Friday, January 09, 2009

The Grand Piano Notes


“The obvious analogy is with music.” What’s compelling about Lyn Hejinian’s “voice” is its consistently interrogatory tone. That and the nobody’s-dummy integrity of commitment, the genuine curiosity, the unwavering willingness to try out (and possibly reject) ideas, all deliver’d with clarity and care. In The Grand Piano 7, Hejinian provides a fascinating summary of (mostly) the improvised music scene in the Bay Area environs in (mostly) the ’seventies, a report happily inflect’d by Hejinian’s long-standing connection with Larry Ochs, a member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, with a kind of insider’s look (she signals an indebtedness to both Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin of the Quartet for “names, dates, histories,” &c.) at the history and strategies of such music. (A list of “‘games’ that served as pedagogical tools and as instigating constraints for group improvisation” work’d out by Allaudin Mathieu and George Marsh in the late ’sixties is terrific. Things like: “‘Sparse as Possible’ asks the musicians to play as little as they possibly can and still be playing. The resulting economy thins and clarifies the texture.” Or: “‘Gather Ye’ is a texture game where you play only what you hear the others playing.” One jumps to think of ways to “apply” such rules to writing.) Hejinian’s focus throughout points both to formal (syntactic) concerns in the new musics, and to political / social (semantic) concerns. It is (mostly) only at the end that the “obvious analogy” is made, making a tentative parallel between musical strategies and the activities of some of the language writers:
Cultural history shows that people can make art that is little affected by the political climate of its historical moment. But, we argued, to fail to be conscious of the social problems of one’s time and to be unresponsive to the political climate was to risk being complicitous with it. We wanted to believe that our critiques of syntax (linguistic, in the case of the Language writers, musical in the case of Rova) were tantamount to critiques of social structures, and that the deconstruction and reinvention of syntax would result in new (and better) social semantics. Bruce [Ackley] thought that art could be transformative in just the way direct political action (protest marches, and so on) can be, and he insisted that art should transform its audience. He says now that although it was probably naive to expect art to affect specific actions or social transformations, he still believes it can and should inspire—force—people to think.
The tone here is unmistakably elegiac: see “We wanted to believe” and “probably naïve to expect.” One detects a mite of fatigue in the parenthetical “(protest marches, and so on),” as if the manifest possibilities for direct action exist’d only elsewhere, in the gone youth of “all that.” The rhetorical move in the paragraph into what “Bruce thought” is an odd one: a distancing maneuver, allowing someone else to admit the failure of the experiment, how syntactical disruptings and interventions absolutely fail’d to transform society. Fail’d, even, to avoid the primary means (academia) through which—as Hejinian notes earlier—“corporate America” manages “to coopt, commercialize, and mainstream the signifiers and signifying systems of [any] counterculture, banalizing its most visible forms of self-representation.” Failure of a necessary attempt.

One measure of Hejinian’s honesty (and good humor). She reports how, in 1976, with Ochs on tenor sax, a guitarist, two “visual / performance artists” (one being Doug Hall, Hejinian’s brother), and another woman who end’d up in fashion (“she ‘dresses’ Dolly Parton and Barbara Streisand”), she perform’d (under the monicker of the Northern Fictions Consort):
I played “little instruments”—bells, clappers, sticks—and we sang and recited texts that I had written. . . . We wore clear plastic masks, which were simultaneously depersonalizing and spectral. Without expressive identities to carry it, the music took on an episodic, theatrical character.
The assessment: “Larry and I remember the performance as awful, and Larry is trying to persuade me to destroy the cassette that is the only recording of the group.” Of two witnesses: one says, “one of the important events of the period”; one, “didn’t like it.” When Hejinian gets to describing a “midnight performance of [John Zorn’s] Theater of Musical Optics” that play’d in Hejinian’s basement in 1977 (“it took place on a ‘game board’ . . . no bigger than the traditional Monopoly board. . . . John improvised silently with little objects—miniature toys, found objects, bits of natural flotsam—that he moved around on the game board, placing them in different relationship to each other. The relationships were all about the compression and expansion of time and space, but they weren’t only about position; they also involved the perceptual shifting and incompatibility of scale. A miniature metal car, for example, was some one one-thousandth (or one ten-thousandth) of its ‘real’ size, while a button, say, or a shell or pebble was its real size. The performance lasted about an hour, during which the silent, changing events together created something—a shape, a structure—which was far closer to a cosmology than to a narrative.” Hejinian calls it “beautiful and upsetting,” and though the conceptual frame Hejinian provides is intriguing, witnessing the execution sounds, frankly, “awful.”

One question: after pointing to corporate America’s inevitable coopting of the forms of self-representation (previously quoted), Hejinian writes: “Indeed, before long representation itself was seized by corporate powers, to become a province over which it continues to exercise subtle but maximal control.” How, exactly? The statement, in the midst of Hejinian’s usual candor, seems both rhetorically empty, and excessive. “Subtle but maximal.”


In one notebook:
“Dictionary’d all out—
Ash to dhirty”

In a second
Notebook: “Cabbin’d, cribb’d,
Confin’d am I—

At home in
A begrim’d heart.”
Concerning the pied

Type, page smutched,
Lines foully attended:
“Pawking the undeliverable—”

Bringing Home the New Music