(Ed note: We've been watching episodes of Spiral a French police procedural that's streaming on Netflix. It's wonderful, if a bit gruesome (I've had to leave the room more than once). The show has made me want to listen to more French so I have Pandora tuned to Charles Trenet radio and now I'm reminded of Roger Gilbert's post from June, 2008, reproduced below.-- sdh)
What if Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra had been the same person? In France they were, and his name was Charles Trenet.
I’m taking a break from my posts on Ammons to share my newly revived passion for Trenet. While I’ve always enjoyed his lighthearted songs and his buoyant singing, I’ve only recently begun to appreciate his range and versatility. Trenet (1913-2001) wrote and performed hundreds of songs over the course of his more than sixty-year career; best-known in the US are “La Mer,” memorably recorded by Bobby Darin in an English version called “Beyond the Sea,” and “Que Reste-t-il de Nos Amours,” recorded by Sinatra among others as “I Wish You Love.” But there are many other superb songs by Trenet that never crossed over to English. And while Trenet himself spent time in Hollywood, he didn’t achieve the level of transatlantic stardom accorded to fellow performers like Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Charles Aznavour. Yet in my opinion he was the greatest of all the French chanteurs, offering an incomparable blend of nostalgia, humor and joie de vivre, shot through with unexpected streaks of melancholy.
It may in part be a measure of how close-knit the French cultural world was in the 30s and 40s that Trenet associated with the likes of Saint-Exupery, Artaud, Cocteau, Colette, and Max Jacob. He harbored serious literary and artistic aspirations of his own, publishing novels and verse along with his copious chansons. A gay man compelled to keep his sexuality hidden for most of his career, he often called attention to the line between the performer’s mask and the poet’s soul. One of his most beautiful songs, “L’Ame des Poetes,” imagines a crowd of people singing the poet’s words after his death, “not knowing for whom his heart beat.” Here’s a video of Trenet singing it sometime in the 1970s:
His performance here is unusually muted; Trenet was generally known for his energetic, google-eyed manner. Here’s a clip from his first film, in which he calls to mind a singing Harpo Marx (he was known in this period as “le fou chantant” or “the singing clown”):
Finally, here is one of Trenet’s most famous songs, “Je Chante,” originally written in the 30s during the Depression. Trenet brings an irrepressible glee to his performance, but if one listens carefully to the lyrics they tell a surprisingly grim story of a wandering singer who begins to faint from hunger, is dragged off to jail, then praises the rope or “ficelle” with which he hangs himself for freeing his soul from his body:
Like the proprietor of this blog, I’m a diehard Sinatraphile, as well as a lover of the great American standards. But there is no one quite like Trenet in American popular music before the 1960s. While a few songwriters met with success as performers—Hoagie Carmichael, Johnny Mercer—none of them achieved Trenet’s dual standing as one of his country’s most beloved singers and songwriters. His songs are touching, hilarious, sweet, silly, and sad. Ecoutez-les!
In my studio, I used to have portraits of my favorite poets hanging on the wall next to my desk. One day, I realized that most of them either committed suicide or subjected themselves to suicide-like circumstances (like Pushkin who was repeatedly trying to subject himself to a duel). How could it be that the most sensitive people who bring so much joy to others through their writings, would give up on life?
Suicide is still a taboo theme in our society. Yet, it daily kills more people than disease or war. Looking for answers, I came across the diaries of Sylvia Plath, who killed herself at the age of thirty at the height of her powers as a poet. My String Quartet No. 8 ‘Sylvia’s Diary’ is written in honor of Sylvia Plath.
World Premiere Info:
17 November 2013
University, Kilbourn Hall, 3 PM
Lera Auerbach - String Quartet No. 8 “Sylvia’s Diary“
Today I'm thinking about these lines from John Berryman: "Fall is grievy, brisk. / Tears behind the eyes // almost fall. / Fall comes to us as a prize / to rouse us toward our fate." (From his Dream Song 385, which someone has put online here.)
I've been listening to Jon Appleton's The Russian Music this fall. The first disc, mostly: the piano concertos. They ripple and roll. They're a bit akin to Philip Glass (his Metamorphoses -- also well-suited to fall, if you ask me.) But this piano music is moodier. More Russian, I suppose. Though when I ran across the Berryman quote (above) in my commonplace book, it made me think of Appleton, too.
It occurred to me to share the first track with you, the one I've been loving so much, "Julia - I Con Fuoco," though YouTube failed me. I found a young Jon Appleton playing the synclavier, which is a very different thing entirely. I found Moscow Meat, a short film about Jon discovering Russian composers in Vermont. And this short interview with Jon, filmed about a year ago in his home in Vermont:
But he speaks there a great deal about electronic music, and while I have no problem with his electronic work, it's his analog work with which I have fallen in love.
Then I realized that you can hear that first track at the publisher's website. Go to Jon Appleton - The Russian Music -- click on the image of the cd cover, Jon holding a fur hat in front of a wintery wood, and you'll be whisked to another webpage where the first track will automatically play.
You might not think of this 1981 dab of pop schmaltz served up by the Philly duo Hall & Oates when you think about the National Security Agency but the song makes a point. Other than its obvious message about stepping out on a lover and the mayhem that ensues, in the context of our Chicago 100,000 Poets for Change event tonight it’s being used to spread a message that as our local, state, and federal governments become less and less transparent in their activities they are spending huge sums of money in their efforts to watch us. (Recent headlines also show that government employees have also been using their increased reach not only to spy on potential threats to national security but also ex-girlfriends and wives.)
worth mentioning that increased surveillance to some degree does make our world
a bit safer, but the larger question is what are we sacrificing for this safety
and where is the line when collectively Americans need to say enough. From the
elevated train you rode to work, to the convenience store where you bought a
bagel, to efforts championed by some health insurance companies that would
require potential customers to provide DNA mapping, technology and our efforts
to make urban environments more livable are colliding in sometimes strange
Poets, artists, and musicians worldwide tonight are getting together to talk about the issues that affect their communities for the third installment of the global 100, 000 Poets for Change. Join us! Details follow. (I’ve also included a journal entry about participating in my very first 100, 000 Poets for Change event three years ago.)
TONIGHT: Private Eyes (They’re Watching You): A special event in conjunction with 100 Thousand Poets for Change,
7pm at Outer Space Studio
1474 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago
near the CTA Damen blue line
suggested donation $4
About: On September 28, 2013, thousands of poets around the world will make their voices heard. To declare the change they'd like to see most in the U.S. and throughout the international community, events are being staged worldwide as part of 100 Thousand Poets for Change. This night of poetry and activism in Chicago asks the questions: What is freedom of expression? Is surveillance dangerous? Who chooses the information our government can access and censor? When has it gone too far?
FEATURING: Darren Angle, Barbara Barg, Joel Craig, Nina Corwin, Adrienne Dodt, Rey Escobar, Cean Gamalinda, Laura Goldstein, Jeanette Gomes, Kevin, Gunnerson, Nathan Hoks, Felicia Holman, J'Sun Howard, Noël Jones, Jennifer Karmin, Emily Lansana, Daniela Olszewska, Matthias Regan, Timothy David Rey, Larry Sawyer, Jennifer Steele, Keli Stewart, Russ Woods, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
**all proceeds to be donated to Kiva**
Logistics -- near CTA Damen blue line, third floor walk up, not wheelchair accessible
Co-sponsored by the Chicago Calling Arts Festival & curated by the 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Chicago Community Council 2013: Barbara Barg, Laura Goldstein, Jennifer Karmin, Timothy Rey, Larry Sawyer, Keli Stewart, and Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
Red Rover Series is curated by Laura Goldstein and Jennifer Karmin. Each event is designed as a reading experiment with participation by local, national, and international writers, artists, and performers. Founded in 2005 by Amina Cain and Jennifer Karmin, the over sixty events have featured a diversity of renowned creative minds. Email ideas for reading experiments to us at email@example.com.
About My First 100,000 Poets for Change: Bad Date America
I’m trying to remember when I first heard of 100,000 Poets for Change. I know as a poet I picked up on it much more quickly than the general populace probably. Anything with “poets” in the title would end up on my radar eventually. I do remember being on the phone with Michael Rothenberg at some point talking with him about something else and saying “so, what’s this 100,000 Poets for Change? I mean, 100,000? What do you mean by change? Whose change? What does that look like?” I remember Michael answering my questions fairly patiently, if not giving me the impression that I was being too skeptical. Almost the tone of his voice, from what I remember, being kind of like, don’t you get it?
I did get it and he knew I did, but I was asking questions because I was intrigued.
I do think that since being written up by the major news media (Huffington Post, methinks), poets and the public at large are taking it much more seriously as a vehicle for dialogue and a motivator for communities to band together and solve problems with art. Essentially that’s what it is. But its nebulous qualities are what makes it unique. It’s really all-inclusive, nearly to a fault. Bob Holman pointed out that the strength of it lies in the fact that anyone can take the idea and pour it into the mold of what works in their own community. I agreed.
For Chicago, my plan was to provide some sugar, maybe some hilarity, so the bitter pill of what was happening in America would go down a little easier. Everything in the news reminded me of being on a bad date. It was BAD DATE AMERICA. The idea of being stuck in a clock-watching scenario and grimacing through every moment of it. The worst bad dates also involve a CHAIN OF EVENTS that progressively worsens. “Well, at least THAT hasn’t happened, yet.”
Also, giving the event a conceptual theme might make the audience feel a bit better about an event involving 15 to 20 poets. It seemed to work.
After coming up with a viable concept, of course I had to act as MC and participate by reading my own poetry and recounting an actual bad date experience. I dressed up like a waiter, wore a white shirt and black tie, threw a towel over my arm, and seated each reader at the front of the room at the candlelight table we’d propped up just for the occasion. The audience tittered and gasped and I think came away with more of an understanding of how art can bridge gaps between communities and also grease the wheels of change. I enjoyed myself.
After all, has there been a time when more is at stake? In addition to the complacency on the part of many regarding the evidence that the earth is in danger of the kind of climate change that could at the least ruin lives and at the most result in a world war over resources, disruption in trade and eco-disaster, IN ADDITION TO THAT the United States was still involved in two foreign wars and the global economy was in the midst of a recession that had curbed everyone’s enthusiasm for anything. I was astounded to see that so many local poets and publishers agreed to participate, including: Kaveh Adel, Barbara Barg, Jen Besemer, Dan Godston, Laura Goldstein, Ezzat Goushegir, Kurt Heintz, Marcy Henry, Philip Jenks, Jennifer Karmin, Francesco Levato, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Monica Long, Anthony Madrid, Mario, Ario Mashayekhi, Charlie Newman, Ladan Osman, Timothy David Ray, Roger Reeves, Kenyatta Rogers, Jacob Saenz, Don Share, Keli Stewart, Tony Trigilio, and Lina ramona Vitkauskas. These poets have my heartfelt thanks and respect for being the first to light the fire.
When I was a girl growing up in north-central Montana, I
spent many hours exploring the prairie and the coulees surrounding the Marias River. Meriwether
Lewis named it “Maria’s” River after his cousin who said “no” to his marriage proposal.
I’ve always wondered if he chose the name because this river was a “dead end”
in terms of the expedition’s search for a Northwest Passage. But now we
pronounce it with a long “i” as if there is an “s” at the end Mariah.
An expert told me the Blackfeet were probably the former inhabitants of the teepee rings, the circles of stones, that my cousins and friends and I used to walk among. There are whole villages, groups of two or three rings connected, and occasionally a very large ring at the top of a hill set apart from the others. Many doorways and remnants of fire rings are still present. Often I went with neighbors and cousins, but as I grew older, I liked to wander by myself.
The prairie was a good place for the imagination to develop, and it has shaped my perceptions in many ways. It provided me with the solitude to sing, pray, dance. I would stop at the edge of a pond or a quiet spot in the river and become as still as I could be, so the animals would learn to ignore me, the minnows would return, and the dragonflies would forget that I wasn’t part of the surrounding reeds or cattails. I loved looking for prairie asters, sweet peas, or bluebells in acres of dry grass.
Town was twenty miles away. My class consisted of four girls, my K-12 school of 60-80 kids depending on the year, and the town, Inverness, had a few hundred people. The school is now abandoned, the windows broken, the wooden floors warped. I can vividly remember walking to the lunch room, performing scenes from South Pacific and West Side Story in the gymnasium with members of our music classes, lying on the floor in the back of the small library reading biographies of Mozart and Van Gogh and Janis Joplin. There are many abandoned schools on the Hi Line in north-central Montana, where railroad towns appear every few miles with names like Glasgow, Malta, Kremlin, and Havre.
Chester was the location of the Liberty County Arts Council when I was a girl. My family went to most of the events this group sponsored. I saw my first didgeridoo there, my first cowboy singer, and my first opera. The Calgary Opera performed La Traviata, or at least scenes from it, on the high school stage, and of all the programs I saw, this is one that I remember most because I was interested in voice. Shortly afterward, my cousin applied to a youth choir that toured in Europe, and since she applied, I applied too when I was old enough. Maybe the influence of this outreach, alongside a good music teacher, allowed us to believe in our ability.
On the one hand, engagement with family and the natural world fed my imagination. On the other hand, the community and schools supported artistic growth to the best of their ability, and it’s this combination that I wish for every child. Having taught in the Montana Women’s Prison for the past five years, I see more clearly than ever the importance of encouragement and of giving young people a way to direct their skills, talents and energies. I think sometimes that if we could encourage and praise all of the children, the world would change quickly.
Montana has a history of strong, local arts councils that have done much over the years to bring musicians, performers, and, eventually, writers into their communities. There are many small towns at great distance from each other, and the need for outreach persists in all corners of the state. As Montana’s poet laureate, I hope to contribute, and I continue to feel grateful for the adults who made artistic programs possible when I was a kid.
I was recently marveling over this poem by Dylan Thomas, “Who are you who is born in the next room...” (published in 1945) from a series of pattern poems called Vision and Prayer because of what it does or enacts so successfully, and in doing so, how it transcends its arbitrary form. I don’t have the entire series in front of me, so it may be that this particular shape has some relevance that isn’t obvious when it’s viewed out of context because apparently these shapes form a series. What seems most interesting to me is how this writing works so well to set a scene and create a poetic equation with an ending that comes as somewhat of a surprise in a visceral way with such depth of metaphor, while it almost completely resists its own rhyme scheme. It provides an almost perfect balance between meaning and form that still manages to raise interesting questions because of certain effects.
I’m drawn at the outset to the two somewhat cavernous caesuras. The first comes after “In the birth.” It seems appropriate that the poet creates this gap in the line after the word birth (where the reader nearly falls in), and the second occurs after the word “alone.” Both caesuras offer a perfect physical illustration of what is being described (the pregnant pause) because the reader is forced to involuntarily pause after these words, which not only gives them emphasis but reemphasizes in a very graphic way the visual provided a few lines earlier with “I can hear the womb opening.”
From the poem’s opening there is a double meaning established because of the dramatic tension inherent in the first three words. The intentional ambiguity almost has the reader questioning himself or this might also be Thomas asking the question of himself.
Dualities cascade throughout. In the idea that Jesus was God’s word made flesh. The two physically separated rooms exist showing the reader as separate from what goes on in the other room. Also, the mention of a “wall thin as a wren’s bone” seems to underscore a difference between what the speaker perceives as the natural and unnatural world.
It’s quite marvelous that “Wren bone” is an anagram of “new borne.” Other imagery underscores an idea that this event on some level is holy but, again, a duality within the structures finds the reader noticing a shift of perspective in the mirror image of the poem that begins as the lines reach a midpoint and then recede in the second half. The poem’s structure mimics what is described, i.e., the poem itself is turning or shifting. These lines could be read in multiple ways “In the birth/bloody room/unknown to the …” or “In the birth bloody/room unknown to the…”
The poem, although only 71 words, does start with a vision and end with a sort of prayer but is Thomas describing his own thoughts on his own life that started with a similar birth but resulted in the many physical, mental, and domestic problems which plagued him for years? Or is this a meditation on our relation to the natural world and the unnatural, as represented in the poem, is the overlay of religiosity that is placed upon us that begins at birth? Thomas paints a prime moment, birth, which serves as a hinge between these two “worlds” i.e., the natural world and the world of civilization (and all the socialization that civilization demands).
As the wall is a part of the civilized world, the infant is not, yet anyway, and the point is emphasized internally as the rhyme scheme pairs “wild” and “child” together as a final example of the mysterious duality that ripples throughout what might have been a poem that Thomas wrote in one sitting in a very short amount of time.
The visual pattern creates interesting parallels that otherwise might not have existed had the poem been left aligned. The final interesting afterthought is that the form provides the reader with an object to be stared at, which it gives it an element of spectacle. Because of its symmetry the object simultaneously resembles a box, a shape of some sort like a pyramid reflected in water, a crucifix, the human form with arms outspread, and finally and obviously a diamond. Sixteenth Century alchemist Agrippa also included this shape and its opposite, which would look like a jagged hourglass, in his “Of the Proportion, Measure, and Harmony of Man’s Body,” which included diagrams of geometric shapes aligned with the human form. These two shapes comprise the ebb and flow of the alternating patterns in the book.
By starting with such an unanswerable question, by including such vivid imagery (e.g., heart print), and ending with such a violent twist, the poem registers like a minor earthquake and we stare down into its dark abyss and wonder what it meant to the author, as well as what it might mean to everyone facing the riddle of human existence.
Nota bene: See if you can guess which other literary wild child may have served as partial inspiration for this particular song by The Doors.
So, for my last blog, I spoke to some poets to get an idea of what I should do, and I think I’m going to take a cue from poet John Murillo (Up Jump the Boogie), who suggested that I talk about “soul music,” or possibly about “poetic mentors,” but I’m taking a bit of a slant approach to this, and I’m using both of his suggestions: I want to talk about the blues as a form from which we can learn how to close a poem. In fact, the Blues Stanza, for the longest, was the only American poetic form—and still is the only “traditional” American form, which simply is to say it has a long tradition that we can extend, vary, and translate into the 21st Century. And I also want to talk about poets and thinkers who influenced my thoughts on this subject.
My real understanding of the blues as a poetic form came while I was in my MFA program at Warren Wilson College. In our penultimate semester at Warren Wilson, we have to do a craft essay. I chose the Blues as a Poetic Form by looking at the work of Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight, and Cornelius Eady. My supervisor was the poet Eleanor Wilner—a great poet, a great spirit, and a blues woman at heart—who guided me and indulged me through thinking about the blues stanza. What place does this stanza hold in contemporary poetics? What can we learn from it? Who were its masters? Etc. This was back in 1997, and I’m still learning from this exploration.
I recently heard Chase Twichell give a wonderful talk on form in which she mentioned how we can’t do form just for form’s sake. We have to push the form to be more flexible. “Amen, sista,” I said in my head, sitting in my seat. I loved the fact that she also pointed out how form, in itself, can be easy to do; it’s making it bend to your will to say something about the human condition that’s hard, making it your own language. When I think about the blues stanza, it’s a form that really forces this need to speak beyond the form. The blues stanza is largely unsuccessful without transcendence.
Transcendence is really what we take from this form into our muscle memory as we write free verse. We need to push the form toward a turn, much like the sonnet, but at the end as opposed to toward the middle. The turn often takes the shape of one or more of the following:
1. Reversal of Fortune
2. Higher Knowledge
3. Stoic Acceptance as a coping mechanism
5. Luck or Supernatural intervention
When you look at this list of ways in which the blues stanza can be resolved—and, to be clear, this is NOT a complete list of possibilities--we find that we can apply these to most free verse poems. But I came to understand this not only through listening to a good deal of blues—Eddie Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bessie Smith, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, John Lee Hooker, and Big Mama Thornton, as favorites—but also from reading some profound books on the subject. Mostly, I read everything the late great Albert Murray wrote, the novels and the essays, and then I read everything he referenced.
Earlier in the week I talked about favorite books. If I extended my list past three, a book that would be in my top ten is The Hero and the Blues, by Murray, who died at age 97 on August 18, 2013, the day before I started this blog.
Albert Murray, known as a novelist and essayist, was also a poet; he published a collection at age 85. If you want to see some real blues transcendency played out in a poem, check out his poem on Faulkner, which was published in the New Republic: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114389/poem-albert-murray-william-faulkner-noun-place-verb .
When I heard Chase Twichell give her talk, I thought about how she’s extending an argument on form that reminded me of Murray. Murray presents an argument for the extension of tradition through working within its original forms—even when artists think of themselves as working “experimentally.” Murray was no square. He was not only hip to change in all its forms but he also was hip to the traditions from which those innovations emerged. With regard to the blues as a form, he aptly makes this case for the extension of its tradition and the tradition of all form in art, in his chapter “The Blues and the Fable in the Flesh”:
“…To refer to the blues idiom is to refer to an established mode, an existing context or frame of reference. But then not only is tradition that which continues; it is also the medium by which and through which continuation occurs…Perhaps a better word for experimentation as it actually functions in the arts is improvisation…The more any art form changes, by whatever means and by whatever methods, motivations, or infusions, the more it should be able to fulfill its original function.”
This could be taken both as sound advice on approaching form and as an ambition for experimentation. At first glance this might sound rigid, but upon further rumination one may be able to see how liberating this can be as an approach. When we think of “improvisation,” we often think of a certain freedom, but we’re actually hearing, in music, a musician at play in form. So, I’m constantly thinking about the ways in which we can bring that level of improvisation to our forms. And we have contemporary examples: I think it’s unavoidable to say that Denise Duhamel falls under this category in every one of her books. I also put Marilyn Nelson, A. E. Stallings, and Natasha Trethewey in this category, book by book. Jen Bervin plays with the sonnet form in singularly original ways in her work Nets. Marilyn Hacker belts out a long Coltrane-esque improvisation in Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. Evie Shockley is like Miles when he still did ballads in her book The New Black. And Ellen Bryant Voigt bends the sonnet to a blues scale in Kyrie…We have many examples of “improvising” in form in poetry. And, fortunately, we still have poets devoted to extending the blues form, specifically: Calvin Forbes, Sterling Plump, Honoree Jeffers, Tyehimba Jess, and Kevin Young, to name a few.
The basics of the blues form is a three-line stanza in which the first line makes a statement or asks a question, the second line offers a variation of the first line, and the third line offers a response or a resolution. (Often, too, it’s a four-line stanza in which the second or fourth lines may finish a clause from the first or the third lines, respectively.) I say “resolution” because the first line is usually a statement that lays out a situation, a dilemma, in which the speaker is found. I often tell my students that ‘how it is in the poem is how it is in life.’ The “dilemma” posed in the blues stanza is often what most people think of when they think of the blues: a speaker who has lost a job, who has no money, who has lost a lover, etc. But the poem has to find transcendence in some way to respond to this situation, much in the way that we have to respond to dilemmas in life.
We’re most used to seeing variations on this basic form in that three-line stanza, either in an AAB or an AAA rhyme scheme. An example of a fairly traditional blues stanza can be found in this excerpt from Eddie Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” in which our speaker copes with the loss of his lover, four lines at a time:
“…Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul
I wouldn’t mistreat you, baby, for my weight in gold.
I said, Lord, have mercy on my wicked soul.
You know, I wouldn’t mistreat nobody, baby, not for my weight in gold.
Well, I folded up my arms and slowly walked away
I said, Farewell, Honey, I see you on “Judgment Day.”
Ah, yeah, oh, yes, I slowly walked away.
I said, Farewell, Farewell, I see you on “Judgment Day.”
In the blues form, one of the masters on the page is Langston Hughes. Consider the “The Weary Blues,” line by line, in which he reinterprets the blues idiom, often by breaking from the rhyme pattern within the middle of a stanza. Also, throughout, Hughes riffs on the form by extending the possibilities of the stanza. In a framed narrative of reverie, the first-person speaker gives report of our hero in third person. This allows the speaker to dip into the basic blues form, quoting the singer, and still improvise around it, telling his story. Although the “Negro” gets sleep, a relief, Hughes maintains the associative pattern of struggle, even in the final lines, offering the bittersweet transcendence of coping:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Coming from a black man's soul.
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied—
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.
Humor, Higher Knowledge, and Coping mechanisms abound in “The Weary Blues.” What we can learn from the form is to allow ourselves to play within form, to improvise, and to extend tradition, but—just as we remember in the sonnet with the volta—we can also remember to find our way out of the dilemmas we pose by trying to find transcendence, even in free-verse poems. That’s a lesson we learn from the blues not only for our poems but also for our lives.
The trip to Memphis was a lighthearted escape from the burdens of running a family business like no other. Since 2008, when Eva and her half-sister Katharina succeeded their father Wolfgang Wagner, they have directed the famed summer opera festival founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner and managed by his heirs ever since. In this bicentennial year of the composer’s birth, Wagner devotees are now setting forth on their annual pilgrimage to the seat of his still-powerful cultural domain: the charming city of Bayreuth (pronounced BY-royt), nestled far from Germany’s urban centers, in the rolling hills of Upper Franconia. “Wagner without Bayreuth,” observes the cultural historian Frederic Spotts, “would have been like a country without a capital, a religion without a church.”
From July 25 through August 28, the faithful will ascend the city’s famed Green Hill to the orange brick–clad Bayreuth Festival Theater—known globally as the Festspielhaus. It was built by Wagner himself to present his revolutionary works—among them his four-part Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal—in the innovative architecture and stagings he felt they required. The Bayreuth Festival became the first full-fledged music festival of modern times, the granddaddy of everything from Salzburg and Spoleto to Bonnaroo, Burning Man and the Newport Jazz Festival. At Bayreuth, however, only Wagner’s works are presented. After his death in 1883, the festival and the theater became a hallowed shrine for his followers, many of whom embraced his ideology of fierce German nationalism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism. He was idolized by Adolf Hitler, whose rise was abetted by the Wagner family’s support in the early 1920s.
Some works have a destiny of their own, independent of the intentions of their authors. They arrive, unannounced, slam the door in your face, take residency in your house, and boss you around.
In the summer of 1994 I was a student at the Aspen Music School, taking piano lessons with Joseph Kalichstein and spending every moment I could reading books, which my parents were sending to me all the way from Siberia. Slowly, one parcel at a time, our large library was following me to the U.S. I still remember the smell of the thick, blue volume of Maeterlinck’s plays, that peculiar blend of old paper and print smell, which is forever associated in my memories with my childhood and our home in Russia. The moment I opened The Blind, I had a jolt of recognition. “This is a perfect anti-opera, or perhaps an a cappella opera,” was my first thought. “This is insane. There is no such thing as an a cappella opera, this is just not possible!” was my second thought. And before I knew it, I started sketching the libretto and the thematic material. A few weeks later, by the end of the Aspen Music Festival, I had a complete manuscript.
To this day it remains one of the strangest creations in my catalog. It was not commissioned; nobody seemed to want it. So, it went into my desk, where it remained for many years—until 2011, when the Berliner Kammeroper found out about its existence and asked to see the score.
Shortly after the Berlin premiere, Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theater presented its own production of The Blind. For the overture I selected an electronic piece, “After the End of Time,” which I composed in 1993. Its post-apocalyptic soundscape set the desired emotional frame for the opera. The overture was omitted in Berlin and shortened for the Moscow production. Lincoln Center Festival will be the first one to present it in its entirety.
When John La Bouchadiére approached me about producing this opera in the dark, I welcomed the idea. Previously, I had the unique experience of attending Dialogues in the Dark in Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum. In our modern society we tend to rely on our vision above all other senses, yet we struggle to communicate and to truly “see” and know each other.
By allowing other senses to take over, although feeling disoriented and lost at first, we can discover and enrich the understanding of who we truly are. Religious symbolism underlying this opera is amplified by this “unseen” staging. By wearing a blindfold, one surrenders to the unknown, to the vulnerability of uncertainty. The illusion of predictability is stripped off, and one is left alone with questions. Questions often reveal more than answers, and I personally look forward to not seeing this visionary production.
The strings are the veins of music.
In the night, inside the piano,
They grow silence
Until it ripens and calls
To the composer, who gathers sounds
In the darkness, like a blind-man
Picking the wild flowers
Guided only by their fragrance.
RELEASES #81-94 (2007-2012)
81. The Dub Room Special! (CD, Zappa Records ZR 20006, August 24, 2007)
This is the soundtrack for a television program FZ put together in 1974 called "A Token of His Extreme." This planned show was released on DVD for the first time only recently.
However, the basic television broadcast was actually one of the very first video projects released by FZ's home label, Honker Home Video, and was entitled "The Dub Room Special." It featured FZ in a video mixing room (wearing the bizarre "stereo" helmet seen on the cover!) and moving between clips of the '74 band at KCET and the '81 band (Palladium, NYC, Halloween '81).
As stated above (#20), comparing the "Inca Roads" here with what ended up on the album is both instructive and awesome...
82. Wazoo (2CD, Vaulternative VR 2007-2, October 31, 2007)
A special document of an underappreciated and very much under-represented-by-recordings era.
FZ introduces the band:
... [Well, here we are in Boston, ladies and gentlemen. Just to fill you in on some of the zaniness that took place earlier this] ... afternoon. In the process of examining the stage to make sure that it was fit for human consumption, these large objects over here on the side with the horns on top of 'em—you know those speakers there?—they fell over backwards and completely mangled Jay Migliori's woodwind instruments. So Mr. Migliori is at a certain disadvantage this evening. We just thought we'd let you know. Fortunately, Mr. Migliori was not sitting there when the cabinets went down, so that part's okay.
Well, now that we got that over with, I'd like to introduce the rest of the lads in the band—and the ladies in the band—to all of you here.
Let's start up in the top, with trumpet number one, Malcolm McNab. And the indispensible Salvator Marquez. And on pygmy trumpet and tuba, Tom Malone. And Bruce Fowler on trombone. And Glenn "hands up, face to the wall" Ferris on trombone. And Kenny "always jovial" Shroyer on trombone. And Ruth "also jovial" Underwood on marimba. That's a jovial little marimba. And Tom "with one smashed hand" Raney on congas.
And, over here in the wind section, you already know Jay. Play something, Jay. That one works. And Mike Altschul. Ray "The Phantom" Reed. Charles "up and down" Owens. Joann Caldwell McNab. Earle Dumler. Wait, wait. Try that one again. Can you hear him? That's a little bit better, yeah. Just a minute now. Jerry Kessler on cello. Ian Underwood on keyboards, et cetera. Jim Gordon on drums. Dave Parlato on bass. And Tony Duran on slide guitar.
RELEASES #68-81 (1998-2007)
68. Mystery Disc (CD, Rykodisc RCD 10580, September 15, 1998)
All of this material was previously released on the two discs which accompanied the re-released materials on the first two Old Masters boxes (#43 and #46).
Like #64, this disc is filled with nostalgic gems from the early days.
Discs like these are certainly not for those new to Zappa.
But once you have (burp) digested much the material that forms the corpus of Frank's work ... you tend to start feeling hungry for these sort of bizarre nuggets. For example, "I Was a Teen-age Malt Shop" features FZ on piano.
The disc proceeds more or less chronologically. Several tracks from the Albert Hall show are here (#61). Things get zanier until coming to a tentative conclusion with "Harmonica Fun."
69. Everything Is Healing Nicely (CD, Barking Pumpkin UMRK 03, December 21, 1999)
Essentially a kind of documentary companion to The Yellow Shark (#62), this disc certainly contains no "Valdez" masterpiece or the like.
Instead, it is a collection of rehearsals, improvisations and bits that didn't make it onto Shark. Having stated that, this is actually a fine release with some, er, unusual works ("Master Ringo," "Wonderful Tattoo!") and pieces like "This is a Test," a short piece originally titled "Igor" which FZ had printed off the Synclavier and given to the EM as a sightreading test! Interesting that at times it sounds more like Milhaud than Stravinsky...
Using the same conducting technique he used to employ with the original Mothers (hand signals indicated predetermined musical phrases, motifs, or cells; or noises of all types, etc.), "Jolly Good Fellow" (4:34) sounds like a written-out composition. Ali Askin:
"... It looked as though Frank was playing the Ensemble like an instrument."
"Library Card" (7:42) -- the first track on this release:
Todd Yvega (Frank's Synclavier assistant):
" ... Frank assigned several musicians to improvise spoken interaction. The pianist, Hermann Kretzschmar, whipped out his library card to use as a text. The distinctive timbre of his voice, the German accent, and the humorous pace of his delivery obviously struck Frank as a vehicle to be developed and utilized."
Continuing with the same sort of idea, but this time reading from something a little heavier than his library card (the piercing magazine, PFIQ), Hermann has the EM (and FZ) in stitches with his readings in "Master Ringo" and "Wonderful Tattoo!" Warning: not for the faint of heart -- but it's also funny as hell!
"T'Mershi Duween" (2:30) is also found on #52 and #56 -- all three excellent renditions!
"Nap Time" (8:03) might just be that one unique track in the entire FZ catalog which defies description. It is unlike anything else in his catalog!
"9/8 Objects" (3:06) was recorded in July '91, Frank's house, when the EM were visiting and L. Shankar happened to be about. Awesome music here.
"Naked City" (8:42). Yvega:
" ... The guitar motifs were written in advance as was the primary motif played by the orchestra. The rest, including improvisations, were directed and improvised under FZ's baton."
"Whitey (Prototype)" (1:12) is mainly interesting as a comparison with the final version on Shark.
"Amnerika Goes Home" (3:00) -- an astonishing take from one of the Yellow Shark performances. Compare this to the Synclavier version on #63 and all the little details the EM gets right.
"None of the Above (Revised & Previsited)" (8:38) is a much longer version than the one on Yellow Shark and uses additional EM players -- mainly percussion -- in several sections.
... everything is healing nicely ...
70. FZ:OZ (2CD, Vaulternative VR 2002-1, August 16, 2002)
As Gail got the posthumous industry going into full gear, she and Joe Travers began raiding the Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark type UMRK vault for nuggets of enjoyment -- and in this case came up with a very special live concert that even the hard-core "tape traders" were ecstatic to see released!
To begin with, this '76 band is poorly represented in the catalog in general -- here it is only five pieces -- but they are very tight. Roy Estrada is consistently good throughout, with the young new Bozzio keeping a constantly moving groove.
"Stink-Foot" (6:35) is a perfect example of what a shame it is to have so few recordings from this particular band. They support Zappa beautifully (particularly Bozzio) as he sculpts one of his more interesting solos here.
My dear friend Nietzsche, never one to mince words, came over and held forth on the subject of opera. "You can have your Verdi and your Wagner," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "Give me Carmen, Bizet's Carmen. Io mi sento diventar migliore quando questo Bizet mi parla. I become a better man when Bizet speaks to me -- Bizet, who died soon after the Paris premiere in March 1875 and thus never learned that he had written that rarest of things, a popular masterpiece. I have seen it twenty times." "Twenty times," I exclaimed, lighting his cigar. "Twenty times in the last seven years," he said. It was 1888. “Bizet makes me fertile," he said. "Whatever is good makes me fertile." I asked him what he most loved about the opera. "Carmencita," he said, smacking his lips. "Carmen is fertile. She is a celebration of all that is healthy in life. She stands for the utter triumph of the utterly immoral, life-affirming sexual instinct: passion at odds with reason, lust mightier than even a mother's love, desire that leads ineluctably to degradation, humiliation, annihilation. She is authentic, innocent, cruel — and therefore precisely in line with the natural order." "The music is great," I said. Disregarding the interruption he said, "Carmen depicts love that is war and at bottom the deadly hatred between the sexes!" Nietzsche paused as my wife entered with a tray of champagne flutes. "Prost," I said. "Hoch," he replied. We sipped. "The greatness of Carmen," he said, turning courteously to include my wife in the circle of discourse, "is not only in its parable of jealousy to the point of homicide -- a theme worthy of Shakespeare -- but in the parade of vices, great and small, that it serves in its choruses and arias: smoking and drinking, gypsy fortune-telling and blood oaths, blood sport in a bull ring, knife fighting, smuggling, desertion, murder. Carmen deserts Don Jose as he has deserted his regiment. Hers is the greater will. She will not be a wife, a slave; he is the one enslaved, and because he is, she no longer wants him. She is willing to die sooner than yield her freedom.” He paused and let me relight his cigar. "And," he sighed between puffs, "the little boys and girls march along with the soldiers wanting to play war." A grin appeared on my friend's ordinarily dour face and he strode over to the piano and led the three of us in a spirited rendition of the Habanera and the Toreador song. -- David Lehman
RELEASES #54-67 (1989-1997)
54. You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 3 (2CD, Rykodisc RCD 10085/86, November 13, 1989)
Five previously unreleased tracks ("Ride My Face to Chicago," "Carol You Fool," "Chana in da Bushwop," "Hands with a Hammer," and "Nig Biz").
One dramatically different arrangement of previously released tracks: ("Bamboozled by Love").
Six years covered: '71, '73, '76, '81, '82, and '84.
55. The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (2CD, Barking Pumpkin D2 74233, April 16, 1991)
Twenty-eight tracks of '88 documentation.
Things really get going after an electrifying "Zomby Woof" segues into Ravel's "Bolero" (except on European CDs, due to copyright issues) ... and the band finishes off the first disc with some wonderful new versions of old favorites: "Zoot Allures," and "Mr. Green Genes" followed by a fantastic three-piece OSFA suite: "Florentine Pogen," "Andy," and "Inca Roads," and wrapped up with a beautiful version of "Sofa No. 1."
Disc Two is quite shifty -- Hendrix and Cream covers ("Purple Haze" and "Sunshine of Your Love") followed by an energetic "Let's Move to Cleveland," with most of the remainder of the disc being a Jimmy Swaggart suite, of sorts ... "Lonesome Cowboy Burt":
My name is Swaggart
I am an asshole ...
"Trouble Every Day," fresh and invigorating, as Zappa and Ike Willis seem to be improvising the lyrics:
Wednesday I watched Jimmy Swaggart
Watched him weepin' all over the place
An' I watched him weepin' an' weepin' an' weepin'
And that shit rollin' down his face
(Oh . . . I sinned!)
An' then I watched him weep some more
An' he kept on weepin' again
(Oh, forgive me, Assembly O' God!)
And they smacked him on his little hand
And he went out makin' more money
and "Penguin in Bondage":
You know it must be a Penguin bound down
When you hear that terrible weepin' and there ain't no other
all get special treatment in honor of the infamous televangelist's sexual escapades and subsequent teary apology.
Finishing with yet another cover, the band belts out the Zep tune, "Stairway to Heaven" with real zest and energy.
56. Make A Jazz Noise Here (2CD, Barking Pumpkin D2 74234, June 4, 1991)
The title comes from an actual line Zappa says during "Big Swifty." As the head winds down in anticipation of the solos, Ike Willis makes an "ooowwww" type of noise -- FZ gets the audience to sing along -- and at the exact moment when the last note of the opening melody is being held, he says:
Make a jazz noise here ...
This double-CD set -- the final document of the '88 band -- is an impressive release of mostly instrumental charts.
And the 12 musicians in this band make it seem like a walk in the park.
After a slinky guitar solo on "Stinkfoot," Zappa proceeds to politely embarrass Ed Mann.
"When Yuppies Go To Hell" (13:28) is a fascinating piece, stitched together from seven different performances. Before you know it, the sampled vocal "goin' to hell" is being repeated over and over, leading to a Walt Fowler trumpet solo in five which melts into a Synclavier/drum duet (Wackerman never sounded better). Bruce Fowler joins in, leading to another complete breakdown with bizarre synth noises ("make one here!") ... long improvised section with a few quasi-magical moments -- frankly, a few moments of excessive bullshit -- but those things happened, and Frank documented them -- with glee!
RELEASES #41-53 (1984-1988)
41. Thing-Fish (3LP, Barking Pumpkin SKCO-74201, November 21, 1984)
It will soon be 30 years.
When this three-album box-set was released, many Zappa fans were severely disappointed. Many old tracks were simply re-recorded with overdubs: ("Torchum" and "Artificial Rhonda" from 1976; "Galoot Up-Date," "YAWYI," "Mudd Club," and "Meek," from 1980; "Clowns" and "No Not Now" from 1981-1982 as well the guitar outro to "Mammy Nuns.") The whole thing seemed outrageous and offensive.
The album's storyline is inspired by Broadway theatre, AIDS, eugenics, conspiracy theories, feminism, homosexuality and African American culture. It involves an evil, racist prince/theatre critic who creates a disease intended to eradicate African Americans and homosexuals. The disease is tested on prisoners who are turned into "Mammy Nuns" led by the story's narrator, Thing-Fish. The story within a story is a satire of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple, Harry and Rhonda, who attend a play performed by the "Mammy Nuns," and find themselves confronted with their pasts: Harry presented as a homosexual boy, Rhonda presented as a sex doll brought to life (Wikipedia).
In retrospect, Zappa may have pulled a fast one here. After years of imagining an actual production -- someone actually pulled it off in 2003. What a shame Frank didn't live to see it.
42. Francesco Zappa (LP, Barking Pumpkin ST-74202, November 21, 1984)
The one and only Frank Zappa release without a speck of music written by Frank Zappa!
Yes -- Francesco was a real composer -- check him out here.
Zappa's assistant, David Ocker, helped him program the synclavier with what he thought might be "appropriate" patches for 18th century music.
Naturally, Frank would come in the next day and change all of David's settings with more bizarre patches -- marimbas, spooky synths, etc.
A toss-off for the average Zappa fan, this one continues to hold interest for the person deeply interested in the Complete Works of Frank Zappa.
43, The Old Masters Box One (7LP, Barking Pumpkin BPR-7777, April 19, 1985)
For many years, a great deal of Zappa's early work was nearly impossible to obtain. In 1985, with the new medium of the compact disc creeping up on the music industry, Frank remixed nearly his entire catalog -- sometimes adding new bass and drum parts (#03, #05) or creating radical new mixes like #08).
At $100 per box, this was an easy choice for most serious Zappa fans. Using high-quality vinyl and reproducing the album covers and booklets (cutely scratching out old addresses for defunct record companies, fan clubs, etc.) -- FZ put the first five releases in here plus the "Mystery Disc" (which later -- along with the "Mystery Disc" from #46 -- become a separate release, #68).
44. Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (LP, Barking Pumpkin ST-74203, November 21, 1985)
At the time, watching Frank testify up on Capitol Hill, you just sensed that something amazing was going to come out of all this -- musically, speaking!
This is it!
Certainly, "Porn Wars" (12:05) is the featured track here -- but again, Zappa is nothing if not imaginative and all-encompassing in this exciting mid-80's release.
"I Don't Even Care" (4:39) features Johnny Guitar Watson, one of Frank's childhood heroes.
The next three tracks are Synclavier compositions -- "Little Beige Sambo" (3:02) is a nice tribute to Conlon Nancarrow. Pure genius at work here -- and a wonderful preview of much exciting "classical" music to come in the few years left in Zappa's too-short life.
"We're Turning Again" (4:55) is Zappa commenting:
They took a whole bunch of acid
So they could see where it's at
(It's over there, over there,
Over there, over there
And under here also)
Name-checked: Donovan, Hendrix, Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, and Keith Moon.
"Alien Orifice" (4:10) -- an instrumental -- is played nearly perfectly by this amazing eight-piece '81-'82 band!
"Yo Cats" (3:33) -- Zappa's third anti-union ditty (previously, "Ruby Wants to Buy Yez a Drink" [#11] and "Stick Together" [#36]).
"What's New in Baltimore" (5:20) is another one of those very special FZ compositions that is truly filled with beautiful marvels! The track is put together with at least three separate edits from the above-referenced '81-'82 band.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.