Still Listening: A Conversation with Bassist/Poet Larry Roland

(Photo credit: Peter Gannushkin)

Larry Roland is a poet of the bass and the pen with nearly four decades of professional experience across a variety of fields. After graduating from Boston University in 1973 with a BS in Education, he taught health and P.E. in the local public school system. He later earned a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts. All the while, he was refining his poetic voice, drawing on everyday life around him to reflect on both individual and collective pasts and continues to do so in his current home of New York City. Along the way, he found kindred solace in the upright bass, alongside which he cut his teeth as part of the house band at Wally’s in Boston’s South End. After touring and recording with trumpeter Raphe Malik and founding the Urge 4Tet with pianist Donal Fox, he released his first album of solo bass and spoken word, As Time Flows On, in 2001. Next for him was the Bassline Motion project with dancer/choreographer Adrienne Hawkins, plus an acclaimed record with the Charles Gayle Trio, Streets, in 2011. Since 2012, he has been involved in We Free StRINGS, a free jazz ensemble intent on dismantling the ethos of Western musical paradigms. Most recently, he put out a book of poetry, ..Just Sayin’!!, in 2019 and in 2020 was featured on the album We Were Here by The Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective, of which he is a former founding member. 

Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me a little about those early days at Wally’s? 

Larry Roland: That was my school, man. We played bebop—no ballads—every night from 9 pm to 2 am. We had Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Tommy Campbell, Billy Kilson…you name it. And there I was, somehow ending up as the bass player. 

TG: On your solo album, As Time Flows On, you’ve got this track called “The Journey,” which resonates deeply during this time of pandemic. In it, you talk about the “realization of being bound” and a “serious trek for truth.” Regardless of what you’re playing, does that spirit animate everything you do? 

LR: You see, that’s the bottom line. It’s the spirit. In almost everything you see going on today, the spirit has been manipulated. It’s missing. There’s so much fear in the world that people start craving these parameters created by someone who has a title or what have you. I say no, man, I’m just writing this stuff up. When people started asking me to participate in these “soirees” back in college, it was very interesting to me. I was able to check out the whole class thing. I would show up with my writings folded up in a brown paper bag stuck in my belt and people would say, “Oh, you’re here!” I’d read something and people would be floored, but to me, I was just talking about life. I wasn’t there to be a token entertainer, but to educate. And then I’d be kicking it in my dorm—I was an athlete, you see, a ball player at Boston University—and would share something there, too. They thought it was deep. Being taken seriously off the court by guys I rubbed shoulders with on it was important. It put a smile on my face, because academically I was struggling. 

TG: How did you channel that energy at such a formative time into a professional life, as it were? 

LR: People always tell me, you should be out there, man. I say, listen, I’m just satisfied being above the ground and having a few things to say. As far as getting caught up in the race, I’m not really sure on my feet like that. I didn’t go to school to learn how to play bass or write. I went to very poor public schools. And that’s fine with me. I try to keep it as raw as possible without really having to answer to anyone. If it resonates and touches someone, that’s a blessing for me, because I’m just a conduit. 

TG: Where and how does the music fit into all of this? 

LR: I grew up in a household filled with Bird, Trane, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Yusef Lateef and Stravinsky. During that time, we still had a little record store on the corner where you could find all sorts of music. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, I was inundated with all of that. Plus, my dad knew a lot of musicians. He and Roy Haynes were tight. So much so that my mom would get tired of seeing Roy’s drums in the living room. “Put dem drums back in the hall!” she’d say. Around Christmastime, we would get these postcards from creative people all over the world. Every time I looked at them, I couldn’t help but think, now that’s freedom. Whenever people ask me about the most significant thing growing up that really helped shape my perception into who I am today, I always say it was the music. My dad knew these people: painters, musicians, intellectuals. They would meet in my house and break down stuff in ways I never experienced on the outside. They were all focused more on the qualitative than the quantitative. Some of the deepest stuff I heard was in my living room. 

TG: In listening to your spoken word especially, I get this palpable sense that you’re looking at history with clear and open eyes. Whereas the world may cut and re-paste it into a different narrative, you’re trying to get to the heart of it, in the same way a genealogist may draw up a family tree. How do you see yourself making a contribution? 

LR: It all comes back to the spirit. People sometimes tell me, man, I’ve never seen anyone procrastinate as much as you; you should be doing this, that and the other. But I am doing it. You just don’t see it. I’m always creating in my mind. I’m just not about trying to be up front with it and gain all the attention. This brother, Hasan Abdul-Karim, I play with sometimes—in his 80s and still blowing tenor—is really into astrology, so he offered to do my chart one time. He said, “I wish I had your stars. You don’t even have to do anything. You’re linked to the universe. That’s special. That’s power. Spiritual power.” So I walked with that. I try to stay what I call “naturonic.” I try to move with nature. These days, I have a little mouse in my pantry. Most people would see him as a nuisance, but he’s trying to live the same way we’re trying to live. He’s not trying to bring attention to himself. He respects my space and I respect his. The odds are against him. Maybe he’s got a crevice behind the wall and maybe even a family he’s bringing crumbs to. Maintaining that connection to the little things is how I’ve been able to move ahead and navigate the terrain. Just be as still as you can and your surroundings will speak to you.

TG: You could say there’s a difference between those who move for the mere sake of it because they don’t know how to be still and those who have to be still and let the world blossom around them. You can’t be attentive to the spirit, or any spirit, if you’re always on the go, because you’re either too busy talking down to everyone or shutting them out. We need time for cultivation. 

LR: I’m doing a piece right now on technology and I keep coming back to this image of Toto pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. That’s exactly what I see going on. The mask is coming down and there’s desperation out there. We have to be careful with our minds, because the proverbial THEY understand the power of hypnotism based on repetition. Sometimes I hear the classics on the radio and am reminded of how the jazz greats did so much with so little. I’m blessed to have grown up in that time. Not just around jazz, but Black music in general. Gospel, R&B and don’t get me started on James Brown, now he packed the party. As soon as he came on, it was hands up. And if you didn’t have anybody, you just danced with the wall. But you were still telling a story. 

TG: How did this upcoming live-stream concert come about? 

LR: One Breath Rising asked me and I said yes, simple as that. Since then, I’ve been going through the pieces in my mind, letting them grow. The fact that it takes place on Valentine’s Day reminds me of a performance I did for the Provincetown Playhouse at the invitation of Regina Ress, who teaches storytelling at NYU. In that piece, I said I was “looking for an analog love in a digital world.” That notion got me thinking about sound. We’re living in a world of ones and zeros, kicked off with an electrical connection, but I’m used to striking something, producing vibration. 

In that performance, for which I both spoke and played, I told the story of my bass, which was built in Germany in the 1840s. It was found in a bombed-out building in Berlin and no one knows how it got here. I had a chance to try it out at the luthier’s shop when I was getting my plywood model fixed. That night, I couldn’t sleep, all I could hear was that sound. I was in love. I ended up trading my bass for the German one and it’s still my go-to instrument. I told a more detailed version of that story to an audience once and at the end these two old couples approached me and introduced themselves as German concentration camp survivors. They felt such an affinity for my bass, down to the serial number imprinted on the scroll. As I was giving them a closer look, one of the wives was patting and rubbing the bass like it was a real individual, which it is. I got really emotional. They saw a lot of people in that story and told me to keep playing. That’s when I realized the gift ran both ways. You pull in things that so many others take for granted, and you magnify them. This is who we are. 

TG: Speaking of sound, I can’t help but feel like you’re reciting poetry when you’re playing bass and playing bass when you’re reciting poetry. 

LR: I’ll walk with that, too. I live an improvisational lifestyle. Whatever I don’t do today, I’ll do the next time. 

TG: Finally, I’d like to go back to the beginning of your relationship with the bass. 

LR: I didn’t pick the bass up until I was 30. When I did, I already knew how I wanted it to sound and where I would go with it. Back then, I was getting poetry gigs in Boston when I ran into a bassist by the name of John Jamyll Jones. We were having a Black History Month program and I wanted him to accompany me while I read. The performance was even shown on PBS under the name Say Brother. After that I joined his band, Worlds, reciting poetry and playing a little percussion. They had two bassists, one of whom pursued other paths in life and sold me his bass. At first, I just had it in the living room, but then I would put on John Coltrane’s Ascension and start playing along with it. I felt like part of the band. Jamyll showed me the rudiments: how to hold the instrument and plant my feet properly. Then I got some books on fingering and such. I practiced every night. I just wanted to play. I never met my teachers: Jimmy Garrison, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers and Palle Danielsson. Then, a guy from Berklee who’d heard me play called me about joining him at Wally’s. He needed someone fast, so I took the risk and developed from there. Aside from studying a bit with Cecil McBee, I was largely self-taught. It was always about the music. It saved my life. I was a listener before I was a player and I’m still listening.

(This article originall appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Christian Reiner: Joseph Brodsky – Elegie an John Donne (ECM New Series 2513)

Elegie an John Donne.jpg

Christian Reiner
Joseph Brodsky: Elegie an John Donne

Read by Christian Reiner
Recorded 2014-2017, Garnison 7, Wien
Recording engineer: Martin Siewert
Mastering at MSM Studio, München
Engineer: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Wolf Wondratschek
An ECM and Joint Galactical Company Production
Release date: August 25, 2017

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
–John Donne

Following his acclaimed readings of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Turmgedichte, by turns stark and revealing, Viennese actor Christian Reiner adds as many layers as he peels away in his approach to Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Although Brodsky was imprisoned in his native Russia as a dissenter, he never explicitly engaged the issue of incarceration until later in life. His lack of self-importance was one of many facets that imbued his verses with microscopic insight into the human condition. Even when awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, he accepted the honor with humility. A vivid chunk of that humility can be found in what Reiner considers to be his masterwork—1963’s “Great Elegy to John Donne”—which is presented here in two German translations among a tract of shorter, life-spanning selections.

It was in prison, in fact, that Brodsky first read Donne, when a writer friend sent him a book by the English poet. Yet Brodsky’s “Elegy” is more than a paean to a kindred spirit; it’s the recognition of a voice caught between its earthly origins and heavenly destination. His litany of mundane objects—crystal, linen, stockings, and the like—read like a perverse genealogy of material lives. For in the same way that we have succumbed to the immaterial promises of recognition, so do the connective tissues of human and nonhuman experiences string the very tightropes along which our deepest anxieties vie for balance. Just as Donne has died, so too is the world drained of life, unable to finish its own diary with that final answer of Heaven or Hell. Everything is sinking in speech: voices whose owners refuse to identify themselves. Archangels and prophets, kings and slaves, martyrs and murderers—all depleting the same oxygen supply of moral spectra. “All things are distant,” Brodsky writes. “What is near is dim.” Endurance is a fantasy replicated in reality, wherein fingertips graze the backs of our necks with demonic tingling, forever unclear.

Reiner’s diction is characteristically architectural in nuance, as heard in the pained urgency of “In Memoriam Fedja Dobrowolskij” (1958). More importantly, he understands the pregnancy of a pause. His recitation of selected “Strophes” (1978) embodies that philosophy to the fullest, making of silence its own vocabulary. In the sensually inflected“From Nowhere with Love” (Aus nirgendwo in Liebe, 1976), the voice becomes the body, bouncing memories of communion off its own burnished mirror of expression. In the brief, morbid “A Polar Explorer” (Der Polarforscher, 1978), 40 seconds is enough to open the jar of hope and let its rancid contents spill out into the cold. “Lullaby” (Wiegenlied, 1992), by contrast, renders shades of redemption through fixation on immaculate maternity. Throughout these and more, Reiner adds weight to Brodsky’s lists and uncertainty to his spiritual invocations, treating words like shingles for a roof, beams for a doorway, and glass for a window. What we end up with, then, isn’t a house of coherence but a chapel of hard-won truths.

Two Elliott Sharp reviews for The NYC Jazz Record

Tranzience

Coming up on four decades as composer and performer, New York’s Downtown deacon Elliott Sharp is at a creative peak. Tranzience documents four semi-recent chamber pieces, the earliest being Approaching the Arches of Corti (1997). Scored for four soprano saxophones (the New Thread Quartet of Geoffrey Landman, Kristen McKeon, Erin Rogers and Zach Herchen) and making use of Steve Lacy’s “leg-mute” technique, it sounds at times like a congregation of geese, at others a pipe organ running out of air, and leans nicely into 2008’s Homage Leroy Jenkins. Alongside clarinetist Joshua Rubin and pianist Jenny Lin, violinist Rachel Golub evokes the scrapes and squeals of the legendary dedicatee, whom Sharp counts, along with the larger AACM family, among his early influences. Venus & Jupiter (2012) features the ensemble Either/Or conducted by Richard Carrick and Sharp himself on electroacoustic guitar. Around a pulsing piano, this largely improvised masterwork spins a drone of strings, brass, winds and percussion drawing even more explicitly from the AACM well. The 2013 title composition features the JACK Quartet (Chris Otto, violin; Austin Wulliman, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello), who recently brought their talents to bear on The Boreal (Starkland, 2015). Where that recording employed bows strung with ball-bearing chains, here the musicians use so-called “tube bows” fashioned from aluminum in addition to the standard hair. The music is consistently inventive across its 28-minute duration and inhabits a sound world that can only be described as nanotechnological.

Rub Out The Word

To this solar system, Rub Out The Word may seem like a distant satellite, but its heart shares the same blood. Here Sharp (on guitar and electronics) joins actor Steve Buscemi (of Reservoir Dogs and Fargo fame) to celebrate the writings of Beat Generation guru William S. Burroughs in one of the most delicious spoken word recordings to come out in recent memory. Not only for Burroughs, who managed to make even the most abstract streams of consciousness feel coherent, but also for Buscemi’s adenoidal charm and Sharp’s accompaniment, which, like the words, evokes a viral network that responds to, even as it anticipates, hidden messages in the texts. Said texts are quintessential Burroughs, threading needles of incontrovertible (if sometimes perverse) cynicism through a social cloth he understood in ways few others of his generation did. “The use of cut-up is a key,” narrates Buscemi and one can’t help but feel that he and Sharp embody this very aesthetic in their collaboration. What follows is a string of meditations on writing, obsession, evil, bureaucracy, war, morality, human interactions and the occasional nod to silence thrown in for good measure. This is no naked lunch, but a fully clothed dinner after which dessert is served raw and dripping. And while it may not appeal to straightahead jazz heads, anyone who has enjoyed Sharp’s fantastic voyage (no small task with a discography of over 300 albums) for any length of time is sure to be enthralled.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Speaking for Apollo: Peter Rühmkorf on ECM

PR

Peter Rühmkorf (1929-2008) was among the most influential postwar writers of his native Germany, winning every major literary prize for his prolific output of essays, poetry, plays, and prose. Yet despite having given spoken performances on stage with pianist Michael Naura and vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter for over three decades, his only appearances on record in such a configuration were captured via two rare ECM “SP” albums from the late seventies. I was beyond fortunate to be offered these two albums off the shelves while visiting label headquarters for the first time in Munich, and the die-hard fan will want to seek them out. Going beyond mere sound structure or program music, Rühmkorf was rather looking for something harmonious between the spheres of language and sound production, and on these long-out-of-printers I think got rather close to that ideal.

Apolloprogramm

Kein Apolloprogramm Für Lyrik (ECM 2305 801 SP)

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone, marimba
Eberhard Weber bass, cello
Recorded August 1976, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of this first long out-of-print relic translates to “No Apollo Program for Poetry,” and indicates Rühmkorf’s interest in going beyond mere sound structure or program music. Rather, he was looking for something harmonious between the spheres of language and sound production, and here I think he was approaching that ideal. Rühmkorf further professes a downright biological need for poetry and skirts, in his darkly effervescent way, the line between emancipation and integration.

As with most of ECM’s speech acts, this one will be of little poetic use to those who don’t understand German. It should, however, be of immense value to the label’s fans for its musicianship. In addition to a rare early appearance by bassist Eberhard Weber (who also plays cello on one track), one is treated to some fine playing from Naura and Schlüter. Aside from two short tracks of Rühmkorf alone, the album is brimming with attractive makings of music. The trio activity of “Tagebuch” (Diary) establishes a grand, theatrical sort of precision with minimal means. Weber is robust and elastic as ever, sometimes climbing his way into the center and at others laying down club jazz atmospheres with Naura at the keys and playing us out on a bed of velvet.

For the most part, the playing is so illustrative that translations are hardly needed. “Hochseil” (Tightrope), for instance, balances Rühmkorf on a lone marimba that also carves helixes of reverberant post-production, while Weber’s percussiveness in “Zirkus” (Circus) builds like the tension of a trapeze act. And, whether steeped in the balladry of “Meine Stelle Am Himmel” (My Point In The Sky) or gilded by the flanged cello of “Elegie,” the poet rides an arpeggio of new horizons, only to culminate in the deeper finality of “Komm Raus!” (Come Out!).

Phönix

Phönix Voran (ECM 2305 802 SP)

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura piano
Leszek Zadlo saxophone, flute
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone
Recorded March 1978, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

Whereas on the previous album Rühmkorf stressed the importance of pathos with an air of resigned unrest, on Phönix Voran (Phoenix Preview) he chews the fat of inner strength in closer quarters. Adding to that claustrophobia—even as he installs a window view—is Polish musician Leszek Zadlo, who replaces Weber’s bass with saxophones and flute throughout, and to astonishingly cinematic effect.

Rühmkorf’s ever-practical enunciation cracks open the piano and vibes like an egg, thereby releasing the soft yolk of Zadlo’s flute in a cradle of light and shadow. This combination, a sparkling one, works again on the freely improvised “Selbstportrait” (Self-portrait), which inhabits its own unsettled text with an increasingly kaleidoscopic gravidity. The flute lastly appears as Rühmkorf’s only partner in the aesthetically beat poetry-inflected “Allein Ist Nicht Genug” (Alone Is Not Enough).

Elsewhere, the saxophone takes precedence of sound and space. The opening reed tones of “Auf Einen Alten Klang” (An Old Sound), pure and singing, find natural traction in the Naura/Schlüter nexus, then dance freely as Rühmkorf works his narrative labor into a material image. Zadlo and Naura share one duet in “Paradise Regained” for a vivid portrait of night. Yet the fullness of the project’s vision is best realized by the entire band. Highlights in this regard include the deliciously titled “Ich Butter Meinen Toast Von Beiden Seiten” (I Butter My Toast On Both Sides), a lovely track with the wherewithal to hold its prose like nourishment in the belly, and the sweeter onomatopoeia of “Impromptu.” And as finality lands again in the bustling farewell of “Tagelied,” we begin to realize that perhaps it is the voice that accompanies the music, not the other way around.

While it might not always seem so in the thick of things, in hindsight the connections between speech and instruments are to be found not in meanings but in shapes. Naura’s music, which comprises the backbone of both sets, already has such a solid narrative arc that Rühmkorf is an intuitive fit to manifest its dips and climbs. Gems, these are.

Friedrich Hölderlin: Turmgedichte (ECM New Series 2285)

2285 X

Friedrich Hölderlin
Turmgedichte

Read by Christian Reiner
Recorded January 2012, Garnison 7, Wien
Recording engineer: Martin Siewert
Mastering at MSM Studio, Munich
Engineer: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Wolf Wondratschek
An ECM and Joint Galactical Company Production
Release date: November 9, 2012

Vienna-based artist Christian Reiner reads from the so-called Turmgedichte, or “Tower Poems,” of Friedrich Hölderlin. The German poet has, of course, long been lodged in ECM’s consciousness (see, for example, Scardanelli), though nowhere nearly as long as he was himself lodged in the selfsame tower, later known as the Hölderlinturm, in which he would spend the last 36 years of his life, until he fell like the pen from his hand in 1843. In his liner notes to this spoken word album, Peter Sloterdijk speaks of the tower as “an ur-scene of German culture,” and its looming presence and stonework are accordingly felt in every syllable crafted at Reiner’s lips.

Reiner, whose work encompasses radio plays, theater productions, and other forms of experimental speech art, possesses a genuinely penetrating voice, but in the context of Hölderlin’s poems it is the voice that possesses him. The first word he speaks is followed by a pause so pregnant that we are drawn into the moment as eternity. Reiner thus allows us to inhabit the spaces of the words as if they were as architecturally significant as Hölderlin’s tower. We can feel the night pulsing through sentences, the poet’s mind closing in. The voice, then, becomes another soul, spun filament by filament until it speaks of its own accord.

CR
(Photo credit: Tibor Andreas Kiss)

Aside from the signposts of the seasons, the word Mensch(en) is a major semantic touchstone of these texts. Its very sound looks beyond any flesh-bound meaning toward a dialectical non-being. It is not the man but the construction of the man, of the body as an instrument of love and lore, a book of pages bound by the circumscription of years and autobiographical anomalies. Before long, we feel that Hölderlin’s cosmology has become fraught with the weight of its own invention, and that every word is an attempt to burrow through its infrastructure in hopes that it will be hollow enough to float away at the puff of just…one…more…word. We also have the signoff of Hölderlin’s alter ego, Scardanelli, as well as the dates preceding their signature, to lead the way beyond landscapes of flesh contracting from the chill. And if we listen closely enough, we might hear the distant cries of cities whose populations tread the streets like spiders, their match-heads filled with mortal fear of friction. But even they cannot help but bump into each other, unleashing fires that wipe out entire boroughs, so that all we are left with in the end are friendship and love wandering like wild animals in a forest.

Although I can’t imagine that Turmgedichte will be of appeal to anyone who doesn’t speak German, one may nonetheless link it to the readings of Heinz Holliger’s Scardanelli-Zyklus—only now we are exposed to the music of the language itself. In light of this, I would correct myself by distinguishing it from spoken word albums as instead an album of words that are spoken, for it is the act of their articulation that here matters most. The letters, of course, have organs, characteristics, and genetic idiosyncrasies, but in their sounding they are able to touch something grossly internal in all of us.

Speaking from on High: Bruno Ganz and ECM

We will never record it: the black
Choirs of water flowing on moss,
The black sun’s kisses opening,
Upon their blindness, like two eyes
Enormous, open in bed against one’s own.
–Lawrence Durrell

Swiss thespian Bruno Ganz will be familiar to any cinephile as angel Damiel, the veritable heartbeat of Wim Wenders’s 1987 classic Der Himmel über Berlin (a.k.a. Wings of Desire), one of his many iconic turns on the silver screen. Field any admirer about his acting, and his voice is sure to come up in the conversation. Ganz speaks as he moves, carefully yet not without an honest revelation of frailty.

ECM producer Manfred Eicher was already well aware of these vocal powers, and in 1984 and 1999 sought to strike them on a handful of poetic anvils to see where the sparks might fall. The results were two exemplary spoken word sessions which, though things of beauty, may alienate anyone without knowledge of the German language. It is a curious thing when this happens: a performer whose cinematic gifts are so easily shared through subtitles and international distribution, while his speech off screen is limited only to those who understand it sans technology. With no translations to hold our hands, we left to wander these worded landscapes alone.


Hölderlin – Gedichte gelesen von Bruno Ganz
 (ECM New Series 1285)
Recorded March 1984 in Berlin
Engineer: Bernhard Voss
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ganz walks the fingers of his diction across the many bridges between bodies heavenly and earthly to be found in the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin. He begins between the Gemini and ends bearing a torch of proper time, scratching the sky like fingers of St. Elmo’s fire from the masts of those final utterances.

And indeed, fire was a leitmotif for the deteriorating poet, who painted himself a sufferer of ephemeral things. He sometimes set his semantic jewels into hymns, like the laudatory “Der Ister,” in which he bids,

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day,
And when the trial
Has passed through our knees,
May someone sense the forest’s cry.

We can almost feel the leaves tickling us through Ganz’s breath, can almost smell the purge of fervent prayer that springs from its lines. He, Hölderlin, folds the pages of childhood into a book of spiritual recall who once bathed in the waters of “Der Neckar,” that river of yesterday which snakes outside the window of his tower. It draws him like no other place, its grip stronger than mythology’s most resilient scars:

Perhaps someday my guardian deity will bring me
To these islands, but even then my thoughts
Would remain loyal to the Neckar
With its lovely meadows and pastoral shores.

Even as he holds a sure ticket in his written life, a ticket that might take him anywhere, he would rather tear it into a thousand snowflakes and powder the craggy peaks of “Ihr sicher gebaueten Alpen” (“You solidly built Alps”). This fragment of stillness, this flicker of oneness with Nature, is no more than the shadow of an avalanche deflected by a palette knife.


Hölderlin

Gentle slumbers and wistful years pass like light through gauze in “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), morphing into the outstretched hand of Diotima, her omnipresent heart refolded into a dialogue with Mnemosyne:

The fruits are ripe, dipped in fire,
Cooked and sampled on earth.

That same heart has become the hearth, seasoning lies until they smell like truths. Ganz carries over this sustenance as he emotes the subtle horror of “Rückkehr in die Heimat” (Return Home). Like a bed sheet that can never be completely smoothed out, every fiber of his being raises interest elsewhere, so that by the time he turns back to “Da ich ein Knabe war” (When I was a boy), there is only the spoken word to show for his passing. Hölderlin shapes the text like a stairway into the very bosom of his proto-family:

When I was a boy
  a god would often rescue me
    from the shouting and violence of humans.

A later verse seems to turn in on itself:

The euphony of the rustling
meadow was my education;
among flowers I learned to love.

This, like many, was or grew out of, a fragment, the spore of a grander evening song that sprouted wings but chose to walk instead. In it thrives the search for purity where there can be none, except through the letters that shape its concept. Yet Hölderlin has no place on the battlefield of sign and message. The poet’s cause is by definition laced with deception, for the one who utters it cannot remain on the page.

Hölderlin’s is a world of meditation, where the vagaries of the flesh are quashed by the beauty thereof; a place of cosmic pulses and tears of starlight.

In closing, René Char’s Prometheus brings the sun to earth, laying it in the veined hands of Paul Celan, whose varicose words react like leaves on a dead tree—which is to say they sing for as long as they fall.

<< David Torn: Best Laid Plans (ECM 1284)
>> Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)

… . …


Wenn Wasser Wäre
 (ECM New Series 1723)
Recorded 1999 in Zürich and Basel
Engineer: Fabian Lehmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title here means “If there were water,” and buries us alive in “The Waste Land” before we even delve into the album proper. The booklet is far more informative this time around, and in a beautifully realized essay Steve Lake threads the spatial and temporal divide between T. S. Eliot’s masterwork and the poetry of fellow Nobel Prize laureate Giorgos Seferis. Through an intimate awareness of these texts and sounds, he notes, we are bound to neither.

While Ganz was working on the set of Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day, the Greek auteur handed him a volume of Seferis’s poetry. Enthralled, he responded to Eicher’s gentle nudges to record this follow-up session. This time, selections from composers György Kurtág, Giya Kancheli, and Nikos Xydakis shuffle the deck of his recitation into an even darker eclipse.

What was fire to Hölderlin is now water to Seferis, who casts his sentiments, and us along with them, in “Flasche im Meer” (Bottle in the Sea):

Here we moored the ship to splice the broken oars,
to drink water and to sleep.
The sea that embittered us is deep and unexplored
and unfolds a boundless calm.

Gone is the majesty of sunset, the strangers’ footprints in the sand. In their place, a shoreline of broken chairs and ammunition: a sister landscape to Eliot’s.


Seferis

Yet it is Seferis’s “Thrush” that is the anchor of this vessel. Its unabashed interweaving of the erotic and the unsettling evens the scales:

Light, angelic and black,
laughter of waves on the sea’s highways,
tear-stained laughter,
the old suppliant sees you
as he moves to cross the invisible fields.

Water has a voice. It is wordless, but more emotional than anyone who listens. Powerful or not, you cannot overcome it. Years may go by before the lamps flicker again. You touch your hand to the first door you can find. You turn the knob…

            …and you find yourself
in a large house with many windows open

running from room to room, not knowing from where to
    look out first,
because the pine-trees will vanish, and the mirrored
    mountains, and the chirping of birds
the sea will drain dry, shattered glass, from north
    and south
your eyes will empty of daylight
the way the cicadas suddenly, all together, fall silent.

Not unlike the words he reads, Ganz is the feather-light sledgehammer of pathos. He crushes without hiding, hides without running. At his lips the word is holy because it communicates without image. It is the tightening of a chest when joy and fear alike reveal themselves to be as far from language as one can get. It rains from the sky in music, and tells us who we are.

But it is the sea
That takes and gives memory.