A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Steve Lacy, 1977                                                        Gérard Rouy©2008

Although he composed several hundred songs, I believe the tendency is not to think of Steve Lacy as a songwriter per se, at least not in the sense of a Cole Porter or Jerome Kern. His reputation among most jazz fans was and continues to be first and foremost as a soprano saxophonist – a skillful, inquisitive instrumentalist committed to the principle and practice of improvisation. The nature of change, of surprise, of self-discovery, and of the communal aspect of improvisational interaction among musicians no doubt inspired and sustained him, and the exploratory necessity of improvisation was at the heart of his music-making. But as a contemplative and multifaceted individual, he understood that improvisation was one of many means to an end. In fact, as he remarked in a 1991 panel discussion at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, Colorado, “I prefer the word “play”…it’s too long a word, improvisation, and there is no time – it’s gone already. What you do is gone. It goes back to the time you were a child playing with blocks. What we do is play with [musical] elements, given elements, and we play with them the way a child plays with a set of blocks. It’s no different really, except that we sort of know what we’re doing.”

There’s a delicious complexity to that seemingly simple statement, which implies several layers of intent and activity at work in Lacy’s view of playing music. There is the childlike abandon and freedom in the meaning of play itself, aligned with the awareness that playing inevitably leads to creating something. The acknowledgement that the thing created is transitory, however, is an adult concern. The comparison of the improvising musician with the child playing with blocks is a strikingly significant, albeit possibly subconscious, metaphor for his own primary method of musical construction (one that he shared with a number of artists he admired, from Stravinsky to Schwitters). The suggestion that improvisation occurs outside of Time emphasizes the creative engagement with a process, rather than a result, and that even the freedom to make something from nothing begins with “given elements.”  And there is his choice of language, his word play, that delights in distinguishing between what words mean and their other, evocative, qualities, such as the length (and implied density) of the word “improvisation,”  and the contradictory pun he offers, tongue-in-cheek, that improvisers “sort of” know what they’re doing.

What I’m getting at is that Lacy was a craftsman, someone who valued the way things were put together, even if this was done spontaneously, and who therefore identified himself as a composer – onewho exhibited, as abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell described his own obsession, “a sensuous interest in his materials.” And his attraction, his commitment, to song, the setting of words to music, shows that he had a poet’s understanding of the sensual qualities of words just as artists appreciate the tactile qualities of canvas, paint, and brushes, and musicians have a feel for the duration, density, tone, timbre, and color of sounds. To put a complicated concept into a nutshell, poetry differs from other types of writing in that it doesn’t attempt a direct line of communication that depends solely upon the meaning of words, but instead offers a multilayered experience that includes visual imagery, ambiguous or abstracted ideas, and, especially, music, resulting from the poet’s choice of words and manner of organization. From the time (in Europe, somewhere in the Middle Ages; other cultures had their own timetables) when poets stopped singing melodic verses and focused on the sonorities of the words themselves, every poet worth his or her salt has emphasized a personal approach to musical form in their writing by acutely gauging and manipulating the rhythmic, tonal, coloristic, and timbral qualities of the words into sound patterns of simple, subtle, obvious, or complex effects that reflect their own eye and ear. Without a musical awareness and composing of the language, you don’t have poetry. Likewise, attentive readers need to train their ear to hear the specialized intonation of words we use everyday in lines of poetry such as, for example, Marianne Moore’s “Odd oracles of cool official sarcasm” or W.H. Auden’s description of ships seen from a distance as they “diverge on urgent voluntary errands” – melodic patterns worthy of a Dolphy and Tristano, respectively.

Which would seem to mean that, if a poem of necessity creates its own music, any attempt to set the words of a poem to a separately conceived melody and rhythm is going to distort, if not destroy, the poem’s inherent music. (Bear in mind, this is different from lyrics which are composed to fit into and function as a song.) Songwriters have responded to this in various ways over the centuries. Some don’t give a hoot about the integrity of the poem’s music, and damage the shape (as well as the rhythmic and intonational character) of the poem by stretching syllables melismatically over several notes, repeating words or even entire lines to fit a new melodic contour, and erasing the carefully crafted relationship between vowel and consonant sounds (known as assonance and alliteration) by overpowering them with vocal effects. The rationale for these transformations has been that the song is a new entity that uses the poem, but is not limited by it, and that the poem is now improved by the composer’s elaborations. This has been, amazingly, common practice over time, but to my mind it’s akin to repainting the Mona Lisa with acrylic colors in order to improve it and make it more palatable for modern eyes. The contrasting, “tempered” approach among composers has been to respect the poem’s structure while attempting to find compatible pitches and rhythms that – again, in their view – enhance the meaning and intensify the musical experience. The success of such a venture of course depends upon the style and degree of “enhancement” (with the tacit understanding that the song will nevertheless be a different experience than the poem left to its own devices).

As a songwriter, Lacy falls into the latter category, but what is noteworthy is precisely the style and degree of alteration that the poem undergoes in his transformational process. As I suggested, Lacy is not considered a songwriter like Porter or Kern in part because he doesn’t examine the familiar nuances of a popular sensibility, nor for that matter is he an exaggerated scene-painter of dramatic and lyric poems like Schubert or Mahler. One of the things that made him special was the breadth of texts that he set, from a wealth of poets, famous and obscure, spanning several centuries, various countries and languages, to nondescript material from various sources – newspapers, letters and postcards, artist’s journals, and miscellaneous prose – which he recognized as “found poetry.” To all of this he brought an analytic attention to detail and a poet’s love of language – witness his own punning, penetrating one-word titles, such as Clinkers, Blinks, Tips, Clangs, Capers, Stabs, and Trickles, which themselves display a poetic discipline of concision, sound, and wit.

There’s a fascinating and revealing example of Lacy’s method of working with a poem in its own particulars which can be heard as part of the Naropa panel discussion I mentioned above. On this occasion (which may be heard in its entirety online from the Naropa Poetics Audio Archive, at www.archive.org/clark_coolidge_robert_creeley_and_steve_91PO66), poets Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Nathaniel Mackey, and Clark Coolidge joined with Lacy to talk about how jazz influenced and affected their differing poetries. About an hour into the discussion, Lacy steps forward to illustrate how he sets a text to music, using a poem which Clark Coolidge wrote (one of a long sequence of poems, apparently unpublished to date, entitled To The Cold Heart, which were a reaction to a new edition in English of the Chinese poet Han Shan’s Cold Mountain poems). Here’s the poem:

I used to hear
The birds as my others
I once thought
The flowers aimed and fired
But now the yellow clouds
Are choked with green waters
And I dial the phone simply
For the tears inside

Lacy prefaced the exercise by saying, “I have the intention of setting it to music some day. In order to do that I have to mull it over. Mulling takes a long time. I can’t mull it over that fast. But I can begin to sketch it out here…something I don’t normally do…and touch it saxophonically.” He asks the poet to read the poem, once, then “One more time, one more time. That’s good enough that it doesn’t even need music, however, it’s good enough so that it could be set to music. I like to tackle it line by line and try to zero in on what’s happening, pitch-wise, as a possibility.”

Line by line actually means phrase by phrase, and it’s apparent how Lacy’s characteristic musical phrases, the melodic building blocks of his instrumental pieces, have been derived from speech and breath units – he admitted as much in an interview with Jason Weiss concerning his collaboration with cut-up writer Brion Gysin (published in Steve Lacy: Conversations, Duke U. Press), where he said “…jazz is speech rhythms. It’s like parlando [spoken] music. And it all comes from phraseology anyway, it’s just a language.” Here, he has Coolidge read the first line of the poem several times, repeats it himself emphasizing each syllable, “I used to hear, I used to hear,” starts a few tentative whispered pitches on the saxophone, then stops and says “Well, you can all hear that…dah dah tah dah, dah dah tah dah – the music’s in there.” He plays stronger notes that articulate the four-beat rhythm with slightly off-kilter intervals, then moves to the second line.

“The birds as my others…you see, you can all hear it, it’s there, the music is there, you can hear it,” assuming we can hear what he hears, a match of pitch to syllable. Barely audible breath tones wind through the soprano, as if trying to catch the actual bird song as well as its poetic representation; he asks Coolidge to repeat the line again and mutters “others, others.” As he responds with a motif that slowly expands upon the rhythm of the second line, he attaches it to the opening phrase and begins to let it flow, then stops and concedes, “Well, I’d have to play around with that a lot. The next line…I once thought, I once thought.…” He weighs the words, sounds them in his own voice, and stops again, summarizing, “That’s the way I work, I latch onto the poet’s delivery of the thing, or if he’s not available or dead or something I have to imagine it and stay with the spirit of the poem and not betray that. But I also have to find something that fits my own style and my own ear. The music is there, you can hear it, but it takes a little time. So I’d blow it if I went on. It’s too fragile…it’s very, very, very, very subtle and fragile and elusive. To try setting words to music is the most ticklish operation, really. It’s fun.”

As Allen Ginsberg tries to describe the process he just heard, “Theoretically, basically it’s correlating the pitch of the voice as it bends up and down…” Lacy interrupts, “It’s catching it, seizing it, snatching it.…” Ginsberg continues, “…and then simultaneously the delays, the ritards, the cadence of the speech as well as the pitch…” Lacy counters, “It’s mysterious, I can’t explain it.” Ginsberg perceptively points out, “Your body English, the way you were moving your body to ‘I once thought,’ you picked up on his syncopation.”

While accurately tracing the accents, emphasis, and contour of the poetic line with which he works, the music of Lacy’s “own style and …ear” is based on concise patterns of intervals shaped as motifs, garlanded into longer forms, a method of construction that reinforces Marianne Moore’s belief that “Without pauses / the phrases / lack lyric / force.” All of his songs were composed specifically for Irene Aebi’s voice, and her dark, husky tone and straightforward declarative manner – a kind of extended sprechstimme, which by her own description is meant to “stylize emotion” – add tension and weight to their non-demonstrative, non-improvisatory nature. (Ironically, Aebi was involved with poetry before she met Lacy, and was at one time a student of the ill-fated, metaphysical poet Jack Spicer during the post-Beat, pre-hippie days of the San Francisco Renaissance.) For Lacy’s many songs to secure a place in the active repertory, however, new singers are needed to interpret them, but who is best suited – in tone and temperament – to do so? Jazz singers? Classical vocalists? In either case, it should be someone who can hear with Lacy’s ears, commit to the song and, in the words of their composer, “Stand behind it and believe it.”

Art Lange©2008

2008 Vision Festival

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