The first part of Allen Ginisberg’s three part protest poem Howl bombards the reader with image upon image in a single and relentless stream of consciousness; each of the vivid depictions rolls seamlessly into the next, the solitary full-stop being reserved for the very end. The effect of this on the reader is brain-shattering: a seemingly endless outpouring of ideas and views presented in an almost incomprehensible fashion. It takes many readings to properly understand the use of language and the run-on sentence(s?), never mind the actual ‘meaning’ of the work.
Soon after being invited to write a piece based on Howl I realised I certainly wouldn’t be unable to present Ginsberg’s ideas through any kind of programme music, nor would I be able to bounce any ideas of my own off the poem for fear of loosing all of my ideas (and possibly my mind) in a thick literary soup. Instead, I decided to re-present the poem – to impart it through my own artistic medium, filtered through my own reaction to- and interpretation of the text.
Stanzas of Gibberish – Nothing in Black and White Makes Sense is the result: a three part musical structure in which the main, central section is designed as the musical equivalent of Ginsberg’s stream of consciousness. Here ideas disappear as readily as they occur; the order of their appearance is based on the order and power of the imagery in Ginesberg’s text. America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, makes notable appearances at the beginning and in the final section. That final section takes a cue from the line “America when will we end the human war? Go fuck yourselves with your atom bomb”, which comes from another Ginesberg poen: America.
The Star-Spangled Banner isn’t the only preexisting piece to make an appearance. The question from Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question lends its pitches to the bass clarinet at the very end of Stanzas of Gibberish.The Trumpet Voluntary (used as pitch derivation system for the main part of the piece) is manipulated so that its tonality is never clear – what should stand for boldness, readiness for battle and pride now intones uncertainty, doubt and instability (though present deep in the musical framework, this music is never actually perceived)
The title Stanzas of Gibberish is intended as an observation of most people’s initial reaction to Howl and is, in fact, a quote from part one of the poem. The subtitle Nothing in Black and White Makes Sense, alludes to the fact that the written word can only ever be a monochrome reduction of a Technicolor imagination, as, for that matter, is the printed musical score.
October 2005: Howl for Now Ensemble, Adam Fergler (conductor), Howl for Now, University of Leeds
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