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Poetry Becomes Harmony
by Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez | Jun 28, 2012 2:29 pm
Posted to: Arts & Entertainment
As the poet began to read, the band replied with a flow of notes. Words inspired music, which in turn colored words.
Poetry became harmony; jazz became the melody.
The tango of art forms took place Wednesday night at Yale’s Morse Recital Hall, where former Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy joined forces with jazz lion Ben Allison for an evening of poetic and musical alchemy.
The performance, which was part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, highlighted the musicality of poetry and the ability of jazz to make music speak. It was a dialogue between improvisation and revision, with the carefully crafted verse of the poet conversing with the playful extemporaneity of jazz.
“Pardon us while we rehearse,” Pinsky said between two songs, explained that he had not prepared the show in advance with the band.
A specially powerful moment came when Pinsky read a section of his City Elegies, aptly entitled “Street Music.” (Click on the play arrow at the top of this article to hear an excerpt from the piece.)
Allison played his bass as if it were a piano or a set of tubular bells, running up and down complex arpeggios with the ease of a cat on a roof. At the same time, percussionist Rogerio Boccato played a cajón—an instrument typically used for flamenco—and an assortment of bells, keeping a syncopated rhythm that sounded like a stylized construction site. Guitarist Steve Seabrook anchored the moment with his precise chords. Banjo player Brandon Seabrook completed the scene with an elegant solo reminiscent of traditional Japanese music.
On top of all that, Pinksy recited from memory his memorable lines:
Sweet Babylon, headphones. Song bones.
At a slate stairway’s base, alone and unready,
Not far from the taxis and bars
Around the old stone station,
In the bronze, ordinary afternoon light.
It was as if the street music of the whole world—Spanish flamenco, Japanese koto, American jazz—had come together to support the poet’s bittersweet love-song to the city. And as if it wasn’t enough, all of it was made up on the spot.
“Thank you for attending this party tonight,” said Pinsky an hour later as the show came to an end.
The crowd, however, wouldn’t let the performers leave. After enthusiastic applause, the artists returned to the stage for an encore. Pinsky said that he would read his famous poem Rhyme—which incidentally does not rhyme—and let the band follow “as they [saw] fit.”
That last poem seemed to restate the night’s central thesis—namely, that human speech is always music. Here’s the first stanza:
Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air.
With that, the band and the poet left the stage to continue their perpetual rehearsal elsewhere.
The audience went home with the gut feeling that, if air is an instrument of the body and the body an instrument of air, then poetry must be the instrument of music—and music the instrument of poetry.
Tags: Robert Pinsky, Arts & Ideas
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