Jim Leftwich

My Wrong Notes: On Joe Maneri, Microtones, Asemic Writing, The Iskra, and The Unnecessary Neurosis of Influence


I was always interested in microtonal music. Over 40 years ago I started playing Turkish and Albanian music which includes quartertones and other intervals as many folk musics do. And then, in 1972, I was moved to write a microtonal piece. I had a cousin who was unable to speak all he could do was make different sounds. I had to be dutiful to God because I didn’t believe in God, so I made a piece that was microtonal. I had some India Pale Ale. I saw it broke down my defenses. I bought a six-pack and had three of them, and I wrote the piece!


Words are chords, letters are notes, subletteral marks and spaces are microtones.

We get whatever we get from wherever we get it. Sometimes we forget how and where we found out about something, later making up stories for ourselves and others to give a sense of continuity and coherence to our lives. Sometimes we lie to ourselves, because we don't want to acknowledge having gotten a thing from where we actually got it. I remember listening to records in the late 60s with a dictionary. I was 12 or 13 years old, living out where the suburbs were just beginning to meet the farmlands in Amherst County (in Central Virginia), and songwriters like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Steven Stills knew words I didn't know. When I recently mentioned this to someone the response I got was "I haven't ever listened to music with a dictionary". So maybe it was a little odd, I don't know. Listening to music with a dictionary is one of my earliest memories of an autodidactic engagement with my surroundings. For a long time I thought everyone in my generation grew up listening to pop music with an open dictionary. The iskra was circulating on vinyl, and it was speaking to me in a language I didn't fully understand, but what I did understand was the steady, subliminal chant, over and over, just beneath the surface of every song worth listening to more than once, a seductive, pre-verbal whisper, translated and/or transduced in recent years to the phrase “another world is possible”. I wanted to know exactly what it was telling me.


Ed Sanders, published in Pop Matters, 14 December 2011, Excerpted from Chapter 1: The Glories of the Early ‘60s from Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side by Ed Sanders.

The Mimeograph Revolution

There were other mimeograph presses around the country, and some were beginning to call it the Mimeograph Revolution. Out in Cleveland a young poet named d. a. levy began Renegade Press, utilizing a combination of mimeo and letterpress. By 1963 I believed in the spark, the iskra, that the revolutionaries of Russia early in the twentieth century talked about. I believed that the iskra could or would somehow burst out of a poetry café on Second Avenue or inspire a network of minds and sweep America to Great Change. Or even that a network of mimeographs steadily publishing, coast to coast, city to town to bookstore to rebel café, could help a nonviolent revolution to blossom forth in full bread and roses glory!!!


Joe Maneri, from Serial Autobiography (published in All About Jazz on September 8, 2004) Should listeners of avant-garde and free improvisers listen to Schoenberg and Berg? Certainly they should. Today's performers and those of the past always were seeking. The nature of being a creative improviser is one who wants to know it all. Charlie Parker visited Stravinsky by knocking on the door, unsure of himself. Igor answered the door and Charlie said, "I'm sorry to bother you, I must have the wrong address."


In the early 70s the English band T-Rex had a hit single with the song "Bang A Gong". I didn’t care then and I don’t care now what the song is about, but the rhythmic patterns of Marc Bolan's singing have stayed with me for forty-five years:

You're built like a car
You got a
hubcap diamond star halo

I heard this and wanted to write syllabics. To be precise, I wanted to write 12-syllable couplets broken into one line of five syllables and another of seven syllables (the central "You got a" didn't count in my calculations). The five-syllable line in this example is weak, maybe usefully weak, or maybe just weak in proximity to the seven-syllable line, which is very strong:

hub cap diamondstar ha lo

The seven-syllable line and the five-syllable line together make a damaged alexandrine, damaged from the outset for me, then damaged again by reading Verlaine as an adolescent. I finally stopped counting words and syllables and letters and em-spaces in the late-90s. Afer 25 years of counting I had learned how to keep things moving by simply listening.


Gary Giddens, from Microtones and Bebop (published in The Village Voice February 19, 2002)

One of the infrequent pleasures of ethnic weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs in the era before DJs began contributing to musical unemployment (may God forgive me) was the chance encounter with jazz players hiding out in those bands. I can recall coming across sidemen formerly associated with Fats Navarro, Woody Herman, Thad and Mel, and Cecil Taylor. Musicians call those gigs socials, and play them for the same reason critics write liner notes or press releases: It's a living. As a rule, they bring their jazz expertise to the gig and take little if anything away. Joe Maneri suspended the rule. The saxophonist and clarinetist, who celebrated his 75th birthday with a full house at Tonic on February 9, took to heart the pitch variations in Greek, Israeli, Middle Eastern, and other party musics he mastered in the line of duty, noting their affinity with scalar particularities in the music of West Africa and India as well as jazz, and made his way into the alternate universe of microtonality.


IN 2004 Tom Taylor, Tim Gaze and I published a small book entitled Asemia (anabasis.xtant press, Oysterville, WA and Charlottesville, VA). The middle section of the book is taken up by Joe Maneri's contribution, 24 Spirit Poems. The Spirit Poems had been published previously by the Boston Microtonal Society, of which Maneri was the founder. He gives the dates of composition as Jan. 1998 to June 2003. His poems are handwritten letteral and subletteral songs:


Flaull clon sleare
rouve clanslika
Flautell lunege
Blausodoh flecka lasflowe

Peelah donrowflen
lan celati dohnblohn
Leelahlah sourn
elf daupin

Lines two and three in the second stanza here are perfect examples of a subletteral poetry, an idea exactly analogous to microtonal music. Line two begins with the letters L a s z d e, all of which are legible enough as letters, but the following mark seems not to function as a letter at all. Above the baseline it looks like an 'l', but it doesn't look like any of the other 'l's Maneri has written. Below the baseline it has a curved tail like one might find in a flowery, cursive 'g', but Maneri's 'g's do not have anything even remotely similar to this. The tail curves deeply into the space for the letters in line three. Following this mark is an 'l' that looks above the baseline like all of Maneri's other 'l's — but below the baseline is another matter altogether. The 'l'/mark cuts through the curve of the previous letter twice and descends all the way to the baseline of line three. The mark resulting from the combination of the two descenders looks very much like a capital 'P' — but it doesn't look at all like any of the other capital 'P's Maneri makes. The first word on line three is "lan", and it is indented, its initial 'l' written exactly below the 'l' just described in line two. I feel certain that the word "Plan" is intended — planned — by Maneri — designed, constructed, composed, any or all of those, but not in any ordinary sense of the word "written". Maneri didn't write "Plan" on line three of his poem. He arranged the subletteral marks — the descenders — of two "letters" in line two in such a way that the reader will write the word "Plan" in line three.


Joe Maneri, from Serial Autobiography (published in All About Jazz on September 8, 2004)

When I had to answer a question, I remember telling my mind (though I knew I wasn't able to understand) to guess and then give an answer. In this case, the thought that came to me was "they must mean my wrong notes". Intuitively I deduced that since they were very different, it must mean my wrong notes is what they wanted.


ASEMIA, anabasis.xtant press, Oysterville, WA and Charlottesville, VA, 2004. unpaginated.



09.21.2016 / 10.05.2016

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