A microbrewery for book-lovers

Conlon Nancarrow at Purcell Room

Yesterday we took the rare opportunity to see and hear some of  Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player-piano at the Southbank Centre. Nancarrow punched his own music rolls, writing music that suited the technology itself, rather than simply using it to approximate a professional pianist. The machine in action was something like a life-support machine with all its pistons, pneumatics and paper cylinders.  I hope it doesn’t get relegated to the basement now SBC own it. I hope we’ll see Nancarrow appearing in their general programming.

Here is an extract from a poem of mine that makes mention of Nancarrow. It will appear in a book we’ll be publishing next month. (It is his centenary year, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing more of him). The poem is a reported monologue from a fireworks display designer who has been commissioned to make a display set to Nancarrow’s avant-garde music.

Green Man Interchange

‘I am profoundly movedby the thought,’
says my companion,
‘That Belisha,
himself a Jewish émigré,
should be so concerned with the welfare of
British children as
they cross the roads
in the Mainland and
Her territories.

And is the zebra crossing not inextricably linked
with the safe passage of the Children of Israel through the Sea?
And is the pillar of fire not an antetype of our Belisha Beacon?
And have you noticed that each keeps its own time?
Is this not a mischevious rebellion
against the tyrranical regimes that girded the globe
at the time of their genesis?
A thaw in the Atomic Age?
And indeed; a defiant mien against the tyrrany of the stars!
The Atomic Clock is lax next
to the relentless pulsar.
All of deep space has synchronised like clocks that share a hallway.
But not so the Earth and Her Belisha Beacons.

These things call me to question my trade.
Do I serve the enemy? (I am speaking of physics).
Is it true that the titilating   jouissance of fireworks;
the golden spermatazoa of Zeus’ holy groin
spread liberally in the night sky with much fizzing;
it all seems to point to a joyful abandonment of time pieces.
But mark my words!
This is the closest point of contact
between warfare and the entertainment industry!
A barrage on the public!
A barrage on the public place!
A barrage on the public purse!
A circus purchased with bread!

All comedy belongs to the fifth column.
Comics occupy the column inches,
they make us laugh at things that are not funny.
At least the working man once mocked his Mother-in-Law
but stoked vengeance at the coalface.

But I am speaking of fireworks;
Since when was entropy fit for children’s parties?
They illuminate all discredited things!
In truth,’
says my companion,
‘I face a most arduous commission:
for the centenary of the birth of Nancarrow,
an American of the Avant Garde,
A display set to his music (of the most peculiar order,
it is not what I call melody.)
It has become clear as I plot this on my laptop computer
that my composition must be of his calibre, even.
There is guile in his manuscript that the 1812 Overture does not demand;
nobody requires that the fireworks be anything more than illustrative.
But with Nancarrow the silence is as much a part of the music as the notes.
And here the dark must be as competently arranged as the light.
And here we approach the paradox at the heart of fireworks:

The inequality between the speed of sound and light.

Let me explain,’
says my companion,
‘With what will the music synchronise?
The flash of light on your retina or
the tapping of the hammer and the stirrup and the drum?
This appears to be a small problem at first, I know,’
says my companion,
‘But it soon grows to occupy the whole mind
as a kind of anxiety
in my line of work.
It is the difference between sound and sense,
the myth of the mind in the body,
the heart of all dischord
Quatre Bras,
(Never forget;
the greatest gatherings of tongues have always been on the battlefields!)
and the problem of the individual in the State,
the child and the Motherland,
don’t ask me which is which,
I simply mean the impossibility of reconciling things.
Something has to give.
Some things will never suffer destruction.
And people ooh and aah at this?
It is no more surprising than the fact of the gladiatorial games
I suppose.
In its day, the tower of Babel was only two storeys high.

I feel a kinship,’
says my companion,
‘This being N’s dilemma;
An insignificant man, bereft of funding and column inches,
never young and foolish;
a threat between the buttering of toast and his bedtime toilet.
His arrangement of notes on the page raised questions
in the Department of State.
Friendless in Mexico
he turned to the player piano,
(they have more fingers anyway).
I can well imagine a dead planet, where
the missing pianists only remain as a tendency towards ten notes at a time.
He set out to increase the tempo of the revolutions of time,
tending towards the human hand.

I need a new firework for my arsenal,
one of refinement.
I am currently killing time,
but I will drive until evening,’
says my companion,
‘And arrive just after nightfall at the wholesaler.
They will greet me with a nod and
a cup of decaf tea
and they will collapse a neutron star for my benefit.
I am talking of a display, for one, of a single firework.
I will pass judgement on its melancholy embers.

Can we call time on this fiction tonight?

I would love to tell that old alchemist that base metals
indeed turn into gold.
But only in a dying star over an immense passage of time.

We should indeed preserve our Uranium.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these <abbr title="HyperText Markup Language">HTML</abbr> tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.