Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Discursive wit

THE BAD NEWS FIRST: Jonathan Williams has died. A fine obit on Ron Silliman's blog brings this to my attention: one of Ron's many virtues is his care to alert the community to such events, which grow, alas, more frequent.

I really know of Williams through only one of his many books, The Magpie's Bagpipe [San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982], a selection of essays. I bought it (used) in 1985, in Capitola of all places, after having opened it at random and read
The large armadillo-=like lady who rattles her bracelets and clicks her compact two minutes before the end of Das Lied von der Erde is not my friend. It is from her million-headed inattentions and carelessnesses that I have tried to remove myself by going to Carnegie Hall to hear Gustav Mahler's song-symphony. Yes, "I too know that the blackbird is involved in what I know," said Wallace Stevens, and I'll add armadillos, but that is something quite different. The lady, then, must be a friend of John Cage's, who once told me he hated all music except his own, and who now tells me that perhaps the noises of the environment are more interesting…

["Surely Reality is More Interesting"]

It was Walter Pater's contention that "all arts aspire to the condition of music." Ezra Pound agreed and insisted that poetry atrophies when it gets too far from musc. Goethe declared that architecture was just frozen music. And Arthur Dove gives us a clarification (and alarming complication) in notes to his exhibition at Stieglitz's the Intimate Gallery (1929):
There is no such thing as abstraction.

It is extraction, gravitation toware a certain direction, and minding your own business.

If the exact be clear enough its value will exist.

It is nearer to music, not the music of the ears… the music of the eyes.

["Some Speak of a Return to Nature— I Wonder Where They Could Have Been"]

And so on. You see from this that Williams rambles; his is a large play-space; he turns phrases memorably. Discursive wit is my ice-cream. Now Williams is gone, though The Magpie's Bagpipe is still up there on the shelf, between Emmet (Sweethearts, Something Else Press, 1968) and William Carlos (various). So Jonathan Williams is not really gone: but I wish I had met him while he was closer.

THE GOOD NEWS: To Mills College last night, there to see a solo presentation by Margaret Fisher, dancer, choreographer, video producer, author; stage director of my opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even when its first act was produced at Mills in 1984; a strong and handsome woman of immense intuitive intelligence and patient expression. (And, I must add, a longtime friend.)

The Ensemble Room of the Mills Music Building (which is otherwise being extensively reconstructed) was packed, and a number of faces there were familiar from years ago, from the 1970s and '80s. There were four items on the program:

• A silent viewing of stills from the opera: photographs by Margaret and by Larry Neff, with members of the cast in Cynthia DuVal's memorable costumes (see some of these online). Twenty-five years, nearly, since that production: I really should "finish" that opera one of these days! (Why? Duchamp didn't "finish" the Large Glass…)

Letters of Duchamp, the striking 1994 twelve-minute video record of the live production of that name, a longer three-act strictly choreographic treatment which I suspect was planned for the central scene of the opera, Act II scene 3, but whose music relied only on my first piano sonata (Bachelor Machine, since there's no recording or even synthesization of the rest of the score. Malic molds, chocolate grinder, bicycle wheel, the marvelous Eliane Lust playing a piano on a platform slowly towed across the stage by strongman Jerry Carniglia…

• a new piece, Heaven's Dark Side: the body, a vocalized meditation on etymology, opposition, and resolution. Nearly half an hour long, this featured Margaret mostly unseen on a balcony above the stage (bride-space from Duchamp?) declaiming, in an exaggerated Georgia accent, a text contemplating Light and Darkness, occasionally wandering into a fictionalized birdsong Sanskrit and a "chiselled" quasi-pedantic Latin. I was particularly struck by her fastening on the Latin word caelum, which she divides into two cells -lum, relating to luminous, illuminate and so on) and cae-, relating to caecus, "blind".

This sends me online where I learn (among much else) that
Cælum is a Latin word meaning both "sky, heaven" and "tool with a sharp beveled point, used in engraving or carving stone." (You'll sometimes see this latter definition over-simplified to "chisel.")
and I begin to wander into uncertain fields: the heavens (celestial, cielo, ciel) as caesura between dark and light, blindness and vision; though the skies themselves are in fact dark half the time, or were before the modern invention of light pollution.

The middle of this piece, Heaven's Dark Side: the body, was in fact seen: Margaret stood perhaps ten minutes on her right leg, her left knee bent, her hands and arms dancing in insectlike motions, while she continued her dispassionate but strangely accented sermon, a Yoga Bride-preacher in a celestial (ceiling) pulpit; and then it was dark again, and she continued; we'd been enlightened, and were then returned to our normal state of enlightenment…

• A thirty-minute video, Exquisite Corpse, a "surreal" (for lack of slower accuracy I'll use that word) video-story recounting seven tales spun, exquisite-corpselike, in a Haifa bomb-shelter, with a magnificent score by Robert Hughes. I can't say enough about this piece; in fact I can't say much: I have to see it again, and again. It is intelligent, and fascinating, and enterprising, and rich and deep, and, I think, Important. It has discursive wit, and I want a copy; I hope it finds distribution.

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