by Eliot Cardinaux
Recently, a teacher of mine (Tanya Kalmanovitch of the New England Conservatory) offered an assignment to “set” to music 2 or 3 poems or stanzas from the famous “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by a poet named Wallace Stevens. Since, in the spirit of writers like Stevens, there is no one way of looking at a blackbird, I decided to offer musicians a chance to take what was given in the score and adapt it to whichever way they sought to see it, up to a point.
The gestures, mainly, have contours, phrase lengths, a general distribution of sound and space among instruments, but there is no meter, no bar-lines; the reading is left up to the musicians, in the moment, on site of performance.
One of these, which features mandolinist Alec Whiting and guitarist Wendy Eisenberg, is based on a text that had particular resonance for me.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
A sound that is pleasing to the ear, having the quality of euphony, is governed in Stevens’ poetry by its “bawds.” An obvious pun on “bard,” it cheekily side-steps the question of aesthetics in favor of movement: “At the sight of blackbirds / Flying in a green light…” Another stanza I set from the “Thirteen Ways” was “Among twenty snowy mountains / The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird.” So even the littlest movement can have the greatest impact.
What I am trying to do through these little scores is to open up space for improvisers to think freely, and to move freely about and within the context of a composed work. The blackbird itself, in Stevens’ writing, holds the seat of power over “lesser” things, such as bawdiness or euphony. What strikes me as the reader in this case, is that the blackbird – as a “thing” – has no essence besides its own. It is singular: it is as it is seen – flying in a green light – and might cause anyone, even the greatest, most attuned masters of sweet sounds, to cry out sharply. There’s a little bit of power there, I think.
But my point is, there are endless configurations of meaning that can come out of these fragments of language. If only one were the way it had to be read, or played, the poetry would end there. And so would the music, in my opinion.
Through improvisation in and around a basic score, or mood, or contour, shape, or anyway you want to put it… the score can come alive. I often improvise as I compose, letting the pen take over, or something anyway… something which moves my hand with a vision more uniquely its own than “mine.” To raise a point that Tanya made, so often ownership is a classic stance of the author/composer over his work. If an author could really fully own his or her work, it would stay on the shelf and never enter the world.
What I mean to bring up through these scores is a way of showing that musicians don’t need to follow the classic “ownership” stance to the fullest extent of “the law” when performing someone else’s music, or when it comes to a composition written by a “Composer” with a capital C. What I am trying to draw out of these musicians is a different approach – or even finding the means to varying approaches each time – their own means – to improvisation over form – that the moment can always succeed, but only if we let it take over, at least somewhat, and remain alert to each other and listening. The past is elusive, but the present will always bring out the essence of the music we’re playing. Otherwise I might have to quit while I’m behind.