Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 7 July 2008

In the beginning was the sound… (part one)

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 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 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 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:
  1. 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)

  2. Acceleration and impedance: clusters of unaccented syllables speed up the line; clusters of accented syllables slow it down.

  3. High/low and open/closed contrasts: "throw ... slow" versus "swift ... skims")
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").

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 the author had this to say: 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. 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.

Part Two


Art Durkee said...

Michael Mantler has done settings of several shorter Beckett texts, such as "No Answer."

Morton Feldman did a version of the radioplay "Words and Music," in which he composed the music. One of his string quartets is also influenced by and dedicated to Beckett. A lot of inspiration there, but also some settings.

There are some other Beckett versions on, including a terrific version of "Cascando."

Wendy Carlos and "Weird Al" Yankovic did a hilarious version of "Peter and the Wolf," as well as a send-up of Saint Saens, their "Carnival of the Animals, Part II." It includes those musical portraits that got left out of the original, including The Snail, and The Shark.

Michael Oldfield, as the end section of part two of his two-LP piece, "Incantations," did a musical setting of the opening chapter of Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" that is pretty much definitive; I always hear the poem in this form in my head, now, whenever I read it.

I played in a band called Dangerous Odds for over a decade that consisted of improvising musicians accompanying performance poetry (we had two regular poets plus a few guests) with spontaneously improvised music in all styles. (Several tracks are on my website and podcast.)

I think the idea that music and words don't go well together is pretty much all in one's approach, and one's attitude. I almost never hear this argument from musicians. Sometimes I think poets are insecure about it, because they insist on it much more forcefully. I've also blogged about poets who insist that poetry is the highest artform of them all. (Of course, everyone says that about their own artform, usually, whatever it may be.) I think this all misses the point.

Words and music can go together so brilliantly that, in a given piece, they can never be separated back out from each other: they have achieved a synergistic unity.

Of course, there are always examples where it's pretty obvious they're just glommed together with no real feeling for it, and ability to make it work. Very few poets have a sense of music, and very few musicians have a sense of poetry.

But at the same time, it's hard to beat a great opera for achieving that synergy, that moment when it all comes together; such moments are magic. (Steve Reich has done this a few times, as has Philip Glass; I prefer Reich overall as a composer, even though "Einstein on the Beach" is a genuine masterpiece.) (But so did Puccini.) (And Britten also pulled it off with "Curlew River.")

I completely disagree that songs are a bastard artform, even art-songs such as Rorem, Copland, and others have done. Again, that's usually a comment I've heard from poets who are offended that the sacred text has been bowdlerized with music. I'll grant that not every song-setting is a great success; but then, neither are all poems. An argument has been made by some composers, perhaps rightly, that it's better to set a weaker text to music, because then the complementarity aspect can really come into its own; setting a great and already famous text can be much harder to pull off, simply because everyone already has an opinion about it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, there have been so many musical works based on, or incorporating texts from, works by Samuel Beckett. Feldman, probably more than most, was really bitten by the bug. There's a nice article about his relationship with Beckett on The Modern World site with lots of links. They also have an ongoing list of all the musical compositions inspired by Beckett.

I've not heard "Weird Al" Yankovic's take on Peter and the Wolf BUT the lyrics have been posted online and they look fun.

I have listened to Incantations scores of times and I have to say never once, not for a second, did I pick up on 'Song of Hiawatha'. For a writer I'm actually very bad when it comes to lyrics. I can remember hardly any.

You are quite right, music and poetry can go together well but it's a lot harder than people might think. I've never considered for a second, okay maybe a second, setting any of my poetry to music. I have thought about writing poetry specifically for that purpose but that was a long time ago.

Opera. Yeah. That's a musical form I struggle with. I can just about tolerate 'The Toreador Song' from Carmen or 'The Major-General's Song' from The Pirates of Penzance but that's about me. I have tried – God, how I've tried! – to get into modern opera, and I've sat through a few including Schoenberg's Moses und Aron and Eight Songs for a Mad King but I can't do it. And there is nothing worse in this world than opera in English. I heard some Benjamin Britten once – can't recall which opera – and I thought it sounded like something Morecambe and Wise would do only they'd do a better job. At least then I could feel not so bad for laughing. I've never listened to any opera by Glass and I must have about thirty of his albums. I have a little of his choral music which is pleasant but it's when I can hear the words I crack up. Sorry.

Rachel Fox said...

For someone so keen on songs I have never spent much time listening to poems (or any words) spoken to music. Maybe it was the early trauma of Telly Savalas and 'If' (a spoken song not a poem but in 1975 I had not been briefed on literary matters and 'TOTP' was as good as it got). Or maybe it's just that, for me, very little beats a good singing voice so once the music's on I like to hear a voice doing that special something that is singing (and we hear so many spoken words in our daily lives as it is). The fact that a lot of the works you mention use jazz and classical music would be another reason I've not encountered many word & music projects - I keep waiting to grow into both of those musical genres...but it hasn't happened yet. They are perhaps the only two that still evade me!

Also there is also something really amazing about a good poem just read with silence accompanying it (or as near silence as you can manage). You really concentrate on the words in the way that we rarely do in everyday life.

Art Durkee said...

But you do listen to singer-songwriters, right? or at least I seem to recall that you've mentioned that before?

I am not a glorifier or cultist of the song. I don't follow the cults of Dylan or Cohen as "poets," I think that's absurd. But I acknowledge that many songs written by the best songwriters out there are pieces of words-and-music that are sublime, and brilliant. A great song can't be taken apart without losing its energy. The music is what makes the words work, and vice versa.

There can be nuance and wordplay, too. I think of Lynn Miles' "Ghost of Deadlock," or Joni Mitchell's "Borderline," or Bruce Cockburn's "Tibetan Side of Town." These are all examples of that synergy, I think.

My favorite quote about songwriting points out the tension that can make for good collboration. Rick Boston, lead singer of Low Pop Suicide, was in reference to his writing partner, bassist Dave Allen (formerly of Gang of Four and Shriekback, and a favorite bassist of mine). Boston basically said that he was drawn towards making little gemlike perfect two-minute pop songs, and Allen is drawn towards exploding and deconstructing the song form itself. The results were some amazing bits of songwriting. There's not one misstep on Low Pop Suicide's first couple of releases, as a result.

Opera may be an acquired taste now, but prior to the days of recordings, etc., it was the Supreme Artform for many. I know more opera than I can say, because I grew up listening to it, since my Dad was an enthusiast.

if you don't like modern opera, try the old stuff. There are individuals songs and arias that are sublime.

Another songwriter who I think made perfect pieces of combined words-and-music was John Dowland.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, of course, If was actually a song to start off with though I agree with you, it was painful. Classical music I discovered before pop music believe it or not. And I don't come from a musical family. It wasn't till 1973 that I took an interest in the charts and two years later did we not have Mr. Savalas's contribution and I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. What helped me greatly with classical music were weekly visits to the record library in the next town to us (because ours didn't have one). There I got to try out all these weird names like Khachaturian. All they had of him was his Second Symphony (The Bell) and it just blew my head away in much the same was as Tubular Bells did about the same time (it was released in 1973). I never gave up on the classical music though so I could be listening to Hawkwind one minute and Berlioz the next. It made, and still does make, total sense in my head.

As for jazz, I know what I like jazz-wise, but I'm not au fait with all the various performers. I have a wonderful album by Duke Ellington called New Orleans Suite which I pull out every now and then. I adored Woody Allen's score to Sleeper and was bitterly disappointed that it was never released. I've collected a bit of Dixieland jazz but that set would have been perfect.

Now Art, you've hit the nail on the head there. I almost never sit down and just listen to music. I have multitasked all my life. Even watching TV I'll have a laptop on my … well, lap … and I'll be pottering away at something. I listen to very little of my pop and rock collection these days because it's hard to write over lyrics but every now and again I'll haul out and old Pink Floyd CD. My favourite lyricist and I really do need to get around to doing a blog about him one of these days, is Fish the ex-Marillion front man. I think he is totally underrated as a singer-songwriter and I own all his music. He is one of those people I buy whatever they have on offer and I don't need to hear it first.

I'm not a great Dylan fan though he has his moments. I much prefer Lou Reed and again I've got everything significant he's ever done apart from Songs for Drella. My wife is the big Cohen fan. She really does have everything he's ever done and several DVDs too. I only have one of his albums, I'm You Man which, believe it or not, was the first Cohen (other than 'Vincent') I'd ever heard. I did play it an awful lot when I first got it and I still think it's the best thing he's done.

On the opera front, I have listened to operas from all eras from Monteverdi on. And yes, there is the odd aria that gets me (Puccini really nailed it with 'Nessun Dorma') I cannot be jugged enduring an entire opera. And, I'll be honest, it annoys the hell out of me that I can't get in touch with my internal opera buff but I just don't get sitting in your private box with your bottle of Chianti sobbing your heart out over Dido and Aeneas. I enjoy choral work very much. Too much of it is overtly religious for my tastes but I think Carmina Burana is a damn fine work and I keep meaning to find a copy of Psalmus Hungaricus one of these days. The last choral album I remember getting was of Ligeti's works and you'd think if I could enjoy that I could listen to anything.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Once in the past I think the connection between poetry and music was more recent times much less, or it's much more subtle.
An example: the connection between "Four Quartets" is evident all the way through but The Waste Land? For me very hard to say...

Jim Murdoch said...

This is probably a weakness of mine Davide, that I focus on the content of a poem to the exclusion of most other things. Although I agree that musicality is there in poems like 'The Waste Land' they are so intellectually stimulating that how they sound can slip by especially since I'm viewing them on the page. I did hear the actor Michael Gough ('Alfred' from Tim Burton's Batman) reading 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' recently and I was quite taken aback by the beauty of the words when someone capable is doing the reading.

Rachel Fox said...

One reason I've yet to make it through to jazz and classical is that I just keep getting distracted elsewhere. For years I was lost in that thing that's sometimes called dance music (as in rave/house/electronica/techno/ambient...all those genres and more). Quite a lot of dance records sampled spoken words (if not poetry) - quite often we'd be dancing or lying about with William Burroughs' or Martin Luther King's voices accompanying our misbehaving. 'Free at last' got a lot of use around that time. I can still hear it in fact...if I listen hard enough.

More recently I've been immersing myself in folk music (new and old). It's a very exciting time for folk - loads of new talented musicians and singers putting out traditional and original material and lots of more experienced performers getting a new lease of life by association. I never thought I'd be a folkie but right now it is something I wouldn't be without. There is a great appreciation of lyrics in the folk scene and this leads to an open-minded interest in poetry too. People are less likely to judge poems and put them in the correct box and more likely to just listen to the words. Folk audiences are really good listeners all round.

As for Bob Dylan...I always think it's a bit of a shame he is always used as the main example of the 'look a songwriter who's a poet' genre. I'm not anti-Dylan by any means but to be honest he never seems the most poetic songwriter to me. His lyrics make me laugh sometimes...everything and the kitchen sink! Some great tunes though and some great choruses and boy, the guy had (and still has) great timing.

And so which songwriters do I find more...poetic? To be honest it changes all the time though currently I think Kate Rusby writes some beautiful lines for sure (she's as good a writer as a singer but she plays it down) and Karine Polwart is a very talented writer too...but I may have mentioned that before! I would never say the songs ARE poems...but they could be...

Patricia Rockwell said...

I have read a number of articles on the differences between singing and speaking (I think "Scientific American" did a good one) and most researchers find it difficult to pinpoint the exact difference--except to say that sounds in singing are typically held longer and on prescribed pitches. Something like the difference between prose and poetry, I would think. You have given me many ideas to ponder. Thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

I enjoy folk music Rachel but I don't own much of it. The bottom line – as always – is money. Carrie has more than me. We often watch programmes like the BBC's Transatlantic Sessions though. I have quite a few Loreena McKennit albums but that's about me.

I think the main difference between lyrics and poems is that poems were designed as standalone pieces. Lyrics are custom-built to go along with music. Sometimes the music comes first, sometimes not. Often the result can be highly beautiful, even poetic but I'm not sure that qualifies it as poetry. Take the lyrics to 'Mad World' for example:

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places - worn out faces
Bright and early for their daily races
Going nowhere - going nowhere
And their tears are filling up their glasses
No expression - no expression
Hide my head I want to drown my sorrow
No tomorrow - no tomorrow

And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had
I find it hard to tell you
'Cos I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It's a very, very mad world

Now this is an exceptionally beautiful song (especially the arrangement done for the film Donnie Darko) but I don't think the lyrics carry a fraction of their power divorced from the music for which they were intended, arrangements aside. Actually this morning Carrie and I spent a wee while listening to a variety of cover versions on YouTube. And the song stands up well.

Patricia, always nice to see a new name. It's a good point you make. The question was asked on The Center for Voice and Speech website. Their answer was as follows:

Your speaking and singing voice are created from the same exact anatomical structures. The respiratory system (lungs diaphragm and abdominal muscles), laryngeal mechanism (vocal folds, laryngeal cartilages, muscles and nerves) and the supraglottic tract (the spaces above the vocal folds, including the back of your throat, mouth, nasal passages and sinus cavities) all work to produce the beautiful sounds you make.

Speaking doesn't require as much lung pressure as singing - particularly in classical singing - but you still need to support the speaking voice. Singing involves the utilization of more of the supraglottic spaces for resonance, and the vowels are prolonged. Otherwise…they are almost identical. Just a note: your speaking and singing voice should sound almost identical in your speaking voice pitch range.

What does interest me, based on what you've said, is, considering the intrinsic musicality of some accents, e.g. Welsh, French, Hawaiian, is their poetry closer to lyrics? I don't have an answer but it's an interesting question. Maybe another time.

Art Durkee said...

Fido and Aeneas: opera that's gone to the dogs.

In terms of the poetry-language-singing-speaking paradigm, I think some languages are more "musical to the ear" because they are spoken with a lilt, or tones (toning), which may or may not have grammatical or syntactical significance. The Celtic languages do tend to have a lilt; and mouth-music (Scottish tradition) is only one step further into lilting from spoken lilting speech. Overtly tonal languages use pitch, tone, and relative gesture to convey meaning: Chinese has four tones; Thai has seven tones, as I think does Vietnamese (or is it five tones). Japanese is not a tonal language, and can be chanted without losing meaning, or spoken simply and plainly. Japanese and English both use pitch and volume to convey emphasis, while in other ways they are very very different languages. English is built on iambic stressed as basic units of meter/rhythm and speech; Japanese is syllabic, and not at all metric in the sense of iambs.

The point about lyrics serving the overall song, as one of its key elements, vs. a written poem being meant to stand alone, is a very important. (And one the songwriter cultists always elide or ignore.) A poem must work both as a spoken/performed piece and on the page. A song lyric is not required to work as a written poem—and most do not, even the lyrics to otherwise brilliant songs. (I think of some of Sarah McLachlan's songs, for example.) Very very few song lyrics actually work on the page, as read poems. That's the point that often gets elided or ignored.

Rachel Fox said...

I knew I meant to mention someone else...Gil Scott of my very favourite speaking and singing voices. We just listened to 'The Revolution will not be televised' with our very radical boiled eggs and soldiers ('what's a revolution, Mummy?'). Now - are those spoken lyrics or a poem? I'd have to say both...'The revolution will not go better with coke...' and many of the other lines have stayed in my head for years and years (first listened to them in the late 1980s though the track is from something like 1971). That is his most famous track but there are lovely, more obviously more melodic pieces too ('I think I'll call it morning', 'Lady Day and John Coltrane'..).

Many rappers and some poets talk of GSH as an influence (and I'm sure he has his own influences..many other poets and songwriters). He is a great writer, songwriter, singer...his life's been a bit of a shambles but you can't have everything. I saw him live once in Leeds (one of the few times he got through customs...). The real greats just ignore the boundaries and get on with using words however they see fit.I could listen to his voice pretty much forever.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that information on world languages, Art, the whole thing is as fascinating as it is confusing. And also for echoing my own thoughts of the point that songs are not required to be poems. It does seem like the transition from poem to song is a bit easier than the move from song to poem.

Rachel, I couldn't think who Gil Scott Heron was when you mentioned him but I found a copy of 'The Revolution will not be televised' on YouTube and I do know it. It's one of those odd pieces that's not really rap but I doubt we could say it's spoken lyrics if we define the word 'lyric' as words to be sung but that's the whole problem with definitions, they're restrictive. It's an effective piece and it fair took me back.

Art Durkee said...

Gil-Scott Heron's first heyday was in the early 1980s, when The Last Poets were also first becoming well-known. Both Heron and The Last Poets are considered to be forerunners and ancestors of hip-hop and rap. (I still prefer hip-hop and early rap from that era to what it has become, which in my opinion is just crap.) The whole "spoken word" movement (including those elements of it that have become dominated by rapper wannabes) is also descended from Heron and The Last Poets. There are a few other groups and artists from that era that were put of the creative ferment then, that have had a big influence. Remember, this was also when the first samplers were starting to appear (the cover article in the current issue of Computer Music magazine out of London is about sampling and its influence), and scratching was first becoming a common techniques for MCs to rap over; Herbie Hancock's instrumental "Rockit" was all over the charts; and breakdancing was starting to be big. (This era and these influences are the root of both rap AND of techno, BTW.) (One of the modern heirs of this thread is performance poet Sekou Sundiata.)

I regard Heron as a genius who crossed all those boundaries between words and music successfully. He did spoken word texts over music, but he also sang sections. He wrote the words, but he also played keyboards, and had a regular band. My favorite track of his remains "B Movie," which is still one of the more scathing attacks of the era on then-Pres. Reagan. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is a classic track, though. I'm glad people still know about it.

Thanks for all the interesting topics to discuss, of late.

Carrie Berry said...

I have also been enjoying these recent posts, but not feeling particularly like joining in at the moment. I would like to say that when Jim refers to the song Vincent he really means Suzanne. An easy mistake to make. ;¬)

Jim Murdoch said...

I found a site with the lyrics to 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' and, do you know what it reminded me of? A black 'Howl'.

And Carrie... smart fart.

Art Durkee said...

Hmn, thought so, but I let it go. Vincent was Don McLean.

kubrickspick said...

Hi. I enjoyed reading. Thanks

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Kubrick. Kind comments always appreciated.

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