Sunday, 15 May 2011

Tag wrestling: Eurovision versus Emily Dickinson and Mozart

I am in post Eurovision Song Contest mode. I always think it is a little like watching a car crash involving loads of people from a variety of countries squashing into buses that career into each other and then observing who will help out who. Mid Europeans, Balkans, ex Russian countries, Scandinavians there is no end to how each country's ‘voting panel’ rise to the challenge of ensuring old grudges are born out, alliances confirmed and the odd song shambles its way through the wreckage to win. This year Azerbaijan won, which is still fairly oil rich so staging the fest next year won’t put a dent in their balance of payments. Indeed perhaps the various juries bore in mind who could afford to run it when voting. No point voting for a country that hasn’t got a couple of goats to rub together when the Continent’s whole press descend and demand running water, flush toilets and MacDonalds, not to mention a stage big enough to accommodate a small army. At least this year there would uni-cycles and Jedwood to ensure the ridiculous continued to be represented.

I have been working on two poems at the moment, one of which sprung out of the BBC call for submissions for a poem about one of the pieces being performed at this years proms. I noticed Mahler’s Ninth was being performed and as I have a very particular memory associated with that piece I thought I would have a go. Memory is such a tricky thing and writing about a piece of music can either start pushing you down the autobiographical route or as I was tempted down the path of locating the piece in the biographical life of the composer. Mahler’s Ninth was his last full symphony, a work he never got to hear performed, dying in his forties before it could be played by an orchestra. I presume that Mahler must have heard it all in his head but in that I may be influenced by scenes from Amadeus where Mozart is dictating his great Requiem mass to Salieri… the notes were merely written down as a form of dictation from everything he could hear in his head, each instrument each musical line. I think I have been overly influenced by films when I think of how great composers work. This scene from Amadeus has always stuck in my head, such a beautifully crafted piece of writing and acting and comes close to getting under the skin of how great art is not just made but lives almost like an overwhelming animal inside one person.

A friend has a short story collection called True North. The story which the collection is named for is loosely based on the pianist Glen Gould and is well worth a read at how fiction and music can weave together.Gould's playing and interpretation of Bach is world renowned and it is interesting to see some of the traits displayed in the portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus is reflected a little in Glenn Gould’s quixotic approachto music. I am not saying that Gould was in any way close to Mozart on genius but that sometimes there is a passion, a talent so trapped inside the frailness of a human body that there is almost sensory overload. It takes discipline to compose and play well but it takes a dark fire to drive that discipline beyond mere magnificent to sublime. I suppose the old understanding of the word sublime as something transcendent is interesting.

Music has this way of expressing its genius in a way beyond itself, it can be externalised in an instrument or an orchestra. A writer, however, only has the same currency as the medium he works in to try and convey something beyond words.
It was interesting at Wordfest at Cambridge that Hisham Matar said after his talk and reading that it is always difficult to explain how one writes using the same medium as the art itself.

Musicians have been inspired by words for centuries; the earliest Latin masses inspired a musical interpretation in plainsong and later was a source of inspiration for many composers in great choral works. Poems have often been set to music by great composers but making that exchange a two way street is always difficult. Writing a poem about music has to rely on the evocation of something beyond words that engages with how a piece of music operates in the human psyche but which still has to be captured by them. Therein lies the skill.

The fascinating chill that music leaves
Is Earth's corroboration
Of Ecstasy's impediment --
'Tis Rapture's germination
In timid and tumultuous soil
A fine -- estranging creature --
To something upper wooing us
But not to our Creator –

Emily Dickinson

One of the best poems I know about music and what it can do is by Philip Levine about Charlie Parker. Personally I think Levine and Dickinson are singing the same song but in two part harmony.

Call It Music by Philip Levine

Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song
in my own breath. I'm alone here
in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky
above the St. George Hotel clear, clear
for New York, that is. The radio playing
"Bird Flight," Parker in his California
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering
"Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos.
I would guess that outside the recording studio
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,
it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain
had come and gone, the sky washed blue. Bird
could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,
shook his head, and barked like a dog--just once--
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him
he'd be OK. I know this because Howard told me
years later that he thought Bird could
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room
above Willow Street. I listen to my breath
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes
from me into the world. This is not me,
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,
my body's essential occupation without which
I am a thing. The whole process has a name,
a word I don't know, an elegant word not
in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word
that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed
what he said that day when he steered
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles
beside him while the bright world
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all
so actual and Western, it was a new creation
coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker
someone later called "glad," though that day
I would have said silent, "the silent music
of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing.
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights
to their room, got his boots off, and went out
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered
the history of darkness. I'm not judging
Howard, he did better than I could have
now or then. Then I was 19, working
on the loading docks at Railway Express
coming day by day into the damaged body
of a man while I sang into the filthy air
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me
before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,
eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.
"The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,"
they later wrote, all that rising passion
a footnote to others. I remember in '85
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,
when suddenly he took my left hand in his
two hands to tell me it all worked out
for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,
maybe he knew how little time was left,
maybe that day he was just worn down
by my questions about Parker. To him Bird
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note
going out forever on the breath of genius
which now I hear soaring above my own breath
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.
Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,
the calm and endless one I've still to cross.

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