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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Poetry and Jazz and approaching Monk (Geraldine, not Thelonious)






 Mike Westbrook's Blake with Phil Minton on vocals 

About twelve years ago I thought I might write something (a book, I supposed) on the relation of poetry to jazz. It seemed an apposite subject. I’d noticed that among the poets of my acquaintance, of the linguistically innovative persuasion at least, those who did not listen to jazz could be counted on the leaping fingers of the left hand of a stride piano master. One of my favourite poets, Roy Fisher, one of the two I’d written about in my PhD, was a jazz musician talented enough to have accompanied Bud Freeman.
So there was an interest and, of course, the connection was stronger with the jazz poetry phenomenon: from Kenneth Rexroth and Langston Hughes through to Amiri Baraka and Christopher Logue. Jazz musicians like Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane wrote poems. (See the former’s magnificent ‘Garden’ in Moment’s Notice edited by Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, 1993.) Mackey’s own CD work is interesting, sections of his work Songs of the Andoumboulou. Steve Lacy set Creeley and Raworth poems to music. And poets wrote about jazz. Coltrane I thought, from the evidence of David Henderson’s 1960s anthology, was the most written about musician. Henderson had worked with Ornette Coleman, who in turn was married to Jayne Cortez. Etc etc. With connections like this, the ghostly project proliferated through a wild set of connections. Charlie Parker carried a copy of the Rubiyat with him! Do with that fact what you will. (I gave it to Michael Zand who is working on Omar Khayam; I’ve no idea whether he used it).
I bought albums without guilt: the New York Jazz Quartet with Baraka; Mingus’ The Clown; Michael Mantler settings of Beckett with Jack Bruce (and Robert Wyatt). I joked with myself that this was advantageous self-deception: that I maintained the interest long enough to buy loads of albums that I simply wanted and then decided that I couldn’t write the project!
I learnt about groups of poets I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered: the Umbra group, for example, largely through the pioneering critical work of Aldon Neilson. Two spirited sequences, both with graphological deviation, also come to mind: Kenneth Rexroth’s late ‘Written to Music: Eight for Ornette’, written in lower case and Langston Hughes’ late Ask your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, which is all in upper case, and refers to Dolphy and Monk! I’ve never heard anyone mention them. I’m grateful for the widening of my poetic horizons. Here's Hughes in a more conventional mode.

More recently, I even taught an MA module on poetry and jazz with my colleague Mary Hurst – and I keep up the interest. Recent examples include Simon Nabatov’s re-workings of Danil Kharms (with the marvellous Phil Minton on vocals, he who had worked with Bob Cobbing and he who had sung William Blake unforgettably with the Mike Westbrook orchestra, music originally written for Adrian Mitchell’s play about Blake; Mitchell, himself a poet of jazz, makes the comment somewhere that one day ‘Billie Holiday’ will need a note like ‘Achilles’ in editions of his poems; teaching the MA suggests that’s true).  
See what I mean? On and on.


But the meaning of this has eluded me (perhaps on the shifting scree of this associative landscape). As does my ability to find a language with which to speak about music. My own musical abilities were a long way from the atonality and polyrhythmic world of late-Coltrane: I could sing the blues and blow some thrash harmonica (I have in the last two years properly taught myself to strum passably on the guitar: Dylan, Cohen, country and blues, not jazz). I have a secret desire (maybe it’s not so secret) to be a crooner: Sinatra sang a Kipling poem, remember! But none of this provided me with anything approaching the musical knowledge necessary for such a task. The nearest would have been the dance-poetry-music collaborations of ‘Killing Boxes’ undertaken with the improvising bass player Gus Garside (of Ark and other groupings in Brighton). But that was practical poetics, useful elsewhen.
Look at the language I use above: ‘favourite’, ‘magnificent’, ‘marvellous’; it’s a belle-lettrist vocabulary of impression and adulation. The language of a fan, as I am, and as is appropriate. I feel that swelling of fandom as I summon up these nuggets of nerd-speak on the subject. I recently wrote a poem for Philip Jeck’s birthday, ‘Spectres of Breath’ that played around with the curious (but inventive) language you find in the impressionistic music reviews in The Wire (a journal that I have been subscribing to for a couple of years and which only provides further examples of poetry-music interactions). One verse runs:

Washed-out melancholia with junkyard jams alternating with palm-muted bleeps & trickles plangent bird calls & fluttering wings

I don’t want to write like that! But this does not drive off the thought that this is still a fruitful area of scholarship. That there is a formal relationship to be discerned in this strange interinanimation of art forms that happens in so many variegated ways: but I had always thought I could hand these references over to somebody else to make sense of. Perhaps someone has, or will.
            But I keep drifting back. Perhaps there are poems to be written out of this. The best I managed was to rescue an early poem, which I posted here to commemorate the life and work of Stan Tracey (he of the Under Milk Wood Suite of course!) and one about Ray Charles. And maybe I shall. I still have great admiration for Ken Edwards’ late 70s Drumming and other poems which uses music (named tracks, some of them jazz) as formal structures or analogues to compose poems about other matters), and I may return to those to propel me to write a jazz series (and there are plenty of flat anti-models scattered among the anthologies of poems that don’t work at all). I still like my little i.m. to Miles: ‘Improvisation Upon a Remark of Gil Evans, for Miles Davis (1926-1991)’.

Twentieth Century Blues 11
Duocatalysis 6
Midnight Ride 1
IM 2
Soleà 2

Put your flesh on
               a note, a bone
to be feathered for
               flight on the midnight
ride beneath my skin

               : ecstasy bites
in the fast lane

     put your flesh on


I can even sing this (and did, publicly, once). But I don’t want a book of them. (Another of my ‘Petrarch 3’ poems is a country blues to be sung by Little Albert when he’s ready, but that’s largely a joke about the formalism of the blues and the conventions of the sonnet.)
Over the summer I wrote two reviews for the music-loving poet Rupert Loydell’s magazine Stride: of Juxtavoices, the anti-choir led by Martin Archer and Alan Halsey and the latest release by Julie Tippetts and Archer. I wanted the albums, had seen the choir and loved it, had seen Tippetts and admired her, and was moving towards writing on the work of Geraldine Monk (who is in the choir and has written for it, and who has worked with Tippetts on two Archer CDs). I’d also seen Tippetts, Monk and Archer perform together in Liverpool. The review is here and it’s fine. So is my collection of videos here, to constellate these performers and performances.
I have been written on form and poetics, and have written at length on the poetics of form as revealed by the Geraldine Monk piece Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text and I posted the (exhaustively) long version on Pages (first instalment here) before condensing the piece for the book in progress on form (its working title is The Meaning of Form). The last, fifth, poem in the sequence announces its performative focus as ‘Fused sonics (interaction)’. An incarceration metaphor, one that surfaces throughout the poetics, enters first line: we are ‘Released from solitary’, for purposes of collaboration, into the custody of musicians. Their fetishistic fiddling and fastidious preparations, confusing to the non-musician, are the price to be paid for the promised ‘interaction’:

Musicians come with-wires attached 
ill fitted plugs
miscellaneous black boxes
far too many knobs &
forgotten amps behind their
frosted doors.

Obdurate objects of professional mystification threaten to delay the encounter of voice with music.         
As part of the piece I want to describe the fusion and interaction at work in one of the manifestations of the ‘Fused sonics (interaction)’ experiments that Monk conducted with Archer. The compacted songs of Angel High Wires are attractive attempts to emulate or update or springboard-off the song-cycles of Schubert but the singers (Tippetts is one of them) are given the improvisatory freedom to create the melodies themselves over (or under) Archer’s electronics. This makes for a satisfying encounter. Chris Goode remarks that this studio-based process (performers not necessarily meeting) is unusual in improvised music for it is more usual for the performers to be co-present in a real-time exploration of their interactions, as in the choir live, but it is not unknown in the worlds of sampling and electronic manipulation. However, I think I want to write on the much more demanding text and Discus CD Fluvium (that’s not a value judgement but a register of the difficulty for the critic).  Formally, this is exciting, since the text is demanding and the involvement of Archer and Tippets close. The track ‘Aftershock’ is a remix, mash-up, montage, re-forming of parts of ‘Fluvium’, which speaks to my formulation of form as the extistence of forms in the plural in acts of performative forming. (I got the word form in five times there.) Very interesting. A leaflet falls out of my copy of Monk’s Noctivagations (which collects both texts) and informs me that I saw a live performance of some of the songs, plus ‘Fluvium’ and ‘Aftershock’.
However, I have the CD and – despite my reservations about my ability to do this – I will attempt to offer a reading of these works, but I am guided here by my sense of form as forming and by the poetics of ‘The Transubstantiation…’. I shouldn’t go wrong. Read it here and here, but don't forget here.



Live am Schiff bei Imago Dei, Krems, 2012.

Songs of Innocence nach Texten von William Blake, von Hannes Löschel (rhodes) mit Exit Eden feat. Phil Minton (voice): Matthias Koch (drums), Michael Bruckner-Weinhuber(guit), Clayton Thomas (bass)
Video: Christine Schörkhuber, Kamera 2: Florian Fennes