reviewed by Nathan Austin
Music to accompany this review:
- Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"
- Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord"
- Aretha Franklin, "Precious Lord, Parts 1 & 2."
- Terry Riley, "You're No Good"
- Alvin Lucier, "I Am Sitting In a Room"
John Taggart, in "Chicago Breakdown": "Where do new songs come from?"
Answer: "From old songs, from cutting into, around, and cutting up old songs. Love's old sweet songs."
In "Good-Bye": "I am no more than the careful workman."
& in "In True Night": "Of the constant song I keep some of the words / some of the basic words of the song in the air"
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The long overdue selection of John Taggart's work, Is Music (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) reminds us that a good deal of his work, in cutting new songs from old, is transcription. "Marvin Gaye Suite" opens with the opening of the soul singer's album, What's Going On: "17 seconds of party formulaics by professional football players / intro of 17 seconds of hey man what's happening and right on." Like Gaye's voice throughout the album, the voice in Taggart's poem — and this is true throughout his work – is multitracked into a call and response with itself and with the world. At the opening of the album, a voice, omitted from Taggart's transcript, says "everything is everything." This could serve as motto for the poem, which folds lyrics from the album into a meditation on the album and its impact, on the relationship between the spiritual and the profane, on Gaye's life and talent and addiction and death, on voice itself as song, voice that seduces and gives access to ecstatic experience.
"perhaps the most emotional moment he ever reached on record" Marvin used multitracking to sing with himself speaking and singing his singing voice higher than his speaking almost a woman's voice speaking and singing the voice through his voice
As Taggart puts in in "Were You," he strives to "write in the glisses, the sighs, the humming." He writes of a voice “so very smooth that he hardly feels it / so smooth oooooo — oooooo — oooooo so smooth he hardly feels it,” and of a heartbeat rhythm. At times, his writing calls to mind the work of Jerome Rothenberg and David McAllester in their translation of Navajo chanter and healer Frank Mitchell's "17 Horse Songs." Or Eric Sackheimer's transcript of Robert Johnson's "Hell Hound On My Trail." In “Precious Lord,” Taggart's attention to "the song in the air" takes the form of transcripts of singers' phrasing of the song's lyrics: from Mahalia Jackson's "take-en-n—my-ah-aah—ha-an-nd" and "take-ake my-ah han-and" to Clara Ward's "thru-uuu-uah" and "thru-ah thru-uuu-uah the night" to Carey Bradley's "take-ah my hand" to Brother Joe May's (re)sounding — "the way he sang 'pra-aaa-aaa-aaa-shus' is like thunder."
In "Precious Lord," Taggart cuts his new song from Thomas A. Dorsey's sweet old song, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." Taggart sets his poem on the page with a visual artist's attention to composition. Here he splits the page in two as though separating earth from sky: the half below page's horizon line tells the story of the song's author, and the half above describes the song's various vocal performances. The poem outlines the relationship of word to voice, shows that interpretation elevates written word to wordlessness, to moan.
she says "when I don't feel like singing I moan" it's Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the Hot Club de France in 1966 Sister Rosetta had dyed her hair red played a hollow-body jazz guitar Sister Rosetta has a resonating vibrato she moans "ho-oo-oo-oo-meh" with a resonating vibrato she moans out "ho-oo-oo-oo-meh" becomes resonant "when I don't feel like singing I moan" she becomes completely resonant she has nothing left to hide
This account of interpretation as a transcendence of language's limit suggests a model for community based on a destabilization of hierarchy between author and reader. Taggart figures writing as a mode of engagement with other writing: where Dorsey "wrote the words wrote the words and the music," these words and this music are response to another's question, "the song is an answer song to another song." And where interpretation involves the singer's voice making the writer's language her own, where interpretation is occasion for departure, this departure returns us to the author. As Taggart notes, it was Dorsey who "taught [Mahalia Jackson] how to moan / 'you teach them how to say their words in a moanful way' / to say their words how to say his words." This community extends, folds in other singers who borrow their voices from one another: "Aretha followed Clara Ward note for moaning note … Dorsey taught Clara and Clara taught Aretha / how to say his words in a moanful way all through the night."
Taggart's idea of community involves total participation: "An instance of community is gospel singing. One has to be struck by its power, vibrant out-reaching power and possibility for total involvement. The idea of critical detachment at a gospel service is anomalous. One either joins in or leaves; that's the choice." That is, readership and interpretation involve merge of self with text, of audience with performance. "Poem as gospel service, poem as James Brown." He talks about "join[ing] a diversified assembly with a separate contribution," and there's another model of community in the relationship between singer and backing instrumentalists. See his discussion of Jamie Jamerson's "busy bass" and Gaye's "voice busy before the bass." See the joining together of "ragged male voice shouting half-phrases" with the "calm female choir smoothly singing whole phrases or sentences behind him."
Aretha sings "Wholy Holy" on her Amazing Grace album Aretha makes up new words to go with Marvin's song as she goes along moving and grooving with love doing and fooling with love Southern California Community Choir behind her its not doo it's who it's not who its oooooo—ooo—ooo—oooooo so smooth and so zealous if it could only be that night silent night across the nation.
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Taggart, in "Were You": "power of the music lies in silence of the gaps… The idea is to conceive the music as an arrangement or system of gaps and not as a dense pattern of sound. This rules out Xenakis. What about Riley, Glass & Reich?"
Is Music samples most heavily from Taggart's 1991 Sun & Moon collection, Loops. Given the often highly repetitious structure of his work and his borrowing from gospel and R&B, it's easy to connect his work with strains of musical minimalism that use tape loops — after all, Reich's "It's Gonna Rain" (1965) cuts its oscillating song from a Pentecostal preacher's sermon, and Riley's "You're No Good" (1967) stutters and restarts its way, one step forward & two steps back, through a Harvey Averne cut. Reich's follow-up to “It's Gonna Rain,” “Come Out,” built of the testimony of a teenager attacked by police in a riot responding to police brutality, addresses the same kind of violent injustice that shows up throughout Taggart's writing.
And it's a little bit different, but in Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting In a Room," repetition is simultaneously decay and sublimation; as the composer's words recur, they break down, transforming not to moan but to something like it: pure tone stripped of signification. Something like this happens in Taggart, too — in more rigidly-structured poems like "Standing Wave," we can read horizontally to trace out a line's permutations and drift.
[1:] line to line connection of line to line with line to line there is a standing wave so high in the middle of my room [2:] line to line with line to line connection of line to line there is a standing wave soo-oo-o-oo high in the middle [3:] line to line disconnection of one line from line to line there was a standing wave so wide in the middle of my room [4:] one line from line to line disconnection of line to line there was a standing wave soo-oo-o-oo wide in the middle [5:] line to line demarcation of line to line from line to line there will be a standing wave so deep in the middle of my room [6:] line to line from line to line demarcation of line to line there will be a standing wave soo-oo-o-oo deep in the middle
But where the title of the volume explicitly invites us to consider Taggart's repetition in terms of Zukofsky's "upper limit," I'd like to paraphrase and invert Ulla Dydo's commentary on Stein here: hearing, and music, only begin after the eye receives the picture of the page as it sees the words. And Dydo again (in Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises 1923-1934), though this time without modification:
Anyone looking at such writing perceives abstract forms moving into patterns in a space but also tries to read the words for meaning… Such letters, words, and lines appear less as text for reading than as graphic design, tight or loose, fast or slow, jagged or smooth, but always rhythmic. I do not move down the page left to right line by line to the bottom of sense. Rather, I receive words as openwork tracery, interlacing design in the white margined frame of a rectangle or square.
Of the artists Taggart has cited, in his poems and elsewhere, it is Agnes Martin that seems most relevant to this aspect of his work. Held at arm's length their rectangular shapes connote contemplation, a process that is a practice of building something up. Somewhere there is a drawing of Martin's that makes a fine grid, maybe in pencil. The edges of its horizontal lines extend beyond the space of the grid, are ragged left and right – in a way, this this seems kindred to the look of Taggart's repeats.
Martin, describing inspiration: It is an untroubled mind. Of course we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last so we say that inspiration comes and goes but really it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again.
I think it makes sense to think Taggart's repetition in these terms – not only the workings of the untroubled mind, but the workings of the mind waiting to become untroubled. He connects it with both compulsion and with choice, with waiting and with coming into understanding. With shelter.
In “The Compulsion to Repeat”: Gradually how gradually one comes to understand the poets as gradually as the compulsion of one's own compulsion the compulsion to repeatIn “Marvin Gaye Suite”: repetition is choice you choose to be part of the party that waits those who believe that to linger and tarry is to be sheltered