Taggart: Sound and Vision
[From a little over a decade ago — first published at Flashpoint — a meditation on what now — it seems clear — is to be considered “mid-period” Taggart, before the remarkable shift and efflorescence of Pastorelles and There Are Birds: the poetics of Standing Wave, Crosses, and above all that various and monumental collection Loop, a book which in my mind looms over American poetry of the 1980s and 1990s like the black monolith of Kubrick’s 2001 — or, more often, beckons like an enclave of vast, multilayered, shimmering Rothkos.]
“The act of reading,” John Taggart writes in his book on Edward Hopper, Remaining in Light, “is akin to the ceaseless motion of an ant on a moebius strip.” For “reading,” read listening, and looking, as well — the “gift,” if you will, of sound and vision. A Möbius strip, of course, is a loop of paper — you can make one yourself — with a twist in it; it’s that twist that makes the loop’s face endless: a three-dimensional object with only one surface. Where does that highway go to? Loop is the title of Taggart’s largest collection of poems; it was published in 1991, after, as Robert Fripp says somewhere about one of his records, “delays by dinosaurs.” Eleven years before, the pop band Talking Heads released their fourth album, Remain in Light. It was a controversial record, the product in part of bandleader David Byrne’s and producer Brian Eno’s intense, schoolboy-crush-like collaboration. (The first product of their woodshedding was the Eno/Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an odd and hyperintellectual reimagining of the Parliament-Funkadelic sound, crossed with various African beats and more than a touch of mid-seventies Miles.) Remain in Light expanded the band — formerly a trim four-piece — with extra percussionists, backing vocalists, and guitars; it moved them from the taut, witty New York new wave into a more expansive, funky, polyrhythmic territory. Eno, Byrne, and the rest of the band collaborated on the compositions, and Eno’s fingerprints were all over the vocal arrangements, more often than not odd workouts on the call-and-response pattern, Eno’s baritone choruses responding to Byrne’s edgy, faux-evangelist sprechstimme. And the songs — at least the longer ones — were built on loops, taped rhythm section passages over which guest musicians like Adrian Belew could wail to their hearts’ delight.
The loop, whether actual or conceptual, was central to the early development of what came to be known as “minimalist” music. Steve Reich’s early pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) were built out of tape loops; his “Violin Phase” pitted a taped violin part against a real-time violinist. Around the same time, Terry Riley was developing keyboard performance techniques that relied on loops and tape delays, most expansively showcased in his Rainbow in Curved Air album. The English composer Gavin Bryars’s “Sinking of the Titanic” was a fully scored imitation of a vast, slowed-down tape loop; his “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (1971) was built — famously or infamously — around a tape loop of an old tramp’s singing. Both of these Bryars works — not incidentally — were recorded and released in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure records label, which also released the first recordings of another English minimalist, Michael Nyman — this, of course, long before Nyman became a soundtrack machine and minor celebrity.
Five years later Eno produced Talking Heads’s Remain in Light, and it was almost certainly at Eno’s suggestion that Memphis trumpeter Jon Hassell was brought in to lend a breathy, multitracked horn part to the song “Houses in Motion.” That part is vintage Hassell — pure R&B riffs through the verses and chorus, then, when it comes time for him to solo, Hassell’s leaping up into the microtones and raga scales taught him by his mentor, the great Kirana singer Prandit Pran Nath. Hassell, whose Aka-Dabari-Java/Magic Realism is one of the great unremembered records of the 1980s, has never quite settled down generically to any record company’s liking. Most recently, he’s contributed a hip-hop styled soundtrack to the TV series The Practice and has played on a pair of albums with guitarist Ry Cooder, one of them idiosyncratic reworkings of Duke Ellington standards, the other classic Indian ragas. And Hassell, of course, was present at the beginning of minimalism: he played on the 1968 large ensemble first recording of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking piece In C.
In C is a composition for any number of musicians, playing any instruments capable of meeting the pitch requirements of the score. The score consists of fifty-three melodic figures, through which each musician progresses, determining for him- or herself how many times to repeat each figure and how to align it with what’s being played by the other members of the ensemble. The music coheres, both through the individual musicians’ sensitivity — their listening to their fellows — and through an underlying “pulse.” Not the pulse of a metronome or drum machine, nor the pulse of a tape loop — but an organic pulse, carried and passed along by the members of the collective. “Large definitions commit one to a long line,” Taggart writes. “The line is prevented from falling in on itself by a recurrent, but never exactly repeating, cadence. This cadence undergoes a continuous motion (transformation).” And the poem — like the score of In C — cannot be an experience only of vision, but must be a performed thing: “As I came to discover, such a poem would have to be read aloud to make sense. The reader would have to break the silence of the cold page. There could be a liberation of participation, an ending of the silence and solitude.” More tersely: “‘Peace On Earth’ is meant to be more than one person’s private response to the war in Vietnam.”
“A recurrent, but never exactly repeating, cadence.” The mechanical loop repeats precisely, inexorably, with the sterility of Ford’s assembly line; the “exactly repeating cadence” is the Taylorization of the poet, the talented sophomore’s iambic pentameter. The mechanical loop’s contents, even when human-generated — Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s rhythms, the old tramp Gavin Bryars recorded one day in London — come back to us again and again, “same as it ever was.” The only thing that can be of interest about such loops is the human reaction to them. Bryars’s tramp’s singing is remarkably in tune, but, like a solo bluesman’s, his sense of time is elastic: his melodic fragment ends on a fermata, and the first bar of the thirteen (the song is in 3/4 time) is ever so slightly shortened. The tramp, long dead but interred upon a tape loop, sings the song in precisely the same (irregular) way every time (approximately 170 iterations on the most recent recording of the piece); the accompanying musicians, however, seem always — over and over again — slightly taken aback by his irregularities. It is in their momentary awkwardnesss that the piece’s pathos resides.
Gertrude Stein, in 1934: “every time one of the hundreds of times a newspaper man makes fun of my writing and of my repetition he always has the same theme, always having the same theme, that is, if you like, repetition, that is if you like repeating that is the same thing, but once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis … insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same not even when it is most the same.” By itself, the tape loop goes nowhere, is pure repetition. When the voice enters — the voice that “invades,” that “lays,” that “eats the face away,” that “turns the face of the listener, member among the members, into its excrement” — when the voice enters, the tape loop becomes the Möbius strip.
2. Reading: Vision and revisions
One loop from Remain in Light to the first flowering of minimalism, then back again. This isn’t playing degrees of separation, by the way — maybe instead something one might rudely miscall “songs of degrees.” No one wants to be Greil Marcus here, and dig out the underground connections between Johnny Rotten and the seventeenth-century antinomians — at least not in this piece of writing. There is, however, an aesthetic continuity that flows underneath the more interesting developments in late twentieth-century pop music, “serious” music, and jazz, a continuity that one wouldn’t want to reduce to the term “minimalism.” An interest in repetition, in stasis, in movement through suspended movement.
“It occurs to me,” says Taggart, “that all my work, before and since [“Slow Song for Mark Rothko”], involves translation or, more accurately, transformation to make the poem a ‘sound object.’” Transformation rather than translation: transformation is “the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody” (Zukofsky); translation is the poetics of August Kleinzahler’s meager creative writing professors, “paunchy with drink”: “If there is a mallard in the reeds / they will take it. / They will take it and make it their own, / something both more than a duck / and less.” But why need the poet look, at a mallard, or Edward Hopper’s “A Woman in the Sun,” or the panels of the Rothko chapel, in order to write? Why not simply effuse, let the cords of sensibility vibrate like an Aeolian harp to the winds of inspiration? “What is at stake,” writes Taggart, “is need. You find what you need, among the entire past and present universe, to get the job done. Your search in that universe of human objects and natural objects is guided by need.”
The basis of all of Taggart’s poetry is looking — or listening, or reading — a repetitive, accretive, circling motion guided by need. “The poet, who is first a reader, makes no original discovery in reading. Instead, the poet becomes only more aware of the spiderweb connectedness of his or her sources and of the innumerable ghostly speakers still beyond them.” “The world,” Guy Davenport once said to me, “was invented and arranged for James Joyce’s convenience.” Every detail within Joyce’s works, that is, connects to every other detail; and those works constitute a monstrous machine that spurs on its ant-reader to find the labyrinthine, rhizomatic connections that bind together, with a vast “spider web” or echo-chamber, the entire phenomenal world. Davenport argues that Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera is a precursor to Joyce’s as a “daedalian” work, searching out with passionate attention the multiple, even endless, intertwinings of human culture: Joyce, Pound, Zukofsky, David Jones, Basil Bunting, Susan Howe, have made such daedalian reading one of the principal and most vibrant modes of twentieth-century writing. Taggart stands, in his own idiosyncratic manner — and how else can any true artist stand? — with them. “Can love,” Zukofsky writes — and for “love,” read “passionate attention,” or “need” — “rouse a thing of the past / And not see it as present?”
“I wonder,” Wallace Stevens — old, perhaps depressed — wrote in 1947, “have I lived a skeleton’s life, / As a questioner about reality, // A countryman of all the bones in the world?” Seven years later he would answer himself, looking back upon his own poems: “That poem about the pineapple, the one / About the mind as never satisfied, // The one about the credible hero, the one / About summer, are not what skeletons think about.” Even as one reads, one turns back and rereads, one subjects one’s visions to the process of revision. That process of self-revision, like the revision of one’s precursors, is of course not immune to the dangers of mere translation. In 1993, Philip Glass released his “‘Low’ Symphony,” based on music from David Bowie’s 1977 Low album, which Glass claimed (somewhat unconvincingly) had been of influence on his own work. Glass’s is a rather unmoving piece, burying Bowie and Eno’s spare and suggestive synthesizer motifs in a wash of post-Brahms orchestration. Soon after, Gavin Bryars released “new,” expanded versions of his “Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood,” spinning those works out, through fussy arrangements, sound effects, and guest vocalists, into distended parodies of themselves. Wordsworth’s last, unfortunate version of The Prelude comes to mind. Perhaps one should look away from the accredited composers of minimalism, to Bill Laswell’s Panthalassa remixes of early seventies Miles, or to the Sacrilege CD, multiple reworkings by an array of star producers from the British, American, and European “techno” scenes of tunes by the legendary German band Can.
A poem from When the Saints.
You may ask yourself, as Stevens does, “well — how did I get here?” Taggart has returned to his own earlier visions, and without fail he has transformed them, made them into new visions. “The Game With Red” returns to “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” boiling that latter work’s expansive, complex meditation into a stark claustrophobia: “I cannot get outside the dark red doorway.” The poet, “rectangles of light” falling through the windows onto his floor, works back through his entire oeuvre in “Rereading.” Has he lived a skeleton’s life, letting the days go by, water flowing underground? Of course not, for the poems reread in “Rereading” — among them “Peace on Earth,” “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” “Saul and David” — have come out of too scarifyingly immediate roots, and have themselves taken too deep root, for the poet to rest satisfied. There is a weariness here, a sense of the unending process of reading, of writing, of rewriting what has been written; the voice of “Vaguely Harmless,” as much as it implores, repeats, and emphasizes, cannot forget the “bones and whispy bits of hair / bones and bits of hair stuck in the memory” of “Black and White Close-Up.” All the poet can do is keep reading, keep rereading and revising — keep moving: “What I can do is move wandering movement / what I can do is move in a wandering movement”: “there can be no hope of rest.” To live — as poet and human being — is, again and again, with greater or lesser degrees of failure, to try to see. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” “Not seeing,” Taggart concludes Remaining in Light, “means not being alive. Being alive means seeing and thus trying to stay alive. We have the possibility of staying alive so long as we stay in motion, keep moving.”
Is it unfair to say that all of Taggart’s poems are “remixes” of earlier texts, whether those texts are poems, paintings, recordings, passages of philosophy, snatches of conversation? No more unfair, I suppose, than to see Ulysses as a remix of the Odyssey, the events of Joyce’s own life, and a broad swatch of the whole of Western literature and thought. Or to see Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon as a remix of Cézanne, or Alfred Schnittke’s First Symphony as a complex rethinking of Shostakovich’s programmatic works, of the relationship between jazz and classical music, and of the entire nineteenth century of European music. The loop of sound and vision is endless. That’s where David Bowie is wrong, or self-defeating, or solipsistic — “I will sit right down / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” The gift will not come to one who only sits and waits; hearing and seeing are functions of movement, of the constant, labyrinthine, repetitive, nervous movements of the ear, eye, and mind. And — need one add? — of voice, which is the gift of Taggart’s poetry.