Friday, February 17, 2012

The "primal cry" in poetry and song

I'm singing settings of Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stevenson poetry by the British composers Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams this Sunday, February 19, at 2:30 pm at Grandin Ct. Baptist Church (2660 Brambleton Ave, Roanoke). Rather than a series of program notes, what follows is a winding philosophical & literary essay inspired by one of the poetic themes in Hardy's lyrical poetry.

A through-line is a theme recurring in a work of art, particularly in the media of literature, drama and film. It has been likened to the spine of the work. It has musical equivalents (or cousins) in Berlioz’s obsessive idée fixe and the “fate” motives of composers from Beethoven to Wagner and beyond.

I believe one of the through-lines enlivening and unifying a large body of various artistic media is the primal cry. The uninhibited “yawp” Robin Williams demonstrates to his timid English students in the film Dead Poets Society is the primal cry. It is present in the emotionally fervent poetry of Walt Whitman and it is the theme of Allen Ginsberg’s infamous Whitmanian ode, Howl. The primal cry is uttered in many an operatic mad scene and orchestral cadenza, especially when the raw emotion of the human voice is evoked by a solo violin or cello. The primal cry has soul and permeates the blues. It is heard at the wailing wall and embodied in archetypal images of the weeping mother. The unmistakable quality of lament and the cry of unmitigated joy are both expressions of this primal outburst.

It wells up from the pit of the stomach, and its raw, uncensored ventilation turns heads when it sounds in public. It upsets decorum. My graduate school mentor Joseph Flummerfelt was the first teacher and artist to articulate it in my life. He often spoke of “the gathering at the core” of our being “which allows us to connect to the primal outcry – that longing which lives within each of us.” (Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt, Donald Nally. Scarecrow, 2010).

Perhaps the primary reason our civilization requires artistic expression for its health and survival is to experience that connection with the core of being. The expression of that primordial longing within each of us triggers what the original Greek dramatists referred to as catharsis. The Jungian psychotherapist and author James Hollis describes tragedy as a “summons to consciousness.” The primal cry is one cathartic means of summoning those deepest emotions of human life from the recessive depths into the light.

The catharsis of emotion was at the fore of the Romantic movement across the arts. It is hardly surprising that the reconnection to classical ideals of ancient myth and drama was of primary import, especially in literature and theater.

As the industrial revolution hastened modernization throughout the 19th century, Janus-faced artists emerged and interpreted the changing times. In such a context, the primal cry might sound as a call to embrace the progress of both science and the humanities while warning against a reactionary tendency to cling to obsolete concepts and beliefs. One such Janus-faced visionary was the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who summarized one of the aesthetic challenges of the day:

Artistic effort always pays heavily for finding its tragedies in the forced adaptation of human instincts to rusty and irksome moulds that do not fit them.

One of the remarkable aspects of Hardy’s career was his equal success as both novelist and poet. Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the Durbervilles and Jude the Obscure changed the landscape of the 19th century English novel and were as controversial as they were influential. Hardy’s unflinching look at the hypocrisy of traditional social mores, especially within and around the church, and his frank assessment of adult relationships, including infidelity and “family planning” made him many enemies in the so-called polite society of his day.

Upon hearing a copy of his novel Jude the Obscure had been burnt by a bishop, he wryly commented such an act was done “in despair at not being able to burn me.”

The nagging criticism and incessant censuring contributed to one of the greatest writers of fiction in the English language abandoning the craft mid-career and turning to the more abstract medium of verse. His poetry is equal to his fiction, while picking up the through-line of the novels and distilling their essence through meter and rhyme.

The Complete Poems edition in my library has 947 entries. The 489th is The Choirmaster’s Burial, a poem that inspired in Benjamin Britten one of his best songs, an art song many consider the single finest in the canon. The poem takes the form of a romantic ballad, a story or tale in miniature. The crux of Hardy’s lyric scene is the death of a beloved music director, the parish choirmaster. The story is told by an old tenor from the choir who bears a resemblance to Hardy’s own grandfather. Britten wrote the song for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, reinforcing the personal resonances of the poem. After the “tenor man” shares the choirmaster’s wish to have a favorite Psalm tune played at his funeral, the Vicar dissembles for reasons of thrift, expedience and convenience, if not unspoken spite. Britten’s music hurries along at this point in the narration:

Hence, that afternoon,
Though never knew he
That his wish could not be,
To get through it faster
They buried the master
Without any tune.

The poem closes with a scene of visionary rapture that silences the parsimonious cleric by elevating the generous-spirited musician, a metaphor for the artist and society both witty and profound.

At the dead of next night
The vicar looked out,
There struck on his ken
Thronged roundabout,
Where the frost was graying
The headstoned grass,
A band all in white
Like the saints in church-glass,
Singing and playing
The ancient stave
By the choirmaster’s grave.

The poem’s personnel remind me of a wonderful novella by the contemporary British novelist Hilary Mantel. Fludd tells the story of a visionary curate who upsets a local village in desperate need of transformation. In a line that could be an updated version of Hardy, Sister Philomena muses on an example of dusty, unexamined tradition and quips, “Christ died to free us from the burden of our sin, but he never, so far as she could see, lifted a finger to free us from our stupidity.”

Another through-line across the romantic period and into the modern era is the nexus of innocence and experience. William Blake’s poetry is a beacon of English verse from any period. The “Songs of Innocence and Experience” could also be understood as a dialectic of intuition and cognition, spirit and intellect, or feeling and thought. The pragmatic and business-minded vicar in Hardy’s ballad represents the so-called wisdom of experience, while the ever-romantic artist represents the innocence of pure feeling. The romantic poets looked back to the Greek world where the gods lived and moved among humankind. Their “innocent” project can be read as an attempt to prevent encroaching modernism from siphoning off mystery through political, scientific or industrial “experience.” Books have been written about the subject. For starters I commend Julian Jaynes’ seminal The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and a contemporary response to it, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, by Iain McGilchrist.

Hardy and Britten both weave these threads of innocence and experience throughout their works, and one poem in particular unites our theme with a culminating primal cry. Before Life and After is the closing song in Britten’s cycle of Hardy poems, which the composer called Winter Words. The poem’s setting is an imaginary landscape:

A TIME there was – as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth’s testimonies tell-
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.

Hardy’s tongue-in-cheek irony is present, and this poet’s verse in general offers example upon example of the intelligence required for an appreciation of genuine wit. Another through-line uniting various media, from the arts to psychology to religion, is the quest for authenticity. Poets like Hardy, wrongly accused of pessimism, cynicism and / or atheism, frequently employ the sharp edge of humor to cut through the complexes engendered by consciousness. Laughter = medicine.

Hardy continues to diagnose the modern condition and our predilection for complicating matters and magnifying problems by evoking an idyllic
time of pure innocence. In one of his books about modern neuroses, James Hollis evokes the freedom of childhood through James Agee’s A Death in the Family (and the source of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915).

I, too, should like to recover “the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Hollis also quotes Nietzsche’s wonderful paradox of an aphorism:
We are the abyss and the tightrope across the abyss.

It is “out of the deep” from which the primal cry resounds, and it is into the depths of our soul’s abyss we must plunge if we are to “prize depth over abundance, humility over arrogance, wisdom over knowledge, growth over comfort, and meaning over peace of mind” (What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, James Hollis).

Hardy’s double-edged sword of truth concludes with a question Britten builds to a passionate outburst. Knowing the tenor voice as intimately as he did, the rising line leading to “How long, how long?” exploits the voice's plangent qualities by oscillating between a high f-sharp and g, two notes astride the voice’s breaking point. It is a poignant articulation of the primal cry in an art form traditionally prized for its taste and decorum.

Hardy’s question could be addressed to any expression of our dialectical through-line. It represents the artist’s impatience for the authentic. Hollis cites Dostoyevsky as one of the first moderns to expose these same ills, and though their voices could hardly be more distinct, the Victorian poet and the soulful Russian both cry against “trivializing popular culture and mindless excitation of the senses.” Both are Janus-faced visionaries inscribing with “prophetic horror” the fear that any of us have become the “programmed person so many of the systems did produce, systems that created anonymity, depersonalization, robotic responses and conditioned values.”

One of my favorite modern howlers is Thomas Bernhard. His wit is caustic and I must fasten my armor to read him. But no one dissects the relationship between the artist and modern society with more raw energy than Bernhard. Old Masters “exposes the pretensions and aspirations of humanity in a novel at once pessimistic and strangely exhilarating.” (University of Chicago). The anti-hero protagonist Reger is a depressed musicologist who muses on genius in a Viennese museum.

One’s mind has to be a searching mind, a mind searching for mistakes, for the mistakes of humanity…A good mind is a mind that searches for the mistakes of humanity and an exceptional mind is a mind which finds these mistakes of humanity, and a genius’s mind is a mind which, having found these mistakes, points them out and with all the means at its disposal shows up these mistakes.

Showing up those mistakes can be dangerous, as Hardy and Dostoyevsky, Blake and Britten all knew. How long before a few more wake up from the mindless slumber of modern convenience, yawp the soul’s ever-present hunger for truth, and sing round the choirmaster’s grave with the dead poets, mad artists and exiled angels?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

L2P: Metempsychosis and Mythology

My latest “Listening to Paintings” presentation at the Taubman Museum of Art was centered on “Metempsychosis and Mythology.” In addition to talking about the connections between Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey, I talked about the “transmigration of souls” in mythology and spiritual traditions from Hinduism to Christianity. Had I more time, I would have discussed John Adams' haunting 9/11 memorial commission, an award-winning choral and orchestral elegy entitled On the Transmigration of Souls.

Metempsychosis is the name of a wonderfully eclectic new exhibit curated by Ray Kass (founder of the Mountain Lake workshop and colleague of John Cage & Merce Cunningham, among many and various experimental artists). The TMA’s gallery guide for this vibrant show frames the first appearance of the word in Joyce’s Ulysses.

She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by not-handle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
-Met him what? he asked.
-Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
-Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
-Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

Where Homer’s epic is the prototypical adventure tale, one of the original stories differentiating the era of humanity from the age of the titans or the reign of the Olympian gods, Joyce’s epic is an anti-heroic tale of a day in the life of the city of Dublin. Leopold Bloom is a stand-in for Odysseus (Ulysses) and his wife Molly is a not-quite Penelope. The “artist as a young man” Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus, the son.

Odysseus journeys to the Underworld and experiences a sort of metempsychosis in the Odyssey, communing with the ghosts of his mother and fallen heroes from the Trojan war, Agamemnon and Achilles. His exchange with the latter is one of the signature moments in Homer, in which the bard articulates the resilient power of the human spirit. When Odysseus flatters Achilles as “a god…You rule the dead with might,” Achilles will have none of the ingratiating, disingenuous, falsely positive rhetoric from his still-living comrade. Stanley Lombardo’s translation updates the ancient Greek timbre:

“Don’t try to sell me on death, Odysseus.
I’d rather be a hired hand back up on earth,
Slaving away for some poor dirt farmer,
Than lord it over all these withered dead.”

The Orpheus myth is the originating story of the power of music. As Opera Roanoke is celebrating a season of “Troubadours and Gypsies” with productions of Il Trovatore and Carmen, it is worth connecting the labyrinthine thread back to the first troubadour and bard, the singer-songwriter poet blessed by the Sun god Apollo. The music of Orpheus charmed the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, the flowers and trees, and won him the love of Eurydice. When she died from a snakebite, Orpheus intoxicated Hades himself and won safe passage – metempsychosis – in and out of the Underworld. Orpheus was given a condition, a task and was charged with leaving hell trusting Eurydice followed him. Were he to break faith and look back, she would be forever lost. Being human (and myth existing more for psychological depth and metaphysical insight than mere “entertainment”), Orpheus broke faith and suffered the consequences. Out of his sorrow, and through the transformative power of inspiration and the diligence of discipline, Orpheus became the prototypical artist. My first musical selection was an a cappella rendition of an aria from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, one of opera’s first landmarks from 1607. Vi ricorda o boschi ombrosi is a joyous ritornello addressing the objects of Orpheus’ inspiration from the natural world to Eurydice herself.

I talked a bit about shifting ideas of transformation as Western spirituality evolved across the dawning of the modern era. Victorian era poets like Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman addressed the disconnect between the modernity of the industrial revolution and the “eternal return” of the seasons, the cycles of nature, and human nature. Hardy’s voice is particularly apt at merging a Darwinian awareness of science and our understanding of the world with the ebb and flow of life, love and faith. The English composer Gerald Finzi (a favorite of mine, and one under-sung on this side of the pond) was drawn to Hardy’s verse, and his setting of Transformations was the next selection.

Portion of this yew
Is a man my grandsire knew,
Bosomed here at its foot:
This branch may be his wife,
A ruddy human life
Now turned to a green shoot.

These grasses must be made
Of her who often prayed,
Last century, for repose;
And the fair girl long ago
Whom I often tried to know
May be entering this rose.

So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air,
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!

Hardy’s “religion” is difficult to define, his skepticism (variously misnamed as pessimism, aetheism or nihilism) complicated by the lyrical rapture of poems like Transformations, which appear indebted to Eastern philosophies of impermanence, and metempsychosis experienced via reincarnation.

This led to an appreciation of the gallery in which we stood, where categories and boundaries are blurred to the point of irrelevance, received opinions and accepted notions obliterated to non-existence. Painting, sculpture, photography, craft, found art and a liberating fusion of any of the above abound in Metempsychosis. Canvases as dense with layers of meaning as with paint hang opposite minimalist abstractions. An imaginary dialogue exists between the hyper-kinetic, pitched-up volume of emotional expressionism and the “what you see is what you see” (Frank Stella) simplicity of minimalism’s essentialness.

We moved to the other side of the gallery’s wall where Newman and co. hang, and I read the following maximum-minimum excerpt from Ulysses. “Aquacity” is one of Joyce’s rhapsodic lists full of the imagination, intellect and wit which make his writing visionary and essential, even as the writer remains more infamous than read. The following excerpt from Ulysses is “about” Bloom preparing to boil water on his stove.

What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier,
returning to the range, admire?

Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in
seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator's
projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific
exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface
particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence
of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic
quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides:
its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar
icecaps, arctic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance:
its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its
indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the region
below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability
of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and
hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the
most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its
persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and
downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and
volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns:
its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones:
its vehicular ramifications in continental lakecontained streams and
confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic
currents, gulfstream, north and south equatorial courses: its violence in
seaquakes, waterspouts, Artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies,
freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers,
cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its
vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs and
latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and
exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate,
saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its
composition, two constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part
of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead
Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate
dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst
and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and
paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow,

Facing a wall of minimalist canvases, adjacent to several Asian-influenced examples of calligraphy, I paid homage to John Cage (whose Watercolors will be on display in another Ray Kass-curated exhibition in 2013) and improvised chant to “poetry” some observers have “found” in the briefings and speeches of former Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who visited Roanoke earlier this week, on a book tour for his new memoir, Known and Unknown.

His memoir is also the title of his most popular “poem.” Facing James De La Vega’s provocative mural of graffiti art & stencil images, slogans & quotations (both religious and political), I made the disclaimer my Donald Rumsfeld excerpt was not a political statement. I then acknowledged the statement of such a disclaimer was a political statement, and all of the partisans and non-partisans in the room laughed with me.

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Donald Rumsfeld: Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

I moved in front of the De La Vega mural and invited Amy to join me for an a cappella rendition of a duet from Bach’s Easter Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden. The celebration of the resurrection of Christ and the sacrament of the Eucharist (variously called Communion, the Paschal Feast or The Lord’s Supper) are the Christian equivalents of metempsychosis, and no composer in Western music is more concerned with spiritual transformation than Johann Sebastian Bach. The translation of the duet verse reads:

So we celebrate the high festival / with joy of heart and delight,
which the Lord radiates upon us,/ He himself is the sun,
that through the splendor of his grace / illuminates our hearts completely,
the night of sin has disappeared. / Hallelujah!

For the close of the presentation, we moved across the hall to the American gallery and paid attention to a couple of the impressionist nocturnes on the far wall. Blakelock’s Solitude and Steichen’s Midnight Strollers straddle either side of impressionism, and these two widely different nightscapes are among my favorite paintings in the Taubman. I talked about Steichen's connection to the poet E.E. Cummings, and the painter's work as a photographer blurring lines between portraiture and fashion photographer (he photographed Mrs E.E. Cummings for Vogue magazine).

I shared another Joyce excerpt (entitled “Nightscape” in an anthology of The Poems in Verse and Prose of James Joyce, Jeffares and Kennelly, eds.) Another occasion in Ulysses where our eponym occurs finds Bloom annoyed by a winged creature of the night.

Ba. What is that flying about? Swallow? Bat probably. Thinks I’m a tree, so blind. Have birds no smell? Metempsychosis. They believed you could be changed into a tree from grief. Weeping willow. Ba. There he goes. Funny little beggar. Wonder where he lives. Belfry up there. Very likely. Hanging by his heels in the odour of sanctity. Bell scared him out, I suppose. Mass seems to be over.

I then shared Britten’s setting of the “Old Irish Melody” of Thomas Moore (a great grand uncle of Joyce, poetically speaking). The soulful nocturnal folksong is subtitled Molly’s song, yet another link in the chain connecting to Joyce and our theme.

AT the mid hour of night, when stars are weeping, I fly
To the lone vale we loved, when life shone warm in thine eye;
And I think oft, if spirits can steal from the regions of air
To revisit past scenes of delight, thou wilt come to me there,
And tell me our love is remember'd even in the sky.
Then I sing the wild song it once was rapture to hear,
When our voices commingling breathed like one on the ear;
And as Echo far off through the vale my sad orison rolls,
I think, O my love! 'tis thy voice from the Kingdom of Souls
Faintly answering still the notes that once were so dear.

Standing in front of Norman Rockwell’s witty painting within a painting, Framed, we mused on the wry portraits in the background of Rockwell’s canvas, who appear to be focused on the security guard carrying an empty frame through a gallery. The foreground features a terra cotta classical sculpture of a lithe beauty, perhaps a siren or nymph. So it was in the free spirit of interpretive discovery Amy joined me for a Thomas Morley madrigal which marked my Roanoke debut as a counter-tenor. Our companions in the gallery seemed as enchanted as they were entertained by the uncanny blending that occurs when a male countertenor sings in duet with a soprano.

Shakespeare's (and Monteverdi's) contemporary, Morley was a troubadour himself, composing lyrics and writing the music to accompany them:

Sweet nymph, come to thy lover.
Lo here, alone, our loves we may discover,
Where the sweet nightingale with wanton glows,
Hark! her love too discloses.

One of Joyce’s critics aptly observed Ulysses “gains by contrast.” Transformation requires such artistic processes. And transformation is essential. Just ask Orpheus.