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Monday, February 10, 2014

After Hearing Henry Cowell at San Quentin

After Hearing Henry Cowell at San Quentin

     Governments always conspire against
     The population and often
     This is not even malice;
     Just nothing better to do.

                    —Edward Dorn, "Tribe"

     Somebody tells me that these people are human. That's silly. They are not human they are homosexual. Jews are not human either, nor Negroes, nor cripples. No one is human that doesn't feel human. None of us here feel human.

                    —Jack Spicer, from early unfinished story(*)

It was the week of the plum blossoms.  No rains for many months, while on the radio they're telling us we're at the threshold to the worst drought in 500 years.  Which would put us back to Ohlone and Coast Miwok days, for the last time people in this part of the world tasted such emptied, dried out weather.  Zero dose of rain, though sun warm enough that the trees believe it's spring, and put out blossoms, so the street-sides are decorated with light purple flowers.  Arid and still, barely a breeze, where there's typically wind knocking gray ocean air around hills and high buildings.

The anomaly of driving up to the east end of the prison zone, at the western foot of the Richmond Bridge, and pulling onto Main Street of the small town of San Quentin, California, where prison personnel live in attractive, early 20th century houses.  Guest parking downhill to the left of the gate.  Whatever this view is — glorious sunset, sacred Mt Tamalpais, bay waters at hand with the city lighting up across them — you know it isn't available to those inside. 

Essential Cowell: Selected Writings on Music by
Henry Cowell 1921–1964
, ed. with intro by Dick
Higgins, Documentext/McPherson & Co., 2001

Sarah Cahill was arranging a concert at San Quentin, putting the puzzle together out of the works Henry Cowell wrote from 1936 to 1940 while incarcerated in that same State Prison, pieces for piano and for string quartet, with the Ives Quartet on board.  Cowell, one learns, with the one hour per week at the piano they allowed him still in place as the rule 78 years after, would be put in charge of the prison music program, and direct the prison orchestra; energetic, he was writing — words and music — for the duration.  He was in there, as they say, "on a morals charge," sentenced to fifteen years, basically for being queer (the punishment cranked up to brutal thanks to William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner jumping on his case).  Arrested and tried in Redwood City, in the South Bay, he admitted, wanting it seems to get it all over with, that he'd enjoyed oral sex with a young man — one of quite a few he liked to spend his time with.  After 1915 it was on the books in this State that you can't do that.  They sent him up the river. 

The "climax" to Michael Rumaker's excellent memoir, Robert Duncan in San Francisco — written some twenty years after the author's residency, circa 1957, in the city, moving here from his native Philadelphia after the closing of Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, where he'd been a student of Charles Olson — is the longer final chapter focused on Rumaker's arrest, age 25, in a police sweep as he's walking home from Polk Gulch.  All the young men on the street are grabbed by cops, hauled to jail, and charged with "vagrancy."  In 1976, while the book is being written, Rumaker notes the U.S. Supreme Court, 6 to 3, rules that it's still policy. "...States May Jail Violators Even If They Are Consenting Adults."  In the new City Lights Books edition

photo of Robert Duncan, mid-1950s
by Helen Adam, from The Poetry
Collection, SUNY Buffalo

(Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative revived the book, with additional letters, 1955–61, between Rumaker and Duncan, and a new interview), Ammiel Alcalay and Megan Paslawski's intro reminds us the Robert Duncan of this book is, among other persons, the poet who at 25 published his essay "The Homosexual in Society."  The essay gets remembered for its early date-stamp (August 1944) and for Duncan's bravery and clear openness faced with what likes to stay a mean new world, with its real reactive forces that, besides existing "outside," anyone can internalize and turn against themselves.  It's a diagnostic recipe, a codebook of self-repair for outcasts and specialty cases, call to notice for self-destructors. the face of the "crime" of my own feelings, in the past I publicized those feelings as private and made no stand for their recognition but tried to sell them as disguised, for instance, as conflicts arising from mystical sources.... Faced by the inhumanities of society I did not seek a solution in humanity but turned to a second outcast society as inhumane as the first....

     What I think can be asserted as a starting point is that only one devotion can be held by a human being seeking a creative life and expression, and this is a devotion to human freedom, toward the liberation of human love, human conflicts, human aspirations. To do this one must disown all the special groups (nations, churches, sexes, races) that would claim allegiance.... It must be always recognized that those who have surrendered their humanity, are not less than oneself.... The forces of inhumanity are overwhelming, but only one's continued opposition can make any other order possible, will give an added strength for all those who desire freedom and equality to break at last from those fetters that seem now so unbreakable.
                              Robert Duncan, "The Homosexual in Society" (1944)

In light of the kind of law that would take down and round up Henry Cowells and Michael Rumakers, I wonder about the Loyalty Oath, that got instituted in California after World War II as a McCarthyite advance strike against communists and radicals being employed by State institutions.  Locked into place in 1949, it's still the law, and still enforced in 2014.  When you sign up to work at San Francisco State or UC Berkeley, et al, you have to swear you'll defend the Constitution of the State of California (which isn't printed out, by the way, for would-be signatories to study) "against all enemies," and then attest that your arm's not being twisted into signing this
paper.  What politician is going to make a motion to eliminate that?  Ernst Kantorowicz, medieval historian at UC Berkeley, and teacher to Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robin Blaser — Richard O. Moore, who'd go on to document Duncan among many others for public television, was there among the poet/students too — famously refused to sign the oath, from whence he ascended to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton.  Jack Spicer, as a student teacher, refused to sign, and forfeited his job; the oath is "stupid and insulting."(**)  Though he must have signed later on, when the heat was down, as he eventually did do work for pay at Berkeley, with the linguistics department.  When Kantorowicz got ready to leave, Robin Blaser told me once, walking across the Berkeley campus — I think early May 2000, when the Poetry Center hosted a reading in honor of his 75th birthday — the teacher paced around the room and tapped those students he'd take with him to Princeton, for "advanced studies."  You, he tapped the poets, are poets.  You stay.

Henry Cowell was let out of San Quentin after four years'

Sidney Robertson (née
Sidney William Hawkins), 1926

time, due to family and friends on the outside working to get his 15-year sentence overturned.  The friends of HC included Sidney Robertson, who he'd soon marry, "an independent song catcher," ethnomusicologist and colleague of famed Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph (eventual compiler of the classic Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Tales — bawdy as Chaucer or

Percy Grainger plays Cyril Scott,
Lotus Land Op. 47 No. 1., in a
1929 Duo-Art reproducing
piano roll recording

Boccaccio).  While Cowell was in San Quentin, she ran the W.P.A. Northern California Folk Music Project, based in Berkeley, collecting and recording hundreds of songs. 
He got released on parole, into custody and employment of pianist/composer Percy Grainger, a continent away from his native Bay Area, in White Plains, New York.

Cowell's a writer as prolific at creating a literature dedicated to music as he was to composition.  It’s hard to draw a map of 20th century composition, among the Americans, without placing him somewhere near the hub.  He wrote works on dozens of musicians (late Fluxus poet and Something Else Press publisher Dick Higgins’  Essential Cowell edition covers the waterfront, Antheil and Bartók, to Varèse and Christian Wolff), only Grainger and his music wasn't among them. Is it too much to speculate this omission has anything to do with Percy Grainger being a classifiable weirdo, and white supremacist, who invented a freakish lexicon of "Blue-Eyed English" that excised all 'dark' Southern European Greco-Latin roots?  White Plains.... go figure.  

A few weeks ago, it was in the world's news, Elizabeth the

The 'Father of Modern Computing,' 
Alan Turing, British mathematician who
committed suicide almost 60 years ago,
has been royally pardoned by Queen
Elizabeth decades after his death.

Queen of England "pardoned" Alan Turing, math genius inventor and WWII patriot who'd been criminalized for his homosexuality and "chemically castrated" by the State.  That's what "majesty" is — assumed power to forgive the person who's brutalized by your own violence.  And, as we could pick up from medievalist Kantorowicz and The King’s Two Bodies, even in the 21st century, the Queen is the State and the State is the Queen.  What says England?

Cowell received a pardon from the Californians by 1943 (one of his legal champions arguing, like they say, on his behalf that he needed "treatment more than punishment"); pardon in his case spelled restoration of his civil rights, and he was hired, the nation had swung into "total war" mode, to work for the U.S. government running music programs for the Office of War Information.  War residuals, archives of records of music sourced from around the world for propaganda uses ("more folk music of the world's peoples and more symphonic works by serious American composers than any other I know"... and "other fields too") went, after 1945, to fill the Library of Congress collection.

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Sarah Cahill and videographer; photo from
Michael Strickland's

Friday January 24, 2014.  The concerts by Sarah Cahill and the Ives Quartet — there would be two of them, late morning and early evening — opened with performances by four of the inmates who are studying piano, two beginners, two more advanced.  Piano and voice, original songs, the devotional number "No Greater Love."  Maybe there are forty guests from outside, and we're told when we come in to mix with the inmates in the chapel seats.  We've been asked not to wear blue or green, to dress modestly, "black is safe."  We've sent in information for advance clearance two weeks earlier.  Some people we know who show up find out at the gate that they're not on the list, and head home without getting in.  Others never hear back after sending in their information.  It's all a little arbitrary.  I've never wanted to set foot anywhere near this place, and here I am.  We're actually in a kind of annex to the prison proper, having come through a first gate at the road, a longish walk outdoors, then inside to be wanded and pass through metal gates into an open courtyard, plants and paths, ringed by chapels.  The Jewish temple is shared space with the mosque for Muslim worshippers.  It's Friday just past sunset and men are inside.  The Catholic chapel, the Protestant chapel.  The concert's being held in this good-sized sanctuary fitted with pews, walls hung with signs and banners painted and stitched by inmates:  EXCUSE / ME/ WHILE I / GET MY/ PRAISE / ON.  There's a Jesus on a Cross with red lashmarks.  What did that one say:  "His Stripes Make Me Free"?  "Jesus, King of the Jews" on a Crucifix behind the four chairs for the Ives Quartet, stage left, next to the piano.

"We're going to be memorialized in that video," says Patrick Marks, here with Gent Sturgeon, Susan Gevirtz having driven us across the bridge from San Francisco; we're early, anxious not to be late in afternoon rush hour traffic, stop for coffee in the more-gentrified-than-thou Larkspur mall around the corner from the prison.
  There's a two man video crew working the concert, two inmates, on twin cameras, one fixed front and center on a tripod and a second guy roaming, now on the keyboard, now behind the string players, now keyed in on faces in the audience. 

When we saw Asghar Farhadi's beautiful film The Past this weekend, I somehow didn't see the tear rolling down from the eye of the woman in the closing scene.  Now I have to go back and see the film again.  Though I don't know if it would be possible to miss the tears in the film of the audience of this concert at San Quentin.  Everyone's susceptible.  The two inmates sitting behind us, afterward one of the guys says, "I kept crying.  I'm going to have to toughen up, you know.  I'm in prison."  The transition from the four piano students singing and playing, to Sarah Cahill taking the stage without fanfare, telling us all how Henry Cowell was self-taught at the piano so he did what he liked, played with his fists (his famous "tone clusters") and forearms, crawled under the piano lid and stroked and strummed the strings... a hundred years ago, in California.  Everything they'd play tonight, she said, was written while he was an inmate at San Quentin. 

The program went like this: "Celtic Set," at piano, dedicated to his benefactor Percy Grainger.  One piece from "Amerind Suite" — "we'll have to forgive him for the clichéd Indian drumming sounds...this was written a long time ago"
Johanna Magdalena
Beyer (1988–1944)
(1937).  "Rhythmicana" (1938) Cowell had dedicated to
Johanna Beyer, his "lost and found" contemporary (a composer, she worked as his assistant during his imprisonment)The middle Andante section moves in impossible time signature changes: 13/7, 11/8, 11/6, 13/5 ... (in 1932, says Dick Higgins in his intro to Essential Cowell, he'd had an instrument he'd invented, called the rhythmicon, built for him by Léon Theremin, that could play difficult to execute time combinations so one could hear them and learn to play them better). In the third movement he has the left hand in 3/4 with the right playing 5/4, until they switch.  There's a video online of Sarah Cahill playing "Rhythmicana" last year at Old First Church on Van Ness, in San Francisco.  Watching this unfold in the concert in the chapel at San Quentin, it's precarious and it's tangible — everybody's with her — like there's very little distance to reach across to know that.

[Sidebar: Borah Bergmann, who died last year, was exceptional at left-right asymmetries; there's a photo of
Borah Bergman sometimes practiced as he fell asleep,and
when he awoke, using split practice keyboards,one on each
side of his reclining body (photo & text via Stephen Haynes)
him in his bed in his New York apartment practicing on tiny and apparently silent keyboards he'd made, so he could fall asleep while playing and wake up playing directly out of the hypnagogic state.]

String Quartet No. 4 ("United") was next.  It seems Cowell had written it while still in jail in Redwood City, waiting for San Quentin.  I can't find a recording, though his "Mosaic Quartet" from 1935 was finished the year before he was sent to prison.  The Ives Quartet was dressed casually, in street clothes, some notion that the formal would be a distraction from the music.  "United" draws its rhythmic and tonal palette from HC's study of Javanese gamelan.  In the fourth movement rhythms are tapped out on the bodies of the instruments.  I get the strong realization that there's nothing to be done that could make these performances better.  This is it.  In the real sense, it doesn't get better.  This has to do with the music, it has to do with the circumstance of the music coming back here — impossibly — in the physical territory where it originated, to be let into the air, here, and it has to do with who is in the house.

One more song then and it's over, the program's clipped short, the piano has to be put away by 8:00 pm.  It's one more piece to the concert from Henry Cowell, by way of Sarah Cahill — an unpublished work, called "High Color" (from Set of Two Movements) evoking "the tops of the hills of Ireland, deep purple, dazzling shiny yellow."

Afterward we walk around a little near the stage and talk with one another.  Nobody really has anywhere to go.  The inmate from the row behind us, who talks about needing to "toughen up," had been sitting with another guy, who tells me "The way the laws are going, I might not be in here when you come back."  Like I am coming back.  Like he might not be in prison.  Like the laws can change. 

"The Homosexual in Society" (1944/1959), in Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose, ed. James Maynard, University of California Press, 2013.

(*) fragment as quoted in Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian's "Introduction" to
The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, xix, Wesleyan, 2008.

(**) "The testing of a University faculty by oath is a stupid and insulting procedure.  If this oath is to have the effect of eliminating Communists from the faculty, we might as logically eliminate murderers from the faculty by forcing every faculty member to sign an oath saying that he has never committed murder." —from Spicer's petition against the Loyalty Oath, "found in his handwriting in one of his Berkeley notebooks." (Gizzi and Killian, "Introduction," xxiv)

(***) Henry Cowell, "Shaping Music for Total War" (1946) in Essential Cowell, 304–307.

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