Another look back at Ottawa arts in the Eighties, now venturing into multimedia and intermedia works:
In the fall of 1982, Susan McMaster invited me to join First Draft, which met at a local restaurant to share and discuss current work by a diverse group of artists, musicians and writers interested in creating collaborative works. Key members were Susan’s brother Andrew McClure, a composer and the group’s creative catalyst, artist Claude Dupuis, Peter Thomas, a writer then involved with the amateur theatre group SRO, singer Paula Quick, and pianist Michael Assad. Soon to join the group were flutist David Parsons, artist Roberta Huebener and her musician husband Alrick, my artist friend Carol English and her writer partner Andrew Coward (by then one of the organizers of the Tree reading series). When I joined, First Draft was planning its “second annual group show,” an inter-media performance at a local theatre, and in short order I was invited to take part. I was given the tenor part, between Susan and Andrew, in the performance-poetry trios they had recently published as Pass This Way Again with the Coach House off-shoot Underwhich Editions. And I rehearsed an action-packed recitation of “Poem Without Shame,” which had just appeared as the first broadsheet from my Ouroboros imprint. A second broadsheet, “Seven Poems” by Susan McMaster, with art by Claude Dupuis, came out in time to be sold at the First Draft show. The performance enjoyed a sold-out two-night run that February at Theatre 2000 in the Byward Market area – the last show at that closing theatre – and the energy it generated carried over through the winter and spring, as a quartet of us – Andrew, Susan, David Parsons and I – gave a series of performances in Toronto, Saskatoon and the Banff Centre. Again, what I wrote in the 1980s brings back some of the creative ferment that arose from First Draft’s weekly meetings and frequent rehearsals and performances. What follows is a sketch of what we were doing in 1983.
Looking Backward: At the Still Point of the Turning World
(from The Scream: First Draft, The third annual group show, Ouroboros, 1984)
For its Second Annual Group Show, First Draft enlisted the aid of some of its friends – classical and jazz musicians and a voice chorus — to create an evening of music, poetry, and theatre. This “variety show” was successful, but left both audiences and participants uncertain about just what First Draft is. Over the next few months a core group of members concentrated on building a small, cohesive group of creator-performers who, combining their work in various media, would have its own identity. All wanted to bridge the arbitrary boundaries between the art forms, and were convinced that there was much to learn and a special kind of energy generated from collaboration with artists in other media. Of course, to write a piece of music is a very complex thing, but to collaborate
is more complex still. And just as there are many ways to write a poem, there are many ways to collaborate. What follows is a vastly oversimplified summary of one of them.
June 1983: Wednesday night at the RR tavern, First Draft calling for seconds. The spring shows all post-mortemed, the group looks forward again. Cast: Andrew McClure, Susan McMaster, Colin Morton, David Parsons, Peter Thomas.
– I feel as though we’re poised on the verge of something, but it’s hard to know which way it will go.
– That’s it! That’s what our next piece should be about, should be like… Think of it this way. When you throw a ball up in the air, there’s a point in its arc when it isn’t moving. The force of the throw is balanced by gravity and just for a second it is still, poised on the verge.
– All its kinetic energy is turned to potential energy.
– What you’re talking about, isn’t it, is the moment of decision, the moment before decision, that holds in it all possible futures.
– The point of greatest tension, just before it’s released and channelled into action.
– The second before orgasm.
– All right, but words like that can be too explicit. Saying it directly releases the tension, and it’s the tension itself we want to capture. We should work from that idea, as we each understand it, and translate the concept into music, poetry or whatever.
– Okay. Let’s think about it and see what develops in the next week or two.
A week or two later:
-You’ve written a poem? Let’s see it.
– It’s only words, really. I’m not sure it leads anywhere.
Quaking, lightening, storming
the world hangs by the thread of a nerve
it spins in a water drop
arcing through light (etc. etc.)
– This is a good, chant-like beginning. What I’d like you to do, thoug – Music needs plenty of time and repetition, so could you write another stanza or two distilling these ideas in a kind of refrain?
– I can try. That’d be a departure, wouldn’t it? The poets writing to fit the musical ideas, rather than the composers taking ready-made poems — like librettos — and setting them.
– It’s more like real collaboration — building the piece together, from first draft up.
– Actually, our earliest collective pieces weren’t true collaborations in this sense. The first pieces we did, or that Andrew and Sue did — the performance poetry — came about because Andrew wanted to use spoken voice, and instead of taking a poem by Shakespeare or Eliot he looked over Sue’s poetry.
– And the ones I chose were her older poems. They were simpler, for one thing, and they expressed a coherent whole, whereas her new work is still moving toward something that hasn’t been fully defined yet.
– When Colin joined the group, too, it was one of his older poems, published in book, that Andrew chose to set to music first. So although it’s their collective work, they didn’t work out the idea together.
– The mandala piece — Pass this Way Again — was more of a true collaboration. Sue and Andrew had worked together enough by then, and intensely enough, that they were able to develop the poem together — Sue was able to exploit the musical potential of layering voices, and to use a sound-grammar, rather than the ordinary syntax of linear poems.
– And of course Claude was involved in that, creating those large mandala pieces that we moved around the stage in the Second Annual Show.
– But there again, the mandalas — the original paintings — are earlier works of Claude’s. He developed the theatrical idea with Sue and Andrew — making the image change over time, as music and poetry move through time —
– But it still follows the pattern. An artist or writer gets involved with First Draft because there is something in his or her previous work that clicks with what the group is doing.
– Colin’s visual and sound poems, for instance, and David’s musical pieces based on literary texts.
– By now, though, we should understand each other well enough — and our ways of working — to develop something from the concept.
– This new piece will be the test of that.
– Let’s get busy, then, and prove it can be done.
While the poets respond to the concept directly, intuitively, the musicians devote their attention to the structure of the work as a whole. They define it as a ten-to-twelve minute piece which follows the classic a, b, al form of development, beginning with a theme which, through development, is transformed into something beyond itself.
More time is devoted to ways of achieving the desired sounds. The musicians play flute and cello, but the poets, the other creator-performers, will be required to make musical sounds too. That means building instruments that they, with their limited musical training, can play. At first, a water gong is considered — a gong that is struck then immersed in water, causing the pitch to drop and creating an eerie sound. The group is excited, too, about the visual impact of stage lights shining through the water. But common sense prevails. The water gong would be a large, cumbersome piece of equipment capable of only a limited range of sound. Instead, chimes are made of copper plumbing pipe. National Research Centre scientists advise on the relationship of pipe length to pitch. Andrew, the instrument-maker, finds that if hung by threads in pre-established rows, the chimes can be set in motion and will continue to make patterned sounds for minutes at a time.
July by now:
– More words? You poets are fast.
The knife before it falls – Blade of light
The stone before it breaks – Earth calm
The brass before the stroke – Grave light
The pool before the wind – Leaf or palm
The glass before it shatters – Ring of shell (etc.)
– Of course these are only lines. There’s no sense of form or development in them. We’re counting on you musicians for that.
– Fair enough. Of course your lines are very different from the other ones we had, but that’s all right, we’ll want to move forward by contrast.
– And the vocabulary is not all that different either. Here’s what I’ve written of the refrainyou asked for.
rings of sound
surround the horizon
drops of sound
burst on the surface of time (etc.)
– That was written with the water gong in mind, of course –
– That’s all right. It goes just as well with the glass harmonica I’ve decided to build.
-What the hell is a glass harmonica?
-Well, you know how you can make a humming sound by running a wet finger around the rim of a wineglass?
– Oh, you’re joking.
– No, listen. The pitch you get from the glass varies with the depth of the wine, or the water, in the glass. Also the thickness of the glass, its shape and so on, but chiefly the depth of the water. I’ve been trying them out in stores. So if we get, say, twelve wineglasses and fix them to a sounding board, then we can make a twelve-tone row.
– Sure, and use coloured water with stage lights and –
-And of course, we don’t have to stick to the regular notes of the piano scale. We coulduse, for example, all whole tones, or any exotic scale we choose.
– I’d really have to hear it –
– Sure, but imagine, this eerie sound builds up, builds up –
– Then we really go punk and smash all the glasses!
– Don’t you dare! The cheapest ones I can get are five dollars each.
Over the next two months, a triple set of chimes is built. Two sets of wineglasses tuned with water are cemented to boards in patterns so they can be rubbed by thumb and middle finger, up to four at a time by each player. Eerie interstellar sounds result that complement and amplify the atonal harmonies of flute and cello. Rehearsals go forward page by page as the score is written, argued out and rewritten. Amid doubt, confusion and a desire to revise yet again, the tension rises. One hour before the first performance, the group walks through the piece, emphasizing tone and dynamics.
– It starts with a crash of the chimes. Frantic voices. Shout your words out, the order doesn’t matter. Gradually fade to whispers as you reach your instruments and the flute begins its long crescendo. As the cello joins in, the poem begins, strong, deliberate.
Quaking, lightening, storming…
– Then, when the instruments hold on the top note, the voices turn lyrical, expressive.
Dancing inside the inside…
– Be sure to make your whispers audible.
– Next comes the heavily accented part. Give it lots of energy.
In-the fluid-kick-of-cell-in the hook-of-claw
– As flute and cello die away, the voices turn lyrical, whispering. Now the glass bells begin, ringing gently. All five voices end in a whisper.
The wings before they lift
four roaring tons of atmosphere.
– Chimes. Let them almost die away. Then the light, breathless chant.
Silence rings, rings of sound.
– Go quickly now, to contrast with the following section. Then chimes again, glasses struck with wooden mallets, imitating the chimes.
To the point of—
the edge of—
This slow section is creating suspense, anticipation.
– Now crash of chimes! All five voices together, very fast and loud, but still lyrical.
At the height of, at the height of,
is this, here now, at the height of.
– Don’t miss the dynamics, from pianissimo on here now to double forte on the point of.
– From here on everything slows, and yet builds up, becomes more intense. The flute and cello duet. Don’t worry if it’s not in your score, you won’t need it. Wait for the solo spoken voice. Now the glass harmonicas hum, whine, alternating with glass bells.
For an instant, no shatter, no death.
– Cello solo builds tension further, along with the regular pattern of bells. Something’s got to happen, the audience can feel it. The glasses hum and whine, stretching out this high-pitched moment.
– Now that single line from the Eliot poem: at the still point of the turning world… Hold the A-glass till the flute takes over the note. Now, joy! Explosion, acceleration!
Water falls upwards, bursts into crystal,
birds, light, wing into blue!
– Bells, flute, crash in over.
“Pretentious” – Jacob Siskind, Ottawa Citizen
End of October, SAW Gallery, Ottawa:
At the final crash the chimes fall off their stand, but it doesn’t matter. The performers look at each other and grin. The air is still vibrating. There is no silence before the applause. In spite of everything, because of everything, the piece actually works.
A week later, after another performance at Carleton University, First Draft receives two typed pages of comments from an Ottawa composer. “I think you are nibbling at the edges of something, not just more edges… You are ‘at the point of, on the edge of, at the beginning of’ something new.”
The “something new” that First Draft produced in the follow year was a book; more precisely, it was a “performing book” billed as the group’s “third annual group show” – The Scream. The book, published through my little press Ouroboros, was in large part the brainchild of Claude Dupuis, who designed each page, filling even the margin with notes, drawings, flip-books and collages. I typeset galleys onto a nine-inch floppy disk on an AES typesetting computer in the National Press Building. The First Draft poets and composers contributed work, permitting Claude to present them in the context of his own art and that of Carol English. The group also collaborated on a performance piece “How to Scream” that featured yogic “tension positions” like Not Breathing, The Hang-up and The Mad Dash. And the whole thing was printed, under Claude’s watchful eye, by Glen Cheriton’s Commoner’s Press on Rideau Street. The artist’s book that resulted was an intense collaborative act that generated a lot of animated discussion at First Draft’s weekly meetings. Through it all, stage performances of music and poetry continued, mainly through the scaled-down group of Andrew McClure, Susan McMaster, David Parsons and myself. When the National Library published one of my sound poems in a CD collection of Canadian poetry, it was taken from a First Draft tape and attributed to First Draft.
For the fourth and last part of “Between the Eclipses” go here.