, which consisted “only of marks to indicate pitch; time values, being given by the verse itself, were not needed.” Shaw uses the jazz analogy again: music that “swings” in the sense that “adjacent notes notated with identical time values are made unequal” (my old friend “rubato” again!).

Here’s a range or “collection” of Ancient Greek instruments (Credit: Nikolaos Ioannidis):

Greek musical instruments

In conclusion, Shaw says Greek poetry, when sung, “probably did have a beat,and when it was danced as well,” in which case, “The beat could have been fairly kinetic.” Greek dance figures were identified with certain rhythms, and many steps were performed in time with the music–just as they are today. Shaw does mention another old friend, Archilochus, saying this unique, inventive poet grew weary of the “melodic mythologizing” of his colleagues and wanted “something more down to earth,” for which he devised a meter that, “apart from being regular, had little in it that was suggestive of song,” but was more akin to the dialogue in plays, which was written in iambic trimester–a type of verse “closest to ordinary speech.”

Archilochus preferred “quick iambs, for which slower spondees are unpredictably substituted,” providing a more subtle beat that would find “a successful equivalent in English” as one of the models for the blank verse of Elizabethan dramatists. Archilochus (as he was for so much else) a forerunner of both Shakespeare and William Carlos Williams? It’s quite possible; he was that flexible. I think the good doctor, if not Shakespeare, would be pleased.

One final point within our context of poetry set to music is important: describing the “amateur” or “professional” status of Greek music, Shaw claims that the Greeks made a distinction between musicians exclusively devoted to “the art of sound” (instrumentalists) and “the poet-composer who put noble words to music,” and that in their culture, “the latter had far greater prestige.” “Mere pipers and such might be virtuosos [professionals] but knew nothing of rational music, which always began with words.” Were these poet/composors the sole creators, and the rest [performers] mere interpreters, as in the recent classical tradition? Were the poets simply songwriters, like those of the thirties in America, surrounded by a crowd of creative performers who knew how to flesh out their tunes? Shaw adds, “Certainly by the classical era the poet’s words … were sacrosanct; no one would have thought of changing those. But were the poet’s tunes treated with the same reverence?” His answer is: “The invention of musical notation at about this time would seem to argue that they were, while its relative crudity, and the rarity with which it has been preserved, might lead us to think that the reverence was no greater than, say, a jazzman’s reverence for a Cole Porter tune.” Which, I might add, can by considerable on occasion: witness the highly imaginative pianist Bill Charlap’s respect for, “reverence” of, Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein tunes–and the American Songbook tradition in general.

This seems a good spot to close out on this, the first, of a two “post” look at Greek music and Poetry (both Ancient and Modern). I’ll end with another pilgrimage we made while living in Crete: to Heracleion (capitol and largest city in Crete) to see the grave site of Nikos Kazanzakis (author of Zorba the Greek, The Last Temptation of Christ, Report to Greco, and many other fine works). The text on a stone placed next to the wooden cross on his grave reads: “I hope for nothing; I fear nothing; I am free.”

Grave of Kazantzakis2   kazantzakis grave inscription 3

Next Post: Part Two of “Greek Music and Poetry: Ancient and Modern.”

 

The Puppet Theatre, Duos, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

When I started this blog (in July 2013), I had two “goals” or intentions in mind: (1) to let people know I had a book out I’d been at work on for six years (The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir), and (2) to make use of the somewhat casual or even “chatty” opportunities a blog affords: a new “road” or means of conversation in writing that would allow me to “experiment” with different prose styles and unusual approaches to exploring subject matter—a process similar to practice sessions at the piano or “playing” with an arrangement for a new song of my own. In this way of working (writing), I wouldn’t have to filter out the large and little eccentricities I might have to if I had an “external” editor looking over my shoulder.

In my last blog post, I attempted to combine an account of what I heard and saw at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival with an account of how I heard and saw it, given some vision and vestibular medical issues I’ve been dealing with; and I included an account of research I’d undertaken related to understanding such issues. I promised that, in my next blog (this one), I would simply provide a report on more 2015 MJF performances, without including the “side effects”; however …

I’ve had a subsequent experience that served to sustain my interest in extra-musical effects that make, I feel, music even more interesting and meaningful than it might be “on its own” (so to speak), and by way of diversion ( a habit of mine, I know, but one I see as an integral part of my approach to writing a blog, or a genre I seem to have invented: Blog Baroque), I would like to make a short “pit stop” at a subject allied to music … and then we shall travel back to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival again (I obviously never intended an “on the spot” report of the event, but have finally, eight months hence, found the “larger” frame I hoped to find for it.).

My wife Betty and I attended a Live in HD Transmission of the Metropolitan Opera performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that featured Kristine Opelais (as Cio-Cio-San) and Roberto Alagna (as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton). The principles, and the production itself (Anthony Minghella’s, first offered in 2006), were superb, first-rate—but I was fascinated by a feature I’d never witnessed before (as part of this opera, which I’ve seen several times), and that was a means of presenting Cio-Cio-San’s infant son in the “Humming Chorus” scene in which  Butterfly and her ever faithful servant Suzuki spend their “long vigil through the night” awaiting Pinkerton’s return to Nagasaki after an absence of three years.

Butterfly has given birth to her faithless husband’s son, and by my math (elementary, to say the least), the kid would be about two years old, a role it’s always bothered me to see portrayed by a child actor too far beyond his “terrible twos” to bring it off. Minghella came up with a brilliant solution to this problem: he did not employ an actual human child, but a puppet! This two-year-old came alive, literally, in the hands of three puppeteers (Kevin Augustine, Tom Lee, and Marc Petrosino: members of a trope called Blind Summit Theatre). Dressed from head to toe in black, seemingly “not there,” anonymous, they manipulated Cio-Cio-San’s son’s every gesture and expression—the amazing part of which was the head, which is separated from the body, but has static features (no blinking eyes, no gaping mouth, no twitching nostrils), yet displayed the most poignant regard (love!) for its mother, just by the position of the head in one puppeteer’s black gloved hand, while the other two “worked” the feet and body respectively. It’s an amazing art form, carried out throughout the opera in other ways: black clad figures twirling constellations of stars, and even a love scene featuring a “live” Pinkerton (a dancer, or “motion artist”) and a puppet Cio-Cio-San.

Here are: a scene from the Met production: Butterfly and her son; curtain call (which included the puppet son); in Japanese Bunraku: main puppeteer unhooded (National Bunraku Theater, a style of performance known as dezukai); and three hooded puppeteers manipulating two characters in a play.

Bunraku in Butterfly 2  SONY DSC

bunraku-puppet-maiden   Bunraku Puppet Theatre

Japanese puppet theatre is called Bunraku, or Ningyo joruri—the black clad puppeteers Ningyotsukai. The playwright known as the “Japanese Shakespeare,” Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), often worked in this form because, in the words of scholar/historian Donald Keene, dissatisfied with the “liberties taken with his texts,” he preferred “obedient puppets” to “temperamental actors.” Keene finds the comparison to Shakespeare “an unfortunate identification,” feeling that Chikamatsu’s plays offer instead “a vivid picture of a unique age in Japan, and have a special importance among the dramas of the world in that they constitute the first mature tragedies written about the common man.” One of Chikamatsu’s most popular plays, Sonezaki Shinju (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) does not focus on star-crossed Montagues and Capulets, but a 25-year-old “employee of a dealer in soy sauce” and a 19-year-old courtesan: a clerk and a prostitute—the playwright having lifted his account of the love suicides of such people “from the gossip of a scandal sheet to the level of tragedy.” Keene feels, as I did about Cio-Cio-San’s puppet son, that “the stylization of puppets touches springs of pity and terror forbidden to actors.”

Thinking of the unique mix of this perfect performance on the part of a puppet and the brilliant vocal performances of Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna in Madama Butterfly, and getting closer now to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (in case you’re getting impatient), I thought of another miraculous combination of art forms I’ve encountered lately. In 2012, my wife Betty and I were fortunate to attend not just two full sets at the MJF that year by an amazing pianist from Armenia, Tigran Hamasyan, but his rehearsal session as well. I have his latest CD, Luys I Luso: a unique combination, a “marriage,” of his own brilliant improvisation and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir performing Armenian sacred music from the 5th to the 20th century—or, in Hamasyan’s own words: “a challenge to explore the mystery of Armenian sacred music and to create polyphonic arrangements for melodies by tradition monadic.” I won’t attempt to describe the result in detail, but it’s wonderful: soothing and exciting–a music that can both touch and sting, arrest attention and transcend it. (photo credits: Vahan Stepanyan):

Tigran Hanasian    Tigran Hamasyan 3

Which brings me to the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, and two performers who provided an extraordinary experience there. We all have our favorite duos: Adam & Eve, Batman & Robin, Tom & Jerry, Bonnie & Clyde, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Anthony & Cleopatra, Cheech & Chong, macaroni & cheese, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, Jekyll & Hyde, Watson & Holmes, Lewis & Clark, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, Kirk & Spock, F. Scott Fitzgerald & Zelda, Beavis & Butt-head, Samson & Delilah, Napoleon & Josephine., Mickey Mantle & Roger Maris, The Hardy Boys (Frank & Joe), Nick & Nora Charles—on and on and on …

But now, after the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I have a new favorite pairing up, a duo supreme: pianist Chick Corea & banjoist Bela Fleck.

Armando Anthony “Chick” Corea’s first major professional gig was with Cab Calloway; he went on to play in trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s quintet; recorded his first album as a leader(Tones for Joan’s Bones) in 1966; replaced Herbie Hancock in Miles Davis’ band in 1968 (landmark albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew); experimented with Fender Rhodes electric piano, processing its output with a ring modulator; formed the group Circle with bassist Dave Holland in 1970; played with the crossover jazz fusion band Return to Forever; his composition “Spain” appeared on the group’s Light as a Feather album in 1972; issued My Spanish Heart in 1976 (jazz and flamenco); formed the Chick Corea Elektric Band (1986) and the Akoustic Band; composed his first piano concerto and performed with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1999; duet projects with vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianists Herbie Hancock and Hiromi, and recorded the duet album The Enchantment with Bela Fleck in 2007. Chick Corea has been nominated for 63 Grammy Awards, and has won 22.

New York City born Bela Anton Leos Flack (Bela for Bartok, Anton for Webern, Leos for Janacek) first heard Flatt and Scruggs’ theme for The Beverly Hillbillies when he was five or six years old, and the sound of the banjo, in his words, “just blew me away … like sparks going off in my head.” At age nineteen, he spent a summer playing on the streets of Boston, formed a band called Spectrum with bassist Mark Schatz, and was invited to join the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival in 1981. He formed the group Flecktones with bassist Victor Wooten in 1988; a self-titled CD, a “blubop” mix of jazz and bluegrass, attracted attention at Warner Bros. Records and was released in 1990; in 2003, Bela and the Flecktones released a three-disk set, Little Worlds, and then The Hidden Land, which won the GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2007. Having mastered bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock and world music, in 2001, Bela won the GRAMMY Best Classical Crossover album award with Perpetual Motion–a venture into classical music with longtime friend Edgar Meyer, with whom he set out on a banjo/bass duo concert tour. Next stop: Chick Corea. Bela Fleck has garnered 30 nominations for GRAMMY awards, and received 14 (nominated in more different categories than anyone in GRAMMY history).

Here’s Chick Corea (Photo credit: Roberto Serra) and Bela Fleck (Photo credit: Waltons New School of Music Workshop):

MJF Chick and Bela  MJF Chick and Bela 2

Before they began their set together on the Monterey Jazz Festival main stage at 7:00 Sunday night, I was eating a pulled pork and sauerkraut sandwich from one of the Festival food booths, and Chick Corea strolled by, inconspicuously, and I thought, “Wow! He’s just a guy, like me” (although he wasn’t eating a pulled pork and sauerkraut sandwich), and it struck me later, when he and Bela were performing together on stage: “Wow! They’re just a couple of guys,” for extraordinary improvisation, for them, seemed to come about as naturally, freely, spontaneously as if they were just two guys conversing on a porch in Appalachia, enjoying the mild night air there, and each other’s musical presence. They artlessly produced exquisite art: so thoroughly acquainted with the technical vocabulary that’s become commonplace in jazz, yet so fully steeped in the music’s history (its origin in supple sex and dance), they seemed to transcend all pretense in favor of a level of higher understanding—such as that advocated by the philosopher Spinoza in Rebecca Goldstein’s words: “The world is the all-embracing web of necessary truths intelligible through and through—and our own individual salvation rests in our knowing this. Our own personal salvation … consists in achieving the most impersonal of worldviews … the peace of unity of purpose”; or, in Spinoza’s own words: “the contentment of spirit.”

I’m fascinated that just two people, a duo, can do this, musically or otherwise (no symphony orchestral backing required, or a million-voiced choir). MJF Creative Director Tim Jackson introduced Bela Fleck as “my great banjo musical hero, and this is his first time here with Chick Corea.” In a similar situation, on their recording Two, introduced, Bela waxes modest and tells the audience, “I know Chick Corea is a real hero of you guys, and he sure is to me. It’s frightening at times just to be up here playing with him.” Chick responds, “Likewise,” and Bela says, “You too? Well, because we are so frightened of each other, we’ll use this next tune to recover our nerves.” But there was no sign of nerves at all (just a host of neurons–200 billion: 100 billion each–masterfully employed in making music) the night I heard them at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival.

The first tune they played, one composed by Chick, was “Children’s Song No. 6,” a playfully scattered, free form piece that matched an inquisitive child’s mind searching for answers to who knows what, percussive yet containing a precise roving, all Chick (solo piano) at the start, brooding, teasing, circular swirls, nothing stationary—and Bela’s banjo enters in absolute unison, as if he’d somehow snuck into Chick’s (childlike) mind, the unison dissolving into a playground skirmish, complaints, a kinetic challenge (“It’s mine!” No, it’s mine!”), Bela taking off on a prancing Baroque line above Chick’s chomping comping, handsome interaction between the two. They produced every effect that can be acquired on a keyboard or fretboard: Gerard Manley Hopkin’s “Pied Beauty” (“All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim … ); taking turns to sit out for the other’s “fours”: a joyous encounter, an exchange of attention and response, even retaliation—with a sweet respectful close.

They played a tune that Bela wrote for his wife, Abigail, “Waltse for Abby” (Bela mentioned that their son Juno had been born while he, the father, was performing on stage): this piece opening with Chick offering whole chords, handsomely spaced out, chime-like, then settling into a melody with playful intervals, a theme Bela entered smoothly, a rich exchange captured in both call and response and counterpoint: the overall tone one of domestic joy, a sort of kitchen dance, Chick picking up a phrase  by Bela, repeating it a split second after it occurred: a common conversation taking place between the two, Chick to the forefront with some blues licks, tasty jazz—then back into the lighthearted, jubilant, domestic waltz dance, and out.

“Mountain,” another tune by Bela, had a decidedly Appalachian flavor (I was there, breathing in that mountain air, and music!): a fine folk melody carried by Bela, Chick paraphrasing it—both embodied in a fully relaxed, down home manner–perfect! Chick came across with some quick glisses, a left hand vamp, and both indulged in some good time dissonance that took them back to the theme, which they landed on with a unison smile, a romp broken wide open again and concluding with a swift stop. (photo credit: C. Charles Crothers):

MJF Chick and Bela 3  MJF Chick and Bela 4

For the sake of contrast (and a display of absolute versatility), they played a piece by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725), an Italian Baroque composer famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. The performance was “a little bit of an experiment” (in Chick Corea’s words), and they brought it off brilliantly. Writing in his book Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music, James Anderson Winn shows how composers of madrigals made use of the 14th century Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch’s “rhetorical strategy of alternating and suspending contrarieties within his own ethos … joy and lament, hope and despair, certitude and doubt,” allowing a dialectical unity to evolve out of multiplicity through patterns of shading and contrast, challenge and fulfillment, assertion and negation”—expressive value emerging alongside constructive technique. Winn also mentions Carlo Gesueldo da Venosa (1566-1613), a musician best known for writing intensely expressive madrigals that employed a wide harmonic vocabulary and chromatic language not heard again until Wagner (Stravinsky’s fondness for Gesualdo “was a recognition of kinship.”).

I’ve thrown in this aside on musical history because, on the night I heard Chick Corea and Bela Fleck together, I was in awe of the large sweep of musical history they offered, the vast repertoire they included in their performance together. They ended what I witnessed with an encore: Chick’s tune “Armando’s Rhumba,” a perfect denouement with its fully engaging rhythm, exotic flavor, and absolutely tight unison work. They were two Masters at play—a duo in the best sense of the word (Steven Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate: “The world presents us with non-zero-sum games in which it is better for both parties to act unselfishly than for both to act selfishly (better not to shove and not be shoved than to shove and be shoved.”)). Bela Fleck plays banjo with the deft ease, the light dexterity of a master musician on a harpsichord (and not just on the Scarlatti piece!), and Chick Corea plays piano with the graceful intentionality of someone enjoying … infinity! It was an impeccable performance.

I said I could have spent the entire weekend listening to the two of them work their magic, but obviously there was a feast of other fine performances going on. Before we part from “duos,” let me mention a set that featured two musicians listening to music and then talking about what they heard: Latin jazz great Pete Escovedo and his daughter virtuoso drummer Sheila E. (both of whom performed in Pete’s 80th birthday celebration on the main stage on Sunday afternoon). The first occasion (the “listening” session) was Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test set on Saturday. (Photo credit: Mars Breslow):

MJF Pete and Sheila E   MJF Pete and Sheila E 3

DownBeat Publisher Frank Alkyer announced that this would be another anniversary: the 20th for which Dan (“a leading voice in contemporary jazz journalism”) has been host. My wife Betty and I are pleased to have had Dan stay at our home, along with Oakland photographer Stu Brinin, for the past seventeen of those twenty years—a ritual, or tradition, we hope to sustain in the future (Dan, Stu, and I enjoying Three Musketeers comradery throughout the weekend). As for the afternoon of the 20th, Frank Alkyer introduced Pete Escovedo and Sheila E. as “the most famous father and daughter team in music, without a doubt.”

This duo came through handsomely, and with considerable humor, throughout the Blindfold session: Pete identifying the artist immediately when Dan played Tito Puente’s “3-D Mambo,” and Sheila E. responding, “This [tune] was in my dad’s expansive collection when I was growing up. He played it a thousand times. I was only 6 or 8, but if he says Tito, then it must be him.” When she guessed “Machito” correctly as the artist (her father confessed he couldn’t name the orchestra on the next tune), Sheila E. rose from her chair and performed a zestful dance downstage—and when a member of the audience identified the alto saxophonist on the recording as Cannonball Adderley, she cried, “This guy deserves a hug,” and she gave him one!

Sheila E. found guitarist Marc Ribot’s “Como Se Goza En El Barrio” a “tough one” to identify, saying, “It sounds like my dad when he’d been out drinking all night” (adding that, later in her life, she enjoyed doing the same with her dad). A final piece Dan played again brought an immediate correct response from Pete Escovedo: “That’s the great Carmen McRae and Cal Tjader. I’ve always loved her singing. You don’t hear people like that anymore.” Sheila E. responded, “The style and the sound takes me back to when I was young. It reminds me of the Bay area—my dad, my family having fun, the food, the dancing all the time. When it was playing, it makes you want to stand up and do the cha-cha. In fact, I could see people in the back doing that.”

Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Tests bring out the best in everyone!

This wasn’t a duo (unless you want to multiply two by four and add one), but the John Santos Sextet, with guests Oristis Vilato, Jose Roberto Hernandez, and Ernesto Oviedo, offered a fully engaging set in Dizzy’s Den on Saturday night. Master percussionist Santos is, as a presence on stage, my idea of a “class act,” wearing a sport coat and tie and a white hat with a dark band (one of many such hats, I suspect, in his possession). He is an inspiring gentleman who takes time to provide an exegesis of the music itself, nothing extraneous, serving to enhance that music through understanding of it: paying homage to a Cuban Golden Era, “the roots of our music, with its rainbow range of colors … jazz is a clave born art form … the most natural thing.” At the start, flutist John Calloway and tenor saxophonist Melecio Magdaluyo provided a handsome exchange above Saul Sierra’s bass vamp, and the full infectious rhythm took hold, offset by pianist Marco Diaz’s fine clave configurations and John Santos’ own substantial nimble-fingered congas offerings. (Photo credits’ # 1 & 4: Tom Ehrlich; #2: SF Jazz; #3: John Santos and Ernesto Oviedo at Mini Amoeba Tent at MJF):

MJF John Santos 2   MJF John Santos

MJF Santos and Oviedo    MJF Santos and Oviedo 2

Oristis Vilato was introduced, playing bongos and timbale, and then Jose Roberto Henandez on guitar, and just when it seemed there could be no further way to flesh out such a first-rate group, Santos introduced Ernesto Oriedo, Havana’s 77-year-old (in writer Andy Gilbert’s words) “preeminent interpreter of romantic boleros, the heart-on-sleeve ballads honed to poetic perfection in Havana and Mexico City and beloved across Latin America.” Santos met Oviedo on a trip to Cuba in 1990, and says, “He’s like my Cuban father.” Santos has recorded and hopes to release an album featuring Oriedo, saying, “Like a lot of the musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club, Ernesto has been on the quiet side. He’s worked all these years, but always as one of the singers in a group and never led his band. I think it’s time that changed.” On Saturday night, the presence of Ernesto Oriedo matched that of Santos himself in dignity and emotive performance skill—his elegant voice at one with the group, yet rising, handsomely, aloft.

I had been looking forward to the long-form commissioned piece, The Forgotten Places, by exceptional trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, presented on the main stage on Saturday night—a work that turned out to be extremely “atmospheric” (and ambivalent) for me: wisps of synthesized wind mixed with what, at first, seemed vocalise but turned out to be words that suggested syntactical semblance but not much symantic accessibility. When I could comprehend them, they seemed overtly obvious (“ … the way it used to be … my hope is where my heart is …”): an odd combination of effects which, along with stark contrast in the music, produced the ambivalence I mentioned. Whereas Hideaki Aomori provided fine work on clarinet and Sam House on piano, sudden gratuitous orchestral surges were mixed with Maeve Gilchrist interludes on a harp, and Okkyung Lee’s cello solo evolved into dissonant passages that resembled a prolonged scream (“dreamlike” in the sense that Carl Yung meant when he said we go crazy at night so that we may remain sane by day?). The strangest “omission,” for me, was that of Akinmusire himself: his tasteful, skillful tone so little in evidence anywhere in the piece.

The composer spent a weeklong retreat at the rustic Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur, and “realized that this piece has to be about [his] experience there … reminded that solitude not only lives within us, it can also be a luxury,” and while the results did reveal the contrast between north Oakland and Glen Deven Ranch, “the forgotten places within yourself,” I couldn’t help but crave more direct involvement (performance) on the part of Ambrose himself. Later that night, Dan Ouellette would take me to task for splitting in the middle of the commissioned work, and would write, himself, in DownBeat: “From the tranquil mysterious beginning … to its surprising rhythmic conclusion, the band [a “chamber nonet”] took the crowd on a journey that was part reflection, part awakening. While the individual sections of the composition lacked the powerful, dramatic surges that often flow through a new commissioned work, Akinmusire sustained an energy throughout the piece that kept the audience mesmerized”—so, while I was by no means mesmerized, perhaps (“faith and patience”: a mantra I ordinarily attempt to put into practice) I should have stuck it out for the “surprising rhythmic conclusion,” or “awakening.”

I may have made up for my mistake at 10:30 on Saturday night, when I attended Ambrose Akinmusire’s set with his quartet in the nightclub, and walked in on a handsome ballad on which he fully displayed the rich combination of expressive value and constructive technique he’s known for—and followed that up with a full set of artful music.

Other sets I enjoyed: opening night’s “Jaco’s World: A Celebration of the Music of Jaco Pastorius,” with a very tight orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza—excellent arrangements fleshed out by solos by top flight saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Bob Sheppard in that section,  Peter Erskine on drums, Chistian McBride on bass, with Will Lee and Jaco’s son Felix providing solos front and center on electric bass. Vocalist Tierney Sutton sang Jaco’s “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” and the set closed out with a rousing Afro-Cuban, R & B rendering of “Come On, Come Over” (“We’ll sing the tune”)—the musical homage accompanied by videos with clips from Jaco Pastorius’ life shown overhead.

On a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon that drove most of the Jimmy Lyons main arena audience to a narrow zone of comfort, just six seats in each row in the shade of the left hand side (I thought I’d stick this situation out and occupy my assigned seat, at which heroic task I lasted no more than a few minutes), Snarky Puppy put on a good show, the young big band aggregate formed at the University of North Texas (“famed for its jazz studies program”), now based in Brooklyn, a “infectiously fun and seriously musical jazz/funk/R&B collective … For years, the underdog band played house parties and slept in people’s basements, but now enjoying the kind of success most musicians dream of” (as described in the MJF program). Snarky Puppy proved to be the crowd-pleasing “hip, soulful, energetic” and “explosive” aggregate they are advertised as. (Photo credit: Christi La Violette).

MJF SnarkyPuppy

Because of commitments elsewhere, I missed hearing Kurt Rosenwinkel and Lizz Wright (I did hear the latter when she first appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival several years ago)—two performers who provided excellent sets I was told. Such a wide fine range of music to take in over a weekend! Creative Director Tim Jackson’s genius for programming came through once again—and I only have one mild complaint that I and my journalist colleagues shared with regard to a “user friendly” facility we once enjoyed. This year the last portion of the Turf Club we could retire to for a glass of beer or wine and grand shop talk, had been converted to a “District 7 Premier Club” far beyond our humble price range (perhaps anyone’s, for we hardly saw a soul partaking of the comforts there all weekend).

However, the ever resourceful Stu Brinin discovered a comfortable venue at a far end of the Fairgrounds serving Guinness that allowed us to escape the heat—and we enjoyed a conversation with the members of the vocal group Duchess (Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, Melissa Stylianou), who’d taken refuge at a table adjacent to ours before their Sunday evening Garden Stage set. I’d heard Amy presenting a thoroughly enjoyable, and productive, “Jazz for Kids Concert” at the Jazz Education Stage that afternoon: introducing tunes to kids by asking, “Have you been anywhere interesting on your travels with your parents?”—their avid responses leading into “Route 66”; or, “Do you ever have an argument with one your siblings?” leading into “Let’s Get Away from It All” (“You say ‘either,’ I say ‘ei-ther,’ et cetera.). Very cool.

And one last final “plug” for the two exceptional musical artists I wrote about in my last blog: vocalist Cyrille Aimee (I wrote about her CD It’s a Good Day, but I highly recommend her Cyrille Aimee + Friends Live at Smalls and Let’s Get Lost as well; and pianist Justin Kauflin (listen to what he does with “A Day in the Life” on his first CD Introducing Justin Kauflin). The documentary focused on his remarkable friendship with Clark Terry, Keep on Keepin’ On, is one of the most moving jazz-oriented documentaries I have ever seen!

Here’s Duchess (Photo credit: Mini Amoeba tent at MJF); Cyrille Aimee (Photo credit: mackavenue); and Justin Kauflin (Photo credit: YouTube: “Mom’s Song” (Live at the Edye Broad Stage)}:

MJF Duchess        MJF Cyrille Aimee 3

MJF Justin Kauflin 2

And that, folks, is it for the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (eight months after the event—but “remembered in tranquility”—and with a few of those extra-musical elements which can add so much to the music itself. Next post coming up (and soon, for I’ve already written it!) will be on Greek music, ancient and modern. Stay tuned.