An Introduction to Music in Poetry

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An Introduction to Music in Poetry
   G. V. Lorimer 1 An Introduction to Music in Poetry Glenn Gould, the twentieth-century pianist famed for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations , was a musician who took particular interest in the potential musicalities of the human voice. Over the course of ten years Gould created a series of three ‘documentaries’ in which recorded world sounds and voices were carefully layered into a form of contrapuntal music. 1  In her essay on Gould’s verbal counterpoint, Deborah Weagel quotes Bruno Monsaingeon’s assertion that despite the unconventional format of this work, Gould’s documentaries ‘are, nonetheless, true musical compositions in the structural sense, exploiting all the rhythmic, contrapuntal, and harmonic parameters of the spoken voice’. 2  For Monsaingeon, in spite of the different forces being used and the clear stylistic differences  between Gould’s documentaries and more conventional compositions, these works may still  be considered as music due to the taking of the natural musical elements of the human voice and other recorded sounds, and the establishment upon these of controls, formed from traditional compositional rules. In this regard Gould’s works are actually very closely aligned with the work of electroacoustic composers, with only one difference: one may still discern literal meaning from the sound patterns due to the dominant presence of words in the musical texture. Although my particular focus within this paper is written poetry rather than audio-recordings, Gould’s documentaries do demonstrate how through the use of traditional rules of composition one might create music from patterns of words. In a number of his academic articles in the field of Words and Music, Eric Prieto makes a point of drawing attention to the 1  Deborah Weagel, ‘Musical and Verbal Counterpoint in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould’, in Word and Music Studies, Volume 7: Word and Music Studies: Essays on Music and the Spoken Word  , ed. by Suzanne M. Lodato and David Francis Urrows (New York: Rodopi, 2005), pp. 181-196 (p. 184). <> [accessed 19 th  September 2015].   2  Ibid., p. 189.   G. V. Lorimer 2 idea that ‘the application of concepts from one art to objects from the other is an inherently metaphorical act.’ 3  This he expounds upon in considerable detail in ‘Metaphor and Methodology in Word and Music Studies’, in which it is declared that in the further continuation of Word and Music studies practitioners must ‘Accept and embrace the inherently metaphorical status of all   attempts to apply terms from one art to objects in another.’ 4   [Emphasis mine.] To a certain degree I believe that Prieto is quite correct in his assertion that when we use language that is specific to one art form to talk about another, it is frequently metaphorical. If one speaks, for example, of a poetic line modulating or arpeggiating (language that is based upon tonal movements and issues of pitch) one is clearly employing an element of ‘metaphoricity’ to describe similar patterns, ideas or interpretations of the musical forms within poetry. However, I do not believe that this must apply to ‘all attempts’ as Prieto insists, 5  for there are numerous articles within musical discourse that are not solely dependent on pitch, such as structure, rhythm, articulation and dynamic. All of these elements can be, and frequently are, used within poetry also, and thus that metaphorical layer is not an issue. I would like to propose that, between these two particular art forms, there is also the  potential for a half-metaphor when transferring terminologies between the two media. By this I mean that there are certain terms which may be used non-metaphorically in discussions of  both media, but that perhaps do not quite translate identically between art forms. An example of this is to be found in the term harmony. When used in discussions of music this word is generally associated with fixed pitches and frequently viewed only in terms of the vertical 3  Ibid., p. 189. 4  Eric Prieto, ‘Metaphor and Methodology in Word and Music Studies’, in Word and Music Studies: Essays in  Honor of Steven Paul Scher and on Cultural Identity and the Musical Stage , ed. by Suzanne M. Lodato, Suzanne Aspden and Walter Bernhart (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002), pp. 49-67 (p. 51). <> [accessed 19 th  October 2015]. 5  Ibid.   G. V. Lorimer 3  plane rather than the horizontal; however, this is more of an assumed identity for the word rather than a given definition. 6  As we may find from discussions of the Welsh cynghanedd, a complex set of rules which include musical interplays of consonance, 7  harmony is perhaps not necessarily so much about issues of pitch, whether sounded one after another or at the same time, as about concord and cohesive relation within the line. 8  This, therefore, is not a concept restricted purely to traditional musical forms, but is, rather, a descriptive term that might be used for all organised sound, calling to attention consonant chime, assonance and other companionable sounds when considered in terms of poetry. 9  To declare these terminologies as no more than metaphor serves to both devalue the musical precisions of composition within poetry and to further separate two art forms that have been drawn from a single root. Before we can ask how a true music might once again be formed through poetry,  particularly if we are to avoid falling into the trap of creating pastiche poetry, it would  perhaps be prudent to assess quite what we consider music to be. It can be very easy to assume a liberal approach of declaring music, or indeed any art, to be whatever people say it is, or wish it to be, 10  yet in his essay published by The Music Times , Irving Godt rails against taking this somewhat permissive, unrestricted approach to describing music. As a challenge to the current trend for interpretive freedom, Godt forms his own, prescriptive definition: 6  These separate concepts of harmony (vertical and horizontal) will be discussed in greater detail later in this  paper alongside musical examples from Bach (pp. 267-268). 7  For more on cynghanedd, see: Mererid Hopwood, Singing in Chains: listening to Welsh verse (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 2005). 8  As one can see from reviewing the etymology of the word (‘from Latin harmonia ’), although the musical term  harmony  is generally viewed as referring to simultaneous pitches related to a tonal centre, in its wider field it also includes counterpoint (related pitches on an horizontal plane), and, perhaps most importantly, merely the sense of a ‘concord of sounds’. [Ian Brookes, Michael Munroe, Elaine O’Donoghue and others (eds), Chambers Concise Dictionary  (Edinburgh: Chambers Harrup Publishers, 2004), p. 536.] 9  This is a point that will be elaborated upon further later within this paper, alongside discussions of melody. 10  Irving Godt, ‘Music: a practical definition’, The Musical Times , 146 (2005), 83-88, p. 83. <> [accessed 12 th  September 2014].   G. V. Lorimer 4 Unwanted sound is noise .  Music is humanly organised sound, organised with intent   into a recognisable aesthetic entity  as a musical communication  directed from a maker   to a known or unforeseen listener  ,  publicly through the medium of a performer, or  privately  by a performer as listener  . 11  Whilst it is difficult to accept all of the assertions made by Godt within this essay, especially those which disqualify natural sound from the realms of music, providing we bear in mind that this statement is focussed upon music within the Western tradition, and is thus not necessarily entirely prescriptive when we translate such a definition to variant forms, we may still use his words as a means for determining the true essence of music, even within the realms of poetry. If one were to rework this definition, replacing the word ‘music’ with ‘poetry’, Godt’s statements would still provide a fitting description for this alternative aural art form: Poetry is a series of organised sound shapes; specifically chosen words placed into a recognisable aesthetic form. Poetry, as with music, is communicated from creator to audience either  publicly through the medium of a performer/speaker, or privately by a performer as solitary reader. Unlike music, however, poetry performed privately is most commonly performed in silence. Whilst at first this may seem potentially problematic, it does not necessarily negate the idea of a musicality of verse and nor does it detract from the aural nature of poetry, for, as Quintilian writes, ‘The use of letters is to preserve vocal sounds and to return them to readers as something left on trust.’ 12  Thus, just as music notation is used as a means to record sound, in Quintilian’s opinion the written word too is only a means for containing sound. 13  For an art form in which sound patterns, rhythm, and metric phrasing are essential it is important to note that these elements are not lost in the written word. In spite of the silence of the page, I 11  Ibid., p. 84. 12  William Bedell Stanford, The Sound of Greek, studies in the Greek theory and practice of euphony (California: University of California Press, 1967), p. 3. 13  Such a stance does of course ignore the visual element of written poetry, a device which can be used to great effect (as in George Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’).   G. V. Lorimer 5  believe that due to our familiarity with language as an art form in which we have been trained from early childhood, when a reader looks to a text, even when reading it in silence, they have the ability to hear the sounds and rhythms of the written word in the same manner that a skilled musician is able to hear the overall soundscape of a work of music printed as a score. Whilst a silent performance is of course not equal to hearing the work as it was intended, this does not mean that it is not a valuable resource for analysis and study, and, more importantly, as a means for recording. It would of course be foolish to declare that all written language is, or has been,  placed exclusively as a form of recorded sound. As part of his own research into the separation of written and spoken aspects of poetry, Richard Bradford writes, ‘modern poets have written themselves into this critical debate and have produced forms that can only be fully appreciated if we acknowledge silent reading as an experience separate from, if not entirely independent of, oral performance.’ 14  As is evidenced by the many shaped poems (and, indeed, by the shaped musical scores) that have been produced, as well as poems that make extensive use of white space and exploded verse forms, Bradford is quite right to assert that there is an important graphical element to many poems that cannot be ignored. I do not wish to deny the entirely visual element of poetry, however, as the primary focus of this  project is musical poetry, for the purposes of this paper I shall for the main part be discussing these visual elements within the context of sound and as part of a means to demonstrate how visual elements may influence oral interpretation. In this respect, and with the assumption that a written work is one that is awaiting realisation, the poem may be viewed as a form of musical score, silent only until it is brought into life by the reader. Indeed, for works crafted in exploded verse forms we might perhaps 14  Richard Bradford, Silence and Sound: Theories of Poetics from the Eighteenth Century  (London: Associated University Presses, 1992), p.132.
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