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The Sound of Music 

Wednesday, Dec 5 2001
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It feels like a time for cutting back. What is essential? Certainly, music does not come first on the list.

Recently I got away, took a trip to Vermont. I was in my friend‘s bathroom, under her showerhead. I opened my mouth and swallowed the water. The plumbing in her house was fucked: the drains backed up and the well water infused with the scent of sulfur. Nasty, but there it was, my favorite type of feeling -- pure, full-on, enveloping sensation. I brought no music but I didn’t notice.

There are many cliches about being in nature, but they are generally true. It‘s easier to pay attention to people’s words. In the sky there are more stars.

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* * *

Let me quote Robert Creeley quoting the poet Ezra Pound‘s advice about what one should look for in poetry:

“Listen to the sound that it makes.” He felt as I do that “poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” To me the two arts often seemed one.

Taxonomically, they could be judged a single thing: the manipulation of sound -- one on paper, one as digits or waves.

Generally I stay away from poets. I’m a realist. There‘s not much room for their kind in this world anymore. We’ve been trained by our television sets to flip, flip, flip. We have short attention spans. I‘m the first to admit I have a lazy mind, or at least an itinerant one. It’s easier to bathe it in air and food and pop songs than linear narratives or well-tailored stanzas that I can‘t convince my ears or eyes to follow.

As far as university-sponsored poets are concerned, though, Creeley is a good ’un. A longtime professor at SUNY Buffalo, he was also a Beat who first taught at Black Mountain College in the 1950s. (An experiment in education, the school encouraged collaboration among alumni and teachers such as Charles Olson, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham and Buckminster Fuller.) Ostensibly the first in an “audio documentary series” called “Jagjaguwar Correspondent,” Creeley‘s record succeeds because it provides a sense in its sound of how he alone perceives. Half-blind -- he lost one eye in a freak accident at the age of 4, now it’s made of glass -- he realizes that it‘s such individual handicaps that provide us our distinct ways of seeing, our singular strengths. “I know the world I see is not the ’normal‘ one, no matter what the ’object‘ of sight may be,” he told interviewer Daniel Kane this past January. “I have no depth perception nor can I see three-dimensional images. All my sight thus is ’subjective,‘ and whatever the ’objective‘ image might otherwise be is so altered.” Perception is his true art.

Creeley views the world with a Zen melancholy: “I think and therefore I am self-conscious.” “Adumbrate nature. Walk a given path.You are as much its fact as any other.” “My odor?My name?My flesh?My shame?” “What you do is how you get along.What you did is all it ever means.” My favorite example comes in one of the record’s longest poems, and its best, “En Famille”:

Is wisdom just an empty word?

Is age a time one might finally well

have missed?

Must humanness be its own reward?

Is happiness this?

Aurally, Creeley also hews to the essential. His speaking voice offers a neutral kind of comfort. Short lines. One- and two-syllable words. Measured by page flips. Swallows. His 75-year-old voice is recorded with little reverb; it‘s so dry it could pull water from the air, then snap the twigs it leaves behind. Even for the lazy listener, there is music in these letters.

* * *

And what should we look to when the poets are gone? Music. In the coming days, it is musicians who will be best able to engage contemporary subject matter, better at least than the fragile souls drawn to poesy.

Active since 1994, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie are Stars of the Lid. “When you’re trying to pay homage to the sounds of your refrigerator, there‘s no need for vocals,” McBride said at www.scaruffi.com. “Most of the time, music expresses feelings or emotions we can’t express with words. Music is affective, it‘s more than just an opinion you have. Opting out of words is part of that strategy. Making music is a process of giving back. Trying to pay homage to the beauty of sound that surrounds us.”

The duo’s specialty is heavily processed guitars that sound like nighttime crickets playing violins instead of their legs, or church organs torn apart like pulled saltwater taffy, or foghorns warning of the edge of the world, or the Doppler effect in a black hole where time and space have stopped. The Tired Sounds of . . . is a triple LP or double CD of such drones, six “suites” about trying to be closer to God or, more accurately, smoking dope and then trying to be God. The sound is structured, yes, but it‘s hard to make out the exact shape as it’s endlessly receding, always rising up, blurring into focus. Strings, organ and tubular bells blend in with the guitar to lend the sound more heft; shuffling dishes, piano, whimpering dogs and more worldly sounds add depth.

Wiltzie‘s explanation of their music at croutonmusic.com is best: “I really don’t think of it any other way other than it fills a great void in my life, and makes me happy . . . All I can really hope for my listeners is that I held up my end of the bargain by supplying them some good quality pass-out material.”

Creeley again: “Games are always most interesting when the materials they require are simple -- cat‘s cradle, hopscotch -- and the patterns an endlessly informing repetition.” The essential.

You’d think these records were on opposite ends of the sonic register. One all words; one all music. But it‘s not true. They are the same.

STARS OF THE LID | The Tired Sounds of . . . | (Kranky)

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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