Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, April 24, 2006

"I woke up with my head in Frank O'Hara's lap, and he was stroking my hair."

I just got an email from a childhood friend who's going back to Kalamazoo to help her ailing father. While she is there she will attend a concert at the Gilmore Festival: an evening of cabaret songs by pianist and composer William Bolcom and his wife, singer Joan Morris.

22 or 23 years ago Bolcom taught a "music composition for non-music majors" class that I took for two semesters at U of Michigan. For one composition 2nd semester I recorded two tape montages for simultaneous playback and recited a fairly long collaged poem which stole from a lot of my favorite poets -- Alice Notley and Frank O'Hara are the ones I remember now. The only thing I remember about the music montages is a snippet of the Portsmouth Sinfonia butchering the "Hallelujah Chorus," and one of the TA's complaining bitterly about it.

Bolcom is a fantastic musician -- he was responsible for two of the most vivid and beautiful evenings of music I experienced in Ann Arbor: the American premier of his 3-hour-long setting of the complete "Songs of Innocence and of Experience" by Blake, and a set of drunken piano improvisations in a smoky bar. The finale of "Innocence and Experience" has stuck with me all these years: a joyous reggae setting of a hair-raising poem that Blake discarded from his manuscript and never printed in color, "A Divine Image":

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror, the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

The Human Dress, is forged Iron
the Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal'd
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

The exuberant party music for full orchestra, choirs, and rock band, and those fearsome, fearless, bitter images -- whoa.

The evening of piano improvs in a bar, he played 3rd after a champion boogie woogie pianist and another music prof doing meticulous and lovely Jelly Roll Morton transcriptions. Bolcom rose to the occasion of competitive display. His first two numbers -- blazingly fast ragtime-blues improvisations, both very short, explosions of melody, just to show that nobody could out-chops him. Then he mumbled something about slowing it down a little, and proceeded to play the most lyrical melodic lovely blues-jazz imaginable. Like floating drunk in love with the sweetbitter brutal tenderness of the world, for 40 minutes.

A great musician, but I didn't learn much from his class. Eubie Blake stomped his foot when playing his rags. One good hint about singing -- not about composition, but about singing -- and another about orchestration. But I dug him anyway.

After my sample-fest collage poetic mess, Bolcom asked if some of the text had been from O'Hara. Yes, it had. Bolcom started reminiscing. It's more than 20 years ago now, so I'm not completely confident, but this is how I remember it. First, a bit of necessary background: Bolcom had been a prodigy at Juilliard, and he had hooked up with an arts scene as a teen-ager or young man. And he told us a story about falling asleep at a party back then and waking up on a couch, party still going, with his head in Frank O'Hara's lap, "and Frank was stroking my hair." O'Hara had been dead for 16 or 17 years when Bolcom told the story, and I'll never forget the wistful expression on his face as he told it.
Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?