Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance... poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music. — Ezra Pound
The relationship between words and music is an interesting one. Beckett referred to his writing as "sounds" and that is something that both words and music have in common, the sound, because even when you're reading silently to yourself you still "hear" the words in your head. He said: "My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible and I accept responsibility for nothing else." Because poetry has cadence, metre, and rhyme its relationship to music is immediately established. The question is: How well do these two distant cousins get on?
Michael Joyce: The musicality of words can't, I think, be divorced from the physicality of writing … I believe we carry language in breath and in depth and in our own sense of our movement in space. I hear words in movement, when I'm walking or my fingers are typing or writing with a pen, other movements as well. Otherwise I think I am largely dumb, in every sense of that word. Language comes at the instant of some motion toward and in myself. I think some of that has been lost, however temporarily, in current electronic arts. Not just the pure musicality, the surface poetry, but the sense of language as embodied action. – Trace Online Writing Centre
Narration and music (Oil and water)
I have a large collection of classical music, most of it from the 20th century. It's not that I've got anything against Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers it's just that I pretty much sickened myself when I was in my teens and studying music. I used to have Beethoven's Sixth Symphony on an old reel-to-reel machine and I played it over and over again while I worked on my various projects. I still own a copy but it has been years since I listened to it.
As far as the 20th century goes I have a very varied selection, something for every mood but there are four pieces that I very rarely listen to: Michael Easton's Beasts of the Bush, Peter Sculthorpe's The Fifth Continent, Joseph Schwantner's New Morning for the World: "Daybreak of Freedom" and Dan Welcher's Haleakala: How Maui Snared the Sun. The reason is that each of the aforesaid pieces is for narrator and orchestra.
Of course these are not the most popular pieces for narrator and orchestra. Most people will have heard Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra – they're often packaged on the same CD – I've probably even got copies lying around somewhere, or maybe not, either way I've heard loads of versions. An amazing number of people have had a go at them from David Bowie to Patrick Stewart though thankfully I've managed to avoid Dame Edna Everage's contribution to the genre.
I don't know what it is but words and music just don't seem to go together. Singing is fine. I have no problem with singing although I exhibit very little talent in that area. This does puzzle me because language is intrinsically musical. It's just with these narrated pieces the music never seems to go. I'm sure it's just me and I have to admit to hearing a couple of very stirring renditions of Copland's A Lincoln Portrait but I still prefer the Fanfare for the Common Man on its own and especially without the well-meaning-I'm-sure contributions by Messrs Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Poetry and music ("Oral messages")
What I find interesting is that so often poets have chosen to perform with a musical backdrop, one that normally has not been specifically written to accompany the particular set of poems. I'm thinking obviously of the caricature of the beat poet with the jazz quartet in the background. Ferlinghetti wrote seven poems published in his A Coney Island of the Mind with the intention that they be read with jazz. The introduction to the 'Oral Messages' section reads:
These seven poems were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken "oral messages" rather than as poems written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental reading with jazz, they are still in a state of change.
I once bought a copy of a CD of John Cooper Clarke reading – it was to be a present – and I was sorely disappointed to find that it had been recorded over a backing track. I've heard him read his poems many times without music and they work. I find that the music fights with the words, it demand a part of my attention and dilutes the power of the words. In my opinion.
Here's an example of what I don't like. It's of Allan Douglass Coleman performing from 'Big Yellow House' at the Café Verboten, Stapleton, Staten Island, NY, June 24, 2000 with musical accompaniment by Doug Principato and Ed Jackson.
Now here's an example of Kenneth Rexroth performing 'I didn't want it' to a jazz accompaniment from the LP Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk. It's a pleasant piece I have to admit but I was more impressed by his comments on the liner notes from which here is a short extract:
A few years back, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Lipton and I revived it in California. For a while it was a fad. The Beatniks took it up. Some pretty awful stuff was committed in joints around the country. Now the fad has died away and the permanent, solid achievements remain. The form is not going to revolutionise either jazz or poetry but it is going to stay with us, and both jazz and poetry are going to have one new way of expressing themselves, and so are going to be just a little richer.
How do we do it? We certainly don’t just spontaneously blow off the tops of our heads. Most of these pieces are standard tunes, carefully rehearsed many times with the poet until we’ve got a good clear rich head arrangement. We don’t write it down, because we want to keep as much spontaneity and invention as possible, but at the same time we want plenty of substance to the music, and, of course, we want poet and band to ‘go together’.
Why do we do it? No theories. We do it because we like to. It’s fun.
I'm not sure I'm convinced personally. I'm always impressed by an artist who takes their work seriously but his 'Nicholas, you ran away' is just a tad too So-I-Married-An-Axe-Murderer for me. My wife likes it though.
Poetry as song ("A song is a bastard")
There have been many occasions where composers have taken it upon themselves to take a set of poems and treated them as lyrics. Beckett's work has been very popular. You can get a fairly complete list on the Samuel Beckett: Apmonia website. I have to confess to having heard none of it, none with words in any case. I have, and love, Philip Glass's interpretation of Company. You can listen to a snippet from Company IV at Last.fm. but there an animation at YouTube that's quite interesting to watch while you listen to a longer selection.
A better known piece would be Copland's 1950 song cycle, 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson of which I've probably heard about a minute's worth. Copland's approach echoed Dickinson’s concise yet lyric language with abrupt leaps in the vocal line that matched her unique dashes and pauses. Vivian Perlis, an American music historian, expands on this: "The songs are unusual in style with irregular meters and stanzas, wide jumps in the vocal lines, and difficult passages for the pianist that present special challenges." All I can say is that it didn't work for me. Here's a clip of Phyllis Curtin having a go at of There Came A Wind Like A Bugle; you to make up your own mind.
Copland wrote in a letter to Verna Fine, wife of composer Irving Fine:
The songs went well with composer friends and audience but got roasted in the press … I’m pleased with them – and everybody seemed to think it was a real song-cycle – which pleases me also.
The extract I included appears on an album along with works by Copland's contemporary Ned Rorem. Ned Rorem's take of working with poetry is quite different to Copland's:
A song is a bastard. It is uniting two art forms that did not ask to be forced together.
It’s a question of taking a pre-existing lyric, often a lyric masterpiece, and then assuming that you can add something to it.
The list of texts that Rorem has thought he could add something to is long, ranging from the biblical psalms to poems by Lord Byron, Walt Whitman, William Blake, Theodore Roethke, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery, among others.
What I did enjoy, and I really have no decent explanation for this other than the text is in German and I have no idea what they're on about, is Schoenberg's melodrama Pierrot Lunaire which is a setting of twenty-one selected poems from Otto Erich Hartleben's German translation of Albert Giraud's cycle of French poems of the same name. The narrator who is traditionally a soprano, although the score doesn't specify a voice-type, delivers the poems in the Sprechstimme style, which is a vocal technique that falls between singing and speech. The last version I saw had the dancers clambering all around a giant climbing frame, like the kind you would find in a kids' playground – weird but nevertheless captivating.
My own personal opinion, and this is probably best illustrated by the work of Bob Dylan, is that great lyrics quite often make bad poems and great poems aren't always the basis for great songs. The debate has raged for years. You can read an article about it on the Poetry.org website under the heading Dylan: "I'm a poet and I know it." The best, most straightforward answer, the article concludes with, may have appeared in the liner notes of his second album, 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, where Dylan said, simply: "Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can't sing, I call a poem."
Poetry at its highest has no need of musical accompaniment. Music itself, at its own highest, transcends entirely the spoken or written word. I'm not sure that that makes songs.
There are, of course, examples of poets who have become songwriters. Bradley Hathaway started off as a spoken word poet but has since progressed to writing songs. Simon Armitage has had a crack at song writing. As did Saul Williams. And then there's a certain Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, who is now far better known as a singer-songwriter than he ever was as a poet and he was pretty well-known as a poet.
Were the words not enough or what?
Poetry and sound (Words perched on the edge)
Always looking to push the boundaries, John Cage would incorporate sounds in his poems:
With the use of mesostics – compositions similar to acrostics, but with the initial set of letters placed in the middle, instead of in the beginning or at the end – he created poems from the texts of Henry David Thoreau and James Joyce.
For his piece Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake, he wrote a long series of mesostics based on Joyce’s novel, using the letters J-A-M-E-S-J-O-Y-C-E as the starting point of each composition. Onto the text he superimposed sounds referred to in the novel, along with traditional Irish music.
His book, M: Writings, '67-'72, is a collection of mesostics inspired by Marcel Duchamp, music, mushrooms, Merce Cunningham - and other "M" words. – John Cage: The Roaring Silence
Michael Andre has written a couple of interesting posts you might want to check out: Mesostics I and Mesostics II.
Incorporating noise and poetry is still ongoing. I found an interesting example of this in a character called Euphoreador or possibly JunKBox. I quite enjoyed his piece entitled fear wandering helpless which you can hear on his soundscapes page.
There are examples on John Parker's page on Download.com particularly Quick There is a monster but do yourself a favour and take two minutes out of your life to listen to his song Claire Danes. It's worth it.
Poetry as sound ("That's just awful. And right before teatime too.")
Fundamentally all words are nothing but sounds. On the Wright State University site I found this list of sounds in poetry:
1. Onomatopoeia:--direct imitation of a natural sound (hiss, bang, slither, choke; "black flak")
2. Imitation of movement:
3. Ease or difficulty of pronunciation: e.g., aspirated consonants imitate difficult breathing: “hoarse, rough verse”; "oh how shall summer’s honey breath hold out"; tongue-twisting combinations of consonants can imitate difficulty or precision of movement ("my stick fingers click with a snicker").
- Abrupt/sustained contrasts in types of consonants (plosives such as B,D,K, or P, as opposed to liquids and fricatives such as L,M,N,S,F)
- Acceleration and impedance: clusters of unaccented syllables speed up the line; clusters of accented syllables slow it down.
- High/low and open/closed contrasts: "throw ... slow" versus "swift ... skims")
4. Imitation of music (euphony) or noise (cacophony): "lap me in soft Lydian airs / Married to immortal verse" is euphonious; "grate on scrannel pipes of wretched straw" is cacophonous.
Some poets have decided to literally work with sounds separately from words. In his statement Why I Am The Author of Sound Poetry and Free Poetry, the poet Henri Chopin, in 1967, wrote:
The Word today serves no one except to say to the grocer: give me a pound of lentils.
The Word is useful no more; it even becomes an enemy when a single man uses it as a divine word to speak of a problematic god or of a problematic dictator. The Word becomes the cancer of humanity when it vulgarizes itself to the point of impoverishment trying to make words for all, promises for all, which will not be kept, descriptions of life which will be either scholarly or literary which will take centuries to elaborate upon with no time left for life.
The Word is responsible for the phallic death because it dominates the senses and the phallus which are submissive to it; it is responsible for the birth of the exasperated who serve verbose principles.
It is responsible for the general incomprehension of beings who succumb to murders, racisms, concentrations, the laws, etc.
In short, the Word is responsible because instead of making it a way of life we've made it an end. Prisoner of the Word is the child, and so he will be all his adult life.
That puts paid to the word, now what about the sound?
I prefer the sun, I'm fond of the night, I'm fond of my noises and of my sounds, I admire the immense complex factory of a body, I'm fond of my glances that touch, of my ears that see, of my eyes that receive... But I do not have to have the benediction of the written idea. I do not have to have my life derived from the intelligible. I do not want to be subject to the true word which is forever misleading or lying, I can stand no longer to be destroyed by the Lord, that lie that abolishes itself on paper.
I would suggest reading the whole thing but it is a bit on the long side. You can listen to a selection of some of his pieces on the UbuWeb site. Some have sounds as part of the poems, one at least only had sounds (no vocals that I could hear at all).
In his essay Sound Poetry - A Survey, Steve McCaffery considers the roots of sound poetry:
The first phase, perhaps better-termed, the first area of sound poetry, is the vast, intractable area of archaic and primitive poetries, the many instances of chant structures and incantation, of nonsense syllabic mouthings and deliberate lexical distortions still alive among North American, African, Asian and Oceanic peoples. We should also bear in mind the strong and persistent folkloric and ludic strata that manifests in the world's many language games, in the nonsense syllabery of nursery rhymes, mnemonic counting aids, whisper games and skipping chants, mouth music and folk-song refrain…
A good example of this, which definitely nods its hat to sound poetry's roots, is Bob Cobbing's Alphabet of Fishes but, please, if you listen to nothing else, give ear to Various Throats: Volume One. Just pick a number, any number:
My wife said, "That's just awful. And right before teatime too."
Soundtracks to novels (I've bought the T-shirt too)
I imagine a lot of people read with some background music on. Personally I'm not that fond of it. It used not to bother me but I find concentrating on two things a bit harder than I used to. Actually I find concentrating on one thing harder than it used to be but let's not go there.
In Alan Warner's debut novel Morven Caller, the titular heroine listens to music constantly. She rarely goes anywhere without the Walkman left behind as a Christmas present by her dead boyfriend, and as she narrates this strange story, she takes care to tell the reader exactly what music she is listening to, giving the effect of a sound track running behind her voice.
What is interesting is that some novelists have taken this to the next logical step and are now providing actual soundtracks to their novels. Spanish Fly by Will Ferguson is a novel with its own soundtrack, featuring all-original tunes based on the characters, places and era of the book.
In an interview with CTV.ca the author had this to say:
CTV.ca: Where did the idea for the book's soundtrack come from and how'd you manage to collaborate with Tom Phillips (Calgary singer, songwriter)?
WF: I was having beer with Don Robinson, who's the head of sales for Penguin.
We were at the Ironwood saloon in Calgary listening to Tom play and I leaned over and I said 'This is the kind of music that Jack McGreary listened to.'
I said if this novel had a soundtrack that would be Tom.
All my best ideas come to me when I'm drinking beer... I said movies get to have soundtracks, why can't a novel have a soundtrack? It didn't seem fair.
So we grabbed Tom between sets and pitched him this bizarre idea.
This has never been done before... this is the first original CD based on a novel.
CTV.ca: It must have been interesting to see his perspective on the story.
WF: I have to say as an author I'm incredibly envious now of songwriters because what takes me 100 pages to set up for an emotional payoff -- Tom can get to in three minutes and 20 seconds.
Songwriting is like storytelling concentrated.
Wikipedia lists a number of examples where soundtracks have been created to go along with books but it doesn't include Spanish Fly. I did discover an original soundtrack to the book Candy in Action by Matthue Roth, a novel about supermodels who know kung-fu which is sure to find its way onto my Amazon wish list. On her website, author Mary Pat Hyland lists the tracks she would like to use as a soundtrack to her novel The Cyber Miracles.
I have to say I have no idea where I would start producing a soundtrack to anything I've written. The problem seems to be finding a piece that keeps the mood and goes with the pace at which I read. I have to say after thinking about this it amazes me how they get soundtracks to go with films, those that aren't specifically written for the programme.