Experimental poet Anne Waldman (courtesy of Other Minds)
Last night at the ODC Theatre, Other Minds launched its Festival 23 with a program simply entitled Gala Opening. The title of this year’s festival, which will run through this coming Saturday, is Sound Poetry: The Wages of Syntax. As described in the program book, the opening program offered “a showcase of legendary figures from the world of sound poetry including Japp Blonk, Clark Coolidge, Alvin Curran, Michael McClure, Enzo Minarelli, Aram Saroyan, and Anne Waldman.”
Other Minds calls itself “a festival of unexpected new music;" and sound poetry could not be more representative of that goal. As the name suggests, this is poetry that must be performed, because the sounds of the utterances themselves are fundamental to what makes those utterances poetry. Many practitioners see sound poetry as a fruitful hybrid of jazz and recitation, and some of them are skilled enough to pursue the domain of free improvisation.
From that perspective, however, it was clear that a dark cloud hovered over last night’s performance. This past Thursday saw the death of jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, a sad day that was preceded by almost a month by the death of Buell Neidlinger, who played bass for Taylor beginning in 1955 and continuing through the Sixties. This was a time when many leading jazz players were making major departures from the traditions of their training, and Taylor’s departures went about as far out as one might imagine and then just kept going.
Coolidge cited the contributions of of both Taylor and Neidlinger before launching into his joint project with Curran, the world premiere performance of “Just About Out Of Nowhere,” a piece whose very name reflected a kinship with the jazz world. (Curran played the opening phrase of Johnny Green’s “Out of Nowhere;” its Wikipedia page provides a good account of how many jazz players have been involved with the song.) Similarly, performing with accompaniment by Karen Stackpole, who specializes in playing a large number of gongs, each with its own unique structure reflecting its cultural origins, Waldman opened her set with “Gravitational Acousmatic” as a memorial to Taylor.
Sadly, neither of these artists really homed in on what made Taylor go as far out as he did. Thus, the Coolidge-Curran set never showed much attention to variation in dynamic level, let alone any sense that there was some intense forward drive to both the music/text and how it was being “sounded.” Waldman, on the other hand, never advanced much further than name-dropping, with John Cage’s name being dropped as well as Taylor’s.
This made for a somewhat bizarre reflection of the world from which Waldman’s poems emerged. In both cases there was little to account for the achievements of the men being evoked or, for that matter, the personal nature of the men themselves. Cage, in particular, came across as an icon to be worshipped; and, given how much of an iconoclast he was, that is probably the last thing he would have wanted. Furthermore, when she was not idolizing Taylor and Cage, Waldman was flooding the listener with five-dollar nouns, suggesting that she had been eavesdropping on a cocktail party of Nobel laureates.
Fortunately, the other artists of the evening made much better cases for why sound poetry deserved to be recognized through a music festival. Blonk’s opening selection (whose title was not included in the program sheet … I think) was a perfect example of how one could shape sounds that never advanced beyond the phonemic level into a musical form with a solid sense of recapitulation, if not tonality. Blonk called his second selection a “bebop sound poem;” and, without ever explicitly mentioning Taylor, he came closest to Taylor’s capacity for delivering hard-driving outbursts without ever letting go of an intense approach to control. Blonk apologetically told the audience that his “Dutch bebop” should not be confused with American jazz; but he was the one artist of the evening that successfully honored Taylor’s legacy.
Minarelli opened the evening with selections that involved performing live against recorded sounds. Here, again, one could appreciate the extent to which his phonemes could be subjected to the same treatment as pitch classes. On the other hand the truly musical performance came from the variety of roaring sounds that would penetrate the verbal utterances of the poems in McClure’s Ghost Tantras collection. His capacity for roaring led to his making a recording at the lion enclosure of the San Francisco Zoo, in which the lion’s themselves became the backup for his own roaring.
The remaining selection on the program was Aram Saroyan’s “Crickets.” The title of the piece is the only word that is uttered. After several repetitions that allowed the listeners to get the point, he encouraged audience participation. This began as a relatively sincere commitment to unison, but that synchronization quickly dissolved. The space became filled with many voices all uttering the same word at different times in different rhythms. Within a matter of minutes, the entire space had become a field filled with metaphorical crickets!