Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.
For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)
At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).
Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:
The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.
I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:
Here’s another good basso profundo:
And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:
Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”
There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:
Another basso profundo with a slow and steady style was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:
Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?
These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.
Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow channel of perception. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.
The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.
The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, were colliding. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.
This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.
To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:
The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.
Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.
The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.
By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:
Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!
Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)
Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?
Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.
Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”
John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.
In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…
By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.
Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.
Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:
Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.
“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”
To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.
This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!
Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)
I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
The Gospel Truth – Video Annex
Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)
Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)
The Church of Saint Coltrane:
Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 1 (YouTube)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 2 (YouTube)
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