Posts Tagged “music”

Awhile back, I heard a well-regarded poet read her words so woefully on the PBS ‘News Hour’ that I truly could not follow the thread of meaning — the delivery was wooden, and so very artifical.   In response, I wrote this:

The Music in Language
           by Judith Lang Zaimont
           [ (c) copyright 2009 ]

He squawks, he shrieks,
he pounds the tonic accents with such force
      that I, as listener,
      shiver from the assault of passion.

She, a renowned poet,
delivers in so mundane a monotone
       that meaning is lost in waves
       of falling intonation, arbitrarily
       marking the end of every line
               — her delivery, so leached of contrast
                   that all I, a listener,
                   can glean
                  is what she telegraphs:
       This writer’s great detachment from the stuff of words.

Why, over and over
                do we, as listeners,
                suffer a newscaster’s dreary delivery
                in one of just two modes,
                         polar opposites
                        “perky” or “solemn” ? –
No shades of variant meaning
no middle ground.

Why do we, as passengers,
                puzzle through flight attendants’
                irksome unreasoned stress on all
                the small, connective, throwaway words?
Why not stress “life jacket”, “seat belts” ?
They’re important phrases
                whose high freight of meaning
                demands stress at highest pitch.

Actors know.
Actors know the secret of the music in language.

Pacing – let’s have a sliver of silence
               before the keyword –
               a half-beat of nothing.
Color — from shout to whispered syllable
              (perhaps a whisper delayed).
Tempo — a stutter, a torrent, a mechanistic drone.
Add in Pitch to shed needle spots
              right where meaning demands it .
These devices grant message to our delivery.

Music is in all these – and through music
              thus
              meaning.

Yes, we compose our thoughts.
Why not, then ,
              like great maestros channeling a tonal army,
              why not compose our saying of them?

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Composers In Mysteries

Step past those tormented, fictional Wagner aspirants in bible-length novels — and for today let’s also set aside Thomas Mann. I’m a mystery nut, and I relish the present-day novels of Sara Paretsky, a mystery master who threads music into almost everything she writes. And in more than one of her books, the composers themselves show up.

Paretsky’s protagonist is V. I. Warshawski (Victoria Iphigenia – Vic for short), a Chicago PI who’s obstinate, cunning, intuitive, a quick thinker, and a general pain in the neck to many of her associates but who sticks with it, thinking through every case even as she hares around the state until the mystery in solved, no matter the bruises or bullet wounds that come her way. The daughter of a singer (mom) and a police detective, Vic keeps a piano in her apartment and often breaks into snatches of aria. (She’s also an expert basketball player and very accurate with a handgun.) Two of Vic’s close friends, both doctors, are Holocaust survivors who support Chicago’s symphony and chamber music scene, so Vic gets to a concert from time to time.

In one Paretsky short story, a composer of the distant past turns out to be an ancestor of Vic’s. And in the layered novel I’m now reading, Body Work, one character is a bassist in both jazz and early music groups, so lyrics by the trobairitz Maria de Ventadorn turn up.

But the most memorable composer appearance is in an earlier Paretsky book where one of the doctor’s sons (a cellist) comes to town with his girlfriend, Israeli composer and piano prodigy Or Nevitzky, whose new chamber piece is premiered and described in detail. — I have to believe Nevitzky stands in for Shulamit Ran, whose bio is virtually the same as the fictional character’s, and who has long been associated with music in Chicago.

It means a lot to come across a composer – someone who does what I do: who worries away at the problem at hand, never letting go until the solution is clear – in a genre book where the genre connotes “action”. Composers often don’t move when we do our thing; we can sit quiet and in place for hour after hour. And we might never be as tormented, as picturesque, as Holmes with his cocaine and dolorous violin, when we’re thinking things out. But we do hang in there until the solution is clear — just like Vic.

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I’ve been following the Bravo TV  reality series, “Work of Art: The Next Great Artist”  ( fifth episode this week).   It tracks  a group  of  young-ish  artists, most of whom  have already   been exhibited ,  and  assigns  them a fresh project each week  to be conceived and completed  in about  1.5 days.    

    The completed works  are  then displayed  in a private gallery showing followed by a critiqued from  a panel  of  judges ( a core or regulars, plus  one  fresh prominent figure per week;   one week it was Andres Serrano.)   The projects range from utilitarian-but-arty  (design a book cover for a classic novel re-issue)  to  almost-unspecified  ( “do something outrageous”),  and at times  the artists  receive their assignments  by lot,  with no say as to  the subject agreeing with their own affinities ( or preferred medium).

 Although  it’s  the  usual  winnowing-out  design typical of such programs – and   I don’t at all care  who gets  tapped as eventual  winner –  I’d pinpoint  the same  two interesting  elements within each   hour-long segment :

  •  The very different  processes each  of the artists  follows  in      interpreting  the assigned  project.   These are profiled in some detail – surprise!  — and follow  the  gradual  development  of each new work.  This   manages to take  up a big slice  of  the program, some  20+  minutes.  

        It’s exhilarating to see cameras  paying attention to  a working-out  that stems from  labor which is  primarily  ‘head-work’ .     And  rare.

•  A refrain in the judges’  comments,  present virtually every week:    that  the works  they find  successful  do  *in some respect*  provide  for  viewers to respond  to the piece – and  actively.    ( For example,  they very much admired  works  in which the artist incorporated a mirror,  or  sign-in boards  to register comment, or  placed  him/herself actually  physically into the piece ; etc. )    

       Of course the judges  want  the artist’s   individual  personality  to be expressed in the  piece – but  beyond that,  and  far  from an auteur context where a viewer is only meant to “receive” an utterly  complete document -  the judges want the  art to  invite  the viewer  to respond, so that the work is ‘incomplete’  unless and until someone reacts to it in a way  that  registers to other viewers.  ( This  forested  tree  demands the  listening ear  be there !  so  its fall  can  be  heard.) 

 There’s  plenty of opinion flying about throughout  the episode  — in addition to the judges,  the artists  themselves comment  liberally on one another’s  work  throughout the show.    If  you pay no mind to the trumped-up  personality  conflicts  and  the  bland  or fatuous criticism  ( or the commercials),  the  show  can  be worth screening. 

         The level  of  the  works  — particularly  those by  three of the competitors  still ‘alive’ – is  certainly  professional.    And  the prize is  $100,000.  plus  a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.     Sarah Jessica Parker  is  one of the program originators.

               – Would that composers could reap the same  on-camera attention for our head-scratching  hours…!

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