Bach’s Awkwardness

Listening to the wildly beautiful Concerto For Violin, Strings & Continuo No. 1 In A Minor, Bwv 1041 by J.S. Bach (1685-1750). In Bach’s music (though I’m no expert) there is always a struggle between order & disorder, with order usually triumphing in the end. In many passages the music sounds as if it will simply disappear in clouds of its own energy. Of all the forms Bach worked in, the concerto makes this conflict most explicit, though the suite for solo cello also demonstrates: The instrument seems to be at war with itself, singing to itself, the starting an argument that will usually be worked out by the end of each section, even if the synthesis of order & disorder is partial, provisional, incomplete. This sense of incompleteness may be the reason that modern listeners have been so taken with Bach’s music, after it had lain unperformed for three centuries. One of the hallmarks of modernity is way(s) in which it regards all structures & systems (aesthetic, political, commercial) as provisional.

Bach’s concertos require the full attention of the listener & not just aural attention, but moral, aesthetic & intellectual as well. In musical terms, it seems that the composer is constantly challenging the limits of genre, but even more startlingly challenging the harmonic conventions of this music subsequent centuries would later call “classical.” That may be the wrong way of putting it: Perhaps we hear Bach’s harmonies as revolutionary only in retrospect. It may be more accurate to hear Bach as one of the primary inventors of a new music & thus composing harmonies that later–after the canons of taste had been established–would be seen as “mistakes.”

In his willingness to court disaster, Bach resembles the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542), a courtier & diplomat to Henry VIII.1 who wrote during a period in which the English pentameter line was just emerging into dominance & it is only in retrospect that his prosody sounds awkward. Examples:Whoso List To Hunt,” “They Flee from Me.”

My bringing these two towering geniuses is to some extent arbitrary, but I want to think about the ways in which similar aesthetic problems can crop up in widely dissimilar contexts. My working hypothesis, then is that the arts do not progress, but solve the same fundamental problems. It is the very awkwardness–the willingness to risk failure2–that marks the great artist from the mediocre, though it is the run-of-the-mill practitioner who sets the dominant aesthetic mode of a particular period.

Bach’s music has sometimes been disparaged as mechanical, or “intellectual” & his work virtually disappeared during the Romantic period, but anyone who has attended to the Brandenburg Concertos or the suites for solo cello should be disabused of that notion. Bach’s work, if I were forced to characterize it in general is that it is filled with a longing for resolution that seldom comes. The concerto offers a form that can dramatize  the resolution of order & disorder. What particularly attracts me to the form is a philosophical drama in which the forces of disorder threaten to dominate the aesthetic space of the concert or recording–and where the anarchic is recognized & respected.

The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have originated from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is that the two parts in a concerto, the soloist and the orchestra or concert band, alternate episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music’s flow. (Wikipedia)

Perhaps I am drawn to the concerto as a form because it draws up the curtain that usually keeps us from peeping into Desolation Row–that it is capable of accommodating the need for security–woven together– while at the same time recognising & honoring the forces of disorder that continually threaten the comfortable, orderly, bourgeois art of a given period. And this is why artists like Bach & Wyatt are awkward: unlike the bourgeois conventional art of their time & place, they must struggle to find their way, wrong moves & all. In fact, it is the embodiment of those struggles in poetical or musical form that is the greatest & most admirable achievement of their work. Awkwardness, then, in my poetics, is a term of approbation, for beneath the apparently confused & difficult face such work presents, the most essential arguments are playing out. “Electricity howls in the bones of her face.”3

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Biography.
  2. c.f. Thomas Kuhn on ordinary science versus revolutionary science.
  3. Bob Dylan.

Favorite Poems: “Matty Groves” (“Little Musgrave”)

I’ve loved the Old English & Scottish Ballads since discovering them in high school–I came across them in both print & musical form at about the same time, in the college literature anthologies one of my teachers loaned me & on the early records of folk stars like Joan Baez & Buffy St. Marie. I came of age with the morally ambiguous stories of Lord Randall, Sir Patrick Spence, Matty Groves & others. I also came to love the ballad stanza’s mode of free but muscular expression & have adapted it pretty often in my own work, most recently in the manuscript I’ve just completed, River with Birds & Trees, in which every poem with four-line stanzas is effectively a free verse ballad, alternating long & short lines to develop my pieced-together narratives. Here is that standard list of variations & versions of “Matty Groves.”

My attraction to the ballad crystalized while I was in college with Dylan’s use of the form, as well as the recordings of traditional singers that proliferated in the 1970s. (I have to admit to a long-standing attraction to the pop-folk balladeer Donovan, especially his “Season of the Witch” with its fine line, “Must be the season of the witch / Beatniks out to make it rich . . .” “There is a Mountain,” & “Sand and Foam,” this last one a particularly fine example of the folk ballad put to popular use.) But the modernization of the traditional ballad can be said to date from Fairport Convention’s recording of “Matty Groves,” a ballad that goes back at least to the 17th century in Scotland, with a more English version of the same story going under the title “Little Musgrave.” In looking around on the internet this afternoon for links to some of these songs, I discovered a startlingly beautiful version of “Musgrave” by an acoustic band called Planxty, apparently of long standing, with whom I was not familiar. I recommend it.

Religious Poetry

I’ve been reading John Donne this week & consequently thinking about religious poetry. It took several years of Zen practice to enable me to go back to the Christian tradition of religious poetry. I’m writing a longer piece about these matters, but thought I’d post this song by rock & roller John Hiatt as an example of good religious poetry. One doesn’t expect to find a religious on a rock album, but there you have it.

Through Your Hands

You were dreaming on a park bench
‘Bout a broad highway somewhere
When the music from the carillon
Seemed to hurl your heart out there
Past the scientific darkness
Past the fireflies that float
To an angel bending down
To wrap you in her warmest coat

[Chorus:]
And you ask, “What am I not doing?”
She says “Your voice cannot command.
In time, you will move mountains,
And it will come through your hands.”

Still you argue for an option
Still you angle for your case
Like you wouldn’t know a burning bush
If it blew up in your face
Yeah, we scheme about the future
And we dream about the past
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts

[Chorus]

So whatever your hands find to do
You must do with all your heart
There are thoughts enough
To blow men’s minds and tear great worlds apart
There’s a healing touch to find you
On that broad highway somewhere
To lift you high
As music flying
Through the angel’s hair.

[Chorus]

“That Big Fat Moon’s Gonna Shine Like a Spoon . . .”

“. . . We’re gonna let it, you won’t regret it . . .” [Bob Dylan]

The moon does look rather like the shiny bowl of a spoon moving toward full about five days from now. I love how it rises later each night (think about it), making me wait 50 minutes longer than the night before. Tonight’s moon marks a month since we moved a bed out into the living room so I could have the window with its view of the river & trees & sky. The next few days will be the best for moon-viewing: like some old Chinese emperor, I will be able to recline & watch the almost-full, then full moon rise slowly through the branches of the maple, before it leaps clear of the tallest tree to glide over a gap of clear sky before settling back into the trees in West. It’s a slow movie but there is a lot of action.

Guy Clark Dead at 74

The NY Times obituary covers his career but fails, to my mind, to suggest the combination of verbal high wit & deep feeling evident in Clark’s best songs. When the wit failed, as it did occasionally, the songs could slip over into sentimentality, as in “The Randall Knife,” “El Coyote” & “Hemingway’s Whisky.” This happens most frequently when Clark decides to draw a moral or teach a lesson. Clark’s crowd pleaser “The Cape” should fail on these grounds, but doesn’t, saving the lesson through a self-deprecating tone & the slight distancing of a third-person point of view.

Different listeners will have their own favorites, but my nomination for Clark’s best song would be the middle-period “Dublin Blues” & the late-career “Hell Bent on a Heartache” or (from the same album, My Favorite Picture of You) “I’ll Show Me.” Finally, I’m not big on the “novelty” songs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” & “Texas Cookin’,” with the exception of “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis,” which in any case I hesitate to put in the novelty category.