Monday, November 28, 2005

Text Support

The text/music issue remains steady in the front of my thinking. Perhaps because the combination is so compelling when it works and yet it works so infrequently. When it doesn't work my ears can be intolerant. Especially when the baggage of syntax is given short shift. Heather Heise of In The Wings strikes at the heart of the matter in this recent post.

A couple of excellent text/music collaborations that I've raved about in this space are ITSOFOMO by Ben Neill & David Wojnarowicz and A Short History of Vodka by Elliott Sharp & Ronny Someck. In both of these works there is a close collaboration between the poet and the composer. And significantly, the text is performed by the poet. In the case of ITSOFOMO a recording of David Wajnarowicz is used as an unsettling voice from the angry departed. The quality of the text as stand alone poetry is substantial in both of these works. But the authenticity of the authors' voices in these works is what delivers the much needed intensity to these words.

Another pair of great text compositions I've mused about are Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg and The 17 Lyrics of Li Po by Harry Partch where the sound of spoken language becomes the model for intoning rhythm and harmony. I view that as a significant compositional solution to the pacing of text in music. Though again, these works have the benefit of some incredible source poetry.

Celeste H offered a helpful comment to my Bob Ashley Conundrum post. Celeste is a composer who works with text head on as she manipulates it electronically. I had a chance to hear her "Coulter Shock" as a podcast a while ago. It's entirely a different animal from the text works I've been considering as direct audio manipulation and appropriation of this kind of fabric takes on dimensions I've barely considered. Celeste admits that "words are indeed difficult." But then goes on to state the attraction: "it's so primary. Everyone can relate to speech and our brains are hard-wired to recognize it and decode it. I think this gives the composer more power to manipulate, although in different ways." Well stated. I'd say I'm particularly sensitive to the difference between listening to de-code the concrete meaning of words versus listening to the more abstract qualities of instrumental music.

Celeste also recommends a number of works familiar to me by Ashley, Amirkhanian and De Marinis that successfully drain words of meaning through extreme repetition, made-up languages or deliberately obscuring or blurring to the point where only the intoning sound is left. These are incredibly attractive techniques and yet the result is often brilliant yet unsatisfying. At any rate, these techniques feel like short-term solutions to the larger text issue.

I dug "Coulter Shock." In this case the source material is anything but poetic and that in itself opens up the text to all kinds of deliberate sonic distortion as the source is already intended to function as a social distortion. I'm enormously sympathetic to the political impulse to engage so directly with the right-wing noise machine. Particularly the despicable Ann Coulter and her outrageous hate-driven punditry. It must take a strong constitution to willingly expose one's ears to such source material.

Another text work dealing with a similar part of the political spectrum that I enjoyed recently was John uTopian Shaw's "The Aspens Will Already Be Turning" as performed on NPR. It's a setting of the now indicted "Scooter" Libby's near-cryptic letter to Judy Miller in prison. Here the source material is unintentionally poetic as a thinly veiled and clumsy call for perjury. This recording by Shaw at the piano calls to mind the wonderful Charles Ives recording of "They Are Here." A composition Ives wrote in response to the politics behind the outbreak of the first world war. I hear a similar idealism animating both the spirit of the performance as well as in the details of the composition itself in "The Aspens Will Already Be Turning." (Being compared to Ives is about the highest praise I can imagine. Good work uTopian one.) Despite Shaw's anxieties about the music humanizing a such a deeply disturbed individual I find that it actually exposes the inner thoughts of a complete moron through humor. And that's one example where a direct collaboration with the "poet" or even a recorded performance of the "author" isn't really called for.

1 comment:

jerrie said...

Very thoughtful. Good writing.