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PORES - A Journal of Poetics Research

Shadowy Hush Twilight: Two Collaborations with Susan Howe

- David Grubbs

[a shorter version of this piece appeared in the Chicago Review 55, no. 1 (Winter 2010)]


In my collaborations with Susan Howe, my role is that of a musician and composer, but in the early 1990s, I was a graduate student in English literature at the University of Chicago, studying modern poetry.  I was interested in the writing of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky, especially as it related to music.  The only criticism that I published at this time was a short essay on Pound’s Theory of Harmony that appeared in an issue of     Paideuma.  It was then that I first encountered Susan’s work, and what appealed to me most powerfully were her two books of criticism: My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History.  To generalize wildly, I was in thrall to much poetry but to very little writing about poetry.  The stylistic divide between the poetry that excited me and the manner in which it was handled in much criticism seemed distressingly broad.  I saw Susan read from The Birth-Mark not long after it was published, and I remember loving those moments in her talk when her writing changes register without warning, when sentences unravel into lines of poems that stay unwritten, that register as shards.  Susan’s critical works struck me as a satisfying, promising continuation of that tradition in criticism of which Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael was for me the most meaningful example.  In the end, I ceased writing about poetry within my course of academic study. 

My first attempt at a dissertation was a status report on interdisciplinarity, taking the reception of John Cage in three separate disciplines as a test case.  These disciplines were poetry, visual art, and an emerging field of sound art, considered separately from music composition.  My experience was that these three fields knew relatively little about one another, and that there wasn’t much in the way of cross-talk among disciplines.  The project quickly assumed the tone of a jeremiad, and I abandoned it.  In the end, I wrote a dissertation about historicizing 1960s musical avant-gardes through their sound recordings — trying to take into account composers’ and performers’ period attitudes towards having their work represented in the form of a recording.  That project’s originating insight was that many of the new genres among musical avant-gardes in the 1960s — indeterminate musics, long-duration minimalism, live electronic music, Happenings, free improvisation, and so on — were predicated on their not being able to be adequately represented in the form of a recording.  Following Cage’s example, sound recording was held in especially low regard.  As Cage said in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “The reason they’ve no / music in Texas / is because / they have recordings / in Texas. / Remove the records from Texas / and someone / will learn to sing.”  Where similar attitudes exist at present, they have taken on a different valence.  The methodological question becomes one of accounting for differences in attitudes towards mediation between the present moment and this earlier period. 

Anyway, changing topics in my own criticism freed me up to go back to reading poetry.

One morning in 2003, I awoke to an invitation from the Fondation Cartier to create a collaborative work with Susan.  (It turned out later that the performance group Goat Island had proposed pairing the two of us, and for this I will be forever grateful.)  Susan and I met to discuss the project, and we gravitated towards working on performance versions of her poems “Thorow” and “Melville’s Marginalia”—in part because these had been published in French translation.  We eventually decided that we would create a bilingual performance version together with the French poet Dominique Fourcade.

Before we started talking about the poems themselves, I remember Susan telling me about a number of her most profound encounters with collisions of sound, text, and image.  These included Carl Andre’s poems, Joseph Beuys’ lectures, and a series of Agnes Martin’s paintings that include a single word of text.  But the example that seemed the most apropos of our task was a story that Susan told of John Cage performing sometime in the 1970s at a New Year’s Eve event at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project.  The venue was packed to bursting with performers and audience members, and Cage read excerpts from Mureau—a mesostic work based on the journals of Henry David Thoreau—to an extraordinary silence in the midst of what had been a chaotic, carnivalesque atmosphere.  Cage’s reading made a profound impression on her—in its nuance, in its alien musicality, and in what it asked of its audience.  As a performance it was both impossible and unnecessary to classify as music or literature or theater. 

“Thorow” was the first piece that we decided to tackle.  I primarily work with conventional musical instruments, and I was of two minds about using instruments that I had worked with before.  I decided that I needed to bracket making decisions about the instrumentation or the arrangement, and that I should begin with Susan’s reading, which is so marvelously detailed.  Thus I recorded Susan reading “Thorow” in my living room, in a comfortable, informal setting.  At first I thought that her voice should be the only source material for the piece.  I was particularly interested in the way that she read the third and final section of the poem.  This is the section in which the lines of have been cut apart and scattered; individual words and even individual letters are broken.  There is one page that could be read from top to bottom, and it’s also printed 180 degrees its opposite.  As a listener, I found Susan’s reading enthralling; as a reader, I found it enlightening.  In performing the text, she cuts words in a way that to me sounds like audio tape and a razor blade.  The very word “thiefth”—the poem’s final spat-out utterance, and the title of the CD on which “Thorow” appears—proposes an analogy between our respective methods in its quality of having been spliced together from two sources.  It’s difficult to tell in the final version of the piece which pops and snaps and violent interruptions were created in my editing and recomposing, and which ones occurred in that first but completely electrifying performance in my living room—electrifying because both informal and impassioned.

Rather than using the computer as a real-time musical instrument, I approached the software as a means of creating a collage.  I began by trusting my eyes.  It was a slow, involving, repetitive, occasionally meditative process of collaging tiny sonic elements, of scattering with deliberations and deliberateness.  “Scattering” in this context is obviously in quotation marks, because it’s a relatively slow process to place these fragments by hand.  To give an example, I might create an event in which eight individual syllables are lined up to sound simultaneously; I would then begin to push and pull them in time, listening, muting some and emphasizing others through equalization or by altering the stereo image.  I typically have a method in mind and an end in sight when I begin work on a piece, and this was one of the rare instances in which I truly did not.

After a period of working with Susan’s voice, it seemed to me that this approach might work for a self-contained section of the piece, but that I would need additional sound material.  It had started to seem too showy — the idea that everything would be generated from her voice.  The scatter effect needed to be contained within the final section.  Once again I needed a place to begin.  Susan and I had talked a bit about Charles Ives, and especially his second piano sonata, which is also known as the “Concord” Sonata.  It’s in four movements, and the fourth movement is entitled “Thoreau.”  Near the end of the “Thoreau” movement, there is a brief part for flute that’s meant to represent Thoreau playing his flute by the edge of Walden Pond.  Of Thoreau, Ives said, “He didn’t need to go to Boston to hear the symphony.”  I asked the Swedish reed player Mats Gustafsson to record variations on the flute theme from Ives’ “Thoreau” on the fluteophone, which is an instrument that he created by jamming a saxophone mouthpiece into the body of a flute.  Mats did so, and tossed in some baritone saxophone variations for good measure.  In the end, I found the baritone variations particularly satisfying—especially when further lowered in pitch, so that they sound like someone dragging heavy furniture across a wooden floor.  The pitch-altered baritone sax creates a unique striated sound, like someone — like a large someone — running out of breath, which is so different from the relatively airy and colorless fluteophone sound.  In “Bartleby the Scrivener” there’s a description of Bartleby’s quick, flute-like voice, and that’s a quality that I desired.  Finally, the Ives flute part is not recognizable as a musical quotation, and that’s fine with me.  Its purpose was to help find a place to begin.

The other piece that we made at the same time is “Melville’s Marginalia.”  The sound material for “Melville’s Marginalia” comes from several very different sources.  One is the sound of dripping and cracking; the back window in my apartment had been frozen one winter — covered with a sheet of ice — and my roof was leaking as the snow and ice melted, and it made a diverse, unpredictable collection of small sounds.  In those recordings, you hear a distant airplane and the various effects that come from pointing a stereo microphone at a window, a seemingly empty frame.  The other sound material that I used was music that I wrote and recorded for the piano combined with a short sample from a recording of a Baroque violin concerto, and if I had to do it again I’d say that I think that my instincts were right with “Thorow” to avoid quotation and overt reference to a clearly recognizable instrument.

I should take a step back at this point to say that these collaborations are two different things.  First, they are sound recordings.  That’s the medium in which they are created, and I think of the CD releases of these recordings as publications.  Second, we have developed performance versions of these pieces.  The performance versions take the recordings as starting points, but as yet they haven’t strayed too far from the templates or scores that are the recorded versions.  The performances consist of Susan’s reading and my live mixing of recorded elements, as well as acoustic instruments played live — such as the piano on “Melville’s Marginalia” and the Laotian free-reed instrument called the khaen on “Souls of the Labadie Tract.” 

I also want to observe that early in the process I move away from the printed version of the poem.  In working on a new piece with Susan, I tend to read and reread the poem, almost numbingly so.  Then I record her reading the poem, and I listen to the recording again and again.  I have come to know these poems in a manner in which I had never before encountered or lived with poetry.  One of the most pleasurable parts of the process for me has been having individual lines or sections of the poems get stuck in my head in endlessly looping fragments, which becomes the marvelous obverse of the annoying song that gets stuck in your brain.  Once I start working on the sonic elements for one of these collaborations, I rarely refer back to the printed version of the poem.  I have yet to make a physical mark on my copy of “Thorow” or “Melville’s Marginalia” or “Souls of the Labadie Tract.”  Interestingly, I have noted that every time Susan and I rehearse or perform one of these pieces, that she is adding another layer of marks to her manuscript versions — usually in colored pencil — and that these have become fascinatingly detailed, very beautiful performance scripts.  I am always peering over her shoulder, watching these texts undergo further transformation.

Two years after we completed collaborative versions of “Thorow” and “Melville’s Marginalia,” we started work on a longer, at the time unpublished poem entitled “Souls of the Labadie Tract.”  “Souls of the Labadie Tract” began with Susan’s genealogical research into Wallace Stevens’ family.  Stevens’ wife Elsie Kachel Moll Stevens had been related to a family named “Labadie.”  The Labadists were followers of Jean de Labadie, founder of a utopian quietist sect in the Netherlands, who emigrated to what is now Cecil County, Maryland.  The Labadists owned property collectively, and also raised children in this manner.  The sect lasted only a few years in the New World, and one of the few things to remain to mark their time in Maryland is reference on a map to a tree called the “lappadee poplar.”  “Souls of the Labadie Tract” consists of a prose introduction and a number of short, regular poems; Susan described it to me as a graveyard poem, and likened the individual poems, surrounded as they are by the space of the page, to a collection of tombstones.  She offered to show me a photo of a cemetery in Ireland that had a similar feel to what she was striving for.

In selecting musical source material for “Souls of the Labadie Tract,” I wanted to avoid duplicating any of the elements that were used in “Thorow” or “Melville’s Marginalia.”  I also wanted to steer clear of recognizable musical instruments, and I chose not to fragment Susan’s voice through editing.  I had the idea that foreground-background relations — which had been relatively conventional in the earlier pieces — should be altered, even if this meant longer, unaccompanied stretches for both performers.  I made the decision to pare down my source material to one acoustic instrument and one electronic instrument.  I chose a Laotian free-reed instrument called the khaen and an early analog synthesizer, the VCS3.  I immediately liked what the two were capable of doing in tandem, as a single, compound instrument.  (When Bennett Simpson wrote about “Souls of the Labadie Tract” in Artforum, he likened the combination of the reed instrument and the electronics to the combination that adds up to a pipe organ, and it was a comparison that instantly made sense, and one that I found gratifying.  I was already in the habit of describing this music as “churchy,” but I hadn’t thought of the newly created instrument — the khaen plus the VCS3 — in terms of a pipe organ.)   

I’m fond a number of aspects of the musical part of this piece, but the most pleasurable element of it for me has been to hear this remarkable poem read aloud again and again, both live and in recorded form, now perhaps having heard it in the dozens of times.

Where next?  We’re as yet undecided about the poem that will be the basis for the next collaboration.  I’m stuck on a motto: no foreground; no background.  No accompaniment.  In this regard, John Cage’s collaborations with David Tudor still seem like instructive precedents.  I have asked Susan for recordings that are meaningful to her; I wish it were the case that people made and kept audio recordings in the same way that they make and keep collections of photos.

I can’t stress enough how different I find working on music with Susan and writing criticism.  When I write criticism, I gather materials.  I try to be responsible for understanding my object of study as a whole.  I read the work of other critics.  I give others’ ideas their proper due.  I find myself trying to account for the state of criticism around a particular individual or textual object.  There have been times that, as a critic, I have felt a certain degree of paralysis in having too many other critic-commentators to whom I feel compelled to respond.  Working on these pieces, I try to develop a sufficient understanding or feel for a given poem so that I can move forward.  I didn’t, for example, go back to read criticism of “Thorow” or “Melville’s Marginalia,” which is what I would have done had I been writing an essay about these works, instead of writing music or designing sound to accompany them.  I have found this tremendously freeing — to set aside the printed text.  I can’t think of these poems without hearing Susan’s voice and the precise, fascinating choices that she makes in rendering these marks audible.

Two years ago, Susan and I spoke together at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  I’d like to conclude with something that Susan said that day, as she reflected on her sense of the sonic potential of the written word, and what this potential has meant for her own work:

I just have to say that I’ve done a lot of work with
manuscripts.  Emily Dickinson, particularly, and I think her
late manuscripts should be shown as drawings. . . . 
[Joseph] Beuys said one of the most wonderful things in
one of his lectures, that I always say now when I’m trying
to persuade people about manuscripts.  He said that “every
mark on paper is an acoustic signal.”  That is something I
truly believe.  Every piece of a letter, every shape of a
letter, every word, how words are placed on the
page, the minute you put a mark on a page, it’s acoustic.

Then she paused and thought.  It was a long pause.  She gave her listeners time to reflect on the many things that could be understood by this curious formulation: “Every mark on paper is an acoustic signal.”  What does it mean?  What does it mean to Susan?  Does it mean that every mark is capable of being translated into sound?  Does it mean that every mark waits to be translated into its unique, determinate sound?  Should the emphasis in this particular quotation — “every mark on paper is an acoustic signal” — be the suggestion that encoded within visual imagery is the experience of duration? 

It was with this statement with that Susan concluded an introduction to her own work.  There was a long pause.  She also seemed to be weighing the many things that this statement could mean.  It was an especially rich silence. 

Then she said, “OK.  That’s enough.”


The Susan Howe & David Grubbs seminar at Birkbeck College on October 7th 2009, as well as their South Bank Centre performance of 'Souls of the Labadie Tract' are available online - click here for details




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