Polyproject ‘Poetry as Score’

Antoine Beuger, Manfred Werder, Michael Pisaro and Tim Parkinson. Chair: Will Montgomery

The following discussion took place at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, London, on the evening of Wednesday, 2nd November 2011. Presented by Polyply, the event served to introduce Cut & Splice, an annual festival of experimental music and sound arts produced by Sound and Music and Radio 3, and hosted by the ICA.

Polyply is a cross-media poetry and performance series run out of the English department at Royal Holloway University, this launch event was the first in a series of one-off ‘Polyprojects’. Programmed by Will Montgomery and Tim Parkinson, the evening presented Wandelweiser works grounded in poetic text , performed by Antoine Beuger, Angharad Davies, Sarah Hughes, Tim Parkinson, Michael Pisaro, David Stent, Carol Watts and Manfred Werder.

This pre-concert discussion was held between members of the Wandelweiser collective; Michael Pisaro, Manfred Werder and Antoine Beuger, and also Tim Parkinson, it was chaired by Will Montgomery.   The latter part of the talk didn’t record, for this reason the questions towards and response from Tim Parkinson are not transcribed.

Antoine Beuger was born in 1955. He studied composition with Ton de Leeuw in Amsterdam and in 1992, together with Burkhard Schlothauer, he founded Edition Wandelweiser. He has acted as Wandelweiser’s managing director since 2004. In 1994 he started his, now widely known, concert series KLANGRAUM in Düsseldorf. Antoine Beuger’s music has been performed worldwide, and has been awarded several international prizes.

Michael Pisaro was born in Buffalo in 1961. He is a composer and guitarist, a member of the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble and founder and director of the Experimental Music Workshop. His work is frequently performed in the US and in Europe, in music festivals and in many smaller venues. He is a Foundation for Contemporary Arts, 2005 and 2006 Grant Recipient. Several CDs of his work have been released by such labels as Edition Wandelweiser Records, Compost and Height, confront, Another Timbre, Cathnor, Nine Winds and others. In 2010, together with Jon Abbey and Yuko Zama, Michael Pisaro established his own label, Gravity Wave. His translation of poetry by Oswald Egger (“Room of Rumor”) was published in 2004 by Green Integer. He is Co-Chair of Music Composition at the California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles.

Manfred Werder was born 1965 and is a composer, performer and curator. His work focuses on possibilities of rendering the practices regarding composition and field. His recent scores have featured either found sentences from poetry and philosophy, or found words from whatever impacts. His performances, both indoors and outdoors, aim at letting appear the world’s natural abundance. Earlier works include stück 1998, a 4000 page score whose nonrecurring and intermittent performative realization has been ongoing since December 1997.

Will Montgomery makes electronic music, sound art and field recordings. His CDs include Legend (with Brian Marley, Entr’Acte, 2009) and non-collaboration (with Heribert Friedl, nvo, 2008). A split 12″ (with Robert Curgenven) is forthcoming on Winds Measure. He teaches in the English department at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of The Poetry of Susan Howe (Palgrave, 2010) and the co-editor of Frank O’Hara Now (Liverpool UP, 2010). He has published widely on poetry and music.

Poetry as Score:

WM: Manfred, I’d like to throw a quote at you if you don’t mind. It’s from a few years ago and you might not agree with it any more, but just to start things off: you said that “all my work operates in relation to our complex relation of being in the world and at the same time observing the world”. I wondered how you get from that to poetry, and to your use of Francis Ponge in particular? I wonder if you could connect those two?

MW: At the time from which you’ve quoted, I never worked with poetry. I was reading poetry, but all my work, until a few years ago was without any reference to literature, poetry or philosophy. My way of working has changed as I found a way to use poetry as a material, I really use poetry as a material and not as an inspiration, if its possible to make a split between these two. With Francis Ponge, I felt very close to his way of working, he’s  a 20th Century French poet and at a certain moment he decided to leave out the decisions of what  is poetry and what is not. He just had a project and he would write each day, writing some sentences and just continuing in the same way the next day, he would say “I cant make any decisions anymore about whether or not this is my poetry”, so it becomes a kind of diary, a working process. He worked on and repeated, almost literally, the text he’d written the day before and left this as the body of work. I found this so intriguing, and felt it was structurally a way for me to work with him, or with his work.

Another question is, How do you use it? You say poetry as score, but I think its either poetry or score, basically, but of course we all work very differently with poetry.

WM: I’m trying to make the connect between the very short sentences you have in your scores and their realisation – one performance I witnessed, which was not poetry but a sentence from Foucault, was realised with a six hour performance with you sitting on a bench in a churchyard in Shoreditch here in London. You didn’t play anything and you didn’t speak, it was a kind of attention to the world.[1]  Can these works be realised in very different sorts of ways?

MW: It’s a body of work I now call Found Sentences, I just read what I like to read and sometimes I find words or sentences and they become the material part of the score, the score can then be out of the context of, say, Foucault. I find these sentences because they appear so musical to me, or insightful in terms of music or performance. The other aspect to this is in practice, and of course they can have very different approaches. Next Sunday we will perform the same score that you’ve mentioned, but in the ICA, in a very different setting; in a closed room with 5 performers. I think I try to separate the work of scores and the decision making of how to bring the scores into a realisation.

WM: So each has its own particular instance.

MW: Exactly, yes.[2]

WM: Antoine, you work very often with series – you did a series which focuses on Emily Dickinson’s work and I was interested that you’ve talked about these in terms of letter writing, that these poems are as if written to an absent recipient or addressee. It seems that the piece you’ve written for tonight’s event is also perceived in terms of the letter. I wonder if you could say a bit about that idea of absence and address, and how it relates to poetry?

AB: I would say that Emily Dickinson is one of my main teachers, and the subject she has been teaching me most about is what is being two. I think she is one of the few people who knew, or somehow found out some substantial things about twoness, or if you word it very radically, about a love relationship. I somehow interpret Emily Dickinson’s poetry and her way of living as an exploration of what it can mean to have a really deep relation to another person. She herself says her poems are letters, and whilst she has of course published her poetry in  the printed medium, she had written more that 10,000 letters to a fairly large group of addressees, so her publishing also took place in the form of letters – maybe she had more readers than many of her colleagues who published in print!

What was important to her was to ensure that between her and a person that was really important to her, a distance was always kept. She wouldn’t care about the postman passing by and having a cup of coffee but if someone was really important to her she wouldn’t want to sit at a table with this person or in the same room, if she accepted a visit from such a person she would sit in another room and have the door ajar. It’s a bit crazy, but it’s an incredibly beautiful image for what is happening when someone is really important to you. In order to really experience this proximity you have to guarantee that there is some distance and this takes place in a very definite form in writing letters. The one who is writing the letter has the other in mind, is very near to this other person but at the same time this other person is somewhere else, then when the other person receives the letter and reads it the writer of the letter is somewhere else and there is time between them, but an incredibly intense form of communication takes place.

Emily Dickinson often sent poems to people and she would sometimes send the same poem to different people and just change a few words or change the handwriting a little bit, it’s a very good image of what her poetry is meant to be like. To me it meant that it’s probably impossible to recite this poetry in the same way you wouldn’t recite a letter to a friend.

WM: I understand that you’re saying the lyric address in poetry is intensified when there is a turning away, and that the idea of distance is powerfully present. Do you seek to realise this in performances of your work through a kind of performance style that doesn’t address the audience directly?

AB: That is what happens in tonight’s piece, which is called Confidential Letter [#7]. While being sure that there is no way of setting the poetry of Emily Dickinson to music or reciting the poetry I still wanted to find a way to create a musical situation with this poetry that was somehow spoken. When I started working on that I thought of what happens when the person who speaks that piece would write the words or write the syllables and how the writing would make it sound somehow – sometimes when you write you say the words without thinking of what melody it has. This series of Dickinson pieces concentrates on this way of talking which, in a performance, creates a very intimate situation where the audience is somehow overhearing a person doing something not directed towards them but by itself. You might even feel a little bit shameful because its not meant for you. In tonight’s piece its like a simplified form of that; there will be six performers and each of us will have the same little poem that Will found for us and we’ll just write and talk the words and it could happen that nobody will understand.[3]

WM: One other question I have regarding Dickinson is about duration, as the Landscapes of Absence pieces are quite long, about 100 minutes, but the poems are quite small, just little poems, often based on a hymn-like form. They have a quality of density to them but you’ve added in all this space and air. I wondered why.

AB: These pieces are all for one speaker – someone giving voice to the text, and one instrument. The two never sound together but they are on stage together somehow. Then there is the huge time span, and everyone in the audience is given the text, and during this time the text appears in the form of syllables, read from syllable to syllable, and there can be long silences between each. So it’s not about listening to someone reciting this text, which can be done much more efficiently. The audience is reading the text, they have 100 minutes to read this text, they have nothing else to do so they certainly will be busy with the text because there is nothing to distract them during that time. There is no real reason to try and follow what the speaker is doing because you can see it anyway, and you know what the next syllable will be. It creates a situation where the two people performing the piece are separated from the audience, the audience is somehow present, but overhearing or overseeing what is going on. Another idea here is that most people would never spend 100 minutes with a poem by Emily Dickinson, but here it happens.

WM: So you’re encouraging people to read the Dickinson work differently.

AB: Yes.

WM: I’d like to turn to Michael, who has literally just got off the plane, so we’re particularly grateful that he has come tonight. I’d just like to ask about the Harmony Series pieces. You’ve interpreted work by a series of American poets from the modernist line: Robert Lax, Robert Creeley, Gertrude Stein and others. We’ll be hearing a piece based on some lines from Stein tonight. Unlike Antoine’s Dickinson pieces there’s no voicing of the poetry. These pieces are based instead on certain structural features of the lines you choose. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that. Again it’s a question about how you get from the poem to the musical realisation or version of the poem.

MP: They’re called the harmony series so they are first and foremost about the notion of harmony. I was involved in the performances of a piece by James Tenney called Swell Piece (for Alison Knowles)[4], in the experimental music world it’s a pretty famous piece. It is a few short paragraphs of text that describe how to make swell music. Swell in this case means a hairpin, so he made a piece that entirely consists of the gesture of starting from nothing, going to maximum intensity and then going back to nothing. I worked with ensembles of various sizes on this piece, sometimes when Jim was there, sometimes not, but it always sounded great. Then it started dawning on me that you could have fourteen people playing and they would make harmony but he [James Tenney] hadn’t said a single word about what tone people should play. So the absence of this one word seemed to create harmony that you would never foresee, that part is fairly clear, but that it always makes harmonic sense I found utterly mysterious.  Musicians are trained, sometimes way longer than they want to be, in order to make good harmony. It is hard to learn how to do that. (That is what we’re told, at least.) Here was a piece that made beautiful harmony; in fact much more beautiful than most pieces I knew (i.e., other pieces, in which every little detail was prescribed) – and yet here nothing was said about it. This condition is what I wanted to investigate: the idea that musicians of any kind, with any instrument, with any background could come together and somehow make a harmonious music without being given in the score the tool that is considered essential to harmony: pitch. That actually starts to be a challenging task when you think about it. It is not an accident that Tenney’s piece was written as a text score, because if you’re not writing traditional music notation you have to communicate somehow. I always think of the text score as a combination of literature and an instruction manual. With an instruction manual, the text is purely practical: it tells you how to install the muffler of your car. Sometimes Christian Wolff pieces can read this way, you do this and you do this. But (sometimes inadvertently) there’s also something poetic in the character of the text. So this was the direction I was heading with these pieces, to describe situations with text that would hopefully create harmony. Then I started to ask the question: How many of these pieces can you do? With any interesting idea, at least as they occur to me, I want to find out if this is a little idea or an idea that has some legs to it, or some power to it. This is where working with the poetry came in, because we’re talking about something that is really an abstract situation. If you say “Five musicians make harmony”, you can hardly get more abstract than that. The one thing you’re not allowing yourself to do is tell them exactly how to make harmony. It puts you in a bit of a contradictory situation. So, somewhere along the way it occurred to me to use poetry to help differentiate and to therefore extend to the situation of composing the pieces and thinking through the issues involved. It’s obvious, there are words and there are also structures. If you read a lot of poetry, one of the things that you learn to see are the fascinating structural features of poems, often very hard to interpret in a reading. One of the poems that I use in the series is a William Carlos Williams poem (The Locust Tree in Flower) in which the words are lined down in the centre of the page. I’ve heard it read more or less like a regular sentence. But, as Antoine was saying, I started wondering: “How would you actually read that poem?” That is, if you take seriously the way it looks on the page.  I started realising that individual poems, or parts of poems would suggest to me how to make a piece so in a way the pieces become something very different than interpretation in a traditional sense. I wasn’t looking for the meaning of a poem, though it’s inevitable that I would think about that. Somebody reading the text in the harmony series (the poems are printed in the score) can, theoretically at least, read them as part of the instruction that they get. Instead I started thinking that the structure could tell me how to make each piece, and that’s basically what these structures do. The poems I’ve selected have a certain number of words (or lines or stanzas), or are a line down the middle of the page or, in the case of e. e cummings, words are split up so that letters from either side of a word are on either side of another word[5]. I don’t know if poets think this way or not, about how many words are in a poem, or, for example, what kind of temporal structure the Fibonacci series makes. The longest piece in the harmony series (The rain of alphabets) grows out of the Fibonacci series used in the  poem by Ingrid Christensen[6]. The pieces in the harmony series can be mind-numbingly literal on one level. In fact there was a music professor at a college that will not be named that had a part of a dissertation proposed on these pieces; and he said “there’s nothing there, the translation is so obvious I don’t know what you’re going to talk about.” The student found another advisor. But I could relate to what the professor said, because in a way I wanted the most direct, and in a way, obvious solution. I felt that since the poems are not being read to the audience (i.e., the musicians are not reading them aloud), I felt there was no point in being fancy. I could just simply use the structure of the poem and find out what that structure meant in musical terms.[7] So maybe I will just go on and talk a little about the one that is being played tonight[8]. Just to give you an idea of how simple it can be, this Gertrude Stein text that forms the basis, or is part of the piece that is being played tonight has a title and it has three sentence/paragraphs/stanzas, whatever you call them. So there are four of those units, thus four players. There are a certain number of words in each part (including the two of the title, Nothing Elegant), that tells you how many tones that person will play. It’s really just about that simple. I did one little thing: this is probably the piece that is liminal for the whole set because I actually wrote down pitch letters. It is really the only one in which I did that. I essentially wanted the longest paragraph to be a descending line of some kind and I thought it would be much easier in this case to write the notes. They could be any notes but it saves time and effort and somebody thinking about some 30 notes. But no other piece has a single note named in it.

WM: I have a question that any of you might want to address, which is whether we can think of this use of poetry in text scores as a way of refreshing the text score tradition, which is now some decades old – whether there is some sort of otherness or indeterminacy that can enter the text score through poetry.

MW: Maybe I could say it doesn’t need to be so, because it seems to be too obvious that you can say, yes of course. There have been so many possible sources of material that it really doesn’t need to be poetry, and it depends on what kind of poetry also. I was interested in poetry because of [its potential of being] another kind of language, I would say I’m not so interested in poetry, but in language.

MP: I’d like to add something because I think one of the things I became conscious of, and that we all know about because we’re all trained as classical musicians, is that you’re reading text all the time in the context of a score. If you’re American and you start playing classical music you’re reading Italian texts all the time that are descriptions of tempo or changes in tempo and these sorts of things. I don’t find that to be any less indeterminate than having a poem that you read as part of a musical work. What I find interesting, and it’s probably something none of us can answer, is just what influence a text statement has on the person playing the music. If you look for any direct connection you’re going to have trouble, if you look for any direct decision making process that leads from, for example, one of the statements that Manfred chooses to what somebody does, in a way you could say that the person who tries to do it most directly may have the most trouble. Yet at the same time, I’ll speak from the experience with the harmony series pieces, you know somehow that its operating but you don’t know how. It’s got this character of a description that somebody else has to fill in.

AB: I’d also like to add something as my stance is perhaps a little different. I’m not so interested in scores, to me scores are just practical things – at their best they are just confidential letters to musicians who somehow are friends and know what you’re talking about – it’s a way of communicating a possible musical situation that can be bought about. I wouldn’t really like to use or ab-use poetry which is a work of art in itself to embellish a score, so when thinking about a relationship between poetry and music, to me its immediately a problem of what happens when this is voiced, so it has to with singing, which is a traditional place where poetry and music come together. Of course singers can sing anything but it gets more interesting when it has something to do with words. One form of singing or giving voice to music is speaking, that’s where my focus of interest would be. The poetry can become some sort of score if the poetry tells me where the music based on this music could go – a bit similar to how objects teach Francis Ponge a language, so when he writes about a piece of soap he wants the piece of soap to teach him a certain language which is different to the language when he is thinking about a crate or an oyster or something. If you take this one step further then you can say that poetry can become a score, the way the piece of soap becomes the score for the poet.



[1] MW: I’d like to differentiate Will’s “attention to the world”.I’m not interested in a perception of what is going on in the world. Perception seems to happen from an outside perspective: The perception of the dominating human versus the domesticated world that have become a zoo. I think I’m looking for a kind of operating that wouldn’t differ from the operating of all reality that is. Hence, rather a stance of operating than of differential thinking. So, this is not really “attention to the world”, rather something that again is both most subjective and less subjective, both utterly closed and open. That’s maybe what transparency is.

[2] MW: The score is an instance of reality, and reality has no function, that is, reality can’t be functionalized into practical things. So, a score is not a secondary instance that would fulfil the perspective of its possible sounding result. For me, the score occurs as incident of a kind, as part of the operating of all reality that is. Hence, a possible actualization of the score occurs – as the actualization’s specific instance – as part of the operating of all reality that is. So, all things are their specific instance, and approaching a score would happen then in both the most subjective and less subjective stance.

[3] WM: The poem is the last in the sequence “The Grey Fold” by Thomas A. Clark. It’s in the Ground Aslant: an Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, ed. Harriet Tarlo (Exeter: Shearsman, 2011).

[4] MP: This is the first of a series of three pieces based on the intensity “swell” from Tenney’s Postal Pieces. It was written in December of 1967. Swell Piece No. 2 (for Pauline Oliveros) just uses an A-440 as its pitch and Swell Piece No. 3 (for LaMonte Young) uses the B/F-sharp combination from Young’s COMPOSITION 1960, No. 7  (“for a long time”). These last two were written in March, 1971.

[5] MP: For example: “myGODye/s s”.

[6] MP: The Christensen poem is alfabet from 1981 – translated from the Danish into English by Susanna Nied as alphabet (New Directions, 2000). Each poem is based on a letter in the alphabet (starting from A and finishing with N) – and the number of lines in each successive poem corresponds to the Finonacci series. Thus the “a” poem has one line, the “b” two lines, and so on until “n”, which has 610 lines. If Christensen had continued to “z” she would have needed to write a poem with 196,418 lines.

[7] MP: I have a similar feeling about the use of mathematics. While I have absolutely nothing against complex sets of numbers (or complex formulas) generating music structures (as is the case for the often wonderful music of Xenakis), I find that sometimes quite simple mathematics can generate quite fascinating (and even at times quite complex) music.

[8] MP: The piece the group performed was called A single charm is doubtful.