Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Strange Sun

I've been thinking just now about something I value in a lot of art: a certain quality of dreaminess, of blurring. Something which can approach vagueness, but, in its more succesful forms, exists on the cusp of known and unknown, the ineffable and the expressable. In poetry, the region of "border language" that Jonathan Wordsworth talks about in his ancestor William's poetry; the 'visionary' elements in so many great poets - Walt Whitman's "whispers of heavenly death," William Blake's holding of infinity in the palm of his hand...In visual art, the gorgeous light-drenched paintings of Turner; his descendants, the Impressionists, of course - Monet's late work especially; and their descendants, abstract art - paintings by Arshile Gorky and early Kandinsky, before he settled for a stricter geometric, shape-based approach (resonant and beautiful thought that is). In music, the lyrical pastoral of Delius and Vaughan-Williams; the mysterious beauty of Ravel and, even more so, Debussy; the extremely subtle control over texture in the work of the great avant-garde composer Giacinto Scelsi; and, in a similar manner, the eerie and beautiful choral work by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, 'Stimmung'. Those moments in collectively, freely improvised music when all the instruments merge together, mesh in detail and texture so that you're not quite sure who's making which sound - such moments were described by the usual pretty taciturn and down-to-earth Derek Bailey, as "magical." (AMM, any ensemble with John Butcher in it...) The general quality of a lot of Marion Brown's music: when he takes elements of the keyboard-rich sound found on early Miles Davis' fusion - all those twinkling electric piano melodies and chordal textues - to build something that's soothingly lovely, static and hovering ('Sweet Earth Flying'); or, with different instrumentation, when he conjures up the wonderful, hazy, later-summer, small-town feel of a piece like 'Karintha' from 'Geechee Reccollections'; or when he presents a challengily indeterminate avant-garde soundscape on 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun': music which seems to be half-asleep, yet is crafted with subtly shifting, delicate improvisational care. This dreamy quality is captured very well on the recent release by indie band His Name is Alive, 'Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown', where airy drifting introductions give way to lyrical saxophone lead lines, with every note carefully placed, then sudden bursts of free-jazz guitar noise.

This impulse, call it what you will, is also what's behind, or what I hope's behind, the atmosphere, at least, of this poem: there are other elements to it, of course, which I have typed up in some detail for myself, but I won't go into them in that same level of detail here, as I don't want to prescribe any particular reading of the poem, nor do I want to make it seem better than it is! It's a sketch, little more. Very briefly, it's an attempt to convey the experience of seeing the sun come out again after a brief but heavy spring or summer shower, and the moment, or moments, when its fuzzy light (obscured by cloudy remnants of moisture/vapour in the air, glinting off the freshly-fallen raindrops) breaks down the edges of physical objects (trees, rocks, fences) into a weird, dreamy, unified whole. Look at this painting by Turner and you'll see what I mean.

Turner's legendary 'Norham Castle, Sunrise' - not, as far I know, a depiction of sun after rain, but with a similar effect.


strange sun, after rain,
poking through moisture,
glowing, muffled, dribbling over
raindrops, melting edges of the
plain, the hard-edged
clouds, dark woods covering
hills like shrouds, and
all is one again.
strange sun, has become
earth water air, all one.

Gacinto Scelsi: a biography and information about his music from Classical Net.
A couple of websites with information about Stockhausen's Stimmung.
His Name is Alive's 'Sweet Earth Flower' can be downloaded from emusic. The page also contains Thom Jurke's excellent, thorough review, originally posted on All Music Guide.
Michael Ardaiolo has written another wonderful review of the same album.
Arshile Gorky's painting The Liver is the Cock's Comb

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