Tag Archives: music

Between the Eclipses 3

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.

Silence rings

                        rings of sound 

                        surround the horizon  

                        rising, singing 

                        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

                        hold

                        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.”

*

Scream pageThe “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.

 

Kurt Schwitters at Zero Gravity

In another flashback, here’s an article I wrote for Musicworks magazine about writing The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems:

Kurt Schwitters at Zero Gravity

It was in 1974, reading Hans Richter’s book Dada: Art and Anti-Art, that I first learned about Kurt Schwitters, his provocative statement “The basis of poetry is not the word but the letter,” and the uproar he caused by whispering, whistling, whimpering, wailing the letter W. What really stuck in my memory, though, was the image of Schwitters walking down the street — any street, any time of day — picking up discarded bits of paper, lace, machine parts, can lids, whatever, for future use in a collage. His total devotion to the life of art and his appetite for every form of experience as material impressed me because I had already begun trying in many ways to push my writing beyond the boundaries of “literature” toward sound, performance and visual art.

A few months before, I had attended a performance at the University of Ottawa by Québécois sound poet Raoul Duguay. Very excited by the possibilities, I got hold of books by Duguay and bpNichol, some anthologies of concrete poetry, John Cage’s Silence, bill bissett’s book of chants, Medicine My Mouth’s on Fire, with its enclosed flimsy vinyl recording, Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology Technicians of the Sacred, and his magazine Alcheringa, which also enclosed a flimsy record of, among others, Jackson Mac Low’s “Stanzas for Iris Lezak.”

All these helped to fill the gaps in my education left by years of university study of “literature.” I realized that poetry originates in ritual and chant, but I only gradually found ways of bringing my own work back to that wellspring of energy. My first visual poem, “l’arrivée,” was a response to meeting a newborn in early ’74, and gradually, after reading about Schwitters, I noticed it was possible to “read,” that is, to chant that poem. So “l’arrivée” became my first sound poem too, and I performed it for the first time in Banff that August.

Several other attempts followed, but I was still working primarily in a publishing, not a performance, milieu. Though Richter’s book introduced me to Schwitters, I was more directly influenced to do new work at that time by Hans Arp’s and Max Ernst’s collaborations with the laws of chance and with the inherent formal principles in natural forces. I conceived of a series of new-genre explorations called “A Century of Inventions,” whose first four “decades” were Signs, Sounds, Chances, and Changes. But the visual pieces (“Signs”) were the only ones that readily got published; the decade of “Sounds” was ill-defined and poorly executed.

Unaccountably, although bpNichol later told me Kurt Schwitters was an early influence on him, my acquaintance with contemporary sound poetry didn’t, in the 70s, lead me back to Schwitters or any of the other pioneers of the genre. Only when I began working with the intermedia group First Draft in the 80s did I understand the importance of that early work by Schwitters. In his 1920 essay “Merz” and elsewhere, Schwitters set forth a program for gesamtkunstwerk, a fusion of all the arts, that sounds uncannily like the marriage of poetry, music, movement and visual art that First Draft was striving for and, a few times, seemed to achieve. I now think this an impractical goal but, as a goal, it has brought about interesting work from many quarters.

Not a sound-poetry group, First Draft created, among other works, what we called “wordmusic” through the collaboration of poet Susan McMaster and/or myself with composer Andrew McClure. Our compositions included musical parts for soprano, flute ’cello, chimes, even glass harmonica. At times, they incorporated visual art, costumes, movement, and stage lighting. But in their purest form they were musical works for speakers and spoken-voice choruses. Ultimately, calling our more elaborately staged performances “wordmusic theatre,” we employed professional actors under theatrical direction.

In mid-1984, exactly ten years after filing away the image of Kurt Schwitters howling his way down a street of undiscovered art treasures, I took down Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art again, for at least two reasons: 1) because I had often heard First Draft called a sound-poetry group, and I wanted to see what similarity, if any, there was between our work and that of Hugo Ball and his followers; and 2) I thought writing about Schwitters could give me a framework within which different kinds of writing and performance could co-exist. Sound poetry, visual work — art, poetry, performance — dramatic scenes, the kind of multi-voice pieces First Draft performed, even straight lyric and narrative poems: all could find a place in a book or a performance that spun on the axis of Kurt Schwitters.

We all create our own precursors. After performing wordmusic, what better precursor could I claim than the composer of the “Sonata for Primitive Sounds” (ur-sonate)? His life, after all, was mythic: it spanned the formative period of our world and touched the savage heart of twentieth-century history, the only myth everybody knows any more. Also, his life reflected those themes of exile and separation that, like it or not, are my themes, but with an absurdist humour and optimism. From the start, he was tearing apart newspapers, machines, language itself to make art. When history took his life and tore it apart, he made art with it. Right up to the end, he was beginning again. What novelist could resist that story? What sound poet would deprive himself of such a context for presenting his work?

While writing, I began to rehearse some of my pieces with First Draft. And of course, I read all I could find by and about Schwitters, especially John Elderfield’s book for New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Friedhelm Lach’s edition of the Literarische Werk, with its abundant appendixes in English, French and other languages. I also went to see the 1985 Schwitters retrospectives at MOMA and London’s Tate Gallery and to talk to people who knew him. While in England, I visited the sound poet Bob Cobbing, who happened to be rehearsing a performance of the Ursonate and played me the entire forty-minute recording of the work. That’s when I understood that you don’t need a narrative architecture to “contextualize” sound poetry. You can simply prolong the performance beyond novelty, beyond boredom and discomfort, beyond the ridiculous, until it lifts off and enters that zero-gravity state where words like up, down, this, that, you, me, myth, history, art, life lose their attraction for signifieds and float in a capsule of latency along with all potential. Afterward, you may or may not hand out parachutes. Whether you do or don’t is called your stance, but frankly, what do you propose to stand on?

About the same time, I received a letter from filmmaker Ed Ackerman who, having heard some of First Draft’s wordmusic on CBC radio, proposed that we collaborate on a film and explained that he made animated films entirely on an old Underwood typewriter. With my fondness for old typewriters, and a bit of Schwitters’s openness toward the new, I agreed, and before long we had made a brief excerpt of the Ursonate into the film Primiti Too Taa and sent it off to the 1986 San Francisco Poetry Film Festival. Primiti Too Taa has jitterbugged its way from film festival to film festival several times around the world since then and, reanimated on 70 mm, it may have found the ultimate context for performance/sound poetry — the IMAX theatre. Jüüüü Kaaaa?

.

Incidentally, I ought to clear up the misconception that I believe myself to be the reincarnation of Kurt Schwitters. I’ll say this only once: it isn’t true. It is ridiculous to suppose I think I am Kurt Schwitters. Nothing of the sort. For one thing, Schwitters died in 1948, while I, on the contrary, was born that year. Furthermore, Kurt Schwitters issued his first cry into this world in 1887, exactly a hundred years before I issued The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems. Only a German-speaker would think that calling them “Schwitters Poems” mean he wrote them. I wrote them. If they were his poems, of course I would call them “Schwitters’s Poems.”

Kurt Schwitters spent years as a middling art student in various colleges before discovering his style and naming it Merz. I, on the other hand, was a long-time literature student, neither distinguished nor undistinguished, and when I discovered my subject I didn’t have to name it because it already had a name — Schwitters.

Schwitters had one child, a son, who became a photographer. My own son looks like becoming a scientist; he owned a camera but took it apart and now it doesn’t work.

Schwitters, an artist, became famous for writing a book of poetry. A poet, I am best known for a film! Schwitters was tall, I am not. He was a performance artist, something I keep telling people I’m not. He made one of the first installations; I can’t even install a towel bar. He owned houses in Hanover, a provincial capital whose duke had long since departed to become King of England; I own a house in Ottawa, home in exile to the Dutch queen during the war. As Schwitters observed, the Dutch are born dadas; all Ottawa got was the tulips. Schwitters made a production number out of a sneeze; I just You see, there’s nothing to that story. I’m not Schwitters, not at all. I don’t even know the meaning of the word Merz.

– Colin Morton

(This article first appeared in Musicworks 44 in 1989.)

Dutch Futurismo:new CD of poetry and music

Poems from The Merzbook, my book on the artist Kurt Schwitters, join others by Picabia, Ball, Arp, and Tzara on the new CD Dutch Futurismo by the Hungarian ensemble Festival of Misfits.

“Enemy Alien” derives from the exiled German artist’s troubles in England during World War II, and incorporates a few phrases from his writing of the time. You can listen to it on Soundcloud.

Thanks to pianist Eva Polgar and her colleagues for giving my poems new life.