Words have their own music and music has its own language, and on two recent reissues, speech and sound merge, mingle, and clash. Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada, which finds the proto–Beat poet, novelist, and painter performing with a jazz quartet, captures the sounds of late-fifties bohemia. The Turkish-born composer Ilhan Mimaroglu’s Agitation, while not really a spoken-word album, features the human voice prominently. Both discs were released by the invaluable Chicago-based label Locust Music.
Agitation actually contains two albums—Tract: A Composition of Agitprop Music for Electromagnetic Tape and To Kill a Sunrise and La Ruche—that were originally released on Folkways Records in 1975 and 1976. Tract is a sprawling, collage-like mass of sound. Inspired in part by the political repression taking place in Turkey in the early seventies, it is never less than riveting. Tract’s text includes material based on or drawn from the writings of Bertolt Brecht, the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and other historical and cultural figures. Voices speaking and singing in English, French, and Turkish create a dense thicket of language. The varying sound quality of the vocal recordings adds to the rich timbral fabric of the piece.
Pop songs, distant chatter, keyboard lines, choruses, and many other elements (including the psychedelic pop group Topsy Turvy Moon) appear and disappear throughout Tract. Transitions can be gradual or abrupt, but Mimaroglu displays a great sense of pace and structure, and Tract remains compelling throughout its ever-mutating thirty-five minutes.
The Turkish-born vocalist Tuly Sand, for whom Mimaroglu wrote the piece, is spotlighted; surprisingly, as Mimaroglu points out in the liner notes, her impressive performance is not electronically manipulated. Referring to the character Sand plays (and to Sand herself), Mimaroglu writes that Tract is about a woman “who passes through the various stages of gaining revolutionary consciousness” and is also “a fantasized summary of her career as a pop singer.” In its engagement with both sound and politics, Tract evokes the films of Jean-Luc Godard, another artist drawn to social critique and densely layered audio.
The intensely dramatic and grim To Kill A Sunrise: A Requiem For Those Shot in the Back draws its text from, among other material, the work of Guatemalan poet Marco Antonio Flores and the writings of Che Guevara. In one passage, discordant tones rub up against superimposed speakers reciting a litany of names of political leaders and activists who have been murdered by counterrevolutionary forces. In another section, a boy reads from Che Guevara’s autopsy report as ominous sound-clouds gather overhead. As the twenty-minute piece builds to a frightening conclusion, the words are drowned out by the increasingly terrifying music. La Ruche, an instrumental piece, closes this potent album.
Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada also juxtaposes human speech and music. Originally recorded in 1959 in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation studio in Vancouver, Reads with Jazz is one of several albums that Patchen put to tape. Here the writer is accompanied by a Vancouver-based quartet led by pianist Alan Neil. (The original LP, like the albums that make up Agitation, initially appeared on Folkways.)
My perception wavers when I listen to Reads with Jazz. At times, I’m moved by Patchen’s engaged reading, but sometimes his stylized performance sounds like an embodiment of beatnik cliché best appreciated as camp. Like the Beats, Patchen rages against an America that has lost its soul as he depicts the individual’s struggle to find meaning in a spiritually depleted landscape. But since Patchen preceded the Beats by a decade or two, it’s important to keep historical context in mind; the man wasn’t aping hipsters, he was his own man all along. If you can take a step back—forget about the cartoonish beatniks in Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood and countless other films, TV shows, and commercials—you can still sense the original power of Patchen’s incantations, lamentations, and humor.
Reads with Jazz opens with “Four Blues Poems,” which finds the young band—alto sax player Dale Hillary was only eighteen—playing a Charlie Parker tune behind Patchen’s recitations. As the quartet swings in the background, the poet songfully intones four short pieces, one of which finds Patchen relishing the line, “spit right in the boss’s eye/if you know what I mean.” The weight of the reading and the light swing of the band make for a strikingly odd contrast.
Patchen moves on to read “Four Song Poems” in appealingly warm tones as the band plays a piece penned by the bop pianist/composer George Wallington. On “As I Opened the Window,” the poet shifts gears and injects quirky, humorous rhythms into an absurd tale of beer runs and odd characters. The disc closes with “Glory, Glory,” which ironically contrasts the band riffing on the traditional “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with a torrent of barbed words. Drawing material from his play Don’t Look Back, Patchen rants in an existentialist vein, railing against homogenization, spiritual emptiness, apathy, and other social ills as the band blows. When Patchen taunts, “Where do you stand?” you might find yourself cracking up and being spooked at the same time.
Fred Cisterna is editor of Sound Collector Audio Review.
FRED CISTERNA writes a spoken-word column for Signal to Noise magazine.