Poet Osip Mandelstam on Music, and Beyond

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

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

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

Book on Mandelstam    Mandelstam

Mandelstam 6     osip-mandelstam5

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

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

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

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

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

Mandelstam 1 Mandelstam 2Mandelstam4

Osip 10Mandelstam5  Mandelstam 3

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

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

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

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

Aphrodite 1  Aphrodite 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rite of Spring  Rite of Spring 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jazz of Physics   The Jazz of Physics 2

circle-of-fifths-3     John Coltrane drawing

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

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

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

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

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

Henry_Holiday_-_Dante_meets_Beatrice     Terpander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandelstam by Firsova

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

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

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

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

altman-akhmatova         TsvetaevaM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unzipped Souls    Vorontsova and Egikov

Novospassky-Monastery 2

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

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

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

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

First Moscow Jazz Festival

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

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

Mandelstam 4  Mandelstam 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mandelstam and Minor photo

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

Mandelstam Helen2

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

 

 

 

 

Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern, Part Two

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

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

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

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover        Kithara in Hymn to the Muse

Man playing kithara   Mesomedes manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pythagoras_and_his_Monochord      Woman playing Kithara

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

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

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

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

Mikis Theodarakis

Thorarakis with Farantouri

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

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

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

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

Phorominx     Homeric bard 2

Homeric bard 3-cycladic            Homeric bard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denial

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

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

Giorgos_Seferis_1963        Seferis plaque in London

Theodarakis Best Of

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

parikia-town           Byzantine Road Paros

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

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

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

Elytis    ΚΡΑΤΙΚΗ ΟΡΧΗΣΤΡΑ ΑΘΗΝΩΝ 2014

AxionEsti  Performance poster Axion Esti

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greece Church interior on Lindos

Aliki V 2    Ipomoni

YPOMONI

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

 

 

Greek Music & Poetry: Ancient & Modern

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

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

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

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

Ancient Greek Music Album Cover     Performance poster Axion Esti

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

rethimno harbor from air

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

Greece Mt. Ida         Fortetsa in Rethymnon 2

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

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

Greece Crete WindowGreece Kostos and Betty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greece Kumiotis Family

Greece My Sign for Kumiotis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greece Souvlaki Singing Poet            Greece Man playing goatskin bagpipe

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

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

Greece Our house on Paros

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

Greece Steve and Betty with family on Paros

Archilochus:

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

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

archilochus statue 2    Archilochus statue

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

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

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

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

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

Archilochus cave

Greece Bill at our cove in Paros

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

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

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

Text of a poem by Archilochusarchilochus myrtle shoot

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

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

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

Ancient Greek double flute and lyre

Delphi: Apoll     Ancient Greek double flute

Ancient Greek Music

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

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

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

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

Greek musical instruments

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

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

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

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

Grave of Kazantzakis2   kazantzakis grave inscription 3

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bunraku in Butterfly 2  SONY DSC

bunraku-puppet-maiden   Bunraku Puppet Theatre

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

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

Tigran Hanasian    Tigran Hamasyan 3

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

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

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

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

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

MJF Chick and Bela  MJF Chick and Bela 2

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

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

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

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

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

MJF Chick and Bela 3  MJF Chick and Bela 4

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

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

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

MJF Pete and Sheila E   MJF Pete and Sheila E 3

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

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

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

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

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

MJF John Santos 2   MJF John Santos

MJF Santos and Oviedo    MJF Santos and Oviedo 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

MJF SnarkyPuppy

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

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

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

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

MJF Duchess        MJF Cyrille Aimee 3

MJF Justin Kauflin 2

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

Oliver Sacks, Consciousness, and the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival

I have long been a fan, a devotee, when it comes to the work of the late great Oliver Sacks. I assigned his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat each semester I taught Humanities at the local college; I’ve relished Musicophilia as a pianist; and now, as someone who recently turned eighty years of age, and learning to accept and accommodate vestibular and vision-related medical “issues,’ I have gained much by reading Migraine and The Mind’s Eye.

What I like most about Sacks’ work is his “upbeat” attitude: the many hopeful, sanguine stories he told, working as a neurologist with patients who find ingenious ways to compensate for deprivation, with what they’ve lost, and thus turn loss into gain—possibly even finding their lives more meaningful than before, responding to their existence with increased creativity and imagination, rather than a sense of defeat or despair.

Oliver Sacks    Oliver Sacks 2

Oliver Sacks 6         Oliver Sacks 3

To start anew, always! The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said, “Yesterday has not been born … it hasn’t even taken place yet.” Commenting on Mandelstam’s sense of renewal, of “transcendence” (finding life a great “gift” even in the midst of personal oppression inflicted on him at the time of The Terror), Kevin M. F. Platt has written, “Past epochs had become available in a new way for reinterpretation and reinscription with truer and more valid meaning”– “uncharted territory” for the future.

For the purpose of this essay, I do not intend to name or dwell specifically on the nature of my own “impairment” when it comes to sight and my balance system, but to focus on a rich awakening that has taken place with regard to the future, to what neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandrun, in his book The Tell-Tale Brain, has called “the conceptual twists and technical turns we are in for,” discoveries that are going to be “at least as mind bending, at least as intuition shaking, and as simultaneously humbling and exalting to the human spirit as the conceptual revolutions that upended classical physics a century ago”—what neuroscientist David Eagleman, in his book, The Secret Lives of the Brain, calls the “vastness of inner space” (“The cosmos is larger than we ever imagined, and so are we.”): the human brain as a “perplexing masterpiece … the most wondrous thing we have discovered in the universe, and it is us.”

Out of what I consider equal portions of healthy curiosity and “dire necessity,” I have undertaken a sort of “campaign” to understand, as much as I can, the nature of the “mind-brain mystery,” just how those three pounds of jello at the top of our heads function and why (and how) they may fail to. In the process, beginning with “vision” (every book I could get my hands on, from R.L. Gregory’s early Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, to Brain and Visual Perception by David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel–tracing their pioneering Nobel Prize winning discoveries–to Oliver Sack’s The Mind’s Eye), I have acquired a host of new words and phrases in my vocabulary which allow me to trace the amazing pathway of vision from retina to visual cortex: “fovea,” “vitreous humor,” “rhodopsin,” “hyperpolarization,” “ganglion cells,” “optic chiasma,” “thalamus,” “lateral geniculate nuclei,” and “superior colliclus.” It’s a great trip when it works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of sight.

By now, in light of the title of this essay, my musician/musical friends and blog followers may more than likely wonder just what the hell any of this has to do with this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, but I will ask you to bear with me a bit longer, for what I’ve discovered about the visual system (how it works and when it doesn’t—and “consciousness” in general) has everything to do with the manner in which I saw, heard, and felt this year’s musical offerings. I hope to make the amazing blend, the mix of what was offered (externally) with what I was perceiving (internally) as interesting and engaging as I can (it certainly was for me!)–and I will get to a first example—the nature of the “teamwork” that can take place in the “global neuronal workspace” of the brain itself and within a jazz combo in which the constituent parts or performers interact by truly “listening” to one another—as soon (given my “Baroque” nature) as I can.

In the past, because I have a Press Pass, I would roam the Festival grounds at will, bouncing from venue to venue in synch with whatever overall plan I had of what I hoped to witness. Often, having used the back entrance of a venue such as Dizzy’s Den, I’d find my niche close to the stage and, squatting there (full lotus Zen style), take notes on the music being played—but, now, that is no longer possible, my mobility also restricted by a vertigo condition kept under control for twenty-seven years yet recently (with the advent of faulty vision) returned with a vengeance. For the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I was curious as to just how well I might manipulate the throng of joyous jazz fans cruising the fairway that runs alongside the host of venders and colorful displays offering everything from food to jazz “artifacts” of considerable variety. I realized that I would have to be extremely careful taking my place among that crowd, even with the cane I now employ as the third leg of the riddle Oedipus was asked to solve.

Consequently, when I showed up Friday night for the 58th Monterey Jazz Festival, I had a very specific list of times and settings for the performances I wished to see and hear, knowing I would remain for a full set of each, rather than spend time attempting to “sprint” to a suitable portion of several sets, as I had in the past. “Think small,” “Think continuity,” was my new mantra (of necessity) , and I also–attempting to keep my difficult balance–carried with me another host of bright and brilliant terms (another favorite book from my reading on consciousness is Bright Air, Brilliant Fire by Gerald Edleman, whose important work was introduced to me by Oliver Sacks)–ingredients related to the vestibular system:  “superior, posterior, and lateral semicircular canals”; “utricle and saccule,” “endolymph fluid,” “cristae and ampullar nerves,” “calcium carbonate crystals.” Again, it’s a great trip when it all works, and a fascinating excursion even when compromised—the miracle, the gift, of possessing a balance system.

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The Festival program advertised vocalist Cyrille Aimee as “rapidly rising,” a “widely acclaimed young jazz singer” who’d won both the Montreux Jazz Festival’s Vocal Competition and the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition, her musical outlook international in scope, the vocalist having grown up in Samois-Sur-Seine, sneaking out (as a teenager) to “gypsy encampments,” mesmerized by the music of “those who followed the spirit of Django Reinhardt.” She added Paris, Cameroon, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic to places of residence before finally arriving in Brooklyn, where she lives now.

Having performed at a Jazz Legends Gala Honoring Chick Corea the previous evening, Cyrille Aimee brought a group featuring two guitarists—Olli Soikkeli and Michael Valeanu—with Shawn Conley on bass and Dani Danor on drums to the Night Club on Friday night. When I walked in, my first impression (I could only find a seat at the far end of the room, where I could hear but not see so well) was of a highly animated mime dressed in black, similar to her countryman Jean-Louis Barrault, whose every gesture I’d relished in the film Les Enfants du Paradise (“Children of Paradise”): Aimee herself a delightful blur of well-formed motion: vital, vibrant, sexy. Her voice, capable of a wide range of intonation, of nuance, had a girlish edge to it, a fey quality, but coy, not mannered or “cute,” allied emotionally with a fully mature approach to the mood and tone of whatever she chose to sing—as was the case of the tune I walked in on, or the tail end of it: the title song from her debut CD: It’s a Good Day.

The next song, which I heard all of, one devoid of any “girlish” inflection, took me  by surprise. It was Jim Morrison’s “People Are Strange.” The first thing I noticed, once the group was into this tune, was just how smoothly, how tightly together—in spite of whatever attention she called to herself (her gestures, the quality of her voice)—they were. Cyrille Aimee became a part of a unique blend, a unique matchup of her “sidemen” and herself, the equally young and vibrant guitars (one with an immediately engaging “gypsy” flair or tone, the other providing a smooth bop “feel” that offset the Reinhardt mode perfectly) paired with bass and drums. The five “units” or components of this group acted as one—a single, totally compatible “family,” with no degree of separation, even though Cyrille Aimee stood (or moved) in the forefront—the whole melting, as Teilhard de Chardin said of a religious experience, “into a single vibrant surface wherein all demarcation ceased.”

The interplay between the two guitars was first-rate: the rapid fire driving Reinhardt sound offset by the smooth cool—in the tradition of Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow—inflection. “People Are Strange,” a gutsy song (“Faces look ugly when you’re alone …”), was represented as a throaty, bluesy ballad, the effect enhanced by the tight interactive guitar work. Aimee emphasized the isolation, the alienation of the “voice” in her own unique, flexible manner (she did wonderfully strange things with the word “strange”), and I couldn’t help but think of some of my recent reading on “consciousness”: Antonio Damasio writing on emotion occurring in an autobiographical setting in which “feelings generate a concern for the individual experiencing them. The past, the now, and the anticipated future are given the appropriate saliences … concern for the individual self.”

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“People Are Strange” was followed by “Love Me Or Leave Me,” Aimee—in her appealing French accent—acknowledging the Billie Holiday and Nina Simone legacy of this song—one taken at a breakneck tempo (“Nina did it very fast, but we do it faster”), the interaction of guitars a hallmark again: Django hot sizzle played off against a “cool” mood sustained even at the frantic pace. The two guitars traded off on a “chase scene” worthy of Nat “King” Cole and Les Paul with Jazz at the Philharmonic—no winner but much good fun and respect on both sides. The song closed with Cyrille Aimee’s breathless “no one … un … less … that some … one … is you!”—and a sudden stop.

With her gift for pantomime, for significant gesture, Aimee is a delight to watch (even from the far end of a hall and with failing eyesight!) as well as listen to, and she maintained the French-flavored (Paul Verlaine: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encor…”) eroticism, announcing, “Shawn and I are going to do it right now,” introducing a duet between her and bassist Shawn Conley on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” playful, tasteful “suggestion” present throughout the tune, along with good clean pitch, articulation, and invention—and the vocalist’s hair tossed and shoulders hunched in fine time with the music.

The set was filled with an interesting array of tunes: Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (taken at a stuttering Calypso tempo—“Living crazy, that’s the only way … let the madness and the music get to you”—then a mix of tempos and textures, a percussive build up, the bright exchange of the two guitars—“There ain’t no rules, it’s up to you … it’s time to come alive”);  a song in French: “Nuit Blanche” (cheerful, skipping in the rain in Paris—“Mes levres tremblent au souvenir”—a tinkling feel, then hard scat to another breakneck tempo gypsy strum, the familiar rich mix of syllables and grooves, the group sliding smoothly from one to another); a song—“All Love”—a handsome  melody, written by Django Reinhardt’s son, the lyrics provided by Aimee herself, soft ballad nonintrusive guitar backing, tasteful, tender—“Birds flying high above you, and the smell of rain … memories you keep inside you”—handsome guitar coda ending; and an impressive original, autobiographical: “One Way Ticket”: “Smooth road, falling asleep on my baby’s shoulder … one way ticket to somewhere … I hope we never get there”: slow train ride rhythm at the start, bowl tapping drone sound in the background, her “little girl” voice on this one, giving way to scat in time with the trek, wide open rhythms at the end, and another sudden stop.

“One Way Ticket” was written about a trip Cyrille Aimee took to India (“I had some really crazy experiences.”). Hers, it appears, has been a well traveled road—as has that of her musicians: drummer Danny Danor from Israel, guitarist Olli Soikkeli from Finland , bassist Shawn Conley from Hawaii, guitarist Michail Valeanu from France and Sicily. By way of an introduction at the end, Aimee said, “These guys are not only great musicians, but they’re good looking as well”—and they are. Then, each of the musicians introduced another, a very fitting touch for such a tight as ”family” group, all boyishly agreeing that Cyrille Aimee “takes care of us like a mother”—a charming conclusion  to what I felt was an excellent, truly enjoyable set.

Taking that very “together” set with me in mind when I left, again I couldn’t help but think of what I’d read about one of the major breakthroughs in recent neurobiology. In his book, The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, Israel Rosenfield devotes a section to previously mentioned  (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire) Gerald Edlemen’s Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, in order to show that brain function does not depend on “localized function and fixed memories,” but “large numbers of different neuronal groups” (units of “selection”): “a set of interconnected neurons that function together.” Various scientists and philosophers have given different names to such brain-wide information sharing or neuronal syncrony: Stanislas Dehaenes’ “global neuronal workspace,” Antonio Demasio’s global assembly or “converging zones,” the “neural coalition” of Francis Crick and Christof  Koch, even John Selfridge’s “pandemonium,” a term employed to describe the joyous spontaneous union that occurs within the overall music shaped and played by the brain’s Big Band.

Cyrille Aimee’s was not the first set I’d taken in on Friday night. A “traditionalist” by nature, I’d made certain to be present each year (since he’d become General Manager of the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1992) when Tim Jackson parted the main stage (now the Jimmy Lyons Stage, named after his predecessor) curtains and welcomed those in attendance to the event—so I was on hand for that ritual at 7:30 Friday night, but the figure that emerged to welcome us was not Tim Jackson. It was a gentleman named Clint Eastwood, who announced his name and the fact that he loves jazz—this by way of introducing the “Geri Allen Erroll Garner Project: Concert by the Sea”: a first “act” I had anticipated eagerly.

Detroit-born Geri Allen is one of my favorite jazz pianists and the set in which she participated, along with pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands, with Russell Malone on guitar, Darek Oles on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, was a celebration of the 60th anniversary of pianist Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea, a local (Carmel, California) jazz show produced by Lyons prior to the Monterey Jazz Festival itself. The program for this year’s Festival stated that there had been no plan to document the original concert, but “in one of the genius-level happy jazz accidents,” Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, spotted a tape-recorder a “well-meaning local fan” had set up backstage, and Glaser acquired a recording from the owner that would eventually become a “runaway hit for Erroll Garner and Columbia Records”—regarded as one of the best-selling jazz records ever.

Here are: The original album, The Complete Concert by the Sea, Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner with Martha Glaser, Geri Allen, Jason Moran, and Christian Sands:

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A three CD set, The Complete Concert by the Sea, co-produced by Allen, Steve Rosenthal, and Jocelyn Allen, had been released prior to the 2015 MJF, with notes by Geri Allen in which she says, “ I became aware of Erroll Garner as a high school pianist learning about jazz and growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the ‘70s. I was moved and inspired by his innovative approach to playing and he opened up a world of possibilities … Garner embodied the very spirit of swing,  improvisation, and the blues.”

I became very much aware of Garner as a high school student and fledgling pianist myself (1950-1953), and not only collected every record of his I could get my hands on (including his 10” LP series of recordings for Savoy), but I heard him play live at an extraordinary concert at the Masonic Temple in Detroit on April12, 1952: a Piano Parade “world premiere” that featured Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson (boogie-woogie), Erroll Garner (with John Simmons on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums), and the legendary Art Tatum, with Slam Stewart on bass and Everert Barksdale guitar. Just to make that evening even more exceptional than its billing, Art Tatum’s plane was grounded in Chicago due to a snowstorm, and he had to be driven to Detroit by an automobile that consumed enough time to allow Erroll Garner to play a set that lasted for two and a half hours!

The woman who would become my wife (five years later) was with me that night (even though she had a date with someone else), and Betty remembers the sight, the glint, the flash of Art Tatum’s emerald ring, even though we had seats high in the balcony. He had arrived well after midnight and provided a full set himself. What an extraordinary evening that was!—and one that prepared me well for Geri Allen’s tribute: a set that found her seated at one of three grand pianos, flanked by Jason Moran (to her left) and (right) a pianist I’d not heard perform before: Christian Sands (billed as “an emerging jazz force”), each participant paying homage, in her or his own unique way (along with the contributions of guitarist Russell Malone), to the artistry of Erroll Garner.

The three pianists, with Geri Allen stationed at the matrix, offered both brilliant unison and equally bright solo work: fine very free interpretations which, at first, struck me as too free to serve as homage to Garner’s own style–as not very “Garnerish” at all–but when I got used to the extent of license involved, I realized that each of the pianists had truly absorbed and assimilated the Master in her or his own way, declining to go the route of strict imitation in preference to independent, individual homage, proving Geri Allen’s declaration that “jazz is such a timeless experience.” The three pianists did offer familiar Garner fare from the original Concert by the Sea LP (“April in Paris,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and ‘It’s All Right with Me”), with the addition of tunes not found on the LP but included in the concert itself. Eleven of these pieces can be found on the three CD set now out, The Complete Concert by the Sea.

The celebration allowed each pianist to not only pay respect to Garner’s gutsy, idiosyncratic, off beat (literally!) style, but their own individual contributions to the world of jazz. The result was what I jotted down as “concert eloquence,” a somewhat grandiose display of individual poise, pride, and purpose—a sort of “After Erroll Garner” or “Beyond Erroll Garner” Baroque homage. Familiar as I was with both Geri Allen and Jason Moran’s styles, I was impressed by the unique approach of Christian Sands, who did commence “It’s All Right with Me” in distinct “Garner” manner, and then showed the full range of the genuinely two-handed piano he is capable of (reminding me of another of my favorite pianists: Marcus Roberts), graced with a fine feel for dynamics, fulfilling the “promise” extended in the Festival program notes: “pianistic technique in abundance … a fresh look at the entire language of jazz: stride, swing, bebop, progressive, fusion, Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban … he possesses an extensive vocabulary of patterns, textures, and structures, which allow him to play in about any style.”

The Erroll Garner Project set closed with one of the Master’s own original tunes: “Gemini,” allowing all three pianists (and Russell Malone, who’d been masterful on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) and Victor Lewis (who provided a fine solo on “Gemini”) to jell on a fitting conclusion to a first-rate set: a homage not just to Erroll Garner but the history of jazz itself as an art form. This entire Jimmy Lyons Main Stage session was well documented, enhanced, visually (I had no trouble seeing it!) by way of a large screen that displayed the hands of each performer in action (grand hands: “It’s all anatomy,” pianist/composer/arranger Don Schamber once said to me, commenting on the fact that Oscar Peterson’s hands were so large he could play 14ths, whereas with my meager mitts I have to “roll” 10ths). Having just seen and heard what I did, I couldn’t help but “flash back” to what I’d witnessed that night in 1952 when Erroll Garner played for two and a half hours in Detroit—and that lead to thoughts on what I’d recently read about memory and, once again, consciousness.

Piano Parade        Piano Parade 2

In previously mentioned Israel Rosenfield’s The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain, after showing that the brain is not a “repository” (in which images of the past have been fixed, “imprinted and permanently stored”) but a highly creative “generator” of memory, the author devotes, as I mentioned with regard to “teamwork,” Gerald Edleman’s theory of “neuronal group selection”: “maps” made of neuronal groups: information distributed among many such maps, with “incessant reference back and forth, or venting,” so that “categorization” may take place.

Rosenfield writes: “We recollect information in different contexts; this requires the activation of different maps interacting in different ways that differ from those of our initial encounter with the information”—a skill acquired “in the course of experience … We do not simply store images and bits but become more richly endowed with the capacity to categorize in connected ways.” In support, Rosenfield quotes Frederic C. Bartlett (Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology): “Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative [italics mine] reconstruction, or construction built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of original past reactions or experience … It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation, and it is not at all important that it should be so.”

Rosenfield returns to Edelman’s hypothesis: “Each person, according to his theory, is unique; his or her perceptions are to some degree creations, and his or her memories are part of an ongoing process of imagination.” Reading this, I thought, “My God, the process of memory—and the work of the mind/brain–is no different from what a writer does making art, or a visual artist—or a jazz musician! I found the idea thrilling. Memory is just like the rest of living: each of us writing the novel, creating the story of our lives. So I was now in a very favorable position to fully enjoy the imaginative reconstruction of my experience of the majesty of Erroll Garner from my first encounter in 1952 through the homage paid to him in 2015!

If, so far at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival, I’d had solid musical lessons in collaboration (or teamwork) and memory, a set I would have to wait until Sunday night to experience, the Festival’s final night, would impart a valuable lesson in what it might be like to produce exceptional art without possessing sight.

Festival program notes let me know that pianist Justin Kauflin, whose complete set I would attend that evening, began his musical journey at age four, with Suzuki violin lessons, “adding piano four years later.” He was, by age six, “performing in concerts, nursing homes and weddings, eventually becoming concert master for several orchestras.” During this time, he also “endured many trials, particularly losing total vision by a rare eye disorder.” Mastering five grades of Braille and cane mobility, Justin, after a decade of classical violin and piano, switched to jazz piano at the Governor’s School for Performing Arts in Virginia. He attended the Vail Jazz Workshop, Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency, received “top honors in jazz festivals across the U.S.,” and turned pro at age fifteen.

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In 2004, Justin Kauflin graduated, “alongside his sighted peers,” in the top 1% of Salem High School (Virginia), was Valedictorian at the Governor’s School, and received a Presidential Scholarship to attend William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he was “taken under the wings of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry, and took lessons from pianists Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern, and James Williams.” A documentary five years in the making, Keep on Keepin’ On, focused on Justin’s relationship with mentor Clark Terry, was “Oscar-shortlisted for best documentary at the 2015 Academy Awards.”

Sunday evening in Monterey, Justin Kauflin opened his set, assisted by Mike Cottone on trumpet, Katie Thiroux on bass, and Mike Witek on drums, with an up tempo “Brotherhood of Man,” with strong, straightahead, clear, deftly articulated bop lines, block chords (reminiscent of Red Garland), solid left hand comping matched with bright clean runs, synchronized two-octave-separated configuration—all the tricks of the trade offered with the focus and intentionality of an artist free of inhibition and distraction. “Brotherhood” was followed by a handsome solo piano intro to “Stardust,” the tune itself, once the trumpet stepped in, taken at an easy-going tempo, filled with subtle invention mixed with formal restraint that allowed the pianist to provide a “Stardust” (in spite of the song’s frequent use, and perhaps even abuse) all his own.

With an equally amiable voice, Justin announced (following “Stardust”), “All of the music is dedicated to Clark” [Terry], and he preceded to play tunes that can be found on his appropriately named second CD, Dedication. In 2008, having graduated Summa cum laude with an Honor’s degree in Music, having moved to New York, Justin Kauflin, age twenty-three, “produced, led, composed and performed on his first CD,” Introducing Justin Kauflin; and in 2013, having participated in Quincy Jones’ World Tours, he worked with Jones on the second full-length CD, Dedication, released in 2015: #6 on CMJ Jazz Chart and #10 on Billboard’s Traditional Jazz Chart.

Original compositions I heard from Dedication on Sunday night were “The Up and Up,” “Elusive,” and “The Professor.” The first commenced with a skipping Latin beat, the theme composed of the large block chords the pianist is fond of (and me too!), then settled into delightful fleet single note excursions, with steady left hand comping and resourceful, inventive emphasis—the entire group just swinging, the close out a strong melodic descent against the steady Latin vamp again, and a quick, joyous stop! “Elusive” begins with a slow chromatic ascent, then descent, injected into a rhythm set by the drums. Mike Cottone carried the theme on trumpet, and Justin Kauflin provided his clear, clean, concise comping: the tune “elusive” in the sense of a full range of effects offered, suggesting musical artists from Bach to Bud Powell (and Mulgrew Miller), but resisting any set or fixed “categorization”—the close a five note theme loaded with subtle minimalist repetition enhanced by a drum solo. “The Professor” honors Miller by way of another large chordal opening, concert “classical” flourishes, but tastefully simple and direct melodic lines, first-rate “principles of selection” adhered to throughout, each note a decision among options but seldom an accident–refreshingly spontaneous. As further honor to Mulgrew Miller, Justin Kauflin played his mentor’s own composition, “Return Trip,” a sonorous, joyous, anthem “open road” piece combining praise, prayer, and limitless respect.

Justin Kauflin learned some hard, tough non-musical lessons when he moved to New York City, discovering that “visionless independent mobility” was “painstakingly slow at best and life-threatening at worst.” To improve the situation, at the Seeing Eye clinic in Morristown, New Jersey, he was matched up with a black lab named Cindy, his service dog for three years in NYC (there’s a fine photo of Justin and Cindy out for a walk on the cover of the Dedication CD). He then returned to Virginia, where he would “headline regularly at the Havana Nights Jazz Club” before he won the VSA International Young Soloist Award, was voted “Jazz Artist of the Year” in VeerMagazine, was selected as a semifinalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition (Gene Seymour writing that Justin possessed “more shape, heft, and narration rigor than most of his peers”), and was “discovered” by Quincy Jones, who co-produced the Dedication CD.

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Speaking of that album, Justin Kauflin has said, “When first conceptualizing this project, I realized there was so much for which I am extremely grateful. It was then that I decided to dedicate this album to all the people who gave of themselves selflessly in order to help me along this journey.” The list that followed included God (“center and the source of the music I create”), family and friends, and, feeling himself “a perpetual student,” many “wonderful teachers,” including Mulgrew Miller (“eternally grateful for every second” he was able to spend with him—“such a gentle and humble spirit”) and “CT” [Clark Terry]—“Thank you for sharing your beauty and joy with the world.”

In an interview conducted by Marta Ramon (JazzTimes), which she began by acknowledging the “perceptible spiritual energy that lights Kauflin’s compositions,” the pianist stated that “developing a career in jazz is not just perfecting one’s musical craft, but like most things in life, it’s more about people and community. Spending time with CT allowed me to see the human side of being a great performer/musician/educator … Now, I make it a point to cultivate relationships with all those with whom I come in contact. I will always strive to grow as a musician, but I now understand how much more important it is to develop and grow as a human being.”

Justin Kauflin’s fine “character” (as in a complex of mental and ethical traits that individualize a person) shows up in his music, along with his abundant skill and imagination (with regard to both “embracing” tradition and feeling totally comfortable with, as he puts it, “a lot of music outside of traditional jazz that I’ve been drawn to”), and also the capacity I admired (for my own personal reasons) of remaining totally focused, composed, not at all distracted in performance—for which I would like to add the word “crystallization,” thinking of something the poet previously mentioned, Osip Mandelstam, had to say about that state: “O poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral enjoys.”

Yet, in spite of Mandelstam’s protest, he–in poetry–and Justin Kauflin, in music (what I was privileged to hear in what he played on the Garden Stage at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival) are able to take us to a dimension in which genuine crystallization takes place!

Returning to the man whose name initiated this essay (both in the title and opening paragraph), someone who knew more than a few things about crystallography (in both science and the art of writing), Oliver Sacks, in his book The Mind’s Eye, offers a fascinating account of the compensations of three people who lost their sight and actually feel they have gained by it. In his book, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John Hull describes experiencing (in Sack’s words or paraphrase) “a gradual aftermath of visual imagery and memory, and finally a virtual extinction of them (except in dreams) … a loss of the very idea of seeing … a prerequisite for the full development, the heightening, of his other senses,” finding “an authentic and autonomous world, a place of its own … shifting his attention, his center of gravity, to the other senses, and these senses assumed a new richness and power.”

In his book, Out of Darkness, Zoltan Torey provides a full account of (again in Sack’s words) “developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his mind,” constructing “a virtual visual world that seemed as real and intense, to him, as the perceptional one he had lost—indeed, sometimes more real, more intense.” “I replaced the entire roof guttering of my multi-gabled home single-handed,” Torey writes—and Sacks comments on “the great alarm of his neighbors at seeing a blind man alone on the roof of his house–at night (even though, of course, darkness made no difference to him).” Having gone blind, Dennis Shulman found “the heightening of his other senses had increased his sensitivity to the most delicate nuances in other people’s speech and self-presentation”—through smell and emotional states (“states of tension or anxiety they might not even be aware of”), Shulman “no longer taken in by visual appearances, which most people learn to camouflage.”

In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks devotes a full chapter to his own experience of being diagnosed with an ocular melanoma in his right eye, and he takes us through the entire agonizing process: from radiation treatment to the loss of central vision, the scotoma then taking over his entire eye (”I had the sense that my visual cortex was now in a heightened or sensitized state, released to some extent from purely perceptual constraints”), hallucinations (“interesting in a way: they show me the background activity, the idling, of my visual system, generating and transforming patterns, never at rest”), losing stereoscopy (the “complete and sudden flattening of the visual world … crossing streets, dealing with steps, just walking around—things that required no conscious attention before—now required constant care and forethought.”), followed by another hemorrhage that cost him whatever peripheral vision remained in his right eye. He realized that “time will tell whether I am able to adapt to this new visual challenge.”

Being Oliver Sacks, he turns the entire “experience” into one that would transform his life “in a radical way,” finding that “questions of love and work, of what really matters most, have taken on a special intensity and urgency”—turning himself into a patient the account of whose “experience” would provide inspiration. Acknowledging his gratitude to the many patients and correspondents who had granted him their own case histories,” Sacks celebrates “the complex workings of the mind and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability—to say nothing of the courage and strength that individuals can show, and the inner resources they can bring to bear, in the face of neurological challenges that are almost impossible for the rest of us to imagine.”

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I find the words, and the life, of Oliver Sacks inspirational—and a sound way to end this essay. I will continue my account of the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival in the next blog (the extraordinary pairing off of Bella Fleck and Chick Corea; then Ambrose Akinmusire, John Santos, Snarky Puppy, Duchess, Dan Ouellette’s DownBeat Blindfold Test with Pete Escovedo and Shiela E., the Monty Alexander Trio, and more), but in a manner that focuses on the performances themselves, devoid of any asides on “consciousness.” I do want to thank you for allowing me to approach Cyrille Aimee, Geri Allen’s Erroll Garner Project, and Justin Kauflin as I have—as I, given the nature of my own “experience” at this time in my life, heard and saw them perform. Thanks!

 

Something To Look Forward To

I had ambitious plans for a next blog post for some time: a summary account of this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, “recollected in tranquility” because it took place in mid-September, and I had plenty of time to think over what I’d seen and heard (Gerald Edleman: “The ability to construct a conscious scene in a fraction of a second is the ability to construct a remembered present.”). The “ambition” element came about because I had–of necessity–approached this year’s Festival with a measure of “fear and trembling.” Some  medical issues (which I wrote about in an informal essay posted on Bill’s Blog: “This Mild Yoke: A Writer’s  Eyesight,” April 23, 2015) continue to compromise my vision and my vestibular system: issues that do not affect my hearing, fortunately (I would certainly require that for the music I hoped to describe). The “drama” was: how would all this play out at MJF58? I decided that, however it played out, I would write about it all, the complete experience, come what may.

I took copious notes at the Festival, and made stabs at the proposed (ambitious) project (a sketch for another informal essay—this one on how to fully enjoy and appreciate a special event–such as the Monterey Jazz Festival, which I did!–in spite of, or perhaps because of–compromised sight and inadequate balance). However, I am going to hold off for a bit longer to post it, because something else–very favorable!–has come up, out of the blue, and I’d like to post word of that under “Upcoming Events.” Also, because the holiday season now seems so close at hand (or so the onslaught of  commercials in newspapers and on TV informs me, along with wreaths decorating city streets), I’d like to make a pitch for the new book I have out–Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems—because it would, I feel, make an ideal gift (ho ho ho) for everyone’s family and friends.

In a previous blog post (“Blog Baroque,” September 30, 2013), I wrote about my friend, the amazing Bob Danziger, a gifted musician, composer, sound sculptor, inventor, author, entrepreneur, and a key player in the alternative energy industry for over thirty years. I provided URLs for sites on which his many accomplishments are displayed (http://www.linkedin.com/in/bobdanziger; http://www.bobdanziger.com/ http://energylaughs.com/ –and described the remarkable series of CDs that make up his Brandenburg 300 Project: (http://www.brandenburg300.com.).

Last year, Bob Danziger undertook a fresh video project, and he asked me to participate because the piece would focus on a poem by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam I had translated: “No, never was I anyone’s contemporary.” Working with Bob on this project was fascinating and I gained invaluable insight into audio, film, and digital fineness. First he had me select a piece from his Brandenburg 300 project (I chose “Brandenburg 22 Rembrandt,” with its impressive improvisation by Albert Wing, Mike Miller, and Bob); then, in his studio, he asked that I read the poem over (and “within”) the music–to which he would add visual material (I gave him the names of Russian artists from Mandelstam’s era: Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” Levitan, Vrubel; and also, at his request, some of my own art work, a series of drawings and woodcut prints I’d done of Mandelstam and other pieces, and some photos from my own life).

Here are three of my own Mandelstam pieces:

Mandelstam 1  Osip 5  Mandelstam2

Bob located excellent photos of Mandelstam (and art work from his era)–his intent to make this video a genuine “Mandelstam and Minor” (the title of the piece) collaboration: to honor the poet and also, as he put it, the fact that I have “survived.” When the project was completed, I posted news of it on my Facebook page, and access by way of the video’s YouTube URL– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxliLhcnyAY –saying I was grateful for having survived in my own small life, compared to the large life of Osip Mandelstam (a description of which will follow, in an account of the fate of Bob’s film). I said I was grateful to Bob for the time, energy, and immense talent (which extends in many directions) he gave to the project—unaware that the best was yet to come.

Bob Danziger submitted “Mandelstam and Minor: I Am No One’s Contemporary” to the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival: films to be shown at an award ceremony at Lighthouse Cinema in Pacific Grove, CA, on December 10th and 11th.  The film was accepted, in the “Short Narrative” category, and will be shown twice: on Thursday, December 10th, as part of the Local’s Corner block (which starts at 7:55PM–our “individual” film estimated start time: 8:20PM, with a Q & A period to follow after the block), and on Friday, December 11th, as part of the local “shorts” and documentaries block, which starts at 7:05PM–our estimated start time: 8:20PM.

Further information on the 2015 International Monarch Film Festival can be found on its Facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/MonarchFilmFestival/); its website (http://www.monarchfilmfestival.com/); and its Locals Corner page (http://www.monarchfilmfestival.com/locals-corner). Here’s some of the handsome logo and art work employed to promote the festival:

Monarch Film Festival Poster 2

Monarch Film Festival Wreath  Monarch Film Festival Poster  Monarch Film Festival Butterfly

And here’s the way Bob Danziger’s entry is described:

       Mandelstam and Minor: I Am No One’s Contemporary

                            by Robert Danziger

                              Short Narrative

“I Am No One’s Contemporary,” a poem by Osip Mandelstam, translated and performed by Bill Minor, who also did most of the artwork and photographs.  Additional artwork by Kandinsky,  Malevich, Chagall, Altman, Filonov, Levitan and Vrubel.

Osip Mandelstam is one of the great poets of the modern era: a poet admired, highly respected in Russia before and after the Revolution, but a poet not willing to compromise his principles during Stalin’s reign. Mandelstam was arrested after reciting a poem unfavorable to Stalin before close friends, and he died in 1938, at age 47, in a transit labor camp near Vladivostak.

William Minor is a poet/musician/visual artist who taught Soviet Russian Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Monterey Peninsula College. He has translated the work of both classical and Soviet Russian poets—with an emphasis on the work of Osip Mandelstam. The poem he recites—“No, never was I anyone’s contemporary”—best represents Mandelstam’s independence, integrity, and ultimate hope.

The poem is set to “Brandenburg 22 Rembrandt” by Bob Danziger and the Brandenburg 300 Project featuring Albert Wing, Mike Miller and Pat Woodland; Mixed by Chris Bolster at Abbey Road Studios, London. Video by Bob Danziger.

Bob was also asked to submit some stills—and here they are:

Monarch Film Festival Still 2   Monarch Film Festival Still 3Monarch Film Festival Stills 4   Monarch Film Festival Still 5

I’ve given plenty of poetry readings over the years, and even been filmed giving talks on The Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years and another book I wrote, The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBuSNTPDJqQhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuasLG8JU5U)- but I’d never done anything like what Bob had in mind for this film. I was puzzled when he asked me to sit in front of a yellow screen with my back to the camera (exposing the bald spot big as a softball that adorns that portion of my head), but when I saw the results, I was surprised and pleased to see myself reading the poem in front of the two photos of Osip Mandelstam (above)—and in another scene, gazing up in admiration at Marina Tsvetaeva (a fellow poet friend and love of Mandelstam’s). I was also puzzled by the ten (or more?) “takes” he put me through reading the poem. I thought I’d be totally burnt out by the third or fourth take—and was surprised, and delighted, when I discovered I’d entered a sort of “Zen” stage by the ninth or so take and was so relaxed (exhausted?) that the result, the final reading, seemed as fresh and spontaneous as any I could hope for. Bob Danziger is a PRO, and knows all the right “tricks” to get the best out of a novice “film star” (ho ho) like me.

Needless to say, we both are truly looking forward to December 10th and 11th, and being a part of the screening of “Mandelstam and Minor” at Lighthouse Cinema in Pacific Grove, California. And thanks again (“Spasibo bolshoy”)  Bob!

To close this “film” portion of Bill’s Blog, I’d like to set down two stanzas from my translation of Osip Mandelstam’s “No, never was I anyone’s contemporary”:

“A hundred years ago, on a rough cot/with soft white pillows, this age of clay awoke,/sprawled in its own stench, attempting to recover/from its first hangover.

What a vulnerable bed that was, if you/contemplate the slow creaking trek of time./But what of it? We cannot invent a substitute era./We must age in this one as best we can.”

The translation is included in Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems—the book I would like to plug now as a possible gift for family and friends—and for yourself! We have had three musical performances in which vocalist Jaqui Hope sang poems from the book which I had set to original music—accompanied by Heath Proskin on bass and me on piano, and once by me alone. A sample of one poem/song from the book—“My Fingers Refuse to Sleep”—can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLqjmDeiz2s.

Here are some photos from those performances:

With Jaqui and Heath at Cherry Center2 Jaqui, Heath and Me at Gypsy MOM 2

Bill and Jaqui at Old Capitol Books Robert Nielsen  Jaqui Singing

And I will close out this blog with another poem from Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems—the book available for purchase at: http://www.amazon.com/Gypsy-Wisdom-New-Selected-Poems/dp/1935530976 –or here in Monterey, at Old Capitol Books (downtown) and the Museum of Monterey (on the wharf) gift shop.

Here’s the book, and the description of it that appears on its amazon.com site: “In Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems, William Minor transforms and transcends subject matter (homage to parents, marital love, the death of friends, self-fulfillment, failure and success, a critique of one’s era, conceptions of heaven, aging, last words—and even such humble items as Q-tips) into skillfully crafted poems that will stand the test of time. The book ends with a brilliant, grateful, laugh-provoking parody of and homage to Francois Villon’s ‘The Testament,’ in which William Minor contemplates the ‘gifts’ he would give back to the world—one of which is Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems.”

Gypsy Wisdom Final Cover

And here’s the poem, “December 2014,” a poem I hope may resonate with the forthcoming holiday season.

“DECEMBER 2014

‘I gave up many things in life,/there is almost nothing that I need anymore.’ (Anna Akhmatova)

Settled, at last, into this nothing/that is everything, this small plot/in terms of overlarge wishes/(in an era of overwrought and overkill):

our own small home, ourselves, and those we love/(those who are still alive and those resident/ elsewhere as well), a life enriched/with a measure of grief, but not more

than we can handle—arriving only/as close to that state as we may deserve/to get. This season acknowledges a tree,/adorned with so much of our own

small history, ornaments of relevance (perhaps)/to this house alone, but artifacts found/ elsewhere as well, each with its own/weight for others. So much that is sacred

takes up only the space of a living room/carpet that we can walk across,/to embrace the light of that tree of life,/and thus embrace each other.”

May your holiday season be filled with well-being; and I hope, before that season is in “full swing,” to post an “essay” on this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (and how I relished each and every sound and sight, operating on compromised vision and a precarious balance system). I was reminded of the last four lines of Richard Wilbur’s fine poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World:” “Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,/And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating/Of dark habits,/keeping their difficult balance.”—but if I was floating, it was fully within the solid joy of witnessing so much great music. More about that later!

Two Who Form a Multitude

Walt Whitman was not the first person to claim to contain multitudes. In Greek mythology, Deucalion and Pyrrha were instructed by Themis to replace the loss of mankind (after the end of an Iron Age flood) by casting stones of the earth (reinstating men and women) behind them. The couple claimed, “Nos duo turba sumus” (“We two form a multitude.”). In our era, Larry Constantine, an American software engineer considered one of the pioneers of computing, has said, “A dynamic duo who work well together can be worth any three people working in isolation.” And I once wrote a poem celebrating thirty-eight years of marriage to the same person (now going on fifty-nine years with my wife Betty) by citing the names “Lea & Perrins, Proctor/Gamble, Tom & Jerry, Yang and Yin” as forerunners among other memorable duos.

Turning to the world of jazz (the focus for this particular blog): with on-the-spot improvisation at its heart, and once favoring late-night cutting contests and show-stopping solo excursions, the art of jazz might appear to be fiercely contestual, competitive—but it also fosters cooperation not often found outside an institution such as marriage (where, given the divorce rate, it does not always, obviously, reign or rule): a unique partnership in which superior talents set their egos aside and collaborate like Siamese twins who know each other’s thoughts, gestures, and whims by instinct, by heart—anticipating and responding to each other with ease and skill.

I drew up a list of my own favorite great jazz duos, and that list was long: Stan Getz and Kenny Barron, Hank Jones and Charlie Haden, Don Byas and Slam Stewart, Joe Pass and Ella Fitzgerald, Don Cherry and John Coltrane (or Coltrane with Thelonious Monk), Bill Evans and Tony Bennett, Marcus Roberts and Bella Fleck,  Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond, Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone … the list goes on and on and on …

arriving at, for the purpose of this blog, bassists David Friesen and Glen Moore.

On the foundation of their fifty year association (they first met in Seattle in 1965) and paths that continued to cross (on tour in Europe and the USA, but also, when both were at home in Portland, Oregon); acknowledging their first record, In Concert, for Vanguard in 1977, and another duet recording, Returning, which followed in 1993; a special duet concert in Portland in 2013, touring Arizona playing concerts and presenting music clinics in February of 2015, and 13 concerts in Europe in March (one result of which is the recently released CD Bactrian, which I will attempt to do justice to, verbally, in a moment)—bassists David Friesen and Glen Moore take their rightful place among the great jazz duos: the CD fully supporting David’s belief that “this new recording represents something very special … not only representing some of what we both feel is the very best recorded music we have played together … but something else inside the notes that only happens when you must endure the wait of over 50 years.”

David Friesen and Glen MOore     David Friesen and Glenn Moore 3

I first heard David Friesen perform at the Monterey Sheraton’s Bay Club and wrote about him for our local Monterey newspaper, The Herald, in March of 1988—and I have maintained twenty-seven years of constantly increasing admiration and respect for David and his work. The piece I wrote in 1988 was entitled “Jazz with Extra-Musical Purpose,” and that’s exactly what first attracted me to his considerable gifts (plural!) at the time. I felt that every note he played was infused with significance and intentionality; I felt that David saw the music, and humankind, not as ends in themselves, but as a means to celebrate the “gift” of life itself.

When I first heard David Friesen, he had played in the distinguished company of Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Sam Rivers, and Duke Jordan. That evening at the Bay Club, he performed with a trio made up of himself, 22-year-old Phil Dwyer (sax and piano) and 25-year-old drummer Alan Jones. An inspiring, stunning instrumentalist, David was about as self-effacing as a leader dare get, yet always at the epicenter of the music. The trio offered a family tapestry filled with intricate and loving accord. I heard David Friesen again about a year later, with Paul Horn’s Quartet at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, California. David’s solos were wonders of design: on-the-spot invention that swung, intelligence free of any hesitation. The group offered two Friesen originals: “Pathways” and “Festival Dance” (the latter just that: a syncretistic gambol, a joyful noise made unto the Lord).

David Friesen9    David Friesen Star Dance(Photo credit: Burnside Records)

In April 1995, Down Beat magazine published an article I wrote on David Friesen’s recorded work up to that time. The piece began: “What do Michael Brecker, Clark Terry, Denny Zeitlin, John Scofield, Bud Shank and Airto Moriera all have in common? The answer is David Friesen, a veteran Oregon bassist with a prodigious output of recent CDs.” I quoted what David told me was the rationale behind his abundant recording activity: “So I can survive. Basically, that’s the truth. Also, I have lots of ideas. I’m pretty diverse in what I do. There are so many styles of music I enjoy, and I’ve been fortunate to find record companies that will support my projects.”

At that time, a series of recordings for ITM Pacific included duets on Two For The Show and a trio on Three To Get Ready. David Friesen cited four criteria for selecting the artists for both CDs: individuality-independence, dedication to the music, the ability to “listen,” and variety. Two For The Show featured Friesen in duets with the fine yet disparate talents of Brecker, Terry, Zeitlin, Scofield, Shank and German guitarist Uwe Kropinski. Regarding this CD, I wrote about David Friesen’s resilience, saying that, like a marriage without children, a duo could be a dangerous undertaking: all focus and responsibility placed on the partners’ reciprocity—a difficult art or balancing act that required each participant to truly listen constantly, and respond fully. And that’s just what each of these duos did!

Throughout the years, from the time they first met in Seattle in 1965 until 1993, when David Friesen and Glen Moore recorded their second duo album together, Returning, Glen was engaged in a number of successful enterprises of his own. In the words of writer Lynn Darroch, “As founding member of the pioneer chamber jazz group, Oregon, Glen Moore helped redefine jazz in the late twentieth century.” Trained on both acoustic bass and piano, he cultivated, as a child, fondness for the European symphonic tradition. At age eighteen, he met guitarist, pianist, and composer Ralph Towner at the University of Oregon. Having earned a B.A. in history and having studied bass for a year in Copenhagen, Glen Moore went to New York in 1967, where he and Towner performed at Woodstock (with singer Tim Harden) and then, in 1970, created Oregon (with Paul McCandless: oboe, soprano saxophone, English Horn; and Colin Walcott, percussion, sitar, tabla)—a group Moore called “an improvising orchestra.”

Glen Moore and Oregon2      Glen Moore and Oregon.jpg 1

Oregon recorded twenty-seven albums together—a double CD (Oregon in Moscow) among them, a recording made with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. The group’s other accomplishments include its music allied with an Apollo mission to the moon (craters there bear the names of two of Oregon’s songs: “Icarus” and “Ghost Beads.”)—and Glen’s individual credits include collaboration with vocalist Nancy King; the debut of his “Firebat Suite” by the Philadelphia Symphony; and music composed for theater (Henry VI) and to accompany poets (Galway Kinnell, Joe Stroud, Al Young, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, etc.) at the Mountain Writers Center in Oregon.

After twelve years in New York and Europe, Glen Moore returned to Oregon in 1980, and took up residence in the Portland area. Reunited with David Friesen in 1993, they recorded the album previously cited, Returning, Moore’s acoustic Klotz bass (crafted in the Tyrol about 1715), on which—in the words of Lynn Darroch again—“he has made extensive use of a unique tuning with both a low and a high C string” merged with David Friesen’s circa 1795 N. Guignot (Mirecourt, France) and the Hemage bass, made by Hermann Erlacher, who offered expert craftsmanship after a solo concert in Innsbruck. Friesen–once an avowed acoustic purist–said the instrument allowed him to play “the music I hear within myself; a very warm, sustaining sound that’s not like an electronic bass. I’m not fighting the sound anymore. The whole course of art is dreams. You’ve got to be flexible enough to evolve; to allow the music to go where it’s supposed to go in life, and be flexible enough yourself to follow that.” –this matched with Glen Moore’s own words regarding the sound he prefers: “Using the technique of the classical guitar in order to expand the vocabulary of pizzicato bass is probably the thing I’ve spent most of my life learning and teaching.”

In the liner notes to Returning, W. Patrick Hinely wrote: “That David Friesen and Glen Moore would both live in the same city [Portland] in itself defies the laws of probability; think of all the regions on Earth which have zero bassists per capita, much less such giants of the instrument operating on their level—but then, since both so make their family homes in Portland, it then follows naturally that they’d record together on home ground, betwixt and between the frequent international travels necessary to make their livings.”

David Friesen and Glenn Moore 5 (1977)David Friesen and Glenn Moore10David Friesen and Glen Moore 4  (Photo credits: Glen Moore Archives (oregonmusicnews.com); Klaus-muempfer.de)

The recent CD I want to focus on now–Bactrian–is the result of both that international travel and “home grown” opportunity. It was recorded and mixed at Fattoria Musica, in Osnabruck, Germany; and post production took place at the hands of Dana White (Specialized Mastering) back in Portland. On it, both artists play piano, David Friesen Hemage Bass, and Glen Moore acoustic bass made by Heiner Windelband, Schloss Neu-Barenaue, Bramsche, Germany.

I won’t go through the CD track by track (there are eleven in all), but because these great artists are also great storytellers (as superior musicians from Beethoven and Hector Berlioz to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis have been!), I will attempt to describe a few tracks, to give you a sense of the tales they tell and how David Friesen and Glen Moore go about inventing and then telling them (or do so simultaneously!). The first track, “Still Waters,” suggests just that: the placid waters of a lake upon which the notes, the timbre of each bass, provide concentric circles that spread, compatibly, throughout the piece. When David’s Hemage bass sings out, Glenn’s acoustic bass seems to nod in fully harmonious approval, the patterns accessible, simple, a perfect blend—“Still Waters” indeed, W.B. Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree” (“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow … for always night and day/I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore …I hear it in the heart’s deep core.”).

I also thought of one of my favorite Zen koans, as retold by Shunryu Suzuki in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind—about a “very interesting” frog: “He sits like us, too, you know. But he does not think that he is doing anything so special … A frog also sits like us, but he has no idea of zazen. Watch him. If something annoys him, he will make a face. If something comes along to eat, he will snap it up and eat, and he eats sitting. Actually that is our zazen—not any special thing.”

Effortless ease—or so it seems, but with years of practice, rigorous training, road trips, and homegrown performance behind it. The next track on Bactrian, “Free Play,” is also just that from the start: David’s bowed bass, Glen on piano, more suggestion than statement (yugen), handsome counterpoint, each artist taking his polite turn even within the overlay, providing not just decorative but truly meaningful stratum. The pace picks up: slapped bass, vamps, “hand drum” percussion, exciting, enticing rhythms emerging, gracefully yet forcefully—then back to a more discursive, soft, conversational mode, laced with David’s rippling finger work and a sudden close. Again: “Free Play” indeed!

Tunes such as “Hoe Down” and “Smooth as Silk” tell the stories the titles suggest (a gentle Appalachian “groove” to the first, Glen’s “big voice” bass, heavy boots on a well-swept floor; David’s agile “tabla” (percussive) patterns; David on piano for the second: a delicate silken texture to this tune, evocative melodic lines, tasteful respect and rapport—the restraint of Glen’s large sound that seems to melt back into the piano. Together, they do full justice to two standards, “Caravan” and “Summertime,” but I’d like to describe what I hear in two more original tunes: “Return,” with Glen Moore on piano, featuring his fine touch and a tasty melody over David Friesen’s embracing vamp, the piece taking us “from swerve of shore to bend of bay,” and bringing us “by commodious vicus of recirculation” (words of another Irish author: James Joyce) home. And, on “Time and Time Again/Brilliant Heart,” David plays solo piano: the entire piece flowing with beautiful heartfelt homage, a sense of loss, and the consolation of love.

The CD’s title piece is called “The Bactrian”–a camel, “a large, even-toed ungulate native to the steppes of Central Asia,” a creature gifted with two humps on its back (in contrast to the single-humped dromedary), a “beast of burden” in its region dating back to the Achaemenid Empire (559-330) which preceded Alexander the Great’s arrival in the area that is now Afghanistan—a handsome creature with a tolerance for “cold, drought, and high altitudes,” a characteristic that made it fit for caravan travel on the Silk Road, wearing its long, wooly coat of sandy beige and possessing a handsome beard and mane, sealable nostrils and extended protective eyelashes.

Bactrian Camel

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Expert storytellers that they are, David and Glen capture a sense of all that in the music itself: a camel lomp (I think I just coined a word!), a vamp on the part of both artists at the start that contains the slow and steady accretion of Hector Berlioz’ “Marche des Pelerins” (the second movement of his symphony for viola, Harold en Italie) or the persistent percussion of Ravel’s Bolero (“one long gradual crescendo,” in the composer’s own words): an intriguing, infectious melody and abiding harmony to take along on the 8:23 minute journey, abetted by particles of sand and wind-bowed additional background or ambiance over and beneath a beautiful arco solo (melodic, melancholy)—the trek appropriately symbolic of the journey these two musicians have made together, with an inviting (not concluding) fade as the caravan moves off into the future’s distance at the close. Perfect!

In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks quotes neuroscientist Daniel Levitin on the “multiple attributes or ‘dimensions’ we perceive when we listen to music,” and lists those Levitin cites: “tone, pitch, timbre, loudness, tempo, rhythm, and contour (the overall shape, the up and down of melodies).” People enjoy attending concerts (of whatever nature or genre) because they anticipate the added musical ingredients of spaciousness, voluminosity, richness, resonance—additional dimensions, just as folks occupying an art gallery are there not just to appreciate chroma and texture, but depth and distance as well, the perceptual and emotional dimensions that stereoscopical vision affords.

All of these attributes are present in the music that David Friesen and Glen Moore make together, intimate as it is in a duo setting for instruments that generally take a back seat in music, provide “rhythm section” support for trumpets, trombones, saxophones, etc. The two bassists are truly “orchestral” in scope—in execution and invention.

I have been privileged to write three articles on David Friesen, and also write about his scene-stealing, noisy-audience subduing performance with Ted Curson at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1977 (Monterey Jazz Festival: Forty Legendary Years), his performances with Paul Horn in the Soviet Union (Unzipped Souls: Jazz Journey Through the Soviet Union), a five hour interview we undertook published in two sections in Cadence magazine in 2005, and liner notes for six of his CDs: Departures, Three To Get Ready, Four to Go, The Name of a Woman, Five and Three, and Where the Light Falls.

David Friesen and Glenn Moore 6      David Friesen and Glenn Moore7

(Photo credits: Courtesy of David Friesen; Ron Hudson)

After listening to Bactrian, I realized that most of what I had written could apply equally to what David and Glen play together. About the 1995 Burnside CD 1,2,3, I said that the discovery of the brilliant German guitarist Uwe Kropinski and the alert work of young pianist Randy Porter and drummer Alan Jones proved Friesen a master talent scout, but the same can be said of Glen Moore, who has performed with a host of international artists: Celtic singer Loreena McKinnet, oud player Rabin Abou-Khalil, sitarist Ravi Shankar, tabla player Trilok Gurtu, and the Kronos Quartet. And after all, early on, the two discovered each other!

For Where the Light Falls, I wrote that some individuals can only improve, get closer to a state of perfect performance rather than slow down or fall short with age. In philosophy, Aristotle called the act “entelechy”: the genuine fulfillment of potential. In theology, Thomas Aquinas applied Aristotle’s concepts to pure being in a state of complete realization (in both essence and existence). In our time, the phrase “self-actualization” was much tossed around—but most of us would more than likely settle for the simple hope of getting “better and better” with age. Getting much better with age is not only true of David Friesen, as I wrote then, but David and Glen Moore now.

I’d once written that David had gone from being “an exceptional bassist” to being “a veteran virtuoso whose technique and passion inspire not just admiration, but awe”—so how can one add to that, or go beyond that now? I believe the answer is: the virtuosity of David Friesen and Glen Moore on the Bactrian CD no longer calls strict attention to itself but serves, at present, the import of every note they play, providing work that fully embraces and embodies maximum emotional and spiritual significance on every level. How does one “better” the “best”? By setting the standards even higher, “ascending” a notch or more by virtue of fully matured skill and soul. In other words: absolute fulfillment, or “entelechy.”

For the 2009 CD Five & Three, I wrote, “‘Only connect …,’ E.M. Forster wrote as an epigraph to his novel Howards End. Connection – or heightened musical (and human) interaction – is the hallmark of David Friesen’s newest CD. I have praised David as a distinctive stylist on bass, a master musician who infuses every note with extra-musical purpose; a passionate performer, a prodigious composer, and a leader highly regarded for the company he assembles and keeps. Just when I think I’ve used up all the terms available to describe him (diverse, resilient, fiercely concentrated, totally dedicated, innovative, unique), he brings out fresh work full of the rich ‘collective’ rewards of Five & Three. It’s one thing to be a first-rate talent scout capable of finding the best musicians to work with; it’s another to shape such groups so that each individual stands out yet inspires the whole – and to do so by providing fully arresting and stimulating compositions and performance oneself – all done, as David told me, without set arrangements OR rehearsals! What you will hear is completely spontaneous, improvised interaction – collaboration on the highest most congenial level; on the spot work fully awake to every imaginative possibility: ‘play’ freely yet unavoidably laced into closer and closer union.”

And every word said there is equally true of what David and Glen Moore have accomplished in Bactrian.

David Friesen8          David Friesen and Glen Moore11

David Friesen and Glenn Moore 2

(Photo credits: Jorg Detering; Hiroshi Iwaya)

Glen Moore and David Friesen are two musical artists who have consistently produced excellence: true giants operating on the highest level. Year after year (and for fifty years now) they have raised the bar of expectation and fulfillment, until it would appear that they can ascend no higher—yet I will not be at all surprised when, possessing the seemingly infinite talent they have (the extent of their rare gifts, their compatibility and natural consonance) they do so: offering future work we shall all be privileged to hear. Thank you, David Friesen and Glen Moore!