Friday, January 15, 2010

Revisiting Great Hymn of Thanksgiving


A while back (post in the archives) I wrote a post critiquing Nada Gordon's somewhat dismissive blog comments about what she deems "docu-po," referring to the socially engaged poetries of Stephanie Young and Juliana Spahr, and Andy Grecivich's journal Cannot Exist.  Of course, Nada's supportive of Young and Spahr's work, and has had many good things to say about the poets, so I took this as a rather unusual post that for my tastes generalized too much about avant-garde poetries which engage more directly or concretely with politics and the politics of language than does Flarf. Unusual and yet still interesting, as per usual with Nada's writing. Yet, partly why I responded to that old post was to highlight the incredible work that Grecivich has done with experimental sound-text composition, thru Nonsense Company and on his own.  And I sort of crapped out on that.

So, to get to what I'd meant to get to.  Few in the poetry world, other than those of us interested in or practicing genre breakage thru poets theater, know of Grecivich's work in music and avant-garde theater.  And even then, Andy's track often runs parallel to poets theater, it seems.  Given Nada's work therein, I'm not sure if she knows Andy's work or not. I've been fortunate to have come out of multi-media and performing arts, and experimental music, and so over the years we've had colleagues and collaborators in common.  Tho, unluckily, I've never worked with Andy.   In revisiting perhaps my favorite work of Nonsense's, Great Hymn of Thanksgiving, I'm reminded of how ahead of the curve avant-garde theater is compared to much of the poetry world, my first love (I was the closet poetry geek for years in college and afterwards).  And by this I mean in terms of pushing what the form takes itself to be or be doing.  After all, aside from the Broadway and just Off Broadway productions, theater has for much longer than the book been stripped of its dominant exchange value (both still have exchange value, of course, but not to the degree they once did).  Or, put this way: the book itself, whether sales are in the hundreds or thousands, is just now becoming an outmoded source of mass entertainment, hence relegating its status to the art object, and its practitioners poets and other weirdos.  Theater hasn't been a source of mass entertainment (beyond Broadway) since film usurped it, and arguably it was prior to film that theater's value as entertainment began to fall (hell, it can be argued that theater's golden period was just prior to the Long Parliament).  Perhaps this is one source of poetry's rather slow evolution?  That it hasn't, like the theater, experienced an historic shift in commodity status?  Which, if true, could be a point in poetry's favor--that it isn't in a hurry to please buyers who fetishize "newness."  But by "evolution" I don't mean progress--I mean pushing in terms of form, urgency to figure itself out.  Poetry has largely done this on its own terms, within its own bubble of exchange, and this is one thing I love about the culture of poetry (which, unlike the form, is more easily separable from other media and their accompanying conventions).  Theater was forced into this position not all that long ago, but then again, quite some time ago.  It's been nearly a hundred years since dominant modes of theatrical discourse splintered into a million sub-dominant cultural practices, most of them off the grid. 

Well, regardless of that simplistic quasi-analysis, I saw / heard / felt / squirmed my way out of Grecivich & Co.'s Great Hymn of Thanksgiving several months ago, and the piece is still with me.  There really aren't any good ways to describe the work--it's absolutely un-summative.  It really does need to be experienced, and yet I can say that Nada's dig on Cannot Exist feels off after just tonight working thru just the sound clips from this "piece for three speaking percussionists," even though I'm well aware that the dig was with regard to the journal, not Andy's own work. Nonetheless, it seems silly to associate Andy with "heavy-handedness" once one gets to know his aesthetic, and his background.  Perhaps if there are a lot of heavy handed socio-critiques in Cannot Exist (I don't think there are), it's because we as poets have a hell of a time trying to figure out how to matter, and so the journal is filling its pages with those works of ours (mine, next issue) that fail just that much better than others, waiting for us to hit our mark?

In seriousness, I do encourage you to check out Great Hymn, as (I think, since a friend of mine was doing sound tech for them just a month ago) they still perform the work.   Here's part of one pretty apt review from its showing at the Frigid Festival a couple years ago: 

...add in the garbled recitations of found text from the Army Prayer Manual, world news reports, and Rae Armantrout's poetry. If Chuck Mee and Philip Glass collided, they'd be lucky to come up with something half as good Great Hymn of Thanksgiving, a self-titled "piece for three speaking percussionists." Beyond the creative effect of the work (and god only knows what the notation looks like), the play conjures up a hollow Thanksgiving, stripping away all the festivity of life, leaving behind only the artifice of objects clinking and clashing against one another. It also mocks our ability to celebrate such sham holidays, content in our safe little houses even as -- half a world away -- the radio broadcasts, in graphic details, the blackened and cooked corpses of innocent children.

The review fails to mention, however, that all text is not only garbled (by use of various muffling effects using only objects one would find on a dinner table), but broken, broken by either trailing off, or by being eaten by another's interruption, or by modulation of the speaker's voice in terms of volume (again, by use of muffling).  And yet the work still produces a narrative, or if not a narrative, then narrative-like affect.  

The review also fails to mention that the work relies heavily on timing so precise that it makes some of Cage's pieces seem a little loose.  As Kevin Killian wrote: 

...Little by little the repetitive scrape of a knife across a china plate, the movement of a spoon across a tablecloth, a finger around the rim of a water glass, turns into a symphony.... The back and forth between Higgins, [Grecivich] and Burkhardt has to be seen to be believed... they have mastered the art of sarcastic and haunting timing.

Bold/italics added.  If you don't mind experimental music and/or poets theater, enjoy this short, too short sound clip.  Note that this clip is problematic in that many of the cues are obviously visual, and the sound is a bit low--so make sure to play this on highest volume, or via external speakers, and realize as you probably will that this is a piss-poor teaser more than anything.


  1. David--

    A quick note (I'm at work, which is where I have e-access these days).

    Thanks so much for this!

    One little correction: I didn't write "Great Hymn;" it's by Rick Burkhardt (though I was intimately involved in the piece's composition as a discoverer of sounds and gleeful guinea pig--and the piece in performance, though exact with regard to the precise instructions of the score, has certainly been shaped by the work the two of us and Ryan Higgins have done as an ensemble--lots of practice in elaborate group speech and instrumental techniques, work on plays that informs the theatrical aspect of the performance, etc.).

    Indeed, the link probably doesn't give a great picture of the piece--we've found it maddeningly difficult to record adequately. However, there's a film in the works that's going to look and sound great. Since the piece is in retirement for the moment, that will allow people to see it.

    I'd meant to respond at length to Nada's post, and have thought about it regularly since reading it. It's stuck with me precisely because I find her to be the most interesting and thoughtful of Flarfists (most Flarf, I have to admit, fails to excite or even offend me--and I have a particular problem with what I see as uncritical acceptance of irony). If I ever get around to blogging again, I'll write about that.

    oof--I wanted to write something about political art here, but have to run back to the circ desk!

    all the best,