Jake Marmer

from Transcriptions

An Introductory Note

It was one of those late evenings when everybody in New York seemed drunk, and probably was. Late July’s ferment turns everything into a semi-hallucinated panorama of words, buildings, screeches. I was at the Stone in the East Village, listening to Shanir Blumenkranz’s quartet. The place was full of people, dark, and at that moment, very quiet. Shanir was in the room’s tentative center, deemed as the stage. He was playing the oud, alone, bending deeply forward, toward the score. He played slow, increasingly articulate phrases, which, intensified by our quiet, instead of disappearing, seemed to hang in the Stone’s air. Shanir played and stared at the score, as if hypnotized by it. Or perhaps, conversely, he was trying to hypnotize the notes on a sheet that shivered on a stand in front of him. Suddenly, a drunken voice hollered something incomprehensible right outside of the door. Shanir, without taking his eyes off the score, played a phrase that closely mirrored the holler. It turned into a riff, one of many suspended in the air, and sporadically reached for, as the improvisation continued to evolve. The anonymous East Village growl was appended, in invisible ink, to the paper the musician continued to hypnotize.

Nothing is the outside of the improviser’s text. Heat, intoxication, flimsy plastic chairs, stacks of CDs, photographed and real faces, growls and honks, all extend and expand the written score.

I’ve tried to imagine and transcribe these – expansions – as poems. In the process of writing, I explored alternative notation systems of John Cage, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, and Leo Wadada Smith, among others. Instead of presenting musicians with specific melodies, these composers offered texts, diagrams and drawings that conveyed abstract ideas, meant to inspire spontaneous, usually collaborative pieces, which opened outward, rather than remaining closed, closely circumscribed, eco-systems.

This method of pointing to music’s originary, shape-shifting clout reminded me of a line by Amiri Baraka: “Thought has a self. That self is music.”

In one interview, Ornette Coleman recalled cantor Yossele Rosenblatt’s record in this way: “crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath... You can’t find those notes. Those are not ‘notes.’ They don’t exist.” Perhaps, then, an alternative notation system is also a way of summoning the invisible ‘notes’ that cannot manifest on a typical five-line staff.

Many of the Transcriptions were written while listening to live improvised music, or anyway, thinking within music’s reverberations.

My hope is that these poems are not merely transcriptions of the past events – but living scores that could be used as a departure point by improvising musicians, readers, or anyone willing to improvise.

Transcription #53

old Russian life-hack:
keeping your mouth full of water
while cutting the onion
(prevents you from crying)

do that, musically –
                the onion’s coherence

but then, what else
is your knife for?

imagine wielding it in front of the old photographs, records
as an instrument, you’re Raskolnikov in the pawnshop
do that, musically, minus
the victim inter-text

but where’s she at? same
place where the onion is
scene cut: your two minuses
add up to a hyphen
poetry’s hyphen –
breathless, awkward, substitutive, defeated, theatrical –
pointing to
                whatever isn’t going to come
play that, and only that
the dance of hyphens

Transcription #21

start out impressively, in a suit: you
untying tongues
                invisible as alcohol’s fingers

and when all pauses
in all conversations suddenly converge
into a single burning carpet of a pause
you step on it, toasting:

                to every frayed space suit;
                to every gnostic barricade
                to phone calls bearing the worst –
                               not happening

you jump into the group portrait
and blow a kiss, loud
                as a cracking barrel

Transcription #32

the melody line
                slips only
to embrace its diplopia
hands playing windshield, what
you discussed as ground
rules, arrangements, anonymity
                chopped lazily with serrated
                looking for ideas
you’re tracing
                the backwash
like an oceanographer

Transcription #26

torn off
                whose shirt?

hermeneutic sleet bangs
on your snare

call all your thoughts Shekhina’s
                lost buttons
                               numinous spam
rumbling through the vacuum’s
endless hose, dub
version you’re straining to remember
                                                             what of

Transcription #41

the sense that your life amounts to nothing

is the song’s forgotten chorus

which one lone caller remembers
and can sing backwards, too,
and wins tickets to whatever giveaway of the day is
he shouts and sends regards to his best friend, and mom,
and you can hear the dog barking in the background
barking with happiness

many of the listeners are humming the song’s bridge
swinging it so hard
the whole town can barely hold on
by the time they’re up to the coda
there’re guts hanging out of every radio

yessir, some of the best lookin’ guts
in the whole damn west’rn civilization
we done ourselves proud
let’s dance

Transcription #47

running inside the scale
of your own breath
you’re trying to break
down the scale’s
every possible door

a connoisseur
of biographical whales
count your superstitions
run faster
trample the map
the scale’s breath is
no longer yours

somewhere along the corridor
trap door opens to let
you know, all along
you’ve been singing
“Lonely Woman”

Jake Marmer's first book of poetry, Jazz Talmud was published by the Sheep Meadow Press in 2012. Second collection, The Neighbor Out of Sound has just come out from the same press. Another collection, Cosmic Diaspora, is scheduled for spring next year from Station Hill Press.
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