“They’ve broken the music of the Organ because the musician has fallen asleep.”
- Michel Piccoli’s last words in the film Les Choses De La Vie
“Melody will always follow an echo if it’s pure . . .”
- Yuko Otomo from Sunday Poems
“ I feel nothing . . . There’s no more music in my head.”
- Marthe Keller in the Film The Formula
Language comes in all forms, and at times through simple or radical alterations one language becomes another without even a hint at the cause of the transformation. At other times it is expressed through direct movement, gesture, voice. There are as many variations in language as there are languages themselves. This article will explore the roles they play within the context of movement, dance, poetry, and in the case of Meredith Monk all three.
Monk’s Cellular Songs, recently at BAM, divided into continuously interlocking, flowing parts, and displayed little of what we would refer to as a discernible language. One section consisted of a piece called “Hey-nyo,” which sounded like Native American music. Monk’s language was reduced to and enhanced by whistles, trills, throat singing, and vocalese in all its available pitches. The importance of hands/fingers to sculpt their own language showed how much one can articulate through simple movement. Ditto with the choreography involved. What we were given was a network of information without the need to explain or articulate other than through the presentation of actions. We were filled with the absence of recognizable language yet supplied with endless stories. Everything was integral to the whole. Less persuasive and interesting was the long poem/piece “Happy Woman” that dealt with being a woman in every possible sense. The cast was comprised solely of women and a chorus of young girls, and all expressed the vital roles women play. The work is scored for piano, keyboard, and violin. As Monk states, “you can almost see or hear the piece rotating . . .”
Simone Forti and Cathy Weis got together to do their first ever duet at Cathy Weis Projects—which used to be Forti’s Loft. What made this occasion unique was again the use of language to describe an almost indescribable situation. Aside from back-and-forth personal banter, of which Forti came out the clear winner, what we were given was choreographed sets of movements devised by both dancers that represented components they were taught through physical therapy—Weis suffers from multiple sclerosis and Forti from Parkinson’s Disease. Their spirits were extremely high as they moved around the room, at times clinging to the wall while modifying and dissecting therapy by turning it into a new simple, poignant language. What made this so incredible and touching was the humor and strength the two showed and how both transformed one language into another, in this case one they have studied, taught, and embraced for years: DANCE.
Then there’s the language of poetry, the strength of which is proven in John Lunar Richey’s new book Dark Pastures (Iniquity Press/ Vendetta Books, 2018), a selection of old and new songs and poems. Richey is no stranger to the scene. He has played with such greats as Thomas Chapin in the cult band Machine Gun, as well as in the bands Lunar Bear Ensemble and Lunar Ensemble along with musicians like Bob Musso. As Danny Shot puts it in his blurb, this book is “the story of a life . . . as impossible as it sounds, decadent and innocent simultaneously.” The work is dark, at times frightening, but also tender. Some poems deal with ecology, and when I hear him read them they often scare the hell out of me. Ditto some of the ways he deals with sex. Yet whatever extreme he takes we feel deep down inside the beating heart that wants nothing more than peace and an end to all frustrating madness. “Beauty rooted within the pure flower we nurture lovingly between the hopelessness . . .” In a poem for Chapin he writes “how freely our music expressed—understanding the (e)motion—moving in the direction of NOW . . . our angels and demons dancing into nothingness . . .” From the title poem: “Between lovers, sinners, kings, queens, slaves and friends, where is the light? . . . sometimes I feel . . . like opening my arms up wide. Let the blood run right out of me.” Yet from that same heart/mind we get “she parts her lips, taking me inside her memories.” “Bring in your guitar / Bring in your mother / There’s nothing like Sloppy Joe / Playing Beethoven’s 5th . . .” Pick this book up. Hear it speak.
Speaking of Danny Shot, another Jersey poet and much beloved retired high school English teacher whose work comes deep from the soul and is brimming over with wisdom, we have one from him titled WORKS (CavanKerry Press, 2018) with a photo of a dead fire hydrant in front of a graffiti-strewn brick wall on the cover. The book deals with Shot’s experiences as a Jersey boy but extends well beyond that to the haunts of Manhattan where he has spent much of his time. He fills the pages with love and honesty and, like Richey, is often dark yet hopeful. One poem in the book is written for Richey and the Lunar Bear Ensemble. “Guess where I am? . . . the Court Tavern, but it’s an old man’s bar now, and I think I’m one of the old men . . . This is what my being needs a healing night of music. . . where. . . concerns about aging are useless . . . because I am alive and the music is loud / and the beer is cheap / and the crowd is real / and my soul is clean. . .” The son of a holocaust survivor, Shot has an inside track on the horrors that go on in the world, and he expresses these with dark humor in such poems as “Family Values”: “Everyone hates the Jews / Look where it got Jesus.” Or “Be aware of Christian anxiety during the holidays . . .” He takes one of his heroes, Amiri Baraka to task for writing “Somebody Blew Up America.” He writes lovingly about his family and students. He speaks of his mentally ill sister with unbridled compassion. He praises his friends like fellow poet Eliot Katz and throughout the book the music sustains him: “I felt bad today for telling you that / Kanye’s “Bound 2” / was the worst song I ever heard. / You said you really liked it and said no more than that / . . . I . . . listened to it . . . again and again . . . I still don’t love it. But I don’t hate it either. / I realized being young, / or not too old means / listening with fresh ears, / being able to hear the beauty or truth that someone else can hear.” He shows us the world as it really is. This is a book filled with every emotion one could ever have wrapped in a package of clarity and vision.
I’ve discussed before how the use of music in film to express, enhance, embody, or blend with the action/dialogue can be either a distraction or an equal partner. At their best they create a third language. In the recently unearthed nine hour Rainer Werner Fassbinder made-for-TV masterpiece Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, we have that perfect marriage. In the wedding of café scenes, Fassbinder uses Leonard Cohen, Neil Young (singing Hank Williams), The Stones (“Lady Jane” in just the right place), Elvis, The Platters (“Only You” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”)—at perfect times during the wedding, then later by a schmaltzy quartet of bad local “jazz” musicians during the dance scenes—or the Everly Brothers singing “Problems” while problems are erupting on film, surpasses brilliance and creates that third language.
I highly recommend drummer Jeff Cosgrove’s latest CD Hunters and Scavengers (Grizzly Music) with masters Scott Robinson, reeds, and Ken Filiano, bass. I first encountered Cosgrove in concert with Matthew Shipp and William Parker. Quiet, unimposing and humble, I knew he was someone to be reckoned with. On this outing, from the first dramatic/dark note Cosgrove and the others explore improvised and composed pieces created by each member, plus a totally new and inspired version of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman.” The CD changes and modifies (s)pace as it slips, almost invisibly, from one track, one intensity, to another, the three giving total support to each other and with Robinson’s voice always shifting patterns as he shifts instruments. This is an outing of unparalleled togetherness.
Language is an organism (exract):
bundle of information / parody of brains / residue / residuals
i am a survivor of language / host to language seeds & social interaction
we are . . . (the final) conductors / a new language of complex codes . . . biologies / we all don’t end up with the same language / language makes us human / language grows inside us . . . stimulus / nice way to do things / establish an order / boring uncomplicated sentences / x amount of time for x amount of crime . . . an inf(l)ection / special modulations . . . given . . . the dialect produced . . . producing co-reference . . . / when the new form is formed . . . establish an order . . . natural se(l)ection—a missing idea / how our traits are passed down / destroy & reproduce our learning processes . . . implanted communications excised from our brains / sorting the trees along the pathway / the highway / the trail that leads to MAN / who goes no WHERE / which leads NO where…