Notes on Prosody: rhythm and number

November 25th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The following is drawn from some notes on prosody I began writing some years ago. Prosody, and rhythm generally, has been a central preoccupation of mine, as might be guessed from my domain name, the former name of this website, and many of the articles and posts in it. In this draft I was attempting to clarify some very broad terms that might be applied to a general study of rhythm. To speak of rhythm from the standpoint of psychology or physiology, or musicology or poetics, generally assumes that we already understand what rhythm is. I make no such assumption, and the approach here might be thought of as belonging more to philosophy than to anything more specialized.

Rhythm and number

Meter is the countable aspect of rhythm. If a rhythm has nothing in it that we can meaningfully count, then we generally consider it unmetered.

In order to count, we must regard different things or events as the same. All rhythm involves recurring events. We can thus see how any rhythm involves a sort of incipient counting.

Sameness is of course a matter of degree, and there is often some doubt about which events in a rhythm “count” and which do not. Indeed, a rhythm that is absolutely countable will be monotonous. However, a rhythm that is monotonous on one level may be quite unpredictable on another.

It is hard to say where real counting begins. If there is only one level of repetition, for instance in a steady drumbeat with no accents, then there is obviously no need to count at all. Still, the drummer’s effort to make all the time intervals between beats, as well as the beats themselves, the same, suggests that a subliminal sort of measurement is occuring.

If we add an accent to every other beat, then we clearly have a rhythm counted “in two.” This is usually considered, in music, to be the simplest meter. However, for consistency, it would perhaps be better to consider the first example, the steady beats without accents, to be the simplest. Its “measure” would be an isochronous beat, counted “in one.” To vary the monotony, we could add occasional accents, in no consistently countable pattern. Such a rudimentary “meter” can have a suprisingly lively effect.

The higher the number, the greater the need for deliberate counting. If we enter a room with three people in it, we hardly need to count to know how many are there. If on the other hand there are nine people there, we will have to count to know it.

Other factors may affect the need to count. If we see a row of three windows, at each of which three people are standing, we can appreciate that whole fact in an instant, even if we don’t know that three times three is nine. If the windows, moving left to right, have four, two and three people in them respectively, that situation will probably take a bit longer to register, and be a lot harder to remember.

When we are dealing with events that appear in succession, as we are with rhythm, there is also the factor of speed or “tempo.” In the “midrange” of tempo, where we find – probably not coincidentally – important bodily rhythms like the heartbeat and breathing, the perception of number is most immediate. At much slower tempos we will need to count just to keep track of where we are, and at much faster ones, we will need to slow things down to count at all, as separate events start to merge into a continuum, e.g. a musical tone or a moving picture. It is, roughly speaking, only in this midrange that we directly perceive rhythm at all. Of course what we barely sense, or see only on reflection, can sometimes be as important as what we perceive directly.

It is usual in poetics to distinguish more or less sharply between meter and rhythm. A favorite analogy is of a container (meter) and what it contains (rhythm). It might be better, though, to think of meter as a sort of skeleton of rhythm. A container, after all, is separate from what it contains; a skeleton is part of the whole animal.

If a rhythm can be known without counting, then there is no need to count it. We rarely need to count an animal’s vertebrae or its digits to know what species it belongs to. We may still find it helpful to do so, however, whether to understand its relationship to other species or to explain some aspect of its behavior.

In Western music, with its highly articulated rhythm, it is customary to regard all rhythms as more or less countable. This is partly due to the necessity of keeping different performers in time with each other. The convention is therefore not as strictly observed in solo performances, and in certain kinds of cantillation, for instance, it may be dispensed with altogether.

Western poetry, to the extent that it has divorced itself from music or any kind of coordinated performance, makes no assumption that its rhythms are always countable. If they are, roughly speaking, the poetry is said to be in meter, if not, it is said to be unmetered or “free” verse.

In principle, though, there seems to be no reason why we could not, if we wanted to, consider all poetic rhythms to be more or less countable, if only for purposes of analysis. We might then find it convenient to make use of some conventions borrowed from musical practice.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

September 10th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Following close on the death of John Hollander, the poetry world lost, on August 30, Seamus Heaney. I had no special connection with him, beyond admiring his work, and once obtaining permission to use his remarkable translation of Beowulf for a high school English Lit anthology I was editing (the venerable series it belonged to died soon after, victim of a corporate merger). The translation was originally commissioned by the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, one of whom, the medievalist Alfred David, served as Heaney’s main consultant in matters Anglo-Saxon. David (who as far as I know is still with us) is an admirable poet-translator himself; he translated the three lais by Marie de France in the Norton Anthology, one of which (Chevrefoil) I originally commissioned from him for our own (stillborn) anthology.

There is a lot of Heaney I have not yet read, notably his two adaptations from Sophocles. These are right up my alley, you might say, but my general skittishness about “adaptations” has so far made me hesitate.

John Hollander (1929-2013)

August 18th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Hollander was never less than a skilled poet, and at his best a very fine one. He also had intelligent things to say about the relation of poetry to music, among many other subjects. In the 80s he recommended some poems of mine to the late Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street, resulting in my first published poems. I met him only once.

NY Times obituary

Oxford Translators’ Coven

August 11th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

In June I attended the “translators’ coven” organized under the auspices of the Russkiy Mir Program of St Antony’s College at Oxford. There were about thirty short presentations by Russian-English literary translators, discussing recent or current work. Some 125 people attended the two-day event; many, both presenters and audience, were also in London at Pushkin House for a series of evening readings/discussions the following week.

My presentation was on “translating classic Russian verse drama for performance,” in which I discussed my approach to translating Pushkin and Griboyedov. With me on the drama panel, chaired by Sasha Dugdale, were Lisa Hayden and Noah Birksted-Breen. A full summary of the proceedings is here.

Presentations were mostly informal, with ample time allowed for open discussion. Being a very infrequent conference-goer, I don’t have much basis for comparison, but the general level seemed to me very high. Literary translation tends to be solitary, despite the obvious benefits of collaboration (a point that arose more than once in discussion), and the collegiality of the gathering felt quite remarkable. The socializing around the conference, including a restaurant dinner for about 40 the first night (and a bit of pub crawling afterwards) didn’t hurt, either.

I was only able to attend two of the Pushkin House events in Bloomsbury. The first was devoted to three recent winners of the Brodsky-Spender Prize, Irina Mashinski and Boris Dralyuk for their translation of Arseny Tarkovsky’s “Field Hospital” (First Prize), and Alexandra Berlina for her translation of Brodsky’s “You can’t tell a gnat” (Third Prize). The second night was devoted to Mandelstam. The panel, led by Robert Chandler, included Victor Sonkin, Irina Mashinski, Boris Dralyuk, Alexandra Berlina, and Peter France, several of whose very fine translations of Mandelstam were read alongside other versions for comparison.

Aside from all this, it was my first visit to London in about a decade. I stayed in the East End, in Stepney Green, an area I was not familiar with. The flat where I was staying looked out over St Dunstan’s churchyard (below). The church’s bells (“the bells of Stepney”) are among those mentioned in the “Oranges and Lemons” nursery rhyme about the bells of East London.

St Dunstan's, Stepney

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)

March 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

It happens that I just recently received a newly issued CD from Nigerian-American baritone Odekhiren Amaize of a very fine work he commissioned and performed, based on Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart.

I have read little else of Achebe’s, apart from his infamous (as some would call it) essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I well remember the impact the novel had on me when I read it some thirty years ago. The musical setting by Roger C. Vogel is of selected excerpts, chosen in a way that very effectively brought back the story, whose action I didn’t remember well. Highly recommended, as is the novel that inspired it.

A great loss to literature. NY Times obituary.

Two Old Hymns

August 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Having recently acquired a lute, I have been exploring some previously unknown (to me) corners of Elizabethan song, a very old interest of mine. When I was fifteen, two years into learning classical guitar, I spent the summer at a music professor’s house my parents had sublet in Berkeley. In the basement study I first came across the Davison/Apel Historical Anthology of Music, the Auden/Kallman Elizabethan Songbook, and other treasures, some of which I have to this day (not the professor’s copies, I hasten to add). I spent a good part of the summer sitting in that basement, copying out in pencil onto score paper the tablatures from a facsimile edition of Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute Lessons. Those copies (it was before photocopiers were everywhere) I still have too, or most of them.

The music I had some understanding of, having tried to play it on guitar, but the poetry was new to me. I’d had a little Shakespeare in school, but lyrics like “in darkness let me dwell” and “Flow not so fast, ye fountains” were more exciting than anything some English teacher was trying to spoon-feed me, and they came with music besides! Though it was years before I really started singing them.

By that time I was writing poetry myself, and knew enough about it to see that not all Elizabethan song texts were on such a high level. Still the overall level, compared to other periods of songwriting, was high indeed. Dowland has texts that sound like a pastiche of Donne or other well-known poets, and many have suspected that he wrote at least some of his lyrics himself. If so, he didn’t do too badly. What songwriter today would use such models? He may not have been a “real” poet like Campion, but he knew what poetry was.

Still, there’s always going to be a special interest in how lyrics by the top poets of the day were set, or at least you would think so. In fact, many of the extant settings are still surprisingly little known, even after a half-century of early-music revival (or in this case more than a century, since by 1912 Arnold Dolmetsch had already begun building his lutes and viols to explore this very repertoire).

The song I’m going to talk about now is perhaps not a “setting” at all. In fact the words are generally assumed to have been written to pre-existing music. I’m speaking of the so-called “four-note pavan” of Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger (1575-1628), written for viol consort but in recent years also very popular in arrangements for brass, woodwinds, recorders – any kind of ensemble in which a sonorous, closely woven polyphony sounds to advantage. But the song version, on a text by Ben Jonson, seems to have been made by the poet himself.

Here it is, beautifully sung by Jill Feldman (nice images too). I give the text of Jonson’s poem below:

Hear me, O God!
A broken heart
Is my best part.
Use still thy rod,
That I may prove
Therein thy Love.

If thou hadst not
Been stern to me,
But left me free,
I had forgot
Myself and thee.

For sin’s so sweet,
As minds ill-bent
Rarely repent,
Until they meet
Their punishment.

Who more can crave
Than thou hast done?
That gav’st a Son,
To free a slave,
First made of nought;
With all since bought.

Sin, Death, and Hell
His glorious name
Quite overcame,
Yet I rebel
And slight the same.

But I’ll come in
Before my loss
Me farther toss,
As sure to win
Under His cross.

The basis for assuming that Jonson wrote his poem to fit Ferrabosco’s already existing music seems to be the attribution from contemporary sources, presumably quoted or paraphrased in the words that overlay the beginning of the video (if anyone knows more about this, I would be glad to hear about it). But there are a number of intriguing features of both poem and music that suggest to me a closer collaboration between poet and composer. They were, after all, long-term collaborators on a number of masques that Jonson wrote for King James and his court. But I will post my thoughts on this question later. For now it may be of interest to compare this “Hymn to God the Father” with another, much better known one of the same title by John Donne, in a lovely setting by the short-lived Restoration composer Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674), sung here by the incomparable Alfred Deller. Here is the text, with minor textual variants following the sung version:

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)

May 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I heard him in Paris c. 1972, in his prime, singing the Dichterliebe. I first knew of him about a decade before that, when a record store owner convinced me to buy the Klemperer recording of the St. Matthew Passion, in which he sang the role of Jesus.

That was the only time his singing ever disappointed me. I had grown up on Mengelberg’s historic 1939 version, with the unearthly Willem Ravelli singing Jesus. It took some adjustment to accept Fischer-Dieskau’s more human, less mysterious approach, in that voice that Barthes would later stigmatize as too perfect. But I am not big on dichotomies. He soon became my favorite singer, and still in many ways is.

There was hardly any corner of German art song that he left unexplored. Here he is singing Eisler from the Hollywood Songbook, in a song made familiar by the usual Brechtian suspects in German and by Sting, among others, in English.

He treats it like any other German Lied, trying to give the poetry its due. Brecht might have hated it. Eisler, not so much.


Arlekin Players Theatre, “The Guest”

April 12th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Gene Ravvin and Igor Golyak in The Guest

This splendid little production, which premiered last December at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and had a brief run at the Marblehead Little Theatre this past weekend, is a creation of Igor Golyak, artistic director of the Arlekin Players, a Boston-area-based Russian-American troupe. It is performed in Russian.*

The piece is an adaptation of Pushkin’s “Scene from Faust” and “The Stone Guest.” Aside from Gretchen’s song, lifted from Goethe, the lines are all Pushkin’s. But as Golyak conceives it, Don Juan, the protagonist of “The Stone Guest,” becomes yet another incarnation of Faust. This works surprisingly well, or perhaps not so surprisingly – the two damned souls were often associated with each other in Goethe’s and Pushkin’s time, and have been many times since.

For those unfamiliar with Pushkin’s take on the story, his Faust suffers not so much from a thirst for knowledge and experience as from pure ennui, which Mephistopheles (the Demon) tries in vain to alleviate. In a few brief pages of verse, Pushkin creates a sort of negative image of Goethe’s Faust, a soul of frightening vacuity who can only rouse himself to enthusiasm by sentimentalizing his past, in particular his seduction of Gretchen. At the end of the scene, we see his boredom turn murderous.

Enter Don Juan, back from banishment, at the risk of his life, for killing the Commander in a duel. Why has he returned? Out of boredom. Northern women are “like waxen dolls.” He wants to revisit his Spanish haunts. He looks up Laura, his alter ego, and kills her current conquest in a duel, then fixates on Donna Anna, the widow (not the daughter) of the Commander. Disguised as a monk, he courts her at the monastery where she comes daily to pray at the statue that marks her husband’s grave. She permits him to call on her at home, and his conquest of her is imminent when the statue, responding to his invitation, appears at the door. In Arlekin’s production, things are rounded out with the re-appearance, at Juan’s demise, of the Demon from the Faust scene.

In his verve as a seducer, Pushkin’s character owes a lot to Mozart’s Don Giovanni; what Pushkin adds is a certain virtuosity. As many Russian critics have noted, his Juan is essentially an artist. His conquest of Donna Anna, in which, though completely gratuitous, it is essential to him that she know exactly who he is, becomes his masterpiece, and his swan song.

Virtuosity, it is true, doesn’t seem particularly characteristic of Pushkin’s Faust. But in their inner emptiness, the two characters connect well enough. We can believe that a Faust who can have anything he wants, and is still inclined to see love as a salvation, or at least the ultimate distraction, might choose to become this Don Juan. In any case, Pushkin’s verse is so laconic, so suggestive of hidden essences and possible connections between them, that the transformation feels perfectly plausible. And the Arlekin production, in a minimalist black box set with fluid, easily reconfigured elements, has an elegance to match the poetry.

The cast is uniformly excellent. The director plays the Demon (as well as Don Carlos), and Gene Ravvin plays both Faust and Don Juan.

The Guest will be performed again in New York on May 5 at JCC Manhattan, on June 28 at Chelmsford High School,  Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and on September 7 and 8 at the Moscow Art Theatre School in Moscow. Details at the Arlekin site.

*[The performance I attended had occasional English subtitles projected on a screen on stage, but not enough to make the dialogue, or even the gist of the story, clear to anyone who could not follow it aurally (except for Gretchen’s song, the subtitles were from my translations). Subtitles for spoken live theater, due to speed and variations in timing of delivery, are fiendishly difficult to do effectively. I don’t know if anything more extensive is planned along these lines for the remaining US performances. Those interested in attending them, if they don’t know Russian, would do well to read the plays in translation first.]


The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: a new translation

February 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink


I began this in the seventies, and just finished it last year. But there is still music to write for it; quite a lot, in fact. It won’t be an opera, though.

I plan to make it the third of three ebook releases, after the Little Tragedies and the second edition of The Woes of Wit. It may be a while before it’s out; I would still like to get more comments on it. I’ve put up a dedicated page in “writings” with more information and some background.

Pushkin, “Scene from Faust” (subtitled)

January 22nd, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

As promised
some time back. More on the scene here. Additions made by the filmmaker are noted in the clip description.