December 11, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Jeffrey Yang's debut poetry collection An Aquarium is an engaging stroll through an aquarium, filled with surprising metaphors and inspired free verse.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Those who read the collection quickly may find it witty but gimmicky; those who bring more attention will take more away from this rare first book that combines a simple theme (poems as sea life, the book as their tank) with clear, sharp thought at the level of sentence and line."
An Aquarium is a book of poems structured as a bestiary of the water-world that runs thru alphabet-animals A to Z, the number of each dictated by primes (and one) and the quincunx rhombus, five (like the five entries of “S” that culminates in “Starfish,” which itself is composed of ten lines) as Sir Thomas Browne expostulates in his Garden of Cyrus to make 55 total entries (the quincuncially divine number) plus a 56th entry “Time” that lies “outside” this. The book was also written for my son Arjun, who was born while it was being written. It was projected toward him from the beginning, projected for the child to be, or for the child that is anyone (in distinction to the childhood that Ariès flipped on its head). While the poems aren’t concerned with any particular piece of music, music is essential for the poetry. As the great Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting once said, “Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time. That’s their origin, and their essence.” His fellow poet-peer Lorine Niedecker plays this out perfectly – a perfect coincidence of word and image, meaning and sound – in these lines: “he who’d bowed his head / to grass as he mowed / Iris now grows / on fill.” Is this why, historically, poetry holds information more efficiently than prose?
With yarrow stalks in hand, Yi Jing spread open upon silk-cloth, ten poem-creatures of the sea from An Aquarium were linked with ten tunes to create this playlist.
1) Quincunciall [Kuto Fa Pattaroni (Children's Songs) – Hamza El Din]
“Quincunciall” doubles the lines of “Starfish” to stack two sets of five lines. The oud shapes the skeleton of Lamak’s son in five double-string courses. The sound of the oud is deep, resonant, clear, and mournful – tuned to the heart-tones. Hamza El-Din says, “In Nubia, whatever we do, we do in song. If we laugh, we sing. If we cry, we sing. When the children are at play, they sing.” For more on the oud see Rabih Alameddine’s playlist with Munir Bashir. A 2006 USA Today article noted that of the 40 or so oud-makers in Iraq that existed before the U.S. invasion, only 25 remained.
2) Flounder [Como Nossos Pais (Like Our Parents)– lyrics by Antonio Carlos Belchior, sung by Elis Regina]
There’s a futility and despair in the lyrics of this song that is undermined by Regina’s ecstatic voice, which seems to break out of the word-chains to soar into a painful height, releasing/highlighting a deeper meaning beneath. The emotional shifts Regina’s voice creates are as moving as those in Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 – calmness to anger to laughter, resilience. Sadness. Third stanza: Você me pergunta pela minha paixão / Digo que estou encantado como uma nova invenção / Eu vou ficar nesta cidade, não vou voltar pro sertão /Pois vejo vir vindo no vento o cheiro da nova nova estação / Eu sei de tudo na ferida viva do meu coração (You ask me about my joy / I say I’m excited like something brand new / I’m going to stay in the city, I’m not going back to the countryside / Because I see my life touched by the winds of a new season / I know deep down that my heart lives on pain). By the fourth stanza she’s singing whole body and soul. “Flounder” for the dream. (Thanks to Norman Clarke for the translation.)
3) Xiangjun [Ping sha luo yan (Wild Geese Alighting on the Sand Shore) – Liang Mingyue on the qin]
The qin, like the oud, is an ancient instrument, its “tones bequeathed by high antiquity” – subtle, complex touch principles echo one’s inner feelings and the sounds of nature. And the “Ping sha luo yan” is an old song, dating back to the Tang dynasty. It can be divided into 7 sections with a coda. Reflective, hesitant, filled with silences – the last section evokes a mournful cry thru an even slower tempo with vibrato and portamento figures. Liang writes, “The goose figure, a moaning spiritual body suspended in temporary freedom, traditionally symbolizes the traveler without a home...” The reader is directed to “Xiangjun” for further exposition. (And if there’s a concerned publisher out there reading this, please reprint Liang’s The Chinese Ch’in: It’s History and Music!!!)
4) Mola Mola [E Ku’u Baby Hot Cha Cha by Lena Machado]
A Hawaiian rumba for MM’s parasitic mambo. Lena Machado was born in 1903, twelve years after the death of King Kalakaua, under whose reign Hawaii experienced a surging cultural renaissance. All this changed quickly as the century turned its corner, but Machado is one proof that traditional Hawaiian ways reinvent themselves and become… tradition. Her voice is sublime – up a sixth and down a sixth in one vocal leap (those vowels!). Vibrant, delicate, lilting like a wave and as soulful as Billy Holiday or Édith Piaf (tho she’s avoided wikipedia thus far). The poem “Triggerfish” would latch onto George Helm, the next generation.
5) Nautilus [Voices of the Rainforest: A Day in the Life of the Kaluli People – field recordings by Stephen Feld]
Birdsong, watersong, insectsong all make up the forest music of the Kaluli people in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea. The divine language of birds crosses many histories and mythologies – and here it is Live! Kaluli song is the closest thing to Nautilic music I could think of – world as tuning fork.
6) Dolphin [Teo-Teo Can by Don Cherry (voice, bamboo flute, piano), with Ed Blackwell (bells, percussion)
I first discovered Don Cherry’s music in college thru the writings of Nathaniel Mackey (the same year I first heard Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the Kaluli... a great year for music!) In his recent book Splay Anthem, Mackey describes Cherry’s voice on this piece as “dove coo baby talk,” Cherry’s singing somewhere between Jarawara chopping wood and birdcall (or maybe dolphin chat). One could also veer toward the work of Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, his bird-language, child babble: Waves leap tsa-tsa; Sea, sea, da-da-da! [See also the extraordinary book CHILD-AND-ROSE by Gennady Aygi – the Khlebnikov clip comes from a yet-to-be published piece by Gennady Aygi on Khlebnikov, translated by Peter France] Teo-Teo Can evokes a carefree, playful simplicity that also brings us into a meditative, somewhat melancholy place. The mood is of dislocating dawn, something new beginning, particularly when the song shifts into piano melody toward the end – of some “endangered isle” as Mackey puts it. Cf. “Dolphin” with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage.
7) Octopus [Octopus Fishing – recorded by David Fanshawe on Lofango Island]
“At dawn on the reef in an outrigger canoe the octopus is lured by a bait of camouflaged stone tied to string that is shaken in and out of the water. The singer beats the canoe as he sings and baits... ” Can the octopus resist this call and response? this beautiful little song of the open water? I love the Nonesuch Explorer series – Octopus beat from their South Pacific Island Music disc.
8) Squid [Andaluza by Manuel de Falla; Alicia de Larrocha, piano]
Andaluza is Manuel de Falla’s classical piano rendition of the cante jonda folk tradition. The pianist Jason Cutmore has written a fine analysis of de Falla’s melismatic copla in the June-July 2007 issue of American Music Teacher. Describing one aspect of its complex rhythm, Cutmore notes: “Measures of 3/4 time (measures 50-51, for example) alternated with measures of 3/2 time (measures 52-53) creating broad hemiolas, which is characteristic of the 12-beat compas of the bulerias. ” Ahhh… the grilled calamares of Andalucía.
9) Riftia [Cuando se empaña un cristal – from Federico García Lorca’s record collection; La Niña de los Peines (Pastora), cantaora; Niño Ricardo, guitarra]
Of Pastora, Lorca writes, “She is a maestra of weeping, creature martyred by the moon, furious bacchante. ” Let us shed some tears for Riftia, those deep-sea tubeworms who were named so recently. Pastora’s voice reaching and receding, the rhythmic clapping, the occasional assent from elsewhere. Again, those lovely extended vowels.
10) Anemone [Joan – Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Ignacio Berroa, drums; Jeff Chambers, bass]
Some are turned off by Rubalcaba’s virtuosic, dazzling displays; some are mesmerized. Usually one’s jaw can't help but drop at his chops. “Joan, ” composed for his son, shows Rubalcaba at his most lyrical and restrained – this piece from his first regular trio album, Inner Voyages (2001). It opens with a lovely lullaby-like melodic phrase that Rubalcaba echoes in an A/A' way. There is a sense of floating along, gliding over the unexpected minor shift, and the opening out at the two-minute mark into new territory, exploratory runs. Drums and bass are never at the forefront or alone, always help the piano-child along. Then a return, a light change to staccato rhythm, and the song ends with the lone piano as it began, tho on the darker-hued bridge. It’s a beautiful, soft piece. In the liner notes, Rubalcaba’s description of his son for this song can be a description of himself: “He doesn’t care if others know what he knows, nor is he concerned with satisfying the opinion of others.” The gentle drift of the anemone on a rock.
Bonus Track: Manatee [Winds of Devotion by R. Carlos Nakai and Nawang Khechog]
Navajo-Ute-Tibetan chants meet New Age brothiness. This with the gentle drumbeat makes it the most peaceful, dream-music for a baby – without fail sleep descends. Divided into four movements – Sentient Beings, Wisdom, Compassion, and Heart – this is manatee-music at its dreamiest.
Jeffrey Yang and An Aquarium links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)