I love a statement I found attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: “I wish to be known all over Europe for my humility.” Throughout my time as a writer and musician, I’ve tried to harbor a similar inclination, a sort of quiet pride in what I’ve done, but I am also well aware that, as far back as 1959, author Norman Mailer espoused, when it came to calling attention to one’s own work, what is a more efficacious attitude. He published Advertisements for Myself—and set the tone for a future we are all a part of now. So here’s Bill’s Blog.
At the close of my last blog post (“Apology for Sabbatical Leave—and Resumption of Bill’s Blog”), I wrote that “Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.” A better phrase might have been “engage in.”
At the time, and that was in early May (too much time between posts, I know, but once again I will attempt to explain why), I had resumed work on another writing project: what began (over-ambitiously) as a book, but turned into a series of individual articles on Poetry and Song. I contemplated posting a portion of a piece called “Renaissance Song,” which focused on Elizabethan era composers such as Thomas Campion (a first-rate poet who could also provide first-rate musical settings for the words: a rare, and fortunate, combination)—and also included some thoughts on W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman’s excellent, insightful introductions to their An Elizabethan Song Book.
However—as happened throughout the long delay that occasioned “An Apology for Sabbatical Leave,” I somehow found myself buried in alternate projects (and even actually work, getting hired to do some writing no less!), and that activity would occupy me for three months, building up to a performance I gave (on July 15) with two exceptional musicians at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, California: a “launch” for a book of mine just published, Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958.
The participants were Richard Rosen (harmonicas), Manuel Macucho Bonilla (cajon: a box-shaped percussion instrument originally from Peru—as is Macucho himself), and I: piano, vocals, and reading short passages from the book we “fleshed out” with songs from the era the book is about–songs such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Nature Boy.”
The photos are: one Betty took amidst the standing room only audience; the band: Macucho, Richard Rosen, and I set for the “show,” focused, ready to go; three shots of the miraculous hands of Macucho at work and play; a close up of Richard going solo; the “author” signing a book for Michael Fields (himself a fine musician) after the reading/musical program; and signing a book and chatting with Cynthia Beach Guthrie (who was there with her husband Dick, both fine writers, and Dick known to sing a song or two himself on occasion).
I feel a good time was had by all; entertaining (I hope) stories got told (from Going Solo: AMemoir 1953-1958); and engaging music was made (songs with which people could connect; our friend Jane Haines wrote on Facebook: “The presentation was wonderful. I was floating after the opening lines. I stayed aloft, lifted by the words, the melodies, the beat. Thank you for a marvelous afternoon.”). And I even sold some books!
The Monterey Jazz Festival will celebrate its 60th anniversary soon (September 15-17) and, since the turn of the year, I have been involved in three projects leading up to that occasion. I was rehired to provide copy for 26 more JAZZBUS shelters–with only a month to complete my portion of the project: 100-word “histories” for each year, 1991-2017; but we got the job done and the new material is now up “around town.” I am pleased to have been a part of this great project (thanks again, Phil Wellman!)—each JAZZBUS and each stop, or shelter (with histories, classic photos, and a provision to listen to the music of a particular year), providing daily reminders to folks throughout the community that such a thing as “jazz” exists as a vital part of our lives.
Next: a good friend of mine (with whom I’ve been playing music and making videos; you can find one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyGYDv67ToI), Bob Danziger, was asked to create videos that will introduce individual sets on the main stage throughout the weekend of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (The 60th anniversary celebration), and Bob asked me to assist as an “historical” consultant–which I did. Bob’s considerable talent—and his respect for the artists represented–will be displayed by way of six excellent, fully engaging videos. And THEN: Artistic Director Tim Jackson phoned and asked if I would write copy for two exhibits of 60 years of MJF posters and program covers (“Monterey at 60! A Visual Feast”), which I also did. One exhibit, at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, is on display now (Betty and I went to a reception Friday night, and that “show” looks good); the other will be up in what used to be the Coffee House Gallery, but is now the California Jazz Café.
Here are some photos from the JAZZBUS project I’ve posted before: yours truly beside one of the shelters, a shelter (1978) by itself, and one of Pablo Lobato’s brightly colored and handsomely designed buses. After those photos, a sampling of posters: from the Monterey Jazz Festival’s first year, 1958; Earl Newman’s scandalous 1964 poster (a bit of Festival folklore: in the book Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, I wrote: “Newman’s official poster featuring a stylized drawing of a saxophone player drew an X-rating from the mayor of Monterey, who asked shopkeepers to withdraw it from their windows. The three hundred posters that were printed immediately became collector’s items and the mayor was deemed by many to be a prude.”); Earl’s first trumpet on a chair (which would become a Festival icon) poster, 1967 (Earl’s hand-printed posters, of which he would provide a total of ten in the 1958-1979 era, would become synonymous with the Festival itself, defining these placards as works of art); Jerry Takagawa’s poster for the 50th anniversary in 1967; Pablo Lobato’s 2009 poster; a very striking 2013 poster (Phil Wellman/Maria Corte); and this year’s poster, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The lineup of artists who will perform at the 60th anniversary event is extraordinary. To cite all of them would take pages, so I’m just going to put together a gallery of portraits (photos) of those I hope to see and hear. On Friday night, September 17: Herbie Hancock—who will open the Festival, and close out the weekend on Sunday night in a “Two Master/Two Pianos” performance with Chick Corea—which should be sensational (I have a copy of their 1978 Columbia acoustic piano double LP, recorded in San Francisco and San Diego, An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea in Concert) and to see and hear them–live!–together, now, should be a rare treat!
On Friday night, the great Kenny Barron (with Roy Hargrove, Sean Jones, and Perdito Martinez) will offer a “Tribute to Dizzy Gillespie at 100″ (I’ve had the blessing of hearing Kenny Barron play piano at MJF with artists such as Stan Getz and Regina Carter)—and, Regina Carter will perform in a “Simply Ella” homage (a tribute to you-know-who). (Photo Credits: NNDB, Radio Serenidad, The Mercury News, NPR)
Unfortunately, the weekend’s overall fare is so abundant, I am going to have to make some quick moves (not so easy at this age!) to take it all in—to also “catch,” on Friday evening: vocalist Roberta Gambarini and drummer Matt Wilson with his group Honey & Salt, out on the grounds. Saturday afternoon offers Monsieur Perine (“Global Fusion—South American style”) with Catalino Garcia’s “Sugar-sweet, sunshiny vocals at the center of their signature ‘swing a la Columbia’ style”; and Mr. Sipp (“The Mississippi Blues Child”). Pianist Joanne Brackeen performs out on the grounds—and my journalist buddy Dan Ouellette conducts a DownBeat Blindfold Test with saxophonist Tia Fuller. (Photo Credits: AllMusic, The Seattle Times, NBC News, Nashville Public Library, DR Jazz Festival, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola).
Because of the amount of writing I’ve been doing for the 60th anniversary celebration coming up (just a week away now!), I did not attempt a full account (as I usually post on this blog each year) for the 2016 MJF—although I did post an account of sets by Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter. I had hoped to write about two exceptional vocalists I heard that year: Claudia Villela and Somi, but before I could get around to that, I received another “call” (this in the form of an email letter) asking me to contact Leonard Nelson (a Video Production Manager), who was at work on a “Festival Fun Facts” project that would acknowledge people (such as Bob Danziger) who’d created the previously mentioned videos to be shown (introducing individual artists)—and include, at the suggestion of Managing Director Colleen Bailey: slides related to festival trivia or amusing incidents.
I did call Leonard and we discussed what might be included, and I agreed to provide two sentence anecdotes, or verbal vignettes (incidents that have become part of MJF folklore)—and I had no trouble coming up with twenty-two such items. Leonard Nelson has already responded with three handsome samples of what will be shown at this year’s event. I will not “unveil” his fine work here, but I can post a few of my favorite “fun facts,” as I rendered them in words. They do represent another side of this great event—“behind the scene” stories folks may not be as familiar with as they are the music itself. Here are a few:
1. The MJF had acquired a fleet of Oldsmobiles as transportation for performers. When popular Sarah Vaughan, known as “Sassy,” came out of her hotel and saw one of these cars awaiting her, she said, “We do not ride in Oldsmobiles,” and officials had to search all over town for a stretch limo to take her to the fairgrounds.
2. 1967: The Festival audience was dancing in the aisles to Big Brother and the Holding Company and Janis Joplin, who finishing her set, blew her nose on the Main Stage curtain, climbed into her blue Hillman Minx stuffed with junk food wrappers, and drove off to ultimate fame. [Thanks again, Rick Carroll, for that story.]
3. 1971: Herbie Hancock made his first solo appearance, but after 45 minutes of what he considered “noodling avant-garde,” Jimmy Lyons told stage manager Paul Vieregge to close the curtain—and when Hancock, well into his solo, opened his eyes, his audience was gone.
4. 1979: “The Night The Lights Went Out”: a major power failure on opening night left Dizzy Gillespie stranded on stage in the dark, until the audience lit matches and lighters, and Stan Getz strolled out to lend his mellow sound to “’Round Midnight.”
5. 1995: Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval was scheduled to play at the MJF, but took the wrong plane, to Monterey, Mexico—not California. He would make it safely in 1997, as part of Dave Grusin’s orchestra for West Side Story.
6. 2008: Jamie Cullum joined Kurt Elling on stage in Dizzy’s Den, and after singing “Say It (Over and Over Again)” together, they engaged in some playful banter, Cullum, who is quite short, alluding to a woman offering the phrase “Tall, dark, and handsome,” Elling responding, “I don’t believe she was talking of you.” Cullum: “I have a very high opinion of myself”: Elling: “That’s not something visible to the naked eye”; Cullum: “Small things come with big packages.”
I love continuity, continuance, unbroken and consistent existence, endurance, longevity—and the Monterey Jazz Festival has certainly provided that over the years. As I wrote in the Introduction to the two exhibits of posters: “Alongside sixty years of some of the greatest jazz the world has ever known, the Monterey Jazz Festival, on its 60th anniversary, intends to honor the posters which embody the spirit of the Festival as a whole: posters which represent all the great music and the complementary ‘scene’ that exists just outside the venues hosting the music.”
Continuity can be found by surprise on occasion. I recently heard from an excellent jazz pianist I wrote about in Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (University of Michigan Press, 2004): Kei Akagi. He contacted me, after thirteen years, to let me know about his new CD, Kei Akagi Trio: Contrast & Form, his 14th album release as a leader, recorded with a “permanent trio based in Tokyo.” Akagi himself is a Professor of Music at the University of California, Irvine.
Here are: Kei Akagi at the piano, and the cover of the book Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within (Photo Credit: UCI Music Department):
In my next blog post, I’d like to continue the theme of “More About Music,” and write about this recording, and three other CDs I have by Kei Akagi: Sound Circle: The Asian American Trio (with drummer Akira Tana and bassist Rufus Reid), Mirror Puzzle, and Playroom.
Until then: if I do not see you at the 60th anniversary Monterey Jazz Festival celebration, I’m sure I’ll want to tell you about what I heard and saw there, as best I can—and more than likely in a still-excited state of recent exposure. Long live the Monterey Jazz Festival!
“But nothing promised that is not performed” is the last line of Robert Graves’ fine poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” It’s a line I have more than likely quoted too often, by way of apology (for promises I’d made myself, but failed to make good on, failed to “perform”) in this blog—but, here I am in that position again.
I find it hard to believe I have not offered a blog post since February (!!), yet I also find it not so difficult to believe that’s true, when I look at what was marked on the calendar for the past three months—can’t believe just how perpetually busy I’ve been(and at age eighty-one, when I should be sitting in a full lotus–which I can no longer manage–on some mountain top, just saying ”Om” or humming favored melodies from the movie La La Land). I have managed to stay busy, both as an actual working stiff (more about that in a moment) or doing lots of what I love, but in areas other than this blog.
Back in February, when I did last post a piece (“The Worlds of Poetry Part Two”), I wrote that I would soon get back to writing about jazz (with an emphasis on the Monterey Jazz Festival, which I’d witnessed as far back as September 2016); and then I believe I did the same with regard to some fine music I heard on an October trip to Connecticut. However, between September and February, I got sidetracked on other subjects (“Imagination and Hard Science”; “Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence”; “The Worlds of Poetry: Part One”: and “The Worlds of Poetry: Part Two.”)—and I am grateful to those of you who follow this blog–the many Faithful–for sustaining ongoing “traffic” over the past three months: Bill’s Blog visits from folks in the USA (253), UK (29), Greece (24), France (19), Germany (15), Brazil (9), Canada (8), and MANY more countries. Thanks!
Most persistent throughout that time, as both a distraction and as a task that took on major proportions, has been completing a four year book project: just now done, finished (the last stage reading proof), a four year project soon to appear as a book in print: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. Here (just to exhibit the fact that I’m not merely “making up” excuses for such a long delay for this blog post) are: the front and back cover of Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958. The work should be available as a book at amazon.com fairly soon. I’ll let you know when!
Alongside all that work came a very pleasant surprise: another project, but one unanticipated. If there’s been a long delay on a blog report on last year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, another contributing factor–ironically–was getting re-hired to contribute copy (100-word histories) for twenty-six new MST/MJF JAZZBUS shelters. We (MJF graphic designer Phil Wellman and I) had just a month to complete our share of work on these. Four years ago, I contributed copy for the initial stage of this project, and wrote the following about that activity on Bill’s Blog: “The Monterey Jazz Festival/Monterey-Salinas Transit JAZZ BUS lines … feature bright orange vehicles decorated with lively designs, each shelter providing historical photos, my copy (on Festival highlights), and music (when you make a smart phone connection with a bar code) from the year represented —all while you wait for your bus!” To see how all this works, check out Phil Wellman’s national award winning TV ad for the JAZZBUS lines at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk9IhA9g7Ek.
Here are some photos of the project. I’m standing beside one of the shelters for which I provided copy (1963: the year Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk made their first appearances at the Monterey Jazz Festival):
I posted photos from and an account of our trip to Connecticut on Facebook, not long after it occurred, but for our purposes here (all that jazz I’ve been promising), here’s an abbreviated account that focuses on what my wife Betty and I heard by way of music, while there. In Old Saybrook, we commenced nearly every morning at Carol Adams’ Ashlawn Farms Coffee House (with her exceptional double espresso for me, accompanied by tasteful—mostly jazz standards by top artists—background music selected by Carol), and we ended nearly every evening with live music: listening to the Tuxedo Junction Big Band at Bill’s Seafood in Westbrook; enjoying the genial ambiance at the Griswold Inn in Essex (where they offer a wide range of music every night; we heard the Shiny Lapels band there, and returned for a “Psychedelic 60s” night); attended an exceptional production of “Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz,” at The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam: a musical that featured Ruby Rakos as a young Judy Garland; and thoroughly enjoyed one last evening of music, at the Copper Barn in Somers, where we practically sat on top of the Java Groove quartet (Check out their presence on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/javagroovemusic/). I had a good talk with guitarist James Alio: this group my favorite of all those we heard: tight, swinging, fine ensemble and solo work—and lots of the best Sinatra tunes.
Here’s the quartet at work (and play), and a poster for one of their gigs (Photo Credits: facebook.com/javagroovemusic and beeandthistleinn.com)
When we returned from Connecticut, I not only resumed work on the book project (Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958) and undertook the resuscitation of the JAZZBUS shelters, but commenced a series of musical projects: recording songs I had written myself (four of them) with Bob Danziger (on synthesize-sampled “cello”), Heath Proskin (bass) and yours truly on piano. There was a sense of urgency, necessity on these sessions, for—having worked (played music) with Heath for fourteen years, he was leaving the Monterey Bay area to live in Sacramento, where his wife Celina, having graduated with a medical degree, has undertaken a new job.
Here are the results of two of those musical projects: the first an audio version (Bandcamp) of an original poem called “Genesis” set to music I composed (the poem itself, which, at poetry readings, I recite over the musical accompaniment–included on the Bandcamp site), anda YouTube video of a poem called “Kindness: A Song for Betty” (Betty is my wife of sixty years), the words of which are shown alongside photos of Betty–the film a result of the musical, visual story telling and production skills of the amazing Bob Danziger.
As if all this didn’t keep me preoccupied enough (Be patient: the disclaimers are almost over, although I hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am recalling the immense amount of positive, productive activity they occasioned–and the results), I gave a reading at Old Capitol Books in Monterey, CA, with an excellent poet named Cathleen Calbert. Here she is, the cover of her book The Afflicted Girls, a flyer for the event itself (at which I did read “Genesis” and another poem, a translation of a poem by Osip Mandelstam, “This Constant Wish,” available in audio on Bandcamp also: https://billminor.bandcamp.com/track/osip-mandelstams-constant-wish), and two shots of me: playing the CD I would read over, and … well, just lost in thought perhaps.
In March, soprano Norma Mayer and her husband, Richard Mayer (flute and arrangements) and I presented an in-house concert (at their home): “An Afternoon with William Blake,” which featured Norma and Richard performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song settings of Blake’s poems—and I read other poems by Blake and talked about the genius of this poet/artist and his life in general. We had given two previous performances of this “show” at the Cherry Center for the Arts in Carmel, CA—and this past March we drew a “full house,” and the musical performance by Norma and Richard was … well, sublime. Here’s a photo of the three of us:
I’ll toss in one more activity or project undertaken recently—another YouTube video. Patricia Hamilton, of Park Place Publications (which is responsible for the book I have coming out soon: Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958), is also publishing a book about the town my wife and I (and formerly our sons) have lived in for forty-six years: Pacific Grove. The book will be called Life in Pacific Grove, and Patricia is collecting stories from “all the people who are enjoying life in our special corner of the world”—hoping “to create a snapshot in time … a tapestry woven of the many threads that make up our community.” She suggested I might write a song about the town, in connection with the book project—so having lots of free time on my hands (ho ho), I did so. Here are the results, on You Tube (the lyrics to the song included in the video). I did offer a disclaimer with regard to the vocal when I posted the song on Facebook (I’m no Nat “King” Cole—whose sense of pitch, and poise, made him my idol among singers), but I refrain from any extensive apologies for what you hear. I’ll only say the video was made in good fun, and hope it’s received that way. You can find it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-8Nvjn_sUo&feature=youtu.be.
In the midst of all this artistic activity, we somehow managed to squeeze in a trip to San Francisco Giants Spring Training Camp (and saw two games) in Phoenix, Arizona—where Betty’s two sisters, Wendy and Nora live. Back home, at night, I watched a lot of Golden State Warriors basketball (nearly every game). I’d made another promise not to discuss medical matters on either Facebook or this blog, but I’ll slip in a quick confession that, alongside visual and vestibular “issues” I’ve been dealing with for some time, my blood pressure took a sudden unhealthy climb or rise–but that situation is under control now, …so this, Folks, is how I have spent my sabbatical leave from blog production from February until now; and it’s time now, I feel, to write something about my favorite“acts” at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival–but maybe not as much as I’d hoped to, because of ALL I’ve offeredhere (of one nature or another) already (I’ll save the leftovers for the next Blog, so I can make sure I give you the relatively complete story I promised back in February).
At the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival (2016), I was eager to see and hear tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, Showcase Artist of the year and scheduled to play three sets: with his group Still Dreaming (in the Night Club), with The Bad Plus (in the Arena), and with another quartet of his own (in Dizzy’s Den), to close out Sunday night. In effect, he was slated to both open and wrap up last year’s Festival
I was especially keen to see him with the two different groups of his own, for I have been following his career since 1997, when I wrote about him in Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years, in a chapter called “Sunday’s All-Stars,” devoted to the Festival’s Jazz Education Program, of which Josh had been a part, emerging–as I wrote—“as one of the most illustrious graduates of the Festival’s High School All-Star Big Band program” (Redman graduated from Berkeley High School, class of 1986, after having been a part of the award-winning Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble for all four of his high school years.). I had also served as script writer for a film documentary produced by Clint Eastwood (same title as the book: Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years), a film in which Josh served as a host, alongside another All-Star Big Band graduate, Patrice Rushen.
The saxophonist’s opening set in the Night club featured himself, Ron Miles on pocket trumpet, Scott Colley on bass, and my favorite drummer, Brian Blade (I had once written–without too much exaggeration–that I could spend an entire Festival weekend just listening to Brian Blade play drums, solo—he’s that good!). The Still Dreaming group would pay homage to a predecessor, Old and New Dreams, which had featured Josh’s father, Dewey Redman, on tenor sax; Don Cherry on pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden on bass; and Ed Blackwell on drums—all Ornette Coleman alumni who shared his revolutionary musical vision “in their own uniquely personal ways throughout their careers” (to quote the Festival program notes), so that “when the four of them came together at various points from 1976-1987, the results were never short of magical.”
And the same would prove true of the set I witnessed featuring Still Dreaming. Here are photos of that group, alongside Old and New Dreams (Photo Credits: mercurynews.com and sfjazz.org/onthecorner):
A popular Los Angeles DJ named Leroy introduced the members of Still Dreaming as “some of the more beautiful personalities in the business … Give ‘em a hand”—and the group commenced with a cool, fairly straight ahead “groove” that stressed Ron Miles’ pocket trumpet subtlety, Scott Colley’s steady accents, and Brian Blade’s truly exquisite brush work—this inception flavored with an engaging dissonance occasioned by overlapping sound, echoes of one another, call and response; then mutual free play, its wild turn followed by a lyrical lull, a gentle drone, and then back to the solid main theme—the close further enhanced by the Billy Higgins smile Brian had maintained throughout. The tune–announced a bit later–was “Blues for Charlie.” About the opening tunes (and the set in general), Andy Gilbert wrote: “Still Dreaming helped to open the 59th Monterey Jazz Festival with loose-limbed grit and capering grace, as Blade made every tune feel like it was designed for dancing. Joshua joked at one point that the project “is a tribute to a tribute band, which is kind of postmodern,” but there wasn’t a jot of air-quote irony in the performance, whether the quartet was playing Cherry’s seductively sinuous ‘Guinea’ and Dewey’s scorching ‘Rush Hour,’ or originals like Joshua’s spaciously lowdown ‘Blues for Charlie’ and Colley’s buoyantly bouncing ‘New Year’ (which sounded like kissing kin to Ornette’s ‘Una Muy Bonita).”
When Joshua, who contributed his own handsome solo offerings on these tunes, took the microphone and named them, he began, “It’s been a few … I’d love to say we’ve been coming here for 59 years, but … not quite!” He added, with regard to Old and New Dreams: “I’m not sure they played here” (I checked and they didn’t), but he mentioned “my father Dewey Redman” and the rest of the group, “All gone, as for their physical presence here”—implying what I felt: that the two groups were somehow playing alongside each other; that a larger presence was somehow on hand within the music. This Still Dreaming set turned out to be one of the most perfect (in terms of meaningful content and mutual musical accord) I have ever attended—honestly!
I felt as if I’d discovered–in the very first set I witnessed–a standard of excellence I would be impelled to hold up to whatever other sets I attended throughout the weekend—which seems grossly unfair to the others, I know, for I felt what I’d heard “right off the bat” (as they say) was perfection: total rapport among four musicians, and miraculous invention. I would not hear Joshua Redman play with The Bad Plus, but I made attending his last set, featuring a group of his own with entirely different “personnel,” a priority. That group, which played in Dizzy’s Den, was made up of Josh on tenor, Aaron Goldberg on piano, Reuben Rogers on bass, and another of my favorite drummers, Gregory Hutchinson. Of this aggregate, its leader would say, “We first formed, I guess, in ’98, so we’re going on 20 years. They’re three of my closest collaborators and they’re three of my best friends … they’re just that level of empathy and trust.” I suspected I might be finding myself in for another round of perfection!
I was familiar with pianist Aaron Goldberg, whose CD, The Now (which also featured Reuben Rogers on bass), I’d admired—and he did not disappoint on Sunday night in Dizzy’s Den: providing tasteful comping (both repetition and excursive configuration) behind (and within) Joshua Redman’s gorgeous tenor sax tone, which included everything from lush lyricism to crusty growls—offset by apt precision by Greg Hutchison on three ride cymbals. The group offered a different context than that of Still Dreaming: less precise, “tight,” simultaneous perhaps; more capricious, variable, unpredictable—passionate. The tunes were not announced, and the group moved so swiftly from one to another (at a variety of tempos) the set took on the shape of a suite, rather than just a sequence of individual tunes. They included pieces with sharp edges and harsh accents: the texture of Joshua’s signature sound constant and engaging, no matter what tempo he played at, or how wild a solo became (and some got delightfully wild), the rest of the group fully supportive, offering counter rhythms or melodic lines that revealed the respect they have for him, and also themselves—trusting their own individual instincts and inclinations.
The group played originals, exclusively (aside from a unique treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s familiar “Stardust”)—tunes with titles such as “Emerald Eyes” (a beautiful ballad, rising to an anthem close), “Wish,” and “DGEAF” (employing those five notes in that sequence), an up tempo romp that evolved into good old-fashioned ( a la Jazz at the Philharmonic) tenor sax honk and stomp, assisted by teasing rhythms on piano (vamp/stop/six single notes/vamp/stop)—all the tricks of the trade displayed. On other tunes, Aaron Goldberg offered handsome bop chops, rounded off with a precise single note Basie-like “plink”; and Greg Hutchinson disclosed deft left hand accents throughout a wire brush solo. And Josh revealed just about all that can be done on a saxophone, by way of clicks and glocks and squeals and squawks, falsetto leaps, the full range of joyous musical flatulence, teasing pyrotechnics matched with straight ahead eloquent serious statement. And the audience loved it! Rueben Rogers contributed a first-rate solo of his own while Joshua replaced a worn reed with a fresh one, and came back in, right on time, for a smooth totally in sync fitting close to a fully enjoyable set for which the group was rewarded with a standing ovation. I felt as if I had witnessed perfection (each of its own kind, different, distinct) twice within the weekend: on opening night and at the very end.
Here are photos of Gregory Hutchinson in action, Aaron Goldberg in friendly repose at the piano, and Joshua Redman working his considerable magic, on soprano saxophone, not tenor (Photo Credits: dummerworld.com; news.allaboutjazz.com; experiencenomad.com):
I’m exhausted—just thinking about (and feeling, experiencing again) what I heard at those two Joshua Redman sets, and because I’ve attempted to describe both in some detail, I’ll only cover another splendid quartet I heard at the 59th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and then call it quits for this (renewed) blog and save the rest of what I witnessed for the next post.
The other quartet I’d like to tell you about is that of quintessential Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophone), with Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and–once again, and what a blessing!–the ever brilliant Brain Blade on drums. This group offered a “Festival Commission & Premiere Performance” of Wayne’s “The Unfolding,” which also featured the Monterey Jazz Festival Wind Ensemble, conducted by Nicole Paiement. I’ve heard Danilo Perez at the Festival before, with Wayne and with his own group, The Motherland Project. He is another wonder, an exciting pianist who, like Brian Blade, could well be isolated and listened to just for his ownexceptional skill alone. As a member of this group he was valuable not just as a sort of “glue” that held it together, but as a rare sort of “Velcro” that bound it tight and free at the same time. This Main Arena set, which started at 7:00 on Saturday evening, was enhanced by a sunset that prompted, in my journal, a “Wow! My God, what a beautiful, comfortable evening–a rosy glow in the distance” (which, unfortunately, may have been partially occasioned by the severe fire surrounding Big Sur at this time—as I realized later).
Wayne’s quartet is characterized by exceptional dynamics—every element (such as Brian’s smallest loving, skillful hi-hat stroke) essential. Perez provides delicious chordal comping, a nest for Wayne Shorter’s melodic lines, the synchronicity extended by way of Patitucci’s large strong resonate bass presence. The group is so comfortable, so compatible together, and that fellow feeling, empathy was not at all compromised when the string ensemble entered the game—the composition “fleshed out”; the piece acquiring a sumptuous, symphonic sound I liked, made even more opulent through Perez’ well-placed subtle notes. Brian maintained the level of genius one has come to count on from him, and Wayne was … well, Wayne: very moving, although he remained seated throughout much of the set.
I love music this well constructed and executed (and “conducted” by Nicole Paiement): music that combines lush melodicism with orchestral force: not just another attempt to find a “Third Stream” (a marriage of classical music and jazz), but a collaboration in which the customarily separate genres “drop out” in the name of genuine union, become “one” as best they can, enjoying more than just an “acquaintance,” truly embracing one another, with assurance the “marriage” will work out.
Here are photos of: Wayne Shorter and the group I heard at the 2016 Monterey Jazz Festival, both performing and “still”; and the miracle-working ever-smiling drummer, Brian Blade (wayneshorter.com; kalamu.com; jambase.com; sfjazz.og):
Toward the end of the set, the piece grew predictably “loose” (a fairly recent CD by the 83-year old saxophonist is called Without a Net), Perez providing his stabilizing influence—as did the soothing presence of an oboe and bassoon, the combined voicings, and the dynamics I mentioned. The ending, too, was suitably “epic.” I felt pleased and impressed: “The Unfolding” having unfurled, uncoiled, extended to a large measure, as I hoped it would.
I hope the same has proved true, for you, with regard to this blog post—which grew predictably long (given my “Baroque” nature), but I hope enjoyable. Next time: More jazz, and maybe a look (a listen) to some other ways of making music—music-making one of the better activities, I feel, a human being can pursue.
When I “signed on” for both Facebook and Bill’s Blog, I quickly became aware that other people were posting (on their sites) material I felt belonged elsewhere (in “private life,” not “public”), and I made a pledge never to post photos of food (and recipes), endless Selfies, videos of various animals performing cute tricks, hackneyed slogans, political proselytizing, and news of “medical issues” I might be dealing with myself. I gave in on the latter, when, because I have written about music (mostly jazz) for years, I received invitations to attend local performances I was not able to show up for (because of my own “visual” and “vestibular” medical issues) and I felt an obligation to tell the artists why I had to let them down.
I’m going, now, to break my “pledge” one more time—for another occasion. The day of the election (November 8), I wrote on my Facebook page: “A good feeling in the air. Life may soon (tomorrow) get back to real life”—and I offered a joyous video of Willie Nelson singing “On the Road Again.” That evening, as the election results came in, that road ahead failed to assume the shape (or “turn”) I’d hoped for, and the next day, November 9, I found myself quoting Stephen Spender’s “You must live through the time when everything hurts”—and listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” (the song coupled, in an inspiring video, with migratory birds: “The birds they sang / at the break of day / Start again / I heard them say / Don’t dwell on what / has passed away / or what is yet to be. / Ah the wars they will / be fought again / The holy dove / She will be caught / again / bought and sold / and bought again / the dove is never free … Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
I remembered a pilgrimage to the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis (when my wife Betty and I lived in Greece for a year.). The inscription reads: “I hope for nothing / I fear nothing / I am free.” I vowed to maintain that stoic stance in mind, but also a sense of hope (“That’s how the light gets in.”) for us all. And I vowed to keep on, in the words of Willie’s song, “makin’ music with my friends.” And that’s all I have to say (publicly) just now regarding “politics.”
Here’s the inscription, in Modern Greek, on Kazantzakis grave (Photo credit: theculturetrip.com). You can find the YouTube video of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” at:
Returning, now, to where I left off at the close of “The Worlds of Poetry, Part One”: Another curiosity aligned to Po Biz today (and the world of writing in general) is the plethora of MFA degree programs available—a situation similar to that facing aspiring young jazz musicians who complete such programs in music, but whom are not likely to find venues (given the conversion of so many jazz clubs into sports bars) in which they can actually practice their trade, or “play.” Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, has posted a perceptive article, “The MFA Degree: A Bad Decision?”, on what poets (and writers in general) are likely to face once they have completed heavily advertised programs in “creative writing.” His first paragraph concludes: “Everyone, it seems, has MFA programs on the brain” (and in the works!), and he goes on to cite a special issue of Poets & Writers titled “MFA Nation” (the cover displays thirty-one people of a wide range of ages and ethnicities). This special issue makes information available to aspiring writers on everything from the “social value of these programs” to ranking systems, and includes “fifty pages of ads from writing programs throughout the country.” Nye, a graduate of an MFA program in creative writing himself (as I am), confesses that he has “begun to wonder if the MFA is, in fact, a bad decision.”
It’s interesting that, as editor of an esteemed journal, Nye avoids or evades what seems to me the most crucial issue or serious consideration for genuine writers: just where the Hell, once they graduate, is this mob of MFAs going to publish (the equivalent of where are all the jazz hopefuls going to play?!)—but he does focus on the more “practical” issue: “Let’s not fool ourselves about where program graduates end up.” They compose “an army of people that are asked to teach low-levels of composition [not creative writing] … for adjunct pay” (which was pretty much the position I found myself in back in 1963, although since then, the odds of finding such jobs seems to have decreased while the number of poets seeking the same has accelerated).
I showed this, my own essay, to a young poet whose work I much admire, and his response was, “Who is your audience?” He more or less chastised me for saying what contemporary creative writing MFA graduates or candidates all already know. And painfully so (he himself in the position I’ve described). Whereas I do not object to offering an occasional “shock of recognition” (to others, and myself!) regarding the state of poetry today, my intent here is not to offend (anyone), but an attempt to understand, at my age (80) just what is going on or taking place in those “worlds” that surround or have grown out of (or “upon,” like barnacles?) an art form I love—an art form I have studied and “practiced” (that’s all I would claim for my efforts now) for fifty-eight years (fifty-three since I graduated from San Francisco State). When I try to imagine myself attempting to “get a start” in the world (any of those worlds) of poetry today, I feel considerable empathy for those poets doing just that.
Here are some literary journals I was fortunate to have poems in back in the “good ole daze.” Notice the then cost of december (a journal which has been resuscitated and is going strong; check out: http://decembermag.org/) and Hanging Loose ($2.50!)—considerably less than the entry fee for poetry contests today (chalk it up to “inflation,” ho ho). Poetry West was the journal edited by Carolyn Kizer:
Quality print journals seem to be going under at a fearful rate, and even incessant online publication is not likely to allow practicing poets to find themselves on a tenure track. In 1967, sans Ph.D., I was allowed to become an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, on the basis of selection for inclusion (alongside Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates) in an anthology (published by NYU Press) of Best Little Magazine Fiction—but the days of such blessings may, I fear, be long gone. “What if programs honestly told students that if they want to teach at universities,” Nye writes, “that MFA graduates are a dime-a dozen? … what does this degree actually prepare our graduates to do?”
These imperative questions suggest “ethical” issues regarding anticipation on the part of anyone who starts out to engage in the art with serious intentions—“not for glory and least of all for profit” (To quote William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech). Right up to the age of thirty, I failed to ask why the world of poetry should be any different from the “worlds” one encounters in any other human activity. I just assumed it would be because I wanted it to be! I wanted poetry, within the world at large, to be a Special Preserve, a Great Good Place, a Pure Land where none of the ugly demeaning laws of “life” (such as “business”) prevailed or could be imposed—a world exempt from all human fads and follies.
I can recommend an interesting and valuable book on writers who’ve graduated from one of the most highly regarded universities offering courses in creative writing: We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (by Eric Olsen and GlennSchaeffer, Skyhorse Publishing, 2011). The book includes valuable testimony from those who went on to become “superstars” (whatever that means), John Irving, T.C. Boyle, Jane Smiley; those who simply went on to continue writing as much and as best they could (given their “day jobs”), and even those who eventually just gave up writing. And I would also recommend a brilliant (and very funny, very readable) comic version of the same experience: John Skoyles’ A Moveable Famine (The Permanent Press, 2014).
The only “world” of poetry worth pursuing, I’ve come to feel, is that world of our own we experience when we attempt to set what we regard as a “poem” down on paper (or computer or perhaps just simply as the “music” of a poem we hear in our head). Everything else (whatever small “world” the poem might be accepted as part of, or excluded from) is irrelevant. Poetry is not and never will be a “team sport.” The genuine poet is engaged in an act that has ancient roots: in its lyric form extending as far back as 1100 B.C. Egypt—and in its most primitive form, perhaps as far back as “The Singing Neanderthals” (I also highly recommend Stephen Mithen’s extraordinary book, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, in which he argues that we actually sang before we possessed syntactical speech and set vocabulary). Other archeological experts claim the Sumerian hymn, the “Seikilos Epitaph,” as “The Oldest Complete Song in the World” (a complete composed inscription rediscovered in Aiden, Turkey, in 1885)—“an inspiring tune from 100 BC.” Yet how many poets really know their own history? I have a suspicion that what is being taught now is not so much the rich and abiding history of the art form itself, but the best way (if there is one) to commence (or acquire) a “career” as a poet.
Here are We Wanted to Be Writers: Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body:
Philosopher/poet/critic George Santayana claimed that the world (and this single word could apply to the many separate “worlds” of poetry) “is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.” In his essay “The Poetry of Barbarism” (from his book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion), Santayana makes a distinction between the “earliest poets” (who are the most “ideal”) of primitive ages (such as that of Homer) which furnish “the most heroic characters and have the clearest vision of a perfect life,” and our own time, in which poets seem “incapable of any high wisdom,” incapable of any imaginative rendering of “human life and its meaning” as a whole. If what he says holds any truth, it’s because the poetry of the era he admires—the “original poetry”—was wrung from necessity, and not as a partial or casual preoccupation. It was an integral and absolutely vital part of the “world” that surrounded it: the whole of existence.
In his view, paradoxically, when existence itself was “barbaric,” full of “insecurity and superstition … singularly poor in all that concerns the convenience of life,” poets possessed “a sense for civilizations,” and the poetry of that “simple and ignorant age was, accordingly, the sweetest and sanest that the world has known: the most faultless in taste, and the most even and lofty in inspiration … it bathed all things human in the golden light of the morning; it clothed sorrow in a kind of majesty, instinct with both self-control and heroic frankness.” According to Santayana, “[Poets today] are things of shreds and patches; they give us episodes and studies, a sketch of this curiosity, a glimpse of that romance; they have no total vision, no grasp of the whole reality, and consequently no capacity for a sane and steady idealization.”
I’ll confess I like Santayana’s outrageous contentions, and I can find considerable “truth” or insight in them. In an age of “material elaboration,” our separate and divided (and exclusive) “worlds” of poetry do seem to encourage a “fancy” that is, in his words, “whimsical and flickering; its ideals, when it has any … negative and partial.” Our work may seem to be just a “verbal echo” of the “imaginative disintegration” that characterizes the larger world that surrounds and contains us.
Many contemporary poets do lack a sense of their own history, and the uses of the past in general. Santayana writes, “We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment … To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself … the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavorable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal … [we lack] a common point of reference and a single standard of value … Religion and art have become short-winded. They have forgotten the old maxim that we should copy in order to be copied and remember in order to be remembered.”
W. B. Yeats wrote a poem, “Three Movements,” in which he traced the “progression” of poetry from the time of Shakespeare down to Yeats’ own day, and, had he witnessed it, I feel he would have included our own era:
“Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from the land / Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand; / What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?
I am fortunate to live in a place (the Monterey Bay Area) that can take pride in a history of encouraging artistic activity on a high level (John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Ansel Adams, et cetera) and the local scene, while not really worthy of the name “community,” does inspire work of quality and interest—even poetry! I have read, and admired, the work of local poets, and attended praiseworthy readings by them: folks that are not just fine poets but with whom it is possible to be friends (and that’s a rare thing among our tribe!).
Aside from this fortunate context, I will confess that too much of the work I read and hear now that passes itself off as poetry strikes me as something other than or not quite poetry—as work afflicted with piscatorial “gasping” on some strand rather than what I regard as the true music of the art. So much of what I am exposed to sounds like cute or clever verse; outright therapy; jottings from a diary or journal, maudlin memoriam (so many indulgent death bed scenes!), unfortunate habits acquired in (and encouraged by) group “workshops”; inept imitation (bad ears!); political propaganda, a pathetic attempt to establish a “persona” (but not a genuine alter ego so much as just wishful thinking on the poet’s part). I find too much plain out carelessness when it comes to language (bad ears again!); I hear raw “matter” as distinct from form (in the Aristotelean sense)—potential that lacks the patience to reach a state of entelechy (actual achievement). Robert Frost said, “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” but so much of what I read and hear today sounds as if the poet had never encountered any other poem aside from the most recent poem she or he has written or is in the process of writing. And the reason I can rattle off these faults or shortcomings in such a glib arrogant critical manner is (should I find them in the work of others), I also frequently find them in the poetry I write myself.
In his excellent book, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, exceptional poet Anthony Hecht writes, “To begin with, one is able to write a poem because one knows what a poem is—not from dictionary definitions, but from experience.”
On the matter of “form,” Hecht writes, “Conventionally, when we speak of ‘form’ in poetry, we fall too easily into discussion of received forms, traditional stanzas, like sonnets, villanelles … and quatrains of various kinds. Those who condemn form in poetry are often given to venting their wrath upon these received forms,” finding imagination limited thereby, language forced into “set molds.” Yet Hecht ably points out that what “our greatest formal poets—Donne, Herbert, Champion, Herrick, and Hardy”—really did was to “conspicuously and brilliantly … invent forms of their own. This means that with such a poem the poet is free to create whatever pattern and music he cares for,” even if, in the past, the original music and pattern of subsequent stanzas was acknowledged and held to (creating its own imaginative potential). Another “formalist,” Michael Drayton, thought of his poetry, “excellent yet conventional although it be, as ‘wild, madding, jocund, and irregular’”—and that might be an admirable quality to aim for.
Hecht states that “modes of feeling themselves go in and out of fashion … but not the eternal verity of mesura [italics mine]: Maurice Valency’s definition: “measure, that inner restraint which governs the appetites and keeps the subject to the intellect”; Greek moderation or prudence, or in the 12th century, employing a word I like: “courtesy”–to oneself and to the “reader” or audience. Hecht reminds us that “measure” is a musical term, and a metrical one, saying, “the music of forms requires some kind of regularity, some pattern that allows us as readers to judge proficiency, that engenders expectations which it can then fulfill in some novel way, withhold for strategic reasons, satisfy with dissonances or harmonies that surprise and delight.” I have my own mantra: Variety and surprise! Active imagination—the mental and verbal risk of life itself!
Some last words from Anthony Hecht: “Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical form and formulations) and speech, as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people … A serious and durable work of art, whatever its medium, will make the sort of demands upon us that invite repeated experiences that will fail to exhaust the work … Great works of poetry continue to yield a new sense of themselves, and prove, to our delight and astonishment, utterly inexhaustible.” In another context, Hecht states, “I believe we may gauge the success of a poem by the fact that it reads as effectively the second time as the first, and the third time as the second; and with any real merit it will outlast a lifetime.” And he quotes W.H. Auden: “A poem is a rite … the form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure, and aptness to that which it is the form of.”
So how does a genuine poet create such poetry? I have devised (he says modestly, and with much more than just a trace of humor, I hope, with regard to a subject, poetry, to which in many ways I have devoted my life) a playful exercise: my own MFA program–one that would not require any “school” or facility other than individual initiative: a program that can be carried out “at home,” alone—tuition free, although there will be some self-determined (as to the extent of it) expenditure for books. Don’t take this too seriously (and certainly not personally, should you fall short; I had fun imagining and setting this up, and, believe me, I fall way short on enacting the full curriculum myself.).
(1) Teach yourself (or with able assistance, if necessary) to read poetry in at least four languages other than you own (at best: one such being Ancient Greek, or Latin, or both).
(2) Acquire a working knowledge of the complete history of poetry (from 1100 B.C . Egyptian “lyrical” down to the present day): assimilating learning that can be carried over comfortably into your own poems.
(3) Undertake a full study of Quantum Physics (I highly recommend a book, Quantum Physics for Poets, written by Leon M. Lederman and Christopher T. Hill–and another: Roger S. Jones’ exceptional Physics as Metaphor) for an understanding of the “cosmic code” that rules all forms—this supplemented by reading Aristotle on both hyle (matter) and morphe (form), enhanced by a solid understanding of Thomist theory of the same (“material prima” and “forma”).
Here are the covers of : Quantum Physics for Poets and Physics as Metaphor:
(4) If you don’t already know how, learn to play at least one musical instrument (and please do not offend its individual nature the way a particular poet does by mistuning a bouzouki); acquire elementary knowledge of music theory and extensive knowledge of all poetry set to music (where poetry began) down to the present age.
(5) Memorize a poem a day—and not just favorites but any poem that possesses qualities you admire. Take poems into your mind and body and keep them there.
(6) Study and “copy” set forms of poetry (sonnets, villanelles, terza rima, etc.) before you attempt to free yourself from them, not after (or “practice” all forms simultaneously, if you can do so without getting too confused)—and slowly but surely acquire what jazz musicians call a “vocabulary” of effects (in poetry: slant rime, enjambment, assonance, etc.).
(7) Undertake four or five months of gigs “on the road” as a stand-up comic. This will acquaint you with a full range of tones, moods, and inflections you can apply to your work as a poet (having learned to truly listen to what you sound like out loud)—and also prepare you to withstand and assimilate hostile audiences you more than likely will, in the future, encounter as a poet; or evenings when no one shows up to hear you read(Thanks to good friend and excellent poet Elliot Ruchowitz Roberts for bringing those gigs to my attention).
I’ll confess that (although I’ve had more than a little help from my friends, and teachers I treasured along the way), I do fall way short with regard to such a self-imposed “program,” but I was fortunate in being a somewhat messed up kid who couldn’t fix on just one “career.” I was an English Literature major alongside majoring in painting, drawing, and printmaking, and I did receive assistance from truly splendid teachers (already cited) when I got a Masters Degree in Language Arts (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State in 1963—this quite some time before the present MFA degree “explosion” took place.
But trust me: you shall truly know you’ve earned your diploma if you carry out this modest “program” on your own!
Here are two of my favorite poets: Anthony Hecht and Mary Ruefle (Photo credits: en.wikipedia.org; poets.org):
I’ll close with (what I feel may be) some excellent advice on how poems best get made: hard won insight from a book that is filled with it, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle, a most remarkable poet herself. She quotes another remarkable poet, Paul Valery, who said, “The opening line of a poem is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall”; and Mary Ruefle then goes on to suggest just how this act may be made possible (“potential” converted to entelechy or fulfillment): “Between the first and last lines there exists—a poem—and if it were not for the poem that intervenes, the first and last lines of a poem would not speak to each other … the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you … The poem is the consequence of its origins.”
Enough! It’s time to go in search of that individual seed (unrelated to any “worlds” of poetry!) we plant in order to turn our opening lines (and by an act of Greek poiesis: the kind of making poets do) into our very own tree.
At the risk of offending my poet friends (and prose writers too–especially those espousing “creative nonfiction”), I am going to make the claim that the most imaginative, the most innovative, the most inspired (I’m tempted to truly get in deep trouble and add words such as “expressive,” “original,” “visionary,” even “artistic”) work I find being offered at this time (this era, now: 2016) is being done in the hard sciences: work undertaken by evolutionary biologists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, linguists, and psychophysicists.
There—I said it, and I am prepared for execrations cast upon my head.
When I was a kid, a fledgling visual artist and musician “by birth” (that is, I just fell into it without a thought but lots of “heart”), I drew pictures of everything that came in sight, and attempted, simultaneously, to learn to play four instruments: clarinet, piano, drums, and guitar. In high school, I was granted exemption (by an English teacher named Vida B. McGiffen) from reading both MacBeth and Moby Dick so I might produce a comic strip for the school newspaper (Vida also taught journalism), and render posters for fellow students aspiring to political office (class president, secretary, treasurer, etc.). On the basis of this work, and the fact that I had an “orchestra’ (called such, but really just a combo) which played dance music for proms (and jazz, when we could fit it in), I was, in my senior year, voted “Boy Most Likely to Succeed”—an honor for which I was totally unqualified. And, to add insult to injury (with regard to the “standards” of the era), I was somehow, without having ever taken a course in biology, chemistry, or physics (I did take geometry and did OK with that, for it was mostly “pictures” I could comprehend), I applied for and was accepted as a student at the University of Michigan. In the College of Architecture and Design—with a major in painting and drawing (of course, not architecture).
Here I am as wannabe musician at age 15 (playing piano in J.P. Wolff’s combo; dig the gut bucket bass played, in a bow tie, by Dave Campbell) and yours truly as a fledgling visual artist (age 19) at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (I’ll confess I took a required course in anatomy—as close as I ever got to “science”–and here are some of the drawings I did at that time):
So much, at the time, for my acquaintance with hard science. When, a few years later, I became interested in literature—especially poetry, and began to write it (or attempt to write it), I fell in love with William Blake and fully endorsed his concept of imagination, and his disdain for “science”: “A fourfold vision is given to me: / ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And threefold in soft Beulah’s night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single Vision & Newton’s Sleep.”
To Blake, Sir Issac Newton’s major fault or failure was his inability to see beyond objective reality, beyond a strictly material universe. For Blake, two fold vision was seeing not just with but “through the eye”: the perception of spiritual forces in material objects. For Blake, things get even better with threefold vision, when an image in the mind is seen so vividly that it takes on objective reality—(as did the face of God at a window when Blake was just four years old, or Ezekiel sitting placidly under a tree.). Fourfold vision was best of all: revelation—the sort of extremely intense impression of eternity which became the source for Blake’s poetry and art work: something “sanctified.”
Here are: a portrait of William Blake and his “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” (Photo credits: www.biography.com and Philip Coppens)
The products of such creative perception were not, in Northrup Frye’s words (commentary on Blake I devoured, and adopted as “truth”), “an escape from reality but a systematic training in comprehending it”: the experience of complete or totally fulfilled reality: permanent living form outside time and space. As we grow older, we gain control of the abstract ideas that make up society: politics, science, and religion; but if such control replaces true vision it becomes enslavement to hopeless convention. We sacrifice our own mental and spiritual birthright, and adult maturity only proves to be degeneration, just another fall from grace–binding with briars our joys and desires. I came to the conclusion that all human failures are, truly, failures of the imagination. In Frye’s words again (paraphrasing Blake): “The only happiness that exists is derived from the free creative life.” In Blake’s view, the highest faculty is a human being’s imagination—his or her very own life!
Once again: so much for hard science! So how, having once “entertained” such beliefs, did I ever arrive at the attitude I espoused in the opening paragraph?
I am now eighty years of age and “entertaining” medical issues that range from those that affect my vision (macular degeneration, ophthalmic migraine, and being at risk for detached retina) to vestibular (daily vertigo) to esophageal (GERD). “Boy Most Likely to Succeed” indeed! (ho ho). However, a longtime fan of Oliver Sacks (accept the condition, recognize the compensations, and move on!), I am attempting to acknowledge “a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder”; opportunities that might make existence even more meaningful than it was before the “decline” or “deprivation” or “disease” set in.
Enter, for the first time in my life: hard science! I seem to be the sort of person who finds it possible to accept nearly any unanticipated condition, once I am in a position to understand it, to comprehend what’s going on.
Facing serious changes or “alterations” in both body and mind, I began to study whatever it might be that had caused them (how such systems function, or fail to function): an undertaking which has led me to read some of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever encountered–and to a revision of my up-to-now conception of imagination. I’ve been devouring contemporary books by dedicated scientists who write quite well, science writers not committed by nature to overt acts of imagination, but to examining every possibility in the pursuit of hard “truths” about our brains and bodies, exploring every hypothesis that might lead to further, more extensive understanding, even when—in the words of one of these practitioners (Michael Gazzaniga, in The Mind’s Past)—the answers may not “point to a body of knowledge where one result leads to another,” but activity in which revised opinion is incessant (new discoveries building on old ones), or a “truth” arrived at is controversial and may be quite difficult for many people to swallow–such as, in the words of another practitioner (“leading evolutionary theorist” Robert Trivers, in The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life) : “The time is ripe for a general theory of deceit and self-deception based on evolutionary logic, a theory that in principle applies to all species with special force to our own. We are thoroughgoing liars, even to ourselves. Our most prized possession—language—not only strengthens our ability to lie but greatly extends its range.”
Here are: Robert Trivers, and his book: The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (Photo credit: evolution.rutgers.edu):
“I don’t consider my ideas controversial,” ground and “gender-breaking” biologist Lynn Margulis said of her theory on “endosymbiosis” (having studied the evolution of mitochondria, and formulated theories rejected up to 1967), “I consider them right.”
One of the amazing things I have discovered in the well written books I’ve read, is just how imaginative work devoted to the pursuit of hard won facts can be, work that insists on taking a good solid look at every alternative, every possibility; work that asks vexing questions for which there may only be ambivalent answers (if answers at all), work relying on guesswork or speculation—work for which no easy categorization is available; and yet I did find many of the options, potentials, or alternatives presented wildly imaginative!
For example: in Harnassed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, neuroscientist Mark Changizi presents just about every hypothesis regarding the origin of music—one of which is the “art form” began with the fetus “listening” in its “Momma’s womb”: “Our in-utero days of warmth and comfort get strongly associated to Momma’s heartbeat, and the musical beat taps into those associations, bringing back warm fetus feelings.” Considering this possibility (and just how warm and fuzzy that nest really might have been), Changizi asks, “Why aren’t there other in-utero experiences that forever stay with us? Why don’t we, say, like to wear artificial umbilical cords, thereby evoking recollections of the womb?” Great! What a fine act of imagination! Have fashion designers ever thought of this? Or poets at Blake’s two, three or fourfold state of “vision”?
And speaking of such (extraordinary “vision”), in The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Bor writes: “The semi-chaotic activity of our 85 billion neurons undergoes a kind of temporary natural selection every moment of our waking lives, as attention shapes the contents of consciousness … Those [neurons] with the most powerful voice recruit others to their case, and suppress any dissenters, until the strongest thought is carried by millions of neurons, all with one voice– … for instance. to look for the black hair of your lover as she approaches.” Did you have any idea that such lively conversation, such artful dialogue, was being carried on in those three pounds of jello (or tofu) at the top of your head—and for every thought, not just those regarding your latest infatuation? I didn’t, and I’m thrilled … although I may have trouble falling asleep from here on in, knowing I am responsible for providing some (temporary) rest or surcease for those 58 billion neurons!
Elsewhere in The Ravenous Brain, Daniel Bor offers one of the most insightful observations–or lines of poetry–I’ve ever found on the art of quiet thought or contemplation: “An ideal meditation is one where you try to be as aware as you can of as little as possible.” Poetry–pure and simple!
Bor also offers intriguing insights on the fact that our brains, with all their elaborate machinery, are not as inclusive as they would appear to be, for at any given time, only “a small number of items are available to much of the brain”—actually just four at a time! “Our working limit of a handful of items is basically the same as a monkey’s, though a monkey’s brain is about 1/15th the size of our own.”’ Fortunately, our great human gift, “working memory,” is “available to every corner of the brain,” and lets us see much more and “carry out our most complex tasks, such as language and planning.” Bor concludes: “The process of combining more primitive pieces of information to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience.”
Here’s a photo of Daniel Bor, and the cover of his book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning:
Hard science writing, ironically, seems infatuated with metaphor—more than likely because it occasionally (frequently?) runs up against difficulties describing or explaining its discoveries (outside the “precision of numbers” it relies on so heavily). Much of the work I read (and relished) had resorted to (verbal) analogies: metaphors, say, for the intricate “computational landscape” of the brain, the massive array of networks it contains—analogies such as the “interpreter” offered by Mark Garraniga in The Mind’s Past: “What system ties the vast output of our thousands upon thousands of automatic systems into our subjectivity to render a personal story for each of us? … A special system carries out this interpretive synthesis. Located only in the brain’s left hemisphere, the interpreter seeks explanations for internal and external events. It is tied to our general capacity to see how contiguous events relate to one another … In general the interpreter seeks to understand the world. In doing so it creates the illusion that we are in control of all our actions and reasoning. We become the center of a sphere of action so large it has no walls.” Having discovered that, I am attempting now to get on better terms with my own “interpreter.”
Other analogies I found are: Stanislas Dehaene’s (from Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts) “global neuronal workshop” (I love it! I want to attend that workshop!); Victor Lamme’s “recurrent processing” (or “neuronal chatter”), to Giullo Tononi’s “Information integration theory.” And when it comes to the study of delays between inclination and conscious awareness of enactment: I like Gerald Eldeman’s “the remembered present” (from the book with that title; see also: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire and Wider Than the Sky)—and Mark Changizi’s insights in The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision on “future-seeing” (the 10th of a second delay that makes it necessary for visual perception to foresee the future and “thus perceive the present,” for otherwise every ball thrown to us would be just a ball thrown at us, landing smack in the face before we had a thought to catch it.
Here are some photos of “neuronal chatter”—the brain at work talking to itself. (Photo credits: hms.harvard.edu; medical express.com; http://www.iflscience.com):
In his groundbreaking book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, a self-confessed “enthusiastic Darwinian,” provided a thorough but “necessarily speculative” (“Nobody was around to see what happened.”) account of the origin of life: a “primeval soup” that “constituted the seas some three thousand million years ago,” permitting organisms or “survival machines’ (such as “us”) to adopt existence—and then he took a big jump, in chapter eleven of his book, to “Memes: The new Replicators,” acknowledging that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, “we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution.” Dawkins finds Darwinism “too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene”–“selfish” or not—and he confesses: “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” So Dawkins gave birth to the “meme” (a word which rhymes with “cream”—a word derived from Ancient Greek μίμημα (mīmēma), meaning “that which is imitated,”“something copied.”
I’m not able to do full justice to his theory here (again, The Selfish Gene, and a subsequent book, The Extended Phenotype are sources to be checked out), but here’s a taste of genetic inheritance, today: Memes are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,” etc. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation … If you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a spark plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, after your genes have dissolved in the common pool … What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself … All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes then evolve that exploit the capacity to the full.”
Dawkins ends his chapter on memes “on a note of qualified hope,” saying, “One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and if you allow the speculation in this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators.” BUT … “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world … We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Amen, Brother! Long live altruism!
I’ve read every book I could get my hands on by superb stylist Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Works; Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature; The Better Angels of Our Nature), but my favorite book of his is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature—a book in which he combines exactitude and thorough disclosure (with no skimping on the demands of “hard science” here) with his quick wit and rare humor and outright charm. In The Stuff of Thought, he offers sections called “The Blaspheming Brain” and “The Semantics of Swearing,” as entertaining and enlightening as the work of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin (both of whom he cites), and Pinker takes the reader on a tour of the “linguistic, psychological, and neurological underpinnings of swearing”—focusing on the most obvious thread: “strong negative emotion,” “what kinds of thoughts are upsetting to people, and why one person might want to inflict these thoughts on another,” the major source of taboo words: sexuality; and the cathartic release that swearing provides.
Here’s a photo of Stephen Pinker, and his book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. (Photo credit: twitter.com)
Writing on the “joys of swearing” for language lovers, Pinker quotes one of favorite poems (Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Voice” (check it out!), and concludes that, “when used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive … More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest … It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern.” He quotes one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: Caliban speaking “for the entire human race when he said, ‘You taught me language, and my profit on it is, I know how to curse.” And Pinker points out the irony that, when Norman Mailer “wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, he knew it would be a betrayal of his depiction of the soldiers to have them speak without swearing. His compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have them use the pseudo-epithet fug.” Pinker adds, “When Dorothy Parker met him she said, ‘So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell fuck.’”
Robert Trivers (The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life) has a sharp, smooth, easy-going conversational writing style which, like Steven Pinker’s, takes you right into his confidence and keeps you there. Because of the “aging process” I appear to be undergoing myself, I was curious to see what he had to say on that subject, and thoroughly enjoyed what I found. I’ve already presented Triver’s main thesis (“We lie to ourselves the better to lie to others.”), but he finds an “old-age positivity effect” (which he regards as similar to “choosing to listen to pleasing music”): “a striking bias” that sets in, by age sixty, with regard to “positive social perceptions and memories.” If you study the eye movements of older people, you find they “spend more time inspecting faces with positive expressions than negative, and the positive ones are remembered later more often.” Trivers traces this “measurable effect” to the brain’s amygdala, “where positive faces evoke a stronger response than negative ones in older people but not in younger people.” This trait even affects the immune system: “In old age it hardly matters what you learn, but greater positive effect is associated with stronger immune response, so you may be selected to trade a grasp of reality for a boost in dealing with a main problem, that of internal enemies, including cancer.” So why, with so much good stuff going for us, are old people “perceived as being cranky or grumpy”? Triver’s response: “With increasing age, for reasons that are not entirely clear, people suffer greater deficits in their inhibitory abilities, that is, their ability to stop behavior under way that they may wish to stop.”
Here’s a sample of the way he approaches “The Value of Being Conscious” (a section title in his book): “There are two great axes in human mental life; intelligence and consciousness. You can be very bright but unconscious, or slow but conscious, or any of the combinations in between … We may easily embrace false narratives. To be conscious is to be aware of possibilities, including those arising in a world saturated with deceit and self-deception … Consciousness and ability to change are two different variables … This to me is the real paradox or tragedy of self-deception—we wish we could do better but we can’t.” Yet, consciousness of deceit and self-deception allows us “to enjoy it more … to fight such tendencies in ourselves should we wish to. Mostly it gives us much greater insight into the social world surrounding us, everything from the lies of the government and the media to the deeper self-deceptions we tell ourselves and our loved ones.”
And I love what Trivers has to say about friendship: “Friends are also useful as commentators on our ongoing life … they see the interaction from the outside, as if others were actors in a play. I am embedded in the play but they are not. They can see what I cannot … I have often thought the popularity of plays partly came from the fact that the audience could see all, while the actors were constrained by their position on the stage.”
Let me close with one last book: Ed Yong’s extraordinary I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, a work that has been extolled by one reviewer as “Beyond fascinating … It will change the way you think about the world. It’ll change who you think you are.”—and I agree. I would, if I could, make this book required reading for every-one—from poets to potentates (of whatever persuasion) to plumbers. Like some of the other science writers I’ve cited, Yong is a master of analogies. He compares the immune system to “a team of rangers carefully managing a national park,” saying that if microbes breach the park’s fences (read “mucus”: “Nearly all animals use mucus to cover tissues that are exposed to the outside world. For us, that means guts, lungs, noses, and genitals.”), the rangers “push them back and fortify the barrier … They keep equilibrium within the community, and constantly defend this balance from threats both foreign and domestic.”
Here are: Ed Yong giving a Ted talk; his book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life; some microbes; and an illustrated account of endosymbiosis. (Photo credits: www.ted.com; www.ilfscience.com; daniellachace,com; wired.com; www.nature.com–E. Virginia Armbrust)
My wife and I are going to celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary in January, in Kauai, where, in 1957, we spent a honeymoon summer in a shack on the Wailua River, just about half a mile up from the Pacific Ocean. We hoped, now, to renew our vows, but Hawaii law requires either a church or official courthouse ceremony for that ritual, so we plan to create a “comic rite” of our own (to share with our two sons and their wives, and four grandchildren), and Ed Yong’s exceptional book is filled with examples of cooperation (among microbes) that I feel we can readily adapt to our own marital situation. Here’s a sample that he begins with a quote from H.G. Wells: “Every symbiosis is, in its degree, underlain with hostility, and only by proper regulation and often elaborate adjustment can the state of mutual benefit be maintained. Even in human affairs, the partnerships for mutual benefit are not so easily kept up …”; and Yong takes it from there, as applied to the ways and means we, as humans, have found to stabilize “our relationship with our microbes, of promoting fealty rather than defection … Like all the best relationships, these ones take work. Every major transition in the history of life—from single-celled, from individuals to symbiotic collectives—has had to solve the same problem of how can the selfish interests of individuals be overcome to form cooperative groups.” Or a “group” such as two people who’ve been married for 60 years.
Here, just for the fun of it (neurons, microbes, and all) are some photos of my wife Betty and I, living in a shack on the Wailua River in 1957 (when we were 21 and just married): Betty eating pineapple with our host, Mr. Eisenberg; Betty joyous beside the river; me sitting under the lanai, contemplating the universe from afar; and Betty feeding one of our charges, Joe the Goose (who didn’t like me at all and nipped viciously–bad microbes at work!–at the back of my legs because I never fed him):
Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes (poets will notice the “lift” from Walt Whitman) is loaded with so many wise gems that, should I not restrain myself, I could quote endlessly. Let me bring this blog to a close by citing two more examples from his book—the first of which affected me “personally.” He writes at some length about a scientist, Bruce German, who is doing extensive research in what he regards as a “superfood,” “the perfect source of nutrition”: milk—and the ambivalent service provided when obtained from a mother: “little spheres of fat, encased in proteins that resemble those in [our new friend] mucus”—globules that “provide nutrition to a baby,” but also may “give baby’s first viruses a foothold in the gut.” German’s research has disclosed much about the “huge interwoven system for stabilizing our relationship with our microbes … viruses can be allies, immune systems can support microbes, and a breastfeeding mother isn’t just feeding a baby but also setting up an entire world.” Breast milk is “far more than a bag of chemicals. It nourishes baby and bacteria, infant and infantis alike. It’s a preliminary immune system that thwarts more malevolent microbes. It is the means by which a mother ensures that her children have the right companions, from their first days of life. And it prepares the baby for life ahead.”
I took a special interest in this section of Yong’s book because, as a baby, I was allergic to my mother’s milk, and it was interesting to learn just how much I might have missed out on. Then, in a chapter called “The Long Waltz,” Ed Yong composes a symphony (or poem) in praise of our “beginnings” and relationships (between animals and bacteria) in which “partners have been waltzing together for millions of years”—honoring vexing questions about “the first steps of the long waltz” that are almost always “lost in deep time, and have left few footprints for us to follow”—but essential questions which scholars of symbiosis–in spite of the fact that “all animals evolved from single-celled predators that ate other things”–hope someday to answer.
Here are some photos of interesting specimens: “The adorable Hawaiian bobtail squid” which house “a single species of luminous bacteria, which hide it from predators.” and “the fearsome beewolf” that protects its larvae “by painting their burrows in antibiotic-producing microbes.” (Photo credits: featurecreature.com: Carly Brook; splash.sussex.ac.uk)
My acquaintance (so long forestalled) with the world–the universe–I have been describing has not just been exciting, but thrilling—and not so far removed from William Blake’s vision as it seemed, at first (Yong himself writes: “To peer into this world is to peer into William Blake’s grain of sand.”). If nothing else, I learned that it most certainly is possible, at age 80, to learn something “brand new”—to domesticate the unfamiliar and add it to the familiar inhabitants of the brain (all that “artsy fartsy” stuff I’ve carried there throughout my life). I joke with my wife Betty that at the age of 80, I’m thinking seriously of going back to school and become a neurosurgeon, but now, having read Ed Yong’s amazing book, I just might switch my “major” to microbiology.
So far, Betty has definitely not “bought into,” or even acknowledged, my crazy advanced-age ambition (or dream), so my life remains focused on getting a consistent amount of writing done and making music whenever (and wherever) I can. I was exaggerating, of course, when I said—at the start of this blog post (I was just trying to get your attention, ho ho)—that I considered hard science work the most imaginative, most innovative, and most inspiring work being done just now, although I wasn’t exaggerating by much.
I do continue to “devour” the work of inspired poets in whom imagination continues to reign supreme (Amy Gerstler, Mary Ruefle, Li-Young Lee, and my good friend Robert Sward, to name just a few), and I just returned from a weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival, having heard music as expressive, original, and artistically inventive as any I’ve ever witnessed (Josh Redman, Ron Miles, Brian Blade, Somi, Gregoire Maret, Claudia Villela–to drop a few more names).
What I love about all that I am exploring, and enjoying at this time of my life, is being able to set two seemingly disparate worlds–“Art” (if you will) and hard science–side by side: allowing them to converse with one another and take delight in their own symbiosis, “promoting fealty rather than defection.” Even though my own vestibular system may be somewhat shot, I have a far better sense of balance now between William Blake’s “free creative life” (“fourfold vision” and a world “in a grain of sand”) and the world of science I had ignored—and I thank every microbe, good and bad (Yong: “By partnering with microbes, we can quicken the slow deliberate adagio of our evolutionary music to the brisk, lively allegro of theirs.”) for the fortunate union I’ve arrived at–my vertical DNA in mutual accord now with busy neuronal and microbiome life so rich with all its vivid horizontal inheritance.
I also want to thank everyone who takes time (and has patience enough) to read this blog (I have jokingly referred to these posts, or “essays,” as a unique genre: “Blog Baroque.”). Since I undertook Bill’s Blog in February of 2013, I have gathered 3,501 visitors from counties all over the world (from Algeria, Australia, and Azerbaijan to Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and United States to Venezuela and Vietnam). Unfortunately, I don’t know who all of you are (as individuals), even when I am provided with information as to where you are—but I am very grateful for the time and attention you have paid to what I write.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 ).
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).
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 ).
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?”
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:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.”