Monday, January 26, 2009

among the English (Zukofsky in Sussex)

[Harry Gilonis listening, Jeff Twitchell-Waas speaking]

The first thing the conference-organizer-doctoral-candidate Richard Parker said to me when he met me in Gatwick last Thursday was (in a touching London accent) "We've got some proper English weather for you." Yeah, as in pissing with rain, bone-crampingly cold, & breathtakingly windy. What I saw of Brighton thru weather-slitted eyes was lovely tho. And the University of Sussex's Centre for Modernist Studies's seminar & performance on & of Louis Zukofsky's "A"-24 the next day was an invigorating, exciting event – one of those intellectual & emotional rechargings I seem to need more & more often as dotage approaches.

First things first, however: while "The Meeting House" at Sussex is a lovely name for the ecumenical chapel on campus, there was very little redolent of 18th-century Quakerism in the very, very unlovely, very mod-early-70s-University-architecture of the building itself; the thing's a bit of a cross between a concrete beehive and a canted brick liberty hat, set off with a rather pitiful little moat, all of three or four inches deep. There was however, to my delight, a rather snazzy original oil of the dissenter Lodowicke Muggleton – you might recognize him from EP Thompson's Witness Against the Beast – hanging forlornly on the otherwise anonymous wall. 

The papers were uniformly interesting; Tim Woods putting "A"-24 & Cid Corman into conjunction; Jeff Hilson speculating on how to read the thing (ending with a lovely account of facing down the score while managing his 8-month-old's spitup bout); Jeff Twitchell-Waas providing all manner of connections, & Harry Gilonis suggesting the work has more in common with Cage than Handel (or so I take him to imply).

And then the performance(s). The evening began with some fiddling, Sarah-Jane Barnes playing Gerhard Münch's arrangement of Clément Janequin's "Chant des Oiseaux" (Pound's Canto 75), taking us all back to the lawn of St Elizabeths in 1954, where Paul Z. played the piece for the old poet. I'd never heard the Chant before (& even if I could read music, doubt if I could make much of the microscopically shrunken score in the New Directions Cantos); but it was an enchanting piece, all bird-song and pizzicati. Then she rendered what "A"-19 calls "the Chaconne," i.e. the chaconne from Bach's Partita in D Minor (#2) – a piece which famously provides the framework for "A"-13. She played beautifully, tho I confess I'd listened to the movement twice on the iPod on the flight over, in PZ's own rendering, & therefore found myself wincing at the perhaps over-free vibrato.

[Francesca Beasley, Ken Edwards, Sean Bonney, Daniel Kane]

"A"-24 was rendered by a crack team of poets: Ken Edwards, publisher of Reality Street Editions, read the "Drama"; Francesca Beasley, resplendent in silver lamé and brightly verdant hair, read "Story"; Sean Bonney read "Poem"; and Daniel Kane lent the performance a welcome New York accent reading "Thought." Ken was the anchor of the performance, dead on time thruout and wonderfully expressive, & the readers did a lovely job of modulating their voices to the instructions of the texts as to volume & dynamics. Sean was the man to watch, however, rocking back & forth alternately to the rhythms of the harpsichord and the other readers, & delivering his lines in a sonorous Hullensian accent (did Andrew Marvell, MP Hull, speak like that? I like to think so...).

Kerry Yong played the Händel harpsichord pieces beautifully, & my only complaint about the performance – if I were to have a complaint, which I don't – is that he was perhaps paying too much attention to the musical score alone, rather than the interaction of the music & the voices. So that while the readers remained "together" pretty much perfectly thruout, the harpsichord had an unfortunate tendency to run away from them, thundering on thru the piece at hand, & a couple of times coming to a finish a page & a half before the voices had caught up with him. [Update: in a comment below, Ken points out that Kerry shouldn't be blamed, as it was literally impossible to hear the voices from the harpsichord.]

But I'm not complaining. It was an exhilarating evening, tho seemingly a bit exhausting for everyone involved. The kind of evening that calls for a more or less epic pub-crawl. (Epic for me, that is – for the natives, it seems that this sort of thing is pretty much par for the course.) Lots of good talk – with Harry G., Jeff T-W., Peter Nicholls (founder of the Centre for Modernist Studies), Sean B., the poet Richard Makin, & many others; lots more stout & bitter. Things wound up back at the faculty apartment where I was being generously accomodated (many thanks, SC) with rounds of single-malt Scotch & big bowls of a carbonara-ish pasta, somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 AM.

Did I sleep on the flight back the next day? Your guess...
Update: More (& much better) pictures on Jeff Hilson's blog, here.


Ken Edwards said...

Thanks for the favourable notice, Mark!

I don't think Kerry Yong, the harpsichordist, is to be blamed for going out of synch at a couple of points. It's actually impossible for the person at the keyboard to hear where the voices are at - and even for a reader who can also read music a bit (myself) it's hard to follow the music. We were all finding our range over the course of the (limited) rehearsals, and I think a couple more sessions would have nailed it. Anyway, we all managed to finish together, Z be praised!

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