Jackson Mac Low speaks during a long question-and-answer session at New Langton Arts in San Francisco, c. 1984. This recording came to PennSound’s archive in two parts, and — thanks to the efforts of Hannah Judd — we now make them available in segments roughly topical.
New at PennSound — Jackson Mac Low, Dick Higgins, Petr Kotik, Joseph Kubera, and Chris Nappi perform Emmett Williams’s Cellar Song for Five Voices. This piece was written in 1960. The recording here was made of a performance in 1990, presented by the S.E.M. Ensemble, recorded by Mikhail Liberman at Paula Cooper Gallery, 2/6/1990. Click on this link to the Jackson Mac Low PennSound page: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Mac-Low.php#cellar .
Last week I began with the installed environment, moved on to surfaces (painted or printed), and emerged into “ambiance.” This week I will consider how chance is deployed to install some essential attribute of the outside, inside of a work. Since visual prosody is the theme of these commentaries, “a work” refers equally to a poem or an image. The environment tailored to resemble itself there is given a voice by an artist who avoids using their own. Essential attributes of the artist’s material should reveal its relation to an outside, and a politics of visual or verbal relation beheld there. My examples are the Asymmetries and Forties by poet Jackson Mac Low and two iterations of the Colors series by painter Gerhard Richter. Mac Low and Richter are equally motivated to exhaust the forces named by “chance” and its cognates so as to question received critical values and to essentialize aesthetic values of their media.
In 1985, Eileen Myles was the new director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York. She asked me to curate a lecture series, the first such program at the church. I modelled the series at the Poetry Project on my earlier series New York Talk, giving it the amusing title, given the sometimes seeming resistance to poetics at the St. Marks at the time, St. Marks Talks. And talk it did.
Jackson Mac Low made available several sections of his Stein series on his EPC page. I sometimes introduce my students to this series by reading and discussing with them number 7, titled “Very Pleasant Soiling.” Mac Low’s notes, as usual, describe the process by which this (and other) pieces in the series were composed:
“A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore” was created by Jackson MacLow in memory of his friend Peter Moore, who in photographs documented the doings and performances of NYC Fluxus and other artists in the 1960s and early 70s. The text or, more properly, the score is filled entirely with words (960 of them) drawn from the letters in the name of “Peter Innisfree Moore”; words like smite, opinion, freer, re-import, Semite, fen, minister, and smote circle around one another in various hand-drawn shapes and sizes.
Richard Kostelanetz writes, “This visual-verbal text can then become a score for a live performance in which any number of readers are encouraged to read aloud whichever words they wish, at whatever tempo they wish, for indefinite durations; and Mac Low's instructions for this particular piece suggest that the individual letters can be translated into certain musical notes (and, thus, that the same text can be interpreted as a musical score).”
One performance in the summer of 1975 was managed by MacLow. Here is a 6-minute excerpt from the audio recording of that event.
A few years ago my students and I discussed this work. Some didn't find it beautiful; some had doubts about its effectiveness as an alternative mode of elegy or memorialization. Most found it beautiful, worthy and a good alternative to the usual methods we use to describe or narrate the life of a dead friend or colleague. You can hear a recording of the entire class session (1 hr 20 minutes).
PoemTalk travelled to Bard College, where we gathered with Charles Bernstein, Pierre Joris, and Bard's own Joan Retallack to talk about Jackson Mac Low's Words nd Ends from Ez (1989). The project was composed in ten parts, one part each for sections (sometimes called “decades”) of Ezra Pound's lifework, The Cantos. We chose to discuss the penultimate part of Mac Low's diastic written-through work, a poem based on phrases, words, and letters drawn from — and in some sense about — Pound's near-final cantos, Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII. Mac Low’s constraint, for which he preferred the term “quasi-intentional” to the term “chance,” involved the letters forming the name E Z R A P O U N D. Words, phrases, and letters were extracted from the original cantos based on those letters and on their placement within words. Charles, Pierre, Joan, and Al Filreis explain this in detail, although we cannot quite agree as to whether Mac Low was being absolutely strict in the application of the diastic method. As Bernstein notes several times, this particular procedure is one of the more complex Mac Low used. Nonetheless, it’s the sense of the group that when semantic meaning seems to be created, it has about it, as Pierre Joris happily notes, the special pleasure of serendipity, and means all the more.