Sunday 13 December 2015

Working on a libretto: an account 2

What I immediately wrote was three pages of more or less one-line colloquy preceded by an introductory prologue:

Prologue: The Story of the Resident of the Black Pavilion

A: Once upon a time a king in China travels to a town
the residents of which dress exclusively in black.

B: Why are they in black?

A: After living a year in that city without disclosing
his own identity,  he gains the confidence of a butcher
who agrees to disclose the mystery of the town to him.

C: He takes the king to the outskirts of the town
to some ruins. There, he places the him in a basket
and lets him be transported to the land
of the Queen of Magical Beings

D: The queen welcomes the king with embraces
but when he wishes to make love to her
she offers him one of her handmaidens instead.

A: He enjoys the handmaiden and returns to the queen,
wooing her again but once more she rejects him
and offers him another of her handmaidens.

C: Returning to her again the Queen seems to promise
him satisfaction but when he moves to touch her
she disappears into thin air along with her attendants

B: and the king finds himself in the same basket
descending to the butcher?

A: In memory of his unrequited love, from then on
he, too, dresses  himself in black,
even after he returns home.”

Nothing had to come of this but it would introduce the Black Dome / Queen of Enchanted Beings theme. It gave me four speakers / singers. Because the idea was to dispense with dramatic narrative we could use the cast of four for exchanges like the following:

Episode 1: It exploded in my hand

A: When I opened my hand it exploded…

B: Was that yesterday?

A: No, some years ago, I forget now.

C: I was there with him.

D: The walls were covered with it.

A: It exploded right there on the wall

B: Like graffiti.

A: But black.

C: I was there with him.

D: The walls were covered with it.

Episode 2 could follow and begin to home in on the central figure of the writer and the idea of guilt.

Episode 2: It is only fair

D: We were elsewhere, altogether elsewhere.

A: It was my book. My words.

C: They made him eat his words.

B: It is only fair one should eat one’s words

A: It was a dark country.

C: The room was dark.

B: It was night. It was only fair the room should have been dark.

C: I was there with him.

D: We were all with him.

A: It was, some said, a good book.

D: I told you it was good.

B: Then it is only fair someone should eat it.

That's very brief but it gives an idea of context. The figures are not yet prisoners but they coule be. Then we return to the idea of the Queen:

Episode 3: The Queen of Magical Beings

A: The Queen invited me into her chamber

D: Her pillows, her curtains, her carpets, her scent.

C: I was there with him.

A: I sang her clothes, her eyes, her hair, her body

D: You sang her voice, her hand, her foot, her gesture of welcome and command

B: You wrote of pleasures promised and removed

A: I wrote of the king in his black gown. Of the city of black gowns

C: I was there with him.

B: But when you opened your hand…

A: When I opened my hand it exploded.

B: It is only fair that your hand should have exploded.

None of this was to provide a text as such but to explore ways of fragmentation and recapitulation and to see if anything caught Richard's eye. He liked it all as a first stab - as a technique - but what caught his eye was the idea of the writer being made to physically eat his words.

So there we had an image we could return to - and might yet.  But nothing for music yet.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Working on a libretto: an account 1

Lorenzo da Ponte 1740-1848

As with all blog posts one has an odd sense of keeping a private diary but with a reader over one's shoulder. Hello, reader. Welcome. Here are some one-line thoughts on being a librettist among composers, conductors, singers and players of various musical instruments.

A poet among musician is an electrician among plumbers.

Hearing your words treated by musicians is like becoming silence.

A librettist is not a poet but dots on a page.

A librettist is not a producer of words but an occasion of sounds.

A librettist is not a presence but a room filled by other people.

I have yet to see the advertisement: DON GIOVANNI by LORENZO DA PONTE,  music by W A Mozart

For well over a year now I have been engaged on a project run by the English National Opera (ENO for short) in which they put together a composer they admire, one who has not previously written an opera, with a poet, so that together they might produce some fifteen minutes of a potential opera, enough at least, to attract a commission. There were at some, stage, so I understand, four such pairings. I was paired with Richard Causton who is currently University Lecturer in Composition at King's College, Cambridge and whose music, readily available on YouTube, is rich, lyrical and - so it sounded to me - Romantic at root. We hadn't met before so I took a train  and we had some preliminary discussions.

Richard, who had, I think, had some two years contact with the ENO before this point, already had a source text, the late Iranian writer, Hushang Golshiri's The King of the Benighted but he was also excited by the work of another Iranian, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, originally a graphic novel but then a film. It was reading Golshiri's obituary rather than the book that first excited his interest. We talked  good deal about style and scope but the core subject remained unclear. Was it Iran? No. Was it the Ayatollah Khomeini regime that imprisoned Golshiri just as the Shah's had done earlier? No. Was it about the not-uncommon phenomenon of being punished - imprisoned, tortured  - by one side then being punished all over again by the other side? No. Was it a way of reconceptualising The King of the Benighted as an opera? Closer, but no. Was it about political freedom? Not exactly. About religious freedom? No. About the freedom of the imagination? Probably. In a way.

Manuchehr Irani was Golshiri's prison psudonym

I left with a clear idea of what certain specifics were to be. The whole was to be a set in a prison and include an interrogation, maybe several interrogations. The interrogations would be attempts to crush the imagination but the imagination would survive.There would be certain visual images. Some specific noises and effects. There would certainly be a Golshiri figure. We could have five or six on-stage singers / actors, perhaps an off-stage female choir (that might have transpired later). The setting would be bare with not much grand dramatic / operatic action (it shouldn't be too much like 'opera'). It would all be in black and white.

But would there be a story? Maybe. Not at the moment. Not for now. Seeing that Golshiri was to appear should we at least follow some of the lines in The King of the Benighted? An interrogation is not an opera, is it? No plot, no direct political or religious reference. Then why is one man interrogating and beating another in prison? What does he want from him? What has the prisoner got that is valuable? Is it the story of the legend within King of the Benighted?

But what is the signficance of the legend? Why is it important? Do we know why it is important? In what way is it a symbol of something central to the imagination? Could that significance be an opera that is not exactly an opera? Perhaps it is.

Let's see. Richard's instinct, it seemed, was meditate, meditate: mine is write, write.

Fair enough. I had to go away and write something. Some germ of an idea. Early days.


Saturday 5 December 2015

The Poetry of Eastern Europe:
A talk at The Athenaeum Club, 2 December 2015

This is the list of poems read and talked about.  The talk was about 45 minutes long plus about 20 minutes of questions.

1. Zbigniew Herbert: The Rain
2. Tadeusz Rozewicz: Pigtail
3. János Pilinszky: Fable
4. Zbigniew Herbert: The End of a Dynasty
5. Gyula Illyés: One Sentence on Tyranny (excerpt)
6. Vasko Popa: The Nail
7. Vasko Popa: He
8. Vasko Popa: The Hunter
9. István Vas: The Translator’s Vote of Thanks (excerpt)
10. Daniela Crasnaru: Orphic
11. Zbigniew Herbert: Pebble
12. Ágnes Nemes Nagy: Winter Trees
13. Vasko Popa: The Rose Thieves
14. Vladimir Holan: Glimpsed
15. Miroslav Holub: Wings
16. Miroslav Holub: A Boy’s Head
17. Miroslav Holub: The Door
18. György Petri: Gratitude
19. Ottó Orbán: A Roman Considers the Christians

It was, of course, a very small selection from the material available, but even so it was a squeeze for the time available. As it turned out, since most of the poems were short, it was just right, given the introduction to each poem.

The introduction to the poems was intended to provide a frame or map for seeing them together.  It presented them, as and when translated, in terms of 'cold war poetry', the poetry of a bipolar world that has since passed and might not make much sense to those born after the period ended. That period might be defined as 1945 or a few years before, up to 1989. In terms of theme there were four main phases: the war / the Holocaust, the era of Stalinism, the post Stalin period (including 1968), and around and beyond 1989. Most of the poets were born in the 1920s, a few earlier, two or three later. 

The poems were all in translation of course and a good many were taken from volumes of the Penguin Modern European Poets series. The interest in the unofficial poetics of Eastern Europe was partly political, partly a matter of assumed public interest, partly literary fascination. The early work of Danny Weissbort and Ted Hughes was vital in begetting the Penguin series. Hughes's introduction to the Vasko Popa volume of 1969  makes strong reference to humanism, politics, precision, the sense of direct witness and to the west's own sense of "civilised liberal confusion". He compares 'their' world - the world of Popa, Holub and Herbert - with the world of Beckett and, for him, "theirs seems braver, more human, and so more real". As to Popa "No poetry could carry less luggage than his". There was, I think, (and I have argued this in print before) a sense of moral envy. Iron curtain poets carried moral authority because their pressures were direct.  Their work therefore had greater tension, greater urgency.
There were certain shared characteristics of the period that were not specifically the product of the cold war as such. There was still a belief in modernity, indeed in Modernism as a redemptive idea. Associated with it was a shared, left-leaning intellectual humanism. It was a world in which (unlike today) theology had no place. It was a world in which you could appeal to European values as embodied, say, in the School of Paris, in Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir and the rest. It was a world that had first hand communal experience of extreme violence in the name of totalitarian ideological systems.  

As to differences, the nations of Eastern Europe did not suffer from post-colonial guilt though they had (and have) yet to deal with war guilt. The first years after the war  the pressure of officially approved socialist realism - often traditional in form - meant that 'unofficial' art and poetry was best expressed through modernism: no formal prosody, no rhyme, disposable punctuation or capitalisation, no ornate metaphors, no declamatory first-person singular. The freedoms offered by surrealism also offered complex ways of addressing politics. This encouraged a belief in codes, in secret complicities, in a common energy. Under repressive conditions certain fields remained open for play. These include the grotesque, the folk tale, the erotic, the fantastical, the indirect elegy.

The first four poems were primarily about the war, the next four about conditions under arbitrary and savage totalitarianism, the next four about ways of surviving under those conditions, and the rest about hope, erotics,and scepticism. The Crasnaru was out of chronology but circumstances in Ceausescu's Romania were not dissimilar to those under early Stalinism.

I think this made a decent, not unrealistic package for a one-off talk to a privileged, highly intelligent but non-specialist audience most of whom would not have heard of most of the poets - or may not have read much poetry at all.