Trees Are Made Of Air

We are stardust.
Billion year old carbon.
We are golden

as Joni Mitchell famously sang in her song Woodstock, a beautiful piece of poetry that contains a scientific truth.

In the following short video, we see the opposite, as the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Fenyman produces poetry out of scientific exposition.

In his explanation of how trees grow he says “they come out of the air”, the carbon, the water, almost everything they need to grow comes from the atmosphere; trees are made of air.

Then in the reverse process, piled up in the wood-burning stove or fireplace, the flames that we see, that spectral light and heat, “That’s the light and heat of the sun that went in… it’s stored sun.” A tender truth to warm the heart and what beautiful ways to look at everyday things.

Player Piano, Player Reader?

Every time Conlon punched a hole, the world got more interesting.

So said Robert Willey of the 20th-century composer Conlon Nancarrow, and what a beautiful thing that is to say of an artist. Would that someone might say the same of us and our work.

Nancarrow, an American composer, spent much of his life in self-imposed exile in Mexico due to his far-left political beliefs, and gained renown – in the world of classical music at least – for his innovative use of player pianos. These are the pianos that “play themselves”, with the music fed in on rolls of paper that’s pock-marked with encoded musical notation. For a surprisingly funky example that provides context for the rest of the article, I highly recommend that you listen to the following one of his compositions:

As you will have just heard, Nancarrow exploits the possibilities afforded by the player piano to produce fiendishly complex rhythms and staggering polyphony, to an extent which would lead to broken digits and mental breakdown if attempted by a living pianist.

But that’s just the beginning, what I’m really interested in is the following question: is there an analogue, or something close to it, in literature for the music and compositional technique of Conlon Nancarrow?

To begin to answer that, it’s necessary to understand what it is that his approach to composition and performance allows, and it seems to me that, aside from highly music specific aspects, there are two main effects.

  1. It removes the possibility of interpretation by the performer; the composer’s word is now final.
  2. It allows the music to possess a complexity of sound that would otherwise be difficult, or impossible, to obtain through normal means.

These things taken together, along with his rhythmic innovations, give us a new kind of music. How might we do something similar for literature?

For music, the performer and listener are separate roles, but for literature, the reader is working overtime in two jobs. When they bring the text to life beyond what’s stated on the page they are both performing and listening, more or less simultaneously.

Therefore, tackling point one, one possible analogue is to have it such that every single thing in the sentence, every symbol, reference and allusion is explained as fully as possible, in an attempt (futile, but still) to remove the possibility of any incorrect interpretation on the part of the reader.

Another is to remove any emotion and interpretation by producing a speech-synthesised recording of the text. But this kind of electronic reproduction allows for further innovation and refers to point two – in a similar way to Nancarrow, we could use this synthesised speech to overlay multiple strands of speech and narration, which no longer necessarily obey the rules of etiquette, and now refuse to wait for one to finish before entering with their own contribution. Cacophony it could be, also confusing, nauseating or breathtaking. Finally, we could deploy a combination of these two effects: complex multi-layered speech and narration, accompanied by the exhaustive authorial exposition.

It’s likely, almost certain in fact, that some of these suggestions will sound horrific or merely redundant, but then to an ear accustomed to more traditional modes of music, Nancarrow’s can feel claustrophobic and bewildering at first, but there’s no doubting its place in the canon. Equally there is surely space for these other methods of writing and storytelling.

In this post, I’ve only begun to suggest and hint at possibilities, but the judgement of their success can only be made by recourse to some concrete examples. To that end, in the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading a few of my attempts to capture something of Nancarrow’s music in the “written” form. I welcome your feedback and hope that we can have a fascinating debate on the topic.

Cultural Architects: Saramago, Byrne & Le Corbusier Partners

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have synaesthesia for a day, just so that I could experiment with different pieces of music and observe the shifting patterns of colour, the dynamic lines and shapes that come and go in response to changing pitch, timbre and volume. Hallucinogenic drugs aside, perhaps the closest I’ll come to this mental light show is when listening to the brilliant song Don’t Worry about the Government by The Talking Heads:

Though hardly a piece of 60’s psychedelia, almost every time I hear David Byrne sing the following lyrics,

That’s the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It’s over there, it’s over there
My building has every convenience

I automatically see bright images flash in my mind – I see a tall building viewed from a distance, bathed in a cleansing, brilliant sunlight. Following it comes,

It’s gonna make life easy for me
It’s gonna be easy to get things done

and I’m seeing his sunny picture of optimism, which brings to mind the Modernist movement in architecture, and its ideological belief in the power of architecture to improve lives. This stack of evoked images and sensations isn’t the only thing I think about. A whole other set of associative connections fire in my brain. When I hear that lyric, it’s as if I’m hearing Le Corbusier himself say:

The house is a machine for living in.

This hopefulness shines through in the song, even if there is a hint of a darker under-current of meaning. That’s not the end of it though, more reflexive associations pile on and automatically assemble themselves into a dialectic argument.

In The Cave by José Saramago, we encounter the tale of Cipriano Algor and his daughter Marta, potters both, who must contend with the capricious nature of The Center, the chief purchasers of their pottery. The Center is an ever-growing cloistered city within a city; one that leaves the original host crumbling under an extreme gentrification pressure. When David Bryne sings the praise that his building has every convenience, he is summarising perfectly the nature of The Center, containing as it does, accommodation, entertainment, employment and food. Who wouldn’t want all that within easy reach? While he may be happy, the Algors are increasingly suspicious of The Center, an unease which doesn’t dissipate when they are left with no option but to move in. Who could blame them for their misgivings, when faced with such unsettling slogans as:

We Have What You Need, But We Prefer You Need What We Have.

Still it’s only fiction, so there’s nothing to worry about, or is there?

Earlier this year I visited Cardiff, Wales where, in the city centre, there is a building in this model. Luxury shopping forms the base, interspersed with food outlets, and all topped off with expensive apartments. It’s an attempt at concentrating all the functionality of a city into the same land area as a hamlet. So is this the start of the progression, is this a new Center, a building that will expand ever-outwards and upwards, subsuming everything in its path?

If this building, and this trend, is to be stopped, I doubt that it’ll be protests or organised rebellion that does it, but rather the unruly Internet. Why move to live where the shops are, when the whole world of shops can be brought to you? It hardly needs stating that one can work through the internet, socialise through it, even send a virtual instance of ourselves into Second Life and nest ourselves in it at one level removed.

So perhaps Saramago will be wrong in the detail, but the consequences might turn out the same. It could go either way; the Internet could provide our means of escape, or equally could seduce us into our own imprisonment.

For the purposes of Saramago’s message it probably doesn’t matter. The alienating and impersonal nature of this emblem of pure, efficient capitalism, is preserved whatever. Moreover it is this influence on one family, a father, daughter, son-in-law, and dog, and their attempts to adapt to a new reality, that is the important and universal concept. Indeed, one of the highlights of the novel is Saramago’s delicate and insightful rendering of the tender, playful relationship between father and daughter, workers of clay, yet both of them, with Saramago’s guidance, shape beautiful words of wisdom in their conversation.

And this Saramago suggests is the key to our salvation, to embrace our humanity and, as simple as it sounds, stick together. On this Byrne and Saramago agree:

I’ll put down what I’m doing, my friends are important

And family too we might be inclined to add. If The Talking Heads are saying we don’t need to worry about the government, then in The Cave, Saramago agrees. It’s capitalism and blind materialism that are the prime threats. Saramago provides few solutions to these and we can’t blame him for that, but whatever they might prove to be, the first step, the foundation, is to stick together and value your friends, family and the stray dog that tags along.

I don’t doubt that a man can live perfectly well on his own, but I’m convinced that he begins to die as soon as he closes the door of his house behind him.

The path disappears around a corner, and veers who knows where, but Saramago at least shows us how we should start the journey.

The Theft of Art as Satire

Metal left out in the open air is fair game it seems – electricity cables on the railway tracks, copper roof cladding, public works of art – the theft of any of them reprehensible, but it’s the last which hurts the most. The financial considerations aside, we know that the cables and the roof can be replaced, yet once Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) was stolen, melted down and sent through the cruel diode of entropy, we know something special and intangible has been lost forever.

Two Forms (Divided Circle) by Barbara Hepworth

Two Forms (Divided Circle) in happier times.

The theft of public art is the theft of old family photographs, of heirloom jewellery and holiday knickknacks, and the theft of these items is more than the theft of the object alone, it’s the theft of our memories and our private heritage. You might say that if these items are valued only for the memories they represent, then why isn’t the memory alone sufficient?

Memories require prompts if they are not to dissipate into hazy recollections of once-had experiences, and and even if they didn’t, the recall is sweetened by the tangibility of these physical prompts. Where the theft of an heirloom marks the loss of private heritage, that of a public work of art threatens our shared heritage.

There’s little sense that can be made of it; as pointless to ask the petty thief why he doesn’t respect the privacy of the homeowner, as it is the art thief about his conscience. Our concerns are sadly orthogonal to theirs.

Any of these losses are upsetting then, but the only solace I can take, the only reinterpretation of those acts that might yield something of value, is to say: what if we view the theft of art as an act of political satire and an opportunity to reflect?

That there have been economic troubles recently hardly seems worth repeating, it’s been the backdrop to our news for five years now. What is newsworthy is that the economy continues to stumble – any slight rise is followed shortly thereafter by another lumbering, ungainly fall. The possibility of a full and complete recovery in the near future hardly seems plausible. Rather the question is, what will be the next contagion?

As a remedy, we’ve witnessed a regime of austerity and cuts to public finances, cuts which are at least as politically motivated as they are economically so. To give some indication, roughly 4.5% will be cut from the Arts Council England budget between 2013/2014 & 2014/2015, and certain councils, such as Westminster City, are cutting their arts budget completely!

Of course, some financial reality must be allowed to intrude, but what we must not permit is for this reduced budget to become the status quo, a baseline which is viewed as always open to further and further reduction, on the purported basis that it’s not important and not worth protecting.

To know the value provided by funding of the arts, we need merely remember the generous patronage provided by the House of Medici who inspired and sustained the Renaissance. My mention of this cultural outpouring from several centuries ago is no accident. We are blessed today with a dazzling wealth of music, art, theatre and literature provided by the masters of old. Da Vinci, Beethoven, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Picasso, Shostakovich, Brecht, Camus and the rest – we can not rely on past glories; we must not indefinitely draw down on this resource and make no contribution of our own.

Society today is the beneficiary of all societies past. To be stingy in funding art, or to refuse to fund it at all, is a selfish act, not just for today but for future generations. That which we leave behind, or fail to leave, tells a story about us as a society and culture, and we have only one chance to write this postcard to the future, which says “Here is our contribution to the project of humanity, please enjoy!”

The thing with art, the one constant of it, true whatever the form or genre, is that there exists no reliable method of selecting a priori only those potential artworks that will come to be deemed astounding in the future. Moreover, the only way to guarantee that there will be any art in the category is to produce lots of art. To say nothing of the fact that art should represent the full spectrum of experience today and not just a single stratum.

A final thought: whatever money was paid to finance the composition of music in the time of Beethoven, is surely more than justified by his music alone, when we consider the pleasure it has brought to the many millions of listeners in the following 200 years. That’s the context, and the timescales, in which we must approach this subject.

To return to the present day, the theft of art by criminals is in fact a piece of performance art all of itself, a horrifying piece of political satire, one that is to witness and relive. The disrespect shown by the thieves towards art mirrors that of our government. They both are chipping away at our past heritage and preventing the formation of new.

Though it can feel like we’re powerless to stop either of them, as long as the arguments in favour of the arts and its funding continue to be made, perhaps we can halt the slide and, one day soon, reverse it. Otherwise, though there’ll always be a philistine element in society – those ungrateful, uncultured few – the danger is that we, the rest of society, will sink to join them.

It’s a Wave

Today’s poem was “found” in the music of Radiohead, and is followed by some details of the writing process should you wish to find your own poem. I hope you enjoy it!

It’s a Wave

It’s a wave,
it is full up,
such names are here –
all eyes up,
here for you.

More!

What answers, there?
How old am I?
It’s our hate – if I must –
it will save us fast,
it will ensnare us,
or see through,
as if we lose.

What is happening?

For your women,
where you sneak up on us:
tomb.

It’s not here anymore,
it’s more evil,
it’s more evil.
It’s more evil,
more.
No good winner.

Lick your lips,
silent!
Well, next time I
will eat
you.

You were there,
you good men,
you all wavered,
stood in the road.
End.
No Moses…

Remember it,
no excuses
if you find suffering in it.

It’s more evil,
it’s more evil.
More evil voices,
they send me down.

The following video is of Thom Yorke singing the beautiful Radiohead song Videotape from their album In Rainbows, with one crucial difference – the recording is reversed.

Listening to this reversed Videotape/epatoediV, I attempted to find a poem by trying to “understand” the garbled audio. Some of the mirrored lyrics seemed to leap out quite naturally and I formed new interpretations almost automatically. Other sections of the song appeared impenetrable but taking a phrase as a whole it evoked a feeling or an idea, which could be translated into verse. The caveat implied in this is that any efforts to compare the audio with my words will almost certainly bring about contrary opinions and disagreement.

For proof of this, note that the finished poem contains far less of the structure and repetition of the original song. This creative process is apparently not entirely reproducible, even with the same writer, the same sounds, or perhaps sounds only slightly changed, will evoke a different thought at a different time. It’s clear then that everybody will find their own unique poem in this music, and there’s something quite pleasing about that.

As a final piece of trivia, fans of Radiohead will know that the band themselves have played around with reversed audio on the song Like Spinning Plates, its genesis in the reversal of another of their songs, I Will. If you want to listen to the original, correctly-oriented version of Videotape, and I recommend that you do, as it’s a fantastic, moving song, then here it is:

Who Should Write Poetry? (How Vaughan Williams Might Have Responded)

The English classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was a great supporter of English folk music, systematically transcribing its pieces so that they would be preserved for the enrichment of future generations. Although part of the musical elite, he was far from being a musical elitist and believed that everybody should make their own music, no matter how simple, as long it were truly their own.

I think I feel the same way about poetry. There is absolutely no need to leave this to the professionals (although I do aspire to join that group), no need to wait deferentially for their elegantly expressed, finely constructed words to be delivered to us. No, it’s within all of us to express our thoughts, feelings and observations in verse, whether that’s a sonnet, haiku or plain blank. If you don’t capture the experience of your local life and history, then who will? Just as there is a great tradition in folk music, so should there be in poetry.

That being said, it shouldn’t be taken as a license to write lazily or sloppily, nor as an excuse to put forth insufficient effort. Just because the poem might be “simple”, doesn’t mean that it need be bad. I can’t know for sure that Vaughan Williams would agree with this application of his words to poetry, but I am hopeful.

For those regrettably unfamiliar with his music, might I suggest one of my favourites of his as a starter – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The piece is in one part, but split across two videos here.

Like a YouTube mash-up before the internet age, this piece is genius reworking genius. Thomas Tallis is the master Renaissance composer, who wrote the 40-part motet Spem in Alium. Truly a staggering musical achievement, this piece is particularly sensational live, so you should immediately snap-up any opportunity that comes your way to see this in concert.

One of Tallis’ many other compositions is the theme Why Fum’th in Fight. Vaughan Williams took this haunting melody and transmuted already-glittering material into a precious object.

Now that you’ve heard these gems, it’s time to create your own works of beauty, and to do so true to yourself. Why not begin by writing your own fantasia, but in this case, based on a favourite line of verse.

Hidden Haiku, Hidden Depth

Perhaps this is what Guy Debord and the Letterists were trying to achieve with dérive, purposefully using an incorrect map to artistically navigate a city – to arrive at a destination, other than the one desired, but that might prove to be of equal or greater artistic value than the intended original. If it has a literary equivalent, then it happened to me when I was reading a book about Arvo Pärt (Oxford Studies of Composers: Arvo Pärt by Paul Hillier), and learning about all the things I had expected to from such a book: his biography, music theory, minimalism. What I hadn’t expected to read was:

The sound is clear
And reaches the Big Dipper-
Someone pounding cloth.

Simply stunning.

The contrast in scales between the galactic and the solitary human, and the percussive linking of the two into the ending of perfect abruptness, floored me, and I sat silently for a couple of minutes trying to digest those three simple lines.

This particular haiku was written by Matsuo Bashō, master of the form, and the translation is by Ueda. I tried to find a link to it online and came across this alternative version instead:

so clear the sound
echoes to the Big Dipper
the fulling block

It’s elegant, yes, but I feel it lacks the power of the Ueda version. The first two lines seem virtually interchangeable, but it’s in that last line, in the final three words, that the difference lies. Three words, such fine tolerances, but actually, the margins are even finer than that; I think it’s a single word that has it.

Someone.

You or I, him or her, one person who could be any one of us, performing a task so mundane and, because of that, universal, so that it opens communication to the universe, to the entire history of humanity. Take away the human actor, and it reduces to a remote observation of dispassionate significance.

And so it was that I set out to learn about one man and his music, and ended up learning about writing, and a great deal more besides.

Note: a fulling block is a wooden mallet that was used to beat the cloth to help dry and soften it.