Observation and Obsession: An American Way of Art (1)



Eric Richards


It seems to me that we Americans are very lucky that we do not have to bear the burden of tradition that Europeans have had encumbered upon them throughout their history - and that it has always been easier for us to start anew, to start afresh.

But one must have something to start with if one begins afresh - and that something would seem invariably to me the reality of the world around us. If one does not have a particular tradition to work with in the arts - or a tradition that is removed from one's immediate interests, or only indistinctly remembered - one has to find one's own solution to concrete problems based on close observation and understanding of the immediate environment. I believe then, that there are elements of American experimental art that can be traced to our frontier heritage: freshness of vision begetting new ways to record and reproduce that vision, as well as an openness to new procedures and methods that may ignore - or even be unaware of - already established European ones - but that somehow work, and have a directness - even a sheer contrariness - that is quite characteristic of some of our most interesting American art. And it is this latter element that most intrigues me - the single-minded realization of that which was observed, which makes up in intensity of feeling and uniqueness of form whatever may have been lost by exclusivity of subject matter. In other words, an almost obsessive involvement with the subject - listening to it over and over again, piling up detail after detail in the writing of it, drawing - and perhaps even superimposing - view after view of a single scene, until the mere appearances of the subject are transcended and something else, some new kind of truth and beauty - something we did not expect or even possibly imagine - is achieved.

American artists and scientists have nothing less than a received set of traditions of our own making with respect to these ways of perceiving and interpreting reality - and in particular, nature. A crucial figure in this particular tradition is the Swiss-American naturalist - zoologist, geologist and botanist all - Louis Agassiz, whose comparative method of teaching biology at Harvard in the latter half of the l9th century served not only as a model to such friends of his as Thoreau and Emerson, but continued as a major 19th-century American influence on such 20th-century American artists as Ezra Pound. The description of Agassiz's method (if it could be called such) that most excited his contemporaries - and influenced succeeding generations - was written by a student, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, and appeared in a popular magazine of the time, Every Saturday, and was reprinted many times after that. Ian F.A. Bell has recreated Scudder's experience:

Scudder told how Agassiz gave him a species of fish to examine with the sole instruction to "look at it," then leaving him alone for several hours: "I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kind were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limiting field." One aid was, however, permitted: "At last a happy thought struck me - I would draw the fish and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned." "That is right," said he; "a pencil is one of the best of eyes." "The lesson in looking" that Scudder received from Agassiz provided the bulk of his reminiscence: "for three long days he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. "Look, look, look," was his repeated injunction. This, for Scudder was "the best etymological lesson I ever had, - a lesson, whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study." Part of the importance of the exercise was that it was extended over several days, so that what was being observed was not simply an accumulation of morphological details but also the process of change and decay itself. The observation of process precipitated the next stage in Agassiz's program, that of comparative study: "The forth day, a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me." Finally, there was the all-important synthesis of the data gathered by observation and comparison: "Agassiz's training in the method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them." "Facts are stupid things," he would say, "until brought into connection with some general law." (2)

The intensity and passion that Agassiz urged upon his students in their investigations of nature was enormously influential - "all the more so," according to William James, "that it struck people's imagination by its very excess." (3) Yet the excess had been there from the very beginning of this country's cultural history with the very idea of discovering new species of plants and animals tied up inextricably with the excitement of traversing and exploring America's vast wilderness itself. The Philadelphia botanist William Bartram combined beautifully detailed observations of both new and familiar plant species with descriptions of an almost paradisiacal Eden in his 1791 Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, (4) while James Audubon cut a particularly Romantic figure as frontiersman/ornithologist.

Audubon was the first of those young American "originals" to seek out instruction from even more eccentric European masters - and disprove the general rule of genteel European culture ignoring or stifling American originality (one only has to think of such unlikely student-teacher pairings as that of Fitz-Greene Halleck and Julia Ward Howe with Lorenzo da Ponte, in early 19th-century New York (5) or of John Cage and Lou Harrison with Schoenberg in 20th-century Los Angeles): in Paris, as a 17-year old student in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David, Audubon learned the use of manikins for modeling - and when he came to Philadelphia the next year, he pushed the French painter's example one step further, and created models consisting of dead specimen birds whose wings and tails could be manually moved by wire and thread attachments to a wooden board. He was thus able to create an almost heretofore unknown sense of naturalness and movement in his water colors that was enhanced even further by painting his birds against their native habitat. (6) We see here for the first time a central paradox in the close study of nature by American artists - that the closer we investigate it, and the more urgent our impulses to get "inside" our subject - the more dependant we often are upon mechanical aids.

In the mapping and limning out of the American West, standard surveying equipment and procedures functioned side-by-side with traditional drawing techniques. The Goetzmanns, in their popular The West of the Imagination, have described how the cartography of the military exploring expeditions before the Civil War - such as those led by John Frémont in the 1840s - were aided by ancillary sketches and watercolors that - in their words - were "a combination of romantic viewpainting and topographical renditions with pretensions to scientific accuracy." (7) The great geographical and geological surveys authorized by Congress after the war demanded an increasing sophistication - and interrelationship - of surveying and topographical methods: topographical maps of exquisite beauty were prepared by using complicated primary and secondary triangulations to locate the principal geological features - such as peaks, hills, craters and cones - letting the unaided eye and pencil sketch in the drainage systems and mountains. (8) And American landscape painters of the period used even newer mechanical and technical innovations that actually began to alter reality as well as observe it - and the new science of photography played no small part in this process. For example, Albert Bierstadt used Indian photos arranged in arbitrary sequence as models for one of his early works, Indians Near Fort Laramie, thereby creating a painting which was not a faithful representation of a particular landscape, but an artificially-constructed one, in which features from photos of different scenes were superimposed on a single prairie and western sky in the background. (9) And Frederic Church went even one step further in his spectacular outdoor panoramas of natural wonders by using composites of photographs taken at different angles of the same scene - creating superimpositions in multiple perspective. (10)

I can almost trace the origin of my very particular excitement in composition to my own ways of looking at the Western landscape: on Greyhound bus trips along Route 80 going through Wyoming, I was utterly fascinated by the way buttes in the near distance, or trees or cattle in the middleground, would often shift - AT DIFFERENT RATES - in reference to a single, fixed landmark such as mountains in the far distance, or - at a very quick rate - to fence posts at the side of the highway. I was fascinated not only by these disparities - which were not dissimilar to those faced every day by the 19th-century surveyors, cartographers, and topologists - but by the way objects at different distances in the landscape could be indistinct and fuzzy at one moment and then come sharply into focus at another. Using different tempi for planes of differing clarity and opaqueness, I tried to create an analogous spatial differentiation of these differing visual levels of the landscape in a sustained work for 7 trumpets and 10 double basses, The Consent of Sound and Meaning. Like my 19th-century naturalist models - from Audubon to Agassiz - I also had a subject to "observe" with supposed "scientific detachment" (though, of course, it was nothing of the kind whatsoever) - a two-note quotation from an ambulance siren that I had heard in New York (trumpets) and a tape loop I had made of violin fragments, recorded in a very high register, and then reversed and slowed down many times (the double basses). With the latter, I proceeded to listen over and over again to an almost inaudible mass of low, "scratchy" sounds, until I could draw what meaning, what shapes, even what underlying patterns I could from the taped material - and, at will, construct my own composite landscape of layered double bass parts from the different strata of material.

I must tell you that the freedom I felt as cartographer of this previously unmapped musical landscape was exhilarating. But subtle - and not so subtle - manifestations of the traditions that inform our everyday use of musical instruments and sound - as well as of our very notation itself - started creeping back into my new found paradise. How to recreate - and notate - inarticulateness and the ephemeral? How to bring into sudden focus important landmarks coming into view - and then quickly let them disappear again into nothingness? How to coordinate all these elements in the very practical - and expensive - environment of the modern recording studio where the multitracking equipment needed to record separately, and then mix down, these different layers of sound was situated? And, most important, how to let the structures uncovered by these processes be themselves without interference by the composer - even when all the sutures and breaks uncovered by simultaneous mensuration of disparate materials were exposed for all to see.

I found similar structures - or asymmetrical structures, if you wish - in the experimental - but emotionally rich - realistically-based works of 19th and early 20th-century writers, painters, and composers such as Herman Melville, Thomas Eakins and Charles Ives, in which the navigational, drafting, and musicomechanical mensurational techniques refined by 19th-century technology operate in a dimension somewhat different from that of the ostensible subject matter of the work itself, creating the kind of "skewed" work that I find personally fascinating - and particularly American. Art historian Barbara Novak's comments about Eakin's rendering of late 19th-century Philadelphia are equally applicable to the work of Ives and Melville. In her influential American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Novak first discusses how, in Eakin's work, "direct observation, secondary re-creation through the model, and mathematical (sometimes mechanical drawing) aids were all brought to bear on a single picture." She then concludes:

It is not surprising that at times his pictures lack easy resolutions and authoritative syntheses. Within the same painting, the mathematical and the visual could exist without reconciliation. Yet the outcome often has an odd conviction, deriving precisely from this combined process, declaring a cousinship to similarly compounded works within the American tradition. (11)

Novak gives special attention to Eakin's fascination with mechanics per se:

When Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) visited the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1867, he was more interested in the locomotives and machinery than in the art. This curiosity about mechanism, with its concomitant respect for fact, led him into serious anatomical studies - like the Renaissance masters who dissected to use knowledge as an instrument of truth. With Eakins, this desire for knowledge - an almost obsessive one in his case - extended to the use of the machine as tool (photography) and into mathematics. His art thus belongs, in many of its aspects, to the mensurational, machine-connected aesthetic that characterizes much American art before and after him. In his grave attempts to reconcile knowledge with art, he was perhaps the most philosophical and conscientious of American artists. (12)

Ives - as most readers are more than well aware of - used extraordinarily complex ways of measuring and lining up utterly disparate materials often representing different layers of memory, time and experience. In his novel, Mardi, Melville uses the very idea of conflicting systems inherent in mid-nineteenth century nautical astronomy - the geocentric Ptolemaic of ancient astrology and the modern, scientific Copernican - to raise basic epistemological questions about the very validity of what his fanciful voyagers think that they are doing on their 10-month trip around Mardi - the duration of which corresponds to the movement of the sun through the constellations of the zodiac - and whose major events are in a one-to-one relationship with those of our modern liturgical year. (13) When I first encountered Mardi - while finishing up Consent at the MacDowell Colony in southern New Hampshire - I was delighted to discover that less than 2 hours away and 130 years before in the Berkshires a virtually identical structure to that which I was using was employed to underpin a work of art: in Consent I was using overlapping temporal cycles corresponding to the different periods of the Mayan year - the 260-day "sacred" year, the 365-day year, and the 560-day Venusian year - to create an evolving structure that seemed to be at one with the structures created by tape loops and circular canons, while in Mardi, the contradictions between the positions of the sun and the planets in the signs (as in astrology) and in their true position in the zodiac (as in modern astronomy) created not only overlapping cycles, but the need for corrections or adjustments between the two systems - all of which form an integral part of the novel - and all of which I found myself increasingly concerned with in my subsequent pieces.

I think it is clear then that Eakins's, Melville's and Ives's fascination with the arcanum of measurement was part of their very life blood, and not at all a gratuitous or purely intellectual concern. It was a result of their formative experiences as American youths in 19th-century America - in Eakins' case the product of the intensive course of study in mechanics and technical subjects that Philadelphia had uniquely made possible for the ambitious working-class boy following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin, (14) in Melville's case his practical familiarity with all the subtleties of nautical navigation, and with Ives - his memories - as the son of the local band director - of hearing two bands literally "march to a different drummer" - in different tempi, different keys - and different directions! Emerson himself - the first American artist to make lists of things - such as his neighbors names and crops (in Hamatreya) - was very clear about the relationship between imagination and experience in his journal:

There are two powers of the imagination, one that of knowing the symbolic character of things and treating them as representative; and the other...is practically the tenaciousness of an image, cleaving unto it and letting it not go, and, by the treatment, demonstrating that this figment of thought is as palpable and objective to the poet as is the ground on which he stands, or the walls of houses about him. (15)

Many of us in the late 1960s and early 70s were determined in like manner to hold on tenaciously to our image - a sound event - "pin it down" and study it intensively through our magnifying glass or camera - the tape recorder - and record every detail and variation with mensural aids: the grid - to size it up against in both the actual composition and the final notation - and the metronome (or electronic click box with crystal oscillator) and the click track to respectively measure and synchronize the different tempi. Now, we could slow down the sound image as much as we wanted and get "inside" it, much as Georgia O'Keeffe did with her detailed closeups of the insides of flowers, or we could alter pitch and range, and, by reversing the tape itself, change the whole established order of attacks and transients. We could transform the very nature of continuity itself by splicing out or adding in snips of tape, breaking down the "action" into separate, successive "frames" - much as Eakins did in a series of photographs of horses in motion and men running, realized in collaboration with his fellow Philadelphian, photographer Eadweard Muybridge. And perhaps most important with regard to the overall texture of a piece, we could now "layer" different materials on different tracks, creating a richer, more sonorous texture if the materials were similar or virtually identical - or make wildly improbable superimpositions of utterly different material if they were not.

Recalling Agassiz' comment about "facts [being] stupid things until brought into connection with some general law," we were also fortunate that we had some general models for what we were doing in the procedures of a whole generation of American experimental composers who had been working with analogous problems with acoustic instruments in "real time." Harry Partch had been investigating new instrumental and vocal possibilities using microtonal divisions of the scale in idiosyncratic notations. Conlon Nancarrow had created an exhilarating "speeded-up" world of dense layers of barrelhouse piano punched in player piano rolls using complicated ratios - including such incommensurable ones as or the square root of two. And John Cage - whose imaginative resources seemed virtually unlimited - had produced a body of work and comment whose innovational approach to sound and structure gave us confidence in the unusual structures that were evolving from our own experiments - and helped free us from the need to compare them with older forms and try to fit them into meaningless categories.

I think that this is a good place to pause for a moment and discuss a distinction that Cage made between form and structure that has a great deal of relevance to some of the things that I am talking about. In a discussion of Erik Satie, Cage writes:

Satie has long been recognized as the Maitre d'Arcueil, the leader of Les Six. It seems to me, however, that he has never been a leader, since no one has followed him (certainly no one among Les Six). It is thought now that Virgil Thomson is a Satieist; however, Thomson's work, in the most profound sense, lies in the area of form (expression, content), whereas Satie bases everything on structure (the divisibility of a composition into parts, large and small). The two are certainly connected by dada, but one would not be giving dada proper consideration, drawing parallels by means of it. It is important with Satie not to be put off by his surface (by turns mystical, cabaretish, Kleeish, Mondrianish; full of mirth, the erotic, the wondrous, all the white emotions, even the heroic, and always tranquillity, expressed more often than not by means of cliché-juxtaposition). The basis of his music that no one bothered to imitate was its structure by means of related lengths of time. Think of Satie as interchangeable with Webern (you'll be somewhere near the truth). (16)

I think that Cage has arrived at this distinction, in part, by contrasting the verbal aspect of "form," as in "to form" or "to give shape to" (17) an active, creative, and evolving image, as opposed to the Latin derivation of "structure" - "[L] structura, fr. struere, structum, to arrange, construct" (18) - a more mechanical and synthetic process. The terms for "form" or "to form" as defined by Cage have their antecedents in Aristotelian and Scholastic philosophy (where form is an actual act through which substance itself realizes its potentialities), (19) and anticipate - by more than a decade - Charles Olson's dictum that "form is never more than an extension of content." (20) It is Cage's completely original "take" on the word "structure" however that I find completely fascinating. It is based not only on his study of Satie's use of set divisions of absolute time to "structure" pieces, but upon his own work of the 1940s, such as the prepared piano pieces or the 1950 String Quartet in Four Parts, which use similar procedures. (21)

As soon as I began to use tapes of prerecorded sound as "models" in the actual composition of acoustic pieces in real time, I became very aware of the difference between the structural imperatives of taped material - such as length of loops, time interval of tape delay, whatever - and the moment-to-moment energies - and expressive nuances of the music itself as I composed it out. The sound itself was both act and form - a sonorous, heterophonic duplication of a single instrumental line fashioned to suggest one massive instrument pulsating in a clearly-defined space. But structure itself did not turn out to be as simple as the exact lengths of precompositional physical materials or processes. A third, irrational element often intruded and made itself felt - often "shaping" the piece in totally unexpected ways according to its own eccentric demands. The basis was often one of mechanical error or inexactness. For example, the 20- or 30-foot tape loop I was making to use as the "model" for Consent was understandably - considering its size - spliced a second-or-two short of the one minute I had planned during the actual recording in a giant loft space. This small error - if we dare call it such - set in motion a whole chain of adjustments and rectifications in the subsequent structure which was a complex network of tempo alignments designed to accurately "fix" - and then coordinate - the almost inaudible overlapping double bass sounds. A "skewed," asymmetrical structure of its own emerged from all this, with giant "holes" - and breaths and fermatae of all kinds and sizes - breaking through the continuity of sound and movement. The piece was now a counterpoint - or "breathing" - of "breathings."

Ringrang - for 2 pianos, composed at the same time as Consent, was similarly compounded out of technological and human imperfection. Here, my delight in the purely mechanical - moving cylindrical parts per se - interfaced perfectly with my obsession with overlapping cyclic patterns. The sound source was a music box of the familiar theme from Swan Lake that I operated manually, via a winding mechanism attached to the box, at all kinds of different tempi - including speed-ups and slow-downs - while recording all this on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I then remixed the tape, dubbing on a new track of the identical material at half speed - and an octave lower. Finally, I broke down the material into different lines - often within a single piano part - by notating it in superimposition against grids of different tempi patterned in ratios of successive cardinal numbers (Piano 1 - 3:4:5; Piano 2 - 6:7:8). I brought the whole mechanism of the music box to bear in the composition of details and actual notation: (22) in the performing notes I write that "cylinders, metal comb, teeth, and clockwork... should be APPARENT at every performance." I also superimposed onto the actual physical presence of the piece itself a quasi-mechanical addition of my own devising - inserted paper cut-outs of rapidly-repeated notes that are activated when unisons or octaves occur between different parts. The duration of these reverberations are up to the performer - and thus affect the overall length and shape of the piece in an entirely unexpected way. However, I believe that the real energies underlying Ringrang may be found somewhere in my own doltish movements while winding the box during the actual recording, which affect almost every rhythmic detail on a local level, and - particularly when magnified at half speed - determine the overall structure of the piece as well, especially the long, arbitrary silences which derive from nothing less than the handle itself getting stuck on unoiled parts.

All the most striking elements of Ringrang - the rapid, ex tempore repetition of single notes, the often asymmetrical mapping of the sound events onto a grid that measures the tempo, and the sheer delight in experimenting with the very layout and nature of the printed page - are exaggerated, and pushed one step further, in my next piano piece The Unravelling of the Field. The title - reworded from a collection of poems by Robert Duncan - must be understood in the context of Duncan's own conception of the poem as "not a field of the irrational; but a field of ratios in which events appear in language...not a stream of consciousness, but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it." (23) This point of view is discussed by one Duncan critic, Michael Davidson, in a fine collection of "working papers" about the poet:

In such poems, section divisions serve the same function as movement changes in music, establishing a new tone or mood. Spacing provides a kind of auditory "scoring" (a space is "held" in proportion to the lengths of each preceding line). Variable line lengths respond to the subject at hand, whether indecision,

We wait.

It does not come.

or a gradually hardening substance,


more-than-fire, then liquid stone, then stone...

or a catalogue,

Those who are feeble raising feeble Christs,

Those who are kindly raising kindly Christs,

Those who are pure raising pure Christs

In such cases, clusters of phrases and spaces occur according to needs developed at each stage of the composition but are linked thematically and acoustically to other areas of the poem. (24)

These comments could be applied in toto to my own piano piece: however, I extend the idea of "open" form even further than it can be in a bound book of poetry by giving the performer the option of backtracking at the end of any of the four pages or "frames" of the piece to an earlier page before continuing the work - which itself may be repeated ad infinitum in circular fashion. The impetus for this notational interaction of form and structure derives from a Balinese lontar, or loosely-bound palm-leaf manuscript containing calendars or stories, that I saw a number of years ago in the home of Eya Fechin, daughter of the famous emigré Russian painter Nicolai Fechin - and wife of the experimental American composer Dane Rudhyar - in a case in the extraordinary adobe home Nicolai built for himself in Taos, New Mexico, that is now a museum for the oriental treasures Fechin collected throughout his life. (25)

My fascination with all the appointments of what are basically children's books - the cut-outs, pop-ups and cross-sections - led me to the use of elastic materials in the working out of my next piece - Conch Music, for oboe(s) in 11 parts. I first compared identical musical fragments - in this case, a brief succession of oboe multiphonics - at different tempi, using the variable speed mechanism of the tape recorder, and then notated them on rubber sheets - and stretched them out in different positions. The results were not at all dissimilar to the structural transformations one sees when D'Arcy Thompson distends, elongates, or compresses the coordinates of grids against which closely-related forms of plant and animal life have been drawn: one can see in both cases how organisms with an essential common form can develop in strikingly different ways from each other with respect to their ultimate shape. (26)

This same kind of comparison - and then, superimposition - of parallel, closely-related materials, forms the basis of my subsequent work. In a piece originally written for gamelan, a lion does not read books, I intertwined a Paul Simon song - The Boxer - and an older, hobo song - Hallelujah, I'm a Bum - so closely that it is virtually impossible to separate and distinguish them from the different strands of music derived from the two songs at any given moment in the piece. As in Ringrang and The Unravelling of the Field, repetition of these precompositional materials determine overall structure, but the regular "masking" of the individual melodies in each part - as if by an imaginary template or stencil in the shape of a sine wave - have almost infinite form-creating possibilities. For example, this patterning of sound and silence - erasing and bringing back at regular intervals segments of the melodic material in each part - occurs at different rates for different lines, ensuring that the form is never a static one: something is usually always happening, no matter how wispy or fragmentary, and the surprising occasional complete silence - or more frequently-occurring unexpected density - when overlapping cycles converge or diverge is never predictable.

In both the "Illinois" pieces - Chicken Pull for 72 clarinet parts and 4 whistlers, and fellow-strung for double a capella mixed chorus and two alto soloists - close observation, indexing, and juxtaposition of popular materials each played an important role in shaping form and structure.

The compositional idea behind Chicken Pull occurred to me while leafing through the collected writings of that extraordinary musicologist, composer - and paterfamilias - Charles Seeger: father of Pete, Mike, and Peggy; husband of Ruth (Crawford) - and third generation in a line of Harvard scholars devoted to tracking down existing Anglo-American balladry - of whom the first was Agassiz's good friend and colleague, Francis Child, who used the comparative method in collecting and collating the texts for some 305 Scotch and English ballads in the latter half of the l9th Century. In two tables, called "skeletal notation variants," Seeger had lined up - one after the other - different versions of the old Child ballad Barbara Allen that had been recorded by the Library of Congress for their Archive of American Folk Song. Despite the differing tempi (and Seeger had carefully listened to - and notated - individual metronome markings at the top of each version) the bar-lines for all the versions had been lined-up together - up-and-down the page where the corresponding measures for each version occurred - in order to make as visually clear as possible the similarities and differences between them. (27) It was this striking visual image that suggested to me the solution for realizing a piece that I had been thinking about for some time - but had not yet been able to work out.

When I saw Seeger's charts, everything came together - I finally saw how I could achieve a continually shifting texture of sound and silence within the big homogeneous clarinet sound that I had envisaged by simultaneously juxtaposing chains of very similar blues-derived fragments which I had quite arbitrarily put together. My material was nothing less than 10-15 second instrumental introductions to blues recordings made in Aurora, Illinois in the late 1930's for the Bluebird ("race") division of RCA Victor. The principal soloist on these recordings - which also included one or two guitars, piano, and an occasional mandolin or string bass - was John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson, a country-blues harmonica player from western Tennessee with a very relaxed style of singing, including a pronounced speech impediment, that contrasted strongly with the verve and stylishness of his playing - and the ensemble in general, which had the rhythmic cohesion and drive of the better swing groups of the time. The fact that Williamson had literally made scores of recordings in this style - all within the 3-minute-or-so time limit prescribed by the length of an acetate side at that time - gave a certain formulaic character to most of the introductions that suited my purposes perfectly: all the harmonic and melodic quirks that had been coming out in my work ever since The Great Bass - my 1972 violin piece - seemed to be exaggerated - and even magnified by several powers - when I brought my material down in pitch, and listened to it over and over again in reverse, painstakingly notating it down all the while. For example, the slight differences between corresponding melodic figures in two or three introductions - perhaps a triplet with neighboring note in one and repeated notes in the other - often produced exactly the same sustained major seconds I had delighted in ever since The Great Bass when superimposed with all kinds of rhythmic and melodic diminutions that would normally never have occurred to me. Similarly, the special character of blues harmonica -  particularly when playing in "cross position" on an harmonica pitched a perfect fourth above the key of the piece itself - placed my wispy seconds within a broad gamut of rugged fourths, fifths, and minor sevenths that was quite different than the 4-octave spectrum of seconds - with an occasional fifth or seventh - that I had used in the string parts of Consent. Finally, my notation of transients, which appear in the guise of distinct beats or other non-uniform effects when material recorded at high speed is played back at slow speed on a tape recorder, (28) resulted in accents and swells that were not merely unusual deviations from normal musical discourse, as in the Great Bass and Consent, but seemed actual recreations of the kind of "wah-wah" imitation of train whistles or rolling stock that lie at the base of so much country blues harmonica playing. (29)

I used virtually identical techniques for fellow-strung - set to a broadside that Vachel Lindsay himself passed out to farmers, ranchers, and miners in return for meal and lodgings on his various tramps through Florida and Georgia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the old Middle Border states along the Mississippi River during the first two decades of our century. (30) I first became fascinated by Lindsay's graphics combining poetry and illustration when visiting his home in Springfield - now closed to the public - a few years ago - and the stanza that I have set for chorus particularly fascinated me visually because of what I perceived as the enormous "I" covering the entire length of the left hand side of the page - appearing to initiate each succeeding sentence anew, much as sustained notes often do in my own music. But of course - as is so often the case - I had again misread my sources: the imagined elongated "I" was merely a decorative border - but the damage had already been done, and I had already begun a piece, proceeding along the lines of my original visual, literary and musical "image." (31) I must tell you, parenthetically, that the verse that I set was not typical of the long - almost epic - poem extolling the virtues of various great men of the past that Lindsay had originally printed up as a pamphlet for his trips - and from which he had wisely extracted the one stanza on Lincoln to design and print up separately as a broadside: much of the larger poem is mawkish and flowery early Lindsay, quite different from the succinct and intense 8-line lyric. (32)

This verse is virtually one continuous, sustained breath from beginning to end: in terms of rhythm and structure it presents the composer with a complete tabla rasa, to do with what he will - one writer has compared Lindsay with Kipling, saying "Kipling's was the rigid rhythm of the metronome, Lindsay's the regular, but expanding and contracting line of a concertina." (33) And that is, indeed, how I treated it - beginning the piece with those two overlapping messa di voce, as if the storing up of breath itself could set in motion the work itself - much as in the Sanskrit metaphysics of sound, prana is operative "when Divine Power as absolute Rest renders itself as Divine Power as prime causal Movement" (34) - a somewhat more esoteric explanation for that long gasp of breath realized as steam and sound that Lindsay described in The Kallyope Yell: (35)

I am the Kallyope, Kallyope, Kallyope!

Hoot toot, hoot toot, hoot toot, hoot toot,

Willy willy willy wah HOO!

Sizz, fizz...

I think the listener will clearly see why I broke down the disparate elements of Lindsay's verse - with its dense fusion of stem-winding oratory and beautiful prairie imagery - as I did: the opening invocation to the spirit of Lincoln in the youth of Illinois suggests the revival meeting as much as the soap-box (hence my use of the uptempo kind of fasola singing one can hear on old recordings from the late 1920s), (36) while the solo alto parts derive from a certain style of Black gospel singing one also finds in very early recordings from the same time (37) - but in both cases, by listening in reverse and at slower speeds - to the old performances transferred to tape, accents, swells, vibrati and the like emerged from their original context as completely new ornaments and vocal techniques. It all seemed quite natural, however - and you can imagine how surprised I was to find the opening messa di voce that I mentioned above - which I derived by listening to, and notating, final cadences of early recordings backwards (which is why they begin my piece) - described precisely, albeit as a Missa di Voce [sic], in one of the most interesting of all shape-note collections - the Denson Revision of the original Sacred Harp (38) (of which I could find only one copy in New York, at the august Burke Library of the Union Theological Seminary - a copy inscribed by one of the very singers who recorded the 1928 sides for Columbia that were included by filmmaker Harry Smith in the collection of American music he made for Ethnic Folkways in the early 1950s). (39) These alto solo parts are almost entirely concerned with nurturing, bearing, giving birth ("...is gendered in the wilderness...born where the ghosts of the buffaloes still dream") and only line up in harmony with the other parts on the very last word: "[...that freed the] slave." The intervening parts - some of which use fragments from earlier work (40) - seemed to flow almost effortlessly out of the image and rhythms of Lindsay's supple expanding and contracting line: there is something so inclusive in his generous vision of an America whose original "physical and ethical promise" could be reaffirmed "through a designed environment: a subservient technical milieu; and a community of greater cultural and political equality," (41) that this ambience extended to the musical materials themselves, creating a situation where almost anything I did that followed the spirit of the poem worked out quite naturally.

I think I have come full circle beginning with very specific approaches to art and nature by American artists over a hundred-and-fifty year period that are firmly rooted in specific places at specific times - and I have ended in like fashion. I hope no one mistakes my argument as an apology for chauvinism, regionalism, or whatever - I think it should be clear that what I have tried to describe are ways of looking at the world around us conditioned by our historical background - and shaped by the particular features of our natural surroundings. A writer very much concerned with what it meant to be an "American" artist, Marsden Hartley, found national differences expressed in the quality of "light in nature," and was certain that "the cold oblique light of the extreme north" is what made "its people introspective, sullen, bitter and often difficult," and that "northern climates tend to hide the nature and spontaneity of men," while "southern light tends to expand and enfold them - it gives the heart and soul as well as the mind freedom from obstacles." (42) I have described throughout this paper the effect that our vast stretches of wilderness - and, in particular, our ways of measuring and describing them, have clearly affected the way we observe and record our surroundings - even today. I would like to close with what must be the most lucid - and poetic - discussion that I know of about the artist and his/her relation with nature, from Matisse's Notes of a Painter (1908):

Often a discussion arises as to the value of different processes, and their relationship to different temperaments. A distinction is made between painters who work directly from nature and those who work purely from imagination. Personally, I think neither of these methods must be preferred to the exclusion of the other. Both may be used in turn by the same individual, either because he needs contact with objects in order to receive sensations that will excite his creative faculty, or his sensations are already organized. In either case he will be able to arrive at that totality which constitutes a picture. In any event I think that one can judge the vitality and power of an artist who, after having received impressions directly from the spectacle of nature, is able to organize his sensations to continue his work in the same frame of mind on different days, and to develop these sensations; this power proves he is sufficiently master of himself to subject himself to discipline...

...an artist must recognize, when he is reasoning, that his picture is an artifice; but when he is painting, he should feel that he has copied nature. And even when he departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is only to interpret her more fully. (43)


1. Paper presented at the Western Illinois University New Music Festival, Macomb, Illinois (March 1993).

2. Samuel Hubbard Scudder, "In the Laboratory with Agassiz," Every Saturday, XVII(April, 1874), 369-370, reprinted with commentary by Ian F.A. Bell in Critic as Scientist: The Modernist Poetics of Ezra Pound (London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 117-118.

3. William James, address to the American Society of Naturalists qtd. by Guy Davenport in the Introduction to The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz: A Specimen Book of Scientific Writings, selected, with an introduction and notes by Guy Davenport (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 7.

4. William Bartram, Travels of William Bartram (1794), ed. by Mark Van Doren, reprint of 1928 Macy-Masius edition (New York: Dover, n.d.).

5. Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving (New York: E.P.Dutton, 1944), pp. 189-190; Rufus Rockwell Wilson and Otilie Erickson Wilson, New York in Literature (Elmira, NY: The Primavera Press, 1947), p. 47.

6. Brooks, op. cit., pp. 139-140.

7. William H. and William N. Goetzmann, The West of the Imagination (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986), p. 102.

8. Richard A. Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), pp. 78-79.

9. Goetzmann, op. cit., pp. 120-121.

10. Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock, "Frederic Church's Stereographic Vision," Art in America, LXI (Sept.-Oct., 1973), pp. 70-75.

11. Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience (New York: Praeger, 1969), p. 191.

12. ibid.

13. Maxine Moore, That Lonely Game: Melville, Mardi, and the Almanac (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1975), pp. 10-42.

14. Elizabeth Johns, Thomas Eakins: The Heroism of Modern Life (Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 9-11.

15. Emerson, passage from his journal qtd. in F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 28.

16. John Cage, previously unpublished note entitled "(unfortunate comment on our musical 'life' that everybody's interested in)," qtd. in Introduction to The Dada Painters and Poets, ed. with an introduction by Robert Motherwell, The Documents of Modern Art, VII (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1951), p. xvi.

17. "form," Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 5th ed. (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam, 1947), p. 394.

18. "structure," ibid., p. 988.

19. Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, tr. by I.T. Eschmann (New York: Random House, 1956), pp.176-177; Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. with an introd. by Anton C. Pegis (New York: Modern Library College Edition, 1948), pp. 161-167 and 233-241 [the two Aquinas selections are from The Summa Theologica: Question XV - On Ideas and Question XLIV - The Procession of Creatures from God, and the First Cause of All Things]. See also Jacques Maritain, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Bollingen Series, XXXV-1 (New York: Pantheon, 1953), pp. 161-162:

This element of radiance or clarity, which relates to the most essential yearning of the intellect, and is, therefore, the most important, is also the most difficult to explain. If we were able fully to realize the implications of the Aristotelian notion of form - which does not mean external form but, on the contrary, the inner ontological principle which determines things in their essences and qualities, and through which they are, and exist, and act - we would also understand the full meaning intended by the great Schoolmen when they described the radiance or clarity inherent in beauty as splendor formae, the splendor of the form, say the splendor of the secrets of being radiating into intelligence. Thus the very words we are obliged to use - clarity, radiance, light, splendor - could be terribly misleading, if we came to forget that being is intelligible in itself, but not necessarily for us, and remains most often obscure to us, either because its intelligibility in itself is obscured in matter or because it is too high or too pure for our intellect. Descartes, with his clear ideas, divorced intelligence from mystery. Modern science is making us aware of his mistake. The Schoolmen, when they defined beauty by the radiance of the form, in reality defined it by the radiance of mystery.

20. Charles Olson, "Projective Verse," The Poetics of the New American Poetry, ed. by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman (New York: Grove Press, 1973), p.148.

21. Henry Cowell, "Current Chronicle," John Cage, ed. by Richard Kostelanetz, Documentary Monographs in Modern Art (New York: Praeger, 1970), p. 96; John Cage, a catalogue of the composer's work (New

York: Peters, 1962), p. 23.

22. Hugo Leichtentritt, "Mechanical Music in Olden Times," The Musical Quarterly, XX (Jan., 1934), p. 18; Arthur W.J.G. Ord-Hume, Clockwork Music (New York: Crown, 1973), pp. 63-102.

23. Robert Duncan, Introduction, Bending the Bow (New York: New Directions, 1968), pp. v-vi.

24. Michael Davidson, "A Book of First Things: The Opening of the Field," Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous, ed. by Robert J. Bertholf and Ian W. Reid, Insights - Working Papers in Contemporary Criticism (New York: New Directions, 1979), pp. 65-66.

25. c.f. Eya Fechin, Fechin: The Builder (Taos, New Mexico: Eya Fechin, 1982).

26. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson: Growth and Form, second revised edition (Cambridge: University Press, 1959), pp. 1057-1063.

27. Charles Seeger, "Versions and Variants of 'Barbara Allen' in the Archive of American Song to 1940," Studies in Musicology 1935-1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 280-281.

28. C.A. Taylor, The Physics of Musical Sounds (The English Universities Press: London, 1965), p. 88.

29. Paul Oliver, Blues Off the Record: Thirty Years of Blues Commentary (New York: Da Capo Press, 1984), pp.39-40. The title of my piece, "Chicken Pull," comes from a late winter ceremony at the Keres pueblo of Santo Domingo in north-central New Mexico - which is described by Vincent Sculy in Pueblo: Mountain Village Dance (New York: Viking, 1975), pp. 206-207:

...some men hoist up two poles out near of the center of the course where the footraces were run. A rope is tied between them and a chicken slung by the feet head down to that. All the horsemen ride around it in a tight catenary curve, with a few ki-yis in good old attack-on-the-wagon- train style. Then they fall into file (Indian file) galloping and ki-yiing and the drum beating - beating a cavalry beat, a fast, insistent rhythm that gets you excited and keeps it up like a charge (doom, doom) but not deep (more like a rub-a-dub-dub, dub, dub, dub) and they ride hard, one after the other and around again, under the rope, trying to grab the chicken, which the men at the vertical poles twitch up out of the way if they can. But they get him eventually, in terrible pulls, riding like hell, one hand stretched high. It is death - an execution.

Apart from the fact that I was living in Taos, New Mexico at the time that I wrote the concluding "whistling section of the piece, and identified these strange sounds as the "shadows" of the more robust clarinet parts before them - the very word ("l'ombre de Petrouchka") that Stravinsky uses to describe the apparition at the end of his ballet - I believe that the process described by Scully in this passage taken from his account accurately describes the inner movement, if not the actual form itself, of the clarinet section of my piece once the different strands (like the different riders) start veering away in centrifugal circular patterns from the opening drone - going their own way.

30. Vachel Lindsay, "A Mendicant Pilgrimage in the East," A Handy Guide for Beggars [1916], reprinted in The Prose of Vachel Lindsay, ed. by Dennis Camp, vol.1 (Peoria, Illinois: Spoon River Poetry Press, 1988), p. 61. In this passage from Lindsay's account of a walking trip through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio he actually describes reading what appears to be The Litany of Heroes to a poor Wilkes-barre mining family after dinner in return for food and lodging. Curiously, this took place only about 20 miles from the almost completely isolated Pocono fishing cabin in Sweet Valley to the north-west where I began fellow-strung in the summer of 1991.

31. Vachel Lindsay, Adventures, Rhymes & Designs Including the prose volume Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty together with Rhymes to be Traded for Bread, The Village Improvement Parade and selections from The Village Magazine, with an essay by Robert F. Sayre (New York: The Eakins Press, 1968), p. 281. (This is a print entitled "To the Young Men of Illinois.")

32. Vachel Lindsay, Collected Poems, rev. ed. with illustrations by the author (New York: Macmillan, 1925), pp. 187-194. (The title of the complete poem is Litany of the Heroes: my title fellow-strung is a jeweller's term taken from Jonathan Gash's mystery, The Very Last Gambado, in which the hero, Lovejoy, says "They're 'fellow-strung,' as we say in antiques, meaning the cornelians on one string align with the cornelians on the other in shape - beads, tubelets, color and size. [p. 118])

33. Anna Masa, Vachel Lindsay: Fieldworker for the American Dream (Bloomington Indiana University Press, 1970), p. 14.

34. Swami Pratyagatmananda, Japasutram (Madras: Ganesh, 1961), p. 23.

35. Lindsay, Collected Poems (Macmillan), p. 118

36. "Present Joys," recorded by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers in 1928 [Columbia i5274D(wi46092)], Birmingham, and reissued in American Folk Music, 3 vols., ed. by Harry Smith (New York: Folkways Records, 1952), vol. II, no. 45.

37. "Oh Death Where is Thy Sting," recorded by a vocal group under the direction of Rev. J.M. Gates in 1927 [Victor 35789B] in Smith, op. cit., no. 43.

38. Original Sacred Harp 1960 Supplement, Denson revision (Cullman, Alabama: Sacred Harp Publishing Co., 1960), p. 23. ("Present Joys," which was first published by J.S. James in 1909, appears in this edition, p. 318).

39. Smith, op. cit.

40. Eric Richards, Ave Maria (1963), A Fanfare for Diebenkorn (1972) and "Hark, Hark the Lark" from Shakespeare's Cymbeline (1986). (I also use fragments [in reverse] from "Mission," in B.F. White's and E.J. King's The Sacred Harp, facsimile of the third edition, 1859 [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1968], p. 204.)

41. Masa, op. cit., p. 20.

42. Marsden Hartley, "Impressions of Province from an American's Point of View," On Art, ed. by Gail R. Scott (New York: Horizon Press, 1982), p. 143.

43. Henri Matisse, "Notes of a Painter," [1908], Matisse on Art, ed. and trans. by Jack D. Flam (New York: Phaidon, 1973), pp. 38-40.