Stunted sentences

by craigepplin

I saw a performance by these folks last night at the Stone. Truly incredible. I walked home electrified by what I had seen and heard.

A flute, a recorder, a trombone and a piano, a soprano and two poets reading: this was the ensemble. The first piece began with musical fragments, as if the instruments were having a conversation, their voices sometimes overlapping, sometimes taking turns. The poet Jackson Mac Low spoke over them. He read three poems, each of their titles corresponding to a different instrument. The poems themselves were made up almost entirely of words constructed from the letters of the instrument’s name. Trombone, for example, yielded words like bore, more, tone, tome, bone, om. If the instruments themselves carried out a stunted conversation, here was language manifesting itself within constraints. It was a reminder of the constraints that structure any conversation.

Other pieces included the voice of Anne Tardos, among them one where she and Jackson Mac Low uttered incomprehensible phonemes into the microphone. I was reminded of Huidobro, whose Altazor ends with a descent into pure sound. Except that in that poem, the vowel wins out over the consonant:  “Io ia / i i i o / Ai a i ai a i i i i o ia.” Last night was the contrary, highlighting the vocal stoppage of consonant pronunciation. The effect was magnified by the trombone, whose halting interjections also recalled half-words, inscrutable letter combinations.

There was a brief piano solo and a piece where the flutist played only the mouthpiece, creating all manner of effect with his hands and fingers. The final piece was a series of words seeming spoken at random (I’d love to see the score to get a handle on the logic of the sequence) over music. Over music? This isn’t obvious, for it would be just as fair to say that the music spoke over the words.

That, in fact, was the effect that I left with: that this was a performance of words becoming music and music becoming words. It’s common for vocalists to describe their bodies as their instruments. This idea was brought to light, just as was the idea that the instrument itself is a sort of body.

The other effect was that the oral production of language yields nothing but sound. This is obvious, in a sense, but at the same time we often associate language with something else: the intentional expression of a consciousness. But that expression itself depends on a framework, an architecture, to become manifest. That is, it is only within certain constraints that sound itself becomes meaningful. In another context, like the one last night, sound loses all pretense to meaning and becomes nothing more than its own concrete production. This seems to me the point of it all: that language, whether musical or verbal, means nothing in itself, can only be meaningful in certain, actually quite delimited contexts.