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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Word and Music studies

I've been reading some of Lawrence Kramer's work. He brings together the study of poetry and music in an odd way, because his presupposition is that they are far apart in the first place and thus require Herculean efforts to bring together. Even when he brings them together in the obvious places, as in his writing on the art song, he wants to emphasize their antithetical character, especially in the way that music does violence to the text being set.

That is not how I experience song. I don't think of the poem or text as something pre-existent, which then the composer has set to music (even when that is the case). Rather, I hear the song as a song, with two simultaneous dimensions. In the hearing, these dimensions are inseparable. Of course, I can hear disjunctions. For example, I react strongly against Serrat's 70s pop sounds when he is singing Miguel Hern├índez. In this case, I think that that is the wrong setting of the text stylistically. But I feel the same way when I hear Cummings read his own poems, even in the absence of music.  He is doing it wrong!  Thus I think of it as a performative issue, more than an issue relating to the presence or absence of music.

Kramer has a very intricate analysis of a piece's harmony, and then pairs that with an account of a poem, then asks us to assent to a comparison between the two. So Beethoven in a piece does this, etc... Wordsworth does this... and then they are found to be analogous.  I don't buy it, because I don't think you could have an experimental subject sit down, read Wordsworth, listen to Beethoven, and come up with anything remotely like these responses. The comparison is the artifact of the analysis, not something present already in anyone's reaction to these kinds of works.

What seems to be missing is the more primordial connection everyone already feels between song and poetry.  We don't need that much effort to bring them together. I feel like Kramer is more romantic than postmodern or poststructuralist as he tries to be.  He falls back on this allegorical style of reading that is pre rather than poststructuralist.  (I remember Barthes warning us against readings that are analogical rather than structural.)  Of course he is a very brilliant guy, but could that brilliance be counter-productive? Song is very close the origin of language itself, and poetry has always been song, although it has been dissociated from song in a few exceptional circumstances, and only within literate traditions.  

3 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

"the more primordial connection everyone already feels between song and poetry": given this, I wonder why so many contemporary poets vehemently deny that lyrics are poems.

Jonathan said...

Well, some lyrics are bad poetry, but they are still poetry. Poets want to way they aren't poetry because their own poetry is not very musical. I don't know any poets personally who vehemently deny lyrics are poems. Maybe there are some.

Andrew Shields said...

The easiest way for me to think about it is that it's all verse, from bad lyrics and nursery rhymes to Shakespeare and Ashbery.

Some of the people I know who insist on the distinction seem to want to not have to admit that songs that they love have bad lyrics.