Thursday, September 15, 2011


Last night I saw Sarah Dougher's musical rendition of Leslie Scalapino's Fin de Siècle, presented as a part of PICA's TBA festival. The composition was arranged for five voices, piano, and a small ensemble (I can't find a list of what composed that small ensemble, though I recall percussion, cello, trombone, possibly violin and trumpet). I saw an early iteration of this at the memorial for Leslie Scalapino last February, which consisted of a fragment, one or two movements, of the first of the three plays that make up Fin de Siècle, for voices and piano.
I am not very familiar with Dougher's work, that is to say I am not outside of these two performances I have seen over the last nine months. I have some knowledge that she has a background as a singer-songwriter, but she also has done arrangements of poetry by Robert Duncan and William Stafford. That information, which is to me a particularly interesting collage of a creative background, informs the different aspects that mark this production of Fin de Siècle. I was often reminded of early choral music, Arte Nova, and certainly more contemporary musics in the dissonances, but most of the dissonances in the piece were not tonal. Rather, there are flatnesses, but I'm not sure they didn't mirror Scalapino's language, which, in Fin de Siècle, truly reflected her horror at the contemporary world, in all her (Scalapino's) inability to communicate it. Lines like

the construction worker says
the person being murdered
being in that section is understandable

communicates, absolutely, a weariness on the part of both herself and the rest of us at the end of history, that flatness communicated in

we haven't changed any
from the time of Genghis Khan
we have a
fin de siècle

The flatness to her observational language needs a dissonance to mirror it, and it is surprising that Dougher seemed to look before and after modern music to illustrate it, in early choral music, and to some degree in indie rock, as often passages would be puncttuated by little flourishes on the xylophone. I'm sure it was more effective than I'm making it sound, in fact what Dougher and her ensemble brought in the marriage of "high and low" musics, what came out in the Third Way of it, was one of the most interesting aspects of the performance. I was particularly taken in by long expressive asides from the trombone.
One last element that I think is crucial: how do you carry, or choose not to carry, Scalapino's voice as it exists beneath her work. I understand to get to the meat of Scalapino's difficult syntax Dougher wrote out, re-wrote, Fin de Siècle, to get a sense of it, which I'm sure was absolutely necessary. I myself wasn't able to penetrate her written work until hearing a recording of her reading, which left me mesmerized, and also understanding something different about the work. Scalapino uses a caesura in her line that is very particular, and not easy to get the meaning or music of. It is not completely unlike Creeley, slicing open clauses, because one can and generally does not, which opens up a statement, in the way the poets called Language would open one up, to the reading of statement itself, its meaning and its musics.
Though rough around the edges, I enjoyed Dougher's Fin de Siècle. It is rare that a great, and especially as experimental a poem or poet gets treated, in a traditional but not derivative manner, and I look forward to the next.

1 comment:

rodney k said...

Great write up, James; it opens things up to me in a new way to think of Scalapino's work--at least this work-- through the lenses of flatness and weariness. Was sorry to have to miss this one. Thanks for the review!