meeting of worlds: words in a warehouse

Not the London Word Festival.

Since Sunday I’ve had people asking me what the London Word Festival performance was like, so I’ve decided to write a really proper review. Like what I used to do more of.

The evening was so interesting, and so dense, that it’s almost too hard to know where to get into it from. (Like the building. Apparently nobody finds it first go. It’s so groovy it’s practically impossible to see. Once inside, past the corridor lined with plywood sheets into a room with black-painted brickwork walls and secondhand sofas dotted around, someone said: “Y’know, it would’ve been good if they’d at least finished sellotaping and blutacking the venue together…”)

The venue was definitely part of the fun – and the wine was cheap – though I quipped that the lights were shining straight into my glaucoma all night, and indeed they were. My eyes are not quite back to happy yet.

The tone was set by the first act. McGillivray, a very serious, pretty  singer, made much use of digital recordings and blowing sounds, which then grew like the wind and turned out to be folk songs with their melodies stretched and scratched. It was very 21st century digital and post-momodern, and very old, mysterious, wolf-laden, with a kind of echoing ghostliness that seems so much a part of  – I don’t know – youth… (I know I’m not as old as ALL that, but I do find that things just become less mysterious as you go on. Either that or you  just accept that you don’t get it. I was powerfully reminded of myself in my late teens and early 20s – right down to her black velvet skirt and little vintage jacket. Very cute.)

Then came Hannah Silva, a performance poet – artist – er – who speaks, then fractures her words by speaking them again in random order, repeating or skipping skip skip ski repeating her artist random repeat performance then fractured her order speaking poet poet poet repeating her speaks her er you get the idea. She was very funny, and much better than that.  As a feat it was really astonishing. She can go really fast.

She had a story – which I believed, as it kind of reminded me of my sister, but which she later told me wasn’t true – about being a kid and on a nature walk at school, and the  head teacher’s Wittgensteinian insistence that they HAD to learn the names of the trees; he said, “if you don’t know the names of the things in the world, you will never be able to appreciate it.” This bit is true. But then she says, so she learned them all backwards, and recites them all backwards. Wanor. Rif. Hcrib. Then she says that she only spoke backwards for a year, whereupon he was taken from school and slowly began to talk normally again.

Well, frankly, given her dexterity, you can easily believe that she did this! And even if she didn’t, it is a really good take on what the meanings are of language itself, as an entity. My sister used to say words however she wanted. She’d throw them into sentences, confusingly.

I’d say: “That’s not how you say that. It’s like [correct word].”

She’d go,”Well it’s how I say it.”

I’d go, “Yeah but if you say it like that you’ll be wrong.”

She;d go, it’s not wrong. It’s the way I do it.

I’d go, “And no one will know what you’ re talking about.” Horrified, really.

She’d go, “I don’t care.”

Dear God in Heaven. I can still feel how this used to make me quiver all over with fury. She also used to repeat everything I said, even unto the part where I start calling for my mother to tell her what my sister is doing to me, even following me around the house to do it – and then I’d get in trouble for hitting her. Kids, eh. I’m sure there are very valuable lessons and meditations in there, once again, about the uses of language and the purposes of human communication – interaction, even – and Hannah Silva drew them out like poison from a snake bite. It was, in the context of a night based on a long poem, very interesting indeed.

Then there were some palindromes.

One thing struck me. Not one act of the night didn’t rely on some kind of digitisation or sound effects. Pre-recorded voices, used so you didn’t know they were pre-recorded, until you did… that moment when the mouth shuts and the sound continues. Except for Hannah Silva, and her shtick was to make her own speech sound like a recording – a recording manipulated, at that.You don’t get this in the usual poetry readings I go to – not the performancey ones, either. It was incredibly refreshing to be in a completely different environment.

Peter Finch reading at Poor.Old.Tired.Horse., ICA, 2009*

Then we had Peter Finch – someone I admire a lot and had heard a lot about his readings, but had never heard read – (I mean the distinguished Welsh sound poet and head of Academi, not the Peter Finch who was mad as hell and not going to take it any more). He began with a recording that sounded abstract and then turned out to be something to do with Taliesin, the great Welsh bard of the Mabinogion, in Middle Welsh… This was followed by a story that became a running anecdote about the Swedish Sound Poets of the seventies, who would set their 8-track to play and leave the stage, and the audience would sit there for 50 minutes, listening…

Peter Finch has a very rounded view of what is a poem; his own work spans the field, and he isn’t all caught up in the prosceletysing aspects of it. He works with all kinds of people and his poetry shows that. Openness! Ahoy! Click the link above to see his compendious website.

Poems of words broken into sounds, sounds patched back together into words, humour, suggestion, history, politics: he gave a riveting and very good-natured performance which I wish for his sake had had more poetry lovers at it and fewer folk fans… though they seemed to like him too. As you will hear later, there was some crossover audience-gaining, which is part of the goodness of an event like this. He read the audience right, and it was great to hear him read.

Taliesin, of course, has one of the most suggestive passages in Briggflatts:

I hear Aneurin number the dead and rejoice,
being adult male of a merciless species.
Today’s posts are piles to drive into the quaggy past
on which impermanent palaces balance.
I see Aneurin’s pectoral muscle swell under his shirt,
pacing beetween the game Ida left to rat and raven,
young men, tall yesterday, with cabled thighs.
Red deer move less warily since their bows dropped.
Girls in Teesdale and Wesleydale wake discontent.
Clear Cymric voices carry well this autumn night,
Aneurin and Taliesin, cruel owls
for whom it is never altogether dark, crying
before the rules made poetry a pedant’s game.
Columba, Columbanus, as the soil shifts in its vest,
Aidan and Cuthbert put on daylight…

Now to the main act. Leafcutter John is  a very serious musician, of the kind it is good to watch at work. He is an exponent of “folktronica” (pace his vaguely-seventies-style folky-electronic concept album The Forest and the Sea) and a member of a rising “experimental post-jazz” band called Polar Bear. (I’m listening to them now on Spotify!) He was commissioned by the London Word Festival to put Briggflatts to a musical setting.

The basis was a recording of Basil Bunting reading the poem. I had wondered – and, truth be told, fretted a little – but no, it was Bunting. It’s very hard to describe music, especially this kind of music. But basically, there were periods when it was just Bunting reading. I wondered how the fur-hatted hipster audience in the slapped-together warehouse space were reacting to an old man declaiming with rolled r’s… Leafcutter John interposed sounds on the voice, some digitally – as in white noise, or steady tones – and some with instruments – his beautiful green guitar – or objects. Pebbles rubbed on a drum pan (“each pebble its part/ for the fells’ late spring”… “fingertips checking,/ till the stone spells a name,/ naming none… “Fingers/ ache on the rubbing stone”). A red laser torch shone on some metal switchbox, the feedback stopped with a hand, several times. A balloon, blown up and squeaking slowly to a halt like a dying wild animal. A triangle. A laptop. A violin bow – used on the guitar frets, on the edge of a cymbal, on various other objects.

The pace was nice. The poem had been edited for length, and sensitively. Bits were lost, but that’s unavoidable. There were silences and musical interludes, and plenty of Bunting. The overall effect in places recalled the old tramp singing in Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.** That was an interesting sensation. A slightly awkward one, given that the poem is a rich and deep work of art in its own right, created with the intention of having just this much attention lavished on itself alone. But that’ll maybe be the part of me that was so outraged by my sister.

What Leafcutter John produced, in the end, was a sound poem, or a mood piece, almost stream-of-consciousness, full of muted colour. It is clearly a response to what he hears in Bunting’s recording, rather than in any way an hommage to, say, the poem’s structure, or a mirror of its poetic devices. He told me that although he has listened to the poem over and over again daily for two months, he made a conscious decision not to read it. He wanted to engage with it as sound. He said he lost all feeling for it though this repetition, but that in the performance he fell completely back in love with it again , and this showed.

I think, judging it purely as a work of art, it is in one way a brilliant commission on Tom Chivers’ part, and in another, purist, way not entirely successful. (I’d like to say that I thought the event as a whole was extremely well curated: far more insightfully arranged and thoughtful than many poetry events I’ve been to.) The question, possibly unfair, was: is what we are listening to of equal weight to the original poem? I think not; and part of the point of Bunting’s long poems is their intense relationship with Modernist music, and their sonata structure. This freeflowing, mood-piece approach is great with the abstractness of the poem, with its rural settings and time-shifts and lack of narrative continuity. But to really echo the Bunting – and how many poems it is considered that important to have listened to, as well as read? – I’d have said the piece would have had to pay more attention to the prosody, sound repetitions, vowels and consonants, even the spondees I mentioned the other day, and to incorporate more of the poet’s architecture.

Also, taken purely as a musical experience, I’m thinking maybe there was too much Bunting; maybe he stole the show a little bit.

beside the Rawthey, Cumbria, 1980; © Jonathan Williams 1994

Having said which, there was a great sense of occasion and, because of the youth of the artist and audience, also a sense of – well, I’m not sure what. It was something very good, though. New and old merging, layering, and that’s apparent in the digital folk that gave me such scary déja vu.

So I did really like the music. That’s a different question. I’m really glad I’ve discovered Leafcutter John and Polar Bear. Oh yes!

Btw, on the Amazon page for their latest album, Peepers, someone has written in a review: “And the last track? Well I think Robert Wyatt should be contacted and asked to write a vocal over it!”

* Your truly reviewed this exhibition at some length for The London Magazine, but I couldn’t make it to Chris McCabe’s reading event, which this image is from. Image Caroline Ward for cc Media.

** Many thanks to Simon Barraclough, who kindly pointed out to me that I had originally typed “Saved” instead of”Failed” – talk about a Freudian slip!

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