The 'now what' question of music and poetics
Rodrigo Toscano with Clare Louise Harmon
Note: I first met Rodrigo through a mutual friend at a gallery opening; I think I said something about being a classical musician, because, there, among the photographs, Rodrigo launched into a thick analysis of Frescobaldi and Couperin (the elder); I remember being completely shocked at the level of knowledge — something I hadn’t experienced since my days in graduate school. Maybe we talked about Ligeti’s Continuum (a favorite of mine), too. A few months later, we reconnected at a reading series I help to curate. After the reading, at which Rodrigo was the feature, we continued our conversation around Western Art Music and how it relates to poetics. At the time, I was just finishing a manuscript about the ways in which mastery, the dominant ideology of the West, expresses itself in the production, performance, and pedagogy of Western Art Music. In this exchange and those that followed, we sparred over our shared interest in the politics of sound and utterance. Before long, we formalized the conversation in the dialogue below. Concomitant to this, we decided to play a Bach sonata together (though we promised each other we wouldn’t turn it into a metacritical exercise). This collaboration facilitated discussion around amateurism and professionalism: Rodrigo, a talented self-taught pianist, and me, a long-lapsed professional violist. This multiple overlay of amateur, expert, professional, and deserter provided a backdrop for the concerns explored in the dialogue. — Clare Louise Harmon
Clare Louise Harmon: You and I have been talking about Western Art Music (WAM) since I met you. I find the qualities of WAM (labor, [dis]embodiment, repetition, the task/command/request) to be very much in your work and as a totality, these things are the raison d’etre for mine. I think, too, about Explosion Rocks Springfield as very much composed in a baroque fashion. The first time I read it, years ago, I kept thinking of this word, fortspinnung: a “spinning out” of a single musical motif in every variation. I just reread it in preparation for our conversation and I think, now, it’s not just this spinning out but also (and maybe more so) the idea of the fugue and the tone row and the germinal (we learned it as “developing variation” in music school). These things more systematically constructed than just simple “variation”; these things deployed to manipulate desire and futurity; to both control the body of the performing musician and the listener. So, here’s the question: what have you learned from WAM forms about desire and manipulation and how has that informed your poetics, particularly in the construction of a book-length poem? How do you induce your reader into going along with your concept through the deployment of established musical compositional techniques?
Rodrigo Toscano: If you strike any one key on the piano, you might say that’s an occurrence, or event. If you strike the same key or another key in succession, that’s a problematic. The “composer” as well as the “listener” has a quandary on their hands. The two notes are now in relation to each other. And the silliness of all music is that it sets out to address that problem with yet another sound. Now, in most WAM, there’s a preoccupation with “why” that first note appeared in the first place. It’s perceived as a “start” (creation, revelation), in other words, an indulgence in the illusion of a beginning. I say that because previous to such a beginning there is sound all around us. One doesn’t wake up to silence and all of a sudden music provides us sound. Music is obviously downstream to every other sound we detect. And indeed, there are forms of music (Amerindian, Continental Indian, Melanesian) that operate with that premise, that sound is all around already. Not so with most WAM, and especially not so with baroque music and bebop-jazz-derived music. Both of those aesthetics are devoted to an initial problematic of now what? They are both preoccupied with exploring intellectual, emotional agency within structures. And it’s from those two traditions that I often draw my formal inspiration to write. Now, someone might wonder, what can a distant era such as the baroque (and in my case early baroque) have to offer a contemporary poetics? But coupled to that question is a previous one: what, indeed, is a contemporary poetics? Well, ultimately, one estimates that for themselves in their own practice and by observing others’ practices. But once I discerned that forgetfulness is a main feature of poetics these days, I started to employ corrections to forgetfulness. By “forgetfulness” I mean the inability to remain conscious alongside that which is materially present. Many features of WAM and American Classical Music (ACM) (blues, jazz) by their very form provide a stark contrast to, if not actual counter to, the dominance of the pop song ethos, which strives for a “timeless” lyric that homogenizes feeling and thought into “memorable” soundbites. That ethos acts as a perfect (forgetful) complement to, if not an actual vehicle for, a capitalist, consumerist mindset. Such a mindset requires a forgetfulness (of origin, of function) of the inner workings of labor. When I listen to (or play) Thelonious Monk (1917–1982) or Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643), I am engaging (as the music meant for me to engage) the labor input and output of every gesture. There’s almost no forgetfulness there. So I would say that the inducement of the reader/listener into a given piece initially happens by way of artifice, after sensing a single word or tone and waiting for the next event. Both composer and listener strive not to forget events. Both walk a tightrope between the chasms of pure artifice and full development (like fortspinnung). In general, I think people focus too much on a composer’s “intent” in a piece of music. Composers, in the main, don’t conjure up tones out of thin air; pitches are usually set. Poets, in the main, don’t usually invent words outright (though from my point of view, they ought to more). It’s about the availability of materials and how they move. And what I love about music and poetry both is the hard-won bond between maker, performer, and listener all struggling to make a next move — any!
Harmon: And this dialogue, too. I love this idea of the “indulgence in the total illusion of a beginning.” I’d suggest, too, that the devotion of WAM to this illusion is also the basis for the hierarchical power relationships embedded within it — those relationships to which I give so much thought. If a WAM musician truly believes that the concert experience is mimetic of an initial quasi-biblical creation, then that makes them the agent of such a creation. What kind of psychology is both required and resultant of such an act? Georg Friedrich Haas is a composer I love who takes this to the extreme, combining not only total silence but also total darkness (see his third string quartet, In iij Noct). I think about In iij Noctfrequently as an apex of WAM concert culture — its “total indulgence,” and its deep desire to maintain this hierarchy: (from the bottom up) audience, performer, composer. At a recent performance of this piece, I almost burst out laughing in the dark, in the silence: Haas really put one over on us, I thought.
What I’d like most to press on in your response is corrections to forgetfulness. First, I understand forgetfulness, as you describe it, as a dissociation from the labor of musical/poetic production and the attending creation of something disembodied and nonspecific (the “timeless” lyric). One possible “correction” to this is a form with a practitioner who “[engages] the labor input and output of every gesture” thereby remembering the constituent events in a now whatproblematic. In WAM there’s a score that we reproduce exactly; the contents of this score are responding to that problematic and, as such, refuse to let us forget previous events. You and I decided to learn the Bach C minor sonata for violin and keyboard; as I learn the violin part, I am aware of every physical and musical gesture (particularly because I haven’t played in ten years) and, more so, their relationship to one another, both vertically and horizontally. By this I mean that if the physical gesture of, for example, a shift to fourth position is not prepared, the musical gesture (the portamento) fails alongside it; so, too, the proceeding notes. The leftover momentum of each event drives what happens next. On the side of poetics, I’m thinking about your new book, In Range. Of course, it is a very embodied book, filled with gesture and labor. As readers we’re constantly going with you in various banal tasks: sealing bricks, cleaning the pool, staring at a blank pad. You said in your interview with Henk Rossouw that the poems of In Range are “in plain speech and simple in form”; I’d say that they, too, are poems that expose the machinery of their labor. In Range is a book that enacts itself and, in doing so, induces me to go with it from one task to the next. No small feat for a longish book of contemporary poetry about (on first glance) yardwork. Two sets of questions from this exchange. One: the way you describe WAM and bebop is exceptionally apt. But I wonder if you can speak to the relationship between the perceived (though ultimately false) creation of a beginning that leads to the now what moment and the conversations we’ve been having about “stance,” what I understand as a way of “showing up” in the moment of performance or creation. Two: do you see an active performance/reading practice as a further correction to forgetfulness? I suppose I’m asking you about the hard-won bond and how you see yourself moving between a position as a creative laborer (composer/poet) and a re-creative laborer (musician/performer) and the ways in which this binary is disrupted by your poetics, as based in iterations of WAM now what moments?
Toscano: In my first published book, Partisans, a book that explores pathways of agency to literature-making, I posit a fabricated term, wordworkers, as a code for that bond (or fraying of that bond) between composer, performer, text, and audience. Once I had broken through the illusion of a univocal authorial stance, I could concentrate fully on words as structure-making materials. In musical terms, words started to appear to me as what in music theory we call “leading tones,” or in interpretation, as you put it very nicely, “the leftover momentum of each event drives what happens next.” So a close attention to those “events” (words, really) constitutes what we might call the deterministic aspect of poiesis, but then there’s also something that I’d call “accident,” a tone or word that doesn’t seem called up by the structure in any way, but one in which we (as readers/writers) have to pivot from or towards (what you call “gesture”). But, part of what you’re asking is, if the poetic text that finally gets produced, if that text, as such, acts as a disruption to the bond between performer and audience. It’s beyond a disruption. I see poetic texts as a continual resetting of those relations. Now, some folks might rightly object to that proposition, stating that actual lived social relations ultimately condition that bond. Well, of course, they do, but even if one were to strategically write in order to approximate the most accurate configuration of those bonds — guess what? — accident persists. But the upside of the situation is that accident events are stance-producing opportunities that clarify the space (some might say, freedom) between the polarities of determinism and accident, and that’s what makes for the creative tension necessary to make a compelling piece of art.
Harmon: Relating the accident to the leading tone is very interesting to me because it seems like a contradiction. To me (and to the music theorist), the leading tone is a deployed inevitability (tactical) or, less determined, an invitation: in a certain context, scale degree seven almost always leads to scale degree one and that expectation has specific meaning; so, too, does its subversion. And then, there we are at the bond that you speak of. Not a disruption but a negotiation. I hadn’t read Partisans before you sent me this last exchange; I took a bit of time with it, and honestly, it seems to be, so far in what I’ve read of your work, the purest expression of both the bond and the momentum I mentioned. Here is a conceptually tight book that rigorously explores its project without any dross. I mentioned the developing variation in my question about Explosion Rocks Springfield; I still think that is apt. But if Explosion Rocks Springfield finds a kinship in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, for example, then Partisans finds its kinship in something like Anton Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet, op. 5. It is, like Webern, a quick read (because of that momentum) but also an irrefutable one.
At this point, though, we’ve got quite a few pieces on the table, as you say. It certainly would be helpful to me to catalog what we have so far; then I’m going to ask you a pointed question about an interpretation of Bach that I hope ties everything together.
- Stance: a way of inhabiting one’s body as the site of creative and artistic labor; an alchemy of preparation, inevitability, and charisma that is expressed in the creation of an object (a performance, a poem, a book, a violin sonata, a poetic gesture, even an act of violence).
- Forgetfulness: a disembodiment, a cleaving of object from the labor of its making.
- Bond: the fluid relationship between “performer, composer, text and audience.” The bond is created and shaped through the exchange of germs — what you call “events” (words, notes).
- Accident: a subversion to event that pivots the discourse from what is expected.
- Gesture: a change in direction resultant of an accident in a series of events.
- Now what: the problematic especially expressed in WAM; in fact, its obsession. The now what exists because of an assumption that absolute silence is possible and the function of WAM is to rupture this silence. From the now what and through stance comes the event, the accident, and the bond that results.
Can we now say that a WAM poetics, then, might be better stated as a now what poetics, characterized by its inevitability, made compelling by the desire to rupture an absolute silence through the deployment of events, themselves disrupted by accidents, themselves constituting a gesture? And all of it done as an artifact of stance, itself a way of being embodied through preparation and established forms.
OK. Finally. I mentioned earlier that you and I are collaborating in the Bach sonata. Last week I shared this recording of Christian Ferras playing the E major Partita as an example of how I wanted to hear the right hand in your part. I offered Ferras as exemplifying “my ideal combination of desperation, inevitability, and leading-ness.” If you don’t mind me airing the conflict, you responded by telling me that you found his playing to be “brutish.” I was actually astonished because, in my mind, Ferras is such a good example of a correction to forgetfulness, particularly in this recording because it is so very labored, so embodied, and so much an artifact of Ferras’s years of study, his personal suffering, his teachers. Question: can you speak to how you understand the vocabulary we’ve developed through this particular example?
Toscano: To jump right back into the Ferras matter. Look, I think his was (is) a very valid interpretation of that particular partita; it is unforgettable actually. He plays right on top of every single note in that piece (that’s the stance). There’s virtually no leaning forward on the phrasing or falling back any. But this “on top of it” quality, in my opinion, is done with a rather heavy hand. When I listen to it, I think, is this an optimal way to understand this piece of music? Perhaps, yes, in a specific mood. But I am precisely repelled by what you call the “desperate” quality of it. You see, as far as performance is concerned (composition is another problem altogether), the now what moment for me is not exactly a now-now moment in the sense that each sound (words, in poetry) must have a quality of inevitability. Honestly, over the years, I’ve come to very much dislike a good portion of Glenn Gould’s Bach for that very reason. I feel terrible saying this because Gould taught us so well how to look at Bach from hundreds — thousands of sonic angles. The clarity of structure there can never be dismissed. But the turbo now-now of it all strikes me as a variety of modernist supremacism that’s seen its day and purpose. Frank Lloyd Wright’s ceaseless architectural rectangularity, Mondrian’s never-melding solid-color squares, Toscanini’s relentless metronomic tempos, even Gertrude Stein’s sole employment of the period as exclusionary of other forms of punctuation: all these are, from my point of view, supremacist aesthetic stances. I’m much more interested in, attracted to, sinewy aesthetics. That’s why I always clarify that my passion is not for baroque aesthetics as a whole, but that it’s focused on an early baroque understanding of a less hierarchical relationship of Ground to Figure, where gesture is on an equal footing with metricality. Folks like Claudio Merulo, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Johann Froberger, Louis Couperin — in contrast to Francois (“The Great”) Couperin. In American Classical Music (ACM), sinewy might be best represented by pianist Bill Evan’s slippery slides into arrestingly distant harmonies (a total openness to accident), and of course, Miles Davis and reverberate and deverbrative tone making, which we might call, now-this-ness.
Now, if you’ll indulge me a bit more on sinewy. If you were to look at a snake slithering in high grass, you would catch glimpses of its motions as related to previous motions. The back of the snake would be only momentarily glimpsed, as would the front and middle. The mind would (and very purposefully!) strain to recreate the snake’s actual whole motion. We might call that experience sinewy now what, where arabesques of motion are quite palpable, but not entirely “present” (fully accessible) per se. In contrast to sinewy, think of a whipped ice cream self-serve tap. You pull the handle, and seemingly from nowhere, ice cream just plops out, each blob or moment as it appears is a moment one. And it’s in a series of those “ones,” each one upon the other, that a sense of inevitability or finality grabs onto us (a now-now). That’s also what I mean by “brutish” in terms of performance: an adherence to a chronicity that’s been decided upon a priori the performative event. I’m also thinking of the harpsichord’s sole mode of action, the mere plucking of a string, as having that same brutish aspect to it (reason for which I often prefer playing it to the piano, actually). But, to me, stringed instruments have an uncanny ability to create time distention by leaning forward a bit or laying back on phrases, or as it were, creating memory and unspooling it at the same time. Reading poetry has that same sinewy range of possibilities. I’m always taken aback when people squander that potential; that is, unless the intended effect is a turbo now-now. Amiri Baraka was (is) of course, one of the masters of poetic sinewy, in both composition and performance. In his art, there’s a breathtaking range of stances along with the strongest push back on forgetfulness that I can practically think of. It certainly didn’t hurt either that he friggin’ lived across the street from the Five Spot jazz club in the ’60s, where night after night, music — actual music — strident, exploring music (not the “music of poetry”) became the DNA of his every poetic move. Thus the bond he constantly reset (emphasis on reset!) “between performer, composer, text, and audience” became the core and legacy of his art.
Harmon: I think you’d agree that stance is a way of being embodied, one that depends on an entire personal and cultural history and readiness to access these histories in both the moment of creation and the moment of performance. One can then have an aesthetic supremacist stance — one that promotes a hierarchical relationship of act and nonact, thing and nonthing, figure and ground. Visually speaking, Kazimir Malevich. By contrast, one can have a sinewy stance — one that would disentangle itself from the hierarchy described above; one that is predicated upon its temporality: where moment one leads to moment two and so on; where this “and so on” resets the bond. Baraka. (I might say, too, that the qualities of a sinewy stance lend themselves to revolutionary thinking, but that’s a conversation for another time). Now what(sinewy); now-now (supremacist).
Moving on. I am glad that you’ve brought Miles Davis and Bill Evans into the conversation; I want to double back on the early baroque and ask a question of all three. Ok, we have the sinewy — a stance that deprivileges hierarchy; that relies on the lingering flavor of an act and, in the wake of this flavor, the desire for what comes next. My issue is that all of the examples of sinewy that you cited are still tied down to what I would say is the supremacist stance of tonality, where one note (scale degree one and its chord, for example) is in a hierarchical relation to all its others (scale degree five, four, and so on). Certainly, these folks (Davis, Evans, the early baroque composers) are pressing on tonality, testing its boundaries as a child would test those of their parent, but they are still working within it, regardless of any relationship to metricality. Can you discuss the stance of someone like Cecil Taylor and the ways in which one might be more or less sinewy depending on their attachment to tonality (avoidant, nostalgic, reactionary, to name a few examples), and what happens when “rhythm” is wrenched from its origins, themselves resultant of dance forms and the disciplined body therein?
Toscano: I’ve been listening to a lot of Scott Joplin lately (Joshua Rifkin on piano) and pondering his music not only in terms of musical strategies, but also wrapping my mind around the cultural context of the period in which he was most active as a composer (1890s–1900s). Although Joplin adheres rather strictly to nineteenth-century tonal systems, I wouldn’t characterize that adherence as being “nostalgic” or “reactionary.” Quite the opposite. His meticulous handling of tonality affords the music a wide range of affective registries. For one, he’s a master of parody. There’s this piece, “Country Club,” in which he’s doubling down on the crudest form of tonal cadences, I think, to mock the clunky, clumsy gaits of rich, all-White members of a country club. That’s in the A part of the rag; in the B part, there are — the best way I can describe it — tender reveries of intimacy, a radically different view into that same scene. In other words, his “stance” has everything to do with society around him. The Gay Nineties, that era was later called. And, no doubt, there must have been much gaiety in certain pockets of that era, but also, it was all under the consolidation of Jim Crow segregation. The dampening effect that must have had on Black Americans’ social horizons, is something to ponder deeply. There’s also a very unique metricality to Joplin’s music that I speculate has to do with the increasing mechanization of society and the new social potentials that come with it. The locomotive — as a symbol of exodus/migration, its totemic power — figures hugely in Black American music of that time (and later with the blues, too). It’s really amazing how Joplin’s tonal strategies achieve a density of affect that combines joy with melancholy, perplexity with clarity, resignation with victorious glee. This is all to say that the historic journey of tonality in Western Art Music and American Classical Music is not a singular path; rather, the journey encompasses multiple paths that diverge along varying cultural and political contexts. But, more than that, paths have been crossing for some time now. That’s why I reject simple notions that figure “tonality” as mainly a product of colonialist ambitions and rule. Also, if you go back to the early baroque, say, with Frescobaldi’s experimental toccatas that actively forestall the drive towards the tonal centering that would go on to dominate WAM within thirty years (Alessandro Scarlatti, Henry Purcell, etc.), it would be hard to make an argument implicating those toccatas with empire building.
Anyway, this brings me all the way to contemporary poetics and Cecil Taylor. Taylor’s employment of clusters of atonality (each cluster with its own internal laws and dynamics), one upon the other, spells out an entirely different way of composition and performance. Right off the bat, we might think of Bruce Andrews’s poetry as one of the most extreme ways of clustering words into hyperlocal spaces and from those spaces, one upon the other, creating an atmosphere of meaning-making that is nonlinear. Same goes for Taylor; forward motion is achieved not through tonal returns to “home” but rather through mere succession of clusters. Both allow for the listener to either hyperfocus on the music/poetry or just drift off. Drifting off is not the same as forgetfulness. Drifting off is a found freedom that becomes possible when not adhering to hierarchical approaches to meaning-making. Both these artists are decidedly not dominated by precepts of “standards.” In poetry, that means not feeling compelled to address established topics or variate off of archetypical themes (that’s a stance). In music — specifically, free jazz, that means not having to conform to a set of tonal expectations (that’s a stance, too). It’s almost like both of these postsupremacist thinkers place a lot of faith that the zeitgeist will do the bulwark of cultural interpretation of their works. And we know it’s not an evacuation of politics (both are well documented to be very political thinkers); they’re just, we might say, sinewy in their approaches to aesthetics. Both saw the formative upswing of American Empire expansion, as well as the downswing of that Empire. I’m figuring they’re in some deep way done with all that. I’m feeling pretty much the same thing these days. Like millions of people in the US, I’m living in a holding pattern of now what.
Harmon: I want first to respond to this bit about tonality and empire building — I wouldn’t say that tonality in and of itself is, as you say, a product of colonial rule. I’d argue, rather, that the hierarchical structures of tonality contribute to the strengthening of a larger system (mastery) that would justify things like empire building, extraction, and the forced labor that makes both possible. Tonality is the beautiful object later deployed to hide the truth of its own foundational ideology. It is, though, largely linear, even (and here I go again) teleological. This is partly why I asked you about Cecil Taylor and, sure, by extension the poetics of folks like Andrews (the “playful anarchy” of words, right?). From the start, I think what I’ve actually been interested in is how you and others (Andrews, et al) handle embodied time. All these things that we’ve touched on — stance, the Now What, the Now-Now, the event, the accident, the sinewy, are all about how one inhabits one’s time. When I first received this most recent response, I kept thinking about some of Douglas Kearney’s poems and the way in which they are experienced both all at once as a visual spectacle and over time as a page-poem. To me, this seems like a perfect example of the drifting off that you describe, even a “turbo” drifting as inhabiting simultaneous temporalities does not only not adhere to whole project of hierarchical thinking, it temporarily undoes it. This being the case, what then are the political ramifications of a disentanglement from hierarchical time; does the poetics we’ve been describing in this dialogue have the ability/agility to remake a subject through a manipulation-recreation of an embodied time, thereby becoming a technology to break through the holding pattern you describe?
Toscano: Doubling (or tripling) back to tonality a bit. You say, “hierarchical structures of tonality contribute to the strengthening of a larger system (mastery) that would justify things like empire building, extraction, and the forced labor” (my italics). If we measure the relationship of musical forms of the twentieth to early twenty-first. centuries to political-economic imperatives of nation states (whether those states are in expansionist mode or not), it’s easier to find correspondences between aesthetic forms and social content than in earlier periods. For example, contemporary electro-house music can be explained in part to the acceleration of global (consumerist) global connections. The mere word, “Ibiza” (northern European tourists converging on the Mediterranean during “the holiday” to expend money and sex-body to the max) begins to capture “electro-house,” with its “chill” or “pumped” serial vibe. A case can also be made that the dominant gig economy of pay-per-task seriality of current labor practices might be a “contributing” influence on the pulse-based structure of electro-house. And the reason as to why it’s easier to chalk out those correspondences is that the form of critique (“did/does tonality contribute to empire building?”) is itself contributive to that expansion of — or in this case, accretion of empire (US, 2020). But employing the concept of “contributive” in order to pin the function of tonality to social forms of resource extraction and labor disciplining of three hundred to four hundred years ago, I find that a much harder problem. Take for instance, the “man-eating mines” of Potosí in Bolivia in the early 1500s, where Spain carried out a full-scale extractive economy that endured until the mid-seventeenth century. Or take the cane and indigo plantations in Brazil (plantations more akin to outdoor factories than a European lord’s estate). What was the predominant musical tone strategy of the European centers of power at the time of Columbus’s landing, and some one hundred years after that? Music like that of Josquin De Prez (the Lowlands), Thomas Tallis (England), and Antonio de Cabezon (Spain). Now, clearly, those composers are not representative of either the development, let alone consolidation of tonality. Their music is still largely derived from late medieval or early Renaissance methods of tone relating. And those methods — what did they have to do with an expansionist colonialist project? If we were to step into a church in Potosí in 1550, say, what music would we encounter? Or, better put, (and I believe this speaks to your concern with body disciplining), what music were the parishioners summoned by? Agricultural, lord/serf era polyphonic, modal music. What I am trying to say is that there’s great mismatches (offsets) between aesthetic developments and social hierarchies, especially in music. Tonality gets going in full swing in Italic city-states, and most definitively through the music of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). Italy was to become a nation-state some three hundred years later. There were no Italic city-state extractive colonies in the New World that were fueling tonality. Again, there’s a major offset there. And, if we’ve agreed that Mozart’s music is the apex of tonality, I also find it hard to characterize the Vienna of that time as a colonial extractive power fueling a “beautiful object later deployed to hide the truth of its own foundational ideology.” As a historian (and we’re all historians of some sort or another!), I find the critical maneuver of (abstractedly) unifying things “European” in order to push back on “European” (an academicized micropolitics that often goes by the name of “decolonization”), too truncated to fully flush out deeper, more-contradictory, material connections between economy, politics, and culture.
But I want to get to another very pressing point you bring up. Namely, what subjects can be imagined, or better yet, played out, if a particular music (Taylor) or poetics (Kearney, Andrews) is momentarily unbuckled from hierarchical time? And I love how you called that manipulation a technology. Well. The underlying question here is how effective culture is — at large, in changing political reality. The late, right-wing publicist, Andrew Breitbart, once said that “culture is downstream from politics.” He was lamenting the fact that the American left has consistently been winning the “culture wars,” priming the ground for a left politics to follow. I largely agree with that “downstream” view. And I am happy that the right’s aesthetic culture has been preemptively shunted, pushed aside. The precincts of poetry have long been won/wrenched from the right. One can hardly imagine having to deal with a modern-day fascist Pound, or crypto-royalist Eliot, or even popular “agrarian” (crypto-anti-integrationist) poets. The left enjoys near-full cultural hegemony at this time. And it is from and within that hegemony that “experimental poetry” lives. It’s in a victorious bubble already, or if you like (more agonistically put), “in struggle” for further social transformation. So that an issue, like, what might the “political ramifications of a disentanglement from hierarchical time” mean, is a hyperlocalized (specialized) cultural matter. Many of us have imagined much bigger implications to us jiggling ontologies, epistemologies, etc. But, returning full circle. It is precisely, as I said before, “the dominance of the pop song ethos,” coming directly from the music industry, that takes up most of the bandwidth of the reception to poetry (through lyric, actually). North Americans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Haitians — you name it, the Americas as a whole love poetic lyrics but poetry-poetry? Not as much. And even less so in the United States. Even social-media-driven meme-making is chunking off real estate that used to sit squarely within the domain of poetry-poetry. But, to drill down a bit here, as to what I think happens (as you put it so well) when poetry becomes capable of inhabiting “simultaneous temporalities [that] not only [do] not adhere to whole project of hierarchical thinking, [but that] temporarily [undo] it.” Well, that aesthetic achievement, I might call a gap or valve. On the pessimistic side, it merely suggests social liberation (a momentary break from oppressive hierarchies); on the optimist side, that gap/valve might have just the right amount of “ability/agility” to elevate what aesthetics can do in the social realm. Me, I am not sure where I stand on that gradient of optimism and pessimism. It’s for others to judge.
Harmon: Rodrigo, you really went for the jugular! It’s interesting that we end here. I started this dialogue by mentioning that you and I have been talking about WAM since we met; it’s appropriate then, to return, too, to the attending argument we’ve been having about my inclination for broad comparative analyses (the search for the flavor of an epoch) and your (very necessary) pushback with historical particularities. As in our IRL conversations, that pushback is appreciated here, too. Though in the case of the tonal, the tonal-tending, and the modal, I will always contend that what these systems have in common is hierarchy, and that particular hierarchy — as homed in the body of both performer and listener — is inextricable from larger structures of, well, put simply for the purposes of this dialogue, master and slave. What I love about your response is the gap/valve. Maybe it’s my youth talking, but I definitely find myself on the “optimist” side of things (“the ability to elevate what aesthetics can do in the social realm”). When I talk about WAM being the raison d’etre for my work, I’m not just talking about the materials of WAM but rather the gap/valve that liberates the art form from itself, by itself, for itself. Here’s where I’ll end: in conjunction with this dialogue, we’ve been learning the Bach sonata. As I craft my responses to your volleys, the experience of rehearsing with you is constantly in the background; as I rehearse, I’m always thinking about my next question. We both agreed that we wouldn’t turn the rehearsal into a “metacritical exercise,” but I can’t help myself. My interpretation of our particular Bach has changed because of what we’ve been talking about in this dialogue. Has the practical exercise of playing together while also working on this dialogue changed anything for you, poetically speaking?
Toscano: Very much so! Whenever I have an intense aesthetic experience, I necessarily shift in some way or other. For one, my approach to solo playing has become sharper, more attentive to a plethora of possible interpretations to melodic lines and tempi. Since you’re the professionally trained musician, and me the autodidact amateur, whatever pearls of wisdom about chamber music performance you’ve dropped on me, I feel very heavily. In terms of poetic thinking, what I feel is that yeah, so much of my thinking around poetics stems from my lifelong study and passion for music. An ongoing developing consciousness (bewußtein) for composition — in-and-for-itself (an und für sich) — has afforded my poetics real strength over the years; it’s also, at times, stunted my practice. As I get older (hopefully more mature!), I sense the trade-offs of particular styles or methodologies of writing more intensely. I must confess, too, that as a thinker and writer who has long had an affinity for Hegelian concepts and analytical procedures, I find myself rather alarmed at the nearly ubiquitous application of the master/slave dialectic in so much of contemporary — I’ll just say it — hysteria, from both the political right and left. Of all places to hit the pause button on that dialectic, it would seem to me, is in poetic practices. Aren’t we, after all, looking for ways out of all that? I’m sure you in large part agree, and certainly, that’s a conversation for some other time. For now, let’s dig into that Gabriel Fauré Berceuse. It’s in 6/8 time with offset accents. I can already hear your shoe heel slamming the ground!