Once Upon a Time

John Cage is perhaps most famous in popular culture as the poster child of the avant-garde music movement, with his piece 4’33” — which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence — reaching particular notoriety. While his style of challenging common notions of aesthetics is a fun novelty for most listeners, Cage put a lot of thought and work into building a considerable repertoire of cutting edge musical ideas. After earning his chops as a traditional composer early in his career, he shifted his focus to the avant-garde, including pioneering the concept of Aleatoric Music, or music with some sort of chance-based component. Aleatoric music has quickly grown in popularity and deployment since Cage’s time, particularly in video game and film music.

One of the pieces Cage composed pretty early in his career, Living Room Music, exemplifies his transition from more common styles of performance to avant-garde ideas. The piece consists of four movements, though the third is optional. The first, third, and fourth movements all have players selects items that might be found in a typical living room (cups, tables, papers; the particular items are at the players’ discretion) and use them to create a certain rhythmic pattern. The third movement also pairs this rhythm making with a melody to be performed on a suitable pitch inducing instrument.

The second movement, however, stands out. Unlike the other movements, this one can be performed without any auxiliary items. That’s because it consists of four individuals repeating a certain set of words with a particular rhythmic pattern and occasionally pitch bend. The words are a deconstruction, reordering, and layering of the first few lines of a lesser known Gertrude Stein children’s book called The World Is Round. The way cage deconstructs and re-arranges the words has much intrigue and meaning, and even begs the question about how lyrics that are part rhythmic and part message based and spread across multiple parts should be conveyed in non-musical writing, but alas this is after all an assignment for which I will be graded and looking at those things entails a tangent this post can not afford. So for the purposes of this post, I will analyze the base set of lines Cage uses to construct the work, as he conveniently includes them at the beginning of they score for the movement (linked above):

Once upon a time the world

was round and you could go on

it around and around.

So, what is this excerpt about? Some hint could come from the content of Stein’s book itself; through the book’s main character, Rose, it highlights the importance of asking questions and feeling a connection to the world. But it’s notable that Cage choses only to focus on this opening sentence from the book when he had ample musical “space” to include additional lyrics. What’s also telling is this particular movement’s title: “Story.” Much in the same way that the other movements of Living Room Music invert traditional conceptions of music by embracing the every day rhythms one might make with objects in their living room, “Story” takes the idea of a story at it’s very core, at it’s simplest form, and transmutes it into something that is halfway between narrative and song. Cage’s purpose, then, is to convey the non-story story — the archetypal stand in that captures infinite possibility because it embodies the very concept of a story.

A further examination of the phrasing in the excerpt Cage uses makes this point patently clear. Starting at the very beginning, the lyric opens with the phrase “Once upon a time.” On the one hand, this clause is serving a literal purpose — by placing the sentence in the past tense it set’s up a narrative trope of “retelling” that fits more naturally with the archetypal narrative of a story (as opposed to stories which are told in present tense, and therefore feel more like they are unfolding live than being retold). At the same time, “Once upon a time” holds an important place in popular culture as the classic opening to many children’s tales, so parroting this language here not only sets a tone of retelling but also places that tone specifically in the childhood story milieu. Finally, because the phrase does not specify a particular time beyond the ambiguous “once,” the sentence takes on a sense of timelessness (in the very same way the aforementioned children’s tales often seem timeless), allowing it to further invoke the archetypal concept of a story.

The next line is also notable in creating the sense of an archetypal story, but in a more innovative way. The use of the 2nd person in storytelling and especially children’s books is quite rare with perhaps If You Give a Mouse a Cookie being the only notable example. Yet here the use of the word “you” in “you could go on it” does not stand out as odd. This is because the “you” portrays a sort of “place holder” or “filler function” — it serves a similar purpose meaning-wise in the sentence as “one could go on it.” That is to say, it is not important who is going as much as that going can occur. However, the use of the word “you” does serve some sort of personalizing function as well by forcing the reader to place themselves in the sentence. Though the reader understands the generic function of the word “you” outlined above, the reader also can’t help but imagine themselves “going on [the world].” This serves to facilitate the reader’s understanding and relation to the story even though the story itself is fairly straightforward and uncomplicated.

Finally, the repetition of the word “around” in the last line secures the sentence’s meaning. In a literal way, the word points to the circular nature of storytelling: much like this particular story never ends but instead simply lands on the observation that one could go around, the archetypal story does not end in spirit even if it has a literal ending because it is perpetually repeated ad infinitum. Additionally, the vowel heavy sounds of the words “around and around” not only make this repetition literal (since the word around is repeated), but also by give this idea a more physical character as the round shape of one’s mouth when saying “around” and the lack of sharp stop constantans like t or p (except at the very end) give the word a circular feeling. By recognizing this innovative word construction, John Cage uses his work to convey broader ideas about not just the content but the form of stories.

Dickens Walks The Streets of London

Perhaps the greatest ballad singer of the last century, Liam Clancy’s rendition of The Streets of London remains his most popular song. Originally written by Ralph McTell, the song has been covered by many different artists. Each are echoes of the same universal sorrows every person fears to wade through. The Streets of London, like any great poetry, brings this fundamentally human experience to life. How then does it yield a sort of transcendence? Simply spoken, it warns of the dangers and pitfalls of life in a way as powerful as any literature. It highlights our privileges, exposes our fears, and knocks us back into reality with a greater understanding of ourselves. It’s a bit like the old saying, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” Mirroring this, the chorus goes as follows:

And then how can you tell me you’re lonely

Or say that for you the sun won’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and

Lead you through the streets of London

I will show you something to make you change your mind.

The chorus welcomes the reader into the story, and figuratively taken by the hand, we are led through portraits of people embodying the many dimensions of sadness. In a way, the speaker feels like a gentler version of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, guiding us through a gloomy vision, foreshadowing what we fear to eventually be.

Following this comparison, it’s fitting that each portrait tells the story of someone weathered into age. McTell’s first image poignantly portrays an old man who has lost his purpose in life; a man who has become as valued as the outdated newspaper he holds. His second is of an old woman, “Carrying her home in two carrier bags,” too long adrift to engage with the world around her. His third portrait plays like a still life image.

In the all night cafe at quarter past eleven

Same old man sitting there on his own.

Looking at the world over the rim of his teacup.

Each tea lasts an hour and he wanders home alone.

McTell’s language describes a life lived over and over again, each day the same as the last, and each ending just as lonely. His final portrait hints at the end these people will meet.

Have you seen the old man outside the seaman’s mission,

his memory fading like the ribbons that he wears?

And in this winter city the rain cries a little pity

for one more forgotten hero in a world that doesn’t care.

Tragically, this last old man forgets himself in a world that has already forgotten him.

By this point, our Dickens ghost has shown us who we may fear to become, but also who we are not yet. Like Scrooge’s grave, a grim future where we find ourselves purposeless, impoverished, forgotten and alone is possible, and like Tiny Tim’s grave, it may also happen to others. This may be frightening, but it is also comforting. We, like Scrooge, are still endowed with the time and power to make our own decisions, shape the course of our lives, and ultimately lead it somewhere better. Likewise, we must also feel pity for Tiny Tim. The broken people around us are really not much different from ourselves, and we could easily become them. Consider, is it not a triumph of literature that Dickens could reveal these truths to us? It is the same with this song. It’s The Streets of London‘s ability to convey this message in much fewer words that earns it its distinction as poetry. Yes, McTell’s lines rhyme with rhythm. His stanzas realize themselves in repetition. But it is his ability to resonate so soundly with something profoundly human, to uplift and restore fragile spirits, that makes this song a timeless masterpiece.

03′ Adolescence

The rap artist J. Cole has been around for awhile and is personally one of my favorite artists. In his album 2014 Forest Hills Drive, the song “03′ Adolescence” is a great showing of poetry in music. In this song J. Cole talks about his life growing up and the struggles he went through in an impoverished community.

Early in his song, Cole utalizes multidimensional language quite clearly.

I wish I weren't so shy, I wish I was a bit more fly
I wish that I, could tell her how I really feel inside

Cole uses the word fly in the meaning of looking and being cool. While the literal definition of fly is to take flight in the sky, he uses the slang term. He then goes on to use the other form when he says,

Ball player, star player, I'm just watchin' from the side
On the bench, cause my lack of confidence won't let me fly

Cole uses the same word to end another line of his music in order to portray another form of the word. This time he uses the word to show the more literal meaning of the word. He purposefully uses the same word twice in order to display both meanings of the word.

Poetry is something that makes someone feel a particular experience. Without a doubt this song classifies that but the only way for you to experience this poetry is to listen to it.

“My Heart is Buried in Venice…” ok Ricky, I’m on my way to get it

(contains mentions of suicide)

I believe that every single song off of Ricky Montgomery’s album Montgomery Ricky is poetic in its own way, but I am going to focus on the song “My Heart is Buried in Venice,” which is a very sad song full of deep and profound emotion. At first glance, this song seems to simply be about a broken heart that needs to be fixed. I believe this is what the song is about, but that there is a deeper and sadder specific story that becomes apparent to me when I analyze it further.

I think this song is about someone who has lost their lover to suicide. This might seem like a stretch, but let me take you through why I think this. First of all, the tone becomes increasingly more desperate as the song goes on, and it seems like he is begging his lover to come back, even though they are definitely gone. At the beginning, he makes it clear that his lover has issues/ past trauma and he wants to help them heal. He is asking them to come back so that he can fix them and stop what really happened from happening. He is in definite denial.

Come rest your bones next to me
And toss all your thoughts to the sea
I’ll pull up each of our anchors
So we can get lost you and me

The 3rd line of this stanza is my favorite in the whole song because it shows very clear imagery of what it feels like to try to pull someone out of the hole they are in while also trying to do the same for yourself. This shows that he was struggling too, and he feels like he didn’t do enough to help them, but he wants to now. It’s clear the person he is talking to has issues and he wants to escape the sadness of reality with them.

In the chorus, which is repeated multiple times, he changes from speaking to this person directly to speaking to no one in particular. He says:

My heart is buried in Venice
Waiting for someone to take it home

This is a major change from the first part of the song, which seemed rather hopeful and loving. Here, he seems alone and is saying he has no one to fix his broken heart, and he is either waiting for his lover to come back or he is just waiting for the help of anyone at all. The chorus of the song shows acceptance of the terrible event rather than denial and hope.

In the middle of the song, he says:

I never thought that I would have to say I’m sorry
For anyone but me

This line tells me that he had to apologize for his lover, and what I picture is him having to apologize to other people because he feels responsible for what they did. This is a very heartbreaking scene that I picture in my mind.

In the next verse is where the tone is very desperate and he is pleading for them to come back to him.

Don’t leave me to breathe

Don’t leave me to bleed

For someone who chose to leave me

This is what solidifies the story for me. When he says “don’t leave me to breathe” this implies that they themselves are not breathing, while he is. And when he says “don’t leave me to bleed” I believe it is his heart that is bleeding because they “chose to leave” him. There is another tone shift here where he switches the blame from himself to his lover and he changes stages of grief from denial into anger that they left him alone.

Finally, he ends with the chorus, showing acceptance for what has happened, rather than ending with a verse full of denial. The song also gets softer and slower at this point, which shows that he has no hope left and he can’t change what happened.

In conclusion, I love Ricky Montgomery very much and this song always makes me cry. Go stream his whole album, it’s not all depressing I promise!

Where’s The Karma for Life?

Image result for karma ajr

Ajr’s newest album Neotheater contains a total of 12 songs, one of them being called Karma. I consider Karma to be a very poetic song because it contrasts the meaning of the lyrics with the emotion of the music. When you first listen to it, the song is upbeat and it’s suppose to make you feel happy. One might say that this song is a “mood booster.” However, when you begin to hear the lyrics you start to realize that this about a broken man that’s slowly losing hope in life. The beginning of the song starts with the chorus which you don’t hear much nowadays which makes it even more unique. The chorus is:

I’ve been so good, I’ve been helpful and friendly

I’ve been so good, why am I feeling empty?

I’ve been so good, I’ve been so good this year

I’ve been so good, but it’s still getting harder

I’ve been so good, where the hell is the karma?

I’ve been so good, I’ve been so good this year

We’re told the speakers problems just from listening to the song for at most 25 seconds. The speaker tells us that they’ve been helpful and and friendly with others this year, however, they witness that life is only getting harder and they’re not getting anything in return for all the good deeds. This chorus introduces the concept of whether we keep doing good things just for the good feeling or to expect something in return, a quid pro quo. Most people would say to keep doing it for the good feeling, except this speaker shows a problem. The speaker has been doing good things but he’s felt nothing good about the things that he’s done. On top of that, life has been throwing more challenges and obstacles at the singer. From this chorus alone, the singer questions the act of goodness and whether or not he should keep doing it. The first verse goes like this:

Why, are you asking me why?

My days and nights are filled with disappointment

Fine, oh no, everything’s fine

I’m not sure why I booked today’s appointment

In this first verse, it seems the speaker is experiencing a bit of depression because of the fact that they can’t find any enjoyment throughout their entire day. The third and fourth represents him talking to a therapist or a doctor of some sort. Although he booked the appointment himself, he’s doesn’t feel ready yet to open up to his doctor and discuss the problems that he’s been having. After another section of chorus, the second verse is:

What, am I normal or not?

Am I crazier than other patients?

Right, I’ve done everything right

So where’s the karma doc, I’ve lost my patience

The speaker in this verse finally opens up to the doctor and begins to question whether he was the problem. The line “Am I crazier than other patients?” indicates his inner conflict with himself showing how he doesn’t fell normal. The speaker can’t form the definition of “normal” for society so he seeks help from others, like the doctor, who can somehow help him. The speaker truly believes that he’s done everything right, but with the way life is going for him, he wants to get revenge for his pain and suffering.

Karma is very poetic is a sense that it captures the sadness and anger of a man who just wants to live a happy life. Life had been cruel to the speaker for no particular reason and the speaker believes that the only way to combat this is for life to find karma. If life receives karma, then it would have no other choice but to send good things towards the speakers way ensuring a more happier life.