Thursday 2 November 2023

A True Account

A True Account, a book of poems, recently came out from The 87 Press, with cover art by the great Candace Hill-Montgomery. Here's the write-up:
A True Account collects works written between 2013 and 2020, published by a variety of small presses in the UK and the US. Here are variously refracted the student movement, austerity, general election, referendum, the crisis of 2020 or 2019 or any year you care to name; the Massacre of the Innocents, the housing question, the October Revolution in November; Sappho, Mingus, Storm Ophelia; Rukeyser, Rilke, Rodefer; the aesthetics of resistance, the insistence of history: luxury and voluptuousness, peace and pleasure, beauty and order, the questions that still remain unanswered and the problems that remain unsolved. “Wanting poetry to save my life, to shame my life, as LONG as the WORLD is WIDE, and as WIDE as the WORLD is LONG.”

“Lyrically gorgeous and real poetry. This book is a bright spot in a bleak time.” - Peter Gizzi 
You can get the book here, and I'll be launching the book in person in London at Cafe Oto on December 8th.

--Also out, a cassette release of me reading my 2014 long poem The Problem, The Questions, The Poem on Ben Hall's cassette label Ornette Coleman Fiend Club--available here

--Jazz poetry primer in The Wire.

--On Christian Wolff in Artforum. This piece came out just days before the disgraceful firing of AF's editor David Velasco over the publication of the 'Open Letter from the Art Community to Cultural Organizations' against the ongoing mass murder in Gaza, and the subsequent resignation of Zack Hatfield and Chloe Wyma, whose editorial guidance over the pieces I've published in Artforum over the past few years has been exemplary. An open letter of October 27th, criticizing the actions of AF's owners, Penske Media Corporation, can be found and signed here.


Meanwhile, in person, for those of you in or around Berlin, I'll be giving two talks in December, both at the Freie Universität: on Monday, December 4th I'll be giving a lecture on Amiri Baraka and the Advanced Workers (details here), and then the following Tuesday, 12th December, I'll be giving a seminar on my current project on free jazz, Survival Music (Room 319, John F Kennedy Institut for American Studies, Lansstraße 7-9, 14195 Berlin, 2pm-4pm). And this month, at the kind invitation of Dimitra Ioannou, I'll be giving a talk at the A Glimpse of Festival, critical institute for Arts and Politics, Politechniou 8, 104 33 Athens, Greece, on the weekend of November 25th/26th.

Monday 23 October 2023

"Moral Clarity"

A friend points out that there’s been a lot of talk going round in the past few weeks about “moral clarity”. We all know, or should, where that phrase comes from, and that in reality it’s part of a vast and ongoing campaign of distortion, dissimulation, disinformation and the defense of the wholesale murder of the Palestinian people. Ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing. To say that, to know that, that’s moral clarity.

Wednesday 6 September 2023

News of News of News of News

Some recent writing:

--On Krzysztof Penderecki for Bachtrack.

--On Don Cherry and Peter Brötzmann's work with children for the Don Cherry special in The Wire's September issue. (The issue also has reviews of a live performance by Edith Steyer's John Carter project, of the latest instalment in Wild Up's Julius Eastman project, and of Angel Bat Dawid's Requiem for Jazz and the latest in the Red Hot series, themed around Sun Ra's 'Nuclear War'; more reviews, of the A L'Arme Festival and of Klangraum Dusseldorf, in the October issue).

--Liner notes for The Art of Noticing, one of the CD releases recorded at Eddie Prevost's Bright Nowhere concerts last year.

--The Calvin Hernton Selected Poems is now in the world from Wesleyan UP, with the first review in from Publishers Weekly here.

Details of in-person and on-line launches to follow...

--Finally, I've updated my Soundcloud page for the first time in around a decade with some recordings from the past few years:

Sunday 2 July 2023

News of News of News

A short essay called ‘ “Key to a Savage Sideshow”: The Magazines of the Occult School of Boston’ up at Post-45 in a Little Magazines feature edited by Nick Sturm, focusing mainly on the one-shot Boston Newsletter assembled by Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, John Wieners, Stephen Jonas and Joe Dunn one Boston summer. The issue also contains some fantastic pieces including Iris Cushing's piece on the first issue of Umbra magazine. Great to see Umbra scholarship continuing to develop and Iris’s piece will be very useful for those who haven't managed to see a copy of the magazine itself.

Also Umbra-related, my review of the Lorenzo Thomas Collected edited by Aldon Nielsen and Laura Vrana is out from Tripwire--online and it will also be out in the next print edition. I wrote this a few years ago--pre-Covid--so it’s nice for it to finally be out, with many thanks to David and Caleb.

A longer essay, ‘ “The Arc of Struggle”: Poetry and Defeat in the Work of Sean Bonney’, is out in‘No Future: Poetry of the Current British Crisis’, a special issue of Études anglaises edited by Dan Katz.

And the Multiple Melodicas set from Cafe Oto earlier last month is up at Douglas Benford's Soundcloud page: Douglas, myself, Georgina Brett and Steve Beresford all playing multiple melodicas, multiply. Recording thanks to Billy Steiger.

Monday 5 June 2023

Kaija Saariaho (1952-2023)

Kaija Saariaho has passed away at the age of 70. Saariaho passed at the crest of a wave of public attention. Last month her work was celebrated in a BBC ‘Total Immersion’ weekend at the Barbican Centre, while not far away at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, her opera Innocence received its long-delayed UK premiere. (The 2021 Aix performance can be viewed in its entirety on Youtube). 

Innocence, on which I’ve been writing a separate piece, is an extraordinary work, exploring multi-lingual experience, the legacy of violence, and the seething contradictions of present-day Europe, in a music that never feels forced in its treatment of contemporary themes, a music of dramatic power and aural luminosity that consistently resists dramatic cliché. And perhaps it’s her operas that will stand out in the tributes to come: certainly, they brought her the kinds of attention rare for composers of new music, particularly ones who choose not to restrain or compromise their musical language. L’Amour de loin, Adriana Mater, the oratorio La Passion de Simone and Innocence are extraordinary works by any standard, condensing the lessons of her prior work, with its exploration of the varieties of orchestral electronic and instrumental colour, and adding the architectural question of music’s relation to the word. 

That question--the relation of music to word--is, perhaps, both the abiding formal question and the great theme of these works, as they ask how to bear witness, to give testimony, to express what corrodes or exceeds the bounds of expression, whether that’s through the lens of courtly love, in L’Amour, war, in Adriana and Simone, or the contemporary spectre of acts of mass violence Innocence. The way these works go about the process is far from grandiose: instead, Saariaho has invariably favoured smaller ensembles, chamber dramas of one or two--a trend bucked in fascinating and complex ways by the social webs and layerings of past and presence in Innocence--from which these bigger canvases can be woven. Again, both a formal and a thematic analogy suggests itself, as throughout her career, particularly in her orchestral music, small-scale relationships and details build up to huge, sprawling masses of sound, the parts darting back and forth between each other and between the whole. 

In any case, the Saariaho family’s decision not to reveal the details of the illness until after her passing has admirably kept the focus on her work, freed from the sometimes distorting traces of valedictory regard. For what’s clear is that the work she was producing almost until her death was not so-called ‘late work’. It was, to be sure, mature, achieved, contemplative, and all the other aspects one might aspect from late style, but so was all her music, from the beginning. This was not, in other words, a work of ruminative looking-backwards, of retrospective rumination or reckoning; or it was so only inasmuch as Saariaho was always concerned with the multiple valences of time, her music looking in all directions simultaneously, dissolving and suspending time while immersing us in its midst. Below is a review of the Total Immersion concert I wrote last month, posted here in tribute.

Kaija Saariaho ‘Total Immersion’ Concert
Barbican Centre, Sunday 7th May 2023
Anu Komsi, Anssi Karttunen, BCC SO/Sakari Oramo

For the final concert in a day of performances of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s work, the BBC Symphony Orchestra came together to play four orchestra pieces spanning three decades, offering readings of rare radiance and clarity. From 1989, Du Cristal, the earliest work on the programme, is one long sustained, not-quite climax: an extraordinary array of textures shimmering and hovering on a brink of controlled delirium. With notes piled up on top of one another to create dense layers, the orchestral sound is massive, sometimes overwhelming, yet at the same time it feels as if something is being contained: a seething mass, a great, explosive force constantly on the edge. This effect of suspended movement is emphasized by five percussionists on an array of overlapping tuned metal—glockenspiel, crotales, triangles, tubular bells, xylophone, vibraphone—and multiple, booming kettle drums, with a synthesizer, harp and piano acting as a kind of additional rhythm section. Yet, particularly when witnessed live, what stands out if Saariaho’s care for individual detail: the fortissimo trill of a piccolo sounding out over the whole orchestra, a miniature choir wailing clarinets, the whole work ending, magically, on held harmonics from a single cello. 

Twenty years on, the cello concerto Notes on Light is more conventional in its format, yet its effect still imparts a magical strangeness. With Anssi Karttunen the redoubtable soloist, over the five, run-on movements, the feel of the piece is pensively ecstatic or ecstatically pensive, the orchestra sympathetically twitching with or in alternation with the soloist who alternates motivic lines and ethereal harmonics. From a brief silence emerge held building chords gradually layered, gentle dissonances, underscored by repeating plangent piano chords and whispering cymbal washes. At times the characteristics of the cello writing seem to extend to the entire ensemble, the effect of downward turning pitch slides and bends, giving the effect of something winding down: a slackening pulse, a slowing heart rate, the gentle exhaling of breath. A work of gentle fluctuation, as opposed to the translucent massiveness of Du Cristal, the piece is once again alive with morphing organic colour and constantly shifting refracting texture, beams and waves and swells, a whole other world.

Written in 2020, Saarikoski Songs was the most recent work on the programme: it was here given its UK premiere by its commissioner, the extraordinary soprano Anu Komsi. The texts by Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski—Communist, bohemian, translator of both Joyce’s and Homer’s Ulysses—offer nature poetry shadowed by pantheistic assurance and the threat of destruction. It’s hard not to read their words as dire warnings of the ecological catastrophe or the threats of war in the contested borders of and beyond Europe (as a Finnish war child, Saarikoski was evacuated to Sweden). “The forest is an academy obliterated by barbarians”, writes Saarikoski in the first text, ‘The Face of Nature’, reversing the cliché of “nature red in tooth and claw” by which human governments project social destruction onto nature, thus justifying their own actions. Across the world the Amazon rainforest burns: wordless melismatic syllables reach for high vibrating notes, twittering, rhapsodizing or lamenting, the orchestra aswirl on sustained tremolo or a doubled motif, a woodblock tap or rustle of bells, low, sliding strings, an unexpectedly lush string chord, as the soprano momentarily becomes “the song of birds lost in the extinction”. The subsequent settings are sardonic (‘Everyone from now on will have their own’), tenuously rhapsodic (‘All of This’), bitingly tensile (‘Bird and Sanke in Me’), and finally raptly mysterious (‘Through the Mist’), closing out on a final series of wordless held soprano notes and a final glockenspiel note which seems to condense the entire work into a single, miniature chime.

For me, it’s the closing piece Circle Map, that, along with Du Cristal, is the real highlight here. Written for the largest ensemble configuration of the night, this 2012 work sets poems by Rumi in their Persian originals. It is not, however, a conventional song cycle in the manner of the Saariskoski songs. Rather, recordings of the poems by Arshia Cont were electronically treated by Saariaho and her husband, composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière: broadcast on speakers surrounding the audience, they are both integrated into the orchestral texture and stand outside like a kind of radiant alien object (think the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001). Once more we hear swirling harp, tuned percussion, motifs that rise and fall into hushed held chords stretched like thin wires; plangent brass underscored by low piano rumbles, the orchestra as a swooning, swooping, shimmering entity full of rich inward song. The treated voice is a deus ex machina, not the meditative swooping soloist of the previous works but instead coming as if from the outside with the thrill of the integrated unknown, as the orchestra accompanies the echoing pitch cadences of speech translated to simultaneous monody. A film is projected over the stage, showing a hand tracing out script overlaid with superimpositions of computer-generated abstracted calligraphy along with the subtitled text. Close one’s eyes, however and far richer inner worlds emerge, attesting to music’s capacity to alway be more than the visual, more than speech. As one of the poems puts it, “whatever circles comes from the centre”. And that could be a principle for Saariaho’s music as a whole, its swirling still points, animated suspensions, its glittering clarity and mesmeric power.

Monday 22 May 2023

News of News

Some recent writing:

--On So Much for Life, the new Mark Hyatt Selected Poems edited by Sam Ladkin and Luke Roberts, for The Poetry Foundation.

--On Elaine Mitchener's forthcoming performance of Peter Maxwell-Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King for The Wire here. A longer piece on Eight Songs and its contexts is brewing somewhere along the line.

And some upcoming gigs:

--Following a gig at waterintobeer last month, a second outing for Multiple Melodicas (me, Douglas Benford, Steve Beresford, Georgina Brett, Martin Hackett) at Cafe Oto on the afternoon of Sunday 4th June, along with a solo piano set by Steve Beresford and a duo set by me on piano and Tansy Spinks on violin. Details here

--Also planning another gig by G.U.E. (me, Jacken Elswyth, Laurel Uziell) on a bill with Tom Betteridge making what I believe is a live solo debut and Regan Bowering on electronics/objects/snare drum. This one will be at waterintobeer in Brockley on Tuesday 13th June, doors at 18:30. Tickets here.

We've been going through hours' worth of GUE recordings made over the past year or so so a release of some sort will be on the cards at some point soon.

And in other news...

--Following the launch reading with James Goodwin and Candace Hill last month, Howard Slater's review of Candace's Short Leash Kept On at Northern Review of Books here. (The book is available at the Materials website.)

--And there's also a nice review from Tom Allen of Present Continuous at LA Review of Books.

Finally, Materials will be relocating to Berlin in July, joining Materialien in Germany, which may involve some logistical shuffling and slower processing for orders. But expect more news the other side of the move...

Friday 19 May 2023

"The Subject of Emancipation": Trilce Translation Launch

May 6th 2023 was the day of the Coronation of Charles III, the latest frenzied manifestation of what Tom Nairn in The Enchanted Glass called Britain’s “national backwardnesss”. It also saw the launch of Will Rowe and Helen Dimos’s new translation (with glosses) of Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce, a work that in every resists the kinds of cultural spectacles which imagine that identity might cohere around fictions, figureheads, all the bathetic spectacle of nationalistic power. 

Trilce was written a hundred years ago last year, and Rowes’ and Dimos’ translation has been more than a decade in the making. In the basement of the Hundred Years Gallery in Hoxton, they, along with poet-translators Cristina Viti, Stephen Watts and Sacha Kahir alternated readings of the originals (in Spanish), the translations and glosses (in English), John Manson’s Scots translation, and poems by Amelia Rosselli, Elsa Morante and others in dialogue with the spirit and letter of Vallejo’s attempt, in Rowe’s words, to “crack Spanish open from the inside”. 

As this collective reading emphasized, Rowe and Dimos considered this translation of an already frequently-translated work a collective front, and the translation not as a definitive or fixed version, but in turn as something in some was unfinished and unfinishable. Dimos spoke at some length about the process of making the book. The project began as Rowe’s; after working on the project together for a few years, the two decided to formalize the co-writing and at that point everything was re-worked from the start, and most of the glosses were written fresh. The processes of rewriting and rebuilding are thus central to the work. In turn, the decision to include glosses emerged from the sense that translation in itself was not enough: that the investigation into the meanings and nuances and multiple possibilities of the original, and their sometimes-uneasy conversion into another language, created a kind of runoff or excess with a polyphonic relationship to the text. The large-format book thus prints the text in four columns: Vallejo’s Spanish and Rowe and Dimos’ English on one page, the glosses facing on the right-hand side, with space in a further, blank column, for the reader’s own annotations and notes. 

In this spirit, the collective discussion that followed went in multiple directions, that combination of “wildness and rigour” that Viti—whose translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s extraordinary film script-cum essay-cum poem La Rabbia recently appeared from Tenement Press—argued is essential to the project of translation. Vallejo wants to split Spanish open from within, commented Stephen Watts. Picking up on this point, Rowe noted the motivation for such a split: the realization of imperial dominance contained within the dominant language and its classed and erased exclusion and erasure of indigenous cultures. The relation of Scots to English in Manson’s translations suggests—a language that relates but that also parodies, distorts, twists. In turn, there’s a classed element—as Sacha Kahir suggested, the “language of the poor” always has to change, to hide or disguise itself in relation to the surveillance of dominant culture, to keep on the move. Language changes, is something built upon or built over—what Kahir called a “burial mound”. 

For Vallejo, it’s not just a case of cracking Spanish open, Rowe continued. Rather, it’s also about including within that South American Spanish a European modernism or late Romanticism, such as the work of Verlaine, which is in turn cracked open. In parodying, mocking and tearing apart from the European-aspiration characteristic of the colonial regimes who spread out of Europe with imperial zeal centuries before, Vallejo manifests a resistance to European aspiration on the part of the colonial bourgeoisies, their spectacles of gaudy cod-European magnificence, cathedrals, opera houses, music and language, growing up literally alongside the genocidal labour of mines and other extractivist sites as Eduardo Galeano so brilliantly dissected in Open Veins of Latin America

Neither the language of bureaucrats nor bourgeois and petty-bourgeois faux-European sophisticates, Vallejo’s is the voices of Spanish children and adolescents, of vernacular or neologistic linguistic practices of everyday resistance and survival. At the same time, it also lays claim to the cultural superiority generally associated with Europe. It’s also the language of philosophy, of Feuerbach and Hegel, so often associated with Europe, but here reclaimed for those outside Europe. Moving from a provincial university to the capital city, Vallejo was aware of these conditions of imbalance and dominance, where, in Rowe’s words, “the people who do philosophy are European”. Yet in the second poem of Trilce, Rowe suggested, Vallejo seeks to prove that one can do philosophy in poetry just as well as in analytic philosophy, out-doing Wittgenstein. 

And as well as fission, of splitting and rupture, there are moments of fusion or synthesis—or a struggle towards such movements, even if they often and perhaps of necessity fail. It’s not enough, as some of Vallejo’s contemporaneous, Dada-influenced South American modernist peers had, to break things apart and leave them in fragments. Rather, one has to struggle with the experience of synthesis, of forging new forms to replace the old. This is a destruction that attempts to engender synthesis, one often expressed in the work in the figure of numbers. In some of the poems read on the night, that could be heard in the figure of the ticking of a clock or tolling of time on a bell, as in the third poem. 

In more complex fashion, it came through too in the twenty-third, Vallejo’s great elegy for his mother and her role as bread-giver, as breadwinner, handing her children time, in the form of food--that which enables one to live, and thus, to inhabit time. Here, the figure of a crumb stuck in the throat gestures towards the impossible reclamation or reparation with a gendered legacy built into the very structure of language, into the very act of opening or closing the thought to expel language or to take in food. Such moments challenge the parcelling out of experience into the “common sense” of language and number that, Vallejo suggests, reinforces the order of things. Vallejo wrote a number of the poems from prison: prison, write Rowe and Dimos in their gloss on the second poem (“Tiempo Tiempo”)--the poem where, Rowe claimed, Vallejo out-does Wittgenstein--
punctuates time with its physical order; it creates a time that’s equally subdivided and empty. Language administers it. 

Whether one is in actual prison or not, prison-time is a static present, an empty time excised from the continuity of time’s movement. But the time it takes to say the word time continues. The juxtaposition of these two times, sun-glare of nausea, is beat out by the poem’s metronomic repetition of words in twos and fours. Vallejo was imprisoned on remand for 112 days.
As Rowe’s and Dimos’ glosses suggest, in Trilce, with its fractured scenes of the taking in of food, of hunger, of the parcelling out of time in church bells or prison-hours, it’s precisely what doesn’t add up or balance that constitutes possibility, perhaps even revolutionary possibility. Broken words, language stretched beyond itself; the crumb in the throat, sums that don’t add up: all these exceeds the bureaucratic-book balancing of completed sums, balanced fractions or equations. In that excess, that remainder, lies both the unassimilable and unspeakable process of trauma and the resistance to totalizing incorporation—linguistic, numerical, national, imperial—where resistance resides, where, as Rowe writes in his essay ‘The Political in Trilce’, “the intimate formation of the subject of emancipation is fought out.”

Picking up on Rowe’s mention of Wittgenstein, Viti suggested that Vallejo’s use of numbers, a crucial element of this work in particular, had to do with a relation of mathematics and indeterminacy closer to that of pure maths. A number of big name thinkers have tried to construct a political philosophy from some form of maths in the past few decades, with results that may or may not be of import, but this line of argument, it feels, is one of a different sort: an argument made by poets about and from and in poetry. But it’s precisely here where lies its materialism, its resistance to abstraction, one which can stretch across time and be activated at different moments in time, not so much as an index of changing times but as the ringing Benjamian alarm clock that refutes the onward logic of a mendacious “progress” that is nothing of the sort. What’s tried out in experimental language emerges from the social world but is worked out outside it: yet from it, it reveals the faults in that social world and provides another basis that still maintains possibility today. As Rowe put it, Vallejo’s Spanish is a horizon to which we may still look. 

What of the famously neologistic title, came a question from the audience? Is this a manifestation of this new form of Spanish? Running through some of the theses—a fusion of “triste” and “dolce”, a joke about the vernacular phrase for the cost of the book—Rowe suggested that the word was between a synthesis, a splitting, and something else entirely. Or, as Dimos put it, “Trilce” is not so much a word with a defined meaning or unmeaning. Rather, she noted, “Trilce is this book”: at once object and process, something standing outside. Cracking open the fiction of language as monoculture, Dimos continues, the book layers up a multiplicity of voices, a layered chorus, in which the speech of kids and adolescents is not separable from that of adults, of modernism and philosophy from the street and from politics: they are all heard at once. 

In the movement from Vallejo’s Spanish to the Englishes of Dimos and Rowe’s translation—or, indeed, the Englishes found in the translations of the tri-lingual Amelia Rosselli, Viti’s translations of Elsa Morante, and the other texts heard tonight—as Viti put it, the task is to create “fault-lines”. As Vallejo disrupted Spanish in 1922, in 2023, translation and poetry today might and must seek to “disrupt our English from within”—a task all the more vital in the face of renewed nationalist spectacles and a border-focused racism dissected in a poem of his own that Kahir read near the start of the evening, organised around the refrain “no, but where are you really from?” 

No homeland but language. (Miłosz) No homeland in language. Glosses, glossolalia, exegesis. Ghosts, grammar, a language that explodes the fiction and function of borders, that brings the citadel down from within.