More Barnes Notes

Riverside Symphony

December 2 @ Merkin Hall

Eight Rhythms/Six Songs
Djuna Barnes Settings
    world premiere

for Vox n Plux and String Orchestra
featuring soprano Elizabeth Farnum

commissioned by the Riverside Symphony
celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Barnes first volume of poetry

These settings of poems by Djuna Barnes begin with a key sample from her first published work, subtitled, Eight Rhythms and Five Drawings, which were published by Guido Bruno exactly 100 years ago, in 1915.   The poems date back a few years earlier.   For us here in this hemisphere, these poems are no less revolutionary than Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  I took one poem from that first book, a bit of Emersonian/Nietzschean Nature, beyond good & evil, about a prostitute, seen through a window from the elevated subway.   The first poem is firmly rooted in a real time and place--New York City, just before the first World War.  That poem is entitled,

Seen From the "L".

Barnes later disowned the entire volume. 

The songs that follow trace some of Barnes' concerns as a poet and thinker, culminating in "Pastoral", which was selected for publication in The Dial.  Like Vonnegut, Barnes, in the end, finds animals more dignified than humans.  (See below, a summary of Barnes' short story, A Boy Asks a Question of a Lady, in which animals are discussed.) None of these poems can be placed in any historical period or in any real place.  One can see that "She Passed This Way" and  "The Child Will Be Older" are clearly in a Pre-Raphaelite mode, but with bizarre twists.  "Pastoral" and "Crystals" show an understanding of imagism, yet Barnes is never beholden to that or any other poetic movement.   Broadly modernist, and far ahead of her time in many ways, Barnes was proud, stubborn, and always brilliant and convincing.  She understood that art must transcend biography, and so her biography is everywhere and nowhere in her work.   Her father's evil scheme to marry her off (at age 16) to his mistress' brother (35 years her senior); her lesbianism--these are evident, yet always thoroughly sidelined, transformed and translated into universal themes, but in her own surprising manner.   One does not have to be gay to love her work.  No one understood this better than our beloved Dag Hammerskjold, Secretary General of the UN, who launched the first performance (in Swedish!) of Barnes great and difficult play, "The Antiphon".

There has been little intelligent conversation about the Arts & Crafts revival in contemorary American interiors, and there has been even less discussion of the parallel development in music--the transparency and Perotin influence in the music of Steve Reich, Frank Brickle's Towneley Mystery Play and his settings of troubadour poetry,  and these Barnes settings all qualify as examples.  

These lines could be nicely illustrated by a Pre-Raphaelite painter like Millais or Burne-Jones--->

Great men on horses hunt you, and strong boys
Employ their arrows in the shallow air.
But I shall be heard whistling where I follow
Braiding long wisps of grass and stallion's hair.

I share with Reich a great dislike for vibrato, and the use of the theorbo helps foster a Rennaissance transparency, but it is also meant  to mirror the Pre-Raphaelite imagery in the poetry.  New York City is a Pre-Raphaelite city.  Gotham is Gothic.  The problem here is that the modernists considered all the Tudor & neo-Gothic architecture kitsche.  Prior to streamlining and glass boxes, all things Medieval were symbols of European authenticity, of the clean break with classical antiquity.  In this way, the Gothic-oriented Pre-Raphaelite movement, as well as the kindred Arts & Crafts movement were springboards into modernism.  The Pre-Raphaelites were also thoroughly in sympathy with the symbolists, sharing Wagner's obsessions, which were then so wonderfully streamlined by Maeterlinck & Mallarme and the others.    [  Eros & Thanatos are the Western Yin/Yang.  This is nowhere so evident as in the Dominant 7/Tristan Chord opposition in both Wagner's Tristan Prelude and Debussy's L'apres midi d'un faune.   Much more on this, somehwere else.  ]

If you wish to understand an artist's motivations, ask what she's tired of.   Reich & Glass were tired of a sound that was beaten to death.   And here are some lessons that took me years to absorb--

--music answers our desires (give us something we're not tired of!)
--music is not by of and for compositional techniques (cf. Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers)
--a technique is not wedded to a sound (except by clubby modernists)

Here lies the role of fashion.  You might remember Roland Barthes' tirades against the fashion industry, yet, I reject all that rejection of fashion.    Fashion is simply the matter of answering desire.  When a critical mass of souls are all tired of the same thing, the winds of fashion change.   Composers *are* in the fashion business.   The modernists had a different orientation and they were snooty about it.   "Music evolves along technical lines."   Here an important distinction has to be made. It is true that compositional techniques evolve.  It's almost tautological.  Techniques evolve, but music pleases.   Music is the schmoo.   Music is as likely to shed technique as employ it.   Yet, techniques do not go away.  They lie in wait. 


Before and during the first world war, Barnes was a freelance journalist and illustrator in New York.  She wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle, Vanity Fair, The New York Tribune, Bruno’s Weekly, Pearson’s Magazine, New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, New York Sun Magazine, New York Press,  New World Magazine, and others.

Here is an excerpt from one of her interviews—

Woman Police Deputy is Writing Poetry  (New York Sun Magazine)

And what do you think of crime, in general?  To me personally it has a strong appeal—I like crime, provided it is properly committed.

Officer O’Grady:
That sounds nice, but or course that is the artist’s point of view.

later in the conversation—>

…let us not get away from our subject, crime and death.  Now death is something I am really keen about…

Officer O’Grady:
You are a funny girl… you love crime and now you adore death—I see you have an artist’s soul.

The opening song in this cycle is “Seen From the ‘L’ ”, from Barnes very first collection of poetry, published  by Guido Bruno when Barnes was 23 years old.  The set is subtitled,  Eight Rhythms and Five Drawings.   

Ravelling grandly into vice
Dropping crooked into rhyme.
Slipping through the stitch of virtue,
       Into crime.

Barnes wrote a story called,  A Boy Asks a Question of a Lady.   A boy is lamenting that his brother is gone.  His brother is lost to adolescence (suddenly interested in girls) and the play of the siblings in the woods is over for good.  The younger boy asks the impressive lady what this is all about.   She asks, “Do you ever think of animals?….what would all this, you and I and your great troubles mean to them?…The calf is born, she lies in the sun; it dies. That is dignity.”  “Pastoral”, the last song of the cycle,  thinks about animals.  The animals steal the show, thrusting love, death & crime to the side.   Barnes complicates the pastoral scene with her sneaky adjectives, and then more explicitly in the last two stanzas.

1     Seen From the "L" / Rite of Spring
Seen From the “L”—sung by the Vox:
SO she stands—nude—stretching dully   
Two amber combs loll through her hair   
A vague molested carpet pitches   
Down the dusty length of stair.
She does not see, she does not care
       It's always there.

The frail mosaic on her window
Facing starkly toward the street
Is scribbled there by tipsy sparrows—
Etched there with their rocking feet.
Is fashioned too, by every beat
       Of shirt and sheet.

Still her clothing is less risky
Than her body in its prime,
They are chain-stitched and so is she
Chain-stitched to her soul for time.
Ravelling grandly into vice
Dropping crooked into rhyme.
Slipping through the stitch of virtue,
       Into crime.

Though her lips are vague as fancy
In her youth—
They bloom vivid and repulsive
As the truth.
Even vases in the making
       Are uncouth.
Rite of Spring—sing by Vox n Plux:

Man cannot purge his body of its theme
As can the silkworm on a thread
Spin a shroud to re-consider in.

2     She Passed This Way
Here where the trees still tremble with your flight
I sit and braid thin whips to beat you down.
How shall we ever find you who have gone
In little dresses, lisping through the town?
Great men on horses hunt you, and strong boys
Employ their arrows in the shallow air.
But I shall be heard whistling where I follow
Braiding long wisps of grass and stallion's hair.
And in the night when thirty hawks are high
In pendent rhythm, and all the wayside loud;
When they are burning field and bush and hedge,
I'll steal you like a penny from the crowd.


3        Crystals

Wax heavy, snared in age-splintered linen, the king’s daughter;
The shimmer of her eyeballs blue beneath the lids like thin rain water.
Small and sour lemon blossoms banked at the breast-bone;
Her two small breasts dark of death and stained a dark tone.
Her lips flower-tarnished, her cheek-braids bulked in rust.
Her shoulders as hard as a wall-tree, frosted with dust.
Precise bone, clipped and grooved, and as sure as metal.
Leaf of flesh built high, like china roses, petal on petal.
Odor of apples rising from the death robes chinks and breaks.
Seeds of pepper falling down from brittle, spiced tomb-cakes.
Her swift cunning impaled on her brain’s darkness. She died
Of her heart’s sharp crystal spiral pricked in her side.
Six tomb Gods in basalt make her one of these—
Who like a million years, listening to thieves.

4      The Child Would Be Older

Cold tears, my brave  man?  Come, my little garçon,
I’ll take you to my girl’s breast and sing you a war song.
Where the horses gather, litem to their boots strike.
What is a pigeon of a scythe within the wheat like?
Oh, the single, cool thought that we string in childhood,
As clean and as brittle as a small stick of hard-wood.
Now it is a massacre, a scandal, or a penchant.
I’ll cut you down a clear curl, to thicken out your swan-song.

5    Paradise /  When the kissing flesh is gone

—-Paradise, sung by the Vox:        
[This night] I've been one hour in Paradise;  
There found a feather from the Cock  
that Crew -    
There heard the echo of the Kiss that Slew,
And in the dark, about past agonies   
Hummed little flies.    
—-When the Kissing Flesh is Gone, sung by the Plux:            
When the Kissing Flesh is Gone
And tooth to tooth,
Idly snarling, bone to bone.
Will you term that ecstasy?
Nay, but love in chancery.
In the last extremity,
Duelling eternity,
Compounding rogue fidelity.

6      Pastoral
A frog leaps out across the lawn,
And crouches there - all heavy and alone,
And like a blossom, pale and over-blown,
Once more the moon turns dim against the dawn.
Crawling across the straggling panoply
Of little roses, only half in bloom,
It strides within that beamed and lofty room
Where an ebon stallion looms upon the hay.

The stillness moves, and seems to grow immense,
A shudd'ring dog starts, dragging at its chain,
Thin, dusty rats slink down within the grain,
And in the vale the first far bells commence.

Here in the dawn, with mournful doomed eyes
A cow uprises, moving out to bear
A soft-lipped calf with swarthy birth-swirled hair,
And wide wet mouth, and droll uncertainties.

The grey fowls fight for places in the sun,
The mushrooms flare, and pass like painted fans:
All the world is patient in its plans -
The seasons move forever, one on one.

Small birds lie sprawling vaguely in the heat,
And wanly pluck at shadows on their breasts,
And where the heavy grape-vine leans and rests,
White butterflies lift up their furry feet.

The wheat grows querulous with unseen cats;
A fox strides out in anger through the corn,
Bidding each acre wake and rise to mourn
Beneath its sharps and through its throaty flats.

And so it is, and will be year on year,
Time in and out of date, and still on time
A billion grapes plunge bleeding into wine
And bursting, fall like music on the ear.

The snail that marks the girth of night with slime,
The lonely adder hissing in the fern,
The lizard with its ochre eyes aburn -
Each is before, and each behind its time.