October 12, 2010 § Leave a Comment
When Cage entered Harvard University’s anechoic chamber in 1951, he was surprised to hear two distinct sounds. Both originated from within. One—the higher-pitched of the dyad—turned out to be the electrical humming of his nervous system. The other tone—relatively lower in pitch—was produced by the movement of blood through his circulatory system. He would say later in reference to the experience, “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue after my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”
A strange Gethsemane this Gethsemane transposed.
There, in the dark of the studio, the twisted olive grove given way to acoustic foam and thick, double-paned glass, a face is turned towards the ceiling and hands are wringing. There, the negative space and silence (the immense pressure of emptiness!) push fist-wise against blank eardrums.
It’s October 1971 and a mind is roiling: chronic insomnia, depression, anxiety, despair—a fetid brew indeed and one that will ultimately prove lethal. For the moment, though, Drake, sitting alone, voice and guitar: two consecutive midnight recording sessions is all it takes to produce the record. A feeble lamp twice lit, twice snuffed.
July 18, 2010 § Leave a Comment
A psalm is so called because a psalm used to be something sung. By reminding us of this, the quartet defies our expectations. For when we interact with the Old Testament psalms nowadays, the tendency is to treat them in the manner we might spoken poetry. Maybe the perfunctory lament before getting down to the business of strong, plodding recitations:
“Yes, yes, a shame the original tunes are lost forever, but thankfully the most important things have survived that most difficult journey through history. At least we still have the lyrics.“
In the absence of the aural tradition, the Psalms are, for us, words on a page first and foremost.
Deep down, though, perhaps we know it was actually David’s singing–the way his vocal melodies wove in and out of dense, intricate strumming patterns, the way he could will tones and timbres into and out of solution effortlessly–that truly brought solace to King Saul’s troubled soul.
At various times, subsequent musicians have attempted to reanimate David’s Psalms with music of their own devising. A great many medieval plainchants are based on Psalms, for example. The Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnal is a similar, more recent, attempt.
However, the quartet skips right over this step, refusing to settle for the mere reintroduction of music into a supposed larger textual ecology. For them it seems to be the other way around. Music, perhaps, is the stage–the bog, the forest, the meadow–on which verbal creatures perform. Or maybe music is better conceived of as that cloud of connections, symbioses, intersecting interests, that draw up ‘individual’ lives into larger, inextricable bundles that are themselves organisms of sorts. Isolated words are lonely worlds unto themselves. They are hermetically sealed, and, as such, are deaf, blind, mute, lonely, and devoid.
The quartet doesn’t even use words:
In the dungeon still, the blind ascetic, emaciated, trembling, faint. Yet hear the wafting harp and vocalises. The immediate sense that ritardando, has already set in. Melodies now burlap, now silk, now chain mail ribbons dragged through pounding heart’s four chambers up through esophagus, over tongue, teeth, lips. They drift about the room for a time lingering at the rusty door high above.
In the shadow of the shadow of the shadow of death, angel with lock-picks comes.
The sweet spray of Zildjian seas.
July 13, 2010 § 3 Comments
If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
the Grand Canyon,
to arable land,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.
Pretend: Every moment is an altar to some god. Every act, a sacrifice. Every thought, worship.
When we reach the limits of our thoughts, when we are incapable of processing the available information, we experience paralysis. In scientific terms, our prefrontal cortex— the rational mind— has overmastered our amygdalae, those limbic nuggets that spritz dopamine into our system, cause fear, and in extreme cases, a supreme sense of awe. Euphoria.
With that mastery of the amygdala, we lost the sort of worship that overcomes. That brings us to our knees. Makes us babble. Renders us glossolalic. That feeling you get when you peer down into the Grand Canyon, feel your face slacken, stomach-drop, and body sing with unknowing. The afterglow of which Plato describes as that terrifying, paralyzing feeling of knowing that you do not know. Aporia.
Humans have figured a lot out since Plato. There’s a lot of certainty now; if God is dead, religion is an afterthought, and with it we lose all of its metaphors.
In Blandeur, Kay Ryan becomes the priestess heralding our loss. The Vicar of Irony interceding on our behalf. Instead of a prophet coming out of the wilderness, Ryan wanders into the Badlands – the Holy of Holies – begging God to shut down the show. Through terse sentences, she refrains from involving us in the pyrotechnics of description. Eiger, the Grand Canyon, are superlatives incarnate, but since these peaks and abysses are what we want less of, the poet does us the courtesy of not expounding.
She knows her flock; she understands what our imaginations are capable of, and that’s what she is here to excise on our behalf. However, the methods are extreme. The only solution is to unmake the world as we know it. Flatten, widen, blanden. It’s not good enough to ignore or forget, move away or hide from. The mountains must be snipped out. The rivers gutted, valleys softened, mesas decimated. If not, we might happen upon them, stumbling westward into the Rockies, and remember what we tried so hard to unlearn.
If it were only about geography, that would be one thing, but Ryan knows the natural world is a cipher. A key that unlocks the gaping awe and opens our hearts to new metaphors, deepening our range of experience. In fact, Nature stretches our minds beyond the limit, leaving us paralyzed in that ineffable space, that once God-filled hole in our lexicon.
Ryan is sympathetic. We can’t go around feeling such fear, such aching doubt, such depth of longing all the time. But even more importantly, we cannot knowingly bear the absence of those feelings in our lives. In the face of such potent metaphors, we seem petty. Our small joys turn to peccadilloes. Our small wills push us to meager pleasures. The focus of our worship is transitory, worldly, decaying, even deathward.
We remember that we are guilty. We are the ones who erupted the guts of that gulf with crude black oil. We defiled the Ocean, the master of depth who also taught the awe of distance; granted us, through inborn empathy, the ferocity of a tempest. And now we’ve begun to ruin something that we did not think we could ruin. Killed the inhabitants of Holy Places.
Kay Ryan need not address religion directly in this poem because she addresses God. If anything religion exists as a metaphor for Nature, not the other way around. Dealing in contrivances, our cathedrals replicate the vault of heaven. The stony silences of canyons. Even the transcendent purities of light through stainedglass, suffusing motes of dust replicate the fingers of dawn shooting through gaps in clouds. Manmade places of worship are nature distilled, tools to inspire awe, while still pointing obliquely toward humankind.
But oceans, beyond icons cannot be shattered. The mountain in the halo of fog is more blameless than a saint. Holy writ is scrawled in the tessellated floes of northward ice. The whole breadth of nature is sanctuary. There is no room for misinterpretations. We are struck dumb, humbled, made to worship. When we look into the pristine, time-gouged canyon, we see that no peace exists in us that was not taught by the Grandeur of Nature. No Holiness abides without it.
So, Ryan understands that we must shrink the very features of the world so that our metaphors for depth, for breadth of longing, for the Holy, bodily yearnings that undo our available world, no longer overcome us. No longer dwarf us. We have to wipe out the visions that tell us, even in finite space, we are small. Destructible. That tell us, against the forever bodies of Mountains and Valleys, we are inchmeal for Time’s threshing floor.
If we believe there is no God, the feeling of God— or that something Godlike exists— is that much more painful. So, Ryan, the Vicar of Irony, intercedes, begging the only one powerful enough to undo the world that sparks our doubt. She begs the selfsame Mystery that we want to forget. Just as the world came in on a Word, in this Psalm, Ryan unmakes the Earth using words.
Let there be less.
But the poem starts with a twist, and even in simple turns, Ryan’s conceit inspires awe. She knows that as she unmakes the Earth and the glaciers fall silent, worship hums in the air around their absence. Her scissoring rhymes arrive too soon, making the sparse poem seem sparer still. Halving the words, doubling the power. We watch the world slump into a formlessness and the valley’s stretch and iron out their depth, but there is still the horizon-forever. Still, the ground we walk on is marbled with red granites, golden white swatches of sand, quaking forests, shimmering wheat fields. An Iowan paradise.
In the world of Blandeur, the rough thought of being is enough to inspire awe.
Conversely, in the face of such monuments, struck down by awe, only our brains can unmake God.
When a God we don’t believe in leans against our hearts, we sacrifice.
June 29, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Gavelstruckgongblast! And already the riptide dragging you away from shore far far out into shining Zildjian seas. You are the sax, struggling against pounding whitecaps, squinting beneath roaring light, flailing as a newborn babe set adrift with neither basket nor swaddling clothes. Your Second Birth. This time naught but circumstantial syzygy hath borne you, and naught but infinite holiness is here to greet you now. Confused and throbbing, you will cry aloud in hopes of sympathetic ear, in hopes of mutual intelligibility, in hopes of echo or, at least, resonance. You will strive against the piano’s contrary windgusts. You will squint in search of landmark, in search of some stone jutting into the air from deep seafloor moorings to help you judge how far? and for how long?
You will grow weary, and you will lose hope. All’s left to do is float on your back, ears submerged.
Move only to breathe.
Listen as momentums beneath you divulge secrets in sound: The Bass… The Foundation… The Core… The Source… The Groove. Yes, at last, the Voice from within the whirlwind answered you. Of course, really, the voice to will have been being always answering… and asking.
Body falling quickly into rhythm; mind will fight ’til utter exhaustion. Body merging with wind, sun, and sea, with drum, piano, and bass; mind will burn with forgetfulness, with curiosity, with doubt, with holdings on.
You, deceived wretch, are the sax, a stubborn slick of oil aflame on the water’s surface. Pathetic effrontery held there between ocean and sky.
You demand whens and wheres. You exclaim you don’t much like the way the metronome beats pile up on top of one another here. You say you don’t like the way everything seems to happen all at once and that you don’t much care for the way happenings superimpose the way sedimentary images superimpose on film re-exposed, re-exposed, re-exposed.
Crawl back through the Gongblast if you so crave time!
These, the palindromes of Coltrane, of Messiaen, of breath are as vertical wind-shear blowing down onto the surface of the Sea of Dirac. Vast ripples rush away from the center in all directions. Were there shores, the storm surge would surely overcome them.
God, in the cool of the evening:
Listen now and I will speak; I will question you and you shall answer me.
Where are you?
Who told you you were naked?
What is this you have done?
Where were you when I laid the foundations?
Interrogative God is improvising, asking the Universe evermore to be something-rather-than-nothing.
At last, penitent, the sax singing:
A Love Supreme