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The Numinosum Blog
Tonight I went to a performance on New York City's annual music on Hudson festival, River to River. The concert was Poetic City, a celebration of Poets House with Poetry and Music of Meredith Monk, featuring interpretations of Meredith's music by Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, and Pulse collaborator, singer Joy Askew in addition to poetry readings from Jane Hirshfield, Major Jackson, Ed Sanders, and Brenda Shaughnessy. Meredith, who we were told was originally to be at the concert, actually did not attend because of the flu.
While I have known of Meredith Monk's music for years and saw her perform Dolmen Music at the 25th anniversary concert of the Kitchen in 2004 (and have the Dolmen Music ECM recording from the 70s), sitting at this concert I realized that I know the things I know until I find out about the things I don't know; hearing the different interpretations of her vast output was a wonderful experience, although some versions worked better than others.
The concert started off with Vijay Iyer performing Meredith's Gotham Lullaby (from the aforementioned Dolmen Music CD). While there were sound mixing issues (which unfortunately plagued every musical act), the reading was generally good, with some interesting live vocal processing by singer Latasha Natasha Diggs (whom Vijay worked with on his incredible 2004 In What Language CD). Of all of the members of the band (which did perform well, although I thought the drums in the first two songs weren't really necessary-although this had more to do with the kind of music performed than anything Marcus Gilmore did on drums), I was more intrigued by what Latasha was doing. In the third and final song that Vijay did, Latasha's vaguely Eastern European vocal effects (both processed and not) were quite interesting on top of the cross-rhythms that Vijay and Marcus were laying down.
Next were readings by the above poets, mostly reading their own works. Major Jackson read a few poems including a brand new one called Why I write Poetry which was funny and evocative ("because I have not thanked enough", "vision of trees comes to the wise women", "the moon is my jury", "I've been on a steady diet of words since I was 3"). I also enjoyed his next poem which was either a Gwendolyn Brooks poem or inspired by her (couldn't quite tell exactly from his intro to the poem). Brenda Shaughnessy was up next and began with some random thoughts before someone in the audience shouted "What's your name" and she was back on task, which was to read her poems which were a mixture of profane words and mundane and simple imagery. While not unpleasant (she did have a few phrases from poems including "your dreams are stolen" which I enjoyed), I was not moved by her poetry like I was by the next poet: Jane Hirshefield. Her poems resonated with me immediately with their beautiful and elegant phrasing and tone. The Poet was a lovely and melancholy reverie on an unknown poet tolling away in her home writing poetry that the narrator "won't know about but needs". She also read a lovely new poem (never read aloud before that moment or so she said) based on the sciences, 1st Light to Sirius; one poem (which was my favorite of the night) about certainty and being in the moment like "the cat whose every cell is waiting"; French Horn and The Bell Zygmunt, which was written in honor of a famed poets wife. I will be making her poems more known to me in the future. Ed Sanders was the last poet to read and read his English translation from the Greek of a Sappho poem, although he did include a brief reading of the poem in the original ancient Greek accompanying himself on some kind of lute.
Next came the reason I actually knew about the concert, singer Joy Askew. Joy sang and played piano with Robert DiPietro, Rob Jost and Steve Elliott as part of her band. Mostly she sang items from Meredith's non-lyrical side, starting off with a dreamy, California dirge-like version of Gotham Lullaby. Joy's singing had a sort of Middle East sounding flavor to it which was interesting over the smooth guitar sound. Change (from Meredith's album Key) was the next song. Joy mentioned to the audience that she had only taken the first two lines of Meredith's composition and used them as a template for creating a completely new song. Joy created wonderful layers of herself singing with a vocal effects pedal over the slide guitar and herself on piano. The last composition Joy performed was Panda Chant II from Meredith's 1987 album Do You Be. Joy again created a layer of vocals mixed with her playing hand drum. After her singing (chanting), the song broke out into a 'slow bar-band blues' which, with a slight interlude that brought back the opening, moved nicely into a slow rock anthem building on the word, "panda". It was great to see Joy rocking out, although again the terrible sound mixing did not do her any favors.
The poets returned to read short poems (except Ed Sanders who sang his poem) with only a phrase from Major Jackson ("liquid timepieces") being the only thing to stand out for me during this reading session.
Don Byron, including a great band (with sometime Numinous bassist, Kermit Driscoll), came on last and with his opening tune seemed to clear the lawn (actually people were leaving before this but the pace seemed to quicken as they started to play). It featured two bass clarinets, electric bass, and drums performing abstract, jagged, percolating rhythms always in a state of becoming and free-jazz solos from the bass clarinets. While I found it musically stimulating, I don't think it was necessarily a good opening number. The group kept on the vibe for the next tune, but the final composition featured sinewy, weaving melody lines from the two clarinets on top of a mid-70s Miles blowout groove with both clarinet producing dynamic and stirring solos; a good way to end his set and the concert.
Overall it was a fun concert with some good performances, despite the sound issues and I'm glad to have heard more of Meredith Monk's music as well as learnt about The Poets House and the poetry of Jane Hirshfield.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 10:36 PM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.