Monday, 16 May 2011

Writing for Music: Towards The Proportions of the Temple 2

The last post was about distinctions between the spheres of poetry and music, and how the two might relate to each other. 'In my craft or sullen art exercised in the still night' there is no orchestra, no musical instrument, no singer. There is only the inner night and the furious silence.

I must imagine something like that for the composer too. However, both poet and composer meditate on something that moves them into their respective languages. The poet's music is composed of vowels and consonants and how they succeed each other, of the rise and fall of cadences, of the way everyday shop-soiled speech works its way along the flanks of regularity that constitutes a time signature, of the conjuring of tones of voice that builds to form. The composer's poetry is composed of the way sound strikes both sense and association, how mathematics and the body are turned into a form of speech beyond everyday usage, how things thrum, vibrate and sooth or roughen in the ear.

Both musicians and poets can talk about their art through a variety of common referents taken from other art forms: an orchestral palette, a spectrum of voices, the open or crowded stage of the poem, the way a piece of music or poetry presents us with cinematic devices like cut and dissolve. Both music and poetry may be described in architectural terms. All art shares a potential core vocabulary. All art is potentially, perhaps necessarily, synaesthesic.

I suppose the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk, the form we think of primarily in association with Wagner is the natural product. In that respect it is theatre that offers the key. The music, the words, the set, the costumes, the lighting, are all conceived and perceived in terms of theatre. A recording of, say, Siegfried, conjures the performance of Siegfried: the performance does not conjure the music since the music is part of the performance. In that respect gesamtkunstwerk takes its cue from Baroque art. The point of both was to produce a spiritual state by force majeure. They become irresistible by working on all the senses at once.

Last night, for example, I went to an evening of performance poetry by Molly Naylor and Martin Figura (of which more another time) that employed music, visuals and elements of staging. The words were the leading element, of course, but the other senses were engaged. This shifted the position of the words from their beginnings as inner night and furious silence and constituted a different kind of presentation to an audience primed for some kind of theatre. That may, of course be one of the key differences between a page poet and a performance poet. A page poet is engaged with night and silence, the performance poet with theatre and audience. It's not a hard and fast distinction. I am primarily of the night and silence school for example, but am aware when reading in public that there is a debt to theatre there. It's just that the theatre is a sideshow.

But this set of posts is about how the arts come together. In the case of The Proportions of the Temple, it is about how a strongly music-led piece of work close to gesamtkunstwerk is produced and how it strikes, in my case, the poet, but the poet who is also the listener. That is the next post, that will follow hard on the heels of this one.

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