Monday, 16 May 2011

Writing for Music: towards The Proportions of the Temple 4

Of course there is the excitement of hearing your words set to music. You wait with bated breath for what the composer has done, and of this, not having been part of the production, none of the poets had a clear idea.

The first part of the evening before the interval consisted of work by Nik Bärtsch, who performed at the piano with the Trio Zéphyr and a quartet of voices. The piano was more than the keys in this case - it was also the strings, the damping of strings, the percussive insistent noise of notes repeated at subtle rhythmic intervals. And some of my words appeared, only in pairs, as contrast, perhaps a phrase, but not the poem as I had written it. So I think, as others might, that perhaps the composer thought the poem was rubbish, that it was simply not musical enough, not poetic enough. The other half of me knows this was how it would be. Don't listen to yourself. Listen to the music. Meanwhile the music goes on, tantalising, measured, and, in the second part, impassioned with a wild aggressive violin flirting and biting at cadences that seem almost Hungarian to me, certainly Eastern European. In any case my words are a part of it.

In the next session it is Agi's long prose poem, and a marvellous thing it is too, the first few lines sung, then spoken, the whole text, in between beats, before the music returns to pick up individual lines. It's like a floor or roof opening up and then being covered up again.

In the interval we get into a conversation with an older man who had been architect for the cathedral, preserving its fabric. We talk architecture for a while - Agi off for a ciggy outside. Then we file back to row Q where you hear everything but don't see much. We could of course have been back in row ZZ where we might have heard less, but now we are hastily moved closer to the front for the second part. And Sian would like the poets to come up at the end, we are told. She'll wave you forward. So now we are in row E which is undoubtedly nicer.

This aspect of the arrangements was odd. No one asked if we wanted tickets till the day before, by which time I had already arranged a pair. The poets were clearly not Important People. But then I never thought we were really, so the shift from Q to E was a surprising promotion, like Colchester United being offered a place in the Premier League. Not that any of this was considered. People are far too busy getting on with preparation, and we were no part of the performance itself. It's very stupid to get social about such things, but there must have been a little hasty revisionism at half-time. So now we were mid-table Premier League, roughly where Spurs or Liverpool currently are. Quite flattering.

The second half was sublime throughout. The poems were used in a more thoroughgoing way and having the words in the programme (in which Jon had spoken warmly of some lines of mine, that were to prove to be the finale) was helpful, even in the growing dark.

What made it sublime? Scale must be part of the answer. The sheer dimensions of volume, pace, dark and light. But not just scale. I think it might be the level of comprehension. I don't mean of the words as such, the skin-text, but of something the skin-text had sprung from, some gene that the music turned into a potential body. The moving experience for a poet hearing his own words sung back to him in this way is that he feels he is being heard beyond himself (substitute she and her in Agi's case, though I cannot speak for her). It is not so much that the words are being interpreted, as that both words and music are facing the same way, looking into a space beyond either, but guessed at or intuited, so both are bigger for each other, though in this case, of course, the music is the truly big thing, that and the performance, without which music itself is only a multi-dimensional idea without a body.

The space the music was exploring was the cathedral and the meaning of the cathedral as a human act. It was the body moving about the cathedral. Anyone can experience that as they move about inside the building: whether they are religious is not is beside the point. There is the sky, there the ground, there the cathedral with its living and its dead. No one can help noticing that. The building as an expansion of the physical consciousness. You don't need to articulate it. It's just there. The music - the song - articulates it in its own way.

Which is why it is so moving. The conductor, the composers, the performers, the choir and the poets took their bows. The choir dispersed or headed for the party nearby as did we after a while. The words returned to the page, and maybe the page will become part of a book. So they separate again, the words returning to the street of spoken voices, muddling or rushing along on their business, the music still holding its space in the cathedral.

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