Monday, June 23, 2008

Resonance and remembrance

As a fan and performer of contemporary choral music, I often speculate about the potential of poems for musical setting. Today, I was struck by this poem, which was recently recorded by the BBC in remembrance of journalists and reporters killed while serving as war correspondents. The poem, aptly titled "Memorial" and written by James Fenton, accompanies a statue commissioned by the BBC in honor of those brave reporters. I have the deepest respect for those who enter war zones to write and to report - not only as a journalist myself, but as a member of the human race.

Fenton's poem is almost deceptively traditional; I had to read it twice before realizing it was in a simple "ABAB" scheme. The following enjambed sentence speaks volumes as it runs its course across a stanza break:

...Some seemed honour-bound
to take the lonely, peerless track
conceiving danger as a testing ground
to which they must go back

till the tongue fell silent and they crossed
beyond the realm of time and fear.

I discovered the poem via the New Yorker's recently-launched and frequently-updated Book Bench blog, which also excerpted much of that achingly wrought line. I think it must be the idea of the tongue falling silent that so begs to set to music, almost as a musical act of defiance against death.

At a baccalaureate service for a college graduation last month, I heard a setting of the poem "Do Not Stand By My Grave and Weep," believed to have been originally written by Mary E. Frye. The piece came from a version of the Requiem by composer Eleanor Daley, and the choir dedicated its performance to two members of the graduating class who passed away during their first year at the college. Though I'm told the poem is a popular funeral oration, the choral performance was the first time I'd encountered it. Fenton's poem, with its regular scheme and elegant build to a spare but powerful ending, reminded me of Frye's. I was stunned by both, but nearly brought to tears by the latter. Properly set, I believe the Fenton poem might have a similar effect, and not merely on myself.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Inviting chaos

This article by The New Republic's David Hajdu holds two very personal attachments for me. First, the author advised me in my master's program in arts journalism; his guidance in writing and his recommendations in reading have scarcely left my mind in the year since I completed my degree.

Secondly, the invitations that Hajdu addresses by the bands Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails for fans to remix their songs have a clear analog among my own musical tastes and experiences. The 2003 album of remixed versions of songs by the Washington, DC-based band The Dismemberment Plan is a precursor to the current wave of fan-driven invention. The band is among my all-time favorites, and the album, titled "The People's History of the Dismemberment Plan," is a creative endeavor similar to Nine Inch Nails "The Limitless Potential": a collection of re-imagined songs drawn from raw tracks of individual instruments and voices. Some were done by longtime fans, others by casual listeners, and one notable contribution came from an artist who had never heard any of the Plan's music until after submitting his contribution.

The Plan's project was somewhat wider in scope than Trent Reznor's. Tracks from three of the band's four albums could be downloaded and remixed, more than just the two most recent releases that Reznor made available. The experiment, though conducted less than five years ago, also took place in a different era with respect to music technology. The band attempted to sell actual CDs of the remixes, rather than offer them for download.

Without having the CD in front of me, I don't know whether the Plan claimed ownership over the remixes in the way that Radiohead does in its current project. I suspect not; after a short-lived flirtation with Interscope Records, the Plan never strayed from its roots on the DC-based independent label DeSoto Records. "The People's History" is wild, weird and uneven - modifiers that might describe the band's early output, albums titled "!" and "The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified." Only one track from those albums appear on "The People's History," though, and the remixes of songs from later albums "Emergency & I" and "Change" presents more staid material in a newly unhinged fashion. The band's music, in its original and altered forms, remains vital today, with a irresistible tension between exuberance and melancholy in its lyrics and a blend of the rubbery and the robotic in its playing.