"The Orphic Machine is the poem: a severed head with face turned away that sings."
-- Allen Grossman
In college I was fortunate to enroll in a literature course entitled The Representation of Experience taught by an amazing poet and thinker named Allen Grossman. We read old books -- The Bible, Gilgamesh, Moby-Dick -- and Professor Grossman showed us into a world where reading, thought, meaning, action, and understanding came together. He had a way of reading literature in order to reveal the historical development of human culture; the impact was very strong. I wouldn’t say he taught us – it’s more like he embodied the business of knowing. Years later, finding my way out of a dark period, I developed a thirst for poetry. I got in touch with the poet Susan Stewart, who invited me to a 2004 gathering in honor of Professor Grossman, where he read powerfully from his poems. I began studying a book of his called Summa Lyrica: A Primer of the Commonplaces in Speculative Poetics. The book is constructed as a set of interrelated aphorisms whose purpose is “to bring to mind ‘the poem,’ as an object of thought and as an instrument for thinking.”
I read Summa Lyrica for five years, hoping to eventually arrive at an understanding of the work. In 2010 I received a commission from Chamber Music America / New Jazz Works to compose a piece for large ensemble based upon Summa Lyrica. Originally I intended to write a piece of music that reflected the structure of the book. But as a poem cannot be restated in other words (for then it would be a different poem), the book would not allow me to summarize or map it. I began to see that the aphorisms had been working on me, and I needed to let them work directly on the music, by using them as lyrics for songs. So I found myself writing songs with words like
"The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of the will."
Orphic Machine was my biggest compositional project to date. I wrote around the clock for four months, completing a song cycle of ten movements, scored for nine musicians:
Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice
Greg Cohen, bass
Kenny Wollesen, vibraphone
Ron Miles, trumpet
Ches Smith, drums
Rob Sudduth, tenor saxophone
Myra Melford, piano
Ben Goldberg, clarinets
The music of Orphic Machine reflects my new interest in vocal music (the first instances are on the Tin Hat record The Rain Is A Handsome Animal, with songs based on the poems of E E Cummings), as well as my ongoing fascination with musical form, counterpoint, and groove in creating compositions that include improvisation. Here is "Care," from the premiere at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley.
In 2014, with a grant from the Shifting Foundation, we recorded Orphic Machine. It is out on Royal Potato Family / BAG Production on cd and LP.