Barbara Harbach speaking yesterday at the mini-conference on Paul Muldoon's "Incantata" and Its Sources.
Yesterday Irish Studies at the University of Missouri - St. Louis hosted the first academic conference on a Poetry Scores project, Paul Muldoon's "Incantata" and Its Sources, which Eamonn Wall organized around a lecture by Guinn Batten, a Washington University professor and Muldoon's first American publisher. Guinn said she would let us publish her provocative lecture here; yesterday I posted my brief presentation; and now I will share the basis of composer Barbara Harbach's remarks at the mini-conference, her program notes for the poetry score she has composed to Incantata, which premieres 3 p.m. Sunday, October 30 at the Lee Theatre in the Touhill Center at UMSL.
Incantata: composer’s notesBy Barbara Harbach
I was drawn to the many feelings and emotions in the poem, the cry of heartbreak, enduring love, humor, pathos, giddiness, allusions to music, literature, art, liquor and food. The names of the four movements are taken from a phrase in the poem, as per Poetry Scores’ compositional model.
The first movement, Powers, is a play on Mary Farl Powers’ name, a woman’s powers, the power of nature, and the power of the world. The music begins with a thunderclap sforzando chord followed immediately by agitated murmurings in the cello and viola with two different melodies in the woodwinds, while the piano punctuates the musical fabric percussively. Soon the murmurings and the two melodies start to migrate among the instruments with key and meter changes. A new melody emerges in the winds imitated by the violin, while the piano releases some of the tension by arching arpeggios and scales. Tension returns with murmurings in the lower strings but now the piano joins again with arpeggios and scalar passages. The next section shifts the tensive murmurings to the winds while the horn and trumpet carry the melodies. The three melodies are developed musically and lead to a halt in the rhythmic motion. The bassoon begins a haunting and disjunct melody imitated by the cello. The winds and strings continue with the fugue melody until the eerie murmurings emerge in the flute and viola, ultimately with all the strings and winds playing different melodies. After the instruments drop out, another thunderclap chord leads into the coda with increasing tension, rhythmic motion and intensity ending with the final sforzando chord.
Nocturne opens with night sounds, strange and luminous twitters and chirps from the dark of night eerily portrayed by the woodwinds over open fifths in the strings. The reverie of the night becomes more complex when the piano begins its on melody, and eventually dominates the night sounds. As the piano melody ebbs away, the murmurings of the night again are tranquil. The nocturne theme, a gesture to the Irishman John Field, a composer of nocturnes, is introduced by the violin. The piano picks up the theme followed by a counter theme in the horn. Themes, counter themes, and the sounds of the night intermingle. As dawn approaches, the themes fall silent, and the murmurings of the night gently hush.
Relishing in Irish folk tunes, Composed of Odds and Ends opens with a jig-like rendition of "The Humors of Whiskey" with the melody in the violin, and grace notes with a drone in the accompaniment. A counter melody joins the jig in the upper woodwinds transplanting the grace notes and drone to the lower strings. The trumpet and horn, eager to enter the discussion, begin with the "Liverpool Hornpipe." The next section combines "The Humors of Whiskey" and its counter theme with a new theme in the flute. Next, the clarinet is insistent on playing its own tune, "Banshee," now accompanied by the "Liverpool Hornpipe". A more somber and poignant air opens with the viola, "For Ireland, I’d Not Tell her Name," of course generating its own counter melody. The woodwinds take up the tunes and barely finish before the horn and trumpet with the grace notes and drone accompaniment change the mood leading to 6/8 meter imposed over 4/4 meter with the ebullient themes and counter themes racing each other to the double bar.
Bitter-Sweet rails against the inevitable before acquiescing, while moments of tenderness lead to the eventual wholeness of spirit. The piano opens with edgy tension, as a scrap of a theme begins the ostinato in the bassoon. Other instruments chime in on the theme until the trumpet erupts with its on theme demanding and growing with intensity, culminating in crashing chords. The cello now begins a mournful, rising fugue theme, followed by the bassoon, violin, and clarinet utterings, until the piano enters with a sweet and delicate theme of remembrance. Woodwinds take up this lush theme, and before coming to a close, the piano softly begins to insert its bitter, edgy tension. A final fugue begins, combines with the piano melody until all instruments become agitated ending with the triumph of the spirit able to survive.
Information on premiere of Incantata.
Friday, October 28, 2011
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Irish poet and UMSL professor Eamon Wall, colorized by overhead projector.
Today Eamonn Wall, Irish poet and UMSL professor, hosted literary critic Guinn Batten (Washington University), composer Barbara Harbach (UMSL) and yours truly (Chris King) for a panel on Paul Muldoon's "Incantata," the text for Poetry Scores 2011 events. These were my remarks. More (much bigger news) from this panel to come!
I am very pleased Eamonn Wall organized this event this afternoon. I knew of Guinn Batten’s interest in Paul Muldoon through a student of hers who follows my work as a music producer, and I have been eager to hear her take on this fabulous poem, “Incantata.”
Eamonn suggested we do this event after Barbara Harbach and I invited him to perform “Incantata” when we premiere Barbara’s score of the poem on Sunday, October 30, here at UMSL. Eamonn, I’ll admit, was my second choice for reader, only because I first asked Muldoon himself. Paul Muldoon fully approves of what Poetry Scores is doing with his poem, and we already have recorded him reading “Incantata” (at a friend’s home studio here in St. Louis) for our eventual CD release of the poetry score. Unfortunately for us, Muldoon was not available for any of our live events surrounding “Incantata,” however, because he is on sabbatical in Ireland. So, in a roundabout way, we get to have this nice event here at UMSL today because Paul Muldoon got to go home.
I’ve really been looking forward to hearing Guinn Batten talk about “Incantata” and my friend Barbara Harbach talk about the original score to the poem that she composed on commission from Poetry Scores. I don’t have any insight or expertise to add on the subjects of Muldoon’s poem or Barbara’s new poetry score of it, but I did want to speak a bit about our humble St. Louis-based arts organization, Poetry Scores, that instigated all this exciting activity around what I consider to be the single greatest poem written in English by a poet who is alive today.
Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media. We named the organization around the musical form which we would like to think we innovated. A poetry score is a long poem set to music as one would score a film. We stumbled upon doing this work when we were a field recording collective, which really was just a rock & roll band that had acquired some recording equipment, lost its audience for the most part, but not lost our romance with the American road. So we stayed on the road, asking people if we could pay attention to them while they played music and told stories, rather than the other way around.
Doing this, we recorded Leo Connellan, a gritty poet from Maine with a lobsterman’s twang who was at the time the Poet Laureate of Connecticut. We recorded Leo reading his long poem “Crossing America” (a bicentenial poem first published in 1976), and when his reading timed out at 37 minutes – exactly half the length of a CD stretched to its limits – we decided to write and commission musical interludes to sequence between each of the poem’s sections. The poetry score was born.
Since Leo Connellan, we have scored the Turkish poet Ece Ayhan, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat; the Salt Lake City/St. Louis poet Stefene Russell; the Australian poet Les Murray, a fellow Griffin Poetry Prize winner with Paul Muldoon (and, like Muldoon, a poet perenially rumored to be due a Nobel Prize); and just last year, we scored the New Jersey/St. Louis poet David Clewell, who was announced by First Lady Georganne Nixon as Missouri’s second Poet Laureate just after we started to score his long poem, Jack Ruby’s America.
I might add that I serve on Gerald Early’s board at the Center for the Humanities at my alma mater, Washington University, and the Center awarded Orhan Pamuk its Distinguished Humanist Medal soon before he won his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. I am more than a little superstitious, and like to think I’m a little lucky, so I was fully prepared for Les Murray to get the Nobel in 2009 when we were scoring his long poem The Sydney Highrise Variations, and almost expecting for Muldoon to get tagged for the Nobel this year while we were on our home stretch of the Incantata poetry score. But alas, David Clewell’s Missouri Poet Laureate gig is the only major accolade for which Poetry Scores can claim prescience.
There is more madness than method to what we do at Poetry Scores, but in terms of method, we do have a few rules. A poetry score can import no new language that is not in the poem. This rule came into play after Barbara Harbach finished her score to “Incantata” and sent me the titles of her four movements. At which time I realized I had not bothered to explain to Barbara our rules! Some of those proposed titles incorporated language that is not in Muldoon’s poem, and after I explained the rule Barbara and I had fun tossing alternate titles back and forth until she settled on title language that is found in “Incantata.”
Another rule is that we alternate scoring poems by U.S. poets with poems by international poets. We always have a number of projects in the pipeline, so we have options, from year to year. Last year we scored David Clewell, an American guy, so it was international for 2011. Paul Muldoon has lived in this country for many years and seems very much at home in Princeton, New Jersey, where we have mutual friends at the university. It occurred to me that I should ask the man if he minded being classified as an Irish poet, for purposes of satisfying our self-imposed “international poet” requirement for 2011. It fascinated me when Muldoon replied we could classify him either way – he really didn’t care if we chalked him up as an Irish or an American poet.
There is one other thing you should know about Poetry Scores, especially if you think you might want to work with us. We also had an early track record of getting in just before the bell, as in the bell that tolls. Both of the first two poets we scored, Leo Connellan and Ece Ayhan, actually died before we finished their score. Truly, this shook us up. A very morbid feeling of absolutely the worst sort of jinx vied with the more heroic sense that we came along just in time to capture these great poets and put their works to music just as they were leaving us.
More pragmatically, it forced us to release records for dead people. Though in 2011 we find ourselves happily producing a live event with Eamonn Wall standing in for a perfectly alive poet who happens to be across the Atlantic, back in 2003 when we released our first poetry score, Crossing America by the dead Leo Connellan, in the absence of the poet we staged an art show instead. This has now evolved into the Poetry Scores Art Invitational and art auction, which started as the way we release our CDs and has become a stand-alone event, one of St. Louis’ best art parties and art bargains of the year.
I would like to invite you all to the Poetry Scores Art Invitational to Incantata, which will be held Friday, November 11 at Mad Art Gallery in Soulard. More than 50 artists from St. Louis, Chicago, Denver, Boston, New York and Istanbul will present original art that responds to “Incantata” and is titled using a direct quote from the poem, then we hang the work depending on where in the flow of the poem the language chosen for the title appears. It’s also an art auction, and how we intend to raise the money to release our poetry score to “Incantata,” featuring Paul Muldoon’s unforgettable reading of his poem enfolding Barbara Harbach’s adventurous and exquisite musical meditation on “Incantata.”
Since the mission of Poetry Scores is to translate poetry into other media, since we have these musical artfacts called poetry scores, and since we are a bunch of silent film mavens, perhaps inevitably we came around to the idea of making silent movies to our poetry scores. Currently, we are in production for our second feature movie, Go South for Animal Index, based on Stefene Russell’s poem about the making of the atomic bomb. Our first movie, Blind Cat Black, based on Ece Ayhan’s poem about a transgendered prostitute, premiered at the 2007 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and has gone on to play three Turkish cities, including the poet’s provincial hometown, where the showing of our movie – which also happens to be a zombie movie – was incorporated into a midnight visit to the poet’s grave on the eve of the anniversary of his death.
We very much hope you join us in the Lee Theatre at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts at 3 p.m. Sunday, October 30 for the premiere of Barbara Harbach’s chamber piece Incantata and our poetry score, with Eamonn Wall standing in – ably, I am certain – for Paul Muldoon. When you do, I invite you to close your eyes and imagine the silent movie we will make to it one day. If you have any ideas for us, be sure you let me know.
Thanks to UMSL and its various programs in Arts & Sciences for its partnership.
Monday, October 24, 2011
Poetry Scores is privileged to partner with UMSL on our 2011 score, to Paul Muldoon's "Incantata". We will premiere the composer Barbara Harbach's poetry score to "Incantata" (a chamber piece for an ensemble of eight) at the Lee Theatre in the campus' great arts space the Touhill at 3 p.m. Sunday, October 30.
To entice our mostly city friends and fans, Poetry Scores is hosting a public transit party from the city to UMSL for the premiere. We will meet at The Bridge downtown (1004 Locust) at noonish, be on Metro by 1:30 or 2 p.m. at the latest, and be in our seats in the Lee Theatre (inside the Touhill) by 3 p.m. for the concert.
The concert is free, so the only cost is transit and whatever you enjoy at The Bridge, an ambitious tap house with a well crafted menu. The concert lasts less than an hour, so we should be back at The Bridge for a nightcap by 5 pm and on our way home by 6 pm.
Amy VanDonsel and Chris King are your hosts, on behalf of the Poetry Scores Board of Directors.
All invited! Poetry! Music! Public transit! Beer! Fun people! Be there or be very badly missed by rowdy people having more fun than you!
Any questions? email@example.com or (day of) 314-265-1435.
The 3 p.m. concert sound good for an hour, but don't want to spend all day with us? Then meet us in the Lee Theatre (inside the Touhill) by 3 p.m. for the free concert.
And let us not forget the Poetry Scores Art Invitational (and art auction) to "Incantata" looming 6-9 pm Friday, Nov. 11 at Mad Art.
Image from BridgeHunter.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Yesterday we finally shot the bomb testing scenes for our movie Go South for Animal Index, which is a fable of Los Alamos based on the poem of that name by Stefene Russell. For reasons that would be difficult to explain, the big day began by incinerating a stuffed Mr. Peanut via fireball on an empty keg of beer. Our generous host Wesley was pyro master.
Mr. Peanut bit the dust, so we had to go after him and torch him more individually, a sign of things to come.
None of us have ever torched a stuffed animal before, a strange action that bears a very strangely heavy weight in my shooting script. Mr. Peanut taught us they melt fast, so we'd have to be careful and shoot fast once a critter was on fire. And they end up looking like this.
So, we decorated our fake bomb with stuffed animals and our atomic scientists, led by Herr Doctor Teller (Paul Casey), did what they do.
What they do is direct underlings to tinker with hunks of industrial restaurant salvage we arrange to make look like at least a Surrealist zombie movie's equivalent of a bomb shop or, in this case, a bomb launch pop. In the first of the two bomb tests, a soldier (Tim McAvin) stands guard while Herr Doctor and two other workaday nuke docs (John Eiler, Neal Alster) direct a soldier-technician (Chuck Reinhardt) to fiddle with bomb pod gadgets.
There was an element of atomic scientist strip tease in this first bomb test scene, because I wanted John and Neal stripped shirtless and doing kind of a primitive male fire dance when a bomb goes off successfully.
When John heard this plan, he bought some wifebeater T-shirts for the shoot, and I took the hint. I did not ask my friends to dance shirtless in a zombie movie in our flabby middle age.
On stand-by in a little thicket next to the bomb test pod was a pile of zombies, waiting to be thrown at the bomb test when it was set to pop.
Herr Doctor gave that cue to another soldier (Thom Fletcher) who standing guard near the zombies. I directed Thom to roust the zombies by grunt-crawling through the thicket and pushing them out ahead of him. I didn't notice that he kept grunt-crawling across the field to the bomb until this action was in two takes and he was stuck doing it for half the day.
Zombie walking toward a bomb that is about to explode is an art form, and there are those who have mastered it. Eric Marlinghaus (far right) is such a natural his zombie colleagues had him demo a few of his moves between takes so they could admire them.
Then we blew shit up. As you can see, we made sure our zombie actors were far from harm, though we framed our camera shots so it looks like they were about to get immolated.
Scientists react a little bit.
"Okay, let's do that again with more reaction." I liked Tim's ad lib shot of his rifle into the air.
I was very pleased with the quality of the acting.
I can't remember why anymore, but early in the framing of this movie I saw zombies walking through a field of burning stuffed animals as the image we would shoot around the bomb tests to suggest The Bomb and its apocalyptic future.
The walking-through the fire would have required fire-proofing boots, once we saw how these things ignite, so instead we staged more private interactions of zombies with burning stuffed things. They tended to pull apart, as Alpy does here with her private dance doll -- a suitably creepy image for a movie about splitting the atom.
I had the idea of having the zombie actors pick out from the pile the stuffed animal they would have their private dance with. I'd like to think this brought out a little something extra in the actor. It is certain that something brought out a little something extra in Jocko Ferguson's private dance with his burning stuffed animal.
We planned a break between our two bomb shots to breathe some fresh air and let the first fire burn down, so I planned some interim scenes to shoot. There was zombie arts and crafts, for example. Stefene's poem incorporates a quote from the anti-nuke activist J. Truman that "A is for Adam, B is for Bomb, C is for Cancer, D is for Death". Matt Fuller and I scored that as a sing-songy nursery rhyme outro in the song from our poetry score "Atomic Cowboy Yodels". That's where we'll edit this scene.
Tim McAvin works on our scores as well as movies, and he sings that song with me on this score. I called him over to guard the A-B-C-D scene, but they had started filming without him and the scene looked good as a four-zombie tableaux. We did have Tim guard the next scene in what we called a "Captain Morgan" pose.
That scene was the application of Hitler moustaches to the stuffed animals before the bombs are tested on them.
Laurent Torno III and V. Elly Smith shot the whole day for me, a reunion of our original crew on a movie shoot that has dragged on more than a year and now involved about ten shooters.
We also needed to shoot a zombie trundle scene of stuffed animals, since we shot another zombie trundle scene of stuffed animals out in Cuba and needed to have it end somewhere. So we had those same zombies (Joyce Pillow and Jocko, with Lydia McGhee standing in for an actor we couldn't get back) trundle down zombie alley and dump the animals around a bomb set to blast.
We had to set up another match-back scene to something we had shot in Cuba: the suicide of Captain Buster-Jangle (Thomas Crone). After Buster-Jangle ate plutonium from a bomb and died, his corpse was put into a wheelbarrow, trundled, and dumped at the base of a bomb, nested in stuffed animals.
We needed to burn something that looked like Crone. So we had Crone donate the hat and shirt he had been wearing in this movie, and James and Cassi Blackwood spent some down time making a stuffed Thomas Crone -- a ScareCrone.
We knew from the way things were going up in flames that we would need to toss ScareCrone into the fire exactly when we were ready to shoot it burning. I tossed it in myself, and it flopped down upside-down like an upside-down crufixion. I had the wrong camera setting for this still shot on my camera, but trust me -- there was a wow factor and I expect one in the finished movie. It took forever to burn down and looked like a flaming torso the whole time. Laurent and Elly camped out on this mage for like ten minutes!
After we wrapped, Elly took a stuffed animal and roasted it to serve as a demented prop in a future movie shoot. Yes, throughout the day, there was a sick roasted stuffed animals on a stick thing going on. I love making conceptual zombie movies! And it's a great way to make ordinary people put up with poetry!
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Introducing: Poetry Scores’ Writer In Residence Program
James Blackwood is inaugural resident writer
Poetry Scores – a St. Louis-based arts organization that translates poetry into other media – invested $96 this year into renting a prop shop to store its accumulating mass of movie props. This prop shop, located in a very unique local garage, was soon developed into a movie set. Most recently, it has served as a set for the intake office of Lost Almost, our fabled version of Los Alamos in the movie we are making, Go South for Animal Index.
As an office intended to look timeless, or at least old-fashioned, it has a plain, old desk with a manual typewriter positioned on it. It has started to look like a quiet, secluded place where somebody could do some serious writing.
From this happy coincidence comes a new Poetry Scores program: the Writer In Residence Program.
Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media, so as such, we have no direct stake in the production of poetry or any other writing. However, if the pursuit of our mission, in terms of translating poetry into movies, results in this kind of special space for writing in this hectic world, we feel compelled to make it available for writing.
And so we announce the inaugural and 2011 Poetry Scores Writer In Residence: James Blackwood.
What does our Writer In Residence get? A key to the prop shop. A shelf to keep the work written there. A book shelf to keep books needed to write what needs to be written there. Privacy, within the constraints of movie shoots and prop movements and dressing sets.
What do we ask? We ask that our writer take advantage of the uniqueness of the space. A writer can have a laptop and the internet almost anywhere anymore, but in our prop shop there is nothing for writing but a manual typewriter*, paper, pens, and pencils. We ask that our writer use only these manual tools for writing. Also, in this age of portable documents and writing pods, a writer can work on almost any document at almost any time. We ask that our writer pick up and leave their work for this residence at the prop shop.
We will provide a shelf to store the manuscript or drafts or whatever the writer wants to call it. We just ask that what is written in the prop shop, stays in the prop shop. That is, until the writer is ready to publish or perform, in whatever medium, in which case we would expect to be thanked, of course. We agree to respect the writer’s privacy and not go rifling through his or her work, though it’s also acceptable if the writer bring or devise a way to keep the work in progress locked away within the shop.
“There is a great sense of honor in this assignment and I intend to live up to that or to do my damnest at the very least,” said James Blackwood, inaugural (2011) Poetry Scores Writer In Residence. “I've been most comfortable in an imagist format and I intend that to be the mechanical theme of my work: short concise poems and prose sketches.”
Blackwood is a Poetry Scores veteran, first showing up as a volunteer to work the door at the first event the organization staged in St. Louis, the art opening for Crossing America, the group’s first poetry score. Currently he is a board member, though there is no conflict in the board’s awarding him this position because it has no monetary value and comes with no stipend. It is worthless, unless the peace of mind and isolation to write is worth anything.
“In addition, I'd like to use the space as a host for conversations with other folks. Art needs them, especially off-topic conversations. It'd be great to have visual artists come and consider the work in progress and maybe sketch some responses or other things for me to take in,” Blackwood said.
“The ‘maker’ culture that's come to life over the last decade or so is fascinating to me, not least of all because of the inherent irony of its name. While its community is nominally based on building things, its core is understanding them and that most often starts with deconstruction. It's a logical descendant of the hacker spirit that has continued along the bleeding edge of technology. It plays. It breaks. It learns. It builds. And now it is reflecting back past the technology that incubated it, to all parts of our lives.”
The writer is reminded that Poetry Scores’ core mission is translating poetry into other media, and any use of the prop shop to further that mission takes priority over the writer’s use of the shop as a writing shed; but in practice, the shop sits empty and open for long hours, days, even weeks on end.
The Poetry Scores Writer in Residence position runs from the Poetry Scores Art Invitational (second Friday in November) to the next Poetry Scores Art Invitational. The Poetry Scores Board of Directors chooses the Writer in Residence and its decision is final; the application window is the month of October for any calendar year, though the board reserves the right to choose a writer who does not apply. The board’s choice is subject to veto from the prop shop landlady. The new Writer In Residence will be announced annually at the Poetry Scores Art Invitational.
For information, contact Poetry Scores creative director Chris King at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* The current Woodstock in the prop shop is on loan from Bill Sawalich and may or may not be the manual typewriter made available to the Writer in Residence.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Kim Humphries is a frequent contributor to the Poetry Scores Art Invitational, and we are delighted to have him back for the Incantata invitational (6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 11 at Mad Art). Kim's work often encodes a story worth the telling, so we asked him to do some telling about "Lucozade" (the image above is of the commercial artifact, not Kim's piece, which is in progess).
Kim Humphries writes:
Initially Muldoon’s “Incantata”—a tribute to artist Mary Farl Powers—intimidated me. I saw it as a complex, roiling charge into an allusive and at times elusive roller coaster ride that included tunnels too dark in which to truly see, running at a speed that created blinding blurs where only the captured bits added up to anything truly tangible. Once I became comfortable with that—the experience that was the poem—with the words and sometimes gibberish that were painted with an intoxicated confidence leaving much to fill in, and imagine, or to not bother to imagine at all. It was then that I was able to begin mining the work for some way to contribute to the visual puzzle the “Poetry Scores” artists would be creating.
Not being one to reiterate or echo another’s work I looked for something to grab onto that would amplify and respect some small portion of the work—something that spoke to the nature of this beast. Frankly, I had to look up Lucozade. I rolled past it on the first couple of reads. Lucozade—it sounded primordial like a rare stone, like an element. To my surprise it is a sports drink from the UK. Blood and water are cited in the poem and this marvelous drink, like those, becomes an essential element of life. That was just the quirky twist I was looking for, something to have a bit of fun with as Muldoon seems to have had writing this quirky, colorful piece. As my work often speaks through bits of material culture this was a perfect match.
I procured a dozen bottles of Lucozade and am in the process of creating a well-engineered (the company is a Formula One racing sponsor, after all) presentation box for one bottle that will sit on a shelf at the appropriate location within the gallery. This piece will be part of the silent bid auction. The remaining eleven bottles will become a limited edition group identified by an artist’s label. They will be for sale in the gallery for immediate purchase at a reasonable price throughout the evening. 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the boxed and editioned Lucozade will benefit “Poetry Scores.”
The cross-disciplinary roots of “Poetry Scores” are truly impressive. This season’s panel discussion, live performance at the Touhill Performing Arts Center and the gallery exhibition / benefit cum Exquisite Corpse promises to be fantastic undertaking building on the multi-year—this is the 6th poetry score and invitational—history of this set of unique, fertile collaborations.
Kim Humphries at Bruno David Gallery
Monday, October 10, 2011
I asked Paul Muldoon who he thought should write the liner notes for our score to his poem Incantata, and he suggested Stephen Burt of Harvard University. Steve -- a literary critic of the highest order -- was very kind to consent. With his permission, we post his essay in advance of the premiere of Barbara Harbach's commissioned score of the poem (3 p.m. Sunday, October 30 at the Lee Theatre in the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of UMSL).
By Stephen Burt
During the early 1980s Paul Muldoon kept up a tumultuous romance with the Irish artist Mary Farl Powers, known for her colorful and disturbing prints of curvy, biomorphic forms. Powers died in 1992 from cancer she refused to treat by conventional means. “Incantata” (1994) is his memorial to her; it is also his longest non-narrative poem. Acclaimed as raw, intimate, vulnerable, compared to his cannier, more guarded norm, “Incantata” nonetheless harbors the intricate patterns and puzzles his readers expect: those patterns make the poem not just a lament, but a dissent from Powers’ own fatalism, and from any larger moral claims about patterns that we might find in the world.
For all its complex details and allusions, the poem breaks neatly in two: the first 23 stanzas, each a complete sentence, follow anecdotes and memories from the years of their romance through to the months of her illness – almost, but not quite, a life story. The last 20 stanzas, though each one concludes with a period, belong grammatically to a single, overextended sentence beginning “That’s all.” The long catalog of things lost, of lines starting with “of,” modulates into the doubly negated comparisons (“from which we can no more deviate // than that … than that … than that”) among which the poem ends. The two parts suggest a division between life, with all its variety, and death, which unites everybody and everything. Where Powers insisted, with Beckett, on fatality, Muldoon insists as well on randomness, on the unpredictability that remains for us, in this world, as long as we live.
Muldoon’s rhymes are typically unpredictable: in the first stanza, “barrow” (a trench or grave, not a wheelbarrow) rhymes with “Herrera,” “Inca” with “pink,” and “nautilus” with the Irish hero-god Lugh. Muldoon takes his stanza (rhymed aabbcddc) from W. B. Yeats, who used it for his gravely ambivalent elegy “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and again in “A Prayer for My Daughter." (The Irish a leanbh means literally “my child.”) Yeats’s poem “All Things Can Tempt Me” pursues his dual compulsion to keep writing, and to cease “this accustomed toil,” “this craft of verse”: when young, as Muldoon and Powers were once young, the poet sought vivid inspiration, but “would be now, could I but have my wish, / Colder and deafer and dumber than a fish.”
This first in a bevy of quotations and allusions set Powers up in a national tradition, one that becomes international fast. Yeats gives place to Beckett, the expatriate who settled in France, whose art of repetition and reduction can seem both fatalist and materialist, reminding us that all atoms reach the same end. In such a cosmos geantrai and suantrai, “love songs” and “lullabies,” are similarly temporary consolations. “In everything there is an order,” but that order has little to recommend it: sexual adventure ends in a ditch, all life in one or another barrow, and Christian resurrection is at best as remote as the metamorphoses of insects. The Book of Kells and the “High Cross at Carndonagh,” representatives of old Irish piety, are at best overfamiliar, at worst tourist kitsch.
On the other hand, they have survived. Powers and her mother, working together on one of her last lithographs, enact at once the secular promise that art can survive, and the also secular promise of generational succession. Powers, however, died childless, so that she can survive only in memories or in her art, an art full of worms, of travesties (like Beckett’s immobilized characters) of the human speaking form. Perhaps all art is “a potato-mouth in a potato-face,” a vegetable form that says nothing of its own.
The talking potatoes, the marauding worms, the other reminders of violence and decay, from the Irish troubles to the “submerged” towns destroyed by the Quabbin reservoir, anticipate the claim that seems to govern the second half of the poem, the claim that death makes everybody alike, turns all nouns and all names to “quaquaqua” or “quoiquoiquoi,” “what what what” (with an overtone of “why why why?”). It is a claim that the fatalistic Powers, in her illness, appeared to accept (though she pursued her herbal remedies), and a claim that the energies of Muldoon’s cascading phrases defy. His first defiance falls flat: “art… builds from pain, from misery … a monument to the human heart / that shines like a golden dome.” Such architectural, impersonal survivals, associated with public works and with institutional religion (the Golden Dome of Constantinople, or Istanbul) seem brassy, insincere, impersonal, closer to late-1930s Auden than to the oddities that we expect from Muldoon.
And so the poem grows odd again. Muldoon restates Powers’s own materialism (“nothing over / and above the sky itself, nothing but cloud-cover”), which he shares, and her fatalism (“nothing’s arbitrary”), which he does not share. He feints towards it nonetheless as he introduces his chain of repetitions, his epochal final sentence: “That’s all that’s left….” He will not come to a grammatical closure for 160 more lines.
The story of a life, which must come to an end, has turned into a list, which need not end at any particular point. This list sorts memories, and it seeks variety, in its use of the bodily senses (andouille, “the Cathedral at Rouen,” Calvados, Vivaldi) and also a variety of emotion, from “self-reproach” to sexual satiety. Its exuberance, “all composed of odds and ends,” seeks a centrifugal force, an unpredictable variety, to set against the centripetal pull of the syntax, and of the central fact, Powers’ death. “That daft urge to make amends / when it’s far too late” joins the catalog too, foreshadowing the final, more emotionally various, stanzas in which Powers’ father (the fiction writer J. F. Powers) visits her “sickroom,” where “of … of … of” gives way to “no more than ... than … than that,” where properties from the opening lines return.
Muldoon takes this chance to dissent again from Powers’ fatalistic cosmology, this time without making grandiose claims for art: “that’s all that’s left ... of the furrows from which we can no more deviate … than that we must live in a vale / of tears,” “than what we have is a done deal.” We all die – no divine “herbarium” can help that – but we are not destined to die at such and such time, nor in such and such way. Political violence, cancer and even floods (like the one that created the Quabbin) may all arise from some mix of natural law, blind chance and human endeavor, the same combination that generates the tangled wonders in the Book of Kells, in Powers’ potato-prints and lithographs, in Muldoon’s poem.
The bravura ending encompasses chiasmus after chiasmus: the cddc rhyme, the anagrammatic “row / of … worms,” the “ink-stained hands … hands stained with ink,” and the pairs of hands (Muldoon’s, Powers’, Powers’, Wahl’s) that span almost the entire poem, though now these hands can join “no more.” (The Irish language in the final line repeats, in Irish, the beautiful names of the ineffectual herbs.) The last stanza uses the same rhyming sounds as the first, reversed: aabbcddc becomes ddccbaab, “barrow” and “Herrera” (the initial a rhymes) mapped onto “row” and “arrah.” The same transformation occurs throughout the poem: the second-to-last stanza reuses rhymes from the second (“arm” and “worms” corresponding to “Hermes” and “herbarium") and so on; the middle stanza, to which the whole pattern must point, includes the Beckettian meaninglessness of "acacacac." (Several critics, such as Iain Twiddy, examine this pattern at length.)
If there is a hidden pattern built into our lives, it must be a pattern as absurd, playful, apparently arbitrary, and hard to detect as this skein of off-rhymes: a pattern that tells us only about itself. Muldoon remains sad, and he still wants to hold her hand: his poem has not brought in the doctrinal, nor the emotional, consolation of older and more famous elegies. Instead, that last line, with its heartbreaking counterfactual, tells us what Muldoon’s poem has accomplished. Into the welter, the quiddities, of all these memories, the poet has brought an appreciation, an ironic ornament, a colorful resistance to the monochrome of fate, an order not found in nature, but made by hands.
© 2011 Stephen Burt. Commissioned by Poetry Scores.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
As previously reported, Poetry Scores will premiere Barbara Harbach’s poetry score to Paul Muldoon’s Incantata at 3 p.m. Sunday, October 30 at the Lee Theater, part of the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri–St. Louis. The concert, co-presented by Women in the Arts at UMSL, is free and open to the public, with plenty of free parking.
Poetry Scores spoke to Barbara Harbach about her score to Incantata.
How did you like working on this commission?
Barbara Harbach: It was a very fascinating ride, a good journey. At first I was very fascinated by the poem, “Incantata” by Paul Muldoon. I became very wrapped up in all the literary, musical, food and drink associations. It was just fun to read. I think that in a way it’s a eulogy to Mary Farl Powers, but on the other hand it’s a very strong love story, all these items rolled into one. I was inspired and wrote the four movements in order.
The 1st movement is titled “Powers,” a play on Mary Farl Powers’ name and a woman’s powers, the power of nature, the power of the world. The 2nd movement, “Nocturne,” is a reference to John Fields’ nocturnes, which are mentioned in the poem, and there is a little place where the piano part sounds like Fields. I was striving for beauty and nostalgic atmospherics and something a little eerie. Then the 3rd movement, “Composed of Odds and Ends,” was built from several Irish tunes. It’s a lot of fun. One source song is “The Humours of Whiskey” – you can’t get any better than that! It’s Irish and American altogether, with several quotes from fiddle tunes and a few gestures toward early Irish folk music. The last movement, “Bitter-sweet,” has a kind of sadness and resolution of acceptance with a few quotes from the other movements to round it out.
The poem is very allusive, mentioning a great many artists and works of art. Did you feel your composition needed to be similarly allusive?
Barbara Harbach: I felt no restraint in trying to stay within any framework the poem might suggest or his style of poetry. There are so many syllables per line; there is a very formal plan to the poem. I do realize there is some kind of global structure to the poem. If there is any kind of structure to my compositions, it’s my own forms. I use a loose rondo form, a lot of different melodies put together, fugues and canonic imitations.
Were you tempted to play with the poem's pop musical references, like Van Morrison and Dire Straits, “The Sultans of Swing”?
Barbara Harbach: I don’t know much about either one of them, so to superimpose on my composition their styles might sound forced or silly. It would be fine if another composer took another way around writing music for the poem – you might totally go that way.
As an artist you have done a lot of collaborations. Have you ever worked with poetry in this way before?
Barbara Harbach: No, I haven’t worked with poems or poetry in this way. There is a libretto to Booth! and my opera O Pioneers! written by Jonathan Yordy, a librettist now at Lewis University. I’ve set to music poetry by Emily Dickinson, 16th and 17th century English poets, and biblical works. So working with poetry is not new, but this endeavor using no words from the poem is new. This is the first time that I’ve put poetry completely into music – this is all instrumental music.
I had a ball doing it. It was a great deal of fun. There will be eight instruments and a conductor at the premiere. It’s going to sound like a chamber orchestra in there! It was a lot fun to do. I was really energized to go and write!
For more information on Poetry Scores, visit www.poetryscores.blogspot.com, email email@example.com or call 314-265-1435. For more information on Barbara Harbach, visit http://www.barbaraharbach.com/. For directions to the Touhill, visit http://www.touhill.org/.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Prop newspaper front of Hitler smudged by ash and scorched by stubbed-out cigarette smoked by the General (Ray Brewer) in his last scene in our movie, Go South for Animal Index, shot Sunday night on location at Atomic Cowboy (signed by Ray and me).
On Sunday we finished shooting Ray Brewer for the movie we are making. The movie is called Go South for Animal Index, a fable of Los Alamos, and Ray plays the General who runs the military side of Lost Almost, our fabled version of Los Alamos.
I wasn't really ready to wrap Ray on the movie, but he has a new acting opportunity and needs to shave the little moustache he grew for the General. We wrapped with Ray, in fact, before we got to the bomb shop and bomb test scenes, which is a shame, but not everything goes your way in the amateur movie business (and our shoot has dragged on more than a year).
Since our fabled version of the night watch before the first successful test of a nucleur bomb (and the Trinity test itself) will now be shot without the General, I needed to come up with an impactful way to wrap up his character's storyline.
I remembered a scene we shot with Ray and George Malich playing the Military Chaplain, when we had to rush wrap George before his sudden brain surgery. Wanting to tie their characters intimately, and mirror a funeral scene they play together early in the movie, we shot the Chaplain confessing the General. We played the scene like the General has to be there, it's his duty, but he doesn't think he has any sins he needs to confess -- he is trying to kill Hitler, who deserves to die; no apologies.
It ocurred to me to play that confession scene very late in the movie. I knew we'd wrap up George's Chaplain -- again, with him away from the Trinity test, since George would not be available to act in that scene -- with an alcoholic meltdown we had shot on our first day of shooting. The Chaplain hides from the final proof of the killing bomb in a bottle. That meltdown is set up, in part, by his failing to confess the General.
I liked the mirroring effect of having the General leave the confessional and, like the Chaplain, experience the completion of the bomb alone. The Chaplain turns to his secret bottle, and the General returns to his cigarette, which he has been trying to smoke all movie but been made to put out over and over -- you can't smoke in the nucleur physics lab, you can't smoke at the funeral, you can't smoke at the confessional.
At the Lost Almost cantina, he can smoke. He smokes and ashes his cigarette on Hitler's face, displayed on the cover of a newspaper displayed throughout the movie. After the successful bomb test -- which we dramatized, shooting on location at Atomic Cowboy, by flashing two bright lights on and off -- the General turns back to his cigarette and stamps it out on Hitler's face.
My childhood friend Richard Skubish, who plays the scientist who dies at Lost Almost (at whose funeral the General is not allowed to smoke), insisted that Ray and I should sign one of the false Hitler fronts for the newspaper we used in the three-take shot; so we did.
There also is some inter-textual fun going on here for me. In our first movie, Blind Cat Black, Ray plays The King of the Zombies. Though he is paid to take out the hit on our hero/ine, The Absent-Minded Tightrope Walker (Toyy Davis), when the deal goes down and the zombies snuff him/her, The King of the Zombie is sitting alone at a bar (CBGB) drinking a goblet of blood. Much like the General having the solitary smoke at the bar when the scientists finally finish the deadly bomb.