Blakespotting: The Divine Essence of Things – Nick Cave and William Blake

In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).

The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.

Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.

The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:

What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?

Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.

It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:

O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)

Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.

Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)

I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.

Where Blake writes:

When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)

Cave responds:

This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long

As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.

Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:

Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are

The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.

Review: Music roundup for early 2019

This year has been a very active year for adaptations of William Blake set to music. We have already covered a couple of new releases this year, such as Astralingua’s wonderful album Safe Passage which includes a version of the Song of Experience, “A Poison Tree”, as well as the avant guard album by Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil. What follows now is a roundup of some of the other new releases of the first part of 2019.

The first release of the year was by hip-hop/punk crossover band, Msngrs. Their album, Psychopomp & Circumstance, featuring synthesisers and modules with stripped-back percussion and clipped vocals transforms “The Tyger” into a rhythmic rap song and is rapidly becoming the most-listened to track by Msngrs on various streaming services. It is, I must be honest, a version that left me cold at first – precisely because it is so regular in its somewhat pounding beat. It has grown on me a great deal, especially insofar as the interludes with choppy funk guitar break that regularity to make it more of a fun dance track.

The next item is very different, both in terms of style and the fact that it is a complete album devoted to adaptations of the works of Blake. Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis brings together eight settings of Blake’s works as well as another of other compositions by Mac Davis, a composer who has studied at the universities of Mississippi and Utah but has previously released little other work. This album brings together a number of pieces from previous years: there are elements of Britten’s experiments in chromaticism on some of the tracks, particularly “The Sick Rose” (an especially haunting piece) and “The Tyger”, while others such as “The Shepherd” and “A Cradle Song” share similarities with elements of more traditional English classical or even folk music. It is too simplistic to say that the more complex pieces are those from Songs of Experience – “The Lamb” for example, combines elements of chromatic piano scales, performed with a beautiful reserve by Robert Carl Smith, to accompany Lynda Poston-Smith’s voice, one which is often haunting and powerful. It is surprising that Mac Davis has not released more music earlier, as there are some particularly bold interpretations of Blake’s work in the classical tradition.

Very different is Light Mind Rising by The Mighty Ur: a mixture of prog-rock and experimental metal, the group work with figures such as the poet Steve Mcauliffe who provides the lyrics and vocals for many of their tracks. There is an echo of groups such as Godflesh as though interpreted via Julian Cope, and the group invoke Blake as a spirit throughout many of the pieces. It is most evident, however, in “Fourfold City”, which is not a direct setting of Blake’s work but rather a riff on London through Blake’s visionary poetics, with Mcauliffe invoking images of hope and angels in a cityscape that owes much to Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and his Song of Experience, “London”. Blake figures as the poet into whom Milton entered via his left foot, and that prophet who had to break systems to create his own. The track – and indeed the album – becomes strangely hypnotic at various points.

More direct interpretations of Blake come via the album Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard, a mixture of straighforward musical settings of various poems by the Romantic as well as spoken-word pieces with a musical accompaniment. The opening track, “The Garden of Love”, is a strong example, although personally I prefer the ones where Kate sings Blake’s lyrics – as in “A Poison Tree”. It is these tracks (which also include “Holy Thursday” and “The Lamb” – this veers in a very sinister fashion from Blake’s original text towards the end) which tend to accompany her voice with simpler guitar or string instruments that are most effective for me, although some of the other incantatory or spoken pieces, such as “The Sick Rose” can also be strangely appealing.

Finally, a more recent addition to the Blakean oeuvre is Nerina Pallot’s double A-side single, English/Jerusalem. Pallot has previously released five albums and was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for her 2007 song, “Sophia”. This latest release is a an almost perfect combination of piano and her voice for “English”, and guitar for “Jerusalem”, which carries with it echoes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, both in terms of range and the somewhat idiosyncratic singer-songwriter traits of both figures. “Jerusalem” is a fine rendition, but the real killer is “English” which is simply superb. It’s final line – “This broken-down Jerusalem is still my home” gives some sense of the ironic sense of the lyrics of the entire song. That said, her rendition of the Parry hymn is very fine, belonging as it does to the English folk tradition of performing the archetypal English song, which began with Don Partridge and has been heard more recently in the work of figures such as Chris Wood. This is a must-listen for any Blake fans for 2019.

 

You can hear all the albums and tracks listed here on Spotify:

Psychopomp & Circumstance
Fearful Symmetry
Light Mind Rising
Visions of William Blake
English/Jerusalem

 

Blakespotting: Blake news for April 2019

The start of April saw Tate Britain ramping up the publicity for its new Blake exhibition that will open in September. Among the stories carried in the national press, themes tended to emerge around the importance that will be given to the role of his wife Catherine – The Guardian wrote that it will celebrate her creative influence, while The Telegraph said that she would be placed at the heart of the exhibition – and the inclusion of the only self-portrait by Blake. Senior curator Martin Myrone told the Evening Standard that the portrait had a “jewel-like intensity” and The Daily Mail reported that this would be the first time it has gone on display in the UK. William Blake: The Artist will be on show at Tate Britain from 11 September until 2 February.

While the opening of the Tate exhibition will be the biggest event of the year, the most important event of the month was the world premier of Allen Bevan’s Ancient of Days on 15 April. Performed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus at the Winspear Centre for Music in Alberta, the opera was a multi-media work for chorus and orchestra, much of it spoken word and drawing extensively on Blake’s poetry, ideas and visual art. Toronto-born Bevan had completed his Masters at Edmonton and he himself conducted several of the parts on the night. The Edmonton Journal described it as a “verbal drama with incidental music”, with Timothy Anderson and Dawn Sadoway playing the parts of Blake and his Emanation, the whole comprising a “thoughtful work” and “an effective introduction to Blake.”

Paradise Club in New York held an event early in April entitled “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. A cabaret night where participants were invited to paradise and inferno, the show itself was performed by the Brooklyn collective House of Yes with a “theatrical feast” created by John Fraser. Hosted by Nik Alexander, The Telegraph described it as “not your usual theatre experience”, the organisers intended the burlesque to be a celebration of “what it means to be human”.

Finally, as April drew to a close, the music organisation WordSong, based in Boston, hosted Tyger Circus, a set of fifteen different compositions based on Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. Taking place on 26th, Krista River, Keith Phares, and Linda Osborn performed work by Adele Dusunbury, Howard Frazin, and Benjamin Pesetsky at the First Church in Boston, at an event that also marked the tenth anniversary of Wordsong. The month also saw the launch of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Burning Hot, which begins with the execution of Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard after a plot to overthrow George III. Tracing resistance to the loss of commons throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Linebaugh draws upon Blake’s imagery throughout the book to draw attention (as he explained in an interview for Counterpunch) to how “Blake’s moment of truth is upon us”.

 

Review: William Blake and the Myth of America

William Blake as a writer and artist was clearly fascinated by America: while his contemporaries were shaped almost entirely by the French Revolution, Blake’s initial contact with revolutionary ideas was shaped by the War of American Independence. In turn, he was taken up enthusiastically by a number of writers and thinkers across the Atlantic, and in her book William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Linda Freedman explores a particular line of reception history in the American arts and literature, one which emphasises the Romantic’s assumption of a prophetic mantle. In her introduction, Freedman indicates a number of the ways in which Blake was interested in the Americas in his own work, most notably his illustrations to John Stedman’s Narrative, of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) and, of course, America a Prophecy (1793). She also draws upon more recent interpretations of Blake’s work that has greatly developed since David Erdman’s important but too-enthusiastic adoption of Blake as the thoroughgoing supporter of the American revolution, noting that what later writers influenced by Blake saw in him was an ethical writer who could give them the tools to critique as well as celebrate their country: “Blake entered American society at a time when slavery was still rife and civil war threatened the fragile experiment of democracy.” (p.7)

In fact, while Blake may have become increasingly important at the time of the Civil War, Freedman is also right to point out that – aside from a very few friends who kept his memory alive in the declining years of his reputation after 1827 – Blake was actually better known in America than he was in early Victorian England. Her first chapter, which explores his initial American appeal, notes that Blake’s writings appealed much more directly to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who first encountered Blake (as did a number of American writers) through James John Garth Wilkinson’s 1839 edition of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. While Emerson drew back from Wilkinson’s Swedenborgianism, that movement was enjoying something of a revival in nineteenth-century America, and Emerson’s copy of the Songs established Blake as a writer of importance even before he read Gilchrist’s Life. The other entry point for Blake into American culture was via the Abolitionist movement, particularly through Lydia Maria Child, who published a number of Blake’s poems during her tenure as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in the 1840s. Freedman provides a superb account of the trials that faced Child as editor, not least the difficulties of reconciling hard-line abolitionists to the wider population, as well as her search “for ways to recapture a sense of spiritual liberty that felt free from received error.” (p.26)

Having established the early importance of Blake to American cultural life, the second chapter of The Myth of America concentrates on the most important – if rather complex – relationship between Blake and Walt Whitman that cemented the two in American consciousness as the poets of “prophecy and democracy” (p.43). Freedman offers another extremely clear account of the relations between Whitman and Blake, which are less to do with the reception of Blake in Whitman’s work (there is no real evidence that he knew of Blake before writing Leaves of Grass) than with the milieu into which Whitman’s poetry is received in the United Kingdom in particular. As Whitman was the first critic to offer a wholesale appreciation of Whitman in his 1868 essay on Blake, so the two figures became increasingly entwined: early on, Whitman was happy to note the recognition that an important critic gave him, but as time went on he rankled at the suggestions that he somehow had copied Blake, a situation that was made worse by the continued linking of Whitman’s and Blake’s names by other Americans such as Moncure Conway and Whitman’s friend, John Swinton, who made the cardinal error of suggesting that the American poet must have known the English Romantic. By the end of his life, particularly through his friendship with Anne Gilchrist (entirely Platonic on his part even if she wished for more), Whitman was somewhat reconciled to Blake and chose his image of “Death’s Door” as the model for his own tomb, but he also continued to maintain a distance to the earlier artist during those final years when he “felt his poetic control over American national identity slipping” (p.61). Although many later Americans linked Whitman and Blake inextricably, for Whitman himself the legacy of the earlier artist was always a troubled one.

Chapter 3, on the early twentieth-century reception of Blake, is – with that on music – the least satisfactory in the book mainly because it has to do a great deal of work clearing the ground before Freedman can turn to Ginsberg. This is not to say at all that it lacks value: quite the contrary. Here we see the continuation of an important theme linking American and Hebrew poetry (which will, of course, become immensely important with Ginsberg), and Freedman does an excellent job of highlighting how Blake infused the social and poetic spirit of a multitude of American writers, including Waldo Frank, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke. There is the occasional omission – Upton Sinclair included Blake as one of his socially-inspired poets in his 1915 anthology, Cry for Justice, but this is simply because so many writers need to be covered here. I have also bracketed off Freedman’s reading of Eliot which is excellent in its subtlety and attention to detail: she is convincing when portraying his depictions of Blake as especially resistant to the occult-mystical nationalism of W. B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, which became prevalent in the early 1900s because of their ground-breaking edition of Blake’s collected works. Transplanting Eliot back to America, however, with his “expatriate imagination” (p.76), is not quite as effective as some of the other readings – the man who had renounced his American passport aged 39 would never sit easily alongside his former countrymen, although as he observed in a 1959 interview that the source of his poetry “comes from America” (The Paris Review, Spring-Summer, 1959).

The next chapter on “Ginsberg’s Prophetic Guru” is, quite literally, the centrepiece of the book. This is where William Blake and the Myths of America ties together most clearly the strands of prophecy and spiritual seeking, political and social demands for justice, and an awareness of what is perhaps best thought of as romantic irony, the scepticism of the poet and artist towards his or her own work and its achievements. Unsurprisingly, it is a much more coherent chapter than the previous one, for though Kerouac and other members of the Beats have walk-on parts to play, it clearly has a focus on Ginsberg alone, for whom “Blake was more than a poetic influence, he was a spiritual forefather” (p.89). It is Ginsberg more than any other who fuses together Blake and a reluctant Whitman (while also – and this is an important point – recognising the differences and separation between the two) to create the alternative soul of America that he sought to bring into being in post-war America. The first part of the chapter is, for anyone with any interest in Blake and Ginsberg, relatively familiar territory – from the Blakean influences on Howl to Ginsberg’s sense of prophetic calling after experiencing an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice in Harlem in 1948: Freedman is perceptive and concise on all accounts, and what she definitely brings to this account of the early influence of Blake in particular is the fun that Ginsberg was having with his spiritual forebear. What was more enlightening to me (because I only have the sketchiest knowledge of it) is the relationship between Blake and Ginsberg after his trip to Japan in the 1960s, particularly his renewed sense of enlightenment while on the train to Kyoto, where he seeks a return to the body instead of the hedonistic drug culture which had started to dominate his thinking. Especially revealing is Ginsberg’s reading of “I saw a Monk of Charlemagne” outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and his increased understanding of “Blake as a disillusioned radical, who struggled with the same conflicts as people in modern America” (p.116). Urizen was as relevant to the potential threat of the neutron bomb in 1960s America as he had been to the forces of counter-revolution in Europe in the 1790s.

While the chapter on Ginsberg is probably the most important in this book, tying together as it does Freedman’s themes of prophecy,  history and a desire for social and political justice as important factors in the American myth, I preferred the following one on Robert Duncan. Much of this is due to the fact that Duncan’s relation to Blake is much less discussed than Ginsberg’s (although Ed Larrissy does combine the two in his book Blake and Modern Literature). Duncan’s family background – his parents were interested in theosophy and Swedenborgianism, and his own inclinations to anarchism place him closer to Blake’s own political views in many ways – are dealt with concisely and sympathetically, and Freedman, as ever, offers a nuanced reading of his career at Black Mountain College, as well as his more difficult relations with the anti-Vietnam protests (he opposed the war, but saw collective action as leading to further authoritarianism). Duncan wrote extensively about Blake in various essays, observing at one point that: “To take Blake or Dante as gospels of Poetry, as I do, is to testify to and to enter into the reality of a divine history within what men call history.” (cited p.121) Blake was also a direct influence on some of Duncan’s verse, for example “Variations on Two Dicta by William Blake”, as well as a refracted source as in “My mother would be a falconress”, which he wrote after reading Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Freedman’s reading of Visions is a virtuoso piece, exploring the complexities of that poem which can condemn rape and slavery while also realising the fundamental realities that a raped, enslaved woman lacks the power to change the society that wills such things. She is completely compelling in her understanding that “Duncan realized that Blake was a difficult and ethical writer” (p.133), one who refused simple resolutions for an ideological position but instead saw existence as “muddied”. She is sympathetic to the desire of the psychedelic generation to have their perceptions cleansed, but the discussion of Duncan’s relations with Blake point to a much maturer understanding of the Romantic’s influence on American history and mythology.

Chapter 6 offers another set of masterly readings, this time concentrating on the ecopoetics of Michael McClure and Gary Snyder (with a brief interlude that considers George Oppen) and how they engage with an ecological view of Blake that runs counter to the experience of many readers of Blake in the mid-twentieth century – that he believed nothing could be learned from external nature – and instead is decades ahead of the green revisionism of Blake that began to take place in the 1990s. Freedman is very much correct to assert that both McClure and Snyder adopt Blake “in ways that were naive and uncritical” (p.141), but her readings are also sympathetic to the reasons why they do adopt him, as well as conscious of the differences between them. Thus McClure, with his ranting, anti-intellectual and anti-idealist approach to poetics takes Blake’s diabolic energy as a call to return to the body, as in his essay on Blake in Meat Science Essays (1963). Snyder, by contrast, sees in Blake a much calmer reflection on man’s relations to the environment, influenced by his engagement with Buddhism via the teachings of D. T. Suzuki and with anarchism both via American libertarian traditions and Chinese Taoism. (It is also worth noting, although not covered by Freedman, that Suzuki also provided links to west coast craftsmen, artists and poets to the mingei movement inspired by Soetsu Yanagi who, through his introduction to the Romantic by Bernard Leech, became one of the first intellectuals in Japan to write on Blake.) Freedman observes that although he distanced himself increasingly from the Beats after reading with Ginsberg in San Francisco, he connects more closely to the mythopoeic formulation of the myth of America – particularly in its lineage from the American transcendentalists and their interests in environmentalism – than McClure’s deliberately contrarian work.

Like chapter 3, chapter 7 on the music of the counterculture and its immediate aftermath, is not as compelling as others because it has to do so much work in a short space. Unlike the earlier chapter, this one would easily have benefited from being divided into two chapters; as the recently released William Blake and the Age of Aquarius demonstrated, there is a great deal still to be written on the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. In addition I also feel that, in contrast to most of the poets that Freedman concentrates on in her book, a more critical sifting of her subjects here would have been beneficial, in that their appreciation of Blake varies wildly. Dylan, for example, while a great songwriter, appears to me to have only really slenderly known Blake, a point which is excellently made by Luke Walker in Rock and Romanticism; likewise, despite famously taking his name (via Aldous Huxley’s appropriation) from Blake, but did not necessarily delve more deeply into the Romantic’s works than the Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence as Tristanne Connolly suggests. A more critical stance to these two big hitters would, in my opinion, allow a Blakean light to shine much more clearly on the two other figures considered in this chapter: Ed Sanders, of The Fugs, and Patti Smith, both of whom I believe have had a much deeper engagement with Blake. In the case of Smith, this has been truly profound and ongoing over many decades – along with the French Symbolists, Blake is probably the most important poetic influence on her career; by contrast, Sanders’ use of Blake is more restricted but more delicate and truly affectionate towards his Romantic predecessor. As well as setting “How sweet I roam’d” to music – one of the best adaptations ever – The Fugs’ 1969 “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” shows a real understanding of Blake’s oeuvre as well as a free-spirited, funny and truly subversive reworking of Blake that goes far beyond Jim Morrison’s rock god pomposity.

Chapter 8 on Blake and countercultural theology is one of the most interesting in the book, mainly because it deals with figures who only tended to be dealt with tangentially in Blake studies and thus benefit from greater analysis – namely Thomas Merton, Thomas Altizer and Norman O. Brown. Altizer and O’Brown are the main subjects of this section (and, as with the remainder of the book, the opportunity to concentrate in lengthier detail on her subjects allows Freedman to explore them in greater depth). In contrast to the rather mixed chapter on music, the discussion of alternative radical theologies in the 1960s also allows Freedman to examine a more explicitly Christian element of the prophetic theme that runs throughout William Blake and the Myth of America. The thoughtfulness of both Altizer and Brown is evident in that both “shared an immensely metaphysical approach to reality, an obsession with circularity over linearity, sensual response, and a philosophical commitment to the principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the union, integration, or interpenetration of opposites.” (p.195) Unsurprisingly, for both scholars Blake’s notions of Contraries was greatly appealing, and Freedman demonstrates how each thinker used a Blakean dialectic with considerable sympathy for their attempts to establish an alternative Christology to that of St Paul, one which would avoid the apostle’s authoritarianism. She is also excellent in placing these in the contexts of the death of God controversy that exploded in the mid-decade – as well as the fact that Brown in particular was far from radical in his personal life while, in works such as Love’s Body, presented some of the most prophetic and open-minded views of the decade.

The penultimate section, on Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, takes a very different perspective to the main part of the book and, as Freedman observes, “provides an important counterpoint to Blake’s standing in psychedelic counterculture” (p.214). Bellow, as she points out, could not be more different to the majority of the figures considered previously, although in some respects this is perhaps due to the fact that the Blake of the Beats and the counterculture had drowned out those alternatives which were very much in evidence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American society, as with the abolitionists or trade union movements. Bellow’s Blakeanism, suggests Freedman, is subtle but significant – and “a timely critique of Blake’s assimilation into what Bellow perceived as the sham Romanticism of the counterculture.” (p.215) Freedman is incredibly incisive at this point, picking up on some of my own reactions to certain shallow appropriations of Blake that do indeed take place in some (although by no means all) of the main players in the counterculture. It is through Bellow’s Herzog that Blake is explored most directly in readings of London, offering some insights into both Blake in particular and Romanticism more generally after the Holocaust. The one criticism that I have of this last chapter is that, once more, Freedman tends to move through some of her subjects too quickly: Bellow is dealt with in considerable detail, but Vonnegut and Bradbury are skirted over too quickly and – in a much longer work! – would have benefited from her insights into their writings.

Bellow as the antithesis of the counterculture, in which the substance and proper struggle for morality and identity as indicated by his invocation of Blake in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is an interlude in the main trajectory of William Blake and the Myth of America: it is a vision of Blake that does not take on the characteristics of the bardic and prophetic tradition that dominated the vision established by Ginsberg in particular. What we may see, in effect, is two understandings of Blake as inheritor of the Jewish tradition of prophet – the ecstatic Ezekiel of Ginsberg and the more gloomy Jeremiah of Bellow – in which the role of the Beats has, not entirely rightfully, taken pre-eminence. There is, of course, more than enough room for both reception histories, and it is possible to see how Freedman could have written a different book if she had given more space to those currents outside the Beats and counterculture. The final chapter, which explores some of the later reception history of Blake in America, is something of a mixed bag: it offers a truly wonderful reading of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, as well as Paul Chan’s cartographical art from the early 2000s, but it also demonstrates just how much is missed in this study from the post-sixties era. Blake in pop cultural forms from the eighties to the millennium and beyond includes the Hannibal Lecter books and films, folk and jazz musical traditions such as M. Ward and the Dave Taylor Octet, and the many classical composers of the twentieth and twenty-first century from William Bolcom to Jonathan Lovenstein who have taken Blake as their inspiration. I do not wish to end on this criticism: Freedman is very clear that her work is tracing a particular bardic and prophetic vision of Blake through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that concentrates on the counterculture with some important counterpoints (notably Bellow), one that rightly draws attention to the religious spirit of his American reception. What her excellent work does for me is to demonstrate what other work needs to be done on Blake in America. What William Blake and the Myth of America admirably shows is that the “Blakeanism of the counterculture forged a place for the creative imagination in the redemption of modern America” (p.254). The dangers of such energies were that they too often could become destructive and nihilistic, but they also ensured that during the Cold War visions of America were not held entirely in thrall to the Urizenic machine.

Linda Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. xiii +273, RRP £55.00.

Music reviews: Tender Symmetry, Ghost Gamelan, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil

2018 and early 2019 have seen a number of interesting musical settings of Blake’s poetry or compositions influenced by him, three of which are reviewed in this music round up.

The first album is Tender Symmetry by Michael Price is the follow up to his 2015 debut, Entanglement, and its 2017 successor, Diary. Having begun his career as a music editor for film and television (for which he won an EMMY award in 2014), Price had achieved considerable success before releasing his own compositions, and for his third album he has decided to base the various tracks on work by William Blake. The various tracks were recorded at a number of National Trust locations, including the ruins of Fountain Abbey and Quarry Bank in Cheshire; the reason for these on-location recordings is that the album as a whole is also intended as a meditation on the sense of location. In some cases, this is – to be honest – redundant: I wouldn’t have known where the recordings were taken place without the luxurious sleeve notes, but in one case at least, “Willow Road”, the echoing effect on the singer’s voice is electrifying.

Tender Symmetry is a work which frequently alludes to Blake rather than necessarily setting lyrics from the poems to music, although this does happen on some of the tracks on the album, such as “Speke” (“The Garden of Love”) and “Willow Road” (“Ah! Sun-flower”).The album as a whole moves away from Price’s electronic-themed work to focus on orchestral settings, the effect of which can be extremely beautiful – “Speke” is an exceptional example of this, with the delightful soprano Grace Davidson and the Shards choir. Throughout, however, the entire album is delightful, whether the simple cello and strings of “Willow Road” or the more fulsome orchestrations of “Quarry Bank” and “Shade of Dreams”. The majority of the tracks on the album are relatively minimalist (think a step up from Michael Nyman), while a few bring more depth to their arrangements.

The use of Blake is indicated via reprints of his various poems, including “Holy Thursday”, “The Lily” and “A Cradle Song” as well as those mentioned above, in the beautiful booklet that accompanies the album. Without the liner notes, in some cases it would be fairly obscure as to why Price incorporates these lyrics alongside his beautiful music: with the various settings, it strikes me that the overall effect is to use Blake as a particular example of English music, by which I mean an especial sense of place rather than anything remotely approaching nationalism. Blake functions as a genius locii for the songs, offering a pastoral vision for these classical settings. The whole creates a beautiful, if slightly esoteric, adaptation of Blake’s words.

The second track reviewed here is from the 2018 album, Ghost Gamelan by Susheela Raman. Raman, who was born to South Indian parents in London and raised in Australia, offers a fantastic combination of classical Indian influences with some of the more alternative of European and western traditions. Whereas many performers dealing in a fusion of east and west tend to focus on pop or rock traditions, Raman is as likely to name check the industrial band Throbbing Gristle, or the work of her long term collaborator, Sam Mills, who was a founding member of 23 Skidoo. Having been nominated the Mercury Prize for her 2001 debut album, Salt Rain, which brought her blend of British-Asian music to a wider audience, she has often used Indian style dance rhythms, as in the wonderful “Chordhiya” from the 2005 album Music for Crocodiles, or the hypnotic “Half Shiva Half Shakti” on 2003’s Love Trap.

The allusion to Indian classical styles – which does not, by any means, indicate the full extent of Raman’s style – is important because of the refracted influence it has on the song from Ghost Gamelan which is reviewed here: “Rose”, the final track on the album, is a setting of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to music, and is unlike just about any version of that poem that you have heard before. If there is an echo – which I am fairly sure is unconscious – it is with the song “Love’s Secret Domain” by Coil, pertinent here because they were one of the spin-offs from Throbbing Gristle which Raman says have played a role in her musical style. Unlike Genesis P. Orridge’s original outfit, with its discordant, intense industrial noise, Coil were increasingly willing to experiment with eastern instruments and sounds on later music, merging these into aslant renditions of techno performances that were intended to transform the listener’s perceptions (hence their own fascination with Blake). This is not at all to say that “Rose” is directly influenced by Coil’s music, rather that the gamelans used for this track – the Indonesian hand drums and metallophones (a kind of xylophone) – create a haunting, slightly dissonant effect that does indeed change the listener’s understanding of Blake’s song. “The Sick Rose” becomes a strangely beautiful, strangely sickly echo of itself, making this one of the most memorable versions of that poem yet.

The final album is, in many ways, the most oblique: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil is the third in a series of collaborations between Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, and is described by the pair as an exploration of “the theology of William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg” via the occult work of “Helena Blavatsky”. Of that comment, I’ll shall be much more scathing below, but it is worth noting two things: first of all, that Jarmusch’s interest in Blake extends back at least to his wonderful 1995 film Dead Man, and that with van Wissem (who describes himself as an “experimental lute player”) the duo have not been concerned in the slightest to play around on their various releases.

On first listening, I was tempted to agree with Grayson Currin’s remark that it would be harder to “conjure a more esoteric scenario for an album” than this one, and initially the album is heavy going. This is perhaps most true on the most overtly Blakean track – “When the Sun Rises Do You Not See a Round Disc of Fire” – which concludes the record, taken from a statement made by Blake that appears in Gilchrist:

When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

This comment by Blake is clearly intended as a key to unlock the instrumental gnosis of the album: for Blake, all perception is shaped by imagination so that, unlike the miser who sees a gold coin, Blake sees angels rising into heaven. The joyful nature of this statement is transformed into an extended drone of guitars that conclude with a voice reading from Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis. This work, with its subtitle – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions – is the kind of thing Blake would have read during his lifetime (HIggins published it fifty years after Blake’s death), and I have a suspicion that the combination of Blake and Higgins is due to Coleridge’s joke on Blake being an “ana-calyptic” rather than apocalyptic poet (the pun being that Blake does not reveal – the original meaning of apocalypse – so much as obscure).

This, if true, is… clever. Too clever, for me. On a very personal note, the summation of my own feelings towards Blavatsky are best summed up by Peter Washington’s excellent book, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, and too serious an attempt for me to combine Blake and Swedenborg should always bear the following quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in mind:

A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conciev’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single (E42-3)

As some kind of theosophical treaty, then, I am unconvinced by An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, and for a more coherent experiment with Blake’s skewed theology I would still recommend Ulver’s 1998 album, Themes from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though even that is a little serious for me these days. Yet in the end, these comments also are too serious: Swedenborg and Blavatsky are fringe figures, one at least of whom Blake was able to mock, and very few listeners to this album will have actually read either of them. As such, they create a mood rather than a serious structure for esoteric enlightenment – which draws us to the music itself. While obscure to begin with, some tracks – such as “The Unclouded Day” – quickly become more lucid, with van Wissem’s beautiful playing, and the elongated, heavy mood of tracks such as “Dark Matter” throb away in such a fashion that they provide a melancholy contrast that is hypnotic. If one is willing to draw aside the veil with a lightness of touch, this is certainly one of the most interesting albums to be inspired by Blake in recent times, though I for one cannot take it too seriously.

Michael Price – Tender Symmetry, Erased Tapes, 2018, £20.
Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan, Naive, 2018. RRP £11.99.
Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, Sacred Bones Records, 2019. $7-$19 at Bandcamp.

Review: Astralingua – Safe Passage

Ten years may be a long time to wait between debut and follow up, but the launch of the album Safe Passage earlier this month as the second release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, is a collection of thoughtfully crafted songs. Comprising vocalist Anne Rose Thompson and composer/vocalist Joseph Andrew Thompson, their first EP, Contact, came out in 2008; one reason it has taken them so long to release Safe Passage is because parts of it have been recorded in the Mojave Desert, others in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The duo, based in Denver, Colorado, are joined on this album by various musicians to provide string, woodwind and mandolin accompaniment and the overall effect is entrancing. Joseph Thompson has described their style as “spacey” – in the colloquial sense, but also referring to both the sensation of open space that they hope to inspire with their tracks, as well as the musical sense of slower tempos and long echoes. This creates a series of frequently haunting, always beautiful songs, which first came to my attention because of the their first single from the album, an adaptation of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

The first track on the album, “Plunge”, is the most upbeat of the songs included here, a beautiful start to the album with Joseph and Anne accompanied by a string octet with sections that echo The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It is a particularly rousing start to Safe Passage and is intended as a more stirring introduction to the tracks that follow. The tone changes immediately with the following track, “Visitor”, a more minimalist and much slower piece that begins with solo guitar and delicate vocal harmonies before other instruments slowly join in. The lyrics, including the haunting opening line, “Come with me my weary child, cold and all alone”, draw on various poetic references such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and Geothe’s “Erlkönig”; the whole song is ambiguous as to whether the child has ascended into heaven or has died, and this melancholy theme continues throughout the rest of the album.

“Sweet Dreams” continues the pensive reflections introduced by “Visitor”, with the subtle Travis-style guitar accompanied by mournful guitar and, as with every track on Safe Passage, the harmony of Joseph and Anne Thompson’s voice is frequently breathtaking. “The Nimble Men”, the shortest piece on the album, is presented as a chaos of sound that breaks the softer themes of “Sweet Dreams” and “Space Blues”, one of my particular favourites: while dealing with the experience of travelling through physical and interior space, it demonstrates the ambition of Astralingua’s music, seeking to offer a musical meditation on awareness and experience. “Phantoms”, while also following the slow tempo of the majority of the album, strikes a very different, more forceful tone as the confident, minimalist piano solo is interrupted by mournful cello and then disturbed, cackling voices; with “NSA” – a reference to “No Strings Attached” – these three pieces can be seen as representing the pivot of the album, a meditation on loneliness that lead us to the single that was the initial inspiration for this review.

“A Poison Tree”, which was released at the end of 2018, is a superb interpretation of Blake’s Song of Experience. The simplicity of the guitar, mandolin and violin accompaniment create a sound that has – fittingly for this space folk duo – been described as celestial. It is an extremely original interpretation, with Joseph Thompson having said in interviews that he has wished to bring out the playfulness of Blake’s poetry. I would remark that this would seem a very unusual interpretation for such a poem that is usually seen as a darker meditation on themes of revenge, but – in a very different style – it can be seen also as a motivating factor in one other adaptation, the Britpop bounce of Blur’s Magpie, which was the B-side to Blur’s 1994 single, “Girls and Boys”. For me, when listening to the song it demonstrates more a sense of wistfulness, perhaps, that anger should lead to destruction: certainly it ranks as one of the very best popular interpretations of Blake’s poem.

The adaptation of Blake is followed by three very different tracks that are, however, linked by a slower tempo. “The Fallen” is, like “NSA” and “Space Blues”, one of the longer and more ambitious tracks on the album. It also includes a number of literary and folk references, such as to “The Unfortunate Rake” and “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which later influenced the Scottish song, “Willie McBride”) as well as echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in the final word, “Nevermore”. “Passage to Albion”, which follows, is one of the most beautiful pieces on an album that brims with a range of sweet harmonies, while the final track on Safe Passage, “The Troubled Road”, is a much longer and somewhat darker piece: a narrative song, it follows the singer as he travels along the road that leads to the Styx, this lost Orpheus apparently unaware that he has died and is now entering Hades.

The space folk sound that Astralingua evoke on Safe Passage is entirely their own, but has echoes for me of other artists who sometimes fall into this category, particularly those who explore the more melancholy aspects of the genre, such as Fever Ray in “If I Had a Heart”, Grimm Grimm’s “Hazy Eyes Maybe” and the superb “Dead Queen” by Espers. You can listen to the album via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, or order the album from Astralingua’s Bandcamp page. It is delicate, melancholy and, with its tribute to Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, a completely original setting of one of the Romantic artist’s most famous poems.

Safe Passage, released March 8, 2019, and available as CD and digital download from astralingua.bandcamp.com.

 

Blakespotting: News about William Blake in February 2019

February was a busy month for Blake-inspired music. Reviews began to appear for the most significant launch of the new year, Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis, which was released by Centaur Music. Performed by Lynda Poston-Smith (soprano) and Robert Carl Smith (piano), the album comprises a series of eight songs drawn from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as well as additional pieces that take their lyrical inspiration from Christopher Smart and various other poets and lyricists. World Magazine described it as a series of melodies that “command immediate attention”, particularly as sung by Poston-Smith.

Other releases were somewhat more allusive rather than being direct settings of Blake to music. Thus the new single from These New Puritans, “Anti-Gravity”, was inspired by Blake’s quote that “the imagination is not a state, it is human existence itself” according to reviews such as those in DIY Magazine. Likewise, Hearbreak (for now) by Roman Lewis includes a track, “Rose”, that references Blake’s “My Pretty Rose Tree” and can be heard at Clash. Somewhat more substantial is An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil by Jim Jarmusch and Josef van Wissem. Jarmusch is famous for his Blakean movie, Dead Man, and this new collaboration with van Wissem, according to an interview with Pitchfork, draws upon Helena Blavatsky as well as William Blake to perform an occult meditation on apocalyptic visions.

February also saw a number of live performances, such as the Martha Redbone Roots Project, which played in New Jersey at the Lackland Performing Arts Center, and Mike Westbrook who performed some of his Blakean pieces as well as others at Ronnie Scott’s in London.

In contrast to new musical releases, February was quiet in terms of the literary and visual arts, but previews appeared for a major video game release due in March that makes considerable use of Blake’s words. Plenty of commentators noted that the protagonist of Devil May Cry 5, V, cites Blake throughout the game, The Independent observing that the game is probably the best in series so far, and Videogamer announcing more simply that it is “bloody brilliant”. Theories began to appear on Reddit that the game draws upon The Book of Urizen, but my favourite comment is that, apparently, V has “a dedicated button to recite William Blake poetry during combat“. Less impressive was the new movie Burning Men, a virtual straight-to-streaming release in which the lead for the band Burning Men, Ray, also quotes Blake regularly. According to Cath Clarke in The Guardian, however, the whole experience is rather dreary and depressing.

Finally, Blake made a couple of other, interesting appearances during February. The first was as inspiration for the poet and model Wilson Oryema who, in a poem written for The Guardian‘s fashion section, said that his inspiration was William Blake and Nayyirah Waheed. Blake was also the source for a debut collectino, SS19, from the fashion brand maharishi, which drew on quotations from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to demonstrate “a balanced interaction of opposing forces” in its new range.

Review: Johanna Glaza – Albion

Superlatives are the bane of reviews. In recent months, however, I have found myself throwing superlatives around with abandon when describing a number of artists – usually women – who have demonstrated a profound relationship to the words and art of William Blake, whether it is Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of The Dead, Harriet Stubbs’ astonishing performance on Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception or, now, Johanna Glaza’s EP, Albion. The four pieces included on this release, available via streaming or as a cassette, demonstrate a remarkable talent which refuses to be easily described and which has made me listen to Blake’s words as though I have heard them for the first time.

Glaza, born in Lithuania and resident now in London, is an independent artist who records music that she describes as “baroque folk songs with an avant-garde twist“. Her previous releases, available at Bandcamp, include Wind Sculptures (2017), Paper Widow (2014) and Silence is Kind (2013), all of which have attracted considerable praise with comparisons to Kate Bush and Tori Amos but, as more percipient critics have observed, her experimental music only bears at most a passing resemblance to those artists. On this new EP, the track “Isabella” is perhaps the one that would work best as a single for wider consumption, offering as it does something approaching a more conventional lyrical verse-chorus-verse structure and musical signatures that generally balance each other – although even then the shift in tone in the middle is nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, even this, the nearest you will find to normality on Albion, reminded me at times of early Genesis when Peter Gabriel flirted on the edges of acceptable easy listening.

By contrast, the preceding “The Future Was Not the Animal I Saw” is much closer to a Steve Reich composition or the post-tonal serialism of Henri Pousseur. The fact that I am searching for analogies in classical rather than popular music demonstrates just how idiosyncratic this wonderful piece is, while the final track, “Broken Ray”, is a heart-wrenching lamentation in which the ambient keyboards perfectly suit the intensely beautiful lyrics:

Like a broken ray of sun
Upon my chest, upon my chest
Lies your path
You walk away

The wound in the sky
Never heals, never heals

And where your heart used to be
Lies a stone
Lies a stone
Upon the hill

Beautiful as the entire EP is, however, the reason for reviewing it here is because of the titular track: drawing upon lines from Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, it has correctly been described as “the work of genius” by Paul Scott-Bates: when first listening to this, many will disagree, but each time I hear this track I can only agree with Scott Bates. Of course, I am an unusually pertinent target listener for such a track, but I am increasingly astonished by the dynamic range and dramatic qualities of Glaza’s voice. In addition, the deceptively simple piano accompaniment, frequently pivoting around a series of notes and percussive accompaniment, is perfect for the metrical complexity of Blake’s words, the first lines of which are reproduced below from plate 43 of Jerusalem:

We heard the voice of slumberous Albion, and thus he spake,

Idolatrous to his own Shadow words of eternity uttering:

O I am nothing when I enter into judgment with thee!
If thou withhold thine hand; I perish like a fallen leaf:

O I am nothing: and to nothing must return again:
If thou withdraw thy breath. Behold I am oblivion.

I can barely begin to explain just how electrifying these and the following lines are when sung by Glaza, maintaining a beautiful, angelic modulation for lines that could easily become atonal. It is simply stunning, a full embodiment of the human voice divine that sounds utterly unfamiliar, even alien at the same time. While remaining entirely original, it also reminds me of a similar experiment by Marc Almond and John Harle, The Tyburn Tree (Dark London) from 2014 which also took lines from Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion to create a disturbing, haunting composition. I have long been a fan of Almond, but I’m afraid in this particular instance even that bold work has been surpassed by Glaza who has produced an astonishing piece of work: Jerusalem does indeed have a voice, and her name is Johanna Glaza.

Albion (2018) by Johanna Glaza is self-released and is available from johannaglaza.bandcamp.com.

“A Blakean Year”: 2018 in Review

2018 began in spectacular fashion with the opening of an exhibition at Petworth House in Sussex on January 13. Entitled William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion, the exhibition concentrated on Blake’s experiences and art from 1800-1803 when he lived at nearby Felpham, as well as other works subsequently created by him for the Earl and Countess of Egremont who lived at Petworth. It was for Elizabeth Ilive that Blake produced one of his most ambitious works, A Vision of the Last Judgement, which rightly formed the centrepiece of this display of some of his most exceptional paintings and prints.

Other exhibitions from the beginning of the year included Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries at Carnegie Mellon University, where Wilding formerly taught, and demonstrating her multiple influences, including Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf and, of course, William Blake. Also on show from February to April was “Tales of the Unseen”, work by Siggi Ámundason, whose large-scale pen drawings reference William Blake as well as eighties anime, Goya and Francis Bacon.

Musically, the big news at the beginning of 2018 was the announcement of U2’s £xperience + Innocence tour to accompany their 2017 album, Songs of Experience. More affecting to me personally was the death of Mark E. Smith, frontman of post-punk band The Fall, in January, whose life was probably best summed up by the headline “Mark E. Smith Was a Complicated Bastard“. He was also something of a fan of William Blake, demonstrated not least by his cover of “Jerusalem” for the album I Am Kurious Oranj. Other releases in winter and spring included two albums that referenced Blake songs – Shawn Colvin’s The Starlighter, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Englabörn & Variations, including the tracks “Cradle Song” and “Holy Thursday” respectively. There was also, in March, a new version of “Jerusalem” released as Team England’s official anthem for the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, as well as the premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Songs of Illumination in April.

Blake-influenced publications in early 2018 included the quite astonishing comic, Her Infernal Descent, which was released in five parts throughout the year. A reinterpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a middle-aged woman is led through hell by Blake as her spirit guide, offering satire and commentary on life in the twenty-first century as well as a rather profound portrayal of loss. This was joined in April by the publication of Polaris Ghost by Eric G. Wilson, a collection of short stories that reference Blake throughout, as well as Patti Smith’s The New Jerusalem, a new collection of prose poems that offered her response to the election of Donald Trump among other things. Julia Fine’s wonderful debut novel, What Should Be Wild, offered Blakean elements of horror and fantasy in the style of an Angela Carter fairy tale.

2018 was, as ever, a busy one for The William Blake Archive, which saw a number of new publications, including new copies of JerusalemUrizen, and Visions of the Daughters of Albion, as well as entirely new additions in the form of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue and his Notebook. The major addition, however, was Vala, or The Four Zoas, which now makes widely available the fragile manuscript of Blake’s most ambitious epic poem.

The middle of the year saw a number of Blakean citations in film and television, not least the Criterion Collection of reissue of Dead Man for blu-ray, which prompted a number of retrospective reviews, such as this at Glide Magazine. Much more controversial was the release of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, a bloody serial killer movie that notes Blake’s “The Tyger” as a model and which, frankly, did not receive great reviews. By contrast, more people were impressed by the fact that season two of Westworld offered multiple quotations from Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as a running theme for its depiction of mankind’s inhumanity to robot. Will Franken’s Red, White & Blake sought to rescue the Romantic poet from bland, liberal academics such as myself, offering a heartfelt plea to return Blake to his position as national writer and artist.

Significant news was Tate Britain’s announcement of a huge forthcoming Blake exhibition, and there was a truly wonderful piece of Blake-inspired art by Jack Handscombe, a student at Edinburgh College of Art, who produced an installation of a figure dressed in racing leathers, entitled “After Blake’s Newton (After Paolozzi)”. Elsewhere in the arts, a new piece of choreography and music inspired by Blake, entitled Apolión and directed by Jerónimo Búffalo, was performed at the Art Centro de Arte UNLP in Buenos Aires. In London, a new show in London was announced, Wirework (originally written by Daleen Kruger in Afrikaans in 2009 but translated into English this year) at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Telling the story of The Owl House, a remarkable piece of outsider art by Helen Martins and Koos Malgas, Wirework explores how they created an extraordinary museum, taking their inspiration from Omar Khayyam, the Bible and William Blake.

The biggest event of the summer, however, was the unveiling of a new gravestone, 191 years after his death on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.

Celebration of Blake’s life and work was also a reminder of some of the other figures, as well as Mark E. Smith, who had been influenced by Blake in some way and died in 2018. These included Alice Provensen – who lived to the glorious age of 99. For some forty years she had worked with her husband, Martin, on illustrations until his death in 1987, before continuing a solo career into her nineties. Her books included the wonderful A Visit to William Blake’s Inn by Nancy Willard.  She was followed shortly afterwards by Bob Dorough who helped Ginsberg set Blake to music and was more famous as the composer of Conjunction Junction. Likewise, the artist and writer Æthelred Eldridge passed away at the age of 88. Æthelred, born James Edward Leonard Eldridge, had served as associate professor of painting at Ohio University from 1957 to 2014, and was directly influenced by Blake. Eldridge, who ran the site Albion Awake, referred to Blake constantly in his art and was even the founder of a Church of William Blake (which, as Roger Whitson tells in his article on Zoamorphosis, burned down in 2001).

As the year turned to autumn, mid September saw a return of the three-day celebration of Blakean arts, Blakefest, which took place on 14th-16th in Bognor Regis. Blakefest has become a fairly regular cultural and artistic festival, with Lene Lovich and a tribute to George Harrison headlining at this year’s event. Other art shows included an exhibition at the Levy Gorky gallery in New York, featuring a selection of works by Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecu and Jaspar Johns. Entitled “Intimate Infinite: Imagine a Journey”, the full show included work by 27 artists and unfolded over three floors in a pattern that was inspired by Blake’s Auguries of Innocence.

The autumn also saw publication of one of my personal favourites, the translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. Taking its title from one of Blake’s proverbs of hell, the novel was originally written in 2009. Described by Sarah Perry at The Guardian as “an extraordinary display of the qualities that have made Tokarczuk so notable a presence in contemporary literature”, it is one of the most profoundly Blakean novels ever to have been written.

The year ended with a series of Blake-inspired music: the exemplary pianist, Harriet Stubbs, released her debut album, Heaven and Hell: The Doors of Perception,  which opens with an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”. Composed by John Adams in 1977-8, this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks due to the narration by Marianne Faithful which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This was followed in December with a new musical adaptation of “A Poison Tree” by the space-folk duo Astralingua, comprising Joseph Andrew Thompson and Anne Rose Thompson. The track is also to be included on their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, due out in March 2019. And, just squeezing in before the near year, was Johanna Glaza’s wonderful Albion EP, a setting of parts of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion to music, which we’ll be reviewing later in 2019.

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Review: Harriet Stubbs – Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception

Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception is the debut album by classical pianist, Harriet Stubbs, who first began to display her prodigious talent when she was awarded a scholarship at the age of five to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. During her time there, this apparently led James Gibb to make an exception to his rule of never teaching children to train her. That the talent of this Yamaha artist is prodigious becomes clearly evident after only a few moments of listening to this album, which aims to bring together a range of modern and more traditional classical music. As well as demonstrating the virtuoso skills of Stubbs, it will also introduce a new audience to compositions that they may not otherwise encounter. The Blakean connection comes, according to the booklet accompanying the album, through her work with Russ Titelman to transform the doors of listeners’ perceptions, “a Blakean philosophy” of progression from innocence to experience and then to higher innocence.

The Blakean connection is also clear in the opening track of the album, an arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates”, composed by John Adams in 1977-8: this is the most overtly Blakean of all the tracks included here because Stubbs has added a narration by Marianne Faithful, one which brings together multiple extracts from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The effect is strangely hypnotic and extremely compelling, with Faithful’s raking, rasping tones serving very well as the voice of the devil. In an interview with the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, she indicated that Patti Smith and Meryl Streep were also potential narrators, but that Faithful had been the most enthusiastic.

The selection of Adams as a vehicle for Blake’s philosophy is almost certainly not accidental: after all, it was Adams who began composing his piece for orchestra, Fearful Symmetries, in 1988 after the success of Nixon in China. His minimalist style, indebted to John Cage and with some similarities to composers such as Philip Glass or John Cage, is extremely evident in Fearful Symmetries, with its strong parallelisms and repetitions, although the arrangement by Stubbs of “Phrygian Gates” tempers this considerably. Adams himself described the original as a “modulating square wave” that circled through the fifths, but the addition of Faithful’s voice breaks up the linearity of the music, an incarnation of Orc in opposition to the potentially Urizenic qualities of minimalism that transforms the listener’s perception of the track entirely.

After such a strong start – in Blakean terms – the rest of the album appears to move in a different direction that does invoke the Romantic artist so directly. This is by no means a comment on the qualities of Stubbs’s performances, which are always superb, from Mozart’s “Rondo in A Minor” onwards. Described by Hermann Abert as one of the “most important keyboard Rondos ever composed”, Mozart’s composition provides an excellent opportunity for Stubbs to display her virtuosity via its multiple embellishments and chromaticism. The lightness of her performance here does not bring with it the intimations of despair that some commentators have observed: instead, the doors of perception are being opened in very different ways, a world of sensual delight through which the listener can experience something of eternity.

There follow five pieces from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Op 34 rather than the later (and longer) Op. 87, Preludes and Fugues. Like that later series of compositions, this version also circles through the major and minor keys, of which Stubbs includes No. 10 in C-Sharp Minor, No. 9 in E Major, No. 4 in E Minor, No. 20 in C Minor and, my favourite of the Preludes here, No. 14 in E-Flat Minor. The simplicity and passion of her performance here was the one that moved me most personally, although throughout all her own dedication and talent constantly shines through.

Of the remaining pieces, only one seems to invoke Blake again, however obliquely: Sergei Prokofiev’s “Suggestion diabolique”, number 4 of his 4 Pieces for Piano, and the one where the composer sought to challenge the strict roles of tonality, could be interpreted as another intrusion of the voice of the devil, although to be honest the relations to Blake are tangential at best. This is not to detract, however, from her virtuosity on all tracks. The most profoundly affecting for me, and my favourite from the entire album, is Ferruccio Busoni’s “Chaconne in D Minor”, adapted from Bach’s “Partita No. 2”. Busoni arranged this for piano in 1888 (writing it down in 1892) and it is a stunning piece of music: he was drawn to it because, among other things, it demonstrated how Bach made Beethoven possible, and its impressive range once more allows Stubbs to shine. This is also the moment, according to the liner notes, when experience enters the listener’s perceptions, and certainly there is a shift in the tone of the album with Busoni’s piece. Like other pieces, such as Alexander Scriabin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-Sharp Minor”, the technical demands are ones that Stubbs rises to with technical proficiency combined with passion, conveying fully the romantic and impressionistic sensations of such music superbly.

The album concludes with Gorgy Ligeti’s “Études, Book 1: No. 5, Arc-en-ciel”, a haunting track on which to end. A traditional form of étude (in contrast to those of, say, Cage), this shows a general theme of Heaven and Hell that contrasts with a number of contemporary composers such as Dmitri Smirnov or, more recently, Daniel Kidane: with the exception of Adams’s Phrygian Gates, the whole album has stronger links to traditional and romantic forms. The comparison is slightly unfair: Stubbs is a superb performer and arranger rather than composer, and many of the pieces included here offer wonderful opportunities for her to demonstrate her abilities.

Then why Blake? While the album identifies itself as “Piano Music Modern and Less Modern”, with the exception of Adams’s “Phrygian Gates” this is not a collection that often challenges the listener in the style of “difficult” modern classical music. Rather, its intention seems to be to open up a range of piano compositions to a new audience and thus to transform perceptions. In her interview with Trinity Laban, she observes that the aim of her album is to “cleanse its [classical music’s] listeners’ doors of perception, to encourage them to re-evaluate what classical music should be”. Unlike G. A. Edwards (who wrote an excellent review on his blog), I have a strong interest in how Blakean themes emerge in such music: strictly, they are motivated most strongly and obviously through her arrangement of Adams, but elsewhere Harriet Stubbs seems also to be infused with a sense of romanticism and energy that was the eternal delight of William Blake.

 

Harriet Stubbs, Heaven & Hell: The Doors of Perception, Suite 28 Records. RRP (audio CD) £14.54, (download) £7.49.