Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Subsongs by subsong: Of The Yard (After Terry Ball)

In which I write about the songs on the subsongs album, in order, song by subsong.

I didn’t write the words to this song. The most that I can credit myself with is transcribing and setting them. They are taken from a notebook that my brother gave me which belonged to my uncle Terry Ball who died in 2011. The notebook had been found among his belongings when his house was being cleared. As well as being an accomplished painter Terry had written poetry for most of his life, and this notebook was clearly one that he used for his poetry notes. The address in the front of the book was his most recent, but the first page is headed with the words "Jerusalem June 1967".

Reading through the notebook I was struck by the repetition of passages which appear to describe a very specific situation which Terry would have encountered daily when he worked as a stonemason in Jerusalem. The passages describe how the sun rises, floods the yard in which the stonemasons are working with light and heat, making it necessary for them to shield themselves; this is accompanied by descriptions of the way the shadows play on the architecture, and includes some complex metaphysical imagery involving the sun slaking its thirst on the shadows. Each iteration of the description takes a slightly different form of words to describe the situation, with crossings out, rewritten phrases, words in brackets, all things that might be expected of the compositional process of a writer trying to construct the right form of words. Except in this case the work continues through the notebook, sometimes with very small variation, sometimes with entirely new lines and images inserted. The image above is a small collage of samples of the written text. 

This form of text fascinated me. On the face of it Terry was perhaps simply trying to hone the poem until satisfied with it, but from the evidence of the notebook this point was never reached. Another reading might suggest that this continuous return to the description, and how to formulate it, reveals much about the working of memory: the text not only describes a situation that occurred some fifty or so years earlier, but that also the writing of it becomes the memory itself. Memory as thought without material expression, such as a text, is unreliable and fugitive, and so giving it such form implies constant revision. Perhaps the expression of memory and the writing of the place necessitates that it takes slightly different form at each iteration, precisely because of the unreliability of that memory, so what is being performed through such iterative writing is memory's mutability at each of its occurrences. I’m sure that Terry was thinking of Proust, of whom he had been a lifelong reader, and I was reminded of the writing of Francis Ponge and his attempts at the description of objects which consist of numerous repetitions and revision, all of which become component parts of the finished written work.

Much of my own work has been engaged in the transcription and rearticulating of extant text, such as the television and radio broadcast material which forms the lyrics on the Life of Barrymore collection of songs, or my spoken word pieces in the Speakers and Speakers Too projects. Part of the methodology has been to perform this work in as straightforward a fashion as possible, remaining faithful to the original text, resisting an approach which might over-determine my relationship to the text by injecting any sense of irony, or implicit critique. Of course, this presents something of a paradox as it inevitably will be filtered through the ‘grain’ of my voice, and it is the turn of that paradox which keeps the practice vital for me, the question of what this work thinks it is doing. I think that it’s somewhat different to the approach of conceptual writers like Kenneth Goldsmith who presents his use of any text whatsoever as a kind of radical attempt to destabilise received notions of the status or value of one text in relation to any other. My project doesn’t aim at any such totalising destabilisation, I can’t think of it in such (self-) important terms, I’m not on a mission to reinvent the terms of literature, or song writing. If anything, it’s a concern to attend to the the specific, the situated in the text, that by transforming it into song form, for example, the mode of attention to the form of the text itself, and the possibilities of the language of song, might become reconsidered and expanded, as an experimental practice.

Of course, Terry’s text was already written as poetry, as descriptive, ‘imagist’, and so making a song of it might not have the same disjunctive kind of effect as using other forms of text. The challenge to the song form, in this case, comes from the lack of consistency of scansion, meter, and rhythm, elements which usually commend poetry to song. I had already decided to follow my usual practice of transcribing the text verbatim, and in keeping with most of my own lyrics the poetry didn’t follow a rhyme scheme. But the result of the use and reuse of similar words and phrases being modified, extended, rearranged, at each iteration, is that each ‘verse’, as they might be considered, varies in form to greater or lesser degree. 

After the event of transcribing each of the fragments, the song had 39 distinct verses.

I set the song to two guitar drones made from loops of layered continuous sustained chords, with a rhythm mimicking the ‘hammering of chisels’ described in the text. The 39 verses were recorded, sung in one take, I had to improvise variations of the melody to accommodate the varying lengths and meter of the lines, and later in mixing ride the levels and play the synth bass line to fit the variations in the verses as sung, so effectively, and perversely, the backing track follows the singing.

Ultimately, I can never know what my uncle’s intentions were for this writing, if indeed he had any. It is clearly something that had occupied him for some time, and it seems to me that, from the evidence of the trouble he went to troubling over the lines, a simple poem would never have sufficed to encompass the senses of the situation that he was attempting to write. The materiality of that place and the experience of the working there cutting stone would perhaps be best embodied within the repetition, alteration, reiteration of the description as it recurs and changes through pages of the notebook, and the best way to do justice to this, to pay tribute to him as a person who had a profound and early influence on me as an artist, is to perform it in this way. I think he would have understood.

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